'And then the dragons came' was such a stupid way to start a story.
Dean spared an eye roll for the idiot in the corner yammering on about the 'good old pre-dragon days', most of his attention focused on the map he had spread out across the bar. He and Sam had been working jobs pretty much continuously for the last month and this was the first opportunity that Dean had had to update it. That was much more important than listening to some guy's sob story about how his life had been ruined by the Dragon Harrowing. Join the fucking club.
His hands were rock steady as he carefully laid new squares of paper on top of the two settlements that had been destroyed since the last time they'd been up this way. The glue was thick, pungent stuff that Sam had mixed up from an old recipe for book binding paste; it stuck like nobody's business and saved Dean the grief of trying to get around with a map that was little more than a mass collection of crossed-out settlements with some trees and lakes thrown in for good measure. It meant that his map was a vaguely grotesque patchwork of paper scraps, but at least he could read it. And a reliable map was a vital necessity with the life they led.
The bartender slid a glass of beer over to him and Dean shifted his map to the side to avoiding staining it. "Thanks," he said, and took a drink, hardly noticing the bitter taste.
Beer was pretty much guaranteed to taste like dragon piss no matter where in the country Dean was, but this was slightly more tolerable piss than he'd been exposed to recently. It was a fairly reliable sign of a well-established settlement when the alcohol tasted of more than just turpentine since the smaller places never had the stability to set up their own distilleries - or the resources to trade for the decent stuff.
"That accurate?" the bartender asked, gesturing with a dishrag to the map.
"As accurate as it can be," Dean said, with no small amount of pride. "Why?"
"Heard that Reliance got overrun," the bartender said. "Coupl'a months back."
"Well," Dean said, moving his hands across to tap at the date he'd written beside the settlement of Reliance, "I was there six weeks ago and everything was still standing. Can't say if it's still true, but I did take out a couple whites while I was there. The place was dragon-free when I left."
The bartender nodded. "Thanks," he said, and left Dean to his own devices without another word. Dean was hoping that he'd be willing to give him his next drink on the house in trade; information was good barter material.
He ran careful fingers across the new patches, testing the dampness of the glue. Still too wet. Dean sighed and took a swallow of his beer, attention skipping disinterestedly around the half-empty bar.
In the corner, the storyteller was still going on about boom boxes and escalators and other stuff that hadn't existed for a quarter of a century and probably never would again. Dean honestly couldn't see the point. Unless aliens landed, abducted every winged lizard on the planet and fucked off again, there wasn't any way that the dragons were ever going to be gone. So why dwell on what wasn't coming back?
Dean eyeballed Mr. Storyteller. He was only maybe a decade older than Dean himself, which meant that he would have been a teenager when the Harrowing had happened. Old enough to remember what they'd lost, but young enough not to have given up hope. Moron.
Dean knew what he'd lost, too. His childhood home, with his mom still inside, burned up by dragonfire in one of the first attacks. The destruction of Lawrence had been early enough in the Harrowing that it could have been the very first attack, actually, but since most of the world's communications hadn't survived those first horrifying months, they'd probably never know. Not like it mattered, anyway. These days, everywhere was just as bad as everywhere else.
That first year had been hell on Earth. Dean had been too young to really understand, but looking back now it was impressive that he and Sam had both coped as well as they had. Dad had dragged them all over the country, looking for somewhere safe to settle down. No such place existed, but it had taken the world a while to come to terms with that.
They'd seen the horrors first hand. Everywhere Dad took them, they saw the devastation caused by the dragons. The big cities went first: New York, LA, Houston, Philly. The smaller cities were quick to follow, although more people tended to escape because they'd had the big cities as abject lessons of what was going to happen if they stayed.
Wyoming was literally wiped off the map; by the time the dust settled there wasn't a single person alive in the entire state. Even now, the area was considered dragon territory. It was more than a man's life was worth to go anywhere near it.
The world regressed a thousand years over the course of a few months. The 9-to-5 went the way of the dodo as jobs became obsolete with the sudden increased challenge in staying alive. Settlements became smaller, more defensible. Technology still existed, but the unreliability of the energy grids almost made it more trouble than it was worth to rely on it. Same with cars, which got to contend with ruined and overgrown roads on top of the scarcity and expense of gasoline.
It was, from what Dean had gathered from books and listening to older people complain, something of a mix between the wild west and the zombie apocalypse. Just with dragons. Even now, over two decades after the Harrowing, mankind was nowhere close to regaining his status as the alpha species on the planet. They'd managed to eke out a sort of equilibrium, enough for schools to reopen and people to put down real roots - although everyone had to be pragmatic about the fact that it only took one irritated dragon in the wrong place to pull all those roots right up again - but it wasn't anything that should make Mr. Storyteller believe that things were going to get any better than this.
And it sucked out loud, but Dean had made peace with it years ago. Besides, if all of the dragons spontaneously vanished one day, Dean would be out of a job. And it wasn't like dragon hunting involved a lot of transferable skills.
Judging that the glue was dry enough, Dean put down his drink and set about sketching in the new bits of terrain: ruins instead of Ulysses and forests instead of New Iowa.
The door opened just as Dean finished recording the dates of each discovery and he looked up to see the outline of a tall, broad-shouldered man silhouetted against the sun. The ambient noise dimmed slightly into a wary, respectful sort of silence, and Dean tried not to beam like a proud parent.
Dean raised one hand in a half-wave. Sam caught his eye and started across the room towards him, moving with the trained alertness of a hunter and a competent, predatory grace that he'd been born with.
Somehow, even in the denim and leathers of a dragon hunter, Sam still managed to look a little bit like a scientist. Dean wasn't sure quite how that worked considering the fact that Sam had given up on that particular pipe dream nearly four years ago and looked like he could fuck your shit up six ways from Sunday even without the twin blades strapped to his back, but Dean's brother had never been particularly interested in making sense.
"We all set?" Dean asked, kicking out the stool next to him for Sam to sit.
Sam nodded. "Provisions are all stowed and I managed to trade one of our small knives for a box of ammo for your rifle."
"Nice. That deserves a drink." Dean looked around to try and catch the bartender's attention.
"It's mid-afternoon, Dean," Sam said, with a sigh.
"And we killed a dragon this morning. We're entitled."
Sam made an unimpressed face at Dean's glass. "Seems more like a punishment than a reward."
"Hey, don't knock it till you try it," Dean said, taking an ostentatious gulp of his beer. "Anywhere in particular you want to visit? We haven't got another job lined up yet so we might as well just pick a direction and go."
"Hmm." Sam leaned over Dean's shoulder to look at the map, eyes flicking briefly over the new additions before moving on. "We could always g-"
The banshee wail of a siren cut through the air, and Dean felt the entire bar freeze in horrified shock.
"Oh, God no," someone in the room said, breaking the stillness with the force of a sledgehammer. Between one heartbeat and the next, everyone was on their feet and surging for the closest exit, pushing and shoving and yelling as if it would get them somewhere safe any faster.
As though was such a thing as safe these days. Which Dean doubted.
"What are you doing?" Sam demanded, when Dean didn't bother to join the group panic attack. "Dean, we have to go!"
Dean waved one hand at the landslide of people trying to jam through the front door. "You want to go through all them, you be my guest. I've got time to finish my drink."
Sam shook his head. "Unbelievable." He reached over before Dean could react, snagged the glass out of his hand, and drained the whole thing in two long swallows. "There," he said, slamming the glass down on the bar with a decidedly vindictive air. "Can we go now?"
"Dude, you suck. I was enjoying that."
"No, you were being an ass. Now move before I leave yours here."
Dean raised his eyebrows. "Easy there, Mr. Alpha Dog. I'm going." He stood, rolling up his map and tucking it back into its case before turning his attention to the challenge of getting out of the building. Both doors were obvious no-gos thanks to the number of people blocking them, and he didn't see much point in taking the stairs up to the second floor. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the narrow window beside the bar. "Think you and your monster shoulders can fit?"
Sam gave him the finger, picked up his barstool and threw it without ceremony through the window. The sound of the glass breaking was all but inaudible beneath the din of the idiots at the doors and the unceasing whine of the siren. Not that it mattered much anyway since the bartender had been one of the first to flee and Dean doubted very much that anyone else gave a damn about what they did to the décor.
It was a tight squeeze for Sam to get through the window, but they'd got out of worse situations and Sam managed it without too much difficulty. Dean followed after, wincing as a shard of glass still clinging to the window frame nicked his cheek.
They emerged onto a narrow side-street and paused for a moment to get their bearings. The air was thick with screams and the smell of burning wood.
"So what's the plan?" Sam asked, as they angled themselves towards the main road.
"The plan is to get the hell out of Dodge. The dragon's gonna be distracted with all the screaming food, so it shouldn't be hard."
"You want to leave?" Sam said, sounding surprised. "Dean, these people need our help."
Dean snorted. "To deal with a rogue dragon in the middle of town? I doubt it. There are guards. I'm sure they've got enough skill to handle one angry-" they rounded the corner and Dean's words died in his throat.
Three dragons. There were three dragons.
And they were greens.
"Holy shit," Sam said, which Dean thought summed up the situation quite nicely. "Greens? In a city?"
It hadn't taken the world long to figure out that not all dragons were part of the campaign to eat the entire human race in fifty years or bust. The truly friendly breeds were few and far between, but there was only a handful of colours that went out of their way to attack humans. The rest mostly stuck to staking out their territory and staying in it. Which sucked hardcore when a dragon decided that its territory included land that already had a human settlement on it, but it meant that most settlements didn't have to worry about dragon raids from anything except the most vicious breeds.
Which was why the scene they were looking at didn't make one goddamn bit of sense.
Greens were one of the largest breeds of dragons, which unfortunately didn't slow the bastards down nearly as much as humanity would have hoped. They could fly, like all dragons, but restrained themselves mostly to gliding over short distances. Their scales varied from emerald to darkest jade and they had a large crest, nearly as high as Dean was tall, that traced the length of their spines from forehead to tail tip. They also breathed fire, of course, because all the big nasties did that.
Dean had been figuring for a white, maybe a red if they were really unlucky, but greens?
The street was filled with cries and fleeing people. Several of the buildings were already on fire - there was no way a Podunk little place like this could afford to put up concrete buildings, so all the superstructures were made of wood - and Dean could see at least four crumpled bodies that weren't going to be getting up again.
"We can't leave them like this."
One look at Sam's face made it clear that nothing Dean could say would change his mind. Not that Dean disagreed with him - saving people was what they did - but he didn't mind admitting, at least to himself, that he really wasn't looking forward to this. Greens, fuck. Did this settlement not post sentries for God's sake?
"Someone had better be planning on paying us for this," Dean sighed, mostly because it was expected. "Bullets are expensive."
"Learn how to use a blade," Sam suggested. Light flashed off his long knives as he pulled them free.
"Hey, you do your thing, He-Man, I'll do mine." Dean pointed down the street. "There's a house with a flat roof a few doors down; I should be able to get a clear shot from there."
Sam smirked. "Tell me again how you had no intention of staying to help? And yet have already scoped out the rooftops?"
"Shut up," Dean said, and headed off to the sound of Sam's laughter. Bitch.
He scared the crap out of a huddling family when he burst into their house, but they were happy enough to get out of his way when they figured out what he wanted. It was child's play to haul himself up onto the roof, which wasn't quite as flat as it had looked from the ground, but that just gave him something to hide behind when one of the dragons swooped close enough overhead that its tail nearly took his head off.
"Shit!" Dean ducked, and hunkered down low. He unslung his rifle in one easy movement and set it to his shoulder, hands working automatically to secure the scope while he considered his options.
The one that'd just done the fly-by was probably the easiest. Sam was taking care of the one nearest the bar and, even though Dean was perfectly capable of getting a hit on the third, it made more sense to eliminate the one that was close enough to eat his face if he made it mad.
The whoosh of a fireball exploded through the air; Dean ducked automatically and squeezed off a shot while buildings burned behind him.
The bullet barely grazed the dragon's side, which was still more than enough to draw the dragon's attention away from the fleeing people it was trying to barbeque.
"Yeah, that's right, fugly," Dean shouted, as the dragon rounded towards him. "Come and get me!"
That earned him a snarl and a mouthful of very sharp teeth bared in his direction. Dean held his position, unflinching in the face of several tons of dragon heading his way. The dragon's wings snapped wide as it threw itself into the air, flames gathering in its maw.
Dragonhide was tough, though not impenetrable. The biggest thing, Dean knew, was to make each shot count. And if there was one thing he was good at, it was marksmanship.
Breathing out, Dean squeezed the trigger once, twice. The first bullet ripped through the thin membrane of the dragon's right wing; the second buried itself in the metacarpal joint.
The dragon's pained bellow made Dean's ears ring. The green banked, damaged wing refusing to support its weight, and crashed headlong into the dirt. Dean dashed to the edge of the roof to finish it off, and was surprised to find several guards and civilians already taking care of it.
Most civilians, in Dean's experience, tended to ascribe to the 'run and hide' school of dealing with dragon attacks, but apparently some of the ones around here were made of sterner stuff. Good. It meant that they might just get through this, after all.
Dean probably should have turned his attention to the farthest dragon now - anyone at that end of the settlement was dealing with it on their own - but he didn't bother pretending that Sam wasn't his first priority. It was the work of moments to resettle himself in a crouch and mount his rifle on his shoulder. He brought his eye to the scope and focused on the fight.
Just in time to watch Sam vanish beneath a blast of dragonfire ten feet tall.
"Sam!" Dean yelled, automatic and useless.
He half-shimmied, half-fell off the roof, a huge ball of panic taking up all the space in his head.
He paid no mind to the weakly-thrashing dragon scarce feet away from him; all of Dean's attention was fixed on crossing the distance between him and Sam as fast as humanly possible. Only the discipline of years of Dad's training kept him holding onto his gun as he raced headlong down the deserted street and to hell with keeping out of sight.
He was gonna be okay, the desperate voice inside his head lied. He had to be okay.
Movement flashed in the corner of his eye and Dean rolled aside just in time to avoid getting bitten in half by the dragon that had hit Sam. It snapped again, teeth the length of Dean's arm coming far too close for comfort.
Dean officially didn't have time for this shit.
A single look was enough to show that Sam and his blades had already done a number on the dragon: it was bleeding from multiple wounds, and there was a mass of blood and emptiness where its left eye should have been.
That was where Dean aimed. He was much too close for the sniper scope to be useful, but the green was more than big enough a target that he wasn't worried. Dean ducked another snap and, when the dragon reared back to spit a fireball at him, took aim and fired in a single, smooth motion.
The back of the dragon's head exploded in a mass of blood as the bullet went in one side and out the other; at any other time, Dean would have been appreciatively grossed out. He dodged around the green's lashing tail, careless of the shockwave that shuddered through the ground when the beast collapsed.
Sam was lying crumpled in the lee of a burning building, limp and lifeless.
"Sam!" Dean scrambled forward, tripped over his own feet and kept running.
Has to be okay. Can't be okay. Sam, Sam, Sammy…
Sam wasn't dead.
Dean staggered to a shocked halt, chest heaving with more than just adrenaline as he looked down at what should have been the burnt-out husk of his little brother.
But Sam just looked like… Sam. His skin was smooth and unmarked, and his chest was moving in a slow but steady rhythm. His clothes seemed to have taken the brunt of the damage, and were half-crumbling off him, some bits still smoldering faintly. But even dragon armour couldn't block a direct blast like that and, even if it could, Sam's fucking head should have been burnt to cinders, his hands, the hollow of his throat.
Fuck's sake, Sam's hair wasn't even singed. And he had a whole lot of hair to burn.
For a wild moment Dean thought he'd imagined it, that his eyes and the distance had been playing tricks on him. But the dirt that Sam was lying on was glass-slick and shiny, proof beyond a doubt that it had been melted and reforged in the heat of dragonfire. Nothing else burned as hot. Dean knew that firsthand, as the burn on his left shoulder could attest.
Something exploded behind him, accompanied by the distinctive bellow of a pissed-off dragon, and Dean jolted into action. He dropped down at Sam's side and gripped him carefully by the shoulder.
"Sam," he breathed, giving him a shake. "Come on, open your eyes."
Sam stirred. "D'n?" he slurred. His head lolled blindly in Dean's direction and Dean noticed a patch of blood at his temple. Must've cracked his head when he fell.
"You okay?" Dean asked.
"Hot," Sam managed. He sounded a little muzzy, which immediately made Dean worry that he had a concussion. "The dragons?"
"Dead," Dean said immediately, which might even have been true. It was probably at least two thirds true, anyway. "Open your eyes for me, Sam," he said.
Sam's eyelashes fluttered and Dean leaned in close to check their dilation, only to feel his heart try to stop when his worried gaze was met by a pair of reptilian yellow eyes with slitted pupils.
Sam blinked, and his eyes were their normal hazel again.
Dean firmly ignored the sick sense of unease inside him.
"We're getting out of here," Dean decided. He looped the strap of his gun lengthwise across his torso to free up his hands, then reached out to help Sam to his feet.
Sam's skin was hot under Dean's fingers, too hot, but he should have been flambé at this point and Dean was going to take his victories where he could find them. "Come on, Sammy. We're wasting daylight."
"Thought you wanted to get paid," Sam mumbled.
"Consider this our good deed for the day. Move your ass."
Dean pointed them northwards, away from where he'd last seen the third, maybe-not-dead dragon.
It went against nearly everything in him to leave without making sure it was dead, but he didn't know what the hell had just happened and he didn't want to risk hanging around in case someone else had seen Sam's impossible failure to die. Hopefully the civilians could handle one dragon.
And if not, well, they'd swing by again in six months or so and see if Dean had to erase another settlement from his map.
Getting out of Fortitude was dead easy, even with Sam still wobbly from the crack to the head. The streets were thoroughly deserted once they got away from the main drag and, even if they hadn't been, Dean doubted that many civilians had the stones to try and force two heavily armed dragon hunters to stay if they didn't want to.
Impala was waiting for them a half mile outside of Fortitude: standard operating procedure when they went into settlements. It was easier just to avoid the complications that inevitably sprang up when civilians saw their means of transportation.
Dean pushed into the densely-packed copse of trees where they'd left her - the forests had been one thing that came back with a vengeance after the collapse of urban living - doing his best not to look like he was holding the branches for Sam to pass through behind him.
"Don't be such a mother hen," Sam said. He'd regained much of his equilibrium on the walk and was back to sounding like Dean's ungrateful little brother again.
Just for that, Dean let go of the branch he was holding too early and snickered when it whacked Sam in the chest.
Dean smirked at him, then put his fingers to his lips and whistled shrilly.
The air went still as the echo faded, and Dean waited as the ground started to tremble. The trembling resolved into massive footsteps and Dean smiled when a gleaming black dragon appeared out of the trees.
"There's my girl," he said warmly. Impala trilled a happy greeting and Dean reached up to scratch under her chin. Impala nuzzled into his hand, more like a cat than a dragon.
"Are you quite finished?" Sam asked, a little peevishly.
"Our bond is transcendent," Dean said, not turning around. "It's not her fault you don't understand."
Sam made an impatient sound. "Whatever."
Dean still remembered fondly the astonished look on Sam's face the first time Dean had arrived at Stanford on the back of a dragon. Very few of the human-friendly breeds were big enough to even consider riding, and the number of people willing to try befriending them were scanty at best.
Personally, Dean thought they all ought to hurry up and grow a pair because he wouldn't have traded Impala for anything. She was smart and loyal and better company than Sam was sometimes. Dean didn't know of any other hunter whose preferred method of transport would happily rip apart an enemy dragon if it got too close to him. Blacks were smallish, but fast, and the view from Impala's saddle was why Dean's maps were the most accurate in America.
Sam huffed and moaned and was generally a whiny bitch while Dean gave Impala all the attention that she'd been without while they were away, and then a little more just to irritate Sam. Eventually, though, he gave her one final pat, and turned to Sam.
"You ready to go?" he asked, with overdone innocence.
Sam gave him the look that meant he was astounded that Dean counted as a higher life form.
"Hey, I'm just asking."
"It offends me that you think you're funny." Sam came over to stand next to Dean, reaching up to check the tightness of the straps of Impala's saddle. "Where are we heading?"
Dean hesitated. "I was thinking we could go check up on Bobby," he said, keeping it casual through force of will.
Sam looked surprised. "Why?"
"What do you mean, why? Because the man's like a father to us and it's been a couple of months since we last saw him, that's why. Way to be a bad person, Sam."
"Stop it," Sam said. "We both know that's just you trying to guilt me into saying yes without asking questions."
"Anyone ever tell you you're a nosy bitch?" Dean muttered.
Amusement curled the corner of Sam's mouth. "You, mostly. Spill."
Dean gnawed at his lower lip, trying to find a good way to say 'you should be dead right now and I'm really glad you're not but that doesn't make it any less weird and creepy. Also, your eyes were doing weird things'.
It was harder than he thought was really reasonable.
"What's the last thing you remember from the fight in town?" Dean hedged.
"I-" Sam frowned. "Taking out the dragon's eye." He glanced up at Dean with a wry little grin. "And thinking that I was about to get barbequed."
Dean let out a careful breath. "It was more than just a thought."
The amusement on Sam's face faltered. "What?"
"You did. Get barbequed, I mean. I saw it."
Sam scoffed. "Nice try, Dean." He gestured up and down his body. "Do I look like I'm on fire to you?"
"I know what I saw, Sam," Dean said.
"Maybe you were at the wrong angle?" Sam suggested.
And really, one look at Sam's clothes should have been enough to prove that theory wrong, but Dean could understand Sam's reluctance to believe him. Hell, Dean wasn't sure he wanted to believe himself.
"Yeah, maybe," he said, after a moment. "Still, we might as well check in with Bobby anyway. Just in case."
"If you say so," Sam said, not sounding particularly bothered. "Beats flying around looking for work."
"Right, let's get moving. We're wasting daylight."
"You're the one who's been holding us up!"
Dean ignored him in favour of hooking his hands over the edge of Impala's large oblong saddle and pulling himself up onto her back. He gathered up the reins while Sam climbed up behind him, trusting Sam to double-check that their supplies were all lashed down properly.
"Ready, Baby?" Dean asked, stroking a fond hand down Impala's neck. She flared her wings in response and, with one powerful push of her legs, launched herself into the air.
The wind slapped sharp and cold across Dean's face as they cleared the tree line, and he squinted against the sun as he looked out at the landscape sprawling below them. There was a thick pall of smoke rising from the settlement and Dean felt a twinge of regret.
"Shit," Sam said at his side, and Dean nodded, tilting his head so that he could see Sam in the corner of his eye.
Sam's eyes were fixed on Fortitude, his expression somewhere between rapt and somber. The sun had threaded streaks of gold through his hair and it reminded Dean uncomfortably of the dragonfire that should have stolen Sam away from him. Sam didn't turn to meet his gaze and Dean found himself shamefully relieved; he wasn't sure what he would see if he looked at Sam's eyes right now and that scared the crap out of him.
Firming his jaw, Dean turned his eyes and Impala away from Fortitude, heading inland.
Bobby would know what to do. Bobby always knew what to do.
Bobby wasn't home.
"Son of a bitch," Dean said, glaring at the closed door.
It had taken them the better part of two days to get here - not a bad trip as the dragon flies but frustrating if they'd made it for no reason. Dean had to admit that it hadn't even occurred to him that Bobby wouldn't be home. It seemed wrong somehow for Bobby not to be around to help when Dean needed him.
"What now?" Sam said, after they'd wasted ten minutes banging on all the doors and windows in case Bobby was asleep or in his bunker.
Dean didn't know. "He might just have gone into town?"
Sam was shaking his head. "All the shutters are closed," he said. "And the truck's gone."
Most people didn't bother with cars or trucks these days; it was too risky to rely on the gasoline lasting. But Bobby had been something of a survivalist nut before the world went to Hell on a dragon's back and, between the gas he'd stockpiled beforehand and the amount he'd earned as a dragon hunter since, he managed to keep himself going.
"Son of a bitch," Dean said again. If Bobby was on a hunt, he could be gone for days. If he'd been forced to leave for some other reason, it could be a hell of a lot longer than that.
"Is it just the fire thing?" Sam asked.
Distracted from his frowning, Dean glanced over. "What?"
"Me not burning to death," Sam clarified. "Is that the only thing you want to talk to Bobby about? You've been acting odd since Fortitude." Sam's attention was steady and all-consuming; he always had been far more attentive to Dean's moods than Dean really appreciated.
Dean had spent the time keeping an eye on Sam, for all the difference it had made. He hadn't seen so much as a hint of yellow in Sam's eyes. Sam's body temperature was still higher than Dean appreciated, but it wasn't a fever and he didn't seem to be suffering from it. He'd maybe been a little crankier than usual, but he'd raised sulking to an art form when he was a teenager; a little bit of surliness had nothing on fourteen year-old Sam.
So yeah, nothing that justified the uneasy feeling in Dean's gut.
"Dean?" Sam pressed, when Dean didn't say anything.
The memory of dragon-yellow eyes flashed through Dean's mind and he shoved it determinedly away. "No, that's it."
"Honestly, I think you're overreacting. I mean, yeah it's weird, but it doesn't seem like we need to talk to Bobby urgently."
"And what if it's some kind of new delayed action assault and you randomly catch fire in the middle of the night?" Dean demanded.
"Dean." Sam's expression was patiently amused, which Dean did not appreciate in the slightest. "It's a dragon, not a tank. They don't do upgrades."
"You got set on fire, Sam," Dean snapped. "Buried in a ten-foot tall wall of fiery death. And I'm glad you're not dead, really I am, but I don't like it when things don't die when they're supposed to."
"We can keep an ear out for Bobby," Sam offered. "And if anyone knows where he is we'll go right away. But until then, I don't think it should be our main priority."
"Oh yeah? And what is our main priority?"
Sam grinned easily. "Right now, lunch I think. And then we'll get back on the job. Come on, let's go see what Bobby's got in his cold storage."
"I still don't like it. Something weird's going on with you."
"Tell you what. If I spontaneously combust in my sleep, you have my permission to say 'I told you so'.
"You spontaneously combust and I will kick your ass," Dean said, and shifted back to give Sam enough room to pick the lock on Bobby's front door. Man had not yet created the door that could keep the Winchesters out.
Sam smirked at him, smug and amused, not a hint of anything wrong.
It was fine, Dean told himself. Everything was totally fine.
Everything was not fine.
They spent the night at Bobby's and headed out the next morning. With no real destination in mind, Dean just pointed them in a generally easterly direction and let Impala have her head.
They made their way unhurriedly from one settlement to the next, stopping periodically to look for work, ask after Bobby and get some human interaction that wasn't just with each other, not necessarily in that order. It was a familiar pattern and one that they'd been trained into while Sam was in diapers.
Which made it all the more obvious that something wasn't right with Sam.
It was little things at first. Standing too close to Dean. A sudden penchant for getting Dean's attention by grabbing his arm or shoulder, instead of just saying his name. An increased irritableness when Dean was paying attention to Impala.
Dean didn't comment on Sam's behaviour beyond an occasional reminder for him to back the hell off when he was breathing down Dean's neck. He saw no further evidence of weird yellow eye syndrome, which was a relief, but he had no idea how much he ought to read into Sam's new attitude.
The tipping point from watching to acting came about in Cassio, a miserable little town that offered them free room and board, along with rations for a solid fortnight, to wipe out a nest of blues. Business as usual, and blues were a walk in the park compared to most other violent dragon breeds.
Sam had been strangely distracted in the nest, seemingly more interested in the dragons' gold hoard than in killing the bastards. His fighting had been fucking flawless, though, even more than usual, so Dean left him to his random daydreaming.
The real kicker came after they got back to Cassio.
The night was just getting started and Dean was getting cozy with a grateful - and attractive - young lady. Things were going very well, even if he did say so himself, and Dean was just about to suggest that they relocate to her place when Sam, who'd been on the other side of the bar all night, materialized out of fucking thin air.
"Dean," he said, loudly and unexpectedly enough that the girl jumped and Dean just barely resisted the urge to do the same.
"What do you want, Sam?" Dean asked, pasting on the smile that meant 'stop cockblocking me, asshole'. "Everything good?"
Only Sam looked a little confused, as though he wasn't sure why he was cramping Dean's style, either. "I- Dean."
"That's me," Dean agreed, torn between irritation and slow-rising concern. He glanced at the girl. "Hey, have you met-"
"Julie," she supplied, her eyes skipping across the breadth of Sam's shoulders with clear approval. Luckily, most chicks tended to prefer one of them over the other - which sucked for the ones who liked Sam since Dean wasn't entirely convinced that Sam's government work hadn't required a vow of celibacy that Sam had never bothered to break - and her appreciation was more theory than practice. That she was saving for Dean.
"This is Sam," Dean said, when all Sam did was stand there like an utter tool.
"Nice to meet you," Julie said, with a charming smile. Damn, but Dean was going to enjoy himself tonight.
Except then Sam made a sound that Dean didn't know how interpret, something low and threatening that made a little trill of fear run down his spine and never mind that this was Sam.
Julie's face paled.
"I, uh," she swallowed hard and said, hurriedly, "I'm going to get myself another drink."
"I can-" Dean started, moving to stand.
"No! That's, it's fine." Julie's smile was weak and absolutely nothing like the promising looks she'd been throwing him all night. "Thanks for, well, the dragon nest."
And then she was gone, hauling ass away from them like they were on fire, and Dean couldn't remember a pickup ever going so wrong in his entire fucking life.
Irritated, Dean glanced back at Sam, but he just looked like Dean's pain in the ass little brother. And Dean damn well knew that the kid wasn't ugly enough to run from; good looks ran in the family.
But there was no denying that, whatever the hell had just gone so desperately wrong, it hadn't been anything Dean had done.
Dean scowled. "Thanks a lot, jackass. What the hell's your problem?"
Sam blinked at him expressionlessly for a long moment. Then he turned and walked straight out of the bar without a word.
Dean stared after him. What the actual fucking fuck.
"I said I was sorry, okay?" Sam scowled at Dean through the wind-tumbled fall of his hair; the fact that he looked like a disheveled sheepdog did nothing to lessen the sheer bitchiness of his expression.
"And I'm saying that's not good enough," Dean said, because the eight hours and 150 miles that had passed since Sam's 'moment' in the bar weren't nearly enough to make him ready to forgive and forget. "I mean, God damn it, Sam, I've always known you were a pain in the ass, but that was bitchy even for you."
"Don't see why you didn't just pick up some other girl," Sam muttered, practically biting off the words. "Since you're so desperate to get laid."
Dean shot a glare at Sam over his shoulder, counting on Impala to keep them heading in the right direction. She did most of the driving anyway, if he was honest.
"That's not the point, Sammy."
"Then what is?" Sam demanded, and oh yeah, he sounded pissed.
Not that Dean cared. "The point is that it's not goddamn normal for my brother to be cockblocking me!"
Sam's expression shuttered. "It's not always about you, Dean," he said, in a voice that could have frozen Hell over. "You want to bang ugly chicks in the middle of back-end nowhere, you be my goddamn guest."
Dean felt his eyebrows hike up right to his hairline. "Excuse me?"
Sam never talked about people like that. Especially not people who hadn't done a thing against him.
"Forget it," Sam muttered, ducking his head to avoid Dean's eyes. He was fidgeting with something in his lap, Dean noticed, long fingers trading it back and forth between them.
"What's that?" he asked, and Sam's hand clamped shut, too late to hide the metallic gleam of gold peeking through his fingers.
"Is that… a piece of the dragon hoard?"
"No," Sam said and, God, but sometimes Dean didn't know how he'd managed to raise a brother who was such a shit liar.
He twisted further around, giving up all pretense of steering. "What the hell, Sam? First you're surviving dragon attacks, then you're cockblocking me for no god damn reason-"
"God, would you get over it already!"
"-and now you're stealing gold coins? Face it, there's something not right going on here."
Sam scowled. "You're overreacting because you think I ruined your booty call."
"You did ruin my booty call! And don't try to change the subject!"
"What the hell do you want from me, Dean?" Sam demanded.
"I want you to stop pretending that you're fine when it's completely fucking obvious that-"
"Dean!" Sam barked, thrusting one arm out to point over Dean's shoulder.
Dean hauled automatically on the reins, because he trusted Sam even when he didn't, and barely managed to keep from yelling when a massive gout of fire erupted through the air directly in front of them, a hand's breadth away from burning them all to a crisp.
Impala reared back, shrieking in unhappy surprise, nearly unseating both of them.
"Fuck!" Dean swore, fighting to keep a hold of the reins without tumbling out of the saddle. Falling out of the sky was not the way he wanted to go.
"Incoming!" Sam yelled. His hands joined Dean's on the reins, arms bracketing Dean's waist as he crouched behind him to help him wrestle Impala back under control. "Bear left!"
Dean didn't stop to question it; he yanked hard on the reins, relying on Sam's steady presence at his back to keep him in place as he took them into a controlled spin. Another blast missed them by the narrowest of margins, and Dean's blood ran cold when he finally saw the dragon that was attacking them: a red.
Reds were scary motherfuckers. Ten feet tall, with ridged backs and a whole face full of horns and frills, they might not have been the biggest dragons out there, but they were fast, clever and vicious in a way that few other colours could match. They hunted humans for sport, and were far too fond of playing with their food for Dean's liking. Cat and mouse with a red dragon was almost impossible to win.
The red spat another fireball at them and Dean spared a wistful thought for his rifle, strapped to the saddle and completely useless to him in this situation.
"We're sitting ducks!" Sam shouted, echoing Dean's thoughts precisely. "Can we outrun it?"
"Impala can outrun anything!" Dean shouted back, stroking his knuckles against her neck without losing his grip on the reins. "Right girl?"
Impala barked out an agreement and put on a burst of speed, her leathery wings creaking with every powerful flap.
The red bellowed eagerly as it gave chase; Dean would bet that, if it had had the jawbone for it, the damn thing would have been grinning with predatory delight.
"Incoming!" Sam shouted, and Dean banked to the side.
The world lurched crazily and Dean could feel the intense heat from the fireball as it went past them.
"Anything you can do to get it off our back?" he asked Sam, yelling to be heard over the wind and the frantic pounding of his pulse.
"Gimme a minute." Sam's weight disappeared from behind him as Dean leveled them out.
"Don't you dare fall off!" he yelled, fighting the surge of worry at the knowledge that Sam wasn't within grabbing distance.
"Don't do anything to make me fall!" Sam yelled back. And then, "three o'clock!"
Dean veered again, trusting Sam to have anchored himself to the saddle. His mind worked frantically through the local area, trying to figure out somewhere they could hide if they couldn't lose the red. The settlement of Pinnacle wasn't that far by air, but he wasn't leading a red to a settlement, no matter how fucked their situation was. The terrain below was no help either: too flat, not enough places to duck and weave. Impala could win a straight up race any day, but not if they kept having to veer to avoid-
"You doing anything productive back there, Sammy?" Dean demanded, once they were clear of the fireball.
"Trying to not lose all our stuff in the process of getting to the guns!" There was a pause, and then Sam made a triumphant noise. "Got it! You need to-"
Dean never got to hear what he needed to do because the world chose that moment to explode into fire and Impala let out a shriek that was going to haunt his dreams for years.
Her left wing shuttered and stopped, the right not providing nearly enough lift to keep them airborne.
The bottom dropped out of Dean's stomach as they went from flying to falling, Impala still shrieking and her right wing flapping in panicked jerks.
"Hang on!" he yelled at Sam, doing his best to turn their tumble in a controlled dive.
The lack of forests below was suddenly helpful, if only because it meant there would be less to crash into. Dean aimed them at a field that looked mostly-flat and held on tight, lying belly-down against Impala's neck as he fought to keep them heading in the right direction.
"C'mon, baby," Dean murmured to her, his hands white-knuckled on the reins. "Come on, come on…"
A fireball exploded just behind them and Dean fought to ignore it. The ground was approaching at a frightening speed and the damage to Impala's wing meant that she kept veering to the left. Dean said a silent apology as he yanked her back on track, over and over again.
"Brace yourself!" Dean yelled. If Sam answered, Dean didn't hear it.
They hit the ground in an explosion of dirt and torn-up grass. The impact jolted right through Dean's bones, and only his death grip on the reins kept him from getting smeared across a hundred yards of field when he was thrown from Impala's back. As it was, he nearly dislocated both shoulders and ended up in a crumpled heap several feet in advance of Impala's right foreleg, every bit of him hurting like a motherfucker.
"Sam?" he called, coughing around dust and the ache in his chest. His shoulders groaned in protest when he tried to push himself up. "Sammy!"
The ground shook with a sudden, thunderous impact, and Dean swore internally as the air around him went dark.
He swallowed hard and lifted his eyes.
The red towered above him, yellow eyes blazing. There was no way it could miss him from this distance; Dean wasn't even sure he'd be able to get to his feet before it blasted him. He had no weapons, Impala was out of commission, God only knew what had happened to Sam, and no help coming.
This is it, a panicked corner of his brain gibbered. I'm dead.
Dean stared up (and up, and up) into the face of his own mortality, mind blank with the shock that it was going to end like this. Fire licked up from between razor teeth and Dean flinched away, eyes slamming shut.
A furious bellow split the air and Dean hunched deeper into the dirt, hyperconscious of the hammering of his heartbeat. Instead of searing pain, however, Dean was next aware of a wet tearing sound and a fine spray of dirt kicking up against his face.
He jerked his head up and something thudded in his chest when he realized that Sam was standing above him, feet braced wide and hands shoved up against the dragon's barrel chest, just below the neck. Holding it at bay.
And Dean wanted to yell at Sam to get the hell away, because Sam was now the one very literally in the line of fire, but the dragon was just standing there instead of attacking, gleaming eyes bulging and every trace of fire snuffed out.
The muscles in Sam's back rippled, and Sam let out a grunt of effort as he wrenched his arms away from where they'd been pressed against the dragon's chest. The dragon gave a short, mewling cry, and sank to the ground with a slow, ponderous crash.
Which was about when Dean realized that Sam's hands hadn't been on its chest; they'd been in its chest.
And that the bloody chunk of flesh Sam had wrapped in his fingers was definitely a heart.
"Holy shit," Dean breathed.
Slowly, Sam turned. His arms were soaked in blood and gore up to the elbows; it dripped freely to the ground, hissing and sizzling as it went. The ragged, red-grey chunk of meat in his hand was smaller than Dean would have expected, or maybe that was the breath of Sam's fingers which suddenly looked so much larger than Dean remembered them being. There was blood splattered on Sam's shirt, and a swiftly-spreading pool of the stuff lapping at the soles of Sam's boots.
Sam's eyes, when Dean managed to drag his attention far enough up to see them, were yellow.
Sam opened his fingers and stared for a moment at the bloody heart he was holding, head cocked to the side with cat-like curiosity. A moue of distaste crossed his face and Dean watched as Sam tossed the thing away with a dismissive little sniff. Then his attention turned to Dean.
Dean resisted an entirely unfamiliar urge to flinch when Sam crouched down in front of him, doing that same unnervingly graceful head cock. Sam's gaze wandered leisurely from Dean's wide eyes down the splayed-out length of his body, then back up again.
"Sam?" Dean tried, refusing to hear any hint of a quaver in his voice.
Sam smiled, a dark, reptilian thing. "Safe," he said, with a definite air of finality. His hand came up, fingers sliding possessively along Dean's cheek. "Mine."
Dean jerked away from the touch, instinct, and felt dragon blood smear hotly across his skin in its wake.
Sam frowned. "Dean," he said sharply, an admonishment. He reached out again and Dean, feeling more fucking lost than could ever remember being, could do nothing but sit there while Sam cupped his cheek, thumb rubbing gently across his cheekbone. This time Dean could tell that the bloody marks he was leaving were absolutely deliberate.
"Sam." Dean's voice was a soft, shaken thing. Since when was he such a pansy? This was Sam. Dean fisted his hands in the grass, fighting for calm. And said again, more firmly, "Sam."
"Hmm?" Sam's expression had gone lazy and content, but Dean thought he could sense a darkness lurking beneath that easy surface. Sam's hand stayed right where it was, and Dean's skin was starting to feel uncomfortably hot, his nerves tingling unpleasantly at the burn of dragon blood.
Firming his jaw, Dean slapped Sam's hand away. "Knock it off," he said, in the most threatening tone he could manage.
Sam answered with a snarl, teeth bared in open warning. He leaned forward and Dean scrambled away with absolutely no attempt at dignity.
"The hell are you doing?" he demanded, clambering to his feet. His hands were shaking. Fucking disgraceful. "Snap out of it, Sam. Come on."
"Rrrr," Sam said, and it wasn't, oh God, it wasn't anything like his brother ought to sound. Like any human ought to sound. Those yellow eyes blinked at Dean.
"Sam," Dean said, and it came out angry because otherwise it would have been straight-up begging. "I swear to God, I am going to kick your ass from here to the Atlantic Ocean if you don't stop it right the fuck now. You hear me, Sammy?"
He was practically yelling by the end, but Dean couldn't bring himself to care when it made Sam pause, head cocking as though he was listening to something far away.
"Sam?" Dean tried, and he was looking Sam right in the face when his eyes flicked back to hazel. The aggression melted out of his stance and his expression went confused, then shocked, then horrified.
"Oh my God," Sam said, and fuck but he sounded about a heartbeat away from freaking out. He looked down at his hands - red, red, red - and the colour drained from his face. "Oh God, Dean, what did I-" There was something lost in his eyes when they jerked back up to Dean's face. "D-did I really…?"
"Yeah," Dean said hoarsely. He made a vague gesture towards the dragon's carcass; Sam's eyes were wide as they followed the movement.
"Well," Sam said, after a long moment. The calm in his voice was a precarious thing. "Maybe we should go see Bobby after all."
"Yeah," Dean echoed. He felt oddly numb. "Good plan."
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