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The Piper

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Chapter 2

There's a town meeting the following Monday night. The school hall's packed: families are clustered together with younger children held on their parents' laps, and towards the back of the hall there's standing room only. Sam's never seen some of the people before: it's clearly most of the town, even those who live in the outlying areas and only come in a couple of times a month for supplies.

There's a line of chairs on the stage, with the town council, Dave Hanley and his deputy and the principal of the school all seated.

Dave stands first, and speaks into the microphone, awkwardly, bent at an odd angle to get it close to his mouth.

“Hi everyone. Let's cut to the chase. Mayor Jansen, would you like to start?”

He sits, and the mayor, a short grey-haired woman in a fuchsia suit, walks to the podium. She leans into the microphone, and there's silence except for the thin wail of a toddler at the back and the soft hushing of its mother.

“Thanks for coming, everyone,” she says, briskly. “Let's begin.” There's an expectant pause, a murmur of discontent, and the mayor shifts a little on her feet.

“The council has heard your concerns and we'd like you to be reassured that we're taking these concerns seriously,” she says. “You know we're under budget constraints, but we'll do whatever we can to sort this out.”

A man stands up in the front row.

“If we can't get rid of these rats, I'm going to lose my farm,” he says, and there's a rumble from the audience that can only be agreement. “Prices are the worst they've been for years, and the rains just aint coming. It was always going to be touch-and-go. If the rats finish off my corn crop then the bank's going to foreclose.” He wipes a hand round the back of his shirt collar.

Another man stands up. “I've never seen anything like it,” he says. “There's hundreds of them. They've eaten most of my grain store. I had a cat, Daisy, best mouser you've ever seen, and they killed her dead. There's just so many of them.”

There's more agreement, and an old guy sitting next to Dean leans forward and yells “hear, hear.”

“One at a time, please,” the mayor says. “I'm sorry, you'll have to stay calm.”

The man at the front sits down, and Sam can see him shaking his head and whispering something to his wife. “You're not sorry,” she calls out. “If you were sorry you would have already taken some action, before it came to this.”

“We pay our taxes,” a woman yells. “What are you doing to stop this?”

There's a disintegration into yelling, and the mayor reaches out and taps the microphone, causing a screech of feedback that cuts through the noise.

Sam wipes his face. It's hot in here, and there's not enough room to breathe, somehow. He wheezes a little, but he can't regain his breath. Dean puts a hand over his, then takes it away, quickly, and Sam turns to look at him. He can't do this. He just.... can't.

“They bit my son Daniel, his hand got infected and he almost lost a finger,” a woman calls out.

“They came into my pantry and cleared out everything, they even gnawed through the Tupperware,” says another. “I had to throw everything out, the filthy things.”

“Forget the crops, we're going to get the plague,” an elderly man calls. “You ever seen someone with the plague? Boils the size of plums!”

Sam shuts his eyes, against the heat, against the swell of emotion around him.

He stands, and is aware of his height, standing well above the heads of the sitting crowd around him. Dean stands too, and Sam shakes his head at him. “Stay here,” he says. “I'll wait outside.”

Dean makes a move to follow, and Sam holds him back with his hand in the middle of Dean's chest.

“It's okay,” he says. He shuffles down the row and into the aisle, and walks quickly out into the evening air.

The sun's red in the west, and it's still uncomfortably warm. Sam sits down on the concrete steps leading down to the athletic field and lays his head in his hands. It's better outside, much easier to breathe where the walls can't close in on him, where no one's looking.

He looks up at the floodlights, and they burn into his retina, ghosting rings of light around everything.

There's a white light so bright he can't look at it, and Dean's hands are pulling him back and away. There's a woman in the trunk of his car, screaming in fear, and he closes it with a firm click, hiding her terrified face from view. He's falling forever. He's burning alive. Dean's looking at him, and so's the angel – Castiel, his name is Castiel – and Sam's at their feet and looking up at them looking down on him, and Dean's face is so white it's almost transparent, and Castiel places his hand on Sam's forehead and there's nothing, after that, no pain, no joy, no fear, everything whited out to nothing.

Sam opens his eyes and he's lying flat on the ground, alone. There's a tickle under his nose and when he wipes at it, his hand comes away smeared with a thin line of watery blood. He doesn't know how much time has passed. He sits, shakily, and wishes that he'd let Dean come outside with him. Dean would know what to do. Dean always knows what to do.

There's the sound of shouting still coming from inside.

The town clearly doesn't have enough funds to pay for the help it needs. The rats are just the last in a series of disasters: two years of drought and many of the farmers with their savings wrapped up in finance companies gone bust. If they can't think of a solution, the town's going to die. Sam's surprised by how much he minds that. He and Dean haven't even lived here a year, but it feels like home, somehow.

The heat keeps pressing down on him and he feels the beads of sweat running down his back. He shakes his head a little, to clear it, but it stays buzzing. He stares up at the sky as it turns from turquoise to deepening black, and tries to concentrate on breathing.

The screams from inside come as a sudden shock.

He stands, swaying a little, and makes a couple of steps towards the glass doors, before people begin streaming out in the other direction, preventing his progress. A woman is crying, and the people coming out are grim and unsmiling.

He spots Shya Atherton, for once not flanked by her posse of girlfriends, and makes his way through the crowd toward her.

“What happened?” he asks. He's relieved when she giggles, high-pitched but amused, not hysterical.

“Mayor Jansen was just trying to explain again what happened to the cash reserves, I didn't really get that bit, but they're a lot smaller than anyone thought, and suddenly this rat, this huge freaking rat, the biggest one I've ever seen, runs across the stage, right under her feet, and she screams, and everyone's, like, standing there, just staring at it, and then Sheriff Hanley steps forward and kicks at it with his boot and it flies and hits the wall just beneath the honor list, and kind of slides down it and leaves this smear of rat guts or something, and Major Jansen just leans in and says 'Meeting closed,' but it was too late because everyone was just...” She makes a gesture to the people milling around, gathering themselves up and moving towards their cars. “Freaked out, I guess, screaming and running out of here. Everyone wants to get home, check their houses are clear. They were scared to come out in the first place, because they don't know what they'll find when they get back.”

Sam looks around over the thinning crowd.

“Where's my brother?” he asks her, and she shrugs.

“Are you okay, Mr Winchester?” she asks, and touches him on the arm, gently. He flinches, despite himself, and she pulls her hand back like he burned her.

“I'm fine, Shya,” he manages. “Thank you.”

“Your brother was talking to your neighbor, the old lady,” Shya says, and looks round. “I suppose I better find my folks.”

“I didn't see Dylan in there,” Sam says, trying to make a normal conversation.

“He stayed home.” She pauses for a long time. Sam senses there's more, but he doesn't like to press it.

“Dylan used to keep a couple of rats,” she says, as if it's difficult to confess it. “Pets, you know? In a glass aquarium, with tunnels and a wheel and everything. He's that kind of kid.”

“He says they're as intelligent as dogs, but less emotionally dependent. And cleaner. I don't know, they certainly smell like something. Kinda musty.” She half-smiles, and pushes her hair out of her eyes.

“Pa drowned them in a bucket of water,” she says. “Last night. He said they were a filthy pest and he wasn't going to have them under his roof. He and Dylan argued pretty hard about it, and Dylan had this choking fit and...” She pauses. “You know.” She makes a gesture with her hand, something that Sam can't really read, but it looks bad, contorted and twisted and generally fucked-up.

“Is he okay?” Sam asks, picturing the argument in his head.

“They're both not talking to each other,” she says. “Momma took Pa's side.” Her eyes are sad, and Sam wonders if all the prom queen girls at his own high schools had secret stories like hers, and families as fucked up. He guesses so: if his life has taught him anything, it's that everyone has secrets.

“I'm sorry,” Sam says. “Can you tell Dylan I said that? That I'm sorry about his rats?”

“Sybil and Vimes,” Shya says. “They were called Sybil and Vimes. I don't know why.”

Sam has a suspicion about it, and gives a little half-smile.

“I hope you feel better soon,” Shya says, suddenly polite, like she's remembered who they both are.

Sam feels awkward. “You too,” he manages and she gives him a quick smile, and turns away into the night.

---

He dreams again.

It's a day in early summer, when the leaves on the trees are still bright yellow-green, and the sun gentle. The breeze lilts a melody in his ears. He's in the deep part of a river, icy cold water that's only just touched with the warmth of the sun. Dean's treading water a few feet from him, face turned up to the sky, eyes closed, lashes spiked wet against his sun-browned face. As Sam watches, Dean's eyes open, and he grins at Sam and dives under the water, tugging at Sam's legs and dragging him under.

Sam surfaces, spluttering, and Dean swims away, laughing, and Sam follows, intent on revenge.

Afterwards. they lie on the bank and let the sun dry them. The sky is so blue it's nearly indigo, with feathered smudges of white high above them.

Dean rolls onto his stomach, and inspects his fingertips, holding them up for Sam to see- they're pruney and pale, but there's still engine oil under his bitten nails.

"I think that's there for good," Dean says, and gives a one-shouldered shrug.

His shoulders are lean and brown and his hair has lightened with the sun. Sam loves him, suddenly and urgently, loves the bones of him, his humor, his patience and his stoicism and the light that, despite everything, still shines in his eyes when he looks at Sam. It's so far beyond anything that he's felt for anyone else, the simple easily compartmentalized and labeled emotions. He thinks it's love. He's pretty sure it can't be anything else.

"What are you thinking about?" Dean whispers.

A bird calls, and flaps overhead, a whir of wings above them, then it's gone.

Sam leans in, suddenly, just leans in and kisses him, and it's both sudden and a long time coming. It's just a little closer, letting the space between them dwindle to nothing, and then the press of lip against lip, nothing simpler, nothing ever simpler than this.

Dean's mouth is cold still, and tastes of river-water, and then he leans slightly closer, and the inside of his mouth is warm. He pauses a moment as another bird startles near them, and then they're laughing into each other's mouths, and lying together, and kissing until they can't breathe.

---

Waking is surfacing slowly, in close, suffocating warmth, and Sam pushes the covers off his face and takes a deep breath of air. He hears the shower turn off, and the familiar pattern of sounds that is Dean moving around the bathroom. His brother hums as he brushes his teeth, an unrecognizable tune punctuated by spitting, and then his door slides open, and Sam’s just sitting there.

Dean’s got an early morning look about him, eyes slightly unfocused, hair drying into a weird kind of faux-hawk, bare feet and jeans, and t-shirt wet around the neckband. Sam suspects his quick visual once-over of Sam is as much a habit as Right Guard and Colgate, and this morning, something that Dean sees in him wipes that lazy look right off his face. Dean takes two quick steps and drops down on the edge of the bed, a hand going immediately to Sam’s forehead.

“Sammy?” he asks, voice sharp and clear, eyes intent. “Bad dream?”

Sam tries to find the words to reply, but the echo of poignance, of beauty, makes his tongue slow.

Dean’s hand falters, and Sam sits still as Dean smooths the tears that Sam didn’t even notice from under his eyes. The pads of Dean’s thumbs are roughened, but the touch could not be more gentle.
Dean’s eyes are inquiring, worried, and Sam finds a smile and shakes his head.

“Not a nightmare,” he manages, catching Dean’s wrist and pushing it from him. “Just a dream, you know?”

“Sad?” Dean asks, still with that watchful look.

“No, not sad,” Sam answers, truthfully. “Just… beautiful, I guess.”

The worry slips from Dean’s face as if it had never been there, replaced by irony. It’s familiar and reassuring. Dean rescues his hand from Sam’s grip, in time to ruffle through his hair and give him a short sharp slap on the cheek.

“Get your beautiful ass out of bed, and I’ll get you some waffles, princess,” he mocks.“Maybe with some beautiful coffee.”

Sam sighs, and the last residue of the dream filters away. As he swings his legs out of bed and grimaces, he reflects that he probably hasn’t heard the end of it. He’s about two minutes into his shower, trying to recall the traces of the dream, the icy-cold silk of the water, the warmth of the sun, Dean's mouth, when Dean knocks loud on the door, and yells through, “You should see the sky out, dude… it’s…. beautiful.” There's a snort of something between disdain and mirth, and Sam finishes his shower as quickly as he can.

Dean forgets about the dream mid-morning, and in a couple of days, Sam’s gotten over the need to keep remembering, keep pulling himself back to that place, that moment. He forgets about it.

Until the next time.

---

Sam likes the Odeon, the little art-house cinema on Main Street. It's always quiet in the afternoons, hell, most times, but he likes it that way. The kids go, and a couple of retired folks, and Sam, in the afternoons when his shift finishes early at the library.

He pushes a ten-dollar bill over the counter, and Dominic gives him a smile of greeting, pushing black hair out of his eyes, stooping slightly to pass Sam his change. He's nearly as tall as Sam, but not quite. He's got a pencil tucked behind his ear: Sam wonders if he's forgotten that it's there.

“What's the matinee?” Sam asks, and returns the smile a little awkwardly, though, because they both know that Sam comes to watch the afternoon sessions no matter what's showing.

They've kind of got this thing going on. Dominic flirts (at least, Sam assumes he's flirting, he figures he's kind of out-of-touch in reading the signals). Sam doesn't flirt back. He's pretty sure Dominic's amused by that - Dominic seems pretty much amused by everything - but it doesn't stop the other guy from switching on the charm whenever Sam comes to see a movie.

“The third Larssen film,” Dominic answers, with twist of his mouth. “I'm having to move it on next week in favor of the new Pixar. Art doesn't pay, not in this town.”

He hands over a carton of popcorn, and the buttery smell of it is so evocative that Sam can't help his mouth watering.

“On the house,” Dominic says, and over Sam's protest, “you're my best customer over the age of eighteen years. And you don't make out in the back row and spill soda on the carpets.”

Sam takes it, and walks into the darkness inside.

He chooses an the aisle seat, five rows from the back. He's chosen aisle seats since the summer he was seventeen, when he grew four inches in four months, the summer he watched the entire works of Fellini over six weeks in Portland, Oregon, and wanted to grow up to be like Marcello Mastroianni.

The screen's smaller than in the multiplexes he got used to, back when they were traveling around, but it's familiar and reassuring, a meditation of a kind, and he shuts his eyes and breathes in the the dusty dry smell of the cinema. If he listens really carefully, he can hear Dominic up in the booth, tinkering with the projector, humming to himself.

Sam eats the popcorn, kernel by kernel, almost by rote, and he's half-way through the box, knuckles scraping the inside of the cardboard, as the first flicking frames of the movie resolve themselves into a smooth, moving image.

He sets the box carefully on the seat next to him.

He's not quite sure what Dominic suspects about him, with his lone pilgrimages to an empty cinema for screenings nearly no one else attends. There are just so very few places in town where he can get time to himself. He'd go to church, maybe, if he was that kind of guy. But he's not, not anymore.

He's not that into the film itself. He's seen the first of this trilogy but not the middle one, and the subtitles are just a fraction out of focus, which makes them hard on the eyes, but the punk girl has a cool motorcycle, and it's a story about justice, which he appreciates even if the legal system of the film bears no resemblance to anything he's even remotely familiar with.

More importantly, it's quiet, and dark, and restful. He dozes through the second half and wakes, with a start, to the closing credits, and wonders what happened to the girl.

Outside there's a line awaiting the evening show – the usual Tuesday night crowd of teenagers jonesing for something to do, and he ducks through them.

He sees Dylan Atherton and his sister, and the crowd from the library, and gives a small wave.

He takes his time walking home: the moon is a broken plate in the sky, and the shadows across the fields are long and spidery. The night air is warm and the breeze moves through the wheat, a gentle touch of an invisible hand.

It's strange, somehow, strange and disorienting. It reminds him of a dream he had, but he can't remember the details of it.

The front gate creaks as he pushes it open, and the sound echoes for him. He fiddles with his key by the front door, but his fingers seem too big to grasp onto it. He's tired, that's all.

Dean's sitting on the couch, watching TV. He looks up as soon as Sam walks in, switches it off with remote and places the remote on the coffee table with a click.

“You didn't check your phone?” he says, voice smooth, and Sam reaches into his pocket. He switched it off for the movie, and didn't switch it on again. He flicks it on, and notices four missed calls. He knows who they're from
.
“I saw a film,” Sam says, “I meant to call.”

He can see Dean's angry, probably because he's worried, and Sam gets it. They've got an unspoken rule to keep in touch, but Sam's not so late. He looks at his watch, and it's later than he thought, but that just irritates him. Dean's his brother, not his mother. There's nothing wrong with him. He's just fine. He's just a little bit tired, a bit nauseated.

“I'm sorry,” he says, and then things blur a little, swirl around him, the shadows throbbing with his heartbeat, and everything darkens.

The next thing he knows, he's looking up at Dean, and he's lying flat on the floor and he's got no idea how he got there.

“Sam. Sam. Sammy, come on, wake up, Sam,” he hears, and he shakes his head a little to clear it.

“Am I sick?” he asks, and watches Dean's face crumble a little.

“You're getting better,” Dean says, and Sam wonders about that.

He remembers Lucifer angry inside him, more powerful than Sam could possibly have imagined.

He remembers Dean watching him, beaten, from beside the Impala, the sting of his own knuckles bright in his fist. He remembers Dean telling him he'd never leave him.

“Your poor face,” he says, and touches Dean's cheekbone. Dean tenses, and pulls back a fraction.
Sam leans his head back against the rug, feels a swirl of dizziness, and grips Dean's hand firmly to ground himself back in reality.

“What happened to me?” he asks. “Why am I like this?”

“You're fine, Sammy,” Dean says, and that's another lie, Sam thinks, but Dean's voice is stretched so thin that Sam can't find it in him to make an accusation.

“I fell into hell,” Sam says, to the blackness behind his eyelids.

“But we got you out,” Dean replies. “We got you out, and fixed you up, and you're going to be fine again, it's just going to take some time.” His voice is confident and assured. Sam doesn't know which of them Dean is trying to convince.

---

They don't talk about it the next day, or the day after that. On Saturday, they work on some repairs for Mrs Bainbridge, their next door neighbor. It's a hot day, and the sun reflects off the roof tiles as they hammer them back into place. Sam's sweating like mad, and Dean's wearing a trucker cap that Sam's never seen before.

“Gimme the pry bar, Grizzly Adams,” he says, and enjoys the look of irritation on Dean's face as he takes the cap off and wipes the sweat off his face.

“What-the fuck-ever,” Dean bitches, getting it out of his tool-belt and handing it over.

Sam reaches for it, takes a step towards the edge, and the damaged shingle cracks under his foot.

There's a moment when he flails for balance and then, horribly, a moment when he fails to get it.

And he's falling, only he's not falling, not really, he can feel Dean's hand catching in the waistband of his jeans and holding him on the roof, but his mind's conjuring a bitter memory of falling into darkness.

He remembers, suddenly, hot iron drawn across his ribcage, the bump of each raised bone underneath the peeling skin audible because he refused to scream. He remembers standing in some city, somewhere, the stench of trash in his nostrils, and Dean, blood pouring from a wound in his neck, and Sam's own sense of satisfaction so strong that it makes him shudder in remembrance. He remembers killing a woman with his teeth.

He opens his eyes and the sun hits him like a blow, and Dean's holding him, holding his face, checking him, and it's almost worth it, to feel Dean so close, to feel Dean's care, his concern.
Sam lurches a little, and Dean pulls him even closer, wraps an arm around his shoulder.

“Steady,” Dean whispers. “I got you.”

“What did I do?” Sam whispers back, urgently. “Dean, what did I do?”

Dean doesn't answer, just takes a step back, and lets his hands fall away. Sam's cold suddenly, despite the heat, cold all the way through him.

He sways, but doesn't fall.

“It's just sunstroke,” Dean says, in a tone that denies any argument. “That's probably enough for today.”

Sam's steady enough down the ladder, but the shade of the verandah is welcome. He leans his head against the wall, and lets himself breathe. He hears Dean putting the ladder away, feels a light touch on his shoulder, and raises his head to see Dean knocking on the door.

Mrs Bainbridge must be eighty if she's a day, most likely ninety by Sam's calculation, but she's tall and thin and always elegantly dressed. Today is no exception: despite the heat she looks cool in a light green dress and a straw sunhat. Her eyes are keen in her dark face, and her hair is completely white, tucked back into some kind of coiled up thing at the back of her head.

“Oh my,” she says, when she sees them. “You should have come down an hour ago.”

She looks from Dean to Sam, and back again.

“I've got some lemonade for you boys,” she says, “Lemonade and pie.”

Dean smiles, but Sam can see it's half-hearted. He's not sure what he looks like himself, there's a shiver deep in the heart of him and it's all he can do to keep his hands still.

“May I use your bathroom?” he asks, and then he's walking through the shady hallway, all the way to the back of the house, and the door shuts behind him, and the tile is cool against his hot face. He thinks for a moment that he might throw up, but he stares at his pale face in the mirror, hair stuck to his forehead in sweaty strands, and dares himself not to.

It takes a long moment to get a hold of himself. He splashes water on his face, and washes his hands, and stares at himself, refusing to think about it, about any of it.

When he's in charge of himself, he walks back. He can hear them talking in the kitchen, Mrs Bainbridge and Dean.

Sam pauses in the darker hallway, and watches the old lady cut Dean a slice of strawberry pie. Sam can only watch as Dean takes a bite, the whiteness of his teeth against the red fruit, the way his throat works as he swallows, and for a moment, he thinks he's going to pass out, again. It's a familiar sight, from the past, and from the present, and it dizzies him, somehow, the way those times blur. He rests his head against the white-painted panelling.

“That's good pie, ma'am,” Dean says. “That's really good.” Mrs Bainbridge smiles, and goes to fuss with the dishes by the sink.

Dean eats quietly, without his usual enthusiasm. Sam doesn't want to interrupt them, there's something about the way they're waiting that makes him press himself against the doorway, hidden in the hall, and just watch.

Mrs Bainbridge stands at the kitchen counter and watches out the window.

“My boy Marty was in the army,” she says, “He fought in Korea. He wasn’t injured, not in his body, but he was never the same. He’d been in a collapsed dug-out with a dead friend for nearly two days before they dug him out. He couldn’t sleep in a room with closed windows, not after that, not in the deepest winter, not for the rest of his life. I couldn’t imagine what hell he’d been through.”

“I recognize the look, see, in Sam's eyes. He wants to leave it behind him, but his brain won’t let it go. He can’t let it go.”

Dean looks up from eating, but doesn't reply. Sam waits for Dean to say that he wasn't in the war, but Dean doesn't.

“What happened to him?” Dean asks. “What happened to Marty?”

Her eyes are very bright. “He got through it,” she says. “He died in a car crash when he was forty-seven. But that was twenty five more years with him than I might have had. He had the chance to get married, had my two grandkids. I always felt very lucky. When he first came back, I thought that I’d lost him forever, that he'd never be himself again. But it just took him longer to get himself back again than I was expecting.”

“Sam’s coming back,” she says. “I see him at the library, sometimes, or in the street. Sometimes his face is so grey, so lonely, so lost. But then I see him when you walk in, see his face, and how he looks at you. He loves you very much. You’ll bring him home, you just need to be patient.”

Dean looks at his hands, and Sam wants to clear his throat, but he's afraid to see the expression on Dean's face. He doesn't like to think of himself like that, his emotions so easy to read.

“It hasn't been easy for you, either,” she says, and Dean shakes his head.

“I just want to do the right thing. I'm...” his voice fades. “I'm kind of responsible for what happened to him. Part of the reason he... went to the war.”

She reaches over and pats his hand.

“I argued with Marty the day before he shipped out,” she says. “I told him, if he went, not to come back.” Sam starts, despite himself, and wonders how they don't hear the pounding of his heart in his chest, the breath squeaking out of him. But they don't.

“He knew I didn't mean it, not really, but I never forgave myself. I wasn't the best mother to him, I didn't understand that he needed to follow his own path.”

Dean replies, so quietly Sam has to strain to hear him.

“I don't know if I did the right thing.”

Mrs Bainbridge reaches over and cuts another slice from the pie, and places it carefully onto Dean's plate.

He pokes at it with his fork, and begins to eat, slowly, methodically.

“Maybe there is no 'right thing'” she suggests. “You do what you do, and you live with the consequences.”

“I miss him,” Dean says, “the way he was, before,” and Sam has to swipe his hand over his eyes. It's not that he's not trying to be the way he was before. It's that he can't even remember what that was: he has no idea how he's different, which bits of him have slipped through the gaps of his memory.

“But you love him still, the way he is now,” Mrs. Bainbridge offers.

Dean's reply is too quiet to be heard, and Sam wants to yell out, give away his hiding place, and demand Dean repeat himself, demand Dean says his reply again so Sam can hear, but he can't. He watches Mrs Bainbridge lean over and touch Dean's head, gently and sadly, and then he can't watch any more.

He walks backwards, stealthy as he can, and then strides in, letting his feet fall loudly on the wooden floorboards.

Dean's face, when he looks up to see Sam coming in, is as blank and cheerful as ever.
“Best pie you ever tasted,” he says, and Sam slips into the seat across from him to try it for himself.

---

There's a message on the phone: Martin Atherton's dry voice and the message that the rat traps have arrived. Dean makes the trip into town on his own, and comes back with a dozen for them, and a dozen for Mrs. Bainbridge.

“I saw your friend Dominic,” he says. “He was getting a set for the Odeon. He says he'll have to be careful where he puts them, so people don't end up dropping their wallets under the seats and getting a nasty surprise.”

Sam doesn't laugh.

“He's an odd one,” Dean says, and Sam doesn't know what to make of that.

“He asked after you,” Dean says, like Sam should have something to tell him, but Sam doesn't.

---

That night, Dean lays the traps, all around the house.

In the morning, they're all full, the contorted fat bodies of the rats stretched out, tails long twists behind the corpses.

Sam digs a hole, and they bury them deep.

---

They're in a bed, some motel-size super-king, ridiculously, sumptuously large. He doesn't know where, but a bed like this, it's gotta be Vegas or Atlantic City or some place people go to gamble or get laid.

He's lying on his back, and Dean's straddling him. They're naked. There are cowboys on the wallpaper and the comforter beneath them is cactus-green.

Dean's moving on him, chest bare, eyes glinting in the shadows cast by the lamp. Sam's hands grasp his hips, feels the elegant line of bone and muscle, slick skin.

They're fucking, or rather, he's fucking Dean, or rather, Dean's fucking himself, setting the pace, taking his pleasure slowly, luxuriantly, one hand braced on Sam's chest and the other on his own dick. It's almost unbearable, the feel of Dean's body around him, tight hot clench of muscle, Dean's slow movements.

The air's thick with the smell of sex, and Sam stretches, impatient, sets his feet against the bed and takes back the lead, watching Dean's throat work, swallow, gasp, as Sam changes the angle, as he digs his fingers into Dean's sides and forces him to take it.

Suddenly it's hard, and fast, and Sam's confused as to who's taking whom, where his body ceases and Dean's begins, all borders between them blurred in a rush to pleasure.

Dean reaches down and runs his hand through Sam's hair, and yanks on it, hard. Sam swears and sits up, gathers Dean to him, and buries his face in the crook of Dean's neck, tastes him.They're chest to chest, now, slip-slide of sweat and skin, Dean sitting in Sam's lap, and it's nearly enough, nearly but not quite. Sam tumbles him back, and holds him there against the bed, fucking into him, biting his neck as Dean draws him in closer with arms and legs and refuses to let him go. They stay like that, just like that, even as Dean comes, as Sam comes, as the whole thing spirals down and away.

Sam wakes up, and sits up, and it's the middle of the night and he's alone. He touches the wall between his bed and Dean's, and closes his eyes against his own erratic heartbeat, against the press of his dick against dampened sheets, against the dream memory of Dean's face, what he looked like when he came.

Sam doesn't sleep again.

---

“What's up?” Sam asks the next day, when they're driving into town. Dean hasn't said a word the whole trip. Sam needs him to, in order to break the strange dreamy quality of the day, the feeling that his dream life lingers in the mood of the day. Dean's no use, he's distracted in his own thoughts.

Dean doesn't even reply, just makes a dismissive kind of shrug.

“Seriously,” Sam says. “You're all quiet.”

Dean glances at him. “Thanks for that analysis, Mr Psych-one-oh-one,” he says. “I didn't sleep last night. I got up and watched the Bogart marathon.”

Sam turns and watches him. “Which films?” he asks, and Dean doesn't answer for a long moment.

“The usual,” he says, after a bit.

Casablanca?” Sam suggests. “The Maltese Falcon.”

“Yeah,” Dean answers. The liar. The goddamn liar.

“Look,” Sam begins, and what he's about to say is interrupted as Dean swears, suddenly, and swerves the Impala right to the other side of the road, the car fishtailing a little and coming to a screeching halt. Sam braces himself with one hand against the windshield.

“What the hell?” he begins, but Dean's out of the car already, and halfway across the road, halfway to where a woman is half-lying, half-seated, in the dust.

They didn't hit her. Sam's almost a hundred percent sure they didn't hit her.

“Ma'am,” Dean's saying, and Sam's out of the car, and following him.

“Ma'am, are you okay?” Dean's voice has a break in it, and Sam's not even sure why until Dean speaks again. “Your baby. Is your baby okay?”

The woman is young, and dressed in slacks and a bright t-shirt, and the baby that's clutched against her chest is wrapped in what looks like a bathroom towel. She shakes her hair out of her face, and Sam breathes in, a sharp inhalation that's almost an inverted scream. She's bleeding from scratches that spread from her nose across her cheek. Her eyes are round, whites showing, and Sam steps forward, puts his hand on Dean's elbow.

“What's your name?” he hears himself say, and surely that voice isn't his, so calm, so reassuring.

“Josie,” she whispers. “Josie Blakey.”

“Josie, can you show us your baby,” he says. “We just want to check you're both okay.”

He kneels down.

“It's okay,” he says. “It's going to be okay.”

“They were right in the stroller,” she says. “I drove all the way but we ran out of gas. And I carried Kynan, but then I couldn't go on any further. And then you came.” She looks up, dazed, and a bead of blood runs down her neck.

“And then you came,” Josie whispers. “I thought you were going to hit us.”

“My brother's a pretty good driver,” Sam whispers back. “We're here to help you. We'll get the sheriff. An ambulance. We'll get you some help.”

She looks at him, and she's so young, younger than he is, so desperately young to be a parent looking after her baby on her own. Her hair is dirty blonde, and the dust on her face is streaked with tears, streaked with scratches.

She holds out the baby, in a gesture of defeat, and Sam takes him.

Kynan's swaddled up, and Sam unwraps him as carefully as he can. Despite his best efforts, he can't hold back a cry.

The baby's face is bleeding from nasty vicious red welts that start on his pudgy cheeks and continue down his neck, all over his arms. It's like the worst case of chicken pox or measles Sam's ever seen: the marks everywhere, and bleeding badly. Kynan isn't crying, though, he's just breathing harsh little panting breaths, mouth open. His mouth's got sores on it, as well, and Sam can see that the tip of his tongue is raw.

“I only left him alone for a minute,” Josie says. “In his stroller, out in the yard. I was hanging the washing on the line, and I heard him crying, I heard him crying so loud, not just the usual diaper crying or bottle, but you know, crying and I thought maybe he'd been stung by a bee, or something, or someone had come into the yard. I turned back and they were everywhere. All over him. Everywhere.”

“Who were?” Dean asks, reaching out with a corner of his t-shirt to wipe the blood from Kynan's face.

Josie's face is pale and she wraps her arms around herself, as if she's trying to physically hold herself in one piece. Sam knows the feeling.

“The rats,” she says, and dissolves into hopeless, silent tears. “They were eating him alive.”

Sam feels himself flinch, a reflexive shudder jittering through his whole body.

Dean's rock solid next to him.

“Must have been a few of them,” Dean's saying, angling his cell phone out of his jacket pocket and thrusting it at Sam.

Josie starts really crying, then, long dragging sobs that sound like they're ripping something inside her. “God, so many,” she answers. “So, so many.”

Sam shoves the cell back at Dean. “We don't have time,” he says, and reaches for the baby, tucking it back into the blanket and standing.

“We'll take you to a doctor,” he tells her, and Dean's on the way, opening up the back door of the Impala, and helping Josie inside.

Dean drives to the hospital, and Sam holds the baby close, one hand on the side of his little face. Sam can't take his eyes off him, not for a second, because of that faint, dreadful chance that Kynan will stop breathing.

Dean drives slowly, and Sam gets it, he really does: there's no point them crashing and burning, with the baby in the car and no car-seat. But Kynan is warm in his arms, like he's starting one hell of a fever, and Sam can only think of the number of diseases that this baby might have, the kind of anaphylactic shock that seems inevitable, infection, blood poisoning.

Three quarters of the way there, Kynan starts making strangled little noises, and Josie leans forward over the seat-back.

“He's going to be okay,” Sam says, and that's a lie, because he doesn't think that Kynan is going to be. Nothing's going to be okay. Nothing.

He sees Dean sneak a sideways glance at him, and he knows Dean can read his ambivalence. Dean doesn't say anything, just accelerates, and then they're speeding towards the hospital, as fast as they can go.

Dean hits the horn as they speed down Main Street, and Sam gets a fleeting impression of people jumping out of the way, of heads turning, and then finally, finally, they're pulling into the parking lot of the medical center.

The center is pretty small, one emergency room and two small wards, and on a Tuesday morning it's quiet. They park in the ambulance bay and Sam's out of the car before Dean's even had a chance to fully brake, and almost trips, holding Kynan close to him. Josie is close behind him, and when they stop running, at the reception desk, she takes Kynan from him. Sam's arms feel empty, and he hits the buzzer, once, then twice and three times in a row.

Dr Botur and her receptionist erupt into the room, and then Josie and Kynan are rushed away, and Sam's left hanging in a waiting room that suddenly feels too small for his height.

There's an old man a chair by the window.

“I hope they see me soon,” he says, querulously. “A rat bit me on the ankle.” He pulls his trouser leg up, and shows a deep bite, purple around the edges.

“I'm sorry,” Sam manages. “I'm sure they'll see you as soon as they can.”

Outside in the carpark, Dean's talking to Dave, who's there in his truck, still with the scratch down the side.

“You boys could have hit someone,” Sam hears. “I appreciate your good deed, you know I do. But I can't have you just speeding through town. You could end up with twice the casualties. And you've got no car-seat. If you'd have hit something, that little boy would have ended up through the windshield and on the road.”

“I'm really sorry,” Dean replies, although Sam doesn't think that means he wouldn't do the same thing again given the same circumstances.

They both turn towards Sam, and he shakes his head.

“They're treating him now,” he says.

“I've never heard of anything like it,” Dave says, and runs a hand through his greying hair. “We've had problems with rodents before, back in '98 was a bad year, but never any injuries. I think last time we had Rhonda Parker fall off a ladder and break her arm, because there was a rat in her attic, but this...”

“Did they say if Kynan's going to be alright?” Dean asks, and Sam's got no answer.

Dave looks stern.

“I better go and have a word with Josie,” he says. “See if her story holds up. I never heard of rats attacking a child before. Not all in a group like that.”

“There's no doubt he was bitten,” Sam says.

“But all of a sudden?” Dave asks, and Sam falls silent.

“Maybe she left him for longer than she said,” Dave says. “Maybe not. I have to talk to her, anyways.” He nods farewell, and disappears into the sliding doors of the center.

Sam shivers.

“I don't like it,” Dean says. “I just don't like it.”

---

It's not like their usual kind of hunt, but it's not that different.

Dean's sharp-eyed in the driver's seat, and it's hot and airless, in the Impala, leather seats baking in the sun.

“Josie's place is out on Wester Road,” Sam says, and Dean takes a right, off the main road. Dean changes down a gear, but doesn't slow. He's keen to get there, keen to see for himself – Sam knows this because he is, too: he can feel his heart faster in his chest, not out of fear, but from excitement.

He's expecting silence, and the sound of wind – a deserted house. But from at least a couple of hundred feet up the road, he can hear it. He winds down the window, and the sound is clearer. It's a chittering, a clattering, the sound of a thousand shrill squeaks, the white-noise of a thousand scuffling feet.

“Jesus,” Dean says, and, finally, slows.

Josie's place is typical of the out-of-town houses: due a lick of paint a few years back, and the tile roof patched with tin in at least a couple of places. There's a grass-less front yard, with the wreck of an old truck up to its axles in weeds.

It looks deserted, at first, but as they pull in the gate, Sam realizes that it isn't. Not at all.

There are no people, but there are rats.

Hundreds of them.

They line the edge of the verandah, and across the guttering of the roof. There are a hundred, maybe, on the wreck of the old truck, sunning themselves. There's what looks like the remnants of an old vegetable garden dug in the ground on the right of the house, and they're eating there, digging into the dirt – all that remain of any plants are bare sticks in the ground.

There are rats on the branches of the old peach tree.

Dean brakes, and cuts the engine, and the swell of noise outside the car grows louder.

They're watching, Sam thinks. They're all watching.

There are a thousand pairs of eyes watching them. He feels sick, suddenly, and dizzy, and he winds the window up, just to put glass between them. It doesn't make him feel any safer, it's worse, if anything, because the air inside the car is not enough to fill his aching lungs.

“Sam,” Dean says, and something he sees in Sam's face makes his eyes darken, makes him shake his head, slightly, side-to-side.

Sam's going to be sick. He's going to be sick.

They're biting him, gnawing on him, the ribbing between his fingers, the back of his knees, the soft flesh of his inner thigh. He's trapped and they're eating him alive, and the others are laughing at his desperation, laughing at his agony.

“Sam,” Dean says again, and he blinks, and that's not happening.

Dean's hand on his arm steadies him. “What the hell, dude?” Dean asks, and Sam shakes his head.

“Rats,” he mutters. “I just... there are so many.”

Dean's eyes brush over his face, and Sam smiles, a little shakily.

“I thought you were going to heave,” Dean says.

“Nah,” Sam answers. He looks down at his knees, the threadbare patch where soon there will be a hole. Anywhere so he doesn't have to face Dean's scrutiny, so he doesn't have to look out of the car and see the rats there.

Dean swears. “We're getting out of here,” he says, and Sam reaches out, touches his arm.

“C'mon, I'm fine,” he says, and twists to take the shotgun from the backseat.

“Salt?” Dean asks, and Sam shakes his head.

“Buckshot,” he answers. There's some salt in there, as well – it can't hurt.

Dean looks like he's going to need some convincing, but Sam knows how to distract him. He deliberately looks out the front windshield, and nods.

“You think we can clear 'em?” Dean asks.

Sam's not sure.

“We can try,” he decides, and the decision cools his brain and lets him know who he is again.

The metal of the barrel of the shotgun burns cold against his thighs. He knows later it will warm, and then be hot. He knows this life.

It unfolds like music, like he and Dean are dancing a routine that they could execute blindfolded.
It's not so different from the time they cleared the poltergeists out of the abandoned convent in Maine, not really. Or the imps in Wisconsin.

Dean takes the safety of his Beretta, shares a glance with Sam. He still looks uneasy, and Sam gives him a firm nod. C'mon, man.

Dean mouths a countdown - three, two, one - and then they move like they're one person.

Outside of the car, the rats are louder, chirrupping like a tree-full of birds at sunset. For a moment, they seem completely harmless, and Sam stands by Dean and stares.

It's impossible to know where to begin.

They're surrounded, and the rats sit there in the sun, and look at them.

One takes a staggering little step towards Dean's foot, and Dean blasts it.

And then it's a descent into war. The rats run in all directions. Sam and Dean stay close, to allow none between them, facing outwards and scattering them with buckshot. They reload in turns, and it's like a surreal dance of death.

On the fifth reload, Sam's shotgun jams, and he takes his Taurus out from the back of his belt, and starts shooting them, one by one. He keeps firing until its empty, and the gun clicks a few more times before Sam's trigger finger finally gets the message.

He stops, and stands there, and looks at what they've done.

The rats have retreated, out into the cornfields behind the house.

There's carnage everywhere, strewn corpses. The sun beats down on his head, and he's dizzy with the smell of blood.

Dean keeps firing, and then he stops too, and they stand there in the exaggerated silence that always seems to follow in the aftermath of shooting.

There are bodies everywhere.

Sam hears a rasping squeal in the silence, and walks over dead rats to where one is lying on its side, looking at him through a glazed eye, its sides heaving with its last rattling breaths. He puts his boot over it, and crushes it out of its misery.

He looks at Dean.

“We cleared the place out,” he says. He can feel the sweat running down his back, and wipes his forehead.

“We gonna clean up?” Dean asks and Sam grips the guns in his hands to quell their shaking and waits for the nausea to pass.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, we've got to.”

They find a shovel and a rake in the shed beside the house, along with some nests of naked pink rat babies which they destroy.

When, finally, the rats are piled into a heap by the fence, Dean sprays them with lighter fluid from the trunk of the Impala, and lights it up. It's the worst smell Sam can remember: he puts his sleeve up against his nose and turns away. He waits, resting against the car, as Dean watches the fire burn.

“We didn't get most of them,” Sam says, when Dean comes to stand silently beside him. “They're still out there.”

“There's so many,” Dean says, quietly. “I never saw anything like it.”

They stand with the warmth of the Impala at their backs, and wait until the fire burns itself out.

They rake dirt over the pile, and hose it with water. It's the hottest summer on record, after all. Sam hates to think how fast a fire could spread.

They drive back to town.

At the medical center, Kynan Blakey has been stabilized, but he's unconscious. Josie sits by his bed, holding his hand, her eyes closed. She's praying, Sam thinks, her lips moving silently.

“I need a drink,” Dean says, when they get outside again. Sam does, too.

---

It's not their first drink, or even their second or third. They sit together and Sam thinks that tonight, at least, they're utterly on the same page. They're drinking to put some distance between themselves and the picture of the bitten baby, the rats at the house, the bloodshed, and the smell of burning flesh.

Dean's got something on his mind, though, and after the fourth round, Sam's past waiting for Dean to make his mind up to talk to him.

“Spit it out,” he says.

Dean doesn't protest innocence. He just looks at Sam.

“At the farm,” he starts, and stops. Sam feels his face heat and he turns away, watches a couple of girls moving on the dance-floor, short-shorts and high heels.

Dean tries again.

“Before we...”

“It was the rats,” Sam says, watching them. Stepstep swivel. He thinks maybe they know he's watching.

“You zoned on me,” Dean says. “For a good couple of minutes. I shouted at you. I smacked you in the face. You were just...gone.”

Sam looks at him. Oh.

“You have to take care of yourself. If things are getting too much, you have to tell me. Going after the rats. That was stupid. I could have gone myself. I could have taken Dave, or some guys from town.”

“I'm fine,” Sam says. “The only thing wrong with me is that you won't tell me the things I've forgotten.”

Dean stays silent, his eyes wide and dark, his mouth clamped shut.

“I'm going to remember,” Sam says. “Sooner or later, it's all going to come back. You know that, right? Because there's all these gaps, all these things I can't remember, but I know they're there. I know I can't remember things. I know you're holding out on me.”

“Nothing that's important,” Dean says, and his eyes slide sideways, and his tells are so easy. It's always scissors with him.

Sam sighs.

One of the girls slides over to him. She's got straight brown hair pulled into a high pony-tail, and a shy smile that appeals, somehow, because it contrasts with her shorts and the low-cut top, and the butterfly tattooed on her shoulder.

“You want to dance?” she asks him. “I saw you looking, and I thought...”

She's pretty, but Sam can't remember ever being that young. He stares at her and watches her confidence crumple at the edges. It makes him feel bad, so he gives her a smile, the kind he remembers giving a long time ago. Shy. Flattered. Innocent.

He glances over at Dean.

Dean's watching him, face a curtained window, and Sam wishes for once, just once, Dean would tell him the truth.

He leans over, and Dean moves closer.

“You don't get to decide what's important to me,” Sam says, voice quiet.

He holds out his hand and lets the girl drag him up onto the dance-floor. The band is playing some country cover song, and Sam lets the music take him, a slow resignation to the beat that's thumping through the floorboards.

---

Dean's still sitting there, glass half-empty in front of him, an hour later. Sam slides into the booth across from him, and Dean just watches, impassive. Sam's hot, his shirt clinging uncomfortably to his back. He's got not one but two phone numbers in his pocket, and his heart is thumping.

Dean looks at him, solemnly, and tips the rest of the whiskey straight down.

“Pretty,” he comments, and Sam can hear the slur in the word.

“Yeah,” he agrees.

“You should get her number,” Dean says, leaning close and gripping Sam's forearm.

Sam shrugs.

“Take her home,” Dean says and tries to stand. He staggers a little, and grips the edge of the table, and Sam stands and steadies him, noticing the roll in Dean's step as he shuffles his way out of the booth.

“Give me the keys,” he says, and Dean looks at him, sighs, and hands them over, dropping them on the floor between them.

“Shit,” Dean slurs, and Sam bends to collect them and tries to support Dean at the same time. He hasn't seen Dean this drunk for years, maybe ever: so far gone he can't speak, and can only walk with Sam's assistance.

“You're toasted,” he says, and Dean laughs, off-key and clumsy.

“You're trying to remember. I'm trying to forget,” Dean says morosely.

Sam rolls his eyes.

“Let's get you home,” he says.

---

Dean raises his hands above his head, like an obedient child, and Sam slides his shirts over his head. Dean sways into him, and Sam steadies the both of them. Dean's hot, against him, hot and lean and shivering slightly, and Sam holds him close with one hand flattened against Dean's back.

The lamp casts crazy shadows across Dean's bedroom, and it feels like one of his crazy dreams. It feels like a memory, an imprint of muscle memory, as familiar as the way to load a gun in the dark. If he shuts his eyes, he can still see Dean sitting astride him, taking his pleasure, taking his time, riding him. He can remember what that felt like, to see Dean like that.

It would be so easy to give into it, to believe it could be like that. But it isn't. It never has been. If it had been that way between them, how could he ever have forgotten it?

Sam pushes Dean gently to sit on the edge of the bed. He kneels in front of Dean to untie his boots, one by one. Dean's hand touches his shoulder, and moves to his hair, and Sam flashes to an old hotel, a bottle of tequila, freezing-cold over-chlorinated water, a drowned child in his arms.

“Sam,” Dean exhales, nearly just a sigh, and Sam gives up worrying at the knots in his bootlace to look Dean in the face.

“I saw you fall.”

Sam thinks that maybe Dean doesn't just mean into the cage. He means the slow descent, rudderless, in the six months Dean was gone. The demon blood, and all it led to. Ruby. The blood. Lucifer.

Dean still loves him. Dean wouldn't know who he was, if he didn't. He doesn't know how not to, although Sam thinks he's tried. He must have.

He touches Dean, because he can't not, rubs his thumb over the line of Dean's cheekbone, and watches as Dean's eyes fall shut, just one long instant, before he pulls back, twisting his face away.

“'Night, Sammy,” Dean mutters, laying back and turning his face into the pillow.

Sam stands, awkward, so awkward, and pauses by the door. Dean's asleep already, or pretending to be.

“'Night, Dean,” Sam says. “Sleep well.”

He stands underneath the water of the shower, willing it to wash the day away, letting it flatten his hair against his skull, letting it run clean over his face.

His mind is busy, the girl in the bar, the baby in the roadway, the rats lying dead in Josie's yard. Dean's face, shuttered with drink, turning away from him. He scrubs at his face, his chest, his arms, and leans against the damp tiles.

The thing about the last time you do something is that you don't know it's the last time. The last time you walk down a certain street, the last time you see a person, the last time you kiss them or hold them. You just don't know – it's only afterwards, when it's all over, when the street has fallen down or the person has left you. If you knew, it would ruin it. You'd be mourning the past even as it slipped away out of your fingers. Instead, you find out too late, and you don't savor the smell of fall in the air, and you don't savor the feeling of a touch, it's just gone, and you have the perfect memory of that perfect last time, only it's always only a memory, it's always out of reach.

Sam doesn't know if it's better not to remember. He's lost parts of his life, he knows that. Memory's so elusive and mysterious a thing: he doesn't know what he doesn't know. There are just flurries of sense memories, impressions of things, flavors of emotion that flower in his mind, as if they had always been there.

He remembers the hot surge of blood in his mouth, the iron-rich taste of it, the warmth, simultaneously disgusting and compelling. He doesn't remember the first time. He doesn't remember the feeling of conviction it gave him, only that it did.

He remembers Dean's face, distraught. He remembers Dean crying. He remembers punching Dean in the face so he didn't have to see Dean mourn him while he was still alive. He remembers that it cracked the skin of his knuckle, and the sharp little sting of that was what he focused on, and then there was a shift and he was choking Dean, choking him hard.

Monster. He remembers Dean called him Monster. He remembers that was the only time in his life where he thought that Dean looked like Dad.

He can think of no possible situation existing in this world or any other where he could have forgotten that of his own accord.

He also remembers Dean walking out of a hospital, leaving Lisa and Ben behind him, strangers, their minds wiped clean of all memories of him, because Dean made Castiel make them forget. He wonders what else Castiel might have done, if Dean asked him. What things Dean might have wanted Sam to forget.

“Dean, what have you done,” he whispers, and turns off the faucet. “What have you done to me?”