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Driving Down the Darkness

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i.

They stop on the Utah border where the Great Basin Highway hits the interstate, a half a tank of gas to their names. It's just a stone's throw from Salt Lake, but motels in towns like West Wendover, Nevada are a lot easier to fleece than the ones in cities. It's funny, the things you remember.

Dean turns the heater on after he claims his bed, and they listen to it thud warningly.

"You hungry?" he finally asks.

"I'm fine."

"Yeah?" Dean scrubs a hand over his face. He's looked pale for a week now, skittish like he's not quite sure what to do or say. "Am I starting to look like a hot dog yet? Dude, the last time you ate anything was yesterday afternoon. I know you want to keep your girlish figure, but you can't just starve."

They took the state of Nevada in one day; not bad for six hundred miles.

The last time he left California had been Christmas. He and Jessica flew to her grandparents' house in Houston. They had suitcases instead of duffel bags, shuffled in lines through mall-like airports and chewed gum to keep their ears from popping. It had been uneventful and fast, watching the state lines blur together below them. Nothing like the road, where you feel each one rattle through your bones. Jess had rested her head on his shoulder and kissed him, light and soft and in that way that made a quiet noise when they broke apart. Later, she'd fallen asleep right there, and he'd smiled down at her thick curls and then out the window.

"I'm fine," he says again, and flops face-down on the bed.

*

Sam can trace his history through the highways and back roads they drive on, but there are notable differences now. America looks tired, worn out. This is a world less interested in waving people through, more interested in seeing credentials. People don't open their doors quite as wide, satisfied with nodding from a distance rather than shaking hands.

He had taken it for granted that the road would stay the same, but it's changed as much as he has.

They get to Blackwater Ridge fast, like making up for that lost time in Palo Alto. Dean guns the engine when they head past the Colorado state line sign, and even though they don't say much, he knows they're thinking the same thing. Their dad will know what to do. He'll have some answers for them, and even though it might be tense – even after this kind of tragedy, the old man's not going to be as quick to forgive as Dean – it'll all come out in the wash.

Growing up with John Winchester hadn't ever been easy. There were too many fights, too many times common sense was turned down in favor of whatever he had up his sleeve. One of the promises Sam made to himself when he left was that he wasn't going to play those games anymore. He wouldn't be pushed around by someone else's desires, someone else's life. He wasn't going to be his father's son.

When there's nothing waiting for them in Blackwater Ridge except another job, just like Jericho, it's like the final turn of the knife.

*

Gas is two-eighty in Nebraska, and Dean lets out a low whistle as he slips the nozzle in.

"Bert Aframian ain't lovin' this."

A tinny radio nearby is playing "Cripple Creek" while a guy squeegees bugs off the grill of his truck. Sam turns his face up to the sky and breathes in the mixed smells of car grease and hot dogs, a fried chicken joint up the street.

He always thought that one day he'd get to paint Jessica into this picture. Maybe they'd take road trips like normal people, drive out of California and trace their way through the Southwest. Drop in to visit her sister at UNM, take pictures at roadside attractions.

It's only now that he remembers all the things he was going to do, the things he never told her, the open-ended conversations they were always going to come back to.

"Storm's comin' in," Dean says, and Sam looks over at him, still squinting from the sun.

They're aimless in the wake of Colorado, no trail to follow and no end in sight. He felt like they were headed in a specific direction for the first seven hundred miles or so, but it all gets mixed up soon enough. They hit Michigan, Ohio, double back for Nevada, take a left for Montana. There's nothing in their rearview mirror that wasn't spread out before them a week ago, nothing they're headed into that they haven't seen before.

Conversations don't get any easier, but they find a rhythm out of necessity. No matter how hard he might deny it, there's something that connects the two of them – that strange shared past, the countless times they've pulled each other back from the brink of death, all the colds and broken bones that Dean sat next to him through.

He never would have chosen to come back to this life, but the thing that he was running from wasn't ever Dean.

*

In Missouri they park on the side of the highway. Dean leaves the keys swinging in the ignition as he wanders off into the roadside blackness to piss, the cooing of coyotes too close for comfort. Sam watches the dome light flicker as his knee sways from side to side, a nervous motion, connecting with the cool metal of the glove box and then away, warm again.

He thumbs through a stack of maps and possible cases in his lap, names and notes. It's always like solving a Rubik's Cube: you make one pass to figure something out, and it takes three more before another clue falls into place, before the facts hit your brain in the right order to make you understand.

Minutes tick by, so slow at first that he doesn't notice, doesn't think about it – and then suddenly the cloud of thought passes and he looks up, looks around, realizes that Dean's had plenty of time to shake it off and zip it up.

He flicks on the spotlight outside his window, angles it at the forest.

Nothing. White light on a blanket of green, no depth and no motion. It looks even more forbidding than it did before, and his voice is welling up in him, bursting out in a fit of fear he hasn't felt since he was a kid. He opens the door and steps out into the chill November air. "Dean!"

It echoes off the trees, lingering in the air a second longer than it should, and he tries again, voice hitting a rough pitch.

"Dean!"

He thought all the fear had been beaten out of him by the years, tempered by so many boogeymen laid to rest, but he chokes on sheer panic as he stands there on the side of the road.

"Dude, what?" Dean wanders out of a nearby thicket, still tugging on his zipper.

"Where the hell were you?" he demands.

"Take a look around, Einstein. This whole ravine is full of poison oak. I had to find an area that wasn't quite so memorable."

He sags back against the side of the car, shaking his head. He can feel sweat prickling under his arms, the rush of adrenaline still in his veins. It comes out in a kind of tangled laugh of disbelief as he sits back down in the passenger seat.

*

Sam likes eating in diners because the choices are always simple. Toast? Sourdough. Juice? Orange. Eggs? Over-easy. Yes, I know what I want. Yes, I'm ready to order.

Silverware clatters against dishes under the din of voices in Lloyd's Grill, the after-church crowd and townies all tucking into "world famous" short stacks while Dean's eggs bleed yellow across his plate.

"Where we headed today?" Dean asks, breaking a toast crust and mopping up yolk.

"Not much in the grapevine." He holds his thick white mug in one hand, fingers dry with smudged newspaper ink. "There was one thing – some deaths in Muncie, Missouri. It could be nothing, or—"

"It could be something. Gotcha." Dean picks up his bacon with his fingers, elbows on the table, and leans in. "I do love the Show-Me State. I ever tell you about—"

"Yes," he says emphatically, and Dean smiles down at his plate.

At school he remembered these landscapes like they might have shown up on postcards, a collection of snap-shots somewhere in the back of his mind. Come see Mississippi, home of the largest whatever. Welcome to another roadside service station with posters advertising cigarette prices. Here's one of the Great Lakes no one remembers the name of. Here are scenes from your life, homes you have known, things you're pretending aren't real.

He sits with the journal a lot of nights, rubbing his fingertips over the leather. He knows it all, familiar with it like he didn't even realize – the coffee stains, the smudges of brownish blood, the places where their father's handwriting gives way to Dean's tidy scrawl or Sam's childishly awkward lettering. There were too many occasions when he was laid up with one injury or another and some notation needed to be made, something to refer back to later when the details weren't so fresh in all their minds.

The closest thing they have to a family photo album is between those covers; memories of their lives, the places they went and the things they did. 12/25/94 was a Christmas haunt in Connecticut where they stood shivering in the snow for hours. Dean's sixteenth birthday fell somewhere between 1/5/95 – Rawhead (New Mexico) and 1/27/95 – Roboco (South Dakota). It was the nature of the job that they couldn't keep mementos, that they had to start over from the beginning every time they moved, but that book was a constant.

Dean's got a different style than their dad did. More breaks for stretching legs and more overnight stops in towns; food takes priority over good mattresses, premium gas takes priority over cable. Neither way is better – both equally taxing and liable to drive you crazy – but Sam lets Dean call these shots because Dean's got time on him. Four years longer on the planet and four years longer on the road.

They're in Alabama when Dean drags him to a copy shop to throw together some fake IDs.

"Occupational hazard, Sammy," he says in response to a sigh. "Lying is part of the job."

"You don't have to act so happy about it."

"Come on, it's not that bad. Who do you want to be this week? I was leaning towards Mick and Keith, but if you wanna be one of the Village People, that's cool too."

*

Jess didn't have a real funeral in California, but they stopped by the little memorial service their last day in Palo Alto. There was piano music and flowers and rows of folding chairs, and her senior portrait at the front of the room. It was everything she would have hated, cloying and insincere and identical to a thousand other services Sam had been to in his life.

This time, though, he was the one getting approached by strangers. Hugged around the middle by girls who had once loaned Jessica their Organic Chemistry notes, or lived on her floor during freshman year. Shaking hands with guys he didn't recognize who told him how much she'd be missed.

It's all a blur for him in retrospect, happening too fast to process and coming at the end of a week of EMF sweeps and conversations with coroners. The platitudes didn't stick with him, although plenty of people told him that she had been a great girl, that she was in a better place, that God worked in mysterious ways.

Becky was the one who had convinced him to show up, plaintive and sweet-voiced over the phone while he locked himself in the Ramada Inn bathroom and tried to tell her he couldn't.

"You need this, Sam," she had said. "We all need this."

The fact of the matter was, even then he could feel the gap between him and those people widening, like some physical space stretched between them. It grew and grew over that week, and by the time they walked out of the chapel it seemed to span miles and lifetimes. He was on an ice floe drifting out to sea, while his friends and classmates stood in the somber clothes they bought for grad school interviews and waved goodbye.

He still gets updates every now and then, cheery notes from friends who expect him to be getting answers out here in America. Not real answers, but the bullshit finding-yourself kind. He sends pictures sometimes, snapped on his cell phone at rest stops and roadside cafes. Little notes about eating buffalo meat in Wyoming, passing an eighteen-foot tall Paul Bunyan statue in Ohio.

There had been a hysterical moment right after the fire when he thought he wanted to come clean to everyone about this life, purge himself of all the secrets that came with it, but it left as quick as it came.

In Atlanta he wakes up with Jessica's name lodged in his throat. He had been yelling it in his dream, but it comes out as a thick mumble as his eyes open.

Dean's already awake, sitting up in bed and watching him.

He sees her everywhere, all the time, in ways that make him feel crazy. In Michigan she's the Dairy Queen girl, blue eyes watching him out of pale face. In Nevada she's the tired-looking business woman, all class, he holds the door for at the mini-mart. She's Beth, Amber, Julia, a litany of girls and places and walks of life that she will never get to live.

There are times he wakes up with nothing on his mind but the shape of her mouth, the hours spent under their Target blankets breathing the same air. Songs he doesn't even like come on the car radio and make him bite back the burn of tears because some turn of phrase feels like her.

It's always the little things that come to mind, stuff that couldn't matter less. The contents of her purse, which he saw every time he had to go digging for a pen – lip glosses, scribbled essay ideas on post-its, the plastic packet of birth control pills. The neat row of postcards and letters from her best friend back home, all signed, I love you dearly but not queerly, Jamie. The potted plant that sat on their table, rescued from the curb on trash day, which silently joined them for cram sessions and morning cereal.

It's easier to think of those things than to think of Jess in the flesh, real and alive and smiling at him with a glossy mouth, whimpering for him to come inside of her, telling him stories about high school sleep-overs, and earnestly trying to develop a green thumb.

He can't talk to Dean about this stuff because Dean doesn't function that way. He doesn't understand what love is, or how one person can bear the weight of all that you want in life. To him there is no problem that can't be solved, no dire circumstance that can't be bounced back from. His traumas are all sparks, short-lived and dangerous. He doesn't understand dying a slow death, stones in your chest and dread in your stomach.

*

He lets Dean come to him with stories of what he's missed over the years. There are things Dean still doesn't forgive, that much is clear in the lines of his shoulders sometimes. Sam is still on trial for leaving and probably always will be, and prodding at those old wounds won't get him anywhere.

It comes out slowly at first, but in the miles between radio stations Dean tells him about Pastor Jim's flock, Caleb's new business, hunts and injuries he wasn't there to see.

"Bobby? Nah, they had a fallin' out couple years ago, haven't seen much of him."

Time seems to pass differently out here. At home it was measured by school terms and paper deadlines, but now there's no density to it. Jobs take as long as they'll take and you learn to sink or swim.

During the day Dean talks, cracks jokes and his knuckles, drives fast and plays bad music that Sam knows all the words to. He debates the merits of different fast food places, reminisces about girls he's known in every state they pass through, and threatens to get Sam drunk and take him to a barber's shop while his defenses are down. He makes Sam clean the guns while he quizzes him on the right ammunition to use with different monsters. He watches talk shows with the sound up, laments about thirteen-year-old mothers and gives commentary on episodes of The Twilight Zone.

At night it's just Sam and the steady drip of faucets.

It's not always the same nightmare that comes for him. At first it was the same one he had at Stanford – Jess on the ceiling, burning up – and somehow that one isn't the worst. Every time is like a second chance, every time it's like his fingers get a little closer to her body there on the ceiling. It's stupid, senseless, but he almost thinks that if he could just get it right one of those times, maybe this would all become the bad dream.

Eventually it changes, morphing as the memories fade. Sometimes he just sees her standing there, skin pale and clean and her nightgown shredded and burnt. Sometimes there's nothing wrong at all, and those dreams hurt the most.

There's a part of him that knows it would all be over by now if he had stayed at Stanford. There would have been some communal grief, everyone leaning on each other for support, and a group healing process where they all pulled together and put it behind them. Jess, never forgotten. Jess, their source of inspiration, the sobering specter that keeps them all grounded and going.

Instead he's out here on the road, driving and searching and dreaming. Living in the wake of Jessica, who never saw it coming.

*

In Connecticut he wakes up to the steady hum of the television and a sheen of sweat on his skin that feels sticky and uncomfortable.

Dean's stretched out on the other bed, chest bare in the blue TV light. Sam squints at the screen until the Dateline real-life murder case swims into clarity, closed captioning running a ticker-tape of words at the bottom.

"The husband did it," he mumbles, knuckling an eye. "It's always the husband."

"The husband was just bein' interviewed, smartass," Dean says. There's a bag of microwave popcorn in his hand from that evening, and he gives it an audible shake. "'M I keepin' you up?"

Sam makes a noncommittal noise. He can still hear the crackle of fire, and the smell of singed popcorn turns his stomach, reminding him of the bitter smell of burnt skin. "I was definitely sleeping for awhile there."

The blue-white light catches on Dean's pursed lips.

"What about you? What are you doing up?"

Dean dusts off his hands, a clap-clap back and forth. "I'm a sucker for a good mystery."

He pauses. "Was I talking in my sleep again?"

The heater roils on with a series of sporadic clanks, and Dean shoves a finger in his mouth, picking at what Sam has to assume is a popcorn hull in his teeth.

"You could've woken me up," he says, and Dean gives him a short glare.

"Are you kiddin' me? Dude, you're getting – what, four hours a night? On average? If I wake you up when you are catchin' some Zs, your brain's gonna melt."

Sam breathes out shortly through his nose and sits up, stacking his pillows behind him. Dean unmutes the TV and holds out the bag of popcorn.

"The husband's being interviewed in prison," Sam finally says, taking a handful. "It's always the husband."

*

Between the two of them, Sam's always been the unlikely jock. Smart money would go on Dean, who's built solid and strong, all thick muscle where Sam was just skinny, awkward limbs. It's Sam, though, who wanted to play soccer – Sam who was on the track team for a year, Sam who wasn't half bad at basketball, since people always chose him first for teams in PE class and it was kind of a necessity to figure out what was going on.

His fighting instincts have been dormant for a long time, but they're woven too deep to not still be there when he reaches for them. He gets faster with every job they pull, endurance building back up like it was never gone at all.

Dean pulls them over by a tilled field in Nebraska, apropos of nothing, and makes him go through the hand-to-hand drills they used to do as kids. He resents every face full of dirt as much as he did then, but it's good. It's what he needs.

"Wax on, wax off, dude," Dean says when they're both sweaty and exhausted.

He hasn't forgotten how to take this stuff on the chin.

It changes things, too, gets those reflexes firing better than before. They catch a haunt by accident as they pass through Delaware, and it's like it all clicks into his place in his head, the way to duck and roll and use Dean as an extension of himself.

It's not much, but it feels like being alive again. There's a spark in him that hasn't died out yet, and every time they kill something, every time Dean slants that smile at him, it's fanned a little bit more.

*

They stop in a town called Cordwell on a Thursday, a heavy chill in the air. He doesn't even realize it's Thanksgiving until they're out of the car and trying the locked door of a diner.

"Son of a bitch," Dean snarls.

They settle for a bag of groceries from an Albertson's open for emergency shopping. Sam parks them by the local river and they sit with the engine running, the heater blowing warm air on their knees.

Dean cuts apple slices with his pocket knife and wordlessly hands them over to Sam. The silence is companionable, and the sadness he feels is just a faint pang.

Dean stays out all night in a little town outside Boston, and it's weird to have the motel room to himself. Privacy isn't something they get a lot of on the road, and sitting there thinking about what Dean's doing as the hours drift by reminds him of being twelve, when he just couldn't understand what was so great about going on dates all the time.

It's strange how sometimes it seems like he's the only one who ever has Dean, and sometimes it's like he's constantly sharing him.

He lies awake until the red alarm clock light flashes two in the morning, and then he kicks the covers off and shoves his boxers down.

It's harder to jerk off without shampoo in his fist and scalding water pounding down; his brain doesn't want to zero in on any of his stock fantasy fodder. He used to have some favorite ones about Jessica, half-real and half-embellished, but thinking of that now makes him feel kind of sick.

Instead, he volleys his mind to the girl Dean was hitting on in the bar, a compact little brunette with blue eyes and shiny pink lips. It's safe, neutral, and he can get up a good rhythm thinking about her mouth on his dick, her hair in his hands. He's a couple tugs away from blowing when he gets a fleeting idea of what it might look like to see her bouncing on Dean's cock, and then he loses it all over his hand.

When Dean comes back, it's with a pink mark on his throat that doesn't go away for a week. Sam feels weird every time he looks at it.

*

He calls their father's number a lot in the days that follow their plane exorcism. He's got a good idea that Dean's doing it, too, which makes him feel a little less stupid.

There had been times while he was away that his dad had started to seem like a caricature of himself, lost in an endless witch hunt. It hadn't been easy to grow up without a mother, but he never experienced the trauma of loss, something taken away from the world he knew. His life had always been the same, and their mom's death was just a fact.

He hadn't been fair in his memories, he realizes now.

When Bloody Mary comes for him, there's a part of him that thinks it might be easier to give up. Voicing things gives them weight, gives them truth, and the ugliness of what his reflection says stays with him for a long time. He knew Jessica was going to die. He knew it, in the bone-deep way you sometimes know things – like you left the oven on, like someone's cheating. He knew she was going to die pinned to the ceiling, and he left her with nothing but a kiss on the cheek.

Dean gives him a wide berth when they leave Ohio. He doesn't push like he would about anything else; it's enough that Sam tells him no.

They make a pit stop in a ramshackle town off the I-93, just on the far side of the Montana state line. There was flooding in the west, orange traffic cones and people in slickers waving them through detours, but out here it's just fine.

Sam navigates the aisles of the convenience store, gripping a bottle of Advil, a package of Red Vines, and a bag of Funyuns. Flies circle lazily in the center of the room, and he buys the last three donuts from the plastic case. The crumpled mess of dollar bills he shucks onto the counter still smell like cigarette smoke and the trucker Dean boosted them from.

Outside, the streetlights hum and flicker.

"You ready?" Dean says, leaning on the side of the car.

Sam tears open the bag of licorice with his teeth and tosses the Advil over the roof. Dean catches it with one hand.

"As I'll ever be."

 

ii.

A month after Jessica dies, the stores start putting up Christmas decorations.

It's a cold winter up north and a wet one everywhere else. Ice forms on the grill of the car, thick and unforgiving, and they have to blow into cupped hands every time they pump their gas.

Dean never thought any of this would be easy. From the minute he pulled Sam out of that fire, he knew they were in for a rough stretch of road. Grief isn't a nice emotion, doesn't leave much in its wake. It's ugly and messy and makes people do stupid shit like summon spirits and raise zombies.

He just never thought it would be this bad.

He keeps them moving after Bloody Mary, more shaken than he'd ever admit. Using Sam as bait never would have flown in the old days, not for one fucking minute, and there's a weird cloud of guilt around him every time he thinks about those blood tracks on his face. He doesn't want Sam like this, all dark and twisty inside, but he doesn't have the first clue how to fix it.

He won't budge on his big secret, either. It's typical brotherly ribbing, he figures. That I-know-something-you-don't shit, and it's not any different than the things he did to Sam when they were kids. He hit every milestone first, after all – he got to go hunting first, got to be the first one out of the car with a gun in his hand. He was the first to kiss a girl, to shave, to buy condoms at the drugstore like it was no big deal.

That's the way it always was, the way it's always been. He's an open book with Sam, and all those times he rubbed his face in not getting to do stuff yet – that was him sharing what he'd done. That was him divulging the secrets, letting out the fear of having to hold a gun and the exhilaration of frenching whoever it was, the girl who made him feel like he was the master of the fucking universe. He shared it all because he wanted Sam to be a part of it.

Sam was never like that, though. He was secretive and magpie-like when he wanted, collecting facts and experiences and holding them to his chest. Sometimes he would deign to let Dean in, but usually it would have to be pried out of him, wheedled with promises of milkshakes and radio control, and sometimes Sam would just remain tight-lipped, until four days later when he'd blurt out in an embarrassed, excited tangle, I-kissed-Margo-Williams-with-tongue-and-liked-it-okay?

Sam grew up not being sure if Dean was going to tease him about things or slap him on the back, grew up thinking that Dean's opinion meant something, and somehow it's all come to this, Sam laying that kind of shit on him – that Jessica's death was somehow his fault – and then blowing him off. There are four whole years he's locked out of, jokes and memories and people he doesn't know about, that he won't get a straight answer on even if he tries.

Yeah, he likes to pretend Sam's Mr. Let's Talk It Out, but the truth of the matter is Sam's a fucking enigma when he wants to be.

*

The days pass by slowly, a never-ending series of rainy graveyards and crumpled newspapers. It's the same grind it's always been, and there are times when he can lose himself in it, like the steady pound of feet on pavement when they used to do physical training with their dad.

All he can do is keep living, keep dragging Sam along with him. This has been his role as long as he can remember, and it strangely doesn't cramp his style a whole hell of a lot. He sings Metallica songs in the shower, orders double bacon cheeseburgers for lunch, fucks the girls who look at him twice, and keeps Sam going. The sex and the food and the ten minutes under pounding hot water are life's little pleasures, and so are those occasional moments when the clouds part and Sam seems okay again.

They keep their heads down around Christmas, when Dean's face is still plastered across TV screens in five states. The whole string of St. Louis murders gets pinned on him, and there's a sense of relief in the reports, lots of congratulating the police force on the body that was left there for them, lots of reassuring everyone that they can go back to their false sense of security.

People are happy to put it all behind them, and Sam drives all the way to Wisconsin, giving strained smiles to the toll booth operators while Dean sulks in the back seat.

The holidays weren't ever a big deal when they were kids, but Dean gets the sense that Sam's changed his views on them somewhat in the last four years. He never really talks about Jessica, but she seemed like the type – the family holiday type, the Christmas tree type. He can just picture the whole lot of them, Sam and Jess and Becky and whoever, with their hand-knit scarves and egg-nog. Making out under mistletoe while Julie Andrews belted 'em out in the background.

It's not that he begrudges Sam all that stuff, but it's just another thing they don't have the same footing on. They're back to their old tradition of complimentary motel cocoa packets and It's A Wonderful Life on AMC, and it's not like Sam's going to open up about what's going through his head.

"When did you stop believing in Santa Claus?" he finally asks, actually curious.

Sam's been staring off into space, not really paying attention to the story of George Bailey's suicide attempt, and he starts a little.

"Santa Claus?"

Dean rolls his eyes. "Yeah. Fat dude, white beard, drives a sleigh?"

Sam lets out a little huff of amusement and blows on his hot chocolate. "I don't know. Seven? Something like that."

"Seriously? You believed that long?"

The TV switches to a commercial with the California Raisins hocking candy, and Sam mutes it. "With all the stuff we saw? All those myths and legends? Come on, man. Santa Claus sounded like hard science compared to some of that."

"Yeah, I guess."

"Do you—" Sam lets out an actual little laugh. "D'you remember that time – when we were living at some motel in Ohio. I was so worried because we didn't have anything to leave out, and I made you walk me down to the vending machine—"

"—so you could get some of those Grandma's Cookies. And I tried convincing you that Santa wouldn't leave anything if you gave him oatmeal raisin."

It's a good memory, one he totally forgot about, and they smile at each other as Sam shakes his head. "It didn't take much for me to believe. I wanted to, so it wasn't hard. I didn't even care what I got, you know? It was more the idea of it – the idea that someone was out there, paying attention. What about you? Did Dad — ?"

"Nah." Dean takes a pull off his cocoa and flicks his gaze back over to the screen, where the AMC logo is fading back into the movie. "I mean, after Mom died – he tried, sorta. For a couple years there, money was too tight for a whole lot of gift-giving."

Sam's giving him that sensitive, concerned look, and Dean feels a momentary flicker of guilt for letting the truth of that slip out and make Sam's crappy opinion of their dad solidify even further. "Sucks."

"Yeah." His tone is noncommittal, and he sets his mug down on the table between their beds. "Whatever. I had plenty of fun keeping it goin' for you. Even if you did leave oatmeal raisin cookies."

Sam grins then, broad and bright, and tosses one of his pillows over at him.

As far back as he can remember, Sam never belonged to anyone else. He had friends and girlfriends in high school, but he was always Dean's brother first. The geeky kid with a maxed out library card and straight-A grades was the alter ego, the Clark Kent Peter Parker bullshit that wasn't real.

He watched everything in St. Louis with careful eyes. The way Sam hugged Becky, the jokes he didn't get. It was terrifying and fascinating, and it explained things he's been struggling with since that night he broke into Sam's apartment.

Becky knows a different Sam, someone grown-up and self-sufficient, someone who didn't come home to dirty little secrets. She knows the Sam that Sam has become, the person without self-consciousness or fear. She knows the person sitting on the other lumpy motel bed, staring at his shoes instead of Jimmy Stewart.

She knows someone Dean is just starting to unravel, and he hates her for it, a little.

*

They stop in a sleazy little bar in Garden City, and Dean spends the night chatting up this girl with short brown hair and lips that hug the rim of her beer bottle just so. She laughs and rolls her eyes at most of his lines, but he knows by the way she crosses her legs in his direction that the deal is as good as sealed.

Sometimes this stuff is as straightforward as it gets; he just wants to fuck someone and have done with it. But once in awhile it's something more – watching sweat form at the nape of a girl's neck, just above the tie of a jade green halter top, and wanting to lick it off. Seeing some charm bracelet thing shift on a thin wrist and wanting to pin it to the mattress, knowing he could hold them both in one hand and keep her there, hold her like that while she comes. Smelling perfume when she tilts her head, smooths her hair down and laughs, and wanting to slide his nose fucking everywhere, find out where she dabbed it before she left her cute little bedroom that night, if she was hoping for someone to pick her up or if it was all just a game of chance.

Sam takes off after an hour or so, but Dean counts it as a victory that he got him out of the motel room at all.

Later, in Rachel's apartment, she pulls her little shirt off over her head and groans when he tucks his face into her pale, candy-scented cleavage.

He likes girls that are all manicured nails and shiny hair – girls who are fancy from head to toe. They're as far as you can get from the flannel shirts and gun smoke of the world he lives in, just something pretty and delicate.

"Oh, yeah," she breathes when he gets to his knees. He pushes her denim skirt up around her hips and breathes her in there – musky and hot and wet for him. She squirms up on her toes when he traces her clit with his tongue, sucks it with a wet smack.

He likes other stuff, too. When the sleekness starts to fall away, when her head tips back and he can see a vein, fat and blue and vulnerable in her throat. When her mascara or whatever finally smudges, when she's sweating real sweat while he fucks her into the mattress.

More than anything, he loves the sweetness of a girl after she's just come. Salty and sweaty and limp in his arms, looking at him with that expression like he's just done some miraculous thing. In that moment he's proved himself, done the thing she was doubting he'd be able to pull off since the moment they said hello. She can see him like only two other people ever do – know him as the person who can be counted on, who looks after his own. She knows he's going to take care of her.

And when the girl wraps her arms around his neck and tilts her hips up to let him slide in, it's even better than the promises from earlier in the night – the hand smoothing down her hair when she thinks he isn't looking, the slow shifting of her gaze from a beer bottle to his face. Right then, he's who he's supposed to be, the only person he knows how to be, for twenty minutes.

Forty, if he's sober.

*

The temperature dips below zero in Michigan, a quiet kind of cold that seeps into the bones and frosts up the windows. Lake Superior glitters green-blue in the January light, icy cold and beautiful.

He knows some parts of the country better than others. They used to settle every now and then, when there was school to attend and a facade to keep in place. Sometimes they'll pull up in a small town and he'll actually recognize it, remember that there was a diner with good lemon squares, a gas station with good prices. Every now and then he feels comfortable when he stares out the windows, like they're brushing against something he didn't think existed – memories, maybe. Their collective past.

They head out of Ohio on Route 109, where the road hugs the polluted waters of Gallup Creek. Sam sleeps with his chin against the glass; there are grease smudges there from the last five or twenty times he did it.

On the Wisconsin border the wind blows so hard that limbs start to crack and fall out of trees, littering the highways that meander off interstate lines. They drive slow with the heater running high and hot, search lights shining bright against the fog. Dean leans forward every now and then to rub the condensation off the inside of the windshield with the back of his hand.

A couple of times they have to stop in the middle of the highway and get out to pull debris off the road – there's no one else to do it, and it's not like they're going to turn around and go back.

Sam's disposition doesn't change much as they go, even when they take out the Hook Man and he gets friendly with that pastor's daughter. There's nothing Dean can do to break him out of his own head, get him back in the world of the living.

There was a look their dad used to get sometimes, a look that Dean never saw on other people's faces. Other dads didn't look so haggard, so dead tired all the time. It was something he took for granted as a kid, but the more the rest of the world began to open up to him, the more he understood how deep the ore of pain had to run.

When Dean walks out of the Hasty-Mart that's just a little ways off I-35, Sam's leaning against the car with that same look on his face.

It's a pain so deeply written that it's frightening, more frightening than just about anything Dean can remember seeing. It's not your normal sorrow or regret. It's grief, it's mourning, something ageless and weary. It's scripted in the lines of his face so deeply that it looks like it won't ever disappear, like his mouth will always be heavy at the corners and there will always be that line of worry between his eyebrows.

For years he felt haunted by the vague specter of their mother, and now he feels haunted by Jessica Moore – pretty and pale and still the only thing Sam can care about. She might as well be the third person there in the front seat, sitting between them and deflecting the glances that stray across her. She might as well be alive, pinning Sam down in his bed of California sunshine and all the normal shit that doesn't involve living in a car.

This has become his life; watching Sam shake in his sleep at night, watching Sam mope in the day.

There had been plenty of times back in the old days when Sam had his teenage blues. They were little pockets of surly rebellion that fizzled out as fast as they had come. Dean had a gift for defusing that shit, but now there's no source for it, no friction. He can't whip out the old tricks, can't pull their dad aside and make it sound like it was his idea to give the kid a break – now there's just him, just Sam, just this thing stretching out in front of them.

And through it all there's a glimmer of guilt that stirs in him, another load on his shoulders. Sam has always been his responsibility, and it feels like this is just an extension of that. If he had known what to do or say, how to help him become a person with a thicker hide, a more realistic expectation of the world, he'd never have left in the first place. It would have been harder on him, a constant push and pull of wills, and he would have had to learn to want something different – but he would never know this kind of pain, would never look so haunted.

Sometimes he wants that more than he knows how to say.

"Let's hit the road," he finally says, and the look that gets plastered over Sam's face when he looks up – the strained little smile, the crinkle-cornered eyes – hits him like a punch.

*

In Oklahoma, there's a whole mess with bugs. It's the closest call they've had in awhile, but that's not what gets under his skin. It's the fruitlessness of it, the first time they've hunted something that simply didn't have an answer. The owner of the housing development promises to keep people from living there – which is great, until he croaks, and deeds change hands, and they put up a strip mall where Chief Suck-on-This laid down his curse.

The bar they hit that night is the same kind of dive that every highway town has – gravel parking lot, a flickering Bud sign in the window, waitresses just a little too old to really be hot anymore. The jukebox is crammed full of Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride, and Dean scrolls through the entire catalogue before making his selection. Johnny Cash tells the tavern that he's been everywhere, man, as a woman with a tattooed flower on her ankle sets down their bottles. A cheer goes up from a couple of tables over, and Dean lifts his beer in their direction and sips around a smile.

"How do you do that?" Sam demands.

"Do what?"

"That. As long as I can remember, you've always been able to just – I don't know, blend in with people."

Dean shrugs. "'S part of the job."

"We're not on a job."

"Well, maybe I just like Johnny Cash."

Sam shakes his head a little, a funny smile on his mouth. He tilts the neck of his bottle toward Dean after a moment, and Dean automatically clinks in. "Cheers."

"The hell're we toastin' to?"

"A job well done?"

Dean takes a swig of his and shakes his head. "Try again."

Sam laughs, weirdly indulgent. "Dude, you can't win them all."

Dean watches as a couple of people move to the area of floor without tables.

"Come on, man. You can't tell me this doesn't fry your ass a little. We got nothin'."

"We saved a family of people, Dean. And God knows how many people who might have moved into that development."

He jerks his shoulders in a sulky way, aware of Sam's eyes on him.

"Yeah, so where we headed to next?"

Sam lifts his shoulder, an echo of a movement, and takes a swig from his own bottle. He's not much into drinking, Dean's noticed, and he's not sure if that's a recent development or if he was really that lame at college. His hand dwarfs the bottle.

"Back to the basics, man. We haven't got anything on the line."

He scratches at his hair absently; a guy on the other side of the tavern is hitting on their waitress, not getting anywhere. "Let's head east."

There's something strange between them, beneath the day-to-day miscellany of the life. Sometimes it feels like they're right in step, like four years of separation never happened – and then other times it seems like he doesn't know Sam at all, like it's pointless even trying.

*

Heartfield is one of those little towns where dirt seems to be everywhere, the pavement dirty with spilled oil slicks, dead leaves blowing back and forth across the endless series of one-way streets and red lights. The sky is steely and unforgiving, too cold for snow.

"Marco," he says, kicking the door to their motel room shut behind him. He unzips his jacket and tosses it on the nearest bed.

There's a spitting noise from the bathroom, and Sam leans out the doorway with a toothbrush tucked in his cheek. "Polo."

"So I talked to the widow. No-go on the remains, dude was cremated. But," he pulls the sheaf of paper out from under his arm, "this guy, his cousin, was also named John Miller, and is buried in the Presbyterian cemetery outside town."

"Could be our guy. Might not be."

"What's the worst that happens? We salt and burn a random stiff? I've had worse evenings."

"Let's just pause and think about how sad that fact is."

"What, is American Idol on tonight or something? Hut two, dude."

Sam gives him in the finger and disappears back into the bathroom.

The cemetery smells like vegetation and dew. It's not spring yet, but it's rained hard enough lately to turn to the ground into thick, sloppy mud.

They dig in silence for awhile, the steady grind of physical labor building a dull ache in his shoulders and neck.

"So how come you never called?" he finally says.

"Well, that's subtle."

"Come on, man, I wanna know. Did you plan on it bein' like that when you left, or what?"

"Dean." He lets out a sharp little breath through his nose. "I didn't think it was going to be like anything. Dad's the one who shut that door, not me."

"And how about me?"

There's the scrape of shovel through mud, metal on rocks. "You stayed with Dad."

"So I didn't deserve updates on your life anymore? Dude, it was four years and not one word. For all I knew you'd given up your worldly possessions and joined a Scientology cult or something."

"I'm pretty sure Scientology isn't that kind of religion. Anyway, it just – " He's breathless now, chest heaving as he hefts the dirt. "I knew you two weren't going to change your minds. And it's not like you couldn't have called me. I had the same phone number the whole time I was out there. You don't have to change them as much when they're paid for with real money."

Just like that, Dean loses his temper. "How can you put that off on me? Hell, Sam, you're the one who left."

Sam stops, leans against his shovel. His expression's almost completely obscured by the night, but Dean's got a pretty good idea what it looks like. He's seen that purse of disapproval so many times he can see it in his head even as he pushes around Sam and keeps on digging.

"Do we really need to go through this, Dean? Look, I get it. You're pissed at me for leaving. Dad's pissed at me for leaving. Neither of you are ever going to understand why I did it, so can we skip the lecture?"

He shakes his head, fingers stiff around the handle of his shovel. There's a lot more he could say – a lot more he's dying to say. He's surprised at how pissed off he feels, like he struck a well of anger inside of him that runs to the core. He takes his time before he answers.

"You know how many times I was in the hospital last year, Sam? Five. It was seven the year before that. Dad broke two ribs on a hunt in South Carolina. Where the hell were you?"

"Dean." His mouth works, incredulous. "I didn't—"

"Know, Sam? You didn't know? Or you didn't care? You left this family. You're the one who walked away. Don't act like I'm being unreasonable when I ask you why."

He nudges the edge of his shovel in the dirt, the flare of rage gone and replaced with the knowledge he's overreacted. Sam doesn't say anything, just goes back to digging.

When they bust through the rotting wood of the coffin, he holds his hand out to Dean.

"Pass me the matches?"

Their hands bump when he pulls them out of his pocket and forks them over, and when the flames light up Sam's face, he just looks weary.

Sometimes he wonders about those years at school, if Sam kept a gun handy and salted the windows, if he kept his ear to the ground. He doesn't want to believe that Sam would ever let go of those instincts. He wants to believe that the way he was raised, that the ones doing the raising, are a part of him he can't shake off.

He's still trying to believe it.

*

When Dean was ten, he knew Sam's favorite color (blue), his favorite book (The Mouse and the Motorcycle), and his favorite hiding spot (the nook behind the hallway closet).

When he was fourteen, he knew the TV shows Sam devoured eagerly after two weeks with nothing but Bobby's eight-channel set, the diner sandwich he loved best and the kind of pastries that made his face light up when it turned out the greasy Sunrise Donuts place did, in fact, carry them.

He didn't let himself mourn Sam when he left – didn't give him the satisfaction, was how he thought of it at the time. He sucked it up and kept right on going, but there was always a weird underlying sensation that he could taste sometimes, in between hunts and meals.

Even though there were times when he would have gladly sold him for a Transformer or a comic book or fifteen minutes of privacy to jerk off – once Sam was gone, when motel rooms were no longer full of his library books and spiral notebooks and teenage self-righteousness, he had missed him.

Those first days after Jess's death, he thought the road might do Sam some good. Putting distance between yourself and other things – laying down physical miles – is one of the best coping mechanisms he knows. He thought that maybe if he could pull Sam out of California, he could somehow pull him back in time. Back to when they were both young and didn't care about shit quite so much, when they were just passengers in a sweet ride, safe under the wing of their dad and coasting through it all.

It's not that easy, he's learning.

This mess is too big even for him to mop up, and he had thought there was no problem of Sam's he couldn't solve. Some scrapes need more than a band-aid and a hug, a pat on the back from a big brother. All he can do is try to find the solution, try to be there for him, try to keep propping him up until he decides he's ready to rejoin the living.

After four years, Sam still controls the tides of his life. It should come as more of a surprise.

 

iii.

A spider skitters across the motel wall in Smackover, Arkansas while Sam lies awake in bed. It doesn't look poisonous, so he doesn't get up and kill it; he just watches it move, slow and languid, like it knows to not be afraid.

He's always been unsettled by bugs in motel rooms. It means there's some hidden place where air can get in, where crawling things can get in, and that's a place that needs a salt line down in front of it.

It's March already.

He hadn't expected for this trip to last so long, but they're still out here searching, still as empty-handed as they were in November. He's been batting away the facts for so long now that it's second nature – they're the cherry pits he tucks in his cheek, waiting to spit out when the time is right.

It's never right, though. There's not enough time in the world for his list of grievances, and somehow he's fifteen again, folding his arms and huffing because he can't let the truth claw its way out of him the way it wants to. Dean keeps asking what his problem is, and all he can do is shake his head, wave him off, because the words don't want to come. If they start, they might never stop.

He rolls out of bed awhile later, after the spider wanders behind the television and then back up, up to the crux of the ceiling and south wall. The salt canister is on the table by the window, and Dean doesn't stir as he walks the perimeter of the room and lays down more of it, thick lines on matted-down carpet.

*

"Why do people in herpes commercials look like the happiest sons of bitches in the world?" Dean asks. They're sitting in a Michigan motel room with wallpaper that makes Sam a little dizzy when he stares at it too long. "People who can't figure out how to use condoms shouldn't look so pleased with themselves."

"I think they're happy 'cause they're taking care of outbreaks," he says absently. There are three books open in front of him, plus reams of Calhoun County Public Library printer paper loosely paperclipped together into articles. Dean's knee-deep in a war movie on TNT, some poorly-shot drama with the cuss words dubbed into a litany of ain't worth spit, buzz off, foul you.

"And how come they're always doing all this yuppie shit? Sailin' boats and buyin' pottery and crap. What the hell does being on Valtrax have to do with buying a fugly urn?"

"Maybe they're keeping their herpes medication in it. Dean, seriously, you could at least try to do something productive."

"It's called taking the night off, dude. Maybe you should give it a try."

Sam breathes out through his nose, short and irritated. "There's a job to do, Dean."

He can practically feel the air shift, Dean's incredulity coming off of him in waves.

"Never thought I'd hear that comin' out of your mouth."

"Yeah, well, things change." He leans back, cracking his back as he straightens.

It's been a hard burn for weeks now, one small-time job after another. There's a desolation inherent in the kind of wilderness they've been traveling, and it's getting to the both of them.

"Maybe you're right," he finally concedes. "I'm sure this can last another night."

"That's what I'm talkin' about." Dean turns the TV off and bounds off the bed like he's been waiting for permission all night. "I saw a place when we pulled into town, up by the highway."

Sam's been watching Dean drink and pick up women for as long as he can remember, and it never really changes. He's got this charm about him that reels them in, something about the face and the swagger and the songs he picks on jukeboxes. It's more than that, too, because he knows how to keep them entertained once they're there. He's hardly a master of small talk, but he can float the compliments and the self-deprecation, and usually the target is drunk enough for it to all work. Either that or she's into the face and the swagger enough to not care.

There's never been any way to tell Dean that he's not interested in that; Dean just figures that everyone's as horny as he is, and he's doing Sam some kind of big favor by introducing him to bar bunnies. He's as subtle as Dean can get, at first. It's just a lot of, "Hey, Amber here's got a friend lookin' for some company, don't leave me hangin'," and "How about meetin' my new friends, Tammy and Pammy? Dude, they're twins."

It snowballs from there, and he knows that Dean means well. There's no way to tell him he doesn't want Tammy or Pammy in the same way he doesn't want syphilis or chlamydia, so he just smiles and shakes his head and gestures to the laptop, like it's his date.

Dean keeps his dick in his pants this time, but he downs shots with a vigor that would make John Winchester proud. Oak Creek is too small for any real bonafide hotties, it seems, but he chats up a woman in her late thirties while Sam nurses a beer and watches.

He finally intervenes and drags him out of there when he it looks like he might actually go home with her.

"Dude, c'mon, I was just about to make my move," Dean slurs indignantly.

"That woman's had enough disappointments in her life, Dean. She doesn't need to add your case of whiskey dick to the list." He shoulders Dean's weight and huffs. He's had three inches on him since he was fifteen, but Dean's solid muscle, and he winds up half-dragging him along. "You're such an idiot."

"'M not an idi—" The third syllable seems to escape him, and Sam fights him back onto the bed.

"Yeah, you're top of the class, Dean."

They stare at each other for a minute, hazy and warm. Dean's breath is sour with alcohol, damp on his face and mouth.

"Time for bed."

"'M already in bed."

Sam shakes his head and turns on the TV as Dean's face smooshes a little harder into his shoulder.

*

Their mom was the one who liked Led Zeppelin. With enough beer in his system and "Black Dog" blaring over a jukebox in some rough bar, their dad would recount the days when the car wasn't a classic and he met Mary Campbell, a wavy-haired girl who made his life worth living. He always talked about how beautiful she was, how wild she was. The kind of woman you fight for. The kind of woman who gets you through anything.

Sam only knew tidbits about her life. He understood at some point that she had family out there they had never met, but most of the truth was shrouded in mystery. It wasn't kept from him on purpose, it was just that their father got this broken expression on his face when Sam would ask, and Dean finally told him to just stop, just quit it.

Dean was the one who filled him in as best he could. His sentences were childishly short, betraying his lack of solid memories. He could relate how she smelled, that she knew sandwiches were better cut into four pieces than two, that she gave the best hugs. It was enough for Sam that someone remembered her at all, that he had some knowledge of the woman who smiled out of old pictures. To him she was an enigma – some angelic combination of June Cleaver, Laura Petrie and Mother Theresa.

There's a silence between them in the wake of Lawrence, when that ghost is still fresh in their minds. He knows that it won't be long before she fades away, and he does his best to replay it all in his head – the movements of her arms, the light folds around her smile. There were so many tiny things he saw there that make her a real person to him after all this time, that make him understand how much they lost twenty-three years ago. Now he can see her in his mind and know – that's Dean's smile, my eyes. Our mother.

Dean doesn't talk about the dream the entire time they're in Kansas. He was expecting something – some ribbing, some discussion, a salt line put down between the passenger and driver's seats – but Dean keeps his mouth shut and turns up "Living Loving Maid" as they gun it past the state line sign.

The highway winds through Whitefish when they get into Colorado, and Dean pulls off the road in front of a strip mall. Sam takes a deep breath, ready for the fall out, ready for yelling and fears and serious discussion, but Dean just pulls out his wallet and hands him a ten.

He jerks his head at the Starbucks they're parked in front of. "Get me a thingy. You know, that one I like. The fuck's it called?"

Sam stares at him for a moment before unbuckling his seatbelt. "You'd just forget again if I told you."

It's not the most surprising thing in the world; the Winchesters are grand masters of avoidance. He didn't mention Stanford until a couple weeks before he left, after all. Every time they moved as kids, they didn't hear about it until they had twenty-four hours to pack.

"Don't we need to talk about this?" he finally bursts in Alabama.

Dean looks up from the take-out menu he's reading, sheer bafflement on his face. "Uh, we don't have to get orange chicken," he ventures. "I'm fine with whatever."

"I'm talking about the dreams, Dean. The psychic dreams? It's been a week and you haven't said anything."

"Didn't realize you were waiting for a pow-wow. You have another one? There somethin' we need to talk about?"

"No, but—" He licks his lips, shakes his head. "It's a big deal, Dean. And I know you, I know you're freaked out about this."

Dean's face darkens like a curtain's dropped in front of it. "That's real funny, Sam, 'cause you're the one that's bringing it up. You want me to get you a turban, maybe a crystal ball?"

"I just—"

"No, you know what? We don't need to discuss it. It's only a big deal if you make it one. Me, I'm fine doing what I'm doing and not stressing just 'cause you had a dream about our old house and something was going on there."

Sam lets out a sharp, heavy sigh as Dean gets to his feet and crosses the room, aimless and irritable.

"And I changed my mind, we're getting orange chicken."

"That's real mature."

"You know, I don't get you. Why do we have to make this all harder on ourselves? Why can't we just be thankful that we saved some people and move on?"

"Because this is my head, Dean. God, quit acting like I'm being irrational to worry about this. Too many right answers on a Magic 8-Ball and you're getting the willies, but my prophetic dreams aren't popping up on your radar? That's crap, Dean." He stops, hand rubbing at his mouth and the grit of stubble starting to form around it. "Are you afraid of me or something?"

Dean throws his hands in the air and turns away, but he doesn't answer.

"Look, man, I gotta get some air." Sam grabs his keys and walks out the door, not really looking at him as he leaves. The fact that Dean doesn't try to stop him tells him just how thin the ice between them is.

The parking lot is empty except for a couple of teenagers standing around the back of a parked car. From where he's standing, he can see the orange-red flashes of cigarettes.

He takes off up the street, aimless and cold. He's lived in towns just like this one all his life, scrubby little places where kids think smoking in a motel parking lot is fun. He could probably describe the downtown area without even seeing it – a shitty three-screen movie theater, a post office and auto shop, and at lease three liquor stores.

It's dark out, but he can see the glow of traffic lights from the main intersection from his several block distance.

Growing up, he never let himself play that game of wondering what Mom would have wanted. He had a pretty good idea that it wasn't the life they were living, but he wasn't sure that life was even what Dad wanted. It was just a fact, a sad fact they all had to live with. She was gone, this was it.

If he tries to map out when the change happened, he's hard pressed to find a moment. It was a slow thing brought on by a lot of disappointments. He wasn't raised to be a quitter or a dreamer, but somehow after a lifetime of being pushed and pushed by Dad and getting let off the hook by Dean, that's what happened. That's the crack where it all seeped through, the dreams and ambitions he didn't even know he had.

He pushes his hands low in his jeans pockets and hunches into the wind, passing the yellow-lit parking lot of a tire store and the abandoned face of a bakery outlet. His feet make hollow thuds on the pavement as he walks, cars passing by and sloshing road puddles up at him.

In California they had two dozen words for unhappy, and they all came with medications to fix them. Out here, he's just fucking sad.

He climbs into the car when he circles back to the motel, somehow not ready for what's waiting inside. There's a part of him that wants to hijack it, just get the fuck out of there. Abandon the hunt and get back to their purpose, tracking their dad. Dean would never forgive him for stealing the car, and that's really the only reason he can think of to stick around.

He flips on the radio and listens to Delilah send out requests until his grip on the steering wheel isn't white-knuckled.

Relief is palpable in the air when he walks back through the door, like Dean thought maybe he just wasn't coming back.

"Dean," he says, dropping the plastic motel key-ring on the table. Dean waves him off with one hand.

"Yeah, me too."

Sam sits on the edge of the bed and gives him a little smile, both grateful and not. He collapses back on the pillows and watches Dean flip through channels, the tension gone and nothing resolved.

*

A few weeks after Lawrence, he finds Dean's even uppercase scrawl on the first clean sheet of the journal.

It's just a rundown of facts on the last few hunts, information about Bloody Mary and the shapeshifter. Things that might be useful to know sometime down the line. It's good – it's practical, what they were always taught to do. A good hunter learns from his mistakes and successes, learns from the school of hard knocks how to do his job.

But there's a kind of grim finality to it, like they've finally stopped waiting for something. It admits they're in this for the long haul, that they really don't have any leads on their dad. That this is their mission now and one else's, and everything about that makes him senselessly, sullenly mad.

"We knew it might be hard when we started looking." Dean pulls his wallet out, methodically folds over the tip and tucks it under the edge of his plate. "Dad's an expert, he knows how to hide his tracks."

"Doesn't it strike you as strange that he would want to hide his tracks? Christ, Dean, how many messages have we left for him? Who does that? Who hides from their children and lets them waste all this time chasing after smoke?"

"Dad wouldn't do this if he didn't have a reason."

Sam shakes his head and breathes out hard.

"You really believe that? After all this time, you still think he's got some master plan. Dean, he's been hunting this thing for twenty-two years. We don't know that he's on its trail. We don't know if he's—"

"Dammit, Sam. I don't know, okay? I don't have the answers. But I do know Dad wouldn't be hiding if there wasn't a damn good reason for it. There's no sense in us sittin' around guessing about it. All we can do is what we've been doing. But if you got any other bright ideas, be sure an' let me know."

Sam slouches lower in his seat and shrugs off the waitress when she holds up the coffee pot.

No matter how safe he felt in California, he wasn't ever really free. His past loomed behind him like a dark cloud, something he was constantly trying to escape and was constantly chased by. It was only a matter of time before wise-cracking Dean and no-nonsense Dad caught up with him, wrestled him to the floor, swallowed him back up into the life.

"Okay, Prancibald," Dean says, crumpling his napkin and tossing it squarely on his plate. "Sun's goin' down, we got places to be."

They're wrapping up a haunt in Tennessee when the next coordinates come in, a mental hospital three states over. There's a part of him that still wants to believe it, that gets suckered in every single time. He believes in second chances, and when it comes to their father – when it comes to Dean – the number seems limitless.

They chase their flash of hope right up to its doorstep in Michigan, and when all that's waiting are strangers and a moldering building, when they're alone and desolate over cups of cheap coffee, the bitterness is rich in his veins.

*

The Roosevelt Asylum smells like decay, too many years locked up with leaky pipes. It's mildew and rust and a kind of heavy sweetness that comes from flesh left to rot. It seems to surround him even after they step out into the March morning, like the filth of it is under his nails and on his clothes.

The feeling with him then is similar to a state of shock, and even though that touch from Ellicott seemed to burn his skin and his blood and everything else in his system, the burn of his own actions is even worse. He can still feel that anger in him, like the echo of a bad hit still throbbing in his nerves.

"It's like I couldn't control it," he says, standing in the pale sunlight. "But I didn't mean it, any of it."

"You didn't, huh?"

"No, of course not." The look at each other, and he feels uncomfortably transparent. "Do we need to talk about this?"

"Nah." Dean shoves the bag of weapons into the back seat and opens his door. "I'm not really in the sharing and caring kind of mood. Just want to get some sleep."

Sam sits awake for an hour in their Rockford motel room, watching Dean.

The truth is, there had been times at school when he really wished they weren't out here waiting for him. He wished the stories he told were true – a childhood spent traveling because of work, a drunk father, a brother who didn't care. He wished he could sweep the truth under the rug and believe the lies. It would have made his life so much easier, and there were ugly times when he wished they'd just disappear, leave him to the life he had created.

California wasn't the first time he had tried to escape. He ran away a few times when he was a kid, never made it any further than a few blocks. Jess had laughed when he mentioned it once, and told him that all little kids do that. He smiled at the time, but he knew he never did it for the reasons that other kids did.

He did it because he couldn't take sitting in motel rooms for days, never sure if they were coming back. Because he couldn't hack the pressure of knowing that any day could be their last. Because even as a kid, he knew the life he was living wasn't the one he was supposed to have.

*

He doesn't make it more than six hours on the road to Indiana. The roadside gravel crunches hard under his feet when he climbs out of the car, the bite of winter air sharp on his cheeks.

"You're a selfish bastard, you know that?" Dean says, following him out to the trunk. "You just do whatever you want. Don't care what anybody thinks."

"That's really what you think?

"Yeah, it is."

"Then this selfish bastard is going to California."

"Come on," Dean scoffs. "You're not serious."

"I am serious."

"It's the middle of the night. Hey, I'm takin' off. I will leave your ass, you hear me?"

He stops and turns around, staring back at him.

"That's what I want you to do."

There was a time Dean wouldn't voluntarily let Sam out of his sight, and for a moment he's sure that hasn't changed. And even though the grind of wheels on pavement is what Sam wants, it's still a slap in the face. A reminder of everything that five years can shift and rearrange.

What rises in him in that instant isn't anger. It's just frustration and futility.

That was the choice that had been given to him all along. Sure, you can opt out. You can let your brother take that bullet, you can leave us one man short. You can be all on your own, Sammy, and have fun burying your family, because that's what happens to guys who don't stop thinking about themselves, who don't recognize their duty.

He gets picked up by a trucker on the side of the Indiana interstate.

"Where you headed?"

He shrugs. "Next town with a Greyhound station."

"Where you really headed?"

He gives a tight-lipped little smile, squints in the gray glare of sunlight. "California?"

"Ain't we all, kid. Hop in, I can take you as far as Veedersburg. You're goin' to Crawfordsville, from the sound of things."

They drive in silence most of the way, the speakers offering strains of what sounds like a John Denver tape. Sam rests his backpack between his knees and studies the pictures stuck to the inside of the cab, mostly a pair of little girls he figures have to be grandchildren.

It's funny that he can see a little bit of Dean in this guy, although not too surprising. He and Sam were raised by men just like this, ones who had been through the school of hard knocks a few too many times. The soundtrack's different, but it's the same spirit, the same self-possession that puts a man behind a wheel and leaves him always going somewhere and never actually getting there.

When he finally makes it to Crawfordsville, he's chilled all the way through. Four years paled his memories of Greyhound stations, but it's bleak and uncomfortable, and for a moment he seriously thinks of calling Dean. He doesn't even have anything to say, but it might make him feel better to have him on the other line, to make sure he's not so pissed off he melted down Sam's favorite blade, or anything.

In the end, Dean's the one who calls him.

Too many years of training have stopped him from ever being able to fall asleep in a place like this bus depot, and he's plenty awake when the phone rings in his pocket.

"Hey, tiger," Dean says. "You in Malibu yet?"

He looks down at the tile floor, cracking a smile that no one sees. "Uh, not quite. Not yet." He glances over at Meg, still sleeping against her bag. "Having fun in Indiana?"

"Yeah..." Dean draws the word out as far as it'll go, like he's debating following it up until the last possible moment. "I sorta got chased out of town by the cops."

Sam actually laughs at that. "Business as usual."

"Aw, bite me."

When he hangs up the phone, he's not angry anymore. He's not even frustrated.

Jessica died because he was reaching for something that wasn't his to have. It's a different equation now, but it's still a question of how much he's willing to sacrifice to get what he wants. It's even worse than it used to be, because now the other side isn't just a dream. He's had normal, wrapped his hands around that prize and had it wrenched back.

But disclaiming responsibility doesn't shift it to anyone else; he's the one walking away, just like before, and he's the one who'll have to bury the bodies if he stays gone.

That's what happens to guys who don't stop thinking about themselves. That's what happens to him.

*

They ditch his stolen car off the interstate and don't stop driving until they're a few hours south of Granada.

They don't talk much at first. Dean glances over at him a few times on the drive out of Indiana, but after they exchange their initial jibes and thoughts on the case, an uncertain silence descends.

Dean has every reason to be sulky and pissed off, but he's not, and maybe that's the worst of it. Sam tried to unload a clip in his chest, up and walked out on him and a hunt, and Dean doesn't lay into him about it. Doesn't even think to.

Dean's never had a very realistic grasp on people or social situations; his entire world view is shaped by bar conversations and sitcoms. To him, family is inflexible and solid, women are saints and whores, the hero always gets the girl, and anyone who wears a leather jacket gets respect on the street. To Dean, everyone is just reading lines, following roles, and that's why he's never understood it when Sam goes off-script.

It's not that Sam really wants to talk about what happened in that asylum, but he can feel the silence festering after awhile. He can't shake the memory of standing over him in that place, holding a gun and feeling like the clouds had parted and the only true thing he knew was his own anger. It was all the ugliness he never let himself feel, never let himself say out loud. It was everything that ever flickered under the surface in twenty-two years of living.

He finally cracks in a room on the Mississippi border.

"I'm sorry," he says, sitting on the edge of his bed. Dean looks up from his bag with a look on his face that clearly shows that he knows what this is about, but he doesn't help him out any.

"Yeah? For what?"

"Look, Dean. The past few months, I just – I've been tryin' to keep it together. I don't even know what we're doing anymore, man. This whole time we've been looking for Dad, and now we know where he is but he doesn't want our help. All I want is to find Jessica's killer, and instead we're – burning sacred trees in some Indiana apple orchard."

Dean lets out a little snort of amusement. "Yeah, it's not exactly the high life."

Sam shakes his head and looks down at his hands. "For so long I thought if I could just stay out of this life, nothing bad would happen."

He waits for the inevitable I told you so, but instead Dean just lets out a sigh and sits on his bed, t-shirt in hand. "You know it doesn't work like that," he says, tone gravelly.

"Yeah, I know. But Dean—"

"Look, Sam, I get it. I'm sorry as hell about Jessica. I would've given anything for you to not go through that. But this – this thing you're doin', it's not healthy. You're gettin' obsessed. Dropping everything to run across a country on a lead – that's Dad, Sam, not you. That's the kind of thing you were always tryin' to get away from."

"Yeah, well." He stares down at the carpet. "It found me."

In the morning there's a peace offering in the form of a McDonald's bag on the bedside table, greasy at the edges and the top folded down twice.

He eats his Egg McMuffins slowly, licking the crumbs from his fingers afterwards. The noise of the shower ends just as he's wadding up the bag.

"Thanks for breakfast," he says as Dean yanks on a t-shirt. He looks at him for a moment and shrugs, digging for something in his duffel.

"Yeah, don't mention it. Where we headed today?"

Sam rubs a hand over his face and reaches for the case file.

*

Shelly Williams lives in a mobile home in the Friendly Pines trailer park, a turquoise double-wide surrounded with carved figurines and bird-baths. Sam can spot a couple of oversized wire butterflies stuck to the side of the south wall. A set of bamboo chimes is thudding out low, hollow notes when they climb out of the car, and Dean's eyebrows hitch up.

"Oh, you gotta be kiddin' me," he says, and Sam laughs.

The lemonade she serves Dean Tango and Sam Cash is sweet and thick, and his teeth ache a little as he holds the yellow patterned glass. Dean gives his an unsure sniff before taking a sip.

"What did you boys say you were doing?" She sets her own glass on a crocheted coaster. "Writin' an article?"

"Yes, ma'am," Sam says, hooking a finger under his pressed shirt collar and pulling a little. "For the Cincinnati Herald."

"That's a good paper," she says neutrally. "Me an' my Jake always subscribed to the Ohio Tribune, but the Herald's okay."

"I'm glad to hear you say that, Mrs. Williams." Dean smiles, shark-like. He can talk the talk, but his brand of charm has always been a little too sexual to work on old ladies. They're all more liable to hit him with a broom and lock up their granddaughters than fork over information, but this lady doesn't seem bothered.

"It seems like there have been a lot of kids going missing from this area," Sam says, and their gazes both shift to the framed school photos that are sitting by her elbow.

This is the same struggle Sam had at ten, twelve, fifteen. He understands that lying is part of the job. They can't work for their money and spend it, too. They can't hunt and tell their resources the truth. He knows it, he understands it, but that doesn't mean he likes it.

"Anything you could tell us," Dean says, cutting over the thoughtful silence, and she leans forward a little, elbows on her knees. A cat flexes its claws into the back of the couch, somewhere near his neck, and the glass sweats fat droplets of water all over his fingers.

"Billy was such a good boy. Just – troubled."

And so it goes.

They kick around Tennessee for a week before they find the entire pattern – kids are disappearing, their water-logged bodies washing up in streams. The two of them know their nursery spirits better than most, because that was the only theory for their own loss back in the beginning. Pages of the journal are dedicated to those stories and legends, even though none of them ever mentioned mothers on the ceiling.

"So there's no connection between the victims?" Dean asks, hunching over a ream of print-outs.

"Not that I can tell. They're all different ages – the youngest one was six, the oldest... fourteen."

"You thinkin' maybe it's Jenny Greenteeth?"

"In North America?" Sam shakes his head. "There's no evidence she ever had a presence here. Doesn't look like a Bodach, either, for the same reasons."

"Rawhead?"

"That's all I can figure."

"Huh."

Sam scrubs a hand over his face and drops the print-out back to the table. "Dad only mentions one sure-fire way of killing them, and it's a little weird."

"Flame thrower weird?"

Sam actually smiles a little, teeth a white flash behind his lips. "Weirder."

*

Jess had been a Christian in the same way she'd been a pretty girl. It was second nature to her, simple and honest. Life was good; why wouldn't there be a God to thank for it?

His own struggles with faith were just that – struggles. He came to religion in a quiet, hopeful way, aware the entire time that he was betraying some implicit order. Winchesters don't operate on faith, they operate on fact. Even a gut feeling is better than some blind hope that everything will work out for the best.

He didn't care, though. He was at that pivotal age where it was easy to believe that his father didn't know half as much as Sam did.

"God absolves us of our sins," Pastor Jim had said. "Without guilt, we can be free."

The guilt didn't go away, though. Guilt for wanting a different life, guilt for laying down tracks toward something far away from this one, guilt for lying through his teeth every day, guilt for using his God-given ability to empathize with people for ill purposes. He never cared for the Bible thumping or scripture quoting – he saw too many things that contradicted a purely Judeo-Christian outlook on the hereafter – but he clung to the idea that one day he would feel God's love the way other people did.

It gave him something, too; not something spiritual, but something precious all the same. He found churches when they moved around, places he could hide out in after school. Dean worked jobs his entire adolescence, so no one knew if Sam spent a few hours a day with other kids who were looking for answers. It made him feel like he was a part of something, like he had friends. It was a light that kept away the dark places the Winchester line of work took him, and sometimes he wondered how Dean could live their life without something like that for himself.

When Dean goes down in a Tennessee basement, prayer is all he's got. He prays that he's still alive when he fumbles for his pulse, prays that he'll make it to the hospital when he carries him out of the abandoned house, and prays – alone in their motel room, white-knuckling their dad's journal – for a miracle.

The night before they leave for Nebraska is cool and windy, and they sit on the front stoop outside their motel room. Each room has a light out front, porch-style, and there's a gentle staccato of thuds as moths fly into the plastic covering. Sam fusses about the cold at first, but Dean doesn't want to waste time lying in a bed, not when his meter's running out.

"You're not sleepin' enough," Dean says, thumbing at his ring.

"I'm fine." He's said it so much in the last six months that it's turning into a catchphrase, the automatic response when you pull the string on his back. He's fine.

"Dude, if this is fine, I'd hate to see you when you're down." He gives a little rough exhale, almost like laughing at his joke. "I know you, man. I know what fine is for you, and this ain't it. You've gotta start takin' care of yourself."

"Don't do this, Dean. Jesus, stop – stop sayin' this stuff. Nobody's dying." He swallows, shakes his head incrementally, decisively. "You hear me? You're not going any time soon."

Dean studies his face, lips set in a tight little line that make humorless dimples appear at the sides of his mouth. The circles around his eyes are bruises, purple and yellow all at once.

"Sammy."

His voice is heavy, his hand claps on his upper arm like he's steadying him. The sweatshirt he's wearing is one Sam left on the hard plastic room chairs that first day in the hospital. It doesn't look right on him – too casual, too comfortable. It's wrong that Dean Winchester should go out wearing fleece.

Sam doesn't answer, but he leans against Dean's arm, pressing them together.

Death is part of the job. It's something he's stared down so many times now that it doesn't even seem like a real threat anymore. Just a probability, a wire to slip beneath again and again. You know there are risks every time you roll out of bed and work on a hunt, but you never think, this could be that day. This could be the end.

They haven't had enough time. They haven't had enough time to be brothers again. He's taken so much for granted, resented the rest. He's found a way to live in a world without Jessica, but this is something he can't do. There will never be any reconciliation with the finality of Dean being gone.

Dean doesn't let him help him into bed that night, but he doesn't complain or move away when Sam sits next to him, long legs stretched out over the comforter. There's a crack of thunder outside, as though they have their own personal storm cloud floating overhead.

Sam turns to look down at him, puts his hand on his chest and feels for that weak flutter of a heartbeat. Dean doesn't tense, doesn't shy away. He just looks trapped there, between the mattress and Sam's spindly fingers.

In his entire life, Dean was the only person who was always there. Their Dad was a constant, too, but in a different way – he had other responsibilities, other distractions. He delegated things to Dean that he would have done under other circumstances, and somehow Dean became this confused mess of a brother and a parent. He's the one who always took care of him, he's the one who cooked for them and signed field trip permission slips and came to his soccer games. Dean's the one who's always loved him, simple and honest, and it's the same love that's in Sam's heart, too.

A empty beer bottle rattles across the nightstand and falls to the floor as another clap of thunder hits, and Sam doesn't look up.

"I'm gonna get you better, Dean," he says, fierce and honest. "I don't care what it takes."

 

iv.

The first time Dean saw a person die, he was six.

At that point their dad's hunting techniques involved more good intentions than actual skills, and they arrived too late to be of any use to the woman who was summoning and binding a dark spirit. His father leaned over and retched when they watched the thing plunge its fingers into her chest and twist, the snap of ribs audible in the cold night air.

There wasn't anyone to cover up Dean's eyes, so he saw it too. Smelled it. Heard it, when the thing ripped her from neck to navel.

It made an impression.

This isn't the first time something's knocked him on his ass, not the first time Sam's given him sheep eyes and tried to administer his last rites, but this one feels different. This is closer than he's ever come to biting the bullet for real, and there's no guts and glory to it, no blaze of victory. Just the numbness of realization that it was going to be over.

They pull out of Nebraska in a thick fog, unseasonable this late in April.

"Some guy died 'cause of me," he finally says, over the rustling hush of tires in rain puddles. The heater turns on with the same metal thump it always does, as familiar and steady as the pulse in his veins.

"And how many have lived because of you?"

There's a fierce challenge in Sam's voice, and Dean stares out the soaked windows and shifts into third.

"Sacrificing one life for the greater good," he intones, and Sam nods.

"Yeah, exactly."

Dean scrubs a hand over his face and doesn't answer.

The feeling that settles on him isn't guilt, though; guilt would be easier to live with, a kind of numbness in its nobility. He could take solace in guilt, but when he takes a deep breath of air, when he turns up the radio, when he looks over at Sam's resolute face – he just feels relief.

A young man with a job to do, the reverend had said. And it isn't finished yet.

*

They plant Elijah Benjamin in the ground the first week of May, the bones recovered from a crawlspace on his Georgia farm. They had to be burned anyway, and a hole in a ground is the most logical place to do that. Some spirits only haunt because they want a little respect for their remains, and he can kind of understand that.

His second life doesn't fit on him quite right. His heartbeat isn't his own; it's someone else's, free from whatever damage he did living on McDonald's Value Meals for twenty-seven years. He can feel the difference sometimes, when he's chasing something down with all he's got. He's always been healthy, but this heart pumps harder, cleaner, faster.

The sheer girly ridiculousness of it would piss him off if he thought about it too hard, but in the wake of Nebraska things between them are good. Better than good, actually – really fucking good. It's a sea change, like one morning Sam woke up and decided to stop kicking and fussing to get away from him. It's a lot easier to save someone when they're not constantly trying to knee you in the junk, and somehow – some-fucking-how – they seem to be finding an equilibrium.

The subject itself goes on the same list as a mess of other ones they don't really broach. They don't talk about the days before Sam up and left, or why he stayed away; they don't talk about their father's cryptic messages and the futility they can taste like rising bile; they don't talk about that night in the asylum, when Sam stood over him and proved how little Dean really knows him anymore.

They keep silent about this one on their own terms. Sam's probably not interested in questioning anything too closely, afraid that if he tugs at their fucked-up miracle the whole thing will unravel.

Dean keeps his mouth shut for other reasons.

In all his vague acceptance that death might come for him, he never stopped to think about what he might leave behind. He's got another good twenty to thirty years before his midlife crisis comes knocking, so it's never been much of an issue. Yeah, he lives his own life. Yeah, he fucks around. You have to find your pleasure where you get it when you live by the sword.

But when he saw death coming, when time seemed to splinter and dance blue sparks across the water, what flashed in front of him wasn't his whole life. It wasn't the good and the bad, the people he's saved and the battles he's won, his sins and lies and wrong-doings.

It was just Sam.

Like looking at photographs, he could remember the two of them chasing each other through roadside fields, playing cowboys and Indians and shooting cans on fences. Wading in muddy rivers and hopping between weeds in sidewalk cracks so their feet didn't burn. Corner store Slurpees, lips stained blue with syrup. All the punched shoulders, all the noogies, all the late-night whispered conversations alone in the car and motel beds. Eighteen summers, eighteen springs, splashing in puddles and having each other's backs.

That's what his mind found to remember; that's what his life was all about.

*

He had been twenty-two when he met Cassie Robinson, and five years later she still burns in his brain sometimes. His mind always seems to find her in the hours when he can't sleep, or the ones spent on the road when all he has to look at are the endless streams of red lights leaving and white lights going where he'd already been.

It's not like he ever jerks off thinking about her, or something weird like that. He's had freakier sex, better sex, hotter sex. It isn't like that; he just remembers things about her that are personal, things he hadn't known about anyone else.

"I got a little brother at Stanford," was what he first said to her, pointing a finger at her crimson college t-shirt. It was out of place among all the green and white of Ohio University's campus.

"I have a cousin there. Art school." A smile had flitted in the corners of her mouth. "Laundry day," she added, conspiratorially.

"It's a small world."

"Microscopic."

He liked her immediately, although it had been hard to tell why. It may have been the deliberate way she said things, the amused looks she gave him, like she had his number from the word go. It might have been the fact that her response to, "Can I buy you a drink?" was a full-bodied laugh, head tilting back to expose the caramel vulnerability of her throat.

"Sure, Dean. I'll have a vanilla latte. On the rocks." She'd tapped her pencil against the empty Starbucks cup of ice next to her, and the mannerism seemed to cut through him.

People always took Dean for something he wasn't. They saw the flannel shirts and assumed things, saw the mouth and assumed things, and for the most part he was fine to let them do it. If people can't pin you down with the truth, you're free as a bird. He always found it easier to let them keep their assumptions and expectations and just become what they guessed he was.

Cassie didn't let him get away with that.

She didn't fall in love with the stranger he felt at home being – she always pushed to get inside of him, to ferret out a seed of honesty that wasn't hers to have. She was one of those people who talked a lot to try and figure things out, and just kept talking when no answers came. She talked when they ate and while she folded laundry and in between classes. She talked so much that sooner or later he found himself talking back just to fill in the moments when he couldn't stand the questions and the observations anymore. It was like they argued without ever once disagreeing, without changing volume. They took the floor from each other, wrenched it back and forth, and at the end of the day all that was left to do was fuck out all of the tension.

It was all wrong for the start of a relationship, but there was a spark between them that kept them in it, fighting tooth and nail for what they wanted out of each other. By the end of their month together, he was spending his nights in her apartment. Dean's hair on her pillows, Dean's things next to her things. His and her lives, stacked neatly together. He had been so determined to hack his way into her domesticity, to see what the fuss was all about, that he blotted out the things that were too difficult to handle.

They tried so hard to be something important to one another, tried so hard for true love. There had always been places in him she couldn't reach, though, and he never knew how to give her what she wanted.

"Dean," she says when they show up in the Cape Girardeu newspaper office. She says it like Sam does, like that word has way more syllables and way more meanings.

"Hey, Cassie."

She doesn't look any different than she did those days in Athens, pink-cheeked and bookish and lonely in ways that were familiar. He doesn't pass a lot of judgment on the girls he hooks up with in bars, but Cassie was a new flavor for him – a girl with the world at her feet, funny and smart and beautiful, who chose him. Who wanted to be taken out and talked to, who expected more.

He can feel Sam's gaze the whole time they're in Missouri, boring holes in him until he's itching to swing a punch.

He's seen Dean in every state of undress and a vast array of shameful situations, but for some reason this is the only one that's ever given him a twinge of awareness. It's fine for Sam to want more, to crave that apple pie normal life, but Dean doesn't. He needs to believe he doesn't, needs to have faith in that decision, and the last fucking thing he needs is Cassie and his brother conspiring together on some cosmic level to prove him wrong.

"What’s interesting," Sam says, sly little smile firmly in place, "is you guys never really look at each other at the same time. You look at her when she’s not looking, she checks you out when you look away." He pauses. "It's just an interesting observation. In a – you know. Observationally interesting way."

It's hard to know where he stands with Sam anymore. It's been a lousy month, jostled back and forth between the grim reality that Sam doesn't need him the way he thought he did – doesn't want his help the way he knows how to give it – and a really fucking unfair turn of fate that made him need that kind of care from Sam.

When they were younger, their dad was always the person Sam railed against. They had their own roles to play in their little family dramas, and Dean could always be the good guy, the one who sympathized and slapped his back and let their circumstances be what kept Sam in line. He might have felt the way their dad did about a lot of it, but no one ever had to know. Sam never had a reason to lay his unhappiness at Dean's feet, and even though they're getting past it now, it leaves him desperately wanting something.

He finds the same story he did before with Cassie – trying so hard to let her in. Trying to fit the mold of someone she could love, trying to get her to save him from something. More than anything, he wants her to have the answers, wants her cheek and her wisdom and her simple, structured world to absolve him from this crazy mess his life has become.

Sam only looks away when the end comes, like he's somehow forgotten that he's not watching a romantic comedy. It's the same ending as any of their stories has ever had; shit happens, people die. Someone always gets left behind, and the difference between a good day and a bad one is whether that person is waving at them from the end of a driveway or lying in a body bag.

The road out of Missouri is lined with fields, land stretching open under the sky. He can see shadows on the prairie cast by clouds moving across the sun, little patches of sunlight between them. He still has the same things he always had of Cassie; he has the memories of waking up in her apartment, what it felt like to stand barefoot in her kitchen and look out over the neighborhood when the springtime light was still watery and new. Her mouth hot with the taste of coffee.

"You ever think about it?" Sam asks. "Staying?"

It's not the out Dean's given him before. Sam doesn't let him off the hook, doesn't offer that they could stop and settle in.

Dean doesn't answer, but it's enough. They both know it.

Someone always gets left behind, but it's never one of them.

*

The coffee at the Salsberg Cafe tastes like it was run through with piss instead of water, but he drinks it anyway. Anything to give him another couple hours on the road.

It had been practical to cut through Kansas on the way to Oklahoma, but it makes him uncomfortable, like it's under his skin.

Sam orders french toast and Dean orders bacon and eggs, and they wait in silence as the diner bustles around them. The place serves breakfast all night, and somehow they're so late that they're part of the early bird crowd. There's a couple of old people in a corner booth, and some truckers who just rolled out of their cab naps with greasy hair under company caps.

Dean has a running theory that portions keep getting smaller. Health nuts claim they're huge now, but Dean remembers the days when a breakfast platter was as stacked as the waitress who dropped it off, all hashbrowns and meat and eggs. These days he can see way more of the white plate underneath than he's entirely comfortable with, especially when he's laying down a ten for each of them.

"You want me to drive for a while?" Sam finally asks, pouring syrup over the powdered sugar on his plate.

"Nah."

"You can't keep doing this, dude," he says, leaning forward irritably. Half the time Sam doesn't seem to know what to do with the head and shoulders he's got on everyone, and the other half he knows just how to use it to intimidate. "I'm fine, I can drive. You've been at it all night. You're gonna fall asleep and get us both killed."

Dean spears a sausage link and shoves it in his mouth. "Fine. You drive."

He finds his reflection in the window and exchanges an exasperated look with it.

*

In Arizona they track down a nest of harpies, brutal and vicious fuckers with too many claws and too many teeth. They spend hours wandering through craggy badlands to suss out all of them, armed with crossbows and water.

There's a spirit in a Mississippi train-yard, and then a kobold in Texas. Sam wakes him up in Wisconsin with a hand on his arm, desperate and needy, and two hours later they watch paramedics carry Roger Miller's body out of his garage.

He looks at Sam as they stand there in the cold Michigan air, the ambulance lights shining on his face, and thinks about how monumentally unfair it is that a kid like Sam has to start seeing this shit in his head.

They hit a sex shop in downtown Saginaw for the priest collars. Sam sits in the car and grits his teeth about it, but it's not like there's an abundance of Halloween shops around in May. He navigates the aisles of pocket pussies and bondage gear and gets them two "Father Nasty" costumes; they can ditch the robes and crucifixes and just use what they need. The plain-faced woman behind the counter gives him a small smile.

"You got a priest name picked out?" he asks back at the motel. His collar feels like it's choking him, and he gives it a tug. "I was thinkin' I'd be Ozzy this time."

Sam makes a small annoyed noise. "Could you just – try to not get struck down by a bolt of lightning, Dean?"

"What is it about this priest thing that freaks you out so much, dude?"

"Those people deserve real clergymen to speak to, not a couple of hunters."

"What the hell do you think real priests would do, Sam? Listening to people talk isn't exactly brain surgery. You just listen to their sob story, say some kind words, and get the hell out. You think guys who read the Bible all day are any better suited to the job of listening than anyone else?"

"It's a big deal, Dean. It's a pretty huge deception, not to mention completely morally reprehensible."

"Man, you are just a bag of freaky twists and turns, you know that? When did you get this crazy guilt complex from, anyway? I mean, Mom was a Catholic, but we never went to church, not since before the fire."

Sam comes out of the bathroom to glare at him, and he actually looks pretty respectable.

"Dude," Dean says.

"What?"

"Nothing, I just – you know, I wanted to be there when you finally figured out what a hair comb is for."

Sam screws his mouth up indignantly and lands a punch on his arm. Dean lets him.

*

The Saginaw Inn is one of those touchy-feely motels that embraces tourism with open arms. Most places just give you a Bible and a notepad, but when Dean rummages through the drawers of their nightstand – an old habit – he comes up with a handful of pamphlets on local commerce and ecology.

Neither of them are much up for talking the night Max Miller dies. Sam conks out quickly, stretched to the pinched point of exhaustion, but Dean's uncomfortable in a way he can't pinpoint.

Psychics always went in the same box as vampires and aliens. Hollywood's idea of the paranormal. It's wishful thinking, when you get right down to it, the same thing that makes people pray, or sacrifice virgins, or whatever the hell. It's the idea that the future can be changed, that things completely out of your control can be dictated. They can't, he knows.

But still.

He's sitting here in a miserable motel room off the I-75 with an informational card about the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge in one hand, watching Sam's chest rise and fall under a thin orange blanket. He doesn't even know what he's looking for; Sam hasn't told him what happens when these dreams come. Maybe he's having one in that very moment, while Dean sits and stares.

The hows and whys of the supernatural have never mattered much to him, never been his thing. Sam's the one who likes dissecting things with his brain, rummaging around in libraries and turning up explanations. If there are answers to be had, it's a damn sure sight that Sam would have found them by now. They've got nothing, no explanations, just a couple of freaky dreams and the start of a great spoon-bending routine.

And Dean just has to sit back and watch it unfold.

The sun sneaks up on him as six fades into seven, casting light through the thin curtains. It makes his skin look yellow, lights up Sam's still form in the other bed. He's sleeping the way he has since that first night at their Palo Alto motel – curled on the left side, facing outwards, the spot next to him empty and untouched. As though Jessica might just be brushing her teeth in the bathroom before coming to claim her place.

It makes Dean's chest ache. It's the stark admission that things are still fucked up – that Sam is still fucked up, that all these miles traveled and all these lives saved aren't fixing anything. Sam won't admit it to his face, keeps swallowing down everything in the wake of Dr. Ellicott's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. This veneer of happy, though, it's not real. He's circling the fucking drain, and Dean doesn't know how to fix it.

When Sam wakes up it's instantaneous, eyes clear and bright like he's been up for hours.

"You were watching me sleep," he says accusingly, although his tone is undercut by his messy hair, the pillow lines pressed into his face.

"Had to make sure you didn't drown in that puddle of drool, buddy."

"Sure," he mutters, turning away from the dappled spots of light on his pillow.

Dean watches him roll to the side, and he knows that if he could fix it, he would. Even if it meant saying goodbye all over again, watching him walk away. He would trade his own peace of mind for Sam's happiness, just like he has countless times before.

There's a phrase for strangers who feel that pull, men who feel the connection that comes from battle and hardships and trust. You can't be blood brothers with an actual brother, though, and that word doesn't seem nearly deep enough. Brothers are people who only call on the holidays, who are distracted and distant and live their own lives.

The things he would do for Sam – well, he's pretty sure Wally Cleaver wouldn't do them for Beaver.

"Up and at 'em, man," he finally says, knuckling an eye. "Up and fuckin' at 'em."

*

They weave their way through the eastern seaboard, around Maryland and DC. Dean's got a firm belief that you can only visit the area twice a year.

"Spring and fall, man, spring and fall. No tourists, no crappy weather."

"Thank you, Farmer's Almanac."

"Mock all you want, dude. I'd like to see you navigate ass-to-elbow traffic on the turnpike in the middle of August."

"I think preservation of life would win out over schadenfreude even for you, Dean."

"I love it when you talk dirty."

It's May, already warm but still breezy enough to carry air off the Atlantic. They drive with the windows down and breathe it in, cool and clean.

They loop back around after a week or so, back into the deep south. It's muggy as hell already, sunlight ghosting through the weave of Spanish moss, and they spend a couple days near Savannah. The ghost of a girl drowned in a millpond is taking her revenge on generations in the nearby farm house, and they salt and burn her waterlogged skeleton.

It starts to feel a little like wasting time as they shift and go north again. They haven't heard boo from their dad in over a month, and Dean knows they both had the same thought back in April – that maybe the phone call leading them to Indiana was going to start a new trend. Instead they're all alone again, drifting. Finding work where they can get it, making money on the side.

In Iowa some people on the other side of the motel wall have marathon sex while Sam holds his pillow over his head.

"Man, somebody's havin' fun," Dean says.

"Yeah, and it's not me." He throws his pillow on the floor and scrubs a hand over his face.

Dean rolls to his side and looks at him – really looks at him, for the first time in what feels like years. The light's thin and blue, Sam's eyes not much more than shadow, but they stare at each other for a long, long time.

 

v.

In Ohio buzzards circle the highway like they know something.

"Damn things give me the creeps," Dean mutters, leaning in over the steering wheel and squinting up at the sky.

"More than the ghosts you kill for a living?"

"Death omens," he says flatly. "It's like the friggin' universe playing the I'm-not-touching-you game."

Sam watches them and waits for roadkill he never sees.

He's never been a superstitious person. Salt over your shoulder, walking under ladders – none of it means anything. If you want to keep your bases covered in every culture, you couldn't cross a room without a ritual to get you to the other side.

What makes those things frightening to most people is the aura of mystery, the lack of rules. He knows where the stories end and reality picks up, and that more than anything whisks off the white sheets and makes ghosts and creatures something for his practical mind to accept.

Psychic abilities, not so much.

He can feel Dean giving him looks from the corners of his eyes sometimes, watching him while he sleeps. It's happening more now than it did in the beginning, when he was replaying Jessica's death in his mind all the time. He knows Dean better than he knows anyone, and he knows this has him freaked out. He'd never admit it, and maybe he's not admitting it to himself, but Sam doesn't need to read minds to be able to pluck that out of his head.

"No more drivin' for you, Miss Cleo," he says after Michigan. "Your gift's a little too much of a liability."

He keeps trying the telekinesis. It's something he could control, maybe, unlike the visions. For days he stares at inanimate objects until his eyes go blurry, eyebrows pushed together until he gets headaches. He feels pretty stupid, like a kid who read too many comic books and is looking for a super-power. It's all useless anyway, because nothing he tries works.

There was a specific feeling that rose up in him when he was locked in that closet – a scary from-the-soles-of-his-feet feeling. All he could think of, all he could see, was Dean – who he had already saved once, who he had already mourned for once, who he had said goodbye to three times. In an instant, his love and frustration and endless, bottomless need had been a physical thing, pushing right out of him with so much force that it made him dizzy.

It's not easy to recapture.

*

He gets nabbed in Hibbing, snatched right off the street like a kid who doesn't know about stranger danger and gets too close when giving some old guy directions, and all he can tell himself when he comes to in a cage is that Dean will be coming for him.

It's a fact as obvious to him as the sky being blue and the ground being solid; Dean will get him out of this, because that's what Dean does. He's the one reliable thing in Sam's life, the one person he can depend on again and again.

Nine months ago, Sam wouldn't have loaned him a fifty.

There was a time when seeing a family like that one in Minnesota would have sparked his age-old resentment like flint and steel. It's all right there for him to feel weird about – a family of people with no morals, who kill things and raise their children to not know right from wrong. The part of him that's relieved to know they're only up against people dims a little when he realizes how dark people can really be, how dark the Winchesters are.

It doesn't get to him, though. The truth is that if the Winchesters weren't that dark, he'd still be trapped in a cage.

In Colorado they cross Mt. Gunnison, lonely and quiet and barren. It's the off season for everything, too cold for picnics and too warm for snow, and when they stop at the vista point he can feel the altitude, reedy in his lungs. Dean reads the informational plaque with his head tilted down, setting sunlight catching bright on the close crop of his hair. When Sam reaches for the keys, he hands them off without looking up.

The loneliest time in the mountains is dusk. It doesn't matter how many cars are on the road – it's those moments when the sun is only visible on higher peaks, warming and lighting somewhere else, that a part of him aches.

They stop for dinner in Sunny Valley, population six-hundred and eighty, where the mountain casts its shadow over the highway. The food is over-cooked, but the sodas they keep coming are cold and sweet.

Sam sips his and watches, for lack of anything else to do, Dean chewing on a pen cap and reading the sports section of the Sunny Valley Triplicate with a single-minded intensity. Dean's not really interested in sports, just like he's not really interested in any TV shows – they only catch snippets of the world around them, filtering in during the once-in-a-whiles when they can stop and turn on a motel TV, catch something on the radio between miles of static. It's pointless to try to follow anything regularly.

"Anything interesting?"

"Not unless you find the local school board riveting."

"How about the obits?"

Dean rubs at the side of his nose, flipping to the horoscopes and crossword. "Everyone lived past sixty and died of more or less natural causes."

Sam conscientiously stacks their plates, the watery ham and pineapple special still mostly intact.

It's a small diner in a smaller town, a complete after-thought of civilization tucked here in the mountain range. It feels a little like it's caught in time, the endless repetition of lives untouched by the rest of the world. This is the place to be someone else, reinvent yourself and be just another face, welcomed into the arms of tradition and eventually just another piece of the scenery. This could be a life, if he wanted it.

They're old thoughts, the same he had for years as a teenager. I could be the star runner of the track team in Aberdeen, Wisconsin. Dean could work in that garage right over there, marry some girl and have kids. This could be us, these lives are ripe for the taking.

"Can I get you another root beer?" the waitress asks, and he looks up and smiles.

*

They waste a banshee in Harpersfield, Connecticut, and then hedge their way down the Mississippi.

They stop at a pie shop in Oklahoma that they've hit a couple times when they're passing through. The woman behind the counter grins real big at them and says, "Cherry and blackberry, right?"

It's the first time anyone's recognized Sam in months, and he lets out a little laugh of surprise.

The Flowerpot Inn in Hastings has a coiled hose for car washing. It's been ages since they've taken the car through a car wash, and he has to admit, it could use the bath. Dean's full of theories on how those machines are hell on the paint job, anyway, so he lights up like a kid on Christmas when it's just him and the Chevy and rags made from an old t-shirt.

Sam stands at the motel window to watch him, safe from the blaze of sun that's sizzling the sidewalk and reflecting white-hot off every car in the lot. Dean scrubs it down with slow, steady appreciation, muscles bunching and pulling under the thin material of his shirt. A silvery sheen of sweat glistens on his skin, and he turns his face into his shoulder every now and then to wipe it off.

It's a concentration that Sam rarely ever sees, the sunlight and the strain of it bringing his eyebrows together sharply.

Sam was fourteen the year their dad handed the keys to that thing over. It had been a birthday present for Dean – to make up, Sam always thought, for almost a lifetime of not getting much at all. When Sam turned eighteen, it was two weeks before he dropped the Stanford bomb and blew their little world to smithereens.

In that moment, he can look at Dean and almost imagine him in his California life. He never thought of it before, never able to imagine a Dean who didn't live in the shadow of their father, but watching him standing there in all that sunshine it almost seems possible. Muscle car weather, beautiful girls to flirt with, no end of beaches to sit on while drinking beer. It's such a break with the blue-collar world that Dean has always been so at home in, but that freedom could have been his, too. That sense of possibility.

He's still leaning against the window when Dean comes in, and he joins him there for a minute, reeking of Turtle Wax and sweat. There's an aura of damp heat around him that prickles over Sam's skin.

"Shines up like a friggin' diamond," he says appreciatively, and Sam snorts out a laugh, claps him on the back.

"It's just a car, man. Zip it up."

Summer hit hard a few states back. His right arm's getting darker and darker, and Dean's left burns pink after every long stretch of prairie. The Impala wasn't ever fitted with air conditioning – sometimes, when the heat index spikes up past ninety, Dean will confess that this is its only flaw – and they stop a little more often, ducking into cool, shadowy highway markets and restaurants.

He wakes up from a nap against a wadded-up hoodie somewhere in Texas, the car parked in a little lot next to a river. Dean's already halfway out when Sam peels from the seat and follows, sleepy and absent-minded as Dean tugs off his t-shirt and jeans.

Dean wades into the cool brown water, limbs alternately pale and sunburnt under the hazy sky. From the shore Sam can see his skin prickling over with goosebumps, the golden hairs on his legs and arms matted wet. His skin looks sleek and shiny when he breaks the surface after a dive, shaking his head to spray droplets around him.

"You'll get a cramp," Sam calls, and Dean just grins, treading water and waiting for Sam to jump in.

*

The forest smells like wood smoke when they stop on the side of I-405. The air in Montana is clear and cold on the skin, even with July sun hanging in the sky like a red apple.

"I've got it," Dean says, snapping his fingers and folding his arms over his chest, leather coat creaking audibly. "Twins."

"Twins," Sam repeats.

Dean leans against the side of the car as Sam unzips to take a roadside piss. "I met 'em in a bar in Georgia, and man, I'm telling you, those were some ripe peaches."

"Right," he says. "Not that I actually believe that, but man, I'm kind of disappointed. Here I thought it'd involve a hoodoo priestess and Spanish fly, or something."

"Please, like you've done something weirder. Lettin' the girl be on top isn't exactly ripped from the pages of the Kama Sutra."

He shakes his head and laughs, zipping up. "I don't feel the need to validate my sex life by discussing it with you, Dean."

There had only been a handful of things he'd been able to tell Jess about growing up, but Dean was a part of every one. She knew they traveled a lot, and that's what he talked about – miles under the wheels, growing up in the back seat. It seemed sometimes like his childhood was spent either living in Dean's pocket or being isolated and alone.

Books were the compromise he always struck with himself. They gave him an escape that was temporary, and even though he inevitably hit the back cover and had to rejoin the world of the living, it worked. He always eschewed the comic books and candy that Dean hoarded like a miser in favor of blowing his money on notebooks, pencils, dictionaries.

There was one summer that was different, one summer when he saved up every last cent that made its way into his pockets and bought himself a new pair of jeans for the school year. Jeans that didn't have incriminating rust-colored spatters that a double cycle at a laundromat couldn't get out, that didn't have rips and tears down the front — a pair that actually were his own, not hand-me-downs from Dean, or donated to Goodwill by some unknown person in a forgotten Midwestern town. He outgrew them in under a year.

The rest of it met similar fates. Notebooks doodled with observations and ideas were condemned to the back seat footwells when his attention wore thin, the pages mostly blank until a spilled soda left them puckered and useless. Pencils were lost down the seat, or sat on and snapped in half. His good intentions to write down stories and draw pictures were always abandoned halfway through, like unfinished thoughts. Books were too heavy and useless to ever survive long, and usually wound up forgotten in motel rooms or deliberately left in trash cans.

Once Dean actually gave him money for this morbid procession of paper goods, when they were staying somewhere in Arizona where most lawns were just tracts of crabgrass that no one was going to pay to have mowed. He'd slipped him a twenty out of the savings he kept in a money clip in his back pocket, cobbled together from an adolescence of odd jobs and hustling pool.

Sam took his time picking out books with it, like money that came from Dean's pockets – smelling faintly of tobacco and booze and the secret life he understood took place in the taverns the older two Winchesters frequented – spent more importantly than his own. It was vital to choose carefully when it was like that, like a gift.

In his memory, that event has two clear earmarks that he can still see fifteen years later. One is the first time he realized he was wholly different from their father, who radiated stern disapproval when he took stock of Sam's armful of spy novels and biographies.

The other is the awe-inspiring crush he had Dean at that age, hero-worship so deep it squeezed his heart.

"Spanking," he finally admits, when they're starting the descent on the other side of the mountain. "There was this girl I was dating, and she – liked to be spanked."

He scrubs a hand over his face, a little bashful, and Dean busts out laughing.

"Attaboy, Sammy."

*

Dean's stance on Bigfoot has always been "maybe", but when they get wind of another sighting they drive all the way out to Washington state.

"Not like we got anything else to do," Dean points out, and the truth of it doesn't leave any room to argue.

The Pacific Northwest is beautiful, even bleached out by summer. They hole up in a cabin near the Cascades and half-heartedly pore over some books on Sasquatch, Dean reading out particularly stupid passages when he finds them.

"It is believed," he intones, "that the modern Sasquatch is the offspring of one of the many that have been sighted over the years. Some experts—" he pauses while that word sinks in, "—suggest that there are family packs that wander the forests near Tacoma."

"And yet no one's ever got a picture," Sam says, studying the Washington map. He's got a couple of possible areas highlighted, although his gaze has drifted down to Mt. Saint Helens. He can remember doing a project on it in elementary school, although he can't remember if it was fourth or fifth grade.

Dean makes them dinner in their kitchenette that night, macaroni and cheese with cut up hotdogs.

"Dude, you'd think your culinary skills would have evolved in ten years," Sam says, amused.

Dean gets a little smirk on his face. "You remember what you used to call it?"

"Hotdogaroni," he says grandly.

"You always did have a way with words."

Sam lobs a forkful of it across the small table, and it lands on one of the open library books.

Despite good intentions, neither of them really wants to traipse around the mountains for no reason. Weekly World News's source on the sighting doesn't answer their calls, and when they show up at his doorstep his wife says he's negotiating his account into a book deal.

"We've been advised to not discuss the matter with any more press," she says, and shuts the door.

"We could always hunt Bat Boy instead," Sam offers, tugging his tie loose.

"Dude, shut up."

They hang around another couple of days. It's as good a time as any to take inventory of the car and their supplies, and they stock up on tarps and salt and clean underwear. It's nice to have a break for awhile, some time without the stress of a job or the bumpy roll of the road under them.

Sam ventures into town on his own once, winds up in a used book store. It smells bitter, like old paperbacks, and he finds a couple of tattered hardcovers on demons and Northwestern hauntings. Idle curiosity makes him throw in a booklet on Washington ecology while he's at it. He does what he has to do, but he prefers buying these things to stealing them from libraries. It depresses him, even the fancy donation-fueled ones that are made for soccer moms and their children instead of academics.

"This gonna do it for you?" The girl behind the counter has dark plaited hair and tattoos on both arms. She looks a lot like the first girl he dated at Stanford.

"Yep."

"Cool name," she says, holding his MasterCard and curving her lips in a way that suggests she's either laughing at him or the name Frank Mozart.

"Thanks," he says, and feels a little like Dean when he smiles and adds, "No relation."

She laughs and leans over the counter on her elbows, even after he takes his receipt. "Are you a tourist, or what?"

"That obvious?"

She points at the booklet on top of his stack. "The locals aren't exactly riveted by the Pacific Ring of Fire."

"You got me." He laughs a little, strangely self-conscious. Maybe it's because Dean's not there, maybe it's because it's not a bar, but she feels like the first real girl to show any interest in him since California. "Me'n my brother, we're just passin' through. Seein' the sights."

"Yeah? You should check out the lake while you're here. It's just an hour east, but it's so worth the drive."

He points at one of the glossy leaflets on the counter. "Lake Whittier?"

"That's the one." She pulls one off the rack and taps the photo. It does look beautiful – they've done so much work around the Great Lakes lately that he's started to forget what the smaller ones are like, the kind with paddle-boats and a far side you can see from any shore. "Some pretty spooky stuff goes on out there, it got a weird rap for awhile, but, uh." She tilts her head at his books. "Maybe you're into that."

"What kind of a weird rap?"

"Oh, people were saying they saw something out in the water. You know, something like Nessie? A couple of people have gone missing near there over the years, so everyone connects the two." She smiles again and ducks her head, and then reaches over and pulls a ballpoint pen out of canister on the counter. For a second there he thinks he's being dismissed, but she's just jotting something down at the top of the flyer. "Tell you what. Give me a call if you're interested in getting the official tour. My brother owns this place, so I kind of set my own hours."

He takes it from her automatically, looks down at the Sylvia – 502-0847 without entirely processing it. She raises her eyebrows at him after a beat, amused.

"Uh, yeah! Yeah, I'll do that. Thanks."

"See you around, Mozart," she says.

Dean's spread out on his bed when he gets back, apparently on the last half of Sasquatch: Man's Great-Uncle. His eyebrows are knitted together thoughtfully, lips moving faintly as he reads.

"Hey," Sam says, dumping his books on one of the beds. "We don't have Bigfoot, but I think I found you a lake monster."

*

Dean can't shut up about the hunt the whole way out of Washington.

"A fuckin' water demon," he says for the fifth time, hitting the steering wheel. "Christ, I don't know if I'm disappointed or not. Did you see that thing?"

"Yeah, Dean," he says, rummaging in the glovebox for a pen. They've still got a copy of The Whittier Tribune, and it runs the New York Times crossword. "It was hard to miss when he was trying to rip off my head. Jesus, is there anything in here but maps and condoms?"

"Nope."

He huffs and finds a ballpoint halfway down the seat. Dean launches into a story about the last time he had to use his emergency stash, and fifty miles later he's still going, yammering about last week's threesome in Idaho.

"...I swear, man, it was like a friggin' Mexican standoff."

"Sounds tragic," he says absently. He cracks open a warm can of Pepsi from the back seat and sucks the flecks of kickback off his hand.

"Dude, I'm just sayin'. Don't advertise what you're not willin' to sell."

"It's amazing anyone has ever slept with you," he says honestly.

"Aw, c'mon," Dean says, passing a Volvo. "I got some redeemin' qualities."

He shoots a little grin over at him, but somehow it doesn't seem as teasing as usual. There's honesty in that grin, knowledge that Sam knows his redeeming qualities. He can feel a weird flush slide over the back of his neck, uncomfortable and uncertain.

"If only hunting came with groupies," he says dryly, going back to the seven-letter word for dread.

"Truer words, Sammy."

They park at a rest stop in northern Montana, and he fishes the top half of that lake brochure out of his wallet. He thumbs it for a second, feeling the indentations where the girl pressed the pen down, and then drops it in a garbage can. He never intended to call her, and saving it had been kind of stupid – he tore it off before letting Dean look at the pamphlet – but it proved a point he'd felt was true for months now. He could still have that, if he wanted it. He just doesn't.

He mills around the grassy area as he waits for Dean to come out of the scrubby brick bathroom, looking out across the little field that's adjacent. It's big enough you could probably play a soccer game on it.

"Race you to the other side," Dean says when he materializes, wiping his hands on his jeans.

"You're serious."

"Yeah! Come on, last chance for a little exercise. It's all pissin' in bottles from here to Ohio."

Sam shakes his head and pulls his hoodie off over his head. He holds the soft fabric in his hands for a moment before throwing it down on the thin coating of pine needles on the ground. "You're on."

*

Sam wakes up in a gritty motel room in Alabama with night thick in their room. Dark outside, dark inside. For a moment he's not sure what woke him up at all, until there's a sharp little gasp from the next bed.

He's been jammed in enough tight spots with Dean over the years to know the sound of his breathing, to know what the rough staccato of it means. It's still a long moment before the reality of it sinks in, though, and he can make heads or tails of what he's hearing.

Dean's jerking off.

Right there, in the shitty narrow barely-a-twin bed that's not two feet from Sam's. It's slow and careful, the papery rustle of sheets and the furtive noises he's holding back. They both became grand masters of subtlety in this arena when they went through puberty, trying to beat off while getting elbowed by each other and the silent threat of their dad right there in the same room.

He knows he should pick up a pillow and throw it at him, or turn on the light and tell him to go take a cold shower – he could do just about anything, except Dean wouldn't be embarrassed. He'd laugh the whole thing off, or make it seem like Sam's the weird one, too uncool to roll with it.

They barely have a moment's peace out here on the road. No privacy, no alone time. The best he's had for months now involves standing in a lousy shower, ducking to get under the spray. His dick's become a liability, something he uses perfunctorily and without a whole hell of a lot of enjoyment.

He doesn't throw anything at him. Doesn't move. The noises wash over him, strange and familiar, and it's a surprise when he realizes that his cock is flushing hard in his boxers.

His throat squeezes with something like shame, but it's not just embarrassment. It's got an angrier edge than that, frustration and pent-up aggression all clashing in his veins. He knows what he wants and doesn't want, knows that he's made the right choices in brushing off the girls who hit on him from time to time, but right then it doesn't seem fair – not that Dean can do what he wants without guilt, can fuck them and talk about it openly and do this, too.

When he finally rolls to his back, Dean doesn't bother stopping. He lets out this little sigh that Sam takes as acknowledgement, and then he realizes that Dean's probably been aware of him the whole time. It doesn't stop him from palming his hard-on through the thin cotton of his boxers, shifting his fingers over carefully, slowly, to squeeze it while Dean's breaths go even more ragged.

Fuck, he doesn't care. He shoves his hand right in and pulls it out, the head rubbing against the fabric of the sheets gently.

When he comes, he can hear the hitch in Dean's breathing, a little noise that echoes in his ears as his load slips over his knuckles.

*

They salt and burn a school teacher's bones not far from Dayton. There's a pretty girl involved in the hunt, the great-granddaughter of the spirit, and she blushes every time Dean looks her way. Sam's been counting down the minutes until the deflowering, but Dean hasn't made a thing of it.

"Summer's nearly over," Dean says as the skeleton burns, looking up at the smoke floating away. The moon out is fat, so bright it's almost painful to look at, and they don't even need to use their flashlights.

It only occurs to him in that moment that it's true – it'll be fall soon, the fall after his senior year. Grad school and the rest of his life aren't waiting for him.

It should hurt more than it does.

"I think I may have found something," he says a week later, sitting in one uncomfortable motel chair with his feet propped up in another. He tosses the newspaper across the table. "Chicago. Guy dies mysteriously at forty-eight. Cops show up, find the guy's been mutilated."

"Man, I hate cities." Dean skims the article with a curled lip. "It's prob'ly just some serial killer whackjob."

"And," he continues, "last week, Meredith Davis, a twenty-three-year-old girl working in a local bar. Same MO. Found mutilated, cops have no leads."

Dean's eyebrows go up this time. "We can make it to Illinois by Tuesday."

"I thought you hated cities," Sam says wryly.

"Dude, a hot cocktail waitress is dead. Let's focus on the important things."

Sam rolls his eyes.

They find a motel within walking distance of Meredith's work, which in Sam's mind puts cities at 1 and backwater towns at 0. It's been awhile since he's spent time in a place like Chicago; he and some friends from school used to go to San Francisco every now and then, but that was a different kind of city entirely. He kind of likes the anonymity of these places, the way no one's looking for anyone.

The room they land in is pretty huge – bigger than the average roadside motel. It's costing them an arm and a leg, but Cornelius Hoffa can probably afford it.

Sam runs a finger over the dresser by Dean's bed and smiles a little.

"Know what this place reminds me of?"

"Eddyville." It's automatic, amused, and Sam shakes his head.

"Yeah. I think that was the last time Dad ever rented a place furnished."

It had been the only time they stumbled across a haunt where they lived – a place decorated just like this, like the rejects of a grandma's attic. EMF meters went off every time they were carried through the dining room, and they tore the place apart before finding the cursed teacup at the back of the china cupboard.

Dean leans against the wall and looks out at their view – a tangle of lights and movements on the dark backdrop of night. There's a flash of neon red on his face from the motel sign on the outside of the building. It catches on his profile, throws it into sharp relief. Sam's gaze follows down the straight slope of his nose, the curves of his mouth. Those clean lines look even sharper in the hazy orange glow, and for a moment he just watches Dean take in whatever he's looking at.

When he turns away, there's a smile on his face and lines around his eyes.

"I'm gonna go check out that bar," he says, picking up his coat. "The one the victim worked at."

Sam rubs a hand over his face. "Yeah, I'll be there in a few."

*

Seeing Meg again makes him feel a little guilty. He doesn't just cringe when she lays into Dean because it's embarrassing; he does it because the things she's saying were things he told her. Things that were real to him just a couple of months ago.

It's almost hard to believe now that things between him and Dean haven't always been this even and comfortable. They found a new stride after Indiana, but there was a reason he wanted to leave. He doesn't want to think that he's giving up on the bigger picture, but there's a purpose that's supposed to be driving them, and it's not about being a tourist or wasting Bigfoot.

It's sobering to think they could have stumbled across the end of their hunt this way, not even searching for it. Not even feeling the desperation he used to have.

"What if this whole thing was over tonight?" he asks later, when they sift through their weapons. "Man, I’d sleep for a month. Go back to school. Be a person again."

Dean pauses and looks up at him. "You wanna go back to school?"

"Yeah, once we’re done huntin' the thing."

"Huh."

"Why, is there somethin' wrong with that?"

"No. No, it's, uh, great, good for you."

"I mean, what are you gonna do when it’s all over?"

"It's never gonna be over," Dean says flatly. "There's gonna be others. There's always gonna be somethin' to hunt."

He stares, a little dumbfounded. "But there's got to be something that you want for yourself."

"Yeah, I don't want you to leave the second this thing's over, Sam." He walks to the dresser, back to Sam.

"Dude, what’s your problem?"

Dean doesn't say anything, just grips the sides of the dresser and hangs his head. He laughs a little, but it's not a happy sound. His voice isn't harsh, but it's dangerous nonetheless.

"Why do you think I drag you everywhere? Huh? I mean, why do you think I came and got you at Stanford in the first place?"

"'Cause Dad was in trouble," he says slowly. "'Cause you wanted to find the thing that killed Mom."

"Yes, that, but it’s more than that, man."

There's another silence, and he feels like there's something he's not understanding, something he's supposed to be understanding. The knowledge of it settles like dread in his stomach, uncertain and wary. When Dean turns back around again, it pulls a little tighter.

"You and me," Dean says, and Sam swallows. "And Dad. I mean, I want us to be together again. I want us to be a family again."

"Dean, we are a family. I’d do anything for you. But things will never be the way they were before."

"Could be," he says, and there's a wistful tic in his cheek that's almost a smile.

Sam wets his lips, unsure of why this feels like such dangerous ground.

"I don't want them to be," he says, careful and pointed. "I'm not gonna live this life forever. Dean, when this is all over, you're gonna have to let me go my own way."

It's only when Dean looks at him again, harsh and stark and grim, that he starts to wonder what they're really talking about.

*

They drive out of Chicago steadily, not fast enough to catch attention but fast enough to give anything trailing them a pretty good run for its money. Dean's got a knack for always finding a seedy little place that's less than fifty a night, and that's the kind of place they finally land in – yellowing sinks and threadbare carpeting. There's a purple bruise blossoming out from under the arm of his t-shirt when he peels his jacket off, ugly and stark.

They don't talk about their dad. They don't really talk about anything, and the air feels strange and stifling now, the shadows full of things they haven't said and probably won't. Sam unrolls the first aid kit methodically, washing his hands and rolling up his sleeves without second thought to the blood trickling from his own cuts.

Dean doesn't say anything, doesn't complain or cuss or do any of the things Sam might expect him to. His eyes fall shut after the first few pulls of the needle, his wary expression melting into something less tense.

He's close enough to see the sheen of sweat on Dean's face, beading on his forehead and making the angle of his nose glisten.

He knows from past experience that the best way to deal with these kinds of tasks is to get methodical, to not over-think every movement, so he focuses on the other things. The warm brushes of breath against the back of his hand, the smell of sweat and hair gel, the feel of Dean's chin moving slightly below his fingers, like he's barely holding back some noise of pain. Waves of heat are coming off him, hot on Sam's skin. His cheek is still.

"There," he finally says, voice low. Dean moves his eyebrows incrementally, like he's testing the stitches, and Sam touches his cheek one last time.

"So," Dean says, rubbing his hands together. It's the closest thing he has to a nervous tic, and Sam lets out a slow breath and chucks the first aid kit back in a duffel. "Where we headed after this?"

 

vi.

Sam was always one of those kids you just didn't say things around. He had a mind like a trap, could always bring it up later, and he was quiet – too quiet, unnaturally quiet. You'd forget he was there and start talking about something grisly, something with too many cuss words, and suddenly he'd shift and you'd realize he wasn't just part of the scenery. He blended in with piles of books and faded wallpaper like they were a reasonable camouflage for a little boy with wide, calculating eyes.

That's the same kind of expression he's getting these days. It's like every time he turns around, Sam's under foot, watching him and waiting for something to happen.

It's really fucking unsettling.

*

Texas is heavy and humid this time of year. Dean's always thought of it as being a dry place, but the air seems to stick to his skin, like he's swimming across the parking lot.

It's a clear, warm night, and he feels a little like a kid again. Maybe it's the pranks, the laughter, the camaraderie of pulling one over together. Maybe it's the summery weather, which always reminds him of school vacations and hauling ass from one side of the country to the other every goddamn week, the days when piss breaks were scheduled and dinner was a spoon stuck in a jar of Skippy.

"You wanna go out or something?" Sam asks, pushing his hair away from his forehead. It's thick enough with sweat that it stays there, like the laugh lines still faintly grooved at either side of his mouth.

"Nah. Let's get a bottle."

Two hours later, Sam throws his head back and laughs, loud and long and with tears welling up in his eyes.

"Oh man," he says, wiping his mouth with a wide palm and lingering fingers. "I'm so drunk."

Dean's about eight drinks behind him, lazy and pacing himself. It's worth it to see this.

"Come on, dude, that's what girls say when they don't want you think they're easy."

Sam leans back against the headboard, all sprawling limbs and shaggy hair. "I'm definitely not easy."

Dean shakes his head and pours himself another. "Man, I like you when you're drunk. Maybe you aren't the milk-man's kid after all."

It should sting, he knows the second after he says it. He's never been one to joke about the way Sam's a misfit in their ranks. Sam just laughs, though, and stretches out across the bed like he's trying to take up as much room as possible.

Dean watches his shirt ride up around his waist, and the smile that flits across his face is an old one, a fondness for Sam's skinny limbs and bony ribs that four years couldn't quite scrub away.

He wonders sometimes what would have happened back in Illinois if he'd been the one to get that love tap from Dr. Ellicott. Sam's always been the stubborn one, but he bets – he knows – there's frustration that bitter in him, too. He wonders if he'd have pulled the trigger.

Sam grins at him as wide and goofy as when he was a kid, showing off that row of slightly crowded teeth, and Dean has his answer.

They look at each other for a long moment as they lie there, Sam's shot glass empty in his fingers. He seems to hesitate for a moment, and then reaches up and touches the side of Dean's face.

He pulls in a surprised breath, but Sam just thumbs interestedly at his eyebrow, tracing it all the way down to the corner of his eye, the jut of his cheekbone.

"Okay, dude," Dean finally says, batting him away. "Time for bed."

For once, Sam doesn't fight him.

*

They keep up the back and forth of pranks for a while, something to break up the monotony of road miles and death.

Outside Michigan Dean reaches for his Metallica mix, and the unholy thing he pulls out of its case and shoves in the stereo is some Neil Diamond shit. He leaves a wallpaper on the laptop that makes Sam turn maroon in the middle of Starbucks and slink down low in his cushy purple armchair, and that night Sam gets them a king-sized bed and spends most of the night kicking Dean in his sleep.

Dean slips The Joy of Gay Sex into Sam's man-purse before they leave the Chetco Public Library, and the resulting door alarm and search for the renegade book is pretty fucking funny from twenty feet away.

It's all one big pain in the ass, but it's fun, too – it's the kind of thing he missed but could never put his finger on when Sam was gone. It feels like maybe those wounds of Sam's are starting to heal a little, like maybe he's getting his brother back, piece by piece.

They track down a spirit in Illinois through some good old-fashioned research and elbow grease. It's straight-forward, just a salt and burn job, and Sam lets him play High Voltage for the whole length of Missouri without complaining once. He doesn't return the favor when Sam wants to watch a documentary on the History Channel that night, but his bitching is only half-hearted.

"Did you ever think about going to college?" Sam asks during a commercial break, easy as anything. Dean hadn't realized that his attempts to drown out the riveting story of World War II by reading the phone book had epically failed until right then, when the muted TV came as a surprise.

"I don't know. I guess I thought about it, maybe for a while back in high school. It just never seemed like my kinda thing. I had a lot more shit on my mind than SAT scores, or whatever."

"And that's really okay with you?"

"Man, not all of us can be cerebral thinkers." He tosses the phone book back into the drawer, settles in to watch the goddamned documentary. "Sometimes there's just other stuff in the cards."

Strangely, Sam doesn't have an argument for that.

*

Fall brings leaves caught in the windshield wipers and days so dry a lit match could burn a county down. In Ohio they pass a roadside cut-out of Smokey the Bear warning that the fire risk is level red, and every time they climb out of the car it's a slow unpeeling of sweaty skin stuck to black leather.

They get hot dogs in a hole-in-the-wall place in Kentucky and park on an empty roadside to eat them. Sam sits on the trunk of the car, and Dean just leans against it, watching crows circle around in search of crumbs. A dusty breeze comes tearing up the road, and Sam holds his arms out when it hits him. It catches in his shirt, billowing the cotton loose around his chest and arms in a slow, lazy flutter that makes him laugh.

He turns and points that grin at Dean with all megawatts blazing. His cheeks are pink from the heat, and sun's all bright on his hair. It's brown and gold, like a candy bar left in the sun, curling at his ears in that stubborn flip he spent months trying to pomade flat in junior high.

He looks happy. He looks like a kid.

In West Virginia Dean spends an irritating twenty minutes trying to make the rabbit-ear antennae on their TV work while Sam uses up all the hot water.

When he comes out of the bathroom, it's in boxers and nothing else. There's a wisp of shaving cream still stuck to one of his sideburns, and Dean stands there and looks at him.

Sam glances up, like he's sensed his gaze. "Bathroom's all yours."

"But there's this whole line of people," Dean says, and shuts the door behind him.

They drive down the Hudson with the windows down and Mötley Crüe up loud, loud enough to drum out his thoughts.

It says a lot that Sam can't give him any kind of certainty, that he's still got designs to high-tail it out of there and back to school. He'd never ask him why, and is kinda mortified that he just assumed the wrong take on the situation, but it still says a lot.

He's always been able to remember a time in his life, half-real and half-imagined, when the Winchesters were okay. Not when Mom was around – those memories are too crumbly – but when it was just the three of them, when Sam was growing up and they were all together. A family. All he's ever wanted is to know that his dad and Sam are safe and around, and for some reason that's always been too much to ask for.

The coordinates for Fitchburg, Wisconsin come in while they're holed up in Maine. He hesitates as they look at them on the phone's screen, chart it up on a map.

"We don't have to," he offers, studying Sam's face.

"Yeah, we do." Sam pulls one of his shoulders up in a little shrug, but he smiles at him in a way that shows he's not pissed about it. It feels a little like Dean's lingering on a sharp ledge, just waiting to be pushed off, waiting for the catch or the other shoe to drop. They fuel up and drive all the way to Wisconsin without a single hitch.

In the end, he's glad for it. There are times when even he doesn't realize how deep his need to protect Sam runs, how long it's always been there. Even though he knows it's his fault that the shtriga was out there for an extra sixteen years or so, he also knows that it was times like those, times he came so close to failing this family, that shape who he is now. What Sam is to him now.

"I know all that stuff back there was for Dad," Sam says when they leave Fitchburg in the dust. "But I just want you to know that I remember how much you looked out for me back then, Dean. And I really appreciate it."

"Oh God," he says, but Sam just grins at him like he knew it was coming.

*

They're making their way through Oklahoma on an all-night burn when he starts drowsing at the wheel. It's not too bad – he doesn't even swerve, he's pretty sure. It's just that one minute he's awake, and the next minute he's lost some time.

He reaches over and gives Sam a shake, rousing him off his wadded-up jacket of a pillow.

"Dude, wake up. You gotta drive for awhile, I'm dyin' over here."

Sam turns a pained look on him, and even in the shitty light of the car he can see the smudges of color under his eyes.

"I'm tired," he yawns. "God, dude, 'm tired. Just stop somewhere."

He rubs an eye blearily. "There isn't anywhere to stop, we're in Timbuck-fuckin'-tu."

"Then just pull over. Wouldn't be the first time we slept in the car."

It's a cold bitch of a night, too close to the desert for the heat of the day to be kept in. There's a blanket they keep wadded up in the trunk, and they wind up sharing it in the back seat, awkwardly slumped together.

There should be some inherent weirdness in sharing body heat like that, pressed together under a tattered poly-blend boosted from some motel. They're two adult men, after all, and brothers be damned, that's kinda strange. It's not, though. It's just sleepy and comfortable.

Dean slumps against the door on his side, and Sam stretches out against him, their feet crammed together in the same footwell.

It reminds him a little of when Sam was crashing into his teens. He grew too fast, all at once, and it was like one day they woke up and he wasn't the ten-year-old that still fit comfortably against Dean in motel beds; he had this gangling body that he couldn't control anymore. Dean had wanted to hug him like he had when he was a kid, wanted him to always be that simple little boy he could take care of, but suddenly he was too big for that, in flesh if not in spirit. The stuff he'd always done, petting his hair after nightmares and giving him sleepy squeezes when the heater woke them up, made him feel a little ridiculous.

He can feel it when Sam falls asleep again, the tension in his body slipping away and leaving him a dead weight that's half on top of him. One of his hands, too big and broad, is holding Dean's knee through the denim of his jeans, his mouth all up against his shoulder and breathing warm, damp breaths into the cotton.

It takes Dean a long time to fall asleep.

*

He's done his best to get Sam to notice girls before, but this Sarah chick in New York – she's like a fucking godsend.

Sam always had a type, and Jessica wasn't it. He might covertly check out the ass of a passing blonde, sure, but the kind of girl who always made him blush and go stupid and confirm – for anyone curious – just how fake the fake ID in his pocket was, that's a girl like Sarah. Brunette and bookish with too much in the way of brains. Kind of like a female version of himself, like that's not fucked up.

It doesn't take much to prod him toward her, and Sam wouldn't do anything if Dean didn't put the screws to him once or twice. Dean can't even start to feel guilty when he watches him run around their room getting ready for their little date.

"Lookin' good, champ," Dean says, and then sniffs the air obviously. "What is that, Aqua Velva?"

Sam gives him a passing shove. "It's your Old Spice. And I still can't believe you talked me into this."

"Dude." He raises his hands in faux surrender. "You keep jerkin' it, you're gonna give yourself carpal tunnel. I'm just lookin' out for you."

There's a slight pause on Sam's part. It's the first time either of them have even alluded to that time in Alabama.

"Yeah, well, you can stop looking out for my dick, Dean," he finally says, adjusting his tie in the mirror. "It was doing just fine when you weren't around dispensing wisdom."

"I know. But lightning doesn't always strike twice, dude. Sometimes you gotta grab the rod and, y'know, channel it."

"I don't even want to start parsing that metaphor."

Dean gives him a smirk.

It's not so much that he cares what Sam does with his junk, but Sam seems hell-bent on living an unhappy life, and the lack of sex is just another part of that. No one goes a year without getting laid, not when there are willing chicks everywhere he goes. It's just another note in Sam's martyrdom, and Dean's not having any of it. He deserves this.

"You know what, I don't get it," Sam says later. "What do you care if I hook up?"

"Because then maybe you wouldn't be so cranky all the time," he says. "You know, seriously, Sam, this isn't about just hookin' up, okay? I think this Sarah girl could be good for you." He pauses for a second. He can remember Sam's words just before he jumped out of the car in Indiana. How the hell would you know how I feel? "And I don't mean any disrespect, but I'm sure that this is about Jessica, right? Now – I don't know what it’s like to lose somebody like that, but I would think that she would want you to be happy. God forbid, have fun once in a while. Wouldn't she?"

Sam looks down at his hands, eyebrows knitting a little. "Yeah, I know she would. You're right. Part of this is about Jessica. But not the main part."

"What's it about?" Sam doesn't say anything. He swallows and looks at him, and Dean leans back on the bed. "Yeah, all right."

They don't talk much on the way out of New York. Sam cracks the wing window on his side and watches the Hudson scenery slip by without any commentary.

In all their years as kids and teenagers, Dean never thought it would come down to this, forcing Sam into being happy.

"We could've stayed for awhile, man," he finally says, giving Sam a little thwack on the arm. "You could've gotten some quality time in with that girl."

Sam shakes his head. "She deserves more than that, Dean. A hell of a lot more than what I could give her. It's just the wrong time."

"It's never the wrong time for sex, Sammy," he says. "Look, I know you're not into hookin' up, but tryin' to be a monk isn't the answer. You gotta keep your senses sharp, dude. It's not a crime for you to get lucky once in awhile."

Sam lets out a sharp breath through his nose. "Picking up girls in bars isn't my thing, Dean. It's yours. I'm never, ever gonna want to do that, so you can stop asking."

"You liked her though, right? I mean, you were into her."

Sam gives a little sigh. "Yeah." He rolls his eyes, though, and shuts the window. "But that doesn't mean I'm up for a foursome with you and the next pair of roommates you meet."

"One thing at a time, dude," Dean says. "I'm just glad to hear you rediscovered your dick."

Sam flips him off, but they're both laughing.

*

Kids are running around in Halloween costumes when they stop in Bedford Falls. It's the last school day before the thirty-first.

Sam's got this little Mona Lisa smile on his face as they drive through the streets, taking it all in and not giving anything out. It's pretty fucked up to have the anniversary of your girlfriend's death heralded by skeletons and coffins on everyone's front lawns. He doesn't say anything about it, but Sam's never had to – Dean can sense it.

He doesn't even think about it when he drops his hand on Sam's leg in a comforting little slap, squeezing at his kneecap.

They land in a scrubby place on the fringes of town, a blue room done in an understated nautical theme. Sam unloads the paperwork they charmed out of the secretary at the sheriff's office, spreads it around him on his bed in a haphazard circle. He always gets this look on his face when he's figuring something out, putting things together. Dean can practically hear the wheels turning in his head, chug-chugging along like a well-oiled machine.

His own don't spin quite as fast, more of a rusty scrape when they decide to kick in, but they're moving now. Maybe they've been moving since Chicago, or a little before.

He lies awake for an hour that night. The motel alarm clock is shining a red 12:43 at him when he hears the noise from Sam's bed, a little sound in his throat that can only mean one thing.

Sam was twelve when he first started jerking off. It was hard for Dean to miss when it was right in his own bed, breaths barely muffled in a pillow. His noises are different now, and Dean wonders with an idle curiosity what he might sound like when he has sex. Is he that restrained, that quiet? Or does he let it out, snarling and vicious the way he is when he's angry?

He palms his own dick, shifting his legs apart in a way that makes faint noise under the covers, and he knows that Sam knows he's awake. They've both been waiting for this, consciously or not.

They've had these harmless jerk-off sessions a couple of times now, separated by the distance between whatever motel beds they're crashing in. He's listened to the rustling noises of Sam pulling at his own cock, the smothered gasps and huffs of his arousal pressed against pillows. They've never talked about it, but he can feel tension moving between them now like a physical thing.

Any minute, he'll send the bedsprings creaking as he shoves down his boxers, and Sam will let out a little complacent sigh. He'll know by the rhythm of breathing when Sam starts to really go for it, know the quiet nose of his hair moving against his pillow when he starts rubbing it there, when he starts losing the will to keep it quiet. He'll hear every ragged breath and half-checked moan, and Sam'll be able to hear him, too – until the huffs get louder and they both shoot, usually Sam before Dean, and then tug off t-shirts or scramble for one on the floor to wipe up the mess.

He breathes out slowly as he pushes his hand down into his boxers.

Sam's never going to let himself get this anywhere else. He's never going to hook up with girls and be normal, not as long as they're living this life out here. He's always been different than Dean in so many ways, and this is one of them – he needs something more. Even if he sealed the deal with that Sarah girl, they'd have still packed up in the morning and left her behind.

The realization hits him slowly as he rubs his thumb over the slit, muscles seizing a little at that tease of too-direct friction. Sam's stuck like this. He's never going to ask for what he needs, never take it where he can get it.

But Dean could do it.

It'd be a little weird, but he's done plenty of weirder shit in his life than give his little brother a hand. He's helped him shower when he's been too busted up to stand on his own, helped him stumble back and forth to the bathroom when a bad hunt left him sightless for three days. This is just what they do – look out for each other. Take care of each other.

He throws back the blankets before he has time to talk himself out of it, or even yank his hand out of his boxers. The snap of elastic is louder when he's exposed to the room like that, and he hears this little noise from Sam's bed just before he throws himself onto it.

"What are you doing?" Sam demands, jerking into a sitting position as Dean shoves his way under his covers.

"Dude. Relax." He gives him the sternest voice he can, and it's almost funny the way Sam obeys, like eighteen years of living with John Winchester gave him some mental pressure point. "Just let me do this. Let me help you."

"Let you – Dean—"

Sam's leg is hard and solid under his hand, wiry with hair as Dean slips his palm up his thigh and over the thin cotton of his boxers. His cock is thick and full and halfway out of them, and Sam cuts off with a ragged gasp when Dean tugs it all the way free.

He smells like Dean's oldest memories – being pressed together and sleeping that way as kids, his face against an untidy mop of boyish curls. Unwashed skin in summertime, too lazy and too tired for showers, too hot to move. All the days spent sitting on leather upholstery, playing the itsy-bitsy spider, tickling under thin motel covers long after pretending to fall asleep.

For a second he's panicking, thinking, I can't do this, I can't do this. Sam's eyes glint at him in the darkness, wide and unsure, and then he goes for it.

He hasn't ever tried anything like this before – hasn't ever thought about guy parts in this kind of context. Sam's body is almost as familiar to him as his own, though, and he reaches his other hand up to rub that spot on his stomach where he's always sensitive, shifts his weight away from the shoulder that's still bruised.

"It's okay," he mutters, and it's like they're kids again, when Dean was the one in charge and his word was law. Blue was red if Dean said so, and Sam responds with that same kind of acceptance, letting out a tight breath in his face. He's not going to fight him, Dean realizes after a second, and that makes it so much easier.

He knows why he's doing this, and he lets that knowledge carry him through. Whatever ingrained sense of right and wrong is ringing alarm bells in his head can be cut off fast enough by the simple truth of it. Sure, it's not the most normal thing in the world, but it doesn't have to be a huge deal. It can just be something he's doing for Sam, something helpful and quick and easy.

He believes it, too, until Sam's hand fumbles between them and finds the relentless bulge of Dean's dick.

"Jesus," he hisses, and Sam squeezes his hand, huge and demanding, tracing the shape of it through his underwear before scrabbling his hand down the front of it.

He's frozen like that for a moment, caught in the fact that he's so weirdly hot for this, body primed and ready to get off.

"You're so fucking stupid," Sam huffs back at him. "God, Dean."

He loses time like that, the rhythm between them steady and strange. Those noises he's grown used to hearing sound so different when it's his hand that's wringing them out, when he can see the way Sam's eyebrows knit and his lips pull as he turns his face against the pillow. It doesn't seem possible that this is Sam, his brother – that he's crossed this line so abruptly and there's no one here to stop him.

"That's it," he mutters, toneless and warm. He can feel their legs sticking together under the blankets, the heat like a furnace, and precome drips down and wets Dean's grip.

When Sam loses it, he arches up sharply, hips jerking as he grips the front of Dean's t-shirt. He shoots across their stomachs, muscles all tensing sharply against Dean, but his own hand doesn't stop. He keeps pulling Dean right on through it, the drags of his hand desperate and rough, and it's only another minute before Dean follows after him, fucking his fist.

They slump there for a long moment, back in the silence of the room and their lives. Sam tilts his head to the side and looks up at him, an expression on his face that Dean hasn't ever seen there.

He doesn't know what he was expecting, but it wasn't this, his little brother folding him up in a crushing embrace that would be embarrassing if it weren't so simple, so childlike and easy.

 

vii.

There's this thing Dean used to do when Sam was little. He'd come up behind him and grab him around the middle, arms all tight right under his armpits, and spin them both in a circle. Centrifugal force would pull Sam's legs out and he'd scream and laugh and hold onto Dean's arms for dear life, clutching where he was being clutched and watching everything else blur. It would have been terrifying if he didn't have Dean, the only real thing in the world, laughing in his ear and holding him so tight that he felt safe all the way through.

In California there wasn't anyone looking out for him. It was a new way to live, scary and big and enveloping. He never realized until then how much Dean had done for him, but when he was the one who washed his own clothes, cooked his own meals, paid his own bills, it all became clearer. Dean was the glue that held their family together, that got Sam off to school in the mornings and their dad to bed on rough nights. He never questioned it, not to Sam's knowledge, just accepted it like his rightful duty. He kept Sam in line and gave him whatever he needed, be it lunch money or homework help or the affection that he craved.

They don't have the exact same rhythm anymore – Sam's an adult, he can take of himself for the most part. But for all the laundry and driving he does now, it would be a bald-faced lie to say Dean's not still his driving force. He just finds different ways to pick up the slack, to push him along. And even though he's frustrating, downright infuriating sometimes, he's still the glue that keeps Sam together.

Four years hasn't changed him enough to not still need this, to not still reach out for it even without realizing it's happening. When he tries to think of his life back home, the life he's still so sure he wants to reclaim, there's a frission of uncertainty about those desires. If he tried to be responsible for himself again in all of those little ways, if he didn't have Dean to wake him up in the mornings and bitch about his eating habits and prop him up when things suck, it would be like letting go. Flying into the blurry void of the rest of the world.

*

They go to Nebraska the first week of November, the air still and quiet and so cold their cheeks get red with chill when they walk around Wilburton. There's been a series of accidents at the local mill that started around the same time as a suicide, and they talk to witnesses and family members and kick at the frozen ground a lot, trying to get feeling into feet that have gone numb in boots.

They don't talk about this thing that's started between them.

It's just once, at first – that night in Massachusetts with the memory of Sarah still lingering at the edges of his mind, Dean's hand solid and firm around him. Dean was the same as ever in the morning, white teeth flashing in a little amused grin before he claimed the first shower. It's Sam's second-nature to over think things and worry, but Dean makes it easy, just like everything else.

Their third night in Nebraska, Dean wanders out of a shower to the sight of Sam laying on his bed, one hand lazily rubbing his dick through his jeans. He didn't mean to do it, not really, but he sat there listening through the cardboard wall as Dean hummed and dropped shampoo bottles, and his cock swelled hard in his briefs. There was a moment, after a couple of silence, when a thud echoed through the room – the noise of his hand or his fist or something coming in contact with the wall of the shower, and Sam pressed his fingertips down against his inseam and swallowed tightly around the knowledge that Dean was jerking off.

Dean's still tucking his towel around his hips when he stands there, and a slow smile curls across his face.

"Need a hand with that?"

Sam doesn't answer, and Dean doesn't require any encouragement to cross the room and sit on the edge of his bed. His hands are quick and capable as they yank open his jeans and tug down the front of his underwear. He knows how to do it, just how Sam wants it, and he crumbles embarrassingly fast, eyes buttoning shut as Dean leans over him and pumps his hand down low and then back up, thumbing under the head.

He can smell the mint of Dean's toothpaste and bland flowery scent of Pert Plus.

If he thinks there's anything normal about this, he's fooling himself utterly. That hand is square and blunt and thick, knowing in a way that only another guy's can be. Dean smells like Dean, the same way he's smelled ever since he hit puberty and Sam would sit on the closed toilet lid in motels across the country and watch him meticulously shave.

A fat droplet of water drips from Dean's hair down onto Sam's cheek, and he stutters his hips up and comes in a hot, thick streak up his brother's arm.

Dean leaves him laying there, salty and limp, and chucks him under the chin before he goes to wash his arm off in the bathroom sink.

"I was thinkin' pizza for dinner," he calls over the sound of running water. "Unless you got any objections."

They find the body of the mill worker in a mausoleum in the Clark County cemetery. They have to bust it open with crowbars, and they only just manage to get the withered body torched before the night watchman catches them.

They give chase all the way to the parking lot and gun the engine as they leave, laughing loud and long as they go.

*

They trace their way across the country for the four-hundredth time, tabulating the differences between then and now.

He's not stupid enough to think that it means anything if he gets off when the hand on his dick isn't slender and soft on the palm. When he was in junior high he jerked off with this kid in his science study group a few times. It was fueled by curiosity and too many hormones, nothing serious, but there's a big difference between some random kid at school doing it and whatever this is. Dean read him Cat in the Hat when he was three; this is a kind of stupidity that goes all the way to the bone, and there are ugly, fucked up consequences for it.

There have been plenty of girls in the last year whose eyes slid from him to Dean and back again. He can count them off in his mind on both hands, ones met while working cases and ones met in pit stop bars. Despite his squeamishness and morals, there were times he could have had the casual sex Dean always prodded him towards, could have gotten his rocks off and still had whatever it is this is claiming from him. Dignity or common sense or peace of mind.

He hasn't ever been that kind of guy, though. Casual sex with a stranger has never been enough for him. He's always wanted specific things in women, some kind of connection and a promise that what they have together mean something. He liked that Jessica had only been with a couple of other guys, that when they fucked it was something significant, not something bought for the price of that night's bar tab. Even after two years of living with her and being around her tangle of tampons and waxing cream and lotions, he still can't help but see girls as the mysterious creatures he did growing up. Maybe it makes him a chump, being the kind of guy who can't get it up for the random and willing, but he's completely okay with that.

This thing, though, is different. Dean's not a girl and he's sure not a virgin, but it doesn't feel meaningless. Even when it's quarter to three and they haven't said anything, just found their way to each other in the darkness, it doesn't feel like that.

It never comes up in conversation, but they silence they keep doesn't feel awkward. It's just self-aware. As long as they don't talk about it, it can't get fucked up. As long as it's a secret – sweet or dirty or shameful – they don't have to have rules and acknowledge the danger.

They still rag on each other and eat each other's food and do all the stupid things they've always done. Dean can still level the word "dude" at him just right and make him feel like a kid again. They're still brothers, even in the midst of this, and maybe that shouldn't be so surprising.

*

There's a junky old Plymouth Fury on the side of the road outside Okalalie, Utah, and Dean slows to a complete stop in the middle of Highway 304 to take a look at it. He mutters about things being cryin' shames while Sam looks at the local welcome sign. It's a big old thing, painted with the phrase Home of the Bulldogs! in two primary colors. There's a list of all the years the high school won state sports championships, but there's nothing past 1984.

He mulls over thoughts of school all the way to the other side of the state, where they stop to take care of another spirit.

There have been so many times in his life where he thought he had it all figured out. He thought he knew the score before he left for school, and once he was out there in the world, lonely in bus stops for a week across the country, he was sure he knew how bad things could get. And then Dean showed up, and Jess died, and he became sure in those months that followed that he knew it all. Knew the way it was going to end.

He's starting to realize how lost he really is.

The whole thing should be awkward as hell, and there are times he turns to look at Dean in the chilly light of day – this cocky, loud presence in the driver's seat, turning up the stereo and gunning the engine – and he can't believe that it's happening. Dean of all people should be the one putting a stop to this, should be able to see why it's wrong. He should be freaked out by how messed up and gay it is, should be indignant and ashamed down to his red-blooded male roots.

He's not sure anymore if that's really how Dean is, though, or if that's just an unfair conclusion he's come to.

When Dean slides into his bed in Monmouth, he shuts his eyes and lets him stroke his cock through his boxers.

"Don't," he finally says, voice cut rough by heavy breaths. "Don't do this 'cause you feel sorry for me."

Dean's motionless for a long moment, a heavy weight sprawled halfway over him. It's the first time either of them have ever acknowledged it straight-out, in any terms other than, yeah, fuck, that's it.

"Sammy," he finally says, "come on, dude, I'm not—"

Dean tips his face against his, the most affecionate he's ever been during this. Sam can feel the puffs of his breath against his cheek, warm and wet.

"I don't feel sorry for you." He reaches for one of Sam's hands, brings it to the tight strain at the front of his boxers. He can feel the heat under his fingers, Dean's cock flushed hard under the stretchy cling of fabric. "That feel like pity?"

Sam lets out a breath he didn't realize he was holding, a choked, grateful laugh, and Dean lifts his head and nudges their noses together before getting down to business.

*

He only had a handful of conversations with Jess about his family. She'd point-blank asked him about his brother once, painting her toenails as they watched Survivor. She asked him if they had been close.

Jessica had a sister and a brother that she emailed every other day. One of them was in grad school up in New Mexico; the other one was in high school. They were a normal family, close and caring and interested in each other. He knew that close to Jessica meant baking cookies with her little sister, meant going fly-fishing with her dad and her brother. It meant doing things that bond you together, taking time out of your totally separate, totally different lives to celebrate the fact that you're related – that you have the same DNA, the same predisposition for ulcers, the same sweet tooth. Closeness to Jessica was Hallmark moments, earnest and candied.

It wasn't living in each other's pockets, saving each other's lives, sewing up each other's skin and listening to each other's fumbled teenage sex.

"Yeah, we were pretty close," he had said. "A long time ago."

That was the last time they ever talked about it, because he couldn't explain to an outsider what it felt like to be a Winchester. That every time he looks at Dean he can feel this pull in his stomach, this knowledge that he's looking at the only person who could ever share his perspective on the world. They're unique, the two of them, even in the rag-tag world of people who hunt things. Men like their father, like Bobby and Caleb, can't understand what it is to grow up as jaded and practical as Sam and Dean. To have that spirit of camaraderie and battle impressed on you before you can count higher than ten.

It shames him a little that he withheld so many truths from Jessica, but at the end of the day he's pretty sure that he wouldn't be able to explain it to her even if he had another chance.

When he looks at Dean now, there's something different in his chest than the brothers-in-arms crap their father used to preach at them. He's used to pulling apart and examining his thoughts as cleanly as Dean dissembles his guns, but this defies that. Like so many things in their lives, there's no way to pin it down and understand. It simply is; the rest is just a mystery.

*

It changes slowly, so slowly that he doesn't even notice it at first. They started out clinical, handjobs under the covers before one or the other found his own bed, but eventually they just stay in one, collapse together beneath the blankets. Touches that were frantic at first ease into lazier caresses, fingertips taking the idle time to skim over the cut lines of hips and ribs and collar bones.

It's not exactly lust that drives him. Dean's smooth skin, the muscles that bunch under it, the dip of his spine and the tendon flex of his arm reaching up to hold onto the headboard – that belongs to everyone who has ever watched him strip off a t-shirt. That belongs to every girl who's been taken in by the smirk and the sweet-talk in some bar. Sam isn't into guys as a rule, and he doesn't care about those trappings.

What he does care about is the person underneath. It's all just means to that end, getting closer to the person he's always known Dean to be. He can see him now like he saw him growing up – a warm, steady presence that taught him how to walk and talk and shoot a gun and pick up a chick, hands that wiped away tears and gave noogies and won every arcade video game in every truck stop in the country.

The strangest thing of all, though, is the ways they don't change. They still have each other's backs like they always did, can still sense what the other will do from three yards away in a freezing field with a murderous ghost on their trail. They still bicker and bitch and wrestle for the TV remote and order pizza with toppings the other one hates. Dean still leaves the toothpaste lid unscrewed all the time, Sam still pointedly doesn't wash Dean's socks when they find their way into his bag, and Dean makes no compromises about what's played on the car stereo.

But there are times when they're on a job, standing around in suits or hunched over filing cabinets, that Sam can look at him and just know. It's his secret – their secret – and even when Dean's making some pretty girl laugh or muscling his away across a crowded room, Sam knows where they'll both be that night.

*

They pile on the same bed in South Carolina and watch a nature documentary on PBS. Dean seems to distract himself from the indignity of it by rubbing his knuckles against Sam's ribs, aimless little touches that make his nipples pull tight under the fabric of his shirt.

He catches Dean's wrist after awhile, rubs the bones through the skin.

"Dude, quit distracting me. This is interesting."

Dean snorts, breaking the hold easily. "This is the decline in North American honey bee populations."

He smacks the back of his hand against Dean's stomach. "It's educational."

Dean plants a palm on his chest, swinging a leg over to straddle his hips in one easy, fast movement. He gives him a little grin when he gets there.

They've never done it like this before, bold and obvious and apropos of nothing. Sam's not even sure where it's going at first, and then Dean reaches between them to pull open his jeans.

"You were sayin'?" he smirks.

When Sam looks in the mirror, he sees traces of Dean in himself. There's a family resemblance lurks just under the surface – green eyes and dimpled chins and sharp cheekbones. There are other things, too, though. Learned behaviors, like the toughness he can put on like a winter coat. He wore that so many times when he was eighteen and trying to be independent, a new kid in California. His guiding light for weeks was what Dean would have done. Dean would smile, would crack a joke, flirt a little bit. Dean wouldn't bite his tongue so much, Dean wouldn't let himself become a wallflower. Dean would say, "Here, let me get that for you," and, "A party? Yeah, sure, okay."

He learns new things now, things to add to that collection of Dean knowledge he's accumulated over his life. How he likes to be touched, the words Sam can gasp in his face to get him off fast. The way the muscles in his shoulders all flex and roll when he's leaning in over him, hand jerking. Dean's as patient with him as he was when Sam was a sixth grader who needed help on his math homework, guiding his fingers and murmuring encouragements.

It's a little frightening to realize he knows anyone that well, can get in his skin so easily and still want him in arm's reach more often than not. He used to think it was important for the people in his life to be chosen, for his circumstances to be hand-picked, but that's never been the case with Dean. It's simple physics; the further he tries to get away from Dean, the harder he runs – the harder he crashes right back into him.

*

"That thing," Dean says in Idaho, and breaks off uncomfortably. They've been tracking what looks like another water demon, pounding the pavement all day to find witnesses and family members and death records. Pieces of Sam's suit are still strewn across the bed, haphazard and careless. "That thing you said – about Sarah. How Jessica wasn't the main reason you weren't into her."

Sam drops his manila folder to the bed, and the silence between them seems to stretch for miles. He's been afraid of this ever since they left New York, afraid of things he doesn't even understand yet.

"Dean."

"That wasn't just about the hunt. So what was the main reason?"

He looks away, shakes his head. The air between them feels too tense, and Sam finally lets out an audible huff of a breath.

He knows what he meant when he said it. It was the fact that Dean is that thing to him, the thing that a girl would be – not the sexual release, since that came later, but the connection. He gets what he needs out of this too-close family bond, gets the support and the laughter and the camaraderie. It's fucked up and wrong and bizarre and stupid, but it's the truth, and not the only ugly one in his life.

In some ways it's like everything in Sam's life has come down to this moment. It's do-or-die, a fork in the road, and for once in his life he doesn't want to listen to what his rational brain is telling him to do. There's still a chance to back out of this, and the longer he sits there staring at his hands, the smaller the window of opportunity to laugh the whole thing off gets.

Why can't they have this, he finds himself wondering. Why the fuck can't they take this thing they want, this one reward for so many years of fucked-up misery.

He knows the answer, of course. Maybe it's the voice of John Winchester, the conscience so deeply ingrained that he could chastise himself in his sleep if he needed to. He knows the answer, but he can't make himself believe it, not when it feels like his heart is pulling to pieces.

He can't do anything but look at Dean, open and honest and miserable, and Dean lets out a slow breath, drops his hands on his thighs loudly and stands up.

"Well, hell."

"Don't," he says. "Don't act like this is just me, Dean. You're the one who started this, and you – God, back in Chicago—"

It's a half-formed accusation, and he can't bring himself to completely make it.

Dean grips the front of his shirt and shoves him against the wall in one continuous motion, knocking the wind out of him. They don't say anything for a long moment. Next door, someone throws something at the wall in response to that loud, bone-rattling thump.

Sam pushes him back, shoves him away, but Dean doesn't let him go – he just crowds him up against the edge of the bed and sends him sprawling across it, one knee landing between his legs. Sam's head is reeling as Dean climbs over him, embarrassment and shock thick in his throat, but Dean doesn't waste any time talking. He just shoves Sam's t-shirt up, one hand unbuttoning his pants.

He drags his mouth down his chest, sucks a red spot there on his stomach and doesn't relent until his nose is pressed against the rough swipe of hair below Sam's navel, right above the waist of his jeans.

"Wh – " he starts, but he loses it into a ragged huff of air, incredulous and horrified, as Dean's hands start tugging down the front of his pants. "You can't – Dean—"

"Shut up, Sammy," he mutters, yanking the front of his boxer-briefs down. Sam's cock jerks out and slaps wetly against Dean's cheek, and he almost loses it just like that, just from the rough scrape of stubble against the head. He knows he can't let this happen, but the reality of it starts to slip away from him as Dean's breaths gust hot against his skin.

Cars are coming and going in the parking lot outside, doors slamming and voices muffled in the walkway beyond the door, and in their room, quiet and private, Dean's smearing the head of Sam's cock against his mouth.

Sam stares down at him with a mingling feeling of awe and horror. He's known him his whole life as a brother, a friend – even a parent, sometimes. Knows the stories behind his scars, knows the shape of him as an everyday thing, but he's never looked at him like a total stranger. Never noticed that his eyes are very green, his mouth ruddy and fat and perfect for all the things he wants to do to it.

"Jesus Christ, Dean—" His whole body feels like it's unspooling, the sharp taste of guilt still at the edges of his mind.

Dean only hesitates a moment before sliding his mouth around him, pushing low and deep until Sam's hips stutter upwards into the sweet heat. It's obvious from the first careful sucks that he's never done this before, but that doesn't seem to faze him. His eyebrows knit together determinedly, and his lips drag and his tongue slides until he's got it just right, as close to perfect as it's ever going to get.

Sam grips uselessly at his short hair, running his palms against the sharp grain of it over and over again.

"Yeah," he blurts, not even meaning to. "Oh God – Dean, Dean—"

It's just hearing that name that does him in, and when he comes it's all over Dean's fist and his own t-shirt, body stretching tautly as Dean jerks him through it.

"C'mere," he mumbles, not even letting himself recover before he's dragging Dean up by his shirt. His limbs are slow-moving in the wake of that, hands tugging Dean's jeans open and fingers gripping around his cock. He's done this enough that it comes easy, the blood-thick length of Dean familiar in his hand.

He studies Dean's face in the watery amber light, the shadow of a bruise on his cheek from the last spirit they wasted, the faint lines around his eyes only visible this close up.

He slips his free hand over and drags his thumb lovingly, obsessively over the wet sheen on his plush bottom lip. He can't bring himself to cross that line and kiss him, doesn't want to see the consequences of smashing down that last barrier, but he brings that thumb to his own mouth and tastes it as he jerks him, and Dean shuts his eyes and loses it all over Sam's arm.

They lie there for a long moment, silent and spent, and then Dean reaches up and gives the joint of his jaw an experimental little rub.

He wakes up early the next morning, and nothing's really different. The sunlight that slants in through the curtains is warm on his legs, and if he concentrates he can hear the rattle of semi trucks barreling down the road just a few yards off from the motel.

There's complementary coffee brewing in the motel office, and he gives the woman behind the counter a small smile as he pours some into a Styrofoam cup.

"Sleep well?" she asks, and he laughs a little, dumping in a packet of Sweet 'n Low.

"Like the dead."

He lifts the cup a little as he leaves, some sort of salute as he leans back against the swinging door and lets himself out to the bite of cool morning air.

The sun streaks bright with gold and pink as he sits on the trunk of the car and sips at the coffee. It burns his tongue a little, no matter how much he blows on it, and the stirring breeze makes his skin feel clammy – old sweat weighing down his hair and clinging to his skin under his clothes.

There's a simple feeling stealing around him as he sits there; the same calm resolve he felt when he decided to go to college.

Dean's sitting up in bed when he steps back inside. The gel in his hair sweated out in the night and left it droopy across his forehead. He's sticky with come and sweat, still, but the look he gives Sam is all he needs. Dean can be the most closed off person in the world, but he can also be the most vulnerable, the most willing to admit to what he needs, what he wants, what he can't do.

There's a warm flicker in his face that makes Sam smile easily and hold the cup out.

"Guess we should head out soon."

Dean smiles back, slow but wide, and takes it. "We got time."

 

viii.

It takes nearly three hours to find the pioneer cemetery in Oregon. It's back on a useless piece of farmland in the middle of nowhere, tucked between sloping hills. They have to jump two wire fences with NO TRESPASSING signs and more blackberry bushes than Dean ever thought could exist. Angry little gashes prickle over his hands, tiny droplets of blood smearing as they hack their way through.

The headstones of Thomas and Hattie Phillips are almost completely gone – thin, brittle little slabs of stone set amongst others that only bear small differences.

"Their children all died before age ten," Sam says thoughtfully, crouching down to look at a nearby marker.

Dean can see Sam's breath in the air as he traces his fingers over the faint letters. "You think that's why they're hauntin'?"

One of the oak trees towering overhead – the trunk almost entirely encases one of the small headstones – drips rain down on him, cold as it slips down the back of his neck. Dean hitches his shoulders up disagreeably.

"Maybe," Sam says. "I don't know. Sadness isn't what keeps spirits around."

He touches Sam's back when they're done pushing dirt over the charred remains, and Sam gives him a little smile.

*

The world keeps spinning for no good reason.

A change this fundamental should be more complicated, but this is a simplicity that falls in step with the lives they've created out here on the road. It fills in the cracks between them, the pockets of sadness he'd almost gotten used to.

It's strange that this can happen so quietly, that no one else knows, but that's the Winchester way. Keeping your head down, keeping your secrets.

There's a hunt in Shawnee, a vengeful spirit they have to waste before the next full moon. Sam watches Dean shave in their dingy motel room and then pushes him up against the sink, pins him there with all three inches of extra muscle he's got.

They get a room in Montana for three days, a storm washing out the roads and beating mercilessly on the windows while Sam mouths at him through the fabric of his boxers. He comes too fast, harsh and desperate and pumping out fiercely.

They drive around the heartland, back up into North Dakota and down again, deep into New Mexico. They wander into Arizona, far enough to see the shadows of saguaro on the desert floor but not enough to skirt California.

Shifts in landscapes and fuel prices are replaced by the shifts that happen between them, every new thing done in a cheap motel bed.

Sam sprawls over him one night, dragging their cocks together in the tight space between their stomachs. It's slow and certain and he knows that to anyone outside the tangle of blankets it would look like he's getting fucked – knows that Sam must use that same slow roll of hips to nail girls when he does. They both come like that, fitting together as best they can and burying cuss words against each other's shoulders.

When they're passing through the north again, Sam grips one of his thighs and says, "I want to watch you jerk off."

He grumbles about it at first, but it's not like it's hard to do – not with Sam straddling his knees and watching, eyes dark and fascinated as he slides his fist up and down, squeezing his balls with his other hand. He spatters his load out over his fingers, and then Sam takes ahold of his wrist, brings that hand up to his face and licks a fat smear of come off his ring.

Dean thinks he might lose it all over again.

*

They fuel up in a truck stop on the Kansas border, the sun bright and warm on the back of his shirt and the chrome on the other cars. Wind whips fiercely as Sam shakes the extra foam and water off a squeegee and drags it over the windshield.

"Missed a spot," Dean calls, and Sam grins at him, flips him off. Dean returns the gesture like a salute and climbs out to get it himself.

They're in a place called Mesquite when Sam opens the journal and starts writing. He flips around, filling in the blanks here and there among Dean's scribblings, and Dean sharpens his knives and pretends to not watch.

Dust is heavy in the air at the Honeypot Inn, caught ablaze by the light from the window. It darts between them, unwilling to settle on the blankets or Sam's stomach. He slides his hands over the flat planes of skin, muscles and ribs dents and hills for his fingers to catch on. He's so big now, so much thicker than he was as a kid. The skinny limbs he remembers so clearly, that jabbed him so many times in shared beds and the back seat, have morphed into corded muscle and quiet strength.

Sam tips his face, flushed and happy, against Dean's shoulder.

He's fucked around so much it all runs together in his mind – hundreds of girls with short or long hair, light or dark skin. Blowjobs, handjobs, up against walls, in the back seats of cars. Girls on hunts, girls in bars, pretty and plain and everything in between.

Sam's different, though. He's not going to ever forget this, even if Sam blows the whistle on the whole thing tomorrow. He's going to carry this with him to his goddamn death bed, the smoothness of his skin, the hitches in his breath. The places on Sam's body he's been looking at his whole life and now finally has under his fingers, under his mouth. Kissing that mole between his shoulder blades that he probably doesn't even know is there, petting the stupid hair he won't get cut into something reasonable.

It seems ridiculous that he could have lived his life without ever once wanting this or expecting it. That if it were ever a possibility, it never happened before – not in all the years spent elbowing in on each other's privacy and personal thoughts.

The night before they take off for Daniel Elkins' place in Colorado, Sam sleeps next to him in a ratty gray t-shirt and boxers. It's strange, the way his body seems to remember this.

Sam mutters wetly every now and then, long toes curling against Dean's calf as he dreams. He's practically bent double to get his forehead against Dean's shoulder, and Dean turns his face against the top of his head.

He lies awake for a long time, breathing in the smell of Sam's hair and the cigarette smoke embedded in the walls and curtains from previous occupants. He can feel the pulse in Sam's body where they overlap, a steady rhythm as basic and true as anything he's ever known.

Somehow, completely by accident, he's found what he needed the most.

*

They've been chasing after their dad so long it's started to feel like an endless hunt.

They don't get any word after Chicago, and there are times when it seems like maybe they'll do this for years – getting coordinates and finding jobs on their own, hearing updates once every five months or so. As long as he can remember, they've been searching for answers. Just because there are leads in California, just because there are vague ideas of an end in sight, it doesn't mean anything.

He shows up in their lives again without any explanation, without any transition. One day they're sitting in a library microfiche bay, Dean's knuckles rubbing soothing little circles against the bare back of Sam's neck, and the next they're kids again, taking orders.

"Just like old times," Sam says that night, throwing his duffle bag from the foot of the bed they've been sharing over to the empty one.

"Yeah." Dean looks out the window at their dad, slamming the door shut on his truck. "Just like old times."

It hasn't felt less like old times on this whole insane trip.

There's a part of him that automatically falls in step when he's within ten feet of his father, and that's the part that wins out in his internal struggle. It's the only way he's known to be, drummed into him since he was too young to know any different. He wasn't ever one for rebellion, always knew his place. He remembers the days before they had clear-cut systems for all this stuff; taking orders and not talking back was survival, plain and simple.

In some ways it's like a wake-up call. It's not that his own internal perceptions haven't been running ticker-tape, but this is a splash of cold water right in his face, awareness of the things he's been trying so hard to wish out of reality.

"You did good," John says that first night, while Sam takes a shower. "He looks good. I bet he's got you to thank for that."

"I try to look out for him, Dad."

He gets a little nod, a hand on his shoulder, and he feels so sick to his stomach it's bitter in his throat.

As long as he can remember, Sam's never been entirely convinced of their father's love. It's Dean's own fault for doting on him so much, cutting him so much slack over the years. He knows it for a fact – his own dyed-in-the-wool loyalty comes from knowing what the stakes are at all times. Knowing the odds of a grizzly outcome, knowing when money is down to brass tacks and it's time to cinch belts and start looking for less legal ways to bring home the bacon.

He's spent his whole life shielding Sam from all of that. It was worth bearing more of the burden if Sam could be a kid a little longer, if he had the freedom to not worry about utility shut-off notices and how hard he should cross his fingers that their dad made it home in one piece. He took it all on the chin – put their dad to bed when he hit the bottle a little too hard during a bad phase, handed down clothes that had a few more good years in them just so Sam didn't have to go to school in his own worn-out threads.

It meant having to be be strong enough for the both of them, picking up a lot of extra slack that wouldn't have been there if Sam was the boy Dean had been at eight, ten, thirteen. It meant being his father's partner when it came to hunting, letting the heavy burdens on his shoulders slip over to him for awhile. They had a kind of conspiracy between them, taking care of Sam and taking care of each other.

What Sam never understood, though, is that Dean loved him like that because their dad loved him like that. It was the first and most important lesson on John Winchester's knee – take care of Sammy. Look out for your brother.

Even years after Sam started shaving, they still saw him as the baby. Dean wasn't ever the mean big brother that some kids had. He wasn't a saint by any stretch of the imagination – he teased him plenty when they were younger – but he never raked him over the coals, never wanted to make him miserable.

His life's work was building that kid up, making him a man, making sure he believed in himself and didn't make a move without knowing it was fact. And maybe he succeeded a little too well in some ways, but he's fucking failed in others.

*

They don't get a chance to talk much with their dad around. Even when they're on the road, driving to the vampire nest, that black truck is never out of sight, casting a silent shadow over the both of them.

It's not until the sun goes down that Dean finally says anything.

"This has gotta stop."

"What?"

"This – this thing, Sam." He folds the map over, clenches it in one hand. "I don't know what I was thinkin', letting it go this long. But that's it."

There's a pause.

"This is about him, isn't it?" Sam shakes his head. "Still trying to be Daddy's little soldier."

"You can't tell me this doesn't freak you out a little. How many laws are we breaking here, Matlock? Huh? What did Psych 101 have to say about hooking up with your brother?"

"Jesus Christ, Dean. Why can't you just – "

He scrubs a hand over his face. "Look, maybe this is what we needed. It's been just me and you for way too long now, dude. Maybe we're just – confused, or—"

"Confused?" His tone is incredulous. "I don't feel confused, Dean. In fact, I'm pretty damn clear about things. You're the one who's too afraid to own up to this."

"There's something wrong here, Sam." His voice is loud and sharp over the roar of the engine. "There's something wrong with me, I don't know. But he's—"

"This couldn't be any less about him, Dean. This is about you and me, and that's what it's always been about. Our whole lives, you and me." His chin quivers, but it's not a sad gesture. It's a furious one. "If you can't see that, there is something wrong with you."

"So you don't care, is that it? You're just calling the shots now? If it feels good, do it?"

"Yeah, maybe. Maybe I just don't need to second guess myself to death. I know what I want, Dean." He gives a sharp little shake of his head, voice suddenly thin. "And so do you."

"I'm so goddamn tired, Sam," he says, pinching right between his eyes. He laughs a little, rough and humorless. "Look, some of this stuff is just – I don't know. I've fucked everything up here. Maybe some of this stuff is just goin' a little too far, okay? I mean, sleeping in the same bed? Come on, that's not us."

He expects to get railed at, for Sam's defenses to rise up even further, but instead he just gets a sigh.

*

The three of them collapse in a Motor Inn after taking out the last of the vampires. They get two rooms out of practicality, necessity. Their dad's earned the right to not share a room with his kids anymore, and Sam and Dean have every reason to be used to sharing by now.

It's a long night.

Sam takes the first shower, and Dean lays on his bed and shuts his eyes, thinks about what's happening on the other side of the wall. He's always known Sam inside and out – even when he was living in California, Dean could have told any interested party what Sam's reaction to a situation would be without much margin of error.

He knows different things now, though. What Sam looks like hunching to get under the head of faucets that are always a little too low for him, what the path water takes running down his body, catching in the dark thatch of hair over his dick. He knows the way his skin feels when it's hot and wet, has a pretty good idea what it would be like to get to his knees in that pathetic mildewy shower and suck Sam off while he fucks his mouth, while he tries to grip Dean's hair and then blows his load straight down his throat.

"All yours," Sam says shortly when he finally comes out, and Dean lets out a gutted breath, noisy in the otherwise quiet room. They can't even talk, not with their dad on the other side of the wall.

"I'm good," he says, turning off the lamp next to the bed. He's still in his jeans and boots.

Sam doesn't even hesitate when he drops his towel to pull on sweats, and Dean pretends to fall asleep.

They get breakfast from a local fast-food chain. Dean's used to pretending everything's okay, and it's not hard to shove this new facet of their lives on the back-burner while they sit there in Burger World, elbows on the cold Formica table. He can see kids playing on the red plastic toy in a covered area outside.

Dean and their dad pop the tops off their coffee and Sam picks apart the closest thing this place has to an Egg McMuffin. They fill their dad in on the hunts they've done on their own, the interesting ones and the close calls. They act normal, like a family, and he can almost pretend that they've got the whole thing back on track.

There are a dozen little things that make it obvious they haven't, though – when they finish each other's sentences and pick hashbrowns off each other's trays, when Dean realizes that their thighs are pressed together in a warm line of denim under the table.

It's nothing anyone else would notice or see, but he's got Sam's fingerprints all over him. Sticky and deep and indelible.

*

They stand shoulder to shoulder at urinals in a truck stop bathroom outside Springfield. Their dad's somewhere out in the store, stocking up on jerky and protein bars and the rest of the crap that used to be staples of long distance driving, back when it was the three of them.

Dean studies the graffiti on the wall as he and Sam stand there and piss, more alone than they've been in days. No one's around to see them through moving windows or listen on the far side of walls. The whole room has the empty feeling that public bathrooms always do, hollowed out and desolate.

"I'm sorry," he finally says, tipping his head back a little. Not looking at him.

"This is seriously where you want to have this conversation?"

"I mean it, Sam," he says. "Look, I just – I don't know. After this is done—"

"I know," Sam says. He hits the faucet with his fist and runs his hands under the trickle of water. His eyes don't meet Dean's in the mirror, but there's a little smile on his face. "It's fine."

When he tips his head down like that, Dean can see the nape of his neck, a sliver of tanned skin that he wants to put his mouth on. Instead he wipes his hands on Sam's jacket and lets Sam carelessly elbow him into one of the grimy stalls.

By the time he steps out to the fluorescent lights and the best gas prices in Tennessee, he can almost believe that it is fine.

If it hadn't been for that thing coming for Jess, Sam would be somewhere else. He wouldn't have picked up the phone for God knows how long – months or even years. Maybe Dean would have been invited to the wedding, maybe he wouldn't. Maybe it would have just been him and Dad against the world, even now. No Sam to look for answers with them, no Sam to follow this hot trail, no Sam to save their asses and fuck things up and be the bad son that makes Dean look good by comparison.

It doesn't matter, though.

He's always known that, push come to shove, he would choose Sam. No matter what was on the table, no matter how high the stakes, no matter if Sam wasn't choosing him back. It's like a compass in his life, the weight of what's most valuable that other things can be measured against.

And try as he fucking might, he can't choose between one way of having him and another. There's no answer to that question; it's pointless to look for one. He wants all of him, in every way. Wants as much as Sam is willing to give, as much as he can steal and take and hold onto. Even if it's wrong, even if it's not his to have. He still has to choose Sam.

*

When he gets back to their room in Salvation, Sam's sprawled across his bed, staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

"Heavy flow day?" Dean asks, sympathetic, and drops his keys and list of names on the pressboard table.

His whole body's heavy with a bone-deep weariness, the kind that usually only comes after a night full of fighting. They haven't touched in days, and it's like quitting something cold turkey. A dull ache under his ribcage he can't quite put into words.

"You think we're gonna get it?" Sam says after a long moment. Dean sits on the edge of the bed, and Sam sits up next to him.

"I've always thought we were gonna get it."

The racket of a television is audible through the wall, water-like noises that don't have any definite shapes.

"I had another vision," Sam says quietly.

"You what?"

"Another vision. I saw the demon come for another kid."

"Jesus, Sam. We gotta call Dad."

"Not yet." Sam grabs his arm and holds onto it, fingers tight just above his wrist. They sit there for a long moment, well and truly alone for the first time in days. He can feel the warmth of Sam's skin through their layers of clothes, smell his hair and his sweat and soap on his skin from that morning's shower. Just being that close to him, touching through clothes and knowing that he's there, is both a luxury and the most basic form of comfort he can imagine.

"What are we doing, Dean?"

If he had any answers, any excuses, they ran out a long time ago. He doesn't know what he was thinking, when he looks back at the last month or so. It's his own fault for taking them here, putting everything on the line.

"This thing," he finally says, shaking his head a little. "This ain't easy, Sam. This is all kinds of fucked up, and you and me – we're gonna have to live with that."

"Dean." He sighs and drops his hands to his lap, audible smacks when they hit his jeans. "Let's just deal with this. I don't know what it means any more than you do, but I want it, and I know you want it."

The last part makes his throat feel a little too tight, makes him burn with a funny sense of shame, but he can't argue with it.

"You're looking for absolution, and I get that. I wish I could give it to you. God, I wish I could, Sam." He rubs a hand over his face, breath stale in his lungs, in his throat. "But there's nothing that can make this right. There's no going back from this."

Sam shakes his head and looks away. "I don't want to go back from this. Dean. For the first time – " He breaks off, licks his lips. "After Jessica, I didn't think I was gonna make it. All I wanted to do was lay down and die. But you wouldn't let me. You kept me going. And this – this keeps me going. I want this, Dean. You don't have to keep protecting me."

He swallows thickly, says the only thing he can say. "I'm always gonna protect you."

Sam's face melts into that look of understanding he always gets, gentle and a little exasperated. "I know," he finally says. "But you're not Dad, Dean. You're just my brother. I'm as responsible for this as you are."

A train rolls by somewhere outside, a whistle cutting through the quiet. He's made so many mistakes in his life that he can't start to count them, but he's never been able to stop himself from giving Sam what he wants.

"C'mere," Dean says, even though Sam's the one who pulls him in.

They meet somewhere in the middle, mouths fitting together in a warm, careful press. Sam's lips are dry and warm, chaste at first, but then the silky-wet inside of one catches against Dean's, and all he can do is open up for him.

He pulls in a sharp breath when their tongues touch together, a rough swipe of taste buds and then the sensitive, smooth glide of the underside. It's deliberate and invasive, each sweet flutter and roll, such a stark admission of how far they've come. He never believed it would reach this point, never wanted to let Sam this deep into his heart. It's obvious even as Sam's hands slip up to hold onto his face, though, that he's always been there.

Sam's breath is warm against his cheek as he pulls him down on the ugly orange blanket, and he can feel his heart thudding his chest as they roll over. His tongue finds the spots on Sam's bottom lip that have been worried down by his teeth, licks over the corners that have made all those frowns in this last year. Sam thumbs at his jaw and sucks on his tongue, painting over each of his teeth with slow, deliberate swipes.

They've never done this before, never actually kissed.

It's messy and warm and desperate, but when Sam tosses a leg over his hip and they fit together, it feels perfect.

*

Bobby's place is five hours from their motel room in Salvation, and they drive all the way through the night to get there. The sun rises over the prairie in shades of yellow and pink, too cheerful and too bright.

There wasn't anyone else to call, anyone left who would remember them and not just their dad.

By the time they hit the junkyard the sun's bright on the rusted chrome of fenders and rims, and it's been twenty-four hours since they saw their dad.

Sam grabs his arm before he can get out of the car, one paw-like hand huge and firm on his forearm. He looks at it for a second, looks at him.

Everything in his world feels like it's crashing to the ground, and he knows this should just be another part of it – maybe this is what sparked the whole thing off in the first place.

He can't believe it, though, when he turns and looks at Sam, earnest and tired in the cold sunlight. He's had him for a year now, lived and almost died with Sam in arm's reach when he didn't think it was possible to ever have that again. Sam doesn't even need to say anything, because it's all right there in the heavy warmth of his hand. They're together. In spite of everything, they're together.

When Sam kisses him, it's with the weight of the world thrown into it. A lifetime of smothered emotions and uncertainty set ablaze this way, lips soft and tongue prying, demanding. All he can do is open for it, give it back as best he can.

"We're gonna find him, Dean," he says, and swallows audibly. He's looked like a kid for so long that it's strange to see such grim determination written in his features, calm and collected. He says it like fact, the same thing Dean has said to him so many times before. He believes it, beyond questions and doubt, and that's what makes Dean believe it too. "We'll be okay. I promise."

Dean doesn't look away, not for a long moment, and then he squeezes Sam's knee.

They'll be okay.

 

-fin.