Hell's Kitchen, abandoned apartment building
There was no stopping the vicious tilt of the floor beneath Dean. Holding as still as he could, closing his eyes, cognizant that it was neither the hallway nor him moving, just his garbled senses, Dean anchored again at his core. Tightening the muscles along his stomach into unyielding coils, he started to rise away from the tiny blades of glass scattered along the floor, using the wall as a support.
Dean was aware that the demon was watching him move, moreover, allowing him to move. The dreaded anticipation of being thrown back against the wall and pinned or dragged further down the glass-encrusted hallway floor twitched through Dean's every muscle. He had to get to Sam, but he knew there was little chance of making a clean break, which only heightened the sluice of adrenaline.
Sure he's cold as hell by now.
The demon's words about Sam pushed around barbs of ice in Dean's gut. What had happened to Sam? What had this son of a bitch done? All Dean knew about this killer's M.O. was that it holed up its victims in walls. What happened to them before that, Dean didn't even want to venture a sliver of a guess.
What he wanted was Sam out of this hellhole, miles away, unharmed.
"I know what you're thinking," the demon's voice melted through the air, soft, calm, eerily at ease.
"Of course you do," Dean groaned, sinking his body against the wall for a moment to reclaim his bearings. His eyes instinctively sought out room five thirteen from where he was, the door closed, maddeningly out of reach.
The demon was pacing, slow and casual, hands dug deep within his pants pockets. "You're asking yourself: Who the hell is this guy? You've probably never heard of me, have you?"
"Actually," Dean replied, easing away from the wall, moving the opposite way from his attacker, backing toward the room the demon had nodded to earlier. "I was asking myself why is it demons always feel the need to talk me to death. Do I honestly look like I give a rat's ass?"
Dean turned his body slightly, the flask of holy water surreptitiously slipping from his pocket to his hands when he rose from the floor, the wall he'd been using for support doubling as cover. If this thing could read his moves, then it would have done something about it by now, Dean knew. He could tell the demon was more involved with its own ego-stroking. His fingers moved as steadily as he could manage to remove the cap, trying to hide the movement as the tremors played up his arm.
"What did you do to Sam?" Dean asked. "I swear to God if you've…"
"If I've what?" The demon snapped. He moved closer to Dean in simple fluid movements, without fear or hesitation. "Drawn out his intestines like fishing line? Taken off his fingers at the knuckle? Deformed him in some heinous way? Maybe touched him, left my mark on him for the rest of his life? Which," the demon paused, looking at his watch. "Well, hell, I'd be surprised if there was much of that left."
Anger blazed back through Dean with the recoil of a magnum, his body following after like a spring cut loose. The holy water sliced through the air in a scythe-like arc, deeply searing the demon upon impact. Dean didn't stop, lashing out again with another powerful swing of his arm. The demon wailed in anguish, bringing up his hands to try to lessen the blows. Thick steam covered him like fog, and his hands and face blistered instantly under the power of the blessed liquid.
Dean threw himself toward the demon, running him down until he ground its back, shoulders, and limbs into the broken glass on the floor. The shock of his own attack, of hitting flesh and bone and hard wood, kicked up what little was left in Dean's stomach, tunneling out his vision to nothing before images flew back in with splotches like birds' wings crisscrossing his sight.
Unwilling to allow pain to be his weakness, Dean rolled away from the demon, scrambling for the gun he'd dropped earlier. Lowering his shoulder, hand wrapping around the grip, Dean rolled onto his back, bringing the gun up to point.
Dean paused, his vision beyond the nose of the gun wavering. He knew shooting the demon wouldn't stop it, but maybe he could force it to focus on either repairing or rejecting the body it possessed.
These men weren't saints…
Innocent until proven otherwise, whether or not this man was chosen because of his nature, Dean didn't know, and he hesitated. Pulling the trigger was admitting the demons were telling the truth. Pulling the trigger meant playing judge and jury on a potential innocent's life…
Not pulling the trigger meant his life ended, along with Sam's…
Two shots made it into the holy water-weakened demon's host, embedding in the chest with brilliant blossoms of blood. The demon bucked, stumbling back, seemingly deciding to give up the host, falling through one of the open doors, black smoke leeching away in thick plumes from the gaping mouth of the man.
Dean moved through the sludge in his limbs, the thick fog of his mind, and managed a few sloppy steps toward room five thirteen. He missed the dark cloud return, the living mist claw its way forcefully back inside the wounded man. Dean didn't miss the way time suddenly ceased to exist as he was slammed into the door he was reaching for, propelled forward without breath into the dark confines of suite five thirteen.
"Where are you going?" The sickeningly sweet tone of the being enjoying the game returned to Dean's ears. "Sam could have waited for you on the other side. I wasn't done talking with you."
Dean finally pulled in a wet, labored gasp, coughing as he sagged onto his side, positioning himself so he could see the killer. Scenarios of how he could have done things differently screamed through his skull, tearing it apart. He'd screwed up. He should have tried to exorcise the demon first, then find Sam, but desperation had been a blinding companion, and pain a disorienting catalyst.
"Screw you," Dean spat. "I'm done listening to some wannabe serial killer who couldn't hack it." He inwardly winced at the bad and completely unconscious pun.
Mind and limbs scrambling for control again, Dean backed away at a crawl. It was then he registered the smell saturating the apartment, assaulting his nostrils, and threatening a repeat of the digestive pyrotechnics from earlier that evening. Through the haze of dust and dim lighting, Dean could see the places where the walls had been torn out, the acrid smell of rot, decay, and death coming from that direction strong enough to be visible. It smelled like someone had peeled back the lid on the coffin of a freshly buried, dewy corpse.
The demon shrugged. "Not all are welcome in the so-called brotherhood. You can do exactly what they want, exactly how they want, and just because you pick the wrong guy or deviate from the pattern one time, you're out."
Dean's anger was growing with his increasing weakness. Stay with it. Stay alert. Get to your feet and find a way out of this. Fight your way to Sam or you both die. Move. Be stronger than this or you fail him. Thoughts of losing now, after everything they'd been through, helped Dean find his knees, forcing him stand.
"They were my brothers," the demon seemed to lament. "Now they won't even look at me…"
Dean dropped his chin, eyes void of anything other than fire. "Brothers," He shook his head. "You have no idea what that word means! I want my brother back, you twisted sonuvabitch!"
The demon didn't even flinch. He retained his smooth persona.
"I have no idea?" He said almost absently, lip quirking for a beat. "You're here for your brother, I'm here for mine. You took out two of my brothers, I took out yours. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, et cetera, et cetera. Let the vicious cycle continue until everyone's in Hell for all I care. I kill you…Maybe they'll let me in. Maybe I finally get my chance to prove what I can do." He bobbed his head toward the living room. "Stay for while, won't you?"
Like in the alley the night before, Dean's legs were twisted out from under him, and he was pulled by some unseen force into the next room. Limbs leadened as pressure pushed into him, all too familiar, leaving him helpless to lift his head, his arms, or his legs. He was pinned to the ground like he'd been tied down with railroad spikes.
The speakers in the adjacent room came to life again playing an aria Dean didn't recognize. The same soprano accompanied by melancholy violins. Dean grimaced, and then tried again to break his invisible bonds. It only left him more dizzy, panting, becoming more desperate with every minute that ticked by…and he was utterly useless to Sam.
The demon knelt next to Dean, roughly taking hold of his jaw. "You want to know where Sam is so bad? Let me show you."
Inside of Dean's next breath, he was plunged into cold black, his eyes open but unseeing, searing against the biting air that crackled along the surface of his corneas. He couldn't feel anything but ice burning through his skin, his lungs, his bones, settling into his core, removing life from his flesh through the heat bleeding into the greedy dark.
And then he was back, gasping and writhing as warmth returned to what his mind had perceived as cold. Sensation returned, crawling along in sporadic bursts, splinters of pain driving beneath his skin.
"S-Sam…oh, God," Dean broke words past shivering lips. "Oh sh…" Expletives poured out of every lungful Dean could manage, chest heaving in powerful surges as he let the demon know what he thought about him with a ferocity he wished he could put into his fists. Every stuttered breath held a promise.
Dean would kill the son of a bitch.
"My brothers are proud of the ones that never get caught," the demon kept orating as though Dean was a house guest over for Sunday dinner. Its eyes held an entirely different story. Leaning over Dean, the demon studied him with the skilled gaze of a hunter ready to gut a deer. "I was never caught, but I never finished my run. They're very proud of Jack and the Zodiac. I could have been so much better…"
Dean was starting to get that this demon wasn't just buckets of crazy because he was a demon. He wasn't all there even for a demon.
"The Zodiac killer believed those who died by his hand became his slaves in the after-life," the demon continued, running a hand down Dean's chest, along the sternum. "What do you think, Dean? Will you serve me in the afterlife? Is Sam waiting for me there?"
Muscles jumped along Dean's jaw, clamped so tight his teeth hurt. There were no words, only anger manifesting in place of the hopelessness that would consume him if he hadn't sworn his entire life, even in death, to fight until there was nothing left. More terrified than he'd ever admit, he traded his fear in for rage and let that fill him; making him numb, making him deadly if given the opportunity.
He just needed one damn shot.
"I've been curious. How long would it take for a man to suffocate in there, do you think?" The demon asked, nodding up toward the holes in the walls. "Wonder what they'd think? I mean it's not exactly…bloody…"
"Screw your brotherhood," Dean spat. "You're still going to Hell."
The demon sighed like he was bored, but his eyes remained dancing. "You first."
He fisted his hands in Dean's jacket, ripping him up from the floor. Before Dean could try to twist out of his grip, try to stop himself from being thrust backward, he found himself inside the wall, back scraping along brick and mortar, lungs becoming heavy from air that was nauseatingly thick with decay.
It wasn't long before Dean found the source of the gut twisting fumes. Beneath him, like a pile of macabre marionette pieces, were the bodies of the killer's victims in various stages of decay. Dean tried to move, to get away from the limbs his own were becoming entangled in, but struggling only caused him to slip deeper into the pile of viscera and rot. There was something pushing against him every time he gained ground, forcing him back.
Weak from his wounds, head spinning with blood loss and fear for Sam, Dean stopped struggling, and tried to focus on another way out. Fingers digging into his jacket pocket, wrapping around cool, etched metal, Dean took hold of the rosary, his last lifeline, and closed his eyes. Physically he couldn't win this. Not with the demon able to turn his own body against him, to trap him inside it like a prison.
The exorcism rite. How many times had the Latin passed his lips, had his eyes scanned the text? His encounter with the Strangler had caused him to re-read the exorcism a few more times between Boston and New York, in anticipation of future dark alleyway encounters. If ever there was a time Dean wished for the almost photographic memory Sam possessed, it was now.
Dean started into the rite, slow and choppy, his whispers pensive and calculated despite how fast his mind was moving; He tripped up halfway through, clamping the corners of his eyes down tight in frustration. He started over, tongue thick, throat working against bile.
A shadow slipped over him and his eyes fluttered open for a brief moment to see what had taken away what little light there was pouring into the small broom closet-like encasement. The demon stood at the opening, humming with the melody of the music filling the empty spaces of the abandoned apartment, sliding a brick back into place. Dean knew, without question, if he didn't hurry he would be walled in, Cask of Amontillado style.
Crawling up from the darkest recesses of Dean's mind were thoughts of being buried alive again. Lungs tightening with memories of suffocation, his heart gathered again at the base of his throat. No one would come for him this time. The one that had pulled him out of the grave was suffering a similar hell somewhere and Dean couldn't break free long enough to get to him. Somewhere dark, enclosed, freezing…
Like hell it ends like this! Not for Sam. Not for me. Not again. No damn way!
Retreating again inside his mind, away from closing-in walls, from crawling skin, from the sadistic hum creeping through his ears, Dean focused on every time Sam had said the rite, every time he'd heard the words pour from his brother's lips with confident intent. He remembered each word in Sam's voice, heard it echo through his mind and leave his mouth as if his brother were reciting it there with him.
As if a jolt of electricity had passed through the host, the demon jerked a little, confusion making its way slowly down every crease in his face. Another tick in his shoulder sent a quick spasm radiating throughout its torso.
"What are you doing?" The question was posed softly, childlike, filled with the awareness of his error.
Dean felt the demon reach for him, felt invisible tendrils wrap around his throat to silence him, but it was too late. Dean's whispers rasped to an end, overcoming the demon before it could stop him. With a look of shock, the demon stumbled back, the two bullet holes in his chest re-opening and pushing out fresh crimson, spreading the dark stains already there.
Before the body could hit the floor, the demon was drawn out of its dying host. The man's screams tapered off to a death rattle, the darkness scattering from his nostrils and mouth like insects fleeing from light, until there was nothing left.
Reeling, Dean attempted again to lift his battered body from the pile of cadavers he'd almost joined. Grasping for the exit while gagging, Dean took hold of the rough brick edges of the hole and lifted himself from the tomb. Sliding to the ground, Dean ended up on his elbows and knees, forehead pressed into the carpet as he heaved in gulps of air.
A breath gurgled up in a bubble of blood from the fallen man's lips, drawing Dean's attention. There was no way to save him and Dean knew Sam's location would disappear along with the man's last breath. Dean crawled to the man, looking down at the damage he'd caused.
"Where is he?" Dean started, his voice pulling the wide eyes of the dying man toward him. "Please…do you remember where my brother is?"
The man's head lulled to the side and Dean grasped his chin, bringing his face back. "Hey, hey. What did the demon do with Sam?"
Unfocused eyes, staring down nothing, seemed to shine nonetheless above a crooked, bloody smile.
"Cold…as hell," he repeated, drifting.
"No! Dammit! Look at me!" Dean barked. "Tell me where he is!"
"Freezer," the man croaked, a burbled laugh accompanying the word. "It told me he belongs…to me…now…own…his soul…"
The adrenalin kept his knees from disappearing when Dean pushed to his feet, the blood-rush ignored even though it sent pinpricks of light sparking across his vision. The man's glee at what he'd done, what the demon had promised him, drove spikes of cold through Dean's already panic-shocked system. He had to find a freezer, a freezer in a building this large…
Dean tore through the abandoned rooms, bellowing his brother's name, pausing only long enough to reclaim his weapon and listen for movement, for some indication of life. The smell in some of them forced Dean to cover his mouth with the back of his hand and press through the rooms more quickly, eyes ripping through their contents for a freezer, avoiding the holes in the walls.
Sam wasn't in the walls. Sam wasn't dead. He refused to let that thought ride shotgun to his search, to slow him down.
Toward the end of the hallway was what looked like a storage locker, gated off and padlocked. A large meat freezer, locked as well, hummed with life at the back of a dank cinderblock room. Rushing forward, Dean shot off the lock, ripping back the chain-link door to get to what hopefully hadn't become his brother's coffin. Heart hollowing out his chest, he removed the second lock with another bullet, hauling up the lid of the freezer.
Sam, barely breathing, barely shivering, didn't respond to the lid being pried back, to warmer air filtering out the cold. Folded up cruelly within the confines of the five-by-three foot space, skin an almost-blue pallor, clothes and hair stiff with ice, Sam looked dead at first glance, obliterating Dean inside.
Pulling in a breath, Dean moved without hesitation, dropping his gun and grabbing hold of Sam, lifting him with grunts of effort from the icy prison. Sam's clothing had frozen and was caught on the ice below him, snapping free as Dean gathered Sam's almost lifeless form into his arms. Awkwardly and with strength waning, Dean somehow managed to pull Sam with him to the concrete floor.
Resting his back against the freezer, Dean tore off his jacket and drew Sam against him, knees tented at Sam's sides. Dean draped his jacket over Sam's torso and shoulders, cradling him against his chest, and rubbing at his arms, trying to get some kind of life back into them. Sam's head rested against Dean's neck, his cheek so cold that Dean's own flesh burned with the contact.
"Come on, Sam," Dean tried, voice wavering. "You're safe. You're okay now."
Dean could see tears frozen in lines from Sam's eyes starting to thaw on his brother's cheeks. How long had he been in there? Had he drifted as the cold took him under, thinking that this was it, that there was no way he'd make it out of this alive? Had he thought Dean wouldn't come for him?
Stubbornly, Dean shook his head, chin rustling across icy tendrils of frozen brown hair. Sam would have known better.
Measuring his breaths, waiting for Sam's to deepen, Dean continued to use his hands to generate heat, willing his own body's warmth to be enough. The cold of Sam's back against Dean's stomach and chest started to take on a heat of its own, the chill finally ebbing away, taking from Dean.
"Sammy, come on, give me something here," Dean pleaded, taking Sam's hands between his and rubbing them. "This…this is nothing…" he continued. "Don't tell me you survived crashing in some arctic wasteland just to freeze your ass to death in New York City."
Dean's throat tightened. This time not against bile, but against the burning that began as a crowding weight behind his eyes, causing his vision to blur. Sam's ribs where rising against Dean in breaths too shallow. Pushing Sam's now-damp bangs back from his face, Dean dropped his chin onto Sam's shoulder, wrapping him closer.
Memories of shattered ice, breath-stealing cold, and freezing water broke over Dean. He'd held his brother like this before when they were younger. Dean could remember him crying, could remember how scared he'd been, how he had to talk him through breathing.
"Breathe slowly…you're safe…It's okay. You're okay now." Dean replayed his words from that day.
Sam's shivering increased, his breaths coming in more normalized huffs. Dean felt his brother's weight shift, a groan finally breaking the silence.
"Yeah," Dean replied, the constricting bands around his heart loosening.
"Kn-knew y-you'd come…"Sam breathed.
Dean turned his head, bringing up his shoulder to destroy the moisture gathered along his lashes. "Dammit, what else would I have done?"
"Knew y-you wer-weren't dead…"
Dean ignored the few hot tears he felt slip down Sam's face, shifting away the frosty remnants of his recent frozen moments. After this, his brother was entitled. Dean wouldn't say anything.
"I don't go down that easy," Dean reassured him.
"Are you…c-cuddling w-with me?" Sam asked.
Dean smirked, laughing lightly in spite of everything. "I swear to God if you tell anyone about this…" He didn't let go. Wasn't going to until Sam's color came back. "My brother the freakin' popsicle." Dean muttered, getting a small laugh from Sam in return.
Managing to get Sam back to the Impala, both of them struggling to stay standing, Dean folded Sam into the back seat. Dean gathered everything they had from hoodies to jackets to hotel room towels and blankets they'd swiped, wrapping Sam in a cocoon of warmth, protection and worry. His brother couldn't move by the time Dean was done.
Reassured when Sam's shivering lessened, Dean collapsed across the front seat, back against the passenger side door, legs spread out. The heat from the vents in the front poured over him, making him sweat. Finally able to come down from his adrenalin high now that Sam was safe, seeing for himself that Sam was alive, Dean recognized that he was hurting. Bad.
His phone was blinking on the dash. Bobby had tried to call. Listlessly, Dean grabbed the phone, dialing their friend who was no doubt frantic by this point.
"Dean… thank God." Bobby's voice held no reservations from his fears for them. "I was about to head out there, had everything ready to go."
"We're okay." Dean shrugged, trying to keep the weariness from his voice. "Sam's a little frosty, and I've got one more scar. We'll live."
"It's gone?" Bobby asked.
"Yeah," Dean left out the details about how he'd taken care of the second serial killing-demon in New York. Although Sam's eyes drifted Dean's way carrying the question, Dean, barely holding himself together, wasn't in the mood to discuss the fact that he'd shot a man.
"We'll be a while getting to Chicago," Dean added, wondering himself if going was the best idea. Their track record thus far wasn't exactly in Sam's favor.
"Don't," Bobby sighed. "We can handle Gacy's demon. You two need to rest. Dean, I don't know what injury you're feeding me bull to cover up, but you take care of yourself and your brother."
Dean looked at Sam, saw the way his eyes had narrowed down to determined slits.
"Okay, Bobby. Hey, hold on, I'll call you back…" Dean shut the phone, curious about Sam's darkened expression.
"No," Sam spoke up, lifting his eyes. "I want to go to Chicago."
"We have to see this through, Dean."
"You've been strangled and thrown in a freezer, Sam. You want to try that kind of luck against the Killer Clown? I won't risk it."
"It's not up to you. Jesus, Dean, look at you! You've been shot, and don't tell me the demon didn't find a few walls to throw you into."
Dean scoffed, shaking his head. "It was a graze."
"You look like crap."
"Is that so, Iceman?"
"This is within our reach, Dean. Boston, New York, and Chicago. I won't do nothing."
"You know me, Sam. Point me in the direction of a fight and I'm there, but…"
"Dean, I'm going. No one else should have to suffer."
Dean nodded slowly in understanding, jaw taut. He wanted to see an end to this too. The Cruor Frater needed to know it didn't get to screw with people's lives.
"Time for me to face my coulrophobia," Sam smiled weakly in an attempt to put Dean's mind at ease.
Dean smirked before closing his eyes and leaning his head back into the window. "God, we're masochists. Maybe after this we'll at least be able to go inside a McDonalds."
Chicago, Des Plaines Community Park, two days later
"Y'know, I read that some lady doctor named Morrison actually took Gacy's brain… tried to find something in it that made him… different."
Sam cracked the shell of a salted peanut between his fingers, blinking his eyes to the side to study his brother. Dean was pale. The dark, crusted-over gash on his forehead was flanked by purple and yellow bruises, and his hands trembled slightly as he reached into the peanut bag on the bench between them.
"You okay?" Sam asked softly.
Dean frowned, his eyes on the sidewalk crack that slid through the concrete to bisect the ground beneath his feet.
"You don't think that's weird?" Dean pressed.
"Sure, it's weird," Sam allowed.
"She didn't find anything, though," Dean sighed, lifting his head and allowing his eyes to fall closed as he rolled his neck, exhaustion rolling from him in near-visible waves. "Maybe he didn't have that…spark."
The air around them pressed close with unseasonable warmth. Indian summer took hold of the river-sour air and made one last gasp at dominance before winter's chill could capture the city. Bobby had strategically positioned them at the entrance to the park; easy access to the road and a good vantage point for the birthday party they were scoping.
"Also read where it took eighteen minutes by lethal injection to kill him—didn't work the first time," Dean shook his head. "That's messed up, man."
"Think it's fitting," Sam shrugged.
Dean raised an eyebrow in Sam's direction.
"The guy raped young boys, tortured them, then buried them in his backyard, man. He said that his house was an…unofficial cemetery, for Christ's sake. Shoulda killed him three times."
"Bloodthirsty little bastard, aren't you?" Dean said appreciatively.
"You try being folded up in a mini-coffin for a few hours and tell me how generous you feel."
"No thanks," Dean sighed, a slight tremor snaking through his shoulders. "Been there, done that."
"You up for this, Dean?" Sam let the concern filter through his gruff voice, the marks on his neck from the Strangler receding to yellowish bruises, the internal wounds slower to heal.
Dean tilted his chin in Sam's direction, but didn't rest his eyes on his brother, choosing instead to scan the crowded picnic area across from them. "Hey, you're the one that wanted to come to Chicago," he said, not really answering.
Not at your expense… Sam shifted, popping a peanut into his mouth and rolling his tongue over the smooth surface, sucking away the remnants of salt. Dean felt…thin to him. As though too little of him were trying to cover too much space. Watching his brother's jaw muscle bounce in concentration, Sam felt reality tip with vertigo as he imagined Dean simply fading away in front of him.
A squeal of delight brought his head around and Sam watched the group of children and adults cluster around a large sheet cake.
Dean nodded. "Looks like."
"Thought Gacy liked 'em older," Sam mused, glancing at his brother.
Dean's sharp eyes caught on something in the melee of celebrating family across from them. Frowning, Sam followed his eye line. A dark-haired boy of about eighteen stepped up behind the six-year-old, picked him up and tossed him in the air to the child's delight. Sam felt ice form around his stomach and he shivered.
The slight motion pulled Dean's attention.
"You warm enough?"
Sam sighed softly. "I'm fine, Dean."
"Don't get all…huffy," Dean grumbled, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, fingers peeling away the peanut shell and tossing it to the pile on the ground. "You were like two minutes from extinction a couple days ago."
Sam ran his tongue across his bottom lip, dark images of those hours trapped in the freezer rolling behind his eyes. "Yeah, well, I'm okay now," he replied, looking at the still-red tips of his nearly frostbitten fingers. He'd never been that cold. That…trapped.
"Is that what it was like for you?" Sam couldn't look at his brother, couldn't tear his eyes from the smiling faces full of innocent unknowing.
He felt Dean shift with the weight of his frown. "What what was like?"
"Being… being trapped… in that, uh, coffin."
Dean's air vacated his body through his nose and he stood, pressing the backs of his legs against the bench. "Wondered how long it would be until you brought that up."
"Can't really blame me."
"No," Dean shook his head slowly, his eyes wandering the open space between the parking lot and the covered picnic area. "I guess not."
"You were, uh… well, we both were…"
Dean pivoted, his eyes a balm on Sam's anxiety. "I always knew you'd come for me, just like you knew I'd come for you."
Sam simply nodded.
"It's what brothers do, Sammy," Dean shrugged, his voice dancing on the current of breeze that shifted Sam's bangs across his forehead. "You gotta be a little…twisted to do this job. Live right on the edge…"
"No kidding ," Sam chuckled ruefully, glancing down. Dean's voice pulled his eyes back up.
"But you're never alone on that edge, man. I'm always right there with you."
"Goes both ways, brother."
Dean reached up and reflexively rubbed at the back of his neck. "I know," he replied.
He dropped his hand from his neck as if it weighed a hundred pounds, and Sam handed him the can of Red Bull that was resting on the bench behind the bag of peanuts. Dean took it, nodding his thanks, then gulped half the contents. Sam shook his head. Dean was running on empty but refused to stop. Because of him. Because he had to prove that they could get this last one.
The drive from New York to Chicago should have taken over twelve hours. Dean had made it in ten fueled on caffeine, music, and nightmares. Sam had slept for most of it, unable to keep his beaten body from searching for the recuperative power of oblivion.
But once they'd found Bobby, Sam had expected Dean to drop, to rest, to allow someone else to be in charge. He should have known better. Dean was on a mission of vengeance and nothing or no one was going to get in his way. Not even his own trembling body.
A slide of a rain slicker against the privacy fence behind them caught Sam's attention. He shifted on the bench, looking over his shoulder.
"You boys hanging in there?" Bobby's voice came at them from the other side of the fence. Sam couldn't see him, but simply knowing he was nearby was reassuring.
"We're fine," Dean answered for them. "Everyone else in place?"
"Yep," Bobby replied, a question on the edge of his voice. "Dean?"
"We're fine, Bobby," Dean repeated, sitting heavily on the bench next to Sam.
Bobby didn't reply and soon Sam felt him move away, back to the perimeter walk he'd assigned himself. Bobby had narrowed the Gacy copycat down to one possibility: a man who worked birthday parties as a clown. Since the incident with the sicko wall killer, two more bodies of young men had been found partially decomposed in the Des Plaines River, showing evidence of rape and torture.
Dean had given Bobby everything they had on the A pattern, hoping it would help the older hunter narrow down the search before they arrived in the Windy City. They'd been greeted with a gruff smile, warm eyes searching their battered bodies, a swig of whiskey, and two security uniforms.
"We have one day," Sam recalled Bobby's prediction. "One day before he strikes again, if he sticks to pattern."
"Pattern is key with these guys," Dean replied. "You break pattern, you're out of the gang."
"You call anyone about the bodies in the apartment building?" Bobby asked.
"Left an anonymous tip," Sam answered. "Not much else we could do."
"How many were there?"
"Too many," Dean replied, a shiver of horror coursing through his tight shoulders. "Too damn many…"
Two other hunters had appeared at Bobby's side in the small space of the dingy motel room, surprising Sam and putting Dean on instant alert. He had stepped slightly in front of his still-frosty brother, his wavering stance hardly a threat to the imposing figures, but his action nonetheless recognized and respected.
"Sam, Dean," Bobby calmed them. "This is Tucker Hawkins and Seth Walker."
Sam waited until Dean reacted, unconsciously following his brother's cues. Dean simply looked back at them.
"They're gonna help us trap Gacy."
"Why?" Dean demanded.
Bobby's smile had been dangerous but encompassing. "Demons aren't the only ones with a brotherhood, boy."
"Sam. Earth to Sam. Sam Winchester wears women's underwear."
"Only on Christmas," Sam replied, pulling his eyes from the middle distance to his brother's face.
"Can you believe he actually works as a clown?" Sam said, standing and arching his back, hands pressed to the hollow space created by the curve of his spine. He ached.
"Don't give these guys many points for originality, dude," Dean sighed, adding more peanut shells to the pile at his feet.
"I wonder if…" Sam paused, chewing his lip, looking down at Dean, thinking.
"I thought we already had this 'dramatic pauses' conversation?"
Sam took a breath. "What if whatever a demon does when it possesses you… what if it doesn't leave a mark? I mean, what if there's no way to know?"
Dean glanced up at him with narrowed eyes. "What are you getting at?"
Sam shrugged. "Just that… I mean, there are all kinds of freaks out there, man. Child molesters, cannibals, people that could kill five ways from Sunday without blinking an eye."
"Great, Sam, now I'll never sleep at night."
"It's more than just the monsters we know about, Dean."
"And your point is…"
"What if they're all demons?"
Dean shook his head. "No way."
Sam sat down, shifting to the side for a better view of Dean's stubborn profile. "You're telling me you'd rather believe that people actually do this crap to each other than believe that they are possessed when it all occurs?"
Dean threw his peanut down, tenting a hand on his knee and jerked his chin toward Sam, his green eyes hot. "No, Sam. I'd rather believe that humans are good. That they are the reason we fight all this shit day in and day out. That they deserve to be saved."
Sam blinked, swallowing.
Dean waved his hand toward the family picnic and Sam glanced over, watching the birthday boy chase a dark-haired girl in pigtails, trailing a red balloon behind her. She shrieked with laughter, slowing just enough to let him get close, then speeding up to circle the legs of a tall, smiling woman.
"I want to believe that people are accountable. That they make choices and stand by them and pay for them…that humans are different from demons. That they matter, dammit. Because if they don't…" Dean's lips pulled tight across his teeth in a reflexive motion of pain. "If they don't then all that we've done is… it's for nothing, Sam. And I can't handle that. I can't live with that."
"Okay," Sam said softly.
"I mean it, man," Dean turned away, breathing a bit rapidly.
"I know," Sam started to reach out, wanted to touch his brother's shoulder, to reassure him with contact that his desperate words hadn't fallen on deaf ears, but he froze, his hand in mid-air, his breath stilled on the cusp of his lips. "God," he whispered. "He's here."
Dean reacted instantly, squaring his shoulders, his chin tucking low to his chest, keeping his eyes up and tracking the entrance of the clown that had stilled Sam so completely next to him. Sam's got a point…anyone who covers their face with a false smile is hiding something…
"Tell me that's not creepy as hell," Sam whispered beside him.
"Take it easy, Sammy." Dean kept his voice measured, his eyes on the clown. "Take it easy."
Sam mumbled something that sounded a bit like you take it easy, but Dean ignored him. He darted his eyes to the fence line of the picnic area, searching for Bobby, Tucker, and Seth. He saw Tucker's large, Lou Ferrigno-esque physique lounging on a bench to their left, a paper opened and unread in his meaty hands. Seth was pacing on the other side of the park, puffing a cigarette like it was oxygen, and looking toward the parking lot as if he were waiting on someone.
The clown proceeded to set up a table of magic tricks, delighting the children with flowers pulled from sleeves, balloon-shaped animals, and coins found behind ears. Dean could feel Sam's tension building with each passing moment and found himself reacting to it. Dean's weary body coiled tightly as he absorbed the panic rolling from his brother's exhales and he felt his heartbeat behind his eyes where it had resided since the .44 caliber bullet had added to his already impressive resume of battle scars.
Only when he caught Bobby's dark blue eyes on the other side of the fence near Tucker did Dean begin to breathe easier. They were ready.
"What the hell is he doing?" Sam muttered.
Dean shot his eyes back to the clown. A woman with close-cropped dark hair was handing him a check, smiling her thanks and herding children out of his way. The clown turned, tucking the check into his loose pockets, and grabbed the arm of the eighteen-year-old, obviously asking for help with his supplies back to the parking lot.
"He found his mark," Dean whispered, tensing to move forward.
Sam caught his arm. "Wait."
Dean glared at his brother, heat rolling down the back of his neck, chilling him with almost-blind rage. "What the f—"
"A public exorcism doesn't exactly work in our favor, Dean," Sam hissed. "Just, wait."
Dean took a breath, wrenching his arm from his brother's grasp, knowing he was right. And hating it. He watched in disbelief as the boy nodded naively and helped the clown lift the supplies he'd very easily carried to the picnic area alone not thirty minutes ago. Sam stood as they approached the opening to the lot, and as soon as the duo passed them, Dean joined him, ignoring the warning sign flickering at the corners of his eyes, the tell-tale tremble in his hands, the skip of his heart.
His body was weakening. Failing him. His last line of defense against the darkness of the world was backsliding. No…not yet… just one more… we've got one more.
"Dean?" Sam's worry was evident in his voice and the gentle way his fingers closed over Dean's arm.
"C'mon," Dean stepped forward, compelling Sam to follow. "They'll get too far ahead."
The van was hiding out of sight from the street and the park. It was so stereotypical that Dean almost laughed. Black, non-descript, windowless except for the very front, it screamed suspect me. Dean and Sam followed at a distance, their eyes never leaving the boy, watching as the clown slid the door open, then turned, reaching greedy hands for the boy's shirt.
"Bobby!" Dean called, sprinting forward, mindless of the superior strength he was about to encounter.
"Dean! Dammit!" Sam cursed. "Bobby!" He echoed the plea for help.
The boy, for his part, realized a fraction of a second too late he was in trouble and had slapped his hands against the opening of the van, trying to resist the thrust of the clown's forward motion.
"Get your hands off of him, you son of a bitch," Dean growled, filling his hands with the loose folds of material the clown wore. He pulled back and wrenched the killer away from the boy, who slumped to the ground outside the van, dark eyes wide and scared.
The clown stumbled, turning, then smiled. Dean went cold, seeing the complete blackness in the clown's blue-rimmed eyes.
"You can't have him," Dean spat, pushing the demon roughly, backing him away from the van, herding him.
"Who needs him," the demon cooed, his voice like spoiled syrup. "When I have you?"
Dean blinked in surprise. He had expected platitudes and curses. He had expected an escape attempt. He'd expected a fight. He didn't expect to be pulled close to the clown, strong arms wrapping tightly around him, a hand at the back of his head, sliding around to cup his jaw, a painted mouth descending to caress his cheek and chin with fetid breath.
"Oh, you gotta be kidding me," Dean gasped.
"You're much more my type anyway," the clown literally growled, evil turning his voice into one of death.
Dean twisted his head away, working to get his hands between his body and the soft folds of cloth encasing the demon-possessed clown. Where the hell is Sam?
"Go," he heard Sam gasp. "Go on, get out of here."
"I'm gonna call the cops!" The boy's voice wavered with disbelief and panic.
"Whatever, fine," Sam encouraged and Dean heard scuffing on the cement near him. "Just go!"
The clown gripped Dean's shoulders, spinning him around, and pressed him close so that the gloved hands were clasped across Dean's chest and he could see his brother's frantic eyes asking him to fight him, Dean, fight him, get away!
"I'm gonna…freakin'… kill you…" Dean breathed, but the clown's grip was too strong, too tight, and his body was shaking, quaking with the need to breathe, to survive, to win.
Dean felt the slick smear of grease paint slide down the side of his cheek as Gacy's copycat stroked him with his jaw. His skin literally crawled as the embrace tightened. He could feel the length of the clown's body beneath the loose-fitting clothes, and what he discerned there made him want to gag.
Gacy took a step back toward the van, pulling Dean with him. Dean shifted, lifting heavy hands to try to push the clown's arms away, but was only held tighter.
"I knew you would find me soon enough," the clown chuckled, mania edging out reason. "My brothers have a network, you know."
"Swell," Sam stepped forward, his eyes never leaving Dean's. "A demonic chat room."
Gacy nodded, his cheekbone rubbing against Dean's temple, smearing more paint.
"So why did you even try?" Sam said, moving forward again, forcing Gacy back another step.
"The thirst is stronger than caution," Gacy replied. "And I always get what I need," he informed Sam, keeping his eyes on the younger hunter as he turned his lips toward Dean's face, running the tip of his tongue along Dean's cheek.
"Sam—" Dean wheezed. "Waste the sonuvabitch…"
Sam's eyes turned frantic and Dean tried one last time to surge forward. "Kill. Him."
Gacy reached for the handle of the van door and jerked in surprise when the vehicle screeched away down the block, Seth at the wheel. The departing van revealed Tucker standing in the middle of the street watching, thumbs hooked in the leather of a silver-adorned belt.
Sam pulled a handgun from its hiding place in his waistband and pointed it at Gacy.
"You're not gonna shoot," Gacy stated.
Dean would have grinned at the cocky attitude sparking from Sam's eyes if he weren't having such a problem focusing. The world wavered, clarity once a companion, now an ex. He felt his lips start to grow numb as oxygen, too, seeped away and the buzzing in his ears began to drown out the taunting comments of the clown currently breaking him in half with the strength of his grip.
Okay, you're right, Sammy. Clowns kill…
"You're not gonna shoot with your brother right here," Gacy mocked, shifting Dean's shaking form directly in front of him. The clown bucked against Dean once and Dean bit the inside of his cheek to keep from groaning in pain and denial, knowing it would only fuel the demon's fire.
"Let him go," Sam demanded, cocking the gun.
"That won't kill me," Gacy laughed, twisting his hips against Dean's backside, his lips rolling up into a sick smile. Dean focused on Sam. Pulling his brother's determination close to him, keeping tendrils of air from escaping, keeping on the razor's edge of alertness.
"No," Sam lifted a shoulder. "But it'll hurt like hell."
"Tell you what, boy," Gacy said, and slid a hand from his grip around Dean's chest to grab his throat at the base of his chin. "You tell your bodyguard there to back off and I'll let you watch what I do to your brother here."
"Let. Him. Go," Sam repeated, stepping forward.
"I'll let you watch as I strip him," Gacy continued. "Let you hear him scream as I take him, maybe even let you see the light leave his eyes…"
"You aren't going anywhere."
Dean almost sagged against the clown as he heard Bobby's declaration behind them. Gacy whipped around, dragging Dean's limp form with him, forcing Dean to stand or feel more of the clown then he'd ever want to again.
"Who's gonna stop me, old man?" Gacy cackled.
Bobby met Dean's eyes, then blinked back up to stare at the clown. The buzzing in Dean's ears spiked as Gacy held him tight enough to crack bones in his chest. Bobby smirked, then raised a small, hand-held black light to reveal the Devil's Trap painted in Clearneon on the sidewalk beneath Gacy's feet.
"No," Gacy breathed.
"Told…you…" Dean wheezed, unable to catch himself as Gacy suddenly shoved him away.
As he slammed against the cement, several things happened at once, all glancing off of Dean's muted senses like bugs on a windshield. Large hands grabbed him and dragged him across the cement. Sam's voice echoed through the sound of bees trapped against glass that filled his head. And above all, a hate-filled growl permeated the late afternoon air.
"Don't ignore the spark, boy!" Gacy yelled.
Sam's voice rose, the exorcism rite ringing true in his hard-edged tones.
"Everyone has it!"
Like hell… Dean thought blearily, grabbing the legs in front of him and allowing the same large hands that had pulled him to safety to help him stand. He swayed, shaking the fuzz from the edges of his vision, and looked at his brother. Tucker's hand rested on his shoulder, steadying him as Dean drank in the freedom of breathing without constriction.
"The brotherhood will know what you've done!" Gacy shrieked, writhing as he fell to his knees inside the invisible trap. "The brotherhood always knows."
Sam ignored him. Dean felt his lip curl in contempt, closing the space between himself and Sam until he could feel the heat from his brother's anger seep into him. Seth materialized next to Bobby.
"There's…too many! We are too…powerful!"
Gacy fell to his side, screaming insanity. Bobby stepped forward, into the Devil's Trap, kicking at the clown's trembling form to turn it over onto its back.
"You don't know what a brotherhood is," Bobby spat as the plume of black smoke expelled from the possessed man's mouth, darkening the skies above them for a moment before flashing a lightning of purple and blue and cracking into nothing with an ozone-filled pop of finality.
In the silence that followed, sirens could be heard in the distance.
Dean realized he was gasping for breath, that Sam was panting, that even Bobby's shoulders moved with the rapid-fire breath brought on by battle. He started to turn and realized that he knees had disappeared. Sam seemed to feel him sag and turned quickly, catching him mid-collapse and holding him gently against him.
"Hang onto me, Dean," Sam said softly, pulling Dean's limp arm over his shoulder. "I got you."
Dean nodded, reaching up with his free hand as he used his brother's strength. He clumsily wiped at the white grease paint that cast a memory like a bad taste in his mouth. He wanted to get clean, to scrub himself until he could feel his skin hum like the buzz that was fading in his ears. He wanted to be rid of this hunt, to be free of the stench of ruined humanity.
He wanted to sleep.
"You still with me, Dean?"
"You did good, Sammy," Dean muttered, trying to pull his remaining strength into his voice, trying to reassure his brother they were okay. "You did good."
"We better get outta here, boys," Bobby said, stepping over the babbling form of the exorcised man playing with the poufs of red tassels on his white clown costume and giggling to himself. "Five-oh is on the way."
"Right," Sam nodded, shifting Dean against him, trying to turn him. Dean attempted to take back his own weight, but he was still shaking too badly.
"Here," said Tucker, uttering the first word either brother had heard from him since Bobby had introduced them. "Let me help."
Sam nodded gratefully and Dean allowed him to sling his other arm across his sturdy shoulders, leading the way back to the lot and the waiting Impala. Bobby and Seth followed closely behind, barely missing being seen by the boy leading the cops to the site where he'd almost been kidnapped.
"Gacy had a point, Bobby," Sam said as Bobby opened the passenger door of the Impala. He ducked his head from under Dean's arm as he and Tucker lowered the wounded hunter to the dark leather seat.
Sam nodded, crouching down in front of Dean, meeting his brother's weary, knowing eyes. "If this brotherhood is worldwide…"
"We got it covered, Sam," Bobby assured him.
Sam mirrored Dean's confused expression as the brothers searched Bobby's face. Bobby nodded in the direction of the two quiet hunters that had helped trap Gacy. Both were on cell phones. Both speaking different languages. Sam blinked.
"Wow," he said appreciatively.
"You two are coming with me," Bobby said. "No arguments."
"Bobby," Dean rasped, his voice barely audible, his eyes hooded. "You hear from Dad?"
Bobby pressed his lips together and looked away. "Not in awhile."
"Sam," Bobby instructed. "You follow me."
"I will," Sam nodded, still watching Tucker and Seth inform their contacts about the serial killers' return.
Pulling his attention from the hunters, Sam closed the passenger door, smiled quietly as Bobby squeezed his shoulder, then headed around the car to the driver's side.
"Hang in there for a little longer, man," Sam said, starting the car. "We're almost…"
"Almost what?" Dean asked.
Sam tried to laugh. It came out sounding like a sob. "I was going to say home."
Dean closed his eyes. "We are home, Sam."
Sam looked over, the feeling of watching Dean fade lingering in the silence. He turned on the radio, spinning the dial in search of distraction as he followed Bobby's rusted blue and orange Camero past the picnic area and out onto the main highway. A familiar, rugged voice spilled through the speakers and Sam sat back, listening to the music mingle with the reassuring sound of Dean's breathing.
"We gotta call him," Dean said finally.
"With the Devil in the world… evil's got an upper hand," Dean said, pulling the edge of his shirt sleeve over his hand and rubbing at his paint-stained face.
"But we beat it," Sam pointed out, rocking forward with the heartbeat of the music.
I only know that I can change
Everything else just stays the same
So now I step out of the darkness
That my life became 'cause
"We'll keep beating it," Sam predicted.
"For how long, Sam?" Dean closed his eyes, leaning his head back. "How long until we're… tainted?"
"We just… we keep our karma close," Sam said helplessly. "We remember…"
So where were you
When all this I was going through
You never took the time to ask me
Just what you could do
He sighed. "You want to call him, or should I?"
"You call him," Dean said. "You call him, Sam."
"We won, Dean, don't forget that, okay?" Sam glanced at his brother. "We saved that kid today."
"Yeah, Sam," Dean sighed. "I'm just…"
But I never meant to fade - away
I never meant to fade
"I know," Sam whispered. He heard the weight of weariness. The need to have made a difference, to have sought out this hunt and put them both at risk having been worth it was overpowered by the reality they were only human and therefore vulnerable, breakable, fallible.
"One at a time, man," Sam said.
Dean nodded, agreeing. "One at a time."
They followed Bobby into the night, searching together for a moment of peace, and hoping for the balance of karma to swing back in their favor.
A/N: Thank you for reading Devil Inside. For some of you, we know it was for the second time and we were thrilled to see you again. We appreciated all of your thoughts and support through the first round and now. It's always a joy to hear from you guys. The Great Gig in the Sky will be posted up this week, and look for Gaelic's VS stories in the near future: Devil Game, Suffocate, Unseen Heroes, and Midnight Clear. Take care, guys!
Music: Fade Away by Staind