pairing? sam/dean. spoilers? negative. word count? 9553 words. rating? pg-13.
Famous Ghosts of Texas
By Candle Beck
Dean woke up.
His ears were filled with random bursts of soft clattering, his eyes pasted shut. His hand was on the hilt of the knife under his pillow, and after two seconds his brain provided him with, Jackson, Mississippi.
Dean cracked his eyes open, holding perfectly still. There was Sam at the little table, big hands dwarfing the keyboard and an intent look on his face. Dean played possum, watching him.
Jackson, Mississippi, and it must have been the summer still. Dean could feel the heat in the room laid like an animal pelt over his back.
"I know you're awake, Dean," Sam said without moving his eyes from the computer screen.
Dean rolled over onto his back, yawning ostentatiously. He scratched his stomach, eyeing the mutating water stain in the corner of the ceiling, tea-colored and shaped like a dark country. There was this fuzzy hot itch in the back of his mind, letting him know Sam was watching him.
"You find anything for us to do?" Dean asked.
"Maybe." A quick flurry of typing ruffled past. "Something's happening in Texas."
Sam didn't bother to elaborate, and Dean didn't ask. He climbed out of bed and twisted to crack his back, smirking when the muted firecracker pops made Sam wince. Dean was sore like a week after a bad beating. He hadn't slept very well.
Sam said, "Take a shower, I wanna get on the road before it gets too hot."
Dean answered, "You don't give the orders around here," but that was completely by rote and meanwhile he was pulling off his T-shirt and padding into the bathroom. There were colorful fish on the wallpaper, swimming upstream against glue and gravity.
Dean brushed his teeth with Sam's toothbrush because his was still wrapped in a bandana and buried somewhere at the bottom of his duffel. He jerked off in the shower with his mind an echoing blank, all blissful static and pure sensation, and then he got dressed, braced and ready to suffer the day.
They went to Waffle House for breakfast. The sun was shining white-gold and there were little kids with rollerskates in their shoes gliding around the freshly-paved asphalt of the parking lot. Dean ate hashbrowns (smothered, covered, chunked, and peppered, if you care to know) until he couldn't see straight, and then drove them past Dallas.
They got a room for fifteen dollars because the Lone Star Inn didn't have running water. The kid at the desk said something about pipes strangled by tree roots, gave them half an apologetic shrug like, what can you do? Their last credit card had been rejected and cut up into little plastic bits two hundred miles ago, so Sam and Dean were hardly in the position to complain. All the windows were caked with grime, gummy and snaring doomed insects.
The room was depressing even by their standards. Sam made a face as he pulled the bedspreads off the beds and kicked them into a pile in the corner.
"I feel like I should wash my hands now," Sam said.
"It's not that bad." What Dean meant was, it's been worse.
"Your standards are abysmally low."
Sam dug the computer out of his bag, sat at the flimsy table with one short leg. Dean got his guns and laid them out on one of the beds, liking the look of them in a dully shining line. He picked up his 9mm and began breaking it down, said, "You gonna tell me about the job now?"
Sam said that something was killing widows. There was a graveyard south of town where women had been found dead every ten years or so, lying cold six feet above their husbands. The pattern went back almost a century.
"No signs of trauma," Sam said. "Newspaper always called it natural causes because none of them was younger than seventy. Every single eulogy has something about a broken heart, but I think they got scared to death."
Dean pushed out the slide. He kept an eye on Sam, letting his hands work like a blind man's. Sam was scowling at the computer. There were tense lines across his forehead and bracketing his mouth, and Dean thought that that was probably his fault.
Dean looked away. The sun was going down outside, the orange light faded and broken up through the dirty windows. Dean rubbed his thumb on the grooved metal, and he could feel Sam watching him. Dean ignored it, pulled down a curtain over his better senses.
"So what's the play?" Dean asked, eyes down. He was just sitting over here cleaning his guns. He wasn't doing anything.
There was a pause, an awkward shape jammed into the space between them. Sam cleared his throat.
"Figured we'd see if there's anybody who's noticed anything weird. Groundskeeper or someone like that. Then maybe stake the place out tonight."
"Yeah maybe," Dean said. He snapped the slide back into place, exhaling at the small secure sound of metal clicking together.
"Dean-" Sam said, and Dean shoved off the bed, scratching at the back of his head.
"I'm gonna get a Coke from the machine and then we'll go," Dean said fast. "You want anything?"
But Sam just looked at him, eyebrows up and eyes all-seeing, and Dean fled without waiting for an answer.
The graveyard was laid out on low shrunken-grass hills, headstones climbing and stone angels reaching out their hands. Sam was quiet, respectful, hands in his pockets. Dean was very badly on edge.
They knocked on the plywood door of the groundskeeper's shack and he answered grouchily, a middle-aged man with a crumpled face. A baseball game was murmuring in the background from an army-colored transistor radio with its antennae pulled all the way up. The groundskeeper said at once, "You ain't supposed to be back here," and so Dean let Sam do the talking.
Sam won him over. Sam won everyone over, eventually. He said they were brothers, which was true, and sons to one of the women who'd died here, which was not, and he said they just wanted to know what she might have seen, grief-stricken and casting about as one might find oneself in such a moment. Sam said that they'd heard stories about other women, frozen expressions of terror, and his eyes were just big enough to sell it.
The groundskeeper lit up a hand-rolled cigar the black color of rotting wood. He squinted behind the smoke, eyes bloodshot. He was building the suspense, starring in a little movie inside his head like everyone else. Dean shifted his weight, glanced at his brother for no real reason.
The groundskeeper told them that the old timers talked about a woman in a long black veil. Ageless, he said. A ghost who walked the hills, through the fields of stone, crying sometimes but not always. He chomped on the stub of his cigar, gazing out into the dusky middle distance.
"Does she have a name?" Sam asked.
"Molly." A definitive tap of ash punctuated it. "Old Molly."
"That's what the--our mom saw?"
"Hell." The groundskeeper turned his head and spat, plainly a neo-redneck affectation. "It's just old stories, you boys know that. Just one of them famous ghosts."
And Sam said, "Yes," his face perfectly straight. Dean had never learned that trick, faking a cough into his hand instead.
They walked back to the car in silence, Dean maybe half a step behind Sam. Sam had his hands in his pockets, a thinking look on his face. Dean kept Metallica running loud in his head. His fingers fumbled over the sharp teeth of the keys in his pocket.
In the car, Sam rapped his fingers twice on the dashboard and said, "Library," and Dean didn't bother arguing because he would obviously lose. He turned up the volume on the tape, not wanting the trouble of conversation just now.
The drums kicked in. Sam was gazing out the window like everything he'd ever wanted might show up on the side of the road.
Her name was Molly Balton. She'd hanged herself in 1919, three days after her husband had died, two hours after she'd seen him buried. The town paper had her picture on the front page two weeks running, one a stiff posed studio shot and the other the widow at the graveside in her black veil.
Uncovering that information took Sam an hour and forty minutes hunched over the microfiche in an ill-lit corner of the town library. Dean didn't know how Sam could do that, and he knew better than to ask. Dean spent his time with a six-month-old Sports Illustrated and a pack of Starburst. He read with his elbows on the table and his fingers pressing his ears open and shut to create numbing rushes of white noise. He couldn't stand how quiet it was in these places.
Sam told him, "She killed herself because he was gone. If your love is strong enough, going on living without that other person is a betrayal. She killed those other widows because they didn't have the heart to kill themselves. It's punishment. Penance."
Dean stared at Sam's profile, washed cold and unlined by the milky microfiche light. There was a terrible feeling unraveling slow in Dean's gut. Sam was so solemn all the time now, so lost inside his own head. But that was Dean's fault, so he couldn't say anything. He didn't know what he would have said, anyway.
"The dead are so shortsighted," Sam said absently.
"Let's go get some food or something, huh? 'cause you're done here, right?" Dean's hand moved to clap Sam on the shoulder encouragingly, but he caught himself, shrank backwards.
Sam's shoulders fell as he exhaled. "Yeah, I guess." He started gathering up his notepad and pens and junk. "She was cremated, you know. Ashes scattered. I still think we should go out there tonight."
Dean flashed ahead a couple hours, the dark silent car with Sam tense beside him and the wind howling over the hills. He shivered, occupied himself with throwing away the scattering of tiny crumpled Starburst wrappers.
"We'll see how it goes," Dean said with his back turned. Sam made a scuffed unamused laugh-like sound, but he didn't say anything.
They found a Chinese place run by Mexicans, gold beer shining in the cold case, and ate too much to hide how they weren't really talking. Dean drank steadily, until his vision blurred in and out of focus and he had to concentrate on remaining upright. Sam was scowling at him, face set as petulant as a child. Sam said, "Ease up, Dean," and, "Are you going out clubbing or what," and, "C'mon man, we got work to do."
Dean didn't listen to him. He couldn't even look at Sam right now.
Sam drove them back to the graveyard, bitching all the way, and Dean rolled his head on the window, blinking up at the stars with his eyelids sticky and weighted. The streetlight flicked across his face, and he swore he could feel his pupils contracting as if scared, over and over again. Sam was talking about how irresponsible he was.
"I almost hope something does happen tonight, just so I can watch your drunk ass stumbling around and tripping over shit. Hey. Hey. You better not pass out, dude, I will leave you on the side of the road so quick-"
"I'm not gonna pass out," Dean said, sullen and defensive. "I can do the job, Sammy, if you'd just lay off for a second. I wouldn't, you know I wouldn't go with you otherwise."
Sam huffed through his nose. There was this brusque irritation surrounding him, like Dean wasn't quite worth the effort of genuine anger.
"I never know what the hell you're gonna do lately," Sam said.
Dean raised his eyes to the open expanse of Texas sky, swallowing down a painful knot that had stuck itself in his throat. He let the drunk have him for a few moments.
"Just le'me alone," Dean mumbled. His mouth wasn't working right. "I'm not gonna do anything."
Horrifically, Sam didn't answer that at all. The silence reared up beastlike, hungry.
Dean squeezed his eyes shut. He had an idea that seeing Sam's face at this moment might actually physically kill him. He clung to it, a shiny new piece of drunken faith, thinking that if he never looked at Sam again somehow they'd live through this.
Sam got them to the graveyard and jammed the car into park with a rough yank of his arm. He said they would stay for a bit, "just until you sober up," and get a feel of the place. The solitary security guard would make a round or two and they'd work out the skeleton of his routine. Dean didn't like this plan. He wanted to go now, out of this ever-smaller car and away from the stuff he and Sam weren't talking about, but he was in no kind of shape. He was being held up by the door.
Every couple of minutes Sam said, "Dean," to make sure he wasn't unconscious, and Dean immediately answered, "Yeah," like Marco Polo in scummy motel swimming pools when they were kids. Dean thought Sam would make him talk but Sam didn't. Dean snuck glances from time to time and Sam was always gazing placidly out at the low rolling hills of the graveyard. Sam looked peaceful but for his hands in fists against the steering wheel. He looked almost perfect, and it made Dean ache low in his stomach.
And then he tasted the slick fronts of his teeth, and thought for a moment about the last time he'd been drunk, a wave of sense memory flooding over him. That buckshot tavern in Calhoun County, South Carolina, and the strange local beer that was tinted a dark ruby color in the musty dim light of the bar. Dean had gotten as drunk as he'd ever been on that wicked homebrew, as drunk as he ever would be again, and then he'd put his hands on Sam's face.
Dean bit into the tip of his tongue so hard it started to bleed, and he made a strangled pained noise. Sam said his name, shifting towards him across the seat, and Dean's heart-rate tripled, flushing under his clothes and scared, so goddamn scared he couldn't think.
He rammed his shoulder into the door until it popped open and he fell out. Dean scrambled up off the ground, dirt on his hands. Sam was gaping at him from inside the car, and Dean thought fleetingly that he couldn't go on like this.
He swiped his hands clean against his jeans, and said, "I'm okay, we can go now."
Sam looked at him for a long moment, and Dean tried not to fidget. He tried not to think about what was going on inside Sam's head right now.
Eventually Sam said, "Whatever you say, man," but not like he actually agreed with Dean. Then they went looking for the ghost.
They didn't see anything that night. The wind was louder than the two of them, sharper-edged than the blades in their pockets. Dean and Sam hunched miserably behind the oversized tombstones of married couples. They exchanged about ten words over a period of three hours, and Dean's ears almost froze off.
Old Molly didn't show. Sam thought he heard moaning at one point, but Dean was pretty sure that was just more wind.
They went back to the motel still not talking. Dean was strung up, anxious and crashing off the drunk, cold down to his bones. The neon sign out front had a guttering T and two Ns that weren't lit at all, and everything else was bright red.
Sam waited until they were inside, all the locks on the door thrown and salt laid along the windowsills, before saying, "We have to figure out what's keeping her in that cemetery."
Dean stripped out of his jacket, rubbed absently at his shoulder. "Her husband's buried there, right?"
"Yeah." Sam took his wallet out of his pocket and put it on the bedside table, then a couple seconds later he picked it up again and moved it to the dresser. Dean watched him, side-eyed and wary.
"Maybe he's got something in the coffin with him. A photograph or her ring or something."
Sam nodded. He had the car keys out and he was fiddling them, spinning them around his thumb. He was making Dean terribly nervous.
"We'll dig him up tomorrow night," Sam said. Then he dropped the keys on the floor, looked right at Dean and said, "About what happened last week."
"Oh," Dean said immediately, just to stop Sam from saying anything. "I was gonna. There's. I'm gonna go get a Coke."
"New excuses please," and Sam was standing in front of the door. The windows had screens in them and there was no way Dean was getting out of here without a fight.
"Sam-" Dean said, but then he couldn't think of anything. Panic wrapped around him like a thin layer of liquid metal freezing to solid on his skin.
"C'mon, man." Sam had this note of weary pleading in his voice, sapping energy out of Dean's muscles. "You can't be enjoying this any more than I am."
Dean twitched. "I don't even know what you're talking about."
Sam kinda laughed, a scratchy sound, and said like it was funny, "You got drunk and tried to kiss me, Dean."
Every part of Dean went still, all the way down to his heart and the quiet work of his blood. He felt pinned in place, klieg lights pouring over him and showing every dark thought, every bad dream. He wanted to get out of this room so badly it lodged under his ribs like a piece of splintered wood.
"No I didn't," Dean said in a whisper. Sam sighed.
"You really did."
Sam pushed a hand through his hair, went to sit on one of the beds. Dean's eyes were locked on his brother, muscles taut with the urge to run. He thought in a frantic blur that he should apologize, beg forgiveness, swear it would never happen again. He should fix this; there had to be a way.
"I was drunk," Dean said. Sam gave him a look like he was being intentionally thickheaded. There was a wounded soft thing lurking in Sam's eyes, a weak spot that was frightened just as bad as Dean was.
"So you didn't mean it?"
Dean should have said no, he didn't mean it. Of course not, Sam. Never in a million years. What do you think I am.
Dean should have said something.
He was motionless again, petrified. All Dean could do was blink at Sam, stare at his messy hair and nervous hands, that goddamn face of his. A vision leapt through his mind, climbing on top of Sam and bearing him down onto the bed, Dean's knees locked against Sam's hips, his hands fisted in his brother's shirt. Dean's body went hot, his legs shivery. He couldn't stand under this kind of pressure.
Sam pulled his eyes away finally. He rubbed his hands across his face, heels snug in his eye sockets, and said, "It's late."
Dean sagged in relief. "Yeah."
"I'll-" Sam stopped, still hiding between his hands. He breathed a few times. "We'll figure it out tomorrow."
"Yeah," Dean said again. He hoped to God Sam was talking about the case.
Sam fell back on the bed, boots still on and shirt riding up his stomach. Dean stared at him desperately and without shame for maybe five seconds, and then he went into the bathroom. He was fantastically tired. He felt beaten up.
Dean studied himself in the mirror for the longest time, hands clenched on the cold lip of the sink. His breathing was shallow and unsatisfying, very loud in the small room. Dean recited exorcism rituals in his head until his body settled down.
Fifteen feet away his brother was laid out like an offering. Every time Dean closed his eyes, he saw Sam again, and so he decided to stop closing his eyes.
Dean dreamt of hustling pool beside a blue-neon ocean, and Sam with his elbows on an endless bar, smiling at the demon fixing drinks. There were termites in the inconstant walls and locust crowding the air. There were thousands of hundred dollar bills scattered on the pool table. The cue rolled a clear path through the money, blown away like dry leaves.
Then Sam was pulling him away from the blue-neon ocean and into a dark black parking lot where there was a full moon. Dean's legs turned to jellyfish. Sam was grinning and flushed. There was money stuffed down the front of Sam's shirt. Bottles of liquor were littered everywhere.
Then Dean's car was there, and then they were inside, and Dean's hands were on the wheel which was made of bone. Sam was singing Metallica, and it was making Dean heavy and numb with happiness.
And then he was sliding across the seat and taking Sam's face in his hands. Sam's eyes were huge, moon-colored. Dean was kissing him and this time Sam didn't pull away.
Then Dean woke up.
It was dark and he was hard in his boxers. A thick heat moved slowly in his stomach, seeping all through. Dean bit into the pillow to keep back the groan burring in his throat.
He staggered out of bed, coarse carpet shocking under his bare feet. Dean locked his neck when his head wanted to turn towards his brother. Sam was breathing deeply in the other bed, dead asleep. Dean refused to look. He made the bathroom and shoved a hand into his shorts, teeth dug into his lip.
Dean came in twelve seconds. He strangled a moan into a high whine, braced hard on his forearm on the door. His mouth tasted like blood and old liquor and no matter how hard he tried, the only thing he could think about was his brother.
They spent hours the next day waiting to sneak into Molly Balton's old house. It was still standing on the south side of town, so old it had turned the same dull brown color of the dust all around. There was a red and blue jungle gym in the yard like a giant mechanical insect, Tonka trucks and armless Barbies scattered around.
The family that was living there now didn't leave for the longest time. Dean and Sam parked across the street and watched them pass in front of the windows from time to time. The dad always had a coffee mug in his hand. The mother kept pulling her hair back into a ponytail and then tugging it loose again. The two little dark-haired kids ran in circles around the house for fifteen minutes straight, then collapsed like rag dolls on the lawn, in the netted shadows of the jungle gym.
Sam said, "There's an attic. There's probably all kinds of stuff from the Baltons up there; nobody ever cleans out junk that doesn't belong to them."
Dean nodded, licking the candy coating off a peanut M&M. He didn't say anything, because Sam was doing fine on his own.
"When are they gonna freakin' leave," Sam muttered under his breath. It was two in the afternoon. The sun filled the whole sky.
Another hour dragged by. Dean finished his M&Ms one at a time, sucking them until they were soft and easy to smash against the roof of his mouth. He watched the house with unthinking dedication, never turned his eyes away. Sam glanced at him sometimes, this tight awareness in the back of Dean's mind.
Sometimes Sam opened his mouth as if to speak, but Dean visibly tensed, and Sam let it go, sighing.
Finally, the family came out in pack, all colorful shirts and white socks with sandals. They climbed into the minivan and puttered away, and Sam exhaled with huge exaggerated relief. Dean was happy to get out of the car, get a few feet between the two of them.
They went around back and they didn't even have to jimmy a window: the back door was unlocked. "Small town," Sam said, shaking his head and standing aside to let Dean enter ahead of him.
Most of the house was colonized by the kids' toys and shoes and tiny sweatshirts with the arms pulled inside out. There were smiling photographs on every wall. Dean waved the EMF reader around cursorily and didn't pick up anything, as expected. They went up to the attic, a frayed bit of rope hanging from a trapdoor in the ceiling, tarnished silver eye bolt tied at the end of it.
It was crammed with old furniture and taped-up boxes, two inches of dust on everything. Dean started sneezing so hard he broke out in goosebumps, his body reacting as if attacked. Sam said he had a weak constitution, voice muffled with his shirt pulled up over his nose.
They stayed up there for a couple of hours, on edge the whole time because who knew when the smiley family would come back. They spoke a minimum, working in separate corners. Dean's eyes burned from the dust, his throat clogged. His hands were shaking a lot and it made this more difficult than it needed to be.
"Hey," Sam said. He had a steamer trunk hauled out into the viscous dirty sunlight that fought through the rare cramped windows. Sam was on his knees beside it, thick sheaf of unmatched papers in his hand, most the color of cheap yellow candle wax. "Receipts and newspaper stories and letters, looks like some business stuff and some personal. Dates are right."
Dean said, "Fantastic." He swiped an arm across his damp forehead. "Can we go now?"
"There might be more-"
"And there might not be. It's a mystery that'll never be solved. Let's go."
Sam rolled his eyes, already poring over the papers. There was a finger-streak of dust on the side of his neck and Dean's eyes stuck with a painful helplessness. He wanted to push his well-used hands into Sam's hair and leave it tinted gray.
"Sammy," Dean heard, and it took Sam's head snapping up for him to realize that it had been his own voice. Dean's face heated, and he coughed, only half-faking. "Just, I'm dying up here, I'm gonna cough up a lung."
"Whatever," Sam said, but he was sliding the papers between the covers of a black ledger and tucking it into his bag.
They got outside without incident. It was still a perfect Texas day, motionless and overbright. Coming across the front lawn, Sam snorted and served Dean a few solid smacks on the back, raising clouds of dust that followed them like bad shadows.
Dean said, "Quit it," and Sam said, "Make me," and then grinned at Dean as wide as the sky, clean-white. Something unprecedented happened in Dean's chest, something exactly in between flying and falling, and he started coughing again.
Back at the motel, Sam had the Baltons' papers laid out on the table in chronological order, the computer open and glowing, his nerd-face firmly affixed. Dean sat on the floor watching Cartoon Network and sewing up the latest rips in Sam's clothes, which was penalty for a bet he'd lost some number of months ago, but secretly Dean didn't mind so much. He liked having something to do with his hands.
Sam reported, "They bought the first gasoline-powered tractor in town. There's a newspaper clipping about it pasted in here."
"Slowest news day ever," Dean said. Sam half-laughed, nodding, and Dean felt an awful clutch in his stomach, a stupid giddy feeling that he tamped down mercilessly.
"And then, this is kinda weird." Sam squinted at one page, tapping his fingers. "Henry Balton paid for this guy's funeral, coffin and headstone and everything. Some guy named Daniel Ricard."
"Daniel Ricard," Dean repeated, distracted. There was a pinprick of blood on his fingertip, and he sucked it off.
"Yeah, which sounds very familiar to me, I don't know," and then Sam's hands came clattering down on the computer keyboard.
Dean tested the new seam with his thumb. His fingers were all tied up in Sam's shirt, soft green plaid thing. He listened to his brother typing, his thoughts diffuse and centered vaguely around Sam's hands.
"Oh right," Sam said after a few minutes. "I read about him yesterday. There've only been like two murders since the turn of the century--by which of course I mean last century--and Ricard got hanged for one of them." Sam paused, said half to himself, "The town should have buried him."
Dean unwound the spare bit of thread from around his finger. His fingertip faded from an angry purplish-maroon, sensation stinging as it seeped back in.
Sam clattered away on the keyboard for awhile, rustled the papers around. He was blurred in Dean's peripheral vision and that was where Dean wanted to keep him. Looking at Sam directly was becoming intolerably hazardous.
"They were best friends," Sam told him eventually. "Ricard was best man at the Baltons' wedding. There's a story in here about him and Henry finishing one-two in some trick shooting competition back in the late nineteenth century. They were just kids, teenagers."
There was a button missing from Sam's shirt with the pink stripes ("they're red, Dean, get some glasses"). Dean hooked a foot in the strap of his duffle and pulled it over to him without having to get up, dug around in the ammo pocket for the spare buttons that were always rattling around in the bottom. He didn't have to contribute anything, because this wasn't really a conversation that they were having. Sam was trying to tell him a story.
But Sam had hit a wall, and he blew out a frustrated breath. "But Ricard's not the ghost, is he. Let's focus here."
"Yeah," Dean said, just to keep him going.
"Henry's coffin is still our best bet. It's the only thing I can think that would be holding Molly to that graveyard."
Sam twisted to crack his back, rolling his shoulders and neck. Dean tilted his head down and to the side so he could sneak brief reckless stares out of the corner of his eye. He shuddered without warning and stabbed himself with the needle again.
Dean sighed inwardly, stuck his bleeding finger in his mouth. Sam was watching him but Dean was watching cartoons. Dean could feel the air in the room shift and become dense as Sam's mind switched from the case to all the other shit that was currently happening between them. Dean's face went red and he cursed his useless body. It never let him hide anything.
"I'm not mad at you, you know," Sam said.
Dean flinched. He dropped the shirt and the needle shivered down the loose end of the thread, cartwheeled onto the carpet. He thought about saying why not, but instead he kept quiet. It was safer when he kept quiet. He finished sewing the button on, his whole mind intent on the task.
Then Dean got to his feet, legs watery, and dumped all the shirts but one on top of Sam's duffel. This gray one Sam liked to wear when they were digging up graves because there was more room in the shoulders than usual. Dean tossed it on the computer, said shortly, "I fixed your shirt," without meeting his brother's eyes.
After a long moment, Sam said, "Thanks," and pulled off the one he was wearing. His undershirt got hiked up, a stretch of skin at his side showing, the edge of his hip.
Dean should have turned away but his body didn't obey his orders anymore, and so instead he stared.
They stopped for a late dinner before going to the graveyard, Lubell's Diner out in the ranchland where everything smelled like cow manure. Dean ordered a cheeseburger that he didn't really want. Sam let him complain about inconsequential things, the sticky table and battering dullness of the land outside the big front windows, and the waitress who forgot his fried onions and how he was ninety percent sure she'd brought him diet instead of regular soda. Sam flipped disinterestedly through the local paper, nodding along with his head propped on his hand.
Dean kept his mouth running on stupid shit, his eyes dragging over his brother's face, the way his hand pushed up his cheek and squashed one eye closed, the way his hair curled around his ears. Sam wasn't anything like any of the people Dean had ever wanted to fuck. Sam wasn't even in the same universe, and Dean wished he could stop staring.
He fell quiet while waiting for his pie. Sam finished the paper, folded it back up to return to the rack like a responsible citizen. Sam lifted his eyes and Dean immediately cut his away.
Sam sighed in annoyance. "As soon as we're done with this case, we're dealing with this bullshit, you hear me?"
Dean ducked his head, set his teeth once again to the sore place on the inside of his lip. He feigned great occupation with the laminated flip menu of desserts. Sam kicked him under the table, called him a fucking coward. Dean didn't like that at all, but how could he argue?
Henry Balton's grave had a broad headstone the color of dulled quartz. The ground was stony, punishing. Four feet down, Dean's shovel broke right at the base of the handle, loud gunshot crack like a snapped arm. He swore a blue streak and blamed everything on Sam, then went to get the crowbar out of the trunk so he could claw the rocks out one at a time.
Sam was filthy head to toe, a dirt monster. He was breathing huge and ragged, careful slow exhale that rumbled like a dying engine. Every time he hiked a shovelful of soil and rocks up and out of the hole, he made this noise halfway between a gasp and a groan.
Dean stabbed his crowbar into the earth. His hands were blistered and bleeding, and there was something in his eye.
By the time they hit the coffin and smashed through the top of it, Dean's muscles felt pounded, tenderized. Sam dropped to his knees beside him, wheezing. They braced their shoulders against each other instinctively, ripping up splintered pieces of wood.
Then Sam accidentally punched his fingers through Balton's brittle skull. There was a gentle popping sound, and Sam hissed with disgust, jerked his hand out and almost fell backwards. Dean laughed out loud, the feeling unfamiliar.
The bones of the body were almost completely eaten away, the once-black suit riddled with holes and lying deflated in the box. Sam found the man's wedding ring where his hand used to be. Dean found a folded piece of paper tucked in the inside pocket of his jacket. Sam gave him a leg up out of the grave and then he reached down his arms for Sam to grab hold of and be hauled up himself. Then the two of them lay on the grass panting for awhile. The stars waltzed in slow arcs above them.
Sam nudged Dean's boot with his own. "What's that paper?"
Dean pulled it out of his belt where he'd stuck it. His hands were shaking again--the exertion, it must have been. He hadn't noticed while holding a crowbar but the trembling page between his fingers caught him out clear as a searchlight.
The handwriting was old-fashioned and cramped, and the name signed at the bottom was Molly. Dean handed it to Sam because his eyes were sore and dust-plagued, his hands far too unsteady. Sam read quietly to himself for a few seconds, said, "Oh," and started over out loud from the beginning.
Now you are both gone, and there is no reason for the cautions of my Life any longer. For you, dear Harry, I allowed those certain things to remain unspoken, but now there is no one to hear, and no one who will ever read these words. It was for the Love your True Friend had for you, and for which he gave his Life, that you should be a Husband to me and I a Wife to you as we were meant to be.
Daniel, my Daniel, I know what Spirit moved you to silence when the Judge asked for your Alibi. You let them call you Murderer so they would not call me by my Right Names, the Adulteress and the Whore. You gave your best part for my worst, and that is The Lord in you.
My darlings! Do not think me so craven as to leave this Life and be spared the Pain I deserve. For I have already suffered a greater Pain than I knew God could permit, and I am ready to take the place saved for me in Hell.
I will see you no longer, as you are now Brothers in Heaven and I am bound Below. I have been afflicted with a terrible Love, and I go now to my Just Reward.
Sam let the suicide note fall onto his stomach. Neither of them said anything for a long minute. Dean's head felt unwieldy, overcrowded. The thin summer grass crackled under his fingers, scratched at the places where his skin was bare.
"They must have been together the night of the murder," Sam said, breaking the quiet. "He never said anything, let them put him to death and never said a word."
"She didn't say anything either," Dean answered. "She could have saved his life."
"And ruined her husband's."
"Ruined is better than dead," and Dean was taken aback by the sharp edge in his voice. He hadn't realized he cared that much.
Sam gave him a look like he was thinking the same thing, eyebrows up. Dean scraped some of the grit off his face and neck, scowling and itchy.
"You think it's the letter? Holding her here?" Dean asked, sort of changing the subject.
"Probably," Sam said. He shoved a small pile of dirt back into the hole with his boot and then picked up the shovel again, started refilling it in earnest. "We should check out Daniel's grave too. For safety's sake."
Dean sighed, several stages past exhausted, and climbed to his feet as slow as an old man. Sam scuffed his hand across Dean's head, loosing small pieces of dirt to rattle like a cold snap under Dean's collar. Dean ducked away because he didn't want Sam touching him right now. All this doomed love talk was having the worst effect on his nerves.
Ricard's grave was in the yard reserved for paupers and criminals on the far side of the cemetery, closer to the moss-smelling creek that ran along its border. The ground was easier there, the shovel blade sinking in pleasingly, but they were both tired enough it was like shoveling melted lead. They traded off between loosening the soil with the crowbar and shoveling it out of the ground. They needed all their breath, couldn't have spoken even if they wanted to.
The plain gray headstone read:
Daniel John Ricard
A Sinner And A Friend
Dean wondered if Henry and Molly had come to see Daniel hanged in the town square. He wondered if thinking his best friend was a murderer was better for Henry Balton than knowing Daniel had loved his wife.
In the coffin Balton had bought for his disgraced friend, in the skeleton's waistcoat Sam found a pocket watch made of gold. Inside, trapped for almost a hundred years in the tiny airless space, was a single lock of hair tied with a slender blue ribbon. The lock was an ash-gray color and so delicate Sam breathed carefully through his mouth as he studied it.
"Well," Sam said. "Maybe it's not the letter after all."
"We can burn both," Dean answered, looking forward to that at least.
"Gotta refill the grave." Sam's rusty voice sounded ninety years old. Dean barely managed to lift his hand in a dismissive gesture.
"Piece of cake." But he didn't move to climb out. He was sitting on the unbroken half of the coffin, his back to the wall of soft forgiving earth. Dean was for some ridiculous reason happy right now, six feet underground in a haunted graveyard with his brother and a skeleton. Dean didn't have the faintest idea what was wrong with him these days. He was too tired to fight it anymore.
Sam touched his face. Dean's eyes snapped open and it was too dark to make out his brother's face, just the vague sense that Sam's mouth was open. Sam's fingers brushed dirt off Dean's forehead and cheek, skated his fingertips down the line of Dean's jaw. Dean made a stuttering sound, grabbed Sam's hand.
"Don't worry," Sam said at once, and Dean almost laughed but he didn't want to piss Sam off. "I, I've been thinking about it, Dean, and I think if you really-"
"No," Dean said, cutting him off. "Don't think about me, it doesn't matter about me, just--it's whatever you want."
He meant to say more but it was already going awfully and so Dean shut his mouth. He pushed himself up the wall of the grave until he could stand astride the coffin. Sam got up too, tossing their tools over the side. The moonlight hit their faces now and Dean could see how Sam's eyes were narrowed, his mouth set in determination. Dean felt a shiver of fear run through him and it was the worst thing that had happened yet: he couldn't be afraid of Sam.
"Fuck," Dean muttered, lifting one hand to clench in the sparse grass, the rough soil. "Let's at least do this someplace other than an open grave, okay?"
His voice broke on the last word but Sam didn't mention it, wordlessly helping Dean over the side before gripping his wrists.
Standing beside his brother, Sam lit Molly Balton's suicide note afire and held it until it was ash, tipping his hand this way and that as the flames wicked in the wind. They burned the lock of hair with accelerant and dried grass, though it basically disintegrated as soon as Sam took it out of the watch. They refilled the grave with weary efficiency, back to not speaking but Dean was more than okay with that.
Walking back to the car, Sam said, "I'm pretty sure this is as tired as I've ever been," and Dean answered, "Join the goddamn club."
The water was working at the motel when they got back, and Sam called first shower. Dean didn't mind. He sprawled out on the floor so he wouldn't get his bed all dirty, and he was asleep before his legs were fully stretched. Wild ethereal dreams rioted like a circus in his mind, whole months lived in the fifteen minutes before Sam kicked him awake. Dean was caught between two states of mind for an excruciating moment, but then the dreams were leeched swiftly of color and form as Sam came into focus all legs and thumbs hooked in his jeans pockets. Sam's hair was wet, sleek and dark against his clean skin.
"Shower, Dean," Sam said.
Dean thought about how Sam shouldn't be ordering him around, and he shouldn't be standing for it. But he got to his feet, bones creaking in protest. Dean wrestled his T-shirt off on his way to the bathroom and bounced off the doorjamb with his vision obscured, hearing Sam snort in the background. It was hard to do so many things at once, hard to know that Sam was watching every second of it.
Dean felt a little better in the shower. Layers of sweat and grime washed off him until he was peeled, shiny and new. His head was a foggy mess but he preferred it like that; he usually had to work very hard to keep from thinking.
He'd forgotten to bring a clean change of clothes in with him and he couldn't go out there in just a towel--not now--so Dean pulled on his dirty boxers again, coarse against his scrubbed skin. His shirt and jeans were a total loss, and it was too bad Dean couldn't stop the flush pinking his chest, thinking of Sam seeing him like this.
Anxiety built in Dean as he watched his reflection fidgeting in the mirror, and he got quickly irritated with himself. This whole situation was his own stupid fault, and the least a man could do was face it. Dean squared his shoulders. He splashed some cold water on his face and throat and toweled dry, went out into the room where his brother was waiting.
Sam made a hard cut-off noise. Dean didn't look at him, going directly for his bag and rummaging for the first shirt he could find. He felt maybe half a percent better once it was on, his boxers still too short and his feet too bare. His arms still crossed over his chest protectively, shoulders pulled up. Dean kept his eyes down and sat on one of the beds, twisting his ring around his finger.
"Go ahead then," Dean said fast, unable to bear the suspense any longer. "You wanted to talk about it, so fuckin' talk."
"Actually," Sam said, moving to stand in front of him as Dean went tense, frantic inside. "Talking wasn't really what I had in mind."
Sam leaned down and kissed Dean, and for a second it was the only place they were touching. Sam licked his mouth open, slid his tongue against Dean's and tasted like toothpaste, so clean for such a filthy kiss. Sam folded one huge hand around the back of Dean's neck and canted forward, braced on his knee on the bed. Dean let Sam bend him backwards, let Sam tip his head up and bite at his lower lip. Dean's hands were wrenched in the bedsheets, his mouth moving desperately against his brother's but that was all; Dean wasn't doing anything else.
Sam broke away suddenly. He left his hands on Dean's face, stared down at him as if wholly surprised.
"Are you," Sam started, and stopped, tried again, "Is that what you meant?"
Dean's eyes were enormous, feeling swollen, overwhelmed. He shook his head, staring at his brother and sucking on his abused lower lip. Sam's gaze dropped, then came back to Dean's, darker and heavier every second. He swayed towards Dean and Dean tilted closer on blind instinct, their mouths very close.
"Then what?" Sam asked in a whisper.
Dean shook his head again, struggling for the words. Sam didn't get it. Dean hadn't meant anything at all. He hadn't even known something like this could happen.
"I wasn't thinking," Dean said. His hands throbbed from being fisted so tight in the covers. "I've been trying not to think about it."
"Yeah," and Sam smiled at him, fond and easy. "You always were pretty dumb."
And then Sam kissed him again. It was a good thing, too--otherwise Dean would have had to punch him.
Four days of sex and delivery food later, Sam and Dean finally got out of Texas.
They were breaking west, heading directly into the setting sun. Dean drove a steady one hundred miles an hour, flying down the highway as black as a wraith with his elbow sticking out the open window. He sang along with every tape he had. Sam called him a nuisance but occasionally hummed along with the choruses, and so Dean knew he was full of shit.
They stopped for pancakes just over the New Mexico border, and then Sam bent Dean over the sink in the men's room and fucked him from behind with his fingers pushing into Dean's mouth. Dean tasted syrup and powdered sugar, felt the rough pads of Sam's calluses against his tongue, and he thought he must be going crazy because this moment right here was maybe the greatest thing that had ever happened to him.
Mouth open against the side of Dean's throat, Sam said in between low moans, "Gonna have you just like this, Dean, wherever we go from now on, gonna take you everywhere."
If Dean could have talked, he would have said please.
But he figured Sam already knew that, anyway.
Endnotes: 'Long Black Veil' was written by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin. Nothing but love for Johnny Cash, you know, but I prefer The Band's version.
Ten years ago on a cold dark night
someone was killed 'neath the town hall lights
There were few at the scene, and they all did agree
that the man who ran looked a lot like me
The Judge said son, what is your alibi
If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die
I spoke not a word, though it meant my life
I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife
She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave where the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me
The scaffold was high, and eternity near
She stood in the crowd, and shed not a tear
But sometimes at night, when the cold wind moans
In a long black veil, she cries over my bones
She walks these hills in a long black veil
She visits my grave where the night winds wail
Nobody knows, nobody sees
Nobody knows but me
(come up with my own plots? the hell you say!)