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A Family Affair

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Coming back from the dead is like being served a glass of spoiled vinegar disguised as fine old wine, Mary finds. She tosses it back with a grimace. Anything else would be impolite.

She finds out that she’s been gone for thirty-three years, that her husband’s dead and that her sons are hunters. She ignores the bitter taste it leaves at the back of her throat.

She just needs a bit of time.

It’s only when they find Sam that she considers a bit of time might not be enough. Might never be enough.

Her boys are gravitating towards each other like flowers turning towards the sun, everything and everyone else fading into the background. The quiet, desperate wonder in their eyes—it’s the same look that used to pass between her parents whenever her father came home from a hunt. Mary watches Dean brush a strand of hair out of Sam’s face, watches Sam curl his fingers into the collar of Dean’s coat, and suddenly wants to throw up from loneliness.

*

The first line in John’s journal reads: I went to Missouri, and I learned the truth.

It’s been days since Sam handed her the journal, yet Mary still can’t bring herself to read any further. The truth is ugly, and it hurts.

He was a great father, she remembered fondly, and Dean said nothing.

I started all of this, she said, and Dean kept silent.

I know what it’s like to come back and not feel like you really fit, Sam told her, and she wanted to cry.

She hides from Sam’s overeager chatter and Dean’s condemning silences, and listens to a tape labelled Mary that she found in the glove compartment of the car. Judy Collins comforted her when she was nineteen. At twenty-nine plus thirty-three invisible years, she’s the only friend Mary’s managed to hold onto.

*

Mary expected the initial awkwardness of living with those two tall strangers who’re her sons to fade over time. Instead it seems to grow more acute.

Watching Sam and Dean effortlessly move around each other, no matter if they’re cleaning their guns or sorting the laundry, discovering all the ways in which they fit together like two halves of a whole only reminds her of how little she fits in herself. Especially when she sees them clam up as soon as they notice her presence, Sam becoming flustered, Dean wary, something he fails to hide behind a mask of boisterous energy.

One morning, when she’s on her way to the showers, Sam stumbles out of Dean’s room, clad only in his boxers. At the sight of her he freezes and flushes bright red.

“This isn’t…uh…Dean’s not…you wanna come along for a run?” he stammers, like Mary’s a member of the Beatles or whatever kids are into these days.

Mary wonders if he was plagued by night terrors that could only be alleviated by Dean’s company. If it’s a regular occurrence. She can’t bring herself to ask. She already knows more about her sons’ nightmarish existence than she ever wanted to.

“Sure,” she says instead. “Let me just brush my teeth.”

“Great.” Sam smiles at her and waves an awkward hand around. “I’ll just…um…”

“How about we meet at the front door in ten?”

Sam nods and practically flees down the hallway.

In moments like these, Mary’s not sure if she really came back from the dead, or if she’s just a ghost haunting the living.

*

The rest of the world doesn’t feel more real to her than the bunker. When she accompanies the boys on a supply run to the nearest grocery store, she finds herself walking past long shelves full of products and labels she doesn’t recognize.

“What a cute couple!”

Mary looks up at the delighted exclamation from the woman standing next to her and follows her gaze further down the aisle—to where Sam and Dean are arguing about Froot Loops.

“Come on, Sammy, five a day and all that shit,” Dean whines, trying to sneak a second box of Froot Loops into their basket.

Confused, Mary does a double-take, searches for another couple, but no—the customer beside her is definitely looking at her sons.

“Oh, no, they’re not—” Mary corrects the woman who only gives her a pitying glance.

“Oh honey, it’s a shame, I know. The cute ones are always gay,” she says, patting Mary’s arm, while some ten feet further down Sam bats away Dean’s hands with the suggestion, “We’ll pick up some bananas in the next aisle.”

Mary tears her eyes away from the boys to gape at the other customer. She can’t believe how casually the woman mentions the gay thing. Gay as in: Homosexual. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Then the full meaning of the woman’s words sinks in. If possible, her jaw drops even further. The insinuation that she’s interested in one of her sons is even more bizarre than the thought that a little harmless teasing between two grown men could mean something sexual.

Yet maybe it doesn’t seem all that abstruse from the other woman’s perspective. Sam and Dean are in their thirties, and Mary, their mother, doesn’t look a day older than twenty-nine. Coming back from the dead after thirty-odd years will do that to you. But that’s hardly small talk for the grocery store.

Not that there’s any chance of small talk, anyway. Before Mary can say anything else, the other customer turns on her heels and stalks away, muttering “Homophobic nutjob” under her breath.

A lot has changed. A lot.

Unaware of the ripple effects of their Froot Loops debate, Dean meanwhile complains, “Bananas suck.”

Sam knocks their shoulders together. “You suck.”

Lips curled into an impressive pout, Dean flicks his eyes up at Sam’s face. “Only if you let me buy these.”

Their banter does seem oddly flirtatious to Mary, now she’s paying attention. But she’s seen Dean hand out cocky eyebrows and smiles like rainbow cookies to everyone who crosses his path, so probably that’s just something he does, she decides with a shrug.

*

Mary tries to dispel her growing discomfort with a haunting. But the plan backfires. It’s not the breather she was hoping for, it’s a dead end.

When she realizes that she feels a deeper connection to Lucas’s spirit than her self-sufficient boys, she knows that she can’t stay.

“I have to go,” she says.

As expected, Dean remains silent. But this time, Sam doesn’t say anything either.

*

She spends a couple of days in Lawrence, drives here and there for answers.

John’s journal doesn’t tell her much. It’s an impressive collection of all the monsters John hunted, but there’s no word of what happened to Sam and Dean while their father was on a hunt. Did they stay with one of John’s distant relatives? Where did they go to school? When did he start teaching them about hunting? Likewise, the journal doesn’t say what John did when he wasn’t tracking the demon. She knows that hunters can get pretty obsessed, but even her father still went fishing every other weekend. Surely, John couldn’t have been that different?

On some pages, she stumbles across odd numbers, sometimes also initials, scrawled in the margin next to the entries. Code, probably. She’d have to ask Sam and Dean what they mean.

When her efforts to trace John’s life after her death prove fruitless, she tries to make contact with the present members of the Campbell family, but that’s another dead end. They’re all dead. Her cousins, their children. They’re all dead.

That’s what you get when you waste away your life with hunting, a voice at the back of her head says bitterly.

For the most part, though, she just feels numb with grief.

On a whim, she checks out the Campbell family library, hoping it will help her understand what wiped out the entire Campbell family tree. All she finds are empty shelves and dust. The wealth of information on monsters and how to kill them that her family carefully assembled over several generations—it’s all gone, just like her family.

*

Occasionally, she receives a text from Dean, asking how she’s doing. She doesn’t hear a word from Sam.

If she’s honest, that stings. It’s not what she expected and she doesn’t know what it means. It reminds her how little she knows Sam. How little Sam knows her. At least Dean remembers her from before—from when she was still a real person. Even if in his memories she’s become a perfect cook and saintly housewife that she doesn’t recognize.

By accident, she runs into them at the wake of Asa Fox. It’s painful, to say the least. But after successfully fighting off a demon attack together, Mary feels like they’ve maybe been given a second chance to start over and form fresh memories.

Over breakfast at the local diner, Dean keeps them entertained with a terrible Donald Trump impression that almost makes Sam almost topple off his chair and has Mary cry tears of laughter until her mascara is so smudged that she has to head off to the restroom to fix it.

When she returns five minutes later, Sam is crouched under the table, searching for something, and under the guise of refilling their coffee their waitress unabashedly admires his ass. Mary halts in her tracks, both amused and embarrassed. It seems like two months ago that Sam was still a baby in a cradle.

“You could bounce a nickel of that thing,” the waitress states, impressed.

Dean grins. “It’s true.” He throws her a cheeky wink.

The waitress sweeps her eyes over Dean and whistles. “So, threesome?”

“No, no, no, no, no.” Sam emerges holding his wallet and nearly knocks over his coffee. “No threesomes.”

“Sorry,” Dean mouths at the waitress. “He’s a prude.—Dude, stop hitting me!”

“You two are adorable,” the waitress says. “Right?” she adds when she spots Mary.

Sam and Dean’s eyes both snap in her direction with the expression of a pair of schoolboys caught in the middle of their latest prank.

“Right,” Mary repeats faintly as she sits back down across from them.

“Adorable, really?” Dean twists his face into a comical pout. “Try amazing. Awesome. Awesomeazing.”

“That’s not a word,” Sam and Mary protest in sync, and Mary promptly forgets the unease she felt only a moment ago.

*

After their breakfast date, Dean texts her more often, sharing pictures he took in L.A. or inviting her to play games on her cellphone. Usually, she wins.

He never mentions what he and Sam are doing—hunting—and she never asks.

It’s progress.

*

With renewed energy Mary works her way through John’s contact list. Most of the numbers are out of service, and the letters she sends come back marked Deceased, Return to Sender.

The most promising contacts she finds are: Dr. Robert, an illegal practitioner whose voicemail greeting tells her that he’s on a holiday until the end of the month; a sixty-something Hoodoo shop assistant named Katie, who informs her that John “fucked like a drill sergeant” and worked his way through the town’s female population in less than a week; and a mechanic called Bobby Singer, whose cellphone is answered by none other than—Dean.

“Mom.” He heaves a frustrated sigh. “You can just ask.”

“I know,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

*

Eventually, Mary feels ready to set foot into the Men of Letters’ bunker again, even if it’s only for coffee. She still needs more time before she’s even going to consider moving back in. But Dean’s invitation was too tempting to resist:

Thursday at three, blueberry pie?

You can count on it, Mary had texted back, adding one of those smiley faces for good measure. When Dean didn’t respond, she felt reasonably certain that this time she had managed to pick out one that wasn’t inappropriate. Progress.

Mary arrives there shortly after two. The bunker is quiet when she lets herself in. The kitchen is empty. Same goes for the library. She should have called in advance, asked when they’d be home.

She heads down the hallway to their bedrooms to check if they’re even at home, and freezes when she hears noises coming from Sam’s closed bedroom. A low grunt, then a drawn-out moan. A quiet chuckle.

Sam’s got company.

Torn between embarrassment and relief that her sons’ lives down revolve around hunting 24/7, Mary turns to creep back to the library when her phone starts ringing in that awfully shrill ring tone that she still hasn’t managed to get rid of. She really needs to ask Dean how to change it.

Abruptly, the noise in Sam’s bedroom ceases.

She checks the display. Dr. Robert.

“Hello,” she answers the call. “Thanks so much for calling back, I…”

And then her mind just goes blank. Because Dean is standing in the open door of Sam’s bedroom, gun cocked in her direction.

Dean is half-dressed, his crumpled shirt hanging open over his naked, flushed chest. He vividly reminds her of John during the early days of their marriage, hastily pulling on his wrinkled clothes from the previous day when he was once again late for work, his skin still radiating from the heat of their embraces.

Except that John never—

When Dean sees her, the color drains from his face and the hand holding the gun goes slack.

Dr. Robert is saying something, but she can’t make out the words.

“Dean, who is it?” comes Sam’s voice from inside the bedroom.

Dean quickly shuts the door behind him. He pries the phone out of Mary’s numb fingers and ends the call. Then he steers her towards the library, gently pushes her into a chair. Mary barely suppresses the urge to flinch away from his touch.

“Mom.” The way Dean says it indicates it’s not the first time he’s said her name. Sam could have come and gone, doing the hula, and she’d never have known. She forces herself to look up at him. His gun is still dangling from one hand, like he’s forgotten it’s even there. “Please, Mom, I can—”

“You can what—explain?” Mary asks. It’s not what she meant to say. Her voice sounds hysterical even to her own ears.

Dean bites his lip, shakes his head. He looks wrecked. “I know it’s…I’d never…” Dean takes a deep breath and straightens his shoulders. When he speaks again, his voice is firm. Again the resemblance to John is striking. “Look, Mom, me and Sam—it is what it is.”

It is what it is. Again with the It is what it is.

There’s nothing Mary can say to that.

Her eyes fall on the bookshelf behind Dean—and she wants to smack her head against the table. ‘Cause the missing treasures of the Campbell library, they’re staring right back at her. Apparently, she’s been a blind fool all along.

Needless to say, she doesn’t stay for coffee.

*

Dr. Robert is a mixture of jovial and mercenary that creeps Mary out more than a little.

“Tell me about John,” she says, and he does.

Except the picture he paints sounds nothing like the John she knew. The John Dr. Robert describes sounds almost superhuman, bouncing back from the nastiest injuries in the blink of an eye, never losing focus of his mission. Mary tries to reconcile this austere hero with the soft-eyed man who’d slept on the floor in front of Dean’s cot several nights in a row until Dean believed him that there really wasn’t a monster hiding under his bed. It seems impossible.

“…performed on Dean, what, four, five years back?” Dr. Robert prattles on and Mary blinks her way back into the conversation.

“You what?” She can’t believe what she just heard.

“Took me and my assistant full seven minutes to revive him, too.” Dr. Robert dons a proud smile, like he hasn’t just told her that he killed her son.

“How could you do that?”

Dr. Robert shrugs. “Pay was good.”

“How could he do that?” Mary rephrases the question, mostly for herself.

“Beats me. Said he needed to speak to death.” Dr. Robert scratches his head. “I think he might have meant that literally.”

“Oh God.” Mary buries her face in her hands. She hated hunting when it consisted of salt-and-burns and the occasional banshee. This—angels, demons, God’s sister, now apparently Death himself, too—this is something she could never even have imagined in her worst dreams. And for her sons that’s just everyday life.

Dr. Robert pats her on the shoulder. “Handsome kid, though,” he says, as if that’s all the comfort she needs.

It reminds her of the waitress who’d called Sam and Dean “adorable”, the customer in the grocery store who’d called them “cute”. And Mary can see why they would say that—both Sam and Dean inherited John’s ridiculous good looks. But there’s more to them than that. With John gone, and the rest of their family extinct, no wives, no children in sight, who’s going to look at them and see more than a handsome face? Who’s going to understand everything they’ve been through? Who’s going to give them the appreciation and love they deserve?

She almost laughs when the answer presents itself to her; it’s that simple. There’s still me. There’s always me.

As soon as she’s back in her motel room, Mary dials Dean’s number for the first time since that afternoon at the bunker. The call goes straight to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s me. I’m sorry for how I left. I’m not going to lie, I have a hard time accepting that you…and Sam… But I know how this life makes us all do crazy things, and we’re family.” She wipes her eyes, takes a deep breath. “You said you could help me fill in the blanks, and I’d…I’d really like that. So—call me when you get this?” She swallows hard and adds, “I love you. I love you both.”

*

A week later she still hasn’t heard anything from Dean.

That’s what you get for pushing them away again and again, a tiny voice at the back of her head pipes up. Did you honestly think they’d wait forever for you to catch up?

Maybe she’s been weighed down so long by everything that she’d lost that she ended up losing the only thing she still had.

She nearly jumps out of her skin when her phone finally does ring. Except it’s not Dean. It’s Castiel, the angel.

Disappointment succeeded by worry succeeded by relief succeeded by fresh worry unfurls in her stomach as she listens to the news that Sam and Dean have been arrested and have since dropped off the face of the earth.

“Where are you?” she asks.

“Indianapolis. I haven’t been able to trace them any further yet.”

“I’ll meet you there in—” Mary does some quick math in her head “—ten hours, okay?” she says and ends the call.

She makes it in eight.