Someone's Gotta Give
K Hanna Korossy
Sam pulled the plastic key card from the lock with a muttered curse and tried it a third time. There were many reasons he preferred regular tumbler locks, one of them being the lock pick set tucked into his jacket, but the biggest was that they didn't hate him like electric locks seemed to.
The light finally flashed green, and Sam quickly joggled the handle before it changed its mind, stepping into the room. His precarious balancing act with the two bags of food wobbled before he caught himself. His wrist cast had been off for almost a week, but the muscles were still a little weak and he was adjusting to yet another change in balance and motion.
"Problem?" Dean asked dryly from his perch at the far table, not even bothering to look up from whatever he was engrossed in on the laptop. Hopefully not something x-rated.
"The lock hates me."
"Everything hates you, Sam—it's a conspiracy. I thought you'd figured that out by now."
"Bite me," he said absently, dumping the bags on the table and thumping down Dean's soda with as much force as possible. Too bad he hadn't thought to shake it up earlier. "Dean—"
"—I think I found us a gig."
Dean finished the line with him in tandem, and they both blinked, then Sam shook his head. "Okay, what'd you get?"
"You go first." Dean waved, the motion quickly segueing into a scavenge of the bags Sam had brought. Pushing aside the laptop, he spread the fries and hamburger out in front of him with satisfaction.
Sam watched him with furrowed brow for a moment, but when that only earned him a bland go on look, he shrugged. "The waitress's were talking in the diner and—"
"Were any of them hot?" Dean interrupted around a mouthful of fries.
"What?" Sam frowned. "Would you pay attention for one minute, please?"
A loose roll of the shoulders. "Just trying to set the scene, Sammy."
His glare rolled off Dean like water off a fresh-waxed car. "Anyway. They were talking about something that sounds like the local version of Marfa lights. A few hikers have gotten lost over the last couple of months in the mountains around here—might be some kind of malicious version of the lights, or maybe will o'wisps."
Dean shook his head, thankfully chewing and swallowing this time before speaking. "Ball lightning."
Sam stared at him. "What?"
"It's not will o'wisps. It's ball lightning."
"Uh…and you know this, how?"
"Volcanic terrain, rainy season. We always got a call or two about it each spring."
Sam shut his ajar mouth with a snap. "We did?"
Dean nodded, dunking a few more fries in the obscene amount of ketchup Sam had already learned to request for him whenever he was on food pick-up duty. "Dad even stopped checking them out after a while."
"Huh." Sam sat back, nonplussed, and unwrapped his sandwich with less enthusiasm than he'd felt a few minutes before. "I don't remember that."
"Remember that paper on lightning Dad had you write for home school that one year?"
Sam almost snorted at the mention of home school. It was a euphemism for either when they were in town too short a time to go to school or when someone had gotten too suspicious of their lifestyle and they had to be discrete. Sam kept his textbooks and studied conscientiously without supervision—mostly—but for Dean it had been a good excuse to do more practical learning, which usually meant training, working, or one-on-one co-ed anatomy lessons. Still, there were some good memories in there, such as… Sam's brow puckered. "That was for a hunt?"
"That was for a hunt," Dean confirmed with a bob of the head.
Sam sighed. Well, it wasn't the first time some innocent memory of his had looked very different in the light of adult hindsight. Sometimes he just didn't even want to know. "Whatever. What'd you come up with?"
Dean eyed him, his amusement softening. "He did try to connect with you, Sam."
Sam swallowed, looking away as he nodded. It was a lot harder to be angry with his father now that the man was dead, the old hurts and wounds dulled with regret and loss. And while he was a lot more ready and willing to talk about their dad than Dean was, it still wasn't a topic Sam enjoyed. He cleared his throat, casting Dean a silently grateful glance for the attempt—John Winchester really wasn't an easy topic for Dean—then hooked his chin at the laptop. "What did you find?" he asked again.
A tiny mirrored smile, then a broader, less sincere one. "Two guys in a small town in eastern Nebraska suddenly go crazy within a week of each other."
Sam chewed contemplatively on his Sun Chips. "Relatives?"
"Any history of—"
"Dude." Dean sounded offended.
Sam smiled. Yeah, Dean knew his job, even better than Sam did sometimes. Ball lightning? And he was itching for a hunt, so much out there to do, so little time before the Demon forced things to an inevitable head and Sam's destiny was decided. He sobered, biting hard into his sandwich. "People going crazy—yeah, sounds good. Let's check it out."
Dean never addressed Sam's recently discovered enthusiasm for the hunt, and didn't this time. But Sam could feel his brother's eyes on him nonetheless, and did what Winchesters always did: ignored it and went on.
The rest of the meal passed in easy if deliberate silence.
Dean pulled up in front of the main strip diner, a place called Charlie's that carried the decidedly promising sign of homecooking with its red-and-white-checked curtains. He looked it over, stomach growling a reminder that their breakfast of pancakes and sausages was two states behind them. "Food, research…" He glanced over at Sam with a grin, "…or both?"
Sam shook his head tolerantly. He nodded out the windshield. "Think it's a sign?"
Dean took another look, this time registering the two buildings on either side of the diner: the police station and the library. He sighed, knowing he was going to starve a little longer. "It's hard to think on an empty stomach, dude," he wheedled.
"What's your excuse the rest of the time?" Sam asked, deadpan.
Dean threw him a look, the one that used to send small Sammy scurrying into the bathtub or out of Dean's stuff, but that only seemed to amuse gigantor Sam. Wasn't fair to lose the advantage of authority as well as of size. "Fine, just for that, you get the library."
"And how is this unusual?"
Dean ignored him with dignity and climbed out of the car, feeling it rock as Sam did the same. Still, he paused at the curb, giving his brother a totally serious look. "Sammy…"
His brother looked at him with calm sincerity. "I'll meet you at the diner in an hour."
He knew, Dean had no doubt he knew, that Dean was still antsy whenever Sam was out of his sight, that he slept more lightly for fear of Sam sneaking out on him again, that he still feared being left, like some kind of weak-kneedgirl. But Sam never said a word about it, never apologized or rebelled or teased or pushed Dean to talk. He just made promises and then kept them, rebuilding trust a little more with each one. And Dean loved him more than a little for that.
He nodded, then threw Sam a grin. "Don't get lost in the stacks, dude."
It was weak, but his brother huffed on cue. "That was just one time…" Sam muttered, and turned away. Calling back over his shoulder, "Don't get caught playing strip search with the hot deputy in the jail."
Dean rolled his eyes. "One time," he echoed Sam under his breath, then grinned. It was still his best experience in a cell.
Turned out the deputy wasn't so hot, but she was a she and bored and lonely, and that was good enough. Wasn't the first time he'd found a beautiful woman underneath a butter face, and Dean enjoyed women in general. He had a nice chat, got what he needed, and parted with amicable regret when he found out she had a boyfriend. Who also had a badge and gun.
Dean wasted no time getting over to the diner, and it wasn't just because his stomach was about ready to fall out.
Sam slid onto the stool next to him at the counter five minutes later, looking flushed from his doubtless equally gratifying time spent with books. "We eating here?"
"Carry-out," Dean said. "Figured we could spread things out in a room," he added meaningfully. No prying eyes there to balk at autopsy photos.
Sam nodded, picking up a laminated menu.
"I already ordered."
Sam dropped the menu without a word and glanced around the room, checking the same things Dean already had: exits, windows, their fellow diners. His knee jogged up and down, and Dean hid a smile. Even though he knew Sam was restless to hunt these days and why, his little brother never had been able to sit still for long unless immersed in a book. Even Stanford hadn't changed that.
Their orders delivered, they returned to the car for the trip of all of two blocks to the one motel in town. A light rain had started up, and Sam loped into the office to get them a room. Five minutes later, they were digging into lunch at the one table in a deep burgundy and teal double, chicken-fried steak for Dean, a somewhat healthier tuna sandwich for Sam. He didn't even quirk an eyebrow at the choice, just dug in, and, satisfied, Dean did the same.
"So?" he finally said when he had enough food in him to take the edge off starvation.
"So," Sam said, pulling out his journal and dropping it on the table. "Nothing special about the area: no lore, no sacred Native American history, no razed cemeteries or massacres. Not like we'd necessarily expect that considering we're dealing with something that causes insanity instead of death," he quickly added off Dean's look. "But still…"
Dean nodded, flipping through Sam's scrawled notes. "Had to check. Right, so, any good news?"
Sam grimaced. "Not sure you'd call it good, but yeah." He slid a newspaper dated the day before in front of Dean and pointed to an article halfway down. Beneath news about drought and plans to raise police salaries and a local bridge's construction, was nestled the small headline: "Local Man Kills Parents, Self."
"Says he went postal out of the blue at work, took off before anyone could stop him, found a gun somewhere and shot his family, then suicided."
Dean flattened his lips. "Well, that's familiar. The first two didn't shoot anybody else, but going ballistic, shooting themselves? What does that sound like to you, possession?"
Sam frowned. "I don't know, Dean, why possess someone just to have them kill themselves? And why here?"
Dean shrugged. "Why anywhere? Okay, so…" He bent down to the paper again. "…Ed Garten, meet…Ryan Hirsch and Hugh Stepford." He tossed the two copied files onto the newspaper.
"Stepford?" Sam asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Hey, I didn't name him." Totally seriously, as if he hadn't snickered over the name earlier, himself. Those Stepford robots had been crazy, too.
Sam opened the files and laid them out in line with the paper. He began flipping through the reports one at a time, stopping to read the details of each victim and death.
Dean also started in on Sam's notes, tapping a pen against the laminated tabletop, then, at a quick glare from Sam, chewing on the pen cap instead. No known local Native American settlements in the area's history, no local legends recorded, although they might have more luck with word-of-mouth on that one. No history of schizophrenia clusters in the area, yadda, yadda. Sam had been his usual thorough self. Dean sighed, doodling something in the margins that turned out to be a knife while he thought. Could just be an isolated minor event in the past that they were looking for, maybe a vengeful spirit revisiting its fate on others. There would probably be a common denominator between the victims then. Or they could be looking for something that caused insanity, although Dean had never—
Across the table from him, Sam jerked, stopped reading. Dean could feel the change in his brother's level of tension and looked up.
That fine line that usually made his big brother worry had appeared between Sam's eyebrows. He stared at the newspaper a moment, then just as Dean was about to ask him what he saw, Sam turned back to the first file—Hugh—scanning it briefly before going on to Ryan. Looking for something. Dean leaned in closer, trying to see upside-down what had caught Sam's eye.
It wasn't hard. He hadn't really looked at the files, too busy charming them out of the deputy. Without the words to focus on, the pictures suddenly registered. All three men were young, early twenties, with dark hair and good looks. So, maybe there wasn't a connection, but there was a pattern, and that was a good thing. It narrowed down the search considerably: whatever they were hunting had a "type."
Sam wasn't saying anything, however, nor looked at all happy with the find. He just sat back finally and, without a word or glance at Dean, started eating his sandwich with unusual focus.
"What?" Dean asked, and got a weak hitch of the shoulder. He frowned at the uncharacteristic behavior. The similar appearance couldn't be all. He was missing something, and he tugged the first file over.
Hugh Stepford, age 23, no siblings, two parents alive, senior at UNL, healthy until he shot himself in the head. Mentally shrugging, Dean retrieved Ryan Hirsch: age 23, two sisters, single father, senior at the community college, no history of imbalance.
Something stirred in him, uneasy. Dean's eyes flicked up to see Sam studiously avoiding his gaze. Chill deepening, he snagged the newspaper last, flipping a few pages to the rest of the article, and the details of Ed Garten's too-short life. Both parents now dead, three siblings, age 23, senior at…
His face tightened.
Dean looked back at the picture of Hugh, the shaggy dark-brown hair and friendly smile. Ryan's hair was shorter but the same color, over a clean-cut face. Ed could have been their brother.
Sam still wasn't looking at him, and Dean knew why now. He fixed his brother with a stare. "They're you."
A swallow of Coke. "They're dark-haired twenty-three-year-olds who went to school, Dean. There're thousands of people who fit that description," Sam answered too quickly, eyes now meeting his, only to dart away again.
"No," Dean shook his head, "not in a town this size. That was probably all of 'em, in fact. Except for you." His stomach turned even as he said the words, and he pushed the remainder of his lunch away.
"Dean, if it's just hitting people here, chances are its something linked to the town. My passing through doesn't mean I'm a target," Sam argued.
Dean scowled. "You see anyone else around today who fit the pattern?"
"So maybe it's over."
"And maybe you're next."
Sam sat back. "Right. So if this went after twenty-seven-year-old blonds with a taste for classic cars and rock, you'd want to book?"
"No," Dean answered flatly, because maybe Sam thought he was the only one who talked about these things, but that was only because Dean picked his times. "You would."
Sam's mouth opened, then shut again.
Dean stood, reaching for the duffel tumbled on his bed. "Come on, we're leaving."
"The room, or the town?" Sam asked stiffly as he also got up.
The fact that he had to look up to his little brother was something he never got used to. "Town," Dean responded in a tone that still carried big brother weight.
Which didn't stop Sam these days. "Dude. We can't just leave this."
Deliberately misunderstanding, Dean gathered the paperwork spread across the table and pushed the pile at Sam, who automatically closed a hand around it. "You're right. We'll toss it outside town." He turned toward the door.
"Dean." Sam grabbed his arm from behind, and Dean swung to a reluctant halt. "Dean," he repeated in what he probably thought was his reasonable voice. "No. We need to do this."
Dean shifted his balance evenly to both legs. "Why?" he shot back darkly. "So you can get another gold star on your karma scorecard? Because this won't save you, Sam."
He knew it came out wrong the moment Sam's face grew dark and pained.
Dean winced an apology, gentled his voice. "Come on. Maybe we can still get our money back."
"Sure we can." Dean glanced back. "We'll say the room's…infested with roaches. 'S not far from the truth."
"No," Sam repeated, jaw jutting. "I'm not just walking out on this case."
Dean could do stubborn, too, and felt his face harden as he turned back to his brother. "Sam, whatever this is is driving people crazy, probably permanently, making them kill themselves, definitely permanently, and you're a prime target."
"All the better to catch it then, right?" Sam twisted his head to the side, bitterly smug in his knowledge of Winchester procedure. "It's not like we haven't used one of us as bait before."
"That's when we know what it is," Dean said with exasperation. "Pinning a bull's-eye to your back when we're blind is just stupid, Sam. For all we know, this is a curse or something and there's nothing to stop."
"This isn't what we—"
"Die for? What, is that the Winchester way now? Do the job even if it kills you? You in such a hurry to follow Dad's example?"
"No, Dean, I'm in such a hurry to keep you from having to follow Dad's orders," the answer tore out of Sam.
That hurt on so many levels. Dean had to fight to keep his voice steady. "Find your redemption somewhere else then, Sam. We're not staying here."
"I'm not leaving." Sam had found some kind of calm, but his eyes were hollow.
Dean stared at him a moment with narrowed gaze, feeling everything he'd been trying so hard to hold together start crumbling around him. "Fine," he said, quiet, hard. "You wanna stay and sacrifice yourself, man, that's your choice. Just don't expect me to stick around and watch."
He turned and walked out.
Every step was pain, like fighting against bone-deep need. At the Impala, Dean unlocked the door, threw his bag in. And then just stopped.
Sam wasn't coming out after him. Not that Dean had really expected him to, but still, some part of him had hoped…
And now what? Was he just going to drive away, leave Sam there at the mercy of whatever this was that had a taste for educated twenty-three-year-old brunets? That led them to shove a gun under their chin and…
Dean sagged against the rain-slicked metal of the car, feeling the water soak through his clothes and not caring. Somewhere along the way, he'd lost Sam along with Dad. His little brother had listened to him once, looked up to him, let Dean protect him. Now, Sam lived in fear, driven and weary and anxious, so scared of what he might become that he was willing to die to change it. And nothing Dean said could bring him back. How could he save his little brother if Sammy didn't let him?
Dean woodenly opened the back door and fished out his duffel, then trudged back to the room.
Sam was just putting down his phone, and his eyes slid sideways at Dean's arrival, seemingly unsurprised at his entrance, and examined the floor. He spoke mutedly.
"Ryan's dad's agreed to talk to us."
It would have been so much easier to hate Sam sometimes, but he'd never been able to. Especially not when Sam sounded that helpless.
Dean just nodded, and went in to the bathroom to change.
The silence in the car crowded Sam's head, choked his throat.
He knew Dean was scared for him. Hey, Sam was pretty terrified for himself. Insanity was worse than death, especially if it meant possibly hurting Dean, too. It was exactly what he feared was his fate.
And the reason he had to stay and see this through.
He'd been willing to do it alone. It had taken all he had not to go after Dean when his brother walked out, but there had been some measure of relief, too, that Dean would be out of harm's way in case… Not nearly as much relief, however, as when his brother had returned a few minutes later, head bowed, defeated. Sam could walk away from him, get out of the car in the middle of nowhere, sneak out of their room in the dead of night, but Dean would never leave him, and some part of Sam had always known that. Had probably counted on it.
This wasn't the way he wanted it, though.
Anger Sam could deal with; God knew it wouldn't be the first time they'd argued, over a case, over right and wrong, heck, over the laundry. But this beaten resignation, the way Dean couldn't bear to look at him, the way his shoulders were rounded as if waiting for the blow…it hurt. Especially since he was the cause.
How could he choose between saving himself and not losing Dean?
Then they were pulling up in front of the Hirsch household, Dean a silent shadow behind Sam as he shuffled up the walk, and the question had to wait.
Mr. Hirsch—Len, as he insisted they call him—was silver-haired, his weathered face lined with years. But it was grief that bowed his solid frame, not age, and Sam flashed briefly to his brother, mirror of impending loss. Then the older man invited them inside and, with an unreturned glance at Dean, Sam followed.
They sat on a plaid couch, Len awkwardly offered them a cup of coffee that Sam politely turned down and Dean shook his head at.
"That's nice of you fellas to come pay your respects. I don't know a lot of Ryan's friends."
Sam's warm look was genuine. "I—we—didn't know him as well as we'd have liked, but he seemed like a good guy. I'm so sorry for what happened. Were the doctors been able to find any reason…?"
The hanging head, grey in the indoor light, shook heavily. "Nothing. Everybody's flummoxed. Ryan was always such a cheerful kid, Even when his mom died, he was the one who kept me going sometimes. Think he took care of me more than I did of him."
Dean didn't move, silent and rock-still, but Sam could almost feel the wave of grief the words sent through him. From what Dean had shared, their dad had said something similar to him right before he'd died.
Sam cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I know it was sudden."
Len surprised him with a pained chuckle. "Not exactly. It was four days from when he changed that he finally found that gun and pulled the trigger. Four very long days."
Sam jerked in surprise; Hugh Stepford had started raving and an hour later he was dead. Somehow they'd missed that Ryan hung on for days. He glanced at Dean again, finding his brother's face turned away, and missed the silent communication.
The older man was still talking. "I tried to help him, tried everything I could for him, but he just sunk deeper each day. Couldn't do anything to save him in the end, just watched him die…" His shoulders shook once, every word distilled grief.
Dean snapped to his feet. Sam's startled eyes flew to him only in time to catch a view of his back as he strode out of the living room. The front door clicked behind him a few seconds later.
Oh, God. Sam's eyes briefly shut, his throat drawing tight like a noose. He got it. For once, he really got it.
Len shuddered and pulled himself together. "Everything all right? I didn't mean to upset you. Just an old man talking…"
Sam forced his eyes open, a wan smile onto his face. "No. No, it's not you, it's just…Dean knew him better than I did. It's…hard to hear. But I'm glad you told us. Thank you." He was lurching to his feet, needing to get out of there, to instead of away from.
Len rose with him. "Well, you two are welcome back any time. I'm sure Ryan would have felt the same way."
"I'm very sorry for your loss," Sam said earnestly, backing up a step, then another.
"Thanks for coming by." If Len was taken aback at the sudden end to their visit, he wasn't showing it. Grief made all those social niceties kind of irrelevant.
Sam nodded, then turned and dashed outside.
He needed to find Deannow.
The rain had stopped, and two boys were playing on the sidewalk on the other side of the street, something that involved a lot of shooting and blowing-up sound effects. Dean leaned back, feeling the comforting solid press of the Impala's grill against the back of his legs, and watched them until his vision blurred. Then he turned to stare down the street at nothing.
Len Hirsch's sorrow flowed through him like it was his own, his usual walls a useless sieve. There was nothing about the man that should have reminded Dean of John Winchester, but fathers and sons and grief all seemed to press tender, slow-healing wounds even now, months later. And that was before the old man had started talking about being helpless to save your loved one. His cracking voice had cracked something in Dean, too.
He licked his lips, shifting his gaze to the asphalt below his feet. He couldn't do this. He couldn't stay and watch Sam throw his life away. It would be watching himself die.
But he couldn't leave, either. The duty to protect Sam ran deeper than any last promise to his dad or training of his youth. It was at the core of who Dean was: Sam's big brother, and he couldn't walk out on that, not even to save himself.
So what was left? Bashing Sam over the head and stuffing him in the trunk until they were as far as Dean could get them from this lethal little town? Drug or enspell or tie him up? It would lose him Sam just as surely as if he'd shot him, and his brother would be on his way back here the moment Dean let him go.
There was nothing else. Nothing but—
He hadn't heard the front door or the footsteps. Sam was just there from one moment to the next, leaning against the front of the car beside Dean.
Dean flashed the road a sick smile. "Seems like a good guy."
"Yeah." Softly. "Dean—"
"Get anything useful? Any leads?"
Dean couldn't keep it up, choking on the small talk. He turned to Sam blindly, feeling a gut-tearing déjà vu to an empty mountain road and a similar sense of bleak despair. "Sam, I'm begging you, let this one go. Please."
Sam's shoulder pressed against his like a buttress. "We can't just leave these people, Dean." But all the anger and stridency was gone from his voice, his tone almost gentle now.
Dean shook his head. "We can call in somebody else—Bobby'll know who's in the area. Somebody who's not a target. We'll find another hunt, Sam, all right? We'll keep going, save other people. Please." He could hear Sam suck in a breath, and braced himself.
A whisper, but solid and sure. "Okay."
His eyes flinched up to Sam's finally, seeing an unnerving amount of sympathy there. "Okay?" Dean repeated blankly.
"Okay." A tiny smile, head cocked. "I mean, it's your job, too."
There were too many echoes there for him to sort out: he's your dad, too and do your job and take care of Sammy, Dean and, this is our life now and, tacitly, you don't have to beg for me.
Then, just as full of meaning and simple and quiet, "I'm sorry. Sometimes I just—"
"I know." Dean swallowed, able to breathe again. He turned back to the kids playing on the sidewalk.
Maybe neither of them was completely lost. How could they be when they still knew where the other was.
They stayed there a few minutes in silence, listening to the kids and a distant lawnmower's growl and all the unspoken between them. Then, still without a word, they straightened and went around the sides of the car to get in, and drove away.
It was at a gas station about fifty miles later. Sam sat in the front seat sorting through his brother's tapes, trying fruitlessly to find something he hadn't heard a thousand times. Dean was leaning against the car next to his door, waiting for the tank to fill up. He didn't even look down, just spoke to the air at large.
"Helping people isn't gonna save you, Sam."
Sam froze, fingers painfully tight around Motorhead.
Dean turned to lean sideways against the car, still not looking, still casual. "There isn't gonna be anything to save you from. But if it goes down that way, I'll be there."
Sam nodded thickly, hair falling into his eyes, vision obscured far more by the memory of Dean slumped against the hood of the car, pleading with him to go but prepared to stay and protect Sam no matter what. At this moment, he believed his brother could do it.
Dean straightened. "You want anything from inside?"
Sam shook his head, voice gravelly. "I'm good."
A thump on the roof of the car, and Dean walked away.
But Sam knew he wouldn't go far.