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I’ll Be With You When the Stars Start Falling

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Sam’s sixteen years old when his father dies.

“Take your brother and the keys to the car,” John Winchester commands from his deathbed. It’s been over a week since his first symptoms, and already the super-flu is making him cough up blood. “Drive north, as far as you can, until you get to the mountains near Pinewood Lake. There’s a cabin there with enough food and water to last two years.”

He stops to cough, and Sam gives him a towel, the last clean one in the house. He tries to get him to sip some water, but John shakes his head.

“Now listen to me, son,” John gasps when he gets his breath again. “You drive to that cabin without stopping for anything, you hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” Sam nods. He’s terrified, but he knows he needs to be brave, too. Knows it’s what his father expects.

“Once you get there, you lock yourselves in,” John goes on, “and you stay there, you hear? Don’t drive into town, don’t go hiking in the woods. You hunker down and stay there. It’s way the hell out there, so you should be fine, but if anyone or anything comes, you don’t let ‘em in. Shoot ‘em if you have to, but do not let anyone in. You hear me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You keep your brother safe,” John says. “That’s your job now. Focus on keeping Dean safe and you’ll be all right. You’ll make it, as long as you just stay there. Eventually, this thing will blow over, burn itself out, but maybe not for years, you hear me? You and Dean stay put as long as you can. Use the radio to listen to news reports if you have to, but just stay put.”

John gives him more instructions, and Sam memorizes everything he says. He’s always been a good student, always had a near-photographic memory.

John Winchester’s a former Marine, and ever since his wife died he’s been a little crazy.

“Nobody dies in childbirth anymore,” John had insisted when Sam was first old enough to hear the story about how Mary Winchester died. “What happened to your mother was an act of evil. There’s monsters loose in the world, boy, and you have to know how to fight ‘em.”

John’s paranoia had convinced him that there was a thriving underworld of real-life monsters hidden just below the surface of American society. He believed these creatures lived in the shadows and hinterlands at the edges of reality, slowly eroding confidence and stability with insidious attacks on innocent civilians, causing unexplained deaths all over the country. Learning how to fight the monsters had been John’s mission ever since. He was convinced that evil was eating away at the edges of the real world, slowly undermining human habitation, waiting for its moment to take over.

John had raised his boys to be prepared for the day American society unraveled, when the natural world broke down to reveal the evil underneath. When the super-flu epidemic started, John wasn’t surprised. He’d been expecting it, was prepared with evacuation and safe house plans.

He never expected to come down with the virus himself, but as soon as he did, he didn’t hesitate. He began dictating addresses and phone numbers to Sam, making him memorize them because writing anything down was too dangerous. John had storage facilities rented all over the country, cabins stocked with food and water and fuel and weapons. He was ready, and as soon as he realized that he had contracted the virus, he made sure the boys would be primed to survive in his absence.

It was the best he could do, Sam knows that, and although there have been times he resented his paranoid loner of a father, now that something bad’s actually happening, he’s grateful for the preparation. There’s no way he and Dean will die from this thing, not after all John’s done to be sure they’re ready for it.

“You need to go,” John says now. “Tonight. Before they start closing roads and putting neighborhoods and towns in quarantine. Drive, Sam. Drive fast, you got me? Don’t stop for anything.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now, go.” John gives Sam a little push for emphasis, and Sam staggers backwards, momentarily shocked into inaction by his father’s words. His meaning.

“We’re not going to leave you, Dad,” he stammers.

John glares at him, fighting the blurred vision caused by his fever. “Yes, Sam, you dam well are,” he says firmly. “You’re leaving right now with your emergency bags, you hear me? Right now!

“But what do I tell Dean?” Sam feels like crying, although he knows his dad won’t stand for that.

“You tell him this is the way it is,” John says through gritted teeth.

“But what do I say when he asks where you are?”

“You tell him I had to stay behind to be sure you’d be safe,” John grits out. “You tell him to listen to his big brother and be a good boy. You tell him I’m proud of him. I’m proud of you both.”

Sam’s crying now, sobbing silently, chest heaving. “No, Dad,” he sobs. “Don’t make us leave you.”

John starts coughing again, shakes his head when Sam takes a step toward him. “Do as I say, Sam!” he wheezes when he finally catches his breath again. “Use your head! You know this is the way it’s got to be. I’m counting on you to save your brother. Now, go!”

Sam’s pretty sure he’ll never forgive himself, but he follows his dad’s orders. He knows it’s the right thing to do, the only way for their family to survive. He can see his father can’t be saved. There’s no guarantee he and Dean aren’t already infected, but getting out now is their best shot. His dad’s right.

Sam wipes his eyes and nose on his sleeve as he leaves, trying not to think about the loaded gun his father keeps under his pillow. He packs their emergency bags in the car, double checks their food and water supply. John always kept the gas tank full; even before the epidemic started he’d been planning to flee. He never stayed in one place for more than a month or two anyway, and they’ve been in this town for too long as it is. Everything’s all ready for them.

Dean’s watching TV, curled up on the couch with a blanket and the microwave cheeseburger that serves as dinner tonight. Schools have been closed for a little over a week, and although Dean was excited at first, now he’s just bored all the time. He’s been moody and sullen since their dad fell sick, and Sam knows it’s not just puberty. Dean’s a perceptive kid. He knows something’s up.

“Come on,” Sam says as he flips off the TV. “It’s time to go.”

Dean looks up, startled. “Right now?”

“Yeah,” Sam nods, grateful he doesn’t have to explain what’s happening. Dean’s used to the way his dad suddenly picks them up and moves them; he’s been expecting this, just as Sam has.

Dean gets up and grabs his few prized possessions: the Swiss army knife his dad gave him for his twelfth birthday, the baseball and mitt Uncle Bobby gave him when he was eight, his Game Boy, the Led Zeppelin t-shirt his dad passed down to him. It’s several sizes too big for his slender frame, but he’ll grow into it, and for now it makes a great sleeping shirt.

“Don’t forget your toothbrush,” Sam reminds him as he takes one more look through the kitchen cupboards. He’ll leave the chicken soup, just in case their dad gets up and feels like having some.

“What about Dad?” Dean asks as they head out the door.

“He’s coming later,” Sam lies. He’s already decided it’s better that way. “Kate’ll come by soon to look in on him. He’ll be okay.”

Kate Milligan and her little boy have been an infrequent part of their lives for the past five years. She was a nurse at the hospital, had been one of the early victims of the super-flu, but Dean doesn’t know that. She might have been their dad’s girlfriend, but the relationship wasn’t exactly close. Still, Dean seems to accept it, seems relieved to think that a nurse would be taking care of their dad, and Sam fights down his guilt over lying to him. It’s better this way, he tells himself. Dean’ll find out soon enough.

“Okay,” Dean agrees, climbing into the front seat next to Sam. He loves riding shotgun instead of being relegated to the back seat as usual when their dad drives, so Sam figures he’ll be satisfied for a while.

“Did you go to the bathroom?” Sam asks. “It’s a long drive.”

“‘Course I did,” Dean snaps. “I’m not a baby.”

“No, you’re not,” Sam agrees as he starts the car.

They keep to the back roads, off the main highway, and although it takes longer, they don’t run into any roadblocks. Sam tries to focus on his driving, tries not to think about his dad or what might happen to them if they get stopped. He glances over at Dean, but the kid’s already sleeping. He’s a good kid who knows how to follow directions, idolizes his big brother and their dad, and hasn’t yet shown any of the signs of adolescent rebellion that Sam started feeling at Dean’s age. He’s easily placated, and with his stomach full and his brother driving, Dean’s content, and Sam’s grateful for that. He doesn’t want to answer any more questions right now.

When they arrive at the cabin it’s almost three o’clock in the morning. If Dean was just a couple of years younger, Sam would’ve carried him sleeping into the cabin, but the kid’s twelve-and-a-half now, and it won’t do either of them any good to think Sam can still carry his little brother, even if he would do it in a heartbeat. The kid needs to grow up fast now, faster than he might have if things hadn’t all gone to hell tonight.

Sam wakes Dean gently, leads him into the cabin and settles him into one of the beds before returning to retrieve their bags from the car. He’s already made sure all the cabin’s systems are working, but he’s too tired to do more than lay sleeping bags out on the beds and brush his teeth in the chipped porcelain sink in the kitchen area. The water smells like rotten eggs, but Sam knows better than to be picky. Sulfur in the well-water isn’t deadly, just smelly.

He cries himself to sleep that night, knowing that back home in Lawrence, their dad has already put a bullet through his head.

For the first year, it’s not so bad. There’s plenty of food and water, but Sam and Dean hunt anyway, taking down game and fishing just to keep their reflexes sharp and their skills honed.

They listen to reports of the epidemic as it ravages the world outside, as the National Guard and local militia clash, as quarantine after quarantine fails and the infection spreads. Radio stations go off the air one by one as their cities are decimated. Desperate reports are made at the last minute before popping sounds can be heard, then silence. Static. The reports are disturbing and unreal. Citizens are being dragged from their homes and shot in the streets. Entire cities are on fire with no one to stop the blazes.

When the last radio station goes off the air, the boys sit in silence for several minutes, listening to the static, processing the announcer’s last words.

Dean says, “He’s not coming, is he?”

Sam knows who he’s talking about. He knows it’s useless to pretend now, so he shakes his head, fighting the tears that smart at the backs of his eyes.

Dean nods, gets up, and walks out the front door. Sam follows, watching helplessly as Dean smashes the heck out of his Nintendo Game Boy and all three cartridges with the baseball bat he found in the cabin basement. He pushes Sam out of the way when Sam tries to comfort him, stalks over to a tree and starts banging the shit out of that, too. He yells and curses while he does it, and his thirteen-year-old voice gets hoarse before he’s done.

Sam doesn’t try to stop him. He wishes he could let himself express his rage and grief as violently as Dean does, but it’s just not his way. He has too much rage inside as it is. He takes a deep breath and steadies himself instead, squaring his shoulders for the load he’ll be carrying from now on.

It’s a good thing he’s grown two inches this year.

When Sam hears Dean crying in his sleep that night, he doesn’t hesitate. He climbs out of bed and pads across the floor to the other bed, where Dean’s lying with his back to Sam, curled up in a little ball facing the wall.

“Hey, buddy,” Sam murmurs. He lays his hand on Dean’s back and at first the boy stiffens, then relaxes and starts shaking with a new round of sobs. “He said to tell you he’s real proud of you.”

Sam knows how hard Dean’s tried to please his father. It’s been a bone of contention between them since forever. John never warmed to Dean the way he did to Sam, and Sam thinks it’s because he blamed Dean for his wife’s death, however irrational that might be. Sam remembers specific moments when Dean would try to climb into John’s lap, only to be pushed away as if John couldn’t stand to look at him. John’s rejection made Dean try harder, which only made John irritated and more distant. John and Dean were like oil and water, and there didn’t seem to be anything Dean could do to get John to engage with him in more than a cursory way. Not that Dean ever stopped hoping, trying to get his dad to smile at him and approve of him. It hurts Sam’s heart now that John could never say to Dean’s face what he told Sam before he died. But it hurts even worse to know that John never would’ve said those things at all, if he’d survived.

In the absence of his father’s love and approval, Dean had learned to focus those needs on Sam. Sam wasn’t a natural nurturer; it wasn’t easy for him to fill the emotional void left by their paranoid, grief-stricken father, but he did his best. He always had a feeling of inferiority where Dean was concerned, though. It was too much, trying to be both brother and father to the motherless boy, especially when Sam missed his mother, too. Sam related to his father’s anti-social independence. Sam was a natural loner, too.

It might have been easy for Sam to follow in his father’s footsteps, to push the little boy away and refuse his need for emotional connection as their father did.

But from the first time Dean looked up at him with his big green eyes, Sam’s heart was his. Later he actually wondered if magic was involved, the way he and Dean instantly bonded. It wasn’t like they didn’t have their moments, and sometimes Sam really did need his space. Sometimes he did push Dean away. But it was always temporary, and he felt guilty every time, especially since Dean was usually so good-natured about it. He seemed to understand instinctively that Sam’s need for space didn’t mean Dean wasn’t loved and appreciated. It was just the way Sam was made, the way Dean was made to be the source of all things good in Sam’s life.

Dean lets Sam comfort him for a few minutes, lets Sam rub his back until his sobs subside.

“He never saw what I can make with my knife,” Dean says when his voice stops shaking. Dean’s been carving figures with the Swiss army knife John gave him for his birthday, and he’s gotten pretty good at it, if Sam does say so himself.

Sam doesn’t tell Dean that he bought the knife himself and pretended it was a gift from their dad. He’ll never tell Dean that.

“He’d be real proud if he could see those, Dean, I know he would,” Sam assures him, although he’s pretty sure John wouldn’t give them more than an irritated glance, maybe make some comment about how useless they were.

“He’ll never see me get big like you,” Dean says, turning onto his back to look up at Sam. His eyes are huge pools of sea-green water, and his freckled face is splotchy with tears. “He’ll never see how useful I can be.”

“I know,” Sam nods, fighting his own urge to cry. “I know.”

Later that week Dean says, “Dad thought it was my fault Mom died.”

They’re cleaning their guns, and Dean’s been unusually quiet. Sam knows he’s been processing their father’s death all week, working through all the “what ifs” and “might-have-beens” that loss brings up. This is an old one, though. They’ve been through it before, when Dean was eight and it first occurred to him that his father was chronically angry with him.

“It wasn’t your fault, Dean, you know that,” Sam reminds him now. “You were just a baby.”

“But Dad thought something supernatural killed Mom,” Dean says. “What if there’s something wrong with me? Something bad?”

Sam puts down his cleaning equipment and reaches across the table to grab Dean’s arm, forcing the boy to look at him. Sam shakes his head firmly. “There is nothing wrong with you, you hear me?” he says fiercely. “You’re perfectly normal. What happened to Mom was an accident, despite what Dad said. It had nothing to do with you.”

Dean looks dubious, so Sam holds his gaze, shakes his arm a little for emphasis until Dean finally nods and looks away. “Okay,” he says softly.

“Dean, listen to me,” Sam insists. “You’re a good kid. You were a good son. Dad was messed up in the head over Mom’s death, and that’s why he raised us the way he did. He’s not the big hero you think he is, Dean. He’s just a man who made some mistakes, and the biggest one is blaming you for something you didn’t do. You hear me? You’re a good kid, Dean. The best.”

Sam’s not sure Dean can hear him through his grief and self-loathing, but Sam’s damned if he won’t keep trying. Sam’s had a little over a year to reflect on the choices their father made, and he’s come to terms with the idea that their dad did the best he could, given the cards he’d been dealt. It wasn’t his fault he was delusional, probably mentally ill, and it definitely wasn’t Dean’s fault.

Or Sam’s. Sam understands that much, even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes.

Dean tries to run away twice over the next two years.

Sam can’t seem to make him see why they have to stay at the cabin as long as they can. Dean thinks they should be out there, fighting something, helping people. They argue about it, and Dean runs off. Sam goes after him both times, dragging him home kicking and screaming.

“Why do we gotta keep hiding, Sam?” he protests. “There’s people dying out there. We should be helping them, not hiding like cowards!”

“There’s nothing cowardly about laying low until the epidemic runs its course,” Sam explains, gritting his teeth. “We go out there now, we die, just like everybody else. We stay here, we’ve got a fighting chance at survival.”

Sam’s sympathetic, really he is. Dean wants the epidemic to be something he can kill, like the monsters his father insists are out there somewhere. But the truth is, there’s no fighting this monster. Better to stay here as long as they can, let Dean grow up. Let Sam grow some muscles on his tall, skinny frame.

Sam keeps them busy with a daily routine of physical activity, chopping wood and lifting weights, running the path to the lake and back for cardio. They keep up the sparring exercises and weapons training their dad made them do daily, and in the evenings after supper they play chess and cards and study from Sam’s battered high school textbooks. Dean hates studying, but Sam promises to take him hunting as a reward, so he makes the effort.

When they start running low on canned fruits and vegetables, Sam starts a garden in the backyard, tends it daily even when it becomes obvious they’ll need more than what the garden and their hunting can provide to get them through the next winter.

By the time Sam turns nineteen, he knows they can’t hold out much longer.

They open the last can of beans on a Friday in June, warm it over the fire with a little meat from the rabbit Dean trapped the day before. The garden is just pushing up a few small green shoots, and the last of the nuts and dried berries they gathered last summer are long gone.

Sam spreads maps on the table, and they look over them together. The closest town is twenty miles south, along the backroad they drove in on. They’ll start there.

“This is just a foraging mission,” he tells Dean. “We’ll go in, see what we can find, pull out again. We stay together the whole time, keep our weapons ready. We don’t know what we’ll find, so we should be prepared for anything.”

Dean nods solemnly, big green eyes taking over his face like those crazy cartoon images Sam remembers from kids’ lunchboxes. At fifteen-and-a-half, Dean seems impossibly young, small and vulnerable and child-like, with tiny bird-bone wrists and hands that are still too small to hold a gun properly.

Sam should make him stay behind, but he can’t stand the thought of separating. He needs to keep Dean by his side to keep him safe.

The mission goes much better than Sam had expected. There are no people in the little town, just empty buildings and houses full of the detritus of peoples’ lives, left behind in a hurry, probably following a mandatory evacuation order almost two years old now.

The Winchesters find canned food, ammunition, medicine and clean bedding. They find fuel that isn’t stale yet, so they siphon it off into gas cans to bring back to the cabin. They find books. There’s more than they can haul in one trip, so they make several. After five trips they have enough provisions to last them through another winter.

Dean wants to push on. He wants to drive to the next town to see if anyone’s left alive there.

“We could drive an hour each way,” he argues, pumped with the success of their first foray into the world since they arrived at their cabin hideaway. “Just check it out. If there’s nobody left alive, at least we know there are more towns we can pillage, right?”

Sam shakes his head. “We need to take it slow,” he says. “We got lucky this time. The next town could be crawling with infected. It only takes one exposure and we’re both dead.”

“So?” Dean counters, eyes wild. “It’s better than being holed up here for another winter! Better than going crazy!”

“You don’t know what you’re saying.” Sam shakes his head. “If we get infected, the game’s over. We die. Nothing else happens. We stay here one more year, we’ve got that much more head-start on the infection, one more year for it to burn itself out.”

One more year for you to grow, he thinks but doesn’t add out loud. Dean’s still too little to take out there. Just the thought of Dean getting sick and suffering, the mere idea of losing him, is more than Sam can stand.

The garden gives them fresh vegetables that summer, and Dean finally begins to put on a little muscle. His voice gets lower, and his face fills out so he doesn’t look like such a baby.

His eyes are still huge in his too-small face, though, and his lips are full and lush like a girl’s.

Sam rubs off in the dark and imagines a sweet-faced, freckled girl with Dean’s eyes and lips.

That winter it snows six feet in one day, then keeps snowing. The temperature never seems to get above freezing, so the snow keeps piling up.

The boys build sleds and snow-shoes, shovel a path down to the lake so they can go ice fishing. Their fuel runs low so they huddle in front of the fire at night, watching the flames in the dark to save power. They talk, tell stories, make each other laugh.

On Dean’s sixteenth birthday Sam puts a candle in a Snicker’s bar, watches Dean purse his plush lips to blow it out. He watches Dean eat the sugary treat with a combination of pride and something darker that pools in his gut and makes him blush.

Dean notices and smiles at him, eyes sparkling in the firelight. He licks his fingers a little too slowly, one at a time, and Sam swallows hard but can’t look away.

“Thanks, big brother,” Dean says with a smirk. “Best birthday ever.”

Sam flinches at the reminder of their relationship and looks away, staring into the fire again. He tries to ignore his raging boner. It’s been too long, he tells himself. He should really find a way to be alone, spend some quality time cleaning the pipes. It hasn’t been easy this winter in such close quarters without a moment’s privacy.

“You ever kiss a girl?” Dean asks, and it’s out of the blue but it sort of isn’t, and they both know it.

“Uh, yeah, sure.” Sam clears his throat. “Lots of times.” Which isn’t true, of course. He can count the number of girls he’s kissed on one hand.

“What’s it like?”

Oh no. They are not having this conversation.

Sam shoots a disgusted frown at his brother, whose face is so open, so innocent, that Sam second-guesses himself. Maybe Dean doesn’t mean anything at all. Maybe he’s just curious.

“Pretty sure you know,” Sam ventures. “You used to have them line up to kiss you in elementary school.”

It’s true. Dean was always popular with the girls. Boys too, for that matter. He was graceful and athletic, but also gentle and kind. Everybody loved him.

It’s weird to think that’s all over now. All those boys and girls and teachers are probably dead.

“Not like that,” Dean shakes his head. “Like teenagers do it. French kissing.”

“I’m pretty sure you know all that stuff,” Sam says. He hasn’t really explained anything, and he knows Dean was late starting puberty, but he’s heard him jerking off at night. He’s obviously figured out the mechanics of sex, even if he hasn’t exactly had a chance to practice.

The thought of how inexperienced Dean is makes Sam hot all over.

“I just don’t want to die a virgin, that’s all,” Dean sighs. “I’m sixteen and I’ve never even French-kissed a girl. It’s embarrassing.”

“You’ll find somebody,” Sam says, none too confidently. “There’ll be other survivors. There have to be.”

“You figured out the chances of that, Genius?” Dean snorts. “‘Cause from where I’m sitting, I got pretty limited options. I’m guessin’ I’ll be at least twenty-one before I find somebody, now that the world’s ended.”

You’ve got me, Sam thinks but doesn’t say out loud. “Twenty-one’s not that old,” he says instead.

“Legal adult,” Dean shrugs. “Not that it matters anymore.”

“Legal adult’s eighteen,” Sam corrects. “I could legally adopt you now.”

Dean snorts. “You could be my step-daddy,” he smirks, and Sam’s dick throbs. He crosses his legs to try to hide it, and Dean snorts again. “You like that idea, big brother? You like being my daddy as well as my brother? We could have double-incest.”

“Jesus, Dean!” Sam’s so shocked he scoots away, jumps to his feet. “Shut the fuck up!”

Dean grins up at him almost innocently, blinking slowly with his long eyelashes, obviously delighted at the response he’s getting. His eyes drop to Sam’s crotch and he raises his eyebrows, then his eyes to Sam’s face again, lips curled up in a smirk.

He looks like sex personified.

“You can’t say things like that,” Sam sputters, struggling for self-control.

“Why not?” Dean asks. “Does it turn you on?”

Teasing. He’s just teasing. He’s just being a little jerk, that’s all it is. Testing the limits, like he’s always done. It’s just kids’ stuff. He’s not really serious. Sam’s the grown-up here. He can handle this.

“Look, I get that you’re horny, okay?” Sam says finally, going for serious, confident older brother mode. “You want to get laid and I get that. Really, I do. And you’re stuck out here in the middle of nowhere without anybody to experiment with, so.”

“I’ve got you,” Dean says in a parody of Sam’s earlier thought. “It’s just us. Nobody will ever know. We can fool around all we want. It’s not like anybody’s going to tell us we can’t. Not like anybody cares.”

I care,” Sam insists. “It would be wrong for me to take advantage of you like that.”

“It’s not taking advantage if I want it,” Dean says, licking his lips. “It’s perfectly legal if you have my consent.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” Sam shakes his head. “You’re not old enough to know what you want, Dean. And I’m old enough to know better.”

“Oh come on, Sammy,” Dean wheedles. “It’s my birthday. Why do you gotta be such a prude? Can’t we just have a little fun?”

And that’s it, that’s the problem right there, Sam realizes. Having a little fun is all this would mean to Dean. From Dean’s point of view, fooling around with the only other human being available is just a way to while away the time, to make the long nights a little more bearable.

Sam gets that, he does. And he’s not a prude. Pleasure for its own sake isn’t a bad thing.

But the problem is, Sam wants more. He wants Dean in every way he can have him, and he’s not such a fool as to deny that fact now. He doesn’t just want Dean’s body. He wants his love. Sex isn’t a bad thing, even sex with one’s brother. But it has to mean something. It has to be part of something more.

Dean’s just too young to understand that.

“I can’t do that with you,” Sam shakes his head. “I care about you too much. I care about us too much to fuck things up like that.”

“You don’t want me?” Dean’s eyes widen, and Sam almost relents right there. He can’t stand for Dean to feel rejected. That’s not what this is. Besides, it’s pretty obvious what Sam wants, or at least what his body wants. Dean can’t help noticing.

“It’s not that, Dean, I swear.” Sam sinks to his knees helplessly, willing Dean to understand. “I just don’t want us to do something we’ll regret later. Stuck here in this cabin together for all these years, it does things to your head. Once we’re back out in the world, I don’t want us to feel we made some terrible mistake.” Loving you could never be a terrible mistake, he thinks but can’t say. Dean’s just too young.

“So you love me too much to have sex with me,” Dean shakes his head. “That’s fucked up, Sam, I gotta say.”

“Maybe,” Sam sighs. “But it’s true. You’re beautiful, Dean. You could have anybody. You can do anything. You’re good and kind-hearted and strong and talented. You’ll do great things, once this is over. Once we’re out of here.”

“Pretty sure all I want is you, Sam,” Dean says, and he seems so earnest now, not teasing anymore. Taking Sam seriously. “Pretty sure you’re all I’ll ever want.”

“You say that now,” Sam smiles, feeling his heart breaking in his chest. “But you’ll change your mind when you’re older, I promise. Out there in the world somewhere, there’s someone waiting for you, somebody awesome.”

You’re awesome,” Dean says, gazing up with innocent sincerity in his big green eyes.

“I’m big and ugly and awkward.” Sam looks down at his hands, blushing despite himself. “I’m hairy and smelly and I have toe jam. You could definitely do so much better.”

“You’re gorgeous,” Dean says. “You’re mine.”

Sam lifts his eyes to Dean’s, and he can see the love and devotion there. He doesn’t doubt that Dean loves him, in his young, inexperienced way. If their ages were reversed, Sam feels sure he could trust that, let it be enough. But as it is, as they are, as the older, wiser brother, Sam can’t let Dean do something he’ll regret later.

And Sam can’t let himself be broken that way. It wouldn’t be fair to either of them.

“Yes, I am,” Sam agrees. “I’ll always be your brother. Nothing can ever change that.”

Dean nods, drops his gaze to Sam’s mouth and licks his lips. “Just one kiss,” he pushes, raising his eyes to Sam’s again, pleading. “Just in case I die when we leave here. Just in case.”

“Dean...” Sam feels tears smart at the backs of his eyes and he blinks them away furiously. “You don’t know what you’re asking. I don’t know if I can stop. I don’t dare let you do that, don’t you understand?”

“It’s just a kiss,” Dean crawls toward him, and Sam freezes, torn between his own desperation and determination. “I promise I’ll stop you from going any further. I promise I’ll stop.”

Dean’s worn him down. He kneels up in front of Sam, and in this position Sam’s only a little taller. Dean looks up at him with those bottomless pools of green water, blown dark with anticipation, and Sam can’t stop himself to save his life.

He’s a goner for this boy. This is the end. The beginning of the fucking end.

When Dean tilts his face up and parts his lips Sam cradles his head in both hands and Dean grabs his biceps, tugging him closer. It’s awkward; they don’t angle their faces right and bump noses, making Dean huff out a little laugh against Sam’s mouth. Then their lips touch and Sam’s lost, just as he knew he would be. He’s being destroyed, dying incrementally as Dean kisses him, sucking on first his top lip, then the bottom one, then opening his mouth wider and sliding his tongue into Sam’s mouth, seeking Sam’s tongue.

Sam hears a moan, realizes it’s his as Dean’s tongue slides along Sam’s, then retreats again, coquettishly. Dean suckles Sam’s lips one at a time again, then withdraws, tipping his head down as their lips part. Sam leans his forehead against Dean’s, breathing hard, keeping his eyes closed another minute as they breathe each other’s air.

“Promise me we’ll do this again,” Dean says. “Let me have that, Sam. Promise me.”

“Oh - okay,” Sam pants, chest heaving as he tries to catch his breath. “Next year. You show me you can wait a year, and if you still want this then, okay.” His hands are trembling as he lets Dean go, sets him back out of reach.

Dean nods, swallowing hard, eyes blown completely black. “Okay.”

They bed down separately, as usual. Dean hasn’t shared his bed since they were little, since Sam started puberty and realized he needed to sleep without his pretty little brother curled up against him all the time, blissfully unaware of his big brother’s dark urges.

Sam tries hard not to think about how he’s infected his innocent little brother, that in running away from the threat of a world-ending virus they’ve fallen prey to the sickness inside Sam.

His lips tingle all night.

They run out of food again around the middle of May, just two weeks past Sam’s twentieth birthday. By then, it’s obvious they need to move on. For one thing, the gas they managed to siphon last year is already going bad, and unless they get the car going now they’ll be stuck walking twenty miles to a town that’s already been pillaged and picked over.

They need to get going.

Bobby Singer’s house just outside Sioux Falls is the logical destination. They don’t even know if Uncle Bobby’s still alive, but if he is he’ll be a great resource in helping them figure out how to survive in this strange new world without people in it.

Not to mention, seeing Uncle Bobby again would give both boys the hope and comfort they desperately need. They need to know they’re not the only two people left alive in the world.

Dean’s beyond excited to get on the road. He packs gas cans and weapons in the trunk, then gathers his mixtapes to play in the car. The batteries in the boombox have died and he hasn’t been able to listen to music in six months. He begs Sam to let him drive until Sam finally relents with a sigh, shaking his head at Dean’s enthusiasm. It’s not like it matters that Dean’s never taken a driving course. It’s not like anybody will pull them over to check his non-existent driver’s license, after all.

Sam manages to conceal his anxiety and apprehension as they pull away from the cabin, leaving behind the only home they’ve known for the past four years. He’s got the addresses of other safe houses in his head, but he’s not sure they’ll need them. Between here and Uncle Bobby’s there’s just one, on the outskirts of Wilmar, and for now that’s his only goal. Get there, hunker down, assess their next move.

They stay to the backroads, and for the first few hours they don’t see any signs of human life. All the little convenience stores and gas stations they pass are dark and deserted, and Sam guesses the electricity is out everywhere, as it was in the little town they pillaged last year. They stay off the main roads, which are possibly clogged with cars, although after the first two hours pass without seeing a single sign of human life, Sam starts to wonder.

Then they round a corner and Dean slams on the breaks.

There’s a pickup truck stopped sideways across the road, a baseball cap visible through the back of the driver’s side window.

“You think it’s a – “ Dean swallows hard, clutching the steering wheel.

“Dead guy,” Sam nods grimly. “Yeah.”

They can’t drive around it, so they get out to see if they can move the truck. Neither of them has seen a dead body before, although they’ve done their share of hunting. This is different. This dead body was a person once.

There’s not much left of him now, and Sam’s more than relieved about that. The man must have fallen asleep or passed out at the wheel, given the way the pickup is parked. Sam opens the passenger door and a stale, musty odor is all that’s left of the smell of death. The body has decayed almost completely, so that only the clothes and bones with a few strands of stringy, dried skin and hair are left. This man has been dead almost three years, Sam guesses. He reaches in to grab the gearshift, forcing it into the neutral position before climbing back out.

Dean’s standing a couple of feet away, eyes wide in his pale, freckled face.

“We should be able to push it now,” Sam tells him, gesturing toward the front of the cab.

Dean nods, following Sam’s silent direction without question, bracing his hands on the hood of the truck. Sam reaches in and turns the steering wheel just a little, enough to ensure the truck will roll easily off the road. Then he climbs out and nods to Dean, positioning himself with one hand on the open door jam, the other against the windshield.

“On the count of three,” he says, and Dean nods.

Sam’s grateful he’s grown another inch or two this year; he’s fairly sure he’s outgrown their dad, since all of the clothes he wears used to be John’s and his wrists and ankles are sticking out. It’ll be the first thing they do when they get to Wilmar, he tells himself. There’s bound to be a department store with tall men’s sizes in a town of nearly 20,000.

Or at least, a former town of 20,000. There’s no telling how many people are left, if any. Sam’s pretty sure all of Minnesota and both Dakotas were evacuated before the radio died. He remembers wondering if he and Dean were the only people left in the whole country.

He’s forgotten why that might be a problem, actually. Somehow, being the last two people alive on Earth doesn’t seem so awful. He’s worried that wouldn’t be best for Dean, though, so he keeps that thought to himself.

When they get to Wilmar, there are more bodies. The streets are littered with piles of clothing that used to be human beings, and Sam knows the houses and buildings will contain a few too. Luckily, after three years, most of the corpses have decayed sufficiently that there’s not much left, no smell, not much even vaguely resembling once-living human beings.

They find the safe house without a hitch, and Sam easily picks the lock. It’s got fully stocked shelves, mostly with cans of vegetables and beans that apparently never expire, and an underground bunker with a working generator that provides light, heat, and running water.

“First shower’s yours if you want it,” Sam tells Dean, who makes a face.

“Really? In this dump? The water’ll be all rusty and gross,” Dean complains, and Sam smiles. He loves it when Dean gets fussy about their accommodations, although he doesn’t think too hard about why that might be. He likes feeling like the magnanimous older brother, always sacrificing the best stuff so Dean can grow big and strong.

And clean.

Sam doesn’t think about how good Dean looks when he’s clean, or how good he smells. That would be wrong, and Sam definitely knows it.

Doesn’t stop him from jerking off on the safe house couch that night, though, as he thinks about Dean’s soft lips and clean skin. Sam let Dean have the bedroom, and he tries hard not to imagine Dean doing the same thing in there, in the dark.

Sometime in the night Sam wakes up hard, heart pounding. The house is as silent as a tomb, but Sam’s sure he heard something. Something woke him up.

Then he hears it again. A rustling noise, outside below the window, like trees moving in the wind.

There’s no wind.

Sam throws the blanket off, reaches under the couch for his gun. It’s possible someone’s out there, saw their light, saw the car pull in. It’s entirely possible some folks survived the epidemic here, maybe by locking themselves into a bunker underground. Maybe there are others like Sam and Dean, whose daddies sent them out to well-stocked cabins far away from civilization to ride out the worst of the disaster.

Maybe someone’s survived by sheer dumb luck, and now he’s scavenging, looking for food. Looking for other signs of life.

Looking for survivors like Sam and Dean.

Sam stalks quietly toward the front window, peers through the shades at an angle. Of course, it’s pitch dark outside, no moon. If something is out there, Sam can’t see it. He waits, thinking maybe the rustling sound will repeat itself, but it never does.

He creeps back to bed eventually, grateful he took the time to barricade the door, irrationally glad that he also salted the doors and windows and drew those weird symbols on it that his father always insisted they put up for protection.

Sam’s dad taught him to be prepared for anything. Maybe that’s a good thing after all.

In the morning, Dean wants to push on, get on the road to Sioux Falls. Sam knows they should go, but he wants a little more time to get acclimated to their new world. Truth be told, Sam just wants Dean to slow down, to appreciate the moments when things are good, when everything’s working and they have full bellies and a stable possibility of another meal.

Sam wants safety. He wants as much normal as they can find in their crazy lives. That’s all he’s ever wanted. He wants Dean to have more time to grow up.

They find a thrift store on the outskirts of the city. The windows are smashed and a lot of the interior has been trashed, but the men’s clothing section doesn’t look like it’s been touched. Thieves tend to loot things they think they can sell, and clothing doesn’t matter.

It matters to Sam. Finding jeans and shoes that actually fit him, after straining and hurting in his dad’s hand-me-downs for the past couple of years, feels like a serious accomplishment. Like cause for celebration. Dean finds a new pair of jeans and a jacket that might be a little big on him, but only by a little. He’s still growing, so it’s a good choice.

They’re leaving the store in their new used clothes when disaster strikes. In retrospect, Sam knows he should have been prepared for it, should have expected it. His dad’s voice growls angrily in his head as he realizes his mistake, understands in a split second that they’re in trouble. Sam’s let his guard down.

Four men stand waiting for them in the parking lot. They’re grizzled and dirty but Sam doesn’t doubt they’re strong. Two of them have baseball bats dangling from their grubby fingers, and when they see the boys they close ranks, move into a loose semi-circular formation between the Winchesters and the Impala.

“Well, will you look-it what we have here?” One of them smirks, and Sam can see he’s missing a couple of teeth. The rest of them look yellow and rotten.

“Looks like a coupla nice-lookin’ boys, Carl,” another one says, fingering his belt-loop with one hand while he dangles the baseball bat in the other.

“Nah, I think the tall one’s a girl,” Carl says. “Look-it his hair.”

“I like the little one,” baseball-bat guy says. “He’s prettier’n a girl.”

“Shore is,” Carl agrees. “Bet he’s got a sweet little ass to match that sweet little face.”

“Don’t talk about my brother that way,” Sam says, puffing his chest up as he steps in front of Dean. He’s too aware that he left his gun in the glovebox, but he’s not going to let that shake him. These guys look mean, but one of them dangles a liquor bottle in the hand not holding a baseball bat, and none of them look very fit or well-fed.

“Oh yeah?” Carl takes a step forward and baseball-bat-guy raises his bat, taps it against his other hand, menacing. “What’re you gonna do about it, boy? Huh?”

“That little one’s got a mouth like a girl,” liquor-bottle-guy says, licking his lips. “Don’t he, Josh? Get a look at the mouth on that kid.”

Carl takes another step, flanked by baseball-bat-guy and Josh, who hasn’t said anything yet but stares with the hollow-eyed glare of someone who’s seen too much and doesn’t have much sanity left to show for it.

These men are survivors, all right, probably hunkered down during the epidemic, then crawled out of their holes to scavenge and loot after most of the population was dead or gone. They don’t look like they’re doing very well, and they’re obviously looking for someone to blame.

Sam’s already figured out how to take down Carl and baseball-bat-guy. Silent Josh and liquor-bottle-guy are the wild cards.

“I said, don’t talk about my brother like that.” Sam glares at them, shifting his feet so that his arms are hanging loose at his sides. He needs to provoke them, needs to get one of them to take a wild swing so Sam can take him down fast.

“Or what? You’ll hit me?” Carl challenges, taking another step. “Come on, go ahead. Give it your best shot.”

Sam takes a deep breath, lowers his chin to his chest and clenches his fists. It takes an effort to ignore Carl’s provocation, but he makes it. He knows he needs to wait.

“Come on, boy,” Carl grins at him, sensing an advantage, mistaking Sam’s inaction for fear and youthful inexperience. “You let us have our fun with your little brother there and we’ll let you go on your way after. We’ll even give you a bite to eat. You hungry? You must be hungry.”

“Just leave us alone,” Sam growls. “Go back to the hole you climbed out of and don’t bother us again.”

“Oh,” Carl nods, eyes going cold and cruel now. “That’s how it’s gonna be, huh? We gotta go through you to get to him.”

“You can try.” Sam manages a taunting smirk, clenching his fists. Adrenaline and fear give him focus, and he’s suddenly hyper-alert, aware of each movement of all four aggressors, assessing their strengths and weaknesses. He’s sure the one with the liquor bottle is drunk, so he’ll be easy. He’ll have to go in hard to dodge those baseball bats, but it’s nothing he hasn’t done a million times, sparring with his dad or Dean in the backyard.

He’s grateful he’s been keeping up on his training these past four years, grateful Dean’s been training right along with him. Let the men think Dean’s small and weak, that the only challenge to their attack is Sam.

“Have it your way, then,” Carl says, and gives his signal for his men to attack.

The fight lasts all of two minutes, if that, although later Sam thinks it felt like an hour. He goes in low as soon as baseball-bat-guy gets close enough to swing, ducks as the bat goes over his head and the guy twists around, leaving his kidneys exposed. Baseball-bat-guy goes down with a swift punch to that vital organ, bat sliding out of his hand as he wails. Sam kicks it out of the way and shoves a quick elbow into the ribs of the guy who’s trying to grab him from behind, head-butting the man hard in the nose as the guy cries out. He lets Sam go so he can grab his face, blood spurting between his fingers, eyes squeezed shut in pain. Sam kicks his kneecap and he goes down, then falls to the side, out cold with a blow from Sam’s fist to his temple.

“Sam!” Dean’s cry of alarm makes Sam see red. Carl and Josh have Dean pinned down, and Josh is trying to unbuckle Dean’s belt to get his jeans off while Carl holds his shoulders pinned to the pavement.

Sam’s not exactly sure how he does it, but he’s positive that he’s the one who knocks Josh out, then sits on him, raining down blow after blow until his face turns into a smashed pile of bone and blood. Dean’s shouting his name, standing in front of him and waving his arms to get his attention because he knows better than to try to touch Sam when he’s like this. Carl lies on the ground a few feet away, out cold from a blow Dean must’ve landed because Sam can’t remember going after anyone but the guy who was trying to pull off Dean’s pants.

He looks up when Dean squats down in front of him, catches his eye.

“He’s good,” Dean nods cautiously. “You got him. I think he learned his lesson.”

Sam pulls his fist back, looks down at the mess that used to be Josh’s face, and nods, more satisfied than repulsed. The guy should be dead, but Sam knows he probably isn’t. Deserves to be, though.

“Come on,” Dean coaxes, daring to put a hand out now, and Sam can see the blood on his knuckles. “Let’s get out of here before one of them wakes up.”

Dean drives. Sam’s shoulder hurts where somebody got off a good blow he didn’t even notice, probably the guy he head-butted. His lip’s bleeding. Dean has a cut on his cheekbone, right under his eye, and another one on his forehead. Scrapes, nothing more. They got off easy.

They’re about five miles out of town, headed south, before Dean speaks.

“So I guess there are survivors,” he says, and Sam nods grimly.

“Looks like,” he agrees.

When they pull into Sioux Falls it’s getting dark. Sam maneuvers the car along empty streets, no bodies or abandoned cars clogging the asphalt. Although he doesn’t drive into the middle of the city, he’s pretty sure it’s deserted. People must’ve got out before the epidemic caught hold here.

There’s a gate across the drive into Singer Salvage, and it’s padlocked. Sam peers through the slats, remembering visits here as a kid with their dad. Bobby was a recluse, a hermit, a paranoid bastard who kept his possessions locked up tight and rarely let anyone in. Sam could never get a straight answer about how Bobby and John met, but he’s pretty sure that guns and whisky were involved.

“Did you try calling him?” Dean asks. In the early days of the epidemic, some of the old phones still worked, and landlines in certain areas were functioning, too. Sam left messages when he got through to some of the numbers his dad gave him, including Bobby’s.

“Yeah,” Sam nods, rattling the gate to check for give. “Maybe we can climb it.”

As he starts to feel along the edges of the gate to find a hand-hold he hears a familiar sound.

“What was that?” Dean hears it too, stares at Sam with wide, startled eyes.

Sam looks back up the dark road, the way they just came, and waits a moment to see if the sound repeats itself. When it doesn’t, he shakes his head, turning back to the gate.

“Just the wind, maybe,” he shrugs. It’s the same sound that he heard last night at the safe house in Wilmar, but he doesn’t tell Dean that.

Dean agrees dubiously, keeps his eyes on the road as Sam goes back to feeling along the gate for a way inside.

Another rustling sound, like wind through trees or bushes, comes again, but it’s closer this time, sending shivers up Sam’s spine because there’s something not quite natural about it. It’s definitely not wind.

“Sam!” Dean sees it first, scrambles backwards into his brother as Sam struggles to put himself between Dean and whatever it is that’s making the noise...

Then Sam sees it, too.

Three figures, human in appearance except they’re moving strangely, not walking so much as sliding along the ground. Their feet make the rustling sound as they move, and they seem to be whispering at the same time, the effect about as eerie as anything Sam’s ever heard.

“What the hell?” Sam backs up, puts his arms out to keep Dean hidden behind him. He’s not sure what he’ll do if the figures keep advancing on them; he’s left all their weapons in the car and he’s fairly certain these creatures aren’t human, or at least they aren’t human anymore.

Sam’s just about ready to make a dash for the car, dragging Dean with him, when the gate behind them opens and Bobby Singer stalks out with a shotgun in his hands. Without even a glance at the boys, he fires a round of buckshot at the monsters at point blank range and they fall apart in a cacophony of shrieks and moans, leaving behind only a pile of ragged clothing.

Sam’s breathing hard, like he ran a race, and Dean clings to him, peering around Sam’s still-outstretched arm at the man who quite possibly just saved their lives.

Bobby lowers the shotgun and turns to look at them, and for a moment Sam’s not sure Bobby recognizes them. It’s been five years, and both boys were much smaller back then.

“Sam,” Bobby greets him, then nods at Dean. “Dean. Looks like your daddy was right about monsters.”

“Wha – What was that?” Sam stammers.

“Revenants,” Bobby says grimly. “Silver’s the only thing that kills ‘em. Luckily, they only come out at night.”

“Yeah, luckily,” Sam says, hating how shaky his voice sounds. “What’s a revenant?”

“Ghost,” Bobby shrugs. “Mostly. Some animated flesh and bone, but mostly ghost.”

“Ghost,” Sam whispers. “Ghosts are real, too?”

Bobby’s eyes narrow. “Didn’t you listen to a thing your papa taught you?”

“Well, yeah, Bobby, but I didn’t believe him.” Sam’s feeling defensive. “I mean, did you?”

Bobby takes a deep breath, lets it out on a sigh. “I guess nobody did,” he admits. “Now, come on.”

They drive the car into the salvage yard and Bobby closes the gates behind them. He locks them with a silver padlock, and Sam recognizes the symbols spray-painted on the back after they’re closed.

“Wards against every kind of evil you can think of,” Bobby nods. “Not taking any chances.”

“What else have you seen?” Sam follows Bobby into the house, Dean on his heels. The boy looks rattled, but energized at the same time, and Sam gets it. He does. Dean’s life has been pretty boring so far, and almost being attacked by revenants is about the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to him.

After what almost happened with the human gang in Wilmar, that’s weirdly comforting.

“Oh, nothing close up,” Bobby says. He gestures to two empty chairs at the table in the kitchen, where a big pot of some spicy meat-and-beans mixture is cooking on the stove. Sam’s stomach grumbles. “You hungry?”

Sam nods, and Bobby looks up at him, squinting. “You sure got tall, boy,” he says as Dean slides into one of the chairs. “You’re taller than your daddy.”

“Yes, sir,” Sam nods, feeling tears smart at the backs of his eyes. He brushes them away angrily, blaming the spicy vapors from the chili, but apparently Bobby thinks otherwise.

“Hey, boy, you done good,” Bobby says softly. “You did what your daddy told you. You saved yourself and your brother, and now you’re here. You made it.”

Sam nods, more tears leaking traitorously from his eyes. His lips tremble and he can’t look at Bobby, but suddenly he’s being pulled into a gruff bear-hug, squeezed tightly for a moment or two before the grizzled older man finally releases him with a brusque pat.

“That’s all right, son,” Bobby murmurs. “You’ve had a lot on your shoulders these past few years. Looks like you did everything exactly right. Your daddy would be proud.”

Bobby doesn’t ask about John because it’s obvious. If the older Winchester was still alive, he’d be here, with his sons.

Sam slides into the other chair at the table and lets Bobby serve them big, steaming bowls of chili and glasses of warm beer. He doesn’t ask how Bobby survived. He knows about Bobby’s personal bunker, stocked with his own supply of food and fuel and weapons. Sam’s not surprised Bobby made it, but he’s more grateful than he’ll admit. It gives him hope.

“You think there are other folks like us?” he asks after he’s swallowed his first helping and Bobby’s serving seconds.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure there’s others out there, all right,” Bobby nods. “Rufus Turner came by about six months ago, stayed for almost three weeks. A couple of others, too. There’s others like us all over the country.”

“What about the ghosts? The revenants?” Sam still can’t quite get his mind around the fact that the supernatural world is real, just as his dad had always said. “How did we never see them before?”

“Oh, I’m guessin’ it takes a cataclysmic event to shake loose that amount of evil,” Bobby says. “This epidemic wiped out most of humanity. The way it looks to me, evil’s just been waiting for a chance to slink into the natural world, and now it’s found a way. I’m guessing there’ll be other manifestations. No reason to believe revenants are the only supernatural things in town.”

“You think these things were around before?” Sam asks. “I mean, Dad thought something supernatural killed Mom. He always said evil was lurking just under the surface of the real world.”

“I’m starting to rethink a lot of things,” Bobby acknowledges. “My wife’s death, for example. I always thought she was possessed by a demon, but nobody believed me except your daddy and a few others. Every one of us had a story nobody believed. That’s what brought us together, sort of. We never exactly trusted each other, but we all agreed sometimes evil got into the world in hard-to-believe ways. Unexplained things happen.”

“And now it’s trying to take over?” Sam tries to ignore the shiver that goes up his spine.

“More like, it’s all that’s left, and it’s taking it’s turn,” Bobby says. “Like the dinosaurs got wiped out by that comet, remember?”

Sam barely needs to consider that idea. “So, we’re the dinosaurs,” he says quietly.

“Could be,” Bobby agrees, his eyes widening. “Or just the scrappy little rats that survived underground for a few thousand years. Either way, it ain’t gonna be easy.”

“We should get out there, try to find some more survivors,” Dean speaks up, and both Bobby and Sam look at him. “What? We should. There’s probably folks like us all over the country, like you said, Uncle Bobby. Other people who hunkered down and rode out the epidemic.”

“Or more yahoos like those bastards in Wilmar,” Sam snaps. He’s still mad when he thinks about how Dean was beaten and almost raped. “Morons who survived by sheer dumb luck, just roaming around looting and pillaging.” Raping, he doesn’t say, but they all know.

“Yeah, we had a gang like that in Sioux Falls, about a year ago,” Bobby nods grimly. When he doesn’t continue, Sam raises an eyebrow. “I took care of it,” Bobby says, leaving it at that.

“We can do reconnaissance for you,” Dean says. “Stake out a town or a city, figure out what’s salvageable. Rescue innocent survivors. Take down any hostiles we find.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Sam glares at him. “You almost got yourself killed today. If Bobby needs any reconnaissance done, I’ll be the one to do it. Alone.”

“Stop treating me like a baby, Sam,” Dean fires back. “I’m sixteen-and-a-half, not twelve. You go out there, you take me with you.”

“Like hell,” Sam spits out.

“Boys,” Bobby interrupts, glancing from one to the other of them. “Ain’t nobody going anywhere yet. I’ve already got a team of hunters out looking for survivors. I need you to stay put for now, do some research. Don’t need you two idiots charging out and getting yourself killed before you know what you’re up against.”

“Research,” Dean rolls his eyes.

“And training,” Bobby adds. “You need to learn how to kill the things that are most likely out there, waiting for a chance to take you down first.”

“Well, that’s something, at least,” Dean says with a smirk. “Killing evil things doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Not just killing,” Bobby admonishes. “I need information. We need to find out if all the things I’ve been hearing and reading about are actually out there. I’m getting reports about werewolves and vampires. I already know ghosts and revenants are real, but what else? Are some things more evil than others? And while you’re at it, don’t forget that we’re probably the minority race now, so don’t go drawing undue attention to yourselves. The last thing we need is for evil to start gunning for us, or for you two specifically.”

“Dean can’t go out there,” Sam insists stubbornly. “It’s not safe. I need him to stay here.”

“No way, Sam!” Dean’s indignation is palpable. “I’m almost six feet tall, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’m putting on muscle, I know how to handle a gun, and I’m fast. You need me!”

“I’m afraid he’s right, son,” Bobby says to Sam. “He may be only sixteen, but in this brave new world, even sixteen-year-olds have to become warriors. We need him. Anyway, by the time you hit the road again, he’ll be a few months older.”

Sam scowls, but he doesn’t argue. He knows Bobby’s right. Dean’s still young and green, but Sam will need the backup. And the truth is, he’d rather have Dean with him anyway. He can keep an eye on him better.

Besides, Sam really wants to be useful. They both need to do something. This is everything they trained for, everything their dad told them to be ready for.

“I’ve got a list of my dad’s safe houses,” he offers. “We can use those as launch pads for foraging and recon missions.”

Bobby nods. “After you’re trained here, you two can drive around the country gathering intel, putting down monsters only when you have to,” he says. “Report back when you find something. If you come across innocent civilians who need help, you can add them to our network, let them know there are others. You boys can help us get a handle on how wide-spread this thing goes.”

They both know it’s the whole country, probably the whole world, but the plan makes sense anyway. Finding compatriots, more of their kind of survivors, is a first step toward rebuilding civilization.

“There’s only one problem,” Sam says. “We need fresh fuel. The car’s running on fumes as it is, and all of the gasoline we find at gas stations is old and tired. We’ll never make it to the closest safe house, much less spend a year or more on the road.”

Bobby cocks his head, gives a little enigmatic shrug. “I think I might be able to fix that,” he says.

“It’s magic,” he tells Sam after he pulls a jar of something that looks like chunky fireplace ash from a shelf in the kitchen. “Put this in the gas tank and the car runs like it’s just been filled with newly-refined fuel.”

“How does it work?” Sam asks as he tips the jar this way and that, trying to figure out what’s in it.

“A spell for reviving dead and dying things,” Bobby shrugs. “You probably don’t want to pour it on those revenants out there.”

Sam stops shaking the jar and stares. “You’re serious,” he says finally.

“Deadly,” Bobby agrees. “And that’s just the beginning. Spells, potions, all kinds of magic really works now. Don’t think it did before. Like I said, something’s been unleashed in the wake of the epidemic. Something powerful.”

“Huh,” Sam comments. He’s skeptical, but after what he saw outside the salvage yard tonight, he’s willing to keep an open mind.

It’s a lot to process, though. Sam’s spent too much of his life covering for his dad’s crazy ideas, keeping two versions of reality in his head at once. When he was very small, he believed everything his father told him, living in constant terror of things that go bump in the night. By the time he was twelve and started to see the truth, Sam had to face the fact that his father was probably insane, that his dad’s view of the world was skewed. Now, finding out that his dad’s view was the right one, just premature, is more than a little unsettling. Apparently John Winchester and the others like him were prophets who nobody believed because the world they said was coming hadn’t happened yet. There wasn’t any proof.

Now, there seems to be proof. And if the supernatural world’s taking over, as Bobby claimed, Sam can adjust. Again. The main thing to do was to get a handle on it, to figure everything out so they can stay ahead of it, just like their dad had trained them to do.

Sam can do that. Sam’s good at figuring things out.

They sleep in the living room, Sam on the floor because he’s too long for the couch. Sometime in the night he feels Dean’s fingers in his hair, stroking gently. He lies still and pretends he’s asleep because it feels too good and he doesn’t want Dean to stop.

He never wants Dean to stop.

They stay with Bobby for three months, learning all they can about the strange new world that’s been born on the deaths of six billion souls.

“Souls are powerful,” Bobby explains at one point. “The fuel expended when that many souls expire could be the catalyst for this thing.”

Which begs the question, why did it happen? If there’s some kind of malevolent intelligence behind it, where is it? Why rearrange physics and science and the empirical world they grew up in so that magic is suddenly the dominant force in the universe?

Sam has a feeling they’ll live their entire lives without finding the answer to that question, any more than they might have learned why they were here in the first place, before everything changed. It’s not the most important thing anyway.

They’ve got work to do, and Sam’s pretty sure they’ll have their hands full doing it.

They’re on the road by Dean’s seventeenth birthday. Within the first month they encounter ghosts and revenants, three packs of werewolves and a nest of vampires, all of whom used to be living, breathing human beings. Sometimes they kill the monsters, especially if they’re menacing groups of survivors, but more than half of the time they leave them alone. It’s not like there are enough humans left alive to make it worthwhile to slaughter every monster they meet. It’s their world now. The remaining humans are on the defensive, hiding in holes and safe houses, just trying to avoid being eaten.

The day they encounter a vampire who tells them she gave herself up, begged to be turned, Sam figures they’re done. Of course the vampire still wants to tear his throat out and drain him dry, so Dean slices her head off with a single swing of his machete. But it’s an eye-opener.

“She chose this,” Sam says later when they’re burning her body and digging a shallow grave for the ashes. “She’d rather be a monster than dead. It’s not easy to argue with that.”

“I’d rather be dead,” Dean says simply, and that’s the end of the conversation.

They’re staying in a safe house near Richardson, Texas, investigating a house once rumored to be haunted, according to reports in the local newspaper. There are numerous urban legends about the house, dating back twenty or thirty years, all carefully archived in the public library. Some said that an old man kidnapped unsuspecting teenagers when they broke into the house at night. No one had died, but the rumors persisted right up to the time of the epidemic, so Sam and Dean decide to check it out, see if they could find any evidence of a real monster.

What they find is evidence of kids trying to scare each other. The walls are painted with occult symbols, candles and herbs line the windowsills and mantel, and someone painted a devil’s trap pentagram on the floor.

“It’s like the kids wanted to summon something, but they didn’t quite know how to do it,” Dean suggests.

“Kinda makes you wonder, of all the monsters that exist now, how many came into being just because people believed in them,” Sam nods.

“You mean, like a tulpa,” Dean suggests, and Sam raises an eyebrow.

“What? I read,” Dean snaps indignantly, and Sam can’t help the grin that splits his face open. “Love to make you smile like that,” Dean follows up quietly.

Sam looks up in surprise. Dean’s watching him, green eyes soft with pleasure, cheeks pink, little smirk tugging at the corner of his full lips.

Sam loves this boy more than it should be possible to love another person.

Later, when they’re getting ready for bed, Sam catches Dean watching him while he’s brushing his teeth. Sam’s shirtless, wearing only the soft plaid pajama bottoms he wears to bed, and Dean’s eyes are dark. He’s wearing boxers and the Led Zeppelin t-shirt that used to be too big for him. He fills it out nicely now, arms and shoulders and pecs almost fully developed from weight-training and hard work.

“Tomorrow’s my birthday,” Dean says, and Sam feels himself blush.

“I know,” he says softly, setting down his toothbrush.

“Yeah, well, it’s tomorrow somewhere on Earth right now,” Dean says, and Sam nods, doesn’t move because he doesn’t trust himself. “I still want you, Sam. Told you I would. Never gonna stop.”

It’s been a lot to deal with, learning about supernatural creatures, adjusting to a world with them in it but without many humans. They’ve encountered a couple of other small groups of survivors, mostly families who went underground or deep into the woods like the Winchesters did. There were even a couple of girls, sisters the Winchesters’ ages, who stared at them like they were ghosts and didn’t seem to like either of them much. The way they huddled into each other when they explained how they had made it through the epidemic with just their wits and their mom’s survival training told Sam everything he needed to know. These girls were everything to each other. They didn’t need the Winchesters or any other men in their lives, ever.

After Sam explained what they were up against and put them in touch with Bobby, the boys headed out again, each silently contemplating the loneliness of the human condition in the post-human world.

“What are the chances now, geek-man?” Dean had asked at the time, and Sam had frowned.

“You know, you’ll always have me,” Sam says now to Dean’s reflection in the mirror. “I’ll always be your brother.”

“I’ll always want you to be more than that, Sam,” Dean says. “Can’t help it.”

And Sam finds he can’t hold out any longer. He can’t think why he should. Their world, the one they knew before, has ended, but another one has taken its place, and in this new world Sam and Dean need each other in a way they might never have needed each other in the old world. In that other world, Sam had believed they would both grow up, find wives, have children and live separately. Maybe they’d get together for holidays and birthdays, but mostly their lives would be pretty ordinary, a deliberate reclaiming of the normalcy their father never allowed them growing up.

Now, that’s impossible, of course. And in these past four years, Sam has come to accept that he can’t ever really live without Dean. He probably never could have lived without him. Life without his brother constantly by his side would be existing only, not really living at all. Sam would be always missing some vital part of himself. He might have insisted that they live separate lives in that other, more normal world, but he would be dying inside from the moment they parted. He knows that with an almost painful certainty now.

In a way, it’s too easy for them to be together as a couple now. It’s as if the universe has rearranged itself to ensure that inevitability, as if the stars have aligned themselves so that the Winchesters can have each other in every way. No one will ever doubt their choice to put each other first now. Other survivors will envy what they have, and Sam’s vaguely sorry for that, sorry for all the lonely souls who never find this. It sucks to try to find love after the end of the world. Fortunately for the Winchesters, there’s never been anyone else, for either of them.

Sam turns and leaves the bathroom, gathers Dean into his arms, and kisses him.