The Bong Bong Princess
(written for the 2010 summer_sam_love community on LJ, where each participant adopts an episode and creates art or fic for it. This is a coda for 2.13 Houses of the Holy.)
"I do pray every day. I have for a while."
Hours later, Sam's words still hung over Dean's head - a cartoon thought balloon that wouldn't drift away.
Sam prayed? Every day?
For all the exorcisms they had learned, the Latin, the holy water... praying to a higher power had never been part of the Winchester doctrine.
Now I lay me down to sleep, Pray the Lord my soul to keep...
Those were just Metallica lyrics. Right? Enter Sandman?
Dean thought he had the religion thing all figured out. It wasn't complicated. In his experience, there were two kinds of people who talked to God. There were people who were just plain brought up that way. For them, asking God for favors came as easy as asking a waitress for a piece of cherry pie. And then there were the other kind. The people who didn't pray until they were flat out desperate. Desperate for their pain to stop. Pleading for the strength to bear some burden they didn't think they could carry alone.
Sam - he had to be in that first category. Right?
Somehow, Sammy must have picked up the habit when he was a little kid, and it had just stuck to him like gum on a shoe. Maybe Pastor Jim had taught him. Except Dean didn't think Jim would have singled Sam out. If he'd wanted to make sure Sam wasn't growing up a little heathen, he'd have tried to convert Dean, too. So, if it wasn't Pastor Jim...
The stoplight turned yellow ahead and then red, and the Impala cruised to a stop, rumbling impatiently at the intersection. There was no cross traffic. The streets were shiny black and deserted, street lamps reflecting off the dirty snow that had been plowed up against the curb. Somewhere close by, church bells started to chime a short melody and then counted off the hours. Eight o'clock.
The light changed, the car surged forward, and now Dean could see the big gothic church, Our Lady of the Angels, looming up ahead. He wondered how the séance had gone. Or more to the point, how Sam was handling what had no doubt happened there.
The little cluster of candles for Father Gregory still flickered on the steps, doing battle against the darkness. Watching it fade from sight in his rear view mirror, Dean found himself remembering another candle, another church. Another time.
He remembered when someone had introduced Sammy to prayer.
St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Buffalo NY, 1988.
Dad had disappeared into the sacristy with Father Flynn to pour over some sacred texts on exorcism, and Dean was left in charge of Sammy. Again. Which - okay - Catholic churches weren't really designed for fun. They were designed for people who thought being a martyr was a good thing. But nine-year-old Dean had a talent (and far too much practice) for making fun where none was intended.
He'd think of something.
So Dean sprawled in a pew, snapping his bubblegum, and scooting his butt forward on the bench so he could prop his heels on the top of the pew in front of him. Then he sagged into a comfortable slouch and spread his arms wide across the back.
Sammy tucked his sturdy little body up against his big brother's ribs and tried to affect the same pose, but his legs weren't long enough. He slid further and further down in his seat, pointing his sneaker-clad toes and stretching his legs across the gap, until finally he slipped right off the hard wooden bench and landed with a thump on the kneeler below.
A door creaked open in the rear of the church. Dean dropped his feet and huddled protectively over his brother. "Quiet!"
They froze for a long, breathless minute, and then Sammy whispered, "Quiet as church mice?" and broke into giggles.
Five-year-olds can be such morons. Dean clapped his hand over Sammy's mouth and shook his head.
No footsteps came tap-tap-tapping down the aisle. After a moment, they heard the whoosh of a swinging door rocking shut and then silence.
Sammy picked up the missal that he'd knocked off the pew rack when he fell. He never could resist something new to read, Dean thought, and he was struck with sudden inspiration for his own fourth-grade homework assignment to make up a simile. Sammy attracts books like the Impala's windshield attracts bugs. They just can't wait to crack another one open.
Somehow, Dean didn't think Mrs. Graham would appreciate that effort.
He let go of any thoughts of homework when he felt his little brother pushing the volume into his hands.
Sammy climbed back on the bench. "Read me a story?" he asked, swinging his legs and kicking the kneeler. He could read, pretty darn good for a kindergartner, but he still liked it best when Dean read aloud and did the funny voices.
The book had a pebbly black cover and was small and fat, with a long skinny ribbon to mark the reader's place. Dean thumbed the missal open. The print was tiny, and the pages were so thin they were almost transparent.
He shoved it back in the rack and reached across his little brother for a magazine-sized binder further down. Opening it across his knee, he fanned the pages and nodded, satisfied. This had potential.
"What is it, Dean?" Sammy wanted to know. There were words; he could see that, but there were also lines and splotches dotting the page like little black bugs. "That doesn't look like stories."
It was music.
Only Dean didn't see hymns when he looked at it. He saw something better. He tore out the first page, hefted the weight of the paper and considered the size and shape. A devious smile crept across his face. "You wait right here, Sammy!" he said. "Promise?"
Sammy blinked. He opened his mouth - the kid had started asking 'Why?' to everything before he was three, and Dean was still waiting for him to outgrow that - but Dean held up a finger. Sammy froze in mid-thought, then pressed his lips together and sat back. He knew: the sooner he let Dean get on with his Great Master Plan, the sooner the fun would begin.
Dean grinned. "Don't look! Count to... just keep counting till I say ready!" He rumpled Sam's already messy hair, sidled down the pew and then took off down the aisle that ran down the left side of the church. Sam started chanting, and Dean called back over his shoulder, "Count by nines!"
Sammy's face lit up. Dean had just shown him finger math and the 9X Rule in the back of the Impala on the long drive to Buffalo, and Sam couldn't get enough of it. He pulled up his legs to sit cross-legged on the pew bench, placed his hands on his knees, and wiggled happily. First, he folded down the little finger on his left hand. "Nine!" Then he straightened it and bent the next finger on his left hand. One finger, then a gap, then eight more. "Eighteen!"
Dean was impressed when the kid even remembered the trick to get past ninety-nine. Sammy got all the way up to one hundred eighty-nine before he couldn't stand it any longer and looked up, but Dean was ready. He was just waiting to see how long he could keep his inquisitive little brother in suspense.
The paper airplane soared down from the choir loft like a hungry bat, speckled black-on-white, honing in on its prey. It flew over Sammy's head and crashed into the pulpit. Sammy gave a startled bark like a demented seal, and Dean let loose with another missile.
Sam spun around, trying to see where they were coming from. His gaze found the choir loft just as a third plane wafted down. "Dean!" Sammy scrambled to his feet, looking for the way up, eager to do anything his big brother was doing. But instead Dean called down, "Stay there, Sammy! See if you can catch one!"
Another hymn - Beginning Today - sailed down after Morning Has Broken .
This was better than an obstacle course, Dean thought. Dad would be proud. Sammy was an agile little monkey, racing across the nave of the church, climbing from one pew to another and jumping off the edge when he thought he had a chance to catch a paper airplane in mid-air.
It was Whatsoever You Do that led to their downfall. Dean decided to try a different design, something more like an albatross that would float in the air longer and give Sam a better chance at intercepting it. So instead of the dart style he'd been using for distance and accuracy, he gave the next one a bigger wingspan, a heavier nose, and he folded the edges of the wings to create vertical stabilizers. Then he cocked his arm back like a quarterback and sent the hymn aloft.
The hang time was perfect.
Floating down, catching the colors of the stained glass windows as it descended… It would have been the best one yet except for one thing.
The albatross did not go where Dean planned.
It landed nose first on a tray of votive candles where little flames danced in metal-rimmed glass holders, carrying prayers skyward for anyone who'd cough up a quarter for the privilege of lighting one. A statue of St. Joseph stood over the side altar, benignly welcoming the penitents who might kneel there and pray for his help.
A shower of sparks flew up, and a corner of the doomed airplane ignited.
"Je - sus Christ!" Dean's boots thudded on the stairs as he raced down. He burst out into the vestibule in the back of the church and then skidded to a stop, shuddering a sigh of relief. Sam had already grabbed the paper, knocked it to the floor and stomped out the fire before any damage had been done.
But not before someone else had heard the commotion.
A thundercloud in black robes swept up the far aisle, past the Stations of the Cross, moving fast. It looked as frightening as the reaper Dean had seen in Dad's journal. Scary as Dad's pictures of a wraith. If it had been either of those, though, Dean would have swallowed his fear and tackled the figure before it ever reached his brother. But this was something else.
This was a nun.
A well-honed instinct for self-preservation made Dean slip into a confessional before she turned around and saw him. He knew Sammy would be okay. The kid was only five, but he'd already mastered a sweet, innocent look that made strangers forget all about whatever mischief he'd been caught doing. Dean, on the other hand, tended to trigger the opposite reaction.
Crouching in the close, dark confines of the booth, he closed one eye to see better through the latticed window, and he watched as a billowing sleeve reached for his brother's arm.
Sam looked up, guilt written all over his face.
The nun said something to Sam. Dean couldn't hear her, but could just make out his brother stammering, "S-Sam, ma'am."
She raised her voice, sharp and biting. "It's Sister, not ma'am. Sister Francis Assisi. Come with me." A bony, claw-like hand grabbed Sam's arm. With a clatter of heavy wooden rosary beads dangling from her hip, she turned and marched Sammy to a dark door at the end of the aisle.
Dean slipped out and followed silently when they disappeared inside.
The door had been left slightly ajar. Dean peered through the gap and saw a room decorated with colorful religious posters. One wall held a large crucifix. There were beanbag chairs in a corner by a short bookcase, a preschool-size table and chairs under a window, a pair of cribs against the furthest wall.
Sister Francis sat in a large rocker in the middle of the room like she was holding court in a throne room. She let go of Sam, but he didn't run away, his eyes drawn to the book in her hands.
It seemed she'd decided that Sammy's penance was to listen to a story called The Bong Bong Princess. Dean bit his lip trying not to laugh out loud as the nun started reading.
Once in a castle by the sea lived King Stephen, Queen Edna and their four children. Prince Mark, Prince John and Prince Gregory were triplets. They were nine years old. Their little sister, the Princess Rose Marie, was three, going on four. She was a very naughty girl.
As the story progressed, the Princess tied knots in John's fishing line. She put mud in Mark's Sunday shoes. She threw Gregory's pet mouse in a bowl of milk.
And she refused to wear her crown, the princes complained to their parents. Even on Sundays!
What a bunch of sissy tattle-tales! Dean thought, leaning against the door frame, one hand resting on the doorknob. For a moment, he remembered what it is should be like to have someone read to you. The memory was fading now: curling up in Mom's lap, her hand stroking his back while he opened the book. Her voice soft as she asked him questions about the pictures before he turned each page, silly questions that made him laugh.
Sammy never had that. No wonder he's listening to this stupid nun and her stupid story.
Just then the bell rang out in the highest tower of the castle.
"It can't be the Angelus," said Prince Gregory. "It's only half-past three."
Was there a fire? they all wondered, panicking. Could it be war?
One of the guards was sent to investigate and returned with the sad truth. It was Princess Rose Marie. "She has tied a loop in the bell rope and is using it for a swing," the guard explained.
Oh dear. And not even her father, King Stephen, could get her to stop. (John Winchester could teach him a thing or two, Dean thought.)
Finally, Queen Edna dragged the princess kicking and screaming out of the bell tower, and the family conferred. Spanking never worked. Putting her to bed without her supper didn't work either. There was only one thing left to do. One dire, drastic, last chance.
They took her to see the Bishop.
He had a long, long white beard and on his head a little red cap. He wore a red silk dress and a big gold cross on a chain. His eyes were deep and dark and kind.
The bishop took Rose Marie on his lap and showed her the crucifix he wore.
"Who is the poor, poor man? Somebody hurt Him," she said.
"That's Jesus, Rose Marie," the Bishop explained. "Jesus is God. Anybody who does naughty, naughty things hurts Him. Big men who lie and steal and kill and won't say their prayers, and children who won't obey and are mean to each other, all of these hurt Him."
Sister Francis looked up from her book and saw Sammy wasn't looking at the page. He was staring wide-eyed at the large crucifix on the wall behind her.
"You hurt Him when you do bad things," she told Sam. Then she turned back to her book. "How do you be good?" the little princess asked, sucking on a lollypop the Bishop had found in a desk drawer.
"First, you must say your prayers," the Bishop told her.
"Do you, Sam?" Sister Francis demanded, turning cold eyes on Sam. "Do you say your prayers every night?"
Was that when it started? Dean wondered. Could Sam have prayed every day since that crazy old dingbat had him in her clutches?
Lost in thought, he barely realized the Impala had found her unerring way back to the motel. Dean pulled into the parking lot, saw the light on in their room, and unconsciously relaxed. Sam had made his way back okay, too.
Inside, Dean found his brother listlessly stuffing clothes in his duffel. Sam shot Dean a sideways glance, then dropped his gaze. "You were right," he admitted. He sounded wrecked. "It wasn't an angel. It was Gregory."
Dean was already rattled by the gruesome death he'd witnessed a little while ago. Seeing Sam looking so lost, he reached for the only thing he could think of that might help. Pulling out his flask, he took a swig and then offered it to his brother. It was a bad sign when Sam took it. Dean shucked off his jacket while Sam tilted his head back and took a long swallow.
Then Sam sank wearily onto the edge of the bed. He glanced up at Dean and looked away again. Like it was too hard to meet Dean's eyes, left him feeling too vulnerable. "I don't know, Dean. I just - I wanted to believe. So badly." The words came out hoarse, barely a whisper. "It's so damned hard to do this. What we do. All alone. You know? And there's so much evil out in the world, Dean. I feel like I could drown in it. And when I think about my destiny, when I think about how I could end up..."
Sam looked so shattered. Dean eased down across from his brother, practically knee to knee, and offered what comfort he could. "Yeah. Well. Don't worry about that. All right? I'm watching out for you."
"Yeah. I know you are. But you're just one person, Dean. And I needed to think that there was something else watching, too. You know?" Sam gave a tiny shrug, eyes glistening. "Some higher power? Some greater good? And that maybe..."
Sam swallowed. His voice was very small. "Maybe I could be saved." He flicked another guilty look at Dean, but Dean didn't have any answers for him. No mockery. No bravado. Sam exhaled, a weak chuckle at his naiveté, and admitted that he'd been foolish to look for a higher power to care about him. Dean was right. They should trust only in what they could see with their own eyes.
Dean gave his side of what had happened next: the fluke, horrific death of the man Sam thought an angel had told him to stop.
The problem was, after what he'd seen, Dean didn't know what to believe any more. Could it have been - God's will?
Dean had never had Sam's faith, but now he had doubt.
Doubt was poison. That's what Dad had always said. Uncertainty was dangerous; made you weak. Could get you killed. What they needed right now, Dean decided, was something they knew they could believe in: the steering wheel under his hands, pavement under their wheels... they needed to get out of their confused head space and put Providence in the rear view mirror. Put this all behind them.
"Hey, dude. Whaddya say we blow this popsicle stand and hit the road? Right now."
Sam stood up, wobbly-legged as a newborn colt. Or a newborn giraffe, Dean thought as his brother rose to his full height. Sam took a tentative step toward his duffel again and then brushed his hand against the wall when his balance faltered.
"Whoa, there, tiger." Dean was on his feet without thinking. He had a hand on Sam's elbow and the other on his shoulder, pressing Sam to sit back down again. "What's going on with you?"
"Head rush. Just stood up too fast, I think." Sam let his eyes fall shut, and then he started to list a little off-center.
"Yeah. Right. I don't think so." Dean cupped the back of Sam's neck to hold him steady, and Sam flinched. That was no head rush. Dean tucked Sam's forehead against his shoulder to see better and found a thin ribbon of dried blood threaded through the plaid on the inside collar of Sam's shirt.
"Dammit, Sammy! When did you hit your head?" Even as he chewed him out, Dean was easing his brother to lie back. He felt gingerly across Sam's scalp, and Sam hissed when Dean's probing fingers found broken skin, split across a knot behind his left ear.
"Must have been when the ange- when Father Gregory first appeared to me. I woke up on the floor of the church. Maybe I hit it on something on the way down."
"Yeah. Like the ground." Dean tsked. "Dude. Why the hell didn't you say anything?"
"I didn't feel it, Dean. Honest. Not then. I felt filled with... grace? And light. No pain."
"Until - what? Until Father Reynolds gave Gregory Last Rites, huh? And that whole touched-by-an-angel mojo wore off?"
Sam nodded, face tight with misery.
Sam didn't answer at first. When he did, it was to ask in a thin voice, "You didn't put more quarters in the Magic Fingers, did you?"
"Then I think I'm gonna be sick."
When Sam emerged from the bathroom, white-faced and shaky, he found his brother had emptied his pockets on the nightstand, kicked off his boots, and was drawing the curtains closed to block out the lights from the parking lot.
"You don't have to do that, Dean. I'm okay now. We can still leave." Sam reached for his duffel, but Dean didn't miss the way he leaned on the table in the process.
"Sure we can. You look just fine. Your face always looks chalky and clammy."
"Your face -" Sam muttered. But he couldn't gather his thoughts to come up with a snappy retort, so he let his determined brother steer him back to his bed. Not that he had much choice.
Dean checked Sam's pupils and frowned. "We got nowhere we gotta be. We can stay, and you can just lie in bed and sleep in, Princess Bong Bong."
"Princess Bong Bong?" Sam huffed, too distracted by the nickname to protest again that no, he really could ride in the car without puking. Maybe. Giving up, he sagged back, rolling his spine down until his head hit the pillow, and his eyes drifted shut. "Dean. You haven't called me that in, like, a million years."
"Yeah. Well." Dean grabbed Sam's ankles and swung them up on the bed, and then he tugged off Sam's shoes. "I got to thinking about what you said. That you've been praying every day, for a long time. And I had to wonder if that all started when Sister Mary Sanctuary-Lamp-Half-Lit told you to pray every day."
Sam snorted softly at his brother's irreverence. Ah, Dean. Never change. "Nah, man. I didn't believe her. When I was that age, I wanted to be just like you. And if you thought her words were a pile of crap, then I did, too."
"Huh. Too bad you outgrew that good sense." Dean waited to see if Sam would say anything more. But Sam stayed quiet.
"You want some Tylenol?"
"Maybe later. I'm not sure I could keep it down right now," Sam admitted. At least with his eyes closed, he didn't have to look at the garish red walls and the awful mud-flap silhouette decor. Maybe when Dean woke him in a couple hours, Sam would want to change, get more comfortable. Right now, he didn't want to move a muscle, and he was glad Dean understood that.
Sam lay still, listening to his brother putter around the motel room. He knew Dean wanted to know when Sam had started to pray. But Sam couldn't tell him. Not without sounding even more self-centered than Dean probably thought he was.
That first night after he left for Stanford, Sam had been sure he'd drop into a deep, relieved sleep: finally out of the family business, on his way to a future of his own choosing. All the bloodshed and shouting and gut-churning fear, all the tension and secrets were behind him. Right?
Instead, he'd lain awake. All too aware that Dad and Dean had one less person providing backup on hunts now. All too aware that they'd be facing new dangers without the safety net of Sam's research to fall back on. (Think pretty highly of yourself, don't you? Sam had mocked himself. But it didn't convince him he was wrong to worry.) And if that wasn't vain enough? Sam had always had a tiny suspicion that Dad and Dean sometimes stopped short of taking suicidal risks because they knew Sammy needed them to make it back in one piece.
And now he didn't. He'd pretty much told them he didn't need them anymore when he walked out that door.
That night, Sam had prayed that Dad and Dean wouldn't take unnecessary chances, that they would stay safe. He did the same thing the next night, too. And the next. And over the months and then years, he had never stopped.
Dean didn't need to know that.
Sam heard lights clicking off, sensed the room getting darker even with his eyes closed. He felt a wet washcloth smoothed over his forehead and the bridge of his nose, the cold a numbing comfort. Dean's hand pressed briefly on his shoulder, and then withdrew with a gruff, "You know the drill. I'll wake you in a couple hours. Till then, sleep tight, Princess."
And just like that, Sam's thoughts slid back to 1988.
He remembered the book only vaguely: a bratty princess with Shirley Temple blond curls, swinging on a belfry rope. But it was the graphic sight of that crucifix that had been driven into his memory. Seeing the carved image of a man, gaunt and tortured, nails in his hands and feet, blood running from a slash in his side.
Monsters, he got. But how could any human being hurt another human being like that?
He remembered, too, a withered old crone dressed all in black like a witch, with hands like icy claws. Sister Francis. Sister Francis had said that the man on the cross was named Jesus. And she said that it was Sam who hurt Him...
"No!" Five-year-old Sammy stumbled back a step. "I wouldn't! I wouldn't hurt him!"
The nun's arm slashed out. Her fingernails dug into Sam's wrist and she yanked him back to her side. "You were born with Original Sin," she hissed. "You all were. That's why Jesus had to suffer and die like that." She blinked, and her eyes suddenly flashed black and lifeless, like cold lumps of coal. "He died to save you." A cruel smile crawled across her face. "And all the children like you. But not everyone can be saved."
"You shut up!" Dean burst into the room, a mini-tornado that made the door crash open and then tore Sammy free from her grasp. Dean planted himself between his brother and Sister Francis and didn't back down when she rose to her feet, looming over them.
"Don't you talk to him like that! Sammy is not bad! He doesn't need saving." Dean was already backing out of the room, pushing his little brother ahead of him. "And even if he did?" Dean paused at the door. "I'd save him!"
Sister Francis opened her mouth and threw back her head. To laugh? To yell at them? Sam never found out, because Dean slammed the door shut behind them, and they ran.
Later, Dean told their dad that Sister Francis was a creepy old bat, and Father Flynn was shocked. He said he was sure they were mistaken. Sister Francis was one of the meekest sisters in the convent. You'd almost think she'd taken a vow of silence, she was so soft-spoken, he told them. Nothing on earth would possess her to act like that.
It didn't matter. Dad had gotten the exorcisms he wanted, and he had places to go. They left. Dean quickly turned the whole thing into a joke. A new insult. And then it was forgotten.
Sam's headache had dialed down a notch. The dark and the quiet settled over the room, inviting sleep to creep in. They muffled the persistent throb in Sam's skull, like snow falling on the barbed wire fence behind the motel, softening it, hiding it. Falling heavier now, weighing down his limbs. It felt like he was sinking into the mattress.
"You said you'd save me." Sam yawned, rolled onto his side and snuffled into the pillow. "Even way back then." Even, Sam thought sleepily, if the threat was some sin Sam was born with. Dean said he would save him. No matter what. "Guess if I need to have faith in something, I should have known," Sam murmured. "It's always been you."
In the distance, a carillon chimed. Another hour had passed. Another hour closer to whatever destiny awaited them.
Dean lay on his back on the bedspread, hands clasped behind his neck, envisioning a giant roadmap of the U.S. spread across the ceiling. For once, they didn't have to hightail it out of town right away. They hadn't killed anything or set anything on fire this time. They would head west, Dean figured. They needed to be in Nevada by February 20th: there was a haunting on Highway 41 there the same time every year. But they had a few weeks before they had to be there to stop anyone else from being killed.
Dean realized his brother had been mumbling something into his pillow, but he couldn't make it out. "Just go to sleep, Sammy," he grunted, but turned his head to the side anyway to make sure his brother was okay. Sam was out, looking as peaceful as the worn-out five-year-old he'd been in Dean's recent memories.
Dean went back to mentally mapping their next destination. Adding softly, "I'll be right here if you need me."
(Quotes from SPN episode 2.13 Houses of the Holy, written by Sera Gamble, and The Bong Bong Princess, written by sister M. Francis Assisi, C.S.A. published by the Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee, in 1957.)