Title: The Barest Whisper Of A Bone-Dry Soul

Author: HalfshellVenus

Characters: Sam/Dean (Slash)

Rating: T

Summary: All the things Dean so desperately clung to have lost their luster.

Author's Notes: An AU from mid-season 4, written for my spn_25 challenge. This is "Mystery."

x-x-x-x-x

The roads are long and dusty, bleached-white bones of forgotten towns and abandoned dreams marking the miles along the way.

Dean still remembers.

In the too-long nights that follow the desolate days since returning from Hell, the faces find him. Some have names as real as his own, much too ordinary for evil or pity. Others return in wordless images, their eyes like a broken scream.

He belongs to them all.

His own agonies are less vivid now, replaced by the pain of others he once knew. It has always been Dean's downfall, to bend under the weight of wrongs that seek to destroy someone else.

If Sam knows, he doesn't say so. It was only three years ago that their roles were reversed, with Sam haunted by Jess' death and his own sense of failure. Nightmares destroyed his sleep and memories consumed everything in between back then. Sometimes he looks at Dean like he understands everything that's happening inside Dean's head.

There are nights Dean wakes in a flood of disorientation, drowning in the inability to remember which town, which case, which bed he's supposed to be in. For all the years he's been crossing that line with Sam, they still like to pretend that it's a 'maybe' thing and not something that happens more nights than not. Dean still books two queens instead of one king, still moves back to his own bed after he and Sam finish and the pounding of his heart has quieted. With Sam curled around him, breaths still coming in gasps and the sweat drying between them, Dean can't always make himself pull away before sleep claims them. But he'll always try, both for himself and for the look on Sam's face, the one halfway to reproach and not far enough from regret, the one Dean has cursed himself for since that first time when Sam was twenty-two.

He still wonders why Sam hasn't already deserted him again

They travel to Biloxi to investigate werewolf sightings, and a Woman in White joins Dean along a dark stretch of road leading from a farmhouse back to the motel. After all of these years, when he never held onto anyone long enough to wrong her, he knows what it means when he suddenly draws the ghost's attention. She's there because of what he's doing to Sam by loving him too much, though God help him, he can't find the strength to stop.

It's the only true thing he has left.

In Fayette, Dean cleans his guns on a sofa while watching Sam do research ten feet away. Dean's thoughts have already turned to Sam's long fingers, to how it feels when they course down his skin and grip him with practiced skill. Castiel's sudden appearance makes him blush, and for a moment Dean can't meet the angel's eyes.

He's just as shocked when the shame flares and dies seconds later, vanquished in a burst of unfocused anger and the thought that he's lost absolutely everything else, and he won't lose this. He's been Hell's bitch and now an angel's bitch, and neither side seems to understand that you can drive a man to the point where he just doesn't care anymore.

"There is important work for you to do."

Castiel might be referring to this moment, or reminding Dean of the short distance from here to the fate from which he was rescued. Dean returns his gaze coolly, gathering his weapons and preparing to leave as directed. The next week is lost in a fog of curses and symbols and unconsecrated souls that swarm across New England.

Dean and Sam spend two days outside Akron hunting vampires and edging around each other in awkward silence. At the motel, Dean catches Sam looking at him again and again with an unreadable expression. It could be resignation, judgment, or something else entirely, and God but Dean misses the days when he actually knew what Sam was thinking. He's completely surprised when Sam joins him the shower afterward, and the soapy glide of slick skin-on-skin is so breathtaking that Dean stays there with Sam until the water runs cold. Hours later, he falls asleep still wondering what it all meant.

Food is nearly tasteless most days, the sky never blue enough or bright enough. All the things Dean clung to a year ago have lost their luster.

The act of living is no different.

Dean dreams of fear and fire, of blood and anguish and the sound of tearing flesh. Some nights he wakes to an empty room, the evidence of Sam's secrecy and betrayal like another blow. Other times, the nightmares crumble under the weight of Sam's arms holding him close in all the ways Dean tells himself he doesn't need.

At the end of a week in Texas, where Dean finds himself trembling under Sam's touch for the fourth time in as many days, Dean realizes something's different. Sam comes to him as often as when Dean's year was running out, but the desperation's gone. Everything's slower, softer, with the heartbreak of Ruby and Anna and all the passing women before them finally laid to rest.

"I chose this too, you know," Sam whispers behind him, his voice gruff against Dean's ear as they lie spent against roughened sheets. "And I still do."

In Maine, a poltergeist hurls Dean through the front door before Sam finishes the banishing spell. Dean stares up at the stars, the wind biting over him and cold seeping in from the snow as he struggles to clear his head. Sam stumbles to the ground beside him, pulling him up close, the warmth of his mouth burning the last of Dean's confusion away.

There, in the darkness lit only by the snow, Dean feels his invisibility finally fading away.

In the middle of Arkansas, with the road winding slowly up toward the hills, Dean pulls over to stretch his legs. He walks out to a distant oak tree and back, returning to find Sam sitting on a boulder, face turned up toward the sun. Sam opens an eye and squints over at him. "Plenty of room for two," he says, sliding over.

Dean sits.

The meadow runs right to the base of the hills, a living carpet that moves under the wind. Flowers tilt and sway, vibrant flashes of color in a haze of green. Sam's arm comes around Dean's back, pressing warmly, and Dean feels the heat and the breeze all at once, a contrast so sudden that his breath hitches in his chest.

Birds sing overhead and under the brush, and Dean wonders how long it's been since he really noticed them, a matter of months or even a year? Surviving each day on its barest essence isn't the same as actually living it. The difference has defined him for far too long already.

As the sun-baked smell of earth and grass rises up through the scent of flowers, Dean feels the mantle of all that distance slip away. Sam's arm is solid against him, reassuring and as real as anything ever gets. I can have this, Dean realizes slowly. All that time he spent trying to avoid Sam's condemnation only blinded him to the answer that was always there in front of him. Somehow, he'd missed the only message he'd ever wanted to hear.

"I was so broken after you were gone," Sam says. "I didn't dare to hope for the kind of miracle the Trickster gave me before. I'm glad we got a second chance…"

This is what's been missing. Relief and warmth and happiness—so long forgotten—surge through the silent space inside Dean's heart.

He reaches for Sam's face, pulling him into a kiss that all the world, living or dead, can clearly see. Dean's been chasing this feeling all his life without finding it until now, never knowing how much it truly mattered

The rest can fall away forever into the dust.

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