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Be Set Free

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This story is No. 3 in the series "The Ashes Series". You may wish to read the series introduction and the preceeding stories first.

Summary: The final story of the Ashes Trilogy. Dean and Sarah (OFC) meet for the last time.

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Supernatural > Non-BtVS/AtS Stories(Past Donor)GeminiLoveFR1516,888145342 Dec 062 Dec 06Yes
Disclaimer: I own Sarah (my OFC not to be confused with canon character of the same name). I don't own the rest, except the plot. I'll own up to the plot.

Note: While it's never been mentioned (that I recall) in canon, I'm going with a popular fanon middle name for Dean: Michael. Please note this story is VASTLY different that the two preceding stories. Tissues may be necessary. If so, blame Sarah, she plied me with Jack Daniels and tequila sours till I finished it.

***


I was quite literally in the middle of nowhere when my cell phone rang. Of course, I’ve always been good at multi-tasking and more so since Maia was born. When you have a baby crawling around, you don't get anything done if you can't do six things at once. I took the cigarette from my mouth with my left hand, holding on to the steering wheel as I rummaged in my purse with my right for the phone. I unfolded it, tucking it into my shoulder, before switching hands on the wheel to take another drag. “Hello?” I exhaled a slow stream of smoke out the car window to the night outside.

“Sarah, hey.... Listen, we’re gonna be passing through California in a couple days and I was wondering...”

The familiar voice made my stomach lurch and I bit my lip. “I’m not in LA at the moment, Dean, sorry. You can swing by if you want, I’ll call Ilsa and let her know it’s okay for you to crash in my room...”

“Where are you?” he interrupted.

I made a noise and took another drag of smoke, exhaling toward the window as I talked. “Halfway back into my own personal Hell.” I turned the radio down, checking my mirrors. “My father died. Someone called me to come take care of some of his personal effects.”

“Oh... shit... Sarah, I’m sorry...”

“Yeah, shit happens, right? I'm not exactly surprised though. I always thought my father was kind of counting the days till he could get away from me and see Mom again.”

"You don't mean that." I made a rude noise in response. “Still.... Call me if.... you know...”

“I think I can handle sorting through a few dusty boxes of crap. The house and all the furniture pretty much belonged to the church. The rest will probably go to Goodwill or the church’s annual yard sale. I’ll pack a few boxes with the things I can’t part with and come home. No biggie....”

“Okay, if you’re sure. Sam just got back with some stuff, so I have to go.” I heard rustling in the background, and I'd eaten enough take-out to recognize the sounds of dinner walking in the door.

“Yeah, okay. Maybe next time you’re passing through...” I said goodbye and folded up my phone, tucking it back into my bag on the passenger seat.

***

Little did I know at the time that would be the *best* part of my trip home. It was, in a word, shitty. And that’s putting it mildly. I wasn’t kidding when I said going back was my personal version of Hell - I just had no idea how bad things could get. Home had never been very "homey" after Mom died, and now that their precious pastor had bit the dust, there was no goodwill left in that place for the town misfit. Nevermind that I'd made a life for myself, and a decent one, and far away so I couldn't offend their delicate sensibilities. After a few days, it was very apparent that I was persona non grata. So.... I got my business done as soon as possible, spent the rest of the time at my old bar getting as completely shit-faced as I could, fended off a couple half-hearted advances and passed out in a motel room in the next town, since no one in that dirt-hole would rent me so much as an Army cot much less a cheap motel room.

I was never so glad that I'd left Maia behind in LA. I could stand their slings and arrows for myself, but the first time one of those narrow-minded battle-axes had so much as looked at my daughter wrong, I'd have slit her throat with my palette knife. Before the week was out, I knew when I left this time I really would never come back.

It took three days to collect what little I wanted to keep and I stayed drunk for as much of it as I could and still walk. If I’d known how to make a connection anymore, I’d have gotten a hold of something a little more anesthetic, but after a few years away I had no idea where to begin. I sobered up long enough to drive home, although I tore my way through every roadhouse and bar I stopped at on my way back. The few boxes from the trunk were shoved haphazardly into my storage space in the basement before I went to the corner store and bought a fresh bottle of very good Scotch. Hey, I may very well be a drunk, but at least I drink the good stuff. Besides, now that I was really home, this was going to be my last good drunk for awhile. I didn't want Maia to see me like this. After a heartfelt hug from Ilsa and a kiss in my baby girl’s inky curls, I holed myself up in my room. Except to take care of Maia and to sober up in the shower long enough to replace the bottle with a new one and get some more smokes, I didn’t leave for four days.

For four blurry days, I drank way too much. I smoked even more. I slept whenever and wherever I passed out. A few times, that meant I slept in a tangle on the rug next to my bed, or with one arm curled around the toilet bowl to hold myself semi-upright. When I could stay upright, I painted. Incessantly. When I wasn’t painting, I was drawing. I ignored the phone and Ilsa’s concerned knocks on the door, usually with a sneer and an unfriendly gesture or two. I think I heard Gabe at one point. If I hadn't hallucinated that, I'd owe him an apology, because I'm sure I threw a glass at the door. I came out to hold my baby, get her something to eat, then stumble back to my room. By the fourth day, the time had started to blur and I wasn’t sure of much of anything anymore.

“Sarah?” It was a voice out of my dreams.

I jerked my head up and blinked. “Dean? Wha the hell?” I looked at him with hazy eyes as he crossed the room and took my cigarette from my hands as I sat staring at the canvas on my easel. I looked down at his hands as he stubbed the end out on a saucer on the worktable next to me. It had burned down to the filter - when had that happened? I’d just lit that, hadn’t I? God, had I spaced out with that in my hands? Good thing I quit working in oils, I might have set my work on fire. That would be a shame. For Gabe anyway, I doubt the rest of the world would notice.

“Ilsa answered your phone. She sounded worried. Jesus, Sarah, you look like hell.” He grabbed the bottle that was next to me and screwed the cap back on it. I went to reach for it, to get it back, it was almost empty anyway, and he pulled it away. “What are you doing to yourself? And what the hell did you do to your hair?”

I ruffled my hands through my hair. It was standing up in spikes all over my head and needed a good washing. It was stiff and a little greasy. I probably had paint in it again. “I’m self-medicating. Give it back,” I mumbled as I reached for the bottle again. He pulled back and I stumbled as I stood up after it. “Dammit, give it back. I’ll share....”

“I think you’ve had enough,” he caught me as I stumbled right into his arms.

“Nope, I can still stand up." Did I ever mention when I get really shit-faced I also get a bit belligerent? Yeah, usually I'm the happy drunk in the corner who loves everybody, but sometimes.... something dark and mean rears its ugly head. The room was wavering and my knees felt like jello, but I was on my feet and I thought I was God, so I was not numb enough to stop. Not yet. Not while their voices are still in my head. When I've drowned them all into silence, then I can stop.

He turned me toward my bed with an arm around my waist and the room kept spinning. “You’re going to bed.”

I fell face first into the bed as everything went black. That was the last thing I remembered. Until I woke up.

***

When I woke, the sun was slanting through the blinds that were oh so thoughtfully drawn and there were two Tylenol and a glass of water sitting on my bedside table. I could hear Maia's excited babbling from the living room, and Dean answering her, plus another voice. Ugh - my head. I smacked my lips. My mouth felt like I'd licked out a few bar ashtrays and chased it with the drink mat. I tossed back the Tylenol and washed them down with most of the water, sitting slumped at the edge of the bed trying to decide if I was alive enough to make it to the shower or if I’d died and this was really Hell.

Judging by the throbbing in my head and the sand in my eyes, I was alive, though it was a close one. It could very well be a new form of torture in Hell. I shuffled into the bathroom, avoiding my reflection in the mirror until I was more human. As the water swirled down the drain, I saw streaks of black, red, and orange in the water. Damn, I guess I did have paint in my hair. A lot of paint. I must have run my hands through it while I was working. It's a bad habit when I get going. One of the reasons I'd switched to acrylics mostly. Oil paint was hell to get off. The fact that the paint was swirling and not flaking off my hair meant I'd probably passed out with a shitload of it in my hair, enough that it hadn't dried completely. I kept shampooing until I thought I'd gotten it all, then rinsed my hair out good.

I had matching streaks of paint on my hands and arms - in fact, it looked like I'd used the back of my left hand and most of that arm for a palette at one point. The paint was starting to flake already and it itched. I even had drips and drabs all over my legs and feet. That meant it was probably all over my sheets too - shit. I figured the pillowcases were a total loss, if my hair was any indication. One of my few splurges had been some really nice sheets. I just knew I’d ruined them. Fuck. I was going to be a real bitch when I got out of this shower. I just hope I don't say anything I'll regret. The only thing worse than my temper when I'm drinking, it's the attitude I cop when I dry out. I closed my eyes and leaned my forehead against my arm as the water beat down on me. I was SO going to owe some apologies after the last couple weeks. Fuck.

I didn't get out till the water ran cold and chased me out. Time to face the music. I was pretty shocked when I swiped a hand over the mirror and came face to face with myself. I remember getting frustrated with my hair in my face while I painted. Evidently at some point, I’d taken the scissors to it and chopped it all off short. Toweled out, it stuck up in somewhat droopy spikes all over my head. That and it was pink. Like Bazooka gum pink. What the hell? When did I do that? I swore under my breath.

I do some insanely stupid stuff when I get really drunk, like throw shit at people who probably meant well, but I'd done a doozy this time. I looked like anime death warmed over and I wouldn't be surprised if Dean and Ilsa were waiting in the living room with pamphlets for AA and Betty Ford. Actually, nice men with straight jackets wouldn't surprise me at this point. I had black, bruise-like circles under huge, bloodshot eyes and my face was puffy and bloated, but I'd lost a few pounds, judging from the way my ribs poked out. Fuck it, I was justified this time. They didn't know what that place was like.

I wrapped a towel around myself and padded back to my bedroom. My favorite shorts were still in my bag and I grabbed them to slip into. If I had to be emotionally uncomfortable while I started making amends, I could at least be physically comfortable. I had definitely lost weight - at least five pounds, probably closer to ten, as I discovered when I buttoned my shorts and they fell nearly to my hips. They were loose enough in the waist that I could slip my hand into them without unbuttoning the waist. Fuck, something else to get lectured about. I threw on a a tank top, without the bra, and padded out to the kitchen.

Maia, my sweet girl, was sitting in her high chair playing with some cheerios, picking one up and shoving it and her fist into her mouth. I kissed the top of her head and she held out her fist to me. "For me?" I crouched down and made chompy noises on her hand, kissing it before directing her back to her high chair. I can't keep doing this. She's... I can't. No more. God, don't ever let Maia see me like I've been and I'll never drink again... not like that.

"You look better than you did last night." I looked up. Dean was leaning against my kitchen counter, watching me, his arms crossed over his chest. "Coffee's made."

I inhaled, smelling the fresh brew. "You are a god among men." I moved over to the coffeemaker and he scooted aside just enough to let me in.

"Bet you say that to all the men who make you coffee," he retorted as he poured his own cup.

I pretended to think about that, "No, not all. Only if they make good coffee." I looked at Dean above the rim of my cup.

He flicked my hair, "New look."

"Yeah. I don't really remember that part," I admitted before taking a sip of my coffee. Manna from Heaven - literally. I shuffled past Dean and sat down at the table before my knees went to water, giving my girl a smile. "Thought you were just passing though?"

"We were. I called to say we were getting ready to leave and Ilsa answered your phone all freaked. I think you scared her." He took a sip of his own coffee. "You were in pretty bad shape when I got here. Wanna tell me what the bender was for?"

"Nope, not really." I looked up from my cup, out to the living room, where Sam was sitting with a laptop and a book. He looked like he was trying to disappear, or at least pretend not to be listening in to the conversation. It;s hard to disappear when you're a freaking redwood. “Hi Sam,” I said with a yawn as I stretched.

He seemed a little startled, like he was expecting me to be mad at him for being in my house without me knowing about it. “Sarah..”

Maia pounded a fist on the tray of her chair so I got up and let her out of the chair. As soon as I cuddled her close, she reached up at for my hair with a puzzled look. “Yeah, I know... Mama went a little nuts with the Kool Aid. She’s silly, huh?” When I looked up, Dean and Sam both were watching me. “What? Look, I’m up and around. Take the rest of the bottle with you if you want, or pour it out. Whatever. It’s over and done. I won't do it again. I'll be paying for this for a few days as it is.”

Dean gave me a look at clearly said he thought I was full of shit and Sam looked just a little disgusted. Whatever, fine. I'm an alcoholic, but I function okay most of the time and hey, I quit using long before I knew I was pregnant with Maia, so go me! I got up and perched Maia on my hip. Where did they have room to be sanctimonious anyway? “Good to see you both again. See you next time you roll through.” I turned and walked out of the room and back to mine. I heard the front door slam as I sat Maia on the bed. I cringed at the pain in my head as I curled up next to her, letting her playfully slap at my arm and side. I guess I half-expected the knock at the door, and the creak as it opened. “I said I wasn’t going to talk about it, Dean.”

When he didn’t say anything, I rolled over enough to look over my shoulder. Sam stood, looking rather uncomfortable, in my bedroom doorway. “Dean decided to go for a walk.”

“You mean I pissed him off.” Sam nodded. “You may as well come in. I don’t bite. Okay, actually I do, but I’ve had all my shots.” I sat up and pulled Maia into my lap so there was room on my bed.

Sam came into the room, looking around for somewhere else to sit before giving up and perching on the foot of my bed. He didn’t say anything for a long time. Judging by the look on his face, he had no idea what to make of me. That’s not surprising, most people don’t. He looked around at all the paintings stacked in my room, and the one on the easel that was surely dry by now.

Shit. I didn’t wash my brushes out. They’re surely ruined by now. I sat Maia on the bed with a toy from my bedside table and went to check on them. They weren’t there. The table next to my easel held all my paints; all wiped down and capped neatly, then lined up by number. My brushes were laid next to them, clean and drying on an old towel, from narrowest to widest.

“He was up all night cleaning that up,” Sam said from behind me. "When he wasn't checking on you to make sure you were still breathing."

That stunned me. No one, not even Ilsa, ever cleaned up my paint or drawing supplies. I’d ruined brushes before because I’d gotten so distracted I let the paint dry in them. I didn’t know what to say exactly. I was... touched. Funny, but the fact that he'd cleaned up my paints meant more to me than the fact he'd babysat me when it was pretty obvious I'd drunk myself unconscious, and potentially comatose. Guess that shows how entirely fucked my priorities are. “I’m sorry,” I said finally. “I have.... issues. I don’t always deal with them well. I haven’t gotten this bad in a long time.” I rubbed my forehead.

I felt antsy. With no mess to clean up, I had nothing to do. I was out of canvases until I stretched some more, so painting was out of the question. I grabbed my sketch book, but it was full and the charcoals were broken, a couple looked like I'd crushed them stepping on them. Well... hell. I settled for opening the sliding door in my room and sitting in the doorway. I lifted the pack of cigarettes from just outside the door and lit one. Sam was studying me when I looked up. “What?”

“I don’t get it.”

I curled a leg up under me, resting my chin on my knee. “Get what?”

“You. Dean. You and Dean."

I shrugged. "What about it?" Sam didn't say anything, he looked like he was trying to formulate the polite way to phrase things. I decided to let him off the hook. "Why I let you guys crash at my house when I'm not here, but I never ask for anything? Why I have no problem with you guys rummaging my cabinets and using my kitchen and I obviously sleep with your brother, but never get upset if he only calls when you're passing through?"

"Pretty much. I've never met anybody..."

"I get that a lot." I pulled my feet up and rested my chin on my knees. "What can I say? I left home one day a Pollyanna and came back like this. It is what it is. We get along. We understand each other. So, yeah, he calls. I let him in the door. We have some fun," to which Sam blushed and I laughed a little, "And when he leaves again, it's no big deal. Dean isn't the type to stay and I'm not the type to ask. It's not like I have room in my life for more complications."

Sam seemed to think about that a moment. "But the drawings.... our mom...."

I pinched a piece of lint off the end of my tongue. “The picture in Dean’s wallet. It’s old. If you had a more recent photo, he’d be carrying that instead.” At Sam’s expression, I laughed. “Oh come on, that’s what I do. I study people. Sometimes, I just see something about them, or around them, and I draw what I see. I saw that picture by accident and..." I waved my hand around, "That's what came of it. I studied his face for a moment. "How old were you when she died?”

“A baby. Dean was four.”

I nodded. That seemed about right. Matched the picture. It must have been taken right before she died. I wished for once I had pictures of my parents from way back, but that was..... over and done with. “I was twelve when my Mom died. I found her when I came home from school. She was on the back lawn, hanging up laundry because it was so warm out and she had an aneurysm." I worried at my lower lip as I remembered that day. God knows I’d tried to forget it for years. “From the sidewalk, she looked like a pile of laundry on the ground. It wasn’t until I got closer that I realized....” I took a drag of my cigarette, willing the memory away again, watching as Maia crawled over and slid off the bed to toddle over to me. She laid her head on my lap and I stroked her hair.

“I’m sorry.”

I snorted, stubbing out my cigarette and blowing the smoke out the door. I don’t like to smoke around Maia - it’s why I’m almost always outside when I do. “Shit happens. You move on.”

“Dean was worried about you. You were so drunk when we got here that you could hardly stand up. He was afraid to leave." He jerked his head at my pristine, cleaned up painting supplies. "He tends to clean when he doesn’t want to think.”

"I'd have been okay. Been worse."

“You couldn’t even stand up straight. You fell right into his arms. Dean had to carry you to the bed.”

I sucked on my teeth. Okay, so that black thing I fell into hadn't been the bed after all. Huh. “Saved me a concussion then, I guess.” I got to my feet, shifting Maia in my arms so that she straddled my hip. “I need to get her dressed.” I went around Sam to the door and his voice stopped me.

“How do you keep doing it?” I looked over my shoulder at him, and he seemed to pick up on my confusion. “I mean, you and my brother. Every time we drive through California, he finds an excuse to come by here, and you just let him in. No questions asked. Even when it’s time for us to leave again, you never ask why.”

“It’s not my place,” I shouldered around him.

“And yet, twice you’ve given him drawings that were worth hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars,” he continued again, his voice following me down the hall. “You’re not like anyone I’ve ever seen with him.”

I carried Maia into her room and sat her down on the floor while I looked through her dresser for clean clothes. I heard footsteps and saw Sam leaning against the door out of the corner of my eye. “You don’t need to tell me that Dean sees a lot of women. I’m not naive and I’m not deluding myself into thinking I’m special.”

“I think you are deluding yourself. Yeah, Dean flirts a lot. It’s almost like... a habit, or something. But when we leave town, he doesn’t keep their numbers in his phone and he doesn’t take their calls either. And I’ve never seem him keep a gift from a girl either. I don’t think he’s ever even gotten a gift from a girl before.”

“And?” I checked a drawer shut with my hip as I grabbed a clean diaper and laid everything on the changing table.

“And I can’t figure out what the hell you two are.” Sam stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I mean, you two dance around each other and flirt, but Dean’s not the dating type.”

I picked up Maia from the floor. “Neither am I, Sam. I wish I knew what to tell you.” As I changed Maia’s diaper and helped her dress, I started to get angry. I guess the hangover started to kick in with a real vengeance. “Actually, why does it even need to be defined? Dean obviously doesn’t want a girlfriend and well, my track record in the relationship department isn’t stellar either.”

Maia squirmed as I tried to wrangle her into a sweatshirt - it had been kind of chilly outside when I opened the sliding door. “I like Dean.” The comment made Sam stand up a little straighter in the doorway. “He’s cool to hang out with and we get along. I’m not looking for anything serious and neither is he. So, I appreciate the little brother interrogation, but as you can see, my life is complicated enough without adding a mysterious on-again off-again boyfriend to the mix.” Sam was looking at me oddly as I picked Maia up and set her on my hip. “What?”

He looked at me. “I think he’s in love with you.”

“For his sake, I hope not.” I swallowed a sick feeling in my stomach at Sam's words. “Because if he does, it’s just going to end badly.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I don’t love him back, Sam. I can’t.” I grabbed Maia’s diaper bag and my purse and practically ran out the door. God, I’m such a fucking coward.

***

It was hours before I wandered home. Believe it or not, I’d ended up at Esme’s. Yeah, how funny was that? I’d wanted to die when I arrived at the De La Rosa house to do their sitting, but she took one look at the photo of Maia I keep pinned to my easel when I work and she just... knew. She’d taken to sending me money every month for Maia - said if her son couldn’t live up to his obligations, then she would make sure her granddaughter was taken care of. We'd become almost... friends.

I don’t even know how I arrived on Esme’s doorstep today, but she’d taken one look at me and brought me in for tea. I probably looked a mess, barefoot and in clothes that hung off my bones, but she never said a word, never asked a single question, just opened the door and stepped aside so I could come in. She sat me down at her kitchen table and made tea as if I was some honored guest and not the bedraggled urchin who'd whelped her only grandchild so far. When she sat down at the table, she didn't speak - until I put the delicate Spode china down and started talking. About Momma. About Daddy. About my lost summer road trip and all the men on it and the ones I'd met back home. About Dean. And her son. And Dean. Funny how Dean kept coming up in conversation. I didn't want to think about why.

Through it all, she just listened to me ramble. When I ran out of breath, she set aside her tea, got up and kissed my cheek and told me maybe she wasn’t the one I really needed to tell all this to. Maybe she was right, but she was the only one I had the courage to tell the whole mess to. I wasn't worried about her reaction if I ripped myself open and laid all my soul bare in front of her. If she got disgusted and tossed me out.... well, she wouldn't have been the first one to react that way.

Maia was asleep when I carried her up to the apartment. I went straight to her room and laid her in her crib, then stood watching her sleep. It was dark, and my stomach was growling, though I didn't dare put anything solid in it just yet. I heard the floor creak behind me, smelled Dean’s jacket before I felt him standing right behind me. I didn’t want to look at him. I just knew if I did, I wouldn’t be able to say no. I’d give him whatever he wanted, even if he didn’t ask. If he stripped me bare right here, physically or emotionally, I'd let him. What did that make me? Fucking weak.

I looked up. I couldn't help it. Moth, flame. More like moth vs. bug zapper, but you know what I mean. The late afternoon sun lit him up and I wanted so many things. To draw him, to draw him closer, to pull him in... I had to look away. To get away. I skirted him and went to my room. I was sitting out on the balcony when he followed me in. He leaned up against the wall and didn’t say anything, just watched me for the longest time.

“When do you leave?” I asked finally.

He looked at me. I looked back at him. “Later today.” I nodded, figuring. “Sarah..”

“Don’t, okay? Whatever the next part of this conversation is, can we just skip it?” He moved so close he was invading my space. I had to close my eyes, but I could feel his body heat radiating off him. One hand cupped my face, tilting my face up to him. He breathed my name and I pulled away.

“What are you doing to yourself?”

I turned my face away from his hand, trying to shut him out. “You should go.”

“No, not until you tell me what the hell crawled up your ass lately? You’re self-destructing. Why... why did you even take my advice to get out of that place if you’re going to kill yourself now?”

“Get out.” I tried to push him away. God, don't care. I can't stand it. I can handle a lot, but not this. Please.

He caught my wrists, pulling my arms open until I was flush against him. “No.” He said my name again, his mouth in my hair. He sounded so frustrated and confused and part of me wanted to tell him I felt the same way.

I twisted my wrists trying to get free, but he just held on tighter, his grip around my wrists so tight that I could almost feel the bones grinding together. “Don’t do this...”

“I’m sorry...” he apologized as he loosened his grip. “Sarah, I...”

I pulled away, backing up until my back was against the wall. “Don’t. Don’t you dare tell me you care about me. That’s what Sam thinks. He thinks you’re in love with me.” He didn’t say anything and I pushed myself up, walking back into my room. “I can’t... you can’t love me. You don’t know me.... you don’t know what I am.” I felt my eyes burning and I knew I was going to cry. God dammit, why is it I always seem to do that around him? I can be strong any other time, but he comes around and I suddenly lose my spine. “Don’t love me... please...”

I heard him cross the room, felt his arms around me. “Sarah...”

“No.... just go Dean.... please, before this goes too far.”

“I think we’re a little late for that, don’t you?”

“Don’t say that!” I pushed him away. “Don’t love me! I don’t love you back, I can’t love you back,” I said, scrubbing at my face. “Just get out. Now.” I turned my back on him.

“You are one hell of a headcase, you know that?” He stopped and I heard him take a deep breath. “Sarah....”

“What Dean? We talk, we laugh, we fight, we fuck.... That doesn’t make this a relationship. I didn’t ask for this, you know? I didn’t ask for you to just walk into my life and try to fix me or whatever the hell this is.”

“So what is it you wanted, Sarah? Just a quick fuck?

“At the time, yeah.” Dean’s face closed off, and I knew I’d hurt him. “Look, it’s better this way, okay? I mean, let’s face it, I know shit-all about you or your brother or your lives, and you know.. It’s probably best that way. Something tells me there’s shit going down in your life that’s just.... I shouldn’t be involved in. I don't.... I don't wanna know, okay?” I sat down on the bed. “You’re actually a pretty good guy, Dean. I think. Maybe you do things you shouldn't, but it's not because you're evil. It's because you have to. And I’m... I’m toxic. I destroy everyone I get near. The only thing I've ever done halfway right is my art.” Dean gave me this look like I was insane. “Don’t, okay? My track record is not pretty. My mom died when I was twelve. My dad.... he shut me out after that. It was like whatever love and compassion he could have for me died with her. He disowned me when I left, did you know that?”

“Every guy... all they wanted was sex and Maia’s dad.. Well, you saw what he was like. I’ve got one person in my life that I love and I spend every waking moment of my life just counting down the days till she grows up enough to realize how completely fucked I am and leaves me too.”

I sighed, curling up until my chin rested on my knees and I didn't have to face him. “You wanna know why I’ve spent the last couple of weeks drinking? So I don’t have to look at my life and realize what a complete waste I am. You think I wanted to go back *there* to that place? My dad... I didn’t even get to go to the funeral, you know that? He’d been dead three months when I finally found out. No one called me until the new pastor found my mom’s Bible with my name in it. My dad cut me out of all the family photos. He scratched my name out of his bible. Everything I left behind.... he burned it all on the front lawn.”

I scrubbed at my face. “That fucking BASTARD! I went back to that.... and I hated it there. I still hate it there. People crossed the street to avoid me, like I’m wearing some scarlet A or something. All I heard was how I broke my father’s heart, what a *disgrace* I was. How dirty and disgusting I am. I couldn’t even rent a motel room! And those are the people who had known me all my life.... so don’t you dare stand there and tell me that you can possibly care about me. If they couldn’t love me, who the hell are you to try?”

"I don't know." He grabbed my arm, pulling me up until I was flush against his body. "What are we doing?" He looked at my face, trying to find some answers maybe. But I didn't have any to give him. I didn't have anything to give him. Except....

I leaned up and kissed him. I could taste salt, and I thought for a moment that one of us was bleeding, probably me judging by the way I felt so torn open and raw. It wasn't until he pulled back and I felt his thumbs on my cheeks that I realized I was crying again. I swallowed, choking down the lump in my throat. "We can't keep doing this..."

"I know. I know."

"I'm sorry... I'm so sorry." I had a million things I wanted to say... and they were all jumbled together and I was strangling on them. I turned my back, walking away so I could hold myself together. "You should probably go. Sam's waiting for you." I bit my tongue until I tasted copper. It wasn't until his footfalls faded away completely and I heard the front door shut that I let myself fall apart.


***

The next year passed in a blur. Of motels with tacky carpets and slick bedspreads, credit cards discarded before they drew too much attention. Of hunts and scars and women in bars who wore too much perfume and too little clothing. It wasn't until they found themselves hunting something in the woods just south of Cheyenne, that Dean realized he'd avoided California like a plague. It was better this way, right?

He looked up as Sam came back in, shuffling off his jacket and dropping the package in his hands on the bed.

"Geez Sammy, go easy on that card, okay? It's gotta last us a couple days longer..."

Sam cleared his throat. "I thought this was important." He handed the bag over to his brother, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "Dean, man, I'm sorry."

"For what?" Dean opened the bag and pulled out a huge book - it wasn't particularly thick, but the pages were easily 10x13. This wasn't something for a little light read. As it cleared the bag, he saw the title, "Sarah Carson: Final Works of a Modern Master". What the.... Dean flipped the book open to the dedication page, which read, "To Maia, my greatest gift to the world, and to D.W., to whom I owe an apology beyond measure. When I said I didn't love you, I lied. Someday, I hope we can all be set free from the past we let shackle our feet."

He flipped through the pictures until he came to the painting on the last page. It was titled, "Self Portrait of the Artist". It was her bedroom, candles blazing and dripping over every surface. Sarah's back was to the viewer. On the easel in front of her was a half-finished painting, the brush in her hand extended in front of it in mid-stroke.

"The woman that owns the bookstore I went to looked it up for me online. The newspapers in LA said she just collapsed one day while she was painting. She was gone before anyone could even call for help. They said Gabe refuses to release her last painting, the one that was on the easel when she...."

"Died." Dean shut the book with a snap, setting it aside on the bedside table.

"Dean..."

He looked up, "What's there to say? She's dead. Game over."

"Dean, all I could find was that her last painting was titled, "Archangel DMW". There are rumors that she refused to finish it, that she told Gabe she'd never paint again. That she stopped painting it to paint that one."

Dean nodded, not speaking, even when Sam offered to grab something for dinner from the fast food place across the street. After the door closed, Dean retrieved the book, paging through it. Some of the paintings were familiar, achingly so. At her self-portrait on the final page, Dean stopped. She looked... defeated. Desperate. Even from the back, he could see how thin she'd let herself become. Her shoulders seemed slumped, her hair pushed back from her face, feet bare and hands and arms spattered with paint.

Her attention to detail hadn't wavered though. The air around each candle fairly glowed, dispelling the blackness of the room beyond. Even the painting on the easel was clear. He grabbed the ashtray off the bedside table, using it as a makeshift magnifying glass until the painting within the painting was clearer. It was an angel wielding a flaming sword. The blade reflected off gleaming silver armor. His right wing stretched out over the background, pristine against the bleak gray background. The space of the left was obscured by Sarah's shoulder. Dean shifted the ashtray up and saw the angel's face, the face he saw every day in the mirror.

Damn.

The End

You have reached the end of "Be Set Free". This story is complete.

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