May 25, 2007

Disclaimer: by request only. Written for merryish for the first kiss meme. Do not archive without permission.

the other desert

Sam disappears in Nevada, out in the desert. There's sand and nothing and rock and nothing and Dean takes his eyes off Sam for a minute and he's just gone.

It takes him three days to figure it out. Three days of shouting and cursing, three days of hammering on the rocks with his bare hands, ready to claw them open if it will bring Sam back; three days of going through Dad's notebook without ripping it apart, fingers tense with fury; three days of swearing he'll do anything, anything at all. Somewhere in there, he kills the giant half-demonic gila monster they came to the desert to find, puts an end to it with bullets and fire and extreme prejudice, and that doesn't even take the edge off.

Then he sees it, just when the sun's coming up on the fourth day: a ripple in the air, a space less than a heartbeat wide that is there and elsewhere at the same time, a trap for unwary travellers. Dean doesn't even stop to think, he just runs straight at it, and crashes through into the other desert.

It's the same, and it's entirely different. The air is hazy with heat, and Dean can't tell if it's night or day; he feels the sun beating down on his skin, dazzling his eyes, but there's darkness all around and he can see stars overhead, and looking at them makes him dizzy, makes him feel he's going to fall into them, up and up and out into neverending space. He's distracted, and so he's taken by surprise when someone grabs him and twists one arm up behind his back.

Someone is a tall man with the head of a lizard, and a subtle scale pattern on his shoulders and down his back. "You killed our watcher," he says, and tightens the grip of his hand until Dean can feel the bones in his wrist grinding together.

"Yeah, sorry about that," he says, and drives the elbow of his free arm into the lizard-man's solar plexus. The lizard-man grunts and slackens his grip, and Dean wrenches free and gets in a couple of good punches and a kick to the knee before he remembers this is not the time for it, and instead trains a gun on the lizard-man's freaky lizard head. "No, wait, I'm not. Where's Sam?"

"Who?" The lizard-man tries to look innocent, and Dean punches him in the face; the lizard-man doesn't exactly have a nose, but something goes crunch under Dean's fist, and there's a trickle of blood from one flat nostril.

"Tell me where Sam is," Dean says, very reasonably, "and I won't skin you alive and make a wallet out of you."

There's a moment of silence, while the stars whirl above them, and then a coyote howls in the distance. The lizard-man's tongue flicks out. "I'll take you there," he says.

He leads Dean to an arena, which is there and not there like the sunshine in the darkness, built of rock and air; it's small and intimate, it's huge, it's empty, it's full of people. Lizard people, snake-headed people, coyote people with flat yellow eyes, and Dean sees at least one spider woman who freaks the hell out of him. They notice him, too, and their eyes flick to the gun he's holding to the lizard-man's head, and one of them even hisses, "You brought another one?"

But their real attention is elsewhere. The sand in the arena is dark with spilled blood.

"It's a game of warriors," the lizard-man says, tasting the air. His eyes cut sideways to Dean, oddly fearless. "To challenge, to win. To kill. To be the leader."

A coyote-woman in front of them looks back over her shoulder, where fur blends into smooth skin. "And the outsiders for practice," she says. Her ears are flattened and her voice is tense. "Not like this."

A growling, hissing whisper runs through the crowd, like the sound of stars sliding across the dark-blue glass of midnight. Sam appears, he's just suddenly there, standing in the middle of the arena. His shirt is gone, he's bruised and dusty and there's blood spattered on his skin. He's got his knife in his right hand, and his right arm is bloody up to the elbow. Dean's moving forward without even thinking, and then the lizard-man and the coyote-woman are holding him back, one on each side.

"This game has rules," the lizard-man says. "We regret them now, but there are rules."

Someone howls, someone barks, and a spider-voice whispers, "Final round." There's no gong, but the air rings with expectant silence. "Live or die. Final round."

"Sam!" Dean shouts, and there's a quick flicker of eyes, a swift look of acknowledgement and awareness, but Sam's attention is elsewhere, too. And Dean knows that look on his brother's face, the dark level look in his eyes, the almost-smile on Sam's wide mouth, crooked where his lip is split. Sam is angry. Sam is furious, burning with it, and he's more dangerous like this than Dean's ever seen him.

The haze of midnight sunshine flares, and there's another figure standing in the arena. Half man, half mountain lion, almost as tall as Sam and heavy through the shoulders, with knee joints that seem to bend the wrong way and every finger ending in a wicked inch-long claw. Sam, Dean says soundlessly. Sammy.

"The outsider has won every round," the coyote-woman says. "This is not acceptable."

"But there are rules," the lizard-man repeats.

Down in the arena, the players in this game of warriors circle each other on the hot sand, both of them moving with predatory grace, and Dean can tell that Sam's not hurt, not really, not a lot. Not yet. Sam's done good here in the land of desert nightmares, and Dean is fiercely proud of him. He struggles forward to free himself and is somehow unsurprised to see that he is held back by two stone pillars, arms imprisoned in the red rock. A tiny spider clings to the cuff of his jacket and then drops off, thin silver thread spinning out into the night, and the crowd roars all around, and Dean jerks his attention back to the arena to see that the cougar-man has slashed a paw across Sam's chest, leaving a row of bleeding scratches.

Sam bares his teeth and closes in, and suddenly drops low, slicing deep across the cougar-man's knee joint. He takes another swipe of claws, across his back this time as he throws himself back out of range, rolling across the sand and scrambling to his feet as fast as he can. The cougar-man doesn't leap after him, though; the cougar-man is favoring his cut leg, where blood is soaking into his fur, or his clothing. Dean can't tell which. He can see some things clear as day, and then something else will just blur in front of his eyes. He sees the cougar-man closing in on Sam again, and then there's a crazy whirl of sand and stars, and the crowd roars. The haze clears from Dean's eyes and both Sam and the cougar-man are bleeding freely, circling each other in that same wary spiral dance.

Sam looks like he was born with that knife in his hand.

The cougar-man leaps, and Sam dodges, just barely, long legs carrying him scant inches out of range, and Dean knows why his brother went for the knee joint first, knows Sam wants to get the other one too, or get in there and hamstring the bastard. Sam sweeps one arm out and blood drops fly through the air, and Dean can see them spattering across the sand. Sammy, he says, no words. You get him, Sammy.

Sam's hair is lank with sweat, hanging in his eyes. The cougar-man leaps again and Sam tumbles backwards under his weight, and Dean can hear himself yelling but he can't make out the words. There's a blur of sand and skin, Sam's dark hair and the cougar-man's dust-blond pelt. They roll apart, and face each other again. Sam's crouched low, left hand touching the ground for balance, or Dean hopes it's for balance. Blood drips on the sand from Sam's shoulder. The cougar-man is hunched over, and there's a deep gouge in his chest. Dean can see where the knife skidded across the ribs.

This time it's Sam who leaps, throwing himself forward, slamming the knife in and then ripping it brutally up and out. Blood and guts spill out on the sand, and the cougar-man twitches violently, and then lies still. Sam rises to his feet and wipes the back of his left hand across his face, smearing his cheekbone with more blood.

Dean stumbles when the rock releases him and vanishes into thin air, and then he's running towards Sam. The coyote-woman tries to stop him, and he punches her so hard her head snaps back, then pivots and kicks out someone's legs from underneath them. Their hands can't hold him. A rattlesnake-man rears back as if to strike, and Dean wishes he had his shotgun.

"Stop," Sam says, and everything stops. He walks away from the dead cougar-man and comes towards Dean. His voice sounds rusty."I played your game. It's over."

"There are rules," the spider-voice whispers. "There are rules." The crowd shifts around them and whispers quiet anger. Dean can't tell how many they are, or how real they are, but he sure as hell knows they can hurt him if he doesn't hurt them first.

Sam's next to Dean, now, wearing a sun-hazed halo. His eyes are on Dean, but he's talking to the spider-voice. "I'm changing the rules. I'm going to walk out of here with my brother, and you're going to close the door behind us. Forever."

The spider-voice hisses, and the crowd closes in on them. Dean absently slams his fist into the belly of a coyote-man who comes too near him. Sam's right hand flashes out, and Dean steps up to stand at his back as he cuts a doorway in the air, less than a heartbeat wide, and when Dean glances back over Sam's shoulder, he sees that on the other side, there's sunshine. "Better do as he says," Dean suggests, landing another punch on a lizard-man with fringed fingers. He can feel a shiver, Sam ragged with exhaustion and the effort of not showing it.

"Go," the spider-voice hisses, and as soon as he hears the word Dean turns and shoves Sam through that doorway and stumbles after him, and it closes behind them with an un-sound like the opposite of something ripped open, leaving Dean's ears ringing.

Sam is bent over with his hands on his knees, but he straightens up as Dean watches. Sand has abraded his elbows and shoulders and there's sand ground into every scratch and cut. Dean knows that later, he might ask how many times Sam stood in that arena, and he might want to kill everyone who fought him and made him bleed, but he knows they're already dead. Sam killed them all, and it's kind of awesome and kind of disturbing, and they're not going to talk about that right now.

"You'll never get the bloodstains out of those jeans," Dean says instead, and Sam, unbelievably, grins, bright as the morning sun.

He drops the knife on the ground like he's forgotten it exists and walks over to Dean, and there's something about the way he moves, like the whole fighting for his life thing isn't quite out of his system yet, but he's still grinning, and Dean's grinning back because it's Sammy, he's back, he's right there, reaching out and pulling Dean close and Dean doesn't mind at all, even though Sam's filthy and sweaty and half-naked. No. He doesn't mind.

"You came for me," Sam says, grave and grinning all at once. Then Sam closes his bloody right hand around the back of Dean's neck and kisses him, with full and focused attention, deep and slow. There's sand in his mouth, a little.

Sam ends the kiss a good long time later with his lips just barely grazing Dean's, breathing against him. The sun is rising steadily above their heads, bathing them in clear ordinary daylight, and Dean thinks his knees might give way.

"What the hell?" he says, breathless, and as soon as the words are out, he can feel how Sam snaps tight with tension. Sam is just about to step back and let go when Dean gets an arm around his neck and yanks him in as close as he can be. "Oh, what the hell," he says into his brother's mouth, laughing a little, and Sam draws a shaky breath and laughs with him and thumps his shoulder, and Sam's mouth is water in the desert, it's everything.

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