This appeared in the fanzine Brotherhood 8 last year. Thanks to geminigrl11 and K Hanna Korossy for editing, and the zine staff for publishing it!
I own nothing. Reviews craved.
Best Served Cold
"'Battered and Bruised.' Those should be our nicknames. Or our codenames—that'd be cool!"
Trudging tiredly through the motel doorway, Sam rolled his eyes at Dean's latest attempt to find them nicknames. He dropped their weapons bag by the room's table and shrugged out of his ruined jacket. His shoulders protested the movement. Maybe 'Bruised' is appropriate….
They had just spent half the night tracking a wendigo through an abandoned mineshaft and the surrounding woods. A young couple, Aaron Lynch and Zoey Miller, had gone missing the week before, but thankfully were still alive when Sam and Dean had found them in the creature's lair.
Hunting a wendigo at night wasn't the best option, and many a hunter had been killed trying. But all their efforts to corner the thing during the day had failed, so they'd been forced to go with Dean's all-too-familiar fallback plan: live bait. Sam's protests, as usual, were ignored.
Sam shook his head silently. That was an all-too-familiar phenomenon as well. He glanced up at Dean, who was slowly removing his own filthy clothes by the bed and staring at Sam expectantly. He actually wanted an answer to his suggestion.
Sam thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. "How would people tell us apart?"
Dean smirked. "I'd still be the good-looking one."
Sam sighed, setting his mud-caked shoes beside one of the chairs. "Whatever, egomaniac. I'm taking the first shower."
As he moved toward the bathroom, Dean snorted indignantly. "Why do you get to go first?"
"Um." Sam frowned, turning around. "Because I'm the one you tossed into the river?"
Dean spread his hands. "I saved your life, dude! That thing was coming right at you. I should get first dibs."
Sam cocked an eyebrow. "If you hadn't stopped to flirt with that Zoey girl, I wouldn't have needed saving."
"Oh, yeah…" Dean sighed, staring off into space, clearly reminiscing. "She was so hot…"
"Anyway," Sam cut in, hating to interrupt. Not. "A simple 'behind you' would have worked."
"You're such an ingrate, Sammy," Dean chided, though a grin was curving his mouth.
Sam relaxed a little and tried to calm down, recognizing that exhaustion was making him irritable. "Maybe, but I'll be a clean ingrate, jerk. Order a pizza or something, would ya? I'm starving."
He retreated to the bathroom without waiting for Dean's retort.
Dean cast a glare at the closing bathroom door, reaching for the phone book to find a takeout number. Bossy little bitch…
Scanning the Yellow Pages, Dean let his thoughts wander. Sam had been a little bossy since… Well, since their run-in with that damned Trickster in Broward County. All Dean knew was that Sam had been practically unhinged on Tuesday, going on about the Trickster making him relive the day over and over, and then on Wednesday, he was suddenly different. Sam woke up looking older, worn down. Then he'd jumped off the bed and hugged Dean like he hadn't seen him in forever.
Dean had gotten very little out of him in the weeks since. The Trickster had trapped Sam in some sort of Groundhog's Day time loop, making him watch Dean die day after day something like a hundred times. Which was still kind of hard to believe. That, in and of itself, had to register a 9.0 on their Weird-Shit-o-Meter, but it seemed to have shaken Sam to the core.
But Sam had acted strange ever since. He was quiet, far too quiet. Sitting in that jail cell in Monument before the demons attacked, he had barely spoken at all, just stared off into space. Though, that day had also been Dean's one big break in uncovering whatever had happened in Broward County.
After the siege—and Ruby's news that, while their actions have driven off the demons, the survivors had all been killed anyway by Lilith—they'd been so beat to hell and exhausted that Dean had convinced Sam to take some medicine and go to bed. His brother had acquiesced.
Painkillers and Sam were a hit-or-miss situation. Sometimes they dulled pain and knocked him out. Sometimes they doped him up and acted like truth serum. Dean had learned many a thing over the years when Sam was drugged to the gills. It was underhanded, sure, but older brothers often had to use any trick to take care of their little brothers. Dean had no regrets.
Under the influence, Sam had revealed, disjointedly, that Dean had died one final time in the Trickster's game. Only, instead the day resetting, Sam had gone on alone for over six months. Unlike Dean, who didn't remember any of it, Sam had a clear recollection. No wonder the kid had come back different.
Dean was fairly certain he was dodging sleep, too. Probably afraid he'll wake up on Wednesday again. Dean would be. The Trickster had put his brother through Hell.
No one else seemed to have noticed the change, except for maybe Bobby, but Dean saw it. It was subtle, and Sam buried it well, but there was an edge now. Something brooding just below the surface. Sam's six months alone couldn't have been pleasant, but the kid still wasn't willing to talk about it outside of his painkiller-induced confessions, and it didn't seem like anything short of dynamite was going to change his mind.
Dean wanted to ask. He wanted to help. Sam had helped him so much in the last few months to come to terms with his upcoming deal. He had no doubt he would have flamed out in panic had Sam not been there, and Dean wanted to repay that. Needed to repay it.
Sam didn't want acknowledgement, or thanks, Dean knew. But he could reciprocate. It was only fair.
Unfortunately, getting Sam to release his vice-like hold on what he was thinking was easier said than done. His OCD had come out in full-force after what Dean was thinking of as the "Mystery Spot incident." Hell, they were still butting heads over the proper organization of the Impala's trunk. Dean was happy so long as the guns, knives, and other implements stayed separate; Sam had them freaking alphabetized.
Dean's thoughts crashed to a halt when he heard the shower turn off. He hurriedly dialed the pizza place's number. If Sam came out and found him lost in thought, Dean would get hit with a barrage of "are you okay" and "talk to me." It had been like that for weeks.
Yeah, being alone for six months had also turned Sam into something of a hypocrite, so far as opening up went.
Dean had the pizza ordered before the door opened. Sam came out, drying his hair, and started rummaging through his bag for a shirt. He glanced up, and Dean knew he was busted. He hadn't covered his expression fast enough.
Cringing inwardly at the dreaded question, Dean turned and pasted on his most convincing irate-older-sibling face. "Besides that I'm still covered in mud and wendigo blood? Nothin'."
Sam hesitated a moment, then seemed to fall for it, smiling. "Shower's free. You get a pizza?"
"On its way," Dean replied easily, already halfway into the bathroom and out from under his brother's scrutiny. "You're buying."
He just barely heard Sam's "jerk" as the door clicked shut.
Dinner was quiet. A lot of dinners had been quiet since Sam's ordeal. Dean knew that Sam was trying to act as though everything was normal, and in many ways, they had fallen back into familiar patterns. Dean drove, Sam researched, they knew each other's moves in the field. As hunters, they were just as good, if not better, than they'd been before. But as brothers, there was friction.
Months alone, if even only in his mind, had broadened Sam's independent streak, and they butted heads sometimes on how to go about things. He eased into the lead, the dominant partner in their two-man hunting team. It would have made their Dad proud to see his youngest so willing to step up. Sam was good at it.
Which was fine, Dean decided. Really.
It also meant that some things Dean had once taken as law weren't so clear-cut anymore. Things like who went through a door first on a hunt, who called the play when a fight was going south, who hustled the pool or poker game when they needed money. Things that had once been Dean's specialty.
Dean didn't begrudge Sam's newfound prowess or his now-honed ability to take care of himself. Hell, it was what Dean wanted. Sam needed to become a survivor, like Dean himself had been urging. Thanks to the cursed Trickster, his little brother had lived on his own for six months and not only survived but excelled. At least, that was Dean's impression. That was great. Dean was proud of him.
Unfortunately, it also meant that Sam was becoming a lot more like their dad, which in turn meant that small-talk was…well, not easy. Not that Sam wasn't trying. He laughed at all the right jokes and traded barbs with ease. But it all seemed scripted. Everything was a little too things I'll do if I ever see my dead brother again for Dean's taste.
He guessed he understood. He'd been the same way for a while after he'd gotten Sam back after Cold Oak, and apparently, Sam had been alone a lot longer. A lot longer.
So Dean got it, and he kept reminding himself to be patient. Sam had never recovered well from drastic changes. It was why he'd had so much trouble moving from town to town as a child. Why Sam had taken so many months to get back into the swing of hunting after Jess's death. Clearly, this was no different. Dean had died. Sam had been forced to adjust. Now, Dean was back, and all those changes Sam had made in order to live alone were turned on their heads. Some things just hadn't readjusted.
These days, it seemed Sam's only concerns were Dean, breaking the deal, and hunting. In that order.
That didn't leave much to chat about. Sometimes Sam just sat silently while they ate or researched. Just sat. He wouldn't speak and didn't seem to relax at all. Dean would turn his head and find Sam staring at him, like he was trying to memorize him. Occasionally, Sam would jump when Dean spoke, as if he wasn't expecting anyone else to be in the room.
There was no spark, no joy over much of anything except ammo being on sale or gas prices going down. Dean wondered sometimes how much of his little brother was left under all that Hunter. What it would take to get him back.
Dean surreptitiously watched Sam eat. There was little else to do, since his last three attempts to strike up a conversation had died quick and awkward deaths. Sam was eating the slice of pizza with a knife and fork. Not necessarily unusual. Dean preferred to dive in with his hands, but Sammy had always been a neat freak.
Not like this, though. Sam cut with machinelike precision. Each piece was then chewed methodically and swallowed, then the whole process repeated with no deviation. His drink sat about six inches from the plate, and no matter how many times Sam picked it up, the bottle always came back down on the same spot. It was eerie, like watching a robot.
"You're doing it again."
Sam always did have eyes like a hawk, especially where Dean was concerned. That hadn't changed.
Dean blinked away his frown. "Hmm?"
Sam sighed and stopped eating. "Dean…what's going on? You're looking at me like you expect me to sprout another head."
"That'd be pretty freaky," Dean covered, taking a swig from his beer to stall. He didn't want to have the conversation this way, with Sam on the defensive.
He knew what the frown would look like before looking back up at Sam. And knew, too, that he wasn't getting out of it that easy. "I'm— Look, man…I'm just worried about you, all right?"
Sam's frown went from annoyed to confused. "Me? You're worried about me?"
"I think maybe we need to take a break."
"What are you, a parrot? Yes, Sam, a break. A vacation. Shore leave. Something. We've been going non-stop since Christmas."
"There's a war on," Sam muttered.
"People take breaks, even soldiers. And frankly— Frankly, Sam, you're weirding me out. All these strange habits…you're different."
Sam's expression shifted, becoming more challenging. "Name one 'strange habit.'"
Dean chewed his lip for a moment. It looked like they were having this conversation after all. "The OCD."
Sam frowned again, staring at Dean.
Dean pressed on. "Look at the notes on the walls, Sammy. You couldn't get them any straighter if you used a level. It looks like a serial killer's lair. The trunk of the car? I need the freakin' Dewey Decimal system to find the guns, and if I don't get it back in the right spot, you repack the whole thing before we hit the road. The way you eat—"
"There's nothing wrong with being organized," Sam interjected, sounding a little rebuffed. "And I eat just fine."
"You're not eating that pizza, Sam. You're performing surgery on it."
Sam glanced down at his plate, so clueless it was almost comical. He glanced back up at Dean, clearly at a loss for words. "If— I can try to loosen up if I'm bothering you."
Dean cringed inside. That wasn't what he wanted. "Sam…you're not bothering me, man. I'm just worried about you. You were always a neat freak, but this is over the top." He wasn't sure if he was getting through, so he softened his tone more. Sam seemed to be shrinking into his seat. "Sam, look, I know whatever happened to you in Broward County was hard, but—"
Dean's phone chirped. Great timing. Damn it. He glanced at the screen before opening it, not recognizing the number.
He looked back at Sam before answering. "You're not bothering me. That's not what I meant, Sammy. Hello?"
A male voice he hadn't heard before replied. "Dean Winchester?"
"Yeah? Who is this?"
"Is Sam with you?"
The tone of the voice caused Dean to straighten in his chair. He looked at Sam as he answered. "No. Sam's not with me. Who is this?"
Sam stopped eating and turned his full attention to the conversation. His whole demeanor shifted to one of wariness and concern, his earlier frown dropping off.
"Don't be coy, Dean. Put me on the speaker."
Dean grimaced, shaking his head at Sam, and held the phone out between them. He pressed the button for the speaker. "Okay. We're listening. Wanna tell us why?"
"Hi, Sam!" the voice called pleasantly. "Long time no see."
"Do I know you?" Sam replied coolly.
"I found something that belongs to you," the caller said, ignoring their questions completely. "If you want it back, you'll come see me."
Dean growled. This was either a prank or a threat, and he was tired of waiting to see which. He glanced around the room, smirking at Sam. "Looks to me like all our earthly possessions are in our room. I don't think you have anything of ours, mister."
"Well, let's see." There was a rustling on the line, like something being moved. After a moment, a new voice came on.
Dean blinked for a moment, noting that Sam had gone pale. His blood ran cold when the new—terrified—voice clicked in his memory. Sam beat him to answering.
"Sarah? Sarah, what's—?"
"Do I have your attention now, boys?"
Sam snarled. "Who the hell—?"
"I'm surprised you've forgotten, Sam. We shared a body for over a week. I know I'm more memorable than that."
Sam scowled. "Meg!"
Dean groaned inwardly. This was no ordinary kidnapping, then…not that that was surprising. Their lives weren't that easy. This was much worse. After she'd fled Bobby's when they got her out of Sam, they'd dared hope Meg was gone for good. Dean wondered bitterly just what they'd have to do to rid themselves of the bitch.
"Come to Chicago and I'll give her back to you. If you're not here in the next twenty-four hours, the next call you get will be when I cut her throat."
The call ended abruptly. They both stared dumbly at the silent phone for a moment before looking at each other. Sam's expression was somewhere between stunned and enraged. Dean was pretty sure his own expression mirrored those feelings.
He stood and pocketed the cell. Driving non-stop, they could be in Chicago in about twenty hours. Just under the deadline.
The ride in the car was tense. Dean looked over at Sam, who was obsessively checking and rechecking their duffels. Salt, exorcisms, holy water, and spray paint to draw traps: they were armed to the teeth. Too bad they didn't have the Colt.
"Have you talked to Sarah recently? Did she mention anyone hanging around?"
Sam shrugged, the grim expression not wavering. "No. Last time I talked—well, saw her—was right after that thing with the rabbit's foot."
He glanced over at Dean, expression faltering momentarily.
"Uh…remember she met us after we ditched Gordon's buddies?"
Dean looked over, smiling. Of course. After getting away from the two hunters Gordon Walker had sent after them in Buffalo, they'd headed south. They'd holed up near New Paltz, and that night Sarah had called, totally unaware of what was happening. She'd insisted on seeing them when she'd found out Sam had been hurt.
Dean remembered leaving Sam alone with her for a few hours. His prude of a brother wasted them, but whatever. At least there was some lipstick on Sam's mouth afterward. Dean still liked to tease Sam about whatever did or did not happen. "Oh, right. When she was there playing nurse."
Sam shook his head at Dean's lewd implication. "Anyway, she didn't mention anything unusual. She just wanted to check up on me."
The tone of Sam's voice caused a faint smile to form on Dean's face despite the direness of the situation. Sarah and Sam had kept in sporadic touch after meeting almost a year and a half earlier. They usually just chatted for a few hours, nothing too serious. Sam had managed to go see her once when they'd found a hunt in New York, but not long afterward, he'd had the scarring fling with Madison.
After that, Sam didn't initiate any more calls.
Dean hated that, since it was clear Sam still felt something for Sarah, and Madison's death wasn't the kid's fault, no matter how much he blamed himself. None of Dean's advice had been heeded, though, and before long, Sam's death and Dean's deal had overshadowed everything else. He'd found Sam talking to Sarah a few times since then, but Sarah had been the one to call and the calls never lasted long before Sam resumed his research.
Still, it wasn't surprising there was something of a spark left between them, a repressed urge, at least. Maybe someday Sam would let himself act on it, but so far, breaking Dean's deal had consumed his attention completely. The kid didn't give himself time to have a life; he was too busy obsessing over Dean's.
"How the hell did Meg get to her?" Sam spat angrily, slamming the bag down on the seat between them. "I showed her how to protect herself."
Dean glanced at his fuming sibling. That rage was new, too, and never far below the surface anymore. "Meg's gotten the drop on us often enough, Sammy."
Sam didn't answer, just rubbed his forehead. The anger and frustration were practically rolling off him.
Dean swatted his arm lightly. "Hey, pull it together, man. You've got the next thirteen hundred miles to fume, then we gotta go to work."
Dropping his hand and looking over, Sam grimaced. "Meg's gonna kill her, Dean," he murmured. "She's going to kill her just because she knows me."
"No. She isn't," Dean said confidently. A little more confidently than he actually felt. When Sam opened his mouth, Dean cut him off. "She isn't, Sam. We won't let anything happen to Sarah."
Sam chewed his lip for a moment before turning his face back to the window. "Our track record isn't so great on that, Dean."
There was that guilt again. Over Mom, Jess, Dad, Madison: countless others they hadn't been able to save over the years. And finally over Dean himself. Dean shook his head. Sometimes he feared Sam was headed for a meltdown.
"Try to get some sleep, Sam," he suggested, knowing it would be ignored. "I'll wake you up when we stop for gas."