oschun (oschun) wrote,
oschun
oschun

I Think Therefore I Am 6/7



“Every parting gives a foretaste of death, every reunion a hint of the resurrection.” Arthur Schopenhauer

Reece is surprisingly magnanimous towards them the next day considering the bumps and bruises he’s wearing. Dean does a supply run in the morning and they load a pickup in the afternoon with what they need for the long journey north: food, water, camping equipment and weapons. The three of them are ready by nightfall. There was no question that Castiel would accompany Dean on his pilgrimage to meet his father.

Cas likes to pretend he feels nothing but irritation for his clone. It’s a front, of course. They’re two sides of the same coin. As they’re leaving, he wraps his arms tightly around Castiel—who passively allows the embrace—calls him “brother” and tells him to watch his back. Castiel obviously feels that he has to give some parting advice in return and warns Cas not to mix barbiturates with amphetamines, which makes Cas roll his eyes and shake his head.

Dean gets a hug too and an open-mouthed kiss that he has to pull away from. Cas has no boundaries. It’s because he spent his whole life in a religious order living by rigid rules and now that he has lost his faith almost everything is permissible. Cas is one of the last great hedonists.

Dean discusses some final details with Risa. Who knows if they’ll even see each other again? Nothing is certain. They pull out of the camp as night descends and the first stars appear in the sky.

It takes them four days to make it to the northern sector.

Dean’s never been further north than the 35th parallel. The devastation is more acute the closer they get to the capital. It’s as if a great tide, a nuclear blast wave, radiated outwards from the capital and swallowed the surrounding area in fire and destruction and black smoke. Compounds, emptied of their inhabitants, are ruins of rubble and twisted metal. They pass long lines of refugees moving south: wary-eyed men, tired women and the occasional frightened child.

They have to abandon the pickup on the fourth day after they hit an IED on a ruined minor road through a valley surrounded on both sides by towering cliffs. By some miracle, the blast only just catches the front wheel and rolls the pickup into a shallow ditch. They’re unhurt but the front axle of the pickup is totaled. Reece tells them that the rebel camp isn’t that far from their position anyway, maybe a two-day hike, so they load as many provisions as they can carry in their backpacks and duck into the thick woodland next to the road.

The woods are unnaturally still. Most of the wildlife has been hunted for food, and it’s too easy to get ambushed in the thick cover of the trees, so the civilian population avoids places like this.

They are wary and silent, communicating only when it’s absolutely necessary, hiking for ten hours straight and camping in a clearing without a fire, sleeping in shifts. The next morning dawns humid and thunderous, the air charged with static. The storm breaks an hour after they set off. They keep walking through the downpour, glad for the waterproof ponchos they’d brought with them.

Dean had guessed Reece was a seriously tough bastard and that’s proved irrefutably when they’re attacked by a bunch of opportunistic marauders.

They are just coming over a steep and mud-slippery hill when it happens. A guy suddenly drops from a tree above them, straight onto Reece, who is walking at the front. He almost falls but rises up again and reaches behind him, grips the guy by the back of the neck and flips him over his shoulder. The guy yells as he sprawls on his back in the mud and Reece instantly brings his boot down—once on his throat, silencing him, and twice on his face, three crushing blows—before another big guy barrels into him from the thick brush to the side of the track. By then, Dean’s dealing with a wild-eyed, long-haired creature, who barks at him like a dog, barely human anymore, slashing at him with what looks like a short-sword, and Castiel is holding off a six foot mountain-man.

Dean pulls out the knife in his belt, feints a stabbing motion, slips the other way around his attacker, gets a grip on his hair and sticks him in the throat. The gush of blood is hot over his cold hands and the gurgling scream in his ear makes him shudder. He pulls the knife out and stabs again, in and out. He lets go and the body falls face-forward. He thinks about whether he should put his boot on the back of the neck, press the head down into the puddle of water, just to make sure. Castiel suddenly calls out a warning and he turns in time to stab another attacker in the stomach.

The thing about a knife fight is the brutal intimacy of it: the widened eyes and smell of fetid breath from an open mouth. Dean pulls the blade out and slips it between hard ribs into vulnerable organ muscle. The light fades from the wide eyes and the mouth closes on unsaid final words.

Dean and Castiel have been in enough close combat situations that they work together in instinctive orchestration. Castiel sidesteps an attack and Dean moves in for the kill. Dean maneuvers another attacker so Castiel can blindside him.

They wait back-to-back, but nobody else comes at them. It’s quiet. They turn in time to see Reece snap a final attacker’s neck. A quick wrench and the body drops to the ground. It’s done. Eight bodies litter the forest floor and blood swirls through the muddy rivulets. Reece looks over at them, a cold, closed expression on his face - the look of a killer. He physically has to shake himself free of it and blink a few times to refocus on them. He glances around and grins. “Not bad for a bunch of survivalists.” Dean doesn’t return the grin. He doesn’t need to look at Castiel next to him to know he’s not smiling either.

Afterwards, they hike for a couple of miles higher up into the mountains before huddling under an overhanging rock to brew a pot of coffee. “To staying human,” Dean says sarcastically, raising his cup.

“To staying alive, brother,” Reece rejoins and cheerfully clinks his cup against Dean’s.

It takes them another two hours to reach the vicinity of the rebel camp. They stop in a glade below a ridge and Reece goes on without them. The rebels don’t deal well with surprises or strangers.

Dean and Castiel take a seat on a fallen tree trunk and wait. It has stopped raining. Thin, golden fingers of sunlight poke through the trees. A humid, earthy smell rises from the drying forest floor.

“You seem nervous, Dean.”

Dean abandons his task of chipping away at a large rock by flicking smaller stones at it. He’d been trying to distract himself, and of course Castiel picked up on it. Castiel is an observer and constantly curious about what makes people tick on an emotional level. He’s often surprisingly attuned to peoples’ emotions.

“Yeah, guess I am.”

Castiel nods and looks away, satisfied that the verbal exchange has been completed. Confirmation of an observation and end of discussion. Cas has tried to teach Castiel the art of conversation, but he’s not a very good student. It’s soothing sometimes, though, being with someone who doesn’t find it necessary to constantly verbalize everything and fill in the natural silences between people with meaningless small-talk. Dean smiles slightly, watching Castiel scanning the tree-line. “I never asked you how long it took for you to track Cas down.”

“Two months and sixteen days.”

“Were you disappointed?”

Castiel frowns and cocks his head. “Disappointed?”

“Yeah, were you disappointed by him? Did you hope he’d be more than what he is?”

There’s no hesitation in interpreting what Dean meant by the question. “You’re afraid your father will be a disappointment.”

“No, I’m actually scared he’ll be everything I ever hoped for.”

“And therefore that you’ll be a disappointment to him?”

Dean grunts and smiles wryly, acknowledging the insight into his character.

“No, Dean, I wasn’t disappointed in my original. From the moment I met him, I loved him as if he were a part of me. I believe that we share the same soul. And it’s highly improbable that you will be a disappointment to your father. You have courage and a sense of justice. It makes people want to follow you. I admire you.”

Dean grins and flicks a stone at Castiel’s chest. “Are you flirting with me? Cas would be impressed.”

Castiel smiles and throws the stone back at Dean. It hits him on the thigh. “You know I don’t know how to flirt, but Cas would definitely be impressed you thought I was. I won’t mention it to him, though. I prefer not to encourage his fantasy about the three of us engaged in sexual acts together.”

Dean barks a laugh. “Yeah, he’s a perverted son of a bitch. But you’re right, he’s never disappointing.”

They hear a whistle from the top of the ridge and look up to see Reece gesturing for them to follow him.

There’s another guy with Reece. He’s tall and heavily muscled, has a shaved head and is dressed in fatigues. A thick, ugly scar twists up one side of his face and he’s got the same FREEDOM tattoo just below his throat. He looks from Dean to Castiel and back again. “You Dean?” he asks. When Dean nods, the guy looks him up and down. “Follow me,” he says. Dean gets the feeling he’s just been inspected and that he didn’t quite meet up to expectations.

The camp sits on top of the ridge and consists of a number of rundown buildings and military tents. There are various groups of people, mainly men, but a few women as well, doing training exercises, cleaning weapons and assembling explosive devices. Three or four guys are working on some open-hooded vehicles parked under a wooden structure covered in camouflage netting.

“Good luck,” Reece says, like Dean might need it, and smiles cryptically as if he’s in on some secret unknown to Dean before heading towards one of the tents.

Scarface silently leads Dean and Castiel towards a low building with a satellite dish on the roof. The south-facing wall is covered in bullet holes. A guy with a semi-automatic guards the entrance to the building. They are stripped of their weapons and thoroughly searched.

“You going to give me a hand-job while you’re at it?” Dean asks when Scarface searches his pockets and feels his crotch for anything he might have concealed there. It’s probably not the wisest thing to say to a guy who looks like he could rip your balls off and eat them raw for breakfast. He ignores Dean and continues the body-search. “He’s clean,” he says to the guard, who stands aside to let them in. Scarface gestures for Dean to enter a short, dark passageway. “We can get to the hand-jobs later, pretty boy,” he whispers in Dean’s ear as he steps into the entrance.

Walking down the passageway, Castiel says behind him, “Considering our position, perhaps it is unwise to antagonize the men with guns, Dean.”

“Point taken,” Dean replies.

The passageway opens up into a large room. There’s a long table strewn with maps in the middle of the room and maybe twelve chairs around it. Satellite communication equipment covers two tables lining the back wall. Very little natural light makes its way into the room from the small windows set high up on the walls facing east and west.

The room is empty except for a man standing at the other end of the table with his back to them in a position of quiet contemplation, head lowered and his hands clasped loosely behind him, a soldier at ease. Another figure sits on a chair against the far wall, his face in shadow.

Dean walks into the center of the room and waits. It’s a moment of silent anticipation. He doesn’t know what he’s expecting or feeling: anger, excitement, betrayal and nervousness, they’re all mixed up and tangled into an emotional ball that he can’t unravel. The man standing near the head of the table turns around and walks slowly towards him. Dean wasn’t sure if he would recognize him, but he does. Of course he looks older than the single photograph Dean owns of him - his dark beard is now filled with grey and deep lines mark his forehead, but otherwise it’s the same familiar face Dean used to spend hours staring at when he was a kid.

His dad smiles tentatively and Dean realizes each of them is as nervous as the other. It makes his anger and resentment dissipate a little.

“Dad.”

“Dean.”

His dad is the one to close the distance between them and pull him into a hard, fierce hug. He steps back and smiles again, his hand on Dean’s shoulder. “Oh, you grew up well, Dean. Look at you.”

Dean’s clothes are mud-and-blood-streaked, he hasn’t shaved in four days, he’s exhausted and he smells like hell. Only a soldier could look at him with approval.

“Reece tells me you really know how to handle yourself and I’ve heard good things about the southern resistance.”

Something warm starts to flower inside Dean. He doesn’t recognize it at first because pride is not something he feels very often. He has no immunity to his father’s praise.

(Dean never builds up any resistance to the need for his father’s approval. Forever mythologized, John Winchester epitomizes everything Dean always thinks he should be and never quite matches up to. It’s pretty much sealed in that moment—as it is for many young recruits when they first meet this legendary general of the resistance—Dean would willingly follow his father into the mouth of hell. He almost does in the battles that are to come. He never really recovers when his dad is killed. For real this time. He spends a night’s dry-eyed vigil next to the body, trying to convince himself of it, and lights the funeral pyre himself.)

“We have so much to talk about, Dean. I don’t even know where to start.”

“You could start by explaining to me why you didn’t let me know that you were still alive.”

His dad’s jaw tightens. Dean doesn’t know whether it’s out of pain or anger or guilt. He can’t read him because he’s a total stranger.

His dad sighs and gestures towards one of the chairs. “Let’s sit down.”

Dean remembers Castiel. “This is Castiel. He’s—” Dean doesn’t know how to describe Castiel’s position in his life. Their relationship is hard for him to define. Lieutenant sounds pretentious, brother-in-arms sounds corny and to say Castiel is a friend would be a ridiculous understatement, so instead he says, “I trust him with my life.”

The two men nod at each other.

“I will wait for you outside, Dean.”

After Castiel has left the room, his father gestures towards the chair again. Dean glances with irritation at the still figure sitting in the shadows. He guesses the guy is some kind of bodyguard, but there’s no reason for his presence. It’s not like Dean is a threat to his dad. He sits down at the table and his dad takes a seat opposite him, his hands clasped together on the table. He leans forward and says, “None of this will be any comfort to you, and I’m sorry about that. I had to leave because they were getting close to finding me out. Saying goodbye to you, even though you didn’t know I was doing that, was the single hardest thing I have ever had to do. And believe me, Dean, when I tell you I’ve been forced to make some very difficult decisions.”

“I’m not talking about back then. I get it. I’m talking about now. I’m talking about after the war broke out and you knew where I was, that I had joined the resistance.”

His dad watches him steadily. “Nothing has changed,” he says quietly.

Dean’s voice rises angrily, “What do you mean nothing’s changed? We’re on the same side. We’re fighting for the same cause. Why the hell shouldn’t we do it together?”

“I don’t want you here, Dean. Reece had no right to tell you.”

“Fuck you,” Dean says between gritted teeth.

His dad’s eyebrows rise in surprise. Dean guesses few people have the balls to talk to him like that.

“I won’t send you out there to be killed, Dean. I won’t. I’ve sacrificed enough. When I heard about your brother—I—” He grimaces, teeth bared and frowning lines cutting into his forehead and around his eyes. Looking like that, he ages about ten years. He turns his head slightly as if he’s waiting for something.

Dean glances over his dad’s shoulder at the figure sitting mannequin-still behind him.

His dad waits a couple of silent seconds before facing Dean again. “I didn’t get the chance to know either of my boys. I will fight to make sure you have a chance for a different kind of life. But I can’t afford the luxury of having you around right now, and while I hope to make it all the way through to the end, it’s no certainty. Men like me? We’ve got death sentences hanging over us. There’s no point in us trying to build a relationship. I can’t be a father to you.”

“You’ve got a pretty major martyr complex going on there, you know that?”

His dad throws back his head and laughs. He looks at Dean fondly, “Oh, you have grown up well, Dean. You’re smart, bold and idealistic.”

Dean refuses to be side-tracked. He leans forward. “I am not going anywhere. I should be at your side.” He punctuates each word with his finger on the table.

“I can make you leave, Dean. You don’t get to choose.” That quiet tone has an authoritarian note to it now.

Dean recognizes that this is somebody who is used to calling the shots, somebody you don’t cross lightly, but he doesn’t care. “Like I said, I’m not going anywhere. I’m done having my decisions made for me. I’m a grown man. I do get to choose.”

His dad sighs and shakes his head. “You’re stubborn too.”

“I hear it’s hereditary.”

His dad smiles at him. “I’m too tired to argue right now. I’ve had about five hours sleep in the last three days. I need to get some shut-eye. We’ll talk some more later.” Again, he turns his head, listening, waiting for something from the seated figure behind him.

Dean cranes his head to see past him and the guy in the shadows eventually gets to his feet. Standing up, he’s seriously tall. He hesitates, a broad-shouldered shadow against the wall before stepping forward into the light.

There are emotions that Dean just doesn’t really experience anymore. Surprise, shock, love, elated happiness, and to some extent fear, are feelings he associates with his youth. He has largely become numbed to them as an adult.

Physiologically, shock causes the release of adrenalin that triggers an increase in heart rate and breathing. Blood flow increases, muscles tense and sweat glands go into over-drive. Dean is aware that this is what is happening to his body. His cerebral cortex has shut down and his animal brain is sending all these wild signals to his nervous system. Heat rushes into his face, his heart jack-hammers against his ribs—Boom! Boom! Boom!—and his breathing shortens until he starts to feel lightheaded.

But part of the reason he doesn’t fully experience shock or fear anymore is that he has strategies for dealing with them. He can will himself into a state of calm, concentrating on slowing down the beating of his heart and breathing evenly. In and out. In and out. In and out.

“Hello, Dean.”

Dean’s mouth is still dry, so his voice comes out a little choked, but he’s mostly got himself under control. “Sam.”

Another single exchange of names, the simplicity of uttering a magic word that differentiates one individual from another. Sam Two. He’s physically so different, tall and solidly muscled. A grown man.

Sam pauses a few feet away from him and Dean stands up to face him. He hears his dad getting to his feet as well. They’re positioned like some triangular stand-off.

Dean grips the back of the chair he was sitting on. “I guess I shouldn’t even be shocked at this point, right? My brother, who supposedly died at childbirth, was alive and living practically next door to me for years, but now he’s dead.” He looks at his dad. “My dad was dead. But hang on, no, he really wasn’t.” He turns to Sam again. “I haven’t seen you in over four years, Sam. For all I knew, you were actually dead. But here you are, with my dad, who was supposed to be dead. Did I mention that? It’s like some fucking cosmic joke. What’s next? I’m the one who’s actually dead and all this is just some trippy afterlife experience?”

His dad’s expression is sympathetic. Sam stares silently at him, his face unreadable.

“How long have you been here with him?” His question is met with silence. “How long, Sam?”

Dean’s dad answers for Sam. “Three years.”

Anger is the one emotion Dean struggles most to control. Without thinking, he pushes aside the chair, steps forward and just lashes out, punching Sam hard on the cheek. Sam staggers back, his head turned to the side, hair covering his face. When he straightens to look at Dean again, he’s holding his jaw and his bottom lip is smeared with blood. “I don’t know why you think I deserved that,” he says coldly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Three years, Sam! Three years you’ve been with my dad, knowing where I was and you don’t come looking for me?”

His dad comes around the table and places a firm hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, Dean.”

Dean shakes it off. “I’ve been out there on my own, alone, and my family doesn’t even try to find me? Don’t tell me to calm down.”

Sam frowns. “Alone? I thought you were with someone.”

“What are you talking about?”

His dad responds, “We got told you had a partner, a man that you were… with.” When Dean looks at him in complete bewilderment, he continues, “Somebody who used to be a priest.”

“Do you mean Cas?”

“Yeah, we were told the two of you had been together for years. That you were lovers.”

“What? That’s not true. I mean there was that one time—” Dean obeys the little internal voice that instructs him to stop talking. They do not need to know about that one time when he was stoned out of his mind and ended up in Cas’ bed. “Cas is a friend. That’s all. Him and Castiel, who’s his clone, have saved my ass a bunch of times. And I guess I’ve done it for them too. That kind of thing creates a bond.”

Sam and Dean’s dad exchange a look that Dean can’t decode. There’s clearly some silent communication taking place between them. Sam looks away first.

“I’ve been looking for you, Sam. For years I’ve been searching for you.” Dean can’t keep the note of wounded betrayal out of his voice.

Sam frowns again. “Why?”

“What do you mean why? What kind of question is that? Because you were my best friend. Because you’re my brother’s clone. Because—” he leaves that thought unsaid too. He can’t voice his feelings for Sam in front of his dad.

“I thought you didn’t want to see me again, not after what happened between us and you found out about your brother.”

Dean glances sharply at his dad, who looks back at him without surprise. He knows, Dean realizes with a shock. He searches his dad’s expression for judgmental disgust, but if it’s there, he can’t see it.

“Yeah, Dean, I know,” his dad answers the unasked question. “Sam told me.” He sighs heavily and rakes his fingers through his hair. “It’s not ideal, not by a long shot, but I’ve made my peace with it. I guess you could argue there’s nothing morally wrong with it because Sam is not your actual brother. He’s genetically modified and the sum of very different experiences. Of course that does sound a lot like moral relativism, but then we are all very tired of having hypocritical pseudo-religious dogma shoved down our throats. What your mother did to Sam wasn’t right.”

Dean starts at that. What about what was done to him?

“She always used religious morality in a way that suited her. As a society, there’s a lot of complex stuff we’re going to have to work out about cloned people after we win the war.” His dad glances between him and Sam. “Anyway, you didn’t know at the time what you were doing.”

Sam meets Dean’s eyes. “No,” he says, “we didn’t know at the time.”

Dean was always prepared for this: that he would find Sam, only to be rejected by him. He thinks he’s reading that in Sam’s comment and the expression on his face right now. They didn’t know at the time but now they do, and maybe Dean should be thinking the same way, but God help him, he doesn’t. He just wants to reach out and touch Sam and strip him naked to see if his body is really as changed as it appears to be in clothes. Dean’s need and desire haven’t been diminished by knowledge or time.

His dad rubs the back of his neck.

“You should get some sleep,” Sam says to him. Sam still presents himself like a blank slate, but Dean thinks he can detect an undertone of concern. That makes a nasty feeling of jealousy worm through his gut. They know each other. They have fought together. They have a relationship Dean is excluded from, and that is really unfair.

“We first need to iron out some technicalities with the next mission.” To Dean his father says, “You look tired too, Dean. Why don’t you clean up and get some rest? One of my men will show you where you can do that.”

And just like that he’s being dismissed. “Yeah, sure,” he replies curtly.

Sam gives him a shrewd look and a small smile plays around the corners of his mouth as if he knows precisely what Dean’s feeling. There’s no callousness in it, just amusement, as if something about Dean’s character has just been reaffirmed in his mind.

“Come on then.” John briefly squeezes his shoulder and leads the way out of the room.

“See you later, Dean.” There’s an odd note in that remark that makes Dean pause, but Sam has already turned to the table and is studying one of the maps.

Castiel is standing patiently outside. His dad briefly speaks to Scarface, who is sitting on an upturned crate and smoking, before coming back to Dean and studying his face carefully. “It’s good to see you, Dean. I’ve got to be honest, I was pissed at Reece, but at the same time I was relieved the decision had been taken out of my hands. It’s selfish of me, but I’m really glad you’re here.”

Dean wants to say again that he’s not going anywhere but Sam’s presence here complicates everything, so he just nods. His dad gives him a quick smile before re-entering the building.

Scarface shows them where to wash up and then leads them to a tent that’s got six military cots in it. Dean is so keyed up he thinks there’s no way he can go to sleep but he’s proved wrong. It’s lights out as soon as his head hits the pillow.

It’s dark outside when he wakes up again. There’s no sign of Castiel. He gets up and pushes aside the flap of the tent. The camp is transformed by nightfall. All the tents around Dean are dark and silent but he can see shadowy guards visible in the tree-line and there’s noise and laughter coming from the other end of the camp. He heads towards it.

Meat is roasting on barbeque grills over metal drums that have been cut in half to sit horizontally on steel legs. About a dozen folding tables are filled with talking soldiers. Dean weaves his way through the tables looking for Castiel or his dad. Somebody grabs his wrist as he walks by and he looks down to see Scarface leering up at him. “There’s a seat for you right here next to me, pretty boy.” He pats the seat next to him. “I didn’t want you to think I’d forgotten about that hand-job I owe you.” There’s some sniggering and cat-calling from the other soldiers at the table.

Before Dean can tell Scarface to go fuck himself, a voice says, “That’s okay, Dean already has a date for tonight and won’t need your services.” There’s more sniggering from around the table. Dean clenches his jaw in irritation but follows Sam as he walks away.

“Making friends so quickly, Dean?” Sam asks, heading towards a table where his dad is in conversation with Castiel.

“Fuck you, Sam.” Dean’s not sure how to deal with this older, harder version of the kid he used to know. He’s unsettled by his self-assurance and the latent strength in the way he moves and holds himself.

Sam stops and turns around. “Is that an invitation?” Dean’s heart stutters a little at the heated words combined with Sam’s typically neutral expression. Sam leans forward and speaks in his ear, the warmth of his breath raising goose-bumps down Dean’s neck. “We’re pretty literal around here. If I were you, I wouldn’t be offering myself to everyone you meet. Somebody might take you up on it.”

Dean realizes his mouth is hanging open and he snaps his teeth together. The son of a bitch. It’s been a really long time since anybody made him feel this awkward. He might even be blushing. But it’s not in Dean’s nature to let anybody get away with saying something like that to him. “Big words, Sammy. The way I remember it, you liked it the other way round, more of a receiver than a giver.”

Dean’s surprised he can still read Sam so well: the barely perceptible shift in his expression that gives away an emotional reaction. Dean definitely won that point. He brushes past Sam and takes a seat opposite Castiel and his dad.

“You alright, Dean?” his dad asks.

“Yeah,” Dean answers and pulls off a chunk of bread from a loaf on the table. “Sam and me were just reminiscing. Seriously, you should have seen him, he was the dorkiest kid. Who would’ve thought he was going to grow up into robosoldier over here.” The bread’s not half bad, a bit dense but at least it’s still warm.

Sam has sat down next to him. “Dean’s having some trouble getting his head around the idea that things change and some people actually grow up. When we were kids, he was really competitive, always had something to prove.”

“He’s just saying that because I used to kick his ass at everything.”

Castiel and Dean’s dad’s eyes are bouncing from him to Sam and back again. Castiel’s eyebrows are raised and he has a quizzical expression on his face.

“Of course Dean had the advantage of age and size. Not that it ever made any difference. He was still always out to beat me at everything.”

They’ve been aiming their remarks across the table but now they turn to face each other. Sam has a light flush along his cheekbones that Dean would think was really attractive if he wasn’t so irritated.

“Oh sure, Sam, like you didn’t really enjoy annihilating me at chess whenever you could?”

“There’s no enjoyment in beating a weaker opponent. I’d let you win sometimes just so I didn’t have to put up with your wounded ego and sulking.”

“Oh, you son of a—”

Dean’s interrupted by a snort of laughter. His dad is grinning at them. Dean doesn’t know why the hell Castiel looks so amused too, if the slight tightening of his lips counts as amusement. “Now, now, boys. No bickering at the table.”

“Sam.” The four of them look up. There’s a guy standing next to the table with a rifle slung over his shoulder. “Can I talk to you?”

“Yeah, sure.” Sam gets to his feet. Looking down at Dean, he says quietly, “Things change. You don’t have the size advantage anymore. I’m going to prove that to you.”

Dean pops another piece of bread in his mouth and talks with his mouth full, “Any time, any place, Sammy.”

“Don’t call me that. My name’s Sam.”

With narrowed eyes, Dean watches Sam walk away. He hasn’t seen him in four years and the first thing he does is try to get into pissing contest with him? Fuck that shit. His whole life he’s been running after Sam and pining for him. If he wants to get into something, Dean’s ready for it. He could totally still take him, despite his height and all those muscles. What the fuck is the matter with Sam anyway? Not all the clones are so emotionally detached. (Castiel doesn’t count.) After everything that happened between them, Sam didn’t even once consider trying to find him. What kind of person thinks like that? It’s unnatural. If he’s honest, though, the person with the real problem is Dean himself. What kind of man falls irreversibly in love with his brother’s clone and then becomes incapable of thinking about anybody else in the same way? He’s masochist and a freak.

Dean sighs deeply and turns back to the table. His dad and Castiel are wearing identical expressions of amused curiosity. Dean guesses his face was revealing more of his thoughts than he meant to. “What?” he asks Castiel defensively.

“Nothing, Dean. It’s just I have never seen you so… boyish before. It’s… sweet.”

Dean groans and shoves another piece of bread in his mouth.

PART SEVEN



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