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We Drank a Thousand Times

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October, 2007

They're halfway across Oklahoma when Sam pulls his nose out of the gigantic book he's reading and asks where they're headed.

"East," Dean says, and turns the music up.

Sam reaches out and turns it down again. "I noticed that much, Dean. I was just wondering if we had a specific destination in mind."

"North Carolina."

"Why? What's in North Carolina?"

"It's a stop on the Dean Winchester Farewell Tour of the Lower Forty-Eight," Dean says, just to watch Sam try and fail to hide his bitchface. He grins. "Bobby has a psychic up in DC he wants us to talk to, and I thought I'd stop in and see an old friend while we're on the east coast."

"Who?" Sam asks, and Dean rolls his eyes.

"Nobody." He turns the radio back up. "Touch my tunes again and die, bitch."

They get almost fifty miles in peace and quiet (or Zeppelin and road noises, anyway) before Sam reaches out and turns the cassette player off haflway through "Ramble On."

"Dude," Dean says indignantly.

"Canfield," Sam says.

"What?"

"Canfield. You want to go to Canfield."

Dean shrugs.

"Well?"

"Yeah, so? Is that a problem?"

"No, it's just--" Sam makes a face, shakes his head. "No, that's cool. I just--I mean, we haven't been there since we were kids."

"You mean you haven't been there since we were kids," Dean corrects.

Sam cuts him a sidelong glance. "You have?"

"Couple of times. When you were at college." He leaves it at that. It's not that he's ashamed of it or anything, but Sam will try to be Mr. I-Support-Alternative-Lifestyles, which Dean is so not in the mood for. "He helped me through some rough patches. Jay."

"...right," Sam mutters. His tone makes Dean glance over, but he's turned away, staring thoughtfully out the passenger side window.

"Well, don't smother me with your enthusiasm or anything."

"No. No," and there's definitely something going on behind that puppy-eyed mug when Sam looks back at him. "No, I'm good. Lets go."

Dean reaches out and turns the volume up again, loud as it goes, in time for Robert Plant to belt out "...time to ramble on!"

Sam claps his hands over his ears, and Dean grins for three miles.

***

When they get to the motel that night, Sam pulls out another giant book and flops down on his bed with it while Dean goes out for food, and he's still reading it when Dean gets back. Dean lobs a cheeseburger at his head.

"You don't eat something, you're not gonna have energy for all that exciting studying you're doing. Which, by the way, had damn well better be about our next hunt, and not any skanky bitches who might be hanging around crossroads in the middle of the night."

"Ha, ha." Sam unwraps the burger and grimaces. "Dude, would it kill you to buy food that contains some kind of nutrients once in a while?"

"Hey, if you don't want it, give it here."

"Dean--"

"I don't need another lecture about my eating habits, Sam."

"That wasn't what I--" Sam looks down at the burger in his hands, shakes his head, and for some reason Dean's suddenly getting a really bad feeling about the direction this conversation is taking. "Dean."

"What?"

"You and Jay--"

Oh, fucking fuck. Dean glances up, quick and calculatedly indifferent, then looks back down at McDonald's bag in his lap. "Hm?"

"Were you--when we were kids, that summer we worked at the garage--" Sam's mouth works soundlessly for a second, and Dean takes a huge bite of his burger rather than help him out. "Was he just paying you to fix cars?"

Dean swallows his burger, wipes his mouth, slow and deliberate. "Uh, yeah?"

"So you weren't--"

"Weren't what?"

Sam's head bobs awkwardly. "You know."

Oh. 

"No, Sam. Jesus. He's a good guy, it's not--" He sets the burger down. "It wasn't like that, man. I don't know why you'd think it was."

"Oh," Sam says in a small voice. He's looking down at his hands, and it's like all the pissiness just drained right out of him. It makes him look a lot younger, all of a sudden. "I just. I know you did. Sometimes."

Oh, fuck no. Sam doesn't know that. Sam doesn't know shit about that. That was the only fucking rule. It's not like he did it all that often, and there's no fucking way Sam could have known. Not really. Not for sure.

"Sammy, come on, you really think I'd--"

"I figured it out when I was in college," Sam says, talking right over him. He laughs, a weird, dry little sound. "You always took care of the money, when we were kids. Even when Dad was around, you remember? I never realized--I mean, I was a kid, I didn't think about how much things cost. I didn't work it out."

"Yeah, well, you always sucked at math," Dean says lightly. His chest feels tight, panicky, and he's fighting the urge to deck Sam and run outside, hide in the Impala until this conversation becomes a bad dream. Sam would probably just follow him, though.

"Not that much." Sam sounds sad. "I just know that we'd be down to peanut butter scrapings and the landlord would be riding our asses for rent and you'd disappear for a couple of hours and suddenly we'd have enough to tide us over. And you got picked up in Detroit for soliciting an undercover officer. Back in '94."

It's true, but there's no way Sam should know about that. Even at fifteen, Dean wasn't a fucking moron. He gave them a fake ID. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"I hacked your file. They ran your mugshot through facial recognition software after you hit the FBI's Most Wanted," Sam says, still in that weirdly gentle voice. "It picked up a lot of your old arrests."

Oh, that's just awesome. "So it's some dude who looks like me."

"Dean, I saw the picture."

"Sammy--"

"Why didn't you tell me?"

He gives up. "I don't know, dude, you were eleven."

"I could have helped."

"Right," Dean snorts. "My kid brother hustling the perverts in friggin' Highland Park, that's just what I wanted. We weren't that broke."

"Broke enough for you to do it."

"That's different. It was my--"

"If you say it was your job, so help me God, I will break your nose," Sam hisses. He sounds suddenly furious, but that's okay with Dean. It's a lot better than the kicked-puppy look, anyway.

"You're such a drama queen." Dean scoops a couple of fries out of his bag and pops them into his mouth. Salty, greasy deliciousness. Sam's just staring at him, like he's expecting Dean to have a long-overdue breakdown in this chintzy little motel room with peeling blue wallpaper. "Sam, it was a long time ago, okay? I'm over it."

"You don't do it anymore? You swear?"

Dean rolls his eyes. "Yeah, I swear. Too old, anyway."

Sam's mouth twists at that, but he mercifully doesn't push it. "And Jay--?"

"Man, I'll pinky-swear if that'll make you feel better. Jay never once paid to fuck me." Which is not to say that Jay never fucked him, but that's none of Sam's business. "I just want to have a drink with an old friend. That's all."

Sam stares at him for a long moment, wearing that squinty-eyed expression that makes him look like he's trying to bore through Dean's head with his eyes. Like Cyclops or something. Dean eats another handful of fries, calmly, and Sam finally sighs. "Okay. I believe you."

He says it like an absolution.

"Eat your dinner," Dean tells him.

***

They pack up the next morning without Sam bringing up Detroit again, and in return Dean buys him a coffee and pretends to ignore his mournful little glances.

It's late afternoon by the time they make it to Canfield. Dean drives slowly down the main drag, looking out the windows at a town gone just a little unfamiliar. Lawlers is closed, and there's a shiny new building in place of the tumbledown little post-office. Out of the corner of the eye, he can sense Sam watching him, but they don't speak.

Jay's truck isn't at the shop.

Not a big deal, it's been a couple of years and he could have went and bought a new one. But when he goes inside, there's a new kid he doesn't know working the desk and Jay's nowhere to be found. The kid, a skinny, pimpled dropout with a nametag that reads Stve, shrugs when Dean asks where Jay's at. "I dunno, man. Not here."

"Thanks a lot," Dean says. "You've been a big help."

The door shudders when he kicks it, but he doesn't even think Stve notices. Fucker.

"Is he there?" Sam asks when Dean gets back to the Impala.

"Nope."

"So, uh, what--"

"Gonna head over to Rocky's. See if Marty's around, maybe he'll know what's up."

"Couldn't he just have gone home early?" Sam asks.

"Doesn't sound like him," Dean says absently, putting the car in reverse. Sam doesn't say anything else, but his thoughtful stare gets even more thoughtful. Dean ignores it even harder.

***

Rocky's is still there, a squat brick building perched on the corner of two crumbling streets, gravel parking lot stretched out behind, mostly empty. Sam opens his mouth when Dean parks across the street, but when Dean cuts him a look he seems to think better of whatever it was he was gonna say. Good.

The door opens inward, and the change from light to dark is sudden enough that Dean's left blinking and squinting, which is probably why he walks straight into the solid bulk of a body just inside. The guy stumbles, curses, and shoves him back; it's only Sam's hand on his shoulderblades that keeps him from landing on his ass.

"Shit," Dean says. "Sorry, man--"

"Watch where you're goin'," the other guy snarls and ah, fuck, he knows that voice. Not in a good way. He blinks, willing his eyes to adjust and yeah, sure enough, it's that asshole Earl Dempster, squinting and unsteady on his feet even though it's barely after five.

Age hasn't improved him, but sad to say it looks like there isn't anything wrong with his memory. And, well, Dean's a memorable kind of guy. Sometimes that's a good thing.

Sometimes it's not.

"I know you," Earl says, swaying dangerously where he stands. Dean sighs. Knock the guy on his ass one time-- "You're that cocksucker usta hang around Jay, aintcha?"

Beside him, Dean can sense Sam going aggressively still. He doesn't even have to turn in that direction to know the incredulous scowl that's currently gracing his brother's face, and he kicks Sam's foot warningly before aiming a bright, toothy smile at Earl. "That's me."

Earl hawks, spits a wad of chewing tobacco at the floor. Way classy. His beady little eyes are looking Dean up and down, assessing. Dean isn't worried, wouldn't be even if he didn't have six and a half feet of pissy little brother making disgruntled noises to his left. "Maybe we don't let faggots like you in here no more, you ever think about that?"

"Dean," Sam says quietly, and Dean stomps on his foot again. Harder, this time. 

"Last I checked, it said 'Rocky's' over the door, not 'Dumbshit Inbred Asshole Bar and Grill,' he says to Earl. "But, hey, if you want to take it outside--"

For a minute, it looks like Earl's gonna take the bait. Dean lets his hands curl into fists, stance shifting. Sam makes another small annoyed sound, and Dean watches Earls eyes flicker between the two of them before he finally, reluctantly, steps back.

"Fuckin' queers ain't worth the trouble," he mutters, and spits again. Dean smirks, steps around him to sit down at the bar. The barstools are new, and the moth-eaten moosehead over the mirror is finally gone, but Marty's still there, wiping down a beer mug at the other end with a rag that looks like it might have survived the Vietnam War.

"Dean," Sam says again, and Dean ignores him firmly, lifts a hand to signal Marty.

"Hey, barkeep!"

"Winchester?" Marty says, setting the glass down and bustling over. He's lost what little hair he had and his left eyelid is drooping like an old dog's, but other than that he looks just like Dean remembers. It's a little sad how comforting that is.

Dean smiles. "In the flesh."

"Damn, son. Never thought I'd see you around again."

"Yeah, well, I can surprise you," Dean says cheerfully. Next to him, Sam does a bad job of suppressing a snort. "Don't know if you remember my brother, Sam--"

"Good to see ya," Marty says, holding out one knotted hand.

Sam shakes it. Always the polite little college boy, even when he's broadcasting what the fuck like a freaking radio tower. "Likewise."

"Two Coors?"

"That'd be great," Dean says before Sam can open his mouth, and Sam makes a halfhearted face at the beer when Marty hands it over. "So, uh--"

"Reckon you're here looking for Jay."

"Yeah," Dean says. "We stopped by the garage, but he wasn't there."

Marty nods, slow and thoughful, and picks up another glass to start wiping. "He heads home early often as not, nowadays. Gets tired real quick."

Dean pauses with his beer halfway to his lips. "Yeah? Why's that?"

"Cancer," Marty says, and nods sagely. "Damn shame. Man's had enough pain in his life, if you ask me."

"Yeah," Dean murmurs, stomach dropping down to somewhere in the vicinity of his toes. He looks at the beer in his hand for a minute, then sets it back down. The condensation leaves a cool smear on his palm. "Can't argue that. Shit."

Marty gives him a smile that's a little too knowing. Freaking perceptive bartenders. "You gonna head over there?"

Dean hesitates, but only for a moment. It'd be freaking stupid to drive this far out of his way and then not stop in, anyway. "Yeah," he says finally, sliding out of his seat. 

Sam glances up at him, eyebrows twisting. "Dean, what--"

"Finish your drink, Sammy."

"I could go with you."

"Nah, man, I gotta do this by myself. Finish your drink."

He can see the exact moment when the light dawns in Sam's eyes, when his breath catches and his brows drop and his mouth stutters open, but he doesn't say anything for a long moment. Then, finally, "Okay. I'll meet you back at the motel."

"Don't wait up," Dean says. The idea of coming back to the motel and trying to explain this to Sammy is enough to make him want to cut his own tongue out. With rusty scissors.

Sam shakes his head, leans his elbows onto the bar. "Do I ever?"

Dean smacks his head gently, gives Marty the most sincere smile he can pull onto his face, and gets the hell out of there.

***

He wonders if they can see it, sometimes, the fear of Hell beating itself against the back of his eyes. He thinks maybe not. If they could, they'd stay away, far away from him and his fucked up life and the shithole he drags everybody down into.

Caleb. Pastor Jim. Ash. Ellen's Roadhouse and all those nameless hunters in it. Dad.

Sam. Especially Sam.

If he'd just had the stones to go after Dad by himself, if he'd just left Sammy the fuck alone--

Maybe. And maybe not.

He wonders what Jay's gonna see when he looks into Dean's face.

***

What Jay says when Dean turns up at his house is, "Kid, you look like shit."

"Good to see you too," Dean says, grinning. If he looks like shit, Jay's not doing much better. His hair's light enough that it hides the gray pretty well, always has, but the lines are carved in deeper around his eyes and mouth and he looks like he hasn't slept in a month.

He reels Dean into a hug and it's a little surprising how good it feels. Dean doesn't much care for hugs in general, mostly because he doesn't know many people well enough to let them in close, but Jay's, he's--well, he's gotten in a lot closer than most people who aren't Sam or Dad.

He's lost some weight, but there's still wiry strength in his arms. He still smells the same, motor oil and cigarette smoke and cheap soap. His cheek is rough against Dean's, and they turn, slide into a kiss that feels unhurried, inevitable.

This isn't what he came for, except maybe it is. This is what they are to each other, after all. Somehow.

He pulls away, reaches for a smile and finds half of one. "So, can I come in?"

Jay laughs, and he sounds about as tired as Dean feels. They've both been worn down some by the years, and neither one of them was exactly shiny and new when they met. "Yeah," he says, and pulls the screen door open. "Come on in."

***

It's funny, how damn familiar it feels to have Dean sprawled out in his bed, after all this time. He's got more scars than Jay remembers, a tattoo on his chest and lines starting to write themselves into the corners of his eyes. Ain't more than twenty-nine, if Jay remembers right, but he looks more tired than most guys twice his age.

His eyes are closed, but he ain't sleeping. His mouth twitches into a smile when Jay sits back down on the edge of the mattress with a glass of water and flicks a few droplets at his face. "Hey."

"Good to see you," Jay says.

The smile turns into a full-on grin. "Don't most people get to the social niceties before they start with the fucking?" 

"You complaining?"

"Nah." Dean blinks, opens his eyes. Sleepy green in the low afternoon light filtering in through the blinds; he's always had eyes pretty as a girl's. "You really feel like playing catch-up?"

Jay smiles. "What you been up to?"

"Killing monsters. Running from the law. You know."

"Thought I heard something about that."

"Lies and untruths, every last piece of it." The bed squeaks as Dean rolls onto his side. He ain't so hollow-eyed now as he was when he turned up earlier, but there's still something lost and lonely about his face that wasn't there the last time Jay saw him. "So, I talked to Marty."

Jay snorts. "Man's a gossip."

"Cancer, huh?"

"Looks like." He rolls away to pull a cigarette out of the pack on the bedside table, lies down on the tangled-up sheets to light it. Dean's eyes follow the motion, lazy in the dim light.

"You think it's really such a hot idea to be smoking?"

"Ain't like it's gonna make a difference now." The smoke burns his lungs and throat, the taste of it familiar ashes on his tongue. The doc would have a shit-fit, but Jay mostly don't bother with him. 

"Yeah, I guess." Dean holds out his hand for the cigarette and after a hesitation Jay passes it over. The cherry glows red as he takes a drag, illuminating his shadowed face for a second. "How long they give you?"

"Year, maybe two. Guess we'll see."

"That sucks, man," Dean says quietly. "I'm sorry."

For a minute it looks like he's gonna say something else, but whatever it is stays behind his teeth and like always, Jay don't ask.

***

Dean leaves about an hour shy of midnight. He don't take coffee this time, but he does hug Jay on the doorstep, presses in close, chest to belly to hip, strong arms tight around Jay's back. He didn't bother showering before he got dressed again, and Jay can smell sweat and sex musk over the faint tang of smoke that always clings to Dean, like he lived in the fire long enough to brand its scent into his skin.

"I'll see you around," Dean says when he pulls away. He ain't smiling, and that's the first time it's ever really sounded like 'goodbye.'

***

There's light coming in through the curtains when Dean pulls the Impala up next to their room, and he grimaces. Of course Sam couldn't have the decency to pretend to be asleep. He's got sex hair, hickeys, and he smells like a freaking brothel. Maybe he should have showered back at Jay's place, but--

Fuck it. Not like Sam couldn't figure out what he went over there for. Not like he's ashamed of it.

When he gets inside, Sam's slouched on the bed nearest the window in a pool of dusty lamplight, another one of Bobby's books open on his lap. He slaps it shut when Dean comes into the room, which means dollars to donuts he's poking around in something he shouldn't be.

Dean opens his mouth to tell him off, then shuts it again. Sam's looking him up and down, thoughtfully. It makes Dean feel itchy and too big for his skin. "See something you like?" he asks. It comes out brittle and sharper than he means it to.

Sam shakes his head, face softening. "You're such a jackass," he says gently.

"Yeah, whatever." His voice sounds more normal, so he backs it up with a smirk and reaches for the bathroom door behind him. "I'm taking a shower. You better get your beauty sleep, Sasquatch."

"Dean--"

The doorknob's in his hand and he backs into the bathroom, away from his brother's understanding stare. "I mean it. I wanna head out early tomorrow, and I'm not waiting on your lazy ass."

The door swings shut on Sam's sigh.

When he gets out of the shower, the lights are off and Sam's stripped down to t-shirt and boxers, face mashed in his pillow. He's not sleeping, Dean can tell, but he doesn't say anything when Dean pulls on a pair of old sweatpants and faceplants on his own bed.

***

"We could stop by before we leave."

Dean shifts his coffee to his other hand to dig the keys out of his pocket and unlocks the Impala. "What?"

"To see Jay." Sam's stirring his own coffee with way more concentration than the task really requires. "If you want."

Oh, Christ, here they go with the sharing and caring. It's way too fucking early for this. "Sam, we got five hundred miles to go and I'd like to get to D.C. before dark if it's all the same to you." He drops into his seat and reaches across to open the passenger side door. "Come on."

Sam slides into his seat and pulls the door shut behind him, still staring into his coffee like it holds the secrets to the universe. He glances up when Dean turns the engine on. His expression isn't quite irritated enough to be a full-on bitchface, but it's not far off. "Dean, you don't have to-"

"Dude, seriously. Can it," Dean says, and pops the first tape he can lay his hands on into the cassette player. Black Sabbath. Sam groans and drops his head back, and Dean grins as he pulls out onto the entrance ramp. The sun's not quite over the hills behind them, drawing the long black shadows of trees across the highway as Canfield fades in their rearview mirror.

Sam gives it almost an hour before he reaches out to turn the music down. Dean heaves an enormous, put-upon sigh, which is summarily ignored. "Dean."

"What, Sam?"

"I just want to--" Sam makes a frustrated little noise, and when Dean glances over at him he's wearing an expression of combined sympathy and aggravation that kind of makes him look constipated. "I know you haven't had a lot of opportunities for, you know. Normal."

"So, what, you figure I missed out on my chance for the rainbow pride version of the white picket fence?"

"That's not what I meant," Sam says.

Dean snorts and taps the accelerator, savoring the low engine rumble as they crest the top of the hill. It's too cold to leave the windows open, especially at seventy-five miles an hour, but the glass has a kind of greenhouse effect with the sun this bright, and the coffee was strong enough to make him twitchy. And Sam won't stop. Fucking. Staring.

"It wasn't like that," he says finally. "Okay? Me and Jay, it wasn't like that. It was--even if I wasn't a hunter, we never would have--" He shrugs, eyes carefully ahead. "It was just a thing, okay?"

"That's--wow." Sam huffs out a laugh. "I think that's actually even more depressing."

Dean smiles, reluctantly. "Hey, you asked."

"I'm sorry, man," Sam says, all sincere puppy eyes, and Dean sighs. It wasn't like he was expecting Sam to freak out about this whole thing, but in a lot of ways that might have made things easier. This kind of sympathetic understanding is really more than he can handle.

"It's no big deal. He's got his life, I got mine."

Jay has Mae and her daughters, his shop to take care of, a little house on a couple of acres of green land. He has a life, and Dean isn't a part of that. Not really.

"Dean," Sam's voice is gentle. "You know I don't--"

"Seriously, man," Dean says. The last thing he needs in his life right now is Sam trying to give him the PFLAG speech. "Drop it, okay?"

He turns Ozzy back up, and Sam sighs, and that's that.

***

May 2008

He comes home from the shop early on a Monday afternoon, half-minded to just sleep the rest of the day away. Gets so damn tired lately, like his body's slowly forgetting how to be itself, and even the heavy-duty shit they give him nowadays don't quite keep the pain at bay. Mike's got the shop in line, anyhow.

He ain't got more than half a brain left in that junkie head of his, but he's a fine mechanic. He'll look after things when the time comes.

There's a missed call blinking on the answering machine. Dean's number. And a message, which definitely ain't normal. Dean ain't called him since he stopped in last fall, and he never leaves messages.

He pushes the button while he's setting his keys and wallet down on the table, and the young, unmistakably drunk voice that fills his kitchen definitely ain't Dean's.

"Hey. Jay. It's Sam. Sam Winchester. I guess you probably don't remember me--" a snort that sounds almost like a sob, and Jay feels like his stomach just dropped down to his boots all of a sudden. "Anyway. I know you guys were--I don't know what the fuck was goin' on, but you were friends. Or something. It's just. Dean's dead. He's--it was--anyway." Softer, small and raw, he adds, "Just thought you should know."

The message cuts off, and Jay closes his eyes, remembers the shadows living in Dean's face the last time he was here, the sentences he wouldn't quite finish, and thinks maybe he should have known right then.

Could be any number of things. It's a dangerous gig; easy to tell that much just from the scars Dean had written across his skin. Lotta bad things lurking out there, and every hunter meets his match sooner or later.

Somehow, though, Jay don't think that was it at all.

His shoulders feel like something dropped a couple tons of lead on them and his chest is aching, but he already knows he ain't gonna get to sleep now. Instead, he takes his truck out and drives with the radio off until the sky is dark and all he can see is the double yellow beneath his headlights. There's a part of him that wants to stop somewhere and howl at the sky, punch a tree, drink himself to a stupor, but it ain't like it'd make any difference. Ain't a sorrow he has any real right to, after all. You can't lose something that was never really yours to begin with.

He drives all night. When the sun slips pale and yellow into the edge of the sky, he stops at a gas station in a town he don't recognize to buy a cup of coffee and three packs of cigarettes. Then he turns around and starts heading home.

He chain-smokes all the way back.

***

January, 2009

He sleeps more than he's awake these days, or drifts in the space between sleeping and waking. Mae comes in with Missy around late morning. She's gone and got tall, taller than her big sister, and Mae just looks old. Her lips are soft and cool when she leans in to kiss his forehead and promises to come back tomorrow. She looks so sad that he wants to tell her it's okay, but he's already sinking back into a hazy darkness.

Next time he opens his eyes, there's a ghost standing over his bed, watching him with haunted green eyes.

Ain't the ghost he was hoping to see, maybe, but Keith's been gone a long while now. If he was gonna come haunt Jay, he would have done it by now.

"You don't look so good," the ghost murmurs.

"Don't feel so good," Jay whispers hoarsely. "You're dead. Sam called."

"Nah," Dean says. "Not anymore."

That makes about as much sense as Dean ever did. Jay finds he don't much mind. Ghost or no ghost, it's good to have a little company here at the end. "Reckon I'll be setting up housekeeping in Hell soon enough."

"Don't say that."

He sounds so fierce, so bright and alive that Jay can't hardly look at him. Hard to look at anything, the way the drugs make his head all fuzzy, and his eyes slide away from Dean, across the pale walls soaked with sunlight. There's a vase of flowers by the window. He thinks maybe Nellie left it the last time she came by. She's still working at the hospital. Pediatrics, not the cancer ward, but she visits when she can. Most mornings after her shift.

He don't know how long he drifts, but when he looks back, Dean's standing closer. He looks too old, and there are scars written deep behind his smile. Still too damn beautiful for this world.

Jay fumbles his fingers out from under the covers, reaches across the stretch of bedspread. His limbs feel heavy these days, weak and useless. Hard to remember the shape of a gun in his hands, the smell of motor oil, the coiled danger of the hunt. That's how he'd have gone out, if he had a say, but the world ain't kind enough to let a man choose his own end, most times.

Dean's fingers curl around his, warm and strong. Almost like being alive again.

"I'm sorry about this," he says in a low voice. "This--this fucking sucks."

"Don't have to tell me that," Jay mumbles.

"Yeah, I guess not." He squeezes Jay's hand, hard enough to hurt, but Jay don't try to pull away. Damn crazy kid looks guilty, of all things. "Still. Wish there was something I could do."

Jay smiles. "There is, if y'all don't mind breaking into my place."

Dean almost smiles back. "Never did mind a little B and E."

"Got a fine old M1911 in the bedside table," Jay murmurs. "It was my daddy's, back in 'Nam."

"Jay, I'm not bringing you a goddamn gun."

It's almost enough to make him chuckle. "Ain't asking you to. I want you to take it. Nellie don't like guns and Mae ain't allowed to own one. I got nobody else to leave it to."

"There's a sad commentary," Dean mutters, and that does make him chuckle.

"Yeah, I reckon."

Dean's quiet for a minute, and Jay just watches him. He don't look much like the cocky teenager who hustled pool at Rocky's all those years ago. Got a few years on him now, some wear and tear, but he's still standing and that's what matters, in the end.

"Yeah, okay," Dean says finally. "I'll take it." 

His mouth curls into a lopsided half-smile that makes Jay smile back at him, hazy and slow. His eyelids are drooping shut again. So fucking tired. "Glad I met you, kid."

"I'm not your damn kid, Jay," Dean grumbles, but his fingers shift and grip tighter. The pressure is like an anchor. "I'm glad I met you too."

***

He drifts for a long time after Dean leaves. There ain't no pain. There's never any pain, all the shit they pump into him these days. He watches the shadows of the sun slide down the wall into dark, ignores the orderly when she comes in to straighten up. 

Around sunset, there's a strange, dark-haired man in a long coat standing by the window. His eyes are a shade of blue that Jay can see even in the gloom, and the room smells like a summer storm.

They stare at each other for a long while, and then Jay blinks and he's gone.

***

The moon's painting shadows across his bedsheets when he wakes up again. His mind's clearer than it has been in weeks, and when he sucks in a startled breath it comes easy.

"Hello, Jay."

She's standing at the foot of his bed, a pretty little thing with ancient eyes and a short cap of dark hair framing her face.

Jay ain't had the strength to sit up on his own for a while now, but he don't even realize he's moving until he's standing barefoot on the cool tile floor. His limbs feel light, easy and loose in a way they haven't since before Kuwait, but he don't spare more than a second to notice that. "What the hell are you?"

The fact that he's asking what and not who probably tells something about the effect Dean Winchester's had on him. She don't make a move, but there's something about her, something other, that makes his palms itch for a weapon.

"My name is Tessa. I'm a friend of Dean's." She pauses, smiles suddenly, sweet and strange. "Well. Friend is probably too strong a word, but we know each other."

"That so?"

"Yes." Now she's stepping forward, one hand out. "Jay, it's time to leave. You have people waiting for you."

"What the hell are--"

His leg hits the bed and he looks down, reflexively.

Somehow, he ain't even surprised to see himself lying there like a skeleton under the cheap yellow blankets. Head turned into the pillow, face slack, hands curled like dead spiders against his chest. Which ain't moving.

"What the everloving fuck is this?" he whispers, like he don't already know. Hard not to, standing here and looking down at his own withered body. Christ. He looks a thousand years old.

"You know what it is," Tessa says gently.

 "Yeah. Yeah, I guess I do." He barks out a raspy laugh, looks up at her. "So, this is how it goes?"

"Yes." She cocks her head, studying him. "You're less argumentative than he was."

"Reckon there ain't much I can do about it now," Jay says, staring down at his own corpse.

"No," Tessa says. "There isn't."

She don't sound sorry, but there ain't any meanness in it either. Just the facts, ma'am. Jay can live with that. So to speak. "Friend of Dean's, huh?"

"Acquaintance," she says, and holds out a hand to him. "It's a long story."

Maybe he'll hear about it on the other side.  

He takes her hand, and the world slides gently away from him.

***

Nellie's the one to call him that night, even though they hardly know each other. She's crying. It isn't a long conversation.

Afterward, Dean flips the phone shut, sits down on his bed, stares at the stained-plastic coffee maker on the dresser across the room, and waits for Sam to come back.

It's after three in the morning when he does, humming with a freakish and unnatural energy the way he always does after he's out with Ruby. His pupils are blown and he smells like sex and Dean can vaguely recall a time that would have made him grin and jab and mock.

"Hey," he says instead.

Time was, Sam would have heard all the ways he can't hide how tired he is, how fucking depressed. Time was, Sam would have given a shit, but now he just plops onto the bed and starts untying his shoes, motions too-fast and jerky in a way that makes Dean queasy. "Hey, man. Did you go see Jay? How's he doing?"

He doesn't know. Can't know, but the easy casualness of the question sparks off a violent surge of anger. "He's dead," Dean snaps, and reaches out to twist the knob of the bedside lamp off, hard, throwing the room into darkness.

Sam makes a sound in the back of his throat that's somewhere between concerned and exasperated, and Christ, Dean never thought he'd actually miss Sam's attempts at playing amateur psychologist. He rolls away onto his side, facing the window. It's drizzling outside, the slick pavement shining under the streetlamp. 

"I'm sorry," Sam murmurs after a couple of minutes, and for a wonder it actually sounds like he means it.

Something unclenches a little in Dean's chest. "Yeah, whatever," he says, rolling back toward Sam. His brother is a silent, broad-shouldered shadow in the dark room. "Get some sleep."

"Not really tired."

"Get some sleep anyway."

Sam sighs, but doesn't argue. The bed creaks as he lays back, and Dean closes his eyes and focuses on the sound of Sam's breathing, the rustle of his clothes and the clink of change in his jeans as he kicks them off, little mundane noises to drown out the echoes of Hell.

Sometimes, it even works.

***

They swing by Jay's house early the next morning. Dean drives, and Sam sits in the passenger seat, radiating disgruntled confusion.

Jay's truck is still parked by the house. One tire is flat, and there's a spiderweb laced between the side mirror and the radio antenna.

"You going to tell me what we're doing here?" Sam asks.

Dean pulls in next to the truck and cuts the engine. "Jay asked me to take something."

"I thought you said he--"

"He was awake for a little while when I was there," Dean says. He wants to snap, but it's hard to find the energy, remembering Jay lying there in that hospital bed like he was already three-quarters of the way in his grave. Sometimes, death's a mercy. He knows that but still, Jay was always--he wasn't exactly a bouncy kind of guy, but he always had a tension to him, a ready stillness that Dean liked. It was just--weird, seeing that gone.

And now he's gone, too. It would be nice to be able to say gone to a better place, and believe it. Gone to a better place than Dean went, anyway. He can believe that much.

"Then how did you know? I mean, that he died. The hospital didn't have your number, did they?"

"Nellie called me, okay? Last night, while you were, you know. Out."

If Sam notices the snideness in that remark, he ignores it. "Nellie?"

"Mae's daughter. You remember," except Sam obviously doesn't. That was kind of Dean's gig, anyway. He opens the door and steps out onto the packed gravel driveway. On the other side of the Impala, Sam does the same. "You can wait here," Dean adds. "I'm not gonna be long."

"I'll come with you."

Dean shrugs. "Whatever."

"So, what are you taking, anyway?"

"His dad's service pistol. He wanted me to have it." That means something, Dean knows, and not just that Jay didn't have anybody else to leave it to. Hell if he knows what, though.

Sam shakes his head. He looks big, silhouetted against the rising sun, a little out of place for some reason Dean can't place. He's only been in Canfield once since he was a teenager, hasn't seen Jay in years. Barely knew him, really.

It's funny, to remember that there are huge chunks of Dean's life that Sam wasn't there for. 'Course, if he'd been there, maybe they wouldn't have happened at all. 

"So, we're breaking into your boyfriend's house to steal a gun. That's classy."

"He wasn't my boyfriend," Dean says absently, digging his picks out of his pocket. "And anyway, he told me to take the gun."

Sam shakes his head, clearly unconvinced. "You never told me--"

"Nothing to tell." He takes the sagging steps two at a time. The lock's old and cheap, and it takes him all of ten seconds to get it open.

It's musty inside, but not as bad as he thought it would be. Probably Nellie or Mae came by to air the place out every once in a while. The lingering smell of tobacco is still there, though, sunk into the furniture and the curtains through the years. Cigarette smoke and dust, hanging golden in the air where the sun comes in.

The couch is new. Newer, anyway. Looks like Jay finally got around to replacing the torn-up wallpaper over the kitchen table. On top of the TV, there's a framed photo of Nellie in her graduation gown, arm around her little sister.

It's cheap, bare, and not all that clean, but even after all these years it's familiar. Comfortable. 

Sam shuts the door gently, and when he speaks again his voice is quieter, less combative. "You never really told me. About you and Jay."

Dean shrugs with one shoulder, runs his thumb along the top of the TV, picking up dust. "We were..."

He doesn't really know how to explain it. Lovers just sounds fucking stupid, in addition to not really being true. Fuckbuddies, he guesses. Friends, definitely.

He settles on, "Well, you know," even though Sam doesn't.

"Okay," Sam murmurs. "Okay, Dean."

Dean rolls his eyes. "Wait here."

"I could--"

"Wait here, Sam."

"Okay," Sam says again, unusually subdued.

***

The bed isn't made. The sheets are rumpled, dollar-store blue cotton, and the floorboards creak under his boots. There's another picture on the low dresser, the only other one in this house that's framed. He's seen it before. Inside the cheap gilt frame, two guys are sitting on the front step of a run-down trailer with a huge blue sky spread out behind them, knees bumping, heads canted together, casual and intimate in a way that Dean recognizes from the old pictures of his parents.

He doesn't know the lanky guy with glasses and a huge grin, but the other guy is Jay. Years younger than Dean ever knew him, hair cropped military-short and posture easy. Smiling. 

There's dust on the glass, and Dean uses the hem of his t-shirt to clean it off.

The bedside table is the same one that was there the first time he spent the night here. Scarred yellow wood, and the drawer creaks when he pulls it open. Jay used to keep condoms and lube in here, but he must have cleaned that shit out before he checked himself into the hospital. So as not to traumatize Nellie, probably. Or maybe Mae tossed it, who knows.

Anyway, no sex supplies in there now. Just an old M1911 .45 with a deep scratch on the barrel sitting on top of a pile of junk mail and expired receipts. Dean pulls it out, tries the weight of it. It fits well, rough acrylic grip warming to his hand.

There's a photo sitting under the gun. An old snapshot, fuzzy and faded and bent at the corners, and somehow Dean isn't even that surprised to see his own face looking back out of it. Jay hung onto that picture. He doesn't know how he's supposed to feel about that.

Christ, he's turning into such a chick these days. It's just a fucking photo. 

Still, he slips it in his pocket before tucking Jay's father's gun into the waistband of his jeans. Not like Nellie or Mae are gonna have any use for it, after all. He slides the drawer shut and then, somehow, finds himself sitting down on the edge of the mattress, staring blindly at the crooked shades on the window across from him. 

It's gusting damp wind outside, but the air feels heavy and still in here. Too full of everything he never knew how to talk about, all the shit Jay never made him say. Six years of coffee for the road in plastic cups. Fuck.

"Dean?" Sam says quietly from the door.

Dean rubs a hand over his face, shakes his head sharply. "Yeah. I'm good."

He pulls his game face on before he turns back toward where his brother is waiting, and if it's a little ragged around the edges, Sam doesn't mention it. He looks concerned, all earnest puppy-eyes, and that's almost enough to make Dean smile. "Was there anything else--"

"I'm good," Dean says again, and pushes himself to his feet. "Let's go."

He locks the door again on his way out, presses his palm against the battered metal for a moment before following Sam back to the Impala.

***

Leaves are falling all around, it's time I was on my way.
Thanks to you, I'm much obliged for such a pleasant stay.
But now it's time for me to go. The autumn moon lights my way--
For now I smell the rain, and with it pain, and it's headed my way.
Sometimes I grow so tired, but I know I've got one thing I got to do--
-Ramble On
Led Zeppelin