A Week in Stanford
K Hanna Korossy

They stayed until the last fire truck pulled away, and even then Sam stood on the sidewalk staring at what was left of his house, and Jess. His brother was somewhere behind him, but Sam might as well have been alone, swallowed by numbness. Maybe if he stared long enough, it would sink in he was looking at the wreckage of the life he'd tried to make for himself.

Sam's mouth stretched into a morbid smile. He probably should have known better.

A hand settled hesitantly on his shoulder, squeezed briefly. "Let's get out of here, Sam."

And go where? he felt like asking. Some of his friends had been by, while he watched the fire devour something precious to him for the second time in his life. He'd heard Dean turn down their offers to help, to give them a place to stay, to talk to Sam. It wasn't really his right, but Sam couldn't seem to mind. He didn't want to talk, and that included to Dean.

He stared once more at the wet and charred ruins before turning away, Dean's hand still on his shoulder.

Dean guided him to the Impala's front seat as if he were blind and brittle. Sam settled into the bench seat, feeling the familiar squeak of leather. He'd sat there just a few hours before, when life still made sense again, but Jess would have already been…

Sam squeezed his eyes shut.

Dean got in on the other side of the car. There was a moment of still silence, then the motor turned over.

The phone rang in Sam's pocket and he blinked at the windshield, unable to muster the energy to pull the thing out. He wasn't sure if he would even remember how to use it, or how to talk. Dean reached over into his pocket, took out the phone, and turned it off before sliding it back. It was one of the last things Sam had, he suddenly realized, and his hand curled around the lump of metal in his jacket.

They stopped somewhere unfamiliar, the Impala idling for a minute before the engine cut off. Dean got out of the car and disappeared into the dark, and Sam stared at the sharply lit white building and its red doors. Red as blood. He rubbed at his forehead but his fingers came away dry, black with soot, but no red.

Sam shivered, wrapping an arm around himself.

Dean returned soon after, opening Sam's door, but he didn't look up. "Come on, I got us a room." Dean tugged at his arm, and seeing no reason not to, Sam went with him.

He wondered what he would have done if Dean had just walked away and left him sitting in the Impala—no, Dean wouldn't leave his baby—or had driven away and not come back to pull him out of the burning house. It might have been better. Simpler, anyway. The fire would have burned all of him then instead of just a large chunk of his soul. Could you live without all your soul? Dean would know. Sam turned to ask him.

Dean's face was set with tight anger. Sam forgot his question, staring at him as his brother opened the door and ushered him into the room.

Sam couldn't help glance at the ceiling. Nothing up there. Of course, because what else did he have left to lose, except Dean? But his brother was inches away, looking up at the ceiling, too, then at Sam, before turning away. Sam took a few more steps into the center of the room and then stopped, not sure what he was supposed to do now.

Dean moved around the room doing…something. Sam was still shivering, and both his arms couldn't seem to contain the tremors. He stared at the dark rug and wondered why it wasn't red to match the doors.

Dean came back, steered him to a bed, and sat him down on the edge. He uncurled one of Sam's hands long enough to press a hot Styrofoam cup into it. "Drink it," came the inevitable order, and then he crouched down to pull at Sam's shoes. Always ordering him around…but Sam didn't care. He didn't want to drink coffee, took a sip anyway, discovered it was tea, and drained the cup. The warmth didn't even touch the cold lump inside him and sloshed around in his stomach, but at least he was doing something. Before, he'd just lain there and cowered, then stood and watched everything he loved burn.

"Did you talk to the cops?" he asked suddenly.

Dean gave him a look Sam didn't even try to decipher. "Yeah. So did you, remember?"

He tried, but all he could remember was fire, and Jess's face. Sam shook his head.

"Well, you did. You told them you fell asleep, and when you woke up, the room was burning."

Sam's mouth pulled in a sketchy smile. "Like riding a bicycle," he murmured.

Dean was still eyeing him. "They wouldn't've listened to the truth, you know that."

And the truth was…did they even know the truth? Sam couldn't remember. He blinked heavily, and watched the room waver around him. It took effort to focus on Dean, even more so to form the words. "The tea…"

"Sorry, Sammy." Dean said the name with gentleness this time. "You need to get some sleep, stop thinking for a while." He'd plucked off Sam's jacket and was easing him down to his side, into the bed.

Sam wanted to protest, to be furious, but his thoughts had turned to sludge and his body felt heavy. His eyes didn't reopen the next time he blinked.

A blanket was pulled over him, and a hand skimmed his head.

His arms achingly empty, Sam fell into darkness.

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The rich smell of coffee tickled his senses awake, and Sam smiled. Jess only brewed coffee when she woke in a good mood and wanted to do something for him. It always woke him in a good mood, too. The door clicked open and Sam turned toward it and opened his eyes.

Dean stepped out into the unfamiliar room, clad only in jeans, and stopped when he saw Sam.

They were still on the road, right? Looking for Dad, and the woman in white. Not in Stanford, not in a motel room because of a fire, and Jess wasn't dead. Her message was still on Sam's voice mail, her scent filling his head. But not on shirt he wore, which smelled of smoke.

He crushed his eyes shut, willing it all to be just another repeat of the nightmare he'd been having the last few days. There was no reason at all Jess couldn't walk in the door the next minute. Just because she wasn't there didn't mean she was gone for good.

But his clothes still stank, and he could hear Dean shifting from one foot to the other. His nightmare had come true, and this bleak world was now the reality.

He lost track of Dean and everything else around him until the scent of coffee grew strong, blotting out the smoke. Sam's eyes opened to the sight of Dean bending down, a cup of Starbucks in one hand and a bagel in the other. "Breakfast," Dean said, not unkindly.

Sam rolled away from him to stare at the off-white wall on the other side.

He felt Dean's sigh. "So you're just gonna stay in bed all day? Give up, game over?"

"This isn't a game," he whispered.

"No, it's not, which is why we have to get out there and start hunting. If you give up, whatever did this to Mom and Jessica's just gonna get away with it again."

He didn't turn back, but he was listening.

Dean sat on the edge of the bed, the movement rocking Sam toward him. "I know…you're hurting, it's taking everything you've got to keep breathing, and life sucks, but we don't have time for this right now, Sam. We let this thing get away and Jess'll have died for nothing."

Jess was dead. Sam winced. He kept forgetting for a second or two, only to have it crash into him again.

"Sam…"

"Okay, I got it." He said it roughly, not really caring how Dean took that, and flung the blanket aside. He slid off the end of the bed, avoiding his brother all together…and then stopped, realizing he had nothing to wash up with or change into. Nothing left besides the reeking clothes he was in.

Dean cleared his throat, making Sam turn back. "I, uh, picked up a couple of things for you." He nodded at a bag on the table. "Had to guess at sizes, but…" A shrug.

He supposed he should have said thank you, but Dean had drugged him the night before and pried him out of his numb little cocoon that morning, and grateful wasn't what Sam was feeling. He just nodded and scooped the bag up on his way to the bathroom.

He didn't have the energy to shower or even shave, just shrugged out of the smoky clothes, shoving them into the small trashcan, and rinsed the smell off himself in nearly cold water. Shivering, Sam dressed in the jeans and t-shirt he found in the bag, followed by a zip-up sweatshirt. There was a Stanford sweatshirt that showed signs of wear—Dean's?—and another shirt in Jess's favorite shade of blue that Sam stuffed back into the bag, out of sight. Then he eyed himself in the bathroom mirror, taking in the rough face and empty eyes. He looked like the reluctant survivor he was.

Sam flicked the light off, and stepped outside to find his brother dressed, waiting, and trying not to stare.

"Let's find and kill this thing," he said flatly.

Dean merely nodded.

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He probably shouldn't have put on Dean's new clothes yet, because after hours crawling through the wreckage of their house, he smelled like smoke again. He waited idly for Dean to say something about stinking up the Impala, but his brother only rolled the window down.

The fire inspector had been and gone before they'd even gotten there, and the marshal promised them a report in the morning. He warned them not to go anywhere that was taped off where the burned timbers could still collapse. Dean gave the man an insincere smile and promise, while Sam ignored them both and started wandering through the remainders of his life.

The living room wasn't too bad; the firefighters had gotten there before the fire could spread from the bedroom and burn it all. Some of the books were probably still salvageable, and his bag was sat waterlogged but otherwise untouched where he'd dropped it when he came in the night before, sheltered by the couch. But Sam had eyes only for the picture on the floor by the blackened TV, its glass nearly pulverized and the edges waterstained, but the middle intact. He brushed the glass off and teased it out of its frame, and slipped it into his back pocket.

"You and Jess?" Dean hazarded from behind him.

"Mom and Dad," he said quietly. Jess he carried in his wallet.

There were other treasures lying among the debris: the snowglobe her brother had brought her home from Switzerland, the pictures of her baby niece, the bronze frog they'd bought on a whim during a trip up the coast. They didn't mean anything to him now, and after passing his bag silently to Dean, he left the rest mixed in with the trash.

Beyond the living room, the bedroom was just ashes. Sam ducked under the tape and stopped by the melted lump that had been their bed. Most of their treasured possessions had been in that room, but nothing was left. Nothing.

Dean stood silent and still behind him, a watchful guardian, trying to save him again from that room. But while Dean knew a hundred different ways to fight manifest evil, grief left them both at a loss. Suddenly feeling encroached upon, Sam half-turned back toward him. "I'm fine. Go look around."

He could sense his brother's hesitation, but Dean moved off to pick through the wreckage. He understood burn patterns and firestarters a lot better, anyway, despite the one class in forensics Sam had taken his sophomore year in a fit of sentimentality.

Relatively alone, Sam started shuffling through the debris, looking for answers, and absolution.

"Sam?"

He looked up, blinked in the suddenly lengthy shadows. "Louis?"

His friend stepped carefully over a fallen timber, and behind him Sam could see Dean watching them warily. Sam shook his head and Dean pursed his lips and turned, but he didn't move away. Sam looked again at Louis. "I just, uh…I came back to see…"

"Yeah. I'm so sorry about Jess."

He nodded, a lump lodging painfully in his throat at the sound of her name. She'd been Louis's friend, too, and many others', and Sam had forgotten he wasn't the only one mourning her.

"She missed you this weekend, said you were road-tripping with your brother."

Sam nodded past him. "Dean."

Dean tossed a stiff smile their way on cue, confirming Sam's suspicion he was listening in, then went back to the pile of…something he was sifting through.

Louis's expression showed some doubt, but he offered Sam a small grin. "Not the Bradys, huh?"

Sam strangled out a laugh. "Not even close." He peered closer at his friend. "Did Jess say anything when you saw her? Did she see anything, anyone around?"

"Are they thinkingsomeone did this?" Shawn asked with narrow eyes.

"No," Sam said quickly. They'd have to be careful what rumors they started. "I just…I wondered."

"She didn't talk about anything except you coming back last night and your interview."

His interview, about eight hours before. He probably should have called to cancel it except the number was in his desk drawer, and he didn't have a desk anymore. It didn't seem important.

"So, can I do anything to help? You need a place to stay for a while?"

Sam roused himself and shook his head. "No, Dean and I are…we'll stick around for a few days, then I think I'm gonna take some time off, hit the road with him for a while, clear my head."

"Yeah, well," Louis nodded slowly, "you're always welcome back here. You've crashed on my couch enough to know it's not too bad."

He couldn't quite manage to force any words out, just nodded his thanks.

Louis made a face, and picked his way over to Sam and gave him a hard hug. Sam's eyes stung but he hugged back, knowing this was good-bye.

His friend stepped back, knuckled his eyes. "Some of the others want to stop by, too, give their condolences or something."

Sam didn't know if he grimaced or smiled. "Not right now, man, okay? I just…I need a day or two."

"Okay." Louis nodded and turned away, calling over his shoulder, "You know where to find me. I'll see you at the funeral, Sam." He lifted a hand to Dean as he passed him on the way to the car.

The funeral. Sam hadn't even thought about that. Was he supposed to plan it, or…no, probably Jess's parents would take care of it. The school would've called them by now, which meant he should probably go see them, but the unutterable weariness at the thought of seeing anyone settled over him again. Jess would have been disappointed, but he couldn't face the Moores yet. How did you tell grieving parents you'd gotten their daughter killed?

He didn't realize he was swaying until Dean pushed him down onto a beam and shoved his head between his knees.

"See? This is what you get for skipping food all day."

Sam wrenched himself free and glared at his brother. "This is what I get for leaving her alone when she needed me. If I would've been here—"

"You'd probably be dead, too," Dean said calmly.

"I don't care," Sam shot back.

Dean settled on the beam beside him. "Yeah, well, I do, and from what I saw of her, Jess would've, too. Punishing yourself isn't going to help her."

"You didn't even know her."

Dean shuffled in place, hands hanging between his knees. "So tell me about her."

Sam stared at him, not sure what to make of that offer. Dean raised his eyebrows and stared back, waiting.

It was the first thing that had tempted him all day, that offer, but the thought of talking about Jess hurt. Sam finally shook his head, casting Dean an apologetic look.

Dean didn't seem to take it personally, just nodded, then patted him on the knee as he stood. "You ready to go back now? Food, then bed?"

"Bed?" Sam squinted up at him. "It's still, what, five o'clock?"

"You're tired, aren't you?" Dean asked reasonably.

Tired didn't even begin to describe it. Sam wasn't sure he'd make it back to the car, let alone through a meal and into bed. But as much as he craved unconsciousness, Dean had been right, every minute let that…thing slip farther away. "Dean—"

"Food, then bed, Sam. I'm not carrying you back to the room when you keel over. We'll start fresh tomorrow." He held out a hand.

Sam stared at it a moment, then let himself be hoisted to his feet. "No funky tea this time," he said wearily, and saw Dean's mouth quirk.

"One hundred percent natural crash, I promise."

Sam glanced once more around the wreckage, and felt the heavy thud of his heart against his ribcage. "There's nothing left here."

"Yeah," Dean said quietly. "I know."

In the end, he was only able to force down half a grilled cheese sandwich and some milk, but Dean didn't push. He dragged Sam's shoes off again, and probably covered him up because Sam didn't remember doing that before the odor of smoke followed him down into his dreams.

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"Found anything?" Dean dropped the pile of books onto the table with a thud that could be heard throughout the library floor.

Sam ignored the dirty looks they were getting as easily as he did Dean's attempt at getting a reaction, and shook his head. "No. There's nothing on the history of the house, no murders or graveyards or cursed property." He looked up. "You?"

Dean cocked his head as he sat down next to Sam. "They've got a lot more here than the usual libraries we hit, but so far nothing on firestarters, elementals, fire spirits—I even looked up dragons."

That didn't really surprise him; Dad had been researching the creature over twenty years now, in libraries even more vast than Stanford's, and neither of them had really expected to find anything new. But Dean hadn't even blinked when Sam had asked him to look, even now pulled the top book off his stack and flipped it open. Tiredly, Sam noticed for the first time, taking in his brother's subdued motions and the way he propped his head up on one hand. Dean probably wasn't getting much sleep around him.

Sam watched his brother read for a minute. Then, "How did you know?" he asked abruptly, keeping his voice down.

"Hmm? Know what?"

"About Jess. How did you know to come back?"

Dean still didn't look up but his body language changed, his attention completely on Sam. "Oh. Forgot my jacket."

He was used to Dean lying, even lying to him, but the thought his brother was hiding something about that night made Sam queasy. "I don't want the official police version, Dean—you didn't even come inside when you dropped me off. You knew something was happening and you came back."

Dean chewed on his lip, looking straight ahead of him, then he glanced over at Sam. "The clock in the Impala stopped."

"So? It's almost forty years old."

Dean's look turned condescending. "Paranormal manifestations, dude. Stopped clocks, flickering lights—you know this stuff."

"So you didn't know it was…"

A sober shake of the head. "Not 'til I got to the bedroom."

Sam laughed without humor. "It's always my bedroom, isn't it? What does that say about me, Dean?"

Dean's eyes belied the casualness of his shrug. "It means it's got something against our family, that's all. I haven't had a bedroom since I was five, Sam."

"Or a girlfriend," Sam teased half-heartedly.

"Hey!" But Dean grinned, even if it died as quickly as Sam's attempt at levity.

Sam rubbed his eyes and pushed the book away. "I used to love this. Research, studying—a week ago it was my whole world."

After a moment, Dean nodded.

He'd managed to choke down a bagel for breakfast and evade his brother on the subject of lunch, but Dean put his foot down about dinner. They checked out the armful of books they had yet to go through, even though Sam knew as well as Dean that they wouldn't yield anything useful, and headed out the door.

He turned automatically toward the dining hall, then stopped short, Dean nearly slamming into him in his distraction. When Sam didn't budge, he moved beside him.

"It's called walking, Sam: one foot in front of another."

Sam was staring at the building across the quad. "I can't." He shook his head.

"What, eat?" Dean glanced at the hall, then back at him, a frown gathering between his brows but not of irritation. "Hate to break it to you, but it's not really optional."

Sam was still shaking his head as he turned to look at Dean. "All this pretending to be normal—you know how many times I had dinner there with Jess?"

"Fine, we'll eat someplace else, off-campus. Every school has a pizza parlor nearby, right?"

The weight of daily living, of eating and breathing and walking around pretending to be whole when you were missing parts of you, was suddenly crushing. "Dean…"

"Don't do this, Sam," Dean said evenly. "You don't wanna eat there, we'll find someplace else, but you have to eat. Life goes on, little brother."

Sam looked at him sideways. "Not for Jess. Not for Mom."

"You're not Jess or Mom. Stop pretending this is something they would've wanted for you."

"Stop pretending you knew her," Sam hissed.

Dean licked his lips and set his stance, as if preparing for a last stand. "I know you loved her. I kinda figured that was enough."

Sam stared at him. And it was the last stand, because his anger crumbled back into fatigue as quickly as it had taken shape.

Dean watched him for a long minute before opening his mouth again. "So, pizza?" He offered what a small percentage of desperate women might have taken as a charming smile. "All that grease and carbs, it does a body good."

He had a feeling it wasn't so much his body Dean was trying to nurture, but Sam let himself be led to the car and dinner, at one of the few local greasy spoons he and Jess had never made it to, and now, never would.

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Sam sat on the front step of the motel room, fingers clenched around his cell phone, and watched the sunrise. One of the things he'd loved about California was living close enough to the west coast that he could see the sun set over the water. He and Jess had driven out more than once to Martin's Beach or simply stopped somewhere along PCH to do just that. How could she be gone from one minute to the next?

The door opened and he canted his head toward it but didn't look at Dean as his brother stepped outside and sat down beside him. Sam had seen more of him the last week than he had the last four years, and he wasn't sure yet what to think of Dean's constant hovering. But Dean kept thinking of the things Sam didn't, like getting up in the morning, or not being suicidally reckless, so it was probably a good thing he was there. Not that Sam would have had the energy to send him away if he'd wanted to.

"Who called?" Dean asked, also staring at what they could see of dawn between the buildings on the other side of the street.

Sam turned the cellphone over in careful hands. "Jess's mom. The funeral's tomorrow."

Dean nodded. "You wanna go see them today?" he asked, and looked over at Sam.

He smiled briefly. "No."

"Then—"

"But I have to." He met Dean's eyes squarely, wanting him to understand this. "I have to tell them."

Dean looked suspicious. "Tell them what, Sam?"

"Don't worry, I'm not going to lay on them how she really died. But they should know, I tried to save her, I wanted to. I loved her."

"Yeah." It came out as a sigh. "I know." Another glance at him. "You know this isn't your fault, right?" He didn't answer. "Sam?"

He climbed stiffly to his feet, suddenly shivering in the early morning cold. "We'd better get ready if we're gonna go talk to people today." He'd drawn up a list the night before, all the friends whose kindness he'd been avoiding, whose messages crowded his voice mail. He kept skipping them and going to Jessica's, even though it was fresh pain each time to hear her voice.

Dean grimaced but stood. "This isn't over," he warned, and disappeared through the door.

"Yeah, it is," Sam said softly to the air behind him before following him inside.

He'd had a big fight with his dad when he'd announced his intention to go to Stanford. Angry words had been thrown around, with Dean miserably and uselessly trying to play mediator. Sam had lost his family that day, not seeing his father again, not having the same relationship with Dean since. It ranked as probably the worst day of his life that he could remember.

This one came in second, and he hadn't even gotten to the funeral yet.

His friends meant well, and some part of him appreciated the compassion like rain on parched land, but there was far more sympathy than he could bear and it threatened to flood and drown him. By the time he had a small panic attack in the Impala after seeing Jess's best friend, heart hammering and short of breath, his brother had declared they were stopping for a while. Dean drove him wordlessly out to the nearest park and set him loose, probably watching him from the car as Sam walked, then jogged, then ran as if Hell Hounds were on his heels. He finally collapsed on a park bench and sat there, shivering with sweat and emotion until Dean hauled him back to the car.

Sam didn't know if he loved or hated his brother for helping him go on like this.

But no one he talked to knew anything. Jess had been happy those last few days, carefree except for her concern about Sam. No one had been stalking her, no one had lurked outside the house as far as anyone knew, and the questions just made his friends stare, pitying and puzzled. Sam crossed the last few names off his mental list, then braced himself for the final call.

He'd met the Moores before, going with Jess on breaks. He'd tried out the idea of a mother and father-in-law, uncle to Jess's niece and liked it, and saw them doing the same and approving. It probably shouldn't have surprised him that as soon as Mrs. Moore—Susan—opened the door, she pulled Sam into a hug that made his eyes fill.

"You did everything you could." He heard that a lot, while the three of them sat around trying not to choke. Dean had stayed out in the car, but Sam could just imagine his brother giving him significant You hear that?glances. "It wasn't your fault. I know you tried to save her."

Actually, the only attempt at rescue had been Dean pulling him out, and Sam wasn't sure yet if that was saving him or not.

"She loved you, and we know you loved her." That one made him tear up again, but he couldn't seem to cry.

He held Susan a long time before he shook Mr. Moore's hand and left, stumbling to the car utterly depleted. Dean got out to shut the door behind him, and Sam was drifting off before they got to the end of the street.

The nightmare was the same as it had been before, but along with horror he now felt grief. Jess's face, full of pain and terror, hadn't seemed real until he'd actually seen it, and now Sam couldn't get the image out of his head. He started awake with his own cry ringing in his ears.

In the Impala. In the motel parking lot. Dean next to him pretending not to watch and worry.

Sam blinked sleep out of his eyes. "You should've woken me up."

"We haven't been here that long."

"You should've woken me up," he repeated, more stingingly than Dean deserved, but his brother just shrugged and got out of the car. A minute later, Sam followed him inside.

Dean was sitting at the table, digging into dinner, and he nodded at the bag beside him. "I went through the drive-through. Burger for me, chicken salad for you."

It hadn't taken Dean long to learn his new preferences and tastes, but Sam ignored the food, stretching out on the bed instead, one arm over his eyes. His thoughts wandered as they had all day. "Why did you come to Stanford?"

"You mean Sunday night? We've been over this, Sam."

His head rolled loosely on the pillow. "Not then. When you first came to get me."

"I told you, Dad was missing."

"Dad had been missing for weeks. Why did you decide to come now?"

There was silence except for the rattle of sandwich wrappers. Even the eating sounds had stopped. "All these friends you've got? I've got nothing, Sam, just you and Dad. When Dad disappeared…"

"You didn't want to do it alone," Sam said softly. It was easy to forget sometimes he wasn't the only one who'd experienced loss, or that he still had a lot left.

A bitter sound from Dean. "Great timing, huh?"

His arm slid off his eyes. "I don't blame you. But November second—that can't be a coincidence, right?"

"November second, twenty-two years after Mom, eleventh month—half of twenty-two—I'm thinking probably not."

"I'm twenty-two," Sam offered.

The table rattled. "Would you stop that? This isn't your fault."

Sam sat up. "Jess wouldn't be dead if she hadn't been with me, Dean."

"Yeah, and that stinks, but that still doesn't make it your fault."

Anger rose up in him with a force that surprised even him. "What do you know? What makes you such an expert, Dean?" Sam climbed to his feet and advanced on his brother. "You drive around in that car with Dad, fighting stuff, moving on whenever things get too hot, never taking the blame for anything. What do you know about responsibility? You were jealous of Jess because you never had a relationship that lasted longer than a night." The scalding words poured out like they'd just waiting for the right moment, and he punctuated the last with a shove to Dean's chest.

He watched fire kindle in Dean's eyes, then die. His brother wasn't going to give him the fight he was looking for.

And Sam's fury only grew.

Hands balled into fists, he spun away from Dean and swept the lamp and clock off the nightstand with impotent fury, followed by the blankets and pillows on his bed. The chair came next, his food, Dean's duffel, a careful path of destruction around his brother, who flinched away when flying debris came too close but otherwise just sat and watched him impassively.

Sam stood, chest heaving, in the center of the room, contemplating the TV.

"We've got enough to get you a suit for tomorrow or replace the TV, your call," Dean said mildly behind him.

He forgot about the television and bowed his head.

"Sam…"

He wished for the first time it was "Sammy" again, because back then, Dean could fix everything. Now, he just stood there looking as beaten as Sam felt, soaking up abuse that wasn't meant for him.

Sam choked on his rage. Jess had teased him that he would crash and burn without her, but she'd been right. He just wished he hadn't been so determined to take Dean with him. Anger ebbed into shame. "I'm sorry." He shook his head helplessly. "I didn't mean that, any of it."

Dean shrugged, giving him a quick smile that didn't touch his eyes.

Sam's energy drained away. It took what he had left just to crawl back to his bare and empty bed, and curl up on it.

He was almost asleep when he felt Dean covering him with the blankets off the floor. And something in him finally began to cry.

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The funeral was beautiful. Sam missed most of it.

He stood in careful attention next to Dean, near the Moores, and tuned out the preacher, his eyes on the casket. No one had told him what shape they'd been able to recover the body in, but he could guess. There hadn't been a viewing.

His gaze moved over the crowd, most of the faces familiar, some staring back at him. He avoided the looks, even behind his sunglasses. There were whispers already that someone had been trying to get at him and had killed Jessica instead, or that he hadn't tried hard enough to save her. Sam wasn't as oblivious as everyone thought, including Dean. But he endured the rumors in silence, unable to argue with them.

What would Jess think of him now that he'd gotten her killed? Even Dean didn't know about the dreams.

Sam swallowed. He stared at the picture on her gravestone, sorry it was black and white because it didn't do justice to her blonde hair, dancing blue eyes, and pale complexion that burned so easily in the California sun. He would never touch it again, feel her body next to his, hear her whisper in his ear, and he couldn't even fathom that. For all his experience with death, it had caught him off guard.

The service ended. More well wishes and sympathetic looks, another long hug from Susan. He said good-bye to everyone and tried not to sound like it was final. His voice kept cracking.

Dean drove him back to the hotel in silence. Sam crawled into bed in his nice new suit and lay there the rest of the afternoon, staring at the wall.

Another day finally passed.

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After the recent storm of emotions, the numbness was actually almost pleasant.

Sam stared at the dark and empty ceiling for a while, then turned his head to look at Dean, sprawled prone in the bed next to his, fast asleep. He wasn't a deep sleeper, but Sam knew how to move quietly. He dressed and crept outside into the dawn. Dean never stirred.

The Impala's keys would've been easy to borrow; Dean always kept them in his jacket. But Sam went past the car and started walking.

His destination wasn't far, but the sun was climbing into the sky when he reached the blackened shell of his home. Sam leaned against what was left of the fence, tucked his hands into his sweatshirt pockets, and stared at it.

It took Dean almost two hours to find him.

Sam heard the rumble of the muscle car's engine before it came into sight, and he traced it up the street until it stopped behind him, then cut off. Dean's footsteps followed, and the clink of stowed keys.

"Next time you take off," he heard the thread of reined-in anger in his brother's voice, "leave a note. Ink, lipstick, blood—I'm not picky."

"I can take care of myself," Sam said in the most normal voice he'd heard come out his mouth all week.

"And if this were any other day, I'd agree with you, but we both know things haven't been exactly normal lately. I'm not out here on vacation, Sam."

He had a point. "Sorry," Sam said earnestly.

Dean wasn't sure how to take that, and his head bobbed awkwardly. "Don't let it happen again."

Sam smiled faintly, eyes on the house. He took a breath. "Mom was still alive when the fire started, wasn't she?"

He felt Dean stiffen beside him. "Dad never said."

"Jess was." He took a breath. "The ceiling behind her only burst into flames after I saw her. It didn't…take her right away."

Dean wanted to say something, Sam could feel it, but he stayed silent.

"It was like it was waiting for me to get home first."

"Probably was."

"Her mouth was moving, like she was trying to say something." Sam's laugh was almost tears as he looked at Dean. "Do you think she saw the thing that killed her?"

Dean winced. "Don't do this, Sam."

"The way she was cut, Dean…If it was the same with Mom, Dad couldn't have saved her even without the fire."

"Would you shut up?"

"She was," he swallowed, seeing Jess on the now-collapsed ceiling, "she was cut open, like something—"

Hands roughly grabbed the front of his sweatshirt, déjà vu to the bridge a few days and a whole other life ago, Dean's furious face in his again. "I said, shut up!"

And all the numbness in him dissolved just like that, saturating him with grief. Sam couldn't catch his breath. And then his eyes started to spill over.

Dean breathed a curse and pulled him into a rough embrace, holding him as Sam's heart broke and poured out. He thought maybe he'd shake apart, but the arms around him weren't budging.

Sam buried his face in his big brother's jacket and let it all go.

He didn't remember much after that. Cleaned up and husked out, he ended up back in bed, and when Dean would joke days later about PDAs and how often he was tucking Sam in, he'd blush and roll his eyes but wouldn't deny it.

When he fell asleep, though, at least for that one night, he didn't dream.

00000

"So, what's the plan for today?"

It was a scene of almost normalcy, the two of them sitting in the Impala's front seat eating breakfast. At least, Dean was; Sam was having trouble forcing the egg sandwich down. But he had to eat, and not just so Dean would stop looking at him like he was scared Sam was going to fall over. He forced himself to take another bite and wash it down with coffee. "I don't know," he answered with a shake of the head. Sam paused. "I don't think we're gonna find anything else here, Dean."

Dean swallowed his bite. "Yeah, you're probably right." A beat, then, almost nonchalant, "Have you thought about what you're gonna do next?"

Sam's mouth stretched into a sad smile. "What choice do I have? I can't stay here."

"You could," Dean said carefully.

Sam shook his head. "No. I don't belong here anymore. I need to find Jessica's killer, and the only way to do that is to find Dad. We still have those coordinates…"

Dean's face lightened more than Sam would have believed, and he wondered how long his brother had been waiting to hear him say that. Probably since Sam had first left. "The Winchester brothers, back in action. Evil has met its match," Dean crowed.

Sam gave him a disbelieving look. "Yeah, and if this were a Sam Raimi movie, that might actually not sound incredibly stupid."

Dean looked caught between chagrined and flustered. Sam shook his head and took another bite of his sandwich. His brother cleared his throat. "So, you want to give it one more day?"

Sam thought about it, nodded slowly. "That would be good. I still have to talk to the school, say good-bye to a few people."

"Do some clothes shopping…" At Sam's annoyed look, Dean became all innocence. "What? Dude, you've got one suit and a bag of smoky clothes—that'll get old really fast if we're gonna be stuck in a car for hours a day." He tilted his head. "I'm saying this for your own good, Sam: you smell."

Hours a day, back on the road. Good-natured vexation gave way to a wave of depression as the painful cycle of forgetting and remembering continued, pricking his eyes at random moments. Jess was gone, and the rest of the life he knew would soon be, too.

Dean sighed next to him, picking up on his change of mood. "One day at a time, Sam."

He nodded blindly.

At least there was a plan, something to do. Sam knew he should have been glad for that, and sometimes he was for a brief moment, glimmers of hope to remind him hope still existed. But sometimes…

A hand gripped his shoulder. Dean had lost even more than he had, but they still had each other. It was something. A lot, actually.

He squared his shoulders, Dean's hand retreating to let him pull himself together. Sam tucked away the melancholy until the next time and turned his attention back to breakfast. One day to say good-bye; he had a lot to do.

It was hard, but easier. He wasn't cutting ties, he was just setting them aside, and most of his friends seemed to understand. Those that didn't, Sam silently wrote off, and the one football player friend of Jess's who became belligerent was quietly taken aside by Dean for a little talk Sam tuned out completely. It would make Dean feel better, and Sam had no objection.

He walked around campus one last time, and handed in paperwork for a leave of absence. They left a forwarding address with the fire marshal for the scene report and with the landlord for the mail and insurance settlement, and then Dean talked Sam into a few extra shirts and slacks and jeans at the local Wal-Mart. He didn't know where the money was coming from and didn't ask.

They went by the house one last time, and Sam stared at it for a long time before quietly announcing he was ready to leave. He didn't look back as they drove away.

Dean guilted him into eating some macaroni-and-cheese for dinner, then took him to a bar, where he proceeded to get very drunk while Sam nursed a single beer. Sam ended up being the one to drive him home that night and put him to bed, and he wondered what demons had been revisiting Dean that week while Sam was busy with his own. He wondered if Dad had done this for Dean other nights, and decided he didn't want to know. It took a long time to fall asleep that night, and he woke twice screaming Jess's name. Dean only woke with him the second time.

He finally fell into deep sleep, but the bed still felt empty.

00000

Dean was looking at the map as Sam walked out to the Impala and threw his bag into the back seat. He noticed with an almost smile that Dean was wearing sunglasses and on his second cup of coffee. "You okay to drive?" he asked.

He got a pointed stare for that. Right, stupid question. Sam shook his head and went inside for the rest of their things.

It never had taken long to pack the car, and Sam thought maybe that wasn't a bad thing. He put away the sack of snack foods behind his seat, meeting Dean's gaze over the hood of the car.

"You ready to go?" Dean asked.

Sam filled his lungs, looked around at the only place he'd called home in all his life, and nodded, turning back to Dean. "Yeah."

Dean studied his face for the truth of that and apparently found it, climbing into the Impala without a word. A moment later, Sam joined him. Starting a new life, or returning to the old? He didn't even know, but Dean had been right, he had to take it one day at a time.

The engine roared to life, and they pulled out of the parking lot into the street, heading for the freeway. Sam settled into his seat, the familiarity of it all soothing, especially when Dean turned his music on.

They were on 880 going north before he finally turned back to Dean. "Do you still want to hear about Jess?"

Dean reached over and flicked the radio off.

Sam leaned his head back against the headrest and stared out the windshield. Then he smiled.

"We met at this party some friends threw. She was talking to this guy, and I couldn't take my eyes off her. Then she laughed…"

The End