Sam often had bad dreams. Hell, they both did. Nightmares that woke them up in a cold sweat, legs kicking like a dog dreaming of chasing rabbits, even making rough guttural sounds like Jack Nicholson in the Shining. But these dreams were different.

Sam didn't draw his long fingers together into fists like he was fighting, sweat like he was reliving burning in hell. He didn't kick. The first time Dean was aware of Sam having this new kind of bad dream, Sam simply turned away from him as they slept. His breath came a little faster. And he said, very quietly, "Dean, please. Don't."

Dean pressed himself against Sam's back, and said, "I got you, Sammy." This woke Sam up enough to stumble to the bathroom, and Dean scooted into the warm spot where Sam had been. He drew his head back when it landed on something wet.

"Dude. Gross! What, you're drooling in your sleep now?" And before the words had finished leaving his mouth, he realized that Sam's pillow was wet with tears.

"What?" Sam gave Dean a gentle push to make him roll back where he'd been, and fell into bed again.

"Nothing. C'mere." For all the chick-flick moments Sam liked to create, Dean knew better than to draw attention to the fact that Sammy apparently cried in his sleep.

A few weeks later, after a particularly rough hunt that left them both sniping at each other in exhausted frustration, it happened again. Dean awoke to the lack of Sam's body pressed against his, radiating that warmth that he loved on cold nights. Sam was curled on his side, facing away from him, trembling. "Dean." His voice was quiet, anguished. "Dean. Please."

Dean shook his shoulder. "Hey, wake up, dude." Sam didn't wake up.

"Don't. Please, Dean, don't!" Sam's voice grew stronger, but he remained fast asleep. He sucked in one giant breath, and began to shake, sobbing into the pillow he was clutching.

This was…this was not ok. What the hell was he dreaming Dean was doing that was clearly so painful? Dean pulled Sam over onto his back, leaned on one arm, stroked his tear-streaked face.

"Sammy? Come on. Wake up. I'm here. It's ok. Wake up."

Sam awoke with a start, still shaking with sobs, and gave Dean a look he'd never seen on his brother's face before. So wary, poised on the edge of flinching, like he expected Dean to punch him in the face. Or worse.

It broke Dean's heart.

He wrapped his arms around Sam and held him close. "Whatever the hell you're dreaming about, man, that ain't me. I'd never do anything to hurt you."

Sam said nothing, but nuzzled his face into Dean's shoulder, slowly willing his body to calm and quiet.

Dean pulled himself up so he could look Sam in the eye, in the red and blue neon light spilling through the thin motel curtains. "You know that, right? I'd never do anything to hurt you."

Sam's eyes flicked to the side. "Yeah. I know." Dean let himself be convinced he was telling the truth, and drifted off to a deep, dreamless sleep.

Sam seemed better for a while, but something was just…off. Dean caught Sam looking at him sometimes with an aching melancholy in his expression, which he quickly replaced with a pleasant neutral expression when he realized Dean was watching.

Dean tried being extra nice to Sam. Letting him have the fifth skinny egg roll in the order (why the hell didn't Chinese food places give an even goddamn number of egg rolls in the first place?), bringing him a girly coffee drink without giving him shit for it, letting him take the first shower. Sam warmed under these little signs of affection, but the gleam of that dull ache never left his eyes completely.

But Dean was a moody bastard, and he knew it. They both were, and had worked to develop thick skins to not take it too personally when the other went off the rails. Living in each other's pockets meant it was all too easy to drive each other crazy. They did the best they could. But getting annoyed with each other from time to time was just part of the deal. The make-up sex was always awesome, though. But Sam's thick skin was showing distinct signs of thinning.

So when Dean lit into Sam a week later for being too reckless when they were cleaning out a nest of ghouls, he expected Sensitive Sam to make an appearance and give him some bitch face. He didn't expect what actually happened.

"…goddamn it Sam, you have GOT to stop being such a fucking idiot! What the hell were you thinking with that dumbass move? Last time I checked, you were NOT fucking Chuck Norris, and you can't… you can't just go crashing into a ghoul's nest like you won't get hurt." Dean stomped across the motel room floor, grabbing the whiskey bottle with one hand and a plastic "sealed for your protection" cup from the top of the dresser.

Sam sat on the bed, staring at his boots. "I thought there was only one of them. I'm sorry."

Dean tossed back a generous gulp of whiskey, masking the burn in his throat he always felt when he swallowed high-proof alcohol but he'd never admit to. Whiskey was supposed to hurt. "I mean, what the fuck, dude? You forget all that training? What did Dad say? What did Dad drill into us? Never. Assume. There's only. One."

"I know. You're right."

"You know? Then why the… Christ, Sam. If I can't even have faith in you to follow the most basic-"

Sam was on his feet so fast, Dean didn't even register seeing him stand up. "Don't. Don't say it." Sam's face was drawn, and his eyes glistened.

"What are you-"

Sam took two steps toward Dean. His body language was unmistakable.

"Don't. Say it."

The next thing Dean knew, he was standing alone in the motel room, brisk wind from the outside raising goose bumps on his arms, the sound of the slamming door reverberating in the room.

Sam stayed gone for hours. Dean finally gave up and went to bed around 2 am. He woke up around 3 and saw Sam hunched over at the little table, plastic glass of whiskey in front of him, staring at something. Sam wiped the back of his hand hard across his eyes, and tucked whatever he'd been looking at into his wallet.

Later, he felt Sam's heavy weight settle into the mattress, but he did not curl into Dean. Instead, he curled into himself, facing away.

And sure enough, Sam had another bad dream.

"Dean. Don't. I'm begging you. Don't do it. Please Dean please don't please don't..." Sam was babbling, pleading, crying, still completely asleep. Dean sat up, propped himself up against the wall, pulled Sam up against his chest and cradled him in his arms.

"I won't, Sam. Whatever it is, I won't, ok? I'm not gonna do it. Just wake up for me, ok? Yeah? Wake up. Sam!"

The command tone of his voice snapped Sam out of the dream, but he didn't stop crying for a long time. Dean just held him and whispered soothing words in his ear until his body stopped shaking. Then he leaned in, took Sam's mouth in his, and did all the things Sam liked best until he was shaking and crying for an entirely different reason.

Sometimes Dean would let their little fights drag out, not willing to be the one to make the first move. But this was different. He could feel it was different. Risky, somehow. The stakes were higher.

So when it was clear they were both awake, Dean kissed the back of his neck. "Hey, Sammy."

Sam roused with a start. Dean smoothed Sam's hair. "Hey, man. Sorry about being such a dick last night. I was out of line."

Sam groaned."I'm sorry too. Just… I dunno. Not sleeping or something. I'm a little off." He sat up and swung his feet to the floor. "Need to use the room before I grab a shower?"

"Nah, I'm good."

Sam began to move toward the bathroom without meeting Dean's gaze.

"What do you dream that I do?"

Sam stopped in his tracks. "What?"

"You talk in your sleep, dude. 'Dean. Don't. Please don't.' So… what is it you dream that I do?"

Sam looked back over his shoulder. "Just dreams. Don't mean anything."

"Hey. We gonna talk about this?"

What flickered in Sam's eyes then wasn't anger or frustration. It was sadness that stretched so deep Dean wanted to name it grief. "Nothing to talk about, man." And with that, Sam padded softly to the shower.

No chick-flick moments. How many times had he drummed that into Sam's head? "I don't want to talk about it, Sam." "Not gonna talk about it, Sam." "Can't fucking make me talk about our feelings, Sam." And now Dean was dying, just dying to talk about their feelings, and Sam was doing his best Dean impression. Goddamn him for finally taking the message to heart at exactly the worst goddamn moment.

The water kicked on with a thump that rattled the bathroom walls, and the soft spatter-hiss of the shower roused Dean from staring at the closed door.

He looked at Sam's wallet, tucked underneath his hoodie on the table.

He heard Sam step into the shower and close the door.

Dean stared at the item in his hand. The one Sam had been staring at last night. Nothing special. No photo of a long-lost love. No letter filled with recrimination or heartbreak.

It was just a picture of Dean.

Just a candid shot of Dean leaning against a wall that Sam took with one of those disposable cameras from a drugstore. He still had his leather jacket then, with the collar popped like he liked to do sometimes, and the amulet, gleaming against his black shirt.

Just a picture of Dean. So what the hell about it was so goddamn…

When he finally got it, he couldn't believe it had actually taken him that long to figure it out.

The fact is, ever since Dean dropped that amulet in the trash, he's felt it on his chest like a phantom limb. Reaches to take it off before he steps in the shower, and is surprised to find he's not wearing it. It didn't take long for him to regret the gesture. See it for what it was. Childish and deliberately cruel in a way he didn't think he had in him topside. In Hell, sure. That's where he learned the art of the dramatic gesture that telegraphed the unavoidable torture about to happen, that brutal moment of anticipation. That's what animated him in that moment when he let the amulet drop from his hand and held the cord in his fingers, dangling it over the waste basket, knowing Sam's heart was in his throat, knowing he was silently begging him.

Dean. Please. Don't.

If Sam had seen Dean's face in that moment, he would have seen that same flare of dark pleasure that burst across his face when the angels bound Alistair for Dean to torture. Sadism at its finest. Let's get started.

Because he really had been Alistair's star pupil.

The sharpest agony was not physical, but emotional. Dean knew how to strike at the heart of his victims. Like he struck at Sam's in a bleak moment when he had lost his faith in everything. Including Sam. And left a wound that had still not healed.

Dean. Please. Don't.

Dean drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as he drove. How the hell was he going to fix this? Sam stared out the window, watching the solid wall of green trees whipping past.

Just saying words wasn't gonna cut it. He could tell Sammy all sorts of pretty things, but they could never match the force of that goddamn melodramatic gesture. Never match the fact that he took the amulet he had worn every day for years, the amulet that Sam had removed from Dean's dead body and worn around his own neck until Dean was returned to him, taken THAT amulet and tossed it in a motel trash can.

Christ. What a monumental ass he had been.

Now he was reliving it in his head, the way he now knew Sam was, over and over. Back turned to Sam. Let the amulet fall so it hangs from the end of the cord. Linger there to really drive the nail home. (Dean. Please. Don't.) Open your hand and break your Sammy's heart. Dull thud as the amulet strikes the bottom of the waste basket.

Dean hadn't realized he had actually flinched at the remembered sound until he felt Sam's hand on his leg. "You ok?"

Dean swallowed, too guilt-ridden to look anywhere but straight ahead. "I'm always ok, Sam," he said in his best impression of Cocky Dean. How the hell was he going to fix this?

If he could have found an accurate replica, he would have bought it, put it on, told Sam, "Hey, guess what? I went back and fished it out of the garbage can. You didn't believe I would actually toss it out like that for real, did you?"

But that would never work. Besides, he couldn't find anything similar to his amulet. Guess it really was one of a kind.

Goddamn, what a monumental ass he'd been.

And every day, he felt the phantom amulet around his neck, pressing its sharp horns into his skin when he slept on his stomach, bouncing up to hit him in the mouth when he fought a monster. Ok, he didn't miss that part. He'd bloodied his lip on it countless times, and chipped a tooth twice.

And no matter how many times he held Sam's face in his hands and kissed him like it was the end of the world and Sam was the only thing in it he'd miss (true), that gaping chasm was still there in Sam's eyes, that sadness behind his kiss. No matter how many times he made Sam come, how many times Dean gave Sam whatever he wanted in and out of bed, how many times Dean leaned close and actually said in words, "I love you. You know that, right?" it wasn't quite right. The wound was still there. He could see that now. The wound he'd carved into Sam.

The one thing Dean couldn't bear was Sam in pain. The one thing Dean hated most was anything that hurt his Sammy.

Dean was topside, but he was back in Hell.

It was the hunt in Oakland that gave him the solution. Coming down from a clean kill in the hills, they stopped at a bakery near the lake that made a kick-ass sourdough pizza, cookies that would later prove to be addictive, and some kind of sweet roll called Wolverines that Sam practically inhaled and insisted on buying a dozen of for later. The woman at the register wore a sleeveless shirt, exposing a stunning tattoo.

"Dude! It's the tentacle guy from the pirate movie!" Dean sounded like a 12-year-old boy, and that wasn't the first time that comparison had been made about him.

"Whoa." Sam poked a chunk of Wolverine into his mouth as he slid cash across the counter and eyed her ink.

Dean studied the tattoo. "That's really incredible work." The tattoo was so expertly drawn and shaded it seemed to rise off the skin like 3-D. The woman actually blushed when Dean brushed his finger against her skin. "Where'd you get it done?"

Later that night, after they had eaten their mushroom and onion pizza and stuffed whatever room remained in their stomachs with chocolate chip cookies, Sam collapsed on the bed-for-sleeping-and-sex (as compared to the bed for the gear), and Dean cracked open the laptop and looked up the website for the artist that did such brilliantly photo-realistic tattoos. Turns out the guy was willing to boot someone from his schedule for double his rate for an emergency rush-job.

The next morning, Dean set his plan in motion.

"Man, I'm beat. Aren't you beat? I'm so sick of being on the road. Whattaya say we stay here for a few days, huh? You can jog around the lake every day like the rest of those morons. You love shit like that." Sam didn't take much convincing, especially when he googled that there was a Thai place near the bakery that served brown rice (to which news Dean dutifully made a retching sound), and a café that was decorated full-on Day of the Dead.

Dean pretended he was going to take BART into San Francisco to get some supplies from an occult shop in the Haight, and when Sam went to take his shower, he slipped the photo from Sam's wallet.

That night, Sam was in a great mood (probably from the stupid jogging endorphins, a meal of artisan tofu and plant life, and a triple espresso). Dean sat on the bed, fully dressed, watching "Biggest Loser." Sam loped over, plopped down on the bed and laid his head in Dean's lap like a dog. A big, tofu-eating dog. "Whatcha doing?" Sam toyed with Dean's belt buckle.

"I'm watching my show, Sam. Duh."

"Hey, want to…NOT watch your show?"

Dean frowned. "C'mon! This show changes lives, man."

Sam undid the belt buckle. "So does my mouth. Man."

Sam had a point. Sam's mouth was a fucking lifechanger and a heartbreaker. Well, ok. A blowjob was ok. He could leave his sweatshirt on, and keep the bandage on his chest hidden. The tattoo artist said to leave it on overnight and take it off first thing in the morning.

So Sam gave him the mother of all blowjobs, and when Dean had scraped himself from the ceiling, he returned the favor.

It was easy to get away with crawling into bed still wearing his shirt and boxers, and say he didn't want Sam to wrap his arm around his chest and snuggle. He just said he was getting sick, and he was cold and his skin hurt. Sam practically leaped out of bed to run get Nyquil, juice, and microwavable chicken soup. Dean never, ever, EVER got sick, and Sam could count on both hands the times he'd been allowed to nurse Dean through a cold or flu. He was practically giddy.

In the morning, Sam offered to go get them coffee and sticky rolls. If Dean wanted coffee, that is. He would get tea if Dean would rather have tea, and did he have a sore throat, because maybe something softer to eat would be better…

Dean cut him off. "Easy there, Rain Man. Coffee and sticky buns sounds awesome. I'm gonna…take a bath." Sam knew that Dean's skin hurt too much when he was sick to be able to stand a shower. Sam also had kind of a fetish about Dean in the bathtub. Something about seeing him so exposed and vulnerable, or so he'd muttered while licking drops of water off Dean's chest.

"…ok. Cool. Ok. Um, I'll be right back. Take your time, ya know? A warm bath is really good for your immune system."

With that, Sam raced off to get breakfast, and Dean drew a bath.

About a half-hour later, Sam rustled through the door, and the scent of strong coffee filled the motel room. "I got sticky rolls, and more of those Wolverines, and they had this amazing looking chocolate bread thing…"

"Hey, Sam, could you come give me a hand in here?" Dean tried to keep his voice steady, but it wavered. He was nervous. This was gonna bring up a lot of bad memories and poke pointed sticks in the general vicinity of deep wounds, and it could go really, epically wrong.

Sam was through the door almost instantly, afraid Dean's fake cold had taken a turn for the worse. He knelt at the side of the tub. "Everything alright?" His eyes searched Dean's…and then he dropped his gaze to Dean's chest.

Right where the amulet had always lain was a tattoo, gleaming with ointment. Photo-realistic didn't begin to cover it. It looked like the amulet was nestled on Dean's chest, rising off his skin in three dimensions.

Sam fell back. He actually fell back, and leaned against the bathroom wall. His mouth worked, but no sound came out. He pushed his boots hard against the side of the tub and stared.

"Every day since I threw it away, I've regretted it. Every. Single. Day." Dean's voice was quiet, but carried the weight of truth. Sam knew Dean's I'm Being Totally Fucking Honest voice. And this was it. "It was… I mean, such a dick move… Christ, Sam."

Sam scrutinized Dean's face like it was a key piece of research. That blink-and-I'll-flinch expression was back. And it broke Dean's heart all over again.

Still not making a sound, Sam got to his knees and leaned over Dean. Sam fully clothed, Dean completely naked. Exactly the way Dean had planned this moment. He needed to be completely vulnerable to Sam, needed Sam to feel it in his body that he was the one in control.

Sam drew his thumb around the edge of the tattoo, not wanting to touch it directly, as it was still raw.

"…why? Why now?"

Dean took a deep breath. "Figured out what you were dreaming about. What you didn't want me to do." What you fucking begged me not to do, but I did do it, he thought. "Can't take it back. Thought I could make it right."

Sam just stared.

"You gotta know…I didn't lose my faith in you. I lost my faith. Period. In the whole of human fucking existence, with me at the top of the list. But you… Sam… you're the only thing. You've always been the only thing. Thought you knew that."

"You thought wrong." Sam's body and face seemed perfectly placid, but tears rolled down his face. That only happened when he felt something so extreme, his body clamped down on showing any signs of emotion, but his limbic system didn't get the memo.

Dean touched Sam's hand, fingertips still fluttering at the edge of the tattoo, pressed Sam's scarred palm against the tattoo and held it there. It hurt, but it was nothing compared to the real pain floating around that room, the ghost of that act that needed dispelling.

"Sam? This? This is real." Sam's eyes opened wider. "This isn't going anywhere. Ever. Stays with me 'till I die. Like you. That necklace? I took it off every day. Couldn't get the damn thing wet, remember?" Sam laughed, wiping his face. "I was always afraid of losing it in a fight. Someone stealing it. This is better. This is permanent. You get me?"

Sam looked at Dean for the longest time. Long enough for something to loosen its grip behind his eyes and fall away. "Yeah. I get you."

Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. The record was previously held by two slightly dim farm workers.

This kiss left them all behind.