K Hanna Korossy
It was a battle to the bitter end.
Sam tapped away at the laptop, deliberately not looking at the clock beside the bed—or the handy little one on his screen—but feeling its red liquid crystal gaze anyway. He'd growled at it last time he'd glanced up, and it had been deliberately mocking him since. But he wasn't going to look at it. Not going to see how late it was getting—or early, considering it was long after midnight—how many minutes had ticked by, how long his brother was taking to get back. Nope, it wasn't going to win. Sam looked at the door instead.
But it didn't open. The lock wasn't rattling, and Sam hadn't heard the throaty roar of the Impala since Dean had left hours before. Late-night silence.
With a sigh, he gave up and looked at the clock. Two forty-three a.m., it shone triumphantly.
Okay, well, that wasn't too late, right? A lot of bars were open to two or three, and if Dean hooked up with anyone, it could be another hour or more before he straggled back. He didn't stay overnight with women because, he'd once counseled Sam, it promised things you couldn't deliver. He did sometimes stay out all night having fun, when they didn't have a hunt the next day and Dean had some excess energy to work off, but Sam rather doubted that was the case tonight.
He rolled his shoulders, wincing as deep bruises ached and twinged in complaint. At least the ones around his neck weren't livid anymore. Sam couldn't help but notice how many times Dean's eyes had been drawn to the sight of those finger marks and grown cold at the reminder.
Not that Dean hadn't been wincingly gentle with him since St. Louis, and Sam sighed again as he poked aimlessly at the keyboard. In his own Dean way, of course, which involved as much ribbing and putting salt in Sam's tea and making him do the laundry, as it had fixing him heat packs and driving more slowly to avoid jostling Sam and talking him quietly through the inevitable nightmares and flashbacks. But Dean hadn't teased at all about St. Louis, nor done anything that could remotely be considered a physical attack, even in jest. They were okay, but Dean wasn't. No matter how many times Sam swore to him he'd known the skinwalker wasn't Dean, he wasn't sure his brother completely believed it. Even though the surface behavior remained the same, what was underneath had withdrawn even deeper, even from Sam, and he'd caught his brother watching him with a strange, painful gaze more than once.
So, no, going out all night when the weight of guilt and worry was so fresh wasn't normal. And that damned clock continued to count.
Sam muttered a sharp curse and rose to his feet. And muttered again when he had to rest a hand on the table to support himself as vertigo flared and passed. Sam hadn't fared well in St. Louis, either, and any tension or inactivity tended to seize up abused muscles. Tension, in their job? Sam smiled grimly to himself. Yeah, right. He stretched a few of the kinks out of his neck and back, and reached for his jacket.
Dean hadn't exactly been forthcoming about where he was off to that night, and he'd taken the Impala. Two strikes against this plan already, but they hadn't lived in each other's pockets for eighteen years for nothing. Sam had seen the honky-tonk bar on the way into town same as Dean surely had, and turned his steps toward it. Even if Dean wasn't there, it was a good place to start and only a mile or so away.
The night was clear if chilly, and Sam breathed deeply, wincing only a little at the cold brush against his swollen throat. The truth was, he had his own invisible wounds from St. Louis. Who wouldn't after being knocked out twice, thinking briefly your brother was dead, and then being beaten to a pulp by something that looked like him? But after that first night, knowledge prevailed over instinct…or maybe instinct had prevailed over knowledge?…and his nightmares no longer bore Dean's image. He didn't hear his brother's voice nor see his stolen face, just the ugly thing underneath. Dean his brother was too ingrained in every layer of Sam's being, down to the unconscious, to be used against him for long. He just wished he could get Dean to believe that.
Sam's limp grew a little more pronounced as he walked, and he sighed in resignation. Breaking a bookshelf and a coffee table with your back was bound to throw a few things out of whack, and his gait was one of them, especially when he got tired. Dean had noticed it, too, and each night as soon as Sam started walking unevenly or rubbing his throat, Dean sent him to bed. It should have rankled—Sam was twenty-two, for God's sake, and Jess had been the only one to send him to bed those last few years, for very different reasons—but it didn't. Sam had grown up enough since leaving home to finally, usually, know love when he saw it.
Dean, unfortunately, he wasn't sure could say the same. His brother had always been better at loving than being loved. And he tended to get a little blind when his baby brother was attacked, let alone attacked by something wearing his face.
Sam sped up, bouncing his step a little to compensate for his uneven tread.
The lights of the bar came into sight, and Sam grimaced, hoping that didn't mean the place was still open. It was well after three now, and he didn't relish the thought of wading into a roomful of the tired and drunk dregs of the evening's crowd in search of a brother who wasn't ready to come home yet.
But getting closer, it was obvious the place had long emptied out. The lights came from the huge signs in front, probably left on all night, and the sickly yellow glow of the parking lot lights. In that illumination, the few remaining cars in the lot all looked black.
Only one had the sleek lines of a 60s-era muscle car.
Sam blew out a cloudy breath, unsure if he was relieved or even more worried, and crossed the last block and the bare parking lot in a trot. Up to the Impala, where it was obvious no one sat in the driver's seat, but…
Dean was curled up in the back, one arm hanging loosely off the seat, eyes closed. Even through the slightly fogged window, Sam could see the steady rise and fall of his chest, and there was no sign of blood or other injury. Sam's heart slowly climbed back out of his throat. Just sleeping off the drink? Dean didn't usually drink to excess, but he knew better than to drive when he did. Not so much because of the risk to himself, Sam thought wryly, as to his car. And others. Dean was always the protector, even when it was from himself.
Sam winced at the thought, and dug his spare set of keys out of pocket.
He'd never had one to the Impala, even after Dean had taught him how to drive in that car. Not until a few days after they left Indianapolis. Dean had come back one afternoon with lunch, bullets, and a spare key on a ring. He'd tossed that last into Sam's lap without a word, and had accepted no word in return except for a stammered, "Thanks." Sam still wondered if it was a thank-you for not giving Dean a hard time about the plane…or Dean finally believing he had a partner again.
Sam unlocked the front door as quietly as possible, which was silly because the engine would be so much louder. Still, he slid into the front seat with silent grace despite his bruised back, and tugged the door shut after him. He wasn't about to leave Dean here in the bar parking lot, and not just because Sam didn't want to walk the mile back home. He slid the key into the ignition.
And went still as a knife caressed the skin of his throat, applying just enough pressure to be uncomfortable without breaking the skin.
"It's me," was all Sam said. All he needed to.
The knife disappeared the same second, and Sam turned in the seat to look back.
Gone was the adrenalin-stoked hunter ready to cut his throat. Dean, bloodshot and disheveled, frowned back at him as he put the knife away. That automatic self-defense was something they rarely apologized to each other for nor felt bad about, but given recent events, Sam wasn't surprised by the flash of discomfort. "Way to get your throat cut," Dean muttered, then focused on him. "You okay?"
He didn't mean the knife nor, Sam suspected, even the skinwalker. It was a simple status request, because Sam didn't usually track him down in bar parking lots. Depending on how badly Dean felt later about dragging Sam out after him, he might not even mention that Sam could have just called.
Sam nodded in all honesty. "Yeah. You?"
"Had a few." It was a mere murmur now, as Dean settled back down on the seat. His eyes shut and his breathing soon deepened into sleep again.
"Yeah, I kinda figured," Sam said with a bare smile, and took that as permission to drive them back. No point in mentioning that Dean could hold his liquor, and if he'd "had a few," that said a lot.
Sam tried not to think of the whats as he started the car and pulled out onto the road. What Dean was trying to forget, what he was thinking, what he saw when he looked at Sam. What the last time was he'd pulled something like this, although Sam had an idea of that one. And John Winchester would not have gone out searching for his son unless he thought there was a mortal danger involved. He never had considered other needs or threats beyond the physical.
Dean breathed Sam's name in his sleep, but even as Sam looked up into the mirror, fell silent again. Sam had always loved his brother; that hadn't changed, although Sam was better about showing it now. But it was how much Dean loved him that Sam had started to realize those last few months, and it unsettled him as much as awed him.
The drive back to the motel wasn't long, and soon Sam had pulled into the spot they'd staked out in front of their door. He turned the motor off, then just sat, suddenly exhausted. They weren't on a new hunt, neither of them up for it yet, but between the pain and the memories, the time in between hadn't exactly been restful, either.
I'm right there with you all the way.
I know you are.
Sam took a deep breath, and got out of the car.
Dean helped more than Sam expected, almost walking on his own although he was semi-conscious at best. Sam steered him around a bush and away from the doorjamb, into the room, and smiled as Dean dove into the bed face-first. He detoured into the bathroom, returned with a glass of water and aspirin.
"Dean? Take these."
Even loaded, Dean knew the drill. A little too well, maybe, as Sam watched him push up on one elbow and swallow the pills, then drain the glass before sagging back to the bed. The way he did it spoke of experience.
Sam set the glass aside. "Let's get you a little more comfortable, man." He perched on the edge of the mattress as he pulled off the leather jacket. Sam was careful around the shoulder he knew was still giving Dean trouble, and of the lump on the side of his head where the Skin had knocked him out. The shirt came next, practically a fire hazard from how it reeked of alcohol. The struggle to ease it off flared pain in his back, and Sam hissed under his breath as he worked.
That did what no amount of manhandling and soft-spoken directions hadn't, jarring Dean out of sleep to blink back at him in hazy disorientation. "Sam?"
It was a little frightening how tuned Dean was to his feelings and distress, too. Sam said with soft certainty, "I'm fine. Go back to sleep."
But his brother had always had his own notions on what constituted Sam being fine, and apparently they didn't match Sam's just then. Dean pushed himself up, batting away Sam's attempt at help as he tried to untangle himself from the shirt.
Intention, however, didn't always mean results. Clothing was proving a little too complex for Dean's inebriated mind and body to sort out. He twisted his shoulder in an effort to free himself from the confining fabric, and when he grunted in pain at the motion, Sam had had enough. He was the one slapping Dean's hands away now as Sam eased the shirt free with a minimum of stretching.
Dean glared at him. Sam grinned. "This goes along with having me back, jerk. Get used to it."
"Nice," Dean muttered, eyes fluttering shut. "Hurry up and get it over with."
Sam did. The jeans weren't in too bad shape, and he suspected he'd have had another fight on his hands if he'd tried to get them off, anyway, Dean's resignation or no. He moved on down to the boots instead and started on the laces of one.
Sam usually turned silly when he was drunk: karaoke, making out with Jess in the car, giggling into Dean's ear, the whole bit. It hadn't occurred to him until that night that he'd never seen Dean really drunk before. Somehow, it didn't surprise him that a drunk Dean turned silent and dark. How much was he burying under the alcohol? As much as he encouraged Sam to open up, Dean rarely talked, rarely dealt with anything in what Sam's psych professor would have called a "mentally healthy way." Functional health was all the Winchesters had been bred for, and Dean had learned the lesson well. But there was only so much you could bury without the ghosts coming back to haunt you. Alcohol was apparently Dean's psychological salt-and-burn.
But Sam was here now. And he was a good ghosthunter.
The second boot hit the floor, and Sam returned to the head of the bed, his hip by Dean's curled hands, knees almost knocking the nightstand in the small room. Sam leaned down, ignoring the pull on bruised muscle in his back.
"I know that thing in the sewer and Rebecca's house wasn't you. You got there in time, Dean—I'm okay. And I'm not leaving." Not yet, definitely not like last time.
The whisper startled him; he thought Dean was more out of it than that, but the one eye that opened to peer at him was painfully sober. Sam swallowed. "Yeah?"
"You're gonna make me throw up."
Sam huffed a laugh. "Sorry."
Dean didn't say anything, his eyes sliding shut again. But his hand slid over on the sheet, groping until it found Sam's knee, and gave it a squeeze.
Sam straightened, took a breath. Looked at the clock, which now read three fifty-three and seemed to have lost its malevolence, counting down to things returning to normal instead of up hours of separation. And nodded.
They had time, and each other, and that would be enough.