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Dean had thought – all right, Dean had hoped – that when he finally got out Sam would be there with the Impala parked outside and a bag of greasy burgers waiting in the passenger seat. It was all he could think about in the first long nights of purgatory, when he allowed himself to think about it at all. Before he’d made himself stop thinking altogether.

But when Dean opened his eyes to the world of the living, his brother wasn’t there. No one was there, and the only food around for miles was probably tainted with hazardous chemicals. He was in the lab where they’d ganked Dick, the walls coated with congealed leviagoo. He half expected that he’d have to fight his way out of bigmouth central but the whole building was deserted; papers left on tables and screensavers going nuts, like all the drones had left in the middle of the workday for a fire alarm.

There were signs of a fight in the lobby, broken glass and such, but there weren’t any more goo smears. The leviathans were just… gone.

Outside the large sign was broken and Dean, for a heart stopping second, flashed back to running through a croat ravaged city until he remembered their plan to have Meg be a diversion. It still rankled him to know she’d been behind the wheel of his baby, however briefly.

The Impala was long gone now, though, either to leviathans, demons, or his escaping brother. Dean sent a silent prayer for the latter and felt a warm brush against his heart in return. Thanks, Cas.

He would have to walk.

+++


Dean had a plan for tracking down Sam, but he had a few hurdles to overcome first. Starting with the fact that he was back on the plane where his body belonged and that meant food and shelter and sleep were necessities. He hadn’t had to worry about those things in forever but after his stomach cramped and his feet started complaining it came back pretty quickly. He’d done something this once or twice before, after all.

The only cash he had available were the worn bills squirreled away inside his beaten up wallet but it was enough to hit the first gas station he could find for some power bars and the biggest jug of water he could find. It wasn’t until the door was dinging above him and the teenager behind the counter made to call 911 that he encountered his second hurdle. The mirrors hanging in the corners confirmed it – covered head to toe in monster blood was not a good look for Dean Winchester. There was an especially garish smudge around his mouth that was clearly a handprint.

Dean robbed the place, in the end. He wasn’t proud of it (my bad, Cas, hope that wasn’t a deal breaker) but he got to use his gun again and it kept the kid from calling the cops until he was already hoofing it out of there, so win-win. Plus, free gas station goodies. The bars were nasty, grainy, and far too sweet; but he hadn’t tasted anything in however long he’d been gone (aside from Cas’ tongue and a couple monster souls, which said way too much about his life choices lately) so he decided to toughen it out and power through. The water was better, anyway.

Dean remembered it was the same after his return from hell.

He left the kid’s car in a Wal-Mart parking lot and hoofed it to the one place a hunter could get everything he wanted, so long as he was willing to look like a homeless maniac while he got it: the truck stop. Safe and clean or skeezy and gross, you place your bets and you take your chances. Usually the more ‘homegrown’ stops had the crappiest security but Dean wasn’t exactly concerned with lying low at the moment. There was a Pilot right off the highway where he snuck a shower and a new ride.

Miracle of miracles, his credit cards were still valid and working. Which made the last part of the plan a little easier: obtain a laptop and track Sammy down. After a few false starts Frank’s lessons paid off – there was his baby brother, pixelated and sniffling on the video feed from the closest gas station near Roman Enterprises.

The date on the CCTV meant a year had passed while Dean was in purgatory. A whole year topside, when it had felt so very much longer. Still, he supposed, it could have been a lot worse. Time was a funny thing, after all.

+++


Hunting his brother turned out to be easier than he thought it would be. Sam pretty much drove a straight line out of Illinois across the Four States and into Texas. He’d been using his real name, too, which came as something of a surprise. The address Dean got from the motel guy turned out to be an actual house, another surprise. He stood at the curb for a minute, just looking, watching. There was a black tailfin sticking out from under a tree in the driveway – that had to be the right place.

He knocked, butterflies in his stomach. Something barked and scratched against the other side of the door and Dean damn near pulled his bowie knife when Sam answered, pushing a dog behind his knee. He had a big smile on his face and didn’t hesitate to open the door, no signs of paranoia or caution. Dean didn’t even see any sigils on the doorframe.

Sam’s smile disappeared when he saw who’d turned up on his porch. Dean had seen that look on his brother’s face way too many times for him to easily forget it.

“Dean?”

“Heya, Sammy.”

Sam stepped forward and Dean braced himself for a right hook, a splash of holy water in his face, the slash of a knife – anything except what actually happened: his brother collapsing his giant monkey arms around his shoulders and dragged him in close. Dean panicked for the briefest of seconds (too much heat, too much touch) but forced himself to relax against the soft-hard muscles of Sam’s chest. His flannel shirt scratched Dean’s chin and Sam’s aftershave was damn near overpowering, but he allowed it anyway.

Sam tucked his face into the crook of Dean’s shoulder, his voice muffled against the battered leather. “I thought you were gone forever this time.”

“Come on, Sammy. You know no one ever stays dead in this family.”

“Yeah. Except when they do.” It wasn’t until Dean heard his ragged breathing that he realized Sam was about to actually cry. And it was another full minute until he thought to raise his own arms to return Sam’s embrace. He turned into a real manhug to bolster them through the tension, with slaps on the back and downcast eyes when they finally pulled away.

Sam sniffed and rubbed his eyes. He turned back to the house – the dog was going apeshit behind the screen door. “Come in, man, you look like shit. How the hell did you get out?”

“Cas. And a really long ass walk.” Dean shuffled past the doorway, watching Sam push the dog – some kind of shepherd collie thing – into another room and close the door. He shuffled in his broken, slightly-melted boots, hesitant to leave the edges of the welcome mat. “You gonna check me out or…”

Sam jumped a little. “Uh, yeah, shit. Let me –” He pulled a silver knife out of his back pocket – one of the pair they’d picked up in Memphis after their Dad died. The shock of the blade on his forearm was a welcome one; it helps get his thoughts in order.

Sam had to go into the kitchen for the salt and holy water. The kitchen. He clearly had not been expected something potentially dangerous to follow him home. The apple pie life had surely made him stupid, if not soft. Dean would have to fix that.

He cupped a palm over the shallow cut, healing it absently while he looked around his brother’s living room. There were boxes stacked up in the corners, plastic still on some of the furniture. It smelled nauseatingly of fresh paint and pine-sol.

A toilet flushed down the hallway alongside the sound of water running, and then the light tread of a woman on the thick carpet was moving toward him. She was wiping her hands with a towel when Dean gets his first good look at her, willow-thin in comfortable clothes.

“That was quick. Did you have enough for a tip?”

She stopped when she saw Dean standing by her couch, a deer caught in oncoming headlights. Pretty and tall with dark curly hair; more Dean’s type than Sam’s, but she might’ve been just the right height to kiss his brother.

The moving boxes and fresh paint. The dog. Of course there’d be a girl to go along with it all.

She swallowed nervously but didn’t call for Sam. Dean was well aware he’d lost the knack of making himself appear harmless sometime between hell and his thirtieth birthday. The awareness of his work sat heavy in the lines of his face; though he could usually be counted on to pull out a smile for the rubes during interviews. He had no idea what his eyes were telling her now but he could see the pulse beating rapidly in the pale bow of her neck all the way across the room.

Sam came back with a glass and rubbed his hands together, glancing from where they stood to the girl on the other side of the room. Dean downed his ‘drink’ in one gulp.

“Um. Dean, this is Amelia. Amelia, this is my brother Dean. Turns out he wasn’t quite as dead as we thought?” He ended that sentence with a nervous laugh, his gestures all happy surprise and frightened confusion. Sam never had been that good of an actor when it counted.

Amelia swallowed again and rested a hand in the hollow of her throat. She made an effort to work past her fear, though, and Dean could respect that. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dean. Sam’s talked a lot about you.”

His smile came a little more easily, a little more devil-may-care. “All true, I’m sure. Except the part about being dead, of course. No zombie apocalypse for you. But still – work on that cardio, right?”

“Right. Dean?” Sam had his damage control gameface on. Apparently Dean’d laid it on a little too thick with that one. “You wanna sit down? I can get you a beer or something.”

“Uh… Can we go outside instead? Sit on the steps or something? Where we can talk.” Dean didn’t think Sam caught the hesitation in his voice, the rising edge of panic creeping into every breath of lemon fresh air. He needed to be away from the walls for awhile. But Sam’s shoulders fell and he knew he didn’t do as good a job of hiding his nerves as he’d hoped he had.

Dean nodded at Amelia and left the glass on the coffee table. Then he made a break for it.

There were trees outside Sam’s house, lots of them, and just having them in his line of sight made his shoulders relax. He raised his face to the sun and stretched out over the porch stairs, tempted to take off his boots and put his toes in the grass. It was nice there, a nice neighborhood. He was a little surprised Sam chose it, honestly; if there was one thing they’d learned early on it was that the nicest neighbors had the dirtiest secrets.

Sam flopped down a few steps higher than Dean so they could talk at eye level without actually having to look each other in the eye. “Jesus, Dean. I still can’t believe you made it out.”

“Neither can I.”

He tucked his left foot under the railing so it’d fit better, fidgeting until he was comfortable and then going very still. "Can I ask… What was it like?"

Dean shrugged. "Pretty much what you'd expect. Dark. Bloody. Full of monsters."

"I killed a nue. You know, from that website you found with the shojo?"

Sam nodded, sticking his lip out in consideration. "That's cool, I guess."

“Yeah. Talked to a unicorn."

"You lie.”

“Hand to god.”

“Seriously? Did it shoot rainbows out of its ass?"

"No! See, that's the first thing I thought of, too."

Sam snorted while Dean considered everything else he’d done in purgatory. Killed Gordon again. Learned how to use his soul as a duracel. Made friends with a couple fairytale monsters. Kissed an angel.

He thought about all those things. But didn’t actually talk about them. Old habits and all that.

“How’d things go on your end? This place looks awfully peaceful to be in the grips of a violent takeover. What happened to the leviathans?”

“As far as I know, nothing. They’re just gone. Like Dick took them all with him when he blew up. Roman Enterprises went bankrupt and their products got pulled from the market. Looks like someone’s giving us a happy ending, after all.”

“There are no happy endings, Sam, because nothing ever ends.” The stories just change after awhile. The memory had Dean curling his fingernails into his knees. “The big mouths are probably just hiding and plotting their comeback tour. Biding their time.” Sam nodded a little and Dean looked away, blowing out a frustrated sigh. He paused for a three-count and took a deep breath in through his nose and out through his mouth. “So. Amelia, huh?”

No matter how big his little brother got Dean could always count on bringing up girls to make him blush. “It’s a long story. One night stand that turned into something else. She’s nice. I like her a lot, Dean.”

“I can’t believe my baby brother’s playing house.” Sam nodded, looking a little overwhelmed himself. Dean couldn’t help reminisce about those months at Lisa’s, jumping at shadows and playing make-believe. It’d never felt right, not like something he’d actually wanted. But Sam… Sam never did anything halfway; once he made up his mind there was no changing it, come hell or high water. He wondered if Sam was even hunting at all, anymore.

“Does she know? About all this.” Dean tilted his chin to take in the happy neighborhood though Sam knew he meant what was usually hidden underneath the all those picket fences.

Sam shook his head, looking down. “She thinks you died fighting overseas.”

“Well, she’s not wrong.”

“Like her husband.”

Yeesh. “That sounds complicated. You gonna tell her the truth?”

Sam shook his head again and they lapsed into silence. They sat there, listening to Amelia or maybe the dog move around in the house behind them. Sam inhaled and turned to Dean, stretching his long legs out in front of him. “Where’s Cas? Did he come back with you?”

“No. Had to make a pit stop first. Wanted to ruffle a few feathers in heaven.”

“But he’s okay?”

“He was last I saw him. Shining and halfway to happy.”

A battered Toyota pulled up to Sam’s driveway. The driver bent over to fiddle with something in the glove box and Dean tensed up like a hunting dog when a bird landed in its yard.

Sam must’ve seen his hand creep toward the pocket where he kept his machete, now the home of the purgatory blade, but didn’t react one way or the other. The driver climbed out of the car – a pizza held in both hands. Dean deflated, the adrenaline leaving his body in a rush.

Sam used a big hand on Dean’s shoulder to haul his ass off the steps and greeting the pizza man at the curb, cutting the guy off at the pass to keep him from getting closer and wigging out his PTSD brother. Dean shifted on the steps and yelled loud enough to carry to the street: “Careful he doesn’t slap your rear!”

Sam moved the box to one hand and flicked Dean off without even looking at him. Dean was still snickering when he took the food into the house, the smell of hot cheese and bread lingering in his wake.

Sam stayed inside for awhile (probably to smooth thing over with Amelia) but came back out with paper plates full of pizza and two beers. “Sorry. All we ordered was Hawaiian.”

Gimme.

Somehow in the rush to find Sam Dean had forgotten completely about alcohol. Probably a good thing; the beer tasted nasty, a riot of conflicting flavors and bitter on his tongue. The pizza made up for it, though – greasy and cheesy and just the right texture, like everything he’d dreamed of in purgatory. He didn’t even pick off the pineapple, which seemed to startle Sam more than anything else had that night, even his dead brother showing up at his door.

Dean laughed at him and shoved more pizza in his mouth. “Sorry to barge in on you like this. I probably should have called first.”

“I would have hung up. It’s not every day your brother comes back from the dead. Every week, maybe.” They shared a smile. Sam put his plate behind him on the porch and leaned forward, hands dangling between his knees and suddenly serious. “I’m sorry I didn’t get you out.”

The pizza – delicious before – tasted ashy. He gulped down the hunk in his mouth and washed it down with beer. “Don’t worry about it, Sam.”

“There wasn’t going to be another eclipse for eleven months and there was no way to tell you when and where to expect the portal. I didn’t have the entire incantation, either, and you know we don’t fuck around with stuff like that.”

“And there’s the whole blood of the virgin thing.”

“Hey, it never specified you had to kill the person to get the blood or that you had to take it all at once. Loophole. It was the blood of a purgatory beast that was giving me trouble. There’s been a limited number of those walking around since the leviathans disappeared. So I was literally sitting in a hotel twiddling my thumbs and picturing the two of you alone in monster hell.” Sam gulped the rest of his beer and started picking at the label. “I thought a lot about what Bobby said. How we should let stuff go and not do anything stupid. So eventually I just…”

“Stopped trying.” Sam nodded, thumb peeling away at the sticky paper. There was glare on the horizon to the west as the sun sank slowly behind the houses; Dean watched it disappear instead of looking at his brother. “I think I knew that.”

The sky changed to a pale pink, then orange, then finally into early summer blue. It was black by the time the moon rose, though nowhere near as dark as Dean was used to. The moon was a flimsy crescent between power lines and Dean can’t help but marvel at the wrongness of it. He had the biggest urge to tilt his head and howl, calling up the fullness of the moon and setting the sky to rights, let the hidden creepy crawlies know this was his space. He imagined teaching Sam a different way to protect his house, the two of them standing somewhere high and letting the world know it was theirs for the taking. His mouth actually watered at the idea, his throat opening to let it all out…

But no. This was his brother next to him, Sam, and he didn’t need to fight for every scrap of peace he could find. Not anymore. He closed his eyes and touched the place on his chest where the unicorn touched him, where the amulet had rested all those years. He could feel his heart beating inside the confines of his ribs. They’re his again, to live in and control. He felt solid, secure… trapped. Held in place by bonds he could almost enjoy, if he let himself.

Sam looked like he wanted to touch Dean, to place a heavy hand against his shoulder and rub the pain away, but they had rules against things like that, against casual comfort. For a split second he regretted his own stubbornness and missed Cas terribly. God, he missed Cas with everything in him.

“Dean. Are you gonna be okay?”

“I dunno, Sam. I hope so.” He snorted. Hell, even that was an improvement over the last couple times he’d jumped ship into the afterlife. He hoped he’d get better. And that was enough of a start, he supposed.

“So what are you gonna do now?”

Dean frowned, looking into the sky for constellations. He didn’t see any he recognized. “I’m sure there’s something to hunt out there somewhere.” And he had to ask Sam, the words bubbling out of him without thought, even though he already knew the answer. “You comin’ with me?”

Sam flicked the shredded pieces of paper off his jeans and into the grass. “I… I don’t know. I mean, we just got settled here and Amelia’s dad’s coming down tomorrow.” He snorted and shook his head. “I’m meeting her family, Dean. It’s surreal.”

“Yeah.” Dean rubbed his hand over his mouth and set his bottle down. “Hell, man, I don’t blame you; I even tried the civilian life myself once. You keep at it – family’s hard to come by these days.”

“Dean.” Sam looked a little like his heart was breaking. (Like he had the devil riding his shoulder again, or a wolfgirl asking for a bullet.) But Sam was an adult now, and his eyes were dry. “Stay. You should stay. You just got back, we don’t even know what that means yet. You can sleep on the couch or we could get you a bed –“
But Dean was already shaking his head. “No. I need to keep moving, Sam. I’ve got too many monsters on my tail to stop just yet.”

For a moment Sam looked stricken; the expression so incredibly hounddogish that it startled a laugh past the burning in Dean’s chest. “Not literally, you dork, geeze. It’s just… I don’t know. I’ve been moving for so long it doesn’t feel right to stop yet. Gimme your phone.” It took him a second to figure out how to operate the screen – cell phones had gone and gotten fancy in the year he’d been gone – but eventually he typed his new number into Sam’s contacts. “When – if this falls apart… If you ever need anything, you call me. I won’t be far away.”

“Same here, man. Even if, you know, you just want to talk. The door’s always open.”

Dean geared himself up to go. He stood, went to hand Sam back his phone – only to have his brother grab his wrist instead. Sam’s eyes were watery where they stared at that connection, the tiny bit of skin where they touched. His chin quivered, ever so slightly.

Dean refused to believe it was weak to need something from someone you love. And he should have taught Sammy that by now. To hell with chick-flicks and being strong.

Dean used his other hand to set the phone on the porch and twisted Sam’s grip until their fingers were laced properly, palm to palm. He tightened his grip until his knuckles went white and Sam took in a deep shaky breath, holding onto his hand with just as much fierceness.

Dean didn’t look away from Sam this time. He stared down his brother the same way he dared monstrous beasts. Daring him to run and hide.

Sam looked back at him, for once the shorter of the two, and slowly their breath synced together, like it had when they were boys curled together on the backseat and telling stories.

Sam rolled their joined hands, a tender smile stealing onto his face. “Even you can’t wander forever, Dean. You’re gonna need to stop eventually.”

“Maybe. But not for a long time yet. There’s always more road.” He grinned, easy as the moon. “And you’ll be holding down the fort until I reach the end of it, won’t you? Fucking Ward Cleaver.”

It startled a laugh out of Sam and he ducked his head, wide mouth spreading into his little boy grin and showing all his teeth. He patted his other hand over their clasped one and Dean used the momentum to pull him into a hug, a proper one this time. It felt good, right, like all was well with the world. Or at least their little pocket of it.

After all, Dean did wuv hugs.

Sam sniffed and shifted backward, smile lingering. He loosened his death grip on Dean’s hand and dug a ring with three keys out of his jeans pocket, taking one of them off. Dean recognized it with a sudden and fierce hunger clawing up his gut.

Sam settled the key squarely in Dean’s greedy palm. “I think this belongs to you. If you’re gonna hunt then you need a hunter’s ride, right?”

+++


The Impala was as beautiful as she’d been in his dreams. Sam had even respected her like the lady she was and didn’t install any weird iThings onto her dash like last time Dean had gone walkabout. Her engine roared when he revved her up, a clarion call to something healing and guttural in his soul. Sam’s repair work to her grill and front fender wasn’t exactly perfect but it was all right; certainly something for Dean to be proud of, anyway.

After hugging his brother one last time, Dean drove away from the suburb full of picket fence bliss and down the road into the yawning darkness of the night.

It felt good having his baby around him again, just the two of them burning up the blacktop. The highway around them was quiet except for the rush of wind through the open window; the road was one of the older ones, rural, with trees boxing in the two lanes on either side.

He didn’t make it far until he had to pull over onto the dark tar of the highway. The trees before him were rocking in the wind, the rustling shushing sound that had been his constant companion for time uncounted. He watched the branches sway back and forth, to and fro, and missed his family.

Sam was… not out of his reach, not really, but not exactly his anymore. He’d moved on. Grown up. Gotten what he wanted. Or was getting close to it, anyway.

There wasn’t any rule that said it had to be one way or the other, that they had to choose between being a monster or a man. Being a person or a hunter. They – Dean – could be both. All he had to be was himself… and he was starting to see how that could be enough.

He didn’t think it was a deus ex unico that brought him reeling back into his body, back onto the path. It might have helped, sure, but he thought it’d started before that. When he made the decision to reach out and hold a friend’s hand in a land full of monsters, and to hell with the consequences.

He sat in the leather cushioned heart of his baby and watched the trees dance in the breeze. Then he closed his eyes and prayed.

+++



+++


God’s finger hovered over the DELETE key more times than he cared to think about.

Of course, it wasn’t an actual DELETE key; there wasn’t a computer or typewriter big enough for the Big Guy to get his thoughts down on. It was a metaphor for the thing, to help move the story along. Worlds within worlds, everything revolving together, all that jazz. God liked metaphors.

He also liked the world. And the things in it always stopped Him from going all the way, reminded him of what it felt like to be alone in the universe. Of the glory of finally connecting. It was the little things, generally – the brilliant madness of creatures put out to pasture, brothers finding the strength to not need each other so badly, children holding hands in the dark.

People creating stories to pass the time.

Naturally, he had his favorites; all writers did. He didn’t think anyone would mind if he kept using the same plotlines over and over again, anyway. Mankind’s narrative had gone so far beyond what he’d originally planned for it that he was constantly surprised by their tenacity, their creativity, curious to see how far down the road to Happily Ever After they’d be willing to travel.

It meant he was constantly revising and editing, moving things around until they worked just right. And then something would happen, something startling would change, and he’d have to do it all over again. The world was a never ending project. Something to do with eternity.

Because, after all, no story ever really ends. It just changes after awhile.





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