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Mr. Congeniality

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Sam glances through the window of the Starbucks Dean just disappeared into, and settles back with a sigh. They're in for a long wait; the press of people backs up all the way to the doors. Though, funny, he can't see Dean at the rear of the crowd.

When Sam tilts his head to cut the glare off the glass, he sees the crowd shifting strangely. People are waving their arms, getting angry and clearly shouting. Sam sighs again. He'd say he had an inkling that the uproar had something to do with his brother, but really it's more a certainty than an inkling. Sure enough, in under five minutes, Dean is back with two grande cups. One has a suspicious amount of writing on the side.

"If you got me a double shot, vanilla, hazelnut, soy latte with whipped cream again, I'm going to kill you," says Sam when Dean opens the car door.

"After last time? No way. Got you a triple shot, mint-mocha, half-fat latte with whipped cream. Wasn't that what you wanted?" Dean's innocent face needs some work.

Sam glares and tries to reach for the double cappuccino he can see in Dean's far hand, but Dean licks all over the sippy-lid and all around the edges of the cup. Sam would take it anyway—he knows for a fact that Dean uses his toothbrush when he can't be bothered to get his own out of his duffle—but he can see a little speck of pork rind on the lid, and that just grosses him out. Mint-mocha can't be that bad.

"How'd you get out of there so quickly, anyway?" he asks, despite being pretty sure he doesn't want to know.

"Used the FBI badge. Got right to the front. Works every time." Dean looks entirely too pleased with himself.

Sam holds his hand out for the coffee monstrosity. He needs caffeine if he's going to put up with his brother today.

The drink's not as bad as he expected, and he's almost finished it by the time Dean finds a parking space near the post office. "Your turn to go in," Dean says. "I have coffee to drink."

Sam needs to stretch his legs anyway, and isn't going in just because his brother told him to. Besides, he likes this drop; they have a box in the top row, so he doesn't have to bend over. It takes a minute to find the right key, but when he does, Sam finds the manila envelope that Ash promised to send is curled into a U to fit inside the box, plump with information on what Dean's sure should be their next case. Though Ash was pretty sketchy with details over the phone, and Sam's not convinced.

"Just have a look at what I'm sending you," Ash had said, "and I think you'll agree it's worth your time."

Wedged next to the large envelope there's a new visa card addressed to Reynaldo Curtis—Dean's been watching too many Law and Order marathons again—and a letter from their cell phone provider. Sam tucks those into his back pocket and straightens out the packet from Ash as he heads back to the car.

"What've we got?" Dean asks.

Sam rips open the envelope. On top of the pile are a bunch of newspaper reports about something called the Mr. All-America pageant, which Sam skims. "Something to do with a beauty pageant," he answers.

"Now that's what I'm talking about," Dean says, and pumps his fist in the air like victory incarnate.

Sam debates letting him hang on to the pleasant misconception. He eventually decides he's not going to get a better reaction later than he is now, so says, "Male beauty pageant."

"Are you kidding me?" Dean gives him the full-fledged nose-wrinkle-raised-eyebrow look of incredulity that says Sam had sure as hell better be kidding.

"Nope. Since 1982. This is their twenty-fifth anniversary year."

"What the hell is the point of a beauty pageant if it doesn't have girls?" Dean asks, making the left turn towards their motel.

"Apparently it's not really a beauty pageant, it's a 'scholarship program.'"

"So what does it have to do with us?"

"Dunno yet." They're pulling into the motel lot, so Sam stuffs the articles back in the envelope until they're inside and settled across the table by the window.

They spread out the papers—graphs, charts, and seemingly random clippings that Sam assumes are supposed to support the letter Ash sent, which Dean is reading.

"Omens of dark magic," Dean summarizes aloud, "some kind of cover-up conspiracy at the state finals in Mississippi, and a letter to the TV network threatening to give them a 'show no one will ever forget'. Which, isn't that what networks are usually after? Can't see them getting too worried about that."

"Does Ash explain why this isn't a job for the FBI?"

"Omens, cover-ups, and the network not feeling threatened, I'm guessing."

"Right. So what are we supposed to do?"

"I guess we have to infiltrate the pageant." Dean says, reading on. "Ash said he worked it so Mr. New Jersey's decidedly un-All-American porn career came to light, and—" Dean turns the letter over and his eyes go wide at what's next. "Wait a minute, one of us can replace him?"

They stare at each other, and Sam can read his own thoughts on Dean's face. No fucking way am I competing in a beauty contest.

Sam's about to voice his protest aloud when Dean says, "Wrestle you for it."

"I'm not wrestling you over this, jerk."

"Chicken, bok bok bok." Dean's standing already, like he's planning to throw down right here in the six inches between the table and the beds.

"You're kidding, right?" They're going to decide this like civilized people. Sam's not going to stoop to Dean's level—somewhere below intelligent human but marginally above Neanderthal—and make this some sort of physical, macho showdown.

"True. I'd have an unfair advantage in here, what with not being ten feet tall. Wouldn't want you to try and claim you only lost because I cheated. There's that clearing out towards Mercer."

"No, Dean." Sam is not going to head out to a field like they're gladiators, or extras in some twisted remake of Cool Hand Luke. He's just not.

Except it only takes ten minutes of Dean teasing and goading him before Sam stomps out to the car himself. He doesn't even need to be dragged.

Fifteen minutes later they're outside of town, circling each other in a wide patch of grass just off some dirt stretch of county road. The car glints a hundred feet or so off—bright sheen of metal making the sun seem even hotter—and Sam can already feel sweat collecting under his collar. He pauses to pull off a layer, and still feels too warm even once he's down to a thin black t-shirt.

They circle, Sam feeling stupid for letting Dean manipulate him into this, and then Dean makes the first move, lunging fast and low, almost catching Sam off guard. But Sam's limbs are longer and a little faster, and he feels the whisper of Dean's shirt across his arm as he sidesteps and trips his brother to the ground.

His advantage is fleeting, and before long he's grounded, too, rolling with Dean in the dirt. There's a whole lot of grass stain in their future, and whether or not it's his turn, Sam is making sure that Dean is on laundry duty after this.

It's not a coordinated fight. Their moves aren't regulation, the sweep of legs and arms and feet nothing but Winchester tradition.

"Dude," Sam gasps, nearly out of breath and trying to pin Dean by the elbows. "You're always saying you're the good looking one."

"You know that's just talk, baby," Dean taunts him, and it's not fair that he doesn't even sound tired. "You'll always be the prettiest girl in school."

"Fuck you," Sam says, and gets him in a headlock.

"Come on, Sammy." Dean's voice is muffled a little by Sam's elbow. "You got nothing to be ashamed of. You'll look great in that swimsuit competition."

Dean twists free somehow, slippery bastard, and they're both grabbing at each other in complete futility. Sam almost gets to his feet, but Dean takes him down hard and Sam feels the wind rush out of him. It's grabbing and rolling, Dean's muscles unyielding resistance beneath him.

"You've got the flowing locks, man," says Dean, and at last he's starting to sound fatigued.

Sam finally gets the leverage he needs and bears Dean down with his weight, snarling, "But you've got such a pretty mouth, Dean." Only it doesn't come out flippant like Sam meant it to. It comes out low and breathy, and suddenly Sam is staring at Dean's mouth like he hasn't let himself in years. Doesn't help at all that he's straddling Dean at the waist, that suddenly it's all he can do to breathe as he tries to figure out what his brother is thinking behind those wide, startled eyes.

He shouldn't be surprised when Dean takes advantage of his distraction, but he still wants to call foul when he realizes too late that Dean is kicking and shoving and knocking him aside. He lands on his stomach and doesn't have enough time to react as Dean plants a knee at the small of his back and grinds him into the dirt.

Sam gives it a valiant try, but he's stuck. His stomach lurches at what this defeat means he has to do, and he growls unhappily. "So you're saying I have to wear the bathing suit?"

Dean tousles his hair and laughs. "Yeah. You have to wear the bathing suit. But don't worry, Sammy," he says. "I'll be right behind you. Every step of the way." When he moves aside, they both roll onto their backs and lie there blinking into the sun, catching their breaths in tired unison.

"I hate you," says Sam, wondering how he let Dean talk him into this.

"I know you do," says Dean, and laughs again like he thinks Sam doesn't mean it.

— - — - — - — - —

Dean's never even heard of male beauty pageants before, but YouTube doesn't fail him. There's a metric ton of clips: talent and interview segments, swimsuit competitions, and, of course, the winner getting his crown. They all tend to look like the prom king in a John Hughes knock-off—earnest and dumb as a box of rock salt—and he's pretty sure Sam is going to need some serious coaching to pull this off.

Hitting up links and using search skills Sam doesn't know he has, Dean finds and downloads of a selection of clips, making a file for Sam to study. He can always say Ash sent them. Dean's just as happy that Sam likes to think Dean's only capable of using the laptop to find porn. Though, looking at some of those guys in their swimsuits—

"We gonna go, then?" Sam asks, duffle hooked over one shoulder. He sounds positively thrilled about getting started. Only not.

Dean hands Sam the laptop. "Keep it out," he says, "got a few things for you to watch to prepare yourself."

Sam glares, but tucks the computer under his arm instead of putting it in his bag.

Once they're on the road, Sam opens it up. "This file called Princess Samantha?"

"Yeah." Dean ignores the fact that if looks could kill his baby would be swerving off the road right now, and manages to keep his hoot of laughter inside.

Giving up on getting a reaction to his laser-death glare, Sam watches for a minute, and then scoffs. "They are so taking his crown away when they notice he has pec implants."

"Just watch. I don't think you need to worry about pec implants." Sam's pecs do just fine on their own. Jesus. Dean concentrates on merging onto the highway.

"This guy is crying, Dean. This is ridiculous. I'm not doing it."

Dean gives Sam his best determined face.

"Come on! Seriously? Dean, did you even watch these?"

"But you'll be so pretty, Sammy. We can tease up your hair a little, put some gloss on those lips—"

"You're the one with the eyelashes—"

"So we get you some mascara. I won fair and square, and you know it. Stop bitching."

Sam is scowling when he settles in to watch more video clips, volume low enough that Dean can barely hear over the rumble of road. He watches in his peripheral vision as Sam settles in and stops sulking in favor of his usual studied focus. It's easy enough to zone Sam out after that, eyes on the road and nothing to do but plan next steps.

Dean startles back to attention at a sudden flail of movement, and he glances at Sam with wide eyes. His brother is flapping his hands at either side of his face, like he just ate a fresh chili, and then he bursts suddenly into great, wracking sobs that Dean hopes to god are fake.

"Dude," he says when Sam quiets down. "What the hell?"

"What?" Sam asks, and his eyes are wide like he thinks Dean is the crazy one. "I was just practicing. Gotta sell it, don't I?"

Dean blinks at him, really needs to get his eyes back on the road, but it takes a moment to sink in. When it finally does he bursts out laughing, swerving a little as he focuses his attention back to driving in a straight line. Sam is glowering at him hard, but it does nothing to quiet Dean's mirth.

He's still laughing when he says, "See? What'd I tell you, you're a natural."

— - — - — - — - —

"You start on the outside and work your way in," Dean tells him, glancing down at the folded piece of paper sticking out from under his napkin, and Sam wants to throw a piece of bread at his brother's face. The vast array of silverware around his place setting is intimidating, but Dean is talking like Sam doesn't even know rule one. Sam had a rich girlfriend, thanks, and maybe she never schooled him in the detailed etiquette of fine dining, but she definitely taught him the basics.

"Yeah, Dean, I got it."



"You should never say 'yeah,' always 'yes'." Dean looks up from his crib-notes and nods emphatically when he catches Sam's eye.

Sam had tried to explain that Jess taught him more than his brother could ever hope to, but Dean insisted they find a nice restaurant. So they could stop and practice. So he could use the list he got from or wherever, and instruct Sam on how not to make an idiot of himself.

Sam thought at the time that humoring Dean wasn't such a bad idea. Especially if he got a nice steak dinner out of the deal, a luxury they never splurge for.

He's changing his mind as he watches Dean across the table. Sam cuts his steak into manageable pieces, takes the time to swallow before he reaches for his water glass, and is probably about as couth as he needs to be. It doesn't stop Dean barking orders and instructions at him, talking with his mouth full as he points with his knife at the spoon Sam was supposed to use for the soup.

Dean's own steak is a bloody mess—bites of which he is rolling around in his open trap with unfettered contentment—and Sam's actually pretty sure he's going to be sick.

"Dude, are you trying to make me throw up?"

Dean stops chewing long enough to look at him, innocent confusion in his eyes, and Sam tries to ignore the view of half-masticated cow when Dean asks, "What?"

"You're a pig," Sam calmly informs him.

"It's good steak!"

"And the whole restaurant knows it. I'm pretty sure every single person here is staring at you in horror."

Dean actually takes a moment to look self-conscious, but it passes quickly. He finishes chewing his mouthful, makes a show of swallowing and then gives Sam his best superior smirk.

"I don't usually date girls this squeamish, Sammy." When Sam just rolls his eyes and ignores him, Dean goes back to his steak, with the same loud, open-mouthed chewing as a moment before.

For the first time since he lost that stupid wrestling match, Sam thinks maybe their current division of labor is a good idea after all.

— - — - — - — - —

By the time Dean drops him off at Make Me a Man first thing the next morning, Sam has changed his mind again and tries to explain that Dean should really be the one doing this. His brother just laughs and says he'll be back in a couple of hours. So here Sam stands, about to waste a brand new credit card in a 'full-service gentleman's boutique', whatever the hell that is. To make it worse, he hasn't even had breakfast yet.

"Mr. Jackson?" a smooth voice from Sam's left greets him as he opens the door.

"Um…" Sam forgot to look at the card Dean handed him, but there's no one else around. "Mmm hmm," he says, which he hopes sounds enough like an affirmation to make the guy happy, but enough like something else that if it's the wrong name he won't look like he's using a stolen card.

"My name is Nigel, and I will be assisting you today." The man steps out from behind a marble desk and holds out a hand. His suit looks tailor-made and he's groomed to within an inch of his life. Sam feels ridiculously underdressed in ripped jeans, a shirt that was in pretty good shape three hunts ago but is looking worse for the wear now, and with a mess of oil still ground in under his fingernails from helping Dean rotate the tires last week.

Nigel only just manages not to flinch from Sam's hand. "Your future brother-in-law called and explained everything," he continues.


"His sister obviously wants you looking your very best for the wedding. We'll take care of it."

"Right." Sam has no idea if this is a ridiculous cover story (More ridiculous than the truth?) that Dean spun, or if this Nigel guy has him confused with someone else, but he goes with the flow.

"I think we'll start with the manicure," Nigel says, looking pointedly away from Sam's hands, "And then we can get the tailor started before you have your facial and haircut."

"My facial?" Sam remembers Jess having a facial one day with a friend, and it didn't sound like something he was all that keen to try.

"Oh, yes." Nigel starts towards a black-lacquered door. "Right this way, Mr. Jackson."

The manicurist is about four foot two and has the tiniest hands Sam has ever seen on a grown woman. He knows she's not a child, though, because it's clear from her face that she's a hundred and ten years old.

"Sit, sit," she says, and leads him to a black leather chair with wide, high arms.

"This is Magda," Nigel introduces her. "She'll fix you right up." He slips back out the door, leaving Sam feeling like a monster next to the tiny woman.

"Sit!" Magda says again, and pushes Sam in the stomach, which is about all the higher she can reach.

He sits.

She settles herself on a wheeled stool, and picks up his hands, examining them and making little tutting noises. "Mechanic," she mutters, "I have just the thing."

Leaving Sam to wonder what the hell Dean's gotten him into, she disappears behind a curtain, reappearing a moment later with two glass bowls of bright blue, sudsy water.

"Soak," she says, placing the bowls into little depressions on the chair's arms, and nodding curtly, she adds, "Relax."

The soaking is easy. The relaxing, not so much.

It takes less time than he'd imagined for the blue liquid to soak away the grime, and when it's done, Magda wheels back and forth between his hands, scrubbing, clipping, and filing—all of which is much more painful then he'd expected—and then massaging him up to the elbows with a spice-scented lotion, which makes all the pain more than worth it.

Next, Nigel leads him across the hall where the tailor, George—who is as thin as Magda is tiny, but nearly as tall as Sam—drapes fabric next to Sam's face, asking his opinion several times but not waiting for an answer. In the end, George chooses a dark charcoal pinstripe for 'the rehearsal dinner' and a classic black tuxedo for 'the ceremony.'

"Now we measure," he says, and drops to his knees between Sam's legs, reaching for his crotch.

"We what?" Before Sam can back off the little platform in fear, George runs a tape down his inseam, muttering to himself.

Sam is sure it can only go uphill from there, but when he arrives in the next room, he's greeted by two women who ask him to take his shirt off.

"For a facial?"

"And a wax," one of the women says.

Sam is going to kill Dean.

Steam cleaned and with a freshly denuded chest, Sam is passed off to the hairdresser, Ramon. "Just a trim," he says through teeth still gritted in pain.

"We will make you look fabulous."

Sam closes his eyes and lets the man go at it, letting himself be soothed by the gentle tugging on his scalp. When he opens them again, he's surprised that he actually likes what the guy did. A lot. It's still long and wavy, but shaped to his head, and it looks more artfully tousled than towel dried and left. Ramon gives him a pot of product, and explains with much primping and hand waving how Sam can get the same look. Sam isn't convinced, but he'll try.

Finally it's back to George for a last suit fitting, and it seems like a lifetime later—even though his watch assures him it's only been two hours— that Sam is finally coiffed, primped, manicured, dressed in his dinner suit, and ready to walk out the door. Much to his relief, the card Dean gave him does indeed say Randy Jackson, and the $3,500 charge goes through smoothly.

— - — - — - — - —

Dean makes sure to time it perfectly when he returns to pick Sam up from his day of adventure at the spa and salon. There are two good reasons not to keep Sam waiting. The first involves the fact that Dean still can't quite believe he convinced Sam to do this. Why push his luck by making Sam stand around somewhere uncomfortable, probably dressed in a nice suit and feeling irredeemably girly, waiting to be rescued?

The second reason involves Dean's faith in his brother to find a creative way to ruin the salon's work if given a chance.

It's 9:55 am when he pulls up to the brick façade, five minutes before Sam is due to walk out and meet him. He could pull further forward and stop two feet from the door, but he puts the car in park about thirty feet back instead. It's not far enough to piss Sam off, but it is enough to make Sam come to him. Dean wants a good view so he can take it all in, and once this is over there is no end to the shit he plans to give.

He kills the engine and leans back in his seat, comfortable creak of old leather as he watches through the windshield. He's ready to school his features into his business neutral expression—all the better for keeping Sam calm and with the program—and to keep his inevitable urge to laugh on a secret low simmer.

He's not ready for what he actually sees when the glass of the entry glints and the door opens, because this Sam doesn't inspire anything like laughter.

Dean knows his brother like nobody else—knows the contours of his face and the line of his back and what the guy looks like in a shoplifted suit and tie. Dean has spent his whole life looking at Sam, and he's still not sure he recognizes the man he sees walking his direction.

The suit fits Sam's shoulders like poetry and perfection, and the pressed pants hang just right in a way that's more than a little bit distracting. His hair is a startling change, still nearly as long as it was this morning—Dean had wondered if they would cut it shorter—but sculpted like goddamn art. Dean can't stop staring. And from five feet away as Sam finally closes the distance, he looks… is he glowing?

Dean knows his mouth is gaping. His heart is an off-balance jackhammer of rhythm in his chest, and he doesn't know why. He just knows Sam is getting closer, is right there, reaching for the handle and opening the car door so he can slide in, and Dean can't figure out how to make his voice work. He keeps on staring, silent and useless, as Sam slams the door shut and settles back against the leather seat.

Dean doesn't know what to say.

"I don't think I've ever felt so violated in my life," Sam informs him, and it's enough to snap Dean out of that weird, tense spot.

"What's the matter, Sammy?" Dean asks, turning the key to start the car. If his delivery is a little off, maybe the engine turning over can cover it for him. "Didn't you enjoy your manicure?"

"Fuck you," says Sam, and his face settles into a familiar scowl. "You owe me like six months of laundry duty for this, Dean. And passenger picks the music."

Dean laughs and noses out of the parking lot, turning onto the street when traffic is clear. Sam is holding what looks like a dry cleaning bag on his lap, careful and cautious like he's afraid of breaking it, and Dean realizes it's a second suit.

"Why don't you toss that in back?" Dean says and reaches for the paper bag he's got stowed under the seat. "I got you some munchies."

With his eyes lighting up and his glower transforming into a smile, Sam breathes, "You're a life saver."

Dean watches from the corner of his eye as Sam twists in his seat to carefully—ridiculously carefully—lay the spare suit down in back. He hands over the bag when Sam grabs for it, and fights to hold a straight face as Sam yanks it open and immediately loses the eager smile. It's almost too funny to stand, how quickly Sam's face falls, and Dean barely keeps from snickering.

"Dean. This is a bag of celery."

"It's good for you."

"It's celery." And now Dean finally does laugh, because the look of betrayal on Sam's face is too much. Dean's sides shake, his whole face twisting with a wide, uncontrollable grin, and he should feel a little bit bad, but there will be time for that later.

"Eat up," he says, and pulls onto the interstate.

— - — - — - — - —

When Dean finally stops laughing, Sam takes one of the stalks out of the bag with enough of a flourish to get his brother's attention, and when he can see Dean's eyes on him, he chomps through it viciously, feeling a little bit better when he gets the expected wince. Not wanting to give Dean the satisfaction of seeing how much he's gotten to his brother, Sam spends the fifteen minutes it takes to get to the contestants' hotel keeping his little diatribe about stereotypes and calorie counting to himself.

The hotel's driveway is a flurry of activity: men in suits walking around—half of them with state sashes across their chests and the other half heading towards a table under a sign that says, Check In Here. There's a giant pile of suitcases and other luggage by a second table with a single, very serious bellhop standing guard, and taxis and cars try to avoid the crowds as they disgorge passengers nearby.

Dean, makes no effort to hide his grin when he says, "Can't wait to see you in that sash, Mr. New Jersey."

"Yeah. Thanks."

"Yes, thanks," Dean corrects, and by some miracle, Sam doesn't punch him. Then he hands Sam a New Jersey driver's license and a credit card and says, "Or should I say, 'Can't wait to see you in that sash, Mr. Sammy Lou Freebush'?"

Sam looks at the ID and sees, much to his horror, that Dean isn't kidding about his new name. "When I kill you, it will be slowly. With lots of pain. And you will never see it coming."

"What?" Dean's attempt at an innocent look fails completely. "Lou's not really a girly name, you know. Lou Ferrigno played the Incredible Hulk."

"It's not really 'Lou' I have the problem with." Which isn't exactly true, but on a scale of 1 to 10, when 'Freebush' is in play, 'Lou' doesn't even need to bother taking the field.

"So what's wrong?"

"Freebush? Dean? Are you fucking serious?"

"Hey. Ash made all the arrangements, did the hacking. I just took what he sent and ran with it."

Sam shoves the cards in his jacket pocket and gets out of the car. "You can deal with the bags," he growls, stomping off towards the registration table.

After he's been kitted out with a sash and given a file of information, Sam and the remaining milling contestants are herded towards a trolley-car tour bus to see San Antonio's sights and attend the welcome brunch. An eager young woman with wandering eyes checks them in as they board. Sam is almost the last one on.

He hears whispered and muttered repetitions in the theme of "Who's that?" as he heads toward the back where there are more empty seats, and then as he's looking around, hears, "Hey, New Jersey, this one's empty," from over his right shoulder.

The speaker is blond and lightly tanned, with huge blue eyes and an eager grin. "I'm Tad Frasier, from Rhode Island." He scoots closer to the window, and Sam sits.

"I'm Sammy—"

"Sammy Lou Freebush." Tad grins even more widely and holds out his hand, making them bump elbows.

Sam flinches from the name (and a little from the elbow); he can't help it.

"I memorized the orientation packet."

Sam hasn't even opened his. Either this Tad has a hell of an eidetic memory, or he got his packet a lot earlier.

"I know all forty-nine guys by name and picture. Well, fifty, including myself. But your picture wasn't in there, so I knew it was you from your lack of picture."

Sam is trying to imagine what he's supposed to say to this—something that doesn't sound as rude as, And by the huge satin sash that says New Jersey draped across my chest?—when suddenly a man of about fifty claps for their attention from the front of the bus. "Now, gentlemen," he says, "let's all sing! You know the song!"

All around him, fifty voices—not including himself, but including the old guy—start warbling about Mr. All-America. It reminds him of the team bus at the Stanford v. Cal games except he's right in the middle of it, and they're singing about grace and poise instead of kicking the other team's ass. This is going to be a loooong morning.

— - — - — - — - —

Sam is almost faint with hunger and cologne fumes by the time they get to the site of the brunch. Tad has a chummy grip on his elbow and seems just as eager to get inside as Sam, though more out of excitement than starvation if the bouncing he's doing is any indication.

"Oh, look! There's our table," Tad crows, pulling Sam past a knot of service crew towards the center of the room. Several other guys are sitting down when they get there, and Tad introduces them all by name, as though they're bosom friends already.

The men return Sam's polite greetings of 'hi' and 'hey' and 'hello', but they look almost as mystified as Sam feels about Tad, which makes him both relieved and oddly protective towards the excited Rhode Islander. Then he spies the piles of bagels and pastries on the table, and he forgoes further conversation in favor of eating.

He's just stuffed half a cream cheese-smeared bagel into his mouth when he remembers Dean with the steak. Chewing and swallowing carefully, Sam takes a sip of coffee and starts again with a smaller bite. Just in time to cover his stomach's loud growl, the clipboard girl from the bus taps on the microphone and clears her throat.

"Testing one, testing two," she says, and Sam sees Mr. Let's-Sing-a-Song give her a cut-it-out gesture.

When people have quieted down, she continues, "I'd like to introduce the man who has been this pageant's director and MC for the past twenty-five years, Mr. William Bergen!" She starts to applaud wildly, and the fifty state finalists join in.

Coming up to the microphone, Mr. Bergen makes an attempt to look modest as he waves away their cheers and applause. "Thank you, thank you," he says, and then, "Has it really been twenty-five years? I get up every morning and say, 'Who is this old man wearing my pajamas?'" He pauses for their awwws, which come right on cue, and then continues. "And even though I'll be retiring this year, don't cry for me, …Alabama."

As the old guy speaks, Sam sees the top of Dean's head pop upside-down into the top corner of the window to Bergen's left.

Jumping up, Sam shouts, "Jesus Christ!" when Dean's shoulders drop into view as though whatever he's suspended from started to give way.

Everyone stares at Sam dumbly, and then they start to turn towards where Sam's looking. Fortunately, before anyone gets there, Dean has managed to haul himself back up and out of view.

"I— I'm sorry. I took a bite of my bagel, and I forgot to pray." Sam fumbles to his knees. "Dear Jesus, I thank you for this beautiful day and for this bagel and schmear," he says, adding silently, and for keeping my damn fool brother from dropping two stories onto his stupid head.

Because Dean doesn't get to die falling off a roof. Sam is going to kill him.

— - — - — - — - —

Having learned nothing from skulking around the brunch—or back at the hotel during the afternoon's dance rehearsal—Dean hopes for better luck in the evening when the contestants are given time to get settled in their rooms and roam the halls getting to know each other. The bright, modern building doesn't give him many places to hide and eavesdrop, but Dean does the best he can with charm. Mr. South Dakota and Mr. Michigan have some sort of on-again off-again thing going on, a carryover from last year's competition, according to the bellhop. Mr. Tennessee spent time in rehab a couple years ago. And the former Mr. New Jersey's porn career is exceptionally bad.

If there is someone working magic, they're being very subtle, or they haven't had time to set up shop yet, because Dean hasn't found any evidence. If it weren't for Ash's file—and the faith Dean has learned to put in the scrawny genius's intel—Dean would think there was nothing funny about this pageant. Nothing Supernatural funny, anyway.

As it is, he knows better. He's just missing something, maybe something vital. And when that's the case, the only thing to do is talk to Sam. They're supposed to meet up later anyway, but Dean figures it won't matter if he turns up early. Maybe they'll sneak out for some real food, and Dean can make up for the celery.

The hotel hallway is nearly empty as Dean moves through it, trying to look casual as he marvels at the ridiculously nice carpet, the wallpaper that shines smooth and unbroken. It's a bright contrast to his own accommodations, a pit of a place just a couple blocks down that's a lot more in keeping with their usual fare. He's counting doors, knows Sam's is the third one ahead on the right, and he stops short when he sees Mr. Rhode Island—yeah, Dean spent all day watching the guys wander around in their stupid sashes—stop and knock.

It opens, and Dean catches only snippets of a murmured conversation, something about hot cocoa. It's enough for him to recognize Sam's voice, because Dean would know it anywhere, and he waits for his brother to send the guy away.

His stomach lurches unpleasantly when the door opens wider and the man walks in instead. It shouldn't freak him out; it definitely shouldn't make him angry, but his blood hums with edgy energy as he moves further down the hall and stares at the closed door of Sam's room. He could knock and interrupt. Invent a crisis and drag Sam away.

He turns around and storms down the hall instead. He suddenly needs air.

— - — - — - — - —

Sam is frowning at himself in the mirror, mostly so he doesn't laugh out loud at Mr. Texas who is sleeping with his face slathered in a mashed-up mixture of avocado and cucumber, which he made with a granite mortar and pestle. Earlier, Sam made the mistake of asking him what he was doing, and it's not hard to extrapolate from the tone Texass answered with that he won't take kindly to any hysterics from his roommate. Sam's just about decided that he has the potential laughter under control and can head for bed when someone knocks on the door.

His first instinct is to assume it's Dean, but Dean would never tap timidly at anyone's door, particularly not Sam's, so he peers through the peep hole. It's the guy from the bus, Mr. Rhode Island—Tad. He's holding a thermos and two Alamo mugs, his head is wrapped in a towel turban, and he's wearing one of the hotel's robes. Cautiously, Sam opens the door.

"Hi," Tad says. "I hope it's not too late."

Sam was up at dawn to get to the torture spa on time, all he's had to eat today was a celery stick and a bagel, and he had to spend five hours trying to learn how to twirl and shake his ass to Dancing Queen, which was both humiliating and exhausting. All he wants to do is shut his eyes and pretend that this day never happened. Tad is looking at him expectantly, though, and the guy was nice enough to let Sam sit with him on the bus.

"Uh," Sam says, looking at Mr. Texas, whose name he cannot remember. "My roommate's asleep, but did you want to come in?"

Tad actually does a little skip of glee, which nearly makes his turban topple off to the side, resulting in his nearly braining himself with the thermos to keep it on his head, and Sam wonders, yet again, what the hell he's doing here.

"I made some of my famous hot chocolate," Tad stage whispers, waggling the thermos. Texas stiffens, wrinkles his nose and pooches his lips out. Sam ignores him.

"It's okay though," Tad continues, "it's low fat. And sugar free. With extra protein to build muscle." He's shoving a mug into Sam's hands and pouring him some before Sam can even settle on the bed.

"To world peace," Tad says, lifting his own mug and clicking it against Sam's.

"To, um, world peace."

Even Texas mutters, "W'rld peace." Those videos Dean made Sam watch didn't lie, which scares him.

Then he takes a sip of the hot chocolate, which tastes like—he doesn't even know what, and his fear increases. Not like, oh, shit, there's a wendigo after me fear, but Sam bets the liquid is scarier than anything Dean's having to deal with right now, so he's grumpy about it anyway. He tries to swallow, but ends up letting the stuff roll right off his tongue and back into the mug.

"Hot," he murmurs when he sees Tad looking at him questioningly.

"Sorry," Tad says, blushing. Then, "You're so calm about everything. I don't know how you stay so calm."

"What?" Sam's senses go on high alert, making sure that there isn't something creeping out of the closet or about to jump through the door at them. That there isn't anything (other than a roommate covered in salad ingredients and a thermos filled with revolting brown sludge) to be not calm about.

"This morning at the brunch, I would have been so embarrassed if I'd jumped up and shouted the lord's name in vain in the middle of Bergen's speech, but you didn't blush at all. You just acted like everything was normal."

Sam can feel his forehead wrinkling in confusion. Maybe he should have taken Nigel up on his offer of Botox.

"That's why you're going to win," Tad continues wistfully, "you have so much poise, and you're so strong." He reaches for Sam's arm like he wants to feel his biceps.

"No. I mean, you're—" Sam has no idea what to say or how to cover the fact that he just flinched away from this guy who is just, as far as Sam can tell, trying to be nice.

"So what's—" Tad asks, looking over Sam's shoulder at the seemingly-sleeping guy from Texas, and then more quietly, "What's your talent?"

"Um… being strong and poised?" Never, in a life filled with bizarre conversations, has Sam felt so out of his depth.

"I don't think I've ever seen anyone lift weights before."

Now Sam's even more lost. "You haven't?" and What is this guy talking about?

"In competition. Usually it's singing, or dancing, one guy had a puppet once. That was kind of creepy. He—"

"Talent competition?" Ash's notes did not say anything about a talent competition. And yeah, there was a guy singing opera in one of the videos Dean made him watch, but Sam just thought the guy was some kind of opera geek.

"Sure. The talent competition. I play the trombone." He looks at Sam's face. "It's not as geeky as it sounds."

"I'm, um, sure it's—"

"I'm in the middle of a REM cycle, here," Mr. Texas pipes up from his side of the room. "Can you girls take your little tea party somewhere else?"

"Sorry," Tad says again, like someone with a salad face mask didn't just call him a girl, and he gathers up his mug and thermos and stands to go. Sam walks him to the door, hoping that somehow he'll dream up a brilliant talent while he's sleeping.

In the middle of brushing his tongue to try to get rid of the 'chocolate' taste, Sam remembers that he can't go to bed yet, he still has to meet Dean.

"This is the worst case ever," he murmurs to himself, and pulls a pair of sweats on over his boxers. He tries not to wake Sir Salad-Face up again when he sneaks out the door.

— - — - — - — - —

Dean's in enough of a mood that he doesn't particularly want to meet Sam at their intended rendezvous, but bad moods take a back seat to the mission. So he's waiting where he's supposed to, on the fire-pit side of the outdoor pool, the stone deck slick beneath his boots.

Sam is late by three whole minutes, and by the time quiet footsteps signal his approach, Dean is quietly fuming. He's carefully not pondering the why of it, but he doesn't bother hiding his glower as Sam comes closer.

Either it's too dark for Sam to read Dean's face or Sam has other things on his mind, because he doesn't so much as nod to acknowledge Dean's glare. His pace is fast, his hands already gesturing in the air as he says, "Dean, Tad says I need a talent."

"A talent," says Dean. Tad says his brother needs a talent. Peachy. "And what was Tad doing in your room, anyway? Showing you his talent?"

"What? No. He plays trombone. Dean, this is serious, what the hell am I going to do? I can't compete without a talent!"

Sam is genuinely freaked out, and Dean feels his ire start to fade in the face of stronger protective instincts. His little brother—okay not so little anymore, but still—is upset, and Dean needs to make it right; needs to get him calm somehow, which calls for a distraction.

He's still got the swimsuit he bought—okay, shoplifted—for Sam in the pocket of his coat, and he cuts off Sam's panicked tirade by throwing the fabric straight at his brother's face.

Sam is too distracted to block or deflect, and the last of Dean's irritation evaporates with an amused snort at the sight of Sam standing there with a Speedo on his head. Sam reaches up almost delicately to pick up the offending article, eyebrow quirking as he says, "What is this?"

"For the swimsuit competition," says Dean, only he's starting to wish he had chosen something more modest. The suit looks tiny in Sam's hands; it will be downright indecent when it's all he's wearing. But there's no subtle way for Dean to call do-over and demand it back, so he tucks the discomfort away and meets Sam's eyes.

"Dude," says Sam, and there's disbelief in his face. "Where am I gonna put my gun?"

Dean chokes on an incredulous laugh. "No place I want to know about."

The look Sam gives him is one of disapproval, lips twisted and eyebrow raised. Once he's sure Dean knows he's not funny, Sam asks, "Did you find anything out?" and shoves the offending article of 'clothing' in a pocket.

"Pretty much jack squat," Dean admits. "Whoever's working the mojo, they haven't done anything since we got here. But my money's on one of the contestants."

"You're just pulling that out of your ass, aren't you."

"Maybe. But come on, who else could it be? Who else has any reason to sabotage the pageant?"

"I dunno, man," says Sam, and shakes his head skeptically.

"Easy enough to check. Whoever it is will have all kinds of creepy shit in his luggage. I just need to search everyone's rooms."

"Haven't you done that already?" Sam asks, and looks downright disappointed in him.

Dean wants to smack him. "No I haven't searched the rooms," he snaps. "I tried. I was all over that hotel while you were shaking your tushies, but the bellhops didn't bring any of the pageant luggage in until four, and you losers were all done dancing by then."

"Fine," Sam sighs. "So what do we do?"

"I'll do it tomorrow during the next dance rehearsal. All the contestants are required to be there, so the rooms should be empty. I can dig around without Mr. All-State-Shmuck walking in and asking why I'm going through his stuff."

Sam nods, looks like he's maybe thinking it over too hard, but he says, "Yeah. Yeah, that's a good idea."

"Yes," Dean teases, but Sam isn't paying attention. "That's settled," he continues. "Now. Back to more important things. You have plenty of talent, Sam. There's got to be something you can do."

"Sure. Breaking and entering, exorcisms, and the occasional psychic ability. Those will go over great."

"You could sing something," Dean suggests. Because sure, Sam's not great, but how hard can it be?

"Did you catch the part where Mr. Colorado is singing opera, Dean?"


"Well at least I know you weren't watching this afternoon's rehearsal." Which apparently went badly, and Dean files that away under Totally Useless Information.

"Do you still play recorder?"

"That was third grade."

"Got it," Dean says with a snap of his fingers. "Dramatic monologue. You used to do theatre, how hard can it be?"

"No," says Sam. He doesn't offer any explanation, but his expression says he's serious as hell.

And much as Dean hates to admit it, that leaves him out of ideas. There's nothing but the middle-of-the-night chirping of crickets around them as he stares helplessly, wondering if google will give him more to work with. There's got to be something Sam can use, but Dean realizes his brother is right. Their talents don't really lend themselves to public performance.

"Fine," Dean finally surrenders, throwing his arms into the air. "You can just… recite pi to some ridiculous number of decimal places, and we'll pray really hard."

He's kidding. He's so far from serious that it takes him a minute to realize that there's a new look on Sam's face. A look that says he's actually considering it.

"Sam, you cannot recite pi."

"Why not?"

"Because that's not a talent."

"Sure it is." And now Sam has his stubborn face on. "And you obviously don't have any better ideas, so why not? Worst that happens is I lose the contest, right? As long as I buy enough time to crack this hunt, what's it matter?"

And he's got a point. It doesn't matter. So Dean shakes his head and sighs, wry smile tugging at his mouth. Sam turns to go, takes all of two steps before he's moving closer again. He stops maybe a step too close, and Dean feels his eyebrows go up in question.

"Dean," says Sam, and Dean does not like the quiet consideration in his tone. "Why were you pissed off about Tad?"

"I… what?" Dean swallows hard. "I wasn't pissed."

"Bullshit," Sam murmurs, and his eyes are bright. He's looking at Dean too hard, like… like something Dean doesn't want to place, and it's suddenly too damn hot out here; even though it's a cool night surrounded by easy breeze, and Dean should be able to breathe.

It feels like a monumental effort to make his feet move, but he finally takes a step back. He wants to laugh it off, but instead he just retreats. Silently, with Sam's eyes following intense behind him.

Dean's not sure why it makes him feel like a coward.

— - — - — - — - —

When Sam creeps back into his own room, Mr. Texas has added a tiger-print eye mask to his sleeping ensemble. It makes Sam uncomfortable. Not because it's any more creepy than the facepack or Texas' general dickishness, but because the bizarre sight makes Sam miss Dean like a blade in his ribs, and he just saw Dean two minutes ago. He wants to leave, follow Dean back to the motel down the road and fall asleep with the familiar sound of Dean's breathing, the smell of cheap shampoo and canvas duffels in the air, the knowledge that under Dean's pillow is a knife, and not a white-noise-and-whale-sounds CD.

And he wants to chase the look he's pretty sure he saw on Dean's face. The twist of jealousy about something a brother shouldn't be jealous over. There was something Sam thinks he might want to see again in Dean's eyes when he looked at the scrap of swimsuit in Sam's hand. A look he would have killed to see from Dean back when Sam was in high school.

Shutting the bathroom door, Sam turns on the light, and half expects to see a skinny kid with a pimple in the middle of his forehead looking back at him from the mirror. Instead, the man looking back at him towers over the vanity; his shoulders fill out the sweatshirt that Sam is sure was baggy on him last time he checked; his hair is soft and shiny around his face, and his skin glows after the ministrations of Nigel's team of torturers.

Sam smiles at the guy in the mirror. He looks the same, but not the same. Maybe Dean is seeing him in a new light. Or maybe he just thinks Sam looks ridiculous all groomed and polished, and Sam's letting sleep-deprivation and the inexplicable resurgence of long-buried fantasies give him crazy ideas.

With a grimace, Sam turns away from the mirror and takes a piss before finally collapsing into his bed for what little sleep he can get.

— - — - — - — - —

Dean sleeps fitfully all alone in his motel room, and the next day is a struggle, mostly because all Dean wants to do is keep an eye on Sam. Not that Sam needs Dean looking out for him twenty-four seven or anything, but Dean has spent his whole life watching. He's watching now, but for once he's not the only one. Everyone in this whole damn pageant has their eyes on Sam, and Dean wants to jump up and down and holler and make a spectacle because they've got no right to look at his brother that way.

But neither does Dean, and that's something he's trying not to think about too hard.

The dance rehearsal is right at the front of the schedule, bright and early so the contestants can practice themselves sweaty and then beautify back up for today's pageant events. The guys are on the main stage, and Dean hovers in the wings just long enough to confirm that Sam really is not very good at this whole dancing thing. He kind of wants to stay and watch more, but he's got other places to be.

It's not hard work, breaking into one room after another, but he doesn't know what he expects to find. Turns out a male pageant contestant's belongings are every bit as mysterious as the things he's stumbled across in his occasional search of women's locker rooms and that one very memorable time at the haunted day spa. There are hair care products he's never heard of and items he can only assume are grooming supplies. He comes across half a dozen eyelash curlers, which he recognizes because the first time he saw one he thought it was some sort of torture device, and he's since done enough research to work it out.

But, he finds normal stuff, too. Porn and address books and hiking boots. Mr. Arizona brought an extra pillow, and Mr. Maryland has a picture of himself with his girlfriend in the front of his wallet. There are a couple of PSPs and a whole lot of iPods, a cowboy hat hanging from the corner lamp in Mr. New Mexico's room.

Dean is more surprised when he finds a book on the history of Spanish linguistics in one room, a rough draft of someone's dissertation in another. There's a thick tome on the social and economic effects of World War II sitting casually on the corner of a rumpled bedspread, and Dean wonders whether it's Nevada or Oregon who has the hard-on for world history.

He hits pay dirt in Mr. Rhode Island's room—Tad, he reminds himself. There's a hex bag buried in a small corner pocket of his luggage. It's fully assembled, and there's no other magical paraphernalia mixed in with his stuff, which makes Tad a victim. Not their guy. Dean finds matching hex bags in two other rooms, mixed in with the belongings of Mr. California and Mr. New York.

He pockets them and moves on to Sam's room, last on his list. He's only got a few minutes to search, and he moves quickly; goes through his brother's stuff as well as everything his Texas roommate owns. No hex bags and no ingredients, but he finds a mortar and pestle in the roommate's suitcase, and Dean knows enough about magical ingredients for that to set off his warning bells. Mr. Texas doesn't look like one of the front runners, and that means potential motive.

Dean makes it back into the hallway just in time for the first sweat-soaked contestant to bump past him en route to a shower. The rest trickle past shortly thereafter, and Dean gives Sam a small nod when their paths cross.

He finds a deserted service area and destroys the hex bags before making his way to the pageant arena. Backstage, he keeps low and out of sight, watching for anything out of the ordinary and biding his time until he can approach Sam and fill his brother in.

The interview prelims are a joke, and Dean really wishes he could just tune them out and ignore. He watches them from the sidelines, an anonymous shadow in the wings, because the lights are down and the house is full of eager audience members.

The contestants respond with nearly identical, canned answers, as William Bergen—bedecked in what Dean assumes is a ludicrously expensive suit—asks one guy after another what this country needs most.

"I would have to say world peace," says Hawaii.

"Definitely world peace," says Texas when it's his turn.

"That's easy," says California, with a bright, cheesy smile. "World peace."

"World peace," says New Mexico, and Dean decides this is getting old.

But Sam is on stage now, New Jersey sash draped prim and proper across his chest even as he has to stoop a little to get closer to the mic. Bergen glances again at his front cue card and says, "What is the one most important thing our society needs?"

"More effective methods for apprehending the perpetrators of credit card fraud and identity theft," says Sam, and Dean just about suffocates from trying not to guffaw. Silence reigns awkward on the stage, and Sam's face—plastered with a bright, fake smile—is the only one not looking startled, confused and a little bit panicked. Dean can tell that the MC has no idea how to respond to that, and the man shuffles his cards nervously as if he's going to move on to the next one.

"And…" says Sam before the next question can hit. "World peace."

The audience erupts in applause, and a relieved smile spreads across the MC's face. Neatly avoiding any more questions, Sam waves as he moves off the stage and makes room for the next interviewee.

Dean thinks about ducking his way past the set pieces backstage to catch his brother, but Mr. Rhode Island is next. Dean's got a hunch he should be here for this, and anyway it's his job to be watching today. Watching means more than just Sam, even if it does take a remarkable amount of effort for Dean to remind himself of that fact.

Obviously burned by Sam's answer to the world peace question, Bergen heads straight for his second card, "Describe your perfect date."

"That's a tough one," says Tad, a nervous laugh escaping his lips, and Dean almost pities him. The anxious aura is visible across the stage as he finally answers, "I'd have to say April 25th. Because it's not too hot, not too cold. All you need is a light jacket."

The pity Dean felt a moment before amps itself up a hundredfold as he sees the horror spread across the poor guy's face. Dean suspects that the dude isn't an idiot, despite occasional evidence to the contrary, and his smile as he clears the stage is forced at best—evidence that he knows exactly how stupid he sounded.

Dean's brain drags him back to the hex bags he found, the first in Tad's belongings, and he suddenly wonders if this fumble relates. It doesn't make sense—he destroyed the hex bags—but when it comes to hunting, Winchesters don't believe in coincidence. He forces himself to sit through the rest of the interview prelims before ducking into the changing room in search of his brother.

He had forgotten the bathing suit competition came next—thirty percent of each competitor's final score—and there's a whole lot of skin showing as he makes his way towards Sam in the far corner.

Sam is sporting an enormous white hotel towel, wrapped tightly around his waist like a layer of protective armor, and Dean's amused snort gets his brother's attention quickly.

"Don't even start, asshole," Sam snarls with a glower. "Could you possibly have chosen a more revealing suit than this?"

"What do you mean?" Dean asks, eyes wide and puckish with pretended innocence.

Sam just keeps glaring at him, and keeps his voice low as he says, "Dean. The last time I was this naked in public, I was coming out of a uterus."

"Come on, man," Dean laughs, and maybe he's a little too daring in the face of Sam's obvious discomfort. "How bad can it be?" He makes a successful grab for Sam's towel and yanks it away, leaving his brother standing there in nothing but the skimpy piece of red fabric that Dean suddenly remembers was maybe not such a great idea after all. Sam holds his composure, but Dean can tell from the look in his brother's eyes that there will be retribution later.

Dean's not really sure he can be bothered about that at the moment, since his own higher brain function is grinding to a halt at the sight before him. He's staring outright, has to be obvious as hell, but he can't stop, and god but Sam has no place looking that good. Especially not in public where anyone could see him, and Dean is trying to figure out how he can get his brother disqualified before he goes on stage like that, in front of a zillion people. The ideas he's getting are probably not helpful ones.

"Huh?" Dean says, realizing suddenly that Sam is staring at him expectantly.

"I said, did you have something to tell me or are you just here to make my life miserable?"

"Oh. Right." They're on the job, Dean remembers now, and he grapples for his scattered thoughts. Pulls them back to the forefront and shakes away the more distracting images in his head. He steps closer and drops his voice as he says, "I found a couple hex bags when I searched the rooms. Three of them."

"Sabotage," Sam murmurs, already on the same page, and Dean nods.

"And it might be your roommate. I found a mortar and pestle in his stuff."

"No," Sam demurs. "That's to make beauty products. Besides. He's totally not sly enough for hexes."

"Damn," mutters Dean, annoyed that his only lead has fallen flat on its face. "I knew it couldn't be that easy. Back to square one on the who, but so far hex bags are the what."

"Who were they targeting?" Sam asks.

"One of them had your Rhode Island friend's name on it," Dean answers, careful and quiet. "Did you see his interview?"

Sam's eyes go wide as he connects the pieces. "Didn't you destroy the hex bags?"

"Of course I did. But maybe it's a different kind of magic. Maybe the rules aren't what we think they are. We've only seen this sort of thing a couple times, right?" Sam nods reluctant agreement and Dean continues. "It could be just bad luck, but we've gotta be sure. You have to talk to him."

"Talk to him? How? He's going to think I'm a total jerk if I just walk up to him and say, 'So what's the story with April 25th, were you cursed or something?'"

"So be more subtle than that. He's your buddy, right? Just… strike up a conversation. Girl talk."

"Girl talk."

"Sure." Dean tugs at a lock of Sam's hair.

"You're an ass. You know that right? An unmitigated asshole."

"I love you, too, baby," Dean says, flaunting his best cheeky grin as he turns to leave. He feels Sam's irritated glower follow him all the way out the door.

— - — - — - — - —

Once Dean's out of sight behind the curtains, Sam glares at himself in the mirror. He can't believe Dean bought him a Speedo.

More than half of the other guys have fitted trunks, and none of them have suits quite as small as Sam's. When he first put it on, Sam had a flash of hope that Dean bought the suit because he wanted to see Sam in it, but he's pretty sure the wide-eyed stare Dean just gave him was more horrified shock than anything else. Sam grabs the towel from where Dean dropped it on the floor and covers up again.

When it's his turn to walk and pose, the stage manager has to pry the towel out of Sam's cold, nervous hands as she shoves him out onto the stage. If it was just up onto the podium under the spotlight and then off again, Sam thinks it might be okay. But before and after the main podium, they each have to stand and pose on a more dimly lit dais that allows for a view of the first four or five rows of the audience.

Somehow, Dean has managed to find a seat in row two.

Instead of watching Sam, Dean is glaring daggers at everyone in his row who is staring. Which—Sam checks—includes everyone. Everyone in the other rows he can see, too. Sam forces a bright smile as he moves to the center podium, and tries to think of a way to kill his brother without getting caught.

Sam is dressed again by the time Dean returns back stage, and has been distracted from his fratricidal musings by Mr. Wyoming and Mr. Washington having a knock-down, drag-out, hair-pulling, name-calling fight over a straightening iron.

"Were they the other two hex bags?" Sam asks, pointing at the boys wrestling in the corner.

"New York and California?"

"Wyoming and Washington."

"Then nope. Are they fucking or something?"

Sam had just been thinking they looked a lot like he and Dean do when neither of them will back down, and his heart does a skip at Dean's words.

"I didn't ask," Sam says, turning his attention back to Dean, who seems to be staring at Sam's t-shirt. "What do you want?" he continues when Dean doesn't say anything.

"Just making sure you don’t forget to talk to Tad."

"I didn't forget, Dean. It's only been an hour. I just—" Sam really isn't sure how to go about making Tad open up to him. Most of his friends at Stanford were girls, they hadn't really stuck around long enough for any of the guys he'd hung out with in high school to trust him with secrets, and growing up with Dad and Dean hadn't exactly prepared him for sharing and caring. Cops and reporters are supposed to ask questions, so it's easy enough hiding behind that façade, but beauty contestant isn't exactly within his comfort zone.

"The guy knocked on your door with hot chocolate and told you he plays the trombone. I'm pretty sure it's not gonna be that hard. Buy him a beer, and I bet within five minutes he tells you all about the time he stole days-of-the-week underwear."

"You're the one who stole days-of-the-week underwear, Dean."

"Whatever. Just go talk to him. Jesus. Do I gotta do everything on this case?"

Sam is left jaw-hanging speechless long enough for Dean to make his escape.

At dance practice earlier, the guys had talked about the hotel's spa and gym, so Sam heads there first with his offerings—beer and a super-meat pizza—when he can't find Tad in his room. Through the glass wall overlooking the pool, Sam can see eight or nine of the guys on the treadmills and stairmasters, and another half dozen or so using the weights. Tad sits on his own, staring glumly down at his feet in the Jacuzzi.

"Hey," Sam says, sitting on the stairs leading down to the Jacuzzi level and plopping the pizza box on his knees. "It's not that bad."

"It's a disaster."

"No it's not." Sam isn't admitting, even in his head, that Dean was probably right about getting Tad to talk.

"I sounded like Rainman!" Tad practically wails and presses his hands to his face.

"Will pizza make it better?" Sam asks, and he hopes so. Because hysterical isn't much more use than completely shut down. Besides, awkward.

"I can't eat pizza, think of all the fat!"

Sam remembers the non-fat, sugar-free hot chocolate with extra protein. "But there's lots of meat," he tries. "Good protein to build muscle."

Tad looks at him finally, a spark of hopefulness in his eyes. The spark dims a bit when Mr. New York climbs off his stepper and protests, "We can't have pizza. Definitely no pizza."

Mr. New York has muscles for miles and not an ounce of fat on him. Sam's pretty sure the guy could absorb a whole pizza by himself without too much damage. "Come on," he says to Tad. "Just one piece. It will do you good."

"I don't know." Tad looks guiltily at the other guys, but longingly at the pizza.

"Guess I'll just sit here alone then, with this whole pizza all to myself," Sam says, and lifts the lid, noticing half the noses in the room twitching at the smell. Suddenly he has most of the guys perching on the stairs, peering at the pizza.

Tad is closest, right next to Sam's knees, and he grabs a piece like if he does it quickly no one will notice.

"Gnugh," he says as he takes the first tentative bite, and Sam thinks that he now knows a little bit more about Tad's sex noises than he wants to.

Like that's the first crack in the dam, the other guys on the stairs dig in, and before Sam knows it, he's holding an empty pizza box.

It's easier than Sam thought it would be to convince Tad he needs more pizza, and while South Dakota and Michigan stay behind to do "bench presses", the rest of the guys trail Sam back to the pizza joint. A kid's birthday party is just clearing out of the back room, and the contestants take it over, transformed by the smell of beer and pepperoni from prissy gym-bunnies to over-grown frat boys before the first pitchers are empty.

Well, mostly transformed. Sam isn't sure he can picture the frat boys he remembers from Stanford getting quite so enthusiastic over Dance Dance Revolution.

By the time Sam manages to corner Tad again, Mark, Steve, Chris, and Neil (Sam has no idea what states they're from anymore) have knocked out all "pretenders to the dance throne"—a phrase Sam is pretty sure he's going to be muttering in his sleep he's heard it so many times tonight—and they've all been taking advantage of the half-price vodka shots special that the place offers between ten and midnight. Knowing an easy crowd when she sees one, the waitress has been coming around regularly with her little racks of test tubes, filled with brightly colored, fruit-flavored alcohol.

"Didn't I tell you?" Sam asks Tad, who's weaving his way back to the tables from the dance game. He realizes the test tubes might be stronger than he thought when he claps Tad on the shoulder and nearly knocks him over.

"Tell me?" Tad drops heavily into a chair and drains the glass of beer sitting in front of him. Sam's pretty sure it's not his.

Sam sits down beside him and finishes his own beer—which he's been holding, so he's pretty sure it is his. "Tell you that pizza would make you feel better."

"I think actually it's these tubey things." Tad gestures at the waitress. "More tubey things?"

She hands one to each of them, and before she can leave, Tad grabs two more.

"So um—" Sam's pretty sure Tad's drunk enough now that he's not going to get all hysterical again if Sam brings up the date question. "What happened up there?"

Tad leans over and whispers right into Sam's ear, "I'm scared of microphones."

"You're what?" Sam asks.

Downing the second of his two latest tubes, Tad repeats, "Microphones. It's awful. I'm okay with the ones you hold onto, but the ones on stands, I don't even know. I just freak out and my brain goes crazy."

Sam drinks his spare vodka too, in the somewhat desperate hope that more alcohol will make things clearer. "Huh," he says.

"When I was in seventh grade, I got to the spelling championships, and when it was my turn I got to the mic and they asked me to spell automobile. It was only the first round. I had the worst case of stage fright and completely blanked. When I opened my mouth, I started reciting the Bill of Rights. Ever since, stand microphones make me lose it."

"Not a hex then," Sam says. Aloud. Dammit.

"My uncle used to tease me that it was an evil fairy's curse, but I'm pretty sure he was kidding."

"I'm sure he was."

A roar from the Dance corner interrupts them.

"I'm King of the World!" Steve shouts above the applause and catcalls.

A minute later there's a general exodus from the video games back to the tables. "You may be king of the dance revolution, Steve, but I'm going to be crowned tomorrow night." Sam can't see who's speaking.

"It would be such an honor to be the last person crowned by William Bergen. It's such a shame he's retiring," says Tad.

"Oh, he's not retiring," corrects Mark, who Sam remembers now is Mr. California. "He got fired." Mark sounds delighted with the news.

"Fired?" Sam asks.

"Yeah," Mark continues. "He started the pageant himself, with money he inherited from his rich boyfriend, but had to sell the rights to it sometime in the early 90s when his coke habit ate through his fortune as well as his septum."

"I always wondered why he had that kinda freaky nose," someone interrupts.

"It was in the contract that they had to keep him until his fiftieth birthday. But he turned fifty this year, so he's G-O-N-E, gone."

"I heard he got the letter on his birthday," Steve adds.

"I heard he threw his birthday cake at the wall when he opened it. In front of all his guests."

"I guess when he sold the pageant, he thought he'd be tired of it all in fifteen years." Mark pops a piece of discarded crust into his mouth. "But he's devastated. I mean, what's the guy gonna do now?"

Sam thinks that's a very good question. And If I can't have it, no one can sounds like a pretty good motive for sabotage.

People start talking about needing their beauty sleep, and when Sam sees that Neil has an arm around Tad's shoulder and is making sure the guy can stand, Sam takes the opportunity to duck out so he can call Dean. "Meet me by the pool in fifteen minutes," he says.

Usually, getting fresh air is a suggestion people make when they want you to sober up. Apparently it has the opposite effect when you've been mixing cheap beer and neon-colored vodka shots. The four-block trek leaves Sam feeling like he just stepped off one of those fairground rides that takes advantage of centrippy— centriffi— one of those spinning forces. He nods to himself and that makes everything worse.

After wandering the halls for ten minutes trying to figure out the way to the pool, Sam remembers that the sliding door in his room opens right out onto it, and he heads that way. Dean's pacing in front of the glass when he gets there.

— - — - — - — - —

"You hung up on me, bitch," Dean greets Sam when his brother finally shows up, more than twenty minutes after the cryptic and abbreviated phone call.

"The dancing boys had gossip."

Which, um, pretty much makes no sense.

In apparent response to Dean's gaping confusion, Sam adds, "Motive."

"Sam, are you drunk?" When Dean told Sam to buy Tad a drink, this wasn't what he had in mind.

"There were test tubes. But that isn't the point. The point is that Bergen did a lot of coke in the nineties and they sent him a letter on his birthday."

Dean blinks hard and shakes his head, but it doesn't make Sam's words any clearer. "That's not a point. It's a ramble. Points are more… pointy." Great. Apparently Sam's drunk is catching.

Wandering off toward the pool, Sam says, "Right. Pointy. You sleep with a knife under your pillow. That's better than whale songs."

Before Dean can ask again what the hell Sam's talking about, or wonder aloud what was in the test tubes, Sam continues.

"Bergen's not retiring. He got fired. This was his pageant, but they took it away from him."

Finally, sense. "That gives him motive."

"Exactly. Like O.J."

Dean decides to leave that one, and follows Sam, who is making his way towards the deep end of the pool.

"Dean?" Sam spins abruptly and teeters, but rights himself before Dean can grab him. "Do you remember when I was in high school?"

"Of cou—" Dean's mouth stops working when Sam pulls off his sweatshirt, baring his abs for a minute and flashing Dean back to what Sam looked like in his Speedo.

While Dean's trying to recover the power of speech, Sam stumbles again; and this time Dean does reach out, getting in the way of Sam's flailing arm, taking a hit to his shoulder, and ending up with the sweatshirt—flapping at the end of Sam's swing—wrapped around his neck. The next thing Dean knows, he's splashing into the water, dragging Sam behind him.

"Ooooh, you're going to be in trouble," Sam says as they surface. "No swimming after the pool closes."

"You threw me in!"

"I don't think so." Sam looks like he's trying not to laugh, but also like he's trying to figure out if maybe Dean is right. Then he ducks under the water again, and when he comes up, his face has cleared and he's just smiling somewhat drunkenly at his brother.

Dean is not staring at how Sam's t-shirt clings to his biceps when he pushes the wet hair off his face. And he's not flushing hot in the cool water when Sam reaches out and untangles the soaking hoodie from around Dean's neck and shoulder. He's definitely not watching with rapt attention when Sam licks his lips, slowly, staring at Dean's mouth while he does it.


With a sly smile, Sam starts singing quietly, "You think I'm goooorgeous, you want to kiss me, you want to hug me, you want to looove me."

Dean's still trying to formulate his protest when Sam swims to the edge of the pool, climbs out, and, with one last look over his shoulder, disappears back through the sliding doors into his room.

— - — - — - — - —

Out of sympathy for his brother's impending hangover, Dean refrains from calling to wake him up at the ass-crack of dawn. He makes for Sam's hotel early, clear morning sky to keep him company for the drive; and as karma would have it, he catches sight of William Bergen climbing into a limo just as Dean rounds the corner towards the lobby door.

Dean waits to be sure the car is actually driving away, watches it all the way down the street, and then he strides into the building with his usual entitled confidence. He's got the pageant room assignments memorized, including the very top of the food chain, and he steps off the elevator and moves quietly but efficiently down the left hallway. He walks with purpose so as not to draw attention, and easily breaks in to the room.

At first glance it looks like it could belong to any one of the contestants. There are several open suitcases and a disconcerting assortment of hair and skin products on the counter by the sink.

In the bottom drawer of the wardrobe, buried beneath a stack of polo shirts, Dean hits pay-dirt.

Half the stuff he's never seen before, but it's creepy. Dried animal parts that he'd rather not think about, and foul smelling herbs and ashes. Unfortunately, most of the ingredients bags are nearly empty. There's a selection of small knives, silver by the looks of them, each engraved with wispy symbols and runes. And beneath the basic tools of the trade, Dean finds a book. It's an enormous tome, all cracking edges and ancient paper, and Dean murmurs, "Bingo."

The book falls open easily to a bookmarked page, and Dean skims it before packing everything into the empty duffel he brought with him. Even if he's too late to stop Bergen making whatever it is he's making, they've got a better chance of figuring out how to stop him if they have his stuff.

He checks the peephole before moving back into the hallway, and takes the same elevator back down to the lobby. His pace clearing out of the building is leisurely, a quick nod to the valet on his way past, and he locks the duffel in his trunk.

He calls Sam from the parking lot, and his brother's voice sounds absolutely miserable when he answers with a muffled, "H'lo?"

"I'm outside. Get your ass over here and I'll buy you breakfast. Do it fast and I'll bring you painkillers."

Sam makes it out in five minutes, and Dean drives them to the nearest Denny's, handing Sam a water bottle and two extra-strength something or other from the glove compartment.

"You were right about Bergen," says Dean once they're seated in the restaurant and the waiter has wandered away with their orders. "He's up to some bad shit. I confiscated all his stuff."

Sam empties his water glass in record time, upending it and pouring it straight down his throat before slumping forward across the table. Dean pushes his own glass within reach, a worthy sacrifice to whatever powers can help combat his brother's hangover, even if Sam brought it on his own damn self. Dean needs to remember to ask him later what he meant by test tubes.

"So we can leave now, right? You burned the hex bags, you took his stuff… screw the televised ceremony, let's get out of here."

"Sorry, dude. It's not that simple."

Sam looks heartbroken at the words, and Dean almost wants to take it back. Anything to keep that crushed, kicked-puppy look of betrayal off his brother's face. Plus, there's the way Sam catches his lower lip between his teeth, which is a little more distracting than Dean is prepared to deal with this morning.

"Why not?" Sam asks, clearly trying to think past the pounding in his skull.

"The hex bags are small potatoes," says Dean, trying to spell it out for him. "I don't know what they were meant to do, but they're easy magic. This guy… he's got a lot more juice than that. Remember that letter to the TV network? What'd it say, 'a show no one will ever forget'? He's gotta be planning something bigger.

"It's going to be a spectacle," murmurs Sam as their food arrives. Sam only looks a little nauseous before forcing himself to dig in. "He plans on taking the pageant out with a bang."


"The question is how."

"Cursed object," says Dean, smirking around a mouthful of bacon when Sam stares at him in disbelief.

"How the hell do you know that?"

"Call it a hunch." Dean gives it a beat, then sighs dramatically, setting his silverware down to take a long sip of coffee. "Fine," he says. "I read a page from his spell book. Nasty stuff. From the illustrations around the edges of the page, it's deadly, and I'm thinking from his letter to the networks, it's gonna be flashy. Something in that ceremony is going to be rigged to blow."

"Literally?" asks Sam, and Dean shrugs. Because hell if he knows, but it could be.

"This is the last day of the pageant," Dean points out—as if Sam didn't already know that. But given the way Sam is still scowling and rubbing at his forehead, Dean figures better to over-inform. "It's all televised, so whatever's going down, it's going down in the next twelve hours. If we don't figure out what he's rigged, I guarantee you someone is going to die."

— - — - — - — - —

As Sam kneels over the toilet bowl in the Denny's bathroom, he ponders that puking up your Grand Slam is probably part of the whole beauty pageant experience. He's pretty sure he read about that in their unit on eating disorders in psych class, anyway. The rate of bulimia and anorexia in beauty pageant contestants is abnormally high—

He retches again and curses his brother for convincing him to order a pile of greasy food. He curses Tad for making him drink that sixth, or seventh, test tube. The waitress for bringing them. The Russians for inventing vodka. Pork products in general. And, while he's at it, ABBA. Because in about four hours, he's gonna have to dance, while descending a staircase, and he's pretty sure it will be a disaster.

With one hand he fumbles for the manual flush button on the automatic toilet. Bastards who invented these things never thought of the guy kneeling in front of the bowl to puke.

The door opens while Sam's at the sink rinsing out his mouth. He tries to look a little less green around the gills until he sees it's Dean.

"C'mon, puke breath. You've got the press meet-and-greet in an hour, and I think you need a shower first." He throws a roll of Tums at Sam.

They bounce off his chest and into the sink, but fortunately are protected by their foil and paper armor. Unfortunately, they're protected by their foil and paper armor, and he can't get to them. Dean helps.

On the way back to the hotel, the Tums and the new bottle of water Dean provides have time to take effect, and Sam feels almost human by the time he steps into the shower. Mr. Texas is down at the spa getting a massage, and Dean is right on the other side of the door, waiting "to make sure Sam doesn't fall and crack his fool head open." It feels nice, somehow, knowing his brother is there.

Really nice, apparently. The hot water has sluiced away the worst of Sam's hangover, and the combination of soapy hands slipping over his hips and the thought of Dean sitting on his bed waiting for him has Sam's cock stirring with interest. It's been years since Sam let himself think of his brother while he did this, but he's got no urge to stop now, so he lets Dean's face fill his mind's eye.

Dean's face, looking up at Sam, lips quirked in a smile, level with Sam's dick, waiting to be told to open.

Sam soaps up his hands again and takes hold of himself, pumping a few times until he's slick and hard, and then he makes Dean beg for it. Beg to taste, feel Sam hot in his mouth stretching him open. It's too much, after too long denying himself the images, and Sam comes before he gets to his favorite part, where Dean tips his head back and begs wordlessly for Sam to fuck right down his throat. The image is good for an aftershock though, and Sam's left feeling like he's floating.

Dean gives him a funny look—like he wants to say something but won't—when Sam comes out of the bathroom in his boxers with a towel draped around his neck.

"I'll, um, just—" Dean finally says, and then, a little steadier, "It looks like you're all ship shape now, so I'll leave you to get dressed."


Dean looks a little scared at the emphatic syllable, but he sits down again like Sam pushed him.

"Tell me again why taking Bergen's stuff wasn't enough to stop him? Because if I find out you're just making me go through with this to humiliate me—"

"Do you really think I'd do that?" Dean looks hurt and for some reason a little relieved.

"Nair. In my shampoo, Dean."

"Okay. Good point. But no. I'm pretty sure he's made whatever he needs for his spell already. Most of the bags and bottles were over half empty. And there were way more ingredients listed in the book than I found in his stuff. I doubt he'd leave something this big until the last minute."

Sam concedes that this is probably true. Then he catches Dean's gaze flick to his chest when he takes off the towel, and suddenly Sam remembers last night. And singing some stupid song about Dean wanting to kiss him. Sam pretty much wants to fall through the floor. Instead, he turns towards the closet, and with his back to his brother, he pulls on his shirt and slacks.

"So, here's the plan," Dean says while Sam's getting dressed. "You go meet the press and I'll go back to the motel and get a better look at Bergen's bag of tricks. Try and figure out what he's done and some way to stop it. Then I'll meet you back stage half an hour before the show starts."

"Don't you want me to come with you?" Sam doesn't mean to sound startled, but Dean usually avoids anything that smacks of research if he can help it.

"Nah. It'll look suspicious if you don't turn up where you're supposed to. We don't want Bergen to think anything's wrong."

"Let's just hope he didn't go looking for his spell book for any last minute adjustments."

"No way he'd have time. I caught a look at his schedule for today. He'll be lucky if he finds time to take a piss before the show starts."

"Nice, Dean. Classy."

"Whatever. Point is, we're good. See you in a couple of hours."

Sam nods, and Dean's out the door, with one last lingering look at Sam in his suit that he doesn't manage to hide. At all.

— - — - — - — - —

Bergen's book doesn't give Dean all that much more in the way of information, but with the help of an online Latin-to-English dictionary, he does determine that the spell is cast in three parts. Step one is making the potion, In the hour of moonrise, and it's pretty clear Bergen's ticked that off his list.

Step two, Before the next moon sets, get the potion into whatever it is you're cursing, while reciting several paragraphs written in a language Dean doesn't recognize. Step three, another paragraph to trigger the curse.

In the top corner of the page, there is a sketch of a man in robes lifting an ornate goblet to his mouth, and then below it, a man in the same robes, his head replaced with a skull. Dean doesn't think Bergen is going to be able to get a goblet onto the stage, but maybe there's a hollow scepter or something? Dean looks at his watch and realizes if he doesn't leave now, he's going to be late to meet Sam. Hopefully something at the auditorium will enlighten them.

The television crew makes it more challenging to poke around backstage, but Dean manages. He's been at this for two days already, and made a point of being extra friendly as he convinced the staff that of course he had every plausible and legitimate reason to be here. Now they all smile and nod and ignore him as he goes about his business.

The EMF meter is silent as he moves past prop tables and mic stands, half an eye on the stage whenever he's in the side wings. The pageant contestants are moving onto the stage, each carrying a glowing sculpture of… their state? Dean is pretty sure that's what he's seeing as they pour onto the stage and circle in an artistic pattern, depositing their props backstage in turn so they can line up for the dance number.

Dean snickers at the opening chords. Even though he already knows the shtick from watching rehearsals, it's funny like new seeing these dudes in their fancy threads as they slink and twirl and flail along to Dancing Queen.

Sam is holding his own out there, surprisingly enough. Maybe it's easier to play the part when the world is watching, or maybe he just got the hang of the choreography, but he looks good out there—if ridiculous—and Dean catches himself staring. Straight through the number, and it's not until the talents are beginning that he remembers he's got more important things to do. He chastises himself for getting distracted and goes back to work.

There's a complicated network of scaffolding running behind and above the stage, and he scans every inch of it. He even climbs the goddamn golden statue in the middle of the set, careful to stay behind the structure and invisible, but the statue is clean. There's no mojo on it.

By the time he moves behind the giant purple curtain that blocks off center stage, the strains of an aria are ringing clear. He knows the aria comes second to last, which means he's nearly out of time. He's desperate enough to scan the set pieces now, even the fake white pillars and the painted blue wall on his other side. Nothing sets the meter alight, and he curses quietly.

Then he hears loud applause from the other side of the curtain, followed by, "Neeeeeeeewwwww Jeeeersey!" Dean pauses to peek from behind the fold of purple fabric nearest him when suddenly the whole section makes a 90 degree turn—thanks to a system of rods and pulleys up above, which he maybe should have examined more closely when he was up on the scaffolding so he might have known better than to get too close—leaving him standing in the middle of the stage, lights, cameras, and his brother's wide eyes all trained on him.

Dean expects a glare, or for Sam to hiss, "What the hell are you doing?" or for the bastard in charge of the curtains to spot him and flip his switch or do whatever else he needs to do to get Dean off the stage, but instead, Sam says, loud and clear so that the sound system picks him up, "And here he is, my assistant!"

Math was not Dean's subject in school. Sure, the concepts and the engineering applications and whatever was actually useful, but memorizing pi? Not so much. Besides, he's pretty damn sure that reeling off a series of numbers doesn't require assistance. And if it did, it would be more of the chick-dressed-in-spandex-and-a-few-feathers-to-combat-the-total-nerd-factor variety than a hunter wearing could-be-cleaner jeans and a flannel shirt.

But Sam doesn't say anything about pi. Instead, he says, "Like it or not, there are things out there, mo— muggers and stuff, that you might need to protect yourself against. And sure, that extra set of reps at the gym helps, but there are some tricks you can learn to inflict maximum damage with the least amount of force." Sam's smiling sideways at Dean like he's not standing on stage parroting Dad's words in front of an international audience.

"With the help of my assistant," Sam continues, waving a hand at Dean, "I'm going to show you a few tricks."

Oh, fuck no, Dean thinks hard in Sam's direction, but Sam is either clueless, or, more likely, willfully ignoring him. The auditorium erupts in laughter and applause.

"Now." Sam turns so he's facing Dean, crooking his finger so that Dean will turn too. "Your assailant may attack you from the front." Sam waggles his upstage hand in a gesture Dean's pretty sure means Come on, then, attack me.

Starting his attack with the evil death glare might not be all that effective, but it makes Dean feel a little bit better. Sam replies with pinchy-lip bitchface number two, and Dean figures what the hell, and makes a run for his brother, going for a stranglehold.

Much to Dean's surprise, Sam doesn't duck or dodge or try to get the advantage, he goes straight for Dean's nose with the heel of his palm. And yeah, okay, he pulls back at the last second, but it still stings like a fucker and brings tears springing to Dean's eyes.

"Heel of the hand," Sam says, and Dean can see him suppressing a smirk, "thrust it upwards. You may have to crouch a little if your attacker is short." Dean manages to resist breaking Sam's fingers in retaliation for the patronizing clap on his shoulder, but only barely.

"Or," Sam continues, with a look that says he knows he's going to get his ass kicked later but that he thinks it's worth it, "your attacker might come at you from behind."

He hunches his shoulders like he expects Dean to leap on him. Like a mugger might. But Dean has spent far too many years sparring with his brother, and instead comes in low, sweeping Sam's feet out from under him. At least that's his intention. The hunched shoulders were apparently a bluff, because Sam takes Dean's momentum and uses it to flip Dean onto his back with Sam's full-weight on top of him. Dean tries hard not to think that this is starting to look a little bit more like a sex demonstration than self-defense.

"Ideally," Sam says from his vantage just above Dean's chest, "you won't end up on the ground with your attacker. But if you do, see how this position allows you to get the heel of your hand in his nose again," he aims but doesn't let go, just as well, or Dean would have to kill him, "or, a knee to the groin." Sam pushes up on his hands and grinds his knee forward. Not enough to hurt. But enough to— god, hurting would be an improvement over the feeling roiling in Dean's belly right now.

Before Dean can be completely embarrassed, Sam climbs up off of him and holds out a hand to help Dean up. Dean ignores it, getting to his feet himself.

"And there you have it!" Sam is saying. "Let's give my faithful assistant a round of applause." Tugging Dean's wrist as he goes, Sam takes a deep bow. As the applause swells, Sam takes off towards stage left, in the opposite direction from where William Bergen is staring at them bug-eyed from the wings.

Dean gives an extra bow on his way off stage, smiling to the other contestants as he follows Sam into the chaos of the backstage area, and trying not to think murderous thoughts. He should be proud Sam recovered so well, not pissed his brother took the opportunity to vent frustration on him when Dean couldn't really fight back.

With a look passing between them that says, Find anything yet?/No. Sam disappears quickly—tuxedo time—and Dean scans the crowd. He's not sure what he's looking for, but whatever Bergen's laid his curse on, Dean's not going to find it sitting around back stage. He's already searched high, low and right in the middle. It's not here, and with the coronation all of moments away, there's no time left.

To the beat of the piped music intended to 'entertain' the audience during the commercial breaks, Dean makes his way around the set pieces used earlier in the show, trying to get over to where he last saw Bergen. He's only halfway there when the dressing area curtains flutter aside and the contestants are returning, tuxed out and styled to perfection. Dean feels like he's drowning in a sea of them.

He can see Sam's head bobbing above the well-coiffed waves on the other side of the crowd, but he's too far away to reach. Then his eyes catch Dean's and the look passes between them again. Nothing.

Dean feels the edge of hopelessness settle into his chest, until the tuxedoed men peel apart into two orderly lines, and he catches sight of William Bergen. Bergen is wearing a pristine white tux, and in his hands he holds a heavy, gilt crown. It looks like something you'd see on the top of a chess piece, pretentious and bulky, with a circle of points surrounding a gold dome that will sit on top of the winner's head. It's nothing like the tiara Dean's been picturing since Sam first said the words 'Beauty Pageant.' The MC's mouth is moving in a steady mumble, and though it's hard to see from this distance, what he's doing with his other hand could be dripping something out of a bottle into the crown.

It hits Dean like a truck: into, on, Latin isn't all that clear, of course it's the crown. The ultimate spectacle: kill the new Mr. All-American at the moment of his coronation. Dean has a sudden image of the winner's face melting off like the Nazis' at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

While Dean's busy picturing skin dripping down like wax, Bergen hands the crown off to a stage manager who disappears with it, nestled snug and glittering on a deep blue pillow. "Fuck!" Dean says, and tries to go after the guy before he loses sight of him, but with the crowd between him and the crown bearer, there's no chance.

He's still looking for a route through the contestants when he hears Sam yell, "Dean!" from his place in the line, snaking along towards Bergen's side of the stage. "Dean, it's the crown! The crown!"

Dean meets Sam's eyes. He can see the stage manager passing within five yards of his brother and he wants to nod and shout, "Yes, get it!" But a quick glance shows him that Sam's outburst has caught unwanted attention. Bergen is staring, calculating, and if the man is as badass a warlock as that book suggests, then there's no telling what he could do if he realizes they're onto him.

"Yes!" Dean yells back. He can't push any closer to Sam through the throng of people, so he gestures big instead, pastes a wide grin on his face as he lifts an imaginary crown from his head. "Yes! Wear the crown. Be the crown. You are the crown!" It's possibly the lamest thing he's ever said, but when he looks again the MC is back to ignoring them. Bergen grabs a microphone and strides on stage, and Dean loses sight of him.

But forget William Bergen, that crown is back here somewhere. Dean's got to find it fast; he's got to find it now.

The floor is clearing out as the contestants move from the wings and onto the stage, but try as he might, Dean can't locate the man with the crown and pillow. He's circled his way back to stage right, nobody but the tech crew surrounding him now, and as he creeps to the edge of the curtain he sees another man in a suit emerge from stage left. He's got the pillow and crown in one hand, an envelope in the other, and Dean's pretty sure there aren't enough curse words in the world.

"And now," says Bergen, pausing for dramatic effect. "The moment of truth. May I have the envelope, please?" As he accepts the paper from the crown-bearer, he murmurs into the microphone, "Aaah, the tension."

"The fourth runner up…" he begins, but Dean is tuning him out. He's picked Sam out in the lineup and is waiting for his brother to glance his way. He doesn't have to wait long, and when Sam's eyes find him his face quirks into an expression that asks why the hell Dean let that crown get on stage.

Dean rolls his eyes and shrugs, points at Sam to get the point across. Sam's shoulders square and he looks straight ahead; Dean can tell he's already trying to calculate his best opportunity.

"The first runner up," says the MC, and Dean couldn't care less so long as Sam can dodge the security guards long enough to get that crown. "Who will have to take the winner's place if for any reason he cannot fulfill his duties… is New Jersey's Sammy Lou Freebush!"

Dean double takes and watches Sam do the same. Sam freezes up, eyes startle wide and confused, and he obviously doesn't even think to move until Tad smiles, squeezes his shoulder, and gives an encouraging push. Sam's steps look almost steady as they carry him forward to join the row of runners up. It puts him all of three feet from Bergen and the crown, and Dean tenses; he bites the knuckles of one hand while his other hand pulls out his gun and clicks the safety off. Just in case.

"And our Mr. All-American," bellows Bergen as the applause for Sam dies down, "is Rhode Island's Tad Frasier."

Dean sees Bergen pick up the crown as Tad approaches, sees him move to hold it over the winner's head and Dean's staring at his motionless brother, starting to wonder if Sam's still expecting Dean to do something about it. Dean's just about to move when Sam darts forward so quickly no one sees it coming and snatches the crown right out of William Bergen's hands.

"No!" shouts Bergen, and then the mic, which he doesn't lower quickly enough, picks up the first few syllables of something distinctly not English.

"Sam!" Dean screams, but Sam's on it already, turning and hurling the crown into the air, away from the audience and soaring over the heads of the non-finalist contestants that are starting to mill in panicked confusion on the stage.

Wild-eyed and with fingers clawing in the direction of his glittering weapon, Bergen starts shrieking his spell, and then, with Bergen's final desperate cry, the crown explodes into a multicolored array of flashes and eardrum-shattering bangs. So much for melting skin right off a guy's bones.

The blast occurs less than a yard from the head of the giant statue towering at the rear of the stage, and the strength of the explosion demolishes the gold monstrosity from the shoulders up, sending debris raining down on the contestants not lucky enough to be in the final five, stopping them milling and starting them running.

Dean has his gun aimed in an instant, training it on Bergen from the shadows, and ready to fire. There are way too many panicked people to make shooting a gun towards the stage a good plan, but Dean knows he's a good shot, and he'll do it if he has to. If the evil sack of shit goes for Sammy or any of those contestants, he's a dead man.

Fortunately, the risky backup plan isn't necessary. Dean stares as William Bergen collapses in on himself with a scream. He drops to his knees in the middle of the stage, the contestants and stage manager swerving away from him as they beat a path of retreat from the still-burning debris. Tucking away his gun and taking advantage of the confusion, Dean breaks from the wings and makes his way towards his brother who is crouching down where Bergen fell.

He's not even sure what he's seeing as the man's skin desiccates and shrivels before his eyes, his face hollowing out and hair crackling away to ash. By the time Dean is close enough to prod him with a booted toe, William Bergen is nothing but a pile of dust in an expensive white suit.

"Huh," Sam says, and Dean pretty much has to agree.

In the time it took for Bergen to finish his dust-to-dust act, the stage has nearly emptied, leaving only the runners up huddling on the small front dais, their retreat blocked by the Wicked Warlock of the West's smoldering remains. Silence reigns heavy in the bright, enormous space—not just on the stage, but in the befuddled audience beyond. Dean wonders if the cameras are still rolling; wonders what all those people watching live at home thought of the show. He wonders how the hell he and Sam are getting out of here with all the lights and people and television cameras everywhere.

Moving forward towards the cowering finalists, Sam reaches out to the winner. "Um. Congratulations," he says. And then more quietly, in his most reassuring voice, "Give me your hand."

Tad looks confused, but follows Sam's directions with wide-eyed trust. Sam flashes a quick smile, one Dean recognizes as deliberate reassurance, and leads Tad forward to the edge of the stage. As he lifts their arms into the air, Dean hears him murmur, "Take a bow."

And even though there's no way the crowd mistook all that for deliberate special effects, applause quickly fills the entire room. Dean stares on, arms crossed and lower lip caught between his teeth, and he doesn't quite believe they're going to pull this off.

— - — - — - — - —

All the contestants have their rooms for one last night after the pageant, but Sam's had more than enough. With no intention of letting Dean out of his sight, he drags his brother through the wildly gesticulating crowds to the impala and says, "Motel." Dean doesn't argue.

Sam wants to say, "What the fuck was that thing?" But he's pretty sure Dean will confirm his suspicion that it was just a guy fooling with shit he didn't properly understand, and Sam doesn't want to hear it. More than that, he doesn't want to make Dean say it. Dean gets even more upset than Sam does when what they're hunting turns out to be human. Instead, he just listens to the sound of the tires on the road and the familiar rumble of the car's engine.

They're nearly back at Dean's motel when Sam says, "This place better have decent water pressure."

"Doubt it's up to the standards of Mr. First Runner Up." Dean pauses to give Sam a smile that flits between proud and teasing, "but it's not bad."

That smile goes a long way towards untwisting the knot that's been in Sam's stomach since Dean abandoned him to the wax strips and tailor's pins at Make Me a Man—since Sam realized that they really were going to go through with this. It doesn't, however, do anything but twist tighter the buzz of hope Sam's been finding it harder and harder to quash ever since he caught the look on Dean's face when he came and picked Sam up again. As Dean parks the car, Sam lets himself wonder if, because he's alone, Dean got a room with a single king instead of their usual two queens.

But when Dean unlocks the door, Sam sees the two beds, one still rumpled—Dean obviously remembered to ask for no maid service—and one covered in Bergen's books and paraphernalia.

"I'll just get rid of all this," Dean hurries to say when he catches sight of Sam's face, clearly misreading Sam's disappointment over the bed situation for distress about Bergen.

"I'll take that shower," Sam says, wary of allowing Dean the chance to figure out what his look really meant. It turns out Dean was right. It's not as good as at the hotel, but the water pressure isn't bad, and Sam feels better once the soot and ash is washed down the drain.

Dean is quick to trade places with him once he's done, saying only, "Clothes on your bed are clean," before he locks himself behind the bathroom door.

Sam tries to stay awake until Dean emerges, but three days of pretending to be Sammy Lou Freebush catch up with him, and he falls asleep almost as soon as he pulls the covers up to his chin.

— - — - — - — - —

The next morning feels almost normal, and Sam wakes rested and energized for the first time in three days. Dean is still conked out in the other bed, and a sliver of cloudy morning is visible between the curtains on the far wall.

Sam moves quietly through as much of his morning routine as he can with half his stuff in a fancy hotel down the street, pulling on his most comfortable jeans and an old t-shirt. He hesitates before using Dean's toothbrush, but fair's fair. He almost skips combing his hair, just out of spiteful rebellion, but in the end he takes the extra three minutes to tame his unruly mop. No reason to scare civilians on his way to get coffee.

There's a long wait at the place down the street—one harried barista and a line of customers that runs the length of the shop—and Sam skims the newspaper headlines on display while he waits. One paper has a blurry photo and bold font that reads 'Mr. All-American Pageant Bombed, Police Suspect Pageant Founder,' and Sam grabs a copy to buy with his order.

Dean is up and bustling by the time Sam walks back into the room, folding clothes and stuffing them into duffels, and all but ready to depart as Sam hands over the coffee. The sounds Dean makes when he takes his first sip are pleased and embarrassingly intimate, and Sam quickly moves to make himself useful. The alternative is complete distraction, and aren't they supposed to be getting out of town right now or something?

"I'll go check out," he says, when there's nothing left to occupy his hands. Dean meets him outside the reception office with the car idling and Black Sabbath blaring, and Sam slides into the passenger seat like it's home.

It's a two minute drive back to the hotel, and Sam figures they can duck in and out without getting noticed. There's a farewell brunch or something, which means the other contestants will all be congregated elsewhere. Sam can slip into his room, get his stuff, and they'll be gone within five minutes.

"Dean, the elevators are left of the lobby," Sam says when his brother grabs him by the elbow and directs him the wrong way.

"There's just something we have to do first" says Dean without letting go. "Gotta check on a couple loose ends."

Sam follows with trepidation, an unease that mounts as Dean takes the lead and moves purposefully down one hall after another. It's not like his brother to keep him in the dark, and Sam suddenly wonders if something is actually wrong. He steps up his pace, following Dean along the corridor and wishing he had a gun on him.

Dean stops abruptly, and Sam's brain is quick to process their surroundings. It's a bright room, full of people and decorations and glitter, and a podium stands on a dais at the front of the wide space. Tad is at the podium, smiling into the microphone and staring right at him, and Sam realizes suddenly that he's been set up.

He turns and squares his shoulders at Dean, smiling low and dangerous as he says, "You'll pay for this." Dean just grins at him like it's no threat at all, and gives Sam a shove. Sam puts on his best plastic smile and follows Tad's gestured invitation to join him up front.

"Ladies and gentlemen," says Tad. "Sam Winchester!" Sam smiles and nods, but when he moves to escape, Tad grabs his arm with a surprisingly firm grip. "No-no-no-no-no, not so fast!" he says as he pulls Sam closer to the microphone. "Because you saved our lives last night, we want to thank you. But even though you're a hero, to us you will always be Sammy Lou Freebush: the friendliest, kindest, coolest guy in the pageant, and this year's Mr. Congeniality!"

Sam stands there, blank and startled as Tad drapes a lettered sash over his shoulder and places an ornate glass trophy in his hands. It's not until the silence persists for a full minute that he realizes he's expected to give a speech.

"I uh…" He has to hunch to reach the microphone, and even though his mind is racing, words are escaping him, falling just beyond his grasp. "I don't know what to say. Um. Except for…thank you. This is really something else. I never thought anything like this would ever happen to me. I mean, I kind of hoped it wouldn't…" And now his mouth is rambling all on its own, but he sees smiles in every direction so he can't be offending people too badly. "But now that it has I just want to say that I'm very… honored. And moved." He realizes with a jolt how much he means it—their job is usually mostly thankless. He can already hear Dean giving him shit, but just the same he continues, "And truly touched."

Sam stops himself from saying more, but he doesn't dodge when Tad moves in to hug him, or when the front row of contestants pours onto the stage to join in. He smiles and laughs and hugs most of them back, and he feels lighter than he has in something like forever.

He waves goodbye as Dean finally ushers him back out the way they came, realizing his brother must have ducked out while Sam was being inundated because he's carrying the bag of Sam's stuff in one hand and the fancy-ass suit in the other. Dean tosses everything in the trunk when they reach the car, taking the award out of Sam's hand and tucking it almost reverentially in a padded corner before slamming the trunk closed.

"You're not going to give me shit?" Sam asks, eyes wide and voice incredulous.

"Naw, Sammy. You did good." Dean's face is set in a small smile, familiar quiet pride that makes Sam grin. He almost thinks that's it, that Dean's going to let the opportunity to taunt him slide respectfully by, but then that dangerous glint appears in his brother's eyes. Dean is about to open the driver's side door when he turns around and says, "You know. For a beauty queen, and all."

Sam evaluates his options in the span of a heartbeat and rejects every usual retaliation. He's got better ideas.

Three steps bring him close, and he shoves Dean hard against the side of the car. Sam smirks at the sight of Dean's eyes startled wide, and revels at the firm heat of contact where he holds Dean's body pinned with his weight.

"I think you mean king, Dean," he says, and knows he's won when Dean can't stop staring at his mouth.

He sees Dean steel himself, sees the walls try and draw themselves back into place, and Dean says, "Fine. King. You happy?"

"Not yet," says Sam, and he almost doesn't recognize the low, suggestive whisper of his own voice. Dean catches it like he's meant to, shivering against Sam and swallowing hard as Sam says, "There's still something I want to know." And damned if Sam's not getting turned on at seeing his brother so obviously off balance.

"Yeah?" Dean's bravado is a useless veneer. "What's that?"

Sam smiles, slow and deliberate, and then leans in so that his lips brush against the shell of Dean's ear as he whispers, "Were you jealous of Tad that night?" Dean goes taut against him, and Sam knows he's hit his mark. He half expects Dean to avoid eye contact when he draws back, but his brother meets him with a wide, disbelieving stare. He doesn't answer, but Sam didn't really expect him to.

"Do you want to kiss me, Dean?" he asks, and prays like hell his eyes convey how desperately he needs the answer.

"Yeah." Dean breathes it like a revelation.

"Yes," Sam corrects him, and leans in.

It's as much an exploration as a kiss, and Sam feels lightheaded with the heat of it. It's eager and terrifying all at once, the soft sigh of Dean's mouth parting for him, Dean's tongue a tentative presence alongside his own, and through it all the revelation that this is Dean. Sam never thought to dream he could have this, and suddenly it's his for the taking.

He groans into Dean's mouth, swallows up every sound his brother makes, and wishes he could get closer, harder, more. Dean's hands are tangled in Sam's hair, his eyes closed and a breathy moan in his throat, and Sam finally draws back because he has to. Because they're skirting the borders of 'carried away,' and if he doesn't back off now then he's not going to stop until he's gotten them both arrested for public indecency.

"There anything else you want to do to me, Dean?" he asks, and watches his brother's eyes light up with eager anticipation.

"God, yes," Dean growls and dislodges Sam with a hard shove. "Get your ass in the car."

Sam laughs as he obeys. He didn't realize that he was half expecting Dean to turn into his motel until they're driving past it and he remembers that they've already checked out. That the plan is to get out of town before the pending criminal investigation of the pageant 'bombing' turns towards them. He groans when Dean gets on I-10 heading out of town and hopes like hell his brother plans on stopping before they hit Houston.

If he doesn't, Sam might just have to persuade him.

The End