Hold Off the Earth Awhile
Summary: Post WIAWSNB. Sam and Dean tangle with an artist whose work is a deadly gift that keeps on giving.
This story is a desperate attempt to break myself out of a post-finale funk of monumental proportions. Just haven't been able to write for the boys, but I'm working on it…
"You sure you're up for this?" Sam looked at Dean sitting across the booth from him, staring out the diner window. "Dean?" he said when his brother didn't answer, just kept staring across the street.
Dean finally turned to look at him. "I'm fine." Sam looked down at his brother's half-eaten food. Dean followed his gaze and his mouth quirked up in chagrin, knowing he'd been caught. "Ate too much at lunch."
That was a lie too, but Sam chose not to call him on it. Dean was already staring out the window again, lost in thought as he had been far too often the past few days. He was physically fine, at least as far as Sam could tell. The effects of his time with the djinn seemed to have worn off soon enough, but Dean was still too quiet. He wasn't supposed to be the quiet one and it was kind of freaking Sam out. Dean normally ignored problems by excessively talking about anything other than what was bothering him. This silent, pensive thing was… worrying.
Finally, Dean drew in a heavy breath as if that alone was work. "You ready?"
"Yeah." Sam scooted out of the booth and pulled on his suit coat that he'd hung over the back. Dean did the same, straightening his tie. He looked up at Sam and froze for just a second, staring at him, then shook his head as if annoyed with himself.
Sam had seen a lot of that over the past couple of days. "What?"
Dean shook his head again. "Nothin'. You in a suit."
Sam frowned, glancing down to make sure he hadn't dropped anything on his shirt or tie. "Somethin' wrong with it?"
"Nope. Just you in your natural element." Dean pulled his wallet out and threw some cash on the table before heading for the door, leaving Sam to follow in his wake or be left behind.
They stopped outside the diner waiting on the traffic to clear so that they could cross. Sam looked at the shop opposite them, the Skull and Crossbones Tattoo Parlor. The business appeared to be well-kept, but also had the look of a shop that had been there for years and years. A neon sign hung in the window, a large blue-white version of the business' namesake. The rest was all open glass, Sam supposed so that anyone walking past could get a glimpse of the tattoo artists at work.
In the past month, five bodies had been found in the local cemetery dead from exposure, each person lying on top of a deceased relative's grave. The police were beyond confused, but bodies showing up dumped on top of specific plots just might have a little more to it than the cops were prepared to deal with. People might visit graves, but they didn't stay there long enough to die of exposure. Especially when witnesses had seen certain victims only hours before.
An afternoon of nosing around and talking to the families had given them only one lead. Each body had a tattoo from this particular shop. Suddenly, the skull and crossbones hanging in the window didn't look so innocent.
A break finally opened in the traffic and Sam followed Dean as he jogged across the street. Sam held the door, letting Dean in first.
The shop contained everything one would expect to see from a tattoo parlor, and Sam noted that in addition to the portion of the business visible from the street, there were a couple of cubicles toward the back that he guessed were for people wanting tattoos that weren't meant to be on permanent display.
"Can I help you?"
They both turned to see a man sitting behind a high desk, more like a draftsman's table than anything else. He was probably in his 50s, long gray hair held back in a pony-tail. He was wearing a dark t-shirt and jeans, but Sam only noticed the rest of the details after first seeing the tattoos.
They looked like a cross between some sort of tribal design and grassy vines, sprouting wherever his skin was visible. His arms were covered, but the tattoos also showed at the neck of his t-shirt and had been designed to look as if they had grown up his neck, stopping at his jaw-line though a few leaves peeked out, threatening to grow higher. In the back the tattoos crawled all the way up into his hair. It looked like a funky jungle plant was about to take over his face. The effect was cool and seriously creepy all at the same time.
Sam glanced toward Dean and saw that he was bristling with tension, although Sam doubted anyone would notice but him. Dean unconsciously raised a hand, rubbing his fingers across the spot where the djinn's needle had been in his neck.
Sam shifted closer, his shoulder just brushing Dean's in a silent show of support, a tacit reminder that this was an old hippie, not a djinn, and that no matter who it was, Dean wasn't going anywhere this time, mentally or otherwise.
Dean cleared his throat. "Nice tats."
The man just nodded and Sam supposed he was used to people staring at his tattoos. "You gentlemen interested in something similar?"
"No, sir," Sam said, drawing up to his full height and putting on his official voice. "We're from the Health Department. We were asked to open an investigation in reference to several recent deaths, all the persons involved having tattoos from your establishment, two less than a week old."
The man's face immediately clouded. He stood up and came around the desk, all pretense of cheerfulness gone. "Look, I've told you guys before and I told the police. The deaths have nothing to do with me. My work was clean. What happens after people leave is their business."
"But every person had a tattoo from your shop, so we have to-"
"I run a clean place," the man cut Sam off. "I make sure everything is done the safest way I can! You Health Department people are always hounding me!"
"Hounding you?" Dean asked, one eyebrow raised.
"Every single person has to sign a waiver." He poked a finger in their direction belligerently. "Every one of them. You guys have my methods on record and even Okayed the process. It's not like there's hardly even anything in the ink. I practically wave the stuff near the ink and say it's in there. It's mostly just a show. But you Health Department people are always checking up on me and now the police. That's just great!" He threw up his hands furiously.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up a second. What are you talking about?" Dean said and Sam had to agree. They'd only found the tattoo link that afternoon and hadn't had a chance to look into the shop or its owner.
The man stopped and just looked at them for a second. "You're here about the memorial tattoos, so don't even try to pretend this is just a routine inspection."
"Memorial tattoos?" Sam asked.
"Look, the dirt or the ashes are handled very carefully. After I treat everything, I still put less than a speck of it in the ink. It'd mess up the equipment if I put in any more than that. It's just for people's piece of mind. It helps them heal or remember or whatever it is they need. It helps them keep a piece of the person close. I'm just performing a community service. You guys know I've been doing it for fifteen years and this is the first time there's been a problem."
Sam and Dean just stood for a moment, staring blankly, in complete disbelief.
"You…" Dean coughed uncertainly. "You put… ashes… in the ink."
"Yeah," the man said, looking at them oddly. "Or some of them bring a little dirt from the grave if they don't have ashes. It's my specialty. People come from all over the country."
"And each of the victims had memorial tattoos?" Sam asked.
"Yeah," the man replied, real suspicion in his tone now. "But you guys should know all of that already. Can I see some ID?"
Dean pulled out a flip wallet and flashed one of their all-purpose Health Department IDs. It wasn't like people knew what one of them should look like anyway. The man reached out to take it and Sam saw that his tattoos were designed in the same way on his hands as on his neck. Leaves reached out past his wrists as if the vines were still growing and would eventually encompass his hands.
Dean took a small step back out of the man's reach, snapping the wallet closed and putting the ID back in his pocket. Sam glanced at him worriedly. Dean had meant for the action to look natural, but his body language was speaking volumes. He didn't want the man's tattooed hands anywhere near him, not that Sam could blame him.
"We may have a few more questions. We'll be in touch, sir," Sam said, moving toward the door. Dean did the same, although Sam noted that he was backing toward the door, not willing to turn his back on the tattoo artist.
"Thank you for your time," Dean offered, only a hint of strain audible in his tone.
The store owner rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Just leave me alone. Tell that to the cops, too."
Sam once again held the door for Dean as they exited. The door swung closed and Dean let out a slow breath. He stood on the sidewalk for several seconds, gathering himself. Finally, he gave Sam a sidelong glance, grimacing at the expression he saw there. Sam knew he looked worried and didn't bother hiding it. He wanted Dean to know that he wasn't the Sam from his dream. What was going on with Dean was important to him. He was glad they got along.
The longer he was with Dean, the more he wondered how they had ever managed to function properly while he was away at school. Sometimes, Sam marveled that Jess had ever put up with him. Dean had always been able to jostle him out of his darker moods. Jess had done her best, but Dean hadn't been there for him then, and that fact had often been the cause of those darker moods in the first place. For Dean, it might have been worse. Sam hadn't been there when their Dad was barking orders to offer a secret eye roll behind their father's back. He hadn't been there to share a joke or two. It would have been orders, hunting, killing, with no real reprieve. Sam had had Jess. Their dad wasn't exactly what you'd call a real support system.
Not that Sam was much better sometimes. He looked at Dean's still too-pale features and wished he could kill the djinn all over again. Dean had already been on shaky ground. Dad's death, Meg beating him down, physically and mentally, and in the middle of all that, Sam had shaken his brother badly by leaving after he'd learned their dad's final orders.
Dean had begged him for some time. Sam should have known it then. Dean never begged. And that right after he'd been willing to just sit down and die along with Sam after he'd been infected. I'm tired, Sam. I'm tired of this job, this life, this weight on my shoulders, man. I'm tired of it. He should have realized then that Dean was running on empty, but Sam had been so angry. Angry and terrified. Dad. Dean following his orders. Dean killing him. For their Dad to give that kind of order, the odds that Sam would turn evil must be impressive. Sam might rationalize it as a need for finding answers without Dean hovering, but the result had been the same, or at least Dean would have seen it that way. Sam had cut and run. All over again. Not his best move, in retrospect.
After all of that, the djinn had gone and informed Dean that he and Sam never would have gotten along if not for hunting. Which was complete crap. Who knew what would have become of them with two well-adjusted parents and no monsters chasing them. It had been Dean's own fears that had created that part of the dream, Dean's fears that Sam was only his partner because he couldn't figure out how to get out of it.
"You gonna stand there thinking some more," Dean asked casually, "or do you wanna go figure how to fix our little Tattoos of Doom problem?"
Sam lips twitched in an effort not to smile. Instead, he shook his head seriously. "Tattoos of Doom. I was gonna go with Death Tats, but it doesn't have quite the same ring."
Dean nodded, his expression similarly serious. "I was trying to put the right impending-disaster spin on it. These things aren't as easy as they look."
"It's good," Sam agreed. "Ominous."
Dean cocked his head to one side. "I always kinda liked the word 'foreboding'. Has a cool we're-all-gonna-die sound to it."
Sam couldn't hold it back any longer and grinned. Dean gave him an answering grin and together they began walking toward the Impala. Yeah, they were screwed up, Sam thought, but they complimented each other well in their dysfunction.
They crossed the street again, and Dean's smile faded, faster than Sam would have liked. His brother glanced back toward the tattoo parlor, eyeing it almost warily. Sam purposely bumped him, making it look like an accident, and Dean's eyes faced forward again.
"Come on," Sam urged, opening the passenger side door and sliding in. "I'm thinking somebody was hoping for a nice restful death and didn't appreciate their remains being embedded in their relative."
Dean started the car, glancing toward Sam, something once again wary in his gaze. "Nobody wants to be permanently stuck with someone when it wasn't meant to be."
Sam gritted his teeth. He didn't know what he'd said to Dean in that dream to cause his brother this much uncertainty, but right now, Sam really wished he could kick his own ass.