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the night sky

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Rain slid down the windows. Sam could barely see anything through them, but he knew the sort of landscape they were driving through. Bumpy roads and scrub and clumps of trees that they wound in and out of. Right now it was all just a silver wash. He stretched his head back again; stuck his legs out as far as he could under the seat, which wasn't very far. The post-fight soreness had settled into his muscles. There was no chance of either of them sleeping tonight, though. Sam's blood still hummed with adrenaline and Dean had to be the same.

Dean, who hadn't taken his eyes off the road except to give Sam soft, strange glances. Who'd been smiling, a tiny satisfied smile, ever since they left Fossil Butte. Who probably had a concussion, the gash on his head had clotted but it was nasty as hell, but wouldn't give up the wheel and honestly Sam was too tired to really argue it. He didn't want to break the fragile thing that had settled over them: something like kindness, or peace. Some sense that maybe, somehow, this could all be okay after all. The sort of weird goodness that could only exist when it was nearly three A.M and they were both exhausted beyond thinking. It'd probably be gone when they woke up later in whatever nasty motel. But whatever. It was here.

Dean's voice was rough-soft in that post-catastrophe way. 'It's past midnight.'

'Yeah,' Sam said. His heart nearly thrummed out of his chest when he looked at Dean. He looked at him and thought of how much love must be contained within that one human being, that one human being with the bright, bruised face and tired eyes, hands strong and broad-fingered on the wheel. And how little self-worth, of course, and how much recklessness, and how much selfishness, but still. How much love. It might be the scariest thing about Dean.

'It's your birthday,' said Dean.

At first it didn't go through Sam's head properly. He'd woken up in Cold Oak somewhere at the end of April. And today- yesterday- had been the first. Today was the second.

It was his birthday.

'Oh my God.'

'Yeah,' said Dean, and snorted. Sam was smiling and he wasn't even sure why it was funny to him. It just seemed so stupid.

'I'm twenty-four,' he said. 'Jesus, Dean. I made it to twenty-four.'

'With help,' said Dean, and cracked up.

He could tell Dean it was too soon to joke about it. Which it was. Especially when- these thoughts just kept hitting him- Dean was unlikely, now, to make it to thirty. But instead he went deadpan and said, as seriously as he could, 'You get me anything?'

Dean looked over, laughter wiped away. He looked genuinely aghast. Started spluttering- 'Sam, you know I've been a little busy, right?' but Sam grinned and Dean shook his head and gritted his teeth against a smile and said 'Ugh, you have no sense of humor,' and Sam said 'Dude, you love it,' and Dean, for a miracle, just shook his head lightly and smiled a bit and trained his eyes on the road.

And God, God, if he could just stay in this night, if he could just keep them both here forever, stop the clock ticking, pause the countdown.

If he could.

Chapter Text

The Tiger Motel's neon lights blinked through thin grey dawn. They walked in like men in a dream; Dean paid for the room, and Sam was vaguely aware that he was arguing with the receptionist for a minute but didn't tune in until it was over. Then Dean said 'Whoa, no trips to fairyland until you're on a bed,' and hauled him down the corridor, and then they were in a room violently tiger-striped, with tiger-striped beds and tiger-striped walls and tiger-striped curtains, with tigers on plaques above the beds. The overall effect was migraine-inducing. Sam looked around, swayed in a wave of dizziness, blinked, and just about managed not to topple over.

Dean tapped one of the little wooden tigers on the wall-divider. 'These are kinda cute.'

 Sam dumped his bag on one bed and pulled his shirt over his head, wincing at the stiffness in his arms. The ache in his lower back had returned, pain splitting the point at the hollow of his spine where Jake stabbed him. He leaned backward, cracked his spine with a gunshot sound, and Dean shuddered but for once didn't protest. Instead he crossed to where Sam was reaching for his gray t-shirt and said, 'Can I see it?'

Sam breathed out. 'Yeah,' he said.

It felt like he'd just agreed to something obscene, something illicit. Dizzying. This is the thing that killed him. This is the evidence of a terrible journey. This is the mortal remains. It made a strange sort of sense for Dean to see it: this was a thing they shared, even if Dean hadn't gone with Sam into the silence. Death's cattlebrand on his sacral vertebrae. He turned around, back to Dean, who closed in.

Dean's breath, a little unsteady, on the back of his neck. He inclined his head forward, closed his eyes. Marked out the scar in the small of his back with his own fingers, as though framing a continent on a map. As though Dean couldn't see it, as though you couldn't see it from across the room, a bright ugly blotch like a red moth settled in the dip of his spine. It was two inches across, maybe three; Jake knew what he was doing. Stupid of Sam not to have put it together before, really, he should have known better than to believe that Jake was the type of guy to leave a job unfinished. He was going to have this scar for the rest of his life, however long that was. Fine by him. He'd never been one to erase the traces. It was Dean who hated seeing the evidence of suffering and pain and loss on people, Dean who winced at marks made.

He'd zoned out. He jumped when Dean's fingers grazed the scar, very gently, touch quick as the lick of a flame. This bit of skin was what Dean sold his soul over. Jake thought he was killing one man but he was killing three. Phantom finger-pads at the spot. He shivered.

Dean moved away. Sam felt that shifting of warmth, and turned round. Dean probably wanted to get away without being reminded that he was in fact mortal, but whatever: life sucked. 'Let me look at your forehead. You're lucky you don't have a concussion.'

Dean swatted his hands away- 'Dude, I'm fine-' but Sam ignored him; sat Dean down on the edge of the tiger-patterned bed, swabbed out the gash on his forehead, called Dean a wuss when he swore, and didn't give an inch. He put a plaster over it and pronounced it acceptable. When he straightened up the room fuzzed out for a moment; God, he was so tired, like his eyeballs got screwed in too tight, like only rotten boards stood between him and the pressure of a million tons of hungry water, bearing down.

Dean rubbed a hand over his own face, pale skin stretching, the red glint of under-eyelid. Something had slipped from him in the past few minutes; the last of the swagger. His shoulders were bowed, eyes pink, face drawn. 'We should sleep,' he said. 'We should fuckin' sleep.'

Sam sat down on the edge of the bed, which wheezed. His bones were going to drag him through the mattress in a minute. 'Is it too soon for I'll sleep when I'm dead jokes?'

A filthy look. 'Yes, wise guy.'

'We should probably go to Bobby's tomorrow.' He'd been thinking ahead. They could start their research in Bobby's extensive occult libary. If Bobby took point on the Greek, Sam could handle the Latin; it'd go faster that way. They could-

'Let's not,' said Dean.

Why, he was about to ask, about to push and to fight, and then he glanced up; Dean was looking at him with naked eyes.

And he got it. He'd like to pretend that he didn't, because he hated it when Dean pulled shit like this, but he got it. Because Dean had some stupid idea in his head that this was the last year. That there was no way out. And if there was no way out, that meant every moment of time had suddenly become stupidly, ridiculously, unimaginably precious. And Dean wanted to have some fun before Sam dragged him back to the drawing-board. Of course he did.

There were just under thirty-two million seconds in a year. He read that somewhere. It sounded a lot less, now.

Dean had his end-of-the-line face on, summer-river eyes absolutely earnest, mouth in a resolute line, freckles stark because he was pale with exhaustion. Fierce with love. Tiger-hearted Dean.

Sam would kill for this. He would die for this. In these moments he felt like someone had ripped back a curtain and showed the reality of his own love for Dean: a pit, deep beyond words and filled with the rising dark. The better part of him said that there was something deeply darkly wrong with what he felt within himself: the possibility of such violence, such horror and bone-crushing and nightmare, for another human being.

 'Yeah,' he said. 'Alright.'

Anything, he meant. Absolutely anything. Dean could ask him to reach up and pull down the night sky for him right now, and he'd hand it over rolled up and tied with elastic.

And Dean smiled. Showing teeth like a little kid, that weird, fragile, mischievous smile that he hardly ever gave. 'Anything you want to do tomorrow, birthday boy?'

He laughed. 'Nah. Don't think so.' He wasn't sure he was capable of sitting around eating ice-cream or whatever while those precious sands ran out.

(Maybe next year. Because if Sam saved Dean's ass, if he pulled this off, they'd be able to sit beside each other on Sam's birthday and know that by Hell-law Dean's soul should have been forfeit the day before. A brief window into the future: the two of them in a diner, round a stack of blueberry pancakes, and Dean singing happy birthday embarrassingly loud and off-key and Sam was pretty sure those weren't even the right words and Dean, people are looking and he threw a napkin at him and Dean finally shut up, grinning, and then Sam looked sidelong at him and said Didn't think I'd pull it off, huh? and Dean said Oh, shut up, you smug douche, and he was alive, alive, alive.)

A glow seeped into Sam's bones. Film-reels of a future that might not even happen. He shut it down. He couldn't think like that. He'd save Dean, he would, but he couldn't think like that.

Dean was frowning. 'You alright?'

'Mmm,' he said before he really heard the question. Then he looked up and Dean was right there and it hit him, then. This, right now, almost never happened. Sam died. He was somewhere else. And if he hadn't been called back, he would have never seen Dean again. It's absurd. He couldn't imagine any possible universe in which Dean didn't exist somewhere in his warmth and his stupid jock-swagger and his callused gentle hands.

He would have missed this. In Heaven he would have missed this. In Hell with Ava and Webber and Jake he would have missed this. In nothingness, with worms in his brain, with all sense of consciousness or self or his identity as Sam obliterated, he might have found a way to miss this.

It was too much. All of this was too much. Too much for a year's worth of seconds stolen back from death to hold.

How could they stand it?

Dean's eyes on him. Worry. 'Sam? Time for bed, dude. You can start emoting when-'

He got up and put his arms round Dean and crushed him to him. Buried his face in Dean's neck, in that safe sweat-and-leather darkness, his forehead tight against Dean's shoulder. 'Shut up,' Sam said.

Dean was still for a moment. Then he hugged him back sudden and fierce, one hand making a shelter over that sore spot on Sam's spine. Dean was solid in his arms; he didn't feel like he could turn to dust and vanish on the wind; but he could, he could.

 

They slept like the dead.

*

Dean woke up feeling awesome.

'You know that's kind of weird, right,' said Sam. His Highness, of course, was up at the crack of fucking dawn and reorganised their duffels and rang Bobby and actually went jogging and probably did God-knows-what other weird overachiever shit in the four hours before Dean returned to the conscious world, but he also brought coffee and donuts, so Dean guessed he got a pass.

Sam said, 'Have you even seen that goose egg in the mirror? You're supposed to be in pain, Dean.'

Oh, whatever, he wasn't in pain. He'd slept for a whole day, he was fine. He'd got a year to have fun, he'd got Sam alive and kicking, and he'd got a whole box of donuts. And clearly Sam was trying to be nice to him because he got the fancy ones with icing and sprinkles and shit and didn't even pick the chocolate shavings off the tops like he usually did before Dean could get to them, and when Sam tried to be nice it was always hilarious. Daily life became a test of how far Dean could push him before he cracked.

Dean shoved an entire donut into his mouth to hide his glee- Sam's stare had been going from drily concerned to straight-up suspicious- and got out of bed. It wasn't quite ten in the morning, May the third. They'd gone to sleep somewhere around seven A.M, May second. Dean hadn't slept that long since he was in a coma last. He's willing to bet that Sam hadn't slept like that in years.

(Except that just two days ago Sam was cold and unreachable on a dirty mattress, and he suppressed a full-body shiver there in that stuffy room, and there was no point thinking about that because it was done, reversed, like it never happened. It was over. He didn't have to remember it any more.)

'Hey,' he said, poking Sam in the shoulder. Sam started to generate a bitchy look before visibly stopping himself. 'We slept through your birthday. You sure you don't want to do anything? Go out, paint the town red, all that jazz?'

It sounded good to him; spend a day being them, getting Sam to chill out, finding a biker bar and getting Sam tipsy and giggly in that way where his limbs went all uncoordinated and he started tangling himself up when he walked, like a baby giraffe. It made Dean laugh himself silly.

Or, hell, just finding a quiet place. Somewhere sunny. By a lake.

What was it like being dead? He'd ask Sam. Do you remember how it felt?

Maybe.

But Sam was shaking his head. Of course. 'Don't sweat it, Dean. I want to- I've got stuff to do. But, uh-' oh, God, here it came, Sam was about to be nice to him- 'go off and do your thing if you want, seriously. Have some fun. Go out, have a drink, hook up. You deserve it.'

And Sam gave him a marvellously strained smile. Those dewy, understanding eyes were out in force. Oh, he was trying, bless his heart.

They got brunch in a diner that looked like the haunt of dessicated cowboys since the docking of the Mayflower. Dean had the waitress's number before they even sat down, because he was so awesome that women only had to look at him to want a piece. Sam rolled his eyes, but on the Prissy-Sam Richter Scale it barely even registered.

So Dean leered at the waitress and ordered bacon pancakes and called her darlin', stretching it out, da-aa-arlin'.' And, oh, God, she was cute. Gorgeous tits and loose dark curls that she wound round her pencil as Dean ordered.

'Nothing for me, thanks,' said Sam when she reluctantly turned to look at him.

Sam was gazing at his laptop, looking sort of pale and peaky. His hair was all in drifty, satiny locks, because somewhere in all the crap he did this morning he found time to wash it, apparently, only when it was falling into his eyes like that, leaving a little triangle of worried forehead, it kind of squeezed Dean's heart up.

He kicked Sam's ankle under the table. 'Get something, will you? When was the last time you ate, a day ago?'

A tiny head-shake. 'I'll pick something up later.'

'Come on, Sam,' said Dean. Trying not to sound like he was wheedling, but damn it, did Sam have to make everything difficult? 'Humor me, huh? You can't exactly blame me for worrying at the moment, y'know?'

Sam looked at him, eyes opening fully. Dark with concern and something else: something raw and opened. Sam's life, that fragile, bloodied, beautiful thing, was still warm from Dean's hands. Sam knew it. There was a scary intimacy to what Dean did back there, he got that; Sam was bound to feel a little weird about it. They were far enough up in each other's business as it was.

The waitress was still standing there, frowning now. 'Just a second, sweetheart,' Dean said.

Sam breathed out in a very small sigh. Giving in. He ordered blueberry pancakes, and the waitress said 'Sure, sugar,' and left.

Sam gave Dean a wry look. 'I can take care of myself, you know.'

'You literally got yourself killed, like, the day before yesterday,' said Dean. 'Evidence tells, dude.'

Sam rolled his eyes and went back to his laptop, like he was too done with Dean's crap to answer, even though Dean knew that he just couldn't think of anything to say to that. Anyway, Sam wasn't mad. Not really. Dean could tell.

'Kids these days,' he said, and tipped his head back in the booth.

 

They hadn't even left the motel room before Sam grasped that Dean's being an idiot on purpose. Right now Dean was somehow managing to slurp the syrup off his pancakes, deadpan as if he was drinking from a china teacup. It was kind of impressive.

'People are staring,' he told Dean, mildly.

Dean, worries of three minutes ago apparently gone, gave a huge, obscene grin. His fingers shone with syrup; hair scruffed up at the back. The angry lump on his forehead painfully red under the diner lighting. 'It's called livin' the good life, Sammy. You should try it.'

Sam shook his head and huff-laughed. He didn't mind, was the funny thing. It didn't irrtate him like it usually would: solicitous Dean, attention-seeking Dean. It couldn't. Not knowing how close they came to losing all this. This; them. If he realised it too clearly he started to feel like he was choking.

They'd always lived fragile lives; they were hunters. Death could be waiting anywhere- coiling under the car seat, lighting a cigarette round the next corner, biding its time in compact darkness up a gun-barrel. Sam had known that at some point something was going to take him out. He'd known he wasn't immortal, even if Dean hadn't.

Death wasn't beyond his comprehension. And definitely not at Cold Oak, where the mud was filled with bones and the walls with long strange shadows. But this? The experience of sitting in a diner, under white lighting thin as paper, the rain-grey morning blurred against the windows, Dean joking and fragile-eyed on the other side of the booth? Six days after his own death? Knowing how this almost never happened?

Sometimes, at six or seven in the morning after wrapping up a hunt, if they weren't too exhausted and no-one needed stitches, they came to a diner and got breakfast, adrenaline a war-drum in Sam's blood, listening to the answering rhythm of Dean's, low and sweet and dangerous. Dirt still grained into their fingers and that hot maple syrup smell. He always felt so real then that it hurt. Real in a way that he almost never felt. With a split lip that stung when he smiled. His heartbeat; Dean's heartbeat; alive, alive, alive.

What if they'd never done that again? Never got drunk in a shitty motel room again? Never walked away from a grave sweat-stained and wincing, muscles twisted, one of them hanging on the other? What if he'd died and forgotten the rhythm of Dean's breathing in the dark, the one constant beneath a thousand different broken fans and nighttime noises, underneath the roar of traffic and the dusty silence of a nowhere road?

'Sam?'

He looked up. Dean had paused, fork halfway to his mouth. Giving Sam that odd look. The one that he started giving him somewhere around when the visions started. There was something uncertain in it. It made Sam's stomach turn over.

Maybe the pancakes hadn't been a good idea after all.

'You're zoning, dude,' was all Dean said.

Zoning? Yeah, Dean, I was dead for four days. You can expect me to be spacey. He just shrugged.

Dean frowned like he was thinking about whether to push it; then put his fork down with a decisive clatter and leaned forward, crowding the table. Sam could see the curly-haired waitress out of the corner of his eye, lingering at the counter, eyeballing them with a frown that said she couldn't decide whether it was a lover's quarrel or not. Sam tried to signal to her, with a tired eye-roll, that this was totally normal for them.

'Sam,' Dean said. 'Look. I know-' stopped and chewed his lip. 'The last few days haven't been easy on- on either of us, right? You or me. Bobby, too. But- look- I know shit's different now, and all, and, like. Are you feeling okay?' -when Sam sighed through his nose- 'No, dude, I don't mean your back. I mean, obviously if there's something wrong with that you gotta tell me. But are you feeling okay, y'know, in your coconut?'

Sam lifted his eyebrows. He couldn't muster more than tired exasperation. Dean was giving him this look of earnest, almost-scared sincerity that kind of put a damper on potential irritation, anyway. 'Are you trying to ask me about how I feel about having died, Dean?'

Dean blinked and looked briefly caught out. Like Sam'd figured out more than he was supposed to. Which was dumb. 'I mean. I guess?'

'Huh,' he said. 'And how I'm feeling about you having sold your soul for me?'

Dean looked relieved, like this was back to neutral ground. 'Look, I know it's all hard to handle. Believe me. But if there's anything-'

Sam found himself suddenly unwilling to pander to Dean's endless string of self-deceprating bullshit platitudes. In that same moment he had a flash of anger so strong that for a second it blinded him.

When he spoke he felt lightheaded.

'So you're asking me how I feel about waking up to find that I've been dead for four days, and in those four days my brother, who just happens to be the only person I have left, has sold his soul to resurrect me. And, apparently, I have to live with that. Forever. That's what you'd have me do here.'

'Oh, for God's sake.' Dean looked vaguely petulant, like this conversation had taken a turn out of his control. 'I'm not the only person you have left, man, don't say shit like that. I mean, yeah, obviously I'm important to you and all. I get that. But you've got other people. There's- there's- Bobby- Ellen- Jo- Missouri-

Dean paused in the act of ticking them off on his fingers, looking puzzled, like he hadn't expected the list to be quite that short. Sam had seen, too, the moment of hesitation wherein Dean's mouth nearly formed the word Dad, and then he caught himself. Probably a sort of muscle memory. A full year, and still. In the past he'd always been out there somewhere.

'Anyway, my point is-'

'No, I think I know what your point is,' said Sam. It took all his effort to speak normally. 'Your point is that you think I'll get over it. Like this is something where you can just- just eat some ice cream, and phone a friend, or whatever. Or like this is about grief. Normal grief.'

'Uh, dude, that kind of is what it's about,' said Dean, the dumb fuck.

'It's not.' He was hissing across the table. 'You know what's supposed to happen with normal grief, Dean? Closure. The promise at the end that you can let it go because you can  hope they're floating around in the sky and at peace or whatever. But with you? I'm not going to get that. I will always know that you're in Hell and I will always be responsible for that. And you knew that. Don't fucking deny it, Dean, you knew that when you made the goddamn deal.'

Dean looked like he's about to say something, then didn't.

'So you know what this is really about? You believing that you care about me more than I'm capable of caring about you. You believing that your grief is more important than mine, because you think it's bigger. Because you think mine will go away.'

'Oh, come on, Sam,' Dean broke in. 'We both know it's true.' He took a breath. 'Look. It's just- we both know I care about you more than you care about me.'

He thumbed at his eye-sockets like this had worn him out.

'Maybe it's- the older-younger thing, y'know, but I've always known, man. And then- you left for Stanford- which I don't blame you, dude, but-' he laughed- 'still. You've always kinda been my life- you and Dad. But it's not like that for you. And I'm not asking it to be! Sam. I'm just saying.'

Sam was stunned into silence. He'd just never thought Dean would say it.

Dean seemed to take this as an invitation to ramble on. 'And, I don't know, I guess it just seemed fitting, y'know? I mean- you can live without me easier than I can live without you, Sam. So I suppose-'

'You are everything to me.'

He wouldn't have said it if he wasn't so furious. It came out quieter than he'd wanted it to. The guy and girl two tables over were giving them funny looks.

'Dean. You're all that keeps me going, do you realise that? I mean- forget all the psychic crap for a minute. I can live away from you, sure, but live in a world that you weren't in? You've been my axis my entire life. I need to know you're there. I need you to be there. Hell, if you died I think I'd expect the planets to stop turning. And not because you're all I've got left now that Dad and Jess are gone, and not because I have whatever family obligation to care about you because you're my brother. Because of you.'

Dean's face was completely still. Sam recognised the symptoms, on his brother, of extreme shock. Too bad; he wasn't done.

'So you want to know how I'm feeling about it?'

Dean blinked.

'Not great, Dean. I'm not feeling great.'

Dean opens his mouth, but Sam was already getting up and shouldering his bag, turning his back to Dean in what he hoped was a pretty clear signal: come with or don't, but this conversation is over.

 

They didn't talk in the car. The anger had pretty much drained out of Sam now. He just felt tired and sick sick of having this conversation over and over in its various permutations.

Driving the main street of the hick town, they passed a bookstore. 'Pull over a second.'

Dean raised his eyebrows. 'Uh, okay.'

When they'd got out of the car, Sam looked in through the glass windows for a minute, then entered. It wasn't a big bookstore, but it had that familiar smell; the smell of public libraries and archives. A smell that always signaled to him that here was a place where he knew, really knew what he was doing.

He wasn't sure what he was looking for in here, but when he saw it he knew. A notebook, black leather, ruled cream pages, A5. Dean said- warily, like he was worried Sam was going to explode on him again- 'What, dude, you're keeping a diary now?'

He shrugged. 'Maybe. Haven't decided yet.' He bought it while Dean stood by, looking slightly lost.

Good, said a nasty voice somewhere at the back of Sam's mind. Let him know how it feels. Make him see.

 

That evening, he opened the notebook on the table in their room. The tigers on the wall-divider snarled at him. They were kind of cute, actually.

He uncapped his pen and wrote:

MAY 3 2007

 363.

What we know so far-

-Dean, naturally, has sold his soul. Description, quote: I don't know, man, she was a hot chick, alright? Like with the black dress and the, you know, the boobs and we had to bargain it down for a while because she didn't want to wait ten years for my sweet ass. And, you know, you were kinda rotting on a mattress, so I figured I had to do something fast if I was going to do something. Well, I didn't exactly question her about it while I was making out with her, but I kinda got the impression that she's got a boss. Or at least she answers to someone. She was talking like they wouldn't be happy with her for dealing with me, but whatever. Anyway, you know you're not supposed to try and break the deal etc. etc.

-Rang Bobby just now. Of course he knew about the deal before I did. He says Dean's a damn fool & unless we can find someone big enough to break the contract we might just have to kill high enough up the demon ranks that this all stops.

-We need more weapons that actually work on them. The Colt's useless unless we can fix it somehow (look into further). Then it's just salt & holy water & we barely took down Meg with that. Must get Bobby to ask around. There'll be something. I'm sure Dean won't object to B&Eing a few museums.

-I think we should think about protecting ourselves better too. Bobby's charms have worked okay so far but with this many demons on the loose we can't push our luck. Thinking: maybe a brand? Dean won't like it, but he'd like being possessed even less.

Dean is currently out. I think he's trying to hook up.

 

Actually, Dean had stood awkwardly in the middle of the room and said, 'You want me to stay here tonight?'

Sam, firing off emails to research archives and hunters and the Chicago University folklore department, stilled his fingers and looked up. He'd still been mad enough that he didn't want to give Dean an inch, so he'd shrugged. 'Stay or don't stay.'

Dean rolled his eyes and heaved a drawn-out sigh. Stood there for a while longer, watching as Sam resumed typing. Then said, 'Don't wait up,' and slammed his way out of the door.

Sam paused. He listened for the hum of the Impala's engine. The car growled; rumbled out of the parking-lot, noise growing distant, and he went back to his laptop.

 

Dean slept with a waitress in Grangeville. Then he slept with an accountant in Coeur d'Aline.  Then he slept with an engaged nurse in Ontario. Then he got arrested for indecent exposure in Reno. Sam came to bail him out with death in his eyes and personally drove them to Montrose, where Dean slept with a modern dance teacher called Peggy, who invited him to some sort of orgy thing with her friends Evelyn and Marina, from which Dean came back to their daisy-patterned motel room with a dazed, blissed-out look on his face. He was also, somehow, completely stoned. Sam hauled him into bed and told him to sleep it off.

He quit even commenting on the bacon cheeseburgers. Either the fixation would run its course or Dean's atria would.

He felt like he should be annoyed. But after the initial anger passed it was just fear, really. Fear that stuck in his throat like small bones every time Dean walked out of the door of tonight's motel. It wasn't that he worried- Dean could take care of himself. It was that in the handful of days since he found out about the deal the sight of Dean walking away from him, Dean leaving, provoked a quick panicked feeling deep in him that he couldn't control.

Like he worried that Dean was going to put his fist through a car window or bury himself alive in an empty field. Like he worried that Dean was going to walk into a room full of demons and drop his knife and smile, or find a boy with long brown hair and cave his head in, or pay him to watch and bite his nails while Dean kissed the first girl who walked over, or down twenty shots and drive the car into a river, or grow swan wings and fly a thousand miles away, or turn round and march right back in and look at Sam and- what?

Sam spent his days, when they weren't driving, ransacking library archives for anything that could lead him to even the slightest nugget of information; spent his nights reading. Hours on the phone with Bobby, who'd dragged out his collection of mouldy grimoires. He pressed Dean for details as much as he dared: how exactly did she word the agreement? What do you mean you don't remember? Seriously, Dean, you sign away your soul and you don't remember the damn agreement?

Dead end after dead end, and a pattern emerged quickly. Here's the thing: however much info they got together, whatever loopholes they tried to hunt out, it always led back to one blank wall of a fact. Dean was going to Hell, whatever that meant, in exchange for Sam's resurrection.

'Reckon it'd make a difference if I snuffed it again?' he said to Bobby over the phone, the night Dean slept with the engaged nurse.

Bobby's voice sharpened. 'No, idgit, it wouldn't. She gave you life once, that was the deal. She didn't give you immortality, boy.'

He'd been half-joking, anyway. He'd figured that already. When dawn broke Dean stumbled in stinking of cheap vodka and cheaper perfume and gave Sam this huge, lazy, satisfied grin, and Sam's chest tightened and he looked at Dean and thought: If it would help, if it would change anything, I would shoot myself in the head this moment without a second's hesitation.

Dean didn't deserve Hell, of course, but that wasn't the point. Sam was pretty sure he'd go to the same lengths to stop Dean going there even if his downstairs ticket had been booked solely on personal merit. All he'd have to do is think about Dean yelling at some dumb kid who taunted Sam in the schoolyard when he was ten and that's it, Sam would lay down his life. It didn't really matter; he'd long since stopped trying to justify the shit he did for his brother. Around Dean, moral codes just seemed to bend like light through water.

 

Dean met her in a half-empty bar in Denver; she had red hair, a whipcrack of a smile, and what may actually have been the most incredible tits he'd ever laid eyes upon. She laughed a lot when they were talking- ended every sentence on a giggle, whatever, it was a while since Dean had heard that much laughter- and then she hooked one finger round his collar and said, 'Wanna come back to my place?'

 

'Oh,' she groaned, with a noise like a jet engine failing. 'Oh, Seth. Jesus Christ, Seth.' (He told her his name was Seth. Why did he do that? Can't remember.) 'Do that- do that again, willya?' (He does it again.) 'Oh, Seth. Jesus Christ, Seth.'

Dean took in her magnificent and violet-nippled breasts and wondered if maybe he really had just had too much sex this week. It was unfair, really. He wasn't even all the way hard. He looked at  her long, long legs, open on the sheets, stripped his dick with one hand, frantically tried to conjure up two decades' worth of fantasy material, and failed. All those redheads in leopard-skin bikinis had deserted him.

Her hands reached out. 'C'mere, Seth. Oh, your arms are strong. Bite me, Seth, go on, big boy, do it! I can take it!'

He went for the thigh. A mouthful of truly spectacular leg and he just couldn't get in the zone. He could hear Sam in his head: Are you feeling alright, Dean? Is your pulse steady? Your temperature normal? Are you seriously telling me that you don't want sex? Is that even possible for you?

Shut up, Sam. She was screaming for Seth again. He tried to hold onto this vague image of a red-headed chick from some spy movie or other. Ugh, this sucked. Why did it suck?

It was past five A.M when he got back to the Motel Paradiso, drained and fuzzy-headed, a heavenly host of little guys with hammers already at work on the inside of his skull. He opened the door quietly and stopped in the doorway: Sam was sitting with his legs all cramped up under the tiny table, lit only by the blue glow of his laptop, looking a thousand kinds of exhausted.

Sometimes, since he got him back, this'd happen; he'd turn around and the sight of Sam would just go through him. He stood there and let it. Sam was part of the landscape; always there, a quiet implacable presence tapping away at his laptop, until he wasn't. Until he was laid out cold in a shack miles from anywhere, with a bruise on his jaw that made Dean angry because he needed something quantifiable to be mad at. He was always there until he slipped away at night, and caught a bus; and then he was still always there because at least he was safe in California; and then a scummy mattress and Bobby saying rigor mortis and Sam wasn't part of the landscape any more, maybe he never was, maybe he was the landscape, earth and star-filled sky.

But none of that mattered anymore. And none of it would matter in a year's time. He moved forward, into the room. 'Dude, you're still awake?'

'So are you,' Sam said reasonably. He looked up, then. Jawline ghostly blue in the light of the screen. 'Good night?'

'Oh yeah,' he said. Could he push Sam on the sleep thing yet? Neither of them slept well exactly, but how many hours had Sam grabbed this past week total? Three, four? He'd been awake every night Dean left for the bars and he'd been awake when Dean's came back in the morning. Where did Dean stop letting this slide? Why was this stuff such a struggle?

Sam was staring back at the screen, big deft hands flying over the keyboard. Unfaltering. 'And when did you last blink?' said Dean.

Sam rolled his eyes. 'Go to bed, Dean.' Tone exasperated. Fond. It'd been like that too often this week.

Dean sat on the edge of his bed and watched Sam for a moment. Briefly strangled by a spore of worry; something was not right here. Something wasn't matching how he thought this year could be. Sam, somehow, wasn't co-operating. He'd pictured both of them out at night, doing shots, hooking up, Sam laughing with a cute girl on his arm. Good, satisfying, exhausting hunts where they burned bones in the dead of dark and slept into the next afternoon. He hadn't pictured himself in strangers' bedrooms while Sam worked himself into the grave. Back into the grave, Jesus.

These small earthquakes just kept happening.

It was half five in the morning. Beyond the red curtains, a streak of apricot in the sky. And he was in that weird space between being drunk and being hungover, and he admitted it to himself, looking over at Sam's quiet profile, those long damn fingers tapping away: something was off.

 

Chapter Text

They were halfway over Kansas when Dean broached the subject, and he tried to be nice about it, he really did. He said, 'Dude, why don't you come out with me tonight? We'll stop somewhere, go find a bar, have a beer, yeah? Like old times.'

As soon as it was out of his mouth he thought, Jesus, which old times?

'Knock yourself out,' said Sam, eyes on his book. 'I think I'll pass, though.'

Here was something impossible. Ten days ago, they were in New Mexico, checking out cattle disease that Sam thought might be a vamp nest but turned out to actually be cattle disease. So the day they found out that the cows had some kind of gross bowel thing, they stowed the machetes and Dean said, 'Hey, Sam? Let's get ice-cream.' And maybe because it was the first really hot day they'd had that year and maybe because Sam actually looked kind of loose and happy that day but he smiled that big, sweet, easy smile, the smile that made Dean's chest feel weird because it was so damn rare, and said, wonder of wonders, 'Sure.'

That had been a good afternoon.

Today felt like that happened a thousand years ago. He knew, now, what it was like to feel the life leave Sam's body where he slumped heavy against him. And Sam, somewhere in the darker parts of his mind, had to know what it was like to die.

They weren't those people anymore. Sam wasn't the same person who'd lost his shit laughing when he watched Dean try to tackle a knickerbocker glory from the middle. Dean wasn't the same person who- image of Mom in that house, in the soft lamplight, close in his mind- grinned and threw the cherry at Sam and treasured that up in his chest, the knowledge that everyone else was gone but he still had this.

But he still had this.

He glanced over at Sam, whose head was bent over that book, one strand of hair hanging down, face sharp and tight-drawn. And it cost him but he said it.

'Dude, please?'

Sam looked up and his face softened. 'Dean, I-'

'One night, Sam. Pretty-please?'

Sam closed his eyes briefly.

'Pretty-please with a cherry on top?'

'Oh, God, Dean,' Sam said, or rather the words just burst out of him. He pinched the bridge of his nose and he looked so fucking tired, and Dean crushed down that thing in his chest that cried Sammy, Sammy, kiddo, stop it, just stop.

Sam wasn't a kid. He wasn't. He waited; he made himself wait.

When Sam's eyes opened he looked almost panicked. 'Alright. Yeah.'

 

Three hundred and fifty-nine days. Three hundred and fifty-nine days and nothing, nothing really useful yet.

But Dean wanted this tonight and Dean would have it. Sam would make sure that Dean had it. The night sky, tied with elastic.

As night and rain began to fall, they took a room in a motel just outside Wichita. Dean left, food run. Sam, as he'd been doing every night, called Bobby. Could barely hear him over the rush of rain that sounded beyond the black windows. How are they holdin' up? Demon omens over Kentucky, but then, it's Kentucky. Dean's screwin' his way through the Midwest again? Well, ain't that a surprise. Don't let him do anything stupid, willya? More stupid, anyway. For a while, listening to Bobby, he felt better; less shaky, less like he was striking out blind into darkness without even Dean to hold him steady.

Then Dean came in, hair plastered to his skull, amulet gleaming, carrying bags loaded with food and rain-glittering bottles that clinked and reflected the lights. The tilted shells of his ears were wet and shiny. He grinned and did a dumb little dance, the bottles chiming in their bags.

Sam laughed, more out of surprise than anything. 'Jesus, Dean, you rob a liquor store?'

'Dude.' Bright eyes. Dean's white-toothed conman grin. 'There's enough here to lay us out. Well, you're a fuckin' lush, so that's not much, but there's enough here to lay me out. And that, lemme tell you, is impressive.'

'That wasn't a no,' said Sam.

Dean threw him a beer; or more accurately threw a beer at him.

Within half an hour the room was a mess. Pizza boxes in a stack, bottles in various stages of emptiness on the nightstand, the table, the floor. Dean's shirt hung over a lampshade; he was lying stretched out on his back, in his t-shirt, beside the rest of the pizza. Sam was lying down too. There was a couple feet between them but he could feel the warm space Dean carved out in the air.

The rain hummed on outside, soft and dark.

'What would you say is the dumbest hunt we've ever been on?' Dean's voice was lazy, not-quite-slurred.

'Springfield,' said Sam straight away. Stupid how much that memory made him grin. 'Man, sometimes... sometimes in the night I'll just be lying there and, you know, at the time I was kinda preoccupied, but I'll just think of those girls in the, the frilly underwear just tossing you over like fifteen rows of seats-'

'Oh, those girls,' said Dean, regretfully. 'Those girls.'

'I swear, Dean, we never hunted shit like that when Dad was around. It was all- ghosts, and werewolves, and more ghosts...'

Dean shook his head against the scratchy carpet. 'Don't you remember the- what was it now-' snapped his fingers- 'the penanggalan in Alabama?' He was already laughing. 'Man, what was it even doing there? Those things are from Siberia or some shit, they're supposed to live in the freezing cold, and here we had one in fuckin' Alabama.'

'No, I remember. I don't think I was on the actual takedown, but Dad got me to help him put the info together. And he'd been all, Now, boys, you've never seen anything like this. You better prepare yourselves.'

Dean raised his head to eyeball Sam, looking distinctly unnerved. 'That was just... disconcerting.'

Sam wrinkled his nose and decided to pass over that one. 'But aren't penanggalans supposed to be some pretty heavy-duty dicks?'

Dean laughed. His voice shared a timbre with the rain. 'Oh, yeah. And they're supposed to have, like, guts hanging out everywhere, and bloody eyes that come out on stalks- and here I was, sixteen years old, quakin' in my goddamn boots, waiting to face the nastiest nasty of my entire life. And then this thing just comes shrieking out of the dark at me and lemme tell you- it looked like a mop made out of intestines- with this dangling stomach, which was fuckin' twinkling like it ate a bunch of fireflies- and it was going blub blub blub at me- and God help me, Sam, I just started laughing.'

Both of them giggling helplessly into the dark. Like a couple of schoolgirls. Sam's face was hot; he pressed his fingers to his cheeks to cool them.

'I don't even know how I got outta there alive. I thought Dad was gonna kill me if the penangga-whatsit didn't. He was so pissed that I'd lost it in the middle of a hunt.' Dean covered his eyes, still laughing. 'Dude, we were pouring broken glass into the neck of the corpse that the flying intestine head had detached from, and all the while he was giving me this lecture about keeping my cool during a fight. I just couldn't take any of it seriously.'

'Jesus,' said Sam, laughing. Shook his head. 'Jesus.'

Dean sat up to throw back another shot, then flopped back down.

'You remember that, that chess club you joined? At that one high school in Virginia?'

Sam grinned at the ceiling. 'The Remington Rooks!'

'The fuckin' Remington Rooks? That's what it was called? Oh, man.' Dean chuckled. 'You were in, like, a tournament or something, weren't you? Yeah, yeah. No, you were good, you were good at it. I was proud of you.'

Sam looked over, still grinning. Dean's hair was almost dry now, but it'd dried flatter than usual, clumps sticking to his forehead. It made him look younger, freckly, nice. 'Yeah?'

'Your kid brother gets second place in the Remington High chess league? That's pretty impressive, man.'

'You came to see my tournament, didn't you?'

'Wouldn't'a missed it for the world.'

He remembered; he and the other kid in the semi-finals, Martin Adamowitz, on this little stage, the parental audience perfectly silent in rows of chairs. A crappy projector showing the chessboard, like it was the goddamn state finals instead of for this one little high school in Nowhere, Virginia. And then, when Sam put down his knight and, heart beating, said, 'Check,' Dean's holler of applause, which stood out in sheer volume from the rest of the clapping. He hugged the memory to himself; that glimpse of Dean on his feet, amulet catching the light; that roar, distant now. He thought of that and all the other moments like it and thought, perhaps we should have known.

Dean ditching dates early to come watch reruns with him in some tinpot motel; ruffling his hair, the casual wrestling of siblings, something they'd stopped doing by the time Sam was fifteen or so. Dean stealing food when John had been gone too long, stealing presents out of smart houses at Christmas; never any for himself, all of them for Sam. He was spoiled and he didn't even know it. Jesus, Dean, you were better than Dad. You were always a better man than Dad. Knowledge burning in his throat because it was sacred.

Dean, eighteen, coming to see the school play, slouching and too-cool in leather jacket and messy hair and those insolent, gorgeous eyes and lips, the parents all wondering what he was there for, he looked like the kind of guy wild horses couldn't have dragged to a seventh-grade Glass Menagerie. Sam wasn't even acting, he was just doing the lights, but Dean said Hey, then I'll come to see the lights. Dean, sixteen, in detention for decking an eighth-grader who had called Sam a fag. Dean, twenty-six, dragging him out of a burning room; never mind the girl dying on the ceiling.

Dean, last week, walking into that grimy room and pulling Sam to him without a word.

God, we should have known.

He'd gone silent, stopped laughing. He felt the moment Dean looked over. 'Sam?'

The word landed like a small bird in the quiet.

He wanted to say something, to find some simple way of putting into words just how much all this meant to him, just how much Dean mattered. How much it mattered that Dean would come to see a seventh-grade play for no other reason that his kid brother was doing the lights. But the words hurt his throat and he couldn't.

Dean grabbed his wrist, then, and hauled him to a sitting position. Looked directly at him and said, 'Getting weepy already?'

Sam wiped his nose with one hand. He was pretty sure he was about a second away from bawling and clutching at Dean like a five-year-old.

'More shots,' said Dean matter-of-factly, and handed him one. Sam downed it and the burn of vodka wiped out the ache in his throat for a moment. But Dean must have seen something in his eyes, because then he reached over and put a hand on each side of Sam's head. Callused palms rough as cats' tongues, but Dean's fingers were gentle against his temples. His eyes serious, the color of thick smoke in this light. 'Hey, hey. C'mon. You are not getting maudlin tonight. Dude. I forbid it.'

Sam let out a laugh that was also a sob; snivelled massively, and said, 'Fuck you.'

Dean patted him on the back. 'That's the spirit.'

They stayed there like that for a minute or more, Dean's concerned face in front of him, a careful space away. Sam sniffed and blinked and sucked in deep, awful breaths and wondered what the hell was wrong with him. Then they were drawing away from each other, settling in the space between the beds to lean against them.

'Sorry,' he said, when quiet settled.

Dean frowned. 'The hell for?'

For being a quasi-hysterical mess? For having turned up exactly no actionable solutions, none, after days of  research? For leaving Jake alive at Cold Oak? For just being, with tainted blood in his veins and a darkness polluting the air wherever he went?

He needed to pull himself together right now.

'Nothing,' he said. 'Forget it.'

Dean rolled his eyes. 'Lunatic,' he said.

They passed out like that. Pizza boxes and beer bottles and other bottles and the rain coming down.

*

The hangover was appalling. It was appalling.

 

The toilet wheezed again. Dean grinned, pausing in packing up his clothes. 'You okay in there?' he called.

A harrowing groan, which Dean pretended not to hear. He knocked on the bathroom door, knuckles to wood, rapping so hard they could probably hear in Topeka. Hollered through the door, 'Sam? You fallen in?'

He opened it a crack and got hit in the face by a bottle of spearmint mouthwash and a volley of the foulest language Dean had ever heard from Mr Yes Ma'am No Ma'am, who was red-eyed and retching into the toilet bowl like a bedraggled kitten.

Dean retreated, chuckling. Hey, he'd take pleasure where he could.

 

Halfway to Tulsa, Dean looked at Sam drooping in shotgun and decided. It was time to talk about it.

He pitched his voice casually; you couldn't start out sounding mad or Sam just spooked. That was where Dad had always gone wrong. 'Dude, sleep. Look at you, you're wiped.'

'Dean, I'm fine.' To prove how fine he was, Sam popped another aspirin.

Time to turn up the heat. 'You've been at the books all damn week. Do you think I don't know what you're doing? You're not going to find anything and you're going to run yourself into the ground.'

Sam didn't say anything. Dean gritted his teeth, white-knuckled the wheel, and resisted the urge to pull over. He lowered his voice. 'Look. It's a few hours to Tulsa. Just- sleep.'

A frown. 'What's in Tulsa?'

He gave his finest eyebrow-wiggle. 'Ashley and Mary-Kate, my friend.'

Sam groaned. 'Dude. The Lattimer twins?'

'The Lattimer twins,' said Dean, with enormous satisfaction.

'And you're seriously-' Sam cut himself short. Shook himself out briefly like washing on a line. Dean could practically see his brain signals crossing: be a little bitch warring with be nice to your dying brother. Because it was Sam, the second one won, and he sighed. 'Sure. Okay. Tulsa.'

'Tulsa,' Dean agreed. 'Now sleep.'

Sam sat, taut-bodied and staring into nothing, for a minute; then he folded whatever book he was going through and rested his head against the window. Curled and miserable-looking, all folded angles. Dean stifled the pang. Yeah, this was tough, it was going to carry on being tough, but it was their last year. It had to count. They had to make it count.

They sped south.

 

 

Chapter Text

MAY 12 2007

353.

Writing from some crappy motel room in Iowa. Backwater town. Dean's out cold on top of his bed.

It's been a hectic few days. Could have changed everything, I think. Bobby called us up after Dean's liason with  the Lattimore girls (not sure it's really got through his head that they're sisters; didn't bother killing his buzz). We hauled ass to Lincoln, Nebraska & found a whole family starved to death in front of a Dallas rerun. Kitchen full of food ten feet away. (Dean's verdict: Look, it's gripping television, but it's not that gripping.) Turned out the Seven Deadly Sins had landed in full technicolor glory.

Yeah. Yeah, me too.

Dean got all gung ho, 'Give me a gun & I'll hold them off while the rest of you escape!' Irritated me in a way I haven't felt since, well. Before Cold Oak, probably. Told him to can it. I hate it when he does stuff like that. I think he's got some idea that because he's signed his soul away his life can go cheap too. I'd yell at him about it if I knew what the hell to say.

Anyway. It's handled. Exorcised Gluttony, Envy, Lust. The others are dead. We didn't kill them. Some girl came in and just... slaughtered them wholesale. She had some kind of special knife; I didn't get a good look at the markings on the blade. Runic, I think. (Cuneiform?) White girl, blonde, maybe 5''7, 130 pounds, leather jacket. Another hunter seems like the best bet. But why vanish on us?

Note: Tamara. Try to keep track of her. I feel like she could be a wild card. Bobby's worried, I can tell. For her & for us.

Meanwhile: told Dean I've lost patience with him. I've been putting up with his crap all week and I am done.

No, I'll be honest. I'm not mad because he's been indulging himself all week; let's be real, it was even kind of nice seeing him happy, even if it was over little stuff. I'm mad because I feel like if you peel back his whole devil-may-care, live-fast-die-young-I-eat-cheeseburgers-for-breakfast thing, he's just as scared of this as I am. But he won't do anything about it. Because he's got this idea that I'm going to drop dead if he lifts a finger to save himself. I'm pretty sure the deal doesn't work like that but fuck it, what if it did? The risk of me dying vs. the risk of Dean going to Hell is a pretty obvious choice. Well, to anyone who isn't Dean. I want to shake him right now.

Bobby's told me about this hoodoo priest, Louisiana, guy called Jebediah Lewes. He thinks we should at least talk to him- there's rumours that he's raised five guys from the grave- but Dean won't budge. Seriously considering stealing the car at night. It'd serve him right.

Or just give him a heart attack & shuffle him on downstairs eleven months early. Fuck. I can't joke about this.

I want that knife.

*

Dean was driving when the other-other-cell rang. He reached for it, but Sam got there first with those sneaky-sneaky lightning reflexes that somehow came with Mr Tickle arms. He flipped it open, said, 'Hello?', and winced. 'Okay, okay. Jesus, okay, sorry. Uh, Dean, it's for you.' He held out the phone.

Dean frowned at him instead of taking it. Who?

Ellen, Sam mouthed back.

Dean took the phone.

'Dean?' came a voice. 'You driving, boy?'

'Ellen! Good to hear from you! Yeah, I'm driving, why?'

'Pull over.'

'What? Why?'

'Now.'

Dean, flicking a glance at Sam- who raised his eyebrows, I've no idea- pulled over. They were on a stony back-road heading into Missouri. Late-afternoon sun limned the fields, wind-chased and waving.

Sam reached over and put the phone on speaker before Dean could do more than frown at him.

'You pulled over?' came Ellen's voice, loud and tinny.

'Yes Ma'am,' said Dean.

'Good. Now you can tell me why in the hell you thought it was a good idea to sell your damn soul.'

Dean cleared his throat. Glanced quickly at Sam, and away. 'Did Bobby tell you?

'He didn't tell me, I beat it outta him. You gonna answer the question?'

'Jesus, Ellen, you should've been a grade school teacher,' said Dean. Then, when that only got stony silence from the cellphone: 'Did Bobby tell you why I did it?'

'For Sam's life? Yeah, he told me, Dean. And lemme tell you, if I were Sam? I'd be ready to murder you myself for that.'

'Believe me, Ellen, it's crossed my mind.'

'Shut up, Sam. What the hell d'you want me to say, Ellen?'

Ellen cursed at protracted length. The verbal battering that followed was long, relentless, and left Dean feeling distinctly flayed. When Ellen finished with 'And you better call me, boy, because if I don't hear from you I'll take that as a sign that you've got yourself in even deeper shit and then I'll be hunting for you,' and hung up, he leaned back in the seat and groaned.

'Why the hell did Bobby tell her anyway?'

'Dean, maybe he thought she could help.'

'Yeah, help by humiliating me to an early grave.'

'Don't be dramatic,' says Sam, who was actually smiling a little. Dean pressed the pedal to the floor just a little harder than he needed to. It just figured that this would improve Sam's mood.

 

Over the next couple days, they tackled a ghost in Bull Creek, Missouri. A day in the town history archives was enough to answer the question of why, exactly, Loretta Coyle was back and attacking the local clergy after fifty-eight years in the ground; that night they pulled up outside the local cemetary and got out the spades.

'You know what creeps me out?' Dean demanded as they walked past rows of headstones. 'Neat boneyards. The kind where there isn't a single goddamn blade of grass out of place and all the gravestones are, like, matching shades of white. It's fuckin' unnatural.'

'Well, it won't last,' said Sam. 'All graveyards fall into disrepair eventually. Cities crumble- places are desecrated- the people who care for them die.' He thought of the old house in Lawrence; scratching inside the walls, burning shadows that walked the stairs. 'A few thousand years, this town might be like that. Nothing but weeds and demons and dust.'

Dean raised his eyebrows. 'Uh, okay, Nick Cave. Hey-'

They'd found the headstone. Dean tapped it with the tip of his spade; flashed Sam a grin, teeth white in the torchlight. 'Guess we get digging.'

 

'We could send daevas after her,' said Sam. 'The demon, I mean. Tell her we'll let them shred her if she doesn't break the deal.'

'That wouldn't work, Sam.'

'Well, then there's this rabbi in Delaware. According to Bobby he knows more about demonology than anyone else alive or dead. We could go see-'

'Dude. No.'

Sam heaped another shovelful of earth by the graveside. They must be nearly at the coffin by now. It was a thick, black, muggy night; they were both down to one layer and sweating bullets. He kept his voice steady, tone even. 'We should find Missouri, then. If anyone'll know what to do it's her.'

'We don't need to know what to do, Sam.' There was a smudge of dirt on Dean's forehead; his shirt was stained under the arms. 'Because we're not going to do anything.'

Sam went on like he hadn't heard. 'Of course, barring a more convenient solution me and Bobby could just shove you in an iron-walled, salt-lined, symbol-covered prison cell for the rest of your life- sorry, Dean, does that sound unattractive? Hey, maybe you should help us look for a better idea.'

Sam's spade hit wood just as Dean tipped his head back, a God-help-me gesture. 'Sam-'

'Hey!'

They both turned. Deputy Keeley, who tried to run them out of town yesterday for disturbing the peace or something, was edging towards them, gun raised. There was an angry-faced old guy hobbling beside him, with a shotgun under one arm and a tiny, growling dog under the other. He raised one ancient finger, pointed, and said, 'That's them.'

Deputy Keeley was shouting. 'What the hell are you doing? My God, are you digging that grave up?'

Sam turned. He caught Dean's eye.

 

Five minutes later, the old guy and Deputy Keeley were tied up behind the gravestone of one Ibrahim Jenkins, the dog was tethered to a NO TRESPASSING sign, the bones were burned, and they were in the wind.

The dog was the hardest one to deal with. It kept snapping at Dean's ankles.

 

Three hundred and forty-nine, three hundred and forty-eight, three hundred and forty-seven. They spent a week in an abandoned house in Tennessee. Sam made a lot of phone calls during Dean's grocery runs; he was trying to get hold of an old Hebrew text about sacred pacts, and so far it was proving practically impossible to find. It didn't help that whenever Dean walked past and glanced at the laptop he had to close the window quickly.

Dean was quiet. It was a little worrying, actually. He wasn't moping, exactly, he ate with enough enthusiasm, but sometimes Sam'd look up and catch Dean looking at him with this weird shattered look in his eyes before Dean's gaze flicked away. It seemed wrong to say anything.

A nasty incident just outside Memphis; they got made in a drugstore. It was Sam who caught it, caught the fear-glint in the owner's eyes when he looked at them, the sweat beading at his hairline when he told them his card-reader was jacked up, 'Be right back with my spare, boys, you hang on now.' Sam tugged Dean's sleeve, eyes trained on the door the owner vanished through. They agreed in a glance to skip town.

They drove and drove and didn't stop until they were two states over, and then Dean picked up a newspaper and hey, take a look at that.

MAY 23

342.

We're on our way to Cicero, Indiana. Dean told me he thought there was a case, a freak power saw accident; I thought it was tenuous. Like, non-existent tenuous. It then came out that, in fact, what is important here is not the power saw thing but one of Dean's hookups from about a decade ago. I don't know how he even manages to keep track of them all.

Suspect Dean's going to find himself out on his ass & then it'll be back to the obits for a case. I'm taking advantage of the downtime to go through this Hebrew text; Bobby got a friend (name of Turner- should note that) to pull some strings with an archivist in Tallahassee. Downloaded the translation file earlier. I don't want to get my hopes up but this looks pretty legit. Like it could actually help.

MAY 24

341.

Turns out there is a case here, so I guess Dean gets to say I told you so. Don't know what it is yet.

The girl from Arkansas showed up a couple hours ago. I don't know whether she was trying to help me or shock me. She's got some sort of agenda, that's for sure.

She said some stuff. About me being the Antichrist, last of the psychic kids, all that. God knows how she found out about all that; I guess there's all sorts of rumours flying around about Dean & me. I want to believe she was lying or whatever but if she was then she's very good at it. (& why?)

God, I thought this was over. It was supposed to be over when Yellow-Eyes bit it. I seriously can't think about the psychic crap & Dean's deal at the same time.

There was another thing she said. About Mom's friends. Haven't had time to check it out yet.

Right now I'm more worried about how she tracked us here. Swept my bag for anything- charmed coins, hex bags- but nothing. I might try & check through the car later. Maybe I could tell Dean I lost something?

Dean's not back yet. I don't know whether to tell him about the girl.  If I do I'll have to tell him what she said & I don't want him to look at me like he does sometimes. Like there's a part of him that doesn't know who a part of me is.

I don't think I'll tell him.

1 John 2:18: Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that the antichrist shall come, even now there are many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for had they been of us, no doubt they would have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.

*

'Told you so,' said Dean, kicking the door open.

Sam tilted his laptop screen closer to his chest. Dean couldn't see it anyway, Sam was sitting at the table in the corner, but still.

Dean was talking about the case. Sam made noises at intervals to show that he was listening, focused tight on the Hebrew text. So far it was basically a treatise on cleansing rituals. He wasn't sure whether, if they could find one powerful enough, that might be a viable option for shaking Dean's deal. Worth a shot, right? The days were ticking down and they needed something.

'Chicken?'

Dean thrust a huge bucket of fried stuff under his nose. It smelled greasy and delicious and Sam felt queasy just thinking about it. 'No, thanks.'

Dean shrugged; settled down on the bed and carried on peacefully eating.

Sam was wading through a chunk, garbled by the translator, about bovine sacrifices when Dean said, 'Ben's a good kid, actually.'

He frowned. 'Who's Ben?'

Dean rolled his eyes. 'I knew you weren't listening. Ben. Lisa's son. It's his birthday today.'

'Right.' A moment; he had time to read another sentence before that registerd. 'Dean, since when do you care about kids' birthdays?'

'I always care about kids' birthdays! I always cared about your birthday, anyway.'

Then they both winced. There had been Sam's birthday a few weeks back; Sam's birthday last year landed three days after John died and went pretty much how you'd expect; the two birthdays before that one went by without a word from Dean; and the year before that, he'd gone out with Jess and Brady and stumbled in, at four A.M, to a slurred message from Dean on the answering machine. He and Dean had been talking on the phone sometimes, haltingly, talking round the hole Sam had ripped in their lives; Sam was trying, but Dean would always be reserved, strangely wooden. He would never call Sam; it would always have to be Sam calling him.

This time Dean had called him. The message was something to the tune of You know I miss you? Jesus, Sammy, you know I miss you? He'd deleted it without replying. Everything to do with Dean, then, had been calling to him with two voices; one that wanted to sing him back home and one that wanted to make him run beyond even California, off the edge of the world. That still might not have been enough. He knew now that he could fall down into death and still land, somehow, back beside Dean in passenger.

Dean was gazing off with a sort of weird nostalgia in his eyes. 'You know, it's not for me, but man- you should have seen it- Lisa with her house and the kiddie crayon drawings on the fridge, and this kickass birthday cake, and the moonbounce, and all the kids just out there having a good time. Kinda makes you think, don't it.'

Did it? It sounded like a world of bright grass and soap bubbles. A garden they were barred from entering. A badge and a suit aren't always enough; there are some places only the innocent can go.

 

Dean still fell asleep so fast. Sam'd always been jealous of it. When they were kids sharing a room or a bed, it was the same; Dean's easy snores close in the dark, and Sam wriggling, the mattress digging into his back or the headboard banging in the next room or just his mind spawning thought after thought. Something. It was worse when he got to Stanford, at least at first. He'd roomed with a snuffly guy called Derek in freshman year; he snored, like Dean, but it didn't sound the same.

When he was sure that Dean was asleep, he sat up; reached for the knife under his pillow. Turned on his flashlight and put it between his teeth.

The knife was long, curved, wicked. In the white flay of torchlight it flashed like a mirror. He brought up his arm and pressed the flat of the blade against it, so that his veins stoof out. He'd always had prominent veins, green-blue and raised, you could practically see the blood throbbing. Just asking to get clawed, Dean had said once.

In the concentrated beam of the torch his skin was livid white, half-translucent. But that wasn't accurate. You might be able to shine through his veins with a light but there was a sickness clustered in them that nothing could reach. His heart beat hard. He wished he hadn't seen that, didn't have the image of thick dark blood drip-dripping into his own infant mouth. If that was what made him a psychic, what made the others go bad, what else had it done to him? In what less obvious ways had this changed him from who he would have been, without it? What monstrous thing had been pulsing under his skin all this time? Who would he have been?

Better than mother's milk.

Dean shifted; mumbled something into the pillow. If he held up a torch to Dean's veins, would they show up clear as cracks in glass?

Who am I? He thought. What have I done with your brother?

 

MAY 26

339.

Case closed. More on that later.

The girl- Ruby- is a demon. And all Mom's friends were killed after she died, within the next couple years. How did Dad never notice? Did he just cut ties and run? How'd a pattern like this slip under our radar for so long?

It sounds to me like Yellow-Eyes, or someone, was trying to cover something up. Ruby says she doesn't know why they were killed, except that it was to do with me. I'd've sent her packing back to Hell & I think she knew it. But then she said she can help me save Dean. I don't believe her but I can't ignore her & she knows it. I'm starting to feel like a fish on a hook.

I should tell Dean. This has gone far enough.

Anyways, turned out changelings were doing the killing. We torched the den mother; the real kids were caged up in a basement in one of the new houses. One of them had an asthma attack while he was down there, according to Katie, but they all seem basically okay. Just finished delivering them back to their parents. Got some very nasty looks, but seeing a couple of those parents hug their kids was enough to make me kind of ashamed for not having my mind on this case more.

I'm not sure how this Hebrew thing is going to pan out after all. I'm three-quarters of the way through it & so far found zip.

Time to head off before the police get to Cicero. Dean looks sorry to leave.

 

Sam closed the journal and pinched the bridge of his nose. A headache was building behind his eyes. Neither of them had got any sleep. First there'd been the changelings to deal with, and then they'd been delivering the kids. The whole time they'd been doing that Sam had wondered what Lisa would think if she knew that one of the guys bringing her kid back to her had a strain of evil in him worse than anything in the changelings. They were amoral predators, just following instinct. Demons were another matter.

Dean, over by the bed, was throwing clothes into his duffel. His back was to Sam, but there was a slump to his shoulders that looked like a little more than exhaustion. The message was clear: back off, Sam.

It made a stupid sort of sense that Dean would be drawn to this kind of domesticity. He watched the taut curve of Dean's neck and let himself wonder, as he very rarely did, how things might have been. Who Dean might have been if Mom hadn't died. Funny: Sam had always thought Dean would be wild no matter what. He'd thought Dean was the inveterate bad-boy, that he loved that whole swaggering rebel thing. And maybe that was true, kind of.

But what if Dean wouldn't have been like that. What if Dean would have been kind, and polite to old ladies, and good with kids the way he was now, but without the hard edges and the fragile sheen of damage. What if he could have had something like this: a nice house, a sweet, smart, steady girl, a kid or two. Sam was shocked by the sick twist in his gut at the thought. It made his heart pound, a ball of guilt congealing in his gut.

Because maybe- and this was the really dangerous thought- maybe, in such a life, where Mary had survived Yellow-Eyes' visit, where they'd had a normal home with a mom and gone to the same school their whole lives, maybe Sam would still be the same. Maybe Sam would have that same black knot of terror inside him, that same sense- a sense that went beyond always being the new kid in class, of knowing things other boys didn't- of being subtly and insidiously and irrevocably different. And he'd thought, or maybe just hoped, that Stanford would fix that. It hadn't. He'd always had a thin pane of glass between him and everything else, even Jess. In some ways coming back to hunting had been a relief.

Dean's damage was inflicted, man-made; Sam's damage grew in the quiet places inside him. From him.

Sam's damage was him.

Dean buckled his duffel and turned round; Sam expected him to be glaring at everything, but he just looked tired. He threw a balled-up sock at Sam. 'Yours, Jolly Green.'

The sock hit the floor by Sam's foot. Sam studied Dean's face; Dean looked at him and Sam watched him shift, just a little, into belligerence, the way he did when he knew what Sam was doing and he didn't think much of it. But he didn't know what Sam was doing, he couldn't possibly, because not even Sam knew, and now Dean looked concerned and like he was trying to hide that he was concerned and that was worse. It was worse because he felt like Dean had figured him out. Are you okay? he wanted to ask. Am I okay? Are we okay? He wanted to ask, Are we going to be okay, Dean? and he wanted Dean to grin and say Dude, don't be stupid, of course we are, and ruffle his hair the way he did when they were kids before Sam got too tall, and. And he wanted Dean to stop looking at him like that.

'C'mon,' said Dean at last. He looked like he wanted to say something else but decided against it. 'Cops'll be here soon.'

Dean turned then, and walked towards the door, like he expected Sam to follow. To trail after him like a little kid. Because of course he did. Because he always had. Because Sam always, always followed, except when he didn't, except when he ran thousands of miles and turned himself into a stranger.

This wasn't one of those times. Three hundred and thirty-nine. Sam followed.

 

Chapter Text

Three hundred and thirty-six. He told Dean about Ruby, which went down about as well as you'd expect.

And then there was a rabbit's foot.

*

'Ow. Ow.'

'I can't believe she fuckin' shot you.'

'Can we just get this over with?'

'I'm going as fast as I can, okay? Damn thing's lodged right- ah- right there-'

'Ow-'

'Seriously, though, what the hell is with her? Did we even win this thing? You got shot, we're out fifteen grand-'

'Dude, we're not out anything. We've got the same amount of cash- shit- as before this case, remember? And we torched the foot. So- ssssht- me aside, this was really a win. Kind of. And- fuck- if you think about it, it was kinda lucky in a way that she only got me in the shoulder- the curse could've easily turned that into a fatal hit-'

'Don't say shit like that. You're fine. She's dead meat. Oh, boy, you are bleeding like a stuck- pig-'

'We're gonna have to pay for these towels.'

'Eh, we'll check out early. Wait, wait, I got it, it's coming-'

'Ngh-'

'I got it, I got it. You okay? Sam, hey. You good?'

'Pass me the whiskey.'

'Really think that's a good idea, Chinaski?'

'Pass me the goddamn whiskey, Dean.'

[...]

'I still can't believe she fuckin' shot you.'

'Seriously, Dean, will you stop saying that? It's a shoulder hit.'

'Oh, that is so not the point.'

'Then what? Dean, I know that for us nothing's too weird, but me getting killed twice in a month really would be unlucky.'

Sam looked up through the sweaty threads of his hair, eyes rueful. Dean sighed; looked away, over at the pile of filthy, bloody clothes next to the bed.

'We need a laundry trip,' he said.

*

<< harvelle19@fortmail.co.uk >>

to

>> abrahamwheeley@ubtc.co.uk <<

(no subject)

Sam,

Got a case for you if you want it. There's a guy on it already, Tyrone Jones, but he's been asking round for backup and it sounds like a shitshow. There's a trail of people with their hearts ripped out stretching halfway over Iowa- sounds like a werewolf, but the cycle's not right and it's got Jones scratching his head.

There's a couple articles with more details- I'll send you the links. Interested? I'd take it myself, but I've got a chupacabra in Michigan and I can't leave now.

You two keep safe out there.

Ellen

 

'Sorry, Dean, but you're the one who wanted to spend the whole year killing things.'

'Oh, come on, Sam. I didn't say that. And that's not my point. My point is that I can't believe we're driving all the way to Ohio to bail out some moron called Tyrone who can't even nail his own cases.'

Sam rubbed his eyes. 'That's not necessarily his fault, you know.'

'He's called Tyrone. I never liked guys called Tyrone.'

'We don't have to like him. We just have to work with him.'

Dean changed tack quick as lightning. 'Yeah, and how well have we worked with other hunters in the past? We nearly got Jo killed! And do I really need to remind you about Gordon, Sam?'

He couldn't help the shiver. It was been a week since they wrapped up the Black Rock thing and he was still aching like hell. His shoulder was the worst, of course, and that was hardly Gordon's fault, but the black eye and bruised jaw courtesy of Kubrick were only just starting to fade.

And they both still thought about Lafayette. It wasn't like Sam had ever been short on nightmare fuel, but the view through the broken slats of the abandoned house still got him: Dean with that fucking rag pulling his mouth back, cheeks chubbed up, and Gordon like a goddamn prison guard plus assault rifle. And he knew what Dean was haunted by: those few seconds after each tripwire blew, caught in a horrible tangle of hope and terror and grief.

He looked out the window, took in the huge blue sky, needing to look at something that wasn't Dean. They were speeding through rural Indiana- Dean tended to go a little heavy on the clutch when he was mad- passing endless wheat fields that threw off a metallic gleam under the sun. It was a dry-hot day, three-P.M haze rising over the road, sweat gathering at the back of Sam's neck. Light catching on the car's metal glints, on the amulet as it swung against Dean's grey T-shirt, on the gold in his hair. Bright on the leather seats and the falling dust.

'Of course you don't,' he said.

He was a little annoyed that he was having to play devil's advocate for Tyrone, since it had been him who didn't fall headlong into Gordon's buddy-buddy act that first time, but he figured Dean was overcompensating because he was mad at himself about that still. Because Dean had to make everything so very complicated. It'd suck worse if Dean decided to get on with Tyrone, anyway, and ended up doing shots with him at some slimy bar while Sam got landed with the witnesses.

Dean was glaring at the road.

'Look,' Sam said in his best reasonable voice. 'We'll check it out. Chances are Tyrone's an idiot who got the whole thing backwards and it really is a werewolf. Or it's something else relatively cut-and-dried. If we move fast, we can probably be in and out within a week. Yeah? Just try not to tear his head off, please.'

Dean grunted.

'I'm not exactly thrilled about this either, you know,' said Sam.

And Dean rolled his eyes, and caved. 'Ugh, I know. I know. Sorry I'm being an ass.'

'S'okay.'

A pause. Long and awkward. Sam looked out of the window.

'I just-'

'It's okay,' he repeated. He wasn't sure he could handle another one of Dean's attempts at a heartfelt speech. Not today, anyway. He gentled his voice. 'Really, Dean. I get it. It's alright, man.'

Dean shrugged and turned the music up, up until Shoot to Thrill blotted out the rush of wind past the car. Sam winced and fought the urge to put his hands, childishly, over his ears.

 

They stopped at a Motel 6 that night, mostly because of Sam's shoulder. Nothing was fractured, amazingly enough, but that didn't mean the thought of sleeping in the back seat appealed. They got back on the road first thing next morning, fuelled by coffee and donuts Dean picked up at a gas station while Sam was still asleep.

Sam picked at the almond pastry thing Dean- considerately, he'll say that- chose for him and went on combing through his current source, a scan of an old alchemical textbook he found in some mostly-bullshit online occult archive. It wasn't just about turning things to gold, that was just the greed factor; alchemy was essentially about transmutation. Changing the fabric of things.

If he managed to get his hands on something like that, there had to be something he could do with it. Some way he could use it. Hell, even trade the secret for an amnesty on Dean, maybe, if he couldn't figure out a direct way to break the deal with it, but there had to be one. He needed to think outside the box.

They were meant to be meeting Tyrone at the Nite Lite Motel in Dubuque- Sam wasn't thrilled about staying in the same place as the guy, but it seemed smart to stick together- but when they were almost into Dubuque one of the cells rang.

'Which ringtone's that?'

Dean shrugged. Which meant Sam had to go on a prolonged hunt under seats and in glove compartments before, wedged between a dusty skin mag and a squashed coffee cup, he found the right phone and flipped it open on the fifteenth ring.

'Aw, hell,' said a voice. Then, 'Dean Winchester? Is this Dean Winchester?'

'Sam,' he said, cautiously, meeting Dean's eyes.

'Sam? Well, nice to meet you, Sam. You're the younger one, ain't ya? Look, kid, I know Mrs Harvelle fixed you to meet me at the motel, but wouldja mind comin' out to the North End?'

'You're Tyrone Jones?' said Sam.

'Aw, sorry, kid, didn't I tell ya? Yeah, I'm Tyrone Jones. You can call me Ty, if you want. I'm real excited to work with you an' your brother.'

'Right,' said Sam. 'Well, I'm Sam Winchester.  Just call me Sam. Not 'kid'. Yeah?'

'Oh, right. Sorry, Sam. Yeah. So will you come out to meet me?'

Dean raised questioning eyebrows. Sam forced himself to speak slowly. 'Tyrone, why do you want us to come meet you?'

'Didn't I mention it? Aw, Jesus. Sorry, kid, I ain't got the brains I was born with. They found another body.'

Oh, God, Sam thought, a little frantically. Oh, God, we're working with a moron.

'Text me the address, Tyrone,' he said and hung up.

 

The body was a wreck.

The first thing Sam heard when he stepped into the room, over the low hum of talk from the cops and medics gathered around, was singing. Familiar singing; the soar of a voice, a little crackly, over other murmured voices.

Someday I'll wish upon a star

And wake up where the clouds are far behind me

Where troubles melt like lemon drops

Away above the chimney tops

That's where you'll find me

The room was stuffy, like the windows had been sealed shut for days. And the smell was thick enough to gag on: old blood, ripe flesh, sweet rot. Outside the stars were coming out but in here it was dark. No furniture in here except a table with a telephone, but the walls were papered top-to-bottom in magazine cut-outs.  A hundred faces stared down from them, faces with monochrome lips, bright-painted eyes, feathers in their hair.

Well, he reasoned. Perhaps she's an art student. Was.

The girl- not much younger than Sam, twenty-one, twenty-two- was on the floor in a weird, twisted foetal curl, legs brought up but torso facing upwards. Sam came closer, keeping his distance from the medic who was inserting a toothpick under her fingernails. The dead girl had a faceful of piercings, hair cut short and spiky. Her eyes were closed.

Her chest was a gaping bloody hole. Like someone just reached in and scooped. A whole section gone; heart, flesh, and the ribs sticking up, jagged and broken, gleaming white against all that meat. It was weltering in blood, of course, but nothing about this smelled fresh.

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly

Birds fly over the rainbow

Why then oh why can't I?

The address Tyrone texted them was of a tall, dilapidated building on a similarly run-down block. By the time they got there dark had been falling, the deep blue twilight of early summer. The air was mild but it wasn't the right weather for their lying-to-the-cops suits, which looked smart when you clip on a fake badge but were really just cheap itchy shit. Dean hated it even more than Sam did. Whenever Dean ducked out of sight while wearing one of these Sam guaranteed he was off behind a hedge somewhere, scratching himself furiously.

Emergency services were everywhere, cops and paramedics going up and down the stairs inside, so the right apartment was easy to find. Sam had let Dean take the lead, all brash confidence and badge-flashing. He'd been bitching it out in the corner with a suspicious lady cop since they walked in. No sign of anyone who could potentially be Tyrone Jones.

If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow

Why oh why can't I?

'Just don't disturb my guys,' Sam heard the cop say over the music. 'Of course, Ma'am,' said Dean, polite as he ever got, and then he was at Sam's side, looking down at the body of Frankie Lopez.

'Yeuch.'

Sam pitched his voice low. 'This doesn't even look like a werewolf attack.'

'It sure doesn't.' Dean looked around, furtively. 'Look. There's too many jackasses wandering around. Let's find Tyrone, look around for hex bags or sulphur or whatever, get out of here, and come back to the body when it's in the morgue. Yeah?'

'Yeah. Gimme fifteen minutes.'

They combed through the apartment as best they could with what seemed like an entire police department hanging out there. It was all a similar level of dark and unfurnished and too-warm. They checked for absolutely anything they could think of, Dean even gave it a surreptitious sweep with the EMF, but after half an hour they had nothing and the lady cop was glaring at them again. And still no sign of Tyrone. At least someone finally shut off the CD player.

Sam'd started to sweat under his collar when Dean finally said 'Let's go already, this is hopeless,' and he was happy to follow without complaint.  As soon as they reached the street, clear night sky above, Dean sucked down two melodramatically huge breaths of air. Sam just breathed until all that was left of the blood-stink was a persistent sense-echo, and loosened his collar.

'Oh, screw Tyrone,' said Dean, in answer to Sam's unspoken question. 'Let's just find the motel. I need caffeine.'

'Agreed,' said Sam. Caffeine, but not food. He wasn't going to be hungry tonight. Less to do with the body; more to do with the smell.

They're halfway to where they parked when a voice behind them shouted, 'Sam! Dean! Hey!'

Sam stopped where he was and groaned.

'Is it him?' said Dean. Then, 'It's him.'

They both turned round.

A guy who was unmistakably Tyrone Jones bounded up to them. He was about Dean's height, and about Sam's age, tall and stringy with a crop of lank yellowish hair. There was some very, very faint hair on his upper lip.

'You're the Winchesters, ain't ya? Damn, you look just how I thought you would. I'm Tyrone Jones- I hope you found the place okay. Oh, I've heard all about you two, you can be sure a that.' His smile was very wide.

Dean stepped back. He looked him up and down, slowly. Without taking his eyes off the guy, he said, 'He looks like a Tyrone.'

Sam shot Dean a frown. 'Hi, Tyrone. I'm Sam- that's Dean.'

Tyrone pointed a finger at the sky. 'Now I thought he might be. I'm real grateful for the two a you for agreein' to lend me a hand on this one.'

'Why weren't you at the crime scene?' said Dean.

Tyrone shrugged. 'Oh, y'know what the police are like.' He gestured at his jeans and brown jacket. 'I tried to get past 'em, man, but they wouldn't let me in.'

Dean blinked, slowly. 'That's why,' he says, 'you wear a suit. Or a badge. Something. Anything.'

For the first time some of the wind seemed to go out of Tyrone's sails. 'I dunno, I didn't think about it. It seems like kind of a pain in the ass to go to all that trouble, y'know?'

Dean's voice was very deliberate. 'You didn't think about it.'

Sam cut in, because he was pretty sure that if Tyrone said anything else Dean would shoot him in the middle of the street. 'Tyrone, we're going to the motel. You want to drive in front?'

'We'll drive in front,' said Dean, far too loudly. He pushed past Tyrone and into the Impala, slamming the door with unnecessary force and leaving Sam staring at Tyrone, who seemed to have at last grasped that Dean's behaviour was not normal and was frowning slightly. 'Your brother okay?'

'Headache,' said Sam.

'Aw, that sucks, man. You tell him I said to sleep it off, alright?'

Sam tried to keep the smile on his face right up until Tyrone got into his own ride, which was a creepy-looking white truck. Then he let the grimace drop and got in beside Dean.

'Dean, what the hell is your problem?'

'He,' Dean enunciated, 'is my problem.'

'Oh my God.' He shook his head. 'He's not that bad. A little over-eager, yeah, but he seems pretty harmless.'

'He's a dingbat! And you know what happens to dingbats who try and hunt, Sam? They get killed!'

'So we don't let him get killed! Look, why'd you think Ellen put us on this? The guy probably needs people who can work the case while somehow keeping him from getting hurt too bad.'

Dean snorted incredulously. 'Sam, who the hell thinks of us when they need to keep someone safe? We get people killed all the time!'

He spread his hands. 'Well, gee, Dean, maybe she wants to get him killed.'

Dean turned the key in the ignition, scowling, but he subsided. Sam suddenly felt very tired.

'I don't like it either. But what d'you wanna do, quit the hunt?'

'No. No, dammit.'

'Exactly.' He thought of Frankie Lopez, her two lip-rings, her walls papered with unknown faces.

Quiet fell. Sam's face was hot; he wound his window down, leaned his head out. Cool air combed through his hair. Night had fallen properly now, with a white bite of moon.

It took some intense map-reading (Sam) and a lot of cursing (Dean) to find the motel, which was right on the edge of town on a cracked asphalt plain, just off the highway. They waited in the car for a minute, but there was no sign of Tyrone's seedy white van and in the end they went in, booked a room, and told the clerk to pass their room number on to the skinny guy with the baby 'tache.

Wallpaper lilac with water-stains and cigarette burns on the mattresses. Dean threw himself down with a sigh of contentment and shut his eyes for all of ten seconds before reluctantly peeling himself back up and announcing that he was going for food.

Sam let out a breath when the door slammed closed. He wasn't sure he could last an entire case trying to negotiate between Dean and Tyrone. Dean could be exhausting when he got like this.

He loaded up the files he'd been going through, the alchemy texts, a Compleat Demonologie Bobby mailed to him earlier. His laptop brought up the date: the sixth of June.

It was just over a month since Dean sold his soul. It didn't feel like it. It felt like they'd barely started trying to live around this jagged thing.

Was all this year going to go so fast?

He tried to read, but there was panic in his blood now. His pulse was up, he could feel it thrumming. Three hundred and twenty-eight days left. Slipping away.

He didn't feel like the answer, or the beginnings of one, was going to be in any of the texts he'd lined up to read. He didn't feel like there was a ritual to stop this, some power to evoke.

(Was there even anything he could do?)

He shut his laptop, went outside. Just out the door stood a vending-machine, humming cold and blue, condensation beading on its side. It was a warm night. The parking lot was almost empty, only a couple cars besides the Impala. Little yellow flowers had grown up between the cracks in the asphalt.

Sam leaned his head against the cold metal. Screwed his eyes shut and prayed, just straight-up begged God or whoever was up there. Please. Please. Please. He doesn't deserve this. I'll do anything.

Please.

It was what he'd done more or less his whole life. He used to feel better afterwards. Now he just felt sick.

He thumbed his change into the vending-machine, grabbed the cold can and went back in.

 

Chapter Text

Dean wound up taking a drive just to calm himself down. There was nothing, nothing that pissed him off more than incompetent boneheads messing with shit they didn't understand, and Tyrone Jones, from what he'd seen, landed right in there. And just the sight of his shitty little moustache made Dean furious. He didn't even need a reason for that, it was reason enough on its own.

But Sam was right. Unfortunately. They needed to work this case. Because Tyrone was too dim to work it himself. And Sam was an idiot if he thought Dean hadn't seen the shadows under his eyes.

Come to think of it, they probably both needed to chill out.

He picked up a pizza at a grimy takeaway place, along with coffee that tasted like soap-suds. He was driving back into the parking lot when the white sleaze-machine rolled in after him, flashing by in Dean's wing mirror. He groaned.

The white van tooted at him. In the mirror Tyrone's grinning idiot face was reflected. Dean parked and wondered if it would help him at all to actually pray to God for strength.

Tyrone parked the van way too close to Baby. Even though the parking-lot was practically empty. Dean thumped his head gently against the wheel and got out.

Tyrone waved a long, skinny arm at him, clambering out of his van. 'Hey, Dean! Jesus Christ, is that pizza?'

Damn it. 'What took you so long?'

Tyrone laughed and shook his head. 'Took the wrong highway, didn't I? There's one thing you oughta know about me, Dean. I'm a fine shot, but damn, I got shit for brains.'

Dean forced a smile.

Talking all the while, Tyrone followed Dean in. He was tempted to shut their room door straight in his face, but Sam, the sweet moron, said 'Hey, Tyrone,' and smiled, and now he was remembering that he had been going to try to be nice to the guy. Ugh.

So he let Tyrone in after him.

Sam was sitting at the table, an opened soda can beside him, rubbing his eyes. A curl of hair had escaped over his forehead, lapping at his left eye.

'I've been thinking about what this could be,' he said. As if everything about this situation was absolutely normal and fine.

'Well, at first I thought werewolf,' said Tyrone. 'Y'know, 'cause the hearts were missin'. But then I noticed that the lunar cycle weren't right. I got the case files for the other killings, if you want to-'

'Nah, it's okay. I got them.' Sam read out from the screen. 'Serena Hopkins, forty-five. Found dead in her home in Iowa with her chest cavity basically torn open. Broken ribs, missing heart, the whole nine. Front door locked and she'd been alone in the house. Her ex-husband was the last person to see her. Then Lucy Porter, twenty-three, same M.O, last person to see her was her mom. Then Bill Garcia, fifty, then Henry McAllister, sixty-eight. We should find out more about them. I'm not seeing any sort of connection between them yet- they're all different ages, men and women. It's weird.'

'Oh, yeah, man. The whole case, damn. It's sure got me.'

'What I don't get is how the wounds were made,' said Sam. 'No way were those werewolf or vamp teeth. If it's a bite, it's got a range I've never seen on a humanoid creature. Too much force behind it for it to have been made with claws, I'd say- but I'm not sure it looked clean enough to have been made with a blade. And it looked like something had scooped out the chest cavity.'

'Like a giant melon baller,' said Tyrone, thoughtfully.

Sam shook his head. 'Still too clean. It looked like something had reached in- and just- pulled it all out. Heart, tissue, breaking ribs like they were nothing. I'm not sure we're looking for anything completely corporeal here.'

'So it could be a ghost?' said Tyrone.

Another head-shake. 'Killings are too scattered. Ghosts don't travel. Dean, any ideas? Hello?'

Dean tore his eyes away from the stray lock of Sam's hair. 'What?'

An eye-roll. 'Were you even listening? The case, Dean.'

He shrugged. 'So it likes hearts, could bench-press a quarterback, moves around, and if you poked it your finger might go through. Or it has an incorporeal form that it kills in. There's still a bunch of things that fit the bill. Like a whole ton of gods. Or a really picky amarok. Or an Archon with a symbolism kink. Take your pick.'

'Ugh,' said Sam, and ran his fingers through his hair again. It messed up his dumb curls even more, but that stray lock was back in place.

Dean opened the pizza-box. 'You got a room, Tyrone?' he said, pointedly.

Tyrone did not take the hint. 'Yeah, Dean, just next door to you guys.' He then planted himself down on Sam's bed and took a slice of pizza. While Tyrone looked vaguely round the room, Dean focused his gaze on his stupid face and thought Imbecile at him so hard it should, if the world was fair, corrode a word-shaped hole in his skull.

'Y'know, it's really interestin' to actually meet the two a you,' said Tyrone, munching away. 'I mean, you know what people say about you guys. I guess I didn't know what you were gonna be like.  Not that I believe all that stuff, 'course,' he added quickly, looking at Dean.

Sam's attention was off his laptop and he was frowning. 'You're going to have to enlighten us. What do they say?'

Right then Dean realised the course this conversation was going to take and all his Sam-sensors clicked into place. 'Sam, no,' he said, and pointed at Tyrone- 'You keep your mouth shut.'

'I mean, it ain't like it's all bad,' said Tyrone. 'You've got a reputation for bein' good hunters, y'know. And round the roadhouse people reckon you're okay. The Harvelles at least, an' you know their name's good with a whole lotta hunters.' He cleared his throat, wriggled a little. 'It's just what some of 'em say about Sam, y'know-'

'What do they say?'

'Tyrone, shut your face.' Dean was on the point of getting up and punching the guy.

But Sam's face was pale and his eyes trained on Tyrone and he had that stubborn look that said he was going to hear this one way or another. It was the same face he used to get as a kid, set mouth and pinched forehead, when he was reading a book that was too hard for him but he was determined to understand anyway. 'Quit being a dick, Dean. I'm listening to him.'

Tyrone cast an uncertain glance between them. Dean was suddenly tempted to go for the Jack at the bottom of his duffel. Whether he'd drink it or smash it over Tyrone's head, well, that was the mystery.

'Well, I mean,' Tyrone started, 'some of 'em think you ain't- right, y'know. Only some, mind. And not me, Sam, I can tell you're a good kid. But some of 'em think you were picked out by Yellow-Eyes to be his inside guy, y'know? Which is dumb, because everyone knows the Winchesters were out to get him. I heard you did get him, too.'

'Dean did,' said Sam. 'Is that all they say?'

Tyrone scratched his chin. 'Well, I mean, s'not like they all think the same shit. I spoke to one guy who said Timmy said Gordon Walker said you're the antichrist, but Gordon's a psycho, man. Ain't many hunters left who'll take his word as gold, not now he's got locked up. And some of 'em think-'

'Oh my God,' said Dean. 'Tyrone, stop talking now. I'm warning you.'

Tyrone turned petulant eyes onto him. 'Y'know, Dean, some of 'em think you're a good guy an' the only reason you ain't put Sam down is 'cause you can't see the truth about him. And some of 'em think you're just as bad as he is. O' course most of 'em think you're alright- but some-'

'That's enough,' said Sam. 'Tyrone, that's enough.'

And Tyrone actually stopped. 'I mean, you asked,' he said.

'Sam asked and I said shut your face,' said Dean. 'Next time? Shut your face. Or-'

'Dean,' said Sam.

'You should be glad I didn't tell you what some of the others say about you two,' said Tyrone.

'Oh, just fuck off,' said Dean.

And for a fucking miracle Tyrone got up with this wounded martyr-look on his face, and walked slowly to the door. 'Dean,' he said, 'I'll return when you're in a better mood, buddy.'

Dean was speechless. The door closed behind Tyrone. They heard him fumbling for his keys.

Dean turned to Sam. 'Jesus Christ,' he said.

Sam looked kind of shocked. 'I didn't know people said that stuff about you as well,' he said.

'Oh for God's sake,' said Dean. 'Sam! I'm worse than you! I mean, hell, you're the nice one! They should be bitching about me primarily, dude, not you. Whatever shit I get is nothing. Hell, I probably deserve it.'

'The nice one,' Sam repeated, slowly. He turned his eyes on Dean. 'You sure about that?'

It was unfair of Sam, it really was. Dean opened his mouth, but then he thought of Sam shooting Jake, shot after shot after shot, and that savage swipe of blood from under his eyes afterwards. 'Yes!' he said, but he wasn't sure it sounded as certain as he meant it to.

Which was fucking stupid. Because Dean had done way worse than the Jake thing. That had just been weird because it was Sam doing that. And now Sam was making Dean sound like he was lying when he wasn't and he hated it when Sam started twisting shit like this.

And Sam hunched over his laptop again, and Dean needed to find a way to take that look off his face, that exhausted wound-up misery that'd been there so damn much this past month. And it was his fault. He knew it was his fault. He just didn't know what to do about it.

'Let me take point on the research for a while, Sam,' he said. 'You look wiped.'

Sam gathered the files closer to him, probably unconsciously. 'I'm okay, Dean.'

'Nope.' He got up, walked over there; Sam jumped and fumbled to click the mouse a bunch of times, which probably meant that what he was actually doing was looking for ways to break the demon deal, which Dean would totally call him out on but not right now. He kept his tone light. 'I'm still older and I can still boss you around. Go eat some food. Or call Bobby or something if you want to work so bad.'

Sam gave in, demonstrating that Dean's older-brother voice was still potent. He let Dean shoo him out of the chair. 'Don't screw up my laptop again,' he said, but it was weak. He sat on the bed and stared at his phone without even turning the screen on. Then he looked over at his duffel.

'I'm out of shirts,' he said, sort of sadly.

'Dude, we're both out of shirts,' said Dean. 'And jeans. And I'm doing the whole reversible boxers thing right now.'

Sam didn't even pick up on the clear opportunity to be a prissy bitch. He just said, 'Yeah,' in that same little quiet voice, like he hadn't even really heard what Dean said.

'Don't let it bother you,' said Dean.

Sam looked up and smiled. 'Your boxers? Believe me, Dean, I don't.'

'Oh, shut up. You know what I mean. What he said.'

'Yeah,' Sam said, but distantly.

'Whatever they think of us, whoever's got it in for us, it doesn't matter. We know the truth. Yeah?'

A laugh. 'Not sure I do.'

Sam, you self-flagellating bastard, can't you cut yourself a break? Those bowed-tense shoulders, those tired eyes, that crunched-up forehead. Sam was good, damn it. Sam was good.

'Well, I do,' he said. 'I'm Dean Winchester, and you're my overgrown dumbass kid brother, and any shit we're in, we're in it together. None of this oh if I hadn't been born crap. Because okay, maybe the world would be a better place if our family had never existed. But it wouldn't, Sam, ever think of that? Maybe it'd be a hell of a lot worse.'

Sam was silent. God, Dean just wanted to see inside that head of his.

He was about to start talking again when Sam finally lifted his head. 'And what about when you're in Hell, Dean?' he said. 'Will I still be your dumbass kid brother then?'

Screw Sam. Screw Sam and his fucking unanswerable questions. Screw him for not letting Dean forget about it for five fucking minutes. Dean almost said Yes, you bitch, yes, but he couldn't. All he could do was shake his head, in an I can't believe this bullshit kind of way, and go back to Sam's laptop.

And Sam just quietly let it go.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The morning was a weird, marbled, shiny grey, like the inside of the shells Dean found at Half Moon Bay this one time when they were little, and there was still a weird mood between him and Sam. Dean tried, he really did; he went out to forage for food, he didn't say a word when he came back to find Sam back on the laptop and probably up to his neck in shady Dr Faustus crap, he even managed to keep quiet when Tyrone busted in there yelling about what a good morning it was.

Then Sam told him the plan for the day. Dean abruptly stopped trying.

'Are you fucking joking?'

'No, Dean, I'm not fucking joking,' Sam said. Unsurprisingly, he hadn't touched his food.

'No,' said Dean. 'No. No fucking way. Absolutely not. Are you trying to kill me?'

'Dean, c'mon, man, it'll be fun,' said Tyrone, with that idiot grin.

'No, no, no,' said Dean. He waved his finger at the guy. 'I am not spending all day hanging around a bunch of morgues with this assclown while you take my car. I am not. Sam. I have limits. You have reached them. All of them.'

'Then I won't take your car,' said Sam in his most reasonable voice, which, oh, just fuck you, Sam.

'Then what are you gonna do, walk halfway across Iowa? Are you serious?'

'Dude, I'll get a bus. You know, I didn't have you around for four years. I managed to get around.'

This conversation was going off the rails. 'That's not even the main issue! It's not the car, Sam, it's-'

Sam raised his eyebrows.

Dean stopped short of actually insulting Tyrone again. The guy was standing right there looking at him, for Christ's sake.

'Look,' said Sam. 'We need to talk to the families. And I'm better at that than you, and sorry, Tyrone, but I think you'd better take a knee on that one. So you, Dean, need to check out the morgues. With Tyrone.'

'Oh, so I'm a babysitter now?'

'Hey!' said Tyrone.

'Dean, apologise to Tyrone,' Sam said patiently.

'What? No!'

Sam pursed his lips. 'Come outside a minute.'

'Fuckin' unbelievable,' said Dean. But he followed Sam out the door. Sam went to the vending-machine and turned round to face him.

Dean was about to give Sam the yelling-at of his life, because seriously, who died and made him Queen, but Sam had that weird intent look on his face, like part of his mind was away working on something else, and then he was talking before Dean got a word in.

'Look, I know you don't like him, and it's not ideal, but we need the info from the families and it's going to be sensitive as hell. I don't want to have to deal with him messing it up. But we also need the info from the morgue, and I don't think it's a good idea to let him go off on his own while you're checking that out, so he needs to stay with you. Hell, Dean, he'll probably learn more about hunting from you today than he's learned in however many years he's known about this shit. So please. Don't overcomplicate this. I'm getting a feeling this isn't going to be an easy case as it is.'

Sometimes it sucked that everything Sam said had to make so much sense. Dean struggled for a minute, then let it go. What the hell.

'Fine,' he said. 'Fine. But I am not getting dumped with him tomorrow, you hear me?'

Sam pinched the bridge of his nose. 'Sure. Yeah. C'mon. We need to get going.'

 

Frankie Boyle's girlfriend lived in a big, rambling rental on the edge of town. Dean had grudgingly offered the Impala- his way of waving the peace flag- but Sam declined and rented a shiny black piece of plastic. No need to make Dean's day any harder.

He got out and walked over to the gate. Behind the house a line of washing extended, bright and waving in the sunlight. The front windows were blocked out by slatted blinds, slightly rucked up. The street was quiet. It felt like a place where no-one had woken up yet, sleep Saturday-morning bright in the air. He recognised that student-street laziness from his own place with Jess. He'd always been up early there, had always liked the hours when everyone else on the street was sleeping in.

He straightened his collar, stepped up to the door, and rang the bell.

It was answered after a couple minutes by a girl in a towelling robe, wet-haired and suspicious-eyed. 'Yeah?'

'Hi,' he said. Smile. 'I'm Agent Bolin-' flashing his badge. 'I'm here to see-'

'Yeah, yeah,' said the girl. She backed up, held the door open. 'She's upstairs. I'll get her down. Christ, you guys never slow down, do you?'

He stepped inside. 'Thanks. I'm guessing you've had a lot of badge-wavers here since yesterday, huh?'

'Ugh. I'll say.' She led him into a sitting-room, dark, cluttered; opened the curtains. 'We had the police here at eleven last night to tell her about Frankie. And then they sent a woman round to ask her some stuff a couple hours ago. What are you here for?'

'Routine follow-up,' he said. He took a seat on a spot of the sofa that wasn't covered in textbooks or abandoned sweaters. 'I'll try to make it quick. I know this has to be hard for all of you.'

'I just think it sucks that no-one can let her stop thinking about her ex for five goddamn minutes.' The girl perched on the arm of a chair. 'Cigarette?'

Sam shook his head.

She lit up, began to smoke, talking around the cigarette. The lazy curl of smoke caught the light as it drifted up. 'I mean, Lou only broke up with Frankie two weeks ago. They'd been a thing for nearly three years. She was going through enough shit before this. And Lou says they suspect foul play. I mean, for Christ's sake! But of course Frankie couldn't even die like a normal person.' She shook her head. 'Sorry. That was shitty. I'll get Lou.' She started to get up.

'One moment,' said Sam. 'Can you tell me what Frankie was like?'

A laugh. 'Oh, can I. Frankie was a weirdo. I mean, she was okay, I guess, but a weirdo. She just seemed to take everything so hard, y'know?' She sucked deep on the cigarette, breathed out. 'Like, this one time she and Lou had an argument, not even that big, and later Frankie showed up here and Jesus, she was a mess. She'd just come over to ask me if I thought Lou would ever really forgive her for this and that and, like, everything she'd ever done in her life.' Another puff of smoke. 'She did love Lou, though, I'll give her that. I think she'd've done pretty much anything for her. I think Lou felt totally stifled by it, actually.' She shook her head. 'Fucking nightmare of a relationship.'

'Right,' said Sam.

The girl got up off the chair arm and left the room. He heard her yelling up the stairs. 'LOUISE! THERE'S A FED HERE TO SEE YOU!'

No response that Sam could hear. The girl came back in. 'Go easy on her. She's pretty messed up about this whole thing.'

'I understand.'

The girl went out and left Sam alone in the room. He breathed in, looked round at the decor. A tattered Star Wars poster, one corner hanging off the wall; the table about a foot deep in folders, stacked papers, coffee mugs. He got up to look at the books piled haphazardly into the shelves- chemistry textbooks, In Cold Blood, a battered copy of Gone With the Wind, Sylvia Plath's poems, a book about Bertolt Brecht.

He almost went to stick the loose corner of the poster back to the wall, but didn't. He sat back down and waited.

It was nearly five minutes before the door opened. A girl entered, head down. She was on the small side, hair dyed sea-green, falling in shaggy unbrushed waves. She had that pink-eyed, glazed look that you saw in hospital waiting-rooms on Christmas Eve. Sam's throat constricted in a strange rush of sympathy.

The armchair was covered in books and clothes. 'Here,' he said, and got up to move the pile of stuff onto the floor, clearing a space for her, before sitting back down.

'Thanks,' she said, taking the seat. She rubbed her eyes. Her pyjama shorts were patterned with goldfish.

He waited for her to blink and finally focus on him before saying anything; spoke gently. 'I'm Agent Bolin, Louise. I just have a few questions and then I'm out of your hair.'

Louise nodded. 'Yeah. Okay. Go on.'

'You were Frankie Boyle's partner, right? Would you mind telling me about the last time you saw her?'

Louise was silent for a moment. Hair shadowed her face.

'Can I just ask you something first?' she said finally.

'Sure.'

Louise opened her mouth- chapped pale lips like a dead mermaid's- but shaped the words round silence. It was a moment before sound came out.

'She was murdered, wasn't she?' she said at last. Peered out from behind all her hair. 'I mean. That's what they were getting at last night. They didn't say it, but they said foul play was suspected. Or something. I just- really need to know.'

'Well, I believe the police haven't entirely ruled out the possibility of an animal attack,' said Sam. 'But, yes, we're fairly sure she was murdered. She didn't kill herself, Louise.'

Louise gave an awful little smile. 'I don't know which is worse. I just. She's really dead. I can't...' That smile widens. 'You know, I spent the whole of last night going in and out of believing it. Mostly I can't. I feel like I'm living in a different world to the one I was in this time yesterday.' She rubbed her eyes. 'Put out the light and then put out the light, huh.'

Sam should probably say something. He couldn't think of anything. He couldn't think of anything except Dean, sitting in that shack, feeling like the only person left in the world. Unable to believe that Sam was dead. And that had been with the body in front of him.

He didn't know how to comfort this girl.

But she was blinking and focusing on him. 'Yeah. Sorry. Murder, huh.' A laugh. 'That's- so fucking horrible.'

'Yeah,' he said. 'I'm sorry.'

Words small as pebbles at the bottom of a well.

'And you want to know about when I last saw her. It was-' she paused. Winced. 'Tuesday. Four days ago.'

Probably the day Frankie died, then. The body had looked about that old. Dean would want to put Louise on the suspect list.

'It was two days after, you know, after we actually broke up. We... we went to Frankie's. Not her place- the diner, it's in the city... we always thought it was funny that it had her name, y'know, so it was where we always went... we were trying to talk it through. She wanted to get back together but I wasn't sure, so I asked her to give me space for a couple weeks. And she agreed- she was trying really hard, y'know- so when she didn't call for the next few days I just thought... when really... God, I was so stupid.'

'No, you weren't. You just trusted that the world would keep turning. And it didn't.'

'Stupid,' she said.

No. Innocent. 'Had there been anything unusual about her behaviour recently? Paranoia, strange new interests, changes in personality? New mental health issues? Anything you can think of.'

Louise scrunched up her eyes briefly. 'I don't- think so? I mean, she went completely nuts after I broke up with her, but she always does. She gets terrified that she's going to lose me for good and goes on her absolute best behaviour which, trust me, is way less easy to deal with than her normal behaviour. She tiptoes round me like she's scared she's going to say the wrong thing all the time, and does chores and stuff that she really doesn't need to do, and buys me things, and it's just exhausting. Anyway- this time- she did say a couple things that- well, I mean, I suppose they weren't out of character. We were on the phone- it was, like three in the morning after I'd broken up with her that day- and she'd been drinking, and she kept talking about me having broken her heart. Casually, though. Laughing at herself.' She winced. Blanched-seaweed hair falling forward. 'It did worry me.'

He filed that away. 'Okay. Anything else you can think of? Nothing's too weird. Promise.'

A hesitation. He knew that, at least. There was something. 'I don't- no, I don't think so.'

He gave it a moment. Then he leaned forward, body loose, carefully open. 'Louise,' he said, 'even if it doesn't mean anything. Even if it can't possibly mean anything. We use all kinds of methods, trust me. Anything strange. Anything whatsoever. I won't think it's dumb.'

And she flicked him a glance. 'It kind of is dumb.'

He sat, eyebrows raised.

Louise sighed. 'She'd been having weird dreams. Seeing- well, me- in them. Except- not.'

Sam said nothing, let her go on.

'Over and over and over- the same dream- and she never dreamed, that was the thing. But then this. She- it was me, she said she knew from the hair, except she couldn't see my face, it was in shadow. And I had deer legs.'

'Deer legs. You sure?'

She shrugged. 'Told you it was dumb.'

It meant something. Something in Dad's journal or a file he went through once or something Bobby said or some myth that Dean'd know. It was a lead. A solid lead.

'I guess they're looking for the killer, huh?'

'We've got a team on it,' said Sam. Well, he assumed they had.

'Yeah,' she said. 'Good. I mean. Good.'

He waited.

'I just wish- y'know. There had to be something I could have done. Something else. Anything. You know?'

'You couldn't have stopped it,' said Sam. 'It was sudden. She died quickly. You couldn't have known.'

She was silent.

'There's no number you could have called to save her. You couldn't predict the future. You couldn't have warned her. You couldn't have helped.'

'I know. I know all that.' Her eyes pearl-red but she wasn't crying. 'But that still doesn't stop me thinking there must have been something. And- y'know, Sophie- my friend- tried to say something about, like, at least we'd started working through all the breakup stuff before she died, at least she didn't die thinking I don't- don't love her. And I guess that's true, but she didn't know, either.' She knuckled her eyes. 'She died knowing that she's clingy and oversensitive and difficult because I'd told her that. But she didn't know how good of a person she is. She wouldn't have known even if I had tried to tell her. And I know that's not even really my fault. But it's so incredibly shitty.'

A sort of desolation unfolded in him. 'I know,' he said. 'I know it's shitty.'

There was Mom. He didn't even have the privilege of memories, there. Then Jess. Which had been like a door closing on a glimpse of another world, a bright world, with flowers. And Dad. Who held all the cards even then. Who didn't trust Sam enough to say goodbye to him. Who could just have told them what he knew about Sam and Yellow-Eyes, and then maybe they could have both got out of Cold Oak alive and Dean wouldn't be in this mess. Sam shouldn't feel guilty about Dad, it should be the other way round, but when had that ever changed anything. Death'd been feeding on their family for years. And Dean'd fixed it so that Sam would be last executed.

He was so sick of losing people he could choke on it.

'You know what it's like, huh,' said Louise. She's watching him with tentative eyes.

Sam laughed. More honesty in it than he'd wanted there to be. 'Wish I didn't.'

'I'm sorry.'

'Me too.'

A clock ticked somewhere in the darkness.

'I haven't just lost her,' she said eventually. 'I've lost the person that I was yesterday. I've lost the world that I lived in then. She was so much of me. Do you get that?'

He nodded.

'Reckon there's an afterlife?'

He laughed again. Couldn't help it. 'For some. Do you?'

She shook her head. 'You know the first thing I did after the police left? I called her. I rang her number. I actually thought for a moment that she might pick up. But her phone was off.'

Brief silence.

'I don't think I'm going to see Frankie again,' said Louise. 'Not ever.'

 

Chapter Text

'Are you sure this is gonna work?' asked Tyrone, nervously. Earlier, Dean had threatened to break his fingers if he said that one more time. If he'd carried the threat out, he'd've moved onto toes an hour ago.

'No. It's not gonna work, Tyrone. We make perfect, beautiful fake badges and dress up in monkey suits just so that they can bust us for impersonating federal agents and throw us in jail. That's what's going to happen today. We're going to jail.'

'But the badge you gave me don't even look that much like me,' said Tyrone. 'And it says my name is Columbo.'

'They won't look at that.'

'But-'

'Just stay behind me, okay? We'll be fine. Now would you please shut your mouth?' Jesus, he'd rather be talking to Sam.

Tyrone, as he'd explained to Dean, had only ever broken into morgues before. He thought it was too much trouble to buy a damn suit. Dean had no idea how the guy was still alive and walking free. Maybe he was just too dumb for monsters to see him as a threat, in which case he could kind of see it.

They were greeted at the hospital reception by a nice young nurse who directed them downstairs. It was stuffy in the hospital corridors- the day had turned grey and humid- and it got worse as they went deeper into the building. By the time they reaced the morgue Tyrone was sweating bullets and tugging at his collar.

'Now,' said Dean, hand on the door, 'there'll probably be a doctor in there, right? And we're gonna ask him a few questions, like the professionals that we are. You think you can handle that? 'Cause if not, now's the time to go hide in the john.'

Tyrone nodded. There was sweat beading on his moustache. 'Nah, I'm good.'

Dean opened the door.

The morgue, thank God, was about forty degrees cooler than the rest of the building. He breathed out, loosened his tie the tiniest bit; listened to the air conditioning chugging away. Tyrone stared round, taking in the shining storage compartments, the pale floors.

Dean greeted the morgue attendant, a steel-haired doctor with square spectacles pinching her nose, and kept Tyrone firmly behind him. He turned on the charm and within five minutes Doctor Tonks was rolling out the body on its tray. Tyrone instantly turned oatmeal.

'Motherfucker,' he croaked.

'His first case,' Dean said to Doctor Tonks, cracking a smile.

'Ah,' she says.

Tyrone was staring at the body. Dean sniffed the air: pretty ripe. 'Oh, sweet Jesus, this just ain't natural.'

Dean trod heavily on Tyrone's foot. 'I understand that no autopsy has been performed yet?'

'Well, look for yourself.'

'Kinda hard to tell,' said Dean.

He was only half-joking. Clean and well-lit, the hole in Frankie's chest was the size of a small bowling-ball. It was a thready, hollowed-out mess. He wondered if any of her ribs had made it intact. The space below the cavity where the heart was torn out was green-black with internal bleeding.

Ugh. Usually he could fob these sorts of jobs off onto Sam, but no. He snapped on some little plastic gloves and, at Doctor Tonks' invitation, checked the body over.

No punctures or bite-marks at the main pulse-points, that was the first thing. Not a vamp, not that that had ever looked likely. Nothing under her fingernails, nothing in her mouth. Her arms were smooth and cold, mottled purple; no scratches, no defensive wounds that he could see. She hadn't fought.

When he straightened back up Tyrone had taken on a clammy, yellowed look, familiar to Dean from years of sharing a car with Sam.

He lowered his voice. 'Tyrone, if you're gonna puke-'

'I'm good, I'm good.'

The door banged open and Tyrone jumped about three feet in the air. A guy who looked like Santa in a lab-coat trotted in. He smiled when he saw Tonks. 'Anna! Would it be terrible of me to steal you for a minute? It won't take long.'

'No, sure, Peter.' Tonks glanced round, sort of suspiciously, at Dean and Tyrone. 'Will you two manage without me?'

'Sure, sure,' said Dean. Tyrone looked uncomfortable. He shifted his weight from one leg to another. Dean resisted the urge to kick him.

When the door shut behind them Tyrone let out a huge breath. And then another. And another. And another.

'Oh, man, do not start hyperventilating on me,' said Dean. 'I will slap you like a bitch.'

Tyrone was fanning himself frantically with his hands, face red, eyed bugged out like a fish's, but he managed to calm his breathing down. Dean rolled his eyes and went back to the corpse. 'Have you ever completed a case, Tyrone? I mean, seriously?'

'Yeah,' Tyrone puffed. 'Just- mostly with other hunters, y'know. And not much- in cities.'

'How many jobs have you actually worked solo?'

Tyrone frowned.

'I'll make it easier for you. How many jobs have you actually worked solo and finished?'

'...Two,' said Tyrone.

Dean waited.

'Ghosts,' he admitted.

Looking at the guy standing there, all overheated and sheepish, the will to mock the hell out of him drained out of Dean. He sighed instead. 'Right. Guess we all gotta start somewhere.'

'Where'd you start?' asked Tyrone.

That got him for a second. Where did he start? Dad had put a gun in his hands for the first time when he was, what, five? He didn't even remember. He'd grown up shooting cans off walls round the backs of cabins. Dad had taken him on his first real hunt when he was ten- well, he was pretty sure- but that wasn't the first time he'd seen a monster, or killed something, or raised a weapon with intent to hurt. There was no place where it started.

'I dunno,' he said. Weird to hear it coming out of his mouth. 'I've just always been in it, y'know. Always known what was out there- nearly always. Always had Sam to look after. Responsibility.'

'Huh,' said Tyrone. 'Must be nice to have someone you can depend on like that.'

He was on the point of relaxing, of saying yeah, it's okay, when he realised what Tyrone was doing. 'Oh no. Oh no. We are not going to have a moment. If that's what you think's happening here, you can forget it.'

Tyrone opened his mouth. That was why, when Dean first heard the sound, he thought it was coming from Tyrone. A grating moaning that echoed off the walls. A voice. Tyrone shut his mouth and turned an even worse color than before, and then Dean got it.

He turned back to the corpse, which was talking.

Or trying to. It marbled sounds over a dry tongue. 'The hell is it saying?'

'Shit, Dean, I don't know!'

The corpse's eyelids flicked open. The eyes of the thing that was once Frankie Boyle were rheumy-pale. They swivelled round- the rest of the body still as stone- and latched, unhesitating, onto Dean.

It spoke clearly this time, voice a hinged rasp.

WE SEE YOU.

Clicking where Frankie's tongue piercing knocked against its teeth.

THE WINCHESTER BOY.

Dean blinked. 'Got it in one.'

'You're talkin' to it?'

'Shut up, Tyrone.' Dean leaned over the corpse. It never took its eyes off him. 'Who are you?'

At first he thought it was settling for just staring creepily at him. Tyrone made some kind of motion behind him, but Dean put a hand out to stall him.

WE ARE THE DEVOURING, WINCHESTER BOY.

'Nice,' he said. 'Your friends call you that?'

WE ARE SHIPWRECKS AND WE ARE SUNDERINGS.

WE ARE THE BLOOD-AND-SALT OF YOUR WORLD, WINCHESTER BOY.

WE HAVE EATEN THE HEARTS OF MADMEN.

Tonks had better take her time with Labcoat Santa. 'You done, Lazy-eye?'

AND WE KNOW YOUR BROTHER.

Dean's heart jumped up into his throat, and he froze. Frankie's eyes rolled back; the lids dropped down, and her face slackened.

'No. No. You get back here, you slimy bastard. What did that mean?' Hands in fists but what was there to hit? The corpse of a girl who died alone in the dark?

'Dean, let's get outta here.'

'Shut up, Tyrone.' He leaned over, lifted Frankie's eyelids with his fingers, stared into those rolled-up eyes. Tiny blood vessels broken in the whites. 'Come back, you son of a bitch, what did that mean?'

'Dean!' Tyrone tugged on his sleeve, and Dean was about to turn round and clock him right in the jaw when he heard the footsteps.

He lurched back from the corpse, dropping his hands. The morgue doors swung open and Tonks marched in. 'Agents. Sorry about that. Have you-'

'Actually, Ma'am,' said Tyrone, 'I think we're done here. Would you mind pointin' us toward the elevator?'

Dean tried not to stare. Tyrone had pulled himself up to his full height, staring impressively down at Tonks, chest puffed out. Tonks blinked.

She looked over at Dean, as though to validate this. He realised how quickly he was breathing, how weird he must look. He straightened his back, tilted his chin up, put on his best nonchalant face. 'Yes, Doctor, I think we've got what we came for.'

'Right,' said Tonks, though she raised her eyebrows. 'Of course. Well, the elevator's just down the corridor. As I'm sure you remember from when you came in. Half an hour ago.'

'Of course,' Dean said. 'Ma'am.'

They got walking. As soon as they were out of the door Tyrone deflated about three shirt sizes. He looked nervously about them, though the corridor was empty. 'Dean. What in the name of the holy Mother did we just see?'

'Not a clue,' said Dean. 'But, hey, good job there, Ty. Never knew you had it in you.'

They waited for the elevator. Dean stabbed the button six or seven times. Tyrone looked like he was desperately trying to hold a question in. Dean suppressed another eye-roll and counted down.

'But she said she knew Sam,' Tyrone burst out. 'Dean, what-'

'She doesn't. She was just trying to get to me. I shouldn't've flipped. Okay?'

'But-'

'Okay?'

Tyrone shut his mouth, though he didn't look as cowed as Dean would like.

'Okay.'

*

'I found him at the piano. Just sitting. Blood all over the place. My God did he love that piano. My God did he love it. He couldn't play it. Not a note. But my God did he love it. And after Mom died you couldn't keep him away from it. She was the one who could actually play the damn thing but did that stop him? It did not. I'm not surprised that that's where I found him.'

'Right,' said Sam. He should have stopped for lunch. He couldn't even remember the last time he ate. He should probably ask James McAllister to stop talking sometime soon, too.

'My God the way he died. If he'd gone peacefully it would have been one thing. I hope they're treating this case with the respect it deserves. I'm a lawyer, you know.'

'I know,' said Sam. He knew. James McAllister has mentioned this. He cradled his coffee between his hands, trying to extract some warmth from the cup. James McAllister's house was a big, sleek marble-and-stainless-steel thing in a gated community, halfway across the state from where Henry McAllister was murdered. It was also very cold. The guy must have the aircon up way high.

Sam hated this case.

He leaned forward. 'Mr McAllister, do you know if your father had been having any unusual experiences in the weeks before he died?'

James McAllister frowned.

'Did he speak to you about feeling threatened, perhaps, or like he wasn't alone in his house? Or had he been having any strange dreams? Anything at all.'

'Wait,' said McAllister. 'Are you making accusations against my father's sanity. Young man. Because if you are-'

'No,' said Sam. 'No, I'm not. Really.' He was so tired. He forgot how wearying this stuff could get without Dean at his back. Dragging him off to hot-dog stands, making terrible faux pas with the sensitive and grieving, spotting connections that Sam would never have seen. Ugh.

'Hm,' said McAllister. He was a skinny white guy with a weird shock of black hair that started very low on his forehead. He had one of those permanently surprised faces. 'I guess I believe you.'

Sam resisted the urge to rub his eyes. 'So nothing, then?'

'Nothing aside from my mother barely being cold in her grave. My God of course he'd been acting strangely. He was bereaved. I'm sure you can attribute any abnormalities to that. If it even has any bearing on his death. I don't suppose there's any leads on the killer. My God the incompetence is astounding.'

'Wait,' said Sam. 'When did your mother die, Mister McAllister?'

'Shouldn't you have this in a case file? Just over a month ago. My God it was only three weeks before Dad's passing. My God.'

'I'm very sorry,' he said. There was something here. He could feel it. A link just out of reach. 'What was the cause of death, may I ask?'

'A stroke. Don't try to tell me that you think they're related.'

'No, of course.'

James McAllister put a hand over his face. 'I can't believe they're gone. Five weeks ago they were both still here. Happy. Normal. What would anyone want to murder a sixty-eight-year-old for. My God.'

He yanked at his hair with his fingers.

'My God you'd better get this straight. My God I want them back.'

Sam left not long after. As he closed the door behind him, rain spotted his face. He stood there and drew in a breath, deeper and deeper until he could almost feel his ribs creak. The sky was low and gray, boiling with humidity.

Louise and Frankie had broken up the week before. Henry McAllister's wife had died last month. And according to one article, Serena Hopkins had last been seen by her ex-husband. Meaning that she'd probably been divorced recently.

He climbed into the crappy rental and opened his laptop. Fifteen minutes of Facebook stalking confirmed it. Serena Hopkins was a recent divorcee. Bill Garcia had been dumped three days before his death by his girlfriend. All research they should have done last night or sooner. Sam really needed to find a sustainable way of hacking police databases soon.

The only person he couldn't find anything on was Lucy Porter, but he was willing to bet there'd be something. An unrequited crush, a recent rejection. And her mother's place was, out of all the houses he was supposed to hit today, the closest one to where he was now.

He started driving.

*

Tyrone perked up considerably after they hit a Biggerson's for lunch. The second morgue visit, in -, had passed without any chatty corpse incidents; Henry McAllister's body had taken the same damage as Frankie's, and the autopsy report held no surprises. Dean had a feeling they were going to see that in the rest of the morgues, too.

Their chicken wings arrived just as Dean finished leaving yet another voicemail for Sam, because clearly answering his phone would kill him. 'She- it- said it knew you, Sam. It said it knew you. I'm guessing you don't know what that means any more than I do. Watch out for yourself, yeah? And if you're not back by eight sharp I'm comin' out after you.' He already regretted letting Sam go off on his own. He flipped his cell closed and tugged at his collar. It was way too hot in here. All the windows were open but the air was thick and strange and it made his tongue feel like rubber, skin itching where his clothes stuck.

'So you think it coulda been a demon?' said Tyrone round most of a chicken wing.

Dean took a bite. The chicken wasn't as good as it had been in Black Rock. 'Maybe. Doubt it. They're usually pretty keen to flash the poodle eyes at us. And they have a better sense of humor.'

'So they're more charismatic, wouldja say?'

'Yeah, I guess. At least in my experience. Bustin' out the ten-dollar words, huh?'

Tyrone shrugged. 'Hey, man, I went to school too. For most of it, anyway.'

'You got me beat, then. Dropped out when I was sixteen.'

'Seventeen,' said Tyrone. 'Not to hunt, though. Not then.' He swirled a fry around in ketchup. 'Hey, is it true you pulled Sam out of Stanford?'

'He left,' said Dean. Stiffly. 'His choice.'

'Aw, that sucks, man. He seems like a smart kid. Coulda made somethin' of himself.'

Dean opened his mouth. And closed it. And opened it again. 'He didn't like it,' he found himself saying. 'He didn't think it was right for him.'

Tyrone frowned. Tiny beads of sweat around his moustache. 'That so? I'd'a thought he'd fit right in. All them books, them sweet girls, havin' a place of your own...' He crammed a wad of fries into his mouth. 'Still,' he said, voice muffled, 'it's a real good life you two got goin' on.'

'You think?'

'Hell, yeah, I think. Roamin' free, nothin' and no-one to tie you down, just the two a you, goin' wherever and doin' whatever you want?'

'You forgot the whole hunting things that want to kill you part,' said Dean.

'Sure, sure, but ain't that part of it all? The thrill? C'mon, man, don't tell me you don't get it.'

Dean got it. That's the trouble. Of course he fucking got it.

'It ain't as glamorous as you think,' he said. 'I mean, for starters, the beds. Jesus, the beds. Rapunzel isn't always a joy to live with, either. I mean, I love the guy, but there's the moping and the picky eating and the persnickity attitude about all his beloved possessions. And you have no idea how long he takes in the shower. And then there's the creepy-crawlies in the bathtub, and the getting chunks bitten out of you by freaks, and having to get monster goo out of your shirts all the goddamn time- and the motel toilet paper, holy crap, I mean, sometimes we book into a nice place just for the Ultra Soft. And Sam and I get mad at each other too, man. On a pretty regular basis, actually.' Especially now. Now everything was so weird and twisted up and half of what he said seemed to piss off Sam without him even meaning it to.

'But that's just details,' said Tyrone earnestly. 'We all got little things like that. Hell, even guys with fancy houses and a whole stack a cars manage to find stuff to bitch about. You got a good life, Dean.'

Ugh.

The blockhead was right, that was the sucky thing. Dean'd be a liar if he said he didn't love this. Not the nearly getting killed all the time, and having everyone he loved murdered, and being generally unable to catch a break from all the evil waiting out there. But the between-times. The times when he as at Baby's wheel and Sam gazed out of the windows all relaxed and smiley and they could feel there wasn't a soul around for miles and the sky was so huge, blue enough to get drunk on, or black as an empty movie theatre. The white-hot dog-days at Bobby's, Sam wrinking his nose against the sun, the constant stink of engine-oil, the mist on the beer-bottles. The times when he and Sam just clicked, when he was holding down a ghoul and Sam drew his machete and they moved like mirror-selves, when he could practically feel Sam's heart beating and Sam's blood pounding, like they'd swapped veins and hearts and lungs. And, God. Sam. The giant, weird, complicated, soft-voiced, dumb-haired goodness of him.

But Dean was going. He'd never have this again. For, well. Eternity. He'd probably be a different person. In a different world. It might be like this life of his never happened, even. After a while. He probably shouldn't think about it.

So he should be making the most of all this stuff. Enjoying it while he can. He'd meant to. But Sam was acting all frazzled and strange half the time, and the rest of the time he was looking at Dean with those hang-dog eyes, and goddammit it got to him. And all he could think about now was how much he was going to miss all this.

Without Sam, he'd had nothing to lose. He should probably have considered that with Sam back, that would change.

Oh well. Too late now.

'Yeah,' he said. 'I guess I have, huh.'

Tyrone frowned. 'You alright, Dean? Did I say somethin'?'

'No, Ty. You didn't say anything. It's alright.' He checked his cell. Still nothing. If Sam hadn't replied after fifteen minutes he was chasing after him, unlimited ice-cream or no. He really didn't like the idea of Sam out alone after what corpse-face back there said. He looked back up to Tyrone's questioning face across the booth. Beyond the window the clouds were dark and swollen, lowering.

'So,' he said. 'What about you? How'd you get into the life?'

Tyrone laughed. He had a loud, high-pitched laugh that went on for way too long. 'Oh, man. It was my Aunt Jean.'

'She die?'

'No, man, no. My Uncle Bill was the one what died. I was just twelve years old, 'course, so all I knew 'bout it was that they couldn't figure out the cause of death and Auntie Jean had just up and vamoosed. Taken to the road. Told us she was tryin' to find herself. Turned out what she was actually doin' was killin' vamps down in Dixie, but 'course I didn't find that out til I was fourteen and we got a poltergeist. She came in and sorted it out for us, let the cat outta the bag too, and ever since then that was what I wanted to be.'

'And is it every bit as wonderful as you'd hoped?'

Tyrone grimaced. 'I mean, some stuff's pretty good. Meetin' other like-minded folk, for instance, like you an' Sam. And gettin' to see new places. But the cops already tried to bust me for grave desecration in Florida. And I keep gettin' low on cash and havin' to go back home. I don't know how guys like you do it.'

'Charm and skill, Ty, charm and skill,' said Dean, and finally his phone buzzed. He fumbled it open.

I'm fine stop worrying

A second later:

think I've got a lead. back for eight. pick up dinner?

He texted back. k what do you want

I don't mind

sammy what do you want

a chicken salad would be pretty nice

one of the ones with bell peppers in

and pasta

??

your wish is my command your highness

fuck you

thanks

Dean realised he was grinning down at his phone. Tyrone looked way too curious.

'You want ice-cream?' Dean asked him. 'I want ice-cream.'

 

It was past six P.M by the time Dean and Tyrone had finished doing the rounds of the morgues. Tyrone was skittish at first, but after Henry McAllister's corpse declined to chat he calmed down, and things went more smoothly. And maybe it was the couple gallons of ice-cream that did it, but Dean felt a whole load better than he had in the morning. Even though he was sweating like a dirty bitch. The moisture hung so thick in the air it was a haze in the distance, greying out the trees.

He had War Pigs blasting out, warm wind whistling through the car, when Tyrone gave his dumb laugh and said, 'Damn, Dean, I kinda wish I was in your shoes.'

He stiffened. Sue him, there was nothing more calculated to put him on his guard than that sort of deluded crap. 'The hell do you mean by that?'

'Nothin' weird, man, I know about the shit the Winchester guys have been though. We were all sorry to hear about John. Hell knows you an' Sam've suffered.' Tyrone stared dreamily off at the road, speaking slow. 'But that's the thing, y'see? You and Sam. Most hunters are lonesome, Dean, that's the first thing I found out. Even if you make allies an' friends. But you two got it down, man. You can trust each other for life. You're always gonna be there for each other, y'know? An' whatever's goin' on between you two, I think that's somethin' really-'

'Oh, will you just shut your piehole,' said Dean. Or maybe he shouted it. He wasn't really sure. Anyway, it worked. Tyrone stopped talking.

'You're a goddamn lunatic, you know that? There's a reason why most hunters don't get too close to each other, Tyrone! You ain't supposed to care for anyone too much in this life. There's no such thing as always, because the next day they could have their heart clawed out by a fuckin' werewolf, and then you're just screwed. That's how it is and if you can't take it, you need to back your ass right out and get a girl and a house and a bunch of rugrats. But you don't get close to other hunters, moron. Because other hunters die.'

'But you and Sam-'

'Me and Sam are a lost cause.'

Everything was quiet for a second. The wind rushed and battered round the open windows.

Tyrone frowned down at his knees. When Dean glanced over he could only see a sliver of his face, the way it was turned away. A minute later Tyrone raised his head. He fixed his eyes on Dean.

'You know, Dean, you been treatin' me like shit from the moment you arrived.'

Dean boggled at him. 'Excuse me?'

 'I been tryin' to be patient with you, but I ain't gonna take it no more. You can show a little common politeness to me, or you can get the hell off my case.'

'Your case?'

'Yeah, Dean. My case. Y'know, you an' Sam weren't the only hunters volunteered to help me out. Ellen said Roy and Walt were willin', too, but I said Nah, it's okay, I got the Winchesters on it, we're gettin' on just fine. Are you gonna make me go back on that, Dean? 'Cause if you can't show a fellow hunter some respect, I'm sure Roy an' Walt'd have no problem switchin' out with you two.'

Dean hit a blank. He opened his mouth to speak, said 'Oh, fuckin'-', and stopped. Because okay, maybe he'd been kind of an ass, but Jesus, he was provoked. There were reasons for why he's acting like this. It was just that he couldn't quite-

No sound anywhere but the hum of the road. Trees bowing under the humidity and the silence.

Dean shut his mouth. And kept it shut all the way back to the motel. And Tyrone said nothing.

 

Chapter Text

'Deer legs,' said Sam, shutting the door.

Dean looked up. 'Nice to see you too?'

Sam threw his duffel on his bed, kicked off his shoes, stripped out of his jacket. It crumpled to his heels. He raised his arms high above his head and stretched the full absurd length of his body, going up on tiptoe, eyes closing, back arching inwards, unconsciously graceful. Dean felt Tyrone's stare on him, watching him watching, and flicked his eyes away.

'Louise said Frankie saw a woman with deer legs,' Sam said when he'd finished his little burlesque routine. 'Well, actually Frankie saw Louise with deer legs, standing by her bed. In a dream.'

'Well, that's a start, I guess,' said Dean. He threw Sam's salad; Sam caught the box in one hand and sat down on the bed. 'Eat your dinner. All the vics were killed in the same way. Pretty much exactly the same way. And, well, there was what happened in the morgue, but you go first.'

Sam was digging into his salad like he hadn't eaten all week. 'Well, I'm just getting started. Henry McAllister's wife-'

'Dude, don't talk with your mouth full,' said Dean.

'Henry McAllister's wife died three weeks before he was killed. Of a stroke, by the way. Serena Hopkins' divorce had been finalised five days before her murder. Bill Garcia had been ditched by his girlfriend three days before his. And I spoke to Lucy Porter's mother and she said-' pause while Sam gulped down an enormous forkful of pasta- 'that Lucy had asked out this guy for prom a couple weeks before, and got rejected. She hadn't thought Lucy was that broken up about it, but apparently she was pretty quiet and didn't talk about her feelings much anyway, so...'

A dim sense of what Sam was saying formed. 'So you're telling me that all of them got kicked to the curb before they kicked it?'

Sam's spine was straight as a blade, eyes pensive. 'Not just kicked to the curb. They were heartbroken. I think that's what she's preying on- or what attracts her. A certain kind of grief.'

The look in Sam's eyes was too dreamy for Dean's liking. 'Well, that's great, but what can we actually do with it? We can't exactly figure out her next victim, there's probably thousands of people in Iowa with drama.'

'Mm,' said Sam, but he wasn't really listening. 'I need to check out the deer legs thing.'

'You think it could be Louise, if she's the one Frankie saw in her dream?'

Sam shook his head. 'Doubt it. Seriously. It doesn't make sense. S'not like Frankie was victim zero. And Louise- she was really grieving, Dean.'

'You sure?'

'You didn't see her.'

Dean snapped his fingers. 'Dude. You also need to actually listen to your voicemail.' He laid out what happened in the morgue. 'So I guess at least we know she can possess dead people now, but what I want to know is why she said she knew you.'

'You told me that didn't mean nothin', Dean,' said Tyrone, hang-dog.

He rubbed his hand over his face. 'That was a lie, Tyrone.'

'You're probably overthinking it,' said Sam. 'I mean, come on, what nasties have we met over the past couple years that haven't known who I am? Maybe it's a demon. I mean, it sounds like it could be. A rare species or something. Here.' He sat down next to Dean at the table and pulled the laptop toward him, shutting all Dean's tabs.

Dean threw his hands up. 'So what am I supposed to do?'

A shrug. 'Play Snake?'

Sam's long fingers skittered over the keyboard. Dean rolled his eyes and went to empty the weapons duffel over Sam's bed. At least Tyrone'd know how to clean a shotgun. Probably.

 

Forty minutes later Sam said, very quietly, 'Bingo.'

Dean was at his side in a second. 'You got her?'

As usual when he got his Poindexter on, Sam had a ton of webpages open; everything from old manuscript scans to fantasy gaming forums. The one he was on now had a picture of some angry lady with her hair flying out everywhere and, yes, deer legs.

The light in the room turned a muted greenish-grey. They both looked up; through the window a congealed mass of yellow-black cloud was visible.

'Storm's comin' in,' said Tyrone.

A dim rumble of thunder. Sam turned back towards the laptop.

'So, a whole bunch of cultures have deer woman legends. They're sort of distant cousins of sirens and succubi, I think. They- or permutations of the legend, anyway- crop up in Chilean, Brazilian, Native American mythology. Except that I think ours might actually be some sort of very old god.'

'Explain,' said Dean, leaning over Sam's shoulder.

Sam clicked onto a funny-looking document thing. 'I found this. It's part of this online archive- it's locked down pretty tight- full of occult crap. I'm pretty sure whoever wrote this doc is a hunter. He describes it- it's a creature that seems to latch onto people who've been unlucky in love and-'

'Eat-your-heart-out-but-literally?'

'Yep. It's not exactly corporeal- he's a bit hazy on that- it seems to change form according to who it's stalking. He doesn't think it can possess people- not when they're alive, anyway. He thinks its actual substance is a sort of dream-matter- it can shape itself into whatever form it wants, and it can construct dreams out of its own being and drop people into them. So I guess you'd be sort of inside it. But he thinks it should be vulnerable to iron. Though I'm not sure-'

'Jesus,' said Dean. 'How'd you get onto this, anyway? You said it was locked down.'

Sam cleared his throat. 'I hacked it.'

'Brilliant fucking nerd,' said Dean, shaking his head. Sam actually went a little pink at that. Dean caught Tyrone looking at them funny again and moved his hand off the back of Sam's chair.

'Anyways,' said Sam, 'I'm pretty sure we can assume that we've encountered the same monster as this guy. Tyrone, you with us?'

'Yeah,' said Tyrone. 'So can we shoot it?'

Dean looked to Sam, who shrugged. 'We can try.'

'Wait,' Dean said. 'He thinks it should be vulnerable to iron? So he doesn't know?'

'I, ah.' Sam scrolled down. 'Don't think he ever got close enough to test the theory.'

'Delightful.'

'I mean, it's probably our best bet.'

'Ugh.'

Rain murmured outside, loud and getting louder. Weird shadows speckled and slid down the walls. Then the room jumped into livid blue; the first fork of lightning cracked the sky over the parking lot.

Dean whistled, went to the window. The click of Sam's typing slowed and paused. Another groan of thunder. Sam appeared, noiseless, beside him. Sam'd always liked storms, ever since he was little. Always used to lie awake, eyes wide open, breath held for the next thunderclap. Ain't natural, boy, Bobby said once, shaking his head.

There was that same keenness in Sam's eyes now, dim in the blue-grey light. His gaze trained on the dark-blurred horizon, and thunder rolled again.

Then Sam's eyes narrowed. He frowned. 'Dean. Look out there. That shape-'

He pointed at the parking lot. At a dark smear through the rain. A tall dark smear. Ah, Dean thought. Ah.

'Tree?' he said hopefully.

Sam bit his lip.

It was rain-blurred. The water trickling down the window made it look like the figure was coming apart in little rivulets. Running. But it was very still. Maybe it really was a tree, he thought, and then it moved.

Only a little. Forwards and to the side. But it moved, and it was human-shaped, and he and Sam both stepped back, like it was about to come through the window. 'Jesus,' said Dean.

They already salted the doors and windows, they always did these days, but that might not help. Sam turned to him, the same debate in his eyes.

'What?' said Tyrone, getting up. 'Whats's goin' on?'

Sam grabbed his arm. 'Those iron pellets. Dude, from the, the dhampir-'

Dean went to the bed and ransacked the weapons bag, throwing guns and knives and random cartridges out onto the rumpled duvet, and finally came up with it; a greasy little pouch. He dove for the bottom of the door, lined it with the pellets, and then the window-ledge, and then made a line along the wall just for good measure. 'This better work.'

'It's coming closer,' said Sam. 'Dean. Dean.'

He finished the line, stood up, drawing closed the bag. Tyrone was just standing there next to Sam, mouth flopped open, watching the black shape get bigger. A silhouette defining itself out of the rain, and it was starting to look familiar. It wasn't female, that was for sure.

Sam's shoulders relaxed a little. 'I think it's stopped,' he said.

'Those look like goat legs to you?'

'Can't tell,' said Tyrone, like anyone asked him.

'What do we do?' Sam looked to Dean. He forced himself to think, went through their options.

'We wait it out,' he said. 'We load the guns with iron and we wait it out. If it tries to come in, we shoot.'

Sam was already going through the weapons duffel, coming up with boxes of nails, iron knives, goofer dust. Tyrone headed to the window and stared out at it.

Within seconds they had the guns loaded, Dean at the door, Sam looking out the window, Tyrone sitting vaguely on the bed. Sam hadn't blinked, eyes on the shape in the moving dark. The rain a constant low throb against the roof, on the windows. Thunder again like thick ice cracking. They stood in a halo of safety, he and Sam; lit by the room's electric bulb, keeping out the rain. If one link broke all that dark would come flooding in.

After twenty minutes and two more lightning-flashes, Sam, although his shoulders didn't relax, said, 'I don't think it'll come any closer.'

'Why's it here, though?'

A sort of fever in Sam's eyes. 'I mean, it knows we're onto it. I guess it's making sure we don't do anything.'

'Or, you know, get away,' Dean said.

Lightning bleached the silent room once more. Sam shivered and gulped and watched the window.

Dean was sick of this. He left his post at the door. 'Sam, sit down. Sit down. We can keep an eye on it, okay, but we're not just gonna stand there and stare at it all night. It ain't good for your morale, for starters.'

'And if it tries to get in?'

'We blow a hole in it. Sit down, Sam.'

Sam stood there and worried at his thumbnail. Just when Dean thought he was going to be completely ignored, Sam pulled a chair over, positioning it so he could still see out. Dean did the same. They sat.

'We need a plan,' said Sam.

Quiet but for the rain.

'We could order pizza,' said Tyrone.

'Shut up, Tyrone,' they said at the same time.

Sam leaned forward and pinched the bridge of his nose. Dean looked out of the window, sighed, and dialled Bobby.

 

Bobby called them idiots. Said thank Jesus they had the sense to lock the room down with iron, even if that was the only smart thing they've done all damn day. Said to not go out there to try and shoot the damn thing full of holes, because if it really was a sort of god then iron might hurt it, but it wouldn't trap it and it very likely wouldn't kill it.

'Then what do you want us to do, Bobby?' said Dean, exasperated.

'To sit tight,' Bobby bellowed, voice so loud it crackled. Dean winced and held the phone away from his ear. Bobby went on.'I'm gonna see if I can dig up a ritual. All the killings happen at night?'

'Yeah.'

'Then you better hope she goes at dawn. Good lord, you two.' He hung up with a click.

Dean lowered the phone and smiled viciously round at Sam and Tyrone. 'Sit tight.'

Sam groaned.

 

They played Snap. They moved the table and chairs over to the window so they could keep it in eyesight, and they played Snap.

'You guys do this a lot?' said Tyrone, shuffling the deck. They were three rounds in and it was between him and Dean; Sam was too distracted to be any good, couldn't take his eyes off the window.

'You'd be surprised,' said Dean.

The thunder had stopped but the rain was still thick as smoke, the world beyond the window subterranean and strange. The sliding patterns of the rain on the window were reflected on one side of Sam's face, dappled, melting shadows.

Tyrone shielded an enormous yawn.

 

By eleven O'clock, long after they'd abandoned Snap, Dean got hungry. Like, mad-dog hungry. Eat-a-live-pig hungry.

He ploughed through all their available food (three packets of Cheetos, half a sandwich from Tuesday and a Twix) in under ten minutes. Then he resigned himself to hunger pangs and misery, because even though there was a vending-machine just outside it was No, Dean, just because she's staying still doesn't mean she'll pass up the walking bitching white meat.

So he accepted Tyrone's sympathetic offer of jerky and a single Fox's glacier mint, and sulked. Eventually Sam glared at him over the laptop.

'Dude, there are about sixteen actually useful things you could be doing right now.'

'Oh, like you're actually working on the case.'

'What else would he be workin' on?' said Tyrone.

Sam's glare had intensified into a laser stare. 'Dean,' he said. Deep code for not in front of the idiot. 'You realise that I am in fact capable of setting aside our personal issues in order to save lives?'

He turned the laptop around to show some deep-looking densely-written page headed La Llorona, and alright, Sam could have this one. Tired-eyed Sam who didn't even look mad.

Tyrone was still looking expectantly from Sam to Dean. Dean shot Sam a hey, man, I fucked up look. Sam responded with a silent, tiny half-shrug: forget it, it's fine. And then winced.

'Shoulder?'

He rotated it, experimentally. Another grimace. 'Just a little stiff. Long day and all.'

Translated into Sam-speak that could mean anything from "moderate agony" to "my arm will fall off any second now", but it really wasn't the time. He settled for throwing Sam the Tylenol packet. Tyrone's eyes tracked the movement. He'd been doing that all damn day.

Dean toyed with the idea of calling him on it, then let it go and pulled Dad's journal over.

 

Around two in the morning, Tyrone just lay down on the non-weapons bed and started snoring.

They both looked over. 'Smart move,' Dean said.

Sam rubbed at his eyes. When he took his hands away they were pink as baby mice. He made a noise that sounded sort of like 'Eurgh.'

When did Sam last sleep? What even happened last night? Can't remember. 'You need to get some shut-eye? I can cover for you.'

'Nah.' Then, in a different voice, 'No. Wouldn't be able to anyway. Not with that thing out there.'

'Understandable.'

Dean looked out at that dark shape in the rain. Sam followed his gaze.

'Man,' Sam said quietly. 'What's she want?'

'To toast our hearts on sticks?'

'No, I mean, what's she want? Why's she doing this? What about human agony is so attractive to her?'

He shrugged. Suddenly kinda uncomfortable. It was because of how Sam's voice had gone all distant. 'I dunno, man. I mean.' Would Sam laugh? No, Sam wouldn't laugh. 'I guess pain's how we measure what matters to us, y'know? If it hurts you know it's real. Maybe that's what she likes so much. Real feelings in the middle of all the crap.'

Sam turned his brown-gold-green eyes on him and gave him one of those gentle searching looks, like he was seeing right through to layers of Dean that Dean didn't even know about. His eyes soft. It made something go funny in Dean's chest.

His weird little brother.

'Dean-' Sam looked away, back out at the rain. 'Dean, you know-'

Silence.

'Yeah?' Gently.

Sam was blinking sort of funny. 'No. It's fine. It's nothing.'

An unusually strained pause.

There was something Dean'd had kind of at the back of his mind for a couple days now, and he hadn't really wanted to think about it. But hell. If he was ever going to bring it up he might as well do it now. With exhaustion gritting up his eyes and making his voice feel disconnected from his head and Tyrone snoring away to one side. So he breathed in.

'You should go back to college,' he said.

Sam looked at him. Raised his eyebrows. 'What,' he said. Tone so flat it'd almost be funny.

'Not now. After I'm dead. You should go back to college.'

Sam laughed. It was so ridiculous to him, apparently, that he just laughed. 'You looked at a murdered art student and decided I need to go back to college?'

Dean shrugged. He was determined, determined to press this. 'Why not? We could get you set up with some new I.Ds, you could take some tests online and shit. And if Stanford brings up too much crap for you, man, then-'

'I'm not going back to school, Dean,' he said. Leaning forward over the table, slow and incredulous, like Dean was being stupid. 'You're crazy to even think I could. After all this, after everything, you think I could just go back? Pretend these three years never happened?'

Dean shrugged.

Another laugh. 'Fuck you,' said Sam. 'Fuck you, Dean, seriously fuck you,' and oh, Jesus, he really looked like he might cry.

'Sam.' He made his voice gentle. 'You know you've got to think about what you're gonna do after I'm gone. Right?'

And then Sam gave him a look. An awful look. Like Dean'd taken his heart in hand and twisted, this flash of dark-eyed hurt, and it shocked him enough that he didn't go on.

'Can you please,' said Sam, 'just for this one night, Dean, oblige me by pretending that you going to Hell isn't a complete certainty to you?'

Fucking Sam. Making Dean feel like an asshole even when he was trying to be nice. Or something. He was trying, anyway.

And Sam sighed heavily and combed his hair back with both hands.

 

The rain let up around four in the morning. He and Sam were tired past talking by then, anyway. When they looked out the sky over the parking lot was very faintly lightening, stars soft and pale gold against the blue, and deer-lady was gone.

'Great,' said Dean. 'Now can I sleep for a month?'

'I wish Bobby would call.' Sam was absently clicking through some article or other. 'Reckon he pulled an all-nighter too?'

Dean yawned. 'Dude, it's Bobby. Course he did.'

Sam stifled an answering yawn in his hand, hair falling forward. 'If this pans out, let's get him a bottle of Jack.'

'And crash at his house.'

'And crash at his house.'

'You think we should tell Tyrone to take the first bus back down Bluegrass after this is done?'

Sam looked over at Tyrone, asleep on Sam's bed, a wet patch on the sheets by his open mouth, snoring like a jet engine.

'Probably,' he said.

'Eh.' Dean went over to the bed, flicked Tyrone on the nose. Nothing. 'I won't bother. He wouldn't listen anyway.'

 

They left Tyrone to sleep and ventured out, locked and loaded with iron, when Dean's stomach started yelling at him again. He sent Sam into Lottie's Diner with long, detailed, explicit instructions, and waited in the car.

It was then that his phone rang, fucking finally.

'Bobby?'

'Hey, kid.' A yawn. 'So, I got news.'

'Good news?'

'Depends.'

Shit. 'Well, can you tell us how to kill it?'

'No.' Bobby paused long enough to let Dean groan. 'I can tell you a theoretical ritual for trappin' it, which may or may not work, given that I can't find any accounts of people actually usin' it. Still listening?'

'More or less.'

'Okay. Got a pen?'

Sam got back to the car, arms full of packets and coffee cups and looking surprisingly chirpy, and found Dean glowering up beyond the dash mirror with his phone clenched so hard in his hand the plastic was bending.

'Tired, sunshine?'

'Bobby called,' said Dean. 'He gave me an, ah, theoretical ritual for trapping it.'

Sam put the coffee cups carefully down on the dash, sank into his seat. 'Ah. Not good?'

'Dude, we need a prospective victim.' Dean put down his phone and picked up his pen, fingers wrapping round it at both ends, idly putting pressure on. 'So, a heartbroken person. And there's, like, something about standing in a river at midnight when Venus is in such and such a house, except Bobby told me to ignore that bit, and there's an invocation.'

'Latin?'

'Greek. Girl gets around.'

'Huh,' said Sam. He considered for a moment, long throat working. 'Well, what's so bad about that?'

The pen snapped under Dean's fingers. Bits of plastic jumped everywhere. 'Ah, shit.' He dropped the little bendy stick with the ink in. 'Because, dumbass, we need bait. And here that means a "heartbroken person", I hate that I have to say things like that now, who's screwed in the head enough to attract her. I mean, what, are we just gonna put out an ad? Worst rebound of all time, apply within? Involve some dopey divorcee and then probably get them killed?'

Sam didn't say anything. He sat there and sipped his coffee and it'd be real annoying if Dean didn't know that the cogs were turning in that giant head of his.

'I swear to God, this is why I don't do this crap. The hearts and the flowers and the oh, honey, I'm yours for eternity. You just end up fucked up with some freaky thing ripping your chest open. And it ain't worth it. I mean, look at me, I've never gone in for that shit and-'

'And you're just a tower of strength and sanity?'

Sam said it in this soft, crisp voice that somehow signaled danger ahead.

'I'm damned, Sam, not dippy.' Comeback for comeback's sake. But he put the car in gear. 'Did you get everything I said?'

'Yeah.' Sam was looking out of the window.

'Did you get the pie?'

'Strawberry.'

'Did you get the little things of tomato sauce?'

'Dude, I said I got everything.'

There was something with Sam; he'd clouded-over again, back deep in thought, wherever he went when he looked like that.

'You keep frowning like that, you're gonna need that Botox shot before you're thirty.'

Sam made a hmm-hmm noise but didn't actually respond. That'd been happening kind of a lot lately. It was a real mood-killer, too.

God, Dean couldn't wait til they were out of this case. He knew it was gonna be bullshit from the jump and he was right. He couldn't wait til they'd got the creepy bitch riddled with iron and locked in a box and he and Sam could sit around Bobby's table and tell him all about it, like it was a normal hunt.

And why the hell wasn't this a normal hunt?

There was Tyrone, but wasn't like they'd never worked with other hunters before. They'd dealt with gods, too. The vanir case was way nastier than this- Dean almost got sacrificed to a Pagan fertility god that no-one except a mouldy professor and probably Sam had ever even heard of, how fucking embarrassing- so it wasn't the monster. Though he couldn't think about Frankie's torn-up chest and opened blind eyes, the pure soar of Judy Garland's voice, without a shudder.

So, it was Sam. It was something about Sam. Hell, wasn't it always.

But there was something closed-down about him now. Ever since Cold Oak- maybe before that, in patches, but definitely since Cold Oak. Some part of him Dean couldn't quite get at. Something faint and reserved at the back of his eyes; something in the restrained play of tendons in his hands when he shuffled a deck.

And he wanted to get at it. He wanted to reach into Sam and pull it out, whatever it was, however dark and awful and bloody it was. Because Sam was still Sam, and Sam was still his, so whatever it was, it was nothing Dean couldn't deal with. It was nothing Dean couldn't take.

He looked over, away from the wheel. Sam's eyes were on the road. The straight pure line of throat to jaw; the moles on his throat like scattered stars, and the butterfly movements of his larynx from time to time, if he swallowed, or shifted in his seat. The catch of pale seven A.M sunlight in his eyes, showing up threads of blue, gold-drenched hazel.  Long clever fingers resting on the plastic bag on his knees; his ridiculous legs folded to the side, strangely unobtrusive. A lanky collection of muscle and bone and the inquiring angles of his profile. And the hair, of course. Dumb greasy mop that could do with a wash. Bits curling round the shell of Sam's ear, dark-soft against his forehead.

One time when Sam was seventeen- Dean would have been twenty-one, twenty-two- a girl had said to him, 'Can you give me his name? He's beautiful.'

It wasn't the first time someone had asked him to give them Sam's number, or whatever. And hell, girls pestered Sam about Dean constantly, right? So it was all fine. But beautiful? That threw him off.

He didn't know how to see it. He couldn't look at Sam like that. He didn't know whether Sam was ugly or gorgeous because his face was more familiar to Dean than anything else in the world. His changeable eyes, his sharp wrists, his stupid, pretty hair. He'd seen Sam growing up through every little change, had watched that face go from baby-chubby with that sweet little-kid grin to glowering, insouciant, sunny-smiling skinniness to sharpjawed, kind-eyed Sam-now. The tear and pull of love that Dean felt sometimes on looking at him meant that he couldn't step back, couldn't see Sam as anything other than- what? His entire goddamn heart?

Sam wasn't beautiful. He was Sam.

Dean yanked his eyes away, and Sam glanced over. 'You okay?'

'Yeah,' says Dean. Big fucking lie that he didn't feel remotely sorry for. He stepped on it; they roared out of town, back towards the motel and the sun-yellow ragweed that grew in the cracks.

 

Chapter Text

The motel room steamed with sunlight. It cut across over the one rumpled bed that Tyrone had passed out on, and when Dean picked up the half-empty Sprite can abandoned on the small table it was warm in his hand. 'Where'd bonehead go?'

Sam gave a small half-amused shake of his head. He sat on the chair by the desk, knees splayed, facing Dean. A triangle of sunlight had fallen across him; the dusty curve of his hair glowed deep brown, and one side of his nose, a sliver of forehead, a hint of grey-black eyelash. 'Probably to his room. Wanna get him?'

'You kidding me? Let's enjoy the goddamn peace.'

A tiny twist of a smile. 'You don't have to be so mean to him, you know.'

'Oh, believe me, guy can take care of himself. He flipped out on me earlier.'

Sam grinned. 'He did?'

'Chewed me out, man. Chewed to the bone.' Tyrone had got so red around the ears it was kind of funny, in retrospect. 'Made me respect him a little, weirdly enough. And I'm not saying you ain't right, I'm not saying I haven't been an ass about all this. I'm sorry if I've made it hard on you, y'know, I truly am.'

'Nah, man, wouldn't expect anything less from you.' Sam was still sort of smiling. 'Wouldn't want anything less from you, actually.'

That settled somewhere warm in his chest. He could feel his face not knowing how to react; he gave Sam what was probably a pretty dumb grin. Sam's eyes went soft and he sort of scrunched his mouth, like he wasn't sure how to arrange his face either, and then he smiled and looked away.

Dean cleared his throat. He needed a drink. His tongue felt all furry. 'Anyway, we gotta work out how we're going to handle this.'

'Yeah,' said Sam, taking a sudden, suspicious interest in fiddling with the lid of his coffee cup from this morning. Hmm, Dean thought, and went on anyway. 'Way I see it, we've got a few options. The main thing is finding our Romeo, right? So unless we find a really savvy civilian who's willing to get right in the line of fire, which we won't, I think our best plan's to go through the hunter grapevine. Find someone who's had a recent bust-up or dead girlfriend and get them on board.' He snapped his fingers. 'Dude. I'm an idiot. Tamara.'

'Mmm,' said Sam. He sounded surprisingly not into it, considering what a great idea it was. Maybe he hadn't got what Dean meant.

'Isaac died, what, a month ago? She'll be okay at the mouldy language crap, and she's on enough of a revenge kick that she'll help us, and we know her, man. Well, sort of. You got her number?'

Sam hadn't looked up from the table. 'She said she didn't want to see us again, Dean. Remember?'

'So what, dude? She's a hunter, she'll get it. Do you have her number or do I need to ring Bobby?'

'I don't have her number,' said Sam.

'Guess Bobby it is, then. Dammit, she better be able to get her ass over here fast.' He was already flipping open his phone. 'Do you know where she said she was going after the seven deadly whatever case?'

'Well,' said Sam. 'Actually-'

'Eh, it doesn't make a difference, she could be in Hawaii by now for all we know. Still-'

'Dean, stop,' Sam said in a tired sort of voice. 'We don't need Tamara.'

He paused, finger hovering over 3 on the speed dial. 'Sam, have you even been listening to me for the past half hour?'

'I've been listening,' said Sam. He was staring down at the table still. 'Dean, we don't need Tamara because we've already got bait.'

A beat. Silence. Dean tried to figure out what Sam meant and couldn't. He laughed. It came out sounding weird. 'You don't mean Tyrone, do you? What, has he been telling you sob stories from ladykiller land?'

'What? No, not Tyrone.' Sam stared at him like he had no idea how Dean hadn't got it yet.

Dean waved a hand. 'Dude. I ain't psychic. What?'

Sam's jaw tightened. He waited, and then sighed, and then looked at Dean and said, 'I mean me.'

This was ridiculous. He just laughed again. 'You lost any marbles lately, Sam?'

But Sam didn't bite, just gave him those quiet, steady eyes.

Okay. Okay. There was something Dean was missing here. Probably something obvious, knowing Sam. He thought back, back through Madison, through that ghost chick Sam got all emo over on Highway 41, the cute motel clerk who slipped him her number on a scribbled receipt in Ohio, Ava, what-was-her-name Sarah-

When it clicked he wanted to slap himself.

'Oh, Jesus, Sam. This is about Jessica?'

He couldn't have these conversations sitting down. He got up and went to the window, turning to face Sam, back against the pane. 'Dude, I know how you felt about her, but that was two years ago. All the vics had recent shit go down, man. I'm sorry.'

'Not Jessica,' said Sam quietly.

'What? Madison, then?' He knew how that cut Sam up, God he knew, but. Heartbroken? Had he missed that much?

'No, Dean,' said Sam. 'I'm not talking about Madison either.' Speaking sort of slow and patient, like he was keeping himself on lockdown, nothing revealed except cool eyes, and Dean suddenly felt massively, massively stupid.

Sam sort of swallowed and gave him this weird, darting glance. 'You gonna make me say it?'

You'd've thought he was totally calm about this whole bullshit scenario except for how his voice went up, just a tiny bit, at the end. Dean stared at him and the queasy knot of dread pulled tighter and tighter.

'Wait,' he said. 'Sam. You're not talking about- are you talking about me? About me selling my soul? Is that what this is?'

Sam studied him for a long, level moment. Not a trace of judgement or anger in that look. Dean felt like a bug waving around on its back.

'Yeah, Dean,' he said, eventually, tiredly, with that weird catch in his voice. 'I'm talkin' about you.'

He laughed. It was all he could think of to do. 'Sam. C'mon. You aren't-'

Sam's chin jutted out. He looked kind of pissed.

'You aren't heartbroken,' Dean said. 'Not over me, Sam. That's not-'

'That's not what, Dean?' Sam quirked a tiny smile. 'That's not how it works?'

'No, goddammit! It's not. I'm your brother, Sam, not Jessica or-'

'And what? Are you gonna tell me you weren't heartbroken when I died?'

How the hell was he supposed to respond to that? 'But I'm me and you're you,' he said after a moment. He was so close to saying something that really would sound assholey, like You can't be heartbroken over me because you aren't like that, and even though he didn't mean it in a bad way he knew Sam would take it all wrong. 'Look, I know you, y'know, you're gonna miss me, and you've got a lot of crap going on about this whole thing, and I know-'

'If you're gonna say you know how I feel then so help me, Dean, I will deck you,' said Sam.

Dean's face went hot because he had been, but Sam didn't know that. 'Dammit, stop putting words in my mouth.'

'Dean.' Sam's hands clamped down on the back of the rickety chair next to the table, white at the knuckles. He held it like it was the only thing keeping him rooted upright in the center of the room. 'You know how you felt when I was lying dead in that shack? That's how I've been feeling lately. It's the same, except that it happened to you all at once, and this is happening in slow motion, and sometimes when I talk to you I feel like I'm speaking to a ghost because you're acting like you're already dead, okay? That's what's killing you, Dean. Not the deal. You. The fact that you won't fight it. You're killing us both. And I don't know how to get through to you.'

Sam was going to break that chair if he kept clutching it like that. Dean made himself quit looking.

Whatever. Sam was never going to get it. Nobody had ever told Sam that Dean wasn't like that, that Dean didn't need looking after or anything. Dean was a guy with a job to do and he did it, and if he got a bit banged up along the way that was just business. He didn't have the kind of smarts that made a guy indispensable and when it came down to it he'd always known he wasn't Mr Morality, either. Yeah, he did his best. But in a pinch he was just the same as any one of your Roadhouse toughs. He was a redshirt.

Sam, on the other hand- Sam was Sam. Sam was different.

Sam wasn't replaceable.

Oh, God, he thought, and then he couldn't think anything else. God, Sammy, no. He wanted to tear something out of himself and offer it to Sam. Something bloody and living and terrible. An apology.

Sam opened his mouth, like he was thinking of saying something else, then paused. What was there to say after something like that? Where could you go? Dean couldn't meet his eyes. I thought you were stronger than this, he wanted to say. How stronger? He didn't know. Just- stronger. Sam had steel in him. He could keep going, he could go on without Dean. Dean would die and Sam would build a pyre out of beautiful white trees and let the flames lick the stars from the sky and the tears from his cheeks, and he'd kill everything dark and slithering until he felt like Dean had been avenged, and then he'd meet someone, a new hunting partner, perhaps, or some cute girl with bright hair and a red-lipped grin, because that was Sam, he always did meet someone, he wasn't like Dean who hooked onto one person and sewed them into the silk lining of his blood vessels and never let go. And he'd smile and think of Dean when he rested a hand on the Impala's paintwork, and he'd live. Sam would live.

Except. Except.

What if Dean had got it wrong? What if Sam couldn't?

What if Dean died and Sam- what? Drank all Bobby's whiskey? Drank bleach? Drank gasoline and struck a match? Drove the car off the edge of a cliff? Off the edge of the world? Went crazy, went feral, went just desperate enough to do terrible things? Crouched in a graveyard at midnight and dug with his hands in the damp soil, dug with fingernails dirt-seamed and broken, dug because Dean's place in Hell tugged at him, pulled him down into the earth?

He looked up and Sam was there, always there ready to meet his eyes, to be more honest than Dean. Yeah, Sam's face said. All that. All that and more.

A dangerous sense of something began to churn in Dean. He recognised it as the sense of having seriously screwed up. He wasn't sure where it had gone wrong, because he refused to regret the deal. That was the only reason they were here at all. But somehow it had gone wrong, and something in Sam had fractured like a winter twig.

Flash: himself, kneeling beside that broken-fingernailed Sam who sobbed and scrabbled in the earth with his hands, and Dean stroked his hair and helped him dig, but it wasn't Hell they carved out there. Just a shallow double grave, not much bigger than a queen-size bed.

'You sure it'll work?' he said at last. Unable to say anything else. One last opportunity, Sam: retract it. Let it go. Live.

'Positive,' Sam said. Voice soft and quiet as the hum of the lamp.

Chapter Text

Around noon, Sam got sick of trying to tune out Dean and Tyrone's bickering so he could learn the Greek thing; he locked himself in the bathroom and sat in the bath. He could still hear the buzz of their voices through the door, but it wasn't as bad. There was something green in the plughole and that familiar grey tide-mark around the bath, but he'd take their company over the mutilated look in Dean's eyes right now.

He opened the book and tried to focus. He still felt shaky and weird from earlier. It wasn't normal, this; it wasn't normal to have to tell your brother that he had broken your heart, however true it was, however necessary to the case. After the conversation was done he'd locked himself in the bathroom and sat on the toilet lid and just waited for his hands to quit shaking.

He'd thought Dean might laugh and Dean had. But not when he'd finally understood; then he'd just looked wrecked, lost and wrecked, mouth gaping like a fish's. That had been worse. He'd've taken any amount of mockery if it had meant he hadn't had to see that look on Dean's face. Almost hated himself for it. It was the look Dean had got when Sam was nine and Dean had told him he could fly so he'd jumped off the roof and broken his arm. That paralysed horror look of what have I done? when Dean thought he'd hurt him.

And, well. He had.

Things were probably going to be weird between them for weeks now. Ugh.

He breathed in the smell of the speckled old pages, forced himself to focus on the Greek. If he pushed himself he could learn it inside out and back-to-front within an hour. And he always pushed himself. Then all they had to do was paint some containment runes on the iron box Dean had picked up in an antiques store, and they had their curse-box.

He started to read. Through the door he could hear Dean's soft footsteps on the carpet. Pacing.

 

The spot they chose for the ritual was a river just out of the city. It was in a field, but you could see the Dubuque skyline in the distance. The river was about ten foot wide, too neat around the banks to be natural, and in the center it came up to Sam's waist, which was fairly impressive.

He waded out, soaked to the waist, teeth chattering; it was a hot June day, but with his jeans soaked right through the breeze felt freezing. Kept one hand in his pocket the whole time, on the tiny iron crucifix Dean had shoved at him before they left- 'In case Mrs Taumnus tries any funny business in daylight.'

Dean laughed, a little too long and a little too easy, when Sam squelched onto the grass, water sluicing from the hems of his jeans. 'I knew you were gonna regret that, man.'

'Well, forgive me for wanting to know how deep the damn river was.' It sounded snappier than he'd meant it to.

The only towel they had in the car was this grubby white thing Dean had lifted from a motel somewhere in Maryland. Sam dried off and struggled into a pair of his jeans he'd found in the debris of the backseat, and went back out to where Dean stood, staring into the river. Sun made sparks off the water. Tyrone sat a few feet off, in a patch of dried-up grass, picking apart a dandelion.

'I'll be standing here the whole time,' said Dean. 'You'll be fine. You just need to say the words and we've got her. If she gets too close I'll dice her.'

'Yeah. Sure.' Dean had been going on in that vein for the past couple hours. He'd never liked it when Sam had to be bait. Sam hardly ever was before Stanford, John and Dean never let him, it was always Dean, but he and Dean had an alternating system now, had for the past year, ever since a succubus where they argued so much over who was going to play the unsupecting civilian that the thing nearly got away.

'So Sam's the bait now,' said Tyrone.

Dean said nothing. 'Yeah,' said Sam.

Tyrone let the shredded yellows of the dandelion dance away over the grass. 'Man, will that work? I thought you said they had to have had their hearts broke recently. Did somethin' happen, Sam?' His eyes were round and moony with sympathy. He was an okay guy, really, Sam thought.

'His hamster died,' said Dean. 'C'mon, move out. No point giving our position away early.'

Dean had gone into military mode. Great. 'I'm pretty sure she'll already know what we're going to do, Dean,' Sam said, but he followed Dean round to the car.

 

The moon that rose that night was gibbous, not full, but Bobby had said it'd do. The sky stayed swimming-pool blue until somewhere past ten; when darkness fell it was with stop-motion speed, creeping up when Sam wasn't looking. Every time he looked out the window he expected to see that dark figure waiting, but nothing happened.

Dean had been silent for most of the afternoon. When it came to loading up the car, he got together everything that had even the slightest chance of being useful- guns, knives, whole bags of rock salt, weird-looking knives and hooks and machetes Sam hadn't even known they owned, a roll of iron garrote wire that Dean wrapped around his wrist with dark set eyes. 'You know you can only hold so many weapons at once, right?' Sam said. Dean ignored him and drew out a runed knuckleduster Sam had never seen before in his life.

When Dean stuffed his walkman into his pocket Sam finally laughed. 'What are you going to do, bludgeon her to death with it?'

He didn't expect a reply, but Dean gave him a malevolent look. 'No, actually. We need some way of bringing her to us, right?'

Sam had thought the ritual would lure her down. 'I don't know, do we?'

'Yeah, you're real prepared,' said Dean. 'Look, smartass, remember the crime scene? Over the Rainbow? And then you said the old guy had died at the piano. And the Lucy kid played the clarinet. What if that's part of how she picks the victims? Music attracts her?'

'Kind of a shot in the dark, isn't it?' Dean wasn't wrong, and it was a smart connection to have made. He just wasn't sure whether it was a coincidence or not.

Dean reached up and closed the Impala's trunk with a wham. 'Can't hurt, though, right?'

Sam shrugged and climbed into passenger. Tyrone got in the back. 'Do you two ever agree on anything?'

'Yes,' said Dean. 'No,' said Sam.

Dean put the car in gear without looking at him.

The drive was silent. Even Tyrone seemed to get that now wasn't the time. Dean parked in the field, same spot as earlier, and turned the engine off. In the drench of silence Sam could hear the crickets.

Dean looked at him. Fear glinting silver in his eyes. 'Sammy, are you sure you want to do this?'

What was it about that damn word that made them both into kids again? Sam got out of the car without replying. Not to be cruel; it was just that Dean already knew the answer, and they needed to do this.

It was a warm night; invisible crickets were singing. The moon was big and brilliant. A yellow glow surrounded the distant city, the permanent sunset of electric lights. 'Catch,' came Dean's voice; Sam reached out on reflex, and then there was a flashlight in his hand.

He patted his pocket, checking for the papers with the ritual; he'd memorized it, had rung Bobby earlier to straighten out his pronunciation, but they both knew not to take chances. 'Got the curse-box?' he said to Dean, who nodded grimly.

Sam toed off his sneakers and unbuckled his belt. 'Oh, man, are you serious?' said Dean. He was starting to grin.

Sam took off his pants, kicking them into a pile with his shoes, and raised his eyebrows. 'What?'

'You aren't going to perform a Greek ritual to trap a deer god standing in a river in your panties? Takes the pathos out a little, don't you think?'

 'I think I'll be able to handle a knife just as well like this, Dean,' he said crisply. And then, unable to stop himself: 'And they're boxer shorts.'

Another grin. 'Oh, I'm sure you will.'

Tyrone slung an ammo belt over his shoulder. 'How 'bout I go in the bushes on the other bank? Shoot if she gets too close?'

'You do that,' said Dean. 'I'm staying here.' He sat on the Impala's hood, curse-box gripped between his knees, shotgun resting against his shoulder. 'What's the time?'

Sam shone the flashlight on his watch. 'Eleven-fifty.' He looked down at the river, which shone a solid, fluid black. It didn't look welcoming. 'Guess it's time we get started.'

He sat on the bank and dropped down from there; cold swallowed him to the waist. He felt around the riverbed with his bare feet; it was mud-slippery, tangled with weeds that he kept catching his toes in.

'I can't believe you're in that barefoot,' said Dean, shaking his head. 'If you get tetanus, I'm not driving you to the ER.'

He grimaced and shut down thoughts of what could be lurking around his toes. 'Yeah, I didn't really think about that part.' He waded the few feet to the centre, felt for the paper in his shirt pocket and the knife strapped to his thigh, hidden by the water.

'Okay,' said Dean, 'clock's ticking, time to get this on the road. You good, Sam?'

'Mm-hm.'

'You good, Ty?'

'Yessir.'

'Right. And, uh, Sammy?'

He looked up, at Dean leaning against the car. Only a stripe of cheek and a glitter of eye were visible out of the shadows. 'Yeah?'

'Make sure she doesn't catch you with your trousers down, alright?' A chuckle.

Sam grinned despite himself. He drew his knife a few inches out of its sheath under water, fixed his eyes on the moon. A click: Dean turning on the walkman.

A rush of warm wind swept over Sam's face. Somewhere above, leaves started to shiver and rustle in the dark. Judy Garland's voice rose on the wind, chiming strangely with the whisper of the trees.

Somewhere over the rainbow

way up high

there's a land that I heard of...

Sam drew in a breath; began to read out the ritual.

Ancient Greek didn't come up very often in cases, not the way Latin did. Over the years Sam had only picked up a jumbled idea of the grammar, a half-knowledge of the alphabet, a smattering of words. He understood little of the ritual. But that was the thing with stuff like this: if you had the words and the intent, that was enough. The words did the creating.

Sam recited line after line, alien musical language, understanding not the meaning but the mood: the ritual was a seduction, a luring. He didn't dare look over at Dean, to see how he was absorbing all this. He just said the words. The water lapped at his chest but it no longer felt cold.

Someday I'll wish upon a star

and wake up where the clouds are far

behind me...

He was over halfway through the ritual when the trees stirred again, more agitated this time. A strong wind blew his hair into his eyes, and that was all the warning he had; he was falling into darkness, or walking, but walking blindfolded and feeling around in empty space, and then there was ground under his feet and his knees hurt and the palms of his hands hurt and a place on his jaw hurt. He opened his eyes to mud and his own hands. He was on hands and knees in the gritty mud, and he was wet and cold and empty-hungry like he hadn't eaten for a day at least and something in him knew, the way it always knew, that Dean was very far away.

He was alone.

He got his feet under him, wincing at the sting of gravel in his palms. When he was upright there was a dizzy moment where he didn't recognise the place. Ramshackle wooden houses, silvery rain, and a wide, empty road of trampled mud.

Cold Oak.

He was in Cold Oak, and it was deserted.

He turned in a circle, getting his bearings. One one side, the broken-down fence of the scrubby field; on another an old building of pale rotted wood, kind of like a courthouse; and then a row of dark old double-storied houses with verandas, gables, roof tiles blackened and etched with rain. He reached round, touched the small of his back, but all he could feel was the ugly ridge of the scar; when he checked his fingers they weren't bloody.

The moon was very bright.

'Dean?' he shouted. 'Dean?'

Nothing. Nothing but the dark and the tooth that might have been punched loose at some point because it felt sort of wobbly in his jaw and the rain bleeding down.

The deer-woman had put him here. Which meant she'd got inside his head. But why? What did she want him to do?

He thought back; the writings of that old hunter who hadn't managed to kill her, Dean saying 'Eat-your-heart-out-but-literally?'

'He thinks its actual substance is a sort of dream-matter- it can shape itself into whatever form it wants, and it can construct dreams out of its own being and drop people into them.'

Oh. He looked around again, but the place matched his memories right down to the creepy windmill, this time sans dead Lily. 'Dean!' he shouted again, just in case, but he was pretty sure Dean was out there on that dark riverbank, on the other side of waking.

'Sam,' came a voice.

He whipped round and Dean was standing right there, less than a foot between them, except he hadn't been there five seconds ago. The ratty old shirt was right, the jeans were right, even the amulet. And his face was right, too, except it wasn't, or maybe it was too right, every detail perfect and perfectly Dean, right down to the two-day stubble.

'You're not him,' said Sam. 'Don't lie to me. You're not him.'

The Dean-thing smiled. 'Don't worry that pretty head of yours. I wasn't going to lie. I knew you'd see through it. Clever boy.'

Its hands rested easily by its sides, Dean's hands, thick-knuckled and strong. Sam resisted the urge to step back. There was something deeply wrong about seeing something else speak with Dean's mouth, look through Dean's eyes. The look on its face was one he'd never seen on Dean- a kind of shiny-eyed hunger. He wondered how the hell Meg had managed to fool Dean into thinking she was Sam for two whole days. Here all the details were right but it was like looking at something wearing a Dean-mask.

He looked down, but its legs just looked like Dean's legs- kind of bowed and wearing jeans. 'Yeah, the deer legs come with an off switch,' said the thing. 'It's real convenient. I thought this might be less alienating for you.'

He laughed. 'Nice thought, but the whole field-where-I-died, you-with-Dean's-face trip? Pretty alienating. So what do you want?'

It said, 'Come walk with me, Sam.'

It turned away from him and started off, a slow, processional pace, surveying the mud-clogged ground and tumbledown buildings like it was king of it all. Confused, Sam joined it.

'You're probably wondering why I brought you here,' it said.

Sam didn't say anything.

'You know, Sam, I can be a very peaceful nightmare when I want to. I'm not of a kind with your vampires and your lycanthropes. Or even many of those little things you call gods. I don't need to kill to live.'

'Then why did you?' Frankie Lopez and the opened casket of her chest, organs bright as spilled rubies. 'And why eat the hearts?'

It shrugged. A gesture so belligerently Dean it made Sam flinch. 'Sweetmeats. Sport.'

A year ago he might have curled his lip, said, They were sport to you? Frankie Lopez was sport to you? Henry McAllister and Serena Hopkins and that kid Lucy?

But he'd grown up. What once had been incomprehensible was now clear; evil as a spider trapped in amber. So he nodded and said, 'Right.'

'You let me go,' it said, 'and all this will go away. No trouble. No mess. No awkward curse-boxes rattling around waiting to be opened by any idiot who stumbles onto them. No more killing. I'll make you a deal, you and your Dean. Cross my heart, pinky-swear, written in blood. You let me go, and I won't get my hands dirty for- oh, say- two hundred years.'

'Huh,' said Sam coolly. He had no idea where his calm was coming from, but his hands were steady and his head was clear. 'I suppose this means the ritual's working?'

It laughed. 'Call it a stalemate, honey. You finish it, you got me, but there's nothing stopping me pecking out your and your brother's eyes before then. Well, except that string-bean with the iron bullets in his shooter. But this way everyone goes away happy. How often could you say that at the end of a hunt, hmm?'

'Except Louise Richards,' he said.

The thing blinked.

'So what?' He spread his hands. 'What if I tell you to go screw yourself? What would you do then? Keep me here until Dean finishes the ritual himself?'

The thing smiled Dean's soft smile. It stepped forward. 'Oh, Sam. I'm not sure you quite understand what I am.'

'You're heartbreak,' said Sam. He willed his voice not to crack. 'I get it.'

It reached out to him. Dean's hand touched his face, hard, warm palm and callused fingers. All Dean's surety and love was in those hands; everything he was going to lose. It's not real. It's not him. But he had to still himself before he did something stupid, like leaning in. Like saying Anything, Dean. I'll give you anything.

'I am what's happened to you,' said the thing. It was smiling sort of sadly. 'I know your heart, Sam.' It stroked his face. Just once. 'Don't worry. It's a good one.'

'Can I save him?'

He didn't mean to ask. He didn't know why he had.

That smile again, gentle. That almost-tenderness in Dean's eyes. 'Oh, sweetheart. You're going to save everyone.'

Sam shut his eyes, heart rabbiting, damp soaking through the toes of his shoes. His face was wet with rain; he couldn't remember if that was how it had been that other night in Cold Oak. He didn't want to be here. He wanted Dean, the real Dean. He wanted this to be over.

He opened his eyes.

'So we make a deal,' he said.

'Yep,' said the thing.

'And you leave, and stop killing, and Dean and Tyrone and me go away unharmed.'

'Sounds pretty nice, doesn't it?'

'And it's over, and everyone's got what they wanted.'

'There's the power of American diplomacy.'

'Yeah,' said Sam. 'Great.'

He knelt down, got on his knees. Mud soaked cold through the denim. Cold in a way that brought him back to life, just a little. He thought of Louise, fixing her eyes on him and saying, 'I've lost the world I lived in yesterday.' There must be justice, he thought. Something must be done.

The thing was frowning. 'What are you doing?' it said.

Sam looked up at it. Dean's spiky hair, Dean's pretty mouth, Dean's narrowed eyes. 'I'm screwing you over,' he said, and pulled the knife from his belt and plunged it into the gravelled earth.

'No,' said the thing- sounding just like Dean when something got a shot off at Sam- and surged forward, knocking Sam backwards into the mud, grip on the knife broken, but it was already sunk to the hilt in the ground. Sam shoved the thing away, staggered to his feet; the shoulder that Bela had shot him in throbbed like hell, it had taken the force of the fall, he pressed his fingers down hard on the wound to concentrate the ache.

The thing was kneeling, gazing at the knife handle sticking up out of the ground. Its face had gone white; Dean's freckles stood out starkly. 'Look,' it said. 'Look. You're killing me.'

Sam looked down.

The earth around the knife was moving. Pulsing up and down, sluggishly, a thready, slowing heartbeat. And the earth was turning red.

He felt sick. Wanted to step away but couldn't. Blood was weltering around the knife where it was stuck in the ground, spilling over to dye the mud, wash gravel dark. He had made the ground bleed.

The Dean-thing was gripping its belly, face strained. 'It doesn't matter,' it gritted out. 'It doesn't matter. I already have your heart.'

It took its hands away from its stomach; cupped them, and held them out for Sam to see. He looked down, frozen. Very slowly it opened its hands.

There, on Dean's palms, sat a human heart. Red as an apple and helplessly pulsing, with a sound that Sam could just barely hear, a sound like the ticking of a watch. It glistened and shivered in Dean's hands and Sam realised with a cold shock that this was something that never should have been brought out into the light, something that should have stayed wrapped in darkness and safety all its life, but it was too late now, it was out.

The Dean-thing raised its hands. It brought the heart up to its mouth and bit, and there was a tearing of meat, of cords and muscle snapping like cello-strings, and Dean's mouth was bloody, grinning, and Sam reached up to touch the place below his own right collarbone and found nothing but a cave.

Then he was reeling, opening his eyes, lurching backwards with a slosh of water and why was there water? He could see nothing but the moon smiling out of the river and God, he was in the river, he was standing in the river and Dean had been eating his heart and now there was water in his throat and he was coughing, coughing-

He waded to the riverbank and hung his upper body over it, resting his chin in the mud, coughing a harsh cough that hurt his throat and jangled his bones. There was a hand in his hair, a hand on his cheek, Dean, or not-Dean, and he flinched back and stumbled because he'd stepped on something hard and sharp, but Dean was saying 'Sam, Sammy,' and yes, that was him, that was the right Dean.

'Sam, Jesus, what's wrong, what's happening,' Dean was saying, kneeling on the riverbank, one hand on Sam's shoulder, tentative grip on the fabric of his shirt. Sam coughed again, draped his arms and torso back over the bank. Dean's face, half-illuminated in the moon glare, was halfway to terrified. His gun shone abandoned on the grass.

Sam cleared his throat. 'I think I cut my foot,' he said.

Dean stared at him uncomprehendingly for a second. Then he said, 'Damn right you cut your foot, that's what you get for trampling around in manky rivers without shoes on, you giant ignoramus,' and Sam said, 'I think I killed her,' and Dean laughed, and then Tyrone shouted, 'Guys, look out!'

They both looked round, out at the clouded moonlit sky.

At first he didn't know what Tyrone had meant. Then he saw a black shape like an arrow speeding towards them, a thing with wings and claws and a bald misshapen head, a thing that flickered in and out of vision, and it swooped down and it was a bird the size of a man, a taloned shadow bearing down on them. Dean's fingers seized in Sam's jacket and Sam felt the absurd urge to duck, like that was going to help them, what a stupid way for this to end-

A gunshot echoed through the darkness. The thing shrieked, a sound that burrowed its way right through to Sam's brain, and then its flight faltered and it tumbled down, through the air, looking like it would land right in the river before them, until it dissolved in a stream of dark dust that glittered silver-grey and pattered into the water, barely disturbing the surface.

'Got her in one,' said Tyrone happily, emerging from a bush on the opposite bank.

Sam looked up to Dean, who was staring at Tyrone. Sam watched the thoughts chase each other across Dean's face: Tyrone had taken the shot without even knowing whether the bird was corporeal or not, Tyrone had had no idea what would happen if the shot did land, Tyrone had risked hitting Dean in shooting the thing, Tyrone was an idiot.

Dean looked at the river where the remnants of the bird had fallen. He looked back at Tyrone, who was holding his rifle with an enormous, satisfied grin, and shook his head.

'Tyrone,' said Dean, 'you're a fine shot, but you got shit for brains.'

 

Chapter Text

There was still pink in the sky when Dean woke up and looked out of the window. He put on a t-shirt and headed out, closing the door quietly behind him; Sam was still conked out in the other bed, face half-buried in the pillow.

Barefoot on the concrete, he got a Coke from the vending machine and sat down on the ridge of sidewalk, looking out at the parking lot in the golden early sun. Tyrone's creepy truck was still there. He hadn't skipped town without saying goodbye, then.

He breathed in. The asphalt was warm under his feet. It was going to be a hot day.

None of them had had a fucking clue what had happened last night. They'd finished the ritual, just to be sure, but it hadn't done anything that Dean could see. 'You think she's really dead?'

'For now, anyway,' Sam had said. But he still had that shocked look at the back of his eyes.

He needed to get that story from Sam properly. He'd asked Sam what had happened, where he'd gone when he zoned right the fuck out in the middle of reading out the ritual, why he'd come back to himself thirty seconds later wild-eyed and flinching and coughing river water all over Dean, but Sam had given him a garbled explanation about Cold Oak and bleeding earth and stumbled face-down into bed. Dean had sighed, considered slapping him awake, and taken his shoes off for him instead.

Just like Sam, really, to check out for half a minute and somehow fix the case in his head. Dean rested the Coke can against the side of his face.

Sam would be okay. He was a good hunter. He had a good head on his shoulders. He'd get on fine without Dean, whatever he thought now.

Hell. Maybe he'd get on better.

He opened the can, took a drink. It would all work out. Wasn't there something meant-to-be about this, in the end? Dad sold his soul for Dean so that Dean could sell his soul for Sam. Dean's whole life had had a twofold purpose: hunt the thing that killed Mom, watch your brother. Well, yellow-eyes was pushing up daisies. The deal made sense, then. It was the ultimate watch your brother. It was the only end of the line that fitted Dean. And then Sam would be the only one left, their family's last hope of redemption, the only one of them with even a thread of innocence left in him, left alone to take root and grow into a man like a tree with spreading boughs and beautiful flowers and live the life Dean could never have had.

It wasn't as though he hadn't been damned already, anyway.

 

Tyrone said a heartfelt goodbye to them in their motel room.

'I'm real glad to have met you guys.' He was shaking Sam's hand earnestly. 'Now I just want you to know, Sam, I don't believe a word of what they say. I can sense that you're a real good guy beneath it all. I may not know what happened back there with the deer lady, but I do know that you soldiered on, and soldiered bravely.'

Sam caught Dean's eye for a millisecond that nearly cracked Dean up. 'Uh, thanks,' he said, shifting his hair out of his eyes. 'You too, Tyrone, you too. And, uh, that was a great shot, last night.'

Tyrone reached out a long arm like a piece of spaghetti and patted Sam on the back. 'Now that's real good of you to say so, Sam, but truth is, that were nothin'. From the age of eight I could shoot the flake off a '99 from two hundred paces away.'

'Wow, really?'

Sam looked genuinely impressed. Dean scowled.

'Oh yeah,' said Tyrone wistfully. He came over to Dean. 'Dean, man, you know I have a lot a respect for you as a hunter.'

Where was this going? 'Uh, okay. Thanks?'

Sam drifted over to the other side of the room, started shoving things into his duffel. Tyrone cast a furtive glance at him, then gripped Dean by the shoulder and steered him further into the corner.

'Dude,' said Dean, looking down at Tyrone's hand on his shoulder.

Tyrone spoke in a low voice, earnest eyes on Dean. 'Dean, man, I just want to say that I may not understand, but I accept you both, I really do.'

Dean stared at him. 'You... what?'

Tyrone nudged him. 'Y'know. You and Sam.'

Dean stared for another twenty seconds or so before it finally clicked. He groaned. 'Oh- dude, no, it's not like that.'

'Ri-i-ight,' said Tyrone, like he really believed Dean, and then gave him the longest, hardest eyeballing of his life.

'I mean it,' said Dean. He wondered why everyone was determined to make him feel like he was lying even when he wasn't. But Tyrone only laughed, clapped him on the back, and turned to shamble towards the door. 'Bye, you two!'

Dean stood at the window to watch him go, and Sam joined him. Tyrone waved at them as he got into his truck. They both raised a hand in goodbye, Dean smiling tightly. Tyrone slammed the door closed, started the engine with a grating sound they could hear from inside, and a moment later he roared out of the parking lot.

'I like him,' said Sam.

'Well, good for him,' said Dean. 'I think he's off his meds.'

Sam smiled, but it looked forced. He stuffed a bunch of shirts and a flashlight into his duffel, kind of hesitantly, like he was putting off doing something else.

Dean slung his own bag over his shoulder. 'C'mon. Time to go.'

At the door, he paused, looked back. Sam was still standing at the bed, head bent, hair falling over his face.

'Sam?'

'Yeah,' said Sam, distantly, without looking up. Dean went out the door. Sam could follow when it occurred to him.

 

When they were driving, Dean said, 'Sam, about the whole, you know, the whole heartbreak thing-'

Sam winced. 'Can we not talk about it?' he said. 'Please?'

Dean gave a short nod. Silence billowed up to fill the car. Dean reached out and turned the music on. Johnny Cash.

*

They parked up in Bobby's junkyard that evening, when the sun was throwing elongated shadows over the ground. Dean grinned round at the junkyard when he slammed the car door shut. Sam understood; sometimes this place felt about as close to a home as it got. It was the only place he knew where nothing had changed for as long as he could remember, except that the metal carcasses grew rustier and rustier, and Bobby's beard got grayer.

When Bobby opened the door, he rolled his eyes, said, 'Guess you avoided gettin' hole-punched by your deer-lady, then,' and stood back to let them in. They shuffled past him into the kitchen; Dean threw Sam a glance that he pretended not to see. They hadn't discussed what they were going to tell Bobby about how the case fell out. Probably just the truth, but the thought of explaining to someone else, even Bobby, why exactly he'd ended up the bait made Sam grimace.

'So what's happening?' Dean asked, when they were sat round the table, beers in hand. Bobby had watched them eagle-eyed for the first sip, then relaxed.

'Oh, y'know,' Bobby said, now, casually. 'Half the guys I know are out cleanin' up the demon residue from the gate, and as for the other half- well, there's the usual crop a spirits, a wendigo in Vermont, a thought-form in Washington, a vamp nest in New Orleans-'

Dean snorted. 'Tom Cruise in that one?' He shut up at Bobby's scathing look.

'You know how Tamara's doing, Bobby?' Sam asked.

Bobby shrugged. 'Off the map. Heard a rumour that she's trackin' some big kahuna demon in Mexico, but that's all. Who'd you two bring in on that case to do the ritual? I thought you might try and get ahold of her. She's got the broken heart and she's sure as hell got the rage.'

Dean's eyes found Sam's, unusually concerned. And questioning. Sam gave a tiny nod.

Dean looked back at Bobby, took a deep breath. 'We didn't bring anybody in.'

Bobby frowned. 'But you got her, right? You did the ritual?'

'Yup,' said Dean, popping the word.

Bobby's frown deepened. 'Then who-'

'Me,' said Sam.

Bobby's face was blank. He looked from Sam to Dean, and back to Sam. Sam watched comprehension slowly dawn in his eyes.

Bobby said, 'Oh.' Quiet. Cautious.

Sam braced himself for questions. But Bobby squeaked his chair back and got to his feet. 'Dean, if you wouldn't mind, I got a truck outside with the engine in a pretty mess. Wouldja take a look for me?'

Dean's eyes flicked to Sam and back, but he said, 'Sure. She in the garage?' and stood up.

'And Sam,' said Bobby. 'I've got a Latin grimoire that- well, let's say it washed up here. I'd put it at three hundred years old, and that's only the book itself. The shit in there's ancient. I'd appreciate your help.'

'Course, Bobby.'

Sam had no doubt Bobby's truck did want attention, and the grimoire did sound pretty fascinating, but Bobby's excuses had never been exactly subtle, and they probably weren't meant to be, judging by the gimlet eye Bobby gave Dean as Dean sidled out of the door. Dean passed the window, gave an awkward little grin-wave, and vanished.

Bobby looked at Sam, kind of hopelessly.

'So this grimoire,' said Sam.

'Yeah,' said Bobby, but he stood there a moment, awkwardly, lingering, before heading out of the room.

As soon as he was gone Sam turned on one heel, dragging hands through his hair, and winced so hard he felt like his soul left his body. He didn't mind sharing their personal crap with Bobby, he really didn't, but all this Dean stuff- it was too deep in him. If they wanted to see it they'd have to drag it out with pincers. Sam could barely look at it himself, let alone let anyone else. It was like having a terrible stomach wound that everyone kept trying to pry your hands away from to get a good look at.

When Bobby returned and set a gigantic, musty-smelling book down on the table, Sam opened it and everything else went out of his mind.

He leafed over another page. It sent up a tiny breath of dust. 'Bobby, where the hell did you find this?' The page he was on had a ritual, in hand-lettered and barely readable Latin, for reversing the tide: it involved the sacrifice of seventy-nine beautiful youths and throwing mermaid entrails on a bonfire. 'From what I can see, most of the rituals are so extravagant you'd have to be nuts to try them.'

'Like we got a shortage of nuts in the hunting business,' said Bobby dryly.

Sam laughed. 'Point.'

Bobby took his hat off, scratched his forehead with its peak. 'Y'know, at first my plan was to transcribe all this stuff and shelve the book. But look at this.' He turned a wad of pages; a luridly illustrated spell for causing miscarriages. Turned again: one for turning someone's skin inside-out. That ritual involved flaying and beheading a cat.

He thought of the books of Hieronymus Bosch paintings he'd leafed through on late nights in Stanford library; mouths like gaping tunnels, beetle-winged demons, rose-red skies that bristled with fork prongs and spears and bright thick knives. Hell as Earth turned inside-out.

Bobby shivered. 'This is one hell of a bad book, Sam.'

It was. Oh, it was. But bad books were powerful books. Bad books could make things happen. His fingers itched to scritch the thick old paper. He curled them into his palms under the table.

He said, 'What do you want to do with it, then? Bury it? Burn it, if it lets you?'

Bobby sighed, thin old-man shoulders slumping. 'I don't know. Maybe I'll lock it in a warded box and put it in the basement. You can't bury nothin' these days. People are always digging up crap they shouldn't be.'

They spent a couple hours transcribing the spells, filing them into Bobby's directory (alphabetised by function, padlocked into a cabinet). When Sam finally turned a page and landed on a spell for melding people's limbs together, he groaned out loud.

Bobby looked over and grimaced. 'Let's take a break, shall we? Want a beer?'

Sam screwed his fingers into his eyes. 'Thanks.'

While Bobby clattered around in the kitchen, Sam flipped through the book, only half focused. A dark illustration caught his eye and he stopped. It was a ritual for summoning the demon Amayon, Prince of Hell, King of the West.

He scanned over the method. The skin of a snake. Birds' feet. A silver ring. Dirt from unhallowed ground. Foxgloves. The most difficult thing on there was the tongue of a man buried upside-down. Given how many morgues they entered, he was sure he'd be able to do something about that.

He looked up, but Bobby was still in the kitchen. He started to copy it out, hastily, abbreviating. When he'd done he tore the page from the ledger, folded it, and put it at the back of his journal.

He got to his feet; breathed in hard, his head felt strange; drifted over to the window. A little way off in the yard, Dean's legs were visible, sticking out from under a mammoth truck. His jeans were oil-stained already. The faint sound of cursing floated in, and a grunted 'Hold on, girl, I gotcha- oh, fuck-'

'Sam?'

Bobby had come in without him noticing; was proffering a beer. There was a funny look in his eyes, somewhere between wariness and understanding.

Sam took the bottle, opened his mouth, but Bobby was moving round to stand by him, looking out at Dean, who was now wriggling out from under the truck. 'Always was in his element under a car,' said Bobby. 'Woulda made a fine mechanic, in another life.'

'He'd've made a fine mechanic in this one,' said Sam.

Bobby took a drink. 'Well, who knows. Maybe we'll see the day.'

Like there was a life beyond hunting for either of them. Like either of them were going to see forty, demon deal or no. Sam figured the best they could hope for was being taken out in an ordinary hunt. 'He acts like he's dead already,' he said. 'Bobby, half the time it's like he wants to die.'

Dean, almost out from under the truck, tried to sit up and cracked his head on the underside. Sam winced at the same time as Bobby.

'I just don't get why he won't let me try and save him,' said Sam. He didn't look at Bobby.

Bobby's hand came up to rest on his shoulder. 'He ain't ready yet,' said Bobby. His voice was gruff. 'You just got to give him time, Sam. I'm sure he'll see sense.'

Sam laughed. It sounded harsher than he'd meant it to. 'Time? We've got three hundred and eighteen days left, Bobby.'

A silence. 'You been counting?' said Bobby.

'Someone should,' said Sam, and anger spiked through him, hot and unexpected. He moved away, and Bobby's hand fell from his shoulder. 'If Dean won't value his own time someone else has to, right? And that's me. Even if I can't save him. Even if-'

'You'll save him,' said Bobby. 'We'll save him. Don't talk like that, son.'

Sam opened his mouth, to say what he had no idea, and then clamped it shut again. Bobby didn't need to hear it, any of it.

Bobby sat heavily down at the table. Behind them the door creaked open; Sam turned, and there was Dean, sweat-stained and grimy and beaming, hair slicked in a million directions. 'Just came in for a cold one. How's the creepy book?'

'Creepy,' said Bobby. 'You two want some food?'

In the end they made sandwiches and Dean announced that he wanted to watch a movie, so Bobby unearthed his box of videotapes and Dean crowed when he found some mouldering spaghetti western that he'd seen a million times already.

Time to relax, Sam thought, watching Dean holler at the screen, time to let go, just for a couple hours. But crackling at the back of his brain was a whisper with a persistent rhythm, like a heartbeat: three hundred and eighteen, three hundred and seventeen, three hundred, two hundred, one hundred, zero.

 

They stayed at Bobby's for nearly two weeks. Sam buried himself in books, went through Bobby's archives twice over, reading until the words melted and ran off the page, jumped into his eyes like little black fleas. He read through spells, summonings, all the demon lore he could find, lives of saints and mystics and mad priests, everything he could find on crossroads or devil-pacts. He noted anything that might be useful, however slight; his journal started to bulge with scraps and tabs of paper.

They followed him into his dreams, the demons with their shiny carapaces, the black dogs of roiling darkness, the grinning mouths. They followed him with needles in their gums and long dry fingers and he would jolt awake, sweating, on the couch, and every time he had to look down at where Dean slept on the camp-bed beneath to check that he was whole.

One night was terrible, more terrible than all the others. He dreamed of Dean, stretched out on a stripped metal bedframe, wrists and ankles ziptied, blood between his teeth and the shine of panic in his eyes. He was yelling Sam's name, rattling the bedframe, but something was swooping down on him and a flash of something- a knife?- under a lightbulb and Sam was bolting awake, sweating, and he barely made it to the bathroom- downstairs, thank god- before last night's burritos forced their way back up.

When he'd finished vomiting he pulled the chain and sank down onto the ratty lino, slumped against the basin. He was shaking. He was jelly. The nausea was fading but dread lay on him like a block of iron.

This was it. This was it. Dean was going to die. He could admit it in the darkness like he never could in the light. He was alone in a black cube of a room and he was shivering and he was sweating and Dean was in the next room and Dean was everything, he was absolutely everything, and that didn't matter because he was going to die. Dean's leather-soap-sweat smell was in his nose, but he was probably imagining it. That was going to die, too. Get used to it, Sam: it's going. It's going. It's gone. Soon he would have to live without that and what oh god what was he going to do-

The door whispered open, half-visible in the darkness. A voice out of the doorway. 'Sammy?'

'I'm fine,' he said. It came out raw.

Dean said nothing. All Sam could make out of him was the faintest shadow of his jaw, the occasional glint of one eye. Next moment, he'd gone from the doorway. Sam blinked. Dean had- Dean had never left him alone when he was sick. No matter how they'd argued lately. Not once.

He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. He should move. Or just- just stay here. His thoughts were lagging a little, as though they hadn't caught up with the interruption of Dean walking in yet.

He breathed in. Took all of it and parcelled it up and shoved it back down into that little black room where he couldn't look. Willed himself to get the hell up. What would Dad say? he tried to ask himself, but he just heard it in Dean's voice and that almost made him laugh in the worst way.

He was about to try and get to his feet, but then Dean came padding back in, a giant of shadow. Strange to look up at him for the first time in years. He knelt down on the floor, grabbed Sam's wrist, pressed a cold glass into his hand. Water.

'Thanks,' Sam said. Shame flickered in him. He should have known Dean wouldn't just walk away like that.

Dean sat down across from him, crossing his bare legs; he'd been sleeping in his boxers. He leaned his head back against the wall, column of his throat faintly visible. Sam drank the water, trying to get the rancid taste out of his mouth.

Dean left him in silence to drink for a minute. When Sam set the glass down, he said, 'Bad burritos?'

He was offering a lie on a plate. Maybe that was his intention, Sam thought. The weariness was hurting his bones. 'Bad dream.'

'Right,' said Dean. He shifted a little, crossed his arms over his chest, which showed pale through the dark. 'What was it?'

'It was-' Sam said, or started to say, and found that his throat had closed up, there were tears welling hot out of his eyes and spilling onto his cheeks. He clamped down on his own voice, on the thing in his chest that cried out to tell Dean everything, the thing that still believed that Dean could lift some kind of magic cloth off a miracle and it'd turn out that everything had been okay all along, Dean had never been in any serious danger, he'd been fooling them all, they'd been stupid to believe that Dean hadn't had the whole thing under control this entire time.

'Oh, hey, hey,' Dean was saying, and then 'Damn it, Sammy,' and he was shuffling tentatively over, crouching beside him. It was ridiculous, it was all so ridiculous, they were two grown men in their underwear in a bathroom that was way too small for them both and Sam was trying not to make the slightest sound, because any noise that came out of him would be jagged and terrible and inhuman.

Dean's palms on his face. Hands more familiar than life: calluses on his palms, whorls on seashells. He opened his eyes, looking through a stinging haze into near-pitch-black, only the gleam of Dean's hair and cheekbone visible.

He expected Dean to give some kind of bullshit speech about how tough it all was but they just had to stick it out, and he was prepared to spit back whatever retort he could muster up, to sink his goddamn teeth in Dean's sanctimonious bullshit.

Dean said, 'Oh, God, Sam.'

'You asshole,' Sam croaked out. 'You fucking asshole, Dean. You promised. You promised you'd always be there.'

'I know,' said Dean. 'I know, I know. It's shitty. It's so goddamn shitty.'

A sob clawed its way out of Sam's throat, and he covered his mouth with his hands and scrunched his eyes shut and just waited, waited for the crackling roar at the back of his mind to die down, enough that it wouldn't suffocate him whenever he inhaled. Dean's fingertips slid down his face, featherlight, and then vanished. Curled back into his lap, like he was worried Sam wouldn't want him to touch him.

Dean waited there for him, crouched awkwardly on the bathroom floor, til Sam had managed to stifle the sounds that were caught in his throat. He ran his hands over his face; a wad of toilet tissue, practically luminous in the darkness, appeared before him, and he took it. 'Thanks.' Blew his nose; scrubbed at the tears on his cheeks.

'You good?' said Dean uncertainly.

He would think Sam was volatile, now. Ready to explode or bust out crying at the slightest thing. He'd be walking on eggshells around him for days. Well, good, he thought savagely. 'No,' he said.

'You gonna blow any more chunks?'

He shook his head.

Dean jerked his head towards the sitting-room. 'Go back to bed. I'll get you a basin.'

'It's fine. You don't need to-'

'Dude, this is a self-preservation measure. You say you aren't gonna hurl again, but I'd personally feel a whole lot better if you had a basin. Just for insurance. Huh?'

Sam grimaced out a smile.

Dean slapped him gently on the knee. 'That's right. Go get some rest, tiger.'

It was the kindness in his voice that did it; as Dean left the bathroom Sam found himself choking up again. He wiped his eyed furiously, got to his feet, and headed back to the couch.

A minute later Dean reappeared with the basin. Sam immediately played dead.

'Dude, don't even try to pretend you're asleep right now,' said Dean.

Sam opened one eye and glared with it.

'That's right,' said Dean. Half a grin that faded quickly. He got down onto his camp bed, the shuffle of him pulling the blanket over himself; then silence, as though he'd paused before lying down.

'Night, Sam.'

Sam blew air out silently, but he said, 'Night.'

Another beat of silence. Then the familiar shuffling of Dean rolling over to find the most comfortable spot, and Sam crunched his eyes shut and willed everything out of his head. Fatigue came towards him like a train down the tracks; he was asleep before he felt it hit.

Chapter Text

JUL 02.

302.

Things feel better with Dean. I'm not sure how, but better. I haven't tried to get him talking or anything, but we seem to be sort of back to normal now. It's probably conditional upon me not mentioning anything that actually matters of the stuff we've been through lately, but I'll take it. He's seemed happy this past week.

Bobby's trying to fix the Colt. We finished transcribing that grimoire a few days back. Still not sure what to do about [scribbled out].

Looks like there might be a case in Ohio. Demon omens and a dead nun. Dean and I are going to check it out. Dean was joking to Bobby about maybe needing the Colt by this afternoon, but if there's anything big going down there that might end up being more than a joke.

JUL 05.

299.

Ruby fixed the Colt with Bobby, and the case is closed. The town had been completely screwed up by a couple demons who crawled their way loose from the Devil's Gate. Wonder how long it'll take for us to finish cleaning up that mess. One of them had possessed the bartender. Dean was trapped in a basement with her for hours. I don't know what they talked about, but I saw his face when I killed her. He looked shocked. Like he'd forgotten what she was for a while. I think he's still feeling weird about it. We've said goodbye to Bobby for now & we're in the car. If Dean has nowhere in particular to go he tends to just start driving west.

Bobby left the Colt with us. Said we got it off the vamps and we needed it, so we should keep it, and he'd just trust that we'd come running if he ever got beseiged by Moloch. I tried to thank him; think he understood.

Dean just gave me a weird unnerved look when he thought I wasn't looking. I asked him what was up, and he said it was nothing, so I asked him if it was because I killed the demon girl, and he said no, of course not, and it was really unconvincing. But what did he want me to do? I thought she and Father Gil were going to kill him.

*

They drifted.

Two nights at a dingy motel in upstate Kansas, before their credit card gave up the ghost and they couldn't find a spare that actually worked; they slept in the car, pulled over on the highway, and hustled pool all the way to Montana. One morning in a diner in Sweetwater County Sam opened a copy of the local paper, abandoned on the seat, and laughed. A paragraph on page nine warned of hustlers in the area, suspected con-men and criminals. The description given was no more specific than two tall, brown-haired white males, one early-to-late twenties, one late-twenties to mid-thirties, one dark, one pale.

It made them sound like ghosts, Sam thought. Shadows slipping between alley walls and fire escape stairs. One dark, one pale.

'Page nine? How humiliating,' Dean said when Sam pushed the paper to him. That night they raked in three hundred dollars at the local bar.

In the days, they drove, windows down, the sun focusing to a glare on the Impala's hood. They pulled over in fields and below bridges and on roadsides that looked out over forests to eat stale gas station sandwiches.They burned some very small bones in Bear River, Wyoming. Dean read Brave New World. Sam read the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum. Neon lights made blue and yellow moons in the motel windows.

 

One A.M on a Thursday, Lewistown, Montana. They were the only people in the Laundromat, which was a good thing, because Dean was stuffing blood-and-ectoplasm-stained jeans into a machine.

Sam was loading up another one. They'd found another credit card, name of one Hezekiah Pye, at the back of the glove compartment and had booked into a comparatively nice motel earlier, although the clerk had looked askance. Sam had immediately dived for the shower. His hair was still wet, the ends darkening the back of his collar.

All their stuff took up three machines. Dean kicked off his jeans and t-shirt and shoved them in last. Sam, moving sort of tired and wonky, did the same. He sat down on the floor in t-shirt and boxers.

Dean set them all to the hottest wash- you never knew what bloodstains could withstand- and sat down beside him. 'You know what I could really go for right now?'

Sam leaned his head against the wall, mouth a little open. Shoulders slumped. 'Orange soda?'

'A joint. A nice, relaxing joint.'

Sam's head lolled against the wall, eyes half-lidded. 'I could go for orange soda.'

'You remember when we were kids, how you had those two little plastic dinosaurs? You were, like, eight or something. I think you got them in a happy meal.'

'Oh, yeah.' Sam smiled. 'They were called Happy and Kenny. Kenny was the bossy one.'

'And then you went and put 'em in a washing machine in some Laudromat in Texas, and one of their heads broke off.'

'That was Happy's head. I think I threw a fit. Dad was so pissed.'

'Didn't we give Happy a funeral outside the motel? We put him in a matchbox and buried him-'

'-in the gravel in the car park.' Sam chuckled. 'Poor Happy.'

'Man, yeah,' said Dean. 'Poor Happy.'

'You ever miss it?' Sam said, a moment later. 'Back then, I mean.'

'Do you?' He'd thought Sam had hated their childhood.

'I don't know. Sort of. In a way. Everything was- there was a lot of bad stuff. Feeling like the weird new kid all the time, never managing to stay friends with anyone because of all the moving around, Dad and his crap. And when I was old enough to know what was going on, being afraid every time you and him walked out the door that I'd never see you again.'

Dean cracked a grin. 'I'm not part of the bad stuff, then?'

He expected a retort, an Oh, did I forget to mention my asshole older brother? But Sam shook his head, laughed softly. 'You were most of the good stuff.'

Something went all warm and gooey in his chest. Jesus, this was dumb. He tried to think of something to say.

'And the training, oh, God, the training,' Sam said. 'Dad badgering me to run another eight goddamn miles before breakfast, or whatever, and that time I dropped a weight on my foot and broke, like, twelve bones and he told me it was my own fault for being so goddamn clumsy.'

Dean opened his mouth. Said, 'He was rough on you.' The words didn't come out easy. Knot of guilt pulling tighter in his belly. 'I know it sucked sometimes, man. But he was trying to make sure you were tough enough to survive out there. And, I mean, you can't say it didn't work.' He could have kicked himself the second he'd said that, because of course it wasn't true, Sam had fucking died, and Sam was going to call him on his bull.

But Sam was quiet for a moment. 'He was rough on you too, Dean.'

The air-con hummed. Outside a car slid by, barely ruffling the night.

'What I miss is the summers,' Sam said. 'Not having to be a grown-up all the time, not having to make all these- crazy impossible choices. But the woods, and swimming in the lakes, and cream soda at Bobby's. I miss stuff like that.'

'You sure?' Dean squinted at him. ''Cause I remember some pretty unbearable summers after you hit puberty, kiddo.'

Sam grinned, lopsided, weirdly impish. 'Oh, believe me, I know. All I wanted then was to grow up as fast as I could so that I- well, you know. So I could get out.'

'Nice,' said Dean. Sue him, it stung.

Sam rolled his eyes at him. 'I wasn't running from you.'

'Oh, bullshit,' said Dean. 'C'mon, Sam, of course you were. You were running from me, and from Dad, and from the life. You can't seperate me from what I do. It's who I am.'

And there was more to it than that, more stuff that he'd never been able to say, had barely been able to admit to himself. He'd always been protective, couldn't help it, but he knew Sam had found him overbearing. Needy, even. And he wasn't denying it, he. He just didn't like thinking about it.

'Maybe that's true,' said Sam. He was staring straight ahead, out at the tiled floor. 'I don't know. It's not all of you. Hunting, I mean. It's a big part of you, but it's not all of you. Not by a long shot.'

Dean was pretty sure he disagreed, but whatever. Sam still thought there was more to Dean than there really was, bless. He wasn't about to disillusion him.

'And when I was at Stanford- I don't know. I think I thought that getting out of hunting would magically turn me into a normal person.' Tight smile. 'The monster would turn back into a man. Like I'd somehow unknow everything I knew just by being around people who didn't know any of it. The scars would just vanish back into my skin. The writing would melt off the wall.'

'Dude,' said Dean. He didn't really know what to say when Sam started talking like this. 'I mean. It was never gonna work, right?'

That bitter little smile again. 'Nah. I couldn't be like them. At best I was blending in.'

It was true that Sam had an unholy way of making himself invisible when he wanted to. He slumped in his clothes and shut his mouth and just sort of faded, until he could be a drawing on the wall behind them. Dean didn't know where Sam learned it from, but then, he didn't know where Sam learned a lot of things.

'We were born into one hell of a fucked-up world, huh,' said Dean.

'You ever wish you could start over?'

'All the goddamn time.'

Sam had slid down the wall so only his shoulders and head were resting against it, knees crooked up to point at the ceiling, his body comically long. Dean tried not to look at the elegant planes of his torso; there was always something surprising about how carefully moulded Sam's body was, under all the shirts. And at the same time it was such a Sam thing to do: have a body like a fucking Greek statue and never let anyone see it.

Sam turned his head and looked at Dean. 'What'd you do? If you could?'

Dean laughed, mostly because of the uncertainty that sprung up in him. 'I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before.'

Sam nudged him in the leg with a bony elbow. 'You could fix cars.'

'Damn,' he said. 'Yeah, I guess.'

He could, too. It flashed in without warning; him rolling out from under a car, walking into a house, and kissing a woman on the cheek. A woman who looked suspiciously like Lisa. And there was a kid there, too, who sort of resembled Ben. He tried to picture Sam dropping by in his fancy lawyer suit, smiley and bright-eyed as the Sam the djinn had showed him, just coming round after work for a couple beers and a clap on the shoulder, but the image wouldn't quite come together. He shook his head to clear it.

'What'd you do?' he asked, putting the house out of his mind. 'Stanford and a cushy lawyer job, I guess?'

'I don't know,' said Sam. 'I don't know if I could. I think I've seen too much.'

'But we're talking starting over here, man,' said Dean.

'I know.' Sam's fingers laced together. 'I think I'd always have seen too much. I think there's something strange in me. I think I'd always have been like this. Whatever happened. I'd never have felt real in any other kind of life. Not really.'

It worried him when Sam started talking like this. Like there was something wrong with him. He wanted to tell Sam there wasn't but he didn't know how. Because hadn't there always been something strange in Sam? He could hardly tell Sam that he knew and he didn't mind, that Sam was still Sam, that it didn't make a difference to him. It would make a difference to Sam.

And then there was the coldness Dean had seen in him, when Sam killed Jake, when he shot Casey. What was that? Was that Sam? Or was it something else, something new?

He looked down at Sam. From this angle the top of his head was visible, the unruly ends of his hair, the triangle of his nose seen from above. Dark eyelashes, miles of satin-brown skin. Sam looked up and met his eyes and grinned, sunny and unexpected.

No, Dean decided. He was imagining it. Sam was okay. Sam was still Sam. Or, hell. He was enough of Sam that it didn't made a damn bit of difference.

'Maybe you could follow your true calling as a monk,' he suggested.

Sam laughed. 'Great idea.'

'Samuel the ninja priest. Law-abiding clergyman by day, knife-wielding exorcist by night, and loving friend, good son, and doting brother in-between.'

Sam's nose wrinkled up. 'Don't I ever get to sleep?'

'You can do that during communion.'

'I think you're getting several clerical roles kind of muddled up here.'

Dean waved that aside and checked the time. Nearly two A.M. Sam finally sat up properly, stretching out his legs, bare feet resting on grubby tile.

'I like Laundromats,' he said.

'Christ, I know,' said Dean. 'Don't you remember when you were, like, six and you hid in one of the machines and me and Dad thought you'd wandered into the town and got lost? I thought Dad was gonna kill me if the crushing worry didn't.'

Sam frowned. 'I think I remember. Didn't you wind up buying me ice cream?'

'Dunno. Maybe. That used to be the one surefire way to shut you up when you were little.'

'And now it's the one sure way to shut you up,' said Sam. 'How times change.'

'Don't they just.' A huge yawn took him by surprise; when it finished he champed the stiffness out of his jaw. He was ready to sleep for fifteen hours when they were done here. It wasn't even that late for them but the bright lights always made him tired.

Sam poked him in the side. 'Stay awake. I ain't carrying you in a laundry basket.'

'You say that like we have a laundry basket.' He blinked, hard, til his eyes focused properly. Thought, oh, screw it. 'Sam?'

Sam looked at him, eyes dark sleepy crescents. 'Mm?'

'What was it like being dead?'

Sam tipped his head back. 'Dunno, really. There's kind of a hole in my memory.'

'C'mon,' he said. 'Nothing? That's not like you.'

A moment of silence. A shiver ran through Sam's body, and they weren't touching anywhere but somehow Dean felt that shiver, somehow it was transmitted into him, too. 'It was dark,' said Sam. 'And cold, I think. But- but I'm not sure it was meant to be.'

'You reckon you were anywhere?'

'I guess I must have been,' said Sam. 'I- think I might have been. I don't think it was Hell. But- I don't know. I mean, I guess I just don't remember it. But it's a weird sort of impression for Heaven to leave. So maybe-'

'Of course it wasn't Hell,' said Dean. When Sam raised an eyebrow at him: 'Dude, like you'd go to Hell. For anything. Ever. I mean, you huddle over your rosary beads before you torch a wendigo, for God's sake.'

'I was going to say maybe it was Purgatory, actually,' said Sam. 'Maybe the Catholics got it right all along. It's supposedly a state where you get cleansed of your sins in order to enter Heaven. So-'

'I know what Purgatory is, Sam.'

'And, uh. I haven't prayed in a while, actually.' He paused. 'Not that I ever used rosary beads. Though I guess they must work, because you can sanctify water with them.'

'I'm sorry about that,' said Dean. 'The praying thing, I mean.' Okay, he thought it was bullshit, or mostly he had, but he knew what it had meant to Sam. He knew what it had meant to him to believe that there was some great goodness out there, some force that would make everything come right in the end.

Watching that faith snuff out in Sam was like watching a lightbulb die. Sam had lost enough, dammit. Couldn't he have kept this one thing?

Sam was quiet for a moment. 'It's okay,' he said.

Dean met his eyes. 'Can I ask why you stopped?'

A shrug. 'Guess I just stopped feeling like anyone was listening. Or if they were, like they cared. I stopped believing anyone was going to help.'

'I'm listening,' said Dean.

Sam met his gaze again, soberly. 'Are you?'

Dean opened his mouth and found that he had absolutely nothing to say.

One of the washers beeped, and then another. Sam got to his feet and turned the dial to spin cycle. He sat back down. His profile was serene.

'Well, maybe there isn't a Heaven,' said Dean. 'Maybe there isn't a Purgatory, either. Maybe there's just Hell, and that's where the demons live, and the fools and the assholes, and then for everyone else there's just earthworms and dirt. Maybe Heaven's just a fairy story people invented to make them feel better about how fucked up everything is.'

'Maybe,' said Sam. Before Dean could say he was surprised he agreed, Sam said, 'Or maybe that's just something you're telling yourself to help you justify selling your soul.'

Dean stared at him. 'What?'

'Maybe,' said Sam, 'you're trying to believe that because if it isn't true, you've fucked up. Because if it isn't true and there is a Heaven and I did go there, you could have seen me again.'

'What the hell, Sam.'

'If you'd just hung on. Hell, not that I'm encouraging it, but if you'd-' Sam stopped. Flushed his upset shade of red.

'Kapow?' said Dean, miming pressing a gun to his temple.

'Yes.' Sam was redder now. 'And I wouldn't have wanted you to, Dean, I would have wanted you to live and be happy, but what I don't understand is why didn't you? If there's a Hell it's a reasonably safe assumption that there's a Heaven, some sort of Heaven, something. I mean, hell, maybe we'd've reunited in-' he blushed harder- 'in the great blue yonder, or something. Why didn't you just- ?'

If Sam had a Heaven, he'd be in it. That seemed to be maybe sort of what Sam was saying. If Sam had a Heaven he'd be in it. That was- well.

That could almost have made everything worth it.

You ever wish you could start over?

'Dude,' he said. 'Sam. We don't know squat about Heaven. Alright, I'll grant you that it might exist, there might be something up there. But- it wouldn't be this, man.' He gestured around.

Sam frowned. 'A... laundromat?'

'No! Well, yeah. But I mean it wouldn't be this. All of it. The- the motels and the car and the- the digging up a grave at midnight with the cops two hours behind and the Neighborhood Watch guy tied up with his socks in his mouth. It wouldn't be real, it wouldn't be here. And I ain't gonna trade that in for a bunch of mights and maybes.'

Sam could have said something, then, something like No, you just traded it in for your goddamn soul. Dean watched the thought pass over his face, the quiver of his throat. Then Sam said, 'So what you're saying is, you'd rather have an extra year of life down on the ground with me than an eternity in Paradise?'

Dean shrugged. 'Yeah, I guess that's exactly what I'm saying.'

Sam stared into space. 'You're so fucking weird,' he said.

Dean bumped his shoulder. 'Hey, you love it.'

Sam blew his hair out of his eyes. 'I don't. You're an asshole.'

'And you love it.'

Sam gave a small laugh, ducked his head. Just-dried hair fell into his eyes. As usual, he needed a haircut. Dean waited for the retort, for Sam to call him a jerk or a dick or snipe at him somehow, but it didn't come. Just Sam's soft gaze turning onto him. Sam's face was almost unreadable. It drove him crazy how Sam could look like that, eyes all vulnerable and receptive and yet you still couldn't tell a damn thing he was thinking.

And what was he thinking? What was it like to be in that giant skull of his? Dean had once thought he knew, thought he knew Sam inside-out. Now it was like there were whole rooms of Sam's personality that he was only just finding out about, and some of them were brave and beautiful and kind and some of them were swallowed up in blackness and Dean had no idea what was in them.

The silence had already gone on way too long. Dean realised he was holding his breath. Sam just carried on studying him, like he was intent on finding out every bit of Dean's soul, like maybe if he weighed and counted out all its parts he could stop any of it getting away.

They, the two of them, had gone too far. Darkness had no seams; he couldn't tell where Sam's ended and his own began anymore. Sam swallowed, flicked his eyes away.

Gaze broken, Dean felt like a glaring floodlight had swung away from him. He looked down at the tile, willed away the tension that fluttered in his hands. Even as his heart beat uneasy cranked-up time. And beside him Sam breathed out, silently, through his mouth.

 

Chapter Text

'I can't believe I let you talk me into this.'

Sam hummed without looking up from Elkins' journal; he'd borrowed it from Bobby on the off-chance that there might be something in there. After all, guy had spent his entire life keeping demons away from the Colt, hadn't he?

'Nobody goes to Louisiana in July, Sam. Nobody.'

'We are nobody, Dean. We don't even have health insurance.' He didn't need to look up to know that Dean was pulling a face at him.

'It's going to be like six thousand degrees. I'm going to die.'

Sam shut the book. 'Alright, Dean. Turn the car around and we'll go back north. Maybe we'll spend a nice couple weeks by a lake somewhere. You can eat hot dogs and get laid, and I'll finish going through Elkins' journal. Of course, the people in Jonesville might keep dying, and the lightning storms won't stop either, and maybe Bobby'll be able to get a hunter or two out here to clean up this week's flavour of Devil's Gate, but I guess that's no problem, right? Just so long as-'

'Oh, alright! You've made your point, Jesus. I'm driving, aren't I?'

Sam shut his mouth, already feeling a little guilty. Dean was right, of course; much as he might complain about it, he'd never back down from a hunt when lives were on the line. And he hadn't meant for it all to come out that harshly, but Dean had been bitching for the past four hundred miles, and it was starting to get to him.

Dean did admittedly look pretty miserable. His t-shirt was patched dark with sweat, face gleaming, smudges under his eyes. The car windows were all down, but it barely made a difference; humidity hung like hot breath on the air. They'd passed the Welcome to Louisiana sign a while back.

Sam inhaled and leaned back, the back of his neck sticking to the leather. The sky was a troubled, oceanic grey-blue, like the bottom of a dirty swimming-pool. He didn't want to concede anything to Dean, but he made a silent note to find their next hunt over the other side of the country. Preferably somewhere with forests. And a lake.

A fly landed on his arm. He flicked it off.

 

This was a bad town.

Sam knew it the moment he stepped out of the car. There was a malevolence in the air as tangible as the smell of drifting ash. The sky seemed to have physical weight and heft here, as though gravity bore down more heavily than in other parts of the world, humidity a hand that wrapped round Sam's throat and squeezed.

Cars lined the wide road, but there were no people that he could see. No-one walking down the street or sitting out on their porch. The only sign of life was the open door of a fishing tackle store. It wasn't as though it was a big town, either; a few stores, a wooden church, a police station, and a couple streets of houses. Beyond that, nothing but swamp forest and the deep lush green of fields, interrupted only by  the occasional farm.

This was the town where, three days before, Ezra Macabee killed his wife. It could have been in one of these houses- big, most of them, and old, with stately gables and hints of floral curtains. This was the town where, in these old wooden houses, somehow nobody heard the woman screaming; or they did and didn't say anything; or she didn't scream. This was the town where Ezra Macabee shot himself, messily, in the head. Sam knew it was messy because they'd already seen the bodies; Jonesville didn't have a morgue, so they were being stored two towns over. The guy had used a hunting rifle, nine-millimetre slugs. He'd taken off the side of his head.

The morgue had smelled, suffocatingly, of stale sex, but Sam wasn't sure if that was the bodies or just the morgue.

Dean was fumbling in the badge-box. He threw one to Sam- Federal Marshall- got out of the car, slammed the door shut, and set off up the road. Sam caught up quickly.

The police station was a low, squat brick building at the end of the road. A beech tree grew in the courtyard. The glass doors swung open easily.

There was no-one inside. Nobody at the reception desk, no voices muffled behind doors, no-one on the hard chairs in the waiting area. Dean went over to the desk and pressed the bell, which rang out painfully shrill; Sam winced. Dean waited, looking round, but nobody appeared.

He pressed the bell again. And again. Nothing happened.

Dean turned on one heel and narrowed his eyes at Sam. 'You sure you didn't conveniently forget to tell me that this was a ghost town?'

'There's definitely supposed to be people,' said Sam.

'Right.'

Sam went closer to one of the doors. A gold plaque read SHERIFF WOODROW D. HORTON. He knocked. Nothing. Looked round at Dean, who pulled his might-as-well-try-it face, and Sam pushed open the door. He'd expected it to be locked.

'Weirder and weirder,' said Dean, and pushed his way in, knocking into Sam's shoulder on his way.

There were no bloodstains. Nothing smelled of sulphur. Dean tapped a mug on the desk. 'He didn't finish his coffee.'

Sam went to the windowsill. A few woodchipped paces, scraggly barbed wire, and then the swamp began; it looked innocuous from here, just mud and green undergrowth and skinny trees. There was a dead wasp on the windowsill, lying on its back, legs scrunched in over a black underbelly. 'S'like they all left.'

'I think the coffee's been here at least a day,' said Dean.

'Let's check the other offices.'

They looked round each of them, the holding-cell too, but there was nobody there. Sam wondered if there was anyone in the entire town. 'Guess you were right,' he said.

'What?'

'Nobody goes to Louisiana in July.'

When they headed back to the car, Dean looked at him. 'You thinking what I'm thinking?'

'Smells like Croatoan?'

'It'd explain the dude killing the wife and offing himself. And maybe the demon omens.'

Sam shook his head, climbing into shotgun. 'Let's not jump the gun. We don't know if the town's deserted yet.' And there was something else. This felt different. He wasn't sure how, except that it had something to do with his vague feeling of wrong ever since they got here. Something to do with the weight of the sky.

Dean had an address, written in scuffed pencil on notepaper watermarked The Eagle Motel. They drove slowly down the road, Sam counting off the house numbers, watching.

Sitting on one of the fences was a little girl, a skinny blonde kid eating a cola pop. She followed them with dark eyes and then they'd passed her. 'Dean. Look.'

'Huh?' Dean twisted his head back to see. 'Oh. Okay. Not a ghost town.'

'She looked pretty real. Hey hey hey-'

The right house number, 103, jumped out at him. Dean pulled over and turned the engine off. It died into silence.

The house looked like all the rest- tall, the porch roof throwing the door into dimness, and the reflected sky made the windows opaque. There was a deckchair with a green striped cover abandoned on the porch. They got out of the car; Dean barely looked around before matter-of-factly picking the lock. The door swung inwards. Skre-ee-eek.

A dim hallway. Sam stepped in after Dean and almost gagged. He could smell it again- sex, thick and musty, a dark, raw stink.

Dean drew in a long breath. 'Ah. It's the bathroom wastebasket when you were fifteen all over again.'

Sam swatted him on the arm and moved deeper into the house. A faint buzzing sound- an insect, trapped, somewhere in these dark rooms. He entered the kitchen, looked around; pale green walls, a pinboard full of timetables, shopping lists, recipes. No bloodstains. No horror. Grey light fell in through a window over the table.

Dean came in, scratching at his collarbone. 'I checked the other room. No sulphur. No ecto. No nothing. I'm forgetting why we're here.'

'Quit being dramatic.' Sam crossed to the stairs and went up, wood creaking.

He never liked going in other people's bedrooms. It felt like you were walking around in someone else's head. It was too much of an invasion for him. Dean had never seemed to mind, but Dean had never exactly got the concept of personal space.

He crossed a dim carpeted hallway, picked the closest door. He knew he'd got it right the moment he stepped inside. Thick blue carpeting; shades half-down, and dust hanging in the air. The bed was rumpled. One wall was blood-spattered.
He turned around, looked back at the door; saw this time the loose ends of the yellow police tape, fluttering by each side of the doorway. It was the only sign the authorities had ever been here. When he glanced down he saw he was almost standing on another bloodstain, this one huge and dark, and it looked so much like a hole bored through the floor that he stepped away on instinct.

This was a bad place.

He rushed the check, the need to get back downstairs tugging at him. No weird residues, demonic or otherwise, that he could see. No telling what the police had taken away, of course. He shut the door behind him when he left, looking back once to check everything was as he'd found it.

'Zip,' said Dean, shortly, when Sam got back downstairs. An angry flush had been crawling up Dean's neck from his shirt collar, and now it had reached his face. He looked ready to crack open from the heat.

 

Sam knocked on the next door down, Dean lingering behind, but nobody answered, though he thought a curtain twitched. The next one down was the same, and the next one. They moved over and tried the other side, Dean knocking with a jaw set like granite, and this time there was a scuffling from inside.

'Asshole ain't going to open, just you see,' said Dean, hardly lowering his voice, but Sam jabbed him with his elbow. 'Sshhh.'

A bolt-screech, and a chain unclinking. A hesitation. The door slowly opened. The man inside had a hostile, angular face, seamed and wizened and cracked. He moistened his lips with his tongue as he looked at them. His left hand was on the door; his right hand disappeared behind it at an odd angle. Great, Sam thought. They had a gun on them already.

The man stared from Sam to Dean with flat eyes. 'What you want,' he said.

Sam adopted his most understanding face. 'Sir, we're Federal Marshals.' He showed his badge. The guy looked unconvinced. 'We're investigating the death of Cassie Maccabee and her husband. We'd just like to ask you a few questions.'

The door didn't budge an inch, though Dean eyed it. The man just kept staring with eyes like beaten metal.

Sam cleared his throat. 'Did you know the Maccabees, sir?'

A slow head-shake. His eyes never left them.

Sam tried to smile. 'But it's a small town. You were next-door neighbors. You must have spoken to them once or twice, right?'

Another head-shake, barely there. He could feel the slow build of Dean's frustration next to him, like a needle ticking up, and up. Suppressed the urge to put a cool hand on Dean's arm and say Wait.

'So you're telling me,' said Dean tightly, 'that you never communicated with your neighbors. Not once.'

Hard gray eyes.

Dean raised his eyebrows. 'Not even a friendly hammer on the walls when the sex got too loud?' he said. He didn't say it in a nice way.

The guy shrugged, a brief lift-drop of bones.

'Okay,' said Dean, nodding. 'Awesome. That's just awesome. Sam?'

He couldn't help casting an unsettled look at Dean before he spoke. 'Uh, you hear anything on the night of Mrs Maccabee's death?'

Head-shake. Sam didn't know why but he felt like somewhere way back behind his eyes the guy was laughing at them. He could practically feel Dean's blood pressure ratcheting up.

'See anything strange in the neighborhood lately? Anything at all? People acting out-of-character? New folks arriving, perhaps? Odd disappearances?'

The guy moistened his lips again. 'Not a thing,' he said. His voice came out cracked and rusty.

'Nothing,' said Dean.

'No,' said the guy. There was definitely a hint of a smile playing around his lips this time.

Sam felt Dean picking up on it. When Dean got mad and didn't let it out it was like standing next to a furnace. The air around him wavered.

'So if we take you down to the station and put you in a cell for being unresponsive to officers of the law,' Dean said, 'will you remember anything then?'

Sam shut his eyes briefly. First rule of dealing with witnesses, Dad had always said, don't lose your temper.

The man was definitely smiling at them now.

Sam looked from Dean to the man and decided that was enough. 'Thank you for your time, Sir.' He held out his card, and when the man made no move to take it, laid it on the doormat. 'If you do happen to remember anything, give us a call.'

'Sure will,' said the guy.

Sam turned, grabbed Dean's arm, and steered them both back down the path. Dean shook him off furiously. 'Let go of me.'

When they went out of the gate, Sam finally heard the door close. Dean paced off up the road. 'Dean,' he called. 'Stop. You need to calm down.'

Dean turned, red-faced. 'Oh, shut up, Sam.'

'I know it's hot and I know you're mad, but no-one's gonna open up to you if you're giving them the stink-eye. And I don't think there's a charge called 'being unresponsive to officers of the law'.'

'Alright. Alright, Jesus Christ.' He threw up his hands. 'I'm sorry. Okay? I'll calm down.'

The red didn't leave his face, but Dean hung back while Sam talked to the next neighbor along who'd answer the door. She was politer, a woman in her sixties with a soft voice, but her eyes were just like the old man's- tough as lead pennies.

'No, I don't think I heard anything. As you see, Marshal, I'm a few houses down from where the murder happened.'

Right. Sam frowned; it seemed like strange phrasing, to say that instead of where the Maccabees lived, or something to that effect. 'Did you know the family well, Mrs Miller?'

She shook her head. 'Not particularly. You might think that because it's a small town everyone must be in each other's business, but I'm a very private person and so were they. We only spoke a few times.' At Sam's prompting look: 'No, there was never any sign of the tragedy to come, officer. They were always polite and pleasant.'

'I see,' said Sam. He looked her in the eye. 'Mrs Miller, is your town usually this empty?'

She remained expressionless. 'I suppose a few people are out of town. It is the summer, you know.'

'Is it usual for the police station to be completely empty?' growled Dean from behind him.

'Well,' said Mrs Miller, 'perhaps the officers decided to take a holiday. Now, I'm a busy woman. I would very much like it if you two would leave.'

'What is with these people,' Dean groused as they went back to the car.

'Maybe they're scared.' It sounded halfhearted even to him.

'Yeah, real scared. Did you see the evil eye she was giving us? She wanted to bake us into a fucking pie, the bitch.'

'Maybe whatever's doing this has got the remaining people complicit somehow.' Or maybe they were just assholes.

When they got in the car Dean drove slowly, so that Sam could look out for the motel. The only signs of life on the street were an old lady sitting out on her porch, watching, and a man visible dimly through a window, walking through his front room. In that glimpse as the car slid by he looked like someone moving underwater.

At the end of the street, Dean made to turn. The last house on the street, the one that backed the swamp, caught Sam's eye; the front door stood wide open. 'Dean, stop.'

Dean groaned. 'Are you fucking serious? You want to talk to more creepzoid neighbors?'

'Just pull over.'

Dean grumbled but pulled over. Sam was out of the door in seconds, something jangling at the back of his brain. He moved up the path towards that open door, glimpsing corridor. And an unmistakeable smell: rotting meat and fear.

He knocked. Called, cautiously, 'Hello?'

Nothing but the heat bearing down. The distant insectile drone that went on and on and on like maggots boring into his skull. Moving very quietly, he went inside. Heard Dean coming up behind him. Sam judged from the care of his gait that Dean had decided to take this seriously.

He went into the front room. The smell was stronger in here. Odd what his eyes took in when he was scanning for big gore and tiny clues at once. The ugly labyrinthine pattern of the rug; the cuckoo clock; photos on the mantel. Nothing. He backed out, into the kitchen, and almost choked on the smell, foul and metallic.

She was spread-eagled on the table. Her belly had been ripped open. The red shreds of a floral nightdress dripped, dangling, towards the floor. Sam covered his nose and mouth, trying to block out the stink.

The blood was all over the floor. Dried and half-dried in drips and blotches under the table, painted in smears under her hands, as though she'd scrabbled for a grip in the slickness at the table's edge.

This was the kind of scene where, when they were kids, Dean would have put his hand over Sam's eyes. Don't look, Sammy. Don't look at the glinting intestine, don't look at the dark innards. Don't look at parts of a person that were never meant to see the light. Flies drifted and buzzed in the mess, glittering.

He had to look. He forced himself to look.

Dean walked in and stopped. 'Shit,' he said.

The smell and the heat were making sweat prickle on Sam's neck. 'You think her husband did this?'

Dean's mouth tightened, troubled. He drew out his gun. Cocked it. 'I'll check upstairs.'

'Right,' said Sam. Dean walked out, boots quiet on the tile, leaving him alone with the body and the flies. A wasp droned by the window. 'Right.'

 

After some deliberation, Sam called 911; nothing but static. Dean's cell was the same. In the end they lifted the body off the table, into a golf bag Dean had found in a cupboard upstairs, and carried it out to the Impala's trunk, to lie next to the weapons and the dreamcatchers.

'At least we can guarantee we're not going to be stopped by the police, eh,' said Dean, who got more cheerful when they started driving again. Sam thought he'd picked a great time to look on the bright side.

There was, after all, no motel in town. What there was, almost thirty miles out through the fields and the trees, was a ramshackle plantation house, white paint flaking off its pillars, window-shutters all closed. A peeling sign out front read:

THE LAST WALTZ B&B

CABLE TV

NO PETS

NO TROUBLE

Dean idled the car, looking up at it. 'You wouldn't say we're trouble, would you, Sam?'

'Nah.'

The once-white door led into a rattily-carpeted foyer. Bars of light streamed in from the closed shutters on the wall behind the desk. Pictures of a laughing Marilyn Monroe hung on the walls, frames gathering dust. The clerk, a pale, pudgy guy in an X-Files t-shirt, barely glanced at them when he took their card.

'You get a lot of visitors?' said Sam, half joking.

The guy didn't look up. 'It's busier in the fall.'

'You ain't from Jonesville, are you?' said Dean, head on one side, friendly grin.

'No, man. I'm from Nicholls. Next town over.'

'Right,' said Dean. 'You ain't had any, uh, unexpected population decreases lately?'

'Not unless you count my grandma dyin'.'

'We don't,' said Dean, and smiled, showing teeth, until Sam kicked him in the ankle.

The guy slid the card back over. 'You're upstairs. Breakfast is eight til ten. Lucky you.'

Their room was on the second floor. God knew why, when there were no other cars parked out back. Dean grinned, shaking his head, when they went up the stairs. 'This place is- look at it, Sam. Look at that.' He gestured to a pair of grubby lace gloves nailed to one wall. 'This place is wonderful.'

Sam couldn't find it in himself to roll his eyes. At least Dean wasn't at his throat anymore. 'Yeah, real pretty, Dean.'

Their room was dark when they entered it. When Dean threw the shutters open he sent bars of light leaping over the walls Dusty light spilled in. It was a wide old room, filled with a muddle of old furniture- a grimy green velvet couch, mismatched floral chairs, beds too close together. Sam opened the other shuters and looked out. The fields were gold with the sunset.

Dean threw himself back onto a bed and it creaked wildly. Sam pulled up the comforter on the other bed and winced. The comforter was about a mile thick. They were in for some long hot nights.

'Just sleep without it, dude,' said Dean, reading his thoughts. 'Or use your jacket or something if you still can't sleep without something on you.'

Dean was right. He couldn't. Ever since he'd been little. Probably best not to think about why. A holdover, probably, from the days when the monsters were still under the bed. And not clawing at the door.

Dean was watching him, eyes slitted, from the bed. 'For Christ's sake,' he said, and bounced up. He strode over to where his duffel sat and rummaged for a minute. Then he tossed Sam a bundle of cloth; Sam shook it out. One of Dean's old Black Sabbath shirts.

He remembered this shirt. Dean used to wear it all the time before Sam left for college. The fabric was soft with age, logo cracked and faded. It had that bottom-of-the-duffel smell that was also painfully, unmistakeably Dean, old leather and beer and sweat, not unpleasant, a warm body smell.

He wanted to press it to his mouth and inhale it. Which was sort of terrible and wrong. But maybe not unexpected, when you only had your brother for another ten months, and then he would be gone forever.

'Thanks,' he said.

'Don't mention it.' Dean had a little crease between his eyebrows as he sat back down.

What the hell was he doing? Bequeathing himself to Sam before he was even dead? Sam folded the shirt and laid it under the pillow so that he didn't have to look at it. He lay back on the bed. They needed to ward the room.

'I call first shower,' Dean said, but he made no effort to move from the other bed.

Sam stared up at the beaded lampshade. There was a cobweb attaching it to the ceiling. 'Where'd you think those people are now?'

'Dead. Or possessed.'

'Think there's still any demons left in the town?'

'I mean, if we assume the stiff in the trunk got iced by her Croat hubby, probably. That murder was fresh and they probably know we just rolled up. They'd want to stick around.'

Sam twisted his head to look at Dean. 'Are you sure it is Croatoan, Dean?'

Dean shrugged. 'Electrical storms. No cell reception. Normal people supposedly going crazy and killing their nearest and dearest. Weird vanishings. Looks like a duck to me.'

'I don't know.' The symptoms were right but the order was off. Something was off. It definitely smelled demony but that was all Sam was going to hazard.

A sigh. 'We need to bury that body.'

'Dean, I wish we knew her name.'

Dean was quiet for a moment. The green of his eyes was bright as water in the evening light. 'Yeah. Me too.'

You could always rely on Dean, Sam thought, to give a crap about the vics. No matter what else went out of the window. There was something in Dean that went towards the hurt and the vulnerable and wanted to fix them. Even if it couldn't be fixed. Why was that?

And it wasn't like Sam didn't care. He didn't just care, either, he would never be free of it- not the people they'd saved or the people they'd failed to save or the people who were dead before they even arrived. But he didn't make a religion out of it the way Dean did. It was like disregarding himself- going to such lengths for other people that Dean erased himself entirely in the process- was something Dean got his rocks off over. Like he could only allow himself to be selfish when it came to making selfless sacrifices that nobody else actually wanted from him.

Sam looked back at the ceiling. Listened out for Dean's slow and steady breathing. If he listened hard enough, maybe he'd be able to hear the creak of muscle expanding and contracting, the call and echo of blood. Alive. Alive. Alive.

Dean was still alive. He would hold that in his hand so tightly it would never go out.

Dean got up from the bed. 'Reckon we can get pizza delivered here?'

Sam grinned. 'Yeah, if you pay for the gasoline.'

'I'm serious, man, I don't want to go back into Jonestown for a nasty cheese sandwich. Goddamn, we should have gone to New Orleans on the way.'

'And what? Bit some civilians?'

'No, no. Checked out the local wildlife, knocked back some margaritas, heard some tunes.' He looked at Sam sideways. 'You know, I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but I think you've been hunting too much. I think you need a holiday.'

Sam rolled his eyes, standing up. He grabbed a salt canister out of the duffel, went to the window. Knelt to drop a careful line of salt, white river falling through his fingers in smooth motion. 'We just finished a holiday.'

'C'mon, man, that wasn't a proper holiday, that was Bobby's. And you spent the whole thing filing weird creepy books. When was the last time you let yourself go, huh?'

Madison, Sam thought, and instantly crossed that off his mind. A kind of sense-shock rustled through him before he could stop it. Slick pale skin, the O of her mouth, the catch and scrape of teeth along his jugular. He shivered. Sweat prickled along his chest. The heat must be seriously getting to him if he was thinking like this. Usually sex was a room in his head he just didn't enter.

And he wouldn't enter it now. Even though the soft cotton of his t-shirt was cat's-tongue rough, suddenly, where it caught against his nipples.

'Huh?' said Dean, eyebrows waggling, freckles blazing. 'Huh?'

 

In the blue late evening, they left the room and went down the steep winding stairs, out through the back door, to the parking lot. Sam leaned against the vending machine, sipping from the holy water bottle, the rosary twined around its neck knocking against his knuckles, as Dean fed in the coins.

Silk-bright sun touched the edges of Dean's hair. He'd let Sam take first shower in the end. Dean was only just out of the water, shirtless and barefoot in worn old jeans, but his hair was already drying in tufts and soft spikes. It was just that damn hot out here. Sam was keeping in the shade so the asphalt didn't burn the soles of his bare feet.

Dean's eyebrows shot up as several somethings thunked to the bottom of the machine. 'A-ha!'

Sam gave a laugh. He'd never known a vending machine that Dean couldn't weasel things out of, money or no. When they were kids he'd had some sort of trick that involved bullet casings and bits of paper.

Dean rummaged at the bottom of the machine and came up with two fistfuls of Twizzlers and potato chips. 'Yeah, baby. I'm just that good.'

'You're a fucking dork,' Sam told him. When Dean gave him the stink-eye, he flicked water at him from the open bottle.

'Dude,' said Dean, looking down at the dark spots on his jeans in mock outrage. The packets fell to the ground as Dean grabbed up his own bottle, twisted the cap open, and jerked it at Sam. He jumped away and the water hit the ground.

Something, some mischeivous impulse, rose up in Sam for the first time in a while. He held up his hands. 'Okay, dude, truce.'

Dean accepted this with a dubious look, but lowered his water bottle. He turned away, and Sam slung an arc of water at Dean, catching him full in the face.

Dean spluttered. 'You little fucknut,' he said when he opened his eyes.

'You're just slow, gramps,' said Sam, and cracked up laughing as Dean launched himself at him with bottle raised. He set off running across the asphalt, Dean catching at the back of his shirt, running so fast he barely felt the asphalt's heat on his feet. A stream of cold water caught him right along the neck, running down his spine, and he yelped and jumped about a foot; Dean crowed, only to have Sam turn and use his superior reach to tip his two-litre bottle over Dean's front. For a moment Dean just stood and gaped, aghast, at the huge dark stain growing down his jeans.

Sam cracked up laughing.

Dean looked up, horror turning to outraged dignity. 'Right,' he said, and lunged forward. He caught Sam's arm, twisted him down onto the burning asphalt, and held him with one arm over Sam's collarbone to empty his own bottle directly onto Sam's head. Sam spat water in the rush of cool, fringe in his eyes, wrist trapped under some body part of Dean's and pressed into the too-hot ground.

Dean sat up, chuckling. His bottle clattered to the ground. He climbed off Sam, who was still sputtering out water, and stuck out a hand. Sam took it, wiping his hair away from his face, let Dean yank him to his feet.

Both of them were soaked. Dean's hair was plastered to his forehead again, jeans heavy with water. Sam's t-shirt stuck to him and he peeled it off, tied it round his hips. His wrist hurt but he didn't care. They wandered back over, sat down on the edge of the kerb. Dean gathered up the dropped food packets, passed Sam some Twizzlers.

Sam looked out towards the fields. In the west the sky was dissolving into neons. A dark arrow of birds was crossing, too high to guess at what they were. He closed his eyes onto flaring afterimages, felt the late sun draw the water from his clothes.

Dean was quiet. He was close enough, like this; close enough that Sam could feel him, six feet of warm surety to stand against a sky that never looked the same. Contentment oozed off Dean in waves. It seeped into Sam's bones and warmed them.

Sam opened his eyes, bit a section off a Twizzler. Artificial watermelon. He glanced over at Dean, who was squinting into the sun, mouth curved in a faint smile, and turned his eyes back towards the sky.

'Imagine if we weren't here to solve a case,' Sam said. He said it on an impulse that he knew was stupid, but he couldn't help himself.

'What d'you mean?' said Dean. He sounded a little confused, but not hostile.

Sam sat back, leaning on his hands. 'Y'know. If we were just normal guys on a road trip. Passin' through the gator state.'

'Trying to find ourselves, are we?' Dean was smirking.

'There is something to that, you know.' He was picturing it, the way he used to picture Jessica's life before she met him. Laughter and sun that dried the tips of Dean's hair in seconds and long talks in the dark. Talking about everything; talking about nothing. And no fear. Absolutely none at all.

Dean shook his head. 'Yeah, but what'd we be if we weren't hunters? Going all over the place together? I mean, what reason would we have for it?'

He shrugged. 'That we were brothers on a road trip.'

Dean gave that uncomfortable half-smile of his. 'Yeah, but. C'mon, man.' He gestured into the air.

Unwillingly, Sam understood. It was like when Dad made them stop sleeping in the same bed when Dean turned twelve. The slim gap between motel beds was justified only by the crush of danger behind all four walls. Take that away, and what were they?

Just two guys whose heads lay too close together in the dark.

Dean fidgeted uneasily, hands knotting together. He glanced at Sam and away, too fast for Sam to see the look on his face. Sam could sense that he'd disturbed him somehow but he didn't know why. It wasn't as though Dean didn't know that they already had a reputation in hunter circles for being total weirdos.

Maybe it was just that Dean couldn't stand for any of the tight definitions in his little world to be shaken. Danger + Sam + a bag full of guns = the infinite road. There was no other way to do that sum, not for Dean.

Dean pushed up from the ground. He didn't offer Sam a hand up this time. 'It's getting dark. How 'bout we wait til midnight and then take the body out to the swamp.'

Sam nodded, getting to his feet. Dean hadn't even looked at him when he spoke. All the warmth and brightness was gone. It was stupid to get upset about it but it pinched something inside him all the same.

 

They drove an hour out to the bayou in the blue-black night, engine rumbling. Among the mosquitoes and swashing quiet of the water that seemed like the loudest sound in the world. Dean stopped the car in a leafy dead end. The plunge of silence when he turned off the engine was sudden and strange.

Dean got out and went round to open the trunk. Sam waited and then reached in to unzip the golf bag. Her lined white face was ghost-beautiful in the hard glow of Dean’s torch. He zipped it back up.

Between them they lifted out the bag. Sam grabbed the front end, Dean the back. For the next twenty minutes they stumblingly maneuvered the weight through the trees that edged the swamp, Sam catching his feet in tangles of ferns, sinking down into patches of boggy ground where flies hovered in swarms. The humidity hung worse than ever; sweat dropped from Sam’s face to catch on his chest. Neither of them had put shirts back on and the planes of Dean’s torso took on a pale-gold sheen of sweat. The amulet caught the troubled moonlight where it swung against his breastbone. Sam’s eyes kept going to it against his will.

When they finally found a space wide enough between the trees- on a muddy outcropping right at the edge of the water- they were both damp with sweat. Dean kept clapping flies from his skin in a short sharp movement that got more irritable each time. They laid the golf bag down in the mud and set about gathering branches. Neither of them had spoken a word. Sam thought that was best for stuff like this. What you did with at midnight out in the bayou with your brother was best done in silence.

The pyre, when they finished it, was the leafiest Sam had ever seen. Dean didn’t speak as he flicked his Zippo open. The flame’s orange danced in the undercurve of his jaw. The flame caught when he held it to the canvas, fire gathering strength, licking around the golf bag fast and fierce.

Who had she been, that white lined woman with her belly split open? Were her parents still alive? Did she have children? When she didn’t pick up the phone, would they drive all the way to Jonesville? Would they find the empty house with dried blood flaking off the tiles? It could keep him up all night, thinking about the families.

Dean seated himself on a squarish rock, liquid gold reflections filming his eyes. Sam, after a minute, sat down on the least muddy patch of ground, close to Dean. He crossed his legs, watched yellow light hue his dirty fingernails, watched as leaves crinkled black and embers danced like memories of fire.

 

Dean was acting all tetchy and weird again by the time they got back to the B&B, slapping at mosquitoes and cursing under his breath. An angry flush had started at his breastbone and was working its way up his neck.

The cherry on the icing came when they found the B&B’s front door locked.

‘Oh, come on!’

‘Not everywhere goes by scuzzball motel rules, Dean.’ Sam gave the door a last halfhearted rattle.

Dean was looking at the door like he was considering kicking it in.

‘C’mon,’ Sam said, turning away, ‘Window,’ and waited, but Dean didn’t follow. Sam turned back, nudged Dean's shoulder with his arm, about to say C’mon, man, but Dean flinched hard. He turned on one heel to scowl at Sam. But he said, ‘Window. Sure.’

What the hell was with him? They rounded the building, Dean in the lead.

They’d left their window on the latch earlier, and they were on the second floor, just barely too high to climb. Sam turned to Dean, who sighed but knelt and made a stirrup of his hands.

Sam placed his foot in it, hand on Dean’s clammy shoulder, and ignored his grumblings as he pushed up, getting one forearm up on their windowsill. He hung there for a moment to wiggle the latch open, then, arms burning, heaved himself up and over the windowsill. He collapsed to the floor. The room was dark. Got up, turned to lean down, hand out to help Dean up.

When Dean was inside, getting to his feet, Sam made for the light switch, trying to avoid bumping into a frilly armchair or a little table with a doily on or something. Before he could reach it, brightness flooded the room. The lamp had clicked on. There was a girl standing next to it, smiling.

‘Dean,’ Sam said, and his knife was in his hand.

The girl said, ‘Put that down. Ah ain’t here to hurt you, Samuel.’

She didn’t look more than seventeen or so. Raw knobbly bones that slanted odd angles in her face, dark hair tangled. Wearing a smeared floral dress, a grey raincoat, dirty flip-flops.

Sam said, ‘No? And what about Dean?’

‘Him neither.’ She spread her hands, smile widening. ‘Just here to talk, that’s all.’

‘How’d you get in here?’ How far could she have walked in those flip-flops? How had she got in the window? She hadn’t been in the building the whole time, had she? He felt Dean move up behind him, tense, and knew he had the holy water flask in hand.

The girl fiddled with the lamp cord with one skinny hand. ‘Ah ain’t a demon. You can try me. Here.’

She came forward, slowly, yanking up the sleeve of her raincoat. Offered a bony white arm to Dean. He eyed her for a long, suspicious second, then shook out a few drops onto her skin. No reaction.

She stood back. 'Ah can see you've got a few questions.'

'What are you?' Dean demanded, at the same time as Sam said 'Do you know what's happening in this town?'

She smiled. 'Name's Margaret Calhoun. Maybe ah do, maybe ah don't. Ah can tell you that it ain't the demon virus, for one thing.'

He sensed Dean's tension ratcheting up. 'How'd you know about Croatoan? And while you're at it, how'd you know about us?'

'Wait,' said Sam. 'First, why are you here?'

That sly smile again. 'Don't worry. Ah'm here to deliver a message.'

'A message?' said Dean.

'The next killin'.' Her eyes were on Sam's, dark and sincere. 'Maisie Johnson is goin' to try and kill her little brother. This is what ah know. She's a little blonde child, ten last August, ah believe. Lives at number fifty-seven, Main Street, with her mother and father.'

'Possession?' said Sam. Somehow he thought he knew what the answer would be.

She shook her head. 'You'll see.'

'Okay,' said Dean. 'That's nice. And now you can tell us who you are and how you think you know all this crap.'

Her smile this time was almost pitying. 'Ah already told you who ah am, Dean,' she said. 'Ah'm just a girl from this town. Ah'm one of the people you're tryin' to save. Ah ain't possessed, ah ain't lyin'.'

'Then how do you know?' said Sam.

She took a few steps, slowly, towards them. 'You got Jesus, Sam Winchester?'

Sam pinched his mouth shut.

'Well, ah do. Ah'm a confidant of the Lord. He speaks to me. He works through me.'

Dean scoffed. 'Yeah, like we ain't heard that one before.'

She walked right past Sam, over to the window. Sam threw a quick glance at Dean, panicking briefly, trying to figure out what Dean wanted to do if she climbed out.

Dean kept his eyes trained on her. 'Last time we met someone on a mission from God, turned out it was just a ghost gone batty. Time before that? Psycho lady working black magic. So are you nuts, kid? Or are you just lying?'

'Guess ah must be nuts,' she said, unfazed. ''Cause I ain't lying.'

Dean actually chuckled at that. 'Right.'

She strolled over to the window. Climbed up onto the sill and dropped out, down all twelve feet. The slap of flip-flops hitting the asphalt made Sam cringe.

They both stood in silence, digesting what had just happened. Then Dean said, 'Damn it. Damn it.'

Sam dropped onto the edge of his bed. 'At least we have a lead now.' He felt grimy from the roots of his hair to his feet; his sneakers were soaked with swamp water.

Dean laughed. 'Yeah, call that a lead.'

Sam raked his hands into his hair and winced. It felt disgusting.

'We need to go to that kid's house tomorrow, don't we,' said Dean, like he knew it but it pissed him off anyway.

'First thing.'

'But we paid for breakfast.'

Sam threw up his hands. 'Well, in that case, we'd better stick around.'

Dean glared at him. Then he marched into the bathroom, undoing his belt. Kicked the door shut behind him. A moment later came the hiss of running water.

'Hey!' Sam shouted. 'I called first shower, Dean!'

No answer. He flopped back on the bed.

The red LED on the bedside clock showed 03:49. Dawn would be here in an hour, maybe less. He rolled over, burrowed his arms under the pillow, which had a giant frill round the edge of the case. His fingers touched something soft, familiar; he drew out Dean's t-shirt.

The shower filled the darkness with the breathing of water. He touched that stupid old shirt, feeling the ridges of a flaking logo in the dark, drew in in that Dean smell that spoke home to him more clearly than anything had since he left for Stanford. He shoved it back under the pillow. Relaxed into the mattress and waited, eyelids sinking, for the water hum to end.

 

Chapter Text

Three hours later, they drove back into Jonesville.

The sun was up and burning strong; the town, unsurprisingly, was empty. Sam felt somehow jittery and faded with tiredness at the same time, kept his hands wrapped round his coffee. Dean had barely spoken a word, already sweating through his shirt.

They'd prowled through the B&B dining-room on their way out. The curtains had been drawn, room lost in shadow. Cereal boxes stood out on the tables, knives and forks laid, like there were ten people staying there instead of just two. They'd snagged a few mini cereal boxes and some of those packeted brioche things and left. Dean had taken a couple bites out of a pastry, but that was all either of them had touched of the food.

'Slow down,' Sam said as Dean drove past the houses. All of them were completely still. When he saw number 54 he poked Dean in the shoulder and Dean stopped the car. 'Ow.'

'Wuss.' But he was watching the house. It was the same one, he realised, that they'd driven by yesterday, when they saw the little girl sitting on the fence.

Dean read his mind. 'We're staking out that little kid?'

'Guess so.'

Dean raised his head and thunked it back against the headrest. 'Great. I bet this isn't even anything. It'll probably just be some stupid prank. Trying to screw up our case and get a bunch of people killed into the bargain.'

'How'd she get in our room, Dean? Hell, how'd she know anything about us? Where we were staying? How'd she know about Croatoan?'

'I dunno, take your pick. Croatoan wasn't exactly private news. I mean, a whole town just vanishes like that, some people who aren't us are gonna move in and figure it out after we're gone. And as for the rest of it, maybe she's connected to the hunter grapevine.'

He laughed. 'Did you see her? What was she, seventeen? Eighteen?'

Dean shrugged. 'Maybe she's a hunter's kid.'

'Right. So now you're saying that a hunter is following us, trying to fuck up our case by sending his daughter pretending to be a holy messenger to give us false leads.' He made a mental note to try and find birth records on Elizabeth Calhoun when they were back at the B&B. Something to prove that such a girl existed. And that she was who she said she was. And then there would be proving that she wasn't a demon, or a shifter, and then there would be figuring out whether she was telling the truth.

'I'm saying that she's not a fucking messenger from Jesus, Sam.'

'When have we ever known hunters to be that subtle? If there were some in town they'd have tried to kill us already. Trust me, we'd know they were here.'

Dean was silent. Sam tried to put it from his mind, took in the house. It was a Saturday, so the kids wouldn't be going to school. The house was like the rest: big and dark, fenced around. The blue paint on the door was peeling.

'You believe her, don't you?' said Dean.

Sam groaned. 'I'm not saying that.'

'You're not saying it, but you do. You really think she's legit.'

'I'm saying that the only thing less likely than she bringing us messages from God is a bunch of hunters pulling some elaborate hoax to get us to fuck up a case.'

'Sam, how many times a year do we get cases that are actually just fruit loops thinkng they're on a mission from the angels? Twenty?'

He spread his hands. 'So maybe we've finally encountered something legit.'

'Okay, so what if it's actually a demon telling her this stuff?'

'Then it's a demon. But Jesus Christ, Dean, what do you want us to do? Ditch the stakeout and risk a kid getting killed?'

'I'm not saying that.'

'Then what are you saying?'

'I'm saying it's massively, massively shitty, okay? That's it! That's all I'm saying!'

'Well, thanks for the update, Dean, you got it in one.'

Dean gritted his jaw, staring off at the road. Muttered, 'Fucking impossible.'

Sam started at the anger in his tone, a little hurt. He wanted to retort just as nastily, but tiredness was fraying him at the edges. Dean glared into his coffee cup. 'Let's not fight,' Sam said. 'It's too early.'

They lapsed into silence. Dean tugged at his collar. They had all the windows rolled down but the heat still pressed on Sam like a weight. Like a coffin for which he was bearer.

He rubbed his eyes and settled in for a long wait, or tried to, but he felt oddly jumpy, his whole skin hot and itchy. The leather upholstry was too slick. Dean kept scratching the back of his neck; he'd probably burned it yesterday.

The house was still, so still that after an hour Sam began to wonder if these people had skipped town too. The only movement on the whole street during that time had been an old lady crossing the road to go in the grocery store. Another hour, and Dean tossed his coffee cup in the footwell. 'This is ridiculous.'

Sam didn't reply. He'd just seen the first flicker of movement in the house. Someone- a woman, not a kid- drawing out a chair in the front room, dimly visible through the window. Dean, seeing it too, went quiet.

The family was sitting down to what looked like a pretty depressing breakfast. Sam could just about make out a box of cornflakes. Through the gap between the curtains the mother was visible, sitting with her back to the window, and a boy of about six or seven opposite her, and the little blonde girl in profile at the end of the table. She was wearing fairy pyjamas.

Dean raised one eyebrow. 'Yeah, she's totally dangerous.'

'Dude, shut up.'

Sam kept his hand on the demon knife. If anything happened they'd have to run right in there and do- something. You'll see, the girl had said, shaking her head, when he asked if it was possession. Well, maybe it was some other kind of demon influence. Or even ghost possession like the awful Rockford asylum case.

The family ate breakfast. It didn't look as though they were talking much. Even the kid seemed pretty quiet. After they'd finished the dad cleared the plates away and the mom took the kids upstairs.

'This is hopeless,' said Dean. Sam recognised the same strained expression from his own face; he had the same fear. That something horrible would happen quietly and out of sight and they wouldn't be able to do jack shit.

Around one, the mom- a dark-haired woman with a blank face- left the house and crossed the road. She went into the grocers' and emerged five minutes later with a bottle of milk.

'We need to get hold of some little mic things,' said Dean. 'Plant 'em.'

The afternoon dragged on. Sam was tense, jumpy, waiting for something to happen. Dean fidgeted and shuffled around like he was sitting on an ant nest. Nothing much happened in the house- the little girl spent most of the day in her bedroom, visible through the window where she sat on her bed, reading something. The mom cooked something around two P.M. They ate dinner. That reminded Sam that he was hungry. They didn't have any food, though, not except a few boxes of Cookie Crisp, and only Dean could eat that crap.

'Still nothing?' said Dean, getting back into the car. He tossed Sam a sandwich. Chicken mayo.

'Not a thing. Thanks.' He ripped into the sandwich wrapper.

'They didn't have any turkey salad,' said Dean.

Sam figured that was kind of an apology for earlier. 'It's fine,' he said.

At seven P.M, when the mother was washing dishes, the two kids were alone in the dining-room; they started bickering, the girl shouting something inaudible, towering over the boy, and Dean opened the car door. 'Wait,' said Sam, grabbing his sleeve, just as the mother ran into the room. The girl left the room, reappeared in her bedroom window a minute later.

Dean let out a breath. He shut the car door. 'I bet you anything this is a false lead. That kid wanted to distract us so she sent us off on this bullshit.'

Sam didn't reply. It wasn't like there was anything he could say. They had to keep up the stakeout, false lead or not. Dean picked up his own untouched sandwich, pulled a bit of tomato out of it, dropped it out the window.

 

Sam took first shift that night, Dean settling down into the backseat. Dean could sleep anywhere, anytime, but Sam never could unless the world was dark and quiet and he was exhausted. He sipped gas station coffee and eased himself into the rhythm of Dean's snores, muffled against leather.

The hours slipped by. It was easier without Dean's constant twitchiness and fidgeting making the car feel too small to contain them. The last light in the house had gone out around ten, and Sam's shift ended at two A.M. He was starting to privately agree with Dean. He didn't think anything was going to happen in that house tonight.

He'd worried it would attract attention, a car as conspicuous as theirs in a town as small as this, but nothing. The only person they'd talked to today was the old guy behind the gas station counter, who'd given them the same dead stare as the Macabees' neighbor. When Sam was nine or ten, on his first stakeout with Dean on a suburban street, he'd said Won't they notice the car and get suspicious? Dean had said Seriously, Sam, people like that never notice anything.

Back then he'd thought Dean was the coolest person in the world. He hadn't even really noticed the swagger, the way Dean wore that battered leather coat, flaunting it round like goddamn James Dean, like it wasn't Dad's and three sizes too big for him. That lazy, pouty-lipped confidence of his. That was all just part of Dean and his safety. Sometimes in high school people in his class, when they figured out they were brothers, had gone all wide-eyed and said Your brother is so cool or something. And Sam had usually rolled his eyes, Yeah, he never lets me forget it, but he'd been kind of proud of him, too.

What broke? It had to be something. Dean hadn't changed, had he? There was still something of the wide-eyed kid in him. It was Sam who could barely laugh at anything anymore. Sam who just felt tired when he watched Dean run through his macho bullshit routine. He wanted so badly to be able to look up to Dean that the feeling was a strange pressure in his chest, a physical pain. Dean had been a hero then. Dean was still a hero but now heroes weren't always right and they didn't always win.

At two A.M he prodded Dean awake. Dean sat up, fuzzy-eyed, and grunted at him, and Sam lay in the backseat, in the warm imprint left by Dean's body, and tried to close his eyes against the darkness and the heat.

He could hear every shift that Dean made in the other seat, each creak and shuffle magnified til it scratched at his brain. He'd kept his jeans and shirt on, didn't want to take off too many layers in case something happened in the house, but now he felt overheated and. Weird. Like he wanted to peel off his skin and run and run.

He squeezed his eyes closed and tried to adjust his elbows so they weren't sticking him in his own stomach, re-cranked his knees to an angle that was just as awkward as the last. When they were kids Dean used to make up all kinds of bullshit tricks for Sam to try to get to sleep with. Sam's personal favouite had been closing his eyes and trying to read the neon signs outside through the patterns inside his eyelids. He'd take a bullet before he'd tell Dean but there were nights when he could only sleep with one of Dean's old rock cassettes playing soft over the patter of rain against the roof.

Suddenly he wanted rain. Fucking yearned for it. Everything in him needed the gentle rush of white noise, of it clattering on the roof and sliding the windows grey, cleansing them of the sweat and blood and dirt of the past few days. He needed to go outside in a storm and spread his arms and let it soak him through. Cool his skin. Soothe the itching red thing that had been coiling in a corner of his brain for days.

He kept his eyes shut. Dean shifted again in the other seat, crackled a food packet. Sam shut the doors on his own mind and tried to drift.

 

Dean woke him up at two-thirty from an overheated, fitful doze that left him feeling more exhausted than when he lay down. They changed seats in silence. Dean looked pale and sweaty and strange in the dull glow from the streetlight.

The next few hours dragged. Sam zoned out, eyes on the dark windows. He was surprised when he noticed red dawn spreading over the horizon.

He wasn't sure what time it was when Dean shifted in the backseat, sat up. 'You were supposed to wake me up hours ago,' he said. 'It's, like, eight O'clock.'

'S'alright. I couldn't have slept.'

Dean crawled into the drivers' seat and fixed his eyes on the house.

 

It was eleven A.M when Dean finally threw up his hands. 'At what point are you going to get it through your head that nothing's happening here?'

Sam gritted his teeth. 'Dean-'

'We need to work this case!'

Sam shushed him, arm out. The mother had just stepped out of the house, closing the door behind her. They both sank down in the seat, but she walked across the road, down the street.

Sam looked back at the house. The little boy was dimly visible in the kitchen, sitting at the table. He looked back at Dean and watched his jaw clench. He hoped that whatever happened Dean wouldn't flip out too hard.

The girl was in her bedroom, sitting on her bed. It looked like she was reading. After a few minutes she got up, walked out. Reappeared in the kitchen. Dean's hand went to the door handle.

The boy looked up, said something. The girl responded. She looked irritated. She opened the fridge. The boy said something else.

Sam watched the argument blossom in slow motion. It was a pattern he and Dean had been through a thousand times, small irritations that the other picked at and picked at until they blew up. He only realised he was biting his nails when he tore off a long shred of skin and it started to bleed.

The girl closed the fridge and straightened up. She moved towards him. The kid backed away. The girl stopped. Sam watched the boy's shoulders slump in an exhale.

The girl exploded into motion. She made for something on the kitchen counter, a vicious movement, and Dean was out of the car, Sam close on his heels. They ran to the front door, Dean slammed it open with his shoulder even though it wasn't locked, and then they were in the kitchen and Dean was grabbing the girl's wrist and the kitchen knife in her fist glinted, raised high. The little boy was scrambling under the table.

The girl screamed, it wasn't a scream of terror, and as though she'd summoned it white lightning snaked down the sky outside, lighting up the kitchen. In that flash of bright Sam saw, standing behind the girl, a man. He was naked and so skinny he didn't even look human, all hips and starving dog ribs, and his mouth was open. He had long long teeth all strange grey and they were filed to jagged brown twists at their edges. Iron, Sam thought. The man was motionless. He stood behind the girl with his mouth frozen mid-gulp.

He vanished with the lightning, and Sam was left looking at the fridge with its crazed assortment of alphabet magnets.

Dean had already taken the knife out of the girl's hand and was holding her wrists. There was a dazed look in her eyes. Sam said, 'Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii,' and stopped. The girl was shivering. She was starting to cry.

'She's not possessed,' said Dean, sounding surprised.

'Maisie,' wailed the little kid under the table.

Dean let go of the girl's wrist like it burned him. 'Christ, now I feel like a child abuser,' he said under his breath.

The girl pulled her wrist to her chest. She was shaking visibly. Her eyes went to the little boy. 'Mikey? What did I do?'

'You don't remember?' said Dean.

She swayed on her feet. 'No, I- I remember. I just got so mad, I had to, I couldn't help it, I didn't mean it-'

Dean looked at her, standing with her arms wrapped round herself, and his eyes softened a little. Sam saw the moment when Dean's fighting stance dissolved; he shifted, relaxed, curled his shoulders down. 'How about you sit down and tell us why you just tried to give your brother a Columbian necktie, kid?'

'A what?' said the girl. Maisie. She was wiping her eyes with her wrists. She looked white and shocked. 'Who are you?'

'We're not here to hurt you,' said Sam, hoping it was true.

'We need to get out of here,' Dean said. 'The mom'll probably walk in in a second.' He knelt down, looked at Maisie. 'What happened, Maisie?'

'I don't know,' she said. 'I was just- we were arguing and I just got really, really mad, and I-' A tear trailed down her cheek and she wiped it away. 'Am I going to be in trouble?'

Sam looked at Dean, who pulled a face.

He decided to go for broke. 'No,' he said gently. He got down on one knee. 'No, you're not. What happened wasn't your fault.'

She stared at him with wide eyes.

'There's something bad in this town,' he told her. 'It's making people do things. We're trying to stop it.'

Her face crunched up in suspicion. 'I don't know you. You could be anybody.'

Dean started to say something, but Sam cut in. 'It's okay. We'll be gone in a second. Have you seen a strange man around here lately?'

She gave Dean a look, eyebrows raised. Sam smiled; it was like being glared at by an adult all of a sudden. 'Aside from us.'

'No,' she said. It didn't look like she was lying. 'I don't think so.'

'You sure?' he said. 'Even in a dream, maybe? A man with iron teeth?'

Dean shot him a strange look. Hadn't he seen it?

She shook her head. 'I don't- think so.'

'Maisie,' said the little kid. 'Maisie, what are you doing?'

Maisie looked at them nervously. 'I think you should probably go,' she said.

Sam opened his mouth, but Dean grabbed his elbow. 'Come on. Before the mom gets back.'

They went straight out of the window, the kids watching them wide-eyed, and fast-walked to the car. No sign of the mom yet. Dean turned the key in the ignition, then hesitated. 'You think we should-'

'No, just drive,' Sam said, and Dean floored it.

*

There was a fly buzzing in their room when they got back. The room was bright and stuffy, sun lying in slats over the carpet. Dean’s irritation instantly hiked up when he swatted at the fly and missed. He opened the window, which did squat, because the air outside was just as bleary as the air inside.

Sam headed straight for the shower, yanking his shirt over his head as he went. He looked kind of pissed, which was probably because when he’d told Dean about seeing some sort of creepy teeth guy Dean had said ‘Was that one of your psychic freak things?’ Which was stupid, because Dean was just being honest. It wasn’t his problem if Sam took it the wrong way. It was too fucking hot to mess around trying to avoid hitting one of Sam’s little sensitive spots.

The rush of the shower sounded in the other room. The thud-squeak of Sam stepping into the bathtub. Then there was a long, low moan that made Dean viscerally uncomfortable. Fucking Sam. The whole damn hotel didn’t need to know how much he loved stepping under streams of icy water.

Dean spent the next few minutes trying to focus and failing. He kept zeroing in, without even being able to help it, on the noises from the bathroom- mostly just the roar of the water, the occasional squeak of pastic tub as Sam shifted his stance. How long before Sam was done in there, for Christ’s sake? He wasn’t the only one who needed a cold shower after the last couple days.

He turned his attention back to Sam’s laptop. He’d looked something up. Something about the case. He pulled up the window. No, he’d looked up sam shower hog fucker. How did he delete the internet history on this thing again? Sam always seemed to know when he’d been looking at porn even if Dean was sure he’d got rid of the evidence.

The door creaked, and then Sam was stepping into the room, towel round his waist, all soaked curls and hip indents and wet pale brown skin. Much, much skin. Very easy to forget how much skin Sam had until the asshole confronted you with it. Dean looked back at the laptop screen, with difficulty, because Sam was pretty much glowing in the late sun. It was obnoxious, actually.

‘Shower’s yours,’ said Sam, going over to the beds. Not even a goddamn apology for taking so fucking long.

‘Oh, how very gracious of you,’ said Dean. ‘You sure you don’t want to go back in there and give those abs another polish?’

Sam actually blushed. Opened his mouth and shut it again. ‘I was only in there five minutes.’

‘Yeah, well,’ said Dean, and then couldn’t think of anything else. He stared at Sam, whose ears were beet red, and then looked back at the laptop. He expected some kind of You better not be screwing up my laptop again, Dean, but it didn’t come. Sam just dressed quietly. Fucking Sam.

Everything carried on being all quiet and weird when Sam came over and sat down next to Dean, looking at the laptop, which still had the search page open. Sam erased sam shower hog fucker, a little crease appearing on his forehead, and then went on one of his weird scholar sites and started scrolling through something about classifications of demons.

‘I was using that,’ Dean said.

‘I noticed.'

He could smell the shirt Sam had just put on, crisp cotton. Cheap detergent and clean Sam sweat. There was something annoying about it. And the three-days-worn denim of Dean's jeans felt all grubby and itchy. He needed to take his clothes off. Or shout at someone. Get this out of his system. It was way too long since he last got laid. He couldn’t even remember. Some chick somewhere in Ohio. Or something.

Sam shifted in his seat. A few strands of hair wafted into his eyes and he didn’t brush them away. Dean stared at the stray wisp, willing it to shift, and when it didn’t he felt like he was going to implode.

He stood up abruptly, nearly knocking his chair back, and went over to the bathroom. He needed a shower.

He kept thinking about those kids. About the shock on Maisie’s face when she realised what had happened. Their mother had been out. She’d been responsible for the little guy. And instead she’d nearly stuck a knife through his head. She was going to be messed up for years.

‘We need to find that Margaret chick,’ he said. He was sitting on his bed. Sam finished leafing through a book and tossed it to Dean. ‘Here. Go through chapter five.’

He opened it, flicked through. Chapter five: The Mythical Properties of Iron. ‘Oh, riveting,’ he said, and waited for Sam to get it. A moment later Sam gave a little huff of laughter.

‘Seriously, though. We need to find that girl.’

Sam didn’t look up from his laptop. That little habit of his was fucking annoying. Dean snapped his fingers. ‘Hey. Bitch.’

‘I want to figure out what this thing is first.’ Sam didn’t look round. ‘You got anything?’

‘What the hell do you think?’ A fly landed on his leg. He swatted at it and it flew away. It was so hot in here he could barely breathe. ‘I feel like I’m fucking choking.’

‘S’okay if you want to take a break,’ Sam said, vaguely. ‘Go for a walk or something.’

‘No, I don’t want to go for a walk. It’s just as fucking hot outside except there’s even more flies.’ He batted at a little tiny one that was trying to land on his shoulder. ‘Jesus fuck.’

Sam’s nostrils kind of tightened, and he breathed out, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t even look like the heat was getting to him. Just sat there, cool, patient, his profile clean and angular, outlined against the window. It was enough to make Dean want to smash something.

He hated this part of hunts. Especially when it got like this and he couldn’t focus on anything. He couldn’t spend hours staring at tiny writing the way Sam could, his mind glanced off it like sliding down a wall. It wasn’t like he couldn’t do research, of course he goddamn could, but somehow when Sam was around, being all careful and nerdy and efficient, he felt useless. Dad had always made it super clear that he thought Sam was the talented one when it came to the brainwork side of things. Thanks for the vote of confidence there, pops. The bitch of it was that Sam had once said there was no-one smarter when it came to lore than Dean. But that was just because Dean never forgot a hunt. And that was before they let a million unknown nasties out of Pandora’s box.

He tried to settle down, forcing himself to read. Blah blah blah fairies, blah blah blah witches. Blah blah farmers in Ireland who hung horseshoes all over everything. That fucking fly was buzzing around again and he kept having to look up to check it wasn’t about to attack him or something. It landed on Sam’s shirt collar. Dean considered telling him, but Sam was oblivious and so long as the fly was on him it wasn’t anywhere near Dean, so that was fine.

A moment later Sam noticed the fly and shook it off. It buzzed right back over to Dean and started flying around his face until he felt like insects were all over him and he was sweating again from twisting around batting at it. They needed a fucking fly swatter. How was Sam so cool about all this? Fucking inhuman, he thought, and then felt a bit bad, but only a bit. It wasn’t like Sam knew what he was thinking.

There was an itch in his knuckles and a pulse in his groin and the lukewarm air made him feel a little sick.

‘God fucking damn it!’ he said when the fly made a pass at him for the ninetieth time. He got up off the bed and marched over to the other side of the room. ‘Fucking move over, Sam. And if that fly follows me over here, I swear-’

It reappeared by his ear, buzzing.

‘It’s just a fly, dude,’ said Sam as Dean put his head in his hands. He kept it there until he thought he might not punch a wall as soon as he looked up. Then he stood up and grabbed his keys.

Sam’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Going for a drive?’

‘No, I’m going for my Sunday evening cross-body salsa class. Yes, Sam, I’m going for a drive.’ He slammed the door shut behind him.

Hands hard on the wheel, facing into the pink horizon, he felt better. Less out of his mind, anyway. He was doing ninety down a battered road and on either side of him were fields so green they didn’t look real, and the rush of air was keen in his face, and at least he felt alive in a way that was more than the need to wring a few monster necks. Itchy and pent-up and weird, but alive.

Just being away from Sam was helping. He didn’t know why. Didn’t want to think about it too hard. Something about Sam, sitting there, the curl of his hair against his collar, the tightness of his shirt across his shoulders when he hunched forward over the laptop. How he looked so clean and cool and comfortable. Sam took up no space at all in a room- he made himself smaller, folding in his body, tucking his chin down, fading- and yet he took up every inch of space. He made Dean feel like the room was shrinking to a thin film stretched over the two of them, like every part of the universe was racing inwards towards Sam. Sam, the storm. Sam, the eye of the storm.

And it was terrifying Dean, because in a very small way maybe he’d always felt like this, like Sam was the axis that the goddamn planets turned on, and maybe he’d sort of known, too, but it had never felt like this before. The knowledge had never crushed him before. In that granny room at the B&B it was closing up his lungs one by one.

It had never been so unavoidable before. It was kind of normal to want to protect your kid brother, right? He just wasn’t sure whether this was protection. This sudden need to wrap himself around Sam and squeeze, until he got something out of him, something real, until neither of them could breathe.

He couldn’t think about it. It was terrifying. He couldn’t think about it.

He sped up and drove and drove and drove.

It was midnight when he got back, and picking the lock took him nearly ten minutes. Once inside, he padded up the dark stairs, onto the corridor where their room was. Before he could unlock the door he heard Sam’s voice.

‘So fucking what?’

‘Ah ain’t lookin’ to start no fire, Sam. Just a kindly observation.’ Louisiana drawl. Margaret. He nearly bust right in. Stopped himself.

‘You're wrong and even if you weren't I don't care. I'm staying right here.’

‘Just tryin’ to warn you.’

‘There’s nothing to warn about.’

A chuckle. ‘Ah’m sure you believe that with all your heart, Samuel.’

That was enough. Dean pushed open the door with his shoulder. ‘Hello, honey,’ he said to Sam, who had a gun on Margaret. ‘You have a nice evening with the neighbours?’

‘It was lovely,’ said Sam, tight-lipped. ‘We played bridge.’

Margaret looked up, eyes somehow sly and guileless at once. ‘Ah’m just here to deliver a message.’

‘Yeah, just like last time,’ said Dean. He sat down in the chair by the table. ‘Sorry, sister, but I think you’ll be delivering a little more than that. A few answers, for starters.’

Margaret smiled. ‘Ask away.’

‘Who really told you Maisie was going to try and kill her brother?’

Sam looked at him quickly in a way that he couldn’t decipher. Margaret laughed. ‘Ah already told you. Ain’t you satisfied?’

‘Yeah, it was the old man in the sky, like we haven’t heard that one before.’

Her eyes glinted. ‘It’s true.’

Like this case could have anything to do with God. Kids killing kids and women ripped apart. Like this wasn’t all the proof he’d ever need that their world was a howling wilderness. If there was a God he was obviously a huge dickwad. If Dean ever met him he’d put a slug in him on principle.

He nodded towards the clock by the bed. ‘You got thirty seconds. I want everything you know. I want to know who told you about us, what’s going on in this town, who’s doing it.’

Sam frowned at him. What if she doesn’t know? He ignored him. ‘Thirty seconds, and then I start getting nasty.’

Sam’s gun hand wavered for a moment, then held steady.

Margaret laughed. ‘Ah came here to tell you one thing and one thing only. You even try to keep me here, you’ll never know what that is. Dear Lord, the way you two carry on, you’d think ah’d never tried to help you.’

Unease crossed Sam’s face. Dean willed him not to say anything, so help you, Sam, but Sam opened his dumb mouth anyway. ‘Dean. She’s got a point.’ And that was how it always was with Sam, the monster always had a goddamn point.

‘Shut up, Sam.’ He patted his own gun where it rested in his belt. ‘Clock’s tickin’, kid.’

‘Look, never mind who told you it,’ said Sam. ‘Do you know anything about the man I saw in the kids’ house? The man with the iron teeth?’

Margaret smiled a long, lazy smile and leaned back, her head resting against the wall. ‘If you want to get somewhere with this case, boys, you need to look to the wasps.’

‘The wasps,’ Sam said, and an odd look came over his face.

‘Oh, no, no,’ said Dean. ‘That ain’t nearly good enough. Talk. Ten, nine, eight-’

Margaret laughed again. She started to walk, slowly, towards the door. Sam kept the gun trained on her but did nothing else.

‘No no no,’ said Dean. ‘Sam, sweet baby Jesus-’

‘You ain’t gonna shoot me,’ said Margaret. She opened the door. ‘And you can’t keep me here.’

Sam lowered the gun. Dean went for his, but it was too late: Margaret slipped out of the door, into the corridor. Dean made to go after her, but Sam caught his arm.

Dean turned on him. ‘Get the fuck off me.’

Sam’s eyes were steady. ‘Only if you don’t go after her,’ he said, but he let go. Dean wanted to punch him but somehow managed to restrain himself. ‘What the fuck did you do that for?’

Sam raised his eyebrows. ‘You mean let her go?’

‘Don’t you want to back me up at all on this? Pretty funny way of working as partners, if you ask me.’

Sam flushed. ‘Yes, because I’m totally going to back you up when you want me to shoot a teenage girl who hasn’t even done anything wrong.’

‘Dude, she’s shady! She’s got shade written all over her!’

‘That’s not exactly a valid reason to put a hole in someone, Dean.’

‘So my instincts aren’t good enough for you?’

Sam's eyes widened briefly. He pinched his mouth like he was trying to stop himself losing his shit. ‘I didn’t- will you quit twisting my words? Dude, she gave us a lead! What more do you want?'

‘Hey, Sam, all I’m saying is, you’ve got a pretty funny way of showing you actually want to finish this case. If you aren’t willing to listen to what I’m saying then-'

‘You mean take your crappy orders,' said Sam, whose mouth was setting into a thin line. 'Which we agreed-'

And they were back to this bullshit. Sam who couldn't set aside his goddamn independence even to do the fucking job. There was a bitter taste in Dean's mouth. ‘Oh, yeah, like you couldn't stand to take a goddamn order once in a while. If you don't wanna actually do any investigating here-'

‘You mean forcing a young girl to stay here against her will? That’s called kidnapping, Dean!’

‘That’s called every goddamn Wednesday, Sam!’

Sam fisted his hands in his hair, squeezed his eyes closed. He opened them. ‘You know- you aren’t even acting like yourself. Normally you’d never do shit like this. You’d talk to her, you’d figure her out, but you wouldn’t try to keep her here before we actually had reason to suspect her of anything.’

He couldn’t fucking believe this. ‘So I’m a demon now? And since when do we not suspect her of anything?’

Sam went even redder. ‘Uh, since she did nothing but help us save a kid’s life?’

‘So, what, you and Cissy Spacek there want to break out the holy water on me? Want to see if I’m the bad guy here?’

Sam looked like he might try and strangle Dean any second now. ‘I’m not saying you’re acting like a demon, Dean, I’m saying you’re acting like an asshole.’

Dean stared at him. They were both breathing hard. Sam’s mouth looked red and bitten. He’d been chewing on his lower lip the way he sometimes did when he got mad.

‘What’d she say to you before I came in?’ he said.

Sam went kind of white. ‘What?’

‘What,’ he repeated, ‘did. She. Say. To you.’

‘How much did you hear?’ There wasn’t much substance to Sam’s voice.

He considered bullshitting, then said, ‘The last part.’

The cogs were turning in Sam’s brain. At the poker table Sam could play any bunch of rednecks smooth as silk, but he’d never been able to keep his face neutral around Dean. Right now he was weighing his options. ‘She just said this case was too much for us,’ he said at last. ‘Said we wouldn’t be able to handle it. She said it might kill us.’

It could have been the truth. It pretty much fitted with what he’d overheard at the door, and Sam was looking him in the eye, and his only tell was that he was a little too still, hands lying in forced calm by his sides.

He’d always been able to tell when Sam was lying.

Sam dropped his gaze. Dean shoved down the urge to punch him, although he wasn’t even sure why he was restraining himself at this stage. Sam had undermined him, fucking lied to his face, probably a bunch of other stuff that he was too mad to think of right now.

‘Jesus Christ, Sam,’ he said. ‘You know what? I can't remember why I even trust you to work with me.'

Sam blinked. ‘I-’ he said, and then shut his mouth. Good, Dean thought, and maybe he was kind of aware that that wasn’t something he’d usually think, but then Sam was being even more of a sly little bitch than usual. Hell, Dean was going easy on him, Dad would have had Sam’s hide for this sort of crap.

Sam turned away. He was blinking kind of hard, but also like he didn't want Dean to see. ‘I think I’m gonna go to bed,’ he said in a weird voice, just a little too high. The part of Dean's brain that flared to life and wondered why was extinguished quickly by the anger.

‘Yeah, you do that,’ said Dean.

He went over to the window because he didn’t want to even look at Sam. There was a dead wasp on the window-ledge, and wasps were important somehow, weren’t they? Except he couldn’t remember past the buzzing in his brain, and it probably didn’t matter anyway.

 

He hadn’t intended to, but he ended up getting in bed not long after Sam. He couldn’t concentrate on any of the books and exhaustion was sinking hooks into his brain. The room was striated with moonlight, he’d left the shutters open so they wouldn’t suffocate in the night, but as he lay there he could feel the heat pressing all along his skin. He’d shoved the covers off before he even got in bed, was sleeping in his boxers, but even that felt like too much fabric.

He looked over at Sam. The hollows of his face were picked out in moonlight. He’d kicked off his sheets too, of course, but he had a scrunched bit of fabric sort of slung over his chest. Oh, yeah, that old t-shirt. Remembering that gave him a sort of guilty start. He didn’t know why. Something nagged at him.

He shoved his head back into the pillow and closed his eyes. He kept opening them to look at the red LED glow of the clock: 00:47. 00:51. 00:59. 01:05. 01:17.

Sam kept tossing and turning in his sleep, or maybe he was awake too. Dean needed to find some clear air to breathe. All the air in here smelled like Sam.

01:41. 01: 50. 02:02. 02:05.

He thought about getting up and sticking his head out of the window and taking a deep slug of clear air, or maybe putting his fist through the wall.

02:46. 02:51. 03:04.

Chapter Text

They were the only people in the dining-room. Well, them and X-Files, who poured them orange juice in musty glasses and sort of gestured towards the bank of cornflakes and packet pastries. Dean felt twitchy and exhausted and like he was about to jump out of his skin if someone brushed against him. Eight-thirty A.M and already the room was a fucking pressure cooker, even with the shades half-closed.

Sam was picking at a bowl of soggy cereal, spooning up one cornflake at a time, staring glassy-eyed at The Lesser Key of Solomon like he didn’t already know it cover to cover. Dean loaded up a plate with muffins. He sat down. He didn't even want to eat anything.

‘I think we should go ask the townspeople a few more questions,’ said Sam. He’d been trying to act normal all morning. Dean had thought about telling him he could see right through him.

‘Like?’ he said.

‘If they’ve seen the guy I saw. If they know where half the town vanished to. We need to check whether the situation’s changed at all. Hell-’ Sam rubbed his forehead- ‘for all we know we’ll drive back to find that the police are back in the station, the people are back in their houses, it’s like nothing ever happened.’

‘Except we won’t,’ said Dean.

‘Except we won’t.’

‘And they aren’t going to tell us shit.’

‘It’s a possibility.’

‘And this is going to be a complete fucking waste of time.’

‘Dean-’

He went on mercilessly. He was taking a kind of pleasure in driving Sam crazy. ‘And you know who might have actually told us something, if you hadn’t just let her stroll off into the night-’

‘Dean-’

‘The girl. But no. Because it’s totally fine that we’re getting yanked around by a Bible-thumping hillbilly who still has pimples.’

‘Can you just give it a rest?’

Dean didn’t want to give it a rest. He wanted to keep pressing the bruise. ‘I dunno, Sam, should I? It’s starting to feel like I’ve let you off easy for a lot of crap these past few days.’

Sam straightened his spine. He barked an incredulous laugh. ‘Easy?’

‘If you hadn’t flaked on me we could have found something out last night.’

‘De-’ Sam began, and then visibly reined himself in, though he was looking at Dean like he wanted to strangle him. ‘Alright. Okay. Whatever the fuck you say. So what do you think we should do today, Dean? Because last I checked we have no internet connection, no way to find out squat about Margaret unless we get out of this area, and, oh right, as far as I know we aren’t actually hunting Margaret. So how about we make some actual use of our time and try to get more info out of the town so we can figure out what it is we are going after?’

He was tempted to tell Sam to go fuck himself and take the car keys and try and track Margaret down. If Sam wanted to go to the town so fucking badly he could walk. He forced himself to think past the throbbing in his temples. Sam had fucked up, yeah, but they didn’t know how to find Margaret. So Sam was probably right about talking to the town being the best idea. Which fucking sucked.

Dean shoved back his chair and stood up, jangling the keys in Sam’s face.

 

They’d only been driving a few minutes when Dean started feeling kind of sorry. He supposed Sam had just been trying to do the right thing, with the girl, even if it had been stupid. Maybe he should go easier on him.

He looked over at Sam, but he didn’t really know what to say. Sam was leaning on the dashboard to draw, his shoulder obscuring Dean’s view of the piece of paper he was working on. When he sat back Dean looked at it. He nodded. ‘Nice potato.’

Sam looked at him, confused. Dean saw the moment he recognised the olive branch for what it was. Then Sam looked back at the drawing and winced. ‘I was going to ask people if they’d seen this man, but much as it hurts to say this, you’re right.’

‘Do you think we should go talk to Little Miss Kitchen Knife again?’

‘Guess it can’t hurt.’

‘And that old dude with a face like a rubber asshole?’

Sam cringed with his entire face. ‘I… sure.’

A minute later, Sam spoke again. Cautiously, like he still wasn’t sure whether Dean was going to bitch him out. ‘What do you think she meant about the wasps? Margaret, I mean?’

Dean shrugged. ‘The rich are at it again?’

Sam tipped his head in acknowledgment.

‘Dude, I don’t know. The only thing I can think of that has anything to do with wasps is that Algonquin myth about the stings.’

Sam shook his head. ‘I was thinking maybe the wasps are a sort of herald for another creature. There was a dead wasp by the window in the police station. And then there was one buzzing around in the house with-’ he gestured. The dead woman.

‘A wasp,’ said Dean flatly. ‘In summer. In Louisiana. Wow.’

‘I know it’s not much to go on.’

He felt a sudden burst of spite. He wasn’t even sure what it was about. ‘Not much? It’s pathetic. This case is pathetic.’

Sam gave him a quick look, then fixed his eyes on the road and shut his mouth.

Driving through, the town looked exactly the same as yesterday. Twitching curtains but no-one outside. Sam shivered.

They called at the police station first, but it was as empty as they’d found it the other day. In the Sheriff’s office Sam went over to the window. He frowned and knelt down, like he was looking for something, but then Dean said ‘Hurry the fuck up, it’s like five hundred fucking degrees in here,’ because it was really fucking hot, and Sam straightened up.

Maisie wasn’t sitting on the fence when they stopped outside her house. The mother answered the door. Her eyes were grey and cool, and they stayed like that through Dean asking her questions. Have you seen a man recently, Ma’am? Yea high, skinny, bad teeth, probably not wearing a stitch? No? Shame. Any recent insect swarms, unusual infestations, anything like that? What about your family? Could we speak to your children?

‘I don’t think that would be a good idea,’ she said, but she said it in the way she’d said everything, like only part of her was focused on talking. ‘My daughter ain’t well today. She’s in bed.’

Dean glanced at Sam. New development? ‘That’s terrible. What’s wrong with her?’

Sam frowned at him.

‘Nothin’ serious, I’m sure. She was sick in the night so I thought I better keep her home.’

Sounded like regular old whoops-I-almost-killed-my-brother to Dean. He clapped a heavy hand on Sam’s shoulder, more to piss him off than anything. ‘Time to go, Agent.’

They knocked on sixteen doors. Five of them were answered. A middle-aged man with vacant eyes; a woman with a hard, toothy smile; a young girl whose eyes were twitching, who Dean thought looked a little scared. They questioned her for the longest, he was hoping she’d crack and give them something, but either she really didn’t know anything or she was even more scared than he thought.

‘Empty?’ said one man when they asked him about the town. ‘Is it? Guess I hadn’t noticed.’

‘People come ‘n go,’ said the girl, hiding behind her hair. ‘S’no big deal.’

‘And the police?’ said Dean, exasperated. ‘They come and go, too? That why the Sheriff hasn’t been in his office for four days?’

She shrugged. ‘Maybe he’s on holiday.’

‘Yeah, him and the rest of the department, sipping cocktails on a kidney-shaped lilo in the Bahamas,’ said Dean, and Sam said ‘Dean, don’t,’ and Dean said, ‘Shut up, Sam,’ and the girl flinched.

‘Way to break character there, champ,’ said Sam when they were walking down the road.

Dean just laughed out loud. ‘Fuckin’ listen to yourself. You did it first.’

‘Yeah, I did it quietly. You scared the shit out of her.’

Dean gritted his teeth. ‘Right. So maybe when you quit blaming everything on me, I’ll start playing nice. Capisce?’

Sam looked at him flatly. ‘Will you quit trying to make everything into an argument?’

‘I’m not the one trying to argue, Sam!’ Which was maybe not totally true, but whatever, Sam, he was hot and tired and bored stupid and he was mad.

Sam looked like he was going to swallow his tongue trying not to yell. ‘Dean-’

And of course the reasonable voice was making an appearance. ‘Don’t patronize me, Sam, I swear to fucking God.’

‘I’m not-’ Sam began, and then cut himself off. ‘Right. Okay. Whatever.’ He sped up a little so that Dean had to walk faster to keep up with him and his fucking mutant legs.

Their last stop was the house of the old guy they’d questioned the other day, the Maccabee’s neighbor. ‘Keep it together,’ Sam muttered as Dean knocked on the door, and Dean said, ‘Fuck you.’

It took a while- during which Dean tapped his foot against the doorstep- but after a goddamn age the old guy opened the door. His eyes were just as hard as when they last saw him. Dean had a sudden hunch that this was going to go wrong.

‘Hello, Sir,’ said Sam, very politely. ‘We’ve just got a few more questions, if you don’t mind.’

The guy’s eyebrows went up. ‘What if I do?’

‘Sorry, buster,’ said Dean loudly. ‘This ain’t optional.’ Next to him he felt rather than saw Sam close his eyes.

The man gave them that look from the other day, like he was laughing at them without quite letting it show. A hot fist of irritation clenched in Dean’s chest.

Sam cleared his throat. ‘Have you seen this man anywhere?’ He launched into the spiel- tall, thin, something up with his teeth. He’s not listening to you, Dean wanted to yell at him. The guy wasn’t; he was just looking from Dean to Sam and back again, a sort of nasty amusement in his eyes.

‘So have you?’ said Sam pointedly. The man’s eyes flickered back to him. He grinned. ‘Nah,’ he said.

‘What about unusual amounts of wasp activity, then?’ said Sam, and Dean wanted to knock his damn teeth in, because wow, Sam, way to make us sound like blundering morons.

‘Wasp activity?’ the man repeated, like it was the stupidest question in the world, which it kinda was. ‘Ain’t nothing unusual about wasp activity around here, Agents.’ His eyes gleamed like bullet casings.

Dean was suddenly certain that the guy was lying. He’d seen something, or he knew something, hell, probably the whole goddamn town did and they were all lying to them. Fucking moron civilians.

Sam looked pretty done himself. ‘So you’ve seen nothing. You live right next door to the first victims. And you’ve seen nothing.’

The man shrugged. ‘Depends. What’s nothin'?’

Dean said, ‘You answer here or you answer in a cell. You pick.’

Another shrug. ‘I’m answerin’, agents. You just don’t seem to be hearin’.’

Sam turned to him, doubt in his eyes, just as Dean pulled his gun, cocked it, and stuck it at the guy’s forehead.

‘Dean,’ said Sam in a resigned sort of voice.

The guy started to laugh.

‘You know something,’ Dean said. ‘Give it up or I shoot. That simple enough for you, or do I gotta break it down a little more?’

‘Dean,’ said Sam.

‘You ain’t gonna get nothin’ out of me that way,’ said the guy. He was still chuckling. ‘Go right on ahead ‘n shoot, for all I care.’

Dean ground his teeth together. His trigger finger twitched. And what if he did? What if he really did? What if-

Sam reached over and folded his palm over the muzzle of Dean’s Taurus, the flat of his hand pressed against it. One tiny jerk of Dean’s finger enough to blow a hole through his hand. Through that fragile living network of veins and tissue. Dean glared at him.

‘Sam, take your fucking hand away.’

Sam’s long fingers closed over the gun’s shaft. His eyes met Dean’s, steady.

‘Sam, I swear to God-’

‘What?’ said Sam. ‘You gonna shoot me too?’ Steady dark eyes bored into him.

And was he? Was he?

‘This isn’t us,’ said Sam. He didn’t take his hand away from the gun. ‘Dean, this isn’t us. We don’t do this. We aren’t like this.’

Sam said, ‘Put the gun down.’

Something rushed in his brain, and then he didn’t really understand how but he was lowering the gun. He clicked the safety back on and shoved it into his waistband. The guy’s eyes tracked the movement.

Sam inhaled. He curled his shaky hand in towards his stomach, a movement Dean probably wasn’t meant to notice. Something curled hot and awful in his stomach. Shame, he thought, but then it was gone, summer-lightning.

Stupid Sam. What the hell did he think he was doing?

‘Come on,’ Sam started, but Dean was already shoving past him, back towards the car.

 

Dean stopped them on the way back for food. Sam wasn’t hungry. Actually, he felt sick.

But Dean must have been hungry, because in the gas station he loaded them both up with potato chips and chocolate and sandwiches, the sort of food that Sam couldn’t bring himself to touch on days like this.

Dean’s face was grim and the first credit card they gave to the bearded guy at the counter didn’t work. Dean handed over another with a tic in his jaw. When they got back to the B&B, after twenty minutes sitting in the car in total silence, Dean sat down, opened a sandwich, took one bite, and then pushed it away.

‘Doesn’t pulling firearms on civilians make you hungry?’ said Sam. He didn’t mean to say it, it just came out.

Dean sort of grunted.

He didn’t want to sit down. He leaned on the back of the other chair. ‘Dean, what’s up with you?’

Dean glared at him. His eyes were red-rimmed. ‘Nothing. Nothing’s up with me. Except the fact that I’m being suffocated by the fucking sun twenty-four seven. Otherwise I’m just peachy.’

‘You pointed a gun at a septuagarian,’ said Sam. ‘A septuagarian who wasn’t even technically doing anything.’

‘So?’

‘So if something’s affecting you about this case-’

‘Nothing’s affecting me, Sam,' Dean spat. Then he seemed to realise how he mad he'd sounded and said, 'I’m just tired.’

He was starting to severely doubt that. Thinking about it, Dean’s behaviour had been kinda off ever since they got here.

‘I think we should take a day out to go to the next town,’ he said. It was something he’d been thinking about all day. ‘I need to get an internet connection. We might actually be able to find something out about this thing.’ And he didn’t want to say it, but it might be good for Dean. Distance from the crazy. This was starting to get exhausting. He just wanted to have a conversation with Dean that didn’t turn into an argument.

‘Mm,’ said Dean. He unbuttoned his shirt collar, fumbling. Sam undid his too. It felt to him like a storm was brewing outside. He hoped so. Maybe it’d sweep away some of- this.

Whatever.

Around two in the morning, with Dean in a sweaty, teeth-clenched sleep in the next bed, Sam got up. He went to the window and looked out, but the moon was hidden behind a bank of cloud. The night was black and sticky as tar.

He put on a t-shirt, even though the brush of fabric made his skin crawl. Jeans. He filched the car keys from the pocket of Dean’s jeans, slung over the back of a chair. Over a year since Dad, and Dean was only just starting to lose the habit of folding his clothes neatly, military-style. When they were kids Sam had been deliberately messy, had always given John something to yell at him about, clothes on the motel room floor or scattered books or hair left in the bathroom sink. But when he got to Stanford and spent a year in a tiny college bedroom, he’d been meticulously neat. His roommate had called him OCD all the time.

Dean didn’t wake when he shut the door behind him, although it creaked long and loud. He locked it behind him, Dean could always undo it from the inside, and set off down the black corridor. In the squares of weak light from the windows he could see the occasional grinning Marilyn, or the dark fingerprint of petals under glass.

He let himself out of the front door, leaving it unlocked. Got in the Impala- it always felt strange, sitting in the driver’s seat, sort of illicit- turned the key and gritted his teeth at the rumble, enough to wake the dead. Not to wake Dean, apparently. Sam got out of the parking lot without incident.

He made the drive to Jonesville easily, even in the dark. He’d made sure, yesterday, to memorize their route in miles and half-miles, bridges and potholes and twists of the road. The streets were silent. He pulled over by the Macabees’ house and turned off the engine.

The front door was still unlocked from his and Dean’s visit the other day. He pushed it open, skreeeeeek, and that smell drifted out. The humid, mushroomy smell of old sex. It had got stronger. He could smell thunder, too. And there was a buzzing noise, a low, persistent throb, coming from somewhere deep in the house.

He stepped forward into the darkness. His torch died as soon as he turned it on- not surprising, this case kept on fucking with their tech, such as it was. He dug into his jeans pocket and found a Zippo, flicked it open. The flame wavered, illuminating a circle of space but leaving the corridor walls lost in black.

One hand on the wall, he moved forward. Up the stairs. The buzzing grew louder. When he set a foot down, carefully, at the top of the stairs, something crunched.

He yanked his foot back. Held the Zippo closer to the floor. It was a dead wasp. He drew in his caught breath, carefully, and stepped onto the landing.

There were more dead wasps scattered farther down the hall. They crunched under his sneakers in the dark. One buzzed drunkenly through the lighter’s glow, spiraling. It was heading towards the bedroom where Cassie Maccabee had died.

He paused in front of the door. It stood ajar, a grey thumb of moonlight stealing out from under the gap. The buzzing noise was very loud now. He gave the door a gentle push with his left hand, and it drifted open.

Pale light lay in slats across the bedroom floor. The floor was covered in wasps, what had to be hundreds of them, dead and dying, some still wavering through the air. One buzzed past Sam’s ear and plummeted to the carpet, where it lay twitching. That old bloodstain looked more like a deep well than ever.

He tried to pick his way into the room without treading on any more wasps, but it was impossible; they were everywhere. Strewn over the rumpled bedsheets, where their bodies had heaped up in dips and creases. Sam glanced up and saw one dead on top of a picture frame. The picture was black-and-white, recent-looking, a smiling old man with glasses.

He looked over at the open window where the moonlight fell through. A wasp twitched on the window-ledge.

‘Cassie Macabee,’ he said. ‘Cassie. Are you here?’

He thought maybe the room cooled a little. The lighter flame flickered. He briefly thought of the shotguns he’d left behind in the trunk and hoped that had been the right choice. All he had was two pockets full of salt.

‘Cassie Macabee,’ he said. ‘Cassie Macabee, invoco te tenebras. Dicere.’

Speak.

He waited, sifting fingers through the salt in his left pocket.

The temperature plunged. Goosebumps raised on his bare arms. He wanted to hug them to himself but he didn’t. He said, ‘Cassie?’

A flicker, like static on a motel television, and she appeared; a dim shape, hunched against the window. Faded enough that he couldn’t tell what color her hair once was. The window was visible through her head, darkness behind glass behind whatever ghosts were made of. Layers of dark transparencies.

She didn’t raise her head. ‘Hello.’

‘Hello,’ he said gently.

‘What d’you want?’

Her voice was dull. He wondered how much she understood. It had only been a few days; many ghosts weren’t lucid until months or years after they died. ‘I just want to talk.’

‘Hm,’ she said. Glanced at him.

‘I’m looking for the thing that made your husband kill you.’ He paused. ‘Do you know what happened?’

A movement like a shudder rippled through the thin fabric of her image. He waited.

‘I knew it wasn’t him,’ she said. ‘I knew, I knew… somethin’ had happened, or I was having a nightmare, or somethin’. But he would never have done- that. Any of that. Not even if he wanted to.’

A cold queasy feeling started up in Sam’s gut. He was sweating again. The wasps throbbed. One landed on the back of Sam’s hand; he shook it off and it fell to the floor and crawled.

‘Tell me,’ he said.

She spared him a glance, shook her head. ‘You don’t wanna know.’

She was right; he didn’t, not really. He had enough nightmares. ‘I sort of have to.’

‘You won’t be able to stop it. You can’t stop something that’s inside people. You can only stop them. And that’s difficult, boy.’

‘I can do it, Cassie. I will.’

She turned almost-there eyes on him, studied him. He wasn’t sure whether the look that emerged was approval or suspicion. ‘It were a few days before it happened, that the signs started showin’,’ she said. ‘In Ezra, that is. ‘Cept at the time, of course, I just thought- it was hot. We were tired. People, they yell at each other. It ain’t- it don’t mean anything.’

‘Is that how it started?’ said Sam.

Her eyes closed. ‘The heat. It started with the heat. A string of days so hot- well, even when you’re used to it, you feel like it could crush you. You feel it leaning on you, the heat.’

Sam swallowed round the dryness in his throat. The room suddenly seemed small and tight and warmer than before. Sticky heat that clung to him and made him feel dirty all over.

‘There were thunderstorms, almost every evenin’, and I always welcomed ‘em, because I thought, maybe now the weather’ll break, maybe we’ll get to cool off. But it never did. The thunder n’ rain would come, and by mornin’ the heat would rise again, and the air would be thick enough that you any laundry you hung out’d be sopping wet even if it hadn’t rained. And Ezra- oh, he hated it, did Ezra. Not that I liked it so much either, but I tolerated it to a point, which was what he couldn’t do.

‘He got so cranky. Every day he was worse. We quarrelled n’ quarrelled, and he didn’t have a good word for anyone or anything, and I felt that he were pickin’ fights with me just, well, to fight. And of course I rose to his bait. Every goddamn time. I got madder n’ madder at him, and he got madder n’ madder at me, until I started to dread bein’ in a room with him, toward the end of that week. But…’

‘But?’ he said, quietly, when she tailed off.

‘But I wanted him,’ she said after a minute. ‘In a way I hadn’t in- months, maybe longer. I couldn’t stand to be around him but I couldn’t stand not to, either. It was too hot for anyone to so much as brush shoulders without it makin’ your skin crawl, but every time I looked at him- well, I wanted. I’m sure I don’t got to explain it to you.’

The temperature of the room was rising, crowding in on Sam, making his guts feel hot and strange. He tried to rub the sweat from his forehead with his shirt collar.

‘But I blamed it all on the heat. I guess he did, too, if he were still thinkin’ at all. It was messin’ with both our heads. I guess I just didn’t realise how much. And then one mornin’ he kept starin’ at me all strange, like his eyes were burning out of his skull, and I told him to stop lookin’ at me like that, and he said- well, we started yellin’, and then he- he grabbed my shoulders, and- I opened the drawer and got the gun. I didn’t expect him to get it off me. I didn’t even realise he’d shot me til I woke up here. Didn’t realise he’d shot himself til later still, of course.’

Her voice was dull. The back of Sam’s arms prickled. He knew what had been done to Cassie Maccabee’s body after her death. The room was so hot now he could barely breathe.

‘Is your husband a ghost too?’

‘No.’ She traced a see-through finger down the window. ‘Guess he made his peace with the hellfire. He fucked my corpse, you know. I probably wasn’t even cold. Guess he weren’t in his right mind.’

Something like panic was battering the insides of Sam’s ribcage, trying to escape. He swallowed. Almost choked round the dryness of his throat when he spoke. ‘Is there anything else? Anything at all?’

Cassie was silent for a moment. ‘Yes,’ she said, eventually. ‘There was one thing. I thought I saw- when Ezra grabbed that gun from me and pointed it- someone standin’ behind him. Sorta leanin’ over his shoulder. A skinny naked man. I think there was somethin’ funny about his teeth.’ She shrugged. ‘But there you go. It was a split second. Who knows.’

 

Dean was awake when Sam got back. The light was on and he was sitting at the table. His arms were folded evenly in front of him. He looked up when Sam shut the door behind him, car keys dangling from his fingers. Dean looked at him, blank-faced.

‘And where were you?’ said Dean.

‘The Macabees’ house,’ said Sam.

He expected Dean to kick off, but Dean just said, ‘Huh. Find anything?’

‘Uh. Yeah, actually. Cassie Macabee saw the guy standing behind her husband just before he killed her. The same one as I saw behind Maisie. And there were a hell of a lot of wasps at the crime scene, Dean. I’m thinking whatever this thing is they sort of follow it around- which I guess is a solid lead, anyway.’

‘Right,’ said Dean. ‘I won’t bother asking how you know all this.’

He was standing awkwardly in the middle of the room with the keys in his hand. He went and put them carefully down on the table, and Dean’s hand clamped down on them as soon as Sam lifted his own. Dean slid the keys off the table and into his pocket. Then he stood up, and something in Sam jumped back because suddenly this space, empty a second ago, was so full of Dean, of his glare and his red-rimmed two A.M eyes and his bare feet.

He didn’t really jump back, though; just held his ground as Dean shoved past him, an unnecessarily harsh brush of shoulders that made him feel all prickly and weird. ‘I’m going to bed,’ said Dean.

‘Right,’ said Sam, and a wave of exhaustion broke over him. All his muscles hurt. He kicked off his shoes and crawled onto his bed, flat-out on his front. Shut his eyes, and after a couple minutes, Dean’s muffled footfalls, the light flicked off.

The air he was breathing tasted tepid, like old bathwater. Springs creaked in the other bed, hardly a metre away; Dean, turning over, restless. Sam breathed in the musty pillow, twisted his fingers in the soft old material of Dean’s shirt. He had a vague sense of being trapped by something huge and terrifying and breathless and he didn’t understand, and the only familiar thing in the world was the smell of that stupid, unwashed shirt. What Cassie had said kept resurfacing like a huge dark octopus crawling up from an underground lake. I couldn’t stand to be around him, but I couldn’t stand not to, either.

Dean’s springs creaked again. Sam clenched his eyes shut, but he felt like he could still see Dean anyway; see the exact position he’d be lying in on his side, an awkward hunch that he’d twist out of in a couple minutes. He thought he could hear his breathing, hear it minutely, although it was soft, Dean was barely making a sound. Every shift and creak of the mattress imprinted into Sam’s brain. The thin fabric of his t-shirt felt heavy as a winter coat, sweat starting out under his arms and round his collarbone.

It felt like their twin presences couldn’t fit in the room together. As though they were scratching and sliding around each other trying to. They were both beacons emnating restless body heat, and Sam could feel his own consciousness where it took up space in the room, where it pushed against Dean’s frustration and low boil of rage.

Groan of springs. Dean turning over again. He could feel the imprints that the wings of Dean’s shoulderblades would make, bearing down into the mattress. He knew that Dean’s eyes were open. Gazing out into the heavy dark.

*

Dean woke into pitch-black, sweat making the sheets stick to his legs, plastering his hair to his face. His head felt muggy and weird and his mouth tasted like the bottom of an old well. The LED read 04:09.

There was a painful hollowness in his stomach. Like he hadn’t eaten in weeks. He got out of bed, went to turn on the lamp at the far side of the room, sparing a glance at Sam. But he was asleep, a fine sheen of sweat standing out on the triangle of his jaw, lips parted. Face sort of pinched and closed-off even in unconsciousness.

It made Dean want to shake him til his teeth rattled, to feel his nose break under his fist, to draw him inside himself until he could be sure that Sam would never go anywhere ever again.

His stomach made a weird gurgling noise. He needed food now; hunger blotted everything else out. He lurched over to the table where they’d dumped the uneaten stuff and rustled open the nearest paper bag, unearthed a sandwich, crammed it into his mouth, barely even tasting it. If anything it woke up his hunger even more. He tore into a bag of potato chips, another sandwich, a random slice of stale cake that he didn’t even remember buying. He was inhaling everything but he still felt hungry.

He ate nearly all their food, working his way through a little box of dry cereal, the peanuts he nicked from a bar back in Ohio, shaking out the packets for crumbs, until the only thing he could find was a slightly dented apple. He only realised how much he’d eaten when he stood up, stomach hot and roiling.

He looked down at the wrapper-covered table and suddenly felt bloated and awful. He was sweating again. He looked over at Sam, who had shifted over, his mouth hanging open in a quiet little o. Sam’s t-shirt was rucked up round his ribs, the rise and fall of his diaphragm visible. Relaxed muscle and the shallow dip of hipbone. He felt like he might be sick.

He drank a glass of water from the jug on the table, but it was lukewarm and had little air bubbles in it, and when he finished it his mouth was still dry. Sam turned over again, onto his side facing away from Dean, ribs shallowly articulated through his back.

Dean turned out the light; at least he wouldn’t have to look at Sam anymore, there was too much of Sam, you couldn’t not look at him. Too much goddamn skin. He lay back down, but the sheets felt scratchy and strange, and his dick was throbbing and his heart was beating and he almost couldn’t bear being in the same room as Sam right now, he needed his own space, he needed to be able to sprawl out and let himself go without knocking into some piece of Sam-ness. But were there any places left where he could do that? Even inside his own goddamn head? Sam was everywhere, like a flood, taking up the whole room. Dean knew he should never have let him get so fucking tall. There was no corner of his mind left that Sam hadn’t dragged himself into, somehow, or maybe Dean had dragged Sam into it, he didn’t even know anymore. It was hot in here. It was hot and he felt like he was dying.

He lay there and willed his stupid four-in-the-morning wood to go down, and shut his eyes. Tried to block it all out but it was no use. The windows were open as wide as they would go but no breeze was getting in. The heat had sealed them in here, Dean and his stupid body that wanted weird stuff and his stupid brother who didn’t know when to fucking leave him alone and the guns, the knives, all the sharp things shoved under the bed.

 

Chapter Text

Aug 19.

 254

Dean’s out. Going to make this quick. Between the way he’s behaving and what Margaret told me I think there’s something wrong with him. I don’t want to believe what she said but it fits with the Maisie thing. I don’t really know what to do but I guess I just have to solve the case before anything happens. I really wish I could call Bobby. If we don’t get answers today I might have to steal the car tonight and drive to the closest place with cell reception. Although then I’d practically be trying to prove Margaret right.

Wish I knew where Dean went.

Sam shut the notepad just as Dean opened the door. It wasn’t even nine yet but the heat was already pretty bad; there were sweat patches on Dean’s t-shirt. He looked like he hadn’t slept at all, hollow-eyed, a yellow tint to his skin. He sat on the edge of the bed, which creaked heavily, and fumbled in his duffel.

‘Hey,’ said Sam, as casual as he could be. He put his notebook in the secret pocket of his bag, nonchalantly enough that Dean didn’t look up, and opened his laptop. ‘Where’d you go?’

‘For a drive,’ said Dean shortly.

‘Don’t suppose you got cell reception at all?’

‘Not that kind of drive.’

Before Sam could ask what the hell that meant, Dean locked himself into the bathroom.

Dean played Zeppelin II all the way to Jonesville. Loud. By the time they stepped out of the car Sam’s head was pounding and he thought he might have tinnitus, but he hadn’t wanted to turn it down in case they ended up fighting again. He was going to treat Dean as carefully as he would a potential shifter until he knew what the deal was.

The plan was to go round the neighbours again, showing a picture of Margaret, and trying to figure out where they could find her. What Sam really wanted was a couple hours of WiFi to get some real research done but for now he was going to keep an eye on Dean.

Their shadows were long and black on the street at this time of the morning. The back of Sam’s scratchy suit was hot against his shoulderblades; it would get unbearable pretty soon.

They stepped up to the first house without Dean saying a word but Sam couldn’t stop himself. ‘Dude, keep your cool with the civilians today,’ he said. ‘Alright?’

He half-expected Dean to flip out but Dean didn’t even look at him. He just grunted and rapped on the door too loudly with his fist, ignoring the knocker.

Sam showed the grainy printout of Margaret to a disgruntled woman who answered the door with her hair in curlers, like in a movie. She denied knowing anything about her in a voice that meant even if she did know, she wasn’t about to tell them. Sam could have pushed it but he didn’t. He could feel the low boil of Dean’s temper next to him, pulsing in the warm air.

She was the only person who answered the door along that whole street. They knocked the house of the old man Dean had lost his shit at, a knot of dread pulling tight in Sam’s stomach, but although the curtains twitched no-one answered. Dean’s jaw tightened but Sam was relieved.

‘Christ, where are they all, dead?’ said Dean irritably as they crossed the road. It was the first voluntary sentence he’d spoken since they got out of the car.

They passed the house where they’d found the anonymous woman dead. Its gate was neatly shut. Sam paused. He didn’t know what it was. There was something different about the house today. It looked the same, but. It wasn’t.

‘Dean,’ he said, touching Dean’s shoulder- Dean flinched- and pointing. ‘I want to go back in.’

Dean snorted. ‘Paying respects?’

‘No.’ He tried to listen in the moment of stillness. Nothing, not even the trees. The house stared bleakly down. The difference was in the air. ‘Something’s changed.’

Dean’s mouth went hard. Sam sensed Dean’s psychic freak register pinging. He moved away from Dean, opened the gate carefully, went up the drive and into the house, still unlocked.

As soon as he walked in the difference was confirmed for him. The iron-sharp stench of blood was gone. It smelled like a normal house, like any of the vic houses they went into, even a cosy undertone of pine air freshener lingering somewhere.

When they left the house, they’d taken the body with them but they hadn’t cleaned up. The kitchen had been a slippery charnel of blood and bits of stomach, wooden table stained almost black. The smell had been pretty much as bad as you’d expect.

Sam walked into the kitchen. Something in him was still braced for gore, despite what his nostrils told him. But the kitchen table bore no sign that it had ever been bloodstained, wood pale and raw. The laminate floor bore no traces. The blood had even been on the walls but it was gone now.

Dean followed him in and took it in. ‘Well, fuck me,’ he said, like the surprise had made him forget that he was being silent and a dick.

Sam ran his finger along the table. Stains like that didn’t come out. Something had come in here and collected every last particle of blood and guts from this room. He closed his eyes and tried to listen with brain and nose and ears and eyes, hoping that this would allow whatever tendril of his senses constituted psychic ability to probe. A moment later he smelt it. Something lurking under the air conditioner. Creature-hunger that blackened the air like a burn. Lingering just below the reach of human senses. He wondered if a dog would sniff it out. Perhaps that was why they hadn’t seen any dogs in town. Perhaps whatever this was had gone after the animals first.

‘What?’ said Dean, seeing something on his face.

He didn’t know how to articulate what he’d sensed. At least not in a way that Dean wouldn’t freak out about. ‘We need to go back to the Macabees’,’ he said.

When they got to the Macabees’ Sam went straight inside. Up the stairs and into the hallway, and he looked down. No dead wasps. Almost as though the other night had been nothing but a violent hallucination. But it had happened. He remembered his talk with Cassie’s ghost as clearly as anything in his life.

When he got to the bedroom doorway he knew what he would find, because the police tape was gone. He went in, Dean close behind.

The huge bloodstain in the carpet, the one that looked like it’d swallow you up if you walked on it, had vanished. Unscathed carpet where it had been. No blood on the walls or the mirror. No smell.

Worst, the bed had been made.

‘Dean, this is bad,’ Sam said. He wanted to get out of the house.

Dean wrinkled his nose. He wandered round the room, lifting up the duvet between finger and thumb and dropping it back down. ‘I dunno, dude, is it? Monster housekeeping. Maybe they’re just learning table manners.’

General Dean crudity or monster-induced lack of empathy? Sam was going to lose his mind. Maybe after all this it would just have been the heat getting to Dean. But no, it wasn’t that. He knew Dean and something here was off.

More to the point: what was this thing? The cleanup worried Sam because it offered an explanation for the rest of the town having vanished without trace. Maybe the townspeople had all killed each other and whatever this creature was had moved into the houses and fed on their remains. Removed the traces. Not ghoul behaviour. Not common-or-garden demon behaviour, either. And why had only the Macabee muders been reported if all the town had killed each other? Were all these people complicit? Was that why the police had all vanished? And all they had to go on was the spectral man with the iron teeth. Sam really needed to do that research. He had a distinct sense of who could be next otherwise.

‘Let’s get back,’ said Sam. ‘And then we need to drive over to the next town, okay, Dean? I gotta look something up.’

‘You gotta look what up?’ said Dean, too casually. He was standing at the windowsill. He’d picked up a plastic owl thingy and was turning it over in his hands.

Sam faltered. His mind blanked. ‘Something,’ he said.

‘Right.’ Dean replaced the owl. ‘Something you can’t tell me about.’

Sam didn’t say anything. This was menacing and not terribly Deanlike and kind of confirmed his hypothesis. In which case telling Dean might not be a great idea. He hadn’t thought it through when he spoke.

But it wasn’t like he could leave Dean here either. Not in the town.

‘Because you don’t trust me,’ said Dean, or whoever Dean was at the moment. Turning slowly round to fix his darkening eyes on Sam.

Might as well try it. ‘Dean, I think it got to you,’ he said. Held his hands up, palms out, knew it was defensive but he couldn’t help it. ‘Whatever it is. I think it’s getting in your head, and I think it has been for the past few days, but you’ve got to fight it, Dean, okay? I know you can. But I don’t know what it’s safe to tell you right now. Think about it. You’ve been feeling irritable, right? And maybe kinda like you want to punch me? That’s not you, man. Or maybe it’s partly you, I don’t know, but I think there’s something else. So just- go with me on this one right now. Please.’

Dean looked at the wall for a second. ‘Now you mention it,’ he said. Then he turned back round and, without warning, threw the punch.

Sam clung to the wall behind him. He choked on warm blood. A glut of it slid down his throat. ‘Go back to the motel,’ he said, tasting blood in his teeth. Instinct said to hit Dean back but he had to stay in control. They couldn’t both turn violent.

Dean stood there. He looked confused, like he wasn’t sure why he’d just done that. For a moment Sam almost expected him his face to soften, for him to look guilty and furious at himself and lean down to offer Sam his hand. They would fight the monster together. But he just stood there and said, ‘Sam?’

Sam scrambled back to his feet, using the wall for grip. He felt a jolt of irrational disappointment in Dean. ‘Get in the car and drive away,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you there. I promise.’

Maybe something else had crept into his voice as he said it. He didn’t know. Dean stared dumbly for a second, then nodded and walked off. Creak of his boots on every stair. Sam breathed, the blood in his nose bubbling. When he was sure Dean had left the house he went over to the bed and grabbed a wad of tissues from the box beside it. Then he twisted one up his nose, folded the rest into his pocket, and climbed out the back window.

Sam wired the most nondescript car on the street and drove back to the motel, nose throbbing. He was thinking more clearly now; he had to make sure Dean wasn’t going to hurt himself or anyone else and then he would find some way to get out and figure out what they were hunting.

When he got out out of the car the heat of the air curled round his face like a cat and almost suffocated him. He breathed in through his mouth, and gingerly removed the tissue from his nose. The blood had stopped. He had no idea what he was going to find in their motel room; letting himself into the building he put a hand on his knife, and took it off again.

When he stood in front of their bedroom door he considered knocking, and then settled for opening the door as slowly as he could, knowing the creak was unavoidable. But Dean was just sitting slumped on Sam’s bed, staring at the opposite wall. There was a bottle of Jack on the table. It didn’t look like Dean had opened it.

Dean looked at him. Taking in the bloodied nose and blinking. ‘Dude,’ he said, ‘I punched you. I don’t get it. What’s going on here?’

‘I don’t know, Dean.’ Sam walked to the table, put down his keys. He picked up the bottle. ‘But it’s okay. I’ll sort it.’ Then he went over to Dean and smashed the bottle into the side of his head. Dean flopped forward like a ragdoll. Whiskey richness filled the air. Broken glass glittering on soaked sheets.

Sam worked fast. He duct-taped Dean, ankles and wrists, well enough that Dean wouldn’t get out in a hurry but probably would. Eventually. Then he dragged him to the closet and managed to haul Dean in, underneath the empty coathangers with his knees wedged virtually into his slack mouth so that he’d fit into the space. Sam ruffled Dean’s hair, because he’d always kind of wanted to do that. Then he closed the door and put a chair up against it for good measure.

It occurred to him as he stood in front of the closet that Dean might not be the only one this thing was affecting. But c’est la vie.

 

Chapter Text

Sam took the Impala and drove to Nicholls, over an hour away. He kept the windows down but the heat and humidity were choking. The sky was a violent, hallucinatory blue, meshed through with dark glinting clouds. A storm was coming.

After he’d been driving for half an hour, all the working phones in the car began to buzz with days of witheld texts. Sam didn’t stop to check them. The afternoon was bearing down by the time he parked out back of the Nicholls public library.

He checked the phones. Bobby with a mara in Texas. A bunch of machismo threats from some hunter Sam had never heard of, probably a Kubrick goon. Jo with a question about thought-forms. He went in the library and got onto a computer. His fingers scuttled on the keyboard like rattling spiders. Wasps and iron teeth.

With the whole of the web at his disposal answers came fast. A couple hours later he was pretty sure what they were looking for was an abaasy. They were demons, or some pages said spirits of the long-dead- which could translate to demons anyway. They had iron teeth, travelled in packs of seven and incited people to violence and madness. They could be appeased with a blood sacrifice: well, alright, but what did that mean? Just blood or a life? Human or animal? The trouble was that beyond the gaming pages there wasn’t much information on them to be found. He thought about calling Bobby, but he wasn’t sure what to say when Bobby would inevitably ask where Dean was.

He typed in Margaret Calhoun. Ten minutes later he had a home phone number, an address just outside of Jonesville, and details of a job Margaret had worked at a local factory last year.

He rang the number.

 

Margaret was waiting by the WELCOME TO JONESVILLE sign when Sam drove by. He pulled over and she climbed into passenger.

‘Sam,’ she said evenly.

‘Margaret.’

Her dirty flip-flops on the car floor. She was wearing a huge greasy denim jacket over the rest of her clothes. ‘You’re cleverer than your brother but you ain’t half clever enough,’ she said. ‘You know what they are, don’t you?’

‘Do you?’ said Sam. ‘Ugh, of course you do.’

She smiled. ‘L’abasy.’

Sam gnawed his thumbnail, unable to stop himself. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I don’t like asking for favors.’

‘Of course you don’t,’ said Margaret. ‘Look at you, big little Sammy Winchester, daddy’s pride and joy and terror, big brother wrapped around your little finger when he ain’t tryin’ a punch your head in. You’ve never asked for nothin’.’

Sam ignored her. ‘Do you know where they live?’

‘Maybe Ah do.’

‘Take me there.’

‘And what’ll you do if Ah don’t, shoot me?’

‘Before I came here I knocked my brother unconscious and duct-taped him into a cupboard. Don’t give me any ideas.’

Margaret looked at him without fear. A trace of something in her eyes- almost like familiarity, thought Sam, or kinship, and shut that thought down immediately.

‘Ah’ll take you there,’ she said. ‘But your threats don’t make no difference to me, Sam. Ah got the angels watchin’ out for me. The angel Israfael himself, you know of him? He hovers above me as Ah take my rest. Ah’ll take you there because we’re the same, you an’ me. We’re both chosen. Never mind by whom.’

‘I’m not a prophet,’ said Sam. ‘I don’t even pray anymore. I was meant to belong to the demons. We aren’t the same. Sorry to disappoint you.’

‘There’s hell marks on you yet you’re still human,’ said Margaret. ‘You must have somethin’ angelic in you somewhere. Can’t you feel it in you? It’s the part that keeps you going.’

Sam felt a physical sensation in his chest, then, like something thrumming with brightness. But that wasn’t anything angelic. What was keeping him going was the absolute imperative need to save Dean, to pull him away from the warped and yelling pit of Sam’s dreams. And that wasn’t heavenly. That was just… Sam.

At Margaret’s direction they prowled through Jonesville in the car, windows up despite the heat. Sam wished he’d brought the car he jacked instead of the Impala; they could have used anonymity right now. Not that their conspicuity seemed to bother Margaret. 

They passed the house where they’d found the woman dead. The town ended, road opening out into sugar cane fields of abrasive green. Margaret pointed off down a dirt road just in time for Sam to take the turning. The crops glistened like metal and hemmed them in on each side, the road just narrow enough to take the car. A sign marked the start of the road, a tall blackened thing, half of its board splintered and missing, the rest scorched and unreadable. Struck by lightning.

‘The Jonesville plantation,’ Margaret said. ‘They been camping out here for a year, Sam.’

A year. They’d been picking the village apart bit by bit. Breeding violence and heat. Feeding on the dead. He thought of the silver penny eyes of the civilians they’d talked to. Complicit in the fiction of their normal little town. He and Dean had arrived at the very end, were just kicking over the traces. They’d sat out the destruction of a whole town. It occurred to him that he and Dean couldn’t possibly have released the abaasy from the devil’s gate, as he’d assumed, if it had been here a year. Small comfort. It’s the little things, Dean would have said, sarcastically. How had no hunters noticed this? Where had the police report of the Macabee deaths really come from?

With a sudden suspicion he turned to Margaret, but she spoke before he could. ‘There.’

A house rose into view over the swell of the field, almost as black as the burned signpost where the lightning-strike had erased its name. It looked pretty rickety, like no-one had lived in it for sixty years. Smashed windows downstairs and the verandah breaking apart. Margaret wound down the passenger window and tepid air crowded in.

Sam knew a bad house when he saw one. This one, even from a couple hundred metres, didn’t feel like a house. People lived in houses, quarrelled and laughed and had sex and died. Whatever was coming off the house wasn’t that. It was the life of something else, or not even really a life. An un-life. Acrid taste of inverted life on the air. Sam could feel the air trying to shed it like dirty scales, twisting inside out to cleanse itself. Fragments of rage and loose coils of desire twisted in him and tried to climb into his memories. The phantom imprint of Dean’s knuckles smarted below his eye.

He let the car crawl closer, whole body pricking hot and cold. Beside him Margaret was rigid and silent. Her hands had curled into fists by her sides.

Sam stopped the car a hundred feet from the house. They were insanely exposed, car sitting in full view of all the windows. ‘Alright,’ he said, looking to Margaret. ‘What now?’

Margaret said nothing. Her eyes were trained on the house.

Sam looked back at it. Seven men had appeared on the veranda. They stood in a triangle with one man at the front, looking at Sam and Margaret. They all wore grey suits and had combed-flat hair. Their mouths were closed but they all looked like the man Sam had seen standing over Maisie.

The one in front lifted his arm, extending a finger to point directly at them. They were too far away for Sam to really be able to see but he felt the flat eyes fix on them.

Margaret wound up the window with juddery speed. ‘Drive,’ she said, and Sam did.

Sam only breathed properly again when they turned off the dirt track, past that awful signpost, and back onto the road that led to the town. ‘Does that mean they made us?’ he said.

‘They made you days ago, stupid,’ said Margaret. ‘They know you’re hunting them. They’re complacent, Sam. They ain’t like other monsters who gotta come to you to kill you. They can confound you from far away. And you can’t hurt ‘em. You can only make them move on.’

 She was staring out of the window and her voice was level. Irritation surged in Sam. She’d been here all this year, had seen the death and the slow razing, and she acted like she didn’t give a damn when she had to. Otherwise why was she here?

‘Margaret, why are you doing this?’ he said. ‘Giving hints but no straight answers? Don’t you care about the town?’

‘No,’ said Margaret. ‘Ah hate this town.’ She didn’t look at him. Stared out at the road as they passed the ghostly houses.

‘Then what about the kids who’ve been dying? Innocent kids? What about Maisie? You must care about her. You saved her from killing her brother.’

Her mouth went tight. ‘Ah only know what the Lord sees fit to reveal to me,’ she said. ‘Ah’ve done my duty in telling you what Ah have.’

‘No, I’m doing my duty,’ said Sam. He didn’t know why he was so annoyed. There had to be something there with this kid, something good under all the holy self-importance. ‘I don’t know this town and I don’t know these people, but it’s my duty to help them. Because I can. Because it’s- my job. You’ve lived here your entire life and you won’t do anything to save them beyond dropping cryptic hints? I get hating the place you grew up in but I don’t get how you can want them all to be damned for that. You’re the one who reported the Macabee deaths, aren’t you? It wasn’t the police, was it, it was you. Why would you do that if you didn’t want this to stop? If you don’t care then why are you helping me?’

She looked at him with dead eyes. ‘You think Ah’m helping?’

Disconcerted, Sam closed his mouth. They were reaching the last few houses before the open road began.

Margaret said, ‘Stop the car. Ah need to go.’

Sam pulled over by the side of the road. ‘What you said to me the other night,’ he said.

‘Only what the angels told me.’

‘But why? And how did they tell you? Was it a voice in your head, an anonymous phone call, what? I’ve heard reports of people hearing angels through their television static, runes on their gas bills, all sorts but I’ve never heard of anything that-’

Margaret opened the door.

‘One last thing,’ Sam said. ‘Blood sacrifice. Sacrifice of what? What does that mean?’

‘You already know what it means,’ she said, and got out of the car.

Sam sat there for a minute, engine idling, while Margaret’s reflection shrank in the rearview mirror.

He was pretty sure he did know. And that was bad.

Thunder licked the edges of Sam’s perception as he drove back to The Last Waltz. He had no idea what he was going to find there. He’d felt saner for the past few hours, away from Dean, than he had in days. The abaasy were setting them at each other’s throats so they had to resist that if they wanted to finish the case. Actually, the smartest thing for Sam to do would be stay away from Dean and figure out the blood sacrifice. But he couldn’t do that. He knew he couldn’t. It would be stupid to try. Something in his blood was pulling him back there towards Dean’s danger and violence and terrible beautiful goodness. Dean could give him back the breath that the tropical swelter sucked from his lungs.

Low clouds snapped and snarled at him as he got out of the car in front of the B&B. A wasp circled close to his hand and it reminded him of something. A moment later, at the door to the B&B, he realised: he hadn’t removed the weapons from their room when he left.

He took the bullets out of his own gun and pocketed them. He closed the door silently behind him, shutting himself into the cool quiet foyer. X-Files was nowhere to be seen. Marilyn laughed down from the walls. The house felt way too quiet.

Up the darkened stairs without a squeak. He didn’t know what he was expecting to find but the door to their room was closed. He listened but couldn’t hear so much as a stray breath. For the first time a flicker of fear. He hadn’t hit Dean that hard. He couldn’t still be knocked out, could he? Except he could, of course he could, and you never knew when a routine hit to the head could turn into an A&E trip. He was dimly aware that there was something missing in his thoughts, something that he should be feeling, would normally be feeling, but when he reached for it it slid away. Dean had to be okay, because then they would find a way to get rid of the abaasy without anyone getting sacrificed and everything would go back to normal. Or at least what passed for normal at the moment. He shook his head to clear it and eased the door open, just slightly. Nothing happened.

He pushed it slowly forward, braced for a wince of hinges that never came. The room looked the same as it had when he left, crumbled glass winking from the scuffled duvet. The closet door was shut. Cautiously Sam stepped forward.

A weight slammed into his shoulder, knocking him into the wall, his other shoulder smashing into concrete, and he couldn’t stop the sound that escaped him; it was the shoulder Bela shot him in and it ignited with pain. When he opened his eyes he was lying with his nose pressed into the musty carpet, wrists pinned to his back by hard hands.

‘Hello, honey,’ Dean growled into his ear.

Sam realised through the haze of pain that however bad the abaasy were affecting him, Dean was definitely farther gone. He tried to wriggle so that less of his own weight was on his shoulder. If he could just think past the ache that radiated from it.

‘You’ve really fucked up this time, Sam,’ Dean said, voice so low and close it reverbrated at the bottom of Sam’s stomach. ‘You tryin’ to sabotage the case? Is that it? Has whatever demon this is got its hooks in you?’

‘No,’ said Sam. ‘It’s this case, Dean. It’s just this case. It’s messing with our heads, both our heads-’

‘I’m sick of your fuckin’ excuses,’ said Dean. ‘There’s always somethin’ with you, there’s always some reason why we can’t do this or shouldn’t do that. Let me guess, you were with the freaky kid.’

‘She’s not a freak,’ said Sam automatically, and winced at himself.

Laugh of disbelief. ‘This is what I mean. And then you go and attack your own brother? What the hell are you up to? Hell, Sam, do you even want us to catch this thing? Is this what it is? ‘Cause I’m starting to think you’ve been in with it for days. Weeks, even-’

Sam twisted, bucking Dean off him, shoulder searing where it hit the ground as he rolled onto his back. Dean growled, face curled and horrible, and lunged, but Sam managed to shove-trip him to the ground, a dirty move from when they were kids scrapping by parking lots and rivers. The familiar scramble to see who could get to their feet first and then they were standing two feet apart and Sam was panting. It took him a second to realise that Dean was pointing his gun at him. Even after everything he felt a stupid twitch of surprise.

‘I’ve had enough of you,’ said Dean, and Sam felt a flash of panic because if Dean killed him like this Dean was never going to forgive himself.

Pale lightning filled the room. Dean’s eyes went wide and slipped to something behind Sam and Sam sprang forward without even thinking and wrenched Dean’s arm to one side, the gun going off with a crack so loud the world jolted. Dean shoved back and they grappled like that, Sam’s back hitting the wall, and he managed to kick the gun away but Dean twisted his arm (his good arm thank God thank God) behind his back as he did that and Dean’s face was so close he could smell the insomnia on his breath and Sam just did it, just twisted forward and kissed Dean without even thinking about it.

And drew back. What was he doing? What had he done? A freak thing. He’d done a freak thing. And now-

Dean was staring at him, their faces barely apart, his bottom lip red and shiny now with spit.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Sam, unable to keep the fear out of his voice, hearing its childish inflection.

Dean blinked. Like he’d come out of a dream. ‘You’re sorry?’ he said.

Sam had no idea what was going on. This reaction was none of the possible ones. ‘Dean-’ he tried.

‘You’re sorry,’ said Dean. ‘Huh.’ Then he shoved Sam back into the floor by his shoulders- a burst of pain from the injured one that blocked out the room- and Dean’s mouth was on his, licking inside and biting his lip, tiger-savage, and everything stopped needing to make sense then and Sam kissed him back through the throb in his shoulder, trying to blot out the creeping horror with the surety of lips and teeth and tongue. Dean’s nose and cheek against his. So familiar but never felt like this. An adjustment. This was bad, wasn’t it? Well, wasn’t it? Why did it feel like some kind of safety? Were they really both this fucked up?

He closed his eyes and let his thoughts tug away from him. Thunder roamed the room and Dean’s skin was silverdark in the grey clammy light from the window, his eyes bright and hungry and fearless in the way that Dean could get fearless sometimes, in the way that Dean could get crazy sometimes, and they were both hard in their jeans and for a second Sam felt sick, sick fear, sick excitement. Sick love.

The storm crashed above them. An explosion of rain so heavy it sounded like BB rounds against the windows. ‘They’re here,’ Dean said. Against Sam’s raw mouth.

Sam said ‘What do we do?’

Dean twitched, and sat up. Then he climbed off Sam, heading to the window, looking out. Sam sat up, various bruises and pains throbbing vaguely on some level of existence that didn’t matter right now. Anxiety rising but Dean turned around with a huge brilliant grin on his face. Reckless stupid Aha grin. Utterly utterly beautiful.

‘There’s a storm here, Sammy,’ he said.

Heart clenched in a vise of love. ‘I don’t know what to do,’ said Sam. ‘Dean- tell me what to do.’

Dean came across and helped Sam up, his warm hands rough and gentle. Sam wanted to be killed by those hands. He wanted those hands to murder him.

‘Together,’ said Dean. ‘We drive into that goddamn storm together.’

‘Sure,’ Sam said. ‘Sure.’ He meant anything.

They took the holy water and a shotgun each and ran through the hotel, racing each other, clattering down the stairs, Dean whooping laughter. Burst out the front door into the clamouring rain and there was the Impala, her engine already running, had she been waiting for them? Dean laughed, slapped her flank and said ‘That’s my girl’ and both of them were already soaked to the skin, rain in Sam’s mouth and his eyes and his ears. He thought of the car-wreck, all that metal and bone twisted and mangled into a monument, their skeletons crushed and jumbled until they couldn’t be told apart and the glug of spilling holy water the only noise in their silence. They were going to die and their deaths would be the most beautiful thing that had ever happened to them. He anticipated the smash of his skeleton, felt phantom bones in his fingers separating into hundreds of pieces and particles of dust and flying apart to meet Dean’s. They would become one giant carcass: he and his brother and the car. Nothing more to worry about (or was there something? Wasn’t there something, something to do with dying, with one of them dying, a flicker of furnace that had worried him? It couldn’t have been much, the thunder was telling him that it was safe, it was perfect) and they would never be disturbed, he and Dean, not by Dad or God or people dying or any other thing.

In the car Dean floored it and they roared off into the thick blue rain and lightning poured in and out the windows in the space of half a breath. Sam rolled his window down and let the rain (warm as Dean’s mouth) lash him, coming inside the car, and Dean opened his mouth and made a noise like an ecstatic scream as they tore down the road with the car almost flying, the world in front of them all greyed and invisible with rain glossing the dash and the sky crackling in his ears and something hard hit the side of Sam’s face and then another thing and he looked to see two dead wasps had dropped to the floor, with more hitting the windows like bright yellow hail, and Dean laughed and pressed on the pedal harder harder and now they really might be flying into the mouth of the roaring rain and

The figure loomed up through the rain way too fast. It was a person standing in the middle of the road, arms outstretched. They both saw it. ‘Dean,’ Sam roared and they both hauled on the wheel but too late it was too late and

crunch

and jolting down and round and round enough to throw Sam forward against the dash and crack his forehead and then grinding to a slow halt with the judder of tires on grass and Dean hauled on the brakes and finally, with a last slip forward, they stopped.

The patter of rain filled the car. Misting on the leather upholstry.

Slowly, Sam opened his eyes. The car had veered into the ditch by the side of the road. Dean was sitting with his arms outstretched, hands braced on the wheel. His eyes were trained downwards. Nothing could be seen through the windows except their moving sleeve of rain. They sat. Sam listened to his own breathing. And Dean’s. It was even. Careful.

There were dead wasps everywhere. Scattering the dash. Clung to both their clothing. Filling the corners of the seats. Like candy in a dispenser. Or a nightmare.

Sam opened the passenger door. Almost expecting it not to work. But it did. Its corner hit the grassy side of the bank. Rain flooded in over the seat when he climbed out. Cautiously.

Water crept into his shoes as he walked up the bank. His hair stuck to his forehead. On the wet black road a shape was visible, haloed in rain mist. He approached it.

It was Margaret. Of course it was. Her black hair plastered to the tarmac behind her head. A wasp caught in it. Wasps all over the tarmac. Clothes soaked to translucency. Eyes closed. No marks visible. Though one of her legs might have been broken. Or both of them. Angles.

She opened her eyes when he said her name. They were bright blue. He hadn’t noticed that before. They focused on him. He knelt down beside her, tried to figure out through the fog in his brain what to do. Her mouth opened a little. Blood between teeth.

‘Why?’ Sam asked her. Even though he knew. Shocked at the pain in his own voice.

Margaret grinned up at him. She didn’t lift her head at all. Maybe she couldn’t. She closed her eyes again. Sam willed her to stay alive against every piece of logic and science he knew. She was eighteen. She was a kid. He didn’t care about the blood sacrifice, he didn’t care about any of it, that didn’t matter as long as she just kept breathing. The tiny rise and fall of her stomach was the only indication.

He saw the moment that she died. Something intangible that was in her one second was gone the next. The rain had soaked through the Alice band holding back her hair. Sam sat down, drew his knees up to his chest, beside her. He wondered if the abaasy had gone now. Already. It felt like they might have. He felt like he and the rain and this kid he’d almost been friends with were the only things for miles around. She had worked at a factory and heard angels. There had probably never been anyone like her. And here she was. Because of them.

Dean was kneeling beside him. Might have been there for a while. Just looking at her with her arms splayed out on the road. Smell of burning rubber from where the tyres had screamed in their forced swerve. The rain was unabated but the thunder and lightning seemed to have stopped. And the wasp hail. He wondered what the hell she’d been thinking. Why she’d decided to do this for them and the six or seven assholes left in Jonesville. What her deal had been all along. This stupid, stupid kid.

They sat there. The rain came down. The sky darkened and it got cold. Neither of them said anything. At some point Dean got up to move the car out of the ditch. He left the headlights on so that they and Margaret were divided by thick shafts of light where the rain fell silver. When it was done he sat back down. With a crunch of dead wasp. And they sat there some more.

The sky was black and they could hear frogs by the time the rain slowed. They were both soaked. Sam wanted the water to go past skin, past bone. He wanted it to wash out his soul and everything he’d seen and done. He wanted to sit here in the rain until it swept the past week away. Heck. Why stop there.

The rain stopped.

Sam had no idea what time it was when he noticed it. ‘Dean,’ he said. ‘Look.’

Dean looked. There were fresh wounds in Margaret’s hands. And her feet. Bleeding holes.

God rest you, Sam thought. Hadn’t prayed in ages but. She was just a kid.

Dean looked at Sam. His eyes unsettled. ‘What the hell did we just see?’ he said.

‘I don’t know,’ said Sam. He really didn’t.

They buried her as the sun came up. Carried her body through the same lush forest where they’d buried the anonymous woman at the start of the week. It was so muddy now that their boots sank right in. It looked like it was going to be a day of brilliant sun.

Sam made Dean drive them by the house Margaret had shown them, where the abaasy had been. He could tell even from the field that nothing was there now. They purified the house anyway. The way Missouri taught them. At least it smelled nicer when they were done. Sam thought how they should probably do the same to every house in Jonesville but what was the point? Soon it would be a ghost town. Literally. The remaining townsfolk were better off ditching out. Soon they’d get the bad vibes, or there’d be a run-in with a more violent vic than Cassie Macabee, and one by one they’d all leave.

At The Last Waltz they packed their bags in silence. The way they’d done almost everything so far today. X-Files was nowhere in evidence, so no need to pay. Cereal packets were out in the dining-room but neither of them suggested breakfast. Sam felt like he’d never be hungry again.

They were ditching out by half seven in the morning. Driving past acres of sugar cane fields with sun hot on the leather. Dean had brushed out the car but every so often Sam’d put his hand down and find the crackly body of a wasp.

‘Sam?’ said Dean, as they drove between a bunch of green fields, with sheep. ‘What was it Margaret really said to you that time? When I went out and came back in time to catch the tail end?’ It was the first thing either of them had said aside from practicalities.

‘Oh.’ He felt too weary to lie about it now. Or try to deflect. ‘She said, ‘Your brother wants to kill you.’’

‘Oh,’ said Dean. They sat in silence all the way out of Louisiana.