Disclaimer: Never owned 'em, never will
Summers were the worst. Summers, you were on your own.
People didn't understand that "full ride" didn't mean the university covered everything. Tuition, housing, meals, and in Sam's case an extremely generous book stipend, plus he'd qualified for computer-buying assistance—but there were still plenty of other expenses. Clothes, for one; no matter how he tried, he couldn't make shoes last more than a few months. Sheets, pillows, towels, soap, razors. Laundry detergent and change for the machines. Notebooks, paper, pens, disks. A bike and its upkeep, because the campus was huge. Field trips and tickets for required extracurriculars, like the Shakespeare productions the English classes had to go to. Salt and first-aid supplies, because there were some habits he couldn't break no matter how hard he tried, no matter what kind of looks his roommates gave him.
The night of that final argument, after Sam had packed everything and stormed out, fully intending to walk to Palo Alto if he had to, Dean had come after him. Driven him all the way to Stanford, never saying a word, just blasting Metallica loudly enough to discourage all conversation. He'd parked Sam in a motel, gone out, and returned with a cheap microwave, a small dorm-sized fridge, a cellphone, and an envelope stuffed full of cash advances from every fake credit card in his wallet. And then he'd left, not even telling Sam that the motel room was paid up through the start of school. Sam had had to figure that out on his own.
That money, with very careful management and a work-study job, had gotten him through the first year. But it had run out about the same time spring semester had.
Luckily, last year, he'd stumbled over an old woman who had a run-down apartment over her garage and absolutely no clue about the local real estate market. He'd played up the security angle, how having a strong young man living on the property might help dissuade robbers. Pulled out every ounce of Winchester charm, too. That, and tossing in the occasional yard chore, and at least this year he hadn't had to spend exams hunting for a place to live. Mrs. Gregg had been positively ecstatic to have him back.
She'd put in a good word with a friend of hers that owned a local grocery store, whose former stockboy had just graduated. That, in addition to the job waiting tables at a local Italian restaurant, kept him alive. He was living off restaurant leftovers and things that came out of cans too dented for the shelves, the shower made questionable noises and ran out of hot water after five minutes, the sink had drainage issues, his only transportation was a bicycle older than he was, and his bed was a couch the late Mr. Gregg had been too miserly to toss out when the springs first broke thirty years ago, but he survived.
Winchesters were good at surviving.
Dean would send him money if he asked. Hell, if he'd let Dad know how bad things were—
But damned if he was going to rely on family. Not after what Dad had said. Nearly two years now, and just remembering that argument made him shake with rage. He had too much pride still to go crawling back.
Pride made the diet of leftovers easier to swallow.
Nevertheless, by mid-July he was bone-tired. Too little sleep. Too much work. It was harder and harder to wake up, his reflexes were shot to hell so badly that every time anyone dropped a plate he nearly took off a customer's head, every muscle in his body ached constantly, and he'd reached that point where he'd throw up if he had to eat anything else that smelled vaguely like Italian cooking. Only he didn't have the money to buy anything else. The money had to be saved, or he wouldn't make it through the next year. By the time school started, he'd be skin and bones—but when it came down to a few weeks' worth of lost weight against the possibility of not finishing school...
That was no choice at all, as far as he was concerned. He could re-gain the weight. He couldn't get a second chance at a good education.
Other people came back from summer vacation rested. Sam came back from summer vacation to rest. He yearned for the peace of a double-major's 21-credit semester as strongly as he'd once yearned to know his mother. July dreams were spun of library stillness and the smell of books and limitless cafeteria meals.
The pounding on the door jerked him out of one of those dreams, when the cafeteria was serving all his favorites and none of them Italian, and he had time to sit in the library and read for no reason other than to read. His overblown reactions sent him flying off the sheeted couch with a knife in one hand, a pillow in the other.
He promptly went splat on the makeshift table of book-boxes. "Shit!" He was already permanently sore; he didn't need bruises. He staggered to the door.
Afternoon sunlight blinded him, but not so much he couldn't recognize the man leaning on the doorjamb. "Hey there, Sammy," Dean said, and pitched forward into Sam's arms, dripping blood on the worn carpet.
"Jesus Christ," Sam breathed. He shook off the shock and dragged Dean out of the doorway.
Old habits died hard. Ninety percent of what he owned was packed in boxes, either because he couldn't use it right now or because he didn't have room to unpack it, but the first-aid kit was at hand and well-stocked enough to put most free clinics to shame.
Dean woke up a little as Sam tried to pull his jacket off without disturbing him too much. "Hey there, Sammy."
"You said that already. What the fuck are you doing here, Dean?"
"Ha." He tossed the jacket away. The blood was running down Dean's arm—there was a hole in the sleeve, but such a tiny hole, how— "Holy shit, Dean, you've been shot!"
"Nothin' gets past you."
"Have you heard of hospitals?"
"Can't. Cops looking."
"Of course they are. What did you do this time?" He ripped the sleeve open, exposing the hole in Dean's arm. Gingerly, he felt around the injury, found the exit wound on the other side. "You got lucky. Missed the bone. Small caliber, too."
"Lucky bastard," Dean said, grinning through the pain, "that's me."
"Dean, this needs a doctor, a real doctor—"
"I can't, Sammy!"
Shit. "Fine," Sam said, pressing a handful of gauze against the exit wound with one hand and reaching for the suturing kit with the other. "This is going to hurt."
"Already hurts." The sarcasm couldn't mask the pain. Or the fact that Dean was about to pass out.
"More, then." He reached for the bottle of alcohol. "Try not to scream. The landlady freaks out at everything."
It wasn't that bad a wound, really; they'd both taken far worse. It wasn't even enough to pull the sling out of the kit. It shouldn't have taken three hours to get Dean stitched and bandaged and drugged, but it did.
Two of those were spent fighting with the groggy bastard over whether or not he was going to sleep in Sam's bed. Sam finally shut him up by pointing out that it was time for him to go to work anyway. He was running late, actually, but damned if he was going to tell Dean that. Idiot would probably insist on going along to make sure Sam didn't get fired.
He missed prep, so Christine was glaring daggers at him—mainly because she relied on him to be there so she didn't have to do actual prep-work and could flirt with the hostesses, which made it that much easier to ignore the spoiled bitch. Sam sleepwalked through an overcrowded shift that didn't tip for shit, pulled through by sheer habit; at closing, he begged out a double helping of leftovers, stopped by the apartment to stuff them in the fridge and check on Dean, then ran to the store to rush through the day's work. Mike showed up at five, listened to his explanation, and shrugged. "So long as it all gets done," he said, as Sam had known he would. Mike knew damned well he wasn't going to get that kind of work out of anybody else, not for minimum wage and free choice of overly-dented merchandise.
Dean was still passed out when Sam stumbled in. He stood in the doorway a second, trying to remember who was on his couch, before his brain kicked in. If he hadn't been so tired, so sleepy, he might have spared a minute to hate his brother for waking him up and stealing his bed and bleeding on the carpet.
Instead, Sam checked the bandage. There was a hint of blood on it, but not enough to worry about.
"Quit hovering, Mommy," Dean said, without opening his eyes.
"It's better." Dean opened his eyes. "You look like hell."
"You're not exactly a vision of beauty yourself," Sam shot back.
"Seriously, Sammy, you look—"
"Tired?" Sam guessed. "That's because I am, Dean. Two jobs'll do that to you, not that you would know."
That hit home; he saw the flicker of pain in Dean's eyes. "Sammy—"
"I'm going to wash the garlic stench out of my hair," Sam said flatly, and headed for the bathroom.
Dean was starting to poke around the apartment by the time Sam got out of the shower. He decided food would be the best distraction. Time to put those leftovers and the microwave to work. "Hungry?"
"Starving. What's for breakfast?" He glanced at his watch. "Er, lunch?"
"Leftovers." He pulled the styrofoam containers out of the fridge. He arranged spoonfuls on a plate and stuck it in the microwave, but didn't turn it on.
"Lasagna for breakfast? Dude." Sam glared at him. "Lasagna's fine."
"Good, because that's all I've got." He filled a pot with water, stuck it on the working burner to heat, then started hunting for his other plate. It was odd; during the school year, he had no problem with paper plates, but during summer, the real things, cheap and discolored as they were, made him feel civilized. Like a real person, not just some brain-dead automaton that stumbled from work to shower to couch to work. "And it's not breakfast for me."
The water finally started to bubble; he dumped it in the sink and ran enough cold water to get it to a temperature where he could stand to have his hands in it. Dean watched, his expression unreadable. "Sammy, what are you doing here?"
"Living," Sam replied tersely, ignoring Dean in favor of scrubbing yesterday's plate. He only had two, and generally only had the energy to keep one clean at a time.
"This isn't living! This— Goddammit, Sammy, at our worst we've never been this bad off! Not even when Dad got so drunk he forgot what town he was in! Why didn't you call me? I would've—"
"You would've what?" Sam asked wearily, reaching for a towel. "Brought me more stolen money? Taken me back home so that Dad could lord over me how right he was? Hell, do you guys even bother having a house anymore?" By the look on Dean's face, Sam knew they had given up the pretense of a permanent address. "No way. Besides—" He told himself that the sting in his eyes was from sweat, and he turned away quickly, punching the buttons on the microwave. "I sold the phone. Last summer. I had to have a couple of white button-down shirts for the restaurant and I didn't have any money left."
"Huh." That was all Dean said for a long moment. "Well, that explains why I keep getting some guy named José every time I call. I thought you just didn't want to talk to me. And that you had a girlfriend in Oaxaca." He leaned against the wall. "I thought you had a full ride, Sammy. I thought you were going to be okay."
"Full rides don't cover summers or living expenses. And I am okay."
"Bullshit. You're ready to collapse."
"I can't collapse," Sam snapped, unable to stop himself, "I have to be at work in six hours." He began fixing his own plate, trying not to let on that the smell of garlic and tomatoes was making his stomach churn. If he didn't eat, Dean was likely to force-feed him. Wouldn't be the first time. "Here." He jerked the plate out of the microwave, found a fork, and shoved them both at his brother. "Eat."
"Anything to drink?" Wordlessly, Sam filled a plastic cup with water. It was the only usable cup in the apartment, but he wasn't mentioning that. He didn't expect to eat enough to need to drink anything anyway. "Should I just be glad it's not out of one of the cans that doesn't have a label?" Sam spared a moment from punching the microwave to glare at him. "Okay, okay." He carried his breakfast over to the couch. At least he wasn't pestering about chairs and proper tables. "Do you have a girlfriend? In Oaxaca or otherwise?"
"What? I worry."
Oh, for the love of— Was there anything in the world that was going to make Dean change? "No," he said.
"Just asking." The sly grin belied the meek words. "You are remembering to have some fun?"
"They let me read all the books I want."
"I said fun."
"I don't have Dad yelling at me for doing my class-related reading instead of brushing up my Church Latin or doing target practice or sharpening knives. Which makes it fun, and believe me when I say there's not much else that could possibly make James Fenimore Cooper readable." God, that sounded bitter. Even for him.
"So..." Dean waited until Sam had brought his plate over to the "table" and sat on the floor across from him. Sam choked down a forkful of pasta, knowing Dean was waiting to make sure he was eating. "Going for lit, then?"
Sam shook his head. "Sociology and history, with a minor in poli sci." Triple major, actually, but they wouldn't let him formally declare that, and poli sci had drawn the short straw.
"And that's going to be useful how?"
"If I was worried about useful, I would've gone to a trade school, not Stanford," Sam snapped. "It's about learning."
"Sorry. I didn't realize—"
"About a lot of things."
"Okay, obviously I hit a sore spot there. Another one," Dean added pointedly. "You're not eating."
Sam stared at the stuff on his plate. "I'm not hungry." He was starving. But not for this. Sheer bad luck that he'd hit his limit the day Dean had decided to crash.
"Mm-hm." Dean got up, went to his jacket, and pulled something out of a pocket. "Here."
It was a massively deformed peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a school-year luxury that he couldn't justify during the summer. Sam accepted it and tried his damnedest not to wolf it down, tried to make himself savor the lovely, familiar taste of abused bread, peanut butter, grape jelly. Ambrosia had nothing on that battered PB&J.
"Never thought I'd see anybody so bad off they couldn't afford peanut butter," Dean muttered, half under his breath.
"I have to save money for the school year."
"Is a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread going to break you?" Dean challenged. "Is it? Because—"
"I had to sell a phone to buy shirts," Sam reminded him, his voice tight. "Five dollars is laundry day. It's soap and shampoo and razor blades. There's no point spending money when I can get food for free from work."
"Food you don't eat."
"Eat it for three months and see how well you take it."
For a wild moment, he thought he'd stumbled on the one thing that would make Dean Winchester cry. "God, Sammy—"
"Pity me and I will hurt you. Even if you did give me a sandwich."
"Sammy—" Dean hesitated, then charged on. "Maybe you should come h—with me. Just for the rest of the summer. Little road trip. You shouldn't be working your ass off like this, you should be relaxing—"
Pride made him lie. Winchester pride. The same thing that had gotten him into this mess. "I knew what I was getting into."
"Funny how you didn't mention it to me or Dad."
"Dad didn't care!" Sam shouted, jumping up. "If he'd cared for five seconds about anything but his goddamned hunting he'd've asked me what I was going to do for spending money, how I was going to get here, all the stuff that a scholarship doesn't pay for! But all he cared about was keeping me under his goddamned thumb, the way he's kept you!"
"And you'd rather starve and live like this than ask him for help?"
"I'd rather die," Sam snarled.
"You don't mean that."
"Try me." God, he knew Dean had a terminal case of hero-worship for their father, but hadn't he learned anything from that fight? "And maybe you don't remember, but he made my choices pretty damn clear! I chose this, Dean, so quit acting like I'm a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum!"
"I'm supposed to believe that this—" Dean waved vaguely at the room "—is anything else?"
Exhaustion and hunger had worn away any chance of keeping the harsh words behind his teeth. "You know what this is?" Sam mimicked Dean's gesture. "This is my life, Dean! My fucking life! It may suck out loud, but it's mine! It's not all about following orders and chasing nightmares and never staying put long enough to make friends! And it's not going to be again!"
"And you're happy with that?" Dean stood. "Starving yourself to save money for doing laundry six months from now? Sleeping on a busted couch? How's this better than chasing poltergeists? You're fucking miserable, Sammy, and you won't even admit it!"
"I have no problem admitting it! I'm completely and thoroughly miserable! Happy now?"
"I plan to be completely and thoroughly miserable next summer too! And you know what? It'll get better! I've got hope, Dean, hope I can find my own fucking way in the world! If I have to starve now to make sure I don't have to go back to that—that hell that Dad calls a life, I'll do it! And if you had anything remotely resembling a brain, you would too!"
Dean's eyes hardened. "Back it down, Sammy," he ordered, his voice as much a warning as their father's ever was. More, because Dean had so seldom used that tone of voice. So seldom had to.
He obeyed that order out of habit so deeply ingrained it might as well have been instinct, and hated himself for doing it. "I didn't ask for you to come check up on me," he said finally, when he had the rage under control. It wasn't Dean's fault their father was—what he was. He was only mildly irritated by Dean. The rage was for their father.
"Did you honestly think I wouldn't?"
Sam had to smile at that. Dean was the worst mother hen he'd ever met. "No," he admitted. What would Dean think if he knew Sam routinely silenced dorm bitch sessions about overprotective parents by mentioning him? Not Dad. Dean.
"Good. Part of your brain's still working, then." He picked up the plates. "Time for good little Sammys to go to bed."
"First off, I slept all night. Second, there's a sleeping bag in the car. I get sleepy, I can sleep on the floor."
"The hell you are. You're hurt—"
"And yet, at the moment, I'm way ahead of you healthwise. Which is something a man who just had a bullet go through his arm should really never be able to say." He dumped the plates in the sink, then headed for the door.
"I thought the cops were looking for you."
Dean froze, looking at him—surprised? "They're not going to see me in the five minutes it takes to get the sleeping bag out of the trunk, Sammy."
"You're assuming they didn't see your car."
"I wasn't parked near the shootout."
Something wasn't right. "Dean, are you lying to me?" he asked, though he couldn't figure out what purpose that would serve. Maybe if he hadn't been so tired...
Dean shrugged. "Might be. Not telling you if I am, though. You better be in bed—well, whatever you call that piece of shit couch—by the time I get back."
"Jerk," Sam muttered.
"Bitch!" Dean retorted before pulling open the door and heading down the rickety stairs.
Sam laughed in spite of himself at the old familiar taunt, and was asleep before Dean came back.
Awake at four. Step over Dean, who had conked out again, three times in the course of getting ready. At the restaurant by five. Closing tasks finished up by two. Bike across town in the dark to be at the store no later than three, to let in the first of the morning deliveries. Keep an eye on delivery guys until Mike arrived, anywhere from five to seven. Restock shelves. Try not to dislocate anything important. On a good day, he was out by ten, heading home to shower and sleep until the damned clock went off again.
Today, he managed to finish by eight. He wanted to apologize to Dean for blowing up the way he had. And maybe see if he could persuade him to buy breakfast. A real breakfast.
He skidded the bike to a stop in Mrs. Gregg's driveway, staring at the spot next to the garage where the Impala had been parked.
The car was gone.
Sam froze. No. Surely Dean wouldn't have left, he couldn't drive with his arm like that—
Somehow he found the energy to run up the stairs. "Dean?" he asked as soon as he had the door open.
No answer. The room was empty. He held a moment's hope that Dean was only taking a shower, but it was too quiet for that; the pipes were too loud to overlook.
Then he recognized the smell. Lemon. Lemon, with an underlying hint of chlorine, not dust and old Italian food.
Dean had been busy. The place was clean, the trash taken out, the window sparkling; even the bloodstain on the carpet had been scrubbed enough to merge into the other stains. The counter next to the sink was stacked full of food—cereal and bread and two jars of peanut butter and cans with labels, and an entire box packed with all Sam's favorite chips and cookies and chocolates. There were three new plates, a couple of cups, and a handful of shiny cheap silverware in the sink. Sam opened the fridge, and found it was stuffed too—juice and cheese and sandwich meats, a jar of jelly, a couple of bags of salad mix, a six-pack of beer. And a quart of milk.
Milk. He hadn't had milk since school got out. He'd been craving it something fierce. How had Dean known that?
He gulped down half the bottle then and there. He would have finished it off, except that he fully planned on having cereal for breakfast. He replaced it in the fridge and headed for the couch.
There was no point in going after Dean. If he'd wanted Sam to know where he was going, he would have left a note. Or waited for him to get back before leaving. No, he'd said good-bye with groceries.
Sam sat down to pull off his shoes, and that was when he saw it: a brand-new cellphone lying on an envelope on his makeshift table. There was writing on the outside of the envelope, a scrawl that was bad even for Dean. Part of it was numbers—the one that belonged to the new cellphone; two others, one marked "Dean," one marked "Dad." The rest...
Sorry, it said. Didn't mean to be trouble. Get some sleep. Call if you need me. And if you sell this phone, so help me, I'll kill you.
With a grin, Sam opened the envelope. He knew it held money, but he was completely unprepared for the pile of hundred-dollar bills that fell into his hand. He didn't even want to think about where Dean had gotten this much cash, how many credit scams and pool hustles and card games this money represented. It was more than he had any hope of saving. From both jobs. In two years.
He shouldn't accept it. Groceries and dollar-store dishes were one thing. Even the cellphone, he could find a way to justify. But this much money—
Pride had its limits.
He picked up the cellphone, punched in the restaurant's number, and called in sick. Tonight he was going to sleep.
The motel where they'd agreed to meet was an hour up the road. It had been a deliberate choice, to ensure that Sam didn't get any warning of their presence, made before Dean's three-day search of Palo Alto restaurants. Which was just as well, because if John Winchester had any idea of how bad things reallywere for his younger son, he would have charged in to "fix" the situation and all hell would have broken loose. Again. Given Sam's current state, the fact that he was so tired that his thoughts all spilled straight out of his mouth with no filter whatsoever, that last blowup would seem minor in comparison. There might be bloodshed. Or worse.
Dean let himself in. The door was barely closed before a gravelly voice asked "Well?"
Dean leaned back against the door. The hole in his arm was throbbing and his back hurt where a spring in Sammy's damned couch had gouged him all night. And he had a headache from arguing with the cellphone guy about the definition of the words Now, goddammit. Not so much of one, though, that he didn't notice the faint smell of booze in the room.
Still drinking. Had been ever since some hunting buddy called to tell Dad he'd seen Sammy working in a restaurant and looking like he'd just been dragged facedown through hell, and wasn't the boy supposed to be in college on full scholarship, not waiting tables?
On the bright side, it didn't smell like Dad had yet graduated from beer to tequila. Which meant he wasn't aiming for oblivion tonight, just dulling the world a bit.
Dean noticed that the room's second bed—his bed, supposedly—was currently hosting the Winchester armory. He wondered how Dad would take it if he just slipped in between the rifle and the machetes for a nap. Preferably accompanied by a morphine drip. He was reasonably sure he could rig one up. "He's fine."
"Fine." Dad didn't sound convinced. "That's all you got? He's fine?"
"Yeah. Fine." He pulled off his jacket, flinching at the pain in his arm. "He wasn't real forthcoming. Lucky for me, his first-aid skills are still sharp."
"He took the money?"
Dean covered his hesitation by kicking off his boots. "He's got the money, Dad," he finally said, the only way he could say it without using loaded words, like took or accepted or appreciated; if he told Dad that he'd just left it there, that he'd snuck out while Sammy was at work, he'd get ripped to shreds, and never mind that if Sammy had any idea that money was from Dad, not Dean, he'd burn it. "I got him a new phone, too. He sold the last one." He didn't have to look to know that Dad flinched at those words; if Sammy had wanted any contact with them, he would never have sold his only reliable means of communication.
I've lost him. Sammy's gone, Dad, and it's all your fault. Someday, he might be able to say those words, words that had been simmering for two years. But this wasn't the time.
He rubbed his arm, trying to massage the pain away. Didn't work. "Next time you need to give him some money, Dad, can we come up with a plan that doesn't involve shooting me?"