The night that Sam storms out, Dean is fourteen and doesn't understand. Dad's mad, madder than Dean's ever seen him, but just waves Dean off when he tries to help. So Dean goes off after Sam instead.
Sam's moving down the road, backpack hitched high, jaw tight and locked in rage. "Sam!" Dean shouts, racing after him. He nearly trips on his jeans – hand-me-downs from Sam, his brother's legs always impossibly longer than his – but Sam's stopped and Dean can catch up easily. "Sam, where are you going?"
"Bus stop," Sam says tightly. "I know you heard us."
He heard them. He can still hear them, yelling about Stanford like it was a cuss word and unfaithful son and you walk out that door, you don't come back.
He wants to beg Sam to let him come with him. Life without his older brother is going to be terrible. Even if Dad always treats Dean like he's older than he is, even if he never fights with Dean, Sam was always Sam. His older and tougher, gentler and sweeter brother. His protector, the man he always wants to be. The guy he trusts with his life at any moment.
He wants to beg Sam to come back, that college won't be that awesome and hey, they're old enough, maybe Dad will let them do the interviews on campuses on their own and they can pretend to be freshmen.
He wants to cling to Sam until his brother can't go anywhere.
He does none of these things. "Be careful," he says instead. He suddenly feels as if he's aged a hundred years, wonders if this is what growing up is all about, and decides he fucking hates it.
Sam reaches out and tussles his hair like he always does, and then he's pulling Dean into a hug that Dean swears every day he's too damn old for. Except now, Dean clings back and tries not to hate himself for holding on to Sam a little after his big brother lets go.
"If you need help, call me," Sam says. "I'll get you the number, all right?" And then he's gone.
Dean stands there in the middle of the road for awhile. Then he remembers how to make his legs work and goes back to the house, where Dad's sure to be self-medicating.
It isn't until almost four years later that things get…weird.
For one, Dean starts having terrible dreams about some blonde woman burning, like Dad and Sam swear Mom did. Pinned to the ceiling and everything. She's beautiful, even while she dies. It's horrible and he hates the dream. He wishes he knew who she was.
The second thing is that Dad starts leaving more. Longer and longer trips, the longest being a week. He's always in contact, he's just…gone. Leaving Dean on his own, since he's eighteen now and can handle himself, of course.
And then Dad falls off the grid completely on a solo hunt somewhere in California, and Dean takes it as a sign and turns the Impala – his Impala now, has been since his birthday – towards Stanford.
His big brother's apartment is ridiculously easy to break into. "Really, Sam?" he mutters under his breath. The next thing he knows, he has no breath, and he's being slammed into a wall. He reacts on instinct, years of training taking hold, and he still winds up on the floor.
Ah. That would be why there's no security anywhere in the place. Because the security is his brother, taller than before and stocked pretty well on muscle. "Dean?" Sam says incredulously, immediately pulling him to his feet.
"Hi," he says, for lack of anything better to say. "Wanted to see the apartment. Nice place."
"You could've used the front door," Sam says, in that irritated voice that Dean has missed. "Or called."
Sam would've picked up, too. Sam's beef is with Dad, not Dean, it's just been Dean who hasn't called, and thinking of Dad reminds him of his mission. The lights come on, keeping him from speaking, and when he turns, it's her. She's standing in the doorway, looking sleepy and adorable and alive. Dean blinks.
"Sam? Is everything all right?" she asks. Sam sighs and gives her a nod.
"Yeah, this is my little brother, Dean. Dean was-"
"Just in the neighborhood," Dean says. "Thought I'd swing by, show Sam my new car. Sorry it's so late, I'm sort of operating under a different time zone." And then, because he can't help himself, he nods and says, "I like the Smurfs, too. Love them, really."
She looks down at her shirt with a frown, still not quite awake enough. Sam, however, cuffs him gently up the back of the head and gives him a look that Dean translates as, Behave. "Dean, this is my girlfriend, Jess," he says.
Jess nods, and she really is beautiful. He sees her in a massive ball of flames, blood fanning out from her stomach, and he suddenly can't look at her. It'll be all he sees.
"Um, well, I'll leave you both to it," Jess says. "I'll just go back to bed-"
"No, it's fine," Sam assures her, but he sounds concerned. Dean clears his throat and tries to not look at her. "Dean, what's going on?"
He takes a deep breath and finally blurts out, "Dad went on a hunting trip and he hasn't been back in a few days."
He has Sam's instant and undivided attention. "Jess, can you make coffee?" Sam says softly, and she leaves with a kiss on his cheek and some mutterings about a robe. Dean feels his shoulders slump after she goes.
"What have you got against my girlfriend?" Sam asks immediately, and Dean shakes his head.
"Just can't believe you snagged someone so hot, that's all." He can't tell him. Maybe after they find Dad.
"Ha," Sam deadpans. "You haven't heard from Dad?"
"No. He was investigating something, never told me what it was. It's not far. Just down the road in Jericho."
Sam pinches the bridge of his nose. "Dean, I'm out of the game. I'm not hunting anymore."
It hurts to hear. Dean forces himself to smile anyway. "That's cool, hey, whatever. I just…I just need your help on this one. Then you can go back to whatever." He glances around the room and spots textbooks. "Law school, right?" Sam mentioned that last phone conversation. He knows that already. It's just good conversation, that's all. Better than saying that there's obviously no space in Sam's life for Dean. Not when he's got law school on one side and Jess on the other.
When he meets his brother's gaze, Sam's slowly nodding. "Yeah." He looks as if he wants to say something else, then shakes his head. "Coffee first, then I'll pack. All right?"
He feels like that fourteen year old who just wants to cling to Sam with everything he's got. Instead he throws Sam a grin that feels more relieved than anything else. "Coffee good. None of that decaf shit, though, right?"
"No, none of that. We drink real coffee around here." Which means Sam will be putting sugar and flavored cream in every cup he drinks, just like he always did before…
He really hates thinking of his life in 'before' and 'after'. 'Before the fire'. 'After Sam left'.
They get their coffee. Dean tries to meet Jess's eyes. Every time he looks at her, he can only see her on the ceiling.
It's a relief when they drive away.
Jericho's a bust, but they get wrapped up in the case anyway. Woman in White, and he knows with full certainty that the bitch didn't get Dad. Sam knows it, too. Dad was never unfaithful. Not during his marriage to Mom, and probably not for years after that. Dad's certainly had a lot of lookers, even a few dates, but it never went anywhere. Always too tied up with Mom.
Dean just wishes he could remember her. Know what she sounded like, what she looked like outside of photographs.
Dean's stepping out of the shower and finds Sam browsing through his wallet. "What's up?" Dean asks.
"Just called Jess a little while ago," Sam says absently. He hesitates, but only for a moment, and then he hands Dean a stack of photos. "Here. The past few years in rapid fashion and terrible Kodak film."
Dean grins and plops himself on Dad's motel bed. These photos are better than gold. These are a part of Sam he'd never know otherwise, and for Sam to still show him these, it means that they're still the same duo they've always been. They're still SamnDean, attached at the hip since Dean was born, if Dad's drunken ramblings were anything to go on.
He finds the usual photo, of them in front of the house, Dean a bundle in Sam's arms, Mom with her arms around them both. Dad's behind the camera, and Sam's little gap-toothed grin is adorable, a fact he points out to his brother every time he sees the photo. He means to do it again, but something else comes out instead. "Do you blame Dad?" he asks.
Sam goes still in the chair across from him. "For?" he asks tentatively.
In for a penny… "For Mom." He flips to the next picture, acting nonchalant, but waiting for the answer all the same. He doesn't understand why he asked.
Sam bites his lip, hair falling a little in his face. It's even longer than Dean remembers. Next thing Sam knows, with his height and hair, he's going to be mistaken as a Sasquatch one of these days. Dean should just take scissors or a razor to it while he's asleep.
Dean looks up from the photos. Sam's gaze is dark. "You do?"
"He could've done something," Sam says. "He could've saved her. That's what I thought he was going to do."
"Dude, you know how hot fires get," Dean protests. "He had us to worry about. And he said Mom was mostly…" Gone. Mom had mostly been gone at that point.
"He got there before the fire burst," Sam insists. "He could've done something. The ceiling wasn't that high. He could've grabbed a chair and reached her. He could've-" He suddenly pushes himself out of his chair and stands for a moment, breathing heavily. Dean stays still on the bed, fingers gripping tight around the photographs.
Finally Sam slumps and slides back into his chair. "I just…I just miss her," he says in a small voice, and Dean remembers these moments. Where Sam, for all his height and his build and his four years on Dean, would feel like the little brother. He stands and moves to his brother, wrapping an arm around Sam's shoulders. Sam wraps his arm around Dean's side, and they stay there, breathing together, taking and offering comfort.
Dean fans the photos out with his fingers and spots the next one, of Sam on a soccer squad. "You look like Sasquatch," Dean says bluntly, and Sam snorts wetly.
"Says the man aiming to follow after the rockers of the 80's."
"Hey, leather is still in," Dean protests, but tension unfurls at the word 'man'. He's grown, now. Sam's acknowledged that he's a grown man, now.
For all the birthday wishes his Dad gave him, Dean never got that acknowledgement from him. Not once. Despite the fact that Dean's been a grown man since he was fourteen.
They fan through the other pictures together, Sam offering explanations for a few of them. "So, you and Jess," Dean says as an opening, and Sam gives him an aggravated sigh and pinches him right below the ribs where he knows Dean's the most ticklish. Bastard.
"Yes, me and Jess. I've wanted you to meet her for awhile. She's…super important. Really important to me." He gives a shy grin. "I think she's the one."
Well beyond the simple 'girlfriend' title Sam gave him. No, this is the 'girlfriend-I-want-to-keep-forever' type of level. "Well, good for you," Dean manages as Sam moves to the next picture. It's the both of them, Sam with his giant arms around Jess, in a small bedroom.
"We'd just gotten the apartment," Sam explains, but all Dean can see is the room. The dresser, the high mirror, the ceiling the ceiling the ceiling. "You didn't really get to see the whole place. When we get back, I'll show you-"
"Call Jess," Dean says, lips numb. "Sam, you gotta call Jess."
Sam frowns, but he's already reaching for his phone. "What are you talking about? What's going on?"
"There's something I have to…" He bites his bottom lip so hard he thinks it bleeds. In an instant it's not Dean comforting Sam, it's Sam being the big brother he's always been: big and protective and blocking Dean from the world, and god has Dean missed him.
"Tell me," he says, gently, as if he's not about to hate Dean for what he says, but he doesn't know yet, does he?
He takes a deep breath and damns himself. "I've been having these dreams. Of a woman up on the ceiling, like Mom. And she burns and bleeds and I'd never seen her before. Until I met Jess."
Sam's a Stanford academic who's heading to law school. He doesn't need more than two seconds to put the pieces together. He's dialing Jess before Dean can so much as let out another breath, and he's not certain whether to be scared of Sam's complete dismissal or relieved that Sam actually believes him, didn't even hesitate, just jumped straight to the phone and accepted what Dean said as truth.
The phone rings and rings. Sam gets tighter and wound up like a coil, and Dean hates himself even more than usual. He's found how much he truly hates himself in the past four years, realizes he never hated himself with Sam around. Sam was always there to kick him in the ass, to tell him to shut up and he was wrong about being lame, he was great and amazing. The thought of Sam thinking of him as anything else, with this news, now, here in this moment-
He's going to be sick. He wanted to save Jess, but he never thought he could lose Sam because of it.
You didn't tell him when you met Jess, a nasty voice in his ear says. You knew you'd lose him.
"Jess," Sam gasps, and Dean lets himself collapse into the chair. "Jess, it's me, listen-"
A pounding on the motel door leaves them both freezing. "Sheriff, open up," comes the voice of the man from yesterday, and dammit, not now.
Dean makes a split second decision and shoves Sam towards the bathroom door. He should've known his US Marshall credentials wouldn't hold up long. "Get out of here and back to her," he says, and tosses Sam the Impala's keys. Sam stares at him like he's gone mad. "I mean it. They can only hold me. They can't actually arrest me-"
"Yes they damn well can," Sam hisses. The pounding starts again in earnest. "Dean-"
"Go save Jess," Dean pleads. "Sam, please."
Sam looks the most torn that Dean's ever seen him, but when Dean gives him another shove he moves. Dean shuts the door behind him and listens as he jimmies the window open. After ten seconds pass, he marches confidently to the door and finds the Sheriff and his men waiting. The Sheriff doesn't look amused. "Mr. US Marshall himself," the Sheriff says. "Fake badge, fake credit cards. Got anything that's real?"
"My boobs," Dean replies automatically. He's not even surprised when he's hauled against the wall of the motel and cuffed. He makes a scene of it, loud-mouthing off to them and earning himself a few good shoves.
When he glances at the other end of the parking lot, the Impala's gone.
Dean's not even certain he's been in this much trouble before. And it's not even his trouble.
Dad's journal sits on the table, more terrifying than anything Dean's ever seen before. Dad never leaves his journal behind. Ever. If he's left it behind, then it means that he couldn't come back for it. Which means he's gone.
He forces himself to breathe. The cuffs are tight on his wrists, and he's lucky that they didn't lock up his ankles. The motel was…bad. Very bad. And nine types of incriminating and damning. Never mind the false IDs and his pretending to be a federal lawman. He is so very screwed.
He very intentionally doesn't think about how long he's been sitting here, trying to count the hours. 3 hours to Palo Alto. It's been over 6 hours now. He should've gotten there by now. She's safe. He's safe.
Because the thought that he sent his brother into a death trap occurred to him, oh, maybe five minutes after Sam left. And now he's stuck in a small interview room with his Dad missing and Sam maybe dead and he knows suddenly, swiftly, with no room for errors, that it's all his fault. The clarity is stunning.
He's eighteen years old and he's done interrogations before and he feels the sudden welling of tears in his eyes all the same. Because the alternative, that they may not be dead, is even worse.
Because it means that Daddy dearest and big brother bought a clue to the worthlessness that is Dean Winchester and left him behind. Dad pinned Dean with a mystery the cops will never solve, and he'll go down for it forever. Sam's going to be a lawyer, and he could be sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom, damning Dean to years in prison, and that'll be that. He'll be gone, forever cast aside, forever done away with.
Hell, with everything in the motel room, they won't even need someone as amazing as Sam. They just need someone who can draw a line from A to B and he'll be clapped in irons for the rest of his young and pretty life.
God Dean really hates himself. He rests his forehead on the table with a loud and heavy drop, and he hears a small clinking sound. Slowly he raises his head.
A paperclip. A fucking paperclip from the pages of the journal has half fallen onto the table. A perfect little paperclip. He gives the room a quick glance, peers out of the windows, and finds them all huddled around a desk, discussing something in earnest. Probably him. He glances around, but the only door out of there is that one single door. And he'll never get out.
At least he'll have his hands free. He snags the paperclip and starts working it into the handcuffs. Twenty seconds later and he's free, and he's careful to set the handcuffs down so they don't make a sound. The journal he grabs and stuffs in his jacket.
There really is no other exit. The air vents are a no-go – really, Hollywood is to blame for that, everyone makes certain their air vents couldn't fit a full sized human being because of all those movies – and he's down to the door again. He creeps to the edge and peers around. They keep glancing at the door every now and then, but it's solid wood, so they can't see him. Not yet.
He'll just have to make a run. There's nothing for it. He takes solid breaths, putting his eyes solely on his exit. Ten seconds if he clears the short wall with the plants on it. He can do it. He can.
Suddenly they're all moving, and he freezes until he sees them all hurrying towards the door. Not a single one of them gives his room another look. He's never been more grateful for that in his life. The most perfect timing he could've asked for. He dives for the side door instead and makes his way to the old fire escape. He gets a few bruises as he hurries down, but he's out and he's free and Dad's journal is a heavy weight against his ribs.
Then he's being shoved against a wall, and Dean struggles until he hears a hiss in his ear. "Stop it! Dean, it's me."
"You came back," tumbles from his mouth before he can stop himself. Sam's weight eases on him when Dean stops struggling.
He's turned around and there he is, his big brother, tall in the evening lights. Sam's gaze isn't red-eyed or filled with grief, but it is quickly twisting in worry. "You can't have thought that I wouldn't," Sam says, staring at him. "Dean."
Dean swallows. "You left once," he says miserably. It's cold outside, even with his leather jacket, and the brick wall is colder still, and he doesn't want to be here, bearing Sam's scrutiny like this. "Dad leaves all the time. And now he's gone for good: I've got his journal. He left it behind, Sam. He's gone."
Even though he's tried his best to switch the topic, Sam isn't convinced. Dean suddenly finds himself in his brother's embrace, buried under Sam's chin. "I was always coming back," Sam whispers, and Dean clutches at him like he did four years ago. "I would never leave you behind. Not again."
Dean nods against Sam's chest, and they linger for a moment before it becomes unsafe to do so, so close to the Sheriff's department. Sam tugs Dean down the road towards the Impala, where she's parked safe and sound. His baby, in one piece. He had his doubts: Sam was always a terrible driver. "Did you find her?" he asks, hating the question but needing the answer.
In answer, Sam gestures to the car, and there in the passenger seat is a familiar blonde. "Wanting answers," Sam says. "Okay, demanding answers, but she agreed to come back to get you out. She made the call for you."
"Call?" The cops all flying out of the station. "You're geniuses," he says, now even more in awe of Jess than he was before. "That's perfect."
He climbs in behind the driver's seat – upsetting an already upset woman isn't a good idea – and then the door shuts behind Sam. Silence reigns in a very awkward way in the car. "Well, um, thanks," Dean offers.
"Is this a common thing?" Jess asks. "You getting in trouble with the law?" She sounds more pissed off than scared, at least.
"With what we do, yeah," Dean says, before he realizes the we should have been an I. It's hard to remember, all right?
Except Sam doesn't correct him. "Let's go somewhere nice and warm and safe and we'll talk, I promise," Sam tells her. "Anything you want to know."
"Including Sam's favorite cartoons as a kid," Dean says. "Horrible taste." He feels giddy, his mood swinging back and forth, but Sam's there and Jess is alive and Dad's missing but that's okay.
Jess rolls her eyes, but the icy temperature in the car lowers significantly. "We passed a diner in the next town over," Jess says. "We probably don't want to be here. And I can't believe I'm saying that."
"Next town diner," Sam agrees, and they peal off into the night.
They reach the diner two hours later, the car missing a headlight, and Sam's chest so sore that he can barely walk. Jess has a small cut on her forehead where Constance Welch slammed her into the window, and Dean can feel every nerve on his back from where he rolled when he got shoved out of the car.
But they're all safe, the car runs, and Constance Welch is no more. Turns out that the best road out of town is also the road where the Woman in White took her victims. Jess got an upfront look at the supernatural, and more than that, she got to see Sam's fidelity in live and living color. Goes a long way towards making a girlfriend happy.
The diner doesn't have a lot of people in it, which makes the conversation easier. Jess takes it all in stride, even while she fusses over Sam's chest. It does look pretty bad. But he's okay, Dean's okay, Jess is okay.
They pause to eat dinner and let Jess digest more than just food. Dean's stomach is whirling and he knows he's going to regret his burger later, but that's later and not now. He was always more of a 'now' kind of guy anyway.
"So your dad's missing," Jess says after a long pull from her glass. Dean's betting she wishes it was filled with alcohol. He wishes he had some, too.
"There's coordinates," Dean says quietly. He dug through the journal after Constance Welch melted and found them, laid out in large numbers. "I don't know where they are, but they weren't there when I was with Dad last. I know this journal, inside and out. These are new."
"You're going to follow them," Jess says. It's not a question.
Before Dean can reply, Sam speaks. "Yeah, we are. I need to know what the hell's going on with…well, everything." He glances at Dean briefly, and Dean feels his stomach churn. The dream. They need to talk about it and he knows it, knows he owes Sam more than just a simple explanation.
"Am I safe?" Jess asks. She doesn't have a lick of makeup on anymore, having washed her face in the diner bathroom, but she still looks like a million dollars. She's beautiful and smart and everything Sam deserves, and instead Dean's got her wrapped up and fearing for her life from the same thing that killed Mom.
Sam kicks him under the table, and when Dean looks at his brother, Sam's scowling at him. "Stop it," he says. "Whatever the hell you're thinking. This isn't your fault, all right? And you're not a screw-up."
"I didn't say I was-"
Dean shuts up. Sometimes he hates that Sam knows him so well. And now his shin hurts. "Bitch," he mutters.
"Jerk," Sam volleys back. They both grin a little.
When he glances away, Jess is still waiting for an answer. "I don't know," Dean tells her honestly. "It was just the one dream. And now you're not there so it can't happen."
Jess sits back in her seat for a long moment. "Sam, you're going to miss finals. We've barely started November-"
"Wait, what?" Sam says, blinking. Dean whips his head over to the small TV in the corner running the news and the date, November 2, is bright in the corner, along with the time. Damn it's late. And he hates today, hates what today might have been for Jess. Hates that Sam would've had to suffer it twice, and from the way Sam's face pales, he's obviously come to the same conclusion.
Dean straightens his back and forces himself to be a grown up again. "You should stay," he says. "I'll go check out the coordinates. Maybe we can meet up later, all right?" It burns to even say them, but it's not fair to Sam to run away and leave Jess unprotected. Dean's an able bodied hunter and adult. He'll be fine.
Sam just stares at him with that unreadable gaze. Dean hates that look. It means Sam's thinking, and that's never gotten him anywhere good. Sam turns to Jess. "Jess, listen-"
"I didn't pack anything more than what I could reach," Jess says suddenly, glaring at Sam. "You both owe me a better wardrobe than what I brought. I won't last more than a few days. And someone's going to have to make up something for school because I want to get my final in."
Dean blinks. Sam blinks. Jess moves her gaze between them relentlessly. "You dragged me into this," she says. "And I'm not safe without either one of you around. So I'm staying with you until you find your dad. Besides," she adds with a raised eyebrow in Sam's direction. "You did promise that I'd meet your family one day. I just didn't expect to have to chase them across the nation."
Dean doesn't breathe, because Sam still has yet to say anything. He waits.
Sam sighs. "You'll need boots. Real boots."
"Then you're buying them. My credit card is one of a college student's."
His heart is pounding in his ears, enough that he's not certain he's hearing this right. But Sam's giving him that smile he got at Christmas when he was seven and found out about hunting, that same smile he got four years ago when Sam left. The smile that promises that it's going to be okay.
Dean breathes and grins.
It's not all okay. They don't find Dad at the coordinates, or at the next hunt. Or the fifteen hunts after that.
Jess nearly gets her head ripped off by the Hookman, but she lives and so does the young girl she was fighting to save. Dean turns away because Sam with his tongue down Jess's throat? Not anywhere close to what he wants to watch.
Then Jess's cousin gets wrapped up in a case, and at the end of the day he's dead, despite all of their efforts to save him. Any chance of Jess leaving ends with her tear-stained face and her tight jaw.
The dreams get worse. Nightmares turn to visions in the day that fucking hurt. Demons and spirits flood them month after month, and Stanford starts drifting out of view. Jess doesn't care. Neither does Sam. Dean? He's just happy to have a family again. Even if his brother is a pain in the ass – he'd forgotten that somehow – and Jess can be just as bad. She takes less time in the bathroom than Sam does, though. They both fuss over him, and they're both taller than him (but Jess only by a quarter inch).
They find Dad and it all goes to hell within the short span of a day. The next thing he knows, Jess is in the backseat of the Impala, tending to Sam and Dad. Dean aches but he's the only one with two functioning arms at the moment so he's behind the wheel. The demon's dead, it's dead, and if it hadn't been for Jess being there, Sam wouldn't have been able to kill it. She's keeping Dad alive, helping him with her nursing skills when no one else can, and Dad's going to make it. They're all going to make it. Just this once, dammit, he wants them all to make it.
Sam looks up and screams, and Dean slams on the brakes out of instinct. The 18 wheeler misses the front grill of the Impala by centimeters, and sends the Impala skittering sideways from the speed alone. The truck driver – demon, it's another demon – tries to back up, but Sam's yelling out the incantation and it's gone. The driver looks as if he'll be okay, and Dean forces himself to drive over the grass to get them to the hospital.
Dad's probably not really going to make it. There's too much blood but Jess is trying, and Dean just focuses on getting them there. Because they tried, dammit. They tried to find Dad and they did, and the demon's dead and Jess is safe and Sam is safe and life can almost be normal, now. He has no idea what that even means. Stanford, he's guessing.
He doesn't care. He knows, now, that when Sam leaves again, he's going with him this time. He's not being left behind. He's done.
And when Dad does wind up pulling through the surgery just fine, Dean's the one who leaves this time, with Sam and Jess piled into the Impala, and they head for California.