Last night is coming back to Sam in little flickers, clicks, like a camera shutter opening and closing. Catching snapshots.
A celebration over a hunt gone right, a dozen shot glasses lined up topside down on the bar in front of them like soldiers in a neat little row.
One final shot for the road after last call. Sam and Dean toasting each other, glasses clinking together and spilling half the shots over their fingers, and Dean laughing like he hadn’t in a long time. Maybe even since they were kids.
Dean content, skin flushed and eyes shining.
Dean’s hand warm on the back of his neck as they staggered to their hotel, tripping over their own feet and each other’s, and the sudden sting of disappointment when Dean took his hand off of Sam’s shoulder to unlock the door to their room.
The irritating sensation of a sprung spring under the worn cushion of the couch that dug low into Sam’s hunched back as they settled down for one last beer before bed, just for good luck.
That look in Dean’s eyes and the slow slur of his voice when he smiled at Sam and said that today had been a good day, that he wished they could have more like this one, a hand on Sam’s thigh with a quick pat for emphasis. But then he left it there, perhaps too lazy and drunk to think about moving it.
Sam thinking thoughts like finally and thank god as he stared at that hand, the deep down pool of want that’s always there bubbling closer to the surface. He covered Dean’s hand with one of his own, nervous and suddenly jittery despite all the booze. His thumb slid slowly, lightly over Dean’s scratched and scarred knuckles, avoiding the deepest of the splits because the last thing in the universe he wanted to do right then was to break one open and make Dean take his hand back.
Then Sam had shifted closer, mumbling about that painful coil in his back, making excuses, and Dean moved a little as well. Away, but the arm of the sofa would only allow him to go so far, and next he was finally giving in, and he slouched, his body pliable alongside Sam’s.
The way that the flickering blue light from the television hid all of Dean’s flaws, all those half-healed cuts and tiny imperfections. The light reflected in his eyes and turned his skin a perfect ghostly white as Dean stared blankly at the screen and Sam stared at nothing in the whole world except him.
And then he’d taken one small step too far, read a look the wrong way, Sam leaned in and pressed his nose against his brother’s neck, his hand still covering Dean’s since he didn’t know what else to do with it. The smell of liquor and his brother’s sweat flooded into his nose and stuck to the back of his throat.
Next, a mistake. A big one.
Because Dean may have been drunk, but it sure as hell hadn’t slowed him down much. His reflexes were still spot on as he stood in a flash, the heel of his hand shoving roughly at the center of Sam’s chest as shock and confusion and maybe something a little bit darker flashed across his face.
Then Sam was on his feet, inexplicably able to stagger backward, his head reeling from the drunk and breathing hard, so hard that he didn’t have breath enough for an apology. It wasn’t from the hit. Dean hadn’t meant to hurt him. If he had, Sam would have been tasting blood by now. More from the fact that his world was crashing down around him so hard and so fast that he was surprised the roof over their heads didn’t give up and come caving in.
Now it's morning and the roof’s still standing as Sam pries his eyes painfully open. The dim sunlight that sneaks in through the cracks between the heavy motel room curtains shines like it had a vendetta against him, piercing spikes, and he shades himself against them. His mouth tastes like something has crawled up and died in the back of his throat.
Sam’s surprised to see Dean still lying on his side in the bed next to his, swollen red hangover eyes fixed on him seriously. Throwing back the blanket, Dean sits up and swings his bare legs to the floor, uttering a groan as he runs a tired hand across his face.
Sam pushes himself to a sitting position as well, closing his eyes against the wave of nausea that wants to drag him back down. He props his elbows on his knees, scrubs a hand across his face and waits for what he knows is coming. What comes instead surprises him.
"That was a lot of José," Dean says, groggy, his voice rough. His hair is plastered down on one side of his head and standing up in comical swirls on the other. At any other time, Sam might laugh. Not today, though.
"Listen, Dean--" Sam begins, only to be cut off.
"And Jack. Lots of Jack. Jim too, right? The entire fucking holy trinity." He runs his tongue along his bottom lip for a second. "And what was that...was it…was it schnapps?"
Sam holds in a hopeful chuckle. Things might be alright. Dean’s still here, Sam’s still here and things seem almost normal. Almost okay. Maybe Dean doesn’t remember, or maybe he really doesn’t care. For now, anyway.
"Peppermint schnapps," Sam provides.
"Girly shots. I did girly shots. Jesus. I was drunk," Dean says. "And you were fucking drunk." He stands up, crosses the room on legs that are stiff and more than a little bit wobbly. He'd lost a sock at some point, his one bare foot slapping against the tile as he goes to the sink and splashes some water on his face without waiting for it to warm up from the tap. It makes Sam choke off another nervous laugh, but the laugh turned into a hiss when Dean flicks the light switch on, only to utter a quiet 'son of a bitch' and flick it back off just as quickly.
As he makes his way back toward the bed, he throws a wet washcloth in Sam's direction, and mutters another curse when his foot comes in contact with a partially full beer bottle, the one Sam had knocked off of the low coffee table the night before, when...just when. The bottle bounces toward the bed, the dregs of beer still in it leaving a wet trail along the motel carpet. It clanks against the metal foot of the bed frame, the noise intrusive in the quiet of the room, only to roll back slowly, almost back to where it started.
Sam feels the air grow thicker than the muggy morning breeze seeping in between the cracks in the wooden window casing could explain away.
Dean stares at the bottle, his chin tucked in close to his chest and his thumb and first finger picking absently at a loose bit of skin on his lower lip. Then he reaches out his bare foot to roll it back and forth with his toes. He heaves a long, heavy breath, bends at the waist and picks it up, sets it upright on the table behind him. One small bit of order among the mess of takeout bags, used towels and toppled sofa cushions.
Sam watches all of this silently, with an acute amount of fascinated dread, the chilly damp cloth forgotten in his hand.
Dean knows. He hasn’t forgotten, he remembers, and he knows.
Sam's mind spins overtime, frantic to latch onto some believable excuse. He just needs to find some sort of psychology, something about p selection or q selection, proximity and similarity, or some theory to hide behind, some sort of psychological loophole to swim around in. Durkheim, Weber, shit, even Watson, he was the behaviorist after all. So long as it isn’t Freud Sam would be alright, because sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but most of the time it simply isn’t.
What it all boils down to is that sure, Sam could be a sloppy drunk, but he isn’t that sloppy. And Dean knows it. They both do.
Sam’s good at leaving. He knows how to do it. He could take a hundred bucks from their emergency stash, hitch his way to the next decent sized city, maybe hustle some pool, win a few games of darts and then get a bus ticket. It could be freeing. It could be a fresh start. He’s always liked those. It’s the endings he always screws up. Case in point.
But for now an apology. It isn’t enough, but it’s as good a start as any. "About what happened--" Sam begins again.
The look Dean gives him is sharp. "I was drunk," he repeats. "You were really drunk." He’s speaking slowly, as if he’s trying to explain something to a four year old, like why the sky is blue or why water is wet. He’s talking in that self assured way of his, and Sam knows that he’s trying to put a lid on the topic, wrap it up nice and neat and shove it some place where it would never again see the light of day. He’s also seen how things like this have a way of breaking free again, especially when they least expect it.
"This won't just go away on its own, Dean." He knows from experience, and that’s the bitch of the thing.
"Did I stutter, Sam?" When Sam doesn’t answer, Dean continues. "I didn't think so." Dean's voice has a razor edge to it now, not angry or disgusted, rather completely dismissive. "Don't make me say it again.” He looks around at the wreck of the room. “We need to get outta here."
This is Dean giving him a pass, his version of a get out of jail free card, and Sam suddenly knows with perfect clarity that Dean doesn’t want him to go, can’t stand the thought of it, that the breadth and depth of Dean’s forgiveness where he’s concerned is nigh on boundless. Sam’s gonna ride it out for as long as he can, and if that makes him one selfish bastard, so be it.
Dean pulls on a pair of jeans that he’d thrown on the floor the night before and starts to wander around the room, lifting up blankets at random and tossing around cushions on the couch. "In other news, what did you do with my sock?"
Flashing a grin in Sam’s direction, Dean snatches his missing sock from beneath a pillow on the floor, and then frowns a little when he finds his pearl handled Smith and Wesson beneath the nightstand. Tucking it into the back of his belt, he asks, "Breakfast? I'm starving."
The slightest mention of food has Sam's stomach rolling through nauseating backflips and cartwheels, whole goddamn gymnastic routines. His mouth starts watering and not in a good way. "Only if we can find a place that spikes the coffee with Percocet," he says, finally wiping the washcloth across his face with a shiver.
"You remember that fool proof hangover remedy, don't you?"
"Shut up," Sam says, a weak smile threatening to take over his face and the weight in his chest becoming slightly less crushing. What a difference a few minutes can make.
And just like that, things are alright again. At least mostly. Or as alright as they ever are.
They pack up fast, with the efficiency of two men who have spent their whole lives with one foot perpetually out the door. They’re flush right now, two shiny new credit cards in Dean’s wallet and a neat little roll of cash stuffed into Sam’s duffel. Sam leaves a fifty dollar bill underneath the keys for housekeeping, figures that his luck has taken an upswing and that it’s smart to pay it forward.
The diner is two blocks away, but they drive to it anyway, their gear tossed haphazardly in the backseat. Dean spikes their coffees with a slug of whiskey from his flask, crooked grin bright as sunshine as he mutters something about the hair of the dog, orders eggs and pancakes and three different kinds of meat, and when it comes he floods the whole damn plate with maple syrup.
Sam keeps his eyes fixed to one particular spot on the table, a little to the left of the dry toast and bowl of fruit that he’s ordered, thinking about how this morning has a definite day after the night before feeling to it, and how it might have looked a lot different if Dean had kissed him back last night. Unrealistic, fairytale thoughts.
Sam had been ten, huddled next to Dean in a double bed, keeping vigil over the empty one beside them, fingers crossed as he waited for their father to come home, alive and safe. He’d been thirteen, shuddering awake in the middle of the night in a different double bed, hand pressed to his dick, a sticky mess in his shorts from the fitful dreams he’d just had of Dean whispering wonderful, impossible things and running his fingers up the inside of his thighs, hoping against hope that Dean wouldn’t wake up. He’d been sixteen, eighteen, twenty-three, and completely, fatalistically in love with his brother. In love with Dean’s switchblade smile and the way he uses it as a weapon, every bit as dangerous as the arsenal in the trunk. In love with the way he moves through the world, like it’s all just a stage and he’s a one-man show, in love with the sound of his voice when he calls him Sammy. Sam had been twenty-one, with a 3.9 GPA and a girlfriend that he loved more than almost anything, huddling in some bathroom stall in some bar while his friends all banged on the door, with his face plastered against the cool metal and his phone pressed to his ear, listening to Dean’s voice mumbling something about cervesas and happy birthday, playing the message over and over again on an endless, self-destructive loop.
Most of the time, it’s fine, Sam deals with it. It’s like a bruise that’s formed somewhere deep down, invisible and hard to get to, but every once in awhile Dean will hit exactly the right spot, and Sam’s blood will come rushing back to the surface of his skin, leave him black and blue.
Dean is Sam’s north star, his only navigational constant. He is Sam’s old paint under the new. Take a thumbnail to the trim, one small scratch on the exterior, and there he is.
It’s Dean’s turn to leave a hefty tip, forty bucks on the table for a fifteen dollar tab, which somehow makes up for all last week, when they’d been scrounging around on the floorboards of the car to leave quarters.
By the time they leave, the diner is starting to stack up, old men doused in English Leather, wearing suit jackets with polish on their shoes. Women in pastel dresses, white gloves on their hands and silk flowers glued to the brims of their church hats, and that’s how Sam comes to learn that it’s Sunday.
Outside, two men stand beside the Impala, all wispy white hair and gnarled hands curled around the tops of their canes. Brothers, if the color of their eyes and the matching crooked angle of their nostalgic smiles are anything to go by.
“Gentlemen,” Dean says to them when they approach, suspicious, and it’s ridiculous, Dean acting like this set of octogenarians might be able to take them in a clean fight, or fuck it, even a dirty one.
“This your car, son?” one of them asks.
“Yes, sir,” Dean replies, and now there’s pride in the sound of his voice and the slight tilt to his head, in the way he straightens his back and runs an affectionate hand along the front fender of the car.
“‘65?” the man guesses.
“It’s a ‘67,” Dean tells him.
“I had a ‘48. Bought it new, right off the lot. Prettiest car on the road in her day. I still miss that car.” He hikes a thumb at the man beside him. “My brother here bought a Mustang, but then again, he always has been flashy.”
His brother, the taller of the two, hikes one corner of his mouth up, rolls his eyes and shakes his head, long suffering.
“Anyway,” the old man says, nudging his brother toward the door of the diner. “You take good care of her.”
“Of course,” Dean says grandly, arms spread wide, “she’s the love of my life.”
Now it’s Sam’s turn to roll his eyes. It stings a little to hear Dean say that, more than it should.
There’s this dip in the passenger seat of the Impala, a Sam-shaped indent, worn in and perfected over a couple of hundred thousand miles. Sam settles into it, curves his spine into the seat at a very precise and practiced position, sets his legs into their usual angle in the footwell and leans his head against the back of the seat. He still avoids looking at Dean directly, keeps thinking in terms of Greek tragedies and comedies, or maybe it’s epic poetry, strange thoughts about the possibility of turning into stone with one look, of sublimating, or maybe calling down the wrath of the Furies. It’s that kinda morning.
He needs sleep. More than that, he needs Dean to act normal. Stop smiling too big and speaking too loud, stop all of his painfully obvious attempts at being overly cheerful. Sam can see straight to the bottom of all of it and doesn’t like what he finds down there.
“North or south, Sam?” Dean says when he gets into the car, squinting into the noontime sun like he’s got some kinda bone to pick with it.
“Up to you,” Sam replies. “I got nothin’ in either direction.” The sunlight warms his skin, makes him lazy and drowsy. He closes his eyes as Dean gets them rolling, tries to think of nothing but the red flicker of light over his eyelids.
Dean coasts onto the interstate onramp. South, since it’s the first turn and it’s an easy right instead of a left, and anyway there’s this burger shack near the southern border of Virginia that Dean wouldn’t mind hitting up again, and it’s just like Sam’s brother, perfectly willing to drive five hundred miles and waste two entire tanks of gas for a goddamn hamburger.
Sam tells him exactly that, gives in and cuts a sideways glance at Dean to get a read on his reaction.
He’s got his wrist propped on the steering wheel, legs set wide, sprawled out in preparation for the long haul. He licks his lips before he speaks. “It’s all about priorities. If you can’t appreciate the finer things in life, then what’s the point?”
“Priorities?” Sam counters. “You’re thinking about your next meal while you’re still picking the last one out of your teeth.”
Dean shrugs, leans across Sam’s lap but is careful not to touch him. Sam keeps his eyes on the smooth back of his brother’s neck as Dean rifles through the glove compartment until he finds a pair of sunglasses, tosses them into Sam’s lap, then comes up with a cassette and pops it in. It’s Rush, the tape so used and stretched out that it has taken on the warbly sound of old vinyl. Dean turns it down low, smirks at Sam like he’s doing him some kind of favor.
Sam stares across the barely lit bar. It’s more Dean’s kinda place than his, sawdust on the floor and nothing recorded after 1976 in the jukebox, gaudy neon clogging every single window advertising watery domestic beer. The bartender looks like he’s just stepped off of the set of a bad biker movie and there’s not a single thing on the menu that doesn’t come out of a fryer. Sam’s laptop sits open in front of him but he ignores it in favor of watching Dean work the room like he’s some sort of lounge singer.
Dean’s chatting up a waitress, leaning against the bar with a foot propped up on a stool, standing close enough to her to make Sam’s skin itch. It comes as easy to Dean as breathing. Like a reflex, a kick in response to a tap to the knee. A willing, pretty smile, a couple of x chromosomes, and a short enough skirt is all it ever takes.
He thinks maybe Dean should raise his standards, wonders what their story is this time around. Astronauts, soldiers leaving in the morning for foreign shores. Maybe secret service, that one is Sam’s favorite. Or anyway, it’s a part he basically knows how to play.
But Sam really wouldn’t have him any other way, and that’s the truth of it. Alright, so maybe he would, but he thinks that perhaps that’s just a clause, some sort of hidden small print in the Winchester family curse.
Dean catches Sam’s stare, interprets it as a beckon and starts walking toward him. Only walking isn’t quite the right word, it’s more of a saunter, a self-satisfied smile on his face to match.
“She has a roommate,” he says, raising his eyebrows like he’s proud of himself and sliding a cocktail napkin with the girl’s number on it across the scarred up table.
Sam snorts and shakes his head, tries to ignore the feeling that Dean’s trying too hard to get back in the saddle, maintain their screwed up version of the status quo. He snatches a shot from where they’re lined up along the table, downs it and slams the glass upside down on the napkin. He picks up its neighbor and tilts it back, just for good measure.
“Slow it, Sam. Knockin’ ‘em down quicker than I can line ‘em up.” His speech is slurred a little, lazy from a few too many beers.
Sam wants to say something about the pot calling the kettle black, but instead turns back toward his laptop, blinks owlishly as the small print that looks like it’s swimming across the screen. “I think I found us something.”
“Whatcha got?” Dean asks.
“There’s an old plantation house a few states south of here. It just recently changed hands. Heavy spirit manifestation, blinking lights, bumps in the night, doors slamming, the whole nine.”
“An old school poltergeist. Sounds like fun.” Dean reaches across, steals one of Sam’s fries from his plate and pops it in his mouth.
“I’m not too sure I like your version of fun, but yeah, sounds like it might be legit.”
The unforgiving, relentless southern afternoon sun hammers away at the roof of the car. Muggy air seeps in through the open windows, so thick and heavy that Sam thinks that it could quite possibly drown a person. There’s a tickle at the back of his neck, and he reaches a hand there to wipe at the sweat before it can sneak beneath his stiff priest’s collar.
Dean’s uneasy beside him, running a finger along his own black and white collar, pulling at it restlessly. His hair is darker than usual, dampened with the trails of sweat that streak down his temples.
“South Carolina, Sam. In August.” Dean shakes his head, almost cartoonishly disgusted. “Would it have killed you to find us a hunt in Maine? Maybe even Alaska?”
“Hey, you were the one who was all gung-ho about it. Something about biker week in Myrtle Beach. All those biker chicks in leather chaps and all that. I just found you an excuse to indulge in your sick habit.”
“That was then.” Dean shoots Sam a smug smirk that rankles him to no end. “This is now.”
“You have the attention span of a goldfish, you know that?”
“Oh, yeah, college boy. How long is that?”
“Two seconds,” Sam replies. When Dean raises his eyebrows in doubt he continues, “It’s been proven. Scientifically.”
“Who the hell studies that sort of thing?” Dean mutters.
“Scientists,” Sam replies with a shrug.
“Very funny. Don’t they have alligators around here? I hear they taste just like chicken.”
“My point exactly,” Sam says. “Don’t miss your turn.” He points to a small break in the woods to the left.
Dean swings the car onto the narrow path, barely more than a couple of graveled wheel ruts almost invisible in the thick copse of trees and underbrush lining both sides.
“No wonder they call this the low country,” Dean says, his voice a little quieter now, maybe subdued by the shadows they’re driving through. He leans forward and stares out of the windshield at the dense canopy of live oaks, their branches heavily laden with curtains of dark grey Spanish moss that reach nearly to the ground in places.
The air seems to grow impossibly denser, and Sam leans closer to the window, swipes his sweat-stringy hair out of his eyes. The smell of the air is different here, a sickly-sweet mixture of flowers and decay, of dampness and heat. Beneath the growl of the car’s engine he can hear the constant raspy buzz of cicadas.
A few miles further down the path and the road opens up, revealing an expanse of fields, neat rows of springtime crops now dried and withered by the late summer heat. The fields rise up at a shallow angle and point toward a plantation house at the crest of the low hill.
Sam squints against the sudden change from shadow to bright sunlight and studies the place. From a distance it looks regal, perhaps even a little stately. Built in the Georgian style, it’s a large, white looming thing with warped glass windows lined up like watchful eyes, finial topped columns and large, double-decker porches facing the front gates.
As they draw closer to the roundabout driveway in front, Sam realizes that his first impression was wrong. The porches sag in the center, the white paint is peeling off of the siding in spots, the two twin flower beds in front are a tangled mess of weeds and overgrowth. A million little things speak of decades of simply letting the place slide.
It stands on this small rise of land like a mournful reminder of a bygone era. But it must have been beautiful, once.
It makes Sam’s hands twitch, makes him want to do something about it, replace the missing slate shingles on the roof and set the tilted shutters to rights again, pull the sticker bushes out of the kitchen garden he knows will be at the back corner of the house, and make something grow there.
“It’s show time, Sammy,” Dean says beside him, snapping his fingers in front of Sam’s face. “You with me?”
The wooden stairs give a little beneath their feet as they make their way to the front entrance. Before they reach to top riser, the door opens to reveal a darkened interior.
A woman stands framed in the doorway, an older lady, her smooth, weathered skin the color of coffee and cream. She’s peering at them with slightly milky eyes, but the way they shift from one brother to the other tells Sam that she still can somewhat see. Slight wisps of grey hair peek out from beneath a scarf tied snugly about her head.
“You’re here to see the lady of the house,” she says by way of greeting, her voice reed thin, and opens the door a little wider, ushering them inside.
The inside hallway is dark, illuminated by a single dim bulb fitted into a reworked old gas light fixture at one end. Wiring runs along the baseboards of the hardwood flooring, an obvious indication that electricity was an afterthought in this house. The smell of old damp plaster clogs up Sam’s nose.
The woman turns her back, slowly leads them further into the house, and points to an entryway to a parlor that faces out onto the long green. “You can wait in here.”
It’s stifling in the room, not a hint of air moving through the large open windows, but even still Sam feels a shiver run down his spine.
“Because air conditioning was too much to ask for, I guess,” Dean says as he sits on a formal high backed chair, a small cloud of dust rising up from the upholstery. He coughs, waving a hand in front of his face.
Sam ignores him, and instead walks the perimeter of the room. Yellowed lace curtains hang at the windows, so ancient and fragile-looking that it seems like one small touch would send them crumbling. There’s a large oil painting adorning the back wall. An ornate gilded frame surrounds a picture of this house, perhaps painted when the place was first built, when it was new. Tin type photographs line up neatly on the opposite wall, a series of serious faces staring back at him in high necked collars and formal, straight poses, now washed out and colorless. Another shiver moves through him.
“Fathers, thank you for coming. I’m Cynthia.”
Sam startles some and turns around, donning his best sympathetic smile and walking over to the woman who’s greeting them.
She’s young, looks out of place, clothing too modern and metropolitan for her surroundings. Sam had been expecting some southern version of Miss Havisham, someone older, maybe a little decrepit. Her accent seems clipped, shortened, like she’s trying to hide some of the south in her voice.
Catching Dean’s appreciative stare, he tugs lightly at his brother’s shoulder as he crosses to room to greet her, his hand extended.
It’s an easy story, an angle they’ve used many times in the past. They’re specialists brought in by the local parish, after hearing word of the happenings in her home. They’re here to do a cleansing of the house in hopes of putting the spirits to rest.
“Thank you Stella,” Cynthia says when the woman who had greeted them places a tray with iced tea on the low table in front of them.
“It’s very Christian of you,” Dean pipes up, earning a doubtful glance from Stella and an exasperated one from his brother.
“How long has this been going on?” Sam asks.
“I wish I could tell you,” she shrugs, nervous fingers toying with the cuff of her sleeve. “I only recently inherited this land from my aunt. You hear the stories, you know. She used to talk about it sometimes, but I always thought…” She trails off for a moment before starting again. “I mean, we all have those relatives that we think are out of their mind, right? And everyone just sort of nods and plays along at family dinners and then laughs about it later.”
“We wouldn’t know,” Dean mutters, mostly to himself but Sam can hear him. It cuts, not a lot but some. Enough.
“How about the other woman,” Sam says. “Stella? Has she been here long? Do you think she knows anything?”
She smiles. “Stella was born here. She’s worked for my family her whole life, her parents before her. This place is as much hers as it is mine. Probably more.” She stands and crosses the room, takes a photo from a shelf and hands it to Sam as she sits back down. “That’s me.”
It’s a picture of a younger Stella, sitting in the same rocking chair where Cynthia now sits, an infant in a white baptism gown propped up in her lap. She looks much the same, the dark grey dress, the bright white apron, her scarf and her serious expression. The only exception is the set clear green eyes that look directly into the camera.
“Not too big on the chit-chat, is she?” Dean says.
“You could say that,” she laughs lightly and then continues, ”Anyway, the first few days I was here, I noticed things, like I’d put my keys down and go back later and they’d be somewhere else, or a door was closed and locked and I knew I didn’t do it, and neither did Stella. Only it’s gotten worse. I’ll walk into a room and it will be twenty degrees colder than the rest of the house, or I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and just know, for certain, that someone just walked out of my room and closed the door behind them. Then there are the voices.”
“Voices?” Dean asks, leaning forward some.
“Yes, children laughing, mostly. But there haven’t been any kids here for a very long time. And then there are the power surges, and sometimes the gas stove flares up.”
“What do you know about the history of this place, Cynthia?” Sam says. “Any deaths in the house or on the land? Anything violent?”
“Honey,” she replies, her southern accent spiking up some, “this place has been here for a long, long time. You name it, we got it.”
“Sounds like a classic case,” Dean says. “Our specialty. Nothing for you to worry about, just clear everybody out of here for a few days and we’ve got it covered.”
“Thank you,” Cynthia says.
“Before you leave,” Sam cuts in as they all rise from their seats, “I’ll need any archives you have on the house, maybe a map of the land, or surveys of the property. Any family records you have would be helpful, even if it’s only a family bible.”
“I can do better than that, Father. I’ll show you our library. We’re an old family, an old southern family. We never throw anything away.”
She leads them through the murky house, down another long hallway and past a heavy wooden door into a room with soft, comfortable looking chairs in the center and lined with built-in bookshelves, all filled to capacity. The overpowering smell of old books is heavy in the air, and it makes Sam a little nostalgic, thinking about the hours he spent in the libraries at school, researching court cases and precedents and constitutional theory mixed in with a healthy dose of postmodern literature. How simple things had been back then.
His heart sinks as he spins slowly in the center of the room, eyes sweeping over the shelves. He could spend a week in here and hardly even make a dent.
Dean claps him hard on the back, and Sam realizes that it’s the first time Dean has touched him since...just since, and Sam isn’t sure if it’s the thought that jars him or the impact of Dean’s hand.
“Looks like you’ve just died and gone to geek heaven,” Dean says.
“I hate you,” Sam mutters.
“I know you do.”
They sit on a side porch in low-slung wooden chairs. A stack of books rested between them on the table.
Dean takes a sip of sweet tea, the glass shiny and slippery from condensation. He pulls a face. “Would it have killed them to have a beer in the house? Fuck.”
“Take it easy, Father," Sam says absently, pouring over a detailed account of a land boundary dispute that happened around the turn of the nineteenth century.
“The priesthood requires celibacy, not temperance,” Dean points out.
“Yeah, ‘cause you sure got the market cornered on that.”
The screen door bangs open with a wiry sound, and Stella emerges, a heavy suitcase pulling one shoulder down. She’s swapped her grey dress for a flowered one of similar cut, her scarf for a wide-brimmed white straw hat. Her iron colored hair snakes down her back in a surprisingly long, thin braid.
“Here,” Sam says as he jumps up, “let me take that for you.”
“I’m fine,” she insists. “You’ve got enough on your hands.”
“The Lord’s work knows no end,” Dean intones.
Stella graces them with a small, knowing smile. “Dean, stop. I’m not buying it. Thank you, Sam,” Stella says, waving him off.
Sam trips backward a step, a short “Christo,” rolling quietly from his tongue.
Stella stops, drops her suitcase and plants her hands on her hips as she eyes him carefully. “Stop that too. I’m no demon.” She cackles softly as she shakes her head.
“Then how do you know who we are?” Sam asks, incredulous.
“I just know,” she explains, and the tone of her voice tells Sam that they aren’t going to get anywhere with that particular line of questioning.
“Not much of a talker, are you?” Dean says, slowly taking his hand away from the inside pocket of his dark jacket. Sam would bet his last twenty dollar bill that he’s carrying a stash of holy water. He hopes Dean hadn’t been about to empty a clip into the woman.
“Maybe you talk too much. People who talk too much don’t know how to listen.”
“But you do,” Sam urges, shooting out a cautionary hand toward his brother. “You listen.”
She only nods.
“But how do you know who we are?” Dean’s voice is low, aggressive, and Sam can see that every muscle in his brother’s body is wound up tight, hair-triggered, ready to spring.
“Like Sam said. I listen. They said that you were coming.”
“Who are they?” Dean demands.
“You already know who they are,” Stella replies.
“What else did they say?” Sam asks, a weird, almost academic curiosity blooming in him.
“That they’ve been waiting for you two.” She focuses her milky eyes on Dean. “They say you have secrets, boy. You too, Sam.”
Sam turns quickly toward his brother, a rock in his stomach dragging it down low and fast. His hands start to shake and his breath starts coming in all wrong, a huge, hollow ache building in his chest.
He watches as Dean’s expression goes momentarily shocked and then closes down fast. Carefully blank. Sam has seen it a million times, at poker tables, during bad arguments back in the day with their father, when he’s balls to the wall with some sort of nasty breathing down his neck. It’s his game face.
Sam knows he has to diffuse the situation, or his brother may decide to bury a clip into her after all. “Can you tell me who—or what—they are?”
“People,” Stella says simply. “Or they used to be. Maybe they still are. Who knows. I don’t ask questions.”
“Can you tell me why they’re still here?” Anything. Sam’s grasping at straws. “Did they tell you anything else? About us?”
“I think you shouldn’t ask so many questions either,” she replies, bending to pick up her suitcase once more and walking toward the stairs. A late-model sedan has pulled into the gravel driveway beside the house, the driver a middle aged man. He has Stella’s nose, and a similar shape around the mouth. She holds up one white gloved finger and smiles at him, and it melts years away from her face. “Maybe they’re here because they love this place,” Stella rubs a hand almost affectionately along the splintered railing and takes another step down. “Maybe they still have work to do.”
The sun is sinking, a fiery red glow above the horizon. Sam had wasted an hour in the library searching for some sort of index, a breakdown of what might be in there and where to find it, and had come up empty-handed. He did trip across an old surveyor’s map of the place, circa 1834, that showed the outbuildings and slave quarters, and dozens of other buildings that are no longer standing.
His laptop is a useless hunk of plastic and wiring. Dean had made the announcement that the house didn’t even have cable, here in the middle of god’s green nowhere, and Sam had already suspected that it was a little much to ask for reliable wifi. For his part, Dean had done a complete EMF scan once the house had emptied, from the damp cellar to the musty attic, and outside of the occasional blip caused by outdated electrical wiring, had gotten exactly zilch for his efforts.
Now Sam’s taken up residence on the porch again, the overhead fan beating sluggishly above him, pushing hot air around. He has a finger shoved between the pages and marking his place in an ancient, crumbling ledger, a former patriarch’s painstaking account of land grants, livestock counts and the purchase, sale and trade of human beings, all of it written out in thin spidery script with archaic spellings.
Before him, a field of corn, now dried and finished for the season spreads out in a gentle incline, a curving creek forming the far border, and beyond that is the squared off, sunken shape of abandoned rice fields. Dean is a tiny figure in the distance, cutting a path through the center of it. He’d traded his clerical clothing for a black t-shirt and jeans, and even this far away Sam knows they’re his favorite ones, washed so many times that they’re soft as silk, a hole in the back pocket where the corner of his wallet always pokes through. He’s got his back to Sam, arms held out and palms skipping over the tops of the broken stalks.
And of course it had to be cornfields. Of course. Sam had read exactly one Stephen King novel from cover to cover before he gave them up, werewolves and pyrokenetics and demon dogs hitting a little too close to home. That one book has left him with a sort of abiding paranoia about cornfields, one that has the hair standing up on the back of his neck and makes him irrationally paranoid.
They’re biding their time. So far, the house has been quiet, peaceful, and Sam’s starting to wonder whether there’s anything up with this place at all that a bit of forgetfulness and a sense of creepy, generalized foreboding can’t explain away. They’ve got a borrowed grimoire from Bobby’s bookshelf in the trunk of the car, and enough wormwood and clover to cobble together a summoning ritual if push comes to shove.
Sunset isn’t for half an hour at least, so Sam abandons his reading, stretches massively as he stumbles down the stairs. He follows a twisting gravel walkway between a barn and a corn crib, past a ramshackle and long abandoned chicken coop to another path, skinny, muddy wheel ruts with thick grass growing between them, lined with stately oak trees, evenly spaced apart.
A path branches off to the left, and as Sam follows that, the temperature drops significantly under the wide tree limbs, but the air becomes more humid, swampy, makes his t-shirt stick to his back and hang damp on his shoulders. The raspy buzz of insects increases, droning and loud and setting Sam’s teeth on edge.
A low iron fence surrounds an old family graveyard, and Sam trails it until he finds the gate, a heavy thing that screeches when he opens it. The grounds are well kept, unlike the rest of the place. Underbrush and fallen leaves have been cleared. Someone takes care of this place, and Sam feels a stab of irritation that he didn't question the owner more extensively.
Tombstones rise up out of the ground like crooked teeth. Most are unreadable, faint etchings worn by the weather or taken over with a yellowish moss. The ones that Sam can read bear scripture and misspelled epitaphs. Small obelisks have been reserved for the pillars of the family, James Whithers who had been gifted the initial land grant to the place, his wife resting beside him. Sam dodges simple marble plaques inset into the ground, several children, some named and some not, some of them a day old.
A huge willow tree grows in the corner, and beneath it a bench that overlooks an above-ground grave, the slab of marble covering it cracked down the center and sitting canted on its base. Sam ambles over to it out of professional curiosity, his steps sinking into the soft ground, hunkers down and tries to get a look inside. The name and dates are long gone, the slab scored and pockmarked from the elements. The interior of the grave is clogged with leaves. Sam’s considering heading back to the house for a flashlight when he hears a rustle behind him.
"Don't listen to her. She holds congress with the devil. I’ve seen it."
The voice is definite, so authoritative that it sends a shiver down Sam's spine and for a moment he thinks he's going to turn around and impossibly look right into the eyes of his father. He spins slowly, scanning the shadows for the source.
A man steps out from behind the willow. At first he looks normal, and Sam thinks he must be the groundskeeper, or maybe some migrant worker that didn't get the message to vacate for the next couple of days. But then he steps into a slant of sunlight, and Sam can see different. He's a member of the planter elite, straight out of some history book, a cravat tied tightly around his neck, shiny black top hat in one hand. He's wearing a waistcoat, sleeves billowing out with lace at the cuffs. His boots are almost knee-high, made of soft-looking leather and turned down at the tops. It's the most corporeal spirit that Sam has ever seen, the light doesn't pass through him so much as sinks into him and gets trapped.
He's continuing to speak, but it doesn't seem as if he's addressing Sam directly, more like he's talking past him. There’s something familiar about him, though. His round face and his small, close set eyes spark some small tickle in Sam’s memory.
"She comes here at night. Three separate times I've seen her."
The air around him crackles with ozone, feels like a thunderstorm about to happen. Slowly, Sam reaches to the small of his back for the Glock he knows isn’t there, because of course he’s left it in the trunk, right beside the rock salt and the shotgun, the holy water and the fire poker that Sam had stolen the last time they’d worked a gig like this because he’d liked the way it felt in his hand, along with everything else that might be even remotely useful right now. There's not a lick of iron within arm’s reach that isn't buried in the ground, and the closest thing Sam has to a weapon is the penknife in his front pocket. And of course Sam’s small motion has drawn the attention of the ghost, a sharp stare from it and a wave of pure malevolence that crashes over him and makes his stomach twist, forces the hair on the back of his neck to stand up. Of course he’s unarmed and of course he’s by himself and of course he’s backed into a corner with the ghost blocking the only exit, and now Sam’s trying to think his way out of a series of rookie mistakes like it’s his first day on the job.
Sam’s never gonna hear the end of it from his brother, and that’s probably the worst part of the whole rotten deal.
He takes a slow step backward. Sam says, "Who? What's her name? What's your name?"
“It’s you,” the ghost snarls, shoots a hand in Sam's direction, and in a blink, Sam's wondering how the ground managed to rise up to meet him so fast. All the air is knocked out of his lungs, and he's left wheezing, struggling to get to his feet and squinting, trying to clear away the dots of light that crowd the edges of his vision.
“Why do I keep getting the feeling that everyone in this place knows something I don’t?” Sam asks, hoping that it’s enough of a distraction for him to make a break for the gate, and now the ghost is staring weirdly at him with his head cocked to the side, like a dog that’s just heard a high pitched whistle.
Without a thought, Sam drops back down to the ground in a hardwired response. His ears fill with a shotgun blast and then he's tasting salt, powdery on his tongue. Before him, the ghost scatters with a sound like a thunderclap, and air rushes in to fill the void.
Dean dashes toward him, drops the shotgun, skids to his knees and comes to a stop just a few inches from Sam. His face is pale, eyes so wide the whites are showing all around. He bends down low over him, yanks Sam to a sitting position by the front of his shirt.
"You okay?" he says with an undercurrent of panic, and that's strange. It's just a ghost. It's not anything they haven't seen a hundred times before. Dean takes his face in his hands, swipes his thumbs along the hollows beneath Sam's eyes, and Sam reaches up to circle his wrist, Dean's pulse too fast, banging against his fingertips.
"Yeah," Sam croaks, breathless. He licks his lips, tries again. "Yeah. I'm okay. You okay?"
Dean rests back on his haunches, shakes his head like he's trying to clear it, like he’s just woken up. "I--I'm good."
"Guess it's not a hoax," Sam says, matter-of-fact, wiping his hands on his thighs.
"Guess not." Dean’s quiet, oddly distracted. He pushes himself to his feet, offers a hand to help Sam up. "I thought I saw…” He’s staring into the middle distance, at a point beyond Sam’s shoulder.
“What?” Sam jokes. “A ghost?”
“Nevermind.” Dean waves his hand, dismissive. “You shouldn't have come here by yourself."
"Obviously," Sam says, steels himself for the backlash and is surprised when it doesn’t hit.
“Huh,” Dean says, “the guy didn’t age too well.”
They’re standing shoulder to shoulder in the upstairs hallway, the solemn form of a much younger and much more alive John Whithers in napoleonic pose immortalized in oil and canvas and hanging on the wall in front of them, some distant rabbit’s relation of the man who built the place.
Sam’s looking through an old album that he’d dug up from the bottom of his stack, leatherbound and heavy, paging past deeds of sale, death certificates and marriage licenses, someone’s painstaking attempt at archiving the family history. “It looks like he took over care and feeding of the plantation in the mid-1830’s,” Sam says. “He also seemed to share his cousin’s penchant for buying up surrounding property and importing wives from the western Caribbean.”
Dean raises his eyebrows, peers at the pages as Sam flips through them. “Hell of a track record,” Dean observes, his tone dry.
“The first two died in childbirth.”
“What about the kids?” Dean asks.
“Doesn’t say,” Sam tells him. “The older he got, the younger the women were.”
“I don’t like him.”
“Looks like--” Sam starts, but is interrupted by a huge crash from the attic above that sends a shower of plaster dust from the ceiling. A door slams somewhere on the lower level, and the thump thump thump of heavy boots echoes in one of the back bedrooms. The painting falls from the wall with enough force to splinter the frame, but Sam and Dean stand their ground. Until one of them is in danger, it’s just another day at the office.
“Here’s Johnny,” Dean says. His grin is wide and white in the murk of the hallway, his eyes very bright, and he looks like he’s a second away from rubbing his hands together, greedy and gleeful, a pyromaniac with a tank of gas and a full book of matches.
“Not very creative,” Sam mutters, trying to cover up his answering grin.
“Me or him?” Dean asks, digs an elbow into Sam’s side and almost makes him drop the album.
“Both of you,” Sam replies, and then in a louder voice, measured and exasperated and addressing the house at large, “I’m trying to read.”
“Save it for later,” Dean tells him, and slides past Sam toward the stairs, and Sam has to jog a few paces to catch up. “All I needed was a name.”
Sam’s intimately acquainted with every incarnation of his brother, from the soft, sleepy version that stumbles into their hotel room in the morning with egg sandwiches tucked into the crook of his arm and coffee made exactly right, to the grim and determined one, pulling family and strangers alike out of burning buildings both literal and figurative. He’s seen Dean hurt, pissed, or cool and calculating, and has to say that this right here is his favorite one. Confident, full of violent energy barely contained beneath his skin and spoiling for a fight.
It’s contagious, and Sam’s entirely infected long before he leans into the trunk of the Impala, a stubborn, stupid, lovestruck smile on his face Dean can choose to interpret anyway he wants to, and it doesn’t even go away when Dean informs him that it’s his turn to dig.
“I don’t think they liked him very much either.” Dean uses the shotgun for balance as he squats at the edge of the grave, scuffed up toes of his boots at eye-level as Sam finishes cracking open the rotted coffin. He’s flicking his lighter open and closed with his thumb in an impatient, nervous tic.
The pervasive heat and damp have done a job on the body, yellowed bones resting on a bed of tattered clothing, the coffin full of cloudy mold that makes Sam start to think of Howard Carter and mummy’s curses. A pair of gold-rimmed spectacles glint from between his ribs, so do the brass boot buckles from where his feet used to be, and Sam sees another glimmer, closer to the skull.
“Gimme a light,” Sam says, and starts to think that something’s really spooked Dean, or perhaps he’s just feeling particularly charitable when he passes up the perfect chance to shine it directly into Sam’s eyes. The beam lands on a rough-hewn mud brick that disintegrates as soon as Sam touches it, leaving behind a handful of iron nails and pins, irregularly shaped copper coins, buttons and beads the color of pale turquoise.
“Someone really didn’t like him,” Dean says, and rummages around in his duffle to hand Sam a rag. It’s greasy, smells like gasoline but Sam gathers the contents of the brick into it and ties it up tight, tosses it to Dean who bounces it in the palm of his hand, testing its weight before shoving it in his back pocket. They both know better than to add fire to unfamiliar spellwork.
“It doesn’t add up. All of that stuff if usually used for protection. It’s not a hex.” Sam’s looking up at his brother, his view of the rest of the world eclipsed by him, which might be true most of the time, but right now it’s actually physical.
“It doesn’t need to,” Dean says, starts to get to his feet when Sam catches movement in his periphery.
Before he can even open his mouth to shout a warning, the form of Whithers flickers behind Dean, a wicked snarl on his face as he wrenches at Dean’s shoulders then shoves him forward. There’s an awful crack and a low moan as Dean’s forehead connects solidly with the handle of the shovel, a slick smudge of blood coursing down Dean’s temple that he doesn’t bother to wipe away.
Sam gets trapped under the squirming mass of his brother, all knees and sharp elbows, and at any other time this might be funny, pure slapstick comedy, the Three Stooges go ghost hunting except there’s only two of them, and it appears more like the ghost is hunting them than the other way around. He takes an elbow to the jaw that sends him reeling into the wall of the grave, a mouthful of dirt and Dean just came frighteningly close to kneeing him in the balls, and it’s a long five seconds before Sam can figure out which feet are his and which belong to Dean.
The spirit is yammering away from above, words that are snatched up by the gathering wind and drowned out by Dean’s grunts and foul-mouthed litany, but Sam catches something about sin and trying to walk a righteous path, and how they’re getting it wrong, all wrong, at least until Sam’s hands land on Dean’s sawed-off and he shoots the thing full of rocksalt.
Sam scrambles out of the grave and pulls Dean to the surface. Dean’s squinting through the blood in his eye but his hands are steady on the shotgun, shoulders notched against Sam’s as he covers him. The smell of salt and accelerant and Sam can feel every shotgun blast, every recoil along his spine, hears the click when Dean reloads. The wind whips his hair into his eyes, makes his shirt feel damp and cold against his skin and the first two matches he lights fizzle out.
On the opposite side of the grave, a snaking shadow coalesces into Whithers, any traces of malice gone and replaced with a sort of abiding mournfulness that Sam feels sink into him, all the way to his bones.
“They were good boys, once,” he says. “Before they became twisted. You still have a chance.” He looks in the direction of his house, removes his hat and straightens his posture. “Do it, if you must, but you’ll regret it.”
“It’ll be a drop in the ocean,” Sam says, finally gets a match lit and throws it in.
“Looks like someone’s thrown a hell of a party,” Dean says, freezing in the entranceway to the house and dropping their gear onto the floor.
The place is wrecked, broken glass on the floor and a thin layer of dust covering everything. There’s a crack in the hallway that shows the bones of the wall underneath, the plaster buckled as if it’s on the brink of collapsing under its own weight. Every photo in the parlor has been knocked down, and the curtains are tattered, hanging like old, dusty cobwebs.
In the kitchen it’s worse. All the cabinets have been thrown open, dishes and silverware scattered everywhere. The table has been upended and thrown into the corner like it’s nothing, and most of the rickety chairs have been reduced to firewood.
Cutting through the dust are strange black handprints all over the floor in varying sizes, starting at the kitchen door and winding around to the arched opening to the dining room. Sam scrapes some of the gunk up with his pocket knife. It’s sticky, like molasses.
“Where are the footprints?” Dean asks, swipes a palm over his forehead and smears the blood there. The knock to the head must have rung his bell harder than he’d let on. He’s dazed, swaying slightly in the middle of the wreckage, feet spread wide and arms hanging limp at his sides.
“I don’t think I wanna know,” Sam replies. He sets the heavy kitchen table to rights, finds a couple of chairs that are only marginally wobbly and presses Dean down into one of them. Most of the lamps in the house have been smashed, and the ones that haven’t been are on the fritz, blinking on and off. Nothing happens when Sam flicks the light switch, so he digs around in the pantry until he comes up with some clean dish towels and a battery powered lantern. The light is cold, makes Dean’s skin look ghost-pale and the streaks of blood on his temple black.
Sam levels his attention on a raw scrape on the inside of Dean’s forearm, concentrates on wiping away the grit because he doesn’t quite trust himself to look Dean in the eye right now. He’s tired, worn down, can’t get over the hunch that he’s missing something hugely significant. All of his built-in safeguards seem paper-thin, and it only gets worse when Dean curls his fingers against Sam’s wrist.
“Sam?” Dean says.
Sam hums, puts a question mark at the end of it. When Dean doesn’t answer, he looks up, finds that Dean’s leaned in close, his face only inches away. He can feel Dean’s breath on his lips, can see each individual eyelash, laugh lines branching out from his eyes and frown lines around his mouth, and all of them appear deeper from the caked on grime and blood. Dean isn’t a young man anymore, but then again, neither is he. He’s still Sam’s whole wide world, and he’s still beautiful. That never changes.
“What was all that about? The drop in the ocean?”
Sam’s stomach sinks. It had been a slip, and one that he’d been hoping Dean didn’t register, but Sam’s luck never has run that way. “It’s nothing,” Sam insists, and hopes Dean picks up on his flat tone, the one that says case-closed, nothing to see here.
Dean nods once, pushes himself from the table and crosses to the sink. He douses his face, wipes at it and makes the cut start to leak watered-down blood again, the skin around it the pink color of a nascent bruise. Sam cleans it up, gets a bandage over the cut, and now he’s got Dean’s blood on his hand, filling in the whorls of his thumbprint, his lifeline and heartline and his line of fate. Sam believes in palm reading about as much as he believes in Santa Claus, decides that it’s gotta be the house, the oppressive weight of it all around them that has him seeing omens everywhere.
Dean opens his mouth to say something, but never gets the chance. An enormous crash comes from above and the entire house shudders, new cracks in the plaster creep across the ceiling and sends the ancient light fixture clashing to the floor.
“This place,” Dean mumbles. “It’s like the gift that keeps on giving.” He plucks at Sam’s shirt. “C’mon.”
They take the stairs two at a time, and Sam skids to a stop when he sees the hallway. It’s normal. Sure, the painting is still splintered at the end of the hall, all the right angles still knocked out of whack, and there are new footprints and handprints marked out in the dust covering the floor, but Sam had been sure that he’d come up here to find a cave-in.
“I’ll take the rooms on the left,” he tells Dean in a harsh whisper, who responds with a short nod, already slipping through the closest door on the right.
The first room is a nursery that hasn’t been used in decades. Dust and cobwebs clog a spindly-looking, ornately carved crib, and what looks to be a high-backed rocking chair is shrouded under a pale sheet. Sam wonders about Cynthia’s aunt, growing old in this enormous tinderbox of a house, childless with a fully set up nursery sitting untouched on the second floor, and wonders why she never did anything about it.
“This place,” Dean starts from close behind him, and Sam jumps, very badly on edge. “You can’t own a place like this.” Dean’s hand finds Sam’s shoulder, fingers pressing in, thumb skidding along Sam’s neck with a shock like static electricity. Dean’s breath is warm on Sam’s skin, tickles some and makes him shiver. So does the feel of Dean slotting in behind him, his chest solid and steady along Sam’s back. “This is the sort of place that owns you.”
Sam blinks, and in an instant thinks he sees the room transformed, gleaming wooden floors and two white wicker bassinets sitting side by side, bright sunlight pouring in through the dormer windows, and a woman, or perhaps the shadow of a woman leaning over the crib. Sam blinks again, trying to clear his sight, but it stubbornly remains there in a vague overlay, like trying to see into the distance through a pane of dirty glass, cracked and warped at the edges.
“Twins,” Sam whispers and something flits across his memory but doesn’t stick around. “I can’t remember…”
“Don’t think about that,” Dean urges as he opens his mouth on the back of Sam’s neck and splays his fingers on Sam’s lower stomach, the movement easy and intimate, as if he knew that Sam would lean into him, tip his head to the side to give him more room, cover Dean’s hand with his own, every move complete before Sam has time to plan it out or think about it too much. Effect and cause as opposed to the other way around. “I’m here.” Dean goes on. “I’m with you now.”
Sam’s not sure how he got to this spot, backed into the corner of the hall with Dean’s hands planted on the wall to either side of his head, hemming Sam in. Dean’s grinning up at him, a smile that says he’s about to hand over everything that Sam’s ever wanted and he’s gonna put it on a silver platter first. He’s also not sure when the rain began, hissing against the slate roof like it wants to tell them a secret, and he’s not sure how his arms looped around Dean’s neck, how his hands tangled themselves in Dean’s hair, but they’re there now, and he’s not gonna let go.
Dean buries his face in Sam’s throat, nuzzles along Sam’s jaw, pushes and pulls at his hips to line them up just right, then yanks him down and brings them both to their knees anyway. And there’s something so perfect about that, something poetic and fitting about kneeling in the dust here with Dean, in the middle of a torn up wreck of a haunted house, a mixed up, overwhelming sensation building in his chest that’s not entirely unlike drowning.
Dean takes Sam’s face in his hands, swipes his thumbs in the hollows beneath Sam’s eyes. When he speaks, it’s broken, halting. “I’m so sorry. Sorry it took me so long. I’ll always come back to you. I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. Don’t,” Sam presses. He wants Dean to see. Dean’s so close, so close after all this time and all this waiting, and he has to see. “You’re my brother,” Sam says simply, “I’m always gonna forgive you.”
“Yeah?” Dean says, and it comes out as a breathy sigh. His whole body strains toward Sam, tension in the thick muscles of his thighs, the strict line of his shoulders. He flicks his tongue along his bottom lip for a split second, gives Sam a treacherous smile and kisses him. It’s deep and dirty right out of the starting gate, Dean’s teeth digging into Sam’s lip, tongue slick and curling against his own. Sam’s mind stutters to a halt and his stupid, reckless heart bangs wildly in his chest and all he can do is hold on, unbelieving, as Dean moves against him, grinds their hips together with desperate little hitches.
Sam reaches around, slips his hands in the back pockets of Dean’s jeans, intent on snugging him in closer, holding him tighter, somehow crawling inside of his skin. His fingers skip across the bundled up spellwork still in Dean’s pocket, close around it and there’s a flash of heat, searing into his palm as if Sam’s just slapped a lit burner. A concussive blast of air pushes at them, a thunderclap contained in the minute space between them that shoves them apart and slams them into the wall. Sam opens his eyes in time to see the transparent shape of a man, just a kid really, pale skin and dark hair, both arms flung out and reaching for them as he’s pulled away by some unseen force toward the stairway at breakneck speed.
Sam realizes he’s clutching the bundle, its heat rapidly dissipating, and he drops it with a lurch. He expects to find a mass of burns and blisters, but instead gapes at his palm, smooth and unmutilated, etched with Dean’s blood.
“It wasn’t me,” Dean says. “I mean, I could see you, but it was like…” He trails off, breathless, chest heaving, his mouth twisted in disgust.
“Like looking through dirty glass,” Sam finishes for him.
Dean nods. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” Sam tells him, and in a life that’s been lousy with deceit and subterfuge, this is the biggest lie yet. “You alright?”
“Listen, Sam. I’m thirty seconds past the most unforgivable thing I’ve ever done. I am definitely not alright.” Dean’s still crumpled in the corner, bright spots of color on his cheeks. His mouth is swollen and Sam can still taste him and his fingers are still tangled in the hem of Sam’s shirt. He hasn’t let go yet and please, for the love of god, let that mean something. It has to mean something.
“We gotta get outta here,” Dean says, and wipes a shaking hand over his eyes.
Sam’s heard this line before. “We’re in the middle of a hunt,” he says, and doesn’t like the pleading sound of his own voice. “You’ve never given up in the middle of a hunt.”
Dean lets go of his shirt then, shoots him a dark look. Sam’s throat starts to close down fast, like he’s just swallowed a canonball.
“And I’ve never fucked around with my kid brother before either,” Dean snaps. “There’s a first time for everything.” He pushes himself to his feet, paces a few steps away then circles back around. He scratches at his scalp, the back of his neck, drags a finger back and forth across his mouth, pent-up anxious energy coming out in bursts. He forces himself to stop and pulls in a deep breath, lets it out nice and slow. Offering Sam a hand up, he says, “I’m sorry, Sammy. I shoulda figured it out. I--I shoulda known.”
“It’s not your fault.” Sam’s reply is automatic, although it kills him to say it. There are two ways this can play out with his brother. Dean’s gonna either start with rampant alcoholism followed swiftly by righteous outrage, or it’s gonna be the other way around. Sam holds his breath, waits to find out which one it’ll be.
“Yeah, well,” Dean says, and he’s back to not looking Sam in the eye. “Do you wanna get this sonofabitch? Because I really wanna get this sonofabitch. Work the case, Sam. We’ll deal with the rest of it later.” Turning on a heel, he mutters, “He took something from me.”
Sam doesn’t question it, happy that at least they’re going with option number two. He simply starts down the stairs, gets half-way down them before he hears a quiet, sing-song voice. A nervous chuckle slaps into him out of nowhere, and he has to clamp a hand over his mouth to keep himself quiet when Dean turns to him with an expression that’s almost comically tragic and silently mouths, Really?
There’s a woman in the dining room, dressed in the uniform of a house servant, crisp white apron and a bonnet covering her head. Smashed china is scattered across the floor and she’s kneeling in the middle of it, in front of the cold hearth, sweeping ashes that aren’t actually there into a tin dustbin. She turns to them, and her eyes are a startling shade of light green, staring out at them from a face the color of dark, rich earth.
“I see you’ve met Anthony,” she says to them, smoothing down her dress as she straightens. “Andrew was always the more shy of the two.” Her voice is deep, carries a slight accent that Sam can’t put his finger on. Whithers was the most solid manifestation that Sam had ever seen, but this woman has him beat by about a mile. Even her breath is visible as she speaks, small puffs of crystalline air.
“What do you know about them?” Dean demands. His fists are clenched at his sides. He’s holding back, but only barely.
“They were good boys, deserved better than what they got. Deserved a better mother.” She blinks out, reappears in the doorway and beckons them to follow her with a nod.
“This fucking job,” Dean sneers.
The follow her into the parlor, to a corner where most of the tin-types have fallen to the floor. She points at a couple of them with a slender finger. One of them depicts a young woman wearing a heavy, high necked dress with two young boys standing serious and solemn in front of her. The other is the same woman alone, a little older and a lot more disheveled, stray wisps of hair falling over her face and a strange, faraway look in her eyes.
“Those kids look thrilled to be there,” Dean observes, then cocks his head. “Wait a minute. I’ve seen her before.”
“I think I read about her in the archive. She--” Sam starts.
“No,” Dean cuts in, “I’ve actually seen her. Earlier today in the graveyard.” He hikes a thumb in Sam’s direction. “When you were making friends with the old man.”
Those few hours seem like a lifetime ago. “Maybe he wasn’t after me,” Sam muses. “Maybe he was after her all along.”
“That’s a pretty big leap,” Dean points out.
“It’s one I’m willing to make.” Sam chews on his bottom lip, a few pieces of the puzzle clicking into place. “She was Whither’s fourth wife. Josephine, I think?”
The ghost hisses a warning and grips Sam’s wrist. “It’s best if you don’t say her name,” she says, her gaze shifting around the room. Sam shivers and pulls his arm back fast from her touch, so cold that it burns, like handcuffs made of dry ice. There’s a sound behind the walls, a low scrabbling that grows louder and closer before it abruptly stops.
“She had a disease in her blood,” she continues. “They say it went to her brain, and when the children were born, it got worse. One was born with a caul and the other was breech. She thought they were cursed right from the start, but if those boys ever carried a curse, it was one she made for them. For days she’d keep them locked in an old foreman’s shack beyond the rice fields because she couldn’t stand the sound of them crying, but she never did anything to make them stop.”
“What happened to them?” Sam asks.
“One night, their mother made them supper,” she replies. “It was the only meal she ever made for them.”
“Poison,” Dean says. It isn’t a question.
The ghost straightens to her full height, shoulders back and chin set at a proud angle. “I used to bring them their food. I held them. I took care of them, as much as I could. I knew everything there was to know about those boys, the good and the bad, and I loved them like they were my own. Their mother used to say that god made a mistake when he created them, but they loved each other, and that can never be a mistake.”
“Where is she buried?” Sam asks.
“They took her back home after she died. She’s not here, but find her boys, and you’ll find her.”
“You’d think they woulda knocked it down by now.” Sam’s drenched, teeth chattering, stringy wet hair dripping into his eyes. His boots squelch with every step and if he stands still for too long, he starts sinking into the sodden ground.
“People don’t like to clean up their own messes,” Dean says as he swipes a hand across his face and flicks the water away. It’s futile, the roof on the shack is more holes than anything else, little more than a clapboard shack even in its heyday.
“That’s why they pay us the big bucks.” Sam smirks, and he’s not sure what it says about them that they are still cracking jokes at each other in the middle of this whole rotten mess.
“Yahtzee.” Dean’s grin falters as he shines the flashlight around the interior of the hovel, the light stopping on a set of iron manacles bracketed to a post along the wall. “Fuck, Sammy.”
Sam had been thirteen the first time he took out a werewolf. He remembers watching the man they were hunting turn into a monster, remembers the wrist-shattering recoil of the gun, and biting the inside of his cheek to try and stop himself from crying. He also remembers his father’s sympathetic smile as he clapped Sam on the shoulder, congratulated him on the clean kill and told him that the only way to make it through it was to get the job done and cry about it later. It’s a neat trick. Their dad was always good at it. Sam never has been.
“The only thing they had was each other,” Dean says, leaning toward Sam a fraction as Sam comes up to stand close beside him. “No wonder.”
“Yeah. No wonder.”
The grave is shallow, but Sam’s back still feels broken by the time they’ve made it two feet down into the damp earth, spine cracking and shoulders on fire with each shovelful. Without a word, Sam kneels by the grave across from his brother and together they remove the last few inches of dirt from the grave by hand.
Care had been taken with the the bodies. They’d been arranged facing each other, foreheads pressed side-by-side and hands clasped together in front of their hearts.
The temperature drops as Sam gets to his feet, his breath fanning out in front of him. Frigid fingers touch the back of his neck and he spins to find one of the boys looking up at him, close enough that Sam can feel the cold radiating off of his form. The kid is thin, the skin stretched tightly across his gaunt face and wrists and ankles so skinny that it seems like a stiff breeze could shatter them, but his smile is full, and only grows broader when he holds out his hand and his brother appears beside him.
“We waited for you,” they say in unison. “We knew you’d listen.”
“Sam,” Dean says in a warning tone.
“It’s okay,” Sam assures him.
“You might want to rethink your definition of okay,” Dean says. “You also might want to look up.”
A woman’s crouching above the crooked doorway. Her dress seems like it’s made of smoke and there’s a strange fire behind her eyes, a poisonous tint to her skin. She opens her mouth and screams as she lunges downward, her mouth opening impossibly wide as the scream grows louder, so loud that Sam thinks the fillings in his back teeth might rattle loose at any moment.
Sam staggers backward, all but falls into the solid mass of his brother as the scene before him plays out in a blur. The twins stand in her path, appearing and disappearing and implacably blocking her as she twists and turns, tendrils of smoke from her dress wrapping around the arms and legs of her children.
Dean presses the shotgun into his hands, but Sam can’t get a clear shot and anyway, he has a hunch that rocksalt might be a little like bringing a knife into a gunfight. Dean’s saying something, shooting up a prayer that the bones are dry enough to burn and then Sam’s transfixed, watching as the twins trap their mother inside the circle of their arms and flare up brighter than a bonfire.
The fire is hot and getting hotter, and Dean hauls him toward the doorway by the back of his shirt.
“Mighta gone a little overboard on the gas,” he says, right into Sam’s ear once he’s dragged him a decent distance away. “The whole place is gonna blow.” He keeps his hand on Sam’s back, rubs his knuckles in a slow, absent line above the collar of Sam’s t-shirt.
It doesn’t blow up so much as collapse in on itself. Dean makes a disappointed sound, and Sam can’t stop stealing glances at his brother, nailed down by the vital color of his skin from the fire, the graceful arch of his neck and the shape of his smile.
Sam kicks at the straw covering the floor of the barn and dodges a shallow coal-fire pit. The dust from the straw tickles at Sam’s nose, and the place smells of old fires and tobacco, but it’s dry and there is plenty of room to stretch out between the curing racks. Neither of them wants to step foot into that house again, and it sure beats shoehorning themselves into the car.
The rain has slacked off so they leave the wide doors thrown open to catch the muggy breeze. It’s late, or early--depending on who you ask--and the false dawn is just starting to touch the sky, a vague, lighter blue to the east that eats up the stars.
“We’ve slept in worse. At least the roof’s not leaking.”
“Sure thing, Suzie Sunshine,” Dean says. He walks the perimeter of the barn, riding off the dregs of his adrenaline boost, comes to a stop a few feet away from Sam. Dean can recite the entirety of Ivanhoe with a single glance, a sort of brother-speak that has been refined and perfected from decades of living only a few feet away from each other, but the look he’s giving Sam now is shuttered, absolutely unreadable.
“What you said before,” Sam starts. He chews on his lower lip for a moment before trying again, can’t shake the feeling that he’s about to charge full-tilt into a broken heart. “What did he take from you?”
Dean regards him for the longest time, shakes his head and gives Sam the smallest smile. “He took the only chance I ever had of getting it right.”
“Fuck, dude. You’re the smartest guy I know. Put a brain to work.” He takes a step toward Sam, curls his hand slow and deliberate around the back of Sam’s neck then pulls him down. “Are you with me?”
“Yeah. Yes,” Sam breathes. “I have been all along.”
Dean presses their mouths together, and it’s different than before, so soft and gentle and heart-stoppingly sincere. Something huge breaks free in Sam’s chest, some sort of weight that he’s been carrying for so long that he hardly even notices it anymore. Sam’s blood forms a deafening rush in his ears, he can’t quite feel his feet and can hardly think past the slip of Dean’s mouth against his, the roughness of Dean’s palms as he gets his hands beneath his shirt, the perfect weight of Dean’s body pressing him down to the ground.
“I always thought it was me,” Dean says, mouth moving up the column of Sam’s throat. “And then you…” He stops, and the scrape of his teeth along Sam’s jaw makes Sam buck up beneath him, widen his knees to give Dean more room to move. Sam gathers him up, cups his face in his hand and runs his thumb along Dean’s cheek to feel the rasp of it, trace the familiar curve of his cheekbone and touch the dip beneath his bottom lip before kissing him again.
A small part of Sam is still afraid of the fallout, that any second now Dean will suffer a shot of clarity, that whatever lingering trace of adrenaline or influence he’s under will wear off. But all those thoughts are quickly rendered small and insignificant as Dean slides down the length of his body and makes a place for himself between Sam’s thighs.
“Last chance,” Dean says, skating his palm up and down the hard ridge of Sam’s cock.
Sam can’t look away from his brother. Truthfully, he never really has been able to. “That last chance flew by me a decade ago. Probably longer than that.”
“Then we’ve wasted enough time,” Dean says, voice pitched low, shaking a little. He snaps open Sam’s jeans and pushes them down, just enough to pull his cock free then takes Sam into his mouth, soft lips snugged tight around the head as he laps at Sam’s slit. It’s sloppy, wet, a little heavy on the teeth every time Dean tries to take him down a bit too far, but the press of Dean’s tongue on the underside is exactly right. So is the way he spreads his palm wide and possessive on Sam’s lower stomach, how he digs his nails in when Sam begins to squirm.
“C’mere,” Sam pants, scrambling for a grip on Dean’s upper arms. He wants Dean’s weight on top of him again, wants to feel the press of his chest against his own. More than anything else, he wants to kiss his brother again. He never wants to stop.
Sam’s desperation is making him clumsy, fumbling to touch every inch of Dean’s skin that he can reach. It’s awkward and the angle is for shit as Sam slips his hand between them, mentally cursing Dean’s preference for jeans that actually fit him, pushes and pulls until he gets Dean’s cock free. It’s warm, damp with precome and heavy in his hand, and it feels like a goddamn miracle when Dean lines them up, threads his fingers alongside Sam’s and thrusts into their hands, a rolling, grinding rhythm that gets Sam off so hard and so fast. Two sharp stabs of his hips and Sam comes like a shot, face buried in the crook of Dean’s neck. He’s still shaking through the aftershocks, breathless and woozy as Dean goes rigid and shudders through his orgasm, sighing out Sam’s name.
Dean rolls off of him, panting and shivery, lets out an explosive breath that sounds very loud in the early morning stillness. Sam’s got Dean’s spunk and his own cooling on his stomach, soaking into his boxers, sticky on his hands, and he’s waiting for everything to start getting weird.
Instead, Dean turns to his side and pulls Sam in. He tangles their legs, does the same with their fingers, and presses their foreheads together. When he speaks, his voice is sure and steady. “It’s not a mistake.”
Sam grins. “It never has been.”
Thanks for reading.