Author's Notes: Well … I'm not super-thrilled with this one, but … It doesn't seem to want to be adjusted in any way, so I'm posting it. May be taken down and heavily revised later… I guess we'll see. :)

ramble on

For Mr. Halm

THIS CLASS IS BORING.

It takes a week to get to Palo Alto, maybe because Dean takes mostly scenic routes and cuts through towns where the speed limit is a steady 15 miles per hour. Sam, for once, doesn't snark about the hours spent in the car or the shitty hotel rooms; he spends most of the first 52 hours staring out the window silently or bitching about Dad.

Dean spends them over-identifying with the lyrics on his favorite cassette tapes and trying not to feel like he's about to have half of himself surgically removed.

Somewhere in middle of hour 54 Sam asks if Dean, at least, is proud of him, and Dean says yeah, but you're still a little shit. Which, from Dean, is three parts I love you, two parts I'll miss you, and one part no click-flick moments, Sammy. So Sam pretends to defend himself and the fight quickly deteriorates into a competitive championship of all the stupid car games they used to play when they were little, from In My Grandmother's Trunk to 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.

It's Sam's last hoorah, but neither of them says it out loud.

They keep the mood light until they cross the California border; after that, not even a Winchester can keep stoic and suddenly it's like a scene from the Breakfast Club every other second. But it's kind of okay, anyway; Dean figures it's like this for all parents dropping off their kids, and letting go just sucks no matter who it is you're loosing grip your on. So he helps Sammy unload his four duffels into his dorm room ("Jesus, Sammy, and we thought living in hotels was bad…this shit is tiny!") and lets his little brother walk him back to his car where they stand in total silence.

"I can't change your mind," Dean says, only a question because it gives Sam a chance to say it out loud.

"I'll be okay," Sam answers, kicking at the ground with his foot. "I'll—keep safe."

Dean nods back, not quite trusting his voice, not quite sure what to say. So he just pulls Sam into a hug that lasts longer than he'd normally allow, and then playfully cuffs Sammy on the back of his head. "Call me if you need anything, dickweasel," he says around the frog in his throat, thinking fuck, Sammy, you got so big.

Sam laughs, punching him on the shoulder and then shoving his hands into his pockets. "Yeah, okay, I will." He hesitates before adding, "Thanks, Dean."

The older man spreads his arms wide and grins like he's not aching all over and tries not to think about the hell he's going to catch when he rejoins his dad. "What are big brothers for?" He asks.

He makes a point not to watch Sam walk back inside. It makes it feel less … permanent, somehow.

X

He never tells Sam, but Dean spends an extra three days in Palo Alto, clearing every single closet of its skeletons, making sure there is nothing supernatural lurking around. He kills three ghosts, two poltergeists, and exercises a demon. When he's satisfied, he carves the strongest protection charms he can find onto four separate plates and buries them on each side of Sammy's dorm.

Better safe than dead.

X

"Took you goddamn long enough," is the first thing John says when he opens to the door. Dean doesn't answer, pushing past with a kind of stoic frown that he figures he'll be getting really used to in the next half of his life. "Found us a hunt. Standard salt-and-burn, I think."

Dean nods like he's interested, reassembles his guns like he cares whether he ever shoots them again, and almost doesn't catch it when John says, right in the middle of describing the latest obituaries, "I think it has to do with the school all the victims went to. How was the weather in California."

It's not asked like a question, but it's phrased like one, and Dean guesses it's about as close as his dad is going to come to asking about Sam. He'll probably be answering a lot of not-questions from now on. "It was great," he answers, just as nonchalantly, as if Sammy were on the bed next to him and not four states away, "Really sunny. Very calm."

And what he means is, Sammy's safe.

"The school is called East River High School," John tells him loudly, the slightly raised volume of his voice the only indication anyone has ever mentioned California to him, ever.

X

Ring.

"Hello?"

"Dean?"

"Sammy. What's wrong?"

"Nothing, I just—I'm taking a study break, I thought—if you're busy—"

"Busy? Me? Nah. You know how I like to lay low, take it easy."

Dean gets out of bed and goes outside, not wanting to wake John. He sits on the curb in just boxers and a t-shirt, despite the cold, phone in one hand and a knife in the other. (You never know.) Sammy's voice is calming as he talks about the dumb-ass shit he did all day; went shopping at Bed Bath & Beyond, that little girl, bought something called an egg-carton, whatever the hell that is.

"It's incredible, Dean … I wake up … go to class … hang out with friends … I can make friends, Dean. Like, real, actual friends that I'll still have next year—and the year after—and the year after—and maybe when I'm forty—"

Dean closes his eyes, trying to think about how boring that sounds and not how nice.

X

On the other side of the door, John rubs his face in his hands. He hears only one half of the conversation, only what Dean is saying to Sam and never what Sam is saying.

Which, he thinks, isn't too big of a change. Sometimes it feels like he never heard what Sam was saying, even when he was just two feet away.

X

Sam never tells Dean, but the first semester at Stanford is sort of like hell. Every time he turns around he expects to see Dean, or Dad, and when he doesn't their absence knocks the wind out of him. He's never been away from Dean for more than a couple days at a time and it's like he's not really there, like it's some sort of dream, like he wants to wake up.

And sometimes he does, in the middle of the night, sweating and biting down so hard on his tongue that it bleeds. Because he's warm and comfortable on his brand-new egg carton in his own bed, but—but Dean is probably out in a graveyard somewhere, salting and burning or getting chased or getting sliced up by something.

And Dean's not at the top of his game right now and that's Sam's fault and he knows it.

Sometimes all he wants to do is call and say "you were right, I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and climb into the back of the Impala and get a lecture from Dad and then leave it all in the past.

But he calls Dean every night and every time Dean picks up, his voice tired but still light, still easy, still Dean, something inside of Sammy takes a deep breath and whispers it's okay, you're okay, and after a while … he starts to believe it.

X

"Dean! Look out!"

Dean drops to the floor and the tip of a knife spirals through the spot where his head used to be; he swears loudly and rolls to the side, climbing to one knee and cocking his salt-gun. "Shit!"

His Dad tosses him the bottle of lighter fluid and he dumps it vindictively onto the coffin, shooting salt bullets onto the skeleton because fuck. It threw a knife at his head!

John strikes a match and drops it in and the whole thing goes up in flames, and there's a moment of quiet as they watch the body burn. "You all right, son?" John asks, flicking his eyes across Dean's face, looking for wounds.

Dean rubs his forehead with the back of his hand and grins. "A little hungry," he says, pseudo-cheerfully. "Got any marshmellows?"

John shakes his head, but his mouth is quirked at the corners, and they start shoveling dirt back into the grave. "You and your fuckin' candy," he mutters.

Dean rolls his eyes, tossing some dirt at his father's feet. "Dude. Marshmellows are not candy."

"Then what are they?"

"They're … fuck, I don't know. But they aren't candy."

"They're 99 sugar, Dean. That's candy."

"No, that's delicious. A minute but important difference."

"Minute? Who the fuck are you?"

Sam?

X

The calls start to come less and less, which doesn't really surprise Dean (or John). Sammy calls when he needs him and as he's always been too independent to need him for long.

They never talk about anything important; Dean tries not to mention hunts, or at least not explicitly. He talks about the town and the hotel and the girls (and the beer) but leaves out the bumps and the breaks and the stitches.

Sammy talks about classes, friends, living on dorm. Complains about the paper he has to write for poly-sci and adds that he wishes Dean was around to do his math homework.

"You were always a freaking genius at math, Dean, and you should see the shit they have me doing—"

"Hey, you want to compare high school grades and then tell me who the genius here is, Sammy?"

"It's Sam, and we both know that's just because you didn't try."

Dean shrugs, knowing Sammy can't see, not saying I had bigger things to worry about because it sounds too much like an accusation and not enough like I love you, but you're still a piece of shit.

"Math sucks," he says.

X

On Father's Day, John disappears. He tells Dean he's going on a quick salt-and-burn a few towns over and to take the day off; what he really does is drive to his storage locker and sift through photos for five hours.

Photos of Sam and Dean, all from after Mary; trophies and art projects and all the things the boys never knew he saved.

Dean calls around dinnertime. Asks if the job's done. John makes sure his voice doesn't crack as he says, "Yeah, son. I did what I had to do."

Dean doesn't press. Asks if he wants him to wait up, maybe they can go out to celebrate. John laughs. "I'll be home in a few hours, Dean. You don't have to wait."

He hears the relief in Dean's voice as he answers, "Oh, thank God. I'm so not into this Father's Day shit, thought I was gonna have to get you a fucking card or something."

They hang up and Dean's not in the room when he gets back; but there is a card on his pillow. It sings the theme from Barney and has a picture of the big purple dinosaur with its paws spread wide. The words "HAPPY FATHER'S DAY!" glitter up at him in purple and green and beneath it Dean's written: Let's hunt this fucker next.

John throws his head back and laughs.

X

Dean's not sure how it's possible that a year passes. He gets a call from Sammy once, maybe twice a week, and if his Dad knows about them he never says anything.

Sam's started to push, telling Dean he could have 'all this' too. 'All this' being normal, apple-pie, school and grades and parties. "You'd love it," Sam says. "If you go to the right school you won't even have to work, just drink all the time."

It sort of stings Dean that this is Sam's highest opinion of him, but he doesn't say anything. He knows that he's never exactly tried to prove otherwise. "Not my life, Sammy," he says sharply. "Not the college type."

"You could be, Dean. Don't you ever just want to—"

"No, Sam. I don't."

It's a lie, but not a big one. Sometimes he thinks about stopping, about settling down somewhere. But he can't leave his Dad, not right now, not really ever. That's what Sam's never understood: for Dad it's about the past tense, about revenge, about Mary; for Dean it is, and has always been, about family.

Family, present tense. If he stops, who the hell is going to make a yearly trip to Palo Alto to clean up shit that Sammy pretends not to notice?

X

"Happy birthday."

Dean glances up, surprised. His father is holding a package, wrapped in newspapers, smiling an embarrassed smile. "What?"

"Happy birthday."

Dean grins. "Aw. Daddy. You shouldn't have."

"Take the fucking present, Dean, before I change my mind."

Dean grins, unwrapping the gift eagerly before laughing. "Beer!" he crows happily. "Yeah!" But John just stares down at him patiently, a feral little smile on his face, so Dean looks again. There are two slips of paper tucked into the six pack, which he pulls out slowly.

It's two tickets. To … "Nascar, Dad?"

John shrugs. "The only interesting thing going on in this town. Get your jacket."

Dean obeys, grabbing his jacket and his beer and hopping into the passenger seat of the truck (for the first time, possibly ever, and holy shit no wonder his Dad loves this thing so much). They listen to Bad Company on the trip over, windows down, Dean's feat on the dash. He feels kind of like he's 17 again, but what the hell. It's not every day that you turn 24.

They have possibly the shittiest seats in the whole damn place, but it's not like they really care about the race. They place money on the Chevys and drink all of their own beer and then buy some from the bar. They make dirty jokes and swear and when John's car beats Dean's he puts his son in a headlock.

They're both too drunk to drive home so they spend the night in the parking lot, windows down, feet in the open air.

And Dean thinks: fuck college. This is family.