Seven Warning Signs Your Brother is Having a Midlife Crisis

1. He's bored with his everyday life.

At first, Sam hadn't been too worried. He was pretty sure it was just a case of too much of the same old thing.

Too many routine hauntings, one bleeding into another. Too many jobs where they didn't have to think and had phoned it in. It was only a matter of time before one of them got sloppy. And it didn't surprise Sam that Dean would be taking it hard—he always hated it when Sam got hurt. Always blamed himself, even though Sam had been the one who hadn't seen the hatchet coming.

It would have been almost funny if a woman in white ended up being the job that killed them. After everything they'd been through, the case was like Hunting 101. At least, it might have been funny, except for the fact that Sam's blood was getting all over the front seat, and Dean wasn't even bitching at him to keep his blood to himself. Which confirmed Sam's suspicions that something wasn't right with his brother.

Sam was doing the best he could to keep the pressure on the wound one-handed, but it wasn't easy, and he was so freakin' tired he could barely keep his eyes open. He wasn't sure if it was the long night he'd spent researching local lore on the white lady who chopped the thumbs off hapless hitchhikers along the California highway, or whether it was the blood loss and shock that was making him so bleary. But it probably was a mixture of both.

Like Bobby insisted on nagging them, they weren't as young as they used to be. They couldn't afford to take stupid chances just because they'd once gotten away with it. Dean was forty-two; Sam was thirty-eight. Nobody had ever thought they'd make it past thirty.

"You still bleeding?" Dean asked quietly.

Sam snuck a glance at his brother. It bugged Dean when he stared, but it always took him by surprise—the little changes that crept in day by day. There was actually some gray along Dean's temple. Not too much. Sam had only noticed because he'd caught Dean dyeing his hair a couple months earlier. He'd damn near burst something important from all the laughing. A couple days later, Sam woke up with his hair tinted green, but it had been worth it.

But Dean never dyed his hair again. Just threatened to kick Sam's ass if he said anything about it.

"Sam?" Dean asked, a little more sharply. "You still with me? How's your thumb?"

Sam had been spacing out. Forcing himself to snap out of his fugue, he glanced down at the blood-soaked bandage swaddling his thumb. If not for the pain, it almost looked fake, like something someone would rig up for a lameass Halloween costume.

"I'm fine," Sam said, and he was pretty sure it was true. The ghost hadn't broken any bones with her hatchet, and it wasn't like the thumb was falling off. If they had to drive a hundred miles before hitting a motel, he was sure he would make it that long. Pretty sure, at least.

"I could pull over. Stitch you up in the car."

Sam shook his head. The last time Dean tried stitching him up in the car, he'd made a mess of the job. The wound had scarred like hell, and neither of them could talk Castiel into fixing it. He claimed it was an abuse of his sovereignty.

Dean had stormed away muttering about egotistical angels on power trips. But the scar had remained, and they'd forced themselves to stop relying on Cas to heal them every time they screwed up.

"I'm good," Sam said evenly. "Seriously, Dean, the bleeding's already slowing down."

Dean didn't look convinced. But he shrugged and said, "Your choice, dude. Just don't mess up my car." Then he sighed…the kind of deep, aching sigh that Sam hadn't heard in years. "I've been thinking, Sammy. Maybe we should lay low for a while."

Sam tried to see his brother's expression better in the moonlit dark. "What do you mean?"

Dean shrugged, seemed uncomfortable. "I don't know…we got our ass kicked by a woman in white. Maybe it's a sign we need to take a couple weeks off. Take a vacation or something."

Dean glanced over, and Sam could see the hint of a smile, but it wasn't Dean's real smile—this smile was something Sam hadn't seen in a long time. Damn, maybe Dean did need a vacation. The smile reminded him of the dark years between them, all the times Sam had been satisfied with that tight, bitter smile because it was so much better than never seeing his brother smile at all.

"You want to take a vacation?"

Dean shrugged. "Sure. Give your stupid thumb a chance to heal up. Could be awesome, Sammy."

Dean's tone was deceptively light, but Sam heard the note of something else that he couldn't quite identify. It was weird...Sam had gotten out of the habit of assuming his brother had secrets. They had been through hell together—both literally and figuratively—and it was the thing they'd promised each other after they made it back.

Honesty. Transparency. No more lies between them. Even if the truth hurt, they told it.

Sam took a deep breath. "Is this about missing Ben's graduation?"

Nobody had been prouder than Dean when Ben got into college. It wasn't Stanford by any means, but it was a solid four-year college, and Ben had worked his ass off once he got in. Sometimes, Ben would call Sam for advice, and Sam knew it kind of bugged Dean that he and the kid had something in common that he didn't have any part of. It was hard enough on Dean, not seeing either Ben or Lisa for months at a time.

All the same, Dean was over the moon when Ben managed to graduate with a business degree. The kid said he'd seen how hard his mom had to work to get by, and he wanted to major in something practical. Ben had emailed Dean and Sam with an invitation to come to the graduation, and Dean hadn't turned it down, but he hadn't said yes either. Instead, he'd put off answering as long as he could and had insisted on taking jobs that kept them on the other side of the country.

While Ben was graduating, they were in Nevada tracking down a headless cowboy that turned out to be a routine salt and burn job in a touristy ghost town. Sam didn't know if it had to do with Dean wanting to avoid Lisa—he'd never really gotten over her—or whether it was something else altogether. But one way or another, it made sense that Dean had been having some regrets.

"No, it's not about Ben's graduation, and I wish you'd quit asking me about that. Now, will you just shut up and bleed? I swear Sam…sometimes, I miss your soul being gone. You were a helluva lot easier to live with."

"Bite me," Sam said mildly but he had to snort because it was kind of true. Sometimes, he missed those days too. He hadn't worried so damn much then.

"You're bleeding again. Sometimes, I don't know where your head is."

Sam sighed and obediently kept up the pressure on his bleeding thumb. He wasn't sure how he'd let the damn ghost get the drop on him, but they'd both been lazy. Dean had almost seemed bored, and it really wasn't a boring case. In addition to the hitchhikers' body parts scattered across Highway 101, there had been shadow horses and bleeding redwoods. Back in the day, Dean would have called it an awesome hunt and it kind of had been, right up to the point where the vengeful spirit had taken a freakin' hatchet to Sam's thumb.

Dean had driven a steel poker through her heart at the exact second her hatchet had glanced off bone, and the ghostly weapon had vanished just before it could chop through it. It was a miracle she hadn't taken the thumb off, but Sam thought there might be some damaged tendons. If he was actually maimed, maybe they could get Cas to fix it. Sam sighed and wished he was left-handed.

But Dean was back on the subject of a vacation. "C'mon Sam. It's not like we're on the clock. We've got all the time in the world. We can turn down jobs if we want to."

Sam looked glumly out the window, even though he couldn't see a thing in the dark. The last time Dean wanted to go on a vacation was after he'd sold his soul to the crossroads demon. It wasn't like they had a good track record with this sort of thing.

"…there's always the Grand Canyon. Or we could head out to Boston. You love all that historical crap…we could take one of those duck tours. I always wanted to do that." Dean paused and glanced over, his anxiety only betrayed by his white knuckles on the steering wheel. "You doing okay, Sammy?" Dean asked again.

If something was wrong with Dean, then Sam wasn't okay either. They were long past pretending it was ever going to be any different than that.

"I'm fine," Sam said, hoping it was true for both of their sakes.

2. He is making impetuous decisions, often involving large sums of money.

Sam was not having this discussion again. Except for the fact that he kind of was…

"It's my reward money as much as yours," Dean said.

Exasperated, Sam rolled his eyes. "Okay, fine, true. But making a huge purchase like that would use up all of it, plus everything we have leftover from that werewolf case, and besides, it's just stupid. No."

"You would have made a shitty lawyer, you know that? You can't even come up with a better reason than it's stupid?"

Sam groaned and tried to stretch out his aching limbs, but the close quarters of the Impala made that about impossible. Stakeouts were getting to be more and more of a pain in the ass the older he got. Mostly because they gave Dean a captive audience.

"I've given you plenty of good reasons. We can't afford them, we have no place to keep them, and besides…it's dangerous."

Dean aimed a crooked grin in his direction. "That's what this is really about, isn't it? You're scared you're gonna get hurt. Okay, Sammy. If that's the way it is…."

Sam knew he shouldn't take the bait, but he never could help it when Dean used that voice with him. He retorted, "Why the hell would I be scared of a freakin' motorcycle?"

"Because it would be a Harley. And you'd have to man-up just to get your mind off that pansy-ass Prius I know you've had your eye on."

"I do not want a Prius—how many times do I have to tell you that? The technology is completely outdated—"

"Whatever, dude." Dean leaned across him and opened the glove compartment, pulling out an often-spliced cassette tape. "Good to know that some things never change…"

Sam was about to ask what the hell that meant, but there was an expression on his brother's face that bothered him. Lately, Dean just looked so tired. Battle-weariness was one thing, but this was something different. Every now and then, it hit him that Dean was getting older. Sam could fight off vamps and monsters all day long, but he didn't know what to do with something so mundane as aches and pains.

But Dean was already trying again. "C'mon, Sam, at least think about it… we've gotta be on the road anyways. We might as well have fun while we're at it."

"Fun?" Sam repeated blankly. Here he was, worried that Dean was burning out, and instead he was talking about having fun driving something that wasn't the Impala.

"Yeah—you got a problem with that?"

"You want to get rid of the car and drive Harleys instead?"

Dean looked shocked. "No! Damnit, Sam, you're still such a drama queen….all I said is that it would be fun to switch it around some. You're the one who thinks we're stuck in a rut."

Sam stared. He hadn't actually said that out loud. At least, he didn't think he had.

"But Dean, what would we do with a couple of motorcycles? Where would we keep them? It's not like we could tow them behind us."

"Fine. We'll just get one motorcycle, and I'll ride. You can follow in the car."

Sam's stomach was starting to ache. At first, he'd been amused by Dean's declaration that he wanted to buy a pair of motorcycles. But that initial amusement was long gone—Dean's willingness to abandon his first love was really starting to freak Sam out.

"You want me to drive your car?" Absurd as it might be, Sam almost hoped the car wasn't listening. Going way back to Gabriel's games, Sam remembered what it felt like to be the Impala…and damn, that car loved Dean.

"No, I don't want you to drive my car, but I think you're right. You shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a Harley. It would be fucking scary. Think about what would happen to your hair."

Sam glared. Dean knew perfectly well all he had to do was tell Sam he couldn't do something, and no matter what it was, Sam would end up begging for the thing by the time they were through. He couldn't let himself fall for it. He was thirty-eight years old, damnit, not ten.

Hating himself for his lack of self-control, Sam said, "Fuck you. I could ride a Harley."

Dean's lips tilted up into a bring-it-on smile. "Prove it, bitch. A fine machine like that would eat you alive."

"I rode a motorcycle in college," Sam retorted, crossing his arms tightly against his chest.

Dean's smile faded, and his eyes widened. "You did not."

"I did."

"You're lying."

"I'm not." Sam rubbed at his forehead, unsure how Dean had managed to get this out of him. "It was for a… you know, a weekend thing."

"What kind of weekend thing?"

"It was with Jess and some friends…we rented some bikes and rode up to Napa. We did some…some, um…"

"Some what?"

"We did some wine tasting," Sam said and elbowed his brother hard in the ribs when Dean started to laugh. But Dean threw his head back and laughed even harder when Sam grumbled, "Go ahead and laugh. No way you're getting a Harley now."

Dean wiped at his eyes. "Okay, geek boy, you win. We'll leave the car with Bobby and rent a couple bikes. Take a couple weeks off. You can go wine tasting in the Badlands. Maybe Bobby has some Brie you could bring along."

"I hate you," Sam said, but he was smiling too. He was also pretty sure he'd been had.

Sam was pretty damn sure Dean had never intended to buy a motorcycle, but he fully intended to rent one, and now Sam was stuck with that as a compromise. Dean seemed completely satisfied. He was peering out the car window, humming "Born to be Wild" under his breath.

Even so, Sam was still worried. Dean was a monogamist when it came to his transportation. Something was up. And whatever it was, Sam was bound and determined to figure it out.

3. He is overly concerned with his appearance.

The websites and magazines all pointed Sam to the same conclusion: Dean was in the tight grip of a full-fledged midlife crisis.

Being bored with the job, bored with his car, wanting time off… Sam studied the headline of yet another article and sighed deeply. The warning signs all matched up almost too perfectly. It was textbook.

"What the hell are you reading?" Dean's voice was a shock, as the bathroom door suddenly swung open.

Panicked, Sam tried to hide the magazine underneath his pillow, but Dean grabbed it with a hand that was still damp from the shower. He started flipping through the pages, a slow, easy grin spreading across his face. "Here I thought you were brown-nosing skin flicks—but nope, not you. Good Housekeeping, Sammy? Anything else you wanna share with the class?"

Sam closed his eyes, wishing he could be anywhere but here. The way Dean had been spending so much freakin' time in the bathroom lately, Sam had thought he'd have time to stash it before he came out. According to the article he had just been reading, spending time worrying about your appearance was warning sign number three.

Dean had always been vain, but this was taking it to a new level. He was always checking himself out—store windows, rear view mirrors—every chance he had. It was ironic because Sam hated mirrors. For years after Lucifer, he hadn't been able to look at himself for anything more than a quick inspection. Sam had seen the devil's reflection in his own hazel eyes, and the way he figured it, no matter what he looked like now, it had to be better than that.

Dean was still turning the pages, and Sam held his breath, hoping Dean wouldn't find the article. Damnit. He should have thrown it away while he still had a chance.

"Just give it back," Sam pleaded, futilely trying to snatch it away from him. "I was just looking at…recipes and stuff. They were giving away free copies at the store."

But Dean raised an eyebrow. "You know what they say about liars, Sammy. But you don't have to feel embarrassed. I know hot flashes can be a serious problem at your age. Your secret is safe with me."

"Jerk," Sam mumbled miserably and hoped that Dean wasn't just getting started.

But Dean didn't seem to be listening. Instead, he ripped out a page and held it out triumphantly.

"What the hell?" Sam started, seriously pissed because he had been reading that thing, and besides, he had paid for it with his dwindling supply of cash, but Dean waved the page in his face.

"Hey, check this out. Two months free membership!" he crowed. "And there's a buddy package. We can be each other's buddies."

Sam swallowed. "A buddy package?"

"Yeah, it's like twenty bucks a month. C'mon man, we could totally swing that."

Sam squinted at the page Dean was waving—it was obvious he was going to need reading glasses one of these days because he couldn't make out the fine print. "What are you talking about, Dean?"

"It's one of those nation-wide fitness clubs. There's at least one in every state. We could get a membership, and then whenever we're passing through, we could, you know…work out."

"Work out? " Sam knew he was a little slow on the uptake lately, but now it was like his brain couldn't keep up. The articles said that men suffering from a mid-life crisis could undergo dramatic personality shifts, and this seemed particularly ominous. Only half-kidding, he muttered, "Christo."

Dean threw the magazine at his head, stuffing the torn page in his pocket. "I'm not possessed, asshole. I just think you and me need to start taking better care of ourselves. I'm still awesome, but you're not getting any younger, dude."

Sam closed his eyes. All he wanted to do was get some sleep, but this was worse than he'd thought. "We're hunters, Dean. The life keeps us in shape."

"Yeah, but it's not cardiovascular."

Sam opened his eyes. "Are you serious?"

Dean frowned, like Sam was the one who was a head case. "Of course, I'm serious. Don't forget...I've been old before, and it sucks. I've had a heart attack, and trust me, you don't want to go out that way."

It made no sense to Sam, but whatever was bothering Dean, it obviously wasn't going away on its own. Dean had sacrificed enough, had stayed beside him every step of the way, no matter how much crap Sam had thrown at him over the years. If Dean needed him as some kind of freakin' exercise buddy, the least Sam could do was rise to the occasion and be there for his brother.

Reluctantly, Sam nodded. "Okay, Dean. If you wanna get more exercise, we'll sign up."

Dean beamed. "Seriously?"

Sam shrugged and cringed. Ever since their ill-fated Harley trip through the Badlands, his neck had been killing him. A little resistance training might not be the worst idea.

Maybe they'd even have yoga.

4. He's drinking too much or abusing other substances.

"How the hell did this happen?"

Sam knew he shouldn't be yelling in the hospital, but the doctor had just told him that his forty-two year old brother was going to need dialysis for the next three days. Sam figured he had a right to be a little upset.

"Are you his partner?" the doctor asked, and Sam realized she was reaching for her pager.

He couldn't take the risk of having her call security, so he forced himself to take a deep breath and calm down. Sam had to be careful after he'd come back from Hell. It seemed like there was something people could see in his eyes when he got angry that scared them.

"Yeah, I'm his partner," Sam said before realizing that maybe that wasn't what the doctor was asking. "I'm his brother actually. And…um, his partner. We're in business together. Sort of."

The doctor looked at him strangely, and Sam tried not to slouch or look angry. He needed her to give it to him straight about Dean, and she might not do that if he looked scary.

"An ergocalciferol overdose is actually a very serious matter," she said. "Your brother is very lucky that the damage to his kidneys doesn't appear to be permanent."

Sam shook his head, startled. "But I thought it was the vitamins. The paramedics said it was from all the smoothies."

"Ergocalciferol is vitamin D2. Do you have any reason to think your brother might have been trying to harm himself? Has he been upset about anything lately?"

Instinctively, Sam was tempted to head down the familiar path of denial, obfuscation, and deflection, but it occurred to him that Dean couldn't afford the Winchester Way right now. Quietly, he admitted, "Dean hasn't been himself lately."

She nodded. "We actually see a lot of this in men his age. Is your brother married?"

Sam thought about Lisa but answered, "No. He's never been married."

"Is he in a relationship?"

Just me, Sam thought, but didn't say it. "No."

"Has he seemed overly concerned about his health? About his appearance?" Sam nodded, and she jotted something down. "Any other changes in personality? Lifestyle?"

Sam bit his lip. He had Dean's symptoms committed to memory, and this was Dean's doctor asking for information. He couldn't afford to hold anything back.

"Dean rented us a pair of Harleys a couple months ago," Sam admitted. "I had to talk him out of buying one."

She raised an eyebrow but didn't comment. "And all these…energy drinks and smoothies…you told the EMTs that he's been drinking them every day?"

"Three times a day," Sam mumbled, unhappy with himself. He should have been paying more attention. He knew something was wrong. All the signs were right there right under his nose. "Maybe more. It's ever since he joined that fucking gym."

She nodded. "Any signs of boredom? Depression?"

Sam was pretty sure Dean was bored. Whether he was depressed…he wasn't so sure about that. Sam had seen Dean depressed. He had seen Dean ready to hand his body over to an archangel and give up his life to save the world. Depressed didn't even begin to cover it. Dean was doing pretty good compared to that, but between the two of them, he had his moments.

Carefully, Sam admitted, "He's been up and down."

She noted it in her chart. "Mood swings can be a sign of clinical depression. Any other signs of substance abuse?"

Sam tried to think about when he'd last seen Dean drink more than a beer. There'd been a time when Dean could have downed half a fifth before dinner. It had gotten so bad that Sam had pleaded with Castiel to zap Dean into Bobby's panic room so they could hold some kind of intervention.

Castiel had refused, saying that Dean would stop drinking when he didn't need to drink anymore. It was the kind of cryptic angelic bullshit that drove Sam out of his mind, but it turned out that Cas had been right. Things between them settled down. Hell, the world settled down. And Dean had stopped drinking.

Sam shook his head. "No, not really."

The doctor still seemed to be studying him. "But he's had problems in the past," she prodded.

"Yeah... some. Maybe." Deny, obfuscate, deflect. Dean didn't have an alcohol problem anymore. That was all that mattered. "Why?"

The doctor closed the chart and shot him a hard look. "Addictions don't come out of nowhere. If you don't deal with the underlying causes, you won't see any long-term change."

This was getting ridiculous. Dean was just…going through a phase. It wasn't like he had tried to kill himself at a juice bar. "Is my brother going to be all right?"

"Miraculously, yes. He seems to be doing very well, considering. We'll keep him on dialysis for a couple days and see how he does. The body doesn't get rid of vitamin D easily."

Sam looked over her head, down the hallway toward Dean's room. "Can I see him?"

"Of course." But she didn't step out of his way. "But Sam…when I spoke with Dean, I wasn't sure he was taking this seriously. The symptoms he has having—fatigue, vomiting, nausea, severe constipation…those would have sent most people to an ER weeks ago."

Sam couldn't explain they'd thought Dean was suffering from a demonic spider bite and that Bobby had already come up with an antidote. A possible overdose from energy drinks had never entered the conversation.

"I'll make sure he understands," Sam said. "It won't happen again."

Because it would be over Sam's dead body if ever Dean set foot in a juice bar again. Those juice bar baristas were no better than crack dealers as far as he was concerned. God, Sam couldn't get over the fact that his brother had come close to dying from drinking had been years since Dean had seemed so vulnerable.

Sam ran a hand through his hair and huffed a quick breath, as he walked down the hall toward Dean's room.

5. His personality undergoes unexplained changes.

Whatever was going on, it was getting worse.

Sure, Dean was staying away from juice bars, even though he had bitched Sam out mightily for canceling their gym membership. But Sam was adamant. Dean's overdose had scared the crap out of him, and he was determined to put them back on the straight and narrow. Chin-ups and crunches had been good enough for Dad. There was no reason Dean and he needed more than that. Dean needed to get back on the road and be working a job again.

Killing things and saving people wasn't the solution for everything, but it was a start.

Sam snuck a glance at his brother and frowned. Dean was sacked out in the passenger seat, had been sleeping for hours. It just wasn't natural. For one thing, he'd let Sam drive, which was basically a big flashing neon sign of foreboding. Dean hadn't let Sam behind the wheel of the Impala this much since he'd first taught Sam to drive. And to top it off, Dean had been taking these naps, like he trusted Sam to figure out where they were going.

It was a cry for help as far as Sam was concerned.

Sam was flying blind. Despite reading countless articles and even ordering an online book on the subject, he had no idea what to do. The survival tips for significant others on surviving a midlife crisis were disappointingly the same.

Make changes…

Practice acceptance…

Be patient…

Get a life of your own…

Sam had tried them all, every single freakin' one of those tips...all but the last one. Get a life of your own...yeah, right. It had been years since Sam had believed that he could ever have a life of his own. He couldn't even remember what it felt like to want one.

According to the experts, if Dean was going to stray, there wasn't much Sam could do about it. They all said if you love something, you should set it free and all that non-codependent crap.

But they were Winchesters. The normal rules for mental health didn't apply to them.

From the passenger seat, Dean was mumbling under his breath, more like a dream than a nightmare. The old flashbacks were few and far between these days. More often than not, Dean woke up mumbling more about Lisa than Azazel. It had taken years for it to come to that. Sam had thought they were making progress.

God help him... Sam had no idea who he was supposed to go to for help these days. Dean would tell him to concentrate on driving, but Dean was asleep. He wouldn't notice that Sam had taken his eyes off the road, had turned the music off, and was about to offer up a desperate prayer that this too would pass. Castiel still ignored him most of the time, but maybe someone else was listening.

More mumbling. Sam chanced another quick look and could have sworn Dean was smiling in his sleep. He seemed almost peaceful. Sam had no idea what he could possibly be dreaming about. It was like sharing a life with a stranger.

6. He is seeing someone else.

At first, Sam had thought it was Lisa. That would have been all right, even though he knew full well that Lisa had never approved of him. After everything that had happened once he got back from Hell, it wasn't like he could blame her. In front of him, she had once said that Sam was going to be the ruin of his brother.

Dean never really forgave her for that, but Sam did.

But it wasn't Lisa. It had taken time to go through all the security, but after searching the last fifty recent calls on Dean's cell, not to mention all his texts and emails, Sam had pretty much confirmed that that Dean wasn't seeing Lisa. The texts Dean had been getting at all hours were mostly cryptic messages: the deal is on, I'm working on it, stop bothering me. I have my own problems. There was one email from Bobby that simply read, would you quit whining and cope?

It almost seemed like Dean was working on a case with someone else, which would have been impossible because he only hunted with Sam. Sam told himself it was okay. Dean was allowed to have human contacts other than him. He ordered himself to calm down before his paranoia drove Dean away.

But then Dean started taking off for a day at a time. Sometimes, he said needed some time alone. Other times, he said he owed a guy a favor and no, he didn't need Sam's help. He was always careful to leave Sam in a town where he had something to do. Encouraged him to hang out a bookstore and drink "some foamy milk crap" and read more magazines.

The disappearing act pissed Sam off, and Dean knew it, but more than that, it scared him. He wouldn't have blamed Dean for wanting time on his own, but he was starting to wonder if Dean wanted a life of his own.

Just the other day, Sam had checked in with Bobby, wanting to know if he'd heard anything. Was Dean working with anyone else? Seeing anyone else?

There had been silence on the other line before Bobby mumbled something Sam couldn't make out. Then he'd said, "Sam. You've been in my kitchen." It was a statement, not a question.

"Um...yeah," Sam said, trying to keep from chewing on his fingernail. Lately, he'd been biting it down to the quick, and Dean had been nagging at him to stop.

"Then tell me this. When was the last time you saw me with a dedicated line for marriage counseling?"

Sam frowned and chewed his fingernail. He mumbled, "That's not what this is…"

"That's exactly what this is. How old are you boys now, anyway? Well, I'm telling you this. It's high time you get your crap together, and stop dragging the rest of us poor dupes into your drama. I swear the two of you make your daddy look like a well-adjusted, upstanding citizen—"

Bobby hung up before finishing his own sentence.

Sam took a deep breath and decided Bobby was right. It was time to deal with their crap. Dean was up to something, and Sam was going to figure out what it was. The next time Dean disappeared on an "errand," Sam was ready.

It was embarrassingly easy to hack into Dean's GPS. Once he figured out where Dean was headed, Sam decided to rent a moped (they were inexpensive and easier to ride than a Harley) and track his brother to a nearby town. Sam parked a couple blocks away from where Dean had parked the Impala, felt like an idiot rookie skulking in corners until he was damn sure he wasn't being followed. Being the love interest of all that was evil in the known universe had made Sam a little paranoid over the years.

He found Dean in the kind of bar that epitomized nondescript. It didn't even seem to have a name—just a half dozen neon beer signs strung up inside a dirty window. Sam peered in and saw his brother sitting alone at the bar. He took a deep breath and wondered if maybe Bobby had a point.

Maybe he'd just been imagining there was a problem with Dean. Maybe Sam did need professional help. It was ridiculous and a little pathetic—a grown man suffering from separation anxiety from his big brother. Sam had found whole forums dedicated to that sort of thing…seemed to be a common problem among identical twins.

He rubbed his forehead and smiled at his own lunacy. Peered through the dirty window again, and Dean was still sitting there. He'd ordered a beer. It was kind of like old times, and Sam was almost tempted to join him. Dean could tease him all he wanted—it would be worth it to share a beer with his brother.

Then Sam blinked. In the space of that blink, Dean was no longer alone inside the bar. The familiar trench coat registered before the face of the man wearing it. It was like he had been there all along—Castiel, sitting on the stool next to Dean. The bartender slid a beer across the bar. Dean and Castiel couldn't be sitting any closer without touching. They were talking earnestly with each other, and a huge goofy grin broke out across Dean's face.

Sam hadn't seen Dean look so happy in years. He actually couldn't remember when.

The burning in his gut wasn't exactly jealousy—it was something worse. Something ancient and primal, a loneliness that he remembered from Hell.

Yet even when his soul was gone, Sam had never felt empty like this.

7. He is aware of his own mortality.

Something had to give. After catching Castiel and Dean together at the bar, Sam had headed back to the motel, determined to salvage what was left of his dignity.

Maybe the experts were right. Maybe Sam did have to let his brother go. If Dean was determined to move on, Sam wasn't going to beg him to stay.

But Dean didn't leave. Instead, he came back from his clandestine meeting more cheerful than ever. It was like he was energized to get back to work again. They took a couple routine salt and burn jobs that paid for a month's gas and ganked a cursed mummy in Minneapolis. Even Sam had to admit that the mummy was cool.

But they were different with each other. Dean was quietly happy and wistful and not quite right. Sam was pretty sure Dean was only biding his time before letting Sam down gently.

So he was only half-surprised on the night when Dean pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road in the middle of Nowhere, USA and got out, slamming the door behind him. The moonlight shone silver and grey in his hair, and Sam's heart thumped a little harder than it should. If they talked about this now, nothing was going to be the same.

Dean leaned against the hood and crossed his arms against his chest. "Okay. Spit it out, dude. I know something's up."

Sam made himself shrug. "What do you mean?"

"The way you've been acting. You've been sulking. You know you're gonna spill it soon, get all touchy feely and all that crap, so it might as well be now. I can't take much more of your weirdness, Sam."

"Me? You think I've been acting weird?" Sam pursed his lips and glared. Like he had no right to be pissed at being left behind.

"Well, yeah. You're acting like I've done something wrong. Mind letting me in on it?"

Sam wasn't going to admit anything. He had been prepared to walk away while he still had his self-respect. But when he opened his mouth, it was almost like he was possessed. There was no filter between his brain and his mouth, and he just started talking.

"This life isn't enough for you any more. I'm not enough. You want to go on vacations…and ride Harleys. And hunting's not enough and you're worried about how you look and you're sleeping all the freakin' time. You let me drive your car, and you OD'd on juice and scared the shit out of me—"

"What the hell, Sam? I said I was sorry about that! You hold grudges like nobody else I know." Dean was staring like Sam had gone crazy.

But Sam was on a roll. For months, he'd been keeping track, worrying over every warning sign, but he was done holding it in. He was finished.

"You've been seeing Cas," he blurted out, and damn…he really hadn't meant to say that.

Up to then, Dean had been looking alternately baffled and pissed, but once Sam mentioned Cas, Dean started cracking up. "Damn…that was you! Cas said he saw you through the window. Dude, were you really riding a moped?"

Sam glared. "Just that once."

Dean shook his head. "I introduce you to joy of riding a Harley down the open road, the wind in your face, and you choose a moped the second my friggin' back is turned." Dean shook his head with feigned sadness. "I'm kind of ashamed you're my brother, Sammy."

Sam wasn't going to get distracted. "Tell me why you were seeing Cas."

Dean made a funny sound in the back of his throat but he didn't look away. "We don't have to talk about it now."

"Yeah, I think we do."

Dean tapped his fingers lightly against the hood of the car. Even in the moonlight, Sam could tell his brother was stalling. He was probably hoping that some monster would roar out of the woods so they could kill it and be done with the awkwardness of actually talking.

Dean said, "Cas was helping me out. I was just trying to take care of things…you know, make sure things were squared away in case anything happened. I started worrying about it after that freakin' ghost hacked off your thumb."

Sam stared. "She didn't hack off my thumb. I still have it." He waggled it as proof.

"Yeah, but she could have." Dean cleared his throat. "It could happen any time to either of us. All it takes is one crazy dead lady with an axe. We've been awfully lucky for a long time. I figured we'd better make arrangements just in case."

Sam still wasn't following, and not only that, his head was starting to hurt. "What kind of arrangements?"

Dean just looked irritated, like Sam was being purposefully obtuse. "Soul arrangements. The way you leave your soul lying around, I figured it wouldn't hurt to get it in writing." He cleared his throat. "So are we good?"

Sam blinked. "Dean, I have no idea what—"

But Dean reached for him by the collar of his jacket and shook him roughly. "You sonofabitch, you're gonna make me ask, aren't you. Just answer the question. Do you wanna be soulmates or not?"

"Do I want to…what?" Sam tried to squirm out of his brother's grip, but Dean was holding on tight.

"As in Heaven? Pay attention. Cas said I had to get you to sign off before he could okay it." Dean finally let go of his jacket and turned away.

Baffled, Sam just stared. "Soulmates?"

"Do I have to spell everything out for you? I told Cas we should forge your name, but he always wants to do everything by the book. Damnit, Sammy, you always make everything harder than it needs to be."

"You want to be soulmates. In Heaven."

Dean nodded vigorously. "Thank you for paying attention."

"I thought you hated Heaven," Sam said blankly.

"I did," Dean said. "But Cas has been fixing the place up…kicking out the dicks, shaking things up. It's a different place than when we were there. Beats Hell."

Sam couldn't argue with that. But he still didn't understand. "Why didn't you tell me this?"

Dean looked at him incredulously. "Dude, it's not the kind of the thing you talk about…"

Sam felt his own irritation start to rise up, now that the shock was wearing off. "Yeah, it is, Dean. It's exactly the kind of thing you talk about."

Dean scratched the back of his neck. "So is that a 'yes' or what?"

There was no way Sam was letting him get off that easy. "Were we going to vote on this? Cause you know Dean, eternity is kind of a big deal."

Dean scowled at him. "This isn't a democracy, Sammy."

Sam huffed out a surprised laugh. It figured. He'd been a little brother his entire life; it was ridiculous to expect anything different at this stage in the game. "You gonna boss me around for eternity?"

"Getting to boss you around was one of my terms." Dean actually smiled and cuffed him on the shoulder. "Me and Cas…we worked out all the details. You don't have to worry."

"Good to know." And it was good to know...kind of. Sam shook his head, as if to clear it. He couldn't get his head around how quickly everything had just changed. He had been preparing for the inevitability of Dean leaving him. It had never occurred to him that Dean would want to stay with him...forever.

Dean was looking down at his feet. "Um, Sam…there is one thing. Kind of a catch."

Sam snorted. "This is us. Of course, there's a catch."

"You have to say yes."

"Yes to what?"

"You have to say 'yes' to being soulmates. Angels care about that sort of crap. Otherwise, they say they're no better than demons. Mind you, that's according to Cas."

The night air was bitter cold, but Sam felt warmed by something he was only beginning to understand. He bit back a smile. "You haven't asked me yet. Not formally anyway."

Dean shoved him. "I swear, Sammy."

"You can't expect me to spend eternity with you if can't even say the words out loud."

"I hate you."

"I know you do. Ask."

For a second, Dean looked appalled and maybe like he was going to haul back and punch Sam in the jaw instead. But then he let loose with the most put-upon sigh Sam had ever heard.

With a big show of getting down on one knee, Dean looked up and asked darkly, "Sammy Douchebag Winchester… will you be my soulmate and I hope you're happy with yourself you sonofabitch...fuck you very much."

It was as close to a proposal as Sam was ever going to get.

He couldn't stop laughing as he helped Dean to his feet, and then Dean did punch him hard on the shoulder.

"Well?" Dean asked.

"Ouch." Sam smiled so hard his face hurt. "And yes."

Once upon a time, Sam said, "yes" to Lucifer and almost ended the world. This time, Sam said, "yes" to his brother, and the world just yawned and went back to sleep.

But Sam had already paid his dues, had saved the world before and would probably save it again. The world owed them. Sam leaned back against the hood of the car and tried to ponder the idea of an eternal road trip with his brother.

Dean looked a little less than pissed, as he tilted his head up to look at the stars. A comet raced across the sky, leaving behind a swath of light. Sam tried to remember what the stars looked like in Heaven.

"Awesome. Did you see that one?" Dean asked, pointing it out.

Sam could see everything. It just took him his own sweet time to connect the dots. Call him a slow learner.

But there was still plenty about the way that Dean had been acting that Sam still didn't understand. All the warning signs had been so obvious. From all his research, he'd been so convinced. Now that they were good, Sam still needed to know what had been going on. Dad always said that his greatest strength and his greatest weakness were one in the same—he was insatiably curious.

"So what was up with all the exercising?" Sam pressed. "Giving up drinking, getting eight hours of sleep? O. on juice?"

"That was a total accident," Dean griped, frowning at him in the dark. "I wish you'd stop bitching about it. I already told you I was sorry."

"You almost lost your kidneys, Dean." Try as he might, Sam couldn't let go of that one. "They even talked to me about being a donor."

"What? You wouldn't have given me a kidney?"

"Of course I would have given you a kidney," Sam retorted. "But I shouldn't have had to. Why did you drink so much?"

Dean shrugged. "It just seemed like if a little was good, more would be better. Who the hell knew too much Vitamin D could be toxic? You find the stuff in sunlight, for God's sake…"

"You were the one who was a vamp," Sam shot back, even though they never talked about that, not ever.

"Sonofabitch, Sam, I swear I'm gonna kick your ass if you don't shut the hell up and—"

"Okay, okay," Sam said, holding his hands out beseechingly. "I'll stop. But only if you explain why you've been on the health kick."

Dean leaned back against the Impala, scuffed the toe of his boot in the dirt, and looked downright miserable.

"Okay," he said with obvious reluctance. "But only if you promise not to give me shit about it."

Sam stared incredulously. "Dean, you've already broken the news that we're spending eternity together. I think it's downhill from here."

Dean smiled a little at that. "When Cas was working on the contract, it turned out the only way anyone would sign off on it was with one condition."

The long-dormant lawyer in Sam perked up. "What kind of condition?"

"Nobody would sign off unless we…unless we…" And then the rest of Dean's words came out so garbled, Sam had to strain to make them out.

"I don't have a clue what you just said."

Dean glanced up and if Sam didn't know better, he would think Dean was pissed. But he did know better. He knew Dean. And Dean was spooked. Maybe even scared. "Tell me," Sam said, more gently this time. "I'm listening."

Dean sighed deeply, and Sam wondered what could be even more upsetting to say out loud than the whole soulmates deal. "Turns out the only way that the heavenly host was gonna sign off on the deal was if you and me go out together."

Sam's brain hitched over the words, until all of a sudden, they made perfect sense. "You mean…they want us to die together?"

"Nobody trusts us to be on our own. Cas says the others were worried we would do something stupid if the other one kicked it. Tie the knot with a crossroads demon, start another apocalypse, I don't know. You know how paranoid archangels are."

Sam was still reeling. "So the new and improved you was because you were trying to keep…both of us...alive?"

Dean muttered, "All I need is you bitching at me for all eternity that my cheeseburgers were what killed us."

Sam felt strangely dazzled because suddenly, it was all becoming clear. Except for the part that wasn't. "But what about the Grand Canyon? The Harleys?"

Dean stared at him like he was crazy. "What about it?"

"Was that part of the deal too?"

Dean snorted. "No! That was for fun."

Sam couldn't get his mind around it. "Fun? You can't be serious."

"Newsflash, geekboy. Ordinary people have fun outside a library. It's considered...normal."

Sam stammered, "But we...we don't usually..." He wasn't making any sense, but Dean shot him a reproving look.

"What do you call this?" Dean gestured expansively at the whole freakin' world, backlit by ancient stars. "We saved all this. Only seems fair we get to enjoy it."

Sam couldn't think of a single thing to say.

Dean continued, "I mean getting our names written in the Book of freakin' Life is fine, and Cas promises me that Heaven is better now that Uriel is history, but you never know how it's going to turn out. Angels have their own definition of 'better.' I figure we'd better have some fun down here while we got the chance. Life is short, man."

"Fun." Sam was stuck on the word. He was staring at Dean like his big brother had invented it.

"Yeah, fun. What's the hell's wrong with you, Sammy?"

Maybe that was the thing. For the first time in Sam's life, nothing was wrong. Nothing had been wrong in a while. But Sam had no frame of reference for a non-apocalyptic world. He'd forgotten what happy even felt like.

Sam said slowly, "I think I'm okay."

Dean stared at him for a long moment before he seemed satisfied. Then went around back and hauled the cooler out of the trunk, pulling out a couple bottles. He offered one to Sam.

"Thought you weren't drinking any more," Sam said, taking the beer. It felt cold and perfect in his hand. "What about your liver?"

Dean shrugged and popped the cap. "I figure you'll be the one who kills us both off. Probably tripping over your shoelaces or getting crushed by an avalanche of books in a library disaster. Some things never change."

Sam noticed that Dean's eyes were all crinkled up in the corners when he smiled and that he swore gently as he hauled himself up onto the hood of the Impala and scooted over to make room. Aches and pains and worry lines. Laugh lines even. It was normal. Sam smiled to himself, as he swung onto the hood and settled against the windshield next to his brother.

It was a funny thing. The two of them had outlived their destinies… they'd lasted longer than any pair of hunters worth their weight in salt had a right to. This could be the end of their beginning or the beginning of their end, but Sam realized that either way, it didn't matter. They had all the time they needed.

Life was good. Who knew?

The End