A/N: This is a story from inside the Jello Belt, smuggled out past the Zion Curtain, that wonderful place where a stakehouse is not a restaurant. It's a bit inside with obscure references, but stick with me and maybe we'll figure it out. The title comes from a book written by Trent Harris, and believe me, every word in that book is true, and I highly recommend it.
Disclaimer: Don't make me say it, what, you wanna see a grown woman cry? Fine! Not mine. SOB
Brother Redd was going to be late for priesthood meeting.
"Flippin' tire," he muttered, kneeling down next to his car, staring at the flat tire in defeat. He knew he should have gone to the last priesthood activity, when Brother Christiansen had presented a class on car care. But he hadn't, and now Heavenly Father was punishing him for skipping church.
He stood and checked down the empty road in both directions, hoping for headlights. The road was empty, twilight settling softly over the rolling farmland. The smell of lilac was heavy in the air, a sure sign that spring was close.
He rubbed his face, checked the time on his wristwatch, dismayed at how late it was. Bishop Patterson was going to think he had gone apostate, or that someone in the ward had offended him.
"Need help, Brother?"
The voice was close, startling him into a whispered damn and he turned to see a young man dressed in a white shirt and tie standing next to the hood of his car. He wasn't sure, but thought he could make out a name tag over the right breast pocket. His heart eased back to normal, and the frustration he had felt over the flat tire lifted.
He grinned. "Sure do, Elder. Know how to change a tire?"
There was a flat, uneasy moment of silence, and Brother Redd's grin began to sag, but abruptly the missionary stepped forward. "Sure do! Flat tire, eh?" His face was young and unremarkable in the uneven light as he knelt down next to the tire.
"Yep," Brother Redd replied, and bent slightly to look over the missionary's shoulder at the tire.
The missionary was silent, sitting on his heels with his wrists on his knees, the hands dangling. He made no attempt to touch the wheel, and again came a weird moment of something not right.
Brother Redd straightened, glancing up and down the road again. "Elder? Where's your companion?" He turned slightly, hearing a car coming up the road, his back to the elder.
"I lost him," The voice was right next to his ear, and the anxious feeling that had been gnawing at Brother Redd suddenly blossomed into fear. Something inhuman and not right and evil spoke with that voice.
He began to turn, thinking oh, Heavenly Father, fuck me—
There was a flash of pain, wire thin and hot, through his chest, and Brother Redd's last thought, as he stared down at the splash of blood and his arm on the ground, was of how good it felt to finally drop the F bomb.
The scent of death was familiar to Sam.
Many different smells he associated with death, from burning the remains of a cowboy in Santa Fe, a body so desiccated by heat and sand that it burned with a smell like creosote, to a body just gone in a Florida swamp, a smell so foul it had been days before any of them had been able to eat.
After Jess, he couldn't bear the smell of fresh-baked cookies.
And after Nebraska, he would forever associate the smell of wet canvas with loss and hurt.
Now, in a cemetery so old the living no longer remembered it, Sam used his shovel's blade to break open the casket he had just uncovered, and a smell like old carpet and beetles breathed over him.
"Sam, you got that open yet?"
The sawed-off spoke, a blast that rebounded in the air, making Sam's ears ring. He didn't look up, bending and pitching pieces of casket out of the grave, until he met the empty gaze of Karl Otterson. "Got it!" he yelled back to Dean, flinging himself half out of the grave to grab the rock salt and gasoline.
Again the blast from the shotgun, and Dean cursing. The curious, fingernails-on-the-blackboard sound of the ghost humming, feinting at Dean only to disappear as he turned and pulled the trigger again, rock salt spraying harmlessly through the empty air. "Do it, Sam!"
But it was already half-done, bones darkening as they soaked up the gasoline. Sam paused, the match flaring in his hand, his eyes meeting the skull's, Sam thinking benediction and peace before he dropped the match among the bones.
The sound of flame meeting gasoline, a soft orgasmic whoosh.
And the sleeve of Sam's shirt was on fire. He watched it for a moment in bemusement, a small flame with a blue heart, dancing and eating the cotton fabric. It kissed the soft skin inside his wrist, and he hissed, a bit panicked, and threw himself out of the grave, legs kicking for footholds in the soft dirt. Rubbed his sleeve, hard, on the ground.
There was one last roar from Dean's shotgun, Dean always trying to get the last word, and the barely audible sound of the ghost abruptly cut out.
Sam lay on his belly beside the grave, snorting in an attempt to clear his nose of the gasoline stench. Something with teeth nibbled lightly on the inside of his wrist. Incredulous, Sam lifted his arm, and the flame with a blue heart licked lightly up his thumb. "The fuck," he murmured, and shook his hand. The flame stayed, somehow switched to the back of his hand, and Sam watched as a few hairs crisped, curling away from the heat. He shook his hand again, drawing his legs up and sitting back on his heels.
"Hold still." Dean knelt next to him, grabbing Sam's wrist. The flame moved slightly down Sam's hand, toward Dean. There was salt in the palm of Dean's other hand, and he held it over the flame, preparing to extinguish it.
He paused. The flame danced, its blue heart pulsing. "Kinda cool?"
Sam gritted his teeth. "Well, yeah, but it hurts like a son of a bitch."
"Sorry." Dean turned his hand, and the salt pattered down. The flame went out noiselessly.
Sam pushed the charred sleeve up his arm, revealing a small red trail over the inside of his wrist and up the thumb. "Shit. Hurts. What the hell was it?"
Dean shrugged, and stood, grabbing up the shotgun and emptying it of shells. "Don't really know. Dad thinks it's the spirit trying to stay alive."
"So Otterson's gone?"
Dean nodded, and turned away, grabbing up a duffle and easily vaulting the worn iron fence encircling the cemetery. "Get your stuff. Let's go."
When Sam caught up with him, Dean was behind the wheel of the Impala, frowning down at his phone. Sam stowed his duffle, and slid in the passenger's side, grabbing up his own phone. Nothing.
"Dammit," breathed Sam, and Dean frowned.
"He's busy, Sam, give him a break." Dean's voice dull, as if reciting something learned long ago, and long ago discarded as useless.
Sam scowled and tossed the phone on dash, where it rattled against the window. "C'mon, Dean, you were dying and the old man can't even call?"
Dean was silent, frowning down at the silent phone in his grip.
"Admit it; you're just as pissed off as I am." Sam scratched at his knee.
"Sam, you're on fire."
"Yeah, Dean, I'm mad, glad you could finally acknowledge it."
Dean's brow furrowed, anger sparking in his own eyes. "No, Sam, really, you're on fire." He gestured to Sam's knee.
The small lick of flame, blue at its heart, burned steadily on Sam's right knee, charring a small hole in the denim. Sam kicked out instinctively, scrabbling at the Chevy's handle in a mad attempt to get out, escape the fire. Dean was already out his side, running to the trunk and grabbing out the box of rock salt. Sam, finally able to open the door and drop down to the ground, grade school lessons of Stop Drop and Roll echoing in his mind.
Dean danced next to his brother's writhing form, shaking rock salt over him indiscriminately and yelling, "Hold still, hold still!"
They finally cornered the flame on Sam's shoulder, and Dean dumped the remaining rock salt over it, and again it disappeared without fanfare. A small moment of nothing, as both men struggled to catch their breaths and their thoughts.
A curious noise from Dean, and Sam glanced up to see Dean bent at the waist, his hands on his knees and his shoulders shaking. Sam sat up, staring at his brother. "Dean?"
"… finally acknowledging it … and you're sitting there … " Dean took in a breath, let it out in a great whoop of laughter. "… you're sitting there on fire … " And he went silent again, his breath coming in and out with a low whistle.
"Shut up," said Sam mildly, his face contorting as he tried to not smile.
"… acknowledge it … oh God, you were so smug … acknowledge it …" Dean's slightly hysterical laughter more a result of left-over adrenaline rather than Sam's so-not-hysterical situation. At least Sam hoped it was the case.
Dean couldn't stop laughing during the ten minutes back to the highway, and couldn't stop smiling until he shut the Impala off in the parking lot of their motel. This despite the fact of Sam's quiet and empty phone on the dash, his own equally silent in his pocket.
It was a silence that had followed them in the weeks since they had left Nebraska, haunted every curve the Impala took as they climbed the Rockies and came down the other side. Silence that had dogged them into the shabby motel outside the mediocrity of Grand Junction, Colorado, a town poised between the rich lushness of the Rockies and the barren aestheticism of Utah's red deserts.
Sam had not been strong enough to fight the silence, the musty smell from LaGrange's rain soaked tent filling the air in his head with the threat of a loss so devastating there would be no after. The memory of Dean, defeated and insubstantial, slumped in the car's front seat with his cheek against the glass sapped Sam of passion, fury, vengeance.
The weeks following had been filled with nothing. They hit the road every morning late, too late, and turned into whatever motel was nearby early, too early. Long lunches at greasy spoons that did not warrant any lingering, rest stops that consisted of Dean pushing quarter after quarter into the pinball machine. Both men distant, each holding to the other with lax grips, unconcerned about where the Impala took them, thinking only hold on, hold on, but too worn and tired to act on the thought.
And it seemed that John had decided to let go. Neither of them had thought to call, to leave a message that Dean was okay; neither of them wanted to handle the emotion that such a call would demand. John had let go, and the brothers could only hold to each other.
They had found the ghost in a rather pedestrian way; when they stopped at a motel in Grand Junction and the proprietor had put them in a haunted room. A gangster had killed himself there, the proprietor had said, her white eyebrows winging out over her forehead in a perpetual expression of surprise. Wouldn't you boys love to stay in a haunted room?
Dean had waggled his eyebrows at Sam behind her back, his smile ferocious. Yes, ma'am, sure would be a treat.
And Sam, grinning back, felt a connection again, a touch of something that caused his grip to tighten.
And not only was the room haunted, but the spirit was concerned with more than scaring tourists; the town's paper proclaimed another officer found dead, unmarked, with no clues as to the murderer. Found slumped over in his patrol car, the radar gun lodged in the window, still clocking passing traffic. And just last month the former police chief had committed suicide with a shotgun, though no one was really sure how it had been accomplished, as they couldn't find any spent shells or gunpowder or any evidence that the shotgun had even discharged.
Turned out the former police chief had bones rattling in his closet. A side venture, to finance his retirement, and the small town drug dealer who had helped moved drugs from the evidence locker back to the streets had been found with his brains on the wall behind him in the motel room. And the dealer's spirit, created by violence and hate, finding power in death, had come back to the small town in search of payback.
Eventually the trail had led them to the cemetery, had led them to Karl Otterson, and Dean had stood look out while Sam had finally uncovered the casket. It was good, Sam decided, even while he tried to put out a supernatural flame that dodged every effort and Dean danced around him like a crazy person, scattering salt. Good to be dragged out of the self-induced coma they had created for themselves, good to feel something other than the numbing pull of the road, even if it did hurt like a son of a bitch.
And Dean's full-throated laugh, head back and eyes squirting tears, had been like the sun rising after a hideously dark and stormy night.
A light still there, as Dean killed the Impala's engine in the motel parking lot, the late afternoon sun shading the door to their now unhaunted room a blood red. Dean was still smiling as he slid out of the car, though darkness remained, storm clouds still threatened, the light patchy at best. Before LaGrange had been Lawrence, and Sam wouldn't bet that meeting the reaper had been harder for Dean than seeing their mother in flames. The odds were poor on that match-up and Sam had learned from the best how to bet his money.
They relaxed into ritual that evening, Sam showering first, enduring Dean's rote warnings about hogging all the hot water, Dean laying weapons down on a chamois cloth across his bed for cleaning. Comfort this time, despite their quiet phones, comfort hard won after the ghost, and Sam enjoyed the hot water pounding on the sore muscles of his neck.
When he stepped out after the shower, everything had changed.
Dean was sitting on Sam's bed, Sam's laptop next to him, and his face so pale Sam was sure LaGrange had been for nothing, that Dean was going to die right here in front of him. "Fuck, Sam," he said, his voice strangled with emotion, his green eyes hard and glittering on Sam's face.
In answer Dean turned the laptop's screen toward Sam. There was picture of Layla at the top of the window, and her name in bold next to it. Sam's first thought was anger, rage that the bitch would choose now to die, when Dean had been so close to himself again. After that thought Sam kinda closed down, put up an out of order sign up, because Layla had glowed with a light seldom found, and Sam wouldn't punish her with his anger.
He sat gingerly down amongst the guns on Dean's bed, across from Dean, their knees bridging the gap between them. "Dean. I'm sorry." He spread his hands, pouring sympathy and kindness in his eyes, his eyes touching Dean's face, the only touch Dean would accept. "What can I say?"
Dean was nodding, a thin line bisecting his eyebrows, shying away from Sam's gaze. "I know, I know. You're right, you're right."
"Right about what?"
"She was ready; she knew what was going to happen. She made her peace."
Sam was silent, his head cocked slightly as he regarded his older brother. "Dean, man, that's all you. You know that, you're right about that, not me. It's all you."
"That's what you'd tell me."
"But I didn't. You did." Dean was quiet, still turned away from Sam's gaze, his eyes frozen on a water stain near the top of the wall. Sam pushed it, tapped his finger on his brother's knee. "Listen to yourself, man."
Dean nodded again, turned the green eyes briefly back to Sam's face. "I want to find Dad, Sam. I need Dad." A rare admission, words that seemed to tear Dean's throat as he said them, and he made a small movement of pain.
Sam ruthlessly crushed the small bloom of anger at the mention of his father. He nodded, looking away, drawing his hands back. "Dad doesn't want to be found, Dean. He made that perfectly clear after Ellicott." The name reminding him of other storms they had avoided, Sam thinking good soldier and favorite son, and Dean not thinking anything because Sam never asked.
Dean made that small, restless movement with his head that telegraphed the beginnings of tough conversations. "Shit, Sam, I know. I just want –" He stopped, leaving Sam guessing, as usual, as to what Dean wanted. Peace? A pastrami sandwich? Angelina Jolie spread on a cracker?
John had been able to talk to Dean, to bring out safely the emotion and feeling that Dean had always viewed as weakness. For a moment the envy Sam felt threatened to choke him, envy at the easy communication Dean and John had always enjoyed, the nearly seamless way they had worked together on hunts. Sam had spent most of his life feeling like the third wheel, searching for way in, a way to connect with his father. It had been one of the reasons he had left.
He had left, and was coming back the prodigal son. In bleak moments he wondered what John would slaughter to mark the event.
But Dean was here, now, demanding from Sam in a wordless way that drove the younger brother crazy. Guess what I want, Sam, guess and make it all better. Sam ran his hand through his hair, raised his gaze back to Dean's face. "We'll find him, Dean. We know he was in California. That's better than knowing nothing."
Dean rubbed his face, turned away from Sam to grab the laptop. "The whole reason I went online." He tapped the back button a couple of times, found the window, and set the laptop on Sam's knees. "Read that. I'm taking a shower." In other words, wrong again, Sammy boy.
But Sam had learned to roll with the punches, and he took the laptop in resignation, scanning the on-line newspaper Dean had pulled up. He went through the first paragraph quickly, picking out the phrases body and no leads and, disconcertingly, arm torn off. "So, what, we're hunting again?" He tossed this over his shoulder, catching Dean just going into the bathroom.
Dean's smile was shark thin. "Can't wait forever for the phone to ring, Sammy."
"But this is in Salt Lake."
"As in Utah."
"What's wrong with Utah?"
Sam couldn't articulate it. Utah was a place read about in the "ain't that weird" section of the national newspapers, had a smell of not cool about it. He shrugged in defeat. "Never mind."
After Dean's shower they cleaned guns, caught up on Lettermen, and theorized about what would and could pull the arms off a man. Dean talked easily, ignoring Sam's underhanded glances, his eyes shuttered and opaque. Sam was reminded of his father, playing cards close to the chest, letting people see only what he wanted them to see.
But Sam had pushed in Nebraska, had put Dean through a fucking threshing machine in Lawrence, and he was dismayed at how Dean had accepted it. Had accepted it simply because Sam had asked. In some things Sam could give, small things, and Sam let the evening go to talk of Angelina Jolie and who would win if a wendigo and a rawhead got in a fight.
A nightmare brought Sam awake in the early hours of morning, a nightmare where Sam had wished peace on the cop-killing Otterson, and had been rewarded by bursting into flame. And any nightmare with fire in it inevitably brought him to Jess again, the cookie turning to ash in his mouth at the sight of Jess on the ceiling.
He came awake with a slight jerk, his head throbbing, but there had been nothing urgent in his dream, nothing that forced him out of bed and running into the night. He sat up, padded to the bathroom, yawning. A small drink of water, downed a couple of ibuprofen, switched the light off and stepped back towards his bed.
The darkness of the room was incrementally brighter, flickering, and Sam glanced toward his brother's bed.
A small lick of flame, blue at its heart, burned steadily at the foot of Dean's bed. Sam went to it, watching. The flame was still, moving only when it had burned through the bedspread, its blue heart racing like a bird's in its thin body. Sam glanced up at Dean, bonelessly asleep, and down again to the flame. The flame stretched itself, lengthening in an attempt to reach Sam.
Sam stepped away, found an open duffle on the table behind him, and a half empty liter of holy water inside. He unscrewed the lid, took a step toward the flame, his long arm reaching toward the flame, tipping the bottle. Abruptly the flame flared out, kissed the side of his hand. Sam sucked his breath in at the pain, the small jerk of his hand sending holy water down over the flame.
For a moment the flame held, ignoring the water, lighting the planes and angles of Sam's face, and then went out with a sound like a sob.