Dean paced the floor of the cage, battling the emotions which were threatening to engulf him. He felt like a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at the slightest provocation and, from the look on Sam’s face, his brother felt it too.
The dose of painkillers Suzie administered had worn off hours ago. Dean’s watch had gotten broken in the pit but last time he’d asked Sam for the time, it was past midnight. A full moon filtered through the skylights, bathing the cage in cool, white light and its angle had shifted significantly since then. He didn’t dare ask Sam again though. His brother would wonder why it was so important at the same instant his super-size brain skidded into the first base of certainty. Dean didn’t want to get back into that particular conversation.
He knew his body was adjusting to the drugs; the highs were getting shorter while the downtime was increasingly hard to bear. It might not have been the smartest move to toss down three pills, more than he’d ever taken in one hit, but he’d honestly thought he was about to get raped in front of his brother. The humiliation was worse than the violation and the only way he could handle that was to get wasted. Once he was under he was barely aware of anything but now he was left feeling wrung out and dislocated; a few sketchy memories rattling inside a brain which was consumed by finding a way to its next fix.
Fix was an ugly word, made him sound like a street corner junkie and wasn’t that exactly what Sam accused him of right here in this cage? Ugly or not, though, it was just a word. Words he could deal with; the devouring need for more pills was only going to end up one way. Bloody.
It would be easy to take this out on Sam, the only target within range, but Sam wasn’t a target: couldn’t be. None of this was Sam’s fault, though the way he refused to meet Dean’s eyes told a different story. They’d both said some regrettable things during the earlier fight but Dean’s reckless words, designed mostly to hurt, had hit their mark squarely. He wanted to call Sam on it, remind him in no uncertain terms who really fucked up the Steve Wandell case, but he didn’t trust himself to say it right. He didn’t want this fragile peace, this moment of calm before the gathering storm to deteriorate into another in-house brawl so he kept his mouth shut and watched Sam beat himself up in silence.
Dean wanted to fight, needed to fight, but he was saving that for the bastards who really deserved it. By focussing his rage on the casual, calculating brutality of his tormentors, anticipating his fists smashing through the frustrations of captivity, he could just about stay rational. It also allowed him to contain the worst, most insidious emotion; the one capable of taking him out completely if he yielded to it. Dean Winchester didn’t acknowledge fear, simple as that. He’d learned to twist and contort it into something he could use constructively. Whenever he felt threatened he’d deftly turn flight into fight and go on the offensive with all guns blazing. It worked well for him, let him deal with danger effectively; especially those situations which involved protecting Sam. And really, wasn’t protecting Sam the only thing that had ever mattered?
The threat of something bad happening to his brother however, something he had no power to control or prevent, was potentially incapacitating. Just thinking about it made his knees go weak and his stomach churn. His mind swerved away from it with the screech of rubber on blacktop and he stole another glance across the cage.
Sam was perched on the edge of the bunk, taut as a rope, gazing out into the shadows of the warehouse with his eyes fixed on the door. Dean knew why. He’d gotten a brief rundown of events while he’d been away in cuckoo land, learned how the arrival of an older, saner sister had saved both his virtue and further blood loss, but he didn’t share any of Sam’s optimism in the small acts of mercy. He stopped pacing for long enough to offer his brother some insight.
“She ain’t gonna help us, man. Give it up.”
Sam didn’t move. “I thought I’d gotten through to her.”
Dean snorted. “She’ll side with her sister, that’s how it works.”
“It’s how we work, Dean. It’s not a universal truth.”
“Smell the coffee, dude. The only way out of this is you and me.”
Sam didn’t even look at him. “Have a little faith.”
Dean’s mouth quirked with amusement. Faith and Nebraska were inexorably bound together in his world. Holding hands, singing nursery rhymes and skipping merrily towards the dark place.
“Last time I got a look at faith it looked like a reaper. I wasn’t far off dying that time either.”
That got the kind of reaction he was after. Sam’s head whipped round and his eyes were blazing.
“You’re not dying, Dean.”
Dean shrugged. “How long ‘til the next fight?”
He didn’t need to elaborate; they both knew he was unlikely to leave the pit a second time with nothing more than bruises and a superficial bullet wound. Sam glanced at his watch and frowned; gazed at Dean for a long moment before replying.
“How are you feeling?”
Dean flexed his body experimentally. He was stiff and aching; the stitches in his side felt sore and tight but his brother had performed an effective patch up job. He’d proven incapable of lifting anything useful from the loaned medical kit, but Dean didn’t call him on that one either. Sam claimed he’d conducted the first aid at gunpoint and Dean believed it. He offered a confident grin and threw a few shadow punches.
“I’m good to go, Sammy. Float like a butterfly, sting like a badass.”
Sam didn’t smile. “That’s not what I meant.”
Dean leaned against the bars of the cage and crossed his arms defensively. He knew where this was headed.
“You charging by the hour, Doctor Freud?”
Sam scowled. “It’s a simple question, Dean.”
Dean’s fuse was a damned sight shorter than usual these days and he bristled at the accusation in his brother’s tone.
“What do you want me to say? That I feel great and everything’s peachy? How I honestly believe, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that some chick on a unicorn is gonna ride through that door and save our rainbow?”
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “It ain’t happening, dude. Pretty soon things are gonna get bloody and I don’t need you screwing around inside my head.”
For a moment Sam looked like he was going to press the issue but then he closed his mouth with a snap. He stood up and motioned at the bunk.
“Then a least get some rest.”
Dean knew that was out of the question with his body’s insistent, incessant demand for drugs. His instinct was to swat Sam away with a smartass comment, but he recognised the gesture of compromise and peace keeping. He stomped ungraciously to the bunk and threw himself down. He winced and cursed as the action jarred his injuries and felt Sam’s eyes on him, full of remorse. It made his skin crawl. He put his hands behind his head, feigning nonchalance and kept the irritation out of his voice.
“What’s on your mind, Sammy?”
Sam coughed and shuffled, studied the floor for a spell and finally spat it out.
“When you were… uh… tripping, you said something about not cleaning up properly. What did you mean?”
Dean wracked his memories for the exchange and came up empty, which was hardly surprising. He looked sharply at Sam, panic fluttering at the edges of his mind.
“Whatever I said, I didn’t mean it, okay? I was off my fucking tits.”
Sam shot him a wan smile. “You were trying to help, Dean. Trying to tell me how this isn’t all my fault.”
Dean sat up quickly. “It’s not your fault, Sammy. You keep thinking like that and I swear to God, I’ll kick your ass into next week.”
Sam shook his head, dismissing the statement, but his words had shaken loose a fragment of memory and Dean tracked it back to the night in Steve Wandell’s house. He recalled trying to destroy the evidence of Sam’s crime while worrying about the clean-up operation and battling shock, nausea and crippling concern for his brother. Most of that night was a blur and he’d done his best to repress the things he remembered with clarity, but one incident refused to stay down. That’s the one he’d unwittingly blurted out while riding the high of too many damned painkillers. He added it to the rapidly expanding list of bullet points beneath the heading: reasons to flush those fuckers down the nearest crapper.
Sam coughed again, drawing his attention back to the uncomfortable atmosphere in the cage. His brother was expecting some kind of answer and God knew Dean owed him one. His fingers worried at the bandage covering the bullet wound as he struggled to find the right words.
“That night at Steve Wandell’s place… you were out of it. You’d just watched some demon wearing your body murder a man and it shut you down. I was supposed to take care of that mess and get us the hell out…”
Dean hunched forward on the bunk, massaging his temples as the memory pulled into sharp focus.
“That damned computer, man… I threw it on the floor, put my boot through it but it wasn’t enough. I should have gotten the hard drive and tossed it in a lake, not left it there for somebody to salvage.”
He looked up at Sam, met his eyes squarely.
“I put myself in that pit, Sam. If I’d cleaned up properly nobody would have known what went down so you take every piece of guilt you got and lay it on me, okay? I should have known better, I fucked up and I got us into this.”
Sam was staring at him incredulously.
“Christ, Dean, why do you put everything on yourself? Why do you throw yourself in front of everything bad?”
Dean shot him a lop-sided smile. “Because it’s my job.”
He looked away as Sam approached; anticipating a chick flick moment which he really couldn’t handle in his current frame of mind. He felt Sam flop down on the bunk beside him, felt his brother’s shoulder bump against his own in a show of unity. When he finally spoke, Sam’s voice was subdued.
“I don’t deserve a brother like you.”
Dean snorted. “Can I get that in writing?”
Sam’s arm snaked round his shoulder and pulled him close. Dean went with it, fighting the instinct to squirm away. He didn’t do this kind of thing well but Sam needed it so tried to relax into the embrace. This close he could feel Sam trembling and that was most definitely not a good thing. He glanced across at his brother.
“What’s up, man?”
It took Sam a while to respond and Dean could hear his breath hitching.
“You said some things, Dean…”
Dean had said a lot of things and he waited; mouth dry and heart hammering while Sam worked up to an elaboration. Eventually he spat it out. “Do you really think I hate you enough to kill you?”
Dean froze. He remembered saying that while he was hurting, jonesing, angry and confused. It would be difficult to take back.
“I told you, man, it was the pills talking. But…”
Sam’s hand on his shoulder twitched reflexively. “But?”
“I showed up on your doorstep at Stanford. I pulled you out of a life you’d built for yourself, a better life, and dragged you back into this fucked up mess we call home. If you hate me for that then I get it. I wish to God I’d had the strength to go after Dad on my own but I couldn’t do it alone, man. I needed help and you were the only one I could turn to. The only one who’d understand.”
Dean felt himself tensing, trying to draw away and Sam’s arm clenched tighter; holding him close. He continued hesitantly, trying not to choke on the words.
“Now Dad’s… He died for me, Sam and I don’t even know where to start dealing with that. You’re all I’ve got left, man; if I lose you, push you away or you somehow… change, then the game’s up. Everyone I care about will be gone and what the hell’s worth living for then?”
Dean caught the rising swell of emotion and forced it back down. It was a sign of weakness, it wasn’t his thing. He’d shared more with Sam than he meant and it left him wide open and vulnerable. He wasn’t accustomed to feeling so exposed and put that down to the drugs. They were making him sloppy; boring holes in his carefully constructed defences and letting flashes of honesty through. He didn’t like it; it was another reason to quit and he added it to his bullet list. He shoved Sam’s arm aside, stalked across the cage and laid his head against the metal of the bars.
“You think you’re the only one who feels that way?”
Sam’s voice was rock steady and Dean turned to face him, frowning.
“I lost Jess, man. There was nothing for me back at Stanford; that life was over. I needed to find Dad just as bad as you and I’m still trying to figure out how to survive without him. One thing’s for sure though; I couldn’t go on without you either, Dean.”
Dean stared at him and Sam smiled.
“If you weren’t such an emotional retard, you’d know this is a two way street.”
Sam looked like he was about to say more but the grind of the warehouse door opening got both their attention. Sam leaped up and peered through the bars of the cage, way too eager and Dean took his place on the edge of the bunk. He wasn’t giving those bastards the satisfaction of a reaction. He couldn’t see who was approaching as they were carrying a lamp and his eyes, accustomed to shadows and moonlight, were having a hard time adjusting. It wasn’t until they were right outside the cage that he recognised Tim; loaded with pizza boxes, water bottles and a plastic bucket. There was a woman standing beside him, holding a camping lantern. She looked enough like Suzie for him to do a fast double take before he realised this must be the sister, Kate. She raised the lamp higher, casting its light across the bunk and Dean knew he was being scrutinized. After the near miss with Suzie, the attention made him uneasy and apprehensive but he didn’t let on. He stared right back at her.
“You want me cuffed to this thing as well?”
His tone was mocking but Sam whirled round to face him, his eyes blazing.
“Shut the fuck up, Dean!”
Dean ignored him, his eyes still on Kate. “Well?”
She shook her head slightly. “Not my style.”
Dean could tell by the way her gaze lingered on him, appreciative and keen, that this was more than a casual inspection. Maybe he could use that to his advantage. He shot her his most disarming smile, the one he spent half his adolescence perfecting in motel mirrors, and addressed her in a lazy drawl.
“You let us out of here, sweetheart, I’ll be sure and thank you properly.”
Her lips twitched in amusement. “I let you out and my sister will kill me.”
Dean caught her eye and held it for a long moment. “Something to think on though, huh?”
She didn’t reply. Instead she pushed the lamp through the bars and placed it on the floor. It filled the cage with a warm, yellow glow.
“I figured you boys could use a little light.”
Neither one of them thanked her and the silence was getting awkward when Tim dumped the shit he was carrying on the ground. He opened a small panel set into the base of the cage door, Dean hadn’t noticed it before, and shoved the boxes, bottles and bucket through. He eyed Dean cautiously.
“Suzie didn’t want to waste food on you but I talked her round. Managed to scrounge up some pizza, figured it’d help with… you know…”
His voice tailed off and Dean smirked as understanding hit home.
“Who’d you do it for, Tim? Me or you?”
Tim ducked his head. “I said I was sorry, Dean. When I got into this I didn’t know how far she’d go.”
Dean nodded. “Now you’ve got the big picture, what you gonna do about it?”
Tim shrugged helplessly and Dean pressed the advantage. “You owe me, man. You wouldn’t be drawing breath if it wasn’t for me.”
Tim still wouldn’t look at him. “You think I don’t know that?”
Dean was expecting Kate to head this conversation off at the pass but when he glanced over he found her following the exchange raptly. He tried a different approach.
“Next time they put me in that pit, I ain’t walking out with cuts and bruises. Chances are I won’t be walking at all. You know that, right?”
He was addressing them both but it was Kate who finally replied.
“Those gorillas Suzie recruited; they’re watching playback of the fight on loop, studying your moves.”
Dean wasn’t surprised by the news but he was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge it presented. Next time he’d be up against men who knew exactly what he was going to do before he did it. He wasn’t sure he could change his fighting style on the fly, not with two or more fuckers coming at him and he rubbed at the back of his neck nervously. Sam came to sit beside him, offering support. He sounded as anxious as Dean was feeling.
“If you know what Suzie’s planning you’ve got to tell us. Give Dean a chance at least.”
Tim was shaking his head. “She only talks to Nathan and Toby. She don’t tell me nothing.”
Abruptly Nathan’s voice was right inside Dean’s head, his recent promise ringing loud and clear.
You’ll get something challenging next time.
He broke out in a sweat and was thankful he was seated because his legs turned to jelly. His head was spinning, his hands shaking and the only coherent thought running through his brain was how much he needed the bottle of pills. Two would take care of all his doubts, three would definitely...
He pulled himself together with an effort. As he re-entered normal space he discovered Sam looking at him, face pinched with concern and lips pursed tightly together. Kate and Tim were watching with something approaching pity and he realised, belatedly, he’d just revealed something important. He’d given them a glimpse of his inner turmoil, revealed a hint of weakness and he covered up hastily. He pasted a sneer to his face, got to his feet and raised his chin defiantly.
“What you all looking at? The friggin’ Elephant Man?”
He picked up the nearest box and flipped the lid open. The pizza inside was cold and greasy; an unappetising mix of dried out pepperoni and congealed cheese. His empty stomach growled its approval anyway and he raised an eyebrow at Tim.
“This your idea of a last supper?”
“It’s better than nothing.” Tim spoke quietly but this time he met Dean’s eyes and held them.
“Next fight’s in two hours. They’re matching you up with those new guys but Suzie’s got something else planned, some kind of handicap.”
“What?” Dean’s stomach did a somersault. “What the fuck?”
Sam was beside him again, his voice hard as flint. “What kind of handicap?”
Tim didn’t answer and Kate spoke into the strained silence.
“I’ll see what I can find out. You need to eat, Dean.”
Dean ignored her, his eyes still on Tim. The guy was on the verge of some kind of epiphany and he tried to move it along.
“If you really want to help, you call Bobby Singer and tell him what’s going down. He’ll know what to do.”
“You think I’ve got a fucking death wish?” Tim’s voice was resolute, held a note of incredulity but the way his eyes slid across to Kate and back again, Dean knew the words were for her benefit. Her allegiances in this matter were sketchy at best so he played along, shrugging wearily.
“It’s your conscience, man.”
Kate pulled Tim away from the cage before he could reply and Dean watched them leave the warehouse and pull the door shut. For the first time since this nightmare began, he allowed himself to feel something approaching hope. Sam shut it down in a heartbeat.
“Can we trust Bobby? I mean, he sent us to Nathan and Toby, he vouched for them…”
Dean rounded on him, practically snarling the words. “We were stupid enough to get blindsided by those fuckers, you think Bobby’s above all that?”
“I was just saying.”
“You say anything like that again, Sam; I’ll bust your nose.”
Sam didn’t acknowledge the threat. He retrieved the other pizza box and water bottles. He eyed the bucket balefully.
“I’m guessing that’s the john.”
Dean snorted. “Don’t piss on the seat, Einstein.”
Sam sat on the bunk, opened the box and grimaced as he inspected the gloop inside. He picked out a slice and bit into it tentatively, studying Dean as he chewed.
“You think Tim’s gonna make the call?”
“I don’t know, man. If he had one grateful bone in his body he’d have made it hours ago.”
Sam cocked his head, his interest piqued. “What happened in New Orleans?”
Dean couldn’t help smirking as he recalled their earlier exchange. “I threw myself in front of something bad; got banged up real good.”
Sam’s brow furrowed. “That voodoo case you were working? Right before you came to Stanford?”
Dean laughed without much humour. “Anything weird goes down in New Orleans, it’s always friggin’ voodoo. This was in ‘04.”
“You gonna tell me about it?”
Dean sat beside him and took a bite of his own pizza. It tasted better than it looked and he stuffed half the slice into his mouth, glancing at his brother and talking round the food.
“Anything to keep my mind out of the pit, huh?”
And off the pills.
Sam didn’t bother denying it and, honestly, Dean was grateful to his brother for providing a distraction. He was reaching for a second piece of pizza when Sam spoke again, his voice sombre.
“You’ve got to promise me something, Dean.”
Dean was certain this had nothing to do with New Orleans but he gave it a shot anyway.
“You wanna daytrip at the St. Louis boneyard? It’s on, man.”
Sam didn’t smile. “Promise me that whatever goes down in that pit, you won’t kill anyone.”
Dean considered it for all of half a second then shook his head. “I don’t make promises I can’t keep.”