black soul choir

The Winchesters' dying thoughts on shaping your own destiny and making deals; in which Mary is a hunter, John is a father, Dean is a transsexual man, and Sam is pretty happy being Dean's B-side. Featuring 4 hunters, 3 deals with the devil, 2 brothers, 1 blessing, and 1 curse.

black soul choir by busaikko

Beta: kyuuketsukirui/Kanata
Warnings: character death; written concurrent with S4, but AUish after 419
Prompt and Explicit Warnings: I think some of these will spoil you, but if you need to know, please click.




mary

M A R Y

We can be together
We will be
We must begin here and now
A new continent of earth and fire
Come on now getting higher and higher
Tear down the walls
(We Can Be Together – Jefferson Airplane)

The first thing Mary's father taught her about hunting was that nothing was as easy as temptation's slippery slide into Hell. Every hunter ran the risk of not being smart enough or strong enough to bring the prey down, but get lucky enough times and a hunter might be deluded into thinking she could pull something over on the other side. That she had what it took to make a good deal.

There are no good deals, her father said, sitting next to her at the kitchen table in the warm yellow sunlight, steam rising from his coffee mug. Only bad, worse, and damnable all rolled into one.

He said a hunter has to accept that she doesn't have the right to take anything. Spirits and demons, her father said, and stopped, and sighed short. He ran his fingers lightly down the stakes Mary had sanded smooth, nodded in approval, and set them on the linen cloth, oak ash pine willow. They have the power to give you anything you desire. Youth? Money? Privilege? You want your enemies dead? You want someone to love you? Just like that (he snapped his fingers and Mary jumped, her sandpaper sheets flying) it's all yours, babydoll. All your dreams come true. Except there's always a price to be paid. Dealing with them. . . makes you into a monster like them.

She handed him the last shining stake, heavy ironwood, her favourite.

Her father set it down and laid his hand on the back of her head. A hunter who's good — Biblical good, not just quick with a gun — doesn't want anything more than a simple life. She trusts in God's will. Her father rolled the stakes up tight, tied the bundle with hemp cord, and put it in his workbag. You're going to be a good girl, right, babydoll?

Of course she'd promised she would; every night when she said her prayers she vowed to be good; which was why it was ironic (horrifying, disgusting, nightmarish, but also ironic) that the demon she made a deal with for John's life spoke its temptations through her father's mouth. It didn't make her decision any easier or harder. She knew what she would do, and she also knew she'd regret it every day of the rest of her life.

She prayed to God and his angels. She tracked demons and taught John what she knew about protection. She never intended to get pregnant, not when there was evil in the world, but she wanted. She wanted a simple life and a family and safety and goodness to wash away the stain on her soul. She wanted to go driving in John's beautiful car and be as free as the wind on her face, the wheels her wings, find salvation in speed as pure as angel choirs.

She bargained with God. She called on his angels to watch over and protect her and hers. All the lore told her the demon would come for her firstborn, and that was intolerable. She prayed. And God answered her prayer.

She never connected the dots, about the prices to be paid, above as well as below. And for that, later, when she understood, she was so very, very sorry.



john

J O H N

I don't know how I'm gonna tell you
I can't play with you no more,
I don't know how I'm gonna do what mama told me,
My friend, the boy next door.
I can't believe what people saying
You're gonna let your hair hang down,
I'm satisfied to sit here working all day long,
You're in the darker side of town.
And when I'm out I see you walking,
Why don't your eyes see me,
Could it be you've found another game to play,
What did mama say to me
That's the way, Oh, that's the way it ought to be

(That's the Way – Led Zeppelin)

The worst part of becoming a hunter and learning what hunters knew was that nothing could ever be simple anymore: it stripped away innocence. John loved Mary, but what she felt for him was irrevocably tied to whatever had happened that night her parents died. He loved her, but she scared him with the spells she still worked and the nightmares she had. She promised that she wouldn't hunt (and he hadn't believed her about the monsters at first, and he hadn't wanted her to prove anything to him, and she'd cried when he'd finally got the picture and went out and bought himself a shotgun and a silver dagger). He loved her more than anything, and when she finally agreed to marry him and get that house in the suburbs and have his child, he had been, simply, happy. He had been blind.

John loved Mary, but he didn't know where hunter left off and crazy began. He knew pregnancy had been hard on her. Mary moved the furniture so much (the Chinese believe it matters she said) the runes and sigils painted on the floors wore clean off. Mary carved them after that, with a ritual blade. The baby's room had been washed floor to ceiling with holy water; there were bags of magical herbs and things every damn place. It got so that John couldn't get a beer from the fridge without finding spells scratched in rings around the bottle neck. Mary wouldn't tell him what she was afraid of, but one day in the middle trimester she suddenly stopped. John asked if she'd hunted down whatever had been bugging her, and she said it wasn't a problem anymore. She slept well, curled around the swell of her stomach.

But she didn't love the baby: at least, not how John had pictured it. What did he know, really, when he didn't remember anything of being a child himself except for kaleidoscope flashes of his own mother, black eyes and black hair, short next to the tower of his father, wide and apron-soft and safe. He'd thought Mary would play with the baby, sing lullabies, get a stroller to push through the neighbourhood. Be normal. Not just keep the baby clean and fed and safe behind salt lines. Mary didn't touch the baby more than necessary. Sometimes she watched with an intensity that made John picture her, uneasily, as a hunter.

He thought they shouldn't have named the baby after Mary's mother. Mary looked pinched every time someone said Deanna or even Anna or Annie. John took to calling the baby Dee, usually Big Dee (Looking good in those booties, Big Dee) or Grumpy Dee (Dee only started smiling after staggering was mastered at seven months) or Picky Dee (the kid had it in for vegetables from the get-go). Dee was the first word Dee said, and a few days later (after some half-assed coaching) it was Dean and then Dean go and give Dean and Dean want. By the first birthday the name was hard stuck, and Dean was one-hundred percent a daddy's girl. Mary threw up her hands, made a cake, took up the cigarettes her doctor had made her quit before, and hired a woman to babysit mornings while she went back to researching the occult, going over and over her parents' writings. John started teaching Dean baseball and football and Frisbee.

Sammy was an accident, though John never even said that out loud once. Mary had finally gotten used to having Dean around the house: it helped once Dean was old enough to start learning what Mary had to teach. Mary found it easier to occupy those fat little hands with charms and amulets than to give hugs for skinned knees and fevers, and she told the most hair-raising bedtime stories a child ever had. But she was a good mother. The best mother a kid could have, John told her. He told her that he loved her. They had balance, and then the goddamned rubber had to break. The second time around, John was the one scared of the changes a baby would bring. Mary just. . . said it was in God's hands.

Six months after Sam was born, Mary was dead, and John found himself watching his house burn and wondering whether she'd sensed this was coming. Whether she'd been holding it back all those years, keeping it away from her family. And he told Dean that that's what came of faith and prayer, that at least a gun in your hand gave you a better chance than God and angels.

A few days later he was learning about evil from Missouri Moseley, and he felt something in his heart change, like a tide turning. He woke up mornings and had a reason to be alive. He wanted revenge, wanted it like a hunger.

John moved out of the Guenthers' before Christmas, because he couldn't stand the idea of a holiday centred around the miracle of birth. He rented a furnished apartment, the first month free because of John's bereavement. Mary was buried under a headstone paid for by her family, another charity he couldn't refuse, and they visited her grave every Sunday. The house and all their furnishings were sold, and the few important things taped into cardboard boxes and stacked in the closet. John kept fixing up cars and bringing home paycheques, but that had become a shadow life. He was teaching himself how to hunt from Mary's books and learning from the hunters who came by to give their condolences. When he figured he knew enough to know where to go (and to be terrified of what might be coming and of how badly prepared he was to face it), he up and packed the car, put the kids in the back seat, and drove right out of Lawrence.

The more he learned about the world, the more he realized that there wasn't a big difference between hunter and crazy. Not much of a difference at all, but at least the hunting kept his mind from gnawing on how far off the rails he was going.

He'd just paid for a week at a motel outside of Rockville, Maryland and was making meaningless talk with the woman at the front desk when she pointed her chin out the window and said, “Your boys are cute, how old are they?”

“One and five,” he'd answered, squinting out through the dirty glass at the kids, running around the little patio in front of the car park. Sammy was a pain in the ass, impossible to keep still in the car for more than a few hours at a time. John couldn't fucking stand the crying. With Sam howling John couldn't stop remembering his children were motherless, and why. Mary was dead, and he would get the creature that had killed her, and Dean and Sam. . . he didn't know what the hell to do with them, really.

He had no idea how long he'd been submerged in the hunt after leaving Lawrence. He checked the wall calendar pinned next to the black and white TV behind the counter. The picture was of a girl in a croptop lipping a beer bottle. September, it said underneath, and John felt like he was coming off a long drunk.

He wasn't sure, but he thought maybe Dean was supposed to be starting to school. He watched the kids playing and didn't know where they'd got the clothes they were wearing. Dean's t-shirt was too tight and Sam's hung around his knees like a dress, and Sam wobbled in weather-bleached yellow rain boots because, John figured, that was all he had. Least, he didn't remember any baby shoes in the car. Dean had on a filthy baseball cap, a present from an ex-Marine acquaintance who sold weapons down in Santa Fe. Both kids had hair about down to their shoulders. John didn't remember the last time he'd cut their hair. He thought it might have been the job in Teaneck (which had turned out to be industrial pollution, nothing supernatural after all).

He didn't remember when he'd started saying he had two sons; he wasn't sure that he had been the one to say it first. That might have been Missouri: at any rate, she always asked after your boy Dean and John never corrected her. It was convenient. It was safer. It wasn't like Dean wanted to be girly anyway. The woman at the motel desk gave John some colouring books and crayons someone'd left behind, and when they got to the room Dean took all the race car ones and gave the Strawberry Shortcake and Care Bears ones to Sam to destroy.

John asked that night as he sharpened the scissors and put a black garbage bag on the bed to catch the hair that fell. He did Sammy's hair first, as fast as he could while Dean made stupid faces trying to keep Sam from wriggling too much. Sammy ended up with a lot more hair on the left than the right and a bald spot at the back. Dean didn't say anything, just gave Sam the baseball cap, pulling it down backwards on Sam's head.

When it was Dean's turn, John said, "I don't have to cut this," using the tip of his comb to drag a part straight down the top of Dean's head. He pulled the hair into stubby bunches over Dean's ears and studied Dean's face in the dresser mirror. He couldn't tell at all if the fat chipmunk cheeks and jug-handle ears were girl or boy or just homely. "If you wanted to grow it out."

"Hell no," Dean said. John smacked Dean's ear for swearing, and Dean mumbled sorry, shaking out the ponytails. "Like you did last time, that's what. Like the Marines," and yeah, John kind of did remember that. There'd been an early heatwave, and they'd been stuck in Jersey because the highway had been burning. It had been too hot for any hair at all, so he'd given the kids both crew cuts and put them in the bathtub, where they'd stayed until they wrinkled up like raisins. The air that had seeped in the open windows had left a dark oily shine on the water and made John's eyes sting something evil.

"Sure thing," John said now, keeping his voice easy. The California Angels were playing on the TV, and he talked baseball with Dean. He said he'd seen Reggie Jackson play once, when he was still in the minors down in Birmingham and the only black player on his team, and how hard that must have been, but now here it was, seventeen years in the major leagues and about to hit his five hundredth home run and it didn't matter John wasn't an Angels fan. He liked Jackson. Baseball was a beautiful game. Dean sat stiff under the scissors and comb and took in every word.

John still hurt with grief, but he thought he needed to suck it up and start raising his children right. He hadn't thought he could, but that was just turning a blind eye to the fact that he had to.

John was starting to call himself a hunter now, but how he felt was hunted. His best assets were the skills and knowledge he'd learned in the war, things he'd locked away when he came home to Lawrence. By opening that Pandora's box he thought he might have a fighting chance, thought he might beat the learning curve and survive. Passing all that knowledge on to his children wasn't his first choice, but he was willing to sacrifice dreams to keep them alive.

If that meant making the kids into soldiers, warriors, hunters, well. That was something he could do. The haircut he gave Dean this time was medium regulation, nothing that would make them attract attention as paramilitary survivalist nuts, but for at least a week afterwards John caught Dean rubbing at the fine short hair at the back, looking proud to be John's first recruit.

John drew on his memories of basic training and started using parks and playgrounds along the way as obstacle courses and running tracks. The kids had a ball, building muscle on the monkey bars and learning how to shimmy up iron swing chains and walk fearless on high bars. John invested in jump ropes and baseball mitts and balls and did progress checks on the first of every month, challenging them to do better than their personal best. He generally wore them out enough that by seven-thirty they dropped straight to sleep: they were active kids, so he figured he was doing something right.

He used the dead time in the car to play memory and observation games. He taught Dean how to read from maps, starting with numbers (route 37, I-85, county road 416) and then the names of states and town, as mystical and powerful as any of Mary's occult crap (M-i-s-s, i-s-s, i-p-p, i they all three chanted every time they crossed the river). Dean was his navigator: John emphasized that they should always have at least three escape routes in mind. John wasn't going to lie to Dean: he talked about the monsters and the hunts, but he emphasized how preparation and following orders would keep them safe. He taught Dean how to throw a knife, how to follow a track in the woods, how not to leave a track in the woods. He took Dean out shooting, taught respect for the weapons they had to use.

Dean resented Sam and protected him in more-or-less equal measures, and was the one to insist that no one tell Sam about the monsters or the danger. Sam was too little, anyway. A lot of times while working with Dean John had to keep Sammy on a leash, literally, a length of clothesline tied around the car door handle to keep him from wandering into a place he could get hurt, with a pile of spent shotgun shells to play with in the dirt. But by the time Sam was responsible enough to walk free, he didn't ever cry no matter how angry or scared or frustrated he was, and gunfire didn't bother him at all.

The downside of Sam's self-containment was that it alarmed the teachers at his schools. Dean they could get a handle on. Dean was distractible and antsy (John remembered being like that himself) but polite, saying yes, sir and yes, ma'am, never talking back or acting up or out, holding the door open for girls, and always being the first to raise a hand when the teacher asked for help. Dean followed directions, made easy friendships with good kids, and was always up for a game of baseball or football or basketball. Sam's manners, on the other hand, always had an undercurrent of not giving a damn, and he'd do as he was told only if he understood why — and who the hell wanted to have to explain every little thing to some kid? He was the one people tried to reach out to, the target of a hundred well-intentioned sympathetic hugs, but nothing really touched Sam. He didn't even care about making friends.

John got pretty used to getting calls that started I'd like to talk to you about your son, and ninety percent of the time that meant Sam. Sometimes after the calls they'd have to file the withdrawal papers and move on, sometimes not, depending on how tenacious the teacher was and whether or not social workers, counsellors, or mental health professionals were involved.

In all the years of school, John only got one call that started We need to discuss your daughter. They were out of that town before sundown. If Dean was going to be a boy, John said, then not getting caught was Dean's job: he trusted Dean to do what was necessary to make sure no one found out. Hell, most days he didn't even think about it himself, and it certainly wasn't the business of anyone outside of the family.

In the car as they left, Dean'd slouched way down on the front seat, face like thunder, and played the same Jackson 5 cassette through the whole state of Connecticut.

"You okay?" John had asked finally, his brain stuck in a permanent groove of ABC, 123, you and me baby, you and me.

"This sucks," Dean said, and stuck one knee up against the glove compartment to keep from sliding right down into the footwell. John didn't say anything, because the trick with Dean was to let things stew until they simmered down. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dean's bottom lip stick out. "This music sucks," Dean said, finally.

"Let Sammy put his tape in," John suggested. Sam only had one cassette. Dean'd given it to him for his birthday, hoping Sam'd hate it and give it back. The plan had (to John's amusement) backfired, and Dean despised having to ask Sam's permission to listen to his favourite band.

Dean shoved up and twisted over the seat, grabbing for Sam's backpack. Sam jerked it away.

"Give it, bitch," Dean said, voice so low it was almost a growl. Sam's face was all pinched up sour, and John just knew that he wanted to listen to the godawful music (Leper Messiah, honestly, what kind of song was that?) but also he wanted to jerk Dean's chain as hard as he could.

"Don't you talk to your brother like that," John said, looking sideways and getting another good view of the bruises shadowing Dean's side where the shirt was riding up. The school nurse had given him a guided tour to the rest of the physical damage from the group of boys who'd beaten Dean up. Nothing was broken, everything would be fine in a week or so, but they boys had also pulled Dean's jeans halfway off (no one was talking, but John's guess was that someone had accused Dean of being gay). John didn't know how Dean was coping with the humiliation. He suspected Dean hadn't realised not every fight could be won, or how much could be lost if Dean wasn't careful and people discovered the girl thing. Hence the sulking.

"Yes, sir," Dean said, eyes going all watery all of a sudden and mouth twisting and shaking. John was crap at this kind of thing, so he was grateful for the loud rasp of the broken zipper on Sam's bag and the way Sam threw the tape at Dean's head with a muttered fucking asshole.

John did have to pull the car over for that, because he wasn't going to stand for a mouth like that on a kid of his, no matter if Sam was not quite seven and was only repeating (John was pretty sure) something he'd overheard John himself say about his supervisor at his last straight job. He kicked Sam out and drove the car a mile to park and wait for Sam to catch up. Sam had excellent timing — he knew John'd wait twenty minutes, so he took nineteen exactly — and then they had a battle over Sam not apologising for his disrespect.

They made it to upstate New York without any murder happening, which John counted as a minor victory. His mother had left John with a brain full of clichés meant to be comforting, and as he settled them into another one-room vacation cabin he imagined she'd say this too shall pass. That had covered a wide range of social sympathies, from deaths to divorces to flood waters. He figured that maybe he had about an equal chance of seeing Sam's stubbornness tamed as he did of seeing the end to his hunt for Mary's killer.

Course, his mother had also said love bears all things and The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Words to live by, John, he thought, and swallowed two of his last nine aspirin.

John gave the kids the rest of the month and then (fuck it) the rest of the year off from school. He was busy tracking down Mary's papers and her parents', which she'd sent to friends around the time Sam was born. She'd always kept an ear out for word of the thing that had killed her parents, and John figured maybe she'd learned what it was. Maybe she'd wanted other hunters in on the fight. Maybe she'd been so afraid of it she'd had to shut her eyes and pretend that it didn't exist. Maybe she knew it was coming for her children.

Or maybe she'd really believed that when she'd asked God for help, he'd answered her prayers.

John took the kids with him but generally left them in the car or in the room. He was starting to get a reputation as a decent hunter, but while he was smart, he knew full well that he was still plenty ignorant, being self-taught, as it were. He met some good people. His own journal grew fat with sections on monsters he'd stumbled across, and signs and spells and curses. He finally felt like he had what he needed to go on the offensive, but he knew himself well enough to be aware that the kids were his weakness.

He found that hunters came in all brands of crazy and decided that he shouldn't trust them around his children, ever. Especially after he pieced together that other women had died in fires like Mary, and their first-born children who were the same age as Sam seemed to attract demonic interest (demons, goddamned demons were real and Hell was real, and John had to get very drunk the night he learned that, because how did you fight timeless evil incarnate?).

Reading between the lines of Mary's notes (with the is dotted with little circles), he was fairly certain she — and all the parents of targeted kids — had made a deal with a devil or other entity. He didn't know if Mary had sold Sam's soul, intentionally or not, but if the boy started to turn demonic, John swore he'd take care of it himself. Not some other hunter. A man had a right to see that his child died loved, if it came to that. (He might have stayed drunk for a week after that decision. He didn't remember, but it was okay; at least, that's what Dean told him mornings after, handing him a glass of water and mouthing confused, inappropriate assurance).

John had started leaving Dean in charge as soon as Dean was able to get meals on the table and handle a shotgun: first for a few days, and then for a couple of weeks. There were occasional fuck-ups — Dean nearly getting Sammy killed, that was a major one. But John knew from the Marines that sometimes being broken down was the first step in being rebuilt better. Dean was so hungry to be trusted after that that everything else got thrown away. Dean stopped being interested in other kids, school, and sports and started wanting to be a hunter, now that Dean had looked evil in the face, to be just like John in every possible way.

Dean wanted to hunt monsters and kill things, and God help him, John wasn't in any position to turn down an offer of help.

Dean's first kill was a simple angry spirit, a basic salt and burn job. Dean was ten, and threw up once when the coffin was cracked open and once when the body was burning. John had been covered in stinking graveyard mud from the waist down and was stiff from the beating they'd got earlier in the haunted church off route 513. You did good, he told Dean as they walked fast down the alley behind the spite house to where the car was hidden. Away from the big suburban houses and back in the clinging dampness of the Blue Lake Motel, John got Dean cleaned up and bandaged the worst of the scrapes and scratches before letting Dean fall into the bed he shared with Sam.

Sam never woke up, so far as John knew. It hadn't taken more than a couple of hours to burn away the last of Dean's innocence. And in the morning when the fear was forgotten, Dean was in love with hunting with an enthusiasm that made John cold inside, moreso because Dean had decided that John was a hero.

John was thirty-five years old. He was homeless and jobless. He owned a car and too much (not enough) illegal weaponry that he occasionally had to sell to people who probably ought not to be trusted with grenades or landmines or handguns. He had less than a handful of people he trusted and two children, one who might be demon-possessed and the other he'd made into a killer of the undead and supernatural.

He woke to temptation and he went to bed with temptation; he studied temptation in every book that dealt with spirits and demons and the bargains they struck. Almost more than anything he wanted his wife and his life back again, he wanted to be normal and ignorant of evil, he wanted Dean to have a home and Sam to never know about the bad things that walked the earth.

He was terrified thinking about how little it would take for him to give in to temptation, to summon a demon and make a deal. He found himself white-knuckling the steering wheel every time he drove over a dirt crossroad. His only comfort was that he hadn't done it yet.

He needed to warn his children about demons, about temptation, about deals, and just thinking about it gave him nightmares that woke him cold with sweat and gasping for breath.

Instead of wanting what he shouldn't and couldn't have, fixating on murdering the evil son of a bitch that killed Mary seemed like the saner choice to John; but he'd been neck-deep in crazy for so long, what did he know?

He wasn't even surprised — resigned, more like — when one day Sam came back from the library with a backpack full of stolen books and newspapers. He told John that he knew about hunting, he knew what John was hunting, and he thought he had some ideas that might help. John had been waiting, trying to figure out when to break the news to Sam: he still felt wrong about the necessity of telling Dean. But Sam was different, always would be. Sam had no memories of his mother tucking him in with nonsense about angels. Sam lied about a having a monster in the closet to get John to give him a loaded gun for protection. He was a damn good shot, too, almost as good as Dean.

At first John'd been proud, thinking Sam wanted to follow in his footsteps as well. But it didn't take long, just a few vicious fights and Sam's kneejerk questioning of every decision, to figure out that Sam's interest was purely selfish: he didn't trust his own father to keep his kids safe.

John was scared shitless that the demon who killed Mary would come calling for his youngest child before he knew know to kill the fucker. John had a terrible sinking feeling that Sam would be susceptible to all kinds of demonic temptations. He always wanted proof; he had no faith. He wasn't easy to keep safe like Dean was. Dean wanted to grow up to be just like John, copying his walk and his haircut, wearing his clothes, using far too much of John's Old Spice, speaking as low as possible to mimic John's command voice when bossing Sammy around, sneaking looks at John's porn. John was more than willing to give Dean all that in return for Dean's faith in him. In another life he knew he'd have hated having a daughter who was the butchest dyke he'd ever met, but ten years in the hunter's life had made John fairly tolerant of every flavour of human except evil.

So he was absolutely blindsided one morning when he dragged his ass out the front door of another cinderblock weekly rental unit at half-four for an early shift (janitorial, supposedly haunted building, but no luck after two weeks), and Sam slipped out after him.

"You gotta do something for Dean," Sam said, tagging after John with a run-step when he fell behind. Sam's feet were too loud on the metal stairs because he was hurrying. John's head hurt. Sam needed to be more careful.

He looked back at Sam when he hit the landing, squinting in the bright sodium light. Sam was in the same jeans and t-shirt he'd slept in, even though dawn wasn't for hours and it was below freezing. John winced, wondering if Sam was even wearing socks, and then felt a hot flush of parental failure as he tried to remember if Sam owned socks. He was pretty sure Sam didn't have a coat: there'd been money last month, but John'd needed to fix the car up after getting a bloody hydra in the engine block. He yanked at the hem of his polyester uniform jacket to straighten it out and scrubbed his face with one hand. "Dean does just fine."

Sam sighed loudly, and God but sometimes John just wanted to beat the boy until he broke. Except he wasn't sure he could stop if Sam didn't.

Sam sidled close, looking around, and John added more to his mental notes on deficiencies in Sam's stealth technique. He pushed Sam towards the stairwell, out of the light. "Dean's getting boobs," Sam whispered, his arm brushing against John's in a distraction that made it hard for John to register the words at first. Dean was just a kid, Dean was —

John was ashamed to admit to himself that he had to do the mental arithmetic to figure out that Dean was fourteen already.

"Did you know I have to buy tampons?" Sam asked, still in that hushed voice like he was telling a dirty secret, and then he grabbed at John's sleeve, his words hanging in the air like his white breath. "Dean's freaking out, he's in trouble for missing school, he's, like," Sam windmilled his free arm as if trying to appear larger and more significant, "he's really fucking unhappy." Sam's mouth downturned and his chin jutted out like he was going to tackle John down the stairs and bash his head until he set things right.

"Really," John said, and then held up a hand as Sam took one angry step forward. For someone so small and babyfat, Sam worked hard on being menacing. "You did the right thing by telling me," he added, and Sam blinked, wide-eyed with surprise. Sam never could take praise, and John tried not to roll his eyes when a second later Sam's face tightened as if he was trying to figure out what game John was playing. "I'll talk to Dean after work," John promised.

Sam looked torn, shivering and small and wary. Then he bit his lip and pulled up his shirt to fish an envelope out of the waistband of his jeans. He thrust it out. John accepted it, trying not to smile, until he looked inside and saw all the money.

"I think Dean's cursed," Sam said in a rush, "and I found, there's a doctor, you have to take Dean to see her, okay? There's a paper," he pointed at the envelope. He gave John a pinched smile, defiant and challenging, and that was the thing about Sam. He expected John to earn his faith.

"You steal this?" John asked, trying to get his equilibrium back. He figured Sam had, and he was furious at the boy for putting them all in jeopardy. He didn't mind the kids picking up survival skills — hell, he was grateful most of the time for the lightness of Sam's fingers and the way he could count on Dean's straight shooting — but he'd be fucked sideways before he let them carelessly tip off the police. Or something worse.

“No, sir,” Sam said, meeting John's eyes. His voice was the sound of a door shutting that John wouldn't be getting through anytime soon. Lord, but Sam made John feel lost. "It's Dean's money."

Like fuck, John thought, kneejerk mean: it's mine now. "I can't be late for work," he said, after a moment, and Sam nodded, sticking his hands in his armpits and shifting from foot to foot. "You go back on up. Make sure you lock the door."

"Yes, sir," Sam said, but he stayed there on the landing watching until John pulled the car out onto the road and headed west.

Of all the awkward conversations John never wanted to have, talks with his children about anything to do with sex were right at the top of the list. He'd been broken in, though, by having to explain prostitutes and johns and perverts to them right from the start of their life on the road. He tried to make sure that they understood that sex was supposed to be about more than that. He'd tried to reinforce the idea of respect if not love, and every time he brought sex up Sam had the most horrific questions. What does sex feel like, and which bits go where, and how do two boys or two girls, and why do people scream, and why was it funny when the girl asked why's it taste salty? Even Dean had been appalled by having Sam's brilliant scrutiny turned on a favourite pastime (why does Dean lock himself in the bathroom all the time just to read magazines?).

But Sam had done good research, turning up a gynaecologist in Providence who had worked with hunters four years back on a case involving a haunted vagina. John called her from a payphone after work. She seemed nice. Non-threatening, at any rate. She said she wasn't sure what she could do but she wanted to meet Dean, and she could make referrals.

John had his usual trouble with pronouns in talking about Dean, and the doctor asked, after he was tongue-tied dumb for the second time, whether he thought Dean was a boy or a girl, biology aside.

"I have no idea," he'd answered after a long minute of dead air. "Else why would I be talking to you?" He thought he'd been fair, giving Dean choices. At every new school, he asked Dean which birth certificate to use, and it was always Dean's and never Deanna's. Dean could have grown a mop of hair like Sam's, but just preferred it cut close. John didn't make Dean dress or act or talk like a boy; it had just happened. That it made John's life easier to not have to worry about a girl leading this dangerous life, the life that got Mary killed. . . he figured Dean didn't know that. And he tried not to notice how desperately Dean worked to be the good son, the worthy successor, the hunter and partner who was everything that John wanted.

He told the doctor he'd call back after he spoke to Dean, and he bought himself a six-pack with money from Sam's envelope, figuring he'd need it.

Dean was stretched out on the boys' bed when John got home, writing something in a spiral notebook. Sam was reading at the table. He shot John a look and then ducked his head.

"I want you to come down and check the wiring on the tail lights with me," John told Dean, sticking one can of beer in his jacket pocket and taking the milk out of the ice bucket so he could chill the rest. "Sam, get dinner on for six. We got food?"

"Yes, sir," Sam muttered, glaring at Dean, who had jumped right up with a grin. "If you gave me ten bucks we could have good food." And Sam looked at the ice bucket and raised his eyebrows pointedly.

"Make do," John said shortly. The crate of rejects he'd got from the cannery this month had been mostly beets and beans, but he was getting sick of Sam's bitching.

He felt better outside, in the sun, in crisp air that didn't smell of unwashed socks and beet soup. Once they reached the parking lot, John flipped Dean the keys while he popped the tab on his beer. He leaned against the warm side of the car while Dean got the trunk open and checked quick to make sure that there wasn't anything illegal showing.

“Your mother loved this car,” John said, because he knew Dean did, too. “Made me wash it every Saturday morning. She used to watch, never used to help.” Dean had the toolbox out and open and was staring into it confused, like there was something baffling about the screw drivers and the wire strippers and the wrenches. “There's a pretty good chance we made you right in the backseat at the old Sunset theatre out on highway forty.” He looked just a bit sideways so he could watch Dean blush, because part of the fun of having kids was making them squirm. Talking about sex was at least good for that. “What do you think, bought the car used in seventy-three, how many original parts you figure she's got left?”

“Still be on the road in another twenty, thirty years,” Dean said, loyal to a fault. “Think the battery needs to be disconnected first?”

“I'll laugh my ass off if you electrocute yourself,” John said, and grinned to himself as Dean muttered too low to be worth yelling about and walked around to pop the hood. “Sure have fucked the car up, though. Smashed the front in, what, seven years ago? Gouged the right side down in Virginia, that tunnel, she was a real beater until Bobby got a hold of a couple of doors. Remember Sammy trying so hard to get the paint job just right? And don't get me started on tires and the goddamned exhaust.”

“Don't listen to him, baby,” Dean said, coming back and trailing a hand lovingly over the car top. “What'm I looking for?”

“Check the tail light wire for nicks, anyplace it's cut. Figure that's probably why the dash light fuse keeps blowing, we got a short in the circuit somewhere, and that's the easiest place to check first. Otherwise, you might have to disconnect the headlight switch connector.”

Dean sighed and started shifting all the boxes of crap around to get to the trunk floor.

“I figure Mary wouldn't care how much the Impala was rebuilt, though. Still the same car at heart,” John went on. He had to hold himself back from finishing off his beer because he hadn't even got to the awkward part of the conversation yet. “So, you know it's possible to get whatever you want in this world if the consequences don't bother you too much, and hunters know maybe better than anyone how those kinds of deals go down. Why do you suppose we're not all rich and good-looking and driving hot cars?”

Dean dropped the old grenade crate on a finger and swore. John reached around and smacked Dean above the ear with the back of his hand.

“Because it's wrong,” Dean said, rote.

John mentally apologized, for the thousandth time, to the teachers of every catechism class he'd ever slept through. He'd never realised what a thankless job it was. “Why?”

Because –“ Dean gave John a betrayed look, like it wasn't fair of John to turn work on the car into a lecture. “What you do yourself, you own, you earned it. But if you deal with some evil creature, it's like Uncle Bobby says, there's nothing so expensive as what comes free.” Dean wiped dust and grime off on a rag and frowned. “Color's the wire, anyway?”

“Tail light should be purple,” John said, like he didn't know that Dean was staring right at a purple wire. “Your brother gave me a hell of a lot of money.” John watched Dean freeze, and allowed himself a good swallow of beer. “Figured you'd know about that.”

“He bets on stuff,” Dean said to the wire, face twisting because ratting Sam out was wrong but Dean couldn't say no to John. “I mean, he says his dad asked him to or something. He's a cute kid. He has wiles.” And John had no idea where Dean had picked that turn of phrase up, or the southern way the word stretched long into an insinuation.

“Figured it was more than what you two scam at pool,” John said. That sort of thing he was coming to expect from Sammy. He never did have a good sense of what Sam wanted. It made things hard. Not like with Dean. “I don't pretend to understand your brother. But I trust you to do the right thing. To tell me if something's wrong. Keep Sammy safe.”

“Yes, sir,” Dean said, sounding off-balance and stumbling on this uncertain conversational ground. Good.

“There's always other and better and harder ways to get what you want,” John went on, “if it can be had, and often it can't. I want your mother alive more than anything in the world. But I wouldn't sell my soul to bring her back. I try and do by you and your brother, because she'd want that.” He sighed and finished the beer, tossing the can through the window into the footwell. “What do you want? Who do you want to be?”

“Sir?” Dean said, either like the question was a trap or like Dean thought John'd just out and tell him what he wanted.

“Come on, Dean.” John turned and let his mouth stretch into a thin smile. “Or would you rather be Deanna?”

“Fuck you,” Dean snapped, and then looked utterly appalled, eyes big and round, eyebrows flying up, mouth slack. In the low afternoon light John saw things like they weren't, softer and warmer, and he thought that with longer hair Dean wouldn't make a bad-looking girl. He couldn't see the development that had Sam worried, but Dean wasn't oblivious to the weather like Sam. John would have been shocked if he could've made anything out through Dean's onion-layers of shirts and flannel.

"Two sets and one night on the floor," John said, very quietly so that Dean would know that it was an order, and Dean followed his yes, sir with a shamefaced sorry. Dean hated Sam to witness a punishment, and sleeping on the floor worked real well because it was a humiliation as well as a discomfort. "You need to watch your mouth."

"Yes, sir," Dean said, but the stubborn Winchester chin came up.

"Who do you want to be?" John repeated. "You need to make some decisions and better sooner than later. Because I may not be a good father but I'll do whatever I can to keep you and your brother from falling into temptation." Like your mother did, he didn't say, would never say, but he felt the sorrow of it weighing his words.

"Jesus," Dean said, not learning his lesson at all, and what could John do? Belting had never worked on him any, only made the Marines seem like a better choice than home as soon as he was old enough to join up. "All I want — " voice cracking up and down like a broken thing — "is to be your son."

"You will always be my son," John said, making each word heavy with promise. He slapped the back of Dean's shoulder, just enough to rock him on his feet. "Yeah? We'll get you, you know. Whatever you need."

And then he went around and showed Dean what needed to be done with the purple wire to get the tail lights working. Dean nodded and coughed suspiciously and maybe remembered only half of what John said; but John figured he didn't mind, as long as the important parts stuck.

So they ended up moving to Providence for a bit and then on to a suburb north of Boston, most of a whole year anchored in one place. John didn't even go stir crazy as much as he'd thought he would, because while he was geographically pinned there were changes happening fast. The gynaecologist Sam had found hated John on meeting him, but she'd been sweet to Dean, who wound up with a dance card full of appointments and therapy sessions. John said from the start that he didn't give a damn what Dean decided, he just didn't want an unhappy kid, but it still kind of threw him when the therapist asked if he felt he could accept a transgender child. John had been doing his research and wasn't real surprised, but he wished he'd shaved and worn better clothes and hadn't had a drink before to take the edge off.

"I don't want Dean to ever have to resort to desperate measures," John said, feeling like he was speaking a foreign language. "We're family. I have to help, so Dean won't. . . won't have to make bad decisions."

"Do you think Dean's suicidal?" the doctor asked, and John got that he probably had to, but he saw red and shook his head impatiently.

"There's worse than dead," he snapped, and immediately wished he hadn't. "We're not going to lose anyone else, not in this family, not over something there's medicine for. Dean's my boy," he added, helpless to explain any better. "My son."

Huh, the therapist said, writing up a letter on letterhead paper, and sent them over to an endocrinologist because apparently Dean was in sound mind and body and able to start taking testosterone shots. John was freaked the hell out by the fact that this new woman doctor could just out and say things like your son's clitoris. He'd almost rather have dealt with a clear-cut case of demonic possession, and by the look on Dean's face the feeling was mutual. Except that thinking of demons made John think about deals, and about the hard road Dean was going down, and John told himself to suck it up.

"Don't tell Sammy," Dean said, and John had to ask just what Dean wanted kept secret. Dean shrugged and said all of it.

"Not real sure that's gonna work, bud," John said. He didn't expect Dean to overnight develop five o'clock shadow, but he had pamphlets. He knew changes were coming, and he knew Sam would have done his own research.

"I don't want him to think I'm a," and Dean swallowed the last word but John was pretty sure he'd heard freak.

John laughed; he couldn't help it. "He worships the ground you walk on, kiddo. You're his big damn hero. You just wait and see."

Dean looked at him like he was nuts, but a few months later, when Dean's voice was changing, there was Sammy trying to lower his voice, too. Dean started growing; Sam started sleeping with a ruler next to the bed, putting his back to the doorframe every morning to see if he'd stretched in his sleep. Without even changing the training schedule much Dean put on hard muscle, and poor babyfat (and short) Sam couldn't keep up, even though John told him to just stick to beating his own benchmarks. Sam smelled like Dean's aftershave, talked like Dean — the only thing he didn't do was cut his hair, lord only knew why.

What changed the most, with strange implacable slowness, was how Dean started protecting Sam like a parent and talking to John like they were both adults. Of course, John'd had to leave the kids alone a lot while Dean was working things out, there'd been no helping that seeing as how John just didn't know how to live a straight life anymore. Watching Dean with Sam, John hoped that his kids were destined to be better than their old man. John figured Dean was at an age: Dean was a few days older than seventeen when they had to do a runner from Boston, same as John'd been when he joined up. Old enough to be a man, take on a man's responsibilities.

And God only knew, John was desperate to get the noose of responsibility off his own neck considering he'd just got Bill Harvelle killed. John was bleeding out inside, seeing Harvelle's wife and baby girl every time he closed his eyes. He cut off the wary ties he had with other hunters, either picking a fight or just simply leaving them be, figuring he about as good as had the mark of Cain on his forehead, and he started tracking the things that you had to be right-off-your-rockers crazy to hunt.

Taking Dean with him on regular hunts didn't bother John any, and Sam was good with a gun: he never thought twice once he'd made up his mind to shoot. But John preferred to be alone, and with the creatures he was finding. . . well, he didn't want his kids anywhere near that kind of evil. John lost another year and a bit of his life to demons and shapeshifters, bloodthirsty gods and black magic, and nothing remained but a few slippery entrails of memory scrabbled onto journal pages. He came back to himself standing alone in a basement in Galesburg, Illinois, with a dead monster, breathing hard, tasting abattoir and rot in his mouth, and not sure why he was still alive. He had a hard knot of sorrow wedged high in his chest from all that he'd lost, and he couldn't even remember what it felt like before all of this started.

He made it outside the condemned house where the creature had made its nest, walked down the road to his car with his legs shaking, stripped down to his underwear and left his bloody clothes lying in the roadside weeds, and called Dean to say he'd be another week on the job. Dean was pissed at being left behind to babysit Sammy and worried about John without anyone to watch his back. He had girl trouble, John could tell, even though Dean talked in circles about this girl and that girl and how in small towns it was hard to get past second base. John smiled for the first time in ages, listening to Dean forcing the conversation, trying to keep John on the line. He asked about Sam, and Dean laughed and said joking, Sam'd got himself a boyfriend, they were adorable together, looking at puppies in the mall and listening to Christian pop music and baking pie. Aw, John said, face hurting from pleasure, don't that sound sweet, and Dean made a gagging noise.

"It's all I want for my kids," John said, and noticed that the basement bandersnatch had taken a large bloody bite out of his shoulder. He bent to grab his shirt to stop the blood and went practically blind with headrush. "Girlfriends, boyfriends, happiness. Pie," he added through grit teeth.

Dean's reply came back a second late and sounding off-balance. "You drunk, Dad?" Dean asked, and John hoped that he didn't hear disappointment.

"Watch out for your brother," John said, and hung up on Dean's automatic yes, sir.

He celebrated Dean's birthday that year sitting with Sam in a hospital waiting room in Loiusville, waiting for Dean to be patched up. Sam's birthday they all forgot about, on the trail of a demon that slid a trail of possession and murder through the Bible belt. They had a steak dinner at one of those Japanese places, though, when Dean's Certificate of General Educational Development was forwarded on. John bought himself a truck from Bobby Singer and sent Dean to pick it up and drive down to Florida for a real family Christmas in a rental cabin on a white-sand beach. Dean showed up with two big-haired bartenders from Atlanta. The girls got everyone (even Sam) smashed on pumpkin pie cocktails and handed out little homemade Christmas stockings (John got a pack of Marlboros and a crocheted cell phone cover in his) and had loud, athletic sex that left Dean mellow and goofy (and there was one morning when Sam had looked rather cross-eyed goofy himself, but John did not want to know).

With Dean out of school, John trained the kids hard like they were going to the front line of a war. He figured they were. He was hard put to keep his temper around Sam, who'd grown about a foot and a half all at once and who stumbled and fell and couldn't manage his new height at all. Sam's last year of school he took it into his head to go to college, and everything went to a new level of conflict and violence. John wasn't aching to set Sam free, not when he knew some of what was wrong with the boy, but Sam thought he could keep his head down and go unnoticed. No amount of yelling or punishment made him see reason. Dean refused to get involved, saying it was a lose/lose situation, and John could tell that Dean didn't agree with him. It hurt that Dean was judging him without knowing all the facts, and it hurt that he couldn't tell Dean everything. That would be as good as ordering him to put a bullet in Sam's head someday.

Dean stopped taking testosterone sometime that winter, and John didn't even notice until he found some feminine hygiene crap hidden in the trunk of the Impala when he was looking for a whetstone. Why would you do this? he asked, angry that he was failing both his kids, disappointed, hurt that neither of them trusted him.

"It's not about you," Dean said. "It's not going to affect the job, all right?"

John said, no, it wasn't all right, because he didn't know what the hell Dean was thinking.

"I'm thinking you know who you are, and Sam knows who he is, and me, I don't. I don't know."

That just made John want to shoot someone.

"If it's what you really want," John rasped out, as dark bitter angry as he could, throat raw like he'd been arguing for hours. "If it's easier for you."

Dean shrugged, looking sick, and Sam jumped into the conversation, hijacking it to be all about why couldn't he get what he wanted.

John yelled so loud the people in the next-door unit had banged on the wall. He hadn't raised his kids to run away and hide from the evil sons of bitches who preyed on people, who'd brought destruction down on their family. All wilful ignorance is going to get you is death, pain, and destruction, he'd shouted, and somehow he'd got his fists knotted in Sam's shirt, hauling the boy up and shoving him around so his back was against the wall, shaking him so his head bounced off the ugly wallpaper. Dean just wants to be Dean, he remembered saying, his face so close to Sam's the words should have stuck indelible to Sam's skin, you don't want to be part of this family.

"Damn straight," Sam bit out, his face blood-dark because he was having trouble breathing, and John's tunnel vision suddenly widened to see Dean shoving between them, trying to get John to step back, trying to get John's hands off Sam's throat.

"What the hell's wrong with you?" Dean said, yanking Sam to one side and twisting to shove John's arms the other way with a shoulder. Sam shoved Dean, hard, and tried to get to John. Dean slapped him and said for someone smart enough for college Sam sure was one stupid fucking cunt.

Sam laughed, a short ugly sound that crawled dry from his bruised throat, and walked right around Dean, snagged his schoolbag and was out the door without bothering to shut it behind him.

Dean turned to look right at John, not saying what the fuck was that, but it was there in the white-eyed incredulity. "Stupid must be genetic, which means I'm screwed, don't it."

Nothing got better, it just festered until Sam said he was going and John said stay gone. After that there was an emptiness that made every conversation feel off balance. John couldn't even think, well, I still have Dean because he wasn't sure of that. He could tell Dean had lost weight but Dean kept up with training, and it wasn't like Dean's face or voice changed, or Dean experimented with long hair and lipstick. John doubted that day would ever come. Dean hooked up with girls about the same as always, but it was like watching a stranger trying to figure out a new culture and doing badly.

John met one of Dean's dates accidentally, when she'd come by to loan Dean some book. John'd thought Dean just didn't want her seeing the apartment they were renting, which had been a horror show, true, crawling with roaches and smelling of black mould. John tried to invite her in, but she shifted from foot to foot in the doorway. Dean shouted apologies from the shower, which was right under the roof so that you couldn't stand up straight in the tub. Dean just about earned a concussion, hurrying.

"Look, just tell her to pick me up at seven, okay?" the girl said, taking a step backwards. "And bring a salad." She kept one eye on John as she retreated, like she was afraid he was going to turn axe murderer on her. He got that a lot since he grew the beard.

He delivered the message verbatim when Dean stumbled out of the bathroom barefoot, despite the nasty carpeting. Dean poured a cup of coffee and nursed it while shooting suspicious looks at John.

"Oh, and she thinks you're a girl," John added. "Why the hell did she pierce her eyebrow?"

"Not the only thing she's got pierced," Dean said automatically, and then shoved both hands into jeans pockets, elbows wide, hips against the counter and head down.

"You gotta help me understand here, Dean, because I'm just not a mind reader." John took a breath, sighed it out.

"Nothing to understand," Dean said, adding a sir like he'd been dismissed, and went to get the duffel of guns to be cleaned. But Dean was sloppy drunk on cheap tequila by seven o'clock and paid no attention to the ringing of the phone.

"Since you were born," John said, turning down the volume on the television porn Dean was watching, "you hated vegetables. I don't think I've seen you make a salad in my life."

"Broccoli," Dean said, and nodded, and kept nodding. "Evil stuff."

"Pastor Jim's in the middle of a cemetery relocation. I said we'd help when we finished up here. But you could go on ahead. I'll follow out in a few days."

Dean yawned wide and mumbled something affirmative, getting up from the chair with an elaborate stretch and cracking of shoulders and neck. "I'm'a bed," Dean said, with a flap of one arm like maybe John forgot where Dean's room was. Dean turned, took a few steps, and then stopped by his doorway. "Said I was pretty," and John was confused for a minute, thinking who said what to who? "Never been pretty. Didn't sit well, still don't, what can I do, 'nother place I don't belong." Dean shrugged, and banged the bedroom door hard enough to rattle the windows.

John shut his eyes and thought, lord, lord, lord, I need Mary back here, I need help, our baby's hurting and there's nothing I can do. But he'd long given up on expecting good things to come from answered prayers, so he was glad enough not to get word back from god.

Dean woke John the next morning by throwing up and making sounds of pure misery in the bathroom. The Winchester stomach was cruel that way.

"There's coffee if you're still alive," John said, knocking. The toilet flushed, again, and after a minute Dean cracked the door. "Morning."

"Coffee," Dean croaked. John'd seen healthier undead walking around. At least being hungover cured Dean of being pretty. Course, now Dean looked. . . .

Well. Under the puffiness and stubble and shadowed eyes and general misery, John saw himself, instant replay in slow motion, second verse same as the first. Like an optical illusion, once he saw it he couldn't unsee it. He just kept staring, it was so perfectly weird, like looking back in time.

He wasn't stupid enough to think that Dean didn't see the resemblance, too. He wondered if Dean looked at him and saw the future. Greying hair, scars, family falling apart; likely to be dead in a few years; likely not to leave behind anyone who cared enough to bury him.

Dean took off that afternoon, and John was glad for not having the feeling that his own eyes were following him around the room. He took extra time to retrace the Leatherman's circuit and make sure that all the hexes and protections that had been laid were still working: the man might have had a few screws loose, but he'd had the soul of a hunter. John learned a hell of a lot about old magic, even though his teacher was long dead.

When he finally made it to Blue Earth he found out that Dean had passed through Boston on the way and was back to taking shots. Dean seemed to have bounced back, having loud irreverent conversations with Jim that somehow ended up with the both of them on the sofa, watching genned out videotapes of crappy old horror films — Race with the Devil, La Noche de las Gaviotas, Werewolves on Wheels — and surrounded by a sea of peanut shells. John asked Jim if he'd talked with Dean, and Jim said what did John think he was doing? Must be some special kind of counselling they teach these days in priest school, John said, and Jim asked him when he was going to reconcile with Sam.

Sneaky bastard.

John was still helping out around the church when he got the call from Kate (Kate who?) telling him he had a son. He dropped everything, left Dean arms thrown up in exasperation and Jim on the verge of taking someone's name in vain, and drove through the night to get to Windom. Where he had a boy who reminded him so much of Sammy at that age that sometimes John found himself nearly using the wrong name.

He had to be careful: he didn't want Kate and Adam to know about his other family. People he knew with grandkids said they were so much easier than kids. Parents raised kids up and worried and fought; grandparents got to spoil kids rotten. John felt that way about Adam. He wasn't ever going to be a real father, not someone Adam could learn how to be a man from, but they could do good things together, the sort of things he wished he'd done for Sam and Dean, and he didn't have to teach Adam how to survive in a world of monsters and evil.

Adam had such potential. John wanted a do-over for most of his life, he wanted an end to the hunting and the fear, he wanted all his children to be happy. Loved. Safe.

That fall, signs of the demon that killed Mary started appearing, like a series of switches being hit one after another. It was moving west, so he found a case in New Orleans and gave it to Dean as a distraction while he began the hunt he'd been waiting decades for. The demon covered its tracks carefully, and John lost its trail more often than he found it. He had made his way to California when he found himself just spinning his wheels, and took on a local sighting of La Llorona because that was what he did: he was a hunter, he hunted, he didn't ever stop.

The Woman in White, though, came to him before he could get to her grave, catching him at her old house, so that he had to take refuge in a ring of salt in the yard and wait for dawn while she circled him in malevolence. I can never go home, she said, and he looked at her sidelong. Her hair was a tangle and her dress was dirty and worn, and her eyes were hard and sad and not a little crazy.

"But you want to," he said, just to have something to say. "I guess there's something keeping you outside."

"Never," she said, flickering like a flame in the wind. "Never. I can never go home. You can never go home."

"Not news to me," he said. She screamed the words at him again like a mantra, tearing at her hair and moving around him in restless circles. "You killed your children, didn't you."

She appeared right in front of his face, as close as she could come to the salt line. John checked it every half an hour or so to make sure it was unbroken; he knew he was safe; he still nearly took a step back from her rage.

He was unfaithful, she shouted. He had betrayed his wife and children. He could never face them again, he could never go home.

Nothing ever came of talking to spirits: they were too wrapped up in their own overwhelming wants to care for anyone else. La Llorona wanted her home back, her family back, she wanted revenge and she wanted absolution. He hated to break it to her, but the best she could hope for was that some merciful soul would grant her oblivion. John shook his head and checked his cell phone for any messages indicating that the demon was on the move.

It was, moving fast and all the signs pointed to something huge building up, like a blister of evil about to burst. He talked to his people, those he could trust. Everyone was worried. He needed to go.

"I'd kill you myself," John said, as dawn broke and the Woman in White began burning off like the dew, "but I've got to take care of my family. Maybe you understand." He made a quick call to Dean, warning him, and debated calling Sammy but decided that it would be useless.

"I'm so cold, so cold," the Woman in White said, wrapping arms around her fading body. "I want to go home."

"Talk to my boy Dean about it," John said. "I've got to go and protect my children. You know how that is, keeping your children safe."

She said something angry, but the words were faint and garbled. John stepped over the salt line, got into his truck, and left everything in Jericho behind. The Woman in White, his research, his journal, the name on his fake ID. He had a plan for going on the run, and he was certain that not even Dean — not even Sammy — could follow him to the places he was heading for now.

He was mostly right about that. His kids were good hunters when they teamed up, and even with the barest scraps of information they managed to cross his path too often for comfort. He wanted to be with them. He wanted to say he was proud of them and he was sorry. He wanted to kill the demon and retire, go back to working on cars, maybe get all three of his boys together someday.

When the demon was in him, possessing him, it loved turning over his heart's desires and studying them even as it laughed at him for being weak, for daring to hope. The demon was so happy to make John's mouth say terrible things. It tore Dean up something terrible, made Dean beg for John to stop, and John's rage was only enough to force the demon down for a short while, and then it was gone. He wished Sam had had the courage to end the demon — he should have explained to Sam that some things are more important than survival. He probably should have told Sam a lot of things, over the years, and now there was no time.

Funny thing, he thought, you see your kid choking up blood or limp in a hospital bed and breathing on a machine, and any second chance will do. No shades of grey, no doubts, no regrets. Dean was John's daddy's girl, his good son, the closest he had to a best friend, the inheritor of John's secrets. It was too much of a weight to put on a kid, and John was sorry about that, at the end. Dean had tried to protect Sam's innocence; John had protected Dean by stripping innocence away, from the second he told Dean to take the baby and run.

In the end, all John wanted to know was that Dean was alive and kicking ass. In the end, that was even more important than revenge.

R. I. P.



sam

S A M

i will forgive your wrongs
i am abel
an for my own i feel great shame
i will offer up a brick to the back of your head boy
if I was cain

every man is evil yes an every man's a liar
an unashamed with the wicked tongues sing
in the black soul choir

(Black Soul Choir – 16 Horsepower)

Until he was about four, Sam thought he was Dean: some kind of detached extension, yeah, but not independent. He copied everything Dean did, which drove Dean nuts. But even though Sam had factual memories of Dean aggravated into spluttering rage by his baby brother, face twisted in the temper-tantrum overload, Sam remembered mostly how he felt when he was Dean: safe and strong and loved, invulnerable, a hero. In his teens he discovered how good it was to piss Dean off on purpose, and most especially to flaunt how very much not-Dean he was, which had the benefit of rubbing Dad wrong as well. That was the winning track, and he kept it up — well. For the rest of his life. But he never reached a point where he didn't define himself in relation to Dean.

Truth was, he didn't even want to stop doing that. He thirsted to be out from under Dad's thumb, free and clear, but he thought he probably could have grown old with Dean and still been close after thirty or forty or fifty years.

Dean, though. Dean slid easily and unconsciously into a job or a community or even a family whenever they stayed anywhere for more than a few days. Sam thought Dean knew, deep down, that he didn't need Sam or Dad to be his anchors: he'd learned how to define himself on his own just fine. Not that he'd ever admit it: maybe he didn't even see it. Dad had fucked with his head pretty bad.

Still, Sam hadn't been back on the road with Dean for more than a couple weeks before he started to itch as his body rediscovered the invisible tether of memory and blood that made him Dean's B-side.

"You taught me to read in the back seat," he told Dean, slouching forward around the warmth of Dean's Styrofoam coffee cup. "You remember that?"

Dean snorted and then looked sideways, eyebrows rounding like he hoped Sam was about to embarrass himself. "Beaver Hunt?"

"Like Dad would've let you own a copy of Hustler, much less use it as Dick and Jane." Dean repeated that last bit in a grin, and Sam knew him well enough to hear the mental narrative of See Dick. See Dick Fuck Jane. Come, Jane, Come. "Mind, gutter, out," Sam added, as prissily as he could so that Dean would know he was thinking the same thing. While Dean was laughing (loud and gleeful, because Dean thought anything to do with sex was more fun than a barrel full of monkeys) Sam tested the coffee to see if it was still scalding. It was. "No, man, you showed me how to read from your comics. B – A – M, that spells bam. P – O – W."

"B – I – T – C – H," Dean said, still grinning. "I need m' coffee now."

"It's still nuclear, jerkface," Sam said, shoving the cup into Dean's greedy hand anyway. He grabbed a handful of cheap paper napkins from the bag under the seat just in time for Dean to choke and swear and spit. Sam clapped the napkins over Dean's mouth like a gag and took the coffee cup back.

"Ma ha fa ha," Dean said, yanking the paper away and sticking his tongue out to try and see how badly it was burned in the rearview mirror. The car shimmied in and out of lane, and Sam hoped they weren't about to run into the only cop car that hadn't made quota yet.

"Dad would so make you do a mile for that," Sam said. Dean gave him the finger. "You don't remember the comic books?" He'd liked to stretch out along the floor, knees up over the middle divider and his head pillowed on his backpack. Dad had had a rule about bags (Dad had had rules about everything): one kid, one bag, no exceptions. All Sam's possessions, shirts pants toothbrush socks comb papers pictures Matchbox cars baseball cards, had to fit in his zipped backpack, and Dad tossed anything left over.

Dean somehow managed to own a pretty decent collection of comics, at least until he tried something dumb like leaving a pair of jeans behind to make more room. Dean's favourite comics had superheroes in tight costumes that showed off body-builder muscles and supergirls with super tits that Dean liked to trace while Sam struggled with stilted action dialogue (You'll. . . pay. . . for. . . this Sam monotoned, eyes glued to the page. Take. . . that. . . and. . . that. Dean flipped the page over lazily to a sea of kersmashing fists and maniacal laughter, while in the front seat Dad turned the radio up and hummed along).

"You were such a little pervert," Sam said. "And now you're a big pervert. There should be a twelve-step programme for people like you."

"There should be a programme so people could be as awesome as me," Dean corrected. "I'd give you the family discount, but I got to tell you, you're pretty hopeless."

"I remember there was this one time when you made me call you SuperDean. For, like, weeks."

"You are making shit up."

"SuperDean."

"I hate you so much," Dean muttered, turning the stereo up and snatching his coffee away. Sam grinned wide, thinking I win, and closed his eyes.

He woke up to find his brother reaching over to carefully balance sporks on his face. Dean had got up to nine, and they showered down as Sam bolted upright, swearing. Life with Dean sucked.

Course, he'd been nursed on revenge. Nothing Sam wanted more these days. Funny that Dean forgot that.

Sam made it his job to dredge up as many embarrassing childhood stories as he could, preferably while in the company of sex-positive women in bars, although it was also an entertaining game to play with Bobby Singer, who had a few gems of his own. Bobby had known Dean for the brief period when Dean had, apparently, owned an apple green Datsun, a fact which made Sam so happy he grinned nonstop for three days.

No amount of Dean protesting that he'd won it over cards made up for the joy of knowing that he'd actually driven it until Dad had accidentally managed to pretzel the rear axle.

"It was a mercy killing," Bobby said, slow matter-of-fact tone belied by the sharp humour in his eyes. He never minded them resting up at his place, but they were family enough that he laughed at them as required — or yelled, if needed.

"Not like Sam's ever even owned a car," Dean said, glaring narrow-eyed and pointing the bottom of his beer bottle at Sam like a challenge. "You had a freaking bicycle at school."

"Like I could've afforded a car," Sam said, shaking his head. Dean looked hurt, and Sam thought that he'd drunk too much, else he'd never have said that. "Plus I was trying to atone for your gas-guzzling sins. What's the car make again, eight miles per gallon on the highways?"

"Baby wants gas, baby gets gas, and you can shut your yap about it." Dean stretched out one leg from where he'd melted into Bobby's wing chair and kicked Sam in the ankle. Not real hard, but Sam figured Dean had to put up a token fight for the Impala's honour.

"Ow." Sam shifted away, which hurt more because he was pretty beat up still. "Baby know about the Datsun?" He couldn't even say that without his mouth stretching into a wide smile.

"Enough with the goddamned baby talk," Bobby said. "Get you boys talking and I can hear you regressing to five years old. And you," he said to Dean, who flicked his eyebrows up in a customer-service-helpful expression, "shouldn't be mixing alcohol with painkillers." Dean looked offended. Sam was fairly sure he was feeling no pain at all. "Idiots," Bobby concluded, shaking his head.

Dean raised his beer in a toast. "Idiots."

Sam had to haul him up from the chair when he fell asleep, suddenly, right in the middle of mangling together two different World Series anecdotes. He got Dean settled down on the couch, mindful of the bruised ribs and the stitches he'd put in Dean's side, and threw an army surplus blanket over him.

"I ever say thank you?" Dean mumbled, trying to catch at Sam's arm and failing.

"You are so stoned," Sam said, shaking his head as he turned out the light and settled down on his own bedroll, where the coffee table usually was. "Hey. Nothing says thank you like giving your brother his own set of car keys." Bobby had taught them Intro to Auto Theft 101 years ago, but Sam was family. Didn't seem polite to make family have to hotwire the car.

The only answer he got was deep, heavy breathing, but it lulled him to sleep, just like the old days.

Sam'd grown up knowing that there was something different about Dean, but his whole life had been a puzzle box. Dad took off for days, leaving Dean in charge, and Sam knew Dean was scared pretty much all the time, despite Dean acting like it was cool that he got left with a shotgun and orders to shoot first. Sometimes Dad came back from quote-unquote sales meetings beaten up and bloodied, and Dean was the one who had to get the first aid kit and the bandages and patch him up. The only home Sam knew had four wheels. He remembered clearly being laughed at in elementary school for not knowing that other people had rooms of their own full of their own stuff — hell, he'd been unclear on the concept of what all the rooms in a house were for. Dad had eight million superstitions that he never explained but which had to be accommodated, salting the windows and putting up charms, and at least as many arbitrary rules, governing everything down to where Sam placed his toothbrush (rinsed, on the counter, to the left of Dean's). Dean said Dad was like Mr Miyagi, teaching them skills that would save their lives someday. Sam said that was dumb.

Sam had to sleep in the same bed as Dean as a kid, and there was even less privacy when Dad took them on campouts. He didn't remember when he noticed that Dean didn't have a dick; it was more important to him that Dean was a dick, taking every opportunity he could find to pull pranks on Sam or pull rank on him, prove that Sam wasn't any part of him at all. Sam remembered being so frustrated he cried himself to sleep, wondering why Dean didn't love him the way Dean loved Dad. He thought it was Dad's fault. Dad would always be Dean's hero, and Sam was just his pain-in-the-ass little brother, no matter how much Sam wanted it otherwise.

The love thing made Sam feel aching and sad and empty for pretty much all of his single-digit years, up until he learned that monsters were real and that he didn't have to do what Dad said because Dad lied. That grew Sam up pretty fast. Around that time, with Dad gone for longer and longer, Sam finally put two and two together about Dean.

"You're a girl, aren't you," Sam said one morning, still curled up in bed and watching Dean creepshow the newspaper to read the baseball statistics.

"No," Dean said, and gave Sam the cold-eyed glare that he'd taught himself off some guy on TV.

"Girls don't have dicks," Sam insisted. "Girls have sex and a guy puts it in them and they scream and have babies." He'd had sex ed in three different schools, but he mostly understood sex in terms of the people who rented the rooms around them by the hour, and whose fights in the middle of the night always expanded his vocabulary.

"Shut the fuck up," Dean snarled, and the newspaper slapped down on the table, pages getting all messed up.

Sam hadn't realised that this was a button he could push with Dean. That meant it was true. He always got yelled at for trying to learn the truth.

He felt his eyes go wide. "Is it like a curse or a spell like a witch, is Dad — can Dad fix you?" Sam blurted out all in one breath, sitting bolt upright and blinking fast. "Was it the thing that got mom?" A monster that killed mothers and stole dicks — that was pretty damn scary. No wonder Dad kept them on the run.

The good thing about Dean hauling Sam off the bed and waling on him was that it cleared Sam's head of bad thoughts pretty damn fast. Dean was bigger and stronger and his punches fucking hurt. In all the years Sam'd been practicing fighting with Dean, Dean hardly ever even left bruises, which might have been fear of Dad's anger, but it had felt like affection.

Dean was so angry he didn't pull his punches, and that made Sam feel like a stranger. He tried to curl in on himself and wound up getting Dean's knee hard in his face. His nose made a noise (and noses weren't supposed to make noise, like not ever) and his face was suddenly wet.

"Ohfuck," Dean said, scrabbling backwards on his ass, his eyes showing white all around, like a cartoon character. It would have been funny if Sam's whole face hadn't hurt. "Okay, Sammy," and Dean had a handful of tissues from the bedside box and was trying to wipe up the blood.

Sam was full of all kinds of thoughts all at once, but topmost was that Dad would be back from the coffee shop in another ten minutes. "Get up," Sam said, pushing to his feet and feeling dizzy. "We've got to go." Dean still looked shocked. Sam grabbed up Dean's backpack and lobbed it at him, hard, and then made his bed as fast as he possibly could without dripping blood all over it. "Dad," he said, and that snapped Dean back into action, finding their shoes and cleaning the table and strapping the knife he slept with to his calf, under his baggy jeans. "Come on, come on," Sam said, bouncing from one foot to the other as Dean left a note, and then they were out. Dean locked the door while Sam cut around the back of the motel, vaulting over the chain-link fence by the dumpsters to the trail that led through the woods and down to the crick and then on up to the K-Mart and the bus stop.

When they got to the clearing where people tossed their old washing machines to die, Dean made Sam hop up on one so he could have a look at his face. He touched all over, probably trying to be gentle. It still hurt, and Sam still complained.

"I don't think your nose is broken, but I sure fucked you up," Dean said, with a short horrified laugh. "Dad — "

"Isn't going to find out," Sam promised. He looked at Dean hard with the eye that wasn't swelling shut. "You don't look like you were fighting."

"Yeah well, you suck," Dean said, taking his first aid kit out of his bag. "You fight like a — " Dean stopped. Sam had never seen his brother look so red. He wanted to laugh. "I'll teach you," Dean said, words spilling out as he peeled the backings off a band-aid and pressed it down over Sam's eyebrow. "Everything I know, because I'd be a total loser having such a lameass for a little brother."

"Bite me," Sam said, wincing as Dean stuck rolls of gauze up his nose and scrubbed at the blood on his face. He zipped his coat up high to cover the splatter on his shirt, and let Dean give him a hand down. Dean slapped him hard on the shoulder in apology, and they went to school, a bit more tired than usual for missing their morning coffee.

He got sent to the nurse's office first and the vice-principal's second. He faked a confession, saying that he'd been jumped by girls, maybe ten of them, at least five. Maybe one, okay, but she'd been big and mean and his Dad had warned him never to hit girls, and he'd rather die than have his Dad and his brother know a girl had handed his ass to him.

The vice-principal hadn't been very sympathetic, but since no girl had come to school looking like the other half of a fight, Sam got away with a week of washing down the tables in the cafeteria after school. Dad knew he'd been fighting as soon as he saw Sam's face, but Sam just shut up and hunkered down, breathing shallow and hoping that this wouldn't be the time that Dad's control cracked. He could take being hit by Dean, but Dad would murder him. He could taste the anger in the air, and it made his mouth so dry it was hard to apologise. Dad finally threw up his hands and gave Sam extra miles to run mornings, to burn off his excess energy.

Sam figured he was owed something, so he forced Dean to keep his promise about teaching him to fight. Dean felt guilty enough that he even showed Sam all the ninja tricks Uncle Bobby had taught him, learned in Japan from — Dean said — actual ninjas. It was weird, Dean being so nice, but Sam liked it so much that he didn't tease about the girl thing, not once.

After a while, it didn't even feel weird at all. His father hunted monsters. His brother was a boy who looked like a girl inside his underwear. Sometimes Sam wished he was special, too, but mostly he just wanted to get the hell out and be normal. He was smart enough to see that special mostly sucked big time.

Dean got his first period when it was just the two of them stuck in a rental condo in Morehead City, so instead of sneaking off to the beach Sam ended up sneaking out to a 24-hour mart to spend his football money on Midol and tampons. Dean'd been so angry that he took a baseball bat to every mirror in the place. Sam still thought that Dean was under a curse, and he couldn't believe that Dad hadn't managed to break it when he'd had years. Dean nearly got caught shoplifting a sports bra from a mall in Gary and missed enough school here and there that he had to repeat eighth grade. Sam finally had to kick Dad's ass hard to get it in gear, but he was gratified that Dad for once took him seriously, took Dean seriously.

Neither Dean nor Dad talked to Sam much their year in Boston, which Sam thought was unfair, seeing as how he'd gutted his escape fund to get them there. He had to corner Dad again to force him to tell Sam what was going on. Dad said Dean just needed to get his hormones balanced and he'd be fine, which Sam thought was a relief and also pretty dumb, because hormones were little things and he didn't think they could make Dean's boobs go away or make his dick magically appear. Also — and this was a kicker — Dean wouldn't be allowed to join the Marines or play pro ball, no matter how good his fastball was (and it was good enough that Dean struck Sam out every time).

Dad had given Sam a lopsided smile and put a hand on Sam's head, probably meaning to be fatherly though it felt patronizing and reminded Sam that he was going to be short forever. Don't worry — you boys are going into the family business, there's always going to be work for you to do.

Dean got a lot better, even though he had to give himself shots and started spending more time with girls than with Sam; but Sam started having nightmares.

Sam was halfway through high school when he discovered the law in the broader sense than something to run from, and he fell in love with the idea. Law made sense, constructed on a foundation of clearly-explained reasons instead of arbitrary because-I-told-yous or mystical writings and teachings that were grudgingly half-explained by their keepers. The chasm between Sam and Dad widened every time Sam asked why and was told to just follow orders. Dean was hellbent on being the man Dad wanted him to be, so he didn't even try to understand where Sam was coming from. Sam wanted the world to make sense, he wanted control and power over his own life, and he wanted what he saw on TV, the pretty house and the good job and a family of his own.

It became his obsession. He set his jaw and racked up AP credits and took standardised tests, sent the results off to fifteen different colleges, and waited to hear from financial aid. Stanford was willing to pay his way as soon as he got his certificate. He hadn't counted on how much it hurt to leave Dad and Dean, but he was so relieved not to be hunting. To be normal, to be safe.

Dean called once Sam's first term, asking outright if Sam was embarrassed by his family now. Sam said, What do you mean, now? Dean laughed like it wasn't really funny, and Sam gave him his post box number to use for anything except mail fraud. He started getting dirty magazines and things from mail-order sex shops, and always made sure the magazines were creased and stained on the kinkiest pages before he forwarded them to wherever Dean came to light. They hardly ever talked, Sam guessed because Dad was always around, but when Dad took Dean out drinking on his twenty-fourth birthday, Dean called Sam after, apologising for the time (though it wasn't late yet in California). He never could remember about time zones.

"I can't take another fucking year of this," Dean had said suddenly, while Sam was trying to make sure that Dean wasn't drunk driving or in some dark alley or — God forbid — in the same room as Dad. "Tell the truth, the goddamned baby factory makes me feel fucking possessed, like every time I take a shower I don't know who I am."

"You taking T again?" Sam asked, knowing it was stupid, because any question that remotely suggested Dean was hormonal was a really bad idea.

"Fuck you," Dean said. Sam heard a noise like a trashcan being kicked over. "It gets my head straight, it does, but — "

"There's doctors here," Sam said. He didn't know for sure that there were, but it was California. Why wouldn't there be? "I got the summer off."

Dean gave an ugly laugh, and whatever he was abusing sounded like it was denting bad. "Yeah, like my insurance would cover that." Which meant he didn't want to tell Dad. Sam understood that. "I'm flat-ass broke, Sam, like fucking always."

Sam had a pretty good idea of where all Dean's money went, straight into munitions. "I'll sell my virginity over the internet a few more times. It's a hobby that pays well. Think Dad'll let you come?"

"I sure raised you wrong," Dean said, and hung up.

Sam went to bed early, calculating that Dean would call back when he'd slept off the drink but forget the time zone thing again. Sure enough, his cell vibrated him awake at three, when Dean didn't even say hello, just swore that if Sam ever whored himself out for money Dean'd have to beat good sense into him. Good morning, Mary Sunshine, Sam said, slipping out of the dorm room so as not to wake his roommate. The bathroom echoed, but it was private.

He told Dean what he'd found out on the internet about doctors and chest surgery and what Dean'd have to do, and Dean pretended he didn't even remember talking about his feelings. Sam told Dean that was what he got for drunk-dialling, even though he thought Dean was just playing him because he was too proud to own asking for help. Sam understood that, too.

Sam was sure he didn't even know half the battles Dean'd fought: Dean'd been fighting Sam's whole life, so long that it was easy to get fooled into thinking that something that looked easy was easy. Like Dean making his body pass inspection as male. Dad probably didn't even notice or care, but Sam had been there when Dean learned to make his chest as flat as possible, trial and error and frustration. Sam had been too little to know when Dean had started cutting his hair short or peeing standing up, he just always had. And Sam knew about the other things — things people said and fights Dean got into and all the pretty girls in school who'd thought Dean was old-fashioned and safe because he didn't pressure them for sex — the way the Titanic knew about icebergs, far too little. Sam's preteen flirtation with magic had nothing on Dean, who made an art of being seen by the world exactly as he wanted to be seen, and hiding everything else.

Dean didn't need Sam's help. Sam got that. Didn't stop him from wanting Dean to be happy, though.

Sam spent spring break in Vegas, camouflaged by a group of his Stanford friends who played the slot machines and small-stakes games and lost more than they won, like people were supposed to. Sam went back to school with nearly three thousand dollars, which with the money he'd been saving for a car and what he would earn for his summer internship (low-paid as fuck, but he'd been recommended by his advisor, and it would look good on his resume) meant that he was filthy rich. As long as he stayed on the ramen diet.

Dean and the doctor were of a mind that all Dean needed was chest surgery, him being young and not having any sexual hang-ups to speak of. So all Sam had to help with were the psychologist's appointments to get Dean a recommendation letter (he sent Dean scripts to memorise, because he was afraid if Dean were honest he'd be locked away) and the surgery. The first thing Dean said to him when he showed up was man, you turned into a freaking beanpole. The last thing Dean said, the day before Sam's roommate came back, was think Dad'll go ballistic? Sam thought Dad would, because Dean'd put himself out of commission until he was healed up (and holy fuck but Dean was the meanest patient in maybe forever, enough that maybe Sam even felt a little sorry for Dad). But he said nah and handed Dean a bag of McDonald's hamburgers through the window. Dean waved, kind of, still what he said was stiff and Sam figured meant in pain, and honked once as he drove off.

Which was the last time Dean spoke to Sam for the next two years. Sam still didn't really get why. He only had a few pieces — Dean's near-misses with true love and true lust, Dad being a crazy-assed obsessive grudge-carrying bastard — and didn't really need to turn that rock over, anyway. Not when he had Dean back.

Sam did think it was kind of nice being thanked, but he hoped Dean wouldn't remember in the morning. Dean could be vicious when he had embarrassed himself, especially if he was hungover. Dean's chest looked good, from what Sam had seen even though Dean still covered up in an insane number of layers, and that was what mattered. Sam would do it again, wouldn't even think twice, because Dean was his brother.

Still, it wasn't something he wanted to talk about and not at Bobby's. He didn't even know if Bobby knew about Dean. So very few people did, and most of them were either dead or one-night stands who'd never known Dean's real name to start with. Sam had worried about Dean's birth certificate, in some government basement in Lawrence, what with the FBI and the police after them, but when none of the Most Wanted reports said may be disguised as a man or Deanna Winchester, AKA Dean, Sam relaxed. Dad had probably taken care of it. That just left Sam getting grey hairs thinking about strip searches and body cavity searches and prison showers.

There hadn't been any tactful way to bring the subject up with Dean, who had, predictably, raised his eyebrows when Sam broached the subject and said, Why Sammy, you kinky devil you. When they worked the prison haunting Dad's friend Deacon was told, and he'd agreed to keep Dean out of the general population (though Sam hadn't been privy to the whole make-it-real scenario). Sam had made Dean swear to tell Henriksen if they ever really, truly found themselves headed for SuperMax, even though Dean said he'd rather die and Sam was afraid Dean could arrange that, easy.

Sam had had to experience well over a hundred of Dean's deaths in Broward, and some of them had been more nightmarish than the rest. He saw Dean being taken away in handcuffs, and then a few frantic hours later he'd snap awake to the alarm clock blaring heat of the moment and Dean being sickeningly cheerful. Or Dean snuck out for some air or a drive, and then: telling me what your heart meant. He'd been locked in a cell and heard Dean being beaten to death three times. Dean being raped and beaten four times. Sometimes Sam had needed to get blind stumbling drunk, and Dean usually ended up killed by a jealous boyfriend but too many times he was battered in the back alley or in the car park or behind the dumpsters or in the dirty restroom. Heat of the moment, shone in your eyes.

Sam wasn't used to thinking of his brother as someone who could fail. Who wouldn't fight his way out of anything.

Well, the Trickster said, get used to it. Dean's going to hell and you can't stop him, and moreover you shouldn't even try. Third time's not the charm.

They'd stopped off at the Roadhouse on the way to Bobby's, checking to see what Ash had on Lilith after the latest debacle, In the downtime, Sam snuck every forty-five by Asia out of the jukebox and smashed them to splinters with Ellen's softball bat, out back and out of sight so people wouldn't think he was nuts. It didn't stop him from hearing Dean dying and calling his name, or from thinking that a lifetime spent watching Dean die was his own idea of hell.

Sam wished he could remember where he'd gone when he died. He read everything Bobby had on death and on hell, all the lore about demons and reapers and angry spirits. He'd already committed all the lore they had about deals to memory, not that it did him much good. He needed to know the exact wording of Dean's deal to know if there were any loopholes, and Dean snapped that he didn't want a lawyer; didn't want to die, hell no, but didn't want Sam dead in his place.

"If it's got to be me or you," Dean said, "I'm glad that it's you, okay? You're my pain-in-the-ass little brother. Got to keep you safe."

Well. Bang-up job Dean did of keeping Sam safe while he was burning in hell and Sam was helpless to rescue him.

Ruby was the only thing that kept Sam from going completely off the rails the way he had in the Trickster's manipulation. He wished he could unknow all the signs of madness he now saw in himself. He couldn't even make a bed without remembering how he'd needed hospital corners and ruled-straight lines to anchor himself without Dean that first, false time. He couldn't talk to Bobby without seeing knives and stakes. Every time he hunted alone he remembered how sure he'd been when he was dead inside, like a force of nature — judge, jury, and executioner. But Ruby came and said she could teach him. She was willing, she said, to start with baby steps.

Dad had started training Sam for a hunter's life from before he could remember. Following orders was comfortingly familiar. There was probably even some kind of psychological parallel between the blood Sam learned to drink and mother's milk. He fought and learned and drank and grew stronger, and he didn't have to think. He couldn't have asked for a better life.

But then Dean was back, raised from the torments of hell and looking to kick ass, and Sam didn't know what to do with himself. He didn't want Dean to look at him and see that Sam was more obsessed and over-the-line than Dad had ever been, so he spent a lot of energy lying and trying to find a loophole that would let him reconcile without telling the truth.

He was no good at it, and it was a rotten way to live.

He was back in the passenger seat of the Impala, his music hidden away in his bag and Pat Benatar too loud on the stereo. He hoped that it was just because the local radio station sucked: if Hell had warped Dean's musical taste, Sam might have to stage an intervention.

"So," Dean said, and swallowed, keeping his eyes on the road as it unfolded at the frayed edge of the headlights. Sam hitched himself ever-so-slightly sideways, aiming for a posture that was open without screaming emotions, bring them on. He looked sideways and then thought fuck it and turned the volume down. He didn't really care that love was a battlefield. Dean coughed. "I guess. Angels. Crazy, huh."

"I'm sorry," Sam said. He was stuck in a permanent groove of apology but still hadn't found words to approximate how gutted he'd felt, how useless he'd been, how he might just throttle this angel of the lord out of jealousy and rage, instead of being grateful.

"Shut up." Dean reached over and flicked Sam's ear without even looking. "Look at this." He held his hand out, fingers spread, front and back. "No more crooked fingers. No more weird stabbing knee pains. Not one single scar, nothing from the hellhounds, not the ones that are supposed to be there," and Dean tapped the center of his chest with two straight fingers, adding, "I figure I'm probably a virgin again."

Sam couldn't stop the grin. "I don't think even an angel has that kind of power."

"Seriously, man." Dean replaced his hand on the wheel, drumming absently with whatever greatest classic hit of the 80s was on — it sounded like Genesis. Dean was making his awkward face, cheeks rounding, mouth pinched. "I got rebuilt with external plumbing. And I haven't, you know. Hasn't been opportunity."

Sam stared at Dean's crotch: he couldn't help himself. He didn't expect to see anything different. Dean had a collection of dicks before, soft and hard option, some of them what Sam considered pretty kinky. But when Dean was being a regular guy, when he wasn't hunting or running for his life, he'd kept an average dick in his shorts. Don't want to scare the chicks, Dean always said, always with a leer.

Sam figured Dean remembered staying with Dad's friend Smith Smith, whose dickhead had poked up over the top of his pants when he was sprung, which had been pretty much all the time. Smith Smith had loved showing his dick off, and Sam had been right at eyelevel with it at the time. That had been one time Sam was glad Dad hauled them out of there after a couple weeks.

Smith Smith had been responsible for an excruciating Dad-lecture on sex, Sam recalled. It had started with Women don't give a damn about size and went on to technique and the importance of mutual pleasure. Dad had taken a break to get two beers, one which he kept and the other for Sam and Dean to share between them, saying a man needs a beer at a time like this.

Dad had been fond of that phrase. The older Sam got, the more he could relate.

"It's the real deal?" Sam asked, and then winced: real was the wrong word. What had been left of Dean had been buried just like they were laying him down for a nap, with his watch and bracelet and ring on, salt packets in one pocket and Zippo in the other, boot knife in its sheath. Sam'd made sure Dean had been packing. He'd thought it important at the time, as Dean was missing too many organs as it was. That had been real, burying his brother, who'd been dragged down to hell.

"Balls are fucking weird," Dean said. "So are hard-ons."

"This is you freaking the hell out, isn't it?" Sam watched Dean's hands white-knuckle the steering wheel for an uncontrolled second while Dean swallowed down whatever vicious denial sprang to mind. "If you made a deal to get reborn, you'd tell me you made a deal, because you're not going to lie to me, right? And if you didn't, it could be a miracle, you know, angels, it could be something good." Sam made himself smile. "Probably when Castiel got a good look at your soul he thought what a dick and slapped one on you."

"Bite me," Dean said, and then blinked a couple times, looking disconcerted.

"Ha," Sam crowed. "As soon as I stop being emotionally supportive I'm going to rag on you so hard."

"Asswipe." Dean leaned down, imperilling both their lives, and snaked the shoebox of tapes out from under the seat. He propped it up in his lap, flipping through one-handed until he found the Motorhead mix. Sam made a token protest, but he was sick of the radio and Dean singing was always good amusement value.

"So are you okay?" Sam asked. "With the, the plumbing. Freaked-out but happy, or pissed?"

"I have no idea," Dean snapped, frustration cutting his words short. "I don't feel like me." Sam thought he knew what Dean meant, though, and he waited a moment to see if Dean squirmed. He did. "It's just messing with my head, Sammy. Tell the truth, don't know if it's something I'd've chosen."

Sam guessed not, but that was because they'd been raised to be suspicious of offers that seemed too good. "You've always had bigger balls than anyone, even Dad. You got a raw deal when you were born, and you fought all your life, and I think you won. These past few years you seemed, I don't know, comfortable? Like you liked who you were. That's your history, and that wasn't miracled away."

"I'm the best there is at being me, dude. Everyone else just wishes they were me."

"In your dreams," Sam said automatically. "Um." He knew what he wanted to say, he just needed to bite the bullet. "You have tried jerking off, right?"

"Dude," Dean said, hunching over like the conversation was causing him physical pain. "If it's not natural, which it isn't, then that's just what it'd want me to do."

Sam swallowed a downstairs brain joke that was funny but might get him punched. "I'd worry more about immaculate. . . ish. . . conception, if I were you." The stubbled corn fields were fading back from the road, and there was a wispy smudge of light ahead, to the north. "That looks like the town, see if you can find a mini-mart. I need a beer."

"I need a fucking beer," Dean snapped. Sam muttered dick under his breath and snorted laughter when Dean gave him a phasers-set-to-kill glare.

In their room at the Highway 44 Motor Inn, Sam tried to mellow Dean out with PBR, onion rings, and hotdogs with the works. It wasn't pretty, and the polyester coverlet would never lose the grease and mustard stains, but Dean recovered enough equilibrium to make Sam turn off the History channel (if it's not shark week I don't want any part of it) and put on ESPN.

When Dean had gone from sitting with one knee jittering to pacing to sitting with fidgety hands to sprawled out with his chin propped up on one palm, Sam set up the laptop and his iPod and then fished the second bag of shopping out from under his jacket.

"Hey Dean," he said, and got inna minuted, as if Dean really cared about the college rugby game that was on. He stretched out and kicked Dean's mattress until Dean rolled over and threatened to boot-stomp Sam's ass. "You're my big brother and I love you." He dangled the bag, trying not to smirk so hard that his vision went fuzzy. "Happy hump day." He pulled out the magazines, one at a time, and flipped them onto the bed. "We got your athletic brunettes, your skanky D-cup with unnatural hair, your girl-next-door in Daisy Dukes, we got Canuck Crème because apparently they don't have Busty Asian Beauties up here. We got the token copy of Blueboy in case you felt like swinging that way, and we got a really tacky assortment of condoms. And there's a box of the expensive tissue for delicate skin in the bathroom." Dean's expression was frozen somewhere between murderous rage and interest in the kinky Mountie costume. Sam thought it would be pushing too far to mention the economy-size bottle of Gun Oil brand lube next to the sink. "I'm going to sit right here — " he pointed at his setup — "and ignore you as hard as I possibly can."

"What, no rites of exorcism?"

Sam snorted. "Like I'm sure you didn't try that already, along with holy water. Just accept that you've been touched by an angel and go nuts."

"And you're not going to read me the owners' manual."

Sam boggled, mental gears slipping into neutral. "You've never given a handjob."

Dean flipped the Canadian porn open. "Mac and cheese wrestling, seriously?"

"You'll adjust to driving stick real easy. Every teenaged boy does."

Dean snorted. "Except me, or I guess maybe I didn't count?"

Sam was not going to go there, not in this lifetime. He poked the computer to make it come out of sleep mode and opened the tabs for his current translation project. He pulled his headphones on, pointedly not looking at Dean, and found his favourite playlist, which somehow kept getting renamed. Currently, it was called OMFG songs that trigger my sensitive gag reflex. Two days ago, it had been called pitiful emo CRAP Sam. Sam hadn't said anything, but he'd lifted a pink highlighter two states back and was in the process of dotting every i in Dean's tape collection with little hearts.

He thought it improved the Metallica logo.

He was still not looking at Dean — was in fact looking at a pattern of weather that who the hell knew if it was natural or not, what with global warming — when he saw (out of the corner of his eye) Dean get up, turn off the TV, and retreat to the bathroom for a little recreational reading.

Sam turned the volume up on his emo crap.

He was trying to figure out how to conjure an angel, because nobody dicked his brother over (literally, fuck) and got away with it.

He was also trying to track reaper lore to find out what was known about the life after death. The more he learned, the more he was convinced that heaven and hell weren't the afterlife: they were just two warring factions that had caught the world in their crossfire. Angels and demons kept the reapers from moving souls on down the river: once a deal got struck, the soul was stuck doing heaven's or hell's business.

Which meant that the whole idea of stopping the Apocalypse was a red herring: what they really needed to do was stop both heaven and hell from rising and bar them both from playing their battles out among mortals. The idea terrified him. He wished he could remember being dead, because maybe he'd crossed over already and knew how to open the way. Maybe he didn't need to be so scared. He wished he knew.

His phone vibrated in his pocket, and he yanked it out. He had a text message from his brother, the dork, asking what general recharge time was. Sam sent back that it varied, but in this case 'real soon' was a good possibility, and suggested taking the scenic route and maybe a shower.

He didn't expect a reply, and didn't in fact get one until he was half an hour into the demonic visions of a monk in Algeria, who'd been translated from Latin to Arabic to French with more of an interest in lines that scanned well than accuracy. He moved his report on the text into the BUNK folder and looked at the phone. The message simply said Bring me food, fucker.

Sam replied by asking whether Dean remembered that his phone had a camera and video function, and took the car keys as he left the room.

After that night, Dean didn't say a word but he seemed to settle more into his new body. He racked up an impressive number of newly-lost virginities, considering the world was ending, or perhaps because it was. Sam made sure there were condoms conveniently located in every pocket Dean owned. Dean snuck the copy of Blueboy into Sam's bag, his jacket, his laundry, wherever it might possibly fall out and embarrass him with buff oiled men surrounded by big pink highlighter hearts.

"It's not mine," Sam said, again and again. "It's my brother's." Or, finally, when he'd dropped it at the feet of a jolly looking coroner, "It's my partner's. He wanted to try out pages fourteen and fifteen." Dean got sly winks and come-ons after that, and he threw the magazine in the nearest trashcan in a fit of pique.

"One thing I know," Dean said later, refusing to get under the same umbrella as Sam as they headed back to the car, "is I'm not gay. So what the hell?"

"Not everything's about you," Sam said testily. He'd walked off a curb into a puddle, and his left sock squelched cold with every step.

"Yeah, well, I know you're not queer either, so."

"Then you know wrong, Dean." They reached the car and Sam ducked in, slamming the door and twisting around to grab the towels off the back seat. He tossed one to Dean and used the other to rub his hair. "I give great blowjobs."

Dean held the towel over his face and made a choking noise. "TMI, Sammy. Seriously?"

"No, I'm lying to you."

"It's not like I'd judge. I mean. Glass houses. I tried to be a lesbian once, you know. Didn't work. Tried to be nothing, that didn't work either. Took the crooked road to straight." Dean pushed the towel up on his head and left it there as he turned sideways to direct a big brotherly look at Sam that hit him right bam in the middle of his chest. "Dad would have been cool with it, too."

"He was," Sam said, and Dean looked like a feather could've knocked him over. "There's an embarrassing story involved. That I'm not telling you."

"Well, hell," Dean said, and then narrowed his eyes at Sam. "I am going to get you so drunk."

"Talk to me after Armageddon," Sam said. "I'll tell you anything. Bank account PINs, bad sex stories, where your comic book collection is now."

"Bastard." Dean pushed the towel back so it draped around his shoulders like he'd been running. "What do you think, psychic boy, we gonna be around after the war?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't have visions, just a gut feeling. Could be crap. But I think it's not our war and I think we have allies and I'm pretty sure — like sixty-percent sure — we'll survive." He looked at Dean. "I need to talk to Castiel. I have some questions."

"Yeah, well, my buddy Castiel's not the brightest button in the angel box, I wouldn't set those hopes — " Dean made a short chop with the side of his hand — "real high."

Sam wasn't about to break the news to Dean that he was probably strong enough now to make Castiel do what he wanted. He wouldn't try that, anyway. If he wanted a dog, he'd get a damn dog.

Course, there were times he wouldn't mind locking Castiel in the doghouse. Nearly letting Alastair rip Dean's throat out had not been Castiel's finest moment. Sam was stone cold furious, like Dad on a demon trail, and he knew how to use that anger, now.

He moved the Impala to the back of the hospital visitors' lot, under the long shadows of the stand of pines there, and curled up in the front seat with the Sworne Book of Honorius. Bobby had given him a stack of texts to commit to memory: the sheer amount of angelic lore, not to mention the centuries of kitch and superstition, made his eyes burn. But this at least seemed to be on the right track:

But when yow aske for scyence or knoledge to be saued from euylles, or for the knowledge of the heauens & angells and there seales or suche thinges then muste ye doo as is afore sayde.

His first thought was, I'll take inappropriate vowels for five hundred dollars, Alex; his second was, and what was the aforementioned prayer? He had to flip back and forth through a ream of crappy dot-matrix printing: Bobby had found the text online, which meant any idiot with a modem could summon an angel. And yet the internet really was for porn. Sometimes Sam despaired for human intelligence.

He took out his rosary, did a quick washup with holy water, and moved into the driver's seat, just in case this worked. He crossed himself. He was resolutely not disturbed by how the rosary beads were uncomfortable against his skin, and how the holy water smelled vaguely septic, and how his body didn't want to remember the mudra for his fingers or whether the rising from hell was left-right or right-left. He took a breath and began the Lameht Ragna. He felt really stupid by the time he got to amen, and he crossed himself again, badly.

After a minute, he wondered if he should have added something personal to his prayer. He didn't pray to anything anymore, figuring it would be like trying to make a collect call to someone who was likely to say they didn't know him.

Just when he thought the summoning hadn't worked and was relieved that Dean hadn't witnessed him making a fool of himself, a rumpled and annoyed weight of angel settled into the passenger seat. Sam thought Castiel really needed a fedora to carry off the look.

“You're going to answer my questions,” he said, weighing his words with that truth-thing that had come upon him lately and half-turning so he could look a little past Castiel's shoulder without — hopefully — looking like he was avoiding his eyes.

Castiel looked right at him. Even without changing his expression at all, he managed to convey the impression that Sam smelled bad but he was too polite to mention. “It seems heaven and hell bend over backwards for Winchesters.”

“You suck as a guardian angel,” Sam said, and Castiel's mouth twitched. Sam didn't know if he was amused or trying not to bare his teeth, but either way, it was a disturbing expression. "Explain to me how you got chosen, and how Dean got chosen, and what makes him more righteous than any other soul in hell."

"Mary Winchester made a deal with Azazel," Castiel said, slowly, as if perhaps Sam didn't know this. "And she didn't. . . want to honor it, so she prayed. She prayed for her first-born child to be spared. Heaven gave its blessing. Dean was born blessed."

"Deals are straightforward. I want something, I pay the price. So." Sam tried to meet Castiel's eyes. "What did heaven want in return?"

"Heaven wants to secure its kingdom of glory on Earth."

"Your kingdom of glory wouldn't be long on freedom of choice."

"In return for absolute obedience, the faithful would have the presence of God."

"There are other gods."

Castiel tipped his head, casting his eyes upwards like a Hummel figurine. "There wouldn't be. In the kingdom of glory."

Sam wondered if any angelic spies around them would be able to read between the lines and catch the nuances of sedition and blasphemy. He hoped not. He needed an angel, and Castiel seemed like the best of a bad lot. "Dean's blessing. That hasn't expired?"

"He wouldn't be much use if it had." Castiel took a breath for dramatic effect, and sighed. "I'm afraid I may have left it behind."

"In hell."

"Regrettably. Its loss opened the first seal. Your brother will need it to bring this to an end. To be the vessel of our deliverance."

Sam smiled brightly in a way that he hoped conveyed that he was reading Castiel loud and clear, and that he was in no way less angry now than he had been confronting Alastair. “You brought Dean back in a male body. If you tell me that was part of some divine plan, so some angel could possess him to fight your war, I'll do my damndest to kill you, here and now.”

Castiel blinked, which only made Sam's eyes water sympathetically thinking of how the angel didn't usually blink at all. “I raised his soul from the hellfire pit,” Castiel said, like he was receiving the words and had to translate them in his head, “and remade his body in his own image.” He twisted, angling his head to stare at the hospital with an unerring accuracy. Sam supposed that Castiel probably always knew where Dean was: it was his job. “It's a good body,” Castiel went on, almost as if he were trying to placate Sam. “What Dean does with it — he's human. He has free will. Except, of course, in the matter of using his blessing to stop hell from rising.”

Ha, Sam thought, but he figured Castiel didn't realise just how persuasive Dean could be. "Let's talk about blessings and angelic hosts."

"And why would we do that?"

"If you prefer, we could talk about Samhain and Vanir and the gods of the solstice and tulpa and djinn and Tricksters. We could talk about the great cosmic wheel and what came before the beginning. We could stop pretending that what you're being asked to do is right."

Castiel gave Sam a round-eyed unblinking stare. Sam thought that the expression, which suggested Lord, why must I suffer these incredible idiots, was a cover for some uncomfortably human feeling of confusion.

"Where do angels go when they die?" Sam asked. "And demons. All the ghosts and spirits that got stuck here, when we kick them off this plane, where do they go?" Without even realising he was doing it, he reached over and took a handful of Castiel's sleeve, and he wrapped his hand in tight and pulled, making sure Castiel wouldn't be going anywhere. "Even gods die. Where will your god go when human faith has moved on to greener pastures?"

"I don't know." Castiel he managed a crooked smile even as his eyes slid all the way to the side as if he could ignore Sam by not seeing him, and he very carefully removed Sam's hand from his coat and smoothed fruitlessly at the wrinkles. "I honestly don't know. Thinking about it. . . . It's blasphemy."

Sam snorted. "Maybe you should consider becoming a Unitarian. Or a Buddhist."

He was going to say more, but his cell phone, in his pocket, chirped out the chorus to Cherry Pie. He hitched up a hip to dig it out, flipped open to read a text from Dean, and tapped out his reply almost blind with relief and the sudden abatement of fear.

"You got him his miracle," Sam said, failing to sound as dangerous as he had just a minute ago, to his own ears.

"The miracle needed was beyond me," Castiel corrected. "But my superior has. . . a talent."

"I appreciate it," Sam said. He gave Castiel his best hustler's smile. “He's hungry, we're going on a munchie run. I'll make a deal with you. That's how this works, right? So I'll teach you to drive the car.”

Castiel sighed. “I don't know what I can tell you about possession, or hell rising, or the heavenly kingdom, that you haven't already figured out. And this host. . . knows how to drive.”

Sam tossed him the keys. “Then this will be a wet dream for him, trust me.” He got out and walked over to open the passenger door. “Slide on over.”

He was a little surprised that Castiel did move over, though it was more like vanishing from one place and reappearing in the driver's seat. Sam got in and pointed out all the important features: gas, brakes, turn signals, volume control. Castiel murmured something about air bags, and Sam grinned.

“Those are for sissies.” He thought it would be rude to point out that he had an angel for his chauffer. Castiel surprised him by actually laughing, and not the melodious angels-we-have-heard-on-high joyous kind of mirth, but more of a smoker's raspy chuckle punctuated by the occasional snort, as if surprised by his own levity.

Sam supposed that angels probably didn't have much fun.

Castiel confirmed this for him when he pulled the car slowly around with a look of furtive pleasure. He gave Sam an apologetic quirk of his eyebrows. "Dominus reget me et nihil mihi deerit."

"I'd worry less about the valley of the shadow of death than about the wrath of Dean of you dent his baby. A word to the wise."

At Arby's, Castiel vanished in frustration at how long it took for Sam's order to be filled. Sam thought it was for the best. He wasn't planning on telling Dean about Castiel and the car, but the angel might have spilled the beans. Although after meeting them, the stories about them being paragons of virtue seemed to be wrong.

Sam got Dean fed and out of the hospital and settled in at the motel, and he thought he was doing a good job of not giving away any of what he was working on.

He made plans with Castiel and with Ruby. After the nightmare of finding out about Adam, Dad's secret second chance, he felt Dean's eyes on him more and more, like staring into oncoming headlights in a game of chicken. Sam started having trouble sleeping again. He didn't dream any more, or see visions. When he shut his eyes, all he saw was nothing.

Finally, Dean confronted him in Johnson, Tennessee, coming off a bog hunt for kappa that Sam'd suggested just so there'd be something to do besides put off asking Dean to do something Dean would not want to do.

"Talk to me, Sammy," Dean said, arms crossed, and Sam knew how Dad had felt all those years. He wanted nothing more than to give Dean an order and know he'd obey. He didn't want Dean to have to bear the burden of decision. But he'd grown up hating having that done to him, so.

"Okay," Sam said, and explained about Mom's deals, and Dean's blessing, and how it could be used to stop hell from rising and bring about the kingdom of glory, and why he thought that was a really bad idea.

"Here I thought ooh, heaven is a place on earth was a good thing," Dean said, but he had his serious listening face on, so Sam didn't hit him no matter how disturbed he was that Dean could quote Belinda Carlisle.

"You think Castiel's god, who gives orders and punishes free will, you think he'd make a good absolute power? Comparatively, the seething chaos you're always talking about seems healthy."

"You realise this is crazy talk."

Sam shrugged. "You realise that I'm pretty crazy. Slow dancing alien crazy. Alligators in the sewers crazy. But I don't need to be sane to trick heaven and hell into opening their portals in the same space, and I know how to — not even seal or lock, but destroy those doors. For good. Forever."

Dean's eyebrows went up. "Pretty hardcore. No more angels or demons? No more heaven or hell?"

"Bobby says that there's no true freedom that's not expensive."

Dean shoved up out of the chair and paced down between the beds and back. "I guess if you have Bobby's approval you don't need mine."

"Yeah, right." Dean shot Sam a glare that said he was sick of talking in circles. "Your blessing is the key that opens the way for heaven."

That made Dean grin, and Sam knew what he was going to say even before he said it. "So I'm the keymaster."

Sadly, that wasn't the worst analogy Sam could think of. "Except you don't get to sleep with Sigourney Weaver."

"Zoool," Dean said, in a very bad Sumerian accent. "Zoooool."

"I hated that movie," Sam said reflexively, and Dean ruffled his hair and said that yeah, it hadn't been real accurate but it'd been funny. Sam had thought it was funny, too, until Bill Murray called the bad guy dickless, meaning a coward and a fool, and playing it for laughs. He'd felt like he'd bit into a razor blade in an apple, all his enjoyment turning into anger, even though Dean, sprawled on the bed next to him, kept up his commentary and tried to get Dad to say how he'd hunt a marshmallow man. "Lilith wants the war averted, and as a good faith gesture her best thief's managed to get her hands on your blessing. She'll bring it to you, and you — you just have to decide the fate of the world."

"Well, damn." Dean turned on his heel in front of the door, and went to the window, twitching the curtains aside for a quick look out. "Left my Magic 8 Ball at home."

"Castiel offered to pray with you."

Dean grimaced. "I'll get his autograph while he's here, seeing as he might be the last angel on earth, ever." Dean looked hard at Sam, leaning back against the wall, still and watchful like an animal on the hunt. "In that kingdom of glory scenario, if I have the key to heaven — " he swallowed — "that mean you have the one to hell?"

Sam felt weariness hit, like a fatigued dam bearing down under pressure. "You knew that. You knew that you might have to — you know. And I forgive you. Hell, I want you to. You're the strongest and bravest person I know — "

"Fuck that shit," Dean said. "Sammy. There's no heaven on earth that doesn't let me save my baby brother. It's a no-brainer. Destroy the keys or the doors or what the fuck ever, and then we can go back to being just Dean and Sam."

"Sam and Dean. It sounds better," Sam said, and ducked real fast to avoid the Starburst candies Dean flicked his way.

Sam set everything set up, after black-eyed Bela had delivered Dean's blessing and Castiel and Lilith warded the room. The rising of hell started with a surge in barometric pressure, the television and clock radio popping with a noise like burning bones, and a strange sepia sharpness came over Sam's vision. Sam hoped Dean would be able to forgive him for what he was about to do. Because while the angels said it was true that Dean would be forced to kill Sam if heaven won, it was also true that the only place Sam knew to open the doors to heaven and hell was within himself. And the only way he knew to destroy them was to destroy himself. Mom had shown him it could be done, back in Lawrence, except he was going to cleanse the world, not a house.

Dean had always shown him that destiny could be beaten. That no matter what you were meant to be or were told to be, in the end every single person had choices to make, even if they hurt like hell. Dean had shown him how to own his decisions: how to be his own man. In the end, all anyone ever left this world with was the sum total of those choices: actions, inactions, sins and righteous acts, what you wanted more than anything and what you sacrificed for others.

Dean would kick Sam's ass if he said that aloud: Dean would say he wasn't anybody's fucking inspiration, and he'd probably roll his eyes and treat Sam like he was a seriously cracked nut. So Sam didn't say anything, just asked Dean for his blessing when the time came, and Dean trusted him and handed it over.

Sam would show him, and make him proud.



dean

D E A N

Hangman, hangman, upon your face a smile,
Pray tell me that I'm free to ride,
Ride for many mile, mile, mile.

Oh, yes, you got a fine sister,
She warmed my blood from cold,
Brought my blood to boiling hot
To keep you from the Gallows Pole,
Your brother brought me silver,
Your sister warmed my soul,
But now I laugh and pull so hard
And see you swinging on the Gallows Pole
(Gallows Pole – Led Zeppelin)

When the blinding holy light had faded and all the otherworldly pyrotechnics ceased, leaving only that acrid fireworks smell, Dean pushed himself up from the crack between the bed and the wall. The room was heavy with ash and there were shadows burned onto the walls, like a flurry of wings or like flames or thorns. Dean took a step forward and another, leaning one shoulder along the wall because his knees were shaking like a fortune-teller's bones. The bathroom door frame was twisted and smoking, the toilet and bathtub and sink all brilliantly white, as if they were still hot from the fire. Which maybe was true. There were cracks in the walls and the ceiling, and sunlight cut through the ashy air like swords. Dean tugged his shirt up over his nose like a mask and started for the door, because who wanted to breathe in powdered demon and angel and who-knows-what? Not him.

He could smell, now, burnt rubber and plastic and wood, sharp ozone mingled with the sulphur, and nothing thank god like barbeque.

"Sam?" In his heart Dean was yelling, but his voice wasn't cooperating. All he could manage was a croak. It didn't matter because, in addition to looking like ground zero, the room was also silent. Silent and empty. "Sammy?" No angels, no demons, no pain-in-the-ass little brothers, and Dean was not thinking about that. He couldn't think about that. Maybe Sam had gone out to buy beer while Dean had been sleeping off the apocalypse. Maybe he was getting Ding-Dongs.

There wasn't much left in the room. Most of Castiel's ratty coat was shredded on the floor, and Dean and Sam's duffels were slightly charred behind the table that had blown over. Dean collected the bags as he shuffled past, as numb as if he were walking on the bottom of the ocean. Sam's laptop was fried, fused to the tabletop, and Dean left it hanging there. He wasn't angry. He wished he were, wished he could be furious, wanted something to punch and kick and shoot the hell out of.

Bad choice of words, he thought, and wanted the whole world to burn, because maybe that would be big enough to somehow make sense. He was alive, he wasn't even bleeding, and that made no kind of sense at all.

Outside, the sun was rising up over cotton-candy clouds, absolutely untouched and uncaring. The trees and the houses and the signs and the every damn thing had that Crayola-crayon brightness to them. Birds were singing, children were laughing on the way to school. Dean had to get his ass downstairs and into his car to wait for Sam to come back with food. Otherwise, all the Disney would just shred him alive.

Dean dropped his keys twice trying to get the trunk open because his damn hands were shaking. His eyes burned from the stupid angel thing and the fire and the ash and the sunlight, and he didn't have enough spit in his mouth to swallow away the nasty taste that covered his tongue. He didn't get into the car, he fell in and hoped Sam would bring him coffee.

He tried to stick the key in the ignition and dropped his keyring again.

"Spazz," Sam said, and here was the thing: Dean might be finally having a freaking mental breakdown, but he was still (always, only ever) a hunter. He might just have watched heaven and hell incinerate his baby brother from the inside out, leaving only the fine white ash that had turned his black shirt grey, and he might be choked up on pain and regret and all that fucking ash, and he might want nothing more in the whole fucking universe than to have Sam riding shotgun.

But Sam was dead and Dean was a hunter. He didn't even think before he had a salt shaker in one hand and holy water in the other and was pulling his leg up to get at his silver bootknife.

"I come in peace," Sam said drily. He held his hands up, a smartass smirk tugging at his mouth. He moved one of his hands in front of his face and blinked at Dean through it. "Cool."

"It's really not," Dean said, his voice cracking up like he was fifteen all over again. "Really, really not, Sam. You're dead, Sammy."

"So put me to rest," Sam said, crossing his arms, smug bleeding into pissy. "Or did you want to hug?" He glared at Dean for a long minute, and then huffed and reached down to fiddle with the radio. His fingers slipped through the dials and the speakers crackled with EMF before settling into the familiar annoyance of Madonna. "I'm going to have to practice the touchy-feely stuff, I guess," Sam went on, trying to adjust the rearview mirror and then fiddling with the handle for the vent window.

"Did I do this to you?" Dean asked, trying desperately to change the radio station. He couldn't do a damn thing, though, because the car wasn't even on. He had a haunted stereo, and wasn't that a bitch, after he'd just replaced the left rear speaker because it was hissing at volumes over three on the knob. "All Dad's shit about how wanting — what you shouldn't — how the things we hunt, they turn evil because they want. Did I want you so bad that — "

"Nah," Sam interrupted, giving Dean a look like he hadn't ever heard anything so stupid. "I got recruited for a job on the other side, good hours and benefits, company housing. Compassionate leave, man. I never — I don't want to leave you behind, you're my big brother, I love you. But most of all I don't want to hurt you." Even dead, Sam had that pleading look down pat. "People in every culture feel the presence of the recently dead as a comfort."

"You're not a fucking presence, you're sitting there talking to me and haunting my goddamned car." Dean tried to glare, but it was hard when his eyes didn't want to rise past Sam's collar. "Tell me you're not here to watch over me, Sammy. I'd kick your ass."

"There aren't going to be any more angels or demons. Not in this world, not again. End of an era, but you knew that. My work's more. . . traditional. If that bugs you — tell me to go and I'm gone," Sam said, earnest, and God was it painful. "But I wanted you to know that things worked out, that good things do happen and will happen. Sometimes you go through hell and you come back new and improved." The corner of Sam's mouth twitched up.

"Where am I going to go now, Sammy?" Dean said finally. He thought he sounded like he'd been beaten. "What am I going to do?" On my own, he didn't say, or by myself either, but he heard the absent words clear and cold.

"Drive," Sam said, stretching his legs straight out and dropping his head back like he was tired. "Keep on going, and when you can't go any more, I'll be waiting for you." Sam half reached out, and then pulled his hand back. "Just let go and have faith. I know you can do it. You're the one who taught me how to be strong."

Dean tightened his jaw until he heard his teeth squeak against each other, and then very deliberately relaxed, working the strain out with a loud crack of the bones behind his molars. Sam just watched him sidelong, his face clouding over. Dean could have kicked himself. Sam always knew more about what Dean was feeling than Dean did.

"Let's give this a try," Sam said. He slid sideways on the seat. That was all the warning Dean got before he was folded up in Sam's arms like some freaky paranormal origami project. "Huh," Sam muttered, and he went more solid around Dean. Dean could feel Sam's hands sliding in short arcs across his back, and the brush of Sam's hair along the side of his face because, yeah, gross, Sam was nuzzling against Dean's neck the way he had as a kid, half affection and half using Dean's shirt to wipe off tears and snot.

"Dude," Dean said. His hands were doing the stupid hovering thing, halfway between shoving Sam off and grabbing him hard enough to pull him in. "Don't go all Patrick Swayze on me."

"Not throwing pots here," Sam mumbled into the base of Dean's neck. Dean should have felt the unpleasant warm wet of breath. He didn't. He tossed the salt and the holy water in the backseat because he wasn't going to drop them through Sam, way too creepy, and put his hands awkwardly against the backs of Sam's shoulders. He flexed and then clenched Sam to him as hard as he could. There was no protest as Sam's lungs compressed, because, duh, dead.

Dead and gone and not coming back ever, despite appearances. Dean hiccupped and fought against the lump in his throat and the burn in his eyes and the almost overpowering urge to scream and bleed and rend his clothes and smash the car down into scrap.

Sam talked the whole time Dean was falling apart. He told Dean his life was waiting for him right after they finally made that trip to the Grand Canyon. He told him Bobby'd be best man at his wedding and that Dean's freaking new dick should be good for at least a couple of spawn (and if it turns out you're shooting blanks Sam added helpfully, I've got a cup of swimmers in the freezer in California, to which Dean could only say shutupshutupshutup). Sam promised that Bobby'd move down and set up a retirement junkyard and that Dean'd work there some and also open his own hunter's roadhouse (though it's more like a coffee shop, or maybe a cafe or a patisserie, Sam said, with really good pie).

"And the weird thing is," Sam said, sounding like he was falling asleep, "you kind of become the prophet of a new religion. You're, like, philosophically badass. Metaphorically, you get to sign the wet panties of the world."

"God, you're full of shit," Dean said, thwacking Sam hard on the back until finally he loosened his death grip and let Dean go. Dean hauled the tail of his shirt up and scrubbed his face. His cheeks felt sandblasted. His eyes were probably all bloodshot, too. Fuck.

"I'm so not," Sam said, laughing and putting more pop music on the stereo. "I'm a psychic ghost, man."

"You're a dick." Dean took a breath and stuck the key in the ignition and pulled out of the parking lot before he had time to think that he was driving away from the motel where his brother had given his life to make the world safe for chaos.

"Okay, this part you'll like," Sam said. Dean tried to punch him, but his hand went through Sam and smacked the seat instead. "You get kind of rich off writing these porn books about monsters and demons and angels all getting it on in really kinky ways."

Dean saw the city limits sign and dropped his foot heavy on the accelerator. "Of all the crap you're talking, that I find the most believable. Anybody buy the movie rights? That'd be cool. I'd make them get someone really ugly to play Castiel."

"Man," Sam said, and waved a hand through the stereo, finally putting on the good music. "I can't wait for you to tell me all about it. You're going to have the best life. All kinds of crazy stories."

"You too," Dean said, turning the volume up. "Next time I see you," and his voice was desiccated, the words crumbling like sand, "you better have made something of yourself."

"Count on it," Sam said, leaning his head back and shutting his eyes, smiling easy as the miles rolled away.


then the door was open and the wind appeared
the candles blew then disappeared
the curtains flew then he appeared
saying don't be afraid


Bibliography and Other Readings:

Alexis L. Doing boys like they're girls, and other (trans)gendered subjects: the queer subcultural politics of ‘genderfuck' fan fiction

Lauren Smiley. Girl/Boy Interrupted A new treatment for transgender kids puts puberty on hold so that they won't develop into their biological sex (July 10, 2007)

Maria Russo. Teen transsexuals: When do children have a right to decide their gender? Aug. 28, 1999.

The International Journal of Transgenderism.

Er. . . and other stuff:
Baby ♥ 1967 Chevrolet Impala SS 427 (Published in "Car Life", May 1967.)

And I hope that I succeeded in making the boys' upbringing as unglamorous as possible. I don't find anything romantic about child soldiers, not even the fictional kind.

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