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Stay The Distance

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Stay The Distance

Sam held out for five and a half days after waking up from the coma the wall coming down had put him into. Wild-eyed and pale but tightly held in check, strain like age around his mouth and eyeshe kept it together as they dealt with what was in front of them.

Five and a half days, long enough for them to run from a vengeful ally-turned-Godlike-monster, long enough to research with a feverish intensity that was new even to Sam and Dean, to search and fail to find anything to hold or help or destroy a self-made god.

It was long enough to go with Dean silently to a meeting with Cas, that the Sam of before would have told Dean what he'd known: it was a set up, and Dean would have said, what else can I do? but there was no argument, just the shell of his brother next to him and the glowing horror his friend had turned into.

Long enough to see Castiel self-destruct in a supernova explosion more beautiful and horrendous than anything Dean had ever seen in his life, and he'd seen a lot.

Dean doesn't know to this day if it was self-sacrifice or accident. The explosion that they'd thought would take out most of the world ended up being contained in a field in Kentucky. It destroyed: countless Purgatory souls, what was left of Jimmy Novak, a complicated angel, and a wide swath of grass. It should have been a victory, but it didn't feel much like one.

Precedence said it was an accident - Castiel had seemed remorseless and unapologetic, he'd done things that Dean could never have forgiven, he'd killed friends and allies, taken down Sam's wall - but. Sometimes people did the right thing even when you thought you'd given up hope they would or could. Sometimes people were capable of deep goodness. Castiel had looked at Dean before the light had gotten too bright to see, and he'd been so familiar underneath all the ways he was no longer the Cas they'd known, and there was something - something Dean wanted to read as apology and understanding and acceptance. And once the field had gone dark and everything was over, why the hell should he not believe he'd seen it?

Sam had gone out again, right there in the scorched field, legs folding under him, string-cut marionette the moment the light had faded. Dean hadn't let himself freak, hadn't let himself think of how he'd lost his brother - again - after his only friend - again - and just focused everything on getting Sam back to Bobby's.

Sam's pulse stayed steady and strong, his breathing even, and he almost opened his eyes when Dean was hauling him into the dented car. His eyeballs moved under his eyelids in a purposeful sort of way, less freaky than the restless roving they'd done when he was deep under the last time, struggling against a battle only Sam knew.

He talked very little about it. Bare facts - that he had it all, now, the whole time in Hell raw and open in his head, but he was functioning. It was all he'd say, and sometimes it would scare Dean, because the blankness in his face echoed the other Sam, the soulless bastard. He wondered if Sam's soul was on its way out, sheer self protection, Sam's body forcing the ruined thing away; but then he'd catch Sam's eye and the depth of regret and loss and pain and fear hiding in places maybe even Sam hadn't completely found yet took Dean's breath like a punch to the gut. It wasn't a relief to see that there, but it was sharp proof there was a soul in his brother, however flayed.

But neither of them mentioned Hell, those lost endless years pouring back into Sam's head. They'd both been distracted with the more imminent threat. Strained, pale, but functioning, was more than Dean could have asked. Until the threat blew itself up and it looked like Sam's functioning had finally quit.

"Just waited ‘til you could have all my attention, brat," Dean mutters as he brings dinner into the room, and as usual, Sam starts stirring a little after Dean sits down nearby. He's rousing enough to eat and drink so they've got him in the guest bedroom, which is mildly moldy around the edges like all the lesser-used rooms in Bobby's house but a hell of a lot better than the panic room.

Sam rubs at his eyes as he wakes, a childish gesture that should seem out of place on his muscled, broad body, but this sleepy and pliant Sam is S.O.P. right now. Hell of a lot better than plenty of alternatives Dean can think of, even if it's somewhat disconcerting to see Sam needing help eating after watching him grow up the most strong-minded, independent person Dean's ever known.

Dean sets the soup bowl down on the bedside table and helps Sam sit up, gripping under his armpits. Sam opens his eyes all the way and makes a huffing noise like he's irritated, and it makes Dean flash a surprised grin. Sam's been awake on and off since the field, but he hasn’t really been all there. Bits coming back like this - it's promising.

"Suck it up, invalid," he says, and Sam actually rolls his eyes.

"Tomato?" he says, voice scratchy but with a welcome air of petulance. It's not the first time he's spoken, and for a second Dean thinks he's rambling until he realizes he's asking a question.

"Nah, dude, chicken. Cure all. It's never been tested on, you know, extreme Hell trauma before, but I'm optimistic." Truth is Dean wasn't sure serving up a big bowl of goopy red stuff was the best way to go, but he's not going to say that.

He helps Sam eat, tearing off chunks of bread and supporting his hand with the spoon at first, then just hovering nearby once Sam seems less likely to pour it all over the bedspread.

Sam looks more awake and alert with each mouthful. He swallows and looks - thoughtful. "What - what happened to Cas?" he asks tentatively.

Dean's stomach drops again. "You don't remember?" he asks carefully, still reticent to ask Sam to remember anything even though the wall's long gone.

Sam closes his eye and shudders a little, then opens them again. "I - wait," he says. "I think I remember - a field?"

Dean nods. "Yeah. Yeah, we went for a showdown in a field, and Cas just--"

"Went supernova," Sam finishes, and there's a genuine regret in his voice that tells Dean he does remember. Even has the space to feel sad about it. Typical Sam.

Dean just nods.

Sam licks his lips. "I never told you about what happened when the wall fell."

"You don't have to," says Dean instantly. "Don't make anything worse."

"I won't, I don't think. Tell me what, you know, it was like on your side."

The most fucking terrifying thing that's ever happened to me, and you know it's got some pretty stiff competition. Dean bites his lip. "You - were under a day or so, then you woke up on your own, came to find us. After Cas went nuclear, you were okay. I mean, fucked up, locked up tight, but you, you know, moved and talked and ate and slept. Then after he - after, you went under again and here we are. You eating soup in bed and me thinking of investing in a naughty nurse outfit."

Dean doesn't want to breathe too hard in case Sam slips again, because this is the most
Sam's spoken about it since it happened.

He looks right at Dean, and his hand is migrating across the bed, the back of it close to butting up against the side of Dean's knee; it doesn't look purposeful but Sam seems to sigh and focus his eyes better when it presses up against the worn denim.

"I was split - in my head. Soulless me, the me that remembered Hell - I had to put all the pieces together. When I woke up, it was all me, all the bits from both sides of, of the wall, everything I'd done soulless and - everything else. But I couldn't - when I saw you, I couldn't keep it together again, because I had to--" He looks uncomfortable. "Protect you."

Dean doesn't know whether to laugh or be awkwardly touched, so he just raises an eyebrow at Sam.

"Yeah - I know. I wasn't in a state to protect anything, let alone you. But you - we were in danger, you know? I couldn't let myself be all of myself, I was too messed up, so I split again - the bit of me that remembered Hell hid itself. I could feel him there, it wasn't like the wall again, but I could - cope."

"Jesus, Sammy," Dean murmurs. He remembers that - knowing there was something awful crouching at the back of your brain, waiting to creep out and ruin you, and this was times a hundred, or more. He squeezes Sam's shoulder gently, feeling inadequate.

Sam blows out a breath and almost smiles at the touch, though. "Yeah, pretty much. When the threat was gone, I could let go of holding him - that part of me - back, and it crashed in again."

"Is--" Dean clears his throat. "Is it all still there? Or has it gone - back, split out again, 'cause you're awake?"

Sam's gaze slips away from Dean and goes distant, and for a split second, like a mask over his face, he look so old - literally ancient - that it scares Dean in a bone deep way he can't remember once the flash has passed. "It's still there." His hand flips on the bed and grabs onto Dean's knee, shameless and tight, and maybe it's weird but it isn't, it's just Sam holding on tight, nails hard points of blunt pressure on Dean's skin through his jeans.

Dean doesn't think, just drops his hand from Sam's shoulder to cover the back of his hand gripping into Dean's knee, and it makes the distant look fade from Sam's eyes so Dean holds on tighter. "How are you - I don't know. Conscious, you know? I was a mess, and that was a fraction."

Sam shakes his head slowly. "I don't know, not exactly. It's there, I know it's all there, if I wanted to look deep for it, I--" He sucks in a breath and Dean rubs his hand over Sam's, and Sam breathes out slowly again. "It's there, and it hurts, but there's a layer over it, like gauze, holding it back."

Blood'll soak through gauze, Dean thinks. "Don't pick at it," he says instead, conscious of how similar it sounds to Don't scratch the wall and look how well that turned out - but Sam just looks steadily at him, and says, "I won't."

Dean takes the bowl and food back to the kitchen, and when he comes back Sam's sleeping again. He's slept heavily and steadily, but he's awake for longer periods, and today was the most he's talked, and Dean doesn't look too hard at the bubble of hope in his chest, because they burst if you ever do.

--

Sam has his first nightmare that night, first since the wall fell, and when Dean wakes up to that first scream, the first thing he sees in his mind's eye is a tiny spot of blood blooming red up through a white pad of gauze.

He blinks it away and stumbles upstairs, cursing himself for falling asleep on the couch instead of staying with Sammy, and he grabs onto the doorway, checking out the room before he rushes in. Sam is thrashing in bed, sheets tangled around his legs, and his eyes are open, whites rolling madly, but he seems to focus on Dean in the doorway and stills, tense in the bed, panting harshly.

"Dean--"

Dean propels himself into the room and drops to his knees next to Sam's bed, Sam's eyes following him all the way. "Sammy, shh, it's okay, look at me, it's a dream. You're okay, you hear me?"

Sam's looking at him, but Dean isn't sure he sees him, not until Dean puts a hand on his shoulder. Sam focuses, blinks, and lets out a long, shuddering breath and his body relaxes slowly into the bed. "Oh, shit," he says, hoarse. "Shit, Dean."

"You're okay, it's fine," says Dean mindlessly, rubbing his hand over Sam's shoulder, and Sam's hand comes up to grab at his - Dean tenses, wondering if Sam's trying to pull him off, if he can't bear to be touched. Dean remembers that, remembers how the phantoms of Hell-remembered pain slicing over him in the middle of the night would grip him tighter if someone touched him, like they were pressing a brand into his skin. But Sam just holds on and presses Dean's hand back to his shoulder and seems to calm with the touch.

"Sorry," he says, his thumb rubbing absently on Dean's wrist.

"Shut up," says Dean immediately. "Don't be sorry. You good now? Want anything?"

Sam breathes in deep, lets it out slow. "No, I think I'm good."

"Can you sleep?" Dean asks doubtfully.

Sam snorts a little and looks at Dean wryly. "Probably not any more tonight," he says. "I'll see."

Dean stays there a moment, knees twingeing on the floor, then starts to extricate himself. Sam's eyes open quickly and he looks at Dean, an echo of the kid Dean held after nightmares when he was five, and Dean shhhs him soothingly. "I'm just gonna get a glass of water, then I'll come back, I'll be right over there." He nods behind him to the other bed pushed against the wall.

Sam nods and relaxes his hold on Dean's hand, and Dean slides it away, stands up and heads out of the room.

He's crossing the threshold when he hears Sam suck in a breath, and he's screaming again even as Dean turns around. Adrenaline slams into Dean's chest, making the room bright and sharp even in the dimness of the middle of the night, and he sees Sam bolt upright in bed. He twists his body back into the room at the same time Sam struggles of out the bed, trailing a mess of sheets, and they meet in the middle, Dean staggering down to grab Sam.

The room rings with silence for a second as Sam stops screaming - he's pawing at Dean as Dean tries to pat him down, uncontrollable instincts to make sure Sam's not hurt. Sam whines and shudders and then gets his hands under Dean's shirt. Dean jumps at the feel of Sam's big hands spread over his belly and chest, but Sam stills and calms straight away, his big body melting down into Dean in relief.

Dean opens his mouth, then closes it, lets Sam catch his breath, and steadies him with an arm around his back. They half sit, half lie in the middle of the room, Sam's forehead on Dean's collarbone, his hands tight against Dean's bare skin. Dean feels faintly ridiculous, his shirt rucked up, and his fading adrenaline rush makes him jumpy, belly wanting to twitch away from the intimate vulnerability of someone touching in a place unguarded by bone, but he stays still.

"Sorry," Sam say tightly, his breath warm against the neck of Dean's t-shirt, but he doesn't move away. "I - sorry."

"Wanna tell me what this is about, Sammy?" says Dean calmly. He doesn't mind so much, but their usual method of dealing with each other's nightmares is a hand to the shoulder and a slug of whiskey - full body contact is new and disconcerting, though not as much as it could be.

Sam shakes his head. "You, uh. You make it better. I dunno. You let go and walked away and it came screaming back, it was so bad--" He shuts up and worms his way closer to Dean, and it's a childlike, unembarrassed movement, a shift towards comfort, that warms something in Dean, not that he'd ever tell Sam that.

"Okay," he says quietly, rubs his hand over Sam's back. This works. Being Sam's security blanket isn't the worst job he's ever had, and the fact Sam can talk and sleep and function at all with that much Hell in his head is pretty incredible, no matter what it takes to keep it down.

"God, I'm tired," mumbles Sam, so Dean gets them standing, then back to the bed, Sam lying down, keeping his hand around Sam's wrist the whole time. There's a line between Sam's brows now they're not as close as they were a minute ago, but he seems calm.

"I'll stay right here," says Dean. "Think you can sleep?"

Sam nods. "Yeah. It only got really bad when you left the room before."

"No leaving," promises Dean, and lets go of Sam's wrist.

Sam instantly flips his hand around and grabs onto Dean's wrist before Dean can take his hand away, and they both look at it.

"Sam--"

"I'll let go in a minute," says Sam. He stares at his fingers wrapped around Dean's wrist, and breathes deep and slow like he's psyching himself up.

Dean's mouth twitches without his permission. "Sam, this is ridiculous," he says. "Scoot over so I can get in so we can both get some damn sleep."

Sam works his jaw and looks up at Dean defiantly. "No! I'll be fine--"

Dean rolls his eyes and tugs his wrist from Sam's grip, and Sam flinches until Dean pushes at him to move over so Dean can climb into the bed.

"Dean, you don't have--"

"I want sleep, you want sleep and to use me as a giant teddy bear, we'll figure it out in the morning," says Dean gruffly and tugs the cover over them both.

He faces away from Sam, letting Sam squirm up behind him and press his forehead against the back of Dean's neck, puts his feet between Dean's legs.

They haven't shared a bed in a long time, and the few times they've had to for whatever reason, last room at a motel or whatever, they've stuck to their own sides of the bed. Feeling Sam so close to him is weird, because he's not used to this, to sharing a bed like this with anyone but Lisa, and it brings up the dull edge of pain he can't shake whenever he thinks about her. The smell and shape and familiarity of Sam is so different, though, and the part of Dean that's always been devoted to looking after Sam can't help but feel good. Dean's always been happiest when there's something he can fix with his hands, his own self, and now, well. Sam's fucked up and there's a deeper issue here they're gonna have to figure out, but being able to help Sam with his body, his very existence - it feels like he's doing something right.

Dean wakes up to the heavy tread of Bobby's boots in the hallways outside their room, and wakes enough to wince but not enough to move away when the door opens. He open his eyes slowly and looks up at Bobby, trying to convey a shrug without moving. Sam is spooned up behind him, nose nudged against his shoulder, heavy arms looped around Dean's waist.

Bobby opens his mouth, and Dean moves his arm enough to put his finger to his lips. Bobby closes his mouth again, lifts his eyes to heaven and shakes his head slowly, then walks out of the room.

Dean turns his head, buries his urge to laugh into the pillow, and slowly eases himself out of bed. He keeps a hand on Sam as he does so, then stands slowly up out of bed, then lets go, and takes a series of slow steps backwards.

Sam shifts and huffs slightly in his sleep, but stays calm and quiet. Dean steps backwards over the threshold and stays there for a full minute, watching Sam, but nothing happens, so Dean turns and quietly follows Bobby downstairs.

"I'm not even gonna ask," Bobby says, sliding a cup of coffee across the table.

Dean turns it around in his hands and he shakes his head. "I dunno, man. He's pretty messed up but he's okay, way more okay than he should be considering what's in his head. I think it's - human contact, or something, helps keep it at bay. Which is a whole lot more workable than a supernatural wall in his head, so I'm good with that."

Bobby scratches at his cap. "It's not much more of a permanent solution than the wall, though, is it?"

Dean spreads his hands. "Why not? So Sam needs to spoon with a warm body every night. Some married couples manage that for the rest of their lives, I hear. It's not some crazy feat."

"Yeah, but--" Bobby shuts up, then, and Dean hears Sam's steps coming down the stairs and into the kitchen.

"Dean?"

Dean turns in his chair. "Hey, buddy, how you feeling?"

Sam rolls his eyes. "I haven't actually regressed to six years old, Dean," he says, but he walks over to Dean swiftly and pulls the chair up close, looking better once he's next to Dean, color returning. "Morning, Bobby."

"Good to see you up and around, Sam. Coffee?"

"Please."

Dean's always known he and Sam have been careless about each other's personal space - standing and walking close enough to each other that would get his hackles up if it were anyone else. But Sam's closer to him than usual, an extra inch inside Dean's orbit to be just noticeable, enough for their arms to brush, for Dean to feel the heat of Sam bleeding though the air between them.

Sam takes a swallow of the coffee and grimaces a bit, then slants a look at Dean. "It's not just me, right? This coffee is bad?"

Dean grins. "It's good to know you haven't lost your prissy taste."

Bobby rolls his eyes. "I'll get you some sugar."

He brings it back to the table and looks at the both of them. "You know, this might not be a permanent issue."

Sam raises an eyebrow, and Dean says, "He saw you using me as a body pillow."

"Ah."

Bobby coughs. "And it's obvious from the way you're practically sittin' in Dean's lap now, too. Look, I mean, two days ago Dean was spoonfeeding you, and now you're walking around and bitching about my coffee. It's an upwards trend. If you need someone to hug to make sure you sleep, I don't reckon that's too raw a deal. So long as I don't gotta volunteer for duty."

Sam laughs and rubs a hand over the back of his neck. "I, uh, don't think you need to worry about that."

Dean raises an eyebrow, waiting for more.

Sam sighs and shrugs. "I think it's just, you know, you."

"Well, I'm flattered, but we haven't tried it out with anyone else yet, it might just be a warm body, human contact thing."

Sam's shaking his head, though, and glances at Bobby, who rolls his eyes and grumbles about some very important business he has to attend to in the yard.

"I figure the fact I spent all night cuddling you like a stuffed animal means I'm never gonna get back any respect from you, so," Sam says, and Dean starts to protest, but Sam shakes his head.

"I'm mostly kidding. I just - you know I told you what happened in my head, before I woke up?"

"You said you were - split," says Dean slowly.

Sam nods. "The me that remembered Hell, he asked me why I'd take the Hell memories, why I'd ask to remember all that, when I could've stayed there in my head, where it felt real but without Hell."

"So - why did you?"

Sam rubs at a spot on the table. "Because I didn't want to leave you alone out here."

Dean's used to it, in his life, when he makes sacrifices for other people, especially Sam. It's part of who he is, and maybe he's fucked up, but so's his life, and that's him He's never begrudged it, but he's never known how to respond, or how to feel, when people do it for him. Like when his dad made the deal. It feels too big, too much to understand, and he just wants to sit there and say, but why?

He wouldn't have wanted Sam to stay under, living a fake life inside his own head. He would have wanted Sam to take the Hell memories and wake up, because Sam wanted the second shot at life he deserved, or for revenge or for justice or to keep hunting.

But Sam did it for him, and the truth of it is in the way Sam can't look at him but the way he's sharing Dean's air, elbow pressed against Dean's. It sits big and precarious and terrifying in Dean's chest.

"So I guess," says Sam, "that's why it's you that keeps the, the horror of it at bay. It reminds me, the deepest part of me, of why I did it, so it helps me function and keep the promise I made to myself, that I could be here and not leave you alone. Or - something."

"I'm your gauze," says Dean.

"What?"

"Nothing," Dean says quickly. "I, uh. Thanks." It's an insignificant word, but what else can he say? This moment is already enough of one.

Sam rubs a hand over his mouth and stands up, fiddles with the mug in his hand a moment then walks over to the sink, dumps the rest of the coffee and rinses the mug. "So, look," he says, putting the mug upside down in the overfull drying rack, "Bobby made sense. I'm getting better. Let's just see how it goes."

Dean leans back in the chair. "How does it feel now?"

"Over here?" Sam turns and leans against the sink, wiping his hands on his jeans. "Good. Okay."

Dean nods and stands up, glances behind him then starts backing away, moving through into Bobby's study. He stops when he's at Bobby's desk and shouts through to Sam. "Now?"

"Still alright," Sam shouts back. "But a bit - like I'm starting to get sick. Feels like I'm just about to get a headache. And a little anxious. Like I don't feel the Hell stuff, but I know it's just there, waiting."

Dean walks back through, navigates around the kitchen table to stand in front of Sam. "And now it feels better?"

"Yeah. It's weird."

"The sheer force of my awesome is a pretty powerful thing."

Sam rolls his eyes, and Dean reaches out, without quite realizing he's going to do it, and puts his hand on Sam's cheek.

"Is that better again? It's just - you seemed to want skin contact, last night." Dean tries valiantly to ignore how that sounds, but Sam goes red.

"Yeah," he says. "Better again." He takes a deep, slow breath and just looks at Dean.

Dean drops his hand. "Alright. Let's just take this one day at a time, right? I'm gonna save you the trouble of asking and say yes, we can share the bed again tonight--"

Sam drops his head down and shifts awkwardly, and Dean holds up a finger. "And before you start, ground rules. You don't get to be embarrassed and you don't get to apologize. I, however, reserve the right to call you Samantha until the end of time."

"Dean, come on. It's not like this is ideal for you."

Dean frowns. "Look at what we've both been through. We've both been to Hell, you were trapped in a cage with the pissed-off devil for what, centuries, and we're both here and alive and walking around. There's nothing to apologize for, okay?"

Sam tightens his jaw like he's going to argue, but then drops his eyes. "Fine," he says. "It's going to get better, anyway."

That's not exactly the point, but Dean lets it go.

--

Two weeks later, and things have settled but plateaued, and there's a restless tension in the house. Sam and Dean don't usually stay at Bobby's this long in one stretch and Dean's caught between his warring drives to look after Sam and to get on the road.

"We can't stay here forever, Dean," Sam insists, scrolling through news sites on his laptop. He's sitting on the opposite side of the breakfast table to Dean, their feet idly shoved together under the table.

Dean twists his mouth, watching Bobby open the fridge, take in the lack of food, and close it with an irritated sound. Sam's right, but. "Can we give it one more week?"

They stay close during the day but Sam's fine if Dean wanders away, into the junkyard or wherever - they haven't found a limit where Sam can't bear it, and Dean's not particularly interested in testing it. They don't even need to touch at all during the day, though Sam tends to look tight around the eyes if they don't, so Dean finds ways to do it causally, a slap on the shoulder, pushing past him even when there's more than enough space in a room.

They still share the bed every night - nights are worse, of course. Dean remembers that well enough, and can't remember a time in his own life where nights have been consistently hunky dory anyway. Bad shit loves to lurk in your mind and claw its way out when you're lying soft and tired in the dark.

Sam told Dean he thought it was better a week ago, told him that Dean being across the other side of the room would be fine, and woke up screaming, scratching bloody lines into his own arms, so wracked in horror that Dean had to take off both their shirts and wrap Sam up in a full body bear hug for two minutes until Sam shut up screaming, and that's not an experience Dean's too willing to repeat.

Sam's been sullen and embarrassed no matter how much Dean tells him he shouldn't be, and maybe it would be good to get out, shake up the routine, find a hunt and kick some monster ass, but - Sam hasn't really been out in the world since he properly, well, integrated. Dean has no idea what's lurking behind the gauze layer he's apparently holding down in his brother's mind, and what shit out there in the world, especially on a hunt, might set it off.

"No, you can't stay another week," says Bobby, surprising them both. He has his hands on his hips and he looks a little like a disgruntled housewife, but Dean wisely keeps the thought to himself. "I love you boys like my own, you know that, but you won't be doing anyone any favors sitting around here, least of all me. You'll be next to each other in the car, next to each other in the motel room, and we'll all three of us kill ourselves if we keep on living here."

"Well, I hear Michigan's real nice this time of year," says Sam, closing the laptop with a thunk, and Dean guesses the decision's made for him.

--

Spanish teachers are disappearing at Martin High School, in Martin, Michigan. It's a fairly small school in a fairly small farm town, so the pattern was noted quickly, but didn't register on any of Sam and Dean's news sites or red flag forums until the second of the four disappearances turned up dead two days ago.

"What do you reckon, ex-student who flunked Spanish exacting revenge?" says Dean as they drive east.

Sam flips through news reports they'd printed off at Bobby's. "It's a working theory," he says. "We'll know more once we've talked to the students and the school board."

"Cops or FBI?"

Sam wrinkles his nose. "FBI'll scare people into shutting up, small town like this. Cops they'll understand."

"Yeah, probably so. Cops it is."

They get into town too late to start any interviews, so they grab a room at the motel. Dean gets a double out of habit, even though he realizes as they get into the room that it was kind of pointless. The thought makes him feel a little weird, like this whole thing hasn't so far. He and Sam just exchange a look and dump both their duffels on the spare bed, the one nearest the door.

Dean watches Sam carefully, trying to seem like he isn't. All this - driving into a new town, getting a motel room, settling in - it's rote, something they'd done a hundred times before, but it's brand new for this Sam, the one with hundreds of years of Hell sitting black and malignant in his head.

Sam seems fine, though - alert and calm and really Sam in a way that still sometimes feels too good to be true.

They stick up what reports they have on the wall above the small desk, add a local map of the area, talk the case over a little, and it's fine - fun, exciting, even. They haven't had a simple case in a while, what with everything that's been going on, and the simple satisfaction of starting a new hunt is something Dean is surprised to find he's missed. From Sam's slight smile, it seems Sam has, too.

Which is probably why he doesn't stop to think when he offers to run down a few blocks to grab pizza.

"Sure," Sam says absently, engrossed in the school's Facebook page, and Dean gets in the car and drives away from the motel.

He's two blocks down, the green and red of the pizza place close by, when the hair prickles on the back of his neck. He glances in the rearview, hoping someone isn't following him. He doesn't see anything, but for the small red glow of the motel's vacancy sign still visible in the distance. Distance. This is the furthest he's been from Sam since - since.

Dean swears aloud and swings the car around violently in the middle of the street, fastest three-point he's ever done, and roars back into the motel parking lot minutes after he'd left, and slams into the room.

Sam isn't at his computer any more - Dean has a moment of blind panic until he sees him crammed into the far corner, shoulders jammed between the walls, legs drawn up.

"Fuck, Sam, Sammy, I'm here," says Dean, dropping down in front of Sam and taking his wrists, pulling them away - Sam sucks in a breath and Dean can see a deep red crescent imprint of where he's been biting down on his fist.

He shoves Sam's hands under his two layers of shirts, hissing at the slightly cold touch, and drags Sam into him, pressing Sam's face into his own neck and feeling Sam relax and calm against him quickly. "Shit, Sammy, I'm so sorry, I'm such a fuckin’ idiot, I forgot, can you believe it, Jesus Christ."

Sam shifts against him and moves back enough to look up at him. "I did too," he said, voice hoarse like he's been screaming into his fists. "Guess we're still getting used to this."

"I should've--"

"Hey," says Sam. "If I'm not allowed to apologize, neither are you."

The logic in that is infuriating. "Okay," says Dean. "But before we do anything more on this hunt, we figure out your limits."

"Oh, that's gonna be fun."

Dean shrugs. "No kidding." It's going to feel like sliding a knife into Sam and seeing how deep it can go before Sam screams, but. "I'd rather find out now what we need to watch out for than have it happen when we're not expecting it."

Sam nods, and sits up; his hands fall down from under Dean's shirt, but stay resting lax on his thighs. "Fair enough."

"What--" Dean swallows. "What was it like? I mean, what are we dealing with here?"

Sam looks at him. "It's like I'm dreaming, but I'm awake. It's as vivid as a nightmare, one of those really bad ones you're scared your brain can even come up with, and I know it's a memory but it's so vivid it feels like it's happening and I can't get out from under it and it just - you know. Really, really sucks." Sam's picking compulsively at his nails so Dean puts his hands over Sam's. It's scaring him to think of the potency of the memories, of how they'd eat Sam alive if they could all come through, and he feels fragile, being the only protection against them. Like trying to hold back the tide with a finger.

But it's not really him keeping the memories back - it's Sam's belief in him, and he's not gonna do anything to shake that if he can help it.

"Come on, kiddo," he says, just to watch Sam roll his eyes. "Bed. We'll sort this out in the morning."

It's Dean's turn to have a nightmare that night - run of the mill horror dragged from his own messed up brain, not even his own Hell making an appearance. In the dream, he's walking backwards away from Sam in a parking lot. Sam looks lost and confused, then resigned, and the further Dean gets, the worse he looks. In the magic of dreams, Dean can see Sam's face close and clear even as Sam's figure gets smaller while Dean backs away.

Sam drops to his knees and the screaming starts, and it's awful, wails that warble and shatter, nails-on-a-chalkboard awful to hear, but in the dream Dean keeps backing away calmly. Sam falls to the floor and writhes, and Dean keeps walking backwards. Another five paces and Sam's screams change pitch, and then he bursts into flames. Dean can still see his face, see the skin crisp and curl off, black and red welts, but Sam's eyes stay whole, wide and white and terrified, fixed on Dean as he keeps backing away.

Dean bursts from sleep as if from water, sucking in huge gasps of air. Sam's arm is heavy over his waist, and Dean turns frantically in bed, and his sleep-fogged brain sees Sam's face fire-scorched and ruined for a second before his eyes clear and he sees Sam, whole and sleepily grumpy as he wakes.

"Wh'ss?" he mumbles.

Dean forces himself to relax. "Sorry, dude. Go back to sleep. Just a nightmare."

Sam shifts and stretches. "Thought that was my job," he says, and pats clumsily at Dean's face, like his touch will work the other way around. Maybe it does; Dean feels instantly better, because a Sam who's close and warm and poking him in the eye isn't burning in a parking lot while Dean just walks away from him and lets him die and scream.

"Gotta give you a night off," he says.

--

Dean pulls into the field slowly, shaking his head even as he cuts the engine. "Sam, this is ridiculous."

"We gotta know."

"No, we don't gotta know bullcrap. I stay close to you, you don't freak out, we're all happy, the end."

Sam slams the car door with a final glare through the window and waits until Dean gets out of the car, clenching his jaw.

Sam crosses his arms in a determined motion that's all at once fondly familiar and damn irritating. "Last night reminded us of how easy it is to put that kind of distance between us without even realizing. And I know you understand how fucking easy it is for things to go the wrong way in a hunt. We might not be able to know what's coming but at least we'll know when to start panicking, know what we're working with."

"So you want me to just let you walk away until you fall over with burning hellfire running through your head. Not going to happen."

"So you want it to happen without either of knowing it's going to, in the middle of a hunt, when we're totally unprepared."

"I'm not going to make it happen, Jesus, Sammy! This is dumb!"

Sam drops his arms and looks down, sighs and steps closer, looking defeated. Dean watches him carefully. "Yeah - yeah, I guess. I just--"

He steps closer, then shifts his weight, and before Dean can tell what's going on, he kicks Dean hard in the kneecap and takes off running down the field.

"Little bitch!" Dean's leg gives out and he buckles down to his knees in the damp grass for a moment before he struggles upward and takes off after Sam. Sam has long legs and determination and he's gotten a way away from Dean, and Dean can see him start to weave and stagger; he swears and puts an extra pump into his own legs, and slides to a stop next to Sam, who's on his knees but mostly upright, panting.

Sam grabs at Dean thankfully, putting his hands on Dean's neck, even as he looks at Dean reproachfully. "You should have stayed where you were and we could have measured where I went down."

"Where you went - you are a fucking moron."

Sam's breathing is evening out. "I need to know, okay? I need to know how far away from you I can get before I literally cannot function. For your own damn sake as much as mine."

Dean doesn't like how that sounds - what does it matter, to either of them? - but he helps Sam up.

Sam looks at him steadily. "I'm just gonna do that again until you agree to figure it out properly," he says.

"You are a such a stubborn little shit."

"Little brother. It's in the job description."

It turns out to be around two hundred feet. Dean has to bite down on his own fist to let Sam keep walking away from him even as Sam staggers and struggles, gasps audible in the big empty field; but Sam had made him promise to say where he is until Sam can't - there, he's on his knees, he's not walking any further. Dean grinds his heel into the grass to leave a mark and runs after Sam, shoving his hands up Sam's shirt when he collapses next to him. Sam is shivering in the fetal position.

"Happy now, you stupid suicidal dick," snaps Dean as Sam curls in towards his warmth.

"Thanks," moans Sam, then shuts up as he gets himself together again.

They measure the distance between where Sam sits and where Dean had been standing - two hundred and three feet, and Dean privately thinks Sam had been pushing himself harder than can really be accurately described as 'functional' those last few feet.

"That's - not really very far at all," says Sam, twisting his mouth.

"Yeah, well," says Dean, a little discomfited by it himself but pushing it down. "It's not like we need to be more than two hundred feet away from each other that often, anyway." He shrugs. "We just make sure we aren't."

"It started feeling pretty fucking shitty about halfway," admits Sam.

"Yeah, well. You're the one who wanted to know. Congratulations, now we know not to plan any hunts where we need to be more than a hundred feet apart. Big deal."

"Or you going to a bar without me or me going to the library without you or either of us ever getting laid again or--"

"Jeez, Sam I get it, it sucks you aren't free of me weighing you down or whatever, but given the alternative--"

"That is really not what I--" Sam sucks in a breath. "Okay. Whatever. Let's just see how it goes on this hunt."

Dean blinks; he'd almost forgotten about this disappearing Spanish teacher stuff. "Yeah," he says. "Right. Interview with the principal at one PM."

--

When they drive back into town, it's still only tenAM and the grimy little diner and squat library don't appeal to either of them as a way to kill time, so they take a nature walk through the scraggy woods around the school and scan it for EMF.

Dean's been so distracted by all this stuff with Sam he's having trouble holding on to the fact there's a real case here, with people dying; he almost jumps when the EMF meter wails in his hand as they cut across the thin strip of grass behind the parking lot and head into the trees. He exchanges a glance with Sam and they take up a careful stance and scan through the area in practiced sweeps, but it doesn't take them five minutes to get a little deeper into the trees and find an incredibly suspicious pile of turned earth, fresh enough to be noticeable and haphazardly hidden enough to be suspicious.

Dean raises an eyebrow and Sam lifts the corner of his mouth.

"Well, well, well, Martin High," says Dean. "This isn't fishy at all."

"Think we have time to do some covert gravedigging before we meet the principal?"

Dean snorts. "We'd win the Olympic gold in gravedigging if it was recognized." He pauses. "That would be a weird-ass event. What do you reckon, Sammy, in the hunter Olympics? Fastest exorcism? Most demons ganked in five minutes?"

"Dean." Sam's mouth is set in a straight line, but there's a happiness underneath it that they can do this - that he can play the buzzkill straight man again - that kinda ruins the effect. Dean grins.

"Point is, yes we got time." He jerks his head towards the parking lot, no longer visible through the trees, where their car's parked at the far corner. "You keep watch, and I'll go get the - shovels--" This is where he falters. "I mean," he amends clumsily. "We go get the shovels."

Sam sucks on his teeth in irritation and glares at the grave like it personally made Dean fuck up and remind them of what they spent the morning unpleasantly testing, but he doesn't say anything beyond a curt, "Fine," all the happiness whisked away again, and they head back to the car.

Dean makes sure to stay extra close to Sam as they walk, arms pressed together, which is possibly underhanded because although it clearly annoys him, prolonged contact puts Sam in an almost reluctant good mood, something Dean's not above using to his - well, both their - benefit.

Sam frowns most of the way, but when he digs the shovel into the damp dirt, he says, "Fastest devil's trap drawn accurately from memory," and Dean laughs. Sam smirks back. "Extra points for artistic merit."

"We entered any of these events as double and we'd wipe the floor."

"Singles and you'd get a lot of the silvers, dude, pretty good going."

"Who got the -- oh, screw you," said Dean, and sets to proving to Sam he can dig faster.

The poorly dug grave ends up not putting up much of a fight – less than four feet down, and the edges of a moldering corpse poke through the loosely packed dirt. Clothes and hair tell them it's female even though the face is disfigured and unrecognizable; more usefully, however, she's wearing a heavy old silver cross around her neck.

They look at each other, and wordlessly scrape away enough dirt to make sure there are no other surprises hidden down there with her, then cover the corpse back up to leave the site hopefully not too obviously tampered with.

The EMF meter keeps up a steady plaintive whine, but doesn't do much else, and the air stays still and lightly warm the whole way through. "Think that's our culprit?" says Dean once they're shaking the dirt off their shovels.

"Pretty likely."

"She didn't make fuss when we dug her up, they don't usually like that."

Sam shrugs. "I dunno - she probably knew we weren't planning on doing anything to her. It might be a different story if we were standing here with salt and a match, you know?"

The EMF meter gives a little blip, almost like a warning, at the words - probably a coincidence, but Sam slants a smug look at Dean anyway.

The principal is a smarmy, oily little man, bony and balding, and the meeting with him - held on the move as they wander through the school - becomes fairly pointless once they walk past the Spanish classroom. The principal shows an odd reluctance to go into the classroom, though any superstitious man probably would, considering the goings-on in there recently.

There's a picture on the wall just outside the door, which shows the Spanish teacher - the first one to go missing - standing proudly in front of her class, hands folded primly in front of her, just below the large silver cross that she wears around her neck, gleaming against her black sweater.

"Ms. Jimena - Calida. Lovely woman. Our loyal Spanish teacher, the first to go missing," says the principal, eyes skittering away from the photo in what anyone else could take for grief or respect, but what Dean, after seeing many people deflect, is pretty sure is guilt. He looks at Sam, who nods quickly.

"May we check her classroom?" says Dean, smoothly polite as he can be considering he's pretty sure the guy in front of him is involved in at least one person's death; Sam elbows him subtly and Dean glares, but the principal doesn't seem to notice, just stutters and nods and pointedly does not follow them in, hovering nervously at the threshold.

There's nothing obvious in the classroom except for something that makes the hairs at the back of Dean's neck prick, and he thinks if he had his EMF meter turned on, it would be grumbling at him. Sam says nothing, but his presence close at Dean's elbow tells Dean Sam feels it too.

"She is not happy," says Sam as soon as they get out of the school, and Dean nods.

The other thing they'd found out from their meeting with the principal helps the rest of the pieces fall into place: all the new Spanish teachers who'd stepped in - and subsequently disappeared - were brought on from the existing staff.

"So we're thinking this – Ms. Jimena, the first Spanish teacher, was killed, on purpose or accidentally, in her classroom, and the rest of the staff helped cover it up. Small school, small town, small staff, they were probably all in it, and it was probably someone important to the town who did it."

Sam nods. "So she haunts her classroom, and each time a new teacher comes in to substitute, so far the existing staff stepping up one by one as they can't afford to bring in someone from out of town, Ms. Jimena takes them for revenge. She gets them as soon as they step into the classroom where she was killed, once they're in her power, then she manages to take them out to the fields and kills them, far enough to make them hard to find but close enough to her gravesite she still has strength. And of course, three disappearances is more than enough to mean no one else is going to go stepping in there, so either she'll stop, or--"

"Or she'll step up her game." Dean is fully aware that angry ghosts don't like being stopped before they've had their fill of their perceived revenge. "Unless we stop her first. Tonight?"

Sam grins. "Feels like it's been too long since we've had a good salt and burn."

They pick up some lighter fluid at the general store three blocks down from their motel, Sam making unhelpful comments from Dean's side, and it takes Dean a moment to figure out why the clerk is giving them the hairy eyeball when they go up to pay. Then he registers the press of Sam at his side, close enough his arm is warm from Sam's body heat, and all at once his side prickles with the awareness of a person so close inside his personal bubble now that someone else has noticed. Usually his body doesn't register Sam's closeness as he would a stranger, especially recently.

Now, though. He's abruptly aware of how it looks, and what, well, what people would think. There aren't too many reasons for two guys to share the same bubble of personal space and a Hell--trauma-induced proximity-dependence ain't exactly the first thing that'll jump into people's heads.

He feels Sam register the look and what it means a moment later as Dean's nonchalantly pushing his purchases over the counter; Sam coughs awkwardly and takes a step away, and even without looking at him Dean can tell the awkward lines his body's held in.

Fuck that, for some narrow minded store clerk.

Dean gives the clerk a smarmy grin and reaches out to Sam, tugs on his arm so Sam takes a stumbling step back into Dean, and Dean rubs his hand up Sam's shoulder, over his back, up over the nape of his neck then to cup around his far shoulder and hold him in close.

"Lovely day, don't you think?" says Dean brightly to the clerk, who glances automatically outside at the white cloud overcast sky.

"Sure," he says slowly, looking back at them and narrowing his eyes, lips pulling up into the beginning of a sneer. He and Dean hold a warily aggressive eye contact through the transaction even as Dean keeps his easy smile pasted on, and Sam huffs slightly next to him but doesn't pull away.

"Have a nice day, gentlemen," says the clerk with a skillfully insulting politeness, as they leave.

"Oh we will," Dean leers and winks, and drags Sam outside.

Sam looks reluctantly amused when Dean gives him an 'Eh? Eh?' look outside the store, then he shakes his head. "I know this might seem hilarious to you now, but think about it, Dean. This is gonna be how it is from now on. People are going to think -- shit like that."

Dean scoffs. "So? God save us from the narrow minded folk in America? Who cares dude, we know what it is."

Sam shakes off Dean's arm, but stays close. "Not just small town store clerks, Dean. Girls are gonna think it; even if we did figure out a way to get far apart enough you can ever score again, having some other dude glued to you most of the day isn't going to help your chances any."

Dean hits him because he thinks there was an insult in there somewhere, then raises his eyes, thinks for a moment, and shrugs. Casual sex hasn't been his bag for a while, really, even before the Lisa year, so at this point in his fucked-up life it's something he's not going to cry about putting on the 'shit we sacrifice' list, especially for the flip side of keeping Sammy alive, sane and healthy.

He spreads his palms. "Dude, it's not a big deal. So I - we - don't get laid a whole lot, least for a while. Not the end of the world. We know what that's like."

"When will this stop being a joke to you, Dean?"

Dean stops him in the middle of the sidewalk as they head back to the motel. "Look. Sam. I don't get why you want to to be doom and gloom about this. I'm not sweating the cons when the pros are so good, you know? We gotta adapt, we gotta give up a few things, whatever - I got you walking and talking and living, with centuries of Hell in your head. We're lucky!"

Sam just looks away, rolls his eyes in that pissy way he has, always trying to find the loophole, the catch, never thinking maybe this really is as good a deal as it is.

"Whatever," he says, and stalks away, long legs eating up the pavement, which for a moment is normal; then Dean's heart jumps a little, the fear reaction that he's learning in response to seeing Sam get too far away from him already kicking in. Sam must have started to feel it at the same time because his strides slow, and he lets Dean catch up to him, though he tightens his jaw and looks away, twitching as if to shrug Dean off when Dean puts a hand on his back in case he needs a bit more. Sam has always liked his own space when he's gotten in a sulk, so being forced to ride it out near to Dean is gonna suck a bit for both of them - but hey, maybe it'll teach Sam to not overthink himself into a funk.

A girl passes by on a bicycle in the road, and does an almost comical double take as she passes them, head twisting back to take in Dean's almost proprietary hand on Sam's back, and he sees her mouth curve up into a smile before she turns her head back to ride on.

Dean rolls his shoulders and drops his hand. Looks like Sam was right; and he'll be seeing it everywhere now that he's noticed.

--

They push their way through the thin trees that night, heading back to Ms. Calida Jimena's hidden grave.

Dean's feeling antsy, partly because Sam's been quiet the rest of the day and apparently this new proximity-dependence things still doesn't give psychic access to whatever Sam's turning over in that brain of his.

And partly because the motel clerk had clearly read them as a couple.The maid who'd tried to come in before they'd hastily ushered her away had done the same, with a smirk on her face that made Dean blush. He doesn't know why he's irritated, now that Sam's pointed it out - whether he's actually made uncomfortable by it, or annoyed that he feels like he's supposed to be made uncomfortable. He thinks Sam has a problem with it, too, maybe, because he won't meet Dean's eyes and holds himself awkwardly, and Dean get it, he does. It's not cool to have people thinking you're screwing your brother. But is it really so awful that Sam has to go so quiet and weird about it? Is it so bad for people to think they're together? Dean realizes he's a little bit hurt by it, and rolls his eyes at himself, because, seriously.

Sam thunks his shovel firmly into the dirt and Dean looks around - they found it. Sam stares down at the grave, brooding, and Dean pokes him in the side.

"Sam. Sam, hey." He ducks down to catch Sam's eyes. "You with me?"

"Yeah," he says irritably.

"Good. Because this is still our first time behind the wheel since - you know - so I need you with me on this. Gotta look out for each other."

Sam's face softens and he focuses more fully on Dean. "Yeah, of course - I'm with you. Let's do this."

They dig swiftly and efficiently, clearing the corpse more fully this time, from head to the bones starting to poke from her toes. Sam grimaces. "Man, I had not missed the gross parts of this."

Sam's earlier prediction seems pretty accurate - the wind had picked up as soon as they started uncovering the bones, and is fair howling around them now, the temperature dropping rapidly.

"Stay alert," Dean warns, but Sam's one step ahead of him. He drops his shovel and blows a load of salt over Dean's shoulder, and Dean whips around to see the tortured, screaming face of their ghost disappear into smoke, the shape of her ghostly silver cross lingering.

He grins at Sam. "Thanks. Let's do this." They haul themselves quickly up out of the grave, and Sam readies the shotgun as Dean soaks the bones in lighter fluid and flicks open his lighter.

Sam makes a cut off noise that's all the warning they get as Calida materializes between them, over the grave, and flings herself at Sam; Sam goes flying, and panic shudders through Dean as he frantically tries to calculate how far she's thrown Sam. His fingers are still and mindless on the lighter as he stares after them, feet moving in indecision, and Sam grunts - he's awake - how far-- and then as Dean just stands there, she roars back and pushes at Dean, and he drops his shotgun and lighter as he lands heavily on his back; then she starts to pull.

Well, this is more than two hundred feet, Dean thinks dully as her icy fingers grab at his collar and drag him fast and rough backwards through the grass, sticks and stones catching at his clothes and skin, and he shouts out helplessly as he hears Sam scream, the distance kicking in, Hell flooding his brother's defenseless mind. He twists and writhes desperately and hooks an ankle around a tree, trying to stop his rapid progress away from Sam; he's jerked to a sudden halt and he yells as his ankle wrenches with a sick thud of pain. She lets go of him, and he scrabbles in his pocket for the few precious seconds she takes to come at him again from the front; he closes his hand around a packet of emergency salt, rips it open, and flings it in her face as she screams up to him.

She dissolves into nothing, but they don't have long, and Sam isn't screaming any more, and that just makes the fear in Dean's belly colder. He blanches and nearly falls over when he tries to put weight on his messed up ankle, but he pushes past it and hobbles back to the grave as fast as he can, adrenaline pushing him into a leap across the grave; he scrambles on his hands and knees the last few feet to Sam, who's staring up at the night sky, mouth locked open.

He reacts instantly when Dean puts his hands on Sam's face, sucking in a breath and closing his eyes, twisting into Dean responsively; Dean stifles a shout as Sam's legs knock into his injured ankle. He presses his face into Sam's neck, as much skin on skin as he can get, and feels the vibration against his eyelid as Sam tries to speak.

Sam's eyes are hazy with pain but fixed on Dean when Dean lifts his head. "M'okay," says Sam. "Dean, the ghost--"

Sam's still got hold of his shotgun, and as the temperature plummets again, Dean grabs it and rolls over onto his back, half on top of Sam, and blasts Calida away.

"Burn her," says Sam, and Dean hesitates, twists around to look at Sam. "Dean, go!"

Dean does, jumps back over the grave and scrabbles for his lighter, lights it on the first flick and throws it in, sees Calida materialize again just to burn up as the bones catch with a sucking whoosh.

--

Sam keeps insisting he's okay, but he lists towards Dean as they make their sorry way back to the car, Dean limping on his swollen ankle and Sam still shivery and uncoordinated from the draining horrors in his mind.

"Sam - sorry, dude, you gotta drive," says Dean helplessly, his swollen ankle useless for the pedals, and they drive slowly back, Dean with one hand on the back of Sam's neck and the other on Sam's thigh.

"This is ridiculous," Sam says as they rumble along at twenty miles per hour down the thankfully quiet road in town. He's getting better with each minute of Dean's hands on him, but Dean thinks they're both going to feel better when they can get into bed together - and Jesus, if that isn't a thought he didn't see himself having a month ago.

"I just need to keep a better eye on you, s'all," says Dean, tired and a bit woozy from the painkillers numbing the throb of his ankle - sprained, not broken, but still sore.

"No, that's not all. Dean, this was an easy hunt, we could've done this when we were teenagers, and we are so easily debilitated; we can't hunt with that kind of weakness."

"That's way too many syllables after the day we've had, Sammy." Dean grumbles. "Don't worry about it. We'll adapt. We're Winchesters."

Sam doesn't say anything, and Dean should've known he wouldn't give in so easily.

--

Dean wakes up slowly the next morning. The feel of Sam pressed up close to him is familiar, now. Even when something really should be weird, it's exhausting to keep being weirded out by it every damn morning, so Dean was pretty happy to let go of it. And he's man enough to admit it's - kinda nice.

He hasn't been in a position many times in his life where he can sleep in the same bed with someone - his hookups were mostly just that, and the only time he's had this as a regular thing was with Lisa, and - yeah, he'd discovered it's nice, even being pretty messed up that year. Sleeping in the same bed as her, her soft presence and nice smell just there all night - it was one of the things he allows himself to hold on to as a simple, nice memory. He doesn't have a whole lot of those in his life.

He'd never say it, but there's something comforting about having a living, breathing person that you love wrapped up in bed with you, a secret warm little place of just the two of you underneath covers. Even when that person's your little brother - maybe even especially, because he knows everything there is to know about Sam, a body he's helped grow from the skinny clingy kid to the man curled up with him now

Yeah, definitely never saying any of that out loud.

Sam is spooned up behind him, his apparent favorite position; the point of his nose brushes the back of Dean's neck, and his arm is looped heavy over Dean's waist, his knees tucked in behind Dean's. It's warm, and Dean's sweating lightly. When he breathes in, he can smell cheap motel detergent and the familiar scent of Sam's sweat, something that resonates inside him as Sam, the big indefinable bundle of emotions that comes along with that thought.

Dean stretches carefully, his arms aching slightly from the digging, but it's a welcome pull, the satisfaction of a job well done. He decides not to think about the clusterfuck last night turned into - they're both okay now, and his ankle is down to a dull ache.

His arms and legs slide under the covers and he shivers as he hits cooler spots. He registers the low, pleasant throb of blood between his legs, and he grimaces. Apparently his body is happy enough to give him morning wood when he's half-awake and comfortable, pressed up to a long warm presence of a body, the weight of a large hand unconsciously palming his belly, without also taking into account that it's his brother.

Dean's lizard brain wants him to turn slightly in the circle of Sam's arms and rub himself off into the sheets underneath him, with Sam's arm a comforting pleasant weight on his back, and he grimaces again on the tail end of that thought and starts to slide out of bed.

Sam makes a sleepy, unhappy noise and tightens his hand on Dean's belly, which makes Dean's cock perk up further. Dean pats Sam's hand soothingly then lifts it up and off his belly, putting it back on Sam's hip, and gets out of bed.

He turns his head back to look, but Sam seems to stay asleep, a line between his eyebrows as he turns into the warm space Dean has left, mashing his face into Dean's pillow and flopping his arm in the empty space, but he starts snoring softly. Dean catches himself looking at the broad, tan expanse of his brother's muscled shoulders, blames his neglected dick and the weirdness of everyone else in the world apparently thinking they're fucking, and goes to take a shower.

He jerks off guiltily and quietly in the spray, then spends a while under the hot water staring mindlessly at the wall, not thinking much about anything, which is probably a good thing. After a full night of contact, he's not worrying about getting back into Sam's comfort bubble, as he thinks of it - a space about ten feet around Sam where Sam seems happiest. Or at least subtly but noticeably moodier and quieter when Dean's out of it for too long. It's fascinating, actually, how Dean's presence and the corresponding presence of the memories affects Sam's moods. How the more red spots that bleed through the gauze, as Dean still sees it, the bitchier or more subdued Sam gets. It's not like when the blood - memories - gushes through, but the promise or reminder of it lurking is enough to put Sam on edge; and there’s relief when that fades, when he's safe. It's times like that, when Dean comes back into the bubble, when Dean's finally seeing smiles - dorky real smiles with dimples and everything, that take years off Sam. Yeah, more stuff he's never going to say to Sam, but getting one of those out of him feels kind of amazing. Dean's moods are becoming pretty predictably tied to the bubble, too.

Dean's reminded that Sam can be a moody bitch anyway, regardless of Dean's presence or not, when he comes out of the shower, because Sam's already up and dressed and frowning at the laptop. His face doesn't change when Dean comes up close to him and he even looks more annoyed when Dean puts a hand on his shoulder, so this is a genuine Sam-mood, not a Hell thing. Dean rolls his eyes and flops down on the bed. "What crawled up your ass?"

"We can't keep doing what we did last night. It's putting both of us at a disadvantage. You know that."

Dean waves a hand. "Do I need to remind you I don't care, given the alternative?"

Sam looks at him stubbornly. "And I think there's a way to fix it and not have to face the alternative. We have to approach this like a hunt."

"How exactly are we gonna do that? You might not have noticed, but I doubt Dad's journal or any book in the world has a section on how to fix it when your brother goes to Hell and becomes, I dunno, touch-dependent on you."

Sam ignores him. "The way I see it," he says, scrolling through some website with an obnoxiously flashing sidebar on his computer, "is that we have to remember it's not actually you keeping the memories down."

"It's not?" says Dean, feeling mildly affronted.

"Nope," says Sam. "It's my brain's association with you as something, you know, safe, or worth fighting for." Sam's injecting a deliberate nonchalance into his words - this is not a moment for sharing of feelings or he'd be using that gem along with the eyes - but Dean grins at him anyway, hoping it comes across more affectionate than smug.

"But it's my brain doing all the work," Sam continues. "The barriers and defense mechanisms against the Hell in there all come from my mind - so if we can just figure out a way to convince my brain to keep that going in a way that's not tied to you specifically, we'll be fine."

"I dunno, Sam." Dean rolls up off the bed and comes to stand near Sam, putting a hand back on his shoulder in an attempt to make Sam more amenable. "There's a saying about gift horses, and with one like this, I don't wanna go looking for teeth."

Sam shifts his shoulder away from Dean's hand and glares at Dean over his shoulder, like he knows what Dean was doing.

"I get that - dude, I do, and I don't want this to come crashing down any more than you do. I'm not going to go messing with it. I'm just saying - I gotta at least look into it. You know I do, c'mon. You say it now, like it's so easy and so great, but think about a year's time - five - ten - are you gonna say it then? We have to at least try another way. It's not - it's just, the way it is, it isn't--"

Sam stops, eyes big and pleading. But Dean can hear him finish the sentence - fair. Even if that's harsher than Sam probably meant, it's what Dean hears underneath, and it's fine - he gets it. It's no fair, Dean guesses, to someone as fiercely independent as Sam - it's something he no longer resents about the kid, a part of him finally understanding it's not about him, it's about Sam. But it's still something he'll never be able to fully understand - that desire to be away from family even if you still love them, instead of holding on to them with all your godforsaken might.

But if you love someone, you take 'em all, even with the bits you don't understand, and if anyone deserves another shot at their own life after what they've been through, it's Sam.

So Dean nods. "Alright, let's think this through."

They drive out towards Grand Rapids, because there's no point researching a new obscure "hunt" in a town where they've just wrapped up a case and there's no decent library to speak of, and Dean can see Sam's eyes light up at the thought of a city library.

Sam starts Dean digging around in mind control spells, which only serves to strengthen Dean's dislike of witches. He flips somewhat half-heartedly through websites and books on witchcraft and the occult - half of which are full of crap and the other half take an unpleasantly eager interest in the darker stuff under the guise of academic study - and tries to collect together what information he can that seems relevant. Stuff on spells that directly affect the mind and particularly that change and control it. It all sounds risky to him, and he doesn't have much luck anyway - witches, man, it's also just a load of bullshit anyway.

After two days of going stir crazy in the occult section of the central library, he walks determinedly over to Sam's desk where he's staked out with piles of books towering almost up past his head.

Dean dumps down his sad pile of illegible notes on the table and squints at the book Sam's reading - something about the history of hoodoo.

"I'm not gonna ask," he says flatly. "Look, dude, I'm getting nowhere here. I think we should at least head back to Bobby's, if you really want to do this right."

"No," says Sam distractedly flipping a page in his book. "I think I'm on to something." He glances between his book and his computer. "I found--" Then he shakes his head. "Not gonna jinx it yet."

Dean spreads his hands expansively. "Well, I've got jack, and after two days, I am crying out for a cold one."

Sam looks hesitant, so Dean holds out a warning finger and says, "It's quitting time, Sam, and if I have to walk out of here--" he cocks his finger towards the doors "--and make you follow me, so help me I will."

Maybe a little soon to joke about it, but damn, libraries make Dean a little crazy.

Sam gives him a sour look, then runs his hands through his hair and cracks his back. "Yeah, okay, you're probably right. Been staring at this stuff so long I think I'm going a little crazy."

"You and me both," says Dean fervently.

Their motel is tucked out at the edge of the small urban sprawl of the city, of course, their budget not extending to central accommodation, even if said budget just comes from a piece of plastic with Mr. McGillicuddy's name on it. The nearest bar is a few walkable blocks away, a slightly run-down looking thing with sticky floors and bland music, but it does well enough in Dean's opinion as a place to park your ass and have a beer.

An opinion he ends up revising pretty quickly.

The beer and the dark inside of the bar start relaxing Dean's library-tensed muscles. Hell, his muscles all over are tensed by a lot more of recent events than just the library - years and years' worth if he was honest, but most recently that dream of leaving Sam screaming & burning in a parking lot keeps lingering in his mind's eye, reminding him of the fragility of their current situation, an image that's keeping him going along with Sam's insistence to find a cure.

Anyway - nice cold beer and his brother drinking by his side, and Dean's feeling pretty good. He persuades Sam into a game of pool - no hustling, even, just a game for a game - and they head over to the green felted tables.

There are two beefy, pretty dumb-looking guys playing a slow game at the table next to the one Sam and Dean are heading to, and Dean doesn't give them any mind until one of them gives them a slow double take and leans over to whisper to his buddy. Sam grabs a cue and Dean racks up the balls, and from the corner of his eye he sees beefy dumbass #1 straighten up and swagger over to their table. "Uh-oh," he says under his breath, and feels Sam's attention swing towards him in question, then snaps to the guy at their table. Dean's aware of how close Sam is to him, and it makes him stare at the guy even more defiantly.

"Can we help you?" he says before the guy can get a word in, all overdone politeness, and the guy's lip pulls back into a sneer.

"Yeah, you can help me," he says, "by getting the fuck outta here."

"Don't want no one like you in our bar," interjects his buddy, #2, from a safe distance.

Sam sighs. "Seriously?" he says, before Dean can defuse the situation, not that he knows how or particularly wants to. "It's the twenty-first century already."

#1 nearly snarls at them. "We gonna have to make you guys leave?"

"What do you reckon, Sammy?" Dean muses aloud. "We gonna leave all quiet-like?"

"I dunno, Dean. Never really been our style, has it?"

"No, it hasn't."

#2 chuckles and comes up to join his friend. "Coupla faggots think you can take us?"

Sam laughs. "Yea-eah, I think so," he says, and grins when Dean catches his eye.

They both move swiftly back away from the tables, putting the wall at their backs at a safe distance, a direct line to the door. It's a familiar stance, and already they've adjusted it to be closer to each other without losing the readiness or positioning. The atmosphere in the bar has sharpened, eyes on the scene, but no one steps in to break it up or take sides - which is perfect for Sam and Dean.

It's all over embarrassingly quickly - the thick & meaty thuds of Sam's fist to #1's face, Dean's knee to #2's stomach, ducking the goons' heavy swings and taking them down in an efficient array of blows until #1 and #2 are groaning piles on the floor. Sam and Dean don't stay long enough to gloat - or taunt - and head swiftly out of the bar before anyone can get any bright ideas about stopping them, but Dean can't resist a smart-ass salute to the raised eyebrow of the bartender.

"Dude, that was amazing," Dean crows into the night air, as they head away quickly. He's pretty sure they won't be followed by the recovered goons or any angry buddies, but he keeps an eye out behind them anyway. A young, hot part of him hopes someone does come after them, give them another chance to show off, kicking ass - but most of him is relieved.

They slam the motel door closed behind them and Sam leans back on it, a smile dancing in the corner of his mouth.

"Look at you," teases Dean, "all happy about beating on a couple of humans. What about, I dunno - they can't help it; it's their close-minded upbringing, education should come before violence, blah blah blah?"

Sam shrugs and lets the smile through. "Nah," he says. "I'm pretty confident they had that coming."

Dean toasts Sam with an imaginary beer. "Damn straight. Homophobic dickwads like that are only gonna understand one language," he says, and holds up a tightly closed fist to demonstrate.

Sam studies him for a moment, and Dean drops his hand. "What?"

Sam shrugs. "I dunno - I just. You didn't seem too pissed that they thought we were a couple, more that they wanted to beat us up for it."

Dean frowns at him. "You think I should be bothered? Like I should want to beat on people just 'cause they assume I'm gay? Look, man, I know I'm not always the most sensitive or, I don't know, 'politically correct'--" He makes quotey fingers that he knows are obnoxious, but he's kinda pissed, "but I don't--"

"God, no," interrupts Sam. "That's not what I meant at all. I just - we're brothers! Isn't it weird, don't you find it weird when people look at us and think we're--" He makes an awkward gesture that makes Dean hope Sam never has to give any kid a birds and the bees talk, because whatever he'd been trying to imply there looks plain old uncomfortable.

Sam lets his hands flop miserably. "Doesn't it make you - upset, or uncomfortable?"

"Not really," says Dean, awkwardly. "Even before this, it happened enough to lose its impact, and they don't know we're brothers, you know? They're not looking at us and thinking, Jesus, those brothers are so gay for each other. They just see two dudes and make their own conclusion. What they think doesn't bother me." Dean shrugs. "I dunno what you want me to say. Sorry I'm not bothered by hypothetical incest implications? Sorry that you are?"

"I'm not bothered!" says Sam, coming to stand closer to Dean.

Dean can't help but laugh. "This is the stupidest argument ever."

Sam stops and huffs a laugh, shoulders dropping. "Yeah, I dunno. I don't really know where I was going with that. I guess it's just bugging me and I'm being weird about it. Forget about it."

Except he doesn't move away, standing very close to Dean still, except that's normal these days, and there's something in his face that Dean can't decipher, which isn't.

Dean has a crazy moment, then

Anyone who knows him might say that Dean isn't the best at impulse control - a lifestyle killing and burning things seems to speak to a pretty basic fulfillment of the id - but he's always understood the ones that you absolutely can't give in to. Like the one to throw yourself off a high edge, or to leap onto the tracks as a train approaches. He's always had certain urges, little random bursts of impulses, around Sam, at least once they were both grown and back living in each other's pockets - and he assumed it was in the same family of impulses. The ones that urge you to do the most inappropriate thing in any given situation, whether suicidal - like the train - or just awkward - like laughing at a funeral. He always figured the Sam ones fell somewhere in the middle - and despite the urges, the moment of imaging what would happen if, the little insane hot jump in his belly saying go on, do it; he's never had any trouble resisting the impulses. Until now.

He isn't touching Sam anywhere else when he does it, just lips pressed to lips, the simplest lean forward, just lean in and taste. Sam's mouth is just a mouth under his, soft with the slight scratch of chapped skin around the edges, and before either of them can react, it's nice, uncomplicated, just that pleasant touch.

Then Sam move first, and he's kissing back, and in the blur of motion, it's not a touch any longer, it's a kiss, the unbelievable shock of the wet, hot inside of his brother's mouth sliding over Dean's lips, Sam's big hand grabbing at him and tilting his head, setting off the chain of instinct in Dean's body that curves his whole self into Sam and responds to the kiss, makes him move his mouth into Sam's, the wet slide of lips, pressure of their mouths hot and open and together.

Then the blast of sensory input slides down a level of conscious processing, and they both push each other away in the same moment, Dean stumbling backwards into the room and stopping himself getting too far, brain calculating the distance between them on a whole other calm level.

His brain jams and he stares dumbly at Sam, thinking - why did I do that? And - but you did it. And - but did you want to? And - you must have wanted to, you're the only who did it, actually did it. And under that - but Sam kissed me back.

"Oh, shit, oh shit," Sam murmurs, looks guiltily - guiltily at Dean and then anywhere but. "Oh fuck, Dean, I'm sorry. Look, I'll - just--" He starts towards the door then spins away from it as he realizes at the same time Dean does that he can't go anywhere. He punches the wall. "Shit!"

That unjams Dean's brain at least, even if it spins off wildly. "Sam, stop it," he says, walking over to grab Sam's wrist and stop him doing himself anymore damage. "Jesus. I don't know what the fuck I'm doing here but I have even less clue why you're apologizing for it." He can feel his cheeks burn and he wants to leave, get out of the room and drown that fucking urge and the fact he knows what Sam's lips taste like under a gallon of whiskey, but he can't leave Sam and so he's gonna push through because what else can he do?

"You can't run away," he says, hand tight on Sam's arm.

Sam looks at him, mouth twisted. "Bond not so great now, huh?"

"Sam, shut up, and tell me what you're talking about."

Sam looks away. "I guess - god, Dean,. I'm sorry, I didn't know I was doing it."

"Doing what?"

"I don't know! But there must be some sort of - compulsion, along the bond, something from me that made you do that--"

"Okay, look, Sam. You didn't make me do anything." Dean's failure to control his impulses was something that was all down to him, that much he's sure of.

"Then why did you?"

"I - I wanted to, I guess?" It seems impossible he's saying it, that simply, but - he thought if he ever did give in to the impulse, he'd regret it, like with any of those kinds of urges; they aren't things you actually want to do, he'd thought. He'd imagined he'd be grossed out, horrified, whatever normal reaction you're supposed to have to kissing your brother.

There wasn't any of that, though. Dean's licking his lips like he can get the taste of Sam back and there's something building big and hot in his chest at the thought Sam thinks he made Dean do it, because that means--

"You guess?" says Sam, a little wildly. "You can't guess stuff like this--"

Dean likes actions - they're simple. There's one thing, and you do it. Words never seem to say exactly what you mean them to, and things get so messy. So he leans in and kisses Sam into shutting up.

When he pulls back, that heat in his chest has spread up and down, making his heart pound rapidly in his throat and a warm heaviness sink down through his belly. He swallows, and Sam is looking at him with wide eyes and a slightly open mouth. They're close - closer than what's become normal.

"So," says Dean, "I'm guessing - you've wanted that."

"We can't both be messed up like this," says Sam, disbelieving. "It's gotta be me somehow, Dean, you don't--"

"Shut up, Sam, stop trying to blame this on yourself! Has there been anything else like this, with this touch bond thing? Me feeling or wanting anything you do, you feeling anything from me?"

Sam shakes his head.

"Then maybe we are both messed up like this. Maybe we both want this."

"Maybe isn't really strong enough for this, Dean."

Dean's breath hitches, and he grabs onto Sam's wrist, drags Sam's fingers down his chest, catching little creases in his t shirt, and Sam closes his eyes as Dean presses his palm against the hot swell of his dick rising under his fly, the heavy throb of blood thickening his cock, because of Sam.

Dean's muscles tense all over at the touch, and he surges his hips into the pressure of Sam's hand, a harsh gasp torn from his throat. He hasn't – no one's touched him for a while, he hasn't had sex with anyone since Lisa, and even with her it hadn't been that often, especially not towards the end of the year, and it hadn't mattered; his sex drive had seemed unimportant in the face of everything else.

Now though - god. He knows not to trust his dick before his mind, but nothing about this feels wrong, physical or mental, even if he knows it should. It's his brother, but it's also Sam, and his definition has always been something bigger than just family, anyway.

"Don't, god, Dean, not if you don't mean it," says Sam, voice rough, and when he looks at Dean, the intensity in his eyes is so new and exciting Dean almost can't meet it. "You don't even know what I wanna do to you."

The volume of the want in Sam's eyes is slamming through Dean like a tsunami, and Dean thinks distantly, how did I never know this - but for better or worse, Sam's always been good at keeping his secrets. And then his brain checks out, because Sam's coming at him, hands cupping his face like he's something goddamn precious, it makes Dean's belly dip, and he clutches at Sam, cursing until Sam's mouth cuts him off.

Sam's bigger than the few guys Dean's made out with before, and there's something that could be scary in the size and strength of him, except for how it's Sam.

It's thrilling, how Dean can use his strength against - with - Sam, push and grab, have Sam meet it; Sam shoves him back down on the bed and Dean's breath leaves him in a rush.

Sam looms above him, shoulders broad, and Dean pulls at Sam's t-shirt until Sam sits up, pulling the shirt off. His knees are on the bed on either side of Dean's hips, and shirtless, he looks even bigger, wide muscled shoulders, flat belly between his narrow hips, soft smatter of hair leading down into the waistband of his boxer briefs.

Dean reaches out to run his fingers along Sam's belly, and whether it's more the heat of the soft skin or the helpless noise Sam makes, but Dean's panting, heart pounding with surges of arousal, dick straining and wet inside his jeans still.

"Can I, please, let me," says Sam, dancing his fingers along Dean's belly and around his fly, pushing up under Dean's t-shirt, and Dean arches his head back into the pillows and moans out for Sam to do it, please. He struggles out of his t-shirt, and when he's free Sam's right there, leaning down and kissing Dean, shoving an arm under Dean's back and hauling him up, other hand tugging at Dean's legs, positioning him on Sam's lap, and it's ridiculous, unfair, and really turning Dean's crank that his little brother can just manhandle him around like this.

Sam tugs open his own fly and Dean's, and when Dean rocks his hips where his thighs are splayed over Sam's, there's the hot wet shock of Sam's dick pressed up tight against his own. It's thick and blood hot, throbbing like Dean's own, such urgent proof of Sam, his life and need. Dean pushes his hand down and wraps his fingers tight around the both of them, fingers barely touching around the fat strain of their dicks, and he grips and pulls up on a slow, teasing slide.

Sam's hips surge up, nearly tipping Dean off his lap; Dean just tightens his legs around Sam's waist and holds on tight with his other hand as Sam drops his head down into the crook of Dean's neck and shoulder.

"Dean, god, please," he says, pleads, voice rough and breaking, and the hot puff of his breath on Dean's neck raises little waves of goosebumps down Dean's side. He pulls again, watching; Sam's so fucking wet already, precome puddling generously out of his slit like Dean's pushing it up and out with his hold. It rolls down, slicks up Dean's finger, and god, his pulls go slick and easy, fingers bumping over the ridge of their cockheads, good white-hot flashes of sensation surging through him.

Sam's hips pulse again, and this time he follows the motion all the way forward, rocking Dean onto his back on the bed again. Sam's scrabbling at his jeans, pushing them down, and Dean wriggles out of his own, staring at the smack of Sam's cock against his flat belly now he's naked; he kicks his own jeans off and moans as Sam leans back into him, and he wraps his legs back around Sam's waist.

"Dean, can I? Please, god. Oh god, want it so much."

"Yeah," says Dean, barely even thinking about it - it's Sam, Sam's gonna make it good, he knows this without needing to think about it, even in this crazily new situation.

Between them they've got a wrinkled tube of KY and some condoms, and Dean's mouth drops open at the first push of Sam's finger into him. It's not - it's not his first time, but god, oh god, it's been a long time, and it's not like before, anyway. It's Sam doing this, Sam slowly fingering Dean open with long, wet fingers and the fiercest look of concentration on his face; it's nothing like before.

"Oh, god, oh, Dean," says Sam, dazedly, when he's pushing in, and Dean's favorite thing in sex has always been when the person he's with can't talk or hardly breathe for how they're feeling, for how good it is - there's nothing hotter for him then making his partner feel good, making them come.

The stinging stretch on the first few pushes in hurts, but pain isn't anything new or scary to Dean, and if there's such a thing as good pain, this is it. The fullness is odd at first, and then slots inside him, somewhere exactly right, and his body unlocks, bears down on Sam and urges him deeper. Dean arches his back, hikes his legs up high on Sam's waist as Sam bends him nearly in half, and he's getting so deep, oh god, so fucking deep.

"Dean," says Sam, "oh shit, Dean, this feels so good--" His hands are roaming all over Dean's skin, trying to get them as close as possible and - of course, god, if skin to skin contact puts Sam in a good mood these days, sex is going to be like taking E.

Even though the touching doesn't affect his mood like it does Sam's, the echo of Sam's euphoria feeds back into Dean's body, and every touch on his skin is intense, the push of Sam's dick into him over and over destroyingly good.

Orgasm starts all the way down in his toes, a tingle of muscle spasm that shudders up through his body, an endless wave of it wracking through him, and he tightens and releases all over, rubbing his dick on Sam's belly and coming in thick sticky white splashes against the tense cut of Sam's abs.

Sam clutches him close, so fucking close and tight Dean's muscles are gonna be protesting this position tomorrow; but god, it's worth it for that look on Sam's face as he comes, filling the condom in thick hard twitches Dean can feel inside his ass.

--

The room is still but for the sounds of their panting as they lie there, and slowly Dean can hear faint noises of outside - wind rattling the small thin trees outside the motel window, the faint wail of sirens, the low rumble of someone watching TV next door. It's odd that the world is carrying on like nothing really important happened.

Dean props himself up on his elbows and looks over at Sam who's got an arm flung over his face. He's still Sam, he hasn't changed into some unknowable creature just because he's fucked Dean, and his little uck expression as he struggles to sit up and swipes at the drying come on his belly is achingly familiar, and fine, kinda cute.

"Well," says Dean.

Sam sits forward, bringing his legs up and resting his chest on his knees. He looks around and down at Dean, shaking his head slowly. "I honestly, seriously, never ever thought I'd get that." He runs a hair through his hair, with is messy even for Sam, sweat-thick and tangled. He looks dazed.

Dean drops back down on the bed and folds his arm behind his head, feeling smug. "I'm full of surprises." Then he thinks. "Was - you know, that - why you wanted so bad to cure this?"

Sam glances at him. "Sort of," he says eventually, and rubs a hand over the sheets. "At first it wasn't even a problem. I knew I was really lucky, like, really lucky to be even alive, and needing to be near you - how was that a bad thing? But then it - you know, it got kinda awful, wanting you and having you so close all the time and not be able to take." He grins. "Talk about torture." Then his grin drops. "It's not just that, though. I mean, even without the touch thing, you do realize this is a really, really bad idea, don't you?"

"What?" Dean protests. "No way. When is sex ever a bad idea?"

Sam just gives him a look over his shoulder. "Dean."

"I'm serious!"

"So am I! Jesus, Dean, we're brothers, and this is the stupidest thing we could have done."

"Are you kidding me? Yeah, it's fucked up, but it's - everything's fucked up, with us, always has been. And the fact we're both apparently fucked up in this way is actually a good thing."

"How is incest a good thing?"

Dean winces. "Don't say it like that. I just mean - hey, at least now we can get laid, you know?"

"That's what this about for you?"

"Jesus, Sammy, no. I just - don't know how to say it. You want me, and I'm saying hey, I want you too, let's not deny ourselves a bit of a good thing, if we can get it, you know?"

Sam draws his shoulders up. "This could ruin us, is what I keep thinking. Sex fucks everything up. I couldn't handle that, not now."

Dean shrugs - he gets that, he does, but. He sits up and puts a hand on Sam's shoulder, marveling at the soft warmth of Sam's skin, that he's allowed to feel it and allowing himself to want it now. He can see all kinds of ways this could crash and burn, but there's a point where you can't keep seeing the bad way everything could go, even for a Winchester. "Honestly, man? Look back, the past few years. There's a lot of shit a whole lot bigger than some incest that we've come through. If none of that broke us, we ain't breaking. This is, you know, this is it, I think."

Sam looks around at him, and he looks so young for a moment, and he opens his mouth - then closes it again. "I still want to find a cure," he says, instead of whatever else he was wanting to say. "Everything else I said about this touch thing is still true. Let's just - one day at a time."

There's probably something wrong inside of Dean - not that that's a surprise, he's pretty sure he's wrong in as many ways as a person can be, but he's let go of caring too much about what sort of scale of normality anyone else would judge him on - because he does not want to find a cure. He wants to spend the rest of his life wrapped around Sam, like that was always where they were headed, sticking close to Sam, close in every fucking way, apparently.

It's probably good if he can let Sam get a bit of distance before he sucks Sam down into that craziness, and it's probably healthy for him to not be indulged in that future.

If Sam can find a way to keep the Hell at bay using only the considerable strength of his own mind and not need the vulnerability that the dependence on Dean brings, it's safer for him, anyway.

He nods and slides his hand off Sam's back. "Yeah," he says, "course."

Sam gets up out of bed and walks, naked and gorgeous, across the room to get his laptop. "I found someone I think can help," he says. "There's this hypnotherapist in Louisiana - well, she's a hypnotherapist as her day job. She also has a practice where she mixes her hypnosis with a hybrid of classic hoodoo and neo-spiritualism, and she's done some pretty amazing things for possessions, supernatural mind control things, things that all sound like she might be able to do something for me."

"Sounds, uh," says Dean dubiously, "interesting."

"I emailed her yesterday, being as vague as I could be, but--oh," says Sam, having opened his laptop. He looks up at Dean, eye bright. "She wants to meet."

"Whoa, hold on, Sam. We've only just started looking into this - we haven't even talked to Bobby - and you wanna go haring off to Louisiana to talk to some hypnotist?"

Sam puts the laptop aside and stands back up, comes to Dean. "I got a feeling about this, I think she can help me. Please, Dean, at least let me look into this. I gotta. You'll be with me all the way."

Sam with the eyes and pleading voice is bad enough on a normal day, but naked with Dean's come still smeared on his belly - Dean gives up. "Alright," he says, still feeling like the whole past day has been some particularly odd dream. It's not even light yet and they haven't slept, but Dean's suddenly restless. "Let's go."

--

Sam leaves his phone in the room as they're almost at the car, and he runs back across the parking lot to get it. Dean realizes before Sam does, but by that time Sam's already right at the other end of the parking lot and opening their room door, like nothing's wrong. Dean bites his lip and forces his feet to stay where they are, and Sam goes in, gets the phone, and comes out.

"Hey!" Dean yells across the parking lot, voice echoing off the flat concrete. "Notice anything?"

He sees Sam stop, look around, then freeze. He starts quickly towards Dean, talking, but Dean can't hear him until he's closer.

"--think that's it? Is it cured? No fucking way sex with you fixed this whole thing."

Dean grins, but he can tell it's probably a little weak. "Well, I am a pretty awesome lay. Do you think it's fixed? Just like that?"

Sam bites his lip. "I don't know. I can't tell. I feel good, as good here as back over there, but I mean, I feel really good, I have since we - you know. I feel as good as I usually do when we're really close. Should I go further? Test it?"

Dean stands on the sidewalk past the entrance to the motel and watches Sam jog slowly down the street, looking back around at Dean every now and again. He goes a couple of blocks, ‘til he's a far figure, but Dean can still see it when he stops jogging, then when he stops walking, and then - when he lifts his hand, and for all Dean can't see him in detail, Sam looks - not good.

Dean's relieved - relieved - and for a minute hates himself. He pushes himself into a run, and meets Sam who's walking back towards him, not a screaming mess but drawn and gray under the streetlights and thin dawn light, sweat beading on his forehead. He goes willingly as Dean wraps his arms around him, and they hug there on the sidewalk for a minute or two, the motion so familiar now, still nice, and so different from how holding Sam had been last night, where there had been intent and passion.

Sam gets his color back quickly and pushes Dean away, raises an eyebrow. "So what do you think that was about?"

"Well, you're always better after, you know. Prolonged close contact." Dean leers. "And there ain't much closer than your dick in my ass."

Sam shoves him a step away, and rubs a hand over his face. "God, Dean."

"I'm just saying! Hey - Sam, look. I'm sorry it wasn't that easy."

Sam shrugs. "Yeah, I think I'm kinda glad it wasn't cured by sex with my brother," he says. "Because that just sounds like a bad joke."

Dean grins, walks them back to the car, remembers how he'd been relieved, and promises himself to do anything Sam needs to get this cured.

--

Sam sacks out asleep in the car, one hand flung out across the bench seat, the backs of his curled fingers butted up against Dean's thigh. How Dean feels about Sam isn't changed a whole lot now, after the revelations of last night - it's all just a little more; letting himself feel that extra bit. He's not surprised; Sam's always been way too big for Dean to categorize in his head, of course he's spilled over every box a relationship can check off.

Plus, it doesn't help - or really, really does - that when Dean can see past the familiarity of Sam, he can also see that Sam is fucking hot. Sam's thighs are splayed in the passenger seat, long, firm, arrowing up to the soft bulge of his dick cradled by the soft, worn old jeans - jeez.

Mid morning, Dean's nearly drifting off the road, and Sam wakes him up and pushes him out of the driver's seat across into the passenger seat to get some sleep as Sam drives them south.

It takes them a few days to get down there. The first night, in a no-tell Indiana motel, Dean sucks Sam's dick for the first time.

It felt big in his ass, but somehow feels even bigger bumping up against the delicate skin at the back of his throat and making him seize up with the urge to gag, shove it out; but Sam has a big, gentle hand cupped around the back of his head, and when Dean looks up, the awed, dazed look on Sam's face is worth the burn, the squeeze of tears from his eyes as he takes Sam in again.

Sam's other hand flutters desperately around Dean's head, like he wants to grab on with both hands and just take Dean's throat; Sam's hips rock forward, and it's so hot, so hot to feel Sam losing control all because of Dean's mouth, to feel him twitch and grow even harder, to feel the orgasm in the rapid hardening of his belly muscles under Dean's thumbs and then feel the thick wet pulses fill his mouth, sudden and bitter. Dean swallows the first load, then pulls off, lets Sam jack himself through the rest in sticky stings that fall hot and cool rapidly on Dean's face; it's kinda nasty but in that way where it's hot, and the reverent look on Sam's face as he drags his fingertips through the mess is amazing.

Sam returns the favor, looking almost as blissed out sucking Dean's cock as he did when Dean was swallowing his down, his mouth warm and wet and fucking heavenly as he sucks Dean's orgasm almost violently from him, and kisses him slow and deep afterwards. Dean can taste himself on Sam's tongue, but it's not gross, even though he'd always shied away from the taste of himself in other people's mouths when they'd done the same. Maybe it's because it's a part of himself coming from someone who already feels like a part of himself. Dean's come is Sam's come is Dean's - the taste is just all them.

It's a dangerously tempting feeling, as Dean lingers on the hot fading high of orgasm, Sam's skin pressed warm and sweet against him everywhere; that feeling of intertwining so close, of losing their boundaries in each other. Because it's seductive and comforting and thrilling all at once, and it's not where they're heading. They're heading in the right direction, the healthier one, the one just a few sensible steps away from each other and back into their own lives; so why does that feel like something Dean doesn't want to face?

--

Dean wants to drag his feet on the drive to the meeting place, but he grits his teeth and makes it there earlier, instead. Better get into this - it's for the best, after all.

Molly Chaumont is a respectable hypnotherapist based just outside of Monroe, and she meets Sam and Dean on her neat little office block.

It's quiet, 8AM, and there are few other people around as they stand on the sidewalk. She looks the both of them up and down carefully - she's in her mid-forties, smartly dressed, a short, athletic woman with cropped blond hair.

"Sam and Dean Winchester," she says slowly. "It really is you, huh."

"In the flesh," says Dean, on guard.

"You said in your email, but I wasn't sure - anyone can make an email account, you know?"

"I see our reputation precedes us," says Sam mildly. "Do I even need to explain my situation to you?"

She laughs. "You boys are steeped in more myth in the supernatural world than some of the actual monsters out there, so I have no idea what crazy stuff that goes around is actually true. Come on - take a swig of this, and come on in."

She unscrews a bottle full of some murky liquid.

Dean eyes it. "What is that?"

"Holy water cocktail, some of my own special ingredients - nothing that'll harm you if you're all human."

"Sometimes even we wonder that, these days," Dean muses, but Sam's already grabbed the bottle and taken a gulp like the trusting fool he can be some times.

Sam just makes a face, though, doesn't start smoking or fall over stone dead, which Dean decides is a good sign, and takes his own drink; it's oily and salty and kind of nasty, but Dean thinks he can taste a few familiar herbs as well as the unique clean zing of the holy water underlying it, so he's pretty sure she's legit.

"Still human," she says wryly when Dean's swallowed it. "Don't look too disappointed now."

She takes them up to her office, which is extraordinarily ordinary, and she meets Dean's raised eyebrow with one of her own. "This is my day job, remember. I don't want to scare off my clients with hoodoo and other supernatural paraphernalia lying around. Plus, I like to work light; a lot of the ritualistic trappings of hoodoo aren't my thing. I work with ideas, not objects."

Dean shrugs - despite his dislike for regular occult stuff, witches in their little selfish suburban gatherings, he's always liked hoodoo, the sense of the power and history behind it all.

Sam's eyes light up, though - he loves that sort of stuff, taking the ideas behind supernatural things and playing around with them, plain concepts separate from their rituals. He can tell Sam's itching to ask about her practices - but she has some questions of her own, first.

She sits them down on a couch, and Dean's knee automatically spreads out to touch Sam's, which he sees her sharp eye take in. She sits across from them in a straight-backed chair, and Dean feels like a naughty kid in the principal's office again, but actually repentant this time, except for the fact he hasn't actually done anything wrong.

She fixes Sam with a look. "You said you had something best described as supernatural PTSD, and you had a way of coping with it, but it wasn't feasible long-run. I can probably help with it, but I have to know as much detail as possible. I'm going to put you under and have a look myself at some point, with your permission, but I want to hear it from you."

Sam swallows, and glances at Dean. "I was - something bad happened to me."

Dean rolls his eyes. "He was in Hell. Capital-H Hell, where he put himself purposefully to save this sorry planet, by the way."

Sam groans. "Okay, but, to be fair, it was pretty much my f--"

"Not the time, Sammy."

"Okay," Molly breathes softly, already looking somewhat overwhelmed, but she shakes her head. "Wow, okay. Some of the rumors weren't kidding. Hell - but you got out?"

"After about a year and a half," says Sam awkwardly.

Her hand twitches as if to fly to her mouth, but she catches it clasped at her collarbone, and her eyes widen. "Oh my god."

Dean laughs grimly. "That's not even the half of it. Time moves differently in Hell, see - I had a little trip there myself once upon a time and found that out. Believe me, it's fun." He waves away her look. "I'm fine. Well - relatively speaking. I'm sure you could find a whole lot of messed-up if you went digging in my head, but I'm surviving - we're here for Sam."

"So - god, how much time was it?"

Dean gestured expansively with his free hand. "A year and a half topside is, what, a century plus of torture in Hell?"

Molly's clenched hand lowers and she stares blankly at Sam. "Then - how are you even functional? I've seen people who shut down, rest of their lives, blank and drooling, just after seeing things from the underworld."

Sam rubs a hand through his hair. "That's where the fun starts, I guess. My body got out earlier, walking and talking, no memories of Hell, but my soul was still stuck there. When that was gotten out, it was put back into my body, and - people said I wouldn't survive it. My body went into a coma, but I - I managed to wake up."

"How?"

"I--Dean," he says, helplessly, looking at Dean. "It was Dean, thinking that I couldn't leave him alone up here, so I managed to wake up. And once I was awake, I could remember Hell, sort of, and we found out that - Dean kept it from destroying me. His touch and proximity keep me from fully feeling it, but if he gets too far away, it pours in and it's - feels like I'm back there, I can't -- I can't."

"God," she says faintly. "That's a new one for me, I gotta tell you."

Sam drops his head, and Dean puts a hand on the back of his neck, daring her to say anything with his eyes. "Can you help?” he demands. "We know that it's pretty fricking amazing he's walking and talking, but the dependence on me - it's limiting, it's a vulnerability. He - we want to know if we can fix it."

She looks between them for a long moment, a mix of emotions hiding in her face, then she shakes her head sharply and seems to pull her businesslike demeanor together again. "I'd need to think about it. The defense against the memories of Hell comes from inside Sam's brain - unless there's any sort of spellwork you haven't told me about, it's a powerful but only psychological effect - it's all inside Sam."

Sam lifts his head. "That's what I said! Do you think there's a way--"

"To rewire it? Take the pathways that your mind has created in regards to your brother and separate them from him without breaking the strength of the protection? It's a tough call, but we might be able to."

"Good," bites out Dean. "That's good. When?"

"I need to have a look in Sam's head, first, if it's okay with the both of you. See if I can get a feel for the landscape in there, so to speak."

Dean looks at Sam, who nods, then hesitates. "Two things. Firstly - look, there's stuff you're gonna see in there that's not very normal. "

"You've been to Hell, Sam," she says mildly. "I'm pretty much expecting that."

"No - not Hell stuff," he says, glancing at Dean. "Personal stuff, I guess. I know we don't have any sort of formal agreement, but I assume - we have an honor code of confidentiality?"

"Oh, man," murmurs Dean, and rubs a hand over his mouth, trying not to go red.

She looks between them for a long, thoughtful moment, then lifts her chin in understanding. "Ah. Ah, okay. Of course you have confidentiality, complete and utter, I swear by it on whatever you wish me to." She nods slightly. "Man, some of those out there rumors are more right than they probably expect."

"Oh god," says Dean immediately, and tries really hard not to think about it.

"Look," she says, raising her eyebrows. "When you live just outside the edge of the real world and the supernatural, as we do, your definitions of normal take a step to the side anyway - and you would not believe the crazy, crazy things I've seen in some people's heads. It takes a lot to shock me, these days. So - don't worry." She indulges them in a short smile, then looks back at Sam. "What was the other thing?"

"The other thing is - be careful," he says seriously. "The glimpses I've got of it, when it breaks through - it's only a taste of what's under there, and it's--" he breaks off and Dean shifts closer. "Please. Be careful."

"I don't go digging around in people's minds unprotected, don't worry," she says, and pulls an old, heavy necklace from a drawer, fabric and leather and metals and charms wound around with herbs. "This is old magic and should shield my mind completely from yours while still letting me see it."

"You're gonna do this now?" says Dean.

Molly and Sam both swivel their heads towards him. Molly blinks. "Yes - is that a problem?"

"Dean--" starts Sam.

"Hold on, Sammy, I just want a quick word with the nice hypnotist, okay?"

He looks at Molly and jerks his head towards the door, and she tightens her mouth a little, but comes. Dean know he's being rude, but he can't really find it in himself to give too much of a shit.

In the dim hallway outside the office, Dean crosses his arms. "Look, I don't mean to be rude, and it's not that I don't think you're good at what you do, but - I don't know you. He might just be another interesting case study to you, but he's a whole lot more important to me."

"I understand that, Dean, I do. I can get references, people you probably even know in the network who can vouch for me, if you're worried--"

Dean waves a hand. "I don't give a rat's ass what other people say about you, I care about Sammy and what you're gonna be doing to him. I want this to be fixed. But if you - if you go poking around in there and you fuck up what's currently keeping him alive, if you try to fix it and you break it even worse - I will come after you. You seem like a nice lady, but I promise you - that is a threat." Inside he's thinking please please please don't break him, I can't lose him again I can't, but he's pretty sure if he starts to say anything soft like that he'll fall to bits, and he has enough scraps of dignity left.

She bristles, he can tell, under the threat, but she meets his eyes defiantly and searches them for a while.

He tries to not to fidget. "Don't go hypnotizing me," he says, trying to remain gruff.

"I'm not," she says, and her eyes and posture soften. "I promise I won't do anything to risk him. I won't take him from you."

Sam sticks his head out of the door. "Will you sign the damn permission slip already?"

--

There's a small locked door at the back of Molly's office that leads through to a dark room where a faint scent of smoke and herbs drifts out. Where the magic happens, Dean guesses.

Molly waves Sam through, but stops Dean when he goes to walk in.

"Just Sam," she says. "I need to focus. I can't do that if you're fretting in the room. I'm not a psychic, but even I can tell your mind is loud. I' m guessing a room apart is close enough for you guys?"

"Yeah," says Sam. "About two hundred feet before it's a problem."

Dean splutters. "Hang on! I can't just sit out here!"

Her eyes are sympathetic but firm. "I'm sorry, Dean."

"It's okay." That's Sam, and Dean's chest squeezes in fear, looking at him, too-big and hunched over in the doorway to the room. Dean walks up to him, stands one side of the threshold with Sam the other. He wraps a hand around Sam's neck and pulls him down, presses their foreheads together, staring fiercely into Sam's eyes. He wants to kiss him, but he can't shake the knowledge there's someone else here, and he's never been a PDA guy with chicks, let alone his brother.

"Be careful," he growls. "Don't do anything stupid. I know that's like asking you not to breathe, but just - think. I can't--"

"I will," says Sam, somberly, then closes his eyes, breathes in, and carefully pushes Dean away.

The door must be soundproofed or something, because when it closes behind the two of them, Dean can't hear a thing, even when he stands up next to it and presses his ear to the solid wood.

He paces the office, restless, wondering what she's doing in there, how she can fix this, how she can go digging around Sam's stupid complicated brain and find a way around this fixation it has on Dean. He's proud of Sam, somewhere underneath everything else, because she said what they'd been realizing: it's not supernatural. It's not magic. It's just the strength in Sam's mind keeping the horror at bay. That's Sam - that's all Sam, strong and determined in whatever he does, whatever he decides, the strength in his mind does it, right ‘til the bitter end, for good and bad.

God, he loves that stupid fucking kid. Man. Sam. Fuck. What are they doing in there?

The scream sounds faint when it comes, but to bleed through the door that's let no other sounds through, it must be loud. Dean's body reacts before he even realizes what that high keening noise is, like it had been waiting for this - he runs at the door and kicks it, hard, but it stays closed, a jarring shudder shaking up through his leg and he feels it in his teeth but he doesn't stop, just hurls himself bodily at the door, gonna bust his shoulder but he has to get in there, and the door cracks, swings inward and Dean staggers into the room.

It's dim and he can't see details, but he can see Sam on the floor, on his back, arched in a rictus of pain, shoulders and hips pressing into the floor, spine arching up as if he can't bear to touch the bare wooden boards.

Dean's knees jar against the floor as he drops and grabs at Sam, wraps as much of himself as he can around his brother in this position.

"What did you do?" he roars at Molly, who's cowered against the opposite wall, hands covering her face.

"I didn't - oh god, I didn't know it'd be like that, I didn't do anything!"

For an endless, awful moment, Sam's body stays a rigid arch, awkward and hard under Dean's arms; but then Sam gasps, and collapses, body turning into Dean's warmth and he goes pliant and boneless, lets Dean gather him and hold him. Oh god, oh god, it still works, it's not broken. Sam's color comes back, but he doesn't open his eyes, yet, dead weight against Dean.

"Is he--" asks Molly, almost voicelessly.

Sam's hand curls onto Dean's arm, a small movement that sends relief heavy and welcome through Dean.

"He'll be okay. Been worse than this after a nightmare. Just need to be close to him a while, it'll get better."

"I'm sorry," she says, "but I swear I didn't do anything. I just looked. I guess - with you in the other room - just me looking in was enough to weaken the protection. Maybe if you're with him, I could look again--"

"No!" barks Dean, and holds Sam tighter. "No, I'm not taking the risk." He looks down at Sam, who's still unconscious, or maybe asleep, Dean's never quite sure.

He looks up at Molly, curious. "What did you see? What's going on in there?"

She regards him carefully, composure returning, and she sits up properly. "I didn't see a whole lot," she said, "because his mind is hard to get into, and once I was, he started to suffer. I tried to stop, and he said to keep going, until, well."

"Yeah, that sounds like Sam," Dean says grimly.

"I didn't sense much of what he was protecting himself from, until the last moment when it came through, and I was pushed out instantly, but I don't ever want to feel anything like that tiny flash ever again. It's - oh, god. The implication, the echoes, of that tiny bit I felt--"

She crosses herself briefly, and it seems like an old hard-to-break habit, not something she really intended to do.

"And? The - protection."

She looks at Dean and she seems awed. "It's strong - so damn strong. His mind is a wonder. There's this - like a rope, I guess, a rope of an idea, lots of them weaved together, a whole mat of thoughts and feelings all joined together, and each one is different and each one is tied to you somehow. Strength and love and family and protection and duty and caring for and being cared for - there's the shape of you, your mind, at the end of each one. When you're close to him, when you touch him, he recognizes you and it reinforces the mat."

Dean knows Sam loves him and looks up to him and all that stuff - he's questioned it in the past in dark times, but he's pretty sure that's been more about him, and them communicating, than Sam not feeling it. But to hear it, laid out like that, the size and strength of what he is in Sam's mind - it seems impossible. He's just one person. He's just Dean.

But it's what he is to Sam that's important.

He clears his throat, can't look at her right now, can't look down at Sam. He stares at a softly burning stick of incense held in a small red clay burner on a low table the other side of the room, watching the smoke curl lazily into the room.

"Can you do anything with it?"

"I - I don't know."

Sam stirs, and Dean looks down, watches as Sam opens his eyes. "Hey," he says, instead of the tirade he was planning.

"Hey," says Sam, then looks around and shifts again. Dean helps him to sit up.

Sam's eyes find Molly. "What happened?" he says.

"I wasn't here holding your hand," Dean interrupts. "Also, I told you not to take a risk, and you did."

"I was fine!" Sam insists.

"The dude slumped over on the floor begs to differ."

"Sam," Molly interjects. "I got a look, but with Dean in the other room, and the disturbance of someone looking, plus I think the dampening effects of mild hypnosis - the defenses in your mind weakened too much and Hell got through."

Sam nods. "So we try again, with Dean here."

Dean resists the urge to shake his brother hard. "Sam, no! No, I am not allowing that."

"It's a good thing you don't get to allow what goes on in my head then!"

"This isn't a discussion, Sam--"

"Molly, can you do it?"

She looks warily at them. Dean shuts his mouth, fuming, helpless in the face of Sam's stubbornness.

"I don't know. I can see how I might be able to do it, train your brain into associating the end of each rope of protection back inside yourself and not into Dean, but - I honestly don't know. I'd need some seriously good hypnosis methods and heavily reinforced with some spellwork, both hoodoo and more modern. The association is so strong, I've never seen anything like it."

"What are the risks?" says Dean flatly.

She looks at them appraisingly. "I'm going to be frank. If I try, if I start training Sam's brain away from using you as a protection source, and it doesn't successfully take an internal replacement, the whole thing could unravel. And I don't think I could put it back."

"So Sam's back to dealing with the full impact of a century of Hell, almost certainly not functional and probably not even surviving it. No way. No way - Sam--"

"Dean, I want to try. This is my head, and my life! Didn't we just say last year that you need to start letting me make my own choices?"

"This is not the same thing, Sam, and it wasn't last year, because last year you were trapped in Hell! We are leaving, this is not happening. I will walk out that door without you and make you follow me."

"I'll stay here. You'll come back when I scream."

Molly stands up. "Okay. You know what? Soundproof door--" she points, "my office --" she points just beyond it, "I am going in there and shutting the door and you guys are talking this out. I am not doing any more digging around in your brain without express permission from both of you - Sam, I'm sorry, but you didn't see what I saw. Something that strong - it seems insane to try and undo it."

Sam's sitting away from Dean, now, shoulder tense and face tight, looking away from Dean. "I want to try."

Molly puts up both her palms, and shuts the door. It creaks a little, Dean having smashed it out of alignment, but it's private enough with it shut.

"Sammy," says Dean quietly, totally at a loss. "I know you, and you're not suicidal, and you're not stupid. I get why you want to fix this, I do, but when someone like her tells you it's not worth the risk, that you'll likely die trying, you gotta ask yourself if it's worth it. Cause I know I'm not perfect, and I know you want your own life, but would you really rather want to die?"

Sam's quiet for a long time, still looking away from Dean, and the silence grows thick around them. Dean doesn't let himself think, because to do that right now would hurt more than he wants to discover, because Sam isn't denying that he'd rather risk dying than be tied to Dean for the rest of his life, and that's just - Dean's pretty sure he needs his own mental protection against that thought.

"You don't deserve it," Sam says, eventually, quiet and small.

"What?"

Sam sighs, then turns his head, towards Dean, still not quite looking at him. "You don't deserve being stuck to me the rest of your life."

The words work their way into Dean's mind slowly and the next breath he takes it feels like it fills him up all the way through the warm, smoky air in the room tasting as clean and fresh and new as a goddamn meadow. "Dude. I reiterate. What?"

Sam does look at him now, and that expression on his face, so painfully eager, so Sam, and Dean's chest clenches tight.

"Dean, think about it - you've been looking after me your whole life. It's been your job for as long as you knew how to be responsible for anything. Since before you should have ever had to be. And now - after everything, after I know you want your own life, after how I saw, behind all the crap - a lot of which I brought down on your head - that part of you was happy with Lisa and Ben - after all that, you’re gonna be tied to me, pretty much fucking literally, for what could be the rest of your life? No, no way. How can I ask that of you?"

"Sam, I--" Dean has no idea where to start with that. "Maybe tell me that, instead of making me think that even if you've apparently wanted me half your life, you still can't bear the idea of being tied to me, wanting your own life so bad you're risking death or coma to get away from me?"

Sam snorts. "Dean, if I told you I wanted to fix this because I wanted you to have a normal life rather than wanted to have one myself, you would have just said you didn't want it, that you were happy with that, because you lie to me even when you don't think you are."

"Sam--"

Sam sighs. "Like now."

Dean opens his mouth, then closes it. He thinks for a moment. "I was relieved," he says, at last.

"What?"

"When we realized you weren't cured, the morning after. First time in my life I've ever been pleased to see you in pain, because it meant you weren't free from me." He shakes his head. "I told myself then I'd do anything I could do to help you fix this like you wanted, because it wasn't fair to have you tied to me when there was something so wrong with me that I wanted you to be stuck to me like that. I'm ashamed to tell you that, tell the truth. But when I say I don't mind, I don't want my own life, I don't give a shit about being stuck with you when it sounds pretty good to me - when I say all that, I don't want you to think I'm lying. Because over the last year – look, a part of me was happy and a part of me had always wanted it, all that's true. It's not fair to them to say otherwise, ‘cause you know well as I do they were way too good to me."

He licks his lips and can tell Sam's watching him carefully.

"But it wasn't ‘til I had it that I realized an even bigger part of me was missing, and that - that's the part that's in the center of me, that I can't do without. So give me a way to make sure I've always got that part - no choice, really."

He looks down at the floor, can see Sam's legs but not his face.

"So you can call me fucked up and way too attached to my little brother who I'm also fucking, but don't say I'm lying."

"I think - Dean. God, look at me. You're a pot calling the kettle back, when you talk about being over-attached and fucked up," says Sam in an unsteady voice. Then he's close to Dean, right up in his space where he belongs, pressing at Dean’s chin with his fingers to make Dean look at him. "Hey. Come on - lemme--"

Dean tips his head into the kiss, feels his nose brush Sam's cheek, every part of Sam becoming known to him, every fucking inch, inside and out; he wants to press them together, stick them like them glue so no one can even tell where he stops and Sam starts.

--

They leave - thankfully before they get too carried away in Molly's back room - but before they do, Dean hangs back, tells Sam to go on and get in the car. Sam gives him a suspicious look, but Dean spreads his hands innocently, and Sam goes.

Molly raises an eyebrow, and Dean just - asks. "When you were in there, in his head - what you saw. That protection. I don't know if you're gonna be able to tell me, but - will it last?"

She studies him. "I don't really want to answer that--"

Dean's world goes cold.

She reaches out and gabs his arm quickly "--because I honestly don't know. What I saw, like I said, it's new and it's stronger than anything I've seen the mind manage to do before. But from what I could see - it looks like it's layered, like the ropes are weaving tighter and new ones are tying in and it's getting more robust, especially the more you reinforce the associations by being there like he needs. And I'm guessing you guys have noticed it getting better?"

"Yeah," says Dean. "He's gotten better from the moment he woke up, and recently, we can go longer without touch, can go further apart."

She spreads her hands. "Please don't take this as fact, because I feel like I barely know what I'm talking about, but. It looks like there's no reason for it not to keep working like that. I can't predict long term, I can just say, be careful with him. I'd hope, as long as you stay together, at least for now, it'll keep getting better. You'll be able to get further apart as the protection strengthens, maybe miles, I don't know. The memories, the bad stuff, it's always going to be there, and I don't want to say don't worry about it. No one knows how that level of seriously bad stuff hiding in someone's brain can affect them."

"I'll notice." says Dean firmly. "He'll tell me and I'll be there, whatever shit rears its head from down there." He rubs a hand over his mouth. "Look - thanks," he says. "Sorry I was a jerk to you."

She shrugs. "I don't know why you're thanking me. I didn't really do anything."

Dean half smiles. "You helped clear some stuff up," he says, "which was pretty fucking vital, so, you did the best thing I could've asked you for."

"You boys going to be okay? I know you love each other, that's pretty plain, but this could well be a life sentence for you. A lot for some people to deal with."

It's the least scary thing Dean's ever heard.

"I'm not thinking of it as a sentence. What we have - each other - that's a whole lot more than some sad sorry people get in this world."

He impulsively wraps his arms around Molly, squeezes her in a fast tight hug, and lets her go with a grin. "Don't even worry about us."

He goes out to the car.

--

Sam's in the middle of a jaw-cracking yawn when Dean opens the door and gets back into the car.

"Sorry," he says when he's done. "I'm so tired. I guess hypnosis and Hell attacks and emotional revelations really take it out of a guy."

Dean pulls a fair enough face, and starts the engine.

"Whatever you were talking about in there with her, just tell me it's not some deep dark secret that I'm gonna need to know about and don't until it's too late. I'm done with that pattern."

Dean's surprised into a laugh. "No, me too, I getcha. I was mostly just thanking her."

Sam makes a noise of assent and shifts uncomfortably. "God, I'm exhausted."

"Take a nap, then," Dean says sensibly, then jumps when Sam twists around and starts to lie down on the front bench seat, legs turned in the footwell and his head in Dean's lap. Dean protests appropriately. "Sam! I'm driving! And way too manly for this shit."

Sam shrugs, shoulder digging into the meat of Dean's thigh. His head is a heavy but comforting weigh on Dean's legs, and his hair looks ridiculous.

"Indulge me," he says, "I've had a long day." He considers. "A long two years. Anyway," he points out reasonably, "no one else has to know."

Dean rolls his eyes but his free hand lands in Sam's hair anyway. Since Sam woke - since this whole thing started - the previous ideas he'd had about what was acceptable touching, like slaps on the shoulder or life-or-death hugs - have been erased pretty steadily, and he shakes his head at the thought he's barely balking at this. Compared to how he would've been.

"You know this is crazy, right," Sam says, his voice rumbling on Dean's leg in softer counterpoint to the rumble of the car underneath.

"I thought you were supposed to be sleeping."

"I mean it. Not just this crazy thing my brain's done, but that we're okay with it, and - everything else we're doing."

"Winchesters have been said to be crazy before, man, it's kinda our M.O. at this point."

"What if we--" Sam hesitates. "Break up?" To his credit, he sounds like he hates saying those cheesy words as much as Dean winces at hearing them. Unexpected hazards in the arena of doing this sort of thing with your brother: full-body cringing when trying to apply usual dating vocab. "It's not like I can move out."

Dean pokes him in the shoulder. "Simple. We won't."

"What if--"

"Dude!"

Sam shifts, pressing his cheek against Dean's leg. "I'm just saying. You know when they say a thing's too good to be true, it probably is? That's what this feels like."

Dean can't help it: he laughs. " Sam. Have you been living our lives for the past however many years? What part of any of that is good? I'd say our lives have been too shitty to be true. Most people would think of what we have right now as something awful. Literal physical dependence on one person for the rest of your life? Talk about isolated and depressing. This right now is a consolation prize. It's just lucky we're as screwed up as each other, enough that we're totally fine with it."

Sam rolls his head again to look up at Dean. "You say the sweetest things. You should write for Hallmark."

"Oh shut up," says Dean, and pushes Sam's face away from him. Sam laughs silently, a shudder of his shoulders, and closes his eyes.

The sun is still rising; it's gonna be a hot day. Dean isn't driving anywhere in particular - they don't have anywhere to go. It's a sensation that's surprisingly rare consider how much they travel around: the total lack of any destination. Dean doesn't mind - he likes Louisiana, looks forward to rambling over it, maybe in search of one of those hunts that fall in your lap, maybe just in search of the perfect jambalaya - wherever the roads takes them.

THE END