Author notes: Thank you to anotheroracle, firesign10, and sylvia_locust for the beta help! Also, be sure to see the chapter at the freac_campDOTlivejournalDOTcom or on AO3, for the excellent fanart provided by quickreaver.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Pastor Jim rattled the key dramatically and threw open the door. "Take a good look around, boys, because you've got to leave it cleaner than this when you go or I'm never getting a plate of Linda's brownies again. And I will pass that sadness down the line."

Sam and Dean stepped cautiously over the threshold while Pastor Jim beamed at them. The living room held a handful of second-hand chairs in good condition and a massive, ornate table that seemed to have ended up in the three-room cabin by default. Fawns and ducks cavorted across the wallpapers, and the few knickknacks scattered on the mismatched coffee tables followed the forest-creature theme. The cabin had the air of a place that wasn't lived in, but kept tidy for guests.

Pastor Jim strode in after them, opening the blinds and fiddling with the thermostat next to the kitchenette. "Not that you shouldn't make yourselves at home," he added. "Linda and Jim—no relation—hibernate in Florida now, I doubt they'll get back before May. Most of their grandkids live down south now, too. You know Jim—Jim Jr., that is, about my age, we used to call him Pinkie, thank the Lord he grew out of that nickname—he lives in St. Paul, and he's about the closest, but he can't make it over here much either since the divorce. He's got two little kids, and as much as it's fun to see Grandma and Grandpa, he can't really take the time, you know?"

He moved toward the kitchen, and Sam and Dean drifted after him like a couple buoys bobbing in his after tow. "Anyway, this place is just for fun, since Jim and Linda also have a nice place in town. They don't mind a couple friends of mine catching their breath here for a few weeks, especially since I took care of a restless spirit in the lake out back sometime in the early '90s. Keep an eye on that, by the way—I swear I see weird ripples every time I come up, but Jim insists it's nothing, so it's hard to say if I should be worried or if it's just the old instincts acting up."

"We'll watch for it," Dean interjected, as Jim started going through the cupboards. Jeez, he'd forgotten how much the pastor talked. Pastor Jim hadn't drawn more than a couple of deep breaths since he met them at a comfortable family restaurant in the middle of Fairmont, a town only half an hour from Blue Earth, and a few sizes bigger. He told them about this friends' cabin, where he said Sam and Dean would be far more comfortable, with more room to breathe, than they would cooped up in his own guest room for as long as they'd need to heal. Jim had kept up an easy chatter all through lunch, which, distracting and frustrating as it could be at times, had been a blessing with Sam still looking a little pale and shell-shocked, moving gingerly with his arm in a sling. Sam hadn't said much during the meal, but Jim had addressed most of his comments to both of them, not seeming to require much of a response.

"Just what I figured," Jim announced with his head in the refrigerator. "What you've got in here is half a jar of olives, all the condiments you need—plus horseradish, which no one needs—and two dozen frozen hamburger patties, which, while passable, aren't particularly good for growing children who want to avoid rickets. You also have half a box of pasta, a can of green beans, and a bag of mostly solidified marshmallows. Sam, you want to settle in and unpack while Dean and I head over to Fareway on a food run?"

Sam looked up, his eyes wide and startled in his pale face, and something in Dean's chest constricted. He hadn't seen that lost, hollow look on Sam's face—or the body language radiating vulnerability and fear—since, well, probably the last time they'd met Pastor Jim. Life wasn't fucking fair, because if they'd run into Jim before that damn troll, Jim could've seen the awesome, confident, and kickass person Sam had really become.

Three days ago, Sam would have probably glanced at Dean before answering the question, even if it came from a stranger. Now, he just turned his face toward Dean, pleading with the minimal eye contact he dared. Dean forced a smile, and it hurt. "You'll be okay, right? We'll be quick, and you can take a breather." He knew that Sam had been struggling in the Impala to find a comfortable position and to hide the wince every time they hit a bump in the road.

Only when Sam swallowed and reflexively checked the exits (windows, doors, chimney) did Dean think maybe he shouldn't have mentioned the vulnerability.

Jim spoke before Dean could. "This place is as safe as I could make it. Jim and Linda had the money to reinforce it against ghosts and supernatural threats after they found out what was in the lake. The door can take a battering ram for about eight minutes, the windows are double-paned and tempered, there's salt and iron laid in the filigree around the foundation, and there's a civilian-style panic room." Jim didn't glance at Dean, nor did he offer his reassurances to him. He spoke directly to Sam. "Dean and I are the only people who are going to be coming up this road at this time of year, and we're going only so you'll have food . You're safe here."

"I got my cell phone," Dean said quietly, and pulled it out to glance at the screen. "A little over half the battery left, too."

Sam took a breath and nodded quickly, his jaw set. "I...I c-can unpack."

Dean handed Sam the keys to the Impala and listened to him turn the locks inside the cabin before getting into Jim's truck. As they pulled back onto the snow-crusted gravel road, Dean exhaled and sagged back against his seat back.

Jim glanced at him, quick and sharp. "That so?"

Dean kept his eyes on the road. "Goddamn hospital. If you'd seen him right before this—you wouldn't have fucking recognized him. I'm telling you, you wouldn't have."

"Bobby told me, after Christmas." Jim said mildly.

Dean glanced at him, surprised. "Yeah?"

"Yeah, we catch up now and then. What went down? Because when I end up at a hospital, it doesn't usually leave me jumping at shadows and double-checking the exits."

Dean gave him the highlights, adding detail where necessary and trying not to think too much about the words. Telling the story again—relaying to Jim the ultimatums that he had received, the reminder of what the goddamn papers said—made it impossible to ignore how close he'd come to losing control of everything. Losing Sam. Those fuckers at the goddamn hospital had broken every promise he'd made to Sam, from the first day he'd gotten him out. He'd fucking promised that he would take care of Sam, keep him safe, never let anyone treat him like that again, and now they both knew how worthless Dean's word was.

"They took his clothes, Jim." Dean forced himself to say it. "That's all he said to me, when he was fucking strapped to a hospital bed wearing one of those fucking slips that don't cover anything. 'They took my clothes'. Fuck. And I don't think he was even awake when they did it."

Jim drew in a sharp breath. When Dean glanced over, Jim's grip was tight on the steering wheel, lips pressed together. Two mile markers later, he said simply, "I'm glad you came here."

After another minute, Jim continued. "It's important for him to have a safe space now, re-establish a sense of privacy, but he can't shut himself away completely, either. Within a week, it would be good to find some reason to go into town. Hit a diner or visit the library. The cliché is that you've got to get back on the horse after a fall, but the reality is that the longer he—and you—allow the fear of strangers, and discovery to dictate your actions, the harder it will be to break destructive patterns of paranoia and isolation." Jim glanced over at him. "And I say that as a hunter. You can't do the job if you're more afraid of the civilians than you are of the monsters."

Dean forced a laugh, but there wasn't much amusement in it. "I thought you were a pastor."

"And as a pastor, I say that community helps build an understanding of ourselves and a connection to God. Challenging as it can be, that's sometimes the only thing that makes life worth living." Jim's mouth quirked. "I can also put on my psychology degree and two-time Blue Earth senior baseball league MVP hats, if you'd like."

This time Dean's laugh didn't feel fake. He wouldn't admit it in so many words, but damn, it was nice to be with someone who had a plan, or at least advice. "What's the baseball advice?"

"Post-injury, your options are to do the doctor-recommended physical therapy or say goodbye to the full use of the joint." Jim switched on his turn signal for the Fareway entrance. "So, to quote my doctor, 'Do the effing therapy!' Which reminds me, you tore out of that hospital pretty quick. I imagine Sam will need some check-ups to make sure those bones are healing properly."

Dean bit back a groan, rubbing at his forehead. "Yeah, but—shit. How long do you think we can put that off?"

"Darn it, man, I'm a pastor, not a doctor." Jim turned into a parking spot and killed the engine. "That said, I'll look into it. Now what are you going to be doing over the next six to eight weeks, while Sam's on the mend?"

"Oh—" Dean shrugged, hunching his shoulders against the biting wind as he got out of the truck. "Just, uh. My usual thing, I guess."

Jim gave him a dry look as he climbed out, locked the truck, and headed into the store. "You're going to be leaving Sam alone while you hunt? In my town?" Dean shrugged defensively, and Jim sighed. "Or maybe you're going to find a liquor store."

Dean's shoulders tensed for a reason unrelated to the cold. He pressed his lips together, and followed, fully expecting Jim to continue his steady stream of chatter as he got a cart, smiled at the girl staffing the customer care desk, and began moving through the vegetables. But Jim kept mum. Dean broke when they reached the dry goods. "You got a suggestion?"

"Well," Jim said, comparing the backs of two pasta packages, "I know there's some openings on a couple of the road-clearing crews. The pay's not great, but making sure a bunch of folks don't die or get stuck after a bad storm isn't such a bad way of saving people. And it'll let you reimburse the Larsons for their heating bill."

"Uh." Dean hesitated. "Part-time?"

Jim smiled. "Yes. Plenty of time for making sure that Sam has the support he needs."

Dean spent the first day touching up a pair of backup IDs, so that they could prove they were "Sam and Dan Hardy," a couple of brothers from South Dakota, at the drop of a hat. That entire day, Sam barely spoke or moved, struggling to find a position that would put the least amount of stress on his healing bones and bruises, dozing on the couch when he could. After finishing the ID job, Dean joined him at the other end, flipping through daytime soaps.

That would have been fine for the first day of recovery in a new place. Fuck, it would have been fine for the first few days. But by the fourth day of Sam's loudest unprompted utterance being half-smothered sobs when the pain from rolling onto his shoulder shook him out of a light, nightmare-laden sleep, Dean wasn't sure that they were going to survive in that tiny, respectable house long enough for Sam's shoulder to heal. He'd been out shoveling twice even though it hadn't snowed since they got there, done all the light maintenance needed (at least what he could trust himself to handle with just the toolbox from the Impala), and even gotten the ancient vacuum cleaner out to give the rugs in the living room (where he may have tracked in a couple clods of the mud from beneath the snow) a quick once-over.

He was ready to try anything. He just wasn't sure what this new (fuck, not as new as he would like) silent Sam would be up for.

He settled next to Sam (new day, but still the same place on the couch). "So, Pastor Jim mentioned that the library in Fairmont is pretty rad, and they've got this really good mom and pop that he recommended. Wanna check it out?"

Sam focused on him more quickly than he had responded to anything that weekend, and Dean had to steel himself against the almost blank dread on Sam's face.

Dean was almost ready to backtrack and say they never had to fucking leave the premises, when Sam gestured tentatively at the sling holding his arm to his chest. "Do I have to wear this?"

Dean hesitated. "I don't know. It's pretty important to keep the bone together, but for a couple of hours? I guess not, if you don't want. Is it bothering you?" If the bone had slid out of alignment, they'd need a doctor to fix it, and Dean didn't know where the fuck he'd be able to find someone at the last minute who wouldn't make that dread worse.

Sam shook his head and dropped his hollow, haunted eyes away from Dean's. "I don't like...people to see."

Dean considered this. When he'd been fifteen, he'd taken a bad fall from a tree after the thing he'd been on the lookout for had been better at jumping than he and Dad had expected. John had shot the weredeer in the head before it could gut him, but Dean had ended up in the ER to get the bone set. He'd hated that brace. Sure, the contraption had earned him some aww poor boy chick points, but the extra attention from the ladies hadn't made up for the feeling that every time he walked into a school or a bar, the assholes would know where he was vulnerable, would go for that side because they knew (or thought) that he'd be favoring the injury.

He'd ditched the brace a weeks earlier than he'd been supposed to, sick of the itch between his shoulder blades.

"Be careful with it," Dean told Sam, "but I'm not going to tattle on you." He tried on a grin, but he barely got a twitch of Sam's mouth in response.

Better than the last couple of days, anyway.

The drive into town was quiet, except for Dean humming along with the Metallica tape, played at a much lower volume than usual. Sam leaned his head against the cold window and tried to pretend that the slow snowfall and silent buildings meant something like peace. He thought about how nice it would be to just keep driving for hours and hours, stopping only for brief breaks at abandoned rest stops, with the stars spread above them like a blanket, and no guard to ever tell him to drop his goddamn eyes.

He knew Dean was worried about him, and Sam wished he could reassure him, but he had felt little but bone-deep exhaustion since Dean had freed him for the second time, pulling him from his hospital bed. The feeling reminded him of old Thursday mornings, when he sometimes couldn't pull himself up from his cot until Kayla gave him a kick in the ribs. Or until Crusher would—

Sam flinched and then winced again when the motion jarred his unsupported arm. He forced his head up, trying to focus on the passing streets and handful of other cars. Every time he found himself slipping into memories, he had to pull himself out, keep himself focused on the here-and-now, or he might find himself stuck in that horror that he knew he had only barely left behind. It was hard, worse now, when every time he closed his eyes or drifted into fitful sleep, he felt the thick straps tightening around his wrists, the unforgiving hospital lights blazing on his eyelids.

Dean had done so much for him, shown him so much of the world. But the hospital had reminded Sam that it wasn't really his. The ASC would always be out there, waiting for freaks they didn't even know about yet to fail. And they already knew all about Sam, down to the sounds he made when he couldn't take any more punishment.

When they pulled up in front of a squat brick building marked MARTIN COUNTY LIBRARY, Sam couldn't stop his hands from curling into fists and his heart rate picked up. He hadn't even gotten a look at the hospital's exterior, but something about the white, multi-arched library entryway and the blank glass wall beneath it reminded him of a place meant to keep people (not people, though) inside.

But when they stepped through the doors (Sam limping as little as he could, but very aware of the ache in his shoulder and how easy it would be to take him down), he saw only books, like in any other library. Dean tilted his head toward the front desk, began moving toward it while he waved Sam toward the shelves. Gratefully, Sam slipped away from the curious eyes of the young, stocky male librarian.

Sam stepped into an unoccupied aisle where he could see Dean and the front doors, with plenty of warning before anyone approached him. His fingertips brushed over the books' spines. He wasn't really interested in finding a new book (between the exhaustion and the meds Dean had been giving him for the pain, it was hard to concentrate on anything) but something set prominently on a display shelf caught his eye.

A minute later, he joined Dean at the front desk, his good arm cradling the worn tome to his side, ignoring the increased ache in his shoulder from the weight.

Dean glanced at him and raised his eyebrows. "Figures you'd find the biggest book in the place."

"It's a Shakespeare anthology." Sam showed him the cover. "He's mentioned a lot in my b-books and things."

"Yeah, I've heard of him. He's a willy dude." Dean nodded at the librarian. "Mandy here is getting our new library cards squared away so we can haul that home."

Mandy smiled at both of them, which Sam glimpsed before he dropped his gaze. "Are you Sam? Pastor Jim called us on Wednesday, said you might be coming in."

"Yeah?" Dean sounded surprised, and Sam stood very still, even as his grip tightened on the book. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Pastor Jim didn't mean any harm, Sam was fairly sure, but he still shouldn't be talking about him. The fewer people who noticed or knew about him, the better.

"He mentioned what a good help you could be," Mandy said. "He knows we're short-staffed right now, with Diana on maternity leave and Gary only doing half-days because of his back. Not a great time for it either, with the weather being so crappy. You'd be surprised how many folks go to the library in winter, when there's not much else to do." Mandy paused, then said hopefully, "We'd be grateful for a volunteer to help reshelf books, make sure they've been put back in the right place, that sort of thing."

Sam had the horrible certainty that she was talking to him. He shot a quick glance at Dean, both to confirm his suspicion and to beg for backup if the situation should go south. Dean was watching him with a furrowed brow, but when he saw Sam's look, he turned back to Mandy.

"Hey, why don't you give us a couple days to think it over? We're still getting a feel for this town and all it has to offer."

Mandy laughed. "Well, there's not that much going on in Fairmont. Take this volunteer application form, and definitely think about it."

Two days later, the still-blank application was pinned to the refrigerator where Dean had put it. Dean took it down and brought it over to the table with his second cup of morning coffee. Sam tensed and glanced up briefly when Dean put it down next to him.

"You thought any more about helping out at that library?"

Sam swallowed before shrugging. "I—I d-don't think…" He trailed off, caught between his desire to tell Dean whatever he wanted to hear and the knowledge that that wasn't how his life was anymore, no matter how the anxiety clawed at him. "I don't kn-know how I'd be able to h-help them." He twitched the fingers of his right hand toward his sling, hoping Dean would think he was only talking about the bad shoulder, and not everything else.

Dean slouched back in his chair, one arm dangling over the back, fingers tapping along the edges of the chair. "I'm sure they'd show you around. Not like they want poetry and motorcycle maintenance together or Shakespeare in with the gore-fest horror novels. They'd watch out for you." Something must have shown on Sam's face, because Dean abandoned his casual posture, sitting up to give Sam his full attention. "This is only if you want to. I'm not going to force you out the door, Sam."

Thank God. Sam knew he should know that by now, that Dean wasn't going to force him to go where he didn't feel comfortable, that there would be no consequences or punishments for saying he couldn't do something, but it still helped to hear out loud. "I don't—" He couldn't meet Dean's eye. "I d-don't think I'd d-do a good job right n-now. Of being—n-normal. Like them. W-we're using new IDs, p-people we haven't been before, and I don't want to draw a-attention."

Dean exhaled, then leaned over to rest his hand on Sam's knee. "I know, Sammy. But we're gonna be here for a while. Another month or so. You're gonna get sick of just these walls."

Sam shook his head. He was fine here. This was safe, secured, and no one could sneak up on them.

"Look, even if you're doing great here—which is totally okay, you're healing, and I think my scratches are all gone already—I'm gonna go crazy if I don't get out once in a while. I might—well, Jim mentioned a road crew that'd let me jump on board when the snow hits. I'd help, clearing roads and making sure the power lines aren't going to electrocute someone, that sort of thing. It wouldn't be full time, 'course, but it pays decent and, well, it would be good for us both to get out, y'know?"

Dean wanted him to agree. But Sam didn't have to. It was good, very good, that he didn't have to lie about that to Dean's face. But because of that same kindness, he couldn't just say no. He shut his eyes and forced out, "I'll try." He couldn't promise anything more.

Dean squeezed his knee. "That's great, Sammy. We'll take it one day at a time, like the shrinks say. That's all I want, that's all we need right now. Hey, speaking of heading out, remember when Pastor Jim invited us over for dinner Monday? Want to? It would it beat cooking for ourselves."

Sam breathed out and nodded. Yes, he could do that, at least.

The drive to Jim's that evening was quiet and smooth, Dean driving at an absurdly slow speed to minimize the impact of the inevitable country-road bumps and potholes. Sam was half-asleep against the shotgun door by the time they pulled into Jim's yard. He blinked at the brightly lit porch, the shape of the house attached, and the shadowy outline of the church beyond it.

Jim must have been waiting for them, because he swung open the door as soon as they got out of the Impala. "You boys going to hurry up, or are you planning to become popsicles?" They hurried, Sam daring a small smile as they knocked snow off their boots on the entryway rug.

Dinner was a basic meatloaf, baked potatoes with all the toppings, and green beans. Dean and Pastor Jim carried the conversation, with Sam adding nothing unless asked directly. He ate quietly with one hand, the other wrapped in the sling, his shoulders tensing slightly anytime Pastor Jim looked at him too long. He knew this was a safe place, that there wasn't a threat here, but it was hard to remember that in each individual moment.

For dessert, Jim brought out a pie with a tub of vanilla ice cream, and Sam smiled at it even before he heard Dean's enthusiastic, "Aw, yeah, baby!"

"It's not strawberry, I'm afraid, but it's fresh, and this is one of Mary Rainie's crusts," Pastor Jim said as he scooped out huge pieces. "She makes them with lard and sugar."

Dean mumbled something appreciative around his mouthful of pie, and Sam tasted it carefully. It really was very good.

As they scooped the last bites out of their bowls, Sam forced out a quiet, "Thank you—it was v-very good."

Pastor Jim leaned back, folding his hands over his stomach. "Glad to have you boys join me for it. I'm here and cooking most Mondays. I'd be pleased anytime you want to stop in. Sometimes time passes a little faster when you've got something to mark it with."

"That'd be great." Dean sounded surprised, but gruffly pleased. "And that's one less night I get to try poisoning us with my cooking, right, Sam?"

Sam glanced up and tried to give him a smile. It felt thin and worn as a shirt that hadn't been removed before a whipping, but he managed it.

"Sam, you're looking better, but still a little pale," Pastor Jim said. "How are your ribs feeling? I hate busted ribs. Hurts to eat, hurts to breathe, hurts to talk."

"I can see how that could be a problem," Dean said, not really hiding a snicker.

Pastor Jim waved a finger at him. "Hush. Just for that, you volunteered for the dishes."

"They're okay," Sam said. He kept it quiet, kept his eyes down. Pastor Jim had never treated him like a freak, but he saw everything, even under that talking, and Sam didn't think that he could bear to be seen right now, not by a hunter.

"And that collarbone? I know six weeks is standard for the ribs, but collarbone fractures can vary quite a lot, depending on location and severity. What did the doctor say?"

Sam glanced at Dean, who shrugged one shoulder defensively. "About eight weeks."

Pastor Jim watched Dean, as though waiting for more, but as the silence stretched, he leaned forward, steepling his fingers before him. "I've heard that healing collarbones can be a mess, kind of like ribs but with more possibility for disaster. It's smart to have a doctor check them out regularly."

No. Sam froze, even his breath stopping for a moment. He could see where this conversation could lead, and he did not like it. Slowly, he raised his eyes first to Pastor Jim, who was quiet, intent, and unreadable. Then he looked to Dean.

"I don't need a doctor." Sam told him. He tried to sound firm, but his voice sounded small and faintly panicked, even to his own ears.

Dean sighed, folding his arms on the table and looking at no one. "Actually, Sammy...the doc at the hospital said pretty much the same thing. Thought it would be good to have check-ups, just to make sure it doesn't heal crooked or something."

"It doesn't need to be at a hospital," Jim said softly.

Sam stared at the both of them, heart pounding in his ears. Did they plan this together? Did Dean and Jim think that it would be the only way to make him go quietly—the only way to get the message through his thick monster skull to corner him, to hit him from both sides? Sam felt his hands clenching his breath coming unevenly. When he had been in camp and freaks had tried this, they had usually ended up surprised or he had been left broken. There was no third option in a sneak attack.

"I've been making some calls," the pastor continued. "There are doctors in the area who wouldn't mind making a house call."

Sam jolted back in his chair, pushing it a few inches away from the table. "Y-you've been—t-telling them about me?"

"Sam, hey." Dean reached for his hand, but Sam jerked back. It was all he could do not to throw himself off the chair to get away.

"Dean." Speaking was almost impossible when he had to fight just to breathe. If he looked Dean in the face—he couldn't do that and get the words out, and hold onto a modicum of calm. He focused instead on the table space between them. "Dean, you t-t-told me—you s-said—if I'm not c-com-comfortable, if I'm not o-okay—I'm not, Dean, I can't. Please don't—"

"Hey, hey, Sam." Dean had leaned close, though he didn't try to touch him this time. He spoke quietly, as though it were just the two of them. "No one's going to make you do anything you're not ready for, I promise. But this isn't going to be that cold-blooded fuckhouse hospital. Doctor visits are different, there's no tying down, and if someone gives you so much as the stink eye, I'm going to take them down, because I'm not leaving you for a second, you understand?"

"Dean…" Sam could only shake his head, squeezing the bridge of his nose. How could Dean think that a trained real could look at Sam and not know, clearly and irrevocably, that a freak sat before him? Even without factoring in the ASC finding out and the panic, how could Dean ever think that would be okay?

"Sam," Pastor Jim broke in, "what do you think is going to happen with a doctor?"

But Sam couldn't speak to him. The pastor had been talking to people about him, and that couldn't help but make it easier for the ASC to find him. He just wasn't sure if Pastor Jim didn't know, or didn't care, about the consequences of that. He turned to Dean again. "They're going to kn-know."

"Sam, they only knew at the hospital because they peeled off the tape. If they hadn't, they would have treated you like anybody else, I swear."

Sam shook his head. "They'll know, because he t-told them." He couldn't look at Pastor Jim.

"I didn't tell them where you came from, Sam," Pastor Jim said. "I just said that you were needing a check-up after a recent accident, and that you weren't too keen on dealing with a pack of strangers at a doctor's office. I'm...sorry I didn't talk to you about it first."

Sam dropped his forehead into his hand, still fighting for control. "They're going to know."

"They won't," Pastor Jim said, with calm certainty. "Indeed, I give you my word that no one I introduce to you will put any kind of restraints on your or touch you without your permission. But the thing is, Sam, this is really the best time to meet this issue head on. Aside from the real risk of permanent handicap if your collarbone doesn't heal correctly—if you continue hunting, you will end up in a hospital again. And that's assuming you don't end up needing medical attention for something as dull and predictable as the flu. Dean may not always be able or qualified to help you, and if you can learn to handle small visits now, it will be easier for you when you really have no other choice."

Dean was nodding. Sam had to look away, bringing his hand up before his eyes, willing himself not to cry here in front of them. He had to trust Dean—he had to trust both of them, and believe that this wasn't going to end in restraints, a gag, a black van taking him away for more testing. "When?" The word was rough in his throat.

"As soon as you're ready," Pastor Jim said. "I'd recommend within the next week and a half, just to make sure that bone is okay."

But Sam shook his head. "Soon. Tomorrow. If it has to soon as it can."

"Okay, Sammy." Dean's voice was quiet, his hand rubbing slowly between Sam's shoulders.

"I'll call first thing in the morning," Pastor Jim said. "My contact may not have an availability tomorrow, but I'll see what we can do. Why don't you meet here for the appointment? That way you don't need to worry about anyone knowing where current home-base is."

Sam nodded without looking up. It wouldn't matter that much if the doctor made a report to the ASC, but he could tell that Pastor Jim was trying to make him feel better.

The drive back to Jim and Linda's house was silent. Sam kept his eyes on his hands and tried to keep his stomach settled. It wasn't easy, not when every time he could almost forget the conversation they'd had, the looming prospect of being examined, he remembered again.

Ten minutes in, Dean asked, in an attempted offhand tone, "You mad at me?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't get m-mad at you."

"Seriously?" Dean half grinned, but there was worry behind the expression. "Think I don't remember that time that diner gave you the wrong sandwich and I tried sending it back? Man, you were this close to decking me."

To Sam's own surprise, his lips turned up in a smile. "I wasn't about to deck you."

"Please. You were about to flip tables. I was totally going to duck. That diner is lucky to be still standing."

Sam ducked his head, still smiling. "I wasn't that angry."

"But you were pissed at me." Dean sounded oddly satisfied.

Sam hesitated. "Yeah. Yes." He hesitated, then went ahead with the question. "D-did you...plan that with him, with Pastor Jim?"

Dean glanced swiftly at him. "What, the doctor thing? Hell no. I mean, he mentioned that you might need a check-up, and that he'd look into it, but I didn't know he'd ambush us with it tonight."

Sam said nothing. That response didn't ease the cold dread in him about the whole situation, but at least one knot had loosened. He relaxed a little against the shotgun window.

"Hey." Dean let go of the steering wheel with his right hand and offered it on the seat, low and without demand. Sam took it, that firm familiar grasp reassuring in spite of everything. "I'll be there, okay? No one's keeping me out of the room this time. And if we have to, we'll clear out of Blue Earth afterward, fuck, out of the state. Even if you just want to."

Sam took a deep breath and nodded. It wasn't reassuring, exactly. Nothing could be fully reassuring with the prospect of more doctors, tests, examinations before him. He had to trust Dean that this was yet another real test he could pass.

Jim called the next morning, as they were finishing breakfast. Dean answered, then said, "Uh, yeah," and held out the phone to Sam. "It's Jim."

Sam hesitated, then brought the phone to his ear. "Hello?"

"Morning, Sam. How are you doing today?"

"Okay." It was probably too much to hope that Jim had reconsidered and was calling off the doctor idea.

"I've been making some calls. Andy Gardner used to work with kids in Blue Earth, both at his practice and volunteering, and though he's retired now, he still knows his stuff and would be fine for a simple check-up. I actually went to see him when I was a sprout, if you can imagine that. We've been friends for decades, get together once a month to shoot the breeze and drink sarsaparilla, that sort of thing. Would you be okay meeting with him?"

Sam swallowed, his awareness of the kitchen—the wooden chair underneath him, Dean's worried glances—both growing more distant and sharper. "Yes," he managed at last.

"He's in town today, otherwise he will swing back around probably Friday. Do you and Dean want to come over sometime today, or figure out a better time later in the week?"

Sam looked up, and it grounded him to meet Dean's eyes, his expression tight with worry but focused unwaveringly on him. Sam adjusted the phone away from his mouth. "Today. There's a doctor. If we can go t-to Blue Earth."

Dean gave a quick nod. "Yeah, Sam, 'course."

Sam brought the phone back to his cheek. "When today?"

"Well, how about right after lunch? One p.m., say. I'll invite him over for a bite—in fact, you're both welcome too, we could all sit down—"

"No thank you," Sam said, too quickly. He wouldn't tell Dean, but a large part of him still recoiled at the thought of what a hunter or real would do when he realized he'd eaten at a table with a freak. "Wh-wh-wh—" He swallowed, clenching his teeth, and tried again more slowly. "What. Will. You. Tell. Him. About. Me?"

"That you've been through hell and don't like to be touched by strangers," Jim answered. "Nothing more specific than that. Andy will understand, Sam. Shame is that he's seen hundreds of kids like that, and he's...he'll understand."

"Okay." It wasn't okay, nothing about this would be, but it was going to happen. Sam couldn't doubt that, not with his desire to please Dean and his bone-deep understanding that when hunters or other authorities made a decision, he wasn't going to be able to change it, no matter how he begged or fought. He was working on that understanding, trying to break it because Dean wanted him to, but he knew here and now that it would be impossible to fight.

"All right, Sam. I'll see you soon."

Sam held the phone out to Dean, but Dean caught his hand instead. "Hey. What's the plan?"

"One p.m. today." Sam dropped his head to rest on his arm on top of the table.

Dean scooted closer, his other hand settling between Sam's shoulder blades, rubbing circles over the back of his neck. That hadn't grown any less wonderful since the first time he'd done it. Sam never wanted to move from this spot. He especially did not want to have a stranger, a doctor, looking at him in a few hours and spotting everything freakish in him, pointing it out so that Dean might also look at him in disgust and never touch him again. He swallowed hard. "You'll stay with me?"

"Every minute, Sam. Not gonna let you out of sight for a second. And if we gotta hit the road afterward, that's what we'll do. But it's gonna go fine, really." After a moment, he added reflectively, "Waiting's going to be shit, though."

Sam huffed out something that wasn't quite a laugh. Yes, he remembered that feeling from long Wednesday afternoons.

In the Impala, Sam closed his eyes to the passing sights, trying to pretend they were on an open highway, nothing awaiting them but the next rest stop or drive-thru or motel. He tried to repress what Dean had told him of regular doctor visits. Each description of cuffs, touching, or being told to open his mouth made him feel that same buzzing terror under his skin. He knew Dean meant to reassure him, but it didn't help that neither of them knew which of these tests would be the one that could give him away.

Dean didn't think that would happen. He didn't believe Sam was a freak, but Sam knew all the ways he could be wrong, so many ways a freak could manifest without leaving any evidence behind. He just had to hold on tight to the knowledge that Dean would not willingly take him into a situation that would end with Sam strapped into a black van.

He tried.

He was trying, always fucking trying, but it was hard. Hard not to think about being dragged to Special Research. Hard not to be hyper-aware of the bands around his right arm—yes, supporting those bones, but marking him immediately as crippled, vulnerable. His left wrist was rubbing against the leather seat, maybe to prove to himself that he could still move it, that he could get away if he had to, maybe because that was the only part of him that felt free with this band tightening around his chest, his breathing coming thin and short and— No, no, he knew this, it had happened outside of Freak Camp and before the hospital, the sensation of being tied too tight to breathe, no air in his lungs and his brain screaming nonstop—

"Sam. Sam!"

Sam couldn't answer, couldn't even breathe to try, but he felt the car swerve and stop, Dean leaning over him to open the shotgun door. In one moment of mindless panic, Sam grabbed at Dean's sleeve, terrified that Dean had finally reached the point where Sam wasn't worth the struggle anymore, that Dean was just going to shove him out of the Impala to die or be taken—but no, fuck, of course not, Dean was just telling him to breathe, deep breaths, unzip that jacket if he had to. He was trying not to crowd Sam too much, but he returned the grip on Sam's hand.

It took minutes before the invisible bands eased, before Sam could draw in deeper, ragged breaths. As the panic faded, frustration and shame took its place, and he fisted his free hand, slamming it into the seat. "I hate this. I'm fucking—I hate being so weak—"

"Sammy, you're not." Dean sounded so exhausted that Sam opened his eyes, sure it couldn't be like that, that Dean couldn't have reached that point so quickly. Sam shouldn't have, though, because seeing, as though for the first time, the dark circles beneath Dean's eyes, the hollow burnout of his forced smile, Sam would have given anything to know he wasn't destroying the best man he'd ever known.

Sam drew himself up. He couldn't force a smile, he couldn't be okay, but maybe if he faked it hard enough, some of the weariness in Dean's face would go away. "I'm o-okay. Let's go."

Dean hesitated. "Sammy—"

"Let's go, Dean." Sam was afraid his voice would break if he said anything more—that anything else he said would fall apart into pleas for them to hit the nearest highway, to get as far away as they could, to put this off—but Pastor Jim had been right. Sooner or later, they'd have to face something like this. Better now, when Sam was sixty-two percent sure that he wasn't going to end up dead or worse, than later, when they didn't have a choice.

Slowly, as though he were the unwilling one, Dean slid back behind the wheel.

Dr. Andy Gardner had been practicing medicine since he was younger than the boy in front of him. Granted, back then it had mostly been birds and dogs and smaller kids who didn't have big brothers willing to drive off bullies, but that meant that he'd had over six decades with both the desire to heal and experience with delicate, frightened patients. And on days like this, looking at kids like Sam, he was both grateful for that, and tired.

He'd watched as the two boys waited in their black car outside Jimmy's house. Pardon, Pastor Jim. Andy could still remember every chapter in the textbook he'd crammed for his medical certification, but some days it was harder than others to remember that the skinny kid he'd patched up more than once (mainly because Jimmy had had neither a big brother, nor much fear of bullies himself) was a grown man.

"Think they're going to come in?" Andy asked eventually, when the car just sat there, clicking down. He could wait all day, but he didn't think he could stand there all day waiting for a couple of squirts with a fear of strangers. He'd gotten a new hip about a decade gone, but that didn't mean he didn't hurt.

Jimmy sigh. "I hope so." A minute later, he put on his best smile (a fine one, had once left all the girls sighing after him) and went out to wave them in.

Andy had learned to read a lot about people from their body language. The big kid, Dean, probably carried a couple of weapons. He looked dangerous, like cops or bikers, or some of the young punks Andy passed in big city parks, the ones who were either more careful with him than most respectable folk or complete idiots. Dean struck him as safely in the middle, depending on where his head was.

The other one—Sam—was about the same height, though a hell of a lot skinnier. But it was the way he held himself, the way he wouldn't meet Andy's eyes or even look directly at Jimmy or Dean, that told Andy a lot. After this many years, it shouldn't hurt to meet kids who were messed up—maybe by their folks, maybe by life—so bad that they couldn't meet something new without waiting for it to hurt them, but it always did.

Andy eased into a rolling arm chair after introductions, doing his best impression of a harmless old geezer, but Sam looked like he could have been blown over by a light breeze.

Andy gave his typical new-patient-about-to-bolt spiel. Gonna give you a heads-up before every touch, these are the parts of the check-up, let me know if anything hurts or you just plain don't like it, that sort of thing. He wasn't sure if he was grateful or just sad when the kid barely gave any sign of acknowledgement.

Jimmy let them use his bathroom scale (bringing it to the living room, before making himself scarce again) and a yard stick. No records were being filed, no names beyond Sam and Dean (though he could make an educated guess). Sam was five foot eleven inches and weighed one hundred and five pounds—not a healthy weight for a boy his age, no, but not one that Andy could summon much surprise for, everything else taken into account.

"Do you like to eat, Sam?" There was always the possibility that the undernourishment stemmed from anorexia rather than abuse—though one could never discount the two options working together in a horrible synergy.

Sam flinched, the way he had every time Andy had directed a question to him, then half-turned toward Dean. "I-I'm not s-sure…" he trailed off, his voice uncertain.

"Not a trick question, just wondering if you're usually hungry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner," Andy said lightly.

Sam clasped his hands tightly before him, eyes directed down again. "Y-yes. Sir. Dean gets—we eat. Three meals a day."

"What's your favorite food?"

For some reason, Sam hunched down further, holding his hands together so tight his knuckles were white. "I d-don't have a f-favorite…" He drew a breath. "D-diner food. I like diners."

Andy decided to let the point go. "Well, it shouldn't be too hard to get some pounds on you that way. It's important, you're a growing boy."

When Andy asked for Sam's wrist to take his pulse, it took Sam several seconds before he twitched his hand over. Applying the blood pressure cuff and holding a stethoscope to his chest felt even more invasive. "Tense" didn't begin to describe the boy's body language—Andy suspected, even before he got the reading on the blood pressure dial or listened to his heart, that the boy wasn't taking nearly as many breaths as a person ought to.

The kid was terrified. Probably the only reason he didn't jerk away from Andy's touch, or run screaming out of the house, was that he'd already "gone away" in his mind. Not the first exam Andy had done that went like that, but he never liked it.

Andy sighed and rolled himself back in his chair. His legs were good enough for that, at least. "Sam, we're going to call a timeout because you're heart's racing like a Kentucky two-year-old." Sam's eyes opened, wider than they had been before, but still focused on nothing in particular before him. Andy put his palms together (darn arthritis made them ache this time of day, so it felt good to rub at them a bit). "Are you worried about this exam, Sam, or about doctors?"

No response, except from one minute flinch of the head that could have been a yes.

"Lots of folks aren't comfortable around doctors," Andy said. And darn if that wasn't an understatement. "But do you feel like this often, in other everyday situations?"

He didn't miss Sam's half-glance at Dean, though whether that was for support or for permission to answer (and wasn't he going to have a conversation with Jimmy about that, if that were the case), Andy couldn't tell. Then the kid choked out, "S-some days. Sir."

Andy nodded, every inch the doctor he was. "Lots of people feel anxious at times, and for a wide variety of reasons. Have you noticed certain times you feel more anxious than others? Public spaces or in crowds? Or are there more specific situations or types of people that make it harder for you?" He smiled gently. "It's okay if you're not comfortable telling me, I'm just asking because I'm pretty sure you wouldn't be sitting here today if this were your normal blood pressure and heart rate. Anxiety can get in the way of life, but I want you to know that other people feel this way too, and there are ways that may allow you to lessen or better cope with it. If you want to talk about some of those, I'd be happy to, either privately or with your friend here. Either way, whatever you tell me is in strictest confidence. Nothing I learn today is being recorded anywhere but in my noggin, and there it's going to stay. But I want you to know that there are alternatives to feeling this way."

Sam took a shuddering breath, his fingers digging into the fabric of the sofa, though Andy could almost convince himself that he was a shade more relaxed, something more thoughtful than terrified in his eyes.

The rest of the exam went quietly, even as Andy gently examined the fractured collarbone and tried to touch the kid as little as possible while making sure that his ribs were still where they should be. Everything seemed to be in the right place, except for those marks that made Andy's lips purse, and that he made a mental note to bring up to Jimmy later, in private, when the kid wasn't so shaken under his hands. Sam closed his eyes during the contact and didn't say a word, but the hitches in his breath were a clear enough signal for Andy to back off.

Finally, he rolled his chair back again. "Well, Sam, that's it for today, unless you have any questions. Everything seems to be healing nicely. You were an excellent patient and seem to be taking care of that collarbone just fine."

Sam leaned forward as though preparing to bolt, but not quite believing he'd be allowed. "Th-thank you," he said, still without looking him in the face.

Dean had leaned forward with Sam. "That's it?"

"Well, I'd like to check in every couple of weeks. We shouldn't need to go through the rest of it most times, but I do want to keep an eye on that bone."

"O-okay," Sam said. The he turned to Dean.

Andy didn't hear what he said. The kid may not have even said anything, but Dean looked up, nervous and defiant, and said, "Yeah, we've got to go, if that's cool? See ya later, Jim!" And without waiting for a response, he shepherded Sam out of the house and back into their very shiny car. A moment later, they peeled out of the driveway and down the road.

Andy stayed in the living room, waiting, until Jimmy came back into the room.

"How'd it go?" Jimmy asked. "I know that Sam's pretty shaken and Dean can be something of a bulldog when he puts his mind to it, but I figured they wouldn't give any trouble to a—"

"You going to tell me about the tape on his chest?" Andy asked. Some part of him was pleased that he could still stop Jimmy dead in his tracks and shut his mouth. It was a gift few possessed, not even the hordes of hell (and that was a fact Andy had known years before the White House Massacre). "And while you're at it, you might have mentioned the scars."

Even what he'd seen in that gentle, non-invasive exam had been sickening. Not something he hadn't seen before, to his great regret, but sickening just the same. He figured there was worse under his clothes. The kind of monsters that did such things to children (or anyone, for that matter) rarely practiced restraint.

Jimmy drew himself up. He could be a regal man, when he had a mind to be. He could be scary, and stalwart, and a good man at any time. "All I can tell you about the scars is that Dean didn't put them there."

"And I'll take your word on that." Andy hadn't been able to get a full bead on Dean, but he hadn't set off any alarms, at least. Jimmy would know the boys better.

"Would you take my word for it if I told you the check was in the mail for the check-up?" Jimmy grinned.

Andy snorted. "If you think I'm going that senile, maybe you should get someone else to stitch up your bullet wounds."

"No one else makes house calls." Jimmy made it sound almost mournful, but Andy worried sometimes that after he was gone there'd be no one to patch up Jimmy and his lost boys. Andy Gardiner wasn't the kind of doctor who would show up in the dead of night to patch bullet wounds, no questions asked, for a wad of cash. But he knew the importance of staying off the radar and on the down-low. He asked plenty of questions; he just wasn't always too hung up if he didn't get all the answers to them.

But for this one, he wanted a little more. "That tape's hiding something, Jimmy," he said. "I'll have your promise it's nothing I can do or should worry about."

Jimmy spread his hands and smiled, but it wasn't a happy expression. It was a hard one. Andy had always respected him, and that smile was a large part of why. "Not my secret to tell."

Andy had a pretty good guess. He knew Jimmy's night job after all, and that about half of his friends who needed to be patched up were in the same business. He could, he supposed, find it reassuring that sometimes they weren't just killing the lost souls that they found.

Sam kept himself still, kept at bay the panic and fear still bubbling inside, until they reached the safety of the Impala. There, he leaned against the shotgun window, hands between his knees, staring into the depths of the foot well. Sam was grateful when Dean wordlessly started the Impala and got them moving.

He didn't break the silence until they were pulling onto the highway toward Fairmont. "See, just like I told you—you've got nothing going on besides how that troll banged you up," Dean said. "How do you want to celebrate? Hit up a bookstore, go on an ice cream run, start head-banging to some Beethoven tapes?"

Sam managed a small smile. "I'm okay. He didn't...didn't see anything. But in two weeks, we have to do it again."

Dean groaned, raising and dropping his hands back onto the steering wheel. "Sam, you seriously think that old grandpa in suspenders is going to see something next time that he missed today? He said already that today was the big exam. Next time he's just going to poke at that collarbone. You passed, dude. I swear, there's nothing weirder about you than about me. You've got to believe me."

Sam drew a breath, straightening his shoulders. Dean really sounded desperate, half-exasperated, half-wheedling—a specific mix Sam remembered clearly from the early Boulder days. He'd been using it since the hospital, treating Sam so carefully, and that...hurt in some ways, that Dean still felt the need to coax and placate him. Sam had to change all that, he had to do better, because despite how real the danger had been, the awfulness of being tieddownnakedhelpless again in the hospital, how he had almost felt the ASC breathing down their necks—they had gotten away.

Here, in Pastor Jim's neighborhood, they were as safe as they were going to get, and Sam had to stop acting like such a cowardly little bitch-freak. Dean deserved and needed someone better, someone who could watch his back, who didn't cringe every time a real looked at him. He had to trust Dean that the worst had passed and the next examinations—appointments —would be okay. And until then….

"You're right." He tried to make the words strong, confident: stronger than he felt, at least. "I passed." One more deep breath so he wouldn't stumble on the next words. "I'd like to t-try volunteering at the library."

The library turned out to be so simple, Sam was almost taken aback. Mandy seemed genuinely glad to have him there, and while she asked a lot of general questions the first day (How are you liking Fairmont? What brought you over from South Dakota?), she easily accepted the cover story that he and Dean had agreed on in advance: they were visiting their old friend Pastor Jim while recovering from a car accident.

She was surprised when he had the Dewey decimal system memorized after the first day. That made him anxious at first, heart thudding as he wondered if he'd been abnormal again. But she seemed more pleased and impressed than suspicious, lamenting that he and Dean wouldn't be staying in Fairmont long-term, so she wouldn't be able to hire him on full-time when Gary retired.

As soon as Sam demonstrated that he knew his way around the aisles, she left him alone with a cart of books to shelve. The work was methodical and peaceful in a way he hadn't expected. He'd often worked in the small library inside FREACS, but under constant awareness of the cameras in the corners of the room, and the knowledge that a guard might come in at any time, he had never truly relaxed there. Here, there was something wonderful about the wide range of books he handled, the tap of keys at the bank of free computers, the sound of children unafraid to be noisier than they should. When he finished everything they had for him (Mandy delighted and a little gleeful at the empty reshelving carts), he took his Shakespeare anthology to a secluded corner and read until Dean came to pick him up after his day with the road-clearing crew.

Dean looked better now, with less stress lining his forehead and around his eyes. On the drive to the cabin and through most of dinner, he told Sam stories about the bozos he worked with and the weird shit they'd pull. Then that night, like most of their nights since the doctor visit, they watched a movie in the Larsons' collection.

They went first through some of the animated Disney films, and Sam liked them all, especially Lion King and Toy Story. Dean felt a little weird watching kids' films, but he had to admit that watching Sam's face light up (and remembering just how damn catchy some of those songs were) put a big grin on his own face pretty much every night they ended up in front of the TV.

To his relief, though, Sam turned out be a fucking huge Indiana Jones fan. He loved Raiders (which, duh, best in the trilogy), and Dean knew even before Sam bumped his shoulder and said how cool Indiana was, that Sam had good taste in awesome badasses.

Temple of Doom went a little rougher. Dean had forgotten about the child slaves, and the whipping, and the extremely creepy force-feeding-blood thing. Sam's grip on Dean's arm was vice-like through those scenes, but they got through it without anything worse, and Sam was smiling again at the end. Dean's relief felt kinda absurd, but he knew that this wouldn't have been possible just last year. It was a damn good thing to see that even the fucking hospital hadn't taken them all the way back to square one.

One night, he got out of the shower to find Sam sitting before the DVD shelf, flipping through a small stack he'd picked out.

"Star Wars." Sam looked up at Dean. "That's something everyone's seen, right?"

Dean hesitated, not so much to answer the question as to think of what in the series was likely to give Sam nightmares. Vader Force-strangling his underlings, Luke getting his hand chopped off—and, oh yeah, there was that scene with Leia in the golden bikini, chained to that slime-monster, that Dean was a little ashamed of himself now for finding that super-hot in his early teens. Didn't she even have a chain around her throat? Shit.

But Sam was examining the case cover closely. "This looks like Indiana Jones! The actor who played him, I mean."

Dean huffed a laugh, moving closer. "Yeah, that's Harrison Ford, a few years younger than he was in Raiders. Still pretty smoking, even without the hat. But, uh—some stuff in there's pretty hardcore, I dunno if you're in the mood for it."

Sam glanced up at him, frowning a little, then looked back down at the DVD. "But this is something everyone knows, isn't it? So I guess I'll just have to deal." His voice was casual, dismissive, like the issue was already settled. Since the doctor appointment and Sam's announcement that he'd volunteer at the library, Dean had seen a resurgence of an earlier Sam—the one from last fall, who had pushed his own boundaries without regard for his own comfort. These days, it wasn't quite as obvious that Sam's goal was to make Dean happy, but Dean still felt torn between pride and guilt.

Dean sighed. "Sam…"

Sam stood up, giving Dean a lopsided smile. "I won't watch if I don't want to, okay? Like with some of Temple of Doom, I watched your shoulder instead."

"It's a nice shoulder, if I do say so myself." Dean still wasn't sure about this, but he didn't know either how to get out of it. So they watched.

Sam liked the robots a lot, as anyone would, and got really excited when Harrison Ford showed up. They paced themselves, and three nights later, they finished Return of the Jedi, which had the creepy Jabba the Hutt scene that Dean had been dreading. But he'd forgotten how Leia showed off what a badass she was, even in that skimpy bikini, by throttling the slimy son of a bitch. He hoped Sam had paid attention to that bit. His only reaction to that whole scene had been to go absolutely still against Dean's side. Once Leia reunited with Luke and escaped before they blew the whole place up, Sam exhaled and relaxed.

After the cheesy images of Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Anakin faded from the sky, Sam leaned back against Dean's chest. "I still like C-3PO and R2D2 best," he said at last. "Though Han Solo was pretty cool too," he added, turning his head to grin at Dean. No, not grin, smirk. "He really loved his Millennium Falcon."

"'Course he did, it was his baby." Dean shrugged, a little defensively. "I get the feeling, y'know?"

"Yeah." Sam slid a little further down, so he was almost lying with his head in Dean's lap, looking up at him. "I guess that makes me Chewbacca," he said thoughtfully—then, seeing Dean's face, he added, "You're always saying I have a lot of hair."

"Yeah, on your head. You know who else has a lot of hair just on their head? Leia. She has luscious locks, is cute, and badass. Just like you."

"Oh." Even in the dim light from the TV's blue screen, Dean could see Sam's wide smile and flushed cheeks.

"Yeah, that's right." Dean slipped a hand behind Sam's neck, dropping his head closer. "And you know who Leia got to kiss, in the end."

Sam raised his head to meet him, his fingers gripping Dean's shirt behind his shoulder.

They hadn't kissed like this in weeks. Not since Dean's birthday. Dean hadn't dared to hope Sam would be ready again anytime soon, not with all the ways Dean had let him down—but Sam wasn't letting go, didn't seem interested in stopping. When he moaned, a pained little sound in his throat, Dean pulled back, looking at him anxiously.

"You okay?"

"Yeah." With a ragged breath, Sam sat up, pulling his knees under him. His eyes were fixed on Dean's face, one hand on Dean's shoulder. "Dean, I—I want—"

Dean's breath hitched, and he rested his hand on Sam's hip. In case Sam lost his balance, right, so he wouldn't fall off the sofa and hurt himself. "Yeah, Sammy?" Neither of them seemed particularly eloquent tonight.

Then Sam moved one knee over Dean's lap, straddling him, and sank down against him, chest to chest, groin to groin. Sam's fingers pressed into the short hairs on the back of Dean's neck as he kissed him again, hot and hungry and insistent, not at all ambiguous.

Dean's turn to groan, the last sensible part of his brain struggling to be heard, even as his hips worked against Sam's. "Sam—your ribs, I don't wanna hurt you—"

Sam huffed out a laugh, grinding back down deliberately against Dean. "You aren't. Not like this."

They shed their pants with some awkward fumbling, then returned to where they were, Sam making hot, needy noises in his throat as he moved. Dean had a hand between them, holding their cocks together, pumping as they thrust. His other hand was clapped to the back of Sam's neck, against his hot slick skin.

It didn't take long for them to come, one after another, Sam's shuddery breaths and hissing of Dean's name pushing Dean over as well. Afterward, Sam didn't move off of him. He kept his one free arm wrapped around Dean's shoulders, kissing him just as hungrily, frantically, almost enough to get Dean started again.

"Hey," he muttered at last, tangling his fingers into Sam's hair. "I'm just gonna reach for the tissue box, all right? Then we're both going to bed, same place as last night."

Sam relented, pulling back with a more relaxed smile than Dean had seen in weeks.

When they did get to bed, Sam lay on his back in the most comfortable position he'd found, with one arm and ankle tangled with Dean's. Dean had already fallen asleep, his breathing slow and regular.

There was a lot to be scared of in the world. Freaks and hunters, Freak Camp and the ASC. Bad falls and food poisoning. Yet lying there, listening to Dean's steady breathing, Sam could finally feel warm and safe for the first time since the hospital. But it wasn't just the warmth of Dean's arm twined with his, the comfort of the bed, the good meal they'd eaten, the mutual pleasure they'd had, or the long series of films they'd watched this week where the good guys always won. He felt safe, finally, because he felt sure of where they were again, what their relationship could look like when they weren't both afraid, and fucking up, and treating each other like glass.

Sam and Dean Winchester had survived another day, and it had been a good one. A very good one, one he could not have even imagined in FREACS. That gave Sam hope that maybe, together, they didn't even have to be afraid.