First appeared in Brotherhood 2 (2007), from Pyramids Press
Pedal to the Metal
K Hanna Korossy
"I think you should have turned left back there."
"Says who, Mapquest?" Dean Winchester did not like being questioned about anything to do with driving, by a map, a machine, or a little brother. "I happen to have an excellent sense of direction." He took the next curve harder than necessary, stifling a grin when Sam slid into the door and gave him a glare.
"Right. Which is why we're going the wrong way on a one-way street."
Dean glanced at the sign and winced. Oops. Thank God it was late and a quiet part of town. He quickly made a u-turn, no one else the wiser.
Except his smart-mouthed passenger. "So…what was that about an excellent sense of direction?"
"Dude, I know exactly where I'm going—over there." Dean pointed with unerring certainty. "It's all these frickin' one-way streets that aren't letting me get there."
"Maybe you can't get there from here," Sam said whimsically.
Dean groaned. "And maybe you should shut up and let me drive."
Sam didn't say anything, but Dean didn't miss the smirk. Or the weary yawn that escaped right after.
Dean's expression settled into a frown. Better than the concern he really felt. "You sure you're up for this?" he asked for the third time that evening.
"Dean, enough, all right? It was one bad night—we've hunted on a lot less sleep, both of us. I'm just a little tired."
"Nightmare again?" As if he didn't know. Dean didn't let on he was awake if Sam didn't rouse screaming or sobbing, but he was too tuned to his brother not to rouse when Sam was up.
Sam's face set in familiar stubborn lines, and Dean swallowed a sigh. Sam had told him about the nightmares, about seeing Jessica burn, after Bloody Mary had forced the issue, but the kid still wasn't exactly a chatterbox.
"Okay, fine, don't talk to me. Not like I care or anything. Next time I'll just let your brain bleed out your eyes." He saw Sam's uncomfortable shift, recognized it as the contrition it was. Winchesters were a proud lot, as Dean well knew. He relented a little, offered, "It has gotten better since Ohio, hasn't it?"
Sam took the opening with tacit gratitude. "Yeah. This was the first one in almost a week."
"Good," Dean said with real relief. He'd been more anxious about Sam than he'd let on. "At least if I'm missing sleep, I'm having fun. You just look like crap."
Sam blinked at him. "Wow. If that's your way of telling me you're worried about me, it needs some work."
"I'm just sayin'…"
"I'm all right, Dean," Sam said quietly. "Talking helped."
Dean threw Sam a preening grin. "See? Big brother always knows best."
Sam was looking out the side window. "You do realize, oh omniscient big brother, that we just turned into a dead end, right?"
Dean cursed and slammed on the brakes, ignoring with dignity the chortling coming from the seat beside him.
Despite Dean's driving—or because of it, if his brother was to be believed—they did finally make it to their goal. Sam had just rolled his eyes and shut up. He was too tired to argue, anyway.
The small gas station was on the outskirts of the city, thankfully closed for the night. Dean dug the EMF meter out of the duffel in the backseat and flicked it on as he reached for the door handle. He drew his hand back as the meter unexpectedly came to life, whining softly.
"Pretty strong readings for an attack that happened twenty-four hours ago," Sam noted from next to him as Dean peered out through the windshield into the darkness. "A goatman's more of a cryptid than a paranormal, right? Why would it emit that much EMF?" They'd only gotten the faintest residuals at the other attack sites, but then, those were days old, two of them weeks old.
Dean shrugged. "Only ran into one once before, and I didn't have the meter yet then. Made it right after, actually, when I had some time on my hands."
Sam glanced up at him with interest. "Yeah, I remember reading about that hunt in Dad's journal. A few weeks after I left for school, right?"
"Yeah," Dean said tersely and opened the car door and got out. Sam stared at him a moment before following. Dean answered all of Sam's questions about the years they were apart, but he never liked to talk about it.
Sam glanced around the deserted gas station, spotting the large area squared off with crime-scene tape at the edge of the cement surface, and a stain of what was probably blood in its center. Sam turned away from the sight and leaned back against the car, giving in to a jaw-stretching yawn. He watched as Dean did a slow three-sixty, then moved a few steps forward, eyes glued to the meter. Sam heard the squeal of the machine rise in pitch and cocked his head. "You get a direction?"
"Oh yeah," Dean said with satisfaction, glancing up at him. "Looks like we're headed downtown."
Sam frowned. "Don't goatmen usually stick to quiet side roads?"
Dean shrugged. "So it's Goatman II: Goatman Goes to the City. It doesn't usually leave Maryland, either, but here we are in beautiful backwoods Pennsylvania."
"So we're sure it's a goatman because…"
Dean made a face at him but obediently ticked off on his fingers. "One, it goes after couples. Two, the victims are torn up—totally fits the goatman MO. Three, it started out in Maryland. And let's not forget four, witness descriptions: goat-legs, beard, horns. You said yourself it was classic."
Sam nodded; it was true. Lore often didn't adhere too closely to reality, and the most likely candidate was usually the right one. "Occam's razor," he murmured.
"Gesundheit," Dean said distractedly.
Sam grinned. "Are we going to be able to track it with EMF then?"
Dean looked up, following an invisible path with his eyes. "Yup. Let's go."
Sam piled back in as Dean slammed his own door, and they were off again.
Sam held the meter this time, giving directions as they wound their way around one-way streets and dead ends, Dean cursing in accompaniment. Finally, Sam turned the volume off as they pulled up in front of an old apartment building. They sat there and stared at the dark brick five-story.
"Maybe the goatman has a walk-up," Sam finally ventured.
Dean's eyes shifted to stare at him instead of the building, and Sam shrugged. Dean shook his head, reaching for the door. "Come on."
Fifteen seconds later, they were leaning appraisingly over the opened trunk. "So anything can kill this thing, right?" Sam asked even though he'd already read both the journal entry and what he could find on the internet on their prey. Dean often knew things that weren't to be found in print anywhere. "Bullets, blades, fire?"
"Corporeal rules apply," Dean agreed. "Salt and holy water don't bother it."
"So, no brining," Sam said with a small smile.
That earned him a narrow-eyed assessment from his brother. "Dude, I swear, college did something to your brain." Dean was checking his gun and ammo as he spoke, handing Sam a shotgun and his knife.
"Yeah, filled it up." Sam broke the shotgun barrel, confirmed it was loaded, and snapped it shut again.
"Too bad it leaks," Dean lobbed back with a totally fake grin.
Sam rolled his eyes and stowed the curved blade at the small of his back, his earlier fatigue completely gone.
A second later, Dean was all business again. "Don't forget, just 'cause it's flesh and blood doesn't mean it's not strong. If you don't have a clear shot at it, get out of the way."
Sam shifted from foot to foot, and from annoyance to appreciation. "Fine. You ready?"
Dean nodded. "I'm always ready," he answered, and slammed the trunk shut. Without another word, he started for the building.
Sam fell into comfortable step beside him. Even after the years-long break, the ease of moving in tandem with his brother, footsteps echoing in unison, Dean slipping across his internal radar like a shadow Sam could always track: none of it had been forgotten. Faded a little, maybe, replaced by whispers of Jess and a life off the road and death. But it had flowed back as soon as Sam had returned to the hunt, like a memory he thought he'd forgotten. Like a part of him he couldn't deny.
He didn't know sometimes whether he was glad or sad for it.
Just inside the apartment building doors, Dean palmed the EMF meter again. All the lights on it were lit, but they flared brightest pointed straight ahead. The Winchesters moved on silently.
Well, almost. "So, you've fought one of these things before—what did it look like?" Sam asked softly.
"Uh, goatman? Anthropomorphic goat," Dean said, the duh! implied.
Sam smiled. "'Anthropomorphic'? Dude, you're going to ruin your reputation."
"Shut up," Dean said with mock sourness. "Beats the witness who said it was 'uglier than a whore in sunlight.'" He grinned suddenly. "Although, I've met a few—"
"Can we just…please save that thought for some other time? Like when I'm not here?" Sam interrupted.
Dean's grin faltered briefly.
Darn it, Sam was pushing that button a lot today. He hurried to smooth it over, and found Dean already ahead of him.
"You're such a prude, Sammy," he said with a tilt of the lips that put everything aright again. "It's a goat-man: goat legs, dude's body and head, goat horns and ears and beard. Probably a tail, but I didn't check out its ass."
"Right, 'cause it wasn't a goatwoman," Sam said dryly.
Dean's teeth glinted white in the dimly lit hallway.
The meter drew them forward, toward a door at the end of the hallway. Basement, it said in nearly illegible print, and when Dean waved the detector over it, the device almost had a fit. Sam exchanged a significant glance with his brother and settled the shotgun against his shoulder, his finger slipping into the trigger guard.
The door opened to reveal a poorly lit staircase. Dean traded the meter for a flashlight, and they started creeping down the steps, Dean in the lead. Sam followed like a second skin, giving his brother just enough space to maneuver. He could hear only their quiet breaths and the pound of his own heart. Certainly no noise from Dean, who stalked his prey in silence.
Dean had changed in the years Sam had been gone. His edges had hardened, his smile had cooled, and he moved like…man, like something they hunted, all lethal grace and restrained power. Sam had wondered more than once if it was time or his absence that had affected the change, and it scared him sometimes, this consummate hunter his brother had become.
Then he would remember the weeks immediately after Jess's death. Dean so gentle with him, awkward and helpless in face of Sam's pain but coaxing him to eat and sleep, listening intently to him while he rambled about Jess, even holding him when Sam couldn't seem to do anything but lie there. And suddenly Dean didn't seem so different, after all, not where it counted.
If either of them had really changed, it was Sam.
Up ahead, something stirred in the darkness that pooled around the bottom of the stairs.
When they reached the last step, Dean turned off the flashlight and melted to the left with a single glance at Sam. He did the same to the right, flat against the unfinished brick wall. He breathed through his mouth and listened, his eyes on Dean's outline a dozen feet away.
Dean's head jerked, and Sam nodded. His brother detached from the shadows and inched forward. Sam gave him a count of ten to get settled, then followed.
They ended up on either side of a massive boiler. Only the whites of Dean's eyes were visible, and his teeth when he mouthed a ready? to Sam. Sam nodded. They were just about to move when the darkness shifted again.
And then it rose from the shadows.
Sam felt his jaw sag at the sheer size of the thing. This was no goatman; it was like nothing Sam had ever seen before. Slender, tall, and with a shifting, oily skin that should have been invisible in the darkness, it ought to have seemed insubstantial. Instead, the coiled posture breathed menace. When ebony eyes swung toward Sam, he felt his mouth go dry, a shiver of fear traveling up his spine.
Dean had never taken well to anything that threatened Sam; at least that hadn't changed. With a predatory growl, he took aim at the thing's head with his handgun and emptied half the clip into it.
The creature—being—faltered back two steps, but it didn't go down. This was not the corporeal menace they'd prepared for, and Sam felt a twinge of longing for Dean's ingenious rock salt-loaded shotguns that they'd left in the trunk.
The black-hole eyes moved to Dean now, and suddenly Sam felt the same protective surge Dean obviously had. He murmured a prayer of sanctification and let a blade fly at center mass.
It bounced off the undulating skin, hitting the cement floor with a clattering thud.
Okay, that wasn't good. Sam flicked on the flashlight again because they seemed to be the only ones with a disadvantage in the dark. Dean backed them up a step, one arm stretched out against Sam's chest.
And then it pounced.
Dean was closer and seemed to have ticked the thing off more. The creature went for Sam's brother with blurring speed. But Dean was already moving, dodging aside, away from Sam. Dividing its attention, or distracting it from Sam; he didn't know and didn't care. He wasn't letting that thing get Dean any more than Dean would let it go after his brother. Sam fumbled in his pocket the same moment he lunged forward.
He heard Dean's hiss of pain about the same split-second his hand clasped smooth plastic. Sam grabbed Dean's jacket and yanked backward with one arm while flinging the contents of the other forward, into the thing's face as it followed Dean.
Dean had said holy water wouldn't do any good, but Sam hadn't shed himself of the bottle he usually carried. Better over-armed than under- was one of the Winchester family rules he happened to agree with. Especially now as the holy water sizzled on contact with the dark skin, erasing any lingering doubt in Sam's mind that they were dealing with something far more than a cryptid, something Evil.
The creature howled.
Dean turned in Sam's grasp, dislodging his hold. Yanking Sam back this time as sharp fingernails swiped at Sam. They only raked a shallow gouge across the skin of his exposed wrist and hand, a mere sting as he fell back against Dean. Desperately, Sam doused their attacker with what remained of the holy water.
One more cry that almost sounded like a bark, and the tall, thin shape folded down to almost nothing, disappearing as quickly as it had risen.
They hadn't had a chance to check the whole basement, to see if there was another exit, but Sam didn't hear a second door opening. The thing was definitely solid, which meant it wouldn't be going through any walls, so it had to go somewhere, right? Sam quickly glanced around, found the dim rectangle of the open door behind him that they'd come through, and jerked himself free of Dean's grip to go block it.
Bad plan. The only warning he had was a thin whoosh of air before something black and writhing plowed into him, and then Sam was flying, tossed back in Dean's general direction like he didn't weigh a thing. Dean caught him, and together they tumbled to the floor. The light was momentarily blocked by a dark shape in the doorway, and then it was gone.
Sam's head thunked back against Dean's chest even as his brother pushed and wriggled to get out from beneath him. The lack of earnest shoving or a grumbling litany accompanying his movements told Sam Dean was worried about him, and he managed an "I'm okay" around panting breaths.
"Then get off me," came his loving brother's sharp retort, and Sam managed a smile as he rolled to one side and let Dean up. Still, Dean was careful with him as he got up on his knees, alert gaze swiveling around them until he was certain they were alone, then fixing on Sam. "You're bleeding," came the terse observation.
Sam felt the torn skin on his hand, wincing at the burn. "Just a scratch. What about you?" He pushed himself upright as he realized Dean was grimacing and grabbed the flashlight off the floor.
"Ankle. Think I sprained it. Son of a…" He pounded a fist into the concrete.
"Hey, at least it's not worse, right?" Sam soothed, hands dipping toward Dean's outstretched leg, dodging his brother's halfhearted attempt to slap him away. "If anything, I should have stopped it. I let it get away."
"Right, you just let it use you as a bowling ball," came Dean's acerbic and, paradoxically, reassuring reply. "It's not your fault, Sam—we were outgunned on this one from the start."
Sam shook his head as he palpated the ankle. "Man, Dean, we got off easy. Considering how much good our weapons did, we're lucky that thing didn't hand us our heads on a platter." Dean grunted in agreement. The joint was already swelling, and while Sam's probing fingers didn't feel any breaks, Dean had paled and broke out in a sweat from the brief exam. Sam patted his brother's rigid leg, waiting and watching him until his sharp breathing eased. "You ready to get out of here?"
Dean made a face but reached resolutely for Sam's shoulder, arm twining around his neck. Sam slipped his own arm around Dean's waist and slowly tugged him to his feet. With heavily limping steps, they headed for the stairs.
He cocked his head at Dean's incoherent grumble. "What?"
"I hate this," his brother gritted.
Sam's mouth stretched into a smile. "I don't know what you're complaining about. I'm the one who's going to have to listen to you whine about being laid up for the next few days." He wasn't about to mention how heavy Dean was, either, especially with his own draining adrenaline and fatigue.
"I don't whine," Dean shot back. "I'm just expressing some totally justifiable frustration."
"Huh." Sam paused. "Is that Oprah or Dr. Phil?"
"Shut up," Dean muttered. "I just don't like being benched for something stupid."
"Yeah, because the major blood loss and breaks are so much better." Sam shook his head. "And you probably saved my life back there, so it wasn't exactly stupid."
Dean leaned a little harder on him as they hopped up steps. Then, more subdued, he said, "You're welcome."
Sam softened. "Besides, it's not like you'll need to be on your feet for what comes next. You do realize we need to do a lot more research here."
"Ya think?" Dean's sarcasm could've been painted on with a brush.
Sam smiled soberly but kept that and the rest of his thoughts to himself as they made it to the car and went in search of a room. They had a lot of work ahead. Sam had let that thing get away, and there would be no rest until he made sure it wouldn't be claiming any other victims.
But remembering the tall, oily creature, Sam had a feeling it wouldn't be easy.
Dean yawned, rubbing his brow, then realized who he'd caught the yawn from. A side glance up at Sam revealed a heavy gaze and shoulders sagging with fatigue. He sighed, shoved himself a little more upright on the bed. "You know, when you said we need to do more research, I didn't think you meant tonight."
Sam didn't bother looking up, and Dean suspected that was because it was too much effort. "It's about due to take another set of victims, Dean. We can't wait."
Dean knew that wasn't the whole story, that Sam was feeling bad about not stopping the creature, as if there'd been any way he could have done so. But the point was a valid one, and Dean knew how heavy the deaths would weigh on them both if the thing claimed any more victims while they slept.
He shifted on the bed, careful not to move his bandaged, iced, and propped-up ankle. "Look, there's no reason for both of us to stay up doing this. Why don't you turn in for a while?"
"Yeah, maybe later," came Sam's absent reply. The kid could be single-minded. "You're the one who got hurt tonight—why don't you turn in and I'll stay up?" His eyes, when they flicked up and pinned Dean, were tired but determined.
Dean made a face. "Fine, we can take turns. You didn't sleep last night, I'll stay up this night. This ankle's not gonna let me get much sleep, anyway."
"That's because you're not taking your pills. If I didn't know better, I'd say you like pain."
Dean took the cue and offered him a properly lascivious grin, but Sam only rolled his eyes in response and returned to the book he was flipping through and coffee that had to be cool by now.
Dean sighed and dropped his head back on the pillow to stare up at the ceiling. He wondered briefly if he'd ever be able to look at a ceiling again and not think of blood and fire, then pivoted his head sideways to watch Sam. His little brother looked weary, and that had been before he'd sat down for the all-night study session. They had to find this thing and kill it soon just so Dean could tie Sam to the bed for twelve hours and make him sleep. Assuming the nightmares would leave him alone to do so.
He cleared his throat. "You know, if you wanted to…talk some more, about anything, I'd listen."
Sam's eyes jerked up to his in mute surprise, then the lines of his face eased. It was the same expression he'd had as a kid when Dean had given him the last of the cereal, or his lunch money, the one that said he knew Dean loved him. Which was one of the few things Dean didn't ever mind being transparent about. "I know," Sam said quietly. "Thanks."
Dean nodded only a little uncomfortably and returned to the websites he was shuffling through. "I ever tell you about the time Dad and I were chasing what we thought was a revenant but turned out to be your everyday garden-variety serial killer?"
Sam's jaw dropped. "What? No."
"Yup," Dean nodded, "ate lunch together and everything. We had ham."
"You sure it was ham?" Sam asked with a tiny teasing smile, and Dean made a face at him, feeling the familiar dull pang of Oh, God, I missed you.
"Yes, Hannibal, I'm sure. Had a nice chat in the diner."
Sam was blinking, like he was trying to figure out if he believed Dean. "And?"
"And, wasn't hard to figure out where the bodies were buried. We left town and Dad made a call."
Sam shook his head. "Geez, Dean, the life we lead…"
"Hey, monsters we know are evil. People…" Dean tilted his head. "At least it's not boring, right?" Dean said with a grin, determined not to let it slip when Sam would answer with the expected rejoinder, I miss boring sometimes, Dean.
Except, he didn't, just gave Dean one of those small smiles his big brother wasn't always a hundred percent sure of the meaning of, and returned to research.
It took Dean a minute to refocus on the computer screen. He'd just started getting engrossed in his reading again when Sam suddenly spoke up.
"I think I found something."
Dean's head jerked up and he started to rise, until a spear of pain shooting up his leg reminded him why he was on the bed in the first place. He sank back onto the mattress with a grimace and tried not to look chagrined as Sam brought the fat book over to him.
Sam's broad hand covered half the page as one finger tapped a line, and Dean leaned forward to see.
"The description's a little off—they're basically powerful Native American spirits that can be either good or bad, and I can't find any Indian tribal lore in the area that would have drawn it here. But the description, the way it kills, it all fits, Dean."
Dean examined the rough-drawn sketch and had to admit the point. No artist's rendering would have been able to do justice to the creature's weird rippling skin, but the basic tall, slender shape was right, down to the creepy ready-to-strike half-crouch and the horns and faintly cloven feet that had sent them down the wrong road in the first place. Maybe it was one of the sources of the Christian lore of Satan as a goat, but what was a Native American spirit doing mimicking a domesticated animal, anyway?
But that was really Sam's area, not his own. Ultimately, Dean just wanted to know how to kill it.
"It's a two-part ritual," Sam read his mind. "And it has to be done at the spirit's focal point, which I'm guessing for this one is that basement. Unfortunately, the ritual's complicated, and we don't have all the necessities."
"What, herbs and stuff? I've got some things out in the trunk and, dude, we're in a city. There's always some weird new age shop around we can hit."
Sam sat back against the headboard with him, book loose in his lap, one leg hanging off the bed. His eyes looked gritty, but discovery had brought some light into them; even though Sam had left school, his love of learning hadn't dimmed. "It's not just that," he said. "We do need to get some supplies, but the big thing is this cup." His hand smoothed across the page to point to another picture. "It's a chalice of Sharon, and there are only three known in existence. We can't destroy the manitou without it."
Dean stared at the picture, flipping through mental files. Nope, hadn't seen it before. "Okay, geek boy," he said, glancing up at Sam. "Where do we find one?"
Sam shook his head. "I don't know. I'll have to make some calls."
Score! "Well, we can't call people in the middle of the night. Let's grab some sleep first." Dean snapped the laptop shut and looked up at Sam in silent triumph.
His brother was pointing stubbornly to the window.
Dean frowned, turned to look. Morning light was starting to stream in through the thin curtains. Well, great. He glanced back at Sam with a grimace. "I'm tying you to the bed after this," he warned.
"Yeah, yeah, promises, promises," Sam said with a small smile as he climbed off the bed and reached for his phone.
Finding an object of power was often difficult. Their dad had needed one once for a rite involving something Dean to this day didn't know all the details of, and it had taken two days of searching and then a day of driving before they had it. Sam had been about two, Dean recalled vaguely, and had chewed on the amulet or whatever it was the whole way back. It had been dripping with slobber by the time John reclaimed it from his youngest, much to Dean's disgust, but that hadn't seemed to bother either his dad or his brother. Mystical objects were usually harmless until you used them right, and then it was playing with fire. And Winchesters knew all about playing with fire.
Anyway, he fully expected to be looking for the chalice or cup or whatever for a while, hopefully while he talked Sam into getting a little sleep. Which was why his eyebrows climbed to his hairline when Sam appeared in the doorway with breakfast and cell phone in hand, and the announcement he'd found what they were looking for.
Dean stopped chewing halfway through his hashbrowns. "Caleb?"
"Yeah. Said he didn't actually have one, but there was one close by and he knew how to get it."
"Huh. Cool. Okay, so, is he gonna send it to us?"
Sam set his forkful of eggs down to scratch at the back of his head. "Not exactly. These things might be inactive until they're used, Dean, but they're not safe. Caleb says the last time he tried to even fax a picture of one, the fax machine blew up."
Dean frowned at him darkly, having a suspicion where this was going and not liking it at all. "You better not be thinking what I think you're thinking."
"Uh…that I'm the logical choice to go pick up the chalice?"
"Dude, you've hardly slept for two nights now!" Dean argued.
"I did that before in school, too, Dean—I'll take some coffee with me and I'll be fine."
"Uh-uh. We both go."
Sam set his food down. "Dean, one of us needs to collect the herbs and elements for the rest of the ritual."
"Fine, you do that and I'll go see Caleb." Dean matched words to action, pushing himself to his feet. Or foot, rather, as his ankle caved and he sank back to the bed with a hiss of pain.
"Right," Sam said dryly. "Is that before or after your ankle starts looking like a cantaloupe?" At Dean's glare, his expression shifted and the words started tumbling out of him as they always did when he knew Dean wouldn't like what he was going to say, like when he'd tried baking when he was in grade school and set the oven on fire, or when in a moment of spite he'd told blonde and buxom sophomore Alice that Dean still wet his bed. "Look, you really need to keep that leg elevated right now if you don't want to make it worse, and we need to get this thing. Caleb's only, what, two states over? I can make it there and back today, and you can find a shop that delivers and get the rest of the stuff together in the meantime. It makes sense for me to go, Dean."
Dean's eyes swept over the too-earnest face, paying particular attention to his eyes. They were indisputably tired, but they had been most of the time Sam had been back on the road with him, and his brother had never let it get in the way. The hazel still shone clear at him, if a little too pleading puppy dog for Dean's sake.
"I'm thinking," he growled, then made a face. "You sure you're good to drive?"
"It's just six hours."
"More like eight."
"I can grab a few hours of sleep at Caleb's, or stop and take a nap if I get tired."
Dean pressed his lips together. He'd never been able to say no to his brother. "You better. Don't want you wrapping my car around a tree."
Sam smiled at him. Like he'd ever come second place for Dean after anything, including the Impala.
"I mean it, Sam. You feel at all like you shouldn't be driving, you stop. It's not worth getting you hurt to kill this thing a few hours sooner."
Sam grew serious. "We don't know when it's going after its next victims, Dean."
"I don't care, Sam." Dean shook his head firmly. "I'm not risking you for what this evil SOB might do."
His brother's eyes narrowed. "You don't want to risk me? Dude, back off, all right? You're not my parent."
It happened every time. Every stupid, godforsaken time. Dean kept letting down his guard because, hey, it was Sam, and the relief his brother was back was, well, more than he knew how to process sometimes. And then Sam would stomp all over him with those freakishly huge clodhoppers of his and remind Dean the agonizingly hard way that three years had passed and Sam had changed and things weren't back the way they had been and probably never would be. And still he'd fall for it all over again because while Dean had changed, too, his love for this little brother who loomed over him now and who really needed a haircut and who had even more demons than Dean did, hadn't.
So. What kind of fool did that make him?
Sam flinched, like he'd realized what he'd said. Or maybe just read Dean's expression, and Dean quickly shut it all down because he'd given enough away for one morning.
"Fine," he said shortly.
Sam's face slid into something more helpless. "I'm sorry, man, that's not what I…"
Dean let him talk until the words faded. Then he shrugged, careless. "Yeah, whatever. You ready to split then? Know where you're going?"
Sam silently nodded, still watching him. Sorrowful. And that counted for something. It wasn't too hard to remember the lonely days on end when Dean would have taken him back on any terms. Including all the inadvertent barbs Sam wouldn't have even realized or regretted a few years before.
Dean smiled for him, meaning it this time as he swatted Sam's shoulder. "Quit with the cow eyes already and get out of here. Sooner you go, the sooner we can kill this freak of nature."
Sam was already standing up, reaching for his wallet and Dean's keys on the nightstand. "Why don't you get some rest while I'm gone?" he offered softly. "I won't be back before dark."
"Yeah, maybe. First I'm gonna get the stuff we need together and do a little more research. No more going in with our pants down around our ankles."
"Nice. That image'll keep me awake no matter what, trying to get it out of my head."
Dean grinned. "Hey, whatever works."
But he was serious as he watched Sam walk out the door, and stared at the parking lot for long minutes after the Impala pulled out and roared away.
Sam rubbed raw eyes and was thankful at least it was full daytime now.
He hadn't let on to Dean how tired he really felt because his brother would never have let him make the trip to Caleb's. They needed that chalice, and Dean would have insisted on driving even with his messed-up ankle, but Sam had been the one to bind it and saw how swollen and discolored it was. No, Sam needed to make this trip, and now.
But the fact was that even though he'd been sleeping better since Ohio, as if Jess had shown up on that street corner and forgiven him or something, months of insomnia and nightmares had taken their toll. His body didn't tolerate a string of sleepless nights as well as it used to, and Sam's thoughts felt gummy, his reflexes slow. After this was done, he would relinquish the keys willingly and sleep for two days solid.
First, however, he had a chalice to retrieve.
Sam snapped the radio on, shoving in whatever of Dean's tapes was already in the tape deck. Bad Company's "Movin' On" filled the car, and Sam relaxed fractionally as the beat cleared most of the cobwebs and had him murmuring lyrics. Better. Definitely better. He'd have a headache by the time he got to Caleb's junkyard, but at least he'd get there in one piece.
A roadside sign promised Starbucks at the next exit, and Sam made the detour. Music and a refill of caffeine. He was all set.
Miles rolled by, boring scenery that dragged at his eyelids despite the coffee. He'd driven through worse, Sam thought as he gave in to the umpteenth cavernous yawn, but Midwestern America could make even a well-rested person doze out of sheer boredom.
The sharp ring of his cell phone jolted him back to full alertness, and Sam fumbled it out of his pocket.
Dean. Of course.
"You there yet?"
He huffed a laugh. "You remember what Dad would say when we asked him that?"
"Hey, I don't use that kind of language."
"Right. So, no, I just hit Ohio."
"Stay away from mirrors in the rest stops, Sammy."
The nickname tugged an automatic smile from him. "You're just calling 'cause you're afraid I've run the car into a ditch."
"Yeah, right." A pause. "You didn't, did you?"
Sam snorted. "I'll call you when I get to Caleb's, okay?"
"Seriously, Sam. If you're tired, take a break. I'm not renting some box on wheels to come after you if you get into trouble."
The blustery concern that had rankled before just touched him now. "I will, Dean," Sam promised sincerely. "You take it easy on that ankle, too."
"Ankle's fine. Took a cab to get the herbs and oils and junk, and now I'm going back to rest and ice it. Okay, Mom?"
The tease stirred something both warm and regretful in Sam. "I thought you were going to find a place that delivered."
"Yeah, well, I couldn't," Dean said flatly.
Sam didn't even try to clarify couldn't versus didn't want to. He considered them lucky Dean hadn't walked to the shop. "Did the taxi driver get lost on all those one-way streets?" he asked with a hint of a smile.
"Shut up. Just pay attention to the road and be careful."
Yes, Mom, he almost responded, and Sam hesitated briefly. "Dean…what I said before about you not being my parent, I just…I know who raised me, all right? And for whatever good intentions he might've had, it wasn't Dad."
There was a long pause. "Try Metallica instead. It always keeps me awake." The line went dead.
Sam did smile as he slid the phone back into his pocket and reached over to change the music.
It helped. So did two more cups of coffee—and the corresponding two stops at rest-stop bathrooms—a bag of Cheetos, and playing the alphabet game by himself, which turned out to be a lot less fun than with Dean. Still, Sam was grateful to finally pull up in front of Caleb's house and see the hunter stride out to meet him. His head felt thick and sluggish as he climbed out of the car.
That was probably why it took him two tries to understand what their dad's old friend was saying to him.
"Wait…the chalice is where?"
Caleb told him again, chagrin stretching his voice.
Sam just groaned.
Dean let his breath whistle slow through his teeth as he lowered his leg by inches onto the bed. He hadn't told Sam, but he'd actually set out for the herbal shop on foot, using a cane he'd fished out of the trunk the night before where they kept it for emergencies. He'd lasted most of one block before the stabbing pain grated his nerves raw and he finally hailed a cab. Still, the little workout had taken its toll and the ankle throbbed and pressed tight against the bandages. Sam would have taken one look at the leg and given him that annoyed glare, lips pressed tight and eyes narrowed, that said he knew Dean was a stubborn idiot. Which, well, yeah, but that didn't mean he wanted to hear it from his little brother. It was the first time Dean was glad Sam wasn't there.
But as he molded the ice pack around the bandaged limb and panted through the resulting spikes of agony, he couldn't help wishing Sam was around to offer distraction, maybe run out for some food. Instead, Dean was alone, laid up, researching and worrying about his kid brother, and if that didn't just suck out loud, he didn't know what did.
Still, I know who raised me. Sometimes Sam knew just what to say and when.
Halfheartedly grumbling around a yawn, Dean pulled the laptop over and started looking again.
Okay, the potion was done, so all they needed now was the cup, and Sam. And the basement, but that could wait until Sam got back with the car. He'd seemed pretty certain the ritual would work, and Dean believed him, but it wouldn't hurt to check for any other weaknesses of the creature. Sometimes they needed to stall, or deflect an initial attack, and so far nothing in their arsenal besides holy water had done more than tick the thing off. Be prepared: Dean swore the Boy Scouts had ripped the motto off the Winchesters. And so, sipping the coffee he'd picked up while he was out, he began to search.
Manitous. Dean huh-d to himself. Just when he thought he'd heard it all. And how scary-smart was Sam to have found that little reference so fast? Dean clicked to another website, skimmed it.
The fact was, Sam was a near genius and Dean knew it. His brother had always downplayed his grades and scores, but Dean had once done a little research of his own and figured out that Sam was near the top of everything. Most people didn't earn full rides to Stanford. Sam had never made a big deal out of it, but proud? Oh yeah, Dean definitely was. Sam was one of the few things he was sure he'd done right.
Another link, a badly misspelled page on Native American spirits even he could recognize some errors in. Dean scoffed and moved on.
Thank God John had never asked him what he thought of Sam going off to college, because Dean, as much as he hated the separation, had been all for the idea. Sam deserved it, it was who he was, and, most importantly, it made him happy. Dean had just never expected it to mean a splintered family and Sam not being welcome to return and the two of them hardly speaking to or seeing each other for the next three years. It was that exit that had hurt, not the one to California.
But Sam had come back, had returned for Dean. It was temporary, and Sam was hurting, and Dad was missing, but still, Dean was grateful. God hadn't offered him many second chances, and he was determined not to screw this one up.
His eyelids were heavy, and Dean rubbed at them with a frustrated sigh. Sam was probably right about him taking that nap, but Dean wanted to know everything there was about this spirit before they went up against it again. Besides, Sam had to be even more tired than he was, and if he could stay awake, Dean could, too. He tried not to think about his sleepy brother driving. Sam had to be most of the way to Caleb's by now, and he had promised he'd grab a little sleep there. He'd be fine. Dean took a gulp of cooling coffee, scrolled down on the page to the pertinent part below.
And nearly spit the liquid all over the bed.
He read the page twice, hunched over the computer with anxious concentration. Then he flicked up to check the source. No, that was credible. Down again to read it one more time. But the information was the same.
"Real smart, Dean," he muttered caustically to himself while he reached for his cell and punched in speed dial. "Send Sam on a road trip by himself when—" Voice mail clicked in. Oh, for the love of… Beep. "Sam, listen to me. You have to get back here as fast as you can. The manitou, it can mark a victim, and when it does, it doesn't lose the scent. That thing drew blood from you—chances are it's following you. Head back here as soon as you get the cup, okay? And call me."
Dean broke the connection and tried Caleb next. But the phone just rang and rang. Apparently, the older hunter had forgotten to turn on his answering machine. Again. Terrific.
With a dissatisfied growl, Dean dropped the phone and gingerly swung his leg off the bed. He gritted his teeth as he stood, putting as little weight as possible on the bad ankle, and hobbled to the door. He opened it and stood in the doorway, staring out at the quarter-full parking lot in front of him.
He could hotwire the pickup a few spaces down, or the sweet Mustang one row over. Take it and go after Sam, meet him partway. Dean could take the potion with him…but it only took one hop-step out before the flaw in the plan smacked him in the face. The ritual had to be done at the spirit's focal point. They couldn't destroy it anywhere but in the basement of the apartment building, certainly not out on the road somewhere. Not to mention that it would be easy to miss Sam on the way, passing him without realizing it and adding dangerous delay to performing the ritual.
Dean gave the cars a last longing look, then swung back inside the room with a curse. He slammed the door and slapped a palm flat on the jamb for good measure. Where was Sam and why wasn't he answering? Had the thing already gotten to him? And here they'd thought fatigue was their worst enemy. It would make the youngest Winchester sluggish, a slower, less-observant target. Dean should have never let him drive, never let him go alone. Never let him go.
He sank down on the bed, helpless and loathing it. Picked up the cell phone and turned it restlessly in his hand.
"C'mon, ring," Dean whispered. Pleaded, the way he'd never let himself with Sam. "Sammy, call me, please…"
He hated the lies and role-playing even when he was at his best. When his mind was dull and his tongue clumsy, it was torture.
But somehow his suit and earnest, unfeigned interest and probably what Dean called his puppy-dog eyes, had gotten Sam past two security checkpoints and into the rare artifacts room of the university. From there, it hadn't taken much effort to borrow the chalice from their collection, secreted in the hastily crafted false-bottom in his backpack. Unnecessary, as it turned out; the girl at the desk hadn't even searched him, just given him a coy smile that Sam returned blandly. She was a brunette, at least; blondes still gave him a pang.
The cold air revived him a little, and he only stumbled on the stairs once. The couch Caleb had offered him at his place was starting to look better and better. The detour to the university for the chalice had added hours to what Sam had thought would be a quick there-and-back, and twilight was already starting to settle in.
Speaking of which, Sam fished out his phone as he approached the car and held the backpack up triumphantly for Caleb. He'd turned the cell off while he'd been inside, and wasn't too surprised to see a missed call from his brother. He hadn't wanted to call Dean until he had the chalice in hand, but the older Winchester was bound to be wondering now what was taking Sam so long.
He was becoming more brother and equal than parent these days, but all his life he'd been the closest thing Sam had to a mom. Dean had been the one who'd made him call in if he was running late, who always kept track of where he was going and with whom, who made sure he had everything he needed, physically and emotionally. Funny, the things Sam had forgotten that were coming back now that they were together again. He pushed the button to play back the message.
Sam wobbled stepping off a curb by the car. Caleb was close enough to steady him, frowning at Sam, but all he said was, "You get it?"
"Yeah," Sam said distractedly, handing him the knapsack as Dean's message started. "No problem." Except, there was. The manitou had marked him? Sam blinked, glancing down at his bandaged hand. What, it was following him?
It took a moment more for Dean's tone to sink in. He was scared. Sam frowned and quickly dialed his brother, watching from what felt like a distance as Caleb fished out the chalice and started examining it.
"Sam? Where are you? You okay?"
"'M good, Dean. We got it," he said with weary satisfaction.
"You haven't even left yet?" A breath, Dean trying to calm himself. "What took you so long?"
Sam glanced at Caleb. "Caleb forgot to say he needed me to get the chalice." Something about Sam being more likely to get into a university rare artifacts collection, but frankly that part had kind of slid past him. "I'm gonna take a nap and then—"
"No—Sam, didn't you get my message? This friggin' thing might be after you—you have to get back here with the cup so we can kill it."
Oh, right, Dean had said that. The manitou was coming after him. Maybe. Sam rubbed his forehead. "Dean, you sure that—?"
And then he saw it. Just out of the corner of his eye, insubstantial enough that Sam wasn't sure his syrupy brain hadn't imagined it. But as he turned his head, Sam got a better glimpse, fading sunlight glancing off swirling, oily skin before it ducked into the shadows.
The chill cleared his head. He was in danger, and Dean was four hundred miles away. "It's here."
"What?! Sammy, get out of there, now."
Caleb was peering past him, too, eyes narrowing, and then the older hunter dug out a flask from his vest. With a few murmured words, he made a quick, wide ring of what Sam guessed was holy water around the car, then anointed the car itself: doors, windows, grill and bumper.
"I'm on my way," Sam said. "Caleb's just doing a last few protection rites."
"Hurry up and haul your ass back here, you hear me? Whatever it takes, Sam, but you get back here."
Caleb was looking at him gravely, and Sam quickly muttered another promise to his brother and hung up. "What is it?"
"Kid, that thing following you is nothing to mess with. You only need an object of power for something that's powerful. It gets a hold of you, and you're toast, you hear what I'm saying?"
Sam only registered peripherally how worried that probably should have made him. At the moment, it just sounded like same-old, same-old. Still, he itched to get back to Dean. "Yeah, thanks, Caleb. Listen, I've gotta get back, all right? You want me to drop you—"
The hunter was in his face now, peering intently into his eyes. "Samuel, you're not listenin' to me. This isn't something you can just throw some holy water and Latin at. You have to get to Dean as fast as you can, you hear me?"
He nodded distractedly. Right. Dean had said that, too.
Caleb made a face. "Look, I'll come with you and drive. You're not up for this, champ."
Sam shook his head heavily. "No. If this is dangerous, we're not dragging you into it. I'll be fine—I'll call Dean if I'm tired, all right?" Another shimmer in his peripheral vision, and a dull sense of urgency flared in him. "I gotta go," Sam said, taking the chalice. "Thanks for everything."
He left Caleb frowning at him on the sidewalk and headed for the open road.
Okay, four hundred miles. Piece of cake. They'd done twice that in a day before. True, the sun was half-set, but maybe the dark would help, soothing his gritty, aching eyes. Sam squinted at the signs, getting his bearings, and pressed on the gas. Window cranked down, radio blaring, and a lurking sense of danger and exigency. Who could fall asleep under conditions like that?
When a few dozen miles later he yanked the wheel to pull himself back on the road from the gravel shoulder he didn't even remember drifting on to, Sam sluggishly realized maybe he could.
He dug his phone out again, almost misdialing. Yeah, Mary Ann would have liked hearing from him now, strung out on fatigue, after weeks of silence. His Stanford friends were already slipping away, and Sam didn't know why he wasn't fighting harder to keep them.
His eyes had started sagging during that internal discussion, and he recovered himself, brought Dean up on his contact list, and dialed.
That was all Dean needed to say: I'm here, what do you need, you okay? all wrapped up in one. Sam tightened his grip a little, and wished ridiculously that his big brother were there to take over for a bit. "I almost went off the road, Dean," he murmured, knowing vaguely he probably should have tempered that announcement but not having the energy to do so.
A pause. "You all right?"
He blinked heavily, watched the center line wobble. "I'm tired."
"I know. But it's just a few hours—you can do this. Just keep talking to me, okay? Where are you?"
He looked around, read off the next sign he came across, then the one after that, tripping over the words.
"Okay, you still got a ways to go, but we're gonna get you here, Sammy, I promise. How full is the tank?"
His eyes slid over to the dial before he remembered. "I filled it up before we went to the school."
"Good, that's good. That means you should only have to stop once. How 'bout coffee, you got any caffeine?"
Sam winced. "No."
"That's okay. If you see a sign for a drive-in, go for it, otherwise stay on the road. At least you won't have to stop to pee every hour."
That made him grin. "You're so delicate, Dean."
"That better be the fatigue talking, Sam," Dean growled back. "Talk to me, uh…tell me what you see around you."
He wasn't sure exactly what he was saying, but Sam started talking. All about the trees and signs and the ribbon of road that wavered when he stared at it too hard. The deer whose eyes reflected his headlights as he shot past it, and the lights of a carnival in the distance. The memory of the time Dean took him to a carnival when he was a kid and won him a stuffed frog at one of the ball-toss booths, and how much Sam had missed that frog long after they'd accidentally left it behind in one of a hundred anonymous motel rooms.
He snapped awake to the swish of too-tall grass against the underside of the Impala and Dean's frantic voice somewhere down by his elbow.
Sam jerked the car back from the edge of the road and stomped on the brake, then found the phone he'd dropped, nestled in the folds of his jacket. "Dean? Dean, I-I'm sorry, I guess I just—"
"Sam, it's okay. Everything's okay, right? You're not hurt?"
He took a deep breath, glanced around. Deserted, dark back road, car in one piece, no bruises or blood on him. Of course, he'd gotten a little too close to the trees that lined the side of the road, but Dean didn't have to know that. "I'm okay. I'm okay, Dean, I just…"
"I know, you're tired. But you're halfway here, Sam. Just hang in there a little longer, okay?"
Sam laid his head against the steering wheel, trying to slow his hammering heart and clear his aching, thick head. His brain felt like it had been dipped in Jell-O. Even in the midst of his nightmares, he'd never craved sleep this badly. His body had gotten at least some rest around the dreams, but now he'd been up…well, too many hours in a row, and his reserves were long gone.
He nodded against the plastic. "Yeah, okay. I'm going." Another deep breath and he put the phone down long enough to use both hands to pull him back on the road. Sam reached for the phone again right after, needing Dean's voice to keep the weight of the beckoning darkness away. "Where 'm I going again?"
A pause. "I'll tell you where to go, Sammy, just keep an eye on the signs for me."
Déjà vu now, to hunting with Dad. Whichever of them had done better that week with their drills and exercises got to sit up front and play navigator. Which usually meant Dean, except Dean never had been fond of maps and directions, and so Sam had often ended up with that role from the back seat. That had been fine with him. It had let him contribute to hunts long before he was old enough to be real backup and long after he didn't want to have anything to do with the family business.
"You got anything to eat with you?" Dean's question dragged him back to the present.
Sam couldn't think things through as quickly as he was used to, and it was a few seconds before he shook his head, then realized Dean couldn't see it. "No."
"There should be some Doritos and mints in the glove compartment. Finish the chips, then start chewing on the mints. That'll help keep you awake."
Sam kept a bleary eye on the road as he rooted around one-handed in the glove compartment. It was strange, driving alone; he hadn't had a car in California, and on the road it had always been with Dean or Dad or both. He wondered idly if Dean had ever gotten used to it.
"No," Dean said quietly. Apparently, Sam had done his wondering out loud. "I didn't."
Sam found the crinkled bag of chips and pulled them out, stuffing two immediately into his mouth. Dean was right, the crunch seemed to wake up at least a few of his brain cells. Not enough to censor himself, though. "I thought you said you ran some hunts alone."
The finality, an implied shut up, Sam, stopped his tongue more than the words did, because there was a connection there his brain was too sluggish to make. Sam chewed a few more chips and then dug around again for the mints, shoving a handgun and the box of fake IDs aside as he searched.
"How many bars have you got left, Sam?"
"Bars?" He frowned, dropped the mints, and weaved the car back onto the road as it skated the gravel again when he bent down to retrieve the candy. "I'm not drinking, Dean."
A deep sigh. "On your phone, doofus. How much charge have you got left?"
Oh. He pulled it back to check. "Not much. I should probably recharge it."
"No kidding, Einstein. Might as well get the charger out of the glove compartment while you're in there."
It took him a while to sort out chips, mints, and phone recharger, and Sam lost the phone somewhere during the process, not to mention hitting the rumble strip on the side of road twice. Still, it hadn't seemed that long a process until he finally picked up the phone again, now trailing the recharger cord, and heard Dean's pleading ramble.
"…sake, Sam, would you answer me? What the he—"
"I'm here," he said quickly, thinking more clearly than he had the whole rest of the trip. Dean's fear tended to do that to him. "I'm okay, I just...you need to clean this glove compartment out sometime, dude—I swear, there're like fossilized remains in there or something."
A bark of relieved laughter. "'Fossilized remains'? Well, you can't be too tired if you're using language like that."
Except, he was. Weariness beat at his head and dragged at his body and speech. The longing for a bed and sleep was as real as any intense love he'd ever felt, and that dragged a wave of sorrow through him. "I miss Jess," Sam murmured.
Hesitation. "Yeah, I know."
"She shouldn't've died that way, Dean."
"Nobody should. That's why we're doing this, remember?"
Sam yawned, knuckling his eyes. "God, I'm tired."
"I know, little brother." A soft sigh. "You need gas yet?"
Oh. "Uh, yeah."
"Okay, I kinda figured. Start looking for signs, okay?"
They managed to find one together, Dean interpreting words for him that didn't seem to have the meaning they once did. Sam soon found himself pulling up in front of an empty gas station.
He got out cautiously, glancing around as he did. Dean hadn't found any information about the speed of manitous, had he? It hadn't moved especially fast when they'd faced it, but it had followed Sam across hundreds of miles quickly enough. It could be there, watching, for all he knew, and his eyes, burning but opened by the cold, flicked around the dark and empty landscape, searching for a threat while he swiped Dean's credit card and filled up the tank.
Was that movement on the left? He quickly reached inside the car and rolled up the window.
His vision was getting less and less reliable. He hadn't told Dean, but Sam wasn't positive that even if he could stay awake, he could rely on what he saw to help him stay on the road. Already sometimes he seemed to spot phantom roads stretching off into the distance, or lights shining ahead, only to have them flicker and fade out like mirages when he got close. The motion now on the other side of the road made his skin crawl and had Sam longing for the thread of contact with Dean. But the phone's recharging cord didn't reach out of the car, and he needed to finish getting gas. Sam hummed AC/DC as he screwed the cap on and darted into the small attached store for some coffee.
The darkness by the car wavered as he returned, and Sam felt the crawl become a shudder.
He had a flask of holy water on him, and Sam fished it out with his free hand and uncapped it. He went quickly but warily to the passenger door and slid in on that side, scooting over to the wheel.
Black eyes he shouldn't have seen in the darkness stared at him through the driver's side window.
Sam startled back into the seat, then he quickly reached for the ignition. His hands shook as he cranked the engine, and he peeled out of the gas station in a screech of tires, back on the road.
"I saw it," he announced without preamble as he returned to the phone.
Dean cursed. "It didn't hurt you?"
"I think the water Caleb put on the car might be repelling it."
A thankful murmur from his brother.
Sam hesitated. "Dean? Maybe it would keep it away long enough for me to pull over and sleep, just for an hour or something."
"Sam," and Dean sounded regretful and gentle at once, "we can't take that chance, you know that. We gotta get you back here so we can kill this sucker once and for all."
Sam sighed. "I know, I'm just…"
"Tired. I get it, I do. But you can't stop now, okay? Try to find some local talk radio to make fun of, huh? That's pretty good at keeping me awake."
Sam obeyed, trying not to feel the crush of tired hopelessness. Everything was just so much effort. He brushed away stupid, weak tears and was momentarily glad Dean wasn't there. But just for a moment.
The miles bled off slowly. Dean coached him through exits and alternate routes. He spun outlandish stories about the people who called in on the radio, and threw odd questions at Sam that made him focus. And sometimes he yelled when Sam's head started to bob, once just in time to get out of the way of a semi bearing down from the opposite direction. Sam wouldn't be telling his brother that one any time soon, either.
"Okay, Sammy, only about an hour left now. How's the gas?"
"Low, but…I think I'll be okay."
"Stop if you have to but do it at a busy station, okay? Lots of people. It'll beat running out of gas on an empty road somewhere. And take the holy water with you."
"I know, Dean, I'm not a kid." Irritation seemed to be his newest fatigue-induced symptom, unexpected and unfair and out of his control.
"You'll always be a kid to me, Sammy," Dean answered sweetly, knowing not to take it seriously and making Sam smile involuntarily. "Remember whe—"
Sam's heart thudded into his stomach. "Dean? Dean!"
Nothing. The connection had broken.
He cursed, pulling up his brother's number and dialing again. The phone was charged; it was probably just a dead spot. They ran into them all the time in fly-over country. But the sudden dip into aloneness chilled him as surely as an icy pool, and Sam couldn't dial fast enough.
Dean's voice mail kicked in.
Cursing a little more frantically now, Sam hung up and dialed again.
This time Dean picked up before the first ring even finished. "Sam? You okay?"
The relief was embarrassing, and he had to cough the tightness out of his throat before he could talk. "Yeah. Yeah, the phone just quit. Must've dropped the call."
"All right, so everything's cool, right?"
The franticness under the calm was starting to penetrate. "Yeah. Even woke me up a little."
A snort. "Great. So, uh, what's on the radio now?"
The adrenalin burst didn't last long and seemed to leave him even more drowsy than before. Sam almost ran off the road completely a few minutes later in mid-sentence, narrowly missing a railing.
Any other time, Dean would have been ranting about the car, but this time his voice never rose. "Okay, listen to me, Sam. We need something stronger to keep you awake, so I want you to do something for me."
"What?" The words were all slurring now, but he couldn't seem to fix them. He felt stupid with exhaustion.
"Pull the bandage off your hand and get the stitches out."
Even the idea of that made him wince. "Dean, I don't have scissors, I can't—"
"Sammy, just do it, okay? Use whatever you have: teeth, keys, the knife under the seat, whatever, just get the cut open again. I'm sorry, I know it's gonna hurt, but that's the point. The pain'll keep you awake, okay?"
His brother was asking him to hurt himself. No, his brother was asking his forgiveness for asking him to hurt himself. Sam's stomach hurt just thinking about it. "Yeah," he answered, and swallowed. "Yeah, I understand. Okay."
He set the phone down and started picking at the edge of the gauze.
Dean's stitches were almost professional, which was to say they weren't about to break without a lot of help. Sam's teeth were clenched, his face bathed with sweat by the time he managed to saw through the surgical thread with his incisors, tasting iron as the blood began to flow again. The mangling hurt more than the original injury, but it did lift the suffocating, hovering sleep away, and that was the goal.
He picked up the phone with slick fingers and said breathlessly, "I'm bleeding all over your car."
His brother told him very succinctly what he could do with the car.
Sam blinked, his eyelids feeling like sandpaper. "I don't think I have time to try that, too, Dean," he said carefully.
The surprised laugh was so worth it.
The drip of blood was almost mesmerizing. Sam didn't notice the car in front of him until he almost collided with it. As it was, a sharp yank of the wheel brought him onto the shoulder before he crashed.
He couldn't keep the defeat out of the murmured word. "Traffic."
"Yeah, I was afraid of that. You're getting close to the city. Take the next exit and we'll figure out another way."
Dean was better than Mapquest. Heck, Dean was better than anything, but when Sam said so, he got an chagrined, embarrassed mutter in reply. Sam shut up and concentrated on the roads instead, turning where Dean said and staring at the white and yellow lines until he swore he saw shapes and words in them.
"Sam, you're not making sense," Dean was saying slowly. Or maybe he was just hearing slowly. Was that possible?
"I'm tired," Sam mumbled in his own defense.
"Sam, I know."
"Oh, for…Sammy, listen to me. You're close now—tell me where you are and I'll come meet you."
He must've done it although he didn't remember it, because the next thing he knew, Dean was telling him to stop, first in his ear, then at the window, and, oh, God, Sam couldn't remember being so glad to see anyone in his life. He stared stupidly at his brother until Dean's impatient gestures sunk in and he unlocked the door.
And then Dean was sliding in, pushing him over with rushed but kind hands, folding him up against the window and telling him he could sleep for a few minutes. That was all Sam needed to hear before letting the last fragile dams break and oblivion sweep over him.
The Impala sat in silence in front of the apartment building.
Dean took the extra thirty seconds to wrap his sleeping brother's bleeding hand in a handkerchief, knowing they didn't really have the time but not quite having the heart to rouse the guy yet. Sam looked beyond exhausted, completely limp as he slumped against the seat, slack-jawed face drained white. His slurred incoherence that last hour or so had scared Dean more than he cared to admit, and he had silently debated which was the greater danger, the manitou or Sam falling asleep at the wheel. But this was what they both needed, Sam back with him so Dean could protect him. Starting with killing this slimy thing that had latched onto Sam.
Dean would have preferred to leave Sam there to sleep while he took care of the spirit, but considering it had the hots for his brother, that wasn't an option. He wasn't leaving Sam alone again before their little pest problem was taken care of, and Dean needed help with the ritual. Regretfully, he leaned across the seat, slapping lightly at Sam's cheek. "Hey, Sleeping Beauty. Time to wake up."
Even exhaustion hadn't dampened Sam's sense of danger completely. He snapped awake, startling Dean back, and cast a frantic, wide-eyed look around the car.
"Whoa, settle down," Dean soothed, a hand on Sam's arm. "Everything's under control…well, except for your secret admirer still being out there somewhere. You ready to send this thing back to where it came from?"
Sam's not-quite-with-it gaze had flicked back to him and stuck. But Dean didn't let go of him until Sam rubbed bloodshot eyes and cleared his throat. "We're here?"
Right: short words, simple concepts for the brain-impaired. "We're here," Dean agreed. "Come on, let's go kill this bitch."
"Okay," Sam said. His eyes shut, his head sagging back to the seat.
Dean sighed and gave up, climbing out of the car. His eyes were in constant motion as he limped around the hood, leaning on the frame for support. But while the feeling of being watched grated on his senses, he couldn't see anything. Sam's new buddy was out there, though, Dean could smell it. Was counting on it, in fact.
He reached Sam's door and yanked it open, his brother not even stirring from the creak. Dean grimaced and reached inside to grab two handfuls of Sam's jacket, hauling him bodily up and out of the car.
Sam startled awake again, this time on the offense. Dean narrowly missed having his nose bloodied by a flying fist, and caught Sam's wrist in one hand, the other splayed against his chest to hold him upright. Well, at least the kid was still up for a fight, even if his choice of opponent needed some work.
"Sam? You with me?"
A puzzled squint. "Dean?"
"Yeah. You remember where we are?"
The hazel eyes didn't even look like they were focusing, but they swept past him, down the dark street. Then widened. "Manitou."
He didn't know if Sam was seeing something or just thought he was, but it was time to go. Dean kept one steadying hand on his brother as he reached in to grab the bag on the front seat, stuffing the stupid cup inside. When he stood, he peered hard into Sam's face. "Sammy, you with me?" When there was no immediate answer, he gave Sam's jacket a little shake. "Sam. Focus. I can't drag you in there with this ankle. C'mon, man, I need your help."
That seemed to spark something in the glazed eyes. "I'm here," Sam murmured, and pushed his hair out of his face as if it was encroaching sleep. His legs firmed up under him. "Y'all right?"
"Good boy," Dean said, patting his chest once. "I'm fine. Come on." He reached back to slam the door. He'd left the cane in their room, knowing he'd need his hands free, so Dean just looped a hand over his brother's nearest shoulder and leaned. Sam knew this routine instinctively and, as Dean had hoped, automatically compensated for his weight, propelling them both along.
At least they knew where they were going this time. Dean made sure he had a firm grip on Sam as they started down the stairs, and not just for his own support. Sam could be clumsy at the best of times, with all those long arms and legs, and this wasn't even close to their best. Dean didn't flinch when his brother managed to tangle himself up and lurch into Dean with an oomph, just planted his one good foot and held on to the railing, quickly setting Sam upright and continuing on. He could practically feel the manitou at their backs.
The flashlight lit the way to the boiler in the back of the room, and Dean decided that was near enough. He let go of Sam and dropped the bag on the stained cement floor, crouching beside it to retrieve what they needed. Without looking, he thrust the cup up at Sam, waiting until his brother got a fumbling grip, then dug out a plastic Dr. Pepper bottle and a bag of dried sage. Dean stood up again, barely glancing at the doorway when something seemed to momentarily block the light.
He had to work fast. The contents of the bottle, a murky, lumpy grey mix that had Sam wrinkling his nose, were poured into the cup, filling it halfway.
"Dude, I don't think that's Dr. Pepper," came Sam's solemn determination.
"Nope," Dean agreed absently. "So don't drink it, okay?" He crumbled the sage on top of the potion with a few murmured words. Suspicious of Sam's quiet, he glanced up between lines to find his brother's eyes had closed. He was asleep on his feet, hand just starting to droop. Dean poked him in the ribs.
Even Sam's startle reflex was sluggish. He gave his brother a vaguely bewildered look. "'M tired, Dean."
"No, really?" He unhooked the cup gently from Sam's grasp, ignoring the sound of movement on the stairs. Maybe the thing had made tracks following Sam, but it took its time when it was on home territory. Still, they needed a few more seconds…
They didn't have it. Dean heard the step behind him, felt all the hair on the back of his neck rise, and started to turn with a curse, already knowing he'd be too late.
Something wet splashed on and past him onto the manitou, making it howl and retreat.
Sam. He stood in the beam of Dean's flashlight, holding a half-empty bottle of holy water, blinking owlishly and managing to look both pleased and confused. Then he giggled.
Dean rolled his eyes and, with a hop-shuffle gait, started pouring a careful circle around Sam where he stood, leaving only a small gap facing the door. Sam had only bought him a few seconds at best, and he intended to make the most of it.
"Okay, Sam, listen to me—this is important." He ignored the threatening growl behind him. "When I say the word, you jump out of the ring, okay? Fast as you can, you got it?"
"I'm not ten, dude." Annoyed, tired-Sam didn't sound all that different from regular-Sam.
Dean resisted rolling his eyes again. Of all the times for the guy to snap out of it. "Fine, you're a big boy. Just do it, all right?" He could hear the manitou shuffling forward for a new attack.
Sam muttered something Dean wasn't even sure made sense, but the lean body was coiled, ready.
Dean turned, and stared into black eyes not three feet away. "Come and get it, freak," he whispered.
The manitou stood motionless for long seconds, and Dean wondered if it sensed the trap.
Then it moved, streaking toward Sam.
"Now!" Dean barked, lunging forward to complete the circle. He barely felt the weight on his bad leg as Sam staggered against his back; Dean just turned the cup over completely to drain it.
The circle burst into flames.
Dean stumbled back, nearly knocking Sam over in the process and grabbing his brother by the back of the jacket in a distracted save. His eyes were on the fire that burned a deep red. Behind their curtain, a black shape uttered a single bark, then struggled and writhed in eerie silence, midnight eyes glowing like hellfire as they briefly met his. Dean shivered, almost wishing the thing was screaming.
Piece of cake. The kind that, you know, took two days to put together and nearly killed Sam and drove him a little crazy in the process.
"It's always fire." Sam's slurred whisper drew his attention back.
Dean turned to look at his brother. Sam was staring at the flames with dazed mournfulness. Dean's mouth twisted, and he reached over to pat Sam's shoulder. "I'm thinkin' it's time to put you to bed, little brother."
Sam surprised him with a huff and a direct stare. "You want me to drive?"
Dean groaned, scooping up the bag at their feet and dumping the empty cup inside. Sam surprised him again by wrapping an arm around his waist to silently play crutch, and Dean squeezed his shoulder as he grabbed on once more. A final glance at the fire confirmed it was already dying out, nothing left in its center. Mystical fires were a pain to set, but they didn't spread or leave much clean-up after. The janitor could puzzle later over the scorched ring in the cement. "C'mon, Sleepy," Dean said, and pointed them both toward the stairs.
Sam giggled again, sounding like nothing more than a teenage girl. "Sure, Grumpy."
So much for surprising lucidity. Dean just shook his head with long-suffering and kept going, Sam safely in tow.
More or less.
The bed was a brilliant invention.
Fluffy, warm, cozy, soft, comfortable. And, okay, smelling a little weird and feeling kinda lumpy in some spots, but Sam didn't care. He turned his head with a happy sigh into the pillow and sank into the welcome embrace of bed and sleep. And possibly heard an amused snort in the distance before he faded out.
Movement in the dark room woke him some time later, and Sam reluctantly peeled his eyes open. Dean was getting up, the light flaring on in the bathroom. Sam watched him, half-awake.
"Everything's fine, Sam, go back to sleep." His brother's whisper was loud from across the room despite the clanking a/c.
Sam obeyed, eyes sinking shut again. He didn't even hear Dean's return.
It was light when he reopened his eyes. Sam blinked a few times at the slitted blinds, fuzzy and not quite awake yet but contentedly so. There were soft sounds of movement in the background, of someone there with him, and the feeling was warm and safe. Loved.
He licked his dry lips. It tasted like something had decayed in his mouth. Sam grimaced. He couldn't even remember going to bed, let alone brushing his teeth. Jess had always laughed at his…
His heart squeezed painfully at the reminder. Sometimes he forgot for hours now, or woke up without her being his first thought. At least he hadn't had any nightmares this time, or none that Sam could remember, anyway, and the realization was both a relief and a twinge. Dean said he was healing, but it felt sometimes like he was just forgetting.
But Dean was here now, puttering quietly so as not to wake Sam, one person whom he loved stepping in when he'd lost another. Sam wondered sometimes if Dean knew he'd saved him from a lot more than just a fire.
He also wondered about Dean and that goatman. And why Dean knew how to stay awake when driving exhausted. And if maybe, in some way, Sam wasn't doing a little saving of his own, too.
"You slept enough yet, or is this just halftime?"
Sam smiled into the bedding. Figured Dean had known he was awake. Sam had been pretty good at reading Dean once upon a time, too. "Depends," he answered, voice rough and dry. "There any food?"
Dean finally entered his limited, prone field of vision, flopping down on the bed across from Sam. He seemed to be limping a little less heavily, although a wince crossed his face as he lifted his leg onto the bed and sat back. "Considering you've been asleep for the last thirteen—no, make that fourteen hours, I wasn't exactly sure when to have breakfast ready for," he said wryly. "You want some Twinkies?"
Considering that was his brother's private stash and off-limits to Sam during normal times, he figured Dean's ankle still hurt and he was still worried about Sam. Sam sighed, peeling himself reluctantly from the soft give of mattress and sheets, and pushed up. He wasn't surprised to notice there was a fresh bandage around his hand and wrist. "No, it's okay. I'll go pick something up for us."
"Don't worry, Dean, I'm walking. And after breakfast, I'm going back to sleep," he warned.
Dean put his hands up in a mute I'm not arguing. Satisfied, Sam rose with a groan and stumbled over to his duffel. He didn't really mind going out, but he wanted a long, hot shower, a change of clothes, and a chance to brush his teeth first, in that order.
"You feeling okay?" Dean asked from behind him. "No nightmares, hallucinations, bad puns? 'Cause, dude, you're scary when you're sleep-deprived."
Sam's mouth twisted. "I'm all right." He threw a glance over his shoulder that he almost convinced himself was casual. "Thanks for getting me home." The last word slipped out before he thought about it, and Sam turned it cautiously over in his head, not certain that was what he meant. But…it was.
Dean grumped a little at that. "Don't flatter yourself. I just wanted my car back in one piece."
"Right." Sam grinned at his bag. He still could read Dean pretty well, actually, despite the changes in his brother. But Sam had changed, too, and he understood what he read a whole lot more now.
Sam gathered the clothes and his kit, and headed toward the bathroom. Hesitated, looking back. Got an arched eyebrow in return.
"I thought I lost my best friend in that fire, Dean." Sam looked at him steadily even as he felt a flush creep up his cheeks. "But I didn't." He turned and disappeared into the bathroom.
And just smiled when he finally came out to find a gruff brother and hot pancakes waiting for him.