?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Fic: Devil's Arcade (6/14)

ooooooooooooooooo

Can't see the future, it's gettin' away from me
I just watch the taillights glowing
--U2, "One Step Closer"

ooooooooooooooooo

One day earlier

Sam carefully closed another crumbling volume of Clearwater County history and sat back in the creaking wooden chair, squeezing his eyes shut to relieve the tension of poring over faded hand-written records for the past two hours.

When he'd been absorbed in something that intensely for that long, it always took a moment for the real world to return. His mind slowly drifted away from pioneers and miners and back to the warm, cheery library here in the county seat of Orofino. It was well-lit, quaint, and had more than enough information about early settlement in the area to explain who their ghost really was.

Also, it was pretty much empty. Sam glumly realized that one of the best features about the library at the moment was that Dean wasn't here.

He felt like a traitor for thinking that, after months of desperate wishing and some even more desperate actions aimed at getting his brother back. He felt like he was being ungrateful for the literal miracle that had occurred and that if he dared voice relief at his brother's absence, even if only in his head, Dean would be yanked away from him again.

The problem was, Dean wasn't really back. Sam sighed and stacked the book on top of the precarious pile to his left. He'd tried to get his brother to open up, tried to get him to say anything about the four months he'd spent in Hell, only to be told point blank that the older man might remember every vivid detail but was not sharing. In the meantime, he'd continue to sleep poorly and drink more and find it a little harder to focus on driving and hunting than he should.

They both would.

Sam straightened the pages of notes he'd taken and pulled the next book towards him from the dwindling pile on his right. He knew he wasn't the same man he'd been on May 1st, either. There was a distance between who he was now and who he had been then—a difference that was subtle, but distinct. And now Dean was on the far side of a divide that had started when Sam had pulled a knife on what he was afraid to believe was his own brother. Dean's visitation by an angel, Sam lying about using his abilities, Dean finding out in the worst way possible and forbidding him to use said abilities, Sam banishing a demon more powerful than any he had ever faced, with his brother as a horrified onlooker…all of these things were conspiring to keep them apart.

He let out a soft snort. Okay, maybe that language was more suited to Romeo and Juliet than the Winchesters. Whatever it was, there was certainly a tension between them that echoed the first months after his nightmare at Stanford. Then, he'd welcomed the hunts as something to focus on aside from his overwhelming grief, and Dean had followed suit, trying to take care of his little brother the best he could. They both knew that they'd each had experiences the other didn't want to hear about or couldn't understand, but they'd tacitly buried their differences and moved on, forging a new bond through the search for their father and its horrible aftermath.

But now…they'd both been changed by so much, and by each other, to some extent. Sam idly traced a doodle carved into the wooden desk by a long-ago penknife. He couldn't tell Dean everything he'd done to try and bring him back. There was no way. And Dean was apparently dead set against telling him anything about his time in Hell. And so here they stood at a stalemate.

Sam let out another sigh and flipped open the cover of a dusty blue volume, this one an early pioneer's account of their time in Clearwater County. As he flipped through the pages, he felt a calm steal over him. It was so quiet in here, so peaceful, but he still felt the excitement of the hunt via the spidery handwriting in faded ink on the page before him. The corner of his mouth turned up as he remembered a freshman term paper that had involved weeks of research in the mustiest corners of more than one Bay Area library and resulted in an astonished professor who hadn't anticipated having forty pages to grade from that particular assignment.

Sam had sheepishly shrugged and claimed a long-standing interest in local history, which was true to a certain extent. More accurately, it was the freedom to pursue whatever leads he wanted and to delve as deeply as he could into what had captivated him. He eventually figured out how to limit the hours he devoted to any particular project, but library research was always the best part of any assignment.

It has been one of the best things about being at Stanford: he was surrounded by fellow geeks. Enjoying research didn't make him weird; there, it was perfectly normal. His friends would understand if he wanted to hang out in the library rather than going out; sure; they'd tease him, but next week they'd be doing the same thing. And the push-pull relationship he'd had with Dean and his dad, caught between them needing the results of his research while giving him a hard time about liking it, was completely absent.

Research was also a good way to get lost, to distract himself from the outside world. Sure, he'd already known that from hours spent buried in local historical records or old newspaper accounts, at least to some extent. Many a fiery disagreement with his father had subsided into a smolder as he paged through musty books and painstakingly transcribed long-forgotten rituals and symbols. Occasionally it had occurred to him to wonder if that was why John always sent him to the library, as a means of cooling his heels. More likely, Sam knew, was the fact that Dean whined about how boring it was while Sam soaked it up.

Still, there'd always been the urgent pressure in the back of his head, the deadline of impending death or destruction that he could never ignore, the niggling concern that if he missed a detail or pronounced something wrong, he or his loved ones were doomed.

Term papers didn't come with that kind of pressure.

So now here he was, still doing the library thing, still totally enthralled as a new avenue opened up before him. Still trying to distract himself from the events of the last few days by digging up details of events that occurred long before he was born, long before his grandfather became possessed by the yellow-eyed demon and forced his mother into a deal with consequences that still weren't over.

Sam shook his head. He could brood about his demon-bequeathed blood later. Right now, there was a spirit to hunt down.

He'd gotten over halfway through the book before the name he was looking for popped up. Then there were pages' worth of careful notes to take, intermingled with jotted thoughts on what this historical record meant to their case. He'd just finished the book and stacked it on top of the others when the floorboards behind him creaked.

Startled, Sam whirled to see Dean coming up behind him, looking as tired as he always did these days. "Hey," the older man said, dropping into the chair next to him. "You figure it out yet?"

"Maybe," Sam answered. "You have any luck with the death records?"

Dean shook his head. "Cremated. There must be something else he's holding onto, although we still don't have any idea why he's come out of the woodwork now."

"Or it's not Michael Etchebarry."

Dean cocked his head to the side. "Rose was pretty sure it was him."

"Yeah, I know, but check this out." Sam dug through the pile of books on his left until he found an old county directory. He checked his notes, flipped to a page, and placed the open book in front of his brother. Tapping a photograph with the cap of his pen, he said, "I think this is who we're looking for."

He watched Dean's eyes roam over the page, taking in the old images and names until he lighted on the one that looked nearly identical to the photograph Rose had shown them on their way out of her house. "Miguel Eta—Etka—what the hell's an X doing in the middle of a name like that?"

"Etxberri. It's pronounced like a 'ch'. So it still sounds like Etchebarry."

Dean wrinkled up his nose. "Huh. What kind of a name is that?"

"It's Basque," Sam answered, pleased that he had an interesting story here to tell. "Euskara, actually."

"You-ska-who?" Dean asked, eyebrows going into their fully-furrowed mode.

"It's the language of the Basque people," Sam explained, warming to his subject. "It's not related to any other language in the world. It's really cool, 'cause scholars can't figure out how this group of people on the edge of Europe ended up speaking a language that's like nothing else in the world."

"Yeah, but Miguel sure sounds familiar." Dean turned the page, where more portraits awaited his gaze.

"A lot of the immigrants to the U.S. came through South America, so their first names reflect that. But since their last names are tied to where they're from, those are more often in Euskara." He'd read a little about the Basque and their linguistic oddities in college, and it was nice to be able to put a little of that knowledge to use.

Dean flattened his hands on top of the open book. "This is fascinating, Sammy, really it is, but what does it have to do with an antique store in Idaho?"

Sam pressed his lips together. Well, at least one of us thinks I'm putting it to use. "There were a lot of Basque settlers in this region; I guess by the time they started migrating over here, Idaho and Nevada were pretty much all that was left for homesteading."

"Poor bastards," Dean muttered. "Let me guess, the farming didn't go so well?"

"Right, so most of them turned to sheepherding, but some tried mining. Including one Miguel Etxberri, who ended up staking a mining claim and had a little luck with gold, which is how he paid for his wife and kids to come over."

Dean ran a hand over his mouth. "So our ghost isn't from 1980, he's from 1880? And he's not really stealing from Rose, he's just taking his stuff back?"

"More like 1890, but yeah, pretty much." Sam paged back through his notes. "He was killed in 1891, two weeks before his family arrived by steamship via Seattle."

"Man, that sucks goats." Dean stared down at the images on the page. "Where'd he die?"

The corner of Sam's mouth quirked up. "Elk River."

Dean muttered, "Big shocker."

"Yeah, his stake was about ten miles out of town, in what's now national forest land. Apparently a landslide did him in."

"A landslide?" Dean frowned. "What's he hanging around taking his stuff back for now? It's not like there's anyone for him to get revenge on."

"No, but there was a 3.5 earthquake here a month ago, strong enough to dislodge parts of an old slide. Could be his bones were uncovered and his spirit is restless." Quaint though it might have been, the Orofino library did have wireless, and the U.S. Geological Survey had a great website.

"Well, you just have all the answers, don't you, Sammy?" Dean replied, rubbing a hand over his jaw.

Sam frowned and ignored the jibe. "Since he hasn't escalated beyond theft, it should be pretty simple to put him to rest."

"Yeah, well, when is anything ever simple?" Dean muttered tiredly.

Sam shot him a worried look. As soon as Dean saw it, he straightened his shoulders and put on a cocky grin. "Eh, simple is boring."

Dropping his eyes to the desktop, Sam traced the same doodle as before with his pen. "Yeah, well, maybe a little simple now and then isn't a bad thing," he murmured.

He felt Dean's eyes on him but didn't turn to look. After a brief silence, Dean asked, "So whadda we got to do to take care of this guy?"

He shrugged one shoulder. "Depends why he's roaming around, but I would guess a salt-and-burn oughta do it."

Dean closed the book in front of him and gave it a hard pat. "All right then, you got a location on the landslide?"

"Close enough, I think. I can probably go online and find some remote sensing images to pinpoint the exact location. Even though it was over a hundred years ago, there should still be a scar." Sam frowned at the remaining books on the table, trying to remember what he had pulled them out for. There was the one about Basque folktales and the one about spiritual beliefs; those could still come in handy. The question was, what story should he tell the librarian downstairs to get her to let him borrow them?

He picked up the books and stood, gathering his notes and stuffing them under one arm. "Come on, let's go. I've just got to check these out."

Dean grabbed the smaller book from him and tucked it away against the small of his back, jammed into the waistband of his jeans as if it were a knife or a gun. "We can bring it back later, Sam."

He let out a sigh. "What's wrong with doing things the proper way? These are probably valuable books, and you know we won't get around to bringing it back."

"Then we'll drop 'em in the mail," Dean responded in a long-suffering tone. "Can we go now?"

Sam glared at his brother for a few seconds before he realized Dean was deliberately not looking at him. "Fine," he said, pushing in the chair and secreting away the book he still held in the same fashion his brother had. "Let's go."

ooooooo

Later that night, Sam came out of the bathroom in his boxers, toweling off his hair to see the television blaring away without an audience. Dean was sitting cross-legged on his bed, so engrossed in the folktale book that he didn't notice Sam's presence.

Sam leaned against the edge of the doorway for a moment and looked at his brother. He could imagine what Dean would say if he saw him—Dude, you're watching me read? Someone needs to get out more. But in contrast to his earlier thoughts in the library, at the moment he was struck by how valuable, how precious it was to simply have him there. Even if they didn't have as much in common as they used to, even if there was a widening and worrying gulf between them, sometimes it did his heart good just to watch.

Besides, this was good teasing material for later.

A fond smile turned up the corners of his mouth. "Learn anything?" he asked.

Dean's head shot up, his gaze wary. When he saw Sam's expression was more curious than mocking, he sat up against the headboard and unfolded his legs, saying, "Yeah, maybe."

Sam made a Go on gesture as he tossed the towel back into the bathroom.

Dean plopped the open book onto his lap. "Atlantis, dude."

"Stargate?" Sam asked, looking towards the TV and back.

Dean rolled his eyes. "No, moron, the underwater city. According to this," he tapped the book, "some people think the Basques used to live in Atlantis until it sank under the ocean. Explains why their language is so special."

"Huh." Sam started digging through his duffel for sleeping clothes. "What does that have to do with our miner friend?"

There was a pause. Then Dean said a little too offhandedly, "Nothin'. I just thought it was cool."

Sam sighed into the duffel. Trust him to shut down Dean's one moment of discovery in the last few weeks that had brought him something like excitement. "Okay, that is cool. Anything else?"

"Well, they've got the usual imps and spirits and giants and witches, though I have no idea if any of them came over on the boat." Dean paged through the book. "Then there's the moon goddess and her rituals." He waggled his eyebrows at Sam.

"Sorry to disappoint you, but I don't think that's what we're dealing with here," Sam replied, pulling a t-shirt over his head.

"Ah well, a guy can dream." Dean leaned back against the headboard and flipped to another chapter. He continued to read silently as Sam dropped onto his bed, wincing at the hardness of the mattress, and grabbed off the nightstand the second book that they'd "borrowed" from the historical society before picking up the remote to turn off the TV.

A few minutes passed in companionable silence. Sam was amused at how Dean would check out folktales or myths when he had research as an excuse, given his normal disdain for fairy tales as "gay" or childish. He suspected it was from a shortage of reading fairy tales as a kid; neither of them had been raised to see the Grimm Brothers as anything but a handbook for dealing with the supernatural. So now, when Dean felt he could get away with it, he'd indulge in a story or two. Sam had never called him on it, didn't want him to stop doing something that brought him amusement without any risk of injury or incarceration.

Flat on his back, head propped up with pillows, Sam was just getting into the first chapter on the pre-Christian beliefs of the Basques when Dean sat up sharply. "Hey, check this out. 'It's a long-standing belief among certain of the Euskal—You-skal—whatever, the Basques—that an unburied and unburned body is immortal." He looked up at Sam. "Not likely that a guy who was killed in a rockslide was burned or buried, at least not in the traditional sense."

Sam lifted his eyebrows. "For real?"

"No, I'm making up things because I'm bored," came the sarcastic response. "Yes, for real, Sam. Apparently there's a big complicated ritual involved if one of these immortals needs to be gotten rid of." He grinned, eyes twinkling. "You suppose there's a broadsword and a beheading involved? 'Cause that would be really cool." He lifted one arm, brandishing an imaginary sword. "There can be only one!"

Sam groaned and slumped back against the headboard, which let out a loud creak in protest. "Do you have any idea how hard it's going to be to find a ritual online for banishing an immortal spirit in Euskara?"

"Do not doubt the strength of your Google-fu, little brother," Dean replied in a fake Chinese accent.

Sam snorted. "What else does it say?" he asked, rolling over and propping himself up on one elbow.

Dean shrugged. "That's it. It's like the intro paragraph to a story, that's all."

"Okay, so read the story and tell me what it says," Sam replied.

"Yes, Professor Winchester," Dean sing-songed in response.

Sam reached behind him and grabbed the edge of a pillow, swinging it in a long arc until it thwacked Dean in the head. He hastily pulled it back before his brother could claim possession of it, having been burned a few times in the past.

Dean wasn't playing, though, instead sidling away against the headboard so that he was out of range. Sam shrugged and returned to his reading.

The chapter was filled with the usual disclaimers and proclamations that little was known of pre-Christian history because the Euskaldunak, as they referred to themselves, transmitted their history in oral rather than written form. Sam leafed through descriptions of what had been pieced together about ancient gods and goddesses, sun and moon stories, and forest spirits, but didn't find anything of use. He occasionally cast a glance over at Dean and slowly became aware that his expression seemed to grow darker with every page he turned.

Finally, just as Sam was about to ask him what was wrong, Dean abruptly clapped the book shut and tossed it in the direction of his duffel. "Okay, here's hoping the hot water heater's recharged after your shower, Samantha."

"How was the story?" Sam asked, letting the customary insult roll off his back.

Dean shrugged one shoulder and bounded off the bed. "Not worth reading," he replied casually. "Hope you got better luck." Then he disappeared into the bathroom.

Sam frowned after him. Dean had gotten rid of the book like it was burning him. His curiosity piqued, he levered himself off the rock-solid mattress and made his way over to the army green duffel bag against the far wall. Pausing to make sure the shower was running, he picked up the red-covered book of folktales and made his way back to his bed.

It took a little while to find the story Dean had referred to, and the introductory paragraph was pretty much what his brother had read aloud. He sat cross-legged on the bed and started to read.

It only took a few minutes more to realize why Dean had (for him) freaked out. The story was about two brothers, the younger of whom was killed in a hunting accident and the older of whom couldn't bear the thought of being without him. Rather than following the traditional burial rites, he'd kept his brother's body in his house. Sam wrinkled his nose at that part but read on.

Sure enough, within a few days' time, the corpse had returned to animation. But as was so often the case with resurrection folklore—and Sam had read pretty much every damn story in existence between last May and September—the restored man wasn't quite himself. In the end, the older brother had to put his younger brother to the sword, following it up by impaling himself and falling on top of his sibling.

Sam shuddered and closed the book, understanding Dean's impulse to hurl it aside. That was a little too close for comfort.

It registered a moment too late that the shower had stopped. A noise made him look up, and he saw Dean standing in the doorway of the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his hips, regarding him and the book in his hands with a frown.

It took considerable mental effort for Sam not to shove the book behind his back and pretend it wasn't there.

Silence fell while they looked at each other. Then Dean grumbled, "You always did get into my stuff when you weren't supposed to."

"You never had any stuff for me to get into," Sam shot back halfheartedly.

Dean quirked up the corner of his mouth in acknowledgment. Then, out of the blue, he straightened up and asked in a gravelly voice, "Why didn't you salt and burn me, Sammy?"

Sam felt his heart stutter. Please don't ask me to talk about that, he silently pleaded. "Because," he replied, tongue snaking out to moisten his suddenly dry lips.

"You can't say that you didn't know that's what I would have wanted. Because we talked about it. Damn it, you did everything but put your fingers in your ears," Dean demonstrated, "and go 'La-la-la-la-la'." He dropped his hands to his sides. "But we talked about it. And then you didn't even dig down a full six feet."

"I know, Dean," Sam said, dropping his head to stare at the faded pink-and-yellow floral pattern on the bedspread, trying not to remember that awful conversation a week from the end, when it had become pretty clear that only a miracle was going to save his brother.

A miracle that hadn't come until four months too late.

"You know that it's the default assumption for a hunter, any hunter, no matter the circumstances." Dean shifted in place and his voice dropped. "And you were kind of there for Dad, as I recall."

"Damn it, I know!" Sam barked, his head shooting up to glare daggers at his brother. "I know that, okay?"

"Then why?" Dean asked again, the tone of his voice the closest he ever came to pleading when the immediate threat of loss of life wasn't involved.

Sam shook his head and looked away. "I—I couldn't."

A heartbeat passed, and then another. Dean cleared his throat. "Bobby said you told him that I would need my body back. Later."

He grimaced. Thanks, Bobby, he thought, but couldn't really blame the older hunter. Sam had shut him out so fast and so thoroughly that he was surprised he hadn't staged some kind of intervention, like siccing Ellen on him or a posse of at least ten hunters to keep him from whatever he was thinking of doing. No, Bobby had trusted Sam not to do anything foolish when it came to the remains of one Dean Winchester, had played along and let Sam's impaired judgment lead the way.

Sam hoped Bobby never found out how sadly misplaced that trust had almost been.

"Sam, what did you do?" Dean asked more insistently.

"Nothing," he automatically replied. "It was an angel. It wasn't me."

Dean turned so his bare left shoulder was toward Sam, the angry red handprint still standing out against his pale skin. "I know what happened. I need to know what you tried."

Sam shook his head, feeling the helplessness wash over him again. "Nothing worked, man. We've been over this before."

"Sam, I—"

"Nothing. Worked." Sam cut him off in the best imitation of their father's voice that he could manage. "Let it go, Dean."

Dean's eyes widened, but he shut up, turning back into the bathroom and slamming the door behind him.

Sam let out a gusty sigh and dropped his head forward, wondering if they were ever going to be able to move past this. All the secrets they were keeping from each other—was it worth it? Wouldn't they be better off coming clean, like he'd tried to make Dean do back in Washington?

Then he thought of what Dean would say if he knew everything that had gone on in his absence, and Sam hardened his heart. Some secrets really did need to be kept, even from the person closest to you.

Especially from the person closest to you.

(Chapter 7)