"You gotta let me go."
The words cut into Sam like a dull blade, severing veins and arteries Sam doesn't know he has; all he can do is bleed out. He sits stiffly in the passenger seat of the Impala, silent long after the lights of Chicago glitter like stars in the rearview mirror. He leans his throbbing head against the cool glass of the window. Hot tears race down his face, and Sam's grateful that Dean doesn't acknowledge them. Sam hasn't cried for his father in years. He's not five, and he doesn't need birthday cakes or softball games anymore, tuck-ins or gold stars. He doesn't need him.
Sam risks a glance at Dean, but his brother is hunched over the steering wheel, his bloody face a mask of intense concentration. Whatever emotions his brother might harbor are docked in wait of safer waters. Dean will drive until exhaustion, and then he'll drive some more. He'll drive west until the sun crawls across the hood of the Impala, burning all shadows away. Dean will make sure they're safe, because that's what Dean does.
Dean studies the menu, trying to ignore Sam's eyes on him. For the first few days, both had been quiet, locked in their own thoughts. It's only as the wounds have closed, started to scab beneath the hasty stitches, that the silence has begun to unravel. A few words from Sam, a grunt of assent from Dean, another day, and then a week. The shadows fall behind them.
"So you think we're clear?"
Sam's fingers tighten on his menu, tap impatiently against the vinyl. Dean's one-word responses are beginning to grate. He's never noticed how much he relies on Dean's off-kilter observations to fill up the spaces between towns and sleep, and as often as he's exasperated by the teasing, he'd give anything for a "Sammy" or "college boy" right about now.
"Are we gonna talk about this?"
"About this cat that's got your tongue? Man, you've hardly said anything since Chicago."
"Nothing to say."
"Drop it, Sam."
It's Sammy. Sam sighs. He thinks about trying again, but then the waitress is there. She takes their orders quickly, avoiding looking directly at their mauled faces, and paling a little when Dean turns his smile on her.
"Dude. Are you trying to scare her?" Sam asks in a low voice, after the blonde has tucked the order into her pocket and moved away. "You're gonna have to dial down the charm for a while. You look dangerous," Sam tells him.
"Yeah? You look like you got bitch-slapped by a bear."
"Feels like it, too," Sam grumbles. He wonders about their father, what he's doing right now, if he too is sitting in some roadside waffle house trying to forget the sensation of dried blood cracking on his skin. Then again, in Sam's experience, John Winchester isn't exactly the type to break for waffles when there's vengeance to be had. His father will be after the demon again, a demon that considers him enough of a threat to want him dead. And now Dad's on his own. Sam's stomach turns, twisting itself in a knot, so much so that when the waitress brings his pancakes and eggs, he's only able to take a few bites.
Dean looks up from his half-devoured Rooty Tooty Fresh & Fruity, annoyed at Sam's lack of progress. "Eat."
Sam shrugs. "Not that hungry."
Right. "Stop worrying. He's fine."
"Dad," Dean replies, going back to his breakfast.
Sam scoffs. "I'm not worried about Dad."
"Yeah." Dean swallows a lump of syrup-sticky pancake.
Dean gives him a look, noting the dull flush creeping into his brother's cheeks. "Great. Then maybe you'll stop calling for him at night, and I can get some sleep."
Sam blinks. "I don't call for him." Dean raises a brow in challenge, and the flush suffuses Sam's entire face. Sam shoves away from the table. "I'll be in the car."
Dean stares after him for a minute, then savagely spears a strawberry. Denial is a river in Egypt, and Sam is her king. He can't help glancing out the window behind him, just to be sure Sam makes it to the car, and feels a twinge of guilt when a moment later Sam slumps tiredly into the passenger seat. The strawberry sticks in Dean's throat. So maybe dredging up Sam's nightmare of the week was a little harsh. But Dean doesn't get it, this need Sam has to pretend his family doesn't mean as much to him as his other life, his chosen life. Even as a kid, Dean doesn't remember Sam crying like he did when they left Chicago.
"You're gonna go back to school?" Dean had asked him that night, surprised that after everything Sam hasn't changed his mind. His brother's green -lawned, picket-fenced dream is still alive and kicking. Dean wants to shake him, or yell, or maybe even cry, because Sammy should damn well get it by now, he should see it. Psychic, my ass. Because even Dean knows it will never happen; it can't happen. So Dean focuses on the road in front of them, hope fading with every white dash that falls along the highway. Dean can't raise the dead. He can't bring back their mother, or Jessica. He can't bring back Sam's childhood, or return his father to him. Not now. Dean can help perfect strangers, put spirits and fears to rest, but he can't give Sam his normal life.
"So why are we here?" Sam asks, as they pass the sign reading, "Welcome to Colusa Lake." His interest in the town outside the window is merely perfunctory. Over the years they've passed through any number of towns, and at some point they all become the same, the main street, the teeming high school, the freeway accessible gas stations. And, Sam's personal favorite, the seedy, no-questions-asked motel the Winchesters too often call home.
"What? You got some problem with water and sunshine?" Dean wants to know.
"No," Sam says reasonably. "But you're not exactly the vacationing type."
"There's a job here I wanna look into."
Of course there is. "Great. What are we looking for?"
"'We' aren't looking for anything. It's a one-person gig." Dean keeps his eyes on the road, but doesn't need to look to know that Sam has twisted in his seat to stare at him.
"What? What do you mean, one-person?"
"And you scored how high on that El Sit thing?"
"LSAT," Sam says automatically, even though he knows damn well Dean knows the name of the test. Then, "You don't want my help."
Sam sighs. "Look, I know I said I wasn't gonna do this forever, but it doesn't mean I can't - "
"That's exactly what it means, Sam."
"And who's gonna watch your back?"
"I've gone solo before."
"Yeah, and you ended up tied to a tree." Sam recognizes the stubborn look hardening his brother's profile and struggles to keep his temper. "Can we please talk about this?"
"Dean - "
"One more word, and I drop you at the nearest bus station with a note pinned to your hoodie."
Sam turns forward again in the seat, jaw clenched in frustration. But he doesn't say anything else, and Dean feels a sort of grim satisfaction. There's at least one thing he can do for his brother. You want out? You're out. For as long as I can make it last
Sam's forgotten what it's like to be left behind. The day wears into evening, and Sam finds his thoughts turning more and more to his father and brother, to whatever nameless entities lie in wait for them. He paces the motel room: fourteen steps. Counts the towels: four. Checks the pillows: Dean's is fluffier and Sam swaps with him, feeling slightly avenged by the covert act. Switches on one lamp, finds the bulb burned out, and switches on another. He lies on his bed and tries to look at the old textbook he keeps at the bottom of his duffel bag, occasionally glancing up to where the clock blinks on top of the blaring television. 10:37. 11:28. 11:49. 12:07
A key clinks in the lock, and Sam lifts his head from his arm and looks up at the clock again. 1:32. He blinks the sleep from his eyes and raises up on one elbow, using the remote to switch off whatever movie's been on the last hour. "Hey," he says, shifting towards the doorway, watching as Dean comes in and shrugs off his jacket. As his brother moves into the light, Sam can see that his jeans and shirt are covered with mud.
"What happened to you?"
"Mud." There's a world of disgust in that one syllable.
A smile tugs at Sam's mouth. "Yeah, I get that. How?"
"Long story." Dean finally glances his way, his gaze falling on Sam's book. "Studying, huh?"
"Just a little," Sam says, encouraged by the inquiry. "You want to order from Domino's?"
Dean shakes his head. "I'm beat. I'm just gonna shower and crash. But here," he says, pulling out his wallet and tossing Sam a card. "Put it on Seymour's tab."
Sam catches the card neatly, and tries to hide his disappointment. Not that he needs to. When was the last time Dean actually looked at him? "Thanks." He waits until Dean closes the bathroom door behind him, then takes a look at the card, issued to a Mr. Seymour Buttes. Sam shakes his head, a small smile flickering before he gets up and puts the card on Dean's nightstand. Realizing the night is over, Sam strips off his outer clothes and slides under the covers of his bed, wondering if there's a way to fix this.
Dean gets angry often enough, frustrated and annoyed; but Sam's never felt invisible to his brother. Sam forgot what it's like, being seen by Dean. Growing up, Dean can always tell when he's sick, when he's brooding, when he's keeping a secret. When their father's out hunting evil, it's Dean who blows on his scrapes and tapes the dinosaur band-aids on his knees, Dean who gives him his first condom and explains about girls.
When they're together again, after Jericho, it's not the same. Things change. But Dean never stops watching. They relearn their steps, treading cautiously, always knocking against each other, trying to find their balance. Dean leads, and sometimes Sam follows. Sam leads, and Dean tries not to get lost. The strange rhythm grows more comfortable, makes it more difficult for Sam to return to the normal life he craves.
"Things will never be the way they were before."
"I don't want them to be."
The door to the bathroom opens, and Dean walks out in his underwear, rubbing a towel over his wet head. He throws Sam an odd look. "Thought you were getting a pizza," he says, heading for the sanctuary of his own bed.
"I had a late lunch."
Dean stops rubbing for the moment. "Really. What'd you have?"
"Uh - " Sam's caught off guard. "I had a sandwich at the diner," he lies, daring Dean to call him on it. His brother's eyes narrow briefly, but then Dean shrugs.
"There's a grocery store up the street. I'll pick some stuff up tomorrow." Dean forces himself to turn away from Sam's lost puppy look. Damn it, isn't this what Sam wants? How many times has Sam pointed out that Dean isn't his father, that he doesn't want Dean fussing over him? Unless he's hurt. Or afraid. Or it's freakin' Wednesday. Then, it's okay.
Sam watches as Dean tosses the towel over a chair and punches the light switch, leaving the room in darkness. He listens to Dean climb beneath the covers, and closes his own eyes. Dean would laugh if he knew how homesick he'd been his freshman year, how hard Sam found it to sleep without the murmur of his brother and father's voices in some motel along the highway. Even tonight, the silence grows too much for him.
"Dean? Are you awake?" Sam's tentative whisper bridges the two beds; four simple words Dean's heard a million times before. Dean closes his eyes. If he answers, he knows where this will go. It will go everywhere Sam asks for it to go; Dean'll be a train without brakes. So he steadies his breathing and waits. For a long time there is silence from the other bed, and Dean wonders if Sam will ask again. Prays to any and all gods he won't. Just when Dean thinks he might answer anyway, there's a sad sigh, and he hears the familiar sounds of Sam settling. Beyond the window's dingy drapes, the moonlight spills over hills and blacktop like a promise. But Dean still doesn't open his eyes. Sometimes the moon is an illusionist; just when she seems the closest, she's really the farthest away.
Sam stuffs his change into his pocket and takes his order from the barista. A latte for him, straight black for Dean. He pushes through the coffee house doors and out into the bright sunlight, crossing the stripmall's still mostly vacant parking lot. The fresh air and human contact is a relief to his senses after hours spent in the dreary motel room. Sam glances at the height of the sun as he crosses the street to the Lakeside Inn. His brother will be awake by now, and maybe in a better mood to talk.
Sam's abused of that notion when he finds Dean exiting the bathroom, freshly showered and dressed. "Hey - where are you going?"
"Wait," Sam tells him, quickly setting the coffee on their small desk. "I'll come with you."
"It's work related," Dean says, grabbing his watch from the nightstand and fastening it on his wrist.
"Oh." Sam drops down onto his bed. So much for talking.
Dean looks over to where Sam is sitting on the edge of the bed, looking uncomfortable. Then again, he might actually be uncomfortable; if the state of Dean's own mattress is anything to go by. "Getting cabin fever?"
"A little. Yeah," Sam admits ruefully.
"You should go to that park," Dean tells him, grabbing his jacket from the chair and pulling it on.
"Gee, that'd be swell," Sam grumbles under his breath.
" find a game or something - "
"If I were five - "
" looks like it's gonna be nice - "
"I'm not going to the park!" It might as well be a shout in the small room, and Sam feels heat flood his face. He knew Dean would drive him insane eventually; he just didn't realize they were here.
"Okaaaay," Dean says, trying not to look surprised. The last time Sam used that tone, Dean caught a fistful of Legos in the head. "It's just an idea." He pulls his jacket a little tighter around him and grabs his keys. "See you this afternoon."
"Great." Sam flops onto his back and glowers at the water-stained ceiling.
"Cut back on the latte."
The last straw comes with the phone call from Dean.
"I'm not gonna make it back till later. Can you get something at the diner again?"
"The di Screw the diner," Sam tells him, pacing the small motel room and looking for something to kick.
"I know it sucks, but there's a little more at stake here than what you have for dinner."
"Yeah?" Sam demands. "You're not kidding."
There's a pause. "You got something you want to say to me?"
"Yes! If you'd just give me a - "
"Shit." Dean swears under his breath. "That's my contact. I gotta go."
"But - " The line goes dead. Sam flips the phone shut, forcing himself not to bounce it against the peeling wall. It just couldn't be easy, could it? Sam scowls and thinks. If the past few days are anything to go by, Dean will just keep avoiding him until Sam gives up. Suddenly deciding on a course of action, Sam walks over to the desk and flips open the laptop, waits grimly for the profile to load. It shouldn't be too hard to figure out what and where his brother is hunting. And then, if the mountain won't come to Sam, then Sam'll go to the mountain.
The old packing plant has been slated for demolition for months, and it's easy to see why. Sam walks carefully through the rubble littering the corridor, gently edging aside trash and broken glass from vagrants and vandals with the side of his boot. His flashlight wavers slightly, and he knocks it a bit, not eager to be immersed in the pervasive gloom. Up ahead, he can just make out where the corridor opens into a denser darkness, a larger space, and he slowly makes his way forward.
The flashlight sputters and is extinguished. Sam thumps it, but this time the equipment refuses resurrection. "Great," Sam mutters. "Stranded and blind. That's perfect." He stands still for a moment, trying to get his bearings. As his eyes adjust to the black, Sam notices the dim light permeating the room ahead. He moves closer and into the doorway, glancing up at the high windows punctuating what must be the factory's warehouse.
It happens slowly; a pinpoint of light gathering in his peripheral vision, and then the spirit amasses, drawing any and all illumination into its nebulous cloud until Sam squints at the brightness of it. It's a man, he realizes, a factory employee if the dirty jumpsuit is anything to go by, thick-fingered and heavy-browed, the black eyes holding Sam's like a vortex. Sam steps into the room, his hand moving to the saltshaker in his pocket, but he never pulls it out.
The flash of pain sears his left ear before Sam registers the boom of the shot, and surprise causes him to lurch backward. His heel stumbles on some piece of unknown debris, and he lands hard, his shoulders and head thunking dully against the wall behind him.
"Sammy." The voice penetrating Sam's present daze is soft but urgent. Dean crouches at his side, a familiar shape in the darkness. "Are you hit?"
"I'm okay; it's a graze," Sam tells him pointlessly, as Dean won't be satisfied until he determines the truth of the matter himself. Sam slumps back and allows the perusal, his brother's calloused fingers surprisingly gentle as they move over his ear and scalp. "Did you get him?"
"Yeah, I got him," Dean says distractedly, frowning as his fingers ascertain what's going to be a doozy of a bump on Sam's head. He glances at Sam's face and notices the scrutiny. "What?"
"Nothing." Sam blinks, dispersing the last of the stars dotting his vision. He gazes up at Dean, as if seeking confirmation of some unspoken claim. "You see me."
Dean wonders if he's concussed. "Of course I see you, you dork. What am I, hard of seeing?"
Sam smiles and closes his eyes.
By the time they start for the car, Dean's already moved from concerned to incensed. "I could've taken your head off."
"Dude, it was rock salt."
"Yeah, and you couldn't know that. Since when do you walk into someone's freakin' line of fire?"
"I don't I knew the spread," Sam tells him, actually taking a quick skip to keep up with Dean's angry stride.
"Then how come you're bleeding, genius?"
Sam shrugs. "I forgot my ears stick out."
Dean's jaw tightens, and they walk the rest of the way to the car in silence. Sam climbs into the passenger seat and waits as Dean opens the trunk and throws the rifle in. The force of the trunk slamming shut rocks the car, and then Dean is getting in. He throws Sam only a cursory glance as he starts the engine and pulls out onto the road.
"You bleed on my seats, I'll stuff you in the trunk."
"I'm fine, Dean." Sam grins.
"What? You think this is funny?"
"No, sir." Sam chirps. He tries to sober, but relief and unanticipated joy are making him giddy.
"I swear, I'm gonna beat your ass till you can't sit."
Sam gulps before he remembers he's twenty-three years old, and a whole three inches taller than his brother. Then smiles again, warmed by the familiar threat. "No, you're not."
"Yeah? What makes you think I'm not?"
"I'm a little bigger than I used to be," Sam reminds him, for once amused that Dean can't seem to remember that.
"And you think I can't manage?" Dean's glare dares his brother to challenge him.
"Of course you can," Sam soothes.
"Damn right I can," Dean mutters.
"That should do it." Dean snaps shut the first aid kit and tosses it onto his bed, then rubs at the back of his neck. That stupid pillow is going to leave him kinked for days.
"Thanks," Sam says, standing and trying to ignore the urge to touch his bandaged ear. Instead, he takes the saltshaker from his pocket and sets it on the desk.
"Where'd that come from?"
"Swiped it from the diner thought it might come in handy."
"Yeah, how? In case the cannery was being haunted by a bag of fries?"
"Salt is salt."
"Uh, huh." Dean's not impressed. He leans forward from his seat on Sam's bed, resting his forearms on his knees. "How's the head?"
"Hard as ever."
"Take a guess."
Sam puts his hands out placatingly. "Dean. You know you don't want to - "
"Are you gonna fight me?"
"No - of course not. But if you'd just listen to me for a second - "
"Now, Sam." The impatience is palpable.
Sam sighs and approaches his brother, standing just outside Dean's reach. "It really was just a fluke, man."
"A fluke. You look like shit. Did you really need more stitches? What was next on tonight's agenda, Sam? A buffet and swimming? Maybe running with scissors?"
"Dean - "
"Uh, uh." Dean wonders why he's surprised. Look what happened when he left Sam in Palo Alto. "I must have been crazy the first time." Before Sam has time to process the odd comment, Dean lunges for his arm and yanks him forward, pinning him over his lap with the intensity of purpose he usually saves for combat. There's no discussion, no lecture; just a rapid-fire series of swats that makes Sam's breath catch. This isn't exactly the talk he had in mind, but at least he has Dean's attention.
His brother isn't using all his strength not by a long shot but then he doesn't need to. After a couple of minutes, the frequency of the smacks alone causes enough of a sting to set Sam squirming. "Dean." Sam swallows, the first of his tears springing hotly from his eyes. "Please, Dean."
The softly blurted plea smoothes the sharper edges of Dean's temper, bleeds the tension from his body. Sam isn't fighting him, just waiting, and Dean's uncertain at this point who's the bigger idiot. Sighing, he lands a few more smart swats to the seat of Sam's jeans. "Who's the best brother ever?"
Sam makes a strangled sound that might be a laugh. "You are."
"The smarte - "
"Dean!" Sam shouts.
"Okay, then," Dean says gruffly, dropping one last smack onto Sam's behind and ending the spanking. "Don't you forget it."
The second Dean's grip loosens, Sam pushes himself up and steps back and away, wiping his tear-streaked face with his sleeve. He eyes Dean incredulously. "Jerk."
"Brat," Dean retorts, unrepentant. "I told you to stay put."
"And I don't take orders. God, Dean, is this what it's gonna be like? Not only Dad giving me orders, but you too?"
"That's not what I said." Dean frowns. "What do you mean, what it's gonna be like?"
"I keep trying to tell you, but you won't let me," Sam tells him, trying to keep from reaching back and rubbing his burning backside.
"What?" Dean snaps, standing abruptly and walking over to pick up his jacket from the bed.
"About what I want when this is over."
Dean grimaces as he rolls up the coat. "I get it, Sam. You want to go back to school." But Sam doesn't respond, and Dean casts him an accusatory glance. "Well? Don't you?"
"Yeah, but it's not all I want. I should have been clear, but - "
"Look. I understand - "
"No, you don't." The words are forceful enough for Dean to look up from his packing. Sam gentles his tone. "I don't want to go three years without talking to my family. But I can't be a career hunter either, Dean. The hunting might be part of my life, but it can't be all of it."
Dean nods, trying not to look surprised at the compromise Sam's offering. Concessions on both sides, but wins, too. Pride swells in his chest, tightens his throat. You'd have made a hell of a lawyer. "Yeah. What's the rest of it gonna be?"
"You. Dad." He smiles a little. "Some fucking boring classes."
"Did you just say a class was boring?"
"You're a bad influence." Sam leans back against the desk chair, wincing just a little as his hip bumps against the wood. "I was thinking
Palo Alto could be a great base of operation. You could hit on co-eds, Dad could get the odd mechanic's work - "
Dean snorts. "You and Dad could be at each other's throats every day..."
"Yeah, well. Not everything changes," Sam replies wryly.
"Uh, huh." But a small smile curves Dean's mouth. "Just wait till he finds out you broke another ghost-busting commandment. That'll bring back memories."
Sam flushes. "Dad's not gonna spank me you're the only one that demented."
"Right. I love your optimism. It's cute."
"Besides, you're not gonna tell him."
"I'm sorry; have we met?"
"I'll tell Dad you left me here alone."
"Unprotected. 'And it was dark and scary and there were lots of strange noises'," Sam recites with a wide-eyed quaver.
Dean laughs a little, scoffs. "You're not gonna tell him that."
While Dean's in the shower, Sam steps outside the room, careful to shut the door quietly. He stretches in the crisp morning air, a little stiff from last night's fall but refreshed all the same. The wounds on his face don't seem to run as deep now, the new skin stretching between the jagged lines somehow connecting him again. Even the oldest of his scars seem to fade a little in the bright light, each one a mile marker of a greater journey. Sam flips open the phone in his hand and scrolls down his contact list, stops on the number. Tells himself it's childish to call. But there's some odd comfort in the confidently worded message, something that eases aches too painful to admit. Kicking himself, Sam punches the call button and waits for the voicemail to come on.
"Hello." The half-asleep voice of John Winchester sounds in Sam's ear.
Sam holds his breath, taken by surprise.
"Sammy?" A pause. "That you?"
"Yeah, Dad." Sam clears his throat. Awkward.
"What's wrong? You boys alright?"
"We're okay. How about you?"
"I'm fine, Sam." There's the rustle of movement on the other end of the line. "This still isn't safe. What's going on?"
"Nothing?" His father's voice can't decide on concern or censure.
Sam feels heat flood his cheeks. "I didn't mean to actually - I thought I'd get voicemail."
There's a long silence, and Sam wonders if they've been cut off. Then, "Sammy. We are gonna get our chance to talk."
Sam swallows, his hand cradling the phone to his ear. "Yes, sir."
"Stay safe, son."
"Bye, Dad." Sam stands there, waits for the click, but the line is simply silent.
"Hey." Dean sticks his head out the motel door. "You ready to go?"
Sam snaps the phone shut and shoves it into his pocket. "Yeah, man."
"Then get your shit and let's move out. All this fun in the sun is giving me the heebie-jeebies."
Sam smiles knowingly. "No cute girls?"
"Not one," Dean confides, frowning.
"Huh. That really is scary."
Dean chuffs his complete agreement. He waits at the car while Sam gets his bag and jacket from the room.
"So we're okay, right?" Sam asks, climbing into the passenger's seat. "A team. No more solo gigs."
"No more solo gigs," Dean agrees.
"Unless you're hurt - "
" - or having those freaky dreams."
"Dean - " Sam warns.
"Or it's Wednesday."
"Wednesday?" Sam blinks, momentarily disarmed. "Dude. You're insane."
Dean just smiles and starts the car.
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