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Culpability

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Ever since Dean told him the truth about what’s out there, Sam’s heard the same story about his mother’s death. Dad passed out in front of the TV until he hears Mom scream, and he runs but he doesn’t see her until the blood drips down onto his hands. And then there she is, pinned like a butterfly to the ceiling, a gash across her stomach. Before he can move, the fire opens up behind her like the freaking entrance to hell.

The night Dad first sat him down in the motel room kitchenette and gave it to him straight, Sam had nightmares so bad he woke Dean up with his thrashing. In his mind he saw her pretty and young, like in that one picture of just her and Dad he snuck a glance of in Dad’s journal once, and in his dream she was crying something awful. Help, she cried in his dream, help me, Sam, but he couldn’t reach her, and when Dean shook him awake he was crying too.

But Sam’s thirteen now, not eight, and he hasn’t cried for his mother in a long time. In fact, he knows better than to even mention her. They only talk about Mary when John brings her up, and unless he’s drunk enough to reminisce, they only really talk about her death. Sometimes, when there are no other cases to be found, they’ll head to some big university library and hope to catch a lead on what could’ve killed her. They never get any real leads, not good ones anyway, but they go over the same evidence every time: immobility, gash across the stomach, fire, and the ceiling. And even though he doesn’t have the nightmares anymore, the images often circle in his mind before he goes to sleep. He would bet it’s the same for Dean and Dad, too.

They’re living in a crappy trailer in the Atlanta outskirts right now. They’ve been here a couple months, long enough for Sam to have made some real friends for a change. Good friends, too, not just people he puts up with so he won’t have to sit alone at lunch. He’s got boys he plays soccer with after school while he waits for Dean to get out of high school and swing by to pick him up, and then there’s the kids he passes notes and snickers with in Social Studies class. And then there’s Isabella, who’s not only maybe the prettiest girl Sam’s ever known, but the funniest too. He’s been trying to get up the courage to ask her out, and he thinks maybe if he plays his cards right, she’ll let him take her to the eighth-grade dance.

Which is why he feels his heart start to pound when he walks back home from his friend Jeremy’s house to see his dad’s truck parked outside their trailer.

Dad’s sitting at their little table, highlighting passages in a newspaper. He looks up when Sam comes in, gives him a short nod. “Good, you’re back,” he says. “You’re gonna want to pack up tonight, we’re leaving bright and early tomorrow.”

Sam’s heart picks up even more, and he can feel the nervous jitters he always gets before they fight, that push of adrenaline that lets him stare his dad down. “You said we could finish the school year here.”

“Well, I didn’t expect the hunt in Dalton to go as fast as it did. Turns out Caleb pretty much had it all figured out by the time I got there.” Dad doesn’t even look up from the paper, just circles a passage and keeps reading. “Looks like there’s a black dog up in Maryland now.”

“Can’t you find something else nearby?”

Dad looks up at that, raises an eyebrow. “How exactly do you think this works, son? You think I get to custom order these things?”

“I mean, no,” Sam says. “But-”

“Yeah,” he says. He turns back to the paper, flips a page, cool as can be. “No is right. Now go get started packing. Do your brother’s too, he’s finishing up his last shift at the grocery, dunno when he’ll be back.” 

He stares at his dad, who doesn’t even look back at him. Who doesn’t even care. Dad knows how much Sam’s liked it here, he knows he does because he told him just last week on their check-in call. And he doesn’t know if Dean’s mentioned it to Dad, but surely he can tell that Dean likes it too, he’s got that Betty girl he takes out to dinner twice a week. Dean won’t admit they’re dating, but Sam’s seen the way his brother flushes and grins anytime his phone buzzes. He knows what’s up. He bets that’s where Dean is now, not finishing a shift but saying bye to his girl.

And then Dad just has to come in and ruin all of it. Just takes away Sam’s friends and Dean’s maybe-girlfriend and Sam was gonna have an eighth-grade graduation, okay, he was gonna take Isabella to the freaking eighth-grade dance.

“We can’t go,” he blurts out, and he hears the sharpness in his voice and already he knows how this is gonna go over but he doesn’t even care if Dad yells at him, if he makes him run a million extra laps, because this is freaking important. This matters.

His dad lifts his head again slowly. His eyes are sharp, the way they always are before he starts yelling. “Excuse me?”

“We can’t, Dad. Seriously. Can’t you just give us a few weeks, and then Dean can drive us up, we’ll meet you there!”

“Uh-huh. And tell me, what’s so important that it outweighs either of you helping on this hunt?”

“Just—just stuff, okay! We’ve got a life here, we can’t just up and leave right away, I’ve got school and there’s gonna be a dance and—”

“A dance? You’re seriously gonna sit there and tell me a dance is more important than this?” Dad slaps his hand down on the newspaper.

“To me, yeah! I am saying that!”

“People are dying, Sam!”

“That’s not my fault! Why should we—I should be able to have a life, okay, Dean should be able to have a life—why do we gotta be the ones to fight it!”

“Because we’re the only ones who can,” his dad says, rising from the rickety kitchen chair. His voice is eerily, scarily calm. Sam hears the current beneath it, and forces himself to hold his ground. “You get that, don’t you? We’re the only ones who know how to kill shit like this, so that means we got a responsibility to those who don’t. You wanna just leave those folks to die? So you can go to a dance?”

“I didn’t say that! Of course I don’t want them to die .”

“So what’s your alternative, then? ‘Cause I’m not seeing a better one.”

“It’s just not fair,” Sam says, and he knows he’s got tears in his eyes but he doesn't wipe at them in the hopes his dad won’t notice. He’s not sad, he’s pissed, and the last thing he wants is pity.

“Life’s not fair. The day Mary died, this became our job. To kill the evil sons-of-bitches that killed her. That’s gotta come before everything. You understand me?”

And that’s Sam’s cue to back off, because Dad almost never talks about Mom sober, and it’s never a good sign when he does. But instead he hears himself saying, “But—”

“I said, do you understand me?”

“But it’s not my fault!” Sam bursts out. “Okay? It’s not my fault Mom died, and I shouldn’t be the one punished for it by having my whole life ruined!”

His father’s face twists into something ugly. “Oh, you know that, do you?”

“What?”

“You’re real sure it’s not your fault? ‘Cause from where I’m standing, son, it ain’t that clear. You know she died in your nursery?”

Sam stares at him. His dad’s face is red, furious and warped, but it doesn’t look like he’s flat-out lying. No, Sam hadn’t known that.

“She didn’t just hang out in there, you know that. She was protecting you .”

“No,” Sam hears himself say distantly.

“So you can take this selfish little tantrum of yours and shove it, ‘cause I sure as hell don’t wanna hear this shit again. Your mother died protecting you, and she didn’t have half the training you do, so you can man the fuck up and put some effort into protecting others.” He grabs his jacket from the hook, yanks the front door open. “We clear?”

“I don’t…”

“We clear?”

“Yes sir,” Sam says quietly.

The door slams, and Sam is left staring at it as if from a million miles away. Never has his dad mentioned the nursery, not once in all the retellings of that awful story, but suddenly Sam can’t remember if he ever mentioned where Mom was when it happened at all. Like maybe all the time he’s been hiding it, carefully stepping around the bombshell he just dropped, the one that says You killed your mom.

And then he sees his father’s leather-bound journal on the table, half-covered by the abandoned newspaper, and before he can think it through he’s taken over his father’s seat and is flipping frantically back to its beginning. He doesn’t want to know what his dad would do if he caught Sam in his private hunting journal, but right now he doesn’t care. He has to know if it’s true.

There it is, right on the first page. A week ago, my wife was murdered. I watched her die, pinned to the ceiling of Sammy’s room, dripping blood onto his cradle until she burst into flames. He pictures it, his beautiful young mother, dead above him. Dead because of him.

He must black out for a second, because next thing he knows he’s bending over the kitchen sink throwing up his lunch. His hands grip the cool edge of the counter and he gags, bowing his head lower. It feels like he can’t breathe. The Georgia air is heavy and dusty and it fills him up so his lungs can’t hold any more and he’s choking on every breath, bile coming out in short bursts. There’s some noise in the background, some crashing whine. It takes him a minute to realize it’s just him, crying. Nothing special.

Eventually his stomach is empty, but he hangs his head above the sink for another few minutes before he pulls up his t-shirt to wipe the bile and tears off his chin. All his life Sam has felt that he doesn’t fit in the cramped dirty motels and trailers and falling-down houses they live in, like he deserves something better, but right now he fits perfectly here. The view out the small, rectangular window above the sink is bleary, pale dying grass and gravel road as far as the eye can see. Dean’s face last November second, jaw tight and eyes empty, flashes in his mind. I did that, he thinks.

He goes back to his bedroom, because it’s not like he has anywhere else to go. He squeezes into the spot between his bed and the window wall, bowing his head so all of his body is hidden. If someone came in now, they might think this place had been abandoned. He’s not crying anymore, his chest too heavy and both too empty and too full at once. There’s nothing he can do with this kind of knowledge, he thinks. He can’t bring his mom back, and whatever his dad says, he knows saving other people from the monsters in the dark isn’t the same. They’ll still come back here, to some run-down moldy not-home. And it’ll still be his fault.

The front door opens, slams. The footsteps are heavy, but not Dad-drunk heavy, so it’s gotta be Dean. He listens as his brother bangs around in the kitchen, kicking off his shoes and cursing at something, like maybe his sleeve got caught on a cabinet or he tripped on a duffle. Unless he’s on a hunt, Dean’s always loud, fills up any room he’s in with a laugh that echoes and the kind of smile that makes everyone look his way. It’s not something he got from Dad, who despite his size manages to make himself nondescript, an unnoticed observer anywhere he goes. If he’s sober, anyway. Sam’s like his dad in that way, although it’s not purposeful on his part. Unlike his family, Sam’s not interesting or dangerous or beautiful. He slips into the background maybe because he belongs there.

The door to the bedroom clicks open. Sam’s fully hidden between the bed and the outer wall, but Dean’ll know he’s there anyway. Dean always knows.

“Sam?” His brother asks. “You hiding in here?”

He thinks about keeping quiet, but there’s no real point. Dean’ll find him eventually. “Not hiding,” he says instead.

“Sure.” Dean comes around the bed, sits on the edge so he’s looking down at Sam from several feet. As if he wasn’t tall enough already. “Just squeezing into tiny corners where no one can see you. Totally normal.”

“Shut up,” he mutters. He stretches out his legs, lets his head fall back against the ugly wallpaper. “I was just trying to think.”

“Ri-ight,” Dean says slowly. “Well. Wanna think on the way to Dina’s? They’ve got that kids-eat-free-on-Tuesdays thing, pretty sure we can still sell that you’re twelve or younger.”

Normally he’d say yes—Dina’s is nice, as far as greasy diners go, and they don’t often have the money to eat out when they’re settled in one place. But he can’t bring himself to share the small car with Dean, to sit across from him in some booth. He doesn’t know which is worse—if Dean has always secretly known that having Sam with him came at the expense of Mom, and there’s no way he can’t resent him for that—or if he doesn’t, which means Sam is keeping this from him. He’s no stranger to keeping secrets from his brother, but it’s always been small stuff before, bullies that won’t leave him alone or a math club he forged Dad’s signature for. It’s another thing entirely to hide from his brother that he’s the reason their mom is dead.

“I’m fine,” he says dully. He doesn’t look at Dean. “I’ll just grab something here.”

There’s a long moment of silence, but Dean doesn’t move. He can feel his brother’s eyes on him, looking for something, but Sam doesn’t look back.

“There’ll be other dances, kid,” Dean says finally.

It takes Sam a second to remember the eighth-grade dance. An hour ago, he might’ve cried about it, about Isabella and her pretty brown eyes and that he was probably never gonna get a first kiss. Now it feels like that dream belongs to a stranger, to a character in a book he used to like. “I don’t care about the dance,” he says. He means it.

“Uh-huh,” Dean says like he doesn’t believe him. “In that case, come help me con our way into some free kid’s food. I’ll eat it if you won’t.”

Sam doesn’t dignify that with a response.

“Sam,” Dean says. “Come on, get up, man. I’m not leaving you here to mope all evening.”

“I’m just thinking,” he insists.

Dean sits there for a moment longer, half-glaring at him, before he sighs and runs a hand down his face. “Fine, be that way. Don’t come complaining to me when you can’t find shit to eat here, though.”

He rises off the bed and he’s halfway out the door when Sam hears himself ask, “Did you know Mom died in my nursery?”

Dean freezes. He doesn’t turn around, but his shoulders jump up, like when he’s making a stand between Sam and a monster. He doesn’t say anything.

“Dean?”

He turns around slowly, looking as old as he always does come November second, and it hurts but Sam has to know, okay, he has to know if Dean has always looked at him and known. 

“How do you know about that?” Dean says quietly, moving back to perch on the edge of the bed. There are so many creases on his face, so much worry that wasn’t there thirty second before. It’s as good as a confirmation, and Sam feels like his ribs have shrunk small enough to squeeze his heart.

“So you knew,” Sam says. 

A moment’s pause. “Yeah. I haven’t—I couldn’t forget that night if I tried.”

“Yeah.” Sam doesn’t think he’ll do much forgetting either, now that he knows.

“Dad tell you?”

Sam nods. He reaches down, pulls a string off the rugged cuff of his jeans. The question is on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t bring himself to ask, not yet.

“Why?” Dean asks.

He shrugs. 

“Eyes on me, Sam.” The little-brother bit of Sam can’t help it; he looks up. Dean has that awful sad-stressed face on, like he always does when Sam and Dad fight. “What brought that up? You ask about Mom or something? ‘Cause man, if you’ve got questions like that, you gotta bring them to me first.”

Sam doesn’t mention that Dean bites his head off anytime he asks about Mom. Instead, he says, “It wasn’t like that. I was just—mad about hunting, you know, I didn’t want to move, and he just—” and Christ, he’s choked up, he sounds like he’s gonna cry again like a baby “—he said I have to, you know. ‘Cause it’s my fault.”

Dean’s face smoothes out so fast it’s kinda scary. “He said it was your fault?”

Sam shrugs again.

Sam. Answer me.”

“I guess,” he whispers. He tries to recall Dad’s exact words, but he can’t. All that comes to mind is the twist to Dad’s face, cruel and foreign. “I know he said Mom died protecting me. And so I, I gotta hunt, because,” but he can’t finish, he’s choking on the words, and with a flush of shame he realizes he’s crying again.

“No.” Dean swings his legs down from the bed and crouches into the tiny crevice between the wall and the bed where Sam has quartered himself. His hand, big and steady, latches onto Sam’s shoulder. “Fuck, Sam. That’s not—that’s just Dad being pissy, okay, that’s not it.”

“It’s not!” Sam cries. “I found his journal, and he wasn’t just saying it to be mean! It’s true!”

“Kiddo,” Dean says, like he hasn’t since Sam was much younger. He sighs, heavy and grown, and yanks Sam forward against his chest. “Come here.”

Dean’s warm and sturdy. He hit his growth spurt early and Sam hasn’t yet, so he’s still got a good eighteen inches on Sam, not to mention he’s like twice as wide. He smells like he always does, a mix of gun oil and black coffee. Both constants in their life. A hand on Sam’s shoulder and one between his shoulder blades hold him steady, and after a single shuddering moment, Sam gives up and lets himself shake against his brother.

They sit there squeezed together for a moment—knees bumping, the bed and the wall pushing in at them, Dean’s amulet cutting into both of their chests—for a long moment before Dean starts talking. 

“Mom did die in your room,” Dean says, and Sam shudders a little again, “but that don’t mean shit, okay? She was a mom to an infant, the freak probably just guessed he could find her there. And even if she did die protecting you, that doesn’t mean it’s your fault, you hear me? You were a baby, she was your mom. She was supposed to protect you, it was her job. Like it’s mine, yeah? We signed up for this shit. If I die jumping in front of you on a hunt, that’s my call, that’s not on you.”

“No no no,” Sam says. In his mind, he sees Dean on a ceiling, burning alive with his eyes on Sam. “You can’t—Dean, I can take care of myself, you can’t—”

“No, you can’t,” Dean says, almost gently. “You’re can’t, Sammy. And that’s okay, you’re a kid, you were just a baby then. It’s our job to watch after you. And if some fucker made a move on you—if Mom had to jump in front of a freak to save you—then I’m glad she did.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“I sure as hell do. If it came down to it—man, there’s no one I’d choose over you. How do you not know that?”

“But she’s Mom,” he whispers. “I know you miss her, even when you don’t say anything. I know you think of her all the time, and I heard you and Dad last November, I know you think you might never get married just in case, and Dean —”

“What do you want me to get married for, huh? You trying to get rid of me?” Dean says lightly, teasing again.

Sam sniffles. It sounds all wet, like a little kid, but he doesn’t care. “You know I’m not, jerk. I just want you to be happy.”

Dean lets him go and sags back against the side of the bed, smiling a little even if his eyes are rimmed red. “Long as I got you and my baby, Sammy, I’m a happy man. You don’t gotta worry about me.”

Sam nods, rubs his face in the elbow of his shirt. “Do you think Dad wishes he had Mom instead of me?” he asks. It’s an awful thing to ask of Dean, but he’s gotta know. He’s just gotta.

Dean’s eyes darken and the smile is gone. “No, Sam. He’s just being a shit, okay? He just—you make him mad, and he acts like a dick, but he doesn’t mean it.”

“Okay,” Sam says and thinks of Dad’s red twisted face.

“He doesn’t mean it,” Dean repeats. It’s like he’s trying to convince himself, and something dark and heavy settles in Sam’s chest. “I’ll talk to him, okay? You won’t hear shit like that again, I swear.”

“It’s okay,” Sam says. It’s not, it’s not okay, but he doesn’t need Dean convincing Dad to love him. He thinks of Dean saying, she was supposed to protect you, it was her job… like it’s mine, and he thinks that if he could only have one of them love him, he’d choose Dean over Dad any day. 

“It’s not,” Dean says quietly. He’s sitting across from the low window and Sam wonders if he sees the same thing that he, Sam, does: the cold dead grass, stretching out from them til the horizon. “But it’s gonna be, Sammy. I got you. You hear me?”

“Yeah,” Sam says, and he does.