A/N: LOL, I think this part is even less cracky than the first. I fail at crack. I hope you enjoy it anyway!
The Adventures of Mr. Huggles and Cuddlebear
It wasn't that Dean didn't know there was something wrong. It was that not talking about it or acknowledging it in any way wasn't hurting anything or anyone. In fact, not talking had always been the Winchester Way. Sam failed spectacularly when it came to the Winchester Way and always had, therefore it was better for Dean to never mention the feelings roiling through him with his every waking and resting moment. That would only open floodgates better left shored up. It went downhill rapidly after Washington State.
Truthfully, for a while he had believed it was residual effects from the Grey Man along with his usual memories and guilt and Anna and everything, but mostly about Hell. A person didn't just get over stripping the figurative flesh off of other people's souls.
After a week, though, Dean had known it was more than any of those things. There was a war on inside him, and he was losing ground steadily. Par for the course.
Most of the time, in their line of work, it was easy to disguise his latest problem. He was pretty sure he'd kept it all off the radar. Sam would have tried to talk about it if he'd noticed, the anti-Winchester that he was sometimes. Except for the thing last night, all of his, ah, incidents had been case-related, and it was not a bad thing to offer a hug now and again to a traumatized civilian. Or a kitchen full of great cooks.
But it was mostly the traumatized civilians. Like the woman who'd been kidnapped by fairies in Montana (who knew Montana was a hub for fairy activity?). That hug was legit, as were the handful or maybe dozen others that had happened since then. He and Sam helped an inordinate amount of people, all in varying degrees of shock by the time everything was said and done. Right here in Peoria, the pack of Tiger Cub Scouts had needed hugs after being nearly eaten by the Lenapizka, while trying to earn merit badges; it wasn't strange to comfort little boys under those kinds of circumstances. Really. The pack leader had done it, too.
And for Dean it was perfectly normal to hug the car for being so pretty and faithful.
Speaking of the car, he heard the Impala's rumbling engine half a block away, Sam returning from his first-aid and general supply run. Dean switched the TV on and pretended he'd been watching all along, not sitting there contemplating his embarrassing hug history. He could barely see out of his right eye, and his jaw ached from the wicked punch Barry had landed. He took a quick swig of whiskey before tucking it back into the bedstand drawer.
He snugged his left arm around his rib cage tightly, protecting against the cold air circulating the room, or so he told himself. He also told himself the self-hug helped him feel better, the way he told himself the alcohol numbed the pain. Nothing did, not forever. There was no real reason to expect anything ever would again.
A jostle of keys and the door creaked open, Sam entering quickly. He carried a white plastic bag and a large, brightly colored cup with straw in one hand. His sunglasses disguised swelling similar to Dean's, though around his left eye. The dark glasses did nothing to hide the split lip.
"Hey," Sam said. "I got the new ice packs."
"And I brought you a fruit punch Slurpee."
Dean sat up, interest piqued. He preferred Icees, but this was good also. He was a traditionalist when it came to any kind of frozen beverage. He liked cherry Icees the best. He enjoyed grape Mr. Misty's, or whatever they were called now. And the Slurpee? Fruit punch would always be his favorite, no matter what other flavor was created. A sudden pang went through him. Sam was the only one in the world who knew that about him, or who would ever know that. Sudden thoughts about Sam going bad, the cold darkness Sam had told him about during those four months. It made him want to grab his brother in a tight hug and never let any of the bad shit at him ever again. More than that, he wanted to hug what was good about his brother, as if that could lock it in place.
Dean was across the room before he could think better of it, arms wrapped around Sam.
The plastic bag rustled as Sam took a step back to compensate for Dean pretty much slamming into him. The door shut with a thunk, and Sam exhaled loudly in his ear. For a second, Sam was stiff, and then something thumped into Dean's back. The full bag, he realized, as Sam cautiously hugged him back.
"Uh," Sam said after a moment. "Dean, it's just a Slurpee."
And then there were times, like now, it wasn't so easy to disguise his problem.
Sam's voice snapped him out of it. Dean awkwardly dropped his arms, taking a step back. The floor looked interesting. So did the bag Sam was carrying, and the Slurpee. He took the drink from his brother.
"There's no such thing as 'just a Slurpee', dude," Dean said, sucking enough of the frozen drink down that he got hit with brain freeze three point five seconds later. It hurt like hell, but the face he pulled because of it was as good a camouflage as anything.
"Come on, man." Sam gave a soft snort. "You're not going to tell me that was about the Slurpee."
Something in Sam's voice made him look up, and something in Sam's face made him feel like hugging his brother again. He hated seeing Sam looking like a kicked dog, and he was the only one who could ever erase that look. He used to be anyway. Now Sam had that demon bitch, too, which was wrong on so many levels he couldn't count them. He was right round that circle again, back to Sam, desperate and cold and used. The impulse to hug grew even stronger. What was wrong with him? He knew exactly what.
Dean scrubbed a hand down his face. Setting the Slurpee down, he perched on the edge of his bed. He leaned over, elbows on knees and examining the floor again.
"No, it wasn't about the Slurpee," he said. He took a deep breath, hating that this conversation was about to happen. "Sam, for the past couple weeks, I've been having these … feelings."
Sam was silent, though Dean heard the other bed's springs squeak and the clatter of sunglasses on the nightstand. He manned up and looked at his brother, only to find Sam's face a mask of horror.
"Feelings?" Sam asked, his gaze trailing over to the door and then back over to Dean. "As in feelings, feelings?"
Furrowing his eyebrows, Dean tried to follow Sam's train of thought. He glanced at the door himself, and … oh. "God, no. Sam, that's just not right."
"Hey, you're the one who mentioned feelings after the hug-a-thon hello you just gave me." The corners of Sam's mouth twitched up in the beginnings of a smile. "Seemed like a reasonable, screwed-up conclusion."
Sam was trying to distract him, and it was working. Except behind the mirth in his brother's eyes, Dean also saw something else. He wasn't sure what it was. Gone were the days he thought he had an accurate read on Sam's facial expressions or intentions. It made his gut ache as surely as his days as one of Hell's inquisitors did. It was a different kind of ache, but it ate at him nonetheless.
"Shut up, you dork," Dean said lightly, ignoring the other stuff. Dwelling on it made him feel like shit, because Sam wouldn't be like that if he'd never left him alone. He wouldn't still be like that if Dean weren't so fucked in the head about his time in Hell. "So these feelings I've been having, they're, uh, actually more like impulses. Lately, I've been, uh, inclined to hug people. A lot."
"I noticed," Sam said, his tone equally light.
"It's like I can't control it." Dean pursed his lips. "Wait. You noticed?"
"Dude, the Cub Scouts. And you tried to hug the bartender last night, probably for getting you drunk extra fast with extra strong drinks. Which is something else we need to talk about again, by the way. I know that's where the brawl started."
"You saw that," Dean said.
"Yeah, and I'm guessing Barry Beefcake didn't take too kindly to it, hence your black eye." Sam tilted his head, carrying on much too casually, "And, well, there's also the fact I've kind of been experiencing the same thing."
Dean opened his mouth, but he couldn't think of what to say. He'd have noticed Sam hugging for no good reason. When Sam was a little kid, up until he was eight or nine, he'd been real tactile. Open, and ready to hug him or their dad or the nice ladies at the grocery stores. The older Sam got, the less touchy-feely he became, in spite of always wanting to talk out the angst like a girl. Speaking of, Sam was ignoring the Winchester Way again before Dean could formulate much of a response.
"First there was a girl in the café back in Sedro-Woolley I hugged for no apparent reason. I think she looked sad or something, I dunno," Sam admitted. "It was while you were in the back hugging everyone within arm's length. Then there was Lindy Varnell, that lady the fairies kidnapped to be a surrogate mother in Montana earlier this week. I hugged the crap out of her when you were getting the car. She needed it, man, and don't tell me she didn't. And Lindy's baby Isabeau later on that same night, because who can not hug a baby if she's been handed to you? That was an impossible situation, totally out of my control. I helped an old woman cross the street the other day, and she got a hug also."
Sam stopped talking, mostly to take a breath.
"Wow, that lady in Montana got double-hugged. She must have thought we were nuts. What am I saying? We are nuts," Dean muttered. "You've been busy, Sammy. That everything?"
"Uhm," Sam said, cheeks flushing. "There was also a puppy tied up outside the 7-11 just now. But I'd defy anyone not to hug it if they saw it."
"Puppy," he said.
"I think he was a puggle." Sam ducked his head sheepishly. "They're really cute, and he was making a sad little noise and had a sad little face. He reminded me of you."
"I ain't no puggle, Sam."
Sam shrugged, appearing something like a puggle himself.
Dean had the decency not to mention that. He was torn between being really pissed Sam had kept all this from him and relieved that he wasn't going stark, raving mad all on his own. At least not from the bad case of the hugs, anyway. Now that he knew it wasn't Hell-related, though, there had to be a way to stop it. It was too damned freaky.
"Okay, Cuddlebear, let's think about this." All Dean could do was joke at this point, and if the name fit, well, it fit.
"Cuddlebear?" Sam said indignantly. "That's rich, coming from Sir Hugs-a-lot."
"Because it rhymes with puggle, right? You're so uncreative."
Sam grinned at him. They were getting off track, but for the first time in a while, Dean had no impulse to hug anything. It felt good, bantering like the world wasn't falling apart around them.
"So, we picked up a curse some…" Dean left the thought hanging for a second, catching Sam's eye.
"The waitress in Tulsa," they said at the same time.
It was obvious now. He remembered motherly, lecherous Penny had hummed or something as her hands had drifted dangerously close to his ass. Clearly, that had been some sort of invocation. Dean was embarrassed he hadn't remembered her much sooner, but then his mind was always occupied with more important, depressing things. And the increasingly difficult battle of keeping his hands to himself.
"Why didn't you say something sooner?" Dean stood up, snagging the Slurpee as he walked to the table.
He paced a few steps, sipping the drink slowly. Fruit punch wasn't going to cure his what ailed him. He put the sugar-laced concoction down. When Sam didn't answer, he glanced over and found Sam's attention fixated on the bedspread. His shoulders were rigid.
Sam raised his eyes, which were watery. He gave Dean a similarly watery smile. "I thought since I can't seem to, since you don't want me to… " Sam shook his head. "I thought maybe it was helping you, somehow. It wasn't making things worse, anyway, and I figured it was a run-of-the-mill curse and would wear off eventually."
Oh, man. He'd hated it when Sam gave him that look before, but now? Now Dean couldn't stop himself. He practically ran over to his brother, sitting down and giving him a one-armed hug. Damnit, and Sam didn't mock him or anything. He hugged tighter and gave himself twenty seconds to pull free. It was more difficult than it should have been, because Sam's misery seemed to roll off him.
His brain clicked on an idea. He got to his feet.
"Sam, when you get these impulses to hug something, what are you thinking about?"
"I don't know," Sam said, looking at him wearily. "Where are you going with this?"
"It's just that when I, you know, get all grabby or whatever, it's always just after I've been thinking about the Pit or some other miserable aspect of my life," Dean said, only moderately embarrassed to talk about it now. In for a penny, in for a pound. It wasn't like this would be news to Sam. "And sometimes it's after I'm thinking about you and your, uh..."
Sam seemed at a loss for words, sucking at his lower lip as he thought about what Dean had just hinted at. He looked about as evil-by-demon-contaminated-blood as a kitten.
"She made us self-medicate with hugs," Sam said.
"She said there was nothing in this world a hug couldn't fix, remember."
"Boy, was she wrong about that," Sam said with a crazy laugh. "We have to get back to Tulsa."
Sam was reading his mind. Dean had his things stuffed in his duffel within five minutes, and within fifteen they were on the road.
They'd gotten to Springfield, Illinois without an incident, as Dean liked to call random acts of hugging. They agreed the simplest thing they could do under their current conditions was to keep themselves from thinking about themselves, since thinking about themselves seemed a primary catalyst. That turned out to be easier said than done, considering they had to spend eight or nine hours trapped together in the car on the drive from Peoria to Tulsa. There were only so many topics out there that didn't somehow revolve around them, and that wasn't vanity. What it was, was one of the major drawbacks of having such an isolated existence.
Dean pulled over to fill the car. When Sam was inside the gas station getting snacks (and hugging cashiers, not that anyone needed to know that) and Dean was fueling the Impala, Bobby had called with an urgent cry for help with what he called a confluence of demons. They hadn't heard from any of Dean's angels on high or Ruby, but there was the still the possibility this was a sign of something bigger. Another seal was about to be broken, maybe.
Since a hugging curse wasn't life-threatening, they had switched gears and were in a crappy motel in Dayton, Ohio instead of a crappy motel in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sam and Bobby were alone in the room, Dean on another run to get more holy water. All the fonts in all the Catholic churches in town were practically dry. They could bless water themselves, but for some reason it tended to work better if a priest had done that deed. According to Bobby, they were going to need all the mojo they could get. Barring Sam's psychic thing went unsaid by Dean, but Sam heard it anyway. He always did. It was what made him alone when surrounded by people.
"I wish you'd have stuck with me, kid," Bobby said after they'd sat in silence for ten minutes, only the raspy sound of blades being sharpened filling the room.
Sam blinked at the words, and the way Bobby said them. He didn't have context, but one look at his old friend was all it took for him to understand. That expression was almost identical to the one Dean looked at him with at times. It made Sam feel cold and lonely. Colder and lonelier. Bobby knew about the psychic exorcising.
"Dean told you," he said.
"He told me what he could."
Bobby set the blade he was working on down, pacing by the big picture window instead, like he couldn't look at Sam. He pulled the curtain back every once in awhile, letting in reddish orange light from the setting sun.
"I understand why you didn't stick around, but I wish you would've."
"Sometimes I do, too," Sam said, and that was truth.
But sometimes wishes were impossible. Sam couldn't have stayed. Bobby reminded him too much of Dean. He did even now, though they had Dean back. The old hunter had always been closer to his brother, starting way back when they were kids. So, no, Sam hadn't been able to handle being around him when he knew Bobby had needed him. Bobby had only unintentionally made the hole inside him seem deeper, darker until it was a cavern of nothing.
"He won't tell you, of course," Bobby said, "But Dean's pretty messed up about all of that."
Sam didn't need to hear it from Bobby or Dean to know that. He wore that knowledge like a vest. It weighed him down and made it all the more painful every time he stumbled and fell, knowing that not only did Dean have to concern himself with what he did in Hell, but what Sam had done or might yet do here. Seeing it on Bobby's face now, though, made him want to prove he was still good. That he was still Sam. His brother didn't need the extra baggage, and never had. It killed Sam a little every day, seeing Dean so broken. It was all because of him, in some way or another.
"Dean's pretty messed up about a lot of things," Sam said in Bobby's ear, suddenly hugging him. He didn't remember crossing the room. "A lot of things."
"You both are," Bobby said carefully, but nonetheless hugged Sam back.
Squeezing his arms tighter, Sam couldn't disagree. He just held on. He and Bobby were still in an embrace Bobby probably found uncomfortable when Dean entered the room with two gallon jugs of holy water. Sam finally released Bobby then. Dean didn't say a word about what he'd walked in on. Sam didn't say a word upon seeing tears in Bobby's eyes. And Bobby didn't say a word about either of them being two of the saddest sacks in the known universe. God, they were all three of them messed up.
"Uhm, so I guess you guys weren't kidding about the hugging curse," Bobby finally said.
Dean laughed, shaking his head. "You think we'd tell you something like that if it wasn't true?"
"Good point." Bobby took off his cap and scratched his head, completive expression coming over his face. "I have to tell you, I love you boys like you're my own flesh and blood." He looked pointedly at Sam. "Both of you. But the arbitrary hugging thing is downright disturbing."
"Sam cuddled a puppy in Peoria," Dean blurted as if he'd been holding that tidbit in forever.
Hey, now. That wasn't fair. Sam's hackles raised, which he supposed after a second was exactly what Dean wanted. He returned Dean's smart-assed smile with a sweet one of his own.
"Dean has entered an extremely personal relationship with the car," Sam said, tilting his head all innocent-like. "I had to stop someone from calling the cops on him for lewd behavior."
"Boys," Bobby said, holding up a hand. "I don't want to hear it. Truly. Let's just go do this so you yahoos can get yourselves de-cursed. The world will thank us."
Bobby said there were somewhere between five and fifteen demons congregating in an abandoned house across town tonight. Bobby tended to budget for worst case (it was go big or go home), so Sam hoped that meant the number was actually closer to five. Because as capable as he thought they all were, fifteen against three were never good odds to play, no matter what. He wished they had someone else to call in for back up. He wished, if he were honest, for Ruby and for Dean's jackassy heavenly hosts.
They didn't give themselves time for doubt to set in, packing up the weapons and heading out just after the sun descended below the horizon. The car ride was silent, no last minute planning or speculating. It had taken Sam a while to get it, but he knew now that in their line of work there was such a thing as over-thinking a situation. He'd thought for over a fucking year about how to save Dean, and that had got him nothing but trouble and a demonic bedfellow. No, they'd go in, do what they had to do and be done with it.
When they arrived, he and Dean hung back, readying the weapons and making sure the holy water was easily accessible. Bobby scouted the perimeter of the building, still stealthy after all these years.
"Six of the sons of bitches are inside holding some kind of pow-wow," Bobby said, rejoining them after five minutes of recon.
"That's not so bad. They could be planning something big, though," Dean said, fingering the handle of Ruby's knife. "Any lookouts?"
Sam didn't like the thought of going in with demon-killing knife brandished, and now the sight of Dean toying with it reminded him of that last month, ten years his brother spent in Hell. He hadn't lived it. He didn't have to have – it was written all over Dean's face, in his posture. A flask was thrust in his hand, halting his thoughts as effectively as dumping the holy water over his head would have. That was good. Distraction was the last thing they needed. He took the knife from Dean, and Dean let him as if he knew why Sam wanted it.
"None, the arrogant bastards." Bobby scratched his jaw. "Unless demons come with built-in invisibility features now."
"Wouldn't that just suck," Dean said.
There hadn't been time to mark the ceilings with devil's traps, but Sam wished there had been. Maybe they'd have gotten lucky and caught a few demons that way, at least for a little while. It had been a risk they couldn't take, though, the old building too barren to hide those kinds of markings, and earlier they had no idea of knowing when the demons would arrive. Truthfully, he was nervous as hell he was going to screw up the Latin again. Holy water and handguns would only hold off demons for so long, and Sam didn't have much hope the tarps they had painted with rudimentary trap symbols on would do much good.
"You boys ready?"
He and Dean nodded, following the jerk of Bobby's head like it was an order. Sam hauled a gallon of holy water and his tarp, covering the front while Bobby and Dean circled around back. There were no good side access options. Sam's palms were sweaty as he remembered taking on the Deadly Sins – that had been a struggle even on their own territory, with preparation. Here the preparation was heavily dependent on reactions from the demons. It could get ugly. He had to focus on the element of surprise they had now, and not what they didn't have.
But it turned out they didn't even have surprise.
Dean and Bobby flushed the demons toward him, and Sam did what he was supposed to. He flung the front door open and tossed the tarp, catching two of the demons under it. The remaining four moved in a coordinated effort, which made it clear they'd been expecting the attack. Sam's world was a kaleidoscope of color and sound. He heard Bobby chanting rapid Latin at the two demons under the tarp, voice raising and cracking with strain. He and Dean scrambled to avoid getting dismembered. It occurred to Sam somewhere between flying from the foyer into a larger room, crashing through a wall, that the knife was going to have to be used because he was too busy fighting to remember Latin.
He rallied his energy, staggering to his feet and heading toward Bobby to protect the old hunter. Unsheathing the knife, Sam swung it at a lunging demon, catching the host in the shoulder. It was enough to weaken both host and demon, but not kill. He'd take it, at this point, hoping like all hell they could save some of these poor souls. This time he got through the rite without hesitation or error, and shoved the confused, bleeding civilian toward the door with a shout. He saw Bobby releasing the two people from under the tarp, both relatively unharmed, and flinging the trap onto another demon. The house was filled with shouting and hissing and smoke and gunpowder.
"Sam, behind you," Dean called, barely discernable through the din.
It was loud enough. Tucking and rolling, Sam twisted around so he knelt facing the direction he'd come from. A huge guy grabbed at him, too quick for him to do much but jab the blade forward. He hit the guy in the arm, a shallow cut that did nothing to prevent a strong hand from wrapping around his throat. Choking, Sam slammed the heel of his left hand against the demon's nose, a gush of warm blood slicking his hand. It was stunned long enough for him to plunge the knife in for a kill shot.
Gasping as the demon's hold on his throat relaxed, Sam withdrew the blade with a wince. He was looking into the eyes of the host, the innocent human who didn't deserve to die such a horrible death. It didn't last for much more than a second, the man slumping lifeless to the floor. Sam felt like he'd fallen in a heap right next to him. The ground was shaky, and a dull roar filled his ears. He looked across the room at Dean, lump in his throat. Dean had a strange, blank expression on his face as he took several halting steps forward.
At first Sam thought Dean was hurt, and his world swirled. He couldn't do this again. Sam got to his feet, lurching. The house was quiet, a momentary flash of peace, and all Sam could think was Dean, you can't die on me again. The knife fell from his numb fingers, clattering to the floor. He moved quickly, needing to get to his brother now.
"Boys," Bobby shouted, barely registering in Sam's ears. "Not now, damnit."
They came from out of nowhere when he was just steps away from Dean – two demons that'd either been hidden or were late to the party swooped in between him and Dean. Sam opened his mouth to shout, but it was too late. Dean was oblivious, staring only at him and Sam knew why. The frigging curse. In a blink, he watched Dean get broadsided, crumpling fast and hard.
He took another step toward his brother before he felt something grip his arm and he was spinning the other way. He heard Bobby shouting again, but none of the words made sense. Sam grappled with his assailant, a short, slender woman who should be far too slight to take him out. He fought to get his own punches in or get holy water or his gun. The knife, where was the knife? The sound of flesh hitting flesh and smoke and he was losing the fight. He was losing Dean. His brother wasn't moving. Someone screamed. Him? Bobby. A blow to his jaw rocked Sam back a few stumbling steps. Hot blood ran from his nose.
Instinct kicked in. He raised his right hand and concentrated. The demon started making horrible, wracking coughs but it kept moving. The shouts grew louder. Sam recognized Latin. Sharp, blinding pain in his side, a stitch. He coughed himself, mimicking the demon, stumbling back with his arm still outstretched. Hot, hot heat on the left side of his body. The demon shrieked, head jerking back as dark smoke ruptured out if it. Sam blinked, confused, when the woman let out a little whimper and wilted to the floor in a dead faint.
There was nothing but a hiss in his ears and heavy breathing and Dean lying on the ground with blood trailing from his mouth. Sam wobbled on his feet, unsure of how to do it but knowing he had to get to Dean's side. A hand, helpful this time and not harmful, on his elbow, steering him to his destination.
"Jesus, you two," Bobby said.
Deeper pain in his side. He looked down, stunned to see Ruby's knife sticking out of him, Bobby's other hand holding him up gingerly, shaking.
"Dean," Sam said.
He collapsed to his knees at his brother's side, reaching, leaning, falling. Sam felt his brother breathing more than he saw it, his arm strewn across Dean's back in an awkward replication of a hug. Relieved Dean wasn't dead, exhaustion overwhelmed him and he passed out.
"You all right?"
"It was a scratch, Dean. I'm fine."
Scratch wasn't the word Dean would use. Back in Dayton, when he'd finally regained consciousness in that dump of a house, the first and only thing he saw was Sam with a knife in his side, bleeding all over the place. His skin still grew hot with fear if he thought too much about it, and the impulse to hug his brother magnified despite the pain. Every time Sam favored his left side, which wasn't often because Sam was tougher now, more controlled, Dean had to fight the urge to hug. Quite often he failed. The only thing stopping him now was that they were staked outside the Blue Dome Diner in Tulsa, in a car, and hugging was too awkward.
Shit, like it was ever not awkward. Dean was ready for the damned curse to end. It was what had put them both in a world of hurt. Bobby said they'd got caught unawares because Dean had blanked out and made for Sam with arms open for a hug. It was embarrassing and stupid and it never would have happened on a regular, uncursed day.
"What about you? Doing okay?" Sam asked.
He hadn't come out of it unscathed, with a concussion, bruised ribs and a busted left collarbone – his left shoulder had taken too many beatings lately. All things considered, they were lucky to have come out of it alive. Dean didn't remember the two surprise demons showing up, and he counted that one of his biggest fortunes from that night. He didn't think he could have taken watching Sam get stabbed again, even though, yes, it hadn't been anything like a severed spinal column and near-instant death. He frowned, sneaking a sidelong glance at Sam, just to make sure he was still there.
"Yeah, I'm good," Dean said.
"Right." Sam gave a soft snort. "Of course you are."
Dean wasn't good. Dean didn't know what good was anymore, and Sam knew that. It didn't mean that they had to talk about it. Taking into consideration only the immediate, superficial physical wounds, he was fine. He'd be even finer once they took care of their little curse problem. Hugging with a broken collarbone hurt, and despite their best efforts, neither he nor Sam had been able to restrain themselves all the time.
He wanted to march right into the diner and confront Penny, but wiser heads prevailed. It wasn't like they could talk about curses in front of the general populace and not appear crazy, and they didn't know what it would take to convince Penny to break the curse. It could get unpleasant. Before Bobby's flight home from Dayton had left, he'd made both him and Sam promise not to kill first and ask questions later. It was a promise Dean was starting to regret, as they were fast approaching hour two in the car.
Speaking of, Bobby hadn't been uninjured during the mass exorcism and ultimate death match either, sustaining a dislocated thumb and an array of bruises. Of the three of them, he'd made out the best. Good thing, too, because Dean didn't remember torching the house or calming the survivors by bestowing hugs. The hugs had apparently only made things worse, go figure. Bobby had used his injuries as a very transparent excuse to babysit him and Sam for half a week, and having him around truly did help. It always did.
"I thought you said her shift got over at eight," Dean said, drumming the steering wheel with his right hand.
"It did yesterday when I scoped the place out. Maybe today's different."
"Come on. Where the hell is she already?"
For the first time in a week, he'd been able to drive the Impala. Dean was ecstatic about that, having suffered through Sam's driving all the way from Dayton, but right now he had a dull ache that started in his soul and ended up in his collarbone. He wanted to get this over with. He was tired of waiting, along with being just plain tired and sore.
"I don't know, Dean." Sam sounded cranky, which meant Sam was probably in pain he didn't want to admit to. "Maybe she's got a table that won't leave."
He looked at Sam again, noting the pale cheeks and limper-than-usual hair. The sooner they could get Penny to release the curse, the sooner they could both go back to recuperating. Hug-free recuperating would speed things up. Every time Dean couldn't control his compulsion and ended up hugging, he swore his collarbone was set on fire. But in the back of his mind, he thought maybe he'd miss the hugs. As bizarre and uncomfortable as the past month or so had been, he also felt more human than he had in a long time. Since Anna. Since Hell, really. Thinking of how things would go back to normal, cold and guilty and lonely, he closed his eyes and wished he could reach for the flask in his jacket pocket without eliciting a frown from Sam.
"There she is," Sam said, relief palpable in his voice as he tugged at Dean's right sleeve and pointed.
Yes, there she was. She was recognizable from a distance. Despite the long day spent mostly on her feet serving people, Penny left the diner with a smile on her face. Dean had an inkling she was probably humming as she walked briskly to her car. It made him want to kill her, but, more annoyingly, it made him want to hug her. Damnit.
"Good," Dean said.
The plan was to follow her home, which was edging toward being creepy but Dean didn't care. He tailed Penny's car easily, without any concern about being spotted. Most people didn't expect they were being stalked, after all. Luck was on their side for the moment – Penny didn't make any pit stops, heading straight to her house.
And what a house it was. Various animal and gnome lawn ornaments bedecked the front yard. The shutters of the white rambler were painted pink and had heart shapes carved out of them. For crying out loud, the woman had a chuppah with a plaque across the top of it, ordering everyone who passed by to Let The Sun Shine In. There were flowers everywhere, despite the semi-arid climate.
"Wow," Sam muttered. "She's either so sweet she'll rot your teeth, or she's really, really, really evil."
Dean's gut wanted to go with really, really, really evil, but his heart was saying sweet. The urge he'd had to kill the waitress was fading fast. Rolling himself out of the car, Dean looked up and down the street to make sure there were no witnesses. Sam did the same, then they headed for Penny in a synchronous gait, catching up to her halfway up the sidewalk.
"Hey," Dean said, halting her in her tracks. "Remember us?"
Apparently Penny didn't, because she spun around looking like a plump ninja, arms flailing and eyes flashing. It froze Dean for a millisecond and Sam took a step back, giving her the time to yank something from her purse and aim it right at Dean. Recognition saved him in the nick of time. Ducking as Penny's pepper spray arced toward him, he avoided getting a face full of it.
So much for sweet.
"Stay away!" she cried out. "Help, muggers!"
"Damnit, wait." Dean lifted his arms to protect his eyes from more of the noxious liquid. "Just listen to us. Wait a minute."
He might as well have been talking to a brick wall. Penny wasn't in the mood to let the sun shine in at the moment, apparently. He turned his head to dodge another spray.
Sam finally got moving, knocking the pepper spray canister from Penny's hands and scooping her up like she was a featherweight. A giant hand over her mouth cut off her cries for help, and they rushed toward the door. Sam grunted as the scrappy waitress fought him every step of the way.
Dean snatched her purse, digging around for the keys. He opened the door, letting Sam haul the wriggling woman in first before ducking inside and shutting the door. Some of the pepper spray had gotten close enough to make his eyes water. Squinting, he fumbled for a light switch. The lights came on, and he headed into the house, looking for a bathroom or the kitchen. Kitchen came first. While he flushed water in his eyes, he heard Sam and Penny thunking down the hall after him. He turned to face them as they entered the kitchen, eyes watery.
When Penny actually looked at him, her eyes widened and she stopped struggling. She hung limply in Sam's grasp, feet half a foot off the floor, hair in disarray.
Sam waited until he was sure she wasn't going to maim him if given the opportunity, then set her down. He hunched to the left, arm unconsciously cradling his injured side. In the bright light, he looked paler and a slight sheen of sweat shone on his forehead.
"Oh, I do remember you, handsome," Penny said, breathless. She turned to look at Sam, tutting. "And you, too. My, you're as strong as you are beautiful, aren't you?"
Dean frowned at Sam, who was leaning on the wall, still hunched as if he couldn't stand straight. Seeing Sam in discomfort was enough to trip the hug compulsion, and Dean was at his brother's side in half a second. He guided Sam to the table, sitting down only after he made sure Sam hadn't reopened his wound. His clavicle throbbed with sharp pain. He needed to rest as much as Sam did.
"You boys look awful." Penny nervously played with her hair, trying to get the curls back under control. "What happened to you?"
"You put a curse on us," Sam said, his voice hard and somehow gentle at the same time. "That's what happened to us."
"What? No," she said. Penny looked appalled, her mouth opening and shutting a few times. Tears welled in her eyes and she pressed a hand to her chest. For a second it looked like she was going to deny everything, but their hard stares made her pause and shake her head. "No, no, you're mistaken. I don't curse people. I give blessings to people who need them."
"Maybe under normal circumstances, that would be okay. Good, even." Dean stood, pacing a wavering line. His eyes were still watering. He scrubbed a hand down his face. "But we're not normal. We're in a dangerous line of work. Your blessing just about got my brot … got us both killed."
Looking at the faded bruising around their eyes and the sling Dean wore, Penny blanched. Dean was still angry, but he could see she really hadn't intended harm. That didn't change the facts, though.
"I didn't know it would do any damage. I was trying to help you, that's all," Penny said. "You have to believe me. I could tell how much pain you were both in. It was supposed to wear off once things got better for you. It should have lasted a week, maybe two. That's how long it usually takes."
Dean wasn't sure, but he thought he heard Sam choke; there was a strange hum in his ears. A week. He wished their crummy existence could be fixed in such a short amount of time. It couldn't be fixed in a lifetime, with or without divine intervention. He had his life back, and that should have fixed so much for him and for Sam. And yet they were still stuck in darkness deeper than it had ever been. They'd both become different people, and there was no going back.
"Lady, there's something you don't understand," Dean said, his throat tight. "Things are never going to get better for us."
Penny sat down in the chair Dean had abandoned, lip trembling. She twisted her hands together and nodded; however she managed to know they were candidates for her kind of magic, she also seemed to know Dean wasn't lying.
Fifteen minutes later, Dean and Sam were curse-free and on their way back to the motel, a paper plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies on the seat between them. Cookies weren't pie and they wouldn't fix anything either, but Dean fumbled for them anyway. He peeled the plastic wrap back, grabbing one and shoving it into his mouth. The streets were a blur in front of him, the silence in the car heavy.
He roused when Sam pulled the car into a parking space, letting it idle for a couple seconds before turning it off. Dean got out, but not before he shoved another cookie into his mouth. He opened the door and entered the dim, musty room they called home. The cookie tasted like sawdust.
"Give me one of those before you inhale the whole plate."
Sam eased by Dean. He took the plate of cookies, munching on one. He set the plate on the table, and stood there in the middle of the room, looking dazed. Lost and lonely and empty.
Things felt wrong now. It was like Dean missed the compulsion that had driven him crazy and had gotten the stuffing beat out of him. He shrugged out of his jacket, wincing at the pull on his ribs and collarbone. He sat on his bed, leaning on the headboard and stretching his legs out. He flicked the TV on and pretended he was interested in whatever was on. One of the fourteen million procedural dramas that seemed to be airing these days.
"You don't really think things will never get better, do you?" Sam asked quietly after a couple minutes, still standing there forlornly.
"Sometimes it seems that way," Dean said, answering before he thought better of it. "Sam, with what we go through, what am I supposed to believe?"
"Believe that things will. Believe that this is all for something, man." Sam sat down on his own bed, facing Dean. "If you don't, I don't know if I can, either. And we have to, Dean."
Dean couldn't look at Sam. In his peripheral vision, he saw Sam's eyes glinting with emotion. He knew the exact expression on Sam's face without looking, anyway. He sighed, swinging his legs off the bed. His left knee brushed against Sam's right.
"I'm trying, Sammy. I'll try," he said, and he meant it, because deep down he knew that seeing blackness everywhere could only lead to more blackness. "It's just so damned hard."
"I know it is."
They sat there, the sound of actors doing fake science in the background. Sam shifted, his knee pressing just a little more into Dean's.
"Sammy," Dean said, "You're not about to give me a hug, are you?"
"Maybe I am," Sam said, and Dean could hear the smile in his voice.
Dean found he wouldn't mind all that much if Sam did. It was residual effects from the curse.