Title: Love Like Salt (1/2) [AO3]
Genre: gen/pre-slash, teen!chesters, humor/horror/case!fic, hurt/comfort, family drama
Characters: Sam (POV), Dean, John, a family of OCs and their haunted house
Rating: PG-13 for teenage friskiness and the warning below.
Warning: [click to view]Ambiguous relationships to environments of sustained emotional abuse/neglect.
Word Count: ~11,000 in total. This part, ~5000.
Summary: The Winchesters revisit a ghostly snag in one of John's old cases. Meanwhile, Sam scrambles to mend his family, even as the world unravels around him. Dean just unravels.
Notes: Pre-series 9x07 coda, heavily inflected with S9 feels and tribulations. (esss niiiiiiiine! <3) Originally inspired by i_speak_tongue's prompt at the hoodie_time comment!meme, but then Sam happened. As he does.
[This was the original prompt, though!]John and the boys are recruited by a wealthy family to come stay at their big creepy mansion and ghost-bust it. Dean comes down with cold/fever, and ends up being coddled by the four gorgeous daughters of the family while John and Sam do all the dirty work (which doesn't turn out to be too dangerous, but is definitely messy and a pain in the ass) Dean's in heaven,and Sam is clearly jealous, as these girls are tripping over each other to see to Deans "needs", so much so that its almost farcical.
But Dean gets sicker and a more dangerous ghost rears its head. Maybe Sam has to convince the girls to watch over him with shotguns and rock-salt, or maybe they chicken out and he's stuck with the job... either way, there is much weak!Dean and the protecting thereof.
"Were you gonna kiss her like that?" It was the first time, at least as far as Sam could remember, John had ever talked about someone their age, someone a friend of theirs but not of John's. Someone who was not a hunter. It annoyed Sam that she was just as much a stranger to him. This mystery girl of Dean's.
When they'd left New York, Dean had climbed into the back seat of the Impala with him, unthinking. It had been years since they'd shared the back, and Dean eyed the fighter jet in his lap derisively, like Seriously, Sam?, but still, it was nice. Sam wasn't sure if they should hug, or what, but he guessed not. And anyway, John would be back soon, and that would be that.
"Uncle Bobby sent me to Veronica's," Sam had explained, hefting the plane into the air as though it could fly over the two months that stood between them now. He offered it to Dean, who slid it tentatively under the driver's seat, fingers dancing away from the body of it like it was on fire.
"Not her again." Dean grimaced.
Dean was wearing a tie and a button-up shirt. His hair was brushed.
"Dean--" Sam started.
"Babysitters with dead kids--bad fucking mojo, Sammy. I thought you told Dad Veronica wasn't a good idea."
But John hadn't been there. He'd disappeared. "It was Uncle Bobby who--"
Then John came back around the Impala. With a steel creak and a rumble of mechanical parts, they backed away from New York without another word. Sam resumed his slump against the car door; the conversation hadn't gone anywhere near the way he'd wanted it to, anyway. Across the car and a world away, Dean picked at his nails, and sneezed.
He switched to shotgun at the gas station outside of Harrisburg. Sam tried to convince himself that it was only normal--it was--but it felt empty. In Milford, John counted out a few grease-creased bills onto the dash, weighed down by a menagerie of loose change. When Dean came back with the gas receipt, he returned also with a fistful of fluttering brown napkins. He was wearing a different shirt.
That's when John asked, "Were you gonna kiss her like that?"
He'd waited until after Dean blew his nose, wiped roughly. He didn't sound like he was actually seeking an answer, in that brooks-no-argument John Winchester way of his. Instead, it was the way he asked things like, Were you gonna leave that door unlocked? or It's gonna be a long night; were you planning to leave behind that extra clip? It was a way of making sure no Winchester made any novice mistakes. It was also a way, Sam had begun to suspect, of making missed opportunities sound like mistakes best avoided. (League seasons are long, Sam. Are you sure you'd want to let a team down when we need to leave, and suddenly they're down a man?)
Good riddance to this girl, and kissing anyone, Sam figured, but still, it wasn't fair.
"Not like it's mono," Dean muttered, and blew his nose again. His neck stiffened when he realized his mistake (Are you sure you wanna mouth off to me?), and he balled the now gummy napkin up in the palm of his hand, like a grenade.
"The kids at John Harris keep asking why I disappear, and then come back all the time," Sam blurted, deflecting. "They say it's weird."
"Well, Singer's solved that one for you, Sam," John snapped, turning the key in the ignition with little patience and less affection. "Congratulations."
"It's not full," Dean pointed out, yanking John's attention back to the front seat. He cocked his head toward the dashboard as it lit up, and the dials resumed their stations. The gas gauge lingered at just under half a tank.
That was wrong. It should be full; John always filled to full.
But no answer was forthcoming. As the Impala kicked up speed for the onramp, the question evaporated out like so much exhaust. John lurched them back onto the highway, southbound. A housekeeper had died in Virginia Beach; her heart had frozen. The Winchesters were going.
Were you really gonna question that?
It was after midnight when they pulled up in front of the job--an old plantation expanse that had dropped its quaint, historical charm in favor of Spanish Revival. The mansion sprawled outward rather than upward, putting it decades (and timezones) apart from the rest of the houses they'd seen on the way in. The walls were whitewashed stucco, the roof tiled and red. The front door was dwarfed by the parapet gable that sat above it, like a hat. Sam thought it made the house look too much like a church, and nothing like Virginia Beach. All the lights were still on, though, and after a groggy tumble from the Impala and across a stray snatch of lawn, Sam was blinking tearily at a series of morose portraits lining the front entryway. The walls were bright and the lights blinding; strange fronds clustered in the corners of the hall, and Sam swore he could hear birds. It may as well have been noon in there--as though the house were determined not to be haunted.
Dean sneezed in earnest, snorking wetly into his fist of napkin, and Sam scuttled discreetly toward the opposite wall. The last thing he wanted tonight was to share in that.
"You're later than I hoped," noted Hector Felipe, the man of the house, after he'd introduced himself to Sam and Dean as such. He said nothing to John. "But my girls flew in from their mother's this afternoon; it still feels like evening to them. We were about to sit down to supper."
Hector Felipe was...broad, was really the only reliable adjective Sam could think of. He introduced the portraits on the wall with great flourishes of his arms, which made him seem even broader. As if in grudging admission of John's existence, finally, he turned around to make sure John was looking. Then he spoke: "These are they--Andalusia, the oldest. Liliana, who turned fourteen last month. There's Marina, and Luz. Surely you remember little Luz, Mr. Winchester."
The three eldest were in pink, and tiny Luz in white. Other than that, all the portraits looked like taller or fatter versions of each other, to a degree that made Sam glad he and Dean didn't look anything alike. But then, from the back, his father and Hector Felipe were starting to look too much like as well, so maybe it was the hallway. They were both tall and dark, except Hector Felipe was in a suit, John in leather. They moved strangely in each other's orbits, all misplaced gravity and static cling.
"Surely you'll join us," said Hector Felipe, of dinner. In the interim, he'd explained something about the house, and something about John's familiarity with it, which Sam had mostly zoned out, but he perked up at the mention of food. The grilled cheese at Veronica's had been a long time ago, and from New York down, John hadn't even given them loose change for some chips, or a Slim Jim or something to split.
"We're only here to work," John returned, to Sam's complete dismay. "We have places to be."
Sam almost blurted out, no, they really didn't, but Hector Felipe beat him: "But I insist. I can provide, Mr. Winchester, with plenty to spare." If there was a certain predatory haughtiness to the invitation, it's not like Sam hadn't been forced into dinners that had required him to endure significantly worse. He'd spent two weeks of dinners, and lunches, and breakfasts, after all, with Veronica staring at him like he was some kind of ghost. He'd known his presence only in all the little ways she told him it was not her Timicito's.
"I can provide for my children," Hector Felipe repeated. "Let me make it up to yours."
Gravity warped. And John, jaw tight and lips soured, acquiesced.
Sam breathed a sigh of relief. Beside him, Dean, under his breath: "God exists. There's a God."
Warmed by Dean's unexpected confidence, Sam grinned. They fell into step with one another, tromping down the hallway behind their father and Hector Felipe. Reaching across two months of lost time, Sam asked, "What, they didn't feed you in New York?"
Equally unexpectedly, Dean bristled. "It's over, Sam." An imperceptible shift in gait, and Dean began to outpace him.
Sam skipped to keep up. "Wait, Dean. When I was at Uncle Bobby's-- The reason he sent me to Veronica-- He said we couldn't come over any more."
"What the hell did you do?"
"Nothing! It was Dad, Uncle Bobby said Dad couldn't just--" Sam checked his volume and continued at a whisper. "He said Dad needed to think about whether--"
"I said it was over, Sam. There's nothing to talk about."
Sam kicked the back of Dean's ankle, just enough to trip him up. "Dean, listen, I think--"
"It's over, Sam--I got dumped, you got dumped, and then you got dumped again. And then Veronica gave you a dead kid's toy. The end."
"That's not the whole story, that's not--"
"OVER," Dean hissed.
"You don't know the whole story." Sam stayed firm. "I heard them shouting at each other on Veronica's second line. Uncle Bobby said--"
Dean yanked Sam in front of him. "No one needs to know the whole story." Sam squirmed; Dean's grip on his arm hurt. "We already know how it ends. So just fucking--"
Dean bit his tongue, and let Sam go. "We're working," he said, in a voice that was tired and flattened in ways that reminded Sam of his father, not his brother. "So just--shut up for a few hours. I don't know. Just--"
Dean sneezed. Then he sneezed twice more, in quick succession. He leaned into the air, as though he were expecting the wall to be closer, and the extra impact when his shoulder finally found it hitched in his breath.
Sam stopped massaging his arm and put a cold hand to Dean's neck. It felt hot. "Are you all right?"
Dean uttered a nameless, jagged syllable. "It's whatever. It's just--"
Their momentary tardiness had not gone unnoticed. From the dining hall ahead, Sam heard Hector Felipe, and not their father, calling them.
"It's been a long day. Let's just do the job, and go home."
Go home where? Sam did not ask.
But it was hard to stay specifically angry at Dean when there were so many other people in the room. Hector Felipe sat at the head of the table, Andalusia beside him, followed by Liliana, and then Marina, like nesting dolls. Then John, and then Dean. Sam sat across from Dean on the empty side of the table, and Luz invited herself to the seat just left of him. She was wearing the same dress from her portrait.
"It's for parties," she told Sam, very solemnly.
Sam looked at John, and put his napkin in his lap. Dean copied Sam. Hector Felipe had tucked his into the collar of his dress shirt. Sam wasn't sure about the girls; maybe they didn't need napkins. They were, after all, girls. Luz just wiped her hands on Sam's.
Dinner was a lavish affair that involved salads spicy with onion; yellow rice; steaming bowls of sauce, the separate uses for which Sam could not distinguish. Meat that slipped from the bone when Sam even thought about prodding it with the wrong fork.
("You're using the wrong fork," chided Luz, which made Sam bristle, because she was like, four. "That's the salad fork.")
Then she drew a heart in the juices of his steak strips and sucked the brown, savory dribble from her fingers. She took a bite of his orange slice.
Angrily, Sam scribbled out her heart and mashed the rest of the orange into his mouth. He stared daggers at Dean until he looked up.
Dean turned a palm upward. What?
Sam made a face, and jerked his head toward Luz. He thought rich people were supposed to have manners, but no one was saying a damn thing about this. There was the usual buzz of old people talking, mostly Hector Felipe, and John, if he had to. Andalusia, who seemed like a regular queen, detailed the Houston airport; Liliana, their plans for the coming months. She seemed like she wanted to act older than she actually came across, by Sam's estimation. She also had a habit of addressing Sam directly from time to time--"And what do you think about that, Sam?"--which was at once too familiar and too formal. Sam nodded and mumbled until he mumbled himself into an opportunity for escape. Marina was Sam's age, and her mouth was perpetually full, in order to avoid exactly the same fate.
Luz climbed under Sam's elbow and flicked her tongue at his sweet corn, before disappearing under the table and panting like an excited puppy.
Sam made another face at Dean, more pained than the first. Tortured, even.
Dean just shook his head. His brow furrowed in confusion.
Sam's eyes widened, and he pursed his lips, like, This is bullshit, don't you think so?
Further confusion. Then Dean slumped a little, and wiped at his face with the back of his hand. He kneaded his temple, and dabbed at his nose with the cloth napkin as discreetly as possible.
Then Luz leaned across Sam's plate and poked holes, one two three, into the taut crust of his bread roll.
Sam let his fork drop to his plate with a clatter, and Dean looked up.
Sam gave him his best impression of a perturbed gargoyle--a gargoyle perturbed by a snotty little princess.
Dean rolled his eyes. You are such a fucking moron, Sam.
If Sam were psychic, he'd have retaliated. What part of the English language don't you understand, Dean? All of it? Because holy crap. If Sam were psychic, life would just be easier, period. How much did he have to pay to get someone to treat him like an actual person, seriously.
Before Sam was finished seething, Dean sneezed again--and again and again, triple-tap.
"I can give you something for that, you know," said Hector Felipe.
"No, you can't," John objected immediately.
"Mr. Winchester." Hector Felipe took his napkin out of his collar and folded it on top of his plate. "You don't supply the best hospitals on the continent with their prescription medications, and fund the research of seventeen others, without learning a few tricks. You don't make a business out of saving people without, well." Hector Felipe smiled. "Saving them. I have a medical license; I think I'm qualified to give your son a simple decongestant."
Show off, Sam thought. Hector Felipe didn't need to tell anyone all of that. John had taught him and Dean better.
"Certainly, he can't be expected to hunt a ghost like that," Hector Felipe continued. "There's a guest bedroom down the hall. You could make it up for him."
"He's good for the job."
Between the dinner and the disaster that had been his two months with Uncle Bobby (and Veronica), Sam had almost forgotten they were even on a job. But there was a ghost, wasn't there. There was a ghost haunting this regal, shadowless house; somewhere inside, a housekeeper had died of a frozen heart. And John wanted all three of them on the case; that was the whole reason he'd even shown up again, magically summoned from the ether. He'd wanted them for the job. So of course he wanted Dean to be good for it, whatever that meant, but even Sam knew that was obviously not the case; and his father needed to fold, for once in his life. A flare of anger shot through Sam's chest, anger at John's blindness, his stubbornness, his hardness--but that wasn't it, was it.
Veronica had called him. Veronica had given John the case. She'd wanted Sam to stay, to stay "safe" with her, and John had rescued him.
"Fine," John said, and folded. Something inside Sam twisted wrong. Because no, that wasn't right. That wasn't his father; not Dad.
Dean looked...relieved? And that was wrong, too. There was, Sam knew, something seriously wrong with all of this. It was wrong. He didn't know why, but something was off, something wasn't meshing right, there were gears grinding, there were cues being missed. It had been two months, and somehow they'd all come back wrong. This was all--
When Hector Felipe suggested again that John take the bedding to the guest room--since after all, the housekeeper was dead now, wasn't she--and John seemed poised to accept, Sam shouted. He wasn't sure what he shouted, but both Dean and Liliana shouted "Sam!" in return.
Then they looked at each other. Dean grinned, and winked at her.
And Sam knew that look. He remembered that look. That was not a good look.
"God, Papi, I'll do the bed," said Andalusia. "Having guests make up their own rooms; what are you thinking? They're guests, aren't they?" This last, she said with her eyebrows raised, timbre pointedly interrogative.
Hector Felipe glowered, feral, then recovered himself. "Of course," he said.
It was the house; it had to be the house. Or the ghost. Or maybe it was them; maybe it was the Winchester curse, mucking everything up. Whatever it was, there was something very definitely wrong here, even if Sam was apparently the only one who knew it. Haunted people didn't sit around having dinner like there was nothing wrong--if there was a ghost in the room, you acted like it! Or you were supposed to. Or--Sam wasn't even sure anymore. But something was amiss. His father hadn't had to point it out to him; it was that obvious.
His father hadn't pointed it out, Sam realized. He'd said nothing, because he wasn't in control here. Hector Felipe was, and stubbornly so.
Hector Felipe was in control of John Winchester, and he was loving it.
As Hector Felipe ushered everyone out of the dining room and down the hall--Andalusia and the girls would show Dean to his room, and he and "Mr. Winchester" would examine the room where Housekeeper Celeste, God rest her soul, had dropped dead--Sam chafed at the broad expanse of his gestures, his affected baritone. It wasn't right. That control belonged to his father. It wasn't right.
"What's got you, Sammy?" It's Dean, being half-guided, half-dragged by his new best friend, Liliana.
Sam huffed. That wasn't even a real sentence, and Sam definitely wasn't going to treat it like one. But then.
Sam looked up, and found Dean, disentangled from Liliana, intent on Sam. Listening to him. He found Dean, period.
"Sam, what's wrong."
But Sam couldn't have told him, could he. Dean'd already said he didn't want to know. And to begin to explain where things had gone wrong, Sam would have needed to start a lot earlier than someone else's fingers in his malasada. "I--" he said. But then the moment was gone, snatched up in a flurry of bedspreads and pillow shams, as Andalusia dumped them into Sam's arms and shepherded her flock of apparently lesser beings into the third room off the hall. Sam struggled with his unexpected burden and Dean slipped away, beyond a veil of purple silk and lace-fringed duvets.
They're skilled, he'll give them that. Sam, perched on a wicker footstool a space away from the spectacle, frowned. They'd folded the comforter under Dean before bringing it up to his chest, a human hot dog; and Sam knew Dean liked that. They'd known, somehow, to stack the pillows on top of one another beneath him. All these things they'd known, things Sam had assumed were part of his inventory of Dean, and his alone. Dean was his stupid brother, he reasoned, and he should get some credit for that. But somehow they'd known, or deduced. And they'd made Sam irrelevant.
Liliana slipped into Dean's human hot dog, curving her body along his back like a spoon, and stroked his arm. Then she kissed his brow.
Sam gagged. Not only was he irrelevant, he'd been upstaged entirely, because he definitely wasn't going to do that.
"Can I take your temperature, Dean?" She'd put on lipstick, Sam realized. It was 3AM, and inexplicably, she'd just now decided to put on lipstick. "In Mexico, I'm a nurse's apprentice."
"Do you speak Spanish?" Dean asked, and this time it was more of a dry-heave on Sam's part. Dean was exactly that degree of feverish, Sam determined, that made him oblivious to exactly how stupid he was.
Liliana broke character for a moment, falling back into fourteen-year old girl and out of Jessica Rabbit, as though she weren't entirely sure how to answer the question, or why it was being asked. "We speak Spanish in Mexico, yes," she said finally.
"What about Japanese?"
"They speak that in Japan."
"Obviously. I meant--"
Sam did not want to know what Dean meant; he was pretty sure of that. Thankfully, Andalusia emerged from the bathroom before Dean and Liliana could get any further. It was good to have a voice of reason in the room; and if it couldn't be Sam's, he figured Andalusia was a decent second choice.
"I soaked your towel in lavender water," said the voice of reason. The voice of reason had changed out of sweatpants and a camisole and into a sheer robe while she'd been preparing the towels. Sam had never seen a girl in a bra before. "Here, put this on your forehead. Is that good?"
Sam tried, he really had, to give the world the benefit of the doubt, but this was ridiculous. It had to be. There was no way on earth this was actually happening right now. He watched as Andalusia wrung out a small purple towel and folded it against Dean's brow. She ran her fingers through his hair, gently massaging the hairline. Her back was to Sam, so he couldn't see much, but he was fairly certain she didn't need to be leaning that far over Dean's face to do what she was doing.
"Let me sing you a song," Marina chimed in. Marina, Sam's age, he guessed, and Sam's height. Marina, who was silent at dinner, also. Marina, Sam's best shot at finding sanity in this house. Marina, gone to the dark side.
Sam curled his fingers into the wicker below him. He was scuffing it brown, he realized, with the dirt from his shoes. But he didn't care. The world as he knew it was ending around him; the stupid wicker was the least of anyone's worries.
He just didn't understand. He absolutely did not. A woman had died in his house, days before--a woman well-loved, as far as he could tell. There was a ghost roaming the halls. There was something, probably terrible, that had kept the ghost here. Yet Hector Felipe was more interested in his own machismo posturing. And worse, John was letting that happen. And the girls weren't afraid; they were so far from afraid, they were throwing themselves at Dean. At Dean! If there were any mystery Sam wanted to get to the bottom of, he'd definitely start there. The ghost, he figured, would evince itself sooner or later. Dean was another story.
Because there had to be something to this. And if one thing was true about Sam, he never walked away from a puzzle.
Sam stared, intently, from his perch on the wicker footstool. He was a scientist, observing the rituals of monsters: The girls first, in their shimmery pajamas and midnight make-up.
They were adept with the tools of their trade. The cool, fluffy towels, Liliana's little glass thermometer, the hot water bottle. Marina had brought a tea set, with which she served them all seltzer water. (Though, Sam noted with some chagrin, she hadn't offered him any.) Sam realized, however, that their kisses were too giggly, their touches too frantic, to be honestly confident. They were messily romantic, trying to measure up to the magic standards set by famous movies even Sam had seen. But they were strange girls, and close observation only revealed that they were actually even stranger girls. Seeing them for what they really were didn't change that, even if it did lay to rest Sam's growing suspicion that they were some kind of siren, or succubus. But no, they were just girls; and in a lot of ways, that was worse.
Sam pitched forward, and hastily caught his balance. The wicker footstool settled beneath him. He hadn't realized he'd been leaning in to the scene.
Observation summit, part two: The first thing Sam noticed about Dean was that he was obviously sick. And just as obviously, that this was repellant. Sam spent a decent portion of his life trying not to be sick, in between late nights doing recon in dank forests and jumping into municipal sewers, and summers spent nearly drowning in fetid lakes and nursing bites and scratches, scratches from things that have been places a lot nastier than the squirrels in Central Park--and even Sam was still cautious enough to stay well away from those. So if Dean started looking peaky, Sam was strictly hands-off. But Sam could see the appeal to the untutored. Maybe. There was an easy volatility to Dean's expressions, the flush to his cheeks a constant disruption of the surface tension. Dean could turn a glassy stare into something glittering, playfully fiendish, ravenous if he wanted to; and apparently, he did want to. He made everything look easy, open, like it was fair game to all comers. He made it look like he had nothing to hide. Like he could swallow you whole and make you whole inside of him. Sam watched Dean put his arms around Liliana like that. He watched Liliana's smile. And Sam wanted. He wanted desperately. He wanted the Dean his brother became around other people--people like Andalusia, and Liliana, and even Marina.
Dean dared Marina to try and pick a song he liked, if she was such a singer; he dared her like he wanted her to win. He wanted her to succeed. And when Marina started warbling a mostly recognizable--if heavily accented and somewhat lisping--"Knockin' on Heaven's Door," Sam burned with an almost murderous jealousy. It shouldn't be that easy to know Dean, so easy to impress him. Sam tried to remember the last time Dean had looked at him like that.
About twenty minutes ago, probably, Sam realized, which made his righteous disgust abate somewhat. But even that wasn't the same; for these girls, there weren't any real consequences. All they had to do was kiss him for a night. There wasn't anything real about this house, these sisters, their infatuation; it was all just fantasy. But truthfully, Sam wasn't sure if that were true, or if he just wanted it to be.
Because he couldn't speak to Dean without being afraid that Dean wouldn't listen. He would never--
"Tell me anything," Dean said to Liliana, his eyes closed, and his lips searching. "You can tell me anything, Robin." She giggle-whispered into his hair. Andalusia, forgetting her earlier professionalism as a host, whispered into Dean's other ear. Sam rolled his eyes. And what kind of a pet name was Robin? It was almost as sappy as calling someone "dove" or "snookums." Was it so wrong to just call her Lily or something? It had worked for Sam and Sammy, hadn't it?
But Sam was definitely not hypothesizing pet names for anyone; it just wasn't happening, no way, and no how. It was not happening. Also, pet names were dumb.
"Let's play telephone," Andalusia suggested, and the entire bed pulsed with the apparent genius of that prospect. Marina, who was not included in the game, asserted her continued participation in the festivities by singing even more loudly.
"There is a God," Dean mumbled, each word humming with contentment. "There's actually a freaking God," he said, to the girls this time, and not to Sam.
Sam was not a believer. No God he voted for would enable this ridiculous charade.
"THA'COOLBBLACKC'OUD S'COMIN' DOWN," Marina wailed. "IT FEEEELLIKE I'M KNOCKI'ON HEAVENSDOOR!"
Sam took a deep breath, and held tight to the thought: No God that he voted for.
"KNOCKOCKOCKIN ON HEAVENSSSDOOR!"
"She sang that at the funeral," said Luz.
To PART 2...