Previously appeared in Compadres 31 (2008), from Neon Rainbow Press
K Hanna Korossy
Sam was staring at the saltshakers again.
He never did it obviously and cut it out as soon as Dean would slide into the booth with him. But it was kinda hard not to notice a new habit when you traveled and slept and ate with a guy 24/7. Especially when your new habit was keeping a closer eye on said guy.
Because that wasn't Sam's only change of behavior since they'd crossed paths with one Max Miller. Dean pretended not to notice, but the fact was Sam was jumpier, more wary since his visions had become an anyplace, anytime freak show. He watched Dean covertly, visibly weighing his every word and action, as if expecting him to lose it at any moment. Looking for signs of fear, Dean had finally decided, and teased Sam a little more boldly, got into his space a little more often, tacitly promising that he wasn't going anywhere. That he wasn't afraid of Sam. For him, maybe, although his little brother didn't need to know that part. But of him? No freakin' way, not ever.
The saltshakers, however, puzzled Dean. Not in a sit-on-Sam-and-tickle-him-until-he-confesses kind of way, nor in a way that had him especially worried. But it was one more piece of the enigma that was Sam, and Dean noted, accepted, and filed it away without comment.
He slid into the booth with a fresh plate from the buffet. Sam's gaze broke away from the condiments and met his, pausing along the way to regard with a flicker of amusement Dean's loaded plate.
"I swear, man, you've got, like…a hollow leg or something. Where does all the food go?"
"Camels store water for trips, right? Why can't I store food? Never know when you're gonna have your next meal, Sam. Besides, dude, all-you-can-eat buffet! Might as well get our money's worth."
"You've gotten the whole roomful's worth, Dean. I just don't know where you put it. Camels at least have humps."
Dean just smiled sweetly at him around a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
Sam shook his head and pushed his own one empty plate aside to pull his notebook close. "All right, I think I've got all the details for the ritual now. It's pretty complicated, but nothing we haven't done before."
"Okay." Dean chewed and listened attentively as Sam laid out the details. Well, almost attentively; there was a chick across the room eating alone who was pretty distracting, especially when she was drinking her Coke. That long neck…
Dean blinked, jolted back to stare at Sam.
Sam just barely resisted rolling his eyes. Dean could tell. "I said, the two parts have to be done separately. I'll be back at the lair, while you lure it out to kill it away from its seat of power."
"Lure it out."
"While you stay behind in its digs."
"Uh, yeah." Sam was giving him that my brother's a little slow look.
A forkful of buttered potatoes settled back down on the plate. "And what if it doubles back on me and comes after you? Or if there's another one?"
"There's only one of them. And it's not gonna double back, Dean. You're too good to let it."
"True," Dean dipped his head modestly, "but what if it managed to ditch me anyway, Sam? This ritual sounds complicated—you're not gonna be able to watch your back while you do it. Not to mention, oh yeah, this thing's invisible."
"Dean, that's the way this is done, all right? I do the ritual in the seat of power, and that takes away its abilities and makes it visible so you can kill it away from the source. We haven't got a lot of options here."
"I don't like it," Dean said succinctly, shoveling the potatoes into his mouth along with a whole link of sausage. All-day-breakfast: best idea ever. But he was too distracted to really savor. Sam's plan sucked in more ways than he could even count, and he'd been trying.
"Okay." Sam slapped the notebook shut, wove his fingers together on top of it. "Give me an alternative."
"We torch the seat of power."
"That makes it relocate, not kills it."
"Fine. We throw, uh, chocolate syrup on it, make it visible, then kill it."
Sam blinked. "Chocolate syrup?"
"Dude, just go with it."
The shaggy head swiveled like a dog shaking off water. "Dean, its being invisible isn't the only problem here. Without the ritual, it's too powerful to kill."
"We seal it in its cave. Seat. Whatever."
"Yeah, and that'll last, what, a month? It's strong, remember? It'll get out."
Dean grimaced. "We walk away?" he said hopefully.
Sam's mouth flattened in irritation.
Dean sighed and pushed his plate aside. He hadn't really wanted the fruit, anyway. "All right, all right. But then we do it my way."
Sam's eyes narrowed. "Which is…?"
"We call in backup. Somebody to watch your back while I kill Predator."
Sam straightened up in his seat. "Dean, I don't need a babysitter."
"I'm not offering Mary Poppins here, dude. This is backup—Jefferson or Caleb or someone else with a small arsenal."
"I'm not a kid," Sam said tightly.
"Never said you were."
"This ritual is totally safe, Dean."
He picked disinterestedly at the curls of ham that lingered forlornly on the edge of Sam's plate. Carefully not looking at Sam when he said, "Tell me again about how it feeds off the energy of the person doing the ritual?"
"It's just going to make me tired, I swear. It's not going to hurt or anything."
"Which is why we're even still talking about this. But, man, I still don't like it. Name me one time when being fed off is a good thing. It doesn't happen. For all we know, it could drain you completely."
Sam did roll his eyes this time. "It's not gonna kill me, Dean."
"And what about this new psychic mojo thing you've got going on? We don't even know how it'll react to that."
Sam stiffened. "So that's what this is about? My…visions or whatever?"
"No, that's not what this is about," Dean said firmly. "It's about risking your life for something stupid, Sam. I'm not gonna do it. Don't ask me that." His voice fell on the last.
Sam faltered. Either he finally got it, or was more sure than ever Dean didn't really trust him anymore, and only time would tell which it was. "I guess…you doing the ritual and me killing the thing is out, then, too." It was said low and soft and ambiguously.
"Uh, yeah." Dean took a swig of coffee and looked at Sam, keeping it casual. "You're better at that crap than I am, and I don't want you hunting without backup, either."
Sam snorted. "Right. So we call in somebody to just sit there and watch me run the rite."
"And make sure nothing bad sneaks up on you while I'm gone. Or that you don't get in trouble with your—"
"Freaky powers?" Sam asked dryly.
"I was gonna say your girl hair getting in your eyes, but whatever."
"It shouldn't make any difference."
"Let's keep it that way."
Sam was playing with the saltshaker now, long fingers idly turning it in pinwheel arcs, leaving little fans of white crystals in its wake. His eyes a hundred miles away even as Dean knew he had his brother's complete attention. "Dean…don't you worry…?"
"No," Dean said, flat. "Not gonna happen, Sam. You're my little brother and nothing—nothing—is gonna change that. You hear me?" He wouldn't let it.
A smallest flash of dimpled relief. "Yeah."
Dean found himself breathing easier, too. If Sam still believed in him, everything else would work out. "Good." He sat back and took a drag on his cup of coffee. "Which is why we're calling in backup for you."
Sam's irritation had faded into a far easier resignation. "You've got a one-track mind, you know that?"
The chick across the room had finally noticed him and was drinking her Coke extra slow. Dean grinned. "Oh, yeah."
Sam sighed. "Make that two tracks."
Preparations for the hunt took one more day. Negotiations took two.
"I could stay to watch your back and Jeff could go after this thing."
Sam's eyebrows had risen. "You really want to send Jefferson to make the kill?"
"No," Dean said, torn. The killing was usually the fun part, and Dean was a big believer in if you want something done right, do it yourself. But his protect little brother instincts ran even deeper than his hunter ones. Which was the whole problem. "I 'really want' to make sure I've still got a brother after we kill this thing."
Sam's gaze softened like ice cream in the sun. "Dean, I'll be fine, all right? This isn't that hard."
"Right. So the energy draining, that's just fun."
"It's just exertion, only metaphysical instead of physiological."
Dean stared at him. "You do know you sound like you swallowed a dictionary sometimes, right?"
Sam just huffed and kept packing.
Dean had gotten the part where it was important for Sam to do this, both because of his new gift and because he had something to prove to himself, if not to Dean. Dean had also gotten that he himself knew a lot more how to kill this thing than Jefferson did, and that Jeff could watch Sam's back in case anything went south. He even got the little desperate glances Sam had thrown him that said, I need you to trust I can do this. And he did.
He just wasn't sure Sam believed it.
Not that he himself was helping his case much. "You don't take your eyes off him, Jeff," Dean said again as they headed out into the forest. And if Sam took that as lack of trust, well, so be it. Dean wasn't tiptoeing around with Sam's life on the line.
He knew they were taxing the older hunter's patience when the man rolled his eyes. "Kid, I know what I'm doing."
"Yeah, well…I'm not sure we do, so just…stay sharp, man, okay? Sam starts bleeding out of his ears or goes grey or something, you stop him. I don't care how close he is to the finish line."
Sam's mouth turned even more down. "Dean, I'm not—"
"—a kid. Yeah, Sam, I got it. You're also not turning into a vegetable, all right? You know I hate all that stuff." Celery, unknown risks to little brothers, whatever.
Sam glowered at him. He also smartly kept his mouth shut because he had to know Dean could and would still pull the plug on this if he got too uncomfortable with it. But, yeah, they would definitely be revisiting the I'm not a kid conversation in the future. So long as Sam was alive to do it and, preferably, it wasn't the Am I a freak? conversation, though Dean could live with that.
Well, they could sort it out later. After this hunt was a success and nobody's brains got creamed in the process.
They stopped at the edge of the tree line, the cavernous opening to the lair just visible. Dean cast a tactical eye over the area, already sketching out his plan of attack and retreat, which way he'd lure the thing. Then he glanced back at Sam and raised an eyebrow.
"Last chance to book."
Sam stared back at him. And in that moment, it was Sam Winchester, kick-ass demon hunter and Dean's partner, not Sammy his little brother, who looked him square in the eye. "We're doing this."
Dean nodded slowly, final commitment, and stalked forward.
They moved in tandem, Jeff bringing up the rear. Dean went for the direct frontal attack, while Sam crept around the side, ready to slip into the cave as soon as it was clear. His hands were laden with supplies for the ritual, but he moved like a warrior, and Dean relaxed even more. His belief in Sam wasn't just lip service; they could and would do this.
Dean cleared his mind of everything but the attack, and moved in.
Their prey had already logged at least fourteen victims, going back a month. They figured invisibility was the reason for its success rate, and the invulnerability the ritual was going to break. Otherwise, accounts told of a lumbering, dim-witted creature that Dean anticipated no problem distracting for the hour Sam said he needed.
Naturally, they'd been wrong.
The thing moved fast and sharply, fifteen feet back one moment, breathing down his neck the next, then falling behind again. It had growled low and deep when Dean had shot blindly into the cave, and flown out and been on the hunt ever since. Which was what he'd wanted, Dean reminded himself, but, dude. Playing tag for an hour was exhausting.
Still, it was either that or be killed—or worse, let Sam be killed—which didn't leave much of a choice. No way in Hell would he be letting the thing double back on Sam, Jeff standing by or not. So Dean switched to hide-and-seek instead of tag, playing it smart instead of fast, and counted the minutes while he mentally urged his brother to hurry.
"Hey, Ugly! You want me or not? I'm starting to feel neglected here." The challenge was answered by an angry grunt as he knew it would be. Dean made sure it had his trail, then disappeared again.
He kept mental track of their route, ensuring it didn't veer back toward the lair, circling where he wanted the final showdown to take place. Branches slapped at his face, foliage breaking underneath. Dean barely could pause to gulp water as he feinted, then took off again, trying to keep his head in the game and off the part where Sam was behind him doing God-knew-what.
Okay, so Sam's new powers did freak him out a little. Dean would never, ever tell him, but their dad had killed a psychic once, albeit an evil one who killed people with his brain. Which was exactly the fear Dean had seen lurking in his little brother's eyes, but he didn't waste a second worrying about that. Sam could no sooner be evil than he could be stupid. And nothing in this world or any other would change the fact Sam was his kid and always would be. No, it was a far greater danger Dean worried about.
How was he supposed to protect his little brother from himself?
Suddenly, the brush broke in front of Dean, something large flattening the grass while hot, stagnant breath poured on Dean. The creature had gotten the drop on him while he'd been distracted.
"Whoa! Been practicing there, Sparky?"
The creature growled and swung, unseen claws just grazing Dean's shirt. Okay, way too close. He reassessed his adversary, swapping out the taunts and tactical flight for a focused defense. A knife was in his hand a second later, just in time to ward off claws that whistled through the air like an approaching missile. It was a lot harder to track invisible attacks than flights. One more repelled, too-close assault, and Dean finally gained enough distance between them to risk turning and running. And this time there was nothing paced or stealthy about it.
"Come on, Sam. Finish it up, dude," he panted under his breath, and realized he hadn't even thought up a Plan B in case Sam didn't succeed. John would've called that stupid. Dean called it faith.
One more roar, and they broke into the clearing where Dean intended to take this sucker down. Just as soon as he could see…
The thing that followed him into the open had deep brown, leathery skin. It was bipedal, with sharp-clawed hands much like a bear, except bears didn't have the pronounced razored canine teeth this one did, or the burning red eyes. Most importantly, Dean could see it.
Which meant he could kill it. Which meant he could get back to Sam. Which made this a total win-win plan.
With a growl of his own, Dean pulled his handgun out—blessed iron—and emptied it into the creature.
It staggered, swayed, and kept coming.
In the end, it also took a silver blade, holy water in the face, and finally Dean's Zippo before the thing went down for the count. Sam hadn't been kidding that it was too strong in its natural form to take down; it required nearly all of Dean's arsenal and skills even once the thing had lost its protection.
But none of that mattered anymore. Even as Dean bent over to catch his breath, prodding the smoldering body with one foot to make sure it was well and truly toast, he was already looking around to get his bearings. Pinpointing the direction the cave was in, he set off at a slightly slower run, still gulping air.
He saw Jefferson first, the older hunter leaning against the side of the cave by the entrance, arms crossed. He gave Dean a wry smile, nodding toward the back wall. "He's asleep."
Dean turned to follow his gaze, and even in the gloom found inerrantly what he sought.
Sam was slumped on the ground against the wall, his chin almost to his breastbone. His limbs were sprawled limply, one hand still holding a snuffed candle in its loose grip. The fringe of hair hid his eyes, but Dean didn't need to see them to be aware Sam wasn't quite completely out. He knew his brother's body's language better than his own, and there was still a thread of tension in the lean form despite its utter exhaustion.
He shoved the gun into the back of his jeans as he crossed the cavern and crouched in front of Sam. Dean lifted the hanging head with both hands, examining the pale features. "Sammy?"
Eyelashes fluttered and cracked, lines of unusually vivid jade appearing. Usually his eyes washed out when he was tired, and Dean couldn't help wonder if this was some aftereffect of what he'd just been through.
Then relief filtered into the green, wiping away the faint furrows of his brow, tugging at one corner of his mouth. A contented sigh, and Sam tipped forward in slow motion against Dean.
Dean lifted up his arms automatically to catch as Sam's weight collapsed against him, the shaggy hair tickling his neck and a cheek pressing against his collarbone. He gave a surprised laugh, then slid his arms across his brother's back, tightening his grip. "You did good, bro," he muttered into the dark hair. "Piece of cake, huh? Stupid rituals."
Sam breathed soft and slow in his ear.
Dean shook his head, but there was no displeasure in it. Sam was okay, just tired, and Dean could handle an over-tired little—or not so little—brother. But that actually wasn't where the real relief lay. It was this echo back to when they were kids and Sam would fall asleep on him wherever they were: in the car, in front of the TV, in an easy chair while Dean read to him. Arms wrapping sleepily around his neck and legs around his waist, always trusting his brother to take care of him and get him safe to bed. This was what Dean had feared was damaged, between his helplessness and Sam's fear.
But Sam was still his, not so changed and not so broken that Dean couldn't still look out for him. And that made everything else fixable.
"You need some help with him?" Jefferson drawled from behind, and Dean realized he'd been crouched there for long minutes, calves burning with the earlier exertion and the current effort to prop up Sam's not-insubstantial form.
"Naw, I got him," Dean said. He shifted Sam higher, eased his arms up until the stringbean was folded over his shoulder. Then with a grunt, Dean rose, steadying himself and settling Sam more securely. Geez, Sam wouldn't be the only one worn out after this one. But he was, and would always remain, Dean's responsibility. "Get the stuff, Jeff, huh?"
And he headed back toward the car, his brother's weight not even approaching that of the one lifted off his heart.
Sam was staring at the saltshakers again.
Dean just shook his head, smiling when Sam jumped as Dean sat down next to him.
Sam glanced sideways at him, affecting an expression of nonchalance that didn't fool Dean for a second. "You find out anything?"
"Only that there haven't been any new attacks since the one the day we hit town." Dean's brow climbed smugly.
Sam breathed out. "And it's been four days, two days past its regular cycle." His mouth quirked. "You did it."
"Hey, it was your plan, dude," Dean said honestly.
Sam's smile reached his eyes this time, his shoulders coming down a little more. He glanced once more at the saltshakers, then turned back to Dean.
"You okay?" Dean dropped his voice so it would carry no further than Sam's ears.
He snorted. "You mean, am I going to fall over in my spaghetti again and start snoring?"
Dean grinned. "Heh. That was awesome. But, yeah," trying to be serious, "you still jonesing for your bed? Any other weird aftereffects?"
Sam blushed faintly. "Dean, I don't even remember anything between the ritual and waking up this morning. I think you made that spaghetti thing up."
Dean held up his camera-phone and waggled his eyebrows. "Dude, tomato sauce everywhere. I had to clean you up before I put you to bed. For the second time."
Sam cleared his throat, glancing briefly at the table top. Worrying Dean anew just for a second before he said with quiet sincerity, "Thanks."
Dean blinked, looked away. Discreetly swallowed the lump in his throat, because no matter what he did for Sam, the kid returned it tenfold to him. "I told you nothing bad is gonna happen to you while I'm around," he finally murmured to the tabletop. Then he grabbed a menu. "So, anything good here?"
"Yeah, man," Sam smiled sappily. "A lot." And snickered when Dean grimaced and elbowed him in the side.
Dean barely even paused when he saw the untouched saltshakers tremble once and fall still.
In belated honor of Memorial Day, this is dedicated to my own kid brother, Lt. Arpad Korossy, USN, currently serving in Baghdad.