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Chapter 1

Sam wakes from a dream of hunting.

It's vivid in his mind, and he lies there in his bed for a long minute, remembering the weight of the shotgun in his hand, the warmth of Dean at his back, the tang of lighter fluid on the air, and the wind whipping his hair as the angry spirit exploded in front of them in a sea of sparks. There was music, a little thrill of it, beguiling and enchanting, but the tune's gone from his head. He wishes he could remember it. His heart is still beating faster, like he's run a distance and only now come to a stop.

He pulls the sheets up to his neck and watches the sun dapple the sloping ceiling, and remembers what it felt like, to fight like that, together. He supposes it wasn't all exciting, there was wet feet and long bouts of waiting, and days spent in dusty council archives, and injuries and bad food and danger. It's left him altered, broken in ways he doesn't really understand. But still. He misses it, sometimes. Their old life.

They've been settled here for nearly a year now, longer than he's lived in any one place at a stretch since Stanford. Ten months, anyway, they've lived in this ramshackle old house in Cottonwood, Ohio, long enough for Dean to have fixed the most of the leaks in the roof, and to have started digging a vegetable patch under the apple tree in the backyard.

It's pretty nice, coming home every evening to the same walls, the same place. Planting things in the yard and seeing them grow. Getting to know the people you see when you walk down the street.

He wishes he could ask Dean if he feels the same way. Sam doesn't know how to phrase a lot of things, anymore. Words don't come easy to him, not the way they used to.

They're like strangers to each other, anyway. Maybe it's just going to take some time getting accustomed to. They're used to driving, and moving on, navigating the country by the numbers on highway road maps. Sam knows where to buy illegal ammunition in every state of the nation (including Alaska, excluding Hawaii); how to forge documents that say he's anything from FBI to FDA to DEA to CIA; the words to 14 different exorcisms off by heart (including three in Aramaic, which is one motherfucker of a difficult language to get your mouth around). On the other hand, he'd forgotten how to open a bank account; how to pay bills on time; what it's like to wake up in the morning to the same view, the same fields, the same curve of river. He's forgotten more than that, but those are the things that still surprise him.

He's good at moving on. Standing still is proving to be a lot more difficult.

Sam's nearly thirty years old, and this is the first time in his life that he's ever had his own bedroom.

It's tucked under the eaves, one of a set of three. Dean's is next to his. If Sam's very quiet and still he can sometimes lie there at night and hear Dean moving around next door.

Sam turns on his side, and touches the wall, with its strips of peeling wallpaper in faded damask roses. Dean's as close as he ever was, really, in terms of the physics of it, in terms of space and distance. Sam misses being able to reach out to him, though, misses waking up in the night and being able to turn over, and remind himself that Dean's there. It's something he didn't even know that he needed until it was gone.

The war's over: there's no reason for them to share a room any more. Sam's just going to have to learn to sleep alone again. He's wanted a room of his own his whole life. When he's used to it, he'll decorate it, probably. He can't imagine what color to choose though, what color he'll want to see every morning for the rest of ever.

The sun shines in through the curtain-less window, and casts a square of light across the bare board. The room's empty except for his bed, and a pile of clothes folded neatly on top of the old chipped dresser in the opposite corner. He could move out and be gone in five minutes, if he wanted.

He hears the familiar creaking of Dean moving in bed, and he knows what's happening as well as if he could see it. Dean's stretching, kicking the sheets off his feet, rolling onto his back and looking at the ceiling. There's a sigh, but Sam can't tell if it's of exhaustion or contentment, and that bugs him. He wonders if, just maybe, at this exact minute, Dean's turning towards the wall, and thinking of Sam on the other side of it.

A moment passes, and he's full of wonderment at it, the idea of them, together like this, both still and listening in the quiet house, so close they could almost touch. Then he hears the shift of Dean's bed as he swings his legs over the edge of it and stands up, hears him stretch with an audible click of vertebrae, and listens as Dean walks across the squeaking floor and pads his way downstairs.

---

Dean's turning eggs in a pan on the stove, and Sam pauses in the threshold to watch him. Dean's wearing his oldest pair of jeans, the hems worn to threads around his bare feet, a tear at the back of the left calf where the black dog took a swipe at him in the cemetery near Memphis. Sam knows that if he could look, he'd find a matching scar Dean's leg beneath it.

Or maybe he doesn't know that. He can't remember if that was one of their hunts before Dean went to hell, or after – if that scar is one that was wiped clean by Castiel, or one of Dean's newer ones.

It bothers him that he can't pin it down. He remembers Dean's face, pale in the thin moonlight, remembers his own hands scrabbling at Dean's laces to try and get his boot off, he remembers rolling up Dean's jeans leg - these same jeans, and Dean soaked them for a week to get the stains out - and the black mess of blood beneath it. He remembers pouring holy water in the wound to take out the evil, and whiskey to take out the germs, and all the while, Dean staring up at him with dark eyes, saying "It's okay, Sammy, it's going to be all right," like Sam was the one needed reassuring. He held the flesh of Dean's calf together with his hands and sewed it up, and it didn't get infected, and after a few weeks, Dean didn't even limp on it any more, except in cold weather.

"That black dog in Memphis," Sam says."When was that?"

Dean turns, and squints at him through the morning sunlight spilling in the kitchen window. It's been a glorious summer, with no rain to speak of for a month or more. The farmers aren't happy, but Sam can't help enjoying the warmth of it, the slow pace of everything that the heat insists on.

"Well, good morning to you, too, Princess," Dean says, pushing Sam's chair out from the table with his foot, and sliding a mess of bacon and eggs and fried potatoes and tomatoes onto a couple of plates.

Sam sits down, and Dean takes the coffee pot off the stove and sits across from him.

"I can't remember," Sam says. He doesn't know why it's so important. There are just so many things that he can't get straight in his head. If the small details - the look in Dean's eyes, the way he bit his lip nearly through as Sam worked on him - weren't so vividly clear, he'd think that he dreamed the whole thing.

Dean pushes his bacon around with his fork.

"Late oh-seven?" he suggests. “We were in Springfield, Illinois at the same time as the release of the Simpsons movie that week, I think. The teeth on that son-of-a-bitch were fucking epic.”

It's so exactly the right tone, distracted and indulgent, that it seems completely irrational for Sam to think, so clearly, so precisely, a cold hard little voice in his head - liar.

Sam tastes the potatoes. They're crispy round the edges and soft in the middle, just the way he likes. He eats in silence, for a while, and when he looks up, Dean looks down, suddenly, pretending he wasn't watching. Dean hasn't eaten anything, just moved the food around his plate to disguise his lack of appetite.

Sam studies him. Dean's the picture of relaxation, except for that little crease he gets between his eyes when he's concentrating on a problem, or cleaning his guns, or thinking something through.

He knows everything that there is to know about Dean. But then,that's not entirely true, is it?

He used to know Dean, inside out. Lots has happened, since then, things he can't quite sort in his head. He doesn't know Dean, not really, not what drives him, not what he desires or wants or dreams about. He doesn't know if Dean regrets coming to live in this little town with him, leaving everything behind.

It hurts to realize it, and he stands, and looks down at Dean, who still hasn't eaten anything. His courage dissolves.

“I just need to get some water,” he says, and goes into the kitchen.

He grabs a bottle out of the fridge, and reaches for a glass out of the top cupboard.

There's a movement, suddenly, a jagged little flurry of it, unexpected and alarming.

Sam gives a startled yelp, in spite of himself.

The rat's on the shelf with the jars of coffee and cooking oil and peanut butter and the salt and pepper shakers that they found at the back of the kitchen cupboard when they moved in.

It's almost exactly at his eye height, resting on the battered blue tin canister they keep the sugar in, standing on its back legs, front paws wavering in the air, black eyes intent on him, thin licorice strap tail hanging down a good three inches below the shelf. The sight of it sends a shudder right through him.

"What the hell?" Dean says behind him, and Sam makes an abortive silencing gesture with his hands.

"Gross," Dean whispers.

It's a stand-off.

The rat stares at them, beady little eyes and quivering flour-dusted nose, black from head to the end of the thin, curled tail.

Sam supposes it's kinda funny: the two of them, after everything they've seen, paralyzed by the appearance of a rodent in their kitchen. Regular people would know what to do. Who to call. Whatever.

"Get it," Dean whispers, close to his ear.

"You get it," Sam replies. He doesn't want to touch it. He doesn't want to move.

"Oh, for..." Dean says, and he's gone, and Sam has a moment of outrage that Dean 's left him to deal with this, but then Dean's back, pushing Sam out of the way.

The movement startles the rat, and it makes a leap past them to the kitchen floor, where it turns and hisses at them, baring sharp little razor teeth, and then there's the familiar crack of Dean's Beretta, and there's no longer a rat on the floor, there's the remains of the rat spread across the kitchen floor and about five inches up the wall behind it.

"Dude, talk about overkill," Sam says.

Dean pats his shoulder, companionably, but his eyes are still on the dead thing on the floor.

"Creepy," Dean says, and looks out the window at the sweeping wheat-fields outside, where the McIlrick's farm land comes right to the edge of their yard. "It must have come in from the fields."

Sam takes the brush and shovel out of the cupboard, and scoops up the remains.

"Where there's one, there's more," he comments. He looks out at the ocean of wheat. It's yellow-gold in the morning sun - later, in the afternoon, it will seem almost white. He loves the way it looks, and loves the soft sweeping sigh of it. "We should get some traps."

"Welcome to farm life, John-Boy," Dean says, and Sam laughs. There was something he meant to ask Dean about, but he's can't remember what it was.

---

The main street in Cottonwood looks tired and old. The asphalt has been patched at different times, so the road is lumpy. The place has its appeal, though. There's the little public library, where Sam works on weekday afternoons, the general store, the bar, the Methodist church, and the Odeon, a little cinema on the corner of Main and Dupont. There's the local high-school, overlooking the river, one fashion boutique, a post office, and a police station. Sam likes it. There's neither too many people, nor too few. It's the kind of place he used to dream of living.

Sam likes the store, too: it’s like a museum of hardware items right next to baking supplies and random canned foodstuffs. After nearly a year as a local, he’s just beginning to get a sense of where to find things, a slightly random alphabetized system, so the coffee lives next to the cereal and the Doritos are next to the eggs.

Dean leaves him to it, leaning on the counter as Martin Atherton makes his way out from the rear of the store. He's a slender man with greying hair slicked back from his forehead, and round glasses like shining disks reflecting the fluorescent lighting from above.

“We’ve got a bit of a rat problem,” Dean says. He's trying to be neighborly, but Sam can read through it. Dean doesn't like Atherton. He doesn't like his insinuating ways, or the way he treats his wife and kids in public, like they shame him, somehow, by their very existence.

Atherton stays silent.

“Had one right in the kitchen,” Dean says. “Long as your arm. Nasty little bastard.”

“Just the one?” Atherton asks, laconic, and Sam, looking over the shelves, sees him take his thin-rimmed glasses off and wipe them on the edge of his apron.

Sam didn’t know people still wore aprons. He gives a brief wave to Mrs. Atherton where she's standing in the doorway that leads to the storeroom. She doesn't return it, but smiles a little, almost despite herself.

“Where there’s one, there’s a dozen,” Sam says, and Dean gives him a tiny grin.

“Ayuh,” Atherton says. “And where there’s a dozen, there’s a hundred.”

Sam doesn’t like to think what a hundred rats would look like.

“We’re all out of poison,” Atheron says, and he draws it out - Py-sin, like some bad husband in a Hitchcock film. “I’ve ordered more but it won’t come soon enough.”

He gives Dean a dry little smile.

“Doesn’t work, anyway,” he says. “Rats are cunning. They just take a little of any new taste, and wait a little bit to see. A little bit of rat bait will kill the mother, though. A horrid thirst comes over her, and she'll find any water source - any river, or puddle, or your dog’s water bowl. Then she'll drink and drink until she busts inside. But the babies are left. Seventeen days is all it takes before they have their own."

Sam can imagine the thirst.

His throat dries to sandpaper, then to glass shards. He'll do anything not to swallow. The fire around him is inside him, now, and he's suspended, he's burning, and there is no moisture anywhere, not in his mouth, not in his belly, not in the gasps of air he takes in, against his will. They're watching him, again, both of them, watching his pain, calculating just how much he can take, how much they can do to him.

He blinks, looks down at his hands, where his knuckles are white as he grips a bag of sugar. He's in the general store. In Cottonwood, Ohio. He's Sam Winchester and he is perfectly safe.

Dean hasn't noticed. Small mercies.

"Traps, then," Dean's saying.

"All out," Atherton answers succinctly. "We've got an order coming in, soon enough. I'll put you on the list.”

He takes an old notebook from beneath the counter. Apparently a lot of people are after rat traps: Atherton has to flip over several pages of his notebook in order to find the next blank line.

Sam's hot all over, shaking, and it takes all his willpower to release the sugar from his grip and place it down next to the salt and canned sweetcorn.

He opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.

“Is your brother all right?” he hears Atherton asking Dean, and Sam watches as Dean's head whips around to focus on him.

“M'fine,” Sam rasps. “Just need some fresh air.”

He watches Atherton look down at the notepad. “How many do you think you'll want?” he asks Dean, and Dean turns back to look at him.

Sam finds his way out of the store, minding his way down the aisle, through the entrance way and out into the blinding sun.

It's hot, outside, but the air is fresh, not dusty, and he turns his eyes up to the paintbox blue of the sky. There's not enough air in the world to cool his lungs down.

He slumps down on the bench that stretches the length of the storefront, and puts his head in his hands. He breathes deeply, once, twice, and shuts his eyes tight.

There's a clatter next to him, and he watches as wheels come to stop on the asphalt next to him.

“Hey, Dylan,” he says, because it's a small town, and there's only one wheelchair-user in it: and even if by chance someone stopped by on the way through from nowhere to nowhere, it's unlikely that they, too, would have decorated the rims of their wheels with neon spray-paint.

“Hey, Mr Winchester,” Dylan says. “You okay?”

Sam looks up and manages half a smile. It feels fake and pasted on, but it's a start.

“Not so great,” he says, because Dylan may be what, all of fifteen years old, but he's one of the few people in town who doesn't regard Sam with suspicion on account of his turns.

Dylan maneuvers himself so they're side by side, looking out across the street. Sam sees Dominic Green, the guy who runs the cinema, and raises a shaky hand in greeting. He's fine. He's really fine. Dominic waves, and unlocks the front door of the cinema and disappears inside.

Dylan sits, quietly, beside him.

“My brother was in Iraq,” he says. “When he came home he seemed just like he was when he went away, but in the night he used to scream out. My mom would get up and I'd hear her race down to his room to wake him up. And then I'd hear him crying. Really bad crying, so bad it sounded like he was going to throw up. But in the morning, he'd be the same as always.”

“What happened to him?” Sam asks, breathing through his nose, calming himself down, curious despite himself.

“He went back,” Dylan says, and that's all. Sam doesn't know what to say. He wants to know, fiercely, but there's no way to ask.

“I read all the books about war that I could find,” Dylan says. “So I could get it, you know? So I'd know what he was talking about. But they were all about the Germans, or the Russians. Or Vietnam. They're all our friends, now. Do you think in thirty years the Arabs will be our friends?”

Sam hopes so, he really does.

“I don't know,” he answers. “I don't know if we're wired that way. It's like someone has to be the enemy. But I hope so. I really do.”

Dylan looks at him, bright eyes under a dark fringe, thin pale face hunched forward in his chair.

“That kind of sucks,” Dylan says, and Sam shrugs. It does and it doesn't. It just is.

“You look like you feel better,” Dylan says.

Sam nods.

“Tommy, my brother. He said sometimes he remembered being there so vividly, his brain couldn't tell the difference.” He wheels himself forward, out of the shade and into the sun. “You think that's what's happening to you? You must have been some bad places.”

Sam feels reality lurching sideways, and closes his eyes again. There are creatures hiding in the dark behind his eyelids, and he opens his eyes and stares at the place where the sun's hitting an oil leak on the road, and turning its surface rainbow colored, a dirty sheen of color.

The inside of his mouth is dry and sticky.

Dylan is watching him, cola-bottle glasses sliding down his nose, and the heat sticking his bangs in wet spikes against his forehead. He looks eager, and lonely, and Sam wishes he felt more like talking.

“I don't really remember,” Sam confesses. That's true, at least to a degree - he doesn't even know for sure what he's forgotten, he just carries a sense of dread with him in his gut wherever he goes. He knows he's going to find out. He's pretty certain he's not going to enjoy filling in the holes in the lacework of his memory, either.

“You probably do, underneath,” Dylan says, sagely, and Sam can't help a small smile at his serious tone. “You probably can't help it.”

“I just wish that was all I couldn't remember,” Sam says. “There's lots of stuff. People. Things that happened even back when I was a kid that I can't get straight. Not even things I think were bad. Just... my life, I guess.”

“Tony says the mind's like one of those old video players. You can tape over the film, but the original image is still there, underneath.”

“That's what I'm afraid of,” Sam says, and Dylan cocks his head to one side.

“I think it's better to know,” he says definitely. “Lots of times my parents don't tell me things, because I'm a kid. Or because of my CP. But I usually find out, anyway. And at least they would have been honest, you know?”

Sam takes a deep breath, and lets it out, then stands up. The world tilts a little bit, and then rights itself.

Dean emerges from the store behind him, two cans of Sprite in his hands.

“Man, that guy is a creeper,” he says to Sam, holding one out, and then notices that Dylan is there, and flushes.

Dylan doesn't say anything else, just navigates a three-point turn and wheels off down the street.

Sam takes the icy can from Dean and holds it against his forehead.

“Atherton's got a list of people needing rat traps seven pages long. He's way too happy about it for my liking,” Dean says. “The rat problem's pretty serious.”

He watches Dylan heading away. “I didn't mean to say that in front of his kid.”

“I don't think they get on that well anyway,” Sam says.

Dean takes his eyes off Dylan, and looks at Sam.

“You look pale,” he says. “I don't know. Like an angry spirit or something. All white in the face and dark under the eyes. You only have to spit some blood out and it'd be perfect.”

Sam grins, despite himself. Dean means to sound sympathetic, but it's kind of a good insult. He cracks open his Sprite, and drinks it down. It's almost too cold and fizzy in his dry mouth. He belches, loudly.

“And yet you burp like a healthy man,” Dean says, reluctantly admiring. “That's classy, Sammy. You're a class act.”

“I learned from the best,” Sam says, bumping his shoulder against Dean's. “Quit worrying. I'm fine.”

He almost believes it.

---

He starts early at the library. There's an estate-lot of books donated from the family of a deceased couple from the edge of town: everything from leather-bound classics to a set of old paperback Westerns by Louis L'Amour and Zane Grey.

Sam's written a database program for the computer, and he's slowly but surely moving the catalogue over from the ancient hard copy card file. He's not so sure it's a good thing - he's always liked the dusty smell of the card files, the worn veneer of the wooden file boxes.

There's a group of kids in the Natural History section working on some kind of project, wearing the red and yellow colors of the Abraham Lincoln High School team, arguing amongst themselves.

There's no one else there: they can shout if they want, for all Sam cares.
The sunbeams cut through the dusty air, visible pillars of light in the gloom.

He's looking through the new acquisitions, and it takes him a moment to realize that he's being addressed. It's one of the girls from the study group.

“We're studying the natural phenomenon of infestations,” she says. “Animal plagues and so on.”

He thinks about it a moment. “Like the rats,” he says.

“Yeah,” she agrees, toss of blonde hair. “My dad says there are more around than he's seen, ever in his life. He says they might wreck the harvest. I hate them. There was a nest of them in our attic, maybe ten or twelve of them, and some of them were attached by the tails. So gross.”

“That's called a rat king,” Sam offers. “It's actually kind of rare. They get stuck together by blood or dirt or whatever when they're babies, and they grow up still stuck.”

She looks both fascinated and appalled. “That's so gross,” she says again, and, “how did you know that?”

Sam shrugs. He saw one once, he thinks, but he can't remember where, or in what context. In a museum, or in life, or in a film. “I read,” he says and she grins.

“Duh, you're a librarian.” He is. That's what he is now.

“Kind of,” he admits. She looks sober, all of a sudden, and he can't think what she's seen in his face to make her look that way or what she's heard about him in the small-town mythology. He's said he's not a returned serviceman, but no one seems to believe it. It makes him feel like a fraud, even though Dean thinks it's the closest thing to the truth that anyone's going to get.

“You probably want Natural Sciences, 540-599,” Sam says. “The Campbell and Reese biology textbook has a chapter on populations, I think. And there's Hastings, Concepts and Models. There are some interesting literary sources. There's some pretty epic biblical plagues, frogs, and flies, and so on.”

There's a river, red with blood, and he's standing near it, watching bloated fish float to the surface. Dean's there, standing next to him. They hold a man down and cut off his ring finger; Sam can feel the flinch of the hand under his, the crunch of the knife through the bone, the spatter of blood. He's in a cemetery in a meadow, the same ring in his hand with three others, and he smashes the world open.

And then he's in the library again. He doesn't think he zoned out. But he's not sure.

His heart is beating fast, insistent in his chest.

The girl is looking at him, concern written all over her face.

“My brother thinks you're a war vet, like Tommy,” she says, and something clicks.

“I'm not,” he says, automatically, and, “you're Dylan's sister.”

She's got the same dark eyebrows, but she's tall and tanned. She's the female version of Dylan, but without his frailty, and without his sharpsnap eyes, and a couple of years older at a time when two years makes all the difference in the world.

“Yeah,” she offers a little bit of a smile, then shuts it down and tidies it away. Sam's wonders who taught her to be so mindful. “Dylan doesn't have a lot of friends.” She recites it like it's something she's heard before, voice suddenly adult-like. Then she blinks, and the adult voice is gone. “He said you talked to him like he was a real person.”

“He is a real person,” Sam says.

She shrugs.

“The kids at school call him names,” she says, like that's a normal thing, something she's so used to that it doesn't make her angry any more.

“Kids can suck,” Sam says, and her shy smile pops out again.

“I don't think you're supposed to say that,” she says. “I'm a kid.”

Sam smiles back.

“Adults can suck as well,” he offers. “People. I think they try their best, though.”

She purses her lips, like she's seen enough of the world to be a bit unsure if that's true.

“I'm Shya,” she says, and he nods.

“Good luck with your project,” he replies. “Let me know if you need any more help tracking things down.”

She turns back to the other kids, and Sam goes back to recording the ISBN numbers into the computer. After a while, he looks up, and they're poring over open books, quietly working, and he smiles, and gets back to it.

---

He locks the library at a little after seven pm. It's still a strange kind of halfway light outside, so instead of going home, he walks past the garage, to see if Dean's finished.

It's almost dark by the time he gets there. Dean's under a late model Ford Ranger with a deep groove dented along its side. Sam doesn't have to ask who it belongs to: Sheriff Hanley is sitting on the bench along the far wall, leaning back and sipping at a Bud Light.

The workshop is tidy, everything in its place. There's a lamp hanging from the doorway, and it's buzzing with insects that are distracted by its light and plinking against the glass.

“Dave,” Sam acknowledges, and Sheriff Hanley nods to him, and indicates towards the chiller.

“Dean's fixing my oil leak in exchange for a dozen Buds,” Dave says. It doesn't surprise Sam. Of all the things that have surprised him about this new life, Dean's friendship – and by extension, his own friendship – with the county sheriff is one of the better ones. Dave's a good guy, a family man nearing retirement with a sly sense of humor.

“You'll notice Dave's making his way through them quite nicely,” Dean says, rolling himself out from the undercarriage of the car and sitting up. He's got a smear of black across his nose, like he's scratched at it absent-mindedly with an oily hand, and he has a spatter of grease down one cheek. Dean reaches for his own beer, and gestures at Sam before swigging at it.

Sam leans down and cracks one open, and stays standing, leaning against the worktable. He looks at the scratch on the side of the car, touches it with one finger. It's half as deep as his fingernail is long.

He raises an eyebrow.

The sheriff shrugs. “I'd love to say I got that serving and protecting the people of Cottonwood, but the fact is Joseph is hoping to get his license next month. That's us backing out of the garage.”

“That one's gonna cost you more than a couple of six-packs,” Dean comments.

“No, that's gonna cost Joe more than a couple of six-packs,” Dave says, a little grimly. “The kid's got his head in the clouds. He's gotta learn responsibility. Grace is too easy on him.”

“When Sammy was learning to drive,” Dean starts, and Sam rolls his eyes when he sees the mischievous little quirk of a smile around Dean's mouth.. “He drove the Impala right into a ditch.”

Sam doesn't say anything, just gives Dean a withering look. He was fourteen years old at the time and Dean was in the back of the car trying to stop their father from bleeding to death at the time, and Dean knows quite well Sam can't say anything in his defense.

Dave whistles.

“That same car you've got now?” he asks, and Sam nods.

“Lost the headlight, the indicator, ripped off the mudflap and dented hell out of the bumper,” Dean says, proudly. “First repair job I ever did on her.”

“Maybe Joe's distracted by school,” Sam offers, trying to change the subject. “He's a runner, isn't he?”

“He's looking at a scholarship to Ohio State if he can keep his head in the game,” Dave says. “But it's sometimes as if he doesn't even care. I can't sit by and let him piss his life away. It's a good school. We'll get him there no matter what, but if he gets his fees paid, it's going to ease our way. A lot.”

Dean finishes his beer, and clinks the empty bottle back into the cooler.

“He seems pretty dedicated to his schoolwork,” Sam says. “He hangs out in the library a lot.”

Dave grimaces. “Hangs out with that Shya Atherton, no doubt.”

“Shya seems a good kid,” Sam says. “He could do worse.”

“He's distracted,” Dave says. “He's not the same kid I knew. And I hate hearing myself say that, because I sound like everything about my own father that I vowed never to become. And now I'm that. But Joe's got so many opportunities going for him. More than I had. I'd hate for him to waste them.”

Dean cocks his head. “You know what,” he says. “It's probably a phase. Everyone goes through one. Sam's lasted for about twelve years.”

Sam leans over and punches him in the shoulder, and Dean grins.

“Seriously, though,” Dean turns back to Dave. “Get him to come see me, I'll give him some jobs to do around the place. He can sweep up, do the inventory, help me out with the messy stuff.”

“You want me to reward him for fucking up the car,” Dave says.

“Sure,” Dean says. “Tell him he's working off bill for the repairs. It'll keep him out of trouble. Give him something to focus on. I like Joe. And I could use an extra set of hands around the place.”

“Huh,” Dave says. “I'll think about it.”

Sam's pretty sure that means yes, and by the glint in Dean's eye, he guesses that Dean thinks so, too. Dean stands, and stretches until his back cracks, and comes to stand next to Sam.

Sam can feel the warmth of Dean's shoulder against his, and leans in a little, chasing it. Dean lets him, and they stay there awhile, chewing the fat with Dave the sheriff, as insects rattle against the glass of the lamp, and the warm evening stretches into night.

---

It's dark, and they're driving, some back-country dirt track, no center line, a half-moon glimpsed through tall pines casting long shadows across the road. There's dark things out there, and Sam doesn't care, because everything he needs is inside the car.

Dean's at the wheel, one hand casually steering, his other arm draped along the back of the seat, profile dimly lit by the faint reflected glow of the headlights.

He turns to Sam, that quick, familiar, checking look, and Dean grins, quicksilver flash of teeth in the dark and looks back out at the road, making quick adjustments of the steering wheel to avoid the bumps and pot holes.

Sam doesn't know where they're going, and he doesn't care, can't care, not with the feeling of sweet relief, the warmth of happiness that sits in his chest.

He winds the window down a touch, and feels the shock of the chill night air on his face, thin line of ice cutting through the warm mugginess of the car. He leans back, stretches his legs out as straight as they'll go, and shuts his eyes.

Dean's hand slips an inch or two down the seat behind him, to rest on the back of Sam's neck, a sweet light tickle-touch that teases and then settles there, warm and firm. There's the hum of the car beneath them, the fresh mountain air.

Things shift, then, and that's really the only thing that reminds Sam it's a dream, because he's there, in the car, and then they're parked, under a ridiculous swathe of stars, sitting outside on the ice-cold metal of the trunk, and looking out across the night sky. Dean's warm against him, and Sam leans in as Dean's hand, still on his neck, strays around to his shoulder.

Sam turns his face towards Dean's and they're kissing, almost chastely, press of cold lip, smooth rasp of stubble and Dean's wide mouth stretching under his. Dean doesn't taste of anything much, it's a dream, it's a goddamn dream, but somewhere inside his head, Sam rejects that, sends the thought deliberately away, and opens his mouth against Dean's.

Dean's breath puffs against Sam's cheek, and the beat of his heart steady and rapid beneath Sam's searching fingers. He traces the neckline of Dean's t-shirt, pushing it aside to feel the pulse in Dean's neck under his lips, the proof of life. Dean makes a noise, little more than a ragged breath seeping from him, and it hits Sam right in the heart, ratchets everything up, and Sam finds Dean's mouth again, bites at him, and puts his arms around him to draw him in closer. God. Dean. It's so cold, and Dean's so warm, and there's nothing Sam wants more than this, nothing in any life he's lived that is so vivid and essential. There's nothing else that he can't live without.

He wakes, a slow surfacing, suffused with a glow of contentment, the lingering after-effects of the dream still with him. He's hard, but not urgently so, and he reaches down to touch himself more out of habit than need. And then he wakes up, properly, all the way, and freezes.

No. That didn't just happen. He's all sorts of messed up, but he didn't just have a dream about making out with his brother. Not a nightmare, either, but a dream that set his heart humming and made him wake up happier than he can remember doing in months. Maybe years.

There's probably some kind of twisted Freudian explanation. There's probably some kind of psychological rationale behind it, like when you dream your teeth fall out, only it's actually about anxiety. Sam's probably just missing hunting. It's a natural response to giving up their shared life work, and retiring to this little town, a mechanic and a librarian with the weight of the world no longer on their shoulders.

He can hear Dean moving around downstairs, clank of pots on the stove, and the thin tuneless hum of Dean singing softly to himself. Sam thinks it's meant to be ACDC.

It's early, so there's still a pink glow in the light of the air. The morning's still new.

He can't face Dean. Not after that.

Sam pulls on his jeans and wanders downstairs, slipping out the back door and walking barefoot across the dewy grass. There's a bird singing in the old apple tree, small and brown with a white stripe above its eyes. It trills a sweet liquid melody, and Sam just stands there feeling the dew soak the hems of his jeans legs, and watches the sun pink the tips of the wheat.

He feels the shame and urgent despair in his heart ease for a moment.

Dean comes up behind him, footsteps easily audible, even though they're dampened by the wet grass.

Sam looks around, and Dean's watching him, with that slightly inscrutable look that Sam's coming to expect.

Dean's holding two mugs of coffee in his hands.

"You weren't in your bed," Dean says, and Sam feels his peace desert him.

"I got up early," he says, defensive. He's a grown man, he can come and go as he pleases. Surely it's not too much to ask that he can get up in the morning without having to check in on Dean, like he's some factory worker punching in his time-card.

"I came out to see the dawn," he says, and he hates that tone in his voice, that teenage fucking passive-aggressive tone, and Dean hasn't done anything but bring him out a cup of coffee. Whatever's wrong with Sam isn't Dean's fault.

He wants to reach over. He wonders what would happen if he just put his arms around Dean and held him. Let himself do what he wanted to do in his dream, and kiss Dean. Kiss him or hit him, anything other than this goddamn uneasy and ambivalent peace agreement they're living with, where they don't talk about the future and they definitely don't talk about the past.

"I made coffee," Dean says, and Sam smiles, and it feels creaky and rusty, like an old gate that hasn't been opened for years.

"Thanks," he says, simply. He takes the mug, careful that their fingers don't touch on the ceramic handle. He sees Dean notice.

Dean doesn't look hurt. He doesn't look like he feels anything about anything.

The bird sings on, overhead, and Sam's feet feel cold in the wet grass.

The coffee is perfect, one sugar and a touch of cream, and Dean stands next to him and they watch the sun come up together.

It's not the worst morning of his life, but it's not the best. Not by a long shot.