Author:Mirrordance

Title:Stronger

Summary:Post-Born Under a Bad Sign, Sam finds one thing he's stronger than his older brother at: getting a tattoo.

Notes:

Shout out to all who read and especially all who reviewed Once More, especially those whom I didn't get to thank in my usual afterword: Aurilia (thanks for reviewing my other fics too; your thoughts are awesome and really encouraging); Laura of Maychoria (thanks for the reco; I need all the readers I can get haha); hopeAndDreams (thank you for the suggestion on writing a tag to my own story. I admit, I've also been thinking of re-writing the whole story from the reverse point of view, but no definite plans yet);and Rhesa.

This story was first previewed in August in the Afterword of my story The Least I Can Do. Hope you like it, and c&c's always welcome!

" " "

Stronger

" " "

At least I'm taller, he thought, inanely, watching his older brother sleep like a log for a change, just still and unshakable, barely moving, breaths even and deep. He supposed that was normal, after a week of desperately looking for a recklessly possessed runaway younger brother, then getting a concussion, then getting shot and going swimming with the damned fishes, and then getting beaten and taunted and torn up, and then driving...

Yeah, Sam thought with a wince, Take as long as you want, bro...I sure owe you for this one.

Like he owed him for lots of other 'ones' before that, but if he started counting he'd be in debt to his eyeballs, so he decided not to.

They stopped at the first out-of-state motel that they could find. The car was weaving; as always, an extension of it – her for now, Sam amended, since Sam owed Dean – an extension of her owner's personality; exhausted, on drained-out auto-pilot. The carefully-intricate parking drew out the last of Dean's reserves. He stayed in the car as Sam hopped out and got them a room, then suffered through being dragged in there by his younger brother.

"Just relax, bro," Sam had murmured as he settled Dean in bed and sat by his arm, "I gotcha. We're gonna patch you up, okay?"

"We?" Dean asked, his laugh a quiet, assuring breath, "You're gonna have to do all the work on this one, little brother."

Sam smiled tightly, feeling something inside him ease, "Just relax as much as you can Dean, try to sleep."

Dean shrugged noncommittally, at least tried to, wincing at the pain in his shoulder. He bit his lip, scrunched his eyes closed for a second before opening them again, staring at Sam.

"Guess I'd better take a look at that one first, huh?" Sam said, grimacing. He was going to stand up, get the first aid kit and wash his hands, when Dean reached out and grabbed his wrists in a death-grip. The feeling was disturbingly familiar; he had been awake for some of his possession, oh yes, and he recognized the sensation; Dean on the ground, Sam's fingers squeezing, torturing, and his brother's hands, clamped to him, clawing, please stop even when his face was set and his eyes were cold, his hand spoke volumes.

"I'm not going to hurt you," were the first things Sam thought to say, feeling the sting, that Dean was now afraid of him--

"No, you idiot," Dean snapped, loosening his hold, realizing it was what triggered the response, "You're gonna look through and think everything's your fault--" Sam opened his mouth to protest, so Dean insisted, "You are, so just shut up and listen to me. It's not your fault, okay?"

Sam stared at him for a long moment, blinked. He knew then, with a sinking heart, that it must mean there was a lot of wounds to find on Dean, after this last misadventure.

"Sam," Dean barked, sounding just like their father, "You hear?"

"I hear," Sam said, under his breath, making no promises, feeling the simmering anger at himself again. Dean looked at him with narrowed eyes. And kept looking, as if ready to pounce out in argument if Sam should even think to look guilty about any wound he would find on Dean's body.

And so Sam worked, and Dean watched. And Sam did look guilty, and Dean did rag on him about it. And so went the whole exercise that eventually ended with Dean asleep, tanked up on exhaustion, medicine and Sam's good intentions, while his younger brother did the watching this time.

Sam ran a weary hand over wearier, watching eyes. His laptop was running in front of him on the table, turned away from Dean as if his older brother would notice an h-bomb right now, just to make sure the dim screen lighting wouldn't bother him. Sam couldn't sleep, tried to do something productive, like coming to some sort of understanding of what had happened to him.

Demonic possession, of course, was fairly straightforward. There were certain mindframes that made a person have an increased propensity for becoming a host. Like lowered immunities or harsh environs making people more prone to catching certain diseases, there were personal situations that did the same for demonic possession: fear, anger, hate, desire... and he's been the poster-boy for these lately.

He felt off about it all, a little embarrassed in all honesty. He was a hunter, for crying out loud, he did this for a living, he was supposed to be prepared, if not exempt altogether. Then again, it was like saying a doctor isn't allowed to get sick, but still...

He'd been angry at Dean and their father for the secret they had kept; he was still reeling from the loss of his father and the near-loss of Dean; he'd been in deep and profound hate of their situation, in deeper fear of himself, of what lay sleeping within. Ripe for possession in every conceivable sense, just damned wide open.

I should have seen it coming.

I should have been ready.

I should have been stronger.

There was no excuse, no quarter, especially looking at Dean, his older brother, who was stronger than him in so many ways. Heavily weighed by guilt over the death of their father, having been tasked with saving his younger brother or killing him... grief, loss, betrayal, confusion... and still the demon had gone down on Sam and not Dean.

I'm weaker...

Sam shook his head in dismay, recognizing that the guilt and self-loathing was making him ironically open for Round 2. He had to be more productive, more proactive.

He toyed with the ward Bobby had given them hours ago and a state away. He looked it up online, wondered if its effects had anything to do with the metal it was constructed with, or if the source of the power was just the symbol itself, and could be translated into other media.

His brows raised, intrigued by an idea. The source of the power was just the symbol itself.

He came to a quick decision.

He wasn't going to hurt anyone like this again, now that he knew better, and especially if he was going to be in a position where there was something sleeping inside of him that could be powerful and even more harmful to people around him. Besides, their profession pretty much ensured that dark situations and inextricable dark thoughts were unavoidable and that he, perforce, could not tear them from himself. He had to do something to keep himself from becoming possessed again.

He had to come up with permanent, drastic measures.

" " "

He went to the tattoo parlor without Dean.

Left him a note, something standard and forgettable like out for a supply-run or something like that, sit still, call if you need anything, blah, blah, blah. The tattoo he wanted wasn't too big, or too intricate. A decent artist could get it done in about forty, maybe fifty minutes tops, just enough time for him to get that done, drop by a convenience store, blindly pick up a few things, drive like a maniac back to the motel, and maybe not catch the burnt of a worried Dean's ire and soften it by providing junk food 'nourishment.'

He knew what kind of place to look for, as it wasn't the first time he got inked; it was probably why he'd thought about this in the first place. He went to college, for crying out loud, and he'd done other things much crazier (if only he could remember all of them).

He found the tattoo parlor on-line. Generally, he felt it was a good indication of safety if they had a website or some form of networking site, a spot where they featured their portfolio, some client testimonials and credentials. Once equipped with a name of a nearby artist, he google-d him for any sort of negative feedback or public warnings. He called them up for work hours and appointment policies. He dug into the research and preparation as if it were a hunt; this was part of the job this time, after all, and he wasn't (anymore) doing this on a drunken night with friends after acing a pivotal pre-law final, or getting a date with a hot girl he's dreamed of for months.

"Hey, man," he greeted the artist, after pulling up at the small, neat shop. Photos of art and graphics hung on every spot on the wall, "Sam. That was me, on the phone."

"Roger," the artist introduced himself, shaking his hand. He was a tiny Asian man especially next to Sam, but he was lean, and aggressive-looking, what with every exposed area of his skin, save his disarmingly gentle face, tattooed. Perceptive eyes narrowed in thought, "Not your first time around the block."

"How'd you guess?" Sam asked, handing in the ward he had talked about over the phone when he called earlier.

"Most people come in here excited or scared or both," Roger replied, studying the article for a moment, before grabbing a pen and paper and starting out a stenciled pattern, "The newbies pretend not to be either. Others come in here a little bit hungry, you know, these mad-eyed guys who just want more. Those have tons. Guys like you though..."

"Guys like me?" Sam pressed, glancing over at the art.

"You're very cool," Roger commented with a small shrug, "You know, like, you've done this before, probably a mistake back then, but now you've thought about things, you want something else that means a lot more. You've had it before, but now you've thought about it better." He tilted his head at his drawing, made minute changes, "You know I go through tons of symbology in my line of work. Never seen anything like this."

"Yeah?" Sam asked, coming to the sudden realization that tattoo artists could be valuable sources of information if he and Dean ever come across strange symbols in the future. Weird to put them in alongside university professors and other occult experts, but quite logical. He kept it in mind.

"Five-point-star, broken circle, rays of the sun," Roger murmured, thoughtfully, "Familiar stuff, never seen them put together like this before." He looked up at Sam curiously, "You gonna make me guess?"

Sam stared at him for a long moment, wondering if he was going to be believed, or why he cared. "I'll tell you what it is," he said, "If you keep a pattern in-store, let people see it and have it on them if they like."

Wouldn't hurt to have a few other people out there a little bit more immune to possession after all.

"Yeah, sure," Roger said, "No biggie. I'd have asked you if it was okay anyway. Keeps things interesting, having new stuff all the time."

"It's to ward off demonic possession," Sam told him, truthfully, "If you believe in stuff like that."

"Huh," Roger said, looking at the amulet again, with a bit more respect, "Who'd have thought it. What would a nice boy like you want with something like that?" He twisted the paper Sam's way to show him the stencil. "Looks good?"

Sam plucked off the amulet from the artist's hand, and carefully compared it with the drawing. "Looks good," he said with a nod.

"Okay then," Roger said, using a scanner to input the design on his computer. "How big you want it?"

"Maybe like, an inch and a half, two inches max in diameter at the longest end," Sam said, watching as Roger re-sized the image, and then printed it out.

"This'll set you back about a hundred and twenty," Roger said, "Depending on where you want it."

"Over my heart," Sam said at once, "You take Visa?"

"Life takes visa," Roger smirked, "How can I not? So you down?"

"Yeah," Sam replied, drawing out a credit card, "Less than an hour, right?"

"Why?" Roger teased, taking the card, "Keeping the tag from ma?"

Sam winced, "You can say that."

Roger handed him a piece of paper as he processed payment, "Waiver. Read it, you know the drill."

"Thanks," Sam muttered, grabbing a pen from the counter.

"If you believe in stuff like that," Roger murmured, after returning the credit card to the distracted, still-reading Sam (couldn't shake that lawyer vibe), and he began to stencil the printed image on ink-transfer paper.

"What?" Sam asked.

"That's what you said," Roger grunted, as he finished the drawing, and jerked his head invitingly in the direction of the back room, "I don't doubt you do, though, if you're getting it on you forever, right?"

"You can say that," Sam conceded, leaving the signed waiver on the desk and trailing after the artist. Sam unbuttoned his polo, and shrugged off the left sleeve to expose his left side from waist to shoulder.

"So over your heart, huh?" Roger said, "What is this, some kind of an emo-thing? You know, possessed-obsessed by a woman, now trying to keep yourself safe? Guard your 'foolish heart?'"

"Something like that," Sam said, noncommittally.

"No sweat," Roger said, motioning for Sam to sit on a reclined chair, and waiting for him to lean back and get comfortable, "No need to talk about it. Chicks are evil, everyone knows that."

He pressed the inky paper on Sam's chest and then removed it, leaving the pattern on his skin. He raised a hand-held mirror to Sam's view. "You want it there? I can still move it if you don't."

"Got it in one," Sam approved, "Let's do this. Less than an hour right?"

"Sure thing," Roger murmured, as he started preparing his ink. He got his equipment from a sterilizer, and broke open the needle right on Sam's view. "Here we go."

" " "

When he returned to the motel, Dean was still asleep.

Sam sighed, a little breathless, feeling a little silly for rushing so bad. He felt like a guilty kid overcompensating, trying to hide something by making up for it to an overextended degree. He couldn't even remember everything he picked up from the convenience store. He just had to rush back and pretended he did nothing except pop by the store and grab a few things.

He lifted up a small, egg-shaped package from the plastic bag.

What the hell is this?

"What the hell is that?"

The drowsy voice from the bed made him jump and drop the thing on the floor.

Women's stockings in compact packaging, he realized. Right.

"I think the cashier punched it in by mistake," Sam offered, lamely, putting it back inside, and walking toward his brother. Dean made no move at all to rise or if he did, it was not apparent in terms of actual results. His expression changed from sleepy curiosity to mild annoyance underlined with pain, and so Sam guessed it was the latter.

Sam sighed, sitting by Dean's left arm. His chest was smarting from the tattoo, but looking at his pale brother on the bed, the pain was almost relieving, like something deserved; punishment for the deeds Dean had adamantly refused to hold him accountable for, sure, and also because he knew it was what would keep him from falling prey to another possession in the future.

"Anything you need to tell me?" Dean asked him.

"Huh? What?"

"The stockings, bro," Dean chuckled, breezily, "Still got a chick inside ya?" At Sam's half-wounded look, he quickly amended, "Well you've always had a chick inside you."

Sam sighed again.

"You're gonna be breathing out your brain, dude," Dean growled, pushing himself up to his elbows. The effort made him sweat, but he was glaring at Sam so his younger brother let him get it out of his system. He didn't get very far; just ended up half-leaning on the headboard and half-lying in bed. They both pretended it was exactly where he wanted to be.

He opened his mouth, but Sam cut him off.

"Not my fault, I know," Sam said, averting his eyes.

"Not that it actually gets inside your head," Dean pointed out, "But yeah."

Sam rolled back his eyes. And wondered if he even bought the two of them anything edible.

" " "

"It's too soon for you to be out here," Sam scolded his brother over the din of the mercilessly pouring rain three days later, miserably looking up at a wincing and shivering Dean, who was on his ass on the ground about six feet above him with legs dangling over the deepening grave Sam had been digging. His eyes were wide, on the lookout like always, gun deceptively-casually but readily slung over his uninjured shoulder.

Unfortunately, many Winchester nights looked like this. Mud and rain and open graves and brotherly arguments that were never supposed to be resolved.

"What was I supposed to do, huh?" Dean snapped, rubbing at his healing shoulder. "My idiot brother goes off on his own--"

"What was I supposed to do?" Sam snapped back, "Ghost messing around where we were and hurting people--"

"Was I done?" Dean retorted, "Did I sound done? You asked a question, Stanford, so lemme answer--"

"It was a statement," Sam said, primly, pausing from his work, "Not a question."

"It's not a fricking statement if you're yelling at me!" Dean argued.

"Can you save your breath, please?" Sam said shortly, "It's hard to dig and argue at the same time."

"You shut your trap and dig," Dean said.

"I can't not correct you when you keep giving false information!"

"False information?" Dean asked, aghast. He paused, upon sight of their not-so-friendly ghost, long enough to get a shot out.

"What's wrong about what I've said so far, huh?" he asked, "I'm in bed, I get a damned note, I drag myself out here to find you on your back—"

"I had it under control," Sam insisted, "I'd have gotten out--"

"Right."

Sam frowned at Dean flatly, but his eyes were manipulative and imploring. "Just... just keep quiet. Please, okay? I'll get done sooner. We'll both be out of here sooner. Please, Dean. I'm wet, I'm cold and I'm really miserable."

Dean frowned back at him, "Fine," he spat out, "Big baby. But next time, play fair."

"What do you mean?" Sam asked, blinking at him innocently, making his older brother's lips quirk a little, because they both knew what they were talking about.

"Just shut up and dig so we can s and b this s.o.b."

"Ha."

" " "

When Sam's temperature started to rise a few hours later, he chocked it up to his exposure to the rain, and the physical and mental exhaustion of his last few possessed days catching up with him.

His joints ached, and his head felt stuffed and dull, but these were things they learned to live with. Not the first time any of them fell ill on the road, won't be the last.

Dean never asks him anything, and he thought he was becoming really good at bearing illness quietly, until his older brother pulls rank and lies through his teeth, saying his arm was still giving him crap and he wasn't up to driving, so the two of them weren't going anywhere for a few days.

Sam's brows rose. Dean admitting pain? Either Dean was dying because he had a talent for understatement, or he had spotted that Sam wasn't on top of his game. Pharmacy pit-stop and chicken soup pretty much gave the game away shortly after that.

Sam didn't mind being looked after, especially since Dean had picked up some subtleties since they hunted together as kids; probably picked it up from dealing with their taciturn father who, invincible though he may have seemed, must have picked up a bug or two down the road also.

Control of the remote control in the motel was completely relinquished to him, and news programs quietly borne without complaint or sardonic side commentary, if with a slight, helpless pout.

Sam took an antipyretic every few hours in the bathroom. Dean trusted him enough to work those things out on his own. Or at least pretended to. He'd have bet his ears Dean listened at the door or, worse, went in the bathroom after him and counted how many pills were left in the bottle.

Sam shook his head in amusement, looked at his reflection on the mirror. Sallow, sure, but he's been much worse. The tattoo was smarting a little, but then again it was also supposed to. He lifted up his shirt, frowned at how red it was, a bit puffy.

Infection crosses the mind easily. He wasn't an idiot, he was generally a cautious guy. He knew what to look out for. Besides, a fresh tattoo is like an open wound, and he'd been swimming around in mud and rain, hadn't he?

He washed it carefully, wincing because the sting was annoying and persistent. He slapped on some A&D ointment, and looked back at his handiwork. He didn't think it was time to break out the big boys yet. Ordinarily, he wouldn't mind snatching up some of the antibiotics they had on stock; he was smart enough to know that prevention would be wiser. But they were using up their very meager supply just keeping Dean from falling prey to the complications from his gunshot wound. The slight fever he's also been quietly nursing for days was enough to keep Sam's hands to himself.

It was just a small tattoo on a careless hunter.

He was pretty sure gonna be absolutely fine.

Like, really pretty sure.

" " "

"Where're you hurt?"

Sam felt his brother's own fever-warm, spindly hands move all over his body, searching, scanning, a little harsh, a little desperate, as if scared to death he had missed something.

Sam groaned, and turned away, not even bothering to open his eyes. He felt too tired and heavy to indulge Dean's invasion. "Lemme sleep."

"Sam," Dean barked, and Sam really thought that sometimes, John Winchester lived inside his brother's skin, "Don't be a dork about this. Where're you hurt? No blood, nothing broken... help me out here, bro. You're burning up. This isn't just a bug."

"I'll sleep it off..." Sam murmured.

"You said that twelve hours ago," Dean snapped, "We've done it your way, hotshot. Now we do it mine."

"You do it yours," Sam chuckled wearily, half-manic, "You're gonna have to do all the work on this one, big brother."

"You couldn't wait to toss that back my way, huh?" Dean asked, and even with eyes shut, Sam knew he was smiling from the tone of his voice.

"I live to make you miserable," Sam said.

"Come on, Sam," Dean implored, "Help a guy out. I'm not on the up and up myself--"

"Won't work," Sam drawled, lying, "Emotional blackmail crap."

"I'm gonna find out anyway," Dean said, "You tell me, I see what I can do, or I drag you to the doc's. Your pick."

"You can't drag a big man anywhere he doesn't wanna go," Sam told him, "Especially not after just getting shot, bro. Pick your battles."

"Sam," Dean growled, tone a warning.

Sam opened his eyes, irritably. He squinted up at his brother. And then his lips curved slowly to a smile. Maybe this'll be worth it...

"What?" Dean asked, uneasily, "What?"

Sam pulled up his shirt, showing his brother the tattoo.

Green eyes widened. Shot from the chest to his brother's face and back.

"Is that for real?" Dean breathed.

"No," Sam said, wryly, "'Cos only fake ones get infected."

A moment of long, weighty silence, as Dean let it sink in.

Sam watched his face, first in amusement. He'd thought about telling Dean about the tag for the last few days. Just because it was something unexpected. But as he watched Dean's face, he was hit with a deep and profound realization: showing Dean his tattoo was like how he imagined it would feel like, for a kid to tell his father he got inked. Or that he got a one-night-stand pregnant. Or that he didn't make it to his favorite college.

"Aw shit, Sammy."

" " "

He wasn't a prude, he kept telling himself, Really.

Dean was actually pleased it wasn't an injury, but just a slightly infected tat, already leveling off after a few doses of antibiotics. But still, he was inexplicably upset.

So Sam got inked.

When did this happen, he thought, though he suspected he already knew.

Shoulda kept my goddamn eyes open.

He watched his younger brother sleep off the fever. Watched and watched, but seeing with strange eyes tonight. It was just a tattoo, for crying out loud, what made it make Sam seem different?

That he can go do something crazy behind my back.

That he can go do something this crazy, period.

It didn't register at first, but after a few minutes he did realize what the symbol on Sam's chest meant. It was Bobby Singer's ward, burnt on skin. It was Sam's fear, burnt and branded on his skin. So afraid to fall, he had to make a ward a fricking part of him.

"I said I'd watch you, didn't I?" Dean murmured, scratching the back of his neck wearily, "You never listen. But then again, I guess I did muck that up, a little. I'm sorry, Sammy. It's all gonna get better, I promise."

" " "

A few days later, the two of them were on the road again.

Both men looked a bit the worse for wear, but then again, there was nothing so new about that. Their stash of antibiotics had run out between the two of them, but the fevers had leveled out finally, and they came to the mutual understanding that at that point, they were more likely to die of boredom and cramped quarters than gunshots or infected tattoos.

"Just tell me when you wanna swap," Sam said to Dean on the wheel.

"Sure thing, bro," Dean said, keeping his eyes on the road. The radio was on to a classic rock station, volume comfortably low.

Sam settled on his seat, shifting and adjusting his clothes. Dean noted how he kept his shirt away from the tag.

"Still hurts?" Dean asked, gruffly.

"What?" Sam asked, "Oh. No. Never did, actually."

"Yeah?" mild, cautious curiosity.

Sam's brow quirked. "They said it's different for everybody."

"Okay."

Sam frowned at him. "Okay?"

"Okay," Dean repeated, glancing at him irritably, "What?"

"You never just say 'Okay,'" Sam pointed out, "Dean, what?"

"Whadja want me to say?" Dean snapped.

"I don't know," Sam shrugged, "We've been in that room for days and this is the first time we're talking about this."

"Well there's nothing to talk about," Dean said, neutrally, staring at the road, "It's just a tag, sweetheart. Does that make you feel more masculine?"

"Don't turn it into a joke," Sam said, rolling back his eyes, "Do you have a problem with this?"

"If I did does it matter?" Dean pointed out, "It's a fricking tattoo for god's sakes, what can we do?"

"What the hell is wrong with it?"

"Did you think this through?" Dean asked, "Seriously, Sam. You went into this thing half-cocked, see, and it got infected 'cos you probably stopped by some dingy place for a rush job. Were you that scared? Were you so scared you would--"

"I researched them before I went in," Sam said, exasperated, "They were clean. The infection came from when we were working. I'm not stupid or crazy, Dean. I knew what I was doing, and it's not like this is my first, all right?"

The car stopped. "What?!"

They both knew Sam had unintentionally let it slip, out of frustration. His face reddened.

"In school," he muttered, "I got one before. So it's not that I didn't think about this one, okay? I thought about it, and then I got it. I don't regret it."

Dean stared at him for a long moment, shaking his head in amazement and a stabbing disappointment.

"I didn't think you of all people would be morally opposed," Sam said, defensively, "It's just ink, Dean, and it helps me do the job, all right? Can we drop this now? Can you get over it? 'Cos you're beginning to sound like--"

"Don't go there," Dean said, voice low and dull, expression dark.

'You're beginning to sound like my mom' would have been the concluding statement, right? Because that was the colloquial phrase?

Sam fell silent for a long moment, understanding the irreverence of that.

"It's just ink, Dean," Sam implored him, "What the hell is it to you?"

Dean set his jaws, and looked away from him.

"You got inked in college, huh?" Dean asked, tone deceptively light now, eyes wistful. He scratched the back of his neck, looking embarrassed now, "It's not a big deal, you're right. It's just that used to think I knew everything there was to know about you."

Sam's head shot up at this, opened his mouth to say something that assuredly would have been vaguely comforting at best.

"That's okay," Dean said, raising up his hand, "Do what you want. Nothing I said has ever stopped you before."

"You know it's not just about that," Sam said.

"I know," Dean admitted, wincing, "And that's even worse. What, Sam? Were you so scared you were gonna turn that you had to burn that damn thing on your skin, huh? I told you I got you, right? I told you--"

"Why shouldn't I be scared?" Sam asked him, quietly, "I shot you, Dean. You're gonna protect me, right? But who's supposed to protect you from me?"

"We've been over this--"

"It's not my fault, whatever," Sam said, "You got me, right? I know that, I don't doubt that, never will, okay? But I gotta have your back too. You've always done your end, right? Let me do my part. You're not the only one with a job here, big brother."

Sam looked away, and knew he was gonna get hit, by god, he knew he was gonna get hit with another chick flick quip, but there were just some things that needed to be said, right?

"No one knows me like you," Sam said, quietly, "The only thing that's changed is that you gotta let me do stuff for you too, all right? I haven't been four years old in years."

"Sure act like it sometimes."

"Like you act like a mom too," Sam said, smiling lightly, "In the best way I can possibly say. If anyone's got a right to talk to me like that, it's you."

Anytime now, Sam thought, waiting for his brother to say something clever and embarrassing. But he looked at Dean, whose face was a rare, stunned-into-silence, beet-red.

It took Dean longer than usual, but then again, the words had been more affectionate than Sam's usual too. But Dean muttered, "Yeah, whatever dude," and started the car rolling again.

Sam just laughed at him, quietly.

"So uh," Dean said, clearing his throat, "I've thought about it myself, and uh... strategically speaking, it's actually not a bad idea."

"You hate needles, Dean," Sam said, though he was beginning to sound excited by the prospect of his brother sitting down to get inked too, "And you absolutely hate having other people touch you."

"There's this TV show," Dean mused, "With a hot artist-girl, inked to her eyeballs but I'm sure no one minds her hands on 'em."

"Cost us an arm and a leg, I bet," Sam said, "'Sides, you really want her around when you start being a big wuss about it?"

"I'm not gonna be a wuss about it," Dean said, considered, and then added, "Okay, maybe my first should just go to some guy somewhere."

"Your first?" Sam laughed, "What, we getting more than one now?"

"You never know what you might need, bro," Dean said, "Besides, have you ever done anything I can't match?"

"We'll start with six feet three," Sam said with a grin, "And go on from there."

"You're like, what, two inches taller?" asked Dean, "That's only 'cos I gave you all the damn food growing up, pansy. Same reason why you're so smart. All else held equal, I'd floor your ass and you know it."

"So either you're better than me," Sam laughed, "Or I'm better 'cos of you?"

"Exactly," Dean said, smiling, apparently quite pleased with himself, "You know older brothers never lose because either we're better, or you're better 'cos we taught you how."

"Right," Sam snorted, "I'll count on that, once you start crying over getting inked, dude. I am telling you right now, you are gonna weep."

"I thought you said it didn't hurt?"

"Did I?"

"Don't be a bitch, Sammy," Dean growled, "You said it wouldn't--"

"You're crazy, you know that?" Sam laughed, "You get thrown around a lot, doing what we do, right? You must have broken almost every bone you can name. Got stabbed and gorged and strangled and god knows what else. And what, you're scared--"

"I'm not scared--"

"You're cautious," Sam amended smoothly, "About getting a needle in a clean, controlled environment?"

"'Cos it's practically self-inflicted!" Dean exclaimed, faking a shudder, "Imagine putting a dent on this fine construct, dude. No loss on your part though, I guess that's why you don't mind getting two."

His eyes widened in sudden realization.

"Wait a minute," Dean breathed, "So what's the other one?"

"Wouldn't you want to know," Sam said, smiling at him slyly.

"No, Sam," Dean insisted, "What is it? What's the other one? Where is it?"

Sam reached over to the radio and turned up the volume. "Sorry, I can't hear you, the music's too loud."

Dean narrowed his eyes in thought and irritation. He lowered the volume.

"It's a chick's name on your back."

"Nope."

"It's a dude's name on your ass."

"No!" Sam laughed.

"Until you tell me what it is," Dean resolved, "It's 'Property of Chuck' on your ass."

"What are you, five?"

"Nice tag, Sam."

"I guess you are."

"I hope Chuck was worth it."

"You're so juvenile."

"Did he call you Samantha?"

"It's not gonna work, Dean," Sam said, raising his hands over his head as much as he could as he stretched, and yawned, "One of these days, bro. Maybe."

"Yeah, whatever."

Sam ran his hand over his face, raked his fingers through his long hair, pushing it back. He rubbed at the back of his neck, just beneath the hairline, where his first tattoo was, quite well-hidden.

Dean would like it, he thought. And why wouldn't he? It was the plate number of the Impala, for crying out loud.

Sam got it, drunk with liquor and high spirits, after coming out at the top of his class in his first semester in Stanford. Life felt wide open, just his for the taking, like an open road before him, sitting in his brother's passenger seat except this time, he was the vehicle.

Besides, maybe he missed the damn car. Surely, he missed his brother too. The tag made him feel less alone... or maybe that was the wrong way of thinking about it. He liked school. He knew he was in the right place, and he had good friends around him. The tag made him feel Dean was on this road with him in his successes, in his way forward, and that was entirely different.

He settled lower in his seat, feeling oddly at peace. A few days ago, he didn't think he'd ever feel like this again. Dean was right; he had burned his fear into his skin. Afraid of himself, afraid what he might do, who he might hurt, especially his brother. But they were on the open road again, and they were all right.

"If I fall asleep," he murmured, already halfway there, "Wake me in an hour or something. Let's swap. You gotta be getting sore."

"Well it's 'cos you're annoying."

"I meant with the arm."

"I know," Dean sighed, "Just go to sleep, Sammy."

THE END

October 9, 2008

" " "

AFTERWORD

" " "

Not going to be a long one this time, since nothing really happens to this story and it's very straightforward, so the majority of the notes will be regarding the characters :)

I. Tattoos

I think I was as pleasantly surprised as most fans to find the Winchesters have been inked, haha. I went to get tagged this year and the experience was interesting so I guess it was just a matter of time before I came up with my version of how that went about for the Winchesters. By the way, as for the tattoo information you find in this story... if you're thinking of getting one, please do better research than reading my fic haha. I'm hardly an expert. I guess I just had to get that warning out there, haha.

II. The Characters

A. Sam's Tattoos

I usually make notes on characterizations that some people may find risky or disagreeable, right? I don't think Sam being the brains behind getting the tattoos would be questionable at all. Or that he turned angsty and got it on his own first. The point of contention might be why (1) I gave him a tattoo while he was in college; and (2) why the first tattoo had to be the plate number of the Impala. So, regarding (1), college is crazy enough without Winchester-issues so I allowed him a moment of recklessness that was, I felt - and this is also in response to (2)- also characteristically sentimental. I also thought him getting the idea for getting the charms tattooed on their bodies would be inspired by a past experience. For the longest time, I debated leaving the first tattoo unknown, so that the medium would be the message and we're as clueless about the kind of tattoo and location as Dean is in the story, but I guess I wanted to finish it more tightly.

B. Dean's a Prude

I originally liked the idea of Dean being opposed to Sam getting inked for inexplicable, prudish reasons, haha. Like a mom who would be unhappy if she found out you got one. But ultimately, and I felt it was much more characteristic and angsty an approach, Dean felt saddened by his brother getting inked because it symbolized some form of distance between the two of them. I wanted to depict his disappointment that there was a part of his brother that he didn't know. I also wanted to depict his sadness that his brother was so afraid that he burnt protection into his skin. After I thought of these things, writing out Dean in this fic became easier.

III. The Next Project/s: "Underworld" and "Tightrope"

The next projects coming up are a long adventure called Underworld and a one-shot angsty spiritual called Tightrope, both set in the absolutely awesome Season 4. I am particularly excited about Underworld, which will be pitting the brothers against two ghosts, a hostile urban environment, Dean's post-traumatic stress syndrome coming from hell, trying to work together again, and a very un-supernatural serial killer on the loose. I wanted the boys back on the road and very harassed, haha, so I came up with a nice cornucopia of complications. Hopefully, I'd be able to pull it off. Anyway, previews below!

Author:Mirrordance

Title:Underworld

Summary:Set Season 4, the Winchesters struggle with working together again, post-traumatic stress syndrome, the Police, the vindictive ghosts of a prostitute and the street artist who witnessed her murder, and the serial killer responsible still running loose in New York City.

" " "

PREVIEW

" " "

It was their first bar since Dean got back from hell.

Everything was the same and everything was different, kind of like the rest of their lives since he came back. First drive with Sam in the Impala. First pizza they called in. First motel they checked into. First case...

God's soldier was always on call, but he had time for his other occupation too, which was John Winchester's road-warrior. Dean figured if he was straying from his supposed path, an angel can put him back in line; they dragged him out of hell, for crying out loud, couldn't be too hard to tell him to drop a case and do something else.

He glanced at the pool tables, spotted a few reckless, half-drunk idiots he can take on blindfolded later. He and Sam weren't in dire need of funds yet, but it might be fun to take them on. In the meantime, he wanted to get his brother inebriated, go see what's in that head of his lately.

Sam went straight for the hard stuff, and Dean suddenly wondered, who was getting who drunk again?

Sam raised the shot in the air, "Welcome back, bro."

"Nine lives, baby," Dean grinned, taking the shot on. The damn thing burned down his throat and warmed his belly, "Nice," he gasped.

Sam just grinned back and tossed his drink, almost casually, making Dean's eyebrows raise. Wasn't the first time his brother had aimed to get wasted, right? He's seen it in a haunted hotel, smack in the middle of a job, Sam scared shitless about his future. He's seen it in a bar in daylight, Sam scared shitless about his inability to save Dean. He's seen it in a motel room at Christmas too.

Let me know if it needs more kick...

Dean chugged the eggnog and nearly got plastered.

Nah, we're good...

And Sam was just drinking throughout the night, dainty sips that made his drink seem non-alcoholic, except Dean knew better. Sam drank, distractedly, seemingly oblivious to the potency of the drink.

Sam had taken after their father on the drinking thing after all, Dean realized. Probably even more after Dean had died.

Sam gamely ordered one more round.

Dean was getting a little bit nervous. He thought he could drink Sam under the table and pick his brain. He never thought he might be wrong.

"You wanna take it easy, there, junior?" Dean joked, after Sam chugged the next shot, and raised his hand for one more, "Wouldn't wanna have to drag your ass back to the motel."

Sam smiled at him wanly, and Dean had the very disconcerting vision of his brother having done this many times before, with no one looking after him. Maybe he didn't need Sam to talk, to know what was going on.

"So when I was away..." Dean said, clearing his throat.

"Yeah," Sam replied, cryptically.

It was Dean's turn to chug the next round, unthinking, fearing the things he would hear.

"You said you tried everything," Dean said.

"And I'm still sorry," Sam said, quietly, looking down at his glass, "I wish it was me, Dean."

"I'm glad it wasn't."

"I'm not," Sam confessed with a self-deprecating laugh, "You barged in to see me, right? After you came back? You were angry, thought I cracked a deal somewhere. I was... I was embarrassed that you thought it was me, that you thought I was good enough. Even after I failed you, it was always you thinking I got you out somehow, and I had to say it, I had to say... I hadn't been good enough. I'm sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about, bro," Dean told him, "We're all good, right? I'm out the fire, you're off the hook. And like you said: god-if-he-exists is kind-of on our side."

"And the devil against us."

"There's that, sure," Dean shrugged, "But that ain't so new, is it? Evil is evil. And we've been working against bad odds all our lives."

"Kind of like now, huh?" Sam asked, "Really bad odds?"

"Yeah."

They ordered another round. Dean was getting disarmed and tipsy, and he was becoming very disappointed in himself. He's had, what? Three? Four shots? Was this damned body purified of his vices too, along with his purpose? Was it a corpse just getting used to alcohol again?

"So you remember anything now?" Sam asked, "Like... the truth. Tell me."

"Just... flashes," Dean admitted, and blamed it on the liquor, and blamed it on the soft spot he had for earnest eyes beneath a messy fringe. Sam looked at him, perfectly expecting the truth, wanting to reach out as best he could, help him bear the memories of hell, be with him now because he couldn't have been there before.

"Weird colors," Dean elaborated, "The heat. And I can hear myself screaming."

"You dream about it," Sam said, with certainty.

"Yeah..." Dean winced.

"You used to sleep different," Sam said, "You moved more. The sleep was lighter, but better, you know? Now... now it's like you're in deep, but it's worse."

Dean's eyebrow quirked, but he let it be. If anyone would know, it would be Sam, after all.

"How about you?" Dean asked, scratching the back of his neck, uneasily, "Still having nightmares?"

"New ones," Sam said, shaking his head in dismay and as if it could relieve him of a memory. It didn't take a genius to know it must have had something to do with invisible hell hounds and a brother's screaming, and blood and guts on the pristine floors of suburbia.

"Were you in pain?" Sam asked, before he shook his head at himself in dismay, and Dean could actually see him visualizing kicking himself, "I'm sorry. I mean of course you were--"

"I can't remember everything," Dean confessed, "I'm not sure if I ever will."

"Do you," Sam hesitated, "Do you want to?"

"Sometimes," Dean said, "Sometimes. I mean, that was four months of my fricking life, right? But mostly... no."

"Want me to drop it?" Sam asked.

Dean considered. "You can talk about anything you want to, Sammy."

Because he realized his hell had been Sam's hell too. If he forced Sam to shut his mouth about Dean's experience, he perforce was asking his brother to start keeping things to himself also.

"I can drop it tonight," Sam resolved, glancing at the pool tables, "I picked up a few more tricks when you were away."

"Naw!" Dean exclaimed, in laughing disbelief, "No, Sammy! Say it isn't so!"

"I had to eat," Sam grinned, eyes alight, "I'm really, really good."

"Impress me, dude," Dean dared.

"I'd do anything for you, bro," Sam said, with more truth there than the top-layer of the situation warranted, and it warmed Dean's heart.

"I know, Sammy."

To be continued...


Author:Mirrordance

Title:Tightrope

Summary:Sam's life is back on the line, and Dean can't seem to find it in himself not to make the same mistake all over again.

" " "

PREVIEW

" " "

"Where the hell is Bobby with the damned kit," Dean muttered to himself.

Tears were streaking down the corners of Sam's eyes. The injury was bad. The pain was bad. The situation was bad. Dean was calm. Dean was productive. Dean was being everything he hadn't been before.

"What took you so long, old-timer?" Dean had greeted the returnee, who was out of breath. Dean would have run in his stead, but at the time they had agreed on tasks, his hands were deep in his brother's side, trying to stem the bleeding. His hands had returned there now too.

"Had to go up the road a little," Bobby Singer replied, as he opened the bag and assembled their miscellany of field medical supplies, "Grabbed a signal to call that ambulance. Figured I should do that before running for the kit, get them here ASAP." He glanced uncertainly at the gaping wound, not bothering to say what everyone, save perhaps Dean, knew at this point: that they could do nothing in the field, really, for something that looked like that.

Dean shrugged off the reply, "Get me that morphine shot before anything else, Bobby, the pain's bad."

"No," Sam moaned, "Wait..."

"A little less conversation, Sammy," Dean told his gruffly, quoting the King, "A little more action. All this aggravation--"

"Shot's gonna knock me out," Sam gasped, shaking his head vigorously. "Gotta say--"

The syringe was raised in Bobby's Singer's still, steady hand. Hands steadier than his eyes, like Dean, as his gaze shifted from brother to brother.

"Bobby," Dean said, flatly, "What the hell are you waiting for?"

Singer didn't want to do it. Didn't want to give the younger Winchester the shot that would close his eyes sooner than they had to. Because if they closed now, then they'd be closed forever. He knew what that wound looked like. Sam was a goner. If he wanted to be fully-awake and clear-headed for as long as he could, if he wanted to lucidly say things to his stubborn older brother, he got every right to.

"Bobby!" Dean exclaimed.

"Oh God," Sam groaned, "God..."

"See?" Dean said, triumphantly, "He wants the damn shot!"

"No he doesn't," Bobby said, looking at Sam, seeing the younger man's eyes shine in gratitude.

"Bobby, stick that in him or so help me god--"

"Let him say his piece," Bobby said, "And then I'll do what you want."

"You give him the mike you'll never get it back," Dean said, though his eyes were beginning to dawn with some panic now, "And he's not dying, okay? But he might if he goes into shock from the damn pain, now give him the damn shot."

"Dean," Sam sobbed, unmasked now, as all are in death, especially in ones such as these.

"Shut up, Sam--"

"You said," Sam said, voice lowering to a whisper, now, "We are not gonna make the same mistake all over again."

"Sam--" The older Winchester's voice shakes for the first time, now.

"You said," Sam struggled, grabbing his brother desperately, by the arm, "You know what it's paved with, and you know where it's going."

"This isn't--"

"You said," Sam gasped, eyes fluttering, "You said you were sorry. You knew... 't was... your f-fault, y-you knew what, what it's d-done, t-t-to me, and-nd you said, you were sorry."

"Sammy..." Dean whispered, and they were both shaking now.

"Don't forget," Sam breathed, writhing, like a soul trying to find its way out of its mortal cage, cumbersome flesh... "D-don't forget. What you said."

His eyes fluttered, and dimmed, and drifted to the skies, where his soul longed to go.

" " "

Dean Winchester in a church... quite different from the last time Sam Winchester died, and maybe Dean wouldn't be making the same mistakes all over again after all.

The Church was a large one, empty, austere, lit only by the moonlight seeping from the open double-doors, the candles on the altar, and the candles on the petitions before the multitude of saintly statues lining the walls, winking with the light of the wishes and prayers of petitioners.

One of them, of note, was the statue of Saint Jude, the patron saint of the impossible. Some had said, the patron saint of lost causes also. Castiel wondered if Dean knew that. Almost all of the candles beneath his feet were lit. It was a strange, strange world.

The cold, forbidding gray of the church made it seem as if the floor went along the wall and up to the ceiling, fluidly, the dull color broken sporadically by the glass windows, that in the daylight would have given everything a brighter glow. Tonight, they looked forlorn.

The fourteen stained glass windows in the church showed the Way of the Cross, which depicted the Passion, the final hours of Jesus. Dean passed them by practically blind, paying them no mind at all as he moved down the length of the aisle, carrying his brother's body, not noticing at all that he stopped by the one that showed Jesus falling beneath the weight of the Cross He was carrying.

Every hero had a cross to bear, that's from where the popular phrase was coined. Via crucis, the way of the cross...

Dean breathed hard as he bore Sam's body in his arms. It was by no means easy, but the manner with which he met his challenge was as if this was something he must have done many times before, because the parts fit in all the right places, his younger brother's larger bulk aside. Lolling head met determined crook of neck and shoulder, motionless curved back and folded knees met the unyielding space between arm and forearm, like pieces of a puzzle, one completing the other, and there was an undeniable sadness about that, especially with their forced separation.

Dean let himself fall to his knees.

"What do I have to do?" he asked, softly.

There was no answer.

There wasn't going to be one, and this was not news. This is not the first anguished prayer in the world, would not be the last. Christ himself had fallen on his knees and prayed, had looked up to His Father and asked.

Tears fell from his eyes, large and fat, and far-reaching. From eye-corners to cheeks, down to his chin where they hung, and then fell on the equally cold and still Sam or the marble floor.

He sniffed, cleared his throat, and said louder, clearer, "What do I have to do?"

It's harder isn't it, Castiel reflected, to know for certain that someone was watching and listening and yet not responding to you. Dean had once known, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there was no God in the world. He had lived on that premise, made a life for himself. Made a death for himself, too. Who else would, after all, since there was no God?

"If you do this," Dean said, voice strained, but his eyes were resolute, "Anything that you ask. Anything that you ask."

Castiel knew that. Everyone did. It had always been anything for Samuel. If the Lord answered the car or his soul, if the Lord had answered a pledge of chastity, or poverty. If the Lord had asked for him to wear the cloth. If the Lord asked for both arms and both legs.

"What do I have to do?" Dean asked again, and it sounded a little too much like What am I supposed to do?!

To be continued...