A Little-Brother Thing
K Hanna Korossy
Sam Winchester pulled up in front of the motel main office and cut the engine, then glanced over at his brother. It gave him a moment of relief when Dean immediately woke at the silence, blinking first at the motel, then at Sam. Maybe he was fine. And maybe Sam wasn't imagining the mirrored flash of emotion in his eyes at the sight of Sam sitting next to him.
"This is it?" Dean asked more groggily than when he usually woke.
Sam raised an eyebrow as he took in the ramshackle office again. "This is it. Beautiful downtown Atchison."
Dean nodded, reaching for the door.
"I'll get a room," Sam said quickly, and opened his own.
Dean gave him a skeptical look. "I thought you didn't like using the cards?"
"I don't. This isn't exactly the Hilton—they'll take a down payment."
His brother's face twitched. He didn't like using cash almost as much as Sam didn't like scamming, but a down payment meant they could sneak out without paying the rest, and that was a trade-off Sam knew Dean would go for. It also meant Sam didn't have to play the card of why he really wanted to be the one getting the room.
Dean sighed, the sound scratchy. "Fine. Just don't forget—"
"I know, Dean—Sam Beck, reporter. I think I can remember for a few hours."
"Hey, you're the one who wanted to work out the story ahead of time."
"Right, Agent Ford and Agent Hamill is so much better." Sam made a face and got out before Dean respond. Shaking his head but smiling a little, he went into the office. "One double, please."
The middle-aged clerk glanced up at Sam, then past him out to the car. "Double?" he asked wryly.
Sam swallowed a sigh. Sometimes he wished he and Dean looked a little more related. Not often, though. "Yes, please. For me and my fellow special agent." So much for the reporter stories, but Sam really wanted to wipe the smirk off the guy's face. Dean preferred badges anyway.
It worked, the clerk reddening. He fished a key off a hook, pushed the sign-in book at Sam. "You fellas with the government?"
"Yes," Sam said tersely, pen hovering a moment over the pages. He had no idea what names Dean had IDs for these days. He finally just put down an all-purpose scrawl and pushed the book back.
"Room 221," the clerk said, glancing at the book. "Special Agent—?"
"Do you have wireless?" Sam interrupted, taking the key.
"Uh, sure. Two bucks an hour."
Figured. The worse the place, the more you had to pay for basic amenities. Sam tried not to make a face as he peeled off another ten to add to the small pile he'd left on the desk. "Five hours please."
Thirty seconds later he was back outside. He glanced around, counting down to where the room would be, and climbed back into the car.
"So, cub reporter—" Dean began as Sam started the car.
"Special Agent," he muttered.
Dean's mouth pulled up. "Oh, yeah?"
"Yeah. And I don't want to hear it."
A shrug. "I'm not complaining. I like breaking the law, remember?"
"Whatever," Sam said witheringly. He pulled into a parking spot before throwing the car back into Park. Their headlights illuminated the "221" on the door briefly before Sam turned them off. "Guy said there was a carry-out place up the street." Sam's question had been one more dodge of the guy trying to figure out his name.
Dean was stiffly climbing out. "You go ahead. I'm not hungry."
"Because you're still not sick."
Dean gave his duffel an exasperated look in lieu of Sam. "Dude, it's a sore throat, no big deal."
"And the fact you keep putting the heat higher and sniffling is just…what, allergies?"
"It's Michigan in January, Sam."
He shook his head. "Your life, man." If Dean wanted to live in denial, who was he to argue?
Dean unexpectedly hesitated, giving him an odd look over the hood of the Impala. Sam's Dean-reading had gotten a little rusty during his years in California and he couldn't quite decipher it.
Dean shook his head, banging both doors shut. "Nothin'."
Yeah, there was a lot of that going around. Sam felt the melancholy descend as he followed his brother into the motel room.
The room was threadbare and thirty years out of style, and Sam couldn't care less. He did glance at the blankets, but they seemed relatively clean at least, so he tossed his bag on it and slid the computer satchel onto the table. Dean dropped onto his own bed with a sigh, lacing his hands behind his head and discreetly hiding a cough. Sam shed his jacket and settled into the chair. It groaned under his long frame.
"You going out for dinner?" Dean asked from the bed, sounding drowsy. They hadn't slept much the night before, staying up for unspoken reasons to watch monster flicks until nearly dawn. The lunch Andrea and Lucas had packed them had made them both sleepy that afternoon, but Dean had only slept an hour or two in the car.
"Naw, I'm not too hungry, either." At the invisible sudden weight of his brother's attention, Sam added, "Big lunch."
Dean seemed to accept that, settling back again. "Yeah," he said, a smile in his voice. "Good stuff."
They'd just been sandwiches, nothing special, but they'd been made for them with care. For all Dean's attempts to hide it, Sam knew that mattered to him. The food Jess had fixed him always tasted better somehow, too. The reminder sent his flagging spirits even lower.
"So what's the plan tomorrow?" Dean's rough voice brought him back again.
Sam blinked. "Uh… none of the disappearances had any witnesses, dead of night and all, but I was thinking we might talk to the families anyway, see if we can learn anything about what the victims did the day before, maybe something they had in common."
Next door, two people loudly started arguing in what sounded like Italian.
Sam exchanged a knowing, eye-rolling glance with his brother. "Sounds good." Dean turned on his side, his eyes shut. Apparently, he wasn't bothering with changing or showering that night. "You have any theories yet, geek?"
The name kindled a moment of unexpected warmth inside Sam. No one had known him well enough at school to venture a nickname for him, except for the occasional Sammy, which he'd always politely but firmly corrected. "All five disappeared from their beds, no signs of foul play or violence, right? I was thinking maybe some sort of sleep entity, a sandman or something, or maybe a closet creature."
"Hmm." Dean sounded half-asleep, breathing a little congested now that he wasn't trying to hide it.
Sam shook his head. "Good-night, Dean."
Dean, he didn't correct.
Sam used up the full hour of internet time, glancing over as Dean occasionally coughed in his sleep, stopping once to drag the blanket out from under his brother and lay it over him. Dean muttered something that could have been insulting or propositioning—it was hard to tell sometimes—and went back to sleep. Good. One of them having trouble resting was enough, and Dean's nightmare the night before had somehow unsettled Sam. That had become the younger Winchester's specialty of late.
The computer search hadn't turned up anything, and Sam was tired, too. It seemed that was all he was these days, since the fire and Jess. Diving into a cold Wisconsin lake hadn't done him any good, either, but at least he hadn't woken up flushed and coughing like Dean.
Sam turned the heat on, wryly noting that the clanking heater drowned out the argument next door, and shed his outer clothes before crawling into his own bed. A sleep entity would be hard to track down, but closet creatures left signs. At least as Feds, they could ask to see the rooms. It had been a long time since Sam had tracked a boogieman, but he knew what to look for.
Dean slept the night through, not waking when the neighbor's door slammed repeatedly at 3 a.m., not even when Sam bolted upright in bed, Jess's name on his lips.
He just didn't know if that relieved or worried him.
Sam was the early waker of the two of them, seemingly regardless what time zone they were in. He'd never lived alone and was used to padding around softly to keep from waking another. Jess had…Jess hadn't been a morning person, either. Sam hadn't realized until Dean had come back how much his brother had in common with his girlfriend. Dean would've liked her, once he'd gotten past the obnoxious flirtation stage.
Sam squeezed the sting out of his eyes with one hand before rising to quietly wash up and dress.
He was back on the computer, this time scrolling through the library of information they had on the laptop, when Dean finally coughed, sneezed once, then rolled from his back to his side to blink at Sam.
"Morning," Sam offered with a small smile.
"Unfortunately," was Dean's response, followed by another soggy sneeze.
Sam got up, striding into the tiny bathroom for the box of tissues he'd seen there. Amazing they hadn't been charged for that, too. He tossed it onto the bed next to Dean. "Just a sore throat, huh?"
"Shut up," Dean muttered and rolled out of bed. He turned away to blow his nose, like Sam wouldn't know what he was doing if he didn't see it, then ran a hand through sleep-tousled hair. "How'd you sleep?"
That question had come to alternately annoy and touch him. Sam wasn't in the mood this morning. "Fine," he said in clipped tones. One revisiting of Jess burning on the ceiling was about as fine as he got. "You?"
Winchesters were good at denial.
Dean pushed himself to his feet with visible effort. "I'm gonna take a shower. You ready to go then?"
Sam nodded, eyes back on the computer screen. He already had the list of addresses they needed to hit. Just like the old days. "You sure you're up to this, Dean?" he asked without looking up. "I can do it alone—witness interviews aren't exactly dangerous."
Dean was sorting through his clothes by smell, which probably wasn't a good plan considering how stuffy he seemed. His movements were weighted and slow, without his usual grace. "Two words, Sam: Winston Addison."
Sam grimaced. "I don't think any of these people are going to be possessed, Dean."
"I'm just saying."
He was just saying they needed to watch each other's back. Sam didn't like thinking about the repeated times Dean had had no one to do just that. "Okay," he caved quietly.
Dean found a shirt he could live with and headed for the bathroom. His hand, warm from illness and sleep, curved briefly around the back of Sam's neck as Dean passed behind him. Jess used to…
Dean moved on, disappearing into the bathroom. And Sam closed his eyes against a sudden wave of loneliness.
The stories, from a sad-eyed single mother, an elderly couple, a separated but still grieving spouse, were alike and unhelpful. The victims went to sleep after a normal day, all having done different activities and jobs, but weren't in their beds the next morning. The bodies turned up one or two days later in a nearby field with no obvious cause of death. The medical examiner had told them they were still conducting the autopsies. Sam met his brother's eyes over their heads, and nodded minutely. Dean's eyes flickered in response.
There was nothing in the closets.
They left the last house in synched stride, Dean's shoulder brushing his. Sometimes it felt like Sam had finally found his balance again, like he'd been limping those years in Stanford. He glanced at Dean as they reached the car and separated, and saw the same thoughts there.
"And where the bodies were found." Dean shivered, pulled his jacket tighter around himself.
Sam eyed him. "It would go faster if we split up."
Dean grimaced. "Sam, I told you—"
"Dean, man, give it up—you're sick, all right? The sooner we can do this and let you get back to bed, the better for both of us."
"I'm not too sick to hunt," Dean said stonily, his eyes dangerous. He didn't take lightly his judgment being questioned, not about this.
And it was true he was too good a hunter to risk innocents—or Sam—on his not being able to do the job. They'd been trained to play hurt if necessary, but even John in all his driven nature had grilled into them that they didn't go out into the field handicapped if they didn't have to. Sam had always trusted his brother to tell him where that line was.
"I know," he gave in again. "I'm not saying you are. I just think the faster we can get this hunt over with, the better. This thing doesn't seem to hunt outside, and I'll be safe at the ME's office. Let's just get this done, Dean, and get back to looking for Dad, okay?" After they rested up. Heck, they were still bruised from the wendigo hunt, Dean especially. Sam just knew better than to make it about his brother.
He remembered the exact day Dean had first started listening to his advice on hunting, as an equal. Sam had been fourteen, and had become the researcher of the family. Dean's belief in him had already meant more than their dad's by then, and his attention made even the hunting life seem good again.
It hadn't lasted.
Dean was giving him another opaque stare, and Sam found himself wishing once more he hadn't lost three-plus years of growing up together. "I'll drop you off at the ME," Dean finally said. "Meet you back at the motel after."
They were partners now, and Sam wasn't the only one who compromised.
He went through the box of IDs in the glove compartment on the way, surprised at how many were in his name, with his face. Some of them had even been updated to how he looked now, and he wasn't sure when Dean had done that. FBI, DEA, SS, CDC, Federal Marshal. Sam finally picked out a Minnesota State Police ID with the name of Samuel Vaughan, and slid it into his pocket. "You know, we could try using something other than musician names," he said whimsically. "Someone's gonna break that code someday and put all the aliases together."
"At least it'll be someone with taste," Dean said, shrugging.
Sam smiled out the window at the incorrigibility of brothers.
The Impala pulled up in front of the medical examiner's office with Dean's uncanny sense of where everything was in unfamiliar towns, and Sam climbed out. He bent down again in the open doorway to meet Dean's gaze. "Be careful."
"Doesn't hunt outdoors, remember?" Dean said with a grin. He wiped at his forehead with the back of one hand.
"I know, just…be careful anyway."
"Yeah. You, too."
Sam gently thumped the roof of the car, and shut the door. He stayed and watched the black car pull away before he turned and went into the building.
The ME's assistant dutifully took down his name and badge number, then went to get the records. Five minutes later, Sam sat at a table surrounded by autopsy and crime scene photos, deciphering medical lingo that was more familiar than it should have been.
Cause of death: cerebral hypoxia. Mode of death: myocardial infarction. Manner of death: natural. Sam's eyebrows rose. Each file said the same thing.
No wonder they hadn't released the findings yet. Who was going to believe five people, none older than fifty-three, had wandered out of their beds to a field and spontaneously had heart attacks? Four of them were under fifty, three had no history of heart disease. It was more than a little strange. And definitely their kind of gig.
Sam carefully copied down the pertinent details, then examined the crime scene photos. All the bodies were in different poses, all grimacing in pain but otherwise untouched. Two were in nightgowns. Sam felt a flash of empathy for the family members who'd had to go down and identify the white, drawn corpses.
He sighed softly, remembering a few near misses himself, and turned to the detectives' notes.
The motel was only a few blocks from the ME's office, easy walking distance. Sam covered the ground quickly, notebook and a sheaf of photocopies tucked under one arm. He hoped Dean was back because his run should have taken less time than Sam's, and Sam really didn't want to have to go after him to make sure he was okay.
The Impala was sitting in the motel parking lot, and Sam felt his tension ease. Going to Stanford hadn't relieved the anxiety he'd grown up with whenever he was apart from his family. No normal life for him would change what he feared for his loved ones. Returning to the hunt with Dean again had made that easier, anyway; at least Sam knew what was going on and could help instead of just waiting back at home for the bad news.
Besides the whole part of how very much he'd missed his best friend and only brother.
As he drew closer, though, he could see the car wasn't empty. Dean sat in the driver's seat, head tipped back against the black vinyl. Even closer and Sam could see the flush of fever in otherwise pale cheeks and the tremors of cold that shook him.
Stubborn best friend and only brother.
He opened the door without warning, already putting out a hand to steady Dean when he startled. The fact Sam had been able to get next to him at all without his noticing was as eloquent an argument as Sam could have made that his brother shouldn't be out there.
"Okay, man, that's it. You are so going to bed."
Dean glared blearily at him, then dragged a heavy hand over his face. "I think you're right."
Sam paused, taken aback. Dean had fought the bug and the bug had won, but Sam's big brother did not do defeat well. Apparently, the trust he had that Dean would tell him when he reached his limits had not been misplaced. "Come on," Sam said more gently, wrapping an arm around Dean's back and tugging him out of the car. Dean's steps lurched but they still had strength and determination behind them; he probably could have made it on his own just fine if he'd had to. But why should he if Sam was there?
"This sucks," Dean groaned. "I just spent a week in bed."
"I always said you were lazy," Sam teased gently, and grinned at his brother's wan glare.
Inside, he pulled back the covers before letting Dean drop, and helped him out of jacket and boots. Dean curled up on his side, shivering, and Sam piled the blankets on, grabbing the ones from his bed, too. It seemed to help the cold, and soon Dean lay still, merely spent.
Not too much to snake a hand out and grab the TV remote, however.
Sam stood between him and the TV, hands on his hips. "You should get some sleep, Dean."
"I'm tired, not sleepy," came the nasal reply. He flicked the set on, started surfing.
Well, he was a grown man, and it wasn't like he was dying. Sam shook his head but left his brother to his amusements. "What do we have for colds in the kit?"
Dean's glassy eyes never budged from the screen. "Some cough syrup, I think."
"Well, we're gonna need more than that. I think I saw a pharmacy on the way—I'm taking the car and running out for a few minutes, okay?"
"Don't buy too much."
He didn't know if it was a warning against spending money or fussing over Dean, but Sam smiled. "Okay." He fished the keys out of Dean's discarded jacket and glanced back at his brother. "You want anything? Juice? Soup?"
Right. Dean had said the same thing a few times when he'd been practically dying, too. It hadn't been denial then, though. It had been protecting his little brother.
Sam slipped the keys into his pocket and went out.
Despite Dean's admonition, Sam had never been stingy where his brother was concerned and he wasn't starting now. Tissues with lotion, cough drops, and nasal spray found their way into his shopping basket along with orange juice and cupcakes and M&Ms. He stood a long time in the colds & flu aisle, eyeing all the different products and reading labels before he added a decongestant.
The truth was, Sam had never done this kind of shopping or care before. Jess had come with her own stocked medicine kit—college student style, with sunburn and flu treatments instead of stitching thread and splints—and hadn't had more than a slight cold in the time they'd been together. And John had always taken care of it when Dean had been sick in their childhood. Dean had bought stuff for Sam, looked after him when he wasn't feeling well, stayed up with and tucked him in. But other than a few times when he'd tried to distract his brother from his misery, Sam had usually let his dad do the practical part. It was a strange feeling, being responsible like this. Not for someone's life, because he'd been that ever since he'd first started hunting with his family. But for their health and comfort, for Dean's comfort.
It wasn't bad, actually.
Sam paid for the stuff, adding, with a quirk of the mouth, an issue of Cosmo sitting on the counter. Then back to the motel, the distance short enough for a casual walk if he hadn't been in a hurry. Sam eyed the pale lump pressed up against the headboard as he walked into the room, tossing the keys on the door by the table.
"I got some—"
"Sam." His brother's voice was strained with something other than illness. Dean nodded slightly at the TV. "Check it out."
Frowning, Sam turned toward the screen, just as Dean put up the volume.
"—king news. A sixth body has been found by Sherman Lake to the north of town." A map came up, six spaced-apart red triangles on it, one of them bigger than the rest. "Sources say the latest victim, Amy Alison, who disappeared from her home on the four hundred block of Taylor Drive two nights ago, also had no apparent cause of death. Authorities refuse to say if details of Alison's death match that of the previous five victims, but—"
Dean lowered the volume. "Number six."
Sam sighed. "Nobody mentioned anything about a sixth disappearance. We might've been able to—"
"Don't." Dean shook his head.
Sam made a face. "Yeah." The ME had thought the victims were killed shortly after they were taken. He walked over and sank down on the edge of his bed facing Dean. Sam had hoped to put this off at least until the next day, but they couldn't afford to. "You find anything out at the lake?"
"Trees, rocks, and water. No strange tracks, marks, smells, nothing."
"How about Amy?"
"Well, yeah, I saw her body but I figured it would be better if I let the cops find her." Dean gave him an exasperated look. "It looks like she was farther north, on the other side of the lake."
Sam nodded, then sucked in a breath and reached for the bag. "I brought you some stuff. Take the pills and the cough syrup and try to get some sleep, okay? You look rough, Dean."
"What're you going to do?" Dean asked him with narrow eyes.
"Go talk to the Alisons," Sam said with a tilt of the head toward the TV. "I figure they'll probably let in a family member of one of the previous victims."
Dean's grin was a faint copy of his usual smirk. "There's hope for you yet, Sammy."
Sam ignored him, going to retrieve the cough syrup from their kit and a glass of water from the bathroom. He set them on the nightstand with the things from the pharmacy, and watched as Dean propped himself up on an elbow and took the medicine. "You sure you're gonna be okay here while I'm gone?"
"Dude, I have a cold," Dean said, exasperated. "I'm not dying."
Not the most reassuring thing he'd heard in his life.
Dean's voice unexpectedly gentled. "Sammy, would you get out of here? I'm just gonna sleep while you're gone—I'll be fine."
Sam hesitated, then nodded. It was stupid, this reluctance. Dean was twenty-six and the most competent person Sam knew. He just…he'd just gotten back, and first the wendigo dragged Dean off, then a baykok had skewered him… Maybe ignorance was bliss, after all.
"But you better hurry back—don't make me come crawling out of my sickbed after you," Dean was adding warningly.
Sam smiled. "Yeah, okay. I'll be back soon."
Dean grunted something and settled back in bed. Sam flipped the TV off as he passed it but there was no protest from the bed. He shut the blinds by the door, too, and turned off the light before he went out, shutting the door quietly behind him.
Sam hated lying to people. Probably not the best quality for a lawyer, but staring into broken people's eyes and telling them he knew their pain when he didn't—well, not the way they thought, anyway—made him feel dirty. It was for a good cause, Sam kept telling himself, so no one else would have to go through this again. But it still felt wrong.
It also didn't net much useful information, and Sam glanced at his notebook with a few frustrated exhalations on the way back to the motel. No marks on the bodies, no signs in the rooms where they were taken; it had to be something up their alley, but with no clues to go on, there was no telling what. If they didn't figure it out soon, there would probably be a victim number seven. And Dean was barely in the game.
Sam let himself into the room as silently as possible, but still saw his brother stir. Dean's voice sounded a little less hoarse when he spoke up, and Sam hoped the cough syrup had helped.
He kicked off his shoes and shed his jacket, then took the notebook over to the beds, settling on the floor with his mattress at his back. It put him at eye level with a glassy-gazed Dean. "I don't think so," Sam said quietly, shaking his head. "Same as before—nothing unusual in the history, nobody heard or saw anything that night, nothing at the house."
It was taking Dean an extra second or to process, but his mind was obviously still active behind the fever-bright eyes. "What did you get?"
Sam flipped through the notebook, chewing on the inside of his mouth. "Uh, Amy Alison was a secretary for a stockbroker, twenty-eight, college graduate. According to her roommate, three days ago she came back from work, went out for dinner with a friend, then turned in early. She was gone the next morning. She also liked to jog, hike, kayak, and play soccer."
"Sports chick," Dean noted approvingly. He was silent for so long, Sam began to wonder if he was drifting off, when a small frown line appeared between his eyebrows. "Hiking."
Sam nodded. "Yeah."
"The body dump site." Dean cleared his throat. "It was near a trail."
Sam stared at him blankly. "Dean, we're surrounded by back country, there are a lot of—" But he hadn't been out of the hunt that long, and had never stopped researching. Sam's protest died as something clicked into place, and he flipped back through the notebook. "Two of the other victims had gone hiking the week before they died."
Dean's eyebrows rose.
Sam pulled out his phone.
The calls to the three other families didn't take long. Sam turned back to his brother with weary triumph. "Every single one of the victims had been out around the lake within four days of their disappearing."
Dean's eyes were closed but he answered without hesitation. "So, what do you think we're looking at? Some kind of protective spirit?"
"Maybe," Sam conceded. "Water nymphs wouldn't go after someone in their house, but some sort of spirit in the lake might. Marks the victims when they're out walking…"
"…then pulls them back later and kills them."
"Probably something regional," Sam mused. "I've never heard of a guardian or protective spirit doing that, have you?"
"Mm-mm." Dean's eyes hadn't been open for over a minute now.
Sam could take a hint, and smiled. "Get some sleep, Dean. I'll do some research and we'll put this together in the morning."
"Jus' don' go after it tonight or do somethin' stupid," Dean slurred.
"I won't. I'll stay here with you."
"Good." Then, on the edge of sleep, "Missed ya, Sammy."
Sam froze, halfway to his feet. That wasn't…no. Dean had meant that day, with him confined to bed and Sam out doing the legwork. Dean had always hated to be left out of the action.
Still, there was a niggle of something in the back of Sam's mind that he didn't examine too closely as he settled down with the laptop and started to hunt.
He woke to Dean's voice.
It wasn't yelling or stressed, just a quiet murmur, and Sam lay still and listened to it with half-awake confusion. Was he on the phone? There were long pauses, as if Dean were listening to an answer Sam couldn't hear. But he was pretty sure he would have woken to one of the cells ringing, Sam's sleep once more as light as his brother's. It was only when he heard "Dad" that the haze dissipated completely and Sam pushed himself up on his elbows. "Dean?"
Dean kept talking. Sam heard only snatches. "…not going to be…water and ammo, sir…from the west…" It sounded like he was talking about a hunt, and not the one they were on.
Sam sat up and snapped the light on. Dean's back was to him—he'd fallen asleep supine in deference to stuffed sinuses—and as Sam rose and moved around to face him, he could see there wasn't anything in his brother's hands or at his ear. Dean was talking earnestly to the wall.
He was also shivering again and flushed.
It figured. The few times Sam had been out of his head with pain or fever, Dean said he'd railed and moaned and fought. Dean? Dean had quiet conversations with people who weren't there. It was just like him to internalize even in his delirium, not wanting to bother his family or draw attention to himself. Sam had once been good at prying things out of him, and he wondered again how much had pooled below the surface while he'd been gone.
Sam grimaced and turned away to the little pharmacy he'd left on the table. Tylenol, a glass of water, and—when Dean paused to cough wetly behind him—some syrup, and Sam returned fortified to his bedside. "Dean?" he said more softly.
"Not now, Sammy," came the distracted response, Dean's eyes barely flicking away from the empty space next to them.
"Who're you talking to?"
"Dad." The offhanded duh! tone made Sam smile despite the circumstances. Even a fever didn't change Dean all that much. Still looking to Dad, still immediately responsive whenever Sam wanted something. Still on the hunt.
Sam's smile faded. "Just take these for me, okay?" He didn't wait for an answer, sliding a hand under a too-warm cheek and lifting. He pressed first pills, then the plastic cup of syrup, followed by water, to Dean's lips. His brother sputtered a little but took them, eyes closing in apparent pleasure at the cool drink. Sam took advantage of his distraction to lay a hand on his forehead, gauging temperature. Hot but not dangerously so, he decided. Dean had already been tired and not at one hundred percent, and the fever had just taken its toll. Sam sat back to watch as Dean cleared his throat and started up his dialogue with invisible John again.
"…can't get to them from the south. If we hit from the north, we can get to the cave before the sun comes up…"
It wasn't any hunt Sam recognized, and he wondered idly if it was something Dean's imagination had pieced together or an actual memory from when Sam had been at Stanford. Or else something from his early youth, but the Dean who was talking now was the quiet, competent tactician he'd come to be in his later teens, not the hunter-in-training they'd been as children. This was the version that fascinated Sam, the one that reminded him so much of their dad except for several obvious differences: Dean listened to Sam's input, explained everything in patient detail, and never pushed winning at all costs. Because of that, Sam had always respected his brother as much as he'd loved him. Even if they were more equals now, that hadn't changed.
Dean was still shivering with cold, and Sam went to check the closets. Sure enough, two blankets sat on the top shelf—this rundown, nickel-counting place was growing on him—and Sam shook them both out over Dean, tucking the edges to trap the heat. Another degree or two rise in temperature and he'd worry about cooling his brother down, but for now he would just make Dean comfortable.
Dean's trembling decreased once more, Sam stood for a moment, glancing at the bottles on the table, the first aid kit, the rest of their stuff scattered around the room, trying to figure if there was anything else he needed to or could do. But there didn't seem to be, besides making sure Dean didn't get dehydrated. Sam would push another glass of water on him in a half-hour or so. For now, though…
Dean hoarsely went on, breaking only to cough or to listen to "Dad's" replies. Sam's hand slid down to the book he'd left on the chair the night before, the Agatha Christie he'd read a few pages from before bed. His fingers curled comfortably around it. Books had always been his solace, and he'd tried to share that a few times with his big brother when they were kids, like when Dean had gotten slammed head-first into the car and couldn't open his eyes for a day without getting dizzy and nauseated. Even then, Sam had known his presence and voice soothed Dean more than the story Sam was reading, but whatever. Winchesters were good at helping those who didn't realize they needed it, who didn't even know they were being helped.
Sam went back around the bed, nudging his brother to move over a little. Dean complied without breaking off his explanation why they should be using shotguns instead of .45s. Sam settled against the headboard beside him, legs drawn up. He found his place with one hand, dropped the other on top of Dean's head. "It's my turn now, all right? Relax and let me do the talking, Dean," he said with soft tones. Then began to read.
Dean fell silent to drowsily listen to him.
Yeah, Sam thought. This he could do.
Sam woke with a start, wondering if he'd fallen asleep studying.
But no, classes, Jess, were all gone. It was a paperback slipped down into his lap, not a textbook, and the hard surface at his back was a headboard instead of a chair. Not even his bed, Sam realized with less surprise than he thought he should have felt. Dean was asleep beside him, breathing congestedly against Sam's hip, one hand wrapped around his little brother's ankle. Sam grinned tiredly. He had a sudden déjà vu of waking up some mornings as kids so tangled up in each other, it took some effort to separate. Metaphor for their lives.
Dean didn't seem so flushed now, and Sam laid a hand lightly on his forehead. Maybe a degree cooler. He'd get an exact reading when Dean was awake, but for now he'd just keep an eye on his brother like he had been. With any luck, they were past the worst of it.
Sam slid carefully free of Dean's loose grip and off the bed with a silent groan, trying to stretch kinks out of his back and neck. Dean murmured something that sounded like "Sammy" in his sleep and turned on his other side, away from the light streaming through the blinds. He coughed, settled again. Sam watched him until he did, then went to take a shower. A long, hot shower.
Without the urgency of the previous day's medicine run, Sam realized there were a few other things it wouldn't hurt to pick up, including breakfast. Dean was still unconscious to the world, but Sam wrote him a note just in case, propped it against the lamp on the nightstand, and ventured out into the frigid early-morning air.
He'd long returned and was back on the computer, in the middle of one of their internet hours, when Dean finally coughed himself awake. He pushed up immediately upon realizing he wasn't alone in the room, squinted at Sam until recognition set in, then relaxed back into the bedding.
"Tell me I dreamed you reading to me last night."
Sam grinned. "Agatha Christie?"
Dean groaned. "You could have at least read the Cosmo. You better not have brought some kind of pansy food for breakfast, too."
This just kept getting better. "Croissants?" Sam offered the bag pleasantly.
Dean looked pained, burying his face in his pillow. "School ruined you. No," he amended, glaring again at Sam, "you were already like this when you went to school. California just made you worse."
"They're really good, Dean." Sam switched to the earnesty he knew his brother couldn't refuse. "Light and flaky. I figured it wouldn't bother your throat."
Dean's frown lessened a fraction, and finally he snapped his fingers for the bag. Sam paused to butter him a croissant and earned another eye roll. Probably a lecture, too, if a coughing jag hadn't interrupted. He handed the croissant over with the cough syrup.
Dean pushed himself up weakly in bed to eat, and Sam watched him out of a corner of his eye without offering to help. He knew better. He was ready when Dean needed something, though, refilling his glass with juice when it emptied, offering a second croissant when the first disappeared with remarkable speed, and handing over a steaming cup at Dean's terse, "Coffee?" Dean looked at it suspiciously, then stared at him. "What is this?"
"Hot chocolate. It goes well with the croissants, and coffee's not good when you're sick." Jess had wanted hot chocolate when she wasn't feeling well, he didn't add.
"It's good for me," Dean protested, holding out the hot chocolate like it was nuclear waste.
"They were out of coffee, all right?" Sam said impatiently. It was true, although if he'd have waited another minute, there would have been a fresh pot. "I got tea—you want some?"
"I hate you," Dean muttered petulantly, and started nursing the hot drink.
Sam didn't take it personally, sipping his own cup as he flipped through websites. "I'll be done in a few minutes."
"Keep working," Dean said tiredly. "At least one of us should be on what we're here for."
Sam cast him a speculative glance, but Dean was staring into his cup with vague eyes. Sam went back to work.
He caught the myoclonic jerk out of the corner of his eye. Sam quickly stood, easing the half-full cup of hot chocolate out of his brother's drooping hand. Probably not the best combination, a steaming drink and extreme fatigue. "Sleep, Dean," Sam soothed, sliding him back down onto his side as Dean blinked uncomprehendingly at him. He trusted Sam, but they were still a little new to each other, and Dean had always been responsible for him, not the other way around. Different instincts, Sam thought with a twinge of regret, but his brother wasn't such a stranger that Sam didn't known which card to play with him. He squeezed Dean's shoulder like John would have, and saw him respond to the familiar gesture, relaxing his guard, giving up trying to make sense of things. Ten seconds later, Dean was completely out.
Everyone needed someone to take care of them sometimes. Sam had been lucky enough to go from Dean to Jess and back again. Dean…
Sam stood by the bed looking down at him for a long minute before returning to work.
A half an hour later, he straightened suddenly in his chair, with the familiar snap of discovery his studies at school had never equaled.
The Armouchiquois were supposed to be a local legend, an anthropomorphism of the Native Americans' displeasure at settlers stealing their land. They weren't supposed to be real, but then, neither were baykoks or wendigos or most of what the Winchesters hunted. But it all fit. It was the right area for them. The Armouchiquois resented what they considered invasions of their land, usually fertile farmland around bodies of water. They attacked mystically rather than physically, not often killing, but causing illnesses or strange accidents. They could get into your mind, and were no respecter of age, gender, or innocence. They were more than capable of luring their victims back to the area of initial trespass and inflicting a heart attack on them.
The one thing Sam's research hadn't turned up was how to kill the suckers. But that wasn't a first, either. They hadn't known the baykok's weakness, but with a broad enough arsenal, you could find anything's chink. Sam hefted the full duffel he carried, glanced over his shoulder at the parked Impala shrinking into the distance, and kept walking.
The truth was, his confidence was a sham. Sam had done a few solo—well, he'd refused to call them hunts, but kills, anyway—at Stanford, not looking for trouble but unable to ignore it when he saw it. But even those sure things had made him uncomfortable. He wasn't the born hunters Dean and John were, more than able to hold his own but without the instincts singing through his blood like in Dean. He felt very vulnerable going it alone, and wished fervently even now that Dean were at his back. His brother was what made this job doable.
But Dean would be laid up at least another few days while he got his strength back, and they couldn't afford to wait. For all Sam knew, the Armouchiquois's next victim was already marked, one more hiker who'd unknowingly strayed past invisible boundaries. Sam refused to have another death on his conscience if it was in any way unavoidable. Dean probably wouldn't see it that way, but he would just have to live with the note Sam had left him: It's an Armouchiquois. I'll take care of it.
Short and sweet. Who said his family hadn't rubbed off on him?
He took a while to find the right spot, wanting to be sure. A flash of yellow finally caught Sam's eye, and he moved closer to find a piece of crime scene tape wedged into the bark of a tree. Okay, close enough. Sam set the duffel down and pulled a piece of paper from his pocket. The Armouchiquois didn't hunt in the traditional sense and would be hard to track down. Sam had had a better idea. He was going to make it come to him. Taking a deep breath, he started reading the summoning.
The final words died away to the loaded silence of outdoors, birdsong and breeze through the grasses filling the gaps. Some small animal rustled near Sam's feet, and he looked around, frowning. Not exactly the herald of a supernatural being's arrival. Then again, the Armouchiquois was a spirit of the land. It probably wouldn't disturb the nature it claimed to tend. Sam glanced over his shoulder at the peaceful lake a few hundred feet away, then turned back to sweep the area again.
And stumbled back a step at the sight of the creature in front of him.
The Armouchiquois was half his height but no less intimidating for it. Its disproportionately long legs and arms and small head gave it a monkeyish appearance that its almost grinning mouth did nothing to dissuade. It walked like a wendigo, bow-legged and swaying, until it gave an unexpected giant hop that landed it less than a yard from Sam. He stepped back one more time, reaching for the duffel without looking.
The Armouchiquois tilted its head, looking at him with frighteningly intelligent eyes. Curiosity, or suspicion? Sam hesitated, not sure how to read the creature and wondering if he should try talking to it.
The round eyes suddenly narrowed, the Armouchiquois's body contracting as it prepared for another leap.
Sam's crossbow quarrel met it halfway.
The spirit creature fell short with a squawk, sounding more outraged than pained. Sam was already pulling the shotgun as the thing plucked the quarrel from its chest and tossed it away, then turned a decided glare on Sam.
The shotgun blast pushed it back a step, that was it.
Sam methodically went through the bag. Charms and wards. A throwing knife. Flame, and holy water. Salt, dirt, and a few herbs the Native Americans used in protection and repulsion rituals. Nothing seemed to have more of an effect than to make the Armouchiquois angrier. The offense kept it too distracted to attack, but Sam knew he was reaching the end of his resources, and then he'd be in trouble.
Knowledge was soon all he had left. It had been the baykok's downfall, an old dispersion-of-evil ritual chant. Sam tried it again, running through the chant under his breath while the spirit being recouped and stared at him with cold dispassion. Its eyes narrowed again, and this time Sam felt the coil of a different energy around him.
A sudden pain shot down his arm, breaking the words he was murmuring.
Sam gave the creature a sudden horrified look. Heart attack. The Armouchiquois could kill without touching, and Sam had made it just angry enough to do so without hesitation. He clutched his arm, willing back the stabbing pain, and started another ritual.
His chest hurt. Sam forced the words out through clenched teeth, gasping at a particularly severe pang.
This was it. He'd gotten in over his head, underestimated his prey, and this time his big brother wasn't around to make him live to regret it.
Oh, God. Dean, I'm sorry. And then, belatedly, Jess…
The Armouchiquois took a step closer to him, its head again canted in malevolent interest. Sam's hand tightened around his useless axe, preparing for one last swing.
The shout took them both by surprise. Sam could barely drag his head up to look, but the Armouchiquois whirled. The two of them stared at the new arrival.
"Just…hold on a minute." Dean was short of breath, seemingly on the edge of a cough attack as he leaned heavily against a tree and held out a placating hand. Sam winced at his pallor and the glazed green-brown eyes, knowing his brother was in no shape to be out there, let alone joining the battle.
But Sam couldn't help the intense relief at the sight of him.
"Look," and Dean was addressing itself solely to the Armouchiquois, who stared back with silent intensity. "It's your land and you don't like people on it—we get that. But, look, they didn't mean any harm. They just wanted to see the lake. Nobody wanted to mess with you. You're in charge here."
The tightness in Sam's chest had eased with the Armouchiquois's distraction. He cautiously straightened, still clutching his arm, and tried to steady his breath. What was Dean up to? None of his usual antagonism was visible, just the unexpectedly placating tone. He had a bag with him, but it was small, as if he'd gone shopping instead of bringing weapons.
"We don't want to bother you, we just want to be left alone and leave you alone. I brought a peace offering. Plants, not war, right?" Dean held out the bag unthreateningly. "Seeds. You let him go, they're yours."
The Armouchiquois blinked at him. Sam looked from the creature to Dean, trying to see some sign of deception in his brother's face, some hint of a plan of attack. But there was nothing but earnesty there, even as Dean's eyes flicked briefly to him and then back at the spirit.
"We don't have to be enemies," Dean said quietly. Sam stared at him soberly, wondering at the way his brother had changed in three years. Or maybe he just hadn't seen this side of Dean before.
The Armouchiquois took a step toward him, then another. Sam tensed silently in the background, waiting for things to explode, but it wasn't like the creature needed to touch them to hurt them. His chest no longer hurt at all, his arm only aching a little. Dean didn't take his eyes off his opponent, just reached into the bag and pulled out packets of seeds.
Seeds? Sam remembered reading something about how settlers had appeased some of the Armouchiquois, but Winchesters usually killed, not bargained.
The bag and the seed packets were tugged out of Dean's hand. The dark, round eyes gave them both a hard look. And then, with several blurring leaps, the creature was gone.
Sam sagged in relief.
Dean did, too…and kept right on going down to the ground.
Sam darted for him in alarm, reaching his brother just as Dean's tailbone hit dirt and his head dropped forward. Sam lifted it with hands that trembled from an adrenalin dump. Dean's fever had gone up again—big surprise—and it took obvious effort for him to focus on Sam.
"When I can get up again…you are in so much trouble," Dean whispered.
Sam's grin was surely goofy with relief. "Yeah, I'm really scared. Hey, you okay?"
"No, Sam, I'm…freakin' dying here and I had to…get up off my deathbed to come after you. In a stupid cab." Dean shook his head heavily, rough voice just increasing his incredulity. "'I'll take care of it'?" He started hacking again.
Sam gave him a sheepish look, his palm still propping up Dean's cheek as he patted his brother's back with his other hand. It wouldn't surprise him if Dean had used up every last ounce of energy to get out there to save him. With seeds. He wanted to hear the story to that one, but not now. "Let's get you back to bed, all right?"
"Not arguing," Dean murmured, and managed to drape his arm around Sam's shoulder. "You okay?" he asked in turn, nodding just barely toward the arm Sam had been grasping, as Sam wound it around his waist.
"Yeah, thanks to you."
"Don't let it go to your head." The relief, the adrenalin was all making him a little giddy and Sam knew it, but he couldn't seem to care. He paused to snag his useless bag of weapons from the ground, then started coaxing Dean back toward the car. "What if the Armouchiquois gets mad again?"
"Long as they don't develop the land, it won't." Dean's voice had fallen into the same low register as his delirious ramble. "Just wanted a little respect."
"You sound like you can sympathize with it."
Dean didn't answer, focused on the all-consuming tasks of standing and walking. His body was a familiar weight against Sam, even his stumbling steps a rhythm Sam knew instinctively. He drew Dean in a little closer, and answered the comment for him. I get being left behind and forgotten.
Maybe, in a way, they both did.
"You know what would be good?"
Sam sighed into his book, and self-righteously resisted the urge yet again to strangle his brother. "What, Dean?"
Okay, that request was actually reasonable. Unlike the one for a "hot chick" the last time Sam had made a supplies run and asked Dean if he wanted anything, or the sponge bath his brother had suggested with a saccharine smile when Sam had noted his fever was still high. Somewhere along the way, between the breathless coughing spurts and frequent naps and lethargy, Dean had decided in his more awake moments to milk his condition for all he could. It hadn't taken Sam long to realize his brother only asked for what he didn't need, shivering in silence or swallowing agony rather than requesting another blanket or more water.
Sam didn't really want to think about what was behind that.
He shut his book and swung his legs off the bed. "You want me to get you some pancakes?" he repeated carefully.
Dean's eyes were still a little too glossy, his cheeks flushed; it was obvious he was feeling lousy. But the grin hadn't lost any of its charm. Even if what he was going to say was lost in another fit of coughing.
Sam winced in real empathy and waited him out. Running to the rescue had taken a lot out of Dean, and a day later he still looked like the Armouchiquois had gone after him instead. Sam had managed to eke out of his older brother's croaking explanation that the Armouchiquois weren't mortal but were placatable through gifts of tools and seeds. Dean had always known more than he let on, but where he'd gotten that information or the seeds from still escaped Sam.
The way Dean's gaze sought him out whenever he woke hadn't.
Dean's coughing left him breathless and deflated against the pillows, and Sam silently leaned over to help him raise his head so he could take a few sips of water. "You can have some more syrup in an hour," he soothed.
"Tastes nasty," Dean said voicelessly, not wanting to aggravate his throat. His face was damp, his hair sticking to his skin from his fluctuating temperature.
Sam rose and retrieved a washcloth from the bathroom and dragged it over his skin, seeing both the relief and the annoyance at the gesture. Dean's fatigue was stronger than his pride, though, and he didn't fight it with more than his usual first line of defense.
"Like playing doctor, Sammy?"
"Package deal, Dean," he shot back, unruffled. "Comes with the whole brother thing. I seem to remember a few bouts you sat through with me, too." In fact, he remembered a lot more: Dean petting a hand through his hair that was a little long even then, curling up with him, reading Sam's favorite books to him. It wasn't the first time Dean applied different standards to the two of them, but concern wasn't just a big brother thing and went both ways.
"I'm fine. Go get some pancakes." Dean pushed at him with weak hands.
It was a perfunctory protest at best. Dean didn't want him gone any more than Sam wanted to be gone. "You'll be asleep by the time I get back," Sam argued reasonably and just as automatically, already pulling his shoes on. The words were for appearance's sake. Leaving was respect for Dean's boundaries. Coming back was for them both.
"Pancakes are good cold," Dean whispered. His eyes were closing again.
"You want anything else?" Sam asked, pulling his jacket on and bracing for the answer.
"Yeah, maybe when you're not sleeping twenty hours a day."
He rolled his eyes. "You don't smoke, Dean."
A half-asleep shrug. "Six-pack."
"Okay, I'm leaving now. Try not to die while I'm gone."
"Try not to get lost on…way back." Dean roused as he started coughing, but waved Sam off when he took a step closer. "Dude, go. I'm fine."
Sam was starting to realize how not true that was, how little true it had probably always been. But he was broken, too, and maybe, somehow, they could eventually help fix each other. For now, it was enough that this little brother had picked up a few big brother tricks along the way. "I'll be back soon," Sam promised.
And let the muttered, "You better," warm him as he stepped out into the freezing Michigan night.