Dean could work a hustle like a professional grifter; he was a born natural and Sam envied his brother’s ability to slip on that mask with such ease. It allowed him to smooth talk and scam authorities and public alike and he made it look effortless. All out acting, on the other hand, was a hit or miss affair. Dean could play simple incarnations and exaggerations of himself; but take it outside his limited comfort zone and, more often than not, he blew it on a minor technicality.
Sam wasn’t sure exactly what he was witnessing now, but Dean was convincing enough to scare him shitless. He’d taken a couple of minor hits to the face, was bleeding from a superficial cut on his temple but had so far managed to avoid any major physical contact. That seemed more like luck than strategy since he was slow and unsteady; shaking his head and rubbing his eyes like he was having trouble focussing. For the past few minutes he’d been stumbling round like a wounded animal while his opponents kept their distance; studying him and biding their time. Dean’s left arm was clamped across his chest, signalling the rib injuries and he might as well have painted a sign on himself which said punch here.
Sam was having trouble believing this was the same loud-mouthed asshole who’d pissed Kate off only minutes before. Dean’s confidence and bravado vanished shortly after the fight got underway and Sam’s stomach knotted up as he realised his brother’s tolerance levels were shot to hell. The booze and drugs might only now be kicking in; fogging his awareness and slowing his reflexes when he needed them most. He glanced across the pit at Suzie; she was watching with a slight frown on her face and he had no idea how to read that.
“What’s he doing?” Kate’s voice came from just behind him, quiet and concerned.
Sam flinched as Dean got in the path of another fist. This one caught him in the ribs; the other side to the busted ones but he gasped with pain and sank to one knee. He pushed himself up with a curse and a grimace.
“Is that an act or is he…”
“I don’t know, dammit.” Sam yanked the cuffs brutally. He needed to be in that pit protecting his brother, not stuck up here watching a glorified form of bear baiting. Suzie heard the rattle of chain on metal and looked over.
“Having fun yet?”
Sam glared. “I’m going to kill you; that’s a friggin’ promise.”
She waved the threat aside and turned her attention to Dean. “What gives, slugger? Where’s all that fighting talk now?”
Dean squinted up at her, confusion and pain written across his face. “What?”
Sam tensed as Dean’s opponents closed on him; he seemed oblivious to their presence. Suzie raised a warning hand and they pulled up short; apparently as bewildered as his brother. They’d come expecting a challenge and instead gotten a man who seemed dead on his feet. Suzie’s frown had deepened.
“You sold me on a fight, Dean. Where’s the fun in a mercy killing?”
Dean stared at her, brow furrowed like he was having trouble understanding. Finally he turned to the other fighters. “Some other time, okay?”
His speech was slow, his words slurred. He hunched forward and braced both arms across his chest. “Ribs are fucking killing me. I can’t breathe.”
The two men watched cautiously and one looked at Suzie, seeking instruction. Sam’s heart was hammering but no longer with fear. His brother would never admit defeat or injury, even to himself, and backing down before the enemy just wasn’t in his DNA. This was a masterful scam but while Dean might have his opponents fooled, Suzie was the litmus test. She was watching, evaluating and Sam backed up the hustle the only way he could; by playing along.
“Maybe you took it too far with the pills, huh?” His words were full of loathing, laced with hostility and Suzie’s eyes lingered on him for a moment.
“Let’s not forget who this is really about. The more Dean hurts, the more you suffer, right? How can I lose?”
“Bitch.” Sam lunged at her and pain tore across his shoulders as the cuffs brought him up short. The anger wasn’t fabricated either; it had been lodged in his gut, a low-burning flame, ever since this nightmare started. “You’re gonna let those fuckers slaughter him?”
Suzie smiled coldly. “He won’t die, Sammy. I hear you’re a dab hand with that med kit.” She nodded at the stooges in the pit. “Take him down. Don’t hold back.”
The bigger of the two shook his head. “This ain’t fair. He can’t fight back.”
“Since when was two on one ever fair, asshole?” Sam’s voice was contemptuous but the guy barely acknowledged him. He was looking at Suzie doubtfully and she sneered back.
“You bitching out on me, Brody? You need Ed there to show you how it’s done?”
Brody’s tag buddy sniggered. Ed clearly had no problem pulverising a hurt and compromised opponent. Dean had his back pressed to the wall, hunched like he was in excruciating pain and he was inching round the pit, trying to get away. Ed shadowed him, a smile pulling at his lips. It split into a grin when Dean stumbled and fell to his knees, cursing and breathing hard. Ed moved in for the kill.
Dean reacted with a speed which took everybody by surprise; except maybe Sam. As Ed’s foot swung towards his chest Dean grabbed it, twisted his ankle viciously and threw him backwards. Ed stumbled and went down with a grunt of pain. Dean was on top of him before he’d hit the ground, landing several punches to his face. Ed’s arms flew towards his head, trying to protect himself and Dean popped him square in the jewels. As he doubled up reflexively Dean lunged for his boot and, with a cry of triumph, pulled out the knife
Sam only got a fleeting glimpse of the weapon but it had a long blade with a serrated edge. It was a hunter’s knife; the kind Dean was very comfortable wielding and a moment later he’d plunged it into Ed’s right shoulder, giving it a twist on the way out. Ed screamed and Dean punched him in the mouth.
“Quit whining and stay down.”
The whole thing happened in a matter of seconds. Brody looked on, stunned, but he recovered quickly and was reaching for the blade in his own boot when Dean stood up. He was cool, relaxed and he flipped his knife like a pancake; letting it spin a few times before catching it deftly by the grip.
“You might have a conscience, pal; but I ain’t going easy on you.”
Brody hesitated, eyes on Ed who was moaning and clutching his shoulder. He didn’t look like he was getting up anytime soon and Brody clearly hadn’t anticipated a one on one knife fight with Dean Winchester. He backed up a few steps and Nathan shouted at him, sounding irate.
“Quit stalling, Brody, you spineless bastard. Get in there and finish it.”
Dean’s head whipped up. “Finish it yourself, asshole.”
“You’re not here to talk, Winchester; shut up and entertain us.” Nathan’s voice was scornful, taunting and Dean’s eyes narrowed. He tensed for a split second then hurled the knife with a force and accuracy which was near-on deadly. Nathan’s reflexes saved him; he dodged aside and the blade which would have taken out his eye slashed his cheekbone instead. The knife clattered into the darkness on the other side of the pit.
Dean snorted. “You entertained yet, fucker?”
“Son of a bitch.” Blood was running down Nathan’s face but he paid it no mind; he pulled the pistol from his waistband and took aim. Brody edged away, pressing against the wall like he hoped it would swallow him whole but Dean didn’t move. He stood in the centre of the pit, an insolent expression on his face; daring Nathan to do it.
“Put the gun down.” Suzie’s voice was commanding but Nathan shook his head.
“He’s got this coming…” He wiped his cheek and glanced at the blood on his hand. “You’ll pay for that, you bastard.”
Dean smirked. “Sorry, man; spent my last dime banging your momma.”
The pistol discharged with a roar and Sam recoiled. He was half deafened by the noise, dimly registered shouting and confusion and then nothing else mattered because Dean was down. The bullet had torn into the thigh of his right leg and blood was beginning to spot his jeans. The detached, soldier’s part of Sam’s brain told him there was no arterial spray, the injury wasn’t fatal but Dean was gripping his leg and his face was contorted with pain. Sam lost it.
It was more than anger; more than dread, fear and panic all rolled up into one. The white hot fury coursing through his veins felt alive; malevolent, powerful and consuming. And it was his for the taking.
When the cuffs round his wrists sprang open Sam didn’t need to wonder how or why. This was his birthright, his gift and using it made him feel totally, unquestionably whole. He considered jumping into the pit, anything to get at Dean quickly, but even in his heightened state he knew dropping twenty feet to a concrete floor wouldn’t end well. Instead he took off down the stairs, hearing feet pounding behind him. A bullet whistled past his head but he knew it couldn’t harm him; he revelled in the feeling.
There was an argument raging inside his head as he ran for the door to the pit. His own voice overlaid with another; inquisitive but sardonic.
What gives, Sammy? Turn round and get the hell out of dodge.
And leave Dean bleeding, you kidding me?
Boost some wheels, champ; pedal to the metal…
You mean run away and leave my brother to die?
You’re the charm, kiddo; got picked for the winning team. Stick with that loser and he’ll drag you down. You’ll both die bloody.
Get out of my head, you son of a bitch!
Sam approached the entrance to the pit; saw the bolts on the door slide back, watched it bang open of its own accord and then he was through. He was dimly aware of Brody dodging past, desperate to get out, then he was skidding to a halt beside Dean. One look at his brother and the supernatural rage evaporated, leaving him panting, nauseous and terrified.
Dean’s face was ashen; his eyes squeezed shut. Both hands were gripping the bloody fabric of his jeans and his breath was ragged. Sam dropped to his knees in the dirt.
“I’m here, Dean. I’ve got you, man.”
Dean’s eyes cracked open then widened in shock and confusion. “Sammy? How the hell did you get here?”
“It doesn’t matter; just tell me how bad it is. One to ten.”
“Ten being what? Bo Derek?” Dean grimaced.
Sam pushed his hands away and manipulated the injured leg gently, trying to assess the damage. He was slow, careful but Dean jerked and hissed with pain.
“Dammit. Go easy will you?”
There wasn’t much blood coming from the bullet hole but Sam’s stomach did a flip when he realised there was no exit wound. “The bullet’s still in your leg, Dean.”
“You think?” Dean spoke through gritted teeth.
I’ll take care of it. Just hang in there.”
Despite the pounding of his heart, the ringing in his ears, Sam clearly heard a gun being cocked behind him.
“Get away from him, freak.”
Sam turned to find Nathan’s pistol levelled at his chest. Suzie and Toby were standing beside him, uncertain and wary. Tim skulked through the door, gave them all a wide berth and hurried towards Ed.
“How’d you get out of the cuffs?” Suzie’s tone was conversational but it sounded forced. She was nervous, trying to hide it and Sam felt like he might have an advantage here.
“Would you feel better if I said I picked the lock?”
Her eyes shifted towards Nathan then back again. “How did the door unlock itself and open when you were six feet away?”
Sam smiled enigmatically. “You really want to know?”
He could see they were all rattled; he also knew the psychic force he’d manipulated was no longer present. He had no power over these people but they didn’t know that. His best hope was to bluff it out but Suzie was looking at Dean now, a thin smile pulling at her lips.
“Let’s get something straight; nobody else is gonna patch your brother up. If you want a shot at helping him, you’d best play nice.”
Toby had been following the exchange intently, his battered face dark with suspicion. “What if the rumours are true? If he’s really got some kind of psychic shit then...”
Suzie snorted derisively. “Hunters talk, Toby. It’s all bullshit.”
Toby squared his jaw defensively. “Weren’t bullshit about Dean’s shoulder. There’s been talk for nearly a year and what I just saw…”
He frowned, unable to describe exactly what he’d seen, but Nathan got the gist of it.
“… would make Sam here a monster. I made it my life’s work to put down freaks like him.”
There was only the slightest hint of a threat in his voice but it was enough to set Dean’s antennae twitching. He sat up with a struggle and a curse then glared at Nathan.
“Look in the mirror, asshole. The only freak is you and your sicko buddies.”
Nathan scowled but Suzie’s face lit up at the sound of his voice. “Feeling better, stud?”
She smiled. “Still gunning for that Oscar, huh?”
Dean shrugged. “Had you fooled, didn’t I?”
Suzie nudged his injured leg with the toe of her boot. “Here’s the thing, honey; from here on in we’re keeping it real, so no more happy pills. Bet you could use a couple right now?”
Dean didn’t flinch. “You think I break that easy?”
“You screwed up my fight, Dean; but I thought of something better. We’re going to have a movie night; drink some beer, pop some corn…”
Dean interrupted her, feigning interest. “You get Casa Erotica in this fleapit?”
“You’re the main event, tough guy. We’re all going to watch Sammy dig that bullet out your leg.”
Dean sniffed dismissively but Sam’s ass was puckering at the prospect. He kept his own game face on with an effort. “I’ve spent half my life digging bullets out of him. You won’t get much of a show.”
“That so?” Suzie raised an eyebrow. “We’ll find a few ways to liven things up.”
A loud groan drew everybody’s attention to the other side of the pit. Tim had gotten Ed on his feet, the injured man’s good arm slung across his shoulder and they were making their way towards the door. Dean tracked their progress with a satisfied smile. Sam knew he wouldn’t be smiling when it was his turn to be hauled upright; he was dreading that almost as much as looking for the bullet in front of an audience.
Kate came through the door just as Tim and Ed reached it. There was an awkward shuffle as they manoeuvred round each other and Sam realised, with a jolt, he hadn’t seen Kate in a while. From the look on her face, Suzie hadn’t either.
“Where the hell have you been?”
Kate held up a familiar looking knife as she approached. There was blood on the blade. “This is evidence. You want it left out there for some stoner to trip over; I’ll put it back.”
Suzie stared at it for a moment then nodded shortly. “Good thinking.”
Just as Sam was thinking they’d all dodged a bullet, she took the weapon from her sister. “How did you know about this, Dean?”
He shot her a wild, crazy grin. “Lucky guess.”
Dean raised an eyebrow. “Oh, you mean the psychic crap that runs in our family?”
Suzie tensed and Dean smirked, pressing his advantage. “You won’t believe what I can do with knives, sweetheart; Carrie’s my middle name.”
Suzie’s hand snaked out, grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his head back. She pressed the knife to his throat.
“Let’s try that again, smartass. How did you know about this blade?”
Dean muttered something which sounded like fuck you and Sam spoke up hastily. “It was me, okay? I had a premonition. Don’t ask me how ‘cause I can’t explain. Same way I can move stuff with my mind, sometimes I get visions.”
Suzie stared at him for a long moment but she didn’t release Dean and Sam watched a bead of blood track down his brother’s neck. Nathan broke the silence, jabbing a finger in Sam’s direction.
“I don’t like any of this and I don’t trust that fucker.”
Dean sniggered. “Just come out and say it, Nathan; you’re shitting bricks.”
“You think so?” Nathan pointed his pistol at Sam. “Reckon your freaky brother can magic away a bullet?”
“Put the friggin’ gun down.” Suzie sounded exasperated but she finally let go of Dean and he rubbed at his throat, glowering. She reached Nathan in three quick strides and prodded him hard in the chest.
“Listen to me, numb nuts. Sammy shucked his cuffs, got the jump on us and high-tailed it. He should have been dust by now but he ran the other way. He ran straight to his brother and that’ll always be his downfall. He’s no threat to us while lover boy’s under the gun.”
“Don’t bet on that.” Dean sounded totally assured as he began climbing to his feet and then he froze. All colour drained from his face and sweat pricked across his brow. Sam figured adrenaline was the only thing which had kept him in the game this long and that tank was draining fast. Dean cursed softly, levered himself to the floor gingerly and Sam was beside him in a heartbeat.
“Take it easy, man. I think you’re going into shock.”
“I don’t feel so hot...” Dean’s eyes were glassy; tremors were wracking his body and there were goose bumps on his flesh. Sam threw a desperate look at Suzie.
“We need to get him someplace warm, stop the bleeding…”
She nodded at Toby. “Give him a hand; take them to ops.”
Dean bit off a groan as they lifted him to his feet and got him supported. His head rolled forward and he spent the short journey in a state of semi-consciousness. Fortunate for him; not so easy on Sam who ended up bearing most of his brother’s dead weight.
The carousel ops room was a few rides down from the Wall of Death and a blast of hot air hit Sam as Suzie opened the door. Brody, Ed and Tim were already inside. Ed was on the couch, clutching a bottle of whisky and grimacing as Brody applied a dressing to his shoulder. Tim was offering tips and he glanced up as they came in. He took one look at Dean then averted his eyes quickly.
“Put him on the table.” Toby sounded breathless and pissed off which was rich, considering Sam had carried most of the load. Dean muttered something incomprehensible as they laid him on the long, wooden bench but the heat was reviving him and he opened his eyes a moment later.
“What’s going on?” He sounded groggy, disoriented, and Suzie patted his cheek gently.
“Sam’s about to perform a little EMT. Think you can hold still?”
Dean blinked at her. “Got any magic pills?”
“They’re off the menu, honey.”
A slow frown moved across his face. “Screw you then.”
She patted him again. “How about we tie you down, huh? Make things easier?”
Dean smiled. “Whatever floats your boat.”
Sam’s stomach clenched up so hard he thought he was going to puke.