My parents live about 4 hours away from me, and to get to them, to the town I grew up in, I tend to take the backroads, that kind wind through a handful of counties that are littered with little towns, places with not much more than a stoplight. Driving back to my house last Thanksgiving, key pieces of what would become this story came to me in chunks: the opening lines, for instance; then passing by a tractor dealership strung up in Christmas lights; then seeing a little cafe tucked in at a railroad crossing.
A long way of saying: sometimes, stories sneak up on you. And then take months and months to make any damn sense.
Objectively, he can see that his brother isn’t beautiful. Not like this, stretched out like some humanoid starfish, his hair in his eyes and his mouth a drawbridge open to sleep. No, Sam looks like a naked frat boy who passed out in his little brother’s bed, legs knotted in Spiderman sheets and feet almost touching the floor. He looks oversized, too big for the everyday world they’ve wound up in; but then, he’s always been too much for Dean.
You’d think its name would be the Crossroads Cafe, given that it’s right next to the railroad tracks, but it’s named for the owner’s wife, the first one, the one who left him in 1974 for a guy who worked at the DMV.
And the owner, Saul, he still says her name in a tone of voice that most men reserve for their god or their favorite baseball team:
Her name’s on everything in the place that makes sense and a few more that don’t. She’s sketched on the sugar packets, cut into the long windows that look out over Route 15, embossed in each and every one of the napkins. Jeanne taught him Dean how to do it on his first day, how to wind the cutlery careful so her name curls over the handles just so:
Loretta’s, embossed there in silver and gold.
Dean likes opening the place, likes working the early shift. For one thing, he and Maureen, the fry cook, have a similar philosophy about what life should be like at 5 AM. They both set aside the small talk and leave room only for what has to be done: the floor swept, the tables wiped down, the first legion of home fries laid out on the grill.
It’s quiet, that time of the morning, not as if Gordonsville, Virginia’s ever known loud, not since the 1860s, anyway, but there’s a settled sense to the world then, just before 5 in the morning, and Dean doesn’t like to upset it. He creeps his way out of the bedroom, on mornings like that; wakes up a half step before the alarm and eases up off his mattress to muffle the springs. He doesn’t sing in the shower, or shave, if he can help it, on mornings like that.
Sometimes, he can’t resist poking his head in the bedroom and double-checking that Sam’s still asleep, that his ninja skills haven’t failed him. Sometimes, he’ll have his keys in his hand, his fingers on the knob, and he’ll get that urge to check, to be sure. Always, when he gives in and goes back, Sam will still be there, buried under the mismatching pillowcases they got at Goodwill and doing that half-sigh, half snore that means he’s almost awake.
This morning, though, something’s different.
Maybe it’s the way Sam’s arm is still flung wide open, as if Dean were still next to him, curled into the line of his body; as if he’s just waiting for Dean to crawl up the covers and curl back into his body. In three steps, Dean could be there, could tuck his head into Sam’s chest and fall asleep with Sam’s hands in his hair, with Sam’s breath drifting over his cheek.
It’s dark outside, but the sky is starting to lighten, to throw shadows over the bed, and he’s late, Dean knows; he will be, if he doesn’t get a move on soon.
This morning, though, something’s different, something that keeps his feet nailed to the floor and his eyes locked on Sam.
Objectively, he can see that his brother isn’t beautiful. Not like this, stretched out like some humanoid starfish, his hair in his eyes and his mouth a drawbridge open to sleep. No, Sam looks like a naked frat boy who passed out in his little brother’s bed, legs knotted in Spiderman sheets and feet almost touching the floor. He looks oversized, too big for the everyday world they’ve wound up in; but then, he’s always been too much for Dean.
Oh god, he thinks, wild. He has to go. Now. Maureen’s gonna skin him alive.
He means to move, he does, but then Sam shifts, twitches like a dog chasing rabbits, twists his head a little and Dean’s breathing stops.
There’s a long arc of red bruises that sink from Sam’s jaw to his collarbone; little blooms at first, tentative, as Dean had learned his brother’s skin, then bolder, dark punches once Sam’d got a fist in his hair and groaned through a big stupid grin.
“Oh jesus,” he’d said, hitching an arm around Dean’s waist. “Dean, yeah. Shit. Right there.”
“I have to go,” Dean says, his voice rusty weird in his ears.
On the bed, Dean’s, Sam moves again, stretches, his hips peeking out from the sheets, and if Dean doesn’t leave right the fuck now, God knows he never will.
He slips out the door to their apartment and picks his way down the stairs. They’re steep, a little narrow and dark; the house was built in the 40s, so most of the place is like that: narrow and dark.
Their part of it, though, the apartment that takes up the whole second floor, is drenched in light, windows in every room. In the winter, it was a pain in the ass, especially when it was windy; but last fall, it’d been gorgeous, sunshine and the sweet smell of autumn, and Dean’s sure this spring will be even better.
The front door of the duplex shrieks like a banshee, like clockwork, no matter how much WD-40 Dean dumps on the thing, and he shoots a look towards Mrs. Hagan’s door. She lives on the ground floor, has for fucking ever, and it doesn’t matter to her that he’s going to work, not to hellraise, when he leaves the house this early; what matters is that, despite her age, she’s got ears like a cat, closely tuned from so many years living alone, and she likes to sleep in.
She’s been gone all winter, living with her daughter in Charleston, but the reflex is still there, worn into the groove of his morning routine. So’s picking up the Gordonsville Times from the mat and setting it just inside the door for Sam to snag on his way to work.
This morning, there’s a photo of a guy in a fishing hat and waders on the front page. He’s yelling at a red-faced dude behind a desk who’s looking at right at the camera, his shoulders lifted in a sympathetic shrug. Headline: Proposed increase in license fees met with opposition.
People take that shit seriously in Gordonsville; their fishing and hunting, their God-given right to stalk and kill Mother Nature. But they’re good people, too; supportive and nosy and helpful whether you like it or not. The houses on their street, they look lived in, comfortably so; the kinds of places where nobody picks up for company, where the front doors are propped open all summer, the kinds of places where sweet tea and shotguns can sit side-by-side in the living room and no one pays any mind.
Last weekend, everybody was out on their porches, it seemed like; Saturday was the first day it’s hit 70 this year.
“Thank god,” Donnie, their next-door neighbor, had said through his chaw. “We get anymore fucking snow, I’m gonna go batshit insane.”
Donnie’s in his 60s, gave the 30 best to the Navy. He’s got a girlfriend named Noreen, three cats named after poets, and a moonshine still in his den.
His house is still dark at this hour, the sun still awhile from stretching her wings; and goddamn it, Dean tell himself, move your ass.
He drops the paper inside and pulls the door shut behind him.
The front porch is cluttered with Sam’s planting crap: a rake, a bag of mulch, the little spade he was using last night. There are empty plant pots everywhere, temporary homes no longer needed by the irises Sam pressed into the soil last night, tucked in a neat row right in front of the porch, each set there by Sam’s careful hands.
Dean zips past it all, cuts through the yard and onto the sidewalk, but his brain lingers there for a moment.
Last night, Sam had covered Dean’s shirt in that same dirt, his beautiful hands molding themselves to Dean’s ribs, his chest, his back as they kissed each other, fevered and messy and deep. Dean had backed him into the wall next to the kitchen, knocked the Van Gogh print off its hinges, and still, Sam’s hands didn’t stop moving, stroking and pressing and tugging at Dean’s t-shirt until Dean leaned back and yanked the damn thing off, balled it in his fist and shoved it right back at his brother.
“Wipe your damn hands off if you wanna touch me,” Dean growled, and Sam had; had scrubbed them as clean as he could and held them up for inspection.
“Ok?” he’d said, cocky little bastard.
Dean didn’t answer, just pressed in again and Sam’s fingers came for him, hungry butterflies that fanned out over Dean’s body like they belonged there. Dean had cupped Sam’s long neck in his palms and gone with it, closed his eyes and let Sam put his hands everywhere, wherever he wanted: down Dean’s spine and over his shoulders, across his belly and under his arms.
“Oh,” Sam’d breathed, almost reverent. “God, you’re—”
Dean shivers, buries his hands in his pockets as he jogs down Water Street towards the diner. The breeze bites at his ears, a little chill to remind him that, despite the weekend’s tease, it isn’t spring here, not yet. But in two weeks, by the end of April, everybody tells them, it’ll be gorgeous here.
“Cardinals and flowers everywhere,” Jeanne had said, wistful, way back in the gloom of February. “Come spring, you’ll see. It’ll be nice.”
They hadn’t been in Gordonsville last spring.
Last spring, the early part of it, anyway, they’d been at Bobby’s.
Because, last spring, their father had died, but Dean hadn’t been there to see it.
He and Sam, they were a thousand some miles away, chasing a freaking ghoul through the shit part of New Hampshire when Bobby’d called out of the blue.
Dean knows they must have talked for a while, he and Bobby; remembers Sam’s face getting whiter and whiter as he mouthed “What? What is it?” while Dean had the phone pressed to his ear, but all he really remembers hearing Bobby say is:
“You boys better come home.”
Dean drove 16 hours straight, would have gone for the full 24 if Sam hadn’t bodily forced them off the road somewhere in Indiana and stolen the damn keys.
He stomped out of the car and shoved Dean across the seat, pinned him against the passenger’s side door with one hand.
“Four hours,” Sam said, glaring from behind the wheel like a big, angry cat. “You get four hours of sleep and I’ll let you drive again.”
He made it two and a half.
The last hour of the drive was the hardest. They kept passing places that made Dean think of his father, where he could see younger versions of himself at Dad’s side with Sam on his hip or stepping on his heels or loping along beside.
If the road to Sioux Falls was a gut punch, though, making the turn to Bobby’s house was a hundred times worse. Just seeing it made Dean feel sick, made the dregs of dread rise up in his chest. Sam felt it, too, Dean was sure, the way he sucked in his breath and went deer still as they made their way up the drive.
Bobby was waiting for them on the porch. Had been for hours, if the nest of beer bottles at his feet was any sign. He looked like shit; his right cheek a wash of dried blood and bruises, his left unshaven and smeary with tears. He had a hard time getting up—one ankle was fat in a cast—but when he did, he grabbed them each in a hug.
“Shit, boys,” he said. “Thank god you’re here.”
It was a measure of how fucked up Bobby was that he let Sam take his arm, let him lead the way in and fold him gingerly into a seat at the kitchen table. There was already a bottle of cheap whiskey there, waiting. Dean poured. Bobby was the only one who drank.
“He wanted you busy,” he said, by way of explanation, the words slurred through his busted-up lip. “Wanted you otherwise occupied while he was out running this damn thing down.” He shot Dean a look. “He sure as hell never thought that you’d go for Sam, kiddo. He’d a put money on you chasing your tail across the goddamn highways for months; hell, he did his best to see to it with all his, what, clandestine, coordinate bullshit.”
He sat back, eyes still rooted on Dean. “Wanted you outta the way, see. Wanted you safe. For as long as it took for him to chase down that yellow-eyed bastard on his own.”
Sam made a sharp little sound like he’d been shot.
“Never said he was the sharpest tool in the woodshed,” Bobby said, rapping his knuckles on the table. “Had the worse damn tunnel vision when he wanted to. Especially when it came to you two.”
Dean remembers his own mouth moving then, in response, but he can’t recall what came out.
It must have made some kinda sense, whatever he said, because he remembers that Bobby went right on talking.
“But it worked out for him in the end, you doing that, Dean,” he said, making the point with his glass. “It brought Yellow Eyes back out to play, putting Sam in circulation again. So see, your daddy, he made it work. Pushed you all farther and farther away, got squirrlier and squirrelier by the day, let me tell you. Got me wrapped up in his crazy, somehow.” He laughed a little, almost resigned. “But for all that, damn if he didn’t get it done.”
Dean remembers Sam shaking, his whole body twitching urgent with something Dean couldn’t name. He remembers his brother’s hand on his knee, digging in at the nails, holding for what felt like dear life. He remembers reaching down and grabbing that hand tight, holding on and trying to say with his fingers: It’s ok. It’s ok.
“So,” Sam said, the word pulled out tight like a bow. “What the hell happened?”
Bobby ducked his head and reached for his drink.
“He tracked it to some backpage parish in Louisiana. I don’t know how. He wouldn’t tell me. Just showed up here last week fired up and ready and I figured it was better to go with him, you know. Keep him in line with his better angels this time.”
“This time?” Dean said, startled. “What do you—?”
Bobby waved him off. “Let’s just say this wasn’t the first time your daddy was sure that he’d found the damn thing. Not the first time he was itching to go in guns blazing. Let’s just say that, ok?”
Dean blanched. Felt Sam’s whole body shudder.
“Ok,” Bobby said. “So I follow him down there, to some big antebellum place in the middle of nowhere, and damn if the son of a bitch isn’t there, riding some poor rich bastard and living like fucking Gatsby. Money and drugs and screwing every pretty thing in three counties. Sloppy as hell, that demonic asshole.” He snorted, derisive. “And you know what it said, when your daddy had it cornered, finally? After the damn threw me through a wall? It said, I was bored. I mean—Jesus.”
He rolled his eyes and it almost hid the tears that were hid there. Almost.
“Anyway,” he said, rocking back in his chair, “the devil’s trap didn’t hold, not for long. But it was enough to let John get good aim, to get the Colt lined up with that bastard’s head, so when it—when it broke through and sliced him open stem to stern, your daddy had already pulled the trigger.”
Dean remembers Sam holding his hand, remembers looking down at Sam’s knee and seeing Sam’s knuckles gone white where they were clutching his own.
Now Bobby was crying straight out, his face twisted like it hurt too much to fight it. “But, look, boys. He got the only sort of peace he ever wanted, killing that thing that done killed your momma. And God knows how many more.”
He laughed, a drunken sound more liked a sob. “Honestly, I’d never seen him so happy than he was right before he died. He said to me, he said:That son of a bitch, Bobby. He’s dead. And I said, yeah, John, he is. I mean, I could see the thing’s meatsuit still twitching, that Colt bullet lit up in its head. And I said, John, look. Look at it. Can’t you see it, all the good that you’ve done in this world?”
He stopped. Raised his glass and took a long, long swallow.
Dean remembers holding his breath, remembers feeling Sam do the same. Remembers the clock over the sink ticking along, the refrigerator’s hum, the sun fighting in through Bobby’s grimy windows as if nothing had changed, as if the world Dean’d always known were exactly the same.
“He just,” Bobby said finally, “he smiled at me, your daddy, I swear to God, smiled through all that gore in his mouth and he said: Yeah. I see it. I can see. And he—That was it. Lights out, you know. Done.”
He looked down at his hands. “I burned the whole goddamn place to the ground, boys. ‘S the best fire, best funeral I’ve ever seen.”
Dean remembers a lot about that day, those days that came after—Bobby’s grief unceasing and Sam’s rising and cresting—but what’s clearest about it is how muddled his head was; how, for the longest time, after their father died, Dean couldn’t figure out how he felt.
It wasn’t at all like when Mom had burned, when he’d felt the loss like a physical thing, like a big chunk of his little kid self had been ripped away. He’d been confused then, too, but more about the mechanics of what his life was gonna look like now that his mommy was gone.
He remembered, in that washed-out way the oldest memories have, his father kneeling before him—in the hospital, maybe, or at somebody’s house—his dad’s face twisted into one that Dean didn’t recognize.
“Mommy’s not coming home,” that weird face kept saying, but Dean didn’t believe it. He’d shoved the thing away and screamed at the face that wasn’t his daddy’s.
“No!” he’d said. “No! Get away from me! Want my daddy! Where is he?”
“I am,” the strange thing said, reaching for him again and again. “Dean. I am your daddy. It’s me.”
Dean wrenched away, scrambled back up on the couch or the bench where Sam was tucked in, asleep. He remembered burying his face in Sammy’s blanket and sobbing as quiet as he could. All he had to do was wait long enough, he was sure, until the bad thing went away. Until his mommy came back.
And when she didn’t, not ever, he’d never stopped wanting her to.
But now, with his father, he didn’t feel the same tug, the same need to hide his face and hold his breath until the world settled, until everything was back to the way it had always been.
Maybe it made him a sick son of a bitch, a heartless bastard and a turncoat, something less than his father had wanted him to be, but his dad dying didn’t feel like the end of his old life. It felt like the start of something new. An opening, maybe; an opportunity, instead of a loss.
And Sam, it seemed like he felt it, too.
“It’s ok,” he said one night. “Dean. It’s ok that he’s dead.”
Dean’s eyes flew open. “What?”
Sam shuffled around in the other bed, the old frame protesting. “Maybe it’s hard for you to accept that. I don’t know. But, look. He’s not suffering anymore. He’s not, like, mourning for Mom anymore. And at least—” His breath caught and he stopped.
For a moment, it was so quiet, Dean could hear Bobby sawing logs down the hall, could hear the lazy buzz of traffic way out on the road.
“At least,” Sam said again, finally, with this little boy hitch to his voice, “he didn’t take you with him. You’re here. You’re safe.”
Dean turned over, caught the shadow of Sam’s face across the room.
An opening, he thought. An opportunity, not a loss.
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Sam. So are you.”
Sam huffed, a sleepy sound that he’d made his whole life. “Guess we both are then, huh?”
It was there, lying under moth-eaten sheets and listening to Sam mutter his way into dreams, that Dean remembers naming it at last, that feeling, the one that’d slowly flowered in his gut since the moment he’d picked up the phone and heard Bobby’s voice:
Whatever good their father had done, like Bobby said, it’d always come at a cost. Dean had seen that his whole life, they both had; how high that tally could be. But now that Dad was dead, his body leveled to ash in a pyre, his soul resting easy, perhaps—now Dean could be fucking sure: that cost was never, ever gonna include Sam.
They stayed a month, and then two, long enough for Bobby’s ankle to heal and for them to wean him down to one six-pack a day.
They’d left on a Sunday, early, the rain hurling itself at the ground in great sheets—
“Be careful,” Bobby said, slapping them each on the back. “You hear me? You take fucking care of yourselves, all right?”
—with no plan, no map, no case to chase, not even a whisper of one. Just—
“You know,” Sam said, waving his hand at the highway hidden somewhere behind the rain. “Let’s go—thattaway.”
So they drove. West to Washington, south to Nevada and Texas. North to Indiana, Ohio. East to Pennsylvania, Virginia.
They worked a few jobs, nothing special, almost on automatic. A ghost with an attitude in Biloxi. A were with gold teeth in Reno. A troll with a taste for third-graders in Cincinnati. Each one dispatched with efficiency, with a fair bit of a skill, with not a damn bit of soul or drive.
Dean didn’t want to be the first one to say it, to suggest it; maybe taking some other path. Even if he did feel like Sam was waiting for him to do just that.
He wasn’t obvious about it; didn’t make any comments about white picket fences or sigh whenever Dean turned the key and set the Impala to fly. It was more that he wasn’t saying anything that made Dean sure, more and more certain, that they were on the same page, until one night in Huntington, West Virginia, it kind of just fell out of his mouth.
Dean set down the revolver, his fingers still caught in the oilcloth. “I think we should quit.”
Sam froze in the doorway, wet hair sagging down in his eyes. “What?”
“This,” Dean said, waving his hand around to take in the ancient wallpaper, the cheap bedspreads. “The hunting thing. We should quit.”
Sam raised his eyebrows and leaned on the doorframe, his whole body screaming yeah right.
He was in clean boxers and a t-shirt, rumpled fresh from the shower, and it struck Dean how young his little brother really was. With a gun in his hand or Latin on his lips, he seemed older, tougher, harder than the lanky kid hovering on the edge of the carpet, his feet still planted on bathroom tile. There was no denying what Sam had been through—the scars were there, if you knew where to look—but his face was closer to the one he’d worn as a kid than to the man their father had wanted him to become.
“Really?” Sam said, skeptical as all get out. “You. Want to stop hunting.”
It surprised Dean, how easy it was to repeat it. To foreswear it, that which had once seemed sacrosanct. “Yeah,” he said. “I do. I mean, it wouldn’t have to be permanent, you know. Quitting. If you—if we didn’t like it, the whole civvy thing, we could quit that shit, too, and come right back to it, killing all this evil shit.”
Sam took two steps and grabbed him—“Holy crap!” Dean croaked. “Dude! Little warning next time!”—and pulled him out of the chair in a hug. He smelled like Ivory and Head and Shoulders and Dean was pretty sure he was giggling.
“Ok,” Sam said, voice mashed in Dean’s hair. “Yeah, sure. Ok. I’m game.”
They Goldilocksed it for a while, trying on one town after the other, testing the waters of everyday life in this state, in this town, in this place. Each one would look fine for a while—a week or two, maybe more—but they always moved on, found some sort of reason not to stay.
Yeah, they were Goldilocksing, because none of the places they tried ever really felt like they fit.
One night, they were tooling through nowhere, Virginia, when they passed a tractor dealership strung up in Christmas lights. In the middle ofOctober, for Christ’s sake.
“It’s not even Halloween!” Dean said, shaking his fist at the glow. “Seriously. What’s this country coming to?”
“Maybe they just really like Christmas,” Sam said, far too reasonable. “It’s not a crime to like, be cheerful, dude.” He shifted around, twisting his head to keep staring. “Besides, it’s kind of nice.”
“Nice?” Dean said, incredulous. “It’s stupid, is what it is, ok? Dumb. Who puts Christmas lights on fucking tractors anyway?”
Sam yawned, one of those full body productions that made the car seem like a Mini Cooper. “Ok,” he said. “Whatever, grouchy. You think we could stop sometime in the next decade? It’s been a long fucking day.”
And weirdly, it had. Even though they hadn’t done a damn thing.
That was one thing Dean hadn’t figured about quitting, about packing in the rock salt and holy water: somehow, driving aimless was way more taxing than driving with purpose had ever been.
Before, he could have driven 18 hours straight, no chaser, into the arms of whatever nasty shit they needed to kill. Now, more than eight at a stretch and his body started to fight him, his legs going numb and his eyes feeling scratchy as hell.
The Budget Inn just inside the city limits, then, she was a sight for sore eyes.
“Jesus, finally,” Sam said.
He shot out of the car before she’d really stopped and stretched bone by bone under the streetlight. His hair was flat out crazy, his jeans looked like they could’ve walked away on their own, and his jacket was two sizes too small, but under it all, there was an ease, a kind of relaxed, that Dean still wasn’t used to seeing him wear.
“What’re you staring at?” Sam said, scowling at him over the hood. “What’s so funny?”
Dean hit the driver’s door with hip. “Just admiring your beauty regimen, princess. Whatever it is, dude, trust me: it’s doing wonders for you.”
Sam rolled his eyes and spun around towards the office. “Hilarious.”
“Now who’s grouchy?” Dean called.
Sam flipped him off without breaking his stride.
After a solid seven hours, though, he was almost chipper.
“’S a diner down the street,” he shouted over Dean’s shower. “Couple blocks down.”
Dean stuck his head around the curtain. “Fine. But you’re buying.”
The diner, Loretta’s, sat snug to the road, a set of railroad tracks in back with cars passing by right in front. When they walked up just before 8, every seat at the counter was taken and there were three people waiting impatient for one of the tables to get free.
It was like that the next morning. And in the evening, when Dean dragged Sam back there for country-fried steak.
The food was good, really solid, but that wasn’t what kept Dean coming back. No, it was the sense of the place, the feeling you got when you walked in: like the whole room was happy to see you, wanted you to be there, had been waiting for you to come in. It was loud at lunchtime and nicely slow after 3 and downright indecorous at dinner, sometimes. Old guys with newspapers and high school kids throwing French fries, the city council doing deals over coffee, the women’s club from the Baptist church fussing at each other over tea—after that first week, there was no question: Dean was in love.
There was no wifi—Jeanne, the waitress, looked really confused by the question—so Sam’s patience with the place was limited. During the day, he tooled around their room or drowned himself at the branch library or took long walks up and down every side street of tiny little Gordonsville, Virginia.
Every night, though, they’d regroup at Loretta’s.
Pretty soon, Dean spent all his mornings there, too, camped out at the counter with the slim pickings of the Gordonsville Times or with a book. He got to know Jeanne, and Saul, the owner, and Maureen, who ruled the grill with iron tongs. He learned the names of the housekeepers at the Budget Inn, mastered the quirks of the pumps at the Orange Exxon. He finished The Postman and Valley of the Dolls in the same week.
In two weeks, he was a regular, enough so that Maureen started plating his breakfast when he walked in, so that Saul and his buddy Tommy saved a seat for him at the counter, so that the ladies from the church made a point of learning his name.
One evening, the diner got slammed after the state basketball tourney, and Dean dove right in without being asked: shoved up his sleeves and busboy-ed for three hours straight.
“Honey,” Jeanne said, her ponytail bobbing in appreciation. “You want a job?”
He decided he wanted to stay.
“You’re serious,” Sam said through his toothbrush, blinking at Dean in the bathroom mirror. “You wanna stay here?”
It was earnest and not at all mocking, his gaze, and it made Dean’s gut go squirmy. “I mean,” he said, defensive, “it’s not like forever, or anything. But it might be nice to be in one place for a while. You know.”
Sam grinned, toothpaste drooling down his chin like a rabid, happy dog. “Right,” he minty foamed everywhere. “For a while.”
“Dude, seriously. Spit,” Dean said, edging away from the spray. “Yuck.”
Sam came up, still smiling. “Hey, if you get the job, man, then sure. I’m game.”
“Um,” Dean said, shooting a hand through his hair. “I kind of already did. I’m, uh. Starting on Friday.”
Sam laughed, the double-barrel one that Dean fucking loved. “You sneaky dick,” he said, swatting Dean’s arm. “What if I’d said no?”
Dean smacked him right back. “I knew you wouldn’t.”
Sam hit the switch. “Sneaky, presumptuous dick,” he said, crowding Dean out of the doorway. “Sheesh.”
“Hey, see if I let you use my employee discount now, bitch.”
Sam surprised him, grabbed him by the elbows and shook him, lit up like klieg light. Dean went with it, let himself be rattled like a bb in a coffee can until Sam’s hands got tight, even as his smile went soft.
“Dean,” he said. “Hey. This is a great idea. Really. Thanks.”
His eyes did that thing where they went from green to brown while Dean watched, and unsettling and beautiful weren’t ideas he’d associated with Sam, ever, but they were the only ones he could think of that fit.
“Sure,” he said after what felt like forever. “Sure, Sammy. You’re welcome.”
Sam shook him again, just a little tremor. “I’m gonna call Bobby, ok? Tell him where we are.”
“Yeah, ok,” Dean said, but Sam had already let him go.
This early, there’s no traffic on 15, so Dean zips across without waiting for the light. He cuts around the back to the employee entrance by the dumpster, and shoves his hand in his pocket, shuffling around for his key.
Last night, he’d gotten lost watching his hands slide over Sam’s body. There’d been moments when he couldn’t believe that the hands making Sam writhe, that made him say Dean’s name, low and secret, and come all over Dean’s face—they were his.
He remembered resting those hands on Sam’s knees, could see them tracing long lines up his thighs, thumbs curving around the base of his cock as Sam pounded the sheets, thrashing like a dark wild horse and groaning: “Suck me, Dean, c’mon, please, suck my cock you stupid son of a bitch—!”
Those hands, the ones working Sammy, they’d been so fucking sure; not like now, when he’s fumbling over the damn lock, struggling to turn the fucking key until the ancient door gives enough for him to stumble inside.
The kitchen’s cold, calm and orderly like it won’t be in an hour. In an hour, it’ll be chaos barely controlled, with food flying out faster than Maureen can plate it and Dean scooting out to the tables as quick as he can.
He loves it when it’s like that, Loretta’s, when it’s so busy all he has to do is move and smile and pour coffee, when the worst that could happen is somebody’s eggs come out over-easy instead of over-hard, or they run out nickels and dimes.
Or if he’s late.
“You’re late,” Maureen says without turning around. She’s wearing purple today, the deep kind the color of plums. It makes her steel-grey hair look like ice.
“Yeah,” he says, reaching for his apron. “Sorry. Yes, ma’am. I know.”
Maureen snorts and stabs at the first pancakes of the day; the test subjects, she always calls them. They’re fat and still runny, Dean can see, which means she beat him here by maybe five minutes, tops, and that means she can’t be that mad.
“Good morning,” he says as he passes.
She rolls her eyes only, doesn’t speak, and it’s exactly why he likes opening with her: no need for bullshit, this early. Only room for what has to be done.
He pushes into the dining room and starts hitting the lights: the ones above the counter, the lamps that hang over the tables, all except the neon sign out front. That he’ll put on right at six.
It’s a small place, Loretta’s: a counter and five four-tops lined up in the lip of the windows. Officially, they can seat eight at the counter, but most days, they stack them three deep when the high school kids stream in after practice, the boys with wet curls from the shower, the girls with sly smiles that belie the fresh lipstick and the yes ma’ams they throw at Jeanne.
And it’s a matter of something that’s changed in him or maybe the world that Dean doesn’t mind that most of the girls ignore him, say please andthank you because their mommas raised them right, real polite, but their eyes skip over him the same way they slide across the menu that’s pasted high on the wall, the one that hasn’t changed in as much time as they’ve been alive. Just a glance to make sure nothing’s really different at Loretta’s; no, it’s just some guy behind the counter who slings sodas and refills the ketchup. Nothing worth noting at all.
Dean finds that he likes waiting on them, though, likes keeping track of their weird mating rituals that he doesn’t totally get. The kids, they spend a lot of time touching, pressed hip to thigh with the One of the moment, giggling and finding excuses to smooch. But there are also phones involved, text messages tapped out in time with the Isley Brothers on the jukebox and pictures snapped of what looks to him to be garbage: the last two bites of a burger, for instance; a teepee build from French fries, some busted-up packets of jam. Dean’s not sure how any of that leads to getting laid, exactly, but it must, because when the kids come in from a weekend, the girl-boy cards have been reshuffled, new hickeys not quite hidden that match the new couples who’re learning to balance up on the same stool.
So Dean doesn’t mind them, the kids, even if they are lousy tippers, which is good, because if she has any choice, Jeanne won’t go near them.
There’s something about kids that makes her uneasy. She’s 35, Jeanne, looks even younger with her hair up, but she’s more of an old lady than Maureen, who’s got three decades, two ex-husbands, and a kid on her, easy. Hell, Jeanne gives Mrs. Furley a run for her money in that department, too, with the way she fusses that the high school kids are too loud and indecorous and don’t know how to sit still, the way she sighs about the collapse of western civilization, practically; at least the little piece in downtown Gordonsville.
But then, Jeanne gets twitchy when Dean checks his phone during working hours, even if he’s on his break, so most days, he takes her outrage with a big handful of salt.
He puts on the coffee and sets out clean forks and knives and napkins, starts winding them so Loretta’s name curls over the handles just right. It’s soothing, this time of the morning; a familiar, repetitive motion that keeps his hands busy and lets his mind meander.
Sometimes, when he does this, he’ll think about breakfast, about how much bacon Maureen will let him steal before she slaps his hand with the spatula. Sometimes, he’ll think about the movie they’re going to see this weekend or the thing he read about Afghanistan or the hesitation in the engine he swears he can still feel in the Impala, despite the love her gave her last week.
This morning, though, something’s different, he is, because all he wants to think about is Sam.
It’s done something to his brother, being settled, being normal, for this many months; the absence of endless miles of asphalt, the disappearance of the fear and the blood, it’s poured something back into Sam that Dean didn’t know had been missing.
It’s not just that he laughs again, now, or that the lines in his face that sprang up after Stanford have finally started to fade. It’s the way that he walks, practically ambles, like there’s nowhere he has to be. It’s the way he sings when he’s cooking, always loudest when he doesn’t know the words, a baritone wail that sounds like a cello with walking pneumonia. Hell, Dean doesn’t fucking care. He’ll lean over and turn up the radio, just to hear Sam try to ape Shakira or god forbid, Will Smith, because chef controls the music and Dean shuts his cakehole, happily, and if that means that he’s learned all the words to “Hips Don’t Lie,” by god, so be it.
He’s still a pain in the ass, most days, is Sam. He still whines when Dean squeezes the toothpaste too hard and bitches when the milk goes bad and laughs like a freaking cheetah whenever Dean loses his keys.
All the shit with Jess and the yellow-eyed dick notwithstanding, he’s still Dean’s little brother. He’s still Sam.
But even before last night, before they made love in Dean’s bed, he’s been there lately in a way that Dean doesn’t remember seeing before. Sam was the one who found the apartment, for instance; the one who haunted Goodwill and the YMCA out in Louisa to furnish the place semi-well. He’s the one who keeps track of their work schedules on a big Mom-style calendar in the kitchen, the one who makes nice with Mrs. Furley, the one who write the rent check and who renews Dean’s library books every time Dean forgets.
He’s still Sam, yeah, but he’s become something else to Dean, too.
Just before Thanksgiving, Sam got a job over at Chesley’s, the hardware store on Princess Anne, and ever since, whenever Dean’s working the day shift, Sam’ll drift over to the diner on his break, just as the lunch rush is ending. Sometimes, if it’s not busy, Dean’ll sit with him, steal his French fries and shoot the breeze. But most days, Sam talks to Saul and his buddies, to the old dude crew that holds up the counter, practically, from 8 am until 2.
He’s gotten really good, Sam has, at talking like he lives here, like a local: chewing over the Redskins’ latest fuckup or the terrible weather or what the morning’s been like down at Chesley’s—who’s adding onto their deck and who’s repainting their den. Who should have reshingled last winter.
It’s boring as hell, that kind of conversation, bordering on inconsequential, and yet Sam, he seems to love every second.
One bitter day in January, the counter’d been collectively fussing about George Armstrong, debating why the hell the man wanted to test drive a new riding mower when there was still half a foot of snow on the ground.
“Now granted,” Saul said through a toothpick, “we’re talking ‘bout the same man who wears long johns in July.”
Tommy, one of Saul’s buddies from the city council, tapped his mug on the counter, clucking his tongue. “Naw,” he said. “C’mon. That ain’t true.”
Saul bobbed his bald head, authoritative. “Yup. Seen him myself. Strolling right past the ABC store in short pants with thermals there underneath.” He sat back and gave Sam a look. “Gotta wonder about stuff like that, son, I tell ya. You gotta wonder.”
Sam laughed, leaned back and cackled like he had his whole life, like Dean’d seen him do a thousand times, but this time—
This time, watching his brother laugh, his shoulders loose and his face so fucking bright, Dean wanted to kiss him, wanted to touch him so bad that it hurt.
The feeling had overwhelmed him, surprised him, and he’d had to hold onto the register, had to focus on the coins in the drawer for fear of leaping over the counter and crowding up in Sam’s space. He wanted to sweep the sawdust from his brother’s shoulders, to bury his face in Sam’s chest and breathe in the lavender detergent that made their clothes smell like spring.
He wanted to lick the salt from Sam’s lips, to break the line that’d always held them apart.
He wanted Sam to kiss him back.
After a moment, the feeling eased, like a wave falling back from the shore, but it hadn’t gone away.
In fact, over the winter—the long, long months of cold dark and wet—there were moments, more and more of them, spreading like kudzu, when it was all he could not to reach out, not to say something to Sam, not to touch.
Sam tearing through the bureau and grumbling about his missing socks. Sam padding around in his bare feet before bed. Sam arguing with a cookbook over appropriate roasting times. Sam kicking his ass at Wii Tennis and running around the apartment like he’d won fucking Wimbledon, yelling in a bad British accent until he ran out of breath.
All those Sams. Dozens more. Dean had wanted to kiss every one.
And then, last night—
He checks the clock over the jukebox. 15 minutes until he can unlock the front door and turn on the sign.
He pours Maureen a cup of coffee, two sugars. Puts it on the pass-through and leans in, breathes in the bacon, the smell of fried potatoes.
“Home fries up in a minute,” she says, meeting his eye. “Want a plate, or should I just put out a trough?”
Dean shakes his head. “Maybe later.”
She frowns. “Hold up. You sick?”
“Nah, I just—gonna go out for a cig first, I think.”
This is something else they agree on: the necessity of nicotine this early in the damn morning.
“Ok,” she says. “Take you some coffee, too. Look like you were up late.”
“Yeah,” Dean says, ignoring his blush. “Yeah. Guess I was.”
Outside, he edges away from the dumpster and stares up the railroad tracks. It’s late enough now that the sun is up there, still hidden by the horizon, but casting out lines of light this way and that. Sometimes, this is the best part of the day, when it’s quiet and still, when there’s nothing to do but take a deep breath of tobacco before the breakfast rush. To drink his coffee.
To think about Sam.
Dean takes a long drag and sees Sam in the yard last night. He’s on his knees in the dirt and all around him are little green pots, each holding a long stem crowned with purple flowers.
He hadn’t looked up when Dean came through the gate, his eyes focused on the plant stakes he was setting out, just so. He’d been wearing his work jeans, the ones with paint and dirt long since ground in. An old undershirt that was too tight across his shoulders. The first stirrings of a farmer’s tan.
He’d looked really happy, going all Poison Ivy on the front yard. Pretty fucking content.
Dean had settled on the front step and watched him work for a while, not saying a thing, not wanting to wreck Sammy’s Zen. It was nice, sitting out there, anyway; the air on this side of warm and the sun fucking radiant as it eased its way east, as he listened to Sam sing to his plants.
But his brother broke the spell, fished out a tape measure and double-checked his work like a kid with an algebra problem, making sure the flowers were lined up just so, and Dean couldn’t help but needle.
“Do plants grow better in a straight line, dude? I don’t think they know about vectors or anything.”
Sam looked up with a grin. “No,” he said, “but they do need to be spaced out, you know. So they have, like, enough room to grow. So they don’t get all tangled up.”
Dean’s face broke in a yawn. “Sure, sure,” he said. “Whatever. You’re the expert here, Mr. Greenjeans.”
“But see,” Sam said. “These flowers? They’re irises. They’re perennials.”
“Uh huh,” Dean said, not pretending to care.
Sam huffed. “So,” he said, shuffling towards Dean on his knees. “Dude. That means they’ll come up every year. Like, once I’ve planted ‘em, unless something comes along and digs them up, every spring, boom. They’ll bloom.” He smiled, small and sweet. “Every year, they’ll always be here.”
“Oh,” Dean said.
Sam blinked down at him, his lips twitching. “So it’s extra important that I plant them right,” he said, slowly, like maybe Dean was hard of hearing. “You know, since this is where they’re gonna stay.”
Dean leaned back on his hands and squinted up into his brother’s face. “Yeah. Plants usually do that, Sam. They don’t tend to get up and walk away. This isn’t some Doctor Who shit.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Sam said.
Sam shot up and grabbed him, dragged him into the house in three steps.
“Hey,” Dean said, “what the—?”
In four, he’d slammed the door and pressed Dean against it with one hand, just hard enough to say stay.
“Do I have to draw you a map?” Sam said, annoyance tinged with affection. “Seriously? Maybe I should have gone with a big blinking sign.” He touched Dean’s cheek with big, careful fingers, the same ones that had gentled each flower into the ground. “Or maybe a blimp.”
Dean’s brain finally caught up with his body, with the way Sam was touching him, with the way he was touching Sam back.
“Blimp,” he said faintly, lifting his head. “Always wanted to see one of those.”
Sam moaned, a little ghost of a sound, and leaned down, his mouth wrapped around a kiss.
Somehow, Dean stopped him. Laid his hand on Sam’s face and held them both still.
“If you hate it,” Dean said, hot and hoarse, dragging the words over Sam’s chin, “if it’s awful, we don’t have to. We can stop. We can always go back.”
“No,” Sam said, gentle. “I’m pretty sure that we can’t.”
Dean nips at the filter and rolls over Sam’s mouth in his mind: the way it shivered that first time they kissed, pitched against the front door; the way it lifted when they were upstairs, when Sam’s hands were all over his skin; the way it whispered dirty, loving filth in Dean’s ear, one fist on Dean’s cock and the other in his hair as they lay side-by-side on the bed.
“God, Dean,” he said. “I want you to fuck me. Would you like that? Huh? Put me on my belly and pound me into the mattress until I shoot all over your bed, get my spunk all over your sheets. How’s that sound? You wanna fuck me like that?
“Jesus god,” Dean gasped, scrabbling at Sam’s chest. “Fuck. Yes.”
Sam hummed and shifted a little, enough so Dean could feel his brother’s dick, fat and happy again, pressing anxious into his thigh.
“Yeah, you feel that? Yeah, you do, huh? Fuck, baby. Want you inside me so bad.”
Dean groaned like a freight train and came everywhere, his hips flying up as Sam kept at it, kept stroking, jerking out every spurt as Dean squirmed and moaned in his face.
Then they were kissing and Sam was on top of him, beating off as Dean pulled his long, stupid curls and squeezed his ass, crooning: “Good boy. Come on, Sammy. Jerk that pretty cock for me.”
Dean can see it now, clear as the oncoming day: Sam was right.
They can’t go back.
And son of a bitch, is Dean glad.
He’s stomping out his cig when his phone rings.
“Dude,” Sam says through a mouthful of mothballs. “You’re not here.”
Dean closes his eyes, swaying under the weight of his smile. “I’m opening this week. Remember? You put it on your stupid calendar.”
Sam yawns like a tiger. “No,” he says. “Sorry. Forgot.”
It’s a normal conversation between them, boring as hell and bordering on inconsequential and Dean loves every damn second.
Because this morning, they’re something different.
Sam makes a shy little noise, and Dean can picture him like he was an hour ago, spread out all over the bed. “I—I woke up and you weren’t here.”
Dean lets that sit for a second. Once, that kind of fear might’ve made sense, but no way. Not after last night.
“You didn’t think I left, did you?” he says. “Really? One night with your dick scared me the fuck out of town? Man. Ego much?”
Sam laughs. “Nah. Not hardly. Just”—he makes that noise again, but this time it’s not so shy—“wish you’d woken me up, is all.”
Dean boots a rock over the tracks, his heart twisting in pleasant, hot knots. “You whisper a single note of fucking Wham, Sammy, I’m comin’ home to beat your ass now.”
“Promise?” Sam slurs, dark and dirty, and it’s cheesy, maybe, a cheap come-on, for sure, but god, Dean wants to drown in that voice.
“Um,” he says, blushing. “Dunno. Maybe. We’ll see.”
The crossing gate over the tracks shoots down, all of a sudden, and then the railroad signal is blaring, banging away like a little kid with a drum. In the distance, faint, Dean can hear the locomotive, the six o’clock train that’s rushing this way. Right on time.
“Gotta go,” he says, ducking back towards the building. “See you at lunch?”
“Yeeessss,” his brother says through a stretch Dean can feel over the phone. “’K. See ya then.”
The first cars are passing before Dean can get to the door. The train, it’s barreling forward, no way to go back, and for now, that’s just where Dean wants to be.
He zips inside, through the kitchen and the dining room, and hits the switch for the sign. A couple of folks he doesn’t know are already out front on the sidewalk, and they light up when he opens the door.
“Good mornin’,” he says. “Welcome to Loretta’s. Why don’t y’all come on inside?”