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On Your Guard

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“...five-year anniversary of the Hellsgate battle. Hunting licenses continue to pose a regulatory problem for law enforcement, as the latest estimates suggest close to seventy-percent of active hunters now carry Agency-issued certificates, yet they have almost unanimously opposed the Senate bill that would require a public disclosure of their names and areas of coverage.”

In spite of himself, Sam looked over at the television when he heard the topic being covered.

“The bill would bring the Hunting Agency a step closer to becoming federalized instead of an independent entity, and proposes a centralized lore database that could be peer-reviewed. Dean Winchester issued a statement earlier this week in opposition of the bill for being unrealistic and, quote: ‘dangerous’, but urged his fellow hunters to obtain their licenses in order to avoid unjust detainment and obstruction of their work.”

Jess made an aborted gesture to ask one of the bartenders to change the channel, but Sam just shook his head at her in mute resignation. Dean’s picture was on the news constantly, and after years of non-stop coverage he was almost (but only ‘almost’) used to it.

Arguably the most well known amongst his creed, Winchester was of course present at Hellsgate and was singled out last year in the now-infamous segment of the President’s speech at the 2016 Correspondents Dinner.

The screen cut away to replay the five-second clip where the President joked about leaving her husband for Dean, only she called him ‘our real-life Captain America’ like most of his fans did. Then it cut back to the news anchor, this time with a photo of Dean hovering next to her face.

The photo was a couple of years old and Sam had seen it before, but they used that particular shot more than any other for a reason; some gutsy photographer had captured the moment right before Dean obliterated a semi-solid apparition with rocksalt--shotgun in hand and a near-artistic streak of dirt on his chiseled face. He looked like an action figure brought to life. There was even an American flag in the background, crusted with ghostly frost right at the moment the wind had lifted it up.

“He must miss you a lot,” Jess murmured, both of them looking up at Sam’s brother on national television. Sam took a sip of beer and nodded non-committally, hoping Brady and Zach would get there soon.

“Winchester’s opposition to the bill was based upon claims that humanoid supernaturals would use the registry to target hunters specifically, and that undercover work would be rendered impossible. At twenty-six, he remains the youngest American hunter in the public eye to date, however that could change if hunters are forced to release a public census.”

“You okay, Sam?”

Sam nodded again, loving her for her concern but wishing it away. “Just the usual,” he said. Jess knew the nightmares were getting worse and she had almost called 911 yesterday when he woke up in shivers like convulsions, with a cold that had seeped into his bones.

It was a dick move, but blaming his mood on the dreams ensured she wouldn’t push the subject of Dean any further.

“That sucks. You should take some tylenol.”

“Already did, yeah. Thanks.”

In many ways, Jess barely knew him. Sam had learned to bite his tongue when it came to talking about his brother from an early age, in order to avoid strange looks and uncomfortable silences--but it turned out that subtracting the topic of Dean from his life left a lot of things unsaid, and a large swathe of Sam’s integral personality under wraps.

Winchester’s unexpected solo trip to California surprised his fans, who speculated his commitment to long-term girlfriend Lisa Braden would lead to an engagement sometime soon.”

He finished his beer even though he knew that it would only aggravate the pressure that had taken up semi-permanent residence in his temples.

“...For more on Dean’s current plans we go live to our reporter in Palo Alto, Elaine Garcia, who has caught up to Dean during his visit.

Sam’s bottle slipped from his grasp and crashed to the floor.

Elaine, what can you tell us about Dean’s plans ?”

The news desk cut away once more, this time to the reporter on the scene; a middle-aged woman with a microphone was running ahead of the camera, barely in the shaky shot since the operator was obviously jogging behind her.

“Sam, is that...?”

Sam’s body went cold, then burning hot. Both bartenders were gaping at the television and they didn’t seem to notice or care about the broken glass on the floor.

This could not be happening.

Dean! Dean! Can you comment on the Vampire hunt in Vancouver!”

“Will you be attending the UN summit on the supernatural next month?”

“Dean! Why California?”

“Is there a monster in Palo Alto? What are you hunting?”

The reporters were crowding his brother as he walked down the well-lit sidewalk, and from what little of Dean he could see Sam could tell he was annoyed.

“Are you on duty right now?”

“Will you tell us what you’re hunting! Why not bring backup?”

Heart beating in his throat, Sam got up off his stool and looked at the grimy windows of the bar. It was a bright night and the street lamps lit up the sidewalk well enough, but a different kind of patchy brightness was coming their way.

“Oh my God,” Jess breathed, eyes wide. “Is he...?”

“Yeah,” said Sam.

The other patrons were starting to realize what was going on, and finally a woman got up off her chair and went to the door.

“Holy shit! He’s coming this way!”

Someone turned up the volume of the TV sets to full capacity.

Dean!”

“Dean, are you engaged to Lisa!”

“Is it true that Gordon Walker was denied a hunting license and you’re helping him appeal?

On the screen, Sam watched his brother finally come to a halt less than half a block away from the bar. Dean was facing the reporters with his hands up like he was under arrest.

Guys, come on. ” The flashes went off like crazy, casting Dean’s face in flickering white. “It’s Saturday night; why don’t you go out and get a drink? I’m just here on some personal business, okay?

Everyone was muttering excitedly by then, people flocking to the door around the first woman and crowding near the entrance.

Are you here to see your brother?

Elaine, the station’s point-person, had been the one to yell out the question. This woman must have dug deep for her research--Sam wasn’t famous. Some people on campus knew who his brother was, but he himself was outside the press’ radar because not many people in the general public knew he even existed, let alone where he lived. After Hellsgate, he’d stood quietly at the sidelines for less than a year before his fear of discovery had sent him scurrying farther into obscurity, away from the focus of the spotlight.

How long has it been since you’ve seen your brother, Dean?

Dean blinked at her, then looked down at the ten microphones in his face.

His eyes had darkened, and there was no trace of his forced charm anymore. He shook his head. “I’ve told you before; my family is off limits. Leave Sam the hell alone.

Of course, the barrage of questions redoubled.

Why isn’t Sam a hunter?

Did the death of your father at Hellsgate affect your relationship ?”

How would you describe your family dynamic?”

“Are you close with your brother?

That was when Dean reached an arm into his leather jacket and took out his gun.

“Holy shit!” someone in the bar shouted.

The tinny-sounding reporters yelled and scrambled away from Dean too, despite the fact that he was pointing the weapon to the sky and the safety was still on.

My family is off limits,” he repeated, practically growling out the last two words. “Capische?

He seemed, for a second, to be looking menacingly right into Sam’s eyes through the screen... and then he walked away. Nobody followed him.

Sam was so caught up in watching Dean’s retreating back that he forgot the direction he was walking towards. A commotion at the door had him whirling around to look, and suddenly there he was.

Dean. In all his green-eyed, leather-jacket-clad glory.

In person.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Jess whispered, clutching the sleeve of Sam’s hoodie.

Sam couldn’t answer her. The place had gone completely silent.

Dean Winchester walked into a bar and the joke was: Sam wished with all his heart that he would walk right back out.

“Hey,” Dean said, nodding awkwardly in everyone’s general direction.

He had garnered a lot of attention after Hellsgate--mostly for his youth, his role as John’s son and, undeniably, for his looks. A news segment on the tragic figure of the then-twenty-one year old had led to recurring updates on his whereabouts at the same time as the terrified public turned away from law enforcement to look towards hunters for answers. The previously silent vigilantes were glorified as America’s unsung heroes, and Dean’s song had sounded louder than anyone else’s.

The press adored him. His no-nonsense attitude and obvious discomfort during interviews had further elevated him in public opinion, but it was his lovably adorkable side that had gotten him millions of rabid fans. He’d been caught enthusiastically wielding a katana at a museum and the security footage had gone viral, and then a few weeks later someone had filmed him gravely listening to a six-year-old witness in a public park, and the slightly grainy camera phone had captured something that resonated with the country.

The fact that Dean shied away from the spotlight and kept begging people to just let him do his job made him even more popular, and that punchline in the President’s speech last year had shot his fame through the stratosphere.

“I love you!” someone called from around the pool table.

Dean dropped his gaze to the floor, doing his patented self-conscious smile-wince routine. He always looked supremely uncomfortable when people praised him. “Thanks. Thanks guys.”

Sam couldn’t feel the tips of his fingers, and his mouth was completely dry. He hadn’t been prepared.

Dean was here.

Dean.

His gut tugged, and he felt his old fears awaken from their slumber. People were already taking out their phones to record this--to record Dean. If Dean came any closer the camera angle would capture Sam too, and if anyone noticed... if anyone found out that Sam...

“I love you Captain America!” someone else yelled, perhaps emboldened by the previous comment.

Dean winced, mouth twisting. “Just Dean, man,” he said. “Just Dean.”

Obviously he’d spotted Sam already. He was walking towards him slowly, as though approaching a spooked horse that might bolt at any moment.

It wasn’t an unreasonable simile.

“Hey.”

Sam felt Jess slide off her stool to stand beside him, but he could only stare at the brother he hadn’t seen with his own eyes for four long years.

“...Hey, Dean.”

Dean smiled at him, small and honest; fragile with the passage of time. The amulet Sam had gifted him with as a kid was proudly displayed in the center of his chest.

"Heya Sammy."

For a long, absurd moment Sam’s brain was entirely occupied by the thought that Dean was much shorter than he remembered. He took up less physical space than Sam had expected, which was not to say he didn't still irradiate that overwhelming magnetism he'd possessed before Hellsgate happened.

He looked good though; painfully so. He was wearing his usual grungy hunter gear, complete with Dad’s old leather jacket and ratty jeans, but time just kept sharpening and enhancing his beauty. His strong jaw was dusted with stubble and his lips were pink and plush as ever.

A flash went off.

Sam put his arm around Jessica’s waist almost defensively, pulse thundering in his ears.

“You look... real good. How’ve you been?”

Sam shrugged. The comment had been half-aimed at Jess anyway; Dean’s gaze had drifted over to her by the question mark at the end.

“Good. I’ve been--good.” He didn’t ask the question in turn; the internet had kept him up to date on how Dean had been. He’d been off being a hero while Sam let the memory of their father down. He’d been proposing to his yoga-instructor publicist. He’d been saving people and hunting things; carrying on the family business. “This is Jessica.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Jess responded, but she sounded weary.

Dean turned back to Sam and spoke at the same time as Sam did:

“Do you wanna sit with--”

“Can we talk somewhere?”

They both cut off awkwardly. Jess was the one who suggested they go out back and slipped out of Sam’s hold. “I’ll be here, Sam.” But she was frowning at Dean when she said it.

“Thanks, Jess.”

Sam went straight for the Employee Exit, feeling Dean follow him out into the cool night.

Some guy shouted “Marry me Captain!” right before the door shut behind them.

The acrid alley stench was like a punch to the senses, but the space was narrow and empty, so they couldn’t have asked for more. The street Mitchell’s Pub was on had been dubbed Beer Row by Stanford students, and most places emptied their garbage and bottles out in these alleys days before pickup.

It was dark out; the streetlamps were too far to reach them. Dean’s face was made pale grey by the night, and his eyes looked blue because of the moon.

Sam stepped on a few cigarette butts on the ground, letting the silence build and knowing Dean was staring at him intently but not feeling quite up to returning the gaze. When they were alone Dean could be devastatingly uncensored in his displays of brotherly love.

Sam could be uncensored too, just not brotherly. That was the crux of the whole problem, really--not that Dean knew.

“So that move you pulled s’gonna make front page news,” he commented finally. “‘Youngest Hellsgate hunter waves weapon around irresponsibly, nearly kills ten reporters’? Very redneck of you.”

Dean snorted. “Yeah right. You know it’s gonna be more like; ‘Captain America defends himself from annoying assholes who had it coming, remains dashing hero, can do no wrong’.”

“So you’re finally owning the whole Captain America thing.”

“No I’m not, it’s stupid.”

“I think you like it.”

“I think your face likes it.”

Sam barely hid his flinch in time; he was out of practice. “Whatever. What are you... Why are you here, Dean?”

Dean looked hurt. Sam never meant to hurt him; it was just the lesser of two evils sometimes. The other evil was Sam himself.

“A man can’t visit his baby brother in college?”

There was no time for posturing. “Not when he’s the most famous hunter in America. Not without his team.”

Not when he hadn’t done it for four years. Not when Sam gave him good reason not to want to.

“My ‘team’--” he threw up half-hearted air-quotes. “--is just there for PR, and I’m not that fucking famous. I can still go wherever I want.”

“By yourself? Without a gaggle of reporters following you around?”

His brother made a face. “Fine. If you’re gonna make me say--fine. I’m here to get you back.”

A hot flush swept through Sam.

“...What?”

He’d dreamt of this moment. For so long, he’d--

“I want you on the team. On the road with me. You have experience as a hunter and you’re better at talking to people than me; you’d be a perfect addition. There’s a lot of PC stuff I’m still learning.” At the look on Sam’s face, he went on. “I’m not hating on it, I’m just sayin’ I need to learn. You could help me with research as well as all the other shit that goes with hunting now.”

No. He had to say no.

“...Why?”

Dean sighed, like he’d been hoping it wouldn’t come to this obvious question. “I never wanted this, Sammy. Being a goddamn figurehead? It barely leaves any time for actual hunts. I can’t interview witnesses undercover anymore. I can’t dig up a grave without someone blogging about it. I fucking hate it, but this is my job now. Educating people, warning them about what’s out there... I’m doing my best. I’m... really trying to do my goddamn best, here.”

He’d done a pretty good job, objectively speaking. Dean Winchester’s public image was basically the best selling point the Hunting Agency had in their fight against people lobbying to militarize or federalize hunting as a whole.

“I just... can’t do this alone.”

“Dean, you’re surrounded by people all the time.”

“Yeah, well. I’m still alone.”

For the first time in a long time, Sam let himself think about things from Dean’s point of view. He knew he’d been selfish to go, but back then it had been easy to tell himself he was doing it for Dean’s sake--after all, no matter how lonely Dean claimed to be, that was still better than him finding out Sam’s all-consuming secret. At eighteen, Sam had felt like a ticking time bomb, and he’d wanted to get far enough that Dean was safe from the blast radius.

Now, though, he thought about his loner brother, who had grown up in a world made up of three people. Dean, whose devotion to the abstract concept of family defined him and who saw civilians as something ‘other’ to be protected. Dean, who had been thrust into a role he despised and couldn’t control at twenty-one years old, all because of the battle that had taken their father’s life.

Dean, who was still under the impression that Sam had abandoned him because he didn’t like living in the spotlight and wasn’t willing to bear with it in order to help his older brother shoulder the burden.

“I graduate in a month.”

“I know Sammy.”

Sam took a deep, slow breath.

“Jess...”

“Can come with you.”

He shook his head. “She has plans. She has an internship lined up.”

Dean was biting his bottom lip--more like chewing on it, really. Sam averted his gaze. He loved Jess more than he had ever thought he could love anyone who wasn’t--He had started to think that maybe he might not deserve the happy ending but he could steal it anyway.

She wouldn’t get angry if he left, but he knew he would break her heart just as surely as his own had been broken four years ago, and the bits of scar tissue that he had started to tentatively build would dissolve into nothingness. There would be no coming back from this for her, and he would be condemning himself to a lifetime of melancholy and jealousy and unending frustration by standing at Dean’s side and no closer.

When he didn’t say anything more, Dean stepped towards him.

“...I’ve been getting death threats.”

That got Sam’s attention in a heartbeat. “What?”

“Yeah. Yeah, from like... vampires. Werewolves. Some witches. Most of the humanoid monsters, actually.”

Sam found himself stepping forward as well, urgently looking Dean over to see whether he’d missed anything, whether there was any sign of injury or pain or--It was too dark to tell properly, goddamn Dean was wearing like fourteen layers of clothing--

“I’m fine, Sam. I just... I’d feel better with you on the team, y’know? I’d know you have my back. None of the others know about this.”

So that was that, then. Since Dean had first made his pitch for Sam’s company Sam had gone from teetering on the edge of a precipice to finding himself at the bottom of the ravine. Dean was in danger and Sam couldn’t walk away from that. Dean was in mortal danger and Sam had been away at college, covering his ears and shouting that he couldn’t hear him, na-na na-na na-na .

“I...”

Dean took another step and it came at Sam again, that jarring, new thought; his big brother was small. Fragile, even. In need of protection.

Suddenly Sam realized they were standing differently than two regular people who happened to be related to each other should stand. It wasn’t just the closeness, it was the way Dean was looking up at him and Sam had dipped his chin to mirror the gaze--but God, it was so hard to break away.

“Dean, I...”

“Come with me,” Dean muttered, entreating. “It’ll be like old times, before Hellsgate. Before--just you n’me. Being brothers again.”

It sounded like heaven and Sam should say no, but he’d said yes the moment Dean’s life factored into this.

“...Okay.”

The unfettered relief in Dean’s face was akin to an invisible cuff firmly locking him in. For a long, silent moment Sam felt himself get lost in the magnetic pull of Dean’s gorgeous, moonlit eyes--and then his neck twinged.

It was an old, familiar muscle ache that came from contorting all his restraint and tension into his shoulders and not tipping forward to close the horrible distance between their mouths, their bodies. It had been years since he’d felt it, but it was an effective reminder of the hurt he was signing himself up for.

He stepped away, back towards the door, and told Dean he’d meet up with him later. Dean cleared his throat and nodded, rubbing the back of his head.

Before Sam could get back inside, however, he heard his brother speak again.

“There’s been a some stuff in the news,” Dean said abruptly. “Crop deaths. Cattle mutilation. You seen it?”

Sam had. There had been rational, reasonable explanations in both news reports, but people were far more concerned with ghosts and monsters than with demons nowadays. The religious outcry that the demons’ existence had initially unleashed had been much more controversial than the existence of the demons themselves, given that Hellsgate had been about sending them all back to Hell in the first place. Probably no one even had the wherewithal to suspect what those omens might mean.

“...Yeah. I saw.”

“This one dude was found in his car with his throat slit open last week. You see that?”

“Yeah.”

He leaned against the doorframe and looked down at Dean, thinking about the increasing, exhausting frequency of his nightmares lately. Thinking about the visions of goblets filled with blood instead of wine, and of waking up with the vivid feeling of touching ice so cold it burned.

“Do you feel it?” Dean asked, gaze intent.

“Feel what?”

“It feels like before, like when we were hunting yellow-eyes to avenge mom. Like when Dad was alive. Before Hellsgate. Doesn’t it feel like that?”

Sam let out a long, slow breath, not wanting to be the one who put Dean’s feeling into words even though he knew exactly what his brother was saying. He’d felt it. He’d told himself he hadn’t but he had felt it down to his bones.

In the end, Dean was the one who said it.

“It feels like they’re already back. Feels like demons walk the earth again, Sammy.”