Eighteen miles out of Cessily, the car gets a flat tire.
It's not the first time by a long shot, but Dean bitches plenty when he fishes the tools out of the trunk and jacks her up. Muscles strain and flex under his t-shirt with every heavy push and pull, and Sam leans back on the flank of the car and watches, sun in his eyes.
He wants to reach out and touch the curve of Dean's ear, the subtle slope of the rim that angles upwards. He wants to thumb sweat from the nape of his neck and see if it tastes the way he smells just then: salty and dirty with love for the car. He wants a lot of things, each one more complicated than the next.
Instead he folds his arms across his chest and tucks his hands beneath them.
They pass through Ohio with a storm, a little ahead at first and then a little behind. By the time they reach the far border the clouds are four different shades of gray, sooty and black where they hit the horizon. It's not even four and their fog lights are on, windshield wipers at full blast.
"Fuck this noise," Dean says when they fuel up, wind still vicious as it tears along the cement of the parking lot. He turns up the collar of his coat and hunches his shoulders, and for a second he looks very small.
There are times Sam imagines he can see the slow fade happening right under his nose, like every time he looks at Dean there's a little less of him there. Like one day he might look up and find he's gone, scattered into nothing like a spirit shot with salt.
Sam's the kind to let go when he gets his hands on liquor. He drinks to get drunk, any brand or refinement. Dean was stealing sips of the hard stuff by the time he was twelve, and he's had time to get choosy about it.
After a bad exorcism in Georgia, they end up sharing a bottle of whiskey. Shots slowly drift into swigs straight from the glass bottle, each pull a little sloppier and longer than the last. It's warming, buzzing in his limbs like hazy comfort and taking up the room in his mind he would have allotted with worries. He might have lay there thinking about the hunt, but instead his thoughts just drift over it, never once touching down on the sorrow it should bring.
Dean's quieter than usual, humming an absent and never-ending version of Blue Oyster Cult's "Godzilla" while he flicks cards, one by one, towards the goal between his feet. After two years of poker they know every stain and tear in the whole pack, and Sam bends another tell-tale fold on the deuce of spades while Dean loops around to his chorus again.
He's hazing on the edge of passing out when Sam sets the bottle down and slides into bed behind him, one arm settling around his middle. They're both restless sleepers, and he knows that by morning they'll have rolled into a different, safer position. He just needs to feel the shape of Dean's body, the lines of his muscle and the steady beat of his heart.
Dean hums when he touches him, like a sliver of acknowledgment, but he doesn't pull away.
The last credit card gets maxed out in October, and they don't fill out new applications. Dean doesn't want to run that kind of scam anymore.
"I'm not leaving you with all that shit hanging over your head," he says, no room for question. It doesn't matter that the statute of limitations on their previous crimes won't be up until people are colonizing the moon; Dean won't have it.
It means harder work and less time to dick around, because all they've got to live on is what's hustled over pool tables. Bars are all business now: finding a mark, buttering it up, going in for the kill. It means money tighter than it's been since they were kids and it had to stretch to fit three people's needs.
They land in a crumbling old building when they pass through Akerley, Maryland, the town with nothing but seventy dollar rooms. There's wax on the windowsills in a rainbow of dull colors, and they light candles there like the hobos or teenagers before them.
Dean spreads out two bedrolls made from Goodwill blankets, and Sam crawls in with his boots still on.
Sam reads a lot these days. He reads books, articles, digests, spells, pamphlets, newspapers, definitions, directions and lore. He reads until he thinks Dean's life-long warnings about needing glasses someday will come true, and then he reads something else.
His entire life, this was his gift. He didn't bring much to the table as a skinny teenager who'd been kept in the dark for the better part of his life, but there wasn't a ritual or answer he couldn't unearth when he put his shoulder to a library. It's why, over time, their dad started to rely on him more than a hunting buddy with an entire retirement at his disposal.
The difference between those times and now is that he used to stop when he found his answer.
"You got to promise me something," Dean says one night when they're sitting on the trunk eating fast-food. Sam pushes a mouthful of chicken-ranch burrito into his cheek.
"Tell me you won't make any deals," he says, not looking at him. "Not ever, not after I'm gone."
Sam doesn't answer for long moments, feeling the slow wind brush over his skin.
"Why would you ask me that?"
"Just don't," he says. "Promise me that. I can't stand the idea of this going on forever. One of us always about to die. Where I'm headed—" He breaks off and takes another bite. When he speaks again, it's thick through layers of tortilla and chicken. "I don't want you to follow."
He can almost put his finger on the instant that Dean seemed to collapse inward, the false bravado of his first few months hollowing into quiet acceptance.
It doesn't alter their day to day lives any, it just gives them a sense of purpose, a weight they never had before. They can cram more hunts into any given month, drive a little further when the hours stretch on. They're biding their time waiting for the inevitable, even if they can't quite admit it.
Dean doesn't sleep at night while Sam drives, even when he's silent. His breaths never even out, his body never loses its controlled tension. Sam lets him pretend to nap as the stereo drifts between ballads and foot-stompers, content to know that for now there's nothing nipping their heels but the victory of one more hunt.
He's not sure if he's the only one counting days when they end, or if they both keep that calendar in their heads.
They squat in places they stumble across.
In Illinois it's a foreclosed house with chipped yellow paint. The upstairs is littered with odds and ends: plastic bags, lightbulb boxes, a sweater. An amber-colored glass lamp is still plugged into the wall with a fraying cord, but the electricity's been shut off.
There's a hollowness to the rooms that's unsettling, running deeper than the lack of furniture, colder than the air slipping in through cracked bathroom windows. Things happened here before the hasty retreat. It's a place where lives were lived and dreams were given up on. Even in the absence of warmth and life, there's a sense of expectation in the air, like the former occupants might come back to get it right.
Dean cleans his weapons for entertainment, and Sam sits on crossed legs and watches. He has work of his own, but all he can do is sit there and wait, like the stillness might swallow them both whole.
"I don't want to be cremated," Dean says out of nowhere. Sam rubs his cold hands together, and when he doesn't answer, Dean adds, "I don't like the idea of it. Never have."
"You prefer rotting in the ground?"
"Yeah, I do." Dean scratches at his stomach, as casual as if he were discussing dinner. "It's not like we gotta worry about my spirit hangin' around, and— I've seen the salt and burn too many times, Sam. It's not pretty."
"None of it's pretty," Sam says. Inexplicable anger licks through him, making his fingers curl unforgivingly around the motel remote. "Nothing about death is pretty, Dean."
A muscle in Dean's jaw works, and Sam turns back to the TV, jacking up the volume. It's his way of trying to have the last word, but Dean just raises his voice until his answer carries over the racket.
"There's a lot of burning where I'm going, Sammy. I'd prefer if it wasn't a theme."
Sam prays when he can.
There's no real rhyme or reason to it, and it doesn't follow any pattern. It's when he's filling up a 44-ounce soda at the Circle-K; when he's sitting in the corner of a bar with a beer in front of him, watching Dean set up a shot; when he's cracking the spine of a book older than he is.
They're little pleas sent up as they occur to him, for Dean and for their dad and for Jess. For Madison and for Andy. For all the people he wasn't in time to save and all the lives lost because he was slow or stupid or going to college.
Dean loses a bet in Alabama and Sam takes his payment inside the walls of the First Baptist Church in Blackburn. Dean hunches his shoulders and won't take his jacket off for the service, but Sam grips his arm the whole time, staring ahead at the crucifix on the far wall.
It's not his kind of faith, but it still gives him hope. He has to believe there's something more than the dirtiness of deals, always bargaining and haggling to get what's important. He has to believe that since the foundations didn't crumble the minute Dean set foot inside, he's not entirely lost yet.
They break into a condemned house in Oklahoma with just a few pieces of furniture to its name, left there like an afterthought. The only bed is a queen, no box spring, and they put down several layers of blankets over the mysterious stains.
"You try starting a pillow fight or braiding my hair," Dean says as they pull a wooly quilt over them, "I'm sleeping in the bathtub."
Sam rolls his shoulders a little, trying to get comfortable on the busted spring pushing up against his side.
"There isn't one."
Dean elbows him, and Sam kicks his shin under the covers. He falls asleep with one hand wrapped around Dean's forearm, keeping it at bay.
"You don't know what it was like," Dean says when Sam pushes him to his breaking point. His face doesn't redden when he's mad, it just goes white and cold. "I had to watch — Sam, I had to feel it. You were dead, gone, never coming back. I had to carry you to the car and know you were dead. I'm guessing you don't remember that quite as well as me."
"I don't know what it was like," he admits, swallowing down uneasiness. He sets his lips in a thin line as he stares down at the floor. "But I have to look forward to it every day."
Dean shakes his head and turns away, letting out a tight breath. It sounds like a little like a laugh, anger gone so far it's come around again at amusement. Sam doesn't make the mistake of thinking that it's genuine.
"I would do it again, Sam." He turns back around to face him, voice suddenly quiet and rough. "In a heartbeat. Give me a thousand freakin' mulligans, and that's still what I would do. Don't you ask me to apologize for that."
Fists form in Sam's lap of their own volition, useless and desperate. "It's selfish."
"That I'd rather be dead than see you that way? Because apparently that makes two of us, Sam."
They sit there for a long moment, the truth of that fact enormous and unsettling.
Dean has the kind of hands that are skilled and slow, that can string out pleasure and rebuild an engine. He thinks with his hands, understands things by taking them apart and putting them back together. He knows how to reach into the heart of something and leave it a little better for having known him.
Sam's hands aren't like that. For all their strength, they're awkward under the hood of the car, flustered by the wires and moving parts. It might be the left-brain/right-brain problem, he's not sure. All he knows is that the cool logic of machinery and the ways it can be reasoned with are Dean's domain, not his.
There are times when he's struggling with spark plugs or a wrench that Dean will reach in and slide those smart hands right over Sam's. He guides him until he gets it right, and then slaps him on the back. Says maybe Sam's a little more of a dude than he gave him credit for.
Sometimes he just supervises, a glint of pride in his eyes that's bright like sunlight on water. Those are the moments that make the rest of it worth it.
Plainsboro has a motto: From Solid Roots, Strong Branches.
Snow banks line the street when they arrive, three feet thick on all sides.
There isn't much left of the previous week's money, and Dean's mouth is a tight, stressed line when they rent a motel room. It's too cold to try to hole up anywhere. He lays two twenties and a ten on the cracked wooden desk and stares down the clerk like he's a highway bandit.
Sam walks across the street and buys them a dinner of junk food for just under four dollars.
"Snowballs," Dean says with a smile when he tears open the Hostess packaging. He bites all the way down to the marshmallow center, pink coconut smearing on his chin while Sam turns up the heater.
"You've got a thing," he says, reaching over to wipe thumb it off.
There are three bedrooms in the Bosler house, and only two of them have beds.
"You want — ?" Dean starts. He breaks off and scratches the back of his head uncertainly, but Sam understands his meaning, and why he can't ask if he wants to drag in the other mattress. It's been a long time since necessity kept them sleeping in separate bedrooms; the last time was Bobby's.
"It's fine," he says, and gives him a reassuring little nod before turning to leave. It's confusing why it feels so strange.
When he up after midnight, the glow of the streetlights is ruined by the boards over the window. It's an eerie, pale glow, almost like a night-light.
He takes a wild guess about what woke him up, voice thick with sleep.
When he comes closer, it blots out the light from the window altogether.
"I think this place has rats," he says conversationally, and even though Sam can't see him, he can imagine how he looks in remarkable detail — hands in the pockets of his plaid pajama pants, the golden hairs on his arms raised against the cold. Feet shoved in boots because, dude, tetanus.
"You want to sleep in here?"
"No," he says irritably, but the old mattress sags under his added weight.
The quality of light in Montana is different this time of year. It shines through thin layers of clouds, dulled by the haze of the sky, and it gives Dean's pale skin a funny sort of glow.
Sam can see his breath when he steps into the back yard of the house in Ridgefield. It's a squat two-story with a sale sign and untouched box of fliers on the parking strip, the third they passed on this street alone. The factory went out of business last year, and the town's full of these places. Empty rooms for the taking.
The place next door is dark and impassive, but there's a mean-looking dog in the yard. It barks up a storm at him while he stands there, but when it lays eyes on Dean it quiets down.
"Hey, boy," Dean says, smiling a little. Later, Sam finds him feeding it half a cheeseburger through the diamond-shaped holes in the fence.
The kitchen in Ohio has a cracked linoleum floor. Empty squares where an oven and refrigerator used to be show that it was once a yellow floral pattern, but years of use have tanned most of it a muddy brown.
They kiss there between the sink and breakfast nook, accidental and unsure.
He only intended to give Dean's arm a squeeze as they took opposite paths through the room, but they had both stopped for some reason, stood too close together. He could smell Dean's hair, wet from the not-quite-brown stream of water in the bathroom faucet, and feel the scratchy warmth of his flannel shirt. It wasn't until that moment that he realized how badly he wants it — has wanted it, for time that's not quite measurable.
When Dean breaks away he looks as afraid as he gets. It's subtle, his round eyes gone slightly wider, but so obvious to Sam that he stumbles back a few steps. The air is cool outside that halo of body heat, and Dean just stares at Sam's shoulder for a long moment before walking away.
He sleeps on his side that night, rolled away from Sam.
When Sam was a kid, the idea of a soul seemed fluid. He saw a TV movie once that showed it as a ball of light, a vulnerable wisp that ascended to heaven.
It's a difficult thing to pinpoint what makes anyone who they are, but with Dean he's sure he knows. It's not the swagger or the smile, or the smart hands; it's not the taste in music or the aversion to vegetables or the need to always be right.
It's his tendency to stumble in to take a hit meant for Sam and then play it off like chance. It's his pride and his fears, the small moments of cowardice that he'd never admit to. The heartbreaking vulnerabilities that Sam sees every day and doesn't comment on. It's the half-truths and broken promises and those rare moments of honest anger that leave his frame shaking. All the selfish ways he's not a good person and all the selfless moments he is.
It's everything Sam believes in, his template for right and wrong. When he tries to imagine a soul now, it's something fierce.
Sam sits on the edge of the patio in Bloomville and twirls a leaf between his fingers. They're all over the yard, brittle and brown. It crunches when he squeezes it in a fist, crumbling into pieces that scatter over his lap.
Dean nudges a beer against his shoulder when he steps outside. It's half-empty, the one he was drinking, and Sam takes two strong pulls before he hands it back. It might be a small tendril of forgiveness; Dean's not the type to hold grudges.
"Nice night," Dean says, settling in on the cement ledge.
It's possible that the things he sees out here are different than the things Sam's eyes pick up — crabgrass, the yellowed stalks of a flower bed choked with weeds, a water-logged clothesline left sagging and forgotten between two rusty poles stuck in the ground. It's possible that all the cold and loss and misery of the last few months have been as lost on him as he sometimes pretends — as Sam lets him pretend, when he's not close enough to see the weary lines around his eyes.
"It's okay," he says, voice rougher than usual. Dean's looking at him, but he doesn't look back.
There are pockets of prairie and countryside that attract tourists by the handful, people who want to buy home-canned peaches and walk through quilt shows. Here the slow drivers pull halfway off dilapidated roads and wave them past, good natured smiles flashing in rear-view mirrors. No one thinks the big, black car is ambling along to see the sights.
Sam lifts his hand in an answering salute when they pass each one, and Dean squints out the driver's side window.
The Winchesters lived in one of these places when Dean was sixteen. If Sam tries he can remember with startling clarity the sight of him standing at the tall metal gate to their house, one hand raised hold the sun from his face while he watched Sam walk home from school. He's never tanned very well, and that year he got a dirty band of color around the back of his neck.
Next summer— he starts to think too many times. Next summer.
Sam sits with his back against a rust-colored water stain and watches while Dean does push-ups. Sweat bleeds through his shirt and catches on the pull of muscles beneath, shadowing his pits and the dip of his spine.
They don't say anything under the covers that night, but he can feel Dean's body heat touch his skin across the space between them. All he can think of are the words he threw at him weeks ago: dead, gone, never coming back.
It's not a conscious movement to press his face against Dean's shoulder, but once it's there he can't pull away. The sweat on his shirt is stale, but it still smells alive, like proof that he's not gone yet. Proof that he's still fighting to survive.
Dean sucks in one sharp, uncertain breath, but then it slides out again like a sigh, and a hand comes up to touch the back of Sam's head. It's sympathetic if not entirely understanding, but it feels just right.
They lay like that for a long time, awkward shadows moving on the wallpaper as their candle burns itself out.
He feeds Dean two Vicodin in their room outside Devon and sews up the gash in his side with practiced fingers. Dean's blood is dark on his hands, and his breaths are slow and labored. Sam's never seen a bar fight go south so fast.
The row of stitches is small and neat, two inches of railroad tracks across his ribs that could have been much worse. He thumbs at the skin next to the wound, throat tight at how thin it seems. Not enough of an anchor. Not nearly enough.
"Sam," he mutters thickly.
"Hey," he says, easing him back on the mattress. He can't stop his hands from greedily touching the side of his face, the bristles of his hair. "I got you."
Dean's too stoned to lodge any complaints with the phrasing, so Sam says it again, the thick weight of his brother's body still half in his lap.
"I got you."
Dean leaves in the early morning to warm up the car, and by the time he comes back Sam's up and about, rummaging in his duffel bag for fresh clothes. He's got his shirt off, sweat pants slung low on his hips as he digs for a shirt at the bottom of his bag. He's still looking when Dean steps up behind him.
He knows he's there with the absent, instinctive awareness they always have, years of moving as the same person heightening his peripheral sense. It still comes as a shock when cold fingers touch his bare shoulder, turning him around.
He means it this time, lips and tongue and teeth all proving that much. He kisses him like Sam's a girl, like it's something he wants. Knowing fingers touch the sides of his face, nice and cool on Sam's flushed skin.
"Dean," he whispers, and it's all he can say. Dean, Dean, Dean.
It never would have happened if Sam hadn't died.
The real them, out there somewhere on a highway that doesn't have an end, never would have done this. There's something comforting in knowing that; it soothes the sting a little.
It's easier to fuck things up when you're living on borrowed time.
"Did you ever think," Sam says one night, touching Dean's collar bone under the covers. His knuckles rub down his stomach carefully, low enough to feel the scrape of hair. "About this?"
"No," Dean says, raw and honest.
"No," Sam agrees.
Dean touches a loving hand to the smooth wooden banister in a lawyer's office in New Jersey. Sam watches through narrowed eyes as he runs his fingertips over it, making a memory. He presses his palm to the cold stainless steel of an elevator door a week later, and rubs the split-ends of Sam's hair against his lips when he thinks Sam's fallen asleep.
"Is there anything you want to do?" Sam asks a few days later. "Anything you've wanted to do?"
Dean grins. "What, you got the Make-a-Wish Foundation on the line? See if Claudia Schiffer's available this weekend."
Sam scrubs a hand over his face.
"I just thought you might want to do something productive with your time," he says, as evenly as he can. "Instead of spending it here, like this."
"Sam." Dean pauses, knife poised over the whetstone. He looks at a point in the distance for a moment, somewhere near Sam's foot. When he meets his gaze again, it's with a little smile. "I'm doing what I want to be doing."
Sam lays on the brown carpet in Missouri and listens to the noise of water dripping down into buckets. Morning light is soft and muted through the masking tape on the windows. It throws speckled patterns on the far wall, blue and green like sea glass.
Dean holds the sides of Sam's face and kisses him, mouth wandering over cheeks and forehead and chin. He's slow and careful like he's got all the time in the world, the wet inside of a lip catching on one of Sam's eyebrows and lingering there. It's cold outside the damp, warm air beneath the blankets, their comfortable burrow of skin on skin.
"We've still got time," Sam says, lost in a breath against the hollow of Dean's throat. "I've still got time, I'm going to—"
Dean squeezes his eyes shut in the same fierce, closed look he gets when he's coming, and Sam goes quiet.
There's nothing on the road where they stop in Sandusky County. Desolation spills out on all sides of the hill, stretching into miles of farmland and fields.
If it weren't for the telephone poles, they might be at the end of the world.
Dean pops the hood and wipes down the oil stick with a crumpled paper towel. It's a simple thing, so basic and easy that the emotions it stirs in Sam's chest are complicated. He can't even remember how many times and places he's watched him do that, the specifics worn down in his mind to nothing.
He stands near the front of the car, kicking the grit of small stones off the road and into the frozen mud puddles that line it. Out over the fields, a flock of birds is moving as one. Their wings dip and rise, black against the brown of dead grass.
"Hey," he says after a minute, and Dean straightens up. He looks at him in a way Sam hasn't seen in a long time, eyes clear and bright and ready. Sam pauses, not entirely sure, and then kisses him right there in the road.
When Dean leans into it, pulling Sam's bottom lip between his teeth, he sends up another little prayer. Selfishly.