A/N: Maybe a bit disconnected…but it felt right to me.
Thanks to all who have reviewed and favorite my stories.
This is dedicated to two faithful readers and fandom friends, Mythopoeia and bhoney. I am grateful and touched by your support!
It doesn't take them long to figure out that cards are a bad idea.
Sure, the deck Dean buys at a Stop-n-Shop with his cherished (and slightly grimy) quarters has all the allure of newness—glossy red-and-white with clean, untattered corners—and they make a brave attempt at rummy, but then Dad almost misses his exit and the Impala makes a Jackknife turn. Red and white and black, spades and diamonds go flying.
They find stray aces under the seats for a month.
Cards are out, then.
The deck doesn't reappear until Dad decides that Dean's got a talent for poker, even at eleven, and Sam decides virulently that he hates cards. He can't put his finger on why, exactly, but he thinks long afterwards that it's because they've somehow become part of the never-ending training that Dad says is so very important and which Sam understands little and questions even less.
The license plate game always promises to be more fun than it actually is.
They're in Missouri, and they've had surprisingly good luck with New York, D.C, and most of the New England States. Sam wonders what a bunch of Northerners are doing here, and then realizes that he thinks of Northerners and Southerners, East-Coasters and West, but he is at once all and none of them.
As for the game, ten states in, it's become readily apparent that Wyoming is probably a lost cause…forget about Hawaii.
A kerfuffle erupts when Dean tries to cut corners and have an extra sighting of Arkansas count for Kansas, 'cause the letters are all there, but Sam's no cheat even if he is just nine.
Dad tells them to shut up, and that they're a pair of idiots—didn't they remember that the Impala has a Kansas plate?
They start up again more quietly, a little shamed and a little awed…Dad was listening in, even paying attention?
This intriguing knowledge gets them through about thirty-five miles more, until Dean says, hey, weren't we supposed to find 'em in alphabetical order or somethin'?
Sam gives up.
Sam hates the back. Sure, he's been stuck there all his life—and has had it to himself for quite some time (Dean switched up front just as soon as he hit twelve) but his fourteenth birthday brought with it a growth spurt that wreaked havoc on his jeans and his leg-room.
Sam presses his head against the window, a position that's different but not a bit more comfortable than the one from which he just untwisted himself.
Dad's been lecturing Dean for twenty minutes now, something that started with girls and ended with smoking. It's Dean's latest experiment and he might have even gotten away with it, too, if Dad hadn't decided to do an impromptu luggage inspection back at Milwaukee and found the Marlboros.
So now they both get to suffer the consequences. It's the beauty of roadtrips.
Sam contemplates putting his fingers in his ears but he figures that won't go over well if Dad notices so he lets his teeth clack together to the rumble of the road, being transferred through the window he's leaning against, and tries to tune out the rumble of Dad.
"Dammit, Dean! You're eighteen—you should know better. A hunter can't afford—" and off he goes, about what a hunter can and can't do, and Sam knows better than to point out how alcohol is probably just as bad for your health as cigarettes, especially with how Dad drinks it—
Dean, for his part, is just saying "Yessir" now and then, but there's an almost imperceptible edge of detached sarcasm that means he has no interest in what's being said. It's about as close as he gets to outright defiance, Sam knows, and it's likely Dad knows it too, 'cause it sure looks like his blood pressure's spiking.
Sam sits up straighter. He's been through enough of Dad's blowups to recognize the signs of an oncoming storm, but this time he actually wants to try and stop it (it's not that he likes run-ins with Dad, but he likes backing down even less…so averting the catastrophe isn't his usual modus operandi). Because this time, it's Dean, and though it makes Sam feel guilty to buttonhole him this way, Dean's the peacekeeper of the family and Sam won't know what to do if they start actually fighting.
He sorts through his thoughts, but everything he comes up with is just too incendiary (honest?)—"Don't worry, Dad, he'll give up smoking soon, he just does it because he never has any other way to do his own thing or rebel or whatever, he'll be fine, I'm the one you have to worry about 'cause I'm getting real sick of this sucky life and one day…"
That thought's no good, so he stops it at the station. There's plenty of bombs in the future of Sam Winchester, he's sure, but right now he has to work on defusing this one.
"Dad," he begins innocently, when his father's paused, taking a breath, "Isn't this the Sweet Springs where you killed the banshee?"
He's afraid it won't work (it is, admittedly, transparent) but just as he'd hoped, Dad can't resist the prospect of Sam taking an interest in hunting. So he forgets all about laying down the law and launches into the tale.
Sam tries not to yawn. In his mind, the story's about as successful as one of those ill-fated car games they used to play, but he catches sight of Dean's grateful look in the rearview mirror and thinks it's not so bad, after all.
It's hard to hunker down in the front seat when you're six-feet-and-growing, but Sam's doing his best. Of course, it's not like anyone is looking at him…seventeen has so far only been generous with his height and his shoe size, leaving behind the lanky, gangly limbs and aggravating baby face.
Such teenage awkwardness was never the plight of his older brother, who so happens to be the current source of Sam's embarrassment.
Their two-hour journey—an errand for Dad—has been interrupted by a red light.
Red lights are usually just a mundane inconvenience, quickly circumvented and quickly forgotten.
But Dean, of course, can turn even the most pedestrian occurrence into something of painful magnitude.
Like now, for instance. He's using the twenty-five seconds of inertia to chat up a red convertible of giggling co-eds who so happen to be pulled up alongside them.
Sam really doesn't understand.
Oh, he gets the whole…girl thing. From afar, and occasionally, from happier proximity. But what he doesn't understand is how four girls are willing to share his brother's attention simultaneously, somehow believing that they each matter to him individually.
Sam sighs. What he'd give for a ring of invisibility right now.
The light changes and the Impala's throaty roar spikes up, accelerating along with Dean's ego. He waves a scrap of paper triumphantly under Sam's nose.
"Phone number?" Sam asks, infusing disapproval into his voice…more for his own benefit than Dean's. Dean will just ignore it.
"Numbers," his brother gloats. "All four."
Sam uncoils himself from his hunched-over position and tries to look aloof and sarcastic. It's probably more effective in his head. "In what, thirty seconds? Impressive."
"I think I've got all I need to take a four-day weekend," Dean muses.
Sam doesn't deign to reply to this. Sometimes, he finds his brother's hedonistic façade amusing, but more often than not he is frustrated, acutely aware of how contrived it really is. Dean, always forcefully limiting his own choices…failing every physics test after his teacher told him he had real promise, cheating on his senior-year girlfriend so as to debar any hope of a long-term relationship.
It's harsh, and ugly to watch—but if Sam is being truly honest, it is perhaps more realistic than what he's always done…working extra hard on projects he never got to present, trying out for teams he never stayed long enough to play for.
Sam's a quintessentially disappointed dreamer; Dean scars himself before anyone else can.
Two separate ways of coping.
It's Dad's fault, Sam decides, and he lets the weight of anger well up within him, alleviating (slightly) the guilt he feels over the Stanford application he covertly slipped into the post-office box two days ago.
"Dude…" Dean's voice enters the periphery of his thoughts and he realizes from his brother's lifted eyebrows that he's been spacing out. "Why the bitchface?"
Sam shrugs and the sighs. "You done talking about your future conquests?"
Dean smirks. "Fine. Hey, it beats those old car games we used to play. Man, the license plate game sucked."
Sam's about to snark something back for no particular reason, but then he sees that Dean's face is softened by reminiscence, and he doesn't want to spoil the moment.
"Yeah, the good old days."
"Something like," Dean says, a little smile playing around the corners of his mouth. "We were such dorks." His gaze slides over to Sam. "You still are, bro."
"At least I don't cheat and make Kansas out of Arkansas."
"That was totally legit!"
"We're from Kansas, Dean. You don't feel any loyalty to the uniqueness of our state?"
"It's flat and landlocked. No beaches." Dean sounds wistful.
Sam knows where the beach conversation goes. He steers it back. "You know, when I was a kid… I didn't feel like I was from anywhere."
Dean contemplates this in silence as he switches onto the thruway. "Yeah, well, I guess we never stayed in one place very long."
"Did that…bother you?" Sam's almost afraid to ask. He's been wanting to bring up the whole, I-may-be-going-to-Stanford-if-I-get-in-and-yes-I-know-I-need-a-full-ride-but-if-that-happens-are-you-mad conversation, but he hasn't the faintest idea how. Somehow he thinks talking about deeper things might steer the conversation naturally towards Sam's future prospects.
Dean shrugs. "it's whatever. There's beer and chicks everywhere, man. I've got my car—you and Dad—" He glances thoughtfully at Sam. "What's up? Why the whole man-without-a-country thing?"
The words stick in Sam's throat. "Nothing. Just thinking."
"Sharing, you mean." Dean chuckles. "Dude, don't be a girl. You're way too tall to get away with it."
"Shut up," Sam growls, but the grin's incorrigible, creeping over his face. Dean may be an idiot bytimes, but he's a damn good brother.
And hell—there's no need to worry…it's not like he's got a snowball's chance at getting that full ride anyway.
He hadn't known, before, that you could be homesick without having a proper home.
Yet he's six weeks in, and the classes are great and the girl (Jen? Jess?) in Art History keeps smiling at him and he's here, at Stanford, and it's his dream, his future—
And he can hardly sleep at night.
When he traipses the streets, trying to train himself to drink strong coffee out of little cups, puttering around vintage bookstores…he has to catch himself, stop himself from straining his ears at the grumbling roar of a motor, or doing a doubletake whenever he sees a black car.
He isn't seven, or nine, or fourteen anymore—this is a very different kind of game, and there's not even the faintest promise of fun in it.
He can't stop playing.
No, no, and never. They're not here. The Impala is a hundred miles away, or maybe a thousand. He doesn't know, and six weeks and two days ago, he didn't want to.
But he's a law student, and a good one, and he knows irony when he lives it.
He'd spent his whole life wishing he could escape that car, and now all he wants is to see it again.
Three hours east of Denver. Sam won't look at the clock because he will not count minutes…he may be back in the Impala, but he won't revert to playing the time-passing mind-numbing little tricks that half of his childhood had been spent inventing. So he watches fields, seared by the autumn sun, and squints to outline the mountains beyond, and—
"Thirty-seven," Dean says, suddenly.
Sam starts. AC/DC's playing, and it's unlike his brother not to be totally engrossed in the beat of "TNT."
"Minutes. Since the last gas station. Don't think I haven't seen you looking."
Sam groans. "Seriously, man? We haven't done that in ages, and it is probably the worst possible way to get through a stretch of road."
"Thirty-eight." Dean grins. "Why so antsy? It's not like you haven't done this before."
That's true enough, but he still isn't…used to it. It's been weeks, sure, since Jes—since they left, but Sam's spent four years insisting on reinventing the rhythm of his life. Constant driving is a bit difficult to get back into.
"Just fidgety, I guess."
"Dude, we can be creative. That Buick behind us has an Arkansas license plate."
"No way in hell," Sam declares emphatically.
But though their lives are just about ten times as messed up as they were before, though his heart is sometimes sick with pain and fire and sometimes numb, and though he has even less leg-room than he used to, he doesn't feel homesick anymore.