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Apophenia

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There was no way they were going to make it all the way back to Kansas running on absolute fucking fumes, and Sam knew it.

As usual, Dean didn't care.

"Let’s stop somewhere, man. We don’t have to make the whole drive in one go,” Sam suggested. He felt dead on his feet, which was incredible because he wasn’t even standing.

"Come on, Sam,” griped Dean. “I just wanna get back to the bunker. I’m tired, I’m funky, and I’m sunburnt all to hell. All I want is a few days off to rest and recuperate and- and peel.” He gestured emphatically to the bright red swatches on his cheeks and nose.

Sam was less than sympathetic. “If you’d suck it up and use sunscreen once in a while-“

“You know what, save the I-told-you-so crap for once, alright? I refuse to lotion up every time I need to go outside. I got better shit to do.”

“Like what? Burn?”

“Like my job,” Dean grumbled. The rasp of his voice carried maybe half its usual venom. His exhaustion was obvious in the slope of his shoulders; in the fine lines around his eyes, barely visible behind his sunglasses; and in the boneless, loose way his hands gripped the wheel of the Impala.

They’d already been running themselves ragged, Dean ferrying them job-to-job-to-job in a nonstop bid to keep their hands and minds busy in place of larger problems, but this last case in Nevada had really done them in.

What had started as a case of unexplained missing livestock had quickly escalated to clearing out an entire Chupacabra nest. Which, as it turned out, were pretty fucking rough customers even if you weren’t a goat. But the Winchesters were nothing if not tenacious. They’d emerged victorious and filthy in the wee hours of the morning, leaving behind a rancid pile of goatsucker viscera in a cave near an empty field.

Except the field wasn’t “empty,” per se; it belonged to the farmer whose livestock had been missing. And if the farmer, one Mr. George Hector, thought that the two strange, bloody men lurking on his property at the asscrack of dawn were probably the reason his livestock had gone missing in the first place, well, who could blame him? He had every right to be terrified.

Dean had asserted that he had no right to turn his goddamn rifle on them, especially after already threatening to call the cops. Sam had been more concerned with not getting shot than arguing the validity of one hillbilly’s emotions. He’d ignored most of Dean’s bitching for the sake of fleeing, though it was sort of amazing that Dean could both bitch and flee at the same time.

The boys, already seasoned pros at getting the hell out of dodge, had managed to do so in record time, packing and cleaning up (in a very loose, change-your-clothes-and-wash-your-face sense of the word) before the Henderson police had even finished taking Mr. Hector’s impassioned statement.

Sam, physically and mentally tapped, had passed out almost the minute they’d hit the highway. He didn’t wake up again 'til Dean was pressing a greasy breakfast sandwich into his hands. Sam had thanked him around a mouthful of egg and sausage, and offered to take the next stretch of the drive. Dean had just waved him off, shoving a soggy hashbrown into his mouth and washing it down with cheap-smelling coffee. 

"I’m good,” he’d mumbled, alert enough, and Sam had let it go.

But that was hours ago, and even with a little sleep Sam was fading fast. He worried that Dean was fading even faster. He knew Dean’s limits. They had to be close.

“I saw a sign for a motel coming up in a few exits. Just-just for the day, for a few hours,” Sam said, trying again. “How ‘bout it? We need to rest, man. We've been job-hopping for almost two weeks straight. I need to do some laundry.”

He glanced at Dean and gauged his reception. Still impassive.

“The sign said the place had a pool.”

Still nothing.

An exhaustion that had little to do with their most recent combat and lack of sleep throbbed through him. Sam stretched out his aching legs and the leather of the seat beneath him creaked quietly. He realized whatever tape Dean had been playing had stopped at some point. The rumble of the engine, the hum of the tires on the blacktop, and the jingling of the keys in the ignition seemed enormous in this weary suspense. The exit ramp was an oncoming swell of tarmac fast approaching to their right.

Sam gave up bargaining and just went for it. “Please, Dean.”

Dean frowned thoughtfully for a moment. He flexed his fingers, and Sam heard the dull pop of his knuckles. He looked and saw the roadmap of tiny cracks and cuts on the backs of Dean’s hands. There was still blood there that hadn’t come from Dean himself.

“Fine.”

“Thank you,” Sam exhaled. “Oh my God, thank you.”

“Yeah, yeah. God, you’re such a little bitch.”

“Jerk.”

And the words were as much endearments as they had ever been before.

 

- - -

 

There was a pool at the El Rey Motel, but no laundry room - which was fine, because Sam was more concerned with clean sheets than clean clothes for the time being. Worst case scenario, they’d scrub their dirty drawers in the bathtub. Wouldn’t be the first time, wouldn’t be the last.

Dean had barely dropped his bag before his ass hit the bed. Without sunglasses and sunshine hiding and washing out his features, Sam could see just how rough he really looked. Dark circles under his eyes, angry red splotches high on his cheeks, ears, nose. He looked almost ill. That bone-deep ache Sam had felt earlier came back and for a second he swore he could feel it radiating off of Dean too.

It’s okay, Sam wanted to say. We made it, like we always do. These things are piling up and we’re running, always, and so, so tired, but we’re here. And we’ll rest. And it’s going to be fine, like it always is. I’m here. It's okay.

Sam had a powerful urge to reach over and touch him. On his shoulder, his arm, the taut planes of his back. A real, physical display of comfort. Something. Anything. He was so tired of distance. The need for contact soared through him so quickly that it actually worried him.

Dean grunted triumphantly as he managed to yank off one boot, jarring Sam from his introspection.

The younger Winchester shook himself and began to undress as well. With gentle, awkward motions he began tugging off his shirt, careful of the sticky bandage on his right forearm.

Dean hadn’t suffered more than a few bumps and scrapes in the previous Chupacabra Battle Royale, but one of the little monsters had managed to really sink its claws into poor Sam. And while it was by no means the worst injury he’d ever sustained - it didn't even need stitches - it still stung like hell when they’d scrubbed it out and dressed it mid-packup. It stung like hell now, but slightly less hell.

“You should clean it again,” Dean remarked. He was rifling around on the tiny shared bedside table for something. “Who knows what kinda super-herpes Chupacabra claws have on ‘em?”

While Sam was mostly certain that super-herpes didn’t exist (or, if it did, a Chupacabra wouldn’t be the one carrying it), he still figured he’d be better off safe than sorry.

When he returned from the bathroom, wounds cleaned and re-dressed, he found Dean watching television.

“TV? Really?” Sam was almost too tired to argue. Almost. “Turn it off, Dean, let’s get some sleep.” He knew it was technically kind of early to be doing so. Kind of super early, actually. He didn’t care. He was ten whole minutes at most from comatose at this point. He sat down on his own bed. Check that. Make it five whole minutes from comatose - generous estimate.

Dean didn’t even favor him with a glance. “I am going to sleep. That’s why M*A*S*H is on. You been snorin’ a lot lately. I need some white noise. And it don’t get whiter than Alan Alda.”

“I don’t snore,” Sam protested.

“The hell you don’t. I think that fist-fight you got into with that Skinwalker in Oregon deviated your septum or something. You’ve been sawing crazy logs the last couple weeks.”

“You’re lying. Besides, you snore, and I put up with it.”

“Look, think what you want, but I could never hope to reach the level of chainsawing you’ve been doing, lumberjackass. You’ll deal with it.” Dean flopped down and tugged the cheap, cornflower-blue blankets up to his ears.

“Whatever,” Sam grumbled, mirroring him. He didn’t snore. He never snored. Dean snored. Granted, it was a low, puppy-like snuffling that Sam might have secretly found kind of adorable, but still.

It ultimately didn’t matter. Sam was certain that there was nothing on Earth that could’ve kept either himself or Dean awake at this point. Hell, Dean hadn’t even made it through three more minutes of the 4077th’s antics before he’d passed the fuck out. Sam wasn’t far behind, dozing off on his side as he watched Dean drool placidly onto his pillowcase, his sunburnt nose pressed into the fabric.

The weight in Sam’s limbs began to recede bit by bit as he drifted, leached away into the too-soft motel mattress and carried off on quiet currents of canned laughter.

 

- - -

 

Late morning crawled into a blazing afternoon and stretched into evening. Sam groggily became aware of his body bit by bit, starting with the pressure in his bladder.

“ —where a series of apparent homicides in the Georgetown area has local authorities baffled. Two local men were stabbed to death on Tuesday night, and only a few hours later, a house fire claimed the life of—“

The A/C unit was too close to his bed. Sam’s eyes itched. His throat, too. He had been snoring. Dammit. He swallowed with a dull click.

 

...Stabbing?

 

“—does seem to be related, at least superficially, to another similar case in the area from March of 1998. The stabbing deaths of two people in one night, followed by an apparent case of arson three hours later, does indeed resemble the murders of Greg Ford and Daniel Aarons, and the house fire that took the life of Family & Faith Coalition spokeswoman Suzanne Dunn. When approached for a comment on the similarity to other previous—“

It became increasingly difficult to ignore his many minor discomforts. The sheets into which he’d so eagerly curled weren’t nearly as soft and welcoming as they’d originally looked. He’d rolled over onto his stomach at some point and he could feel the way they scratched against his chest, catching on one sensitive nipple when shifted. He grunted in weak protest and decided to put his shirt back on if he ever managed to drag himself out of sleep’s honey-thick hold.

 

Trio of what now?

 

“—County Sheriff Trent Laurie assured reporters and citizens alike that local authorities are doing everything in their power to ensure the safety of the community. While the lack of evidence makes a specific plan of action difficult—”

Sam scrubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand, rolled over, and blinked. The yellow glow of the parking lot lamps filtered into the room, making the dips and bubbles on the textured ceiling above him seem much more dramatic. Sam wondered what time it was. He could spare the effort to look at the clock. He didn’t care to. They had nowhere to go but Kansas, and only on their own time. When was the last time they’d had their own time? How many ends-of-the-world ago?

 

What was that about arson? March of nineteen-what?

 

“—urging citizens to observe curfews, make sure to keep doors and windows locked at night, and take extra precautions with fire safety, which has already been a concern due to the ongoing drought. Some citizens have voiced concern over the regular increase in these crimes during droughts. Police have stressed that this concern is most likely the result of a widespread paranoia, tension, and local urban legends - none of which are based in fact, authorities stress. Reporting from Austin, I’m Naiomi Geller.“

Sam raised himself up carefully on his elbows, then his hands, groaning as he went. He rolled his broad shoulders and was pleased to find that nothing felt too tight or tender. The bandage on his forearm was secure and mostly clean. Good to know he could still take a beating after, well, a veritable lifetime of taking beatings.

 

What was that about urban legends?

 

Sam stood. A moment of vertigo rocked him gently and everything swam for a delirious second. The pressure in his abdomen nagged at him again. He stumbled through the shadows towards the bathroom.

An ashtray depicting a cowboy wrangling a bull sat on the back of the toilet. Sam stared blankly at the ash-marks in it as he relieved himself. Off-orange. Dingy. Scuffed. Cheap. Dimestore decor. It all blurred together sometimes, the stains and the smells and the carpets and the colors. The accents change. The styles change. He hadn’t bothered noticing in a while. Another western-themed hotel. In the west, of all places.

Painting of two more sepia-tone cowboys leaning on a wooden fence above the toilet, watching him take a piss. Howdy, pardners. Yeehaw.

Something in the back of his mind was wriggling nervously. A half-formed idea, a sense of curiosity with no real direction as of yet.

He flushed. Washed his hands. Downed three Dixie cups of water back to back. Yawned mightily, scratched his balls, and lumbered back to his bed. He was waking up now, though he didn't actually want to. And that sense of...something was still there, slipping closer into a coherent thought the more awake he became.

Dean snorted and kicked weakly in his sleep. He was properly starfishing, all limbs at different corners of the small mattress. The sheets were twisted around one muscular leg. He was the very picture of knocked-out, dead-tired, beat-down.

A swatch of something dark and grimy was on one side of Dean’s neck. Sam fought the urge to laugh. Neither of them had bothered to shower before sleeping. Would the maid recognize the bits and flecks of gore on the sheets and pillows for what they were? Probably not, right? He hoped not. For the maid’s sake.

Underneath the A/C and Dean’s light, buzzing snores, a pencil-necked newscaster droned on about the I-40 traffic in a nasal, indifferent tenor.

 

Evening news. Three murders? No, two murders and a fire. Maybe three murders, still.

 

Sam squinted at the screen. The weather was supposed to be hot and dry for the next several days, same as it had been for a month. Bad here. Worse in Texas. Crops dead and water rationing in effect already.

That wriggling little thought finally slid into place.

 

Drought. Homicides. Fires. Urban legends.

 

Homicides, by themselves, were not necessarily the Winchesters' business. People killed people every day. The world was bullshit like that. People were just rotten sometimes, by virtue of their own flaws. It didn’t take a demon possession or a cursed object for some dissatisfied middle-management toadie to flip his wig and turn a hatchet on his wife and kid.

Sam’s intuition said that this one, though, this one might actually be their business.

By the time Dean stirred and rose, Karloff-esque (arms outstretched and groaning and everything), Sam was already showered, dressed, and working on putting together the bits of the story that his half-functioning mind hadn’t caught the first time around.

Ugh,” greeted Dean.

Sam looked him over, one corner of his mouth quirking. “Well, how ‘bout that. It lives."

Dean mumbled something that may possibly have contained traces of human speech, perhaps. He stretched further, reaching down towards his feet, letting his head drop between his shoulders and exhaling deeply. When at last he (actually) spoke, his already-rough voice was a barely-intelligible gasoline rumble that would’ve given Tom Waits a run for his money.

“Fuck me sideways. How late is it?”

"After two.”

Dean grunted in mild surprise. “Damn.” He cleared his throat and some of the gravel left his voice. “How long have you been up?”

“Mm. Awhile. I feel fine,” he added when worry tightened Dean's sleepy features. “Really. I’m more well-rested than I have been in weeks. Promise.”

Dean nodded. He rubbed his hands over his face and when he pulled them away, Sam was pleased to see a warm little smile.

“Yeah, me too. Who’d‘ve thought that actually, y’know, sleeping once in awhile could do so much for a guy? Crazy.”

“Don’t get used to it.”

“I know, I know. No rest for the wicked and all that happy crap.” Dean yawned. “I’m good. I’m great, actually. Feel like a million bucks. Maybe not a million. A few thousand, though.”

Sam chewed idly at a chapped patch on his bottom lip. “Well, if you’re feeling recharged, then I’ve got-“

Dean, his senses finely tuned to Sam’s nuances after three decades of exposure, held up a hand to cut him off. “Ah-ah. Whatever it is - and I’m sure it’s a fuckin’ case - can wait ‘til I hit the head,” he asserted.

He stood and twisted from side to side, the lean muscles in his back flexing. A few audible cracks echoed dimly in the room as his vertebrae righted themselves. “Ah, ahhh, damn! Oooh, yeah,” he sighed. He breathed out long and low, slouching, looking almost as though he were deflating as he went.

Sam realized he couldn’t remember the last time he saw Dean actually looking relaxed. There was always a fine line of tension in the clench of his jaw or the way he set his shoulders. It was there even when he slept, Sam had noticed. But now, at least temporarily, it was gone. In the glow of the TV his brother’s face seemed softer, calmer, than it had in months - maybe years. He so rarely let himself rest - no matter how much he needed it, how much he deserved it.

Cool it with the Lifetime moment, princess, a voice within him said. It sounded so overwhelmingly like Dean, and he fought the urge to actually roll his eyes.

“Somethin’ wrong, space case?”

Sam’s gaze focused, pulling away from the vague middle distance between Dean and the bathroom door as his brother’s real, living voice cut through his thoughts. “Oh, no - it’s just—“ he gestured to the laptop. “I’ll tell you in a minute. Go.”

“Alright. I’ll warn you, though, kiddo - this is gonna take more than a minute.”

“C’mon, dude. Oversharing.”

Dean’s throaty chuckle drifted from the doorway and the light from the bathroom flooded Sam’s vision, dazzling him for a half-second before the door shut again. Some minutes later, he heard the shower kick on, the spray another smooth layer under the rest of the ambient noise. It was almost enough to make him drowsy again. Despite the encroaching workload of yet another hunt and all the dangers it represented, some of that feeling of peace remained with him.

Chapter Text

“And you came across this lead where?” Dean prompted. He was lounging on his bed with his hands folded loosely over his bare stomach, his brain making Rorschach tests out of the patterns in the popcorn ceiling.

“Woke up to a blurb about it on the evening news,” Sam explained. “It didn’t really register at first, I was so out of it. But something about the little bit I did hear was bugging me, so I looked into it.”

“Gotta love that anal-retentive attention to detail,” Dean remarked, and though he’d never admit it aloud, he really was thankful for it. Sam’s Big Ol’ Beautiful Brain was responsible for saving their collective skin and getting them out of more jams than he could count. “My Little Mr. Stanford, always sharp.”

Sam clicked his tongue softly, a tight smile on his lips. “Well, one of us has to be.”

Dean grinned at the clipped notes in Sam’s voice. He turned his head to smile widely at his younger brother. The pillow was cool against his cheek from where his still-wet hair had soaked the fabric. Tiny spots of moisture dotted the sheet underneath him too, transfers from the lazy job he’d done in toweling off his back. His jeans had absorbed most of what clung to the bristly hair on the backs of his legs.

"What can I tell you, Sammy? I’m a loose cannon cop who doesn’t play by the rules and follows my instincts. It’s part of my charm. That, and my sweet, sweet ass.” He threw in a wink at the end, just for good measure.

Lord, but he lived for the annoyance flashing in Sam’s eyes.

“Maybe if you were a little less of a loose cannon, we wouldn’t be escaping shit by the skin of our teeth on a regular basis. It’s not exactly, like, my favorite pastime, rushing in to slap a bandaid on your reckless ass.”

“My sweet, reckless ass.”

Sam glared at the computer and ignored him.

“Aw, come on, man,” Dean soothed. “You know I wouldn’t get anywhere without you playing the Benson to my Stabler.”

“Why are you still using this cop analogy?” Sam sighed. “We’re about as far from cops as we could possibly get, impersonation aside.” He narrowed his eyes. “And why do I have to be Mariska Hargitay?”

“You don’t have to be Mariska Hargitay. You get to be Mariska Hargitay,” Dean corrected him.

Why?”

“‘Cause you’ve got the same jawline and haircut,” Dean answered matter-of-factly.

Sam swung a pillow down at his head. Dean, laid out and defenseless as he was, had no choice but to take it. Fluffy, feathery defeat.

“Alright alright alright,” he conceded, laughing even as he shoved the pillow off of his face. “You can be the Munch to my Tutuola. How’s that, you gangly bastard?”

Sam shook his head, but he was suppressing a grin. “That’s an insult to Ice-T.” He gestured to the space on the edge of the bed next to him and Dean crossed the gap in one motion.

There was a little map in on the laptop screen. It was dotted with a series of red and blue pins. A small spreadsheet was open over top of it, off to the side, listing names, dates, and locations, in either blue or red text.

“Ahh, Sammy. You remember the good ol’ days, when we had to paste a bunch of pictures on the wall and do the conspiracy-theory thing like with the string and the pushpins and shit like that?” Dean sighed, wistful. “Now you kids have your Excel and your Wikipedia and Google Maps and—“

“Focus, Grandad, you can reminisce after you’ve had your pills. Now, check it out,” Sam sat up a little straighter, getting into what Dean had come to recognize as Presentation Mode. The loose cloth of his tee shirt shifted against Dean’s bare shoulder. Dean was suddenly grateful for the lack of pushpins and fold-out maps. He hadn’t realized, in his exhausted stupor, that the shitty little room was so small it didn’t even have a proper table for them to crowd around, let alone space to compose an entire sprawling web of newspaper clippings and pilfered city documents. “The basic gist is that, every decade or so, a trio of deaths happen in Georgetown, Texas - always two murders and a fire.”

He pointed at the spreadsheet, and Dean noticed the lines actually had a pattern of blue-blue-red, blue-blue-red, all the way down the page. Something else caught his attention, too.

“Wait, Georgetown?” He couldn’t help the excitement that crept into his voice. “Like, Texas Chainsaw Massacre Georgetown?”

Sam blinked at him. “Chainsaw- what? You mean like the movie?”

“Yes, like the movie! They filmed it in a house near Georgetown. Crazy hillbillies, screaming teenagers, human-skin lampshades, Leatherface.” He clutched at Sam’s sleeve. “Oh, Sammy, please tell me we get to gank Leatherface.”

Sam laughed. “No, you geek, it’s not Leatherface. Probably,” he amended, knowing full well that nothing was outside the realm of possibility at this point. “It’s probably not Leatherface. And we’ve dealt enough crazy hillbillies and screaming teenagers to last us a lifetime. Besides, didn't Gabriel make us kinda fight Leatherface that one time? Remember?”

“Oh yeah, I guess he did. Right after he offered me some kinda amnesty three-way.”

Sam’s eyebrows shot up. “Uh, I must’ve just missed that part. Gabriel tried to get you into a three-way?”

Dean scowled at him. “Not with him, you idiot. It was two of his dreamgirls and it was like...I didn’t even— Look, just go on with your boring, not-Leatherface story.”

Sam, still eyeing him, obliged. “Alright. Anyway. Two homicides, always by stabbing—” He tapped the first two lines of blue. “And then a few hours later, a third person dies in a fire.” Dean’s eyes followed as Sam’s finger moved down to the first red line and tapped again. They’d all happened last Tuesday. The ones below those were from one day in ‘98, then a day the mid-‘80s, the early ‘70s, the ‘60s, and so on.

“So there is a psycho in Georgetown? Just, no chainsaw, but some weird killing equivalent of tapping a doorknob three times? Stab-stab-burn, stab-stab-burn, stab-stab-burn…” Dean droned, jabbing Sam in the upper arm to emphasize.

Sam smacked his hand away. “Well, that’s what I thought at first, but there’s a few problems with that theory.” Sam ticked off on his fingers. “First is that they’ve never been able to link the murders to any one person or group. Couple of times they’ve arrested and even jailed a suspect or two, but then this whole thing would happen again a few years later, same deal, sometimes when the suspects were still in prison or had died or moved out of the area. Second is that there’s never been any physical evidence left at any of the crime scenes, and no signs of forced entry or struggle. I’m talking, like, nothing. Reports say every crime scene’s been as clean as a whistle.”

“Alright, well, maybe it’s a really thorough psycho.”

“And a really, really old one.” Sam scrolled down the spreadsheet. “That’s the other issue with the single-killer idea.” He indicated the very last three lines. The date listed next to them was January 3, 1890. “Unless it’s a long series of copycats or like, a well-established cult or something, the killer would be well over a hundred and twenty years old.”

Dean’s brow furrowed. “Okay, I follow. That definitely smells like our territory.” He paused, backtracking. “You said cult. What makes you think it’s a cult?”

“That’s the last weird piece of the whole thing,” Sam replied. He pulled up another window with a different list of dates. “Every time this happens, it happens during a drought. There’s even urban legends around it. I mean, they’re kinda vague, standard crap about the murders being sacrifices or appeasements to end the droughts or stuff like that. Sounds kinda cult-y, right?"

Dean sat back to rest his weight on his hands. “Alright, so, biggest question about that: do these deaths...?”

“Coincide with the end of the droughts?” Sam finished for him, sensing his train of thought. “Short answer is no. Sometimes the droughts end fairly close to the murders, but sometimes it’s another several days or weeks, and in one case, almost three months. Sometimes there’s more than one case per drought, too. It’s weird. Gotta admit, I’m a little stumped.”

Sam worried at his lip with his teeth. Dean became aware of a small, angry red split there. He wondered if it was the remnant of a previous busted lip or just a result the dry, southwestern heat. Sam ceased his nervous motion, and a tiny swell of blood bloomed from the little wound. The pink tip of Sam’s tongue darted out to soothe it, then curled to another chapped patch closer to the crease of his mouth, following the curve of a delicate age line there.

A rush of protective fondness settled low and warm in Dean’s belly. His heart kicked. Stuttered. Hurt. An emotion he’d avoided naming for half his life threatened to twist his features into a panicked grimace. Sam’s eyes stayed on his computer screen and Dean was intensely grateful for his brother’s focus while he scrambled to gather his thoughts.

“Alright,” Dean announced, too brightly, startling Sam. He ignored the odd look his sudden enthusiasm garnered him, slapped his palms against his thighs, and hopped back over to his own bed. “I’m gonna head to the gas station and get us breakfast. You pack up. We’re heading out again as soon as I get back.” He dressed as he spoke, pulling on his boots without bothering to lace them and grabbing the same dusty shirt from yesterday.

Sam’s face fell a bit, and Dean regarded him curiously. “What’s that look for?”

“Well, we didn’t get a chance to check out the pool. Or do laundry. Or—”

Sam jumped as Dean clapped him on the shoulder, squeezing. “Shoulda thought of that before you went and got me all riled up for a case, Baby Boy,” he said, grinning.

Sam frowned at him in that resigned way that he’d perfected over the years and Dean’s stomach swooped. In a loss of hard-won control that would bother him off-and-on for most of the following drive, he gripped Sam’s chin and swiped a thumb over the cut in his lip. It was a brusque motion, too rough to be really tender but light enough not to hurt. A barely-there smear of blood colored the calloused pad when he drew it away. Sam didn’t flinch but his eyes went wide and confused.

“Stop chewing,” Dean chastised. “Or invest in some lip balm. Something. That’s gross.”

Sam stuttered out something that Dean didn’t catch as he left. He made a mental note to book a room in a spot with a laundry and a pool once they reached Georgetown.

 

- - -

 

In a very helpful coincidence, there was a spot with laundry and a pool not four blocks from the site of the most recent fire, which made it incredibly easy for Dean to play off his little act of kindness as a simple matter of convenience.

That’s not to say he wasn’t silently pleased when Sam, in all his six-foot-four, thirty-year-old glory, flashed him a big dimpled smile as they hauled their bags past the courtyard.

“Oh boy, lucky you,” Dean said with a roll of his eyes, but he made sure to check the hours on the gate anyway.

The room was bigger this time around, which was a boon; tight quarters were okay for a day or two at a time, but they weren’t sure how long they were going to be in Texas. They’d learned that some manner of personal space was a key component to a healthy work environment - particularly when both workers were short-tempered and armed to the teeth with a fuckload of guns, an array of arcane knowledge, and decades of good old-fashioned sibling rivalry.

First stop would be the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, which necessitated a little wardrobe change. Standard procedure: suit up as Feds, get the gritty, up-close-and-personal details of the corpse-pile, swipe the addresses for next-of-kin, and work from there. Canvassing and digging through crime scenes could wait ‘til tomorrow.

“About the deaths…” Sam trailed off, his mouth turned down at the corners.

“What?” Dean prodded, looking up from the buttons on his shirt.

“It’s weird....so, when we stopped for lunch? I dug around for more info on the previous incidents. Autopsies and stuff. You know what I found?”

Dean gazed upwards, his lips pursed. Based on Sam's tone, he knew it couldn't be anything helpful. “Uhhhhhh, let’s see. You found out that every victim wanted to die, and they all begged a weird-ass drought monster to come kill them, and then you found out exactly how to kill it because you’re so smart, so we don’t need to walk around central Texas in summer while wearing monkey suits?”

“Thanks for the ego boost, but keep dreaming.” Sam was already slipping into his jacket. Dean hurried to catch up with him. “It‘s always the exact same deaths. Every single time.”

“Yeah, we knew that. And?”

“No, Dean, I’m not talking about just the same cause of death. I mean the exact same death, right down to the the wounds. The vics from 1998, Gregg Ford and Daniel Aarons? Exact same amount of wounds and exact same wound placement as Jack Munrow and Bert Hayley, the victims from 1986. And it’s the same for the two dudes from 1973, and from the 60's, and so on. I laid them over each other and it’s- it’s just inhumanly precise.”

Dean listened, his expression growing gradually more perplexed as Sam continued.

“The fire victims? Always early morning, always in their own homes, and the fire always misses anyone else in the house, including pets, even. It’s...” he trailed off again. Dean watched him card his long fingers through his hair. It was a nervous tendency he’d had since he was a child. “I think I was wrong. I don’t think it’s a cult at at all. My best guess is a haunting. Or maybe a curse? But something that well-orchestrated would require some heavy-duty spellwork.” He was rambling, getting lost in his own head.

“Don’t waste too much brainpower on it yet," Dean cut in. “Let’s wait ‘til we get a little more dirt under our nails. Make sure our weirdly-similar, very dead ducks are in a row first, and then we’ll start kicking around the theories.”

Sam nodded, still fiddling with his tie.

Dean tsk-ed. “Come here,” he mumbled, stepping into Sam’s space and batting his hands away.

“I’ve got it, you don’t-“ Sam began protesting.

Dean wasn’t listening. “You are thirty years old—“

“Oh, shut up , Dean, leave me al—”

“—and you still can’t get these freakin’ banana hands to wrangle a simple—“

“I’m serious, Dean, I’m in no mood to—“

“You’d think after this many con-jobs, funerals, shit like that you’d be able to do this yourself and—“

“I can do it myself!” Sam grabbed him by the wrists.

Of course he could. Dean knew that. That was precisely the point. Sam knew it, too. And it didn’t stop either of them from doing the same ol’ song and dance. Anyone with siblings could tell you that old habits die so, so incredibly hard. You don’t spend a lifetime learning how to perfectly push someone’s buttons and then not push them at every available chance.

“What’s wrong, Sammy?” Dean's voice was singsong, mocking, delighting in Sam's offence. “I just wanna make sure you look professional. Hold still!” He struggled against the hold as his hands kept grasping, claw-like, for Sam’s tie.

Face contorted with indignant anger and concentration, Sam struggled right back against him. “Screw you!” he growled.

“Stop acting like a little kid!”

“Stop treating me like one!”

“I’m older and I’ll treat you how I want!”

“Get off me!”

“Then learn how to tie a damn tie, junior!”

“SCREW YOU!”

Purely by way of muscle, Sam wasn’t too much stronger than Dean, but his height gave him a serious advantage of reach, already working to hold Dean at arm’s length. Center of gravity, however, was still solidly on the shorter man’s side.

Dean grit his teeth and pushed again, harder, twisting in Sam’s hold. He kicked out with one socked foot and swept at Sam’s lanky legs. It worked swimmingly, and the moose toppled backward with a yelp and a hilarious open-mouthed expression. His hands still in Sam’s grip, Dean went with him. Poor planning. Worth it.

The bed broke Sam’s fall and Sam broke Dean’s fall, and it was only by the mercy of chance that they didn’t end up headbutting each other and/or losing a couple teeth. Dean’s forehead thunked against Sam’s shoulder and his knee only just missed Sam’s crotch - mere millimeters, really, from just full-on crushing his boys.

The fall and subsequent breathlessness of having a full-grown human slam down on top of him, to say nothing of the very close call his nuts had just experienced, surprised Sam enough that he stopped twisting and struggling.

Dean, only slightly less breathless, sat up and swung his leg over Sam’s to pin him. He took a few steadying gasps, eyes crinkled with mirth. Just a dumb, roughhousing kid for a moment or two. Still laughing, he leered down over his younger brother. “Now,” he began, “Hold still, Gigantor.

Sam was staring up at him defiantly, eyes narrowed, nostrils flaring. His chest rose and fell rapidly with each breath. Sam’s hands - how big were his goddamn hands? - still held him like shackles, hot and dry as they squeezed. Angry adrenaline vibrated through him in little tremors. His face was a ruddy pink under his tan. Warmth poured off of him in waves; Dean could feel it through the stiff cloth of his cheap slacks. The hard angles and planes of his hips were solid under Dean’s ass. So solid and too close.

That swell of unnamed emotion rose up in Dean’s chest again and whatever smarmy remark he’d had planned died before it reached his lips.

“You’re such a douchebag,” Sam snapped at him. His voice sounded a thousand miles away to Dean’s ears.

Solid. Close. Heavy, powerful, gorgeous. Dean mentally gagged on the word even as the truth of it sang through him.

Get it together, get back to yourself, do something, fucking do something, you idiot. It’s the same as it’s always been, fucking act like it.

"Ah, come on. You love me,” Dean managed, completely on life-saving autopilot.

The line in Sam’s prominent brow smoothed. His eyes moved over Dean’s face curiously. The fingers on Dean’s wrists loosened, then released.

“Whatever, Dean, just fix my fucking tie. Please.”

Dean, caught off-guard by the sudden good humor, jolted from his terrified reverie and burst into laughter. The tension dissolved and Sam began laughing too.

"Get up here.” Dean mustered what sense of self the interruption had afforded him and hauled himself off of Sam, pulling the younger man after him.

They straightened their rumpled suits in comfortable silence. Sam stood up straight, held his hands out to his sides, and regarded Dean expectantly. The long-suffering expression on his face concealed a tiny, good-natured grin.

“Come on, dude, we’ve got places to be."

So what if Dean chose not to name that emotion? He didn’t need to. It had a damn name and Dean knew exactly what it was. He just didn’t want to say it out loud. Naming things gave them power and this thing was already powerful, so powerful and so horrible and always right there.

If Sam noticed the lingering unsteadiness in Dean’s hands as he finally fixed Sam’s fucking tie, he didn’t say anything.

Chapter Text

Georgetown being as small as it was meant the county offices were situated halfway to the greater Austin area. Which apparently was notoriously traffic-ridden. Which meant that both Sam (who got nauseous in stop-and-go stuff) and Dean (who got nauseous at the thought of not being able to disobey any given traffic law at any given time) were miserable. Their air conditioning was in good shape, but the high Texas sun through the windows and the infuriating, jolting crawl were enough to be stifling all on their own.

“I think they filmed ‘Dazed and Confused’ around here, too.”

Sam, who had been zoning out and queasy for the majority of the last fifteen minutes, barely perked up at Dean’s comment. “Huh. Cool.”

“Loved that movie. Matthew McConaughey just as cool as a cucumber, Ben Affleck getting his well-deserved comeuppance for later film crimes, a hot cup of saucy young Milla Jovovich…” Dean gave a low, appreciative grunt. “Love her.”

“She was pretty good in, uh, what was that one, the sci-fi one.”

“Resident Evil?”

“That’s not sci-fi, that’s horror.”

“It’s both.”

“I meant, um, ‘The Fifth Element,’ I think?” Sam had to admit, though: he didn’t remember much more about the movie than the very revealing white-bandage getup she’d worn.

Dean grinned at him. “Good choice. She was awesome in that. I’d let her kick my ass any day. Love a girl who looks like she could beat me up.”

Sam snickered. “So that’s, what, all girls?”

“Ha-ha-ha,” Dean muttered. “Shut up.”

The line of cars in front of them started to thin out and speed up. Dean exhaled a thankful prayer to no one as he accelerated.

“Finally. Any more of that and I’d be the one stabbing people and setting ‘em on fire. Hey,” he added, nudging Sam. “I had a thought about that.”

“About what?”

“The folks here dying in threes. Isn’t there a curse or something where deaths come in threes?”

“That’s only for celebrities, and it’s not really, um. Real.” Sam leaned his forehead against the cool surface of the window. His stomach would stop churning pretty quickly once things evened out, but he still felt a little overheated.

Dean glanced at him. “‘Not-really-real’ how?”

“People just notice the deaths more when they happen to occur back-to-back like that. They see significance, meaning, relationships, whatever, where there aren’t any. It’s called apophenia.”

“That’s a hell of a word.”

“Intro to Psychology.”

“My Little Mr. Stanford.”

The window rattled as they passed over a rough patch of road, and rattled Sam’s head with it. He groaned.

“Still feeling sick?” Dean’s voice was soft.

Sam made a noncommittal little noise. “M’alright. It’s passing.”

He felt something tapping his knee. Dean was holding out a half-empty water bottle for him. He took it gratefully.

After a few sips, he continued. “If it were a curse, it wouldn’t just be arbitrary. It’d require the vics to all have some common connection that would’ve cursed ‘em, like an item or a location or something. So far I’ve got nothing. It didn’t even seem like they ran in the same circles.”

“Don’t sweat it, barfy.” Dean’s hand was on his thigh with a quick pat-pat-pat, and then it was gone. “That’s what shaking down the cops is for.”

 

- - -

 

The new FBI badges Sam had made them a few months ago were up to all current specifications (and neither of them listed Bikini Inspection as a credential). The clerk at the Williamson County Sheriff's Office didn’t even stare too hard. At the badges, anyway. She might as well have been inside Dean for how intensely she was eyeing him.

Not that Dean seemed to mind. He never did - no matter how much of their shared time it wasted.

“It’s so good to have you here to help. We’ll do everything in our power to assist you.” She batted her dark eyes and smiled sweetly. “Just give me one little minute to let someone know you’re here.” Her hand stroked over the back of the phone in a languid, suggestive motion.

Sam exhaled slowly to avoid sighing aloud. Years and years of this crap.

Again, Dean didn’t seem to mind. “Oh, that’s very helpful of you, ah-“ Dean’s eyes flickered to her ID badge. “Miss Ferdinand. We know we’re here a little later than expected, but, tch, you know.” He shrugged. “Traffic. I mean, how is there so much congestion in a state this roomy?”

Miss Ferdinand giggled. “That’s Austin for you.” Her accent was lilting and pleasant. “You get used to it, if you stick around long enough.”

“Well, we’ll be in town for a least a few days, what with follow-ups and all. Would you say that’s long enough to get, uh, familiar?”

Sam fought back a groan and cleared his throat politely instead. Didn’t work. He tried kicking at the back of Dean’s shoe. That finally got his attention.

“Right, uh, so-“

“Oh! Of course,” the clerk giggled. Sam was a little unsure that she’d be able to dial the comm without once taking her eyes off of Dean. The numbers must’ve been right, though, because she did manage to summon the sheriff.

Trent Laurie was a large man. Not terribly tall, as he was about Dean’s height, but large in a way that bore more than just weight. Broad and stocky and bearing a serious pushbroom moustache, he greeted the brothers with a stern nod and a gruff, “Fellas.” Every inch a Texas cop.

“Sheriff Laurie. I’m Agent Hay, this is Agent Strykert,” Dean replied, and they flashed their badges. “We’re here about the Georgetown case.”

Laurie huffed out a sort-of-laugh. “No kidding. Not a whole lot else that would get the big boys down in central Texas, I’d guess.”

“Oh, don’t be so modest. I’ve heard great things about the barbecue,” said Dean.

It didn’t even get another almost-laugh out of the sheriff.

“Mmkay.” Deflated, Dean cleared his throat. “First question, the current deaths - related to the previous similar cases, right?”

“We don’t know. Don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?” Sam stared at him. “Everything about the deaths says they’re almost identical to—“

“Can’t be the same person. So it ain’t related.” The sheriff didn’t bother with niceties and just barreled right along. “Most of the previous suspects aren’t in the area anymore, and the one who is has an airtight alibi.”

“And that alibi is…?”

“He’s in a coma.”

“But the cause of death for—“

“People get stabbed all the time. Doesn’t mean it’s the same guy doin’ all the stabbing, does it?”

“And you don’t think it’s weird that there are more than ten cases worth of this exact same thing happening? Every couple years? In the exact same way to every victim? That’s not odd to you?”

“Odd? Sure. It’s odd, no doubt. But that don’t mean it’s related. I’ve lived around here for forty years and seen three sets of twins born on the same block to three different families. That don’t mean the block is doin’ it. We don’t want to look for things that aren’t there.”

“It’s called apopelia,” Dean chimed in helpfully.

Sam fought every instinct to correct him. “Moving on. Anyone you like for it this time?”

“Nope.”

They waited a beat for further elaboration. “Nope?” Sam prompted through his teeth.

“Yep. Nope.”

“So you’ve got no current suspects? At all?” Dean was incredulous. “For three whole murders, all of which bear a, if you’ll forgive me, turbo ultra crazy creepy resemblance to other super-weird murders?”

“That’s right,” replied Sheriff Laurie, somewhat curtly. “And before you ask, it’s not that we ain’t lookin’. We pulled in whoever we could - grasping at straws, harassing folk we had no business harassing, family, friends, coworkers, you name it - but nothing stuck. My boys and the Georgetown authorities did all the canvassing we could. Residents in all three areas saw nothing unusual, save the Henks’ neighbors watching that household goin’ up in flames. But nothing before, nothing after. Hell, not a one of the people we talked to so much as reported a noise complaint in their neighborhoods goin’ back weeks and weeks. Ain’t a damn thing goin’ on in that town except for this.”

Sam felt frustration tugging at the edges of his composure. Cops weren’t always helpful to begin with (as anything that defied logic generally invited willful ignorance), and this nothing-to-see-here attitude was making it worse. Almost like the guy didn’t actually care if there was something going on or not.

Apparently Dean was on the same page. “Alright, uh, chief—“

Sheriff.”

“Hoss. We’re gonna need copies of the full incident reports and all the—“

“Listen, son, you can have anything you want as long as it takes some of this mess off my hands,” interrupted Laurie. “But I’ll tell you one thing right now: you got nothing coming your way that’s gonna give you any more help than it gave my boys or the Georgetown police.”

Sam quirked a brow. “What do you mean?”

“There’s no evidence. At all.” Laurie sniffed and put his meaty hands on his hips. “Every single lock was still in place, everything was undisturbed, and there’s no signs of any activity from anyone but the vics themselves at any of the locations. There’s jack-squat to indicate that another person was ever even there.”

A frown pulled at Dean’s mouth. Same infuriatingly pristine crime scenes as before. “Great. And, uh, who found these bodies that no one apparently made?”

“Well,” Laurie began. “In the first fella’s case, it was ‘cause his landlady heard him screamin’ and called us in, scared for her life. Second guy got called in about an hour later when his blood started dripping through the shitty floor into the apartment below him. Pretty lucky, otherwise who knows how long they’d‘ve been left there? Two single men, living alone in the ‘burbs? They woulda been rotten long before anyone thought to check on ‘em.”

“And the house fire?” Dean prodded.

Laurie regarded him humorlessly. “Well, that one woulda just been hard to miss anyway, wouldn’t it?”

“I suppose it would,” Sam agreed primly. He just wanted to move on from this asinine roundabout to something that might actually help them. “And you have the bodies in custody here?”

“Ayup,” said the sheriff with a nod. “Dr. Andres is gettin’ ‘em set up for you in the meat locker. Anything else you need outta me?” It was pretty clear that he didn’t really care whether they did or not.

Dean gave him a tight smile and contact card from his breast pocket. “Just your continued cooperation and hard work. And, uh, the direction of the morgue.”

 

- - -

 

“If I’d known y’all were coming, I would’ve done somethin’ with my hair,” Dr. Andres joked. “Not every day we get you boys through here, but I’m sure you heard that from the sheriff already. Weird stuff happens in Austin all the time, but it’s normally the non-violent kind. This Georgetown mess is the worst stuff to come across my table in-”

“About fifteen years?” Sam prompted.

Dr. Andres regarded him for a moment. She was a rather short woman, and had to look up at a bit of an angle to properly eyeball him in close proximity. “Mm-hmm. Since the last Georgetown mess in ‘98. So you boys did your research.”

“We always do,” Dean assured her, flashing Sam a knowing grin. “We don’t want to waste your time.”

Dr. Andres chuckled. “Well, that’s thoughtful of you. Good thing, too, ‘cause the second-to-last thing I got to waste is time.”

“What’s the last?” Dean asked curiously.

“Money, of course. At least time’s cheap.”

Sam decided he like Dr. Andres. It wasn’t often they met someone so accommodating and easy-going, and she was an absolute peach compared to Sheriff Laurie. He watched her dig out some papers, her loose braid slung over her shoulder. Miss Ferdinand (or Nessa, as Dr. Andres called her when she paged the girl) came in to make copies of the autopsy and toxicology reports, to be bundled up with the other requested info. Nessa, happy to oblige, ducked back down the hall with one final schoolgirlish smile in Dean’s direction. Sam didn’t bother hiding the eye roll that time.

The first two victims - the stabbing victims - were two young men, Desmond Archer and Travis Young, ages 29 and 30. The doctor offered to give them the short version before they dug in.

“It’s short, you understand,” explained the doctor, “‘cause there just isn’t very much to tell.”

It was exceedingly straightforward, and pretty much entirely what Sam and Dean had come here expecting. The two corpses on the gurneys before them had sustained the same series of stab wounds: fifteen about the torso and arms on Desmond, and the same five-and-one pattern on Travis. Sam knew at a glance that the placements were the same as those in the previous victims, like dummies manufactured from the same horrible mold. There was nothing special about the wounds themselves -“unless you think a cruddy old kitchen knife is unusual,” added the doctor (and it might have been, had their prodding of the cuts turned up grave dirt or sulfur or someone else’s blood or anything at all - but alas). There was just plain not a damn thing to go on, save for the eerie similarity that plagued all the other deaths in the case.

At last, Dr. Andres drew back the sheet on the third gurney to reveal the charred pile of ex-person that was Mr. Timothy F. Henk, age 39.

“Burned up his whole library along with him, and half the damn house,” Dr. Andres remarked. “Wife and kids are upstate with family, thank God, or they might’ve gone up in flames too. Fire department didn’t get there anywhere near in time.

Dean cast a sidelong look at Sam. They shared a sneaking suspicion that the fire wouldn’t have reached anyone else anyway.

They ran down the usual list of “yes-we-know-these-are-weird-but...” questions. Anything unusual in the tox screens we should know about? Anything missing from the body? Yes, we mean organs. Anything found at the scene of the fire or the stabbings? Occult materials or unusual art objects? Any reports of odd behavior in locals lately? Eyewitnesses acting strangely? Any history of violence in any of the neighborhoods? On the properties? Anything, anything, anything at all?

“Not a damn thing. CSI from came back empty-handed, which I’m sure Laurie also told you. And those boys scoured the places, even the library fire - but, then again, how much evidence can you get out of a buncha ash, anyhow, right?”

“You’d be surprised,” Dean murmured.

“And when will Mrs. Henk be back?” Sam asked.

“No idea.” Dr. Andres shrugged. “Wouldn’t count on it being anytime soon, though. They can stay away as long as they need to, what with that public salary, and I wouldn’t wanna come home too quick to something like this, myself.”

“Public salary?” Dean echoed.

Dr. Andres raised a brow at him. “Ol’ Henk’s the mayor.” She coughed a little and corrected herself. “ Was the mayor. Not that he did much good with it, by the way - in case you’re not familiar with the local gossip. I’d have to imagine this whole thing isn’t gonna sadden quite as many people as you might expect.”

“He was unpopular?” Sam asked.

“You… could say that,” she said, somewhat carefully. “You could also say the only people who truly loved Tim Henk were his wife and the Lord - but that’s if you think that the Lord still operates on some very Old Testament thinking.” The doctor tugged the sheet back up over Tim Henk’s blackened grimace. “And I can tell you for sure that some people around here do not.”

 

- - -

“What a huge waste of time,” complained Dean. “It’s like they couldn’t care less about any of this.”

“Preachin’ to the choir, Dean.” Sam was just as frustrated, but less vocal. Pulling out his phone, he decided to use the car ride to dig into what little they did gather from this mostly-pointless trip.

“While you’ve got that thing out, you mind lookin’ up some good bars around Austin for me?”

Sam didn’t look up. “Why?”

“Don’t be nosy, just do it.”

Sam chuffed, not fooled in the slightest. “Is Nessa even old enough to drink?”

“What? Shut up, man. Of course she is, she’s- I mean, she's gotta be at least-”

“She’s gotta be like, barely 22!”

“Well that’s old enough to drink, so you can suck it.”

“Ugh. Suck it yourself.”

“Oh, I would if I could, Sammy. You’d never catch me on another hunt again.”

“You know, being able to blow yourself still amounts to sucking a dick. Everyone always glosses over that part when they talk about how cool it’d be.”

As expected, Dean was immediately argumentative. “It’s not sucking a dick,” he stressed.

Sam stared at him incredulously and he backpedaled.

“I mean, okay, yes, it is. If you wanna get technical. Which, apparently, you do. But it’s my dick. It’s masturbation at that point. I’m not blowing someone else. So it’s not a gay action.”

Sam smirked. “Still a dick in your mouth.”

“By that logic, every time you jerk off, you’re giving a handjob, ‘cause there’s a dick in your hand! And that never stopped any other man, ever, in the history of humanity!”

“It’s different!”

“It’s only different because people do it literally every day!”

“Stop being so defensive,” Sam shamed him, as though Dean’s defensiveness wasn’t the most satisfying thing in the universe.

“I’m not defensive, I’m right!” Dean pounded on the wheel as he emphasized his words. ”It is not gay to suck. Your own. Dick. That’s a fact!”

Sam was cackling. Dean was heated and he was absolutely living for it. “You and I have very different views on what makes a fact, Dean,” he managed. “Anyway, you already established you can’t do it.”

There was a beat wherein the gears in Sam’s head turned furiously.

“Wait. Have you actually tried?”

Dean’s scowling silence was all the answer he needed.

“Holy crap! You have tried!” The image of Dean strugglingly folded around himself like a horny ouroboros sprang to mind and it was so ridiculous and far from erotic that Sam erupted with laughter all over again.

“Whatever!” Dean barked. “Stop acting like you haven’t tried it, too.”

“Of course I haven’t, you weirdo!” Sam wiped at his eyes with his sleeve. “But I guess I’m just not as ambitious as you.”

“You’re a goddamn liar. Everyone’s thought about it, and everyone’s tried it.”

“People think about a lot of things, Dean. Just because everyone thinks about sucking dick doesn’t mean everyone does it.”

He could see the very second Dean latched onto this opportunity to turn the tables, and he regretted the Freudian slip immediately.

“So you’ve thought about sucking dick, then.”

Sam rolled his eyes and acted as if he hadn’t just shoved his foot entirely into his mouth. “That’s not what I meant, I meant sucking my own—“

“But that’s what you said! You said sucking ‘dick’, not ‘your dick’, Sammy Semantics! And you said ‘everyone’! ‘Everyone’ includes you!”

“Don’t you dare pretend like you haven’t gone on record saying ‘everyone’s had a gay thought in their life, Sam.’ Don’t you dare ! And— at least I never tried to blow myself!” Sam pointed an accusing finger at him.

“Ahh, you couldn’t do it even if you wanted to, Stretch! Look at you. Can’t imagine you trying to fold all of that—“ A wave of his hand to indicate Sam’s stature, “—in half. Ridiculous. You’d snap your neck at that angle. What would I even write for your obituary?”

Sam, in a noble display of good judgement, decided not to comment on Dean imagining Sam and/or Sam’s dick in any compromising situations. Instead, he turned his attention back to his phone and resumed research.

“So whatcha reading?” Dean piped up at length.

“I’m reading up on the good mayor,” he explained, skimming the article. “Oof. Good if you’re a white-bread, well-to-do, God-fearing Texan, I guess. Timothy F. Henk: most conservative mayor in Georgetown in like, actual decades. In a rural town in Texas , dude. Which is a pretty damn conservative state. Huh. Guess that’s what the doc was talkin’ about when she said ‘Old Testament.’ As if anyone walking around these days really knows what the hell that means.”

Dean laughed lightly, then lowered his voice down to a rasping monotone. “You must understand that the Old Testament was written when both mankind and Heaven were in a very turbulent state, and is no longer as applicable as it once was. Scripture, morals, blah blah blah.”

A wide, delighted grin broke over Sam’s face. “Ha! Cas! That’s not bad, man! That’s not bad at all.”

“Thanks. Hey, wasn’t the last fire victim a member of some pretty uptight organization? Faith and Whatever Coalition.”

Sam gazed out the windshield, thankful that the setting sun was behind them for a moment. “Yeah, she was. Bet if we gave the past cases another once-over we’d notice that we’ve got a few more wingnuts in the mix, huh?”

“Money’s on a pretty solid yes.” Dean replied “You ever think it’s a little weird how we’ve met literal angels and demons and we’re still not, I don’t know, more like...those folks?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, y’know. We’ve got more proof than any of these yahoos that higher powers exist, death is not the end, all that existential crap. And we still do all the stuff we do. Run around screwing shit up, raisin’ hell - literally, sometimes - debauchery-ing ourselves…”

“It’s ‘debauching,’ dude,” Sam laughed and leaned back in his seat. “And don’t lump me in with your hedonism. I’m nowhere near that bad.” The highway had curved and they were heading into the low red glow of the sunset, so he closed his eyes. He heard the soft click of Dean opening his sunglasses again. “I think with all the stuff we’ve gone through, it kinda makes sense we’d know that almost nothing is totally wrong or totally right.”

“Big words from a guy who thinks he’s freakin’ right all the time.”

“I mean morally, you ass. There’s shades of grey. Some things are cut-and-dry, sure, but-“ Sam shrugged a little. “I don’t know. Those things I think you can feel, maybe? Things that are really right and really wrong. Everything else is sort of… relative. Which probably makes our concept of morality seem a little screwed-up to an onlooker, but those people don’t know what’s out there, what’s really going on.”

No reply from Dean’s side of the car. Sam cracked one eye open to find Dean staring straight ahead. The red swatch of sunburn on his nose and cheeks had become invisible in the brilliance of the sunset. Sam wondered if it still stung.

“Screwed-up sure is a good word for it.” Dean mumbled at length, almost to himself. The sound of him scratching at his stubble barely registered over the engine. “Aren’t you supposed to be the one with the higher moral standing here? You used to be. When did you get so okay with ‘screwed-up’?”

“Well—“ Sam sighed. “First of all, normal and moral aren’t the same thing. Second, normal never worked for us. I mean, I tried to do normal. You did, too. Couple times, even. So I guess screwed-up would have to work instead, right? Shouldn’t we get to live in a way that makes us happy, as long as it’s not hurting anyone else?”

Dean cast him a strange, scrutinizing look from the corner of his eye. Something about it made Sam’s skin prickle.

“Are you happy, Sam?”

Sam faltered. Considered lying, and couldn’t figure out why. What harm could a little honesty do?

“The world hasn’t ended yet. We’re alive. You’re alive, and we’re…”

He tripped over his own tongue. We’re together, he wanted to say. Which is almost all I've ever wanted. Somehow he thought better of it. Lies of omission didn’t count, did they?

“We’re okay, Dean. I’m happy.” Sam rubbed his palms against his thighs, licked his lips, and asked, “Are you ?”

AC/DC on the radio. Sunlight in his eyes and he still kept them open, watching, waiting for an answer. Dean drummed his fingers against the wheel rhythmically, his expression hidden and inscrutable.

“You hungry?”

Sam knew that change-the-subject tone when he heard it, knew better than to press on. He wanted to, almost desperately, to get an answer - whether or not it was the answer he wanted. But that wasn’t how this worked.

“Sure. I’m so sick of road food though, man, let’s get some takeout or something. Eat at the motel.”

“Alright, but if you wanna swim afterwards you gotta wait an hour, remember?”

 

- - -

 

They ordered from a restaurant called Four Stars Chinese two blocks away, and Dean asked why they didn’t just call themselves Five Stars Chinese.

“They got to pick the name, and they decided to go with one that means ‘good, but slightly less than the best?’ That makes no sense!” he ranted.

Halfway through the meal they both decided it should’ve been called Two Stars Chinese, maximum. They still agreed it was better than road food, if only by a single-star margin.

They ate while they dug through all the personal information they could find on the previous victims, stalling out almost completely when they reached anything before 1930. Sam dug through other murders in Georgetown and the surrounding areas, looking for omens or violent criminals or odd lunar cycle occurrences - the usual crap. Ultimately he turned up nothing of substance on that front.

Sam dozed off in a bed full of fortune cookie crumbs and police reports without ever making it to the pool.

When he woke up at a quarter to three, the police reports had mysteriously been moved to the table, his boots had somehow moved from his feet to the floor, and reruns of Roseanne were playing on the TV.

Chapter Text

They ate reheated lo-mein for breakfast the next morning as Sam continued his research. Dean, for his part, made phone calls to the next-of-kin listed for the recent victims.

Travis Young’s father had been all too happy to comply with Dean’s insurance investigator racket, which was a tried-and-true Winchester Technique used to cover a lot of the more personal details that medical reports didn’t get into. The “beneficiaries” often volunteered everything from childhood accidents to sordid addictions to embarassing bedroom details. Unfortunately, this phone call turned out to be almost less personal than an autopsy; it took about a minute for Dean to realize that the only reason Mr. Young had been so eager to talk about his son in the first place was because doing so promised a payout.

“Yes, tha-... thank you, Mr. Young, and again, we’re sorry for your loss. It’s always hard to—...No, of course. We’ll be in touch with the rest of the policy details within four to six weeks, thank—...I’m sorry?”

Dean held the phone delicately away from his ear as Mr. Young’s voice rose an octave.

“No, I’m sorry, that’s the best estimate I can give you. My supervisor? Absolutely, I’d be happy to grab him for you, just hang on one moment.”

Dean hung up on him, then gave the phone the finger just for good measure.

“Tough break?” Sam piped up. He was hunched over his laptop, his back to the window. A cup of cheap instant coffee sat mostly-finished beside his cooling leftovers. Sunlight poured in through the gauzy curtains behind him, and his sleep-tousled nest of hair formed a sort of soft haze around his face.

“You could call it that.” Dean joined Sam at the little table. “Pops was more concerned with the policy than his poor kid.”

“You get anything noteworthy?”

“Not really. He mentioned they hadn’t spoken in a while. Hard to talk about someone you never even talk to, right?”

“How long’s a while?”

“Three years. Didn't say why.” Dean picked up a plastic fork and nudged at the lukewarm noodles in front of him, then pushed them towards Sam. Sam just pushed them to the side, where his own picked-over container sat. “What kinda guy doesn’t talk to his own son for years at a time? On purpose?”

Sam regarded him with a flat look.

Dean shot him one right back. “Don’t gimme that. Different circumstances.”

Sam, too tired to open very, very old wounds, just returned to his screen. “Well, let’s figure out what his circumstances were. Might be a clue, who knows.”

“You hittin’ anything on your end?” Dean reached over and plucked a fallen hair from Sam’s shirt without thinking. “God, you shed like a golden retriever. What’s wrong with you? How are you not bald yet?”

“Stop fussing.” But Sam was half-smiling through the protest. “Yeah, actually. We were right about the fire victims. Everything I’ve found about them says they were well-known, uh, ‘moral leaders’—“ He put little airquotes around it. “—and very, let’s say, fire-and-brimstone about it.”

“Whatcha mean?”

“Welp,” Sam began. “The woman from the Family and Faith Coalition? She and her protest group caught a charge for throwing bricks through the windows of the local women’s health clinic.”

“Hm. Alright.”

“And, um, the community center dude from the seventies? Turned out to be a cross-burner.”

Dean grimaced. “Yikes.”

“Yeah. And that’s pretty par for the course. I mean, no one on this list killed anybody or anything. Probably. I think. But they were all on some next-level holier-than-thou crap.”

“What about the mayor?” Dean asked.

“Henk? Other than his politics reading like a Rush Limbaugh wet dream, nothing too abysmal. Clean sheet, from what I can tell. Maybe two parking tickets.”

Elbows on the table, chin in his hand, Dean mulled it over. “So not exactly slaughter-worthy. Just a Grade-A douchebag and a bad driver, maybe. That doesn’t seem to fit the pattern.”

“Not entirely, no. Although I still think I’ve got a pretty solid theory,” Sam offered. When Dean just looked at him, he explained. “So, I’m like ninety-nine percent sure that it’s a haunting, not a curse or something. You know, sometimes poltergeists and stuff, they get at people who they think deserve it. And the fact that it’s the same causes of death every time falls in line with a lot of other hauntings we’ve come across. A woman in white seduces and kills unfaithful men, a murdered child goes after women who look like their mother - stuff like that. Method and victim are always the same.”

“So this vengeful spirit has a hard-on for lighting up seriously self-righteous A-holes.”

“That’s my best guess. Sure seems like whatever’s causing these deaths isn’t too happy about these folks taking moral matters into their own hands.”

“But isn’t that what this thing’s doing, too? Playing judge, jury, and executioner? At least these nutsos didn’t actually murder anyone.”

”Probably.”

”What about the guys who got stabbed? You didn’t mention them doing anything crazy. Just normal dudes?”

”Looks that way,” agreed Sam. “But a lot of the people who fall into the stuff we deal with are innocent, so that’s not new - I just don’t know how it fits this pattern yet. Might have something to do with why they got stabbed instead of burned. Talking to the families might help put those pieces together.”

“Family. Singular. Like I said, the Youngs are a dead end.”

“Either way, if it’s a haunting, we’ll at least know how to deal with it. We just have to find out who and where it is.”

“Easy-peasy,” Dean said confidently.

“Lemon-squeezy,” Sam agreed. He stretched, reaching his mile-long arms over his head and craning his neck side to side.

The motion shook a few more stray hairs loose and Dean could see them catch the light as they fell. One fell across the tip of Sam’s nose and he must have felt it; his face scrunched up and he grabbed gently at the space in front of it.

“Hold still,” Dean offered, and reached out to help.

“What did I just say, Dean,” Sam huffed, wrapping his hand around Dean’s and pressing it to the table top. He left it there, a warm weight that pulled too much of Dean’s focus, while Sam’s free hand continued to grasp for the errant strand. He was cross-eyed, his chin tucked down severely with his brows knit. He looked hilarious.

“Fuck it,” he surrendered after a few useless attempts. “You get it.”

Dean was grinning widely, stupidly. Goofy. He hadn’t bothered to move his hand. He steadfastly ignored the heinous, guilty twist in his gut. It was nice and it didn’t be anything other than that. “Nah, I’m good. I’m just gonna sit here and watch you manage to look even stupider than usual.”

“Asshole,” Sam grumbled. And then, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, he squeezed Dean’s hand, pulled his own hand away, and began furiously scrubbing both palms over his face.

Dean stared at his own fingers, still curled on the table. The normally cool band of the ring on his finger was warm against his skin. Warm. Familiar. Nice. Weird. Weird ? No. Was it weird? It was weird, wasn’t it? He wanted to slap himself. He wanted Sam’s hand back. He wanted his idiot brain to shut up, like it had done for years and years.

Are you happy, Sam?

I’m happy. Are you?

“I’m gonna try the other guy's family next,” he heard himself say. Felt himself getting out of his chair but didn’t remember doing it. “No parents, but his sister’s last address is local too. Hopefully they were on better terms than the Young family.”

 

- - -

 

They were on much better terms - and better still, Trisha Archer was happy to meet in person, which Dean arranged for later that afternoon. In the meantime, Sam and Dean went a-digging, starting with Tim Henk’s home.

Or what was left of it, anyhow. When Dr. Andres had said “half the damn house,” what she apparently meant was “everything but the facade.” Having places to go and people to interview, they did their best to avoid getting up to their knees in ash and dust. They mostly succeeded. Nothing of interest, even in the library - though that was assuming the lumps of charcoal that had once been books had only been regular books, and they had no way of knowing that for certain. Sure did look like an awful lot of crap, though. Dean definitely saw a few remnants of Reader’s Digests, which he genuinely hadn’t thought existed outside of old peoples’ bathrooms.

The EMF meter gave one interesting little whirr near the remains of the armchair in the corner. That was it.

Desmond’s apartment was as pristine and evidence-free as they’d been told. He’d just moved in, so most everything personal, save for clothes and everyday necessities, were still in boxes. The brothers dug through what they could, just to be sure. He’d died in his bathroom. The blood was normal. The locks were normal, too - unbroken, nothing on the sills and nothing in the drains or the light fixtures. Not a damn trace of anything on the EMF.

They asked the landlady if anyone else had passed away on the property, recently or otherwise. The answer was a tearful negative. She was still shaken. Desmond had been a lovely tenant, just a dear, even in the short time he’d been there. He’d be missed. She asked them who would do such a thing. They didn’t have an answer for her.

They stopped for lunch, discussed their bullshit results, got into a very divisive argument over whether or not Texas Toast was just garlic bread, and moved on.

They hit Travis’ apartment, and found they couldn’t get into the building without calling someone. His property management company sent their regards, and a maintenance guy to let them in. Same shit, different toilet. Frustration and nothing to work with. The guy had been in the living room when he bit it, having fallen asleep on the couch, and the thing still sat there with the only bit of biological evidence in the whole damn setup soaked right into it and the floor beneath it, all of it normal and utterly useless.

Sam checked out the apartment below and got nothing remarkable, save for an eyeful of the very niche porn the downstairs neighbor hadn’t bothered to close on his laptop. When Sam rejoined Dean he made an offhand remark about being upset at how desensitized he’d gotten over the years of living with Dean.

Dean thanked him for the compliment and resumed digging through the letters on Travis’ table. Bills, junk, a reminder for a dental appointment, a subscription renewal notice for some magazine.

Sam dug through his books and movies. Nothing. Nothing. Biographies. Art books. Nothing. Suspiria. Private Idaho. A Talking Heads concert DVD. Nothing.

There was a frayed little sketchbook by Travis’ bedside. Dean picked it up and flipped through the first few pages. Journal entries, mostly mundane crap and to-do lists. Drawings, too; still-life studies, plants and things, birds from a park nearby. Standard hobby-artist stuff, he guessed, but very well-executed.

“What’s that?” Sam asked from the doorway.

“Diary, I guess. Full of doodles,” said Dean. He stopped on a page filled with figure drawings. “Good, though. Talented guy. Real eye for composition and form and…color theory…perspective…”

“Are those the only art words you know?”

“Those are…most of the art words I know, yes.”

In a few loping strides, Sam was at his shoulder, peering down at the pages as Dean turned them. “Huh. He was pretty good.”

The very last used pages had a tacky local postcard between them as a sort of bookmark. Dean flipped it over. Nothing written on it, no stamps, so it hadn’t been sent or received, but from the looks of it it had to be old. Visit the Red Poppy Capital! said the looping script on the picture side. It was imposed over a field of the nodding, vibrant flowers. In the background, off-center, almost as if it had been captured by accident, there stood a very old-looking church and a solitary tree.

Dean tucked the postcard and the little book into his jacket. He glanced at the clock and nudged Sam. “Almost four. You ready to go?”

“Yeah. Let’s hit it.”

 

- - -

 

Trisha Archer answered the door in her pajamas. Her eyes were red and puffy, her hair wrapped tightly under a colorful silk scarf. She did her best to offer them a welcoming smile, but her lips and her voice trembled.

“You’re the, um, investigators?”

“Yes, ma’am, Agents Hay and Strykert,” he offered gently, handing her one of their cards. Dean remembered printing them at an OfficeMax in Wisconsin and Sam not giving him hell over his pseudonyms for once. “We’re very sorry for your loss. We’ll try to make this as quick as possible.”

“Thank you,” Trisha muttered, and ushered them inside. “Would you, um.” She sniffled lightly and drew a breath. “Would either of you like anything to drink? I just made a pot of tea.”

They declined but encouraged her to get a cup for herself. While she shuffled around the kitchen, Dean and Sam took stock of their surroundings.

Her house was in admirably good shape, for all the obvious grief she wore. Save for a few dirty plates and cups and an impressively-balanced pile of garbage near the back door, everything was fairly clean and organized - if a bit warm. The air in the room was thick and the low rumble of a box fan didn't do much to stir it. Sam had started sweating the minute they’d gotten out of the car, like he always did in the heat. Already a little beat from digging around in the crime scenes, he wasn't going to be faring any better in here, but he was clearly ignoring it as best he could.

Dean perused the numerous pictures on the mantle and on the walls. He recognized Desmond in the majority of them, some looking very recent. Other people, friends or family or both, made appearances here and there in the pleasant panorama. In a few of the less-recent photos, Dean noticed an older couple whom he assumed were their parents.

“Looks like a pretty happy family to me,” Dean observed. “Vacations, reunions, all that good stuff.” A photo in a cheap but ornate frame caught his eye. Desmond and Trisha, surrounded by a crowd of people, the two of them dressed garishly in vibrant clothing: layers of multi-colored ruffles and baubles on Trisha, and a bonafide tie-dye suit on Desmond. It was either at night or somewhere with very low light; their matching mahogany-dark skin was washed out by the flash of a camera, and the sequins on Trisha’s top sparkled too brilliantly. There were piles of beads around both of their necks. “Dude, they even went to Mardi Gras together. Awesome. We should go to Mardi Gras. Wanna go to Mardi Gras, Sammy?”

”You’d make it halfway into the French Quarter and I’d never see you again,” his brother muttered.

”But what a way to go,” Dean sighed.

Trisha padded quietly back into the room carrying a steaming mug. Sam smiled kindly at her - Dean would never not be thankful for how calming and disarming that smile was - and they all took a seat.

“I already heard from the sheriff’s department about what happened, so if we could skip the…” Trisha trailed off, her voice warbling again. The gory details, Dean assumed.

“Of course,” he assured her. “We’re more interested in the events prior to, anyway.”

She nodded. “Okay. What do you need?”

Sam took over. “Did Desmond seem like he was having any trouble recently? Any altercations, problems at work, relationship issues...?” Sweat beaded on his upper lip and he delicately swiped the back of his hand over it.

Trisha inhaled to steady herself. “No,” she breathed. “Dez was doing better lately than he had been in a long time.” She paused. “He’d been out in San Francisco for a few years but he didn’t like it as much as he expected. He nearly ran himself flat broke with the cost of things out there. Plenty of friends and all but, you know, friends don’t pay the bills. So when he told me he wanted to move back home, I told him he could stay with me ‘til he got himself back together.”

“And what about you? You’ve lived here for how long?”

“Most of my life. This is our family home. I lived a little closer to Austin for a bit, but I moved back in here once my mother had a stroke.”

”Was that recent?”

”No, 2009. She passed not long after. That was when Dez headed out to California.”

“And your father?”

“Traffic accident when Dez and I were teens. He was a good man. Mom was devastated when he went. And then, a-after she was gone, Dez was all I really—“ A hiccuping sob interrupted her. “I’m so sorry, excuse me.”

Sam pulled a travel pack of tissues out of his pocket and passed them without comment across the table. Dean glanced over at him, feeling a little tug at his heart. When had he started carrying those?

“Dez stayed with me for a bit, like I told him he could, but he got his own place last month. I was so happy to have him back, and he seemed so happy to be back. Said being in San Fran had gotten him real down. Money trouble’s bad enough, but he said he was real lonely, too, for some reason. Said friends are important, but family...that’s what he missed. He moved back the day of our birthday, and all I could think was that I didn’t need any other present ever again.”

Our birthday. “You’re twins,” Dean half-asked.

“Sure are. I’m twenty minutes older, though, and you had better believe I never let him forget it.” Trisha chuckled, but it was borderline mirthless. Dean watched her throat work, her lips pressed into a thin line as she fought back another sob. “You know he had the gall to act like he was putting me out when he asked to move back? As if we weren’t flesh and blood. As if I wouldn’t have done anything in the world for him.” She fell silent again.

Dean was silent too, acutely aware of a harsh clutching feeling in his own chest. His hands rested loosely in his lap, and the index finger of his left kept idly running over the band on his right ring finger. He remembered how heavy and wide and comforting Sam’s palm had been, remembered how warm his hand had felt even after Sam had pulled away.

He thought, too, of all the small things Trisha must be remembering about Desmond every minute of every day - the infinitely important, unspoken things she'd grown to know and love and would never experience again. Dean didn’t have to wonder how he’d cope in her position; he’d been in it before and it had all but killed him for good.

Dean felt eyes on him. He looked up but Trisha was pressing a tissue to her face. Dean’s gaze drifted to his side to find Sam watching him, sidelong, those soft eyes seeming even softer. In a movement so small it was nigh imperceptible, Sam braced his knees a little wider, resting the left one against Dean’s right. The brush of contact was a comfort, an understanding. Dean’s eyes stung.

I’d do anything in the world for you, Sammy, he  thought fiercely. I wish I could tell you every day.

Why didn’t he say it every day?

That feeling reared its ugly, beautiful, horrible, glorious head and Dean almost didn't fight it down in time.

Are you happy, Sam?

I’m happy. Are you ?

How could he be, living with this Thing in his heart?

“Did he-“ Dean cleared his throat. His voice felt oddly thick, but no one else seemed to notice. “Did anything unusual happen recently that you can remember?”

Trisha sniffled again, wet and heavy. “Uhm. No. Like I said, he was doing better than ever. Good job, good spirits, new apartment, and he and his new boyfriend were so happy together.“

Dean cocked his head. “Boyfriend? He was seeing someone?”

Trisha regarded him strangely through her tears. “Well—...of course he was. That’s...that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? That’s why this happened. That’s what always happens. That’s why they-” She was losing what control she’d gathered. “Why they’re both...they’re both—“ She shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. “Oh, Lord.”

Sam looked just as confused as Dean. “I’m- I’m so sorry, we’re just- who was he seeing?”

“Travis. Travis Young.”

 

- - -

 

The keys dangled from the ignition but Dean made no move to start the car.

“So this was a hate crime? That’s…heavy stuff.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” said Sam. “Trisha’s the only one who even made mention of anything like that. And, I mean, don’t get it twisted, I’m not saying she’s automatically wrong, but you know that sometimes when people grieve they see what they wanna see.

Dean nodded sagely. “Apple-philia.”

Apophenia, Dean, come on.”

“Still, Sam, it’s worth noting, right? Now we know there’s at least some relationship between two of the victims. Literally.”

“Probably safe to assume this is part of why Travis and his father weren’t on great terms.”

“Yeah, probably. Geez, man.”

Sam pulled roughly at the knot in his tie. He began undoing his jacket, too, tugging it open. There was a fine film of sweat on his forehead and limp tendrils of hair were sticking to it.

“Say...all the previous stab victims were young men, weren’t they? Trisha made it sound like this wasn’t the first time this happened. Do you think the other vics were— I mean. Uh… Did the files you read say anything about, um.” Dean scratched at his jaw. “That?”

Sam snorted. “No, but that’s not exactly the kind of stuff they put in coroner’s reports, Dean.” Sam had shed his jacket entirely and was already working on his shirt buttons. “Come on, start the car, put on the A/C,” he pleaded. “I’m dying over here.”

“Oh, hush up, Sweatsock. You’ll live,” Dean dismissed him. He turned the key anyway. “Okay, so, all of our crispy critters were weird religious fanatics, but at least two of our pincushions were making the beast with two backs.”

“That's like the worst way you could've phrased any of that, but go on.”

“So there's a chance the rest of the non-burnt bodies were bumping uglies, right? If all the fires had the religious-wacko theme, maybe all the stabbings have this...theme.”

“Or it might not have anything to do with the previous cases. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that these two guys were seeing each other.”

“It’s worth finding out if it does connect, though, right? If the other guys were coupled up? Better to know than not know.”

“Yeah, point.”

“Alright, well, how do we figure that out?”

“We could talk to the previous victim’s relatives. We’ve got their information,” Sam offered. He cranked the air control to the highest possible setting with a grateful sigh.

“What are we gonna ask them, Sam?” Dean brought his thumb and pinky up to the side of his face. “Hi there, FBI here, how are you? Great, great, fantastic. Listen, just calling in regards to your dearly departed uncle. Yeah, just a quick question: Do you know if he ever saw a dick up close? I mean, really close? Maybe knocked one around a little? Engaged in a little sword swallowing, if you catch my...” Dean pulled his imaginary handset away from his head, glancing at it curiously and shaking it. “Hello? Ma’am? You still there?”

Sam watched the charade through narrowed eyes. “Well, then what do you suggest, wise-ass?”

Dean considered for a long moment. “Birds of a feather and all that, right? Figure out where alternative lifestyles thrive in this shithole town and see if the other vics were known to play for the same team as Desmond and Travis. Gotta be somebody who knew ‘em. Easier to get that kinda info outta drunk friends than grieving family.”

“Guess that’s as good a plan as any.”

”Your support is overwhelming. Dick.”

Sam chuckled. “I’m just being honest.

“You’re honestly a dick.”

They wove their way through the neat neighborhood roads. This far into the suburbs, things looked about the same as any other small American town; there was none of the stereotypical sprawling desert, the scrub brush, the cacti and cattle that you saw on television. They’d been through Texas enough times that Dean knew that already, but the eerie homogeneity of typical American towns still bothered him. Green lawns, cheap siding, wind chimes, barbecues, socks-with-sandals, how’s-it-goin’-bud-did-ya-catch-the-game, cloned in neat little rows upon rows upon rows. Especially out here, where there was so much space and yet so many people squeezed into those bizarrely identical spaces. Middle-class is as middle-class does, he supposed.

The Impala rolled to a stop at a red light. Dean looked over to find Sam holding his shirt open in order to let the air get to more of him. There was a faint ring of sweat around the collar of the tee he’d been wearing beneath, and his nipples formed two hard points against the thin fabric.

Dean swallowed roughly. “You gotta relax, Buffalo Bill, this is makin’ me uncomfortable.” He turned the air down and Sam actually whined, and golly gee oh boy if that wasn’t a cool and interesting noise. Dean shifted uneasily. “Real uncomfortable.”

You’re uncomfortable? My balls are gonna be stuck to my leg for the next week.”

“You’ll be fine,” Dean laughed. “Cold shower back at the motel before we go out, cold beers after that.”

“Sounds fantastic to me.” Sam pushed some of the hair off his forehead and grimaced when his hands came away tacky with sweat. “Ugh. You got a napkin or a hanky or something?”

“Just use one of your little tissue packets,” Dean suggested.

“I only had the one on me.”

“That was awful sweet, by the way,” Dean remarked. “You big sap. When did you start doing that?”

“Huh?”

“Carrying around tissues for people. You didn’t used to do that.”

After a moment of digging around in the glove box, Sam had managed to find a bundle of stashed fast food napkins and was dabbing at his sticky skin. “Well, how often do we have to sit and watch people cry their eyes out? Like, snotting all over themselves, feelin’ like crap while we just stare at them and wait like a couple of spectators.”

“All the time. Part of the job.”

“Yeah, well, that doesn’t make it easy. And when you said that the victim’s contact was his sister, I guess…” Sam trailed off, looking out the window. “I don’t know.”

“What? Tell me.”

“I just figured she’d probably be in pretty rough shape. I felt like it was the least I could do. It was an afterthought, really. Shit, if I was in her shoes, I’d definitely need more than a stupid packet of tissues, y’know? I’d be useless, man. I wouldn’t wanna…I couldn’t keep going without you at this point, Dean. I don’t know how she’s doing it.”

Dean’s hands tightened on the wheel. “Sammy,” he began, and he could feel the answering tightness in his throat.

“Hm?” Sam looked to Dean with those soft eyes and it took everything Dean had not to start ranting.

I’d do anything in the world for you, Sammy. I couldn’t keep going without you, either. You mean the world to me. And I should say it all every day. I want to say a lot of things to you. But I can’t. I want to. I can’t. If I say anything at all, I’ll say too much.

Why didn’t he? Why couldn’t he?

Something. Anything.

“Just…” Dean’s jaw worked. “You don’t have to, uh. You don’t need to worry about needing tissues because I’m not going anywhere anytime soon after all this and I’d never do that to you anyway because I really just- I love you, alright? Alright. Okay.”

His brother still held him in that soft, beautiful gaze. He laughed lightly, baffled but touched. Sweat on his brow and his chest moving and lips parted on each heavy breath and he was so beautiful that Dean could burst.

Then—

“I love you too, D.” And he said it so easy, so damn genuine and safe in ways that Dean could never manage. Sam could just state it like a fact and roll right along through the conversation. “Geez. Now look who’s gettin’ sappy.”

“Oh, don’t ruin the moment, you ass.”

Sam laughed again, really and truly happy, and that was a sound that Dean would treasure for the rest of his life, even if he never told a single other soul.

The emotion Dean refused to name shouted its identity, screamed for acknowledgement in his mind. Sobbed and shrieked and clawed at his defenses until he could barely breathe.

Don’t ignore me! Listen to me! Look at me! You can’t run from me forever, you stupid, hopeless prick! I’ll kill you! I’ll tear you apart if you keep lying to yourself like this!

But it hadn’t killed him, had it? Not yet.

 

Chapter Text

“You forgot to turn the air down before we left,” Dean griped. “It’s like a freakin’ freezer in here.”

“I didn’t forget. I left it cranked on purpose. How can you stand this heat?” Sam bitched. He dumped his suit jacket and button-down and began shucking off his trousers. “First dibs on the shower,” he declared, somewhat unnecessarily.

“Yeah, no kidding,” Dean scoffed. “It’d be inhumane to let you stew in your own juices for any longer. It’s been less than a full day and you already smell like hot, salty garbage.”

“Eat me.” Sam flung his damp tee shirt onto his bed, snagged a pair of briefs from his bag, and was in the bathroom before Dean could hurl any further insult.

Dean turned the air off out of spite.

 

- - -

 

Sam ran hot already. He didn’t need dry, 90-degree Texas misery to help that. He hated summer hunts. He hated Southern hunts. He hated walking around in those stupid stuffy suits all day in this stupid Southern summer weather. Stupid evening news. Stupid case. Stupid sweat glands.

He forced himself to relax, breathing deeply under the lukewarm spray for several quiet minutes ‘til he finally felt himself cool down. He pushed wet locks of hair from his eyes, smoothing his fingers through the strands, his palms pressing gently at his neck as they rounded the curve of his skull. Knots in his neck, always, tense and tight; knots in his back, too, his spine too long and starting to wear under its own weight, even at thirty; knots everywhere, muscles bunching up this way and that every time he got thrown or hauled up or knocked down. Which was constantly.

Something twinged in Sam’s forearm and he winced. The wounds, now unbandaged, were ugly burgundy stripes with tender pink edges. They weren’t weepy or hot to the touch, which was good, but they ached something awful when he turned or flexed the muscles there. He also wasn’t super thrilled at the idea of more new scars, but c'est la fuckin’ vie for a hunter.

The complimentary motel shower gels and shampoos had a cloying, artificial smell, but the lathers were silky and pleasant as they washed away the old sweat in his hair and on his sticky, ruddy skin. He swiped broad swatches over his arms and shoulders, down past his collar bones. Down, down, over the expanse of his chest, to the hard-cut lines of his hips, thighs, calves. He drew his hands back up slowly, then made another pass down the same path. He was taking his time, but Dean had given him first shower. He wasn’t about to waste the opportunity to have the lion’s share of hot water for once. It was a nice gesture, even if it was couched in insults.

But hey, that was just Dean. He wasn’t capable of being honest with himself when doing nice things or being generous or, like, showing any emotion, and that was okay. Really. If Sam had to suffer through a few rude names or crass jokes to get a little affection, that was okay. Sam could play that game.

Sam didn’t just love Dean - he was in love with the guy, and had been for a long while. It was incredibly screwed-up and probably kind of gross but that was okay, he’d made peace with that, and he knew how to keep it to himself. Besides, in the grand tapestry of shit he’d gone through in his fairly young life, he could write off a little incestual pining as pretty low on the scale of What-The-Fuckery. In fact, hitting that realization a few years back - the realization that at some point, his emotional/sexual wires had gotten severely crossed - hadn’t even shocked him all that much. Sure, he’d gone through a period of fairly confused moping and coping, but...in the end? He was more surprised that he hadn’t realized it sooner.

Dean was beautiful, indomitable, unflinchingly courageous and good, and the most important person in Sam’s life, bar none. Of course Sam had fallen in love.

Absently, Sam’s hands repeated their pointless, no-longer-soapy motions. One calloused finger brushed against a nipple and Sam was jolted back to awareness, sucking in a breath through his teeth. He was surprised by the dull throb of arousal that pumped through him. He looked down to find his cock twitching interestedly against his thigh.

Damn. Stupid feelings. Stupid heart-boner.

Keeping this particular level of screwed-up to himself required more and more maintenance these days - especially when Dean fucked around and closed that awful distance between them, touching and fussing and playfighting like he had been these last couple days. Which, you know, was a great problem to have, if you liked masturbating.

Which Sam did, thankfully.

Without preamble, Sam wrapped a wide, soapy hand around himself, feeling the weight of his half-hard dick as it pulsed. He squeezed; once, twice, here and there, lazily moving up from base to tip, then back.

He pulled his lip between his teeth to stifle a grunt, and the little cut stung sharply. The press of Dean’s thumb, rough against the tender skin there, sprang to his mind. Sam’s tongue retraced the path it had swiped.

He remembered the way Dean’s cool fingers curled against his cheek and jaw. The weirdly gentle look in his eyes, green and bright in the yellowish glow of the hotel room lamp. If Sam had been bolder, maybe he’d have swept his tongue against Dean’s thumb, just to see his eyes go wide and watch him bitch and squirm. Or Dean might’ve been extra juvenile and accused him of having cooties, like he used to do when they were little kids and Sam would plant big wet slobbery kisses on Dean’s cheek and tell him he loved him.

Maybe, though, in this alternate fantasy universe where no one could find and judge them, Dean might press his thumb between Sam’s parted lips, sliding it over Sam’s tongue and into the plush, wet heat of his mouth. Just to fuck with him, just to push him - at least at first.

Sam’s cock throbbed again, stronger this time, almost fully hard in his hold. He ran the pads of his idle fingers over the head, smearing through the precome there. It was a tease, just a suggestion of pressure over the sensitive tip, but enough to make him sigh and shudder.

How would Dean react, then, if Sam hollowed his cheeks and sucked? If he swirled his tongue around Dean’s thumb, sloppy little noises escaping his mouth. He imagined Dean balking, fingers trembling. He imagined a confused, half-choked sound echoing around the motel room as Dean asked—

 

The hell’re you doin’, Sammy?

 

But he wouldn’t pull his hand away. Even when Sam took his wrist and held him there, when he pulled the thumb from his mouth with a wet pop and went to work on Dean’s other fingers, sucking and licking and nipping ‘til Dean was begging Sam to put his lips, his tongue, somewhere else.

Sam sagged against the wall and picked up his rhythm, stroking faster and tighter as he dug his heels further into his fantasy.

He pictured Dean’s rough, spit-covered fingers tangling in his hair, tugging and petting while Sam worked his slick lips up and down Dean’s cock. Sam would be so eager to please him, trying to get Dean deeper and deeper down his throat even as he gagged and coughed. He might not know much but he’d be good for Dean, so good, so willing to do anything and everything with all the love and skill he could muster.

What would Dean say? Would he say anything, or would he just stand there, panting and groaning as Sam sucked him off? Sam decided he wanted to hear him talk, hear him babbling and coming apart while his cock was sliding in and out of his brother’s mouth.

 

So good for me, Sammy, so fucking good, so hot, just like that, yes, fuck, look so good sucking me, God, fuck, how’s it taste, baby—

 

Whimpering, Sam shoved two of his own fingers into his mouth, sucking hard and sloppy. It was a poor substitute for the aching, real weight of Dean’s cock on his tongue, but he could almost fool himself in the heat of the moment. The salty taste of his own precome on his tongue he imagined was the steady drip of Dean’s down his waiting throat instead.

He was so far gone that he could almost hear Dean’s deep voice breaking into low gasps of Sam, Sam, please, Sammy, yes yes yes Baby Boy, I love you, don’t fucking stop…

And Sam, his chest heaving, abs flexing, wanted to echo back the desperate praises into the heavy air around him.

 

Dean, Dean, Dean, I’m gonna- I’m so close, I can’t—

 

Sam came with a surprised, throaty moan that was muffled by the intrusion of his own fingers. Hot, thick spurts of come spilled over his knuckles and down into the swirl of the drain. He rode the wave of release ‘til it dwindled down to quiet tremors of pleasure, every muscle in his body thrumming. The hush of the water drowned out everything but the sound of his own blood pounding in his ears for a long, elated moment.

Then the slam-slam-slam of Dean’s open palm against the door startled Sam so much that he jumped, nearly slipping and busting his hazy head wide open.

“Sammy! No more playin’ for the Yankees! Wrap it up! You’re gonna get hair on your palms! You’re gonna go blind! This is a Christian household! Stop makin’ Chuck cry!”

For a heart-stopping, adrenaline-soaked moment, Sam panicked - oh God how could he know oh fuck how long was I in here did he hear me was I loud did I say anything what did I say oh God - before he realized that Dean was just being an asshole.

“Just—“ Sam cleared his throat, trying to keep his tone even and force off the soft, giddy edge. “Just gimme a second, Dean.”

There. Nonchalant. Definitely not the voice of someone who had absolutely just been jerking it. To the thought of blowing his brother. Absolutely not. Situation normal over here, folks.

“Fine,” came the muffled reply. “But you better double-wash those hands before you come out here, young man!”

Sam flipped off the door, and turned off the water.

 

- - -

 

Properly washed, dried, and wearing the last clean pair of briefs he owned, Sam stepped out of the bathroom to find his brother, dressed only in boxers, reclining on his own bed. A local newspaper was in his hands.

Dean’s gaze slipped over him, his eyebrows climbing, a knowing tilt to the corners of his mouth. Sam felt oddly exposed standing there in nothing but standard-issue white Y-fronts and a post-orgasmic glow. He had to remind himself again that there was no way Dean knew for certain he’d been tossing one off less than five minutes ago, and especially not while he was indulging his seriously questionable fantasies.

“Feel better?” Dean asked, and something about his tone made Sam’s face threaten to heat up.

“Let a man have some privacy,” he mumbled, going about the business of digging out clothes - only to find they weren’t there. “Where—“

“Laundry’s in the wash,” Dean grunted as he rose. “It’ll be ready for the dryer in about fifteen so keep an eye out, okay?”

“Okay.” And then, “Huh. Thanks.” It was unlike Dean to do the washing - the man left his filthy socks in the sink, his underwear in the bathtub, and would rather just buy a new tee shirt than stop to wash his current one. Literally. Sam had seen it happen. Just, Dean, changing right there in the middle of a Sal-Val parking lot in Franklinton, NH. The cart-wrangler had been both scandalized and delighted.

Dean’s Spidey Sense must’ve been tingling. He paused in the middle of gathering his own shower things and asked, “What? You wanted clean clothes. We’re not gonna go bar-hopping covered in chupacabra guts. Or in those stupid suits.”

Sam ignored him and kept digging through his duffel. “Did you leave me anything to wear for when I go flip the laundry?”

Dean paused and considered. He considered the ceiling. Considered the carpet. Considered the cheap little digital clock on the nightstand.

“Dean.”

“Hm?” Dean considered his cuticles, and the bracelet on his wrist.

Dean!”

“I didn’t think about it, alright?” Dean snapped at him. “I was more concerned with doing you a favor!”

“It’s not gonna do me any favors to walk around in my underwear, Dean!”

“Oh, sack up, man. I did it, and nothing happened.”

“There’s a big difference between boxers and- and—“ Sam gestured at his current attire.

“Mighty tighty-whities?” Dean waggled his eyebrows.

“Yes!”

Unbothered, Dean was heading for the bathroom. “Oh, relax, you prude. You seen this motel? This is definitely the kinda place where people walk around in all types of unmentionables. Often.” Dean picked up a sock he’d missed and lobbed it at Sam’s head.

Sam flinched away. “Dude, keep your cum-rag away from my face,” he spat.

Dean, without turning, replied, “You keep your ugly mug away from my cum-rag.”

A look of real disgust crept over Sam’s features as he regarded the sock resting casually next to him.“That had better not actually be one of your jizz-socks, Dean, I swear to God-“

He couldn’t see the shit-eating grin on Dean’s face, but could sure hear it in his voice. “Gets lonely out here on the road, Sammy, and you know as well as I do that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, plus you were already using the shower, so—“

“Dude, no!” Sam leaped from the bed, his hands up. “Men use tissues! Twelve-year-old boys use their socks!”

“Tissues? Every time I jerk off? That doesn’t sound very earth-friendly. Reusable is the way of the future, Sammy. Thought your tree-hugging ass would agree with me on that one.”

“That’s not what earth-friendly means!”

Dean snorted. “Oh, come on man, you know I’m kidding,” he amended. “Stop clutching your damn pearls. I don’t use my socks as cum-rags.”

Sam huffed and sat back down.

“I use yours.” Dean closed (and locked) the door.

 

- - -

 

The guests in rooms 104 and room 106 both filed individual complaints about someone trying to break down a door in their vicinity. They both reported a great deal of shouting, obscenities, and threats.

Mrs. Johansson, age 67, who was staying in room 101 near the laundry, filed a separate complaint about a pervert lurking around her door in his skivvies. She told the motel manager she was sure the guy was “out to get some action, the way he looked.”

When pressed for comment by her friends some weeks later during a drunken game of pinochle, Mrs. Johansson was quoted as saying, “he could’ve gotten it pretty easily, if he’d just asked me.”

 

- - -

 

Dean snickered and jeered over Sam’s shoulder while he added “gay bars near me” to his browser history.

“You’re so immature,” Sam sighed. “How else are we gonna figure out where to go?”

Dean didn’t have a suggestion, but he kept making jokes til he ran out of material, at which point he went and flopped down on his bed with Travis’ sketchbook.

The search results were less than promising. Most of the closest joints were at least all the way in the Austin area, and all of them seemed to cater to a much younger crowd than what Sam and Dean were looking for.

“Hey.”

Sam looked up. Dean held a little piece of paper between his fingers.

“What’s that?”

“Receipt.” Dean squinted at it. “Looks like a two-person bar tab at a place called, uh…” He chuckled. “The NutBush?”

Sam searched the name. Voila.

“Huh. Bar over in a neighborhood called East Town. Isn’t that Desmond’s neighborhood?” Sam continued as Dean hopped up and came to join him.  “Old place, too. Been open for like, seventeen years?”

Dean set the slip on the tabletop. Sam could see that it was thin and faded and had been previously folded over again and again.

Sam scrolled through more of the search results. The info on the place was scarce - the place didn’t have any social media presence, and there wasn’t anything about events, affiliations, or owners that Sam could find. There was a basic business page listing the hours, the address, and an extremely outdated calendar of events - most of which were show dates for bands that Sam didn’t recognize and assumed were probably local.

”Looks like it’s just a music bar, not a gay bar.”

”But Travis was there, at least, and probably with Desmond. That receipt’s only about a month old.”

”That doesn’t mean it’s a gay bar just because two gay dudes were there, Dean.”

There was one link in the search results that piqued Sam’s interest: a thread on a street art discussion forum that mentioned the bar by name. Sam followed the link to the site.

 

11/06/2010 - PeterStreeter (MOD/gen) wrote:

found this gem of a mural in a central tx bar bathroom lol the place was called the nutbush...can u believe this shit? Like New York bars don’t even have stuff this good.

 

Below the comment was a grainy thumbnail of what looked to be a cellphone photo.

“What is it?” Dean asked.

“Dunno,” said Sam, and clicked on it.

...Oh, thought Sam.

“...Oh,” Dean echoed aloud.

“Yeah.”

“Wow. It’s—“.

Yeah.”

“It’s got…cowboys,” Dean pointed out helpfully.

“It sure does.”

“And…”

“...Yeah.”

“Alright. So.”

”NutBush in East Town? Address is Rivera Street.” Sam suggested.

“Looks like the place to be. Let’s go see these gentlemen in person, shall we?

 

- - -

 

The streetlights were a slow, rhythmic pulse above them as they drove.

“Wonder why this NutBush joint didn’t come up in the search results? It’s kinda hard to believe people don’t lump a place with a nude cowboy mural into the ‘gay bar’ category.”

“Probably ‘cause nobody around here wants to admit they’ve got gays in their community. Don’t ask, don’t tell or whatever. Rednecks aren’t exactly known for their progressive viewpoints and welcoming, culturally-diverse establishments, Sammy.”

Sam eyed him. “You know plenty of people think we’re rednecks, right?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Dean’s mouth worked. “We’re not. Are we?”

Of course they were, by at least some definition. They were a pair of hard-drinking, muscle-car-driving, shotgun-wielding, flannel-clad, how-ya’ll-doin’ dropouts from the heart of Kansas, and they both knew it. Didn’t change the fact that they’d literally saved the world more times than they could count and rubbed elbows with monsters and gods, so any yuppie onlookers could suck heartily on that.

Sam clucked his tongue. “Naw, bud, we’re cultured. Why, we’re jet-settin’ city boys compared to these folks,” he drawled exaggeratedly.

“Amen to that, little brother,” Dean returned in his own false twang. He threw his head back and whooped, “Yee-haw!” as they both dissolved into laughter.

 

- - -

 

Dean, in his distracted good humor, missed the turn onto Rivera Street and had to circle back twice before they found it again.

East Town was less of a neighborhood and more of a three block area mostly full of small shops (closed for the night), restaurants (also closed), and low-quality apartment complexes.

But Rivera Street was indeed the place to be, it seemed.

There was a heavy amount of sidewalk traffic around, for it being such a small stretch. The three or four bars there seemed to be bustling in a way the rest of the town just wasn’t. Most of the people here were clustered together in small, happy groups, wandering the little stretch and chattering loudly and drunkenly about who-cared-what.

“Glad we decided to check this joint out,” Dean muttered. A tan young woman with some very admirable thighs and a pair of Daisy Dukes sauntered by. Dean felt Sam move to sneak a peek at her right along with him. “Guess this is where all the hot young people come to get away from the rest of the boring crap in this town.”

“When you’re right, you’re right,” Sam agreed. He scratched absently at the edge of his bandages, the gauze a slip of white just visible under the half-rolled sleeves of his flannel. “You see a deli around?”

Dean, still rubbernecking, didn’t hear him. “The huh?”

”Come on, man. The bar’s across the street from a deli. Get your head in the game.”

“Oh, my head’s plenty fine where it’s at, thanks,” Dean assured him, but he directed his attention back to the storefronts around them for a moment. “I don’t see one. Further down, maybe.”

Sam, still scratching, nodded. They continued on their way.

Dean observed him curiously. “You good?”

Scratch scratch scratch. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Scratch scratch scratch. “Little hot out here, still, but.” Scratch scratch scratch. “That’s all.” Scratch scratch—

Dean’s took Sam’s wrist, stopping him in his tracks. “Cut it out, man, you look like a junkie. Are you sure you’re okay?” He tugged Sam’s sleeve up further and began checking the dressing and the skin around it: no blood on the gauze, and not swollen or unusually warm - no more so than Sam’s regular sub-nuclear temperature, he guessed. “Looks alright. Is it hurting?” He pressed here and there with careful, searching fingers.

Sam let out a fond little laugh. “It’s fine. I cleaned it. It’s just healing. Will you stop fussing?”

“I am not fussing, I’m being thorough. You got sliced by a Chupacabra, man. There’s like, almost no lore on those little bastards. Who knows what it might’ve given you?”

“There’s no such thing as super-herpes, Dean.”

“Well then, what if you turn into a gremlin or something?”

“Dean. I’m just, I’m fine, okay? And my arm itches a little. Really.”

Dean searched his face. He looked a little flushed and sweaty again, which was odd - the night had cooled down considerably. “Look, we can always do this tomorrow—“

“Hey. Seriously. ” Sam laid his other hand over Dean’s and Dean’s stomach did that annoying flip again. “I promise I’m not gonna go all Gizmo on you after midnight or whatever. I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Okay, first thing, the scaly slimy one is named Stripe, not Gizmo, and they don’t—“

A gale of elated laughter echoed through the corridor of the street suddenly and both men whipped around, surprised.

Two girls were leaning against each other as they wandered down the sidewalk nearby. They were in a fit of drunken giggles. Girl #1 tottered briefly in her precariously high heels and Girl #2 caught her, the misstep making them both laugh all the harder. They leaned against a darkened store window to catch their breath.

Dean read the shop sign aloud. “Pete’s Meats. That’s a dumb name.” And then, because he really was a twelve-year-old boy in a thirty-four-year-old man’s body: “Hey, Sammy - Beats Meats.”

Sam shockingly declined comment on that nugget of comedy gold. He tugged on Dean’s sleeve to draw his attention across the street.

“Guess this must be the place, then.”

The NutBush was a low-slung, unassuming brick building about the size of a small duplex. Its chipped and worn exterior was dominated by a large, dark window that sported a few peeling posters and beer-advert neons. They definitely would’ve dismissed it as just another dive if they hadn’t actively been looking for it. There wasn’t a marquee or anything - just a brass eagle atop the flat roof, and a tattered Texas state flag over the door.

The music playing within became gradually more clear as they approached, but Sam still couldn’t pin it.

Dean, connoisseur that he was, recognized it immediately. “Black Sabbath! Old Black Sabbath, too. Awesome. I like this place already. Didn’t know they played rock music at gay bars.”

“Not everything’s a stereotype, Dean,” Sam chided. “Pretty sure you can like heavy metal and bangin’ dudes.”

“Rob Halford,” Dean said, nodding.

Sam opened his mouth to say something, but a yawn overpowered whatever he’d had on deck and it came out as a garbled mess of vowels.

“You wanna try that again?” Dean asked.

“Sorry. Long day, I guess. Do you just want to stick to the insurance thing? 'Cause I was thinking maybe reporters might be better. Like, life story stuff about the vics. You know.” Sam was scratching at his arm again. Something in his expression looked…off, and Dean couldn’t place it.

“...Sure. Sam, maybe we really oughta wait til tomorrow.” Dean’s tone was half-warning, half-worried.

“I’m fine, dude,” Sam huffed. “Enough mothering, alright? Be cool, for once in your life.”

Dean scoffed and tossed his head. “I don't know if you've noticed, man, but I'm always cool.”

“No, you're always a tool,” said Sam.

“Clever. Come on, Fezzik, we’ve got work to do,” Dean instructed.

“Fezzik? Would that make you Inigo?”

“I wish. He was awesome. Maybe I’ll start fencing. You think I should try and grow a mustache?”

“God, no! You’d look like a total perv.” Sam’s upper lip curled unpleasantly.

“Well, that’s just rude. I’m gonna do it just to spite you, now. Prove to you how handsome I’ll look with it,” Dean asserted.

Sam was grinning when he patted one giant hand against the side of Dean’s face. “Don’t. You’re handsome enough already.”

Then he was heading through the door, lost in the shadows within.

To Dean’s credit, he only stalled out for about five solid seconds before he was able to follow.

Chapter Text

Not four steps into the place, Dean ran right into Sam’s back.

“Ah, what—?”

Sam held up a hand to quiet him. Whatever complaint Dean had died on his lips as he looked around.

The NutBush was empty. 

Like, empty-empty.

The place was set up, sure; the lights were on and the music was playing. But there wasn’t a soul in the place. Not on the floor, not behind the bar, nothing. The neons and blacklights turned the place into a hypercolour black-velvet exaggeration, all the more eerie due to its emptiness.

“That door was…it was unlocked, right? We’re not so far gone we just, like, instinctually pick locks and forget it? Right?” Dean asked lowly.

“Not yet,” said Sam. “Surprisingly.”

“Maybe it’s just a slow night?” Dean leaned around him, trying to get a better look past the support beams and the chipped, worn-down bar counter.

Very slow.”

Sam took a few cautious steps forward. Dean followed, his hand creeping carefully towards the knife resting at his hip. Something about a place that would normally be so lively being so pointedly uninhabited was enough to raise his hackles. How many times had they walked into a shitstorm under these exact same circumstances? It had to be in the dozens by this point, right? What if the ghost or whatever was here? They were unprepared but Dean supposed stumbling right into the root of the problem had worked out fairly well for them before, so—

“Howdy.”

A lifetime of untold horrors and Dean still jumped like a little bitch. Sam would laugh at him about it later, he was sure. Joke was on the Moose, though - they had been close enough that Dean had felt Sam jump, too, so take that, you giant idiot.

In (and taking up most of) the doorway to what was most likely the kitchen, stood a frankly enormous solitary figure. Like, huge. Like a half-head taller than Sam, probably, Dean figured. Yikes. Yikes, man.

“Can I…help you at all, or…?” the figure spoke again after a long, tense moment of the newcomers staring at him like deer in headlights.

They scrambled to regain their composure and, in unison, asked: “You open?”

The guy looked around at the empty room. “Naw, actually. We’re throwing a private party for the dust bunnies and the roaches. Ya’ll got your invitations?”

It wasn’t that funny but they both chuckled nervously.

Heavy footfalls and the sound of something metallic accompanied the man’s movements as he lumbered over to the bar.

“‘Come on in. Sit. Have a drink.”

Dean looked to Sam, who inclined his head toward the bar. They sat - somewhat gingerly; the cracked old leather and rusted metal of the stools creaked ominously under their weight. Dean wondered how quickly he’d be able to catch himself from cracking his skull open if the whole thing just collapsed under him. Probably end up speared to death on one of the legs anyway.

The stranger stood behind the bar across from them and in the light they finally got a good look at him. “Intimidating” wasn’t a word Dean used often, given the things he saw in his line of work, but damned if it didn’t fit the guy. He was a barrel-chested, modern-day barbarian type, with a bald head and a braided salt-and-pepper beard that had little beads and bands laced throughout it. The map of tattoos on his tree-trunk arms flexed and danced as he poured two tall drafts and set them in front of the brothers. Every movement he made seemed purposeful, like he knew his own strength and the trouble it could cause if he was careless.

“What do ya’ll call yourselves?” asked the stranger. His voice had the same easy, measured sort of feeling as the rest of his demeanor. Dean found it oddly calming.

“I’m Dean, this is Sam.”

Even Sam’s freaky-long fingers nearly disappeared in the guy’s grip when they shook hands. The various rings, chains, and bracelets on his hands and wrists chimed and jangled with each motion.

“I’m Ivan. Ivan Kandinsky.”

“Dude, that,” said Dean. “Is a cool-ass name.”

“You think my name’s great, you should hear my phone number,” replied Ivan with a cheeky wink.

Dean felt his face go pink and felt Sam shaking lightly with silent laughter.

Wow. Remind me to try that one out the next time I have a chance,” Dean muttered into his beer.

Sam made a little bit of greeting small-talk - not much going on tonight, maybe it’s the weather, goddamn but it’s hot, huh? - and Dean looked around again. Empty though it might be, it seemed like a pretty standard dive. No garish decor. Good music on the jukebox, clearly. Beer prices looked cheap. Pool table off to one side, dartboard on the wall.

And, oh yeah, alright, giant mural of cowboy dicks on the men’s room wall, sure, whatever. He’d seen far worse things in public bathrooms. He’d have to remember to take a leak before he left just for a laugh.

There was more motion at his side. Sam’s fingers tap-tap-tapped nervous little patterns into the condensation on his glass. His leg bounced anxiously. Dean could see the sweat beading at his temples. Dean nudged him and gave him a questioning look. Sam shrugged him off with an odd little smile.

“So what brings ya’ll out tonight? Ain’t seen you around before, and I got a pretty regular crowd.” Ivan paused and gestured around the room. “Usually.”

“Actually, we were hoping to talk to the owner,” said Sam.

“That’s me. And, before you get any further, I’m not booking any more gigs ‘til after August.”

“Oh, no - we’re not musicians,” Sam assured him.

“Oh, my mistake. You just, well. You look like musicians.” He nodded to Dean. “‘Specially you, hot stuff.”

Dean grinned and puffed up, pleased. “Really?”

“Sure. You got that real rockstar look.”

Dean waggled his eyebrows at Sam, who rolled his eyes.

“That whole ‘live-on-the-road, sleepin’-in-your-car’ type’a look. Real tired, y’know. Kinda scruffy. Got some miles on you.”

Dean’s grin faltered. “Huh.”

Sam cleared his throat to hide another laugh. “We, um, we do travel. A lot. We’re journalists.”

“Ah. That’d explain it, too.” Ivan turned away and poured a beer for himself.

Dean glanced sidelong at Sam who, looking pretty silly with his sweaty stupid reddish dumb face, was still snickering behind a fist. Dean kicked at him but stopped when his own barstool wobbled dangerously.

“Alright. So. Journalists. Then what can I do for you? Writing an article on the saddest gay bars in America?” Ivan chortled and sipped his drink. “You know, I normally try to stay outta the press. Easier that way, around here. For me and my clientele.”

“Not exactly that,” Sam said. Dean felt him shifting again and saw his arms tucked under the bar, saw him scratching discreetly at his bandages once again. “We’re curious if you know anything about the, uh, the drought deaths.”

An odd look passed across Ivan’s features. “Those two kids?”

“And the others. Mostly the others.”

Ivan’s expression shifted again, tightened. “What about ‘em?”

“The victims, were any of them…did you know any of them? Personally?” Dean said.

“Some of ‘em, sure. Small town. Harder not to know folks out here.”

Sam took his turn trying. “What we mean is…these men, the men from the previous droughts. Do you know if any of them were…” Sam looked like he was mulling the word over before he chose it. “Uh. Together?”

“As in, did I see them out and about together?” Ivan’s tone was too light. Flippant. “Don’t rightly recall.”

“Do you know if they were involved?”

“Involved in what?”

“No, I mean - were they partners?”

“Business, police, or cowboys?”

Lovers! Were they lovers?”

“Lovers of what, son?”

“Oh for fuck’s sake—“ Dean groaned in frustration. “Very funny. This entertaining enough for you? You want us to spell it out?”

Ivan regarded him evenly. “You want an honest answer, you ask an honest question. Euphemisms are for divorce lawyers and priests.”

“Sex!” Dean blurted. “Screwing! Were they givin’ each other around-the-worlds or not? Christ, man,” he exhaled. He was aware that Sam was staring at him with that very special what-the-hell-are-you-doing look. He chose to ignore it. He was officially too old for too much more pussyfooting around.

For all of Sam’s eyeballing, Dean’s lack of tact seemed to work.

“I’ll give you one thing,” said Ivan. “That’s a very honest question.”

“Alright, so what’s the honest answer?” Sam sighed, chagrin still etched into his face. All the while he was still scratching, wincing and twitching like he didn’t realize that he was the one hurting himself.

Without turning Dean gently placed a hand over Sam’s wounds in a minute effort to protect him from himself. The heat and dampness pouring off of Sam’s skin, coupled with the fidgeting and the strange distant expression on Sam’s face, made a thread of worry begin to wind itself around Dean’s nerves. He shoved it to the back of his mind. Focus.

Ivan had been contemplating them, and their minor unspoken exchange, for a good thirty seconds.

“Fellas…” he started, then stopped. Dean could see the hesitation on his face, the way the lines deepened and pinched. He waged some internal battle with himself for several more moments. “Why on earth would you wanna know a thing like that? Seems awful personal.”

”It’s important,” Sam told him. “To their stories.” He paused, as if for effect, and Dean glanced at him curiously. “And, y’know. To us. Our work."

"What paper gives a shit about somethin' like that?"

"The Austin Lavender Review," said Sam easily. Then, he added, "Lifestyle and history column."

Dean hadn't been briefed on that part of the lie, and wondered if there even was such a paper - but it seemed to give the bartender pause. Ivan’s eyes passed back and forth between Sam and Dean’s faces for a moment. The brothers waited, tense and expectant.

“Fuck it,” Ivan sighed at length. “Ain’t really no sense in lying about shit that won’t affect anybody anymore. Dead men ain’t got a lot to be ashamed of. ‘Specially if it’ll help somebody else,” he offered meaningfully.

Dean and Sam shared a look of barely-concealed triumph. Progress. Sweet, juicy progress.

“Fantastic.” Sam pulled a little tape recorder from his shirt pocket and set it on the bar top. “If you could just tell us whatever you think might be—“

Ivan immediately covered it with his hand. “Listen here, boys…“

Alright, dude, we’re in our thirties,” mumbled Dean.

“Listen here, sirs,” Ivan drawled. “I’ll tell you what I can, and only ‘cause you’re just about the only folks ever to come through here lookin’ like you really give a damn - but you keep any livin' folks' names except mine out of your little story. Got me?”

“Sure,” agreed Dean. Then, out of curiosity, “Why not yours?”

Ivan shrugged. “I’ve been out n' loud longer’n you’ve likely been alive, honey. Nobody’s said a damn thing to me ‘bout it for decades - they don’t dare. My folks, God rest ‘em, ain’t around to be disappointed in me. I got nothin’ to be worried about. Ain’t no Drought Devil bullshit coming after me.”

“Drought Devil?” Dean echoed. And, “Bullshit?”

“Urban legend nonsense. Folks make up stories to cover up the shit they don’t want to face.”

Dean frowned. The urban legend stuff they’d come across early in their research had never named the thing.

“What do you mean?” Sam asked.

Ivan withdrew his hand, and hit the record button on the little device beneath it.

“What I mean is, a boogeyman can only take so much blame, and anyone who knows anything can tell you where the rest of it lies. What’s real is a rotten town, fulla rotten people, built on rotten land.”

 

- - -

 

Ivan Kandinsky, who owned and operated The NutBush, was single, an Aquarius (“In case you were wonderin’, babe,”), and fifty-five years young.

Ivan Kandinsky, over the course of his fifty-five years, had seen firsthand just how rotten this town could be.

Born and raised in Georgetown to Russian immigrants at the tail end of the Second Red Scare, he’d spent a good deal of his early years hearing “Commie” or “Russkie” more often than he heard his first name outside of his household.

His parents, when faced with this childhood trauma, had told him to be the bigger man - a difficult feat for scared, scrawny child, to be sure, but he did his best. He refused to let the teasing and the schoolyard beatings and the hammers and sickles painted on his lockers wear him down.

The story of the Drought Devil had been in circulation since before Ivan was born, but he heard for the first time at age eight: The drought comes. Then the Devil comes, and folks die. Then the rain comes. He didn’t really understand it.

The kids in his class had asked him if they had droughts in Russia, or if everything was just frozen all the time. He’d said he didn’t know because he’d never been there. The kids had shoved sand in his mouth and told him Russians were used to eating dirt because commies didn’t have much food.

Ivan, coughing up blood and rocks, had thought that maybe a Devil wasn’t the worst thing in this town.

By the time Ivan entered high school, most of the bullies had thankfully stopped caring whether or not their classmate was a sleeper agent, and had instead become more interested in girls their age.

Ivan was more interested in boys his age. He never mentioned it. The boys his age still found out. The beatings and teasing resumed and changed. The graffiti on his locker changed.

Ivan changed, too; through the combined magicks of puberty and a stint on the wrestling team, he quite literally became the bigger man.

He was sixteen, already two-ten and six-three, when he heard that Gil Davis, the clerk at the Ford Street Pharmacy, had been found dead in his apartment. Another local man, a cop who Ivan didn’t know by name, had died too - stabbed by some psycho, just like Gil. Janice Marley’s uncle’s house had burned down that same night. Janice Marley’s uncle had once thrown a rock through the the pharmacy’s front window and poured gasoline on Reggie Archer’s lawn, amongst other rumored accomplishments.

Everyone had acted like nothing significant had even happened. Ivan remembered not being able to sleep that weekend.

When Monday had rolled around, a classmate told him that the Drought Devil was actually doing God’s work - cleansing Georgetown of “sissies and sinners,” then taking a righteous soul as payment for the deed, and so it was okay.

“But you better watch out, Kommie-dinsky,” he’d brayed. “I hear sometimes the Devil takes more than two homos per drought!”

That kid had earned himself a broken arm for the privilege of being the last person dumb enough to fuck with Georgetown High’s “Thrivin’” Ivan Kandinsky.

In August of 1986, Ivan’s ex-boyfriend Bert Hayley was found stabbed to death under a pavillion in Cedar Breaks Park. A fire killed one of the teachers at Georgetown High and the school closed for a day out of respect. A week later, Bert’s partner Jack Munrow was found dead in his home. His boss had called in a wellness check on him when he’d missed a few days of work and a few dozen phone calls.

Jack had been rotten when they found him. Ivan had been one of ten people who came to his closed-casket funeral.

In February of 1996, Ivan put all his hard-earned savings into opening a bar in his hometown. A plain little place, nothing fancy, but all his - the closest an openly-gay Commie could come to the American Dream in rural Texas. And if the little rock-n-roll dive just happened to be the only place where Ivan and his friends could relax and really be themselves - let their hearts rest and laugh and drink and holler and love each other to distract themselves from the harsh small-town reality in which they were stuck - then Ivan figured he’d done alright.

In March of 1998, just over two years since its grand opening, The NutBush had held a quiet but well-attended memorial service or Gregg Ford and Daniel Aarons. They were two of Ivan’s best friends and two of the kindest men Ivan had ever met. Gregg’s colleagues and patients from the women’s center had made up nearly half of the folks there. Gregg and Daniel’s deaths didn’t get a mention in the Williamson County Sun. The fire that had killed Suzanne Dunn took the front page.

And now, tonight, there was another service being held at the youth center where Travis had worked. That’s where Ivan’s regulars were - after all, who else would go? Ivan didn’t go because he knew they’d be by later. Ivan provided the important service of distraction. And, come midnight, when the service let out, the sissies and sinners of Georgetown would need that distraction in a big way.

Ivan knew the Archers. He’d known their daddy from grade school ‘til when he’d passed, and the Twins themselves had been coming around The NutBush since before they were even really old enough to drink. Travis was a newcomer, a quiet transplant from the Midwest, who’d been twitterpated over Desmond since the minute he’d come back from California.

Ivan had been praying for Desmond and Travis every night.

Ivan had not once prayed for Tim Henk.

Tim Henk, who’d lobbied for zoning restrictions on bars and restaurants in a thinly-veiled attempt to shut down the small businesses in East Town.

Tim Henk, who’d come around two weeks ago reeking of gin, copped a feel on one of Ivan’s bartenders, Rhiannon, and threatened to “burn this cocksucking jack-shack to the ground” if “That Dyke” didn’t give him her number.

Tim Henk, who had given Travis Young a fat lip when the kid told him, politely, to please just go fuck himself. Desmond had almost called the police before Ivan himself had just picked the mayor up and tossed him back out onto the street. The police would’ve made things worse - but Desmond, Travis, all these kids, they hadn’t been around long enough to know that.

Tim Henk was no righteous soul. Neither was Suzanne Dunn, or Janice Marley’s uncle. The Georgetown police didn’t care. The churches didn’t care. The townsfolk didn’t care. There was always the requisite wailing and gnashing of teeth and the lip service - how could this happen, not in my town - and the promises to do everything in their power to make it right - at least for the good guys.

Janice Marley’s family got to see a local homeless guy go through trial. The wife of the teacher at Georgetown High got closure when the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office jailed two arsonists. Suzanne Dunn’s alleged killer got out on a technicality, but he still spent two years upstate.

For the sissies and the sinners?

Nothing. Always, always nothing.

And no matter how many times the sissies and sinners pointed that out, it fell on deaf ears. It was like these things stopped existing seconds after they happened. Like walking into another room and forgetting why you came, or writing something down on your palm and then absently washing your hands right after.

We all remember. We all know,” said Ivan, on perhaps his sixth or seventh pint and looking sober as a judge. “We know what happens, and what type of folks it happens to, and when it’ll happen again. And it never matters - to them, anyway. But hey, been that way forever, much as we can tell.”

Dean, on perhaps his third or fourth pint and calling it his last one, encouraged him to elaborate.

“Hell, man, story goes that the first time any drought happened in settled-Georgetown, the folks burned a church to ashes. A church . Got outta control, ended up burning through a few more buildings - including a local jail - before it ran outta crap close enough to light up.”

“A church,” echoed Sam, who had been struggling through his second pint for the last half hour. He’d eventually stopped scratching and fidgeting, at least, which was good, but he looked like he really needed a nap. Badly.

“Yep.”

“You’d think the religious types in this town would’ve been more inclined to protect a church, not destroy it,” said Dean. “Way you make it sound, folks around here work real hard to protect the so-called ‘good-guys.’”

“Ain’t no one who knows why they did it,” said Ivan. “Not a lotta history left over from before about 1880 or so, ‘cept for a few dusty books and a handful of stories. Like I said - things’ve been rotten around here forever. Social morals are one thing - sometimes folks just have different ideas ‘bout good and bad.”

Dean felt a low, guilty twist in his gut. “Ain’t that the truth.”

“But this? Ignoring people dying all around you just because you don’t like ‘em? That’s evil. Pure and simple. And that kinda evil doesn’t just come from nowhere. You plant in bad soil, you get bad crops. You get me?”

The thin frothy dregs on the inside of Dean’s glass formed odd little spiderwebs that he chose to watch instead of Ivan or Sam or the dance of lights on the empty floor.

“Rotten,” he muttered.

”Rotten,” agreed Ivan.

 

- - -

 

People started filtering into the bar around midnight, just like Ivan had predicted. Sam and Dean thanked him wholeheartedly, and Dean dropped a handful of twenties on the counter before they stood to go. Ivan had thanked them, too, for listening - for really, honestly listening, even if nothing came of it.

Dean didn’t blame him. This was the definition of “heavy stuff.” It wasn’t every day that the kind of work he and Sam did got so intimately entangled with the real, awful issues that mankind made for itself.

Everything about this case said something freaky was going on. That was undeniable. But how much of that was this haunting-or-whatever that Sam had stumbled across, and how much of it was the grotesque, all-too-human bullshit festering right under the picket-fence veneer of a little American town?

It was easy, really, to figure out how to kill a monster - every creature has its weaknesses. It was impossible to figure out how to just make people be better.

They wove their way through the gathering crowd in the bar and out into the night. Sam’s gaze was fixed on the ground and his strides were unusually slow. It was hard to tell if the guy was buzzed or just contemplative. Dean nudged him gently.

“You good?”

Sam didn’t look up. Dean reached out to place a hand on Sam’s shoulder, and immediately jolted away. Sam was fully nuclear, and he looked like he’d been stuck in a sauna for the last two hours, fully-clothed. Dark rings of sweat clung around his neck and under his arms. His face - his whole demeanor, really - looked peaked and off-kilter.

Dean swallowed around a nervous lump in his throat. That thread of worry he had been steadfastly ignoring tightened around him with a terrifying pull.

“Hey, hey—“ He circled around in front of Sam and gripped him by the shoulders. Dean searched his face and found his lips dry and his eyes bloodshot. “Hey, Droopy Dog. Come on. What’s up?“

“Dude, I’m fine ,” Sam said, and he sounded...okay. Tired - extremely tired. But okay. Mostly.

“You look like shit,” Dean laughed, but it felt too high and tinny. “What’s up, buddy, you have too many in there? Just can’t hold your alcohol anymore? Not that you ever could, but you’re not normally a two-beer date.”

Sam laughed too, and it wasn’t right - the sound or the expression.

“I—…” Sam swiped a hand over his face. He squeezed his eyes shut and Dean saw his throat working. His knees were beginning to shake, too. “I think I need to…My stomach…Maybe I did have too much…” He bent forward, a hand on his belly.

In a flash Dean slipped into place under his arm and ugh , dude, his shoulder in Sam’s armpit made an actual noise because of all the sweat. Dean felt like gagging. He fought it down.

“Hey man, listen, if you gotta spew, then spew, y’know. Just- just aim it, like—“ Dean made a pushing motion. “Away.”

But the weight was withdrawing, and Sam straightened back up, slowly but surely. He still looked like shit, to be sure, with his sweat and his fever-red tone and his chapped lips pressed into a thin ugly line. But he seemed alert, didn’t he?

“I’m alright, Dean, I’m...I’m okay.”

And okay, sure, he still sounded lucid enough, but the dopey, lopsided smile/grimace on his face was just...disturbing. Every alarm bell in Dean’s head was trying to ring at full-volume.

“No the hell you aren’t. You’ve been sick all night, and you’ve been lying about it. I don’t think you understand—”

The big doofus’ hands were on Dean’s cheeks and before Dean could bitch, he plastered a big ol’ slimy smooch on Dean’s temple.

Alright, that was disturbing.

“I think you’ll understand,” he giggled. “When I tell you some- something. I wanna hold your ha…haha!”

“I...what in the everloving hell, Sammy?” Dean stammered, but Sam was already moving back towards the door of The NutBush.

“Just- get the car started,” came the call. “Just gotta…bathroom. I’m fine.”

“Sam!”

“I’m fine!”

Sam!”

Dean stood in the middle of the sidewalk. Alone under the weak streetlight, he felt very worried and stranded. The Impala was half a block away. Sam said he was alright. He could wait. Should he wait? Sam was alright. Sam said he was fine.

But how trustworthy was the opinion of sweaty, nauseous man who had kissed him and quoted The Beatles?

 

- - -

 

The harsh, flickering fluorescence of the bathroom lights was a drastic change from the technicolor black-velvet landscape of the bar itself. Everything looked infinitely more disgusting under the sallow yellow glow. The tiles were stained and the fixtures rusty in a way that even regular maintenance can only stave off for so long. Everything smelled like bleach and humanity. It was an altogether very standardly unpleasant atmosphere - like any men’s room, anywhere, since the dawn of mankind.

Sam steadfastly ignored these unpleasantries, because he didn’t need public-bathroom grossness to help him puke. He was doing that just fine on his own currently, thank you very much, mightily expelling a mix of half-digested alcohol and the cheap local pizza Dean had ordered before they left the motel. The awful sounds of the act were enormous in the echo chamber of the high walls and bare ceiling.

His fingers trembled against the grimy rim of the bowl. The tile was unforgiving and uncomfortable under his knees, but he could feel the coolness of it even through his jeans. For a few dizzying seconds after he finished heaving, he wanted to lie down and press his face to it, just to feel the relief against his - God, Jesus, no! Public bathroom, dude. What is wrong with you?

Sam tried to stand up. It was mostly a success - he did wobble considerably - and he stumbled his way back out of the single stall.

He didn’t feel drunk. Couldn’t be. A couple beers over the course of hours? Child’s play. This was different. Food poisoning, maybe? No, no sir, he’d had that before and that was an entirely different and horrible bathroom experience (and the reason he no longer ordered fish from fast food restaurants).

The tap water was clean even if the taps weren’t. Sam rinsed his mouth out once, then two more times before the taste of bile and booze finally abated. He splashed a few handfuls of water on his face for good measure. The ugly, sweat-drenched creature glaring back at him from the dirty mirror was a total horror-show. Sam wondered when he’d last looked at himself and felt so far-off and unfamiliar. The image of his soulless self came back to him in a sickening flash

Another wave of nausea kicked through him. He gripped at the edges of the sink so hard he felt his knuckles pop.

Breathe. In and out, ignore the smells, it’s fine. You’re fine.

His brain felt like it was going melt out through his ears and stain his collar like so much strawberry milkshake. Sam’s wounds ached and burned. He scratched and scratched for a solid minute before it became too painful to keep it up and patches of red bloomed on the bandages. He’d have to change the dressing again when they got back to the bunker - no, back to the motel. Right. And then he’d be fine.

No, he was fine. Sam steadied himself. Splashed more water on his face. Tried, desperately, to concentrate, hot and damp and headachey as he was. The fuzziness at the edge of his vision refused to fade. He needed to lie down. He needed to sleep. He didn’t want to sleep. He wanted to claw at his horrible skin until the sweat and the heat and the itching just fucking stopped.

Instead, he peeled off the flannel he was wearing. The cool air on his arms was an immediate relief, and the thin tee shirt he was wearing was much more breathable on his torso. With shaking hands he tied the flannel around his waist. Dean would tease him for it, probably call him Gilmore Girl or Dawson’s Creek or something.

A staccato, half-hysterical laugh echoed off of the walls and Sam jerked around to look at who’d made the noise. It took a good ten seconds before he realized it’d been him.

 

He was fine.

 

Wasn’t he?

 

…He was…Where was he?

 

A motel in New Mexico. Right? Plastic orange ashtrays and M*A*S*H* on the TV. Two cowboys on the wall, watching him take a piss. Dean’s thumb against his mouth and the smell of old blood on their skin.

No, these were different cowboys. Bigger. Less American Southwest Casual, more Brokeback Mountain. No Alan Alda, no TV. Gay bar. Right. All the young dudes. People dying. Fire and blood. A whole, poisonous town looking the other way.

Faintly Sam recognized something by Rush playing out in the main bar. Unmistakable synth sounds. What was the name of this song? Dean liked this one but it wasn’t his favorite.

“Dean.”

Living on a lighted stage approaches the unreal, Geddy Lee told him kindly, distantly.

A bullshit, ghoulish stage production where the villains were hard-working folks who loved each other and the heroes threw bricks and burned crosses and groped waitresses. And none of them even knew they auditioned until it was too late. All it took was one bad vibe and bam - there you were. Playing the part you were given whether you wanted to or not.

Cast in this unlikely role, ill-equipped to act, with insufficient tact, said Geddy.

And nobody talked about the bad casting because everyone knew the show was gonna run again next weekend anyway. Zero stars from the critics but you can’t judge art, can you? They’ll just tell you that you don’t get it. What was there to get? It was a terrible show and it deserved to be shut down, but it was a hometown production. Every city was proud of the godawful B-movies filmed in their limits and this was no different.

His reflection was a harlequin-mask imitation of his face and he couldn’t look at it anymore.

All the world’s indeed a stage, and we are merely players; performers and portrayers, Geddy reminded him.

But who wrote the damn play in the first place?

Each another’s audience outside the gilded cage, agreed Geddy wisely.

Rotten. Rotten. Rotten, forever.

They burned down a church. But who knew what burned up with it?

A wave of energy - Panic? Excitement? Dread? Elation? - rippled through him and he had to tell Dean...something. Something important. Sam heard himself making noise again, delirious, slurring.

“Dean...? Geddy...?”

Sam’s knees threatened to buckle. He was burning alive. He felt like he was going to die. He felt nothing, he was invincible. He felt like sobbing and hollering ‘til his throat tore itself to pieces. For one lucid second he saw himself as if from a great distance, small and trembling and trapped in an off-white tile box, and he was terrified.

Dean!”

The things before him became loose colors and shapes and he heard more than felt the thud of his shoulder hitting the wall. Sam Winchester goin’ down, takin’ a dive in the third round. Place your bets, kids, don’t forget to beat your bookie if you lose. Sam was laughing again, high and breathless. His lungs were going to collapse.

Then there were hands on his face, cool and dry and familiar. Big wide pretty green eyes in front of him, haloed nicely by the hazy glow at the edges of his vision. Sam heard his own name again and again and it was so nice , so nice to hear it said with such emotion, and it was all gonna be A-OK.

“It’s all gonna be...Yeah,” he said aloud to the face in front of his, and was saddened to find the face not taking the news very well. He reached out to touch, to comfort, but his own hands were wet and they kept slipping on freckled skin.

“—hell happened? Sammy! Sammy, hey! What’s wrong? Tell me what happened! Look at me. You’re okay, Sammy, it’s okay, I’ve got you, hey—” said that nice, emotional voice, and this time there weren’t even any insults to pad out the emotion so it had to be Sam’s birthday or something, how else could he get so lucky? “Look at— Look at me, Sam, okay? God. It’s okay. I’ve got you.”

Sam was looking, and it was hard but he focused and there he was: Dean, perfectly lovely as always, thank goodness thank gracious thank fuck. It really was all gonna be okay, yessir, you better believe it. Nothing wrong in the world as long as they were both right here.

“I’ve got you,” Sam said reverently. He pulled that pretty face right up to his and gave it another nice big kiss. He missed his target by a hair, caught the corner of Dean’s mouth. A bit of stubble under his lips, sandpapery and fantastic, the smell of beer and generic jasmine soap and detergent under his nose, exquisite. It made Sam feel like singing - so he did. “I got you, babe,” he crooned. Everything was spinning and trying to move away from him. There was another unnatural, helpless noise and it didn’t come from Sam this time

Arms around his middle and when had he stopped holding up his own weight? The floor was closer than it should be. Gross. Bathroom floor. More hands on him now and they were too big, unfamiliar, kind and strong but so different and Sam flinched closer into the embrace he knew.

“Home,” Sam announced to anyone who would listen, and the Good Hands were back on him in an instant, trying to keep his head in one position because his neck wasn’t doing a very good job at it. Something uncomfortable was under his back. Softer than the floor but uneven. Lumpy. Awful. There was the cool shape of Dean against his side and now he wanted to sleep. 

Home, Dean,” he tried again. Tried to turn and press a kiss to the palms searching his sweaty face but now there was only one - where had the other gone? His tongue felt like it weighed eighty pounds. The Other Two Voices kept up their unimportant conversation. Sam closed his eyes.

“Sam? Hey! Sammy! No no no, open your eyes, Baby Boy, it ain’t bedtime yet. You’re okay, you-you’re alright.”

“This is okay,” he mumbled into Dean’s wrist. Licked at the skin there, just to see what it tasted like. He filed the results away for later but wasn’t sure his memory would last much longer. “My brain’s on fire.”

“You’re gonna be fine, kid, your friend’s coming to get you.” Great big unfamiliar voice in Sam’s ears and great big unfamiliar hand on Sam’s forehead. “Lord, he’s really burning up.”

What friend? They didn’t have any friends here. “Dean’s got me. M’gonna sleep.”

“No! Sammy, no, no sleeping, okay? You gotta stay with me - Jesus, man, come on! Pick up, pick up!”

“I can’t pick you up,” laughed Sam, but he figured if he felt better he might try. Oh, well. There’d be time for that later. Now though? Nap time.

Dean’s voice was right in the crook of Sam’s neck but he wasn’t talking to Sam, he was talking to someone else and the last thing Sam heard before everything faded out was the tinny sound of a third (very gruff, very familiar) voice on the far end of a cheap cell phone.

Chapter Text

“I’ll be there momentarily.”

 

- - -

 

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi.

Dean focused on the shape of Sam in his lap; those long limbs all curled in against him like a frightened child against a parent; the grimy way his hair stuck to his scalp and forehead; the delirious cadence of his voice as he rambled and giggled and sang, all the words and expressions wrong, mismatched; the unfocused, helpless way his beautiful brown-green eyes rolled about in his head, wide and bloodshot and glassy. He was so hot. Pouring sweat. Shaking like a leaf.

Six Mississippi. Seven Mississippi.

You could die of a fever if it got too high, couldn’t you? How high was too high? How much higher could Sam’s fever possibly get?

Stop it.

Eleven Mississippi.

Ivan was saying something but Dean wasn’t hearing it. The phone was still tucked between his shoulder and his ear, the call ended. Had Dean managed to actually say anything worthwhile? He couldn’t remember. The message had gotten across.

Sam’s brows were drawn tight and his mouth was pulled into an agonized grimace. Dean was aware of stroking his cheekbone. Was he still trying to tell Sam to stay awake? His lips were moving, he was pretty sure. There were more people in here now, too, all vague and unimportant human-shaped lumps in his periphery.

Fifteen Mississippi.

For an odd second Dean recognized one of them, kind of. Sort of.

“Excuse me. Please, step aside. I’m a medical doctor. Excuse me, sir.”

Just say “doctor”, sighed a small part of Dean’s brain. The rest of it hadn’t quite caught up yet.

There was a hand on his shoulder and bright blue eyes in his vision and Dean finally got with the program.

“Cas.”

Dean was so relieved that he felt like passing out. He wanted to grab the beautiful, life-saving sonuvabitch by the lapels and just plant a big fat kiss right on him, Godfather-style.

Somewhere between that raw appreciative feeling and the filter of Dean’s mouth, things got a little…jumbled, due to stress.

“What the hell took you so long?!” he shouted.

Cas froze, half-kneeling in front of Dean. His brows were knit, his lips parted in a little moue of surprise. His gaze flipped back and forth between Dean’s furious face the crowd around them.

“Wh- you only called, you didn’t pr—“

“Forget it! Come on.” Dean started trying to arrange Sam into a carryable bundle. It was more difficult than it looked. And it looked really difficult. And awkward.

“Let me help,” Dean heard Ivan murmuring. Big, kind hands were working under Sam’s back, trying to take the load off.

“No!” Dean barked.

“No,” agreed Cas. “Thank you, but we can handle it.”

And then it was Cas’s hands snaking over Dean’s thighs, worming under Sam’s weight and lifting him off like it was nothing at all to him - which was, in fact, the case, but the crowd of onlookers didn’t know that.

“Damn,” Dean heard Ivan say. “Some doctor.”

“I work out,” Cas explained flatly.

Dean had to remember to ask him where he’d learned to lie so easily. As if he didn’t know.

Struggling to his feet made his heart race, made him feel dizzy and weak. Adrenaline was a real pain in the ass when you just sat there with it instead of doing the whole fight-or-flight thing. He felt more calm now that Cas was here but the singular focus in his mind remained: something was wrong with Sam. Big-wrong. Real-wrong. Threatening. Dangerous.

Ivan started after them. “Are you gonna be—“

“Come on,” Dean repeated, and it was rude to brush off the kindness but Dean had bigger concerns. He grabbed Cas by the sleeve and steered him out, out into the crowd, past the stunned and worried gawkers, towards the door, completely on autopilot. His other hand reached out and grabbed Sam’s where it rested against his stomach.

“It’s okay, Dean.” Cas’ voice was a faraway, distorted imitation of comfort. “He’ll be okay. It’s okay.”

How many times could he hear that stupid word before it lost all meaning?

 

- - -

 

The streetlights whizzed by in a quick staccato as Cas wove the Impala down the Georgetown backstreets.

“I’m sorry I didn’t answer your first call.”

Cas didn’t need to apologize. Dean should be doing everything in his power to remind Cas how appreciated he was right now. Composing sonnets and penning elaborate thank-you cards. Groveling.

Instead, what he managed was, “Okay.”

There was real regret in Cas’ voice as he persisted. “I didn’t think it was an emergency. You don’t normally just call when something is wrong.”

“Yeah.”

Sam was loose, boneless in Dean’s arms, breathing deep, eyes closed, almost as if he were sleeping. But there was an odd, constant rolling motion that kept him from being entirely still, like he kept trying to shake something off of his shoulders. A low, rattling groan escaped him and the distress in it made Dean’s jaw clench. He’d switched gears from pure panic to a high-buzzing tension that cut his patience down to a fraction of its already-negligible level.

“Why didn’t you pray? I would’ve heard it. I would’ve come to you immediately,” continued Cas.

“And, what, have you poof into existence in the middle of a crowded gay bar bathroom? No.” The thought would’ve been laughable under other circumstances.

“It would’ve been quicker, that’s—”

“Just drive, Cas.”

“We could have just-“

“Don’t argue with me man, I’m not in the mood!” Dean erupted.

Cas didn’t even complain about Dean’s tone.

“I’m sorry,” he repeated. Dean watched his eyes in the rear view mirror. The low light made them unreadable, but Dean could hear the honesty in his voice “I know you’re scared.”

Dean didn’t have the wherewithal to get defensive. Mostly because he was scared.

Sam stirred in Dean’s hold and groaned again, louder. Dean’s panic threatened to return and join the party but Dean was quick to remind it that it wasn’t fucking invited.

“Sam? Hey, I’m here, I’m here.”

The questioning mumble he got in return sort of sounded like his name.

“Yeah, buddy. It’s me. We’re almost home,” Dean whispered. “Hang on.”

“Bunker,” mumbled Sam.

Home. The Bunker. Dean’s heart ached. They had a home of their own now and Sam wanted to be there. They might as well have been worlds away.

Cas blew through a stop sign and Dean was grateful that it wasn’t a red light, at least. No cameras. Less people. Two more blocks. Cas wouldn’t have any trouble navigating to a given address - which was good because the last thing on Dean’s mind was giving directions.

Sam was groaning again. “Mm...my shirt’s wet.”

“You’re sweating.”

They were both sweating, actually. Dean’s face was clammy and sticky. He felt fresh as a daisy compared to Sam.

“I don’t feel good.

“I know.”

“Dean.” Sam’s voice was so small and scared. “I feel sick.”

Dean held him tighter, nose pressed into the scorching flesh at Sam’s hairline. He reeked of perspiration, beer, and something else, something pungent and acrid. Was this stuff contagious? Dean didn’t care. 

“I know, Sammy, I know. It’s okay.”

“My head,” slurred Sam. His lips were wet and trembling against Dean’s neck. “My head hurts.”

“Just hang on,” Dean pleaded, his own mouth so dry he could feel his tongue sticking to his palate. “A little longer.”

They screeched into the motel lot and Dean was unlocking the car door before Cas had even finished parking. It was a crooked curb-blocking shit-job, to be sure, but they’d deal with that in the morning - it wasn’t as though Dean had ever paid a ticket in his life to begin with.

It was a feat to get the key out of his pocket and into the lock while half-balancing Sam’s weight, but Dean managed with shaking, fumbling fingers. He shoved into the room and nearly toppled over, but Cas was there to offer support and they made it through the door. The cheap wood made a weak and altogether unsatisfying slam against the wall. Dean didn’t know it, but that was probably for the best, given the impression they’d already left on their temporary neighbors.

Cas and Dean stumbled forward and deposited Sam with as much care as they could manage onto the nearest mattress. The larger man ragdolled onto his side, his lanky limbs sprawling at awkward angles. He instinctively tried to roll over, and it was like watching a newborn foal try to get its legs underneath itself. Dean wriggled a hand under Sam’s weight, shoving and twisting with as much delicacy as he could manage. Cas joined him and they were able to get Sam on his back.

Dean pushed two pillows under his head to give him a little support. Sam’s hair was wet at the base of his neck; Dean’s hand came away slimy.

How much could a person sweat before they died of dehydration?

Stop it.

He squeezed his hands into fists so tightly that he felt his nails biting crescents into his palms. Cas was here. They were safe in the motel. This was nothing compared to the other shit they’d gone through. They’d been through unimaginable trials and come out swinging. Sam was too strong to go down like this, wasn’t he? The Boy King of Hell, Sam fucking Winchester: Demon Blood Connoisseur, Super-Geek-Genius, Top-Level Hunter, taken down by some grody mystery bug in central Texas? Dean thought the fuck not.

But wouldn’t it just be Dean’s luck, though, to lose Sam like this after literally going through Heaven and Hell just to keep him alive?

All that hard work for nothing. Dad would be so proud. At least this way you’ll never get the chance to ruin things on your own.

Stop it stop it stop it.

There was a little moan and a shadow of motion as Sam’s hands grasped weakly at the sheets beneath him.

“It’s okay,” Dean whispered. It really was losing all meaning. He pressed one hand to Sam’s forehead and the other to his chest. The cloth of Sam’s shirt wasn’t just wet; it was soaked.

“When did he start feeling sick?” Cas asked. He was on Sam’s other side, his hands lightly gripping Sam’s shoulder. The little chain of contact the three of them formed comforted Dean.

“Earlier today, I guess? I don’t know, man, he was…” Dean exhaled sharply. “He said he was fine. All day, he just said he felt fine. He was sweating a lot but he’s always sweaty, you know? And it’s fucking Texas . But once we got to the bar…He started acting loopy, he…”

He kissed me and sang to me and told me I was handsome. He looked at me like I was the only thing that mattered. It was like a dream.

“…I shoulda known something was up. He was off his ass before we even started drinking.”

“I see,” said Cas. His tone was careful. He considered for a moment, then moved up onto the bed next to Sam. He started undoing the flannel around Sam’s waist, and once that was done and set aside, Cas started gently working the hem of Sam’s sweat-soaked tee up and over his stomach.

“Uh- Cas, buddy?” Dean cleared his throat.

“Yes?”

“What-...what are you, uh…”

“It’s not healthy for him to stay in wet clothes, Dean. Can you help me, please?” His tone was clipped and clinical. Sam was making small noises of discomfort as he worked.  Dean could still feel the heat coming off of him in waves.

Didn’t a prolonged high fever do brain damage? What if it was already too late?

Stop! Shut up! Shut the fuck up!

Cas halted and leveled Dean with a sympathetic look. “I understand that you’re feeling pretty…shaken. But if you want me to help Sam, then I need your help. Please.”

Dean nodded. He shoved an arm under Sam’s back and propped him further up against the pillows. Tenderly, slowly, Cas was able to coax his shirt over his head, although Sam grunted painfully whenever they shifted his wounded arm. Sam’s boots, socks, and jeans followed more easily, except for the part where one of his giant feet almost caught Dean in the jaw during all the jostling.

Laid out and mostly-naked, Sam looked even worse for wear. Every part of him was flushed and covered in a fine film of sweat, every muscle trembling minutely. His hair was twisted into sweaty ropes, plastered every which way against his neck and face. Even the thin cloth of his briefs was damp and clinging to the dips and curves of his hips. He wasn’t thin but he looked thin, sickly, small.

“What’s wrong with him, Cas?” Dean asked, and hated the way his voice shook. “I mean, there’s some shit going on in this town, did it get into him?”

Dean’s mind flashed to his own bout with ghost sickness in Colorado some years ago. Sam had been scratching, he’d seemed anxious and distracted and not at all like himself - sure, Sam seemed more loopy than afraid, but who said all the cases were the same? Was is still 48 hours ‘til his clock ran up? When had it really started counting down? Jesus, the last thing they needed on this case was a time limit—

“It’s an infection.”

“What?”

“An infection,” repeated Cas. His hands were on Sam’s face - turning his head this way and that, gently pulling his eyelids open, pressing tenderly at the pulse points under his jaw.

“Oh, shit. Oh, fuck me. It’s ghost sickness.”

“No.”

Thank goodness for that, but— “Then it’s super-herpes?”

“That does not exist, Dean. This is something else.”

“Like what, Cas?” Dean’s voice caught in his throat. How long could his heart keeping hammering in his chest before it gave out? They were both going to bite it at this rate. Cas could take care of the funeral arrangements. Peace at last.

Cas’ eyes remained on Sam’s face but one hand crept searchingly down the length of Sam’s right arm. Brows knit, Cas ran his fingers over the bloodied bandages. Dean heard Sam cry out, and it took everything in him not to shove Cas out of the way to get to Sam, to hush and soothe him.

“What happened here?” Cas asked, his voice low.

Dean started babbling. “We got…there was a case a few days ago in Nevada, we thought it was something else at first but it was, um, it was Chupacabras, and I mean, like, lots of ‘em and they- they got the drop on us and I- we handled it, but—“

“Shorter version, please.”

“One of ‘em scratched him.”

Cas sighed, then murmured something that sounded like an apology. Dean didn’t get a chance to ask him to repeat it before Cas began undoing the gauze.

The way Sam shouted and cried out, God, it made Dean want to crawl out of his skin.

“I’m sorry, Sam, I’m sorry,” Cas was saying, over and over, his tone calm as Sam began thrashing and bucking. “Dean.”

Dean didn’t move.

“Dean!” Cas repeated, finally jolting him. “I need your help.”

Dean, once again operating on instinct, got his ass in gear.

“Just help me keep him still, please,” Cas instructed. He was still trying to unwind the rest of the bandages from Sam’s arm, but Sam was pouring every ounce of his remaining strength into trying to wrench out of Cas’s grip. Sam’s long legs kicked, the motions uncoordinated and frantic. His face was a picture of agony.

“T-uh...top or bottom?” A part of Dean hollered laugh! The rest of him couldn’t be bothered.

“Bottom.” Cas swung up and over so that he was straddling Sam’s bare middle.

Dean put his weight on Sam’s legs. He narrowly avoided two more kicks to the face and one kick to the ribs, but he managed to wrangle the beast into some kind of submission.

Cas had managed to pin Sam’s uninjured arm against his side with his leg. Sam’s energy had also started to deplete pretty quickly; between that and the combined weight of two full-grown men, he was slowing back down.

“Shhhh, Sam,” Dean heard Cas whisper as he finished unwinding the bandage. “Shhh.”

There was the sudden smell of something high, thick and sickly-sweet, like old meat and rotting plant matter. Dean’s nose wrinkled and his stomach churned - that smell was coming from Sam’s wounds, he realized. He swallowed against the taste of acid in his throat. Now was not the time for weak-bitchedness.

But, God.

“Oh,” sighed Castiel, and there was worry in his voice. He had Sam by the wrist and elbow, turning his forearm this way and that to get a look at it.

Dean got a look at it too, and had to fight down the urge to vomit again. The cuts, red and angry and wet, were rimmed with jagged greyish scabs that greatly resembled—

“A-are those scales? Oh, Jesus,” Dean moaned, dizzy and ill. He squeezed his eyes shut. He was going to puke. 99% chance of a downpour on the forecast. Get your raincoats. “Sammy, you said you weren’t gonna go Gremlins on me…”

“I can heal it,” Cas assured him quickly. “I can, it’s alright. It’s alright, Dean.”

Dean’s eyes flew back open. “So do it!”

Cas looked over his shoulder. His blue eyes were hard and humorless.

“What do you think I’m trying to do?” he spat. “This is not as easy as you think it is. I just make it look that way.”

Dean wilted under that gaze. Sam twisted weakly underneath Cas again, the motions muted by Cas’ coat. The meek sounds of whimpering and groaning punctuated the quiet of the room. Dean sucked in a few deep lungfuls of air and collected himself.

“Sorry, sorry,” said Dean. “I’m just…I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. This is…going to take some time,” Cas sighed. “And energy.”

“What?” Dean was confused. “You fix us up all the time. Like- like it’s nothing. Just—“ Dean snapped his fingers. “ Bam, hallelujah, squeaky-clean. Not a scratch.”

Cas cradled Sam’s arm against his chest, seemingly unperturbed by the wound smearing god-knows-what against his shirt and tie. Sam’s fingers were curled into a loose fist that Cas drew delicately to his cheek.

“It’s different. An injury is a single thing. It’s rebuilding parts. An infection…” He turned back away from Dean. When he spoke again his voice was a distracted murmur. “This is every part of him, Dean. Everywhere. And it’s bad. This is not rebuilding, it’s…extracting. Cleansing. Just give me time, please.”

“Okay, Cas,” Dean acquiesced. Fear tried to work its way back into his better senses yet again. He squashed it down. ”What can I do? To help?”

“Just stay,” Cas whispered, more a request than a command this time. The gentle glow of something warm and otherworldly seem to surround them from everywhere and nowhere all at once, a low blue-white pulse that both was and wasn’t. There was a vague warmth under Dean’s skin that had nothing to do with the heat outside or from Sam.

Castiel was silent. Sam was silent. Dean waited.

 

- - -

 

The clock on the table said half an hour had passed. It felt like an eternity, but Dean knew that was pretty par for the course during times of extreme duress. And if almost losing your last living family member to a weird goatsucker fever didn’t count as “extreme duress,” nothing did.

Since Sam had stopped struggling - or indeed, moving at all - Dean hadn’t needed to play leg-wrangler for too long. He’d taken a seat at the edge of the mattress, one hand laid loosely on Sam’s leg just for the sake of keeping contact with him. Sam lay placidly under Cas, the latter perfectly still and completely quiet, his head bowed as if in prayer.

The passage of time was made all the more incremental due in part to the silence. Dean didn’t dare move away, just in case - but he found himself wishing for any kind of distraction. Television, music, something. Anything to take his mind off of the night’s stresses. It was an odd thing, to feel so bored and so worried all at once.

The clock read 1:08 A.M. when Dean finally spoke up.

“Cas?”

The other man didn’t turn or really stir at all, but made a quiet little humming noise.

“How you holding up, buddy?”

“Hm.”

“How’s Sammy?”

“Mm.”

“You havin’ fun up there?”

“Hmm.”

Dean sighed and drummed his fingers against Sam’s thigh. He thought that maybe the temperature there had dropped some. He hoped it wasn’t just wishful thinking.

“I owe you one, man,” Dean said. If he was going to talk to a wall he might as well abuse the privilege. “I mean, I owe you, like, a few thousand, and not just for this. But this is way up there in the rankings of favors you’ve done me. I’ll do whatever you need after this. Shine your shoes. Chauffeur you around. Buy you dinner. Back rubs. Foot rubs, even.”

“Very kind of you to offer,” came the mumbling reply, and Dean jumped a bit. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Hey, there he is,” Dean chuckled. It was unbelievably comforting to hear another voice. “Wondered if you were just gonna keep zoning out.”

“This is difficult work. And I’m still getting the hang of doing it again after…everything.”

“Everything” meaning, Dean assumed, being thrust into humanity, cobbling together pilfered graces, and suffering essential servitude in quick succession over a very short time. And Cas was still willing to put his all into helping out his two squishy idiot human pals. Dean suddenly felt ashamed of himself. All this mess over a stupid cut on Sam’s stupid arm that they’d both been too stupid to fix up properly.

“Don’t do that,” Cas said.

“Do what?” Dean asked, blinking.

“Berate yourself for asking favors.”

Dean bristled slightly. “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?” Cas echoed, and if Dean wasn’t mistaken, there was the sound of a smile in his voice.

“Read my mind, you ass.”

“Then stop wallowing so loudly.” For the first time since he’d begun, Cas turned his head, glancing over his shoulder again, and he was smiling - a tired, lopsided smile that looked wholly out of place on him.

“Huh,” said Dean. “You feelin’ alright?”

“I feel fine,” Cas assured him. “But, like I said, this isn’t easy. Sometimes it gets…” His head lolled on his shoulders a bit. “Tiring.”

Deciding that there was no reason to stay strictly at leg-level anymore, Dean scooted up the bed a little further. He settled next to Cas, who still had one hand on Sam’s forehead but had let the arm he’d been holding slip down to lay across Sam’s chest. The weeping cuts on Sam’s arm had been reduced to a trio of scratches, though there were a handful of those terrible grey patches here and there.

But Sam, oh, Sammy, he looked like himself again. Dirty, sure, and greasy, but peaceful, human, healthy.

“Sam,” he breathed, and shit, his eyes were stinging, his throat felt tight, but he didn’t care. He reached out and ran his hand over the side of Sam’s face. The curve of his cheek and jaw were rough with stubble under Dean’s palm - neither of them had shaved in almost a week, he realized. He didn’t care about that, either; instead he drank in the feeling of skin and hair under his touch, let the reality of it ground him.

He remembered that there was a super-powered holy dialysis machine straddling his brother’s hips, and jerked his hand away.

”Uh.”

“It’s alright,” Cas said. “I don’t mind you being here. Sam wouldn’t, either. You know that.”

“Sure,” muttered Dean. All at once he was very aware of himself and his role in this whole debacle. “Like I’m not the idiot who let him get sliced up in the first place.”

“What did I just say about wallowing?”

“Right. Sorry.”

Cas chuckled. “It’s alright.” There was something increasingly loose about Cas’ voice and demeanor. His head tipped back and his lips parted on a sigh. “Accidents happen. It would’ve been worse if you hadn’t been there. You aren’t responsible for everything that happens to other people.”

“That’s bullshit. I’m responsible for Sam. It’s my fault he got fucked up.”

Cas exhaled. “You don’t give him enough credit. He’s an adult. He’s perfectly capable of fucking himself up, you know.”

Dean laughed, surprised. “Holy crap. Who taught you how to talk like that, mister?”

“I learned from the best.”

The two of them sat in comfortable silence. At one point, Cas shifted, rolled his hips in a fluid motion to get more comfortable. The hand on Sam’s forehead slid down over his face, his neck, and to his collarbone. Dean was very grateful that exhaustion had pretty much overtaken all other physical drives. He had neither the time nor the energy to assess why the sight filled him with heat, intrigue, and a strange emotion that felt sort of like jealousy, but not.

He focused instead on more pressing matters. “What was in those cuts, Cas? Can you tell?”

“Bacteria.”

“That’s it?” Dean asked, disbelieving. “That’s what’s got him walkin’ the dinosaur?”

“I...still don’t understand that one,” admitted Cas. “But, in a word, yes. Aggressive, rare bacteria specific to the West American Chupacabra. Didn’t you read up before you went headfirst into a nest full of them?”

“Well, no,” Dean said, haltingly. “But, like I said, we didn’t even know it was Chupacabras at first.”

“And afterward? You didn’t treat it properly?”

”He cleaned it! Like, three times!”

”The proper remedy for this is a mixture of nopales, pepper, blue-tongued skink urine, hatchweed, vulture sp—“

“We didn't know!” Dean protested, guilty and angry. “There’s not a lot of lore on it!”

“There’s some lore, Dean,” Cas sighed. “Chupacabra aren’t exactly new creatures.”

“...A lot of it was in Spanish.”

“Computers can translate things these days, can’t they? And I can do that for you, too. Why didn’t you—”

“I get it, man, we fucked up!” Dean nearly shouted. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes ‘til sparks flared in his vision. “We were so tired—...Sammy an’ me, we just…I’ve been running us ragged and we fucked up. I fucked up.”

The warm, gentle pressure of Cas’ hand on his shoulder pulled his attention back.

“Accidents happen,” Cas repeated. He sounded so tired, so kind. “Dean, why are you running yourselves ragged? It’s dangerous.”

Dean sighed. “I don’t know. It’s…I feel like if we rest that’s worse, you know? This is the first time in years there hasn’t been major, crazy, world-ending, capital-D-Doom on the horizon and I…”

“You don’t know how to relax?”

“It’s not just that,” Dean admitted, although if anyone asked him later he’d never be able to say why. “Relaxing means taking time, and time means thinking, and I just—...I can’t.”

“Can’t what?”

Dean stared at the wrinkles in the pillowcase next to Sam’s head. “Can’t think.”

Cas regarded him curiously. “Why not?”

“It’ll kill me.”

The soft sound of Sam’s breathing filled the space between them. His eyelids fluttered, almost as if to open, but he didn’t wake. His lips parted on a silent sigh and Dean saw the split in his lower lip had reopened. The urge to feel it against his mouth, his tongue, overwhelmed him. He thought back to an hour ago and the memory of Sam’s clumsy, fever-addled kisses made him happy and sick in equal, dizzying portions. He could hear Sam’s voice from yesterday, lucid and genuine.

I’m happy. Are you? 

Hell no. Not even close.

He’d gone wrong in the head somewhere along the way, gotten perverted and twisted up, and it was his own goddamn fault that he was miserable.

Miserable, always, because he wanted.

He wanted Sam - so badly that he couldn’t fucking bear it, sometimes. Big beautiful goofy bastard with a heart of solid fucking gold, who knew Dean better than anyone else on the planet and still decided to stick around. The lifetime of closeness they shared only made that desire stronger, as screwed-up as it was, and made Dean near-desperate to be even closer to him, to take that closeness and wrap it even further around himself, to show Sam how important and loved and special he was because Dean had wasted so much time not even telling him.

So of course Dean tried not to think. Thinking meant looking at those feelings for what they were, and he wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t stand to. Because he’d fuck up and then Sam would know, and Sam would hate him and Sam would leave, and Dean’s life would be over.

”Dean…”

The hand on Dean’s shoulder squeezed and he was suddenly, terrifyingly aware of Cas’ presence - not just out here, in the physical world, but inside, like curious fingers carding though his mind. As if in slow motion he met the angel’s eyes and the look of pure, unbridled emotion - Sympathy? Pity? But no revulsion, no disdain, somehow - made him want to jump up and run.

Stay out, Dean thought as loudly as he could. His gut twisted into breathless knots. Don’t you dare.

Cas spared him one more excruciating second of that too-knowing gaze - then closed his eyes and winced.

Dean started forward.  “What’s up? What happened?”

“...Nothing,” Cas said, and already his face had settled back into its previous smiling serenity. When he spoke again he sounded near-drunk. “It’s nothing.”

“Are you gonna be okay after this?”

“I will need to rest.”

“You don’t normally rest. Ever.”

“I don’t normally use so much of my grace.”

“Cas,” Dean began. “I know you’re not around just to play mobile trauma center for us, I don’t want you to think—“

“Please, Dean,” Cas said. “I’m glad you called me. I want to be there for you. I would do this for you both whenever you needed it, as many times as you needed it. In case you’ve forgotten, I owe you a few thousand, too.”

“Sure,” Dean murmured. “Thanks.”

“I mean it,” Cas stressed, and the sweet smile on his face looked so strange. His eyes were fighting to stay open. “You and Sam, you’re so- so important to me, and to the whole world, and…”

“Cas,” Dean interrupted. “Shut up. Okay, buddy?”

There was hurt in Cas’ eyes, and Dean regretted his tone.

“Look, it's not…we… appreciate you too, okay? Hell, you’re my best friend. I don’t think that’s a State Secret or anything at this point. I can’t- I just can’t do too much more of the ‘feelings’ thing tonight, alright? I spent all my emotion tokens on pants-shitting terror and panic. Once this is done? I’m tapped for the next twenty-four hours. Maybe for a few weeks. A month, even.”

“I understand,” Cas sighed. The smile crept back across his face. His eyes slid shut again. “You’re good men. Both of you.”

Dean rolled his eyes and scoffed, but then Cas' hand was on his shoulder again with a quick squeeze. “Very good men, Dean. Whether you want to believe it or not.”

And then, without further ado, he clambered off of Sam to stand up.

“Is-...is that it? Cas? Are you done?”

Cas didn’t move, just stood swaying for several seconds. The look on his face was so gentle, the lines softened and any trace of his perma-scowl conspicuously absent. His shoulders sloped, his coat shifting minutely about him - he might have been asleep on his feet.

Dean reached out a careful hand to tap him on the shoulder.

“Cas…? Is he okay?”

Cas cracked open one blue eye. He grinned, and then the scruffy fucker straight-up gave Dean dual finger guns.

“You bet he is.”

And then he collapsed backwards onto Dean’s mattress with an unimpressive thwump.

Chapter Text


The clock read 2:16 A.M. The low red glow was the only light left on in the room.

Cas was still sprawled out crossways on Dean’s bed, head tipped back over the edge of the mattress. He’d have a hell of a crick in his neck come morning - or would he? Who knew?

The pipes in the bathroom gurgled every four minutes like clockwork. The window panes rattled as a car drove past outside. Someone in an adjacent room had left their television on an infomercial and the sounds of Billy Mays’ shouting drifted through the thin walls.

Dean lay quietly on the thin stretch of bed next to Sam, staring up at nothing. The younger Winchester hadn’t moved an inch - arms and legs laid out straight, face impassive, still as a stone. Not even snoring. Save for the gentle, regular swell of his breathing, he might’ve been a statue or a CPR dummy (or a corpse, but Dean’s mind slipped off the word like oil on pavement). There was a bottle of water and a bottle of aspirin close at hand, too, and the little garbage can from the bathroom rested at the bedside in the event that Sam felt like yakking up whatever was left in his gut when he woke.

The whole miniature scene was, to Dean, sort of an echo.

He saw himself at bedside after bedside, just like this: threadbare, dirty carpet underfoot, weight sinking into dozens of cheap mattresses, makeshift medical supplies close at hand. The phantom smells of camphor and ginger ale and canned soups flooded his senses.

For a moment he was suddenly a child of maybe eight, or nine, or eleven, twelve, fourteen - who even knew anymore? The song remained the same. Sam was there, smaller, softer: bundled up in thin ugly blankets; coughing and sneezing on him, making sure Dean got a healthy dose of whatever funk he was carrying; sometimes crying (though he’d never admit it); sometimes simply dozing away in his little cocoon, just a gross sleepy pile of germs. Weak scratchy frog-croak voice asking Dean for more saltines or for a book or to change the channel. Dean remembered holding his chubby little hand and watching He-Man or Wheel of Fortune ‘til Dad came home. Whenever Dad came home. If Dad came home. It was always a crapshoot.

So many years. So many tiny differences. No He-Man. No saltines. No sniffling and coughing - just this awful quietude. Sam’s hand was long-fingered, hard and rough in Dean’s loose grip. He ran this thumb back and forth over the scars and little cuts criss-crossing Sam’s knuckles, memorizing every dip and curve. The skin was warm but a far cry from the sweltering heat of a few hours ago.

Watch out for Sammy. Take care of the kid, no matter what. Most precious thing in the world. Used to drive him nuts, make him out of his mind with jealousy sometimes. Trapped and stir-crazy even if he’d never say so. But Dean was a dutiful son, and those were the orders.

No. It had started as orders. Here, under the quiet of an uneasy Georgetown night, it was a fierce, unwavering desire. To care. To protect. No more jealousy. Not a trap or a chore. Nobody had to tell him to do it. He’d been doing it of his own volition for years now.

And even after all that, after a lifetime of duty-come-desire, Sam had almost died. Again. For the fuckin’ 87th time or something. And you’d think, by this point, it’d be a fixture. That it would barely phase Dean. Happened at least twice a season, it seemed (twice last fall, twice in the winter if you included him almost impaling himself on an errant icicle, and three times this past spring. Almost four. It had been a tough spring).

It never got easier. Especially lately. Dean was so tired. Tired of dwelling, tired of wondering, tired of being just this side of where he wanted to be.

Sam’s hand in his hand, loose and comfortable. Sam’s weight beside him. And, before, Sam’s weight on him, Sam’s lips against his, Sam’s sweat on his skin. There was a distant alternate reality where all those things were there, but different. Better. There was another Dean out there getting ready to curl up against another Sam, not for the first time, or even the second or third, but the same way they’d done every night for years. Not out of fear and worry and limited space, but out of shared desire. A Sam and a Dean who fell on each other to kiss, to touch, to sigh and gasp and fuck and love and heal that way. Another Sam and another Dean who might’ve had different ideas and circumstances. Freedom.

Why not us? Why not? Don’t I deserve to be happy? Wouldn’t it be nice? Wouldn’t it be so fucking nice?

But this wasn’t the kind of world where that Sam and that Dean belonged.

The earlier chat with Cas drifted back to mind. Dean had been right to say thinking too much might kill him. He felt like his chest might cave in.

The window panes rattled again. Dean shut his eyes. He should get some sleep. He should shower first - he’d stripped down to his underwear to get out of most of the sweat-grime but he still felt gross. He needed to eat, too. There was some leftover pizza, but he wasn’t hungry, which was perhaps the greatest indicator of how much the recent shitstorm had really taken out of him.

The night stretched on all around them. The infomercials faded out. Something chirped and skittered outside.

Dean kept waiting.

 

- - -

 

Sam’s fingers twitched. Turned. Squeezed.

Dean’s every nerve tried to jump about an inch forward simultaneously.

“Mmngh. Geddy? Dean?”

His heart got even more ambitious and tried to hop right out through his ribs. He was up on his elbows in a second, one hand still gripping Sam’s and the other finding the curve of his neck.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s me, I’m right here.” Dean’s voice was a hoarse whisper in the dark. “I’m here, Sammy. Fuck.”

Sam’s eyes fluttered open. In the hale light from the lot lamps outdoors, they seemed shiny and too-dark, the pupils taking up too much of the iris

“Dean,” Sam sighed again, so sweet and quiet. “Hi.”

Relief rushed through Dean so fast he went weak with it. He scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand. Sam was saying something else but it was so jumbled and incoherent that for a sharp moment Dean started to worry again. But Sam’s temperature was good, and his movements were more coordinated than they’d been previously - if still a bit sluggish.

“What? What’s up?”

“Gotta talk to ‘im,” Sam muttered.

“Gotta talk to who?”

“The guy, the big guy—“

“Ivan?” Dean suggested.

“No, the other one.”

“What other one?”

”Mustache. Cowboy.”

”Sam, you’re not making any goddamn—“

Sam mumbled again and started struggling to sit up. Dean was quick urge him back down.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’re not goin’ anywhere ‘til at least morning, buddy,” Dean ordered. “What’s wrong?”

“The real…the relation, the, um, the underlying, the theme? The theme .”

“Hang on. Are you quoting Limelight at me right now?”

“Performers and portrayers, Dean.”

Huh. Okay. Alright. Wait, Sam had woken up talking about Geddy Lee, hadn’t he? Was a temporary fixation with Canadian prog-rock like, a side effect of the grace or something?

The thought clicked into place. Sam wasn’t still sick. He was just tripping balls on angel mojo.

It was enough to make Dean stifle a snorting little laugh. Of course having that much holy power pumped into your veins would make a guy feel pretty good - or, in Sam’s case, kinda fuckin’ loopy. 80’s synth-rock loopy. Though Dean wasn’t 100% sure where the cowboy thing was coming from. Did Rush have a song about cowboys? Did Tom Sawyer count?

Sam’s hands were on his arms, sliding clumsily over his skin, trying to climb back up using Dean as leverage. But he was off-balance, too heavy and too uncoordinated. He only succeeded in dragging Dean down over him. This seemed to change Sam’s goal seamlessly from “must get up” to “keep Dean down,” since he wrapped both arms around Dean and squeezed him against his chest in a big, loving bear-hug. Which was not only really inconvenient for Dean, who was trying to take care of the guy, but also really inconvenient for Dean’s nerves and heart, which had had just about all the emotional whiplash they could handle for one evening, thanks.

Sam was murmuring something else about glittering prizes and endless compromises and it wasn’t even the same song anymore. But it was a whole lot of hot wet breath in Dean’s ear.

“Listen, listen,” Sam exhaled heavily. “You have to listen.”

“Okay, Sam, okay.” Dean struggled in Sam’s surprisingly strong hold. To be fair, exhaustion was doing his own strength no favors. “I’m listening, dude, really. What is it?”

“It’s a stage play.”

“A what?”

“It’s a play,” Sam huffed, as if he was explaining something to an idiot. Dean was miffed. Like Sam had any room to talk.

What’s a play, nutcase?”

“The whole thing, Dean, it’s like a big...and they cast ‘em, the people, and they, then they, it’s-it’s like a tradition, like they have to, and then the people don’t know they’re in it, but they just keep on doing it but do it all and it’s bad but they think they have to, th-they, they—“

“Dude, you gotta relax,” Dean grunted. He finally pulled himself up and onto his knees beside Sam so he could grab and open the water bottle. “Here.”

Sam turned his head away as Dean held the bottle to his lips. “No, no, you have to—“

“Sammy,” Dean soothed him. “I’m listening, I’ll listen to whatever you need, just—“ He threaded a hand through Sam’s hair and coaxed him forward. “C’mon, man, just work with me on this, okay? Down the hatch.”

That seemed to stall him a bit and he stopped babbling for a moment. His mouth dropped open and he let Dean pour a few sips worth. It… mostly worked. Only about a third of it ran down Sam’s chin and chest. Dean patiently swiped at it with a corner of the ruined duvet.

Sam immediately picked up his tirade. “The thing, the movie, the videotape, it’s—“

“Nope. Not yet. Open back up,” Dean cut in. 

Sam groaned in frustration but allowed it.

Tip, pour, swipe. Dean repeated the process a few times. The whole thing managed to clean at least a little of the grime off of Sam’s face and torso, which was a pleasant side-effect. Also, he looked fuckin’ hilarious, which was Dean’s favorite part.

“Anyway, it sucks,” muttered Sam. “The thing. What was it? It’s important. It sucks.” Apparently he’d lost most of his previous train of thought.

You suck.” Dean set the bottle aside. He started tugging at the sweat-soaked duvet with the intent to discard it. “Lift your butt.”

You’re a butt,” murmured Sam, but complied regardless.

“Your face is a butt,” Dean informed him politely. “Now scoot.”

Sam scooted, albeit pretty slowly and not that far. It was a little more room than before, though. Small victories. Dean settled back down beside him. At some point during the jostling Sam had rolled over onto his side. A long, tangled lock of hair flipped down over his eyes and he didn’t bother to move it. Dean did it for him. 

“How you feelin’?” Dean asked kindly.

“Mm. Good? My head feels kinda fuzzy,” Sam mumbled. “Yeah. Just—yeah. Cottony. Cotton-brain.”

“You’re stoned,” Dean informed him with a grin.

“I’m what?”

“Stoned.” Dean spun the lock of hair idly between his thumb and forefinger.

“Wh- Buh...But, I don’t smoke,” Sam protested, confused. “I don’t like it.”

“I remember.” Dean had let Sam hit a joint when the kid was twelve and he’d hacked so bad he’d almost puked.

The low rumble of an engine reverberated through the parking lot. A pair of headlights flipped on. The glow stretched into long yellow stripes across ceiling and into the dark corners of the room. Almost as abruptly, they slipped away.

“Hey,” Sam mumbled.

”What’s up?” Dean asked.

“Who’s that?”

“I don’t know,” Dean replied. “Someone who just got done with an affair or somethin’, probably. Who else leaves a motel at three in the morning except for scumbags and hunters?” Arguably, the two had some overlap.

“No, that.” Sam raised an arm and pointed over Dean’s shoulder at the other bed. “Who’s that?”

“Oh. It’s Cas.”

“Oh, shit, really?” Sam asked. He gave a clumsy wave with his raised arm. “Hey, Castiel.”

“He can’t hear you, Cheech, he’s out cold.”

“Oh.” Sam let his arm drop and come to rest around Dean. “Is he okay?”

“Ah, he’ll be ship-shape by morning. He just used too much of his grace juicing you up, so he’s takin’ a little nap.”

Juicing?”

”Yeah. That’s why you’re tripping the light fantastic over here. Got holy medicine all up in ya.”

”Why? What happened?” Sam’s brows knit and the corners of his mouth pulled into a frown. He looked down at himself to check for damage. “Dean, am I okay?”

The question was so low and worried compared to the distracted tone of Sam’s previous chattering. Dean’s heart gave a little twist. He cupped a hand against Sam’s cheek.

“Yeah. You’re okay now.” The rasp of stubble under Dean’s palm brought images of Sam’s head lolling in his lap to mind. “But earlier, you were...real sick.”

”I drank too much,” Sam sighed. “Damn.”

“Not this time,” Dean corrected him. “You think I’d call Cas in to fix a case of the blackouts? Hell no.”

”Then what was it?”

Dean nodded towards Sam’s previously-injured arm. “Chupacabra funk. Got in your brain and blood and stuff.”

“Oh. Was it bad?”

“You grew scales.”

“Pffft.” Sam rolled his eyes.

“I’m serious,” Dean laughed, but it was forced. More flashes from the scene in the bathroom swam behind Dean’s eyes. It felt like years and minutes ago all at once. “It was…bad, Sammy. You had a crazy fever and you…”

You— what? Were gonna die? Would have absolutely died if we didn’t literally have a heavenly Deus Ex Machina on-call? And it could’ve been avoided entirely if we’d bothered to learn more than sixth-grade Spanish, or just not been so tired that we couldn’t think right? Can you believe that shit?

Dean stumbled. What was the use in lying? Play it off or not, it had already happened. It could’ve gone more sideways than it did, but it went awful goddamn sideways to begin with anyway.

“Hey. What’s wrong with your face?” Sam’s sleepy voice drifted into his thoughts. One long finger prodded at his cheek.

“What’s wrong with your face?” Dean grumbled petulantly.

“You’re surly. Tell me why.”

Dean chewed at the inside of his cheek. “Just…You might not have made it, Sam, all because of a stupid little infection. Just like that. And I got us into the dumb goatsucker mess when we were already ready to drop, and I should’ve known better. What if we didn’t have Cas? What if I couldn’t reach him? You could’ve—“

Long fingers curled against Dean’s bicep. “S’okay, Dean—”

“No, Sam, it’s not okay,” he huffed, louder than he meant to. Call it exhaustion or guilt or some combination of the two, but Dean was keyed-up and kept going. “I know you can take care of yourself, Sam, but I...I wanna take care of you, too. I coulda lost you again and it would’ve been my own stupid fuckin’ fault.”

Sam squeezed his arm again. “But I’m not lost. I’m here.” His eyes were lidded and soft, soft like they always were. Almost like he was himself again. “You do take care of me. Good care. So I’m always gonna be here, Dean. Always.”

“Me too, Sammy.” Dean said quietly. He scratched at the fuzz on Sam’s chin. “Always.”

Sam’s big mouth stretched into an even bigger yawn. His eyes slipped shut under Dean’s petting and he sighed contentedly.

“Get some sleep,” said Dean.

“Stay,” Sam mumbled. “Please.”

“Alright,” Dean replied, and he’d planned to anyway - there was very little real estate on the other bed with Cas all odd-ways and comatose over it - but the fact that Sam had requested it still made Dean’s stomach do an impressive little kick-flip.

Dean tugged the sheets up over their hips and settled in. Sam’s arm slipped into the dip at his waist. It felt natural. It felt right.

“G’night, Sam.”

“Night, Dean. Love you.”

“I know.”

“No, Han Solo,” came the slurring response. “Say the thing.”

Dean grinned into the pillowcase. What was the harm, just once in a while?

“Love you, Sam. I really, really do.”

”Sap.”

”Bitch.”

”Jerk.

The pipes gurgled. The clock read 3:24 A.M. The night resumed its steady march toward dawn and Dean thought it was awfully lucky, in the grand scheme of things, that they’d managed to sort out all of their excitement for the past twenty-four hours before dawn even hit.

He was wrong, of course.

He was wrong about a lot of things, lately.

 

- - -

 

4:06 A.M. The first fingers of light hadn’t yet made their way over the horizon, but the morning, as it was, had started anyway. Saturday or no, the world spun on for most of the rural communities around these parts. Picking stones and pulling teats was a hard life, to be sure - but for plenty of folks, it was the only viable option.

A sharp sound bounced around the courtyard like a gunshot.

Dean snapped awake, surprised for a few tense seconds before he realized it had been a truck backfiring.

He let out the breath he’d been holding. Felt breath gust right back on his face. Sam.

Sam was close to him, closer than he’d been when Dean had dozed off not half an hour ago. One long arm coiled over Dean’s side and up ‘round his back, palm against his right shoulder. Other arm was shoved underneath Dean’s head, trapping the hand that Dean had jammed under his own pillow. Dean’s other hand stayed stuck in the remaining space between their chests.

Dean’s vision hadn’t quite adjusted yet, but he could just tell that Sam’s eyes were open. Barely. Very barely. Dean wondered whether he was awake or if that was just one of the weird things he did. Some people slept with their eyes open, right? Did Sam? Wasn’t like he watched Sam sleep. That’d be creepy. And Dean would admit he was a creep, sure, but not that much of a creep.

“Sam,” Dean whispered. “Hey.”

No response. Dean tapped a finger in the middle of Sam’s chest.

“Sammy. You up? Give a guy some room.”

Sam uttered a low, sleepy noise in his throat and shifted. Forward. Closer still.

“Wrong way, numbnuts,” Dean exhaled. He rolled his eyes, then closed them. Worse things to have than a snuggle, he supposed; Dean got to satisfy a little of that everlasting itch and Sam got a good night’s sleep. Win-win.

Dean felt Sam’s nose brush his, and he flinched minutely.

Alright. Okay. Maybe a little distance would be worth some struggle.

Dean considered his options. Sam needed to sleep. Dean needed to sleep, too, but at least he hadn’t almost perished mere hours before. Maybe if Dean was very careful, he—

Once again the tip of Sam’s nose brushed against Dean’s, then bumped along the side of the bridge, then against Dean’s cheek. Warm little puffs of breath ghosted through the stubble on Dean’s chin.

Okay. Alright. Distance, pronto.

Sam’s lips brushed over Dean’s. It was dry and quick. The barest suggestion of touch. Almost no pressure. Not a kiss. An accident. Just an accident.

Dean inhaled as slowly as he could. Exhaled more slowly than that. Did it again. Again. Relax. Just relax. His body was half-trying to cooperate but his heart was still kicking up against his ribs.

The window panes rattled again. There was the rhythmic sensation of someone’s cheap sound system, the bass cranked far too high to be healthy, from somewhere outside.

Sam hadn't moved. His nose was a soft point against the fading sunburn on Dean’s cheek. When he breathed Dean felt the tiny motion it made in his jaw and his lower lip, a hair’s breadth away from Dean’s. And it was okay, it really was, because accidents happened all the time and Dean refused to let his desperate brain go too ape-wild with its hopes and fantasies at four in the morning after at least one personal crisis.

Dean’s breathing had only just started to even out when Sam made another little sound. Distressed. A nightmare, maybe. That would explain a few things. Dean could feel the sound almost as much as he could hear it, the same way he felt the music from the cars on the street.

Distance, his mind reminded him in glaring neon bar-sign letters, immediately.

”Please,” Sam whispered. 

Dean opened his mouth to say something, to wake him, to try and comfort him, when Sam pressed his lips against Dean’s again - this time with undeniable purpose.

Dean went stock-still.

Pressure. No accident. A kiss.

Dean’s head swam as he wondered what the hell had happened. A fluke, still an accident, somehow. A wet dream gone awry and Dean was in the danger zone. 

Sam let out a low, soft groan that sent electricity running down Dean’s spine, and his lips were back on Dean’s again, even more insistent. The hand on Dean’s shoulder blade flattened and pressed to keep him in place - as if Dean could’ve moved to begin with. Like his shit brain and fuck-off body would’ve cooperated at all.

Crazily, Dean thought that this must be his wet dream, or maybe a fever-dream instead; he’d been infected with whatever got into Sam, and the sickness was all set to burn his brain to ashes and turn him into a mindless monster. Or this was Hell. Yes, of course, it was so obvious, he was back in the pit and they’d figured out a brand-spanking-shiny-new way to torture him.

Sam’s mouth rested against his. Neither of them moved. Sam’s breath was hot inside the dropped-open, stunned moue of Dean’s mouth.

It wasn’t real. Dean would close his eyes and take a few deep breaths and this would be the same crapsack world it had always been. The one where he fought tooth and nail to get what he had and couldn’t even manage to keep that, sometimes. This was nothing of substance. Right?

Right. So—

Sam’s tongue slipped over the half-open seam of Dean's mouth, hot and wet. Sam suckled messily at his lower lip. An errant tooth caught at the skin and real pain bloomed there.

Real. Too real.

“Dean,” Sam sighed, and something inside of Dean crumpled.

He managed to stutter Sam’s name in response, once. He wanted to say it again, louder, but the sound was swallowed by Sam’s mouth within seconds. He kept trying to say it anyway, to protest or to warn him or just to say it the way he’d always wanted to say it - he couldn't tell. It was useless either way. He couldn’t breathe or think enough to say much else.

He kissed back like he’d been waiting to for literal years. Sloppy, hungry. Inelegant, all tongue and teeth, sucking and licking, full of the wet noise of skin and spit that romantic stories and chick-flicks always glossed over. The noises that made his heart pound and his cock jump.

Dean’s senses narrowed down to the microcosm between them: the rough slide of Sam’s chapped, cracked lower lip against his and the bristle of coarse hair on his chin; the heat of his palm on Dean’s back, Sam’s hand slipping down the curve of his shoulder blade; Sam’s fingers curling, trembling, against the fine hairs at the base of Dean’s skull, pressing him in closer as Sam licked deeper into his mouth. Sam's nails raked across Dean’s back and left stinging trails. Dean moaned, wrecked like he’d smoked his way through a whole joint, and Sam answered in kind. Dean felt Sam’s tongue curling against his teeth, felt a sharp wave of arousal curl in his belly in response. In spite of all the night’s efforts to drain any semblance of energy from him, he was hard - so hard he could feel himself leaking, smearing precome against the fly of his boxers. Wetter and more eager than he’d been since he was a teen. Practically vibrating.

Sam pressed closer, closer, whispered something unintelligible against Dean’s lips, something painfully genuine and gentle. His breathing was near-panicked. Uneven. He tossed his head upwards and sucked in a breath. 

The smell of old, feverish sweat clung to his hair.

Sam dragged his nails down over Dean’s shoulder again and then pressed his hand there to soothe the scratches.

His palms were clammy against Dean's skin.

The sense of something low and ill clawed its way into Dean’s thoughts before he could stop it.

Wrong.

Dean tried again to get Sam’s attention, to mutter his name. His tongue slipped against Sam’s in a too-messy slide and the feeling made him throb and gasp. But Sam’s breath, the taste of his saliva, was high and acidic. Unpleasant, actually.

Sickly.

The memory of Sam’s earlier delirious giggling and clumsy mouthing screamed into Dean’s mind. Red, half-mad eyes rolling, unfocused, around to look at Dean’s face without ever really seeing him. Trembling like a child. Scared. Confused.

Off his ass before we even started drinking.

Another memory, so recent that Dean could remember the exact numbers on the clock while Sam babbled Rush at him and ranted about stage plays. Distracted. Eyes big and dilated like someone had slipped him something. Handsy and muzzy.

Juiced-up. Stoned. Tripping.

This wasn’t a trick or a test or a dream. Yeah, it was the kind of shit he’d been dreaming of for years during quiet, drunken moments and shameful beat-off sessions - only this time, it was real. But it wasn’t really real, was it?

It couldn’t be. Not like this.

Sam grunted low in the back of his throat and broke the kiss to breathe out Dean’s name again.

“Sam.” Dean’s voice was so hoarse and broken that he barely recognized it.

“Yeah,” came the breathless reply. Dean could feel the shudder that ran through Sam’s body - or was it Dean himself that was shaking like that? - as he returned his attentions to Dean’s mouth, kissed him harder. His hands tugged at Dean’s hair, at his shoulder, trying to pull Dean’s body forward the last few centimeters and close the gap between them. His hips twisted and canted in the empty space. Was he hard, too? God, Dean wanted to look. Wanted to touch, to feel the weight and shape of him in his hand, on his tongue... 

It took everything in Dean to pull his focus away, out of his overwrought body and to a cold place in his mind that didn't want to just give in just give in let it happen, take it, take what you can, please God just let me have this one thing

“Sammy, hey, hey—” Dean rasped against the onslaught. “S-stop, hey.”

Sam didn't stop. Dean pressed his lips shut and turned his head away. Sam kept kissing and licking at his cheek, his chin, the curve of his neck.

The pipes gurgled again. Dean heard Sam swallow, thought of his own spit in Sam’s throat. Dean's cock drooled and dragged against that damp spot in his boxers. Slick. Warm. Too much, even this little bit. He had the dizzying realization that he could come like this - no, he would come like this. He was going to fucking come.

“Sam—”

“Dean, Dean, Dean, please.” Sam’s voice was slurring and off-note in a muted sort of way that had nothing to do with arousal. Dean felt sick.

Sam's knee slipped between Dean's legs, creeping up and up towards the heat in the nest of his thighs. Dean rutted down towards it without meaning to. Too much. Sirens in his head. Self-preservation blaring at him. Not right. Not fucking right, not now, and therefore never because if not now then when? What little control he’d garnered was slipping.

Enough! Get it together! What the hell is wrong with you?! He’s out of his mind!

The Thing in Dean's heart flailed ecstatically and hollered its own orders, cackling and lust-drunk.

Don't you dare stop! This is what you wanted, you sick idiot! Dreams do come true! Now suffer in it!

Sam’s thigh pressed against the length of Dean’s cock and he nearly sobbed.

“S-ah, Sammy! Stop!

Sam stilled.

Dean was panting. Ragged. Terrified. Two seconds away from coming in his shorts. Every beat of his heart thrummed through him like a shockwave.

“What—“

“Just…fucking stop, okay?”

The sharp little exhalation he got in return was more heartbreaking than if Sam had just wept outright.

Immediately Dean brought a hand up to his face, petting and soothing. It wasn't Sam's fault. Sam didn't know. Sam didn't understand. He was loopy. He was affectionate and confused and stoned and a whole host of other things and it wasn't his fault.

“It's okay,” Dean whispered. He felt like he’d never catch his breath.

“I-”

“It's okay. It's okay, Sam.”

“I'm just, I wasn’t—”

Dean shushed him again. Stroked his hair and his face and muttered stupid little placations. Pointedly ignored the hot, shameful line of his traitorous erection against his belly. 

How dare you. How fucking dare you.

It wasn’t the first time he’d hurled curses at his own anatomy but it was probably the most genuine.

“M’ sorry, Dean, I'm sorry…” Sam sounded on the verge of tears.

“It's okay, you're okay.” It truly meant nothing again. It wasn't okay. But that wasn't Sam's fault, either. It was Dean's. “Go to sleep.”

“I didn't mean-”

“I know, I know.” Dean curled his hand around the side of Sam’s neck, gentle pressure, reassuring, tender. “It’s not...this isn’t your fault, okay? Shh. Please. It's fine. We're okay.”

“I love you,” Sam whispered, half a declaration, half an apology.

Dean wanted to scream.

“Just, please—” Dean licked his lips. Regretted it immediately when he tasted the salt and sweat there. Not his own - Sam's. In spite of the sick guilt in his belly, Dean’s cock throbbed again. “Please. Please, just go to sleep, Sam.”

The pipes gurgled.

The silence between them stretched into an anxious, poisonous fog.

The muscles of Sam's neck worked under Dean's hand. There was creaking, jostling, as he slowly turned away. No goodnight. No more unwarranted apologies. No anger. Nothing.

Cas snorted and sighed, utterly unperturbed.

Sam slept, eventually, his breathing getting deep and even, then becoming grinding snores. Dean stayed quiet and still ‘til sunlight crept up the ugly wallpaper, 'til his body was numb and his mind blank. He stared at the long, muscular plane of Sam's back and memorized every scar and freckle. No TV to drown out Sam but his snoring became, itself, a sort of white noise. Grey morning light settled over them all and washed out the tacky colour of the motel decor down to ugly browns and beiges. There was nothing outside of this. Not yet. Dean wasn’t ready for it anyway.

He hoped, hoped with every part of him, that this brief intermission was lost to the same place that Sam's fevered ramblings had been, unreachable in the grace-muddled cotton of his semi-conscious mind.

Dean didn't think he could handle it if Sam remembered.

Dean, for all he wanted to, would never forget.

The cut on Sam’s lower lip was a jagged little shape against Dean’s mouth. The smell of him stuck in Dean's nostrils. There were still stinging scrapes on his back and shoulders. They were shallow little things, they would fade soon. Dean could hardly stand the thought.

It had all been real and it was terrible, tainted. Rotten.

Dean got up and slipped into the coldest possible shower around the same time the morning manager walked past the Impala and slapped another parking notice on top of the one from last night.

Dean would later find them, tear them both to pieces, and burn the scraps in the parking lot of a local Sunoco.

Chapter Text


Whenever Cas fixed up the Winchesters' various scuffs, scrapes, breaks, bullet wounds, and other playground boo-boos, they always felt stupendous afterward. Dean had once told Sam that getting rebuilt from scratch was one thing, sure, and utterly incomparable, ‘cause there’s nothing quite like simply not being fucking dead and in literal Hell anymore (though the buildup still wasn’t worth the payout and he’d have kept his scars a million times over to avoid it). But even considering that, he’d said that even small mends tended to make a man feel like a billion smackers. Maybe not a billion. Definitely a couple million, for sure.

Sam had to agree. Once, Sam had full-on snapped his left wrist - just landed on it wrong during a fight and broken the whole thing nearly right in half. The sight alone had been enough to make him want to pass out. Cas had zapped him back to basics, just as easy as you please. And not only had the wrist itself been better than ever, but the crick in Sam’s left shoulder that had bugged him for months was gone, too. And the ugly little hangnail he’d been nursing. And he swore he could hear better on that side of his head for a few days after. That grace was really something.

As such, Sam, having recently had every cell of his body tenderly caressed with the stuff, woke up feeling better than he had in actual years. That glorified coma in New Mexico? A pittance, a mere shadow, a cheap imitation compared to the rest he’d gotten last night.

He blinked sleep from his eyes and stretched, stretched ‘til he could loop his hands over the top bar of the headboard and his toes curled just at the end of the bed. Sunlight fell in cheery columns across his chest. The shadows of a few birds flickered across the glow, and Sam heard their bright, pretty calls.

He remembered precious little from the first part of the previous evening. He could recall feeling off, could recall the bar and the grimy bathroom and being sick and hot and surrounded. But the echo of distress he’d felt was barely enough to register. His mouth tasted sour but that was all that really physically remained.

He gazed blearily up the length of his arm. The slices there were completely gone. Not even a scab. It was all hunky-dory. No more scales. Sam frowned. Scales? What an odd thought. He couldn’t quite place where it came from. There was something in his head about Gizmo - or was it Stripe? He flexed the muscles in his forearm this way and that. Not a trace of pain, but he could remember the incessant drive to scratch-scratch-scratch.

More bits and pieces drifted in through the sleepy haze. He remembered waking up here, dizzy and disoriented. Something important escaped him. Or, he guessed, maybe he had thought he had something important to say? It was a hard thing to untangle. Sam rubbed a hand over his face. His skin felt tacky. Important. Unimportant. Was it really important or was it merely the sensation of importance?

And Cas, Cas had been there, hadn't he? Sleeping. Cas had fixed him up. Cas was…somewhere else, now. There wasn’t anyone else in the room, was there? All quiet and air-conditioned-cool and sunny. Maybe Cas and Dean had gone to get breakfast. Sam felt a little bad for sleeping so late. But what did that matter? He was healthy, he was safe, and pretty soon he and Dean would…they would…

They’d…And Dean…He’d…Sam had been, what, he’d been dreaming, and…then he wasn’t dreaming anymore.

All remained bright and happy with the world for about .05 seconds before a big hard dose of memory came through to bitch-slap some sobriety into him.

Sam sat bolt upright, sheets clutched to his chest.

He remembered it.

Hot. Messy. Wet. Real.

“Holy shit,” Sam muttered aloud.

It hadn’t been a dream at all, though he remembered thinking it was at first. And Dean had been letting him mouth and paw at him and kiss him, really kiss him, and Sam remembered that sensation like he remembered his own name. He recalled, too, the sound of Dean breathing and groaning, and the stiff outline of Dean’s cock against his thigh, and maybe Sam was still a little dizzy but it was happening, it was really happening

Then the memory slipped, shifted: Dean gripping at him, stilling him, his whole body shaking. Not with want. Something else. Something bad. Anger, maybe. Shock. Fuck - disgust.

Sammy! Stop!

And Dean’s voice, pleading with him while Sam tried hard not to cry in half-addled confusion and frustration—

Just go to sleep. Please. Please just go to sleep.

“Oh, God. Oh my God. Oh, fuck. Oh, no.”

Sam pressed a hand over his mouth as if to stifle himself. He was alone and he knew that. It should’ve been a comfort - he didn’t think he could look another person in the eye right now. But, if he was alone, that meant Dean was gone. Cas was gone, too, but Dean was gone and Sam was dead-certain it was his fault. Sam didn’t see a note or anything and sure, Dean’s bag was still there on the floor, but Sam didn’t know what he was going to say when Dean got back and confronted him and, and—

There was a knock at the door.

Sam thought for a moment that maybe, just maybe, if he was quick, he could duck out the bathroom window and flee into the desert, never to be seen again. Go live with the wolves. Coyotes. Whatever. He’d make it work.

He stared, horrified, at the door. There came another knock.

Overwhelming mortification abated long enough for him to realize that Dean wouldn’t be knocking on the door to his own motel room. It was someone else.

Sam scrambled to his feet and to the door, the sheets still wrapped around one leg and the discarded duvet catching the other. He managed to avoid going ass-over-tits along the way by luck alone.

Shaking, he peered through the peephole.

Cas was there in the little fisheye circle - alone. In one arm he held a brown paper bag, and his other hand balanced a coffee carrier with two styrofoam cups.

“Oh, thank you, thank you.” Sam's palms closed into fists against the chipped paint on the door. He closed his eyes, inhaled a deep, calming breath, then turned the knob.

“Cas,” he sighed, and knew the angel could hear the gratitude in his voice.

“Sam,” Cas greeted warmly, nodding.

“Man, is it good to see you.” Sam ushered the shorter man inside. He could see the the Impala wasn’t anywhere in the parking lot. A boon if he’d ever received one. He tried to keep his own mostly-naked self out of the view of any potential onlookers. One underwear-clad stint outdoors in one week was enough.

Cas set his things down on the table by the window, dusted off his hands, and turned back to Sam. “You as well. You’re looking…” He trailed off.

Sam could pretty well guess how he looked after last night  - the best description probably being “atrocious” - so he wasn’t offended when Castiel politely never finished the thought.

“How are you feeling?” Cas asked instead.

Was there a good way to sum it up? Not really. Not without a licensed therapist.

“Never felt better.” He sat back down on the edge of his bed. One foot kicking absently at the duvet on the floor, he watched Cas begin to rifle through the contents of the bag.

“I worried that you might still be feeling off,” Cas remarked. “Sometimes intensive healing can have some—“ He mulled over the word. “Side effects.”

“Side effects,” Sam repeated slowly. “From grace?”

“Nothing that would actually harm you,” Cas told him. “But you might have experienced some very mild hallucinations, delirium, euphoria…”

Euphoria. Sam wondered how much of that had contributed to his throwing caution to the wind last night, but he figured it might be impolite to find out if “dry-humping your brother” was on the warning label. Ask your angel-doctor if incest is right for you.

Sam rubbed at his temples. Get a fucking grip.

Cas was still listing off symptoms as he pulled various items out of the bag. 

“...temporary amnesia or fugue, erectile dysfunction, incontinence—“

“Wait, incontinence?”

“Not often,” Cas explained. “And clearly you—“ He glanced over at the sheets on the floor. “You didn’t…have that problem.”

He sounded less than sure, and Sam scowled at him. “I didn’t- I did not wet the bed, Cas! Jeez.”

“That’s fortunate.”

“How are you feeling?” Sam was eager to direct the line of questioning away from his own bodily functions.

“I feel fine.”

“Are you sure? I know patching me up took a lot out of you.” Cas’ overall demeanor seemed normal (for Cas, anyway), but he was Sam’s friend, and Sam couldn’t help but feel concerned for his wellbeing. Nevermind the fact that the dude was practically immortal. It was the principle of the thing.

“I’m sure, Sam. Please, don’t worry.” Cas’ voice was kind. He turned to face Sam, leaning back against the table. “I’ll admit, though, it was odd to have to sleep again. Dreaming is always…strange, when you're unfamiliar with it. I know for a fact that Elvis Presley is dead and not working in downtown Atlanta, but my physical subconscious mind seems utterly convinced otherwise.”

Sam licked his lips nervously. “Yeah, that’s- that’s really— What, uh, what time did you wake up?”

“About two hours ago.”

“And y-you, um.” God, just act casual, you mook. “You slept the whole night?”

“I did,” Cas replied. “Why?”

“No reason,” Sam mumbled. So his and Dean’s ill-fated tryst had, at least, remained a private event. Small favors. “Glad you got some rest, that’s all.”

“Yes. It was a rough night.”

“Yeah,” Sam laughed humorlessly. “Tell me about it.” He swiped a hand through his hair, tugging at the tangles in it. It felt disgusting, all matted and plastered to his skull. He felt as grimy on the outside as he felt healthy on the inside. He’d never wanted a shower more in his life. Even his underwear felt unpleasant against his skin. He plucked at the waistband with a grimace.

There was the sound of rustling and of liquid sloshing. Sam looked up to find Cas setting a package of muffins, one of the coffees, and, most notably, a bottle of rye whiskey on the bedside table next to him. Sam’s eyes widened.

“Uh— what is this?”

“Coffee and muffins. I had trouble deciding between blueberry or banana.” Cas paused and shifted from one foot to the other. He looked for all the world like an awkward middle-schooler. “I hope you like blueberry.”

“No, not—“ Sam broke off into a chuckle. He cleared his throat and pointed at the bottle. “I mean the entire fifth of liquor here. I’m a little past the ‘booze-for-breakfast’ phase of my life, Cas.”

“That’s not for breakfast. That’s for later. Eat your muffin.”

Sam did, and another right after. The muffins were too sugary and had the strange texture that store-bought, shelf-life goods always had, but Sam was grateful anyway. The combination of horking up his guts and rolling on mojo had left him with a substantial appetite this morning.

Cas sat across from him on Dean’s bed, waiting patiently. He sipped infrequently at his own cup of coffee, and even took a single, tentative bite out of one of the remaining muffins. It was unusual - Sam knew he didn’t need to eat or drink. He’d been spending too much time around humans - and, he guessed, as a human. Maybe he’d even decided there were bits of it he liked. Sam found it kind of heartwarming.

The coffee was surprisingly good, for gas-station brew, but Sam found himself not craving the caffeine the way normally did. Probably another result of the grace. Which reminded him:

“Thank you, by the way.”

Cas cocked his head and hummed. “So you do like blueberry.”

Sam smiled, one cheek full of muffin. “I do. But I meant for last night. You really saved my ass.”

“Among other parts,” Cas agreed, making Sam chuckle again. “It’s no trouble.”

“It’s some trouble. I mean, it knocked you unconscious.”

“True. But no one forced me. I do these things for you because I want to,” Cas told him honestly. “I’d do it any time you needed it. I told Dean the same thing.”

Sam swallowed. Brushed crumbs from his lap onto the dirty carpet. Twiddled his thumbs and didn’t ask the question he very much wanted to ask.

As if on cue, Cas answered it for him anyway. “He wasn’t here when I woke up, in case you were wondering.”

“Hmm.”

“But,” Cas added, reaching into the pocket of his coat. “He did leave this on the table.”

He passed a neatly-folded piece of yellow notebook paper over to Sam. Curiously, Sam smoothed it open and read the brief scrawl.

 

Back @ 1.

Will bring lunch.

 

It was the same short, practical type of note Dean always left, but the brevity wasn’t helping Sam’s anxiety at all. Was he staying away on purpose? Had he just decided to let Sam stay asleep to recuperate? Was he angry? Would he talk about this? How much of this was Sam’s fault? Or was Sam just seeing connections that weren’t there again - the same way he’d done last night, connecting Dean’s familial protectiveness to his own backwards, screwed-up desires?

Apple-philia, Dean’s voice chirped in his memory. But that wasn’t even the wrong word for the right term. Projection was the Psych 101 jargon for this mess. Pure, unrestrained projection.

“Is everything alright?”

Sam found Cas watching him. He straightened up, suddenly self-conscious.

“Yeah. Yeah, everything’s fine.”

Cas didn’t seem convinced. “You and your brother are both more uneasy than usual lately. Dean tells me you’re both exhausting yourselves.”

“No kidding, Castiel. We’re hunters.”

“On purpose.”

“Well…No, not on purpose. We’re just doing our jobs. Dean says there’s a lot going on lately. That’s all.” Why on Earth would they be running themselves into the ground on purpose? What good would that do? Something about the suggestion didn’t sit right with him.

“Sam—“ Cas began, and then stalled, his brow knit.

“What?” Sam asked. Cas remained silent, eyes on the floor. Sam tapped one bare foot along the side of his shoe. “Hey. What?”

Cas exhaled. His features smoothed into their normal impassivity. “Are you still hungry?”

Sam blinked. “Oh. No, I’m good for right now.”

“Good.” Cas reached into his pocket again, and when he held out his palm there was a slender glass vial resting there. Inside it was a viscous, reddish-black liquid that clung and slimed along the length of the container. “This will be easier without an empty stomach.”

“And what's this?” Sam asked - a little nervous, and not for nothing.

“This is the traditional remedy for the infection you contracted.”

“I thought you fixed me up,” said Sam.

“This is in case I missed anything. I’ve never had to treat an illness like that before, whereas this remedy has been proven completely successful in all the available literature I can find.”

“You found literature? We couldn’t—“

“You really should learn some Spanish, Sam.”

Sam picked up the vial and shook it. The way the contents slid back and forth was just…unnatural. He looked back at Cas, concerned.

“Seriously?”

“Very seriously,” Cas repeated gravely. “I believe the maxim is 'better safe than sorry,’ isn’t it?”

That was indeed the maxim, and Sam did trust Cas’ literal millennia of occult knowledgeability. He shook the vial again. It was still gross.

“Okay.” The little cork was tough to grip with Sam’s big, rough fingers. He eventually wrestled it open and gave it an experimental sniff. It was conspicuously odorless, which somehow only made Sam even more uneasy.

“Here,” Cas murmured, uncapping the bottle of rye pushing it closer to Sam. “You're going to want it.”

Sam squinted at him.

Cas met his stare evenly. “Trust me.”

Nerves or no, waiting was only going to make it worse. Sam shrugged, tapped the little vial against the bedside table like a shot glass, and raised it to his lips.

Gripping his wrist, Cas stopped him. “Sam.”

“What?”

“Drink it all.”

“...Okay.”

Cas studied him for another too-intense moment before releasing. Another ripple of nerves went through Sam and he nodded, mostly to himself. Down the hatch, soldier.

He got exactly three drops of it on his tongue before he started choking. It was pure gasoline. It was week-old carrion. It was the floor of a recently-defunct New York porno theatre. It was the inside of the reactor at Chernobyl. It was a dumptruck full of flaming hospital garbage driving at 180MPH into his mouth and nostrils and he couldn’t, he could not do it.

Cas’ hands were on the vial and the back Sam’s head in a flash, grabbing a fistful of hair and pouring the rancid concoction straight down his throat. Sam wanted desperately to sock Castiel in the gut, to kick him, shove him, something to get him away, but he couldn’t do that, either; his whole body was just one giant locked-up shudder. He couldn’t even think or breathe - whatever this was had overtaken every single sense he had.

And then Cas was gone, the vial was gone, and the only thing Sam could do was gag and cough and gag some more.

“Ugh! Uuuugugh!”

“I know,” muttered Cas apologetically.

Auugh!”

“I know, I know.”

Sam fumbled for the coffee and sucked in a mouthful immediately. It didn’t even make a dent. The rye - a good bit of which sluiced over his neck and chest in his hurry - now, that was fucking molasses and sunshine compared to the Jersey landfill of hazardous waste that had come before. Didn’t even burn on its way down.

Mmmngh!”

“I told you.”

Sam pulled the neck of the bottle from his mouth with a pop. Went to speak, got a taste of the medicine on his own breath, and chose to suck down another guzzle of liquor instead of talking.

“Take your time,” Cas said gently. “All the accounts described it as…unpleasant.”

That was the understatement of the century and Sam hoped the glare he shot Cas said as much.

“Ugh, Jesus—! What in the—what was that?” Sam shouted, when at last he could say anything at all.

Cas, unphased, ticked ingredients off on his fingers. “Nopales, pepper, blue-tongued skink urine, hatchweed, vulture spittle, boiled hen's blood, the fermented musk gland of a—”

Sam fought down another gag. Knowing was worse. Knowing was so much worse.

“No! Alright! Nevermind! Oh. Ugh. Where did you even find all that crap? And at—” He glared at the clock through watery eyes. “Ten A.M. on a Saturday?”

“It was, uh, difficult. But I have my sources.”

“Huh,” Sam grunted. He breathed out cautiously, ready to drown any trace of the medicine the second it presented itself, no matter the inevitable drunkenness. He could already feel the first two drinks settling warm in his belly. He tried not to think about the medicine settling underneath them.

“And now I can be certain you’re safe, which was my main concern.”

"Thank you,” Sam said hoarsely, and it was sincere even if it lacked almost all enthusiasm. He wobbled unsteadily to the bathroom and leaned over the sink on shaking arms.

“Don’t vomit,” Cas called after him. “I don’t have another batch.”

Easier said than done, to be sure, but Sam made a valiant effort. Gradually his revulsion subsided, and he felt well enough to stand up. He pushed his hair back from his face and caught a good look at himself in the mirror. “Atrocious” was, in fact, not strong enough a word. He immediately cast his eyes back down to the drain, embarrassed.

No wonder Dean had turned him away - Sam wouldn’t fuck himself looking the way he did right now, either. The thought made him want to cringe out of his skin and laugh at himself all at once.

Dean’s razor was resting on the edge of the sink. He’d gotten up, showered, and shaved long enough ago that it was dry. The rasp of Dean’s stubble against Sam’s chin and lips came at him like a phantom, so sudden and almost-real that he could nearly feel it.

“Are you vomiting?”

Sam started, looking at Cas in the mirror.

“No. I’m not. I’m okay. Hey, how’d you know the whiskey would help?”

“One of the books recommended it. The worst it would do was simply intoxicate you.”

“Hm. Good lookin’ out.”

“I’m sorry it was so…”

“Wretched?” Sam suggested, and Cas nodded. “It’s okay, Cas, you were just covering all your bases.”

“That is the only way to play effectively,” Cas replied, and Sam snickered at the pride in his voice. So pleased with himself now that he could follow a modern conversation.

“Okay, well. I’m gonna shower, ‘cause I actually look like a Chupacabra right now. I’ll be out in a bit.”

“You don’t look like a Chupacabra,” Cas assured him kindly.

“Thanks,” Sam muttered.

“But you do need to shower.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“Badly. Your odor is…it’s overwhelm—”

Thanks, Cas.”

“You’re welcome.” Cas shut the door.

Sam sighed and stripped off his drawers. The arduous process of washing an entire night's worth of sickness, sweat, and shame off of himself took about an hour, but he felt human when he stepped back out into the room. More importantly (and even with a mild buzz) he felt in his right mind for the first time in almost three days, so when he settled down to dig back into the case he did so with renewed vim and vigor.

He pointedly ignored the clock ticking ever closer to 1:00 P.M.

Chapter Text

Ol’ Trotter Mack’s Bar & Grille opened at nine o’ clock on Saturday mornings. It was one of the most popular breakfast joints in Georgetown, and had been for nigh-on twenty years. Not because it was actually any good, mind you, but because Georgetowners, like most small-town Americans, held the firm belief that something being old and local made it better than new places or chains. Nevermind the fact that there were healthcode violations numbering in the dozens. Or the fact that the “famous homestyle biscuit recipe” came from a box of Bisquick. Or that the cooks usually had more bumps of coke in them than teeth.

None of that mattered. Ol’ Trotter Mack’s was an institution and was treated as such. The locals praised the food and the family-friendly atmosphere and the charming decor while they deliberately ignored the stomach aches and periodic “maintenance breaks” (read: health inspection shutdowns). They also ignored any criticism from stuck-up out-of-towners, who just didn’t share the same discerning taste as the local folks.

Dean was an out-of-towner as well as a man with no discerning taste. But he was also a man with an iron-clad stomach and an almost unparalleled appreciation for greasy-spoon diners of all shapes, sizes, and standards. And, more importantly, he needed caffeine and food like, yesterday.

“Welcome to Ol’ Trotter Mack’s,” greeted the pimple-faced college kid at the host stand. “Just one today?”

He sported a name tag that read “Thadd” - with two D’s, genuinely - and Dean wanted to ask him if it was a typo or if he was just that much of an asshole. But:

“Just one,” he said, too tired to be that much of an asshole himself.

The kid sat him in a booth with cracked vinyl seats and what Dean suspected was a terrifying amount of chewed gum stuck under the table. He hadn’t noticed it initially but the decor was oddly…pig-centric. Paintings, photos, tchotchkes, the whole mess. Even the napkins and the salt and pepper shakers had little pigs on them. One painting of a big, fat, rosy-cheeked hog surveyed the restaurant from above Dean’s table like a smiling despot.

It wasn’t charming. It was too much. It bordered on really fuckin’ weird.

Brooks & Dunn crooned one of their blue-collar ballads from the dinged-up juke in the corner. There were an awful lot of families, which meant an awful lot of children, which meant an awful lot of noise. Dean, suffering the combined evils of low blood sugar, a paltry two-hour nap in the car, and a ridiculous amount of sexual and emotional frustration/confusion, was already nursing one hell of a headache. The surrounding calamity wasn’t helping.

Two kids came running by, shrieking and screaming like tiny harpies. If their parents were around, they sure didn’t seem to be letting it ruin their meal - no matter if it ruined everyone else’s. Dean had never before realized how little effort it would take to just knock a child over. It’d be so easy to do.

“Gimme my doll!”

“It ain’t your doll, it’s mine!”

Daddy!!

So, so easy to do.

Dean rubbed at his temples and groaned. He thought about maybe just getting his ass to a McDonald’s or something instead - but he'd been driving aimlessly for almost an hour already. He wanted to rest. He wanted real food.

Another piercing shriek. Okay. McDonald's it was.

His waitress must’ve sensed a potential tip about to bail, because she seemed to materialize out of thin air with a smile and a steaming Pyrex pot. Dean had never been more grateful to smell burnt coffee in his life.

“Hey there, bud,” she greeted him. Her accent was thick even by Southern standards. “Looks like you could use a pick-me-up.”

“You have no idea,” he said gratefully as she filled his mug.

“Oh, don’t you be so sure. I know a rough weekend when I see one,” she told him. Her tone said she meant it.

He watched her from the corner of his eye. She wore her curly, red-gold hair tightly-cropped, shorn nearly to the scalp on the sides. Her eyes were big and friendly, but Dean noted the very dark circles under them. It didn’t feel right to judge her, though; he was sure he looked easily twice as haggard.

“You just here for caffeine, or d’you want somethin’ to eat?” she asked, and his stomach rumbled like she’d asked it directly.

“I guess so,” he chuckled. He hadn’t even looked at the menu. Breakfast was breakfast no matter where you went, though, right? “Just, uh, bring as much eggs and bacon as you can legally give me, alright?”

She laughed her pretty laugh. Dean saw that she had a delicate silver ring in her lower lip. His brain reminded him that he liked the way it felt to kiss a girl with that piercing. He figured he could probably kiss her, could probably get into her pants, if he tried hard enough. If he put up the right face, the right level of charm. Maybe he should try. He let the thought come and go with an uncomfortable mix of interest, obligation, and resignation.

“Alright. One Trotter Special on the fly, sugar. Hang tight.” She tucked her pen behind her ear and hustled off.

Alone again - or as alone as a man surrounded by truckers, farmers, and screaming children could be - Dean checked his phone for what seemed like the fiftieth time that morning. And, like with every single one of the forty-nine times before, he was met with nothing.

No texts. No calls or voicemails. No contact from anyone - specifically, no contact from Sam. Dean exhaled through his nose. He didn’t know whether to be grateful or worried.

The nip of whiskey Dean had taken after his nap hadn’t done nearly enough to mollify his mood or his mind. He wasn’t panicking (he wasn’t) but he wasn’t sure he could take too much more of this uncertainty in stride.

Maybe Sam didn’t remember. That was the best-case scenario, Dean supposed. They could go about their business like nothing ever happened and Dean could add some extremely guilty material to his already-dysfunctional spank bank. Or maybe Sam did remember, and he was just waiting to confront Dean in person. Would Dean get back to the motel and find Sam ready to yell at him, lash out at him? Would he just leave, like Dean had always figured he would?

Fuck. Maybe Sam was gone already.

That thought made Dean feel like he might suffocate.

No, he assured himself - if Sam had taken off, Cas would’ve called. Cas would be making sure Sam was okay even if Dean wasn’t around, and he’d let Dean know if something else happened. He had their backs.

Dean was hit with a fresh wave of gratitude. Thank goodness for Cas. Dean really did owe him. Hard to repay a favor to a guy who doesn’t technically need anything, though. He hoped Castiel didn’t take him up on the foot rub offer. Make no mistake - Dean would still do it. He was a man of at least that much principle. But, y’know. He didn’t want to.

He took a sip of the coffee and felt its bitter warmth soothe him. It wasn’t food, though, and in addition to being tired and upset Dean was starting to get kind of light-headed.

But the cooks (thanks in part to the aforementioned cocaine) were incredibly quick, and within another few minutes Dean saw the waitress returning with a heaping plate of meat and eggs and who-even-cared at this point. It smelled like Heaven.

“Trotter Special - double bacon,” she announced with a wink, and Dean might’ve fallen just a little bit in love with her.

It’s well-known that a greasy breakfast is a near-universal cure for a hangover, and an emotional hangover counts as much as any other. So the bacon might’ve been a little limp, and the biscuits a little chalky. So the eggs were fried too hard. It still filled his stomach and calmed the tremor in his hands. His headache abated. The diner's busy atmosphere started to seem less overwhelming.

There was a clock on the wall over the next booth. A cartoon pig with a big dumb smile pointed one hoof to the minute and one to the hour.

Quarter past noon already. He’d have to face the music soon.

His nerves got the better of him and before he realized it, he was checking his phone again. It resulted in him smearing a nice big thumbprint of bacon grease right across the screen without meaning to.

“Ah, shit.” He reached for a napkin to clean it.

“Ohhh! You said a swear!”

Dean turned to find one of the two previously-screaming children standing next to his table. Her face was stained with what Dean assumed was a mixture of sugar and dirt. It vastly undermined her stern expression. The other child - most likely her little brother, as they looked enough alike - was behind her, clutching an old Macho Man action figure to his chest.

“Oh, yeah. Sorry,” Dean replied half-heartedly.

“You shouldn’t say swears,” the little girl continued. “Swears are bad.”

“I’m a grown-up,” Dean assured her, like it wasn’t obvious. He tucked his de-greased phone back into his pocket. “I’m allowed to swear.”

“Swearin’s a sin,” the little girl asserted. “Even for grown-ups! Mama said so!”

“Mama says,” the little boy mumbled in agreement. Mumbled, specifically, because he’d shoved one of the action figure’s legs into his mouth. Dean could only wonder what the hell kind of filth he was chowing down on right now.

“Swearin’s not a sin, honey,” Dean answered her. “Trust me, nobody upstairs is gonna care.”

“How would you know?” The little girl crossed her arms and somehow managed to stare down her nose at him despite being barely four feet tall. She couldn’t have been more than six years old, which made her self-assured piety all the more jarring. Creepy, actually. Creepy was a better word for it.

“‘Cause I’m friends with an angel,” he answered around a mouthful of food. “And he swears, too, so. Y’know. There you go.” He turned away, intent on ignoring them.

They were pretty intent on not being ignored.

“Angels do not say swears!” The little girl stomped her foot. “You shouldn’t lie! Lyin’s a sin, too !”

“A sin,” echoed the little boy, very seriously. He was still chewing on poor Randy Savage. Slobber had started to accumulate on the collar of his shirt.

Dean sighed. He wasn’t a huge fan of kids to begin with, and the Preschool Theology Scholars weren’t exactly endearing themselves to him at the moment.

“Look, Sunday school ain’t ‘til tomorrow, kid, so can you just…” Dean waved her away. “Alright?”

“You should ‘pologize for lyin’,” she demanded. Dean had never known a child to be so fearless around strangers. Again - kinda creepy. “It’s not nice. Say you’re sorry.”

Dean squinted at her. “...No.”

She glared right on back, standing her ground. “Apologize for lyin’ and swearin’ or you’re gonna go to Hell!”

“You—“ Dean gaped at her. “What is this, friggin’ Children of the Corn? Get outta here! Where are your parents?” He glanced around the room for any adults that looked like they might be missing these two small, creepy clones of themselves. No one else in the whole joint was even looking at the three of them.

But the waitress, who Dean was definitely a little bit in love with at this point, came bustling over to save the day once again. Her expression said this is not the first time I have had to deal with this exact situation.

“Lacey. Jackie.” She addressed them both in turn. “Stop botherin’ this nice young man.”

“You can’t tell us what to do, Rhiannon,” Lacey sniffed petulantly.

“We ain’ gah lissen t’you,” slobbered Jackie. He yanked the action figure from his mouth and swiped at his grubby chin with an equally grubby hand. “Daddy said.”

“Yeah, well. Your Daddy says a lotta things, don’t he?” the waitress grumbled. “Just go on, git.”

“Or what?” Lacey taunted, her hands on her skinny waist.

The waitress - Rhiannon (and why did that name sound familiar?) - leaned down close to her and smiled.

“Or I’ll pluck a big, squirmy cockroach right up off the kitchen floor, mush it up, and mix it in your flapjacks next time I see you.”

Lacey and Jackie shared a horrified look. Dean, personally, was delighted.

“Nuh-uh,” Lacey said, her face reddening. “You wouldn’t.”

“Oh, no? Bet,” said Rhiannon dangerously, and stood. She jabbed a commanding finger towards the other side of the restaurant.

Lacey and Jackie stalled for a moment, then took off running, caterwauling for their parents the whole way. Dean watched them go, equal parts amused and utterly bewildered.

“Wow. Does that happen a lot?” he asked, laughing.

“Once a week, like clockwork,” Rhiannon replied. “Same brats, different innocent bystanders. Sorry ‘bout that, by the by.”

“No sweat. Thanks for the assist.” Dean tapped his fork against his empty plate. “There aren’t… actually any roaches in the—“

“Of course not,” she said quickly. She grabbed his dishes with a friendly smile. “You need anything else, hon? More coffee? Dessert?”

He asked for a top-off, a Harvest Omelette to go, and the check. He watched her walk off, only a very small part of his mind focusing on the sway of her body under her tied-up flannel and loose-fitting Levis. Something from the bar last night needled at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t place it.

She came back to him a few minutes later with his bill and a fresh pot of coffee. Dean, still puzzling, pulled out his wallet.

“...Your name’s Rhiannon?”

“Yep,” she said lightly. “Mama was a big Fleetwood fan. Plenty of worse names to have, I suppose.”

“Like Thadd?” Dean suggested. He thumbed out a couple of bills for the check.

“Like Thadd,” she giggled. She lowered her voice to a secretive tone. “Although we all just call him T.J. He hates it. Threatened to fire us the next time he hears it.”

Fire you?” Dean raised a brow. “That kid's your manager?”

“Well, his daddy’s the owner, so it’s close enough. He probably could fire us if he tried hard enough. Mostly he just whines at us for bein’ ‘disrespectful.’” Rhiannon peeked over her shoulder, then leaned in a bit closer. She smelled like breakfast, which was just fine with Dean. “Joke’s on him, though - I heard his daddy call him T.J., too.”

“Guess that’s probably why he hates it,” Dean chuckled. He was reminded of Sam’s sensitivity to his own nickname, how he only let Dean call him Sammy.

Sam. Crap. Dean’s good humor faded. He eyed the clock again. The goofy-ass pig grinned at him as it reached ever closer towards its horrible mark.

“You alright?” asked Rhiannon. “Lookin’ a bit sour.”

Dean shook his head. “No, I’m fine.” He stomped down that nervous energy again. Focus up. His brain still clung to that weird curiosity that had sparked when he’d first heard Lacey call Rhiannon by her name. He could almost remember hearing the syllables in someone else’s voice - Ivan’s voice, specifically.

The lightbulb went on over his head.

“Say,” he began. “You don’t happen to—“

The cheerful ding! of the order-up bell interrupted him. Rhiannon perked up.

“Oh! Sorry, that’ll be one of mine. Be right back.” She excused herself again and left him hanging.

Dean had scarcely worked out how he planned to phrase his next question when two familiar grating voices cut into his thoughts:

“That’s him, Mama!”

“Yeah, Mama.”

Approaching at what could only be described as a war-march came a very solid, very angry woman. Lacey and Jackie, looking unbearably smug, were clinging to her meaty hands. Behind the trio stalked a thin man with even thinner hair. He had a big wad of chewing tobacco visibly pouched in his lower lip and, Dean noticed with some discomfort, no spitter bottle in his hand.

The whole horrible family stomped right up to his table. The father hung back and scowled, arms crossed in what he probably thought was an intimidating stance (it wasn’t).

Excuse me,” the mother huffed. She tugged her children up beside her, where they clung to her ample hips. “Are you the man who was harassing my children ?” Her accent was easily as thick as Rhiannon’s, but she was making a point to enunciate dramatically.

“Uh. No,” Dean kind-of-lied.

“Lacey,” the woman snapped. “You said this man cursed at you?” The woman punctuated the accusation with a jab of her finger.

“Wait. What?” Dean looked at the little girl incredulously.

Lacey - who would, Dean assumed, become a very talented actress later in her life - nodded, her eyes wide and her bottom lip quivering. All her previous smugness was gone, replaced by a perfect mask of childish upset.

“Uh-huh. A-and he told me- he- he told me that, that—” She sniffled. “That angels say swears, and- and that I should say swears, too,‘cause God doesn’t! Care about! Me !” She began to bawl.

“Wait, wait. What ?” Dean stressed, still trying to catch up.

“I cannot believe,” barked the woman, cutting him off. “That you would say that to a child! What in the Lord’s name is wrong with you?”

“I never said- I didn’t- This kid’s just—“

“Is that how you get your kicks ? Lying and swearing around children ?”

“Wait! What? No!” Dean sputtered.

“I’ve never been so shocked in my life,” the woman continued. “What is your name, son? Who’s your pastor?”

“I’m not…I don’t… What?“ Dean held his hands out in front of him. He chuckled helplessly. “What the crap is even happening right now?”

“You must have some real troubles, young man, picking on a coupla sweet li’l kids,” piped up a voice at Dean’s left ear.

He whipped around, glaring daggers at the old woman peering over the back of the booth seat behind him.

“Hey! Mind your own damn business, Blanche!” he hissed.

“Oh, my goodness, now you’re gonna swear at an old lady, too?” The mother all but swooned, Dean’s indecency simply overwhelming her sensibilities.

“Unbelievable,” murmured the Golden Girl.

The clamor around them had gone quiet. Dean could feel the eyes of the other customers, and even the damn staff , drinking in the spectacle before them. Now, Dean’s self-image and self-respect were admittedly pretty low. But he still didn’t really want to be known as a guy who was cruel to old ladies and kids (nevermind that these particular old ladies and kids completely deserved it).

He cleared his throat. Gathered his composure. Counted backwards from five, then from ten for good measure, and took a deep breath.

“Listen,” Dean said, standing. He offered her his hand and his Most Charming Smile™. “I, I just, uh, there’s been some kinda misunderstanding here. I think maybe we got off on the wrong foot, huh?”

The father, who up until that point had been silent, stepped around his wife and slapped Dean’s hand away.

“Ain’t no right foot here, son,” he snapped. “You’re outta luck.”

The dude had to max out at five-foot-nine, weighed maybe half as much as his wife, and looked like he’d never seen a fight that wasn’t televised. And yet here he was, ready to step up to a complete stranger, in public, over some imagined conflict.

“You-...Are you serious?” Dean, completely shocked by the mounting absurdity of this whole mess, began to laugh out loud—

Right before a big, wet gob of tobacco spit landed on his boot.

The laugh died on his lips. He heard Lacey and Jackie gasp and snicker. Someone else in the surrounding section let out a low little “ohhh” of shock. Even the guy’s wife seemed surprised.

Dean stared at the rancid splatter. Tried to count backwards from ten again, then from twenty when that didn’t do the trick. He had never been a man of infinite patience. He was, in fact, a man of little patience, even on his best days.

And buddy. Pal. Guy. Chief. Hoss. This was so fucking far from one of his best days.

It was only by the grace of some merciful higher power that Rhiannon (who Dean would have just damn near married at this point) came scrambling over. There was a takeout box in her hands and a gigantic fake smile on her face.

“Mr. and Mrs. Wakeman! My goodness! How lovely  to see you again!”

She wedged herself into the space between the two men. Mr. Wakeman stumbled backwards into his wife and kids, and Dean bumped back against the edge of his table. She shoved the takeout box blindly into his hands and he fumbled, nearly dropping the whole thing.

“Rhiannon,” Mrs. Wakeman sniffed. She spoke the girl’s name like an insult. “You’re still here.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Rhiannon said, forcibly chipper. “I’m here and I’m ready to get these lil’ pards—“ she turned to the children. “A coupla free cinnamon buns to go! How about that, huh? Sound good?”

It could’ve worked. The awful kids could have agreed that cinnamon buns sounded awesome. Their awful parents could’ve been satisfied with free food and exemplary customer service. Dean could’ve ducked out of this episode of Redneck Theatre scot-free. It could have all been hunky-dory.

But it didn’t work and it wasn't hunky-dory because Lacey Wakeman, Dean realized, was pure evil.

“I dunno, Rhiannon,” she sniped. “Are you gonna put bugs in it like you said?”

What?” Mrs. Wakeman gasped. “She said what?!

“She put bugs in our food,” said Jackie (who was still too young to be truly evil, but was well on his way). “She said so. She said she mushed up a roach in Lacey’s flapjacks.”

Mrs. Wakeman went about seven different shades of red. She was practically foaming at the mouth. Dean was certain that he was witnessing an aneurysm happen in real time.

“Why, you disgusting little—! You are so unbelievably flippin’ fired! Just wait ‘til I talk to Thadd about this!”

“Ta hell with that!” Mr. Wakeman slurped back a mouthful of chaw-spit and bared his teeth. “Ya’ll done enough talkin’!”

With those poorly-pronounced words, the situation went to shit, and fast. Several things happened in quick succession:

Mr. Wakeman lunged forward. Rhiannon threw her hands up over her face and cowered. Dean dropped his takeout box, deftly grabbed Rhiannon about the shoulders, and shoved her out of the way.

Unfortunately for Dean, this meant he wound up with a faceful of Mr. Wakeman’s bony knuckles instead. It wasn’t a hard hit, but Dean hadn’t been prepared for it. Braced up as he was against the table edge, he went tumbling backwards. Mr. Wakeman followed right after him, still swinging, carried too far and too fast by his own momentum.

Their combined weight snapped the table right in half. The little carafe of syrup upended and splattered all over Dean’s shirt and now he smelled like breakfast. He blinked the stars from his eyes. The big smiling pig above the table seemed to be judging the two of them like gladiators in a miniature coliseum.

By the time Dean gathered his bearings he’d accumulated two more sucker punches and an elbow to the ribs. He shoved the smaller man off of him and staggered to his feet. There was the sound of shouting and shrieking from the crowd around them. Someone nearby was cackling, another hollering encouragements - although for which contender, Dean couldn’t quite say. Lacey and Jackie were squealing with sadistic joy. There was the artificial click of someone’s phone camera. Dean hoped they got his good side.

He had the oddly sensible thought of Who the fuck is in charge here? Where are the managers? Where the hell is Thadd? before another swing from Mr. Wakeman glanced off of his jaw and pulled him harshly back into the present, and back into his anger.

There were a thousand reasons not to strike back but Dean - poor, tired, horny, pissed-off Dean - couldn't think of a single one. He found himself near-giddy as he drew back his fist. If it was a fight that these hicks wanted, then it was a fight these hicks were going to get. Heel-toe, do-si-do, c’mon baby, let’s go. He threw all the frustration and pain of the last day and a half into a scorching right hook.

Mr. Wakeman, for all of his bravado, had not known what he was getting himself into. He was not prepared for Dean’s kind of fight. He went down with that single solid hit.

Just, lights out. K-fucking-O. Down for the count. That's all she wrote. If, of course, what she wrote was, “he's fucking unconscious, dude.”

The proverbial dust settled. Dean stood frozen, still poised to throw a follow-up punch. The crowd around him was silent again. Mr. Wakeman lay on his back, a thin trail of blood and ugly brown spittle running over his cheek. Mrs. Wakeman and her two demon spawn stared at him in horror. Rhiannon had one hand over her mouth and her wide eyes were even wider. Dean recognized Thadd’s pockmarked face peering out from the kitchen doorway. The absolute coward.

The jukebox clicked. The track turned over and Hank Williams began warbling about someone’s cheating heart. The whole stupid reality of the situation finally sunk in and Dean dropped his fist.

Mrs. Wakeman was the first to move. She nudged her husband with one flip-flop.

“...Freddie?”

Mr. Wakeman groaned and muttered something incoherent. It was enough to send his wife to her knees in hysterics. Lacey and Jackie both began to wail along with her. Someone was whispering about calling an ambulance but whoever they were talking to suggested that maybe the cops would be a better choice.

Dean yanked his car keys from his pocket and exited stage left.

 

- - -

 

The Impala gleamed like a homing beacon in the high Texas sun. Dean stalked over to her with single-minded focus.

The heat had kicked up substantially even in the short time Dean had been indoors. The pavement shimmered and danced in the light. The sun blazed down, making the fresh cuts on his face sting. He squinted. Flinched when it reminded him of the shiner he’d have soon.

Dean was no stranger to pointless pissing contests and fights, sure; he’d basically made a pastime out of them in his younger years. But he wasn’t a kid anymore. He wasn’t even in his twenties anymore. He knew better. And the last thing he needed was to get himself blacklisted in a town like this - especially during a damn case.

Fuck the case. Dean thought viciously. Fuck this town, and fuck me.

There was a split in his lip and he tried too hard not to think of how it mirrored the cut on Sam’s mouth.

God. Sam. Dean still had to deal with all of that mess, and he was already running on empty. He didn’t want to go back. He didn’t want to do any more dealing with anything. It never was his forte to begin with, and this was no exception. He didn’t want things to change. He wanted the last three days to never have even happened.

He was sick of it all. Sick of Georgetown, sick of feeling like shit, sick of dead ends and spinning his wheels and getting absolutely nothing from any—

“Hey! Wait! Sir, wait!”

Rhiannon came trotting up to him. She was clutching Dean’s forgotten takeout box. In the daylight her wide-eyed, sunken complexion seemed even more severe.

“Huh. Thanks,” Dean mumbled. He tossed the container carelessly onto the passenger seat. If Sam’s lunch wasn’t ruined already, Dean would be surprised.

“You alright?” Rhiannon eyed him. “I mean, I know Fred Wakeman’s no heavy hitter, but—“

“I’m fine.” Dean dug his flask out of the dash and took a long, cleansing gulp. “Believe it or not, this isn’t actually the worst thing to happen to me this week. Or even today, technically.”

Rhiannon scratched at a stain on her jeans. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

“Wasn’t your fault,” he dismissed her. He took another sip and screwed the cap back on the flask.

“Kinda my fault. That swing was meant for my pretty face, not yours.”

“Aw, you think I’m pretty?” Dean flashed her a grin. His tone was empty and the bruises on his face would’ve negated any charm, but it was basically a reflex at this point.

“I think you think you’re awful pretty,” Rhiannon said lightly. She fished around in her apron and produced a crumpled pack of cigarettes. “I’d imagine plenty of other folks tell you as much, too. You ain’t gotta hear it from me to believe it.”

“Fair,” Dean replied. “Mean, but uh, y’know. Fair.”

Dean sat sideways in the driver seat, his dust-and-spit-covered boots tapping idly on the tarmac. Rhiannon lit up, then silently offered him the pack and the lighter.

“No, thanks,” he muttered.

“You sure? You really look like you could use one.” She shook the pack encouragingly, and that was convincing enough for Dean. What harm would one cigarette do that drinking, fighting, and borderline (read: outright) incest hadn’t already done?

“Boy, he suckered you good,” said Rhiannon. “You’re still bleedin’.”

Dean swiped a thumb under his nose. She was right. A deep inhale of smoke flooded his lungs and made him pleasantly dizzy. But the taste was rank, the smell overwhelming, and he remembered why he never really got into the habit.

“It wasn’t personal, y’know. Not really. The Wakemans are just…like that. Freddie’s always been a real asshole.”

Dean exhaled. “Sounds like you know the local flavors pretty well.”

“Lived here quite a while,” she said. “And the sayin’ goes it’s harder to not know folks in a place like this - for better or for worse.”

Harder to not know folks. He heard it like an echo. That forgotten lightbulb flickered back on again.

“I wanted to ask you something,” Dean spoke up. The cigarette stuck to his bruised lips; it swayed and bobbed as he spoke. “I meant to do it earlier, before the whole…y’know.”

Rhiannon glanced at him sidelong. When she spoke her tone was apologetic. “Alright, honey - as much as I appreciate your help in there, I’m- I’m not really interested…”

“No, no,” Dean assured her quickly. “Shockingly, I’m not tryin’ to get into your pants.”

“Then what?”

“You work at The NutBush, too?”

Rhiannon was surprised. “Well- yeah, but how d’you—“

“And you had a run-in with Tim Henk a couple weeks ago? Right? The mayor?”

Surprise turned into suspicion. “Who in the world are you—“

“Not important. I just wanna hear about Henk. Whatever you can tell me, just—”

“Now wait just a long hot minute, big shot,” she said loudly, cutting him off the way he’d been doing to her. “Why on earth do you wanna know about that? Who are you? What is this?”

Dean ran a hand over his aching face and sighed. “Look. No offense, but it has been a… tough fucking week, and I ain’t got a ton of time. All I’m askin’ for is a little info - that’s it. Alright? Now, you wanna help a guy out, or what?”

Something buzzed in the dry, scrubby brush along the parking meridian. Dean’s overworked mind conjured up the image of a horde of locusts waiting just out of sight, ready to devour this whole rotten place. Bad soil, bad crops, bad vibes, and bad people.

“You a cop?” she asked at length.

Dean shook his head. “Journalist.”

Rhiannon hummed. “That explains a lot.” She held out her hand and wiggled her fingers.

Dean blinked, confused. He’d already given her back her smokes.

“Tit for tat, buck,” she said. She pointed at the flask resting in his lap to clarify.

“Oh. Sure. Cheers,” he mumbled, and obliged her.

She flicked the butt of her cigarette off into the distance and took a sip. If Dean had thought she looked put-upon before, he hadn’t seen anything until now.

“I’m not sure I wanna speak ill of a dead man.” She took another sip and coughed a little. “Even if he was a supercreep. ‘Sides, what’s a little ballroom blitz matter to the papers?”

“It’s just…important,” he told her. “Trust me.”

She hesitated. Dean watched her tongue dart out and fiddle with her lip ring.

Please, he begged no one in particular. Give me this. Give me something.

Blessedly, Rhiannon gave up whatever moral struggle she’d been fighting, and nodded.

“Guess I do owe ya more than just a square and an omelette after all that fuss,” she sighed. “So. Whatcha wanna know?”

 

- - -

 

Distracting himself for the first two hours had been surprisingly easy, Sam thought.

Distracting himself for any length of time after those first two hours? Impossible.

“Dean’s not back yet,” observed Sam for the third time in about as many minutes.

“I’m aware,” said Castiel.

“He said he’d be back at one.”

“He did write that, yes.”

“So he’s late,” Sam huffed. He shoved his chair back away from the table, his laptop, and the wealth of new information there.

“He is,” Cas agreed. He sat cross-legged on Dean’s bed, flipping through a small stack of crime scene photos. “By twenty-two minutes and…fifteen seconds, now.”

Sam frowned, unhappy with Castiel’s nonchalant demeanor. Personally, he felt like he might start climbing the walls if he had to wait much longer. He stood up. Cracked his knuckles. Bounced on the balls of his feet. Snapped his fingers arhythmically and whistled tunelessly and just generally tried to do anything to let off some of this pent-up nervous energy. It wasn’t working.

“He should’ve called, or texted. Something,” he complained. Which was ironic, seeing as how he’d been forcing himself not to do exactly that since the clock rolled over to exactly one second past 1:00. The last thing he wanted to do was start acting like some clingy, self-conscious teenager (although he was sort of doing it anyway).

“Sam,” Cas said, so pointedly patient that it made Sam grind his teeth.

“Yeah?”

“Your brother is often... Hmm." Cas cocked his head to the side. “Less than punctual. Why are you so anxious?”

Sam‘s face went pink. Considering that the truth would’ve outed him as a Grade-A pervert, he decided to lie.

“We, w-we’re just, we’re working a case, y’know?” he said. “What if something happened to him? What if he got jammed up somewhere?”

“Unlikely. It’s Saturday afternoon. We’re in a farm town in Central Texas. Your brother is a dangerous, well-equipped, professional hunter.” Cas listed off the facts without so much as looking up from his work. “I find it difficult to believe that he’s managed to get into too much trouble.”

Sam looked at him.

“I said ‘difficult,’” Cas clarified, feeling Sam’s eyes on him. “Not ‘impossible.’”

“Right.” Sam raked a hand through his hair. “I’m gonna go get a soda. You want anything?”

“Peace on earth,” Cas replied flatly. “Good will toward men. Another season of Fringe.”

“Hilarious,” grumbled Sam. He stalked over to the door.

The first flash of sunlight dazzled him, left him half-blind as he stepped out into the heat. The concrete, hidden as it was under the awning, was still warm under Sam’s bare feet. He was amazed at how much more tolerable the temperature was now that he wasn’t, uh, dying from encephalitis. It was still hot and dry, though, and he was distinctly aware of the distant smell of burning brush. A drought fire. Wood and wheat and dirt. He wondered how far away it was.

Squinting, still blinking the glare from his vision, he rounded the corner towards the soda machine. There was someone already there, hunched down near the drop chute trying to grab their purchase. Whoever it was sure smelled like they’d had one helluva morning. Maple syrup, whiskey, cigarettes - Sam shook his head. Texas was weird, man.

“C’mon, you sonuva…dammit,” grumbled the stranger. “Fuckin’ figures.”

Sam froze. He knew that voice. He’d heard it damn near every single day of his life.

There was a second of confusion wherein he wondered why Dean would be smelling like a Canadian dive bar before panic set in.

Sam wasn’t ready. He’d thought he was, but now he knew he wasn’t. He needed time. He needed to rehearse. Figure out a plan. If he backed away now, very quietly, he could sneak to the room, right? Buy himself a minute. There were a thousand and one things he needed to say and he had no idea how to even begin.

He felt choked, frozen, mute. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t. He took a single, careful step backwards.

Then Dean stood, cursing and empty-handed, and turned to face him. And Sam, miraculously, found his voice.

“Dean, what the hell happened to you?”

Chapter Text


Sam, as could be pretty much expected, had questions, and plenty of them. He got to exactly zero of them before Dean started talking.

“Sammy! Hey!” Dean puffed up, grinning. He slapped Sam brusquely on the arm, every bit the jockish older brother he’d always been. “You’re alright. You’re awake and you’re alright and, you know, you’re here. You're right here. And look at you, all healthy. That’s great! You look great. Thank God,” he laughed. “How ya feelin’? Does your head still hurt? How’s your arm?”

“I’m fine,” Sam cut in through his babbling. “Dean, what in the hell?”

Dean frowned. “What in what hell?”

Sam made a vague gesture followed by an unintelligible noise. It somehow managed to convey both his own confusion and Dean’s…everything? What with the black eye and the blood and such? Suspicious stains. Hangover smells. All hunkered down like a goblin by the soda machine. There was a lot to cover.

“Oh! Right, right. I, uh.” Dean cleared his throat, shrugged. “Y'know. Just fell down some stairs.”

Sam stared at him.

“No? Alright. Joined a fight club?” Dean tried again.

Sam couldn’t fight off the edge to his tone. “Dean—“

“Okay, okay, fine,” Dean exhaled. “Honestly? I was saving these orphans from this burning school bus and—

Sam, being the more level-headed of the Winchesters, wasn’t prone to losing his temper easily. He also wasn’t really prone to going through what felt like multiple identity crises at one time, so it was tough to really blame the poor guy for snapping. And snap he did.

“Cut the crap, dude! Where have you been?”

He got a noncommittal shrug in response, which was all the more infuriating. “I went out, alright?”

Out?” Sam scoffed. “You show up looking like an Atlantic City zombie and all you’ve got is ‘I went out’?”

“What are you, my truancy officer?”

“I don’t know, do you need one?” Sam shot back, bristling.

“Sam,” Dean said slowly. “I’ve had a bad few hours, so just—“

Sam, who had also had a bad few fucking hours, cut him off. “Have you been drinking?” He paused and scrunched up his nose. “Have you been smoking? And who did this to you? Why didn’t you call us? What in the world—“

“Sam!” Dean snapped. “Relax!”

The reverb of Dean’s voice faded out and the rural quietude settled back in around them. There was motion in the corner of Sam’s eye as an old man in a nearby room peeped out through the curtains. Sam valiantly fought the urge to give him the finger. Dean, lacking any such restraint, flipped him the bird anyway. The guy scowled and mouthed something insulting at them before closing the drapes in a flourish.

“Dick,” Sam muttered.

Dean shot him A Look™. “Yeah, you’d think he had two douchebags yelling outside his room or something.”

As much as Sam didn’t want to admit it, Dean had a point. His anxious energy faded and he sighed, embarrassed. “I’m sorry, it’s just…Dean, look at you. Have you seen yourself?”

“Recently? Not really. Still suave yet approachable?”

“You look like dogshit,” Sam told him, a little too honestly.

“Oh, real nice. Thanks.”

“What happened?” Sam asked again.

“Sam,” Dean sighed. “I don’t know what to tell you. I went to get a bite at some podunk diner, and next thing I know I was in the middle of an episode of Jerry fuckin’ Springer.”

“What does that even mean?” Sam asked helplessly.

His brother let out a breathy chuckle. “I couldn’t paint you the full picture right now if I tried, man. But…one thing led to another and the whole deal got, uh, messy.” He rubbed at the big patch of syrup on his shirt.

“Messy,” Sam repeated, with his own stunned little puff of laughter.

“Real messy. The punchy, fighty type of messy.”

“Dude,” Sam said flatly.

“I know how it sounds,” Dean said. “And I know shit like this has usually been my fault. I’ll own up to that. But I promise you: I had no part in starting anything this time. I mean, I even tried to take the high road! You know, bow out gracefully and all that, but…” Dean swept a hand down the length of his figure dramatically. “Here we are.”

Sam shook his head. “You were gone for one morning, Dean, how—“

“Look.” Dean held up a hand to cut him off. “I’d love to stand here and spin you a rip-roaring country yarn, Sammy, but we’ve gotta talk.”

Sam froze.

Talk.

Right.

Crap .

In this whirlwind of concern and indignance, he’d sort of forgotten why his nerves were so frayed in the first place. But one could only ignore the elephant in the room for so long. Especially when the elephant was right there, sitting snugly and having a cup of tea between you and the only other person who knew about it.

“Okay,” Sam said, too lightly. Too casually. “Sure. Yeah. We… yeah. Okay. Talk. Yeah.”

Dean eyed him. “Wait a sec. Let’s get inside. And, uh, is Cas still around?”

“Uh, y-yeah. Yeah, he’s in the room,” Sam stuttered. Of course this sort of thing was probably best discussed  A.) indoors, and B.) without an actual angel of the Lord in their immediate vicinity.

“Great,” said Dean, without a single trace of sarcasm.

“...Great?” Sam echoed. Confusion started to filter into the cracks that panic hadn’t yet filled.

“Yeah. I wanna get his opinion on this whole thing.”

“You...You do?”

“Of course I do.”

“You want…Castiel’s opinion,” Sam emphasized slowly, as if to make sure they were both hearing it correctly. “On this situation?”

“Uh, yeah,” scoffed Dean. He met Sam’s bewildered gaze evenly. “You guys probably talked a little about it already, right? Unless you spent the whole morning sleeping, and I definitely wouldn’t blame you for—”

“No, I didn’t talk to Cas about it! Why on Earth would I?” Sam all-but-shouted.

Dean blinked at him owlishly, then chuckled. “Uh, maybe because he’s a friggin’ angel, with big crazy super-helpful angel powers? Powers he might be able to use to help us out with this stupid case?”

The supercomputer that was Sam Winchester’s brain short-circuited. He opened his mouth to speak. Closed it. Opened it again. Closed it again, and continued this stunning impression of a halibut for about fifteen seconds before he finally rebooted.

“Wha… the case?”

“Yeah, the case, numbnuts. What else?”

What do you mean, 'what else!?" Sam wanted to scream, but he couldn’t quite find his voice just yet.

He jumped as Dean kicked the vending machine with a resounding slam. Something clattered to the bottom. Dean let out a triumphant laugh.

“Ha! Gotcha, you little bastard.”

He snagged the bottle from the catch and offered his ill-gotten gains to Sam who, still feeling a surreal half-step behind things, stared. Off-brand, fluorescent-bright orange juice. A drop of condensation ran down over the plastic and onto Dean’s fingers. There was dirt underneath his nails. A dark smear of dry blood stained the meat of his thumb. He was here (roughed-up and a little late, sure, but chipper) bringing Sam lunch, just like his note had said. Nothing strange about it - and that was the strangest fucking part about it.

“What? Not thirsty?” Dean shook the bottle. “You oughta drink it anyway. Probably need the vitamins and minerals and- whatever else fruits and veggies give you. For your health. Get your strength back up.”

(Sam had rarely felt stronger and healthier than he did this morning, but he absolutely did not have the presence of mind to say so.)

“Oh, yeah, and—“ Dean grabbed a takeout box that had been sitting on top of the vending machine. “Here. Lunch. Ignore the, um, battle damage.”

Sam had to assume he was talking about the way the whole thing looked like it had gotten caught under someone’s boot. Under a Dean-sized boot, in fact. Yep. That was definitely the tread from Dean’s boots.

“Um,” Sam said distantly. “Thank you?”

“It’s still edible,” Dean assured him quickly. “I checked. It’s just a little…flatter than intended.”

Sam took the bottle and the box. He felt like his arms were disconnected at the shoulder, all numb and uncoordinated.

“Come on, man, let’s get going,” Dean prompted. He brushed past Sam and around the corner. “I picked up a little somethin’ from a waitress at that diner that I’m itching to share.”

Sam fumbled after him, sputtering, “Wait, you what?”

Of course, Dean failed-slash-refused to clarify; he also didn’t bother to slow down. “Did you fill Cas in on this job or not?”

“Uhh—“ Sam hesitated. “Yeah, I- yeah. I did. Uh, mostly.”

“Good. The sooner we finish this up, the better. This heat sucks, this town sucks, and this state sucks. Let’s get as far away from this place as possible, deal? Like, Canada-far, man. I hear Vancouver’s nice this time of year.”

“Dean, hang on,” Sam tenaciously began again.

What, Sam?” Dean asked, exasperated, like he had a hundred better things to do. His denial was indeed fucking powerful, but Sam wasn’t about to let that sleeping dog lie. Not this time. Although he was a little...stuck.

We do need to talk, he wanted to say - although he had no clue how he’d follow it up. Sorry I shoved my tongue down your throat? Sorry I tried to dry-hump you? I wasn’t myself and I thought I was dreaming and I love you and Please tell me you’re not upset all came to mind, amongst a million potential openers. Not a one of them felt remotely acceptable.

Another, bolder part of him spoke up with its own suggestion:

Last night. Before you stopped me. You were hard, weren’t you? I felt it. I liked it. Did you like it? You can tell me if you liked it.

The rush of shame and arousal that came with it was so overwhelming, so distracting that Sam stopped in his tracks, his face going hot and his stomach tightening.

Did you like it, Dean? It’s okay if you liked it. It’s okay. I love you and it’s okay.

Scarred, freckled skin under Sam’s hands. Scrapes raising up under his nails. The taste and texture of Dean’s tongue against his. Streetlight glowing low and warm through the curtains all around them. No sound but breath and spit and names. The unforgettable shape and heat of Dean’s body just a hair’s breadth away from his.

...Awesome. Now he had to act like he wasn’t about to pop a boner, too.

Sam shut his eyes and took a deep breath. Thought of baseball. Thought of trigonometry and legal jargon and that time he’d fallen face-first and open-mouthed, into a pile of human livers while chasing an Aswang. Thought of anything but the dizzy, almost-unreal sensations of last night. It was almost enough to work.

“Sammy. Hey. You alright?”

When Sam opened his eyes, Dean was right in front of him, his face pinched with concern. Or maybe it was pain; up close, the shiner under his eye and the purpling, bloodied split in his lip were awfully fresh. He was still beautiful. Goddamn him, he was still so beautiful, even like this. No - e specially like this, rough and tired and raw. It took everything in Sam to not reach out and cradle that beautiful bruised face in his hands, to pull Dean in close and kiss every stupid cut and scrape.

Did you like it? I liked it. Tell me you liked it. I want to hear it. I want you to like it.

“I’m fine,” lied Sam, his voice damningly uneven.

“You sure? Your brain’s not still cooking in there, is it?” Dean’s eyes searched Sam’s face and he looked away. He couldn’t bear the scrutiny. He felt like an open book. A sweaty, guilty, horny open book.

“My brain’s fine. My arm’s fine. I’m fine,” Sam repeated. “Really.”

“Yeah, well, forgive me if I don’t exactly trust your judgement,” Dean muttered.

Sam swallowed down a surge of panic. “Why- why wouldn’t you?”

“‘Cause you said you were fine about fifty times yesterday. That didn’t change the fact that by midnight you were doubled over in the men’s room, puking and passing out like a freshman at a frat party.”

“That was last night. I’m not sick anymore. Cas made sure,” Sam protested. The sensation of the medicine crawling down his gullet slimed its way out of his memories and he grimaced.

“Mm-hmm. Sure thing. Here - how many fingers am I holding up?”

“Four,” grumbled Sam, fixating on Dean’s fingers instead of his proximity.

“Good,” Dean said. “How ‘bout now?”

“Cut it out.” Sam slapped Dean’s raised hand away. He was in no mood for this bizarre “everything’s-peachy” tactic that Dean seemed so committed to (though to be fair, he was doing a crazy good job at committing).

“Don’t you take that tone with me,” Dean scolded. “Or you’re on bed rest ‘til this case is over.”

Sam scoffed. “Oh yeah, Nurse Ratched? What’re you gonna do, lock me in the motel room?”

“I’m serious, Sam,” said Dean, and he looked it. “If you’re still carrying the friggin’ Motaba virus around then I’m not about to…”

Dean trailed off, his voice fading under the drone of a nearby engine. His eyes narrowed and slipped away from Sam’s face, towards the distance over his shoulder. There was something suspicious and unpleasant in his expression. Sam turned and followed his gaze to where a rusted red sedan was rolling slowly down the road. The driver had one sunburnt arm slung out over the door as he drove. Sam squinted. He didn’t recognize the driver or the vehicle - but he did recognize the expression on the driver’s face. He knew it very, very well.

It was hate - plain and simple. And it was being leveled right at them, sniper-sure from less than a hundred feet away. If looks could kill, Dean would’ve been dead on the ground and Sam would’ve been laid out right beside him.

In spite of the heat, a chill ran down Sam’s spine and stole the breath from him. A gust of wind brought the smell of brushfire with it. Cloying smoke crept into his nostrils, filled the empty space where his breath had been. He had the sudden thought of flames, real and roaring, licking up to consume him. The fever heat from last night suddenly seemed like nothing. For one horrible moment he felt trapped, suffocating under fallen stones and blazing wooden beams—

The wind changed direction. The feeling was gone as quickly as it had come.

The sedan slipped further down the road and out of sight. In a nearby tree a grackle called, strange and looping. The sun resumed its long crawl across the too-clear sky. And the brushfire kept on burning.

Sam’s hands shook. He tasted ash when he finally spoke. “Friend of yours?”

Dean didn’t scoff, didn’t crack a joke. Sam watched him unlock their room wordlessly, all of his motions stiff. His voice was as hard and as humorless as Sam ever remembered hearing it.

“Come on. We’ve got work to do.”

 

* * *

 

It’s important to reiterate that Dean had not been panicking earlier. He had been to tired, too removed from the situation to panic. He had also been too busy getting his ass beat by Joe Dirt in front of God and country, but that was neither here nor there. But now, free from distraction and malaise and ass-whooping, Dean was absolutely fucking panicking.

Sam remembered. That much was obvious. What was also obvious was the fact that Sam was pissed. Granted, it wasn't as bad as Sam just packing up and leaving without a trace, or gifting his sicko older brother with a matching shiner under his other eye (and then packing up and leaving without a trace). But it was clear he still wanted a reasonable explanation as to why last night ended in said sicko older brother tongue-fucking his mouth while he was confused, vulnerable, and halfway to blasted on Holy Juice.

Because I'm screwed-up? Because I've wanted to do it for years now? Because you're beautiful and gentle and loving and I love the hell out of you? Because I get so desperate sometimes that I stroke myself off to the thought of being able to make you feel half as good as I feel just being near you?

As-fucking-if. Dean would be lucky to walk away only brotherless and beaten.

But it was okay. It was gonna be okay. It was gonna be fucking okay - as long as Dean could keep up pretenses of everything already being okay for long enough to come up with either a good plan. Or a good lie.

Over the murmur of some daytime soap opera, Sam and Castiel told him that they’d spent the morning so far looking further into the history of Georgetown. At Castiel’s suggestion they’d started looking for trios involving not just confirmed deaths, but missing persons reports as well. As a result, they’d come across cases that fit the pattern going all the way back to 1870, and they were in the process of digging through the local lore from that era.

In turn, Dean recounted his breakfastime adventure. Castiel sat cross-legged on the motel bed in his nest of case files. Sam sat across from him at the table by the window. Dean, in an effort to not look like he was freaking out, burnt off his nervous energy by pacing along the length of the room between them.

“So you knocked out a guy in front of his wife and kids?”

“I knocked out a guy in front of some evil harpy and their two demon offspring, yes."

“You still knocked someone out in a Denny’s on a Saturday morning,” Sam insisted. One of his long legs bounced up and down. The motion was quick and nervous, the tap-tap-tap of his bare foot muffled on the carpet. His eyes followed Dean back and forth like the sway of a metronome.

“It wasn’t a Denny’s, Sam,” Dean corrected him. “They don’t have one around here. I looked. In fact, I wish I had wound up in a Denny’s.”

“Okay, Dean.”

“I would have welcomed a Denny’s! You wanna know the worst crap that ever happened to me in a Denny’s? Undercooked pancakes. A fly in my coffee. No paper towels in the men’s room. I would’ve loved that today.”

Okay, Dean! Wherever it was. I guess the important thing is that you didn’t get killed. Or arrested.”

“I’m not an amateur,” grumbled Dean, still pacing. To the bathroom door. Stop. Turn. To the closet door. Stop. Turn. Back and forth, back and forth.

“Will you please sit down?” Sam sighed. He shoved a hand through his hair for the hundredth time. It had lost all of its post-shower tidiness.

“What, is this bothering you?” Dean scoffed.

“Yes,” Castiel answered. He received a glare from Dean and a quiet breath of laughter from Sam.

“Fine,” exhaled Dean. He moved, without thinking, to sit on the unoccupied bed - and stopped short.

The sheets and duvet sat in a crumpled ball in the middle (Dean, unfortunately, had missed the part where Sam had tripped over them twice, cursed them loudly, and angrily gathered them up off of the floor earlier). Dean stared, his fingers twitching at his sides, the line of his body drawn tight, his mind suddenly flooding with so many images and sensations that he thought he might burst—

And he sat down beside Castiel instead. Narrow as the bed was, it put the two of them nearly elbow-to-elbow. Cas raised a brow but said nothing, and Dean pretended not to even see it. But he could feel Sam’s gaze on him too, and knew he had no choice but to acknowledge that.

“What?” Dean chuckled with all the nonchalance he could muster (which was, surprisingly, a lot). He gestured to the other mattress. “It’s all full of your nasty fever-juice. I’m not goin’ near that thing ‘til we get housekeeping in here. Or like, a priest.”

The muscles in Sam’s jaw worked for a moment. “Sure,” he finally mumbled, and began ticking away at the keys of his laptop. Dean, free from scrutiny, relaxed.

“Anyway, like I was saying,” he continued. “The waitress at that diner? Guess where else she works.”

“Denny’s,” guessed Cas, and grunted softly when Dean elbowed him.

“No, smartass. The NutBush,” Dean said. “It was Rhiannon.”

“The woman from the groping incident?” Cas chimed in.

“Right. So Sam filled you in.”

“No. I heard it on the tape,” Cas corrected. “It was very informative. Your friend Ivan, like most bartenders, is an engaging and charismatic storyteller.”

“You listened through the whole tape?” The concept struck Dean as odd. “What, Sam didn’t just give you the abbreviated version?”

When Dean looked over at his brother, Sam wasn’t staring him down anymore. He was staring down his computer screen instead, his lips pressed into a thin line and his expression carefully neutral.

“Sam was having some…” Castiel frowned thoughtfully. “Issues, with that stretch of time.”

“Issues?”

“He was missing some key components to the story. Others he had, um, misconstrued.”

“You don’t have to talk about me like I’m not here,” Sam groused. “I just…there were some parts of the night that were—“ He fumbled for the word.

He didn’t fumble fast enough, and Cas spoke for him again. “For example, he remembered two nude cowboys putting on a historical reenactment for which Canadian prog-rock superstars Rush had provided the score. Which seemed a bit unlikely, given the size of the venue. And public decency laws.”

Dean was having a bad day, admittedly. A really rotten fucking day. One of the worst in recent memory, actually. He had no patience, no energy, and no time. What he did still have, however, was his sense of humor. He immediately burst into laughter.

“Get off my back, man!” Sam complained over his brother’s delighted giggles. “Cas said I had a hundred and five degree fever! Leave me alone!”

“I don’t- I can’t- Oh, Sammy—“ Nerves and exhaustion had made Dean more than a little punch-drunk, and he had a bit of trouble collecting himself. “Oh, boy.”

“It’s alright, Sam,” Cas told him, very kindly and in deliberate contrast to Dean’s mocking laughter. “Between the fever and the residual effects of my grace, you have every excuse to be feeling somewhat muddled.”

“I told you, I didn’t have any of the other stupid side effects! Can we stop—”

“Wait-wait-wait,” Dean cut in, having finally caught his breath. “Hold up. What side effects?”

“Any number of things.” Cas began ticking off on his fingers. “Hallucinations, amnesia or fugue, euphoria, delirium, incont—“

“Enough! Look, can we just—“ Sam rubbed his hands over his ruddy face. “Can we get on with this, please?”

But Dean wasn’t getting on with anything just yet. Because the heavens had suddenly opened, the light of salvation had shone right down upon his busted face, and angels weren’t singing, per se, but they were repeating two beautiful little words, over and over again, in glorious (if gruff) tones.

Hallucinations.

Amnesia.

He felt the words on his tongue like honey, thick and so sweet. He mouthed them to himself silently, barely moving his lips. A spark of hope lit up his nerves, bolstered him. Made the sluggish gears in his mind start churning frantically at the prospect of a plan. A way out. A good fucking lie.

Last night had been real. But it didn’t have to stay real. Not for both of them, anyway. Not if he had his way.

“It’s very common. Nothing that would cause actual damage.” Cas laid a hand on Dean’s arm, mistaking his silence for more concern. “No lasting mental repercussions or physical issues. But these things can often be very inconvenient, I’m afraid. Especially at times like this.”

“Hey, no worries,” said Dean abruptly. He stood, his hands on his hips and a smile on his face. “You know, it’s all good. I mean, we had the tape, so you’re all up to speed anyway. It’s fine and you’re healthy and, and…it's fine. Your brain’s just been a little…wacky, since last night.”

“My brain isn’t wacky,” Sam bit out, uncharacteristically defensive. “My brain’s fine, like I told you.”

“Oh yeah? So you remember the whole night perfectly, including the whole Nude Cowboy Musical? ‘Cause I sure missed that part. Hey, you think they’ll do another show tonight? Maybe we could get autographs.”

“Okay.” Sam grit his teeth. Dean could see him struggling to maintain composure. “So I don’t remember it perfectly. But Cas didn’t give me amnesia. I remember some other things crystal-clear.”

The look in his eyes was harsh, his words too precise and accusatory. Dean’s heart tightened nervously. He felt his grip on the situation slip slightly, and so he dug his heels that much further into the illusion of normality he’d already been working so hard to create.

“It’s alright, Sam,” he said, as soothingly as possible. “I was right there with you, man. I saw how out of it you were before Cas got to you. Makes sense you might be missing bits and pieces, mixing up things. Hell, I’d guess most of what you actually remember after we talked to Ivan was just one big acid trip. Right, Cas?” He looked down at the angel expectantly.

“There might still be a shred of truth in some of what you think you experienced,” Cas said, but his tone wasn’t hopeful. “Ultimately, though, that’s very unlikely. I’m sorry, Sam, but even without the effects of my grace, the major symptoms of advanced encephalitis are vivid hallucinations and loss of time - and those are things I can’t fix for you. I wouldn’t put too much stock into any of your memories from last night.”

“Like I said, Sam, don’t worry about it,” Dean reiterated, struggling to maintain an even tone. Just a little more. Seal the deal. And thank God again for Castiel. “Last night got us a little off the rails, sure, but it’s nothin’ we haven’t dealt with before. Run-of-the-mill brush with death. We do that like once a week. Nothing major, nothing life-changing. So let’s just focus and get this brain-train back on the think-track, huh?”

There was no response. Sam had gone still and silent, staring at the middle distance between his brother and Castiel. Where his expression had been severe and sour before, he now looked utterly blank. Nothing. No light on in the attic. Nobody home, come back tomorrow. It was actually a little creepy.

“Uh. Sam?” Dean cautiously approached his brother, took him on the shoulder, and jostled him lightly. “You good?”

“Huh? Oh.” Sam blinked as if coming out of a trance. “I…yeah. Yeah, dude. Totally. Absolutely.” He smiled - a real, genuine smile, and laughed a real, genuine laugh. He brought one big hand up to pat Dean on the forearm. “Let- let’s get after it. I’m ready. I’m good.”

The Thing in Dean’s heart, which had until now been satisfied with its recent victory, chastised him in its wicked tones. Whispered insults to him, bitter and betrayed. Berated him for his fear and called him out of his name.

Liar. Cheater. Scumbag.

Coward.

It didn’t matter. Not a one of them was worse than what he’d been calling himself since last night. He could live with lying and cheating. Shit, he already did - daily. And he could handle being a coward and a scumbag, as long as Sam was still here.

“So, what’s this thing with the waitress, then?”

It was Dean’s turn to be startled, coming back to himself and meeting his brother’s gaze - as soft and gentle as it had ever been. No trace of that hard-eyed anxiety that had followed Dean’s every movement since he’d returned to the motel. Just trust and love. The way it had always been. The way it would stay. Now all Dean had to do was bury last night like a corpse in the graveyard of his mind. And Dean Winchester had a lifetime’s worth of experience digging graves.

“Right. Rhiannon.” Dean grinned and rubbed his hands together. “So, get this—“

 

* * *

 

It turned out that the incident at The NutBush hadn’t been the last time Desmond Archer had seen Tim Henk. Rhiannon - who had known the Archer twins since high school - had been out with Desmond, catching up and having drinks, when they ran afoul of the good Mayor for the second time in as many weeks.

They’d walked out of Gillerson’s, a local late-night joint with an impressive disregard for liquor ordinances, to find Henk posted up beside Rhiannon’s motorcycle. She’d described him as acting “weirdly quiet” and “creepy, but in a way that not even being a chronic grab-ass makes a man creepy.”

She had told Dean that, even when she hollered at him to get away from her bike, when she insulted him and threatened to call the cops (to hell with Ivan’s paranoia), he hadn’t budged. Hadn’t responded at all. He’d just stood there, unblinking and unmoving. Like a statue.

“Or,” said Dean, pitching his voice higher and giving it an exaggerated twang. “Like a corpse.”

“Is the voice-acting really necessary?” asked Cas flatly.

“Yes.” Dean paused to fish his phone out of his pocket. “She took photos for proof that he’d been there, in case she did end up calling the police. I had her send ‘em to me. Check these out.”

He handed the phone over to Cas, who hesitated.

“I’m not going to come across anything unsavory if I scroll too far, am I?”

“It’s my burner, man, of course not. I keep my nudes on my good phone.” Dean beckoned Sam over, and the three of them crowded, wide-eyed, around the little device, like cavemen around the world’s tiniest campfire.

“Seen that before?” Dean muttered.

“Sure have,” replied Sam.

“A spectre” muttered Cas, running his thumb over the buzz of white static that would’ve been Tim Henk’s face.

“But—“ Sam stood up straight, frowning. “That doesn’t make any sense. I haven’t- we didn’t find any EMF, or ectoplasm, or anything. Anywhere.”

“You got a point,” admitted Dean. “But we don’t know any other baddies that do this to photos and videos. Besides, a spectre would fit the case. Possession would explain, like, almost everything going on in this town.”

“Are you sure it’s not just a problem with her camera?”

“It’s not,” Dean assured him. “I had her take a photo of me just to make sure.”

“He did,” confirmed Cas, offering up the phone to show Sam the evidence.

Sam narrowed his eyes at the photo, then at Dean himself. “You were smoking.” He paused. “Why did you have her send you that one, too?”

“One: because I knew you’d ask about the camera, because you’re annoying, and two: because it’s a good picture of me. I look like a badass.”

"You look like you belong in the county lockup,” sighed Sam as he handed Dean’s phone back to him. “Alright. So maybe it’s a spectre, maybe it isn’t. Can we get any more solid proof?”

“I could help,” Castiel offered. “I could take another look at the crime scenes for you.”

“I’m telling you, man, those places are squeaky clean.” Dean sat down beside Cas again, albeit at more of a distance this time. The open bottle of whiskey on the nightstand caught his eye and he blinked, surprised, but said nothing. “But if you think you can outdo us, go right on ahead. You’ve got the addresses.”

“I’m mostly interested in seeing Timothy Henk’s house. Sometimes the home of the possessed is the primary site for things like ectoplasm contamination and significant thermal or EMF readings.”

“In case you forgot,” Dean offered. “Henk’s home got barbecued, just like the Mayor himself. How much do you think you can you get from a bunch of ash?”

“More than you might have gotten," said Castiel bluntly. "I’m not human. I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve. And, besides—” He stood and straightened his coat and tie. “—the two of you sometimes miss certain obvious clues in your constant pursuit of high-force, low-effort solutions.”

They both stared at him.

Cas cleared his throat. “No offense meant, obviously.” He nodded once to each of them and, with a breath and the smell of ozone, he was gone.

And the Winchesters were finally alone.

 

* * *

 

On the television screen, at a volume setting of maybe 3, Fernando and Annabella were hashing out the details of their father’s inheritance while their long-lost second cousin spied on them from behind a fake palm tree. Seated once again at the table, Sam could just barely hear their collective drama. Had he been listening, he would’ve understood maybe every sixteenth word, and he would’ve made a mental note to take Cas’ advice and learn some fucking Spanish.

But he wasn’t listening. He was just sort of…staring. Across the room. At Dean.

Dean, who had never actually kissed him.

Dean, who had never actually moaned his name.

Dean, who had never actually held Sam to him like a lover in the early-morning privacy of this shitty Texas motel.

It had all been a dream. And if Sam’s burnt-out, graced-up brain had had any sense left in, it he would’ve realized that immediately.

And so here they sat, as normal as ever, just two hick bastards working a shady job in a rundown redneck nexus, waiting for the other shoe to drop so they could tick up another win on the bizarre scoreboard of their lives. There was nothing sitting between the two of them now except four feet of threadbare carpet and the same dysfunctional-but-copacetic dynamic that had been there for decades. And that was good. That was how it needed to be. He should be relieved. He should be thanking whoever upstairs was willing to take credit.

But God, something in him just felt so empty.

“So,” said Dean, breaking the silence.

“So,” replied Sam.

“You said you wanted to talk about something earlier, right? Think I got excited and kinda steamrolled you.”

“It’s okay,” said Sam quietly. He watched as Dean leaned back on his palms and stretched. “It wasn’t that important.”

“Really?” Dean groaned as something pulled in his shoulder. “Sure sounded important. You seemed pretty tweaked.”

“Yeah, I guess I was” Sam admitted, laughing at the image of his earlier self. Having a near-meltdown in the middle of the day, wondering what the hell was going on. All while Dean had decidedly not been tweaking. Because Dean hadn’t had any reason to tweak.

“What about, man? C’mon. You can tell me.”

Did you like it, Dean?

Of course Dean hadn’t fucking liked it. Because it hadn’t even fucking happened. Jesus.

Sam shook his head and chuckled a little more, a little louder - partly to drown out the nagging voice in his head. “Guess I was just really…confused, after last night. I kept thinking I was missing something important, y’know? Like something really big had happened last night and I thought, I dunno, I needed your help. To-...to figure it out, and I…”

Tell me you liked it. I want you to like it. I love you. Love me like I love you.

Please.

Sam trailed off. If he said too much he was liable to out himself for the pervert he was. A dream was just a dream - no matter how vivid and real it felt, no matter how desperately Sam wished for it to be real. 

“I figured it out by myself. Just a…a dream, I guess.”

“Good dream? Bad dream?”

Sam drummed his fingers on the tabletop and frowned. “Weird. Weird fucking dream, man,” he sighed, mostly to himself.

“Oh, yeah? Clowns or midgets?” Dean chuckled. He was smiling softly, his eyes squinting a bit in the sunlight slipping between the curtains, his beautiful bruised face exhausted but peaceful.

Sam, overtaken with affection, had no choice but to smile back at him. He stood and crossed the short distance to the bed. Dean watched him, and scooted over to accommodate him when he sat down with a sigh.

“You definitely look better than earlier. And a jillion times better than last night."

“I feel great,” Sam told him, and it was true for the first time since he’d woken up that day. “I feel like I spent the night at a spa or something. Refreshed, y’know?”

“Good on you, Samantha,” Dean teased him, batting at his shoulder lightly. “You know, you deserve a girls’ night every once in awhile. You work hard. Did Cas do your nails, too?” He reached down as if to examine Sam’s hand. “Ooh, did he give you a facial?”

“Fuck off,” said Sam, laughing as he slapped Dean’s hand away. The stark contrast between their earlier short-tempered bickering and this normal, easy banter hit him quick and hard. He quieted down again. “Hey, uh. Sorry for kinda…being a prick to you earlier.”

“Pfft," Dean dismissed him. "You’re always a prick,” He leaned back and reached across the bed behind Sam. When he righted himself again he had the rye bottle in hand. “But that’s part of your charm. Besides, I don’t blame ya. If you’d shown up lookin’ like I did? I’d probably read you the riot act, too. Cheers.”

Sam watched Dean’s throat bob as he took a few healthy gulps. When he pulled the bottle from his mouth with a satisfied exhale, Sam could smell the liquor high on his breath. Dean held the bottle out to him, and Sam decided that there was no good reason to turn it down.

“Cheers.” Sam took a quick swig, pulling in a hiss through his teeth when he finished. Now that it wasn’t masking the taste of the medicine, the warmth of the whiskey had regained its usual burn.

“Surprised you feel like drinking so early,” Dean said. He laid back, one hand on his stomach, his legs still hanging over the edge of the mattress and his shoes just brushing the carpet.

Sam considered telling Dean about the drinking he'd already been doing, but saved it. "Got nothin’ else to do, right? We’re sorta stuck until we hear from Castiel. Besides, I could use a drink,” Sam said honestly. “These past few days have been…”

“Rough,” finished Dean.

“Yeah. That’s a good word for it. I mean, shit, man. Redneck diner fights, fires, stabbings, spectres, chupacabra viruses...”

“Yeah.” Dean cleared his throat and hesitated. "About that--"

“Man, don’t,” Sam cut in kindly, anticipating Dean's inevitable self-flagellation. “It wasn’t your fault. I slipped up and got myself hurt. Me being reckless, that’s not on you. Hell, I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for you.”

“You wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for Cas,” Dean murmured. “I didn't do shit.“

Sam saw the regret and pain in his brother’s face. He laid back next to Dean, his own legs long enough that the mattress didn’t even meet the backs of his knees.

"Anybody ever tell you that you wallow too much?"

"Now that you mention it," said Dean. "Yeah. And too loudly."

“You both saved my life, Dean. Cas wouldn’t have shown up if you hadn’t called, and you wouldn’t have called if you weren’t always looking out for me. And you are. Always.”

“I guess,” Dean said, his voice sounding strange and thick. He was quiet for a long moment, his arm resting against Sam’s. “You know I’d never let anything really bad happen to you, right, Sammy? No matter what it takes. I'd never let you get hurt on purpose."

Sam felt his heart give a squeeze.

I love you. I love you so goddamn much. Even if you never love me the same way. 

“I know you wouldn't,” Sam replied. “Thanks.”

“No problem, little brother,” Dean yawned.

“Really,” Sam stressed. “Thanks. For, I don’t know. Everything. Saving my life. Taking care of me. Bringing me orange juice. And lunch.”

Dean chuckled. “Ain’t no thang.”

“And for putting up with me when I get…in my own head. Sometimes things are just…weird.” He couldn’t think of a less redundant word.

“Don’t I know it,” Dean chuckled. His knuckles brushed against the back of Sam’s hand. Tender, gentle. Comfortable. Sam paused, turned his hand, and felt Dean’s palm slide smoothly over his.

A sudden bout of deja vu hit Sam; not of the fever dream of a sloppy makeout session, but of something sweeter. More chaste. The two of them like this, laying together, everything dark and quiet. Dean holding his hand, looking at him with love and relief and tears in his eyes. It was so plausible, so close to reality that Sam thought, for just one fleeting second, that maybe there was some shred of truth to his memory after all.

Then, in one smooth motion, Dean sat up, and the idea and Dean’s warmth both faded away.

“Weird’s alright, though," he said. “We can deal with weird.”

“Yeah,” said Sam. He had the urge to laugh at himself again and smiled, shaking his head. “If there’s one thing we can deal with, it’s definitely weird.”

Chapter Text

Dean, buzzed off of two mouthfuls of liquor and still riding the high of relief that only narrowly avoiding a total catastrophe can provide, had just begun the delicate process of cleaning up his battered face when his cell phone (the good one, with the nudes on it) started ringing.

 

Move!

Ask the angels who they're calling

Go ask the angels if they're calling to thee

Ask the angels while they're falling—

 

“Answer it,” Dean called out. “It’s Cas.”

“You don’t say." There was rustling as Sam searched for the source of the noise. Patti Smith’s crooning abruptly cut off, followed by Sam’s greeting: “Hey, Cas. What’ve you got?”

By the time Dean rejoined him, Sam had finished the call and was back at his computer, tapping away. The squashed takeout box sat next to him, (surprisingly) empty.

“Cas said there’s traces of ectoplasm all over Henk’s library,” he said, his eyes barely moving away from the screen to acknowledge his brother. “Nothing we could’ve picked up with our equipment, but it’s definitely there.”

Dean hummed, pleased. “So it is a spectre?”

"Yep,” said Sam, still typing.

“So I was right, Mr. Doubtful."

"Mm-hmm." Whatever Sam was doing seemed to grow more interesting the more Dean pushed him. Which, of course, made Dean even pushier. As if he needed the help.

"Come on." Dean sauntered over, his hands on his hips and a shit-eating grin on his face. "Say it. Say those three little words. Tell me.”

Sam exhaled through his nose. “I'm working on something, man."

C’mon, Sammy.” He took a fistful of Sam’s shirt sleeve and shook him. “Validate me, goddammit.”

“Alright, alright. God, you’re so needy .” Sam brushed him away. “You were right.”

“There we go!” laughed Dean. He ruffled Sam’s hair, undoing the small amount of order Sam had managed to restore through finger-combing it. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

“It’s the hardest thing in the world. Every time, it kills me.” Sam said tonelessly. “I hope you know that. That you, personally, are killing me."

“So be it." Dean shrugged. "Better me than anyone else who’s after your skinny ass." He pulled up a chair next to Sam, still grinning.

“Try not to look too excited.” Sam returned to his work.

Dean jostled him again. “Why aren’t you excited, man? We’re almost done with this case! We get to go home, you’re alive and STD-free—“

“It wasn’t an STD!” Sam threw up his hands. “I didn’t fuck the Chupacabra, it scratched me!”

“Ah, details,” Dean said dismissively. “And watch your language. We know what we’re up against, and all we really need to do now is to figure out who our mystery ghost is. So please, forgive me if I’m a little stoked.”

“Well, prepare to be more stoked,” Sam informed him. “I think I can find our culprit pretty easily.”

Dean blinked. “Really? Just like that?”

“Yeah. I, uh, I had a thought earlier. I don’t really know where it came from, but - I think the spectre must be resurfacing when the right conditions are met. It’s waiting for the right individuals, with the right qualities, to fill the right roles. Like…actors in a play.”

Dean looked at him curiously. “Huh.”

“What?”

“You - when you were in and out of it, um, last night, there was a point where you…you woke up for a few minutes,” Dean told him, editing himself with extreme caution. “It was mostly just babbling, but you mentioned something about a stage play.”

“I did?” Sam cocked his head. “I don’t remember that.” He paused and licked his lips. “Did I say, um. Anything else? Anything I should try to remember?”

“Nope,” Dean replied (too quickly).

“Nothing, like…embarrassing?”

“Nah. Mostly all you did was mumble and get sweat all over everything—”

“I was sick, Dean—”

“—aaaaand sing to me.”

Sam’s face went pinkish and he blinked. “I sang to you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Dean affirmed, smiling broadly once again. “All the hits. Some Beatles, a little Rush - of course - even Sonny and Cher. You were a friggin’ jukebox. It was adorable.”

“Great. Very cool. ‘Cause that’s not embarrassing at all.” Sam cleared his throat. “So. Actors. People playing roles. It’s almost like an echo, but manifesting through other people.”

“An echo-spectre?” Dean suggested helpfully. He rubbed at his chin. “A specho. An echter.”

“Those both sound kinda pejorative."

“What would you call it, Professor?”

“A pain in the ass,” said Sam pointedly.

Dean leaned up against the window, musing aloud. "If it’s only active under the right circumstances, we know what those circumstances are. Some weird grudge crops up between three people, one of ‘em older and self-righteous, and the other two of ‘em younger dudes who are, uh—“ Dean made a nondescript motion with his hand. “Playin’ on the back nine, if you will.”

“Jesus, It’s like talking to a middle-schooler,” Sam muttered.

Dean ignored him. “Always happens during a drought, always during the same twenty-four hours, and always with the same causes of death.”

“Right. Of course, the further back you go with this stuff, the harder it is to get a concrete cause of death, or sometimes any confirmation of death at all. But there are plenty of instances where three people either ended up dead or missing during a drought. So if I can find the very first trio that fits the other conditions—“ Sam shrugged. “I’m pretty confident that’ll be our source, and that’ll tell us who it might be.”

That confidence was evident in Sam’s expression, his voice and his posture; he looked like himself again, for the first time in days, hard at work and ready to go. Things weren’t just getting back to normal - they were actually looking up.

And look at that - all it took was you almost losing the one thing you care about - twice! sneered a familiar, wicked voice in his head.

Coward. Pervert. Freak.

Liar.

“Dean. Hey. You with me?” Sam asked, actually looking up from his computer for more than two seconds. There was genuine concern on his face and Dean figured he must be looking pretty fucking bad to get that reaction.

“Stomach ache, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Sam eyed his empty takeout container worriedly. “Alright. As long as you’re good.”

“I’m great. I’m pumped. We’ll find this asshole, light ‘em up, and land back here in time to catch Conan.”

Sam gave him a suspicious once-over. “You hate talk shows.”

“Sure do. My point still stands,” Dean shrugged. “This should be a quick fix. A routine salt-n’-burn. We can do those in our sleep. So let’s get after it. Can I do anything to help?”

“Yeah. Relax,” Sam told him. “You’ve done plenty this morning already.”

Not one to be handled with kid gloves, Dean pushed back against Sam’s kindness immediately. “I’m not broken, Sam, I’ve got a black eye. I get black eyes almost every week. I get shot or stabbed like twice a month. I’m more injury than man, at this point.”

“I know,” Sam said lightly. He was back in his work, his eyes roving back and forth over lines and lines of information, his speech distracted. “And that’s exactly why you can sit there and take a break.”

“I don’t need a break,” argued the guy who desperately needed a fucking break.

“Seriously, Dean, chill for a little bit. Really. Besides, your computer’s still busted. What could you really do, anyway?” Sam let out a huff of laughter and mumbled, as if without thinking, “Sit on my lap while I work?”

Equally without forethought, Dean replied, “Oh, only if you ask me real nicely.”

It was exactly the kind of stupid teasing he normally gave Sam. Exactly the kind of thing that Dean would follow up with a smarmy grin and a waggle of his eyebrows. Exactly the kind of thing that would normally make Sam give him a weak glare or a roll of the eyes before the big bastard resumed his nerdery.

But his tone must’ve been off, or his timing, or something, because exactly none of that happened.

What did happen was Sam’s fingers stuttered on the keyboard, then stopped. There was a full five seconds of silence, each heavier than the last, and by the fifth Dean regretted ever being given the power of speech in the first place.

And then Sam laughed, “Weirdo,” under his breath, and that was blessedly that.

Unable to trust his stupid mouth not to do more stupid things, Dean decided that taking a break sounded just fine. He channel-surfed for a little while. Listened to the radio. Wasted a few minutes dicking around on his phone (Where had he put Nessa’s number, anyway? And where was Cas? Why hadn’t he called again?). Finally he plucked Travis Young’s journal from the nightstand and began flipping through sketches and to-do lists and notes, knowing full and well that there was nothing more of interest in the pages.

Most pointedly, he did not focus any of his attention on Sam, or Sam’s stupid face, or Sam’s fucking lap (which would’ve been plenty big enough to accommodate someone Dean’s size with comfort and ease for both parties - not that Dean had considered it, obviously, because that would’ve required some of that attention we just talked about).

Weirdo.

Oh, Sammy. You have no idea.

Thank God.

The time ticked by; fifteen minutes turned into a solid half hour, then three quarters. Dean had been staring at one page of sketches for so long that the faces there had started to blur together into a graphite singularity. He was so close to nodding off that when Sam’s voice cut in through the fog, he nearly dropped the book on his face.

“Dean?”

“Yeah. Yep. I’m here, I’m awake.” Dean hauled his bedraggled ass up and over to the table, stifling a yawn.

Sam gestured for him to pull up a chair. “I think I got our guy.”

On the screen there was a grainy old photo, the kind of thing you might see pinned up in the background of any sheriff’s office in any Spaghetti Western since the dawn of film. A scowling, rough-faced man glared out at the brothers, his dark eyes appearing sunken amongst the wind-chafed lines of his face. The effect made him look older than he must’ve actually been; his long, wild hair was still pitch-dark even in the washed-out sepia of the picture, without a single gray strand in sight. A thin scar ran up the length of his left cheek and cut through the thickest part of his eyebrow. A silver token was threaded on the galloon of his hat; it bore a sinister, angular symbol that Dean couldn’t quite decipher, given the age of the picture.

Frankly, Dean couldn’t have cooked up a more cartoonishly villainous mug if you’d had a gun to his head.

"Sam,” he scolded teasingly. “You can't just pick a dude 'cause he’s ugly. That's stereotyping. We're better than that." He paused and looked the guy over again. What a face for radio.  “But boy, this dude looks really evil. Who is he?”

"This is Jeremiah Arden Russell,” Sam told him.

“Doesn’t ring a bell. Should it?”

"Not unless you were a bounty hunter or a lawman in the mid-1800’s.” Sam scrolled down the page and Russell’s face slid out of sight, replaced by a wall of text. Sam sat up straight and started talking with his hands. Presentation Mode again. Dean thought back to a few days ago when this whole mess began, thought of maps and obits and that stuffy motel in New Mexico. “He was a semi-famous gun-for-hire and, towards the end of his life, outlaw. He’s no Butch Cassidy or Wild Bill, but from the looks of it he managed to rack up a bit of a record. Known aliases included The Missouri Madman, Rawhide Russ, and Rough Russell—"

“Those all sound like sex moves.”

“Dean, c’mon.”

“Sorry. Continue.”

“Showed up in Georgetown early May of 1866. Reported missing and presumed dead on June 29th the same year - the day after a fire at the Georgetown Baptist Church spread throughout the town.”

“So there really was a church fire? I thought that part sounded, I don’t know, too dramatic to be true. I mean, come on, a friggin’ church fire?”

“Apparently it was real. And, because of the drought at the time, the fire spread ultra-quick and took out nearly a third of the Georgetown settlement. But, even with all of the property damage, there were only two other human casualties besides Russell. One was a local physician, name of Larchmont. The other was The Reverend Ashley Carmichael, the pastor at the church. Their bodies were mostly burned up in the fires, but I’d bet money that it wasn’t the fires that killed them.”

“I’d bet with you. So it fits our rule of threes, and it fits the time frame,” Dean muttered. “Gotta admit, he’s lookin’ good for it. Well, he’s not lookin’ good , but you know what I mean.”

“There’s one more thing,” Sam said, leaning back and lacing his hands behind his head. “The incident in Georgetown earned Russell one final nickname.”

“And what was that?” asked Dean.

Sam, his eyes bright and eager, flashed him a knowing grin.

“The Drought Devil.”

 

* * *

 

Excitement was thrumming under Dean’s skin. A lead. They had a solid lead and - assuming there were no ridiculous curveballs headed their way (please, please, just for once) - a straightforward solution. They could finish this. They could really, truly finish this godforsaken case, and Dean could leave this town, and all it had done to him, behind.

Had he been in his right mind, he might’ve also considered all the good they were doing for the Georgetown community by ridding its people of this evil sonuvabitch - but he wasn’t, and so he didn’t. The only thing on his mind was getting the fuck out of here and getting back to baseline.

That, and how exactly they were supposed to find Russell.

“I’m just saying, if the guy did go missing, then we might be kinda screwed. Our whole job depends on being able to find what’s left of him. What if he actually tried to skip town? Y’know, bit it somewhere on the outskirts or wandered into the desert and then croaked?” He’d started pacing idly back and forth again. He was at that particular point of exhaustion where the only thing keeping him upright and moving was stubbornness. The rapidly depleting caffeine levels in his system had long since lost any practical effect.

“Pretty unlikely.”

Sam was still hard at work, digging deeper into what scant information there was to be found about Jeremiah Russell. Other than a birth certificate, some warrant/bounty records, and the short blurb from which they’d garnered the majority of their initial intel, there wasn’t a lot to go around. Bad guys were a dime a dozen in an era where America was wide and wild, and there weren’t nearly enough jailhouses or authorities to contain the sheer chaos that came along with rampant and unchecked expansion. Trying to pin down the exact comings and goings of a single outlaw from 150 years ago was like trying to find an evil needle in a stack of equally evil hay.

“You gonna elaborate on that, or just shoot down my legitimate and well-thought-out concerns like an asshole?”

“Chill out.” Sam tucked a lock of hair behind his ear. Dean wondered how long he was going to let it get. “First of all, if there wasn’t something tethering him here, he wouldn’t be the guy doing it, and we’d be wrong anyway. Second, a guy like this would’ve definitely had a longer record if he managed to get out of town and cause more trouble. Doesn’t seem like the type who would’ve just marched peacefully into the desert to die at age thirty-six.”

“He was only thirty-six?” Dean asked incredulously. “Woof. Talk about being rode hard and put up wet.” The guy had been barely two years older than Dean himself at the time he’d died; the mugshot on the poster would’ve been even younger than that.

Dean was suddenly very, very grateful for things like good genes, modern medicine, and the absolute ace-in-the-hole that was Castiel’s Holy Touch. A scar or twelve wasn’t too bad. But if he and Sam had kept the evidence of every wound they’d sustained? Dean shuddered to think. More injury than man, indeed.

“So,” Dean prodded. “If you’re so sure there’s a piece or two of Rawhide Russ hanging around, then where is it?” 

Sam sighed lightly. “Even if there were any actual remains left, they probably would’ve burned up, just like with the other two guys. But,” he said, cutting off Dean’s inevitable interruption. “It’s not always just remains that keep spirits around. You know that.”

Dean did know that; he shrugged and nodded. “Okay, no remains. What else could it be? The guy was a drifter, I highly doubt he left any knickknacks behind.”

Wordlessly, Sam turned his laptop around. Heading the (extremely) simple and (terribly) outdated web page he had open were simple block letters reading “GEORGETOWN HERITAGE CENTER,” and under that, “EXHIBITS.”

There were photos of a few surviving items of interest left over from the earliest bits of Georgetown’s history: a small collection of tattered leather journals; some jewelry and a few glass bottles; the slightly-singed but intact remains of a wooden sign bearing the Georgetown moniker; and one weathered, broad-brimmed hat with a familiar silver token on the band.

“It’s advertised as belonging to the Drought Devil himself,” Sam noted, tapping a finger to the description under the photo. “Can’t verify it without getting it in-hand, obviously, but it looks authentic enough.”

“And if it’s not the real deal?”

“Then we’re back to square one, which is where we’ve been for the last two days anyway,” Sam said simply. “Unless you’ve got a better idea.”

“Brother, this is the best idea either of us has had since we set foot in this hellhole,” said Dean amicably. “I’m game. This place is, what, fifteen minutes away?”

“About. I can case the place now, see what we’re working with, and pick up the hat after closing time. Easy-peasy.”

“Lemon-squeezy,” Dean affirmed happily. “Talk about a lucky break, huh?”

“Yeah,” muttered Sam. “About time.” He gave Dean a little smile - genuine, yes, but underneath it he looked so suddenly weak and worn that Dean briefly wondered how much good Castiel’s healing had really done for him after all.

 

Move!

Ask the angels who they're calling

Go ask the angels if they're calling—

 

Dean yanked his phone out of his pocket, fumbling and nearly dropping it before he managed to answer the call.

“Cas. What’s up?”

“Dean,” came the monotone reply. “I have news.”

“Good news? Bad news?” Dean put the call on speakerphone and set his cell down on the table.

There was a beat of silence. “News.”

“Alright, hit me. What’d you find?”

“I went through the apartments of the other two men who died,” said Cas. “There were remnants of the same ectoplasm that was present at Timothy Henk’s home.”

“Yeah, we figured there would be. The three of them had beef with each other. That’s what spectres go after - grudges. And, y’know, the people possessed by these things don’t exactly show up and give their victims a heartfelt speech about their feelings. The situation tends to get a little more hands-on.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Cas said. “There should have been significant ectoplasmic traces at both of those locations - something so obvious that even the police could have seen it, had they been looking. But there were only the barest traces. Someone got rid of it. Those crime scenes were scrubbed, Dean.”

Dean and Sam looked at each other; their faces were mirror images of confusion.

“We’ve never known a ghost who tried to clean up after itself,” Sam said slowly.

“The possessed individual wouldn’t normally have the presence of mind to do so,” Cas told them. “They would be too consumed with their vendetta to do something like this. The entity responsible for these deaths isn’t a typical spectre. It’s too thorough, too…deliberate. Something like this would require total control over the vessel.”

Sam leaned back and crossed his arms. “So this thing’s smart enough to know not just what it’s doing, but how to get rid of the evidence when it’s done?”

“And it’s powerful enough to steer the poor S.O.B. it’s riding wherever it wants, with no pushback or complications. That’s…”

“Bad,” Cas finished for him.

“Yeah. Bad.”

“Have the two of you made any progress?”

“Yeah, we have,” Sam replied. “We think we’ve got the source, and an idea on how to get rid of it.”

“Excellent,” said Cas enthusiastically. “What’s the plan?”

“I’m going to text you an address. Meet me there in twenty minutes and I’ll catch you up to speed, okay?”

“Understood,” said Castiel, and the line went silent.

Dean eyed Sam. “I’m noticing there weren’t any ‘we’s’ in that last bit.”

“Good ear. That’s because we’re not going. I’m going. Without you.”

“Sam, no,” Dean began.

“Dean, yes,” said Sam, the cadence mockingly identical.

Dean scowled and crossed his arms. “Then I just won’t tell you where I parked the car.”

Sam squinted. “Uh. I assume in the parking lot?”

“Guess again, dillweed.” Baby was a solid block away, far from the prying and judicious eyes of any ticket-happy motel staff.

His brother sighed. “Can you quit it with the machismo? I’ve been watching you yawn and nod off for the last hour and a half. You’re exhausted.”

“Pfft. I’m alive, alert, awake, enthusiastic.”

“No, you’re not. If this spectre is as smart as Cas makes it sound, it’s gonna be dangerous. That means you need to be more than just barely conscious,” Sam stressed, gathering up his things as he spoke.

“Fine, so I’m not running on a full tank,” argued Dean, following Sam around the room like an indignant child. “So what? I’m still able to work. A little sleep deprivation never killed anybody.”

“It might, Dean.” Sam stopped and turned to face him. “Listen to me. We’ve been running ourselves into the ground for weeks now, and I haven’t said anything. But I’m not having it anymore. If we’re out of it, we’re gonna keep making stupid mistakes, and that’s the last thing we need right now. We’re too close to finishing this thing.”

Dean opened his mouth to argue again - and froze when Sam’s palm found the dip between his neck and shoulder.

Please, D,” Sam implored, his tone softer. His brows were knit, his mouth set into a concerned frown. “Just get a little sleep. Give yourself a break. ‘Cause I already managed to really screw myself up in Nevada, and I don’t wanna see you do the same here. Just…try, okay?” He hesitated for a moment, then added, “For me.”

Dean felt whatever prideful protest he’d had planned die in his throat - strangled there by his heart, no doubt.

“Okay,” he groused. Attempted to, anyway; a shrug would've made the nonchalance more convincing, but he didn't dare risk jostling Sam's hand and severing the contact. “Guess I could use a nap.”

“Thank you.”

Sam hadn’t moved his hand, still letting it rest against the shore between shirt collar and freckled skin. All the nerves there felt electrified, all the fine hairs at the curve of his neck standing up on end. Valiantly, tremendously, he fought the urge to lean into the touch, or to let his eyes follow the curve of Sam’s arm, or the freshly-shaven slope of his jaw.

Of course, this all meant nothing more and nothing less than it always had. Platonic, brotherly affection. Comfort. Sympathy. Concern. For Sam, anyway. But then, Sam wasn’t the hopelessly forlorn pervert that his big brother was, now, was he?

There was pressure. A squeeze. A grip. And for a heart-stopping second, Dean hoped . He thought back to Sam’s delirious murmuring and groaning, his rough fingers at the back of Dean’s neck, pulling him closer, deeper into the heat of the kiss—

But then Sam’s hand was gone and Dean, suddenly and violently embarrassed, scolded himself. Told himself to stop, just please stop looking for connections that weren't there. What was the word again? Appalachia or something. Whoever made up those unpronounceable psychobabble terms would probably have a field day naming the crap that ran through Dean’s brain.

“Just—“ He swallowed. “Be careful, alright?” Dry mouth.

“I will.”

“‘Cause it’s a mess out there.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. Sweaty palms.

“I believe you,” Sam chuckled, and tapped the stain on Dean's shirt.

“I mean, this town’s fuckin’ weird.” Heartbeat up. Face hot. Ignore it.

“We can deal with fuckin’ weird, remember?”

Pervert.

Coward.

Pathetic.

Sam left with a smile and a promise to call if anything came up. Dean, truly alone for the first time in days, stood immobile in the center of the dusty motel room and listened for the distant growl of the Impala coming to life. He waited for the rumble to fade away completely before he bothered to move at all.

 

* * *

 

As much as Dean wanted to fold himself so deep into his sheets that he couldn’t be extracted by anything but a team of top archeologists, he certainly didn’t want to do it with breakfast still all over him. He stripped out of his shirt and shucked off his jeans, content to save redressing himself for such a time where he had more energy and more fucks to give.

For a few long, blissful moments he just sat at the edge of his mattress, letting the air conditioning blow gently against his bare back while the thin column of sunshine from the window warmed his chest and face. Calm. Cool. Quiet. Almost silent, really, except for the electric hum of the A/C and the near-inaudible conversation happening on the TV screen. Some syndicated episode of Dr. Sexy, M.D. The sexy-but-obsessed Dr. Clyde and the sexy-yet-solitary Dr. Gund were in the middle of a heated argument over who was more deserving of the title of Seattle Mercy Hospital’s top nephrologist.

He was reminded of a case in Ohio not so many years ago; tracking down a small coven of vamps at a comic book convention, of all fucking places. He and Sam had gotten into a big argument, and they’d split up - ostensibly to cover more ground, but also to get some space. Dean had almost ganked some kid with fake fangs in the men’s room, and Sam had wound up with three kills and a busted molar. It had all turned out alright, though; he and Sam had even gotten invited to a pretty decent hotel party with an open bar, two really convincing Power Rangers, and three girls dressed as the same “sexy pink cat-demon girl,” as Sam so descriptively put it.

(Dean, of course, had recognized the costumes as Manko-Chan from Go! Super Honey Kitty Kiss, but he’d had enough tact not to make vocal his knowledge of hentai. Again.)

The part Dean remembered most fondly, however, was the following morning. Sore, hungover, and discovering smudges of pink body paint in some frankly surprising places, Dean had wandered down to the parking lot fully ready to curl up in the passenger’s seat and let Sam take the first part of their upcoming drive.

Sam, wide awake and grinning in spite of his injury, had been waiting by the Impala with, oddly enough, a gift. An apology, he’d called it. In his gangly grip had been a photo of actor Steve Baccic - Dr. Sexy himself - signed: To Dean - Stay sexy.

“Make sure to keep it safe under your pillow tonight,” Sam had told him, laughing. The giant idiot. The fool.

Dean kept it in the trunk of the Impala, under the biggest, heaviest bits of their arsenal - where it would be really, really safe.

It wasn’t the picture that he was protecting, though, and he knew it. It was the memory. The genuine surprise and delight he’d felt. How fucking happy Sam had looked when Dean had thanked him.

Happy.

Are you happy, Sam?

I hope you’re happy.

That’s all I want. For you to just be happy. No matter what that takes from me.

Quite suddenly, Dean felt a ferocious wave of conviction. If Sam was going to be happy - if things were going to be back to normal - then the onus was on Dean himself to start fucking acting normal. Leave last night stuck in the dark part of his mind with the rest of his questionable content, and get back on track. It would get easier and easier with time, wouldn’t it? It had to.

His eyes fell on the mattress across from him, all the bedclothes wadded up in an unlovely pile in the center. He should change them. Sam wouldn’t want to sleep on those. No one would. And it would be healthy for Dean, too. After all, that was really the only physical remnant of last night, wasn’t it? He could get rid of them and that would be the end of that. No problem, no whammies, thank you, your order’s ready, please drive through. The end. Amen. Yeehaw.

Dean shook himself. God, he was fucking tired.

Despite every instinct telling him to pass the hell out, Dean picked himself up and approached Sam’s bed. Alright. So far, so good. Weird apprehensive feeling in the pit of his stomach, sure, but that would pass with time, too.

It had to.

Dean gripped a handful of the soiled sheets. The texture was unpleasant under his palms - slick, almost, the way a grease-rag might be. The majority of Sam’s sweating had been done on the duvet, but Dean felt it was best to change the whole setup. With a yawn, he began pulling the corners of the fitted sheet up. Just letting his hands move. Robot body completing a task. Mind miles and miles away from—

 Dean, Dean, Dean, please

—everything that had happened.

Dry mouth again. He blamed the A/C.

Pillows next. Dean could still see the dip in one where his own head had rested while he’d watched as Sam rambled and smiled and dozed. Where he’d lain as he wrapped his arms around his brother and held him tightly while—

I love you.

—God. Get it together. Sweaty palms again.

Two pillows down. Two to go. Sam’s pillows. Home stretch. Heartbeat up again but who cares, who cares, just stop it, get it over with. Dean snatched the nearest one and began to yank it out of the flimsy case.

All at once, Sam’s scent was everywhere.

It was the scent of sweat, yes, sweet and acrid and old; but there was more than that, there was something else underneath it. Jasmine shampoo. Cheap motel soap and good cologne and the barest hint of leather and oil. Sam. Sammy. It was the same smell that Dean knew from every quick embrace, every cautious huddle, every too-close moment that he’d been treasuring for years and years and it was right there, right under his nose.

 

Dean,

 

please.

 

The memory roared to the surface of his mind before he could stop it. Desire, guilt, affection, regret - it was too much, too fucking much. He was being crushed by it - no, he was being drowned in it. He gripped the pillow to his chest in an attempt to ground himself.

I love you

I love you

I love you

Dean buried his aching face into the fabric with a low groan. The cold knot of guilt in his stomach writhed and curled like a serpent and he inhaled again, shuddering. Horribly, unbelievably, against all moral and physical odds, he was hard again.

There was a single, still beat wherein Dean’s base instinct went to war with his guilt and reservation. But Dean was so, so tired, his walls worn down by his exhaustion, his affection, and this unexpected fucking loneliness that had come along with the success of his ruse. He had tasted what could’ve been, what could never actually be, and now he’d be living with it for the rest of his life with no satisfaction.

Well. Almost no satisfaction.

Dean tumbled forward onto the bed, onto those rumpled sheets, the pillow still pressed to his face and chest, that scent still overpowering him with every breath. For the first time since the previous night he let himself really revisit the event. But he imagined, in this solitary and self-indulgent moment, that it was different. That there was no fever, there was no grace, there was nothing spurring Sam into Dean’s arms other than pure and honest want.

He closed his eyes and he saw Sam’s flushed face, his parted lips, his chest heaving and hands wandering over every inch of Dean they could reach. He could almost feel the slide of Sam’s tongue over his, could remember the noise his throat made when he swallowed. The way his hips rolled and twisted with need, just outside of Dean’s vision. Dean could picture the way he might’ve gasped and moaned if Dean had pressed that last inch or two forward, slotted against him just right. The way Sam’s deep, gentle voice might’ve sounded while he and Dean moved together.

Yes, right there, just like that, fuck, Dean, Dean, please—

Fumbling, frantic, Dean shoved his hand down his boxers, grasping at himself. Not even stroking, really, more thrusting blindly down against his own grip and the soiled pile of fabric underneath him. Rutting like a creature in heat, greedily inhaling lungful after lungful of that lingering, heady scent. He was elated. He was disgusting. He didn’t care. He was free. And he was miserable.

Spit and sweat and scars and muscle and I love you, I love you, please, Dean, yes yes yes yes

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, Sammy—“

The beautiful pressure at the base of his spine mounted with an alarming quickness, all the previous night’s frustration catching up with him in record time. The smooth, wet slide of his cock against his hand and the smell of Sam all around him keyed him up to a near-frenzied pace. He ground his hips down again and again in a sloppy, desperate pantomime of fucking, the head of his prick slipping obscenely through the mess on his palm. His blood was pounding in his ears, sweat beading on his temples, his breath coming in irregular gasps. Closer, closer, closer.

Thrown as fully as he was into his fantasy, Dean completely missed the sound of someone knocking at the door.

 

* * *

 

Janey Kessler and Dana Alessandro were childhood friends. The two of them had many good qualities. Janey was an excellent cook, for example. Dana, for her part, had never missed a single Sunday mass, even when she’d broken her arm. They were both talented athletes - Janey had even earned a gymnastics scholarship.

A quality that neither of them had, unfortunately, was respect for authority - least of all the authority wielded by Mr. Beech, the near-sighted, balding, pie-faced proprietor of the Bloom Ridge Motel, where they both worked. Which was why, on this particular Saturday, they’d managed to be a staggering two hours late in making their housekeeping rounds -  a new personal record, despite repeated (if ultimately impotent) threats of unemployment.

“We’re gonna run out of towels,” Dana pointed out, taking a drag off of her third cigarette of the hour.

“So we’ll go back and get more,” said Janey, locking the door to room 106.

“That’s an awful long walk for towels.” Dana leaned against the cleaning cart. “Let’s just be…sparing, with the ones we’ve got.”

“We’ll be fine.” Janey tugged lightly at the cart, and Dana took her weight off of it. “We’ve only got like, four rooms left, anyhow. And these fellas here usually—“ she stopped, cocking her head. “Huh.”

“What?” Dana followed Janey’s gaze to the door to room 105. “What’s wrong?”

“Well, last two days, these guys had the li’l ‘No Service’ thing on their door. Usually those types of folks leave ‘em on and just ask for what they want, but—“ she shrugged. “Who knows, maybe they left.”

“Good riddance, I guess,” muttered Dana. “Heard Mr. Beech talkin’ ‘bout how much trouble those fellas have been. Weird and loud,” she added pointedly. “He’s got three complaints about ‘em already, or something.”

“Only heard about the one,” Janey grunted, pulling the cart to a stop. “Old lady who left yesterday says one of ‘em was…” She stifled a giggle with her hand. “Streaking.”

Dana flicked the butt of her cigarette away. “Liar.”

“On God! She said he was cute enough, though. Tall, too. Wonder what he’s packin’. Should’ve asked her. Might’ve slipped my number under his door, if the price was right.” She winked, and Dana snorted.

“Way Mr. Beech tells it, you’d be barking up the wrong tree.”

“What’s that s’posed to mean?”

“He says they’re a coupla…y’know.” Dana said conspiratorially.

Janey gathered up a few towels and a roll of toilet paper. “Coupla what?”

You know,” Dana emphasized again. She made a limp sort of motion with her wrist. “Fairies.”

Janey let out a surprised laugh. “Dana!”

“I’m just telling you, that’s what he said! And, Mr. Trejo, from the overnight? He told me this morning that he saw the two of ‘em coming back to their room with a third buck last night. A third buck who never left, I might add.”

“You are just too damn much,” laughed Janey. She knocked on the door.

“Maybe that’s why they’re gettin’ noise complaints,” Dana continued. She crept up behind Janey and whispered, “Big ol’ freaky man-orgy, right on the other side of this here door.”

“Just you hush, now!” Janey half-whispered, still giggling. “What if they’re still here?” She knocked again. “You want ‘em to know we’re out here talkin’ about their, their…sex parties?”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky. Maybe they’re not full-fairy, and they’ll invite us in.” Dana grinned salaciously, earning another peal of giggles from Janey.

“I think our luck’s up.” Janey knocked one final time. “Think our freaky friends up and left town. Didn’t see that hot rod of theirs in the parking lot, neither.” She flipped through the keys on her ring.

“What a shame,” sighed Dana dramatically. “How’s a gal to find love if all the good fellas are gay and gone?”

Too damn much,” Janey repeated fondly, jiggling the key into the lock. “You really oughta—“

Dana never found out what she oughta do. At that moment the door swung open and Janey positively yelped, jumping back and nearly knocking Dana and the cart clean over. Her armful of supplies went tumbling; three less towels for this round, and now she’d have no choice to walk back. For once, however, laziness was not her driving concern.

The man glaring at them might’ve been very attractive, under the right circumstances. But as he was - wild-eyed, sunburnt, disheveled, shirtless, and bruised - attractive was not the right word. Janey couldn’t think of the right word, and neither could Dana. They couldn’t really think of any words, to be quite honest.

Luckily, it was the man who spoke first - breathlessly, angrily, his voice raw and thick. “Can’t you read?”

“I-I-I wasn’t—“ Janey stammered. She swallowed. “R-read what?”

“The placard,” he grunted. The shiner he sported under one bright green eye was fresh and ugly. Janey tried not to stare. Unfortunately the only other places to look were the visible portion of his chest (which was, admittedly, pretty alright) or the floor.

Dana piped up. “Uh, there ain’t no placard here. Sir.”

The man leaned further around the edge of the door, seemingly careful to keep his lower half out of view (Dana had read stories about perverts who answered motel maids naked; she had, until now, discounted them as untrue). The frantic anger in the man’s expression seemed to soften a bit, and he sighed, “Shit.” He wiped a hand over his face and cleared his throat. “Listen, just— bring me a new one, and uh.” Another cough. “A new set of bedsheets and a comforter.”

“New bedsheets?” Dana asked, her tone plainly skeptical and suspicious. Janey elbowed her.

The man stared them down. “Yeah. A.S.A.P."

Janey nodded, but Dana - ever the more defiant of the pair - merely crossed her arms.

“We’ve got a few more rooms to clear, so it might be awhile.“ She tossed her jet-black hair and sniffed. “But we’ll do our best to accommodate your request. Sir .”

The guy narrowed his eyes. And then he shut the door in their faces.

Dana puffed up, her pride wounded and her temper high. “Wh- the nerve of—“

Then the door swung back open and for the second time in as many minutes, Janey all but leaped into Dana’s arms.

“Here.” The man stuck out a fist, and Dana held out an unsteady hand. The man dropped a few crumpled bills into her palm. “A.S.A.P.,” he repeated gruffly, and shut the door once more. The girls could hear the deadbolt and chain being put in place.

“What on God’s green Earth?” asked Janey quietly, utterly baffled.

“Hell if I know,” said Dana, smoothing out the three twenties she’d been given. “N’ hell if I care, girl. Pick this mess up and let’s go get those damn sheets!”

 

Chapter Text

The Heritage Center was a remodeled early-1900's schoolhouse, paid for in large part by endowments from a few old-money families in Georgetown and finished off with good ol’ community funding. It sat atop a hill just beyond the low sprawl of the nicer Georgetown suburbs. The gleam of afternoon sunshine glinting off the schoolbell gave the impression of a single, brilliant bronze eye staring out at the rows of houses below. 

Under the silhouette of this brick-and-mortar cyclops sat the Impala.

Sam watched a few wispy clouds drift across the endlessly blue Texas sky. The parking lot was old, cracked and dotted with clusters of bone-dry weeds. It was otherwise mostly empty, save for a few cars, a few comers and goers. A dusty Harley leaned up against a “No Parking” sign near the door, casually defiant. Maybe it hadn’t been there long enough to garner a ticket, or maybe no one really cared enough to call it in.

There was no sign of Castiel yet. Sam's travel estimate had admittedly been a little generous, which meant one of two things: either there was less traffic than usual, or Sam needed to stop taking driving cues from Dean. It was probably a mixture of both.

A woman two spaces over opened up the back door of her car and two little boys scrambled out. Couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old. They were all knees and elbows, dirty faces, too-big clothes. They were talking and playing as they went. The bigger one ruffled the smaller one’s hair, the smaller one complaining loudly even as he laughed and grinned. Their mother followed behind them, calling out for them to be careful, to not be so rough, to behave once they got inside. The boys didn’t acknowledge her at all. Sam got the impression she was used to it. He could sort of sympathize with her.

He’d been letting whatever tape was in the deck play indefinitely. The music finally faded, then came to an end. Sam distractedly flipped the cassette and hit play again. It was some “Greatest Hits” mixtape that Dean had made forever ago. A bunch of warbling ballads and singalongs that Dean liked to listen to when he was tired or upset. Sam knew them all by heart now, too. And whether he wanted to admit it or not, listening to it made him feel better. More importantly, the noise was something to fill the empty space in the car - and the space in his head choked with things he was trying his best to ignore. 

Three beer-bellied men in shirts with varying levels of sleevelessness wandered by. They eyed the Impala appreciatively as they passed. One of them gave Sam a nod and a smile, which he half-assedly returned. The biggest of the three said something that made the other two laugh. Sam wondered if it was a joke at his expense. What did it matter? There was no way it was anything he hadn’t heard before.

Reclining a bit in the seat, Sam closed his eyes. Without anything to distract him (all due respect to hair metal's best efforts) he thought about that damn dream again. He tried to concentrate on something else, to push it from his mind. Failed. Tried harder, and failed again. Ultimately he gave up. Actively trying to avoid a thought was the worst way to actually avoid a thought.

It wasn’t like Sam to dwell on something like this, which just made it that much more frustrating. He’d always been perfectly content to cope with his uh, inclinations privately. He wasn't an idiot or an idealist (anymore). He knew the way things worked. He knew his situation was one-sided. He knew there was no hope of Dean reciprocating. He knew his fantasies and what-if’s and daydreaming had no foothold in the real world. And that was good, because the more impossible he told himself it was, the safer it was. “No hope” meant “no chance of swinging and missing in the most catastrophic fucking way imaginable.”

But, in spite of all of this perfectly reasonable reasoning, doubt stuck in Sam's mind like a sliver. Tiny yet persistent. Attention-grabbing. Annoying

It had all just felt so…so fucking real. More real and believable than anything Sam had ever cooked up on his own - and Sam Winchester had a damn good imagination, thank you very much. It felt so close to reality. Too close. It felt like almost, the way things had sometimes felt when he’d been hit with visions, predictions. It was the feeling of possibility.

And that feeling? That feeling was fucking dangerous.

Sam rubbed his hands over his face roughly, trying to pull himself out of his own head. This feeling - this almost - was on him. He couldn’t risk losing sight of that, couldn’t risk putting this on Dean. Hell, he'd almost outed himself as the pervert that he was over this stupid glorified wet dream. He considered the damage he might have done if he hadn’t learned the truth in time. If he'd gotten a word in edgewise while he was still mired in his hopelessly hopeful delusions. The thought made him cold all over, made him feel sick and dizzy. No misled maybe or almost was worth what it would've cost him.

So then why, why, why couldn’t he shake off this feeling?

“It doesn’t make much sense, does it?” said a voice next to him.

Sam jolted upright. In the passenger’s seat, as if he’d been there the whole time, sat Castiel. He had a pensive look on his face. One hand was perched thoughtfully on his scruffy chin.

“Venomous and poisonous are entirely different things,” the angel continued casually.

“It’s…it's what?” Sam stuttered, still trying to recover.

“This song,” Cas clarified. He gestured to the radio, where Alice Cooper’s sneering vocals went on. “'Venomous' refers to the effects of a creature's bite, whereas ‘poisonous’ refers to being toxic when ingested. So, in this narrative, is the woman doing the biting? Or is Mr. Cooper going to—“

Castiel,” Sam interrupted. “Why didn’t you just knock on the window or something?”

"You told me to meet you. And you’re here, in the car." He shrugged as if to say, so there you go

Sam couldn't really argue with that logic. So he didn’t. He did roll his eyes, though.

"Where's Dean?" asked Cas.

"Back at the motel and resting, I hope,” Sam told him.

“That’s good,” said Cas. “He looked…”

“Like dogshit?”

“Like dogshit,” Cas agreed, so solemnly that Sam had to laugh. “Though I can hardly blame him. I doubt he slept at all last night.”

“You’re probably right - unless he curled up on the floor, or the two of you managed to snuggle up on that double bed.” 

“Doubtful.” Cas cleared his throat and shifted. “I’d be able to tell if I’d been, uh. Snuggled.”

Sam snorted. “You think so?”

“Oh, absolutely.” Cas fiddled with one of the buttons on his coat. “My clothing didn’t smell like him this morning.”

“Well, I guess—“ Sam halted. “Wait, you know what Dean smells like?”

“I know what both of you smell like,” replied Cas, like it should’ve been obvious.

"Huh," said Sam, because he couldn't think of a more eloquent response than that.

"You said you'd figured out the source of this haunting?" Cas asked.

Sam, only too happy to change the subject, filled Castiel in on what he and Dean had learned: the sparse but morbid history of The Drought Devil; the burning of the Georgetown Baptist Church; and the role this all seemed to play in the vicious cycle they were now attempting to break. He talked, too, about Russell’s hat, and about the strange silver token. Sam speculated that it might be a binding rune, possibly responsible for tethering Russell’s spirit. Castiel agreed that Sam was probably on the right track. They’d be able to tell for sure once they got a closer look. 

Finally, Sam outlined the loose plan he’d concocted. Loose, specifically, because in Sam’s experience break-ins only very rarely worked out the way they were supposed to.

“So we go in, keep it nice and casual, just like the rest of these tourists. I’ll take a look at what we're up against. Figure it'll be pretty easy to work out a way to get what we need. Then we come back and snag the hat after the place closes.”

“Which is when?” Cas asked him.

“Eight. We’ve got plenty of time.” Sam cut the engine. “Ready to go learn way more than we care to about this dumb town?”

“I’ve never been one to pass up completely useless information,” said Cas.

Sam stepped out into the sun. Behind him he heard the click-slam of Cas’ door as he did the same. The afternoon heat sunk into their skin, their clothes, even their hair, immediately. Sam was thankful that it wasn’t more humid out, even if it was only a small relief. He’d done enough sweating over the last twenty-four hours to last him ‘til next summer.

From the slope of the hill below they could hear a distant rumble of traffic. There was a community baseball field nearby that Sam had noticed on his way over. The sound of children laughing and screaming punctuated over the drone of engines and wheels. There were no other visitors milling around. Even most of the cars that had been in the lot previously had since disappeared. The Harley remained, still conspicuously ticket-less.

The sun had dipped lower, and the glare shining off of the bell had gotten more brilliant. Sam had to shield his eyes as he approached the unassuming facade of the Center. Out of habit he began taking mental notes, stowing information away for later:

Single security camera over the entrance. Double doors, no obvious keyholes. Probably a chain and a padlock. Minimal alarms, most likely. Numerous windows, and old ones at that, but they were too high to climb in easily. Sam figured he could boost Dean up, if it came to that. Not that Sam loved playing stepladder during jobs. But a con-man’s gotta do what a con-man’s gotta do, and being six-foot-fuck-you came with just as many drawbacks as it did perks.

There was a lull in the ambient noise. Sam heard his own footfalls echoing across the lot, but no second set of steps behind them. When he turned around to check, he found Cas paused halfway between the Impala and the Center.

Sam whistled lightly. “You coming?” he called out. 

Cas didn’t reply.  It seemed to Sam as though he was trying to look straight through the building itself and at something on the other side. Curious, Sam followed his line of sight.

Barely visible over the roof, there rose a distant column of blue-grey smoke. The brushfire. They were upwind, here on the hill, the smell carried away on the light summer breezes. Sam had almost forgotten about it.

“It’s actually farther away than you’d think,” Sam reassured Cas. He began doubling back slowly. “I’ve been keeping up with the firewatch updates on my phone. It’s okay.” The fire was still miles away from the town, burning in the dry fields and gnarled, thirsty woods. 

“It happens so suddenly,” Cas murmured. “And it spreads so quickly. They just let it go until it’s done, every time it happens. They don’t bother doing anything to prevent it.”

Sam shrugged. “Well, there’s not much they can do, is there?” 

“Isn’t there?” Cas exhaled. “Is it really better to just ignore it?”

“It’s definitely easier,” Sam sort-of-agreed.

“I suppose it must be.” Cas’ eyes were narrowed to slits against the brassy reflection from the school bell. The light was so intense that it seemed to nearly wash the color from his irises completely. “Especially when it’s not your own home that ends up destroyed.”

Sam only nodded. He understood, with a sudden but quiet clarity, that Cas wasn’t talking about the fires. 

“When you’re done with this, and the fires are out, and the rainy season starts, the assumption is that nothing else will be destroyed.”

“That’s the idea.”

Castiel turned to him with that sun-drenched, blue-gold gaze. “Do you think it’ll be that simple?”

Of course , Sam wanted to say. Because it always was that simple. Not necessarily easy, sure, but simple in the way that basic math formulas were simple. The same process every time, without fail.

We came in, we get roughed up, we solve the case, we ride off. The end. Roll credits. It’s sunshine and rainbows afterward ‘til next week, ‘til the next monster, ‘til somewhere else.

But he didn’t say it. He couldn’t say it - not with any confidence. One hundred and fifty years of slaughtered young lovers and charred proselytizers. Over and over again, like some awful tradition, and somehow still a surprise every single fucking time.

It happens so suddenly. It spreads so quickly.

They don’t bother doing anything to prevent it.

They don’t bother.

Rotten crops, grown in rotten soil.

How many other hunters had come and gone through Georgetown, had tried this or that, had fought the good fight and left thinking they’d solved the case?

Fires could always be put out. Spirits could always be exorcised, and monsters killed, and doorways salted and spells broken and curses lifted. And Sam realized that none of that might be enough to truly guarantee safety for everyone in this town. 

“Sam,” Cas spoke gently, interrupting Sam’s thoughts. “How much longer do you think the two of you will have to be here?”

“Well, after tonight, assuming we’re right about this Russell character—“ Sam cleared his throat, shook his head. “We’ll probably head back to Kansas tomorrow.”

“Good.” Cas nodded. Something like relief flickered across his stern features. “That’s good. I’m glad.”

“Glad?” Sam smiled. “What, you miss us or something?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Cas said - but the corners of his mouth quirked up tellingly.

Sam laughed and began walking back toward the Center once again. Castiel fell into easy steps beside him. Sam glanced skyward, where the smoke continued to rise and gather like storm clouds over Georgetown.

Fires could be put out. 

Spirits could be exorcised.

He had to believe that any of it really mattered in the long run.

 

* * *

 

Heritage Center tours take place every hour on the hour, said the little pamphlet in Sam’s hands.

Both Sam’s watch and the clock over the information desk told him that “the hour” started fifteen minutes ago. As there was no evidence of any tour taking place anywhere, Sam decided that the pamphlet was just a filthy little liar.

The middle-aged woman behind the counter - Caroline, as she drawlingly introduced herself - was less than helpful. She seemed content to offer empty and well-rehearsed platitudes. Most of them began with the formal “we” or “the Georgetown Heritage Center” and all of them made it very clear that she personally didn’t much care one way or another when the tours began, or ended, or where the tour guide was, or what other plans the two gentlemen in the lobby might have had outside of said tour.

Sam was less prone to certain types of manipulation than his older brother, but he wasn’t too good for a cheap shot every now and then. So he smiled as charmingly as possible. He leaned on the counter. Bowed his head a little closer to Caroline. Told her, in his richest and smoothest “just-between-you-and-me” voice, that they didn’t need a guided tour. He told her they were excited for the opportunity to wander and learn on their own. And he wouldn’t tell anyone. Really.  After all, Caroline seemed to be working so hard already, and he’d hate to take up more of her time, wouldn’t he?

Caroline watched his display over the thick frames of her glasses. She sniffed a bit. She drummed her nails on the desk. And then, pointedly flashing the modest diamond on her left hand as she scratched her nose, she kindly informed him:

“The Georgetown Heritage Center would prefer that our patrons to have the most rewarding and educational experience possible. And we believe that experience is best facilitated by exploring our town’s rich history with one of our qualified historians. Sir.”

The translation was pretty clear: you either take the damn tour, or you take a damn seat, loverboy.

Castiel, for his part, took a damn seat in the row of low-slung chairs in the lobby. There was a small rack of more pamphlets nearby. Cas grabbed a few, seemingly at random; one notable member of the bunch was advertising the Annual Okra Festival. It was done up in colors and fonts that were a bit more exciting than an okra festival probably deserved.

Sam was still stinging from his failed flirtation with the only happily-married woman in the state of Texas (a failure he was very grateful Dean wasn’t around to witness, as it would’ve been premium insult fuel for weeks - maybe months). He decided to meander around the lobby as he nursed his scuffed pride.

The main hall had been converted to a tall, narrow atrium flocked with paintings, portraits, and plaques, all detailing various bits of local history and trivia.

On each side of the atrium were doorways leading to the left and right halls. Through them, Sam could see more doorways leading to the repurposed classrooms there. But that was all he could see; there was no way of telling at this angle which rooms held which exhibits. There was no map in the lobby to help, wither, but that made sense. The Center was not a very large building. Nobody except someone who planned on casing the joint would need a map. It’d be easier to get lost in a Circle-K.

There was a portion of the wall dedicated to "The Arts.” It was mostly comprised of memorabilia. There were several photos of local theatre productions; a piece of sheet music from some small-time 1995 hit; and an article featuring a local writer accepting a Hugo. After that came some pieces done by local artists. It was the same kind of stuff you might see at an arts-n-crafts event patronized by the fifty-and-older crowd: graphite drawings of historical buildings, still life studies of fruit in bowls (why did people still make these things?), mediocre wildlife portraiture. 

Sam shuffled along. He could feel his eyes glazing over. The ticking of the clock echoed lowly in the otherwise quiet hall, lulling him further.

 

Shuffle left.

 

Tick-tock.

 

Concentrate. Pay attention. You’ve got shit to do.

 

Cameras in the corners near every doorway which would be a pain in the ass.

 

Shuffle left.

 

Tick-tock

 

Alarm keypad on the wall behind the desk, which was really the only thing that might be a problem - but they could just call the company and circumvent it.

 

Shuffle left.

 

Tick-fucking-tock.

 

Twenty-seven minutes past the hour and still goin’ strong.

 

A flicker of color brought him halfway back to attention. Sam blinked the boredom from his eyes, letting the colors and shapes refocus.

It was a small oil painting of a woman dancing. The black arc of her hair trailing behind her as she twirled gave the impression of fluid, graceful movement. Her dress flared out around her in a splash of blues and purples. It was beautiful, and the only genuinely interesting thing on the walls so far. 

As Sam’s eyes adjusted he realized there was more color in his periphery. He took a step back to appreciate the welcome change in the faded sepia-and-pastel mural that had so disinterested him.

The paintings here were so vastly different from their neighbors that it was almost alarming. They were too expressive by comparison, too vibrant. Too emotional. Here, a man in a bar, hunched over a half-full drink and surrounded by the aching saturation of neon and humanity; there, a child and a dog, both of their faces rendered simultaneously charming and unsettling in their brightness and detail.

And here — a man on fire.

Sam stepped further back. In the middle of the display, surrounded by and in deliberate contrast to its energetic siblings, hung the largest painting. It was alarming, the way each awful detail was rendered so painstakingly, so lovingly. A horror story told in the infinite little motions of a talented, patient hand.

Reds and oranges and whites wove in and out in dramatic, sweeping curves beneath a blue-black sky. A crowd of shadowed figures lined the bottom of the painting like hearthstones. In the center stood a single figure, narrow and straight-backed. The flames curled around him like a lover’s arms. Blisters rose on his pale wrists and neck where the black cloth of his coat gave way to skin. The ends of his slate-gray hair curled and frayed where they met the flame. He smiled serenely in spite of the inferno devouring him. His eyes, jaundice-yellow in the reflected firelight, gazed down at the row of shadow puppets below. 

Knowing. 

Proud.

There was a lit match in his hand.

Unease once again clawed its way back into Sam’s body. It stole up his backbone, sharp and digging, like a rat’s claws along a pipe. He thought back to standing in the sunlight outside of the motel, of a rusted sedan with a strange, hard-faced driver, of the taste of soot rising like bile in his mouth.

He dropped his gaze. In the bottom corner of the painting - and in the corners of all the paintings, Sam realized - were the initials T.Y.

A card mounted beneath the horrible central piece read:

 

In Loving Memory of Travis Liam Young.

Curated by the Georgetown Athletic Association.

Works donated by friends and community.

 

Sam thought that the most awful part of the whole thing was the pointed absence of the word “family.”

The sudden sound of fast-approaching footsteps pulled Sam’s attention away from the display. From the left hall came a dark-haired woman. She wasn’t running, per se, but was getting as close as she could in a pencil-skirt and heels. If the Heritage Center lanyard swinging about her neck wasn’t enough to tell them that this was the historian they’d been waiting on, the apologetic grimace on her face sure was.

“Gentlemen, I am—“ she bustled over to them, huffing lightly as if to catch her breath. “I am so sorry for the delay. There was a- a personal matter.”

“It’s alright,” Sam replied, even though it kind of wasn’t. “We were just enjoying the art and, uh.” He inclined his head towards Cas, who approached them with a handful of papers. “The literature.”

“Oh, good,” sighed the woman. Her face smoothed into a pleasant, easy smile, perfectly white teeth framed by rich burgundy lipstick. “Make sure you grab one for the local restaurants.”

“I did,” said Cas, quite seriously. “It had coupons.”

“You’d be an absolute fool to leave them behind,” she said, nodding. “Buy-one-get-one on bison burgers at Dingo Dan’s,” she explained to Sam. She brushed her hair back from her face and straightened her blouse. “Well, no need to waste any more time, verdad ? Do you have any questions before we begin?”

Cas raised his hand.

“Yes?”

He pulled the restaurant pamphlet from his handful and held it up. “How does one ‘chicken-fry’ something? I’m curious as to which—”

Sam interrupted Cas with a firm pat on the shoulder. “Uh, we’ll figure that one out on our own. Later.” He gestured for their guide to begin. “Shall we?”

“Of course,” she laughed lightly. “Follow me.”

She began the introduction, prim and clearly well-rehearsed. The uneasy silence that had been permeating the atrium dissipated as she spoke; she seemed naturally friendly, her demeanor approachable and calming. Sam was grateful for the shift in atmosphere. He spared one more glance back at the cacophony of color on the lobby wall. The man in the flames seemed to watch, his eyes too bright and too real, as the three of them made their way down the hall. 

 

***

 

It was several minutes before Caroline, now alone and free to dive back into the paperback stashed in her desk, noticed another young woman sneaking down the right hallway.

She knew the woman, of course. The skinny redhead was a familiar face around the Center, and a pretty well-liked one at that. Friends with most of the staff, always willing to lend a hand if need be, etc. Although it was none of her business, Caroline knew other parts of town weren’t nearly as friendly. She figured that was probably why the poor girl spent a lot of time hanging out around the handful of places that did treat her well.

(And, of course, around the one person in Georgetown that treated her better than anyone else. Which was also none of Caroline’s business.)

“Rhi,” Caroline greeted, barely sparing a glance up from her book.

“Caroline,” muttered the other woman. She wiped a burgundy smear from her pierced lower lip as she passed.

Neither of them bothered to address the matching stains on her chin and neck. Caroline thought it was a much nicer thing to be dealing with than the mascara-laden tear tracks she’d had on her cheeks when she’d arrived.

But, Caroline figured, none of that was really any of her business.

 

***

 

The tour guide - Marisol, according to her ID badge - led Sam and Castiel along through the rooms, exhibit by exhibit, reciting the narrative from memory.

Sam did a very convincing job of pretending to be seriously invested. It was, if nothing else, a good chance for him to compose a mental map of the rooms for later.  He nodded and smiled and made thoughtful, impressed noises when appropriate. He was glad Dean wasn’t around to snicker at the tales of George Washington Glasscock and Robert “Three-Legged Willie” Williamson. He fake-read the plaques on the displays. All the while he was noting the placement of security cameras, blind spots, emergency exits, storage closets. 

Cas asked inane questions here and there, unprompted, all of which Marisol was more than happy to answer. Sam wondered if the angel was trying to play the part of the tourist, or if he truly was interested in any of this crap. But then Cas gave him a self-satisfied wink while Marisol wasn’t looking - a real “mum’s-the-word, I’ve-got-your-back” type of move - and it was all Sam could do to not laugh out loud.

They came at last to a room smelling of plaster and drywall and fresh paint. In place of the dust that seemed to permeate the rest of the displays there were clean, shining glass panels and new wooden cabinets. In these handsome new cases sat the few blackened remnants of Georgetown’s earliest tragedy.

Marisol was prattling on about the exhibit. It was technically on loan from some university - South, or Western, or Southwestern - and the dour tale of the fire itself. Sam barely heard her. He was fixated on a case in the far corner. There, next to a collection of half-melted rings and patina-covered necklaces and cigarette cases and who-cared-what-else, there was a worn and dirty lump of leather flecked with a speck of silver.

The crux of this whole awful misadventure, and of a century-and-a-half of horror for one Texas town. Jeremiah Arden Russell’s hat. The last remaining bit of the Drought Devil himself. 

Motherfuckin’ paydirt! whooped the Dean-voice in Sam’s head, and Sam very much wanted to cheer along.

A thrill of excitement, of joy, ran down Sam’s spine, such an odd counterpoint to the nervousness he’d felt earlier in the lobby. All at once the previous few days seemed far off, all the hurt and confusion and exhaustion suddenly feeling like little more than a bad, fucked-up dream. Everything was instantly brighter and better, victory was in sight, and— yeah, alright, maybe Sam was getting ahead of himself, but so what? Jeremiah’s hat was here, right here. Not in storage, not behind some crazy lock-and-alarm situation, not on its way back to the hands of some researcher at a college two towns away - just right there, not twenty feet from him. Fifteen feet. Ten feet. Five feet. Four—

“Did you have any questions?”

Marisol’s cheerful chirp startled Sam and he stumbled to a stop. There were velvet ropes surrounding the display cases; looking down, Sam realized he’d been about three nanometers from blindly walking dick-first into one of the conveniently crotch-height poles that held them in place.

“Uh- no, I’m just, uh—“ Sam coughed a bit and chuckled, trying to play it off. “This display, it’s- it’s so—“

“My friend and I have a special interest in haberdashery,” Castiel piped up.

Marisol gave him a strange look. Sam somehow managed to not do the same.

“Fashion,” Castiel explained further. “Particularly historical fashion. So much of mankind is often defined by its adornments.”

“Ah, I see.” Marisol nodded. “What a word that is. Haver-dachery,” she mimicked, her accent making the syllables slow and rich. She laughed, and then, almost as an apology, added, “English is, ah, not my first language.”

“That’s quite alright,” said Castiel easily. “It’s not mine, either.”

The two of them continued to chat while Sam returned his attention to the case. Up-close (or as close as he could get, anyway), the hat was pretty...unimpressive. Just a dirty pile of tan-and-brown, all frayed edges and moth-holes and a single ragged rawhide strip. Even the ominous silver token was only about as striking as a vintage coin. Whatever runes or letters had been inscribed there were so worn that they were near-indecipherable even at this distance.

Over his shoulder, Castiel and Marisol were talking about another one of the displays: the collection of journals that had survived the drought.

“Medical journals,” Marisol told them, unaware that Sam was barely listening. “The only written bits left about day-to-day life in early Georgetown. Nothing too special - they’re mostly notes about patients, and a few diary entries. All of them belonged to the town doctor.”

“Larchmont,” said Cas, and Marisol hummed in agreement. “He was one of the three men who died in this fire, wasn’t he?”

“He was,” she confirmed. “Which, I suppose, makes his books all the more important. Not just pieces of history, but pieces tied to a single instant of history.”

“A fairly morbid instant,” said Cas.

“That is true. But those are the things that people like to see, aren’t they? That’s why we have that.” She inclined her head toward the case where Sam stood. “It’s why we do lots of things. Why we read depressing stories and watch scary movies. We love creepy things, cruel things, sad things. It’s, ah, human nature.”

“I don’t like those things.” Cas ran his fingers along the length of the rope in front of him.

“Oh? Then maybe you’re a little less human than the rest of us, hm?” Marisol half-chided, tittering.

Castiel stood up a little straighter, suddenly self conscious, and cleared his throat. Sam fought to conceal a grin. He made a note of the placement of the cameras and windows in the room, and rejoined his two companions.

“This is incredible,” he said, and the excitement in his voice was sincere, if not for the reasons Marisol probably thought. “What’s next?”

“The lobby, I’m afraid,” said Marisol, frowning. “This is the end of the tour.”

“Darn,” sighed Sam, shaking his head. He tried to seem appropriately crestfallen. “What a shame. This was so—”

“Delightfully informative,” Cas supplied flatly.

Marisol laughed. “It’s rare to see folks so invested in our little town,” she said warmly. “And so well-behaved, too. I only had to stop you from touching the glass once.”

Sam chuckled. “What can I say? We’re just a real pair of history buffs.”

“Well, tours aren’t so very expensive,” she said. “You can come back again very soon.”

“Don’t worry,” said Cas, smiling. “We plan on it.”

 

***

 

Back in the car, Sam and Cas rested. Low evening sunlight bathed the lot. Everything was still and quiet. The still-scorching heat robbed the golden hour of some of its usual charm, but that couldn’t really be helped.

“Do you think you can get inside easily?”

The leather of the steering wheel was warm under Sam’s hands. “I think so,” he said distantly. “I think I saw enough blind spots. And the security system seems pretty weak. I think I can do it. Sure.”

Cas eyed him. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Sam shook his head. “Sorry. I’m just a little…” He paused, thought a moment, and sighed. “Did you get anything in there?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean from the hat. From that charm. Token. Whatever. It didn’t seem to ping your Angel Radar.”

Castiel’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t feel a ping,” he admitted. “But that might also be a function of the charm itself.”

”Does that type of charm do that sort of thing?”

”I don’t know,” admitted Cas. “I was unable to identify the sigil. I’ve never seen it before.”

Frustration tugged at the edges of Sam’s nerves. He quickly pushed it away. If  this wasn’t the solution, so be it. Hadn’t he been the one telling Dean that going back to square one wasn’t a big deal? It’d be mighty weak of him to get fed up so quickly.

“I’ll figure something out,” he said aloud - mostly to reassure himself. “Even if it turns out that it’s not this stupid hat, I’ll figure this out.”

“I know you will.” Cas gave him a confident nod. “The two of you always figure things out.” He paused. “That being said…”

“What’s up?”

“If I may,” Cas began, shifting to face him. “I know you’re more than capable of obtaining this artifact on your own merits. I know that. You and your brother are very talented criminals.”

“That’s not a compliment, but thank you.”

“But you don’t need to.”

Sam squinted. “Don’t need to what?”

“Get the hat.”

“What am I gonna do instead, burn the whole building down?” Sam laughed. “I know you’re not the smiting type anymore—“

“No, no. What I mean to say is, I can get the hat for you.”

The words took a few extra seconds to get from Sam’s ears to his brain. “Come again?”

“It’d be very simple,” explained Cas. “It would take—“ He closed his eyes for a moment, his lips moving silently. “About two-point-eight seconds, I think.”

Sam blinked.

“That’s just an estimate, you understand. And that’s taking into account the distance from your motel to this location, the potential presence of nighttime janitorial staff, the weather, how many st—“

“Hang on-hang on-hang on.” Sam held up a hand. “You’re just, what, you’re gonna poof in there and just get the damn thing for us?”

“Yes.”

If Sam had been later asked to describe the emotion he felt at that moment, he would’ve probably chosen something like “befuddled” or “flabbergasted.” One of those Mary Poppins-ish words that evoked images of good-natured confusion - and maybe just a little bit of irritation.

“Cas,” he said slowly. “If that was an option the whole entire time, why did we just spend an hour and forty-five minutes taking a guided historical tour?”

“Two reasons. The first is that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be able to do it. If there had been certain spells or charms around the artifact, it might’ve prevented me from apparating. I had to physically be there first to ‘feel it out.’”

”Don’t use airquotes. What’s the second reason?”

”The second reason is that I sometimes enjoy doing non-life-threatening activities with you,” Castiel said simply.

“Oh. Alright,” said Sam, who was suddenly unable to feel any emotion other than “warmth”. “That’s- that’s fair. It was a pretty cool tour.”

Castiel smiled. “It wasn’t.”

“No, but there are way worse ways to spend an afternoon. And it gave Dean a little time alone, to rest.” Sam frowned. “Wish I could give him a bit more time.”

“We don’t have to go back immediately. The Center will be open for at least another hour or so, correct?”

“That’s true.” Sam turned the key and threw the Impala in reverse. “What d’you wanna do until then?”

There was the sound of rustling paper, and Sam felt something nudging at his thigh. When he looked down, there was a neatly-folded pamphlet resting on his leg.

“Do you think your brother would enjoy a bison burger?”