TITLE: a long lowering of masks
CHARACTERS: Sam, Dean
SPOILERS: Early S4
A/N: This is for an anonymous prompt at hoodie_time's Challenge 6. It's set in S4, but like, in a MODIFIED S4. There's no Ruby and no demon blood and a couple other things are a little different... youuu'll see. A big "we're not worthy" to i_speak_tongue, who added stinky cheese and other delicacies.
SUMMARY: Dean's back from hell and Sam's trying to figure out how to help him.
It's raining in New York state. Delicate drops tap at the Impala's roof and collect on the pavement around her where she's moored in the strip mall parking lot. Sam sits under the white noise and watches Dean dig around in his pockets looking for something. After a while, the rain starts to sound like the crackling of a fire.
"Hey," Sam says gently. "You having a senior moment?"
He's hoping for a dirty look, but it doesn't come. Dean hesitates for a fraction of a second, just long enough that Sam spots it, and then wipes a hand over his face, breaks out in a strange smile. In the grey light of the rainy afternoon, he looks so pale.
"Yeah." Dean pulls the keys out of the ignition and smoothes them all into careful alignment on the ring. He puts them in his pocket. "I'm good. Let's do some crime."
"Here," Sam says, flipping the fat glossy paperback over to read its back. "Join Reverend yadda yadda... PhD, blah blah blah... gripping new take on the sixty-six seals of the apocalypse. Bingo."
They turn from the shelf and survey the vast floor of the mega-chain bookstore, mostly deserted in the bad weather. A pretty clerk is approaching them and Dean steps forward, raising his voice.
"Oh, hey, there you are! Listen, I've been looking everywhere for a book on fine cheeses. Maybe you can help me. It's for my Uncle Neptune, and he really likes those super-stinky ones..." As the employee leads him away, he flashes Sam a thumbs-up behind his back. Sam ruffles the pages in both directions, then turns the volume upside down and gives it a shake, finally dislodging a tiny paper-thin alarm tag. He stuffs the book into his jacket and zips up tight.
"Hey, criminal mastermind, you got anything?" Dean asks later that night. He's just settled down on his bed for the night, fully dressed and on top of the covers, where he'll remain until morning. Sam's not used to it yet.
Sam slides a finger into the book to keep his place and shifts against his own pillows. "Well, the reverend mostly wants to talk about the evils of homosexuality and, weirdly, wheat. He does go into detail on three or four seals, though."
"Praise Jesus." Dean tips his head toward Sam and in the lamplight Sam sees the purple-brown bruises under his eyes, the smudge of toothpaste drying near his mouth. Dean yawns into the back of his hand. "Sleep tight, Sammy boy."
Sam rolls over soon afterwards and puts his book over his face. He leaves it to Dean to turn out the light these days. Dean never does.
It's morning, and Dean's face is an alarming shade of white above his styrofoam cup of coffee. "So what's our game plan?" he croaks, then clears his throat. His jaw's dotted with bright red bits of toilet paper from where he's cut himself shaving.
Across the formica-topped motel table Sam takes a sip from his own cup. "We still don't know what we're up against. I say we lay low, keep hitting the books."
Rain patters weakly at the window. A phone rings in another room. Dean pushes a palm over his shower-damp hair and snuffles. "Fine. Hit me with some articles."
"Yeah, sure." Sam reaches for another donut and accidentally-on-purpose brushes Dean's hand. The guy's an oven. Sam winces. "Are you... do you, uh, need anything? It's just, you look like you got nailed by a truck, and I've seen what that looks like."
Dean pushes back from the table and stands up on shaky legs, holding onto the back of his chair. "Just feel a bit funny. It'll pass." He wobbles into the navy blue bathroom and shuts the door.
Dean throws up all morning, and by noon Sam will do pretty much anything to make him feel better. He goes out into the rain for saltines and ginger ale, and chances across a brave little rummage sale marked out by a soggy sign. The tables huddle together in a fluorescent-lit garage and Sam finds himself parking at the foot of the yard, wading up the driveway through a miniature lake.
He stands dripping onto the smooth, dry concrete floor and greets the two small boys manning the operation. "Hey. How's business?"
"Nobody came except Bonnie," the smaller one mopes. "And she doesn't count 'cause she lives next door."
"He came," the big brother says, indicating Sam. "I told you people would come."
"Yeah, here I am!" Sam smiles at them and surveys their spread. Something catches his eye. "What! You guys are getting rid of this? These things are awesome!"
The kids exchange a look. "They're not that awesome," says the youngest.
"Hey, sicky." Sam sets the damp, crinkling bag on the carpet and peels off his coat.
Dean's flat on his stomach on top of the bed; his only acknowledgment is a sigh.
"You up for a trip down memory lane?"
Dean lifts his head slightly and peers at Sam, then lets it sink back into the pillow. He closes his eyes, licks his lips. "Have to move?"
Brow furrowing, Sam kicks off his boots and shucks his soggy jeans. He leans over Dean and tests his forehead with the back of his hand. "Holy crap, dude. What's your temperature?"
Dean summons the energy to glare at him.
Sam cracks open the ginger ale and pours out a foamy glass. "Where's the thermometer? It was right here."
"Don' worry," Dean mumbles sleepily.
"If you could see yourself, you would worry." Sam wraps Dean's feverish hand around the cup. "C'mon, drink this."
It's the middle of the night, and a much cooler Dean is playing on the Super Nintendo Sam bought him at the garage sale. The light from the parking lot cuts glowing shapes in the curtains; rain pounds on the roof. Vibrant, synthesized videogame music warms the room.
Sam's stretched out on his bed, flipping through the book about the seals and stealing contented glances at his brother. Dean's spread across the sofa under his comforter, crunching on a cracker and rocking some spectacular bedhead.
On the screen, Mario makes his way around the grey stone and bright lava of a castle. He crushes a skeletal Koopa and moves past it. It reanimates; he hesitates, then doubles back and jumps on it again. A faraway look comes over Dean's face, and Sam frowns uneasily. Dean keeps disassembling the skeleton until Mario's time runs out.
"Hey," Sam yawns, padding over to the sofa. The light in the room is a feeble daytime grey, and rain spits over the window in uneven gusts. Sam rubs his eyes and leans over the back of the couch for a look at his patient.
Said patient is flushed and bug-eyed, sunk flat on his back into the cushions. The Nintendo is on pause and he's transfixed by the screen, his breathing shallow.
With a sharp inhale, Dean turns and blinks up at Sam. "Hey. Uh." He pushes himself up on trembling arms, not letting go of the game controller. "Hi."
Sam circles around to him, presses a palm into his brother's burning forehead. "Shit. Wow. Did you get any sleep?"
"It's okay." Dean shudders and scratches his stubbly jaw. He sounds too reined in, falsely calm. "Listen, maybe you can help me. What do you, uh..." He gestures vaguely at the screen, darting a wary look at it and then quickly averting his eyes. "What is that?"
Sam sits down next to his brother and rubs his hot shoulder worriedly. "What's what?" He turns and takes in the scene in the game.
"The, um..." Dean flaps a hand at his own face, jerks a thumb at Mario's enemy.
"The Koopa?" Sam raises his brows, gazes into his brother's glittery eyes. "The key is to jump on top of those. Or if you prefer, you could throw a fireball. It's a little dishonorable since they don't have fireballs to fight back with, but as criminals we don't always have the luxury of such considerations." Dean's expression is uncertain, and Sam softens. "You kicked ass. That's what that is. You beat the whole game, man, and now everything's different. It's autumn, it's not spring anymore, and the bad guys have all been revamped. That's just a regular Koopa, only now he's wearing a Mario mask."
Dean swallows and breaks out in a sweat. He nods as if he's received a difficult but not unexpected diagnosis. "It's wearing my face."
He's picking at a tiny scab on his jaw from where he cut himself shaving, and Sam guides his hand down before he draws blood. "It's a disguise. He's trying to trick you. But check it out, you're totally on to him."
Suddenly a tear darts down Dean's cheek. "Why'd he have to go and do that?"
"Whoa, hey, hey." Sam combs his fingers through his brother's hair, rubs soothing circles into his middle. "What's going on?"
Dean covers his eyes and his cheeks flood. He snuffles and pushes out a jerky sigh. "Nothing. It's good. I'm fine."
"Yeah. Some day I'm gonna show you that word in a dictionary." Sam fumbles on the end table for a box of tissues and sets it in his brother's lap. "Come on, man. Fill me in, or I can't help."
"You can't help!" Dean blows his nose and wipes roughly at his red eyes. "Never mind. Just forget it."
"Is it something to do with Alastair?"
The effect of the name is striking. Dean blanches, goes very still. "What did you say?"
Sam sighs. "You have nightmares pretty much every night. And you talk in your sleep. So yeah, I know that there's a guy named Alastair, and that he made you do some pretty serious crap. I know that people got hurt, a lot of people." Dean gets up from the couch as if in a dream. He drifts forward and switches off the TV. "I know he used to make himself look like you, sometimes. He'd look like you, and he'd... work you over. I know you probably didn't want me to know that, and I'm sorry. But Dean, it's nothing for you to be ashamed of."
"He said he wanted me to be able to picture myself in the role." Dean's voice sounds rough, exhausted. He's facing the blackened television, giving Sam his back. "He did things... cut me up, whatever... he did them to me, and he wore my face while he did them." He sniffles, ducks his head. "Then he started bringing other people in. He'd make himself look like me, and he'd torture these other people, right there in the room. These poor sons of bitches, Sam." Dean turns to face him, crossing his arms protectively across his chest. His face is splotchy, eyes bloodshot. "I shouldn't be telling you this. It doesn't matter."
"Dean..." Sam goes to him, runs his hands up and down Dean's overheated arms. "It matters."
"You don't get it." Dean shrugs him off angrily. "Any way you slice it, I'm the bad guy, Sam. I made the choice. Everything Alastair did, I did too. There's no difference between us anymore. I might as well be him."
"You could never be him. How can you think that about yourself?"
"I'm sorry, did you just miss this whole conversation?"
"You had to do those things, Dean. He made you do them. You thought it was your choice, but it was between that and getting tortured. That could never be a choice. It doesn't matter if you held the knife; Alastair hurt those people."
Dean puts a palm to his forehead and inhales sharply. His eyes well up again.
"Dude, you're a good person. You help people every day, just because you want to. That's the choice that you make. You risk your life for complete strangers, and you do it over and over." Sam shrugs, looks over his brother's shaken features. "I don't know anybody who's a better person than you. I honestly don't."
While Dean's blotting his face on his T-shirt, Sam drapes his arms around him. Dean holds still and lets him.
Later, when Dean's face is shaved clean and the sun's beaming down on wet pavement, he and Sam drive out to the local library. They leave the Nintendo and the stolen book in the return bin, then walk down the steps in the fresh autumn air.
Prompt: Feverish!Dean wants to play Super Mario. And he beats it. And then there's this stage where the Koopa Troopas put on Mario masks, and he panics and is all WTF SAM THESE TURTLES ARE MIMICKING MEEE and then Sam has to persuade him that it's all fine, they're doing it to try and trick you but you aren't going to get tricked, are you, Dean? and holy shit, Dean, you're burning, let me feel your forehead and give you Advil and stuff.