Title: Summa Cum Laude

Disclaimer: Supernatural characters are only borrowed, for a short time. I promise not to profit from our relationship. (I am experienced at not profiting from relationships, so trust me on this.)

Author: FraidyCat

Sam and Dean had been trading the same cold back and forth for two months. For all the traveling they did, their universe was actually pretty small: The Impala, whatever nondescript motel room they shared in a nameless backwater town, and graveyards at midnight. It was no wonder that germs just bounced between the two of them. Why work any harder at finding a new victim than the guy who was less than two feet away most of the time?

Neither of them would describe the other as particularly needy – at least not physically. They continued to hunt whether one or both of the brothers was ill, injured, or half dead. They couldn't stop. There was always something else waiting for them. They had started out in loss…but during the last year, the losses had compounded almost beyond comprehension. Lifetime friends, other hunters – and then Dad. The wrong side was winning, so Sam and Dean continued to hunt. When they hunted, they felt as if they were doing something; proactive, in some way. They were obsessed by the possessed.

The second time Sam had the cold was pretty nasty. He hadn't really gotten over it yet when Dean took his second turn. Still, Sam had done most of the driving for a few days and brought take-out containers of soup back to motels, for Dean. Dean's second experience was a little better than the first, and he was feeling much better by the time Sam signed up for round #3. He hacked and sneezed his way through a salt-and-burn – Dean couldn't even remember where that was, now – but insisted he was good to go as soon as the job was done. They didn't really have a target, yet, but they both liked to get out of these towns as soon after a hunt as they could.

So they checked out of a motel at two in the morning, and hit the road. By the time Dean stopped for breakfast, six hours later, Sam was a study in contrasts. Two bright red cheeks stood out against an otherwise pale face. He was a shivering ball of miserable fire in the passenger seat. Still, Dean just fed him a couple of aspirin, and left him in the car while he wolfed down some scrambled eggs and hash browns. Then they kept driving. Six hours away from the last hunt was not far enough.

Twelve hours was not great, but it was better, and Dean had stopped at a small roadside motel just after 2 in the afternoon, not liking the way Sam looked. Besides, he's been driving for 12 hours. Dean could use a break himself.

When he stopped, he had no idea that they would be there over a week. He had no idea he would frantically pound on the manager's door three nights later, screaming that his brother couldn't breathe, and he had no idea that Sam would end up in a tiny, one-doctor-only medical clinic that served as the area's hospital, battling pneumonia. The doctor had advised Dean to take Sam to the larger city about 30 minutes away, and have him admitted to a real hospital. Sam had just stared at him over the doctor's shoulder with those damned, wounded puppy eyes, made all the more powerful when they were weeping and red-rimmed.

Dean hated hospitals as much as Sam did. So, he had loaded his brother up on antibiotics, waited for an IV saline solution to rehydrate him, and carted him back to the motel. A sympathetic manager loaned them a humidifier, and Dean had taken care of Sam, just as he always had. Just as he always would.

After a rough 48 hours, during which Dean questioned his decision approximately 200 times, Sam rallied. That had been almost two weeks ago. Dean had yet to contract the cold a third time. That was probably because, for the first time either of them could remember, they were on an official vacation.

The pneumonia had scared Dean enough to remind him that were ways to lose people besides via demons. He had watched Sammy sleep, when the crisis was over, and allowed himself to think. They were killing themselves with this tunnel-vision for The Hunt. Things that went "bump" in the night didn't have to take them out – they would take care of it themselves.

And so it was, that they were now in Phoenix, Arizona. It was the warmest place Dean could think of. He had refused to drive more than five hours a day, so it had taken a week to get here. After almost another week just hustling pool, staring at each other, and taking in the occasional tourist attraction, they were both getting antsy. Dean knew it was time to get back to work when he snapped so viciously at Sammy he saw tears spring to his brother's eyes. Less than two weeks ago, he'd been afraid Sam would die. Now, he was making him cry. Definitely time to get back on the road.

He had been wondering how to bring it up, when Sam had beat him to it. Even though he was still not 100 percent, it had not been hard to talk Dean into heading for the local library. They were going to look through the newspaper stacks, and determine where The Hunt would take them next.

They were at a table in the basement of the library, papers spread out before them, when Dean felt Sam stiffen beside him. He raised his eyes and looked at his brother. "You got something?" Before he was finished with the question, he knew the answer was "No". Sam wasn't even looking at the newspaper in front of him. He was staring, unblinking, toward the doorway of the room.

Dean followed his eyes. All he saw was a librarian. He had to admit, a fine-looking, young librarian, but still…. She had a name tag, and Dean had already noticed her, upstairs. He grinned. Leave it to Sammy to fall for a librarian!

As if she knew she was being studied, the woman slipped a newspaper onto the rack and turned toward them. Surprised, Dean saw a look of recognition cross her face, before she broke into a smile and headed quickly toward them. "Sam? Sam Winchester?"

Sam swallowed, then stood behind the table. "Kara Travers. How are you?"

Dean watched with interest as the librarian came behind the table and hugged his little brother. She laughed. "Considering I'm stuck in Phoenix, Arizona, I'm not bad. I can't believe I ran into you, here!" She glanced at Dean, then back at Sam. "Do you live here, now?"

Sam backed away a step, and Dean admired the way he made it look like he was being polite, when he really just wanted to create his happy space. He looked at Dean. "No... This is my brother, Dean. We're…on vacation." Dean stood up and offered his most charming smile, waiting for Sam to finish the introduction. "Dean, this is Kara Travers. We were at Stanford together."

Dean felt his smile falter, but covered it when he greeted the pretty brunette. Stanford. No wonder Sam was a little freaked out. Kara smiled and shook his hand. "Actually, it's Michaels, now. Kara Michaels. Tommy and I were married last spring."

Sam let loose with a genuine, if slightly sad, smile. "Married? Kara, that's great! What brought you both to Phoenix?"

She leaned back against the table a little. "I finally got my MLS, so I can work for a living, now," she chuckled. "Tommy is still in med school, of course; he transferred to the University of Arizona this year. He picked a specialty – oncology – and there are several physicians connected to this program that he really wanted to study under."

Sam nodded. "That's great. Tommy will make a good doctor."

Kara suddenly looked a little uncomfortable. "Sam… we were so sorry about what happened…with Jess."

Sam looked at his feet for a moment, then back at Kara. "Thank-you," he finally said, stiffly.

Kara continued the conversation. "I certainly understand why you didn't go directly to law school, after that. I know Stanford accepted you; did they offer you a deferred entry?" She smiled at Dean, and winked, startling him a little. "These summa cum laude guys, they're usually worth the wait."

Dean looked at Sam. "Summa cum laude?" Sam reddened, and looked away. Dean may not have gone to college, and he may have graduated high school "summa cum luck", but even he knew what that meant. "You graduated with honors?"

Kara answered for him, proudly. "The highest of honors," she supplied. "Even the genius Tommy was only magna cum laude." She giggled. "He was so jealous of you, Sam! So have you started law school, yet? Did you go with Stanford, or are you going with another choice?" Her voice grew soft. "Jess told me you were accepted at several places."

Sam looked at Dean in quiet desperation, and hesitated just long enough for someone to clear her throat ominously over near the door. Kara started and looked guiltily over her shoulder. She looked back at Sam quickly. "Crap. My boss found me. Let me give you our number." She leaned over the table, grabbing for one of the scraps of paper and small pencils kept there, and Dean found himself appreciating her…curves. She scribbled out a number and turned back to Sam, offering him the paper. "Please call us, while you're in town. Tommy would love to see you."

Sam accepted the paper and nodded. He smiled one of the fake smiles that he used when he was impersonating a priest, or a cop, or something. It didn't reach his eyes, and Dean wondered why. "It was nice seeing you, Kara."

She hugged him again briefly. "You too, Sam." She pulled back and glanced at Dean. "Nice to meet you, Dean. Sam used to talk about you all the time. Please come with him, when we get together!"

Dean smiled, a real smile, shocked into speechlessness. Sam had talked about him? All the time? He finally realized Kara was gone, and looked around for Sam. He found him just in time to see him stare at the paper she had given him, roll it into a ball, and toss it into a trash can about five feet away. He sat back at the table heavily. "I hope there's a basement exit," he muttered.

Dean sat next to him again, a little confused. "You guys weren't friends?"

Sam sighed, and ran a hand through his long hair. "Yeah." He shoved the newspaper in front of him toward Dean. "Look, I think maybe there's something for us in Oregon. Doesn't this sound like it could be the work of vampires?"

Dean ignored the paper and continued looking at Sam. "Why did you throw the number away? We can stay another few days. And why didn't you ever tell me you graduated summa whatever, and had already been accepted into law school?"

Sam looked up from the table and looked into Dean's eyes for a long moment. When he answered, he looked and sounded older than Dean ever thought either one of them would be. "It wasn't real. My time at school, my time with Jess, my chance at a life away from The Hunt. I don't look back at it and treasure the experience, like I thought I would. I look back on it and wonder what the hell I was thinking. I should have accepted what Dad always told me. This is my life. This is all my life will ever be. If I hadn't fought so hard against that, if I had never gone to Stanford…I never would have met Jess, and she would still be alive. I never would have been accepted at any law school, and I wouldn't have that…that…regret…for something that could never happen anyway." His eyes flashed dark with pain and he looked away. "If I hadn't left the two of you, if I had stayed to help, together we might have stopped the Demon before he took Dad."

For the second time that morning, Dean was stunned into speechlessness. How could Sam, Great Defender of the Chick Flick Moment, have been feeling all of this without his knowing it? Dean felt a fear growing in the pit of his stomach, and he struggled to name it. He was sorry Sammy lost Jessica, and sacrificed his shot at a "normal" life, but both of those things were old news. What he had never understood, before, was that Sammy was still in the process of sacrificing; and what he was giving up now, was hope.

Having named his fear, he could not ignore it. His life had revolved around Sam, since he was an infant Dean could only hold under strict supervision. He had always, always wanted Sammy safe. Not just safe. Happy. He couldn't let this bitter old man suffocate his baby brother.

He drew in a deep breath, and felt as if he were stabbing himself in the heart when he said it. "Dad's gone. He's not going to try to stop you, anymore. Almost everybody is gone, now. You can go back. See if they'll give you that deferred thing. Go back, Sammy."

Sam looked at him, eyes flashing anger now. "No. No. The Demon wants everything I love, Dean. If I stay with you, I endanger you, make you a target. But if I leave you, I cannot protect you. I will not give up one more thing to him." He suddenly reached out and grabbed Dean's wrist, tightly enough to bruise. "You're mine, Dean. I won't let him take you. Ever. And I won't let anything else separate us. Not the past, or what could have been, or whatever will be. I promise."

Dean couldn't break away from those eyes, and for a moment, he let himself feel needed, wanted, treasured, protected, important. He let himself feel like the younger brother, just for a moment, and his heart swelled in the ferocious love of Sammy. He tried to tell him, without words, that he felt the same way. It took all of his strength to tear his wrist out of Sam's grasp, and to look back at the newspaper.

When he did, instead of a story about a small town in Oregon, he saw Sam, the night he couldn't breathe in the motel. He saw Sam, sitting solidly and silently beside him, riding shotgun in the Impala. He saw Sam, listening to him in loyal and sympathetic acceptance, when he had lost it, after Dad had died. Dean reached deep within himself, deeper than he ever had before, and found just a little more strength.

He whispered the words to the newspaper, but he knew Sam could hear him.

"I love you, too, Sammy."