Sam couldn't stop the chuckle that came out of him as he watched his brother shake gore off of his hand.
Dean glared at him. "You think this is funny? If you hadn't lost the damn flare, I wouldn't have had to stick my hand in that thing!" Dean bitched.
Sam shook his head. "Aw, com'on. The image of you heroically lighting your hand on fire to kill the big bad is going to stick in her mind for a while," he teased.
Dean scrunched up his face in disgust. "Dude, she wasn't even hot. Besides, did you hear the pitch on that woman? I'm surprised it didn't do the job for me."
Sam nodded, his face turning serious as he reached for his brother's hand. "Is your hand burned?" He wasn't surprised when Dean pulled his hand out of reach.
"Nah. It died before the lighter fluid burned off. Getting a little scary, though, Sam. Another wendigo? Here? Something's up."
"Yeah, it's a little strange. But Bobby warned us not to assume anything now that the Hellgate is opened. It's possible that too many demons moved into its hunting territory, and it had to move on," Sam pointed out as they moved toward the Impala where the woman they had just rescued sat waiting for them.
"I'm telling you, I don't like it. And why the hell did Bobby send us on this one, anyway? Why couldn't he do it himself?"
"He was busy with another hunt. Activity has stepped up a little. We're all a little busy."
Dean nodded, accepting. "You deal with that shrieking banshee. I'm going to wash my hands in the creek."
Sam opened his mouth to protest, but Dean was already moving off. With a sigh, he walked the final steps to the car. Immediately he had his arms full of hysterical woman.
"Thank you! I thought for sure I was going to die!" she screeched.
Sam winced, but forced himself to smile. "It's no problem. It's dead now, so you won't have to worry about it anymore. We're just waiting for my brother to clean up, then we'll take you back home. I'm sure your family has been worried about you." More likely, though, they were enjoying the peace and quiet, Sam thought to himself.
He tuned her out as she started going on about her oh so loving family, and turned his thoughts to this past hunt. He frowned a little. He'd known Dean to be reckless in the past, but these days, he was just downright scary. It was almost like when their father had died, except without that edge, that desperation that had permeated every breath his brother had taken.
But dousing his hand in lighter fluid, lighting it on fire and shoving it into the Wendigo's soft stomach? What the hell had Dean been thinking? They shouldn't have needed to get that close to it. Granted, Sam had dropped the flare gun, but still, Dean should have made a play for the gun instead of improvising. Replaying the hunt, Sam realized that the Wendigo had wrapped its hand around Dean's other shoulder as the flaming fist caught his insides on fire.
Shit. Dean was probably hurt. And hadn't mentioned a damned thing. Not for the first time, Sam cursed the stoicism that their father had forced Dean to adopt. He glanced at his watch, and thought that Dean had either been gone far too long for his liking, or he had reached the end of his limits with the still nameless, rambling woman.
"I'm sorry, I have to go check on my brother," Sam interrupted, then sped off without waiting for an answer. Reaching the creek, he was surprised to see Dean sitting completely still, staring into the water. Irritated that nothing was wrong and Dean was only taking his own sweet time, Sam's hand landed a little heavier than it should have on his brother’s shoulder.
Dean cried out in surprise, jerking forward and would have landed in the water if it hadn't been for Sam's steady hand. "What the hell, Dean?" Sam demanded, his earlier irritation once again replaced with concern.
Dean shook his head, as if to rid himself of something, rebalanced himself, then shrugged off Sam's hand. "Get tired of her already?" he tried to tease, but missed the right tone.
Sam looked at his hand, and realized it had spots of blood on it. Moving his eyes to the shoulder he had just touched, he saw spots of dark red. "You're hurt." And if it came as more of an accusation than a question, he wouldn't apologize for it. Winchester stubbornness- of which Dean already had a healthy dose- aside, Sam was getting a little tired of always finding out the hard way that Dean had been injured during a hunt. If he'd have pulled that crap, Dean would have taken a strip off of him a mile wide.
Dean shrugged again. "It's nothing. Doesn't even need stitches." Sam sighed, thankful, at least, that Dean hadn't tried to use his signature 'I'm fine' line. "Come on, we should get Pitch Lady home."
"Pitch Lady?" Sam laughed as he followed his brother back to the car.
"You get a name from her yet?" Dean asked.
"Ah, no. Couldn't have if I wanted to. Which, honestly, I didn't," Sam admitted.
Dean nodded smartly. "Pitch Lady it is then."
Sam groaned as he leaned back in his chair. They'd been doing research for an hour now, simply enjoying the silence of the motel room after dropping Pitch Lady off home and speeding off as quickly as possible. Rubbing his eyes to get rid of the black spots that staring at his laptop could sometimes give him, he glanced over to the bed where Dean was pouring over obits to find their next hunt, careful of his now bandaged shoulder.
His lips pressed tight in concern, Sam noticed that once again Dean had failed to touch his food. This had been an ongoing habit for the past week, and he was getting worried. Nightmares weren't normally a problem for Dean, or if they were, Sam didn't know about it. Of late, Dean's seemed not only frequent, but vicious.
Dean wouldn't talk to him about it either, just passed it off with a joke or ignored him completely. Both typical Dean behaviors- yet off, somehow. Sam couldn't put his finger on it, but something was wrong, and his brother wasn't sharing. He'd let it pass, thinking it had something to do with Dean's recent deal, but Dean seemed just fine about that. He'd smiled more since that deal than Sam ever remembered seeing, took life a little less seriously. If Sam hadn't known his brother so well, hadn't known it was a mask to hide whatever Dean was really feeling, he would have said his brother was at peace.
Glancing back at his screen, Sam closed it. Maybe another hunt wasn't what they needed. Maybe they needed a break. Problem was, how was he going to get his workaholic brother to agree? Another typical Dean behavior when it came to his own problems. Why face what you can ignore?
"I can feel you staring at me. You wanna tell me what's on your mind?" Dean called, not looking up from the newspapers in front of him.
Sam scowled. One of these days he was going to have to learn how Dean did that, seemed to read his mind without even looking at him. He'd always been quick to blame their intense training, and Dean's natural skill, but something told him it was more than that. "I think we need to head for Bobby's."
His brother looked up now, and frowned. "Why? Is there something going on in Dakota?"
"Yeah, time to breathe," Sam sighed. And time to find out what's going on with you, but he knew enough not to say that.
"Tell you what, no more Wendigo's or crazy Pitch Ladies," Dean offered with a grin.
Sam shook his head and sighed again. He had to play this just right. He might not be able to read Dean's mind, but in some things, his brother couldn't be more predictable. Hanging his head, he turned back to his computer. And counted. Five. Four. Three. Two-
"Sammy, are you okay?" Dean asked, rising from the bed.
"Yeah, Dean, I'm fine. Just a little tired." He hesitated for just a moment. "I could really use a break, that's all. We've been going non-stop since- well, for a while. We near screwed up this hunt. I just think it's time to slow down for a while."
He had to remind himself not to hold his breath as Dean's soul piercing eyes swept over him, looking for the truth, finding something he didn't like, then nodded. "You're right. Give Bobby a call and see if it's okay with him. We'll leave in the morning."
Sam nearly narrowed his eyes, wondering at Dean's easy capitulation, but decided not to call him on it. Dean could easily change his mind if he questioned, so Sam wisely let it be, dialing Bobby's cell as his eyes tracked Dean's movements around the room.
Bobby scowled as he took in the boys on his doorstep. Sam had said they just needed some downtime, not that they would show up looking like death warmed over. Dean was a little pale and had dark circles that spoke of hard times on the road, while Sam kept glancing at his brother as though afraid Dean was going to disappear if he took his eyes off of him.
"Boys," Bobby greeted, stepping aside to let them in. He wondered if the tension was just a by-product of Dean's deal, or was there something else at work?
"Hey Bobby," Sam responded quietly.
"Not that I mind, but what brings you ‘round these parts? Sam didn't get too specific on the phone," Bobby asked, following them into the house.
Dean turned to him and grinned, seemingly completely at ease in the hunters cluttered home. "Sammy here needed a break. Thought we'd come darken your doorstep for a while. Cash flow hasn't exactly been- flowing- lately."
Bobby frowned. Since when did Dean fail to get the cash they needed? He'd never seen Dean not produce money when it was needed, and Bobby knew from personal experience that he was damn creative in getting it.
He looked over at Sam for an answer, but found none. Those expressive eyes were glued to Dean, and showing more concern than even a moment ago. Okay, so he wasn't an idiot. This 'break' had less to do with Sam, and everything to do with Dean. He shrugged it off and let it go for now. There would be no point in trying to talk to the youngest Winchester until they had a moment alone.
It should be an interesting few days. "Well, while you're here, you can give me a hand. Been busy Hunting and have let a couple of the cars slide."
Dean grinned. "Sure, Bobby. Let's get started."
In three days they were all caught up on Bobby's work, and Dean had started to work on the Impala. The atmosphere was light, and with the exception of the boy’s obvious lack of sleep, everything seemed to flow naturally. Sam, as per usual, had his nose in a book while they worked outside. Bobby was beginning to think, not for the first time, that Sam had over reacted in bringing Dean here.
Until today. Dean had made an error in replacing a part of the engine, and had needed Bobby's reminder of it. The kid knew that car inside and out. Mistakes like that just did not happen. Dean had been slightly flustered, but had passed it off with a joke, and gone into the house for a beer. Forty five minutes later, Dean still hadn't reappeared. Curious, Bobby went to find him.
He found him in the living room, sitting on the couch, eyes glued to something outside the window, a now warm beer at his feet. Bobby frowned as the oldest Winchester ignored him and continued to stare out the window. It wasn't like the young Hunter to be so unaware of his surroundings. Concerned, he moved forward to get Dean's attention, but was stopped when a hand grabbing his arm.
"Don't," Sam instructed. "He'll come out swinging and he'd never forgive himself for hurting you."
"He do this a lot?" Bobby asked. Then his confusion cleared. "It's why you came."
Sam sighed. "It wasn't this bad before we got here. This is his fourth bad bout since we came. It's almost like he fought it until he knew we were safe, and then let go."
Bobby nodded slowly, knowing Dean well enough to replace the 'we' with 'Sam'. "Do you know what it is?"
Sam shook his head, clearly frustrated. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear it was a hex. Except, we haven't faced any witches lately. There's no pattern to when it started, not that I could see anyway. But then, Dean's not the most forthcoming of people. I don't have a clear start date."
Bobby grunted at Sam. 'Not exactly forthcoming' was the understatement of the year. "Dean couldn't tell you?"
Sam shrugged. "I'm not sure he knows it’s happening. He gets lost like this, and then suddenly comes out of it, wondering where the time went. When I ask him about it, he just grins at me. The two times I've tried to bring him out of it myself, he's come around swinging. The first time, he nearly killed me before he realized what was happening. Even then, he just joked it off, and never mentioned it again."
"You're right. It sounds like a hex. How long do these stints usually last?"
"They're getting longer. When I first started to notice, they were only a few seconds. He'd just come out of it with a start. I wouldn't have even noticed if it weren't for the other signs."
Sam cleared his throat lightly. "Bobby, have you seen him eat since we arrived?"
The older Hunter immediately opened his mouth to voice a joke about never seeing Dean without food in his hand or mouth, but shut it as he realized Sam was right. Dean had barely touched the food on his plate at meal times, and he'd never seen the young man raid his refrigerator. "Damn. I don't know how I missed it."
Sam smiled apologetically at their friend. "It's easy to miss what Dean doesn't want you to see. He's having nightmares, too, and they're getting worse. I can't bring him out of them anymore. And he never goes back to sleep after them. Bobby, Dean never had nightmares."
"Don't be daft, Sam. You can't do what we do and not have nightmares. It's just like you said, you only see what he wants you to." And damned if that didn't just drive Bobby wild at times. He knew just who to blame, too. "Anything else?"
"His behavior is changing. He's erratic and reckless. He actually lit his hand on fire and punched it into the gut of a Wendigo instead of grabbing the gun. He's moody, too. It's almost like right after Dad died."
Bobby hesitated, but knew they couldn't avoid the obvious connection forever. "Sam, I hate to be the one point this out, but you died a couple of weeks ago. You were dead for three days, and nothing I could say or do would bring him out of it. He told me to let the world end- that he'd given enough. He meant it, too. I've never seen eyes so cold and lifeless. He was dead, too, Sam. His body just didn't know it yet. You don't come out of that deep an abyss as easily as he made it look."
Sam ran a hand through his hair. It was one thing his brother refused to talk about. Dean seemed content to take that particular memory to Hell with him. "Yeah, I thought about that. But look at him, Bobby. You can't tell me that's just grief?"
Bobby frowned. Just grief? Christ, Dean's soul had been gone the moment his younger brother stopped breathing. There had been nothing left of the brother the youngest Winchester had known and loved. He'd gone with Sam, leaving an empty shell in his place. Just grief didn't begin to cover what Dean had gone through for those three days. "You ever hear tell of the straw that broke the camel's back?"
"Sammy?" The soft plea from the window immediately ended their conversation as Sam found himself crouched in front of his brother without realizing he'd moved at all. Bobby noticed the young man was very close, but was careful not to actually touch his brother.
"I'm here, Dean. You ready to come back?" Sam soothed gently, in a voice that the older man had only ever heard directed at the older Winchester.
But the green eyes were still lost, still looking out at something the rest of them couldn't see. Bobby moved cautiously closer to the two boys. He wasn't going to underestimate the dangerous young man in front of him. Accepting Sam into his personal space, no matter his condition, was second nature to the protective older brother. Bobby didn't dare think for a moment that acceptance would be extended to him, not without Dean being fully aware. He was also careful not to get close enough to Sam that Dean might subconsciously interpret him as a threat. He wasn't ready to die just yet.
Despite these precautions, those green eyes turned on him and flashed their warning. Even lost somewhere, Dean was still protecting his younger brother. "Easy, Dean, I'm not gonna hurt him," Bobby muttered, immediately backing off a little.
Sam frowned as he took in the aborted movement. "Bobby? What are you doing?"
Bobby snorted. "Boy, I get any closer to you and I'm as like to lose my hand, if not my life."
"Dean knows you're no threat," Sam stated. "Relax, Bobby. He's not even aware we're here."
"Not consciously, no. But somewhere deep inside, he knows someone is near you. He's in deep, Sam, wherever he is, but don't you dare think he's not aware of you."
Sam looked back to his brother, and discovered Dean's eyes were sharper than they had been, silently warning Bobby away from Sam. Curious to see if his brother would respond to him, Sam reached out and lightly touched Dean's knee. There was no reaction. "Bobby, can we try something? Can you touch me?"
"Are you crazy? Sam, that's not really Dean. He's running purely on instinct, and right now that instinct is telling him I'm a threat to you. Without the ability to recognize me as a friend- which he obviously doesn't- I'm going to safely keep my distance."
Sam grinned. "Don't tell me you're afraid of him? Of Dean?"
Bobby scowled. "Boy, you don't live long in this business by being dumb. Dean was damn near a perfect shot before you could even run. I've sparred with him. If he ever seriously went after me, he could hand me my ass on a platter. Going anywhere near you right now is suicide."
Sam chewed his bottom lip, conceding the point. But still he wanted to know how much of his brother was with them. Would Dean tell them anything in this unprotected state? He hadn't responded to verbalizations before, but maybe he would now that his senses were at least semi aware?
"Dean? Do you know where you are?" Sam asked gently, keeping his voice soothing. There was no response, and Dean still hadn't taken those blank eyes from Bobby. "Bobby, you're the key to getting through to him. We have find out what we can."
Bobby threw up his hands in resignation. The sudden move provoked the lost hunter enough that before either of them knew what was happening, Dean had Bobby by the throat and pinned against the wall. Stunned, it took Sam a moment to realize that his brother wasn't fooling around. He'd crush Bobby's windpipe in a matter of minutes if he didn't do something!