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It's the Blueprint of Your Life

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Dean is taking a leak in the middle of the night when Sam wakes up gasping. He has the bathroom door open—too much effort, plus the thought of Sam lying motionless where Dean can’t see him breathing is still enough to make Dean’s skin crawl—so he gets a glimpse of the moments before, the way Sam spasms and arches, tangling himself in the sheets before Dean can get to him. The sink stays running, Dean’s hands water-damp as they drag Sam free of the nightmare, the vision, the polyblend bedspread, whatever the hell it is, Sam’s eyes already open but unfocused, his breathing hard and choked and hitchy.
 
“Sam,” Dean says, tight, pawing Sam’s shaggy bangs out of his eyes and almost flinching at the heat of his skin. “Jesus, Sammy, you get a fever when I wasn’t looking?”
 
And that’s the bitch of it right there, which always leaves Dean’s stomach cramped and twisted—that yeah, he brought Sam back to life, but that doesn’t mean Sam will live forever, or even make it through the whittling year Dean has left. If it isn’t some monster, why not pneumonia or some other completely normal way to die? When has Dean’s life ever been kind?
 
Sam’s gaze snaps into focus with a jolt that makes Dean twitch, makes his hair stand on end, like everything in the universe shifted a half-inch to the left, and not quite in a metaphorical way, either. Dean’s muscles lock up and Sam grabs on, keeping him there, holding on like he can see Dean’s impulse to check the salt lines. Or maybe like he can’t see anything but Dean, each exhale pushed out sounding more and more like Dean’s name.
 
Something kicks over, makes Dean relax. There’s nothing supernatural going on here, just Sam and a nightmare. Maybe the visions have come back and that’s what has him so freaked.
 
“Hey, Sammy,” he says. He ignores the little pinpricks of hurt made by Sam’s nails cutting into the thin skin at the back of his arms; he can take it. “Hey, chill, dude, you’re awake.”
 
Sam—faster than Dean can think to dodge—wraps his arms around his brother and clings there, clutching at Dean’s shirt and shaking, Jesus Christ, and something short-circuits in Dean’s brain. This is the hug he wanted to get from Sam when he walked back into that rundown shack in Cold Oak, South Dakota, when he’d half convinced himself that Sam would still be laid out cold and too-still on that mattress just for the mindfuck of it. Once that thought hits, Dean’s arms clamp around Sam so fast he almost pulls something, scared out of his mind that Sam will pull back before—just before. Tremors run down Sam’s shoulders and Dean’s hand chases them away.
 
“Must’ve been some nightmare,” he says, not even half a laugh, shoving away all those instincts screaming chick flick moment. "Or—it’s okay if it was a vision, Sam. With our luck I’m surprised they haven’t come back before now.”
 
And that’s a sour little thought, but Dean tries hard to—whatever, project that it really will be okay, as far as Dean is concerned. Visions suck balls, but they were also their fair share of helpful, and if they’ve come back into the picture then Dean is going to look at the god damn silver lining.
 
But Sam tenses at the word, and he pulls back and away, dragging the heel of his hand up over his right eye even though Dean can see he hasn’t quite been crying—like he’s too shaky to figure out how. “Huh?” Sam asks, “What—?”
 
He stops right then, lowers his hand, and just stares at Dean, like he hasn’t already got his fill of looking in the last ten minutes. Dean fidgets because he can, but doesn’t scoot back like he wants to because Sam’s hand tightens on his wrist. And Sam looks so lost anyway, Dean isn’t sure he could make himself back off if he wanted to.
 
The air around Sam feels a few degrees warmer than the rest of the room, or maybe Dean is imagining things. His bare legs feel hot where they’re pushed up against Sam’s, pinning the blanket between them. He’s just in a boxers and a t-shirt, like his brother, but Sam is sweating through his shirt in patches.
 
“You look—“ Sam swallows with a dry click Dean can hear, and whoa, just wait a second. Dean’s eyebrows arch up high. “—tired,” Sam finishes, still staring, but at least starting to look uncomfortable. Dean has a pretty good feeling it wasn’t what Sam had started to say at all, call him suspicious.
 
“Tired,” he repeats, “Well, Sammy, that’s what happens when you’re awake at three in the morning.”
 
 Dean feels the sudden need for a little personal space; the late hour and sleep-deprivation are making everything a little too surreal. He tugs himself free of Sam’s grip and goes to shut off the water in the bathroom after filling a thin plastic cup for his brother.
 
“Drink this,” he orders, pushing it into Sam’s hand. “You’re burning up.”
 
“Huh?” Sam asks, distracted by the framed puzzles nailed down as art around the room. Then his gaze snaps back to Dean with a surprised, “Oh.” He takes the cup with wary hands, then drinks one sip at a time, like he isn’t sure if there’s a punch line coming at his expense.
 
Dean fishes the ibuprofen out of his duffle and tosses it over, careful not to react when Sam fumbles the catch. “Indulge me, dude.”
 
Watching like a hawk would not be an inappropriate description of what Dean does to make sure Sam gulps down at least two pills, and he snags the cup from Sam’s hand to refill it without asking or offering. Sam just looks grateful, and kind of caught-out.
 
“So,” Dean calls over the splash of running water. “You gonna tell me what had you popping out of bed like The Grudge grabbed your ankle?”
 
It’s pretty damn nonchalant, considering his heart keeps twisting up into a fist.
 
“I don’t…remember,” Sam says, voice vague as he screws the top back on the pill bottle and trades it for the cup. “So, uh, weird question,” he adds, “which state are we in?”
 
Dean makes himself snort. “All these motels start to blur together after a while, huh? Except for Wisconsin, for some reason. I don’t know why, but I can always tell I’m in cheese country.” He frowns, and shrugs it off. “Anyway, princess, we’re still in New York. Headed East. Girl who drowned in her shower ringing a bell?”
 
Sam sees his phone on the nightstand and grabs it like that time Dean spilled Pepsi on their diner table and it started bleeding towards Sam’s laptop. He runs his thumb restlessly over the screen, taps the on-button a couple times before pressing down.
 
“Dude,” Dean says while Sam stares at his phone, features strange and alien in the LCD light, “I wasn’t going to say anything, but you are almost freaking me out. Give it another second and I’m going to have to ask if you’re okay.”
 
“What?” Sam says without looking up, then louder, “What? No. What? Holy crap.”
 
The ticking of the clock bears down like a lead weight, and Dean makes an executive decision that now is not the time to give a fuck. In the morning, maybe. When Dean has had at least six hours uninterrupted sleep, a strong cup of coffee, and a bearclaw, then he will tackle Sam’s neurosis. Right now Sam has his research face on, the one that means no arguing as he throws the covers off his long bare legs and looks around like he can’t remember where he put his laptop.
 
“Is this a thing that needs immediate attention?” Dean asks, because it’s Sam, and he looks a little less feverish but his color is still high. “Should I be starting up the car, or can I crash and let you do your thing?”
 
“Umm…” Sam doesn’t look away from untangling his computer chord. “Yeah, sure. Whatever.”
 
“…Yeah,” Dean says to himself, because no one else is listening. “No, you go on, do what you gotta do.”
 
Sam looks at him and cringes a little as his computer boots up, and finally, finally Dean’s brain kicks into gear. He’s across the room in two long strides; Sam almost doesn’t get his hands out of the way before Dean snaps the laptop closed.
 
“Dean, what—“
 
“Sam,” Dean growls, and maybe he’s showing his teeth a little, sue him. “We talked about this.”
 
“We…did?” Sam blinks, confused, mild annoyance mixed in from Dean touching his computer, rubbing one of his knuckles where it got clipped with the lid. He’s getting better at playing dumb—scary better. Dean tries not to be freaked right out by that.
 
Yes,” he says anyway, “and I got to tell you, Sam, my patience is wearing real thin. Stop. Trying. To save me. From Hell.”
 
Sam’s jaw drops open, and then—before Dean can get a read on whatever the hell that expression is—snaps shut. “Right,” Sam says faintly, “Right, no, I wasn’t.”
 
And…Jesus Christ, that might be true, because there’s a bullet missing from the Colt and Dean is still waiting for Sam to mention how that could have happened, and fuck but he doesn’t want to think about Sam going after the crossroads demon by himself, after Dean told him not to; he doesn’t want to think about it so he just…hasn’t been.
 
Exhaustion, creeping up his neck since the end of that impromptu hug fest, sinks its teeth into the top of Dean’s spine and starts gnawing. “Sam,” he sighs, covering his eyes just for a second. “I don’t have it in me to fight with you right now, but I am going to ask you, please, do not do anything that might drop you dead on this fugly shag carpet. Please.”
 
If Sam looks a little floored by Dean saying the ‘P’ word—twice—then screw him. Dean is too tired for this shit. But Sam says, “Okay,” so Dean has to believe him, or has to pretend to, and he walks over to his long-cold bed and drags the covers up over his head so he won’t have to watch Sam’s face as he stares at his laptop until the sun comes up.
 
“Wake me up if you start feeling worse,” he orders, and waits for Sam to pause his rapid typing.
 
“I feel fine,” Sam says like he’s not sure why Dean is concerned. Dean drags back the blankets far enough to glare at him. “I will,” he says, defensive but smiling a little.
 
Sam leaves the bedside lamp on all fucking night. That Dean can be annoyed about; it takes a little more lying to say he doesn’t find the click of Sam’s computer keyboard comforting.
 
~*~
 
“Did you sleep at all?” Dean asks, and Sam answers with a yawn that looks like it hurts. “Didn’t think so.” He presses the toasty warm coffee cup into Sam’s hand and doesn’t think about how it seemed like Sam had insisted on packing up early just so Dean wouldn’t go get coffee by himself—paranoia is a bitch.
 
“Slept a little,” Sam says, surprising him. His brother’s voice is grumbling rough, but Sam got his hands on a pair of their hangover-sunglasses, so at least he plans on crashing in the car. “Couldn’t help it.”
 
Dean watches his brother settle in the passenger’s seat and tries to think of something clever to say. “How strange and human of you, Sammy,” is what he settles on, but it sounds hollow and for some reason it makes Sam twitch, so maybe he should have paid a little more attention to his word choice and not so much on how Sam keeps knocking into things like he isn’t sure of his own dimensions anymore.
 
“Do you feel—okay?” Sam asks out of nowhere. He pushes the sunglasses up so he can get a clear look at Dean’s face and wow, it’s almost worse. There are deep circles of exhaustion under Sam’s eyes, which still might be a little fever bright.
 
 “Yes…?” Dean says, coffee pumping through his veins triple time. “Why?”
 
“Sorry, I just. It’s nothing.” Sam shakes his head, and down go the shades, like a car door shut in Dean’s face. “Think I’m coming down with something,” Sam mumbles, and tucks his face away.
 
“Drugs are under your seat,” Dean reminds him, shifting instantly to big brother mode.
 
“Maybe later,” Sam says but it’s not a brush off, not entirely, and two miles down the road Dean has to reach over and rescue Sam’s coffee before it slips out of his nerveless fingers. Dean turns down AC/DC until he can listen to Sam’s snores, and the highway stretches out in endless waves before his baby’s bumper as they head for Massachusetts.
 
~*~
 
Dean almost confronts him over lunch, but he had to wake Sam up and almost had to help him walk to the diner, Sam was so stiff. Sam blames the car and Dean knows that’s bullshit, they grew up in the front seat together, they know how to make themselves fit. So Sam is sick, has to be, and Dean gives him three reddish pills and watches Sam wash them down with half-burnt coffee. Sam is also not arguing with him, clue #145. No laptop, no print-offs, no skimming through Dad’s journal, no talking except to order—plain oatmeal and a side of toast. Clues #146 through eight billion.
 
Sam spends most of the meal with his head down, storm cloud sitting on his forehead as he thinks about something too hard to let Dean in on (just like when he studied for the SATs, not that Dean had known Sam was even thinking about taking them at the time). Every time Sam’s gaze flicks up—and Dean knows, okay, because he’s staring to make sure Sam actually finishes his god damned food—he just looks uncomfortable, maybe about getting caught, and without fail his eyes hit Dean’s, drop to his left shoulder, and then back to his oatmeal like it holds the secret of eternal life.
 
When they get back on the highway Sam pulls out a pad of legal paper that Dean knows for a fact was brand new yesterday, now scribbled and battered and almost half full. Sam turns to a fresh page and draws a line down the middle, balancing the pad on his knees and hunching over it for almost 20 minutes before his pen starts faltering.
 
“Whatcha got there?” Dean asks, the king of nonchalance.
 
“Nothing,” Sam mutters, sleep-petulant, and shuts his eyes, head angled awkwardly against the door so he’s still turned toward Dean.
 
He’s out cold again within minutes, sprawled everywhere, legs splayed so the legal pad falls into the footwell and Dean can’t try to sneak a look at it. Sam drools in his sleep, snorts without snuffling, without moving, and every time Dean hears a noise he can’t stop himself from glancing over, and every time he checks Sam’s spit is drying on the upholstery.
 
Hours pass, and Sam sleeps on.
 
When the radio clock says 10:00 PM Dean grits his teeth and swerves too fast to miss a pot hole, shoving Sam half-upright in the process with one last grunt. But Dean is done, the sun is long past set and his brain keeps skittering over the absent sound of Sam’s voice. They’re going to talk even if they have to fight to do it.
 
“Hmm?” Sam asks, reaching a fumbling hand up to drag sleep out of his eyes. “We there?”
 
Dean ignores him, because if he doesn’t he’s going to lose his grip on the resentment and frustration and fucking worry that’s been building in him for the last day and a half. “So,” he says instead of answering, “I’ve been waiting since Maple Springs. You got something to tell me?”
 
Sam blinks at him, holding very still; Dean can see it out of the corner of his eye. “Uh,” Sam says, “….No?”
 
“There’s a bullet missing from the Colt,” Dean snaps. “I know it wasn’t me. So unless you were shooting at some incredibly evil cans…?”
 
“Oh!” Sam sits up a little straighter for a second, then slouches back down, arranging himself in a position that’s probably supposed to look relaxed. “Oh. Right. I shot the Crossroads Demon.”
 
“You—“ Dean’s jaw works without producing any sound. It’s not a surprise, he just—he hadn’t expected Sam to be so fucking blunt about it. Dean shakes his head, sticks to his guns. “Sam, I specifically told you not to. You could have gotten yourself killed!”
 
Sam’s eyebrows twitch in something like amusement, and Dean drags his attention back to the road before he hauls off and slugs his brother. “I didn’t,” Sam shrugs. Dean can hear the tentative smile creeping in.
 
“And you killed her,” Dean says, just to be clear.
 
Sam huffs out a laugh. “Dude, if I remember right, she definitely had it coming.”
 
“So, what?” Dean asks. His stomach is cramping up like he’s trying to digest rusty metal. “Does that—that mean I’m out of my deal?”
 
Sam’s head tilts a fraction of an inch, then pops back up straight in a strange kind of twitch. “Oh. Uh, no, she doesn’t hold the contract. And,” Sam adds, slipping Dean an awkward half-hurt look, “I would have told you, Dean. That’s really not something you forget to mention.”  
 
Dean waits, throat all twisted, his foot easing up on the gas because he can’t decide whether it might be worth it to pull the car over and just shake his brother until the information falls out. “So who does?”
 
“Who does what?”
 
“Hold my contract, Jesus, Sam—“
 
“Oh. Lilith.”
 
“…Am I supposed to know who Lilith is?” Dean demands, because Sam said her name like he’d say Jon Bon Jovi, or The Yellow-Eyed Demon.
 
“First demon ever created,” Sam rattles off, watching Dean, “insanely powerful, likes to possess children and her death breaks the last seal keeping Lucifer imprisoned, starting the apocalypse.”
 
Dean runs through this new information several dizzying times in his head, gaze fixed on the road as he goes through the available explanations—Sam being feverish right there at the top of the list—before giving the fuck up.
 
“You’re trying to tell me,” Dean says, starting small, “that Lucifer is real.”
 
“Umm,” says Sam, drawing it out like he’s debating whether or not to lie. “Yeah. I guess. Probably a safe thing to assume.”
 
Dean takes a deep breath and risks closing his eyes for a second. “Okay,” he says. “Okay. So what you’re saying is—we can’t kill the demon holding the contract on my deal because we might start the apocalypse?”  
 
“No,” Sam equivocates, “I’m pretty sure we can kill her as long as the other seals stay unbroken.”
 
“Jesus.” Thank god for red lights. It gives Dean time to press his forehead to the top of the steering wheel and just think for a damn second. “This is what you were up all night researching?”
 
Sam finally turns his head enough to watch the rain run down his window like the emo bitch he is. “Among other things.”
 
Sympathy For The Devil starts playing on the tape deck; Dean punches eject and shoves it into the shoe box like it’s on fire, not looking at Sam because Sam’s an asshole, smiling at Dean the way he is.
 
“Don’t worry,” Sam says, distant like he’s not even talking to Dean. “I’m not going to let you go to Hell. She can’t have you.”
 
“Oh, great,” Dean says, sarcasm laid on thicker than he has the energy to feel. “That’s just…great, Sam. Awesome. If you say so, I’m sure whoever this Lilith demon is will go, ‘Oh, well, if you called dibs,’ and just write the whole thing off.”
 
The light turns green, and Sam takes The Stones and slips them back into the cassette box with an audible click.
 
~*~
 
The old bird whose niece kicked it isn’t too bereaved to hit on Sam, which Dean finds hilarious and Sam…takes in stride. Mrs. Case—Oh, excuse him, Miss Case—flutters her lashes and strokes Sam’s fingers and Dean has to excuse himself to the bathroom before he cracks up, has to fake a giant coughing fit when he comes back and Gert’s hand is on Sam’s thigh.
 
Gert is very helpful, though—probably why Sam allows the molesting, which, whatever, awesome—and lets slip a name. Alex, possibly a hunter but it isn’t ringing any bells. Gert also says her niece mentioned a mysterious disappearing “ghost ship” she saw just before she died. It’s like the case is basically solving itself.
 
Sam is sort of checked out through the whole thing, though. It’s not nearly as much fun as if he had squirmed and stammered and tried to keep his polite face on; Sam just lets Gert grope him like this is something he’s used to putting up with, and it leaves Dean feeling off kilter. Sam isn’t supposed to have inside jokes with other people.
 
Then Sam goes and bows over the wrinkled hand she offers when they leave, when she says, “See you around, boys,” and Dean stares at his brother, hard.
 
“Dude, what?” Sam says, eyebrows twitching when he catches Dean at it. “Seriously, bring on the Mrs. Robinson jokes. I can take it.”
 
“You think? I don’t know.” Dean’s reach into his jacket is absolutely casual, just a guy reaching for his wallet, fingers deftly working the top off his flask. He drifts two steps away from Sam as they walk, enough room to maneuver if he has to (and god, he hopes he doesn’t have to). “I got a couple stored up that might be too much for you, Christo.”
 
Sam stops, and stares at him. With perfectly normal—if slightly pissed off and guarded—bluish greenish whateverish eyes. Dean bounces his eyebrows to show his innocence and screws the cap back on his flask before any holy water can spill.
 
“Dean,” Sam growls.
 
“What?”
 
Sam’s eyes narrow, but still don’t go black. “I’m not a demon.”
 
Dean lifts both shoulders and lets them hang out up there for a moment. “Can’t be too careful.”
 
“What are you talking about?” Sam demands, incredulous. “We’ve—oh.” His hand jumps up to cover his heart, and then—Dean swears to whatever gods are tuned in this week for the Winchester Variety Show—Sam pulls his shirt out at the collar, and peeks at his own chest. “Huh. Never mind.”
 
“Sam.”
 
“What?”
 
“Were you expecting to see boobs under there?”
 
“What?” Sam splutters, “No, of course not. Shut up.”
 
“Sam—“
 
“Hey, look,” Sam says, muscle ticking in his jaw, “I think someone stole the Impala.”
 
“Not funny, asshat.” Dean turns to follow the point of Sam’s finger, and then. Then everything gets a little hazy.
 
The next thing he knows Sam is hovering at his side, and Dean is sort of hunched over his own knees, trying to get air into his fucking lungs and listen to Sam when he says, “It’s okay, man, she’s okay.”
 
“The ’67 Impala?” a familiar voice sings out across the wharf. Dean almost passes out again when he stands up straight too fast. “Was that yours?”
 
“Bela,” Sam says, sounding strangely engaging for the circumstances. “Just the person we were hoping to see.”
 
“We were?” The words tear free, blood still rushing in a dull roar through Dean’s ears.  He’s compiling a list of people he would trust less with the Impala and coming up with pretty much nobody.
 
Whether Sam meant it to or not, his cheerful greeting puts a little hitch in Bela’s confident stride. Her smile just stretches wider, though, which Dean is beginning to suspect is a tell. “Aren’t you a smart cookie. Did Gert tip you off?”
 
“Pretty much.” Sam turns to Dean. “She’s Alex, the one Gert mentioned. I bet Bela scams a lot of old ladies wanting to commune with their dead cats.” He raises his eyebrows at her. “Am I right?”
 
“Sam,” Dean grits out, “This is super awesome, watching you showcase your brains and everything but where the fuck is my car?”
 
Bela blinks, her carefully painted mouth almost pinched. She’d been shocked there for a minute, though, before Dean’s outburst. Yes, Sam is smarter than the average bear, people really need to get over it. “I had it towed,” she says with half a shrug, and Dean’s hackles snap right back up.
 
“You what?”
 
“Cute,” Bela says to Sam, indicating Dean with a tilt of her head. “But a bit of a drama queen, yeah?”
 
Sam’s eyebrows arch high.
 
“By the way,” Bela adds, smirk firmly in place even though she doesn’t come close to meaning it, “Thanks for telling Gert the case wasn’t solved.”
 
“It isn’t,” Dean points out.
 
Bela’s eyes are flat and unimpressed. “She didn’t know that. Now the old bag’s stopped payment and she’s demanding some real answers. Look, just stay out of my way before you cause any more trouble. And I’d get to that car if I were you, before they find the arsenal in the trunk. Ciao.”
 
It might be Dean’s imagination, but he thinks Bela might be sauntering off a bit stiffly, like she’s pissed off. Dean approves of this, quite a lot.
 
Sam is looking at him when Dean glances his way. “Well?” Sam asks, and it’s the sixth grade Christmas play all over again, when Dean missed his cue as Head Elf because he was distracted remembering the pagan rituals involving mistletoe. “You aren’t going to ask if you can shoot her, or anything…?” Sam prompts.
 
“Dude,” Dean scowls, “don’t tempt me. Can’t shoot people in public.”
 
Sam’s lips twist like they’re fighting not to grin, and Dean keeps glaring at him until the laugh falls out. “Fair enough,” Sam snorts, head ducked, “Wow, we really are brothers.”
 
“You been having doubts?” Dean isn’t sure why, but the thought makes his stomach hurt.
 
Something about this is funny enough for Sam to twist up another smile, but not funny enough to say No like Dean would really like him to. “Come on. I think I remember the tow lot being this way.”
 
Dean blinks at him. “You’ve been in this town before?” And it sucks, his imagination, because suddenly all Dean can think about is Sam here with Jess, here with college buddies on spring break, out on a boat somebody’s daddy owns, as normal as normal can be.
 
Sam is giving him an odd look when Dean pulls himself out of his own head. “No,” he says, almost careful. “I just saw it on a map in the motel lobby. Don’t worry.” He lifts one shoulder like he might give Dean a friendly nudge with it, then drops it. “We’ll get the Impala back, no problem. Then, uh—“ Sam coughs, and Dean can’t help tensing up. “This is going to sound kind of out-of-the-blue, but if we have time do you want to scope out some tattoo parlors?”
 
Dean stops walking. Even though it kills him a little inside not to keep headed in the direction of his car. “What, Sam.” He has to give up and start again. “If we have time—? Don’t we have to identify the ghost ship, maybe, I don’t know, do a little saving people, hunting things crap before we go tattooing each other’s names on our asses?”
 
Sam’s cheeks go all blotchy, and Dean wonders for about the millionth time if Sam started growing his hair out just so it would hide the way his ears turn beet red when he’s embarrassed. There’s something profoundly amusing in the image of Dean’s name on Sam’s ass that could almost be distracting enough from the Impala getting jacked to make Dean laugh out loud. Almost.
 
“I know which ship it is,” Sam says, eyes narrowed to show just how serious he’s being. “Or—I will. It won’t take too long.”
 
“Okay, fine,” Dean allows. “How many three-mast clipper ships can be wrecked off the coast, right?”
 
Sam looks torn for a split second, before he looks elsewhere. “Right.”
 
“So what’s with the tattoos, Sam?” Dean presses when it really starts to look like his brother is going to throw that out there and just ignore it. “You thinking tramp stamps? Something tribal, with, like, butterflies…?”
 
“Something—“ Sam bites out, and stops like he has to chew on the words first. “Something that will keep the demons out. Like the charms Bobby gave us but—on our skin. I’ve been reading up on them, and…I think I’ve got a design that will work. That way you won’t have to worry about me going all black-eyed.” Sam’s smile is wry and lopsided. He won’t quite look at Dean.
 
 “Damn, Sam.” Dean’s swallow is a little rough, and he isn’t quite sure why. “I don’t know what was in your Wheaties this morning, but you’re just full of bright ideas.”
 
Sam snorts softly and there it is, the quick glance just to make sure Dean is still there, that he’s still giving Sam his undivided attention. Dean has to take a couple seconds to figure out how to breathe around the sudden sharp wire-knot in his throat when he thinks about the first time Sam will glance over and Dean won’t be there. 
 
Dean swallows it down, pulling words out of thin air and somehow finding an actual grievance to cling to. “But, man, I got to say, I expected you to be way more pissed at Bela than you were.”
 
Sam coughs a little before answering. “Why?”

“Uh, let’s think about this,” Dean drawls, blinking out Get-A-Clue in Morse Code with his eyelashes. “She shot you.”
 
“Oh, right.” Sam squirms under Dean’s scrutiny like he should have squirmed for Gert. “Uh. It was more of a graze, really.”
 
Dean drags a hand over his face so he doesn’t follow his first impulse of—something else. “Have I mentioned lately how sad it is that we’re the kind of people who don’t hold grudges unless someone shoots us in a way that’s not a flesh wound?”
 
“We’ll hold grudges for each other,” Sam says, and he looks at Dean’s shoulder before he puts his hand on it, like he’s not quite sure if Dean will flinch away.
 
Dean realizes with a relief that makes him dizzy that Sam hasn’t touched him since the midnight hug and he’s missed it, without even paying real attention to Sam keeping his distance. He leans into Sam before he can stop himself, knows Sam’s eyes are wide and unsure without looking. Chick flick—but screw everyone in the world who thinks he shouldn’t have this, Dean is going to Hell. He can have this one thing.
 
Sam looks a little shocked after touching Dean, too, but then, weirdly, he keeps it up for the rest of the day, bumping shoulders and brushing elbows like he needs to make up for lost time. Or like he needs to get his fill while the getting is still around to be got.
 
~*~
 
“Uh,” Sam starts awkwardly over cold alphabet soup in the house they’ve picked to squat in. Dean is busy spooning through his bowl looking for the letters to spell ‘cunnilingus’ just so he can shove the bowl in Sam’s face and say Eat Me, so he doesn’t bother looking up.
 
 “Seriously, um, though.” Sam shuffles one more time through their research—alright, Dean will be fair, Sam’s research, the kid rocks the Google Fu. “Think about the tattoos? I’m not saying we’re going to need the protection immediately, but—like, within the next case or so? It might be a good idea.” 
 
“I already said—Look, I’m not balking because I think it’s dumb, I’m not—I’m not balking at all,” Dean, well, balks. And the more times he says it, the dumber that word gets. He gives up on the elusive G and scoots a T next to his C, U, N. “Check it out,” he says, and spins his soup so Sam can see.
 
He is not disappointed by the face Sam makes, not at all. “Wow, Dean,” Sam drawls, “You’re a real Mr. Shakespeare.”
 
“Forsooth, avast,” Dean agrees, kicking his feet up on the table and cradling his bowl of word awesomeness to his chest with one hand. With the other he grabs a stack of print-offs from the library, balancing them on his knees as he skims through.
 
Espírito Santo, blah blah blah, merchant sailing vessel old Yankee clipper. The article uses words like “Rakish topsail,” which sounds like a band, and “Barkentine rigging” which sounds like some sort of horrible coughing disease, and smack dab on the front of the boat is a pretty little angel statue. “Oh, hey, that reminds me.” He snaps his fingers until Sam looks up, spoon absently dangling from his mouth. “So demons, Lucifer…” Dean turns a palm up. “How are we feeling about angels?”
 
Sam’s eyes, for no reason Dean can think of, drop to Dean’s right shoulder and stick there a second, finally meeting Dean’s gaze by way of his amulet. Dean waits. Sam, sure enough, finds something very important to click through on his laptop while he answers, arm resting heavy on the same legal pad he was using yesterday.
 
“Ah, real. Probably. Definitely? Yes.” Sam gives him a dodgy, defensive look. “What? Look, if there are demons—which we know there are—then it makes sense for angels to exist.”
 
Dean had been kind of hoping for a good solid No on this, actually. “Come on, Sam... Really? With all the hunters you and I have ever talked to, that Dad ever talked to, that Bobby ever talked to, not one of them has ever met or ever heard of anyone who’s met an angel. Who wasn’t a certified nutbag,” Dean adds before Sam can cut him off.
 
“I’m not getting into this with you,” Sam says, strangely flat, like they’ve been arguing for hours already. Another note gets jotted down in that yellow pad of paper. “And if we’re very, very lucky, I won’t ever have to.”
 
Dean can’t help rolling his eyes, okay—because Sam being cryptic isn’t exactly new but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t piss Dean off—and something catches his attention in the brick of text on his lap. “Holy shit,” he mutters, skipping back, reading it through, dropping his feet to the floor as Sam sits up, tense. “Wait, how long did you say the death omen cycle was?”
 
“…Thirty-seven years—“
 
“Damn, I’m good. Hey, give me the laptop.”
 
Sam’s hands convulse around it like Dean just proposed throwing it into the rusted old fireplace. “Dude, what—“
 
“What, are you looking at porn? Give it here.” When Dean gets his hands on the computer after sprawling half across the table to grab it, Sam’s internet browser is neither busty nor Asian. It’s not even anything to do with Dean’s deal, just a local telephone directory. Dean gives Sam a look. “Sharing is caring. Just give me one sec…”
 
It takes about five minutes, all told, and Sam fidgets the whole time. “There,” Dean crows when he finds what he was searching for. “Take a look at that.”
 
He spins the laptop around to show Sam, who looks at it like he’s scared it might bite him. “…What am I looking at?”
 
“Sam, come on, right there.” Dean points, tapping the screen because he knows fingerprints drive Sam bugfuck. “Joshua Brighton, hanged for treason aboard the Espírito Santo when he was 37, in 1859. None of the other sailors who died at sea on this ship were that exact age. It would explain the death cycle—guy comes back on the anniversary of his death for a killing spree, and the ship acts as a sort of death omen.”
 
Sam’s mouth is turned down in the corners, not quite a frown but getting there. “That’s a pretty flimsy connection.”
 
“Yeah, maybe,” Dean agrees. “Until you add the fact that Brighton’s hand was cut off to make a hand of glory. Which,” he smirks, “sounds like something I got at the end of my Thai massage last week.”
 
“Ha. Ha,” Sam says, bone dry.
 
“No, but—that’s human remains. And seriously occult stuff. It doesn’t explain why the victims are getting picked, but if we find, salt, and burn the sucker then it doesn’t really matter, right?” Still nothing. “This is good, Sam, what’s your problem?”
 
“No problem,” Sam says, still tense, arms locked across his chest.
 
“Okay,” Dean says, not born yesterday but momentarily willing to let this shit slide. “So—odds are pretty good the hand is around town, somewhere. Ghosts haunt the area they’re tied to, right? How many hands of glory are just lying around in someone’s attic?”
 
Dean reaches for the laptop again, and Sam—Sam snaps it shut. Dean gapes. “Really, Sam?”
 
Sam actually looks around, like Dean could be talking to anyone else in this empty run-down house, and shrugs. “What?”
 
“Don’t what me, man. We’ve got a solid lead and suddenly you don’t want me to touch your computer?” Dean is not going to say that this stings a little, because he is not a bitch. “What the hell?”
 
“It’s not—“ Sam’s mouth twists, but he doesn’t look away from Dean, like he’s trying to gauge something. “Uh...” And then his gaze drops, expression shifting into something that looks genuine enough to make Dean flinch. “I know it’s a weird thing to ask, but…do you think we could take the night off?”
 
“…You’re right, that is weird,” Dean says. Then he takes a breath to think about it, an awful feeling crawling up his back. “Why?”
 
“Well, it’s just—“ Sam pinches the bridge of his nose and slumps a little, before dropping his hand to shut the laptop with a click. “It’s late enough we probably won’t be able to do anything about the hand if we do find it—“
 
“Right,” Dean cuts in. “Because I would much rather put off any cat-burglaring that needs getting done until…oh, midday sometime.”
 
Sam twitches slightly and looks anywhere else, mumbling, “There probably won’t be any cat-burglaring.”
 
It hits Dean right then, what Sam is trying to do, like a shot of rocksalt to the chest. He shifts, uncomfortable-but-not-really in that way he has to be around Sam sometimes, when the chick-flick moments rear their girly-ribboned heads. And, okay, he hates it. He hates that their time together is running down on the clock as much as Sam does, but the alternative just wasn’t an option.
 
The research can keep. It’s not even really a choice, which knocks at something in Dean’s ribcage; in a contest between Sam and anything, Dean is always going to pick Sam.
 
“You want to, uh. Go out, play some darts or something?”
 
Sam looks so grateful for a moment that Dean openly stares before he can help himself, and then they’re both coughing and fidgeting and looking at the peeling paint and rusting hinges. “Sounds like a plan,” Sam says, gruff, and Dean responds with his best man-voice to match it.
 
“Yeah, I’ll go get the keys.”
 
~*~
 
It’s a good night out. No, scratch that, it’s a great night out. They’re on the job so they aren’t drinking to get drunk, just enough to keep a light buzz and excuse how often they laugh and lean into each other. Or at least, that’s Dean’s excuse. If Sam was the one looking down an eternity of Hell, Dean would be doing a lot more than the occasional head on Sam’s shoulder when a joke is just too funny to stay upright. He wouldn’t let Sam out of his sight.
 
But he doesn’t want to think about Sam’s position. No, he doesn’t, because Sam is stronger than Dean, always has been, always will be. It isn’t the same. Sam is useful to the world in a way that Dean, hard as he’s tried, just isn’t. Sam is—yeah. Sam is just Sam. Dean doesn’t regret his decision one single fucking bit.
 
And Sam seems like he needs this tonight, angles under his skin where there shouldn’t be, desperation licking at the heels of Sam’s words until the alcohol settles in. Dean tangles his hand in Sam’s hair when he ruffles it, and Sam chokes on a laugh that sounds like it hurts, leaning against Dean hard enough to make his lungs feel tight.
 
They get a few glances, but Dean doesn’t give a fuck. Maybe they shouldn’t be doing this, should be looking harder for their probably-spirit. But maybe the universe owes him one night laughing with his baby brother.
 
The universe is a bitch, Dean thinks the next morning. Their police scanner repeats itself, just to rub it in Dean’s face—there’s been another drowning victim.
 
~*~
 
Sam looks grim when Dean tells him, but determined and jaw-set in a way that tells Dean he’s not too surprised. Though truth be told, Dean isn’t either. Winchesters don’t catch a break.
 
“You knew it was a possibility,” he says anyway, because he needs to say something while Sam gets dressed, stupid-long legs disappearing inside the grey suit pants he wears as part of their detective outfits.  
 
Dean isn’t looking, so he doesn’t know for sure if Sam shrugs. “So did you.” Sam doesn’t sound sorry, and if Dean wants to be honest with himself—but why break a winning streak.
 
“Are you sure you want to spend time interviewing this guy’s family? We’ve got the boat, already.” Sam shrugs into his button-up and focuses awfully hard on fastening it right.
 
“Probably got the boat,” Dean corrects, “and probably got the spirit. Like you said, it’s all just guesswork. No harm in making sure.”
 
Sam glances over, and then nods down at his tie. “Not arguing. Just wondering.”
 
“Dude,” Dean says, because he just can’t do this anymore, “I realize that the touchy feely stuff makes us break out in hives, okay, but I’m willing to put up with whatever chafing rash is necessary if you’d just tell me what’s going on with you.”
 
Sam blinks, and then his mouth pulls down in a mocking frown. “Sorry, Dean, I didn’t realize my-brother-is-going-to-Hell isn’t a good enough reason anymore.”
 
Dean sighs.  He’d been really dumb, hoping it was anything else. “You’ve had months to get over it—“
 
“I’m not going to get over it!” Sam shouts, incredulous, arms out. “Losing you isn’t something I can “get over.” And if I can’t save you—“ He drags in a breath and pinches his lips together, and Dean remembers a million frustrated Stanford fights ending the exact same way.
 
“If you can’t save me—which you shouldn’t even try, Sam, how many times do I have to tell you that any welching or weaseling turns you back into worm food—“ The bottom drops out of his stomach with a sickening thud. “Jesus, Sam, tell me that’s not your game-plan.”
 
“No. Dean.”  Sam’s hand closes around Dean’s arm and holds on, tight. “The crossroad demon is dead. That part of the deal is gone, trust me.”
 
Dean’s air escapes, even though he fights to hold onto it. Damn it. “I want to trust you, Sam,” and here come the hives, as predicted, that hot, itchy feeling under his skin and behind his eyes. “But I need you to trust me when I say you’re going to live through it. You are.”
 
Because Sam is stronger, smarter, better. And yeah, he might miss Dean for a while, but then he’ll find some nice girl and settle down, pick up the pieces of his life where Dean ripped them to shreds and put them back together. There’s no Yellow-Eyed Demon to get in the way this time—just Dean. And Dean won’t be around forever.
 
Sam huffs, a quiet, wet sound, looking out over Dean’s shoulder before he looks back at his brother. Dean wishes he hadn’t. Sam looks…small, and behind whatever thin defenses he’s thrown up Dean can tell that something he said cut Sam deep.
 
“There’s a difference between living and not being dead,” Sam says.
 
“Very philosophical, Dr. Phil.” Dean’s smile is flat and short lived, desperate to get off this topic. He can’t handle Sam’s manpain this early, he just—he’ll fix it later, when his own foundations feel a little less shaky. He will. “Can we please get this show on the road before this dead guy’s nearest and dearest decide they’ve had enough of talking to the cops? Let’s go.”

~*~
 
Of course the guy’s only living family is his brother. Of fucking course he is. It couldn’t have been a cousin or an uncle or—really anything but a brother. Dean had kind of hoped they’d moved past dead brothers after the case of the deadly fairy tales and the third little pig; he doesn’t need this shit, and Sam definitely doesn’t need it.
 
And of course Bela is here. Fucking fantastic.
 
“Ma’am,” Dean grits out, so not in the mood to deal with her and her fake American accent and her tiny voice recorder, “I think this man’s been through quite enough. You should find somewhere else to be, far, far away.”
 
One of Bela’s greatest talents, in Dean’s opinion, is her ability to glare death rays without changing her face from angelic kewpie doll. “But I just have a few more questions—“
 
“Elsewhere, lady,” Dean snaps over whatever Sam started to say. Sam looks a little nonplussed but does Dean care? No, he does not. Because Bela is turning her recorder off with an audible snap and marching off, so. Mission a-fucking-complished.
 
“Sorry about that,” Sam tells Peter Warren, eyes doing that soppy doe-eyed thing they do around witnesses.
 
“They’re like roaches,” Dean chimes in, definitely loud enough for Bela to hear.
 
Sam leads Peter back toward the house—a classic move, there, all leaned in close, trust me trust me trust me oozing from Sam’s voice and expression. “Sir, would you like to tell us about that ship?”
 
Peter sighs, short and frustrated, dragging a hand over his face. Dean wonders how this guy is even speaking to police at all, has to shove off the urge to compare Peter’s loss to his own. Peter is a civilian. Peter didn’t lose a Sam.
 
“It was, uh…like the old Yankee clippers. A smuggling vessel, with the rakish topsail, Barkentine rigging, angel figurehead on the bow.”
 
“Wow,” Sam says, looking impressed. “That’s great. And that should be all we need, so—“
 
“Whoa, wait a second.” Dean frowns at his brother, You get hit on the head and forget how to interrogate a witness?
 
“No, really,” Sam grits out, head jerking towards Bela—freaking Bela—talking to some real cops, pointing their way.
 
“Alright fine. We’ve got to take off,” Dean says, shaking Peter’s hand and holding on just that extra second so he can go for the kill. “That’s an awful lot of detail for a ship your brother saw.”
 
“Oh shit,” Sam blurts, and then snaps his mouth shut, looking pained.
 
“Uh, I saw the ship too,” Peter says into the awkward pause, looking confused and increasingly pissed off. “We were night diving, I was right there.”
 
Sam exhales through his nose, nodding like he’s just been reminded of something terrible.  “Thank you, sir, we’ll keep in touch.” And he grabs Dean’s elbow and starts marching them away.
 
Dean jostles his arm when they’re back at the car, but it’s a half-assed attempt to get Sam to let go so he’s not going to feel bad when it doesn’t work. It doesn’t even surprise him that he’s grabbed a handful of Sam’s suit jacket, because otherwise this would just look awkward. He also doesn’t want Sam to be able to escape when Dean rounds on him.
 
“You’re gonna keep treating me like I’m an idiot? That’s fine,” he snaps, not suckered for a second by Sam’s big innocent act. “But if you think I don’t know the difference between my-brother-is-going-to-Hell weird and this? Pull your head out of your ass and think again.”
 
Sam looks shocked, wide open. Dean catches himself noticing how close they’re standing, how strange it doesn’t feel, and then he grits his teeth and makes himself say it all. “But I do trust you, okay?” Sam straightens up, almost rears back if someone can ‘rear’ about a fraction of an inch. “I’m trusting that you’re going to tell me what’s going on with you. Because I know that you know—whatever it is? I’m going to have your back.”
 
Sam’s mouth is just a little slack, eyes half-lidded and unfocused, turned towards the ground. But his hand is still on Dean’s elbow, and he can feel the shake that rolls through Sam before he fights it back.
 
“Jesus, Sammy,” Dean gets out, hand fisting in Sam’s jacket close enough that his knuckles bump against Sam’s side.  “You’d think I’d never said a nice thing to you in my life.”
 
“Yeah, sorry,” Sam says with a jerk and a sharp shake of his head. “Just…it’s been a while.”
 
Really? Dean thinks, taken aback. He can’t remember. He doesn’t keep track of these things. But he—he hadn’t thought it was so long that Sam would be starving for it like he seems to be.
 
Sam shakes his head again before Dean can do more than open his mouth. “Sorry. I will tell you,” Sam says, eyes apologetic and sincere in a way he can’t fake for Dean. “Just give me some time to sort everything out, okay?”
 
“What more could a guy ask for?” Dean makes himself spread his hands out in a gesture, even though the joints in his left hand hurt a little from holding on too tight. It’s Sam’s cue to let go, but he keeps his hand on Dean’s arm a few seconds longer before the sharp sound of approaching high heels makes him turn toward the Impala and flip up her trunk.
 
Bela is, as always, a joy to be around. She doesn’t understand why they’re gearing up to save Peter Warren, but Dean doesn’t expect her to get it.
 
“He’s cannon fodder,” she smirks. “He can’t be saved in time and you know it.”
 
Dean looks at Sam for solidarity, but his brother is engrossed in loading the sawed-off, so he lets him be. “Yeah, well, see,” he tells Bela, “we have souls, so we’re going to try.”
 
“Well, I’m actually going to find the ship and put an end to this,” she says. Maybe Dean has had a bit on his mind lately, but he doesn’t know why it’s taken him this long to notice that Bela prefers talking to him over Sam, by about a mile. “But you have fun.”
 
Dean looks to Sam again, and this time Sam looks up, mouth tight.
 
“What?” Bela asks, all clipped, British vowels. “Boys, have you already found the ship?”
 
He doesn’t want to tell her, and Sam doesn’t look all that warm to the idea, either. But if she can take over the research part of this for the evening, he and Sam can focus on keeping Peter Warren alive. “We’ve got a hunch,” Dean shrugs, once he has the almost imperceptible nod from Sam. “Espírito Santo. Might want to start with that one.”
 
“That’s all we’ve got for sure, though,” Sam cuts in, eyes sharp. Dean is willing to roll with it, spins Bela a smile.
 
She’s watching them both, probably trying to tune into the Winchester Brothers radio frequency that leaves a lot of people stumped. Bela doesn’t seem like the kind of person who appreciates being held out on, but boo freaking hoo. She’ll figure out Joshua Brighton in less than five minutes and cover the groundwork on unearthing the hand of glory, and as far as Dean is concerned it’s the least she can do. She shot Sam.
 
~*~
 
They don’t save Peter Warren, but it’s not for lack of trying. Sam even suggests they jump the guy’s pretentious rich-person fence so they’re closer than where Dean wanted to set up across the street in the Impala. The lights flicker sharply at ten past midnight, and Dean breaks a window, throws his jacket over the glass and hauls Sam up after him—it takes maybe ten seconds, all told, to get to Peter Warren spitting up water, clawing at his own throat, the ghost of Joshua Brighton snarling down at him as blood falls in sluggish drips from the stump of his wrist.
 
Sam gets the first shot off, as wild-eyed as his first hunt, and Dean skids to a stop by Peter Warren as he crumples, blue-lipped and lifeless. Dean flips him over, shoves his hands down on the guy’s chest to start CPR, but Peter Warren is cold in a way you don’t come back from. He still tries.
 
Sam hauls him back, grip shaky, and the ringing from the shotgun blast fades to the sound of sirens. Of course Peter Warren had a security system, and they have to leg it to get to the Impala before the red and blue flashing lights hone into view.
 
“I can say it this time, if you want,” Sam says into the dead silence of the car. Dean can’t even be fucked to turn on the weather report just to make noise, so it takes him a second to process Sam’s words.
 
Even then they don’t make sense. “Say what?”
 
Sam lifts one shoulder and lets it drop, tired in a way that makes Dean’s hand itch to check for fever again. “Can’t save everyone?” Sam offers.
 
“Yeah, Sam, I know.” Frustration settles down deep in his throat, and he keeps his gaze firmly on the road. What the fuck good is he, that he can’t save one lousy civilian? He told Sam once, as close as he could come to saying it out loud—it’s kind of a comfort staring down the barrel of Hell and knowing he’s not going to be able to disappoint anyone anymore.
 
“But I’m going to save you,” Sam says, louder than before. Dean looks over before he can stop himself, knows at least half of what he’s feeling is scrawled across his face. Sam’s resolve is like getting side-swiped by a Semi all over again. Dean isn’t ready for it at all.
 
“Dean,” Sam says, quieter now but no less of a gut-punch. “I’m going to save you.”
 
…But that isn’t his job.

~*~

When they were teenagers, squatting in a house was a luxury. They sprawled all over the building, Dean in one room, Sam in the other, Dad in whichever flat surface was closest to the door. Dean liked it best when there was just one wall between him and Sammy, so he could pound on it when Sam’s dumb music was too loud, tap out codes if he got bored, call out Sam’s name just to see if he was there. But they still had space, and it was awesome, breathing room just like any other normal person demanded as their right.
 
Then—well, Dean can’t exactly pinpoint when, but if he had to he’d say Stanford happened, and something in his fucked up brain decided ‘space’ is really just room to keep secrets. When he got Sam back, ‘space’ was the distance he had to cover from his bed to where Sam’s nightmares were eating him alive. And after Sam died, ‘space’ turned into a fictional concept.
 
They share a bed most times they squat, nowadays. If there’s a clear area they might drag a twin mattress in from another bedroom, but if it’s too much effort then fuck it. They’re brothers, the same flesh and blood. It’s like sharing a bed with yourself. Or a version of yourself that octopuses everywhere and lets off heat like a furnace, so most mornings Dean wakes up with his t-shirt tangled under his arms and Sam’s elbow in his face.
 
It’s fine. This way he knows Sam isn’t getting himself kidnapped. If he wakes up those mornings feeling like he’s never slept sounder in his entire life, it’s just—what’s it called—muscle memory. Or whatever. From when he was little, and Sam’s crib was the best place to be to keep Sammy safe.
 
The first night in this house Sam had kept his limbs to himself in a tight knot as close to the edge of the bed as he could get without falling off; Dean wakes up this morning overheated—which is normal—with Sam’s arm wrapped over his chest—which…is less normal but still understandable—clutching Dean’s amulet. Which is not.
 
Dean grunts and twists, and realizes a split second later that Sam’s face is buried in the nape of his hair. Sam sneezes, jolting himself upright and awake all in one go, hand clenching around the amulet and hauling Dean up with him. Dean winds up nose to nose with his bleary-eyed baby brother, sniffing his rank morning breath and wondering how long it’ll be before Sam notices that his hair looks like it’s been licked by a herd of cattle.
 
Sam clues into what’s happened the same moment Dean says, “Dude,” and Sam relaxes even though he doesn’t let go. He sways a little, almost knocking their foreheads together, shuddering out a sigh that sounds like, “Thank God.”
 
Dean shakes his head, gives Sam a not-too-hard push so he tumbles back into bed, falling on one elbow as Sam's grip drags him down. “S’okay, Sammy, go back to sleep,” he says, prying Sam off his amulet one finger at a time.
 
“Sorry,” Sam mutters, half-muffled in the pillow. “Thought I was wearing it.”
 
“Over my dead body,” Dean grumbles, tugging free at last. Sam snores, already out cold, settled on his stomach in the warm spot Dean left by shifting around.
 
It seems like a pretty normal thing to run a hand from the top of Sam’s disastrous hair down his back—until he’s doing it. Dean snatches his hand back and retreats downstairs to make coffee. And toast. If they have bread.
 
Sam stumbles downstairs an hour later, blinking owlishly at Dean with his hair still in that cowlick. It’s beautiful, and Dean finds himself grinning without particularly meaning to. Sam scowls.
 
“Shut up.”
 
“Didn’t say a word, Alfalfa,” Dean smirks, but slides his recently reheated cup of coffee Sam’s way. Sam doesn’t even glance twice at the Mickey Mouse handle before he starts guzzling, and Dean pats himself on the back for letting Sam sleep in. Sam gives him an uncertain smile and Dean looks back to his research, feeling weird and caught out.
 
There’s a knock at the door.
 
Sam jumps hard enough he almost spills coffee all over himself, and Dean is on his feet in an instant, gun in his hand as he makes his way across the squeaky floorboards. When he sees who’s on the other side, he almost wishes he could use the gun.
 
“Dear god,” Bela draws as she steps through the door Dean unwillingly unlocks for her. “Are you actually squatting?”
 
“You’re early,” Sam blurts. He should really try to flatten his hair; he looks all of six years old caught with a cup of hot cocoa, up past his bedtime.
 
Bela’s thin-plucked eyebrow arches. “I’m dreadfully sorry, I didn’t realize we were on a schedule.” She holds up a folder, previously tucked under one arm. “It took me less time that I thought it would to find the ship, thanks to your little tip-off. Meet Joshua Brighton,” she says, placing a glossy print-out of a sepia-toned photo on the kitchen table. Dean is all too happy to tune her out when she starts telling them stuff they already know about his hacked-off hand, because the picture she has is definitely the customer they met last night.
 
“Where the hell are we going to find a Hand of Glory?” he asks when she finishes, back to their original problem. 
 
“It’s at the Sea Pines Museum,” Bela says, oh-so-very smug, “as a macabre bit of maritime history.”
 
Dean levels a deadpan look at his brother instead of fist-pumping like he wants to. “And you thought this case wouldn’t have any burglary.”
 
“There is a much easier way to obtain the hand,” Bela pipes up before Sam can do more than open his mouth. “But I’ll need your help.”
 
“Name it,” Dean dares. Sam just sighs and sinks a little lower on his chair, Mickey Mouse cup held to his chest.
 
~*~
 
The night is going pretty well even if Dean says so himself; Sam as dear old Gert’s date is still freaking hysterical, the Hand of Glory is a piece of cake to steal, and Bela thinks Dean looks good enough in his tux to propose angry sex with him, which Dean is going to count as a win and never ever tell anyone about. Ever. Sex with Bela—even tame, benign, cheerful sex—would still be like sleeping with a giant British scorpion. No thank you.
 
Sam stumbles into him, and Dean rights his brother before Sam can crush the dead mummified hand tucked into Dean’s tux jacket. “Whoa, dude—“
 
“I forgot,” Sam hisses loudly, grabbing tight to Dean’s shoulders and inching between Dean and the wall, “how handsy she is.”
 
He is—wow, really drunk. Maybe not case-with-the-creepy-dolls drunk, but a long, long way from sober. “Sam,” Dean snaps, more than a little stunned, “we’re on a case.”
 
“My ass. Hurts. Dean,” Sam bites out, all puppy-dog eyes afterwards.
 
Gert appears with a last trip across the dance floor which he’s sure she thinks is some fancy footwork. Bela catches her with an, “Oh, Gertie darling,” but not in time to keep Gert from fluttering her hands over Dean’s chest trying to get to Sam.
 
“He wants me,” Gert explains to Bela, or possibly to Dean’s left earlobe.
 
Dean presses back on instinct, trapping Sam between his back and the wall, ignoring Sam’s small ooff of discomfort puffed out against Dean’s nape.
 
“I’m going to get Gert into a cold shower,” Bela offers with an indulgent smile, prying her free.
 
“Uh, yeah, thanks,” Dean says, unsure of what else to say. Bela’s smile deepens into her usual smirk, and then she and Gert disappear out the door, Gert leaning heavily on Bela’s arm as she twists around to wave goodbye.
 
Sam straightens up as soon as they’re gone—Dean feels him shift all along his back before he takes a quick sidestep out of the way—like one of those meerkats on the Discovery Channel, watching Bela leave.
 
“Dude,” Dean says because he has to say something, “you stink like sex.”
 
“That still doesn’t make sense,” Sam says, distracted and startlingly more sober than he’d sounded before. “Unless sex smells like cold cream and old people to you.”
 
Dean’s got nothing. “…Shut up. And you—“ He punches Sam on the arm, hard enough to make Sam look at him. “You with the drinking, what the hell?”
 
“I’m not that drunk. Not, uh, really.” Sam looks guilty, but yeah, Dean can see the awareness there that authentically-drunk-off-his-ass-Sam just doesn’t have. He’s stripping out of his tie right there, though, still in a ballroom full of people, tugging at Dean’s sleeve with his free hand as they head out the door. Dean gets a more-than-startled glance from the security guard he and Bela duped earlier this evening, but the moron can think what he likes about Dean’s sex life. “Not a whole lot anyway. I’ll be sober by the time we have to do anything.”
 
“Right. About that,” Dean drawls, appreciating the cold night air on the faintly sweaty skin that comes from wearing about a billion layers of pricey rental tux. “We’re meeting Bela in the cemetery in half an hour. You’re going to be sober by then?”
 
“Uh,” Sam says, “Sure.”
 
Dean gives him a look, but Sam has been handing out so many free passes since Dean’s deal that he doesn’t have a high horse to stand on. He sighs, rubs his forehead as he ducks into the Impala. “Man, you’re lucky I don’t actually need you for a salt-and-burn.”
 
Sam—when Dean glances over—looks like Dean just called him useless. There isn’t another way to describe it. Hurt and small and thinking his brother would be right to kick him to the curb; Dean recognizes that last part in his own reflection almost every day.
 
“Ah, Sam, I didn’t mean it like that,” Dean promises, tugging Sam all the way into the car and across the passenger’s seat to fit in a one-armed hug. Sam is drunk enough to be completely pliant, not nudging into Dean’s space so much as slotting together like a bullet in a chamber. Sam’s head lolls back against Dean’s arm, collar of his tux flying up like he fell out of a disco. The sideburns are not a deterrent for this comparison.
 
Sam sighs, limbs everywhere in an unselfconscious sprawl. If he ever acted this way in public he’d have to start beating admirers off with a stick; Dean feels a little swell of something—he’s going to go with pride—that he’s the one who gets to see Sam like this.
 
“Sorry,” Sam mumbles, eyes closed, eyebrows scrunching up and releasing. “I got bored. I didn’t mean to. Open bar. Handsy.
 
Dean wishes he could help himself, but really. “Well sometimes, Sammy, when a man and a woman love each other very much—she palms his ass a little.”
 
Sam bites down on a groan and pushes away from Dean, or more like tips himself in the other direction. His hand is still on Dean’s arm, his knee is still shoved against Dean’s leg, but most of his body is in the passenger’s seat. “Was gonna wait until the hotel, but fuck you,” he bitches, eyes still shut, “Check your pocket, Dean.”
 
“What?”
 
“The hand,” Sam says more clearly, dragging one eye open to watch him. “Let me see it.”
 
And yeah, okay, Dean’s pretty proud of the way he totally Mission Impossibled this fucker, so he tugs the handkerchief-covered parcel from his jacket pocket thinking about all the things he’s going to do with it—rest it on Sam’s shoulder, maybe wiggle it at Sam’s hair—and…then…it…
 
It’s a book. It’s a book on sea shanties of 16th century England.
 
“Huh,” Sam says, “That’s interesting.”
 
“It’s not the hand, Sam!” Dean shouts, shoving it under Sam’s nose.
 
Sam smiles up at him from where his head is propped up by the door. “You’re really good at this,” he says, nose wrinkling in delight. “Hey Dean, it’s also not a watermelon.”
 
“You’re brain damaged.” But most of Dean’s anger has already seeped into the footwell. He starts yanking at the buttons cutting off his oxygen supply, struggling out of the jacket so he can fling it at Sam’s head. “You of all people should be pissed off that you got groped by Mrs. Haversham for nothing.”
 
“AHA!” Sam sits up so fast Dean’s vision is spinning, but he just shakes his finger and then looks kind of sad and confused, so Dean grabs his face and pushes him back down.
 
“Sleep it off, Sasquatch,” he mutters, and pretends not to notice Sam shoving Dean’s suit jacket under his head for padding against the door. Sam’s smile is gone like someone wiped it off his face, and he shifts around, trying to get comfortable, before settling as Dean starts the car. His ass probably does hurt; Dean saw the length of Gert’s nails.
 
Dean is going to kill Bela.
 
~*~
 
Sam drinks two glasses of water and scarfs down all the leftover pizza from lunch, looking more and more guilty and restless even though Dean has no idea why.
 
“Dude, just go to bed,” Dean tells him the second time Sam gets back from the bathroom. “We’ll follow up leads on Bela in the morning or we’ll figure out some other way to kill this ghost.”
 
“Yeah. No. I know. I mean.” Sam actually attempts to look casual, which is half laughable and half just weirding Dean out. If Gert slipped Sam something extra in his drink Dean is going to set all of her crochet work on fire, see if he won’t. “I think I’ve got a spell figured out,” Sam says, pushing Dad’s journal across the table towards Dean.
 
“For what?” Dean skims the page, then goes back and reads it again. “Sam, this is for summoning a spirit.” 
 
“Yeah,” Sam nods, slow, like he’s making himself calm down. He still won’t make eye-contact. “I’ve got a spirit in mind.”
 
Dean waits, but Sam isn’t forthcoming. Definitely a sign that Sam is sobering up. “Who?”
 
“The Warren brothers,” Sam starts, and Dean almost opens his mouth to say You’ve got to be kidding before Sam continues, “Gert’s niece…They were targeted because they’ve killed someone in their family.”
 
Dean blinks. “What?”
 
“Gert’s niece killed a cousin in a car accident, the Warren brothers probably offed their dad.” Sam looks rueful for some reason, but before Dean can grill him about it he moves on. “So I did some digging, and—the Captain who hung our sailor boy was his brother.”
 
Dean sits back in his chair, carefully, feeling it creak. “Of course he was,” he mutters, and there’s a knock at the door.
 
Okay, it’s more like a pounding, and Bela’s panicked voice shouting, “Hello? Could you open up?”
 
Dean looks at Sam, knows the disbelief is stamped out in bold font across his face, but Sam is already out of his chair and heading for the door. He gets it halfway open before Dean plants himself at Sam’s side, barring her way.
 
“Just let me explain,” Bela says, pale beneath her makeup but not showing fear. “I sold it.”
 
Dean takes a very deep breath and counts to ten, because if he doesn’t he might just hit her. “Of course you did,” he grits out. “Why am I even surprised? Oh, maybe I thought you might have issues with letting people die for some cold hard cash.”
 
“That was quite foolish of you,” Bela agrees, and Dean realizes with an odd sort of twitch that any trace of her usual smirk is gone. “Could you let me in, please?”
 
Sam moves before Dean does, and Bela marches inside like she’s trying very hard not to run. “I need your help,” she says, sitting herself down at their table and crossing her legs, waiting for them to sit down. “Isn’t that what you do, help people?”
 
“Haven’t we helped you enough?” Dean demands. “We already stole the hand for you. In your cutthroat business world doesn’t that mean we get part of the take?”
 
Bela’s eyes are ice cold. “I’ll pay you, if you like.”
 
“No,” Sam says, forceful, and yeah, he’s right, they can’t be bought. “Bela, why don’t you tell us what’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
 
She stares at him, and Dean does too, something off in Sam’s tone. “Is that a joke?” she asks. “I saw the ship.”
 
Dean’s grip on the back of his chair goes knuckle-white for a second. “Wow…” He’d like to string together a list of words to call her but he doesn’t want to waste the effort.  “Just when I thought my opinion of you couldn’t get any lower…”
 
He lets Sam explain about the Cain and Abel situation, feeling tired in a way that’s only getting worse the closer Hell gets. “Who was it, Bela?” he asks when he sees the shock register on her face. “Who’d you kill?”
 
If looks could kill, Dean would be salt-and-burned. “None of your business.”
 
“You’re right,” Sam says, sitting down at the table next to her. Dean pulls a face, and Sam sends him a quick Just go with it. “But do you understand that that’s why this spirit wants you dead? It thinks you earned it.”


I think you earned it,” Dean chimes in, and is rewarded with a look from both of them, though the expressions are very different. Sam looks like he’s on Dean’s side, at least, but also like he has miles more patience for Bela than Dean could ever dredge up.
 
“Never mind,” Bela says, tone so clipped it might leave marks. “I’ll just do what I’ve always done. I’ll deal with it myself.”
 
She stands up and turns to leave, and Dean sees Sam grip the table like he has to stop himself from stopping her, and that’s what does it. Sam is losing people left and right and Dean can’t help being one of them, but he sure as hell can try to keep the body count low.
 
“We might have a way,” he says, head down between his shoulders. He doesn’t have to look to hear her heels stop.
 
~*~
 
“Do you really think this is going to work?” Bela asks, shivering under her jacket. If she wore normal clothes instead of flimsy designer things this would not be a problem. Dean isn’t cold. Not to the point of shivering, anyway. He is not a wuss.
 
Dean glances Bela’s way and shrugs, adjusting his grip on his weapon. “Almost definitely not.”
 
Sam is setting up the ritual, hands steady as he lights the five candles surrounding the pentagram and mixes the potion. Bela is so lucky they still had some lamb’s blood in the cooler, and that’s all Dean has to say on the subject as the wind picks up like a switch flipped, ink-black clouds blocking out the moon in record time. The rain comes down like a faucet twisted, thick and frigid before Sam can even get his jacket zipped.
 
“Sammy, you better start reading,” Dean says, but Sam is already hunching over the journal, trying to shield it with his shoulders.
 
“Aziel, Ca—“ Sam shakes his head, hair soaked and dripping, clinging to his eyes before he tries again. “Aziel, Castiel, Lameniel, Raboc, Erly et Belam ego vos coniuro per deum verum…”
 
The candles sputter and gust out, wind tearing at them so frantically it’s blowing the rain up Dean’s nose; he gets his arm up, squinting against the water on his lashes for any sign of the spirit, barking at Bela to stay close. He turns Bela’s way, and her eyes go wide at something over his shoulder.
 
“Behind you!”
 
Dean’s gun arm snaps up fast, but not otherworld-fast. The spirit slams Dean with the Force, which always feels like getting punched by the fist of God, and Dean’s back slams against a tombstone hard enough to shove the air out of his lungs. He thinks his gun goes off, but his vision is grey when he gets his eyes open and he isn’t sure, looks to Sam before anything else and blinks away the rain. There might be someone—but there’s definitely someone with his hand on Bela, and she’s on her knees choking up salt water.
 
Dean runs for them first, the spirit neatly shimmering out of sight and back again, further away so he can watch her drown. Bela clutches Dean’s wrist, nails digging into his skin and he can’t blame her, he really can’t. No one deserves to die like this. He shouts for Sammy to read faster, voice hoarse and barely audible over the storm.
 
The Latin—cuts off, ends. Dean can’t tell for a single, terrifying second whether Sam stopped on purpose or was stopped. But then the clouds part, like someone’s ripping them away as the rain fizzles to nothing. Dean will admit he’s shivering now, but Bela is still drowning and her grip is getting weaker.
 
The moonlight spills over the graveyard like a spotlight, and there’s their Captain, so completely the center of Joshua Brighton’s focus that Bela gurgles in a breath.
 
“You,” the spirit hisses, teeth bared, furious in a way that leaks everywhere, seizing up Dean’s chest with betrayal. “…Hanged me.”
 
“I’m sorry,” the Captain whispers. His hands are open, reaching for his brother. Dean wants him to give an excuse, wants to know how this man lived with himself, or if he didn’t. Dean would rather hang himself in Sam’s place. Has.
 
Dean isn’t surprised when Joshua lunges at his brother, but he flinches with bone-deep cold when they clash, spiritual bodies crashing into each other like a wave smashed against a rock and shattering into a spray of sea foam that dissolves into thin air.
 
The cold—most of it, anyway—fades to a normal chill brought on by the fact that it is night and they are soaking wet. Dean knows gut-deep that the spirits have burned themselves up, if the sharp ozone smell in the air wasn’t enough to go on. He looks to Sam, Bela shaking under his arm and against him and probably on the brink of passing out, but Sam isn’t looking their way. He’s looking at the guy in the trench coat watching them work with unblinking blue eyes.
 
Dean blinks in his place, but the guy looks solid. “Who the hell are you?”
 
“Dean—“ Sam starts, hand outstretched in something like a soccer mom save if it weren’t for the solid fifteen feet between them.
 
The guy doesn’t seem interested in Dean, focused on staring holes into Sam. He doesn’t look scared, not like a civilian who stumbled on something unexplainable. He looks…not all there. The way crazy people look when they’ve got a knife to someone’s throat and they don’t understand what you’re worried about.
 
“You’re out of your time,” he tells Sam in a deep, ominous monotone.
 
Sam’s mouth is tense; he shakes his head, rain water flying off his hair. “No.”
 
Dean starts to stand but Bela coughs hard and shudders like she might fall apart, and okay, maybe standing is out but he levels a gun at the guy instead. “Sam,” Dean says, loud and warning, “you know this tax accountant?”
 
“Cas,” Sam croaks out, “Castiel.”
 
The guy cocks his head like a cocker spaniel.
 
“Castiel?” An uneasy feeling clenches its fists in Dean’s chest. “Didn’t that word just crop up in the incantation?”
 
“I don’t know why he’s here.” Sam is breathing quicker, strained, and he won’t look at Dean more than a second, just to make sure he’s still there. His hands are clenching and unclenching, Dad’s journal forgotten at his feet. “He didn’t—“
 
There’s a sound like heavy flapping wings, and the guy—Castiel—is suddenly a whole hell of a lot closer to Sam than he had been. Dean scrambles into a crouch without thinking about it, and Bela collapses in a faint. Real one this time, nothing like the stunt she’d pulled at the museum.
 
“Bela?” he shouts, even though he knows he won’t get an answer, “Bela?” She doesn’t even twitch. Dean gets her onto her back to keep her airway clear and checks her pulse—quick but getting slower, evening out. She looks small like this, vulnerable like a half-drowned cat, and Dean shrugs out of his sodden jacket and puts it over her in case it does anything to keep her warm, one eye on Sammy and the stranger the whole time.
 
“Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on?”
 
“I do not understand,” Castiel says, same careful drone as before. Dean might as well be chopped liver. “We are in the present.”
 
Sam looks terrified. “I don’t know,” he grits out. “But don’t you dare try to take him away from me, Cas. It won’t end well for you.”
 
Dean’s on his feet fast enough to get a head-rush, hair on the back of his neck standing straight up at his brother’s tone. “Sammy—“
 
“Dean, stay there,” Sam orders, warns. Dean stays, but he makes no promises about being quiet.
 
Castiel’s eyebrows keep pulling tighter and tighter together, and he still hasn’t blinked, like he’s staring right down deep into Sam’s soul. “What have you done,” he says, “to Sam Winchester?”
 
Dean feels a little like his body is two steps to his left, and his insides are here, suspended, stuck in the moment before the lack of their fleshy containers sends them toppling to the dirt. Nothing makes sense, and then—with a snap like breaking bone—it does.
 
“No, Dean, no,” Sam—is it Sam?—says, desperate and god, he does all the right things, all the right facial expressions, the right tone. Dean feels frozen, the gun suddenly very heavy in his hand. “No, I’m not—I am Sam, I’m Sam, I—“
 
“No,” Castiel says with such finality that Dean flinches. He doesn’t know for sure if Sam does too, but he might. “No, you are the Sam Winchester of a Dean who doesn’t yet exist. Who may never exist.”
 
“That’s not—“ Sam yells, hands outstretched and it’s Sam, Dean knows it is. But.
 
Explain,” he barks over his brother, or, whatever he is. Sam goes quiet, but he looks like he wants to be sick.
 
Castiel  finally turns to look at Dean—or at Dean’s shoulder. “This Sam,” he starts, and Dean has no idea how he sounds like he’s reading the dustiest textbook of all time but saying things that are vitally important. “This Sam is from the future. He was not brought here by an angel, I would feel it.” He squints at Sam again, accusing. “I would know.” His gaze slips back to Dean, to his eyes this time. “I can feel no magic tied to this, of angel, man, or monster’s making. This is not…” He pauses for such a long time Dean starts feeling lightheaded from holding his breath. “…impermanent.”
 
Sam bends at that, something like relief making his knees sag for a moment before he can get a grip on himself, and Dean—Dean feels like he’s going to heave.
 
“Where is my Sam?” Dean spits, his gun thudding hard against his empty chest when he takes an involuntary step forward. “If this isn’t him, where is mine?”
 
Castiel blinks once. “Destroyed.”  
 
Dean doesn’t understand what the feeling threatening to kick his legs out from under him is until he looks at Sam and—it’s grief. Wild, panicky, denial-stage grief, about ten seconds away from knocking Dean on his ass.
 
“I’m sorry, Cas,” he hears Sam say through the rush of blood in his ears, Sam’s voice shaky but determined and Dean’s vision goes a little grey. “But you need to leave.”
 
“Whatever you’ve done has permanently altered the entire course of the world,” Castiel says, urgent for the first time. “I cannot—“
 
Dean hears Castiel cut himself off, and then he hears Sam’s quiet, “Now, Cas, or I’ll make you leave,” and there’s nothing but the sound of heavy flapping wings.
 
Then Sam’s hand is on Dean’s arm and Dean is surprised he’s still standing, but more surprised to look down and see Sam’s forearm, bare and bloody. He clutches it automatically, fingers searching for the cut to put pressure on it. “It’s not mine, it’s not mine,” Sam promises until Dean can figure out what he’s saying, “It’s the last of the lamb’s blood, a sigil for banishing angels.” Whatever the hell that means.
 
Dean tries to push him off but Sam is having none of it, holding Dean close in a brief, crushing hug that Dean tells himself he doesn’t want any part of. He doesn’t know what the fuck is going on and he might have a concussion from when that ghost drop kicked him into a tombstone. That would explain—a lot, actually.
 
He hears Sam grunt and when he looks, Bela is in Sam’s arms, her eyes half-open and unfocused but at least partially aware. Dean feels like he’s looking at them through a thick wall of glass. Sam’s whole face is crumpled and pleading, but Dean can’t feel it.
 
“Please, Dean,” he says, “I’ll tell you everything I know. But we’ve got to get Bela out of here.”
 
Dean nods because he knows that’s true, and when Sam steals his keys he climbs into the backseat with Bela, leaving the passenger’s seat bare.
 
~*~
 
Dean carries her inside because he doesn’t want to look at Sam, and Bela doesn’t even protest that she can walk which tells him how out of it she is. Her eyes are still open, though, less foggy, tracking things as they move by. Sam holds the door open, but whatever look Dean has on his face keeps him in the living room when Dean carries her up to the second empty bedroom upstairs.
 
“Hope you don’t mind a twin-sized bed,” he says, voice raspy on the half-assed humor as he sets her down and she sits up. “I’ll go find you some clothes.”
 
“Don’t bother.” Her voice is worse, hands down, sandpapered with salt water. She starts peeling off her jacket and shirt, and Dean turns around to give her privacy. “The bed has plenty of blankets. Once I’m dry I’ll be considerably warmer.”
 
“Yeah, well. Nothing better to do,” he says, and leaves to get clothes for her anyway. He grabs a pair of fairly clean sweats she’ll have to roll up and one of Sam’s shirts she could wear as a dress, but it’s flannel and it’s warm, so.
 
Bela’s bundled up in bed when he gets back, her face to the wall, and Dean figures that’s a pretty clear sign that she doesn’t want to talk, but oh well. “How’re you feeling?” He’s procrastinating, but it’s a legitimate question.
 
Bela sighs and rolls over, covers dragged up to her chin in a way that doesn’t quite seem like her. Or maybe this is normal, Dean doesn’t know, but he never thought Bela would be shy in bed even if she was just sleeping in it. This isn’t shyness, though; he can see in the set of her jaw that this is armor.
 
“I would kill for paracetamol,” she decides after a moment.
 
“Is that something like ibuprofen?” he asks, nodding to the bottle balanced on the bundle of clothes. In his other hand he has a glass of water, but he isn’t sure how soon she’s going to want to drink it so close to coughing it up.
 
“Very nearly,” she says, a hint of her former smirk creeping in as she sits up, careful to keep the blankets covering her chest. But her back is exposed, and Dean looks before he can help himself.
 
Bela tenses, but she doesn’t stop what she’s doing, sipping at the water. Dean doesn’t know what to do, aware he shouldn’t be staring but stuck on the sight of jagged, haphazard scars underneath her shoulder blades, down to the small of her back, curling around her ribs. Dean knows scars, knows these are old, knows because they’ve stretched to fit her as she grew up.
 
“I don’t want your pity,” she says. She hasn’t looked at Dean once.
 
Dean shrugs. “I don’t have any pity to give. If those scars are the reason this ghost came after you, then rock the fuck on.”
 
He sees the corner of her mouth creep up, and figures it’s time to let her be. “You’re still a thieving, lying bitch, though,” he adds at the door, and she turns to look at him, smirk firmly in place.
 
“I am aware.”
 
~*~
 
Sam is sitting on the couch with that yellow pad of paper, writing so furiously that he doesn’t notice Dean coming down the stairs. Dean isn’t sure he would have made it to the bottom if Sam was looking, so maybe it’s worth the way Dean’s skin feels like it’s peeling off.
 
“Going someplace?” he asks, and Sam’s head snaps up. “Gonna leave me a note when you left?”
 
“What? No, it’s—“ Sam stands and shows him the pages; Dean sees boxes and arrows and things scribbled out. “It’s a timeline.”
 
Dean takes a deep breath and makes himself walk closer. “A timeline… Right. Because you’re from the future.”
 
“Yes…sort of,” Sam says, cringing. Dean keeps looking for the places that he’s not Sam and it’s making his stomach hurt that he can’t see any. “Do you want to sit down?”
 
Dean sits in the overstuffed high-backed chair, with his gun in his lap and his flask of holy water open and in his free hand. Sam nods to it.
 
“I’ll drink some if you want me to. Silver knife, whatever you want.”
 
The thought of Sam cutting himself—even a theoretically-from-the-future-Sam—makes Dean want to punch himself in the face, so, no. But he screws the top back on the flask and tosses it; Sam catches one-handed, and chugs a big gulp down like, well, like it’s water. He lets some spill over his lips, too, so Dean can see that he’s not faking before he scrubs it away with the back of his hand.
 
“We should get the tattoos,” Sam blurts like he can’t help himself. “We won’t have to worry about things like this.”
 
“Sam—“ Dean starts, and shuts himself up, teeth grinding too tight.
 
“I know, I’m sorry.” Sam spins the top back on the flask and returns it to Dean, not throwing it, well into Dean’s space where Dean’s hand is tightening on the handle of his gun. Sam looks sad, but worse—Sam doesn’t look surprised.
 
He sits down on the couch on the end closest to Dean, elbows on his knees and his hands shaking like he isn’t aware of it. “I’ve lived,” he says, “chronologically…to the year 2009.”
 
“Jesus, Sam.” Screw sitting, Dean needs to pace, needs room before this mindfucking cuts off his air. “Do you realize how crazy that sounds?”
 
“Well, yeah, actually, because right now it’s 2007.” Sam digs out his cellphone and holds it out like Dean needs proof.
 
“Thank you, Dick Clark, I know what year it is.” Dean makes himself sit back down. “Saying for a moment that I believe you, and that you’re not suffering from a mental breakdown and I’m not suffering from a giant concussion—how did this happen? And if you say anything about a DeLorean or nuclear fission I will deck you, swear to God.”
 
Sam takes an unsteady breath and lets it out even shakier, right knee twitching as his knuckles turn white. “I did it.”
 
Dean sags in the chair, tired beyond the telling of it. “Oh come on, Sam—“
 
It was me, Dean,” Sam shouts, and falls back on Dean’s name, broken and scared. “It was me. You don’t know how bad it got. But it got—bad.” Sam’s voice is all but gone by the end of it, wetness building up against his eyelids no matter how hard he blinks it back. “It got so bad, Dean, you can’t actually imagine.”
 
He’s making Dean’s chest ache with the bone-deep big brother instinct to deflect, get Sam thinking about anything else, but— “2009…” he says, “I’d been dead for a year, then?”
 
“No,” Sam says, and it’s like a slap across the face, though Sam doesn’t mean it to be. Dean sits up so straight he’s almost standing in the chair, freaked right the fuck out.
 
What?”
 
“Dean,” Sam gets out, and then his head hangs low between his shoulders, hunched like he’s waiting to be hit. “I didn’t save you. I didn’t know how. I tried so hard… You went to Hell—” He drags a hand through his hair. “—and I went off every deep end I could find. I started drinking demon blood because Ruby said it would make me stronger—”
 
“Demon blood,” Dean says before the rest of it can kick in. “Why the hell would you—“
 
“It’s sort of a supernatural steroid,” Sam says, fumbling a little. “It—“
 
“Wait, Ruby?” Dean spits, so livid so sudden he can’t even see straight. “The demon bitch who told you she knew a way to save— I’ll kill her.”
 
“No you won’t,” Sam says with a finality that says he knows. “I will. But not before she kills you.”
 
Dean stares. For the first time he can’t see his baby brother in this person, the cold, dead fury burning in his eyes as he stares unfocused at the carpet, remembering. Then Sam looks up, and Dean watches him break free of that memory like it’s a physical thing that has a hold on him.
 
“My tenses are screwed up,” Sam says, trying to force a chuckle and just sounding wrecked instead. “That’s what did happen, not what will happen. This future changes, I know it can, I know it will.
 
“Sammy,” Dean tries, but Sam looks at him, pleading to let him finish. Dean shuts up.
 
“You went to Hell. Four months later Castiel—the angel in the trench coat?” Dean nods to show he remembers, even though angel is still a bit debatable as far as he’s concerned. “Castiel pulled you out. But four months in Hell is not—Time runs different in the mound, do you remember that book when we were kids? You were in Hell a long time. You were in Hell a lifetime. I tried everything. I tried to deal, I tried to open the devil’s gate and climb inside to get you out. And when I couldn’t—it was either self-destruct, revenge, or both. I went after Lilith.”
 
Dean’s stomach is rolling with every word out of Sam’s mouth. He has spent…a lot of his time not thinking about what this deal does to Sam, apparently did to this Sam, and now it’s being laid out for him, piece by ugly piece. How Dean’s—Dean’s pure selfishness did this to his brother, not any nobler thoughts of a world with Sam in it. Dean couldn’t live without Sam and this is what he did to keep him.
 
But he never thought Sam wouldn’t move on.
 
“Even when you got back—you were broken, Dean. They’d fucked you over so bad it took everything you had to keep it together. And I still couldn’t help you.” Sam is crying now, not heaving with it, tears just overflowing down his face. He drags in a breath and paws them away. “Meanwhile Lilith was busy breaking the seals holding Lucifer in Hell. I know, I know, Lucifer and Lilith and angels and freaking—so much biblical shit spills out of the woodwork after you go to Hell, Dean, I wouldn’t have believed it if you’d told me. Apocalypse. The. Fucking. Apocalypse.”
 
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer apocalypse?” Dean asks, an automatic attempt to lighten the mood.
 
Sam huffs, not really amused. “Worse. Probably. This one looked like it was going to stick. I mean, I don’t know how someone could come back from unleashing Lucifer on the world.”
 
There’s something about how he says it, a cringe in his tone, that makes it all click in Dean’s head. “Oh…” He sits back, hand against his mouth. “You told me this. Lilith was the last seal.”
 
“I didn’t know it would free Lucifer, Dean, I swear to God I didn’t,” Sam says, desperate and sincere. “Everything was…the worst. The worst you can imagine, and multiply it a couple times ‘cause it was worse than that.”
 
Sam’s hands are clenched together, white to the bone, and Dean can’t move. “You tried to stop me. It was too late. Ruby was waiting when you broke the door open, shot you—“ Sam touches his own stomach just under the ribs, where Dean knows the most vulnerable fleshy bits are. “You’d dropped the knife. I picked it up and killed her, but. You were bleeding out and it was like—like when the Hellhounds got you, all over again. And I couldn’t.”
 
He bites his lip so hard that Dean worries dimly that he’ll bite right through it, through the roaring panic that is always Sam in tears, the absolute certainty that he has failed his brother. It’s paralyzing.
 
“I—I don’t know how it happened,” Sam gets out, eyes glittering and trained on the floor like he can see something Dean can’t. “I should have been drained. I was drained, Dean, it took every last drop of power I had to kill Lilith. But I was screaming, the gate’s splitting open and this white light shining everywhere and I can’t stop looking at you, you’re bleeding out and I’m losing you, I’m losing you again, and…and you said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Dean,” Sam pushes through his teeth, “I got you killed, I set Lucifer free, I repeatedly lied to you for a solid year and you said ‘I’m sorry.’”
 
Something in Dean crumbles into nothing, all the little doubts built up against a wall of shock. Because that sounds exactly right. Because he knows when people are lying to him and this isn’t it. Because this is Sam, no future or present about him, just Sam.
 
“God, Sam, this is my fault.” He says it to his hands, can’t make himself say that he’s sorry for the deal. He still doesn’t think he can regret Sam being alive, even—He shouldn’t have to, he was never meant to deal with the aftermath, he doesn’t know how.
 
 “Are you kidding?” Sam asks, so shocked it makes Dean’s head snap up to see his brother’s face twisted in disbelief. “Jesus, I forgot you were like this. Dean,” he says, almost a yell, “I don’t want an apology from you! I just want you to fight. I want you to fight to live. Can you promise me that?”
 
Dean’s mouth opens, but only a little. He can’t think of a single thing to say.
 
Sam seems to get it, hangs his head and shakes it. “Please, just…try.”
 
There’s a bad taste growing at the back of Dean’s mouth, as all the cogs turn and things fall into place. “Sam.” He has to make himself speak. The gun feels like it’s bruising his skin where it touches him. “I would give anything not to ask this, but. Why didn’t you try to save Peter Warren’s brother?” Sam’s eyes lift, find Dean’s too fast; Dean has to look away. “I mean, come on, man, you had us go out drinking.”
 
It makes his skin crawl, makes him shy away from everything that could mean—that maybe this Sam just doesn’t care. Dean clenches his hands together, knuckles pushed white against each other. “I know he was a dick who murdered his father, and I know you knew that too. But we don’t pick and choose who we save, Sam, it is always going to be humans over monst—“
 
I couldn’t remember!” Sam yells over him, like the words have been building in him for days. Helpless, panicked fear darts across his expression in an instant, and Sam gives his head a violent shake to chase it back. “I tried, I couldn’t— It’s been two years and I couldn’t fucking remember his name. I read every word in the local phone book trying to jog my memory, I tried Googling the pieces I did remember, I— And then you started solving the case too fast.” He presses the palms of his hands against his closed eyes, which Dean thinks is probably a good idea; Dean has no idea what’s showing in his own expression but he has a good idea he doesn’t want Sam to see it.
 
After a couple, half-steady breaths Sam lets his hands drop. “I needed Bela on our side, and I knew we could save her. And I just. I just wanted to spend time with you, you know?”
 
Sam looks at him, and Dean really doesn’t. He doesn’t know what happened two years from now to put that look on Sam’s face but he never wants to see it again.
 
“I’m sorry,” Sam chokes out, “After you went to Hell… You don’t know how bad I fucked everything up.”
 
“It looks like you also fixed it, Doc Brown,” Dean points out after a long, horrible moment. He reaches out to cuff Sam upside the head, mostly just to touch his brother again, giving into the ache making him wonder if Sam isn’t real. But Sam leans into Dean’s hand and doesn’t even look like embarrassment crosses his mind, just relief, so much of it that the back of Dean’s mouth stings. He can’t focus on it right now.  
 
“Or this is all an elaborate angel mindfuck. Or I’ll screw it up worse than before.”
 
“Sam.” Dean looks at him steadily, all of his big brother instincts kicked up into overdrive. “You said yourself it couldn’t have gotten worse. Were you exaggerating?”
 
Sam looks faintly sick, eyes down, mouth in a flat, dead serious line. He shakes his head.
 
“Then we’ll fix it,” Dean says. He swallows, careful that Sam won’t see. “Okay? We’ll get it right this time. Thanks to you we’ve got a do-over.”
 
Sam’s smile is weak but it’s a smile, god damn it, and Dean will count it as a win.
 
~*~
 
Bela knocks on their door in the morning, or to be accurate, she knocks after she opens the door.
 
“Well, well,” Dean hears before his eyes come online, and then there’s Bela swimming into focus, watching them from the doorway. “Isn’t this cozy?”
 
“Shut up very much,” Dean grumbles, feeling Sam stir and then jerk upright.
 
“This isn’t what it looks like,” Sam promises in that awkward fidgety way that no one ever believes, ever, especially when he’s telling the truth. Dean sighs heavily and claws his way out of bed, tugging his t-shirt down and well aware that Bela is shamelessly enjoying the show.
 
“I’m sure,” Bela demurs, smugly. “Dean, do you remember when I said we should have angry sex? You can bring your brother along if you like.”
 
Sam splutters a little bit. Dean rolls his eyes to cover up the sharp jolt of something else he’s not awake enough to deal with. “Did you want something, Bela? Maybe you came to thank us for saving your life?” He lets the sarcasm fly and shakes out his jeans, zipping up as soon as they’re on.
 
“Actually,” Bela says, holding up—wow, two huge wads of cash. “In a manner of speaking, yes. It’s ten thousand dollars; that should cover it.”
 
She tosses one to Sam and one to Dean, who stares at it for the two seconds it takes Sam to come around the bed and snatch it from his grasp. “Hey!”
 
“We can’t take this, Bela,” Sam says, trying to press it back into her hands.
 
“Whoa, hey, yes we can,” Dean disagrees.
 
She fixes Sam with a look, not anything close to warm or even friendly, but somehow less hostile than she would have been yesterday. “I don’t pretend to subscribe to your soap opera,” she says, flatly. “But I also can’t pretend I wasn’t conscious for some of what happened last night. So. Sam Winchester from the future.” A muscle ticks in her jaw, a very brief and subtle tell. “You know about my deal?”
 
Dean tries very hard not to choke on his own tongue, but when Sam drops a hesitant nod Dean gives it up as a lost cause and starts coughing. “Jesus—what?
 
Neither one of them bothers to look his way. “Yes, I know.” Sam is sorry, and that’s enough to make Bela’s eyes widen just that fraction more. “And I think you know how it’s going to go,” Sam adds, voice gentle.
 
“I’ve always known,” she says, sharp before she reigns herself back in. “I’ve had ten years to come to terms with it.” Unlike some people, she doesn’t say, but her eyebrows dart up as if daring them to make something of it, her mouth in a thin line.
 
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Sam says, and Bela takes a startled, alarmed step back, fingers closing around the cash on auto-pilot. Sam lets her take it, and doesn’t crowd into her space. “Bela, I think I’ve got a way to save you and Dean.”
 
It’s quiet in the house. They picked it because it’s in the middle of nowhere, but Dean would kill for a truck rumbling by right about now. Birds, hell, a bear busting through the downstairs window would be a welcome distraction from how none of them are breathing, waiting for Bela’s answer.
 
“How?” she demands finally, dangerously suspicious.
 
“The Colt,” Sam says simply, hand moving to show where Dean’s duffle is at the foot of the bed. “It kills anything it hits. Vampires, demons…and I’m willing to bet it works on Hellhounds.”
 
“Willing to bet,” Bela says.
 
“Yeah.” Sam’s tone dips into reproach. “We’d know for sure, but last time I dealt with Hellhounds you and Dean got ripped to shreds because you’d stolen and sold the Colt to the highest bidder. Do you see a reoccurring pattern, here? Stealing and selling the one thing that could save your life?”
 
“Sam, Sam,” Dean warns, coming up alongside his brother to calm him down, show him that Dean is still very much alive. Sam makes an effort to relax, but he doesn’t lose any tension until Dean moves into his peripheral vision and stays there.
 
Bela’s expression is heavily guarded, and she folds her arms to add another barrier. “What would you need me to do in exchange for your help?”
 
Sam takes a deep breath and settles a fraction more when Dean’s shoulder brushes his. “Not a whole lot. In a few months we’re going to need your help getting our hands on some African dream root. We need you to not steal the Colt. And when your deal comes due, we need you to come to us. Bobby has a panic room in his basement—“
 
“He does?” Dean interrupts, surprised and impressed.
 
Sam glances his way so fast Dean almost misses it. “Yeah. It’s a nice place.” There’s something dark in Sam’s tone he shakes off before Dean can open his mouth to ask about it. “We’ll hole up there with the Colt, you, me, Dean, and Bobby. The Colt’s our best bet for killing them, but I think they get hurt, same as anything else, so normal guns should work for the rest of us. They also have a physical presence, so I was thinking we could try dropping flour on them, or whatever, some sort of powder—”
 
“What the hell, Sam, we’re not breading them,” Dean cuts into Sam’s rambling.
 
“If we don’t,” Sam says, “Bela’s going to be the only one who can see them.”
 
Dean and Bela’s eyebrows make a leap for their hairlines. “Oh, am I?” Bela says.
 
“When your deal comes close to being due you’ll start hallucinating a little. You’ll be able to see demons for what they really are, too. But if the rest of us want to see the Hellhounds I think the flour will work, we just need to get enough of an outline to shoot at. The panic room has one door, they have to come in one at a time, which gives us the advantage. And then we just—keep shooting until they run out of Hellhounds. Or until Lilith shows up.”
 
Dean had never even heard of Lilith—except as Fraser’s ex-wife on TV reruns—before two days ago, but there’s something in the way Sam says her name that sets his nerves on edge every single time. “You think she’ll show? For Bela?”
 
Sam looks grim. “I think…if she doesn’t hold Bela’s contract, whoever does will come running to her when they see we’re involved.”
 
Bela takes a breath that’s meant to steady, and Dean finally notices that yeah, Sam’s flannel shirt on her comes down to her thighs. “Basically,” she says, “my deal is going to be a test run for you saving your brother.”
 
Dean can feel Sam tense, but he doubts Bela’s aware of it. “Yes.”
 
“But it sounds like a good shake better than you gave yourself,” Dean points out, annoyed on Sam’s behalf.
 
She considers him, eyelashes low. “And what’s to say Sam is telling the truth about the future? Maybe I stole the Colt and saved myself.”
 
“Bela—“
 
Dean plants himself between them, staring Bela down. She doesn’t budge. “Don’t make me threaten you,” he says, easily enough. “I haven’t had coffee yet, and I don’t like threatening people before breakfast. I don’t think you’ve had coffee yet either, otherwise you wouldn’t be acting so dumb about this.”
 
“Wouldn’t I?” She holds her ground, he’ll give her that. But Dean knows her damage, now, and while that’s not something he’s going to exploit, it gives him that edge he needs to figure out where her head is at. They aren’t so very different.
 
“No,” he says. “Bela, I know your instincts are telling you to look out for number one, because the only person you’ve ever been able to count on is yourself. And trust me, I get that. If I didn’t have Sam—if I’d never had a little brother to put first—I’d probably be the exact same way. But you’ve got to trust other people sometime, Bela. And you trusted us to save your life last night. All we’re asking is that you do that one more time.”
 
Not a single part of Bela is smiling, but she’s not as hardened as before, shifting her weight before she bites out, “Fine.”
 
Dean closes his eyes for a second; he’s not entirely sure how that worked. Or why.
 
“But you should take the money anyway,” Bela presses, a shake in her voice Dean pretends he can’t pick up on. “Consider it a down-payment on your services. And if your little plan works out…well.”
 
Dean looks to Sam, who doesn’t look sure, but Dean is not about to refuse when she’s vulnerable like this. “So,” he says to cover up the fact that he is absolutely not accepting the cash out of pity, “Ponying up ten grand is easier for you than a simple ‘thank you?’” She narrows her eyes at him but the smirk is creeping back, solid enough that he can duck his head and tag on, “You’re so damaged.”
 
“Takes one to know one,” Bela says, voice heavier than she probably means it to be. Dean has no delusions that she is anything but right on this count.
 
“Bela,” Sam says, bringing her up short in the doorway. Her things are there, Dean realizes; she’s not sticking around for coffee. Bela turns just enough that she can see Sam over her shoulder, so she can watch Sam chew at his next words. “Coming up pretty soon… There’s a hunter, name of Gordon Walker.”
 
She nods, carefully. “I’ve heard of him.”
 
“He’s going to ask you where to find us,” Sam says. “I need you to tell him where we are.”
 
Dean wants to speak up, but Sam is sending very subtle signals to keep quiet.
 
“Well. That’s a fairly tall order, but I’ll see what I can do.” Bela smiles, as close to her usual self as Dean has seen since the gala last night. She picks up her clothes still wet from the rain, says, “Goodbye lads,” and leaves without looking back. Dean appreciates her style.
 
“Isn’t Gordon Walker in prison?” he asks, rounding on Sam and waiting, with quite a lot of patience considering the circumstances.
 
Sam shakes his head. “I’ll fill you in. Shit,” he mutters, realizing for the first time that he’s spent the whole time talking to Bela in a V-neck tee and boxer briefs. Dean isn’t going to pretend that’s not the best part of his morning so far.
 
“Ten grand,” Dean says while Sam finds himself some pants. “You know what we should do—“
 
“We’re not going to Atlantic City, Dean,” Sam cuts him off, shaking a stray sock from his pant leg. “You lose everything at craps in the first two hours and none of the girls are interested in sleeping with someone with bad luck.”
 
Dean looks at Sam. Then at the money. “…Such a fucking buzzkill, Sammy.” 

~*~

Gordon comes for them in New York state, picking the lock to their motel at two in the morning with a sandy-haired guy Dean recognizes from Sam’s Very Bad No Good Day. Sam and Dean are waiting for them on the roof, rifles at the ready. Sam takes Gordon out with a single shot to the neck, severing his spinal cord so neatly Gordon likely never knew what hit him. He falls like a puppet with his strings cut and the other guy takes off running.
 
Sam and Dean talked about this, about how this guy—Kubrick, that’s his name—how Kubrick was killed by Gordon in the timeline, about how leaving him alive might leave them open to attacks in revenge of Gordon’s life, if Kubrick can drum up a posse rabid to take down the anti-Christ. They’d talked, Sam leaning hard on the side of caution and Dean in favor of less murders than absolutely necessary, and Dean had won.
 
Dean takes one look at this guy, and something shifts. If they hadn’t known this was coming—no matter what Sam and the timeline say—if he and Sam had been in the motel room right now they would be dead, and Kubrick would have had no problem slitting Sam open.
 
He lines up the shot himself, hands rock-steady.
 
~*~
 
The next morning they clear out a growing nest of vampires. Dean feels Sam watching him the whole time, like Dean is a land mine ready to blow at the first sign of pressure. And it really isn’t that Dean minds the attention—maybe he likes it a little too much, but—
 
“How am I doing?” Dean asks when they’re throwing their gear together to head out.
 
“What?” Sam asks, eyes darting away.
 
“Timeline-wise, how am I doing?” Dean asks, knowing somehow that this is the right question to ask. Especially when Sam stops packing—first in surprise, then because he’s thinking his answer through.
 
“You were—you were getting reckless,” he says eventually. Most of the time Sam looks better now that they have a plan than he did the few days he was hiding the situation from Dean, but now he looks—distant, in a way Dean hasn’t seen in him for a while. “You were taking stupid risks,” Sam continues, bite clipping in on his words as he starts shoving things in his duffle again. “And we’re not talking run-of-the-mill stupid Winchester risks, we’re talking—Fuck, Dean, death wish risks.”
 
“Huh,” Dean says after a moment. Then he shrugs, lips scrunching up. “I’m not doing any of that.”
 
“I know,” Sam huffs, hand tangling in his hair. He finally looks at Dean. “I can tell when you’re scared, and you’re not. I don’t know why you aren’t scared, Dean, you should be terrified by now.”
 
Dean has the start of a theory niggling at the back of his mind, but he doesn’t quite feel like sharing with the class.
 
Sam drops his hand with a sigh. “I’ve probably just knocked you back into the denial stage,” he mumbles. “Which is…great.”
 
“I don’t know, man,” Dean says. “Would it make you feel better if I sat around all day writing sad poems about how I’m going to die?”
 
“What? No,” Sam says, startled into amusement. His bangs slide into his eyes, same exact way they always have since he was old enough to say no to Dad’s buzzcuts. “Nothing rhymes with ‘Shut up, Sam,’ anyway.”
 
Sam glances at him, and Dean feels weird, left out of his own inside joke. Annoyed at the person he was in an alternate timeline who, yeah, probably wasn’t a joy to be around but got closer to Sam because of it.
 
The Impala starts rattling just outside of town, so Dean nudges her over to the shoulder and calls an impromptu lunch/tuning/beer break. He has his head buried deep under her hood when he feels Sam behind him, watching, and when Dean checks over his shoulder there’s a strange, wry smile on Sam’s face.
 
“You know, you, uh,” Sam starts, gesturing with the beer he’s been nursing. “You started teaching me how to take care of the car.”
 
Dean gives him a look, but Sam doesn’t seem to be lying. “Jesus,” Dean mutters, straightening up. “I must’ve really thought I was kicking the bucket, huh?”
 
“Yeah, well.” Sam stares out at the road. “You weren’t wrong.”
 
Dean flips the box wrench in his hands, eyes narrowing. He hates the smile on Sam’s face, all self-deprecation and regret. “But did you remember any of the shit I taught you?” Dean asks, leveling the tool at Sam’s chest. “Talk about denial, I bet you were so far down that river in Egypt—“
 
“What?”
 
“—that you just turned your ears off every time I talked about what to do or not do after I died. Am I wrong?”
 
Sam looks pale and strained for a second, which Dean hadn’t meant to do at all. He’d mostly—okay, partially—been talking about the car.
 
“I bet you douched her up,” Dean says, slapping on a pout as he turns back to his baby, running a hand over her grill. “Put in some froufrou air-freshener dangly thing from the rearview mirror…padded seat covers…”
 
“I hooked my iPod up to the stereo,” Sam confesses, and his head falls back with the laugh knocked loose when Dean looks at him.
 
Dean chews him out with an undercurrent of affection so strong he should probably be embarrassed for them; helps Sam fumble through half-remembered engine maintenance, hip to hip as the occasional car rolls by on the highway and their beat-up old cooler props up Dean’s bag of tools.
 
~*~
 
In Ypsilanti, Michigan they dispatch a pair of Pagan Gods, a couple straight out of a fifties sitcom who give Dean the creeps. Sam gets a nasty gash to his arm before stabbing Mrs. Pagan God in the chest with an evergreen stake they’d cut themselves, though Sam keeps looking at the couple’s perfectly decorated Christmas tree like he’s looking for an excuse to tear it down.
 
“Sammy, hey, let me look at that,” Dean says, knocking Sam’s hands away from the cut so he can see how bad it is.
 
“Seriously, Dean, this is nothing,” Sam says, still breathless with adrenaline. “Last time I lost a fingernail. Couldn’t type right for a month.”
 
“Oh boo hoo,” Dean shoots back out of habit, but he’s scowling down at Mrs. Pagan God and wondering how much poor taste would be involved if he kicked a monster that’s already dead. He’d read up on the lore even though Sam said he didn’t have to, because Sam is fucking with the fabric of time and that means things don’t always go according to plan; Dean had wanted to be prepared in case the Pagan Gods started improvising, so he knows about the fingernails and the blood sacrifice and the tooth.
 
“They didn’t get any teeth last time, did they?” Dean asks, running his tongue over his own molars to assure himself they’re all present and accounted for.
 
“What?” Sam asks, distracted and then surprised. “Oh, no, they were about to yank out one of yours when someone rang the doorbell.”
 
Someone rings the doorbell.
 
Sam stares at Dean.
 
“You have got to be fucking kidding me.” Dean yanks a reindeer-sprinkled table runner out from under a kewpie doll nativity scene and shoves it at Sam to staunch the bleeding on his arm as they sprint to the back of the house, out the door, and into the seasonably warm December night.
 
Somewhere in there Sam starts laughing, biting his knuckles to keep quiet when they have to crouch behind a Suburban and wait for the lady in the god-awful Christmas sweater to leave, disappointed, with her fruitcake. Dean figures it’s stress, a lot of it, after days of Sam beating himself up over not being able to remember the addresses of the people who got munched by the Pagan Gods before Sam and Dean could get to them.
 
“C’mon, Sammy,” he whispers, “Just hold it together a little bit longer.”
 
“S-s-sorry,” Sam stammers, pressing his face to Dean’s shoulder to muffle the sound, whole frame shaking with suppressed laughter. “I’m trying to s-stop.”
 
“It’s okay, buddy,” Dean promises, hand in Sam’s hair without thinking about it. And it is okay, it’s okay because Fruitcake Lady is driving off and Sam has been stretching himself too thin—staying up late, pouring over the timeline as he turns that massive brain to every possible outcome wrought by every job that they do.
 
Sam is mostly calmed down by the time they get back to the motel; he only laughs outright when he looks down at the table runner pressed to his arm. It’s not a deep gash, once Dean gets it cleaned up, but it’s long, and the bandage runs out with a third of the cut left to go.
 
“Damn it,” Dean snaps, almost runs a hand over his scalp before he remembers Sam’s blood on his fingers. He sighs and stands, goes to the bathroom to wash it off. “I’ll run out to the 7-11 and stock up.”
 
“Get some beer, too, okay?” Sam says, rolling on his side to fish the TV remote from the bedside drawer and Jesus, the kid is a million miles long. “What?” he says when he catches Dean looking at him, blinks innocently. “It’s Christmas.”
 
It doesn’t sink in. ‘It’s Christmas’ is just a generic time of year for them, has been since they were kids and Dad stopped calling to even wish them Merry Christmas when he was off on a hunt. Sam was about nine, Dean thinks, the last time they had anything like a Christmas, and the fallout from that—well, it’d kind of put Dean off the holiday season in general. He’d never seen his Dad so angry, or get so quiet afterwards.
 
Dean has to juggle things when he gets back to get the key in the lock, beer and bandages and iodine, because they were running low. Not enough to warrant a plastic bag, just cumbersome enough to be a pain if you need another hand. He winds up giving the door a kick when the handle turns, misjudges and sends it snapping back to bang against the wall.
 
“Whoa,” Sam says, turning so fast he spills yellow-white liquid from his cup down over his fingers. “Hey, man, you okay?”
 
Dean stops in his tracks long enough to catch the door when it tries to swing shut. Sam got Christmas lights from somewhere, and a wreath made out of beer cans. He cut snowflakes out of advertisements and left the little pieces on the floor, scattered like confetti. There’s a half-dead tree that looks freshly chopped down propped up in a corner, and it looks like Sam used the table runner to finish up his bandage so he wouldn’t bleed everywhere.
 
“What is this?” Dean asks even though the answer is pretty obvious. He feels like the rug just got yanked out from under his feet.
 
“What’s it look like?” Sam’s eyes are bright, happy. “It’s Christmas.”
 
“Wh…” Dean takes everything in a second time, hoping it’ll make more sense. “…Why?”
 
“I know we didn’t talk about it,” Sam says, setting his cup down—Christ, Dean thinks it might be eggnog—and stepping closer. “I was waiting for you to bring it up, but—you didn’t, so. I just. Did it anyway?”
 
“In the other timeline,” Dean translates, piecing things together as he goes, “I asked for a Christmas.”
 
Sam nods, hesitating, looking for the first time like he might have fucked things up but confused about how.
 
Dean’s shoulders slump. “Shit, Sam…” A flicker of hurt shock shifts over Sam’s features, and Dean can’t. “I…I didn’t get you anything.”
 
Dean hears Sam’s relieved huff of air, too busy staring at the six pack and bandages and iodine to see what Sam’s face is doing now. Wondering how far short he’s fallen from his other self this time.
 
“Dude, don’t worry about it,” Sam says, knuckles bumping Dean’s shoulder, and he sounds sincere. Dean looks up, and Sam looks—nervous and happy, eager to take Dean’s things so he can hand him a cup of eggnog. “Let me know if it needs more kick.”
 
Dean coughs at the first sip, whiskey burning at the back of his throat. “Fuck, any stronger and it’d be paint thinner.”
 
“But good, right?” Sam asks, grinning anyway.
 
“Oh yeah. And you’ve had how many?”
 
Sam laughs. “Not a drop, officer. Been waiting for you.”
 
Dean believes him, which means that Sam is just naturally being this happy, and Dean doesn’t know why that makes his insides squirm.
 
“Come on,” Sam prompts, planting himself on the couch and motioning for Dean to take a seat. “I—we can still do your present. Don’t feel bad, okay, I didn’t…think this through.” Sam swallows hard enough that Dean can see it, but Dean can also see when Sam forcibly shoves away the urge to dwell on that, slapping a smile on instead.
 
Dean opens the Sunday cartoon packaging on the gift Sam hands over and tries not to think about how long it’s been since they had access to Sunday cartoons, how long Sam has been planning this. Then his eyes about fall out of their sockets. “Sam—“
 
“I saw you looking at it when we were in that occult shop on our way through Erie,” Sam says, casual like that wasn’t weeks ago. “The design is Enochian, a protection sigil. Cas could probably tell you what it says around the edges.”
 
 “Yeah, I am definitely going to ask an angel of the lord to read my belt buckle.” Sam snorts. Dean turns the heavy silver disk over in his hands, then again, running a thumb over the runes. “Sammy, I don’t even know what to say. Thanks.”
 
There’s a high flush on Sam’s cheeks; Dean blames the alcohol. “Don’t mention it.”
 
Dean gives up and sighs, sets the buckle aside so he can lean forward on his knees, closer to his brother. “Sam…” He sees Sam’s feet as he shifts, tensing up, and finally just makes himself look Sam in the eye. “Man, you’ve got to tell me these things.”
 
Sam doesn’t ask ‘what things’ like Dean is half expecting, just sits there and looks uncomfortable. “I’m sorry,” he starts, “I’ll work harder—“
 
No. Sam, you work any harder you’re going to kill yourself.” Dean takes a quick breath and slides all the way to the edge of his chair, as close to Sam as he can get without climbing on the couch with him. “But…things like this. I just feel like I’m missing out on a hundred different times we were brothers together, not just—guys who happen to kill monsters out of the same car. I mean. I would’ve got you a present.” Dean sighs and braces himself. “What did I get you last year?”

 

Sam barks out a startled laugh, sudden enough to make Dean sit up. “Um. Shaving cream and skin mags, actually.”
 
Dean’s jaw drops a little, no lie. “What?”
 
“Dean…” Sam shakes his head, fond. “It was all last minute. You wanted Christmas, and I was kicking and screaming about the whole thing for days. You wanted a last Christmas, and. I don’t know.” Sam’s lips press together then relax; Dean guesses this is some sort of smile. “Turns out I can’t say no to you.”
 
Dean stares. “You say no to me all the time. Sam, don’t go to college! Sam, don’t go after the crossroads demon! Sam, don’t open the arc of the covenant, your face will melt off!”
 
Sam chokes back a laugh. “Dean, that’s—Indiana Jones—“
 
“I know who it is,” Dean snaps. Then, “Shaving cream and skin mags? Really?
 
“And I got you motor oil and a candy bar,” Sam says, doing a good impression of someone who doesn’t understand what the problem is. His shoulders lift and fall. “Dean, seriously, you didn’t know I was throwing Christmas then, either. For all I know you got the skin mags for yourself and pawned them off on me.”
 
Dean shakes his head because he can’t say that—that’s probably exactly what happened. Even though the thought of giving Sam jerkoff material makes the back of his neck feel too hot. And…well, shit, he just remembered they’re out of shaving cream.
 
The flush is creeping from his neck up to his face, and Dean takes a burning gulp of eggnog-flavored whiskey to mask it. Sam doesn’t look fooled so much, but hell, the kid is smarter than Dean remembers to give him credit for sometimes.
 
For example: Sam takes the unspoken hint that Dean is done talking about this and sinks back into the couch with a loose-limbed sprawl that Dean recognizes as exhaustion more than alcohol, though Sam doesn’t look like he’s even thinking about bed just yet. “Want to watch the game?” Sam asks, nodding at the squat box TV shoved against the wall.
 
There’s a smile tugging at Dean’s mouth at the obvious distraction, but whatever. He shrugs and moves to sit next to Sam, and if Sam looks pleased and surprised behind his eggnog then Dean pretends not to see it.
 
The TV is older than dirt, picture blue-tinged and streaked with lines, but Dean isn’t interested in the game so much as he’s interested in Sam falling asleep sometime tonight, so he keeps Sam’s eggnog cup filled to the brim and makes sure they’re always touching, even if it’s just a little bit, a subtle way to let Sam’s body know it’s okay to shut down. By halftime—and what game is this, even, that it’s running 2 a.m. on a Thursday?—Sam is slumped against him, cup balanced on his stomach jiggling every time he snickers quietly to himself at whatever commercial is nudging his funny bone on the screen.
 
Dean is in…not much better shape. He switched to straight whiskey a while ago. Everything is warm and fuzzy and Christmas and Sam, honest-to-god snow sprinkling on the Impala outside. Dean realizes with a sick, tilting sensation that he hasn’t thought about his deal in hours, and before that it was just a faint…notion, not the thudding, frantic knot of panic he’d gotten used to fighting back.
 
Thinking about the end game, though, sends it all crashing back down. Dean doesn’t know if Sam realizes the only reason he’s not fighting tooth and nail against a plan to save himself is that they’re saving Bela first. And saving people, hunting things… It’s Dean’s whole damn purpose. The one thing he’s remotely good at on earth, the one thing he’s going to keep doing until the Hellhounds start snacking.
 
He takes a shaky breath and turns his head, hides the exhale in Sam’s stupid, shaggy hair, which is suddenly in his face. He sneezes, messy, feeling overwhelmingly drunk, and Sam jerks away with an aborted grunt and a bleary, “Ugh, Dean, what--?”
 
“Merry Christmas,” Dean mumbles, and drags himself upright against the spinning of the room. “C’mon, Sam,” he says, pawing at Sam’s arm and knocking the cup free of his fingers in the process. Oh well. It’s empty. “Up. Bed.”
 
He somehow almost trips over the TV when he shuts it off, narrowly avoids falling on his ass getting out of his boots. He stops when he’s stripped down to his t-shirt and boxers, confused about the landscape, the way—oh. Dean always takes the bed closest to the door. Sam always sleeps on the side closest to Dean. But he’s not. He’s on the left, and. Shoving down the covers for Dean.
 
“Heater’s broke,” Sam says, looking proud of himself for only slurring a little. “If you don’t wanna, s’cool.”
 
But the way Dean sees it, he has two years of failed Christmas presents to make up for. And Sam’s bed does look warmer than Dean’s.
 
He wakes up once in the middle of the night, drooling on Sam’s chest. Sam snorts awake just enough to mutter a few curses and mop his chest with the edge of the blanket before shoving it in Dean’s face to make Dean roll away. Maybe. Except Sam follows him when he moves, huge arm flung over Dean’s side turned dead weight as Sam falls asleep between one breath and the next. Dean follows him under, lured by the smell of family and fake pine scented air fresheners.
 
In the morning Sam finds the one and only tattoo parlor in Michigan open on Christmas Day.
 
“Merry Christmas to me,” he grins, and Dean decides he is absofuckinglutely absolved. It hurts like a son of a bitch, every single trucker he has ever met has lied to him about the ‘natural high,’ and he gets smirked at for a solid two hours by an “artist” named “Crow” who thinks it is “super cute” that Dean is getting a matching tattoo with his “Significant O.”
 
“I am never getting you another damn thing,” Dean swears, cringing as he pulls his t-shirt carefully down over the tape.
 
“Tell me that again next Christmas,” Sam says, “and you’ve got a deal.”
 
~*~
 
“Hey, Sammy,” Dean says on their way to Ohio.
 
“Yeah?” Sam looks up from the timeline when Dean doesn’t continue right away, flashing an uncertain smile. “What’s up?”
 
And Dean knows he shouldn’t talk about, knows there’s a very real danger of scaring Sam off if he brings it up. “Uh,” he says instead, “How ‘bout them Yankees?”
 
The timeline rustles as it’s set down, a million pen-stained yellow pages on Sam’s lap. “Dean,” Sam starts in on him, warning. “Dude, what is it? Come on,” he coaxes when Dean’s mouth stays shut and he’s still smiling. “Tell me.”
 
“It’s nothing, just—“ Dean pushes out a breath and keeps his eyes on the road. “You’ve been really happy, lately, and—don’t get me wrong, okay, because you happy is… It’s good. Really good.” Better than Dean is going to cop to, to anyone. “But I’m paranoid, alright, and I’ve got this feeling I should be asking you why.”
 
He makes himself look over to the passenger’s seat. Sam is still but not tense. Blinking. Caught off-guard, Dean guesses.
 
“…Huh,” Sam says, just loud enough to be heard over Zeppelin II. Dean turns down the volume, even though he knows it’s a bright red flag telling Sam how invested he is in this answer. “Well…” Sam mouth quirks, the way he always does when there’s a glitch in their non-verbal communication. “It’s, uh. Just nice being around you. I guess.”
 
Dean’s focus snaps to Sam and stays there, fuck the road, it’s a straightaway. “Around me?” he repeats, eyebrows doing their damnedest to convey all sorts of incredulity. “What the hell were you doing not being around me?” Sam shakes his head but Dean can’t figure this out. “Are you telling me you took off after Lilith by yourself? After I was back from Hell? Where the hell was I?”
 
“Dean—“ Sam’s air slips out as he looks down at his hands. “It’s—complicated.”
 
“Oh come on,” Dean shoves back, “More complicated than you rewriting the entire goddamn universe? Jesus, Sam!” He hits the steering wheel, not hard because the Impala did nothing to deserve their bitch fights. “Tell me you didn’t go after this demon alone.”
 
Sam is pinching the bridge of his nose. “I can’t believe you’re mad about something that never happened.”
 
“It happened to you!”
 
Dean’s shout rings in the car. He makes his fists unclench, watches his knuckles turn from bone-white to something more skin colored.
 
“I missed out on two years of your life, Sam.” Dean feels vaguely hollow, skin sizzling with anger that has no real target to aim for. You couldn’t pay him to get his eyes off the road, now. “The absolute least you can do is fill in the blanks.”
 
It takes two miles on the speedometer, but Sam starts talking.
 
Dean loses a mile of what Sam is saying, but only one, only after Sam let slip the apparent fact that all demons were human once, and Hell just beats the humanity out of them. He can’t think about it, Sam’s voice blurring into white noise before he shakes himself off and tunes back in, and it’s still horrible, but he needs to hear it. Thirty miles later Dean has to pull off on the shoulder so Sam can heave up the remembered taste of demon blood.
 
Sam twitches away when Dean comes near him but Dean doesn’t give a fuck, sacrifices the last beer left over from Christmas so Sam has something to wash his mouth out with. They both pretend that they don’t notice Dean’s hands are unsteady, but Dean is not about to let Sam think it’s because Dean is afraid of him.
 
The Yellow Eyed Demon bled into Sam’s mouth. When he was—Jesus fucking Christ, when he was just a baby. It’s the anger making Dean shake, helpless and useless like always.
 
“I know what you’re thinking,” Sam rasps out after he spits and drags a limp hand across his mouth. The air around them smells like asphalt and the puke between Sam’s feet, and Dean isn’t even tempted to move somewhere else.
 
“Oh, I sincerely doubt that.”
 
“Yeah?” Sam won’t look up—until he does, and Dean wishes he hadn’t. “Because you always think it’s your fault. Every bad decision I make is somehow because you didn’t—I don’t even know, Dean. I don’t have a single clue what you think you should’ve given me that you haven’t.”
 
Dean stands his ground, so damn careful not to let Sam see how much it costs him to keep his reaction to a shrug. “Normal?”
 
“N—Normal?” Sam actually looks surprised by Dean’s answer, which is a surprise in itself. “Dean,” he says, “Normal was never a real option. Not for us. Do you remember the djinn we killed a while back?”
 
It’s a safe bet that Dean’s concept of ‘a while back’ is a lot less than Sam’s, but he nods. Sam nods with him, trying to make him understand. “You saw what normal did to us. We couldn’t stand each other.”
 
“Yeah, but.” Dean rubs a hand over his forehead to buy himself some time. “You were happy.”
 
“Dean, I guarantee you—“ Sam looks like he means to stand but thinks better of it, bracing a hand on the Impala’s door to steady himself, gaze locked somewhere around Dean’s knees. “I promise. If I was happy it was only because I didn’t know what I was missing.”
 
An eighteen-wheeler blows by before Dean can gather enough brain cells to answer, close enough to send a small shower of gravel up against the Impala. Dean about has a hernia, but whatever expression shows up on his absolutely stoic features is enough to knock Sam into a startled, genuine smile, so.
 
His tattoo aches, but not in a bad way. Maybe Dean’s natural high is just now kicking in.
 
~*~
 
In Tiffin, Ohio they exorcize a woman named Tammi, disband a coven of witches, burn a couple grimoires, and phone in a tip that a woman named Amanda was overheard plotting the murder of one Janet Dutton. That places everything so far in the realm of Normal People Problems that Dean kind of wants to high-five Sam for efficiency, but he’s in the middle of suggesting shots instead when a sexy little blonde walks into the middle of the road, just like Sam said she would.
 
She kills the Impala’s engine before Dean can decide whether or not to hit the breaks, which makes it…difficult…to exit the car like a calm, rational adult. Dean only manages it because he’s a badass.
 
“Ruby, I presume?” He whips out his best winning smile. “Sam’s told me all about you.”
 
She’s looking at the gun in his hands, squinting against the headlights’ glare, wary of Dean like she has every right to be. She’s not looking at Sam’s side of the car at all.
 
Ruby stands a couple seconds after the Colt’s bullet hits her, straight to the heart like she’s Sammy’s own personal Yellow-Eyed Demon. Lightning flares up under her skin, once, twice, jaw dropped open and eyes wide with betrayed shock. Dean thinks she dies too soon, but maybe he’s just being petty.
 
Sam sinks back into the car with the Colt clutched in his hands, looking like he’s about to hyperventilate, so Dean walks to Ruby’s crumpled body, giving Sam a minute. He’s heard enough to know this isn’t something he can come close to understanding, but there’s no one inside his head to judge him for feeling proud, for feeling vindictive and purely happy that this time around, Sam chose family.
 
He drags Ruby to the side of the road, still in plain view for the next car who passes with their lights on, far enough away that she won’t damage anyone’s undercarriage by running her over. She’s light, moves easy; Dean folds her arms in deference to the body Ruby stole, takes the knife from off her belt, and doesn’t look back.
 
He doesn’t know—doesn’t want to know—how someone who used to be human could turn into a creature that would do what Ruby did to Sam. Just thinking about it makes him feel like he’s swallowed pins, makes his hands shake until he curls them into fists and thinks about nothing at all. 
 
“One super nifty demon-killing frog-sticker, as ordered,” Dean announces as he gets in the car, holding up the knife to prove he’s got it.
 
Sam is staring at the blood trail smeared across the pavement, too lost in his own thoughts to even look up. “Are you tempted?” Dean asks, and pretends like this is something he knows how to deal with if the answer is yes.
 
“No.” Sam sounds…disappointed isn’t the right word, but it is a release of something not quite relief. His voice only shakes a little. “No. It’s gone. I think it all burned up.”
 
“On reentry,” Dean finishes. Sam is looking at his hands, the way they fit around the Colt. “You think it’s gone for good?” he asks, doesn’t let himself worry about how much he’s watching Sam in the dim light from the Impala’s dash or the headlights spilling out onto the road. The engine purrs, ready, but there’s no rush to shift her out of park.
 
“I don’t know,” Sam says, thumb running over the inscription on the barrel. Non timeha mala. I will fear no evil. “That seems a little too lucky, though, right?”
 
Dean waits, Doobie Brothers on the radio asking where would they be now without love. “You okay?”
 
Sam’s mouth twists around a shaky exhale.
 
“I get it,” Dean offers. “The demon’s blood’s been a part of you since you were a baby. So it’s fine if it feels like a piece missing, I’m not gonna blame you.”
 
“You’d blame me if you’d lived it,” is Sam grim reply. He shakes his head before Dean can call him on it. “No, it’s—it doesn’t feel like anything’s missing.”
 
“Well, that’s good, right?” It’s pretty much a dare for Sam to tell him otherwise, but if shit’s going to go down Dean wants to be as ready as he can be.
 
Sam fumbles the Colt and Ruby’s knife into the glove compartment before answering, and when he does it’s just, “Yeah. I guess.”
 
Dean figures he knows a sign for done talking about this when he hears one. The Impala rolls forward without a single rattle, swallowing down the asphalt smeared with Ruby’s blood in a heartbeat. There’s a flash of her leather jacket and a pale, limp wrist in the headlights as they pass her body, and then nothing. Just miles of pavement.
 
“It feels like something should be missing,” Dean thinks he hears Sam mutter at some point, but he can’t tell for sure over the radio.
 
When the pistons keep on turning and the wheels go round and round, and the steel rails are cold and hard and the mountains they go down…without love, where would you be now?
 
~*~
 
They call Sam’s angel buddy in the morning, in a field eight miles out of town. Sam keeps slipping up and calling the guy ‘Cas,’ which annoys the angel and pinches at Dean.
 
“Why would I help you?” Castiel demands, staring straight at Sam like he can see inside his skull. “You’re an abomination.”
 
“Hey, now,” Dean warns, lifting the end of the sawed-off he has slung over one shoulder. Sam told him not to bring it, told him it wouldn’t hurt Castiel anyway, but it makes Dean feel better. “One more word like that out of your mouth and I swear to God, feathers are gonna fly.”
 
He’s hoping the God dig will piss Castiel off enough that Dean can take the brunt of the attention for a bit, because Sam is still struggling to hide the fact that he looks like he’s just been turned into a puppy and drop-kicked by an angel of the Lord.
 
It works; now those piercing blue eyes are jabbing pins into Dean’s soul. “You cannot harm me, boy.”
 
 “You know,” Dean says, instead of socking the guy like he wants to, “I thought angels were supposed to be guardians. Fluffy wings, halos… Michael Landon. Not dicks.”
 
“Read the Bible,” Castiel orders, more human in that instant than Dean has seen from him yet. “Angels are warriors of god. I’m—“
 
“—A soldier,” Sam cuts in, stepping between them with his hands up, placating. “Yeah, I know. And I know it sounds strange but we really are friends. In the future. You pulled my brother out of Hell, Cas.”
 
Castiel looks vaguely uncomfortable, in the way that clams look vaguely like oysters. “I was,” he stops to clear his throat, “probably working under orders.”
 
“That doesn’t make me any less grateful,” Sam says, so earnest Dean can’t look at it for long.
 
“Listen.” Sam takes a short breath and dives in. “I know questioning authority is not something you’re really, uh, prepared to do right now? But don’t trust Zachariah. I don’t know for sure what his endgame was but it sure as hell wasn’t stopping the apocalypse.”
 
The angel blinks for the first time since he arrived. “Why should I trust what you say?” His tone is less venom, more curiosity, but it doesn’t stop Dean’s hand tightening on the gun.
 
“Because I’m from the future?” Sam offers, arms outstretched. “Because I have no reason to lie to you. And because I need your help.”
 
Castiel frowns. “Help with what, exactly?”
 
“We killed a demon last night,” Dean tells him, wedging himself back into their conversation. “Went by the name of Ruby. Sam thinks her disappearance is going to tip Lilith off to what’s what and we need your help to keep her in the dark.”
 
“What was Ruby’s connection with Lilith?” Castiel asks, and Dean feels a sharp spike of annoyance that none of these hard-won plot points are fazing this guy in the least.
 
“Spy,” Sam says, easily enough. If the angel hears the strain in it that Dean does, he doesn’t let on.
 
“Bitch,” Dean adds, being helpful. It puts him on the receiving end of some rather pointed looks, but oh well.
 
Castiel turns away, possibly just for the dramatic effect. “I may be able to help you.”
 
It would be an outright lie to say a huge knot of tension between Dean’s shoulder blades doesn’t give a little. Sam, though, stays so rigid he’s giving Dean sympathy cramps.
 
“But will you,” Sam says, not quite a question. The shotgun feels too heavy on Dean’s shoulder, chest tight as he waits to breathe for the angel’s answer.
 
“…Perhaps.”
 
“What do you want?” Dean asks, patience sapped. “A pony? Angelina Jolie’s phone number? I can ring a little bell if it’ll get you your wings.”
 
Sam gives him a very pointed, Shut the fuck up glare before he turns back to face Castiel. “I don’t know a whole lot about the angel’s side of it,” he says around the sudden tenseness. “But I can give you a couple names of angels you should watch out for—”
 
No,” Castiel says with a finality that makes the hairs on Dean’s arms stand straight up. “You’ve told me too much already. The information you possess is poison to the way things should have been, and I want no part of it.”
 
For the first time Sam looks angry, but he reigns it back. It’s only there in the careful way he’s not closing his hands into fists, the quietly controlled tone of his voice when he says, “The world can’t need an apocalypse. You can’t think we should let that happen.”
 
Castiel turns his gaze to the ground, for the first time unsure. Then, like it’s costing him something to admit, “I have not informed my superiors of what happened the night I found you. It could change too much. But you are correct regarding our wishes to avert the apocalypse, which suggests I should do what I can to keep your brother from the fires of Hell. A righteous man,” Cas adds, tilting his head to look at Dean.      
 
Sam stiffens, probably pissy about being ignored. “How about this,” Sam has to pause and swallow something, calming himself down, “If you ever change your mind about knowing things, or if you ever get into trouble—I want you to come to us. See if we can help. We’ll owe you one. ”
 
Castiel looks a little cagey, still—hell, Dean isn’t sure he likes this idea of partnership so much, either. But Dean gets that Sam has some kind of history with the guy that makes him think Castiel is trustworthy, and Dean will always have Sam’s back.  Whether he likes it or not, this means Dean will spit on Castiel if he’s on fire. Provided he asks for their help.
 
Finally, finally the angel nods. “We have an agreement.”
 
“A deal?” Sam presses.
 
“Yes,” Castiel sighs. “A deal.”
 
Sam shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Do we, uh, need to shake on it or anything?”
 
Dean doesn’t realize the gun has shifted from his shoulder to both hands until Sam flinches at the movement. It’s irrational, a knee-jerk reaction, but if Castiel thinks he’s getting to first base with Sam he’s got another think coming.
 
“No,” Cas says, eyes on Dean’s weapon. “Angels keep their word.”
 
The grass around them shivers in a wind Dean can’t feel, and the angel is gone, like he’d never been there at all.
 
Sam gives Dean and Dean’s shotgun a glare that says he is not impressed. But he doesn’t look like he’s got a noose wrapped around his neck anymore, so Dean finds it extremely hard to care.
 
He shrugs, wide-eyed. “What?”
 
“Don’t even,” Sam warns, and it shocks Dean that he means it, so much that Dean blurts what he’s thinking out loud.
 
“You would’ve let that angelic douchebag kiss you?”
 
“To keep you safe?” Sam snaps, lashing out, “I would’ve done a hell of a lot more than that.”
 
~*~
 
“Sam!” Dean snaps, forcing his heart rate down to something more reasonable. It isn’t healthy for it to spike every time Sam leaves his sight, really. His brain catches up to what his eyes are telling him and he takes a second just to make sure he’s got it right. “What are you doing?”
 
Sam turns on his barstool with the air of someone who needs to make sure they won’t fall off it. He’s projecting Why is this strange to you, and doesn’t even see the irony when he says, “Having a drink.”
 
“It’s two in the afternoon,” Dean points out, and catches a whiff of the drink in Sam’s hand. “Drinking whiskey?”
 
“I drink whiskey all the time,” Sam protests.
 
“No you don’t.”
 
“Christmas,” Sam says proudly, like he’s been saving that.
 
“Jesus,” Dean mutters, pinching the bridge of his nose. But he makes himself calm down, reminds his still-fritzing body that Sam is right here, safe, and did not get kidnapped by crazy, scabby truckers at the gas station out front. He takes a seat at Sam’s elbow, lets Sam have another sip before he braces his elbows on the counter. “I guess, uh… This Ruby’s death is still hitting you kinda hard?”
 
Sam’s eyes roll. “Dean,” he says, too loud, sharp. “Not everything is always about me.” He frowns, checking the sentence over, but nope, he looks satisfied.
 
“Ohhkay.” Dean watches Sam glare at his glass for a moment, then tries again, clearing his throat. “Look. You’ve been running yourself pretty ragged with figuring out every damn angle on the timeline. And god knows that I appreciate it, but…if you need to take a break—if we can take a break—“
 
Sam gets very close, hands on Dean’s shoulder, barely far enough away to maintain eye-contact without either one of them going cross-eyed. Sam’s breath is warm on his face, a weird mix of coffee and Tennessee Rye.
 
“Not. About. Me,” Sam spells out before Dean can ask What the fuck are you doing? Then he turns back to his drink.
 
Dean’s breath comes whooshing out, but it’s really just frustration. “Should I be pulling out the maps?” he tries, “Planning a course to—anywhere? Sam, you haven’t even told me where we’re going next.”
 
“Dude, just. Shh for a second.”
 
Dean shuts up, but it’s only because he’s a hunter through-and-through and if there’s a creepy crawly making noise that Sam can hear and Dean can’t, well, he’s gonna close his mouth.
 
Sam’s expression is all wrong for creepy crawly, though, looking at Dean like he doesn’t know what to do with him. “No,” Sam shakes his head. “No, I’m… This one’s gotta happen. Exactly the way it happened before. Something… I don’t know. But you’ll figure it out.”
 
“I’m so glad you’re not cryptic and shit. That would be annoying.”
 
Sam’s eyebrow twitches at him, amused just enough that Dean gives up, cutting his losses. “Fine,” he grits out. “Fine. So you’re drinking because…?”
 
Sam’s huge shoulders lift. “I was drinking before. I was upset, you weren’t—you aren’t—“ The tenses seem to trip him up and he stops, tries again. “I know it’s not just me trying to save you, this time. I know you’re going along with the plan ‘cause it’s a good plan. But you’re still just…letting things happen.”
 
Dean knows Sam is doing his best to inject his tone with camaraderie and understanding, which almost smarts more than if he was outright blaming Dean. Sam plays with the condensation puddle absently, pressing down into the wet and dragging it away until it breaks.
 
“I forgot how bad it was,” Sam says, quiet, eyes open wide, like he’s admitting something he’s ashamed of. “I just. I have no fucking clue how you can think so little of yourself. I can’t see this from your point of view at all. It’s a first. It sucks. I hate it.”
 
Sam’s throat is clenched tight around the words, and…Dean feels like he’s not quite here. One shade off. And yeah, it’s a defense mechanism, he’s not stupid, but he can’t be present in a conversation where he has to tell Sam that blind hero worship doesn’t—
 
His phone rings, loud enough that Dean almost startles right off the barstool.
 
Sam has to take a breath before he can smile, but then he makes it look easy. “Answer it,” he says, “It’s about Bobby.”
 
~*~
 
Sam sleeps the whole way to Pittsburg, which works just fine for Dean; he can’t think of anything to say, and doesn’t want to work at it. Bobby in a coma—seeing it in person, not just hearing some doctor tell him over the phone—is enough of a shock to knock them back in the swing of case-related chatter easy enough. Except for the fact that Sam won’t give him one single, solitary spoiler.
 
“Oh come on—“
 
“No,” Sam snaps the third time Dean presses, drawing up to his full height in a way that might intimidate people who aren’t Dean. “And stop asking. Stop second guessing. Just do what you’d normally fucking do.”
 
He might be legitimately hungover, which is the major—if not the only—reason Dean doesn’t push harder. Also the smallest possibility that Dean might be acting like an ass, but he’s willing to bet he was mildly pissed at Sam in the timeline, too. Probably.
 
So he’s mildly pissed when Sam stays behind to “research”—fuck all, because he already knows everything they need to do to solve this case—and he’s mildly pissed when he goes to Doctor Sleeping Beauty’s office to dig around his files, and shockingly his mood hasn’t improved by the time he tracks down Jeremy Frost from some motherfucking African Dream Root sleep trials (and where has Dean heard that plant name before? Hmmm). So when Jeremy “definitely not a stoner” Frost offers Dean a beer, Dean thinks fuck it and fuck Sam and chugs it on down.
 
Sam gets right into Dean’s space when he gets back to the hospital, in a purely physical, non-verbally aggressive way that make’s Dean’s brain stutter to a stop. “What are you doing?” he asks, careful to keep still as much as possible while Sam leans in closer and—
 
“Sniffing,” Sam says, and inhales. Dean feels his cheeks heat up, some sort of muscle memory when Dad checked his breath for alcohol and cigarettes before he turned sixteen.
 
Sam takes one look at Dean’s face and his expression cracks into a grin, wide and unsurprised and exasperated and still 99% proud. Dean has no real clue what to do with that, and Sam wanders off shaking his head before he can figure it out.
 
Bela comes through with the dream root. She’s looking…tired, Dean thinks, but not worn down. He’s starting to think it’d take more than anything Hell has to dish out to knock Bela’s resolve once she sets her mind to something in her best interests.
 
He still sits on the Colt the whole time she’s in the hotel room. “No offense,” he swears when she catches him at it.
 
Bela’s dark-painted lips purse into her usual smirk. “None taken. This is dangerous stuff, and hard to come by,” she adds to Sam. “Consider it a good faith gesture on our deal.”
 
Sam looks like he wants to argue that they really don’t need bribes to save people, so Dean cuts him off at the pass, says, “Thank you,” and “Goodbye,” and “See you in a few months,” because he at least understands that Bela needs to keep her armor up. He gets a smile for his efforts, which is more than Sam gets. Ha.
 
Then they’re whipping up Essence of Bobby tea and chugging it down, and suddenly the rain is falling towards the sky.
 
~*~
 
Dean wakes up even more on edge than when he went under, which is an achievement. Sam sits up wincing, touching his chest and shoulder like they hurt, and even knowing Bobby is out of his coma isn’t enough to keep Dean’s mood from plummeting.

~*~
 
“Jesus, fuck, just tell me where he is!” Dean shouts, so loud his throat aches. His eyeballs feel like someone took sandpaper to them, his skull is pounding with caffeine. He hasn’t slept in two. Fucking. Days.
 
“I can’t,” Sam tells him again, patience stretched so thin over his tone it’s barely there at all. “Dean. I told you. I don’t know where Jeremy is. I never did.”
 
“Sam, I swear to god—“
 
“It’s the truth!” Sam snaps, and something in Dean snaps too.
 
“Alright, that’s it.” There’s a side-road and Dean takes it, coaxing his baby as gently as he remembers how until she’s settled between the dark, leafy trees. He shakes off his seatbelt, kills the engine, knocks his head back against the seat. “I’m done.”
 
Sam sighs in relief, and Dean’s eyes pop back open. “…That’s what you were waiting for all along?” He means it to come out angrier, but Sam looks so…something Dean can’t even muster the effort. “Fuck you,” he says instead, pointing at Sam in case there’s any doubt of who he means. He shuts his eyes.
 
And jerks them back open again when Sam rips out a piece of his scalp. “OW!”
 
“You’re such a baby,” Sam mutters, sprinkling Dean’s hairs in his thermos of extra African Dream Root tea they hadn’t yet choked down, which Dean saw him preparing but thought it was just for—shit, Dean doesn’t know what he thought. He was wrong.
 
“What are you doing?”
 
“What’s it look like? Coming in with you.”
 
“No, you’re not.”
 
Sam gives him a look. “You really want to bet on that?”
 
No, Dean doesn’t want to bet, thanks so much, but—“I don’t want you digging around in my head.”
 
“I know,” Sam says. “Tough.”
 
The dream starts as suddenly as before, melting from reality into something distinctly not in the blink of an eye. They fall out of the Impala to the tune of Dream a Little Dream of Me, music faded and studded with skips, like it’s being played on an old school record player in the middle of the forest. Sam doesn’t look surprised, which is not at all shocking. Dean rolls his eyes.
 
A spotlight hits the forest floor, yellow-white and welcoming, and Dean takes a step toward it without a doubt in his mind that it’s a good—light, thing, whatever. And Sam steps into it, which just solidifies that feeling right there.
 
There’s a sharp breath behind him, though, and Dean turns from the light to see Sam, his Sam, staring at a…dream, has to be a dream, something Dean’s brain whipped up. The dream-Sam is moving around what looks like a kitchen, brand new jeans and un-tucked flannel, reading a folded newspaper with one hand and drinking from a blue ceramic mug with the other. This Sam turns and catches sight of Dean over his shoulder, mouth curling instantly into a grin.
 
“Hey, man, glad you’re home,” the dream-Sam says. His voice sounds like it’s coming from the bottom of a tin-can, but it sends a fission of something down Dean’s back, thickening when this Sam ducks his head, embarrassed. “I know it’s pretty corny, but I, uh, made you a pie.” He says it like he can’t actually believe it himself, but he taps the counter with the newspaper and yeah, there is a pie there, all golden crust and steaming. Dean might hear a gurgle of disbelief from his real brother but he doesn’t care, caught up in the way Sam’s spitting image huffs, all warm exasperation. “Hurry up and grab a slice, the game is on.”
 
Dean is abruptly aware of his Sam watching him watch his brother’s copy, and there’s no faking the confusion in the real Sam’s face. “Huh.” Dean refuses to feel bad about whatever this is—it’s his subconscious, Sam bought a ticket to this roller coaster, and if Dean’s subconscious wants Sam to make him pie, then. Yippee.
 
The spotlight stutters, Sam’s image with it, and the mirage vanishes like a TV with the power button punched. And even though Dean knows it’s a dream, knows it was never real to start with, it tugs at that instinctive part of him that says Sam, Sam’s gone, snatches at the air in his lungs.
 
“Where’d you go?” he blurts without thinking, turns, and there’s Sam, the real Sam, looking so stunned it might be funny later.
 
After he catches Jeremy, who picks that moment to show his scruffy stoner face from behind a tree.
 
Dean takes off running, Sam close at his heels. But it doesn’t really surprise him when they get split up, somehow.
 
Then the woods turn into wallpaper, and Dean abruptly has other things to worry about.
 
~*~
 
He doesn’t say a word to Sam when they wake up with a gasp, back in the Impala, just forks over the keys and calls to let Bobby know it’s over. Bobby’s gruff but heartfelt thank you is the last thing Dean hears for twelve solid hours of slightly cramped sleep in the backseat. When he drags himself upright, he isn’t sure which of the aches are from the car and which are just pure exhaustion, but he’s pretty sure it doesn’t matter. 
 
“I tried to wake you when we got to Bobby’s but you wouldn’t budge,” Sam says, and Dean almost brains himself on the door because he really hadn’t seen Sam there.
 
“I’m going to get you a bell,” Dean mutters, standing up so he can stretch out his spine with a swallowed groan.
 
Sam’s hair is messed up, eyebrows knotted together with concern, jeans worn thin with too many washings, though Dean doesn’t know why he’s picking up on Sam’s clothing now. Well, no, not true, he’s paying attention because the Sam in his dream had looked—as weird as it sounds—provided for. No, that’s not—it isn’t quite right, it’s just that Sam had looked…good. Happy. Comfortable.
 
Dean’s mirror self, on the other hand. Not so much. About as far on the other end of the spectrum as you could get, honestly.
 
“So,” Dean says, because Sam is still hovering, “that was about as much fun as getting kicked in the jewels.”
 
Sam looks out over the car lot, shaking away his bangs when they blow against his eyelashes. “I don’t know what you saw,” he says, carefully. “You never told me.”
 
Dean’s face blood splatters pitch black soulless can’t escape me— Dean blinks it back and looks anywhere else. Yeah, he knows why he didn’t.
 
Sam doesn’t try to get closer, hands half-turned palm out like Dean might shy away. “I just know it was something you needed to see.”
 
“I don’t want to go to Hell,” Dean blurts, alarmed at the words the instant they fall out of his mouth. Because saying them out loud suddenly makes all of this real and he can’t, he hasn’t, he isn’t fucking prepared for this—
 
Sam lets out this great whooshing breath like he aims to blow a house down, hands landing on Dean’s shoulders to settle him like an anchor whether that’s what Sam means to do or not. “Okay. Okay. This is good, I’m so—can I? Sorry—“
 
His arms come up tight around Dean in a brief, crushing hug. Dean wants to wriggle away—maybe, probably—but it’s over before he can, leaving him with imprints on his bones and less air than he started with.
 
“Sorry,” Sam says again, face a little flushed. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to, um, be the same.”
 
“Yeah…” Dean shakes his head to clear it, to focus. “I got the impression you weren’t making me pie the other time?”
 
“You didn’t dream about me. Last time.” Sam’s tone is a complicated mess of things Dean isn’t going to get into, because it doesn’t matter, Sam can’t be right.
 
“You’re telling me you were inside my head and didn’t see yourself anywhere?” That just doesn’t seem possible. Sam is in everything Dean does. Dean had come out of this experience surprised that he hadn’t seen more Sams.
 
Sam shrugs, green carhartt jacket shifting along his shoulders. “You dreamt about Lisa. The subconscious is really changeable, Dean, I wouldn’t—“
 
“Wait,” Dean cuts in, “Who?”
 
Sam’s eyes go wide. “Lisa. Lisa and Ben, remember, we—“
 
“Oh, yeah, yeah okay, I got it, sorry.” Guilt pricks at his skin. But Lisa is…a different life. Dean isn’t dumb enough to think he gets more than one universal redo and he’d…he’d rather go with Sam. Besides, Sam said it himself: normal was never a real option, or whatever. No, Lisa is—was—a pipe dream. She’s better off without him, and Dean is just. He’s better with Sam.
 
He wishes desperately for a cup of coffee, wonders if Bobby’s started up a pot or what time is it, even? Morning, afternoon? Sam is still giving him a look, though, when Dean glances over next, and Dean figures caffeine is still a long way off.
 
“I’ve had other things on my mind, in case you haven’t noticed,” he points out, Sam’s expression rubbing him exactly the wrong way.
 
Sam looks like he wants to say something, but he doesn’t.
 
“You said it yourself, dreams are freaking changeable.” Dean grabs his coat and shoves his arms into the sleeves, focusing on that. “Bet if we went in again I’d dream about a purple elephant playing a banjo. Can I get some coffee before I punch you in the face?”
 
“You should probably take it easy on the coffee, Mr. Java,” Sam suggests, far past serious and into deadpan, letting Dean decide if he wants to run with this argument or brush it off.
 
Dean appreciates the out, really, he does. But his nerves are jangling all over the place, and if he’s completely honest—Sam is probably right. He still starts walking for Bobby’s house, and no one needs to know if he’s relieved Sam fits instantly to his side, matching his strides to Dean’s. Limping a little, and it makes Dean feel light-headed and slightly nauseous thinking about the hits Sam had to take from Jeremy to give Dean enough time to have his heart-to-heart with himself, blows Sam knew were coming and going to hurt and actually totally fucking preventable.
 
“Did we hug this much in the other timeline?” Dean asks when they’re on the porch.
 
Sam opens the screen door and lets Dean walk through first. “No,” he says, “and look what happened.”
 

~*~

>“Hey,” Dean says between mouthfuls of diner pancakes. “I know we’ve got, uh, an agenda or whatever, but I might have found us a job to squeeze in between things. Looks like small fry.”
 
“Yeah?” Sam steals a mouthful of Dean’s hash browns, which would be a hanging offense if Dean could find it in him to care this morning. Sam needs to eat more, anyway. “What’ve you got?”
 
Dean spins the newspaper and taps the headline under missing persons, already fighting back a smirk at the irony. “Professor Dexter Hassleback, debunker of supernatural tourist attractions. Last known location? Broward County Mystery Spot.”
 
Sam’s fork drops with a clatter loud enough to make Dean twitch. “Sam?” Sam doesn’t look up, eyes fixed unblinking at the smears left on his plate from his half-eaten omelet. “Hey. Hey, Sammy?”
 
He reaches across the table—to snap his fingers in Sam’s face, maybe, he isn’t entirely sure—when Sam flinches back and shakes his head, shifting his hands under the table, but not before Dean can see them trembling.
 
“Sammy, you okay?” Still nothing, though Dean can see Sam struggling to form a response. He tries for the joke, instead. “Those hash browns taste funny to you, or some—“
 
Sam knocks his water glass on the floor when he scrambles from the booth, little plastic cup jittering across the faded diner tiles, sounding about as solid as Sam’s knees. He has to brace himself on the table for a split second before he can move, and that’s the only reason Dean has enough time to throw down a pair of twenties on the table before Sam makes it to the door and out, into the pale South Dakota sunlight.
 
He’s headed for the Impala, but Dean isn’t sure he’s going to make it. It won’t be from weak knees, now; Dean knows the signs of a guy getting furious at himself and Sam has the collector’s set.
 
“You want to tell me what’s going on here?” Dean offers, sticking just close enough to have a snowball’s chance at catching Sam if he falls.
 
“I’m getting the laptop,” Sam snarls at him, bristling all over. His face is chalk white, jaw set. “So we can research—shit.
 
Sam rounds on the car, and Dean gets ready to dive-bomb-fucking-tackle Sam if he raises a hand against his baby, but that’s about what it’s going to take for Dean to get within swinging distance right now. The idea of a drag-out fight with his brother in this deserted parking lot in Bumfuck, Nowhere is not appealing.
 
But Sam just puts his hands on her roof to brace himself, shaking with tension, faint sheen of sweat glistening under the hair falling across his face. He sinks to his elbows, head hung down so he can get a hand tangled in his mane and push it back. Dean can hear him breathing, mouth closed, probably has his big moose nostrils flaring and his eyes squeezed shut.
 
Dean tucks his hands in his pockets and leans his back against the Impala, letting her hold them both up while he waits for his heartbeat to pick a rhythm and stick to it. “I’m guessing this is a case that doesn’t actually need you to research it again.”
 
Sam’s hair flops everywhere when he drops his hand and shakes his head. Dean wants to reach over and push it out of Sam’s eyes so he can get a better read on him, but he really doesn’t dare.
 
“Do we need to take it?” Sam straightens up at that, at the hard, angry edge in Dean’s tone. “Is there another life lesson that I need to learn that you’d be willing to put yourself through something so bad it’s freaking you out like this? I’m guessing it’d have to be worse than a psycho taking a baseball bat to your kneecaps, because you’ve already done that without breaking a sweat.”
 
“Dean—“ Sam starts, but Dean is absolutely done with this shit.
 
“This ends, right now,” he bites out, snatching back eye-contact when Sam tries to look away. “No. Sam. No more spreading it for the timeline and the demons and every other thing chasing us down. We’ve got our plan, and we’ll hold to it. No matter what happens. But I’m either going to get the moral of this story on my own terms, or we’ll make up a goddamn new one.”
 
He drags a hand over his mouth to give himself a second, stubble dragging against his palm before he lets go. There’s green showing in the cracks of pavement beneath his feet, some sort of moss that doesn’t mind the occasional boot-scuff.
 
“What do you think?” The question about falls out of his mouth. But he makes himself lift his gaze back up.
 
Sam is smiling like he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it, eyes glittering in a way that Dean pretends he can’t see; he can’t focus on it anyway, too caught up in everything else showing in Sam’s expression right now. The sun is so thin, here, bleaches Sam out, turns his eyes a solid, translucent green. It’s too much to look at, but Sam’s the one who looks away first, mouth working a couple times before sound comes out. “I think you should have totally been jamming—“
 
Dean leans in, because he has to, and Sam shuts up. Their arms were already touching, their shoes nudged together. Dean moved maybe an inch and it’s terrifying, it’s terrifying how calm he feels, how easy it is to reach over and put a hand on the back of Sam’s neck, where the tag’s rucked up. How easy it is to tug Sam and push forward, press their lips together, and tip the world on its end.
 
Sam’s breath puffs out against Dean’s mouth, startled even though Dean telegraphed every single move coming into this. He tastes like coffee and cantaloupe and Dean’s mother fucking hash browns and Sam, just Sam, a flavor he knows immediately without having tasted it before. Dean knows he’s fucked with a clarity that feels electric; he’s going to be looking for this in every mouth he kisses after, looking for Sam.
 
You’re my goddamn Peter Parker, zips through his skull without-a-doubt unbidden, because it’s just enough of a shock to make him pull back, an image of Sam dangling upside down that’s never going to get out of his head, now. Awesome.
 
Sam is staring at his mouth, and yeah, Dean knows he has a good one, but he’d like a little eye-contact here before he absolutely loses his mind. “Hey,” he says, gently knocking Sam’s shoulder. “Up top, dude.”
 
His brother twitches under his hand, a sharp jerk out of whatever thoughts he’d been lost in, and Dean lets his hands fall.
 
“Um,” Sam says, but he doesn’t move away.
 
Dean slips on a smirk. “See? Different already.”
 
“…Right.” Sam licks his lips, realizes what he just did, and flushes a crimson Dean hasn’t seen on him since he was eighteen. “I, uh. Yeah. You’ve—definitely never done that before.”
 
Dean’s smirk splits into an utterly shameless grin, then a laugh, so sudden he has to tip his head back with it. His gaze snags on a jet trail cutting the sky in two; the Impala is warm against his back, and Sam is at his side. “That’s the best fucking news I’ve heard in months.”
 
~*~
 
Caleb’s old cabin is still outside Lincoln, Nebraska—well, probably still there, it’s far enough off the beaten track that it’s a safe bet no one’s been near it since Bobby drove out to bury him. Dean drives.
 
Sam watches him, like there’s been a boycott on blinking, or embarrassment, or whatever walls Sam built up to keep Dean from noticing. It should make him uncomfortable, maybe, but Dean’s rat’s ass meter is fubar. He can feel a smile on his mouth every mile the odometer flips over, warmth in his belly like whiskey in November with Sam in the passenger’s seat, where he’s been all along.
 
“We shouldn’t do this,” Sam says just past Elk Point.
 
Dean’s smile gets wider, but he shrugs in deference to Sam’s emo. “Probably.”
 
“You don’t understand what I did,” Sam grits out in Walthill when they stop for gas. “I was a monster. You wanted to hunt me.”
 
Dean rolls his eyes. He has his hands full of Slim Jims and Sam is blocking his door. “Did I tell you, to your face, that I was going to kill you?”
 
Sam’s eyebrows, already doing an impressive impersonation of a knot, tighten up. “You…left a voicemail.”
 
For all the times Sam is a friggin’ genius, he has moments when he’s so spectacularly dumb Dean wonders how he functions. “You don’t think demons can screw with your phone? Come on, haven’t you seen The Ring?”
 
“That was a spirit,” Sam says, eyes narrowing, “And also a movie.” But he looks like he’s thinking about it, which was the point.
 
Dean forks over his best Whatever look and kicks at Sam’s foot so he’ll move the fuck out of the way.
 
“Slim Jim?” he offers when Sam’s back in the passenger’s seat. Sam takes it tentatively, like Dean might snatch it back at any minute, turns it over and over and over in his hands as Dean starts the car and merges back onto the highway.
 
“You did tell me I was a monster, though,” he says, and it takes quite a lot of effort not to pull over and thump Sam, really.
 
“Were you doing something to deserve it?”
 
“Yes,” Sam says, bleak.
 
“Well there you go,” Dean spins off before he can chicken out. “And I bet you anything I wished I’d never said it.”  
 
Sam is quiet all the way to Oakland, where they stop for lunch. They sit across from each other in a diner booth and it’s exactly like this morning, and suddenly about a million times stranger. This is—he’s kissed Sam, now, so this is sort of like a date or something, maybe.
 
“You’re fidgeting.” Sam’s gigantic feet trap Dean’s under the table, backed up against the footboard as Sam pins him in place with a look. It isn’t easy, but Dean makes himself sit still.
 
For about two seconds. His shoulders roll. “What?”
 
Sam’s eyes narrow into slits, and Dean’s heartbeat skips in an uncomfortably familiar way. Uncomfortable because it shouldn’t be familiar. Uncomfortable because Dean doesn’t mind it, and Dean is used to repressing the hell out of things he should mind but doesn’t. He’s just winging it, here. He doesn’t know—
 
Their drinks arrive, and Sam gives the waitress a quick smile when Dean is too caught up in behaving like a gentleman to flirt with her. Dean gets a suspicious glare, which he tries to deflect with an eyebrow or two. “You got something to say, Sammy?”
 
“Nope.” Sam, because he’s a bitch, waits until Dean is in the middle of his first slurp of Coke to add, “Just waiting for you to freak out about the gay thing.”
 
Dean doesn’t choke, keeps his eyes on Sam’s to show just how much he isn’t choking, so Sam knows that when Dean hiccups it’s because Dean always hiccups right after his first sip of anything carbonated. To his credit, Sam looks faintly caught-out around the stubborn set of his jaw.  
 
“Hey,” Dean hollers, loud enough to turn a few heads. He smirks at the old guy cozied up to the breakfast bar, their twenty-something waitress, anyone who looks their way. “We—“ he points between Sam and himself. “—are a couple. You got a problem with that, meet us in the parking lot. We’ll show you a real good time.”
 
There’s a flurry of murmurs that Dean honestly couldn’t give a shit about, and Dean leans over the table, wiggling his straw at Sam’s drink enticingly. “C’mon, Sammy,” he croons as Sam slumps as low as he can in his seat, “We’ll share, it’ll be straight out of Lady and the Tramp or something.”
 
“Dean—“ Sam starts, instantly shifting into lawyer mode.
 
“You think people wouldn’t be disgusted if they knew where you got that stain on your shirt? Or how I got this scar?” He shoves his sleeve up to show the mark on his elbow left by an adlet the summer Dean was sixteen. “I hate to break it to you, Sam, but what other people think is not on my list of priorities.” Other people besides Sam; that should go without saying.
 
For whatever reason, showing off his scar seems to settle Sam in a way Dean probably won’t ever get. His fingers tap at the condensation on his glass, and Dean knows the other people are already out of Sam’s head, shoved aside to make room for a bigger problem.
 
“Dean, have you…” He frowns, not like he’s disapproving, like he’s not sure if he should be confused. “Have you thought about this?”
 
Dean winces a little because—it feels like he has. It feels like he’s spent a lifetime wanting Sam, and he has. Just not quite this far, not this extra step off the cliff. It feels like he’s been standing at the edge looking down for a very long time, stifling the fuck out of feelings he thought were impossible, even for a Winchester.
 
“If you’re asking why I have all the answers,” Dean says, pursing his lips together, “I think it’s because I’m so awesome.”
 
Sam’s lips twitch, and Dean figures this is enough soul-searching for today, pushes back against Sam’s giant boots but not enough to kick him off. “So come on. I heard the new Raiders movie is coming out—how was it?”
 
Sam stabs at the bottom of his glass with his straw, once, then folds his arms. “Didn’t see it. You were dead at the time.”
 
“Jesus, Sam.” Way to be an absolute downer, and there’s a set to Sam’s jaw that hints he’s lying just to get a reaction, but Dean ignores his paranoia. Any more heartache and he’s gonna need to take a Tums. He tries for playful sarcasm. “What the hell were you doing that you couldn’t take two hours for a Raiders movie?”
 
“Fucking Ruby,” Sam drops bluntly.
 
“Oh, whoops,” Dean says when nothing more comes out. “Sorry, was that supposed to shock me?”
 
Sam’s mouth opens, then shuts.
 
Dean feels tired down to his bone marrow, last of the adrenaline clicking like an empty magazine. “Sam, I wish I could say I didn’t know what your face looks like after you shoot a girl you’ve slept with. And that’s the god’s honest truth.”
 
Their food chooses that moment to arrive, in the hands of a suddenly pale waitress who looks like she doesn’t know if backing away to go call the cops would be a really excellent idea. Dean shoves a friendly smile onto his face but it’s impatient and he knows it bleeds through.
 
“Helping him go over his lines,” he tells her, leveling a finger at Sam. “You’re looking at the latest walk-on love interest for Days of Our Lives.”
 
“Yeah-huh,” she says, eyebrows high as she sets their plates down and turns to leave. But there’s a toddler throwing mashed potatoes a few booths over, so they probably have time to chow down before police sirens light up the parking lot.
 
When Dean looks back at Sam there’s a strange expression on his face; intense, Dean would have to call it, narrowed in on Dean with a focus Sam usually reserves for figuring out that last little thing in a case. And Dean knows—the way he knows exactly how much fuel is in the Impala and the optimum number of minutes before his lunch goes cold—that Sam thinks he’s finally got a handle on the straw that’s going to break this giant pink elephant’s back.
 
“Do you miss him?” Sam asks, all the words pushed together and his guards up like he didn’t learn how to make guards from watching Dean. It takes a couple extra seconds for the words to sink in because Dean gets stuck watching Sam sometimes, most times, all the time but especially when they eat together like this, when their knees are mashed together and it’s okay to be turned towards his brother.
 
“Wait, what?” Dean blurts, brain kicking back into gear. “Miss who?”
 
“Your Sam.” His gaze drops, jaw set like he’s bracing to get punched. “The Sam from this timeline. Cas said—he said I sort of obliterated him when I fucked things up. I keep waiting for you to tell me to pick a direction and start walking.”
 
Dean takes a moment to chew, because this burger deserves at least a moment of his time, time that Dean needs to shake off the sheer stupidity of what he’s just heard. “Sam,” he says after he swallows, “of the two of us, I am not the one who runs.”
 
“Or whatever, Dean!” Sam snaps, voice a barely-reined-in shout, “I’m not the Sam I was two years ago, and you’re never getting him back! Doesn’t that bother you?”
 
Dean braces his elbows on either side of his plate, shoulders hunched up in what Dad used to call his linebacker-stance. It should be a clear as hell signal to Sam that this is where Dean is digging his heels in, if Sam is paying attention. “I have a theory,” Dean tells him, patience more of a threat than a promise. “But I’m not fucking telling you until you eat everything on your plate and we’re back on the road.”
 
He lets his expression do the rest of the talking, the You think I haven’t noticed you’re not eating like you should, you think I don’t know that means you’re stressed to hell about everything, you think I’m gonna let that stand? And Sam could fight him, Sam could pull the Stop Acting Like You’re My Dad Card—which just got even creepier in this context, great—or Sam could realize he’s not going to win this one, not this time.
 
Instead Sam leans across the table, every inch of him a dare, so challenging it’s lucky Dean doesn’t clock him on instinct. “Sam.” He forces his voice back down to something that might not pull every single eye in the place. “If you want to try to prove some sort of point go right ahead,” he says, “But fair warning, the next time you kiss me I’m not gonna stop.”
 
He means Be sure. Be so fucking sure. Please. But he also means exactly what he said, and there’s no doubt that if Sam tries to call this bluff he’s going to find his back flat on this tiny diner table with Dean between his thighs, burgers be damned. The thought makes his palms sweat and his jeans feel too tight—if Sam wanted it, if he really wanted it, then there wouldn’t be a thing in the world big enough to stop Dean from doing it for him.
 
He doesn’t think Sam would, though—especially when Sam’s mouth snaps shut and his eyes go big and wary—this isn’t something for other people to see. This is just him and Sam.
 
Sam eats his sandwich like he’s counting out the bites, eyes on Dean the whole time. Dean’s feet feel heavy with the weight of Sam’s boots, but he doesn’t dislodge them, and Sam doesn’t move them, and Dean tells himself that’s a good sign.
 
They don’t talk through lunch, don’t talk when they get back in the car; Dean’s pride won’t let him bring up his theory until he’s asked, so if Sam wants to pout, it’s his loss.
 
In Wahoo, South Dakota Sam drops his hand on Dean’s thigh so suddenly Dean about drives them off the road.
 
“Dude, what—“ Sam’s fingers flex, high up on Dean’s leg but not touching his junk. “What are you doing?”
 
“Not kissing you, that’s for sure,” is Sam’s instant reply. It sounds petulant—it…sort of is, in a weird way, like one of those obnoxious kid games of I’m not touching you. But Dean could swear he hears a smile in there somewhere, too. He stares until Sam nods at the road and says, “You know you’re going ten miles under the speed limit?” and Dean has to focus on driving because—no, his baby doesn’t do under the speed limit.
 
And Sam’s hand is still there.
 
Ten miles later it creeps up about an inch. Dean isn’t fighting to keep his breathing under control because that would be stupid, it’s just a hand. But it’s huge, Jesus, Sam has paws like a fucking bear; his palm is warm, heat bleeding through the worn-thin denim of Dean’s jeans right to his skin. If Sam’s hand was on his bare thigh, when Sam’s fingertips are already brushing Dean’s inseam—
 
The pavement gives out under construction and Dean grits his teeth so they won’t rattle. He can’t grit his balls, though, (he’s tried), and the vibrations from the gravel—which is also probably dinging the fuck out of his undercarriage, in more ways than one, har dee har… Fuck, what is he even thinking right now? He hits a pothole that could’ve easily been avoided and Sam’s hand jumps into his lap, right over his cock all chubbed up in his jeans. He isn’t hard but he’s not—not soft, and Sam’s fingers spasm like he’s surprised.
 
“It’s the—construction,” Dean grits out, gruff.
 
Sam huffs. “Yeah, sure it is.”  But he doesn’t move his hand.
 
“Dude, seriously,” Dean starts because he’s about ten seconds away from squirming in his seat, up, down, freaking sideways, he isn’t sure. “What—“
 
“You’d really get hard for me?” Sam asks, quiet. His ring finger twitches and Dean doesn’t even know if Sam realizes it’s right over the head of Dean’s cock or if he’s just accidentally teasing. Dean strangles back a groan and he’s gone, just gone, dick straining up against his fly and the meat of Sam’s palm.
 
“Sam,” Dean chokes out, “I’d—“
 
Sam’s hand vanishes, and with it almost every functioning brain cell in Dean’s body. “You’re gonna miss the turn.”
 
“Fuck,” Dean breathes out, staring at the steering wheel. How does he make it go left?
 
~*~
 
The Impala shoulders her way through all the nature trying to retake Caleb’s driveway, tree limbs reaching out to brush their leaves against her glossy paint. Sam is out of the car before she’s rolled to a stop, not that Dean can blame him; it feels like there isn’t enough air in the car to keep a mouse alive, let alone two grown men.
 
Dean has to take a minute before he can even think about moving without—just without. His dick aches and he’s kind of sweaty and it’s Sam’s fault, and maybe this should be freaking him out.
 
But this is good. It feels good. Dean has maybe been turned on this much before in his life but not this way, like he’s gonna have blue balls from hell and he won’t even care because he has the ghost of Sam’s hand on his dick and he knows what Sam tastes like.
 
So damaged. He’s so damaged.
 
The trunk squeaks when Sam pops it open, and it always has, Dean makes sure she always lets them know when someone’s digging through their stuff. So apparently they’re going to check on Caleb’s defenses first, before—before more agonizingly long talks and self-flagellation. Dean’s not even mad.
 
“Seriously fucked in the head over your own brother,” he mutters to himself, just to hear the words aloud. And okay, wow, there it is, pinpricks of something creeping right up the back of his spine. It doesn’t feel like panic, though. Feels like—excitement, heat, want, Sam. “Well, Dean, you kinky son of a bitch,” he breathes out, and it feels easy. Like something he’s always known about himself.
 
Well, there was that one time with the pink silk panties. And the time with the twins. Oh and Stephan, who’d been a pretentious asshole but looked—shit, looked just like Sam. Dean huffs a laugh into his fist, a Jesus Christ kind of laugh. Maybe it shakes a little.
 
Sam thumps on the hood when he walks by with a duffle bag of salt and red spray paint, a little whump, You coming? Dean jumps. Takes a breath. Gets out of the car.
 
“You gonna keep doing this?” Dean calls out as his brother crosses the lawn to Caleb’s cabin. Sam doesn’t slow down. “Huh? It’s okay if you do,” he says and means it, wants Sam to keep testing him so he can prove himself again and again. It’s a new feeling, feeling worthy of something, but he can do anything for Sam. He can try.
 
Sam lets the screen door slam behind him before Dean can get to it, shoulders high. But Dean’s no invalid, he can get it himself. He spares a cursory glance for the room, exactly how he remembered it as a kid only…smaller—peeling wallpaper stretched over protection sigils, steel sheet installed in the back of the sagging green couch in case someone had to duck behind it for cover, no pictures on the walls, no mirrors anywhere, everything arranged with a military precision that Dad had admired and Sam used to say gave him hives. Glass missing from most of the windows and a nice cross-breeze kept the place pretty dust-free, but Dean’s gaze gets snagged on the line of duct tape along the bottom of the door traveling all around the room, edges flecked with white. “Yo, Sam,” he starts, whistling, “Check out the salt lines—“
 
The duffle hits the creaky wooden floor with a thud. Which is impressive considering Sam’s hands are clenched so tight it looks painful.
 
“Or…not,” Dean offers.
 
“Why are you doing this?” Sam demands, volume forced quiet. “And why are you doing this now?”
 
It shouldn’t blindside him as hard as it does.
 
“I mean, is it your deal?” Sam turns around, and Dean wishes he hadn’t. “Is this a tick box on your bucket list you never got around to last time? You think you’re gonna die so why not plant one on me?”
 
“Sam,” Dean tries, drags a hand over his mouth to give himself a second to figure out which gut-wrenchingly wrong thing to tackle first. “If I really thought I was going to kick it,” he settles on, finally, “I would never do that to you.”
 
Sam looks like someone put a hand on his chest and gave him a hard shove, though he doesn’t move an inch. The words roll over in Dean’s head in a heavy, well-oiled grind, something that’s been turning for a while—sometime when he wasn’t looking, his deal stopped being an inevitable death sentence. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not Hellfire. It’s Sam.
 
“Do you think I don’t get that our relationship is already so colossally fucked up, even without this piled on top?” Dean asks, even though it feels like something is caving in. “Christ, you ripped the universe in two for me, Sammy. That’s something that didn’t happen before.”
 
He takes a step closer, bracing himself and refusing to back down. “Now, I know you might want to take a swing at me and I get it, I do. Go ahead, Sam. We’ll never talk about this again.”
 
Sam looks like the thought of decking Dean is making him feel sick—Dean has seen this look, clammy and wild eyed, seconds before Sam starts heaving. Or maybe it’s…maybe it’s not that at all. Maybe it’s the big fat ‘incest’ neither one of them has said aloud that’s making Sam nauseous.
 
“Or say the word,” Dean says, fighting past the fist closing around the back of his throat. “I’ll take off for a bit, come back to get Bela out of her deal, and…we’ll just be brothers again.” He tries to smile, tries to tell himself that there’s no way Sam will want him gone for good. Then again, Sam has always been better at fighting off the addiction Dean feels about family, maybe he will.
 
Sam makes this noise, then, like Dean is hurting him, which isn’t—
 
Dean feels his shoulder knock the door shut before he knows Sam is shoving him back, and then his spine jams flat against the wall. Sam is flush up against him, hands fisted in his clothes and Dean thinks Here it comes and waits for the pain to snap his head back after all.
 
‘Kiss’ seems like a fragile word for what Sam does instead. It’s hard and hot and messy, clumsy desperate. It makes Dean’s legs shake, something he thought was just shitty romance novel tripe but isn’t, not with Sam sucking Dean’s tongue in his mouth like he doesn’t know how but he wants to.
 
Dean gets a frantic grip on Sam’s hair, clutching at it, banging arms together on the way because they’re both used to being tallest in a kiss. There’s a sharp pain in his chest, on his chest, where Sam’s hand is shoved up hard against the amulet, digging it into Dean’s collarbone, leaving a bruise. Right next to the tattoo circling his heart, fuck.  
 
“I’m never gonna be able to listen to Asia,” Sam tears off just long enough to say, mouth back on Dean’s skin before he can blink.
 
“Wh-what?”
 
Sam growls against his jaw in frustration, gives up and leans back to see his fingers tearing at Dean’s belt buckle, the big heavy silver thing Sam got him for Christmas. There’s a wonky clasp and Dean tries showing him how, hardly aware that he’s actually verbally defending Asia on auto-pilot.  Sam bites him, on his throat, under his ear, and holds on while Dean pants out a god damn encyclopedia of curses and tries to keep his knees from giving out.
 
Sam lets go with a hiss like he’s surprised at himself and Dean grabs at him, trying to convey that it is so okay. Screw Asia, right in the face. Sam laughs against Dean’s shoulder—maybe Dean said that out loud—and gives the bite mark an apologetic lick. “The, um, jury’s still out on Dead or Alive.”
 
“Sam, if you don’t—“ Dean breaks off with a noise he will never cop to making when Sam shoves his belt aside with his wrist and slides his hand into Dean’s boxers in one eye-crossing move. There’s this moment that Dean desperately needs where they just breathe, Sam getting used to Dean’s cock perked up hot and drippy against his hand, Dean gathering enough control not to fucking come right there. It’s Sam’s hand, it’s Sam’s hand.
 
At some point his eyes slid shut, but he makes them open when Sam drops a kiss on his mouth. “Dean.” Another, quick but giving, and when he pulls back Dean can see the smile on Sam’s lips, just how deep his dimples go.
 
“This for me?” Sam asks, rubs his palm along the underside of Dean’s dick.
 
Dean takes a deep, shuddery breath and lets it out. Sam is entirely too coherent.
 
He doesn’t think about it, just moves; a lifetime of sparring with Sam has imprinted his muscles with the priceless knowledge of how to knock his brother on his ass and keep him there.
 
“What the—” Sam wheezes out around the breath he’s lost. Dean couldn’t stop grinning if it meant averting the apocalypse.
 
“Easy, tiger,” he mutters as Sam twists a little, uncertain if this is an actual match or what before Dean settles on him, straddles him, pins his wrists above his head and rides it out. The angle has Dean’s still-fastened jeans pulled taut across his dick, width of Sam’s hips spreading Dean’s legs and Dean spreads them a little wider just to feel the burn.
 
“I get bigger,” Sam warns, eyes dark as he fits his hands to Dean’s hips, mouth wet and red and parted.
 
“Yeah, okay man, you’re a grower not a shower,” Dean snorts, ignoring the way his breathing snags. Jesus, the guy’s almost popping the zipper, how much bigger is he gonna get?
 
“No, I—“ Sam’s eyes roll up, and Dean isn’t sure if it’s sarcasm or the slow grind of his hips. “Fuck, Dean, I meant—fuck—I get s…stronger, more muscle, what are you—“
 
Dean makes himself stop, even though the feel of Sam through their worn-thin jeans is just about turning his mind to mush. There’s a literal heat between them, maybe just from the rough rut of denim-on-denim but what the fuck ever it is, Dean loves it, leans forward just a fraction more—
 
Sam flips him. Dean is absolutely not surprised. “Could always get you on your back, though,” Sam says, and Dean tries to think of a nicer word for ‘leering.’
 
“Pretty sure I always let you.” It feels startlingly true.
 
When Sam ducks down Dean blows at his bangs to be a jackass, until Sam says, “Knock it off,” and kisses him with a grin still curling his lips.  Dean jerks his own damn buckle finally open and zipper down, shoving aside his underwear just far enough to free himself before he goes to work on getting at Sam. It’s dizzying, the contrast between fresh air on his cock and Sam kissing like they’re at the junior prom, careful and sweet and thorough.
 
Sam’s dick just about leaps into Dean’s hand, and there’s nothing junior about it. Sam huffs against his mouth at the feel of Dean fisting it, once, a long slow drag up and slicker on the way back down, and Dean bites at Sam’s lower lip when a scalding drop of precome hits Dean just below the cut of his hip. Sam braces himself on shaking arms either side of Dean’s head, eyes so dark that rational thought fucks right off, because Sam’s mouth is open and smiling so slightly and quivering even slighter than that.
 
“Dean,” Sam breathes, and Dean nods too fast, feeling too much to hold it all in.
 
Sam takes it as an answer to something, backing up even though Dean digs his nails in trying to make him stay. Sam settles him with a sharp nip to his stomach, over his shirt, so all he can feel is the shape of Sam’s teeth and the muted scrape of cotton. Dean gasps out Sam’s name, twisting under the tease of it, and Sam’s hands fit to his bare hips.
 
It should not be such a shock, what happens next. Dean is not a stranger to blowjobs, giving or receiving. But he is such a stranger to this, to the sheer fucking heat of Sam’s mouth, the same plush tongue he used to watch lap up ice cream suddenly turned to the head of Dean’s dick as Sam pushes it flat against Dean’s belly, dragging a wet, sloppy line from just under the crown to the rim of Dean’s bellybutton.
 
“Fuck,” Dean shouts like a gunshot. He can feel Sam smile against his skin, shudders and wishes he had anything solid to hold onto.
 
And maybe Sam gets it, or maybe he needs it too, because he puts one arm across Dean’s hips to hold him still and reaches up with the other until they can grab on, fingers closing around wrists to push their pulse points together. Dean isn’t even sure if he did it on purpose, but it’s perfect.
 
Sam goes to town on Dean’s cock, but he won’t let Dean get inside. His lips slide over Dean in messy, slippery, soaking wet glides, mouthing at his shaft, tonguing at his slit to get the globs of precome Dean can’t help blurt out so he can smear it down to Dean’s balls. He keeps murmuring against the slick, things like, “Dean,” and “God,” and other, wordless sounds that vibrate through Dean’s skin and build in the throb of his balls.
 
Dean’s brain is gone, done, fried—he doesn’t even know what to call this, not a bowjob because Sam won’t fucking suck him, just gets him so wet the hair around his dick slicks into curls and Dean is so hard it makes something snap.
 
He snarls, yanks Sam off-balance with their joined hands and Sam falls forward, almost on top of him, which is what Dean wants. It’s close enough to grab him—Dean gets his fingers bunched in Sam’s shirt and starts pulling, Sam scrambling up as soon as he can figure how to work his limbs, and Dean seals their mouths together so he won’t lose it at the sight of Sam’s face so wet he might as well have been eating out a girl.
 
Sam tastes like Dean, though, just Dean, and moans into it as he settles chest to chest, belly to belly, hip to goddamn hip and everything in between. Dean wriggles on instinct and Sam gasps, bucks into him—Dean just about sees stars it’s so fucking good. He can feel everything, every inch of Sam, from the plush shape of his balls to the fat head pushing up Dean’s shirt with every rocking thrust Sam makes. The tight drum of Sam’s belly, rough drag blurring as he picks up the soaking mess he left on Dean’s skin. He’s locked around Dean and Dean locks around Sam, arm around his ribs and one over his shoulders, his brother panting against him and Sam’s scent everywhere, like he could drown in every sensation.
 
“You’d come for me?” Sam gasps as Dean’s face starts to screw up, just like in the car like he can’t believe Dean would, even after everything.
 
It’s too—too fucking intimate, too new, too raw and desperate and real, and Sam, god, Sam, and Dean’s neck strains when he comes, too intense to even scream it out when Sam pulls back just enough to watch. It’s so much wetter between them in an instant, flinchingly hot and sloppy and there are sparks behind Dean’s eyelids when he pumps and bucks and thrills in the way Sam holds him together.
 
“Oh, Sammy, fuck,” he hisses when his muscles finally unlock enough to let his head bounce back against the floor. He feels so very fucked out and boneless, fingers twitching with aftershocks where they’re twisted in Sam’s clothing.
 
His back arches up when Sam gives a tentative roll of his hips, shaking with the effort it took not to keep fucking Dean into the floor, and there’s a fingerprint of discomfort on Dean’s chest when he moves. It takes him one lethargic second to figure out what it is—Dean’s amulet, caught between their collarbones—and Sam makes a noise half-way between Dean’s name and a shout and comes everywhere, quaking, biting too hard on his lip until Dean thumbs it away from his teeth. Sam bears down on the pad of his thumb instead, careful not to hurt, and turns his face against Dean’s palm until his cock finishes spurting against Dean’s belly.
 
Dean hugs him—it’s what this is, a hug with less clothes and more bodily fluids—and doesn’t let go for a second as Sam wrings out noises and shudders back into his skin. It takes him a while, too keyed up; he’s all uncoordinated jitters, paws fumblingly at Dean’s right shoulder, dragging the clothing off it until he can fit his hand to Dean’s skin. “Mine,” he says against Dean’s neck, nails digging in, “Mine.
 
“Yeah, Sammy,” Dean promises, breathless, “Yours.”
 
Sam smears kisses down his chest, over Dean’s t-shirt until he shoves it up under Dean’s armpits to get his mouth on Dean’s tattoo. It’s all healed up but Dean drags in a sharp breath anyway, ragged and strained. “You’ll keep all your marks,” Sam whispers, stroking unsteady hands over Dean’s sides. “All your scars.”
 
Dean tries to laugh to lighten the mood, but also because his scars aren’t exactly something he’s had to worry about keeping. They crisscross over his skin, little ones mostly, paling as he got better at ducking and dodging and first aid. His hand settles on Sam’s side and the middle of his back, knows where Sam’s worst physical scars are better than he knows his own. He wonders what Sam told Jess about the one tucked under his ribs, if he told her it was from getting his appendix out instead of from pushing Dean out of the path of a pishacha when he was twelve.
 
“I dunno, man,” he chokes out, half laughing, “Might be easier to bag chicks if I was baby smooth—“
 
Sam growls, pins Dean’s wrists up above his head, looming up over him. “No more chicks,” he growls, but it’s somehow more like begging. “No more—no more. Just me.”
 
“Just you,” Dean says instantly, struggling free to pull Sam down on top of him. “Just you, you big jealous bitch. It was a bad joke, I’m sorry.”
 
“Jerk,” Sam mutters, and finally relaxes under Dean’s hands.
 
Dean can’t remember the last time he smiled so wide.
 
~*~
 
“So what’s your theory?” Sam asks out of the blue when they’re mopping up. He’s dragging on a new pair of boxers, new jeans, fumbling a little with the belt Dean might have damaged in the process of ripping it off Sam to get to his dick.   Dean gets caught up in the way Sam’s hands move, the curve of his spine, the sheer god damn length of him (no pun intended). He wants to bend Sam over and tuck his face against the scar in Sam’s back, wants to tackle him and wrestle until one of them gets pinned, wants to wake up with Sam’s hands on him, sucking hickeys on the back of his neck.
 
“Hmm? Oh.” Dean blinks, then shakes his head to clear it. No more post-orgasmic haze.
 
“About your Sam and—me,” Sam adds before Dean can respond. He’s really super focused on folding his dirty laundry all of a sudden.
 
Dean rolls his eyes. “You’re one and the same, dude.”
 
Sam turns just enough to give him a look, the look that means Think with your upstairs brain even though Dean definitely, definitely is. “I’m not,” Sam says, voice flat, “I’m not who I was two years ago.”
 
Dean gives him a look back, the Please stop being a dumbfuck look he learned from Bobby as a kid, though Bobby would probably use a nicer word. “You want to hear the theory or what?”
 
Sam nods, gaze slipping off Dean like it can’t find purchase.
 
Okay.
 
“I don’t know if I ever told you,” Dean says, scratching the back of his neck, “but, uh, before I killed old Yellow Eyes, he asked me if I was sure you came back 100% Sam. And I know it’s just demons spewing bullshit but I wasn’t sure, you know, not— You’d just plugged that Jake kid full of lead in cold blood right in front of me.”
 
“Not cold,” Sam cuts in, rounding on him. “Not cold blood, Dean. He killed me.”
 
“Yeah, but you didn’t—“
 
“I did know!” Sam shouts. “I knew, Dean. I knew I shouldn’t have come back from that, I knew you had to make a deal. I knew he’d killed me, and you had to watch me die. So I’m sorry if I lost it,” he grinds out, dragging his volume back down. “But I’d kill anyone who put you through that.”
 
And—well, alright, that’s a lot to swallow, but Dean manages it after a long, struggling minute. “Yeah, okay. I didn’t have that step figured in. But it doesn’t change my theory,” he says, because he can’t say it doesn’t change anything when the whole damn universe feels slotted into place.
 
“I don’t think you came back wrong, Sam. And I don’t think you deleted 2007-Sam when you put a wrinkle in time. You haven’t had a single vision. You said your demon blood cravings are gone. I haven’t even seen you looking twice at the demons we gank and I bet you anything 2009-Sam would’ve been tempted.”
 
“I—“ Sam breaks off, pale and confused. “What are you saying? I remember—“
 
“Yeah, you remember, of course you do.” Dean steps up, eyes locked with Sam’s. “Because it happened. But Sam, I think it took more than you had to give to run time through the shredder. I think you burned the demon blood out of you. And when that wasn’t enough, you burned your way through two whole years of poison in your system. And that left enough space for the two clean pieces to just—“ He threads his fingers together. “—mesh. Or whatever, man, I’m pulling stuff out of my ass here—”
 
Sam drags a hand over his face and Dean shuts up. “I don’t…I don’t know,” Sam pushes out finally, through his fingers. “It doesn’t feel…wrong…”
 
“Sammy.” Dean touches Sam’s arm, surprised at how easy it is. He shrugs when Sam looks at him, a little helpless gesture. “Does it matter? That Cas guy—the angel—he said this is for good. Can we just let it be? I don’t miss you. You’re right here.”
 
Sam blows out a shaky breath after a long, too-still moment but he nods, which is what counts. Then he looks at Dean and tries to smirk, a little bit lopsided, embarrassed. “Man, the no chick flick moments rule has really been taking a beating lately.”
 
Dean lifts his shoulders in a Well, what can you do? kind of shrug. “Let’s go drink beer and grunt at things. And maybe later more sex.”
 
“Oh yeah,” Sam says, dimples going deeper, “Manly sex.”
 
“Oo-rah,” Dean agrees and thumps him on the shoulder. Then he snags the duffle bag with the spray paint and fishes out a can, heading outside with it to give Sam some space.
 
Caleb’s house has a porch that runs all the way around the bottom floor; there are devils traps on the sheet metal Caleb covered the floorboards with, and interlocking sigils on the roof. The paint is faded a dull black, but mostly solid. The demons hadn’t attacked Caleb in his house, instead nabbed him at the Brown Jug down the road a ways and dragged him to an abandoned cabin so he wouldn’t have the home turf advantage. This place will be easy to fortify and hole up in for as long as they need.
 
It’s dangerous, thinking ahead like he wants to, in months and years instead of hours or days. He’s not very good at it, anyway. The picture in his head keeps shuttering in and out of focus, life on the road blurring into some half-baked notion of a white picket fence and back again, together in the Impala until the wheels fall off. Sam is always there, always solid and sharp, which is…new. It’s new but it’s good, god is it good to be sure of Sam again. Dean has to take a minute just to breathe in the feeling, this moment right here which is worth any sort of fallout if his deal goes badly.
 
A hand drops on his shoulder and Dean nearly twists something spinning around, paint can raised, before his body can clue in to his brain that it’s Sam. “Son of a bitch,” Dean let’s out, relaxing instantly even though he still has to play annoyed. “Jesus, Sam, I almost sprayed you in the face.”
 
Sam’s laugh starts small and blooms out from an clumsy, helpless snort, something Dean hasn’t seen in so long it makes his heart ache—like when he eats three cheeseburgers in one sitting and his stomach feels too full for anything else.
 
“I just, sorry,” Sam says when he calms a little, laughter still sneaking in between his words. “Um. I was just thinking about— We should probably figure out how to initiate kissing without it getting socially awkward, sorry, oh man, your face…” He leans back against the side of the house and just shakes with it, laughs until tears start appearing on his eyelashes. He’s got one hand on Dean’s arm, keeping him close, uses the other to wipe the wetness away with a few last scattered snickers.
 
Dean watches every second like he’s storing up for the apocalypse. Maybe he is. “Was that a serious question, Shirley?” he asks when Sam has calmed down.
 
Sam grins like he doesn’t know how to stop, kind of sheepish. “Maybe…60% serious? It’s not like we’re exactly used to displays of affection—“
 
“I am always showing you affection!” Dean protests.
 
Sam’s face scrunches a little, incredulous. “Oh yeah? What if I want to cuddle?”
 
“Then I’ll deal,” Dean counters. Obviously he will deal. He has done far more affectionate things for Sam in the last few hours. Cuddling is—he will never admit this, but cuddling sounds pretty good right now. He’d be exactly where Sam wants him, and nothing bad could ever happen to Sam with Dean that close.
 
“What if you want to cuddle?” Sam demands doggedly, the way he does when he’s looking for a chink.
 
“Then I’ll ask.
 
“What if I want to be the little spoon?”
 
“Dude, that’s—“ Not what Dean had expected, actually, but absolutely cool; he still flounders for a fraction of a second. “—that’s fine—“
 
“What if I want to fuck you into the mattress?”
 
Dean chokes, just a little, in the back of his throat. But Sam’s question, as much as it is a dare, also seems genuine. Dean gives a straight answer. “I’ve seen your dick, so I want more prep than you’ve ever seen in your life, with real lube. And a condom. At least the first time. We can discuss barebacking like rational adults, and, like, a fifth of whiskey.”
 
Sam’s eyes went dark right around the word ‘prep’ so by the time Dean finishes they’re downright predatory.
 
And,” Dean adds, rallying even though his mouth is paper dry, “I am not the only bottom in this relationship. You are not the only top. Sound good?”
 
“So, what?” Sam asks, lips pursed up in an attempt at fake sincerity, “We’re gonna contract out, or…”
 
“Ha ha ha,” Dean drawls, voice flat, face scrunched up to mimic Sam’s. “You’re hilarious.”
 
But Sam doesn’t look shocked or disbelieving or disgusted like Dean half-thought he might. He looks…eager, maybe, if Dean is reading him right. Sam’s eyes are still locked on his brother, mouth barely parted, intent.
 
“What if I just want to kiss you?” Sam asks as he takes a step closer. “Not leading to sex. A kiss just to kiss you.”
 
Dean is backing up before he realizes he’s moving, and stops as soon as he catches himself. At least Sam doesn’t seem thrown. “I, uh,” Dean stumbles and tries again. “Not sure I know how to kiss like that.”
 
“That’s why I’m asking.” Sam’s smile is just pushing at the corners of his lips, a heady mix of little brother love and something else. “I don’t want you breaking my nose just ‘cause you don’t know it’s coming.”
 
Sam is really close now, and really unnaturally tall. “Uh,” Dean says, and makes himself stay put. “Just say ‘heads up’ or s—“
 
“Heads up,” Sam cuts him off and leans in like a test, like even when Dean has spunk drying on Sam’s discarded clothes he might still push him away. Like Dean can even remember motor function when Sam is kissing him, even when it’s brief and sweet like this, warm and gone before Dean can get enough.
 
He narrows his eyes. “I like the kisses that lead to sex better.”
 
Sam’s eyes go all soft in a way Dean doesn’t know what to do with, but luckily he grins and turns them away when Dean starts shifting his weight. “Yeah, well…”
 
Dean has to make himself stop staring at the way Sam’s dimples keep tugging at the corners of his mouth, turns his attention back to the damn devil’s trap. “So what’s next on the list?” he asks as casually as he can. “Skipping the case we aren’t on at this moment.”
 
“Lilith might send some demons to teach me about sacrificing virgins for the greater good.” Sam pauses to shake up his spray paint can while Dean does his best not to sputter. “Or she might just try to kill us. Cas can’t keep Lilith out of the loop forever, and with Ruby dead…everything’s a little bit up in the air.” Sam’s jaw tightens.
 
“Dude,” Dean scowls, giving his brother a light shove to get that look off Sam’s face. “Nothing you or anyone can say is going to make me think we didn’t gank Ruby a second before she deserved to be ganked.”
 
Sam glances at Dean, visibly forces himself to chill out enough to shake his head. There’s a hint of relief in his body language that even Dean has trouble picking up on, but it’s there. “Either way, we should still make sure Caleb’s holy water sprinkler system is operational.”
 
“Okay.” Dean turns to finish a sigil in a puff of red paint. “What’s our timeline on getting this place demon proof?”
 
Sam lifts a shoulder and lets it fall in a way that pings Dean’s radar. “Couple of weeks.”
 
There may be a little jaw dropping, Dean isn’t going to admit it. And then he shuts his mouth, and watches the way Sam is facing away from him, and Dean knows his brother’s body language so well that he can tell Sam is feeling vulnerable just by the curve of his spine. “So we’ll just—hole up here for a while then, huh?” Dean asks, surprised to hear his voice come out kind of vulnerable around the edges.
 
Sam picks up on it—of course he does—but he doesn’t call Dean on it, just shifts until their shoulders knock together, warm and solid as he fits their comfort zones together into something no one else can touch.
 
“And then,” Sam says after a moment of nothing at all, “we’re gonna go save Corbett.” Dean watches Sam nod like it’s already final, and then Sam hmms and goes back to work. Dean could almost swear he hears Sam mumble something like, “gay love pierces through the veil of death…” but he really wouldn’t bet on it.
 
For some reason, watching Sam finish up the sting of the scorpion’s tail makes him think about the Sam in his dream, the one in the kitchen with the pie and the newspaper. Sam perfectly content. He can almost see bits of that Sam in this one, stubbornly digging its heels in against the parts of Sam that won’t let him breathe easy until Lilith is dead and Dean is firmly topside.
 
But Dean will get him there if it takes everything he has. All he has to do is stay alive. No sweat.
 
“You could read the timeline,” Sam offers, pausing with his spray can raised, looking back over his shoulder to Dean. “If you wanted.”
 
“Nah,” Dean waves off, no hesitation. He can feel a smile creeping in and lets it happen. “I like surprises.”
 
Sam grins wide, wide enough to push his eyes shut when ducks his head. And he’s a miracle, he’s the strongest being in the whole damn universe, and he broke the world and put it back together again in a way that meant he could keep his brother.
 
So Dean must be something worth fighting for.

~*~ Three Months Later ~*~

Dean coughs out a cloud of flour, spits when it starts sticking to his teeth and tongue and sees blood hit the pavement at his feet. But it’s just a split cheek from when Lilith flung him against the wall, no big deal. It really shouldn’t send Sam skidding to his side, but maybe Sam had already been running for him.
 
He can hear Bela’s heaving gasps from the far corner even over the echoing ring left in his ears from Sam’s prerecorded exorcism, the clatter of the Colt against the wall before she uses both hands to steady it. Dean has one second to send a smirk her general direction before Sam is on him, one hand under his jaw and fingertips of the other prodding at the growing bruise under his eye before Dean swats him away, dropping Ruby’s bloody knife so he doesn’t accidentally stab his brother.
 
He doesn’t let Sam get far, though, grabs a fistful of Sam’s shirt right over his heart and holds on, as Sam fits his palm to the back of Dean’s neck and puts their foreheads together, just taking a moment to breathe.
 
“Did it, Sammy,” he says, and feels Sam shudder like he might fall apart.
 
Sam shuts his eyes for a moment and then pries them back open, pulling away just far enough to look Dean over. “Are you really okay? Don’t bullshit me, Dean, are you hurt?”
 
Yeah, it got a little crazy in there after the speaker system blew, Hellhound blood turning the floor slick as they fired until their trigger fingers felt raw. The flour still hasn’t settled, lingering around them in a thick, protective haze. Dean can just make out the shock of Lilith’s blond hair against the cement, and for one brief second before the dust shifts he can see the gaping hole in her head, the scorch-marks left from the Colt’s bullet. Bela is a damn good shot, got her right between the eyes and once more in the heart as she went down.
 
Bobby starts cussing his way over half-visible lumps of demon dogs to get to the switch for the ceiling fan, and Dean can hear the muffled groans of half-aware people reeling from the effects of mass exorcism outside the panic room. That’s going to be a mess to clean up, but not right now.
 
“Fine, Sammy, I’m good, promise.” Dean’s hands are roaming restlessly over Sam while he still can, but Sam touches him in systematic sweeps, pressing against all his sticky bits to see if he hisses. None of it is Dean’s blood except for the blood in his mouth. Sam leans against Dean like he doesn’t quite know how to hold himself up.
 
“Dean, what—“ Sam’s voice falters and gives, tremors running through his body in adrenaline-fueled, exhausted waves. Dean holds his brother tighter. “Dean, I don’t even… Wh-what the hell do we do now?”
 
“Dunno,” Dean says. Then, with a helpless sort of laugh, “Make our own future?”
 
Sam rests his hand over Dean’s amulet and his head against Dean’s, where they’re propping each other up. “Guess we’re gonna have to.”
 
Dean hears a faint, “Balls,” from across the room, a click, and then a hum as the ceiling fan kicks in. The first billow reveals Lilith’s empty shell for an instant, before it hides her again.
 
“Hey,” Dean says, knuckles bumping Sam’s chin as white dust swirls around them. “Heads up.”