Tag-on for Mystery Spot. Lots of spoilers, so you've been warned! (Edited - all my section breaks disappeared!! Oh, and I forgot to lay the accolades on the many editors of this fic: Amy, laceym and charis-kalos.)
Dean was worried about his brother. Sam had not acted like himself in about a month. Yeah, okay, his deadline was looming and Sam hadn't found anything really useful yet, but even that did not account for this change.
Right after the Trickster, Sam seemed…intense. It was about two days before Dean got him to crack a real smile. It was almost two weeks before Sam laughed, and there was no one to ask about it because only Sam and the Trickster knew what happened. How could he fix it when he didn't know what was broken? Well, obviously it involved him and dying. Even if Sam hadn't told him that it was pretty obvious. Sam had only recently begun to allow him to go to public restrooms by himself. Of course, Sam now chose to sit at the table or booth closest to the restrooms, or loiter outside like a worried parent or some pervert, just in case Dean needed him.
He wasn't a child, but Sam sure treated him like one. Each time Dean started to complain, he noticed this deep hurt in Sam's eyes and the words died on his tongue. So, like everything else, Dean just took it and kept on taking it.
He found an Asia tape in a used bookstore while Sam shopped. Delighted with his new purchase, Dean popped the tape in as soon as they got in the car. As 'Heat of the Moment' started, Sam literally jumped in his seat. Dean grinned, loving that he could still shock his baby brother after all these years. Then Sam popped the tape out and snapped it in half. Glaring at Dean, Sam deliberately pulled all the thin brown tape out, creating a huge tangled mess which he threw out the window.
"No Asia, Dean." Sam's eyes had a hollow, haunted look as he stared out the front window. "Ever."
Dean couldn't suppress his shudder.
"I don't want to go in there, Dean." Sam's pronouncement sounded like everything else for the past month: final.
"Sam," Dean tried again, "it's the best lead we've had on Bela and the Colt." He glanced out the window at the bar. It was one of the rougher looking places he had seen, but Dean was sure they could handle it. Well, he could at any rate.
"The people here are pretty rough, Dean," Sam explained slowly. "I don't like the idea of you going in there."
Dean turned to look at Sam. His brother had that intense look again, the one that sent ice shivers down Dean's spine. "Dude, I can handle myself."
Sam swallowed hard, staring out the window. "Okay. Okay, we'll go in. But there are a few ground rules." Dean rolled his eyes, settling back in his seat. This could take a while. "First, I want you armed. When we're inside, you have to ask for Jim at the bar. Jim is always armed and he prefers knives. Jim always has three or four guys for muscle. One is a big guy called Stew, because that's what he turns peoples' faces into. If it gets ugly, I want you to leave Stew to me."
Dean felt his eyes widen. "How the hell could you possibly know that?" he demanded, gripping the wheel.
Sam let out a heavy sigh. "I just do. Ready?"
"Sam?" Dean decided maybe it was time. "How is it that suddenly you know people you shouldn't? And what makes you think you should be the one handling this Stew guy?"
"Dean." Sam's voice had 'that' tone in it, the one that said 'enough questions'. "Trust me."
Sam said a lot of that lately, too. He wanted to argue, he really did, but that tone sounded an awful lot like the tone Dad used when he issued orders and Dean had a hard time going against it.
"You know I trust you, Sam. It's just…" he turned to face his brother. "I'm worried about you. Something else happened with the Trickster, didn't it?"
"No," Sam replied in a quiet voice that gave Dean's arms gooseflesh. "I want you to handle Jim. He's the one who runs things. You always handle guys like him better than I ever have. I'll just watch your back."
Dean nodded, reaching for his door handle. He paused, feeling the weight of Sam's gaze on him yet again. Glancing back confirmed his suspicions, Sam's dark eyes bored into him like he might disappear at any second. Still watching his brother, Dean pushed his door open. Sam didn't break eye contact until Dean did.
Dean headed for the trunk, intending they both be well armed before going inside. Sam took the handgun Dean offered but grabbed his arm briefly. "Dean? I'm going to follow your lead."
Incredulous, Dean stared at his brother. "Okay." Wasn't that what usually happened in places like this?
"I mean, I don't want…" Sam's voice trailed off. He waited patiently as his brother cleared his throat, clearly trying to pull himself together. "I'm following your lead," Sam said firmly.
"Okay, Sammy." Dean slipped his favorite pistol into his back waistband. "Are we ready?"
Sam shook his head, reaching into the weapons box again to pull out the hunting knife Dean slept with under his pillow. "Put that in your boot," Sam instructed, reaching into the box again. This time he pulled out a smaller silver knife that had a wrist strap. "Left arm." Dean fastened it on his left forearm as Sam rummaged around again making a face. "Don't I have…damn it."
"Have what?" Dean asked, keeping his voice low. When Sam sounded like this his brother either started behaving strangely or shut down altogether.
"We'll have to get one later," Sam replied with a shrug, slamming the trunk closed. "Let's go."
Sam motioned for Dean to take the lead, another thing that was weird. It was like Sam had to give him permission to go first these days. That Trickster really did a number on his little brother. The one time Dean had suggested they keep an eye out for it, Sam had shut him down so fast his head was still spinning.
"Dean?" Sam's voice carried easily over the barroom jukebox music drifting outdoors. "How would you feel about organizing our weapons?"
Dean glanced back to the car before looking at Sam again. "Organize how? You don't like the trunk?"
Sam shook his head, glancing away. "The trunk is fine. Forget it."
Cryptic things like that were wearing his patience pretty thin, but his concern outweighed everything else. Dean bit his tongue before he could start anything new with Sam. They had something else to deal with at the moment.
Sam followed his big brother from two carefully measured steps behind. He watched the way Dean walked with a surety and confidence Sam never really felt. When his brother was in his element, Dean was really in his element. Then again, Sam had not seen many situations that fazed his big brother, not even jail. Dean seemed to fit in nearly anywhere they went. That thought brought a thin, rare smile to Sam's face.
Dean pushed through the front door, looking to the entire world like some guy just out for a drink. His brother had that innocent routine down pretty damn well, Sam had to admit. Sam lost that ability a few months back. Too much time alone and killing things tended to do that to you. Well, at least it did to him. Now that he had his brother and those months back, Sam was determined to do a few things differently. This particular confrontation had not gone well the first time. Sam never did find out where Bela was, or the Colt. Then it had been nothing more than an annoyance. Now it was important, damned important. A demon still held Dean's marker and that gun could kill it. That was exactly what Sam intended to use it for. No one, no one, was taking his big brother away again.
Dean nudged him at the bar. Sam thought he understood and sunk down to sit on a barstool. Dean cleared his throat, looking pointedly at the bar. His beer was already there. Surprised, Sam picked it up and took a small swig.
Dean's face relaxed some as his brother nodded approval and took a long drink. Dean's sharp eyes scanned the bar. "You're the one who seems to know everything," he muttered softly. "What am I looking for?"
Sam tried to look inconspicuous as he glanced around, but he knew that was usually a lost cause. Before he spent all those months alone, Sam had blamed Dean for drawing undue attention to them. He learned the hard way that he did not need help.
His eyes landed on Jim's men. Perhaps he shouldn't have told Dean as much as he did, but it was for his brother's safety. This was the bar fight that required twenty stitches, the first of many by his own hand. He met Dean's eyes. His brother no longer looked deeply concerned for him, but completely in the current situation. Sam could not help the fact one corner of his mouth twitched up at the realization. God, his brother was good at this.
"Table by the door," Sam replied, lifting the beer to his mouth again. "They work for Jim. Stew is the ugliest one."
Dean's eyes danced over and back, too fast for anyone to think he had really taken stock. "Big guy closest to the door?" Sam nodded. "Jim?"
Sam shrugged. "Don't see him."
Dean nodded. Then his brother gave him a look that clearly said 'We are discussing this later, whether you like it or not.' It was all Sam could do not to smile at Dean's worry, and at the fact his brother could assume there would be a later. Always a later. Maybe he could talk about it if he were really, really drunk. It had been a long time since he got totally wasted, since he let his guard down.
When the bartender came back later to ask if they needed more beer, Dean asked about Jim. The guy gave him an odd look.
Dean flashed his best smile. "Friends of the family," he said easily. When the bartender backed up a step, Dean chuckled. "Just kidding. My brother and I just have a little business to do and we were told to stop in." Dean shrugged. "Said he was the guy to see."
The bartender, like everyone else in the place, was big and burly. As Sam recalled the guy had a glass jaw, but that might have been someone else. After the first couple of minutes, the rest of the fight was one big blur. He struggled to remember how things degraded so quickly, chalking most of it up to his own inexperience. He had a lot of that experience now, but he had something far more powerful than that this time. He had Dean.
The bartender returned a moment later, leaned over the bar to whisper, "Back room." Dean nodded, throwing a twenty on the bar as a tip. Sam watched, trying to detach himself from everything so he could view the upcoming exchange with a clear head. Unfortunately, the thought of Dean being in danger kept interfering. And what was up with the twenty? Dean rarely tipped, and when he did it was never that much.
As they entered the back room Sam loomed in the space just behind his brother, alert for any sudden movements. Dean walked with an ease and grace that appeared natural and comfortable. Only the fact Sam knew his brother so well told him that Dean was just as alert and on-edge as he was. The three men from the table by the door flanked them to take up positions along the wall. A fourth man sat at the only table which was pushed back until just one person could sit behind it, with the wall at his back.
"Jim?" Dean asked, one hand out. The man sitting at the table, lean and hard from a rough life, glared back ignoring Dean's attempt at civility. Sam clenched his jaw, attempting to control his temper. People really shouldn't treat his brother like that. Dean stepped back, head tilting to one side. "Well, maybe it's not him, Sammy." He shrugged, turning around. "Let's go."
Dean slapped him in the shoulder, heading back out the way they came. Confused, Sam had to remember his promise to follow his brother's lead.
"You boys slumming?" Jim asked and Sam noted the disdain in the man's voice. It had ticked him off last time, too.
Dean looked over his shoulder, pointedly keeping his back to Jim. "What, in a ritzy place like this?" A dazzling smile erupted.
Sam watched, amazed, as a transformation came over Jim. His face softened a little and his body language relaxed some as his eyes narrowed on Dean. "This is a dive."
Dean turned slowly, probably a calculated move not to set anyone off. "Well, compared with some places I've been, I'd give this one three stars." Dean scratched at his chin, contemplating. "Make that four. I didn't even have to order my beer."
Jim smiled, displaying a few gaps that probably once held teeth. Sam tried not to wrinkle his nose in disgust.
"Have a seat." Jim gestured to the chair across from him. "I'm Jim."
"Dean." With a grin, and a glance at Sam, Dean sat opposite Jim.
Jim glared up at Sam. "What's with him?"
Dean shrugged, kicking the chair back to balance on two legs. "He's my brother."
"Does he always stare like that?" Jim asked, looking between them.
Dean turned partially around and shot Sam a glare before turning back to Jim. "Well, he doesn't like a good bar as much as I do." Dean's voice dropped to a whisper. "He prefers the college crowd."
Jim laughed, the dry husky sound of a chain smoker. "Well, who doesn't like a nice co-ed once in a while?"
Dean beamed. "Exactly!"
"So, Dean," Jim leaned forward on the table, eyebrows drawing together, "I understand you have some business that deals with me?"
"Not really with you," Dean said, waving one hand carelessly, "I just need to talk to one of your suppliers."
Jim exchanged a dark look with one of the men standing guard. Stew pushed off from the wall, fists clenching. Sam fixed the guy with a dark look of his own. If he had to be honest with himself, Sam was kind of hoping for a rematch, despite the potential for danger. Between him and Dean, they could take these losers.
Dean laughed. "Not that kind of supplier. I'm taking about special, uh, artifacts."
Jim instantly relaxed. "You mean Bela. That chick is nothing but trouble. I wouldn't even deal with her, except she can always get her hands on certain…items."
Dean nodded. "I know exactly what you mean. I'm looking for something really special and I was told she's the one to talk to." Dean held both hands in the air. "After your business with her is done, of course."
Jim took out a narrow knife, ran the blade along the edge of the table. "What's in it for me?"
"Oh, I don't know," Dean shrugged, eyeing each of the men standing along the walls, "got a vampire or werewolf that needs killing?"
Jim laughed again. "You are one funny son of a bitch, Dean." He shook his head, stabbing the end of the knife into the table. "Seriously. What can you do for me in return?"
Dean appeared thoughtful. "Well, I can make sure the bitch doesn't rip you off while she's here. How's that sound?" Dean motioned to Sam. "We've had some experience with that."
Jim eyed them both carefully before speaking again. "I'll think about it. Where are you staying?"
"In town. We can come back tomorrow." Dean stood. Sam tensed. This was the point fists started flying last time.
"I'd prefer to send someone to get you," Jim replied evenly.
Dean snorted. "Yeah, I'll bet. We'll come by tomorrow afternoon."
Jim motioned to the men standing along the walls as he stood. They filed out of the room, throwing backward looks of confusion. He motioned Dean closer. Sam stepped within reach of his brother, fully intending to yank Dean clear if Jim produced another knife or weapon of any kind.
"You weren't kidding, were you?" Jim whispered, face drawn and tight. "About killing…things?"
Dean looked right in Jim's eyes, his face hard but giving nothing away. "See you tomorrow."
Jim nodded, waving them out. Sam shadowed Dean's steps, eyes keen for any suspicious movements as they left. They were already past the point it all blew up in Sam's face, but the way his gut was twisting Sam had the feeling that this was the most dangerous part of the meeting. Stew stood by the front door, glaring at them as they approached.
"Dude!" Dean shouted back at the bartender. "How about a round for my buddies here? On me?" Dean produced his wallet again, waving some twenties at the bartender. The bartender hurried to fill fresh mugs with beer while Dean waited near the table.
"What are you doing?" Sam breathed, hoping he was loud enough for his brother to hear him.
One of Dean's boots kicked back into his foot, stomping down lightly. A warning. This was Dean's show, not his. The broad grin Dean used on strangers flashed brightly as the beers were delivered and paid for, the change waved away as an excessive tip. Jim's muscle all sat to accept their drinks, one raising his glass in thanks. Stew sat, but he did not take his eyes off of Sam. Sam edged toward the door, one hand ready to snatch his brother to safety.
"Well, enjoy!" Dean said with forced enthusiasm. "My brother and I have a few things to do, so we'll be going."
Dean's hand steered him out the door as he and Stew glared at each other. As Sam resisted the urge to knock the guy into next week, Dean's hand tightened on his arm and he was thrust outdoors.
Sam did not allow himself to really breathe again until they were both inside the car, safe and sound. "God, I'm glad you're my brother," Sam said, breaking the silence heavy in the car.
"That right?" Dean asked, pulling out of the parking lot. "So why don't you tell me how you knew all that stuff, about Jim and Stew?"
"Beer," Sam replied.
"What?" Dean glanced between him and the road.
"I need to get really drunk before I tell you," Sam admitted. "Besides, it's been too long since I…"
"Got laid?" Dean asked, smirking.
"I was going to say relaxed, but that too." He sighed, running both hands over his head. "Not that that part really matters."
"Dude," Dean replied, shaking his head, "getting laid always matters."
"No, it doesn't," Sam snapped. "There are things more important." He found himself staring at his big brother again, unable to stop. That was really turning into a bad habit and he suspected it would start annoying Dean soon. Sometimes he had to remind himself that Dean was still alive, still here with him.
"Sam, stop looking at me like that." Yep, Dean was annoyed.
"I'm trying." Sam closed his eyes, drawing on inner resources. "Honest, Dean. I'm really trying."
He felt a hand grasp his arm, squeezing gently. Cracking his eyes open, Sam saw Dean's hand holding on to him. "We're getting take-out and beer and going back to the room. Then we're having a really long talk."
Sam swallowed hard. He had been banking on the fact his brother did not like those kinds of talks. Well, even Dean could be forced into one if things got bad enough. Had he been bad enough? Sam had been trying so hard to be good, to act normal. Apparently he had not tried hard enough.
As usual, Sam shadowed his brother to get the food and beer, not wanting Dean out of his sight for too long. Plus you never knew when an armed robbery or freak accident could happen just two feet away. Again. Sam had already lived through that too many times to just let it happen again. Ever.
Back at the room Sam held his breath while Dean used the bathroom. After Dean came out, alive, he allowed himself to breathe again.
"That's another thing," Dean quipped, reaching for the beer, "you need to quit holding your breath so much. You're going to turn blue." A beer can sailed through the air, which Sam caught easily. "Talk to me, Sam."
Sam shook his head. "Not until I'm good and drunk." He popped his beer open, draining it. He didn't remember beer tasting quite that good. Yeah, it had been too long. Sam cut his eyes at Dean, hoping his brother would at least allow him that.
Dean passed over a wrapped taco. "You're going to have a helluva hangover if you do that on an empty stomach."
"Thanks." Sam offered a weak grin as he accepted his dinner. It felt good to have someone worry about him again. No, it felt good to have Dean worry about him again. They ate in silence, Dean shooting him worried looks that made Sam feel both relieved and guilty. Dean watched curiously as he drank four more beers sitting on his bed, some of the tension draining from his shoulders. He was here with Dean. They were here together. He could relax, Sam told himself, it was allowed now.
"I know that's not enough to get you good and drunk, we'd need whiskey for that, but are you ready now?" Dean watched him expectantly, rolling a beer can between his palms.
"Not really," Sam replied, sagging back. Maybe he could appear relaxed, even if he didn't feel it. "But if you're really ready to talk…"
One side of Dean's mouth twisted up. "Not really my thing, is it?" He chuckled, moving to sit on the bed opposite Sam. "So. Talk." Dean leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees.
Sam motioned for another beer. Dean gave him a worried look, but he passed over a fresh one. Sam popped it open to take a quick drink before getting into it.
"You died," he said simply, trying to shrug it off. That was a heavy thing to just shrug away, though.
"Right, about a hundred times," Dean nodded, one hand circling in the air between them. "Is that what this is about?"
Sam shook his head. "That was Tuesday. Wednesday was different." He swallowed through his tight throat. This was really hard.
"Right. Wednesday we left. So?" Dean asked with a shrug. Then Dean's eyes widened. "Didn't we leave on Wednesday?"
Sam breathed in deep, nodding. "Yeah, we did. That it?" he asked hopefully.
"How many Wednesdays were there, Sam?" Dean demanded, leaning in close.
Sam tried to avoid his brother's eyes, knowing how hard it had become to lie to Dean over the past month, even if it was for his own good. Sometimes he forgot just how smart Dean was. One thing he never forgot, though, was how well Dean knew him. Then he felt Dean's knee knock against his and he knew his deception was all over. "Two," he whispered.
"Two," Dean repeated, his voice hardening. "I take it I died in the first one?"
Sam stared at his beer. The answer to that seemed pretty obvious.
Dean cleared his throat. "It was that bad, huh?"
Sam nodded into his beer, unwilling to look his brother in the face. The pressure on him increased, though. He needed to know Dean was okay, still breathing. Eventually he gave in to it, looking up into Dean's face. He expected Dean to be angry with him for still holding things back, but his brother looked kind of sad.
"Sam, I never really told you about Cold Oak," Dean said, swirling his beer in the can. Sam frowned, not understanding what his brother meant. "Why I did it." Dean cleared his throat, glancing up to meet Sam's eyes. "You were dead for a day or two, I'm not really sure. Bobby kept buying food, trying to get me to eat. He, uh, wanted to bury you, you know." Dean gave a shallow chuckle. "That was when I kicked him out."
Sam stared hard at his brother. "You kicked Bobby out? Bobby?" He was pretty sure Dean and Bobby were tight, especially after the way Bobby kept trying to check up on Sam during all those dark, mindless months.
Dean shrugged. "I had to. He never would have let me make that deal." Dean met his eyes then. "Honest, Sam, I can relate. Whatever happened."
"It wasn't just for a day or two," Sam said weakly. He never spoke of it, not then and not since. His throat wanted to close around the words and his tongue still felt strange in his mouth after not speaking to anyone for so long. Dean sat watching him patiently, waiting. "Months."
He hoped he would not have to quantify that, to say how many months. Sam didn't want to dwell on just how many months alone he spent, hunting and tracking the trickster.
Dean's eyebrows did that arch thing, that surprised look. Sam wanted to smile because it meant Dean was here. Dean was alive. Sometimes his face could not remember how to smile. He was still learning, remembering how to be a brother again.
"Months?" Dean's mouth opened a couple of times, no words coming out. "Months?" he repeated, as if Sam would shout 'gotcha'! Instead Sam nodded reluctantly. This was the big secret he had been lugging around, not wanting to burden his brother with it. Dean had enough to shoulder. He knew that. Sam had not always acknowledged just how much Dean had done for him, making him an ungrateful little bastard, but he knew it now. He knew it and he appreciated it. If it weren't for Dean, would Sam have become that 'other Sam' after Jess? Would he have devolved so far? That 'other Sam' was still a part of him, a part he continually tried to ignore so Dean would not worry.
"Damn, Sammy," Dean breathed out. "What did you do? Go to Bobby's?"
Sam shook his head. "Bobby met me someplace." His vision blurred as he tried to remember the events he had been working so hard to block. "I don't remember where. We buried you." He swiped at the tears in his eyes, looked down at his hand in disbelief. A strangled chuckle erupted from him. "I didn't think I could still do that."
"Do what? Cry?" Dean's hand rotated his head until they stared into each other's eyes. "Sammy? That is still you, right?" Those hazel green eyes filled with so much worry and concern the tight place in Sam's chest loosened.
Sam nodded as he choked on another laugh, or was it a sob? "I think I turned into a cold version of Dad."
Now that statement appeared to disturb Dean. "A cold version of Dad? Dude, that's just scary."
Sam nodded again. "I scared myself, Dean," he whispered. "I think I scared a lot of people."
The hand that was on his jaw slid around to rest comfortably on the back of his neck. It took all of Sam's willpower not to lean into it. "You were in that bar before then? That's how you knew about Jim and Stew?" Dean asked.
"It was a hell of a fight, Dean," he answered truthfully. "Stew is a nasty customer when he's pissed."
Dean's hand gave his neck a long squeeze. "Well, that's a real advantage. I don't think we could've pulled that off tonight if you hadn't known all that."
"Speaking of which," Sam sought the answer deep in his brother's eyes, where Dean couldn't hide it, "what was up with all the tipping and buying beers?"
Dean grinned. "Well, we had to look like we could afford to hire Bela, didn't we? It's not like I was going to tell those bozos that she stole something from us and we wanted it back."
Sam nodded slowly. That made an awful lot of sense. "Wish I'd thought of it like that."
"Hey, what are big brothers for?" Dean asked lightly, his hand warm and alive on Sam's neck. The levity dropped from Dean's face, as though a plug had been pulled. "So? We're good, right?"
"Yeah," Sam replied with a nod, "real good. Honest."
Dean's hand pulled away, but he slid down to sit on the floor, leaning against the bed. Sam copied his brother, intentionally moving his right leg so it rested against Dean's. "I'm just going to have to put up with your mother-henning for a while, until you get used to having me around again." It didn't sound like a question, but Sam nodded anyway. Dean shrugged, taking two more beers from the case at his side. "I guess I can learn to live with that."
Sam grimaced at the weak joke. "Dude, that was pathetic."
Dean grinned again, that wonderful lop-sided grin that Sam had missed. "Nah, that was a good one. You trying to pick up women in a bar, now that's pathetic."