Disclaimer: The boys belong to Kripke and the CW; the love belongs to us.
Beta'd: By Carocali who helped me clear up the rough spots and Muffy Morrigan who helped me brain storm a certain section…twice. Many thanks, ladies!
I tinkered and played after these talented authors provided feedback, so as usual, any and all remaining errors are mine and mine alone.
Dedicated: To Phx, as a late birthday/Christmas story. Thanks for being such a great friend.
Time Line: Sometime after Heaven and Hell.
…………..……………………………………..God, Grant Me the Serenity………………………………………………….
He shouldn't be driving. Sam glanced over at his brother. He hadn't noticed the signs until they were already on the road, headed from the bar where Dean had successfully hustled three hundred dollars in a game of pool, to the motel. The symptoms were staring Sam in the face: the slight tremble in Dean's hands, the way he kept blinking hard against the lights of oncoming cars, and the slight odor of beer that seemed to be coming from Dean's pores.
Dean was more than buzzed, he was drunk.
As disturbing as that thought was, Sam didn't want to get into an argument that would distract Dean from driving. They were less than a mile from the motel and he was certain if he just let it ride, they would get back in one piece.
A car darted out from a side road directly into the path of the Impala. Dean hit the brakes, turning the wheel hard to the right. Tires squealed, the smell of burnt rubber coming in through vents. Sam placed a hand on the dashboard to brace himself as Dean over-corrected, causing the car to fishtail.
"Dean, watch out!" Sam shouted, pointing at the semi truck barreling down the road towards them.
"I got it," Dean assured him. True to his words, the Impala straightened and the large vehicle passed by, honking its horn in protest. "Asshole!" Dean yelled, craning around to shout at the other driver. He turned towards Sam. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Sam said. He leaned back in the seat, trying to keep his breathing even. It had been too close for his liking. The flash of headlights shining directly through the passenger window brought unwanted memories to the surface.
Sam stole another glance at his brother. The older man seemed fine, tapping his fingers in time to the music, occasionally belting out a lyric or two. Dean seemed completely oblivious to just how much danger they'd been in. He vowed to keep closer tabs on his brother's drinking after tonight. Sam recognized the cause only too clearly from his own bout of denial and pain therapy not that long ago. Hell was hell after all.
Dean pulled the Impala into the lot, easing it into a parking spot with no difficulty. "I'm beat," Sam announced with an exaggerated yawn. "I'm glad we don't have to pull an all-nighter. I'm going to sleep for a week."
Dean smirked, tapping Sam once on the knee. "Getting old there, Sam."
"I'm still younger than you," Sam shot back. "I'm not turning thirty in two months."
A few short months ago, Sam's plans for Dean's birthday had been a bottle of whisky and, if there was any justice in the universe, Lilith's head on a plate. Having his brother here, sitting side by side in the Impala, was a far better celebration than Sam could have hoped for.
Dean grimaced. "Thirty." His expression grew thoughtful, eyes reflecting inward.
"What?" Sam asked.
Dean shook his head, a lopsided grin appearing. "I just never thought I'd see it. It feels good."
Sam returned the smile. "Yeah, it does." He allowed the moment to linger, then opened the car door letting in a waft of crisp, autumnal air. The breeze catapulted both brothers out of the Impala. The cold effortlessly seeped through the layers of Sam's clothing. He shivered as Dean struggled with the key and lock. "Give it," he demanded, reaching for the key. "I'm freezing."
Dean placed a shoulder between Sam and the door. "I got it," Dean insisted. The door creaked open, the hinges seemingly protesting the cold as much as Sam.
Sam flicked on the light. Dean had already managed to get to his bed. He landed with a big flop in the center of it. "Three hundred bucks," Dean said, folding his arms behind his head. "That should last us for awhile. Good thing the price of gas is coming down."
Sam nodded. It had cost him nearly sixty dollars to fill the Impala not that long ago. "You want the shower first?"
"Nah," Dean said. "I'm gonna knock off early."
Sam raised an eyebrow, but otherwise didn't comment as he gathered clean clothes. Dean threw a pillow at him, his aim true. "What was that for?" Sam asked, with a wide grin.
"I'm the oldest," Dean said, with an answering smirk. "That means I don't need a reason."
"Sure," Sam agreed, happy to simply share space with Dean again. "That's what it means."
"It totally does, Sam," Dean said, propping himself up on his elbows. "Look it up."
Sam snorted, but a chuckle escaped in spite of his best efforts to keep it in. "Good night, Dean."
"Night." A pillow hit the back of Sam's head as he entered the bathroom. It took all the willpower he had to ignore it, shutting the door instead.
The smile slowly faded from Sam's face as he enjoyed the warm spray. Dean had driven after a couple of beers before, but never impaired. The fact that he seemed oblivious to it had Sam more concerned than the act itself. Alcohol and hunting had always been two of Dean's favorite coping mechanisms, but he never mixed them. "Guess we're okay then," Sam murmured to himself.
Except that he knew they weren't. He'd tried offering Dean support, understanding, even something as simple as a shoulder to cry on, but Dean had pulled out of the embrace, unwilling to be comforted. It's not that Sam didn't get it. It was hard to accept a gesture of empathy or forgiveness when you felt undeserving of absolution. They'd both been there before. Sam sighed, the exhale coming out as a shaky breath. There was no doubt in his mind, they'd be there again.
When his skin puckered, his fingers turning white, Sam climbed out of the shower. Water rolled off his skin, pooling on the bathroom floor. After a quick toweling off, he pulled on sweats and a t-shirt before flicking out the light as he walked out of the bathroom.
Sam could see his brother sprawled out on the bed in the dim light cast by the single bulb. Dean's feet were still on the floor and light reflected through the nearly empty bottle of whisky causing the amber liquid to sparkle. He picked up the shot glass and sniffed. Dean had taken at least one drink before he'd fallen asleep.
Sam lifted his brother's feet onto the bed, folding the bedspread over him. He backed up, taking a seat on his bed. He ran fingers through wet strands pushing them off his forehead. "We have to do something, Dean," Sam said. "I'm worried about you, man."
Inspiration sometimes snuck up on Sam like a gentle breeze from the recesses of his mind. Other times it slammed into him like a freight train on a midnight run. This time, it was the latter. He slapped his forehead, producing a Homer Simpson-like exclamation. They needed a hunt, something simple, something they could get their hands on and attack head on, something they understood, something they weren't fighting against horrible, impossible odds. A haunting, a werewolf, heck a vampire beheading, any of those seemed simple and uncomplicated compared to the cosmic battle they'd witnessed only a few short days ago.
Sleep could wait. Sam had research to do.
Sam awoke to a ray of sunshine in his eyes and a crick in his neck. He'd fallen asleep at the table, hunched over the laptop, but it had been worth it. Brushing a stringy line of drool off his chin, Sam slowly stood, popping his back three times. Dean may have received a brand new body, but Sam's was feeling every day of abuse. Today, he felt forty. A little light stretching to work out the kinks and he was ready for coffee.
Dean didn't stir when Sam silently dressed or when the keys to the Impala jingled noisily as he pocketed them. He breathed a sigh of relief. He could pick up breakfast and be back to present the hunt to Dean by the time he was awake. A quick stop at the diner down the road for pancakes and coffee offered a chance to chat with the locals before heading back to the motel.
Dean looked up from packing his duffel when Sam walked in the door with two Styrofoam containers and the thermos. "You're up," Sam said. He glanced at the nightstand for the bottle of whisky, but it was gone.
"Your powers of observation are as outstanding as ever," Dean said, his tone laced with amusement. He sniffed the air conspicuously. "Tell me those are pancakes, Sam."
Sam chuckled. "Your ability to sniff out food is pretty outstanding, too." He set the containers on the table. Dean took a seat, lifted the lid and inhaled deeply.
"That's the stuff," Dean said happily, searching for flatware. He pointed at the thermos. "That coffee?"
"Yep." Sam sat down, handing a plastic fork and knife to Dean. He gave Dean an appraising look as he dug into the steaming pancakes. "I found us a hunt."
Dean stopped eating, his hands frozen midair, fork and knife poised for the next bite. "You're kidding me, right?"
Sam shook his head, not making direct eye contact with his brother, but watching him through too-long bangs. He hated to admit it, but it might be time for a haircut. "I found a hunt, right here in town."
The plastic flatware hit the table still griped tightly in Dean's fists. "Seriously, a hunt? Angels, demons, the whole apocalypse thing not enough for you, Sam?"
The younger hunter hesitated, unsure of the sudden role reversal. Dean sounded faintly annoyed beneath the exaggerated incredulousness. Sam pushed on after the moment of indecision passed. They both needed this. He looked up at Dean, giving his big brother his full attention. "It's a Black Dog, in the woods outside of town."
The look of surprise dropped from Dean's face, replaced by a grin. "Now you're talking."
Sam returned the smile, shoveling a forkful of pancakes into his mouth. A demonic dog wasn't mundane, not something that lacked challenge or significance. It did, however, fall into the realm of something Dean could shoot, stab, possibly even salt and burn.
The very idea of a hunt they already understood and knew how to fight, helped clear his mind, calming him. Sam rolled his head, trying to loosen the knots in his neck. He needed to put a little stability into his life where he could, no matter how odd it would seem to anyone else. This hunt would give Dean something to vent his anger and self-doubts on and it would give Sam something to focus on that didn't include guilt for events he couldn't change. Choices were important to him; choices regarding his life, and part of that life would always include his brother.
Sam looked up at Dean who was finishing his pancakes in record time. "Spotted a gym," Sam said conversationally. Dean grinned around his final mouthful.
"You think you can take me?" Dean said, a wide smile plastered on his face. Sam nodded, with a quirked eyebrow.
"Without even breaking a sweat," Sam replied, allowing the banter to infuse him with a brighter outlook.
"Oh, you are so on," Dean goaded. "I've always been able to kick your ass."
"You think so?" Sam tossed his container into the garbage can, spotting the empty bottle of alcohol. "I'm not a kid anymore, Dean."
"Bring it on, Padawan," Dean taunted.
"I thought you didn't like the new Star Wars?" Sam said, narrowing his eyes.
"Time and a place for everything," Dean said, leaning back in the chair. "Even that abomination of genius."
Sam snorted lightly. "Come on, let's go." He stood, snagging the keys from his pocket and tossed them to Dean. "If you win, I'll buy you a cheeseburger for lunch."
"There's no 'if' about it," Dean replied confidently. "Get ready to pay up."
Sam's lips curled in a smile. "Big talk for a man who just wolfed down four pancakes. You'll be lucky if you can waddle, let alone workout."
"Don't worry about me, Sam," Dean said, his eyes flashing green sparks of amusement. "I got this one in the bag."
They'd found a somewhat private corner of the gym back behind the weight machines to spar. Sam's sweaty t-shirt clung to his chest, outlining his form. Dean realized then, just how many pounds of new muscle Sam had packed on during the four months he was gone. Which could mean only one thing, his brother was pulling his punches.
"You know, I never let you win," Dean remarked, making a sweep at Sam.
Sam dodged, countering with a jab in Dean's side. "Nice to know all the times you handed me my ass, you weren't going easy on me," Sam said with a smirk.
Dean spun around, grabbing Sam's arm and pulling it behind his back, his other arm pressing down on Sam's neck. "So, why are you doing it to me?"
Sam slipped out of Dean's hold, elbowing him in the ribs before twisting to deliver a glancing blow to Dean's jaw. "What?"
The force knocked Dean backwards, his back hitting the wall. "You telling me you're giving this all you got, Sam?" Dean asked, sucking in breaths. He pushed off the wall, circling his brother.
Sam stopped moving, dropping his arms to his sides. "The idea is sparring, Dean. It's practice." Dean glared. Sam lowered the volume of his voice. "Not knocking each other senseless right before a hunt."
Dean strode up to Sam, his chest puffed. "You don't play around with your opponent. You take him out as quickly as possible to minimize risk and injury," Dean lectured, their father's words pouring from his lips without his consent. "So, stop playing around, Sam, and do it."
He'd pushed the right buttons apparently because Sam came at him with silent speed. A solid punch turned him around as Sam's bulk hit his back pushing him up against the wall. The air whooshed out of Dean's lungs. He panted shallowly, trying to push off the wall. It was no use; Sam was the proverbial immovable object. "You want to know why, Dean?" Sam growled, his voice low. Dean nodded, no air for more. "I'm worried about you, about the drinking. You could get hurt."
Sam backed off marginally. It was enough. Dean flipped around, shoving Sam off him. "I can handle it, Sam. And you're being a little hypocritical don't you think? Weren't you just telling me how rare sobriety was for you a few months ago? I'm not running around chasing demons in a drunken stupor."
"No," Sam said, his shoulders slumping. "You're not. But what you're doing, it's not going to make the pain go away, Dean. It takes time."
"That's a little cliché, don't you think?" Dean responded, his hackles rising.
"But true," Sam said. He tried to grasp Dean's arms, but the older man stumbled back staying out of his brother's reach. He saw the brief look of hurt confusion slide across Sam's face before it settled back to carefully neutral.
Dean understood; his feelings had been all over the grid since his memory had started returning. He couldn't really blame Sam for not being able to keep up with his ever-changing emotions. He clenched his fists; he just needed to regain some control over his life.
Dean didn't say a word. He spun on his heel and stalked off towards the showers.
There'd been no cheeseburger lunch, nor conversation of any substance from the gym to the motel. The afternoon had been spent with Sam's nose in the laptop, Dean cleaning the weapons. A mere five feet and an ocean of swirling emotions had separated them.
Now, in the car, the uncomfortable silence lingered. Dean glanced sideways at his brother, his eyes momentarily straying from the road. Sam had a small flashlight out studying a map of the woods.
"Another mile, then turn right on Howard," Sam instructed.
Dean opened his mouth to respond, then clamped it shut tightly again. So far everything he'd said since the gym had either come out angry sounding or sharp. He wasn't sure why other than the screaming headache he was nursing. Right now all he wanted to do was wipe the last few hours clean and just be brothers – without any pressure from on high or the damned below.
"Right there, Dean," Sam said abruptly. He touched Dean on the shoulder, then pointed to the right.
"Got it." Dean tapped the brakes, turning the heavy car onto the side road. He glanced at Sam again. He needed to make this better before they started after the Black Dog. Distractions could prove deadly. "Sam…" He trailed off no longer certain of how to continue once he'd started.
He could feel Sam's eyes on him, studying him while he tried to formulate his next words. "It's okay, Dean," Sam said, softly.
Dean nodded, swallowing hard. Sam knew, somehow he always knew. It didn't stop his brother from pushing, but he wouldn't be Sam if he didn't. He cleared his throat.
"How much farther?" Focus on the hunt, pretend it didn't happen, that was Dean's way.
"Only about another mile." Sam folded the map, tucking it into his jacket pocket. He reached around to the backseat to snag the weapons bag, doing a last minute inventory of the contents. He looked up as Dean pulled the Impala to a stop. "Ready?"
"Hell yeah," Dean replied, with a grin. This, at least, was something he could sink his teeth into. Killing a demonic dog would definitely rank high in the gratifying category. He took a moment to grab his shotgun and check the rounds before snagging a flashlight from Sam. "You think it'll come after us?"
"Yeah, I do," Sam said. "The dog has attacked every night for the last three nights. There's no reason to assume it won't again tonight."
"Let's go," Dean announced, sliding out of the car. He didn't have to turn around to know Sam was behind him. The soft click of the passenger door and the light crunch of crisp, fallen leaves kept him aware of Sam's position.
"I'm going to head west and circle around towards you," Sam stated. He didn't wait for a reply, taking off on long legs away from Dean, and into the trees.
"Who died and left him boss?" Dean grumbled. His curling white breath lingered in the air leaving trailing wisps in his wake. A coyote yipped in the distance, drawing Dean's attention. His headache, along with his dark mood, faded to the background; it whispered to him instead of shouting, giving him a little space to breathe. There was a Black Dog to hunt.
The full moon illuminated the spaces between the trees, making visibility without his flashlight possible. He kept it firmly in his left hand, ready to flick on at a moment's notice, but there was no need to advertise his position to a predator whose senses far outweighed his own. He glanced to his right. There was no sign of Sam. His brother apparently had the same idea regarding the light as he did.
A hoot owl announced its presence as Dean walked past. The cold night air chilled his nose and fingers. He'd always hated wearing gloves when hunting, avoiding it when he could. Silence blanketed him, growing oppressive. Crashing underbrush brought him to full alert. The loud cracking had to be caused by something big, much bigger than his brother, yet somehow Dean knew Sam was running towards him. He lifted his weapon. His brother approaching at top speed meant he was pursuing or being pursued. Either way, Dean was ready.
A shot rang out from the woods.
"Shit!" Sam shouted, his voice carrying on the wind. The snapping of twigs grew louder. "Dean, look out, it's coming!"
Dean raised his shotgun, flicking on the flashlight as the crashing stopped. Red eyes, illuminated by the light, blinked not more than twenty feet in front of him. The dog growled. Dean fired. His shot hit the mark, the dog yelped in pain.
Sam burst through the underbrush, his light shining first on the canine, then on Dean. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," Dean said, shining his light on the Black Dog. "That wee beastie, not as much."
Sam offered him a small grin and a raised eyebrow that questioned Dean's sanity. He pulled a silver knife from its sheath. With speed and aggressive precision that Dean had rarely seen from his brother, Sam stabbed the lumbering canine in the heart.
It yowled in pain, its death throes knocking the youngest Winchester off his feet. Fighting until the end, the dog gnashed his teeth, snapping at Sam. He scooted away, quickly rising to his feet.
"Woooo!" Dean shouted from the adrenaline of the hunt, the sheer joy of accomplishing what they'd set out to do. His little brother chuckled, walking forward and crouching low.
"It's dead," Sam said, dropping his hand. "Salt and burn?"
"You know it," Dean said, walking over to his brother. Sam dropped the duffel at his feet.
"I'll get some kindling," Sam said, nodding over to his left. "The way that dog went crashing through there it's probably all toothpicks."
"Fine, I'll get things started here," Dean said. He watched as his brother picked his way back through the woods, his flashlight bobbing in the trees some distance away. Dean crouched, searching through the duffel for the salt and lighter fluid. He was looking forward to this part.
He set the items down next to the Black Dog, then noticed Sam's knife glinting in the moonlight. He grasped it tightly by the hilt. "You won't need this anymore," he said, addressing the dog. Dean pulled out the knife with one sure motion, wiping the blade on his jeans. The hilt was rough on his skin.
Pulling the lighter out of his pocket, Dean used the flame to examine the knife. 'Sammy' was engraved on the handle. A smile pulled across his face. He'd given this knife to his little brother for his eleventh birthday.
Knowing Sam would want the knife stowed safely away, he reached down, placing it carefully into the duffel. "Hey, Sam, you planning on coming back some time tonight?" he called in the direction his younger brother had headed.
"Bite me!" The words had laughter in them and they bounced around the woods.
"No thanks!" Dean shouted; a mistake he soon realized as the noise caused his headache to flare. He stood, searching the velvet darkness for Sam as his flashlight bobbed closer.
"A lot of it's pretty wet," Sam said, "It was harder than I thought it'd be."
"So, we use more lighter fluid." Dean took an armful of wood from his brother, dropping it down by the Black Dog.
"You know you're a closet pyromaniac, don't you?" Sam asked with a chuckle. "I left a big branch, I'll be right back."
His brother turned to walk away. "What do you mean, closet pyromaniac?" Dean asked, following behind a chuckling Sam.
"I'll be right back," Sam repeated, and then he was gone, disappearing into the trees.
Behind Dean, a quiet, low growl shocked him into movement. He dove for the duffel, searching for his shotgun. The growl grew louder, drawing his attention back to the canine. Red eyes stared back. With a tremendous lunge, the dog was on its feet headed for the woods.
Halfway between Dean and the trees, the dog stopped, lifting its huge head, sniffing the air. It turned, defiantly running with great huffing breaths in Sam's direction. The older hunter's fingers found the shotgun and he stood, his feet slipping on wet leaves as he sighted the gun.
It was only a fraction of a second slower than his normal reaction time, a hair's breadth of space, but it was enough. Everything Sam said was suddenly brought home in a horrific way. He hadn't wanted to see it, but it was there.
He'd fallen prey to the patented Winchester method of coping with the unbearable, drinking, and more than he should. He'd told himself, convinced himself that everything was fine. But he'd been wrong, and it was affecting his timing.
And it left his brother vulnerable, about to pay the price for his mistake.
"Sam!" he shouted, a great puff of white exploding in the air from the force.
"Dean?" Sam called, his voicing sounding much closer than Dean expected. The younger hunter appeared twenty feet away, along the tree line. It only seemed to take him a few precious moments to realize how much danger he was in.
It was a moment too long.
The gigantic dog hit Sam square in the chest, knocking him off his feet. "Sam!" Dean shouted again. He willed himself to move, to run, or to react. Damn it, you idiot, move! His legs responded, eating up the distance to his brother.
The goliath dog growled, his jaws snapping perilously close to the youngest Winchester's neck. Out of reflex, Sam lifted an arm to protect himself. Dean swore he could hear the dog's teeth crunch through Sam's bone as it bit down on his brother's arm, shaking its massive head.
Sam's scream of pain echoed off the naked woods, the blast from Dean's shotgun matching it in reply.
AN: Woo Hoo, I made it in just under the wire! I picked up on your hint of what you wanted to read, now, I just hope I go the direction with it you would have wanted. :O)
Thanks to all who took the time to read!