i can feel the weather in my bones (causeways) wrote,
i can feel the weather in my bones
causeways

FIC: Continue As You Were (1/2)

Title: Continue As You Were
Author: causeways
Rating: NC-17
Pairing: Sam/Dean
Word Count: 20,001
Disclaimer: All characters, situations, etc. belong to Eric Kripke and others.
Summary: Sam is willing to do whatever it takes to get Dean out of the deal.
Author's Notes: So! This is post-AHBL genderswap. As such, there's some het sex. You know, kind of. Huge, huge thanks to aynslee for cheerleading, to star_dancer54 for whip-cracking, to balefully for helping me to get going on yesterday's crazy, crazy writing push and to stephanometra for the super-speedy beta, for making me write all the way through to the end and for showing me what the very end looked like. So much love for you guys.

Continue As You Were

Part One


Sam knows Dean will never go along with it, so Sam gets him drunk.

It's two weeks before the deal is due. Dean has been trying to live this year to the fullest, not count the days, but Dean knows how close to the end they've gotten; he must, from the ease with which he falls into throwing back tequila when Sam agrees to go shot-for-shot with him. Sam doesn't let him find out that after the first three shots, the vodka in Sam's shot glass is always water.

They both could have used a night of drinking to ease the stress they aren't talking about, but that's not what Sam's getting. Instead he waits until Dean's passing out on the table, then asks, careful to slur: "You gonna puke, man?"

With effort Dean raises his head and eyes Sam, considering the question. "Nope," he says finally.

"Good. C'mon, we gotta get you home."

Dean slides liquid-easy out of the booth and Sam hooks Dean's arm over his shoulder, holding him up by the waist. Sam grabs Dean's leather jacket with his free hand and maneuvers them out of the bar. Dean leans heavily into his side.

When they hit the blast of the outside air -- unusually cold for the end of May in Louisiana -- Dean rouses a bit, squinting into Sam's eyes. "How come you're s' much less drunk than me?"

Sam fixes him with a dopey smile and slurs, "It's just 'cause I can handle my liquor better."

"Hey," Dean says, without much force behind it. His moment of lucidity over, he slumps back into Sam's side. They're less than a block from the Rose Hills Motel, though; that's why Sam chose this bar. It still takes forever to get back, and another three minutes for Dean to fumble with the key and open the door.

"Gonna fall asleep," Dean says, collapsing onto the nearest bed.

"Okay, just let me get your clothes off first," Sam tells him.

"Sure, whatever."

By the time Sam has pulled Dean's boots off, though, Dean is already snoring, a thin line of drool trailing down his cheek. Sam doesn't bother wrestling Dean out of the rest of his clothes and under the covers. He stares at his brother's prone form for a long moment after he's done. He's got hours before there is even a chance of Dean rousing, but that's no reason to wait. He's so nervous he feels like he could vomit any second, but there's no time to waste. He won't get a second chance for this.

I'm sorry, Dean, he thinks -- the only response he gets is a wuffling snore -- and then he steals the car keys out of Dean's jacket pocket and eases the motel door shot behind him.

Sam's got sixty miles to go on ill-paved roads. He makes the drive too fast. The place should be near impossible to find, tucked away in the bayou as it is, but the image of the shack pulls at Sam's mind and he finds the roads easily, even in the dark.

She's waiting for him on the porch as he parks the Impala, his heart tripping out staccato patterns in his chest. He cannot mess this up, Sam thinks, he can't -- but the moment his eyes lock on hers he knows he won't. She won't let him.

This should be reassuring, maybe. It isn't.

She has long dark hair braided into dozens of tiny plaits; they hang heavy around her shoulders. She is wearing colorful cloths wrapped around her like robes, and her dark skin is ashy in the light of lamps filtering through the windows.

"Sam Winchester," she says, as if she is drawing the information from him. He's not entirely surprised that she knows his name. Her voice is melodic, with a hint of curiosity; it makes the small hairs of Sam's neck stand on end.

"Well," she says with the barest hint of a smile -- not so much a smile as showing the black gaps between her teeth -- "Are you coming inside?"

There's only one answer to that. Sam follows her into the shack.

The place is full of hoodoo sigils, dried animal skins and low-hanging plants that seem almost to grow out of the walls. The floor creaks beneath Sam's feet but not beneath hers. He has the sense that the house should be about to fall apart, that it would fall apart around him if he weren't with her.

She gestures at a chair covered with a brightly-striped cloth. "Sit," she tells him, and he does.

It's warm in the shack, though the smoke from the peat-burning fire is stinging Sam's eyes. She stirs the fire with an iron poker.

"So," she says, replacing the poker in the rack beside the hearth, "tell me why you're here."

She already knows, Sam is sure of it, but part of the power of this place is in him speaking it aloud. "It's for my brother."

She waits patiently for him to go on, eyes fixed on his. Sam wants to look away. He finds that he can't.

"He made a deal with a crossroads demon," Sam tells her. "I'm trying to find a way to get him out of it."

"Dean can't break the deal with the crossroads demon," she replies. "Not unless he wants Sammy to drop dead, go back to rotting meat."

"I know that," Sam says. He has spent the past eleven and a half months becoming certain of just that. "I'm not trying to break it. I'm looking to make it so that when she comes to collect, she can't do it."

She waits.

Sam struggles with his phrasing. "I want to change him, so that the demon can't take him."

"Change him," she murmurs. "And what makes you think I could do something like that?"

"There are rumors," Sam begins.

She holds up a hand and he falls silent, understanding: it wasn't really a question. "I can do it," she tells him, "but it will have its costs."

Sam swallows. "What kind of costs?"

She smiles. Sam wishes she wouldn't. "Where would be the fun in telling you that?" she says sweetly.

"It won't kill either of us, though," Sam half-asks.

"No, no, not that." She laughs. "That would defeat the purpose."

Sam doesn't have to ask to know that she won't tell him what the purpose is. Instead he asks, "When do I pay?"

"You'll pay when it's time," she replies.

Sam feels himself nodding, as if he is watching himself from far away.

"So, do we have a deal?"

Sam hesitates. She's growing impatient already; he can feel it in the air. The shack feels stiflingly small all of a sudden, as though the walls are closing around him. He's all too aware of what he's known from the start but had managed to push to the back of his mind: it was a bad idea to come here. He shouldn't have come here, and all of his instincts are screaming from him to get out now, while he can.

But it's already too late, and even if it weren't, there's one thing that trumps whatever his instincts might be telling him: he is doing this for Dean. He has to do this for Dean, or else Dean will die and his soul will go to Hell, and no matter how much danger Sam's in right now, no matter what the consequences of his actions, it'll be worth it if it saves Dean.

As soon as Sam thinks it, there's a shift in the air: the walls aren't closing in on him anymore. She's still waiting, though: reaching a decision is one thing, but it doesn't count until he says it aloud.

"We have a deal," Sam says clearly, making sure to enunciate. The air changes again, crackles with electricity.

"Good," she replies. "Very good." The electricity seems to be gathering around her, as if she is the center of it.

"How does this work?" Sam tries to ask, but the words catch thickly in his throat: he's run out of time for questions. He is no longer welcome.

"By the time you get back it will be done," is all she tells him.

He doesn't realize he's made the decision to leave until he is out the front door and turning the key in the ignition. He means to thank her, to say something before he goes, but his tongue still lies in his mouth, too heavy to move, and she hasn't followed him out of the house, anyway. The door shuts as he pulls away, the sound heavy and final in Sam's ears.

*

He makes the trip back even faster than he made the drive into the bayou. Forty-five minutes and he's back and throwing open the motel door. For the barest second, seeing Dean sprawled on the bed, Sam's heart leaps into his throat and he is terrified Dean's dead. But then Dean sucks in a huge rumbling snore and Sam is sick with relief. Dean's still alive and he's going to stay that way. The crossroads demon will come but she won't be able to take him and there's no timestamp on Dean's life, not anymore.

Everything slams into Sam at once -- Dean staying alive, what this means -- and Sam is exhausted, the stress of the past not-quite-year weighing him down so that he collapses into sleep the moment he falls onto the open bed, winter coat still on.

*

When Sam wakes up the other bed is empty. Before he gives himself a heart attack, though, he thinks to listen, and sure enough there is sound coming from the bathroom.

Sam goes to the door and knocks. "Dean?"

"Go away!"

Sam's face tugs into a smile. Dean's all right.

The sound of retching filters through the door just then, and Sam's stomach squirms briefly in guilt. Dean likes to drink, but he rarely drinks to the point of passing out, and Sam can't remember the last time he saw Dean hung-over. Dean will get over it, though. He's going to live through the deal; he'll have to get over it.

Sam listens to Dean puking for a few seconds, then asks, "Do you want me to get you anything?"

"No!" Dean yells immediately.

"Fine," Sam says, reassured, and lies back down on the bed to wait.

The puking stops after a while, but Dean still doesn't come back out. Dean usually takes a long time in the bathroom -- it's where he jerks off, after all, which Dean thinks is subtle only it really, really isn't -- but considering that Dean was just puking, Sam doubts that's what he's up to.

"Dean? You all right in there?"

"I'm fine!" Dean snaps.

Sam doesn't miss it this time, though: the fine edge of panic in Dean's tone. "You sure?"

"Just leave me alone, Sam, okay?"

And now that Dean's spoken more than two words in a row, Sam notices this, too: there's something off about Dean's voice. It's too high-pitched in a way the panic can't explain.

"Dean," he says, suddenly nervous. "Open the door."

"No."

Sam can hear so many levels of upset in that one word that the worry rolls through him in waves. He says, very calmly, "If you don't open the door I am going to kick it down."

Dean opens the door.

The first thing that registers is that Dean looks like shit. The second thing that registers is:

Dean is a girl.

He's still wearing jeans, but they're sagging low around his hips. He's got his boots on. He's topless, though, jacket, flannel shirt and t-shirt discarded on the floor beside the toilet. He's topless, displaying full breasts with dusky nipples that are hardened to points in the morning cold, and above them are Dean's shoulders and his neck, more slender now, and his face, softer lines but still the same face: freckles and full mouth and those eyelashes, longer than any girl's . . .

Dean is a girl, and he's glaring murderously at Sam through his hangover. "There," he snaps. "There, you've seen it, and I'm going to fucking kill whatever it was that did this to me."

Only then does Sam's stomach turn over; only then does he make the connection. The witch. When she said she could change Dean--

"Holy shit," Sam says.

"No fucking kidding," Dean growls. He's got his hands on his hips and -- how could Sam have missed it before? -- his hair is longer, hanging just past the line of his jaw. He's gorgeous, Sam realizes suddenly. He'd known it all along, intellectually, had known that his brother was gorgeous, but somehow the knowledge still manages to be new to him. He's not really any better-looking as a woman than he was as a man, it's just that Sam has noticed it now, really noticed it and can't stop noticing it, and his brother's breasts are right there in front of him.

"We should, uh. We should talk." Sam swallows compulsively.

"And figure out how the hell this happened?" Dean snaps. "Yeah, good call."

Sam brushes past him, completely ignoring the press of Dean's breast to his arm -- it's a small bathroom, Dean's not moving out of the way for him, it's unavoidable -- and picks up Dean's discarded flannel shirt. "Do you think you could maybe put this back on first?"

"What the--" Dean stops and takes a long look at Sam. His scowl turns to a delighted leer. "What, are you embarrassed, Sammy? You staring at my boobs?"

Sam flushes.

"You are!" Dean crows, everything else clearly forgotten for the moment. "You like my rack!" He glances down, cupping his breasts with both hands. "I gotta admit, these are pretty awesome boobs."

Sam shoves the flannel shirt at Dean and looks anywhere but at Dean's breasts. "Just put it on."

"You're killing me here," Dean tells him, but at least he takes the shirt and buttons enough of the buttons that his breasts aren't completely visible. Now he just looks like a hot girl wearing her boyfriend's clothes, which isn't helping much or, in fact, at all, especially not when they go back into the room and sit on the edge of the bed.

Sam has no idea what to say to him.

But Dean is off and running: "So it had to have happened last night, I'm thinking. I was fucking trashed. How'd I get that drunk, by the way? Did you see anything? I mean, did I piss a Wiccan off or something, and then she--"

"Dean."

"What?"

Sam tries to figure out how to say this, but there's really nothing for it. "I think I know how this happened."

Dean spreads his arms wide. "Well, tell me, Sam, I'm all ears."

Sam looks right at him, stares until Dean begins to fidget under his gaze, and then Sam tells him: the months of research, following rumor and hearsay and myth, finding the hunt in Louisiana that would get them close enough, getting Dean drunk. Dean is quiet throughout the explanation, merely nodding when Sam pauses to try to figure out how to phrase the next part of the story.

When he's done, Dean stays silent for a while, like he's still absorbing what Sam said, tugging absently at the loose end of the flannel shirt. Sam watches the fabric play through his fingers, his heart pounding.

Finally Dean says, "Tell me why you did it."

Sam doesn't hesitate. "To get you out of the deal."

Dean punches the headboard and hisses in pain. "Damn it, Sam, I thought you knew. I didn't want out of the deal!"

"That's just gonna have to be too bad," Sam tells him.

"That wasn't your choice to make!" Dean yells, standing now.

"Yeah, well, you shouldn't have brought me back from the dead!" Sam yells back, jumping up. He towers over Dean now; the thought makes him want to puke.

"That was different!"

"How, Dean? How was that different? I didn't ask you to sell your soul to bring me back!"

"It doesn't matter what you wanted," Dean says, voice breaking a little. "You were dead. I couldn't live with that."

"And you think I could live with knowing you were dead because of me?"

"It's different," Dean insists. "You would have gotten over it. You'd have had a normal life, Sam--"

"A normal life? I can't ever have a normal life," Sam snaps, automatically, but he's weary again, doesn't want to retrace the same tire tracks of this conversation yet again. Nothing ever gets resolved once they get firmly entrenched in that topic, and all Sam wants is for Dean to just freaking accept this and be happy about it, be glad that he is going to die week after next. Of course Dean wouldn't do that, though. Of course not. He doesn't have it in him.

"You know what, can we not fight about this?" Sam asks.

Dean deflates. He looks impossibly small now. Sam wants nothing more than to take Dean into his arms, tell him that he's safe now. Sam isn't going to let anything happen to him. The urge is stronger than any he's felt towards Dean ever before; it nearly bowls him over with its intensity.

"Sure," Dean says. He reaches up to run a hand through his hair and starts when his fingers don't touch his usual bristle. It doesn't make things any better at all. "Yeah, you know what, let's not talk about this."

"Dean--"

But Dean's back in the bathroom already. Sam doesn't know what he could be puking up other than bile, but he's making a real go of it, retching long and painful-sounding with the door open. Three minutes later, he runs water in the sink and washes his face off. He looks even paler than before when he comes back into the room and picks up his jacket, feeling around in the pocket.

"Where are the keys?" he asks.

"Dean--"

"The keys," Dean enunciates, staring Sam down. "Where are they?"

"On the nightstand," Sam tells him. "Dean--"

Dean snatches the keys in one hand, then wheels around to grab his leather jacket with the other. "If you try to stop me, I'll fucking kill you," he says calmly, and walks out the door.

Sam just stares after him. He doesn't see Dean again for three days.

*

Dean doesn't answer his cell phone, hasn't called any of their contacts and doesn't make any attempt to get in touch with Sam, but when Sam drives up to Bobby's house in a stolen Kia, Dean is there.

It's been a shitty three days. Sam can feel each minute of them deep in his bones, the space between his cells taken up with worry. He'd just given up and driven to Bobby's in the end, figuring that if he were going to have to hunt for Dean the hard way he might as well have some help -- but the Impala is in the gravel lot when Sam arrives, unscratched, and that more than anything convinces Sam that Dean is here, and alive.

Bobby's at the door before he's even finished climbing the steps. "Damn it, Sam, I thought you knew better than this," Bobby says quietly. It's worse than a yell somehow, the anger and disappointment in his voice, and but still the first thing Sam thinks of, pretty much the only thing in his mind, is:

"He's here, Bobby. Isn't he?"

Bobby's mouth turns downwards. "You know he is."

Somehow that's a burden lifted, hearing it confirmed, even as Bobby is staring him down. "Can I see him?"

Only then does he notice, really: Bobby's standing in front of the door so that he can't get in. Bobby's mouth is firm thin line. "He knows you're here," Bobby says. There's a rustle of curtains at one of the windows; it might have been the wind, but Sam doesn't think so. Dean. Bobby isn't moving.

"Bobby," Sam says.

It shakes Bobby out of his calm. "Haven't you Winchesters figured it out yet? You can't mess with nature, not like this. Dean made the deal. He did it even though he shouldn't have, but God damn it, Sam, you don't get to go backing out on it."

"He's my brother, Bobby," Sam says. It's odd: he's the calm one now. "I couldn't let him do that. Not like that."

"It has to stop, Sam." Bobby's voice is gravelly and low. "You have to let it be over."

"It will be after this," Sam tells him. "Come on, Bobby, what did you think I was going to do, just let him do this? He's my brother. I'd do anything for him."

Bobby stares at him for a long moment before he says, "Are you sure it's him you did it for?"

Sam stares back at him evenly, letting the corner of his mouth curl inwards the way it wants to, and thinks about how he wants to reply to that. In the end, he doesn't have to say anything at all: before the staring contest is over, Dean is at the door behind Bobby and opening it from the inside. Bobby steps aside to let him out.

Dean's wearing jeans and a high-necked ruffled blouse with hideous little red flowers on it. It's decades out of date, and Sam can't even imagine where he would have found something like that. It's probably better than going around in his regular clothes, but only slightly.

"You okay, Dean?" Bobby asks, voice gentle like Sam's never heard it.

"Yeah," Dean replies. It's pretty much clear that he's anything but okay, but Sam doesn't get to question him on this: he knows that. Dean's carrying one duffel bag Sam recognizes, the army duffel, and another that Sam's never seen before. He brushes past Sam to carry them out to the Impala and throw them both in the trunk.

"Thanks, Bobby," Dean says tightly.

"Call me if you need anything," is all Bobby says, and with another glare at Sam he disappears back into the house.

"Are we leaving already?" Sam asks stupidly. He's pretty sure he's missing something here, something big. Bobby's pissed at him for what he did, sure, he gets that, but it's not any worse than Dean selling his soul to the devil, is it, and he didn't exactly see Bobby tearing Dean a new one for that a year ago. He yelled at Dean, sure, but he didn't throw Dean out, didn't keep him from coming into the house or anything.

"Yeah," Dean says.

"Where are we going?"

"To Missouri's."

"Why?" Sam asks stupidly.

"Because I put out feelers and it sounds like she might be able to help," Dean says shortly. "Now would you get in the goddamned car?"
Dean shifts the front seat as far forward as it'll go before he gets behind the wheel. Sam folds himself into the passenger seat and doesn't say anything about the press of his knees against the dashboard, already beyond uncomfortable.

Dean rolls the sleeves of the blouse up before he turns the car on. "It used to be Bobby's wife's," he says. "Elvira's."

"Okay," Sam says. It's clear from Dean's scowl that if Sam says anything else, Dean's going to kill him.

Dean shoves Metallica into the cassette deck and turns the key in the ignition. They don't say anything else all morning.

It is a long three hours before Dean pulls over for lunch. They eat in silence, speaking only to the waitress. Dean makes an abortive attempt at flirting with her, the realization moving across his face too late that it's not going to work, not like usual -- that she sees a woman when she looks at him. He goes rigid before the waitress does. It turns into a strange staring contest, a stand-off, and Dean's quickly muttered never mind doesn't make it better, not at all.

Sam drives in the afternoon. He shifts the seat back before he gets in. His knees pop painfully as he bends them to sit again and drive. Dean curls up against the passenger side window and doesn't say anything at all. With his leather jacket on and the collar up, Sam can lose sight of what Dean looks like beneath it easily. Dean stays against the passenger side door the whole time, not surfacing once, and Sam drives straight through, even though he knows Dean isn't sleeping.

They reach Lawrence by the middle of the afternoon. Sam means to go to a hotel, sleep it all off and then drive to Missouri's in the morning, but as soon as he thinks it Dean makes a show of awakening and says through a faked yawn, "You've got to turn here if you're going to Missouri's."

I'm not going to Missouri's somehow comes out of Sam's mouth as, "Yeah, I know." He makes the turn.

*

Missouri too is at the door before they are even out of the car. "Dean, there's a shower towards the back of the house, if you want to use it," is the first thing she says, and the only thing until Dean has retrieved his things from the trunk -- the one duffel bag Sam recognizes, and another Sam doesn't -- and gone into the house. Then Missouri closes the front door and the screen door behind her and stares down at Sam.

"What did you do?" she spits, and God, Sam would've thought he'd had enough of his ass being reamed, but no, apparently there's still room for more.

"Didn't Dean tell you?" he hedges.

"Not the whole of it, not over the phone. I wouldn't let him. And I want to hear it from you, anyway."

It's the same as it was with her, in the shack in the bayou: there's power in the telling.

"Start from the beginning," Missouri says.

And Sam does.

*

It's a shorter story than he'd thought it would be, considering that the last time Missouri saw them, it was before they even knew what the yellow-eyed demon was, and before it killed Dad; long before Sam died and Dean made the deal with the crossroads demon. Sam would've thought he'd have lied to her about some of that -- he can count on one hand the number of people who know about Dean's deal -- but everything he tells her is true.

Somehow they have moved to Missouri's rocking chairs during the course of the telling. She rocks in a slow rhythm, unchanging, her hands folded in her lap. She has mastered her poker face, mostly, except for a slight downturning of her mouth, which is more difficult to identify than Sam would have thought. Worry, he thinks, but then the telling is done and Missouri unclasps her hands and the emotion builds onto her face in layers upon layers until he realizes: it is anger that he's seeing.

"All Dean told me was that he'd woken up on Tuesday in a woman's body," Missouri says, her voice rumbling and low. "Samuel Winchester, I could just smack you. When I said for you boys to keep in touch, I wasn't talking about Christmas cards!"

Sam has never in his life sent out a Christmas card and he's pretty sure that in the past twenty-five years no one else in his family has, either, but he doesn't say that.

Missouri's still going. "You can't just dump all this on a person and expect her to deal with it all at once!"

Sam waits until she seems to be calming down a bit, and then asks, "What else did you and Dean talk about when he called?'

Missouri pauses and considers the question. "What I already told you. He said he woke up in the morning in a woman's body. He said it was your fault, but he wouldn't say what you'd done."

Sam's palms are oddly sweaty. "And what did you say to him?"

Missouri folds her hands again. "I said that there are ways to change him back."

Sam is aware, suddenly, of the frigidness of the Lawrence night air, of the utter silence of Missouri's street. Their voices must be carrying far down the street, he thinks. They must be audible to anyone who has a window cracked, anyone who cares to listen -- and that there is no one, probably, is unimportant. There is a crystalline feel to the cold, that it could shatter at any second with too sudden of a movement. Sam's hoodie is too thin.

"Change him back," Sam repeats, murmuring.

Missouri shakes her head slowly. Before Sam can work his tongue around the words, before he can say, You can't change him back, you can't, Missouri says, "Come inside, honey. It's too cold to discuss the rest of this out here."

Sam makes an abortive movement towards the car. "Should I . . ."

"Bring your things inside? Well, you'll be staying the night, of course," she says, her tone leaving no room for debate.

Sam grabs his duffel bag and follows her in.

*

Dean's sitting in the kitchen, which is as immaculately clean as Sam remembers. After the last time they were here, Dean told Sam he'd had this nearly uncontrollable urge to track mud all over the kitchen floor. An eight-year-old's desire, and he was just kidding, Sam thinks. That's the kind of dumb joke that Dean only cracks because he knows it'll make Sam shake his head and grin, You are so weird, and it works every time.

Dean's not tracking mud into the kitchen tonight, though. He is sitting at the kitchen table, leaning forward with his shoulders hunched, but his posture is oddly rigid, as if he is stuck in this position and cannot move from it. He has buttoned himself into another of Elvira's blouses, this one somehow more hideous than the first: blue, more ruffles, larger flowers. Elvira must have been a small woman: the blouse is pulling across Dean's chest. Neither Sam nor Missouri mentions it. Dean's hair hangs lank around his shoulders, still wet.

"Hi," Dean says, his voice an odd croak from disuse, and still too high. Every time Sam hears it, it is still jarring, still too high.

"Hi," Sam repeats back.

Missouri looks between them, as if she is testing the thickness of the awkwardness in the air. Apparently she's decided to take pity on them. "There are some things we're going to have to discuss," she says. Dean moves to say something, but she cuts him off before he gets his mouth open. She's good at that. "I'm going to feed you first, though. Dean Winchester, when was the last time you ate?"

Dean's stomach growls, so very on cue that it's almost like Missouri knew it was going to happen. Sam wonders if she did; she's the psychic, after all. "Fine," Dean says.

Missouri's leftovers are better than most people's cooking tastes hot out of the oven, though: thick lasagna with heavy layers of ricotta and ground beef, green beans sautéed in oil, pepper and salt, chocolate cake with fudge frosting and cold milk. Sam hasn't eaten a meal like this in months, maybe not years -- not since he can't remember when -- and he somehow has the thought, while finishing it, that there must be magic in this food somewhere, that if he were to keep eating it forever it might somehow make right everything that is wrong.

After the food is gone, Missouri makes coffee. She does it slowly, moving around the kitchen at half-speed as if she is far older than she actually is, and even from behind him Sam can feel Dean's eyes in his direction, watching Missouri as well. None of them are saying anything, not yet. Only once the coffee is finished percolating and Missouri sets steaming mugs in front of each of them, then goes back for her own, does Missouri say, her voice somehow older and graver than it was when they arrived, "It's time to talk now."

Sam opens his mouth, but Missouri says, "No, Dean first."

Dean nods. His hair's a little drier now; it moves with his head. He pushes it behind his ears, automatic. "What did Sam tell you before?" he asks, hesitating a little.

"He caught me up on everything that's happened," she says evenly. "I want you to tell me where you want to go from here."

Dean doesn't hesitate this time. "I want you to change me back. I'll bet Sam didn't tell you that the demon said the deal was off if I tried to get out of the deal, did he? You have to change me back or else the deal is off and Sam'll--" He stops, as if his throat has closed off.

"He's not saying it right, Missouri," Sam tells her. "The deal's only off if he tries to get himself out of it -- there's a loophole--"

"'What does it matter which one of us tries to get me out of it? Getting me out of it is still trying to get me out of it! It's the intent that matters, Sam! The demon's not going to go for it if we try to get out of this one on a loophole!"

"Sam," Missouri says calmly, "you need to let your brother talk to me right now."

Sam closes his mouth.

"I can't risk any loopholes on this," Dean says. "Not with Sam's life on the line, Missouri. If it doesn't work and the deal breaks, I just -- I can't do it. I want you to change me back. You said that there are ways?"

In that body, Sam thinks, he looks impossibly young, easily breakable and over-eager. Sam has a sudden rush of feeling for Dean, a need to draw him close and keep him safe from everything in the world. Is this what it feels like to be the older sibling all the time, Sam wonders? Is this why Dean is always thumbing Sam's jaw, checking his pulse, standing closer than he needs to: so that he can make sure that Sam is safe?

"There are ways," Missouri says.

*

There are a number of them, as it turns out, but not all of them will work depending on how the change took place. "I need you to tell me the exact words you said to the witch," Missouri tells him.

"I don't think she was a witch, exactly," Sam says.

Missouri frowns at him. "What do you mean by that?"

Sam considers. "I don't really think it was hoodoo she was practicing." He describes the sigils, the hanging vines and the careful drawings on the floor, the ones he'd barely noticed at the time and only now can call up because of Dad's training, all that time spent memorizing all of the objects in a room -- it'll be useful, Sam, it's the kind of thing you'll need to know one day -- and it's good that he can do this now, he thinks, good to know all this.

"Hmm," she says, unease clear even from the single syllable of her sigh. "Tell me about the deal."

It feels like calling up something from a dream, but he can remember all of it, the way the room closed in as she became impatient and the way it expanded after he made the choice, after he made the deal. This is the first time Dean has heard this, too, he realizes suddenly; he didn't have time to tell Dean all of this in so much detail before Dean was taking the Impala and out the door of the hotel, heading north. Sam doesn't look at Dean as he tells this, though. Watching Missouri's frown deepen with each word that comes out of his mouth is bad enough.

"You're right about one thing," she says finally, after he is done. "That's not hoodoo, no sir."

"What is it, then?" Dean asks.

Missouri bites down on her lip. "I can't be entirely sure," she says. "But I don't like it, no sir."

"There's a way out of it, though," Dean half-asks. "Right?"

Missouri is clutching her coffee cup to her like a life-line. "There are things that we could try," she says.

*

They're not pretty things, the ways to get out of this. "It's old magic, what she did," Missouri tells them. "It's no hoodoo. And hoodoo's nothing pretty to undo, but old magic's . . ."

It's blood things, mostly. Rituals of pain and sacrifice, and hearing about them Dean's face draws into thin lines, gone pale, but he nods as Missouri talks. Sam's listening to them as if he is hearing this from far away -- this isn't something real that's being discussed, bleeding out his brother -- but it comes roaring in as Dean is saying something about a pint, and wouldn't that be enough?

"I need to talk to my brother, Missouri," Sam says.

She takes one look at him and sees, maybe, the way the skin is pulled tight across his knuckles, the strain in his face. "All right," she replies. "Let me know when you're done." She takes her coffee cup and disappears through the doorway, the rubber soles of her shoes padding softly over linoleum, and then it is only Sam and Dean in the room, Sam and Dean and Elvira's hideous blouse.

There's a way to start this conversation, Sam thinks, that will make it come out the way that he wants it to, but he cannot for the life of him think of what that that is. So he just spits it out: "You can't do this."

Dean stares at him. "What part of it don't you understand, Sam? I have to. There's no way out of this."

"Yes, there is," Sam tells him, "and I found it, and I am not going to let you throw this away just because you've got some kind of fucked up sense of, I don't know, honor that's telling you you have to go all the way through with this! I thought you believed me when I said I would do anything to get you out of this, and now after I've finally found a way to do it you're trying to throw yourself to the hellhounds? I don't fucking get you, Dean!"

"Oh, that's just great!" Dean yells. "You don't get why I'm doing this? I sold my soul to bring you back! What was I supposed to do when you were dead, huh? What am I supposed to do if this counts for breaking the deal and you drop dead again because of me? Am I supposed to live with that? I'd rather spend an eternity in Hell than that!"

"Do you want to die?" Sam shouts. "Is that it? Do you really want to die?"

Dean goes quiet all of a sudden, all the fight gone out of him now. "You know I don't," he says. "You know I don't want that. Of course I want to live. But the only thing I want more than that is for you to stay alive, and if this is what it takes, then that's what I'm doing. You have to let me do this for you, Sam."

Sam shifts his chair closer to Dean's so that he can lay his hands on Dean's shoulders. "No, I don't. You don't have to do this. You think I'm going to be able to go on and, what, have a normal life if you let her come for you? I've got news for you, Dean. It's not going to work that way. I thought I could do it at Stanford, but after everything we've been through now? No way. There's no fucking way. If there's a chance, Dean, if there's a chance that this will work, we have to take it. The loophole thing, it's going to work. I know it will, I know it."

If he just keeps repeating it long enough, Sam thinks, if he tells it to Dean over and over then maybe eventually it will stick -- but he needs Dean to be with him on this. He strokes his thumbs deeper into Dean's jaw.

"It'll work," Sam says softly, "it'll work, it has to. We'll come back as soon as it's over, and we'll change you back. We will."

Sam can feel the moment Dean relaxes, the moment he gives in. "Okay," he says.

It'll be all right, Sam thinks. He hopes.

*

They tell Missouri first thing in the morning. She nods, her face a careful matronly blank, and says, "You can stay here if you want."

Dean shakes his head. "I appreciate the offer, but no. Goodbye, Missouri."

Sam tries not to pay attention to his choice of words.

Once they are on the highway heading out of Lawrence, Dean says, "I didn't want to wait around, you know? I just -- let's just drive somewhere."

"You got a destination in mind?" Sam asks, leaning against the window with his eyes closed so he doesn't have to look at Dean.

He can hear Dean's shrug anyway. "Nah. Let's just drive."

*

Dean takes them west by north, but slowly, inexorably loops back south once they're out of Kansas. They're just driving for the sake of driving, now, not hunting anything, but Sam's got a slow-growing certainty in his gut that solidifies once they're in Arizona: he knows where they're headed.

Early in the morning of the last day of Dean's year, they drive up fourteen miles of unpaved road to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and park. They put $160 in tickets on Jefferson Airplane's credit card. The attendant doesn't even blink at the name, just hands Dean the receipt back and lets him sign. "My ultimate credit card achievement," Dean tells Sam with a grin as they pull forward and park.

It's hot as fuck but crowded nonetheless -- the Skywalk is still so new that it's overcrowded, though Sam doubts it will ever be otherwise. It's the strangest, most surreal thing he's ever done: walking a glass bridge across a gaping chasm in the earth with his brother, who is a girl.

The strangest thing about it, maybe, is that the crowds don't even seem to be there after a while. Sam is looking down a mile to the bottom of the earth, it seems, to the thin blue twine of the Colorado River and the red cliffs cutting off and jutting down. There are clouds in the distance, gray and full of rain, wisps of them reaching down to the edges of the canyon already the way that streetlights reach for the windshield of the Impala when they are driving in the dark. The whole place seems too big to be real, too oddly colored and a little hazy, so that it seems as if he is looking at a painting of the Grand Canyon rather than at the Grand Canyon itself.

Dean's wearing one of his own t-shirts today. It hangs off his shoulders, sleeves that should be tight around his biceps instead falling nearly down to his elbows, but he's grinning, a dazzling flash of teeth that's almost too much for Sam to handle, and he doesn't think about it, just slings an arm around Dean's shoulders and pulls him in close, doesn't think about the way that Dean is far smaller than he should be. Dean lets him keep his arm there. They walk like that for a while, not talking, but it's the kind of place that doesn't really need the sound.

A little bit further down the Skywalk there's a guy set up with his digital camera, taking free tourist shots that you can pay too much money for at the booth later. "You want a picture with your girl?" the guy says to Sam.

Sam waits for Dean to bristle; when he doesn't, Sam says, "Sure, okay."

The guy fiddles with the focus and takes the shot. Behind the guy's head a hawk is turning circles in the sky; in front of the camera, Sam's arm is still around Dean's shoulders. It's a good day, Sam thinks suddenly, a better day than he would have expected for Dean's last.

Not Dean's last, he reminds himself. It's not.

*

As soon as they're back in the Impala, though, Dean's twitchy, keys in the ignition and fingers tapping on the dash before the radio's even on. "Let's drive," he says abruptly. "I just -- I want to drive."

Not around three a.m., Sam thinks but does not say. No matter how often Dean's pretended not to be aware of the days, he can't be ignorant of this: he can't be behind the wheel when the demon comes. Dean knows this, Sam's sure of this. He wouldn't do that to Sam. He wouldn't do that to his car.

Dean takes the road fast, bisecting the curves in a way that Sam wouldn't if he were driving, but he's not, and Dean's a great driver, the best Sam knows. It's not that he's risking anything -- he's too good of a driver for that -- but maybe he is. It's the last afternoon of Dean's life, Sam thinks. Dean can risk this if he wants to. What does he have to lose? What does either of them have to lose?

Maybe it would be better to go out that way, Sam thinks: both of them flying off the side of the road in the Impala, a few stretching moments of movement through space -- no matter how hard he works on her, Dean's never managed to get the Impala to fly -- it would be something new for all of them, a few glorious seconds and then it would be over, all of it, but it would be over for both of them: no souls sold to demons in crossroads deals, no down-south bargains with creatures too old to be witches, no more of any of this. It would be over and finally it would be good.

If Sam were to reach over right now and take the wheel in his hands, steer it to the right and off the road, would Dean resist? He doesn't think Dean would. Dean would understand it the way he understands Sam, the way no one else ever has, not Jess. Dean would understand it the way he does when they don't speak for hours on end in the car, the Impala lapping up road and the permanent sunburn on Dean's left arm darkening, the way he can look at Sam and know what he is thinking -- from so many hours beside each other on the road, from so many years of shared rooms and spaces and clothes. Dean would understand why, and Dean would let him do it.

Somehow, though, Sam doesn't.

*

Four hours in the car and it's dark now, hard to see the road, but it doesn't seem to faze Dean. They're on 180 now, heading north towards the Grand Canyon again, when Dean pulls over abruptly onto a gravel road and pulls the emergency brake up.

Sam's not asleep, not really, but he wasn't expecting the sudden stop, either. He kind of has to blink a couple of times before he really gets with the program enough to look at where they are. "Dude, what the fuck?"

Dean grins. "Flintstones Bedrock City." He opens the door and jumps out of the car.

Sam follows him. If he weren't completely sure he wasn't asleep, he'd think Dean had to be making this shit up, but no. It's an actual swear-to-God Flintstones hotel and R.V. park. There are massive statues of dinosaurs in the yard and tiny individual hotel rooms -- Dean's always liked those kinds of places, where you get your own little cabin -- each of which seems to have its own character out front.

"I hope we get Wilma," Dean says happily.

Sam stares. "What is it with you and cartoon redheads?"

"Two words: Jessica Rabbit."

Sam shakes his head and trails after Dean into the office. Turns out Dean's in luck: Wilma's free for the night. "Dude!" Dean crows. "This is awesome!"

Sam grins back at him, near-blinded by how much of a little kid Dean looks when he's genuinely grinning through a girl's face. He loses years every time he grins, but right now, he looks about twelve, and Sam has to look away from him so Dean doesn't see how he's having to hold his face so very still right now, to keep the salt back and in.

"This was, like, my life-long dream, you know," Dean says as they head back out to the Impala to move her right in front of Wilma.

Sam stares at him, watching for the punch line, but Dean doesn't actually seem to be joking. "Really?"

"Yeah," Dean says, turning the key in the ignition. "We drove out past here once when you were really little, you know. Dad was hunting something out in the desert near Tusayan, so we came up this way. He was gonna let us stop and play here for a while -- did you know you can slide down the brontosaurus's neck, just like Fred, man! We should totally do that. Anyway, Dad was going to stop for us, but the hunt was kind of urgent on the way in, and then you got sick on the way out, like seriously stomach-flu-sick. You have no idea how glad I am that you don't get car-sick usually, dude, 'cause if you puked on the Impala now the way you did that day, I would beat you into the ground. But yeah, so anyway, Dad didn't want to stop with you puking all over the place, so we never came back here."

"So we drove five hours just to stay at this hotel?" Sam asks, a smile tugging at his mouth.

Dean shrugs, grinning back. "Yeah, maybe. C'mon, let's see what Wilma's beds are like."

There's only the one of them, as it turns out -- Dean hadn't thought to ask the kid at the desk, Sam realizes -- but it doesn't much matter: as soon as they're inside the mood breaks good and proper. Sam can feel it, the tension twanging out taut like a guitar string and snapping back, flickering in the air.

Dean sits down heavily on the bed, hand to his forehead like Sam used to do with the visions, and swallows. "Shit, Sam," he says roughly. "I thought I could do this, I really thought I could."

Sam's on the bed beside him in an instant, arm around Dean's shoulders, and draws him in close. Dean's not crying, not exactly, but he's shaking, long slow shudders that seem to build up from the ground and move all the way through his body, and Sam's got this thick feeling in his throat, can't swallow for the life of him but feels like there's too much saliva in his mouth anyway.

"It's gonna be okay," Sam says. He's not sure that he believes it, but one of them needs to say it -- it has to be him.

Dean's shaking speeds up a little. "I've been hearing them all week, you know. The hellhounds. They're getting louder now, though, Sam, like they're getting close."

Sam clutches Dean tighter to him, like that's going to keep the hellhounds at bay. "Why didn't you say anything?" he asks around the lump in his throat and the saliva in his mouth and the clenching feeling of his chest that's not going to get any better, that's never going to get better.

"Didn't want you to worry," Dean says.

Something breaks in Sam at that: that even at the end, Dean would try to do this, try to make things a little easier on him. "You think that's just your job?" Sam says. "You think it's just you that gets to worry about me and not the other way around?"

"Not anymore," Dean replies. "You won't have to worry about anything now."

Sam swallows hard and gets a little bit of the saliva down. "Dean--"

Dean smiles at him suddenly, a bright flash of teeth. "This is all I ever wanted, you know? For you to be safe. And you will be, after this."

Sam stares at him hard, but he can't think of a single goddamned thing to say to Dean, now, not a thing.

Sam can feel Dean pulling himself together, suddenly, as the shaking stops. He slips of Sam's grasp and stands in front of Sam to face him. Even sitting down, Sam's head is nearly level with Dean's. "I don't regret it," Dean tells him. "Not even now. I'd do it again. It's worth it. And thank you, for what it's worth. For trying."

"God, Dean." Sam tries to fit all the feeling in his chest into those words, how very much he loves his brother, but there's no way he can manage it.

Dean looks at him like he understands it anyway, eyes shining over-bright. "I love you," he says clearly, enunciating each word. Sam can't remember the last time he heard Dean say it. Then Dean lunges forward, presses his lips to Sam's -- too quick to be a kiss, too quick for anything but the briefest flash of warmth against Sam's face -- and turns away from him, goes out the door and into the night.


Part Two
Tags: fic, genderswap, sam/dean, spn
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