Sam doesn't exactly wake up, but he does slowly regain focus, and just a couple of minutes before Dean slides back into consciousness for the first time in three days. Sam had planned it all precisely, but he hadn't counted on Dean's continuing protests or on having to silence Dean and subdue him, and there'd been a lingering, horrifying doubt somewhere in the back of his mind that Dean was playing possum, laying low until the moment Sam's attention was caught by something else, and head off to the crossroads to honor his deal. But Dean apparently really hadn't been expecting Sam to do more than say a few pretty words, and he'd gone down, obligingly, like a ton of bricks when Sam hit him with everything he could muster.
Dean's eyes flutter open slowly, and after one look at the panorama of the desert landscape and a quick check of the time and date on his cell phone, Dean fixes his gaze on a spot somewhere in the vicinity of Sam's left shoulder.
"Toss me the keys," he says. He leaves off the and don't touch me, but Sam hears it loud and clear, tosses them over. Dean's fingers tighten briefly around them, knuckles white, and he hauls himself to his feet, cracks his neck from side to side, and walks stiffly to the car. His boots smear through the lines in the sand, track marks where Sam dragged Dean's limp body out here.
The sight of Dean stomping away loosens the tight bands of iron that have bound Sam down for a full year, ever since Dean made his deal like the only consequence of importance was getting Sam's eyes to open. Sam lets out a whoop, a roar of savage triumph, and trails his brother back to the car, watching Dean's fiercely upright form with intense pride. He did that, saved his brother from death and hell, and now nothing can take Dean away.
It's a little anti-climactic that Dean's first destination is a dollar store. Not surprising, though, not when Sam really thinks about it. Dollar stores seem to spring up wherever Dean needs one: cheap fixes, places to find toiletries and snacks, little things he can MacGuyver into weapons or tools. He trails Dean through the store, watching as he scoops up a tiny bottle of mouthwash, a box of Cheez-Its, and a king-size sleeve of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups; all standard choices for breaking a three-day fast, and guaranteed to turn Dean's tongue green and then orange.
He's not expecting Dean to detour into the stationery aisle and stand in front of the journals and packets of loose-leaf refills.
"Dean?" he asks, concerned that Dean's zoning out in front of pens and paper instead of tearing open the food and bringing the empty packets up to the counter with an apologetic, orange smile and a couple of dollar bills in his hand. Dean ignores him, or maybe doesn't even hear him, and starts forward when he finally finds what he's been looking for.
Quick as a flash, it goes under his arm, and then Dean's heading for the counter, already unscrewing the ribbed plastic top off the little bottle, slamming the mouthwash back, and gargling while the dark-eyed girl behind the counter laughs and fishes out a plastic bag for his purchases. Dean holds up a finger, runs outside to spit, and comes back, pulling the last item out from under his arm; the girl's already scooped up and thrown out the bottle and cap and bagged the snacks. Finally Sam can see what Dean was looking for - the thickness of a one-subject notebook, black pebbly cover and no ornamentation, just numbers and letters picked out in gold; it's a five-year planner.
It's a little weird, frankly, for Dean not to share, not to put the snacks somewhere they could both reach them, but Sam's stomach is rebelling anyway, too used to being tied up in knots to crave anything solid. Water, maybe, alcohol definitely, but nothing else is going to go down and stay down. Dean's hunched over the Impala's closed trunk, one hand on Dad's journal and a pen in the other; he's chewing absent-mindedly at his lower lip while he jots things down in the planner. After each entry he makes, he takes a second to snag some food, popping peanut butter cups into his mouth whole and tossing and catching little sharp crackers with ease.
Sam feels like his brain has come unstuck when he finally figures out what Dean is up to. Every entry that Dad made in his journal that came with a timeline - "every seven years," "only appears on blue moon nights," "August of leap years" - is being entered into the new planner, filling little white squares with neat rows of black ink, making them look like patchwork whenever Dean flips pages forwards or backwards. This is different than the vague plans Dean's been throwing out all year, the false bravado of "after the Grand Canyon, and after the hellhounds, Sammy, you could go anywhere - California, an Ivy, whatever, just finish school; you're not a dropout." This is Dean believing that he has a future, that Sam has restored the years Dean desperately traded away. Sam's blood sings at the thought of the hunt, days and weeks of being in the car beside his brother, and he only wishes that Dean had found a ten-year planner instead.
Between the cases they find and the ones Dean's plotted out like he's Dad's social secretary, they stay plenty busy. Sam finds himself doing a little headbanging in the car, rocking out to Dean's music - indestructible as a cockroach - even when he's in the passenger seat with an open book on his lap. Dean's even ceded driving rights occasionally, looking only a little put out when he doesn't have the steering wheel to tap in time with the beat.
And on their hunts, Sam's no longer half a step behind his brother, but keeping step with him, alongside him. Starting with a werewolf in Fresno, his is the hand that deals out death; he fires kill-shots and swings knives as if this is all he's ever known, exhilarated by the feelings of triumph and glory that rocket through him. If this is how hunting makes Dean feel, the whole world his to save or destroy, righteous and vengeful, then it's no wonder that Dean was the original evangelist, preaching the word of the Hunt, dismissing as unimportant the lesser pleasures of school, the normal life, and the real world - the mundane world, where people live their lives in shadow, unaware of whose sacrifice saves them, once and always.
Dean seems content to let him take the lead, dropping back and fashioning himself into the wingman he'd once been for Dad, and Sam supposes there must be a kind of comfort in that for Dean, finding peace in the memory of old obedience, of faithful love. Dean's maybe not quite as sharp as he once was; there's too much that's taken a toll on him, and it's not like there's time to stop and let everything heal up properly - neither one of them would be able to sit still for long enough.
Sam decapitates the siren, convinced he is right where he's supposed to be, doing what he was meant to do. He's never been more sure of anything in his life. Dean's wry voice streaks through his head - Nice moves, Sammy. Like riding a bike, huh? - and there's a grin - the old, mischievous, sparkling grin - on Dean's weary face.
They're moving more swiftly and surely than ever, the two of them a lean hunting machine, getting rid of demons before other hunters are even aware of the problem. Everything moves like clockwork, like they're not just interdependent but perfectly synchronized. Sam wonders if unity like this could only come from a lifetime together, if he and Jess would have achieved something like it after years of sharing space and dreams, or if they never would have matched up because he'd accepted her as the baseline of normal and contorted himself to fit that.
Dean still doesn't talk too much about his own feelings without provocation, but he seems to get that Sam's wired differently, and so he listens now, doesn't shy away or try to joke his way out of hearing Sam's confessions. Sam wakes up in the cold brightness of a January morning to find Dean dressed and sitting at the foot of his bed, flipping through channels with a lazy amusement, skipping financial news and talk shows for old sitcom reruns, just waiting for his brother to wake up to start the day off right. Sam rubs the water out of his eyes. This is the birthday Dean didn't think he'd get to see, the one Sam had prayed for, begged and pleaded and screamed for, before realizing that the only way to save Dean was to do it himself.
Dean turns and smiles. "Morning."
Sam sits up, trying not to kick him, but there's only so much space to work with. "Happy birthday, Dean," Sam says, sitting still when Dean leans over to thumb the tears away from his skin.
"C'mon, I'll let you buy me breakfast if you get your ass up and in the shower in the next five minutes."
Sam refrains from pointing out that that sounds like a pretty damn good deal to him, just rolls his eyes and climbs out of bed. He scratches his belly on his way to the bathroom. "One of these days, that metabolism of yours is going to backfire on you, you know."
"Doubt it, Sasquatch," Dean fires back. "Hurry up, would you?"
Watching Dean sit in the square of sunlight while he mixes pepper into the ketchup slathered on top of his hash browns, licks the knife clean, and then spreads caramel sauce over his banana pancakes, Sam gets a flash of Jessica, sitting at their kitchen table, hair falling out of its clasp, eyes bright as she described the latest painting to change her life and smeared the fresh whipped cream from her hot chocolate over her waffles. "Dean," he says, putting down his oversized coffee cup, "did I ever tell you what Jess used to do that drove me absolutely crazy?"
Dean takes a big bite of his hash browns and shakes his head, beckoning the waitress over for more coffee. "I'm all ears, Sammy," he says, mouth full, swallowing in time to give the waitress a smile.
"No, no, stop," Sam pleads, still laughing and clutching his belly, aching from cotton candy and chili dogs, from stolen bites of Dean's funnel cake. "You cannot be serious. No way."
The tips of Dean's ears have gone a little pink, but he meets Sam's incredulous gaze staunchly, even sports a bashful grin. "Why would I make this kind of shit up? I swear, Mom used to keep a tupperware under the front seat for me."
Sam finds a bench and throws himself down, letting Dean rearrange his legs to give himself room to sit too. "Yeah, but you drive everywhere. You don't fly, and you're in the car all the damn time!"
"It doesn't hit me when I'm the one driving, Sam," Dean explains patiently, tilting his face up to the bright May sunshine, obviously blissfully unaware that the sun is picking out silver rather than gold in his hair. "And it's better in the front seat than in the back."
"Seriously. You - Dean Winchester, defender to the death of the classic American car, prophet of the open road - are prone to motion sickness. And because of that, you're refusing to ride this roller-coaster with me."
"You got a tupperware handy?" Dean asks.
Sam shakes his head, groaning at how full he feels, sprawled out like an emperor.
"It was a rhetorical question, dumbass. I'll buy you one for your next birthday."
"Hey! What about your car? How come you don't -"
"You leave her out of this, Sam. None of this is her fault."
Sam sits up, then eyes his brother and tries to calculate the odds of his making a clean escape. "You know you're crazy, right?"
Dean chases after him and can't quite close his hand around Sam; when Sam pauses to let him catch up, he sees the lines of strain and pain around Dean's eyes, hidden by Dean's easy smile.
Sam takes the back roads, not only because he knows Dean likes driving down them and seeing the things that die out more slowly in small towns, like the helping-hand signs propped up in the front windows of houses that look like they've stayed in a family for generations, but because he wants to see the Christmas lights, the flights of fancy that people can reach, finding wonderlands in their own front yards.
Dean's face reflects the lights, green and red and white glowing against his skin, his closed eyelids, and Sam turns the volume down and eases his foot off the gas. They're not in any rush, and the diner at the end of the block has, he remembers, coffee cake that melts in your mouth.
The heat of the diner makes his cold face tingle, and Dean's cheeks are getting pink. A waitress with a Santa hat over her blonde curls raises a coffee pot in salute and nods when Sam tilts his head inquiringly. He finds a table near a window and watches the first flakes of snow drift down, speckle the Impala, and then disappear. In the window's reflection, he sees Dean's ghostly hands curl around a mug of coffee, and his brother hums in pleasure at the first satisfying sip.
Sam powers up the laptop and leaves most of the coffee cake for Dean, who's picking it apart crumb by crumb, not exactly restless or fidgeting, but making busywork nonetheless. Sam leans forward with excitement, his hand knocking against Dean's as he turns the laptop around. "Found a case," he says, and Dean ducks his head down to read, tilting the screen a little to remove the glare.
Dean's face goes hard as he reads; something is eviscerating children in West Virginia. Dean splits the remainder of the cake in two, bolts down his half, and stands, throwing cash on the table. "Let's get a move on," he says, and heads for the door.
Dorline, West Virginia is a pit of mud, and even the Impala balks, tires slipping and skidding on the slick roads. Dean half-wrestles and half-coaxes her into obedience while Sam reads the local newspapers by the dim map lights. There's only one place to stay, a cross between a motel and a bed-and-breakfast, called the Dew Drop Inn. Dean pulls up as close as he can to the entrance and Sam gets out, ducking his head down against the pounding rain. A man about the age Dad would have been is behind the counter, a mug of Irish coffee sending up swirls of steam near his elbow. He looks frankly shocked to see Sam, but pulls himself together enough to stand up straight and smile. "You need directions, son?"
"No, actually, I need a room. Two queens, if you have it." Sam fishes for his wallet and pulls out a MasterCard with the name Jeff Bentley.
The man's eyebrows go all the way up, but he just says, "Sure, sure. I got that. Here you go, room eleven. When you leave the office, make a left, then another left. It's across from the soda machine." He picks up the credit card and swipes it through his machine a few times, muttering about modern technology. Sam tenses a little; that card is one of the last Dean made before the deal was broken, part of the new life he wanted to give Sam, no outrageous rock star names or inside jokes, and it should be clean as a whistle.
"Ah, there we go," the man says finally, as the machine beeps. "Always takes it a minute to get going."
"Thanks." Sam takes back the card and pockets the key, jingling on a chain with a geode charm.
"Happy New Year, son," the man calls as the door closes behind him.
Dean insists on hitting this case with everything they've got, attacking on all fronts at once, so they split up, Dean taking the physical evidence - the children's mutilated bodies and the sites where they were found - while Sam talks to the families and waves his newest FBI badge around.
He goes to home after home, small ranch-style houses with Christmas wreaths still on the front doors. They all have dingy, thin carpets and old, polished pianos in the living rooms that serve as display cases for framed photographs. There's not a lot of racial diversity in the town, and the victims reflect that: white, Christian children, all between the ages of six and eight, boys and girls alike.
The Bell home is the last on his list, and Marla Bell opens the door to him, wearing an apron and clutching a handkerchief with which she dabs at her overflowing, red-rimmed eyes. She leads him to a plastic-covered couch in the living room and he sits opposite a framed cross-stitch that commands Trust in the LORD with all your heart.
"April made that," she says, sitting on a straight-backed wooden chair bare of any cushions, pointing with one shaking hand at the cloth. "She insisted on picking out the colors herself, and she chose the text too. Said it was the easiest prayer in the world to remember." A sob escapes her, and she shakes in her chair, thin shoulders quivering.
"Mrs. Bell . . ." Sam begins, ineffectually. Dean seems to think that he's got some trick to get people to trust him hidden up his sleeve, but all he really has is a sense of loss that springs up whenever he hears about another senseless death.
"No," she says firmly, interrupting him. "Since Robert passed, she's all I had. I will bear it and I will move on. But you will find the man who killed my daughter and you will make him pay."
"Yes, I will," he promises, and steps back out into the rain, opening a huge black umbrella like a thundercloud over himself for protection.
He hasn't even bothered to climb out of his suit or loosen his tie because the idea hits him the minute he steps inside room eleven, the rain beating steadily against the windows. He plugs in his laptop and does some research on the local Catholic church, finding calls for funding, a history of the stained glass windows that adorn the walls, and even a missionary effort to raise one little boy in Kenya as a good Christian child, but not much of anything suspicious. Still, he can't quite shake the feeling that there's something eluding him, something he and Dean will have to put their heads together to puzzle through.
Dean walks in then, heavy boots stopping just inside the door. He strips them off, then his muddy jeans and jacket, peels away his sodden shirts, and heads for the bathroom.
"You okay?" Sam calls after him.
"Sure," Dean says after too long a pause. "Just need to warm up."
Sam checks his watch; it's just about six and it's been a long day already. "Have you eaten anything today?" He'd bet the answer is no; he's been fed tea and cake all day by grieving mothers who live by a code of hospitality, but all Dean had in the car was a couple of energy bars and a half-empty bottle of water. "I'll go get something, okay?"
"Yeah." The bathroom door opens and Dean sticks his head out, face lined and drawn. "Just not - not pizza, okay?"
Sam knows he means nothing with red sauce, nothing that could look even vaguely like the bodies Dean's been seeing all day and will keep seeing even after they kill this thing. "Yeah, I know," he says. Dean doesn't reply, retreating back into his steam-filled sanctuary, and Sam heads out the door.
The restaurant two blocks away, Doreen's, has a baked mac and cheese special, and while Doreen is boxing up two servings of salad with Thousand Island dressing, macaroni, green beans with almonds, and pumpkin pie, a man standing with a group of friends comes over and waits for Sam to acknowledge him. He's a stocky man with not a lot of brownish hair, pulling at the brim of a grimy baseball cap and looking uncertain. "Can I help you?" Sam asks, but the man stays silent, eyes fixed on Sam's face.
"I'm Joe Benson. Heard you met with my wife today, that you're looking into what happened to Joey."
The suit and tie, as well as being an unfamiliar face, must have given him away, made him ridiculously easy to pick out. "Yes, sir, I am. My partner and I are giving these murders our full attention." He doesn't soften the horror of what's happened by calling it a tragedy, won't diminish the children's deaths by referring to them as "the case"; this man's whole world has gone to hell. Benson nods once, looking satisfied, and retreats back to his huddle. When Sam goes to the register to pay, Doreen tells him the bill's already been settled.
He comes back to the room to find Dean in clean, dry clothes, curled on his side on one bed, pen in one hand and head propped up on the other, looking down at his notebook, resting on top of an open map.
Dean doesn't look much better, but before Sam can say anything, Dean looks up with a look of grim satisfaction on his face. "I know what happened here," he says, and Sam nods, dumps the food on the bed, and pulls fresh clothes out of his duffel, hearing Dean's unspoken promise we're gonna get that bastard echoing in his head.
He changes quickly and hangs his wet suit up in the shower, coming out of the bathroom to find Dean picking at the mac and cheese, eating just enough to preclude any nagging; even that, perversely, is a comfort, a sign of how in tune with each other they are. "What'd you find?" Dean asks, scooping up almonds and even snagging a green bean or two.
Sam gets his own dinner, working backwards and starting with the pie, and puts his feet up on the edge of Dean's bed. "All the victims were Catholic, the right age for a First Communion. I couldn't find much on the church itself, but that's the only thing that links these kids and excludes the ones who weren't taken."
Dean's nodding, lips tight. "Yeah, the sites where the kids were found form a cross. Maybe an upside-down cross, if you look at it from that side."
Dean is radiating fury.
"What?" Sam asks.
Dean just shakes his head.
"You think this is a human being going around killing these kids?"
"Tell me, Dean."
"EMF meter didn't make a peep all day. Not one murder site had anything supernatural about it. But I saw bootprints at one site and cigarette ash at another. And the kids' bodies - this wasn't something tearing them apart like those daevas. There wasn't any sulfur. Someone sliced them open for a purpose, and he was neat about it."
Dean goes mute and miserable once he's finished laying out his case; he stacks his mostly-full containers of food on his bedside table and turns off his light. Sam's still cold, the weather and Dean's unhappy conviction both contributing, and he figures a long, hot shower will alleviate at least part of the problem.
Their dopp kits and the first aid kit are all, as always, set neatly next to the sink. The first aid kit's not latched shut, though, and Sam opens it up, figuring he should take stock of what they've got and what they're running low on. His hand closes around the new bottle of Advil Liqui-Gels, rattles it reflexively, and frowns when he realizes it's nearly empty. The cap's popped half off, sitting askew like threading it back on would have taken too much effort.
Sam's gut clenches in fear and he replays the evening, realizing only now that Dean had stayed lying down on his bed, not cleaning weapons or even pacing about the room as he went through the case. Dean's looked tired lately, but he hasn't said a word, and Sam had figured it was nothing serious. He pokes his head out of the bathroom and sees Dean curled on his side, snoring quietly, a frown deepening the lines on his face.
Sam showers quickly and gets into bed, thinking of Dean and considering the case, turning them both over in his mind until it gives out on him and he falls asleep.
When he wakes up, there's an idea in his head that won't leave him alone. The rain's let up, finally, and there's a note from Dean saying he went out to get coffee and breakfast for them both. He splashes a little water on his face to wake himself up and goes back to the laptop.
There. There it is. After all the research he did to figure out how to break Dean's goddamned crossroads deal, he's got some interesting websites bookmarked, and this one is both explicit and scarily accurate.
"Dean," he says, when his brother walks in with cinnamon donuts and two jumbo coffees, "I found it."
"Found what?" Dean walks over to the table to set the food down, moving slowly to avoid spilling hot liquid, but his halting movements reminds Sam sharply of last night's discovery.
"First of all, explain this," he says, fetching the bottle of Advil and waving it in front of Dean's nose.
"Aw, can't figure out the childproof cap?" Dean smirks. "It's okay, I'm here for you, Sammy."
"Why've you been popping so many?"
"What, it's a capital crime now to take aspirin?"
"Just tell me, Dean."
"Had a headache a couple of times, that's all. Nothing to get worked up about."
"You never take any medication unless it's forced down your throat," Sam says.
Dean looks shamefaced. "Yeah, well, maybe I thought you had better things to do than play Florence Nightingale."
That actually does make sense in a Deanish sort of way, the philosophy of needing to stay strong to watch his brother's back.
"Hey." Dean snaps his fingers in front of Sam's face. "Not getting any younger here. What did you find?"
"Yeah." He turns his laptop around so that they can both see the screen. "I think you're right - the guy doing all the killing is human. But. It looks like he's planning to become something other than human."
"Which means he's fair game," Dean says, and Sam nods. Told you we'd get you, you sonuvabitch Sam hears. "Okay, let's bring this motherfucker down."
They start at the point where the bars of the cross intersect, only to find that's where it ends too. Gerald Romney wasn't expecting anyone to piece his plot together, and hadn't prepared for discovery or defense. Sam's blade swings sweetly through the air and Romney falls right there, surrounded by evidence of his crimes.
Standing in Romney's house of horrors, looking at everything the man had acquired to aid him in his quest to become a demon here on earth, Sam gets a sudden inspiration.
"What?" Dean asks.
"You're looking at me like you're calculating how many tears you need to squeeze out to get the last Rice Krispie treat, Sam. I recognize that look."
"I'm just thinking."
"Aw, just spit it out. We got the guy, the demon, whatever. What now?"
"I think there's a lot here that Henrickson should see."
"You want to hand the keys to this place over to the FBI? What've you been smoking?"
"There's only so much he can deny, right, I mean, there's got to be a limit. Maybe leaving this stuff for him will get him to piece some information together, realize we're not the ones he needs to be fighting."
Dean's silent for a long moment, then looks up with a smile. "At the very least, it'll be an excellent time-waster."
They're packing up their gear from room eleven, standing back to back and slinging clothes into duffels, when Dean says, "I want to visit Bobby."
Sam turns, but all he sees is Dean's broad back. "No."
"I'm not asking you to go, Sam. I know you don't want to see him. But I'm saying I need to see him, and I'm gonna go."
"Please." He reaches out, puts his hand on Dean's shoulder and turns him halfway around. "Can't you just call him? Email him? Do you have to drive all the way out there?"
"Sam, look," Dean sighs, "don't make a big deal out of this. I'm not taking off, okay? I just want to see him. If you want to come, that'd be great, but I'm thinking you don't, so just think of this as a little vacation, okay?" Dean tosses the five-year planner over. "In fact, I think our next big gig is in three weeks at Woodstock, so why don't you go up early, catch up with Sarah, and meet me there February third?"
That's such classic Dean that he laughs, reassured that there's nothing seriously wrong. Cases involving kids always hit Dean hard; maybe he just needs to drink a few beers with someone who wasn't living the case night and day. "Can I have the car?"
"Not on your life," Dean snorts. "I'll take you to the bus station, Romeo."
Dean's careful with the car, negotiating the slick and muddy roads while Sam fiddles with the radio. "You should be able to get something in Charleston, I think," Dean says as the windshield wipers work overtime, clearing away the mud that kicks up as they go. "It's pretty much a straight shot on 79 up to Pennsylvania, and then there's probably all sorts of buses and trains out of Pittsburgh."
Only one radio station comes in clearly through the rain, and a carpet installation jingle gives way to the insistent triple beat and wailing licks of "Foxey Lady." Dean laughs. "I was gonna ask if you changed your mind, but I think that's a sign, Sammy."
He waits until the song's fading away. "What makes you so sure Sarah's even going to want to see me?"
"Um, because I have eyes, and therefore could see her ogling you every chance she got. Dude, she would've jumped you in a heartbeat if you'd just quit it with all the defensive body language."
Sam can feel his cheeks heating up a little, thinking back on his stubborn fear, remembering how much time Dean had spent coaxing him into enjoying life again. "Shut up," he says, rolling his eyes. Maybe Dean's right, maybe Sarah will welcome him with open arms, and he'll be having too much fun to worry about what Dean's getting up to with Bobby.
"With that kind of sweet talk, she'll be all over you for sure," Dean says. "Relax, man, you're going to see a hot girl, not a firing squad. Live a little. For me."
"Yeah, because you really need to live vicariously through me," he retorts, though now that he thinks about it, he can't remember the last time Dean took off with a girl from a bar or even went out on his own. Maybe all the hard living from the year of the deal got that out of his system and purged it, temporarily at least.
"Oh my God," Dean groans when a Maroon 5 song comes on next. "Blasphemy."
Sam's feeling kind, so he kills the radio rather than fighting over rock gods and getting another lecture on the history of what Dean deems to be great music. All he can hear is the rattle of the heater and the swish of the wipers, and the silence brings up a memory he didn't know he'd hung on to. "Do you remember the last time you drove me to a bus station?"
Dean just says, "Yeah," and leaves it at that, but Sam can remember the quiet stillness between them, the way he'd shivered even though it had been a warm September day, and the tension in Dean's hands on the steering wheel. College had been looming ahead of him, a grand adventure he should have been able to be excited about, or even take for granted, but instead it had been a trial by fire just to get there. He'd made the decision to go, but it had been his father who'd pushed him away. And it had been Dean who had taken him to the doorstep of that dream.
Dean clears his throat. "Hey, when you get there, tell Sarah I said hi."
The bus to Pittsburgh is mostly empty, only a few passengers rattling around like fireflies in a jar. There's a large group - an extended family, maybe - all clustered together at the back of the bus, taking up several rows. One small boy, two or three at the most, twirls happily in the narrow aisle, throwing himself with abandon on the nearest lap every few minutes, and he's always picked up and fed a morsel of something, then either noisily kissed or lightly spanked before being set down to run free in the aisle again. Sam watches them all, their voices never raising above a gentle hum, the lilt giving away their accents, passing food from one person to the next like they're sitting around a campfire and swapping stories.
His stomach growls a little and he ignores it, not hungry for the packaged crap at the bottom of his bag. He's got a long way to go, and while he has the room, he might as well sleep. He pushes the armrest out of the way, puts his jacket under his head and his bag under his knees, and stretches out as much as he can across the two seats.
He wakes up cranky from his catnap, finding his phone buzzing next to his ear. When he flips it open, there's a text message from Dean: What you bitchin about now? Sam grins and tries to figure out how to draw a hand with its middle finger raised using only the keys on his phone.
No one has bothered shoveling a path out of the New Paltz station, so he picks his way as carefully as he can over to the taxi stand. His socks are soaked and the slice of pizza he grabbed is sitting like a greasy bowling ball in his stomach. The cab driver he gets is singularly unhelpful, refusing to open the trunk for his bag and unwilling to turn the heat up enough to reach the back seat.
At least he doesn't feel quite so guilty when he hands over a false credit card, and he keeps his wits about him enough to ask to be dropped a few houses down from Sarah's, in case the card ever gets traced back to him.
It's only when he's walking down the circular road that functions as the driveway to the Blake estate that he realizes the idiocy of what he's doing. He's got no reason to show up, wet and bedraggled, and expect a girl he hasn't seen in nearly five years to take him in. He slings his duffel across his other shoulder and does a swift about-face, only to hear Sarah call out his name.
"Sam!" she shouts, and he turns to see her leaning out of a second-floor window, dark hair falling forward as if to aid the Rapunzel impression.
He can feel a grin stretching his face and he jogs toward the massive front doors. She's there, waiting, an answering smile on her face, holding her arms out for a warm hug. "How did you know?" he asks.
"Your brother," she says, looking up at him through her lashes, "is a remarkably pithy correspondent." She holds out her cell phone so that he can read Dean's text message: Sending very important package by special delivery. Home to accept? "I had a feeling that might be you."
His cheeks are getting hot - even if Sarah didn't pick up on Dean's double entendre, it's still mortifying - and she laughs. "Dean's got quite a way with words."
Okay, so she got it. "Don't hold it against me," he asks, and she pretends to look at him appraisingly, so he pastes on his most sincere face.
"Stop," she finally giggles. "Any more of that face and I'll be wondering where you keep your halo." She leans in, her flowery perfume sweet and warm in his nose, and kisses his cheek. "It's good to see you again, Sam."
"It's really good to see you, too," he says as she steps back to let him step into the house. This place is a palace, huge and opulent, and that's just the entryway, tiled in slick marble with tiny bronze statues nestled beside green-leaved plants on top of small dark wood tables.
"This way," she says, walking with one light hand just barely touching his arm, leading him to a grand staircase. She picks the flight on the left and skips quickly up it, heading for a room that's decorated in hunter green and cream, richly furnished but still somehow strangely anonymous, like an expensive suite at an exclusive hotel. He'd bet that this is one of many guest rooms furnished for a male visitor, and that across the hall or maybe in another wing entirely there is a series of pink and white rooms designed with important ladies in mind. "Sam?" she asks, interrupting his train of thought. "Is this okay?"
She's so casually generous; she can afford to be. "It's great, Sarah, really. Sorry, I'm just a little tired after the trip and that stupid cab driver."
"And probably hungry too?" she guesses, big grin on her face. "We can -"
"Actually, I really need to clean up before we do anything else, if that's okay." His toes are squelching uncomfortably inside his wet and probably toxic socks and there's a faint aroma of public transportation clinging to his hair and clothes.
"Yeah, okay," Sarah nods agreeably. "I'll just be downstairs. Come down whenever you're ready." She pulls the door shut behind her and he slumps to the ground, not wanting to contaminate the clean, soft bed with his dirty clothes. He digs through his bag for his phone, trying to decide if he should call or text Dean. His dilemma's rendered moot when he hears a steady beeping, and realizes Dean's already sent him a message. Still hot. Still checking out your ass. Yes or no?
"What are you, in sixth grade, Dean?" he asks, amused, when Dean finally picks up after a dozen rings. "Check yes or no?"
"Me in sixth grade or you in sixth grade?" Dean asks, clearly differentiating between the two with an obnoxious sing-song voice.
"Yes, she's still hot -"
"That part I knew, man. Google doesn't lie."
"You're like a stalking Yenta, Dean! What's wrong with you?"
"Oh, too many things to name," Dean laughs.
"And, yeah, I think she's glad to see me, and that's all you're going to get." Actually, he probably shouldn't make it sound like he's daring Dean to drop everything and come out here. "I'll call you, okay?"
"Only when you come up for air, huh? Sammy, you dirty dog."
"Just -" No, it's not worth protesting, because Dean's just slipping into a role. "Are you there yet?"
"About another hour on the road and I'll be kickin' back with a little holy beer."
He refuses to picture that warm kitchen, those teetering stacks of books, or Bobby. "I'll call you," he repeats instead, and hangs up.
The bathtub is gleaming green marble, streaked with beige, and big enough for him to swim a couple of laps in. There is no way he can settle for anything less now that he's seen it, and he turns the taps, lets the water fill up while he hunts in the closet for bath soap. All he can find are these chalky spheres that look kind of like globes made of SweeTart stuff and smell vaguely like cologne. They fizz when he drops them into the water, dissolving and making the whole bathroom smell musky and sweet.
Under the water, his mind finally falls silent, and the lapping of the water against him is like the easy motion of the Impala when Dean's driving and praising her, when they're not running to or running away, just driving, watching people and places, animals and industries go by from the safety of their car.
He stays under until he can't breathe. He surfaces, dives below again, and emerges once more.
"Sarah," he says as he walks down the stairs; she's curled up in a wing chair with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall clutched in one hand. At the first touch of his hand to her shoulder, she starts, coming wide awake in an instant, hardbound book falling off her lap and landing with a thump.
"Sorry, Sam," she says, looking mortified as she pushes wisps of hair away from her face, half-squatting nervously to retrieve her book, standing again when he beats her to it.
Something about her behavior feels wrong, and he needs to set things straight. "Look, Sarah, I think maybe I gave you the wrong impression. I'm not expecting anything here, and I know you haven't been waiting around for me to show up at your door again. And I know what Dean's message said, but that's Dean, he's like convinced himself that you're madly in love with me and that you've waited for me all this time, and I just want you to know that I came here because I liked you and wanted to hang out with you and was hoping maybe you'd want to hang out with me too. That's all."
Sarah tilts her head to the side like she's assessing him, but he sees from the way the color's rising in her cheeks and her eyes have gone a little wider than usual that at least part of what he said struck a chord.
She doesn't seem to be able to speak, though, so he decides to just come out with it. "I know that I already owe you about a million favors, but could I ask for one more?"
Now he's getting an eyebrow raise from her, and she's surprisingly good at that.
"Have you got a washer and dryer somewhere in this place?"
She clears her throat delicately. "I think we should be able to accommodate you," she says. "Grab your stuff and meet me in the kitchen."
Sorting his dirty, smelly laundry in front of Sarah sounds like a surefire way to negate whatever leftover heat there is between them, but at least he won't have to fabricate reasons for the bloodstains that mark about half of his shirts and at least two pairs of jeans. He ends up grabbing the whole duffel and heads back downstairs. Sarah's in the kitchen, drinking from a round little bottle of Orangina. She's rebraided her hair and looks more relaxed now than she has since he first showed up. "Mmpf," she says when she sees him, then swallows and starts over. "Want something to drink?"
"No thanks," he says, then waits for her to cap the bottle and lead the way. She opens a door and heads down the stairs and he follows her into the basement. It's a warren of rooms, some of them with closed doors and extremely sophisticated thermostats visible by the entryways. "Art storage?" he hazards a guess.
"Some of it, yeah," she says. "Not any of the stuff I like - Dad let me put those paintings up. But some of it is really valuable, so we have to take care of it."
"And what's the rest?" he asks.
"Just ordinary basement stuff. Furnace, water heater, laundry." She heads across the main room to a shadowy doorway, her steps silent on the thick, tightly-woven carpet. She snaps on the lamp, and he can see a bright little alcove lined with closed wooden cabinets and featuring a washer and dryer. "Okay, hop to it," she says, opening the washer's lid.
There's no point sorting the clothes, he decides; they hadn't been separated any of the approximately eight hundred other times they've been tossed into a washing machine, and one time won't restore the colors and whites back to their original brightness. It's much better if they're a little faded anyway - less conspicuous, less memorable. He just grabs clothes by the handful, frankly a little astonished by the stink of them, and he finds a packet of pungent herbs, wrapped in a cotton handkerchief, still stuffed into a pocket of one of the pairs of jeans. He should have gotten rid of that weeks ago, and he chucks it into the trash can sitting by the big wicker basket.
The washer is big enough to accommodate everything in his bag in one load, and Sarah appears beside him holding a jug of environmentally-friendly detergent that smells more expensive than the cologne he used to wear on special occasions at Stanford. He dumps a capful of clear liquid in, gets the machine going, and opens the wooden folding chair propped up against the wall. Sarah seats herself on top of the washer and looks at him.
"So," she says, glowing in the lamplight. "Did you mean what you said?"
"Can you narrow that down for me?"
"That you liked me but weren't expecting anything from me."
"Yeah, of course I meant it. You haven't seen me in years, and while our meeting was, um, memorable, I don't think you could call it one of the best times of your life. I mean, your friend died, and you saw a ghost for the first time, and . . . what?"
She's looking at him, but not meeting his eyes, like she's thinking about something else. "You've got . . ." she leans forward a little before realizing she can't reach him. "Come here."
He stands and gets a little closer. "You've got an eyelash on your cheek," she says, one fingertip light as a feather glancing over his face and finally holding it up in proof. He can tell from the look in her eyes that she's waiting to see if he remembers his own long-ago, fumbling attempt to touch her.
"You should be the one to make a wish," he says, and she leans forward to kiss him.
Her lipstick tastes waxy, but her mouth is sweet with Orangina. Tantalizingly hot, too, and he pulls back only enough to fit their mouths together a little more snugly. He's aware that the room has gotten a little humid from the washer, can feel a little moisture on her face when he touches her cheek. She moans a little, drawing him closer with her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist.
This is not how he had thought it would happen, when he'd even let himself imagine that Dean was right and that she might welcome him back with open arms. But Sarah is so eager, so willing to be kissed breathless, that there's no reason to stop. He leans forward a little, supporting her back with his hands, and she goes soft and boneless, heavy and helpless, letting him hold her up, depending on his strength completely. The washing machine is rocking beneath her, vibrations he can feel from his toes all the way up, and he wonders how many of the choked little noises she's making are because of him and how many are because of the insistent rhythm pulsing through her.
She's pushing him away, and he lets himself be pushed until he hears her gasp and registers that she just needed air, that she wasn't trying to escape his kiss. He pulls a little on the end of her long braid, just enough of a tug to tip her head back, let her unfocused eyes linger on the ceiling, and he dives for her neck, elongated and trembling. She's flushed, so beautiful, and he can feel the heat of the blood beneath her skin when he sucks noisily at her neck, letting his tongue rasp roughly against her smooth flesh. Her fingers are getting tangled in his hair, not yanking - not yet - but flexing and relaxing in unconscious mimicry of thrust and release, the pattern they're running headlong toward.
"I want . . . so long . . . this, Sam, uh," she's mumbling, pulling him closer still, and he can't tell if it's her words that are incoherent or if he's too caught up in the heat of her to compute what she's saying.
He leans forward a little more, resting one forearm on the cool, shuddering surface of the washing machine, and slides his free hand down the outside seam of her jeans. Her legs tighten around his waist in response, and he traces a path back up that long, long leg, slipping underneath her thick baby blue sweater. All she's wearing underneath the sweater is a scrap of silk, unbearably smooth and unspeakably thin, finer than an eyelash. His fingers slip against it, but then it bunches easily in his fist when he pushes it out of the way. He can feel a thin sheen of sweat between her breasts, can feel the moister skin of the underside of her breasts, heavy and still shielded from view. He wants to see her, wants to hear her scream his name and not just pant it out in warm little breaths against his neck, wants to have her mouth around his dick, wants to have her hands on his ass, pulling him deeper inside her, and he wants to hear what she wants him to do to her, every last thing in exquisite detail, and he looks at her eyes, neither blue nor green, glittering with lust, closing in pleasure, and then the buzzer goes off and the washing machine rocks to a halt.