home stretch, y'all. the san francisco giants are in first place by a half a game, and we're gonna see if we can hold our breath for two weeks. this team, there is something about them that makes a kid think wildly fanciful thoughts about parades down market street. i think it's having a catcher named buster, personally. if we make the playoffs, i'm gonna go so broke.
four more days of the working life, and then back into the sweet sweet embrace of joblessness. no more government-subsidized slash stories for y'all, so enjoy this one while you can.
the title of this document on my compute is 'back in the high life again,' which is partly because of warren zevon and partly because writing americans again was so goddamn easy my fingers almost fell off.
sam/dean! 16671 words! rated NC-17! no spoilers at all, and hopefully worth the wait.
Second Map of the World
By Candle Beck
Sam and Dean came through Texas riding a three-month high.
Good days had piled up behind them, all these small courtesies from the world: well-paved roads and diners with two-for-one deals and motels with excellent water pressure. Sam kept finding money on the sidewalk. The job had taken a distinct turn for the heroic; Dean had actually saved a bunch of honest-to-god nuns a little while ago. Nobody had gotten close to killing them for weeks and weeks.
So it was when they dug up a human skull outside of Lubbock, soaked it and the thin gray soil in accelerant, and lit a match. The midsummer sun on the back of Sam's neck was absolutely worse than the licking flames heating his face. Dean was leaning on his shovel as if it were a cane, watching the fire with a gleeful expression on his face that made him look kind of dim.
"So easy," Sam remarked, because they had been all of three days on this case, and most of yesterday they'd spent half-drunk in the motel room (the Back to the Future marathon on TNT had snared them early).
"Yeah, we're pretty awesome."
"Like you even helped. You fell asleep at the library."
Dean snorted derisively, not taking his gaze away from the fire. "Whatever, you shouldn't make me go to the library when I'm buzzed. Totally ruins it."
Sam rolled his eyes. He looked at his brother for a long moment because Dean wasn't looking at him. Dean's face was flushed, shiny with sweat, and he licked across his top lip, swiped his shirtsleeve across his forehead.
The skull burned away to lumpy ash, and Dean scattered it with his shovel before refilling the hole. He was whistling, as happy at his task as a mailman in a sitcom from the fifties. Sam kept an eye on the highway, the stultifying expanse of North Texas unrolling past the horizon.
Back at the car, Dean poured water over a rag and scrubbed his face and hands and arms clean. Sam felt drugged from the heat, which seemed animate, some feverish panting invisible beast. He imagined he could hear the loose water hissing as it pattered on the stove-top of the asphalt.
Dean ran his wet hands through his hair a few times. Sam became momentarily lightheaded and leaned into the Impala to steady himself. That was poorly planned, overbearing sunlight and solid black metal being what they are, and Sam yelped, jerked away.
Dean grinned. "That's gonna scar."
"Is not," Sam said, scowling at him. The side of his hand hurt like a motherfucker, the burned spot shiny and swiftly too pink. Sam clutched his wrist, thinking maybe if he restricted the flow of blood it wouldn't sting so bad.
"Lemme see, stupid," and Dean took hold of Sam's arm and emptied the rest of the water bottle over his hand.
It worked shockingly well, the pain absolutely gone for a stretch of blissful seconds, and then gathering again at half-strength. Dean wrapped the damp cloth around Sam's hand and whacked him upside the head.
"Try not to hurt yourself in really lame ways," Dean told him. "It's embarrassing."
Sam pressed his bound hand to his stomach, feeling the cool damp seep through his shirt. He was irritated, but in a vague secondhand kind of way, as if only for appearance's sake. Sam had found it difficult of late to maintain a satisfying level of annoyance with regard to Dean being a jackass. He blamed this lucky streak they were on. He figured there was no way it would last.
They got in the car. All the chrome and metal was gleaming just beautifully, a hundred melted pieces of mirror. The highway ran as far as Sam could see in either direction.
Dean started her up, and down went the windows, up went the volume on the tape deck. His hair was still wet, spiny and goldish and sticking straight up. Damp patches on the back of his neck, on the front of his shirt where he'd rubbed his hands dry.
Sam turned his gaze forward, sighing under his breath and happy, still pretty happy. He asked his brother, "Where to?"
Dean answered him by gunning the engine, and heading north.
A day or two later, up near Topeka, they went broke.
They'd been getting careless, and lazy. Dean kept making friends with waitresses and overtipping them hugely with their sparse cash resources. Their last working credit card had been cut up by a gas station attendant back in Oklahoma, and since then it had been Vienna sausage and Ramen from the emergency stash, Powerbars for breakfast and no stopping for burgers anymore. Sam couldn't live like that for very long.
So they went hustling.
Same old scam they'd been running since they were teenagers and Sam finally got tall enough for a fake ID to be plausible. They came in separately, Dean first because Dean tended to attract more attention just by breathing and walking and stuff, and then Sam slouching in ten or fifteen minutes later. There was an obscure ballet performed, the two of them easing around each other at the bar, sidling up to different sides of the pool table, casual, oblivious, certainly not related by blood to anyone here, no sir.
Then, the challenge. Sam liked this part particularly well, although he avoided dwelling on why.
Dean caught his eye, just a glance over the rim of his beer as he took a drink. Dean was really good at this--no recognition in his eyes, no hint at all that he was looking at the last surviving member of his family. They were perfect strangers, and it made something judder wildly in Sam's chest for a second, before he squashed it down.
Condescension curled Dean's lip. He said something that was mostly a sneer--"you play, kid?"--and Sam straightened his shoulders as if offended. He took up a cue with a vengeful stomp in his step. They bet the last two twenties they had to their name, sad wrinkled bills pinned under a sweating beer on the side of the pool table.
Sam's job was to take a dive in the first game. It was a very specific kind of loss he was meant to suffer, one designed to show that Dean was good but not that good, and certainly cockier than was warranted. Clustered around the three pool tables at the back of the bar, the regulars watched, calculating and interested. Dean played his part to the hilt, flashy with the cue and taunting whenever Sam muffed a shot, a default smirk twisted across his face. Dean was effortlessly good at this, arrogant and obtuse and just begging for a comeuppance.
Once Sam had been dispatched, Dean looked to the wall of regulars and said, "Which of you chumps wants to get beat next?"
Blood in the water. Dean had someone on the hook immediately, a rangy black-nailed ectomorph wearing a battered Carhartt hat, and took fifty dollars off him. The next victim lost a hundred, and there was a gleam in Dean's eye--he was feeling it now. No one could beat him when he was like this. Sam sat near the busted pinball machine and drank a few beers, watching his brother demolish the competition.
It was all going off without a hitch, pool balls clacking and Dean noting, "Damn I'm good," every few minutes, and then 'Turn the Page' came on the juke.
The guy Dean was playing (who might as well have had no thumbs, considering the success he was having) leaned on his cue, bobbing his head to the music.
"Good song, huh?" the guy said to Dean, who barely grunted before sinking another ball. "Bob Seger."
Without thought, both Sam and Dean replied, "Metallica cover."
Then they froze, glancing at each other reflexively.
Stupid, really stupid. The moment of unison could have been explained away easily enough--they weren't the only two Metallica fans in the room, surely--but the moment that followed it, the instinctive collision of Sam's gaze into Dean's, quick and conspiratorial and obvious, ridiculously obvious, that was a bridge too far.
One of the bruisers Dean had just fleeced asked in an ominously low voice, "You boys know each other?"
"No," Dean said, and Sam winced internally because that was way too quick. Dean never did have a feel for these things.
A few guys stood up, chairs scraping back on the floor. Suspicion and malice spiked the air, sharp metal taste on Sam's tongue.
"We don't take much to being hustled in our own fuckin' bar," the bruiser said, wood-colored teeth bared in a snarl.
Sam thought wildly. He really didn't want to get beaten with pool cues tonight. Dean kept flicking him nervy little glances, his back tense and braced for attack. Sam didn't particularly want to see his brother beaten with pool cues tonight either.
In his head, his dad told him, when outnumbered, act crazier than everyone else.
Sam shot up from his seat, stretching out to his full height and getting his shoulders into it too. Blood rushed to his head and the beer too, dizzy as hell all of a sudden.
"Wait, you fuckin' hustled me?" Sam said, and then, louder, "Did you fuckin' hustle me, motherfucker?"
Crazy, Sam was crazy now, so he lunged for Dean. Lost his balance on the way, and crashed into his brother fist-first, but that was okay, that was definitely good enough. His heart was pounding like it was a real fight, real damage to be done. Sam got Dean into a clinch, cursing up a storm and snarling and finding a moment in there to lean close and say between gritted teeth into Dean's ear: "Bail."
Then Sam reared back and punched his brother in the face.
He split Dean's lip. He broke the skin of his own knuckle against Dean's teeth. A slash of blood, terribly bright, brought a collective inhale from the hostile crowd, and then Dean was falling backwards, tumbling away from Sam. He got his hands on the floor, scrambled up and bolted for the door. Sam howled "motherfucker!" again, bouldered his way through the men and chased his brother right out of the bar.
They hit fresh air and kept running. Quiet little town in the middle of the cornfields, nobody out on the streets this late at night, just brick walls and dark glass-front shops and slow streetlights. Sam threw a look back over his shoulder, and for once they weren't even being chased. There was a leaping rise in his chest--triumph!
Sam caught up with Dean and grabbed his arm, indicating a short alley for them to duck down. Once out of sight from the street, they fell against the wall, bent over their knees, panting and coughing for air.
"Fucker," Dean managed. His mouth was vivid with blood. "Fuckin' sucker punch."
Sam grinned, adrenaline whirring, hands shaking. "Absolutely necessary."
"See what happens, gonna kick your ass while you're asleep," and Dean pounded his fist into Sam's shoulder twice, pretty hard but it didn't hurt.
"Worked, didn't it? I'm not hearing a whole lotta gratitude out of you, Dean."
Dean moved to punch him again, and Sam danced away, laughing. Dean swiped his hand across his mouth and it came away painted as bright as an accusation.
"Kiss my ass, gratitude," Dean said, and he was smiling without seeming to realize it. There was red on his teeth, his eyes lit up like huge fires burning very far away, looking better than anything else in the world for approximately the fifth time that week.
Something broke in Sam's brain. He put his hand up on the rough wall next to Dean's head, leaned in and licked the blood off his brother's lower lip.
And then Sam jerked away so hard he almost fell over.
Copper taste in his mouth, and Dean was staring at him with an ideal expression of shock on his face, eyes enormous and frozen and blank. Sam was horrified.
"Jesus, Dean, I'm sorry," he said on a rushed breath. He wrenched his hands together in front of him. "That. I didn't mean that. Obviously."
Dean stared at him dumbly for a few seconds. His lip was hardly bleeding anymore. It was smeared a bit where Sam had licked him. Sam had licked him. He was finding it unimaginably difficult to tear his eyes away from Dean's mouth.
"You. What?" Dean said, sounding massively confused.
"Nothing, it was nothing. Stupid adrenaline thing. Don't--don't worry about it."
Dean stared at him for awhile longer, weirdly guileless. Sam balled his hands into fists and stared helplessly back at him. He was unable to believe that after half a lifetime of unending vigilance, he'd given away his worst secret so swiftly, with so little care. It was insane. Unforgivable.
Sam swallowed hard. "Look, let's just, let's get the car. I'll go, you just, stay here and I'll come get you," and then he was turning blindly from Dean and striding towards the mouth of the alley, his mind chanting away get away.
He thought Dean might stop him, half sure of it, but he'd evidently disabled his brother. When Sam glanced back over his shoulder (couldn't help it), Dean was still standing there, as mute and petrified as any marble statue, any heartless piece of stone.
Sam didn't even have the keys. He got to the Impala before he realized, and then sat down on the ground with his back to the tire and his head in his hands, utterly aghast, trying not to think of anything at all.
For as long as Sam had wanted to fuck anyone, he had wanted to fuck his brother.
At thirteen years old, that had meant the world was ending.
They'd been out in the desert states, all over the West Coast, different places that all felt the same. Sam remembered sun, endless incapacitating sun everywhere they went, that one long summer. He remembered spending hours in motel swimming pools with Dean, sitting on the steps in the shallow end with a pile of books and magazines and comic books on the baked concrete, sweating cans of Coke near at hand, white wrinkled toes. Their dad off somewhere, always off somewhere, disappeared down the highway, haunting cemeteries. Sam had been too hot all the time, sweating through his shirts and itchy inside his shorts, sleeping on a mess of towels and blankets on the floor of the bathroom where it was at least superficially cooler. He kept having stunning dreams, woke up gasping and damp.
Long long summer. They probably traveled a thousand miles, a dozen little towns--Dean would know the specifics. Dean always remembered that kind of stuff. It had gotten worse for Sam by the day. Dean was always there, always. Only half his shirts had sleeves, because some girl a few months back had told him he had nice arms, and since then Dean had been lifting small weights and inviting Sam to the gun show like it was the best joke he'd ever come up with, that killer grin of his. Sam wanted to crawl on top of Dean on the couch and rub up against him until this knot inside him came apart. He couldn't get the thought out of his mind.
Sam holed up in small neighborhood libraries to get away from his brother. He ate dinner out of vending machines, loitered in convenient store parking lots, wasting all the time he could before finally slinking back to the latest motel room or cheap apartment, where he would get hollered at by Dean for disappearing again.
Sam was all messed up about it. He liked making his brother mad, or at least, he liked seeing that he could, but then once Dean was yelling at him, Sam wanted to yell back. Anger always played a part in it, frustration and resentment and the weird reverse cabin fever of their existence, something. Their arguments kept veering into the unexpectedly vicious. All sorts of things were starting to go wrong.
They went to bed and the bathroom floor not speaking to each other, and tomorrow they'd do it again.
That was how Sam's life looked back then.
He survived it, which was as good as anyone could ever do. When fall came around, they settled down for a few months and Sam buried himself in school, pretty much his only option. There was always a book in his hand; he tried to stop looking at Dean so much.
It never went away, not like Sam had hoped it might. High school was something just short of agonizing. Dean grew into his shoulders. He let his hair grow out a little when he saw how the girls liked it (Dean and his increasingly beautiful girls, which was a whole other thing that Sam barely had energy to deal with), and Sam couldn't help but concur.
He couldn't understand it. Nobody got to Sam like Dean did, that instant dry-mouth feeling, that slow thick twist in his stomach when Dean was lounging around in pajama pants and nothing else. Sam was ninety-five percent sure he wasn't gay (the girls again), and maybe sixty percent sure he wasn't a sick fuck, so what the hell.
But lamenting the facts of the situation hadn't gotten him anywhere, and so he wised up. Sam went on the offensive, which was another thing his dad had taught him. Smartass comments and long sullen periods and an intense focus on Dean's worst traits, his constant needling and obtuseness and basic intractability, and in this way Sam was able to create some space between them in his mind. He managed to classify his attraction to his brother as one of the things Dean did that annoyed the fuck out of him (not super fair, but what could you do), and it was a little easier then.
Time passed. Time passing, as it turned out, was the twist in the plot. A person could get used to almost anything. By the time Sam left for Stanford, it was just another piece of background information that he was never going to tell anyone ever.
College had changed him in any number of ways. There were long stretches when Sam wasn't sure if he would ever see Dean again. He accustomed himself to visualizing his future without his brother in it--it just seemed psychologically safer to plan that way.
Not to mention, he fell in love with two dark-haired girls and then there was Jessica. Sam fell for her hard enough that he decided that he had actually never been in love with anyone else before, not Dean or the other two girls or anybody who wasn't Jess. It didn't count if you hadn't touched every part of the person and seen them every way and woken up next to them each morning for a whole year of your life. That was Sam's new definition.
By the time Sam was obliged to go back on the road with his brother, his priorities had shifted rather dramatically. Grief and rage and a coring desire for revenge preoccupied him entirely for a very long time. Sam came out of it different again, a third person living in the same skin.
And still, there was Dean. Dean was what Sam had brought with him, his one common thread. It had become a central tenet of Sam's worldview: as long as Dean still recognized him, he couldn't be too far gone.
Now, this. This inexcusable, inexplicable thing that Sam had done, the taste of blood off his brother's mouth, the poleaxed look on Dean's face, the infrastructure of a decade crashing at Sam's feet, his whole life--
It was difficult to keep from panicking.
It was impossible to know what to do next.
They didn't talk for the first hour.
Dean drove out of Topeka as if trying to outrun the shock wave of a nuclear explosion. Ninety, a hundred, a hundred and ten miles an hour, blowing past strings of red taillights, huge rattling trucks like dinosaurs with loose bones. Dean had the tape turned up loud enough that the speakers fuzzed. His hands were locked on the wheel.
Sam stared straight ahead. His muscles were as tight as guitar strings, his skin as taut as a drum's. He was shaking underneath, not showing it, no idea how to stop.
Dean wouldn't even look at him. Miles clipped by. The tension built like nerve gas being pumped into a tank, invisible but eventually deadly. There were moments when Sam could hardly breathe.
He was in some kind of shock; probably they both were. Sam's mind was jammed, his signals blocked. He couldn't get past the simple memory of it, leaning in, hand against the bricks, the brief taste of blood on Dean's warm mouth. It was self-defense, most likely, sparing him from thinking about what would happen next, what would happen now. Sam squeezed his hands into fists, biting hard on the inside of the lip.
They rocketed past Kansas City and its suburbs, and then Missouri with its thick forests and accusatory moon. Because it felt like his head was going to explode if he didn't, Sam gathered up his strength and asked:
"Where are we going?"
Trying for casual, a regular everyday kind of question, but he overshot trying to be heard over the music and it came out too loud, weirdly off-key. Sam flinched to hear it, saw the twitch of the muscle in Dean's cheek.
Dean was silent for just long enough that Sam despaired, and then he said, "Chicago."
"Any. Any particular reason?"
Silence from Dean again, that same bone-chilling wait, and Sam wondered if Dean was making this up as he went along. "I want a meatball sub from that place near Wrigley Field."
They'd driven hundreds of miles for less. Sam screwed his knuckles into his leg, resolutely watching the road and not his brother. He tried to think of something else to say, but then Dean reached out and flicked the volume even louder, distortion creeping in at the edges. Sam took the hint, and kept his mouth shut. He pressed his fingertips against one of his ears, his thumb hard against his jaw.
There was a time lapse, through one county and deep into another. Under ordinary circumstances, Sam would ball up his hoodie for a pillow and try to get some sleep against the window, but obviously that was out. He'd sooner be able to fall asleep in a room full of vampires.
The tape came to an end, and Dean punched it out of the deck. "Get me that Thin Lizzy tape with the red writing on the liner."
Sam started slightly. He got the box from under the seat and commenced rummaging, stupidly grateful to have such a regular task.
It was quiet without the music, road-quiet, the rush of the highway and the engine relegated to white noise. Sam couldn't find the tape. It kept being quieter and quieter and quieter.
"What the hell?" Dean asked eventually.
"I can't find it, are you sure it's here?"
"Yeah I'm sure. C'mon, it can't be that hard."
Sam tipped the box into the sparse highway light, tapes clicking against each other. All the tapes were labeled in Dean's hurried peaked handwriting, tracklists and all. There was no Thin Lizzy in there, he was sure of it.
"Dude," Sam said, and Dean blew out a percussive breath.
"Just, just put in something, fuckin' anything." Dean snatched blindly at the box, almost knocking it over. He fumbled a tape free of its case one-handed and shoved it into the deck. Johnny Cash burst out of the speakers, convicts roaring behind him, so loud that Sam jerked, and spilled the box of tapes all over everything.
"Jesus, Sam," Dean snapped, and twisted the volume down to a more reasonable level.
Sam cursed himself, scooping tapes off the floor and jamming them back into the box. The panic returned on a wave, making him clumsy and jittery and incompetent. One of the cassettes cracked under the abuse, a sudden white scar across Axl Rose's face, and Sam was so frustrated he wanted to cry.
"Put it down, for Christ's sake," Dean said, too angry for such a minor offense, but of course Dean wasn't only angry about the cracked cassette.
Sam set the box down on the floor, wove his hands together so they wouldn't do any more damage. He swallowed hard. "Sorry. I. I'm sorry, man."
Dean's lip curled in a disbelieving sneer. He rubbed his hand across his mouth and didn't say anything at all.
They stopped for the night in Hannibal. Highway signs near the penitentiary warned against picking up hitchhikers. There was a fire road that ran behind their motel, and kids were racing cars out there, gun-shot mufflers and prehistoric engines screaming.
It was late, almost two in the morning, and Sam felt like a tube that had been squeezed flat, his eyes gritty and oversensitive to the anemic parking lot lights. He followed his brother into the room, which was exactly the same as every other motel room he'd ever been in. He let Dean have first choice of bed without a word--it seemed like the very least he could do.
They weren't talking, hadn't been talking since that awkward mess with the tapes a hundred miles back. Sam stole glances at Dean, his heart thick and tangible in his throat.
Dean stood by the window watching the local kids drag racing, head cocked slightly. Usually he'd be identifying make and model, commenting on how they'd been souped up, picking his favorite. But he was quiet tonight. Sam had muted him.
Sam brushed his teeth and took off his jeans. He smoothed one nervous hand down the back of his head, standing disjointed and too-tall in the little bathroom, studying his own face in the mirror.
Dean was in the same place when Sam re-emerged.
"Aren't you tired?" Sam asked. His voice was mostly normal.
Dean moved one shoulder, half a shrug. "Little."
"So, um. Are you gonna sleep?"
Not looking at Sam, Dean wasn't at all interested in this conversation. Sam stared at him unabashedly for a few seconds, the cut-off angle of Dean's face and the tension in his shoulders that seemed part of his basic design, built into his body alongside muscle and blood.
Sam dragged his eyes away. He got into bed and kicked the sheets loose, settling in. The ceiling was yellowish-white and wholly unhelpful.
Sam thought about saying 'good night, Dean.' He turned it over in his mind, mouthed the words noiselessly to himself. He considered that Dean might not say anything back, and imagined how that would go. That hanging silence. That crippling moment of mortification, red-faced and stricken and rejected, all of it.
There was too much at stake. Sam rolled over to put his back to Dean, and said, "Turn off the light, huh?" before resolutely shutting his eyes.
He wasn't really expecting to be able to sleep, but it had been a long night, a long long drive. Sam went limp as he slipped sideways from gnawing emotional terror into a more garden-variety nightmare, something about ocean monsters, kraakens and giant octopuses. It came as a pure relief. He would much rather fight something that he could put his hands on. Hours and decades passed with him triumphantly lost at sea.
And then when he woke up, the room was empty.
It was the single worst moment of Sam's life to date.
Alone in the room, murky colors of dawn coming in through the window where Dean was no longer standing, and Sam's whole body went cold. His mind stuck in place, gone gone gone, which was the only word to call it, the only word that fit.
It was really only a moment. There was a note on the bedside table, a little hand-drawn map to a nearby diner. It was written in Dean's hand, and felt like a letter from beyond the grave. Sam crumpled the bit of paper against his face, leaned forward and put his head between his knees until his breathing evened out.
Then he got up and got dressed, and went to find his brother.
The diner was one of those places catering specifically to long-haul truckers. The coffee could strip paint and came free with the purchase of at least five gallons of diesel. The supply was never-ending, the small thoughtless motion of the waitresses topping someone up enacted over and over again in the background. The special was steak and eggs for $6.99, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Dean was seated at the counter, way down at the end by the jukebox. There was a small stack of quarters at his elbow, a half-finished plate of fries and white-mugged coffee pushed out of the way for the newspaper that he had spread out but wasn't reading. Dean's back was defensively braced, as if expecting to be shot from behind. Sam watched him from the doorway, feeling mournful and yearning and hopeless and other annoying things. He didn't know what he was going to do if it turned out that he'd fucked things up too badly to be put right.
Dredging up every last shred of his courage, Sam made the trip down the length of the diner, and took the stool next to his brother.
Dean's face was angled down, but Sam caught the flick of his eyes, awareness of Sam's presence shimmering over him. Dean curled his fingers into the handle of his coffee mug, didn't pick it up.
Sam pulled a menu out of the metal holder. It was just for something to do, something to look at that wasn't Dean. A minute passed. Maybe a little bit more.
A waitress with tiered amber hair and bright pink nails came over to take Sam's order of coffee and apple pie. Sam did his best to keep from glancing at Dean when he asked her to put a slice of cheddar on it.
Then it was quiet again. Sam had this awful feeling that the rest of his life might be spent sitting beside Dean in various states of torturously awkward quiet. And that was only if he got to keep sitting beside Dean at all.
Sam twisted his hands together under the table. Probably stupid to come here, no matter how heart-stopping the empty motel room had been when he'd woken up, no matter that it had felt like Dean had taken Sam's skin with him when he left. Just seeing Dean should have been enough, he didn't need to sit down next to him and order pie too.
Dean sighed, and pushed a hand through his hair. He looked at Sam, weary and still-baffled and pissed off and everything else. There were brand-new lines on Dean's face.
"You're a pain in my ass, Sam, you know that?"
Sam wrapped both hands around his coffee, staring down. The cheap ceramic was hot enough that he could feel his palms turning red.
"Yeah, think I've heard it before," Sam said.
A moment passed, now that the ice was broken. Sam had never really understood that expression. Broken ice was bad, in his experience. It meant you were about to fall into a freezing lake and be nearly drowned by the clothes you were wearing.
"It didn't mean anything," Sam told him in a very low voice.
Dean didn't give any indication that he'd heard. He was fiddling with his fork, constructing an idle log cabin out of cold french fries. Sam stared at Dean's hands, scuffed white scars and nicks, freshly ragged thumbnail. He wondered how many days of their lives he could reconstruct given only Dean's hands as a map.
"Didja see that semi in the parking lot with the naked chick mudflaps?" Dean said. "I thought those were all extinct."
Sam blinked very slowly. There was something thick in his throat.
"No, I, uh. I missed it."
"I'll show you when we leave. Are you eating that pie or what?"
Without waiting for an answer, Dean leaned over and forked the point off Sam's piece of pie. He chewed through a pleased grin, and Sam pushed the plate over to him because it was pretty obvious that was where it was going to end up regardless. Dean tucked in, thumping Sam on the arm instead of saying thanks.
The waitress came by to fill up Sam's coffee again. He burned his tongue on the first sip, busy watching Dean covertly, relief flaring so hot and bright that he could feel his face coloring. It was like waking from a dream where he had been about to die. Sam was honestly shaking with it, and he gripped his hands together under the counter until the worst had passed.
So, okay, Sam thought, it will be okay, because Dean was pretending it hadn't happened and that was the right thing, that was for the best. It was like fixing the timeline, going back to erase the moments that would prove unsustainable. It was almost exactly like being forgiven.
Dean mumbled, "Good pie," and Sam nodded helplessly in dumb response, gazing at his brother as if he were the world's last working source of light.
They went to Chicago and Dean got his meatball sub from the place near Wrigley Field. They took almost two grand out of a strip of bars and pool halls in Lakeview, dirty neon beer signs bleeding color on every scene, cocky red-faced frat boys in backwards baseball caps, and then they were rich, back in the high life again. They drove along the coast of the lake as far north as they could without crossing the Canadian border, and then turned around and came back.
It was an aimless unspecific kind of driving. They flipped a coin to figure out which highways they should take.
Sam ran daily searches on the internet for a case, kinda torn about it. He was sick of the flatland and sick of not having a direction, unbearably useless right now, but he didn't think it would be entirely helpful to add the life-or-death tension of the job to everything else they were already dealing with. Staying on the road was like retreating to a favorite place, all those thousands of hometowns they'd known.
It was still a little weird.
Dean hadn't started changing in the bathroom or some shit like that; it was more subtle than that. He didn't shoulder in next to Sam to brush his teeth in the morning, but instead actually waited his turn like a reasonable human being. He brought Sam the cream and sugar for his coffee, but didn't fix it up when he was fixing his own. Like it meant something, knowing how Sam took his coffee and fixing it up for him, like some kind of secret gay code.
There was an edge on their moments of silence now, a gnawing over-awareness of each other. Sam found himself apologizing when he bumped into Dean in doorways and narrow hallways, shying away. Dean kept fiddling with his ring, twisting it on and off--he noticed what he was doing and visibly stopped himself, but then half a minute later he was back at it again, thoughtlessly anxious. There was an undercurrent of suspense, an electricity in the air. Sam figured it was the potential for disaster, stalking them as diligently as any demon.
He was ignoring that stuff for now, like a man with terminal cancer still going to work every day. As long as Sam could pretend things were all right, he intended to do just that.
In a motel room somewhere in Indiana, Sam and Dean were playing Mystery Science Theatre 3000 with a horrible late-night HBO movie turned down low. Dean made Sam dub for the heroine, which Sam agreed to only because he was kinda drunk and Dean kept giggling like an idiot every time Sam went into a falsetto.
They were sitting on their separate beds, the little table between them crowded with tapped bottles and Coke cans. Two empty pizza boxes were stacked on the carpet. They had been stuck inside all day, rain slashing at the windows and puddling ankle-deep in the alcove where the vending machines were.
Dean had lost the coin flip and had to go for sodas the last time, and still his T-shirt was a bit damp at the shoulders, his hair glistening. Sam wasn't looking, though. He was watching the movie.
The hero was running through a dockyard (a ship of munitions having been highjacked by evil drug smugglers, of course), a black gun stuck to his hand. Villains leapt out at him from behind blocky cargo containers, huge coils of rope, and the hero belted them one after another, a single blow and they'd crumple, vanquished.
"Dastards!" Dean said in the robust goofy hero's voice he had adopted. "I got pistol-whippings enough for all of you fuckers! Hi-yah!"
The shot flipped to the kidnapped heroine, bound to a chair in a warehouse, her eyes bugged as she tipped away from her leering captors.
"Eek," Sam said in his girl's voice, and Dean chortled happily into his beer. "Save me! Oh hurry, you brave man!"
"Ka-pow!" Dean shouted as the hero almost kicked a bad guy's head off his body. "That'll teach you to sign up as an extra in an action movie."
Sam snickered. He was just drunk enough that he felt like he was glowing inside, and everything Dean said was hilarious. Just exactly drunk enough that Sam could forget for whole minutes at a time that thing that had happened back in Topeka.
It was working out pretty well, until the hero inevitably battled his way to the girl, dispatched the last few evil drug-smuggling henchmen in a flurry of martial arts and strategically non-fatal gunshot wounds. Dean provided more exaggerated fight noises, like reading a comic book aloud, and Sam chirped the heroine's relief, and there was a great series of explosions, orange-blossoming fire raking across the docks. Then the girl was cut free and swept up into the hero's embrace, and both Sam and Dean went perfectly quiet.
The hero bent his arm behind the girl's back and kissed her, one of those epic life-saving kisses that you only ever saw in the movies. Sam stole a glance at Dean and Dean was watching the scene with his face impassive, showing nothing at all.
It was such an idiotic thing to be derailed by, and after they'd been doing so well. Sam's face was hot and obvious, his hands twisted in the bedcovers. Difficult to stomach it, so fucking difficult all the time, and it felt like Sam's blood was going to vibrate right out from under his skin. His teeth dug hard into the inside of his cheek, a sharp bright point of pain that held him in place.
The hero released the heroine and they beamed at each other for a second, the dockyards burning around them. Sam swallowed, sick to his stomach and wishing they had just stuck with cartoons.
The volume was too low to hear what the hero said that made the girl throw her arms around him and bury her face in his neck. Sam crossed his fingers for luck and said hoarsely, "Think that was your line, Dean."
It was a gamble, a dreadful risk. It was something that might have been played off as a joke a month or two from now, but not this close, this raw and recent. Dean took a drink of his beer, slow and considering.
"Holy awkward, Batman," Dean said.
Sam snorted, a weird little bark of a laugh chipped off. He chanced a look at Dean and found Dean looking back, a sardonic curl to his lip, his eyebrows tipped upwards. Very old look on Dean's face, well-known and blatant: funny, Sam, it's pretty funny, right?
It was; it always had been patently ridiculous. A breath fell out of Sam that felt like it weighed a thousand pounds, huge and sudden because it was so stupid. Every other curse they had to contend with, every black fraction of the famed Winchester luck, every ghost tacked to their heels, and on top of it all, Sam had been infatuated with his brother for a dozen years. It was a comic degree of overkill.
Sam gave Dean half a smile, yeah pretty funny Dean, his face still bright red, heart still pounding. Dean smirked at him and settled back.
On screen, the hero and the heroine were in a helicopter being lifted away from the firebombed wharf, ash smudged on their faces, clothing artfully torn just so. She was tucked under his arm, both wearing solemn we-have-survived expressions.
The heroine murmured something unintelligible. Sam offered in his girly voice, only a little unsteady, "Heavens, what an adventure."
The hero smiled and hugged her tight. Dean spoke for him, victorious and cocky as all hell, "Just another day in the life, honey."
A hard grin broke unexpectedly on Sam's face. He didn't dare look over at Dean, not sure if he didn't want Dean to see his face or the other way around. The whole thing was very precarious. It was card house built on sand, and the wind was picking up.
Nothing was ever going to be like it was supposed to be, Sam decided as they rolled on down the road.
He was driving; he'd had to pick Dean's pocket to get the keys, unable to face another day in the shotgun seat with nothing to distract him but the other cars on the highway and the sideways angle he had on Dean's hands. Dean had bitched about Sam's underhanded tactics, but only for ten minutes or so before he slouched down and took a nap against the door, so Sam figured he wasn't actually mad.
Driving was so wonderful and mindless. Sam went just fast enough to pass everyone else, and no faster. He was in that road-trance place, highway hypnosis better than a drug, fuzzing out the forefront of his brain like a half-completed lobotomy.
Sam rubbed his chin on his shoulder, sneaking a look over at his brother. Dean had his arms crossed over his chest, his mouth cocked open slightly. He was slumped in such a way that Sam knew he would wake up sore and irritable.
Nothing would ever be anything like what it was supposed to be.
Sam had spent years of his life petrified that Dean would figure him out. There would be a slip, a moment of weakness, Sam leaning in too close--pretty much exactly what had happened, actually.
And Dean would see it (wide-eyed, frozen, bloody-mouthed), and the struts of the world would snap and it would all come tumbling down. Sam had lived the confrontation a thousand times, a hundred different ways. Dean would be stunned and horrified. He wouldn't be able to look at Sam. He would stammer and blink a lot and try not to freak out but it wouldn't work. He would be betrayed and repulsed and guilt-stricken (because everything that happened to Sam was eventually Dean's fault), and Sam would have to watch it all.
That was how Sam had always expected it would go. That was what had kept him so tense and unlovable back in high school, that permanent snarl on his face. The sure knowledge that if Dean ever found out how Sam felt about him, 'hate' would not be the right word, not by half.
Sam glanced at his brother. Dean was snuffling in his sleep, pushing the back of his hand across his nose. Sam had underestimated Dean's general devotion, or possibly overestimated his moral code. Sam had forgotten that the list of Dean's priorities was brutally short, and keeping Sam with him was at the top, in bold and underlined and circled a dozen times. Dean would tolerate almost anything to maintain the fragile remains of his family, and there was the operative word, family--it had come to mean different things to the two of them. Different definitions.
It wasn't a new piece of knowledge, Sam's awareness that Dean was and always had been a much better person than he was. Always a step behind, Sam was, always keeping one eye out for himself. There was a lovely kind of self-absorbed self-destruction in wanting only the things he couldn't have. He was trying to do better, though.
Sam still wanted to get his hands on Dean, still drifted there when his mind was wandering. That was only habit. It ached in the core of him, but it was different now, weathered and nostalgic. Less fear and more resignation. Less visceral. Now it was just another thing that was never going to happen.
For the best, Sam thought, and blew past a just-married Cadillac with congratulations written in soap on the window, strings flying back from the bumper, the cans knocked off miles ago.
There was a sign that read, KENTUCKY AND POINTS SOUTH. Sam pressed the pedal to the floor, watching Dean's body jolt slightly in his seat as the car leapt forward. Dean muttered something, shifting around and unconsciously sucking on his lower lip.
Sam pushed a weary hand through his hair, and kept driving.