The Middle Child
K Hanna Korossy

Sam eyed the Impala curiously as he crossed the parking lot, as if the car could tell him where it had been the last few hours. But besides the fact that the engine was still ticking and there wasn't anything obviously wrong—broken windows, blood on the seat, the weapons bag's contents strewn over the floorboards—she was as unrevealing as her owner had been when Dean had declared hours before that he had to go do "something." And had taken his hunting journal with him.

Sam shifted the bag he held to the arm his satchel was looped over so he could dig in his pocket for the room key. He had his suspicions what Dean was working on. They were in Missoula not because of a case, but just to put some distance between themselves and the Trickster—Gabriel—and the scene of his little TV show Hell. As if they could escape an angel's sphere of influence. Or the revelations he'd shared.

The key faltered halfway to the door. Rebellious younger brother; it figured that Sam would be the template for Lucifer, while Dean was, of course, the virtuous and mighty older son Michael. Sam's mouth twisted bitterly; talk about a jacked-up legacy. Dean was probably reconsidering his disdain for destinies about now, checking into the whole Lucifer/Michael history, trying to figure out just how badly Sam was going to screw him over this time.

He sighed, body and soul bowing in resignation, and opened the door.

Dean glanced up from the plush chair he was settled in by the window, poker face in place. Just what Sam had expected, and he kept his own sinking heart hidden as he set the bag on the table and his satchel on the free chair.

"Where were you?" Dean asked. Neutral but not disinterested.

Sam unfolded the bag and dug out several aluminum-and-paper boxes. "Library," he said quietly. "And I brought dinner."

The laugh was unexpected. He tilted up his head to see Dean unfolding himself from the chair and swinging a bag of his own up from the floor. "Same here."

Sam smiled a little. "Steak pie."

Dean's eyebrows jolted up at that. "Seriously?" He broke into a grin and tossed a large plastic container toward Sam. "Chicken Caesar Salad Pasta."

Sam's shoulders loosened a little and he pulled a bottle out of the bag. "Local beer."

Dean's eyes were crinkling. "OJ," he countered, holding up a carton.

"And, 'cause you can never have too much pie…" Sam extracted a smaller box with flourish.

Dean shook his head. "Aw, man, not chocolate-peppermint?"

"Chocolate-peppermint," Sam confirmed with a nod. Not bothering to add it took stopping at three different bakeries to find Dean's elusive favorite.

"You win. Best I could find was day-old watermelon." Another container joined the collection on the bed.

Sam chuckled and reached for his treasures. "Dude, do you know when I last had watermelon?"

Dean cocked his head, thinking. "Uh…"

"That wasn't a…" Sam broke off with a quick shake of the head. "Never mind." Even after twenty-seven years, it still threw him sometimes how closely his brother kept track of him…and how that managed to be comforting and confining at the same time.

Dean was rooting around in the bag Sam had brought. "You get anything for yourself?"

Sam shook his head, taking a bite of watermelon. It was surprisingly sweet for the area and time of year, and he settled into the chair to dig in with relish.

Dean cleared his throat, and Sam's attention was unwillingly yanked back to his earlier worries. "So, library, huh? Looking for a new job?"

Sam swallowed, the juicy fruit suddenly tasteless in his mouth. His gaze dipped to the swirls of color in the bedspread. "Uh, I was trying to track down Gabriel's vessel, actually. Figured if he's an angel, he had to get permission from the guy he's wearing, right? Might tell us something about him."

Dean nodded. "Find anything?"

Sam got a few glimpses of masticated pie—the steak one, from the smell of it—as Dean spoke, and grimaced. "No. Uh, well, sorta. I mean, I found the vessel, single guy from New Jersey, no family, dead-end job. Probably figured being an angel's puppet was an improvement."

"Makes sense." Dean nodded, demolishing the last few bites of his dinner. "Dude, meat and pie? 'S awesome."

"Yeah, I can see that," Sam said dryly. He pushed the watermelon away. "As for Gabriel, besides the biblical angelic messenger references, lore has it he's the angel who's going to blow the horn that announces the beginning of the End Times." He nodded at Dean's snort. "Yeah, I know, ironic, huh? Milton also had him as being in charge of Heaven. He's supposed to be the leader of the Heavenly Hosts, the one who picks which souls go into which babies, one of the two most powerful archangels and," Sam added with a flourish, "the patron saint of communications workers."

Dean blinked. "Okay. That's…"

"…totally not helpful," Sam concluded unenthusiastically. Research was what he did; it was his escape and his solace, the only control he had sometimes these days. And it was totally useless here. No lore or record addressed archangels who went undercover as Tricksters, or who got tired of the struggle, or who wanted human hosts in whom to fight their battles. Gabriel seemed to be the classic middle child, secretive and independent, blithe on the surface but reserved underneath, the one who tried to stay neutral and just wanted everyone to get along but was stuck between the feuding youngest and eldest siblings. If any of the archangels might be an ally, it would probably be Gabriel, but Sam hadn't found a single thing that might entice the powerful being to help them fight.

After a minute, he heard Dean rise, moving around the room. The empty dinner container hit the trashcan with a thunk, and the beer fizzed open. Sam startled when a bowl of pasta mixed with salad and chicken slid unexpectedly under his nose. He stared at it a moment, then dully reached for the plastic fork and took a bite.

Dean was sitting in the chair across from him, sober look softening a little at Sam's look of surprise. "Good, huh?"

"Yeah, actually." He took another bite, flagging appetite momentarily revived.

Dean was poking at his chocolate pie. "Well, you wanna know what I found?"

The bite almost got stuck in Sam's throat. "Okay," he said quietly. Betrayal, brother against brother, the devil's vessel: nothing in this last case would go anywhere good. Dean hadn't said a word about Gabriel's argument the whole ride to Missoula, and Sam braced himself to finally hear his brother's verdict.

"Think I tracked down an honest-to-God trickster in Arizona. Probably Kokopelli, considering the location."

It was so far from what Sam had been expecting, it took his mind a second to switch tracks. "What?" He looked up, shaking bangs out of his eyes to see Dean clearly.

Dean rolled his eyes. "Kokopelli? Native American skinny trickster dude who's always playing his pipe?" He made a face. "That doesn't sound right, does it?"

"No, I mean— Why were you looking for tricksters?" Sam asked dumbly. That was too far a leap for even his mind to make. Hadn't they been tricked enough? Gabriel's games this time had only been bad TV shows, an extremely painful game show, and Dean getting shot in the back. Last time, though, it had been Dean's death, over and over and over. Not exactly something Sam looked for in a case.

Dean shrugged. "You wanted to talk to one, see if we could get it on our side, right?"

Sam chewed automatically while his mind spun. So, Dean hadn't been researching the treachery of little brothers but…had actually been following up Sam's farfetched plan? The one Dean didn't even agree with? Sam swallowed hard. Each time when he thought he couldn't be sorrier for what he'd done, his brother proved him wrong. "I, uh. That's not… Dean, I don't think…"

Dean snorted, finally lopping off the end of his pie and stuffing it into his mouth. "Smooth, Sam." He sighed in pleasure over his dessert, eyes fluttering.

Sam took a breath. "No, I don't…I don't want to ally with a trickster. It was a bad idea, okay? I've crossed enough lines already."

It was an unwelcome reminder for them both, and he saw the immediate shift in Dean's body language, a little tension sliding in under the lazy contentment of a moment before. And Sam was sorry for that, he really was, but they couldn't afford to forget the past. He couldn't afford to.

"I just… Back in Florida, I promised him if he brought you back, I wouldn't go after him," Sam finished quietly.

He caught Dean's startled look before he dropped his eyes back to his food.

Sam took advantage of the silence to swallow another bite, barely tasting the rich dressing over the bitter-salt taste in his mouth. He didn't realize he was going to ask a question until it was already spilling out of his mouth. "Hey…did you mean what you said to Gabriel, about standing up to your family?"

Dean's mouth started to turn down, storm clouds gathering in his eyes.

Sam mentally kicked himself; he knew that was a sore subject for Dean with their history. "I'm not…" Sam quickly hurried on, amazed at his epic ability to ruin two kinds of pie, several peace offerings, and Dean's apparently endless ability to forgive him. "This isn't about me, all right? What I meant is…is that what you think about Dad's final words? About…" Save Sam or kill him. The burden they'd both carried for years.

Dean stared at him a moment longer, expression unreadable. Then his whole bearing thawed. He set the pie down and leaned forward in his chair, fingers tangling to hang between his knees. "Sam, you ever notice that we've had all four archangels now—and a whole supporting cast of demons and angels—telling us what our destiny is, what we're gonna do, how we've got no choice, yadda, yadda, yadda…and it hasn't happened yet?" he asked almost kindly. "I mean, if it's so inevitable, how come they keep trying to talk us into it, huh? Well, you know what I think?" He cocked his head, his gaze piercing Sam. "I think they're bluffing. Maybe there is some kind of Master Plan, but none of them have gotten a peek at the playbook, so they're all just guessing, trying to shove their agendas down our throats. They can't force us, so they're trying to sell us on saying yes. But it's not gonna happen."

Sam huffed. "You sure about that, man?"

"Yeah," Dean said firmly. "I am."

They looked at each other for long minutes, Dean's belief slowly converting Sam's doubts. Not that he didn't know his brother wasn't still seriously skeptical about their ability to win this war, but if Dean had faith at least that Sam would keep fighting at his side until the end, that couldn't help kindle his own dying belief back into flame.

Dean was the older brother, nurturing and grown up too fast and anxious to please. But sandwiched between John and Sam's iron wills, in many ways he'd been a middle child, too: the peacekeeper and mediator, outward antics hiding the thoughtfulness and sensitivity inside, always anxious to reconcile and support his family.

Maybe that was one of things that had drawn Gabriel to them in the first place.

Maybe it was also what would save this little brother from the fate of his celestial predecessor.

Sam didn't even have to fake the wry smile. "Dude, you get the feeling Gabriel's jealous of us? I mean, his brothers haven't exactly been very brotherly."

Dean smirked back, grabbing up the pie again. "What's not to be jealous about?" At Sam's look, he caved with a wag of the head. "Okay, yeah, I guess that makes sense. I mean, we might've had our share of bumps, but neither of us has ever tried to end the world. Oh, wait…"

Sam made a face. "Yeah, thanks, Dean," he drawled, sprawling back into his seat to start eating again. He felt oddly better despite the deck that was seriously stacked against them.

But they were on the same team this time, and that made all the difference.

Dean finished scraping out the last crumbs of pie, swigged down the rest of his beer, and burped. Grinning at Sam's look of disgust, he glanced around the room, then back at Sam. "Seriously, you know what I could go for?"

"Stop saying 'seriously,'" Sam absently chided, chasing down the last shreds of chicken. The pasta was actually pretty amazing once he stopped eating it with a side helping of self-disgust.

"Shrimp crackers," Dean continued, ignoring him. "You know, the kind that hot Japanese chick was selling on the game show?"

Sam groaned, legs unconsciously moving a little closer together. "Dean…"

Dean jumped to his feet. "C'mon, Sammy. Seriously." It was added impishly. "We'll find you some healthy junk food, too, okay?"

Sam's sigh was put-upon, but he rose, tossing the pasta container into the trash with a perfect three-point shot, then grabbing his jacket. He had no desire to go anywhere that night, but it was good to be wanted. And to be trusted to follow.

"Oh," Sam closed and locked the door behind them, then scurried to catch up to his brother, "by the way, man. The left front tire? Pressure's a little low."

And as Dean doubled up with laughter, just for a moment, everything was perfect.

The End