Supernatural isn't mine.

So in a week's time it'll be six months since I first dipped a toe in SPN fandom with the first chapter of Sensory Deprivation, and to celebrate I've challenged myself to write a fic every day between now and then (yeah, because for me, celebration is all about pain :D), and here is number one. I asked for prompts at my LJ, and got plenty to be going on with. Today's prompts come from geminigrl11 and chrismouse. Hope you enjoy!

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The Second Tragedy

They get a motel room, and it's just like old times, Dean thinks, lumpy mattresses and industrial bleach, and the sound of traffic from the road outside. Just like old times, except that they smell of smoke so strongly that he wants to throw up. Just like old times, except that Sam's staring like he's not even in there any more, and Dean's hands are shaking with the knowledge of how close he came this time.

It's what Dean wanted, three days ago, when he arrived in Palo Alto and climbed in through his brother's window. He thought about it all the way from New Orleans to California, imagined being back on the road with Sam, snack food and arguing and the miles rolling away underneath them, turning back the years until it would be like Sam never left. He felt guilty, even, for the spark of excitement as he passed the sign for the Palo Alto city limits, guilty because Dad was missing and Dean was almost pleased. He felt guilty, then.

What he feels now is not something he even wants to contemplate.

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The first night, Sam doesn't sleep at all, and Dean doesn't either, because how can he when Sam is sitting like that, tense and rigid at the laptop, fingers flying over the keys, face blank in a way that Dean's never seen it before. Dean wants to talk, wants to know that Sam's OK; but talking's not what they do, and he knows already that Sam's not OK, that Sam's about as far from OK as it's possible to be. He knows, because he's seen this before; just like old times.

The phone rings all night and into the morning; Sam never even looks at it. Dean does, though, and he sees different names on the caller ID, so many different names, people hearing the news, calling to see how Sam is. So many people who want to know that Sam's OK.

Sam doesn't even seem to hear the ringing; Sam's not OK.

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They ask around; it's always the first thing to do – find witnesses, ask them their stories. The only trouble is, the only witnesses this time are Sam and Dean, and they know the story already, have known it all their lives. This is the story that has defined them, limited them. It's not one Dean wanted to hear again, not one he wants to pass on, but it seems that that's what he's done anyway.

Sam doesn't have any clothes except the ones he was wearing, and they stink of smoke; it's sheer luck that he has the laptop, that he left it in the Impala, maybe the luckiest thing that's ever happened to Dean because without it, he wouldn't have turned back. Now it's the only thing Sam has, except for a picture in his wallet and an image burned into his brain; and Dean has so much more than he had three days ago, but he's not sure he wants it any more.

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Dean listens to Sam's messages. Voices full of tears, of sympathy, of desperation; people who he's never met, but who care about his brother enough to be afraid for him. It was Dean's job for so many years, his and Dad's, to be afraid for Sam, and now he almost hates these voices, what they represent, but he thinks that probably they would hate him more, if they knew. He asks Sam if he wants to listen, and Sam extends his hand for the phone and deletes them all.

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The second night, Sam sleeps for half an hour and wakes up screaming. Dean remembers the nightmares, now, something he hadn't thought about in years. Sam doesn't talk about it, though, and Dean doesn't ask, and it's just like old times.

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On the third day, they lean against the Impala and watch a group of people in the distance. All of them are in black, their clothes flapping in the breeze, and it's like watching a flock of ragged crows among the gravestones. Sam isn't wearing black; he's wearing the worn shirt and jeans Dean bought from Goodwill after he found Sam shredding his only clothes into tiny pieces (and Dean didn't ask why, because even from the other side of the room he could smell the smoke). Dean goes closer, though not too close; he wants to know, now, wants to reach out and touch these people, these voices who took his burden from him for a few years, this girl who might still be alive if it weren't for him.

The words drift over on the cool air. Full of life… unafraid… hope for the future… deeply loved, sorely missed. They could be talking about anyone, and Dean goes back to Sam and thinks that deeply loved, sorely missed doesn't even come close to describing the way his brother's mouth twists at the corners, the way his eyes are like holes in his face. But then, there are no words for this; and so Dean doesn't say anything.

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When they leave town, it's on Sam's say-so. It's the seventh day, and Dean knows they're not going to find anything, and there are still the co-ordinates that Dad sent them, but he doesn't say anything, because Sam's still staring and even though the clothes are long since gone, Dean still sometimes catches the hint of smoke on the air. Then he wakes up to find their bags packed and Sam's pacing like he's wired or high, and twenty minutes later they're on the road. They pass the sign for the Palo Alto city limits, and it's only been ten days since Dean was going in the other direction, but everything's changed. Except really, everything's gone back to how it used to be; they're half a country away from Lawrence, and they've come a long way and no distance at all. Sam is silent and hunched in the passenger seat, and Dean holds the wheel tighter than usual, and they don't talk about it.

Somewhere between California and Colorado, Sam falls asleep, and for just a little while, before he wakes up with terror on his face and biting back a scream, Dean can almost pretend it's just like old times.