“What was the deal back there, with all the cave-man posturing?” Sam asks once he’s sure they’re alone.
“When? In the pool room?” Dean asks.
“Yeah, with the desk clerk,” Sam answers.
“Remember how I said he was rude before? Well, he’s not just rude, he’s trying to…I don’t know, take what’s mine…uh, pretend-mine. And I don’t like it, even if we are just, you know, pretending,” Dean says, all in a flustered rush.
Sam maintains a straight face, of which he’s very proud at the moment. “Well, your fake boyfriend is very proud of how you defended his honor.”
Dean elbows him sharply just below the ribs. “Shut up.”
Before Sam can respond in kind, or do something far worse like kiss his brother again and mean it, he stops walking abruptly. Dean flails a bit, not expecting to be thrown off balance, and steps back towards him. Sam’s eyes are wide open, and his mouth is slowly opening too; his right hand raises at the same creepily slow speed and he points up the small hill towards the main hotel buildings. Dean follows the line where Sam’s pointing and doesn’t see anything exciting or worth pointing out. He just sees the brown clapboard siding, the last of the sunset reflected in all the room windows, and the wide, darkening sky above.
When Sam doesn’t say anything, and doesn’t move besides standing there and pointing with his mouth wide open, Dean grabs his wrist and shakes it. “Sam? What is it? What are you pointing at?”
Sam’s eyes narrow until they close, his head tips back and his mouth shuts with a snap. A groaning sound starts up from somewhere near the hotel buildings, sounding like it’s moving closer. Dean shakes Sam’s shoulders this time. “Sammy! Snap out of it!”
Sam tilts his head from one shoulder to the other, rolls it around a bit and slowly opens his eyes like he’s waking up from a nap. “What happened? Why are you yelling at me?”
“You just like, stopped, right there. And you were pointing with your eyes and mouth wide open. Then you closed your eyes and mouth, and then I heard that weird groaning sound again. It’s like you saw something that wasn’t there,” Dean says, rubbing Sam’s shoulder slowly, like he needs to do it to somehow calm both of them down.
“I did see something though. Someone. They were there, between the two buildings, at the edge of the garden. It was kind of like a person, but I’m not sure,” Sam says, trailing off vaguely.
“Was it a person or not, Sammy?” Dean asks, sounding even more worried at Sam’s strange answer.
“In-between,” Sam says. He closes his eyes and tries to picture what he saw, but the image blurs and twists in his memory. “It’s like it was blurry or moving.”
“Maybe you saw our ghost?” Dean asks.
“Maybe,” Sam answers, sounding faint and unsure, even to himself.
“Let’s get you back to the room. Think you need to sleep this off,” Dean says, gathering Sam into his side with a steadying arm around his waist, supporting more of his weight than when they were just pretending to be lovey-dovey.
“This, ‘s really nice, I like it,” Sam slurs, vaguely horrified at himself for saying anything, grateful that he didn’t specify what’s nice. Which is, of course, Dean’s care and concern, and the feel of being safe in his arms, which he never wants to lose ever again. Not ever ever ever.
“Sammy, you need to hush, there’s people up ahead in the hall,” Dean says quietly, pinching the skin at Sam’s waist a little to get his attention.
“Ow!” Sam yelps, but then he shakes his head, trying to refocus on where they’re going instead of whether or not he actually said those things out loud. Hopefully not, since Dean doesn’t seem to be freaking out, not any more than usual.
Dean wakes Sam up a half-hour before the restaurant closes. “Sorry, Sammy, but we gotta go eat dinner.”
Sam pushes himself to get up from where he’s warm and comfortable, resting against Dean. “This is a nice bed. Sorry, I was really out for a while there.”
“No problem. So, this place is kinda fancy, jackets are required, according to the thing I was reading.”
“Good thing our Fed suits are still pretty clean. Would you mind bringing them in while I get cleaned up?” Sam asks.
Dean nods and is out the door in a flash. Sam stumbles into the bathroom feeling more out of it than he knows he should after a short nap like that. The strange, watery dreams he was having are lurking just out of his vision. He stares at himself in the mirror over the sink, wondering if what he saw was really the ghost they’re hunting, and whether he can get through the next few days without ruining everything good between he and his brother.
When Dean arrives back in the room a few minutes later, he notices the shower running, but he doesn’t hear Sam moving around like usual. He gives it a few minutes, getting his suit pants on, brushing off his suit jacket while it hangs on the door, and laying Sam’s suit out on the bed for him to hopefully speed things up. He doesn’t want to miss dinner, since they’ve already paid for it. Finally, he gives up and knocks on the door. “Sammy? You okay in there?”
There’s no answer, except that awful moaning, groaning sound they’ve heard twice already today, so that decides things for Dean pretty damn quickly. He flings the bathroom door open and sees his brother lying face down in the shower stall. The glass is steamed up, but he can see that Sam isn’t moving. He rushes into the shower, pulling Sam up out of the shallow water and holding him in his lap, pounding on his upper back without any other thought than no, not now, no way, not Sam.
After a few, very long moments where Sam doesn’t really seem to be breathing or, well doing anything, he blinks slowly and opens his eyes. “Why’re we sitting in the shower?”
Dean looks up into the stream of water still flowing down onto both of them, and lets it wash away the tears that had flooded his face at the thought that he’d lost Sam again. He can’t answer, he can barely breathe; all he can do is hold Sam close and send out a universal Thank You to any deity that happens to be listening.
“Dean, can I get up and…uh, get a towel or something?” Sam asks, sounding nervous, or maybe shy. Dean shoots a quick look at Sam, anxious about his state of mind.
That’s the moment Dean realizes that Sam’s naked. He was taking a shower, of course he was naked. And Dean’s holding him, still holding him so tight. And his wet skin is warming up quickly under Dean’s hands. He takes a long look at Sam, in the guise of making sure he’s alright of course, and then reluctantly lets Sam scramble up out of his lap. Sam shuts off the water and quickly grabs a towel to wrap around his waist. Dean sits there at his feet, completely ignoring that he’s completely soaked, looking up at his redwood tree of a brother and drinking in how very alive Sam is (thankyouwhoever), how very beautiful (just like always), and how confused going by the expression on Sam’s face (guess I better stand up now.)
Sam helps Dean stand, his dress shoes slipping in the wet shower, so Sam has to brace him by holding him at the waist, Dean’s hands on his shoulders. “You okay?”
“I should be asking you that! Sammy, you were face down in the water. I thought you were dead,” Dean says, voice trailing off on that last word, the one that neither of them usually likes to say out loud, especially when it’s referring to the other.
“I was what? What are you talking about? I was just taking a shower, and next thing I know you’re crying and holding me so tight I couldn’t breathe,” Sam says, looking worried.
Dean knows he’s probably thinking Dean is having a break down. And hell. Yeah maybe he is, because he thought Sam was dead, again. “I think the ghost might have affected you or something. Did you see it again?”
“I was looking in the mirror while I was brushing my teeth- there was something. I noticed something, but it was shaky, so I couldn’t see it clearly,” Sam says, sounding unsure about everything. “Yeah, it was him again. But it wasn’t him hurting me, it was like… we connected somehow, and then I guess I fainted or whatever.”
“That’s what you said before, when we were outside, you said whatever you saw was shaky. Let’s get out of here, no more showers, not alone anyway,” Dean says without thinking what that implies.
“Dean, how’re we going to go to dinner? Your pants are all wet.”
“I’ll wear my dark jeans, no one will notice,” Dean answers, but the last thing he’s worrying about is the damn dress code. All he can see is Sam’s blue lips, all he can feel is Sam’s cold skin under his hands, the disturbing absence, the complete lack of Sam inhabiting his body.
“You really want to go to dinner after all of this?” Sam asks softly.
Dean looks up from where his hands are crushing his silk tie into a very small ball. “I don’t like it when you die.”
“Me neither, it sucks,” Sam answers. “But I’m okay now, see?” Sam starts doing half-assed jumping jacks and sort of kicking up his heels.
Dean laughs at his brother’s antics. “Alright, let’s get out of here before you start doing the Macarena or some shit like that. I seriously need a drink.”
Even though there’s no one in the hotel hallways, Dean holds Sam’s hand the whole time they walk to the restaurant across the lodge grounds. When they get seated at their table near a big picture window that, of course, has a view of the now beautifully moonlit ocean, Dean realizes this feels different than just the usual grabbing some grub with his brother. It’s not a diner for one thing, or take-out eaten on a sprung motel bed- it’s a jacket-required, white tablecloths with little floaty candle things kind of evening. And with the hand-holding and the dying and everything, it’s a little confusing.
“You’re pretty quiet,” Sam says, that scrunched line between his eyebrows indicating he’s worried.
“Just thinking, sorry,” Dean says, knowing that’s lame, and doesn’t answer the implied question.
“Can you just spit it out please?” Sam says, sounding a little frustrated.
Dean glares a little across the table dividing them, just because he’s supposed to. His first instinct is to not say anything, because that’s what he’d usually do. But Sam said it, and Sam just came back to life in his arms a few minutes ago, and what the hell, why doesn’t he just spit it out like Sam asked him to? He takes a deep breath and says all in a rush, “Before, you said that this was nice, and that you liked it. I think you were talking about me holding you. You were mumbling something about feeling safe and not wanting to ever lose it. That’s what I was thinking about.”
“Oh,” Sam says quietly. “And what do you, um, think about it?”
Dean feels his stomach do two loop-de-loops and a cannonball as he considers what to answer. But the hesitant, fragile looks Sam is giving him make the decision easy. “I was figuring out that I feel the same way. But I’d never said it to myself like that before.”
“Or to me,” Sam says, as if he really needs to point out the obvious.
“Right,” Dean says with a shrug and a smile. “So, what’re you ordering? Some of these steak choices look pretty good.”
Sam smiles at the abrupt conversational change. “I’m getting the surf and turf, might as well get some seafood since we’re here.” He looks out the window at the ocean, instead of examining Dean for the thousandth time since they sat down.
Dean takes the time to really look at his brother, sitting there across from him. The whole drive from Flint he’d been thinking about the play, the song the Sam character sang about him, and Marie making him take that cardboard amulet. What he’d said to her, about not needing something to remind him what he feels about Sam. His brother. Which he doesn’t, especially when Sam says they need to get back to the two of them together on the road, like he’s finally decided that’s just how it’s going to be.
“Enjoying your dinner, gentlemen?” Nick asks, appearing at the side of their table after the waiter dropped off their entrees.
“Just about to, thanks,” Dean says dismissively, hoping the creep will take the hint.
“Mark was just telling me about the family that owns this place, - the original founder was named Nick,” Sam says.
“Is that so? I had no idea, what an interesting coincidence. Have a good evening, and don’t hesitate to let me know if I can do anything for you, Steve,” Nick says in that same smarmy come-on voice he used the first time.
Sam kicks Dean under the table when he growls as Nick leaves. “Just ignore him, eat up,” Sam orders.
“Is that true? About the founder?” Dean asks, slicing into his enormous tenderloin steak.
“Yeah, I was looking over my notes earlier and the picture of the guy looks a whole lot like our buddy Nick. Why wouldn’t he claim to be the owner, or related, since I brought it up? Seems weird,” Sam says, chewing his fish thoughtfully.
“So, still think it’s just a ghost?” Dean asks.
“Well, yeah. But I’m thinking it’s a special kind called a preta, or a hungry ghost. They’re usually not killers, though, which is confusing me,” Sam says.
“What makes you think preta?” Dean asks, ready for an information download that he knows Sam’s got ready to launch.
“The water connection, specifically the waste water treatment plant being so close, right next door like we saw. Preta are known for living in waste areas. And since we’ve heard that same groaning in the pipes several times now, that’s what I’m going with. What’s strange, though, is that humans aren’t supposed to be able to see them, only people like shamans, in different mental states. But like I said, they’re not much for killing humans. Usually people just leave them food offerings.”
“Maybe this one’s gone wrong somehow?” Dean asks.
“Maybe. But I’m just going to enjoy this great salmon and not think about it for a while. Want to try some?” Sam offers.
Dean nods and Sam forks up a piece, bringing it across the table towards Dean’s plate. Dean’s surprised when the fork nears his mouth, Sam looking at him expectantly. He opens up and accepts the food off of Sam’s fork, licking it clean. Sam’s eyes seem to strangely zero in on his mouth, and if it wasn’t so dim in here, he’d swear his pupils were dilated. Dean remembers he’s supposed to eat the fish, and makes an exaggerated yummy noise. Sam seems to appreciate that, giving him a funny smile that Dean can’t find in his catalog of Sam expressions.
Clearing his throat, Dean consciously changes the subject back to the case, because he can’t deal with where this is going right now. He wants another chance to kiss those soft pink lips, see what else happens after that. But the case, the case, he reminds himself. “I think Nick is our likely suspect then, at least worth talking to about the murders.”
Sam’s eyes twinkle and he smiles. “Sure it’s not just about being a jealous boyfriend?”
“It’s about a whole lot of things,” Dean answers with a scowl that he hopes shuts Sam up.
They finish their dinner successfully, avoiding talking about Nick, the case, or how being pretend boyfriends is starting to feel less and less like pretend, at least as far as Dean’s concerned. As they walk back to the room, holding hands again, Dean’s realizing how completely unconcerned he is about this pretending thing. It just feels right. Like he’d always imagined it would.
Dean’s off looking for Nick to ask him about his founder ancestor, and pump him for more information about the killings. Sam decides to research the shaman angle, specifically why he can see this preta thing and no one else can. From what he reads, it comes down to that he’s in a different mental state, likely due to all the possessions he’s experienced. When he thinks about it, that makes some sense; the way has been opened inside of himself for other things to come through, and he has no idea how to close them back up. Might as well use it to see if I can get the preta to take off, he decides.
He finds a preta exorcism ritual in one of the Asian demonology texts he’d scanned from Bobby’s library that he has on his laptop hard-drive. But it carries this warning: “When a shaman performs an exorcism, the demon may try to engage the shaman in conversation, reveal secrets that the shaman may be ashamed of. The only thing that will protect the shaman is her firm connection to, and faith in, the power of her divinity or spiritual gift.”
Guess I get to go be a shaman, Sam says to himself as he sets off for the beach. It just seems like a good idea to do this near salt water. Just in case. He leaves a note in the room for Dean telling him where he’ll be. Just in case.
The ceremony doesn’t take long and luckily doesn’t involve candles because it’s windy tonight on the surprisingly skinny beach. The water’s edge is almost up to the stairs, as it’s high tide. Most of the ceremony seems to just be about attracting the preta, and Sam can tell something’s working because he can hear that now-familiar moaning sound coming from the hook-up pipes that connect the lodge with the waste-water treatment plant. He focuses on connecting himself with the Earth under his feet, and his strong faith in doing the right thing for the right reasons. God and the angels just aren’t his go-to anymore.
Sam starts in on the last part of the ritual, this is where it either works or it doesn’t. “Nick Hollenbeck, I offer you this food, take it, and be satisfied,” Sam says, holding out two china plates from the hotel, inscribed with the old-fashioned original gold lettering and designs, holding a candy bar from the car and some fruit from the fruit basket in the room.
The preta moans, and the food disappears. The moaning starts again, then a voice starts to come through, replacing the moaning. Sam can just see the shaky image of a man standing before him. “Thank you, Sam, you have released me. As I shall now release you. Your complete love for your brother is not the worst thing imaginable, but losing him is, am I correct?
Sam replaces the food with another selection and holds the plates up again. “Yes. Nick Hollenbeck, I offer you this food, take it, and be satisfied,” Sam repeats, hoping that answering the question without elaborating will get it to let go and leave.
The moaning increases and the food disappears again from the plates, which are licked clean and shining empty in the moonlight. The voice speaks again, “I thank you, Sam, but I cannot leave until you are released from your torment. He feels the same way as you. And now you know this. Act upon your feelings, be released from the doubt that it will cause you to lose him. It may seem immoral, but in the afterlife, believe me, that is not what counts. The intention of loving completely is what matters. Will you do this?”
“Yes, we will,” Dean answers from the steps at the edge of the cliff.
Sam startles at hearing Dean’s voice so close, then repeats Dean’s answer to the preta. “Yes, we will.”
“Then I will leave you. Again, I thank you, Sam for your offerings. Throw the plates into the ocean and I will disappear with the tides.”
“Bye, Nick,” Sam says, tossing the gold plates into the water. They splash and tumble in the rough waves. He feels Dean behind him, and starts to turn, but Dean stops him by hugging him from behind. He puts his head on Sam’s back, where his shoulder and neck join, and just holds him around the waist. Sam folds his hands around his brother’s, resting them both together near his belly button, loving the feeling of Dean holding him together, right in his center like always.
“The ghost was right,” Dean says, breaking the silence.
“You really meant what you said?” Sam asks, because it’s the only thing going through his mind right now, it’s the only thing that matters.
“Yeah,” Dean answers simply.
“You weren’t just saying that to get it to take off?” Sam asks, feeling like he has to double check Dean’s words, the stakes couldn’t be higher for both of them.
“No, Sam, I wasn’t lying to the ghost. Figured he could probably tell that, if he could already pick up on everything else so accurately,” Dean says, holding Sam a little closer.
It starts to rain before Sam can answer and they both make a break for it, running full-out for the stairs.
They stop under the eaves of the first building they come to, pressed up against the glass of a window and each other, panting from the fast run through the rain.
“This isn’t how I pictured this going, you finding out,” Sam says between breaths.
“Oh, so you pictured it?” Dean teases.
“Uh. Yeah, yeah, I did. Sorry?” Sam apologizes, feeling silly for it, but this whole thing is kind of silly and improbable.
“No, don’t be sorry. I…uh…I did too. I imagined it too. And yeah, different than this,” Dean says, sounding distracted by remembering what he’d been imagining.
“We don’t have to…” Sam says, trailing off, because he really doesn’t want to push Dean into something he’s not ready for.
“Yeah, we do. I promised the preta dude, right? Kinda seems like now or never, don’t you think?” Dean asks.
“I’m not going anywhere, Dean, there isn’t like a time limit on this or anything.”
“Just, c’mere. We’ve wasted enough of our time staying away from this. If we’re gonna do it, let’s jump in and go for it. Just like anything else,” Dean says, gathering Sam into his arms like he has only one time before.
Sam stops him before he can do more than hold him. “But this isn’t like anything else. Not to me at least.”
Dean shakes his head and smiles. “No. Stop that, c’mon, Sammy. You know that’s not what I meant. I was just tryin’ to get you to stop thinkin’ with your upstairs brain for once.”
“Believe me, that is so not a problem, not with you looking like that,” Sam says, gesturing at Dean with vague waving hands.
“What? Soggy and dripping from the rain? Yeah, I’m a catch alright,” Dean laughs.
“Now you stop.” Sam stops Dean from leaning in for a kiss, using both hands on his shoulders he turns him around so he can look at their reflection in the picture window they were just leaning against. “Look Dean, look at us. You are…well you look like.”
“Like what? A drowned rat?” Dean laughs, rolling his eyes.
“No. Look at you, you’re...” Sam stumbles over wanting to say beautiful, but he can’t, not out loud, because he knows his brother would hate it. But he hopes that Dean can see it in his eyes somehow. Judging by the small embarrassed smile that he catches in their reflection, the sentiment seems to have gotten through loud and clear. Sam leans down and kisses the side of Dean’s neck all the way up to behind his ear. “Want to go back to our room?”
Dean doesn’t answer, he just grabs Sam around the waist and starts walking. Fast.
Continued in Part 3...