Title: Love Like Salt (2/2) [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, ~6000.
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.
"She sang that at the funeral," said Luz, from behind Sam's wicker perch. Sam jumped; he'd--well, not forgotten, but he'd assumed Luz had dutifully gone to bed or something. He wasn't entirely thrilled to see her now, but she was different, at least. And given the status quo of the room just then, Sam was open to different.
"The funeral?" Sam asked.
"My mami is the Dean of Medicine at the Centro Médico ABC. She loves me!"
Sam groaned inwardly. He hated kids. They never made any sense; it was like they actually tried to not make sense. No one ever listened to Sam when he made sense; infantile non sequiturs seemed like an unfair luxury. But whatever.
"Did she--" And you know, Sam thought, this was one thing he should have been really good at talking about. But he didn't have the vocabulary for this. "The funeral. Was it your mom's?"
"You can't work at a hospital if you're a ghost. You make people cold, and then they die faster."
Sam shuddered involuntarily. He really hated kids.
"Celeste told me that ghosts aren't real."
"That's nice," said Sam, trying to remember who Celeste was. Celeste, the housekeeper. Right. "Was it Celeste's funeral?"
Celeste's funeral was going to be on Thursday, Luz informed him. Obviously. "Mami's house in Lomas de Chapultepec is bigger, you know. Lily always says so."
Sam chuffed. Of course "Lily" did. From what Sam was able to piece together from the rest of Luz's rambling epic, her sisters spent a lot of time doing absolutely nothing in a ritzy-ass part of Mexico. Their mother moved back to her parents' mansion after she left Hector Felipe, and she'd never been back.
"A bad thing happened here," Luz confirmed. "God said, 'Covet not,' or a ghost will take your treasures away from you."
"Someone should tell that to your sisters." Sam shot a poisonous glance at the lavender bed. Liliana and Dean were kissing.
"God saw my papi giving Celeste a secret kiss," said Luz. "So He took her away."
Then she said, "I have a present," and produced a book. It was a Bible, but still, Sam was strangely touched. It was a present.
"It's for Dean."
Sam set his jaw and bit his tongue. He flipped to the first page. There, sticky and savory, was a heart that had been finger-painted with steak juice. "Thanks."
"I get it."
Sam got it. But if he wasn't wanted here, fine; he'd go find the ghost. He'd go find John. He was pretty sure that if John knew what Sam had overheard, what Sam knew about him and Uncle Bobby, and Veronica, and all of them, he was pretty sure he could drum up a lot of interest, real fast. He could solve his family and this stupid, stupid ghost-hunt, all in one fell swoop. He'd burn the world down if he had to.
Sam jumped off the wicker footstool with righteous muster. Luz had scattered already, so he dumped the Bible on his old perch and stormed towards the outer hall.
"Sam," Dean called after him. Which was surprising, because Dean had seemed thoroughly and very happily distracted from all things Sam, but it wasn't enough to get Sam to turn around. Not today. "Sammy. Sam, wait--"
The house was a beacon still, every light shining to perfection. Sam figured that at the very least it would be impossible to miss them flickering, the electric surge of a ghost coming home to roost. The complete solitude outside of the Dean Winchester room of lavender-scented horror was unnerving in refreshing in turns, and Sam hurried past the line of family portraits as he backtracked towards the front door, where John had left their duffel bag.
The duffel was absent their usual miscellany of spare clips and extra, emergency boxes of rock salt. The fifty dollar bill John kept sewn into the lining was gone. (Sam had discovered the money earlier that year; he'd returned it, however, self-conscious and inexplicably shamed.) The silver trinkets which, in a pinch, worked wonders against a lot of monsters wanting to kill you, were also missing. Even some of their secondary rifles weren't there, and these were things John didn't just loan out.
Sam selected a willowy piece of iron piping and pulled the EMF meter out of its newspaper nest. There was a film of dust between its knobs and switches, so much it looked like it had been striped white, and as he walked back down the hall, Sam wiped at it with the sleeve of his shirt. He could see the dirt they'd tracked into the hall, and he bowed his head until he'd left the portraits well behind.
But without the distraction of other people impressed upon him, Sam couldn't ignore the number he and his family had already wrought on this nice, clean haunted house. A dusty spot on the wall--had Sam leaned against it there? A lost napkin, brown and crumpled and wet. Boot tracks. Sam hadn't felt particularly dirty, but maybe he needed to reevaluate that.
Sam walked past Dean's room, almost willing the EMF to freak out and corroborate Sam's hopeful suspicions, but it was silent. But he didn't want to deal with the girls--Andalusia, and Liliana, and Marina, and Luz, Sam catalogued--and he certainly didn't want to deal with Dean.
Sam picked up the pace, swinging his iron pipe idly. Once, he twirled it too close to the wall, and left a screeching streak of blue-gray against the stucco. Rubbed out, it looked like a smoke stain. Sam gagged a little at the chalkiness of his mouth, and wet his fingers for one last good rub, to no avail.
He walked, sedate, iron pipe loose at his side, until he heard Hector Felipe's large baritone. And then he crept. At the end of the hall, there was a door, different from the rest, marked for the servant's quarters. Sam consulted his EMF meter, but the needle barely jumped. It only proved that at some point, for some duration, a ghost had been there. A little static was all that was left of Housekeeper Celeste and her icy frozen heart.
"That's a rich man's answer, Hector," John said, in answer to a blur of white noise Sam hadn't been able to decipher. He crept closer.
"Felipe," said Hector Felipe. "Hector Felipe to you, Mr. Winchester. You forget, I know your story. I know what you've done."
Then Hector Felipe told their story. The Winchester Family Business Story. Sam had never heard it from a stranger's mouth before--or anyone's mouth, really. And for Hector Felipe's, it didn't sound like Sam's story, as Sam knew it, and it didn't sound like his family--not his dad, not his brother. They weren't, and Sam wasn't. Sam wasn't like that. And that story didn't feel like something Sam could wrap his arms around and ever make a part of him. Yet Hector Felipe told no lies.
Sam squeezed his fingers around his iron pipe until he felt his nails dig into the flesh of his palm. He felt the tendons twist taut.
"How much have you sold to make it this far?" Hector Felipe asked John. "How much have you thrown away?"
He let John give his daughter a pauper's funeral. He watched her bones burn, and the salt turn turn flame green. He believed John when he promised that would end it; he'd seen the first ghost go, after all, and John had promised. "You promised me my angel would go to Heaven, Mr. Winchester, and I trusted you."
"I never said there was a Heaven," was John's only response.
"Is that why you sold your wedding rings?" asked Hector Felipe. "Because God isn't watching?" I am a businessman, Mr. Winchester, he added. This time I've remembered to research who I'm working with.
"They're only memories," John answered, in a strangled tone of voice Sam knew his father didn't use on anyone. Or thought he knew.
"I saw who killed Celeste, Mr. Winchester. I was here--I'll admit it--and I felt her lips go cold on mine. I felt the strength bleed out of her body. I felt the weight of her death. Memory is--very powerful, Mr. Winchester, and you of all people should remember that. So know this. This is your fault now, twice-over."
Eight years, Hector Felipe mouthed. Eight years, he and his girls have tried to put their tragedies behind them. John's tragedies. Eight years and still, the ghosts come back. These were the ghosts that John Winchester promised he would end.
"You know it's true," Hector Felipe added, when John said nothing. "You know it's true, or you wouldn't be here, would you. Chasing after memories."
Sam had never heard an adult speak so hatefully, or with such a cast of betrayal. He'd never heard someone hurt like that. And he had never heard anyone hate his father. (But it's been happening a lot lately, hasn't it. Old partners wanting to collect on debts. Friends, overused and unrespected. John had a crusade he could not let go of, but also, increasingly, a crusade he could no longer afford to maintain.)
"A father provides, Mr. Winchester. And I honor my children. I loved my wife until you got our daughter killed, and she left this--haunted house. I loved Celeste until your loose ends killed her, too. Don't drag me down with you. If it's an ending you want, and peace you're really after, try harder."
Sam gasped. He hurt. For no reason, he thought, he hurt. Dizzy with the morbid success of his eavesdropping, Sam dropped his iron pipe, dropped the EMF meter and, running to escape the sound they made against the stone floor as much as from the attention he knew it would bring, streaked down the hallway. He ran as fast as he could.
Who needs you more, John? Bobby shouted. A roar that buzzed in the telephone wires like some impossible beast. Who needs you more? The dead or your children?
"Sam, calm down." But Sam was not going to calm down, because being dragged out of a hallway by your brother, only to discover that he was half-naked (half! naked!) was really, really ridiculously far from a reason to calm down.
"WHAT WERE YOU DOING?" Sam cried, wresting himself away from Dean's grasp. "WHAT ARE YOU DOING."
Dean shrugged his T-shirt back over his shoulder, then did the same for the flannel. It did nothing, however, to hide the sag of his collar, which had been irreparably stretched. "Nothing!" Dean insisted obtusely, as he adjusted his belt and--oh god--zipped his jeans back up.
"WHAT WERE YOU DOING."
"Sam, nothing, really, seriously, cross my heart, I promise, I didn't do anything. Future reference? Never bring up the dead sister--total buzzkill."
"There are twins, by the way. Or there used to be," Dean clarified.
Sam stared, mouth agape. His brother was just. So weird. And Sam felt like a bat that had been suddenly dragged into the daylight.
(Don't think about the servant's quarters.)
Once Dean was dressed again, Sam tore his attention away from him long enough to realize that they were in a new room. There was no wicker in this one; just an undisturbed bed with an immaculate bedspread, which Dean was now sagging against. Sam could hear the muffled shrieks of an argument down the hall, in the old, lavender bedroom, sinusoidal Spanish crashing against the white stucco.
"Is that your fault?" Sam asked.
Dean shrugged. "The point is, at one point in time, there were twins. And now there's not. Bam, ghost story." This last was a croak, Dean's cold (or whatever) having settled into his throat. He coughed into his elbow.
"Well, which one's the twin?"
Dean shrugged again. Sam could tell Dean was totally cloud nine-ing this discussion. "Dean," he said, spreading his arms in invitation. "Come on, hello."
"The little one," Dean said finally, his eyes screwed shut. He took a deep breath. "The little one, your age, I don't know."
"Are you freaking serious?" Because one, Sam was definitely not "the little one." And two, not helpful. "Marina? Luz?"
Sam folded his arms in exasperation. An entire evening, and he didn't even know their names. "Honestly. What do they see in you?"
"I'm a good kisser." Dean puckered his lips and swept playfully toward Sam. Sam recoiled, and Dean pulled back, wobbly.
"I dunno, Sam," Dean continued, sobered. "The one that's little girl shaped; there's a lot of girls, how am I supposed to keep them straight?" Sam was about to ask again, in earnest, what they could possibly see in him, when Dean added, "She could sing. She could sing, and she had a twin. And Sam--"
Dean faded. He miscalculated his grab for Sam and, unsecured, crumpled to the ground. Sam dropped instantly, and tried to heave him back to sitting by his shoulders. But Dean wouldn't have any of that. He palmed the carpet and sucked in air. So instead, Sam put a reassuring hand to Dean's back--burning and sweaty, even from under his clothing.
"Does it...hurt?" Sam asked.
"Just dizzy." Supporting himself one-handed, he put the other out towards Sam, and found Sam's shoulder. He used Sam's body as his guide to getting upright. Once he succeeded, he knocked his head back against the large, unmussed bed. "Jus' really--
"This isn't good, Sammy."
"Dad'll cover," said Sam.
"Where's he been this whole time?" Dean asked without looking at Sam.
"He's just at the end of he hall. He's with Hector Felipe."
"Where's he been this whole time?" Dean repeated.
And that, Sam couldn't answer. But Sam had puzzled out one thing, he realized. Something about Dean. Because this, right here, was the Dean no one else would ever see. The version of himself he gave only to Sam, in guarded, frantic, confusing little pieces. Sam got to see Dean's weakness. He got to see Dean worried. He got to see him hurting. (But only sometimes.) All those others, Dean swallowed into a void. And Sam, Sam had the privilege of knowing that.
Sam knew he should feel grateful, but mostly he felt sick. Some part of him knew that he was not exempt. Not entirely.
"We're working," Sam said finally. It was the only thing he could say. "Dad knows it's the girl, too. We just need to find her. Veronica said--"
Dean groaned. "What does Veronica have to do with anything?"
"You don't know that story," Sam reiterated, tersely. If they'd talked this out hours ago, it wouldn't be a problem right now. But it all made sense. John had worked a case here before. You two got business, Veronica had said, gripping Sam's shoulders possessively. You know you don't want your kids around there. Not after--
I want my children with me, said John.
You've already failed them, John. Then Veronica had let go of his shoulders, and Sam was rescued. Maybe.
Don't drag them down with you.
"Veronica said Dad already worked a case here," Sam shorthanded. "A long time ago. And a little girl got killed, one of the daughters--Marina's twin, I guess." And love, which never, ever got less complicated when people started dropping dead, was what had made this ghost a killer. She turned hearts cold. Avenged lost romance. Burned for the love of the living. That sort of thing. Sam shrugged. Ghost stuff.
"So basically, Dad messed up," Dean rasped. He seemed to crumple inward, and pulled sullenly at his bootlaces. There was a pause then, a silent expanse of something stinging and open, and it made Sam itch all over. Then Dean rapped at his laces with his knuckles and said, at a clip, "Whatever. It's whatever. If you see a Marina-shaped ghost, shoot it."
But her body--that had burned already. This was supposed to have ended a long time ago. A long-- "Dean, wait. If Dad messed up here, that was years ago. Veronica said. But that means Marina's twin would have been--"
Just then, the entire wall slammed open, and on impulse, Dean threw a hand over Sam's mouth. But the wall had not, in fact, disintegrated; rather, the wall wasn't. It had been a partition only, separating a wide ballroom into many bedrooms, and Andalusia wrenched it open as she screamed at Liliana, without even stopping for breath.
Liliana was screaming back, a flustered mixture of both English and Spanish to stave off Andalusia's verbal assault. Andalusia had hammered her own screams into a single repeated phrase: "YOU'RE NEVER TO SPEAK ABOUT HER. YOU WERE NEVER TO SPEAK ABOUT HER. NEVER SPEAK."
"No no no," Dean groaned. "Don't draw more attention to her--"
The lights flickered, and everyone's screams cut out.
Dean was still finding his feet, and still smothering Sam, when Sam heard a noise under the bed.
A Bible eked out from beneath the bed skirt, clutched by small white hands. And from under the bed, Luz barked. Pretending she was a puppy again.
The lights danced like they'd been roused by an electric storm.
Sam sprang up immediately, the surge of adrenaline that propelled him also yanking Dean forward with enough force to make him yelp.
"I have a present," chimed Luz, opening her Bible to the first page, the one with the steak sauce heart. "A present for Dean."
If Dean didn't have the presence or agility of mind right then to cooperate with Sam, he did apparently find it necessary to shove him toward the door, his body a fortress between Sam and Luz.
"Dean, no, stop, you're doing this wrong--"
But then Luz looked at Dean, and she looked at Sam, and Luz smiled. "Sam," she said, closing her Bible. She tested his name again. "Dean loves Sam. And I love Sam like Dean does."
Sam had never wanted so desperately to be loved different.
"It's Luz," said Sam, pushing back against Dean. But Dean had backed them to the hallway, and bracing himself in the doorway, had boxed Sam out.
"How can you tell?" Dean croaked.
It was then Sam realized that Dean couldn't see her. He craned his neck to find Andalusia and Liliana, who'd gone silent. But they were looking at Sam and Dean, not Luz. It was just Sam, then.
"Can't you see her?" he cried. But they shook their heads. But why couldn't they? She was so obvious, she was right there in front of all of them, she didn't even look like a ghost at all, but a person, a flesh and blood person.
Sam had shared his dinner with her.
"Papi told us not to," Liliana said finally. "He said she was forbidden. He said--"
Then something grabbed Sam from behind. Coarse and heavy, it slammed a gag against Sam's mouth and yanked his fingers away from the back of Dean's shirt. Sam felt his arms fold against his ribs, crushing the air from him. He spit against his gag--a hand--with a plosive gasp.
Luz jumped toward them. Somewhere above his head, Sam heard his father shout, "Down, Dean!" Dean swooped under Luz and then Sam lost perspective as he was wrenched sideways. He report of a shotgun deafened him, and he cringed as he was peppered by the blowback of rock salt.
He was in his father's arms, Sam realized. He was in his arms and John was holding him too tight. Sideways now, he opened his eyes and made out, his vision blurred by tears, the salt line John was trying to spill across the doorway. Luz swept toward them for a second charge, and John spun left. Sam, in his arms, smashed headlong into Luz's portrait in the hall. John shielded Sam from who knew what, but he felt the icy chill of a spirit passing over him. Then John flung Sam down the hall, away from the ghost, and Sam hit the ground unprepared, a jarring smack that kept him down, dazed, skeleton ringing, muscles puddling, for too long. Sam froze, and choked on his own spit. He gaped like a fish. All he could think about was pain. He stared.
John had replaced him in his arms with a bag of rock salt. He was trying to seal off Luz's escape routes. John had replaced him.
Then Sam remembered Dean, still on the other side of John's salt line. He rolled onto his knees and, after a shaky false start, worked up to a shamble and hobbled down the hall. The rooms were connected, he thought blearily. He'd go around. He'd go around and he'd get inside that way. He'd get to Dean.
Behind him, he heard someone shout his name. His father, maybe. Sam kept shambling.
He made it around just in time for Andalusia to sweep toward him from the other direction, dragging Liliana by her side. They rushed into Hector Felipe's arms. Hector Felipe, dumbstruck, regarded Sam hazily, but mostly clutched the partition wall so tightly it bent, mouth agape.
"Luz," he breathed.
Luz had Dean's cheeks cupped in her pudgy hands, and he was kissing him on the nose. Dean, rigid but helpless under her, pulled backward in vain. Then he seemed to give in, and just let it happen. Luz wrapped her arms around his neck.
"Papi, where's Marina?" Sam heard Andalusia ask, panicked, but Hector Felipe did not respond. To Sam, she barely registered. The frenzied seconds seemed to freeze, and Sam watched Dean. He watched Dean go limp under Luz, and his fist closed around the memory of his iron pipe, dropped and forgotten.
Then his mind caught up with reality and Sam realized he was being jerked backwards again, John had grabbed him backwards again, and Sam screamed, "No!" Over and over, he screamed. And he tried to escape. Get back, John roared over him. Get back. Get safe.
"I borrowed your string."
Sam stopped. It was Marina, somewhere below him. It was Marina, under the bed.
Luz looked up from Dean.
"I stole your yellow ribbon, but I only borrowed the string," Marina clarified. "It's right here under the bed, look."
Luz let Dean slide from her hands. He lay beneath her unmoving for a few scanty seconds. Sam went limp with relief when Dean wormed away from her.
Marina crawled out from under the bed, and sobbed something in Spanish. She held her hands open for her sister. And Liliana, taking Marina's cue, said, "Dinner was ready. That's when I meant to tell you, when I found you. Dinner was ready. Your third favorite thing."
"Hi," said Andalusia. "Hi, baby."
"My light," said Hector Felipe.
They had nothing to say to her, Sam thought. She'd died and they'd spent all this time missing the fact that they had nothing to say to her. Just silly little things. Silly little things that still needed to be said. Silly things that just meant they needed her. They needed her to be there with them.
The lights flickered madly.
Hector Felipe dropped his death grip on the partition wall and stumbled towards his daughter's ghost. But before their forms met, she was gone. Sam watched her evaporate, a white missed swirling upward, and he knew she was gone for good--as though she'd never been. He felt it in the air. She was gone. Luz was gone.
Marina gasped. Hector Felipe moaned. John let go of Sam, and across the room, Dean shored up. With one shoulder slumped against the wall, he looked up at John. Sam watched him nod shakily, in response to some cue from John Sam had missed. I'm fine, said Dean's nod. It's all good. I'm fine. Then he rounded the doorframe and disappeared into the hallway.
Sam winnowed his way through the mess of people stunned into immobility and hastened into the hall as well.
The lights shone bright again.
Their work was done.
Dean took one look at Sam and dropped. He'd gotten away, stood up, escaped, he'd done all of those things--but he saw Sam and he stopped trying to pretend. He dropped. Sam yelped, and rushed to close the distance between them, all too aware of the massive bruise his entire left was fast becoming. He winced and blinked back tears as he slid to Dean's side.
Dean didn't seem to hear him. His gaze was fixed on the ground, unresponsive to any of Sam's ministrations. He was cold to Sam's touch, where he'd been too hot just moments before. "Dean, come on. Dean."
Sam closed a hand over Dean's. His didn't fit all the way around, but he gripped tight anyway "Dean, come on, talk to me. Hey."
But there was nothing. There was a vacancy
"Dean, please, it's Sam, come on."
Sam thought about how far away Dean had been, for months. How far he'd been in the car, in this house, even in his stupid hallway. And he knew that whatever that meant, or whatever that looked like later, he'd take it. He'd take whatever part of Dean he got.
It would have to be good enough. Sam'd take what he could get, because he couldn't afford to lose it.
Then Dean's cheeks puffed out, and his white face blanched positively luminescent, and Sam got the hell out of the way as Dean threw up dinner onto the stone floor, grinding rock salt into his palms and puffing their dirt tracks into the grout cracks with his heaving breaths.
When Dean was done, Sam knelt beside him again. He took a deep breath, and let his body puddle on the floor beside Dean.
And without a word, he removed his flannel button-up and started mopping up.
"It was dirty anyway," Sam assured his brother, even though he was pretty sure Dean wasn't exactly up to giving a crap. But Sam cared. "It's okay. It's okay."
Dean mumbled something incomprehensible, and enveloped Sam's free hand in his own.
At noon, some hours after the house had reawoken, Sam met up with Dean in the lavender room. Dean was alone, shoving his boots back onto his feet while he sat on Sam's wicker footstool. He looked absurdly out of place that way, covering the area where Sam had smudged the wicker black with an even greater smudge. And he stood out, stretched shirt and worn jeans against the tender framework of the furniture, and the white lace that dressed the table beside him.
"How're you feeling?" Sam asked. Dean looked better, but still scattered. Fragmented. He muffled a gluey cough with his elbow, but to Sam it wasn't a particularly interesting symptom. Sick happened. (And ghosts also happened. But Sam wasn't quite willing to accept that. Not anymore.)
"Andalusia slipped me some pills. Fucking miracle workers," Dean replied, as though he'd forgotten the ghosts. But Sam remembered Dean's hollowness for that one moment, how completely unreachable he'd been in the hallway. Sam remembered those seconds, whether Dean wanted him to or not. And for Sam, these things weren't allowed to simply disappear. To evaporate out.
"Luz," Sam started.
Dean shook his head, and without waiting for Sam to elaborate, announced, "She wasn't out for a vengeance. She was just--she was like us. She didn't know how to stop."
Sam shifted in his sneakers.
"I mean, like, we love people. Like--we love Mom, even though she's gone and it hurts. Who's to say ghosts don't do the same thing right back? She kept going and it just--it got all fucked up, and she couldn't stop. She just--"
Sam nodded, as though he understood. But he didn't, not entirely. Whatever Dean thought Sam shared with him, Sam knew they didn't, not in that way. But Dean wasn't really talking to him anymore. He talking at Sam, sure, but this was just Dean talking to Dean, with Sam blocked out. With Sam on the other side of a void.
"How come you didn't know it was her?" Sam asked. "You had to have known the twin was Luz. Everyone had to have known."
"No one else saw her, Sam. I guess dead chicks just dig you, I dunno what to tell you."
"But her picture was hanging right there. I don't understand--"
Sam just looked at Dean expectantly; no, he looked at Dean like he was a complete stranger. There were so many things that just-- Everyone had so many missing pieces to their stories. And now that Sam knew how likely it was, against all odds, that the missing ones were always going to be the crucial ones, he was seized by an unshakable, harrowing uncertainty. A portrait one day, a skewed promise the next; it was just--it was only matter of time, was how Sam felt. And these were such simple, little things.
Sam bit his lip. "Where's the...harem?" he asked, testing the word, and wary now of every absence. It didn't feel right to be alone inside this house.
"Going Pet Sematary on the backyard." Dean finished tying his laces. "Don't understand why they'd want to her back, though. Kinda fucked up, right? I mean, she's gone.
Dean looked far away again. He wasn't making any sense.
"You're weird," Sam pointed out, "You're really weird. And I still missed you."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Oh, don't start with that. C'mon--" He broke off, to cough, and grabbed Sam by the shoulder as he heaved himself to standing. Sam stiffened at the touch, a sudden thrill of warning echoing through his body, but he tried to relax it away before Dean noticed. This was not last night. There was no danger here.
In the hallway, Sam tried, for the fourth time in twelve hours, to tell his story. "Uncle Bobby said--"
Dean's rebuke was instant. "It wasn't like that." Whether Dean knew what 'like that' even was, he pushed forward doggedly. "I ran away."
Sam squirmed. He felt like he was sliding away from his skin. "And you left me?"
They passed under the portraits, countenances unchanged by Luz's departure. Dean paid them exactly as much attention as he had all the other times they'd walked this path. The house remained sunny, bright, and haunted.
Dean let the silence run too long. Then he hid inside a series of coughs. Finally: "Well, what'd Dad tell you?"
Dean grappled with this for a half-step before responding. "Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Went off with some of Dad's guys from the colony, ended up finding a hunt. And there were zombies. Sorry, Sammy, but c'mon, there were zombies."
"That doesn't make any--"
Dean yanked the door open, and let the real sunlight in. He coughed, and pawed at his pockets like he was looking for another napkin.
"Look. You're smart, Sam; I'm not gonna spell this out for you. There was a hunt. I left. Figure it out from there, jesus."
Sam burned. Sam wanted.
And then Sam gave in. Sam dropped his gaze to the floor and tried to push past Dean. He'd almost cleared the threshold when Dean brushed an exploratory hand across the back of Sam's head. He must have noticed the bump.
Sam winced. He should explain, he knew, but Sam didn't want to. He was afraid of opening that void. He didn't want to luxuriate in the feeling of being lied to, of things not adding up, of safeties hastily and wrongfully defined. He was afraid of being afraid of his father, even if only for that crazy, upside-down instant. He was afraid of wondering what John wasn't doing, or could not do. And he was afraid of giving this, all of this, to Dean.
Dean's fingers caught on the raised scabs on Sam's cheek from the rock salt, and his expression darkened. But Sam said nothing.
"He just wanted you safe," Dean said.
"I didn't need saving."
Sam thought about Dean on the other side of John's salt line, but Dean didn't say anything else.
As they neared the Impala, both Hector Felipe and John looked up.
"Three," said John, closing the conversation off from his children with a turn of his shoulder. "He was good for the job. Like I said."
"Two," said Hector Felipe, insistent. There remained no love between them.
And two, John accepted. Something exchanged hands, and John swept around to the driver's side door. Wiping his hands, Hector Felipe excused himself. As he passed Sam and Dean, he said "Safe travels," in that broad, expansive way of his, which made Sam feel very small.
"I don't like that guy," Dean confided to Sam in a heated whisper. "He's never real."
But Sam knew. If there were a "real Dean"--or even a "real Sam"--they were people Sam had never met.
They parted at the car, Dean in front and Sam in back. Before he opened his door, Dean clapped Sam on the shoulder. "Hey," he said. "Good job last night." Then he coughed, a cough on a cough on a cough like his sneezes, and disappeared into the Impala. End of story.
The gas tank was filled to bursting, needle stretching up and over the "F" on the dash. It had been paid for with crisp, clean bills John wouldn't let Dean touch. John hadn't said much, no one had, but at some point he'd taken the time to order a sweatshirt on Dean. And when the waitress at the restaurant finally came, John ordered a pitcher of water, no ice. It was, it seemed, Dean's filial duty to drink all of it. You need to hydrate, John explained. And so here they were, looking shamefully ridiculous and sweatshirted and waterlogged and pretending not to be haunted all over again. Sam squirmed.
The restaurant had cloth napkins and stone coasters. Dean's sweatshirt named him a Top 20 Finisher in the 1988 Cincinnati "Mommy Madness" Fun Run (unlikely). At the booth across from theirs, a little girl was playing with her father's cufflinks. Remembering Luz, Sam put his napkin in his lap, and was glad to see that there was only one spoon, one fork, and a steak knife wrapped inside it.
Then John told them they could order anything on the menu.
Sam felt a flush creep up his neck, sear his ears and raze across his cheeks. Anything. They could have anything. He felt a sudden, impulsive urge to order everything, the steaks, the shrimp platter, the Heart Healthy salmon, the artichoke dip smoked mackerel appetizer, just to see what his father would say. What he'd do. But at the same time, the idea was sickening; the idea, suddenly, of ordering anything at all was sickening; and his stomach sank, and twisted under the pressure of choice. It felt presumptuous to want. It felt like viscous, buttery guilt, hardening against the rim of plates Sam had not yet been served, collecting at the edges of his mouth after bites he'd not yet taken. And at the back of Sam's mind, he was pretty sure that "choose anything" actually meant "choose the right thing."
It felt presumptuous to want anything but the right thing. Whatever that was.
"What are you getting, Dad?" Sam asked.
John ignored him, as though Sam hadn't said anything at all.
Anything on the menu.
Sam bit his lip. His eyes raced across the pages before him, triple-columned and double-sided. He looked to Dean for help, for any kind of hint, but Dean was busy. Sam watched his brother let a single drop of water slip from the bottom of his straw onto his straw sleeve, watched it stretch out as it absorbed the drop, elongating like a worm. Dean himself, newly hydrated, looked worse than when they'd started. Nauseated and probably just as water-bloated as his straw sleeve. He was nervous too, Sam could see; illness always made him edgy, in the end. When he remembered to be afraid of all the things that illness dulled, or slushed. But edgy was a world apart from panic. And this was panic. Help me, Dean.
Sam willed him from across the table, please, please look up. Please help me, but Dean never did.
Sam took a long sip of his own water--unpleasantly lemony--and flipped backwards through the menu. It was like he'd forgotten how to read; nothing sounded real. If only Sam were psychic, it would solve everything.
In the end, Dean asked for tomato rice soup. Sam wanted a side salad. It was the cheapest thing he could find.
John ordered nothing, said nothing, and in the wake of their waitress's departure John's nothingness hit Sam like a high wind. He sat up straighter, arranged his cutlery and his water glass and the coasters as though they were a rifle in pieces before him. His father's obvious disappointment hung heavy over the table, and Sam tried his best to stay out of its way. He breathed lightly. He kept his eyes on the table grain immediately in front of him: It wasn't even real wood. Sam could see the smudges of other people's fingerprints marring the lacquered veneer.
Sam wasn't even sure who got it more wrong. Dean maybe, because seriously? Tomato soup? Gross.
Sam hazarded a glance at his father, only to be met with an unreadable expression, laced with dismay and Sam-didn't-even-know-what. (Regret, he thought at first. It was regret. But the idea just made him study the table even harder. Their father's regrets were off-limits.)
"Anything you wanted, Sam," John said finally. He sighed. "I told you-- I wanted you to be able to have--" Then he stopped. "Dean," he said, and stopped again.
And that was that.
After a while, someone slid a small salad in a wooden bowl in front of Sam's face. It smelled like tomato soup, which meant it smelled like nothing. Sam waited , without looking up, for Dean to take his first tentative slurp. When the act stirred nothing in John, Sam gave his salad a curt nod. He dug his nails into his thighs, just above the knee, and steeled himself for the ordeal of now having to eat it.
Sam was starving, but he wasn't hungry at all. He felt betrayed; it was just a stupid salad. It was just a stupid salad. It wasn't his fault.
A lump gathered at his throat. The ghost of a hand scraped across it.
"Dad," Dean started.
"Where'd you get the money?" finished Sam.
In answer, John tipped a crisp fifty dollar bill onto the middle of the table; it's time to go, he said. Now.
For a frantic moment, Sam thought, he hadn't finished. He hadn't finished, and they always had to finish, because otherwise it was a waste, and he had to finish, at some point in the next seven seconds, salad, down the hatch, it had to happen. Dean seemed to have swirled through a similar mental relay, because he put his bowl to his lips and quaffed. Sam wondered how hot the soup was.
"Dad--" Sam eked out, as John slid him from the booth. "I--"
"A father provides."
Back to PART 1...
Title is borrowed from Lisel Mueller's poem, "Love Like Salt":
It lies in our hands in crystals
too intricate to decipher
It goes into the skillet
without being given a second thought
It spills on the floor so fine
we step all over it
We carry a pinch behind each eyeball
It breaks out on our foreheads
We store it inside our bodies
in secret wineskins
At supper, we pass it around the table
talking of holidays and the sea.