Sam looked at his brother from the passenger seat and knew that Dean was getting ready to propose a game of "Gank 'Em Up," which never failed to remind the younger brother about the poet Wallace Stevens.
"Come on, Sam, put down your book and play just one game. I'll even let you choose the setting," Dean said, fidgeting in the driver seat. "We have over three hours until we reach the North Carolina mountains and I feel like I'm stuck in the strip mall circle of hell."
Sam's old English Lit professor once told a story about Wallace Stevens, who was an insurance salesman by day and poet by night. The other people in his carpool had discovered there was one particular exit on the way into the city where the man transformed twice a day. On one side of the exit, Stevens could only talk about insurance; on the other, he was all poet.
The story had stuck with Sam because he'd long seen his brother undergo a similar transformation on their long road trips. Going into or coming out of a job, Dean was cranky and pushy and cocky-but at some point when they were far from any responsibilities, when they were two pirates on the high seas of the highways, Dean was actually a pretty cool guy.
Sam gave a theatrical sigh."Naw, man, us mere mortals are no match for the Khan."
It was almost as much fun to egg on Dean as it was to play "Gank 'Em Up." The title and rules had changed over the years, but it was the same basic concept from when they were kids kicking the front seat with their dad driving. But in recent months Dean had been taking it taken more seriously than ever. Which was both worrisome and hilarious.
His big brother did not disappoint. "How many times do I have to tell you what was so cool about Genghis Khan was that he was just a guy. Some kid in Bumfuck Mongolia who didn't look very promising, with no extra special powers, not chosen by demons or angels. He was just good at getting shit done."
It was all Sam could do not to laugh at his brother's earnest reverence for the long-dead military leader. His eye-roll did not go unnoticed.
"All right fine, I'll choose the scenario," Dean huffed. "You're at the top of the Empire State Building. There are demons blocking the elevators and stairs. You've got some school kids and a really pretty teacher and a werewolf holding them hostage. Your only weapons are from the next three things we pass on your side of the road. Winner gets to choose where we eat tonight."
Sam looked out the window obediently. "OK, uh, I see a farm-and-feed store with some livestock trucks in the parking lot, a video store and a Dairy Queen."
"Damn, you got lucky. All kinds of stuff you can use as weapons in the farm store." His brother looked on his side of the road. "And I see a couple Indian souvenir stands and a liquor store¬-shit, do you think we should stop? I'd hate to end up in a dry county like we did last time we hit the Carolinas."
"Don't try to distract¬-you were the one who wanted to play, so play right," Sam chided the driver. "The other thing you saw was a ladies' clothing store."
Dean shrugged confidently. "I bet they have some great barbecue around here."
Sam put down his book to consider. "The first thing I would do, would be to fix all of the demons within devil's trap made out of some holy oil. There would be some kind of useful oil at the livestock store, and I know the spell." His brother nodded, his eyes on the road. "And about the werewolf, I saw some pigs back there in the parking lot, so I'd just feed it one of the pigs and that should slow it down."
"You can't do that! That that goes against the Rule of Credulity," Dean protested. Actually it was Sam that instituted the rule long ago, as his brother was often carried away by imagining Chuck Norris appearing out of nowhere and other completely improbable twists from his favorite horror movies, complete with lots of girls running around in their underwear. "There has never been and never will be at pig in the Empire State Building."
Sam found the game working its magic on him despite himself. "Just think about it, Dean: pigs' organs are the most similar to humans'. If they can use their heart valves in transplants, maybe we should carry around a couple of pig hearts just in case we run into a werewolf—it might slow them down from ripping out people's hearts."
"Yeah or piss them off. But it sure won't stop them for long. OK my turn," Dean said eagerly. "So in that souvenir shop, I bet they have jewelry—charms and dreamcatcher stuff."
Sam groaned at his adversary's good fortune.
"You feel where I'm going with this? Cheap silver gegaws probably made in China? And I know for a fact that every liquor store has a gun, which I'm sure I could convince the honor to let me borrow."
This understatement elicited a snort.
"And there's probably sage or herbs or whatever the local tribes use around here for dispelling evil spirits. I figure I could go up there and shoot me a werewolf in the chest before anyone was the wiser—"
"Not so fast, cowboy. It's not like when we were kids-they've got extra security in the Empire State Building ever since 9-11. How would you get your gun in there, tough guy?"
"New York is a tough town for hunters," Dean admitted, his brow furrowed in complete concentration. "So what are you gonna do? You know, even if you could get a pig up there, it's not like any self-respecting werewolf is going to choose that over a bunch of McNugget sized hearts of little kids. Pretty weak, my friend."
By this time, nothing else existed for them but the long stretches of blank road, superimposed with their imagination. "I could make any number of bombs with fertilizer from the feed store. There'd also be pipes I could use to create a contained explosion." Sam's gift with chemistry had helped them out more than once. "Or no, get this, a flame thrower that could fry up some demons pretty good and maybe even the werewolf."
Dean shot a look to the passenger side, happily taking in his brother's absorption in their private pastime.
"And I don't need a souvenir shop—silver is easy," Sam scoffed. "Somebody, either the kids or that teacher, is wearing something silver. I bet there's something silver in the gift shop, if not. And there's bound to be shell casings at the feed store-I could cook up some bullets."
"Dude, you can't just throw a bullet at the thing; you still need a gun."
"No, dude, you need a gun," Sam said in a superior tone designed to infuriate. "There's these spring-loaded hinges and and things like that that farms use. Perfect start for a zip gun good enough to pierce the sternum. If the werewolf was slowed down enough by being burned, I could probably take one of those veterinary syringes and inject his heart with the silver. Hey, that's not a bad idea-"
Dean twisted his lip in grudging admiration. "OK, grant you, it is easier to smuggle that kind of stuff in than a real gun. But you didn't use anything from the other two places, which is a clear violation of the rules. And I'm not sure that you really took care of the demons."
"That's easy," Sam replied, leaning back in his seat. "I'd buy all the kids ice cream, and the teacher I'd ask out for a movie. I win."
"Not so fast, I have that beat by a mile." Dean kept his eyes carefully on the road. "Most of the Indians around here are Cherokee. I think they have a lot of mythology about spirit animals, so I think someone there could help me figure out how to summon—"
"How do you know so much about the Cherokee?" Sam interjected curiously.
"Dad had me memorize some of the basic stuff about all the tribes across the country. He said it was was a good starting place for knowing the local spirits." Dean dug at a sensitive spot. "You must have been studying something more important." His brother didn't rise to the bait. "So what I'm trying to summon is King Kong—"
"Wait, wait, wait," Sam objected. "That is way beyond the Bounds of Credulity."
"Hear me out, it makes perfect sense." Dean's eyes were shining. "We know that there is such a thing as a supernatural creature that takes the form of a big scary animal. What if, instead of a huge ape, Kong was more like a big black bear?"
Sam had always envied Dean's ability to get so into a fictional tale that it got filed under fact in his brain. This promised to be good, so he said, "Assuming the King Kong story was based on something that really happened, then what?"
"There's this Cherokee legend about summoning the Black Bear Spirit, about tracking it-sometimes it's on your side, sometimes it's not. Sometimes you eat it or vice versa. In one version of the tale, the bear used to be human but it decided to go wild and turn its back on civilization. It's ike the black sheep of the family, only a humanoid kind of bear."
"It's like a wendigo?" Sam asked, referring to humans that turned their back on civilization in Plains Indian myths.
"Sort of, except i'm not sure that it's a cannibal. At any rate, they've got rituals about communicating with this bear spirit that is somehow realted to them, which is more than we usually have to go on when we're hunting."
"Let me get this straight: you're going to summon King Kong and convince him to kill the demons and the werewolf because you're distant cousins? That's pathetic, brother. I win."
"No, see, there's more to it than that." Dean had a gloating smile. "The Navajo, at least I think it was them, they've also got their big black bear myths. In the one I'm thinking of, this warrior is all respected and has groupies and whatnot, but he thinks no one will love him for himself, not his skills.
"One day he talks to some demigod or other about it. The spirit changes the guy into this big scary black bear, so that only his true love won't be scared off. Then he's all miserable and alone, thinking no one will ever love him now that he's this monster. And the local tribes are all freaked out by this bear who's constantly in a bad mood. So they start offering up maidens to him to appease his misery, and of course one after another they run away screaming. Sound like any classic movie you know? Finally, a girl looks at him and loves him for what he is, and he turns back into a man."
Sam was speechless for a moment at his brother's folklore knowledge, but he recovered. "Man, this gives new meaning to the word tangential. I'm going to take a nap. Wake me up when you get to the point."
Dean drummed his fingers against the steering wheel in excitement. "Back in the Empire State, I summon King Kong and offer him the maiden he's been waiting for, the one who's not scared of him but doesn't give up the goods enough to turn him back into a man. If Kong can be strung along just right, he'd be happy enough to defend his new lady friend from demons, the werewolf, anything I want."
"You're going to volunteer the teacher in this scheme? That goes against the 'Never Rely on a Civilian' rule AND the 'Never Get a Civilian Killed' rules. I'm surprised at you Dean. Forfeit."
"I'm sure that ladies' clothing store had something in my size," Dean said, deadpan.
"You? You would be Fay Wray?" Sam sat up straight "While I would pay good money to see that happen, what makes you think any big black bear, that anyone, would want the kind of woman you would make?"
Dean was unusually tractable. "That's part of the plan. See, I have the gun from the liquor store and the silver bullets, I just have to get them past the metal detector. They let women through those things all the time with the old 'oops, it's my underwire' excuse," he finished in a falsetto. "And you're right, nobody would want to look that close at an ugly lady's bra and panties. Hell, it's New York, they see the Adam's apple, they know better than to look."
"So you wouldnt just wear the underwire, you'd have the whole set?" Sam chortled.
"When in Rome, my friend. Genghis Khan was all about the disguises," Dean said in a professorial tone. "He and his warriors regularly dressed up like merchants and other sissy-ass costumes to make people think they were anything less than one of the best-trained armies that ever lived. I read about this one battle-"
Sam listened to his brother drone on and held on to the levity the way he'd learned to hold on to anything pleasant-with the full knowledge that life wasn't that simple. It was like Sam himself must have looked when he was in college and mastered a particularly difficult chemistry equation.
Dean had so seldom allowed himself to really unfurl his intelligence because he didn't think of himself as the smart kid. But sometime in the last couple months it's like something had switched on in his older brother's brain and he was swimming in his own genius.
Sam listened to all the ideas for how to lay siege to the Empire State Building that were pouring out of his brother's mouth, and wished he could simply be happy that they weren't quarreling with each other. That Dean wasn't sullen and depressed the way he was most of the time now.
It was easy to see that the job was wearing on Dean, that he wasn't himself since coming back from hell. Hell, both of them had this upcoming apocalypse and, each with a supernatural Cinderlla claiming one of the brothers was their lost shoe they were going to try on for size. The Winchesters had been living off the dregs of their strength for months now. But Sam knew this one person better than any other, and there was something extra, on top of the towering pile of other shit, going on with his brother.
It all started about five months ago when they were in an antique store checking to see if some actual evil talismans were being sold as costume jewelry. Dean was looking idly at a bookshelf and then, twenty minutes later, after Sam had interviewed the owner by himself, Dean was still at the same bookshelf.
"How much is this?" he asked, brandishing a book.
"Take the whole set off my hands and I'll give it to you for $15," the proprietor said.
As far as Sam knew, Dean never read anything except for the purposes of killing or avoiding being killed, so he was astonished to see his brother happily load the entire Time-Life Great Generals book series into the trunk.
Something kept Sam from teasing his brother about his newfound historical interests. The first book Dean went for was about Rommel—their dad sometimes talked about him, so Sam chalked it up to nostalgia for their late father. Then he saw a few of the other books, mostly Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great, get some wear, but after that it was all about the Khan.
Dean read that book until it fell apart and he stitched it back together with dental floss. It was splattered with blood and ketchup and was by now a fixture in his jacket's inner pocket. He read it while eating and he read it before going to sleep. It made him laugh in a way that nothing had made his brother laugh for a long time.
The whole thing scared the shit out of Sam.
More than one person had commented on Dean's eerie attachment to the book. Sam had added some of his own splatters to the volume from his attempts to exorcise it by dunking it in holy water and test it for curses by rubbing it with lamb's liver. He'd even bought a substitute for the thing online and tried to sneak it into Dean's things, to no avail. Once he'd left it behind in the motel but Dean went back fifty miles for it. Sam had also bought his brother other books on Genghis Khan, too, but these were quickly devoured and then abandoned in favor of the original.
Since the rest of the time Dean tended to be irritable if not downright nasty, his brother supposed it was an improvement to sit across from someone quietly reading at dinner. If only all roads didn't lead to the Big Dance.
From what Sam had been able to gather, there was a legend that Genghis Khan would rise again and lead the army of armies. It wasn't hard to see the parallel with the standing invitation from the Archangel Michael to lead the apocalyptic army. The whole thing could be the angels trying to sneak their agenda past Dean's refusal.
There was no way to know for sure. But who was Sam, after all, to deny his brother this one small plank of happiness that Dean clung to in the face of the rising waters of doom?
The road had gotten pretty steep by the time they finally pulled into some barbecue joint. They took one step in and Sam hissed, "I call the shower first tonight, brother. These dives you like so much make me feel like I'm coated with lard inside and out."
The transformation had already begun to take place about half an hour ago. They sat in a booth and Sam gave in to what had been one of the conditions of his existence in his family: Dean was there to lead, he was there to follow.
"Naw, Sam, don't order a salad. You always order a salad in one of these places and then get pissed because it's a hunk of iceberg. This is not a salad place."
"I can order for myself, Dean," he muttered. When Sam was a kid he used to think of Dean as one of those sheep dogs that was programmed to herd sheep but would push around anything else that was handy.
"Have the chicken. You can never go wrong with chicken."
Dean was always freaking herding him, and Sam, the only army his brother-general had to command, gave in. "I'll have the chicken," he told the waitress.
The hardened look had settled back on his brother's face, so Sam let him read.
"Whatcha readin'?" someone said from the next table.
"Oh, just something about Genghis Khan, you know he was a Mongolian-"
"I know who he was-that's my rig outside," the beefy man who was around Sam's height nodded to the parking lot to the 18 wheeler. The brothers looked blank. "Truckers are some of the most educated folk you'll ever meet. We listen to audio books all day every day."
"Fair enough," Dean said and went back to his reading.
So as not to appear rude, Sam filled in the silence. "We spend a good bit of time on the road ourselves; it is a great place to think."
"I was always more an Attila fan, myself," the man pursued.
"Attila the Hun couldn't hold his liquor," Dean said without looking up.
"Khan was a man-whore! Do you know how many people in China are related to him?"
"He wasn't a man-whore!" Dean's face was flushing. "When his wife was kidnapped he created a law that stopped people from wife-stealing. The Khan stopped torture; he was ahead of his time. Hate to tell you: they overcharged you on that Phoenix University degree of yours."
"Oh yeah? So you're saying the Khan was cooler than Alexander the Great, who used elephants instead of little ponies?" the trucker scoffed. "Your feet would've been dragging on the ground riding on one of those teeny Mongolian horses."
"Alexander the Paranoid stabbed multiple friends in the back, when he didn't poison them first. He didn't know the value of loyalty." Sam could hear his brother's voice stilling into a dangerous calm.
"Check please," he motioned to the waitress, who seemed thoroughly entertained.
"Genghis Khan was just some yahoo that happened to be born when the Chinese dynasty was so decadent they could be defeated by a few big-talking, pony-riding illiterate bumpkins. Everyone makes this big deal about generals, but they're just a function of their time and—"
Dean was always fast, faster than his brother, so both Sam and the trucker were surprised by the fork that was now poised at the larger man's jugular.
"Nobody messes with the Khan," Dean gnashed through gritted teeth.
The man gave a lazy smile to the waitress and brought his hamhock of an arm towards Dean.
Who, of course, was no longer there to receive the blow. Sam watched his brother's fighting prowess, hewn out of all his stolen dreams and existing in some sacred place where not even his despair could corrode it. It was beautiful, the explosion of blows Dean pulled out of thin air and delivered to the much-larger opponent, though not without sustaining a little punishment himself.
"Dean, Dean, it's not worth it. Come on. We have a job, remember?" Sam took a haymaker himself while trying to separate the two men.
"Tell him, Sam, you don't mess with the Khan," Dean cried, beside himself about nothing in a way he didn't usually get without half a bottle of whiskey and blood on his hands.
"i'm really sorry," Sam said, throwing some money on the table."My brother has a lot on his mind." And he hauled Dean out to the Impala, where his older brother let him drive while Dean descended the next, worst, last rung into whatever hell he lived in these days.
Sam checked them into the motel. He fetched the liquor from the trunk. He found one of those old war movies Dean had taken to watching on TV. And then Sam did everything he could not to stare at his brother methodically drinking himself into a state of grace, like their father used to, during the darkest times.
"Except Dad was always furious about something," Sam told himself, looking through their scanty information on tomorrow's case. "Dean usually cares too much about everything. It's what makes him so easy to rile up—don't mess with Led Zeppelin, don't mess with Mustangs from such-and-such a year, don't mess with that special kind of rotgut that he drinks with Bobby, don't mess with those weird ketchup-flavored potato chips they only have in Canada—"
Sam's brother had more sacred cows than anyone he'd ever met, and Dean defended them passionately, though up until now, not at forkpoint. Sober, at any rate.
So why was Dean sitting there staring unseeingly at the television, the only sign of life the arm moving the glass to his lips?
"Hey, man, haven't you always told me not to let the idiots of the world get you down?" Sam finally ventured.
"I think I used the word 'assholes' but yeah, same concept," came the oddly flat voice.
Sam came to sit across from him. "What's going on, Dean? We're not even on the job yet and you're already on edge."
"We're always on the job these days, didn't you get the memo?" his brother said bitterly into his drink. "I just hate how smug that dude was. 'A general is just a function of his time.' If he knew anything except how to sit on his ass all day, he'd know that that kind of thinking is fucking dangerous."
This was a longer speech than Sam had expected. "So you think our situation is better, where people are constantly telling us how we were born to be these vessels and play this predestined role? We hate that. We complain about this fate business all the time."
Dean put down his drink and really looked at Sam for the first time in hours. "Don't get me wrong. If I ever get my hands on one of those Fate ladies, I'll gank that bitch but good. And it would be the stupidest thing I ever did."
He busied himself with topping off the glass and Sam hated that there was a part of his brain that could calculate the kind of hangover his brother would have tomorrow based on the amount left in the bottle.
"I hate Fate, I'll fight against it with my dying breath, I resent the hell out of all the shit those bitches keep cooking up for me. But take away that structure, that thing to fight against, and it's all just one big cage fight with no rules, no winners, no sense to it if we're merely determined by our environment." Dean's face was still. Unnaturally still. "Do you want to accept that you keep doing stupid shit over and over again for no reason at all? 'Cause I've tried that idea on for size and it doesn't suit me one bit."
Dean leaned back against the anonymous couch and felt for the remote to turn up the volume on the television, heedless of his brother's visible eyes, and the invisible angel-eyes, that watched him with concern.