Any other town, they would have earned a handshake and a smile.
Any other town, they would have gotten a we're-so-grateful and a however-can-we-thank-you, and they would have hit the road before another hour passed.
Any other town, Sam thinks, except this one.
They sure know how to pick them.
Winter in the middle of nowhere. Storm blows in just as the sun goes down. Ice messing up the roads, sleet blowing sideways, wind howling ominously, the works.
Dean is driving, knuckles white on the steering wheel, humming Black Sabbath under his breath. "Iron Man."
Sam is dozing in the passenger seat. His eyes aren't even open. It's Dean who sees the tracks, Dean who slams on the brakes, Dean who wrangles the car out of a skid and shouts in surprise and jumps out onto the slippery shoulder and scrambles down the hill before Sam can even figure out how to undo his seat belt.
About halfway down the hill, there's a blue van lodged precariously against a tree. Slid right off the road, from the looks of it, and Dean is already halfway to the van, shouting, "Sam! Call 911 and get your ass down here!"
Sam does as he's told without hesitation, and as soon as the dispatcher has their location he's slipping and sliding down the slope after Dean. He can hear the kids in the van screaming, can see Dean struggling with the bashed-in door and shouting to the kids to stay still, and then he can see the van shifting, rocking just a bit, that tree isn't strong enough to hold it and gravity's a bitch and his fucking idiot brother is downhill from it and--
There it is. Like a punch. He still can't think of a better way to describe it.
A second later, Dean is sprawled on his back on the icy slope fifteen feet away from the vehicle, the van is jammed into a more stable position, and the door has been ripped off its hinges. Crying little kids are piling out, falling on their butts and wailing for their mommies.
Sam's chest aches from holding his breath, but when Dean sits up and shoots him the most annoyed, pissed-off, what-the-fuck face he's see in -- well, since yesterday, really, Sam laughs out loud.
"Dude, you just saved a whole preschool with your brain."
"A church preschool."
"Can you just--"
"On their way to a Christmas pageant."
"That's gotta be, like, fifteen million karma points."
"Whatever. Let's get the hell out of here before they start asking questions."
"You are so not coming back as a cockroach in your next life. Frog, maybe, but you've definitely moved beyond the insect world."
"I should have let that van crush you."
All Sam wants is a hot shower and a six-pack of beer and a stupid movie on the television, but the townsfolk have other ideas.
Trouble is, the kids know what happened, and they know it was him.
Any other town, the adults would smile and laugh and dismiss the children's earnest claims.
Any other town, they would call it a freak accident or a lucky save and forget it.
Any other town.
"Without even touching it, Mom!"
"It was magic!"
"He's an angel!"
"From all the way up the hill!"
"He's a mutant!"
"We were trapped and he made the door disappear!"
"It was so cool, Dad!"
"He's a superhero!"
"Do it again!"
Dean mutters under his breath, "You have got to be fucking kidding me."
Sam's too stunned to say anything at all.
Ten little kids -- bruised and scratched but no worse for wear -- turn their adoring eyes on Sam.
Ten sets of parents, as well as the van driver, the mayor, the sheriff, the paramedics, and four volunteer firemen, do likewise.
"Do it again," the driver says, his eyes wide with wonder.
Sam shifts uncomfortably and glances at Dean, who smirks and says, "Yeah, Sammy. Do it again."
Sam opens his mouth and closes it a few times before answering. "I, uh."
They stare at him, practically glowing with expectation.
"I don't know how to explain it," he says finally. "It just happens."
One of the volunteer firefighters -- six-foot-six, plaid shirt, beard, shoulders wide enough to fit five human heads -- claps his gloved hands together in childish glee. "It's a miracle!"
Murmurs of assent all around. Sam feels his shower and beer slipping farther and farther from his grasp.
"This is your fault," he says to Dean.
Dean rolls his eyes. "Whatever, Professor X."
The mayor invites them to dinner.
Well, not quite.
Sam notices, even if Dean doesn't, that the mayor invites Sam to dinner. Dean just goes along because: 1) He saved the kiddies too; 2) Free food; and 3) They know better than to trust the mayors in these quaint little towns. After that incident with the tentacles and the Cool-Whip, Sam knows that Dean will never again leave him alone with small town government officials, clerks, notaries, or suspiciously congenial bank presidents.
The mayor invites Sam to sit between his two daughters -- twins, blonde, sixteen -- and offers him the first cut of the roast while the mayor's wife goes into the basement to find a dusty folding chair for Dean.
"I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't been there," the wife says. Her brilliant smile falters a bit when Dean drops his fork on the floor; his smiles at her and picks it up, wipes it off on his t-shirt, and helps himself to the potatoes. She turns back to Sam, and her smiles fixes itself easily. "You are a very special young man, to be capable of such great things."
"Dean was driving," Sam tells her. "He saw the tracks and stopped the car. If he hadn't--"
"Who knows what would have happened to those poor children?" one of the twins asks, her blue eyes filling tears. Cheri or Carrie or something. Sam can't remember their names and their perfume is making his nose itch, but he tries to smile and nod.
"It would have been a terrible tragedy," the other twin adds. "Unspeakable."
If only that was true, Sam thinks with an inward sigh. He takes a bite of the roast; it's a little on the tough side.
The mayor adds, "You saved this town from years of grief and mourning, Sam."
"I, uh." Sam swallows. "It wasn't me. If Dean hadn't--"
"Potatoes?" The mayor's wife shoves the plate at him without waiting for an answer.
They offer Sam a guest bedroom with an antique four-poster bed, down blankets piled high, a fire crackling on the hearth and a teddy bear that, Sam swears, is watching him disapprovingly from beady black eyes.
The mayor's wife reluctantly agrees to let Dean sleep on the sofa.
"Wow, thanks," Dean says, giving the mayor's wife a wide smile when she hands him a pillow and a blanket. "Small town hospitality."
Sam is exhausted, but his head hurts like hell and he can't fall asleep.
A miracle, they said. All those lives saved.
Sam rolls over and punches the pillow.
To be capable of such great things.
Then he punches the teddy bear to make it stop staring at him.
You and the other children like you.
There's a knock on the door. Sam bolts upright, slipping his hand under the pillow for his knife.
Sam lets go of the knife. "I'm awake."
The door opens and Dean comes in, his bare feet making no sound on the polished hardwood floor. He shuts the door quietly behind him, then walks over and collapses across the foot of Sam's bed.
"Move over, jerk."
"You get scared sleeping downstairs all by yourself?"
"I got cramps sleeping on that fucking couch all -- what the hell is this? Your foot?"
"I'm not even going to ask what else you think it could be."
Dean sighs and stretches out, shoving Sam's foot aside. "This town is fucking creepy, man."
Sam laughs. "You're telling me."
"I mean, I'm all for free room and board when folks are grateful, but this is out of control. You know they're planning a town meeting tomorrow just for you?"
"They are? How do you know?"
"One of the twins told me." Dean smiles fondly. "Cheri or Carrie or whatever the hell her name is."
"She -- wait, when did you talk to her?"
Dean doesn't even look abashed. "Just now. She was concerned that the couch wasn't comfortable enough for me."
"She said that maybe you're the chosen hero of this town, but I'm much hotter than you are and even though she knew it was wrong because she's never been with a man before she couldn't--"
"Dean." Sam throws the disapproving teddy bear, and Dean grunts when it hits him in the stomach.
"Sammy, chill. I didn't touch her. I haven't deflowered a sixteen-year-old since I was… uh… well…."
Sam raises an eyebrow.
Dean throws the teddy bear back, hits Sam in the nose. "Seriously, this town freaks me out. We shag ass after breakfast."
"Fine by me."
"You don't mind missing your meeting? I bet they already have a banner made up with your name on it."
In the dim firelight, Sam can't read Dean's face, can't tell if he's joking. "Are you kidding me? I want to get as far away from these freaks as I can."
"Even though the mayor is going to offer you the choice of his nubile young daughters? I'm telling you, you might want to reconsider. Cheri was wearing this little pink tank top and I could see--"
"Finish that sentence and I'm disowning you, pervert."
Sam hurls the teddy bear back, then rolls over, kicking Dean half-heartedly when he can't stretch out his legs.
"I mean," Dean says after a few minutes, "that bitch took my plate away before I was even finished eating, but they gave you a whole goddamned cow. Creepy fucking town."
Closing his eyes, Sam tries not to smile. The wind is still howling outside, but his headache is gone.
He dreams that he's standing on a dark, empty plain. There are no stars overhead, and the grass below his bare feet is dead, crackling and dry.
There's nobody around him, nothing as far as he can see.
But he can feel Dean, smell gunpowder and leather, hear a whisper of a breath, but when he turns his head he sees only a flicker at the corner of his eye, no more than a shadow.
When he wakes up a few hours later, the fire is out and Dean is standing by the window.
Dean glances over his shoulder. "Storm's stopped."
Sam props himself up on one elbow and doesn't answer right away. There's a cold feeling in his stomach, nothing to do with the storm and everything to do with waking up again -- again, like he has too many times in the past few weeks -- to find Dean already awake. Watching and worrying. Waiting.
"Good," Sam replies with a yawn. "I'd hate to be stuck here."
Used to be he was the one who got no sleep.
Used to be, he thinks, like it was all that long ago, even though it was just a few months. Back in the fucking good old days. Before--
But those months have a thick black line through them now, a border he can barely remember being on the other side of, and even though Sam's nightmares haven't stopped, now it's Dean who doesn't sleep, who pretends nothing's wrong, who brushes aside his concern, who won't--
Sam falls onto his back and sighs.
"What's the matter, princess? Pea digging into your back?"
Won't talk about it.
"Yeah, totally." Sam takes a deep breath, tries to sound casual, joking. "I mean, even if I did want a cult to worship me, I wouldn't pick these people. This bed sucks."
Sam was eight when he figured it out. There was this way Dad would look at him, then look at Dean, always the same look, right before he said something that was designed to get Sam out of the room so they could talk about something he wasn't supposed to hear.
"We'll find you a better cult," Dean says. "We can put shit in the Kool-Aid."
Grown-up stuff. Whatever the hell that meant.
"Poison our faithful followers? That's nice."
"No, man, where's the fun in that?" Dean says. "I was thinking of that crazy mushroom crap Jefferson used to smoke, right before he started singing about the wombats."
"Oh. Yeah, that's much better."
Things he wasn't allowed to know, words he was too young to understand, never mind that Dean is only four years older than him. He's not sure he can remember a time when Dean wasn't one of the grown-ups.
Sam closes his eyes, opens them again. "Do you think--"
Coffee. Sent him away to get a fucking cup of coffee.
Warily, Dean glances at Sam again. "What?"
Grown-up talk, Sammy. Just give us a minute.
"Do you think -- do they know something?"
"These people in this town." Sam swallows; his throat is dry, and he has the sudden urge to ask Dean to get him a glass of water, like he used to do when they were kids and he was too scared to leave the bedroom at night. "I mean, they way they aren't surprised by -- by what I can do. A whole town, man, that's weird. Do you think they--"
"Don't be stupid."
Sam sits up, annoyed. "Dean, I'm serious. The way these people are acting, don't you think they might know something about--"
He sees Dean's shoulder tense.
About me, he thinks, but the words fail in his throat.
About what the hell is happening. About why I can see people die before it happens, about why I can move things with my mind when you're in danger. About what that demon wants. About why Mom and Jess and -- god, it's too soon, a white-hot knife stuck in, twisted, and he doesn't even know if it's his gut or Dean's or both, but it isn't getting any easier, isn't getting any better -- Dad had to die. And Caleb and Pastor Jim and Meg and Max and so many other people, people whose names they'll never even know, burned and broken and bloodied, all of them because there's a demon with a plan and a guy with visions in his mind and far too many ashes scattered on the wind.
"--about what's going on?" Sam finishes quietly. "About what I am?"
For a moment, Sam thinks he isn't going to answer.
Brush it off. Ignore the question.
Pretend like nothing's happened.
Dean turns away from the window and looks at Sam, his arms crossed over his chest, and he shrugs.
"Whatever, man," Dean says, like Sam has just asked what he wants for dinner. "I already know what you are."
"No, I mean, to the demon--"
"You're my whiny little bitch of a brother who's worse than a freakin' teenage girl when it comes to this late-night angst crap." Dean shakes his head. "Trust me, Sam, these people don't know anything. They've just seen a few too many X-Files episodes."
"You don't think it's--"
"Go to sleep, Sammy."
Dean turns back toward the window. Sam falls back against the pillow, but it's a long time before he can sleep again. The room is too quiet without the wind howling outside.
The townspeople, predictably, don't want him to leave.
"Perhaps your destiny has brought you here for a reason," the mayor says, somewhat desperately. Sam wonders if he's worrying about losing the next election after letting this so-called miracle slip from the town's grasp.
The mayor's wife spoons scrambled eggs onto Sam's plate, followed by strips of bacon and slices of toast. "We know how it is elsewhere in the world," she says sadly. "There are so few people who will understand your powers, Sam. So few people who will not fear you. Don't you understand that?"
Sam looks up from his breakfast and meets Dean's gaze across the kitchen. Dean is leaning against the counter, eating cereal from a bowl, and he raises his eyebrows as if to say, Yeah, Sammy, don't you understand?
Sam says, "I'm sorry, but we have to leave."
"Won't you at least speak to Mrs. Mason?" the mayor pleads. "She's one of the town's oldest residents."
Village elder, Dean mouths around a bite of corn flakes, and Sam hides a smile behind a glass of orange juice.
"We really have to--"
The mayor interrupts Sam, "She'll be here in just a few minutes."
The townspeople are weird as hell, but they are also punctual. Seems like about half the town arrives a few minutes later, all crowding into the mayor's living room and bombarding Sam with dozens of questions. Dean smirks with amusement and slips out to take their things to the car.
Sam curses his brother for abandoning him and hopes his smile looks sincere.
Mrs. Mason is blue-haired, five feet tall, and so tiny Sam is afraid he's going to break her when he shakes her hand, but she only smiles up at him and says, "So you're the hero everyone is talking about."
Sam smiles weakly. "No, I'm just--"
"Don't be silly, young man." Mrs. Mason puts a hand on Sam's arm and leans forward conspiratorially, standing on her toes to speak to him. "It isn't just anybody who can do what you can do."
"I can't do much," Sam protests.
Move a piece of furniture, move a wrecked vehicle. Thanks, but no thanks. If it takes Dean almost getting shot in the face or crushed by a van to bring it out, he'd rather do without the miracles.
Sam shakes his head and tries to pull his arm away. "It's nothing--"
Mrs. Mason's grip tightens, her fingers digging into his arm. "It could be," she says. Her voice is low, her eyes bright, and suddenly it seems like they are the only two people in the room, surrounded by excited murmurs and chatter that pay them no attention. "If you try, there is so much you'll be able to do."
"Mrs. Mason, I'm sorry but--" Sam takes a step back, stumbling into a chair.
"Have you even tried?"
"I--" Sam catches a movement in the corner of his eye and turns his head quickly. "Dean! Are we ready to go?"
"Uh, yeah." Dean pushes through the crowd of people, ignoring the grumbles and scowls from the townspeople, and looks from Sam to Mrs. Mason, flicks his gaze down to Sam's arm. "Ready when you are."
Mrs. Mason releases her grip and withdraws her hand slowly. "Oh, there's no need to rush off. There is so much that you--"
"No," Sam says firmly. "Dean, let's go. Now?"
He has special powers, all right.
Powers so special he needs his big brother to rescue him from a blue-haired, five-foot-tall octogenarian.
It's not even surprising that the entire town comes out to watch them leave.
"Dude, I gotta hand it to you."
"Oh, god. Don't even--"
"You sure know how to meet the nicest people."
"I don't know why you were in such a hurry to leave."
"I'm not listening to you."
"I mean, that old lady was so nice, and man, the whole town was ready to fall down worshipping you."
"I'm going to sleep."
"We totally could've stayed. You could've had that town eating out of your hand by lunchtime."
"I'm ignoring you."
"Got you a costume. You know, something appropriate for a hero. Do you think robes or spandex would've been better?"
"You're not funny."
"Spandex, definitely. Superhero spandex. Purple?"
"I'm pretending you don't exist."
"Guys who save little kids with the power of their minds can totally get away with wearing purple tights."
"And your fans, your cult members, they would be like Moonies, except--"
Any other day, Sam would insist that Dean let him drive.
Any other day, he would take one look at Dean's tired eyes and badly-hidden yawns and tell him to pull over before they end up in a ditch.
There's another storm blowing in, and they're driving right toward it. It's not yet noon but already the sky is dark and gray, more like twilight than morning. Even with no sleep, Dean's always been better at driving in the snow than Sam.
Any other day.
The thing is, days like this, Sam doesn't really mind the view from the passenger seat.
"--except we would call them Sammies." Dean grins and looks way too proud of himself. "Good name for a cult, isn't it?"
Shaking his head in surrender, Sam reaches over and turns on the radio, falls back against his seat and closes his eyes. Black Sabbath blasts through the speakers, but over the wail of the guitars he can hear Dean laughing.