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It starts on their two-month anniversary. Jess insists on staying in to celebrate. A few drinks and a cheesy Hallmark movie; he asks her why. “Because the last guy I dated for more than a month ditched me at the anniversary dinner I paid for, in the fanciest restaurant in town,” she says, legs curled up on the couch, her head tucked securely against Sam’s jaw. “Staying in is nicer.”

Sam has to agree. He’d attempted to make a decent lasagna (keyword: attempted) and sort of succeeded—it was edible, at least. They’d ended up scraping most of it down the disposal anyway, laughing when melted cheese strung itself to their fingers, and had made popcorn and cookies instead, and now the cheesy Hallmark movie has run its course, they’re into their third and fourth beers respectively, and the news is on simply because neither of them are feeling motivated enough to change the channel.

A car commercial winds down just as the gaudy Breaking News banner flashes across the screen in blue and red, and Jess sniffs, shifts. Sam can smell her shampoo, vanilla and brown sugar, and blinks sleepily. Happily.

The volume is down low, the anchors’ voices only a faint battered sound. But their faces are dead serious, enough to make Jess wave her hand in the direction of the remote. “Turn it up,” she says, with a tiny note of concern.

Manteca resident Andrew Christophers was found dead tonight inside a room at the Blue Sky Palms Motel, severely beaten and strangled. Police state that the room was not rented to Christophers, but to a man named John Wilcox…

A photograph flashes up on the screen—a young man, college-age, maybe. Dark hair. A wide, high-school-prom-king kind of smile, white teeth and dimples. Sam stares at it, feels a gentle prickle on the back of his neck. Manteca’s not too far away, really.

He feels Jess frown and lift her head, and then she settles herself back against him as the photograph lingers on the screen and the anchors keep talking. He’s tuned them out now.

“Y’know, Sam, if I didn’t know any better,” Jess says—gesturing to the static-fuzzy image on the screen with the neck of her bottle—“I’d say that poor kid kind of looks like you.”

Sam reaches down to find the remote.

Well. She isn’t wrong.


 

Really, when he starts looking, it isn’t hard to find them. They’re in every bar, and he’s frequenting those these days, more than he used to—which is saying something. Everything’s gotten more tense since That Night, more tight and poised to snap, he’s found. Dad goes off on him twice a day now instead of the usual once. He feels a constant need to strip and clean his guns even though he’d just stripped and cleaned them that morning. A constant need for shooting practise, too—beer bottles on old crooked weatherbeaten fences, out in buzzing fields where no one can hear or see—even though he’s a damn good shot already, and he knows it. More cigarettes. Those are a new habit.

Sammy would kill him if he knew.

But drinking, mostly. There’s a serious itch in Dean’s bones that can’t be scratched by anything else. Hell—it’s been a year and a half since That Night, since Sam left, and it’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t feel quite functional if he doesn’t have a little whiskey in his belly, a little beer. He makes excuses—never a bad time to hustle pool, he tells himself. But he knows what he’s really in these places for, these rundown wooden shacks on the edges of places, gravel outside, neon and highway signs, girls in cowboy boots. The booze. And—more recently—the boys.

They must be a special kind of moth, or maybe he is just a special kind of light. Invariably they’ll wander in, with friends, with girls. Boys, eighteen, nineteen, slim boys with slim hips and big, pretty hands, with dark floppy hair and bright eyes.

And dimples. That’s important.

They’re easy to talk to. Sometimes they even smile at him before he’s even left his stool. He always smiles back.

Part of him finds it kind of terrible—that so many young men look so much like Sam. Kind of unfair. He’s always thought that Sammy is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever seen, and these boys don’t even come close, but there are hints of him in them. Like chips of mica in a countertop or a tile floor. Glimmers.

It makes him mad.

He doesn’t mean to drift into Nevada; he certainly doesn’t mean to drift into California. After That Night Dad forbade him from going anywhere near fucking Palo Alto, but, well, what Dad doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

In truth, he’s scared for Sam. A civilian life should be safe as houses but somehow he just doesn’t think Sam or any of them can get out that easily. He keeps himself from driving to campus and knocking on his brother’s door, but only just—instead he tools around towns in Palo Alto’s circumference, trying to widen it bit by bit until he feels far enough away to move on. There are plenty of bars in these places. Squat buildings with a single streetlight out by the road, hot sunsets, the feeling that the ocean isn’t very far away at all. And once he starts to notice these boys, amongst the comforts of alcohol and nicotine, they just complete the package, don’t they. All the wonders of golden California. Good drinks, good views, good college boys who could be anyone’s son.

He’s in Alviso when he takes the first one home, and at that point it’s less about the fact that the kid looks like Sam and more about the fact that he really, really misses hooking up with guys. (A guy, really, but that’s something he’s trying stringently not to think about. If he’s honest, a third part of the impulse to drive to Stanford and knock on Sam’s door is the part that whispers maybe—maybe they could do the kinds of things they used to do, before That Night, maybe Sam would let him in to his apartment and his room and his body again, but—no.) So maybe it has more to do with the fact that Isaac (nice to meet you) looks like Sam, after all.

They have a good time. They really do. Isaac has a sweet face and a sweeter body and he rides Dean’s cock like no one has in ages, and he kisses Dean sweetly, too, when they’re done. He takes a shower and his hair curls under his ears and his nose wrinkles when he smiles in the doorway, when he shakes out the sleeves of his shirt and says goodbye and walks down to the road to catch a cab home, and the only surprising part of the whole night is that, for some reason, the sound of the latch clicking closed after him makes Dean absolutely furious.


 

If you asked Sam, under the best of circumstances, the name of the person who knows him best in all the world, he’d say my brother, Dean. With a little sadness, maybe, if you asked him in his Stanford apartment, and watched the distance between them shiver down his arms like gooseflesh, but it’d still be the same answer.

Dean knows that, knows it even though the last time they saw each other they were in the process of tearing one another’s hearts open under the portico of a Greyhound bus station. But he also knows that if you were to ask him the same question, he wouldn’t be able to say my brother, Sam. Because the side-by-side tally of Things the Winchesters Known About One Another would be one short on Sam’s side.

Dean is twenty-three, and he can’t really remember anymore how old he was the first time he killed a person. It can’t have been long ago. He remembers who and how, of course, but all other details escape him—day or night, summer or winter. All he has left is the feeling of their throat under his fingers in a back alley somewhere in Wisconsin and how good it had felt to squeeze whatever insult or threat or harm they’d hurled at him out of their lungs and squeeze their life out with it, too. It was a man—older than Dean, tougher, but Dean is young and strong and he’d won that particular battle.

Dad doesn’t know, either. For a long time he’s kept it in check; he’s kept the beast tamed and locked away in some tiny cage in his ribs for Sam’s sake, for Dad’s sake. The last thing they need is him getting hauled in on a murder charge and having no excuse for it. But he’s slipped up, more than once. When Dad beat him black and blue on New Year’s Eve, age seventeen, he’d gone out and done it again, cornered some drunk deadbeat outside a gas station and beaten him black and blue and a little more, too, until the wet asphalt was littered with broken teeth. It had felt good. Like letting out a long breath. Giving a little of what he got. When he found Sam’s college applications in a manila envelope under his brother’s pillow he’d suffocated a bartender after closing two towns over. Nothing but his hands clamped down on nose and mouth. They don’t deserve it. He knows that. But there’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from shooting beer bottles on fences all hours of the day.

And—despite himself—he finds a certain joy in it. The power.

He hadn’t really thought Sam was going to leave them. Leave him. Hilariously, Dean feels worse about those petty murders than he does about what he and Sam had been up to, those last few years, with one another. All the secretive touches, sharing a bed when Dad was gone, rutting against each other in the early hours with their eyes half-lidded, Sam tripping off to school the next morning as if nothing had ever happened. Their little secret. No way Sam was going to leave that; it’d be breaking some secret chain, some golden thread.

But he did. He rode a Greyhound bus all the way to fucking Palo Alto and left Dean behind in the dust, having let the most precious thing he had slip through his fingers like water.

But he’s kept it in check. He’s been good about it. He’s been good about it for a year and a half. Sam’s a sophomore, now. He’s probably got a girlfriend. A great GPA. Dreams. Dean has drunk and smoked and pretended he’s okay and for the most part, he has been.

Until now. Until these boys. Until sweet-faced Isaac and the latch of his door.


 

He doesn’t mean to kill Andrew Christophers. He really doesn’t. All he means to do is have one last good night in California before he books it to Maine or New Jersey or somewhere on an opposite coast where he can stop torturing himself and do his job, find Dad again and put Sam out of his mind for another year or two.

Manteca is a nice town. He finds a nice dive. Andrew approaches him—moth to flame. He’s got dark hair, white teeth, a big smile, big dimples. And his laugh sends shivers of deja vu absolutely dancing down Dean’s spine.

It doesn’t take much convincing for them to wind up back at Dean’s room at Blue Sky Palms Motel, doesn’t take very long for them to be pulling at each other’s clothes in the slivered darkness, against the tacky cerulean adobe walls. Andrew is gangly and slim and has lean, beautiful muscles and he smells like soap and sweat and sun and he bites Dean’s lips, playfully, and smiles against his neck.

He doesn’t try to fool himself this time. He brought this boy home because he looks like Sam, and no more so than when he’s on his hands and knees on the rusty-springed mattress, shoulder-blades and muscles shifting under his skin, delicate moles scattered like stars, dark-haired head hanging down. He can almost pretend, with his hands on Andrew’s hips, that nothing has changed—that he’s holding his little brother in yet another dingy motel room and that they’re making a game of fucking before Dad comes back.

And it almost works. Dean closes his eyes, fucks Andrew hard and down, and takes his breathy noises and pictures them in Sam’s mouth, and all he has to do is open his eyelids a fraction, enough to see Andrew’s blurred and curving back, the drop of his head between his shoulders, before he’s clumsily pulling out and coming over his own hand. Andrew comes a moment later and collapses on his shaky arms to the scratchy bedspread and laughs a little, panting, and lets out a soft whistle.

“Damn,” he says.

Dean feels like he’ll stay the night. He hopes so. He goes in to take a shower, the trembling in his chest quieted for now, thinking that in the morning he’ll buy the kid a cup of coffee and drive him home and then he’ll put Manteca and California in his rear-view mirror.

Except—when he comes out of the shower, in boxers and a T-shirt, with wet hair—Andrew is putting on his shoes, and the moon is high outside.

Dean pauses in the bathroom doorway.

“You leaving?”

“Yeah,” Andrew says, running an awkward hand through his hair. Short, long bangs, like Sam. “Sorry, man, I’ve got shit to do tomorrow, you know?”

He smiles apologetically. With dimples. Like Sam.

“Shit to do,” Dean says. He feels suddenly very hollow inside.

“Yeah.”

“Like what?”

Andrew looks at him, an eyebrow raised. Just like Sam. Oh, no. “Um—just shit. Look, no offense, but it’s not really any of your business.”

Dean swallows thickly. Something hot and prickling is building behind his eyes. His fingers are itching. He needs a cigarette. Or a beer. Or—

“D’you need a ride home?” he asks, flatly.

Andrew stands up, looking mollified. “Um—sure, man, if you want. I mean. Thanks.” That smile again. Sam again.

Leaving. Again.

Andrew picks his wallet out from the tangled mess of Dean’s Levi’s and button-up on the floor, sticks it in his back pocket. Dean puts on his boots, numb. He watches Andrew move towards the door.

He doesn’t mean to. He really doesn’t. And he isn’t even aware that he’s doing it until he’s straddling Andrew Christophers’ hips on the knobby carpet and his knuckles are bleeding, and he’s ploughing his fist into the kid’s cheek over and over and Andrew is scrabbling at his shoulders but can’t grab hold of them, and then Dean is hauling him up and hurling him into the tacky cerulean adobe wall and kicking him and kicking him until he feels his ribs break under the steel toe of Dean’s boots, and he kicks his pretty face in, breaks his white teeth and his pointed nose, and then he has the kid’s belt in his hands and it’s squeezing around his throat and by that point Andrew Christophers is probably already dead but he needs to be sure that no sweet-faced boy will ever, ever leave him again.

And then Dean runs. Wipes his prints, checks himself for cuts that might leave DNA beneath the boy’s fingernails, finds none. Calls in an anonymous tip at the nearest payphone and then makes himself scarce. Halfway to the state line before the news breaks; into Nevada by the time the morning comes.


 

Three months later Jess requests that they not have the news on while she’s over anymore. The constant talk of the serial killer they’re calling the Manteca Ghost makes her uncomfortable.

“It’s so gaudy,” she says, leaning over Sam’s shoulder to switch the channel to a game show instead. “People obsessing over this whackjob.”

Sam agrees, but he’s also intrigued. He keeps up with the story on his laptop while Jess is asleep in his bed, or during the classes he can afford to tune out of. In three months the Manteca Ghost—who has neither face nor name nor prints nor any evidence of existence at all, save the bodies left behind—has murdered six young men. All just under twenty years old, all in different states, all in shoddy motel rooms. Beaten, strangled, suffocated, sometimes a combination of all three.

The police have no leads, or so the papers say. Just a mounting pile of bodies and a wholly scattered investigation. Like a ghost, that’s what they all say, he’s like a ghost, he comes and goes. The credit cards used to rent the rooms where the victims die are all fraudulent. All the names fake.

All the boys look, to Sam’s mild horror, a lot like him.

He entertains, briefly, the idea that the papers could be on to something. Like a ghost. But then, all the boys had been engaged in sexual activity just prior to their deaths, and he knows of no ghost that can fuck or be fucked by a person. Not without giving something seriously away. And no ghost that can cross state lines, can move from Manteca, California to Argyle, Texas. No.

He considers calling Dean, or even Dad, in case it really is something, some paranormal gig they can look into. But he doesn’t.

He goes to class, he kisses Jessica, he takes a weekend trip to the beach with friends and has a great time and tries his hardest not to think of young men with his face broken to pieces on a motel floor. He tries very, very hard not to think of any of that.


 

It becomes almost a need. Like some kind of spellwork. Take the face of your beloved or one quite similar; beat until dead; choke if necessary. Once a certain number has been reached he will be yours forever.

He kills them in Minnesota, in Washington, in Florida, and he gets better at it each time. Keeps himself anonymous—just a face in a bar, just a guy looking for a good time. Sometimes they even stay until morning, and he brings them coffee and donuts before he holds a pillow down over their face and beats them bloody. Dark-haired boys. With dimples. With laughs.

He leaves them behind him like pins in a map, very small ones. Never anything too ritualistic, never anything too concrete. He knows how to become a ghost because he’s hunted them all his life.

It’s nothing personal. He assures them of that once they’re dead, bones crooked on the floor, throats full of their own blood and teeth. It’s really not personal. It’s just something he has to do, a necessity he has to fulfill. Like taking out the recycling, like making a dentist appointment.

He’s just making the world repay him for stealing his brother away. For letting Sammy leave. That’s all.


 

Dad lets him go off on his own more these days. The filling of his quota has slowed in recent months, simply because they are hunting in populated areas where it’s harder to pick off a lone young man without it being noticed. And Dean is being careful. He doesn’t want to get caught. It would break Sammy’s heart.

Sam is a junior, now. Dean wonders what he’s studying. He wonders if, were he to drive to campus and knock on Sam’s door, his brother would even recognise him.

Dean reads all the newspapers and is glad to see that the police are still baffled, as are the FBI. He’s a little proud of that. The FBI, for little old Dean, who only wants his brother back. It’s rather sweet.

He kills a boy named David O’Connell in Arizona, who screams, “Why are you doing this?” through a mouthful of bleeding, swollen tongue. Dean wraps the boy’s belt around his throat before he answers. “I’m sorry,” he says, and he thinks he might even mean it sincerely. “I’m sorry. Just please don’t leave.”

He considers, once—smoking a cigarette out in some Nebraska prairie, a few weeks later—what this actually means. Killing men who look like Sam, who look like the Sam Dean remembers, who graduated high school and kissed him like an animal. He’s been telling himself it’s about being left behind. About punishing the people who are beautiful like Sam, who live like Sam, for giving Sam a dream, for taking Sam away from him. But for a horrible moment—and only a moment—he wonders if what he really wants, what he’s really after, is the chance to beat Sam like that, to break his teeth and his bones and his dreams into little marrow-yellow fragments.

He shivers in the summer-night cold. No. That isn’t it at all. He’d never hurt Sam. Sam is his reason. Sam is his world. Sam is untouchable and safe and the closest he will ever come to Dean’s killing-hand is on the nightly news. And maybe, maybe, if he can just reach that magic number he’s sure is floating in the stars somewhere, that finish line—balloons! confetti! congratulations—he’ll never leave you again!—maybe Sam will even come back to him. And then he won’t have to do this anymore.

That thought gives him a shudder of relief.

He tamps out his cigarette on the asphalt of the by-road and goes, in search of a roadhouse or a dive, a pretty boy with a pretty grin who’ll be pretty when he fucks him and pretty when he kills him, too.

The itch is in his fingers.