Title: Cold Ashes
Rating: PG, because it just seemed a bit too dark to get away with being only G
Category: A little bit of everything from romance to angst, paranormal to family drama
Author's Note: It's longer than I would have liked, but when the plot bunny tugged on my sleeve and looked up at me with those big, pretty eyes, I couldn't get it to be quiet once I started.
Disclaimer: The following characters and situations are used without permission of the creators, owners, and further affiliates of the Warner Bros television show, Supernatural, to whom they rightly belong. I claim only what is mine, and I make no money off what is theirs.
When Dean came to him that night in California, he asked Sam for help. Their father was missing on a hunting trip, which could very well mean that he was severely injured, or at the worst, dead. Dean was persistent, pushing Sam to join him to save their father from whatever fate might have befallen him. In the moonlight by Dean's car trunk, Sam crossed his arms stubbornly and tightened his jaw. He refused to go with Dean, knowing how many times their father had disappeared before and how many times he would disappear again. Sam secretly believed it was John Winchester's way of punishing the boys who continually reminded him of his dead wife. As a way to make them feel the bit of his pain that was born the night his wife died and left him forever.
"I'm done with hunting," Sam said to Dean's back as it leaned into the trunk of the car, searching for a weapon or paranormal device. "No more bloodbaths and ghosts. That's not who I am anymore, and I don't want to go back."
Dean stiffened and turned to face Sam. He shoved his hands in his pockets and waited for Sam to speak. Reflecting on their conversation, Sam would always remember how Dean had given him that much before the end: the chance to talk at last.
"Dad will come back. He always does. By the time we get searching for him, he'll show up. It's the way it's always been, and it's the way it always will be," Sam told Dean in a flurry of uncontrolled sentences. What he didn't tell Dean was that he had a girlfriend waiting for him, an interview with a prestigious law school only a few days away, and the last thing he wanted to do was search for a father who had already disowned him years ago.
"You think you're too good for this life?" Dean asked. His voice was low and dangerous, sending chills down Sam's spine as he realized just how badly Dean could hurt him if he put his mind to him. While he didn't think that Dean would pull a knife on him, Sam didn't want to explain fresh bruises to Jess once he went back inside.
"I never said that. I just don't want it anymore."
"I've never bothered you in two years—" Dean cut himself off, looking down at his hand that clenched itself into a tight fist. The streetlight caught a thick silver ring that Sam hadn't seen before on his brother's hand. Sam braced himself for a punch in the face or another physical blow that would clearly show Dean's clear and rising anger. A nerve twitched in the side of Dean's face, under tanned and unshaven skin, before he inhaled sharply. It seemed to take all his energy just to unclench his fist. "Fine," was all he said as he slammed the trunk and pulled the keys out of his pocket.
Sam really didn't believe that he would drive away then, but he did. Dean didn't slam his door any harder than usual or gun the engine any more than necessary. As the Impala drove away into the night, two small, red eyes in the darkness, Sam remained standing and waiting for Dean to return. It had been too easy, after all.
In the separated and painful years that were to follow, Sam would find himself wishing that Dean had punched him, had slapped him around like when they were younger with raging hormones. He would wish that Dean had argued with him and yelled loud enough to wake the neighbors. He would wish that Dean had fought harder to keep Sam in his life. More than anything, he would wish for anything besides Dean's brutal silence that allowed Sam to continue living in the disillusionment that the life he was leading was perfectly normal.
That night, as Dean drove into the night, his internal flame began to dwindle and die into ashes, knowing the separation that would ensue. Miles away, Sam felt a piece of himself grow cold, crumbling away and scattering into the darkness.
There was a large party after Sam graduated from law school with honors and gained employment at a well-known Californian law firm. It took place on a warm summer's day at a park that his friends had reserved for him, where they celebrated both his great achievement and the last time they would really have together before life tore them apart. The gathering was everything Sam had ever wanted in his attempt to have a normal life with Dean and his father, but never quite got. There were picnic tables and blankets, grilled foods and bags of potato chips, impromptu volleyball games and bottles of beer. Some of the guests brought gifts, others didn't, although it didn't matter to Sam either way. He was content laughing with friends he knew better than family under the warm and comforting sun.
From his place under a tree, Sam watched Jessica talking with their friends by a picnic table. She wore a pale pink sundress that caused her blonde hair to glow, and her radiant smile made Sam's heart flutter a little faster in the late afternoon heat. As she looked towards him with a grin, Sam wondered when he would grow enough courage to propose to her. They had been together long enough and now he had a stable job to support her. Marriage only seemed to be the right thing to follow.
As the party died down, leaving a few intimate friends sitting in a circle of picnic chairs, an old roommate of Sam's approached and pulled him aside. The friend handed Sam a small cardboard box. Sam's name was scrawled on the tag in unrecognizable handwriting, and as he accepted the gift, he looked back at his friend with a mix of confusion.
"It's not from me," the friend explained, shoving his hands into his corduroy pockets.
"Then who's it from?"
The friend looked away. "I don't know if I should be giving it to you or not, but I just thought—"
"Who is it from?" Sam repeated.
"This guy who said he was your brother."
Sam's heart stopped, and he nearly dropped the box on the thick grass beneath his feet. He could not bring himself to say Dean's name, not now, not so many years spent in silence. "What did he look like?" Sam asked instead, and he felt his stomach heave as his friend described Dean to perfection.
Even though his friend never said how long ago he had seen Dean, Sam knew that his brother was long gone by the time the present got to him. He thanked his friend with a curt nod, swallowing back the lump in his throat, and he returned to Jessica. She had known Sam long enough to see the anxiety in him when he sat back down with the group, but she didn't question it. Part of knowing Sam's anxiety was knowing that he wouldn't talk until he was ready and forcing the issue was only going to make him take the problem and lock it up tighter.
Sam cut the cheap tape on the box later that night by himself in the bathroom. Sitting on the closed toilet, he turned on the shower to drown out the sounds of the plastic crinkle. When he opened the lid of the flimsy little box, he was surprised to find a stack of photographs of his family. They were faded with time, but the images were still easily visible. Sam examined at the pictures for longer than he knew he should have, staring until his vision blurred from fatigue and he hoped that by doing so, he could attempt to fill the hole that was eating away at him.
Their wedding was featured in the city's newspapers, and all who knew Sam and Jess couldn't believe it had taken them so long to finally make it official. Jess herself formulated the guest list over sleepless nights and wrote the names on all the hundreds of invitations by hand. However, one late night when Sam was putting away some papers from work, she approached him holding two envelopes. She slid them across the table at him and pursed her lips.
"What do you want to do about these?" she asked, causing Sam to look down at the envelopes with his brother's and father's names neatly written in Jessica's flowing handwriting.
"I'll take care of them," he lied, turning his back to her because he could not make eye contact and deceive her at the same time yet. Years into their relationship, and he still had not mastered that technique.
"I know you have strained relations with them," she continued, "but this is your wedding. I would think they'd want to be there for you."
Sam reassured her that he would get in contact with them first thing the next morning. Although the next morning came at two o'clock when Jessica was sleeping and Sam took the envelopes and invitations out to their patio. With a box of kitchen matches, he carefully burned the beautiful paper until nothing was left of it but a small pile of ashes that he swept into the warm breeze.
He wondered if he really hated them or if he was just afraid of the truths they would tell after all these years. It was a question he left unanswered to the night.
Sam's best man and groomsmen were coworkers and friends from college who wore their neatly pressed tuxedos and boutonnières at his wedding. He had told Jessica that his father and Dean were out of the country on a business trip and that they both sent their best regards. If she was upset, he pretended not to notice and instead pushed for the happiness of their wedding without the interruption of his family.
When Jessica came down the aisle in that large Catholic cathedral, Sam felt tears spring to his eyes, realizing that he was achieving everything in life he had ever wanted. He had a successful job and was marrying the most beautiful woman he had ever seen with the heart of an angel. Taking Jess' hand in his own, he struggled not to cry during their vows to each other. When they were pronounced man and wife, he lifted the veil off her face, gazing upon the woman he had pledged to spend the rest of his life protecting. Without warning, he thought about the same promise his father had made to his mother, and he wondered if that was what drove his father mad. The priest announced that Sam could kiss the bride, and he did. He kissed Jess fiercely with a passion and love that he hadn't realized he possessed; he wondered what he did to deserve this great happiness.
At their reception later that evening, Jessica danced with her father while Sam stood off to the side, watching the woman that was now his wife. He glanced around the room, where her family and his friends mingled with each other in laughter and happiness. The guests remarked that the love in the room was overwhelming and they had never attended such a beautiful wedding.
Sam was taken aback when he saw a brown leather jacket and an upturned collar exiting the hall. Quickly excusing himself, he dashed out into the cold night where the cars sat in the parking lot. He cried Dean's name to the silent darkness. His only answer, the hissing of the wind past his ears, curled into the bare space in him and pushed fresh tears to his eyes.
After Sam made partner at the law firm, Jess had their second child together. He cut his hair short and grew a trimmed goatee. He wore name brand business suits and drove an expensive car. His name was no longer "Sam," but "Samuel Winchester," and he drank bourbon and red wine at lavish dinner parties.
He loved his children more than anything in the world, his sweet three year old daughter and four month old son. Some nights when Jess had to stay late at work, Sam would give them their baths. His son was too young to do anything but receive a sponge bath; his daughter loved the bubbles Jessica claimed made a mess of the tub and Sam called "our little secret." The daughter was bright and effervescent, full of light and life. Sam would do anything to see her laugh.
When he took her to a fair, she squealed with glee on the carousel ride. Her horse of choice was a beautiful white unicorn wearing a jeweled saddle.
"Daddy! Watch me!" she would cry to him.
Next to him, Jess carried their son in a snugsack on her stomach, and Sam wrapped his arm around her waist as the boy slept peacefully, oblivious to the noises of the carnival. He could not remember if he had ever been called such a wonderful name as "Dad" before. As every day passed, he loved being a parent more than before. When he gazed on his children, his heart swelled with the purest of love, and he wondered how his father could have been so resilient to the way he treated Dean and him when they were younger, and how he could have possibly left them as he did.
Sam read to his children at night, his daughter on his lap and younger son cradled in his arm. His daughter had Jess' blonde curls, and when she fell asleep against his chest, he pressed his face into her silken hair just to smell her sweet child innocence. After he put them both to bed at night, he stood in their doorways for hours just to watch them sleep peaceful, easy dreams. While his greatest accomplishments in life did not rise from his career and instead from watching his children never having to fear the darkness like his childhood, it was not enough to ease the cold and continual pain in his heart.
Sam was the envy of his colleagues at work with his loving wife, playful children, and successful job. He could only laugh and tell his coworkers that fortune must have smiled upon him some time. He never told them how he drove his expensive car recklessly down abandoned highways late into the night until he could no longer feel or sense anything besides the pounding music from the stereo to block out his father's voice in the wind that slipped through the sunroof on the car. He never told them how he occasionally received newspaper clippings of supernatural activities around the country in his mailbox from various postal codes with the same, funny awkward penmanship, all of which he quickly discarded before his family could ever see. He never told them how when he awoke in the middle of the night, dreaming of pain and death, he could hear the low growl of a car's engine that once symbolized everything his brother stood for. He never told them that his greatest fear was dying with an unreachable void that gnawed at his soul every day.
As the years passed and his life grew, the hole within him augmented with the passing time as well. He never told Jess of his pocket of emptiness and instead filled his life with everything that made him forget about his past that frequently visited him.
One late night, while working on a high profile case he was to present the next day in court, he received a call from an unknown number on his private cell phone. Only his family and a few select colleagues knew the number, and all were neatly identified by the screen before he picked up the line. Sam never answered unregistered numbers, but that time he did, and he would later wonder what would have happened if he hadn't. The beating of his heart was so loud that when he answered the phone, he could barely hear the voice on the other end.
The voice called him "Sam" unlike everyone who knew him now by his more prestigious name. It was a pinched, uncomfortable voice that blasted him back in the past with just that one word.
Sam knew instantly who it was, and he nearly dropped the phone as he struggled to breathe suddenly.
Dean kept the conversation brief, limiting it to a few vital sentences, but driving his point across nevertheless. When Dean had finished talking, Sam looked at the home around him. There were dishes in the sink to be washed, the kids' toys were scattered across the floor in a mad jumble, and there was a court case the next day that would be followed by cameras and newspaper around the country. The night was quiet and peaceful, just like the night Dean had came to him so long ago. Sam thought about everything else besides Dean and that life he left behind, before he replied. When he did answer, Sam thought maybe he imagined the slight warmth that crept into him when he spoke in brief, but powerful words: "I'll be there."
Sam drives all night to get to Dean, and even when he arrives and sees Dean in the distance, he doesn't exit his car at first. He runs his hands over face and through his short hair, trying to collect himself, but such attempts are futile. Finally, he pushes himself out of the car and walks towards Dean, who has his back to Sam.
It's a cold autumn night, and the leaves are crisp, laced in frost, beneath Sam's feet. Dean's shoulders are hunched against the cold, and one gloveless hand holds a small container as he stares down at a tombstone Sam had nearly forgotten about, although the name never left him. Dean's hair is long and shaggy, his facial hair is untrimmed, and his clothes are worn and cheap. As Dean continues staring at their mother's grave, Sam notices that Dean's missing a part of one of his finger and there's a chunk taken out of the top of his ear. He's dirty and forgotten, and Sam wonders what happened to the spark that used to be Dean so many years ago.
"He didn't want a casket," Dean finally says to the darkness. He doesn't lift his eyes or acknowledge Sam in any manner, but keeps his chin bent and talks to the ground.
"Cremation?" Sam asks, although he already knows the answer.
"Yeah. Said he wanted to be back with Mom," Dean answers, and he sets the small container of their father's ashes at the base of their mother's tombstone. Tenderly, he runs his fingers over the letters carved into the cold stone and remains kneeling in the frost covered grass. He doesn't move, doesn't speak, and finally Sam kneels down next to him, barely remembering that his suit costs more than all of Dean's possessions combined.
Dean's eyes, dry and heavy, flicker up to Sam's. When they make eye contact at long last, Sam is surprised at how old and dark Dean has become; the light that continually burned has been extinguished years ago.
It's a name Sam hasn't heard in over a decade and then some, and he thinks he's going to start crying right then, but he fights the pain. Only a small tear moves down his cheek to admit any sort of emotion.
There's so much he wants to ask Dean, to tell him. He wants to ask him how long Dean's been watching him, and why Dean never called until now. He wants to tell Dean about his kids and Jessica, and how he's gotten everything he's wanted in life, but he's still not happy. He wants to ask Dean everything he's been holding back, and he wants to tell Dean everything he's been hiding. Instead, all that comes from his lips is, "I'm sorry."
Dean's brow furrows slightly under his shaggy hair, which is streaked with small gray lines. There's wrinkles around his chapped mouth as he frowns in confusion; his eyes are bloodshot and dull. He starts to speak, but Sam interrupts.
"I'm sorry not just for that night, but just everything, and I…I should have gone with you then, and I just…" Sam stops, not sure where to continue.
"You came now."
"But it's too late."
"For what?" Dean's eyes are questioning and curious.
Dean shrugs absently and says nothing more.
"I left you," Sam admits.
"No, you really didn't." Seeing Sam's confusion, a small smile passes Dean's face. "You left me one night, but I've been there all this time, whether you knew it or not. But," Dean pauses, "I think you did know it."
Sam looks at him, realizing for the first time exactly what it was that took a piece of him away all these years. He feels whole and strong again, in a way that he hasn't felt in ages. He rises to his feet, saying nothing to Dean, and goes to his car. Dean follows him until they stand by his expensive vehicle, and Sam tosses him the keys.
"Come with me."
Dean looks confused, perhaps even hurt as he fingers the cold black keys. "Where to?" He lifts his eyes to meet Sam's. Embers begin to glow inside him.
"Anywhere," Sam responds, then smiles again. "After all, you're driving."
A pair of red taillights disappear into the darkness, leaving few traces that two brothers once stood together again after years of falling apart. The music in the car is too loud and too old, the brothers too distant and too quiet. Then the conversation begins and the words tumble loosely across their tongues, awakening the bond they once shared and still kept even though the words were silent for long years.
Inside one man, a small flame catches the cold ashes and begins to burn, fueling his heart and driving his passion for life once again. And in another man, who has been left empty and despondent for so long, he lifts his eyes to the night sky as his older brother's fire gives him the warmth inside once again.