First appeared in Rooftop Confessions 6 (2011), from GriffinSong Press
A Brother First
K Hanna Korossy
So…35 North or 44 East? Sam chewed his lip as he looked through the windshield at the signs and debated.
He was tempted to wake Dean and ask him. While Sam relied on maps and the GPS in his phone, his brother seemed to have the whole country mapped out in his head, driving almost by instinct. He would know immediately which way to go. But Dean was asleep, or at least resting, and considering the way he'd seemed the last few days, Sam was loath to disturb him. He could figure this out. North and east were totally different directions, after—
His phone buzzed in his pocket, and Dean jerked sluggishly beside him. Sam quietly cursed and pulled off the road, one hand digging for his phone while he pressed the other flat against Dean's breastbone. "It's fine, go back to sleep," he murmured to his brother.
Dean blinked at him once groggily, then settled back against the window.
Sam's mouth twisted as he took the call. But he made sure he talked softly.
Two minutes later, his decision was made for him. They were definitely going east. Dean didn't even stir as the car started moving again, crossing the rumble strip back onto the road.
Sam gave him a resigned look as he made the turn, wishing they were still headed for the milk-run job in Kansas City. He'd hoped the quirky simplicity of the case—a series of apparently possessed housecats—would engage his brother with a minimum of risk, drawing him out of his recent apathy. Sam had thought the worst of Dean's grief for their father's death was behind them, but Dean's actual consideration of a crossroad's demon's offer to bring John back a few months before had proven just how much Dean still quietly suffered Dad's loss.
There had been nothing in the past week to remind them of John Winchester, no anniversaries, old friends, or father-son victims, nor was there any sign of an illness to account for a change of behavior in Dean. But constant fatigue and lack of appetite and interest were all classic symptoms of depression and grief, as Sam knew all too well. And as Dean had gotten increasingly quiet and stoic, shutting Sam out with sleep and monosyllabic responses, Sam feared his brother was sliding back into the despair that had almost torn them both apart after their father's death.
He couldn't go through that again. He just couldn't. Dean was all he had left, and with the growing threat of Sam's strange "abilities," he needed his brother more than ever. He couldn't, wouldn't lose Dean too.
But for now, on their way to answer a call for help with the road unspooling under the Impala's wheels and Dean sleeping bonelessly beside him and NPR droning quietly from the radio, Sam set aside his concerns and let himself find his own elusive peace.
Morning was just breaking as they pulled into the parking lot of the hotel. The speed bump at the entrance jarred Dean awake, and he rubbed a hand down his face and stretched a crick out of his neck as he gave the sprawling high-rise in front of them a puzzled look.
"This isn't Kansas City."
Sam snorted softly as he swung the car into an empty space. "Can't get anything past you. Try a little more east."
Dean glanced around, movement becoming more animated as he woke up. "We in Nashville?" he asked incredulously.
Sam was doing his own craning and looking thing. "Uh-huh."
"What happened to Kansas City?"
"Still there, last I heard." Sam gave him a mischievous smile, his amusement slipping at Dean's glower. "I got a call, uh, yesterday. We've got a new job."
Dean's brows beetled. "What?"
"C'mon." Sam slid out of the car and headed back to the trunk for their bags.
Dean followed him, still wriggling out kinks in his shoulders and neck. "What're we doing here? Dude, you know the cards are stretched thin right now—we can't afford a place like this."
Sam pulled out a bag and tossed it at Dean, who caught it with both hands. "We don't have to." He nodded at the building. "This is the job."
Dean shut up then, although he didn't look very happy about it.
They went inside, Sam leading the way through the marbled hotel lobby, past a small fountain that he could hear Dean quietly scoff at. At the desk, Sam put on his most charming smile, trying to look as if he hadn't driven through the night in those same clothes. "Sam and Dean Winchester—we're here to see Mr. Arkosy? He's expecting us."
Dean hissed behind him, batting at the back of Sam's jacket at the use of their real names, but Sam ignored him.
The woman made a call, then gave them a friendly smile, her gaze lingering flirtatiously on Dean. "Mr. Arkosy can see you now—if you'd step around here…"
Sam followed her past the edge of the counter and down a short hall, to a sign by a door that said "Hotel Manager." He could still feel Dean's simmering annoyance and, yeah, okay, maybe he should have told him a little more before they went in, but it wasn't like Sam knew much himself. Or like Dean was too receptive to what Sam had had to say the last few days. He could just wait and hear about it from Arkosy himself.
Gene Arkosy was a small but compact man, his clothes well-tailored and his demeanor polished. Still, Sam knew how to read people, and he could see the small tics of discomfort in the guy, the nervous twitch of his fingers as he rose to greet the Winchesters and the rigidity of his smile. Something had rattled his cage, which was probably where they came in.
"Gentlemen, thank you for coming so quickly." He shook their hands. "Mr. Singer had only the best things to say about you. Uh, is it Dean…?" He looked at Sam uncertainly.
Sam grinned. It never ceased to amuse him how Bobby seemed to know everyone. Or how people confused Dean and him all the time, as if they weren't apples and lemons. The really sour kind. "Actually, I'm Sam. This is Dean."
Dean's eyebrows twitched, apparently all the greeting he was about to offer.
"Good to meet you." Arkosy indicated two chairs, and Sam and Dean sat. "As I told you on the phone, I don't have much to go on besides being sure it's, er, in your line of work. Almost two weeks ago, strange, unexplained things started happening around the hotel: guests would slip and fall on the stairs and insist they'd been pushed, the elevators and lamps and televisions have had widespread electrical problems, blood-like stains have appeared and then vanished on the floors and walls. No one's been seriously hurt, but it seems like just a matter of time. Half my staff is afraid to come in for work, and we're starting to lose guests."
Sam nodded, opening his mouth to ask the next question, but was surprised when Dean beat him to it. "You do any recent renovations on the building?"
Arkosy shook his head. "Besides the usual maintenance, no."
"Have there been any reports of temperature fluctuations, maybe some cold spots?" Sam continued.
Arkosy's forehead wrinkled. "Yes, actually—I thought it was part of the mechanical malfunctions."
Sam and Dean exchanged a look, no words necessary: sounded like a haunting. Kinda weird to just start up like that, but a guest could have a spirit attached, or something else might've activated a ghost that was tied to the hotel. Poltergeists were a possibility, too, especially with the lack of a manifestation.
"So, is this something you think you can help with? I can pay you a sizeable fee if you're successful."
Dean leaned forward at that, and Sam almost rolled his eyes. Figured that the subject of money would engage him. "How sizeable a fee?"
"Dude, this isn't about the money," Sam hissed as they made their way up to the room Arkosy was comping them for the duration of the job.
"I know it isn't about the money," Dean shrugged, "but some cash never hurts. I told you the cards were stretched thin."
Sam paused, eyeing his brother with fresh perspective. He rarely worried about money himself because Dean was always so casual about earning it, but Sam knew sometimes they were just scraping by. "'S it bad?" he asked quietly. "I could always go—"
"Dude, we're fine, okay?" Dean cut him off impatiently. "Relax. It's just good to have a little cushion, 's all. And, hey, getting paid for a job—how cool is that?"
Sam softened into a grin at his brother's enthusiasm at the mundane. "Right," he drawled, "getting paid to work. Pretty crazy, all right."
Dean narrowed his eyes and fell silent, leaning away from Sam, into the corner of the elevator.
Sam's insides sank a little, and not just with the upward jolt of the elevator.
When they reached their floor, he led the way off…and stopped short at the sight of the person just about to get on. "Hitch?"
The blond looked up, eyes lightening immediately. "Sam! Hey, man, long time no see."
"Yeah—what, graduation last year? What've you been up to?"
"Got a clerking position with a big firm out of New York, actually. I'm here on business for a few days. You?"
"Wow." Clerking—law. Hitch had been starting Stanford Law when Sam had been about to interview for law school, the interview he'd never made it to. Sometimes he forgot how different the real world was, with their companies and cubicles and calendars. Planning two months ahead, always waking up in the same place, and using only one name. Sam couldn't figure out anymore if that was stifling or freeing. "Uh, actually, my brother and I are still kinda on the road." Which reminded him, he reached back for Dean and found only air as his brother sidestepped his reach and moved up on his own accord. Sam ignored the small rebellion and turned his smile up a little brighter. "Have you met my brother Dean?" He'd introduced a lot of his friends to Dean when they attended Stanford's graduation earlier that year, but Sam couldn't remember if Hitch had been one of them. "Dean, this is Aaron Hitchborne. We went to Stanford together."
"No kidding," Dean muttered.
"Don't think I've had the pleasure." Aaron gave Dean what looked like a genuine smile and an outstretched hand.
Dean returned the greeting with a minimum of grace, his not even trying to make nice attitude out in full force.
"Nice to meet you, Dean." As Dean nodded curtly, Aaron's smile became a little strained.
Sam threw his brother an irritated look Dean didn't even seem to register.
"So, uh. You gonna be in town long?" Aaron's query was now aimed solely at Sam.
"Same as you, coupla days."
"We should catch up. You know, if you're free."
"Yeah, we should do that. Uh, give you a call tonight maybe?"
Aaron smiled. "Looking forward to it. Got a lot to fill you in on. Did you hear Liz and Stuart got married?"
Sam broke out in a startled laugh. "Stu, seriously? Didn't think the dude would get up the courage to even talk to her."
"Tell me about it. I've got a lot more dirt to share, too. Then you can tell me what you and your brother have been doing."
Dean shifted behind him, and Sam's carefree bubble deflated. What they'd been doing—right. He'd have to find a way to navigate that narrow line between sounding crazy and pathetic. "Right. Okay, so… See you later."
"Count on it." With a quick nod to Dean, Aaron moved into the elevator, leaving them standing in the opulent hallway in travel-rumpled clothes, holding a trio of scuffed army surplus duffel bags.
Dean turned away without a word, starting down the hallway.
Sam's jaw set. "Dude, what's your problem? He was trying to be nice to you."
"I don't like him," his brother shot back over a shoulder.
"You don't like him, or you don't like me liking him?" He put his hands on his hips, glaring at the back of Dean's head.
Dean paused. "Whatever," he muttered, sounding offhanded. But his shoulders had bowed under an unseen weight, and the anger in Sam's belly softened into a vague kind of despair for his brother, for the life they led, for a future that would probably never have paychecks and picket fences in it.
"He's an old friend," Sam said softly to his brother's back, unsure why he was bothering.
Dean didn't respond, just shifted his bag up a little higher and headed down the hall, checking room numbers as he went.
Sam finally sighed and followed him.
It was a given that he needed some sleep after driving the night through. But Sam wasn't all that surprised when once they found their room, Dean dropped down on the bed beside his, his back to his brother, and was asleep even before Sam. Or that he didn't say a single word before he did.
He woke to the door opening. Sam blinked up groggily as Dean slipped inside, his hand tucked inside his overshirt.
"What timezzit?" He rolled to his side and squinted at the clock.
"'Bout eight." Dean's hand appeared, holding the EMF detector. "I checked out the lobby. No readings."
"Just the lobby?" Sam arched an eyebrow over a yawn, then bent to search for his shoes.
"Didn't want you to miss out on all the fun." But it only sounded half joking.
"You just went down there to talk to that hot desk clerk who was giving you the eye," Sam grumbled, catching the EMF meter as it was tossed to him. "Did you grab dinner yet?"
"No." Dean flopped back onto the bed and reached for the remote.
Sam rolled his eyes; figured that would be left to him, too. "Fine. But if I'm checking the rest of the floors for EMF, you're on research duty. If it's not renovations, maybe it's something about the history of the hotel. And we can ask Arkosy for a list of the guests who were staying here when the signs began appearing."
"Yeah, yeah." Dean seemed more intent on the lame sitcom playing than on the conversation.
Sam's mouth pinched. "Dude, seriously."
Dean gave him a muted glare. "Dude, seriously. I've got it."
Sam huffed. "I'll bring back some food. Any requests?"
He nodded, shoving a key card into his back pocket before double checking the supplies he had stashed away in several pockets. The Walkman Dean had converted into an EMF meter came last, then Sam headed for the door.
And paused, hand on the knob.
"Eight floors, man—better get started," Dean said pointedly behind him.
Sam's nose twitched as he left.
It actually didn't take too long to cover eight floors. The hotel was laid out simply, a single hallway on each floor, so Sam wove his way down each level in silence.
Until the third floor, at least, when the meter gave a faint buzz. Frowning, Sam backtracked and moved it over every surface: the bland pictures on the walls, the potted plant by the exit, even the dirty plates set outside a few doors for room-service pick-up. The meter gave a few weak beeps, but there was no telling what exactly was setting it off. Probably not until whatever it was went active again, Sam thought moodily, and kept going. The meter's reaction only faded out near the end of the hall, and didn't so much as twitch the rest of the way down.
He made a pit stop at the hotel restaurant, then hit the third floor again on his way back up, getting the same reaction, before heading back to their room on Six. They still didn't have enough to go on, not without more research; it was possible someone had died at that spot, or even that someone or something cursed had stayed in that portion of the hotel, but there'd be no way to tell until they did some more digging. With any luck, Dean would have some answers for him when Sam got back.
Of course, when had he last been lucky? Sam stepped into the room, only to find Dean exactly where he'd left him, sprawled supine on the bed fast asleep, the remote lying on his chest while the TV droned quietly.
Great. He did all the driving and most of the work, and what did Dean do? Watch TV and sleep. Just great. Before, the subdued act had earned him concern, even sympathy. Now, Sam was just irritated with him.
The smack against the sole of Dean's boot had him startling awake, his hand halfway to the knife under his pillow before he could focus on Sam. "Dude, what the—?"
"You were supposed to be researching, Dean, remember?" Sam tossed the bag of food onto the bed to loom over Dean. "Hotel job, cold spots, phantom contacts, electrical problems—any of this ringing a bell?"
"I'm getting to it. Jeez," Dean grumbled, tumbling out of bed and more or less onto his feet. "Who died and made you Dad, anyway?"
They both froze. Sam blinked at him, anger washing away in sudden pain. Dean's face was hidden by his half-turned shoulder, but Sam could see the tremor that passed through his brother.
He softened. "Dean, man, what's going on?" he asked. "Talk to me."
"There's nothing to talk about." Dean's voice was rough, but Sam would have taken his impatience at face value if his own experience weren't screaming otherwise. Dean looked back at him, eyes shadowed. "Look, Sam, I know you want there to be some big secret eating at me so you can go all Dr. Phil and talk me through it, but I'm sorry to disappoint you—nothing's going on. I'm just tired and I dozed off. I mean, come on—you did it the other day, too, Mister I'm-Just-Resting-My-Eyes."
"Right." Sam nodded. "And I bet you woke up really hungry after all that sleep."
Dean gave him a calculated look, then reached for the bag Sam had brought. The sandwich on top was Sam's roasted chicken, but Sam didn't say a word as Dean unwrapped it and took a bite. "There. You happy now?" he said through a full mouth. "Can we get back to the case?"
Sam didn't miss that he'd put the sandwich down after the first bite and was chewing with more determination than enjoyment. Sam sighed. "I'm just…" He raised a hand and dropped it again. "I'm worried about you, man, okay? You're tired all the time, you're not eating, you don't tell me what's going on…"
"Oh, God," Dean groaned, dropping his head, then raising it again. "Fine. You want a secret, Sam? My little brother is a pain in the ass. Seriously, if I'm out late drinking, you think I'm hiding something. If I stay in and go to bed early, you think I'm hiding something. You know who has the real problem here, dude?" Dean pointed at him. "You. You're the one who's looking for something to fight, not me. Maybe you're the one who's not dealing."
"You think I'm looking for a fight?" Sam chewed on the inside of his lip as he looked to the side, nodding. He was, in a way: the recent revelations about his abilities had only added to his helplessness over his dad's and Jess's death. He did want something he could hit back, hard. Sam had just thought it would be with his brother, not at Dean himself. His throat was tight as he turned back. "Right. Well, then this pain-in-the-ass little brother's gonna go spend some time with someone who doesn't think he's just here to make his life miserable. Research, sleep, eat—I don't care, all right?" He grabbed the jacket he'd left on the chair, dumped the EMF detector in its place, and headed back out. With any luck, Aaron would be free for that chat now.
The last sight he had was of his brother staring after him, looking stung. But Sam ruthlessly didn't let himself feel a shred of empathy.
He forgot sometimes how enjoyable normal was.
There were things in the dark and people to be saved; Sam never let himself lose sight of that. But to occasionally set it aside just to have drinks and an uncomplicated good time with a friend was heaven in comparison. Aaron didn't give him loaded sideways looks, didn't worry about Sam turning evil on him, didn't talk about demonic viruses and murderous shapeshifters and death omens. Sam had lost a lot of social skills over the previous two years and almost all of his tolerance for small talk, but catching up on old friends, criminal law, and how the Cardinals were doing was just…fun. Probably the same kind of escape Dean sought in bars and willing women: a reminder of good people and simple joys.
Which didn't explain the growing itch in the back of his skull to return to their room and Dean.
Sam squashed it irritably and ordered another round of beers. For one thing, they both had their cell phones and Dean would call if he had something to say. For another, Sam knew his brother wouldn't have anything to say. Nothing besides that Sam was a worrywart and a pest, and Sam had heard enough of that refrain already. If Dean wanted to wallow in his misery, or escape from it in endless sleep, or waste away to nothing, let him. Sam was done playing psychologist to a hostile patient.
His bravado only wavered after he and Aaron finally did part in the early hours of the morning and Sam ventured back to the room. He stood in the hallway a long minute, surprisingly reluctant to get back to his brother. Hitch had let him forget hunting and Dad's death for a little while, but inside that room was a constant reminder, and Sam…Sam was tired, too. Dean wasn't the only one who was struggling.
He sighed to himself, slid the keycard into the lock, and eased the door open.
The bathroom light was on, dimly illuminating the dark room. It was enough that Sam could see his brother's shape under the covers of the nearest bed, only the back of his head visible. As Sam breathed out and crept further inside, he also saw his laptop opened on the table, its screen lit solely by the bouncing screensaver. Next to it was an open notebook, and Sam frowned and moved closer, picking it up to take a look.
Dean could write neatly when he made the effort. The page was full of his blocky print, listing dates and a series of items, everything from carpeting to vases. Several were circled and connected with an arrow that pointed to a note on the right: Cursed object?
Sam flipped back a few pages, finding a folded printout of names and room numbers, as well as more notes about redecorating, acquisitions, and furniture supply companies. Several of those were circled, too. Sam went back to the last page, reading the highlighted items: two brass planters, ten antique light fixtures, four picture frames, and one ceramic vase.
"Wanna bet one of those ended up on the third floor?" he whispered in the quiet of the room.
Dean slept on, his subconscious recognizing Sam and dismissing him as a threat.
Sam looked over at him, shoulders sagging. This kind of digging, he knew, had to have taken hours of work. He'd been with Aaron maybe five, between dinner and then drinks. Dean must've started immediately after Sam had left and only recently finished and gone to bed. And despite all the sleep, he'd already looked tired when Sam had walked out.
He felt a pang of conscience, strong enough that he almost woke Dean up to apologize. But Dean wasn't exactly at his most approachable when he was half-asleep, and Sam really wasn't craving more abuse that night. The mea culpa could wait until morning. Maybe it would even soften Dean up to talk to him about what was eating at him.
As Sam got ready for bed and saw the untouched dinner buried in the trashcan, though, he rather doubted it.
Dean had listened stoically to Sam's apology and appreciation for the work he'd done the night before, then, with little more than a grunt, had gone down to get breakfast.
Well, Sam thought ruefully, at least Dean wasn't totally ignoring him.
He returned with coffee for them both and buttermilk biscuits and jelly for Sam, claiming he'd eaten a donut downstairs. Sam left it at that and they got to work.
"So, the hotel doesn't know which item ended up where, but there are light fixtures, a picture, and a planter at the end of the third floor." Sam tapped the paper with his pen, taking another bite of biscuit as he sat back to look at Dean.
Dean was chewing on his own pen's cap, and he tilted his head to meet Sam's gaze. "Assuming we are dealing with a cursed object."
Sam shook his head. "Too localized for a poltergeist, and I can't find anything that happened on the third floor—no violent deaths, not even a natural one. Also, nothing suspicious about the guests who've stayed in that section recently besides one probable art thief and two lesbians pretending to just be roommates." He grimaced. "If it's not one of the hotel's new acquisitions, man, I don't know where else to look."
"Sure you found everything?" Dean asked with a raised eyebrow. "I mean, it's not like hotels like it getting out that someone got ganked in one of their rooms."
Sam laughed. "Yeah, well, police departments don't exactly have the same motivation. But if you wanna go ask your friend Tammy…"
"Who?" Dean frowned at him.
"Tammy?" Sam cocked his head. "The desk clerk who can't stop blushing whenever she sees you?"
Dean gave him a thoroughly baffled look.
Sam's jaw went slack. "You're kidding, right? You're telling me you didn't even notice the way she kept checking you out? Or that you didn't take the lobby yesterday just so you could get her number?"
Dean shook his head, then shrugged. "Yeah, whatever."
Sam opened his mouth, closed it again, then ground his teeth into each other. "Right. Yeah, whatever. So," he cleared his throat, "you wanna check the provenances or should I?"
Dean just raised an eyebrow.
Sam snorted. "Sorry. Stupid question." He opened his laptop and pulled up the hotel purchase invoices. When Dean cleared his throat, Sam barely glanced up.
Sam's mouth twitched. "Front desk, dude—you can't miss her."
Dean glanced at the door, then back at Sam. "Hey, I think I'm gonna go down and, uh, see if she knows anything about lucky number three."
Sam nodded at his computer, trying not to smile. "Okay." He fought it only until the door clicked shut after Dean, then snickered.
Maybe he really didn't have anything to worry about, after all.
It took him less than an hour to find what they'd been looking for. Then another hour to get fed up waiting for Dean to get his information and get back up there. Exasperated, Sam finally called him.
Dean picked up on the third ring. "What?"
Sam frowned. He sounded strangely…lethargic. And not in a sleepy, satisfied I just got laid kind of way. "Dude, where are you?"
There was a short pause, as if Dean were figuring that out himself, and Sam scrunched his face up in preemptive concern. Then he got an offhand, "The lobby."
Sam's lips flattened. "Did Tammy know anything?"
"Who? Oh, right. No, uh… I mean, I didn't ask her."
He counted to five in Latin before he spoke again. "Okay, so, what have you been doing?"
Another pause. "…sitting here? Uh, they've got the game on the TV down—"
No amount of counting would help this. Sam pinched his nose, shook his head. "Dean, just… Get up here, all right? I know what the cursed object is."
"Great." Dean clicked off.
Sam stared at the phone, flummoxed. Dean sounded like he'd meant it, like he was glad they'd figured out the mystery. But besides the one guilt-induced spurt of research, he'd practically been sleep-walking through this one, letting Sam do most of the work. If he'd been distracted by Tammy, or had even been losing himself in a bottle again, Sam could've understood that even if it would've bugged him. But Dean didn't even seem to know Tammy existed, and Sam hadn't seen him take a drink in days. If this was Dean sliding into depression again, he was finding a whole new way to do it than the car-rebuilding, silent, sleepless strain after Dad died. Frankly, Sam didn't know which was worse.
Or what he could do this time to help, because this Dean left him at even more of a loss than the last one had.
Dean finally came in, giving Sam a side glance as he tossed his keycard on the table and then dropped into a chair. Sam quickly schooled his face into a bland look and held out a sheet of his notes. Dean took it, scanning it absently.
"It's one of the planters. Turns out it's an antique, a spittoon from the old west. And it was used to bash someone's head in."
Dean reared back. "You're kidding. How'd you find that out?"
Sam nodded at the page. "The antique dealer got it from a police impound auction. They had it buried in their basement for over a hundred years, but they still had the records."
"Huh. I'm guessing the hotel didn't know they were sticking their roses in a murder weapon."
Sam made a face. "Dude, that just sounds wrong."
That actually got an amused twist of the mouth. "Okay, so, how do we get rid of it? Melt it down?"
Sam shook his head. "I think a purification ritual should be enough. It's not an attached spirit or anything, just some residual negative energy."
Dean hitched a shoulder. "Cool. After dark?"
"Actually, I was thinking this morning. Less people around during the day."
"Okay. Good work, Poindexter." Dean heaved himself out of the chair with effort and headed for the bathroom. "I'll hit the head, then we can go."
Sam nodded, chewing his lips as he looked back down at the notes he'd worked on while Dean had been downstairs apparently zoned out. He swung between irritation and concern over Dean's recent distractedness, but there was no question it could be a serious liability on a hunt. He debated another moment, then called out loud enough that Dean could hear through the door. "I can do it myself if you want. I mean, we should probably still salt and bless the thing, but the ritual itself is pretty easy. If you wanna stay here and—"
"What?" The bathroom door swung open, to reveal Dean's stony face. "Sit on my ass while you do the work?"
Sam bit back the automatic complaint that that was pretty much how the case had been going so far, only nodding tersely. "Fine. You ready?"
"I was born ready." The words had the slightest sneer to them, just enough to set Sam's teeth on edge as he followed his brother out the door.
On the third floor, however, it was all business. Dean removed the pot of silk flowers from the brass urn and tossed it onto the table, then set the spittoon on the floor. He dug out a canister of salt, glancing both ways down the hall before liberally sprinkling the object with first rock salt, then blessed oil.
Sam, meanwhile, found a spot a few feet away and opened Dad's journal to the ritual. Going over his research one last time, he nodded and quietly began to read.
Nothing happened at first, besides Dean stepping back to flank him, eyes focused on the spittoon. Sam felt his nerves steady at the presence of his brother at his side, and picked up both pace and volume.
The petals of the flowers on the table fluttered in an unseen breeze and the spittoon started vibrating.
"Sam…" Dean's voice was a murmur of warning. Dean took out the salt again and started sketching a quick circle around them.
There were six lines left to read, and rushing would only make Sam trip over the Latin and require him to start over again. He braced his feet and kept reading steadily, trusting Dean to watch his back.
He did. It was his own he left undefended.
The wind had picked up, so that Sam's voice rose with every line in order to still be heard. He was so focused on keeping his place in the fluttering pages of the journal and pronouncing every word correctly that he only caught the sudden movement out of the corner of his eye.
Too slow—Dean was too slow, too unfocused. He took a second to react, and when he did, it was to look at Sam instead of the approaching threat. By the time Sam's fear registered, the airborne spittoon had almost reached Dean's head.
Everything seemed to happen at once.
Sam snapped out the final words.
He dropped the journal and yanked Dean aside by the arm.
Sam pivoted his own body at the same time to take the blow.
The brass urn hit his shoulder hard enough to numb it clear down to his fingertips, then crashed to the floor. The wind died down as the cold Sam only noticed now faded.
It was over.
And Dean was staring at him in wide-eyed shock.
Sam shoved him over a step without a word. He dug into Dean's jacket pocket for the EMF detector with his good arm, watching with satisfaction as the needle twitched once and died, then dropped it on the table to clasp his dead arm. "It's done."
"Not here," he snapped, bending down to pick up the journal. The hallway wavered briefly, his arm twitching with an electrical jolt of pain. Dean's hand immediately grabbed his biceps, on the side that still felt like it belonged to him, but Sam wrenched away.
They didn't say another word on the way up, Dean less than a foot, and a wide chasm, away.
The silence broke as soon as they stepped through the door. "What the—?"
"Let me see your arm."
Sam glared at Dean, fingers wrapped protectively around his elbow. His muscles were starting to come out of shock, spasming in protest of their rough treatment. "Right, so now you want to help," he jeered.
Dean visibly took the blow, bracing himself, eyes narrowed. "I don't know what bug crawled up your—"
"Really, man? You have no idea?"
Another flash of hurt, quickly hidden. Then the same deadness started to filter into Dean's eyes that Sam remembered so well in the weeks—months—after they cremated Dad.
And suddenly, Sam was just done. He turned toward the door, aching arm still tucked in to his side. "I can't do this," he breathed out. He was tired and hurt, and he didn't have the patience to deal with Dean's issues, too, whatever they were.
"Right." Dean's voice behind him was ugly. "Go whine to Hitch the Bitch about how your life sucks and how he got the law career and the wardrobe and the friends, while you're stuck with a slacker brother and homicidal spit-catchers. I'm sure he'll be real sympathetic."
Any empathy he might have still felt for his brother was suddenly washed away in a fierce wave of resentment. Sam reared back, a little dizzy with the sudden about-face. "Screw you, man. You don't know…"
Anger brought a certain clarity. Before, concern had him studying Dean's sleeping and eating patterns, the undercurrents of his words and the silent message of his glances. But in all his searching, Sam hadn't really looked at his brother. Hadn't seen the way he swayed a little where he stood, the flushed cheeks and pale face, the blunted green of his eyes and the swollen lines of his throat as he defiantly held his chin up.
"You're sick," Sam blurted.
"No, I'm not," Dean responded automatically, frowning.
"Yeah, you are." Sam stepped forward, dropping the duffel and reaching for Dean, who flinched away from him. Grimacing, Sam murmured, "Just, let me…" and touched the gland swelling under Dean's jaw.
Dean made a pained sound but didn't pull away this time.
"Oh, God," Sam said dumbly. "You weren't— You were getting sick."
Dean was watching him with wary bewilderment, like Sam might turn on him again at any moment.
Sam closed his eyes a moment. He'd not only totally misunderstood, he'd been mad at Dean for not sharing something Dean hadn't even known himself. "I thought… When you stopped eating, and you were sleeping all the time… I thought it was, you know, Dad again, and you just didn't want to talk about it."
There was a deep frown line between Dean's eyes. "Dude, I told you—"
"Right, because you always tell me when something's bothering you," Sam said without heat.
Dean shifted from one foot to the other, then raised his chin. "Lemme see your arm, Sam."
He gave in without hesitation this time, letting Dean move him into the brighter light of the bedside lamp, then swing him down on the bed when Sam became a little dizzy again. It didn't escape him that Dean looked relieved to be sitting, too, but his brother's whole focus was on him. Sam's arm refused to lift more than a few inches without excruciating pain, so Dean silently pulled out his knife and sliced the button-down and undershirt off, then bent to give Sam's arm a closer look.
It was so obvious now, he didn't know why he hadn't seen it before. Swollen glands, a slight temp, heavy fatigue—mono, Sam guessed? No wonder Dean hadn't even realized he was sick, probably just thought he was really run down. While Sam had chewed him out for being lazy. "We need to go to a clinic," he murmured.
His brother gave him a surprised look. "I think you just bruised the bone. Few days in a sling should take care of it."
"Not for me," Sam said patiently. "Dude, I think you have mono."
Dean looked at him blankly.
"Mononucleosis?" Sam continued. "The kissing disease?"
"I'm not kissing anybody," Dean quickly said, easing Sam's hoodie first over his motionless bad arm, then stretching it out to help Sam slide the good arm in.
"No, it's…" Sam breathed out. "Never mind. We just have to go to a clinic."
Dean snorted softly. "That mean you're not gonna try to make me cry on your shoulder anymore?"
Sam winced. "Dean, I'm sorry—"
He was halted by his brother's upraised hand. "Stop, dude, okay? It's fine."
"It's not, it's…" The discomfort in Dean's face finally shut him up. "Jerk," he said meekly.
Dean rolled his eyes. "Bitch," he said, accepting the olive branch. "I'll get you a sling." He stood, again with the effort Sam had been noticing and misreading for days.
He was digging in the first aid kit, his back turned to Sam, when he spoke again, deceptively casual.
"You still gonna go meet Aaron?"
Sam huffed a laugh. "You mean Hitch the Bitch?"
Dean's left shoulder rose and fell, all the apology he was going to offer.
Sam studied him a moment from behind. One of the things he'd always admired about his brother was his self-assurance; Dean wasn't cowed by size, intelligence, or ability, no matter how outmatched he was. He'd held his own with Sam's school friends before, and seemed proud more than anything of Sam's knowledge. This insecurity wasn't like him.
But Dad's death had changed things. Gone was Dean's fallback reassurance that, if nothing else, he was good at his job: protecting his family. The cockiness was often an act now, and outright faltered when faced with the possibility of losing the only family he had left. A year before, Dean had been proud of Sam for going after what he wanted and living his own life. Since then, he'd been willing to lock himself in with his possibly infected brother at Crater Lake, then had panicked and given chase when Sam had left to seek answers about his abilities. Circumstances had changed. They'd changed. Dean was vulnerable in ways Sam had never seen before, and Sam… Well, Sam wasn't the Sam Winchester of Stanford anymore, either.
He sat up so Dean could thread the sling around him. His brother eyeballed the right length before tying it off. When he sat back, Sam caught his eye.
"I'm where I want to be," he said quietly.
Dean stared at him a long moment, several emotions flitting through his eyes before it settled on one. The one Sam saw the most, the one they never spoke out loud because they didn't need to.
"You do know where you are is in my bed, right?" Dean finally said, one eyebrow arching.
Sick or not, Sam shoved him off the mattress.
"You want to get out of the car here, or walk in with me?"
Dean canted his head at the door, then at Sam in sleepy confusion.
Sam sighed, driving past the hotel front doors. The walk-in clinic down the street had confirmed that afternoon what Sam had already figured out the day before: Dean had mono. The only contribution Dean had made to the diagnosis, however, was the blood sample they'd taken from him. He'd been lethargically pliant throughout, willing to go wherever Sam maneuvered him but unable to help very much in getting there, let alone answer any questions intelligently along the way. For all its slow, ambiguous build-up, the illness had really taken hold now.
Sam parked as near to the doors as he could, then went around for Dean, who had dozed off yet again. Sam pried the fever-warm, exhausted body from the passenger seat with one arm and, making sure he had a good hold on Dean, led him inside. He just grinned sheepishly at anyone who gave them a suspicious look, especially when Dean muttered something in the elevator about evil flowerpots, and tucked his befuddled brother a little closer.
They made it to the room safely enough, and Sam sighed with relief when he could finally drop his burden onto the nearest bed. "Thank God. Man, we're not going anywhere else until you can walk on your own again."
Dean snuffled and rubbed his face into the pillow.
Sam hauled his feet up onto the bed, removing his unlaced boots, then covered him up. The nightstand still held the assortment of drinks and medications Sam had laid out earlier, along with Dean's cell phone.
"I've gotta go talk to Arkosy. I'll be back soon, Dean, all right?"
Dean's hand rose a few inches in what was either a wave or an obscene rejoinder.
Sam grimaced as he plodded out of the room. Maybe he could wrangle a few more days out of the hotel manager. Dean wouldn't be up for travel for at least a week if not more.
He almost stumbled into Hitch as he reached the lobby.
"Dude!" His friend grinned, and Sam's mind momentarily reeled at the sudden shift from injured brother-hunting-case mode to friend-school-law mode.
"Hitch. Hey. I was, uh, just—"
"What happened to you?"
Again it took him a second to realize Hitch was staring wide-eyed at his sling. Sam shook his head, managing a dismissive smile. "Oh, yeah. Uh, just wrenched it a little…swimming. In the hotel pool."
"Wow. Sorry. Hey, I just finished my meeting—let me buy you a drink and you can tell me about it."
There was the smallest twinge of longing inside him, but it was far outweighed by where his heart pulled him. Sam had to manufacture the regret in his voice when he answered, "Thanks. Really. But Dean's kinda sick and I need to get back. Maybe next time, okay?" Knowing full well there probably wouldn't be a next time.
Hitch cocked his head. "Dean's a big boy, man, I'm sure he'd be okay if you—"
His patience, already stretched thin from leaving his ill, sleeping brother alone—mono? Seriously?—snapped completely. "I'm sorry, Hitch. I can't." Sam edged around him, toward Arkosy's office.
He saw the surprise in Hitch's face, the ill-disguised incomprehension. "Oh. Well, I'll be leaving this—"
"It was great to see you, man," Sam said in a rush as he took another step away. "Good luck with the job." Then he was hurrying away.
He barely heard Hitch's stumbled goodbye that trailed after him.
Arkosy was less polished this time, palm damp as he shook Sam's hand, fumbling a pen as he sat down again. "Is your arm all right? Did…it hurt you?"
Sam gave him a small smile, shrugged the sling a little more comfortably. His shoulder was all right, the bruising high up on his biceps and humerus, but pain still beat in dull waves down to his fingers and up into his collarbone. "I'm fine, thank you. Just a little occupational hazard."
Arkosy nodded, licked his lips. "So, is it…?"
"It's gone," Sam said solidly. He'd double-checked the EMF on the way down and hadn't even gotten a flutter this time. "It was a spittoon on the third floor you were using as a planter—it had a history."
Arkosy took a deep, relieved sigh. "Yes, my staff told me someone had removed the flowers. Amazing, such a small thing… Should we get rid of it?"
Sam shook his head. "We purified it. Everything should be fine now."
"Good, good. I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that." His brow furrowed, and he glanced to the empty chair on Sam's right as if he might have overlooked Dean until then. "Er, your brother, is he well? He looked a little peaked the other day."
Great, even total strangers had picked up on what he'd missed. Sam smiled tightly. "He's, uh… He's sick, yeah, but he'll be all right. Listen, Mr. Arkosy—"
"Gene, please. Sick? Nothing serious, I hope?" Arkosy had taken out a large leather-bound book and was writing something now. Sam realized, craning a little to see, that it was a check.
"Mono. It's fine, but—"
"Oh." Arkosy looked up at him, eyes widening. "Well, that takes the wind out of your sails for a while." He tapped his pen against the checkbook a moment, head tilted consideringly. "So you two just go around the country doing this…ghostbusting business wherever you're needed? No permanent base of operation?"
Sam's mouth curled. He'd never heard it in those exact words, but, "Yeah. Well, sort of—I mean, we have friends, and a car." No family anymore but each other, but Sam was pretty sure now that was enough.
Arkosy gave a sharp nod, like he'd decided something, and tore out the check, shut the book, and handed the check to Sam. Then he folded his hands on top of his desk. "In that case, son, I'd like to make you two an offer."
Sam stepped through the front door of the high rise, giving Tim, the doorman, a smile, which was readily returned. Sam moved into the elevator and dug into the messenger bag that hung over his shoulder, only an occasional twinge left now to remind him of the injury to his arm. The sheaf of notes would interest only him, but he hoped the box at the bottom would appeal to Dean. Sam couldn't help grinning at the thought.
The elevator door slid open to face the only residence on that floor, and Sam hurried forward, key in hand. Felt kinda weird, having a house key again. He didn't think he'd get used to it this time.
The drone of the TV wasn't unexpected, and Sam followed it into the living room.
Dean was stretched out on the sumptuous red velvet sofa, as he was most days when Sam returned, snoring gently while a DVD menu—Die Hard this time—played on repeat on the massive TV screen opposite him. Sam eased the remote from lax fingers with a smile and clicked the TV off.
"You back already?" Dean murmured, eyes still closed.
"Already?" Sam cocked his head. "Dude, it's almost dinnertime."
Dean lifted his head to squint one eye at the clock on the DVD player across the room, then dropped back down to the cushion. "Huh. How were the Mets?"
"Met," Sam corrected, dropping down into the equally plush recliner by the sofa. "Art museum, Dean, not baseball."
"Whatever," Dean yawned. He opened both eyes finally, giving Sam a onceover before smiling fondly. "You geeked out, didn't you."
Sam scoffed but didn't bother to deny it. "I guess you had another exciting day sacked out in front of the TV?"
"Hey, slept through Mercury Rising and Die Hard today."
"You do know the bed's right in there, right?" Sam pointed to the bedroom Dean had chosen for its rich, dark colors and view of Central Park.
Dean gave him a look. "The TV in there is only a thirty-six-inch."
Sam shook his head. "Right, what was I thinking?" He dug into his satchel and pulled out the box. "I got you something."
"Yeah?" Dean's tired face lit up as he reached for the gift. A week of sleep and careful feedings of mostly pie—hey, fruit and grains, right?—and hearty soups from the Jewish deli next door had eased the lines of strain in his face, leaving him looking like a sick young man instead of a wounded soldier. Sam wondered sometimes if his brother had ever had the chance to be five. If he wanted to be for a few weeks now while they had some downtime, Sam wouldn't begrudge him.
The box contained a sixties-era Mustang model in about a hundred pieces, ready to assemble. Sam was pretty sure he could remember a younger version of his brother looking longingly at models in stores a few times, and Dean was good with his hands.
"Dude," Dean said with real joy as he turned the box over. "This is awesome. Thanks."
Sam nodded, beaming, and went to heat up the food he'd brought home with him.
He'd grown up thinking of home as an abstract ideal, then as the place he shared with Jess. It was only in the last year that he'd figured out home had been with him all along, wherever Dean was. It could've been in a skeevy motel or on the road in the Impala, but for three weeks it would be in this penthouse apartment, courtesy of a friend of a friend of Gene Arkosy's, an extended thank-you for the job they'd done. Once he was satisfied his brother would be all right, Sam started going out daily to inhale museums and libraries and theatres, while Dean drooled over the HD TV and the DVD collection and the hot tub in the bathroom. Sam had already found him asleep in there once, too. Evenings were spent hanging out together, watching movies or Sam reading while Dean dozed. Dean didn't take breaks easily, got antsy anytime they stayed in one place too long, but illness had made him content to stop and rest awhile. And the chance for him to sleep and heal and for Sam to clear his head of visions and destinies—and to do it together—made Sam more grateful than he could say.
He brought out two plates of "sammiches"—Dean's newest favorite food since he'd learned their name—and two Cokes, setting them on the table before going back for Dean's clam chowder. There was blueberry pie waiting on the counter for later, but Dean was also like a little kid in that he was impossible to coax into eating dinner once he saw dessert.
Sam nudged his brother over on the couch, handing him the soup before settling his plate of food in his own lap. "What're we watching tonight?"
Dean shrugged. "Didn't see much of Die Hard."
"Okay." Sam slid down far enough to prop his feet on the table, Dean a warm weight against his side. Before the end of the movie, he'd be drooling on Sam's shoulder, sound asleep.
Dean had talked a lot in his fever, rambling about Hitch and Sam needing to be with his peers and how Dean just wanted him to be safe and happy. Looking back now on hanging out with Hitch, though, Sam marveled at how little he really had in common with a guy who'd felt like a kindred spirit once. Maybe it was unhealthy, the "abnormal," solitary life that came with hunting, but Sam wasn't so sure anymore. It felt kinda right, actually, coming back each night to Dean, relaxing and watching a movie with his big brother while Dean quoted half the lines. Looking after his sick sibling while feeding his own soul with culture on the side. Being needed instead of just needing.
Sam took a deep, contented breath. Maybe this was just their kind of normal.
"Find me an Impala tomorrow," Dean ordered in his raspy, drowsy sick-voice, thumb still rubbing the edge of the Mustang's box.
Sam smiled. "Yeah, all right."