The Gunslinger rides into town at sundown.
He leaves his horse with the blacksmith, prepays for food and water and new shoes with a gold coin. He’s dressed in black from his stetson to his steel-toed boots. His duster swings around his long legs like a ball gown as he walks, and his arms don’t hang loose from his powerful shoulders, but instead keep his leather-gloved hands posed level with his hips, where his gun-belt’s slung low.
Everyone in town knows him, or if they’ve never actually met him, they’ve heard of him.
Nine-year-old Billy Jackson watches the gunslinger with wide eyes as he walks down Main Street, headed for the saloon. The townspeople scamper out of his way, lock their doors and shutter their windows. Billy waits until the gunslinger walks past before darting out from behind the rain barrel where he’s been hiding to run to the sheriff’s office.
“Sam Campbell’s here!”
The sheriff turns his emerald green eyes on the boy who bursts through his office door, out of breath and trembling with excitement. He nods.
“Thanks, Billy,” the sheriff says. “You run along home now. Thank your mother for the cornbread.”
The sheriff and his deputies already knew. Billy hasn’t brought news, he’s repeated it. But the sheriff is kind. He’s always treated Billy and his mother with respect, and if there’s been times when Billy wished the sheriff would spend more time at their place, he can be forgiven. Billy’s father died in battle the year he was born, and Billy has been looking up to Sheriff Dean Winchester since he was little.
It’s dark outside. Most folks are home in their houses, doors and windows locked and salted. Billy creeps along the edge of the buildings, ducking under windows to keep out of sight, till he reaches the saloon. He doesn’t dare go inside; kids aren’t allowed, and even if they were, the Gunslinger’s in there. Billy can see him as he sneaks a peek through the window. The Gunslinger sits alone at a table toward the back of the room, facing the door, waiting. His six-shooter and stetson lie on the table in front of him, a glass of whiskey next to them. Billy can’t resist watching the Gunslinger for as long as he dares, observing the man’s stern profile and high forehead, his broad shoulders and thick neck. He’s sitting down now, but Billy has seen how tall the Gunslinger is. He’s built like a mountain lion, sleek and powerful and ready to spring.
Billy’s heard all the stories. Sam Campbell’s dangerous. He’s a killer. Rumor has it he killed his own brother, years ago, before the troubles started.
Rumor has it, Campbell and the sheriff have history. They were raised together, like brothers. Then something happened and they went their separate ways. Campbell became a Gunslinger, and Dean Winchester became Sheriff of Lawrence.
Shortly afterwards, Sheriff Winchester pardoned his childhood friend, so that Campbell could walk free. His skills were too valuable.
Times were too desperate.
Billy jumps when a hand falls on his shoulder. He whirls around, scrambling backwards in terror, gasping.
Dean Winchester smiles down at him, hat tipped low over his eyes so they’re in shadow, so all Billy could see is his strong jaw and white teeth.
“Thought I told you to run along home, Billy,” the sheriff says, not unkindly.
“Yes, sir,” Billy stammers. “I was just on my way, sir.”
Winchester nods. He watches as Billy turns to leave.
But then Billy turns back. He can’t help himself. He has to know.
“Since he’s here, I guess things must be pretty bad, out there,” Billy suggests timidly. “I guess the monsters must be getting closer.”
“Don’t worry about that, Billy,” the sheriff says, authority and confidence in his honey-smooth voice. “Everything’s gonna be just fine. I promise.”
“Yes, sir.” Billy smiles, too. It feels good to listen to the sheriff. It makes Billy feel brave.
As he runs home, eager to tell his mother the news of the Gunslinger, Billy rehearses what he’ll say. He knows she’ll cluck and scold and remind him to stay out of the way. But at least Billy’s seen him. At least he’s gotten a real good look at the notorious Sam Campbell.
Billy Jackson doesn’t know it, but that’s the last time he’ll see the sheriff or the Gunslinger. He’ll never see either one of them ever again.
Dean stands facing the younger man, just inside the swinging doors. He knows he’s got his back to anything outside, knows Sam’s sitting deliberately facing the doors so this can go only one way.
The room is empty except for the bartender. Everyone went home when they heard Sam was in town, even old Dan Elkins, who never leaves the saloon if he doesn’t have to.
Sam’s nursing his whiskey, has barely touched it from what Dean can see. His hat and gun are on the table in front of him, and when he looks up at Dean his eyes are soft with emotion. He’s missed Dean.
“It’s been a while.” Dean tries again, relenting in the face of that steady hazel gaze. He could never resist those eyes. “Eighteen months, near as I can recall.”
Dean’s angry. Sam’s been gone too long. But he also knows he doesn’t have any right to resent Sam’s absence. Dean’s lied to his brother too much in the past to hold the high ground in their relationship.
“Eighteen months, three weeks, and six days,” Sam says, voice soft, hoarse, like it’s been a while since he’s used it.
Dean nods, acknowledging that Sam’s missed him, too. “What brings you here, Sam?”
“Mary’s gone missing,” Sam says.
Dean breathes out a sigh. His mother has done this all her life, left and gone into hiding where no one, not even her husband and sons, could find her. Dean’s frustration at the way she operates combines with his old grief at losing her when he was only four, so that now all he’s left with is exasperation and simmering resentment.
“Well, I’m sure she’ll be back,” Dean growls. “She’s probably just on a scouting mission.”
“Not this time.” Sam sets his jaw, looks down at the whisky on the table, turns the glass between his hands. “She left her journal. She never goes anywhere without that thing.”
Dean lifts an eyebrow. He lets himself feel a flash of jealousy at Sam’s casual familiarity with their mother. Dean never had that, after those first four years of life. When Mary left, she took a chunk of Dean’s childhood with her, removing the love and security that was only partially returned to him when Sam entered his life five years later. John spent most of Dean’s childhood years searching for a wife and mother who didn’t want to be found. When he eventually died trying, Dean’s older brother Adam took out his grief and rage on Dean and little Sam, with tragic consequences.
After Adam’s death, Mary reappeared long enough to take twelve-year-old Sam away with her, assuring Dean that Sam would be safe that way. When she revealed that Sam was Dean’s little brother, Dean wasn’t as shocked as he might have been because his love for Sam was already as deep as love could go between two young people bound together by grief and loss and the threat of impending disaster. Dean had kept Sam safe for seven years. Now it was Mary’s turn.
That was ten years ago.
Sam’s reappearance in Dean’s life four years ago was only long enough for the two men to admit the depth of their love for each other before Sam went East to complete his training as a Master Mage. But things were complicated. Dean had sworn to his mother that he would keep the true nature of their relationship secret, and when Mary resurfaced to reveal that secret to Sam, a seed of doubt had been planted between the two men. Their relationship had been on uncertain ground ever since.
Dean’s jaw tightens. “Not sure what you want me to do about that, Sam.”
Sam’s expression hardens for a moment, then his emotions get the better of him and he raises pleading, tear-glistening eyes to his brother.
“I need you to help me find her,” he says. “I think she’s in trouble. I think she needs us.”
Dean huffs out a breath, shifts his feet. “She never needed me,” he spits out. “She made that damn clear years ago.”
“Dean, I think something’s happened. I think she wants us to find her, together. She needs us both this time.”
Dean shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t just leave, Sam,” he says. “I’ve got responsibilities. This town needs me. I’m their sheriff.”
“So deputize somebody to replace you for a few days...”
“A few days?” Dean scoffs. “You want me to help you track Mary Winchester. You know it’s not gonna take a few days, Sam.”
Sam draws in a breath, leans forward in his chair and twirls his whiskey glass between his long fingers.
“She’s got a lead on the thing that killed John.”
This is news.
“I thought werewolves killed him,” Dean says.
Sam shakes his head. “Werewolves acting under the command of something else,” he says.
“You mean...” Dean can’t finish the sentence. Doesn’t have to.
Sam nods knowingly. “Exactly. Just like what happened to us four years ago.”
For a moment, Dean can’t think. His mind is flooded with memories of that strange, chaotic summer four years ago, the summer when he was reunited with Sam for the first time in six years. The summer when everything changed between them.
Dean shakes his head to clear it, closes his eyes briefly to shut out the sight of Sam’s beautiful eyes, intent and full of meaning.
“I don’t know, Sam...”
Sam nods curtly, looks down at his glass. When he looks up, his expression is steely, dangerous, and Dean’s reminded that Sam didn’t earn the title of The Gunslinger for nothing.
“I will find her,” he says, and the dark determination in his eyes makes Dean shiver. “With or without you, I’ll find her and get to the bottom of this whole thing. You know I will.”
Dean believes him. He never doubts Sam when he decides to go after something. Together, they’ve protected the town and held back the forces of evil for nearly half a decade. Sam always follows through on his promises.
Dean feels his resolve crumble. He’s never been able to deny Sam anything. Taking care of Sam, protecting him, loving him more than a man should be capable of loving another human being — it’s in Dean’s bones to give Sam whatever he needs.
“Give me a couple of days to wrap things up here,” Dean says, feigning reluctance.
But Sam’s won. Sam will always win when it comes to Dean, and they both know it. Sam’s offer to reunite and work together again is something Dean’s been waiting for. Searching for their mother and the answers to their questions about their destinies is just a pretext.
Dean will always go with Sam when Sam asks him to.
Dean offers Sam a place to sleep, but Sam insists on taking a room above the saloon.
“I’ll just be in the way,” he says by way of explanation, averting his gaze. “You and Cassie have things to talk about tonight.”
Dean shakes his head. “Cassie went back East with her mother about six months ago,” he says. “Just about the time I was expecting you.”
Sam lifts his expressive eyes and blinks. “Oh. I’m — I’m sorry, Dean. I know how you felt about her.”
Nothing like how I feel about you, he doesn’t say, but he doesn’t have to. Sam understands.
“Anyway.” Sam clears his throat, lowers his eyes. Dean can tell he’s blushing. “I think I’d better stay here.”
Dean clenches his jaw, feigns a nonchalance he doesn’t feel. “Suit yourself.”
The Winchester brothers ride out three days later, heading north on the post road. It’s overgrown with weeds, long unused. The postal service went the way of the abandoned railroad years ago. The Eastern supply road is the only one still open, and even that hasn’t been safe for ordinary travelers in some time.
Sam thinks Mary’s gone north, and Dean decides that’s as good a way to head as any. He’s been meaning to get up to check on Bobby Singer in Sioux Falls for a while now. They’ll stop in on the old man, get the news. Maybe Bobby will have heard something about Mary.
Dean leaves Ellen Harvelle and Victor Henrickson in charge of the town.
“Always knew this day would come,” Ellen says. She lets Dean go after a long hug, glances past him at Sam, who stands silent and solemn in the doorway. “You take care of each other, y’hear?”
Sam nods. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Aw, Ellen, you know we’ll be back,” Dean says with a nervous chuckle. “Might take us a little while, but you can count on us. It ain’t like we’re leaving for good. Just got a little family business to take care of.”
Ellen nods, but Dean can see she doesn’t believe him.
Victor sticks out his hand, and Dean takes it. “See you on the flip side, brother.”
Jo Harvelle won’t shake his hand. She won’t hug him, either. She shrugs when Dean moves toward her, squares her shoulders and shoves her hands into the front pockets of her dungarees. Dean’s pretty sure she had a crush on him at one time, before Sam came back into his life, stole his heart and all chances of settling down to any sort of normal family life. Now all he sees is her flinty stubbornness, her fierce refusal to regret a thing.
“Goodbye, Jo,” he says, tipping his hat. He won’t apologize for whatever might have happened between them because he knows better.
She’d never accept his apology anyway, would pretend she’s got no idea what he’s talking about, and he won’t embarrass her like that. He respects her too much. Anyway, she’s a junior deputy now. Part of the town’s law enforcement and a member of the team in more ways than one.
“See ya around, Dean,” Jo says, letting her eyes flick up for a brief moment, enough for Dean to see her steely resolve before she shoots that hard look at Sam. “Sam.”
“Jo.” Sam tips his hat deferentially. He doesn’t have to be smug. He’s won.
Dean’s always been his, and Sam knows it.
Sam helps fortify the defensive spellwork before they go, closing the northern entrance behind them last. He moves along the perimeter like a dark, giant bird in his long cape, staff held high as he chants the protection incantations while power swirls around him like wind. Dean watches from horseback as Sam finishes his work, more than a little terrified, definitely impressed. Sam’s always been gifted, but to see his power on full display is a sight like none other.
As Sam returns to his horse, his staff retracts until it becomes an ordinary bone-handled knife, which he tucks into his belt. His cape returns to its normal dimensions as a duster. Even his long, wild hair seems to shorten so that all that’s left is a shaggy shoulder-length cut under Sam’s black hat.
“Pretty fancy footwork there,” Dean comments as Sam swings up onto his horse.
The horses snuffle their muzzles against each other, glad to be together again. Twins who were raised together, born the night Sam first came into Dean’s life, they’re getting older now. Dean’s grateful they’ve both made it this far, especially Romulus, Sam’s horse, who’s had to make the trek East and back four times now.
Sam blushes, dimples creasing his angular face, and Dean’s charmed. Little brother is a good look on him. Huge powerful mage who becomes a little boy again at a single compliment from his big brother is damned adorable.
“So, did you finish?” Dean asks after they’ve ridden in silence for a few minutes. “The magic degree, I mean. Are you a real-life Magic Master now?”
“The title is Master Mage,” Sam corrects, lips pursed, like he can tell he’s being mocked.
“Well, out here you’re just The Gunslinger,” Dean notes with a smirk. “The magic title is an Eastern thing.”
“You’re telling me nobody else in Lawrence uses magic?” Sam lifts an eyebrow. “I find that hard to believe. Those wards are pretty complicated.”
“Ellen and Victor know the basic spells,” Dean says. “Enough to keep up the warding while I’m gone.”
Sam turns his head, studies Dean’s profile for a moment, and Dean resists the urge to preen.
“So you’ve been doing all of that by yourself.” Sam gives a low whistle. “That’s some powerful magic yourself, brother.”
Dean shrugs, glances over to catch Sam’s dark, admiring gaze. He fights to control the shiver that goes up his spine.
“Nothing you couldn’t do in your sleep,” Dean says. “You’re the one with the real gift. I’m just a guy who knows a few spells.”
“Your spells have protected that town for four years,” Sam reminds him. “I’d say that’s pretty serious power.”
A stab of resentment makes Dean’s jaw clench. “Pure dumb luck, Sam, and you know it,” he growls. “When you didn’t come home last summer, I didn’t know if we’d survive. What the hell happened to you?”
It’s Sam’s turn to clench his jaw and look away. “Nothing that matters now,” he says softly.
“What?” Dean tips his head, cupping his ear. “I didn’t hear you. Did you just say your eighteen-month absence didn’t matter, Sam? ‘Cuz those of us who depend on you to help protect our home every year might see it a little differently.”
When Sam still says nothing, Dean shakes his head, anger rising in his chest.
“Really?” he snaps. “You’re just not gonna tell me what happened? ‘Cuz I worried about you, man. I thought maybe you were hurt or dead. Do you know how that feels? Do you? Or maybe you just didn’t care that I might think that. Maybe it just didn’t occur to you because you wouldn’t care if I suddenly disappeared for eighteen months without contacting you. Huh?”
Sam takes a deep breath, huffs it out with a roll of his eyes.
“Of course I would care, Dean,” he says. “I knew you were safe, that’s all.”
“You knew I was safe...?” Dean repeats, frowning. “How could you know? Huh? Do you have some kind of magical telescopic vision?” Dean gasps as Sam shoots him a look. “You do, don’t you?”
Sam sighs. “It comes and goes, but yes, I was able to check in on you a couple of times, make sure you were alright.”
Dean stares, indignation making him sweat. “Oh, so you checked on me, figured I was fine. But did it ever occur to you that I had no way of knowing if you were fine? Huh? Did that ever occur to you?”
“Yes, of course it did, Dean,” Sam says, wincing. “I just figured maybe we were better off apart for a while. You had Lisa, and then Cassie, and I — “ He clears his throat, nervous or stubborn or both, Dean’s not sure. “Maybe it was better that way.”
Something cold slices through Dean’s veins as realization dawns.
“Do you have a girl, Sam?” he asks quietly. “Is that what happened?”
Dean doesn’t have the right to ask. He knows that. And he sure as hell doesn’t have the right to be angry or jealous. He and Sam have never begrudged each other any other relationships. It’s always been a given, since the day Sam learned they were brothers, that they should both feel free to find other, more appropriate relationships. Dean had probably pushed Sam on that point a little too often, come to think of it, out of his feelings of guilt for keeping that particular secret from him even after they became lovers. That Sam would someday find someone else was something Dean had both feared and hoped for. Sam should have normal relationships. He deserved them.
Only now, as Sam pulls out a sepia-toned photograph and hands it over, as Dean takes it and looks into the face of a beautiful blond woman, all he can feel is jealousy.
“Her name’s Jessica,” Sam says. “She left me, about a month ago.”
“She’s beautiful,” Dean says honestly, handing the photograph back to Sam.
He’s not quite keeping up. He’s still back on Sam’s admission, his confession about having had this other relationship. And Dean knows he’s being a hypocrite, knows Sam’s aware of all of Dean’s dalliances. Cassie Robinson was even more than a dalliance. Cassie was somebody Dean could’ve married. And Sam probably knows that because his telescopic vision let him catch glimpses into Dean’s life...
That little piece of knowledge makes Dean livid. The idea that Sam was perfectly happy to check on him telepathically when he knew Dean couldn’t do the same with Sam.
When Dean’s brain finally catches up with Sam’s last words, it takes him a minute to process them. Then shame crashes over his earlier jealousy because he can’t help feeling relief along with regret for his brother’s loss.
“She left you, huh?” Dean peers cautiously at Sam from under his hat brim. “But you keep her photograph.”
“I loved her,” Sam admits. “She was funny and kind and smart. A lot like you, actually. You even have the same birthday.”
Dean blinks. “You don’t say.” Jealousy burns bright and hot in his chest. The thought of that beautiful girl stealing Sam’s heart, even temporarily replacing Dean, makes him wish he could shoot something. “So, are you gonna try to win her back?”
Sam winces, shakes his head sharply. “Nah,” he says, huffing out a laugh. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders. Knows what’s best for her, and that’s not me, that’s for damn sure.”
“She made you happy,” Dean observes, fighting to keep the bitterness out of his tone. He doesn’t have exclusive rights to Sam’s happiness, but he can’t help wishing he did.
“Yeah, she did,” Sam agrees softly. “She did. But after the fire, it was pretty clear that things wouldn’t work out between us.”
“A fire?” he repeats stupidly.
Sam flinches, nods. “I had a vision, every night for two weeks before it happened. When I told Jessica, she freaked. Thought I was trying to get rid of her, when all I was trying to do was save her life.”
“So she moved out,” Dean guesses.
Sam nods, rolls his tongue around in his cheek.
Dean tries not to stare.
“I was at school when the fire broke out. By the time I got home, the whole apartment house was on fire. Several people died.”
“But not Jessica.”
Sam’s jaw tightens. “I should’ve saved them.”
Dean has a sudden flash of a blond woman standing in a flame-filled room, her arms up in front of her as if fending something off. Her face is a mask of horror and fear, and Dean could swear there’s someone else in the room.
Then the vision fades and Dean blinks, shakes himself.
Dean’s stopped in the middle of the road without realizing it. Sam’s giving him a worried frown.
“Do you — do you know how the fire started?” Dean asks, his voice trembling, unsteady.
For a moment, Sam’s eyes widen. He seems surprised by the question. Then he shakes his head.
“Uh, no,” he says, and Dean can’t help the creeping sensation that Sam’s lying. “They think it was an electrical accident. The apartment had been recently wired for electricity. Something must have shorted out.”
“Huh.” Dean can’t think of a reason to confront Sam with his suspicion, so he keeps it to himself. Besides. Dean doesn’t have visions, that’s Sam’s territory.
Except they both know that’s not true. Dean’s had plenty of visions. Just not much when Sam’s not around. Things only start to get weird when he’s in Sam’s presence, a fact that he first noticed just after the brothers reunited four years ago.
Even now, he thinks maybe Sam’s presence triggered Dean’s little waking vision of Sam’s girlfriend dying in the fire. That wasn’t Dean’s vision, it was Sam’s. Dean saw the vision in Sam’s mind, just as clear as if he’d had it himself.
For a brief moment, he considers the possibility that Sam had planned to kill her. It’s not completely beyond the pale; Sam’s killed plenty of monsters, even a human or two. Sam’s good with a knife, a near-perfect shot, has a reputation for never missing his mark. He didn’t earn the moniker The Gunslinger for nothing.
But then Dean dismisses that idea. The look on Jessica’s face in Sam’s vision wasn’t directed at someone she knows. More importantly, the presence that Dean sensed wasn’t Sam. Whoever was in that room with Jessica, she didn’t know him.
And neither did Dean.
So why does he have the creeping sensation that the presence in that burning room was familiar?
Dean shakes his head to clear it. Anyway, Jessica didn’t die. She left. Sam didn’t let the vision come true.
“You saved her, Sam,” he reminds his brother. “You didn’t let her die.”
But Sam’s guilt knows no bounds. “Twelve people died that night, Dean,” he says bitterly. “I could’ve saved them.”
Dean shakes his head. “It wasn’t your fault,” he insists. “You didn’t start the fire.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Sam says through clenched teeth. “It started because of me.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do, Dean. Yes, I do.”
Dean doesn’t have anything to say to that. He saw Sam’s vision. Sam has every reason to feel responsible for those deaths. Dean would feel the same way.
“Well, you can’t save everybody, Sammy.”
“I could’ve saved them,” Sam insists. “I could have warned them.”
“Hey, you gotta let it go, brother.” Dean shakes his head. “You saved your girl, right? That’s a win.”
Sam tilts his head, gives Dean a dark look.
“She’s not my girl anymore,” he reminds Dean, and Dean nods.
But the thing is, he really isn’t. He can see Sam’s in pain about this thing, but Dean can’t help feeling relieved. Grateful, even. Jessica isn’t part of Sam’s life anymore and Dean’s far happier than he should be.
He’s such a jerk.
They bed down that first night in an abandoned barn. All the farms have been abandoned, most of them years ago. Roving bands of werewolves and other creatures took out the survivors and stragglers after the early monster wars.
They avoid the house out of respect for the family that used to live there, might have died there, and whose ghosts might still linger.
Keeping the horses safe while they sleep is a problem that Sam has already figured out. He purifies the old, moldy hay they find in the barn, multiplies the grain, and fortifies the local grass.
They bed down side-by-side in a corner of the barn that still has a roof over it. They’re not touching when Dean falls asleep, but when he wakes in the night Sam’s rolled toward him, curled up like the little boy he used to be, his face shoved into Dean’s armpit. Dean rolls away slowly and Sam follows, murmuring in his sleep. He slides one heavy arm across Dean’s chest, pinning him down, and shoves a long leg over Dean’s thigh, between Dean’s legs.
Dean sighs, deciding against pushing his brother away for fear of waking him. He lets his legs fall open so Sam has more room, curls his arm around Sam’s shoulders. Dean’s arm falls asleep before Dean does, but it’s comforting to have Sam close again. He tucks his nose down into his brother’s hair and breathes deep.
That night, it snows. It’s wet and heavy and mostly melts by late morning, but it gives them a sense for how unpredictable nature has become. Even the seasons don’t make sense anymore.
“It’s goddamn May, for God’s sake, Sam,” Dean complains when they start out on the North bound trail the next morning. “What the hell?”
“Something’s stopping spring,” Sam notes. Dean gives him a confused frown.
Sam’s twenty-second birthday came and went almost a week ago, unremarked. Dean remembered, though. He just didn’t mention it. The road has become a trail, another reminder of the passage of time, of the way the Earth here is returning to its pre-inhabited state.
They pause for lunch in the shade of an old oak tree that somebody must have planted thirty years ago. They watch a herd of buffalo cross the little stream below. A flock of birds flies South over their heads.
“The herds have grown,” Sam notes, watching the buffalo as they stop to drink in the stream. “Nobody’s hunting them anymore.”
It’s all wide-open prairie for miles with no sign of human habitation other than the road. In a few years, even that will disappear, fading back into the landscape.
They bed down out in the open that night. They lie side by side under the open sky, watching the stars. They don’t say much, but when a lone wolf howls, Dean takes first watch, lets Sam sleep.
A little after midnight, he wakes Sam, feeds the fire and flops down to sleep in the warm spot where Sam’s body lay. When he wakes up the next morning, Sam’s curled up next to him, asleep. He watches Sam’s sleeping face for a few minutes, marveling at his beauty, at the familiar-yet-different way that Sam’s changed since he was a boy.
There were moments last year when Dean couldn’t remember this face. He regrets never making Sam get his picture taken the way everybody back East does. Dean would keep that photograph in his breast pocket, just over his heart. Whenever he missed Sam (which, who is he kidding, he missed Sam every day while he was gone) he could pull it out and gaze at it for a few minutes, just like he’s doing now with the real thing, memorizing every mole and hair.
Sam’s eyes slide open. He blinks sleepily when he sees Dean watching him. Then he smiles, slow and secret. He knows.
They’re as in love with each other as they’ve ever been. Dean’s sick enough to hope that’s a good thing, but he isn’t so sure.
Sam had a happy life without him. Maybe he still could.
Dean’s grateful to be on the road. He’s missed it. The six years he spent looking for Sam feel like a million years ago. He’s forgotten how good it feels to leave humanity behind for a while. There’s comfort in knowing that the Earth is still alive, even without people living on her. Out here with only the local wildlife for company, Dean feels free. Maybe it’ll get lonely after a while, but mostly he thinks he wouldn’t mind it long-term. He and Sam could hire out as wandering hunters, helping out whatever human communities they find, then moving on once the job was done. Dean could get used to that life, he thinks. Maybe never return to Lawrence.
That night they bed down in the remains of an old sod house, probably built by pioneers or natives years before. It’s no more than a hollowed out hole in the side of a hill, just big enough for the two of them to lie side-by-side, but it gives them some protection from the elements.
“We should make it to Omaha by tomorrow afternoon,” Dean notes as he shifts on his bedroll to get comfortable.
Sam grunts his agreement. He’s been quiet most of the day, lost in his own thoughts, and Dean’s starting to worry about his state of mind. He knows Sam’s feeling guilty about not saving those people back in Boston. He’s grieving the loss of his girl.
Dean’s starting to think he needs to get Sam to open up. It’s been almost three days since he showed Dean the photograph. Three days since he told Dean about Jessica and what happened to those people. It’s eating away at Sam, making him morose and depressed.
Dean can’t have that. It’s his job to take care of Sam. Letting Sam wallow in misery and grief isn’t good for him.
“You reckon we’ll find anybody alive there?”
Sam shrugs. “Don’t know. Maybe.”
“The last time I heard from Bobby, he said they were getting refugees from Omaha.”
Dean says nothing for a moment. This isn’t going well. Time to change course.
“So, what was she like?”
Even in the dark, Dean can feel Sam frown. He waits while Sam processes his question until he realizes he’s holding his breath, so he lets it out on a long sigh.
“I can tell you’re feeling sad, Sam, and I get it. You miss her.”
He’s going out on a limb here. Guessing, really. But when Sam sucks in a quick breath, he knows he’s right.
“You didn’t tell her about what you do at first,” Dean guesses. “The dangerous, monster-killing thing. You wanted her to think you were just a normal guy with a talent for magic. Am I right?”
When Sam says nothing, Dean goes on. “You didn’t want to scare her away, Sam. It’s a normal impulse. The main thing is, you told her the truth when it mattered. You saved her life.”
Dean takes a deep breath, adjusts himself on his bed roll. “Seems like the least she could’ve done was to thank you.”
“I scared the hell out of her, Dean,” Sam says, rolling over to stare at the ceiling. “Then after the fire, she accused me of planning the whole thing as some kind of elaborate stunt just to prove my death omen was true!”
“Wow,” Dean breathes. “That’s harsh.”
Dean waits. He can feel Sam lying beside him in the dark, breathing hard. Panting.
“You know, I get it,” he says finally, when it’s clear Sam isn’t going to speak again. “I understand how it feels to put somebody in danger just by being with them. I’m pretty sure that’s what drove Cassie away, in the end.”
Not that he blames her. He would’ve left him too.
“If anything had happened to Cassie, I don’t know if I could’ve kept going, y’know? She trusted me. It would’ve felt like total failure.”
Sam huffs out a scornful breath. “Bet you never dreamed about her dying,” he says.
“Well, that’s true,” Dean admits.
“And I bet if you had, it would’ve occurred to you to try to save all the people in the building, not just Cassie.”
“Now, Sam, that’s just way too hypothetical,” Dean insists. “If I dreamed about Cassie dying like you did with Jessica, I probably would’ve been too freaked out to think about it that deeply. She definitely would’ve been the first thing on my mind. Hell, I might not even have trusted my dream in the first place and got her killed anyway.”
Sam’s silent. Thinking.
“I mean, you’re the one who has visions,” Dean says.
“Death omens,” Sam corrects.
Sam huffs out a short breath. “Right before the fire, I had a dream about Mary dying the same way Jessica did.”
Ice-water floods Dean’s veins. “Damn.”
“I figured it was just a dream, but I couldn’t take that chance. I tracked her down, but she was already gone. You know the rest.”
Dean feels Sam suck in a breath, and Dean knows that sound. Sam’s suffering. He’s nearly in tears.
“If I hadn’t been so distracted...” Sam swallows, tries again. “I should’ve saved them, Dean.”
“There were families living there. Died there,” Sam says, pushing on miserably. “Mother with two little boys, father with a daughter. Two sisters. Some single folks. All immigrants. The stupid building was a fire trap, but if I’d told them what I knew...”
“They might not have believed you,” Dean says.
Sam shakes his head. “I could have convinced them. I’m sure of it.”
Sam shifts beside him. Dean can just make out his profile, the pointed nose and parted lips, Sam’s bangs a tangled mess across his high forehead.
Dean wants to comfort, but he knows he doesn’t dare. Sam’s had a little over a month to process the pain of what happened, the guilt he feels over those deaths, not to mention losing the girl he loved, a girl who might have given him the normal life he craved. The life he deserved.
Dean’s beyond jealous, jealous of the girl who made Sam happy, who might still be making him happy if people hadn’t died.
He’s such a freak.
“It’s not your fault, Sam,” Dean says again, knowing how useless his words are.
“Pretty sure it is,” Sam spits out bitterly. “Pretty sure the thing that came to kill Jessica came because of me. I put all those people in harm’s way. I got them killed!”
Dean recalls the vision he had of Jessica’s death, the one he read in Sam’s mind. He’s got nothing to say to Sam’s bitter words. He’s sure he would’ve felt just as guilty about those people if the Dark Man came for his girl.
“I got them killed, just like I got those people killed the night Mary pulled me out of the fire,” Sam goes on morosely. “Darkness follows me around. I can feel it.”
“Jesus, Sam,” Dean protests. “Darkness does not follow you around. That’s crazy.”
But Dean felt the presence of something evil in Sam’s vision. He knows why Sam feels the way he does. He’s not sure he’s up to helping Sam with that particular problem, but he won’t stop trying.
“Pretty sure it’s not,” Sam says fiercely. “I’m gonna hunt down that motherfucker. Make it pay for what it did.”
A chill slides up Dean’s spine. He reaches for Sam instinctively, grabs his wrist in the dark and holds tight.
Sam’s body is rigid with tension. He starts to pull away, then relaxes and lets out a long sigh.
“Ain’t nothin’ bad gonna happen to you while I’m around,” Dean reminds him. “You face that asshole, you put him down, but I’ll be right there when you do it, y’hear?”
Sam nods, swallows hard. “Yeah.”
Dean withdraws his hand, and Sam turns onto his side, facing him, chasing the contact. Dean feels his hand slide across Dean’s chest as he scoots close, tucking himself against Dean’s body with a sigh that’s almost a sob.
“Okay, okay, hey..” Dean murmurs, sliding one arm under Sam’s head, pulling him close with the other.
“Fuck.” Sam curls into his brother’s body, clinging to him like he’s a lifeline in a storm at sea at night, when the waves are about to dash them against the rocks and certain death.
“Okay, Sammy,” Dean murmurs. “I got you. I got you, Sammy.”
They don’t make love that night, but Dean wasn’t even thinking about that when he pulled Sam into his arms. He’s just grateful that Sam’s on his wavelength again. Sam seems to be on his feet again.
Dean can’t help but hope that they’ll get there, though. He misses Sam’s body, his mouth, all the ways they’ve shown each other how much they love each other.
Dean doesn’t want to think about how much he’s missed that. He doesn’t want to think about how much he hoped they’d find their way back to each other, in every way. He hates to think about how much he needs that intimacy with his own brother, but that’s how it is.
Sam and Dean were never meant to be normal.
When they pull into Omaha late the next afternoon, it’s deserted, just as Dean had feared it would be. There are no signs of life or even recent occupancy. The Missouri River looks muddy and dense, the ferry dock empty. Dean wonders if the steamboats and ferry boats that used to bring settlers here from Iowa and the south have gone back downriver. There’s no sign of life across the river, either, and the main road through town is dusty and filled with tumbleweeds. Nebraska’s largest city is a ghost town, probably occupied by literal ghosts.
As they ride deeper into town, they find evidence of the final battle that raged here. Huge sections of the town have been burned to the ground, debris litters the streets, and the remains of city residents lie scattered among the ruins, bodies burned beyond all recognition or desiccated by time. There’s not enough left of them to bury, so Sam and Dean leave them, head north into the old Mormon settlement of Florence.
Florence appears largely untouched. The residents must have left town ahead of the monster infestation. No burned buildings here, no debris in the streets, no bodies.
Sam and Dean bed down in an old hotel, across the street from the empty livery stable where they bed the horses. It’s dangerous to sleep in this part of town; even though it looks like everybody who lived here made it out alive, there could be vengeful spirits, even demons still around. But Dean’s reassured by the thick layer of dust over everything. Anybody who survived the monster infestation here has moved on long ago.
“Doesn’t look like they put up much of a fight here,” Sam notes as he salts the doors and windows, sets protection spells in place as he did in the stable after bedding down the horses. “You think everybody just left?”
Dean shrugs as he sits on the bed to pull his boots off. He’s looking forward to sleeping on a real mattress for the first time in nearly a week.
“Bobby said Omaha had been having its share of supernatural troubles for years. Something about being situated near the junction of two rivers. Powerful mojo. The native population had been dealing with it for centuries.”
“Water spirits?” Sam guesses.
“Could be,” Dean agrees. “Something definitely did not want this town to be here. The stories that got back to us in Lawrence were mostly about mass possessions, like what happened in Denver. Killing, looting, burning, all the bad things. I’m just surprised there are any buildings still standing.”
Sam sits down on the other side of the bed to pull his boots off. When he unbuttons his shirt and takes down his suspenders Dean tries not to watch.
“Makes you wonder if the land itself is rising up to reclaim itself,” Sam says. “It just doesn’t want people living on it.”
Dean removes his own suspenders, pushes his trousers down. The bed’s barely wide enough for two men to lie side-by-side, but it beats the hard ground they’ve been sleeping on all week. Dean folds his shirt and trousers to use as a pillow. Sam does the same. Dean blows the candle out and settles back, pulls the blanket up over them both, and stares up at the dark ceiling.
He must have fallen asleep, because suddenly he’s waking up to Sam thrashing and crying out in his sleep.
“Sam!” Dean grabs onto Sam’s thrashing arms, rolls his body on top of Sam to stop his kicking. “Hey, buddy, wake up! Wake up!”
“No! No, Jess! No!”
Sam’s body spasms as he cries out in his sleep for another moment, but then his body stills, relaxes under Dean’s.
“Hey,” Dean says as Sam’s eyes flutter open, glinting in the near-darkness. There must be a moon tonight, Dean thinks. “Okay?”
Sam nods, so Dean rolls off, hopes Sam didn’t notice his erection. Being pressed against Sam’s warm, struggling body pushed all kinds of buttons for Dean. His body remembers Sam’s too well.
Sam’s probably not even thinking about him right now. He’s got visions of Jessica in his head, obviously just had a nightmare about her and all the people who died. He’s grieving. He’s already told Dean how guilty he feels. The last thing he needs right now is Dean’s lustful attention.
When he feels Sam’s fingers reach for his under the blanket, feels Sam squeeze his hand and tangle their fingers together, it’s more than Dean deserves.
Reminders of Sam’s love despite the ways Dean lied to and deceived him fills Dean with shame. He’ll never get over the feeling that he’s betrayed Sam, no matter how much Sam forgives him. He should have told Sam the truth, four years ago. He shouldn’t have let his promise to Mary come between them. Sam had the right to know they were brothers before they had sex that first time.
Sam had always felt like an orphaned gypsy kid. Dean should have assured him that he wasn’t.