They’re twenty minutes into the tunnels when Sam starts to feel it: a prickle at the back of his neck, something like spider webs brushing his face. Sam presses a hand to the clammy stone walls in an attempt to ground himself. Even still, his heart thrums and his vision narrows, brightening. Dean’s a few steps ahead of him, a shuttered lantern in his hand providing the slightest hint of light.
The tunnel curves, a small alcove branching off to the left, and as Sam passes it he catches a flicker of movement that freezes him in his tracks. Sam’s got his gun in his hand faster than a blink. The click of a chambered bullet works like a siren call to Dean and he doubles back, shining a sliver of light into the shallow space.
The creature is less than human, white-skinned and androgynous. Long, thin limbs tangle at unnatural angles. Slender fingers move in a bastardized sort of sign language, incongruently delicate and graceful, like small, white snakes waltzing. Its eyes are colorless, pupils as tiny as pinpricks even in the low light. It turns its head to reveal a neck that is the mottled brown and yellow of a fading bruise. Sam’s stomach knots, spit flooding into his mouth as he swallows back nausea.
Familiars were banned decades ago, citing the notion that slavery was still slavery, regardless of whether or not the slave was willing. It’s a commandment that’s hypocritical to the core. The Winchester boys are living proof of that. But there’s no use harping on things that cannot be taken back.
A bullet to the thing’s brain would be a kindness. Dean is not that generous, and neither is Sam.
“Fucking vamps,” Dean spits out. He drops the lantern and covers Sam’s back with his own, shoulder blades pressing in tight right below Sam’s. Dean’s daggers drop into his hands with a metallic scrape from the holsters bound to his wrists. “Any chance you have a machete in your pocket?”
“I thought we’d taken ‘em all out,” Sam says.
“Don’t believe everything you read. The things are like cockroaches.”
The familiar scuttles forward a couple of steps, lips pulling back in a painful rictus that reveals a mouth full of broken and blackened teeth.
“Where’s your keeper?” Sam asks. He knows he won’t get an answer. He’s seen familiars take bullets for their vampires, plead to be killed when their keeper gets offed, or worse.
It makes a keening noise, mournful to the core and rattling off of the stone walls.
“Sounds like the thing misses its bloodsucker,” Dean says from behind him.
“It’s half starved. I wonder—“ Sam doesn’t get to finish the thought before Dean throws both daggers into the darkness, one hot on the heels of the other, the blades making contact with a thick meaty thunk. A low growl echoes down the tunnel, definitely humanoid, and then Dean’s firing into the pitch black, five rounds sending sparks flying off of the walls from the ricochet, filling Sam’s vision with bright, blinding spots. Dean’s shoulder jabs into his, both of them feeling the kickback of Dean’s .45. Gunpowder smoke burns Sam’s throat as he sucks down a deep breath.
Sam’s instinct is to trust Dean’s instincts, and he opens fire, squeezing off half a dozen rounds before he feels the icy touch of the creature’s fingers on his leg. Sam lands a boot heel square in the thing’s bony chest, knocking it backward. It’s only then that he sees the creature’s expression for what it really is. What Sam had taken for pain is actually satisfaction. The thing’s grinning.
“C’mon.” Dean sounds like he’s underwater, muffled by the ringing in Sam’s ears. Dean takes off, and Sam means to follow, but he feels the fall of stinking, hot breath against the back of his neck.
Vampire. Nothing else ever smells quite so rotten.
Sam turns with a roundhouse punch and meets only empty air. Goddamn, but these sonovabitches are fast. Sam had almost forgotten. Werewolves are strong but not quick, they rely on teeth and claws and the struck dumb shock factor of witnessing a human transform. The right kind of bullet can put them down easy. Not vamps, though. They’re fast as hell, sharp-eyed, shark-toothed and above all smart.
A deep, raspy chuckle bounces off of the walls. “I’ll be damned,” a voice says. “Is that little Sammy Winchester? Haven’t seen you since you were knee-high to a grasshopper.” The vamp is moving closer, footfalls scraping up loose grit. “You were always such a good boy.”
Sam’s glad for the stall, and crouches down to one knee. Let the thing taunt him. It simply gives him a chance to regroup, school his breathing and let his heart rate kick back to normal. Sam has been trained for this. It’s what he knows how to do. He’s got it.
The familiar crawls past Sam on all fours, a lapdog greeting his master. In the scuffle, Dean’s lantern fell to its side, and now casts an eerie glow toward the roof of the tunnel, the angle of the light all wrong and lending an even more surreal bend to the scene. The vampire emerges into the small circle of light, the faded cross on his forehead clearly visible beneath a shock of white hair. Sam knows this man. Or at least he used to.
“Father Thomas,” Sam says, and he’s astonished at how calm his own voice sounds. The Father was one of the three who came to collect him all those years ago, took him from his family and baptized him into the church. And now this man’s a monster. Sam finds himself oddly unsurprised.
Thomas places a hand on the back of his familiar’s neck, almost petting the creature. “Always first in line to take communion,” he continues. “Always top of your class. So strong. Ever faithful.”
A bone-breaking crack sounds behind Sam, followed by a drawn-out moan. It isn’t Dean. The racket of the struggle is getting closer. Dean is fighting his way back. Sam has to get to him; everything else is nothing more than a waste of time.
Thomas muses, “Now look at you. On the run. Never would have pegged you for a deserter. I suppose it’s your brother’s influence. There was always something a little off about that boy.”
“Repent,” Sam orders. He loosens the knife in his boot, a wicked serrated thing. Easy going in, and hell on the way back out.
“What would be the point of that?”
“You were a good man once,” Sam tells him. “You deserve a chance at redemption. You know I’m going to kill you.”
The vampire laughs. It’s supposed to throw Sam off his game, but it has the opposite effect. “You wouldn’t do that to me,” Thomas says, all arrogance and condescension as he inches closer to Sam. “I handed you salvation. I presided over your baptism. I gave you the sacrament.”
“Yeah,” Sam says. “It didn’t stick.”
There’s a hiss, and the tunnel lights up with the flickering red-orange glow of a flare. It’s Dean’s doing, and exactly the distraction that Sam needs. The vampire turns his gaze away from Sam for a split second, and Sam throws the knife with a powerful overhand toss. It lodges hilt deep in the vamp’s throat with a steel-to-bone thunk. Thomas staggers backward, a shoulder colliding with the wall and fingers scrambling around his throat, black blood spilling down the front of him.
Sam lunges toward him, but Thomas’ familiar beats him to it. Thomas wheezes, “No,” but it’s already too late. His familiar yanks out the knife, taking most of his throat with it. Sam can’t blame the thing, it’s working off of instinct. The heartbroken wail of the familiar tells Sam that this particular job is done.
It was a good knife; it’s a shame to have to leave it behind. He turns on his heel and dashes down the tunnel, a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel spinning in his head like a busted record, begging protection from malice and the snares of the devil.
He takes a curve and stumbles. Sam feels a numb shock in his right side that he can’t account for. He takes another step forward, a cautious eye turned toward the darkness of the tunnel. His vision starts to swim, the walls bending inward and seeming to elongate, stretching the distance between him and the sputtering flare. Sweat stings his eyes and he raises a hand that doesn’t feel like his own to swipe it away, his wrist coming in contact with something right below the curve of his jaw. With a hiss, he pulls it out, but his eyes refuse to focus on it, and now there are arms circling around his throat in a chokehold, pulling him backward.
Sam tries to fight, but lead has replaced the blood in his veins and his arms are too heavy, his feet can’t figure out how to kick and his throat is closing down.
A whispering voice says to him, oddly resigned, “Don’t fight. You’ll only make it worse.” Sam’s last thought is of Dean, and then there’s nothing.
Sam comes to with a shock, every muscle in his body tightening, his hands curling into rigid fists and his toes bunching in his boots. His pupils constrict painfully, and Sam squints into bright, colorless fluorescent light. Sam’s tongue feels swollen, too big for his mouth and a dull throb drumbeats at the base of his skull, but he’s otherwise uninjured.
He’s in a room, low ceilinged, windowless and hardly wider than a hallway. Heavily locked doors stand on either end. Broad leather cuffs bind his wrists to the arms of a metal chair. Sam tries to kick out, and finds that his ankles are cuffed as well, and that the chair must be bolted to the wall. A sort of hospital smell permeates the room, sterile and antiseptic, but something else underlines it. Something musty, moldering, rusty and old.
An ocean of panic threatens to crash over him, one that has very little to do with him and everything to do with Dean. Sam leans his head back as far as the wall will allow, closes his eyes and reaches. In his mind he pictures wisps of smoke, skinny tendrils of thought that spread out and come back empty-handed.
Dean’s alive. He has to be. No other option exists.
With an electronic buzz, one of the doors opens. Sam catches a glimpse of iron rungs and a flash of pale skin before three people fill the doorway. Two of them are members of the church guard. The insignia is missing from their uniforms, but Sam doesn’t need to see the red and white embroidered patches to know that these men are church-trained. It’s in their posture, their squared off shoulders and the stiff line of their spines. The one on the left holds an iron pole, the end of it glowing a molten red. Sam feels something almost akin to relief, and realizes that he’s been waiting for this ever since they left the relative security of Bobby’s kitchen. He can handle torture. He’s been trained to be on either side of the knife.
The figure in the center is puzzling, however. The man is small, swaddled in filthy clothes, and from clear across the room Sam can smell his sour sweat. His head hangs low, his chin pressed to his chest. He’s muzzled with a wicked metal contraption, padlocked and etched with arcane symbols. Magic also adorns the iron shackles that chain his hands to his feet.
“Looks like we bagged ourselves a Winchester,” one of the guards says. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
“Only one of ‘em,” the other points out. “I was kinda hoping for a two for one special.”
They don’t have Dean. Sam allows himself the smallest flicker of hope.
Another man strides into the room, letting the door close behind him with a solid clang. An air of authority surrounds him, and the guards immediately come to attention. The prisoner between them cowers back but is pulled upright once more by one of the guards.
Sam recognizes the newcomer, although he’s only ever seen him from a distance. The man is clothed in a white cassock, thirty-three red buttons in a neat line along the front, and thinning grey hair underneath a skullcap. The red sash tied to his waist and the large gold cross around his neck are a dead giveaway. It’s the bishop, the archbishop’s right hand man. “Gentlemen,” he says, and then turns his gaze toward Sam. Sam feels buried under the weight of it. “Priest.”
“Librarian,” Sam corrects him.
The bishop’s mouth quirks, as if he’s trying to hide a smile. He folds his hands together behind his back and strolls the length of the room. “Yes. Not the most enlightened mandate, perhaps. I’ve always believed that were other ways to use your particular abilities.” The bishop steps closer to Sam. “We’ll make good use of you yet.”
It’s the decade and a half of training that allows Sam to watch the scene unfold with a detachment that borders on clinical.
The bishop makes some sort of signal that Sam can’t see, and the guards step forward, one of them unlocking the prisoner’s muzzle and moving on to the cuffs that circle his wrists, while the other shoves up the prisoner’s sleeve. The man’s skin beneath the metal contraption has rubbed raw in places, leaving open, septic sores.
Things get worse by about a mile when the guard holding the iron rod stretches the prisoner’s arm taut, and Sam gets an eyeful of the scars riddling the thin flesh. Binding magic has been branded into him. Layers upon layers of it. Sam recognizes the marks of a dozen different cultures at least. Somebody had caught themselves a pet. Under other circumstances, Sam might have almost been impressed.
The guard sets the iron rod to the man’s skin. The smell of burning skin fills the small room. The prisoner’s mouth opens in a silent scream, revealing a line of rotten, broken teeth. The man—the demon—Sam mentally redefines him, makes a loping lunge in Sam’s direction. His fingers bite into Sam’s jaw, forcing his mouth open as the demon inches ever closer, like he’s coming in for a kiss. Inky blackness spills into the whites of his eyes.
Sam curls his fingers against the arms of the chair but doesn’t cringe away. If the demon was going to kill him, he would have done it by now. Crushing a windpipe is child’s play. A snake made of black smoke rushes from his throat only to disperse a fraction of an inch from Sam’s face, like it’s hit some invisible plate of glass, retracting quickly.
The demon growls, all impotent frustration. His fingers scrabble at Sam’s clothes, ripping away the collar of his shirt and exposing the tattoo on his chest. An expression of slack jawed surprise dawns on the demon’s face as he backs away slowly, the chain between his shackles scraping along the tiled floor. The guards rush forward with the muzzle held at the ready. It’s already too late. Sam’s halfway through the exorcism, that familiar, directionless wind shooting through the room.
“Stop,” the bishop commands, and he’s too late as well. He doesn’t have the kind of juice that Sam has and he knows it.
Smoke swirls around the ceiling and evaporates, leaving a silence in its wake. The body collapses on the floor, nothing more than a used up sack of bones. Sam guesses that the man has been dead for a year at least.
If the bishop is surprised, he recovers quickly. “Remove that,” he gestures toward the body and turns back to Sam. “I was hoping that we could go about this the easy way.”
“Shoving a demon down my throat is easy?” Sam asks.
“Demons are privy to the host’s memories, so yes, easy. Useful, at least.” He rubs his hands together as if he was trying to dry scrub them clean. “Tell me what you know.”
Sam almost wants to laugh. Two can play at this. “The Order of the Priesthood was founded in 1054 by Saint—“
The bishop cuts him off. “You might as well talk, priest. You will eventually anyhow.”
“I was talking,” Sam states. “You interrupted me. Rather inconsiderate, sir.”
“When was the last time you saw Jim Murphy?”
“Five years, three months and two days ago,” Sam answers. “He was ripping the heart out of a werewolf, if memory serves.”
“I wish I was.”
“Seven priests have gone off the map in the last two months. Then we find you in the tunnels. You know something.”
“I know a lot of things. Where those people are isn’t one of them.”
“Gentlemen,” the bishop orders, moving to the side.
The guards begin chanting in unison, and Sam has a moment to try and decipher the language. It’s old, pre-Aramaic. Akkadian perhaps. But then a pain bursts bright and sharp in his chest. His ribs feel as if they’ve been trapped in an enormous vice, and any moment Sam expects to hear the rapid-fire pop of bones cracking.
Sam throws his head back. He focuses on a brown, swirling water stain on the ceiling directly above him. It’s shaped like a turtle with three legs instead of four. The pain intensifies, something twisting at his core. Sam grits his teeth against it, and sets his concentration on the spot on the ceiling. He’s not going to scream and give them that much satisfaction. He won’t.
“Enough,” the bishop orders, and the pain cuts off as quickly as it began, leaving Sam gasping in its wake.
“Witches?” Sam pants. He doesn’t have anything against them particularly, but they do pose a moral dilemma. “How much further in the gutter can you get?”
The bishop answers Sam’s question with another. “What were you doing underground?”
Finally a question that Sam knows the answer to, not that he’s going to give it. Instead he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”
“That pain you felt was only a fraction of what they’re capable of,” the bishop warns. “It can get so much worse.”
Sam lowers his chin, looking the man right in the eye. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”
“Answer me.” A flash of anger brings a flush to the bishop’s face. His voice is starting to shake.
Sam continues, speaking slowly and evenly. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
A new kind of pain shoots through Sam when the bishop gives him a backhanded slap, his signet ring catching on Sam’s mouth. Sam opens his mouth, testing his jaw and wanting to rub away the sting. He flicks his tongue against his bottom lip and tastes blood. “Thought you might like that one,” he says.
The bishop ignores him. Instead he strides toward the door. Grasping the handle, he pauses and turns to the guards. “Don’t hold back,” he says before leaving.
It’s impossible to know how long it has gone on.
They read lists of names to him, some of which he knows and most of which he doesn’t. Retired priests and minor dignitaries of the church. The interrogators run down their last known whereabouts and all the vague, far-fetched ways that the missing are tied together. The questions are carefully constructed to give away only the slightest hint of information. Sam starts to put together a foggy picture, riddled with things he doesn’t know.
The only thing he knows for sure is that he hasn’t screamed yet. It’s a matter of pure stubborn honor at this point. He’s cut it close a few times, though. Dean would be so proud.
Sam slouches forward, testing the muscles in his stomach and in his back. He spits between his feet, thanking God for small miracles when it comes out clear and not bloody. He’s exhausted, thirstier than he’s ever been in his life, and curiously uninjured. Whatever these men are doing to him isn’t permanent. The thought should be comforting, but it isn’t.
Sam can’t hear what the witches are saying. They’re hunched over a large, shallow bowl in the corner, set in the center of a complicated spell drawn with ash. One of them holds a curved dagger to the forearm of the other, allowing a steady drip of blood to fall into the bowl. Sam doesn’t want to know what kind of treat they’re cooking up for him.
He wants to be somewhere safe. Home, with the smell of Dean’s burnt coffee clogging up the air and his brother safely inside of arm’s reach. Sam lets his head fall against his shoulder and loll forward. Closing his eyes, Sam concentrates on his breathing, forces the air to enter his lungs, deep and measured. His grip on the arms of the chair loosens as he relaxes one muscle at a time.
The sound of his pulse thrumming in his ears fades, replaced by a radio static sort of white noise. Dim and far away, he thinks he hears Dean’s voice calling his name: that particular quality of pissed off vulnerability that is unique to Dean and unmatched by anyone else. It’s only his imagination, but Sam latches onto it and holds tight, wraps himself inside the sound and sinks down into it.
Instead of getting quieter, the noise strengthens, becoming both a comfort and a distraction rolled into one. Sam opens his eyes, lifting his head just in time to see a blinding flash as something in the bowl ignites. A force builds in the room, sucking the energy out of everything, out of Sam, out of the very walls it seems.
The door clangs open, shattering Sam’s ragged calm. Dean is framed in the doorway, filling it, feet spread apart and shoulders back. He’s pale, his left eye blackened, and a small gash on his temple trickles blood down and along his jaw. His clothes are filthy and covered with gore. He’s busted and broken up and still the most beautiful thing that Sam has ever seen.
The tiniest slouch in his posture reveals Dean’s exhaustion. He’s holding his left arm a little closer to his body. Something on that side hurts. Dean’s aim is steady though. His hand doesn’t shake and Dean doesn’t blink, barely misses a beat before he spins toward the witches with all the violence of a tornado. He blocks a hit and knocks one out with a swift jab to the base of the guy’s skull, the handle of his gun making contact with a solid crack, and elbows the other man in the face before he can even stand. Dean pauses then, scanning the room, his expression one of cold calculation until his gaze falls on his brother. It breaks then.
“Sam,” he says, relief making his voice thinner than paper. He takes Sam’s face in his hands and hunches in close, his breath falling on Sam’s lips and his thumbs rubbing the thin skin beneath Sam’s eyes. The touch of Dean’s hand to his skin feels like salvation, even more so when Dean opens his shirt and skates his palms along his ribs, gentle prodding touches searching for broken bones. He drops to his knees and unlatches the leather cuff holding one of Sam’s arms, then seems to deflate, pressing his forehead on Sam’s thigh, and wrapping his hands around Sam’s hips.
Sam’s hand finds the back of Dean’s neck and he squeezes. Dean’s skin is warm and soft; the feel of it grounding. “How’d you find me?”
“The pricks who took you weren’t too tidy about it,” Dean answers, his voice muffled. “A blind man could follow that trail.”
“Took you long enough,” Sam says. He means it as a joke, but he feels the muscles in his brother’s neck bunch.
“I know. This whole thing is a clusterfuck of biblical proportions. Literally.” He starts on the binds holding Sam’s feet and Sam works to free his other hand. “We gotta shag ass. Are you good?”
Sam tries to stand and his head swims. He reaches out to Dean for balance just as Dean ducks under his arm, drawing it across his shoulders. “Give me a minute,” Sam says.
“Not sure we have one.” Dean tightens his arm around Sam’s waist, bearing the lion’s share of Sam’s weight.
“You can’t carry me,” Sam says, trying to convince the world to quit tilting in the wrong direction.
“You’re my brother,” Dean states, simple as anything. “I could carry ten of you.”
As they near the door, one of the guards utters a groggy moan. “What is it?” Dean asks, sneering down at the man.
“Human, I think,” Sam replies. “A witch.”
With a disgusted noise, Dean points his gun at the man’s temple. He squeezes the trigger and is rewarded by nothing but a dry click. “Empty,” Dean tucks the pistol in the waist of his pants. “Looks like it’s your lucky day,” he says, landing a boot to the guy’s head.
“Where are we?” Sam asks.
“Under the Archbishop’s private oratory, I think.” Dean says, eyeing him sideways. “Not too sure. It’s a rat maze down here. This place isn’t on Bobby’s map.”
Small signs show the path that Dean took to find him. A bloody fingerprint on the wall, tiny spatters on the floor, skid marks left by boot heels. “Better than breadcrumbs, huh, Sammy?” Dean says as they backtrack, the self-effacing note of regret in his voice undeniable.
At the sound of running footsteps, they duck through an open door. Dean closes it and leans heavily against the metal surface. A man is tied down to the bed. Emaciated, dead for days now, the red tattoo vivid on the pale skin of his face. Unexpected grief slams into Sam, and he jams his fist against his mouth, muffling a choked sob. He never knew this man, but that doesn’t matter. “They’re just gonna leave him here?” Sam asks in a whisper.
“They’re trying to figure out what makes us tick. Other ways we can be useful.”
“They taught us that it was our faith,” Sam points out. Logic tells him otherwise. They heal faster, move quicker, require less sleep, and many of them have abilities that defy explanation. It had to come from somewhere. Logic and belief have never rested easy in the same bed, and Sam knows that. He chose to put his money on faith long ago.
“That’s one way of looking at it.” Dean says. “Or you could blame the man in the moon. The goddamn Easter Bunny. It’s all the same thing.”
The footsteps in the hall grow louder and then fade. Dean cracks the door. “All clear,” he whispers. He loops his rosary from around his neck and presses it into Sam’s chest. Sam covers Dean’s hand with one of his own, their fingers tangling together among the dark red beads.
“It’s too late,” Sam says.
“No, it’s not. It never is,” Dean insists, giving Sam a small shove. This is more for Sam’s benefit and they both know it.
Sam kneels beside the bed, makes the sign of the cross on the priest’s cold, cold forehead, and begins the Last Rites.
For five years, they have lived in a world that is four walls wide. Closed in, cut off, protected from the outside world. For five years, Sam has only seen the sun rise over rooftops and above dull grey walls.
The sight now is transfixing, almost magnetic. Dawn is just starting to break, brilliant colors slashing across the sky in wide bands. It heats Sam’s face, paints Dean’s skin a warm, vital color and turns the green of his eyes golden.
Dean breaks the spell. “C’mon. We’re cutting it close.”
They hug the wall as they approach the tracks. The train is already pulling away, sluggish for now but gaining momentum. A worker appears at the gate, soot streaking his clothes and his face. Dean crosses his lips with a finger, his face set in a stormy warning as they approach. The man offers them a small, secretive smile and begins to pull the heavy gate closed.
The growl of the train engine grows louder. The man says something, drowned out by the noise of the train. Sam can’t hear him, but he can read his lips well enough.
With a burst of speed, Sam catches up to the second to last freight car and launches himself at the door, grasping the handle with both hands. He shifts his weight and uses the forward motion of the train to swing backward, pulling the door open on its runners. Dean leaps in, and does a sideways roll to his feet just as Sam lands inside the compartment.
“Who’s the show-off now?” Sam asks.
Dean’s smile is the only answer he needs.
The car is shadowy and smells of straw. Crates line up neatly like soldiers against the far side. Sam leans his back against one of them and props his feet on another. Dean sits cross-legged a few feet away, pulls a knife out from inside his jacket and takes the point of it to his fingernails. The train is moving at full-tilt now, its rocking vibration easing the aches in Sam’s body. He dozes, lulled by the sensation of travel and the dry wind blowing through the cracked door.
He comes fully awake when Dean opens the door wider and leans against it, looking out with his back to Sam. He’s ditched his coat and shirt, and his white undershirt contrasts with the tanned color of his skin.
Beyond him, the landscape rushes past in a blur. Mottled brown earth, razor sharp scrub grass, scattered trees with twisted trunks and gnarled limbs. This place used to be so green before it turned into a battlefield.
Sam once read somewhere that every story has a chapter that takes place in the desert. He wonders if this is theirs. Thinks maybe they’ve always been in the desert.
Dean stands still and quiet, but he’s miles away from calm. Exhaustion beats beneath the surface, an anxious knot of worry and remorse as well.
“Don’t do that,” Dean says, not sparing a glance in Sam’s direction. “It’s like spiders crawling up my neck when you do that.”
“Really?” Sam says, surprised. “I never knew.” He pushes himself to his feet and joins Dean, knocks their shoes together and touches his elbow in apology.
Dean turns to him then, a hectic, almost lunatic expression on his face. “Forgive me. Please.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” Sam tells him.
“You have no idea,” Dean says, agitated. “I was down there looking for you, and…that man, the priest we saw? He wasn’t the only one. There were others, and I thought that you—“ Dean cuts off, pulling in a long, shaking breath. He holds his fingers a fraction of an inch apart and says, “I was this close to committing hara-kiri.”
“Suicide is a sin.” The words come out like a reflex, and instantly Sam wishes he could take them back.
“Yeah, well.” Dean shrugs. “So are a lot of things.” What he says next is heartbreaking in its sincerity. “I am not a good person, Sam.”
“You are,” Sam says simply. He’s the best man Sam’s ever known, and Sam’s known quite a few.
Dean grunts. “Most days I break at least two commandments before breakfast.” He wipes a hand across his mouth. “Way I see it? You’re my golden ticket topside. Keeping you alive has been the one good thing I’ve managed to pull together. And I almost screwed it up.”
Sam wants deny Dean’s argument, remind him of the fights they’ve won and the people they’ve saved, but the words stick to his tongue and he can’t force himself to spit them out. His reality has been slapped sideways. The bedrock of his work and his life has been shot full of bullet holes and made into quicksand, and all Sam wants to do is kiss his brother.
So he does. Sam wraps his hand around Dean’s neck. His brother’s skin is hot, almost feverish. Dean’s eyelids flutter closed a split-second before their mouths meet and snag together. Dean’s lips are soft. They give some beneath Sam’s mouth and it makes Sam’s stomach seem light, like he’s dropping down from some incredible height.
Dean breaks the kiss and tips his forehead against Sam’s, breathing through his open mouth. He touches Sam’s face, curls his fingers around Sam’s ear and clenches his teeth like something hurts. “You gotta be sure. Because. Because you’re tired, you’ve had the shit kicked out of you, and this has been one fucker of a day. Because this is a big one. Mortal, I think.”
Sam fights back the misfiring urge to laugh.
There are venial sins and there are mortal sins, and then there are sins that shouldn’t be sins at all.
He licks his lips and tastes his brother. It makes him shiver, want flooding into every nerve. Sam says, “A good night’s sleep and some of old Sister Katherine’s homemade chicken soup won’t make this go away. This thing is fucking old, Dean.”
Dean crashes into him then, full-bodied, letting the inertia from the train’s movement pin them to the wooden wall. His grip on Sam’s hips is strong and sure, his chest solid against Sam’s. Dean kisses him slowly, licks into his mouth like they have all the time in the world.
The cut on Sam’s lip opens again, and now he can taste the metallic zing of his own blood mixing in with the taste of Dean. Dean backs off, smudging his thumb along Sam’s bottom lip. “I’m sorry.”
“Stop apologizing,” Sam breathes, and drags Dean down to the uneven plank floor. Dean follows easily, covering Sam’s body with his own and rocking into him. He bites at Sam’s jaw and presses his tongue flat to the column of his throat, groaning like he’s been starving for this, and Sam thinks maybe he has been. They both have been.
They’re chest to chest, hips mashed together, Dean all over him like a second skin, the smell of him so familiar and wanted, but still Sam needs him closer. He rucks up the back of Dean’s shirt and splays his hands on the small of his brother’s back, feels the shift of skin and muscle underneath as Dean ruts into him, the ridge of his dick sliding along Sam’s own. Sam holds on tight, bucking up as Dean shifts downward.
Dean shoves a hand between them and into Sam’s pants, fingers forming a tight ring around Sam’s dick. His movement is stuttering, too tight and too dry and the angle is for shit, but Sam’s felt nothing like it in his life, an electric sensation that makes Sam’s skin feel too tight and his breath lock in his lungs. Tension builds in Sam’s stomach and spirals outward as he comes, sticky and hot, spilling over Dean’s fist. He closes his eyes, reaching for Dean’s mouth with his own. Sam kisses him, slides his tongue into Dean’s mouth and lets him suck it as Dean’s thrusts grown stilted, erratic, and then finally slow down.
Dean rolls off of him, but doesn’t go far, his chest moving fast and air whistling between his teeth. “That was your first kiss, wasn’t it?”
Sam gives him a one-shoulder shrug and a sheepish smile.
“We are so fucked.”
“I’m getting used to it,” Sam replies.
“You okay?” Dean asks, suddenly wary. He takes Sam’s hand, tucks it beneath his own and uses them for a pillow. Sam doesn’t mind.
“I’m fine. You?”
Dean smiles at him. It’s a small thing, soft and happy, and right then, in a rickety old freight car somewhere near the end of the world, Sam knows finally exactly what devotion looks like.
Sam awakes with a start to the high-pitched squeal of brakes. He’s lying on his side, Dean tucked along the front of him. Dean rolls over to face him, brushes his knuckles along Sam’s jaw, uncharacteristically gentle, and then pats Sam’s cheek in a way that tells him that some things still haven’t changed. He’s still Sam’s big brother.
“Up and at ‘em,” Dean says.
The outpost is composed of a small cluster of buildings, hunching behind a low corrugated iron fence. The air is dusty; it grits between Sam’s teeth when he jumps out of the freight car before it can come to a complete stop.
“What? No parade?” Dean asks, wiping his hands on the front of his pants.
The gate opens and a man walks out. Still yards away, Sam can’t see his face, but recognizes him as Caleb. He walks with a limp, the nagging remnant of an old injury suffered a decade ago. They’d been on that mission with him. Four men against six werewolves. Vicious bastards. Everyone had earned a few battle scars that day.
“As I live and breathe. Haven’t seen you two since Hector was a pup,” Caleb says. His face is dark, tanned the color of old leather and deeply creased, the cross on his forehead barely visible. He looks much older than his forty years on this earth can account for, but his smile is genuine and his eyes are bright. “Singer radioed in. Said you two were taking a sabbatical.”
“Is that what he called it?” Sam says. Too tired and too curious to stand on formality, he continues, “What do you know about the resistance?”
Dean turns his head sharply in Sam’s direction, and Caleb eyes him, speaking cautiously. “Not even Singer knows about that.”
“I had to find out the hard way,” Sam says.
Caleb nods. “It’s weak. But it’s getting stronger.”
“Why didn’t we know about it?”
“The two of you have always been wild cards. No one was ever sure which team you’d put your money on. Guess we have our answer. C’mon. Let’s get you fed.”
Caleb leads them into the compound, and through a maze of roads barely wider than footpaths. They come to a low, long building with a large wooden cross hanging above the door. Dean pauses at the sight, but Caleb urges him along. “It’s just for show. Keeps the mooks off our back.” He steers them toward the side yard. Half a dozen children are playing some sort of game with a dusty red ball, small clouds of dirt getting kicked up under their feet.
“You’ve been busy,” Dean notes with upraised eyebrows.
Caleb laughs. “They’re not mine. Stragglers, mostly. Orphans with nowhere else to go. They’re good kids. Strong. Make yourself comfortable,” he waves toward a long wooden table near the building. “I’ll bring you something to eat and then we can talk.”
Once Caleb disappears inside, Dean turns to him, arms crossed. “We can’t stay here.”
“And we can’t go back. Not yet.”
“I know that too.”
Two boys, brothers by the look of it, walk up to them. The older one looks to be about fifteen, and has a strong grip on the younger one’s wrist. The boy holds himself in a steely, straight backed way that tells Sam that he’s already seen too much of this world. “Are you from the city?” he asks.
Sam is out of his element. He’s never spent much time around children. Most of them have been afraid of him. “Yes,” Sam says, stooping down so that he won’t tower over them. Dean moves in closer, a solid presence along Sam’s back, and places a hand on his shoulder.
“Did you fight?” the kid says.
“We did. I guess we still do.”
The younger boy, no more than ten, reaches out and presses his small fingers to Sam’s forehead. “Does it hurt?”
Sam turns to look up at Dean, squints past the sunlight and smiles at him. “Only sometimes.”
Thanks for reading.