Dean stayed another day, just long enough to check Sam out of the hospital and get him back to his dorm room, make sure he was really on the mend. When Sam woke up on the morning of May 2, Dean was gone. Sam could feel it like a missing piece of himself, like a hole deep inside that had re-opened after being temporarily filled by Dean's presence. Brady was already up, getting ready for class, and when he saw Sam's eyes opened he grinned.
"Hey, birthday boy," he said. "How're ya feelin'?"
"'S not my birthday," Sam croaked out, his voice still hoarse and sore.
"Yer brother says it is," Brady said with a shrug. Sam could see Brady talking to Dean in Brady's mind, could hear his surprise and relief when he realized the guy in the picture in Sam's wallet really was Sam's brother. "He left you this."
Brady tossed an envelope onto Sam's bed and Sam picked it up gingerly, striving to imagine Dean's fingers on the paper, hoping there was some residual presence, maybe just an after-image. He opened the envelope, pulled out the folded sheet of motel stationery, read the note, printed in Dean's careful block lettering.
"The day you were born is probably my happiest childhood memory," Dean had written. "Now look what a gigantic freak you turned out to be! Ha ha! Happy birthday, little brother."
Sam read and re-read the note several times, imagining Dean writing and rewriting it, trying to get the balance of humor and sentiment, deliberately emphasizing the sibling relationship. Only in our family could that insistence on the brother-bond represent a denial of closeness instead of a celebration of it, Sam thought bitterly. Dean's embrace of their sibling status was more painful to Sam than it should be. He had always wanted Dean to accept Sam as his brother; he'd wanted that since the first day they met, and it was only the harshest of ironies that the reality of their sibling bond fell so short of what Sam had hoped for. Rationally, Sam knew it was good that Dean had come to terms with what had happened between them. Instead of rejecting Sam entirely, Dean clearly wanted a relationship, wanted to go forward as brothers. That this wasn't enough for Sam was something Dean obviously hoped Sam would get past someday.
Yet after struggling with his grief and missing Dean for all these months, seeing him again only made Sam's feelings that much stronger, brought the reality of Sam's desperation into sharper relief. He would always be in love with his brother, and nothing could change that. Maybe in time Sam could learn to control those feelings, could keep from throwing himself at Dean's feet and begging for something Dean couldn't – or wouldn't – give him. But he would never, ever stop loving Dean. He knew that now, now that Dean had come back into his life, now that he had set the boundaries and limitations of their relationship going forward. Sam was relieved, or at least he felt he should be relieved, that Dean had found a way to deal with his own feelings, that Dean had decided that he could manage to keep Sam in his life as his brother, at least. Now it was up to Sam to find a way to handle his feelings so that he and Dean could have a relationship on the terms Dean was offering. A post-romantic, platonic, brotherly relationship might not be Sam's first choice, but he knew he could adjust if he could just make himself accept that it was all he could get. And it sure beat the alternative, because the thought of not having Dean in his life at all was just too horrible for Sam to contemplate.
Once Sam had worked things through in his head, he got back to work. He'd been sick for two weeks, missed a lot of classes, but most of his professors seemed amenable to letting him catch up, as long as he could pass his exams. Sam threw himself back into his studies, pulling late nights at the library, going back to his usual routine. He still avoided sleep and the inevitable disturbing dreams that came with it, but even those were less harrowing than before. Dean's visit had taken some of the anxiety out of Sam's deepest thoughts; he no longer worried that Dean would never want to see him again, and just that knowledge helped to relieve his misery. He found it easier to let his mind wander, to relax around his classmates, to return the hopeful smiles of his dorm mates. Sam even found he didn't mind Brady so much; the guy's infatuation with him stopped being quite so annoying, even started to feel kinda nice. Brady was a good-looking guy, obviously didn't have any trouble getting a date if he wanted one, and his desire for Sam's attention could be flattering sometimes, not merely onerous. Sam found himself smiling at Brady's jokes, minding his company less and less as the school year wound down.
Brady noticed. With summer break looming closer, he seemed to be amping up his attempts to get Sam to notice him. And after almost a year of living together, Sam was so used to Brady's flirtations it almost didn't register anymore. So when Brady finally convinced Sam to hang out with him and a group of classmates one night after exams, getting Sam good and drunk so that they staggered back to the dorm together, Sam wasn't too surprised when the inevitable happened and Brady kissed him, up against the back of the door in their room, before they'd even made it to the bed. What surprised Sam was that he let it happen, let the first tentative press turn into an open-mouthed plundering, let Brady shove his hands up under Sam's shirts and rub his nipples, then slip one hand down between his legs to press against Sam's hardening dick. It felt comfortable, if not familiar, and in his inebriated state Sam told himself it couldn't hurt, that he and Brady were friends so they could trust each other, and it was better than sex with strangers because at least they cared about each other. And when Brady dropped to his knees, unzipped Sam's jeans and took Sam into his mouth, swallowing him down like a pro, Sam tipped his head back against the door and closed his eyes, imagining Dean's mouth, Dean's hands on his hips, cupping his balls, Dean's fingers slipping up his crack to his hole, shoving the tip of one dry finger past the tight muscle. Sam gasped and came hard then, shoving his hands into Brady's hair, longer than Dean's but not as soft, not really familiar at all.
He must've passed out then, because he woke up later on his bed, most of his clothes off, Brady naked and stretched out on top of him, mouthing at his jaw, rubbing himself off on Sam's hip. Sam waited till Brady came, till his orgasm was done, before Sam pushed him off, not ungently, and stumbled to the bathroom to throw up. Afterwards he showered, brushed his teeth, pulled on the sweatpants he had managed to grab on his way to the bathroom, and stumbled back to the room to collapse on the other bed. Brady was snoring, completely passed out on Sam's bed, and Sam lay on Brady's bed for a while, trying to get his head to stop spinning, trying to remember if he had encouraged the sex or just let Brady have it with him.
Either way, it wasn't something Sam could allow to continue. When he woke up again with Brady pressed alongside him, Brady's hand stroking his chest and Brady's lips pressed against Sam's shoulder, Sam pushed him away, struggling to sit up without hurling again.
"No, no, I can't – Brady, stop." Sam managed to slip off the bed, back up against the door, palms up in front of him.
"What's the matter, Sam?" Brady frowned.
"I can't do this with you," Sam said, shaking his head.
Brady smirked, and Sam could hear him going over what had happened between them last night, in his head. "Looks like we already did, Sam," he drawled. "Seems to me you were pretty willing to let me suck you off. I don't remember having to force you to do anything you didn't want to."
"No, no, I know," Sam shook his head again. "I'm not saying that. It's just – I'm sort of already involved with somebody."
The moment the words were out there, Sam felt a rush of power. It was true. He and Dean were bonded, for life, and nothing and no-one would ever come between them. Not really. They both owed it to every future potential partner to tell them, to let them know what they were up against.
Brady's reaction was almost comical. He raised his eyebrows, stared silently at Sam for a moment, then shook his head.
"No way," Brady said. "You've been living with me all year, Winchester. You never go anywhere, never talk to anyone on the phone, spend every night on that stupid tiny bed of yours...No way. There's nobody else; I'd know it."
Sam closed his eyes, let out a sigh, opened them again. "We're separated," Sam said. "It's a long story. But the thing is, you should know I'm still in love with him. I can't really be with anyone else."
"So what, did we just cheat on your boyfriend? Is that what this was?" Brady was hurt, Sam could feel it.
Sam lowered his head to his chest, sighed again. He could feel Brady staring at him, could hear his brain working through the problem.
"He doesn't even know, does he?" Brady demanded finally. "He thinks he's free, thinks he managed to dump you. You're holding a torch for some guy who doesn't even love you anymore."
Sam felt his jaw clench of its own accord, felt his hands curl into fists without even thinking about it, and when he lifted his eyes to look at Brady, he could feel the heat building in his head, just behind his eyeballs.
"It's not like that," Sam said, and he could hear the snarl in his own voice. "You don't understand."
Brady swung his legs over the side of the bed, reached for his boxers, tugged them on with a grimace before facing Sam, pulling himself up to his full height.
"What I understand, Sam, is that you're still hung up on some guy who could care less about you anymore, and you can't stop pining for him." Brady let out a short sigh. "I get that, I really do. I was in love with my high school English teacher for two years. The guy never gave me the time of day, never encouraged a thing, but I couldn't stop wishing. Couldn't stop wanting. I get it."
Sam shook his head. "This isn't like that," he said through gritted teeth. "This is different."
"Sam, you're nineteen years old," Brady reminded him. "How can you know? You and me – we've got our whole lives ahead of us, man." He stepped closer, right into Sam's personal space, and Sam tried not to flinch, tried not to back away. "Come on. Give it a shot. Give us a shot. It'll be fun, I promise. I'm not that demanding. We're both serious students, we like being roommates, we're already best friends, this is just the next logical step. What'd'ya say? We'll go slow if you want, I'll take it at your pace."
Brady reached for Sam's hands, still clenched into fists, and took the last step so that their chests would've been touching if Sam hadn't stepped back, putting his hands up.
"I can't," he breathed out, not looking at Brady, not quite able to meet his eyes. "I'm sorry, Brady, I really am. But I just can't."
Sam could feel Brady's disappointment, the pain of Sam's rejection like a slap, and he almost felt sorry for the guy. He'd been holding out for Sam all year, hoping this last ditch effort before summer break would finally get him what he wanted, but Sam had just dashed his last hopes, and it hurt. Brady was used to getting what he wanted, had always been top of his class, apple of his mother's eye, and he wasn't used to rejection. Didn't like to take no for an answer.
"Huh," he said now, backing away just a little, but still standing too close. "Okay, well, you think about it, then. You just give it some thought. I can deal with that."
"Brady – " Sam started to say that no amount of time or consideration would make any difference, that it would be useless for Brady to think that Sam could ever love anyone else, and that Brady shouldn't take it personally.
But he could see the determination in Brady's face, could hear his thoughts rearranging themselves, finding a way to ease his own sense of failure. Sam sighed, shook his head a little, and decided to let it go. If Brady needed to believe Sam might change his mind, just to salve his own ego, well okay. Sam could live with that. He didn't want Brady badgering him, but he didn't want to destroy the guy, either. Because despite the fact that Brady's crush on him had been a bit annoying, Sam had to admit he'd appreciated Brady's friendship. Thinking about Brady and his problems had managed to take Sam's mind off his own often enough over the past year for Sam to be grateful for the distraction, at the very least.
The rest of the week before summer break was a little awkward, and the day everyone had to move out of the dorms was pretty chaotic. When Brady's father arrived to pick him up, Sam was able to shake his hand, then give Brady a quick hug as he helped load Brady's stuff in the back of the pick-up truck. Brady had invited him to come spend the summer on the farm, assuring Sam that there was always honest work to be done there, but Sam had declined, pretending he already had a job lined up "back home" in South Dakota. As he watched the pick-up drive away toward the highway and their long drive back to Eastern Washington, Sam breathed a sigh of relief.
Then the reality of Sam's situation hit him and he had to sit down, right there on the curb, and put his head in his hands. Now what? The idea of hitting the streets again, picking up a job or two as a dishwasher or deliveryman, never making enough in this ridiculously high-priced part of the country to afford an apartment or even a motel room, sleeping under overpasses with the druggies and street-kids again...All of it was beyond depressing at this point, and Sam had definitely had enough of it. Yet the prospect of heading east, using the last of his meager earnings from his work-study job to buy a bus ticket, maybe head back to...Where? He couldn't go to Bobby Singer's place. Dean might be there, and Dean didn't want him. Dean was still trying to get over him, still seemed to think he could get Sam out of his system, if he stayed away long enough.
Or at least, that's what Sam imagined, because he really didn't know what Dean had been through this past year. Except for that short visit in the hospital and the brief phone call from John, Dean's life had been a complete blank. And because it was so painful for Sam to think about Dean much at all, he hadn't really considered what Dean's life had been like since that fateful day at Bobby's. It made Sam feel guilty to imagine that Dean had suffered over their separation, maybe as much as Sam had, so he chose to believe that Dean had just stopped caring, had been able to convince himself that their sexual relationship was a mistake he could leave in the past. Dean dealt with life in a more black-and-white way than Sam did; once Dean made a decision about something, that was it. He didn't spend months brooding and suffering, as Sam did. At least, that's what Sam told himself. Dean had probably moved on by now, maybe even found himself a girl...
"Hey, Sammy." The familiar deep voice made Sam jump. He looked up, shocked, wondering if his mind was playing tricks on him again.
Dean was wearing his leather jacket, despite the summer heat, and the sun was directly behind him, so that his shadow fell over Sam and his face was completely unreadable. The sun's light created a halo around Dean's head, made the tips of his hair seem fiery yellow and reddish-gold.
"Dean?" Sam stared, unable to believe his own eyes, sure he was conjuring Dean with some new psychic power he didn't know he had. "How did you get here? Where's the car?"
"Parked her over by the library," Dean said. "I couldn't remember how to get here, which dorm was yours. They all look the same."
"What – " Sam still couldn't believe what he was seeing, was starting to shake uncontrollably. "What are you doing here?"
"It's summer, i'n't it?" Dean replied, like that was a logical answer and Sam should have figured it out before this. "Huntin' time, remember?"
Sam huffed out a breath, more confused than ever. "What? What are you talking about?"
Dean shifted his feet, glanced toward the empty dorm. It was already late afternoon, and most of the students had cleared out.
It suddenly occurred to Sam that Dean had been here awhile, had waited till the rest of the students – including Brady – were gone. He must've been watching Sam the whole time as Sam was helping other students load up their cars, watching as Sam watched Brady drive away. It made Sam wonder if Dean had done this before, if Dean had come to the campus and just watched as Sam walked to class, went to the cafeteria with his classmates, walked home late from the library.
Sam shook his head, struck again by the realization that he hadn't thought much about where Dean was or what he was doing these past months; Sam had been too caught up in his own grief and misery to wonder how Dean was doing. A fresh wave a shame rushed over him, making his cheeks burn, causing sweat to break out on his chest, his back, under his arms.
"That was always the plan, wasn't it?" Dean said, looking back down at Sam with the sun still behind him so Sam couldn't even see his face. "Hunting on school breaks?"
"Yeah, but –" that was before, Sam finished his sentence silently.
"Well, come on, then." Dean stuck his hand out and Sam looked at it for a second before grabbing hold of it, letting Dean haul him to his feet, trying not to think about how good it felt just for Dean to touch him. "We got work to do."
Sam's duffel was still in the car. Dean hadn't moved it, or thrown it out, or left it at Bobby's. Maybe Dean had been driving around in the car for the past nine months with Sam's duffel in the trunk the whole time.
It made Sam think about their place in Champaign, Illinois, the happy apartment they shared there while Dean worked and Sam finished high school and they made plans for their future together. They had decided that they would find an apartment here in Palo Alto so that Sam could go to college. Dean would work, and on breaks they would hunt, do the work they had both been trained to do, helping rid the world of monsters, one evil son-of-a-bitch at a time.
"So – " Sam finally stopped shaking, after dumping his meager belongings into the trunk next to his old duffel, after sliding into the front seat of the familiar car. He let her rumbling motor soothe his jangling nerves for a mile or two, caressing her dashboard like an old friend. It felt incredibly good to be here again, like coming home. "So you've been hunting all this time? Alone?"
That last word came out sharp and accusing.
Dean glanced at him, then back at the road. He seemed entirely too comfortable navigating these quiet little suburban streets, and it struck Sam again that Dean had probably checked on him, more than once.
"Nah," Dean shook his head. "Well, sometimes. But mostly I was with Dad, or Jefferson Tanner. One time I teamed up with Josh Peters for a raw-head hunt outta Boise. That was a close one. Josh broke his shoulder on that hunt, put him out of commission for a while."
Sam shook his head. "You shouldn't hunt alone, Dean. It's reckless and stupid. You know better than that."
"Poltergeists and restless spirits, Sammy," Dean said with a shrug. "Easy pickings. All ya gotta do is salt and burn, brother. Just salt and burn."
"Yeah, well, just don't do it," Sam insisted. "Don't be a dumbass."
Dean grinned, shot another glance at Sam, sucked in a breath. "Damn it, Sam, I missed you," he said. "All your mother-henning and whining. I don't know how I ever lived without it."
"Shut up," Sam protested half-heartedly, feeling his face break out into a grin of his own, unable to resist Dean's teasing smile. He tried not to stare, tried to keep his eyes on the scenery moving past them as they hit the highway, headed south-east; he tried to ignore the warm, comforting feeling spreading through his body, just from being with Dean. It was happiness, he realized with a start. He was happy for the first time in nine months. "Where are we headed?"
"Something's been killing cattle on the Nevada-Arizona border," Dean said. "Draining all the blood out of their bodies."
"Chupacabra?" Sam suggested, and Dean nodded.
"Probably," he agreed. "Lame, I know, but I figured you're a little rusty, so we start with something easy."
Sam huffed out a breath, tried to muster the indignation and irritation he couldn't quite feel. He was still high on Dean, on being in the car with the one person on the planet who could make him feel like his life had meaning. It reminded him of how he felt when he first met Dean, how it felt like the world suddenly had color, like that scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first opens the door after the tornado. Another wave of euphoria crashed over him, and Sam had to literally close his eyes to ride it out, to hold himself still so he didn't start shaking violently again.
"Sam?" Dean's voice held an edge of worry. "You okay?"
Sam managed to nod, keeping his eyes squeezed shut another minute until the dizziness eased a little. "I'm fine," he lied. "It's just – sense memories. Being in the car again."
"You having one of your freaky waking dreams again?" Dean pressed, and Sam gave another stiff nod, clenched his jaw. Dean kept glancing between Sam and the road, and Sam took a deep, shuddering breath, let it out slowly, breathing through the ebbing tide of emotion and memory and Dean. "You had a lot of those lately?"
"Some," Sam acknowledged. "Nothing I can't handle."
Dean put his hand up, and Sam could've sworn he was about to rub the back of Sam's neck, like he used to do when Sam had a moment like this, back when they were physical with each other and it was an easy, natural thing for Dean to do, to slide his fingers through Sam's hair, gently massage the tension out of Sam's muscles.
But instead of touching him, Dean stretched his arm along the back of the seat and left it there. Sam could feel Dean's heat, and a year ago he might've scooted over next to Dean or slid down so he could lay his head back on Dean's arm. But now Sam knew that wasn't allowed, knew that Dean had reached out like that out of habit, out of his body's instinct to offer comfort and affection, then remembered at the last moment and tried to cover the gesture with a casual stretch.
And Sam was just sick enough to enjoy it, to take pleasure from the feeling of Dean's arm on the seat behind his back, almost but deliberately not touching him, aware of the intimacy that Sam craved but which Dean would no longer offer. Sam was sure that Dean felt it too, however; Sam was sure that Dean left his arm right where it was on purpose, letting them both have at least that much reminder of their former lives.
They drove in silence for nearly an hour that way, avoiding conversation or even a glance at each other, anything that might break the spell of this almost-intimacy between them. The sun set behind them, Dean flicked on the Impala's headlights, and still they sat, Sam letting his imagination wander, remembering how Dean would sometimes play with the collar of Sam's jacket when they drove like this, as if he wasn't even aware of doing it. Sam held his breath, hoping Dean would forget himself and just do it, just flick his thumb over the stiff material, accidentally brushing the nape of Sam's neck, under his hair. And for a brief moment Sam imagined the pressure of Dean's fingers there, rubbing the material, tugging Sam's hair ever so slightly.
Dean drew his hand away so abruptly then that Sam felt his heart soar with triumph. Dean had touched Sam's jacket, or had been thinking about it, and just that much was enough. If Dean could forget himself, even for a moment like that...
"Time for supper," Dean announced, as if he'd been planning the whole thing, as if he hadn't just almost touched Sam's neck and was covering his freak-out with food. "I'm starving."
Sam marveled, although not for the first time, at Dean's ability to find the greasiest diners at the most opportune moments. Sitting across from Dean, watching him dig into his bacon cheeseburger with extra onions, Sam could almost believe the past nine months had never happened. Then Dean lifted his eyes to Sam's, and for the briefest moment, before he shuttered it behind a smirk, Sam could see so much pain there it took his breath away.
Sam lowered his eyes, taking tiny breaths through his mouth until he could control his own emotions, concentrating on his salad of iceberg lettuce, stale cucumbers, and limp tomatoes. When he looked up again he caught Dean watching him before looking down at the burger in his hands, chewing thoughtfully. Now it was Sam's turn to watch, noting how thin Dean's face seemed, how his cheekbones jutted out more than he remembered, how his jaw seemed sharper and more angular, making his mouth seem more generous than ever. With his eyes cast down, Dean's long, thick eyelashes stood out in stark relief against his pale skin, the light peppering of freckles across his nose and cheeks offering the only hint of color. He looked younger, somehow, more frail, and it made Sam's heart clench, made the backs of his eyes burn. It made Sam want to gather Dean up and hold him, not in a sexual way, but just in a way that could make Dean understand how much he was loved, how he would always be the most important person in Sam's life. But now, after what had happened, Sam wasn't sure he had the right. He wasn't sure Dean would ever trust Sam enough to allow that, maybe ever.
And that was just not okay on so many levels Sam didn't know where to start.
But he had to start somewhere. Taking a deep breath, he put his fork down and wiped his mouth on a little paper napkin, took a sip of tap water to fortify himself, and scooted forward on the bench, his knees brushing Dean's under the table.
Dean looked up at him expectantly, blinking to hide the slight flinch when he felt their knees touch. "What?" he asked, swallowing around a mouthful of burger.
"I'm sorry," Sam said. "I'm sorry I left without saying goodbye. I'm – I'm sorry if I hurt you." He said the words in a rush, just needing to get them out there, needing Dean to hear him say it.
Dean stared for a moment, his eyes hard with accusation, then Sam saw that fleeting look of pain in them again as Dean looked down at his burger, his mouth curling up in a smirk.
"Nothin' to be sorry about," he said shortly, taking another bite of burger and chewing for a minute before going on. "You did what you had to do. I get that. It's in the past now."
"I want – " Sam could feel himself start to shake again, so he closed his eyes to center himself for a moment before going on. "I want us to be brothers, Dean," he said. "Like you said in the hospital. I want us to be able to hang out together, and do stuff, and just be – just be brothers, man. I want us to trust each other again."
Dean looked up at him then, considering. "Trust you not to run off again," he clarified. "Trust you to let someone know if you do, to answer your goddamn phone when it rings. That the kind of trust you're talking about, Sam?"
It was Sam's turn to flinch, to look away from Dean's intense gaze. Dean's anger was nine months old, but it was still fresh too.
"I thought – I wanted you to have some space," Sam explained, knowing it sounded lame even as he said it. "I wanted you to have some room to figure things out without me putting pressure on you or making you feel like you had to do something for my sake..."
"Bullshit, Sam," Dean hissed, leaning forward across the table so Sam felt pinned to his seat, branded by Dean's intense gaze. "Don't make this about me. You left. You left because you couldn't handle reality, same as always. You left because your freaky dream came true, and you couldn't deal with the consequences. Things got a little tough, a little weird, and you bailed. End of story. So you tell me, how exactly am I supposed to trust you now?"
Sam felt Dean's righteous anger flow over him like hot glue, sticking in all his most vulnerable creases and crevices, making Sam's guilt bubble to the surface. This was his fault. Sam had known all along that he and Dean were brothers, but he had let their relationship become sexual – had in fact begged for it, hoping Dean wouldn't find out, knowing he was doing something Dean would never agree to if he knew the truth. It was as good as if he'd lied to Dean, and now Sam felt he deserved Dean's anger, he welcomed it as a brand of righteous judgment on his own deliberate deception, as a mark of shame on his soul. If there was such a thing as a Scarlet Letter, Sam would wear it, would display a huge angry "I" for incest, right in the middle of his forehead, for the rest of his life.
"I'm sorry," he said again, blinking back the hot tears threatening to spill out of his eyes and down his cheeks now. "I was hoping – if I left – I was hoping it would be easier for you."
"Easier for me?" Dean shook his head. "How easy do you think it was for me when you disappeared off the face of the earth for a month? Huh? How easy would it have been for you to pick up a goddamn phone and call? Just call. You had my number. You put it down as your goddamn emergency contact for the school."
"I'm sorry, Dean," Sam tried again. "I didn't think – "
"No, you didn't," Dean snapped. "You've got a brain the size of Neptune, but you didn't think. You don't. Because you're so locked inside your own vision of the world you can't see how you affect people. How you affect me." Dean shook his head again. "You're just like Dad, you know that? You two are just about the most stubborn, single-focused sons-o'-bitches on the face of this earth, I swear to God."
Sam blinked, more shocked than if Dean had just dumped a bucket of ice water over his head. I'm like John? he thought wildly. How can I be like John?
"John's a selfish, obsessed bastard," Sam protested. "He doesn't think about anyone but himself."
Dean raised his eyebrows, lowered his chin, and gave Sam a look that said, "Bingo."
"Dean, I'm nothing like John," Sam shook his head. "I think about you all the time. You're more important to me than my own life. I would never treat you the way he does. I can't imagine hurting you like that."
"When are you gonna learn, Sammy?" Dean shook his head, lowered his eyes to his wallet as the waitress came up to clear their plates. He smiled at her, deliberately over-tipped, endured her stammering thanks and blushes.
"Y'all have a good night, now," she said as she sauntered away. Dean watched her for a minute, then turned back to Sam with a wink and a little jab of his thumb.
Sam felt a hot rush of jealousy, familiar from the days before Dean had given up girls to be monogamous with Sam. It hurt so much to think of Dean with a girl, but of course that was what was happening now. Sam had left and Dean had gone back to picking up girls, just like before. And it was right, in a way, Sam decided as he got up to follow Dean out of the diner and back to the car. This was part of Sam's punishment, to watch anonymous nobodies get to have what was forbidden to Sam now, the part of Dean he could never have again.
They drove in silence for a while, until Dean pulled off at a motel in a little town near the Nevada border, checked them into the room at the end, furthest from the office. Sam unloaded the car while Dean took the first shower, stripping down so easily and comfortably in front of Sam it almost made him cry again.
And when he caught a glimpse of Dean's body when he came out of the shower, towel wrapped around his waist as he dug into his duffel for clean underwear, Sam almost gasped. Dean was thin, that much Sam had already figured out; from the moment Dean had picked him up this afternoon he had understood that Dean was hiding in his oversized leather jacket, and now Sam could see why. Dean was positively skinny. His body was missing so much of the bulking muscle Sam was used to he seemed almost emaciated. But that wasn't why Sam couldn't stop staring. Across Dean's back, reaching under his left arm, along his left side and all the way around to his chest, were four long, angry-looking scars, too thick to be knife wounds. The scars were identical, symmetrical, looking for all the world like some huge animal had grabbed at him, leaving the mark of its huge claw as a reminder of a death match that had almost taken the ultimate toll.
"Jesus, Dean," Sam breathed, unable to stop staring, putting his hand out to touch before he remembered he couldn't, didn't have Dean's permission to touch anymore. Dean looked up, one hand clutching his boxers, the other holding his towel in place. He followed Sam's gaze and sucked in a deep breath.
"Yeah," he breathed out, dropping the towel unceremoniously and turning his back so he could step into his boxers. He bent over as he did so that his ass was presented straight at Sam's dick, and Sam was reminded that Dean wasn't offering, not now, not ever again. "Had a little run-in with a werewolf back in January. Mean fucker. Spent my birthday in the hospital."
"You were alone?" Sam could hear the growl in his voice. So did Dean, who straightened and turned to face Sam, exposing his slender chest, slashed with other, smaller scars that Sam had never seen before. Sam's protection charm swung on its leather string, and Sam realized idly that it had probably been there all along, just hidden under Dean's shirt.
"Yeah." Dean pulled a tee-shirt over his head, covering the evidence of his recklessness. "But Caleb helped with the clean-up."
"Doesn't count, and you know it." Sam was furious. It was one thing to imagine Dean alone and suffering as much as Sam had been over those long months. It was another thing to imagine him throwing himself suicidally into hunt after hunt, alone and unprotected. But of course, that's exactly what Dean had done. John was gone, as usual, and Dean's relationship with other hunters was still fairly new and unreliable. Of course, he needed to work, just like Sam did, to keep his mind off the hole in his heart. So he hunted alone. Asshole-jerk-stupid-goddamn-stubborn-son-o
"Take a shower, Sam." Dean lowered his eyes, brushed past Sam to throw himself down on the bed closest to the door. "Lights out in ten."
"Damn it, Dean," Sam shook his head. "You can't do that. You can't hunt alone. You know that!"
"Dad does it," Dean shrugged.
"Dad's insane!" Sam protested. "And you know that too. Hunting alone is just asking for trouble. It's doubly dangerous, foolhardy, and just plain stupid. Your dad raised you better than that, at least that much I remember, even when he couldn't be bothered to follow his own advice."
"What can I tell you, Sam?" Dean shrugged again. "You weren't there. There were jobs to do. I did them."
"And nearly got yourself killed!" Sam stalked around the bed, loomed over Dean, shaking with anger. "You can't do that!"
"It's my job," Dean reminded him, crossing his arms over his chest and setting his jaw stubbornly. "It's what I do."
"So do something else!" Sam insisted, gesturing broadly with one arm, keeping the other fist clenched at his side. To keep from hitting something. Or somebody. "You could get a job as a mechanic any time you needed to. You did tons of other jobs while we – when we lived in Champaign. In Iowa."
"Oh, you figured when you left that I would just go back to that little apartment in Champaign? Is that what you thought? Just go on being all domestic and respectable? Maybe find a nice girl, settle down..."
"Crazier things happen, Dean, yeah," Sam nodded. "Now that you mention it, you seemed all right living that way when we were in Iowa, before."
"That was just temporary," Dean said as he shook his head. "Just until you grew up."
"No, you said when we moved to Palo Alto, you were going to find a regular job," Sam reminded him. "You promised. Hunting on the weekends, school breaks, okay, but not full time. Not all the time, and for sure not alone."
"Yeah, but things changed, didn't they, Sam?" Dean raised an eyebrow, smiled grimly, without mirth, and Sam sank down onto the other bed, suddenly so tired he just couldn't stand up anymore. Because of course it was all Sam's fault; it was finding out that Sam was the brother who was kidnapped that night his mother was killed that set Dean on this path. Dean wouldn't stop now.
"I can't let you kill yourself," Sam breathed, fighting to keep the despair out of his voice.
"Not gonna kill myself," Dean insisted. "I'm good at what I do. And I'm getting better. It's what I was born to do."
"You're a mess," Sam protested. "All skin and bones and covered in scars. What the hell, Dean? Why are you so skinny?"
Dean shrugged. "I was in recovery for a few weeks," he explained. "Then rehab. Broke my arm so I couldn't work. No money means no food, you know that. Plus, I haven't really been hungry since you left. Or sleepy, for that matter."
Sam stared, trying to imagine Dean sitting alone in a diner, sleeping alone in a motel room, staring all night at the empty bed not two feet away. At least Sam had been eating in a dining hall full of students, even if he didn't always share his meal with anybody, preferring to spend his meal-time reading. The sleeping thing he could relate to, but even those times when he did finally stumble into bed, at least there was someone else in the room.
"Jesus, Dean," Sam sighed, putting his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes. "This has to stop."
"It already has," Dean noted softly, his voice low and rumbling, thick with the familiar twang Sam loved so much. "You're here now."
Sam lifted his eyes, feeling the sting of tears as he gazed at the prone form of his former lover – his brother – on the other bed, not two feet away. He felt his heart unclench a little in his chest, felt the tension drain from his shoulders.
"Yeah," he breathed softly. "Yeah, I am."
"Go take a shower," Dean commanded gently. "We'll talk some more in the morning."
"Okay," Sam agreed, wiping his eyes irritably. Why did he feel like crying all of a sudden? "Yeah, okay."
In the shower the tears flowed freely, washing away months of sorrow and grief, stress Sam didn't even know he was feeling. Somehow finding out that Dean had suffered as much or more during their separation was a tremendous relief to Sam, although it probably shouldn't be. It confirmed for Sam what he hadn't dared hope all those months; Dean still loved him, still needed him, hadn't been able to get over him any more easily than Sam had been able to get over Dean. They were still deeply and profoundly bonded, and although it would take time to heal the rift caused by the revelation of their sibling relation and Sam's desertion, they would do it. They would find a way to be together again, if not as lovers, at least as brothers. And a bond of blood was stronger than any lover's vows anyway, Sam reminded himself. In a way, Sam and Dean would now be more closely entwined than they were before.
Dean was already asleep when Sam came out of the shower, curled up on his side facing away from Sam. Sam pulled on his sweatpants and a clean tee-shirt, slipped into the other bed. When he reached up to switch off the light he let himself gaze longingly at the back of Dean's neck for barely two seconds, indulging however briefly in the memory of Dean's soft skin against his lips, the warm muscles of Dean's chest and back as Sam pressed up against him, slipped his arms around him and spooned Dean's body perfectly against his own.
In the dark Sam lay on his side for a while, watching Dean's sleeping form in the other bed, afraid to fall asleep for fear he'd wake up in his dorm, miserable and alone again. The unreality of the dark room and Dean's presence after such a long absence, coupled with Sam's state of sleepless over-emotionality, almost triggered a waking dream; Sam could feel the edges of reality starting to unravel, memories flooding forward from other nights, other times when they had lain like this, in separate beds because Sam was still too young for sex but old enough to want it. He could remember rubbing against the bed, shoving his hand down into his boxers so he could get a grip on himself, breathing slow and even through his mouth so Dean wouldn't wake up, wouldn't hear him jerking off as he watched Dean sleep.
Sam shook himself, forced himself to close his eyes, then open them slowly, concentrating all of his psychic energy on the present moment, on the reality in front of him. He made himself concentrate on settling his body, starting with his toes and moving up, an exercise he had learned years ago, as part of his training to learn to center and control his psychic ability. He lay perfectly still as he concentrated, clenching and relaxing each muscle in his legs, pausing to open his eyes and take a deep breath as he reached his dick, hard and pulsing with need as it was in his dream. Sam squeezed his eyes shut, breathed in and out through his nose, willing himself to relax, reminding himself that the body in the other bed was his brother, not his lover. Dean was everything, the most important person in his life, but no longer his sexual partner. Sam willed his dick to relax and soften, to override his natural impulse to respond to Dean's closeness, to his smell.
It took almost twenty minutes by the digital clock on the bedside table, but Sam was finally able to get himself to relax completely, traitorous private parts finally giving in to Sam's silent mantra: He's my brother, not my lover. When sleep finally overwhelmed Sam's tired brain, he slept better than he had in months, the soothing sound of Dean's breathing in the other bed rocking him to sleep, keeping him there, surrounding him with a sense of home, of safety, of all being right with the world again.
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