Another Life
K Hanna Korossy

Contrary to popular belief, Dean Winchester did eat vegetables on occasion. Of course, they usually came in the form of Iowa corn on the cob in the middle of corn country where the ears were plump with flavor, or lettuce and tomato on a dripping Texas beef burger, or pumpkin pie from the little roadside stands that didn't get their pie filling from cans. One thing life on the road had taught him was where and when to find the best of anything.

Including women, and if Georgia produced peaches that were any sweeter, Dean would never have been able to pry himself away. As it was, he ate his salad—a side to his chicken-fried steak and buttered hash—while happily watching the floor show: two buxom waitresses bending over and squeezing past tables in the small diner as they took and filled orders.

"Forget it, Dean."

Sam's dry voice filtered through Dean's reverie, and he reluctantly pried his gaze away. "Why?"

"We've got work to do tonight, remember?"

"Yeah, but there's always…" Sam's raised eyebrows cut through Dean's happy distraction, and with a sigh he gave his brother his full attention. "So, witnesses are a bust except for that Harold guy—what did he say?"

Sam consulted a small reporter's notepad. They'd been representatives of the Atlanta Sun this time. "Uh, he thought he saw a light, followed it out into the woods. Next thing he knows he's fallen into a mine shaft, and it takes two days for the neighbor to find him."

"A light, right." Dean sliced a chunk off his steak and chewed with enthusiasm. "Well, that's descriptive."

"Better than the other victims. So far we have, 'I felt a pull,' 'thought I heard something,' and, my personal favorite," Sam said with a fleeting smile, "'my wife saw something and kept nagging me until I took a look.'" He glanced up at Dean. "With the places this light or whatever is drawing them, I'm surprised someone hasn't died yet. It doesn't seem to be benign, like Marfa lights or swamp flares."

Dean grinned at him. "Swamp flares? Isn't that just another name for 'I don't know what the friggin' things are'?"

"No, Dean," his brother said with that overly patient tone that meant he thought Dean was being an imbecile. Which was one of his goals in life, so Dean just smiled wider, unfazed. Sam shook his head. "Swamps produce gas, which—"

Saved by the bell, or at least the phone, from Professor Winchester. Sam's cell went off in his pocket, and he pulled it out, eyebrows rising at whatever he saw on the caller ID. He was already sliding out of his seat as he answered it, holding out a finger—just a minute—to Dean.

Dean watched him while he forked in another bite of meat followed by potatoes. Sam had gotten a lot of phone calls when he'd first hit the road with Dean, but the frequency had tapered off considerably since. Dean couldn't help but notice Sam spent a lot less time on email than he used to, as well, even though he wasn't obvious about it. His brother's friends were drifting away, and while Dean knew that was for the best, he couldn't help but feel a pang for Sam, too. Regardless what the kid thought, Dean had always wanted him to be happy. And for all his relief at having Sam back and the moments he thought Sam was glad to be back, he also knew his little brother wasn't happy.

The phone conversation dragged on, Sam's back to him as he talked, and Dean finally shrugged and slid his gaze over to one of the waitresses. She noticed, gave him a knowing grin back. Maybe when this was over… Dean groaned under his breath and turned back to the food and the notes scattered across their table.

They'd struck out with victim/witness interviews. People weren't the most observant of creatures, and it didn't help when they didn't believe in what they were seeing. Next step would be to check out some of the sites where they'd been lured from, take some readings. Sam had researched the area without turning anything up, but maybe if they had something more specific to go on, a landmark or some markings…

Sam had returned to the table but hadn't sat down. On the heels of that realization came the awareness of the slightly off sound of Sam's breathing and his otherwise complete silence. Frowning, Dean looked up.

Then he was on his feet, food and waitresses and strange lights forgotten as he grabbed his brother's arm. "Sammy. What?"

Dazed eyes blinked in an pale face. "It was, uh…somebody from school. Ryan's dead."

Dean searched his memory for a Ryan, flipping through the people he'd met during the week after Jessica's death. He was pretty sure there hadn't been a Ryan in the bunch. "Friend of yours?" Dean prodded gently.

Sam took a breath and shook his head. "Nobody you know."

Words were good, even if they were distant, hollow. Dean shrugged. "So tell me."

Sam seemed to finally truly register him, glassy eyes meeting Dean's and seeing him. He rubbed at his forehead, and Dean took that as cue to shift him around and urge him back to the bench seat of the booth where he'd been sitting. Sam didn't fight him, sagging down on the vinyl with stoop-shouldered defeat. "Just a…friend at Stanford." He cleared his throat. "We roomed together second year, before I moved in with Jess. Ryan—" Sam crumpled, just a little, and Dean slid a hand up to his shoulder. "We weren't really close, but he was a friend. He was a good guy, Dean. Just…normal, you know? I always envied…"

Dean squeezed a little, jaw working, pretending that didn't hurt just a little even if Sam hadn't meant it to.

"It was some freak heart thing, just collapsed in the gym. I guess sometimes people's hearts do just give out." He gave Dean a feeble, awful grin.

Dean grimaced. "Sam."

His brother shook his head. "I don't even know why this—I mean, we weren't good friends or anything, Dean. I just…I didn't expect…" He shivered.

He got it. In the Winchesters' world, death was common and usually unpleasant. Stanford had been an oasis, the place Sam's old life wasn't supposed to touch. "Where's the funeral?" Dean prodded.

"Uh," Sam pulled at his lip, "Northern California. Tomorrow."

Dean nodded. "If we leave now, we can make that." He stood, pulling out his wallet one-handed, snagging his jacket with the other. Sam still looked a little shell-shocked, so Dean dropped the leather coat around his brother's shoulders. He left a few bills on the table, then steered Sam outside with a hand flat against his back, ignoring completely the waitress as she sent him a parting wink.

They were well out of town before Sam even looked up from his intense examination of the door. He stared at the passing scenery for several seconds with a furrowed brow, then turned back to Dean. "Where're we going?"

Dean glanced over at him. "Where do you think we're going? North Cali. That's where you said the funeral was, right?"

"Dean, we can't just leave—we're in the middle of a hunt."

"Sam, we're in the middle of playing hide-and-seek with swamp gas. I think we can tear ourselves away for a few days."

"But—"

"Hey," Dean cut him off, splitting his gaze between Sam and the road but giving his brother his earnest attention. "Some things take precedence." Like pretty much anything Sam needed.

Sam swallowed, nodded, dropping his eyes. "Thanks," he said quietly a few beats later.

Dean shrugged it off and took the next turn. Waiting until Sam started picking at a hole in his jeans, restless fingers sliding across the denim, before casually saying, "So tell me about Ryan."

It wasn't Dean's way. He buried his hurts deep, salted and burned, and moved on. But even as a kid, Sam had needed to talk things out. It was how he dealt with stuff, and Dean had always accepted that and acted accordingly, nudging the kid until he got things off his chest. It didn't count as a chick-flick moment if it helped Sam.

Dean wasn't sure at first he'd get an answer; it had taken him a week after her death to coax anything out of his brother about Jess, and Sam still didn't share much about her. He'd gotten a lot more closed-off since school, since their three years apart, and Dean wasn't sure if that was just growing up or growing apart. But it didn't stop Sam from needing to talk, nor Dean, therefore, from trying to get him to.

Sam finally cleared his throat. "He came from Utah, big Mormon family. I think he had something like seven brothers and sisters."

"Dude," Dean couldn't help but breathe, trying to decide between awed and disturbed.

Sam chuckled, if just a little. "Yeah. You wouldn't believe how many care packages he got, and he always shared them. I used to envy him for…"

The story of Ryan Holzman spooled out over two states, wandering sometimes into other Stanford memories and people. Every time Sam trailed off and Dean thought he was done, something else would well up, like a spring Sam had tried to stop up and failed. Not that Dean cared anything at all about the dead roommate, but he carefully mined the nuggets of insight into Sam from the narrative: that he loved Japanese food now, what his favorite bakery was, that he'd learned to pick out a few tunes on the piano, that he had started going to church while at school.

Dean had let himself be lulled by Sam's soft, slow breathing, the way his hand slid over his worn jeans with absent calm now instead of the earlier agitation. He wasn't expecting the question at all.

"So, you don't think…something unnatural killed him, do you?"

Dean blinked at him. "What, you mean something more unnatural than a bad heart in a twenty-two-year-old?"

Sam's eyes flitted away but he nodded.

"Sam," Dean said awkwardly, "I doubt it. There's no reason to think that, right?"

A shake of the head.

"Most people die from stuff like this, not wendigos or vengeful spirits, you know that." Dean had angled a little toward his brother and gave him a shadow of a smile. "Hadn't expected anyone you know to die of natural causes?" he asked.

Sam sat in silence for a long minute, then reached over and turned the music up.

Apparently, they were done talking. Dean sighed and kept driving.

00000

They had about twenty hours to cover eight hundred miles, with the funeral at eleven the next morning. That was easy enough to do, and Dean stopped regularly for gas, food, and general stretching. Sam had to be coaxed out of the car at most stops, quiet and withdrawn, but he ate willingly enough and ventured thoughts occasionally and even smiled at one of Dean's jokes, and Dean slowly scaled back his worry. This wasn't Jess again, thank God. This he knew how to handle.

So it didn't surprise him too much when he woke at four a.m. that night to find Sam's bed empty, shoes and hoodie gone. Dean eschewed his own—even in the spring, Nevada didn't get that cold at night—and opened the door.

Sam was sitting on the cement steps, and Dean settled beside him, doing him the favor of ignoring the wet tracks down his brother's face.

Sam sniffed but didn't try to wipe away the evidence of his emotions, just gave a self-conscious laugh. "I don't get why this is hitting to me so hard. I mean, yeah, I roomed with Ryan for a year, but it wasn't like we were close or anything. We didn't even stay in touch after I left."

Dean threaded his hands together and hung them over his knees. "You sure it's just Ryan you're upset about?" he asked calmly, head tilted toward his brother.

Sam's brows knitted. "What? What're you…?"

"I'm just sayin'. Hasn't even been six months yet. Maybe this is just bringing back, you know, memories or feelings or something."

Sam flattened his lips. "Dude, just stop with the Oprah crap already, okay? I don't—"

"Sam," he said quietly, meeting his brother's gaze directly. "Why do you think Dad always avoided funerals?"

Sam stared back at him until his eyes filled. Then he just sucked in a breath and dropped his head, nodding.

Dean rested a hand loosely on the back of his neck as they sat together in silence and watched for dawn.

The church was a large one, and Dean wondered idly as they pulled up in front if it was full or if only a handful of people would fill the pews. It was a poor measure of a man's life, but from the small crowds on the steps and sidewalk, Ryan was going to be missed by a lot of people. Most of them looked about Sam's age, and a few eyed the Impala with curiosity.

Dean turned the engine off and stretched an arm along the back of the seat, turning to Sam. His brother usually looked comfortable in a suit—something Dean would never understand—but now he was fidgeting as he sat facing away, staring at the church. Dean cleared his throat.

"You want me to go in with you?"

Sam looked back, a small smile softening his expression. "It's not the first day of school, Dean." The humor wobbled. "But…thanks. For dropping everything to come and just…" He shook his head. "You'll be here?"

"I'll be here," Dean confirmed with a nod.

Sam flashed him another smile and got out of the car. He shut the door, took a moment, then lifted his chin, squared his shoulders, and headed toward the nearest knot of mourners.

"That's my boy," Dean said softly.

He watched Sam quickly be welcomed into the circle, the way his face warmed with empathy, how he effortlessly fit with the group. But also the slightly aloof body language, subtly set apart. Sam's admission once about never really feeling like he'd fit in came to mind again, and Dean wished not for the first time things had been different. That at least Sam could have had his dreams.

But this was their life. Sam with all his layers that most people would never see, having already witnessed more death than any of these kids would know in their whole lifetimes. That, unfortunately, was Dean's boy, too.

The one thing Dean could do now, had ever been able to do, was to make sure he at least didn't have to face it alone. And so he turned on the radio to AC/DC and sat back to watch and wait, and be there when Sam returned.

The End