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In a House By the Sea, With Mermaids

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It was beautiful, the song in Sam’s dream. Wordless, sorrowful, notes falling and rising like the waves washing the beach. Like what his idea of sirens had been before the profound disappointment of actually meeting one.

The dream is gone now, though, and he’s awake. It’s only a couple of hours until dawn, he guesses, and experience says he might as well get up; there’ll be no more sleep tonight. He pulls on jeans and a hoodie and stumbles downstairs. Once he gets the coffee going, he collects the most recent manuscript translation project from the living room and spreads it across the kitchen table.

Feeling the thump of feet against the floor, he looks up to see Dean standing in the doorway. Dean’s eyebrows rise.

Sam rolls his eyes and shrugs, and with a motion he waves Dean away. Sam’s fine; he’s just awake, is all, and Dean should go back to bed.

Dean shakes his head and goes to the cabinet for a coffee mug.

After a while, Sam glances up and sees Dean’s mouth moving. He’s talking and probably has been for a while. Sam twirls his fingers in the gesture Dean has decided means ‘repeat,’ but Dean shrugs and sips from his coffee. Not important, Sam concludes, whatever it was. Just talking to keep his jaw in shape.

There are days Sam considers buying voice-activated tape recorders and hiding them all around the house. He could retrieve them while Dean was at work, one of those weeks when he was working, and use one of those computer programs to transcribe them. He’s convinced Dean’s whole life story has been blurted out over the last few years in bits and pieces, spoken to deaf ears.

But despite the elbow that doesn’t fully extend anymore and the nightmares he still has sometimes, Dean’s doing pretty okay, most days. If telling his secrets to the air makes him feel better, Sam’s happy enough to leave them to him.

It’s after dawn when Sam wrestles a particularly unruly passage into submission. He looks up to see Dean slumped in the other chair, the hand of his good arm still curled around his coffee mug. He’s not to the drooling stage yet. Sam rounds the table and hoists Dean to his feet. Groggy and mumbling, Dean lets himself be guided out to the sofa bed in the living room. Stretched out on it, he’s almost immediately asleep.

Sam, on the other hand, feels hunched and near-sighted after hours of translation. He grabs his jacket, scribbles a note – [Up to Higgle’s Point. Back by lunch.] - and heads for the door.

--

Out here on the empty dunes, eyes stinging with sand and spray flung up by the wind, sand grinding wetly beneath his feet, briny air in nose and mouth, all senses but one in full uproar: it’s times like this when Sam misses it the most. His fifth sense.

Winchesters went where the monsters were, and the monsters rarely went on coastal vacations. Maybe, like ghosts, they didn’t care for salt. But still, Sam’s heard the ocean often enough in years past to remember what sounds he’s lacking: the steady crash of waves on sand, the call of gulls.

Instead there is only, in times of stress and high blood pressure, a persistent whine, and right now not even that.

The wind whips harder at him here than it did at the Point. The endless gray ceiling overhead is darkening with purpose. Sam glances along the shoreline; he’s still at least two miles from the house. He’s going to get drenched, he realizes, and Dean’s going to worry, and then he’s going to be irritable to cover the worry, which is always charming.

Sam lengthens his strides. He’s weighing the pros and cons of a good hearty jog in his street clothes when something pulls him up short. The sensation’s so foreign that at first he identifies it as an ache, and it takes him a good five seconds to recognize what it is. It’s the song that woke him this morning.

As soon as the thought occurs to him, he loses the sound, gone as if it’d never been, leaving him to the familiar deadened silence. He twists around, trying to pinpoint a location by memory alone, but there’d been no sense of directionality; he’d try following it if he had even the faintest idea which way to go. He couldn’t reproduce a tune, even if he could hear himself well enough to hit the notes. There were no words. The voice – was it even a voice? He’s suddenly not sure.

He needs to tell Dean.

--

Dean doesn’t believe him.

It’s in your head, Sam reads off Dean’s lips, the words accompanied by a pointing finger in case Sam is unclear about which body part Dean is referring to. It’s that thing.

Sam lifts his eyebrows and waits.

That... din-din thing.

Sam’s still hit-or-miss with reading most people’s lips, but he’s gotten pretty good at reading Dean’s. It helps that most of their communication has always been non-verbal anyway. Still, sometimes all Sam’s faculties combined aren’t enough. He shakes his head.

Dean snatches the note pad from Sam, scribbles on it, and thrusts it at Sam. [Tin Tin], it reads.

Then again, sometimes hearing or lack thereof isn’t the problem.

It takes a few moments and a couple more frustrated gestures from Dean for Sam to realize what he means. [Tinnitus], Sam writes, and shakes his head. [I really heard it.]

Vision Boy, Dean says. His smirk is fond, and the words don’t sting like they might have once. My brother the psychic. All in your head, Sammy. Dean twirls a finger next to his head. He says something else then, but his grin garbles it.

Repeat, Sam gestures.

Dean scribbles a word on the notepad and lifts it up for Sam to see: [U hear Enya in ur head.]

A few years ago, Sam would have given him plenty of crap about even knowing Enya’s name. Now he trusts that the roll of his eyes and the slant of his shoulders convey enough of what he means. Dean grins even wider.

--

Books are what Sam does these days, so to the books he goes. What originals are left from Bobby’s library are stashed away with other hunters or in environment-controlled storage units; no reason to subject irreplaceable manuscripts to the salty wet coastal air. Sam has copies of them all, though, the compendiums and demonographies and black magic lexicons, and he’s familiar with the contents of most.

Now he starts pulling titles from the living room shelves. Gaelic mythology for the bean-sídhe.

(Was the voice wailing over someone’s coming death? Dean’s? Sam slaps down his own sense of melodrama and keeps going.)

Greek for Echo, Orpheus, and the sirens.

(He holds out futile hope that the thing he and Dean met was some other creature under false pretenses. As many times as it happens, there’s still something in him that rebels against such ancient, ageless legends turning out to be so tacky.)

Sailing and seaside lore, for the geography. Local histories, same reason.

(One of the unappreciated advantages of the sea is that it’s full of salt. Every time Sam sticks his nose out the front door or opens a window as the day warms, it hits him again: the reality of seaweed and fish and salt that no ghost but a seaside ghost can abide.

He wonders sometimes if there’s something there beneath the lore, some deeper logic that explains how the ghost of a sea captain’s wife can pace the widow’s walk, awash in currents of salt air, and not be burned. He mentioned it to Dean once. Dean mouthed something about Sam the geek-brain borrowing trouble. The words came with a grin, though, and the easy, affectionate disinterest warmed Sam more than any answer Dean could have produced.

Sam still wonders, though. It’s nice, wondering. A luxury. They never had time before.)

Sam spreads it all out over the coffee table, his pen and stack of post-its in hand, and begins trawling – like a fishing boat netting fish, he supposes. It seems an apt image, under the circumstances. When something strikes him, he bookmarks the page with a note written on a post-it, and he moves on.

He glances up when he feels Dean’s footsteps approaching. Dean comes around to face Sam and mouths, Dinner?

Sam looks around and realizes that the room has gone shadowed and dusky beyond the reach of his lamp, that he’s hungry, and that it’s his day to cook. He was supposed to put lasagna in the oven hours ago.

Dean must have seen all these thoughts in his expression. I got it, he says, shrugging. That means spaghetti, which is the usual fare when Sam gets lost in a project this way and forgets nonessentials like food.

Over pasta, his mouth half full, Dean asks something Sam can’t catch. After two unsuccessful repeats, Dean writes it down.

[Lucifer?]

Sam blinks. It’s been years since he’s had to think about Lucifer, about holding onto pain as his only sure reality. He tries to compare the song to what he remembers of the devil in his head. Eventually he gives up; they’re too different for comparison.

[I don’t think so,] he writes. Dean looks relieved.

After dinner, Sam goes back to his books. He’s reached stage two. He uses the printer in the corner of the room to copy out all the most interesting passages he’s found, and one by one he tacks them up on the one wall left blank and dedicated to the purpose. Later, if necessary, he’ll put up a map and connect the thumb tacks with yarn.

Eventually Dean wanders in and settles into the recliner with his latest western from the library, and Sam takes absolutely no notice when, a half hour later, he glances around and sees the reading glasses perched on Dean’s nose. He knows if he says anything at all, or even catches Dean’s eye, the glasses won’t appear again for weeks, and in the meantime Dean will squint and scowl and grump and possibly stick Sam with all the dishes.

It’s almost midnight when Sam gives it up. There are too many possible trails, and he knows too little. It could be a bean-sídhe, except they seem to prefer appearing in person; also there’s the not-in-Ireland issue. Probably not a siren, he’s concluded. If it’s a ghost, it’s for some death he has yet to discover. There are a few missing person reports from over the years, but there’s no pattern, nothing that marks them out as supernatural. None of the local history is suggesting anything to him, but whatever he’s hearing could be obscure, totally forgotten. Now he can only wait: for another visitation, another research idea.

After Sam’s tidied up the worst of the book-sprawl on the coffee table, Dean gets up, too, and turns out the light. He’s smirking as he speaks, and though Sam doesn’t catch all the words, he gets the general gist: Sam’s doing a whole lot of work just to track down Enya.

--

The song wakes Sam in the dark hour before dawn, and this time it doesn’t stop. He stumbles to the window, which he left cracked open when he went to bed, and through it the voice rings clear and cold.

He pulls on clothes, boots, and coat, and he treks out into the darkness. The moon’s a crescent, enough to see the path by, and anyway this is a track he knows so well he could walk it blind: down the cliff side, over dunes lumpy with clusters of dune grass, and out onto the beach. The tide’s out as far as Sam ever sees it go.

The song still calls him. He strides along the shore, sidestepping driftwood spit out by the sea, never stumbling. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he doesn’t wonder; the tune’s guidance is enough.

Somewhere along the way he worries he’s losing the song in a backwash of noise that he thinks must be tinnitus, worse than he’s ever had it. He strides on, his anxiety lending him speed. He can’t lose the song now.

It’s some time later that he realizes the noise he’s hearing is the sea.

Ahead of him rise the jagged wall of Higgle’s Point. Against the moonlit clouds the bluff is ominous as it’s never been in daylight, but it’s not from the bluff the song is calling. Dimly he realizes it must be coming from the cove just around the point. It’s tiny and ringed by cliffs on all sides, useless for any sailing venture, commercial or private, and only accessible at the lowest tides, when the receded waves leave a strip of sand curving around the point.

Sam finds that strip now and rounds the bluff to the cove. Sitting on a ledge jutting from the cliff, just above water’s edge, is the singer.

It’s a woman, or near enough. She shimmers in the moonlight, hair cascading down behind her, legs crossed at the ankles. She’s naked, but doesn’t seem undressed. She’s ethereal, otherworldly, as natural and full of grace as a willow tree. From her mouth pours the song that is the first sound beyond the whine of his own damaged ears that Sam has heard in years.

She sees him and beckons, and he follows the narrow spit of land towards her ledge. He can almost reach it, not quite, but it’s only seawater between him and the woman, and he’s not afraid of water. He wades into the surf. She reaches for him, and when he grips her fingers, gleaming and slick as fishes’ scales, suddenly the song is more than song.

Come with me, the mermaid says.

Of course it’s a mermaid. He threw the idea out for lack of data, but here she is, more exquisite than any Waterhouse painting.

Come to my kingdom, she says. See the wonders of the sea, breathe water like air. Beneath the sea lies your heart’s desire. Come with me, Sam Winchester.

Sam can hear everything, he realizes: the crash of water against the rocks, the wind roaring dully overhead, the song of the mermaid herself, woven through everything, brilliant, inescapable like one red thread in a vast green cloth.

How? he asks her. He’s not sure there are words involved.

The world has broken you, she says.

Sam can feel her fingers trace his ear, then trail down to press, cool and firm, against his heart.

You have seen terrible things no man should look upon, she says. Your family is all but gone. You are old before your time, uncelebrated for all you have done. You are alone.

The truth of her words are like an ache in his chest, like unshed tears, like grief.

Dean, he says. The word is reflexive; staring into her perfect shadowed face, Dean certainly isn’t what he’s thinking of.

Come with me, she says, and her fingers tighten around his. Come with me to my kingdom by the sea, and I will make you whole.

She is his only hope. He grips her hand and takes a breath of air, maybe his last. His foot slips, and he puts out a hand to catch himself against the rock wall. A jagged edge slices into his hand.

The pain is like an awakening, the fiery sting of salt water in the wound as sharp as any pain that ever grounded him in his Lucifer days. He stares at the creature whose hand he’s holding. Her beauty shifts and distorts like a projection across an uneven surface.

He jerks away, but her grip doesn’t break. With his injured hand he rummages in his pockets and belt for anything, a gun, a knife, and comes up with nothing but a sandwich baggy partially filled with salt – Dean’s idea of a portable ghost deterrent, “Just in case.”

Sam learned it in high school bio: even saltwater fish don’t like pure, indiluted salt.

He drags the bag across the rock face, making a ragged opening, and tosses the contents in the mermaid’s face. The beautiful image melts away to something small and grotesque with a fish’s tail and canine teeth like a chimpanzee’s. It grasps at him with puny arms, jaws snapping. He pulls out of its grip just before the jaws reach him, and he sprawls backward on the narrow spit of beach.

Narrower than when he came, he realizes. The tide is rising. Sam scrambles to his feet and races around the edge of the cove. The base of the point is already underwater, and as he reaches it, the mermaid surges from the water and sinks its teeth into Sam’s thigh, knocking him down.

The thing’s got the jaw strength of a pit bull. Sam tries to kick at it, but can’t get a good angle; he punches it in the face, but it doesn’t seem to even notice. Finally, desperate, he braces himself with his good foot, grabs the mermaid’s neck with both hands, and twists until he feels the single, grinding crack of the spine breaking.

The jaws are loosened now, but not slack. It takes him another few moments to dig the teeth out of his leg. He’s bleeding, but not fatally; the mermaid missed the main arteries.

Sam’s leg hurts like hell, his hand’s not much better, and he’s sopping wet. The tide at the point is already knee-deep. He circles it, keeping his uninjured hand on the rock to steady himself, and then begins the long, dragging trek back to the house.

Halfway home, he meets Dean, who smacks him a few times with the heel of his hand and then shoulders under him on his injured side and helps him limp back to the house. Inside, Dean pulls out the first-aid kit and dresses the leg wound. All the while he’s muttering about infection and cussing Sam out with great clarity. It’s remarkable how distinctive ‘f’ is from every other letter.

The sun’s cutting a shining path over the sea by the time Dean’s finished disinfecting and bandaging. Over coffee at the kitchen table, Sam explains in jotted half-sentences what happened, adding his theories about motive (hunger) and means (some kind of psychic glamour).

[You were right], he writes, rueful. [It was all in my head.]

When he finishes, Dean reaches for the pen and paper. When he gives it back, it reads, [Fiji mermaid legit?]

Sam laughs at the shock of recognition. Now that Dean’s said it, it’s obvious the thing he killed was the same creature as P.T. Barnum’s mummified monkey/fish fraud. Supposed fraud. He laughs again, and Dean grins back at him. It seems Sam is forgiven his moonlit adventure.

Dean reaches for the paper again, and for a few moments he only stares, brow furrowed. Finally, though, Dean writes, turns the pad around, and shoves it at Sam.

[what if it was real? if she was being straight with u?]

Sam stares at the page and then at Dean.

Dean snatches the page back and writes some more. He doesn’t look at Sam when he passes it over to him again. [we’re pretty fucked up. could use some healing.]

Sam very rarely speaks aloud, even around Dean; he knows his volume control’s crap and he suspects his intonation is all off, too. Sometimes, though, it’s called for. “I’m not leaving,” he says. “Dumbass.”

Dean looks up and fires something back, something defensive, juvenile. It doesn’t matter what; it was just smoke screen, anyway. Dean's shoulders don’t slump in relief, he doesn’t swallow a lump in his throat, and there’s nothing about him that suggests he had any personal stake in the question. If anyone ever asks, that’s the story Sam’ll tell.

After a few wordless moments, Dean pushes to his feet and makes the personalized Winchester gesture for waffles, waffles being too important to leave to lip-reading and chance. He’s grinning. Sam gives him a thumb’s up, and soon odors of cinnamon and butter fill the bright, silent kitchen. Sam pulls his translation project out again and waits for breakfast.

[end]