Ordeals ‘Verse: 1. A Nice Day to Start Again

Sam and Dean. PG-13. ~11,000 words. Co-authored with Ponderosa.
As a favour, Sam and Dean pick up on a job where Bobby’s left off. Only, the spirit the Winchester boys are attempting to usher to the other side is making things more complicated than they’re supposed to be.

Hunting messes with your head. Innocuous things–dolls, paintings, lamps– become sinister, deadly. A flickering shadow pumps real fear-driven adrenaline into your veins. Perceptions are skewed, irreversible and permanent.

Sam isn’t quite sure why the local Protestant minister puttering about in a bed of struggling petunias makes the spot between his shoulders itch, but it does.

“Excuse me, Reverend,” he says, hands tucked in his jacket pockets and an open, innocent smile on his face.

A lifetime of dealing with his brother helps Sam interpret the huff-grunt noise the minister makes as acknowledgement and a go-ahead. The pile of limp weeds at the edge of the freshly turned dirt grows by two.

“Could you tell me where Em’s grave is? I’d like to-” and Sam recalls feeling guilty about doing this once, the hitch in his words reeking of real grief but as fake as his smile, “-I’d like to say hi.”

Reverend Holsapple sits back on his heels, brushing dirt clumps off his almost threadbare gloves. “I’m sorry, son, but Emma wasn’t committed to the ground here,” he says, eyes skipping to the haphazard rows of tombstones past the old iron fence. “Eric couldn’t stand the idea. Her parents agreed to let him have the ashes.”

“Oh.” Sam shifted his weight. “Okay, thanks.”

Holsapple nods, digging back into the dirt as Sam turns away, wandering along the crooked path to the church. Dean had vanished inside about ten minutes ago, after sweeping the perimeter with the EMF and coming up clean.

Sam used to like the quiet, safe hush of churches. Used to believe holy ground was holy. It’d saved Dean’s ass from Cyrus but hadn’t done crap to keep the Hookman off their backs. He’s chewed on that for awhile, separating intent from action–Cyrus was a jealous racist, Karns a moral crusader, both murderers–and still hasn’t found a satisfying answer. He believes in grey areas, but the more he hunts, the more chunks the things that go bump in the night carve out of the tidy black and white edges.

The spill of bright sunlight shows the scuffmarks on the old hardwood, the patches of wear on the aisle carpeting. “Dean?”

“Down here, Sammy,” floats through the doorway to Sam’s right. He pauses to let his eyes adjust to the gloom, eyeballing the narrow staircase before heading down. The top stair creaks loudly under his weight, the second one screeches like a banshee.

“Careful,” Dean says, standing several feet away between a leaning bookcase and a stack of plain wooden chairs. “The Father’s not gonna be happy if your big foot goes through his floor.”

“Reverend,” Sam says without a thought, moving to the bookshelf to read the bindings. “He’s not Catholic.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Dean lifts the top off an old brass censer and sniffs. Loudly. “Whew,” he says, waving a hand in front of his scrunched-up nose. “So, we have any idea why this dead girl’s hanging out here? ‘Cause I don’t think it’s for the nightlife.”

“It’s her church, but she’s not buried here,” Sam says, carefully turning crinkled, water-stained pages. The ledger is hardly a decade old, but it’s yellowed straight through and musty smelling. “Reverend Holsapple says the husband, Eric, had her cremated.”

“Huh. No bones to smoke.”

“So something else is keeping her here.”

“Yup, looks that way,” Dean says. “Nothing here but a bunch of funky smelling mushrooms.”

Sam slides the ledger back into place. “We should talk to Eric and hit the library. Something’s not right about this.”

Dean doesn’t attempt to hide the roll of his eyes as he starts back up the stairs.

“What?” Sam says. “C’mon, why would Bobby quit in the middle of a hunt?”

“‘Cause somebody asked for his help ASAP, that’s why.” Dean barrels through the main doors and out into the afternoon sun without a blink. “Probably thought this one was cut and dried, salt and burn. Didn’t have a chance to dig deeper.”

Sam slows near the car as Dean digs through his pockets for the keys. “According to that paper we saw when we stopped for breakfast,” Sam says, folding his arms on top of the Impala, the heat from the metal sinking through his clothes, “there have been two deaths related to the lake in a matter of months, Emma first and then that girl a couple days ago, Caroline. If Emma’s spirit is violent enough to kill, why’d Bobby drop the case so fast, and if she’s just a death omen or a warning, how’d Bobby miss it? And why is she haunting the church?”

“I have no idea, but thanks for the recap, Exposition Boy.” The Impala creaks twice like the stair, once when Dean opens his door and again when he settles into the driver’s seat. “How about I drop you off at the library so you can get your geek on, and I’ll swing by the post to get that package?”

Sam drops into the seat after shoving a mostly empty bag of Twizzlers out of his way. “Okay. How far is the library from the motel?”

“Dunno, why?”

“Well, if you’re going to ditch me and hit the bar we passed on the way into town, I want cab fare.”

Dean pauses with the key half shoved into the ignition. “You want cab fare.”

“I could drop you off instead,” Sam says with a shrug.

Dean mutters, rooting around in his back pocket and coming up with a crumpled twenty to slap into Sam’s open hand. When Sam doesn’t pull back, Dean’s eyebrows shoot up. “What, how much does a freakin’ cab cost?”

“I’ll get some supplies while I’m out.”

“Why don’t you pay for it?”

Sam’s nostrils flare on a long-suffering sigh. “Because you’ve got all the cash, and last time I checked, the FBI can’t trace that.”

“Alright, alright.” This time, Dean pulls out his wallet and flicks through the bills. “Why don’t you just suck me dry while you’re at it.” He hands over two more twenties and jams his wallet back into his jeans. “How’s that, enough to buy yourself something cute, honey?”

Sam tucks the smoke-scented money away and smiles the sort of smile typical of younger siblings who always get their way. “I’ll get you a Twinkie.”

“Make it two,” Dean grumbles, and brings the engine to life.

*

Juggling an armful of groceries and a tray of two jumbo-sized coffees from the tiny café by the supermarket, Sam fumbles around for the room key. He nearly ends up wearing Dean’s coffee. If he drops anything, it’ll be Dean who goes without by default, because Sam had to lug all this around while his brother drank beer and hit on girls. Relief catches him when the door unlocks without him needing a change of clothes. It opens about an inch before jerking to a halt.

Sam’s gaze arrows in on the double chain holding the door shut. His brain runs the gamut of horrifying thoughts–Dean already in the middle of banging some girl, the FBI, Magic Fingers–and a cold chill settles deep into his bones when he realises the room is completely silent.

“McQueen?” Sam calls, trying to peer through the tiny crack in the door. “You in there?”

“No Feds hanging around, Sam. Get off the door, would ya?”

The tight knot of dread holding Sam’s stomach hostage unravels enough for him to breathe. The door closes, metal scrapes, and Dean’s hand shoots out, grabbing him by the front of his jacket and hauling him inside before he can blink.

“Jesus Christ, Dean!” Sam shouts, stumbling over his own feet and dropping the lightest bag in favour of saving the coffee. He whips around, jaw set and a pissed off, “What the hell,” shrivelling into a whisper on his lips.

Dean glares up at Sam, eyes hard and a healthy flush creeping up his neck.

“Dean,” Sam says, because–and he’s noticed this before, just not quite so vividly–when he’s at a complete and total loss, brain scrambled almost beyond repair, or when something’s about to well and truly fuck him up, Dean’s name is about the only thing he can manage.

Five seconds of pure silence tick by, then, “Dean, you’re in a dress.”

Dean folds his arms over his chest, muscles bunched with tension. “No shit.”

“Dean,” Sam says again, stupidly, struck dumb like he’s standing at the edge of the world, “why are you in a dress?”

“Because I feel pretty, Sam, why the hell do you think I’m in a dress!”

Honestly, Sam has no idea. He can practically feel neurons attempting to fire, sputtering and rolling over and dying like the Impala’s engine during the weeks and weeks Dean had worked on rebuilding it.

The upswept angles of Dean’s collarbones stand in sharp relief, the hollow of his throat deep, shadows shifting as he swallows tightly. Sam stares, and colour spikes on Dean’s cheeks.

Dean looks-

Dean looks ridiculous.

And Sam realises that laughing himself sick isn’t really the best course of action, but he’s utterly incapable of stopping.

Dean stomps by, heavy black boots peeking out from underneath the layers and layers of fluffy white fabric, and Sam loses it again. Dean waits maybe another half a minute before demanding, “Are you done yet?”

“Dean,” Sam gasps, “you’re in a dress. A wedding dress.” His stomach aches, his face aches, and if Dean doesn’t stop glaring at him from that pile of frosting masquerading as a garment, he might actually die.

“Yeah, and I can’t get it off.”

“You’re- you’re stuck? In your dress?”

Dean’s expression turns tortured. Sam bites his lip. “I’m not playing dress-up here, Sammy. It’s that spirit’s dress. Emma.”

Sam scratches at the back of his neck, sobered up by the thought of Dean stuck in a dead girl’s dress. “So, uh. How’d you wind up in it?”

“I put it on,” Dean grates out through his teeth. “I opened the package and I put it on.”

It’s a stupid question, but Sam can’t help from asking, “Why?”

“Because the dress is possessed, or cursed, or- or-” Dean’s wide-flung arms trail bits of fancy lace. “What, you think I’m a closet cross-dresser or something, got my damn zipper stuck and have been waiting around here for the last three hours for my brother to get back to find me re-enacting The Wedding Planner?”

“Is that the one with Jennifer Lopez?”

“Sam! Enough about your jerk-off fantasies, let’s get back to me in a dress.”

“Okay, sorry,” Sam says, but from Dean’s expression, he’s got a feeling the look on his face is anything but apologetic. “What else happened?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? Emma didn’t manifest, or try to communicate with you?”

“No.”

“You don’t feel suicidal, or like doing anything else you normally wouldn’t be caught dead doing, like wearing the ugliest wedding dress I have ever had the misfortune to see?”

“I’ve got this real strong urge to kick your ass.”

Sam grins and drops into a chair hardly big enough to contain him. “I guess it’s not serious, if you’ve been stuck in the dress for this long and nothing’s happened.”

Incredulous, Dean says, “But I’m in a dress, Sam.”

Sam shrugs. Dean stares.

“Do you want me to try to unzip you?”

“No, Sam,” Dean says cheerfully, all smiles and dimples, “I want you to leave me in this emasculated state so you can feel like a man for once. Of course I want you to unzip me!”

Sam can’t wipe the smile off his face. He should be worried and he’s not, and that’s what ends up worrying him. Gnawing on the inside of his lip, he gestures for Dean to stand up so he can get at the zip.

“I can’t believe you’re enjoying this,” Dean mutters.

“Hey, I’m being way nicer than you would be, if the situation were reversed.”

“I’ll give you a cookie later, Sam, just get me out of this thing.”

“Trying,” Sam says. He tugs on the stuck zipper, not really surprised when it won’t budge. “Too tight to just pull off,” he says, and takes the switchblade out of his back pocket. Then, “Don’t move,” as he sets the blade to the dress.

It doesn’t make so much as a nick in the cloth.

Sam frowns, brow winkled. “So, why couldn’t you do this?”

“What, get it off?”

“Yeah.”

Dean shifts his weight, and Sam can hear the scowl in his voice. “I think it’s the same compulsion that made me put it on in the first place. I got it hiked it up to about my knee before it hit me.”

Experimentally, Sam stabs at the dress again. “I think you’re stuck.”

“…what?”

“I can’t even cut it.”

“You’re kidding.” Dean turns around, takes in Sam’s face and the knife in his hand. “You’re not kidding. Sammy, no, Jesus, I can’t just sit around like this!”

“Look,” Sam says, flicking the blade away, “it doesn’t seem life-threatening, and I found some info about the lake. The girl died there, so we figure that out, we’ll probably find a way to get you out of that.”

Dean goes through a handful of expressions before settling on a bastard mix of resigned and pissed. “Fine. What’d you find out?”

“Okay,” Sam says, pulling out his notebook and trying to keep the quirk of his lips from blooming into a full-on grin. He settles back into his chair as he flicks through the pages. “So, a couple years ago, there was a string of drownings at Plainfield Pond. Three girls, all connected to this guy who lived up by the lake. Cops couldn’t pin it on him, though. Not enough evidence.”

“Where’s he now?” Dean asks, rustling his way to the bed and looking pained at every step. “And that’s a stupid name for a lake.”

“Moved away. He probably couldn’t take the stigma.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Dean says. “Fuckin’ small towns.”

“And our spirit, Emma,” Sam goes on, catching Dean’s dramatic wince out of the corner of his eye, “wasn’t married. Engaged to Eric Brownsdale, died on the water about a week before their wedding. The fiance’s an avid boater and was the prime suspect for murder before it got ruled as accidental.”

Dean scratches a thumbnail through the stubble on his chin. “Connection?”

“Dunno,” Sam says. “But Caroline’s wake is this afternoon, so I was going to head over there after dropping off this stuff.” Sam glanced at the groceries and only remembered the coffee after his gaze landed on it. He plucked one out of the tray and held it out to Dean, deciding the last minute to leave the second instead of taking it for himself. Dean would probably need it.

“What, you get the free food while I’m stuck here?”

“Looks like. Motel’s got wireless, you could do some research.”

Scowling and rumbling like a grizzly, Dean stretches out for the television remote. “Fuck you, man.”

“Yeah, see you in a couple hours,” Sam says, ducking out before Dean can throw it at his head.

*

Sam hangs back at the edges of the black-clad mourners milling about Caroline Leeson’s back garden. He’s done this so many times now, the tight, sad smile he gives to the people curious enough to stare at his ragged jeans and old jacket works like a charm, and Caroline’s tottering grandfather leads him straight to Eric.

“Hi,” Sam says, clasping Eric’s clammy hand in a brief, tight grip. “I’m Sam. I just wanted to say, well, I knew Em. From college. She was really something, and I’m sorry.”

Eric’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “You’re a long ways from Amherst, Sam. Long, long ways.”

“Yeah, guess you don’t get much traffic in South Hawley,” Sam says, putting on a smile that isn’t one, the sort nearly every person at every funeral wears. “I’m on a road trip, taking some time off school. I didn’t hear about what happened until a couple of days ago.”

Eric nods, eyes on some distant point. The clatter of plates and silverware surges, and he glances over at the children clustering about a short table leaden with cakes. “The smallest one is Caroline’s son,” he says. “I’m his godfather.”

Sam waits, quietly. Grief cuts some people off, others, it opens like a book. Eric talks softly, not meeting Sam’s gaze, as if he could make Sam truly be the faceless stranger that still cares.

“Caroline took my boat to the lake that day,” he says. “She was going to teach Michael, like I taught her. He still wants to learn, but I’m selling the boat. Less than two years old, it’s a shame.” Eric’s gaze slides back into the present, over to Sam’s face. “You in the market for a hobby, Sam?”

“No,” Sam says, “no, sir, I don’t think I am.” Eric nods and continues watching Michael. A few moments pass, and Sam takes the opening. “Was he with her?”

“No,” Eric breathes, “thank god, no. It was just her.”

*

This time, Sam eases the motel room door open slowly. When it doesn’t catch on the chain, he pushes it wide open and strolls in, dropping two bags of lukewarm takeout onto the one bed Dean isn’t sprawled out on.

Around a mouthful of some cream and chocolate mess, Dean grunts a hello, too riveted to the television for anything else.

“What the hell is this?” Sam says, staring at the screen where some woman in too tight pants crawls into some beefy guy’s lap. “Holy shit, are you watching porn?”

“Nope,” Dean grins. “Some Canadian channel, Slice. I’m starting to think the great white north doesn’t have censors or something.”

Sam watches in a sick sort of fascination–almost exactly like walking in on Dean blissed out on Magic Fingers–as the screen cuts to a close-up of a serious make-out session, complete with groping, then to a commercial break.

“Yeah,” Dean says, smirking. “Yeah, see?”

Sam scrubs a hand through his hair. “If you can tear yourself away from your softcore porn, Dean?”

“Sure, Sammy.”

Huffing out a breath, Sam digs through the bags and tosses a wrapped burger loaded with about two pounds of meat across to Dean. “Turns out Caroline was Eric’s cousin,” he says, nailing Dean with a smirk of his own when the quick rustling of paper stops. “Yup. First Eric’s fiance, then his cousin. Sounds a lot like what happened to that Rodgers guy a couple of years ago.”

Dean sits up straighter, his legs vanishing under the voluminous puff of his skirts. Sam does a shitty job of covering up a laugh, but Dean ignores him. “You piece together any connection between Rodgers and Brownsdale?” Dean asks.

“Well it’s not a case of a killer boat, Rodgers’ move pre-dates it. Aside from the lake, which only connects them because that’s where people they loved died, nothing.”

“There’s gotta be something.” Dean stares down as his burger, x-ray vision penetrating the bread to find the single shred of lettuce drowning in sauces. He digs it out before he digs in.

“Did you find out anything, or just watch that all day?” Sam says, and on cue, a woman’s low, husky voice cuts in, saying, This program contains mature subject matter and harsh language. Two outta three ain’t bad. Viewer discretion is advised.

“I love Canada,” Dean says.

“How the hell are you even getting that channel?”

“No idea,” Dean says. “Not complaining.”

“Geez. Well, can you quit watching long enough to listen to me?”

“I already said sure,” Dean says, eyes glued to the screen.

Lips thinned, Sam smacks his palm against the knob and snatches the remote before Dean can scramble for it. Dean curses, Sam grins and carries on with, “The only things tying Caroline and Emma are Eric and the lake.”

“Pond,” Dean grumbles. “Plainfield Pond.”

“And the ‘pond’ is the only thing all the murdered girls have in common. So, I’m thinking we should check that out.”

“Okay,” Dean says. “Sure, Sammy, we’ll check that out. Tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow?”

“Because I’m missing my fucking show.”

Sam’s mouth falls open. He closes it once, feels it threaten to gape again, and shakes his head as if that’ll help. “Are you serious?”

“If I’m not out getting laid tonight, Sammy, then I’m gonna watch somebody get some. The pool boy’s gonna bang the wife, I know it.”

Bemused, Sam doesn’t resist when Dean plucks the remote out of his limp fingers and switches the television back on. Instantly, the room turns bright with simulated sunlight and the sound of water lapping fills the air.

Dean smiles triumphantly.

“Okay,” Sam says, slaps his hands down on his thighs and pushes himself up off the bed. “I’m gonna shower while you get in touch with your trashy feminine side.”

“You do that,” Dean says, already grabbing for Sam’s half-finished fries.

Three hours later, Sam’s really sick of Google not coughing up the local newspaper archives. Every so often, he can feel Dean’s eyes on him, and he hunches over closer to the screen, trawling deeper through the internet trying to find something useful.

“Gonna go blind, Sammy,” Dean says.

“Are you still watching that crap?”

“Yup.”

“Hypocrite.”

“Bitch.”

And so it goes.

By midnight, Sam’s eyeballs are close to falling out of his head. The words and images on his computer screen blur together; blinking puts them back where they belong for about a second before they start to migrate into each other’s space again.

“Sam?”

“I’m awake,” Sam says, his voice rusty.

“Yeah, good, ’cause you don’t need another reason to be grumpy at me.”

Sam’s fairly certain that didn’t make any sense, but at times like these–when his head’s not working right, because heaven knows Dean’s never is–he gives Dean the benefit of the doubt. He blinks, once, nice and slow, waiting for Dean to get on with it.

“I need you to come hold my dress up.”

Sam closes his eyes, breathes. Counts to ten. “You what?”

“Come on, Sam, I’m serious,” Dean snaps. “I can’t get the fucking thing out of the way.”

“For what?”

Dean jerks his head at the bathroom. Sam opens his eyes wide and holds his palms up, the universal gesture for I don’t get it.

“Dude, I gotta crap, and the fucking dress keeps getting in the way. Now get off your bony ass and help me.”

Sam scrubs sleep out of the corners of his eyes. “Are you screwing with me?”

“No, Sam, Jesus!”

Hands held out in mock defence, Sam says, “Okay, okay!” works a kink out of his knee and gets to his feet. His mind is a pleasant blank until he gets to the bathroom and finds Dean standing in front of the toilet, fuming.

Dean’s bare toes peek out from underneath the hem. His boots are stuffed in a corner of the bathroom, his jeans and shorts in a haphazard pile halfway on top of them.

Sam says, “You’re naked?”

“No, Sam, I’m in a dress. Now c’mere.” Dean grabs a handful of skirt and shoves it at him, twisting around to grab another handful from the other side. “I figure if we can get it over the tank and you hold it there while I keep this fucking itchy, scratchy netting from ripping every last hair off my balls, I’ll be good to go.”

“Um,” Sam says.

“Just… hold that, Boy Wonder,” Dean says.

It’s a bit of a production, Dean snapping orders and flashing skin, grunting when Sam says, “I’m way too tired for this shit,” but it gets done. Dean settles down, surrounded by mounds of lace and silk, and tells Sam to get gone in between muttering his thanks.

“What about, you know?” Sam says.

Dean’s eyebrows come together. “What?”

“When you’re done?” Dean says nothing, so Sam says, “You know,” and mimes something vague at the toilet paper.

“Oh, hell,” Dean says, head falling forward into his hands, and maybe tomorrow morning, Sam’ll find this funny, but right now, Dean’s the picture of misery. “I’ll figure something out.”

“You sure, man?”

Voice muffled, Dean says, “You’re not wiping my ass, Sam, so yeah, I’m sure.”

“I could, uh, hold while you wipe?”

“Just go away, Sam.”

Sam goes away, closing the door quietly behind him. Sometime later, when Dean calls out, Sam goes back in for the most awkward five minutes of his entire life.

*

“We could get you some bridal underwear,” Sam says the next morning, chewing through a hunk of boot leather that had, in some former life, aspired to be a strip of bacon.

Dean pauses with a forkful of steak and eggs several inches from his mouth. “Some what?”

“Bridal underwear,” Sam says.

“Sam,” Dean says, too calmly, “do you have sordid little fantasies about me wearing lingerie?”

“What? No! God, Dean!” The blush that had been creeping up the back of Sam’s neck explodes across his face. “God,” he says, choking on a laugh. “They’re like adult diapers. Brides sometimes wear them, like when they’re stuck in a forty pound dress for eighteen hours.”

Thankfully, Dean swallows before he sputters and his mouth drops open. “What the hell?”

“Less hassle?” Sam says with a shrug.

“Are you telling me some chicks voluntarily crap themselves on their wedding day?”

“Yes?” Sam hazards.

“That is fucked up.”

Sam nods.

“You know what’s even more fucked up?” Dean says. “That you know shit like that.”

“Hilarious, Dean. Shut up.”

Dean shakes his head, Dean-speak for my poor fucked up little brother, and ploughs his way through the rest of his breakfast and one-quarter of Sam’s. Sam heads for the shower, leaving him to gnaw at the bacon like a dog with a bone.

He comes back to find Dean rooting through his pack and sniffing at his jeans.

“Uh, Dean?”

“You going to the lake this morning?”

“Yeah, but what’s that got to do with you sniff-testing my freakin’ underwear?”

“I’m going with you,” Dean says, shaking out a pair of Sam’s jeans and sticking his legs in one at a time. “One more day holed up in here and I’m gonna go crazy.”

Sam smoothes a hand down his face, wishing not for the first time that Dean’s logic meshed with the rest of humanity’s. Or at the very least, his.

“You’re a gazillion feet tall.” Dean gathers up handfuls of silk and lace and starts stuffing. “More room in your clothes.”

“Dude, that’s not going to work. It’s like stuffing a bed into your pants.”

“It’ll work,” Dean says, a note of desperation in his voice when he starts running out of room. “I’ll put your jacket on over it or something.”

Laughter bubbles up in the back of Sam’s throat. And he tries, oh, he tries to keep it down, to sympathise with the wild look in Dean’s eyes, but he fails. Miserably.

Dean draws off and punches him in the arm, and he laughs harder.

“Just,” Sam says, wheezing, “just get in the car, Dean.”

“What? Like this?”

“Like that.”

Rumpled satin overflowing and poofy sleeves askew, Dean looks up from pitting denim against his dress in a losing battle. His mouth works silently, then, “What if someone sees?”

“Does it matter?”

“Yes,” Dean snaps, as if it were obvious and how could Sam ask such a question. He meets Sam’s look head-on, glances away and back again, and Sam imagines him scuffing at the carpet with a toe before he says, “No.”

Still, Sam checks to see if the coast is clear before Dean dives into the backseat, huddled in his leather jacket with one of Sam’s spread out over his legs.

*

“Dude, watch out for the trees,” Dean yells, scooting forward to smack the back of Sam’s head. “You’re gonna scratch the paint!”

Sam takes one hand off the wheel and presses it to the tick that started under his left eye about five miles back. “Dean,” he says, voice thick with fraying patience, “if you can drive the car through wrought-iron gates, I can drive it through a few branches.”

“That was life or death,” Dean mumbles, and flops back into the seat. “Totally different.”

Sam digs into his cheek with a knuckle.

The line of trees breaks and the Impala rolls over the grassy knoll onto the shore like a great lumbering beast. Sunlight sparkles on the gently lapping water, birds twitter, flowers sway in the breeze. It’s beautiful and perfect and Sam instantly distrusts it.

Dean rolls down his window, leans out and says, “Wow. When d’you figure we drove into a Disney flick?”

“Stay here,” Sam says, and gets out of the car. He’s halfway to the shoreline before he hears Dean clamber out behind him, cursing on taffeta like it’s the devil. There’s no taffeta in the dress, but after this morning, Sam’s decided to keep what he does and doesn’t know about weddings to himself.

“What if someone sees?” Sam asks, swinging around with a wide grin already plastered across his face.

“Shut up, Sam. Go find the bad thing so I can kill it.”

Squinting into the sun, Sam scans the lakeside. Dean fidgets beside him and says, “Man, this thing is like a greenhouse. I’m gonna melt.”

“You could wait in the car.”

“What, so I can melt all over the leather?”

“The old Rodgers place is probably over that way,” Sam says, pointing to another break in the trees beside an old rickety dock. “We could check that out.”

“Maybe finally get some action,” Deans says and stomps back to the car. He digs up two snubbed shotguns and extra ammo, walking back with one tucked under his arm while he loads the other. His coat hangs open, the stark black guns like slashes of tar on his dress.

“Dean, man,” Sam says, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Dude, you look like a homicidal Bridezilla.”

Dean cocks an eyebrow, slinging a shotgun over one shoulder and lobbing the second at Sam. “I really hope there’s something in there to shoot.”

“Violence make you feel more like a man, Dean?” Sam says and turns back to the lake. The light on the water flickers, darkens before partially solidifying into a familiar shape. “Uh, Dean?”

“I see her, Sammy.” Finger already on the trigger, Dean sights down the barrel.

“Hang on a minute, she’s just standing there.”

“It look like she’s wearing white to you?”

Sam wets his lips, consciously trying to slow the beat of his heart. The moment of discovery has always been Sam’s favourite part of the hunt, that feeling of triumph when they know exactly what they’re dealing with, how it operates, how to kill it. Watching Emma float on the surface of the water like the Lady of the Lake, Sam knows they’re close.

Dean practically vibrates with coiled tension beside him.

“Yeah, but she can’t be a Woman in White,” Sam says. “She wasn’t married and didn’t have any kids. It doesn’t tie in with Rodgers, either.”

“So what’s she doing?”

“Aside from staring at you?”

“Yeah, Sam,” Dean says, “aside from staring at me.”

“Not a clue.”

“Well, I don’t like it.” Dean’s stance shifts, his breath leaving him in a quiet rush.

The hair on the back of Sam’s neck prickles. “Dean-”

On cue, the water beneath the ghost’s feet explodes, a rainbow wash of it glittering in the sun. Emma vanishes in the spray, her sharp wail abruptly cut off as the water collapses in on itself. A few ripples barely reach the shoreline.

“Jesus,” Sam breathes. “What the hell was that?”

Frowning hard, Dean drops the shotgun to his side. “Let’s just find old man Rodgers’ place,” he says, “before this gets any more crazy.”

*

“You were right,” Sam says, perched on the edge of his unmade bed. “Rodgers was a widower. First victim was his wife’s sister, second was an old friend of his. Third was his,” Sam pauses, frowns, “his cleaning lady.”

“Makes sense the cops would want him for it,” Dean says. “All the women around him dropping like flies.”

Nodding absently, Sam scribbles in the margin of his notes. “Makes sense that they’re eyeing Eric this time, too–first the fiance, then the cousin.”

“Maybe they’re not connected, Rodgers’ case and Brownsdale’s?”

Sam gnaws on the inside of his lip, calm now like he wasn’t at the lake. Playing sounding board with his brother is as old and familiar as breathing.

“Maybe, but it doesn’t feel right,” Sam says. “And what happened to Emma’s spirit at the lake, that didn’t seem like it was her idea.”

Dean tugs at the ring on his hand, turning it over and over as he paces the tiny space between their beds. “So it’s something in the water. Think we’ve finally got our lake monster?”

Sam rolls onto his side and reaches for the laptop. “Something that targets only women?”

“Could target the men,” Dean says, already flipping open the journal. “Intelligent enough to hold a grudge against the guys and then go after who they care most about.”

“That’s pretty specific–and vindictive–for a creature, Dean.” Sam sits back up, crossing his legs and pulling the computer into his lap. “Nix?” he suggests. “Male water spirit that leads women and children like sirens lead men.”

“None of the victims have been children,” Dean reminds him and leans closer, breathing warm onto the back of Sam’s neck. “What’re you looking at?”

“Wikipedia.”

“Geek.”

“Bite me, Dean.”

*

Sam hits the library again, leaving Dean to fend for himself with the journal and the internet. He rechecks local deaths, looking for clusters of women dying around the same time instead of those related directly to the lake. Two hours into his research, his fingers flying across the keys, eyes across the screen, his stomach tightens with a familiar feeling just as his phone rings.

“Dean,” he says, “I got it.”

A short pause, then, “Yeah?”

“In 1991, Richard Mercer’s entire family was murdered on the lakeshore. Wife, two kids. Two daughters. The cops did a psych eval and put the guy in an institution.”

“He saw something.”

“Oh yeah, he saw something. And, in 1973, almost the same thing. Two women, both friends of a local baker-” Sam digs through his notes for the name, but abandons it when Dean makes an impatient noise. “Okay, so two women then. Every time, the cops try to nail the guy for it, but it never sticks. Not enough evidence, no motive. They’re all painted as good dependable guys, faithful to their wives, families, et cetera.”

“You’d think people’d stop going to the damn lake, Disney or not,” Dean mutters. “So what is it?”

“A naiad.”

“A naiad.”

“Yeah, a type of water nymph primarily found in Greek mythology. You’ve probably heard of Undine, has to marry a man to get a soul? Anyway, they’re mostly harmless, usually worshiped in connection with coming-of-age and fertility,” Sam waves his hand, trying to rush the explanation enough for Dean to catch up. “Except–and get this–they’re noted for extreme jealousy. Telling a naiad no is like asking for trouble.”

Dean was quiet for a moment, the sound of him scratching at his stubble clear in Sam’s ear. “You think these guys pissed of a naiad, a naiad in the middle of Nowhere, Massachusetts, and it-”

“Took out all the competition, yeah.”

“Okay, good job, Geek Boy. Or is it Greek Boy? Nevermind. How do we kill it?”

“Um.” Sam shifted in his seat, the back of his neck heating as if Dean were standing right there staring down at him. “That’s the part I’m stuck on. These things are so old, most belief puts them as daughters of Zeus, which means they could be demi-goddesses.”

“Gods,” Dean mutters. “Why do we keep running into gods.”

“There could be a way to neutralise it. You could call Bobby.”

“Hey, I could call Bobby. And not tell him that I’m wearing his job.”

“I’ll finish up here in about a half hour and-”

“Bring food,” Dean says, and cuts the line.

*

“That’s it?” Sam looks at Dean, then at the rough sketch of symbols on the motel paper. “We nab a rock from the lake, carve these into it, and the naiad goes away?”

“Or something. Dad’s journal doesn’t go into a lot of deal, it just says it’ll ‘neutralise the threat.’ My guess from some of the markings it’s some kind of hypno-trick binding,” Dean shrugs. “Whatever the deal, it works for me.”

“Doesn’t that seem… too easy to you?”

“Hey, no more dead girls with haunted wedding dresses, I’ll take what I can get.”

“Okay.” Sam tosses the pad down onto Dean’s bed and reaches for his coat. “I’ll go grab a couple of rocks and we’ll start carving.”

“Might as well just do it at the lake,” Dean says. “It might start causing trouble if it can feel what we’re doing.”

Sam stuffs his hands into his pockets. He can hardly blame Dean for wanting to get out of the room again, and there’s no real reason to protest.

He just hopes no one sees him tromping around the woods with a combat-ready bride.

*

“Think that’ll do it?”

Sam peers at the rock in Dean’s hand, the lines clean and the closest match to the complicated angles and swirls etched deep into the journal’s heavy paper. “One way to find out, I guess.”

Dean takes Sam’s hand, turns it palm up and plops the rock into it. “You throw it. This dress fucks with my arm.”

“How far out do you think it needs to go?”

“Doesn’t say,” Dean says, but he picks up the journal from the massive folds of his dress and flips through it once again. “All it says is it needs to be submerged in the naiad’s home water. You could probably just drop it under the dock and it’ll work, but why chance a drop in the waterline or some kid coming along and adding it to their nerdy rock collection?”

“I didn’t have a collection,” Sam says, “just that one rock. That one time.” Marching to the edge of the lake, Dean’s eyes on him and a warning for him to be careful, don’t get too close burned into the back of his neck without words, Sam draws off and lets the rock fly. It arcs a little too high in the centre but makes it a good distance out, breaking the surface with a milder version of the eruption that wiped out Emma’s spirit.

“Great.” Dean stands up, brushing off his hands and beaming brighter than midday sun in California. “Now get this damn thing offa me.”

“Now?”

“Yeah, now. I’m fuckin’ dying for a shower.”

Sam glances around, sees nothing but rocks and trees and water. Even if there’s no sign of anyone else, that doesn’t mean squat, but if Dean wants to flash all he’s got to the world, it’s his choice.

“Okay, but I’m still driving back.”

Dean makes a sharp frustrated noise and gestures wildly at the back of his neck.

Scrubbing his palms dry on his jeans, Sam fumbles for the tiny, teardrop zipper. It slips out of his grip twice and he grabs onto Dean’s shoulder, muttering for him to shut up and stop flailing.

“C’mon, Sammy, I know you’re not used to undressing girls, but it’s just-”

“Not moving,” Sam says. He tugs again to make sure, goes as far as digging out his knife to try cutting it again but just ends up shrugging helplessly. “It’s still stuck.”

“God damn it, Sammy!” Dean grabs at his skirts, puffs of the dress flying as he gets a good grip and tugs. Sam can see the veins in his arms swell with the effort as Dean starts inventing curses.

Sam jerks his head at the car, trailing in Dean’s muttered, “Dead ass bitch,” wake.

“Okay,” he says, resting his hands on the steering wheel as if it’ll help him think. Dean slides into the passenger side this time, yards upon yards of material bunched about his legs. “Assume the naiad’s taken care of. Emma’s spirit has a limited number of reasons to still be here, right?”

Dean rubs his hands over his face. “I think she’s just trying to piss me off.”

“Maybe she likes how you look in her dress,” Sam says, before he can stop himself. Contrite, he just braces himself and takes the slug to the arm before continuing. “If she was warning us, or seeking vengeance or justice, if the naiad is gone, that’s taken care of.”

“She definitely isn’t re-enacting her death or leading us to some windfall of good fortune.”

“We know her story, so that’s not it.”

Dean says, “Unfinished business,” the exact moment Sam murmurs, “She didn’t get married.”

Sam’s almost afraid to see the expression on his brother’s face.

“Oh, shit. No way, Sam. No. I’m not getting married. No. Not a chance.”

There are times Sam prides himself on his level-headedness–all of which only occur when neither his nor Dean’s lives are in danger, and when Dean isn’t being a complete asshole. Instead of answering right away, Sam chews furiously on any possible option for getting Dean out of that dress.

“We can burn it,” Dean says. “I don’t care, light the fucker on fire.”

“Dean,” Sam says absently, “I’m not burning the dress with you in it.”

“But Sam-!”

“A wedding is symbolic, right?” Sam says, turning to face Dean square-on and waiting for Dean’s grudging nod. “We can fake one. Hell, it might not even need to be a wedding, there are all sorts of simple rituals we could try.”

“Okay,” Dean says, his voice tight and too-level. His I’m panicking but don’t want Sammy to know it voice, which hasn’t worked since Sam turned seven. “Okay. Just one question, Sam.”

“Yeah?”

Dean glances up, his eyes wide, face pale. “Who the hell am I gonna marry?”

*

Sam takes Dean’s customary place wearing a five-foot hole in the carpet, pacing back and forth talking through ideas while Dean sits on the edge of the bed in full-blown cold-feet panic.

“We can’t bribe some girl to fake a symbolic marriage to you, Dean,” Sam says. “Vegas is out of the question. It’s on the other side of the country and I’m not sure Emma would buy that.”

“But you think she’ll buy a fake wedding when you keep saying it out loud like that?”

Sam stops, frowns as he pulls out his cell. “Maybe I should call Ellen.”

“Dude, I’m not marrying Ellen!”

“For advice, Dean.”

Dean eyes Sam like he doesn’t really believe it, but says, “Last resort. Jo’ll-”

“Right,” Sam says, snapping the phone shut. “And Bobby’s still out of contact?”

Dean winces. “Man, I’m not calling up Bobby just to tell him I can’t follow simple instructions and got stuck in this thing. ‘Burn the package,’ he says, but it might’ve been nice if he’d said, y’know, burn the package.”

“Right,” Sam repeats, a bit more slowly than the first time. Dean-logic. “We can do this ourselves. I’ll find some ribbon, you look up handfasting, and we’ll do the ceremony.”

“Yeah, okay, Braveheart style, but that still doesn’t clear up this little issue of who… who… aw, hell no, Sammy.”

Sam’s jaw goes tight, chin thrust out. “Symbolic. There’s no one else, Dean.”

“But-”

“Dean, honestly,” Sam says, ignoring the way his skin prickles with little cactus needles of heat. “This is crazy, but who’re we going to get to marry you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, for one, you’re in a dress,” Sam says, warming up to the logic and well aware he’s pulling off a classic self-justification. “Two, nobody within about a thousand miles knows you–and that’s saying that someone who knows you would want to marry you, even faking it–and three, there’s no way we can convince anyone in this town that you’re stuck in a haunted wedding dress and if they’d just take fake vows with you, it’ll all be okay.”

“Sure, when you put it like that. But Jesus, Sammy,” Dean protests, shaking his head sharply as if to drive the idea away. “That’s messed up.”

Sam snatches the keys from the pile of books on the desk. “Yeah. I’ll be back in a bit with the ribbon.”

*

“You’re still in a dress.”

“I’m still in a dress.”

“I guess faking it didn’t work.”

“I guess not.”

“Shit.” Sam drops onto his bed, rubbing his wrist where Dean yanked the ribbon a little too tightly. “I was almost sure about that.”

“Maybe she doesn’t believe in the Double Sausage Special, Sammy-”

“That’s disgusting.”

“Small town girl,” Dean goes on, his smirk the only sign he even heard Sam, “church-goer, white wedding, the whole Neopagan gay handfasting thing just isn’t her style.”

Sam’s half-closed eyes snap open. “You’re right. You’re right, Dean. She’s traditional.”

Dean nods, smug and satisfied.

“She wants a traditional wedding. Probably in her church. We need to get married in her church.”

“Jesus Christ, Sam, are you nuts?”

“No, no, it fits,” Sam says, sitting up straight. He holds out a hand to stall Dean’s protests, flicking his fingers when Dean doesn’t quiet right away. “She doesn’t want just any wedding, she wants her wedding, or at least something really close to it.”

Dean’s mouth works like a beached fish’s.

“Maybe not in her church, alright, but the symbolism is the important part. It doesn’t have to be legal. A minister, a couple of rings, that’s it.”

“You,” Dean says, “you, and, you want to get married?”

“Fake!” Sam shouts, flinging his hands out. “We can fake it, and it’ll get you out of that dress without the third-degree burns.”

Dean knuckles at his eye, sits down. Massages his temples like he has the world’s worst hangover. “How’re we-”

“Don’t worry about it, Dean, I got a plan.” Sam glances at the clock–quarter to eight, too late to get supplies but not too late to start things rolling. “You stay here.”

“Sam, wait. Dude, wait!”

Sam slams the door behind him and sprints for the car before he can change his mind.

*

The next morning, Sam wakes up with Dean looming over him like a thundercloud.

“Okay, Sam,” Dean says, “what the hell did you do?”

“Ung,” is Sam’s brilliant response.

“Sam.”

Sam swallows once and waves a hand weakly in the direction of the alarm clock. Managing to get a grip on it and shuffling it around, he squints at the glaring red numbers before dropping back on the pillow with a groan.

Sam.”

Sam wonders how many people in Vegas wake up one morning with a pissed off bride glaring daggers at them.

Sam!”

“I found a priest.”

“Oh, god.”

Scratching at his side, Sam heaves himself up to sitting, the blankets pooling around his hips. “Reverend,” he corrects himself, following the pesky itch up to the curve of his arm, “Holsapple. Gerald Keddy’s making a sizable donation to the church’s new roof fund.”

“Dude, you bribed the holy guy with a fake credit card?”

“Yup,” Sam says, gratefully taking the half bottle of lukewarm water Dean hands over and downing it. “Keddy’s a good buddy of yours, really good, and a little bit eccentric. He wants pictures of your wedding day.”

Dean sits so quickly air gets trapped in his dress, inflating it like a balloon. “I think,” Dean says, rather seriously, “I think I’m proud of you, but I’m not sure.”

“Dean?”

“I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

“Not for real,” Sam points out again, cautiously. The dress’s curse seems to be limited to the physical, but Dean’s been stuck in it for close to three days now and Sam’s not taking any chances. “Sam Loeffler and Dean Bernardini are just looking for a symbolic affirmation of their, uh, love. That’s it.”

“This is really fucked up,” Dean says. “And it’s just great, ’cause if the FBI catches wind of this, they’re going to have us up on incest charges, too. That’ll look fantastic next to the grave desecration.”

Sam stretches, amused despite the hard knot of worry in his gut that even this isn’t going to be enough to finish Emma’s business for her. He pushes it away, packs it down, and flings back the covers.

After his shower and Dean’s half-assed self-administered spongebath, Sam starts digging through his pack. The black suit is a little worn at the edges, tired-looking, but it’s the best he has. A quick spin in the wash and it should do.

“What’s that for?” Dean asks, rooting around through what’s left of their dry goods for something probably calorie-filled and cake-like.

“For the wedding,” Sam says, and tries not to dwell on exactly how messed up that is. He holds it up in front of himself, eyebrows raised.

“Rent a tux.”

“What, why?”

“Because this chick is crazy, Sam,” Dean says, flopping down in an explosion of white. “And if I’m stuck in a dress, you’re gonna damn well be stuck in an over-starched penguin suit.”

“Do you think we really need to?”

“Are you really buying rings?”

Sam shifts, tucking the suit away. “If I couldn’t steal them, yeah.”

“That’s my boy.” Dean glances down at Sam’s outstretched hand and cocks an eyebrow. “What?”

“Money.”

Dean purses his lips in a whistle but points at his wallet on the nightstand. “Didn’t figure you for a gold-digger, Sammy.”

“I’m not marrying you for your cooking.”

*

“For a special someone?” the middle-aged woman behind the counter says, fixing Sam with a sly, knowing look.

Sam chokes back the lump in his throat and smiles a little sickly. “Yeah, special. Real special.”

“Well.” The woman–Mattie, her nametag says–comes around and takes Sam’s hand in her two small ones. “What does she like?”

Not roses. Fuck, he’ll need to get Dean a bouquet and a boutonniere for himself.

“I-”

Mattie nods, her smile still firmly in place. She’s probably accustomed to dealing with scared-shitless men. Only, Sam’s not. He’s just a little queasy. “Traditional gold or white?”

“Not gold,” Sam says, frantically trying to remember the limits on the credit cards he’d taken from Dean’s wallet.

“Mm.” Some of Mattie’s enthusiasm dims. “And might I inquire as to your range, mister…?”

Sam’s mind blanks. “Keddy,” he says after a noticeable pause. “Gerald Keddy. I’m sorry, ma’am, I admit I’m a little nervous.”

Warmth shines in Mattie’s eyes, her maternal instinct apparently overpowering her disappointment at a low-budget sale. “Have you picked out your own yet, or are you looking for a set, Mr. Keddy?”

“A set, I guess. It’s a bit of a short notice wedding.”

Mattie makes a few grandmotherly sounds, bustling through the rows and rows of glass display cases with Sam firmly in tow. She stops at a showcase of glittering diamonds and launches into a spiel about financing and payment plans. Sam squints at the tastefully printed tags, feeling his stomach drop.

He can afford some of these flat out on Dean’s cards. He wouldn’t need payment options this time.

“Mattie,” Sam says, steeling himself. “These are nice, but I’ll need a set of men’s.”

Mattie’s brow furrows, tiny cracks appearing in the make-up around her lips as she frowns. “You-”

“Plain bands,” Sam says, “with engravings. Can you do custom engravings?”

“I- I can arrange it, for a reasonable price,” Mattie says. “Are you certain about plain bands, Mr. Keddy?”

“Definitely,” Sam says. “Do you have a piece of paper and a pencil? The design I want is very specific.”

*

Dean picks up one of the small, black velvet boxes, turning it over in his hands. “You bought them straight up? And the card was good for it?”

“It’s not good for much else now,” Sam says. He plucks at a bit of lint in his pocket, waiting for Dean to just hurry up and open the box. “Look, I figured since we needed rings, we might as well make them useful, right?” Impatience makes him reach out, take the other box and flip it open. “Two complimentary symbols from the Key are etched into each ring. Can’t have too much protection against demons, right?”

Dean tugs the ring free and turns it over, squinting at the inside of the band. The silence stretches. Sam jiggles his knee, wishing Dean would just say something, because this is ridiculous.

“Huh,” Dean finally says. “Guess not. Yours matches?”

“Um, yeah. Wedding bands.”

“Why’d you get them engraved, Sammy?” Dean asks, honest curiosity softening his tone. “It’s not like the card would’ve worked after the church got through with it anyway, but we didn’t have to keep them.”

Sam freezes. Dean’s right, though that’s not what’s thrown Sam for a loop. What Dean’s saying, that’s the way Sam thinks–cheat and lie when you have to, but try to cut people’s losses, even monetary ones. In the jewellery store, he’d been thinking too much, taking this too seriously. It’s an elaborate scam in an inconvenient situation. Dean’s life isn’t even on the line here as far as they know.

And still, Sam had acted almost exactly the same way as the last time he’d been out of his depth in the middle of a glittering, diamond-band sea.

“I just thought,” Sam says, sounding lame to his own ears, “I got them purified, and there are a bunch of theories about the protective power of commitment,” he trails off with a helpless shrug. “This job is messing with my head, man.”

“Messing with your head,” Dean snorts. “Every time I gotta take a leak, it’s an Olympic triathlon event.”

Sheepish, Sam rubs the back of his head.

“You rented the tux, right, Sammy?” Dean asks, one eyebrow winging up. “You didn’t buy it and a wedding album along with that six pack, did you?”

Sam flings the remote at Dean’s head. Instead of ducking, Dean collapses to the side, bringing up a handful of his dress as a shield. The cheap plastic bounces off with a dull whump.

“How long have you been practicing that?” Sam asks.

“Just came to me. Worked better than I thought.”

Rising, Sam moves to poke restlessly through their meagre supplies. Mentally checking items off his list, he almost misses Dean’s muttered, “Stop fidgeting.”

“I’m not fidgeting.”

“That’s the third time you’ve folded that shirt.”

Sam heaves a sigh and settles his back against the wall. “I feel like we’re missing something.”

“Got the rings, got the duds,” Dean says, gesturing at his lazy sprawl. “Got the preacher, got the church. We’re good.”

“I don’t know, Dean.”

“As good as we’re gonna get.”

“Yeah,” Sam breathes. “Yeah, that I can agree with.”

“Great, now gimme a beer. Best idea you’ve come up with all damn day. Even if it’s in cans.”

Sam pops open two, hands one off and takes a long pull on the other. “They’re, uh. They’re actually to tie to the back of the car.”

*

At quarter after nine on Tuesday, Sam discovers that it is actually physically possible to tie your stomach in knots and have your feet turn into giant iceblocks. Dean seems fine. He bitches and curses and mutters under his breath, but that’s par for the course even without the haunted wedding dress.

Sam feels like he’s going to puke.

“Maybe we should’ve called Jo,” Sam says.

“Heh, yeah.” Dean grins and twists the blade in his hand into the light. “Could’ve made her a bridesmaid, stuck her in an even uglier dress.”

“Yeah,” Sam says, a little too slow.

“But only if Dr. Badass was your best man.”

“Dude, that’s so not funny.” Sam tugs at his bowtie. He should’ve gotten the pre-tied one. It’d look cheaper, probably dorkier, but at least he still wouldn’t be standing in front of the mirror staring at himself in a wedding tux.

“Ellen could’ve given me away.”

“Dean, god. Shut up.”

The steady scrape of metal on whetstone gives way to ringing silence. “You having some issues there, Sammy?”

“I can’t get this,” Sam grumbles, and wrenches the knot back into place at the hollow of his throat. He cranes his neck from side to side. “Okay, there. Good enough.”

“Man, that’s pathetic.” The air conditioner clicks on, humming in a quiet counterpoint to the rustle of Dean’s dress. “C’mere.”

“What, you can do better?”

Sam swears Dean’s eyes twinkle. “Just bend over, Sasquatch, and I’ll show you what I can do.”

Leaning down a few inches, Sam glances at Dean’s face and quickly away. He can feel Dean watching him between the deft twists of strong fingers.

“Alright, now you’re good,” Dean says, patting him on the chest. Stepping back, he gives Sam the once over, so intent about it Sam gives into the urge to spread his arms and turn in a slow, deliberate circle. When Sam finally turns back to him, Dean’s face has gone soft, distant. “You look good, Sammy.”

Stock-still, Sam doesn’t respond right away, barely feels Dean clapping his shoulder. Finally, at the question in Dean’s eyes, Sam says, “Er, thanks, Dean. You look… you look like a guy in an ugly dress.”

“Don’t go getting all teary and sentimental on me now, Sam. You’ll just embarrass yourself.”

“The lace is very, uh, fetching?” Sam offers.

“Go fetch the fucking car, Sammy.”

*

Reverend Holsapple meets them at the side door, oblivious to Dean’s quick hustle inside. The church looks much the same as their first visit, worn but still cared for, and the odd disconnected strains of the organist warming up fills the stuffy air.

“It’s not really my place to say this to my parishioners,” the Reverend says, between running them quickly through their lines and the scripted movements, reassuring them that he’ll prompt them each time and they merely need to repeat directly after him, “but I think what you boys are doing is a brave thing.”

“Thank you,” Sam says, because it seems the natural thing to say and Dean is busy trying to cough back up his tongue.

“And I know you were worried, Sam, doing all of this on such short notice, but I talked with Helen,” he continues, waving jovially at the grey-haired woman jabbing angrily at a stuck pedal, “and she agreed to be a witness.”

Dean croaks, “A witness?”

Holsapple beams. “We’ll make it nice and legal for you boys, let you get on with your lives the way you were meant to.”

“Legal,” Sam echoes.

The Reverend’s smile widens to epic proportions. He claps them both on the shoulder one last time and turns in a swirl of white robes. “Helen! We’re ready to begin.”

“Oh, Jesus,” Dean moans.

The abbreviated ceremony is a surrealist smear in Sam’s memory. He doesn’t remember speaking, though he obviously obediently parroted the minister because the image of Dean’s hand in his is stark, overexposed and seared into his retinas. Dean’s fingers are rough but his grip gentle; the cuticle on his index finger is torn and red, the scar on his middle knuckle raised and white. Dean’s gaze, when Sam’s eyes meet his, is steady and warm and doesn’t mirror one bit of the churning in Sam’s gut.

When Reverend Hoslapple booms, “Mr. and Mr. Bernardini,” to the empty church–Dean is the one in the dress, but he won the pointless argument about who took whose name by virtue of it being the easiest to pronounce–the ground vanishes from beneath Sam’s feet.

Holsapple sparkles at them like a grandfather with a new baby on his knee. Dean stares resolutely forward, hand stiff and clammy in Sam’s. “Go on, son,” the Reverend whispers. “I agreed to marry you, I’m not squeamish.”

Sam opens his mouth, clearing his throat when all that comes out is a squeak of noise. “Sir,” he says, searching for the easiest, most believable lie he can find, “He, Dean, what I mean is,” and usually he’s much better at bullshit than this, “public displays-”

The Reverend’s smile fades at the corners, a sad, knowing light in his eyes. “Don’t worry, boys. It sounds trite, but love really is all you need. Love and understanding, and the power to forgive.”

Sam swallows and he feels the furrow forming between his brows. He isn’t sure why he does what he does next. He doesn’t even really think about it. But between one breath and the next, Dean’s face is cupped between his palms and their mouths are crushed together, no finesse, no style, just the hard press of dry, chapped lips.

The Reverend and the blushing altar server burst into applause as Helen breaks into rousing, enthusiastic song, her voice hinting at something that once used to soar with the strength of the organ but now struggles to keep pace. Holsapple leads them down the centre aisle, his voice joining Helen’s in what Sam supposes to be a traditional hymn. The words feel old.

At the main doors, Holsapple turns. “Sam, Dean,” he says, taking their still-clasped hands in his. “I told you the truth up there. My wife’s been gone nearly five years now, and I won’t lie and say we had the perfect marriage. Sometimes, no matter what, we never saw eye to eye. But we never let that get in the way of our happiness, and you shouldn’t either. There’s nothing, nothing,” he says, squeezing their hands tight enough Sam can feel the wedding band digging into his flesh, “more powerful than this.”

Mutely, Sam nods. Dean’s insistent tug on his hand pulls him out into the sunlight, into the small church yard with its freshly-planted beds and ancient, gnarled trees. Under the Reverend’s steady gaze they round the corner of the churchyard, Sam’s hand already fishing for the keys.

He holds Dean’s door open before sliding in himself.

“Dude,” Dean says, face twisted and voice slurred. “You didn’t have to slip me tongue, man, you’re my brother.”

“What if it had to be a real kiss, Dean!” Sam shouts, turning the engine over and barely resisting the urge to peel out of the lot, kicking up gravel behind them, before Helen and the Reverend see his bride rooting around for mouthwash. “Huh? What if you got stuck in that dress because we faked it?”

“You mean like we were supposed to fake the marriage?”

Sam closes his mouth with an audible snap. “Yes,” he grates.

“Whatever, Sammy.” Dean slides the ribbon off the thick roll of paper in his lap, staring speculatively down at the certificate bearing all their signatures. “This could come in handy, if the Feds don’t nail it too quick. A nice legal marriage is pretty solid cover.”

“It’s only legal in Massachusetts,” Sam mumbles. “And Canada.”

“Still,” Dean says, re-rolling the paper and wrestling the ribbon back on. “Not bad, Mr. Bernardini.”

*

“Do you think I should’ve carried you over the threshold?”

“Haha, funny. Really. Screw you.” Clearly enjoying the freedom of jeans, Dean kicks the door to their motel room shut behind him.

Sam jabs the bag with the wrinkled tux into the backseat. “And you never got to toss your bouquet.”

Dean shoves the weapons duffle into Sam’s arms. “Next time, you can be the chick.”

“Hey, at least you’re out of the dress, right?” Without giving Dean the chance to protest, Sam slides into the driver’s seat.

“I’ve never been so happy to salt and burn something in my entire life,” Dean grunts.

Which Sam sort of thought was extreme and unnecessary, but then, he hadn’t been the one stuck with bathroom issues and stray drafts and the desperate need for a real shower. Though he’d heard all about it and participated way more than he’s really comfortable with admitting. Ever.

“Which direction?” Sam asks.

“West,” Dean says. “And don’t stop until sundown.”

Sam bends low, twisting to jerk the old shoebox of tapes out from underneath Dean’s side of the seat. He pokes randomly through the offerings, picking one with the label half-obscured that he’s sure he hasn’t seen Dean play in month. It’s almost as good as a gold-lettered guarantee that whatever it is, he’s not sick of it.

Billy Idol gets two words in edgewise before Sam lunges for the player, the tape ejected and flung out the window while Dean jams an overplayed Metallica cassette in its place.

For once, James Hetfield belting it out in Sam’s ears is sweet, soothing relief.

And my ties are severed clean
The less I have the more I gain
Off the beaten path I reign
Rover wanderer
Nomad vagabond
Call me what you will…

14 Responses to “Ordeals ‘Verse: 1. A Nice Day to Start Again”

  1. prettyfreckles Says:

    just sent this link to a couple of friends. it is my favorite story (this week!)

    all your stuff is just wonderful. squee, squee and squee.

    incoherently laughing,
    pf

  2. layne67 Says:

    Enjoyed this very much. Heheh, I was kinda hoping that the marriage has to bu consummated as well for the curse to be broke ;D

  3. gidgetgal9 Says:

    What a fun story!

  4. twasadark Says:

    Oh, this was great! Loved the light-hearted tone of it, and loved how you resolved it. So so funny!

    As you can tell, I’m working my way thru your fic. Thanks for the great reading!

  5. Amalthia Says:

    I had a blast reading your story. :)

  6. Icarus Says:

    Ahahahahahaha, Sam put in White Wedding.

    Beautifully handled, so them, great descriptive prose — and “Exposition Boy” made me decide you were brilliant.

  7. niccy Says:

    I love this! As I was reading this story, I realized I really love authors who right simple hunt stories for the sake of pure entertainment. The writing was wonderful and the character voices were great.

  8. Eleasha Says:

    Okay. Besides the absolute general amazingness of this story, the perfect characterizations, the awesome writing, the fucking hilarious images of Dean in a dress, and everything else that I can’t even name, my favourite part was thinking about how long they are going to be wearing those rings, but never mentioning them (in their manly way)… until one day Dean is half naked with some chick (yech! says the Wincester in me) and she says, “Oh, are you married?” and Dean, after stuttering for a moment, mutters, “Marriedmybrotherawhilebackbymistake…” and it would all be very funny. :)

  9. keerawa Says:

    I loved Sam’s panic in the ring store. (Was he flashing back to buying a ring for Jessica there?) Also, the fact that those two can’t take a ceremony of love and commitment to each other any less than seriously.

  10. Laura Says:

    ♥ LOL

  11. werewolfsfan Says:

    Wow! I saw the link on Supernatural Wiki under crack!fic. And I adore this because of the great characterizations. I can imagine Sam’s speechlessness when confronted by his brother, not only in a dress, but an ugly wedding concoction! I “bought” into the entire cursed object scenario.
    Loved the bathroom dilemmas, too. I actually heard similar recounted when a male designer borrowed a frou frou skirt from another colleague to where in the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. So this brought back some funny memories. But my favorite part is this:

    The abbreviated ceremony is a surrealist smear in Sam’s memory. He doesn’t remember speaking, though he obviously obediently parroted the minister because the image of Dean’s hand in his is stark, overexposed and seared into his retinas. Dean’s fingers are rough but his grip gentle; the cuticle on his index finger is torn and red, the scar on his middle knuckle raised and white. Dean’s gaze, when Sam’s eyes meet his, is steady and warm and doesn’t mirror one bit of the churning in Sam’s gut.

  12. samidha Says:

    This is great. :D

  13. Troonye Says:

    Me like. ;D

  14. Troonye Says:

    Yeah Supernatural! Oh the wonders!

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