A parched blast of wind, dry as cigarette ash, threatened to rip the hat off Dean’s head. He put a greasy palm to the crown, catching it, pressing it tight. The woven straw was scalding, spontaneous-combustion hot, but better the hat than his scalp. He pressed the heat right into his hair and as strands brushed his eyelashes, he made note to have Sammy get out the clippers that night and zip it down to the skin.
Sam might’ve been fine with snagging his own hair in a ponytail like some chick but no, not Dean Winchester. He’d leave the hippie routine to his brother—his organics-loving, one–with–with–the–land, “I’ll grow my hair down to my ass, just you watch” kid brother. Not that Sam had the wrong idea, necessarily. Of course it was safer to avoid food pumped full of fake color, extruded into plastic containers and served with a side-order of preservatives, but no one said you had to look like a girl while doing it.
In the fumble to save his hat, he’d let loose of the wrench and it clattered down through the engine of the old Deere tractor, landing with a muffled thump in the meadow. A crow laughed at him from the dead apple tree and Dean spat out a “fuck you very much.”
The tractor beneath him gave a metallic ping.
“Sorry, sweetheart, not you.” Dean patted the huge fender with just his fingertips and jumped down. He was instantly thigh-high in the wheat; if Bambi wasn’t up and running before harvest, it would be a lean winter for the Brothers Winchester.
Maybe the wind had the right idea. He lifted his raggedy hat to swipe a sleeve over his brow and spit dust, narrowing his eyes across the land.
The sky unfurled, sharp and monochromatic, over whispering fields that sprouted the skeletons of wind turbines where blue met the edge of Kansas. There wasn’t a fleck in the heavens, and though that meant a complete lack of anything to drop rain, Dean had to count the emptiness as a partial blessing. Meant no floating eating-machines, either; the Leviathan were particularly fond of masquerading their ships as clouds. Effective, if uncreative.
Dean twitched a brow and resituated his hat. “How do you know? You ain’t got no belly.” He threw the wrench into the rusty toolbox that sat open on Bambi’s seat, but a quick glance at his watch confirmed she was right. “How do you do that, anyway? Dang, woman.”
“What does a truck have to do with—”
The tractor pinged again, a snippy reprimand.
She’d known it before Dean could even pretend to see it. Had the sun been less brutal, he might’ve noticed the small disturbance of dust kicked up from the road that split the field. As it stood, it was simply a tan cloud above the tan meadow but now that he was paying attention, he could catch the glint of metal, just barely hear the motor over the constant shushing of the wheat.
There was a Colt in the toolbox, if need be. Bullets wouldn’t do a damned anything if it wasn’t a garden-variety human, but they’d hurt like hell all the same.
Dean watched the truck’s approach and after a moment, began to relax. It was an old Chevy pick-up painted a seafoam green that he knew was patch-worked with two different shades of primer. It rattled around the bend in the road and he saw Sam behind the wheel.
He waited, leaning on the tractor but mindful of his naked elbows on her chassis. The crow finally flew off with a parting complaint.
“How is she?” Sam hollered out the window as the truck rambled to a stop.
“Poor baby. Says she feels naked without her manifold.”
Sam grinned, teeth too damned white in his tanned face. “Aw, tell her I think she’s sex on wheels.”
“Hey. Lady in the room.” He patted Bambi’s huge tire. “Mind your fucking mouth.”
Sam lumbered out of the truck with a stretch and a groan, dark hair carelessly caught in a thick plait that hung past his shoulders. He was already taller than Dean and looked like he’d sprouted yet again, the stork. “Can we fix ‘er?”
“Dude, she’s not a stray dog.”
Sam tossed him a water bottle, the label long since gone from repeated fills. “I brought lunch. We can eat in the truck if you need to head into town for parts. You should get out of the sun anyway. Your neck looks like bacon.”
“Mmm. Bacon. Speaking of … when’s the bacon gonna be cured? Damn, that stuff is more work than it’s worth.”
Sam pressed his lips tight, disapproving.
“Okay, it’s worth the work. Still.” Dean half-emptied the bottle in three long swallows and grabbed the toolbox. “Guess now’s as good a time as any to hit town. Man, the parts are gonna be a bitch to find.”
Creases appeared in Sam’s forehead but he stopped just short of rolling his eyes. Good thing, too.
“Hey,” Dean bristled, “don’t even go there. Bambi’s a part of the family; she works just fine … when she works. And she’s sensitive.” Okay, so they hadn’t left the farm in over a week and despite Dean’s magic touch with all things mechanical, no amount of cajoling would mend a blown alternator. He rolled the cool water bottle against the back of his neck and shouldered Sam away from the open door. “I’m driving, Princess Tiger Lily.”
Sam snorted and rounded the truck, taking his habitual place in the passenger seat, knobby knees poking through the thin spots in his jeans.
It felt good to sit in the shade, even though the heat was still smothering. A thin sheen of dust, and probably pollen, had collected on the dashboard except where recent fingers had left little Sam-shaped prints. The cab smelled of all the things Dean had come to associate with his daily life: leather and car fumes, faint sweat and clean laundry, and the vittles Sam had packed for lunch—probably last night’s chicken but especially the sweet-sour bite of fresh fruit.
An apple, eaten to the core, sat on the seat and Sam threw it out into the field as the truck bounced back down the road. “Two more days. The bacon’ll be cured in two days. Then we gotta smoke it.” He was already pulling foil-wrapped parcels from a paper bag, setting lunch between them. He fished out another apple and took a big bite before he peeled the foil away from a sandwich and handed it to Dean.
Dean side-eyed Sam’s conspicuous appetite. “Busy day?”
Sam shrugged. “Nah, same ol’, I guess. Tied pie tins to the blueberry bushes to keep the crows away. Picked tomatoes. Whacked off. Yanno, business as usual.”
“Cute.” Dean scowled and watched as Sam powered his way through the apple and began to work steadily on a sandwich. “Just sayin’. The way you’re sucking down food—”
“I can’t be hungry?” Sam said around a mouthful. “Cut me some slack, Dean.”
“I’m just sayin’—”
“—you’re just saying you don’t trust me.”
“No, that’s what you’re saying but I know what I see. Who’d you go all Florence Nightingale on, Sammy?”
“You calling me a liar?”
The truck took that exact moment to backfire and Dean barked out a laugh. “I don’t need to call you a liar; Becky just ratted you out. Atta girl.” He rubbed her dusty dash appreciatively and the truck coughed back into a regular rhythm.
“Snitch,” Sam grumbled under his breath.
Dean could always count on old Becky to keep an eye on Sam. “So?”
Sam sighed and chucked the second apple core out the window. “Bones.”
“No, the old guy from Star Trek. Of course the dog.”
Dean paused markedly at the intersection to the road that wound its way into town, just to keep giving Sam the stink-eye.
“What?” Sam had the nerve to sound indignant. “His hips were giving him grief. Besides, I was careful. I took him to the cellar. No way anyone saw anything.” When Dean kept glaring, Sam set his jaw. “What good is being able to do what I can do if I’m not allowed to do it?”
This wasn’t going to end in victory—it never did—so Dean shook his head and tossed the remains of his sandwich to Sam, who grinned and finished it off in two bites.
He would’ve far preferred to be fighting. Not with Sam, though, no; the bickering was just the way they communicated, standard operating procedure. They pushed and pulled at each other like a pair of goats with their horns locked.
Dean was wired for bigger things, by birth and design. Periodically flinging barbs at his brother just didn’t cut it. Town, however, meant the possibility of a fight, a real fight: adrenaline-flavored, justified confrontation … which was precisely why John Winchester had made the decision to sequester his boys in the country rather than have them attempt work-a-day jobs in Lawrence proper.
Three years ago, almost to the day, Dad had given him orders: “Keep your head down; take care of Sammy.” Dean was also wired to listen to his father, and if that meant biding time on a beige spit of land and trying to make a living—hell, a life—in anonymity, so be it.
Bobby Singer, Grigori sympathizer and their nearest neighbor by a good five miles, had set the boys up on the small farm and kept just enough eye on them to assure John that his sons were putting down quiet roots. But every spin into Lawrence threatened that status quo. While Dean theoretically looked forward to their trips—to the relative bustle, the din, the smell of people and machines in the air—the city had too many warm bodies to butt up against. And some of those bodies would love to sink their teeth into a Nephilim like Dean. Like Sam.
Sam surfed his hand out the window, watching the world roll by. Dean fiddled with the radio. Becky always managed to find a station playing Led Zeppelin or Ozzy somewhere, and Dean knew it was just for him. Sometimes she landed on Pearl Jam for Sam, infrequently enough that Sam knew it was an honor and the truck played favorites between the brothers. If there was one thing Earth did right, it was music.
Gradually, the waves of wheat gave way to civilization and the long bridge that spanned the Kansas River into Lawrence. Dean crowed “Caw, caw” when he saw the river because that’s what the locals called it, The Kaw. And Sam ground his teeth, as he always did, because he’d researched the origin of the nickname and had discovered ‘Kaw’ was a derivative of the local Native American people, The Kanza. Sam found the word’s misuse vaguely disrespectful, which was exactly why Dean cawed. Every time.
The air turned slightly green and musky from the Kaw, a broad cut of cloudy water that spilled over the Bowersock Dam in a constant rush.
They both stared, without comment, at a squat of weathered white bricks that passed for a building just before the bridge, in the area known as North Lawrence. A long paper banner, taped to the storefront window, announced “Village Witch” in block letters big enough to read at fifty miles per hour. Dean waffled between annoyance and laughing out right, but opted for a shrug. Sam shrugged back. Might be a witch, might not. Guess it depended upon what you considered a witch. If you were nervy enough to advertise, you probably weren’t one.
Lawrence itself was a tidy, inconspicuous city. It sprawled a bit, mostly level, prettied up because of the University of Kansas. Dean supposed it would be considered ‘collegiate quaint’, but he’d never say that aloud in front of Sam. Most of the streets were lined by courteous shade trees, flowing with well-behaved traffic and sterilized clean by the summer sun. It was simply assumed cars would break for pedestrians, and there was a scarcity of tall, self-important buildings.
There was also a notable (at least, to Dean) lack of Leviathans, the foul things that slithered through the universe driven solely by their various hungers: hunger for power, for anarchy, for the very flesh on a person’s bones.
This was, in part, why his father had dumped them here. The land was long and flat, and you could see for miles and miles, as the old song went. If a Leviathan ship, with its slither and teeth, entered the city’s airspace, it would be nigh impossible to hide from the Nephilim, who had the rare distinction of being able to see through the fiends’ guise to their true faces.
Come to think of it, Dean hadn’t seen a single member of the Firmament either, not in weeks. He was beginning to suspect the war had ended and someone had neglected to tell the Winchesters.
He guided Becky down Massachusetts Street, straight through town until the cafes and record stores gave way to a residential stretch with wrap-around porches, irrigated lawns, and recycling bins set out on the curbs for weekly pick-up. A platoon of cyclists, in one great long line, were coasting with traffic and Sam eyed each and every one of them as they passed. Dean never quite understood the concept of spandex bike shorts for men. They looked like girdles and to his sensibility, girdles simply didn’t belong on the male of the species. He wouldn’t be caught in bike shorts if they were the only thing between him and his family jewels flapping in the breeze. Probably.
From the neighborhood, they turned onto East 23rd, where the houses thinned out until they vanished altogether. Tanned women in tennis whites played on one of the courts they passed, ignoring the baking sun. Sam stared at them, too, with a slightly more appraising eye. When Dean drove, which he most always did, Sam watched for monsters. The ladies might’ve been desperate housewives, chasing their escaping youth, but they weren’t quite alien.
Eventually, buildings reappeared in the form of strip centers and aluminum business parks. The traffic composition became fewer sedans and more trucks, and the street grew in width to accommodate a central turn lane, more like a small highway.
Lawrence lost a little of its sparkle but Dean was more comfortable in these parts. He could separate one murmuring machine from the other, their engines whispering all around him like soft, under-breath prayers. Downtown was a constant, indiscriminate chatter but out this far, these were working vehicles. They had a stoic sort of dignity. Their voices were deep, spare. They just made better sense.
He hung a left into Heritage Tractor, between rows of bright green mowers and wagons spread out on the business’ lawn. Dean parked Becky in a small sliver of shade. “You comin’ in?”
“Nah,” Sam said. “I’ll wait.” He preferred the sun, the heat, hated the cold weather. Freak.
“Suit yourself.” Dean left him the keys, just in case. Sam dug into Becky’s glovebox, pulling out an old dog-eared paperback, and angled himself across the entire bench seat, one boot stuck out Dean’s window.
A bell pinged over the door as Dean entered the dealership. The showroom smelled like rubber, its scuffed linoleum floor swept clean. Spotless green and yellow tractors of every size were spread through the space like big, pretty pastries. Dean ran a palm over a glossy fender and fell almost instantly in lust.
She was the new 5E series, barely driven. Virgin, he grinned to himself, his leer reflecting in the dips and curves of her body panel.
“Aw, ergonomic seat. Baby,” he cooed.
“Hey. You drool on her, you’ve bought her.”
Dean startled, and for a flash, he wasn’t sure if it was one of the machines talking in his head or an actual voice coming from across the room. A glance up confirmed the existence of a genuine human being.
“But she’s so pretty,” he countered. He watched the young woman wind her way around the work vehicles, her jeans snug and her shirt bearing “Heritage Tractor” over her right breast. It was a nice breast too, matched the left one perfectly, Dean noted with less guilt than he should’ve been feeling.
“Wet clutch, climate-controlled cab, up to 101 horsepower,” she said, and her grin revealed just how much fun she was having at his expense.
Dean’s ears were hot, and it wasn’t just the weather. “She’s a beaut, all right. Not why I’m here, though,” he said almost wistfully. “Is there, um—”
She tilted her head, narrowing dark eyes. “How can I help you today? Sir?”
“Oh. Okay, then.” He slipped a folded bit of paper from his t-shirt pocket and handed it to her: a list of all the parts Bambi had warn out in the past year. He watched the way her lips pursed when she read, all pillowy and raspberry-colored.
“You got an antique?” she asked with a twitch of her brow. “You’re going to have a devil of a time getting these parts, even here. And we’re your best bet in town. Sure you don’t wanna buy something … new?” She played her fingertips across the top of an enormous, jet-black tire.
“Ah, she’s a good ol’ machine. Not ready to shoot ‘er just yet.”
She nodded, folded the scrap back up and bounced it against her knuckles. “I’ll see what I can do.” Spinning on her heel, she returned through the aisles of equipment.
“Thanks, miss,” Dean called out.
“Cassie,” she said without turning around, just waving the paper.
“Dean.” He craned his neck to watch her disappear into a back storeroom, behind the front register and a door marked ‘STAFF’. “I’m … Dean.”
If he wound up empty handed today, at least he’d made a new friend.
Dean squinted out of the showroom at Becky, saw past the glare to Sam’s boot still protruding from the truck window. He began a restless wander through the merchandise and his own thoughts while he was waiting.
Wouldn’t be so bad to have a girl, maybe one named Cassie, in his life, right? They’d been in Kansas long enough to put up a real mailbox, he and Sam, and it’d undoubtedly been quiet. Routine, even. The bar fights Dean used to pick simply because he needed something to do with his hands had long since lost their luster. Hadn’t seen anything dubious in over a month, unless you counted Bobby’s rough attempt at baking a cake for Sam’s birthday. Maybe it was time to give in, accept the fact they hadn’t heard from Dad in a good long while because he was in deep, deep hiding; he was safe. And if Dad was safe, they were safe. When things resolved in the events beyond Earth’s atmosphere, beyond the Milky Way, John Winchester would come back and they could be a family again. Yeah, exactly like that.
Every once in a while, Sam proposed the option that Dad was dead, so matter-of-factly, it made Dean’s gut recoil, and sometimes, Dean’s fist would meet his brother’s jaw before he could stop himself. If Dad were dead, Dean would know it. Just know it. But it didn’t feel like that right now and Sam hadn’t mentioned the possibility since they’d seen that angel in the Thriftway at Tonganoxie, poking through laundry detergents. And that’d been, what? April?
Dean fished a quarter from his pocket and bought a handful of tiny Technicolor nuggets of chewing gum from a dispenser by the main desk. The proceeds went to the Kiwanis Club apparently, whatever that was. They all tasted like grape to him, regardless of color. He fiddled through a display of business cards advertising local restaurants and absently wondered if the Indian buffet was a good place to bring a first date. He was about to start thumbing through a CatFancy magazine—because honestly, what the hell could anyone find interesting about cats and why was it at a tractor dealership, anyway?—when Cassie returned, carrying a hefty box-load of parts.
“You’re in luck, Mr.—”
“Winchester,” Dean told her, even though there were hardly enough years between them for such formality. From the resulting flicker of a smile, though, Dean realized she’d managed to finagle his full name, not that he wouldn’t have told her if asked. He took the box from her and continued to the main register.
“It’s a good thing Roy likes to collect vintage parts,” she said as they walked. “The only items we happened to be missing were the sparkplugs, but you can get those anywhere.” Separating a plastic-wrapped parcel from the others, she weighed it in her palm. “This isn’t quite the right year, but I’m pretty sure it’ll work. If not, you’ll just have to bring it back.”
“That’d be a shame, having to make another trip into town. To come back. Crying shame.”
“It would.” Her fingers flew over the keys of the register. “$147.33.”
Dean gave a low whistle around his wad of gum.
Cassie shrugged. “I’d cut you a break, but …” She lifted her eyes to the little black half-dome on the ceiling, covering a security camera. “No offense, you’re not worth my job.”
“Am I worth dinner?” He hadn’t expected to be quite so proactive, but the opportunity presented itself, so, yeah.
She pursed her lips again, hesitating. “I suppose. You probably are.”
Dean pulled out his wallet and a shuffle of bills. Cash only. Cassie slid him his change and her company card across the counter. He gave the pile a quick glance before slipping it all into his back pocket.
“Call the cell number, not the business one,” she said, the tiniest tell of pink and uncertainty playing across her face.
Hoisting up the box, Dean grinned. “Be careful what you ask for. You might get it.”
Then, she just looked exasperated.
“I’ll call,” he promised, backing out the front door, grinning.
The sky was still as speckless and blue as a robin’s egg, the reflection off Becky’s windshield so bright it burned his eyes into a squint.
“And you thought Bambi wasn’t worth saving; she was totally worth it,” Dean said, shouldering the box into the bed of the truck. He rounded the back and pulled open the driver’s side door. “You owe me a chicken din—”
The paperback was sitting, face-up, on the seat, pages fluttering in the hot breeze. No Sam.