Dean glanced at the twenty-four-year-old lying asleep in the passenger seat of his car. He looked at his younger brother Sam's sleeping form, his closed eyes, his slightly open mouth, his chest rising and falling with each breath he took. He was asleep. Peaceful. Happy, for once.
Dean looked back at the luggage in the backseat. He felt something inside him rip. Sam was leaving him. Again.
They were there, at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, but he couldn't bring himself to do it – wake his brother and let him walk out of his life once again. He wasn't sure he could handle going back to the solitary hunter's life he'd led after Sam left the first time. Even then, he'd had his father. Someone he didn't have anymore. Someone he'd never have again.
There were so many fears that ran through his mind when he thought of his little brother back at college, far away from Dean, far away from perhaps the one person who could protect him if anything happened. Yes, the Demon had seemingly disappeared off the face of the Earth. That didn't make the threat of it suddenly reappearing any less real or frightening. Dean's stomach lurched when he thought of the thing.
Beside him, Sam stirred. He was going to wake up soon. Bracing himself and taking a huge breath, Dean leaned over and gently shook his brother's shoulder. "Sam," he said. His voice came out a hoarse whisper. "Sam," he repeated, a little louder.
Sam's eyes flew open as he took in their surroundings. Dean noticed some colour leave his face as he realized where they were.
"We're here," Dean said.
Sam stared out the front window, his eyes wide. "We're here," he repeated. His Adam's apple bobbed as he gulped, and Dean realized that his brother was as scared as he was.
"Are you okay?" he asked. There was no use in asking if he was sure. Sam was sure. Dean knew that. It was just…
"I'm fine," he said. Dean saw his inner struggle, trying to get up the nerve to get out of the car and walk into his new life, at the same time desperately thinking of a reason not to go.
His knuckles turned white as he opened the door and got out of the Impala. Dean watched him take a moment to breathe.
"Let's go get something to eat," Sam suggested, without looking at his brother. "You know, before…"
He didn't finish and neither did Dean. The older Winchester simply got out of his car and followed Sam as he walked down the street, looking for a place to eat. Before Dean left and Sam went back to college. Before the boys were separated once again.
It was a modest one-person living space, small and cozy for Sam now that he wasn't living with anyone. Dean saw a flash of pain flicker through his brother's eyes as he looked around, obviously remembering the many times he'd spent with his girlfriend, Jessica, before she died, when they lived together. Dean wished he could say something. But every time he tried, his mind went blank. He didn't know what to say.
"I'll be able to get everything pretty soon," Sam said, breaking the silence, looking at his small amount of personal belongings. He bit his lip and looked around. "Wow."
Sam shook his head. "It's just…I don't know. I guess after a while you forget…I mean, I remember doing this with Jess…" His voice trailed off.
Dean tried for the hundredth time to come up with something to say, but again, there was nothing. He kept his mouth shut.
He glanced at his brother. Sam wanted him to say something. Dean could see it in the way the younger Winchester kept looking at him out of the corner of his eye, waiting for him to make any kind of comment.
But there was nothing to say.
And there was so much to say.
"Promise me you'll take care of yourself."
The words were out of his mouth before he had even thought of them, it seemed, and they made Sam's head snap up as he looked at his older brother. "What?"
"Please, Sammy…take care of yourself."
A slight smile came onto Sam's face. "Dean, I should be the one telling you to take care of yourself. You're the one who'll be hunting evil, remember?"
Dean couldn't help but give a dry laugh. "I know." He sobered and looked his brother in the eye. "Still, Sam…we still don't know the big picture. The Demon might still be out there. You never know. You need to be careful."
"We both need to be careful." There was no humour in Sam's voice now.
Dean looked down. "I know."
There was an awkward moment of silence. "Okay then," Sam said quietly. "Um…"
"I'm gonna take off, then," Dean said.
"You know, Dean, you can stay if you – "
"Nah," Dean replied quickly. "Thanks, though."
Dean turned around and headed for the door.
He turned to face his brother. "Yeah?"
"Promise me you'll take care of yourself, okay?"
Slowly, Dean nodded. "I will, Sam." Then he turned and walked out the door.
He heard Sam somewhere behind him. "Call me!" his brother yelled.
"I will." Every day, he thought.
He'd call every day. More than once a day if he had time. Anything to make sure that his baby brother was safe.
Five weeks later
"Dean? What's wrong?"
Dean had been staying with Ellen and Jo at the roadhouse for a few days. Ash had helped him get some information on the history of a violent spirit a few towns away.
Jo rushed over to him, her eyes wide. "Dean. What's the matter?"
He'd been sitting at the bar, quietly flipping through some pages Ash had provided for him, when his cell phone rang. He had flipped it open and listened to whomever was talking to him, his face a mask of stone.
And then he hung up.
"Dean. Talk to me. What is it?"
The man's face was ashen, his eyes huge. His hands were shaking.
Dean looked up at Jo slowly, and a darkness seemed to come into his eyes. "It's Sam," he said hoarsely. What little colour was left in his face drained away.
Dean pressed his hands against the bar so hard, his knuckles turned white. "He's gone." He swallowed. "He disappeared. No one's seen him for the last two days."