Milestone On Another Road
K Hanna Korossy
Trudy was the first to notice him, standing at the edges of the crowd. "Is that Sam?" she said disbelievingly, craning to see past Dave's head.
Cathy turned to follow her gaze. It wasn't hard to find where she was looking. Sam Winchester had always been tall, and now he'd filled out a little more, his hair grown a little shaggier. He stood out above the crowd, and looked older. Cathy knew the feeling. Something had changed in her forever when Jess had died, too, and maybe she'd been Cathy's best friend, but Jess had been Sam's lover.
"It is!" Trudy squealed, and dove through the mass of people with her characteristic act-first-think-later enthusiasm. Sam barely had any warning to brace himself before she practically knocked him off his feet, but he seemed prepared. And like he didn't mind, face softening into that shy smile Jess had always raved about.
Others had caught on and were following Trudy, and Cathy watched as Sam greeted everyone warmly, individually, but still lingering at the periphery of the crowd. He'd always been a little bit apart, not quite fitting in. She'd warned Jess about that in the early days, that maybe she was dating a serial killer or something. Jess had laughed her off and proven her wrong, but something still made Sam Winchester an outsider even with all their friends and it was more obvious now than it had ever been.
Cathy had heard Zach and Becca's story, like everyone else, about how Sam and his brother had helped clear Zach of murder charges, even if the details were still kind of vague. Something about them being on a road trip helping people. God knows he'd needed a break after… Cathy took a breath. Yeah, after. She just wouldn't have pegged Sam as the type to go on a road trip in the first place, even though he barely seemed to own a thing, even though he talked just enough about his past to give the sense he didn't have many roots besides his brother. He'd just wanted to…settle down so badly. With Jess.
They'd all wanted a lot of things they hadn't gotten.
Sam had made his way past the group, and Cathy realized he was heading toward her. She took off her mortar board and grinned at him as he neared.
"Sam. And they said you'd never make it to this day," she teased.
"Cathy," he responded, voice lowering like it did when he was touched or flustered or turned on, and then she was buried in a hug. The boy was huge—Jess had said she'd never felt safer than when he held her—and he was a lot more lean muscle now. He smelled like her dad did after a day of construction work, of machine oil and sweat and outdoors and flannel, even though he was dressed in a suit.
"God, it's good to see you, Sam," she murmured, utterly serious now, and she hugged him a little tighter before letting him go. His eyes were shining with emotion as she drank him in. Up close, she could see his eyes clearly, and they looked older, too. Sadder. She couldn't help wonder if that was all Jess. "You should be walking with us, you know."
His mouth curved gently. "Maybe next year," he said, but she could tell he didn't believe it, even though he sounded wistful.
"So, you just came by to make sure we all went through with it?" Her voice softened. "See the gang one more time?"
He turned to scan the group, the eleven of them who'd gotten so close through adjacent dorm rooms and swapped lovers and lots of late-night pizza. "Yeah, something like that," and the wistfulness was downright longing. But it was gone by the time he turned back. "Actually, I forgot all about today. Dean was the one who thought of it." He motioned behind him to the left without looking.
Her eyes followed the gesture. Ah, yes, Dean. How had she missed him before? She hadn't known what to think of the mystery brother at first, although they'd not met in the best of circumstances. She and Sam had both been in shock, Cathy turning to friends and family for consolation. Sam had had Dean.
She'd seen Sam's brother up close maybe twice during that whole week, barely noticed him otherwise, but he'd shadowed Sam that whole time. When her head cleared enough to think about it, she remembered enough to be impressed by his dedication, even if she wondered where he'd been all those years. And why the few times she had gotten close to him, he'd radiated a charm and intensity that left her amazed even through her grief that he otherwise blended into the background.
Then a few weeks later, he'd called her out of the blue on Sam's cell because Sam was struggling, not knowing until Cathy told him that it was the anniversary of when he'd met Jess. The others in the circle of their friends still wondered about Dean, speculated about and suspected him, but that night was when she'd made up her mind that Sam's brother was one of the good guys.
That was before Dean called her twice more with questions about Jess. Before Becca told them what he and Sam had done.
She still puzzled over his ability to fade into a crowd, though, because when those green eyes turned on her, she couldn't imagine anyone not noticing him. She got the feeling he could take command of that same crowd in a few seconds if he wanted to.
Dean stepped forward, all fake bashful smile and real male appreciation in his eyes, and Cathy smiled back at him. She knew what he was about. "Dean. Thanks for bringing the prodigal back."
"Just an excuse to see you again, Cathy." He leaned closer, tilted his head. "Gotta say, you make even that robe look hot."
Sam pulled him back with a hand on his shoulder. "Dude, dial it down a little, huh? I don't know why you even bother—she's on to you already, man."
Dean threw him a mock glower. "You're a real killjoy, Sammy, you know that?"
"Yeah, whatever." He dismissed his brother with a glance, focused on Cathy again. Blushed a little at her mouthed Sammy? but didn't answer. "I just wanted to say congratulations." That warm smile again. "Dean tracked down some tickets, so we'll be watching." He gestured to the auditorium seats.
Cathy nodded, then caught his arm and pulled him in for one more hug, which he submitted to willingly enough. She whispered in his ear, "The ceremony, it's dedicated to Jess."
She felt him swallow hard against her and nod. Dean was watching them with a level of attention he hadn't even bestowed on her, and she couldn't help wonder again what their real story was, because absent brothers didn't usually have that in-synch awareness these two shared. And those seen-too-much eyes? Sam she understood, grieving and all, but Dean had them, too. It was the only physical feature they seemed to share.
Then they were heading off into the crowd, Dean's hand on Sam's shoulder even though, Cathy smiled to notice, he had to reach up a little to make it.
It was time, the culmination of four years and a lot of joy and pain, and she forgot all about Sam.
The graduation had been a blur, the parents and good-byes blending together into one big emotionfest. There were a half-dozen after-parties to go to, and it was at Mary Ann's where Cathy caught sight of Sam Winchester's tall frame again, being tugged, smiling and protesting, into the living room. Dean again hovered in the background, a little out of place but apparently content to eye the girls walking by. Cathy caught his gaze once and winked, grinning when he winked back. The next minute, Mary Ann's sorority sisters noticed him and closed in. Dean didn't seem to mind at all. Cathy laughed and moved on.
It was much later in the evening, or maybe early morning, the crowd considerably thinned, when she ended up on the sofa, nursing a drink and watching the people around her. It didn't surprise her too much when the other end of the sofa dipped under Sam's weight.
"So." He gave her a quick grin, eyebrows darting up, but then sobered again.
"So," she echoed. "Are you two…staying around here long?"
Sam shook his head. "No, we're leaving in the morning. We've gotta be in Oregon by the evening."
"Oh? What's in Oregon?"
His mouth twitched up but it wasn't really mirth. "Just…something we need to take care of. We kind of work as we go."
"Helping people," she said slowly.
Sam tilted his head. "Sometimes." He acted distracted, picking at the sofa threads, rubbing a thumb through the condensation on his beer. But he was watching her, paying close attention. "Sometimes it's just about keeping going, you know?" Sam peered at her.
She did. "Yeah. For me, it was throwing myself into classes and research. But I still miss her."
Sam nodded, swallowing, then gave her a swift smile. "So. You looked great up there," he said with deliberate cheer.
"Thanks." She smiled bittersweetly. "I just wish you'd been up there with us."
"Yeah, me, too," he said thickly.
Motion caught her eye. Dean was shrugging off brainless but busty Pam to move closer, focused on Sam. It took Cathy a moment to realize Sam's visible pain had summoned him somehow and, really, how normal was that? Her own brothers wouldn't even noticed when she would lock herself in her room for three days with PMS. Dean's eyes, when they swung up to her, weren't at all playful, either, and Cathy shifted in her seat, a little uncomfortable under the sharp gaze even though she knew better.
Dean finally seemed satisfied, and relaxed, moving back to let himself be cornered by Pam again. Cathy swallowed, trying to figure out what that had been about, and finally decided maybe she didn't want to know.
Her attention returned to Sam. She didn't want to press, but, "Hey, do you think you'll come back? I mean, you were so close to finishing and all…"
His eyes were distant, and when he turned his head, she saw faint shadows of a bruise under his collar. Whatever he and Dean were doing, she had an idea it wasn't a white-collar life. "I'd like to. I want to." Sam sighed, looking at her. "I just can't right now. It's…complicated."
"You could bring Dean," she only half-teased. "I'm sure we could find something to keep him busy."
Sam looked up at her in surprise, then swung around unerringly to find his brother. She couldn't help notice again, their sense of where each other was almost eerie. When he looked back at her, something had changed. "He's not holding me back, Cathy," he said gently, almost pityingly. "He's the reason I'm even here. What we're doing, it's important, helping people like Becca and Zach, and I want to be out there doing it. I can't really explain it to you, but right now, I need to be doing this. And Dean's the one who keeps me going." He offered her a small but genuine smile, and she realized she hadn't seen a lot of those in the three years she'd known him.
Nor this sense of quiet purpose he seemed to have now. He'd loved school; he'd loved Jess. A stranger could have seen that. But she'd always gotten the impression he wanted more. She'd thought once it was just career ambitions: getting that law degree, a practice. Now, she wondered if it wasn't a completely different life that had tugged at him. Or maybe this, for good or bad, was who he'd really been all along and he'd finally just stopped fighting it.
But whatever it was, she was pretty certain now she didn't want to know more. He was her friend, Jess's Sam, and she cared about him. Maybe he worked for the government like some of their friends suspected, or maybe he was doing something shady like a few soreheads whispered. What his eyes hinted at, what his brother radiated, what they carefully didn't say, certainly suggested secrets. But Cathy didn't want to go there. Ignorance was bliss, and she preferred just remembering him as the shy kid who'd swept the queen of the campus off her feet.
"All right." Cathy nodded. "I don't get it, but all right. Just…promise me you won't lose touch completely, okay? You mean a lot to us. And that you'll be careful."
He smiled. "I'll try."
She knew a non-binding promise when she heard one but let it go. Maybe Jess would watch out for him.
They nursed their drinks in silence after that. Dean had disappeared somewhere along the way as, coincidentally, had Pam, and he finally showed up a while later, flushed and grinning, to ask Sam if he was ready to go. Sam rolled his eyes with affection, gave Cathy a glance that said brothers!, and levered himself up from the sofa.
Dean watched him critically a moment. Then he surprised Cathy by leaning over and giving her a surprisingly chaste kiss on the cheek. The two Winchesters walked out without another word, Sam not looking back, and Cathy wondered if she'd see either of them again.
She did. Less than a month later, in a Palo Alto graveyard.
She came alone with flowers, just to talk. Right before the gates closed for the evening, because she figured the Moores would have been by earlier that day, seven-month anniversary of their daughter's death and all. Cathy didn't really want to socialize, just to say hi. It'd been a long time.
Two other people were already there.
It took her a moment to realize who and what she was seeing. Sam was kneeling on the ground, or at least, she was pretty sure it was Sam from the hair and the build. It was a little hard to tell considering he had his face buried in the shoulder of the figure crouched beside him. She recognized the short-cropped blond and the leather jacket spread over Sam's shoulders. Dean.
She stopped, hanging back a little, just out of sight.
Dean bent down to say something in his brother's ear, and the tousled dark hair nodded a little. Soon, Sam was being pulled to his feet, weariness spelled out in the slump of his shoulders and the hang of his head. Dean held his arm with one hand, lifted his chin with the other, and whatever he said made Sam smile a little. Then Dean gently turned him and propelled him back toward the road, one hand on Sam's back.
Cathy took a few steps forward, suddenly wondering if she should say something instead of lurking like some sort of stalker.
Dean's eyes swiveled instantly to pin her, like some sort of scary motion detector. She froze.
He wasn't warning her off. She probably would have kept going if he'd tried to. But he was…wary. Warning her that crossing their paths now wouldn't be uncomplicated.
He turned away to Sam, other hand coming up to his brother's chest, and Sam glanced back at the grave, then straightened. The final steps, back to the black car that sat waiting, were taken with strength and quiet resolve.
Dean glanced at her one more time before he climbed in, gave her a small nod. She thought maybe she saw a moment of longing in it, and she didn't think it was for her. Or, for that matter, for Dean. Maybe she hadn't even really seen it.
And then they were gone.
It was quiet at Jess's grave, the grocery bouquet of orchids and lilies the only bright spots of color besides the crystal-vased white roses and daisies. Cathy left her offering and stood there a moment, then turned away without saying a word.
She saw the colorful flowers again, more than once, but she would never see their bearer again.