The amazing and beautiful artwork is by alteredloc. She's posted about her work here, if you'd like to leave a comment.

Disclaimer: Fanfiction
Thanks: Many. To unovis_lj (half this story is owed to her local knowledge) and to shoofus, for ass kicking above and beyond. This story would be nothing without her. I mean it. I should add that there's a couple of moments I've taken almost directly from her brilliant description of New York. To q_i and tygers, handholding and beta reading. And of course, to wendy and thehighwaywoman.
Thank you.
Mistakes are my own.
Quoted lyrics are from Bon Jovi's Born To Be My Baby.
Summary: Set in the New York subway, The Allegory of the Cave is a reflective account of images real and imagined, remembrance, desire and obsession. Leaching memory, capturing souls, somewhere a hundred and thirty feet below the streets of Manhattan is an evil the Winchester brothers must face. But there's a fine line between reality and imagination, and neither brother can be sure of their footing in this upside down world. Written for spn_j2_bigbang 2011. R, 36,000 words.
Warnings: Spoilers up to and including the end of Season 6. Gratuitous abuse of reflective imagery, and undeserved traducement of the MTA New York City Transit Lost and Found.

Posted versions: text only text and images
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The Allegory of the Cave

Jay Tryfanstone
2011

 

 


Prologue: Schenectady


The snow is so deep and thick Sam's boots squeak through the clean depth of it and his footprints leave a sculptured trail. Pale and lovely under the moonlight, it heaps the embankment where Sam walks and levels the yards to either side, the encompassing white broken only by the black lines of the railway tracks. In Aleut words for snow are infinite, but Sam, warm with company and burgers and beer and new thick padded coat, can remember none of them. Still, it's parka weather, nanook weather, cold as a witch's tit and just as harshly, breath stoppingly beautiful.

Beside him, Dean says, "Look up," his voice hushed and his breath hanging frost in the air, and when Sam does the stars are candles in the night sky and the moon a hunter's lantern.

His feet are freezing.

"Keep walking," Dean says, and nudges him forward.

"Cold," Sam says. He's not complaining, just saying, and Dean grins back at him in acknowledgment over, up-tilted, one of the beer bottles he's still carrying.

"Thought you said this was a shortcut," Dean says, when he's done with the bottle and wiping off his mouth with the back of his glove.

But Dean is not complaining either. Dean's loose and relaxed under the bulk of his jacket, his cheeks and nose flushed with cold but his eyes curved narrow at the corners, content. Happy Dean. They're five hours off a salt and burn, bar happy, beer happy, alone and together in this world of ice and snow. Somewhere in their future there's a warded motel room and two comfortable beds and thick wool blankets and good coffee and, if they're lucky, a late night movie marathon heavy on the explosions.

"Cause you were born to be my baby..." Dean hums, and then sings, "...And baby, I was made to be your man..."

Sam, unlikely troubadour, matches his baritone to Dean's. It's not the first time, but this time, there's a rhythm to the words he can't place, a bass thrum that underscores the sound of their voices.

The rails are singing. It's a train.

"Dean," Sam says, not urgently, but Dean is already watching the line where one single night star is moving and brightening.

"Hey Sam," Dean says, standing still. Standing in the center of the tracks. "D'you wanna... ?"

Safe on the edges of the embankment, Sam says, "No. C'mon." Unhurried. They have time.

"No?" Dean says. Balanced on the balls of his feet, he's solid as a linebacker, head up, boots on the tracks, hands held wide. He's got two bottles of pale ale in one hand and a dead flashlight in the other, and he's grinning.

"Dean," Sam says, a little more urgently. The sound of the engine is heavy and dull in his ears, and he can feel the rails vibrate.

"Weather's fine," Dean says. "Live a little."

Dean's still grinning, as if nineteen thousand tons of freight train out of Saskatoon powering down the line will stop, just because Dean Winchester's standing on the tracks. The headlight of the coming engine is brighter than the moon, whiting out the night, highlighting the folds of Dean's coat, his cheekbones and the ruffled spikes of his hair. Light in motion, it sends their elongated shadows dancing across the snow. Night vision interrupted shows Sam images in black and white. Dean the warrior. Dean the invincible.

"Move, okay?" Sam says, raising his voice.

"Aw, Sam," Dean says, but he doesn't take his eyes from the train.

Somewhere behind the single, consuming light there's a driver, and even as Sam tries to see past the glare into the cabin, he can hear the wheels scream as the brakes lock on. Sparks fly into the night, steel straining against steel.

"Fucking move," Sam shouts, and at last, finally, in a contemptuous lazy pirouette, Dean steps off the tracks. Night behemoth, the train splits them apart seconds later with a rush of wheel-born thunder and snow-cold wind that tugs at Sam's coat and snaps his bangs over his eyes. Sam on one side of the tracks, Dean on the other.

It's a freight train, low-slung double stacked containers, and in the moonlight the beast is slow enough for Sam to snatch glimpses of his reckless, careless brother in the spaces between cars. Dean in monochrome, freeze frame, split second shots. Dean laughing. Dean waving. Dean paused waving. Dean looking away. Dean caught halfway through a star-jump, clowning for Sam. Punctuated by passing freight cars, reduced to a cartoon image, he could be as inconsequential as Sam's own reflection in a funhouse mirror. They're disconnected, uncoupled. An image in black and white, Dean is a stranger in a landscape Sam doesn't recognize.

Sam looks.

Dean is Sam's. Dean is family, with every single nuance of thwarted love and exasperation and hero worship the word entails. When Sam thinks of Dean, it's not his face Sam knows, it's the way Dean feels in Sam's head, an emotional image so intricately entwined with Dean's body that the two have always seemed inseparable. Dean seen by Sam in relation to Sam alone. Just as if there had never been, never was, a Sam without Dean.

The thought's untrue. There has been a Sam alone, lost, without a compass in a world he did not understand. And there has been a Dean without Sam. Before Sam was even born, Dean. Dean in hell. Dean with Lisa, trying so very hard to be the man Sam had wanted him to be. Alone.

On the side of a railway embankment in Schenectady, New York, Sam looks at Dean and sees a stranger. Flash frame images, movie star stills. A man Sam does not know, suddenly, crazily, so strange and so very beautiful Sam cannot but want. Lust after, so violently, so quickly, that the heat of it sinks into his bones as if it belongs there. As if Sam's reliving a realised desire, as if he's looked at Dean before and felt, not love, but hunger. He should look away. He can't, hopelessly entangled in Dean's image. Dean shrugging his scarf up to his chin. Dean frowning. Dean turned away, his shoulders down, his face lowered in profile. Dean starting to walk down the tracks as Sam must, keeping pace, his feet stumbling blindly through snow on gravel. Sam seeing Dean from the outside in, nothing more than a fantasy Sam struggles to ground in what is real: this isn't, can't be, a casual moment of lust. Dean is Sam's brother. Dean is half of Sam's life.

He still can't look away.

The train passes, gathering speed. Thirty cars. Forty. Fifty. Snow smacks off a container, missing Sam by inches. The second snowball clips one container and splatters against the next. Sam doesn't even try. Shocked and aching, he stands still instead, watching, until Dean gives up. The train is endless. Sixty cars. Seventy. It's still a betrayal when the last car passes and leaves Sam alone on the tracks with this man he no longer knows.

He can see the way it should be. They will gravitate together, he and Dean, walking shoulder to shoulder. Dean will have the remnants of his grin in the corners of his mouth and the curve of his cheeks. Sam will be fondly exasperated. Dean will complain about walking and Sam will cite Dean's blood alcohol level and the iced up roads. They will tumble into the hotel room stripping off gloves and coats: Dean will give Sam the first shower and when he comes out his boots will be damp but clean, stuffed with newspaper and set side-by-side in front of the heater. Ten minutes later, Dean will come out of the bathroom already wearing his boxer shorts and T-shirt, and he'll sleep on his belly, snuffling.

It seems unreal. It's a relationship that doesn't exist. Dean is the same; it's Sam who has changed, Sam who has been shocked so far from himself tonight that he can barely put one foot in front of the other. His hands are clenched in his pockets, his heart trip hammers double time, and he's as hard under his clothes as he can ever remember being. He hadn't realized, while the train passed, but in the snow-silenced afterward his pulse thuds against the skin of his wrists and in the hollows of his thighs, his cock rubs heavy and damp against his belly with every stride he takes, and he's light-headed and dizzy.

"Sam?"

"Nothing."

"Chickenshit."

"Don't do that again," Sam snaps.

He can see Dean's eyebrows go up from the corner of his eyes, but Sam doesn't look around. Dean says nothing. Sam balls his hands in his pockets, fingernails pressing into the flesh of his palms, and keeps walking. Snow crunches under his boots and Dean's, a crackling dissonance, although Dean's stride matches his and they're walking in the same direction.

The motel's cranked up the heating. Warmth prickles in Sam's fingers and the tip of his nose, pinks Dean's cheeks and flushes his skin under the unwrapped scarf.

"No shower?"

"Tired," Sam says, no more than his coat and boots stripped off and those reluctantly. With no such compunction Dean's down to jeans and T-shirt and threadbare socks, all of them and Dean himself stretched out on his bed with the remote. He's four feet away and the curve of his hipbone would fit exactly into the palm of Sam's hand. Sense memory, the feel of softened denim and skin under it shivers through Sam's fingers. He looks away.

"This okay with you?"

"What?" Not explosions on the screen but souped up cars and city streets. Dean doesn't usually ask, which means he knows something's wrong. "Sure," Sam manages, and is caught all over again by the shadows across Dean's face, the angular lines of his cheekbones and the softening of his jawline. He knows what the creases at the corner of Dean's eyes would feel like under his thumbs, and it's a sensation so real Sam wonders for a moment if he's actually felt it. He'd thought he remembered everything, when the wall crashed down, but he's learned not to trust himself. His selves.

For a moment, in a flashback so vivid it could be real, Sam sees, feels, Dean arch up under Sam's weight. It's an image shadowed with blood and flame, and the heat of it stings Sam so powerfully he almost gasps. Dean, bruised and bloodied, has never looked at Sam with his eyes wide and his hands clawed on Sam's shoulders, and Sam's never even dreamed the brutal, velvet clench of the way Dean's ass feels around his own cock. It's a perversion of love so sickeningly arousing Sam bites back a gasp. What he's seeing is a nightmare straight out of the cage, and he thought he'd seen everything.

It's not true.

But Dean's lied before. Dean would lie again, to protect Sam.

In desperate retreat, Sam stretches out a hand and reaches down his laptop, thumbing it open. It's not the first time he's tried and got nowhere, but, hands shaking, he types memory loss into Google and hits return. He's hoping for some explanation of phantom memories, unreal emotions that would explain the shape of his desire, so utterly unwelcome and so familiar. Tracing references and case studies and articles, what he finds instead is a case. It's the strange tale of a Daniel Robertson. A month prior, Daniel had embarked on his usual New York subway commute from South Ferry to 66th Street a family man, with forty-three years of memories. He'd left it an hour and ten minutes later on a gurney, his mind wiped clean as a newborn's. Nothing left. No family, no job, no memories. Nothing. It's a thing odd enough for even the Gotham bloggers to take note.

New York City has never been Winchester territory. Sam bookmarks, files, and moves on. In the morning, there will be coffee, and pancakes, and Sam-and-Dean as they should be, nothing more. Along with Daniel Robertson, New York, and unexplained amnesia on the subway (possibly prescription drug induced, possibly minor demon, to be proven), Sam tries to confine his uncomfortable image of Dean as an object to be desired somewhere at the back of his mind.

But he fails. Over and over again, day after day, Sam fails. Paradoxically, lust sharpens his image of Dean and blurs it: Sam is stupidly conscious of the exact configuration of the curve of Dean's cheekbone and the hollow between the muscles of his thighs, his stubby fingernails and the uneven bones of his knuckles. Dean's physical reality is as sharp and painful as a knife to the ribs, and Sam spends half his time looking and the other half looking away. It's excruciating. Sam can't let Dean know he's fucked up again, not by the sound of his voice or the guilty shift of his eyes or the inopportune, haunting arousal, but he can't not look. It reminds him, shaming and sick, of nothing so much as the focused hero-worship of his childhood.

Everything comes back to Dean. Sam, too. He didn't leap into the pit to save the world.

Dean notices. Sam's a heartbeat too late for the punch line, two inches too far away and not sleeping again, and Dean's watching. All Sam can do is blur the truth: he looks at Dean through glass, flattens his hands against the pane, but he cannot – will not – reach through. He's alone on this one, it's his burden to carry. There's no get out of jail free card for incest.

 



 

 

 

New York

 

 

"So tell me again why we're here?"

Dean's face is a deliberate image of long-suffering resentment. His shoulders are braced against the window, his head down, and one hand tight on the seat rail holds him against the judder of the subway car. Under the artificial light his winter pale skin is sallow, and the color of his eyes is a muddy hazel. In sunlight his irises are green, but here, one hundred and thirty feet below the New York streets, Dean is out of place and not happy.

Sam, equally unhappy, reminds Dean they've got work to do. "Daniel Robertson. Remember him? Somewhere between here and the subway yards, the guy lost forty-three years. He still hasn't got them back. He's in a nursing home upstate." Sam's still not mentioned that one night in Schenectady when he'd bookmarked the first article. He's fairly sure he never will.

Dean says, "It's New York," and shrugs. He's here on sufferance and Bobby's word. Dean's built for open roads, not the cramped confines of a crowded subway car. The weight of it hunches his shoulders and bows his head.

"Yeah," Sam says. "But then. Jerome Carruthers. Same time, same line. He's the bond trader. A week later, José Martinez. He's the artist. He was an artist," Sam says, and thinks of José's wall-size, vivid portraits of the city above their heads.

"He was the one you told me about," Dean says.

"Yeah," Sam agrees. Daniel, and Jerome, and then José . It was the first time he'd mentioned the case to Dean, when they were sitting in a diner in upstate New York, snow piled alongside the roads and nowhere else to be. Dean had said, "Huh," and gone for more coffee. Subject closed. Dean's not down with urban crime. Sam isn't sure he is himself: his tolerance for dark enclosed spaces is not what it was and the subway car is not large. They haven't seen daylight for the last twenty minutes.

"Then Tyrelle," Dean prompts, and Sam reminds himself that not everything is about him. People are hurting.

"Yeah," Sam says. It was after Tyrelle Thorson was found at South Ferry, 6'5 of college basketball champ with nothing left to play for, that Dean had acknowledged maybe Sam had a point.

When Sanjay Malhotra's mind had gone missing a week later, Dean had flicked the open newspaper in Sam's direction and said, "How're we gonna to do this?" The reluctance had been unfeigned and understandable. Dean doesn't like cities and both of them are treading very carefully indeed around questions of memory, but they both know it's a job and there aren't that many hunters left. The only one Bobby's mentioned in New York is retired. Thelma Jackson, T.J., is the only hunter Sam's ever heard of successfully out of the game, despite the call she'd made to Bobby that had given them the only contact they have. Her number's in Sam's cell, but that's later. Right now, they're sitting in a crime scene a hundred and fifty feet underground and moving.

"Daniel's station," Sam says, looking up, but it's Dean's flat eyed, dangerously unfocused glare that keeps the seats in front of them empty. It's three o'clock in the afternoon, but the car is almost full with students and a few tourists and people working shifts, tired-eyed. There's a man with a string bag full of sour cucumber and eggplant, clasped close, and a woman with a nineteen inch television. The air is cold and stuffy, almost metallic with the sour smells of industrial solvents, old sweat, stale cologne, urine, and there's a tension to it foreign to anything Sam's ever felt before. There are too many people in the car, and none of them friendly. It's not just Sam. Dean's equally uncomfortable, shoulders tight, unwilling to meet anyone's eyes: one hand is stuffed in his pocket, and Sam's sure he's carrying despite the metal detectors and the Transit cops.

As the car fills, they're pushed together by the weight of passengers, Dean's shoulder against Sam's. Despite the tension between them, it's the only familiar anchor Sam has, and he leans into Dean's weight. Shifting uneasily in his seat, crowded, Dean stares at the placards, and Sam follows his eyes. Macy's. The Bethesda Church of the Newly Risen Lord. Dr Zizmor. Mad Men. More than Sam wanted to know about HIV transmission, his blood's dirty enough already. They're overexposed and beyond sniping at each other, the Impala garaged and all their current worldly goods in the duffel at Dean's feet. Only five stops uptown from Penn Station, Sam and Dean are already far too familiar with the warning double chime and the unfeasibly cheerful, "Stand clear of the closing doors, please."

Between stations, nothing distinguishes one tunnel from another. Dean buries his hands in his pockets and watches the other passengers with a hostile, bristling distaste. Sam peers out into the darkness beyond the window. At 72nd St. more people get on. The man with the bag of produce leaves. At 79th St. Sam gives up his seat to an elderly and crumpled Chinese woman with a pink satin purse, and clings to the overhead rail. Standing, the motion of the subway is obvious. He can feel the rhythm of the wheels on the soles of his feet, and every jerk tugs at his grip. More experienced riders read as they sway along with the cars; Sam watches the tunnel walls behind Dean's head. At 86th St. Dean shoves the duffel to Sam's side and stands next to him, while a woman with a stroller moves into his place. The Chinese woman leaves. A group of businessmen in grey shaded suits converse in one corner of the car, and a young girl opens a bag of donuts. Shuffling his feet, Dean –

Sam blinks. For a moment his vision is dark, as if a bird has flown across the sun.

"Sam?"

"What?"

"Spaced out there?"

The geography of the station has changed. Sam doesn't remember that happening. There's a Puerto Rican woman with a baby pressed up against Dean's side, the young girl with the donuts has gone and there's an elderly man in her seat, prayer beads slipping through his fingers.

"Where are we?" Sam asks.

"110th St." The sign's clear on the tiled wall, beyond Dean's narrowed eyes.

Sam's lost two stations. He doesn't remember them at all. There's nothing in his mind, no memory, since the doors closed at 86th Street. A complete and terrifying blank.

"We're getting off," Sam says. His palm is sweating on the bar and his coat feels heavier than it had that morning, the lights are too bright and the sky too far away. Even the air he breathes is stale. Dean glances at him once and sharply, snatches the duffel over his shoulder, and hustles both of them through the closing doors. "Stand clear of the - "

On the platform, standing firm against the stream of passengers in dark overcoats and jackets flooding towards the exit, Dean says, "What? Sam, what is it?" He's the only person facing Sam, his face pale and shadowed in the staring artificial light. There's a frown line between his eyebrows and it's Sam who put it there.

"Let's get out of here," Sam says, but it's a long two seconds before Dean turns away.

After the sharp-shadowed subway, the dirty white of the snow and the grey of the afternoon sky is an almost physical shock, the air knifing cold and scented with ozone. They're outside, but it's an outside crowded with impatient pedestrians, ice-trampled, trash strewn sidewalks, stop lights and neon advertising and posters. Caught at the top of the subway exit, Sam flinches, shivering, and Dean pushes him forward with an elbow to the ribs.

On the corner, opposite the exit, there's a coffee shop. It's a student place, washed pine tables and newsletters and flyers, overwarm and crowded, and although it was Dean who dragged them inside it's Sam who negotiates the unsmiling staff and the chalk board menu. Waiting, Dean does not pull out their notes, nor Bobby's directions, but sits staring at the line where Sam stands. When Sam brings coffee over, Dean's hands are so very carefully placed on the table top that Sam knows any other man would be white knuckled.

"Spill."

"Last thing I remember, we were at 86th St. Then we were at the platform on 110th."

Dean takes a long breath, intent. "I didn't notice a thing," he says quietly.

"It was like - "

"You," Dean says. "Must've been gone. Five minutes. I thought you were thinking." His voice is as low as it gets when Dean's angry, but Sam doesn't think he's angry with anyone other than himself.

Dean hasn't touched his coffee. He hasn't done more than glance out of the window, where the winged neo-gothic frontage of St John the Divine towers over the street. He hasn't stopped looking at Sam.

"I'm still me," Sam says. He is. There's no change in his mind: nothing feels off-kilter. He's himself. All of his selves. The world is neither brighter nor darker. He thinks he remembers everything and wishes he didn't, nothing new. Coffee smells the same. Outside, the muted afternoon light gleams on the sidewalk snow and the lines of the cathedral stonework are delineated in black and white. The trees are bare. A woman in a red coat walks past with a small dog on a leash.

"I don't like this," Dean says. "What if - " He stops, frowns out of the window and glances back at Sam. There's a gulf between them with Sam's name written all over it, fear and loss. Dean's not looking down. Sam can't stop.

"Who else is there?" Sam says.

Dean looks away again. He'd asked.

The line of Dean's eyelashes and the curve of his mouth is hauntingly familiar, a profile Sam remembers both set against the Impala's window frame and turned against the palm of his own hand. One image is true, one false. Sam has no idea what Dean's thinking. He doesn't need to say people need their help. Instead, he runs the stirrer through the froth on his coffee. Cinnamon flecks cling to the wood. The latte smells of cream and spice.

"Fuck it," Dean says, and pulls out the notes. "Get your geek on. What've we got?"

Sam has his laptop. He pushes his coffee to one side and powers the machine up while Dean spreads out their notes. The writing is all Sam's, but the beer stain on the map is Dean's.

"So," Sam says, waiting for the WiFi connection. "They're all men. None of them went to the same school or college, and none of them worked in the same place. Daniel came from Salt Lake City. He came out on a mission, and liked it so much he moved here with his wife. He's got three kids and he lived out on Staten Island. Lives."

"How many wives?"

"Dean." Bitch of it is, the comment's partway right.

"Just asking. What else?"

"Sanjay and Tyrelle were both born here. Sanjay's from the Upper West Side. He's got money. Spends most of his time off shore sailing - racing yachts, and one he lives on - but he's still got family here. He's twenty eight. Tyrelle's seventeen. He lives with his mother in Queens."

"Jerome?"

"Harvard. Then Manhattan. I said he's a bond trader, he's got the Porsche to prove it. He grew up outside Boston, but worked his way through college. Not married, no kids, dated around. A lot. José's the odd one out. He was an artist. He was single, dated a little, lives in St Christopher. He's the one with the posters and websites asking for help," Sam says. "He's very active in the gay community. People know his face."

Dean snorts.

"Keep that thought to yourself," Sam says. "The only things they've got in common are fourteen stops on the 1 Line and no memory left. You read the reports. NYPD's got nada. No one noticed a thing. Jerome's employers filed against the MTA, but the defense hasn't got any more than the cops. Stonewall's had three people on José's case for the last two weeks. Nothing. Daniel? Still nothing. And you know Bobby's got nowhere yet."

Raising an eyebrow, Dean waits.

"Take a look." Spinning the laptop around, Sam sits back with his coffee. Hunched over the screen, Dean reads. Waiting, Sam stares out the window. He wasn't lying to Dean, he doesn't feel any different now off the subway train than he did getting on it, but he's lost seven minutes of his life. It's nothing compared to the time he doesn't want to remember but does, yet it's still frightening. He could have done anything.

He didn't. Dean was beside him the whole time.

Outside, people move back and forth, clutching briefcases and cell phones, shopping bags and scarves. A boy with a skateboard walks past, the colors on the deck of it bright against the snow. Most of the street is shadowed now, but the setting sun shines gold on the coffee shop windows and darkens the cathedral opposite. New Yorkers walk fast, and eat on the run.

Seen against snow, in the window, Dean's reflection is translucent and pallid. His hair is dark, his lowered eyelashes a Chinese brushstroke, his hands bone shadowed black-and-white. In glass, he's an ink and watercolor sketch of a man seen in profile, a beautiful stranger.

"Dean?"

"What?"

"You want something to eat?"

"Here?"

"I got money," Sam says.

In the window, Dean's reflection suppresses a smile, so quickly the amusement is gone before Sam can look around. In real life, he looks up and shrugs. "Coffee's good."

Sam comes back with more coffee, cake, napkins, water, sugar packets for Dean's stash, and an abandoned New York Post. He has to squeeze his way between the crowded tables and backpacks, damp coats and snatches of conversation. At their table, Dean's head is bent to the laptop screen, although he glances up as Sam arrives.

"You got anything on Tyrelle?" It's serious, Dean's found his pen, although he's not writing actual words yet. But the question's a relief. Sam's been tracking the case since Daniel was carried off the subway, but Dean had made his disinterest more than plain. He'd asked Bobby if there was anyone else who could cover, although Sam feels as if they've coasted the last few months; salt and burns and things that stay dead with a bullet to the heart. They're traveling under Castiel's radar, but Dean's never backed down from a fight. There's a folder of clippings and printouts under the skin mags Dean won't trash Sam's not supposed to know about. He hopes they're just not talking about it yet.

Sam says, "Tyrelle? His girlfriend was on the train with him for part of the way and said she didn't notice anything. Kendra."

"Huh."

"She's a straight-A science student with a PACE scholarship, Dean. Just because the only college girls you see are in porn doesn't mean - "

Dean looks up, rolls his eyes.

"Fine, not just porn, I got you," Sam says, and moves on. "You seen Daniel's record?"

"The bit where he forgot he was married? Second time down the aisle? Yeah, I saw it. Thought Mormons didn't divorce."

"Janielle's his third wife," Sam observes. "You gonna eat that?" His own carrot cake is crumbs, but Dean's apple turnover is plump and sweet on its plate. Food war veteran, Dean slides the plate to his far side.

Sam says, "Sanjay's not married. He broke off his engagement a year ago. It wasn't good. He's Hindu, she's Muslim. His family didn't like it."

Leaning back, Dean pulls both pastry and laptop with him. His fingers are as deft as Sam's on the keyboard. "Shouldn't make promises he can't keep," he says. "So, Sanjay's got girlfriend trouble. José? What've you got on the gay guy?"

"Nothing," Sam says.

"Huh."

"No twinks, no hookers, vanilla as they come. The way I read it, he's okay with every guy he ever hooked up with."

"Yeah, right. You'd know."

Sam says. "Dean," and sighs. There's an edge to the way Dean snaps at Sam's almost theoretical bisexuality that hurts, because it's only ever applied to Sam. It's not something Sam feels he can mention. He says instead, "The guy's nothing but honest. He blogged on it. He was, eh, looking for Mr Right, but okay with Mr Right Now and upfront about saying so. Tell me you clicked past the ladies."

Chasing the last smears of stewed apple on his plate, one hand still on the keyboard, Dean doesn't look up.

"Sometimes I wonder - " Sam says, and stops.

"I do research. Take a look," Dean says, and taps on the screen. He's opened more tabs. The laptop shows Tyrelle's leading role in Guys and Dolls, his school's most successful production to date. Jerome's fundraising for cystic fibrosis - there's an award ceremony at the Sheraton, but the bond trader was clearly hands-on and the reports reference his hospitalized brother. José on the ski slopes - he'd been a junior US Grand Slalom champion, an Olympic prospect before he'd damaged a knee in college. Daniel had been successfully self-published. Sanjay had competed in yacht races even Sam recognizes. There are news reports of his risky, life-saving rescue of a fellow Trans-Global competitor in the Southern Ocean.

"Not exactly Mr Smiths," Dean says. "And there's you."

"Okay," Sam says. "Okay." Then, on edge and stung, "Are you saying... This happened because they're interesting? Not normal? You could just as well say everyone in the damn car was extraordinary. Maybe none of them wanted to be normal," Sam says, staring at Dean. "Maybe they choose - "

"Like normal worked for either of us," Dean says. "Put a sock in it, Sam. I'm only running ideas. It's just a case."

It still grates. "Would you have asked Cas to make me forget? So I could be normal too?" Sam hisses.

Dean leans back. Looks at Sam, not angry. Considering. Then he says, slowly, "So maybe I was wrong. But would you want Ben to grow up like us?"

"You didn't give them a choice," Sam says slowly, and slides his plate out of the way.

"Are you telling me you wouldn't forget if you could?" Dean says, his voice low. "The cage?"

"I went through hell to get all of me back," Sam says. "Are you telling me you'd want to forget? Anything in particular? What do you want me to do, huh? Pin you out in the subway and hope you only loose the bits you think you can do without?"

Dean stares. He says, "Why the fuck would you want to remember?"

"Because I care," Sam says. Uncomfortable, upset, he flicks his empty cup across the table and scores a direct hit on the coffee shop's cardboard Lent specials. "You ready to go?"

"Whoa," Dean says. "Did we discuss this? Did I miss the big reveal?"

"What big reveal?" someone says. And then, without waiting, "You don't mind if we share, do you?" There's a pile of books and a laptop heading fast for the empty seat by Dean, and when Sam looks up there's a smile heading that way too. A nice one, with dimples. "It gets so crowded in here after lectures," the girl says, and when Sam glances around, she's right. All the tables and nearly all the seats are taken and the line at the counter is nearly out of the door. "My friend's just getting coffee. Annabel!" she says, and a tall girl with a mohair scarf waves back. "I'm Shezan," she adds. "Electrical engineering. It's a bit of a geeky subject, right, but - "

Dean shuts the laptop. He says, "Shezan, it's nice to meet you too, but me and Sam here? We've already got a date."

"Huh?" Sam says, and then, "Dean, we can stay if - "

"Let's go," Dean says. Walking out the door, hunched in against the press of people queueing, he mutters, "Are they all like that?"

Sam looks back. Dean's really not kidding, but Sam doesn't think it's Shezan. The coffee shop is cramped with students, too warm, noisy. "Pretty much," he says. "I thought she was nice." Underfoot, the snow in the street is already grey, and there's trash caught on the bare branches of the trees outside the cathedral. Inside, at the entrance, there's a board reading, Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship. Sam says, "We've got six hours before we can go meet T.J. You wanna walk?"

"Just keep your shit together," Dean says.

~*~


It takes thirty minutes to ride fifteen stops to the terminus, with no WiFi. Sam, with his laptop perched on his knees and his elbows uncomfortably crushed, compiles information and addresses from the tabs he has open until his eyes blur. Beside him, cramped and suspicious, Dean watches people come and go. Nothing happens. Between stations, before he closes the laptop down, Sam checks the platform, every passenger, as much of the tunnel wall as he can see. He's aware of the weight of Dean's eyes, although every time he looks around Dean's studying the subway car. The frown line between Dean's eyebrows has not faded, and he's jumpy, tense and watchful.

There's an edgy fascination to the passengers and the subway. Even the pattern of sound is unlike anything Sam's heard before, undercurrents softened with Spanish, rounded and low, a harsher, short-syllabled Chinese, something that almost sings that Sam thinks might be Hindi. New York English is clipped and fast, but the language of the subway is richly diverse and the passengers equally individual, students and workers, a man with a cello case, construction staff, a woman in chef's whites and another sleeved in tattoos displayed in spite of the cold. Station architecture is both battered and grandiose, a faded glory. Sam is starting to recognize the mosaics at each station, the benches, the way the harsh light reflects from the pattern of the tiles and architecture of the staircases. There had been a guitarist on the platform at Columbus Avenue, a small dog curled up in the folds of his blanket. A gospel choir and a keyboard player at 137th St. Harlem has the prettiest girls. Lincoln Center is where the afternoon shoppers get on, smelling of coffee and margaritas.

They've been silent so long the sound of Dean's voice is a shock. "This isn't working," he says. "We don't even know if we're in the right place."

"We can interview people tomorrow," Sam mutters, aware of the people behind them, in front of them, the woman reading a newspaper that brushes against Dean's shoulder every time the car jerks. There's a man in the corner who can't take his eyes off Dean's face, and Dean knows. He's not looking up.

"Should have brought the car."

Sam pulls a face. "Right."

"Right," Dean says.

181st St. goes by. 215th. A girl with a smile so wide it hurts squeezes down the car, distributing leaflets. Sam takes one. Dean doesn't. Have you found God?

239th St. passes.

"We done?" Sam says. 242nd St., Van Cortlandt Park, is where Daniel was found, the northernmost end of the1 Line. They swap back, traveling downtown again. It's standing room only as the early evening rush starts, and Sam's given up his seat two stops before Dean. They're pressed awkwardly together, hands on the rail, Dean's shoulder against Sam's collarbone. When the subway car jerks forward, Dean's thighs flex against Sam's, a fleeting heat as uncomfortably disturbing as it is familiar.

"You really want to lose part of yourself?" Sam whispers. "Did you ask - "

"Sam. Leave it alone," Dean hisses. He's looking away, head bent, and the subway lights shine harshly on the lines around his eyes and at the corner of his mouth. That close, Sam can feel him breathe, a compressed and uneven rhythm. Then, abruptly, Dean says, "I'm going to check the other cars. Don't do anything stupid." On the rail, his knuckles are white. At the next station, he's gone, restless and uncomfortable among the crowd of passengers.

Sam stares out of the window and thinks about memory, lack of, and parties interested. Eventually Dean comes back and stands as near to Sam as he can get, consciously casual, but his hands are still clutched on the rail and sweat has darkened the short hair on his temples and at the nape of his neck. He tries for a smile, but his eyes slide sideways when Sam looks up. Dean, off balance. There's no more than an inch between his shoulders and the two passengers on either side.

In the window, between stations, Sam stares at Dean's reflection. Seen in glass, Dean seems unreal, devoid of context. A man in his middle thirties, although Dean looks younger than the age on his birth certificate, not a thought Sam's going to take further until he must. Casually dressed, well built. His hands are battered and his face weary under the artificial lights, but he's dangerously beautiful, Sam's brother, and in his face Sam can catch the echoes of the man he saw on the opposite side of the tracks in Schenectady, the man he's trying to forget. He looks away, but for all his knowing charm Dean will always be unaware of the impact of his presence, and Sam sees the passengers in the car only in relation to his silent brother. The startled looks strangers give him, the curious stare of the student two seats over, the disguised, hungry scrutiny of the woman with the Macy's bag and the open assessment of the iPhone toting businessman. Unconscious of the dynamic around him, Dean does not move.

Sam's eyes are, always, drawn back to Dean. He's no better than the woman with the Macy's bag.

He turns back to the window.

The car fills and empties. They're heading downtown to South Ferry, turnaround yet again for Sam and Dean, and these northern stations they've seen before. Sam's almost unfocused, looking at the window not the tunnel wall, at Dean's image and not Dean.

In the reflection, Dean looks back at Sam from under his eyelashes. Beyond the station, the window is dark, but against it in glass Dean's eyes are a startlingly vivid white and green, his mouth flushed pink. He's an illustration of himself, his eyelashes brushed darker and longer, his hair ruffled. In the window, through the window, he looks directly at Sam. There's an expression on his face Sam has never seen before, an impatient, predatory lasciviousness that jolts Sam forward, every muscle tightened. It's different from the images Sam hopes are false, Dean in the cage. This isn't Dean wanted. This is Dean wanting, and the difference fires every nerve in Sam's body.

In the car, standing, Dean is still looking down.

In the window, holding Sam's eyes, he licks his lips. It's not an invitation. It's a declaration of intent that goes straight to Sam's dick, captures his attention against the glass and rolls his mind's eye through a gutter of painfully explicit images. Bright with interest, Dean watches him back. And winks. Sam... opens his mouth.

Whatever he was going to say is lost in the white tile of the station wall. Dean's image vanishes. Sam spins in his seat: Dean is just as he was five minutes ago, unchanged. It's Sam who is short of breath and ridiculously hard in his jeans.

"Dean."

Dean looks over and says, "- out."

On the platform, his hands hold Sam still against the hustle of passengers heading to the exit. Dizzy, crowded, Sam stares down at him. Dean for real, the grip of his fingers bruising, pale shadows under his eyes and his skin city-dull. Dean his brother.

"It happened again, didn't it?"

Sam nods.

"What was it? The reflection in the window?"

"Huh?" Sam says, but Dean's eyes are intent and unmoving on his, as if Dean knows exactly what Sam saw, and for a moment Sam wonders if Dean had seen the same thing. Reversed. If it was Sam's image and not the claustrophobic, crowded noise of the subway and the press of strangers that had disconcerted him. Without thinking, he reaches out, and Dean slides away, turning to look beyond the last remnants of the crowd to the darkened tunnel at the end of the platform. Dean's probably itching for a gun and something at which to aim it.

"It was you," Sam says. "It put a glamour on you."

It's his own weight Dean uses to slam Sam back to face him, one hand palm-flat against Sam's T-shirts, shocking hard dry heat. "It's not real," he says.

"I know," Sam says, surprised by the emphasis in Dean's voice. He doesn't remember the action, but his hands are on Dean's shoulders, holding both of them steady. Sam is ignoring the flushed warmth of his own skin and the way his stomach feels as if it's flinching in his belly. "I know the difference. I know it's not you." It's not just himself he's reassuring. Dean's eyes look haunted.

He can see Dean pull in a breath. They're so close Dean has to narrow his eyes to keep Sam in focus, and Sam wants to ask, what did you see? Was it me you saw? But he knows Dean won't answer. Instead he says, "It doesn't matter."

"Fuck, Sam."

"It's not important."

"Whatever you saw, it wasn't me, okay?" Color cuts bright along the lines of Dean's cheekbones, anger sharpening both his voice and the grip of his hands on Sam's shirt. Sam thinks of what Dean thinks he could have seen and swallows. He hasn't got the words to say to his brother, I saw you wanting me and I wanted you back. I know it's not real, but I wished it was.

"Nothing from hell, I swear. No monsters. No blood. It wasn't like that. Dean, I'd tell you." It's dirty pool, a smokescreen distraction against Dean wanting answers. Sam thinks he knows exactly what Dean did in hell. After Lucifer, after Castiel, Sam had thought there was nothing left to surprise him about Dean's past or his own. But, true or false, the bloodied, violent images from the cage haunt him still.

Like Sam, Dean still wakes up sweating and won't talk about his dreams.

It's not important, Sam thinks. They're more than the sum of their betrayals. And Lucifer had lied to him over and over again, laughing, in the faded mockery of ghosts conjured only to defeat hope. "You think Dean's coming for you? You fool."

Sam says, "It was just a glamour. I knew it wasn't real."

"Fine."

"Seriously. Dean."

"Just because you're not as paranoid as you should be doesn't mean they're not out to get you," Dean says. "It. Whatever."

"Dean. I'm fine."

"Fine. Okay."

They walk the four miles up to Times Square. It takes an hour on the dirty, crowded snow-swept sidewalks, 6th Avenue barren and windswept in the cold, and they don't speak a word, exposed and ill at ease on the city streets. Hands in his pockets, head up, there's a jerky rhythm to Dean's steps that shows as clearly as if he'd taken the time to open his mouth that he's worried. And Sam gets that. Dean's the one who had to live with a Sam so fractured he'd been prepared to sacrifice his own brother. Dean's the one who made a deal with Death to get Sam back. The line of their lives is woven by love and memory, and it's precious.

No more precious than Daniel's life to his family, or José's to his. Sam still can't believe Dean might want to throw any of his away.

There's a man on the corner with a placard reading, Repent, for The End of the World is Nigh. Dean's five paces ahead. Sam lengthens his stride.

Bobby's sent them to a bar west of Times Square. The place is well hidden, around a corner, past a warehouse door, unannounced, a single closed door down a flight of basement steps. In darkness, it looks deserted, the windows barred, not even a neon Budweiser sign gleaming through the glass. But the way Dean checks his stride, going down, stings Sam alert between one step and the next and it's only then that he sees the woman waiting by the door. She's wearing dark clothing and her face and hair are hidden by shadows, but there's a cigarette in her hand, and the faint red glow illuminates the stonework of the cellar and the two empty, snow-lined plant pots by the door. The smell of hand rolled tobacco is fragrant in the ice chill of the night air.

"You boys know where you're going?" She has a deep voice with a New England accent, friendly, but authoritative. Closer to the doorway, Sam can hear another woman's voice singing the blues, pitched too low for him to discern the words.

"Got the address right here," Dean says. "Eva Luna, right? We're meeting someone."

"Yeah?" Someone opens the door, and light stripes the concrete. Taking a step forward, the woman at the door shows herself to be strong faced, pleasant, determined. "Got a name?"

By the tilt of Dean's head, he's smiling. Dean always did have a thing for attractive older woman. Heck, Dean's got a thing for women. This one doesn't crack. She moves to cover the door, and her eyebrows arch into silent interrogation.

"T.J.," Dean says, surrendering. "Bobby sent us."

Under scrutiny, Sam drags up a smile, slouches a little, and spreads his arms wide. Plays harmless.

"Welcome to Eva's," she says, and there is an irony to her voice as she moves aside that makes Sam want to catch Dean's shoulder and say, hey -

Then he cannons into Dean's back. Solid as a jersey barrier, Dean has stopped on the threshold of the door, and Sam can feel the tension wash through his skin. For a moment, Dean's reaction is more important than the bar, a visceral, shared physicality that feeds through Dean to Sam and back. Then Sam sees what Dean has seen.

"Don't say it," he says through gritted teeth, and Dean turns his head and grins in unfettered joy.

The singer is Patsy Cline. There's a stripped down Harley hung over the pool table and a poster for the Vagina Monologues on the door. There are little round tables, a mahogany bar, fairy lights, and a potted palm tree in the corner.

There are no other men in the bar. The place is full of women.

"Sam," Dean says, low and intimate and delighted.

"Don't. Just don't. Keep your mouth shut," Sam begs, and thinks helplessly of his beloved, unreconstructed elder brother - oh, for God's sake, couldn't Bobby have said? - thrown to the lesbians in a gay bar. He's toast. "I think we should - "

"Awesome," Dean breathes.

" - stay right out here," Sam says. Dean's not listening. Dean's gone. "Sorry," Sam says to the woman at the door. Of course there was a woman at the door, it was her job to keep men like Sam and Dean out of the place, although right now she's sporting a shit-eating grin. Helplessly, he follows Dean.

"If you think I'm gonna screw up if I open my mouth, you're buying," Dean says on their way to the bar, his shoulders easy under his jacket and his hands quiet, just like it's any other watering hole in the Midwest. He's not posing. He's not even deliberately not posing. He looks as if he doesn't know every eye in the place is watching both of them.

Following, Sam fumbles in his pocket for his wallet. Which he drops, along with three keys, provenance unknown, two quarters, and a battered bottle top that may once have seen service as a guitar pick in a Country & Western bar in Stanford Sam hopes Dean never has cause to visit.

"Can I help you?"

Disturbingly knowing, Dean smiles, waiting for Sam. Their eyes meet for a moment too long to be casual, and the tilt of Dean's hips against the bar is a stance Sam does not recognize. And right now, infuriatingly speechless, it's the one moment Dean chooses to do what he's told and say nothing. That's a first. So too is the fleeting touch of Dean's hand on Sam's shoulder as he comes up to the bar, an unexpected insinuation of public intimacy that Sam finds so disconcerting he shivers. He's still haunted by the unreal look in Dean's eyes, in the window. In the cage. In Sam's memories of the cage.

The bartender is staring at him impatiently.

"Two beers?" Sam manages. "And we're looking for T.J.?" He stumbles the words out in a hurry, looking for validation. But there's no welcome in the bartender's eyes, only a cool assessment.

"You'll be the Winchesters."

"Yes," Sam says. Dean leans back, back to the bar, elbows propped, and smiles amusedly down at his own boots. As if Dean's got any chance of charming anything in this bar, ego aside. They're intruding, they're not welcome, and Sam is horribly aware of every single person in place judging both of them. He's so used to the way people in bars look at Dean that the absence of sexual interest is almost as strange as the charge of it, and it includes Sam as well as Dean, that deliberate disregard. It wrong-foots Sam, makes his skin prickle and his shoulders hunch.

"We are." He kicks Dean's ankle, because Dean's always been better at bartender charm, but Dean's looking at someone slam a break on the pool table and isn't playing.

"She'll be with you when she's done with the game," the woman behind the bar says, and nods over at the pool table. Then she leaves them alone.

Watching pool, Dean seems perfectly content. Sam, shoulder blades itching, is inexplicably more uncomfortable, although it's Dean who has never attended feminism 101 nor considered his stance on the patriarchal hierarchy. Uneasy, Sam plays with the coaster and chases runnels of condensation down the neck of his beer bottle. Behind the bar, a glass-crowded mirror shows him in splintered reflections his own face and the back of Dean's head, held by the inclination of the glass at an unfamiliar tilt. The angles of his own forearms and Dean's elbows conjoin, a mirror image that reminds Sam, with a shiver, of Jess's sanzaro statue. They would have needed only Cas: three carved wooden monkeys on a mantelpiece, see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. It's not a thought Sam can mention to Dean.

Patsy Cline stubs out another lonely cigarette, and the smack of wood on wood over felt is faint under the light rhythm of conversation. Women's voices come and go, words about work, food, a new band, a prayer group, a new girlfriend, someone's cats, someone's mice... gradually, the sound of voices rounds into the space behind Sam's back, and it's only then that he realizes how much the noise level had dropped when they'd walked in the door. Sound makes him feel less noticed. Less noticeable. He slides a little closer to Dean's familiar bar-propping shape, close enough to feel the curve of his brother's shoulder against his, and Dean lets him. The place is comfortably dark, the music soothing, and Sam allows the chink of glasses and rhythm of conversation to become something known and familiar. There's enough similarity with every other bar he's drunk in, every other bar he's drunk in with Dean, to let the fear of the moment when Sam lost himself dissipate. Here, he can let the alienating dischordance of the subway and the streets above begin to fade.

Sam drinks his beer. Dean's head is cocked on one side, which means he's interested in something: in the mirror, Sam follows the line of his brother's eyes and sees the Harley. Dean had owned a dirt bike, once. But he can't see his brother with a full beard and a studded jacket. The image makes him smile and duck his head, and Dean turns and looks sideways, a silent question.

"Eh," Sam says, sharing, and Dean shrugs, knocks their shoulders together and finishes up his beer. Two more bottles arrive, Sam pays again, and the woman behind the bar smiles, this time. Sam sincerely hopes it's him she's been watching, because Dean's wistful, covetous sideways glances at the two girls making out in the corner are not inconspicuous. Although, maybe it's just that Sam knows him that well.

Maybe he doesn't.

The women at the pool table are discussing something, game abandoned for the moment. Dean says, "Tomorrow, you wanna find some people? See if Kendra noticed anything?"

"Can do," Sam says. "She's out in Queens. But Daniel's family lives out on Staten Island. I'll need to get the ferry."

"If it sinks, at least you can swim," Dean says. Then he says, "You think they saw stuff too?" which is nothing more than what Sam's been thinking for the past two hours but still comes as a shock when Dean makes the words take shape.

"I'll ask," Sam says, and then, "It wasn't real."

"Yeah, you told me," Dean says, and knocks back half of his beer.

Sam wonders again if he wasn't alone in seeing reflections, and if so, what Dean saw. He frowns over the thought, and Dean flicks a glance up at him from under his eyelashes, honest query, but for a moment Sam remembers the lascivious eyes of Dean's reflection and has to look away. Dean never has, never will, look at him with such blatantly sexual interest. Sam has never run his hand through Dean's hair or held his brother down, hard, impaled and gasping on the length of Sam's dick. But the memory sends a flinching shiver of heat through Sam's skin all the same and distance is safer.

Plaintive, Patsy walks down a long road alone. Beyond the bar someone at a table, comfortably solitary, is bent over a notebook. Five women have spread papers over another table, and one of them is explaining, her hands making exculpatory patterns over half-full bottles of wine. In the corner, the two girls who had been making out are holding hands and talking. Sam looks away, thinks of other people whose lives have been ripped away from them. Thinks of Dean with a Sam with no soul.

"It's okay," he says. "Honestly." He doesn't know if he's lying, but he can pull on conviction for Dean.

"Humor me," Dean says, although his voice is slower and darker than Sam expects. Startled, he glances over, but Dean is not looking back. Dean is looking at the players by the pool table, game on, nearly done.

"Fine," Sam says. "I'll interview. You gonna come along or what?"

"Thought I'd check out - score!" Dean says appreciatively, as the last ball sinks into the pocket, a double ricochet from the worn cushions. The woman who made the shot smiles, racks her cue, and looks over at the pair of them. Nods.

"T.J.," Dean says.

She's wearing jeans and plaid and a Yankees baseball cup over short-cropped hair, and her face is sharp and sharply interested. She's not Bobby's kind of woman at all, but she's Bobby's kind of hunter. It's something about the way she walks, deliberate, with a hitch to her step that says something hurts, and the set of her eyes. T.J.'s a hunter, not prey, and when she stands in front of them she's as poised as Dean can be with a gun in his hand.

"The tall one's Sam," she says. "And the pretty one's Dean."

There are laughter lines around her eyes, but she's got a smile with a side of an edge to it. She could be a Wisconsin farm girl, tough and sweet as the weather.

"Sam's the princess," Dean says, and the smile broadens.

"Not the way I heard it," she says, and there's a knowing glint in her eyes that fascinates Sam. Beside him, Dean is still for moment so brief that if his shoulder had not still been against Dean's jacket, Sam would have missed it. Dean disconcerted: Sam steps up.

He says, "T.J.?" and holds out his hand, heading into the space from which Dean has unaccountably flinched.

T. J.'s got a firm handshake and her calluses are so sharply defined Sam knows she carries a crossbow when she hunts. "Last time I saw you," she says, "You weren't but a twinkle in your Daddy's eye. You grew up, Sam Winchester." There's a look in her eyes that says more than that, but although Sam's willing to bet she's heard stories about the Campbells she's still smiling.

"Pleasure to meet any friend of Bobby's," Sam says.

"Likewise," T.J. says, and watches him while she finishes up her beer. "You done? The studio's just around back."

She takes them around the corner, through a door Sam would have missed if he'd just glanced down the alleyway, and up a flight of stairs that stink of cat piss. Dean, following, has one hand buried in his jacket pocket and his head up, but the dead-bolted door at the top of the stairs opens only to a clean, sparsely furnished room. A futon; a stove; a fireplace; a pocket kitchen and a half-glassed door that Sam hopes is a shower.

"Belongs to a friend of mine," T.J. says, and tosses them the keys. "So don't get blood on the sheets." Dean looks up. They're carrying spray paint for the sigils, and T.J. glances across as if she knows. But she says, "Bobby says you're after the thing on the subway?"

"Yeah," Sam says. Duffel dropped on the couch, Dean's pulling out salt, hex bags, a couple of knives. No help there. "Came into Penn. Took the 1 Line this morning."

"Any ideas?"

"Not yet. You heard anything?"

T.J. hesitates. "I'm out of the loop," she says. "Busted my knee down in Louisiana two years ago, rousting out a nest of the nastiest demons I ever came across. You boys might know more than me about that one. Don't think I'm asking," she says, "Some things I don't want to know, you got me? This baby..." She shrugs. "I read the papers. I got friends taking the bus. And I know Bobby's got nothing but you guys. You need anything, you call, okay?" There's a look in her eyes says she's not saying everything, but that's okay. Neither is Sam.

But he says, "Thanks. We appreciate it. And the place to stay." He glares, until Dean, salt in his hands, looks back from the window and nods.

"Welcome," T.J. says, and hesitates, as if there's something else she wants to say. It's an uneasy look, and Sam raises his eyebrows, waiting. But T.J. shakes her head and says, "Nah. Nothing."

The door slams after her, and her steps echo uneven and muffled down the staircase.

"You trust her?"

"Bobby does," Dean says, and then, "He said she was in Cincinnati for the first one. Pass over that newspaper. And I'm starving. You wanna eat? Pizza numbers by the phone. Betcha."

Dean's right. There are flyers by the telephone. Lorenzo's. Domino's. Xinjian Dim Sum. Sam picks the top one and dials. Dean, pinning up sigils, stretches his hands wide.

"Pepperoni," Sam says. "Large."

"Yeah," Sam says, "Extra cheese," he adds, wrestling Lin Huo's credit card out of his wallet. Walls newspapered, Dean waves the remote in triumph and the television flickers into life. Sam watches Dean flick through channels. Sports, news, reality show, two televangelists, some girl with a New Jersey accent who merits a whole second of Dean's attention, a red carpet event which gets less.

The address is on the stack of bills by the telephone. "No, thanks, that's all tonight," Sam says, and Dean frowns at the screen. Scans the room. The moment when he sees the DVDs on the bookshelf is the moment his face lights up. "Movie night," Dean says. The case he waves at Sam has explosions on the cover. It's going to be loud.

It is.

"Awesome," Dean says, mouth full.

Sam's got the last of his pizza in one hand and his fingers on the scroll button, but there's enough of his attention on the television screen to appreciate the zen of the pyrotechnics. He's thinking of Dean less than Dean. Dean lessoned. Dean, who fought so hard to make Sam whole, the man Sam walked through the hell of his own mind to save.

The internet slews up five dozen supernatural monsters, ghosts, spirits and minor gods with an appetite for other people's lives. The non-corporeal parts, anyway, although at least it's not souls. The memories Sam can just about deal with. Soullessness burns. And he can't stop himself, he looks over at Dean, the familiar shape of him, the familiar undercurrent of love and twisted, baffled desire, and he's so very glad he can feel.

Dean looks up, the start of a question, the start of what might be a smile, and Sam ducks his head back down to the laptop and reads on. It's a full minute before he can feel Dean look away, and when Dean does it's only to stand up, restless. He kicks the pizza boxes under the table and frowns over the futon, opening the thing out and stacking the back with cushions.

"You pack a sleeping bag?"

"Try the closet."

"Huh," Dean says, investigates, and piles the makeshift bed with covers. More cars blow up on screen. Sam shakes his head and closes down the laptop. He's getting nowhere and his eyes are starting to blur, he might as well be reading through glass. He needs to sleep.

"Shove over. Turn that thing off when you're done, yeah?"

Dean grunts in reply and doesn't look around when he makes room. Sam drags down two of the cushions. The light by the couch marks out Dean's face, the line of his cheekbones and the shape of his mouth, and on the wall between the bookcases sends his shadow motionless against the white paint. When the curve of his head moves, Sam knows it's Dean looking down. Then, arching puppetry against the wall, Dean leans over and turns out the light.

~*~

"Sam."

"Sam."

" - what the - Dean?"

Dean's got him pinned. The mattress isn't meant for two men. Dean's weight on top of Sam's: slats of wood cut into his back with painful intensity, and Dean's got an elbow leaning on his shoulder that isn't messing around.

"You awake?"

"Am now. Geddoff."

Dean rolls off, keeps his hand on Sam's wrist where his pulse is still racing. Dream-sour, Sam's mouth is dry.

"Not cool, dude. Not your punching bag. Keep your bony knees to yourself." It's Dean's tired growl, pissed and sniping. Then he says, "Nightmare?" and there's a softened undercurrent to his voice Sam seldom hears and cherishes when he does.

No," he says, quiet in the dark room. And offers, "Dreamed I was playing basketball."

"Never would have guessed," Dean says, and sighs. "College or NBA? Tell me the cheerleaders were hot."

Sam laughs. Dean thumps him lazily on the shoulder to shut him up, and he tries to stifle the noise in the pillows, gives up. "NBA," he says. "Championship. Winning basket."

"Huh," Dean says, and tightens his fingers on Sam's wrist.

Tyrelle played basketball. Tyrelle's lying motionless in a hospital bed in Bellevue, and Sam stops laughing. He turns his hand up under Dean's, and holds on.

~*~

Blinking his way out of sleep into daylight, light white across his closed eyelids, Sam smells fresh coffee. Dean's side of the bed is cold. Sam shuffles himself upright against the cushions and shoves out a hand, gets a mug, not a cardboard cup, and opens his eyes in surprise.

"You made coffee."

"They got machines that do that for you, Sam. Just gotta hit the on switch." Dean's got his boots on, Sam's laptop open and today's Post spread open on the table. He's frowning.

"What's up?"

Dean holds up the paper, where there's a third page article circled: Sleeping Sickness Hits Subway. "Lauren DeWitt," Dean says. "Number six. Late last night. Just about the time you were trying to kick me out of bed." He slants a look down, but Sam can't read Dean's eyes.

"What?"

"It's branching out. First woman," Dean says. Then, "Got a couple more addresses for you. Take the bus."

"You're not coming with?"

"One of us needs to check out the stations, and it ain't you."

"Sure," Sam says slowly.

"Waffles on the counter," Dean offers, which means he's robbed someone else's freezer.

Sam tips his head back, drinks his coffee. His feet are cold. The futon's too short for his height. "I'm not gonna break," he says.

"I know," Dean says. "Just... say you haven't lived through this day before. Or... " He glances at the coffee pot. "I'm not... I'm not, like, your idea of a perfect me right now?"

Exasperated, Sam says, "Any more coffee?" Then he says, "If this was my idea of a perfect life, the weather'd be warmer and there'd be pancakes for breakfast."

Dean grunts.

On the way to the waffles, Sam says, "You snore. And you don't pick up your socks."

"Yeah?" Dean says. "Dude, I'm totally perfect and you know it. Best brother you got, anyways."

Sam says, "Only reason you get a pass on that one is 'cause you made coffee, dude." Then he adds, "You're the only - "

It's like swallowing ice, the lump in his throat when he realises what he's said. His face must have changed. It's Dean who walks over to the pot and pours more coffee, unscrews his flask and adds a generous measure to each mug. Passes it over in silence.

Sam gets up. Showers, managing to forget both razor and jeans. Clean, silent, dressed, he snags the paper, and reads it leaning against the kitchen cupboard, feet curled against the chill of the linoleum. The article's a rehash of names and dates Sam already knows, with a few quotes thrown in from doctors prepared to talk authoritatively about patients they have never seen. Lauren's old New York, which explains the article, a patron of the Metropolitan Opera with an undisclosed income, big hair and a Fifth Avenue apartment.

"Just goes to show everyone rides the subway," Sam says. Truce. He abandons the counter, the map's on the table. Dropping off Dean's fresh coffee, he flips it open. Unless whatever it is that's down there starts taking people from other subway lines, Lauren, found wandering on the platform at 28th St. in a fur coat and crimson Manolos, has cut their search down to six stations and no more than a mile of underground track. But there's no guarantee the thing won't escalate, and although Sam's dream felt nothing like the moment he looked up into Dean's eyes in the subway car window, it's left him with an edgy sense of urgency.

"I think we should get down there and have a look," he says.

"Thought you were all about the research." Dean's looking at a webpage Sam recognizes. Fugue states. Nothing there helped Sam, either.

"We tried the crime scene yesterday and that really worked," Sam says. "We need a witness."

"We got one," Dean says, and looks up. "Hey, Sam. When you were nodding out down there, did you notice anything strange? Men with tails? Commonplace Demons? Vamps? No?"

"Just illusion," Sam says. "Wasn't even... " He shrugs. He's seen worse. A lot worse.

"Find out if these guys were just seeing things, " Dean says. "Find out if it's stalking or just picking at random. See if they've got anything else in common. C'mon Sam, do your stuff. Let's blast this thing and get out of here, yeah?"

"Right," Sam says. Then he says, stung, "Dean, I get it. But what makes you less expendable, huh?"

"Sam," Dean says.

"That one runs both ways," Sam says. Then he sighs, and adds, "Where will you be?" There's no cell phone reception in the subway, and the GPS tracker Sam has on Dean's won't work. Neither will the one he suspects Dean has on him. He makes Dean give him a list.

~*~

When he ducks back into Eva's, Dean's not at the bar. This time, he nods to the woman on the door and gets in without the interrogation. It's a different person serving, with blue hair and three silver crucifixes tangled in her cleavage, but she smiles at him.

"You Sam Winchester?" she asks, and Sam smiles back. "He's out back with T.J. and Soph," she says, "You buying for all of them?"

"Yeah," Sam says, and drops two dollars in the tip jar as she uncaps four beers.

Dean's got an empty glass, a plate of muffins and crumbs, two subway maps, and company. In the corner seat, T.J.'s leaning back, her baseball cap pushed up against the short spikes of her hair, and beside her a woman with pale blonde curls is making loud hand noises. Soph, the bartender had said.

Listening, Dean manages only a flick of his eyelashes for Sam, but the tilt to his head and the inclination of his shoulders, Dean aligning to Sam, is as much welcome as the words would have been.

"I remember going back after the Prop 8 rally," Soph says. "I got mugged in '89 and hell, I didn't set foot on the subway again until that place got armed guards. Hey, muffin?"

"Sure," Sam says.

"Reclaim the Night, that was radical. You remember that, babe? And then the health rally, the one Hillary spoke at, where we all wore pink? That was some trip. We had a six-foot banner with serious breasts - " she demonstrates - "and that was when they still had the old turntables at Union Square. We made this human chain to get the thing - "

Then she says, "You wanted to know about Lauren?" and Sam, who has slotted into place at Dean's side, realizes they're working and looks up.

"We're waiting, sweetheart," T.J. says, the words dry, but by the way she and Soph sit, by the mutual configuration of their hands and the way they smile, the irony won't grate. He thinks they're probably lovers. There's a casual intimacy to the way they touch that's almost impossible to fake: he's got his knee against Dean's after a day apart, and they're brothers.

"We're talking twenty years ago," Soph says. "Back then, I used to go to this cafe over on the East Side. It had a party room upstairs, and Maurie, Maurice, he used to have these formal dances. I'm talking gloves for the ladies, little white gloves, you know what I mean? And there was this band that used to play. I knew the cellist, Andrey. He's dead now."

She shrugs. "All kinds of people used to go. A lot of the drag queens liked it. But there was this group from Manhattan who used to turn up with real pearls and full-length mink. One of them was Lauren. Back then, she used to have these college girls in tow. Damned if I could tell them apart, but she went through a lot. Never saw them around again after, either. Pretty little things."

"So she was... " Dean's head on one side.

"Honey, we weren't writing definitions. We left that to the lesbians." Little grin at T.J., there, that meant a shared history. Sam knew that look. "But she wasn't dropping those girls home alone at night, if that's what you mean. She had money. She knew what she wanted and Good Lord, that woman was cold. I saw her slap someone down once and it wasn't pretty."

"You think she was still dating?"

"I heard she married. For what it's worth. I never saw her anywhere else, though. No loss."

"Harsh," T.J. says.

"You didn't see her, babe. Trust me."

"Thanks," Dean says.

"Welcome. Guess I don't get to know why you're asking? Something to do with the subway?" It's T.J. she's looking at, and the woman smiles, shakes her head.

"Ah well. Tell me later," she says, and then, "Honey, I didn't ask you to stop hunting. I know you're looking."

It's a slow, small smile that T.J. gives her back, and Soph pulls a face. Then she says, "Have another muffin. They're good. Bake sale at the office."

Like T.J., Soph's wearing jeans and a fleece jacket. Sam looks up before he can stop himself: she's not dressed like the corporate commuters on the subway.

He's too obvious. "Seventh Grade," she says, "Fifteen years in the New York public school system. Should have a medal. I'm Soph," she says. "T.J.'s partner."

"Sam," Sam says.

"I kind of guessed," Soph says, and flicks a glance at Dean that's oddly speculative. "So. How long - "

"Better be going," T.J. says. "You'll tell me if you want anything else, Dean?"

"Sure," Dean says. "Thanks again."

"No problem," Soph says. "Call her if you need anything else, honey. She's itching."

T. J. chokes off a laugh. "Out," she says.

"I am so her bitch," Soph says, but she's still smiling, rueful and content, and as they duck out of the door her hand's tucked in T.J.'s back pocket.

"Hey," Sam says to Dean, leaning back. "When did you catch up with T.J.?"

"She called me." Dean says. And then, "I can be nice."

"Yeah, right," Sam says. "So. You find anything?"

"Three quarters," Dean says. "Small dog. Nah, nothing. Nada. There's a magician down there I saw three times over. And someone tried to give me a bible. The blah blah Evangelical Church for Believers wants to teach the saved to serve. That sound familiar? And d'you think there's a roster for buskers somewhere? An hour each and two square yards?"

Dean seems serious.

"Never thought about it," Sam says.

"Me neither," Dean says. "Fucking quartered those stations. Nothing on the walls, no symbols in the graffiti, EMF clear. What does it take to get more beer in here?"

A day underground has not worn well. It's left Dean looking tired, his skin dull and his hair flat at the back and raked up in front, the way it always is when Dean's frustrated.

"You okay?" Sam asks, quickly, before Dean can knock him back as if it doesn't matter.

"Peachy," Dean says. He looks away for a moment, gives a girl in a red dress and Dr Martens a smile so absent she grins uncertainly back, and then says, "Too many people. Felt like I should have been hosting my own TV show. What's this, what're you doing, how does that work... " He shakes his head.

"No trouble?" Sam asks.

"Nah," Dean says. "Nothing."

Sam taps his fingers on the table.

"Met some people," Dean says. "A couple of vets." He shrugs. Then he flicks his empty bottle towards Sam. "Get me a drink, bitch," he says.

"Beer, shot or both?" Sam asks. Dean says, "Beer," and Sam, fielding a glare from the woman behind them that possibly had something to do with bitch, takes the empties to the bar. The bartender's on her own and the bar's busy. Sam's been there.

When he gets back to the table, Dean's got the maps spread out again. The familiar schematic they've been using lies over a USGS geological map that looks infinitely more complicated, but Dean's notations on both are bold and complex. Just as Sam's been collecting interviews, Dean's been compiling information. He's marked up groundrock, water table levels, fracture lines, depth, flooding, power cables. Anything that might conceivably have a hope of predicting or affecting whatever it is they're looking for underground. The circled stations tell their own story, a gradual closing in that starts with the long line of track Daniel traveled and ends with Lauren's six stations. Somewhere under those lines, somewhere between Lincoln Avenue and 42nd St., that's where they should be looking. They both know it.

"So how was your day?" Dean asks.

Sam says, "Scored a free girl scout cookie and some book about flying saucers. Did you know the aliens landed in '72?"

"Thought it was the forties," Dean says.

"Those were the grey ones," Sam says, dead-pan.

"Maybe that's what we got," Dean says. "Alien in the subway."

"C'mon," Sam says. "It's something, just gotta find out what." He pauses. "Daniel has cancer," he says. Sometimes, it's hard to remember that people die of ordinary things. "Daniel's wife opened the door and burst into tears. He's got... maybe a year?"

"Huh," Dean says.

"Four hours on the bus and two ferry trips, you owe me," Sam says. But they hadn't known Daniel was dying, stalked by a silent killer just as deadly as any supernatural monster. "Tracked down Tyrelle's girlfriend, too. She's a nice girl," Sam says, and hopes for the moment when Dean should grin at him, joyous and uncomplicated - Sammy! Girls! It doesn't happen. It hasn't for a while.

He says, "They caught the 7 into Manhattan, but she left at 5th before he changed. He'd said nothing. No dizzy spells, no blank spots, no seeing things in windows. Dean... Kendra says he'd just got a letter from North Carolina. He was taking it to his mother to open. It was a full ride, basketball scholarship. He never knew."

"You believe her?" Dean says. "About not seeing anything before he checked out?"

"Yeah, I do," Sam says, "I spoke to the people at Stonewall too. They've got nothing. And I called Bobby. Gave him a real time description of the Statute of Liberty, too. But he's got nothing still. I'm clutching at straws. There's nothing linking these people but where they were."

"Interesting lives," Dean says, and raises an eyebrow at Sam.

"Went for the wrong brother, then," Sam says.

"Not what I hear," Dean says, and Sam winces. "C'mon Sam, at least T-800 got you laid."

"Thanks," Sam says, not a fan of his own lizard brain. "You done?" There's a girl at the table behind Dean staring at them with a disconcerting intensity, and every time someone walks past, he feels as if he's being judged. They're misplaced, out of context, as alien here as they are on the crowded streets outside.

"You in a hurry?"

"Not solving anything sitting here," Sam says. They're almost at the door before he remembers, free food. "Wait up," he says, and goes back for the muffins.

When he turns around, Dean's waiting alone for him at the bar. The screen's on, mute, some baseball game, but Dean's back is to the room and his head down. Like he's the man everyone knows by sight and not by name, the one that no one misses when they're gone, and he does it as if he's so used to pulling on the guise it's become real. This is Dean without Sam. It hurts. This isn't Sam's brother, it's his father, standing on his own at the end of a bar.

In the mirror behind the bar, Dean looks up. His eyes meet Sam's. He doesn't smile, but his eyes lighten and his mouth softens, a change so small Sam would have missed it if he didn't know Dean so well. Dean with Sam, something entirely different from Dean alone. Or Dean with a Sam that has no soul.

Before he knows what he's going to do, Sam walks forward and reaches out. It's not a clap on the shoulder. He needs to know Dean's here, with him, and Sam - in a bar in New York, in public - Sam wraps both his arms around his brother and ducks his face into Dean's neck. Under his hands, Dean's as solid as an engine block, as warm as summer. He's sharp edged with keys and wallet and the gun he'd said he wouldn't carry, softer at his belly where Sam's hands meet over his T-shirt, prickly with afternoon stubble, rank with the smell of the subway.

Sam has all of two seconds before Dean jerks away. More than he'd thought he was going to get, and there had been a second, long enough for the start of a thought, when he'd wondered, amazed, if Dean was actually going to let him hold on. He doesn't want to let go. This Dean's real and whole.

Then Dean jabs an elbow in his stomach, hard, and twists away. Hand out, starfished and so tightly held the lines across his palm look like scars, Dean delineates distance. "Sam." It's outraged.

"Sorry," Sam says, but he doesn't move back. He's unrepentant and Dean knows it. Rolling his eyes, Dean looks away for a moment, looks back, can't think of anything to say. They don't do this. It takes a life-changing event for a Winchester to hug, in public or not.

But Sam reckons he's at least fifty percent of all the Winchesters left, which gives him a more than deciding vote. And Dean, eyes bright, pink with embarrassment, alive: Sam thinks they should do this more often. It's a good thought.

"What?" Dean asks. There's a twist at the corner of his mouth Sam can't read. He's never seen it before. It's fascinating.

"Nothing," Sam says. But he's still smiling half a block away. Over spaghetti and meatballs, over the gingham cloth and across from the breadbasket and the plastic glasses Dean pokes with disgusted suspicion, Sam keeps smiling. It's like, when he touches Dean, the Dean he sees and the way Dean feels in his head become the same person. And if Dean's real, Sam is too, whole and unfragmented and himself in his own skin.

Loose and happy in his seat, Sam can relax, let his mind skitter over the edges of the case without picking at the details of each person. He thinks about the weight of Dean's Colt against his own belly, the Chinese woman in the subway, and the pictures in the newspaper article...

"Dean."

"Yes, Sam?" It's wary, the look Dean gives him.

"You reckon there's surveillance cameras in the subway?"

" - fuck me," Dean says, fork poised half way to his mouth, dripping spaghetti and sauce.

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Dean turns out his jacket pockets to produce, from the new batch of laminates, two transit cop IDs. One's a little battered to hide the blurred transfer, but then, it'd been the best he could do on short notice. In the interests of professionalism, they finish the pasta first, and then Sam finds the address and Dean finds a bus heading in the right direction.

It takes the grumbling night security team an hour and a half to pull off the images onto disks. Sam makes a run for the plastic bags and tags and Ghosts of New York for him and New Scientist and Penthouse for Dean, Twinkies and Oreos. He and Dean sit together, knee to knee, dropping crumbs in the pages. They haven't cracked this, they don't know what it is down there or how they're going to kill it, but Sam knows they've got a real live witness, and one that can't stare at him blankly the way Janielle Robertson did or burst into tears like Kendra. Even the long walk back in the dark has Sam bouncing a little on his feet beside Dean's solid, still slightly cross endurance. Comfortable, happy, he's full of pasta, his pockets stuffed with muffins and labeled, bagged CDs, Dean beside him.

They have the advantage of knowing exactly when, where, and on which train every victim started their journey, and Sam has a face recognition program on his laptop that's illegally good. It's Sam, legs stuffed under the table, who peers at the screen and edits the image capture to recognizable sequences. Dean's crashed out in front of the TV, not even adding in the occasional "Are we done yet?" Sam gets nothing but a profile to contemplate on occasional excursions from the screen, and by the time he's done -

"Dean?"

- Dean's asleep, still propped up on the cushions fully dressed to his boots and with a protective hand closed on the remote. Sam's tired himself. He drags off his clothes, crawls into his own T-shirt and boxers and strips off Dean's boots before crumpling into bed. Dean's taking up more than his fair share of the futon, but Sam's too tired to complain. Instead he curls his way into Dean's side, warm if uncomfortable with too many bits of clothing, and falls asleep.

He dreams he's walking along a beach. The sky is a clarion blue, the sun as white as the sand, and with each step his feet turn up a myriad of tiny shells, exquisite, pale creams and pinks, so small their miniature sharp edges sting pleasantly against Sam's skin. Languorously slow, small waves lap, angled, at a beach so gently inclined it could almost be flat. Sam walks slowly, but there is a figure waiting for him at the edge of the tide. At first he thinks he's seeing a girl with long dark hair, and for a moment he's haunted by a smile so sweet his breath catches, but the figure blurs into someone broad-shouldered and far less elegant. After a while, he knows it to be Dean. Not much later he realizes they are both naked, but in the way of some dreams, it's a nakedness without shame or prurience. He's not surprised when Dean turns to smile over his shoulder, an echo of the girl's smile and gentle and soft as Dean has never been in life. Nor when it seems so natural to fit himself against his brother's back that Sam does. His hands are clasped around Dean's waist and Dean's hands come to rest on his thighs, skin to skin. Dean's exactly the right height for Sam.

The waves are warm at their feet, but the ocean is infinitely vast.

"Sam."

"Mmm?"

"Sam. Get your fucking stupid hair out of my face."

Painfully, he's dragged into the night. It hurts. Dean's pulling his hair, shoving him away. Sam protests, hanging on. It's cloth under his fingers, not skin.

"Swear to God, Sam, you can sleep on the floor."

Under the cloth, Dean. Awake in the real world Sam snatches back his hands and then, in an awkward rush, most of the rest of himself. They've shared before, but he's never woken up with his head on Dean's shoulder nor Dean's belt buckle pressed into his belly in any other bed. It's disturbingly intimate in a way that has very little to do with touch and a lot to do with trust.

"Sorry."

"Happens again, you will be."

The futon creaks and shifts as Dean strips in jerky, cross carelessness, and shoves himself back down into the empty space while Sam pointedly stays on his side of their bed.

"Tell me that was a dream."

"I'll tell you tomorrow."

"Huh." But Dean's voice is a tired drawl, and in minutes, he's asleep.

Sam inches closer. Spreads his hand so that his fingertips tuck under the arch of Dean's back, not as close as he'd like, far enough away to be incidental if challenged. He's sure he can smell salt in the air.

When he wakes up again, though, in the small hours of the night, it's not Sam who's wrapped around Dean. It's Dean wrapped around him, snuffling into Sam's shoulder with his arm flung over Sam's chest, and when Sam tries to pull free Dean grumbles and tightens his hands.

"Hey," Sam whispers. He's only human. It's not like he planned to wake up with his brother so softly pliant against him they might have been lovers, and the feel of it is so gently poignant. He wants this, too.

"Huh?" and then Dean wakes up and scrambles aside and says, "Fuck, Sam, sorry, I."

"S'okay," Sam says, and pulls the blankets back, which brings Dean rolling over in a sleepy scramble of sheets and hands. "Shut up," he says, even though Dean hasn't said anything, and tugs Dean back into place with three layers of cotton and jersey between his skin and Sam's. It's enough cover to let Sam tuck in close, curved around Dean's solid weight. "Just let me... " he says, and buries his nose in the back of Dean's neck where the hair is so short and scratching soft. It's a myth of connection Sam needs, when in daylight guilt dogs his footsteps and runs under every glance. He can't stop wanting. He's tried.

"You'd better be asleep, Sammy," Dean mutters.

Sam tightens his hands. He's never asked what Dean dreams about. He'd thought he knew.

For the second morning in a row, Sam wakes up to the smell of coffee. He can hear the patter of the shower, and the bed's cold where Dean had been sleeping, but Sam's still sporting both half a hard-on and a full bladder. There's no putting off getting up. He groans, stretches, and rolls off the bed onto the floorboards, which hurts.

"Hurry up," he yells to Dean, but the sound of the shower doesn't stop and Sam really needs to piss. It's not as if it's Bobby's house, he can't go in the sink, it's full of unwashed mugs. He rattles the handle, but the shower's still running.

"Dean!"

"Hold it for a minute, will ya?" Dean yells back, but Sam can't wait. He turns the handle just as the shower shuts down, and Dean's been running it hot. Steam billows out into the room. Sam dives in, flips up the lid and takes sleepy, automatic aim at the basin.

"Oh, c'mon, how couth is that?" Dean says.

"You could have locked the door," Sam says. The towels piled on the sink to his left vanish. They don't lock doors, not unless they mean it.

"Huh," Dean says, muffled. Sam finishes up, turns around. He'd been going to leave Dean in peace, but Dean's not clutching the towel in offended modesty. He's drying himself off like Sam's not even in the room. Sam's not sure if that's a good or a bad thing because Dean's got no idea what that bare, wet skin says to Sam's dick, but he's not going to stop looking while he's got the chance.

Dean's not telling him to get out. Sam props himself against the shower door and watches his brother towel off, fill the sink and soap up.

"You just gonna stand there?"

"You mind?"

Dean shrugs, lifts his chin and sets the blade to his throat. In the mirror, where Dean's wiped a clear swath through the condensation, Sam watches. There's no illusion here, it's just them.

"Cheap thrills, Sam?" Dean says, hand steady on the razor.

"Bite me," Sam says automatically. Then, awkwardly, "I never meant... "

"I know," Dean says, and in the mirror he smiles, small and wry. Then he looks down, flushing the razor clean in the sink, and for a moment he looks so like the Dean in the window Sam has to catch his breath and look away. Dean's wearing nothing but his amulet and a threadbare towel around his hips and there are droplets of water on his shoulders from his wet hair, and it's so goddamn wrong that Dean can stop the breath in Sam's throat without even trying.

When he looks back, there's a line of blood on Dean's cheek.

"You okay?"

"Golden. Thanks. What was it last night? Octopus?"

"A beach. Just a beach."

"So, what, you were hugging sand castles? They make lobster pots for people like you," Dean says.

"Oh really," Sam says. "You liked it." Then he says, holding Dean's eyes in the mirror, "Dean. The basketball. And this was the sea. I think I'm dreaming what they see."

There's a pause. Then, "You think?" Dean says.

Sam says, "We're not talking possession. It's like seeing movies."

"Huh," Dean says.

"I'm not worried," Sam says. Although he is. There's a sick thread of fear in his belly that twists every time he thinks about loss. Himself. Dean. And there's a horror to the thought of the empty shells the passengers have become that he can't forget.

Castiel could do that with a wave of his hand.

"Would you stop hunting? If I asked?" Sam blurts out.

In the mirror, Dean looks back at him. "I did," he says, and wipes the razor down. "Didn't work out so good," he says.

Sam looks away. He shouldn't have said anything. The way Dean looks tears at his heart, as if he's braced for the next punch and Sam's throwing them.

Then Dean says, "I tried."

Sam says, "I shouldn't have asked you." It fucking hurts. He screwed Dean up twice over with Lisa and Ben, and Dean had loved both of them.

Dean says, "If either of us thought there was a hope in hell you'd be coming back I wouldn't have been there." In the mirror his eyes hold Sam's, honest and open. Dean laying it out, cards on the table. "Who the fuck else is gonna wash my socks?" Dean says, and grabs his jeans. "Try not to drown in the shower, Sammy, you're a big boy now." He's grinning when he closes the door.

When Sam gets out, Dean's watching the surveillance cuts Sam pulled together last night. The laptop's fan is humming.

"Anything useful?"

"Not yet."

There's coffee in the pot. Sam helps himself, and wanders around to look over Dean's shoulder. In unpleasantly blurred black and white real time, Dean's watching Daniel. By the timer in the top left hand corner of the screen, it's 7:42 am on Thursday February 10th, and the car is crowded. The station's 14th St., where seventy people do their best to pretend they're alone in a place where personal space has been compressed to no more than two inches and hands regulate territory in fractions, on the rails. Where people press out of the doors blind-eyed, heading to the midtown Manhattan finance houses and the Chelsea art galleries. Black's the color of money, cashmere, leather gloves and Italian hand-made shoes. Daniel's half-way down the car, between a tall woman in a white peacoat and a man with a perfectly shaped bald spot the size of a pool ball.

Every time the train stops, the people in the car readjust. People crowd the doorway as the train slows, negotiate temporary truces passing each other and force miniature skirmishes over ten square inches of shoe space. Daniel moves with the crowd, shuffles a few steps forward, a few back. He's not watching the windows. His head is down: he looks half asleep, but when the woman in the white peacoat says something to him as the train jerks its way out of 23rd St. he looks up and nods.

Daniel works on Columbus Avenue. He's a genealogist, working for the Church of Latter Day Saints, as he has for twenty two years of his life. In three stops, he should be getting off the subway, crowding up the steps, coming out into the early morning snow-cold New York City streets. Penn Station passes. 42nd Street. Daniel doesn't move. He doesn't, like the man across from him with the leatherbound psalter, stand straighter, pull in his shoulders, angle his chin in a way that's instantly recognizable as getting off: get out of my way.

Daniel stands still. His right hand hangs loosely by his side. His left is holding the rail. He's tall enough to have a good grip and he's steady on his feet.

In profile, he looks the same as he did twenty minutes ago. Except that he hasn't remembered his stop.

Any minute now, he's going to jerk into motion.

He doesn't.

66th St. passes. For two stops, there's a man with a Lakers basketball cap who stands stoically in the middle of the doorway, until a woman with a backpack asks him to move and he shuffles down the line with a puzzled, apologetic smile as if he hasn't realized how much space he'd inhabited. 72nd St. passes, 79th. A latecomer, pushing towards space, knocks Daniel with his shoulder. Slowly, Daniel spins, hanging from the rail.

His face is terribly, horrifyingly blank. He's not there.

"Bingo," Dean says.

Sam hasn't got words. He's seen people ripped to shreds, eviscerated, destroyed: he's done the damage himself. This, bloodless, painless, thoughtless, an inconsequential and anonymous cruelty, is hard to stomach and harder to understand. It's as if the person Daniel is means nothing.

He still has no idea what or who they're dealing with. But looking at Daniel's face, thinking of Janielle's, Sam knows he was right, back in Schenectady. It's a case they need to solve.

There's a stool in the closet. Sam gets it, scrunching his knees under the table, and Dean fast forwards through the rest of Daniel's journey. He hangs from the rail for ten minutes, head down, not moving. At a quarter of nine, he starts to shiver, and his hand clenches and loosens. Ten minutes later, he lets go and walks down the car. He's slow moving, jerky, uncoordinated, as if he doesn't know quite what to do with his limbs, and he doesn't acknowledge the people around him in any way. When he reaches the end of the car, he stops and stares at the locked door for half an hour. Despite the rattle and jerk of the subway stopping and starting, and the movement of people around him, Daniel stands still.

When he turns to come back, they see his face. It's as blank as it was half an hour ago. But he's wringing his hands. Ceaseless, awkward, desperate, his fingers clutch and grasp over and over again, while Daniel himself walks slowly to an empty seat and sits down, stiff and forced as a puppet. There he stays.

Twice, people speak to him, asking - Sam guesses, there's no sound on the cameras - if he's okay. There's no response. Those people are meaningless to Daniel. He rides out the crowds, the shoppers, the late morning rush. It's the cleaners who find him, an hour and ten minutes after, whole, he embarked on the subway.

He's still wringing his hands as he's carried out of the car.

Dean looks at Sam. Sam looks at Dean.

"You think - "

"I got nothing," Sam says, and goes out for more bagels while Dean watches Jerome.

"Guy's an ass," Dean says when Sam comes back in the door.

"Yeah?" Sam says, but no elucidation follows. In lieu of further comment, Sam serves up food and more coffee, squinting over at the screen. The view's no different: Jerome's a little harder to spot, at the far end of the car, but he has the same disturbing absence of presence Daniel had. "Did you see when it happened?"

"Nah," Dean says. "But he's gone now. Tell me there's bacon on those bagels."

"No," Sam says, although he had asked. After that, he'd been lucky to get served.

Jerome never does move from where he's standing. Like Daniel, the only part of him in motion is his hands, one fist beating the palm of his other hand in unceasing motion. It's an unfocused anger disturbing to watch, and like Daniel, it doesn't stop until he too is carried out of the car.

José is worse.

With the other passengers gone from the car, Sam was able to see Jerome's tight, buttoned up winter city coat, his umbrella, his briefcase, his shined shoes and his regulation three-quarter-inch haircut. Jerome looks like every company man Sam's ever seen. Even his black leather gloves have a subtle patina to them that reeks of both money and privilege, and although Sam doesn't have Dean's instant antagonism, he's not fond. Wesson was not Sam's favorite Dean. It's only the cystic fibrosis research button on Jerome's coat that lends him individuality.

José, though, Sam does like. He's a little man with a big grin, tight jeans and a baggy sweater and a rainbow colored scarf, obvious in the crowd of commuters. It's easy to see why people care what happens to him: in the space of six stations, José manages to charm an elderly lady's pug, startle a woman struggling with two suitcases and a malfunctioning smartphone into laughing, and mock a man hogging space in the aisle so gently that even the man himself smiles as he moves aside.

Sam's smiling himself. "Diva," Dean mutters beside him.

"Hey," Sam says, irritated. "Just because - "

"You do this one," Dean says, and turns the laptop to face Sam, stands up and stretches.

"Was it the scarf or the pug?" Sam asks.

Dean looks down at him. "I did the last two. It's your turn. Eyes on the screen."

Sam pauses the feed, looks up. "You know we need to get down there."

"Not looking forward to dragging your fat ass out of a tunnel, you nod out on me down there."

"You gonna let me come with, then?"

By the surprise on Dean's face, it hadn't even occurred to him that Sam would think otherwise. He looks away for a second, and then shrugs, looks back. "Can't stop you." But Dean's saying, yeah, I trust you, and Sam's good with that. Sam's more than good with that.

This time, the third time, it's gradual. But José's facing the camera, and there's so much animation in his face that it's obvious, the moment when José's face blanks, smoothes out, loses whatever it is that makes him himself. There's no change in his posture, but he's not home.

Then, he is. He shakes his head, blinks, stares unfocused at the window opposite, and Sam is vividly and uncomfortably reminded of how it felt to see Dean's smile in an unreal reflection. The camera's screen shows the window frustratingly blank, but José's eyes track something Sam can't see beyond the glass. José doesn't reach for his phone. He doesn't look to the exit or start moving or clutch his head. He just watches the window, as calm as if he's watching a movie, and the life drifts so slowly from his face he could be falling asleep.

For the first time, people notice. The woman next to José, the one with the smartphone, turns around with a smile that slowly fades as she sees his face. She's the one that tries to rouse him, at first with questions, and then, hesitating, with touch. She's the one who shouts down the car to get the train to stop and stays with José while the commuters are hustled off and the EMTs arrive. When José, like Daniel and Jerome before him, is carried out of the train she's still beside him.

Her name's in the newspaper report, and when Sam had dropped in to the Stonewall offices it'd been up on the notice board too, with a request for incessionary prayers and a phone number.

Crashed out face down on the futon with the maps, Dean, possibly coming up with a fool-proof plan, is more likely dozing. Sam makes them both of them coffee and sits down, shoving Dean's legs out the way. "I think it's feeding on emotion," he says.

Rolling away, Dean stretches. "Yeah?" There's a circled spot on the map, and Dean's drawn arrows and notations in scrawled black ink, red Xs and cramped diagrams.

"José was worried," Sam says. "Daniel was scared. Jerome was angry." The coffee's bitter, the way Dean likes it, but it's hot.

Dean thinks about it for a moment. Then he says, "Good to know."

"Eh?"

"Kind missed you emoting over there in the corner," Dean says. "When you were gone." He offers a lazy cuff to Sam's ear, and Sam ducks into it smiling. Tips his mug to his brother in thanks. There might be some emotions he's not altogether comfortable in owning, but he's glad to have them all the same. When he looks back up, Dean's got his coffee in his hands and he's not looking back, but there's a tilt to the corners of his mouth that is nothing but affectionate.

Sam wants to touch. He wants to reach out and run his fingers over the curve of Dean's mouth, warm and strong and real, make Dean smile. Badly, Sam wants Dean to smile at him.

He drinks more coffee instead.

"So," Dean says. There's still a tiny curl at the corner of his mouth and his eyes are bright, expectant, interested. A moment or two later, his face slips into quizzical. It's then that Sam realises he's been staring for a little too long. His thoughts have gone sideways. He stumbles out, "Could be a durga. We're not talking about possession. Could be some kind of vampire. I'm pretty sure there's some kind of Japanese demon that steals memory. I was wondering..."

Still listening, Dean's frowning a little now. "Go on," he says, sharp

"It just doesn't fit. There's nothing else I can find, no other cases, nothing. It's maybe something new. Maybe it's a spell. I don't know."

"In the subway? You think?" Dean's nodding.

Sam shrugs. "Could fit. I just don't know."

"But like what?" Dean says. "You know any kind of spell like this? Genie? Demon? I don't wanna go chasing around in the dark if we don't know zilch."

"Won't be the first time," Sam says. "We've done okay so far."

Dean says. "You gonna blame me if I get a little antsy when things start messing around in your head? Sue me if I kinda want a better idea of what we're dealing with before we start playing tag in the dark."

"Okay," Sam says, slowly. Dean stares at him for a moment longer, looks away, and reaches for his coffee. Sam goes back to the screen. He's not concentrating while he watches Sanjay. Half his attention's on Dean, rustling maps, head bent. The set of Dean's shoulders is stiff. It's only when he puts the maps away and starts stripping down his Colt that Sam can concentrate. Dean's always happier with something he can fix.

Onscreen, Sanjay, smiling and smooth, starts up a conversation with the woman standing beside him. He's charming. She's charmed. It takes him five minutes to get a cell phone number, and then, by the way he's taking notes, a date. She almost misses the step, looking back at him when she leaves the car. It's a date that never happened. Forty seconds after the doors have closed, Sanjay's face slips into emptiness. It's no less disturbing the fourth time Sam sees it happen.

Sanjay doesn't wring his hands. Instead, he itches and scratches at his own skin, jerky and awkward, and then soothes the hurt of it only to start all over again. People in the car take one look and give him a wide berth. Fast forwarding, Sam runs through supernatural monsters in his head, thinking of what they're going to need if they don't know what -

Someone slaps Sanjay in the face. A woman, so angry she's shouting and the noise of it tugs every head in the car around to listen.

Sam's hasn't been concentrating. He has to rewind, frowning at the screen, and then he watches Sanjay stand in front of the woman, hands still busy, and say something that makes her flush. She's opened her mouth to reply when he says something else, and then she hits him. She's not messing around, either, it's a forceful open-handed slap that sends him reeling backwards, and then she starts shouting.

There's nothing in the incident report. But Sam's willing to bet that Sanjay - or whatever was in Sanjay - just tried out his pick up lines on someone who really wasn't interested. Sound would have been good. "Dean?" he says. "Take a look at this?"

Dean whistles, watching. "Crash and burn, baby," he says.

"He got a date twenty minutes ago," Sam says. "I think it's trying the same thing."

"Think it needs to try harder," Dean says. "So. Lust?"

"Pretty sure it's not the seven deadlies," Sam says, dry. Sanjay's face is still blank. He hadn't reacted to the woman's slap at all, and he'd stayed where the force of it had pushed him, staring at the window, while she'd pushed her way to the doors. The people around him had muttered and shifted, but Sanjay looked utterly unaware of anything outside his own head.

"You didn't look like that," Dean says.

"Yeah?"

"It was still you," Dean says. "Like you look like when you're thinking."

"I knew what was happening," Sam says.

"Think it was testing you?"

"I knew it wasn't you I was seeing. Maybe if I hadn't... I'll always know you," Sam says, uneasily.

Dean stands up. He says slowly, "Think you could do it again?"

"Can try," Sam says. "Why?"

"Wondered if we could lure it out," Dean says.

Sam turns around and finds Dean leaning against the kitchen door, relaxed, his hands on the countertop and head on one side as he waits. He's wearing three different shirts and a T-shirt under that Sam knows has sweat stains at the armpits. His jeans are ripped at the knees and his boots are so old they're cracked at the instep. There's ink and gun oil on his hands, his fingernails are ragged, and Dean's face is already shadowed with stubble.

He's nothing at all like the image Sam saw in the window. But Sam knows - he can see the progression of it in his head as clearly as if it's happened, is just about to happen, will happen - he could reach out to this Dean just as he could have to that false image. The rush of heat under his skin is exactly the same, the ache in his bones and the itch in his palms and the way his dick swells against his jeans, and so too is the disjunction between Dean Sam's brother and the man he wants.

"That's not such a great idea," Sam says, while the Dean in his head pushes back against Sam just as hard as Sam wants him. From the kitchen door Dean looks at him in inquiry, while his alter image fastens a hand in Sam's hair and pulls him down with a quick and dirty smile Sam would kill to see. It's an image that segues, sickeningly, into Dean with blood on his face and Sam's hand wrapped around his throat.

"Why not? You know something I don't?" Dean's frowning, suspicious. "You're all gung-ho about getting down there."

"You don't want to know," Sam says. But he does. He wants to know what's haunting Dean in the window of the subway car, if part of the reason they're fumbling around each other is Dean's image of Sam as well as Sam's image of Dean. He's done some crap stuff in his life and some of it to Dean. Some of it he knows for sure he's done. The rest is nightmares.

"Sam, I'm over the torture thing, right - " Dean says.

"It was nothing to do with hell, okay? Leave it alone."

"And if you say you're not going to crack, I'll take your word for it. So what is it? Give me something to work with here, Sam, because I'm struggling and this ain't gonna stop. Suppose it's kids next?"

Sam stands up. He doesn't move, but he's still so hard in his jeans it's going to be blatantly obvious, and when Dean's eyes drop he's holding his breath. His chin's up: he's waiting for the moment Dean hits him.

"Is that - " Dean says, and then he flushes, a hot line of color along his cheekbones like Sam's never seen before. His hands open and close on the counter.

"Told you," Sam says. "You really want to know exactly what it's showing me, Dean?"

Dean doesn't hit him. Dean turns around, drops his head, braces his shoulders.

"You've had better ideas," Sam says. "So have I."

Dean doesn't move. Sam sighs, and kicks the chair back under the desk, walks backwards. There's not far to go. It's a small apartment. Like Dean, he leans against the wall, and then he waits.

"This never happened, right?" Dean says, to the cupboard door. "I'm gonna turn around, and nothing ever happened, yeah?"

"I'm not gonna jump you," Sam says, and Dean flinches.

"Is this something to do with the... the dreams?"

Sam lets that one go. He kind of liked that bit, in a way that has nothing to do with the way he wants Dean under him, on top of him, looking back at Sam like he's the only person that matters.

"Sam," Dean says.

"So I'm all in favor of offing this thing," Sam says. "But you and me as bait? Ain't gonna happen. You want to do this, it's gonna have to be something else."

"Right," Dean says. "Awesome." When he turns around, the blush hasn't faded. "So I'm gonna... You just finish up with the, the, whatever, and I'm gonna... "

"Dean?"

"Going out," Dean says, and in a stumbling, clumsy rush he pulls on his jacket and heads for the door. He hasn't looked at Sam at all.

"Well, that went well," Sam says, and sits back down. Gingerly. Five minutes later he goes for a shower, because Sam's stupid, blind dick has a mind of its own and Sam clearly hasn't been emphatic enough on the subject of coercion, consent and incest, mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

It's still Dean's face he sees when he comes. Closing this case can't happen too soon.

The Impala's keys are still in the duffel.

The worst thing is, the way Tyrelle goes down, it's obvious that Sam's right. The teenager's startlingly agitated. He can't stop his hands twitching as he talks to Kendra, and twice he pulls the sealed letter out of his pocket and turns it over and over, looking down. After Kendra leaves, he just holds it in his hands, a dream he has yet to realise. Sam can take a guess what it means to Tyrelle: a way out, a promise of something more, something bigger, something Tyrelle's probably wanted for years and may now hold in his hand.

The letter drops when Tyrelle loses himself. It lies on the floor of the car, halfway lost under one of seats, and it stays there for the next four hours. One of the transit cops finds it later. It's in the evidence index, but Tyrelle never sees it again. Instead, he drops down onto one of the seats, blank-faced, and watches the window. After a couple of hours, his hands begin to shape throws, closing around the shape of an invisible ball. Ten minutes in, and he's walking up and down the aisle, practicing passes no one else can see. Thirty, and he's on the platform, and it's then that the transit cops drag him away, his hands still working.

Tyrelle's the one that hurts. He's so young. And Sam knows exactly what it feels like to hold that letter in his hands. Tyrelle's gone. There's nothing left of that kid in the subway but an empty shell, and seeing it on screen brings it home to Sam just what it had to have been like for Dean, living with a Sam who was equally absent. He can't afford to slip. He won't make Dean live through that kind of pain again. What they've got is precious and Sam's not letting it go.

Nor Dean. For one awful, gut-wrenching moment, Sam imagines Dean blank faced and puppet-empty, and in that moment fear hits him broadside. He needs Dean whole, himself. He's not letting Dean go. He won't.

He takes a break, then. Makes himself more coffee and drinks it standing at the narrow kitchen window, looking out at the street. The snow's heaped filthy by the sidewalks and the sky's a dirty shade of grey, threatening more. Dean's somewhere out there.

He turns back to the laptop.

Lauren's drunk as a skunk. She rolls into the car with her fur coat slipping off her shoulder and her hair disheveled, half a dead cigarette in one hand and her handbag falling open in the other. She's wearing high-heeled pumps, but the strap on one is broken and there's a run in her pantyhose. By the timer on the screen, it's four o'clock in the afternoon.

She's not a quiet drunk, Lauren. She talks to the man next door to her, the empty chairs, the grab rail, and once she's reached the end of the cars, the closed doors. Silenced by the camera, her mouth works over the words, distorted and uncomfortable and awkward to watch, and people move out of her way as she walks unsteadily down the car. She's looking for something, response, validation, but it's not happening: mid sentence, she turns away from people who are politely ignoring her.

When she starts talking to the window, Sam's not surprised. Her face changes, sharpens: she reaches out a hand and puts it flat-palmed against the glass. The moment before her face goes blank, she starts to smile. She's the only one who looks as if she's willingly sliding into oblivion.

When the EMTs come to take her away, she's still smiling into the window.

Sam's got pages of notes, timings and dates and names. He stares down at them, but he's not getting anywhere. He's still got no idea what's down there, he's been staring at the screen for too long, and he's got no idea what Dean's doing. When he's coming back.

Of course Dean's coming back.

But when his cell rings, Sam snatches it off the table. He doesn't recognize the number.

"Sam?" It's T.J.

"Yeah?" Sam says.

"You want to get down here?"

"He's with you? Is he okay?" Sam says, and then, "Where are you? Eva's?" He's got an instant image in his head of Dean, angry and drunk, picking fights with women who probably know exactly how to take him down. Dean's on his own.

"Battery Park, heading your way," T.J. says. The sound of her voice is blurred by cars and people. She's outside. "Or we will be. Dean says you've got the maps. He's fine," she says.

"He could tell me himself," Sam grumbles.

"He's busy right now," T.J. says, and she's amused, which at least means Dean's probably not got himself into too much trouble.

Already shrugging into his coat, Sam says, "Give me fifteen minutes."

But it's half an hour before Sam manages to catch the right train, and another two stops before he finds the right car. Well past the evening commute, the subway's not crowded, and there are only five people in the car: an elderly Chinese woman staring down at the bag in her lap and a boy with his eyes closed, headphones covering his ears. T.J., sitting sideways on one of the seats, hand raised in greeting, and at the back of the car, Dean, and some girl Sam doesn't recognize, making out against the window. All Sam can see is Dean's back, and her hands.

It's not the first time. T.J. moves over, and Sam slides in beside her.

"I thought about popcorn," she says. "But then I thought I'd call you." Her smile is bright and sharp.

"What did he say?" Sam asks, as Dean comes up for air, eyes closed. He doesn't look like he's enjoying himself. He's got one hand on the window, and his shoulders are tight. Dean wiping Sam out in the touch of someone else's hands and setting a trap at the same time. Sam understands, but it doesn't stop the fierce thread of anger under his skin. Dean doesn't know what he's risking. Dean's never lost himself.

"Sam?"

"He called you?" Sam says. "What did he say?"

"Apart from, let's take this motherfucker down, and don't ask where Sam is?" T.J. says. "Not much. That's Brittany. Dean had her with him when we met."

"Dean could hook up in a snowstorm," Sam says. He leans back and looks over, a so carefully casual, critical appraisal that catalogs Brittany's painted fingernails pressing into Dean's shoulders and her blonde hair spilling over his jacket, the exact tilt of Dean's head and the angle of his hips. The windows are dark.

"We looked at the surveillance film," he says. "It likes emotion. Stronger the better." Although, when he thinks about it, there's got to be people on the subway going through worse things than Tyrelle or José. Sam's missing something.

"Okay," T.J. says. She's watching Dean too, head on one side, like she's giving out points for technique. "He can do better than that," she says. "But it's pretty."

Sam snorts. Dean's not so pretty with a gun in his hands. Or when he's riling Sam.

"You got any idea what it is yet?" T.J. asks.

"Nah," Sam says. "That's kind of the point. There's three miles of tunnel under here and it'd be good to know if we're talking holy water or flamethrowers."

"Might have a problem with flamethrowers," T.J. says. "Holy water I can do, but I'm betting you boys got that covered."

"Yeah," Sam says, and then, as Brittany's hand drops to Dean's hips and Dean whispers in her ear, "You really stopped hunting?"

T.J. shrugs. "I do the odd thing here and there," she says. "But Soph... Soph was the one who had to drag my ass out of Louisiana. She's never asked me to stop, but I hadn't realized how scared she was."

Sam nods, but T.J.'s looking at Dean, and the expression on her face is carefully guarded. For a moment, Sam wonders if the payoff is enough or if T.J. would prefer to be back on the road, but he thinks she's made her choice.

Then T.J. says, "I've been riding the subway every chance I get," She's still looking at Dean. "And I got nothing. Not even a whisper."

The car judders over the switches, pulling out of 28th Street, but Dean sways with the movement and doesn't look up. If Sam's timing is on, he and Brittany, they've been making out for twenty minutes already and nothing's happened.

"That's how Bobby knew to call me when you picked up the hunt," T.J. says. "You seen anything yet?"

"No," Sam says. And then, "It went after me." Although he's certain the thing's after Dean as well. "Dean's good with walls. Feelings? Not so much." The windows are still blank. Sam can't even see the advertisements reflected. He wonders, if he'd looked away, that night in Schenectady, whether the crack between him and Dean would exist.

T.J. turns around and looks at him. "So why isn't it you over there?" she asks.

"What?" Sam splutters, and then, for a single, electrifying moment imagines Dean willing, under his hands. But he's already said no.

"Should have seen your face."

"You're kidding." Sam says, but he can't breath properly and there's a lump in his throat.

"You don't do hook ups, right?" T.J. says. "But you're angry enough to make it count."

"He's... you know we're brothers?" Sam says, and only then realizes that he hasn't even thought of taking Dean's place. It's Brittany he wants gone.

T.J. pauses. Then she says, slow, "Honey. You reach my age, you've seen everything. You gonna go make out for the cameras?"

"Think Dean's doing just fine over there," Sam says, forcing the words out, trying for nonchalance and failing. "I'll pass. Thanks."

T.J. shrugs. "Your loss," she says. "I'll just hang out here with the salt."

The doors open and close. Between Christopher and 66th St., the northernmost cross on the map, Daniel went missing. As hard as Sam stares, the windows are still blank. T.J. shifts in her seat, her boots scuffing the dirty floor. On the window, Dean's spread hand is white at the fingertips. He's going to be as off balance as Sam, stripped down and raw. It's not every day your brother shoves his dick in your face, and Sam's known Dean for all of his life. Dean's papering over the cracks the best way he knows. It's not working for Sam. The thing's been said and it's out in the open. It's real.

The thought burns. Sam watches Brittany's hands slide inside Dean's jacket and knows exactly how soft Dean's shirts are and how warm his skin is inside them. He knows the way Dean softens when he's wanting, the way his eyes narrow, heavy and dark, the way he bites his lip. It's never been Sam Dean looked at like that, but Sam's fiercely, miserably jealous. As if they're not brothers, as if Sam could stand up and walk over and take everything Dean's got to offer without even asking. He's not seeing the subway car anymore. All he's watching is the arch of Dean's back and the way his hand flexes on the glass. It should be on Sam, that hand.

Sam stands up.

He thinks Dean knows he's there. There's no surprise in Dean's face, in the window, when Sam taps him on the shoulder and he looks up. "Think this is my dance," Sam says, holding Dean's eyes. In the glass, seen darkly, they're black. It's Sam's name the reflection mouths. But under Sam's hands, the Dean he's touching is tight with tension, sharp strung.

"You can say no," Sam says, so carefully, and Dean... in the window, Dean smiles, looking down, the line of his lashes an explicit invitation.

The Dean under his hands says, "What the hell?" as the girl slides away with a toss of her hair.

"Tell me no if you want," Sam whispers into Dean's hair, as his reflection relaxes into Sam, leans back and bares his neck, as he can feel Dean stiffen. "It's here."

"Think you can let go now," Dean says, low and harsh, as in the window he starts to turn. Sam can see his own face, bent to Dean's, so openly yearning he winces. But it's not real.

As Dean starts to pull away, the reflection fades. "Don't move," Sam says. "Please," and the image steadies.

"Tell me you're getting something out of this," Dean huffs.

And Sam is. It's in his mind, a sense of cold. Cold and loneliness, a grief so intense it hurts, an emptiness that reaches out for everything he is just to fill that space.

Dean's warm. Dean's turned around, his hands pulled tight on Sam's shoulders, his eyes hard and focused. "Sam. Sam."

In the window, the Dean in Sam's arms pulls Sam's head down to his as if Sam's everything he's ever wanted. In the window, Sam can see his own hands on Dean's back, urgent and clumsy and possessive. Beyond that reflection of Dean's back, he can see, mirror image, the window behind them, his own back, Dean's hands in his hair, and beyond that the reflection of the window they're backed against, his own hands on Dean's ass and his head thrown back -

"Sam," Dean says urgently, as Sam thinks, so that's what I look like when I come, and, I'll never be lonely again. There's no space between him and Dean, in the window. He could fall into Dean and never come out. Sam wants to know more, understand what Dean's feeling, reach out to the warmth between them and wrap himself in it, but when he reaches out a hand his fingertips touch only cold glass.

It's pain that pulls him back into the subway car, a sharp sting. Dean's slapped his face. Shocked back, Sam looks down, and for a moment the Dean under his hands and the shadow puppet are indistinguishable. He tightens his grip, ducks his head and rolls his face against Dean's, breathing hard. They're so close, and Dean's not pulling away. All Sam has to do is turn his head sideways and Dean's mouth will be under his. But the echo of taste in his mouth is blood and ashes and salt, sulphur and brimstone, and Sam flinches.

"What the fuck are we doing?" Dean whispers. "Sam. Sam, don't." But his eyes are still closed, and for a moment, Dean leans into Sam as if he needs Sam's touch as much as Sam needs his. Then Dean slams his hand against Sam's shoulder, pushes him back, makes him see the man in front of him when Sam wants so very badly to see nothing but the dream in the window. Real is the oilcloth of Dean's coat under his fingers, the smell of dead fries and old sweat in the car, the look in Dean's eyes when he stares at Sam, and Sam pulls away to say, "What - ?" Dean's hands hold onto him so tightly it hurts, but Sam's still not sure what's real, the ache or the reflection. He tries to explain.

"It's so lonely," Sam says, and tightens his hands on Dean's coat. "It's so fucking lonely. I needed you so much. You don't know."

He's not alone. He's got Dean. Dean's got him. Whatever. "Some... it's dark," Sam says.

"No shit," Dean says, but he's not moving, and his hand has come up to cup Sam's cheek, warm over the sting of the slap, grounding Sam against the darkness.

"Some room. It's not meant to be here. It's lost. There are supposed to be flowers," Sam says, and blinks down at Dean, trying to make him see the images in Sam's head. He doesn't dare look in the window, but he's pretty sure neither of them have clothes on by now.

"It should have been gone. There's a ritual," Sam says, and only then realizes that Dean's pulling him down the aisle. He digs his heels in, trying to resist. "Dean."

"Come on," Dean says, but Dean doesn't understand. Sam needs to know more, there's a picture in his head of flowers, and candles -

"Stand clear of the - "

And then he's standing on the platform. Dean's hanging onto his jacket, Brittany's glaring at him, and T.J.'s toting a industrial size bag of salt they're not going to need and saying, "Make sure he's - "

"Oh, you're with us," she says, and Dean lets go so suddenly Sam stumbles. He hadn't realized quite how much of his weight Dean was carrying.

"Don't you ever - " and Dean throws up his hands and looks away.

Sam's just made out with his brother. And Dean had almost let him, just as if the images in the window had been real, as if Dean wanted Sam. But they're not lovers. They'll never be lovers. He's lying to himself if he thinks any part of this is more than illusion, and the Dean who would have kissed him back is no more than a hopeless wish dragged up by the thing they're hunting. It's touched everything, and Sam can't even trust himself anymore.

Then Dean says, "Sam." The word's harsh and clipped. "Freak out later."

"Okay," Sam says, and swallows. He needs to pull himself together. They're hunting. "We were right. It's... empty. But it remembers what it was like to be real. That's why it's stealing people. It wants to be real."

"So it's the fucking velveteen rabbit," Dean says. "How do we kill it?"

"You know what it is?" T.J. asks.

"I think... " Sam says, "I think it's like a ghost, but not?"

"Oh, that's really helpful, dude," Dean says.

"Shut up," Sam says. "Look, there are banishing rituals for stuff like this. When people die, to make sure the ghosts don't steal other people's lives. So they don't come back hungry. This one did." He adds, a remembered surreal image, "It was trying to show me flowers."

"So it likes you," Dean says. "That's good to know, next time you're trying to climb into the window."

T. J. says, "So, what, salt and burn?" Behind her Brittany's mouth is forming a shocked O, and her eyes are comically wide.

"Gotta find bones for that," Dean says. "Sam?"

"It's not a ghost," Sam says. "It's... more like a spirit? But, yeah, it's got to be tied to something physical." He tries for a reassuring smile, past T.J.'s shoulder. It's not Brittany's fault she got dragged into a hunt.

"Exorcism?" T.J. tries.

"Still need - " Sam says, and then he gets it. "It's lost down here," he says.

"Dude, we know - "

"No, I mean, the bones, whatever, it got lost down here. Someone lost it here. That's why everything started with Daniel. That's why it's so localized."

"Are you telling me," Dean says, "That all we needed was lost and found?"

"Maybe," Sam says.

At the top of the steps, streetlights and headlights star the night, and there's a bitter edge to the air that promises snow. T.J. flags down a taxi, Dean has a short conversation with Brittany that sends her away a little less shocked than she'd been on the platform, and Sam checks the street map. It's just the three of them in the taxi, and Sam's grateful T.J.'s there. Out of the subway, he's not confusing the Dean reflected in glass with the one sitting on the far side of the seat, staring out of the window. He knows they're not the same man, but Sam is uncomfortably aware that the image of Dean's naked back arching under his hands is never going to get old and never going to be less than hot. He has to shift in his seat at the thought, and the real Dean looks back at him over the bag of salt in T.J.'s lap, a silent query. Sam shakes his head and looks away, but in his own window Dean's still staring at him and he has to duck his head against the wish that this Dean too would look at Sam as if he hung the moon. Then he remembers what Dean looked like in the cage, bruised and battered, Sam's fingerprints scarred across his skin.

The taxi can't move fast enough, although Dean's hands grip his knees and twice, he slams his foot down on the floor moments before the driver brakes. Not much longer, Sam thinks. Not much longer, and it'll be him and Dean and the Impala and nothing else at all but road and sky. He doesn't know how Dean can bear to look at him. There's a reason Dean's hands are clenched and he's still breathing hard, and Sam doesn't think it's anything to do with the kind of need Sam's feeling. He's going to be lucky to get out of this one with nothing more than a broken nose.

At this time of night, there's only one clerk on duty at the lost property office, and the door's bolted and grilled. The impatient rap Dean delivers only makes the woman twitch. It's Sam's false ID that brings her reluctantly to the door, and even then she doesn't unbolt it but slides the window.

"What d'you want?"

"We're here to look for some lost property," Sam says, and the woman laughs at him.

"Never would've thought it," she says. "And if it's about the dead chicken forget it, that joke got old two weeks ago."

"Uh, no," Sam says. "It's about the, uh, missing package. With the bones."

"What?" she says, which is not what Sam needs to hear.

"Look, I just need a look at the register. It's urgent. Please?"

"It's not about the coriander?" she asks suspiciously.

He can't help it, he looks at Dean, and Dean's looking back at him bright eyed and amused and real, like nothing's changed. "It's not about the coriander," Sam says back to her with a forced straight face that can't be too suspicious, because she reaches to unbolt the door.

The black and green screen of the wordprocessor on the desk should have warned him, but Sam's still taken aback when what's dropped down in front of him is a ledger. "Sorry," the woman says insincerely. "It's gonna be a cold day in hell before they update this place.You wanna put in a word for me, you go right ahead."

"How... ?" Sam asks, looking down at pages of entries in different handwriting. The first date in the book's eighteen months ago, but there must be twenty entries to a page.

"You think there's some kind of index? Forget it."

Dean says, "But you know what's here, yeah?" He's got his company smile on.

"Maybe I do," She says grudgingly.

"Sam?"

"Uh..." Sam says, because there's no easy way to say this. "I really am looking for a packet of ashes. Or bones. It's maybe... wrapped up?" He smiles hopefully.

"Is this a joke?" she asks.

"It's a cremation," Sam says.

For a moment the woman stares at him. Then she says, "Now I've heard everything."

Sam says, "Really. It's important."

"You know what?" she says. "We got four top hats. We got a six-foot palm tree. Right now we got thirty-six cell phones and once, we had some papers Dreamworks sent a courier for. We ain't never had no dead body here."

"But you keep notes of people who've lost stuff, right?"

It's down in the ledger as parcel, contents unknown, lost sometime around six pm on the 8th February 2010. Somewhere in the 42nd Street station. There's a contact name and number. The name's almost illegible, but Sam copies it down as carefully as he can.

"Thanks," he says.

"Don't bring it back here if you find it," she says, and slams the bolts after them.

"Remind me not to lose anything on the subway," T.J. says wryly, going up the stairs out of the station. "You really think it's just a salt and burn?"

"It's not a ghost," Sam says. "It's... most times there's a ritual, to put spirits at rest? It never happened."

"We good with that?" Dean asks.

Sam shrugs, pulls a face. "I know I'm looking for a laying ritual," he says. "But we've got to find the body for the thing to work. Bones, ash, whatever. It's got to be somewhere down there." All that he knows is that it's dark and lonely. He's out of sympathy, though, however much he can understand the spirit's desperate search for something real. This thing's stolen six lives and tried to take Sam from Dean.

"I need the laptop," he says. They're not far from Times Square.

Outside, it's snowing, thin bitter little flakes that scatter on the sidewalks and sting Sam's skin, but the apartment's warm. He's left the heat on. They're going to have to leave some cash for T.J.'s friend, maybe with T.J. herself. He'd called the number from the notebook on the way back to the apartment, but the call timed out. Instead, Sam Googles the name, hoping to find an address, but discovers instead by the references – "Huh," he says, and Dean looks over quickly and nods at him – that he's probably looking for something Balinese. Could be worse. He starts searching for burial rituals.

On the futon, curled up, T.J. wraps both hands around a mug of coffee, watching as Dean goes through the duffel bag, pulling out an abbreviated armory that still means Sam ended up with space for only two T-shirts and four pairs of boxers. Dean's always been better at ammunition than clothes, although he'd managed to fit in several magazines and what looks like a spare set of spark plugs. Sam's sure Dean has his reasons.

On screen, he finds a YouTube video from an anthropologist in Amlapura. It's colorful, noisy and crowded, but there's enough detail to let Sam get the general idea. Although there are sizable groups of people who are Muslim and Christian in Bali, most Balinese are Hindu. The religion's enriched by the many different people who have settled in or passed through the country, and Balinese Hinduism is unique. Spiritual and theatrical, ceremonies draw on Muslim tradition and the nature spirit worship native to the island. In Bali, as in many other countries, people both fear and revere their dead, and the Hindu ceremonies on the video are designed to allow spirits to pass into the afterlife. Balinese Hinduism suggests that, left free and unmourned in the living world, the dead can become psychic vampires leaching from the living.

The funerary process can take years, but time is something Sam doesn't have. He takes notes, frowning: there's no way he and Dean will be cremating bones in the large, elaborate model animals shown on the video. Burning, though, they can do if they need to, simple as a salt and burn, and the last ceremony. That one he watches through, slim brown hands and bright flowers and candles as the ashes are cast on running water. He's buried Dean. Dean's never accepted Sam's death. For a moment Sam wonders if they're both ghosts, tied to each other, no more real than the reflections in the window.

When he looks up, Dean's spluttering over his coffee and T.J.'s saying, "Honey, her dick's probably - " She's sighting down Dean's spare Glock as she's talking.

Nah. Their lives are so odd they've got to be real.

Outside, the snow falls heavier and wetter, clinging flakes that spatter Dean's coat and cling to T.J.'s baseball cap, but cars still crowd the street and there as many people on the sidewalks now, after midnight, as there were in daylight. It is predictably Sam who buys the flowers from the liquor store, a ragged bunch of chrysanthemums he feels embarrassed to carry and tucks down in his pocket. The candles Dean had already, and T.J. has turned out the bookcases in the apartment and emerged triumphant with a dusty packet of frankincense-spiked incense sticks. She and Dean walk ahead, talking easily, and Dean accommodates her halting stride in the same way that he matches Sam's longer legs. "You okay if I invite myself along?" T.J. had said, and the way that she'd said it so casually, as if it didn't matter, meant that Sam had said "Yes," at the same moment Dean had said "Sure."

"Dean… should I know what you're seeing?" Sam had asked, going down the stairs from the apartment to the street, which is a different question from Is it me? Or, Is it Lisa? He doesn't know which would be worse.

"No," Dean had said.

Which at least means that Sam's right and he's not the only one who's tempted, but knowing doesn't help him if it's Dean who slides into nothing somewhere down in the tunnels. On the other hand, Sam's always been the one who says yes when he should say no. On the other other hand… that's not always been a bad thing…

Sam snaps his cell shut, no answer again, and in front of him Dean laughs out loud, head back, and the edges of T.J.'s sly grin show in the curve of her face under the baseball cap. It's enough to make Sam relax, loosen his hand around the knife in his pocket and turn his face up to the dazzling patchwork of snow flakes falling through the gold of the streetlights. It's beautiful. Whatever else happens, it's a beautiful evening, Dean and he are together, and they've got a monster to kill.

When Dean turns around and grins at him, Sam knows he's thinking the same thing. They don't need to talk. Sam doesn't need to look. He knows what Dean's carrying, where, that the bulge in his pocket is the flashlight they'd bought in the Sears in Schenectady. He'll have a Zippo in his left jeans pocket, his wallet and keys in his right. When they get down into the tunnels, it'll be Dean who goes first. But on the street Dean hangs back, lets Sam catch up, and says, "They reckon there's pigeons that catch the subway," Dean says. "Cool, huh?"

"Pictures or it didn't happen," Sam says, and at the same time T.J. looks back and mutters, "Urban myth."

Dean says, "The third rail's the one that'll kill you."

Sam says, "I know that," and waits for the punchline, but Dean bunches his hands in his pockets and doesn't look at him.

Then he says, "Look, if anything weird happens... "

"Define weird," Sam says, smiling, but Dean's not grinning in reply. "Dean," Sam says.

"You know that thing we're not going to talk about?" Dean asks, and he's still not looking at Sam. "Suck it up," he mutters to himself. "Sam, I - "

And Sam says, "It's okay. I know. It's just a thing."

Dean says, slowly, and without the relief Sam expected, "Okay."

It's midnight, but the lights in the subway stare as brightly now as they do at midday, and the tiles are the same streaked and dirty white. Only the noise is louder, the sound of air fed through the tunnels and the platforms by the laboring air conditioning and the force of the trains. During the day, sound is blurred in the crowds of passengers, but now at night their footsteps echo sharply on concrete as they go down the steps. Given that Sam's memories are of seeing darkness, he's almost certain that the thing's down one of the tunnels – and probably the 1 Line uptown, if the pattern of incidents holds true – but they quarter the subway platforms first. There's a chance the bones have been dropped down between the rails and the platform edge. Dean takes the outer side, Sam and T.J. the inner, and they walk the length of the platforms. The floor's tiled, and the pillars sharp-edged, a clinical, geometric modernity that should jar but instead accentuates Dean's alert, investigative curiosity and T.J.'s professional observation.

Sam's footsteps are loud on the tiles, and the subway station is brightly lit, but there's still a disconcerting moment of déjà vu. They'd stood like this on either side of a railway track in Schenectady, he and Dean, and the memory still makes Sam wince. But this time, when Sam looks up across the gulf of the rails between them, it's Dean he sees. Dean himself. Still hot enough to send a twist of unwanted lust dragging through Sam's skin, but the feeling's tangled up now in everything else Sam sees when he looks at his brother. For a moment, Sam's almost relieved, and then Dean looks over and grins and heat rolls through him again, worse, the feel of it sunk into the marrow of his bones. Part of Sam, now, not something separate, not something he's going to be able to cut out and discard.

When he looks away, there's a poster on the wall. The Emanuel Lutheran wants him to know that God's Love is Infinite. Also, that they're serving on their knees. Thanks, Cas, Sam thinks.

When he looks back, Dean's standing talking to someone on the platform, a tall, thin black man in a long gabardine coat. Dean's intent, listening, and Sam recognizes the stance. It's something to do with the case. "T.J?" he says, and she nods, and Sam takes the steps two at a time as he crosses platforms. By the time he gets to Dean, there are three people talking, a woman huddled down in a mess of overcoats, a pale, thin teenager shivering in a denim jacket, and the man Sam had first seen. He looks as if he's in his seventies, but he's as parade ground straight as he must have been at twenty.

But it's the teenager who says, "Took Charlie, Charlie went down the hole and never came back - "

"No, they took him away on the trolley - "

"Who did you lose?" demands the woman, swinging round to Sam. She's wearing two hats and three scarves and her outermost coat is filthy, but her face beneath the hats is bright and intelligent. "We saw you looking. He was here yesterday, but you're new. What's your name?"

The man says, "Marjorie, hush for a moment. These boys lost no-one. They're here to help."

Sam says firmly, "We are," which seems to be the right thing to say, because the boy in the denim jacket relaxes his hands. "What's up?"

"These guys lost people too," Dean says. And adds, "I met Drey yesterday. We spoke." He hadn't mentioned. But Dean glances across for a second, and Drey looks back with a half smile that probably means more than most people's handshakes.

"Charlie," Marjorie says. "Annie went latest. And the guy with the sneakers. Johnny Tattle. They took him away with the trash."

"Si was first," the boy says. "It was Si, right here. We thought he was asleep."

"You got flowers?" Marjorie says. "It won't take you if you've got flowers. Here, look," she says, and opens up her hand. She's wearing knitted fingerless gloves, and in the grimed palm she's holding a crushed rosebud. It's brown around the edges, almost desiccated.

"We didn't steal them," the boy says. "We only took the dead ones, the ones no-one wanted."

"Hey," Dean says. "One at a time, okay? Please?" He waits, until he's got a nod. Then he says, "I'm Dean, and this is my brother Sam. Over there, that's our friend T.J. Drey and me, we talked about some stuff yesterday, but not this. So, you wanna tell me what's been going on?" He looks at Drey. "Report?"

"You tell them, Drey," Marjorie says. "He's good at remembering," she says to Sam. "He's good at - "

Drey says, "Marj," and Marjorie snaps both hand and mouth shut. She tilts her head up to Drey's, waiting, but Drey looks between Dean and Sam. And in that moment, Sam feels utterly ashamed of himself, his warm coat, his gloves, Dean by his side, his stupid, stupid arrogant carelessness – fine, he'd found what had happened to Daniel, and then Jerome and José, but he'd glossed past any references to homeless people as if they were irrelevant. As if what happened to the displaced was only to be expected and didn't matter. Thinking back, there'd been a two-line note about a man found dead, and someone else frozen to death, and a woman removed from the platform by the transit cops. He'd thought it was normal.

Dean asks, "You say it started with Si?"

"It started with Si. He took the bones. The parcel of them," Drey says. "I said, don't be stupid, that's someone, but he said they'd keep him safe. Then he fell asleep and wouldn't wake up."

"He was smiling," Marjorie says.

"He was smiling," Drey confirms. "They took him away. They took his brown coat, but we found his black one after, and the bones were still in his pocket. Dead man's stuff. We left it."

"Charlie took it," the boy in the denim jacket says. "It was a good coat."

"We didn't know until afterwards," Drey says. "Or I'd have taken the thing sooner. We only found the bones again after he'd gone. Charlie, that is."

"We would have given them back," Marjorie says. "If anyone had asked. But no-one did."

"That was two," Drey says. "Two gone. I took the bones away, then. I thought if no one had them, we'd be safe. Then we started dreaming."

"Flowers," Marjorie says, and, "My little girl. They were good dreams."

"They would have swallowed you up if you'd let them," Drey says. "The dreams took Johnny. He just fell asleep, right here, but he'd said enough."

"What did you do?" Dean asks.

Drey shrugs. "What could we? I took the bones further away, but it didn't make any difference. That's when that guy – Daniel? – that's when it took him off the train."

"We brought flowers," Marjorie says, "And the dreams stopped."

"How...?"

"They were all dreaming flowers," Drey says. "I thought that's what it wanted. We tried." He shrugs.

"You... didn't tell anyone?" Sam asks.

"Who?" asks the boy. "The girls from the mission?" He snorts, sour amusement.

"No-one asked us," Drey says. "So we took it flowers, and it left us alone. Then it took Annie."

"And we went back," Marjorie says. "We all went back. And we couldn't. It didn't want us anymore. It had the horse."

"It's... getting more powerful?" Sam guesses.

"There's a statue down in the tunnel," Drey says. "It's a piece of public art. They cleaned up the station and the Mayor came down when it was installed. That was six years ago. Then people forgot. It got so we didn't see it anymore. Then... " He shakes his head. "I thought it was far enough away," he says. "But I put it past the horse, and now it's alive."

"It chased us," Marjorie says. "We could hear it following all the way back. Metal hooves. Like cowboy films, but louder."

"It's got a guardian?" Dean says, looking at Sam.

Sam says. "Sounds like it."

"How big's the horse?" Dean asks.

"Big," Drey says. "It's made of metal. Welded."

"Oookay," Dean says. And then, "Is there any way around it?"

Drey shakes his head.

"What do the bones look like?" Sam asks.

"Just a package," Drey says. He gestures with his hands. "This size, yeah? It's wrapped in something – dead leaves, maybe. That's why Si picked it up. He opened it up, that's how we know about the bones. Mostly ash, but enough burnt bone to know what it was."

"Could you take us?" Dean asks, and Drey looks away.

"It's not that... " he says awkwardly.

"Tell us where to go," Sam says. "It's our job to fix it."

He's got the maps in his pocket. He pulls them out, and hunkers down on the tiles to spread them out, and Drey points out the tunnels he'd used. He marks up the map, too. "They've blocked this one off," he says. "And changed it here... they put in a new air shaft when they built the hotel? Here. And here, that's where the water's deepest. You got good boots?"

"We'll manage," Dean says.

"What if you don't come out?" asks the boy. "What do we do?"

"You got a cell?" Sam asks. "I'll give you a number." He gives them Bobby's.

But Dean says, "We'll come back."

They get an escort to the end of the platform, and wait for the cameras to look away, and then Dean and Drey help T.J. negotiate the platform drop. The way into the tunnel, that's as easy as pie.

"Good luck," Drey says.

Marjorie says, "They weren't bad dreams. They were good dreams."

When Dean turns the flashlight on, the walls are water-worn brick, gleaming damp, and there are obsidian black puddles between the tracks. The brickwork is filthy, grimed and streaked with a hundred years of smoke and filth and nicotine, and the water dripping from the arched ceiling leaves streaks of dirt on Sam's fingers. Graffiti, layered and faded, records the passing of the Kings of New York, the Sons of Jacob, las Hermanas del Dios, and Ruthie loves forever someone whose name is lost to a swathe of scarlet paint. Sam's got Drey's notes and the maintenance arches circled in red, but the map in his hands already doesn't seem to bear much resemblance to the bricked up entrances and ragged alcoves of the tunnel. His and Dean's footsteps crunch on gravel, and T.J.'s limp is a shuffle of stones grating against stone that echoes from the roof into darkness, and Sam's quite suddenly cold. So cold.

"Dean," he says, shivering, not ten yards from the opening mouth of the tunnel, and Dean turns around and looks back at him.

"You okay?"

"Fucking freezing," Sam says, and the light changes. There are candles burning in the water in front of him. "Dean," he says, the word echoing off the bricks, and then Dean grabs his arm and the candles are snuffed out into nothing.

"Okay?"

Sam blinks. The tunnel is dark again and the puddles are water alone. T. J. is frowning up at the arched roof, the beam of her flashlight running over the line of bricks and bulging, uneven mortar, and Dean has one hand on Sam and the other under his jacket. His shadow on the wall is short-set and dark.

Sam could swear the water dripping from the roof has paused. "Let's go," he says, and hefts his flashlight, although as the light shifts he can see his shadow stretch out to touch Dean's.

Forty feet beyond the entrance, the tunnel divides. On one side, the brick is reddish and clean-cut, on the other, older line it's a clay-rich yellow, and the mortar is white with lime. Drey had said left. It's the older line, dropping down, a slight inclination that's nothing more than a tilt to the heels of Sam's boots as they walk. There are wooden railroad ties between the tracks, not concrete, but the metalwork gleams cold steel under the arc of their flashlights.

"How often did you say the trains come?" T. J. asks.

"Every ten minutes or so," Sam says, but they're off the main line and he's not sure.

"Are you hearing what I'm hearing?" Dean asks, dry voiced.

They're right. Sam's been thinking the noise is from the station behind them, but the rush of wind is not from the live tunnel but from the darkness in front. It's a low-down growl of displaced air and engine, fractious, uneasy and getting louder, and already the breeze of it touches the cold sweat on his forehead.

Twenty paces in front of them, T. J. says, "Here!" and Dean grabs Sam's jacket and pushes him forward. The rails, trembling, splinter light across the tunnel, and as they run shadows spin and fragment over the walls.

"There's a - " Dean says, and grabs Sam's jacket and tugs him forward, boots slipping on the wet gravel underfoot. There has to be a curve in the track ahead, because they can hear the train and not see it, although the darkness is already lightening and T.J.'s jacket is visibly red. She drops into the alcove seconds before Sam and Dean. As they press shoulder to shoulder into the cold edged brickwork, the train comes around the corner, and noise smashes sideways through the tunnel. It's a cacophony of grating wheels and engine, a growl and a mismatched discordant ladder of wailing electronics, and the power of the thing renders them voiceless and deafened.

Pressed into the wall on one side, pressing into Dean at the other, Sam can do nothing but wait for the thing to pass. It's Dean beside him who suddenly jibes and pushes back into Sam and, absolute reflex, Sam catches hold at the tail end of an almighty shudder. There's no time or space to ask. The train's upon them, speeding past in a gale of air and flashing yellow lights and spinning wheels, noisier and bulkier than any subway engine Sam's seen before. With it, dust, choking and filthy, and the wind of it tears at their clothes and pushes between them, so strong it feels almost alive. Eyes closed, Sam holds onto Dean's jacket, tries not to breathe, but grit clogs his throat and his eyelashes and his hair and settles grimy on his skin.

Dean jerks out into the tunnel the moment it's gone. "Fucking rat," he yelps. "Fucker ran over my neck, the bastard." He's brushing himself down, trying to peer over the back of his jacket as if the thing could still be clinging there.

T.J.'s laughing, but Sam pulls himself out into the tunnel with an echoing shudder. "What the fuck?"

"Cleaning the line," T.J. says. She shrugs. "Guess we're not going to find it here."

Sam says, "How - " and stops. Against the wall, Dean's shadow dances in slow motion, the lines of it blurred into feathered elegance. There's a crowned pole in one of his hands and a sword in the other, and beside it Sam's own image executes a slow-motion bow as reverent as it is elegant. He has to run a hand through his hair to check that he's not really wearing a headdress.

"Dean? T.J.?"

"I saw it," Dean says, as T.J. says, "What?"

"No windows," Dean says. "It's using the shadows. I kinda like it," Dean says, and his eyes slide sideways to Sam's, narrowed and glinting.

"Dude, you wish," Sam says, and Dean snorts. And then, for the first time, Sam wonders if the images he's seeing are his or Dean's. He knows now they're seeing the same shadows.

On the wall, Sam's shadow kneels, so close to Dean's they're intertwined, and then Dean drops a hand to Sam's hair in a gesture so explicit – "Fuck," Dean says, and his flashlight swings wildly away while Sam stares – "Sam. Sam." – at the curve of his own back and the tenderness – "Sam!"

His wrist stings, when Dean knocks the flashlight down, and light skitters off the puddles, and from each one Dean looks back at him heavy-lidded and smiling. "Shit," Sam says, and closes his eyes. It's better when he can't see, although with his eyes shut the darkness presses down on him with an almost tangible weight. The tunnel above him, around him, is smaller and heavier and above his head is nothing but soil and dust and beneath him only ashes.

"Earth calling Sam," Dean says.

"Right," Sam manages, although he's as far from himself now as he was in Schenectady, as he was under Dean's eyes in a barren apartment currently a hundred and fifty feet above his head. He knows it's not Dean, knows Dean will never reach out to Sam in the way Dean's shadow did, possessive and loving and, damn it, the unkindest cut of the thing, accustomed.

But he still wants the image to be true. He can imagine the taste of it, the smell, the feel of Dean's blunt fingertips against his skin, and it's so sharp a contrast to the nightmare of Dean with him in the cage that Sam reaches out as if he could make it real by touch.

Then Dean says, "C'mon then, kiddo," just as T.J. says, "Guys?" and Sam looks up, focuses on the shape of T.J.'s shoulders and the peak of her baseball cap, and walks forward.

In front of them, the tunnel splits again. From the left hand branch, the beam of T.J.'s flashlight brightens the brickwork, and Dean's hand slips from Sam's shoulder as he walks forward. Fast. Sam stumbles, following, still dazed, and Dean ducks through in front of him. And stops.

"You found it?" Sam says.

"Not yet. But you gotta see this, Sam."

They've both stopped walking. Sam doesn't want to see. The last thing he'd seen that wasn't bricks, before he looked away from the glassy reflected images, was exactly what Dean's face would look like the moment, needed, Sam thrust home.

"Look up," Dean says, and turns out the light.

Beyond the arch of the entrance, the tunnel has opened up into nothing but darkness, the air in it dry and cold and an echo of space Sam cannot see. But above his head the ceiling is covered with luminescent moss. Faintly glowing, the stuff outlines the ribs of the vaulting, the archways that reach up over their heads, the elegant, stone-blocked corbeling that runs around the walls. It's like being underwater. A hundred years ago, men had built this tunnel as elegantly as they had the brownstones of Manhattan above their heads. It's so strangely beautiful Sam's stunned.

Then Dean turns the flashlight back on and in front of them Sam sees T.J., frozen into stillness. And beyond her, lying in the center of the hall is, larger than life size, the statue of the horse. It's a welded metal skeleton, a pile of twisted shanks of metal patched with cloth and flour sacks. Strongly curved, the line of its spine echoes the vaulting forty feet overhead, the angle of its neck as strongly arched as the steel cables strung along the brickwork. The steel bones of it push through the fabric, glinting: the hooves are paint cans and its skull engine blocks. There are beaten out soda cans that make its ears and its eyes are spaces of black in the camshaft elegance of its face. It's sinister and beautiful, a piece of art misplaced and utterly at home.

Dean's hushed, drawn-in breath is loud in the still air.

" - Sam - "

And then the horse turns its skeleton head, and its metal jaws open, wide, wider, a maw of nothing but emptiness, and Sam says, "Dean."

"I see it," Dean says, and his hand is steady on his Colt, sighting, even as the metal hooves scratch against concrete and the horrible, steel-stuttered curve of spine heaves upright, as the heavy head swings around.

"What - " T. J. says, turning, and Dean's Colt speaks once and sharply, the sound of it echoing from ceiling and walls, and sparks shock from the metal. Grating, the horse shudders once, but it's still moving, dragging itself upright in an obscene, twisted effort of motion, heavy and unstoppable as the earth moving.

Sam's own Taurus is in his hand, but he's not aiming. Instead, he watches Dean straighten his shoulders and shoot at the thing's legs, where camshafts the size of the Impala's axles angle it upright. Every shot smashes against metal, but the horse is moving now, alien slow, the angles of its legs wrongly placed and the lowered head snaked forward. It's headed straight for Sam and Dean, ignoring T.J. plastered against the wall, her head following the line of Dean's Colt and her borrowed Beretta steady in her hands. But she's not firing, and even as she shakes her head and blinks, Sam realizes that T.J. can't see the thing. For a moment, Sam wonders if it's truly illusion, but by the ricochet of Dean's bullets and the grooves cut into concrete by its hooves the thing's as real as they are. As real as they believe it is. Although faith's never helped them so far and simply wishing the thing into scrap...

Dean elbows him hard. "Little help here?" he grunts, and Sam belatedly jerks up his own gun and fires at the spindle of the horse's ankles, where the metal is already pitted and scarred. He can see what Dean's trying to do, but they don't have time. The thing's fifteen feet away and an unstoppable mass of metal. For a moment he thinks it's Dean's farewell clap on the shoulder and almost turns, but it's not – Dean's gone, dashing away to the side of the room and leaving Sam facing that hollowed, scar-cut head and the sharpened steel hooves and the fucking weight of the thing no bullet is going to stop alone. "Dean!" Sam shouts, even as he's still firing, no hope of being heard, and Dean only hunkers down further in reply. His hands are working at something, tugging frantically, and even as Sam tries to keep both horse and Dean in view, aim and fire and glance, aim and fire and glance, he can see T.J. move to help.

Then Dean stands up and, in the muzzle flash of Sam's own gun and the beam of T.J.'s flashlight, his body forms the exacting pitching curve of a bowler. He throws a can that spins as it leaves his hands, falls, and smashes open in front of the horse's hooves. Sam flinches instinctively, elbow rising to cover his face – it's Dean, and if anyone ever carried emergency grenades it would be his big brother – but what bursts out of the can is nothing other than steel ball bearings. For a moment Sam blinks in disbelief as the things run helter-skelter across the concrete, tiny round balls glinting dark as they tumble, and then the horse moves forward again and his Taurus is warm in his grip as he aims despairingly at the unbreakable steel. But the leg he's aiming at wobbles as it straightens, the hoof of it slipping sideways and the camshaft bearing down under the weight, steel and screws slipping out of alignment. The horse is falling. As that foreleg crumbles, the horse's other three legs scrabble for a foothold and fail, the smooth steel of its hooves slipping and sliding on the ball bearings. Sam brings up his gun in surprise.

Across the hall, Dean shoots him a decidedly cocky grin.

"You son of a bitch," Sam breathes, awed, as four hundredweight of steel shanks and engine bits and tin and sackcloths smash down into concrete. The crash of it is astounding, a cacophony of cracked steel and burst welds and tumbling, heavyweight metalwork, and the thing writhes and shudders on the concrete viciously as a rattlesnake. But it's lost two hooves, falling, most of one leg, its rib-cage is smashed open and its spine rolling apart and its head reaching upwards, jaw widening in a silent scream.

Stepping forward, Dean sends a bullet through the back of the thing's skull that jars it into a final, violent, futile paroxysm. It's still twitching as Sam holsters his gun.

"Huh," T.J. says, dry, into the sudden silence.

"Yup," Dean says. And then, "Guess we're on the right yellow brick road."

Sam's not sure if the thing was ever real, although he's equally certain it could have killed them. But as they walk past the heap of tangled metalwork, Dean's suspicious, downward stare is as indicative of Sam's doubt as his own.

Beyond the metal bones, there's a series of archways with a line running into each. The rails are rusted, not clear, and in one of the tunnels the water reaches up and over the metalwork, lining the floor and dripping down from the low arched roof bricks.

Drey had said only that he'd put the bones in an alcove, past the horse.

"We flipping a coin?" Sam says. He doesn't want to look too closely. There are things moving in the black stillness of the water that have nothing to do with the wavering flashlight beams.

"Dunno. You got a feeling about this?"

For a moment Sam thinks Dean's being sarcastic, but the expression on his face is honestly enquiring.

"No," Sam says, and then, "You?"

"Six of one," Dean says, shrugging. "T.J.?"

"Your pick," T.J. says, and tugs her baseball cap down. "But I'd take a bet on the nasty. Those boots waterproof?"

They're not. Sam's feet are miserably soggy within seconds, his toes squelching in cold water and his socks bunching uncomfortably at the heel. It's a welcome distraction. The archway they turn down is so narrow that Sam's shoulders brush against the wall and he has to duck his head. The echo of their footsteps follows them, the shush and plink of standing water disturbed. Behind the clarity of it, Sam could swear that he can hear hooves, and the reflections in the puddles are more than pornographic, images that are little more than bared skin and sex in a dizzying, soulless parade. Oddly, removed from emotional content, Sam finds them easier to endure. The sight of the curve of Dean's hands on his own skin, tender possession, had hit him as hard as a blow to the stomach. A cock's just a cock, even if it's his own battered knuckles clasped on the upstroke.

Dean, though. Dean stumbles and weaves through the water, eyes darting between walls and puddles and ceiling as if he can neither bear to look nor bear to look away, and Sam no longer doubts that Dean's seeing exactly the same thing as himself. It's a confirmation that brings its own problems: Sam finds the flush on Dean's cheeks and the way his teeth bite into his lower lip so dangerously appealing he has to concentrate to hold the flashlight steady. Beside him, T.J. gives him one concerned glance and starts talking about some stage production she'd worked on last summer, an easy, uninvolved distraction that carries Sam forward.

" – ended up making thirty different trees out of hardboard and sent two staples through my thumb - "

There are flowers now in the puddles, great crimson blossoms blooming and fading in the darkness, petals falling through water.

" – then she decides a doll's not going to do, she wants a real baby - "

And after them is fire. The crimson and gold of it lights up the tunnel, flames licking over their skin, and Sam can't understand why they're still walking, but the feel of the fire is cold, not hot and beside him T.J.'s voice is steady.

" – and that's when the thing decides to cry - "

In front of them, Dean has stopped. He's looking sideways, into one of the embrasures, but he's not reaching out.

"You got something?" T.J. calls out, but Dean does not reply. His shoulders are stiff again, and his hands clenched by his sides.

Sam's feet are still soaking. The discomfort is real, and he clings to the small annoyance of it as he walks forward.

It's there. It's a small, untidily wrapped parcel, sitting on a shelf in the alcove among a mess of gravel and dead flowers, as if it's been placed on an altar. It's so small, this thing that's stolen ten lives and tried to make Sam take something he's got no right to have. Sam stares for a moment, amazed that they've actually found it. Then, unthinking, he reaches out a hand and T.J. knocks him back.

"Probably best not," she says, and pulls her gloves out of her jacket.

Dean still hasn't moved.

Sam could swear the thing sighs as T.J. picks it up. Her face is stern, concentrating, but there's no sign of the lost emptiness they'd seen in the surveillance videos, and as T.J. tucks the parcel into her jacket pocket she starts to smile in relief.

Then Dean flips around and slams Sam into the wall. Sam's no lightweight, but Dean's two hundred pounds of muscle and serious intent: his hands bruising into Sam's wrists, his hips solid and hard and – yeah, hard, and Sam has to suck in a breath on the feel of it – his eyes wide and dark.

"Sammy," Dean says, his voice low and harsh, and Sam's enough himself to wince at the implication and already lost enough for the word shiver through his skin. "Want to - " Dean says, and breaks off and his hand cups Sam's cheek just as tenderly as his shadow had, while the weight of his body is an arrogant demand.

Sam doesn't say no. He can't. He's sick and guilty with an unexpected, vicious delight, because the look in Dean's eyes is exactly the same as his, and Sam could go under for Dean right now and Dean would let him. Would want him. He almost does, his hands on Dean's back, wanting nothing more than to be part of Dean, crawl into every part of him and make a home for himself. But it's not Dean, it's the last cruel, subversive trick, and if Sam lets go they're lost. He says, "Not here," and Dean blinks up at him blindly and rolls his hips, which is pure evil, because the feel of him makes it very clear just how hard Dean is for Sam and takes Sam's breath away on a indrawn rush of air that burns his lungs. "Dean, please," Sam says, embarrassingly breathless.

Dean says so low Sam can barely hear it, "It's always been you, fuck it, wanted you, so fucking bad - " It's a bolt to the heart. Because that sounds like Dean, not a conjured, false simulacrum. And Sam... Dean looks at him, defiant, beautiful, dirty and battered as his image in the cage, as willing as a hundred reflected illusions, and Sam can't say no. Against the tunnel wall, Sam lets Dean pull him close, rock into him, lets him run his fingers through Sam's hair and turn his cheek over and over against Sam's own. "You. Never thought. You."

He could stay here for ever. He's got everything he wants, everything he needs, here under his hands. There's all the time in the world and he and Dean in it, alone and together. Nothing else matters. Only the way Dean pulls him down, says against his mouth, "Sam - "

Dean's mouth tastes of dust. Dust and ashes, just as his image did in the cage. Sam recoils. Slams the back of his head against brickwork, the pain sharp and bright as a knife. Fear scours through him, fear and anger and despair. It's not real. No matter how badly he wants this Dean, whole and warm, it's as much an illusion as the shadows on the wall. This is Dean coerced, enslaved: it's not Sam he wants, it's an fetish made up of dreams and desire. They're both lost.

Except that Sam knows it. He clenches his fists, turns his head away, opens his eyes to the darkness and the smell of the tunnel. This is where they really are. This is where they'll stay, if Sam can't pull himself together. If he really wants Dean – Dean whole, himself – then Sam's going to have to get them both out of here.

It's only then he realises T.J.'s shouting his name.

"Keep talking," Sam begs her, and levers himself off the wall and Dean with him, stumbles forward. Dean won't let go, and Sam drags them both through the water, eyes closed, following T.J.'s voice. "Five more steps and you're in the hall. Come on, keep going... "

He makes the mistake, once, of letting his hands stray. Because this isn't his to have, it's the only chance he's going to get, and Dean's hair is so fine under Sam's hands and the curve of his mouth is obscenely exquisite -

It's only the ironic clap of T.J.'s hands and her voice saying, "You idiot, here's not the place, Sam, move - " that saves Sam from dropping to his knees and sucking Dean off in six inches of water. He's dazed and needy enough to have done it in a heartbeat. Right now, Dean's as gone for Sam as Sam is for him, worse, and the journey back is a nightmare of Dean's muttered, explicit suggestions and his wandering hands, of Sam urging his brother forward even as Dean begs him to stop. Dean begs him for other things too, and while Sam's always known his brother's got a filthy mind and a line in innuendo straight out of a slapstick skin flick, when it's Dean pleading straight up and honest for Sam's dick the thing's so hot it hurts. "You are... so... going to regret this in the morning," he says, and Dean grins at him sharp-toothed and incendiary.

"Really?" he purrs.

"Oh, for goodness sake," T.J. says, and Sam wonders desperately if his life could get any more bizarre as he drags Dean's hands off his own ass. It's only the months of wanting Dean and denying that want that lend Sam the strength to keep walking. He wants so badly to say yes again, say it forever. But Sam clings to the thought that he's more than this. He's more than the part of him that wants nothing more than to slide down into a Dean no more real than a puppet.

"Walk," he says firmly, and Dean manages a whole four steps before he's back in Sam's space, one hand on the back of his neck and his filthy, gorgeous mouth up against Sam's ear.

"I could fuck you," he offers, and it's as much the growl in Dean's voice as the thought that shivers through Sam. Dean's laugh is dirty and delighted.

"I knew it," he says, but Sam keeps walking. Manages to drag both of them forward another three steps before Dean's hand is back on his ass. "C'mon Sam, you know you want to. Here. Do it now, Sam, please -"

Sam walks. Although Dean drags him back and pleads and when seduction fails, orders. Which is worse because it's somehow more real, Dean saying, fuck, now, Sam, with a tone to his voice Sam's spent most of his life obeying.

"T.J.," he says, between his teeth. It's not real, he tells himself. It's not what Dean wants. Dean's not seeing this Sam, the one with the wet feet and the mud-streaked jacket and the hands that won't let go, won't let him stop walking. Dean's seeing something wearing Sam's face that isn't him at all, and his eyes are clouded with dreams.

Dean's going to kill me later, Sam thinks.

Then Dean says only, "Sam," and stumbles forward, wrenching his hands back, and that's worse because it means Dean knows what he's doing and can't stop. The shame and the pity of it chokes Sam up: he stands hopelessly, looking at Dean, and Dean says, "I can't, I can't... Sam. I'm so sorry." Then his face changes, and he says, "I'd be so good for you. So good, Sam, please - "

T.J. looks back and says, "Not much further." Her face is strained, her arms cradled around her jacket, and Sam wonders if it's starting to get to her too. But the hope makes him push Dean forward, and then drag him as Dean shudders under the touch of his hands, and it's a very long five minutes that Sam spends weaving back up the main tunnel. He can't let Dean go, can't shut him up, he's worried that there'll be a train, that they'll hit the live rail, that he'll crack and pin Dean up against the wall and do exactly what Dean won't - can't - fucking shut up about wanting.

By the time they get to the platform, Sam's sweating, miserable, and still so tempted he'd give the biblical Eve a run for her money. He can barely push Dean up onto the platform edge without rolling him straight back over, and the climb up the stairs is a nightmare of stranger's eyes - Drey's, and Sam can barely manage a nod of acknowledgment - snatched away and embarrassed mutterings. Dean's shameless, and Sam's almost at the point where he damn well would fuck Dean senseless right up against the tiles if only to shut him up. And keep him in one place. Dean does not want to climb the stairs, and by the time they get to the entrance he's fighting Sam's hands with a bewildered and desperate hurt - "Don't you want to? Sammy?"

Sam manhandles Dean out onto the street. He's been thinking of outside as the end of the road, the moment when Dean snatches his hands away, turns bright red and doesn't speak to Sam again for the next ten years, but although Dean does stop, quite suddenly, his eyes are still on Sam's and they're still wide and black.

Color leaves his face so slowly Sam can barely see the change.

Then Dean closes his eyes.

"I - "

"Fucking shut up," Dean says, and it's his own voice, cognisant.

"You were surprisingly appealing," T.J. says. "From an abstract point of view." Although her voice is steady, the lines around her eyes look deeper and there's sweat on her forehead. But there's still a wicked glint of humor in her eyes.

She's far enough away that Dean won't be able to hit her, and Sam would take a fair chance on the distance being deliberate, but he still moves to stand between them.

T.J. says, "That could have been worse."

"Like how?" Dean says, and Sam reaches out a hand only to see Dean flinch away. "Okay," Dean says. "Okay. Fine. Let's fucking burn this motherfucker and get the hell out of here."

~*~

They've made it as far as Brooklyn before T.J. turns grey. She says, "Guys? Can one of you... ?" and Sam grabs the jacket she's got bundled up on her lap and Dean grabs Sam. For a moment, there's a disorientating flash of images - an elderly man with a shock of white hair, Castiel in a ring of fire, Sam himself, head down, smiling, a bay mare gleaming in sunshine, Dean's profile against the Impala's darkened window, lit and shadowed by streetlights – and then T.J. says, "He's dead, you bastard, you won't get me that way."

"Drop it, Sam," Dean says urgently. "Drop it." T.J.'s got her hands flung wide, and the taxi driver's looking at them in the rear-view mirror, wide eyed.

" – and you, watch the road," Dean says over his shoulder, as Sam sets the bundle of T.J.'s jacket down on the floor of the cab. "T.J.?" Dean asks.

"Fine," T.J. says. "I don't even think... it's just pictures," she says. "I can live with that." Although there's sweat on her forehead and her eyes are closed.

"How much further?" Sam asks, and checks his cell again. No calls.

"We'll burn it in the fucking street if we have to," Dean says. "Flush it down the drain. That's running water enough. T.J.?"

"I'm okay," T.J. says. "Keep going."

Sam says, "You did hear the word ritual."

"We can pray over a gutter," Dean says. "No one's listening."

"That's just plain - " T.J. says, and drops her head in her hands.

Dean says, "And don't look in the windows." His voice is dry.

Sam watches the back of the driver's head. There's a silver fish hanging against the windscreen, abstract and sleek. "Different gods," he says. Just saying.

"Still dealing with a little crisis of faith over here," Dean says.

There's not much Sam can say to that one. Instead he watches the streetlights go by in the corner of his eyes, and Dean stares at his boots. Between them, T.J. sighs and looks up. "Well," she says. "That was interesting." She's still pale, and the driver's eyes are still flicking between the road ahead and the rear view mirror.

Sam says, "It's the last samskara. The last rite of passage for the soul's journey on earth. Firstly, the cremation, and then the casting of the ashes on a sacred river. It allows the soul to escape entrapment in the physical body and be reborn. It's Hindu, but in Bali," Sam says, "It's become mixed with other traditions. The point is that the soul's freed."

Dean says, "Freed to what?" He snorts.

"Depends on what kind of life the person lived," Sam says. "Rebirth is cyclic. There's always a chance of redemption."

"Yeah, right," Dean says.

Sam shrugs. "Meditation, fasting, abstinence, good deeds... "

"So we're pretty fucked," Dean says.

"Speak for yourself," Sam says. Then he says, "The river represents both nature and mother. It's like sending someone home."

"Right at this moment," Dean says, "I'd prefer, do not pass go. Go directly to purgatory."

"If it's evil," Sam says, "It gets born again among worms and mosquitos."

"Huh," Dean says, and pulls a face. "Well. That's different." Then he says, "Sam, I'm not carrying a worm around in my pocket. Next time you come back, make sure you're human, huh? Soul included."

"Okay," Sam says, just as T.J. says, "Next time... ?"

"Best not," Dean says. Then he looks up, the first time he's looked full on at Sam since they walked out of the subway station, and says, "It's not happening again, Sam."

Sam can't reply. He's seen that look before, in glass, in mirrors: a fierce and tender possessiveness that encompasses all that Sam is and wants him anyway. He's seen it in the windows of a subway car and in dark, standing water. He's seen it bloodied and fierce, in nightmares from the cage. He'd thought it was an illusion. It's not. It's Dean's, that look, as much part of him as the set of his shoulders and the angle of his grin, and it's so very familiar Sam's been seeing it all his life. He just hasn't been looking.

He's looking now.

"What?" Dean asks. "What?"

"I'm not leaving," Sam says quietly. Dean. Dean. And then, "Think we're here."

It's surprisingly simple, once they've persuaded the taxi driver to wait, and walked down to the beach. In darkness the place is deserted, the sea combing in from the night in small breaking waves, and the shoreline littered with debris and gleaming pebbles. There's driftwood above the tideline and wrack below it, slippery underfoot, and from both Dean fashions a miniature raft. It's not the leaves of a Balinese ceremony, but it's as close as they can get. Sam weaves a wreath and pulls handfuls of petals from the crushed flowers in his pocket. T.J. lays the thing out, nestling the parcel of ash and bones onto the raft, but it's Sam who kneels in the mud and lights the incense and candles and lets the sea take the thing away. That was someone, once, someone who loved and was loved and needed, however damaged, to be loved again, and for all Sam fiercely resents the path it took he understands. He watches the candles dwindle, thinking of the people lost to the ghost in the flames.

Beside him, Dean says doubtfully, "You sure this is going to work?"

"Yeah," Sam says. And then, honestly, "Well, this bit. Don't know if it's going to give the memories back."

Dean says, "I'd be happier if we could shoot it." Then he says, "I need a drink."

Sam's not going to say no. But they wait, lined up like mourners, until the candles flicker into darkness and the raft is gone.

The driver drops them at Eva's.

Well after hours, the alley is dark and the bar windows blind, but T.J. raps on the shutters as if she expects to be answered. When the door opens, there's a woman Sam hasn't yet met on the threshold, but behind her is Soph, tumbling out to pull T.J. down. It's a tight, brief hug, but Soph's eyes are closed. Then she pats T.J. on the back and grins.

"Good to see you," she says, and includes Sam and Dean in her smile. "You guys in a hurry? We've got free beer."

Sam takes one look at Dean's face, says, "Awesome," and ducks in the door.

Inside, there are three or four women who must have been waiting with Soph – the tables are strewn with sketches for some public health campaign – but there are crates of beer and a bottle of JD as well. T.J. gets there first, but it's a woman with an impish, endearing grin who hands out the bottles. "So what was it?" she asks.

"Diane owns Eva's," T.J. says, uncapping.

"Hey," Sam says. "Thanks," as Dean nods.

T. J., says, "A misplaced ghost. Spirit. It just need to be laid. Working that out was the fun bit."

"No interesting moments? No fangs, no teeth?" Diane asks.

The woman next to Sam, a tall woman with a long, straggling pleat of grey hair, says, "Welcome to the Hunter groupie circle." She's Cynthia, Sam finds out, and she's Soph's sister. The quiet one with the book is Lorraine, and she's T.J.'s boss. Those two do something on line, but Sam doesn't quite grasp what. He's got his beer in his hand, eyes closed, and although he hasn't leaned back and kicked his feet up on the crates like Dean he's almost okay with the world right now.

"You reckon she's really retired?" Dean mutters. Ten feet away, T.J.'s describing the tunnels.

Sam says, "No."

"That's what I thought," Dean says.

"Gonna be us," Sam says. "Tottering along on our walking sticks with a .45 in each pocket."

"You reckon," Dean says. There's a smile on Dean's face Sam doesn't have to open his eyes to see. "You can keep your walking stick. I want one of those electric buggies. 0-60 in fifteen seconds."

"Machine gun mount on the arm?"

"Maybe," Dean says. "Gonna need some serious firepower when neither of us can run."

"Huh," Sam says. Then he says, "Dean."

"We're not gonna talk about this, Sam," Dean says.

"I knew you'd say that," Sam says, cracking his eyes open, and Dean swings his feet off the crates and leans forward.

"So. What d'you say we head back to Bobby's, have a good look at what's going on with the religion thing? You saw the leaflets, right?"

"You can say his name," Sam says.

"Fine," Dean says. "You wanna find Cas?"

"Sure," Sam says. "Does that mean I can stop pretending that file doesn't exist? 'Cause, dude, hate to break it to you, but Miss July's got three kids and a mutt by now."

Dean shrugs, finishes up his beer and snags another two out of the crate. "Got no appreciation," he says, popping the caps. "That's a classic issue."

Sam snorts. "Right," he says. Then he says, "The memory thing." Dean looks warily sideways at him, and Sam says carefully, "I'm not... fuck, I know what you're saying. But. Dean. Suppose you lost something you couldn't afford to loose?"

"Suppose you had the choice," Dean says slowly. "Suppose you could go back to, you know, when Dad was alive and all we had to worry about was where the next job was coming from? Would you?"

"No," Sam says. Then he says, "There's no way I'm going through this shit twice."

"Point," Dean says. "Okay. Suppose you could box up all the crap stuff and forget it? Don't tell me you haven't thought about it."

"Kind of done that," Sam says. "And you know? I'd still rather be me."

"Even the... " Dean doesn't look away. But his eyes are dark.

Sam thinks of the images he's been seeing of Dean under his hands, in the cage. Then, in dawning shock, he thinks of both of them seeing the same shadows in the tunnel, a synchronicity that, suddenly, horribly, he wonders is echoed elsewhere. Alistair learned his trade from Lucifer. He thinks of Dean in hell, of exactly what conjured ghosts Dean might have seen. And of Dean, saying, "It's always been you."

Maybe he's not the only one haunted by blood and pain every time he looks at his brother. But whatever happened in the cage – in hell – is not all they are. Sam thinks of the way Dean's shadow touched his, the gentle reverence of the gesture, desire and strength and tenderness mixed. And of the look in Dean's eyes, as if Sam really was everything he wanted. As if there's a chance they've been wanting the same thing. As if they're not out of step at all, not now. As if there's a chance Sam hasn't been walking away, but catching up.

He's been blind. He looks up, and Dean's looking back at him, frowning. Everything between them is so much more complicated than Sam thought, and so much simpler.

"Even the cage," Sam says.

"Huh," Dean says, and finishes up his second beer. His hand's tight around the glass.

Sam hasn't touched his yet. But over by the tables, the women are packing up: he drinks half, passes the bottle across and stands up. "We good?" he asks. But Dean's still frowning. Reaching out, unthinking, Sam offers him a hand up.

Dean doesn't take it. It's not even unknowing. He's looking down as he finishes the last of the beer, but Sam knows Dean sees him. Stubbornly, he keeps his hand outstretched.

When he stands up, Dean pushes himself off the crates in the opposite direction.

"Dean," Sam hisses, but Dean's walking away, head down,

On the way out the door, T.J. passes over the half-full bottle of JD. And a bag. "Wrap it up," she says to Dean, and "Thanks." Sam's smile is painfully forced, and Dean manages nothing but a nod.

He thought they'd got past this, with the hunt. He thought they were at least talking. There's been moments when Sam could see Dean as Dean, not the images in his mind, but Dean's pushed him away again as if nothing had happened. As if Dean's perfectly happy to go back to the frustrated tension of the last few months.

Sam's not. Sam's angry, not angry enough to hit out, but angry enough to need to talk.

Outside, it's snowing again. The sidewalks are white in the streetlights, smooth and pristine, and the road is lined with the tracks of cars. Sam tilts up his face to feel the small pain of the snowflakes landing cold and wet on his face.

"Dean?" he asks, "Do you want - "

Dean's gone. His footsteps scar the snow, and the door to the apartment stairs is closing. Dean walking away.

Before Sam's taken his coat off, Dean's slammed the first shot straight from the bottle.

"Dean. We need to talk," Sam says, and then Dean does stare him in the eyes and slams the next shot. "Nah," he says. "Think we're done."

"Dean," Sam says again, but Dean shakes his head.

"Pass the bottle," Sam says, and Dean does. The whiskey burns, going down, a good burn, alive. The bottle's snow-cold in Sam's hands, and the glint of it is a liquid red gold, nothing like flowers. Nothing like fire. He passes it back, and Dean takes his third mouthful. He's got his eyes closed. He's looked like that in half a hundred reflected images, in the moment before Sam's hands touch his skin.

"Stand up," Sam says, liquor hot courage in his belly. "Stand up," and when Dean looks up at him Sam wraps both his hands deliberately around the lapels of Dean's jacket, pulls him upright and pushes him, gently, against the kitchen door. And, stiff, Dean lets him. His eyes are narrowed, waiting.

"Hang onto the bottle," Sam says. "You're going to need it." Then he says, "Tell me if I'm wrong. Tell me if I'm out of line. But... " he says, and swallows and goes for the jugular, "In the tunnel. I wanted you. And I think you wanted me."

Dean closes his eyes. It's a long ten seconds before he says, and the words are dragged out, "Sam. What I said back there. It's not real. It's nothing to do with us."

"Oh," Sam says. "Really? Because you could have fooled me." He waits, but Dean says nothing.

"You know what I think they all had in common?" Sam says. "They all wanted something they couldn't have. That's what it gave them. That's why it was you I saw. That's why you saw me. And that was real."

"Back off," Dean says.

"And you know what?" Sam says. "I've been thinking it was just me. Dean, you have no idea..." Sam says, "What I did. In the cage. What I did to you." There's no surprise in Dean's face. Instead, there's a resigned acknowledgment, as if Sam's right and Dean does know exactly and intimately what one brother can do to another in hell. Right there, for a moment, Sam's wondering if that's what Dean would cut out of himself, if he could. Or if it's more than that. But he takes a deep breath and goes on, "It's been like... there's been nothing more. I couldn't see past it. But I know you. You make the worst jokes. Your socks stink. You fart in my face and think it's funny. And I fucking love you. All of you. Fact that I want to fuck you too, that's only part of it. Something I thought I'd... taken. But you want me too." Wondering, amazed, Sam says it again. "You wanted me."

"Sam, that's the stupidest idea you've ever had in your life," Dean says. "And you've had some doozies." But the flush is back on his cheekbones and he's biting his lip.

"Could be pretty damn awesome if you ask me," Sam says.

"I'm not," Dean says, and looks away.

"No?" Sam says. "Because you're pretty convincing when you're trying. So if I... if I said you could do anything you wanted, everything you asked for, you're gonna say no? If I said I wanted it? If I told you I'm so fucking hard for you right now?"

" – Sam," Dean says, and now his fists are clenched, blanched at the knuckles, and his eyes, sliding back as if Dean can't look away, are wide and dark. "Sam. What would Dad say?"

Sam goes cold so quickly he could have been naked in the snow. He tries to draw in a breath, finds his throat closed and heaves after air, voiceless. It's the worst thing Dean could have said, and the most honest, and it stops Sam in his tracks and leaves him hollowed out and empty. He doesn't care about John. It's the hopelessness in Dean's voice that hurts.

"You want me to be honest?" Dean says. "You really want me to tell the truth?"

"Go on," Sam says. He has to lean against the table. His knees are shaking.

"I can't remember not wanting you," Dean says. He says it so simply, like it's nothing, and the shock goes through Sam sharp as wire. "You tie me up in knots. You always have. I can't... there's no difference for me, the man you are, the man I want to fuck, the man I want to fuck me. My best friend. My little brother," Dean says, and his voice is so heavy with irony Sam flinches. "I'd do anything for you, and you know it. But this... Sam, it would rip us apart. You think I want that guilt for you? The answer's no. The answer's always going to be no."

Sam can't say anything. He stares at Dean, and Dean stares back at him, straightfaced, eyes level. Dean's telling the truth, and the truth slams everything that's happened in the past few months into a whole new image. The last few years. All of Sam's life. All of Sam's life, Dean's loved him in every way single way that counts, and Sam didn't know.

Dean must have known. Sam's been panting after him like a love sick puppy, and Dean's had to say no over and over again, when Sam had never known the chance was there.

Sam couldn't have done that for Dean. He'd have said yes months ago. But Dean has said no.

He knows it's a lost cause. But Sam says, "Isn't that my choice?" and watches Dean shake his head. Then he says, "Pass the fucking whisky."

Dean hands it over with a very wry smile, and Sam takes a shot, lets it burn down his throat and wash the taste of bile away. Then he passes the bottle back.

"I don't give a fuck what Dad would have thought," he says. "I really don't. Or anyone else. It's what you think that matters. And you... I never had a chance, did I?" Sam asks, and he doesn't expect anything other than the level stare he gets back. "Thanks for the heads up," he says, and turns away.

It's early enough that the sky is already lightening beyond the blinds. Almost, it's not worth sleeping, but Sam's wrung out. He drags the futon out, opens up the blankets and kicks the cushions into an uneven pile. He can't be bothered undressing. He feels so cold, hopeless and empty, abandoned. It's ridiculous, when an hour ago he'd had no idea Dean had ever wanted anything more than they already had. He lets himself fall onto the mattress, pulls up one of the blankets and shivers under it, watching Dean's shadow move backwards and forwards against the light. Dean's packing.

He wants to sleep, but can't. He can't stop thinking. Dean's face. Dean's face, hopeless and haunted, as Sam has never seen it before. He'd done that. Him and his stupid, careless ideas.

The zipper on the duffel goes, and Dean sighs. He says, softly, "You asleep, Sam?"

Sam can't bring himself to answer. He watches, instead, Dean's unmoving shadow on the wall as the sun rises.

Then Dean shivers, and walks forward. Sam doesn't turn over, but the futon creaks and shifts as he sits down. The laces of his boots rustle, stiff with water, as Dean unties them, and his socks land on the floorboards with a soggy wet thump. His belt buckle clinks, and then he hesitates, but the mattress shifts again as he strips off his jeans. Then, like Sam, he lets himself drop down and the blanket pulls tight.

Sam doesn't move. He's breathing so very lightly, unwilling to even give Dean that much, hating the distance between them and needing more. Coast to coast wouldn't be far enough. The confines of the Impala loom with terrifying closeness. He doesn't know how they're going to survive it.

Beside him, Dean's shaking. They're so far apart Sam can't even feel the heat from Dean's skin, but the blanket pulls against his back in tiny, uneven judders.

"Dean?" he says, quietly as he can manage.

The blanket convulses and heaves. "Fuck off," Dean says, muffled. There's a crack in his voice.

"Dean."

No answer. Sam shifts and rolls: Dean's back is emphatic. But he's still shaking.

"Are you... " Sam hesitates, puts out a hand, draws it back. "Are you crying?" he asks.

"Fuck off," Dean says, and his voice is choked.

"Oh fuck you," Sam says, and rolls his brother over.

For a moment, he stares down. Dean's eyes are wet, shining at the corners where the laughter lines pull at his skin. His mouth's held so tight it's pale at the edges, and his nostrils are pinched.

"You say a word and I'll fucking deck you," he says.

"You can try," Sam manages. His stomach's in knots. It tears him up inside, the mess he's made of both of them. Then he says, "You don't even know. I'm so fucking sorry. I'm so sorry."

And then Dean smiles, so small a smile it's barely a curve. "Eh," he says, and drags a hand out from under the blanket. "Sam." His hand comes up to curl through Sam's hair, and with a lurch of utter relief Sam drops his head down into the hollow of Dean's shoulder, the smell and shape of it so very familiar he could trace it in his dreams. Dean rubs his fingertips lightly against Sam's skin, petting so gently Sam could be six years old again, Dean's baby brother. They could be in any one of a thousand motel beds, on the back seat of the Impala, curled up together against an alien and hostile world.

Sam's nearly asleep when Dean tugs gently at his hair. "Sam?" It's a whisper.

He chokes out an interrogative murmur.

"Sam. Just once. Once, and we never talk about it."

"What?" Sam says. His eyes are wide open, he's jerked back, the blanket's slipping off, his knee's banged against the sharp edge of Dean's shin, and Dean's smile is so wobbly it looks as if it might slide off his face.

"You're dribbling on my shoulder," Dean says. It's not spit.

"Are you sure? You've gotta be fucking sure, 'cause I can't - " And the surge of hope is so strong it hurts.

Dean's thumb slides down, strokes over the place where Sam's dimple would lie. He jerks his head. "C'mon here," he whispers.

~*~

Sam wakes up alone. It's not the scariest thing that's ever happened, but it's close. Sam sits bolt upright, winces, desperately tries to remember where his phone is, considers having his brother microchipped, and yells, "Dean!"

He can smell coffee. It's not prescriptive, it'd be just like Dean to set the thing going and walk out, but the laptop's fan is on. And... the shower's going. Sam gets up in a hurry, drags his clothes on and shoves everything left over, still damp, into the duffel. He's not risking losing Dean. His hands smell of sweat and come, the stuff's flaking off his thighs, there's a cut on his hips where Dean's ragged thumbnail pressed in hard, and Sam's never felt more uncertain. It's the morning after from hell. He's got no idea what Dean's thinking. The coffee was promising. The shower, not so much. Sam would have been happy just waking up with Dean in the same room. Instead he puts his boots on and strips the futon with frantic speed, shoveling the evidence down the laundry chute and hoping he never meets T.J.'s friend.

The shower stops. Sam's frozen for a second – he can't look as if he's utterly focused on the opening door, he can't look at Dean as if he's the only thing that matters, he hasn't the right – he's flailing.

The laptop's open. Sam flings himself behind it and looks down blindly at the screen, catches his breath.

After a moment, the words come into focus.

Dean's hacked into the New York Times. Just about the time Sam was thinking about getting his brother's dick in his mouth, in a hospital bed in Bellevue, Daniel Robertson regained both consciousness and himself. When Jerome woke, Dean was inside Sam, tender, uncertain and devasting, so close Sam could hardly have told which parts of himself were Sam and which Dean. They'd been asleep for Sanjay and Tyrelle waking, José, Lauren – it's her photograph at the top of the page, fur-coated and smiling. Annie's not mentioned. Si doesn't make it into the paper, and neither does Johnny Tattle nor Charlie. The article talks about miracles, which makes Sam smile, because he had his own, last night. Although... the first property of miracles is that they should never happen.

When he comes out the shower, dressed, Dean looks at the room first before his eyes slide to Sam's and then just as quickly away. Sam's cleaned up. The place looks pristine, the newspapers in the trash, the futon folded, the blankets back in the cupboard, and there's a little stack of dollars on the table. Apart from the cash, they might never have been here. There's nothing to see.

Dean says to the wall, "We ready to go?"

"Yeah," Sam says. He kind of thinks he should maybe say more, but there was a definite squeak to the word he did manage, and Dean's already picking the duffel up.

"Let's rock and roll," he says, and there's a tired irony to Dean's voice Sam doesn't like at all.

"Dean?"

But Dean's already out the door. By the time Sam slams it shut, he's nothing but a rattling echo of boots on the staircase, and by the time Sam gets outside he's ten feet up the street and walking away fast. His head's down, and the angle of his shoulders says, fuck off. Sam doesn't say a word. Follows.

They've got no choice but to take the NJ Transit from Penn, but it's Sam who hesitates at the top of the steps and Dean who barrels down into the station. It's the sour aftertaste of disillusion. Sam knows what's real, he knows, damnit, the difference between hope and expectation, image and reality. Just because Dean let them make love once, just because Sam can't forget, doesn't make anything true. Sam doesn't want to see the myth of something he can't have when the reality's waiting on the platform, too freaked out to even look at him. But he's got no choice. He bundles his hands in his pockets, sets his shoulders, and heads down into the subway.

The train's old, one of those trains they lay on for commuters and not for tourists. It's got bench seats upholstered in shabby green and rain stained, dusty windows, and there are only three people in the car when Sam follows Dean inside. Dean drops the duffel on the seat, and Sam takes the hint, sits opposite and looks down at his feet. Behind him, he can hear the tinny beat of someone's iPod, and there's a woman in the corner typing on a netbook, rattle of keys. There's a different rhythm to the sound of the wheels of the train, stronger than the sound of the subway cars, although they're still underground.

Fifteen minutes along the tracks, Dean clears his throat and says, "Garage says the parts have come in."

Sam glances up, catches Dean looking back and can't even bring himself to nod. Dean looks like he hasn't slept at all, lines at his eyes deeper, stubble darker. He hasn't shaved.

"Thought we could head west," Dean says. "Catch some sunshine, huh?"

"Dean," Sam says.

Dean says, "What the fuck do you expect me to say? I'm fucking sorry, all right?"

" - what?"

Staring back, Dean hasn't got any words. He gives up in the end, runs a hand through his hair, shakes his head.

"Dean," Sam says. "I'm not. You're... " He looks around. No one's looking at them. They could be alone. "You're fucking it for me, okay? How stupid do you have to be? You think this isn't real?" He stops, but Dean's looking at his boots. "I want you so badly," Sam says. "All of you. And I'm not sorry. I'm not. You want to pretend it didn't happen, fine. You want me never to mention it again, fine. But I'm not gonna forget. I'll never forget."

Then he adds, because he can, because Dean's come is still catching at the denim of his jeans and there's a bruise on his collarbone the shape of his brother's teeth and it's never going to be enough. Because he's never going to forget Dean, his eyes half closed, his mouth open, chin back, his hands on Sam's ass and his fingernails in Sam's skin, fucking gorgeous, fucked out, loved. Real. And he wants Dean to know. "I'm not going to ask again. I promised. But don't be surprised next time, okay?"

"Pretty damn sure of yourself," Dean mutters.

"Pretty damn sure of you," Sam retorts. Then he sees Dean smile at the floor, a little twisted grimace that's suddenly shadowed and sunlit. It makes Dean look vulnerable, as if he's just as scared as Sam. Not broken, just a little battered around the edges.

They're out of the tunnel. It's enough, that smile, just enough to make Sam feel something like hope. "Throw me a line, c'mon," he says. "Tell me I'm not pissing in the wind here, 'cause this sucks. You want me, man up."

"Sam."

"Not good enough," Sam says. "Big words, Dean."

"Jesus," Dean says. "What do you want me to do? I fucked my little brother, you idiot, and I fucking liked it - "

Someone gasps. The keys on the netbook are emphatically silent, but the tinny noise of the iPod shifts louder. And louder.

Dean stares helplessly at Sam. Sam stares back. Suddenly, Sam's starting to grin, the happiness of it upswelling so strongly he actually feels lighter, feels like anything's possible, anything.

And in a train, in public, somewhere between Penn Station and Newark, state of New Jersey, in sunlight, Dean Winchester leans over and kisses his brother.

 

 



End.