Two guys walk into a motel and somehow they always make a certain impression, one that can make others assume things. They're usually pretty embarrassed to be corrected, so sometimes it doesn't seem that worth it to bother saying, "Oh, we're just brothers." Sometimes that doesn't even seem to sit like a real and final explanation anyway, because they'll never be "just" anything and maybe that's the irregularity others see and read wrong. At least that's the most Dean has ever been able to understand it, by figuring there are just no simple and all-encompassing descriptions for what other people see when they look at them and that's all.

He knows it isn't like Lisa ever suspected anything about him and Sam. That wasn't what she meant the last time they spoke, when she described it a lot more harshly than he's used to hearing it even if he already knew it to be true. "The most unhealthy, tangled-up thing," like she understood enough to know she didn't want to entirely understand. She didn't have to suspect anything to see something there that's just too much, which you simply don't see between normal, mentally stable people who know how to sit still sometimes and read about politics or celebrity marriages without constantly anticipating the next sign of danger.

It doesn't bother him as much as it used to, or at least not in the same way. He still doesn't really understand the whole freak story that is him and his brother and could never explain it to anyone else, but somehow after everything he's seen now it's easier to accept that some things in this world are just fucked up and he's never going to completely get it.

Which may just mean in simpler terms that not much shocks him anymore. He and Sam have met archangels, have been taken back to a time before they we born, and have both crossed over and seen the other side multiple times, and now they'll never belong to this world the same way everyone else does. They know too much. Always strung neither here nor there, they tread some line between the mundane world of human life and the other in the shadowy periphery that most never have to even see. That's why there is no home for them anywhere, nothing constant and stable, except what they have in each other.

Even when he was happy with Lisa and enjoying not being on the outside like that, sometimes it didn't feel completely real, like he wasn't completely himself. At times the disguise covering him got too thick so he was only watching his safe and content life through a desensitizing veil, couldn't seem to scratch through and actually touch it. He thought that life would work because he could be honest with Lisa, and usually it did. But there were certain things too big and burdensome that he could never bring himself to tell her about, revelations like hot irons piercing the fragile human skull that would finally shatter her comfortable reality too much. She still doesn't know there's a prophetic text written about him and Sam, or that the mere months Dean spent in Hell makes him more than twice his physical age inside, or who his brother was sharing a cage with down there the whole time he was taking her son out for pizza every Saturday night with an empty smile.

Telling her everything might have meant she could be to him almost a sizable fraction of what Sam was to him, but somehow he knew he didn't want that for them, for her. It's better for a relationship to be defined by something other than shared horrors and burdens, but by now he isn't sure if that's even possible for him.

Even if he doesn't feel much shame anymore when he thinks of how he and Sam stand out and appear together, like they're inseverably chained together in their separate and deeply private world, now it just makes him sort of sad and regretful. Now the realization and reminder always weighs down on him like an affirmation of what they can't have that other people have. It's bad enough that something in them might never let them be satisfied with the lives of lawyers or mechanics now. It's possible they could still be happy with other people, but Dean knows what he has with Sam—has and yet can't have with him—will always be there overthrowing everything else even though it can never, ever be the same as him and Lisa or Sam and Jess or even a couple weirdos like the Ironsons, and it isn't the least bit fair. No matter how they may let the laws and meanings be bent in their shared niche they live isolated in, they can't change what they can't change.

.

.

An ambulance passing by their motel wakes up Dean in the middle of the night and then he can't get right back to sleep. His eyes take in the faint pattern of the wallpaper in the dark room and then he has to squint a little when a car goes by in the parking lot outside their door, sending lines of light dancing across the walls and ceiling for an instant.

He is almost surprised by the sound of deep, slow breathing beside him, as if he had almost forgotten. He looks to the side at the other queen-size bed to the left of his which is not empty but holds Sam, sprawled sloppily across it with his back rising and falling slightly with each breath.

Dean's lips turn into a small smile before he closes his eyes again.

.

.

They've been back on the road for four days now, heading to South Carolina to look into a string of senseless murders that sound like they could be connected to a siren or something else in their area. For Sam the gradual slide back into routine is more than natural and welcome. It's sort of like finally coming home.

Because maybe hunting has finally become an irremovable part of his identity that he seems to need, but that isn't all of it, he realizes now. While soulless he's still been used to doing jobs with the Campbells and then Dean, but that wasn't what makes the whole package, and it feels even better being back on the road with Dean than he thought it would because of how he can now appreciate the difference. For the first time since he fell into that hole, they're back to dropping all their stuff and racing each other to claim the shower as soon as they get into a motel room after a long day of driving. They're back to one of them occasionally having to wake the other up from a somewhat loud and animated nightmare and then offer him a drink and an ear when they both can't get back to sleep afterwards. They're back to bickering lightly whenever Sam corrects something Dean says like a total know-it-all before he can help himself. All this, not just the actual work they do together, is what really makes it the routine he'll always need to hang onto.

They grab a late dinner before checking into a motel for the night once they've reached their destination. After Sam uses the bathroom at the diner, he comes back to their table to see that Dean has grabbed a newspaper and is studying the page with the crossword puzzle with a pen in hand. He already has five or so answers filled in.

"What are you doing?" he asks with a slightly cocked eyebrow and an amused smile as he sits back down. "You hate crossword puzzles."

Dean just keeps looking over it closely and murmurs absently, "Yeah..."

As he picks at the remnants on his plate, Sam can't help but look over and read some of the descriptions upside-down. "Nine across is 'Maiwand.'"

"Shut up," Dean says right away, clearly not wanting help, but just as soon he asks, "Your what?"

"The Battle of Maiwand. M-A-I-"

"Oh, that Maiwand." Dean fills in the word but keeps his look of light annoyance at him being a smartass.

Sam notices that his coffee cup is full and steaming. "Did you have her refill this?" he asks, immediately looking at his watch; on the rare nights that he can actually have realistic intentions of getting enough sleep, he's always been pretty adamant about cutting off his caffeine intake after 8:00.

"Yeah, I know it's like a quarter after, I asked her to give you decaf," Dean says.

He smiles in a small, slow way that makes Dean shrug and look back down from his face. Then something makes him give a quiet single laugh and shake his head in disbelief.

"What?" Dean asks, glancing back up for a second.

"Nothing, just...You know everything about me."

"Well, yeah."

"Seriously. Everything. Especially the bad stuff."

Shrugging again, Dean says, "Pretty much."

"But you still care about me more than anything."

Dean's mouth pulls into a tiny smirk for a split second. "Pretty much."

"How is that even possible?"

Dean raises his brow thoughtfully as he meets his eyes for a moment. Then he looks down into his cup as he raises it to finish off his own coffee and just says, "Question could go both ways." And soon he's fixated on the crossword again.

Sam smiles once more, watching him work on it for a moment longer. After a while he looks off to his right, resting his chin in his hand, and mutters, "Number five down is probably 'clad'..."

He laughs when Dean kicks him under the table.

.

.

A couple weeks later it's a potential haunting in Michigan in an old house that's been turned into a music conservatory. This is a job Bobby gave them because they happened to be close to the area when he first heard about it from Rufus, and it should be a fairly easy investigation because they don't even need to lie about what they're there to do. The head of the conservatory is already convinced there's something beyond any conventional explanation going on in this house and actually sought out an expert until he somehow got Rufus's number.

The guy is a tall and wiry strings teacher named Mr. McKinnon. When they meet him at the house late at night after all the other staff have gone home, he's waiting outside for them in the cold, apparently not even willing to be in there alone. When they accompany him inside and start asking questions, Sam finds him a little more nervous and delicate-natured than he might have expected, considering how he took the initiative to find somebody who wouldn't think he's a nutcase when the two of them easily could have turned out to be the nutcases.

In fact, he keeps looking at him and Dean like he's not yet certain they aren't, or even that he himself isn't just losing his mind.

The house is just about as chilled inside as it feels outside tonight. Wrapped up in several layers and a scarf, Mr. McKinnon seems to only remember how cold it is in here when he notices both of them rubbing their freezing hands together after a while. He apologizes and explains that he recently turned off the heat since he noticed all the strange happenings are more active at night. He has everyone believing the heater needs to be fixed so his students will be compelled to reschedule any evening lessons and nobody has to be here late.

Finally Dean gets to the question that sheds a lot more light on the situation. "Does this house have any unusual history that you know of?" he asks.

Mr. McKinnon stays silent a second, looking disoriented, and says with some surprise, "Didn't Rufus Turner tell you?"

He and Dean look at each other briefly with confusion and then Sam says, "Tell us what? We kind of got the message through somebody else..."

He sighs. "I got his number from the woman who last owned this house. Apparently he got rid of something for her here eight years ago. She'd sold it for a price that was a little low, so after enough was enough I had to get in touch with her and ask if she ever saw anything strange here. I was trying to be vague and not sound like a total lunatic, but I didn't even have to say much before she warned me to be really careful, especially at night or when I'm alone, but to keep paying attention and try to gather as much information as possible from everyone who witnesses anything. She must have not been alone when I called because she wouldn't say that much, just gave me that man's number and said to tell him I needed a hunter, and that whatever was going on, he'd listen to me."

"But you don't even know what it was that Rufus hunted here before?" Dean asks, starting to sound frustrated.

"No, I don't know what's wrong with the place. I thought you were here to figure that out. You know, that lady's lucky nobody would believe any of this so no lawyer could get us back what we paid for the house. Any more of this and my hair's going to start going gray. Even if a few of the other teachers are just as freaked out as I am, it's not like we can afford to move now. You have any idea what the recession's doing to businesses like this? By the way, she told me that other hunter wouldn't expect any compensation. That's how I could be sure he's for real, she said. You know I can't pay you, right?"

Both of them have had a hand raised trying to slow him down since a few sentences ago, and Dean finally says, "Hey, we're expert criminals, man, so if that doesn't bother you we're happy to just take care of it. And I don't know why you got a deal on the house, but look, if Rufus didn't finish the job and leave the joint clean at the time then I doubt she would have kept living here for a few years afterwards. This has to be something new."

"You're telling me it's just a coincidence that there's something here I keep hearing banging on piano keys, in rooms that it somehow locks people out of even though there are no locks on the doors, and the woman who formerly owned it just happens to know people who can tell me what the hell it is? If you can tell me."

"Actually, I think I just realized what it probably is," Sam says, turning to Dean.

Dean clearly hasn't caught on and is looking at him like he's thinking he must have skipped his coffee today. "Sorry, isn't this one kind of a no-brainer?" he asks, holding up his EMF detector that he's already given a wave around most of the first floor. "We haven't even checked out the rooms he says this ghost seems to mess around in the most, and the EMF's already been off the scale."

"I don't think it's just your regular spirit, though. Usually they want something, and this thing's been hanging around here for too long without getting to the point or even showing itself. Unless we call him up now we can't know exactly what Rufus snuffed here eight years ago, but you know certain things can leave behind sort of a bad aura, and that—"

"Can leave the place like a warm and cozy abandoned nest for a poltergeist to take possession of," Dean finishes, getting it now.

"A p—A poltergeist," Mr. McKinnon repeats slowly, looking plenty overwhelmed.

Dean grins and slaps a hand on his shoulder. "You don't have to be in here while we keep taking a look around to be sure, if you'd rather..."

"I'll be outside," he says without protest. He promptly turns to leave them with the house to themselves.

They start heading upstairs, and as soon as they hear him shut the front door behind him, Dean shakes his head a little. "Sheesh. What a marshmallow."

Sam shoves his elbow in his side lightly. "Hey, we don't really have the perspective to understand how freaky some mere banging around and meddled-with door locks can be," he says, and it just comes out sounding more mocking than he intended and makes Dean grin more.

"Yeah, if this thing is a poltergeist, it definitely doesn't sound much like that nasty motherfucker that was in our old house."

"Well, I know I've heard they're not always that dangerous," he says after they make it to the second floor and slow their pace, Dean getting the EMF detector back out. "The really bad ones mostly hide themselves, but sometimes poltergeists seem to get some kind of fulfillment out of scaring people as opposed to hurting them and they're not much more than troublesome and annoying. They only get violent if they catch onto the fact that the inhabitants intend to leave the house forever and they're about to lose any subjects to screw with."

"Which of course always happens eventually," Dean says. "Unless it's a music school that's getting financially boned, apparently. Nobody actually has to live here, so it's not quite too much for them to deal with. Perfect hangout."

It doesn't take long for them to conclude that the presence in this house is too strong to just be somebody's spirit and they must be on the right track. Ever since they learned the right purification drill for a situation like this from Missouri, they've always kept the Impala stocked with some charm bags for this kind of spell already prepared, so right away they're able to send Mr. McKinnon home and get to work.

They neglect to mention to him what they're going to have to do to some of the walls.

They split up to plant the bags and everything seems to go smoothly even after Sam has taken care of the east wall, except that it's so damn cold his hands are getting slightly numb and weak. To get his second bag in the south side of the house, he goes into a large storage closet so he can at least tear this hole in a part of the wall that's more hidden.

That's where he is when all the lights in the house flicker a second, then shut off.

Almost immediately he hears quick steps—Dean sounds close by, nearing the room he's in. "Sam! You good?"

"Yeah, in here," he calls, starting to work more urgently hacking away at the wall with his hammer. "I'm almost—"

First comes the crash of something falling to the floor out in the hall, followed by a shouted curse from Dean, and then the loud slam of the door swinging shut behind him.

He's trapped in the room. There isn't a sliver of light as before when there was some coming in from the streetlights outside the windows, now just complete blackness.

Doesn't matter. He has to keep working. He feels the wall to see where he's started making the hole and hits it a couple more times, feels it again to see if he can reach his hand through, now where did he put the pouch...

Before he can find it he's getting too distracted as the room that he can't even see very strangely seems to grow around him, a feeling of yawning and expanding emptiness. His hands start moving with a kind of hopeless weight, nothing to grab onto. Nothing but darkness, like he's nowhere. And it's so cold. He's closed in and trapped and he doesn't know why but he doesn't like it. In front of him, the wall, the hole he can feel...

In the tight and enclosed, freezing cold dark, it's here, in him and coming out. The wall.

Some terrible sense of familiarity is crushing down on him, he doesn't like this at all but why, what is it, something edging closer and closer to his thoughts the longer he's in here.

No no no, he tells himself, stop, you don't want to remember. As the hammer drops heavily from his hand, he sinks to his left against the wall, taking so much effort just to stay standing as he struggles to hold himself together.

He can't. He has to, where is the damn thing? What was he looking for? What's he supposed to be doing?

Sam can't think anymore as the pressure closes in, a spiked ring of burning red light around his vision of nothing but darkness. A sound like screaming, vibrating under the floor. Something in the corner of his eye that's pressing his skull in and picking away at him, itching itching, and he just has to stop pressing back and resisting and then all the tension stretching him thin will stop, he can feel it, if he just lets it open a little...

Suddenly there's a soft light to the side of him, just enough to fill the room with some color and depth again. The sound of Dean's voice is strong and near, almost bringing him right out of it.

"Sam!"

And then he's closer than it seems like he should be already, after he didn't even quite hear him approach. The light moves with him, his hand carrying a flickering flame from his lighter. He grabs Sam's shoulder that's turned to him and shoves it roughly against the wall, turning him so his whole back is pressed to it and he can look at him.

"Oh shit," Dean says breathlessly as he sees his face. "Sam? Hey!"

He hears him and he wants to answer but he can't seem to, like he's having a dream in which he can't scream. Then he briefly has an impression of Dean's breathing sounding tight and a little panicked as he comes close and then he kisses him, briefly but firmly. The completely unexpected contact is a centermost point of warmth that brings Sam right out of his head, shocking him completely back into awareness like a splash of water.

Still gripping his shoulder tight, Dean looks close at his face with some of the worry ebbing from his features as their eyes finally meet, waiting tensely for some confirmation that he's okay.

"I'm sorry," Sam says softly, shaking his head quickly.

"You with me here? Can you do this?"

Taking in a deep, collecting breath, he nods quickly. "Yeah."

He can now see a little light also spilling in from out in the hall. He can't believe he didn't even notice Dean kicking in the door.

"Come on, we need to hurry," Dean says. "It definitely knows what's up now..."

Sam remembers very easily now where he put the charm bag, reaching into his pocket to take it out as Dean rushes back to the door to keep it held open. After he drops it into the wall and they leave the room, he sees that the crash he heard before was a chandelier that's now a mess on the floor, and he wonders how narrowly Dean escaped from having that fall right on his head.

The spot where Dean started making the last hole in the wall before the power went out is one of the darkest parts of the house, so Sam stands by holding out his lighter and watching the surroundings for him while he keeps working. Before long the house fills with the angry-sounding pounding of piano keys from three different rooms and several stereos that have just turned on and started playing music at full volume. It's so loud that they don't hear the tiny rain of a few nails falling loose above them, the creaking and slow cracking of wood.

Not until there's a pause of silence in the piece that the CD player in this office is playing, and only in that instant Sam can catch through the racket the sound of the collective groaning and screeching of the ceiling buckling under great weight. He looks up above them as he realizes what's happening, his mouth dropping open.

"Dean," he says in a tight, barely controlled voice. "Hurry up." And at that very moment he sees the first crack start splitting the ceiling.

"Yeah, I got it," Dean says just as all at once the whole house goes silent again, reaching his hand back out of the wall.

Sam yanks him away by the arm so fast he gives a light yell of pain.

"Dude, it's done," Dean says as Sam pulls him to the other side of the room with him, but then he hears the bigger and louder following cracks and looks up in the same direction Sam is anxiously looking. "Wha...Holy—!"

The first gap tears open, the bottom of a piano leg piercing through, and then the whole thing lop-sidedly follows falling through and taking chunks of the ceiling with it. Both of them shut their eyes with cringing grimaces as it lands with a whole-hearted crash and the terrible sound of notes ringing dully and discordantly.

"Oh fuck me," Dean says a little breathlessly, immediately turning to Sam. "Let's get outta here now."

He nods, not having to be told twice before following him quickly toward the door. Sure enough, a bunch more lights are starting to come on around the neighborhood. Luckily they've make it to the car and Dean already has the keys in the ignition before anyone appears outside trying to see what's going on.

As he speeds the car away they stay silent for a while, letting their heart rates return to normal. Then Dean looks over at him and says, "Thanks. That is not how I'd want to die."

He cracks a slight smile. "Can you believe that just happened?"

"I know." Something gradually brings a calm smile to Dean's face and then he glances over at him again before speaking again. "I'd almost forgotten what it's like, you know..."

"What?"

"Being able to go into these things knowing you've got my back."

Sam lies all the way back in his seat, sighing a little. "After I almost screwed the whole thing up. If you hadn't been looking out for me, too, and you hadn't come after me right then..."

Dean's smile has fallen. "It was the wall bothering you, wasn't it?"

His first inclination is to avoid making him concerned and he has to force himself to answer. "Yeah."

"What happened?"

"I'm not sure. I think...I remembered something."

Dean's eyes open wide. "You scratched it?"

"No. I think I got close, though. For a moment it's like I was really close to being reminded of something...You remember how we knew Lucifer had to be in Detroit because of the temperature difference there? How he said he burns cold?"

"Yeah."

"Well, I think it must have been really cold there. In the cage. Cold and dark. And when I got shut in that room, I guess something in me felt like I was reliving it and it was suddenly really hard to keep other details from breaking through." He looks out the side window dejectedly. "In the past few weeks it's been totally bearable, I've been able to all but forget about it...I couldn't help thinking I might be kind of out of the woods now."

Dean shrugs. "Hey, this isn't that bad," he says. "I'm pretty damn relieved to know there was something specific that started it, at least. I thought it had just randomly hit you out of nowhere and that was really freaking me out. I mean, your face back there...For a few seconds it looked like you weren't even here."

They meet eyes grimly a moment and Sam says, "Sorry. I didn't mean to lose it like that, in the middle of..."

"Whatever, quit apologizing. I guess this means we just have to learn to avoid certain triggers or whatever, right? Keep you out of small, cold, and dark places."

Sam shrugs. "Yeah," he says with a sigh. "You're right, it could be worse."

"And hey, we just took care of that job in under two hours and it's not even that late yet," Dean says, gesturing toward the clock. "That might be a record. Instead of packing it in we might as well hit the bar or something."

"Sure, but it's got to be a bank run. I need to do some swindling at the pool tables or I'll be all out of cash soon."

"You mean 'cause Bobby won a fortune off you last week?" Dean says teasingly.

"That tricky son of a bitch," he says, rolling his eyes as he's reminded. "'Honor among thieves' my ass."

Dean breaks into some short laughter and reaches to turn on the radio.

"Evening, gentlemen."

"Son of a—!" Caught off guard by the smooth voice coming right from the back seat, Dean nearly loses control of the car for a second as they both jump in surprise and glance behind them.

Balthazar is lounging comfortably in the back, one leg over the other and his arms stretched out across the back of the seat.

"Kinda busy right now, Balthazar," Dean says with an agitated glare at his reflection in the rear-view mirror, not really trying to sound convincing about the lie. "If you don't mind."

"I do, in fact."

"Also, we don't care."

"Unless you care to hand over some of the holy weapons you've got stashed," Sam says.

At those words, Balthazar just gives a soft laugh. "Come on, boys, this is just a little chat," he says, and just like that the car starts to slow.

"Hey!" Dean says angrily as he steps on the gas in vain, clearly unable to stop whatever Balthazar is doing to control the car.

As soon as the Impala has pulled over to the side of the road by a park and come to a complete stop, Sam quickly grabs the keys from the ignition and gets out.

"Castiel, if you're not busy..." he mutters under his breath as he rushes over to the trunk, Dean now following him. All they have in their arsenal to use against an angel is holy oil, of course, which isn't of much use without some prior preparation for trapping or attack, but they don't know how bad this could get and may have to trysomething...

Balthazar appears sitting on top of the trunk before they reach it and sends the keys flying out of Sam's hand to land far out of sight in the grass.

"Dammit, we don't have any business with you anymore!" Dean says.

"I beg to differ."

"Your help didn't work out for me," Sam tells him, "and it wasn't needed anyway. I've got my soul again. I didn't agree to any deal with you."

"It's not my problem you were only—hmm—screwing around at first, shall we say, and didn't get the job done in time," Balthazar says, smiling at some hidden joke in his choice of words which obviously goes right over Dean's head but makes Sam grimace. "And I'm afraid there's no one else to take responsibility for that soulless little shit's actions but you. You took up my time, now you owe me some of yours."

"What do you want?"

"Information, for a start. Rumor has it Death is the one who broke you out, and somehow I doubt he'd care to be so helpful unless there's something in it for him. I want to know what's so important to him about the two of you. What is it you're onto right now?"

"Who says he does care?" Dean says. "Maybe I just convinced him he owed us one. Sam was only stuck down there because of what we did to get the horsemen free from Lucifer."

"Right, we both know things are never that easy. Especially for you two."

As far as they know there's no particular reason they should be worried about giving away the truth about this, and for the most part Dean obviously just wants to be annoying. Sam can't help but grin to himself a little when he answers with a shrug, "I don't know, the guy did bring me a bacon dog last time I saw him, and he didn't have to do that. If I didn't know any better I'd think Death is just starting to sort of like us. Good situation, right?" He throws Sam a cocky smile. "What was it you were saying a while ago about the irony of that?—Whatever, point is," he goes on quickly, looking back at Balthazar, "darkness as it turns out can offer more protection than light, when you gotta keep hiding and running. No, nothing is that easy, and if you knew what I had to pull to get the old geezer's attention this time you may not call it that. But it does actually make a lot of sense in a way, am I right?"

Balthazar's impatience finally erupts. "Enough already!" he says. "What has he told you?"

"What do you want, our leads?" Sam says, cluelessly throwing his arms up. "We have no leads! We're not even sure what we're looking for yet, he just wanted us to keep looking."

To his surprise, Balthazar seems to accept that more easily now that he and Dean have given up the attempts at defiance and evasion, for he immediately mulls over that information with a sigh. "I thought as much," he says, crossing his arms with a frown of disappointment. "I'll just have to keep looking myself. Surely I can uncover something like this before the two of you do, no matter what the reason for this misplaced confidence he has in your particular abilities."

"It's not a damn race," Sam says in annoyed disbelief. "Are you even worried about the fact that Death is concerned about whatever's going on right now? Or is everything just a business opportunity for you?"

"Of course that's what this is! Everything seems to be connected to whatever the Alphas are hiding right now. Do you have any idea what some would trade for that kind of information? The location of Purgatory?" He looks back and forth between their faces and then just shrugs at their less than awed reactions. "Anyway, whatever else it is they're being very secretive about is of little importance to me. All I want is an opportunity to...well...talk with one of them. So as soon as your work involves catching an Alpha or at least sniffing out one's hideout, I'd like you to hand it over to me. Then I'll gladly consider us even."

"No way," Sam replies immediately. "Our job's protecting people, we kill monsters before they can hurt anyone else. We don't do that. And I don't think I like the idea of what you'd probably do with any information you could get out of one."

Balthazar slides down from the car to stand and is abruptly right in Sam's face, his hands clasped behind his back unassumingly but the look in his eyes suddenly a little threatening. "Ah, I see, you have principles," he says. "So you can be in this world but not of it? A hunter's code? That's just ever so endearing. I'd think after spending so much time in Hell because of your noble self-sacrifice you'd have a better understanding of what having principles gets you."

Rolling his eyes, Dean says, "You done?"

"In just a minute. Look, I really don't think I'm asking for much here..." Balthazar raises his hand in a lazy motion and at that moment Sam gives a low yell, feeling a sudden stabbing pain bloom in his gut. Before he knows what's happening there's just dark asphalt in his face as it's knocked him right off his feet.

"Sam!" he hears Dean say sharply, rushing over to him as a vague motion of feet in his momentarily blurring vision. In weak and heaving breaths, he clutches his throbbing stomach and tastes blood in his mouth. It feels like he was just hit in the center with a sledgehammer from both in front of and behind him.

Dean has barely just made it to his side, leaning over and clutching his shoulder, when their attention is abruptly stolen by a loud groan of pain from Balthazar. They look back over to see him also collapsing to the ground and cringing in intense pain. Both of them can only freeze and stare at him with large, shocked eyes as Balthazar leans over with another heavy groan and then spits some blood onto the ground. He wipes at his mouth with one hand and then looks down at the blood smearing his palm with just as much disbelief as they're in.

What the hell?

Then Balthazar's face quickly registers understanding, followed by greatly vexing frustration. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me," he says in a low voice, rising to stand back up with what looks like taxing effort. "You're marked?"

As Balthazar just glares at him like somebody might look at a disgusting insect that just bit them, Sam forces himself back up onto his feet as well with some help from Dean.

"Ugh, Castiel," Balthazar says with a shake of his head, grinding the name out with a weary-sounding kind of annoyance. "Only that tight-arsed stiff would think of something so charmingly passé."

And it sinks in then: Balthazar can't hurt him. He'll be stupid to try again, with him. But...

Sam looks to the side at Dean with horror just as Balthazar's eyes settle on him as well.

"Yes, I'm afraid it's going to have to be you, then," he says to Dean lightly, his voice still coming out not quite as strong and level as usual as he stays slightly hunched over in pain. "I'll have you know I really didn't want to have to resort to this sort of thing, but I suppose I don't blame you two for not taking me all that seriously yet."

"We're not going to work for you!" Sam says, getting enraged. "You're not getting anything, because I never want to see your face again! Everybody thinks they can just have a piece of us now if they find something to hold over our heads? We're done with that."

"This from the one who's only walking the earth on Death's terms. I have nothing against humans, you know, but you could really use a break from your profession to regain some perspective of what measly, insignificant vermin you are next to all the other things whose affairs you meddle in, with absolutely everything to lose. Mark or no mark, like it or not, you're mine. You'll just have to allow me a moment to demonstrate that to you by rearranging your brother's insides before you start seeing it, unless of course you think you're startingto see it just now?"

"Oh, for Christ sakes," Dean says before Sam can answer, "just shut up and get on with it."

In a brief mess of a moment, Balthazar comes toward Dean, starting to make some other motion with his hand; Sam quickly moves to do he-doesn't-even-know-what to try to stop him; and then someone appears right behind Balthazar in the blink of an eye and grabs him—someone they'd instantly recognize anywhere, of course. Sam and Dean go still at Castiel's appearance and watch as he hauls Balthazar away from Dean and strikes him—or maybe actually throws him, it happens so fast it's hard to see—with incredible force that sends him flying in the other direction and actually lifting just slightly off the ground. For a split-second the fast blur of movement that is Balthazar falling past the Impala looks like it's going to graze the end of the bumper but then barely misses it. Instead he topples into a public mailbox right at the side of the road that gets not so much dented as pretty much flattened by the strength of the impact as it's knocked over.

Dean turns to Castiel with a stunned yet also annoyed expression. "Watch the car, dude!"

"Ah, Cas," Balthazar says before getting up with a groan. "I was starting to get insulted that you hadn't been bothered to drop in yet, or worried you were dead—It was one of the two, I'm sure."

Castiel moves ridiculously fast to stand right in front of him, in that way angels do without appearing to move at all. Balthazar touches his stomach again with a cringe, the attack clearly having made his injury hurt more.

"It's not very nice, is it?" Castiel says. "That's what it feels like to be human, if you ever wondered."

Balthazar rolls his eyes. "Really, though. A mark of blessing, Castiel, are you serious? What eon are we in?"

Dean is now helping Sam walk over toward the Impala where they can see them closer and Sam can lean against something besides him. Castiel looks to the side at them as they stop and watches Sam weakly sag against the side of the car, still clutching his stomach in a mirror of Balthazar's state. "Sam, are you alright?"

He gives him a bitter smile and rasps, "I'll live."

Castiel fixes a firm and grave gaze back on Balthazar, who just shrugs at him as if he feels Castiel can't take a joke.

"What?" he says innocently. "I was going to make him better as soon as he decided to cooperate, I swear."

"The blessing?" Castiel says, back on the former subject. "Whatever you want to think, it worked, didn't it? Doesn't that make you think that just maybe there's still someone at the top with something to say about whether we're still meant to serve and protect them? They're not ours to just use as we please."

Balthazar just grins like he can't believe what he's hearing. "You see, your problem is that you actually believe they are significantly different from us in any way besides being weaker," he says. "I'm living proof, aren't I, that we can be whatever they are if it appeals to us, and be better at it. Every bit as sinful and greedy and lustful, with really quite fine taste in the best kinds of indulgences this universe has to offer. We just don't all choose that. So I just have to wonder, what is it that makes humans so special anyway? I'm supposed to feel guilty for buying souls off of them in fair and honest trades?"

"Fair and honest?" Cas echoes doubtfully. "That child you gave part of the staff to probably only thought you were trustworthy because you told him you were an angel."

"Well, I am an angel. I can't help it if the word has misleading implications of me giving a damn. Though I'm sure what you had to put him through to get my name out of him cleared up any misunderstandings he had about how easily he should trust one of us—Well done there."

The more he hears, the more troubled Castiel looks, almost pained. "How can you do all this?" he says. "How can you just not care?"

"Come on, brother, just look at the state of things now. Our Father's gone and you've personally invalidated every word of prophecy we still had left to go on, and now what's left? Just an abandoned human world of human souls doing the same nonsense they always do. Human nature is the only long-surviving thing there is left to rely on. Do you realize what that actually means, Castiel? That the only thing you can depend on is that you can't depend on anyone. In the end, everyone's capable of just going rotten, just like them. Human beings are the authority now and that's precisely why all of creation's going down the drain. I'd be insane not to do whatever ruthless and self-interested things are necessary to cover my own back."

Castiel is shaking his head slowly, looking at him in utter disbelief. "You were once an honorable soldier with brothers and sisters proud to fight beside you," he says. "And now you've just given up and left all that behind to spend your time buying, partying, consuming, and copulating—some of which, by the way, you can't even do without experiencing those things through a human vessel, no matter what you're so proud to believe about our capability to surpass them in anything. To think in all this time you've been in exile you've taken absolutely nothing from humanity but meaningless hedonism. Don't you see at all how sad you are?"

Balthazar lets out a mocking laugh. "And you're suggesting there's something more to learn from humans? Like these two?" He gestures toward Sam and Dean briefly. "A couple vile and depraved brothers who are fucking each other? Please."

It can practically be felt in the air, how completely stiff both of them go at hearing it from him, as Balthazar goes right back to not regarding them at all as if he didn't just spill something monumental to one of them. Turning his face down to avoid even the smallest sight of Dean out of the corner of his eye, Sam breathes out in a heavy, beaten exhale—Well, there it is, done.

Castiel's reaction, however, is rather mild. For a moment his eyebrows draw together as if with confusion as he looks at Balthazar with his head tilting slightly, almost like he has to think first before understanding what exactly he's referring to. "As a matter of fact, they're not," he says simply, with the kind of calm displeasure with which someone might argue against a shallow interpretation of a text. "Last I knew, at least...It's very complex, actually. That you would sum it up it in such simple and crude terms makes me inclined to think it's your mind that is so depraved."

Balthazar laughs lightly with a smile that is half affectionate and half bitter. "Well, you would already know that."

"This is what's so wrong with you," Cas says. "This lifestyle of careless decadence you've become comfortable with—You think that is the nature of the human soul? The only ultimate truth left? Their kind do not all fail and become controlled by temptation. Far from all, in fact. They don't just take whatever they want and act on any desire they happen to have without thinking about the consequences."

For a brief moment, Sam thinks he sees his eyes darting meaningfully over toward him and Dean.

"It's been a very long time since they've had any direct guidance from God," he goes on. "A great deal of them don't even have any faith anymore. Yet even in his absence they've somehow managed to keep order and keep taking care of one another as much as before, still more or less staying to the rules. They haven't dissolved into the kind of chaos and endless violence that our world in Heaven is in now. Whatever deeply flawed, despicable, disgusting creatures you may see in the two of them, I'll easily take them over the brothers who are killing each other. Is that so unbelievably foolish of me?"

Starting to look somewhat weary, maybe even a little regretful, Balthazar sighs. "You're going to get yourself killed, Castiel," he says.

"You're not doing much to prevent that by hoarding several of the weapons I could use."

"Oh, come on, even if you have a few of the weapons. I made a point of stealing the least powerful ones which Raphael's followers won't be searching the hardest for, and they're just enough for my own protection only because I'm not quite the high-priority target you are. Even if I didn't care to have them for myself, giving them to you would just be like helping some miserable bastard looking to blow his brains out any moment by telling him where the bullets are hidden."

"I'm not going to stop, Balthazar."

"Well, I won't be the one to help you fail. Let me have at least that much of a sense of accountability left in me. I'm sorry, I truly am, but it's all madness up there as far as I see it. I won'thave any part of it."

Castiel's expression becomes sort of hardened and numb. He looks over at Sam and Dean again for a second and then tells him with some finality, "I'm aware Sam made a commitment to you, but you know what it means now that I've blessed him. Not only that any kind of harm you cause him will be brought back down on you, but any debt to you he had is cleared."

Crossing his arms with a trace of annoyance back in his expression, Balthazar asks, "Did you do that just to protect him from me?"

"No. They both have me for that, evidently."

He rolls his eyes. "Fine, I get the point. I'll leave your pets alone now. But Sam..." He looks over at him off-handedly. "Even a soul as damaged as yours is still worth something, probably more to me than to you. Do feel free to summon me if you ever change your mind once more and want to be rid of the thing again..."

Still shrunk in against the car in pain, Sam barely looks at him and groans out, "Go screw yourself."

He turns back away from him with a shrug, and Castiel just looks at him with a frown and says half-heartedly, "What he said."

And a moment later it's just the three of them.

.

.

After Castiel heals whatever kind of internal injury Balthazar left him with, Sam goes off into the grass with a flashlight to find where the car keys ended up. Dean stays at the car and starts re-organizing everything inside the trunk that got a little disheveled earlier when they dug around for the needed supplies to exorcise the house. Castiel's eyes follow Sam thoughtfully for a while as he stands leaning back against the trunk beside him.

"Cas, how'd you show up just at the right moment anyway?" Dean asks him, looking up for a second.

"I was just answering Sam," he says, looking vaguely surprised by the question. "He didn't say much, but it sounded urgent and I came as quickly as I could."

"Oh, I didn't even hear him slipping out a prayer."

"You didn't even know he'd already tried and you didn't pray for my help?"

Dean goes still a few seconds as he thinks about it. Then he gives him a sort of sheepish look and has to lower his eyes again before saying his next words. "It's funny, I...It just didn't occur to me somehow. Most of the time I guess I figure you're probably too busy up there."

He can feel Castiel's gaze fixed searchingly on him. "Is something wrong?"

It takes Dean a moment to realize that he's basically trying to ask if he did something wrong. "No, man," he says. "It's just...Honestly, I've been kind of dreading the next time we'd meet. Not just because it's freaking awkward after...well...what's changed, but because I wasn't sure how much I might have to find shit has changed. You know, I wasn't sure if it could be the same now that you've seen everything in Sam's life, which has a lot of me in it too, including...well." He swallows and his voice drops a bit lower. "Everything."

Castiel gives a curt nod as he understands. Not looking directly at Dean, he just says, "I figured we're not supposed to talk about it."

His breath falls out a little with relief in a way that sounds like the most fake laugh, and he grins. "Good. That's...Yeah."

Castiel looks over at Sam's figure in the distance again in thought. "I was wrong to advise against trying to bring him back," he says.

Dean looks up at him in some surprise. "It was a long shot and we got lucky, I know that," he says, closing the trunk and turning around. "Death gave us a better deal than we thought would be possible and it's already turned out way better than it could have."

"I wouldn't say it's all owed to luck," Castiel admits. "Or my blessing...I think I've spent too much time away from the world of humanity, you see. That was why I couldn't see the possibility of it being worth it to just try. I'd forgotten that just as your kind have great weaknesses, they have their own strengths as well. I'd forgotten all the times you or your brother has surprised me after I expected you to fail, in no small part because of the strength you seem to draw from each other. You wouldn't give up on him, and you shouldn't have."

Dean is now also looking over at Sam, mostly visible to him as just a dark shape and the moving beam of the flashlight. He smirks a little. "You can tell exactly where those keys are, can't you?" he asks.

Castiel's lips tighten in the most subtle smile. "Don't worry, he's getting warmer."

He chuckles briefly.

"Thought I'd let him avoid me," Castiel adds. "I think he's just expecting some awkward moments as much as you've been...And I have a feeling you two may have something to talk about now, so..."

As he moves from his relaxed position against the car and stands up straight, Dean says, "Hey, I'm sure he doesn't necessarily want you gone without another word."

"Dean. I really don't think he wants me around long after what just happened."

He stares in a bewildered silence for a moment. "Did I miss something?"

Castiel sighs, putting a hand lightly on his shoulder. "Goodnight, Dean."

"Oh, that's cute. 'Goodnight.' You're all proficient in human-speak now that you've downloaded the Sam Winchester Encyclopedia of TMI."

"Don't get annoyed just because I know something about Sam that you don't. Well, I know a lot that you don't, of course, but..."

Dean is frowning now as he actually thinks about it. "Is this about what Balthazar said?"

Looking at him grimly, he sighs. "You don't know, do you?"

The light from Sam's flashlight switches off and Dean looks over to see him on his way back over to the car. Naturally by the time he looks back away, Castiel has made his exit.

Sam stops a few feet away from him and tosses him his keys, then buries his hands down in the pockets of his jacket and keeps standing there idly, not really looking directly at anything. Something heavy in the air seems to slow everything down, making them reluctant to move right away or even speak even though there are all kinds of things that could be said right now.

Dean gives the keys a toss in his hand, resolving to just get out of here first. "Let's go," he says.

It's been a really long night.

.

.

They're left in a tired but somewhat expectant silence that stretches on through most of the drive and then after they've found the nearest motel, checked in, and brought their stuff inside. Dean busies his hands by cleaning the outside of his gun, which he's been meaning to do ever since one night during their last hunt when they thought they were about to get arrested and he had to quickly stash it behind something on the muddy ground. Sam sits on his bed fooling with his phone for a while, probably going through and deleting a bunch of messages, and then Dean hears him put it down with a quiet sigh like he can't even quite keep his mind on the task.

"So you aren't even going to ask me?" he says.

Back turned to him as he stands at the dresser, Dean says, "Ask what?"

Sam's voice breaks just a little with discomfort through the answer. "How Balthazar knows what happened."

He stops what he's doing for a moment, slowing to stone. Right. Of course he knew it was that...

He doesn't turn around but looks over his shoulder at Sam, staying silent. After a while Sam drops his eyes down and starts to look deeply troubled.

"Can you just tell me why?" he asks. There is something dimly pained in his eyes and his soft voice, something they've both been carrying around too long now while pretending it's okay, and it makes Dean look away again. "Why'd you let him...?"

Dean's teeth clench together and he goes still, keeping his back to him. Then he just keeps wiping his gun, but it's an absent and pointless motion, brushing lightly over the same place again and again like his hand has disconnected from his brain. Then when it comes out it's a black mess spilling from a ripped-open seam all at once, said like a filthy oath.

"Because I wanted to," he says forcefully, dropping his hands down. And the reason it sounds so horrible is because it means "I didn't care anymore."

With difficult effort, he forces himself to look over at Sam, who has his head leaned back against the headboard of the bed and is looking up toward the ceiling with sunken eyes. "You hated it," he says, in almost just a whisper.

Dean turns all the way around, crossing his arms and drawing them in very close to him. "Yeah." He lets out a long, sighing breath. "I hated...him. That was why...Because everyone kept telling me this determination to get your soul back up here was crazy, and why the hell would I want to do that, like it was selfish and pathetic and I should just move on. And it's not like I didn't hear them. It's not like I wasn't worrying about whether it was right, when you made me promise not to do exactly this.

"But it was practically impossible to just accept all over again that you were gone when you were right there. Not a finished product, nothing close to the real thing, but there was no denying he was still a lot more than some fake or copy. I knew I couldn't help but keep seeing him as my brother, that maybe that was starting to hold me back from seeing things clearly. So...I just gave in and played his game. Stopped trying to mold him into something more like you and just acted like him instead, because he was right, having a soul...It's shit." Dean stops a second, closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose with another heavy, silent sigh. The rest of his words start coming out less easily. "No consequences, right? It was something...It was what I'd always told myself I'd never do, so I guess I wanted to think it would mean I could stop thinking of him as...But I know all I was really doing was giving up. He caught me when I was weak, I just wanted to be allowed to give up and actually let go, just for once...He knew that. Bastard wanted to convince me he was right and it was hopeless to keep caring, keep trying..."

"Dean." Sam's voice, steady and calm, breaks through his words that have started desperately running away from him.

"I'm sorry..."

"Don't. It's okay."

He shakes his head in frustration. "No. I'm sorry this is so fucked. You remember all that and I..."

"I don't care that I remember it."

"Oh, like hell—"

"I can get over that. That isn't the worst of it. God, you don't..." Sam has to stop for a couple seconds to collect himself, as if he's thinking of something so terrible it's difficult to even talk about it. His next words come out shaking a little with dark meaning, with something that sounds almost like anger. "Letting him get to you like that, letting your guard down...You were playing with fire. He could have done anything to you...So don't tell me it's shit having a soul, even if you don't totally mean it."

Dean shakes his head dejectedly, coming forward to sit down on the other bed. Now directly across from Sam but avoiding his eyes a little, he starts having some trouble speaking, his throat tight and his thoughts a mostly inarticulate mess. "Would it...would it mean anything if I tell you, if I swear that...I didn't like it. No matter what he said, it wasn't what I wanted. Not like that..."

Sam's eyes get bright with slight shock as he hears this and he starts quickly shaking his head. Again he says to stop him, "Dean..."

"It was nothing, it just made me feel so much worse...Because you can be such a little bastard and I've seen the very worst of you but I care about all of you anyway, even if the worst is all that's available and the other parts are stuck in Hell, and I knew after that I still couldn't let go..." He draws in a quick, shallow breath. "Maybe he thought there wasn't much more to it than just relieving some fucking tension or whatever. But that wasn't what I really wanted, Sam. Wasn't even close to enough. I needed you back." He rubs his fingers over his closed eyes for a moment, as if such simple words take so much out of him. "I just...Fuck. I needed you back."

Sam sighs quickly in exasperation, now with a look of disbelief. "That you would be worried about what I think when I was the total creep in the room..."

"But you have to know it's not like—I missed you, okay, and it was starting to get really hard again, and I wasn't even thinking about that. Well, especially not then. It was something about your tattoo, that's all I was thinking about, you know, when he saw me looking at him and—"

"I understand, you don't have to say this. I remember everything you tried to tell him, okay?"

"Well, I'm telling you now. He was full of it. He knew everything, but he didn't get it. Even I still don't get it, so how could he? All I know is I'd sooner throw myself in front of a goddamn bus than do anything to hurt you, no matter what I might want, except something is always making me do it all the damn time. If I could imagine then that you'd be back now and you'd have to end up knowing everything, like waking up after I freakin' jumped you while you were in no condition to be able to make any kind of a good judgment call...But it's no excuse that I didn't expect this. And I was the only one in that room who had no excuse. I had my soul..." He lifts his face up to look straight at Sam wearily. "Yeah. So tell me how that's okay."

"I'm not saying it was pretty, Dean, or that it hasn't been getting to me at all," Sam says, shaking his head again. "But you know, you're hardly the only person I now vividly remember having a meaningless quickie with whether I like it or not because I wasn't actually there to say yes or no. Sure, this was still really different, but you've got to try to see that of all the things that happened or almost happened because I was so out of control, I'm far from the most disturbed by the fact that we..." His voice trails off as he brings a hand up to cover his mouth for a second in a nervous motion, then drops his hand back down heavily. "You didn't even think about it. You don't even know why..."

Dean tilts his head slightly with some confusion when he can't seem to say it, looking at him closely. "What?"

Sam sighs. "I really didn't want to tell you this...but I knew it would probably have to come up somehow..."

Dean has forgotten by now that this whole conversation started with Sam seeming to need to get something off his chest. Something regarding his dealings with Balthazar during that time. Somehow the idea is now giving him a bad feeling more than before. "Sam. What are you talking about?"

He taps a foot softly on the floor for a restless moment before starting to force it out. "It happened right after he left you and came back, right? It was like he didn't care to have anything to do with you anymore, and then just like that he changed his mind again. You didn't think that was strange at all?"

"Sure, a little," he says with a shrug. "But everything about him was strange, wasn't it?"

Sam bites his lip a little, hesitating. "As soon as he made up his mind about not wanting his soul back, he didn't waste any time. He'd already summoned Balthazar the first time when you saw him again..."

"Wait, the first time? He had to ask for his help more than once?"

He hesitates so long that Dean finally has a chance to start getting it, his mouth dropping open. In his head he hears again with a turn of his stomach what Castiel told him and Bobby weeks ago, the other ways it's possible to scar one's own body for the spell Sam was trying to do...

"Because that was his first attempt," Dean says in a dead low mutter, understanding now. When the uncomfortable look on Sam's face confirms it, he shakes his head. "Jesus...No wonder he was suddenly so..."

Aggressive. Relentless. Manipulative, even, in a way that really should have sent up a flag in his head. It makes him feel incredibly stupid now, thinking back on the change.

"But I don't get it," he goes on. "If Balthazar told him...I mean, wasn't it supposed to work?"

"Balthazar wasn't clear enough," Sam explains. He shifts nervously, hands moving around his lap, before saying the next part with an edge of dark humor in his tone. "He probably didn't think he'd have to point out the distinction. He told him several things that would work to scar himself, but he didn't specify that that would only be enough if it wasn't...consensual."

Dean slowly realizes why talking about this is clearly filling Sam with such contained horror. He meets eyes with him, his expression frozen into a distant shock. "It wasn't enough," he finally manages to say.

Sam looks down at the carpet and gives a quick, jerking shake of his head, something wild creeping into his eyes. "It could have been. If he'd known...He took care of that requirement sort of as insurance, in case you ever actually got close to finding a way to recover my soul and he had to be able to get the spell done. And when he summoned Balthazar again later to ask what the next step was, he was so pissed when Balthazar could tell right away that he hadn't pulled it off. It was so frustrating that he'd come so close to fixing everything already but messed up on one detail. It was just a detail to him, Dean."

"So what?"

"'So what'? So he would have! He only bothered convincing you because he did generally mean what he said about why he was staying around, and it's not like he really had it in him to particularly enjoy hurting anybody. The way he was thinking...he figured killing somebody and feeling nothing about it would be different, but for this to do the trick he probably needed to...you know, really get his rocks off like a sick bastard. He didn't even consider that it was about hurting you, not just that you and I are...But if he'd known, and it was still the most convenient option at the time, he wouldn't have hesitated for a second."

"Shit," Dean mutters into his hands as he rubs his face. No matter how irrational it may be for Sam to feel guilty over this, this has to have been doing a hell of a number on his head and he knows there's not really much helping that no matter what he tries to tell him. "I am so sorry...You've just got to understand even if that had happened, it wouldn't have been you."

"Dean—"

"No, listen. The part of you that was completely in control that whole time, he was just feeling threatened and acting out in the way that made sense to him. But even that completely ruthless asshole didn't want to have to do any of it. It's not like you have any kind of secret desire to kill Bobby or hurt me that your soul has to prevent you from acting on. So all the worst things you're living with from that time aren't even really the worst things in a way. They had to be provoked in a desperate situation and they don't have anything to do with who you are. Do you think I couldn't have gone that far with my soul missing, or anybody else?"

Sam smiles mildly. "Yeah...I know," he says. "I've had a while to think about it now and...I understand that. But there are other things he did or said that...Well, they definitely were me. That's still all he was. And even now a part of me's a little afraid you'll hate me for saying this, but I can't seem to actually regret everything he said. You may want to think he was just wrong because of the way he made it all sound, but all those things..." He hesitates a moment, drawing in a quick and tense breath. "They were all true. But I can't imagine that I ever would have been able to say all of that so easily myself, ever. Maybe he couldn't completely understand it, but...without him, neither could I now."

Dean looks up and meets his eyes steadily and calmly. Unable to quite find any words to answer that, he just nods.

"I'm just trying to tell you, Dean...it could have been so much worse. Whenever I think about it, it feels like all my worst fears being proven right somehow. I can't even describe how fucked up...I mean, it was using you cruelly and he really enjoyed it anyway, and that's still what I remember of it the most. Liking it." Some tension seems to leave his features then, like he's just messily gotten out the last of the hardest things to say. "But however we might look at it, apparently it wasn't too much for my soul to handle."

He sighs heavily, leaning over with his elbows on his knees, and murmurs, "Yeah, thank God..."

With a distinct change in his tone, Sam asks, "Dean...?"

He looks directly at Sam's face again, finding his expression unsure and hesitant. "What?"

Sam shakes his head like he's changing his mind. "Uh. I don't want to push it..."

"What?" he says again.

"It's just..." Biting his lip for a second, he meets his gaze. "You didn't want him to kiss you."

He grimaces slightly, nervously shifting position a little. He's sort of surprised Sam would even need to ask about it. "Yeah, well...Wasn't right somehow. The rest of it felt close enough to something I wanted for me to fool myself, but with that, I don't know. It was like cheating on somebody, or something...I guess I didn't want to ruin that one thing."

"Nothing's ruined."

He can't seem to look at his face anymore. "Yeah, I know, but..."

"Dean." It comes out very softly, and suddenly Sam is coming close to him, standing to cross the very tight distance between the two beds and then leaning over him. When Sam touches his neck and kisses him gently, he responds without even thinking, reaching out and pulling lightly at his shirt at his chest. Then as soon as he breaks away an instant later, his forehead leaning in against Dean's, both of them breathe out audibly in the following moment of trying to get a grip back on themselves.

"Christ," Dean whispers, not even knowing what's happening and how this started. Then Sam is moving down into a kneel and his lips brush down, kiss his neck, and it's the vague shape of his name in a faint gasp more than an actual utterance, "Sam..."

Now on the floor between his legs, Sam leans his head down close to his chest so they aren't meeting eyes anymore, and Dean lets his hand rest just lightly on his shoulder. As Sam speaks, he keeps his left hand on the bed beside Dean, but the other has found itself on his hip, one thumb thoughtlessly brushing back and forth along the skin right underneath his shirt.

"Maybe it wouldn't mean we'd automatically get struck down by lightning, you know?" Sam murmurs. "It just doesn't bother me like it used to. Hasn't for a long time. I try to remember why we can't and the reasons just sound in my head like somebody else's words that hardly apply. I think maybe...it would be okay...It could feel okay..."

His head is now right against his chest and Dean can feel every word as warm breath through his shirt. He closes his eyes and rubs his hand along his shoulder a little as Sam drags his left hand closer and touches his leg. Sam seems to use conscious effort to just keep his hand still there on his thigh, waiting.

"Just...Can I touch you?" Sam finally says almost in a whisper, every word terrified and cautious like he's trying to speak close to a candle flame without blowing it out.

If he didn't ask, Dean probably wouldn't lift a finger. Without Sam waiting and making sure because he's Sam, he wouldn't even think and he would just let him. The position they're in right now isn't doing much to help him think and God, he wants to. He wants to let Sam slide that right hand up completely under his clothes and then lift his shirt off of him, kiss him wherever again, and again, open up his fly and lean down and wrap his mouth around his cock with his eyes closing in some unfathomable way Dean has never seen them closed.

But in this moment he can't help but see it and almost nothing else in his mind. He sees them as others see them, two strange guys walking into a motel or into a diner or onto a crime scene, and it's just that it would be nice for once to be able to think that some stranger assumes they're together not because of something so peculiar and intense shared between them that's easy to perceive, but simply because of how happy they seem together, in some whole and life-affirming way. And Dean just isn't sure he can see it ever being like that for them. In no world can he seem to imagine it ever getting that simple, just more tangled-up and complicated until he's smothering Sam's blood circulation and hurting him just by breathing and moving because they've become too tightly wound together as some unnatural whole of two halves, beautiful and grotesque all at once.

What he wants right at this moment is simple, but the rest of it they have no instincts for. It'll never be all about what they do in bed, it can't just be contained like that, would be a mess probably, and no matter what it's the worst idea ever for him to make a decision about this just as Sam is kneeling on the floor between his legs.

His hesitation must be pretty perceptible now that he's gone totally silent and still a moment; Sam pulls back a little and looks up at his face, seeming prepared for it. What he sees in Dean's eyes seems to say a lot before he even speaks again, as right away Sam draws back slightly and starts to look a little sorry.

Dean lowers his hand from his shoulder and covers it over Sam's hand on his leg to gently pull it away, murmuring, "I'm sorry..."

Sam stands up and steps a small distance back, giving a tiny shake of his head. "No, I shouldn't have..."

Now also standing up and walking toward the other end of the room, Dean says, "Whatever, shouldn't have stopped and asked if you were just gonna beat yourself up over it anyway."

"I didn't mean for that to come out of nowhere and get so far. That—"

"It's fine. I just..." He turns to face him again, lets out a deep sigh that holds all the tiredness of more time than he can even measure with any certainty. "I need some air."

Sam turns his face down slightly and sits down on his bed. "Okay."

He goes around the room to grab his room key and his jacket. When he's about to go, Sam is leaning over staring into space and deep in himself. Stopping at the door, he tells him, "I'm just going for a walk. To think."

Sam looks up at him with a reserved expression. "I know."

"I'm not just gonna disappear to a bar for the rest of the night or something and then pretend nothing happened tomorrow."

He nods and says again, "I know."

"I've been kind of a dick about this before, okay? It didn't help things any, I know that."

Sam gives a short, dark laugh of surprise at the vague apology. "Dean...do you really think we were ready to deal with this at all before now?"

He smirks dryly. "No, I guess not."

There's nothing else to say for now, so he turns and finally leaves. As he walks aimlessly down the block with his hands in his pockets, the crisp night air doesn't hold quite the feeling of clarity he might have expected. He's removed from Sam's warm proximity and released from the pulling, twining, tangled vines of want that were just wound so tight in that moment they didn't mean to happen, but the world still isn't really any simpler out here than it is back in that room.

He wishes he knew what he's looking for, what he's waiting for, but maybe this is just the same dead end it's always been. After he sits down on a bench somewhere a couple blocks down from the motel, the time steadily slips away from him and the night just gets colder.