In the morning, they leave the little house just as they found it. They put the fire out before they go, and Sam can’t help bespelling and warding it against supernatural intruders as he has with the camps they’ve visited. As they make their way down the hill in front of the cabin, Dean looks back over his shoulder. The house is already slipping into the morning mist, disappearing along with its former occupants.
He wonders about the woman and the little girl who once lived here, and he’s glad Sam wove the time spell that should keep the house and its contents untouched for at least another five years. Maybe the family will return. Dean doubts it, but he can’t help respecting Sam’s hope. It’s something he’s beginning to depend on.
Sam leads them down the mountain on a more direct path than the one they came up, and by mid-afternoon they reach the edge of a cliff which gives them a stunning view of the plains below.
“It’s still another three day’s walk down from here, but I needed you to see this,” Sam explains. The wind blows his hair back from his face and once again Dean can’t decide which is more beautiful, the stunning natural vista or Sam’s profile.
They bed down that night in the open, without the protection of a mage camp. It’s more dangerous than other places they’ve camped so far, so they take turns keeping watch and don’t build a fire. As they eat the dried meat and fruit they took from the Novak homestead, they watch the stars and consider their next move. It makes sense to continue East, to find other hunters and get news of the situation on the ground.
The next day passes in much the same way. Dean’s just grateful they’re headed downhill and that Sam knows the way. By mid-afternoon of their second day, the landscape becomes familiar, and Dean realizes he’s passed this way before.
“There was a town about a day’s walk from here, on a plateau over the river,” Dean says. “I think they named it after the Governor of Kansas.”
“Denver City.” Sam nods. “I’ve been there. First settled by gold-rushers in the ‘50s.”
“That’s right. They were having a helluva problem with daevas, last time I passed through there.”
“Shadow demons?” Sam frowns. “I thought those were mythical.”
“Maybe, but they’re real, too,” Dean says. “They were tearing people apart right and left. Bobby and I figured out they were being controlled by a gang of corrupt politicians and bankers. Bobby seemed to think they were possessed by demons, but they seemed like ordinary humans to me. Greedy, power-hungry humans.”
“Humans who can control daevas,” Sam says, clearly skeptical.
“Yeah. I don’t know, maybe they made deals with demons.” Dean feels like an idiot in the face of Sam’s obviously superior knowledge and understanding of all things supernatural, and it makes him grumpy. “All I know is, this is a human thing. It’s human bad guys doing bad things.”
“So you took them down?”
Dean’s appalled. “What? What part of ‘this is a human thing’ do you not understand?”
“The part where the humans are controlling the things and making them kill other humans,” Sam says. “That’s evil. Those kind of humans have to be stopped.”
“Right. Bobby and me against hundreds of these things. Maybe more.”
“So you call for back up,” Sam says. “You get other hunters. You call in the cavalry.”
“Sam, you have to understand something,” Dean says. He’s trying to be patient. “The U.S. government doesn’t care about us. They cut us off five years ago. They called it quits on the whole Western Expansion project. They pulled back their troops, deserted their forts and garrisons West of the Mississippi, left a half-finished railroad and three westward wagon routes unprotected. They abandoned us. We’re a lost cause.” Dean shakes his head. “We’re on our own out here, Sam. Whatever way of life we can scrounge out of these monster-infested lands, it’s up to us to protect that. Nobody’s coming to rescue us. And we just don’t have the manpower to save every failing town and settlement. We don’t.”
Sam sucks in a breath. “So you’re just giving up?”
“Not giving up,” Dean says firmly. “I was born and raised out here. So was Bobby, so were Ellen and Jo and most of the folks living in Lawrence. And that’s the operative word, Sammy. We’re living. We protect what we have. We’re not letting the bastards take it away from us.”
“But you’re not out looking for a fight,” Sam says.
Dean recalls the way he threw himself into hunting after Sam disappeared. He was reckless, probably a little suicidal, although he’d never admit that to himself, nor to Sam.
“Let’s just say the overall dynamic has changed since dad became a hunter,” Dean says. “Back then, we hunted to make the West livable for all people, incoming Settlers and Natives alike. Now, we operate on a more defensive mode, to hold on to the lives we’ve already built.”
“But you still go out on hunts,” Sam clarifies. “You leave your homes to get out there to do the work.”
“Of course we do,” Dean huffs. “We’re hunters, aren’t we? We got local law enforcement for basic protection. We’re the guys who get called on to take out a pack of werewolves or a nest of vampires who’ve moved into the area. We’ve got specialized skills and knowledge. The local sheriffs and chiefs are always gonna need us.”
Sam shakes his head. “Things sure have changed in six years,” he notes. “They’ll be making you sheriff before you know it.”
“No, they won’t!” Dean scoffs. “I’ve been on the road for the past six years, in case you didn’t know. I’m a wanderer at heart.”
“No, you’re not.” Sam shakes his head. “You’re a homebody if I ever met one. The way you protected the ranch all those years... That’s real love and dedication. I’ll bet you can’t wait to have a home again.”
Dean’s stunned. He’s learned to see himself as a rambler, a traveler who never settles down or puts down roots.
“Nah. You’re wrong about that,” he says. “I’ve spent the past six years wandering, and it’s changed me. I’m a nomad now.”
Sam smiles softly. “You were searching for me,” Sam reminds him. “Now you’re looking for your mom. Pulling your family together. I know you. You’re a homesteader at heart, not a cowboy.”
Dean bristles. “You don’t know me,” he huffs, but he can’t deny that what Sam says is partly true. He’s a wanderer by necessity, a hired gun by circumstance. The fact that he’s learned to accept the life doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss having a home.
That night, Dean takes the first watch because he’s older and those are the rules. Sam rolls his eyes but accepts Dean’s order to bed down for four hours, gets up without question when it’s Dean’s turn to sleep. The night passes without incident, and Dean’s grateful for that, if a little wary. They’ve gone several days without encountering anything supernatural, except the angel, of course. It feels wrong.
“What are you thinking?” Sam asks as they head out on the trail a couple of hours after dawn. They’re both a little groggy.
“Just wondering what made those werewolves take off like that,” Dean says.
Sam understands. “I was wondering the same thing,” he admits. “It’s like they got called off.”
Dean nods. “Never saw werewolves behave that way before.”
“You think something’s controlling them?”
Dean shrugs. “Maybe.”
“Humans? Like those dickbags in Denver?”
“I don’t know, man.” Dean shakes his head. “Dad always said monsters were stupid. They’re basically blood-thirsty animals that can’t think for themselves for shit. But after that dream I had, I can’t help thinking there’s other things out there that are calling the shots, you know?”
“Angels,” Sam suggests.
“Or demons,” Dean says. “Bobby says demons have intelligence. They can organize themselves, work in groups. I’ve never seen one, but Bobby says they look human. Act human, too, like shapeshifters. They could’ve been living among us all this time and we’d never know it.”
Sam nods. “Native lore is full of stories of demonic possession,” he says. “I’ve never heard of demons controlling other creatures, though.”
“Hellhounds,” Dean corrects. “Demons control hellhounds. And daevas.”
“Right.” Sam frowns. “Not the average demon, though. Only the more powerful ones can do that.”
“Like I said before, I’ve never seen one, so I can’t say. Bobby’s got experience with demons. Ran into one when he was young, apparently. That’s the the only one I’ve ever heard tell of, outside of books and rumors.”
Talking about angels and demons puts Dean’s teeth on edge. He’s not sure why it bothers him so much to imagine some higher order of intelligence controlling the supernatural creatures he’s used to killing, but it does. It suggests there’s some kind of plan, some kind of order to the way the monsters are behaving.
He can’t shake the dream. It suggested that there was a systematic extermination going on, or a plan to put one in place. That idea makes Dean profoundly uncomfortable. Random monster attacks he can handle. Organized genocide he can’t. It’s too much to get his mind around.
“What I don’t get is, what’s the point?” Sam says, as if he’s reading Dean’s mind, which Dean’s starting to get used to. “I mean, if the monsters kill all the humans, how will they survive? If they destroy their food source, they’ll die, too, won’t they?”
Dean shakes his head, just as stumped. They walk for the next couple of hours in silence, both lost in thought.
As soon as they step out of the trees onto the gentle slopes of the foothills, they hear hoofbeats. Sam puts two fingers into his mouth and whistles, getting an answering whinny that makes him smile.
Two horses crest the hill to the northeast, making their way at a full gallop. When they reach Sam and Dean they circle them, still at a full gallop, tossing their heads, snorting and whinnying until Dean throws back his head and laughs. Sam catches his eye and laughs with him, waits for Dean to put his pack down and pull out a halter and the carrot he’d been saving for just this occasion.
Remus tosses her head and snorts as Dean puts his hands up, leting her see what he’s holding. She stops circling, stamping back and forth in front of Dean in a perfect figure eight before she steps up to him, tossing her head once more before she pushes her muzzle into his hand and takes the carrot between her teeth. Dean slips the halter over the mare’s head as she nuzzles his shoulder, looking for more treats.
“Ha. Such a flirt,” Dean teases, petting her neck affectionately as he slides around to her left side and jumps up onto her back. She circles as he gets his leg over her, pulling the halter’s rope around so he can use it as a makeshift reign, barely hinting at the bridle he didn’t need to bring with him. When he’s fully seated he looks over at Sam, who managed to catch and mount Romulus in half the time without either a carrot or a halter. Sam grins at him, and Dean shakes his head.
“Show off,” he mutters.
Sam laughs. “Romy is the show-off,” he insists. “She just wanted to show Remus how much better her rider is.”
“Ha! Better than you were when you were twelve, maybe,” Dean chuckles. “Not better than me, though.”
Sam grins, but doesn’t answer.
Within a couple of hours, they find themselves in a deserted settlement. It’s a small town, nestled against the foothills of the rockies, and not far from it they find a Native village, also deserted. There’s no sign of struggle in either place, but Dean gets the distinct impression the occupants left in a hurry. There’s a half-eaten bison in the smokehouse in the Native village, an open bottle of whiskey on the table in the town saloon. The horses toss their heads nervously as they make their way through the town to the blacksmith shop, where Dean decides to borrow a saddle and bridle.
“Something tells me nobody’s coming back to claim these,” he comments as Sam watches with a frown. He doesn’t bother to saddle his horse, although he borrows a blanket and bridle. Dean checks out the weapons stash in the sheriff’s office and decides to borrow an extra Colt revolver and silver bullets. “Just in case,” he tells Sam.
“Where do you think they went in such a hurry?” Sam asks.
“My guess? Someplace safer,” Dean says. “Maybe a fort?”
“Not around here,” Sam says.
They exchange glances as they have the same thought. Denver City is less than a four hours ride.
Dean doesn’t tell Sam that he’s seen this before. People have been abandoning villages and towns all over the West, now that the word is out about the troop withdrawal. There aren’t enough hunters and Native warriors to protect the entire population, so a large number of Settlers have given up and gone back East, while the Native population has dwindled. There are ghost towns and villages everywhere, some populated by actual ghosts, which is a good reason in Dean’s mind not to try to stay the night in one, however tempting it might be to lie down in a real bed again.
They leave the town in low spirits, neither feeling much like talking about what they just saw.
About a mile outside of Denver City, things go from bad to worse. They see the smoke first, then they find the first bodies, human corpses with their hearts torn out, lying by the side of the road out of town.
“Looks like they made a run for it, back the way they came, then got caught by werewolves,” Sam notes, nose wrinkling delicately. The closer Sam and Dean get to Denver City, the worse it smells. The stench of death mixes with the acrid smell of smoke until it becomes clear that the whole town is burning.
The horses snort and paw nervously as Sam and Dean urge them along the road that skirts the city, eyes peeled for the first sign of danger. It goes unspoken between them that they can’t stop here. Even as the sun sinks to the horizon and the air becomes so thick with smoke that it seems like night has already fallen, Sam and Dean keep going, urging the horses forward along the river until they can cross safely and head out onto the plateau beyond.
Only when they’ve put the city semi-comfortably behind them does Dean breathe a sigh of relief. Over the next couple of hours they keep an eye out for any sign of life, either friend of foe, but finally the burning smell fades behind them.
“I know a place we can bed down,” Sam says, making Dean jump, and it occurs to him that neither of them has said a word in several hours. “It’s well-warded. Invisible.”
“Great,” Dean mutters. As if the magic that makes Sam’s camps invisible doesn’t somehow trigger every werewolf in the neighborhood.
It isn’t the first time that thought has crossed Dean’s mind.
He doesn’t share it with Sam, though. Sam seems so sure of the magic he learned from Dean’s mom. Sam’s mom. And mostly, Sam’s been right since that first night. It’s possible that the energy created when Sam and Dean reunited was what had attracted the werewolves, not the weird invisible camp.
That thought makes Dean jumpy. The whole notion that there’s something special about Sam and Dean together makes Dean’s skin crawl, to be honest. He knows there’s something special about them. He’s known it since the first moment four-year-old Sam arrived on his doorstep. But finding out that the world knows it, that the world finds anything unique or noteworthy about them is...disturbing. Dean’s now had confirmation of that not just from his mother, which is scary enough, not to mention her apparent need to soul-bond them. But Castiel also made reference to Sam and Dean as if they were a single entity, as if their union was common knowledge on the Supernatural Telegraph Lines.
The camp isn’t as primitive as their former digs. Now that they’re out of the mountains, accommodations are a little less rustic, apparently. There’s a well with running water, a sod house built into the side of the hill that’s mostly dry inside, and plenty of supplies.
They eat, wash up, make sure the horses are fed and watered after the long day’s ride, then they tumble into bed with their clothes on. They’re too tired to do much more than kiss and rut and cling to each other, but Dean can’t help wishing he could crawl inside Sam’s body and hide from what they’ve seen today.
“We should go back and burn or bury all those corpses,” Dean mutters after they’ve lain quietly together for the better part of an hour. “There’ll be a helluva restless spirit situation there if we don’t.”
Sam nods, but says nothing. He holds Dean tighter, breathes deep into the side of his head.
“Maybe later, though, huh?” Dean goes on. “We should probably check on things in Lawrence first.”
Sam sighs, nods again, and presses his lips to Dean’s temple.
“It’s a two-week ride if we start in the morning,” Dean says. “If we push it, we could make it in ten days.” He’s not sure Sam will agree, but he hopes he will. He needs Sam by his side, now more than ever.
“Okay,” Sam says. It’s almost a whisper, he says it so quietly. “Not sure how welcome I’ll be, but I’ll come with you.”
Dean’s so grateful he chokes up and can’t speak. Sam presses his lips against Dean’s temple again and leaves them there.
They fall asleep like that, holding each other as tight as they can, feeling each other’s hearts beating, their breaths warm and damp in the space between them.
Dean’s sleep is deep and dreamless.
They head out early the next morning on the road to Lawrence, almost due East. By noon they encounter another ghost town, this one just as empty as the first, although it seems to have been abandoned longer. There’s dust on the tables in the saloon and on the porch railings. The houses have been stripped of their belongings, not much left behind for scavengers or hungry wanderers.
“I’m guessing these folks took their time packing up, getting gone,” Dean says as they go through the empty cupboards and drawers in the General Store. “This place has been empty for a while.”
“Maybe they left when the cavalry pulled out,” Sam suggests, and Dean nods. Makes sense to him.
At least there aren’t any bodies.
They stop for the night in a deserted farmhouse and help themselves to the potatoes and carrots in the root cellar. They bed the horses down in the stable, where they find a bale of hay and some grain. It rains during the night, becomes a raging thunderstorm by morning, and they decide to wait till the rain stops before starting out again. They play cards while they wait, and Sam shows Dean how to light a fire without matches or flint. They undress, wash, cook the rabbit Sam caught the day before, and have sex on the floor in front of the fire. The house reminds Dean of the one he grew up in. It’s harder than he expected to leave the next morning, but they do it, heading out under a clear blue sky dotted with the puffy white remains of the thunderclouds from the day before.
The weather holds out for the next few days and they make good progress. Every town they pass is deserted. Except for the birds, rabbits, and occasional herd of buffalo, the world feels completely empty of life, though Dean knows that’s not possible.
On the sixth day out of Denver, they run into a band of hunters heading north.
“We’re going home to Sioux Falls,” Victor Henriksen, the group’s leader, tells Sam and Dean. “Last I heard, they need help holding the settlement against human raiders and werewolves. We could sure use a couple of strong young hunters, if you’re looking for work.”
“We’re on our way home, too,” Dean says. “You heard anything about Lawrence?”
Henriksen shakes his head. “Nothing since last fall. They were holding their own then. You boys know Bobby Singer?”
“We do,” Dean nods. “He’s been a family friend since before I was born.”
“What’s your name, boy?” One of the hunters, an older man with a grizzled beard, peers at Dean curiously.
“Winchester,” Dean answers. “My father was John Winchester.”
The old hunter sticks his hand out. “Martin Creaser,” he introduces himself. “Your dad and I served together in the War. Good man.”
“Yes, sir.” Dean nods, shakes the man’s hand. “He was.”
Creaser gets Dean’s meaning and tips his hat. “I’m sorry for your loss, son,” he says softly. “I take it he went down fighting?”
“He did,” Dean says, clearing his throat. “So what’s this about Bobby?”
“Just that I know they’re dying for him to come home,” Henriksen says. “They’re looking for a good sheriff, so if you see him, let him know, will you? They could really use his help up there.”
“We’ll do that.” Dean nods.
Dean asks about his mother, but none of the hunters has heard tell of Mary Winchester in years.
“There were rumors about a Mary Campbell who ran a training camp for young hunters,” Henriksen says. “That was four, five years ago now, around the time of the Withdrawal. Haven’t heard anything about her since, and I never met her. She was a bit of a legend even then.”
They share stories and news over a stew of potatoes, carrots, onions and buffalo the group had killed a couple of days ago. The hunters are impressed by Sam’s warding talent, taking lessons as he showed them how to hide a cooking fire in plain sight. They seem surprised when the Winchesters tell them they hadn’t encountered a single monster since May 3 at a camp in the Rockies.
“Oklahoma and Texas are crawling with chupacabra,” Creaser tells them. “They travel in packs, like werewolves, and they’re just as bloodthirsty.”
Sam and Dean relay what they saw in Denver City, and Henriksen nods.
“Saw that in Kansas City about a year ago,” he says. “Daevas infiltrated the general population, then werewolves moved in to finish the job. Messiest thing I ever saw.”
“Why didn’t you tell them about Castiel?” Sam whispers later, when they’re bedded down in one of the tents the hunters loaned them.
Dean shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I didn’t think it mattered.”
He doesn’t admit his fear and shame when he thinks about Castiel. The hunters are already suspicious of them, can’t quite believe they’ve been so lucky as to travel without hindrance for almost two weeks. Dean knows they’ve been luckier than they should have been. The countryside east of the Rockies should be crawling with monsters, but Sam and Dean haven’t seen a single one since that first day, unless they count Castiel.
Dean can’t help worrying that Castiel might have something to do with that. He’s an angel, after all. If he feels it’s his job to guard them somehow, then that might be the reason they haven’t run up against anything evil since that first day.
No way will he mention the angel to these hunters. Doing so would only complicate things. He can’t tell them about his dream, or his mother’s vision, or Castiel telling Sam and Dean that they’re special. It all sounds too creepy, and it makes Dean’s skin crawl.
Let these hunters think the boys have been unnaturally lucky. It’s easier that way.
They ride together the next day until Henriksen’s group veers off on the road north to Sioux Falls. Sam gives them charms made from herbs wrapped in leather and spelled for protection, and they all wish each other good luck on their separate journeys. They keep the tent the hunters gave them the previous night, since Creaser insists it’s not needed.
“The thing belonged to a couple who got killed down in Amarillo,” he says. “It’s been weighing me down ever since. Good hunters. They’d be glad to know it’s going to a good cause.”
Sam and Dean are grateful to have the tent that night, when another thunderstorm rolls in. They lie in the tent, listening to the rain and thunder and worrying about the horses, until the storm passes just before dawn. When they emerge from the tent into the cool, clear morning, the landscape has shifted. There are temporary ponds and lakes everywhere, and the horses are nowhere to be found.
It takes them the better part of the morning to find the horses. Sam’s whistle doesn’t work this time, so he finally resorts to magic. Dean watches uneasily as Sam closes his eyes and goes so still he doesn’t seem to be breathing. Birds circle overhead and a breeze lifts Sam’s hair around his shoulders. He left his shirt off this morning, so he looks like a beautiful brown statue against the blue of the sky, and Dean can’t take his eyes off him.
Time passes slowly as the birds circle again and again, almost directly over Sam’s head, then take off in a north-easterly direction, as if something suddenly called them. Dean watches them until they become specks on the horizon. When he turns to look at Sam, his eyes are open and a smile turns up the corners of his mouth.
“Found them,” he says. “They’re coming.”
Dean frowns in confusion as he follows Sam’s gaze in the direction the birds flew. Then he hears them, hoofbeats thudding rhythmically across the rapidly hardening packed dirt floor of the prairie. They gallop up and stop a few feet away, heads tossing and hooves stomping. They seem spooked, so Dean approaches slowly, hand out.
“Hey, buddy,” he soothes to his mare. “Hey there, girl. You mad at me for leaving you outside in the storm last night? Huh?”
Remus tosses her head, side-eying him so that he gets the full effect of her fear and recrimination. She isn’t happy, he can see that.
“It’s not just the storm,” Sam says as he puts a hand out to his horse. “There was something out there. In the storm. Something not natural. I could — I could feel it.”
“Maybe they’re just spooked at you using your psychic summoning spell,” Dean says, huffing out a laugh to lighten the mood. He hates Sam’s suggestion, hates it even more because he knows Sam’s probably right. Dean could feel it, too, which makes him grumpy. He doesn’t like his psychic ability, not even a little. It scares him.
“Dean, there’s something keeping an eye on us,” Sam says.
“You think?” Dean rolls his eyes.
“It knows where we’re going.”
Dean grits his teeth, trying not to let that bother him. They need to get to Lawrence, to deliver their message to Bobby, to make sure everybody there is still alive. After Denver, after what they know about Kansas City and Amarillo and Sioux Falls, getting back to Lawrence seems more important than ever.
Their luck and the weather holds out, so that over the next four days the only things they encounter on their journey are two more deserted towns and some empty homesteads. The last ghost town is just over a day’s ride from Lawrence, and Dean’s heart sinks as they ride down the main street. There are signs of a recent retreat here, as there were in the little town outside Denver. Furniture and dishes are strewn about the street, as if they fell out of the backs of wagons going too fast. The saloon doors hang off their hinges crookedly and bottles lie half-empty on the wood floor, some smashed and broken. The remains of recently-slaughtered beef and bison fill food lockers, and root cellars are still well-stocked after a relatively mild winter.
Sam and Dean eat well that night. They bed down in the town’s only hotel, easily picking the lock on the door to find a fully furnished bedroom with an attached bath, a luxury they’ve only heard about. Indoor plumbing is almost unheard of in the West, but this particular hotel has it all. Dean can’t resist turning the tap in the huge clawfoot bathtub, and is shocked to find warm water running through the pipes. He spends so long in the bathroom, Sam finally comes to look for him.
“Oh my god,” Sam breathes from the doorway.
Dean opens one eye and grins at the look on Sam’s face. He’s been soaking so long in the now-tepid and definitely-gray water that his skin has started to wrinkle. But he’s cleaner and more relaxed than he’s been in a long time.
“This is amazing, Sam,” Dean breathes enthusiastically. “You should try it.”
The hotel has been outfitted with real electrical wiring, and the lighting and heated water are provided by generator, another mechanical convenience Dean’s only read about. Somebody was clearly hoping to make a lot of money by offering the most modern conveniences and comforts. Unfortunately for them, humans lost the war, at least in these parts.
“No, no, I’m good,” Sam protests, but Dean insists. He holds up the freshly sharpened razor he’s found in a drawer under the sink and raises an eyebrow.
“I feel like a new man,” Dean says as he combs his hair in the tall oval Cheval mirror in the corner of the room. “Besides. Tomorrow, we go into battle, maybe. Better to die clean, right?”
Sam relents because he can see how much it means to Dean. They don’t talk about the possible battle to come. They don’t think about Denver. When they crawl between the clean sheets a couple of hours later, washed and scrubbed clean, they don’t worry about what tomorrow may bring.
They take their comfort and pleasure in each other and feel grateful for the time they have.
The morning dawns gray and surprisingly cold for early June. A cold wind howls through the empty alleys and around the corners of the empty buildings. As the boys ride out of town, they keep their hats pulled low over their eyes, their kerchiefs pulled up over their mouths and noses to keep out the blowing dust.
So much for the bath, Dean thinks as he feels the dust blowing up the sleeves of his coat, creating fresh grime around his wrists where his shirt meets his gloves. The dust leaves a gritty crease in the wrinkle of his neck, just above his shirt.
They pass a couple of empty farmsteads, their windows cracked and broken, doors hanging open by the hinges. They try not to imagine the occupants fleeing at the last moment before meeting their doom in their own front yards. They’re grateful not to find any bodies, but of course that doesn’t mean nobody died. The farmsteads seem to have been abandoned with even greater haste and desperation than the town. When the wind shifts, Dean smells the sickly-sweat scent of death that he knows only too well.
The horses smell it, too. Their nostrils flare and they shy nervously as they pass each farmstead. Dean wonders where the animals went, if they followed their masters into the jaws of death or managed to break free to roam the prairie.
Shortly after noon, they crest the hill that looks down into Lawrence. They’re entering the town from the western end, which always feels strange to Dean, since the Winchester farmstead lay to the east of the town.
“Okay,” Sam says as they pull up side by side. “No bodies. No smoke. So that’s good, don’t you think?”
“Looks quiet, all right,” Dean says.
Which is when they see it. Moving across the plain from the South, a wave of dark, snarling creatures that from a distance look almost peaceful. They move steadily toward the town in a long line that’s twice as long as the southern perimeter, so that it’s clear they will engulf the town in a matter of minutes once they reach it.
It occurs to Dean that the town might be deserted. Nothing stirs. There don’t appear to be people in the main street. Windows and doors look closed.
Then Dean catches the glint of something metallic near the church. Pastor Jim’s church, the place he visited every Sunday as a child until the day he learned the truth about his mother from the man himself.
“They’re in the church,” he says.
“The whole town?” Sam squints, trying to see what Dean sees.
“Looks like.” Dean nods.
“What do we do?” Sam’s voice sounds young, hesitant, and Dean remembers all the times Sam looked up to him as a child, how many times Sam looked to Dean to tell him what to do.
It’s all up to Dean now. It always was, in so many ways.
“We get in there and help them,” Dean says with more bravado than he feels.
Sam nods, and Dean takes courage from Sam’s conviction, from his faith in Dean. He has a feeling it won’t be the last time.
They let the horses go on the plain and walk down the hill into the town, Dean leading the way. As soon as they hit the warding wall they draw the pistols they absconded from one of the deserted towns they passed through, letting their ammunition belts swing low over their hips. The wind whips their clothes and Sam’s hair around them as they walk down the deserted main street, and Dean’s flooded with memories of every storefront, every family trip to this place that meant civilization to him all the years of his youth. They pass the schoolhouse, then the library, both intended to be rebuilt as limestone structures once the funding for the new university could be obtained.
Of course, that was before the Withdrawal. All construction stopped at the point when the railroad stopped delivering materials, when East Coast investors stopped sending supplies.
They’ve just rounded the corner when Dean hears his name called. Bobby Singer stands in the clearing in front of the church. Gathered around him are his deputies and a group of the town’s most able-bodied citizens, maybe a hundred men and women in all. They carry silver blades of all sizes and shapes, and Dean recalls that the town was founded by hunters, most of whom he knows.
“Hey, Bobby.” Dean tries to smile, but he knows it comes off as more of a grimace. “Ellen.” He doesn’t see Jo so he imagines she’s in the church with the civilians.
“Sam?” Bobby turns his gaze to Dean’s companion, standing so close behind Dean they’re practically touching. Dean feels Sam stiffen, feels his gaze flick over the gathered faces nervously.
“Hi, Bobby,” Sam says cautiously.
Ellen crowds forward, tears in her eyes.
“You got big,” she notes as she hugs Sam first, then Dean.
“Glad you’re here, boys,” Bobby says. “As you can probably tell, we’re in a bit of a pickle. We could sure use your help.”
“What’s the plan?” Dean asks.
“Well, as you’ve probably already guessed, we’re under attack,” Bobby says, blunt as ever. “We’re vastly outnumbered and our chances are slim, so all we can do is try to hold ‘em off until help arrives.”
Bobby nods. “Sent a rider to Kansas City yesterday, at the first sign o’ this coming.”
“Bobby, Kansas City’s toast,” Dean says, shaking his head. “It’s already fallen. Denver, too. We just came from there. Met some hunters headed to Sioux Falls, and they said Texas and Oklahoma are overrun, too. Most of the towns between here and Denver are deserted.”
“Yeah, we’ve taken in a few refugees over the past few months,” Ellen says. “Most of them went on to Kansas City, though.”
Bobby exchanges grim looks with his deputies.
“Things are moving in from the South,” Dean says. “You put in a warding wall on that side of town?”
Bobby nods. “All around the town, but extra protection spells on that side. Figured they’d be coming from that direction.”
“All right then. Let’s get to work.”
“Don’t suppose you’ve seen my mom,” Dean asks Bobby as they take positions along the southern edge of the town. The hunters spread out in groups of two or three, facing the horde steadily descending on them.
“Nope,” Bobby shakes his head. “But it’s good to see Sam. Guess that means she took care of him, all those years.”
“That’s what it means, all right,” Dean says. He wonders when he stopped worrying as much about finding Mary as saving this town. Probably sometime after Denver.
As the monsters draw closer, Dean can hear them snarling and growling, but he can’t make out much more about them. They’re mostly werewolves, with some chupacabras mixed in, he thinks. Vicious animals without much in the way of intelligence. He wonders what’s controlling them.
When the first wave of monsters hits the warding wall, the things bounce back, snarling angrily. The lines of monsters behind them keep coming, pushing the first line against the wall, crushing and stomping on them in a blind effort to keep moving forward. Dean tries not to think about the bodies strewn about the perimeter of Denver City, but it doesn’t help. He watches monsters tearing each other apart, slamming against the warding until it starts to give, and he can see it won’t be long now.
When the first couple of monsters make it through the wall, they’re cut down instantly. More pour in through the weakened spot until it becomes a hole wide enough for two monsters to push through at a time. The hunters take down each monster, leaving a pile of bodies on the inside of the wall, half-blocking the entrance. Then the creatures punch through the wall in another place, and another. Soon Dean’s hacking and firing and reloading so fast he doesn’t have time to consider whether they’re making a dent. He and Sam stand side to side at first, then back to back, as they did that first day after their reunion. When he hears Sam cry out in pain, Dean doubles his efforts, angrily hacking at anything in front of him, beside him, not daring to turn to check on Sam but determined to protect him at all costs. Something gets him in the shoulder but he doesn’t feel any pain until something else grabs his leg. He feels a burning pain sear down his thigh to his knee and his leg gives out beneath him.
Sam’s voice, full of alarm, comes from somewhere above him but he can’t see. Something’s in front of his eyes. He hacks at it, but he can’t feel his arm. He has a moment to realize he’s down with bodies piling up on top of him before he passes out.
His last thought is for Sam and how he wishes he’d told him the truth.
“I’m sorry, Sammy.” Dean’s not sure if he said the words out loud, but then it doesn’t matter as darkness closes around him.
He wakes up in a bed. He’s aching and sore all over, and his leg throbs from his hip to his knee. When he tries to open his eyes, he can only get one to cooperate; the other one seems to be swollen shut.
He’s in Bobby’s house, in the bed he woke up in after the fire all those years ago, and Sam’s asleep in the chair next to the bed. Sam’s face and throat are bruised, and his arm’s in a sling, but otherwise he looks okay. He looks good.
Then Dean remembers.
Sam stirs, shifts uncomfortably, opens one eye because the other one’s swollen shut, like Dean’s. They’re wound-twins, Dean thinks, chuckling darkly to himself.
“Hey,” Sam says hoarsely. He clears his throat. “Hey, Dean. How are you feeling?”
“Like I got run over by a herd of buffalo,” Dean quips. “How are you?”
Sam frowns. He’s not really looking at Dean. There’s something bothering him.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Sam says. “Broke my arm.”
“What — What happened?” Dean asks. “I thought we were losing. Last thing I remember is being buried alive under a pile of furry bodies.”
“Dunno,” Sam says. “They just stopped.”
“Yeah, like something called them off. Like last time.” Sam stares out the window, pulling restlessly at a loose string on his sling.
“Huh,” Dean says. “Everybody okay?”
“We lost four men,” Sam says. “Bobby’s fine, Ellen’s fine.” He lifts his eyes then, stares straight at Dean with his one good eye. “Mary was here. She’s fine, too.”
“Mom?” Dean struggles to sit up. “She’s here?”
“She left about an hour ago,” Sam says. He bites his lip, then takes a deep breath, “She told me, Dean. About us. We’re brothers. Full brothers. She said she told you already, six years ago.”
Dean’s first reaction is enormous relief. Thank God he doesn’t have to keep his mother’s nonsensical secret anymore!
The next moment he feels sick.
“Sammy, I swear I was going to tell you as soon as I got her permission. It was her secret, and she made me swear I wouldn’t tell...”
“Yeah, well, she said that, too,” Sam says. “She said we can’t tell anyone. Something about a prophecy. Two brothers saving the world from the monsters or something. But if the monsters find out it’s us, it’ll be all over before it begins.”
“Sammy, I hated all the secrecy,” Dean says. “I would’ve told you if I could, I swear.” He’s a little freaked out by Sam’s words. Mary had never said anything about saving the world.
“Yeah,” Sam breathes. “I know you would’ve. It’s okay.” But Sam’s not looking at him again. Sam’s not okay. “I’m heading out soon anyway. Back East. Mary — uh, I mean, Mom — got me a scholarship to Harvard. I start in a couple of months.”
“Harvard? What?” Dean’s brain feels foggy. He can’t make sense of Sam’s words.
“Yeah.” Sam glances up, winces, and looks away again. “They have a new School of Magic Arts, and they want some non-traditional students. They need people like me who’ve lived in the West. I’ve been home-schooled on the front lines of the war between monsters and men, according to their admissions letter.” Sam lets out a harsh laugh. “Home-schooled. Me. The gypsy kid who never had a home. I never knew it would be something the normal world would welcome, but there you are.”
“No, it’s good, Dean,” Sam says, eyes going wide. “Bobby’s accepted the position in Sioux Falls and they want you to fill his job here as sheriff. Makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re the civilized law giver. I’m the outlaw. Always was. That’s why we balance each other out so well.”
“Sam, I can’t lose you,” Dean says, fighting the tears welling up in his eyes, choking the back of his throat.
Of course, Bobby takes that moment to check on them. He glances at Sam and nods at Dean.
“Good to see you’re awake,” he says. “That was a helluva beating you took. We weren’t sure you’d pull through.”
Dean rubs his good eye with the back of his hand. “Mom was here,” he says, accusing.
“That woman moves in and out of a place faster than anything I ever saw,” Bobby says. “I told her to wait till you woke up, but she said she had to go. She said you’d understand.”
Dean huffs out a breath, shakes his head. “She fixed me,” he suggests, and Bobby shakes his head sharply.
“No, Sam did that. Your mother just needed to check on you, I guess. And she had some news for Sam.”
“I’m headed East, Bobby,” Sam says. “Day after tomorrow. Harvard.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Bobby says. He glances at Dean, who can’t meet his eyes because he’s still struggling with his emotions. “Okay, then. Well, at least this time we’ll know where to find you.”
“You be sure he gets a public pardon.” Dean makes his voice as gruff as he can. “This kid saved my life, more than once. If I’m gonna be sheriff of this town, folks need to hear it from you before you go.”
“You got it,” Bobby says, nodding. “But you don’t need to worry. Folks saw what you and Sam did. Those things high-tailed it after you got here. You’re heroes.”
Dean takes a deep breath. It hurts.
“Well, I’ll let you rest now,” Bobby says, patting Dean’s shoulder awkwardly. He nods at Sam. “You should hear the kids talking about you,” he says. “You’ve built up quite a reputation. They call you The Gunslinger.”
Sam huffs out a dry laugh. “That’s because they’ve never seen a real one,” he says.
Bobby nods, rueful. “I suppose they never will, way things are going,” he says.
After he leaves, Dean wracks his brain for the right words to get Sam to stay. Then he remembers the last thing that came into his head when he thought he was dying.
“Sam, I’m sorry,” he says, “for keeping your parentage from you. For — for everything.”
Sam looks up, and Dean sees the pain in his gentle hazel eyes.
“I’m not sorry for what happened between us,” Sam says. “I’m not. I just wish...”
“I should have told you, Sam.” Dean shakes his head. “Before. So you could choose freely.”
“Wouldn’t have made any difference,” Sam says. “I still would’ve wanted that. I still do.”
At first, Dean can’t say anything to that. It’s more than he deserves. It gives him hope, makes him desperate.
“Stay, Sammy,” he pleads. “We’ll figure things out. I’ll deputize you and you can help me protect this town. Nobody ever needs to know we’re brothers...”
Sam looks away, lips hardening into a stubborn line. He shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “I can’t live like that. I have to go.”
Sam’s words are like a punch in the gut. They take all the air out of Dean’s lungs.
“It’s better this way,” Sam goes on. “I’ve got so much to learn, Dean. Now that I understand where my abilities come from, I can’t turn my back on the chance to become the best I can be. It’s too much of an opportunity to waste.”
Dean can’t speak. He wants to grab hold of Sam and never let go.
“With what I learn at Harvard, I’ll be able to help with things out here better,” Sam says. “I’ll come out in the summers, if I can.”
Dean nods. He draws a shaky breath, lets it out on a moan as his leg throbs.
Sam gets up like a shot, kneels next to the bed and pulls the blanket back to get a look. He grabs a jar of salve from the bedside table, peels back the bandages single-handedly with Dean’s help. Dean hisses as his wounds are exposed, as the bandages tug on his torn skin.
Sam bats his hands away as he applies fresh salve, mutters in Arapaho before replacing the bandages.
Dean tries not to think about the way Sam’s touching him. He tries not to think that he won’t get that again unless he’s injured or broken.
He’s already missing Sam and the kid hasn’t even left the room.
“You’ll be up and about in no time,” Sam pronounces. “Just keep applying this stuff. It protects against infection.”
Dean nods and grabs Sam’s shirt as he starts to stand up.
Sam stays on his knees, gazing up at Dean with a look that will haunt Dean’s dreams.
Don’t go, he wants to say. Don’t leave me.
“I’ll come back,” Sam says, as if he can read Dean’s mind. Maybe he can. “I promise.”
So Dean lets him go. He lets Sam walk out of his life like it isn’t the hardest thing he’s ever done, like it doesn’t bring back every loss and every moment he’s lost someone he loves, like it doesn’t cut him in half with grief and despair.
Like it’s the first time he and Sam have separated.
Sam comes back, just like he promised. He wears the long black duster and black hat of a gunslinger who’s also a powerful mage, training to become a master of the magic arts.
Sam and Dean reunite in front of the whole town, and there are speeches and a party and news is exchanged. The cities and towns in the East are holding their own, and San Francisco still stands on the Western shore. Ships sail around the horn to get there, bringing Settlers and supplies. Brave hunters and hired highwaymen bring the supplies inland, across the Rockies.
Sam and Dean reunite privately in the darkness of the stable of their old farmstead, which is crumbling and falling down and smells like dust and horseflesh and home. Dean wants to rebuild the house someday, but for now he keeps up the spells and warding around the property, more hopeful than practical. Their father’s ashes are scattered here. It’ll always have meaning for them, the last place they felt completely safe.
Sam goes back to school in the fall, visits again in the summer.
“Mary came to see me,” Sam tells Dean, who never fails to feel angry and jealous whenever Sam mentions their mother.
Sam can’t seem to call her “mom,” which they both decide is a good thing, since no one is supposed to know they’re brothers. Sam keeps the surname Mary gave him when he was twelve; it’s her maiden name, ironically, which people seem to recognize as the name of a family of hunters, so it feels right.
Sam acquires a reputation for mystery and magic. He inspires awe in the people’s imaginations, maybe also a little fear. Whenever he comes to town he weaves protection spells and warding magic into the soil, adds power to the invisible wall that keeps the monsters out.
After three years, some of the town folk stop worrying about another invasion. They go about their lives, believing in the magic and dumb luck that keeps them safe.
Sam and Dean know better. They know the monsters won’t stay away forever. They remember Denver. Every once in a while they hear of another town taken down by evil. They know it’s just a matter of time.
They keep the story of the angel to themselves, and Dean doesn’t dream about the soul-eaters again.
But he knows something’s coming. He can feel it.
It’s only a matter of time.