A/N: Happy Thanksgiving to American readers - happy Thursday or Friday for everyone else. :) Thought I'd share this little two shot, (or maybe three, I dunno because I'm not done quite yet). I hope to have the rest of it up by tomorrow, but I know better than to make promises.
The Adventures of Mr. Huggles and Cuddlebear
"Find us a table. If I'm not back, you know what I want," Dean growled.
"I said I was sorry, Dean," Sam said quietly. "Are you going to be mad at me forever?"
Dean ignored his brother and the stares of the diner's occupants, making a beeline for the bathroom. The evening had not gone well. Sam had flubbed the exorcism rite not once, but a couple times, which alone was enough to get Dean off his own game. Sam didn't screw up Latin. Or he didn't used to. Apparently Sam was out of practice with the recitation these days; exorcism by rite was so old school, after all. Just thinking about why Sam was out of practice made him angry and sad at the same time.
To make bad matters even worse, all the damned demons roaming around topside had now officially gotten the memo on how to break a devil's trap, unless it was an industrial strength one like Bobby had in his panic room. Dealing with a demon free to cast them about the room was pretty inconvenient and made Sam's failed exorcism a greater transgression as far as Dean was concerned. A chunk of plaster from the falling ceiling had nearly beheaded him, and the dust had come close to asphyxiating him. He could still taste it in the back of his throat.
A fine cloud of chalky powder floated off him from his hair and jacket and everywhere when he slammed the restroom door open too enthusiastically. Dean caught his reflection in the mirror, and couldn't help but think he was the spitting image of friggin' Pigpen, covered in bits of plaster and a fine layer of dust. Sam, of course, was clean as a whistle out there. He tore off his jacket, giving it a good shake and a few swats of his hand before folding it across the top of the domed garbage can. Rolling up his sleeves, he turned the water on. He gave himself a hasty clean-up, drenching his hands, arms and face.
Right now, all he wanted was a cheeseburger with extra onions, fries and a huge slice of pie. It would help calm him down. Besides the Impala, now that he'd officially un-douched her by getting rid of Sam's iPod holder, food was the only thing that remained the same for him post-Hell. Sam was different. Liquor was now medication instead of recreation. Women were even more temporary distractions. Angels were as real as demons. As far as Dean was concerned, he'd returned to a world far removed from the reality he'd known. The sky could turn purple right that very second and it wouldn't surprise him. He thought it was more likely to turn blood red.
He no longer knew who decided what was real and what wasn't. Sometimes Dean wasn't sure he wasn't still in the Pit, burning, bleeding, screaming and otherwise seeing firsthand what it would be like to have Hell on Earth; his incorporeal heart pounding out of his incorporeal chest all the while. He also couldn't say for sure this existence wasn't some bad hallucination, a means to cope with things no one should ever have to experience or do, that no one could survive with his sanity intact.
He leaned against the cracked sink, just breathing for a minute. All he ever had were minutes to pull himself together and try to wipe his brain free of memories. To convince himself he was above ground. Alive. Dean couldn't let it show in front of Sam or anyone, adding to the proverbial pressure already heavy on his shoulders. No one could understand it, and he'd be damned if he'd ever try to make anyone, especially Sam. It was too much to unload on anyone else. It'd be too unfair to try.
Dean ran his fingers through his hair, making it spike up. He was beyond caring what he looked like, unable to look at himself for more than cursory glances anyway. Grabbing a handful of paper towels, Dean scrubbed himself dry, scooped up his jacket and left the bathroom. He needed to get himself under control, because he knew what happened tonight, if any of this were real, wasn't Sam's fault. Not really. No matter what shit Dean had been through himself, he had no real clue what it had been like for Sam. It wasn't the same hearing it spoken aloud as it was living it. He knew that. He simply didn't have it in him to deal with anything other than his own miserable existence most of the time.
Fighting demons and evil things was all Dean could do. Move forward. Looking back would only cripple him. Contemplating reality would only make him crazy. Crazier. As ugly as this world was, it had to be real. He could not be in Hell right now; the only soul he was torturing was his own.
Dean shook those things from his head, searching the diner for his brother. He might be ticked with Sam for the moment, but the darkness swirling around in his head only lessened when he was with people. Since the only people he truly had consisted of Sam and sometimes Bobby, it was usually more of a relief to be with the kid and angry than alone and drowning. Unless, of course, the memories and knowledge he could never get rid of became too intense. At those times Dean could hardly bear to look at Sam, knowing what he knew. It was then, too, he thought it would be easier for this all to be a hallucination or a projection created to buffer him from what he was doing, right now, in the Pit.
He scanned the small restaurant from left to right, gaze flashing past the truckers at the counter, the farmer-types in some of the booths, and the skinny, slip of a waitress wearing a clichéd pink uniform. For the late hour, the place was surprisingly crowded. It was probably the only 24-hour joint in town.
When he finally saw Sam, Dean didn't quite know what to think.
Sam hadn't been seated yet, though he stood next to an empty booth. He wasn't alone. Dean's eyebrows rose incrementally as he approached the scene, mostly because it wasn't changing. It was like Sam had been stuck in a time dilation device or something. There was no way his brother would be stuck like that otherwise. Another waitress, this one nothing but squishy curves on top of curves, short with curly, graying hair, had Sam in a bear hug. His brother noticed him arriving and winced his uneasiness, arms pinioned in place by the petite woman.
"Uh," Dean said. He scratched his stubbled jaw with the back of his thumbnail.
"Oh," the waitress said, voice muffled by the fact her face was buried deeply in Sam's jacket. She pulled back after a moment, but didn't let go of Sam's arms. Her cheeks were flushed. "Isn't that better, now?"
"Uh," Sam said, looking at the floor, then the ceiling, then at Dean before he ended up staring at the waitress's shoulder. "I don't … uh … I … yes, ma'am?"
The waitress beamed, glancing over to Dean, her eyes watery and deep with emotion he didn't comprehend. He'd been in the bathroom all of five minutes. Dean couldn't figure out what the heck had happened in such a short span of time. He was getting no help from Sam, who shuffled between his feet and bore two blotchy spots of embarrassment on his cheeks.
"Oh," she said again, eyeing Dean more closely. "I can see you need one even more than he did."
Before Dean could move out of the way (his reflexes were fine against the supernatural, but people were a whole different ballgame), the short little woman had her arms around him. Once enveloped, he might possibly have oofed in surprise. No, there was no possibly. He had definitely oofed. All he knew was this woman was deceptively strong as she held onto him tightly. He thought, oh man, she was humming or something. He stared wide-eyed at Sam, silently begging for help he saw he wasn't going to get. What he got instead was Sam looking back at him like a carp. He couldn't really blame the guy. They'd traded places, and Dean didn't find this one any more comfortable.
After what felt like ten minutes of awkwardness, the waitress pulled back and clutched onto him like she'd done with Sam.
Dean wriggled from her grasp when it became apparent she wasn't going to let go on her own. He and Sam shifted back away from her in unison, Sam clumsily tripping backwards into the booth. Dean lifted his shoulders in sympathy at the crack his brother's elbow made against the tabletop, the subsequent hiss of discomfort.
"Honey, are you okay?" the waitress asked, inching toward Sam again. "That sounded like it hurt."
Dean took a subconscious step forward again, blocking her advance on his brother, while Sam nodded mutely.
"He's okay, lady," Dean said.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't introduce myself, did I? How rude of me." The waitress pulled out menus from who-knew-where, slapping them on the table. Her hands fluttered in the air as she talked. "I guess I got carried away when I saw this young man. I said to myself, I said, 'Now, Penny, there's a boy who needs a hug. There's nothing in this world a hug can't fix.' And then you came along, handsome, looking just like that beautiful one there, lost and so sad. It breaks my heart to see anyone so unhappy."
Dean saw Sam squirm. At least he got handsome as an adjective, which was embarrassing, but not degrading. He shot Sam a look, who mouthed, Say anything about that and you're dead or something in that vein, anyway. Which would have been funnier three years ago, but for a second Dean was able to imagine his brother was that same pain in the ass he used to be. He flashed Sam a smile, not making any promises to the Beautiful One.
"Here I thought laughter was supposed to be the best medicine," Dean said, turning his smile fake as he skirted around Penny-the-hugger to his side of the booth.
"Yes, that works sometimes, but for you boys I just thought hugs were the way to go. You look like you've got the weight of the world on your shoulders and that's not something to treat lightly," Penny said with a knowing nod and a faint tremble in her voice. She switched it up after a moment, though, giving both of them a long, vaguely lecherous perusal. "Besides, sweetie, look at the pair of you. I'm only human. Mm-mm."
It was amazing how a person could sound matronly one second, and downright dirty the next. On a normal night Dean might appreciate that on some level, but more than anything he wanted Penny to stop looking at him like he was on the menu and she had a can of whipped cream ready to top him off with. She eventually did look away, but it was only to give Sam the same attention.
Sam slid down in his seat, eyes wide. Lifting the laminated, double-sided menu to block his face – and as much else as he could – from Penny's invasive interest, he ducked down. It didn't really work. Instead of whipped cream, he was probably getting the chocolate sauce mental treatment. So wrong. So many levels of wrong.
"I'll give you a few minutes to decide what you want," Penny said cheerfully. She put her pencil behind her ear.
"He'll have a cheeseburger, medium rare, extra onions," Sam said before she had the chance to leave. "I'll have the chicken-fried steak. We'll both have the blueberry pie for dessert."
Penny blinked at Sam a couple times, her face taking on an inexplicable sad hint for just a second. Then she nodded and walked toward the kitchen, scribbling their orders on her green notepad.
Dean was perturbed by Sam ordering for him. He didn't know why. He'd told Sam to do that earlier. After a second, he thought it had more to do with the straightness in Sam's shoulders, the lack of hesitation. Or maybe it was that Sam had ordered chicken-fried steak and pie. Sammy didn't eat that kind of crap, but apparently Sam did. And that was stupid. Dean didn't even know what he meant. He contemplated telling Sam he'd wanted apple pie, not blueberry.
"Well, that was weird," he said instead. "You couldn't evade Huggy McGropesalot, there?"
It was an olive branch, Dean letting Sam know he wasn't going to hold the botched exorcism over him forever. He played with the saltshaker, hesitantly looking over at his brother to gauge the reaction. Sam gave him an uncomfortable half-smile, regret still clear in his eyes. What Dean wanted at that moment was a swig of whiskey.
"She caught me off guard." Sam shrugged with one shoulder. His smile notched up, but not much. "There was no prelude. I didn't notice you getting away from her."
Dean couldn't really deny that point. He nodded. It wasn't the first time one or both of them brought out a maternal reaction from some older woman. It wasn't even Sam's first time being molested by one.
"I'm gonna go wash my hands," Sam said as he slid out of the booth all of a sudden.
Watching Sam retreat toward the bathroom, Dean slumped his shoulders. Keeping up appearances was exhausting him, and he knew it was fruitless anyway. There was an elephant following them around everywhere, and it smelled like fire and brimstone. Sam already knew enough just because he knew that. Specifics would make things so much worse. Dean pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. The clink of porcelain against porcelain roused him from the position. It was Penny, who looked down at him sadly as she poured two-thirds of a cup of coffee.
"On the house," she said, no hint of lechery in her bearing or voice.
Dean filled the remaining one-third of the cup with whiskey from his never-empty flask.
In some ways, it felt to Sam like the ground quaked all the time. He could never manage to get his footing for more than a few minutes in a row, always ending up falling. He hadn't taken a steady step in six months.
The first four of that, he understood why nothing felt solid around him – not the drinking, not the hunting, not the need for vengeance, not the psychic whatever. Not what he did with Ruby, the things he couldn't give name to because they were too wrong and he knew it. The last two months should've been better. Sam had his big brother back. That should have been enough to make him feel anything other than shaky and scared and dark and cold and alone.
But it hadn't. It didn't. He was empty and aching and he didn't know why.
Dean signaled he was going left, and a second later was disappearing into the black night. The darkness swallowed him abruptly, as if he'd winked out of existence with the snap of fingers.
Taking a step after his brother, Sam wanted to call out for Dean to come back. They shouldn't separate out here in the blackness of a moonless night. He knew it in his gut. It was more than his ever-present sense of isolation. He thought it was. But then again, maybe it wasn't. Sam didn't know what was real anymore, if he actually felt feelings or just approximated what feelings he should feel for any given situation. Sometimes it felt as though there were a switch inside him that had been flipped off. He stumbled around in the dark, trying to find it and failed at every turn. His clumsy hands would never find the switch to turn it back on.
Except when it came to Dean. Only with his brother was he able to feel anything close to genuine, and that was inexplicable apprehension. Sam trembled with it. The ground shook because of it. He shook his head and concentrated on the task at hand.
The rest of the world didn't know it, but a Grey Man was responsible for the disappearances of several hikers all across the North Cascades National Park in recent months. They'd come up to northern Washington State initially because Dean had thought they might finally see the fabled Bigfoot, and Sam couldn't resist encouraging his brother when he showed such enthusiasm. That kind of thing was so rare these days, Sam was inclined to indulge Dean when he could. But it was better if they stuck together on this case. It wasn't Bigfoot out there. Sam knew the psychological warfare a Grey Man could unleash, and Dean couldn't be ready to deal with that alone, in spite of his eagerness. Instead of going right like he was supposed to, Sam followed Dean.
He thought he followed Dean, in any case. After a few steps, Sam still couldn't see his brother anywhere in front of him. That couldn't be right. Coming to a halt, Sam circled around and squinted into the darkness. He couldn't see anything, and mid-way through the circle he forgot which direction he'd started out facing. Somewhere in the back of his mind, logic tried to assert itself. He knew this couldn't be real. The Grey Man was near enough to make Sam confused. The sound of lurching footsteps running straight for him, and all logic was pushed aside by suffocating panic.
Alone, alone, Sam was alone again.
His heart was in his throat, and suddenly he felt so much – dread, horror, and sadness. He didn't remember finding that internal switch, but something had been thrown. His skin prickled with how much emotion flowed through him, scattered and rampant. He took another shaky step, then another. Tripping, stumbling, falling. It was too dark. He was too alone. Panicking, he started running, though he still couldn't see much of anything. The trees seemed thicker, clustered together, closing in around him. The footsteps behind him were getting closer and closer. He couldn't tell if he was going upslope or down.
Dean should have only gotten a few steps ahead of him. Sam should have run right into him, but he hadn't seen anything but trees and rocks. He couldn't see anything but blackness. Dean was just gone. Dean, Dean. The night filled with a series of loud pops, like a giant pair of hands cracking knuckles. The hair on the back of Sam's neck raised. He halted. Spinning in a slow circle again, he raised his weapon and searched the darkness for a sign of the creature. He couldn't see anything. He could never see anything in his murky life. He couldn't find Dean. He needed to save Dean.
He ran and ran and fell, crying out as sharp stones cut into his knees. Sam couldn't move. Pressure on his shoulders. The thing. The thing had him and it wasn't going to let him go and where was Dean? Dean. Help.
"Sam," a voice said. "Sam, snap out of it. I'm right here."
Sam blinked. Dean was right there, tightly gripping him by the shoulders and staring at him worriedly. Not a hallucination, not. The snap-crackle-pop sound was gone, but Sam's panic clung to him like a spider's web. He couldn't catch his breath. Everything moved forward and back, side to side, that familiar earthquake sensation except it was different. It was Dean, shaking him as if he could loosen something out of Sam that way. Sam wasn't sure there was anything inside him to loosen. Suddenly, he wasn't sure it was truly Dean kneeling in front of him. Dean was dead. Dean had been dead. There was something wrong with his brain.
"Dean," he gasped. "Are you, you?"
"Who else would I be?"
He watched as a strange look crossed Dean-maybe-not-Dean's face. Somehow it was everything Sam thought he was feeling, that look. This was Dean. That terrified, lonely, horrible look wasn't something he could forget and it was the expression Dean wore so often lately. Before Sam could say anything else, Dean pulled him forward into a strong hug. Without hesitation, Sam returned with equal strength. He'd really thought Dean was gone again. As much as he felt empty now, he knew he would never survive Dean dying again.
"You're okay now."
Dean's voice was oddly rough and quiet, right in his ear. Sam nodded, but didn't let go. For what felt like the first time in months, it didn't seem like the world was going to be yanked out from under him. Dean didn't let go either, not for nearly a minute. When he did and they drew back, Sam thought he saw his brother's eyes were uncharacteristically bright.
"You're such a woman," Dean said, glancing away.
"You always say that like it's an insult," Sam said. "You know neither of us would be able to handle being a woman for more than a day."
"That's probably true." Dean gave him a mischievous grin. "But think how awesome it would be to have 24-hour access to boobs."
Sam had to fight an intense impulse to hug his brother again, though what he should have wanted was to knock him upside the head. His internal reaction was unsettling on a couple levels.
He shook his head instead, giving Dean a long-suffering sigh and a smile. He rubbed his running nose with the back of his hand and stood up. They were out in the mountainous wilderness in the middle of the night for a reason, after all. They had to get to it before the Grey Man took off for another part of the expansive park and they had to start all over.
"I don't think we should split up this time," Sam blurted when Dean got to his feet.
"Okay," Dean agreed readily. "No splitting up."
That was when Sam realized Dean's eyes held familiar glazed fear. So he wasn't the only one affected by the Grey Man. Of course not. Sometimes it just seemed that he was the only one who ever needed rescuing. He hugged himself with one arm, hoping like hell it looked like he was simply shielding from the cold air and not trying to make himself feel better.
Sam stuck to Dean like white on rice until after they'd dispatched the Grey Man, which turned out to be a straightforward kill when they worked together; the psychological effects were easier to combat when he knew Dean was right beside him. If Dean ever called him on being a pansy, Sam would brush it off, remembering that for the remainder of the night Dean hadn't exactly tried to move further than a foot away from Sam, either.
In fact, probably the only reason they weren't side by side now was that Dean had gone out to get breakfast while Sam was in the shower, leaving a scrawled note to that effect. Sam hoped his brother wouldn't get him pancakes. He didn't really like pancakes anymore. He paced the room, then sat down on his bed for a second. Restless, Sam stood and walked to the window, pulling the curtain back. He got a great view of idyllic downtown Sedro-Woolley, but no sign of Dean. Though he knew it was ridiculous, Sam was getting nervous. There was a café half a block away, and he figured Dean had gone there; the Impala was parked in the street just where they'd left it. How long could it possibly take someone to grab breakfast to go?
He waited another one and a half minutes before he grabbed his jacket and headed out the door. Taking long strides, Sam got to the small restaurant in just another fast minute. He reasoned that maybe Dean had decided to eat his breakfast in, and would bring Sam his afterward; he could eat in the car. He searched the small dining area, and couldn't find his brother anywhere.
"Can I help you, mister?"
Sam spun around, not realizing he'd walked all the way through to the far side of the café in his search. A teenage girl wearing black clothes, with black hair, fingernail polish, lipstick and heavy eyeliner stood behind him with an uncomfortable yet somehow bored expression on her face. She was even wearing a black apron. Her look was intentionally dreadful, but below that intention was probably true angst. Sam had never understood the whole Goth thing, though.
He wanted tell Goth Girl that the world really wasn't such a terrible place, at least not for the reasons she thought it was. He knew what terrible was – being alone even when not alone. Demons and monsters and Dean dead. Sam wanted hug her and tell her that her life would get better as long as she got out of this Podunk town, and stayed away from cemeteries, people with black, white, red or yellow eyes, water, zombies, vodka on an empty stomach, Black Dogs and guys named Jake.
So he did.
"Uh, sir, you are a whole new level of freak. Watch the hands," she said, wriggling to free herself. It took her nearly a minute before she extracted from Sam's hold. She took a giant step away from him with her hands raised, one black eyebrow quirking. "You're here with that other guy, aren't you?"
"Other guy?" Sam asked.
Goth Girl rolled her eyes and beckoned him to follow her. She led him back to the kitchen, where Sam found that, as he expected, Dean had indeed come to the café. What was less expected was that Dean was hugging each of the kitchen staff in turn, apparently as a thank-you for their hard work, especially on the corned beef hash.
"We can't get him to stop," Goth Girl said. She pointed to a man with apoplectic eyes, who gesticulated wildly. "I think Mr. Rhoads is ready to call the cops. Or something. Maybe we'll get lucky and his head'll explode."
"Uh," Sam said, looking at Goth Girl.
"Amanda, can you tell him not to call the police? I'll take care of this."
"Like I'm going to do what to the enormous man who just tried to molest me wants me to do." Goth girl rolled her eyes again, then looked him up and down. "No matter how hot he is. Besides, this is highly entertaining, and I'm getting paid to watch."
Okay, Sam had to admit that was a valid point of view. He twitched with embarrassment, no longer really knowing exactly why he'd hugged her in the first place. Dean's motivation, on the other hand, he totally understood. Dean had love affairs with anything he ate, so it wasn't outside the realm of possibility he'd want to show appreciation.
Or not. Because this was kind of, sort of, completely peculiar.
"Dean," Sam said, approaching Dean as he grabbed the greasy short-order cook by the shoulders. "What's going on?"
Dean startled and looked over his shoulder at Sam. "I'm getting breakfast."
"No, I mean…" Sam waggled his hands toward the short-order cook, who was shifting ever so slightly away from Dean. "Never mind. You pay for the food already?"
Sliding the double-stack of Styrofoam takeout containers off the counter, Sam shot Mr. Rhoads a quick smile. The man responded by spluttering at him in confusion. Meanwhile, Sam saw Amanda was looking on with a big grin on her black-painted lips. Well, at least someone was getting something out of the weirdness.
"Then let's get out of here," Sam said. He looked at the café owner again, "We're very sorry for the disturbance."
They ducked out of the café without a backward glance. Sam swore he heard a girl snicker. Amanda, naturally. He shot Dean concerned looks every once in a while as they walked back to the room. His brother stared ahead, still dazed and confused. Sam knew the second Dean realized what he'd been doing. The tips of Dean's ears turned vibrant pink and he looked queasy. Sam could relate, not that Dean ever needed to know that he'd had his own weird hug-fest back there. Some things, he'd learned recently, were better left unshared.
"It was residual effects from the Grey Man," Dean said as he opened the motel room door. "And really, really good corned beef hash. We don't need to talk about this."
That made a whole lot of sense to Sam.