Later that night, Dean and Sam sat in the motel room, eating through the food Dean had picked up from a small diner earlier on.
Sam had waited in the car the entire time, wanting to keep out of sight. He’d been in a pocket for far too long that day already, he hadn’t wanted to come in if it meant sitting in the pocket even more.
Still, being alone in the car was almost just as bad. Jumping at every shadow that passed by, afraid someone would glance in and see him there. Sam was feeling far jumpier than normal after everything he’d gone through that day. Almost being seen, pissing off Dean with every little thing he did… it was like he couldn’t do anything right.
Now that they were in the room, it was a bit better. Dean was still giving him surreptitious looks out of the corner of his eye, guilt painted on his face whenever he met Sam’s eyes. Sam knew he felt awful for the way he’d acted in the morning, but Dean being Dean, he wouldn’t say anything. Some things never changed.
It wasn’t all bad though. The salad Dean had ended up getting him was delicious, with chicken, carrots, cheese and different types of lettuce all mixed in. The sheer amount of variety humans got to eat on a daily basis was amazing compared to what he’d grown up with. The only choices they’d ever been able to make were where they’d be able to scavenge the food from… the motel rooms or the kitchen. Whatever leftovers that were in the room was what they ended up eating.
Dean was sitting at the table, devouring a bacon cheeseburger with the single minded intensity he got whenever food was in front of him. Not far away, Sam was trying to ignore his the sounds his brother made from above while he ate his own food. Sitting near Dean when he was eating was still disturbing enough for Sam to lose his own appetite if he paid attention. Dean tore through his food with massive bites, swallowing chunks of his sandwich whole that were almost the same size as Sam. Sam tried to not let him know he got nervous, since it wasn’t his brother’s fault Sam was literally bite-sized. Plus, Dean was already blaming himself for everything, the last thing Sam wanted was to make him feel guilty for something he had no control over.
Once he was finished with his food, Sam pushed it to the side, going over to the computer. Dean hadn’t touched it since they’d gotten back to the room, aside from starting it up. Entering the password with practiced ease, Sam loaded up the Internet browser while his brother finished up his food behind him. One thing he’d made sure to do when he’d created the password was make it easier for him to enter. Stepping on the keys with his boots wasn’t the easiest way to enter data, but he was so small it was his only option. At least the touchpad for the computer still responded to his hand the same as it did for Dean’s fingers, as long as he used his entire hand and not just a finger.
He settled down to his work.
Once Dean finished eating, he folded his hands on the table, resting his head. From this angle he could see Sam at an almost normal perspective, instead of staring down at his head like normal. Sam almost seemed… tall like this. Long legs, lanky body, even his poofy hair... Dean couldn’t help but wonder exactly how tall Sam would be if they ever got him back to size. When they got him back to normal. He’d hate to be the shorter brother. Yet for all the short jokes he leveled at Sam, Dean wouldn’t hesitate for a second to get Sam back to size, even if it meant he ended up being the shorter of the pair.
'Course, if that ever happened, he’d certainly given Sam plenty of ammo to work with.
For the next few minutes he watched the tiny Winchester hop about in front of him. A small smile curled at free edge of his mouth at the slight ridiculousness of the sight. Sam was trying so hard.
A thought occurred to him. “Hey Sam, there's been something I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said, keeping his voice down this close to Sam.
Sam stopped, stepping off the keyboard so he could get a good look at Dean. While Dean had his head propped up like that, Sam could almost see eye to eye with his brother. At least, as long as he was standing on the computer. “What?” he asked curiously.
“Did you have any luck when you checked out curses? I know I’ve seen you researching them.”
Sam scowled down at his boots. Dean couldn’t help but notice that they were smaller than the computer keys he was standing near. “I don’t know if we’re going to have any luck with this curse Dean.”
Dean’s eyebrows shot up in surprise at the unexpected condemnation in Sam’s voice. “What do you mean? There’s always a way. We just haven't found it yet. You can't let yourself believe that witch. She lied, Sam. It has to be a lie." Near the end, Dean’s voice rose, making Sam wince at the volume. Dean couldn't allow himself to believe the witch's words were anything but a lie, though.
Sam paced over to the edge of the computer, meeting Dean square in the eyes. “When… when Nixie was here, she said she could see the curse on me. So I asked her. I asked her what it was… if she could help break it. She said there was no way for her to break the curse. She said it was unique.” He met Dean’s eyes. “The curse… it’s somehow bound to my soul. She said she could see a dark pattern etched on it, like a black webbing. We've never even heard of a curse like that. And... you know Nixie had no reason to lie to us."
Dean reached a hand over to Sam, carefully resting a fingertip lightly on his brother’s shoulder. For once, Sam didn't flinch away from the massive hand. “Sam… why didn't you tell me this before?" he asked softly, not wanting to come off as demanding after everything he'd done that day. He gently rubbed the small shoulder, wishing he could even give Sam a friendly pat on the back without being afraid he was going to hurt the tiny guy. It was just so fragile under his touch.
Sam shrugged, pushing the finger off his shoulder with a small hand. Dean let him, not wanting to come off as pushy after everything else. "Dean, you already know there's almost no chance I'll ever go back to normal. I just... I don't want your pity. I can deal with my size. It's just how I am. I can accept that. I don't want to deal with being pitied because of it."
Dean couldn't hide the hurt in his eyes at this. That's why Sam hadn't told him? "Sam..." he started, wanting nothing more than to reassure Sam, tell him he’d never dream of pitying him.
With a glare that stopped Dean in his tracks, Sam turned away from him, stepping back onto the keyboard with determination. His hair was ruffled when Dean sighed in exasperation, pushing himself back up to a sitting position. For a few minutes he sat there staring down at Sam thoughtfully, tapping his fingers on the table.
In the end he left Sam at the computer, going over to the bed to watch TV for a bit while his food settled.
His mind was starting to return.
The girl had been good, enough to prevent further decay while drifting in that twilight realm between the living and the dead. For a long while, he'd thought he'd breathed his last.
Then she had moved in.
Her life was so bright, so vibrant, it had drawn him like a moth to a flame. Drifting near her that first time, he'd felt the link begin, tying her to him with an unbreakable bond.
Since he was so weak, so close to death, that was the most he'd been able to do. Then he had to wait. His bond with her prevented his death for the time being, slowly strengthening him every time she used the stairs to get home.
Eventually, he'd gained enough strength to manifest himself for the first time in over a decade. At first it was faint, a tapping at the edge of hearing that only she would hear. He'd followed her each time, drawing strength from her proximity.
But always, she'd left before he could draw enough.
The long years he'd spent in limbo had truly drained him, weakening his form and his powers. It had been a slow process, gaining it all back. Unable to leave, unable to follow his source of sustenance. He’d lingered there for years before being able to tie himself to her. And it was a long, slow process once he had that bond, a little bit each day while his strength started to grow.
And eventually, he'd persevered.
Then she'd stopped coming down the stairwell.
At first he thought it was the end. He was bound to her for as long as she lived. No other human could give him sustenance until that day. The bond was permanent, a liability that had never affected him before now. If she was to leave while he was trapped in this place he would truly fade, losing his touch, his grasp on reality. He would be sent finally to the land beyond without her.
Normally, this would be no problem. He would be able to live with only a slight connection to feed him strength. In fact, in normal times it was best to keep space between the bond-holder and himself. But it had been so long since he'd had full strength, he was unable to manifest a corporeal form the way he normally could. He was trapped in this God-forsaken place.
His luck had held out though. She had returned.
Not willing to trust to luck again, he had taken his chance, draining the rest of her life force in one swoop. It would sustain him, give him the ability to manifest so he could find another human to tie himself too.
In fact, not long ago there had been another flicker of life in the stairwell. He hadn't been ready, still absorbing as much of the life from the girl as he could. He'd missed his chance to make a bond. The flicker had left before he could see what it was.
He wouldn't miss his chance again.
A few hours later, Dean was helping Sam with some of the research. Sam was sitting to the side on a book while Dean paged through the history of the area the killing had taken place. So far, neither of them had had any luck finding a candidate for a vengeful spirit.
Tired, Dean pushed his chair back, dragging a hand down his face. Sam jerked in surprise at the movement, recovering smoothly. Dean gave him a sheepish smile. He always forgot how alarming he could be by accident.
"What's the matter?" Sam asked.
"I feel like we're running in circles here.... there's nothing that would indicate a haunting at all. And no crazy bitches in the area that might have hexed her." Dean folded his hands under his chin, leaning against the table. "I was thinking I could run back up to her apartment tonight. If there's a spirit, it might not be active during the day, and only the most powerful spirits have EMF that lasts an entire day or more without them around."
"So, what... you just want to run up there in the middle of the night?"
Dean shrugged. "I just feel like I need to be doing. If someone else dies because we're just... sitting around, useless..."
Sam scowled at the thought. "I know how you feel. But what if it’s not a vengeful spirit? You might be walking into something neither of us is prepared for."
"And that's why you're going to stay here," Dean said. He nudged Sam lightly with a finger, almost knocking the little guy over. Giving Sam an abashed look, he went on, "You keep getting your research-fu on, and if you find anything, you can give me a call." Dean pulled a phone out of his pocket, setting it near Sam. "If I leave it open, do you think you can make a call with this?"
Sam stood up and walked over. The phone was almost the same size as him, with buttons only slightly larger than his boots. With Dean's encouragement, he stepped on a button. The phone lit right up. He stared back up at Dean with a proud grin. "Guess I can. How do you make a call?"
Dean showed him the buttons to hit, and how to hang the phone up. Afterwards he gave Sam the number of the burner phone he was keeping on him for the duration of the case. It was the phone with the number he'd given Sera if she remembered anything to tell him about her sister. The phone he was leaving with Sam was his main phone, with the number he rarely gave out to anyone, unless he trusted them completely. His dad and a few other friends were the only ones with it, making it far less likely that someone could use it to track down the phone, and by extension, Sam. Dean couldn't afford to put Sam in any danger when he wasn't around.
And Dean would never admit it to Sam, but it was friggin' adorable watching his teeny little brother use electronics bigger than he was. Sam was so proud that he could use the phone.
Only once he was certain Sam would be alright without him did Dean get ready to go. Since he still didn't know what they were dealing with, he tried to keep as many different types of weapons on himself as possible. He would be prepared for anything.
Sam ended up moving to the bed while Dean was getting ready. Dean watched carefully when he saw his brother climb down from the table, keeping an eye out. Sam was definitely getting braver around Dean. He didn't even flinch when Dean passed by him, one boot hitting the ground with a thud less than a foot away. It gave Dean hope that he wasn't ruining his chances of earning Sam's trust with all the times he’d accidentally scared his brother.
Once he was ready to go, Dean moved the laptop over to the bed near Sam and left the phone lying open on the nightstand. "Alright, if anything comes up or you find anything on what's going on at the apartments, give me a call, okay?"
Sam waved him away from his place on the bed. "You know I will." He nodded at the laptop. "I've got a few more ideas to check into."
With a smirk, Dean gave Sam a noogie, messing up his long hair with a careful finger. "Stay safe, Sammy."
Sam fell over backwards trying to fend off the massive finger with muttered curses directed up at Dean.
With that, Dean left Sam alone in the room, locking the door behind him.
The moment he stepped away from the room, the familiar guilt set into him at leaving his brother alone. No matter how many times Sam assured Dean he could take care of himself, Dean knew that wasn't completely true. All it would take was someone getting their hands on Sam and he would be helpless. Sam was a genius when it came to finding places to hide, but if he'd been caught before, he could be caught again. And the next time it happened, there was a good chance they wouldn't let him go the way Dean had.
The moment Dean had realized what was in his hand, he'd panicked, afraid of hurting Sam. His hand had opened on reflex, accidently dropping Sam several inches to the floor. Luckily, Sam hadn't been hurt, though he had taken advantage of those seconds to escape from Dean, running away as fast as he could.
No, if someone else got their hands on Sam, they'd probably never let him go. Sam would end up trapped, maybe even hurt depending on the type of person that got ahold of him. Dean needed to make sure that never happened. What good was he if he couldn't even protect his little brother?
Pushing those thoughts away, Dean focused back on the case. It had to be one of the odder cases he'd ever worked on. Every part of it pointed to a vengeful spirit being what had killed the girl... except two things. The way she'd died (he'd never heard of a spirit stealing life from a human like that) and the lack of any violent deaths in the area’s history. There weren’t even any clues in their father’s journal. Both Sam and Dean had checked through it earlier on in the day, hopeful for some answers.
No monsters they were familiar with killed like that. There were no marks on the girl’s body at all. And not finding anyone with a grudge against her in the area deepened the mystery.
He climbed into the Impala, quickly finding his way through the town to the apartment complex. This time of night most of the lights were off in the rooms, leaving the lobby and the stairwell two of the only places that were lit up anymore. Double checking that his flashlight was in his jacket, Dean put the car in park.
Without Sam sitting on his shoulder, Dean didn't have to be as careful with his movements. It felt odd now, after spending so long with his brother by his side. He gave a tiny grin. Maybe if this all went smooth, he'd even have a bit of time to stop at a bar before last call. He hadn't been to one since finding Sam for the first time a little over a month ago. That was a strange thought. He used to go out every night if he could. In the days before Sam, at least.
He climbed out of the car, sticking the keys in his jacket pocket. The complex didn't need a key to get into like some apartment buildings, so he got inside easily. He pulled out the EMF meter as soon as he entered the lobby.
Taking a breath to prepare, Dean had one hand on his handgun as he opened the door to the stairwell. He glanced up at the stairs circling over his head, trying to see if anyone else was in there with him.
He held the EMF meter in front of him as he started up the first flight of stairs, keeping an eye on the lights that would show any spirit activity. His other hand he kept on his gun, prepared for anything. During the first two flights of stairs, nothing happened. The world was quiet and dark, the silence almost smothering him in the still air.
On the third flight of stairs, something changed.
Dean smoothed down the hairs on his arms, suddenly uncomfortable. There was something... different... now. He paused on the stairs for a moment, listening. Nothing but silence.
Starting back up again, he became aware of something different, a new noise...
Tap... Tap... Tap...
Dean froze on the stairs. The gun was in his grip in an instant.
His eyes panned across the stairwell, searching for the source of the tapping. Nothing was there. Not even a slight change in the still air.
Once he was certain there was nothing there, he continued up. His eyes were continually scanning, hoping to catch sight of whatever was in there with him. He was certain it was now stalking him ruthlessly. Thank God Sam wasn't with him. One less thing to worry about. Sam was too fragile to get caught up in a fight with Dean.
As he continued, the tapping resumed, relentless in its following. Exactly what Sera had told them her sister had heard following her the weeks before her death.
Tap... Tap... Tap... Tap...
Dean stiffened, continuing up even as it followed him. If it stopped when he stopped, there would be no way for him to find it unless he was moving. He steadied his gait, smoothing into the natural stalk of a hunter. It continued after him, growing in intensity.
As he neared the door at the end of the third flight of stairs, Dean could almost feel it behind him, getting closer with every move. He could feel it breathing...
Knowing this was his chance, Dean whipped around, bringing his gun to bear before he’d twisted around all the way.
He froze in surprise at what was there.
The instant of hesitation cost him everything. It slammed a fist into his head, knocking him to the ground.
Dean blinked blearily up at it as it tied his hands together and started to drag him up the last few stairs with an inhuman strength. His head thunked against the stairs as he was dragged along. He was going to have some spectacular bruises when this was all over. The creature grinned down at him. It grinned with his own smile, stared at him his own eyes...
A monster stood over the hunter's collapsed body with Dean Winchester's face, grinning down at the prey it had baited into its trap. It raised a fist over the hunter's head, slamming down with unrestrained force.
Dean blacked out.