This story first appeared in the zine The Brotherhood 6, published by Pyramids Press.
The aftermath of a hunt could hit him in different ways, depending: good or bad, hurt or not. Sometimes he'd come back…home, for lack of a better word, dragging, and simply crash for twelve or eighteen hours straight. Unless he—or worse, Sam—was bleeding. Then it was the familiar routine of checking for wounds, of cleansing and stitching and bandaging, and then crashing.
Sometimes he found brooding, exhausting solace for a few precious hours in the bottom of a glass. Or in the arms and bed of a willing, pretty girl.
And other times he was still so hyped from the relief of a job that had gone without a hitch that he couldn't settle down to save his life. Pacing, drumming his fingers to the lyrics in his head, noisily eating junk food, flipping through channels on the TV: it had driven Dad crazy, and had usually resulted in Dean getting thrown out of whatever tacky no-tell motel they were staying in and sent on a 5k run with the threat of extra workouts if he came back still twitching.
These days, with Sam, his brother just rolled his eyes, flung a pillow at him, and threw him out of their tacky no-tell motel room with orders to get food, followed by a severe warning of "Dude, no coffee!"
So. Awake and restless the morning after disposing of a pissed-off, destructive spirit was not entirely unexpected.
Neither of them had received so much as a scratch…well, apart from Sam stubbing one of his monstrously huge feet on a half-buried gravestone, and Dean gaining yet another hole in the knee of his near-threadbare jeans. Nor had any innocent civilian-types or official police-types happened to wander unexpectedly into the cemetery to cause problems while they dug up the grave and burned the spirit's bones.
All in all, a piece of cake.
Of course, the pissed-off and destructive spirit had furiously tried to stop them from burning his dry-as-twigs corpse, but thanks to several days of practically non-stop research—well, okay, Sam had researched, Dean had cleaned the weapons and stocked up on holy water and other vital goodies—they'd come to the cemetery well-prepared to deal with the murderous bruja's ghost. So if Dean was a little hoarse from taking turns with Sam reading Latin banishment rituals aloud for a few hours, it was a small price to pay for getting the job done without losing any blood.
Made kind of a nice change.
Dean sighed and put down the shotgun he had finished cleaning. The bright desert sun still managed to leak through the closed curtains, and the window air conditioner chugged wheezingly away, doing little to alleviate the mid-afternoon heat. The room was stifling and close, with dust motes drifting through the slanting bars of sunlight. Not that outside would be much of an improvement. He breathed in the dry desert smells, wiped the sweat off his forehead with his wrist, and looked wryly over at his brother on the other bed.
Sam slept on, a sprawled mass of long arms and legs, feet dangling over the edge of the mattress. He'd stayed awake long enough to inhale the breakfast Dean had picked up and had promptly taken a nosedive into his pillow. Dean was just grateful to see him sleeping so deeply.
Dean stretched and heard something pop in his neck and shoulders. Though it was the last thing he needed, he really wanted a cup of coffee.
Rubbing at his gritty eyes, he started on another gun, and waited for Sam to wake up.
Not even the oppressive heat proved enough to make him drowsy, and Dean was just finishing up with the knives when Sam surfaced a couple of hours later.
"Rise an' shine, princess," Dean said as Sam groaned and gave him a bleary-eyed stare.
"What time is it?" Sam asked, yawning. He sat up and scrubbed at his face. "What day is it?"
"Same day, dude. And it's around five."
"I slept all day?" Narrowed eyes studied Dean. "What about you?"
Dean shrugged. "Not tired. Got some stuff done." He put the last sharpened knife back in the bag. "Wanna go find something to eat?"
"Um, yeah. Okay. Let me take a shower first." He sniffed. "Unless that's you I smell."
"Had mine already. That's all you." Dean waved in the direction of the tiny bathroom. "Go on. I insist."
"Sorry," Sam said, smiling sweetly. "Didn't mean to offend those delicate sensibilities of yours, princess."
"Yeah, yeah. Just hurry up. I could really use a beer."
Sam ran a hand through his sweaty hair and let out a sigh. "Beer. I agree."
Dinner and three or four beers at a nearby bar—mercifully far cooler than their hotbox of a motel room—followed by several games of pool, helped shake off some of the lingering edgy energy that had been thrumming along his skin all day. The leggy brunette smiling at him from across the room promised some energy of another sort entirely, and Dean graced her with a slow, appreciative grin as he straightened up from a shot at the pool table.
Game over, winnings pocketed, he wandered over to an oblivious Sam. His brother was sitting in a back corner, forgotten beer at his elbow, his attention divided between the laptop and several local newspapers.
"Yeah," Sam answered absently, frowning. He looked up only when Dean poked him in the shoulder. "What?"
"I'm…takin' off." He tipped his head toward the door and the waiting brunette. "I'll catch ya later."
Sam's glance followed, then flicked up to Dean's face. "Have fun," he said, not quite hiding the resigned sigh.
With a sudden flash of annoyance, Dean started, "Sammy, I—"
"No," Sam interrupted, shaking his head. "Sorry." He raised the beer bottle and took a swig. "Go ahead. Have fun," he said again.
But Sam was still giving him The Look.
"What?" Dean asked, exasperation rising. "I'm a big boy, Sam. And the girl isn't jailbait, all right? But if it turns out she's really an axe murderer, you know I always keep a knife handy."
"Just…" Sam sighed. Quietly. "Get some sleep, okay?"
Rolling his eyes, Dean reached out and swatted Sam on the back of his head. "How 'bout you, geekboy?" He gestured at the laptop and the newspapers strewn across the table. "Take the night off. We deserve it." Sam opened his mouth in what was sure to be a denial, so Dean cut him off. "Don't wait up," he advised with a leer, and went to meet the girl.
Sleep? He didn't need sleep. He was just getting going. Grinning, he wrapped his arm around the girl's waist and steered her out the door.
The girl—Clare—made it plain she didn't have any objection to his staying all night, but Dean wasn't in a cuddling mood. He'd enjoyed the evening's exertions; she was funny and sweet and quite inventive, but the restlessness that had plagued him all day soon had him pulling on his scattered clothes and reaching for the car keys. She pouted, just a little, but smiled sleepily against his mouth all the same when he kissed her before leaving.
Outside, Dean breathed deep of the cool desert air, shivering just for a moment as he looked up at the whatever-past-midnight sky. Twenty-four hours ago, he and Sam had been in the old cemetery outside town, digging up a long-forgotten grave and using every trick in the book to dispel the slain bruja's enraged spirit. Responsible for a series of mysterious deaths over a period of weeks, the ghost was now merely ashes and dust on the wind.
Dean couldn't help the smirk as he walked to his car. Winchesters: 1, pissed-off, crazy dead sorcerer: 0.
As he unlocked the Impala and climbed in, a flicker of movement caught at the edge of his vision before he shut the door. But even as he turned his head to get a better look, reaching for a weapon at the same time, it had already disappeared.
But…better safe than sorry. Dean slid quietly out of the front seat again, the comfortable weight of his gun now in his hand, held low against his leg. He scanned the night, breathing lightly. A quick glance back at Clare's house showed it dark, just the way he'd left it.
He took a few silent steps away from the car, still watching and listening, wary, with a familiar tingle crawling down his spine.
But nothing leaped out of the darkness at him; no strange noises or smells assailed his senses. The tension in his shoulders eased after another long moment, and Dean released a slow breath.
If he had seen something, it was gone now. Dean rubbed his eyes and got back into the car, stowing the gun in the glove compartment.
And, he reluctantly admitted, he had been awake for about thirty hours straight. He fully trusted his instincts, but it could be he was seeing monsters in the shadows because he expected to see monsters in the shadows.
"Get some sleep, idiot," he murmured as he started the car, hearing the echo of Sam's voice in his head.
Dean drove through the quiet residential streets, taking a winding route back to their motel. The giant neon cactus in the blinking "Vacancy" sign still made him grin as he pulled into the parking lot and stopped in front of Room 10 at the end of the row.
With only a slight squeak of hinges, he slipped into the room—thankfully not quite as hot now—and his eyes instantly sought out the far bed. The lump that was Sam stirred but didn't waken, as if sensing Dean and not a threat.
He didn't bother to turn on a light, deftly avoiding all obstacles on his way to the bathroom. Beyond brushing his teeth and splashing some tepid water on his face, Dean fully intended to do nothing but fall into his own bed for a few hours of much-needed sleep before they were up and on the road again.
But after stripping down to his boxers and flopping onto the not-so-crisp sheets, his brain continued to buzz. He almost at once began to shift restive arms and legs on the lumpy mattress in an effort to get comfortable.
Dean stared at the ceiling and willed himself to relax. To breathe deep and clear his mind. And wouldn't Sam just be laughing his ass off if he knew Dean practiced an occasional meditative breathing exercise…
It worked for about eight minutes.
"Crap," he muttered softly. He sat up, swinging his legs to the floor, and scrubbed a hand through his hair. This was crazy. He should be dead on his feet by now. Instead, he only wanted to get out of the room that had suddenly become far too small, and run as far and as fast as he could in the dark.
Another quiet curse passed his lips, and Dean was off the bed and swiftly pulling on his jeans and T-shirt again. He reached for his bag and dug through it for the battered pair of sneakers he hardly wore but couldn't bring himself to toss out, found them on the bottom, and immediately tugged them over bare feet.
All right, he thought as he tied the laces. I'll give it a try. Something's gotta work.
He stood, decided to not even bother with another layer, and, with one hand on the doorknob, tossed a last look at Sam, peacefully asleep. Then he eased outside into the darkness once again.
They were already on the outskirts of town, on the old highway now only used by local traffic, so Dean had no worries about running along the edge of the road. Ignoring the chill in the night air, he took a few minutes to stretch, then started with a slow jog, heading farther out into the desert, away from the lights. He let the rhythmic pounding of his feet and the pumping of his arms take over all conscious thought.
Pushing the pace, he moved easily, warm now, with only his own breathing and the slap of his sneakers on asphalt breaking the silence. He ran through the cool starlit darkness, encountering nothing on the road but a single set of headlights and the startled, shining eyes of some nocturnal animal that quickly vanished.
After what he figured to be about three miles, Dean stopped to stretch again, then turned and headed back. Dawn was an hour or so away when he hit the parking lot, breathing a little harder, his muscles pleasantly loose. He braced his hands on the Impala, leaning forward as he waited for his heart rate to even out.
Straightening, he pulled off his T-shirt and used it to wipe the sweat from his face. He really should go in and take a quick shower, then try to get in at least a couple of hours of sleep.
But all he wanted to do was go find some breakfast.
Dean looked up from leaning into the back seat when he heard the motel room door creak open behind him.
Sam emerged, tousled and squinting.
"Hey," Dean said in greeting. He pulled out a burger wrapper with a frown and tossed it on the ground with the other trash.
Sam parked a hip on the Impala's hood and stifled a yawn. "You're up."
"There's that college-boy brilliance and keen insight I've come to respect," Dean flung over his shoulder. He wrinkled his nose in distaste at his next discovery: a wadded-up, bloodstained T-shirt jammed halfway behind the seat, and patted his baby in mute apology.
"No, I mean it," Sam said. "You're up. Working. At practically the crack of dawn, man."
Dean lifted a shoulder in a careless shrug. "Yeah, whatever." He put the T-shirt in a different pile and crawled back in, hoping to avoid this discussion.
"Did you get to bed at all?"
"A gentleman never tells, Sammy."
That drew a scoffing snort. "Like that's ever stopped you." A weighted pause. "What happened?" There was a definite teasing smirk in the voice. "She change her mind? Or kick you out?"
"No, and no," Dean said from halfway under the front seat, fishing around with one hand.
"Thought I heard you come in late. Or maybe early."
Dean just grunted. And sighed very quietly to himself, because Sam wasn't about to drop the conversation, even if it was only one-sided.
"You didn't get any sleep at all, did you."
He felt the car shift as Sam moved, as he came to stand by the door.
"Dean." A hand smacked his leg.
"What?" Dean snapped, extricating his arm along with a pair of IDs he thought he'd lost. He hauled himself up, turned to sit on the edge of the seat, and glared at his brother.
"You look like crap," Sam instantly pronounced, eyes narrowed.
"Well, I feel fine, so just shut up."
"You can't be fine. You haven't had more than three or four hours sleep in two days—"
"Am I bleeding? Suffering the effects of a concussion?" Dean tossed the IDs back on the seat, stood, and wiped his grimy hands across the front of his shirt. "Have I lost a limb? Have I even sneezed in the last twenty-four hours?" With a poke to Sam's chest, he started forcing him backward. "No."
"I'm fine, Sam," Dean said firmly. "A little insomnia is not gonna kill me. Not like it hasn't happened before, considering the weird hours we keep." He shut the Impala's door. And you're hardly one to talk, he thought. Between the nightmares and the visions, how many nights have you slept through in the last year? "Anyway," he went on, heading for their room, "we've got that job up in Durango to get to."
"You still look like crap," Sam said to his back. "And don't even think about driving. You're sleeping in the car."
I hope you're right, Dean thought as he stepped through the doorway. He was pretty damn sure that at the moment he was utterly incapable of falling asleep anywhere, but he might as well let Sam drive if it would make his bossy little brother feel better.
He tried. He really did. For a good hundred miles, he closed his eyes, leaned into the window, and let the road and the familiar purr of the Impala's engine work its way into his bones. An old cassette, a mix of BOC and AC/DC—played well below his usual volume—slid as easily through his mind as water over smooth stones.
Though Sam remained silent, his intermittent attention was palpable. Even with his eyes shut, Dean could predict with near unerring accuracy when the next glance would swing his way.
"Watch the road, Sammy," he murmured when the latest speculative look landed on him.
"I am!" The protest was indignant. "Anyway, I thought you were asleep," Sam added defensively.
"No, you didn't," Dean said, giving up and opening his eyes. He rolled his head sideways and caught another sneaking glance from Sam. "Knock it off."
Sam's eyes flipped front and his hands tightened on the steering wheel, but all he said was, "Thought it was working."
If not here, then nowhere, Dean thought. Here, where he had everything he really ever needed. Or wanted. He straightened from his slouch with a quiet groan, shifted his legs, and watched the desert flow by without responding.
"You wanna stop early?" Another darting glance.
Dean shook his head. "Better to keep going." With one raised eyebrow, he added, "Like jetlag, right?"
Sam snorted. "Like you'd know about that."
"How do you suppose I figured out I hate flying in the first place, huh? And no," he added at Sam's perk of interest. "I am not talking about it. Ever."
"Bet I can make you." Sam grinned. "When you're all confused and incoherent from lack of sleep."
It was Dean's turn to snort. "Dream on."
"Nope, you first." Sam's grin fell away. "Go on, Dean," he coaxed. "Get some sleep. I'll wake you for lunch."
But the miles went by, and sleep continued to elude him, to his no great surprise.
Dean hadn't even bothered to close his eyes this time, just changed the music and stared out the window. The really weird thing was, he felt okay. Granted, he'd seen his face in the motel bathroom mirror that morning, and, yeah, he looked a little rough. Eyes large and dark, bruised-looking beneath. Face a little pale. No worse than any other late night after a hunt. Or other activities. But he felt fine. He didn't want to sleep. Eventually, it would all come crashing down on him, he knew that, and he'd probably be out for a good twelve hours or more. Just not right now.
They stopped for lunch, pulling off the highway at an oasis of the usual fast-food restaurants and gas stations, and Sam picked one at random after a shrug from Dean in response to a raised eyebrow.
The heat struck like a blast from a roaring furnace when they stepped out of the car, and Dean wavered for an instant, blinking rapidly against shimmering waves on asphalt and steadying himself on the Impala's door. A glimpse of something flickering just out of eyeshot made him turn his head too quickly. He had to close his eyes completely for a moment, and when he opened them again, the blurred mirage had vanished, along with the uncomfortable prickle on the back of his neck. Before Sam could notice his lapse, or remark on it if he had, Dean shut the door and led the way across the sun-baked parking lot.
Since breakfast was a now-distant memory, Dean wolfed down his steak sandwich and fries in record time. He studied the overhead neon menu and considered seconds while Sam was still munching his way through something green.
Sam eyed him in disbelief. "Are you serious?"
Dean just shrugged. "Breakfast at dawn, Sammy," he said. "While you were still sluggin' around in bed, remember, princess?"
"Yeah, while I was very sensibly still sleeping after being up the entire night before last."
"Thanks, rub it in," Dean shot back. He sprawled back in the uncomfortable plastic seat and slurped the last of his Coke, then noisily crunched the ice cubes.
"Can't take you anywhere," Sam muttered.
Back on the road, it was nothing but more heat and desert, rocks and sagebrush, and Dean didn't even doze through one hypnotic mile of it. He practically itched to drive, but had the good sense not to bring it up. Sam also displayed some sense of his own and stopped shooting veiled looks in Dean's direction every twelve minutes. At least, not after Dean smacked him the first two times he caught him at it.
As late afternoon began to slide toward early evening, Sam made it a point to repeatedly ask if Dean wanted to stop yet. But after the fourth time, when he'd finally agreed and picked out a perfectly adequate motel on his side of the road, Sam loudly vetoed it on the grounds of outlandish tackiness.
Dean pretended to be sulkily offended when they kept driving. "Just because there was a plaster steer out front with blinking red lights on it doesn't mean it's a bad place to stay, Sam."
"No," Sam said firmly. "We're staying someplace with real beds and a decent bathroom."
"You're paying for it, then."
A few miles later, signs appeared on the horizon for a motel that apparently met Sam's particular requirements, and they pulled into a bland Best Western around seven. Dean let his brother take care of the tedious check-in ritual, and tipped his head back on the seat with a sigh.
He rubbed a hand over his slightly burning eyes, all too conscious of the odd tension and restlessness that had beset him the last two days. A real bed would feel good, he admitted. And a shower with pressure and plenty of hot water.
Maybe Sam had the right idea, after all.
Bland, definitely, but at least the room was clean and comfortable. Sam had immediately offered to make a food run, giving Dean first crack at the shower, but as the door closed behind him, Dean simply fell backward on the bed by the door and stared at the ceiling.
He'd suffered through bouts of insomnia in the past; like he'd said to Sam, with their rather frequent midnight hours spent lurking in cemeteries and such, it was bound to screw up their internal clocks. And on more than one occasion during those years when it was just him and Dad, he'd been forced out of sheer necessity to stay awake for up to forty-eight hours straight. This was nothing new, not really.
But Dean also knew his body's limits, and this was pushing beyond them. It felt different, and he'd learned early on to pay attention to those little warnings in the back of his mind.
Or—playing devil's advocate here—given the fact he hadn't slept in two full days, with nothing but a three-hour or so nap just before they'd headed out to the cemetery, maybe it simply was his exhausted brain playing games with him, and his body hadn't figured out he was actually dead on his feet. He rolled his eyes at himself.
Stop thinking so hard, you moron, and go drown in a long, hot shower.
He slid off the bed, grabbed his kit, and headed for the bathroom.
Sam was back and setting out numerous white cartons and bottles of water on a dresser when Dean emerged from his lengthy, blissfully hot shower. He'd changed into loose sweats and a clean T-shirt, and he scrubbed a towel over his damp hair one more time before tossing it over his shoulder without looking.
All at once, the spicy smells of Chinese takeout had his stomach roiling, and he swallowed convulsively against the sudden rising nausea.
"Got a little of everything," Sam was saying, digging in the brown paper bag for utensils. "Want your usual?"
"Uh," Dean managed after another swallow. He sat down gingerly on his bed. "How about just some white rice for now?"
Sam's head snapped up, his attention instantly focused on Dean. "You all right?" he asked guardedly, fork hovering forgotten in midair. "You're not getting sick, are you?"
"Just…not real hungry," Dean said with an attempt at a casual shrug.
Frowning, Sam said, "You really look awful, you know."
"I've been awake for two days, Sam." Dean tried for exasperation. "You'd look awful, too. Now just hand over some rice, okay?"
After another searching, troubled glance, Sam gave a reluctant nod and passed him a small opened carton of white rice, along with a fork and half the napkins.
Dean shoved himself backward until he was sitting against the headboard, and poked at the sticky white mass. The first few hesitant bites went down with increasing difficulty, until one mouthful got lodged somewhere in the middle of his throat. He quickly fumbled for a bottle of water to wash it down.
Swallowing painfully, Dean coughed, put the carton on the bedside table, and said hoarsely, "Think I'm done." His stomach did another slow roll, and he held his breath until it settled again.
"You are sick," Sam said, hurriedly setting aside his chicken lo mein to get to his feet.
Dean waved him back. "Maybe," he said, getting a startled look from Sam at the admission. "Could be just a twenty-four hour bug thing," he added, not sure whom he was trying to convince. "I'll be fine tomorrow. Just need some sleep."
"Do you…do you think you can?" Sam asked. He ducked his head. "I've…got some stuff, if you want to try it."
Dean's eyebrows went up. "'Stuff'?"
Sam gave a shrug, still not meeting Dean's eyes. "Thought it would help, after Jess…you know?" A short, bitter laugh escaped. "Hasn't exactly worked with the whole vision thing, either. Don't know why I bothered to keep it…"
"Just some sleeping pills, Dean." Dark hazel eyes finally came up to meet his. "Over-the-counter. Honest."
Dean grimaced. "Probably mess me up even worse."
Sam shrugged again and got up to rifle through his bag. He turned and tossed Dean a small bottle of generic sleeping pills. "Just in case. Or," he added, "I could always get you a glass of warm milk."
"And tuck me in? I don't think so."
With a huff of what sounded close to real laughter, Sam went back to his dinner.
Dean watched his brother, and his stomach twisted again, for an entirely different reason. "How 'bout you?" he asked. "You feelin' okay, Sammy?"
"I'm fine," Sam said around a forkful of noodles. He swallowed and went on with a wry smile. "Just keep your distance."
Dean snorted. Like that was possible, the way they lived. He stuffed the bed pillows behind him and turned on the TV to flip mindlessly through channels, hoping to find something boring enough to get him nodding off. Fishing. That oughta do it. He tossed the remote to one side and slouched back.
Sam moved quietly around the room gathering containers of leftovers to stow in the small fridge, then took his turn in the bathroom.
And fishing in the Boundary Waters was evidently more exciting than Dean thought, because not even the commercials for lures and bait and outboard motors had him yawning.
He clicked off the television in disgust and punched his pillows into a more comfortable shape for sleeping, burrowing under the top blanket. Dean determinedly shut his eyes.
You're tired, he told himself with firm conviction. You're really, really tired, and you just want to fall asleep. Right now.
A few minutes later, the room plunged into darkness as Sam hit the lights. Dean heard him slide into bed, and he could feel his brother's gaze on him even in the dark.
So he made sure his breathing was slow and steady, and he did his best to keep his restless limbs from twitching. But too soon he found himself shifting, edgy and wired, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, running lyrics through his head, and thinking about the little white bottle on the bedside table.
He listened to Sam breathe, and said quietly, "Go to sleep, Sammy."
A rustle of sheets, a brief sigh. "I just… I wanted to make sure…"
"It's okay. I'll see ya in the morning, all right? Don't wake me up too early."
"Twenty minutes before checkout, no sooner."
"G'night, Dean," Sam mumbled.
Sam drifted off, for real this time, and Dean waited without much hope to follow him. The little clock on the table mocked him with its bright blue numbers, slowly ticking over one hour, then two, as he continued to toss and shift. At last, he irritably reached up to turn it away.
And knocked over the small bottle of pills. He caught it as it rolled off the table and set it carefully back.
This had gone on long enough. And Dean was damn well sick of it. He was wide awake, bored, and he'd already cleaned all the guns, so he might as well try to figure this out. With a quick glance at Sam, still enviably dead to the world, Dean climbed out of bed and quietly snagged the laptop to settle on the floor by the wall, grateful for the fact that even bland, beige motel rooms had their perks. Like free wireless.
Dean booted up and started tapping keys, scrolling through sites, becoming more apprehensive with every article he read. Then an odd pang of…sadness, or regret, maybe, he wasn't quite sure, caught him unexpectedly when he ran across an article titled "Sleepless at Stanford," and his mind conjured up an image of a younger Sam, sitting up late in some library, cramming for a final…
Dean hurriedly clicked on another link, rubbing a hand over his face as he continued to read the growing list of symptoms of his current condition. They weren't pretty. Impaired memory. Depression. Increasing irritability and anxiety. Loss of concentration. Slurred speech, blurred vision, headaches. Tremors. Difficulty in making decisions. A weakened immune system.
His eyes halted on one word.
Hallucinations. Huh. Or had they been something else?
Dean flashed back to those two instances he'd caught a flicker of…something, shape or shadow, from the corner of his eye. The street outside Clare's place. The fast-food restaurant parking lot. Imagination? Uneasily, he didn't think so, not really, in spite of his overly hopped-up brain. And would hallucinations brought on by mere sleep-deprivation give him a nervous itch between the shoulder blades?
According to their surviving family members, some, but not all, of the bruja's victims had talked wildly of seeing things before they died: glimpses in the shadows, strange, menacing figures in the dark. Hearing unfamiliar voices and odd noises.
Dean gnawed his lip in frustration. They had fallen into this hunt more or less by accident after having finished up a simple job a few days before. An overheard conversation in a small-town truck stop on their way somewhere else, a few casual questions, and he and Sam had shared a look, stuck around, and started digging.
There had been no recognizable link between the deaths. Though some of the victims had shared a few of the same symptoms, others hadn't matched at all, and none of the ten victims had died the same way. But in a town of less than 3,000 people, that many sudden fatalities over the course of just a few weeks were more than random, even if the pattern wasn't obvious.
Other than death, that is.
It was probably something Sam would have a name for, like on that show he liked to watch if they happened to be near a TV on a Friday night. The math genius guy, the one with the hair even crazier than Sam's, could no doubt instantly come up with some fancy computer program involving quantum physics and chaos theory and butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon or whatever the hell it was, and create a brilliant pie-chart to explain it all to his less-brilliant older brother…
A brief smile quirked his lips. Oh, yeah. He could so relate to that on occasion.
His gaze slid back to the computer screen, to the facts staring back at him in merciless black and white. If he didn't get some sleep, soon, he'd be in serious trouble, whether because of a dead sorcerer or not.
He found his eyes drifting to the white bottle on the bedside table. With a grimace, Dean reluctantly decided that maybe it was time for a little experimentation. He didn't like the idea of taking something that would mess with his head or leave him vulnerable, but he needed to know what was going on. He closed down the computer—he'd read more than enough—and set it aside to quietly get to his feet and climb across the bed far enough to snag the bottle of pills.
Padding into the bathroom, Dean shut the door before flicking on the light, and stared at his less than healthy-looking pallor.
He looked at the bottle in his hand. Quit being a stubborn idiot, he told himself, meeting his bloodshot eyes in the mirror again. With a scowl of resignation, Dean popped the cover off. Two little pills. Just do it. He shook them into his palm and tossed them down with a glass of water. Turning off the light, he waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness before leaving the bathroom and returning to bed.
It was only moments. Then he was gasping, curling around the flare of fire in his gut, pain like broken glass slicing through him.
Dean couldn't scream or breathe. He choked and gagged on the nausea, somehow stumbling clumsily from the bed. He barely made it to the bathroom again before sinking to the floor and heaving violently into the toilet over and over.
Sam's startled call registered only dimly, but the light came on, and large, warm hands on his back and forehead steadied him as he continued to turn his stomach inside out.
He heard Sam's voice murmuring steadily in his ear, but beneath his brother's familiar soothing tones, was something…ugly, harsh, a malicious cadence of rising and falling syllables, old and rank, scraping across his mind like nails on rusted metal.
It raised goose flesh on his arms, and as Dean shuddered through one final heave, the discordant noise in his head ended on what sounded like a note of mocking laughter before fading away completely.
At last he sat back on the cold tile, clammy and shaking, feeling the drag of exhaustion in every breath. The burning agony slowly ebbed. A glass of water was pressed into his hand and guided to his mouth. Sam gently eased him up as Dean rinsed and spat the sour taste from his mouth, followed by a single cautious sip. Then he folded up against the side of the bathtub again as Sam took the glass away and flushed the toilet.
"Oh, crap," Dean murmured hoarsely, still shaking. He shut his eyes tight against a surge of dizziness and wrapped his arms around his stomach. He would've fallen on his face but for Sam's grip on his shoulder propping him up.
"Dean?" Sam's voice was shocked, worried.
"Guess…that didn't…work so well," Dean panted. He cracked his eyes open a slit and had to blink several times to clear his greying vision. "I feel terrible," he croaked. "Worse than the flu and every single hangover I've ever had in my life." He swallowed again, making a face. "All rolled into one."
Sam crouched next to him, looking even more worried than he sounded. "Dean, what's going on? This isn't just insomnia. You're really sick."
"Sam…" Dean took a careful breath, tensing against another sharp pain in his stomach, and he couldn't hold back a slight moan before it lessened. "'S okay, Sammy. Think it's…okay."
"What's wrong?" Concern sharpened Sam's voice. "Twenty-four hour bug thing? Stomach flu?"
"I wish." Another tremor shook him, and Dean had to lean heavily into Sam to stay more or less upright. "It's…not quite that simple." His skin crawled at the memory of that voice, those dark words foul and sharp, like spikes stabbing into his skull. Another shallow breath, an audible swallow as his stomach cramped again. "Somehow our friend had time…for one last whammy before we toasted his dead ass."
Sam's eyes widened in horrified realization, then he shook his head fiercely in denial. "No, there's no way. You can't be…" He bit off his next words, studying Dean with careful scrutiny, and his mouth flattened into a thin line. "How long have you known?" he demanded, his grasp on Dean's shoulder tightening. "Why didn't you say anything?"
"Sam—" Dean gently pushed him back a few inches but didn't shrug off Sam's grip. "It didn't all come together until now. Had a couple of weird vibes, but, hell, thought it was just an insomnia thing."
Dean wiped away the cold sweat beading on his forehead and sighed. "Let me up already, okay? My ass is falling asleep here." He gave Sam a lopsided smirk. "Nice to know at least part of me can still sleep, huh?"
Predictably, Sam huffed and rolled his eyes, but he stood and carefully lifted Dean up with him.
With only a slight stagger, Dean got his feet under him but brushed off Sam's hand on his arm for the few steps back to his bed. The knifing pain in his stomach had eased, now that he'd expelled everything in it, but he still felt slightly queasy as he sat down.
Sam turned on the bedside lamp, fidgeting, eyes still assessing. "Want some water?"
"Ah, no thanks," Dean said. "Not right now." He shivered slightly in his sweat-dampened T-shirt, and gratefully wrapped up in the blanket Sam dropped around his shoulders.
Sam flopped down on the end of Dean's bed and ran a hand through sleep-mussed hair. "Are you sure about this?" he asked quietly, searching Dean's face. "How do you know it was the bruja?"
Dean hunched into his blanket. "Just heard the crazy bastard's voice in my head, Sam. And after listening to him scream at us for half the night while we were torchin' his bones, I don't think I'll ever forget what he sounds like." He gave his brother a crooked, mirthless smile. "So, yeah, it was him, all right. Spittin' out something ugly. Don't think it was a love spell or a good luck charm, either."
Sam's face had gone ashen. "Damn it," he said between his teeth. "What did we miss?" Staring at Dean, frowning, he stood up to start pacing the small room with short, jerky strides. "How could he have gotten to you?"
"He was a sorcerer, Sam. Who knows?"
"But we had protection all around the grave!" Sam protested, arms flung wide. "We read binding and banishment rituals all night! His spirit never got past the salt lines, and we stayed inside them. We destroyed layers of magical traps in the grave, on the corpse, and we burned his power and his bones to ashes!" He turned away to slam his hand against a wall. "Shit!"
"It's not your fault, Sammy," Dean said softly. "We did everything we could—we thought we had him. Maybe we were just out of our league on this one. But that doesn't matter right now, okay? Let it go."
Sam stopped his pacing. Shoulders slumping, he nodded, eyes hidden beneath his long bangs. "Yeah, yeah. Okay." He took a couple of deep breaths and straightened up. "Well, we'd better find a way to break this curse then, right?"
"That would be good," Dean agreed. "Don't feel like being number eleven on that bastard's list."
Sitting down again, Sam scowled and pointed a stern finger at Dean. "Tell me everything," he said. "First, symptoms. Don't you dare try to hold anything back."
Dean raised an eyebrow at the implied threat. "All you had to do was ask, Sammy." At Sam's continued glower, he sighed. "Can't sleep, obviously."
Sam gave him an exaggerated duh roll of his eyes and poked Dean with his foot.
"Yeah, well, whatever nasty mojo that bastard nailed me with, it really doesn't want me to sleep." Dean glanced briefly away, admitting, "I…tried the pills. Felt like I'd swallowed broken glass." With a wince, he added, "And you saw what happened next."
"How about now?" Sam prodded him again.
"Okay, I guess." Dean thought about the nausea brought on by just the smell of the Chinese takeout, of the rice he'd tried to choke down. "Eating…might not be an option anymore, either," he went on, trying—unsuccessfully—to move out of range of his little brother's long legs.
Reluctantly, confronted with the odd experience of sitting on the other side of the post-monster interview, Dean filled Sam in on the whole hallucination bit, and finished with trying to describe the feeling of the dead bruja's voice in his mind.
Sam slid off the bed and got to his feet. "That's it. We're turning around and heading back to that cemetery. Now. I want to make sure we got everything."
"Yeah, I think you're right. Just to make sure." Dean reached for Sam's arm when he passed by the bed. "But it can wait until morning. No reason you need to miss a night's sleep, too."
"Dean, we can't screw around with this!" Sam slid his arm out of Dean's grasp and bent to grab him by the shoulders. "If this is because we missed something, if that spirit somehow got to you in spite of everything we did, we've got to work fast. Those other people—" Now Sam's hands gripped tight enough to bruise. "The first victims died within days, Dean. And you've already been…sick…for two."
"So I've got a few days yet, Sam," Dean said evenly. "Plenty of time to figure this thing out."
"So let's not waste any."
Though it was four a.m., they checked out and got back on the road, returning to the small desert town they'd just put in their rearview mirror. It was a risk going back, to be seen there again. But it wasn't like they had a choice.
By tacit understanding, Sam remained in the driver's seat.
Dean leaned against the car window with a newly acquired Best Western pillow cushioning his aching head. It was as if the attempt with the sleeping pills had triggered some sort of crisis and pushed him over a precipice. Instead of that strange high of restless energy running through him, keeping him awake, he had instead crashed in a dizzy downward spiral, every moment of the last two days and more catching up and slamming into him full force.
But he still couldn't fall asleep.
When Sam stopped to pick up a gas station breakfast after a couple of hours on the road, Dean shook his head at his brother's hopeful offer of an egg-and-sausage sandwich. His stomach rolling at the mere mention of food, he said, "I'll stick with water." He'd had a few cautious swallows since losing the entire contents of his stomach, and, thankfully, those had stayed down. He wasn't about to push it.
Sam's face grew grimmer by the hour, the worried glances thrown Dean's way more frequent, and Dean had wearily given up on telling him to cut it the hell out. The desert passed by with dusty monotony, when Dean bothered to look out the window, and thanks to their early start and Sam pushing the speed limit envelope, they hit the cemetery again with several hours of daylight still remaining.
On the far western edge of town, the cemetery was quiet and empty but for them and the dead, abandoned to the past. Filled with a mix of Spanish and English names, the headstones dated back nearly two hundred years, some of the inscriptions so worn and weathered, they had become unreadable and unknowable, the names lost to time.
To their disappointment but not to Dean's any great surprise, their search yielded nothing. He watched Sam's shoulders sag as he mulishly continued to sift through dirt and ashes, digging deeper, his hair clinging to his face in sweat-dampened tendrils.
"It's okay, Sammy," Dean said quietly, sitting on his heels by the grave. "I think we're done here."
Sam stopped, leaning on his shovel and breathing hard, head hanging. He threw the shovel up out of the grave and followed it. "Not quite. Just…one more thing, all right?"
Though Dean thought it wasn't worth the effort at this point—some quaint saying about horses and barn doors flitting through his mind—Sam stubbornly went through another round of tossing salt and holy water into the freshly dug hole, Latin rolling tiredly yet precisely off his tongue. Together, they filled in the bruja's grave a second time. Then Sam borrowed Dean's knife to scratch binding runes into a chunk of loose stone from some other worn, anonymous marker, and jammed it firmly in the dirt with a few savage stomps of his foot.
Sam brushed off his hands and tossed Dean's knife over to him. "Sorry, Dean. Thought we'd find something." He shook his head. "Guess it's gonna take a little longer. I'll go back through our notes—maybe there's something we missed. Call Bobby, maybe he's got some ideas—"
"Yeah," Dean interrupted. "But first we're gonna get a room, and you're gonna eat something." He started gathering up their supplies and stuffed them into the duffel bag. "At least one of us should."
Deciding to stay in the area but not in the same town as before, they headed for the next one farther west. A little bigger, as it turned out, with Sam again insisting on a more decent place to stay than what they usually gravitated toward.
As if either of them would be sleeping much. But Dean had just shrugged in agreement when Sam pulled into the parking lot of a familiar chain motel and got them a room.
He immediately plunged into geekboy research mode with single-minded intensity: laptop up and running; the bruja notes, some old reference books and their dad's journal sitting to one side; leaving messages for Bobby and Jefferson and Joshua, all the while picking distractedly at his rapidly cooling takeout dinner.
Dean had snagged the journal, toed off his boots, and dropped onto the bed by the door. The smell of food and the adverse effect it was having on his stomach was hard to ignore, but he clenched his teeth and swallowed hard. He resolutely flipped the battered leather book open and started reading through all the entries on curses he could find, seeing if there was something he'd forgotten, something new he'd never noticed before.
They mulled over the case they thought they'd finished, with Sam reading sections of their notes aloud and Dean tossing out whatever he came across that sounded vaguely connected. Until his vision began to blur and his attention wandered and he read the same page of his father's tortuous handwriting three times without remembering a word of it. He closed the book with a frustrated huff and rubbed a hand over his eyes, no longer able to ignore the dull ache that had throbbed in his skull since morning. Not just his head: he felt achy all over.
And tired. Tired and slow, his eyes burning, his mouth dry as dust. But sleep was no closer than it had been the night before.
Or rather, he could feel it pulling at him, the tempting seduction of it, but it was hopelessly beyond his reach.
"Dean? You all right?"
"Yeah," he answered, blinking. He raised his head, eyes slowly focusing on his brother's worried face. "Sam…we gotta try something," he said. "Sleep spell. Vulcan nerve pinch. A knock on the head with a two-by-four. Anything. I don't care."
Sam leaned back in his chair until he was balancing on the back legs, and pushed his hands through his hair with a sigh. "Yeah, maybe," he conceded with obvious reluctance. "But, Dean…considering your reaction to those pills, do you want to risk a spell without knowing more about the curse? That bruja was very old, very powerful. I don't know how he did what he did to you—what if messing around now just makes things worse?" He glanced away and brought the chair down with a thump. "Let me keep looking, all right? I want to hear back from Bobby, too. We've still got a few days at least before… before…" He trailed off.
"Before it gets really bad, you mean?" Dean said wryly. "It's okay, Sam. I trust you to figure this out. No way is that freakin' sorcerer gonna get one over on us."
Sam's head came up at that, and he gave Dean a wan smile. "Nah, not a chance." He stretched his arms over his head, flexing his fingers, stifling a yawn. "I'm gonna get back to work."
"Not for long. It's getting late."
"Got a few good hours left in me yet. More if you make some fresh coffee."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Gee, glad I can help out, genius." But he got up and went over to the little coffeemaker on the table. "Anything else you need while I'm up?"
Sam just shook his head; his eyes had already returned to scanning the computer screen.
But three hours later, it was a drooping, red-eyed Sam Dean prodded into going to bed, and it was like coaxing a stubborn, sleepy kid who only wanted to stay up late with his big brother.
"I just wanna check out that lead Joshua called about," Sam protested. "Just a few more minutes."
"No, Sam. Bed. Now. You look worse than I do."
"All right, all right," he grumbled. "Going."
Half an hour later, Dean rubbed his eyes and said, "Go to sleep, Sam." He was taking his own turn with the laptop, but it was becoming harder and harder to concentrate on the seemingly shifting words in front of him.
"Can't," Sam muttered petulantly, a dim silhouette in the wan light of the laptop. "Can't sleep with you awake an' twitchin' around."
"Sorry," Dean snapped, suddenly irritated. "But awake is all I'm capable of at the moment."
"Dean," Sam wheedled. "Come on, just—" He yawned. "Lie down. You can at least do that. Or I'll be up all night and it'll be all your fault."
"That hasn't worked since you were about eight, Sam."
"Oh, shut up and get over here." He rolled onto his side to make room.
Dean sighed again, but logged off the laptop—who was he kidding, it wasn't like he could read the damn thing anymore, not with the ice pick of pain in his head and the fact his eyeballs were melting—and moved across the room to climb onto the bed and stretch out beside his brother. He groaned quietly as his exhausted body sagged into the mattress.
"Now lie still," Sam said, sounding like that cross eight-year-old Dean remembered, and yawning again.
Dean had to grin. Especially when five minutes later, Sam's forehead came to rest against his shoulder. And Dean found his breathing slowing, matching Sam's sleeping breaths. His eyelids slid shut, the tight tension in his shoulders and in the back of his skull gradually eased, and he floated in darkness, drifting, drifting…
Jerking to full awareness once again with a violent movement, his arms and legs briefly spasming.
Eventually, his racing heart slowed. He got his breathing under control, then turned his gaze to Sam. His brother slept on, snoring lightly, his face firmly planted in Dean's shoulder.
Dean lay still and stared at the ceiling.
It was going to be a long night.
It was with an ironic, if painful, sense of déjà vu the next morning when Sam found him in the bathroom, bent over the toilet and puking his guts out.
Of course, there wasn't much at all to bring up at that point, what with the whole not-being-able-to-eat aspect of the curse, but it still hurt like hell. More broken glass grinding through him, and Dean could swear this time he tasted blood.
"Dean! Dean, c'mon, man, take it easy. I gotcha, Dean. 'S okay…"
No one else would've heard the tightly controlled panic in that voice. And despite Sam's firm grip on him, it was hard to tell who was shaking more by the time it was all over.
"Did you eat anything? What happened? When did you start feeling sick?"
Dean just shook his head and pushed away from the toilet with a groan, panting, Sam's hands guiding him to sit back against the wall. Eyes closed, Dean sat and breathed, waiting for the vertigo to pass. He didn't even have the strength to bat Sam away when he wiped a damp, cool washcloth over Dean's face and neck. A pathetic growl of protest was all he could manage, which Sam ignored.
A glass of water was put to his lips, and he turned his head.
"Can't," he said hoarsely.
"Dean? C'mon, just a sip."
The glass pulled away, clinking unsteadily against the floor, accompanied by a very quiet curse from Sam.
Dean forced his eyes open and looked up to see Sam squatting in front of him, filling up the bathroom door, his face pale.
"Water burns?" he repeated hollowly.
Dean nodded, his head thudding heavily into the wall. "Guess…we can add that…to the list, huh?"
"Shit," Sam said again, the single word heavy with anger and helplessness, his hand curling around Dean's knee.
"Yeah," Dean agreed. He licked his lips, grimacing at the awful taste in his mouth. "Gotta do something, Sam. Forget trying to figure out how the bastard whammied me. Forget specifics. Let's just try a basic curse-breaking spell and see what happens." Struggling to straighten up, he flattened his palms on the floor and pushed. Sam steadied him with a hand on his arm. "Can't hurt, right?"
Sam raked him with a doubtful look. "I dunno, it just…" He stood up and, when Dean nodded, helped him to his feet. "It just makes me nervous to do that without knowing exactly what kind of curse it is. But," he admitted, "you're right, we've got to do something. If you can't even keep water down…"
"Sorta has that clock tickin' a little faster, doesn't it?"
"Dean, I'm sorry I don't have answers yet—"
"Dude, it's okay," Dean said, giving him a steady look straight in the eye. "You'll get it. But in the meantime, maybe we can…I don't know, slow it down or something. Put a crack in it."
"Before I'm dead from dehydration, yeah," Dean said bluntly.
Sam winced, and started to steer Dean over to the nearest bed. "What about getting you to a hospital, then?" Even as Dean shook his head, Sam rushed on. "I know modern medicine can't break the curse, but it might buy us some time. Maybe an IV…"
It was a desperate reaching for straws, for that brass ring, and they both knew it.
Dean thought of needles sliding into his skin, of drugs running through him, of IV hydration, and knew it would be nothing but liquid fire in his veins. Burning, boiling pain under his skin and in his blood.
"Won't work, Sammy," he said, all but collapsing on the bed and curling onto his side.
Sam studied the floor, then sank down on the other bed, shoulders curving in. "I know," he said, his voice just as quiet. "I know."
"So, c'mon," Dean said. "We've got all the stuff. Let's do this."
Sam's head came up. "What, now?"
"Okay," Sam said slowly, getting to his feet again. "We'll give it a shot."
It didn't take long to assemble the few necessary items. Holy water, a few herbs—lavender, sage, chamomile among them—four white candles, and their dad's journal, open to a scrawled, familiar page.
"Wish it were full moon," Sam muttered, tossing crushed herbs into the bathroom sink to infuse with the holy water he'd poured there. The candles burned on the countertop, positioned around the sink at the four cardinal compass points.
Sitting on the closed toilet lid, Dean shrugged. "Just give it your best shot, Sam."
Sam met his eyes, nodded, then took a deep breath and started reciting.
Only a few phrases in, Dean felt something twist in his gut. Fiery agony ripped through him, and he doubled over with a moan.
The Latin broke off, a hand landing on the back of his neck. "Dean!"
"Keep…going!" he panted. He jabbed Sam in the shin with his toes. "Do it!"
Sam picked up the incantation again, not quite so steadily as before, speaking just a little faster.
The bruja's voice suddenly filled Dean's head, harsh and malevolent, and a dark flicker obscured his right eye for a heartbeat. But no longer a half-glimpsed shadow at the corner of his vision, this time the sorcerer was there, right there—
Watch out, Sam!
Dean choked on the words, hardly able to breathe for the pain. The curse swept through him in sharp waves, growing stronger even as Sam continued to speak, and the holy water and herbs poured over his hair and neck, running down his face, his skin slick and hot.
Then something else slid over his lips and chin, warm, thick, and coppery. Sam cried out, but Dean couldn't understand the words because there was nothing but agony coiling in him, around him, and he hovered on the brink of blessed unconsciousness. But no, the curse would not be so kind…
"Dean! Oh, God…"
Sam's arms caught him, held him up.
The bruja's laughter, like an old cackling crow, echoed in his mind and died away.
"Dean, I have to stop! You're bleeding." A hand cupped his face. Fingers swiped across his upper lip. "Can you hear me? The spell's going wrong—I can't finish it!" The already frantic voice caught on a hitched breath. "Dean!"
"Sssaa…" It was all he could manage.
It was enough, apparently. "Oh, thank God," came a heartfelt murmur against his ear. "C'mon, let's get you out of here."
Sam carefully maneuvered him out of the bathroom as though he were a rag doll, all loose arms and legs and lolling head, and Dean couldn't do a damn thing about it.
Though the pain had faded almost as quickly as it had begun, his body still cramped with the memory of it, and he could taste the blood in his mouth, on his lips. Sam deposited him gently on the bed, and the mattress dipped as, after a pause, Sam sat down beside him. A light touch on his neck, long enough to count a pulse, and forehead, checking temperature, and Dean forced his eyes open to give his brother an annoyed glare.
Which Sam ignored in favor of wiping the blood off Dean's face with a damp cloth.
"It's okay, Sam," Dean said, his voice rough. "I'm okay."
"The spell backfired. I could've gotten you killed," Sam said, not quite meeting his eyes as he cleaned the last of the blood from Dean's chin. "I almost did."
"No, you didn't. He did. The curse did." Dean reached up and snagged Sam's wrist in a ridiculously weak grip. "We had to try, Sam. Now we know."
"Hell of a way to find out," Sam said bitterly. He dabbed at Dean's face one final time. "I think the bleeding's stopped."
"It's okay," Dean said again, giving Sam's arm a shake before letting go. "But did you see him? He was here, Sam, workin' some nasty mojo. Not just in my head, either. The old bastard was right here."
That got Sam to look at him. "No," his brother said slowly, shaking his head. "I didn't see him."
"He's dead and burned, damn it!" Dean grumbled. "How's he doin' this? It's really starting to piss me off."
Sam shook his head again. "Don't know. And it's kinda pissing me off, too." He pushed himself to his feet. "Get some rest—or whatever you can manage," he added when Dean rolled his eyes. Gesturing at the notes-laden table, he said, "I'm gonna get back to work."
"Thanks, Sam," Dean said quietly as he curled wearily around a pillow.
"Dean," Sam said, pushing back from the table a few hours later.
Something in his voice halted Dean in his aimless, unsteady wandering about the room. He felt sluggish and clumsy, like he was moving underwater, but it was better than lying on the bed and staring at the damn ceiling.
"What?" Dean snapped, turning to look at his brother, the word coming out harsher than intended. Sam threw him a glance, but there was no censure in it, only understanding. "Sorry," Dean muttered. He grabbed the other chair, dragging it around to sit on it backwards, and gave Sam what remained of his very scattered attention.
"I think we're looking at this thing the wrong way."
Dean raised an eyebrow.
"No, I mean, we've been looking at a way to break the curse of you not falling asleep, of not being able to eat or drink. But what if that's not really the curse?" Sam leaned forward to pin Dean with an intense stare. "Look, the victims, despite the dissimilar symptoms they exhibited, all died. They died. I think your sleeplessness is just a symptom. We forget about that, forget the other symptoms, and go after the real curse."
"A death curse," Dean said quietly. "They were all death curses from the start, just taking different forms with each person." He lowered his chin to his forearms.
Sam stood and started pacing the same six feet of floor that Dean had been wearing out. "We tried a basic ritual that, most of the time, will break your average, everyday kind of curse. In this case, it wasn't enough, obviously. The bruja somehow screwed up the working, right? We have to fight it—fight him—with something stronger." He turned and pointed at Dean as though calling on a student in class. "What's stronger than death?"
"Uh," Dean said, his muddled thoughts a little slow on the uptake. The dull throb of a constant headache wasn't helping any. "I dunno, Sammy. Death gets everything and everybody, eventually."
"Life." Sam smiled, a real smile blossoming on his face for the first time in days. "We use life to counteract death."
"Yeah, Sam," Dean said, chin giving way to forehead on his arms. He closed his eyes. "That makes perfect sense."
"It does, Dean, it really does," Sam insisted earnestly, nudging Dean in the shoulder. "Think about it. Life, birth, renewal—what's more primal than that? There are old, old symbols, some from as far back as prehistoric times, that are connected with all those things."
"So we find a way to, what, use those and make our own mojo?" Dean lifted his head and watched as Sam settled back into his chair, already gearing up for another round of research.
"Yeah," Sam replied, eyes intent, fingers clicking keys. "That's what we do."
To his complete and utter frustration, Dean discovered he wasn't much help. His concentration was iffy, his short-term memory had suddenly decided to take a hike, and printed words on a page simply swam in front of his blurry eyes. Sam tried to keep him filled in on his progress, they talked stuff over, but then Dean couldn't remember what they'd talked about.
Thirst was a constant ravening beast, even more so than his hollow stomach. His temper flared easily. He wanted to shoot something. He went out and sat in his car.
Other than that, all he could do was make sure Sam slept and ate. He was a man obsessed, and Dean had to forcibly pry him away from the laptop at night and pack him off to bed for a few hours.
But then Dean found himself losing track of time. Reality began to blur around the edges. He knew he wasn't sleeping, therefore not capable of dreaming, but sometimes he thought he wasn't truly awake, either, just floating in some gray limbo. Where the bruja's spirit stalked him. Waiting.
A hand fell on his shoulder, shaking him, and that felt far too real for any half-waking dream.
He opened his eyes, squinting against the too-bright light. Morning? Afternoon? Did it matter?
"Sam," he said, his voice dry and scratchy. He slowly sat up even as Sam plunked down beside him on the bed. "You look like crap, Sammy."
Hollow-eyed, pale, his hair a flattened, tangled mess, Sam nevertheless gave him a grin. "Think I got it," he said. And he went on in an excited rush, explaining all about ancient symbols of life and regeneration, ritual and elemental power and cross-culturalization. Dean sort of faded out at that point, but one little phrase grabbed his attention.
"Blood?" he asked, interrupting the flow of words. "Whose blood and why?"
"Uh, what?" Sam stopped in mid-gesture.
"You heard me. Answer the question."
Sam squirmed but looked Dean square in the eye. "Blood to bind you here. To something living. Me. My blood."
"Nope, no way, Sam." Dean shook his head. "What if that just ties you into the curse? What if I take you with me? Forget it."
"Gotta do it, Dean," Sam insisted. "It'll add strength to the symbol, to the ritual. I'm willing to take the risk—not that there is one," he added quickly.
Dean pushed the heels of his hands against his gritty eyes, swearing silently at the stubbornness of little brothers. "Okay," he said, lowering his hands after a moment. "We'll talk about that part later. But first, you wanna go over all of that again?"
Sam went out to get a few things they needed. Nothing too esoteric, thankfully, seeing as how they were stuck in the middle of the desert. They packed up all their stuff and headed out in the late afternoon.
Dean's head felt clearer, for some reason. Maybe because the end was in sight. One way or another.
He couldn't have said how he knew where to go, what inner compulsion or desire or need had him yearning for high, wide open spaces for this. Unless it was the bruja messing with his head, but it felt right, what they were about to do. So he directed Sam as they drove west in the fading daylight, Sam shooting him worried glances, silent, the windows open and the warm desert air whipping through his hair.
Sam dropped their speed, edging over to the shoulder.
"Turn right, up ahead," Dean said, staring out the window, seeing a crossroad.
Sam turned, slowing further, and stopped. The engine idled for an instant before he shut off the ignition. "Dean?"
"Here, Sam. Right here."
Pushing his weary body out of the car, Dean swayed and leaned against it, letting the heat from beneath the hood soak into his palms.
"Gotta go up," he said, feeling that tug on his senses growing stronger.
Sam gave him an incredulous stare as he came to stand beside him, looking up the rocky hillside. "Are you crazy? You're not in any shape to climb up there."
"Just give me a push to get started. I'll be fine."
They got the bags out of the trunk. Dean dragged the strap of one of the duffels over his shoulder, and started plodding forward. Sam came right behind him, ready with a steadying hand as they clambered up the slope in the last of the light.
Both of them were gasping for breath by the time they reached the top of the hill, a fairly broad, flat stretch of ground. Dean dropped his bag to the earth with a groan and bent over, hands on his knees as he fought against the sudden rush of wooziness in his already aching head.
"Take it easy," Sam said, pressing down on one shoulder. "Sit a minute. I'll get started."
"'Kay," Dean breathed, folding up, head still hanging.
Sam squeezed his shoulder before letting go, and while Dean waited for his breathing to even out and his leaden limbs to stop shaking, his brother got to work. By the light of a small camping lantern, Sam emptied the bag of the supplies he'd collected, muttering to himself as he set up their camp for the night and arranged everything to his liking. He glanced over at Dean after a few minutes. "You okay? You…remember what to do? It's better if you're doing that part of the ritual, but…I can do all of it."
"Nah, I'm good. I got it." Dean wavered to his feet and got the sack of salt from his own bag, and walked in a wide—if somewhat irregular—circle around Sam, moving clockwise to follow the path of the sun, pouring salt behind him. Sealing them inside. Sam, meanwhile, had started a small fire fed with juniper and sage, the sharp, sweet scent curling up into the twilight sky.
With a stick, Dean scratched protection runes in the dirt, both inside and outside the salt circle, as another line of defense. Against what, well, that was the question, but they had decided not to take any chances at this point. Just in case those glimpses of the bruja's spirit had been the real deal and not because Dean was delirious and hallucinating.
He tossed the stick into Sam's fire. Then, shucking boots, socks, and T-shirt, Dean lay down on the sleeping bag Sam had already spread on the ground, body on a straight line west to east. The day's warmth still clinging to the earth seeped into him, melting into muscle and bone. It had become completely dark while he'd worked, and he now stared up at the impossibly bright sky, star-strewn and glittering. He shivered slightly in the cooling air, licking his cracked lips.
It was his third day without water.
Sam came to sit beside him, cross-legged. He worked silently, intent, stirring something in a chipped ceramic coffee mug. After a few more minutes of pulverizing various herbs into his concoction, he appeared satisfied as he lifted his eyes to Dean's.
"Ready," was all Sam said, his voice hushed, gripping the mug with whitened fingers. His face was pale and young in the dim light of the little fire.
There was nothing but the two of them, the night and the wind.
"Sam," Dean breathed. Warning, pleading. One last time.
Sam shook his head. "Nope," he said softly. "Told ya already. This is the only way." He set the mug aside and picked up a gleaming silver knife. With a quick move, before Dean could protest yet again, he cut his left palm deep enough for blood to well.
Putting the knife down, Sam dipped his finger in the cup of his palm and met Dean's eyes in a brief, familiar glance that asked for both trust and permission. Dean still had his misgivings over this part of the plan, but he grimaced and gave Sam a reluctant nod, watching as Sam's focused attention returned to the task at hand. Intoning a few words, an old but very simple spell of binding, he began to draw a spiral over Dean's heart.
The symbol on his chest warmed, then began to burn when Sam finished and lifted his hand away. Dean sucked in a quick breath as the heat seemed to sink straight through to his heart, then surged through his blood as though it were a raging fever. His eyes squeezed shut and he braced himself for what was sure to be searing pain, but instead the fire calmed and curled through and around him, warming him.
The flames called to him like a forgotten memory, speaking of the earliest fire that drove back the dark and the monsters in the shadows. It was leaping bonfire and comforting hearth fire; it was the purifying blaze of the funeral pyres that sent the dead on their way.
His blood pounded loud in his ears, reverberating in his skull. Dean forced his eyes open and met Sam's frowning, worried gaze, which only eased when Dean gave him a short, jerky nod.
Sam quickly wrapped the bandage he had ready around his bleeding hand. Okay? he mouthed as he picked up a stubby stick of charcoal.
Dean nodded again. The flames in his memory died down.
Taking Dean's right hand in his bandaged left, Sam drew a wavy line, a zigzag, across the palm, first one, then the other, the design wrapping around the back of his hands in a single unbroken line. All the while, Sam murmured a short, repetitive phrase, tongue gliding over strange syllables. Dean heard the faint crashing of waves on a distant shore, felt the surge and pull of an ancient tide in his blood and bones.
He scarcely noticed when Sam finished. His hands lay palm up on the rough blanket, open and loose. The rough lines were feather light on his skin, cool, tingling just a bit.
Eyes heavy-lidded now, Dean watched as Sam dipped a finger into the oil and herb paste in the mug, following the movement as Sam bent over him, breathing lightly, eyes narrowed in concentration. He spoke a few soft words, and his finger was warm on Dean's cool skin as with a sure gesture he sketched a symbol on Dean's forehead, a loop and a cross forming an ankh.
Dean shivered. The night sky wheeled above him, the stars burned, and he soared up into the dark abyss, the wind rushing past with a howl. It buffeted and spun him, whirling him round and round through all the points on a sailor's compass rose, and back again. He must've made a sound, some low, wordless cry, because Sam's warm hand was there, bringing him back, anchoring him in this time and place. His fingertips brushed across Dean's eyelids, closing them, resting his hand there briefly.
"It's all right," Sam whispered, when Dean's lips parted.
Dean swallowed against the dizziness. But he opened his eyes again when Sam's hand moved from his eyelids.
A flicker of something at the corner of his vision. Something unnatural and out of place. He turned his head slightly.
There it was, that familiar, taunting shape from the long night of battle in the cemetery, now stalking in the darkness beyond the firelight. It grinned at Dean with rotted teeth, and the dark eyes gleamed, full of feral malice. The bits of bones and charms woven into the long, black hair clinked against each other.
"Sam," Dean breathed. "He's here." The figure crept widdershins around their salt circle, looking for a way in but never taking that burning gaze from Dean. The air froze in his lungs. "He won't…let me go."
Sam spun on his haunches, peering out into the dark, searching. "I don't see anything, Dean," he whispered.
"Had enough of you, amigo," Dean said through his teeth. He started to sit up, to struggle to his feet. He wanted nothing but to get to a weapon and blast the dead old bastard to pieces, but Sam's hands were there instantly, pinning his shoulders to the ground.
Sam's pleading voice sounded far, far away. "Dean, we're almost done!" The weight on his shoulders and chest increased. "Just let me finish!"
The figure beckoned with a skeletal finger. Come. You are mine now.
"Let me up, Sam," Dean grated.
Sam loomed over him, blocking his line of sight. "No! Close your eyes! Don't look at him!"
The bruja laughed, and it was the sound of a bitter November wind, rattling and wailing through dry, dead leaves and old yellowed bones.
Dean shivered and shut his eyes as the curse twisted through him, vicious and deep, robbing him of strength and life. He was caught like a fish on a cruelly sharp hook, and he couldn't get free. He'd already fought for days, and he was just so tired…
"Dean!" The voice was frantic now and close to his ear, breath on his cheek. One hand let go of his shoulder to grip his chin and give him a light shake. "Dean, can you hear me? We gotta keep going, man, you gotta keep fighting. We can't stop now."
Another voice slithered through his mind. Too late. Death awaits. Come.
"Go, Sam," Dean whispered, his mouth as dry as the desert. "Hurry."
Sam's fingers patted him on the cheek before letting go with a quick, relieved sigh. "One left. Hang in there, okay?"
"Yeah." Dean had to force the single word past cold lips.
He listened to Sam's movements—a quick scuff of feet and a backward scramble—focusing on his brother and not the dead voice in his head. A large hand circled his ankle, and Dean's bare foot wound up resting on Sam's leg. A muddy mixture of dirt and holy water smoothed over the sole of his right foot, and Dean couldn't hold back an involuntary twitch. Sam let out a breathy chuckle but didn't pause.
His toes curled as Sam daubed the symbol on his skin, an elongated figure eight, again speaking words worn smooth by time, the ancient syllables weighted with belief and power.
The bruja's voice rose in rage, fighting the spell Sam wove.
As Sam drew the last sign on Dean's left foot, continuing to recite the incantation unknowingly in the face of the sorcerer's wrath, Dean's senses swam. Suddenly, he was plummeting, swift and deep, through living rock, into the very bones of the earth. He fell headlong, a harsh cry tearing from his throat, but then his descent slowed, and he was caught and held by a warm, sturdy strength. Instinctively, he somehow gathered that strength into himself, like an old oak tree reaching down and down, its roots sinking ever deeper.
When he opened his eyes, he stood on a flat-topped mesa, but not the one where his body lay.
It was night here, too, though, and the moon and stars shined brighter than he'd ever seen them, even away from city lights. Dean looked down. He stood within a glittering circle of salt, and the protective sigils he'd drawn in that other place, mere scratchings in the dirt, glowed here with a dazzling radiance.
The ancient symbols Sam had drawn on his skin positively throbbed with power.
A small sound had him looking up again, and Dean turned, unsurprised, to see the sorcerer standing behind him outside the circle, eyes wild with anger and hate.
"Aw, man," Dean said, a little angry himself. "I just can't get rid of you, can I?"
The bruja snarled, raised his hands in a threatening gesture, and began spitting out an ugly string of words that Dean didn't need to understand to realize their intent.
Dean dug his bare toes into the earth and grinned at him. He raised his own hands, palms outward, the zigzags across them a brilliant blue. "I don't think so, you dead bastard. I think I've got all the mojo now." Though Sam may have memorized every exorcism rite and banishment ritual known to man, Dean had a couple of basic ones in his repertoire in case of emergencies. Which in their line of work, happened a lot. He flung the words at his enemy with a certainty born of the power and strength that flowed through him. Energy practically crackled off his fingertips, and he felt like Gandalf—or, hot damn, his favorite pitcher, Jack Morris—when he wound up and threw a perfect fastball of fire straight at the sorcerer's head at the same time as he shouted the final word of the rite.
The sorcerer staggered, his voice breaking off with a strangled cry.
"Oh, yeah," Dean murmured. "Let's try that again, huh?"
Again and again, he drove the spirit back. Finally, the fire caught in the bruja's long hair, in his clothes, and blazed so bright that Dean had to shield his eyes. An agonized scream shattered the night.
When Dean looked again, the sorcerer was gone.
"We did it, Sammy," Dean whispered, sagging with exhaustion, all mysterious power fled.
The glow of the circle and the sigils grew dim, and when he searched the horizon, the first faint flush of dawn lit the east. Lying down again, Dean closed his eyes, and waited for the sunrise.
He became aware of the warmth first, as it crept up slowly over him. Then sunlight pressed gently on his eyelids, and he blinked them open with a sigh.
"Dean?" Relieved, hopeful, and scared, all at the same time. Crouching next to him, Sam smiled tiredly, his face pale and stubbled. "Hey, Dean, you okay?" Long fingers wrapped around Dean's wrist.
Dean thought of the power that had filled him and run so easily through him. Whether real or imagined, dream or not, it hardly mattered now. "Sammy," he said, his voice rough. "Your mojo worked."
The grip on his wrist tightened. The zigzags Sam had drawn there were now merely smudged lines of charcoal.
The clear morning sky was a pearled, pale blue, and the rising sun slanted long rays across the mesa.
But Dean had seen enough sunrises lately. He drank an entire bottle of water, smiled drowsily at Sam, then rolled over and went to sleep.