It's 3AM and there’s a possum under the bed.
“What’re you doing?” Dean asks. "And why are you waving your ass in the air?"
“Checking under the bed,” Sam answers simply.
“For--” Sam pokes it with his knife. ”God, that’s disgusting.”
“Full condoms?” Dean suggests.
Sam just gestures. It’s cartoonish, the way it’s lying rigid on its back, tiny claws curled so tight you could probably hang it from them. Its tail is curled like a noose beside it. “Explains why they were keeping this room so goddamn cold, I guess.”
“I mean, yeah, if you wanna guess wrong,” says Dean. “I’m all for the lazy man’s solution, but that’s ridiculous, Sam. Just get a shovel and dump the fucking thing.”
“I’m not touching it.” Sam jumps up and marches to the thermostat. “And we’re not gonna let it defrost.”
Dean snorts. “Dude, you are so--” His breath hitches. “I don’t even know what I wanna say to you right now.”
“Say whatever you want. It’s all lumpy. I don’t even think we could pull it out in one piece, unless we moved the bed.”
Sam spins around to face Dean.
“Wait, wanna help me move the bed?”
“Hell no,” is Dean’s instant reply.
It sounds desperately tired, and the shaky timbre of it is what finally jars Sam from his marsupial obsession.
They’re in Idaho, with Twin Falls on all the highway signs. Beyond that, Sam’s not sure where they are anymore. They’re sixty miles and forty minutes out from the last job, and his mind's still rushing--still stupid with the heat of the moment. The whole thing had resembled bullfighting more than Sam cares to recount, though of course the memory floods him anyway: A bax’aan--Gros Ventre water monster with bovine horns--and them with a bucket of dead frogs, waiting for it to show, standing in a river as the ice floes passed.
In the thick of it, Dean had logged some time underwater, unable to stand. Sam’s not entirely sure why--at the time, the only thing that mattered was pulling him back up. But from what Sam has pieced together, it was penance for twisting out of the way of the bax’aan’s horns, long and lowered. Something to do with his knee. Sixty miles out and adrenaline a wistful ghost, it’s all coming back on Dean, that much is obvious. He’s still standing, but he doesn’t look happy about it. Doesn’t look like he’ll be standing much longer.
Sam's hands are still shaking, his brain a chemical streak where thought should be.
stop thinking about the possum
It burns, go go go, fight flight fight fight fight. Dean shouldn't have stopped driving; Sam is too far from ready to stop--it's too soon, in too much nowhere. Sam feels like he’s gonna keep going for hours, muscles twisting quick revolutions under his skin. And it’s all he can think about, the tight pain of his cold-shocked calves as he’s standing in that water, the bucket of frogs, the warmth of the bax’aan’s blood as he tore a knife through its throat. This possum under the bed.
It makes the universe seem easy: Possum, blood, bucket of frogs. Going, going. Nothing more.
Go go go
“I can ask for a new room, you know.”
“No,” Sam objects quickly. Too quickly for sanity--but it’s fight or flight, it's Sam versus possum, and sometimes the best fight is stand your fucking ground--but before Dean can respond Sam adds, “You know us. It can only go downhill, right? Dodge the possum, end up with like, a dead moose in the bed or something.”
Which only sounds crazier, but Dean seems to accept this as a possibility, or doesn’t care. He mutters something about necrophilia and hunger and “whatever’s still open” and then the motel door’s shut and Dean’s on the other side of it, out in the world, and Sam’s hands are still shaking. His elbows tingle.
He does some jumping jacks.
Jogs the three steps to the bathroom and splashes his face, water old and full of pipe iron and rust.
By the time he has the shower running clean, steam billowing out, Sam feels half-normal and everything hurts. Throat raw, eyes sandy, skin alive to the beat of the water. He ruffles aggressively at his hair and scrubs the river silt from between his toes, his ass cheeks, his balls. It’s everywhere.
Under the spray, the bax'aan comes alive again. It's not a particularly visual memory--though it should be, given what a bax'aan is. Of all the things Sam's hunted, it looks the most like a monster; he's not sure if that makes it better or worse than the ones that look like women, or kids. Or like his mother--or like Dean. Dean is mostly all Sam remembers from tonight, anyway. The bax'aan--if the legends are true--has an eye in every follicle. It has turtles for lice. Yet what Sam remembers most is his brother, knife in hand; and then his brother under water, and the bax'aan galloping past.
Sam remembers splashing gawkily forward, ice pain shooting up the back of his knees as the muscles twisted like gargoyles, shocked by the movement and temperature. He remembers trying to smell blood, Dean's blood, to see it. But it's all black slush, black reeds and overwintered sticks. It's all ripples. It's not even really a river, though Sam keeps calling it that. It's a black plane of soppy wetland, ice choked and miserable. The point is--not a great place for a swim. And never more than three or four feet deep. Dean should be able to stand.
Maybe it gored him, Sam thinks. Maybe Dean couldn't get out of the way. He's underwater right now, bleeding out as the river fills him. Maybe--
Dean in a pool of basement water, taser beside him, heartbeat gone
It's too soon to lose him like that again. It's too--
Sam's hands are too numb to tell mud from fabric or flesh from wood, but whatever he grabs at grabs back, and it's Dean--Dean who comes up with a sucking pop, profuse hacking. Dean, Dean, Dean.
Dean keeps trying to drown himself, scrambling back towards the water at the same time Sam's trying to find any holes that shouldn't be there. Gaping saw-like wounds. That sort of thing. It's harder than it sounds, in a river, in the mud, in stormy darkness. Sam can't feel his hands. Can't feel Dean under them. Dean keeps trying to drown himself, and Sam keeps shouting, Don't.
It's mostly aural after that, sound and numbness. Dean's shouting back, coughing and shouting and choking. SAM YOU MOTHERFUCKER DON'T is his most articulate offering, and it rings in Sam's head, around and around.
It's how Sam knows something's wrong, probably. For someone who basically doesn't make sense ninety percent of the time, on a hunt Dean's instructions are always crystal. We need the frogs to lure him out. Then we slash its throat with this knife, if Dean doesn't know you. Sam, bring the-- And yeah, with the thing if he does. But right now, Dean's just swearing at him, and they're both swallowing too much water, too busy hacking it back up to clarify.
Eventually Sam realizes Dean's trying to get the knife back. It's in the riverbed somewhere, being buried by silt too quickly. They need the knife. They need the knife so they can get the--kill the--with the thing.
Somehow, Dean's fingers find the knife. But he doesn't stand, just swallows more water and shoves it toward Sam's hands. Sam would have taken the handoff more gracefully, were Dean not thrusting it at him blade first. Sam fucking take it Dean shouts.
When Sam finally takes the knife, wrenching it from Dean's grasp, his fingers feel too numb, too disembodied to close around the handle. He feels the force of the bax'aan bearing down on them, on their big-ass knife, like a detonation dispersed through his elbows, out along every nerve in his body. The bax'aan twists abruptly, away from the knife, and the blood arcs over Sam's face. The warmth of all that blood returns Sam's hands to his brain, lets him finish the job. Sam thrusts hard, pulls it through the artery. And again. Again, again.
He watches the bax'aan kick weakly, lungs collapsing, trachea shuddering. He watches as it turns from monster to corpse.
The blood feels warm and good on his hands. For a second, it feels like a win.
Then Dean's body against him goes slack, and Dean slips under. This time he's not going for any knife. Dean slumps and slips away.
Dean's conscious again by the time Sam pulls him up, gasping and rigid with pain. He'd only been out a few seconds, but Sam knows something's wrong. Dean's in pain, a fuckton of it. Something about Dean's leg, his knee, is all Sam can decipher. Something about getting out of the way. But they make it out of the river somehow, Sam dragging, Dean being dragged.
Watch where you're poking that, Dean says of the knife Sam won't, can't, relinquish.
Learned that from the master, Sam wheezes as he heaves Dean onto the bank. Sam tries to take more of Dean's weight; Dean gives him all of it, and they fall to the ground. Sam tries again, and somehow, they walk. They make it back to the car. Sam's pretty sure the only reason the shock doesn't kill them is all that blood. It's hot. Urgent. And they need to get the fuck out of there. Dean slumps over the wheel and puts his heel to the floor, and doesn't let up.
And now they're here, and it's 3AM, and there's a possum under the bed.
Sam emerges from his shower clean, sore, and sick to his stomach. There’s still blood in his cuticles.
Dean’s not back yet.
It's all a fucking mess.
There’s still a possum under the bed.
Honestly, Sam’s not sure if he feels stupider for keeping it, or because even now, off the adrenaline high and well into the crash, he’s still not sure if he cares.
Sam draws the line, however, at sleeping over it. That smacks too much of some ritual he wants no part of.
He checks the thermostat again, brushes his teeth, slides his weapons into bed, and tumbles in after them. Opens his laptop, and waits for Dean.
Sam watches the time tick up on his laptop, minute by minute, until he realizes nearly half an hour’s swept by and that’s all he’s done, is watch--and god, it’s hard to act like a normal human being after a hunt. It all just screams in his head, sense and sound and all absence of color. It doesn't let him go; none of it ever does.
He doesn't remember it feeling like this when he was a kid. Back then, it had all felt pointless. Now it feels all too incredibly sharp.
Sam poises his hands to type, actually do something, and doesn’t know why he even has his laptop out.
So instead he turns out the light and thinks he’ll sleep; but he won’t. His body is tired beyond sleep and Dean’s not back yet and he knows there’s only nightmares waiting for him, anyway. Jess and Mary and--a recent bonus--reapers. (Dean’s still the only one of them who’s actually seen a reaper, so of course in Sam’s dreams he imagines the worst. He wonders if now, his reapers will look like bog bulls, with turtles for lice.)
Sam sits in the dark with the blue glow of his laptop for company, unmoving and unthinking, until he hears a scratch at the window.
It’s frosted over with translucent, icy geometries--on the inside, Sam realizes. Outside there’s just blackness, the suggestion of movement. A whorl of snow or a ghost. If it were Dean he’d have heard the Impala rumble up, crack ice as she slid over it.
Sam hears metal creaking. Suddenly, he feels like a swimming pool, or a monument--lit and shining blue in the dark. He puts his screen to sleep, and the room goes safely dark.
There it is again--a whisper against the window.
Then there’s a thunk against the door, the sloppy jangle of keys, and there’s Dean, finally.
Dean switches on the light.
“Where’s the car?” Sam asks, reflex flooding back in a jumbled rush. Laptop balanced on his knees, Sam reaches backward with his far hand until he touches gunmetal under his pillow. Because if Dean didn’t see the thing, or get jumped by the thing, then there’s a chance he is the thing. There’s a thing, or there was--at the window. There was.
And Sam hadn't heard the car drive up.
Red-cheeked and windswept, his nose dripping, Dean doesn’t exactly look like a denizen of the night; he’s got an armful of plastic bags that smell like Chinese. But there’s verisimilitude for you, and precautions are precautions.
Sam’s left hand clatters across the laptop’s keyboard as his right clicks the safety off.
“The car’s outside,” Dean says. His eyebrows knit warily.
For an instant he jumps to meet Sam’s orange alert, everything held tighter, eyes scanning.
But he drops it just as quickly.
And of course he does, because it’s just Sam and he’s just Dean and they’re not working, not even headed to a job; it’s just Sam and his brother and a cheap motel room and Sam needs to get the fuck over himself and calm the fuck down.
“And what do you mean, ‘where’s the car?' She cheating on me?” Dean adds, with belated levity. “Were you planning to get her in bed with you or what?”
Dean groans as he pushes off from the doorframe.
Sam hadn’t noticed he’d been leaning, but Dean’s limp is evident even in the few steps he takes. He lobs the plastic bags at Sam’s head and collapses onto the bed. That is, the not-possum bed. Sam’s bed. Which is apparently now Dean’s bed.
Well, if there was something lurking outside, it certainly didn’t know advantage when it saw one. It could have picked Dean off in a hot second.
Sam tries to shake the shudder from his breath and blinks the figment at the window back into his imagination. He stares at his brother instead.
Something about Dean’s knee, Sam remembers.
“So it’s bad, huh?” he asks, as he investigates of the bags. Maybe their contents will be the blessing that grounds him. He feels like he's losing his damn mind.
adrenaline adrenaline adrenaline
Dean’s on his back now, one arm flung over his face. His fingers are bright red, newly acquainted with a temperature above zero.
His muffled response is: “Well, it don’t walk out. That’s for sure.”
Which isn’t that descriptive, but the dinner haul fills in a few blanks. There’s chow mein and egg rolls in one bag, but also beer and doughnuts; but also chili cheese fries, by now mucky and limp; but also Italian subs; but also what appear to be dolmas; but also tortilla chips; but also hash browns; and flat apple pies that look like the bastard children of an old chimichanga and a wad of napkins. A motley cornucopia.
At least all this explains what took Dean so long.
“I can’t imagine lapping the whole town helped, no,” Sam allows. "You left, so I thought you might be okay."
Calm the fuck down, Sam. Calm it down.
Sam picks up one of the wilted pies. “I assume these are for you? ‘Cause I’m not eating this.”
Dean peeks out from under his arm. “Just gimme a beer.”
He makes a grasping motion at the edge of the comforter, like he wants to wrap himself in it, but his side of the bed remains primly and studiously tucked.
“Pressure in the shower is aces, if you want to warm up,” Sam offers.
Dean succeeds with the comforter and mumbles something from within.
“Oh, come on," says Sam. "Now you’re just being pathetic. You’ve basically wrapped yourself in secondhand smoke.”
“And I ain’t coming out.”
“You should at least take something. Your knee’s gotta be the size of a bowling ball, after your international food tour.”
“It was one strip mall. The triumph of modern America,” Dean corrects, but he throws off the comforter in defeat. “Give ‘em over.”
“No beer, then,” Sam reminds him, popping the top off his own bottle. It’s slightly oily from the leaking Chinese.
Dean sits up and wipes a mysterious stickiness from his cheek, and casts an accusatory glare at the comforter. Fucking disgusting, he mutters under his breath, then repeats, “Yeah, yeah. Give ‘em over.”
Sam leans over Dean and sets his beer on the bedside table.
Whether propelled by fraternal generosity or pure post-hunt agitation, Sam’s not sure, but he shuffles toward the duffel, which is curled against the far wall under a wayward ironing board.
Behind him, Dean struggles with his bootlaces. Sam hears him unzip his fly.
“And throw me some dry pants, will you? Goddamn snow. Goddamn--cow thing.”
Sam sighs. "You're kinda needy, you know that?"
By the time Sam locates their lone bottle of painkillers--miscellaneous leftovers from some hunt or another, one of Sam’s fake names printed on the scrip--Dean’s somehow managed to extract himself from one boot and one leg of his jeans. His offending leg is still entirely clothed.
He looks ridiculous.
“Couldn’t reach the laces,” Dean explains.
“Well, brilliant solution to that one.” Sam arcs the pill bottle toward Dean, tosses the rest of the med kit to his feet.
As Sam unties Dean’s remaining boot--laces bloated and squelching water, now that the ice is melting--Dean leans to snag Sam’s beer from the nightstand. He drinks as he reads the med label.
“I hate this one,” Dean says.
“Fuck, you’re right,” Dean says, filling Sam’s silence. “No booze.”
He takes another swig.
"Just one more sip," he promises.
Sam resists the urge to roll his eyes and keeps working at the laces. Dean mostly smells like leather and wet denim, but his romp in the comforter’s already done its damage, too. Cig smoke and industrial cleaner--though honestly, the two smells cohabitate so often Sam’s not sure they’re not one and the same.
“You smell like an old bed,” Sam says eventually, as he tugs at Dean’s boot, gently at first--a warning shot--and then harder.
“That's weird.” Dean sucks in a hard breath. “The cologne lady called it ‘Manly Hooker.’”
The boot comes free.
Dean peels down his second pant leg.
“You want me to take a look?” Sam asks, gesturing at the med kit with a flick of his chin.
Dean shrugs. “Feast your eyes all you want, pervert. It looks like a knee; and gimme my pants.”
“That’s not a knee,” Sam objects, taking out the Ace wrap anyway. “I mean, that’s basically a hairy bread bowl. It’s huge,, Dean--”
“One, that’s disgusting; There are hoagies in the room, Sam--care a little. Two, gimme my pants. Here, I’ll trade you.”
Dean tosses him the pill bottle, but he lets Sam pull a length of wrap.
Sam frowns. “Seriously? You want the beer that much, then fucking drink it; I don’t care. But you gotta take the pills.”
Dean shakes his head. “That stuff fucks me up. I don’t understand how they’re allowed to sell that to people.”
“It’s all we got. And I thought they worked just fine,” Sam says, as he inspects the label. He does his best to wrap Dean's knee one-handed. Clip it in place. "Yeah, these were great."
“Lucky you, then,” Dean says, poking at Sam's handiwork.
“Well, I mean, do you enjoy nerve damage? ‘Cause that’s a shitton of swelling, dude. What kind of ‘fucked up’ are we talking here?”
Because Sam wants to shove the pills down Dean’s throat. Sue him if he’s tapped out on seeing Dean obviously in pain and obviously ignoring it--or trying to. Even if this is probably the moderately cloudy with scattered showers of shitstorms, Sam can’t handle it right now. Anything short of renal failure, and Dean’s taking the goddamn pills.
“Fucked up,” Dean elucidates. “I dunno. Vivid dreams; weird stuff.”
This response doesn’t help Sam’s patience, because he’s got the market cornered on vivid dreams and weird stuff. At least Dean’s nightmares don’t come true. At least they don't feel lived in, old hat, by the time they happen in earnest. Dean's not some kind of psychic freak. Dean's not the one who dreamed his girlfriend dead a hundred times but couldn't stop it. He's not the one who dreamed his mother, a ghost in a house. Dean's not the one who--
Sam sidesteps all of this. Just says, “Right, because you’re too honorable to pass up hi-def nipples.”
Dean snorts, not a little bitterly. “Right.”
“Look, you need the sleep. Just take the pills and get some rest.”
Sam wants to point out that also, Dean’s being a baby, but instead he says, “I’m gonna try to track down a microwave for this stuff. Get you some ice for that.”
Dean looks around. Ironing board. Blocky TV. Garbage can. No microwave.
“Shitty motel,” he says.
“Home sweet home,” Sam agrees.
Either Dean knows Sam’s right, or he’s tired enough to give up the ghost, as it were, because he swallows them down with minimal further commentary. He does mutter something about Dr. Sam’s oh-so-expert medical opinion, but by that point Sam's stopped listening.
Sam's field trip outside doesn’t take long--microwave in the lobby, ice machine by the laundry. His newly hot noodles leave steam trails in cold air as he inspects their window on the return trip. There's nothing there, and no evidence that anything had been--nothing corporeal, anyway. But with new snow coming down, it’s hard to be one hundred percent. The remains of their own footprints look like healing pockmarks.
Calm down, Sam.
Sam bats the snow from his hair and jacket when he gets back inside, kicks as much as he can off his boots. His fingers burn.
Dean’s already asleep. He’s thoughtfully stripped the possum bed of its pillows and stacked them under his knee.
Of course this means Dean’s thoughtfully commandeered every pillow, leaving Sam none. But it doesn’t matter; sleep is no more likely now than it was an hour ago. Sam figures if he can get away with cheating sleep until he’s too dead on his feet to dream, that’s what he’s gonna do.
Which is not hypocrisy, Sam assures himself as he strips the blankets from the possum bed and lobs them over Dean. The sheets beneath are curiously mottled, but it’s cold enough Sam doesn’t think about it too hard. Just grabs his laptop off the bedside table and tries to embody something lithe as he climbs into bed beside his brother again. The mattress caves towards the center under Sam’s weight and Dean’s body comes with it, warm and heavy. Sam shivers.
Dean is dreaming, eyes twitching under closed lids. Probably something strange and vividly nightmarish, because that’s just who they are. Sam’s not sure anymore if there’s any recourse but to accept that; so he leaves Dean be and turns his attention to his computer screen, which glows cold and blue once more.
He toggles his ISP, but there’s no WiFi.
It’s going to be a long night, then.
Sam pulls up his email archive and types in Jess.