Dean died three weeks after Sam's funeral. What sixty-four bullets, a stint in prison, bitches, burnings, booze, and general ignorance could not accomplish, a broken heart surely could.
The second time Dean died, he was discussing nihilism with a bunch of Santa Muerte cultists before they stole his wallet and shot him in the head.
The third time...well, we'll get to that.
Nobody had asked about Sam's death, so Dean kept him in his room for a day or two before setting the bed on fire. He sent letters to the right people and retreated to the Bunker, covering every inch of the bedroom floor with roses and candles and black crucifixes and pretending Sam was asleep beside him.
Wavering candles animated the shadows in his face. The Beatles sang on the radio.
"Standing alone at the top of the stairs
She breaks down and cries to her husband,
'Daddy, our baby's gone."
A tear rolled over the bridge of Dean's nose into the pillow.
Before the funeral, he disabled the wards on John's lockbox and pulled out his leather jacket. It still smelled like the old man. Dean never washed it.
A utility knife lay on the workbench. Thunder rolled outside as he cut out the jacket lining and exposed the leather, piecing together the sleeves and the collar and even the pockets along dotted lines until he had a map of Tierra de los Muertos-the Mexican Land of the Dead.
He burned that too.
El Paso. Dean died in the dark, in the last of a string of sad bars. The waitress was telling a joke when a storm had knocked out the power, and ten minutes later the lights came back on and he didn't.
He didn't realize he was dead until he was standing before a Juarez toll booth with all his bones were showing. Like a 3-D comic. Shut your left eye and see a man, shut your right eye and see a skeleton.
Death number one. It's gonna be a good day. He dropped a dollar and the bar rose.
Welcome to Juarez.
If Heaven was all clean white lines then Ciudad de los Muertos was a crayon box, every building a different color, music from every open window, enough food to sate an army, and then more food when he turned the corner.
He reached downtown a few hours later, exhausted, trying to square the map in his head with the topography around him. He kept an ear out for gossip, asking the locals if they'd seen Sam, and later he caught sight of two figures watching him from the distance but they vanished before he got a good look.
The cafe didn't look open. Hooded lamps hung over the bar, with flyers for hookers, freelance bodyguards, and cheap pine boxes beside the bathroom door. Dean didn't recognize any of the patrons.
There was a wanted poster for Sam in the men's room. In the picture, his face was painted Sugar Skull-style with a long list of charges underneath: murder, demonic possessions, near-extinction events, etc.
Someone had scrawled SEED GUNS 666-555-2875 on the mirror. The hell is a seed gun? Dean thought. He asked the bartender if she'd seen Sam.
"So you're the extra dinner."
Dean smiled tentatively. "The what?"
"There's a man who comes in every night and buys two dinners, but only eats one of them. He's been waiting for you to die." She leaned forward so their faces almost touched, a snake coiling out of her empty socket to flick it's tongue at his cheek. "He's being watched."
Leaving the cafe, Dean passed a framed sign with an arrow pointing at a door that read PROPITIATION OF SINS IN DESIGNATED AREA ONLY, and, finding the door unlocked, he went inside.
The Department of Death was painted in institutional grays, with plastic chairs and magazines fanned across the table. A radio played mariachi music. The clerk was away on break, her cubicle bare except for a computer, a phone, some print-outs, and a wall calendar with Sam as Mister October.
He picked up the clerk's phone and was about to dial the Operator when he paused with his finger over the rotary and noticed an enormous handprint on the glass partition, as if someone had leaned against it from the other side while trying to reach in. Sam's handprint?
He called Sam's number. It picked up on the first ring, and Dean was treated to the sound of ripping paper and the clink of a spoon against china. Sam must have been drinking coffee wherever he was.
Picking the cubicle lock with a nail clipper, Dean sat down at the computer and typed a few keys and the HQS (Heaven Quality Standards) logo appeared on the screen. He typed Sam's name in the database and a long form scrolled past.
Name: Sam Winchester
SIN (Soul Identification Number): 93659269-B
Year Model: 1983
What's Gold status? he thought.
"Applicants whose transgressions do not exceed 90 percent of their median life events are eligible to participate in our Express Gold Ticket program.
After an applicant is placed on the waiting list, a suitable chaperone will be assigned and the HQS (Heaven Quality Standards) will expedite travel papers depending on your departure date (post-Apocalypse processing fees may apply)."
Okay, but where am I? he thought.
He typed in his name next.
Name: Dean Winchester
SIN (Soul Identification Number): 93659269-A
Year Model: 1979
Status: Section 6
What's Section 6? he thought.
"Section 6: Applicant whose transgressions exceeded 50 percent of their median life events.
Depending on the seriousness of the Section 6 applicant's violation, HQS may impose additional conditions, such as placing the offender on probation, or sending them back to an Intermediate Sanction Facility until a trial may be appointed (see appendix B on the Judeo-Christian Apocalypse)."
Whoa! What else is there? he thought.
"Probation: Community service, chaperone for applicant #93659269-B.
Disclosure: Despite Vatican pardons, Section 6 applicants are still considered a transmission risk. Any physical contact with others may result in contamination and ultimately Final Death."
Of course Sam's getting the fast pass to Heaven. he thought. Dean didn't begrudge him this, not after all the damage he'd done.
Dean went through his pockets and realized he didn't have anything of Sam's. Not a photo, not a note, not even a fake name on a gas receipt. For some reason this made him indescribably sad.
He left and crossed the street back to the cafe where he found Sam slumped in a stool at the far end, asleep, beside two mugs of coffee gone cold. A game of solitaire lays to one side. Dean ached to touch him.
Sam came to a little later and reached for Dean's hand before his eyes were all the way open. "You're wearing the ring again."
Dean pulled his hand away. "Yeah I...figured there'd be some frosty Stellas waiting for us up here and bottle openers are never where you need them, so..."
Sam opened his eyes. He knew when Dean was lying, but let it slide. "You wanna clean up first? I got a room down the street."
"Yeah let's go."
On the way to the hotel Dean shared what he knew about Sam's ticket, leaving out the details of his Section 6 status.
"Dean, I don't have a ticket."
"What do you mean you don't have it?"
"I mean I showed up at that office downtown and the lady said my ticket had already been claimed."
Dean scratched his neck. "That's...whatever, we'll figure this out once we get to the train station. You didn't steal a car while you were waiting by chance, cuz this place is way out in the middle of nowhere."
For answer, Sam pointed to a 1985 Volvo parked in the street. "Oh hell no Sammy we're not going to Paradise in a math teacher car."
Dean almost slipped and said You're not going to Paradise.
Sam smiled. It hit Dean's heart like an ice pick. "Whatever you wanna do. Doesn't matter to me, so long as I can ride shotgun."
The Hotel Rivera stood at the edge of the desert, a train rolling through the backlit clouds without any tracks. Street musicians played a corrido, the song echoing in the mountains a second later as though a second distant guitarist was playing in call-and-response. It sounded unspeakably lonely.
Sam bought a copy of the local newspaper at the front desk, carefully scanning for anything suspicious while Dean wandered toward the TV in the lobby and flopped down on a sofa. The options were pretty dire. He flipped between telenovelas and a dubbed episode of Dating Naked before giving up and climbing the stairs to their room.
Dean knew there was someone by the window before he turned the lock. Moonlight cut across the man's lap so that he was little more than a well-dressed silhouette and the red cherry of his cigarette when he inhaled, and when Dean twisted the lamp switch on and off he got nothing. He reached for his gun.
"I got bad news for you Mister Winchester."
"I brought a gun too."
The man pointed and Dean's eye followed to a darkened window across the street, to the glint of a rifle sight.
"Okay. You have my attention Mister..."
"Funny, you don't have a Mexican accent."
"Not only Mexicans are in the train business Mister Winchester."
"How do you like my accent now?"
Verde exhaled and the smoke broke apart around him. "I know a sailor who dates a girl who works for a known dealer of train tickets. Maybe the phone rings and you get the name of that sailor."...
"That's a lot of maybe."
"It's the only kind you'll get. You put in a good word with the dealer that I'm a nice guy and could use a ticket myself and we're square."
"Am I what?"
"A nice guy?"
A phone rang downstairs. Verde tapped his ashes on the carpet. "You gonna answer that?"
"What do I tell this sailor when I find him?"
Smoke coiled in the moonlight and Dean could hear him smile. "Tell him the Long and the Short need a ride home."
Dean turned to listen as Sam answered the phone, and when he turned back the lace curtains fluttered over an empty chair. The window across the street was empty.
He plugged the lamp back in and lay down right as Sam entered. "Hey Dean, you up for something weird?"
Dean pinched his nose. "Whatcha got?"
"I just got a wrong number asking if I was the next of kin for an Officer Fernando Marquez."
Sam held up a set of dog tags. "Marines."
Dean stared at the empty chair in the corner. Smoke clung to the ceiling in a thin fog. "Someone left those for you at the front desk?"
"Yeah. And check this, Marquez has shown up twice in the police blotter for scalping fake train tickets. If he's dead..."
"...then something's up. Alright then. Couldn't hurt to check on our pal at the local morgue, right?"
There was only one bed in this room. Sam lay down beside Dean rubbing his face in exhausted yawns. "We don't have to leave right away, unless you're up for it."
Dean's eyes lingered down the length of Sam's body, to the inch of exposed belly where Sam's shirt had ridden up. "Yeah let's get some sleep."
Sam smiled. "Why you looking at me like that?"
"Nothing just...remembering something is all."
1998. Sam spent his fifteenth birthday locked in a hotel room with porn, whiskey, and a black eye after John caught him getting to third base with a vampire. The boys drank through their supply in a single weekend, working up a bender that had them jumping on the bed to every tape Dean owned from Bowie to Billy Idol.
The fun lasted until John called, saying the hunt would take him to Oregon and under no circumstances was Sam to go out with his bites showing.
"Hey Sammy I made you a mix tape."
"Oh cool! What's on it?"
Sam popped it in his Walkman and the bed sank as they shared a pair of headphones. What a crappy hotel. Dean thought. He'd brought a hairdresser named Lake Edna here last month when John and Sam were out, her title given on account of getting so wet that she'd soaked the mattress even when he'd flipped it over. He wondered if Sam ever noticed.
Sam's nose wrinkled. "These are all love songs."
"No they're not, they're AWESOME."
Rain slid down the window. Dean didn't see any bites on Sam's neck, but then maybe they were elsewhere on him.
The first song ended. Dean caught Sam staring at him and then looking away quickly. "Hey Dean you ever see that hairdresser?"
"Uh, ha, yeah why?"
"You think we could call her?"
"It's almost midnight."
"I mean, I could, what are you thinking?"
"I dunno, I just...she seemed..."
Sam laughed. "Yeah."
"She would totally make out with you."
"Come on, how picky are you?"
Sam smiled and bit his lower lip.
"So Sam I gotta ask."
"What were you doing with that vampire?"
Sam stopped the tape player and folded his arm under his head. "I didn't know she was-"
"Hey man that's cool, she looked hot."
"It was so stupid, I mean did John tell you?"
"Not all of it."
"The library kicked me out at eight and she was in the parking lot with a dead battery."
Dean clucked his tongue. "You should've called a tow truck."
"Yeah I know."
"Did she try and fight?"
"No. No I wish. She got us sitting in the backseat to stay warm and started crying about how expensive the repairs would be and it was her boyfriend's car and he beat the crap out of her last time.
"She saw you coming."
"It was annoying after a while, she kept playing the same Patsy Cline song over and over."
"Oh well then."
"Yeah. I just...she looked so normal. And then she took her shirt off in front of me."
"Hey Sam come on, you couldn't have known."
"Like I've...I've never been...with another person...when they're naked."
Sam didn't look at Dean. "I wasn't gonna do anything with her at first, I just wanted to...be there. You know? To see her. To see how different another person could look."
Sam rolled on his back and studied the ceiling. In the last few days he's taken to cutting thumb holes in all his sweaters so the sleeves covered the bottom half of his hands.
"Did she bite your wrist?"
Sam looked back at him. Bingo. Dean thought. "Dang Sammy, Dad's being way hard-ass about this, you can totally walk around with that. That's easy to hide."
"No I don't think that's a good idea."
"Dad's right, I shouldn't..."
Sam closed his eyes. "I've been having this dreams. They're really messed up, I'm in bed..."
Sam ran a flat hand slowly up his chest and around his throat as if to cut off his own air. "...and I can feel her."
His fingers pressed into the soft flesh beneath his jaw. "She says she can't be alone."
You shouldn't be looking. Dean thought, He's drunk. Sam's hips lifted ever so slightly off the bed, his bare feet pointing down and shirt riding up over his waistband. He's hard.
John's phone message came back to Dean. You will do...whatever it takes...to keep Sam in that room.
There was a patch of exposed belly above Sam's waistband. Dean took a shaky breath and tentatively reached out and drew a line across it with his finger and Sam arched beneath his touch as if electrified. His skin was smooth and feverish.
Sam put his face very close to Dean's. "She's here," Sam whispered, "She's in the hotel."
"How do you know that?"
A laughing couple passed their room right as headlights flipped to life and cast their shadows against the window blinds. The man walked toward the car and asked if the driver needed a doctor a second before a wet meat sound and an explosion that left a bloody outline of his girlfriend on the hotel window.
Dean waited for her to run but she was frozen. She didn't have enough air in her lungs to scream.
Dean's hand covered Sam's mouth as they walked backwards and curled up in the bathtub with a gun in his hand and Sam's fevered cheek pressed against Dean's chest. John took the good weapons, but all those hard ceramic edges would be their friend in a fight.
"Shhh she'll hear you."
"She can already hear me."
Dean pulled the shower curtain shut. Somewhere in the parking lot, a song began to play.
"Two cigarettes in an ashtray..."
They listened to the girlfriend die, after which someone shouldered the front door and snapped the chain out of the plaster on the third try. Sam's nails slid up Dean's shirt and dug hard, ankle wrapped around his leg, his sweat sharp with the tang of teenage desperation. Sam wanted to go to her. He wouldn't leave Dean.
The lights in the parking lot winked out. Dean was helpless against Sam's hot weight in the tub. A door creaked. Dean thumbed back the hammer. The shower head dripped warm water on his cheek as floorboards creaked and the room filled with the stink of blood.
"I don't want to die Dean."
Fat tears ran down Sam's face.
A bloody hand reached for the shower curtain.
"We'll be together in Heaven."
It didn't feel like a first kiss. It wasn't sloppy or demanding like the hundred other girls Dean had taken in the car. It was like they'd been listening to the noise between radio stations all their lives and have just now turned the dial to the correct frequency.
The shower curtain ripped away and Dean plugged six bullets into the vampire's face and kept clicking on empty when she didn't fall back. It didn't matter. He was happy. He was ready to die.
And then as if summoned by magic, John materialized behind her with a machete and lopped her head off, hitting Dean in the face with arterial spray. The body took another step like the proverbial chicken and then slumped on the tiles inside it's clothes.
John wiped the blade on his jeans. "You got two minutes, someone's already phoned the cops."
Sam looked at John, looked at the body, looked at Dean. "Dad was supposed to be in Oregon."
John was already emptying drawers of clothes into suitcases.
"He was here in town the whole time."
"Sammy I didn't know-"
"Was I bait?"
Dean didn't have an answer. Not because he knew for sure but because it wouldn't surprise him. Sam took his silence for a 'yes' and pushed away, his eyes hard now.
"Help me pack."
Present. They arrived at the hospital in disguise, where the mortician found Officer Sam Wesson manhandling Nurse Dean Smith over an unidentified dead Marine.
"Officer, I can't pull the files, it's patient privacy."
Sam grabbed Dean's upper arm. His nails dug deep but for some reason Dean didn't mind. "I don't need a warrant to trash your office, so if won't comply-"
The mortician interrupted. "Can I be of some assistance?
The morgue was low-budget, wooden slats over barrels for drying out bodies, bubbling beakers, books up to the ceiling, and a bleached skull with a candle on top. Dean fondled the skull. "Shakespearean gig you got here."
"What was that?"
"Oh, um, Officer Wesson here wanted to see the file on our latest DOA."
"I'm afraid you won't find anything of note. Pills in his stomach and a blood-alcohol content of .42. Is there a criminal investigation?"
"Man you gotta get this cop off my back, I got a record and..."
Dean kept him distracted, inventing a wild tale of past run-ins he'd had with the law while Sam scanned the doctor's desk and glimpsed a girl's phone number written beside Fernando's name.
The doctor squinted through his bifocals. "My eyesight is just the pits, I need new prescription glasses. Ah, now Officer...hey where did he go?"
"Must be Free Doughnut Day, I'll go check and see."
The phone number picked up right away, the woman asking how to direct Dean's call in the mechanized tone that top-tier whorehouse madames reserved for trash like him. He resisted the temptation to woo her with a quote from Casa Erotica 23. She put him on hold.
Dean held the receiver against his shoulder. "She's transferring me to Fernando's girlfriend."
"Awesome. Hopefully she works in a nicer neighborhood than this place."
Dean looked around. The wind blew sandwich wrappers along the street and most of the cars have been stripped. Sam filled the doorway of the phone booth to stay warm beside him. Has he always looked that good in a police uniform? Dean thought.
Fernando's girlfriend worked the high society circles at a local casino, so they stashed the Volvo and rolled up to the curb in a stolen BMW. Security gave their bluejeans the side eye but put them down as "new money" and gestured them both inside.
"Okay Sammy, you get us some drinks, I'm gonna meet with this lady at the coat check."
"I don't have anything on me."
Sam took Dean's wallet from his back pocket and pulled a twenty and put the wallet back, all with a wordless familiarity that drew hungry looks from the old bankers waiting their turn outside the 'Asian Massage' room. Dean stared back until they looked away.
Dean caught himself singing Patsy Cline on the way to the coat check. Sometimes he dreamed he and Sam were back in that same shabby little hotel, though the corners always warped if he looked at them too hard. All the furniture was pushed against the door and he and Sam are making out in the bath tub like minks in the heat of the rut. Details came and went but always, always, Sam was wearing Dean's ring.
Shouldn't you be working the case? Dean thought.
He dinged the service bell and a pasty clerk conferred with him a minute before disappearing and reappearing behind a sliding wall panel. He guided Dean through racks of fur coats until they arrived at a large crack in a brick wall and the clerk left him alone. Dean peered through the crack. A heavily made-up eye peered back.
"You Fernando's girlfriend?"
"Keep your voice down."
"I need information."
"The golden kind."
"What do I get?"
Dean rattled Fernando's dog tags.
"Push them through the mail slot."
He looked over at a nearby door and dropped the tags through. High heels clicked on the other side, followed by a muffled sob.
"Mi hermoso chico...how did...did he say anything in the end?"
"...he said your name."
She cried really hard, she'd been holding it in for so long. Sometimes it's okay to lie. Dean told himself.
The eye returned, but this time the mascara was smeared and there were little flecks of fire in the iris. "What do you want?"
"Someone stole my brother's train ticket. I heard you might know something about it."
"There's a nightclub in Rubacava, the Blue Coffin. A lot of traffic goes through there. Act like you're looking to buy but have cash on hand. It won't be cheap."
"Last thing, you ever heard of two guys go by the name the Long and the Short?"
She turned away. "You're just a little boy. What do you want with people like that?"
By the time Dean returned Sam was on fire at the blackjack table, and after a few well-played hands the casino manager took them into the back office, begrudgingly handed Sam a suitcase full of cash, then pulled his gun and fired shots out the open window screaming for the police. The boys stumbled out the emergency exit and burned rubber right as the blue flashing lights rounded the corner, and that was the last they saw of Juarez.
Days passed. Desert clouds rolled by, red, orange, purple, but it never rained. Gas stations were spaced out every two hundred miles so they switched the BMW for a chopper, though the lack of alcohol would kill Dean faster than that desolate moonscape and whatever predators lived here.
Eventually a storm drifted their way, the rain hanging in the distance like an old woman's hair, and Sam climbed off the motorcycle itching for a drink and a shower and a clean shirt.
Dean eyed the mile marker. "That nightclub should be another hundred and sixty miles, if we wanna get there before dark."
Sam tilted his head to let Dean know he was listening, then pulled off his shirt one-handed and lay it flat on the asphalt. Dean swiveled his head in either direction. It had been days since he'd last seen another car. When he looked again, Sam was spread-eagled on the road with his eyes shut right as the first sheet of rain hit.
"Holy shit it's cold!" Sam opened one eye and smiled. "Come on!"
Dean lay a good arms-length away and told roadkill jokes as wave upon wave of rain washed the dust away. Sam's fingers stretched toward Dean but did not touch. His teeth glowed white when he laughed.
The rain thinned to a drizzle, and Dean had to say Sam's name several times before he woke up. "Get out the bedrolls, we could use the rest while it's still cool."
Sam nodded and staggered to make camp in the shadow of a creosote hedge. The shapes they left are pale against the wet black road, like two chalk outlines at the scene of a crime. They would last perhaps another hour. Dean waited until Sam was tucked in asleep.
The asphalt got so hot so fast in this place. Dean lay down in Sam's rain shadow and closed his eyes, listening for the black clouds behind him before he fell to dreaming.
The dream changed with time, but always started with Dean naked under a blanket. Most girls were happy to facilitate such a vanilla fantasy, heads framed against the hotel TV light as their hands mapped Dean's body in the dark. Some would even go the extra mile and wear his ring.
In this dream, it was Sam's fifteenth birthday and he lay beside Dean waiting for a song to end so he can finally be kissed. Sam stared at the ceiling and his hand held Dean's very tight. He was wearing Dean's ring. The song kept playing.
The sky was starless black when they arrived in Rubacava, and Dean checked an address scribbled on the back of a casino business card. A few well-placed pesos amongst the drunks led them to an industrial bakery on Guadalupe Street with CONDEMNED notices on the door and bricks propping the window open for ventilation. Fifty cats lined the roof. It smelled like a roadie's armpit. They pushed open the door.
The lesbian poetry slam was scheduled to begin in five minutes, so Dean snuck two unopened bottles from behind the bar and settled in. Sam scanned a sea of black turtlenecks. This promised to be bad.
A blonde walked up to the microphone with a clove jammed into a fancypants cigarette holder. She cleared her throats.
"There's madness in her mountains but no craft in her love
Just a white girl raised by glam and plastic surgery
Dying to cross twenty feet of dirty water
Pimping for the astronauts of Channel 6 news
Writing narco lullabies on toe tags
Meatgrinders in satin gowns riding hot rods
Imported from the cryogenic kingdom of Miami
Her hair curls like seafoam, like gold paint on the pillow
as she grabs the prison bed
and howls at distant jazz trains
We are pilgrims on the off-road geography of Catholicism
Too hip for your dance interpretations of revolution, too thin, too soft, too blonde.
Her trial was suspended when she gave out cake
Filled with soft pink love she got out of a can.
The judge cried blue tears like a food stamps bully
seeing a Ferris Wheel for the first time.
Her body fully digitized for the red pill crew
with the countdown to eighteen like she's taking us to Mars
I'm a smoking crater on the launch pad
Fire fire fire fire fire
The audience finger-snapped in lieu of clapping. Working on his third beer, Dean made a circuit of the patrons and tried to get information on his mystery man Verde.
"I've stopped wearing bras," said a blonde, "There was a French study about it, totally screws up your circulation.
"I'm trying to find a guy goes by the name Verde, ever see him around?"
She smiled and finished her absinthe and touched his cheek. "You're cute. You should go home, this isn't a very nice place."
"What about the Tall and the Short?"
"The Tall and the Short don't exist," said a redhead, "They're just a boogie man the old men invented whenever a cow died and they needed someone to blame."
"But you've heard of them. Ergo, they must exist somewhere."
"I don't believe in teleological arguments," said a brunette, "If this world is headed anywhere it's at the end of a toothpick for something much bigger than we can imagine.
"You ever see them?"
Her eyes slid across the room and then back to Dean. "Are you Sam Winchester?"
"You got something to say to Sam?"
She finished her drink and dropped a ten on the counter. "Run."
Later the bartender passed Dean a note asking for both him and Sam to come backstage. Dean ignored it and bought another round. The tamales there were excellent. When Sam appeared sufficiently fed Dean dropped some tip money and checked his hair in the mirror before walking around back.
They ducked under a broken fence to the stage entrance, eyes peeled in case they were being followed. Two power lesbians worked the office with matching striped suits and six pound watches and hard expressions. Real dapper dames. Dean couldn't tell if they got their fashion tips from Beetlejuice or a pimp.
The elder of the two made a vague hand gesture. "Sabemos por qué estás aquí."
Dean blinked. He looked to Sam for a translation.
"She says she knows why we're here."
The club owner talked faster, and Sam's brow furrowed trying to catch it all. "She says there's a black market for train tickets in town, and one of her clients is planning to purchase one tonight. The man had to sell everything to come up with the money."
She pulled a canister of Mace and pressed it into Dean's hand. At least Dean thought it's Mace, the label was faded and read IQUID N TROG N.
"She says you may need it."
The club owner wrote a phone number on an old receipt and said something else, smiling, and it made Sam laugh.
"What's so funny?"
Sam looked at Dean and away very quickly, a blush touching his cheeks. He took the phone number. "It's nothing."
The phone number got them to a tattoo Parlor, the Plástica Mexicana, on the barge for Port Mendoza, though for a Mexican joint there was an awful lot of Italian swearing in the background. With the club owner's password, Dean and Sam were directed to a smoky sitting room with a girl stacking tarot cards on the table, aided by a mustachioed gentleman in a red magician's vest.
Love potions lined the shelves. The gentleman pointed to a menu on the wall. "Unlucky in love? It's thirty pesos for a waitress, fifty pesos for a nurse, and two hundred pesos for the general's red-haired daughter."
"How much for the golden-haired daughter?"
The magician slicked his hair back with one hand and the girl vanished through beaded curtains. He offered them both a chair and Sam set down his casino winnings. "Now what were we talking about?"
"Ah, just a moment."
The gentleman unlocked a hatch in the floor Dean hadn't noticed a second ago and ran his finger down the pages of a creaking leather tome that might have pre-dated the Roman Empire. "I happen to know two such girls. Very rare. Married to priests but only ever used on Sundays, so they're practically virgins."
Dean slapped the table with flat hands and stood. "Well then, let's not waste daylight."
The magician led them away from the city to a collection of tin huts dug into the side of a mountain that was one rockslide away from dropping into the Llano. The village had seen better days. Mail boxes lay on their sides. A Mexican flag drooped over a broken window. There must've be a thousand cats.
Dean thought he caught a face watching him from a balcony, but when he looked again it was gone, and though he didn't see a single church, every yard had a shrine, a female skeleton in robes holding a scythe.
Dean sidled up to the Magician. "I don't recognize that saint."
"No, no you wouldn't."
"So who are we meeting at the top? Your boss?"
"Wow you sound real excited."
"We don't see each other."
"But he came out tonight anyway."
"A golden ticket is a big job. He had to come himself."
Eventually the path switch-backed up the mountain and widened to the iron gate of a rambling pre-colonial mansion. Ivy coiled up the towers. None of the windows were lit. Dean thought he heard a piano, but then it stopped. Palatial gardens stretched for several acres and suddenly cut off at a bald crag as if the earth had been salted.
A cave mouth opened on one side.
"What's over there?" Dean asked.
The Magician did not look up. "Oh that. The townsfolk like to meet in there once a month to show their saint respect-the usual, drinking, dancing, ritual cutting. Peasants! Stick with me, the real action is in the mansion."
"Doesn't look like anyone's at home."
"Don't worry, I have a key."
It must have been a governor's palace in another life. Portraits of men in black robes lined the hallway, the carpet thinning in spots to reveal the tile underneath. Algae dripped down the walls. The piano music Dean had heard outside echoed in the staircase winding up to the third floor. He lay his hand on the banister.
"Would you care for a drink Mister Winchester?"
The magician slapped a dirty glass of cognac in Dean's hand and he happily chugged it down and held it up for seconds and forgot all about the creepy music. Sam grabbed his arm and pulled him aside. "I got a bad feeling about this."
"You got any other ideas to get your ticket?" Dean replied, "Besides, he took all the money."
A voice drifted down the hall. "Mister Winchesters, if you would come here please?"
The magician unlocked a cabinet and pulled out a primitive-looking box carved with sigils that required three separate keys. It was filled with golden tickets. He looked up expectantly, and when Sam reached toward the box a ticket with his name fluttered like a moth and Dean plucked it out of the air.
The magician clapped once. "Excellent gentlemen! Now, shall I escort you to the train station?"
Dean folded the ticket into his wallet. He expected Sam to comment on his lack of a ticket, but instead Sam said, "Forget this guy, we should go to the station ourselves."
"You know even know where we are?" Dean hissed, "Cuz I sure as hell didn't see any road signs."
"Mister Winchesters, are you coming?"
Dean turned around. "Yeah, we were just...we gotta go down there?"
The magician held open a cellar door. This staircase was considerably older than the rest of the house, and many of the supports had come loose. He handed Dean a torch, which only seems to thicken the shadows around him, and bounded ahead of them without the aid of a light. The temperature dropped a degree with every step Dean took.
"Stay close Sammy."
Wow, that last drink was too much. Dean thought. The fire's playing tricks with your eyes. The tunnel split off into spurs like an old coal mine, and Dean could swear he saw a white face watching him from one of them.
Sam touched Dean's arm. "What's that sound?"
"It's a piano."
"No, not from the house. From up ahead."
Dean heard it now. He couldn't see the magician, but he touched bottom and a gray cone of light spread across the earthen floor, the walls covered in prehistoric drawings of skeletons dancing around a figure holding a scythe. He shielded his eyes against the light.
THUNK dip dip dip
THUNK dip dip dip
THUNK dip dip dip
Sam and Dean emerged from the cave. A short, thick man in plumber's overalls stood with his back to them. He had olive skin and curly blue-black hair. He was practicing his aim with a baseball, lobbing it over and over at a corpse wrapped in a bloody bedsheet that hung from a tree branch. He turned and smiled at the magician from beneath an evil-looking mustache.
"Did you bring me a drink?" asked the plumber.
The magician handed him the cognac bottle and together they killed a good quarter of it.
Sam took Dean's hand. "Let's go."
Dean took two steps and then pulled back. "Wait, listen."
"The piano music."
"I don't hear it."
It was like getting hit with a car. Stars burst in Dean's head and he fell to the ground a second before Sam did. Someone stood over Dean and lit a cigarette with a baseball bat balanced on one shoulder.
"Ah, Dean, Sam, you're right on time," said Mister Verde, "Allow to me make introductions."
It was only then that Dean noted the family resemblance between the magician and the plumber, though the former was lean and angular while the latter barely comes up to his chest. The tall and the fat. The Long and the Short.
Verde flicked ash in Dean's direction. "Winchester brothers…"
He gestured to the other two men.
"...meet the Mario brothers."
Dean touched Sam's face. He was still breathing.
Dean managed to sit straight right as a hammer slid down from inside Mario's sleeve and slammed him upside the jaw, and then it was lights out.
Dean woke up before the others. The air was damp and musty. Torchlight flickered over an altar carved into the cave wall. Dean and Sam and three other men were buried up to the chest in mud, with bloody drag marks leading from an empty sixth space to the end of the tunnel where the light stopped.
Something whispered from the end of the tunnel.
Dean looked up. The torch flames bent toward the voice when it spoke.
Dean recognized that voice. The one that tried to nudge him over the edge, slam the car into a tree, let the water fold over his head. Sleep forever.
"Hey, you awake?"
Mario leaned against the wall stirring a cup of tea with the point of a switchblade. An enormous gun rested beside him. He was bloody up to the elbows.
One of the other men moaned and Mario sipped his tea and put it aside. "That's the terrible thing about this country."
"You can't leave?" said Dean.
Mario picked up his his gun. A .585 Gehringer, the kind trophy hunters used when you needed to drop a bull elephant from five hundred yards away. He shot one of the men in the head at close range. He screamed, spraying Dean and Sam with blood, and Mario kept shooting until the man was nothing but red bubbles in a gurgling neck stump.
"You can't die."
Mario looked over as the torch flames rose three feet in the air to lick the cave ceiling. "I wouldn't look if I were you Mister Winchester."
Dean shut his eyes. A chill wind, a whiff of curdled blood, and when he dared open his eyes there was another empty hole in the ground.
Mario dusted off his hands. "You want something to drink?"
Mario poured something from a hipflask in the tea cup and fed it to Dean. It burned like paint thinner but whatever.
Mario capped his flask. "That golden ticket is a piece of shit."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the train doesn't work. Luigi doesn't know. Why should he? He's never been to the train station. But I have. I went to the station, and the people who buy tickets from my brother? They go through a gate but it ain't the pearly kind."
"So you're saying, what, everyone with a golden ticket goes to Hell?"
"I'm saying, Hell is the only thing waiting for us. There is no Heaven. There never was."
"That's not true."
"Then why can't any of us get in? You think you're getting in? Or your brother?"
Dean glanced at the sacrificial altar and recalled the shrines back in town. "Oh so that's your deal with the Skeleton Queen."
Mario's face became serious in the medieval glare of the torches. "Santa Muerte offers the abyss. Offers peace. Nothingness. If it's between that or Hell-"
"There you are!"
Verde appeared, shining a flashlight in Dean's face. He glared first at Mario and then at the stalactites on the ceiling and dabbed his handkerchief at a recent cut on his forehead.
"We're not doing it here Mario."
"I said no. Get these two outside."
Dean peered over the cliff. It was probably a good hundred foot drop into the Llano River from where he stood. Kneeled. The wind stung his eyes. Sam was filthy and sported some nasty bruises, but otherwise appeared in tact.
Luigi held out his hand. "The ticket, if you please Mister Winchester."
There was a click, and Luigi turned just as Verde leveled his revolver at chest-height. "You think I'd waste the ticket for Lucifer's vessel on you losers?"
Luigi paled. "We had a deal."
Verde's lip curled. "You two would never work together unless it was for a golden ticket. I had to kill both of you at the same time or one of you would be chasing me to avenge the other."
Dean leaned close to Sam. "You ever seen a gun like that?"
"It's a seed gun."
"What's it do?"
Luigi backed away from Verde. "I thought we were friends."
"We are," said Verde, "But your brother's a psycho. Have you seen the shit he gets up to in that cave? I don't want to wake up and find I've been skinned alive by redneck devil worshipers."
Verde shot Luigi in the heart, then turned and popped Mario. He lit a fresh cigarette.
Luigi began to cough violently. He scratched at his heart as though there were a spider nesting there. Then vines erupted from Luigi's chest and wound up his limbs, into his mouth until it was so full of greenery that it unhinged his jaw and two delicate white flowers bloomed in his eye sockets.
Luigi grasped at Verde's ankle. Verde cursed and pushed him into the river with his boot and watched until the bubbles stopped.
Mario clutched his wound. "I'm gonna find you and kick you til your texture changes."
Verde holstered his gun and walked over to Dean and plucked out his wallet, mousing around old bits of paper until he found the ticket.
Flowers curled between the cracks of Mario's fingers. "Santa Muerte will come for you."
Verde dropped the wallet on the ground. "Please, I've seen the real deal. Your evil is purely lower-case."
Then Verde turned and Dean raised his hands over his head. "Wait..."
There was a splash as Mario rolled off the cliff and Verde was momentarily distracted, and in a last ditch effort Dean grabbed Verde's gun with his right hand. Sam shouted Dean's name.
Too slow. Dean thought.
Dean's ring slipped off upon the bullet's impact. It tinged like a coin in a wishing well.
The last thing he saw before he fell was the shadows of mountains and Verde pressing a gun against his baby brother's forehead.
The flowers grew. Dean's skull made a soft cracking noise like an eggshell, but just then he remembered the tin canister the nightclub owner gave him.
Surfacing from the water he sprayed an icy blast into the side of his head and the flowers died and he passed out from blood loss.
Days passed. Dean washed down the Llano River and promptly walked back up the mountains to seek revenge.
Dean stood on a rocky crag just above the cloud-line, hair whipping in the wind, floating on the border of earth and God's own space looking for Sam as Verde's car train snaked across the highway. There was no way he could stop them from reaching the station in time.
And then suddenly there was a thunderclap and one of the cars flipped over in a ball of fire. Another one lost it's front tire, zig-zagging black tire treads across the road until it hit the car in front of it. Men screamed and fell making snow angels in the dust. Dean looked out...
...and there against a burning Mexican sunset was Sam, riding naked amidst a herd of wild ponies with shotguns on his back and bandoliers across his chest, swinging a rifle from one target to the next like a fireman with a hose.
He ran to catch up and as Sam pulled Dean onto the stallion and handed him the reins Dean felt something hard on Sam's hand.
He was wearing Dean's ring.
Verde's car was t-boned by a tree. By the time Dean tore open the driver's door he could hardly feel the pain in the side of his head, and he clutched Verde's jacket with hot bloody fingers, still panting from the revelation that Sam was alive.
"Give me the ticket."
Verde laughed. Dean socked him in the teeth with a punch that started in his hip and up his shoulder and landed with a wicked snap.
Verde spit out a mouthful of bloody chiclets and pointed toward the desert. "Fool! You think Santa Muerte would let her dinner walk away so easily?"
Dean looked to where he was pointing, the air hazy with car fumes. A dark shape shuffled like a crab against a darker background. Verde smiled nastily. "You've been followed."
Something glittered in Verde's pocket. Snatching the ticket, Dean dumped the bastard in the dust and clambered back onto Sam's horse by the mane and left the smoking wreckage right before a horror burst from the shadows.
The blood drained from Dean's face. "Go Sam, now!"
He hardly recognized the Mario brothers. Gnarled and knotted and fused at the hip as they lifted Verde screaming from his car and together lept into the night in a single bound like a spider on a string.
Dean put his arm around Sam, suddenly cold. "Come on. Let's go."
They arrived at the train station a week later and Dean fantasized about a shave and a haircut and burning his clothes. He spent Sam's remaining twenty dollars at a barbershop.
"So Sam I gotta ask, how'd you get away from Verde's estate?"
"He used his last bullet on you, so he knocked me on the head and ran."
"Did he knock you out of your pants?"
"...I was covered in dead guy."
Dean picked at his nails, not looking at Sam. "Mario said something, back in the cave, how anyone who bought Luigi's tickets went straight to Hell."
"Well yeah, you can't cheat your way in."
Dean checked the clock. Sammy's got places to be. he thought, Dammit you can't cry in front of him.
Dean slid off the chair. "I'm gonna get us some coffee, be right back."
"Yeah, just have something in my eye is all."
Dean couldn't stop crying. He couldn't even get enough breath in his lungs to cry properly. He slouched in a graffitied phone booth behind the shop where no one would see him when he heard the voice.
"Sammy? Who's there?"
The parking lot was dark. Dean squinted at some kid in a Halloween mask standing at the edge of the light. It wore a suit two sizes too big for it, face hanging off it's eyes and mouth as if it were wearing someone else's skin.
Dean swallowed. "Verde?"
It's mouth stretched wide, leaking black. Dean knew that voice.
"Hey Dean, are you coming?"
Startled, Dean looked at Sam and then back across the empty parking lot. Autumn leaves swirled where the child had stood. "Yeah I'm coming."
They were the only ones in the station that late at night. Dean picked lint off Sam's new shirt and held back tears as a train puffed fluffy white clouds in the distance.
A besuited angel with a clipboard walked up to them and touched his cap. "Tickets please."
Dean stepped back. "Oh I'm not...I'm just..."
The angel scanned the W's on his clipboard. "Oh I see, it's only the one."
"One what?" Sam asked.
Sam began to glow. Dean was about to step in when something burned in your chest as well and two ribbons of lights unspooled from their bodies and twisted in the air like a double helix and winked out at the angel's upraised hand.
Paradise. A minor war started when Sam discovered that Heaven had known about Luigi's ticket scam and had not moved to stop it, minor angels bending to the Boy King's will within minutes. Dean had never seen such a bloodbath.
After a while, an angular gentleman parted the mob and everyone shut up, even Sam. Despite their recent trip to the barber, Sam and Dean look pretty ragged beside the angel's fine suit and black curls shot thru with gray, and his eyes bored into them.
"You'll find your door is right behind you."
Dean barely managed to hold Sam back, who shouted "You'll pay for this!" before Dean frogmarched him through the door, stopping only when you felt a cool hand on his shoulder.
"It goes without saying," said the angel, "That the last thing I need is another punk fomenting dissent amongst the ranks."
"So what I am supposed to do?" asked Dean.
He gave Dean an arch look and turned on one heel. "Keep your little brother on a short leash."
They opened the door to a hunting lodge where two steaks were already sizzling in a frying pan. There was way too much stuff, a writing desk crammed with exotic texts Sam had started translating but never completed, a workbench with half an engine already disassembled. Forest stretched for miles in either direction outside the window.
Dean took it all in. The shelves were full of books and the fridge was full of food. The only house for miles. And only one bed.
Sam noticed none of this and whirled on Dean. "They knew, they knew this was happening, and they did nothing!"
"It's out of our hands."
"No it's not, there's gotta be someone we can talk to, if we can get a few people on our side-"
"That's...that's a really bad idea Sammy."
Sam pointed at the door and lectured about the injustice of it all as Dean stepped into his space and cupped his face with both hands. Dean didn't look directly at him. "Shh shh shh..."
Sam's chest rose and fell, like he had another choice phrase tucked behind his teeth but couldn't get enough air, and his voice became very small. "They can't keep us here."
Dean opened his mouth over Sam's, listening to him breathe. He chewed his lower lip, fingers kneading the sides of Sam's neck, and backed away an inch before he did anything stupid.
"You gotta let it go Sam."
Sam telegraphed his next move, and instead of getting away Dean ground his heel into Sam's foot and they both lost their balance and landed hard with Dean's backed up against the door. Sam's body molded to Dean's, feverish through the clothes.
Sam breathed in slowly through his nose but did not step away from Dean. "Move."
"I can't do that."
Sam's hand wrapped around the door handle and he clinched his eyes, the muscle jumping in his jaw, his whole body wound up tight. Dean could practically hear him ticking. "We need to be out there."
"No we don't."
The door handle rattled in Sam's hand when Dean kissed him, when fingers wove through his hair to pull him close and Dean's hips pivoted into his.
Sam came up for a sharp intake of air. "You're just doing what they told you-"
Dean kissed him again and forced his lips open, hands running down the front of his body and circling around to the small of his back in a move he'd practiced on countless dippy prom queens. Sam was panting now, burning upturned face tipped back slightly.
Dean waited. "You want more?"
He had that whiskey voice, so low only Sam could hear. Sam said nothing.
"You can say no."
Dean shrugged out of his jacket until he was down to a cotton undershirt and let Sam's eyes skate over the lines of his chest, his shoulders.
Dean searched his face with the faintest smile touching his lips, casual, easy, his belly tight with the fear of rejection. "I played this part in my mind a thousand times and every time you said no. One more won't make a difference."
He kissed Sam over and over, his cheek, his jaw, his throat, breathing him in as Sam shuddered at his touch. He was way too good at this.
"If you really wanna walk out that door I won't stop you. But promise me," said Dean, fingers trailing down Sam's arm to clasp his ring hand, "You'll hold onto this."
The ring was a little loose on Sam, and the weight of it, the years of big brother worship coupled with the terror of disappointing Dean, haunted him. "I can't. It's not mine."
Was that a no? Dean thought. Their bodies swayed together like two trees. He folded his hand in Sam's, not daring to look at each other, not daring to let go.
Dean's voice cracked on the last word. "It was always yours."
This time Sam kissed back but tentatively, unsure of how far to take this. He was still gripping the door handle. "I won't be gone forever, I'll come right back-"
Dean's hands slide under Sam's shirt, up his spine, one leg planted suggestively between his knees. Sam might have said Dean's name. He was shaking. Eventually he released the door handle and let Dean walk him backward toward the bedroom.
The look on Sam's face when Dean took off his shirt. Sam had snuck glances all his life, but never really let himself look.
"This won't last Dean. When have they ever let us die?"
It was the work of a few seconds to peel off Sam's jeans and all three shirts at once just like they used to do as sleepy kids changing into pajamas.
"We can't stop now, these guys are corrupt," said Sam, a little quieter but still with that steel in his eye, "This is the perfect opportunity now that we're topside."
His skin burned against Dean's, like he'd been running. Sam pressed his palms flat against Dean's chest, hair fanned across the pillow, not sure if he was ready to cross this line.
Then their mouths sealed together as Dean hooked a thumb into Sam's boxers and kicked them down the rest of the way and slurred the words, "Come on Sammy just let me do my job, let me watch out for you, let me make you happy," as if he could extinguish Sam's need for rebellion with his body.
The side of Sam's face pressed into the pillow, biting back a string of swear words the first time Dean touched his cock. He'd had plenty of women, but he never knew he wanted this. Or never let himself want this. Either way.
"They could come through that door any minute." said Sam. "We'll never really be safe."
"They won't bother us. Ever again," said Dean, , "They'll know you're mine."
Dean hadn't meant to take it farther, but Sam's legs wrapped around his waist and soon Dean was kissing him with one arm hooked under his right knee and two wet fingers sliding into the tight hot ring of his ass. Sam's body moved with him, breathed with him, sucking on Dean's mouth and nails digging into his shoulders.
"You know how many times I would listen to you get off in the hotel room when you thought I was asleep," Dean breathed, teeth dragging down Sam's throat, "How many times I wanted to climb into bed next to you just like now and finish you?"
Sam ran his hands down Dean's back like he was a work of art, muscles rippling under the skin as Dean poured sin in his ear. "...or how many times I watched you fight with John and wished I could bar the door and fuck the loyalty into you?"
Cool air skated over Dean's wet skin, thumbs digging into the flesh above Sam's kneecaps to spread him wide, the bare tip of Dean's cock sliding over the little pink prize between Sam's legs. Sam didn't want to get used to it. He wanted the air hammered out of him. He wanted to forget he ever fucked another creature in this world.
"Dean..." Sam whispered as Dean slid deep into him, his half-lidded eyes watchful and knowing, and canted his hips until Sam arched against the bed.
Sam clutched at Dean's face, his breath fast and hot, hissing his words between deep bruising kisses, "You couldn't keep me down before," said Sam, "What makes this," a flash of tongue, "any" sucking on Dean's mouth, "different?"
"You think I won't try now?" Dean grabbed a fistful of Sam's hair and kissed him hard. "You think I won't fuck you til you learn to behave?" said Dean, biting Sam's lower lip, lower body grinding against his, "Come on you gonna behave? You gonna be good for me?"
Dean pounded the bed-frame a good six inches across the room, slamming into him over and over until Sam forgot how to say anything except Dean's name, drunk on the noises Sam made for him. "Is this good baby boy will it keep you out of trouble?"
Dean was still hard when Sam came, when he watched Sam's beautiful face twist into the pillow like he might die, fingernails latched onto Dean's hips, stomach muscles rolling up to fuck himself on Dean's cock while Dean milked a rope of hot jizz out of his cock.
"Fuck don't stop...don't ever stop..."
They spent a good ten minutes riding out the aftershocks before Sam collapsed boneless beneath Dean, but Dean wasn't fooled. There was still a lot of fight in him.
He panted and his eyes swiveled in their sockets to look at Dean, hair stuck to his neck in sweaty ringlets. "You can't keep this up forever."
Dean slid a wet hand down Sam's belly and leaned in close to bite his lip until he Sam made a noise Dean liked. Sam was already hard again.
"Don't worry. I got time on my side."
The air fogged this time of morning. A herd of deer raised their heads with eyes glowing white in the sunrise and bounded away. Coyotes called to one another. There wasn't a road in sight. It was the America Dean always wanted, a wild woolly country of unclimbable mountains and uncrossable seas.
Dean stood in the bedroom doorway blowing steam off his coffee and looked at Sam, hair spilled across the pillow like dark paint, as he muttered something from a dream and turned over in his sleep.
Breakfast could wait. Dean pulled off his boots and joined him.
It's going to be a good day.