Sam was pretty sure he was hearing things. He'd heard that sleep deprivation could do that to you- except, no, he'd actually been sleeping fine for the last couple of weeks, so that couldn't be it. Except there was absolutely no way that he'd really heard what he thought he heard.
"Can you repeat that?"
"What are you, deaf or something?" Dean snapped. "I want to take a vacation."
"You want to take a vacation," Sam repeated dumbly. "And do what, exactly?"
Dean shrugged. "I dunno. Whatever. Maybe we can drive up to Stanford so you can see your friends, or something."
Now Sam knew he was hallucinating. "What happened to 'friends are bad, live life alone?'"
"I never wanted you to live life alone, Sammy," Dean said, and Sam didn't bother to correct Dean about his name because Dean's voice was so intense. "If I thought it would work, I'd sent you back there in a heartbeat."
"Then where would you be?" Sam asked, jokingly, but Dean just flashed him a dark look and went back to staring at the map.
"We can be in Stanford by sunset tomorrow," Dean said. "Rebecca will take us in, right? Or is she still freaked out that we're hunters?"
"Are you kidding? She and Zach would love to have us. She's been after me to come back ever since she went back to Stanford to finish out the semester." Which was absolutely true, but Sam still didn't know what was going on.
"That's settled, then," Dean said, and started to fold the map up. Sam stared at him, gape-mouthed, for a full second before closing it with a snap.
"No, it's not settled. What the hell is going on?"
Dean shot him an irritated look. "What do you mean, what's going on? We're going on vacation."
"Yeah, see, that's the part I'm having trouble with. Since when do you take vacations? I thought hunting was your life."
"That's Dad," Dean said. "I'm more flexible. Besides, you want a normal life, right? Normal people take vacations."
"Normal people stay in one place when they're working and travel when they go on vacation, not the other way around," Sam said. "Besides, what do you want with a vacation? In Stanford, no less? You'll go out of your mind with boredom."
"I'll get a job for a couple of weeks," Dean said. "Stock up on cash. Gas is fuckin' expensive, you know."
Sam finally gave into temptation and just reached out and pressed the back of his hand to Dean's forehead. "Are you okay? No fever, or anything?"
Dean scowled and ducked away. "I'm fine," he snapped. "Look, do you want to do this or not? If not, just tell me and we can drive off to wherever the hell we're headed next. But if you do, then shut the fuck up and get in the car, and we'll drive to Stanford."
Sam regarded him steadily for a moment. Dean's face was tighter, more drawn than it had been in previous weeks, and there were shadows under his eyes. Sam still didn't know what prompted this sudden need for a vacation, but whatever the reason, Dean looked like he needed one. And Sam did want to see his friends and visit the old haunts. Plus, Dean was always much easier to pin down when they weren't on the road- maybe he'd be able to figure out what the hell was wrong with his big brother.
"I'm in," was all he said. Dean just snorted and finished folding the map before getting in the car.
Rebecca was, as he'd predicted, glad to see him. So was Zach, who'd moved back when Rebecca had, though he was in his own apartment and had finished classes a year ago, because he didn't want to be reminded of his girlfriend any more than he already was. He spent the first couple of hours falling over himself with gratitude for them proving him innocent, especially at the expense of Dean's legal identity. Rebecca had gotten that out of her system the first time around, and she managed to scold Zach into getting over it as well. By the time dinner was on the table (home-cooked, and way better than the diner food they lived off of normally) Zach had moved on to grilling them about hunting.
Dean answered most of the questions with his usual wit and charm, and managed to make hunting seem like a hobby rather than the serious, dangerous, boring hard work it actually was. Sam stayed mostly quiet, choosing instead to spend his time watching Dean and trying to figure out what was wrong with his brother.
Because something was definitely wrong. Besides the physical signs of exhaustion that Sam had already noticed, he realized that Dean's voice had gotten a little more sharp-edged, and that his usual amusement at his own antics was almost entirely faked, and not well, either. Zach didn't notice anything, too caught up in the stories themselves to pay attention to the teller, but a quick glance at Rebecca told him that she'd noticed something off about Dean, as well. Dean was usually such a smooth liar- Sam just couldn't understand what could have happened that would cause him to show such obvious tells that even sweet-hearted Rebecca could see the difference.
After dinner Dean excused himself, saying that he was going to rest up after their long weeks of driving, and Zach headed out to hang out with some old friends of theirs. He asked Sam to join them, but Rebecca caught his gaze and shook her head in a tiny "no," and Sam turned him down with a smile and a quick lie about how he was almost as tired as his brother. Zach wandered out, leaving him alone in the kitchen with Rebecca, who very clearly had something to say.
She didn't say it yet, though. Instead she started gathering up the dishes from the table, smiling at him when he jumped up to help her. They fell to washing the dishes without a word, her washing and him drying, just like they had after countless study sessions when he was still a student here and his life was simple.
It wasn't simple anymore, though. And Rebecca knew it.
"I'm worried about your brother," she said finally, when the dishes were almost done. "He looks tired."
"It's been a long few weeks," Sam replied, which was true enough. After the poltergeist in their childhood home and the subsequent realization of Sam's psychic powers, they'd spent the last three weeks chasing down leads from Sam's dreams. It was odd- the moment he'd started really listening to his instincts, to what that small not-normal part of his brain was trying to tell him, the nightmares had stopped. His body, not to mention the bags under his eyes, thanked him for the increased rest.
"I don't mean that sort of tired," she said. "Though he could badly use a good night's sleep. No, I was talking about his heart. He's worried about something, or possibly heartbroken. It's hard to tell which."
Sam did a quick mental review of any sexual encounters Dean might have had over the past few months that might have been something more, but he drew a blank. Dean's one-night-stands were becoming fewer and further between, and there'd been none at all for about a month. No one that Dean could have been attached to, then.
"That can't be it," he said, and scowled when she flashed him a disbelieving look. "Oh, come on. We spend almost every minute together, waking and asleep. You think I wouldn't notice if he'd fallen for some chick? Besides, Dean's pretty anti-attachment. I think I'm the only one he's ever really let close, you know? Dad doesn't count."
She gave him another glance, this one pitying, the one that she always gave him when he was having trouble with European Lit and she couldn't believe what a moron he was being, but changed the subject anyway. "Alright, so it's not heartbreak. That means he's worried about something, and it's eating away at him. It's not healthy, Sam. Even you have to have noticed that there's something wrong with him."
Sam wanted to protest the "even you" portion of the statement, but he knew it was true, and that it was even worse when he wanted everything to be okay because then he had a rather amazing ability to ignore things that rather obviously weren't okay. "Okay, so you've got a point. You've got to understand, Becca, that hunting isn't like Dean makes it sound. It's not fun, and it's not a game. It can really wear you down."
"You could be right," she said dubiously. "Either way, keep an eye on him, will you? I can try and find out what's wrong, but as you said, he doesn't exactly let people get too close, and you won't be here very long."
"I know," Sam said. "But I'll take care of him. We're brothers; that's what we do. We take care of each other."
"I know," she said, her eyes soft. "You always take care of everyone, Sam. It's what makes you special."
Personally, Sam though that his psychic powers and a life spent hunting evil spirits with his brother as his only companion were what really set him apart, but he didn't share that with Rebecca. Instead he just smiled at her and said, "He takes care of me, too. He always has."
Something flickered in her eyes then, something like realization, or sadness, or both, but he couldn't pin it down and he didn't know how to ask her what she was thinking. Either way, the moment was broken when she handed him the last clean, dripping dish and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
"We don't have to solve the mystery that is your brother tonight, Sam," she told him. "We might as well sleep on it."
"It's nine o'clock," he pointed out, laughing. "What happened to staying up all night?"
"Some of us have homework to do," she pointed out. "I may very well be up till dawn."
"Nah," he said. "I know you. You'll zip right through it, Miss Genius Girl."
"You always used to beat me," she said. "Mister Full Scholarship and Four Point Oh Average."
"I prefer to go by 'Sam,'" he said. "The other's just such a mouthful."
She laughed her soft laugh again, and gave him a fast one-armed hug. "Get some sleep," she advised, and made her way back to her room.
Zach was currently living with his new girlfriend, so there were actually two bedrooms for them. Dean was in the spare while Sam was in Zach's room, and even though the rooms were right next to each other and they weren't doing anything remotely dangerous Sam still had to resist the urge to go knock on Dean's door and check on him. Dean probably would have done it anyway, if their situations were reversed, but… Dean really was exhausted, and he was probably asleep already. Even though it was only nine o'clock Sam was almost asleep on his feet, and he wasn't as exhausted as Dean clearly was. Sam decided to just leave him be- he'd still be there in the morning.
Half an hour, almost asleep, he thought he heard Dean's barefooted steps move past his half-closed door, but he was too tired to be sure, and sleep drew him inevitably in. He never heard Dean return.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, and Sam was awake early thanks to making an early night of it the evening before. Yawning and scrubbing one hand across his jaw, he wandered out of his room, noting absently that the door to the spare room was still closed, and headed towards the smell of coffee.
He stopped short in surprise in the door of the kitchen. Rebecca was sitting at the table, tapping away on her laptop, but that wasn't what caused his shock. The blame for that lay directly at the feet of Dean, who was sitting across from her, fully dressed, showered, and shaved, with his leather coat sitting on the seat next to him. Dean looked at him when he entered the kitchen, and gave him a half-hearted mockery of his usual carefree grin.
"Hey, little bro," he said, almost-casually. There was a tiny flinch behind his eyes with his greeting. "I was just heading out to see if I could get pick up a few bucks while we're here."
"I'm still in shock that you're not just hustling pool again," Sam teased. "What are you thinking about?"
Dean shrugged. "Construction, day labor, whatever."
"Somehow, that just doesn't sound like your sort of thing."
Dean gave him a lopsided grin. "Gotta use these muscles for something other than charming the ladies."
"You wish," Sam said. Dean shot him another smiling look and then grabbed his jacket and headed for the door.
"Dean," Rebecca said, stopping Sam's brother in his tracks. Dean turned around and faced her.
"Go to the crew that's working on the science building and tell the foreman that I sent you. He's an old friend of my parents- you'll get the job for however long you're here, and he pays fairly."
"Thanks," Dean said, and slipped out of the door, shrugging into his jacket to guard against the chill November air.
Sam grabbed a mug of coffee and sat down in the chair that Dean had so recently vacated. "What're you working on?" he asked around a mouthful of coffee that was more milk and sugar than caffeine.
"Just homework," she said, and closed the lid of the laptop so that she could look him in the eye. "Sam, did you know that your brother wasn't sleeping?"
He gave her an odd look. "Well, I guessed from the exhaustion that he wasn't sleeping well or something-"
"Not sleeping at all," she said. "He was in the living room watching the early news when I got up at dawn. He looked like he'd been there all night. You two room together all the time- had you noticed his insomnia?"
"No," he said slowly, thinking it out. "Then again, I wouldn't. He started looking tired right around the time that I got over my own, and I sleep like-" he almost said "the dead" but stopped himself just in time because some things really just aren't a good idea to say aloud, "-a rock. He's always up before me, though. So it makes sense."
She hmmed and looked out the window for a long moment. "Sam, do you mind me asking a personal question?"
"You know I don't," he said. "What is it?"
"How close are you and your brother?"
He gave her an odd look. "What do you mean? We're brothers. We work together. We're together all the time. Pretty close, I guess. We don't plait each other's hair or anything. Why?"
"Like I said, he was up before I was," she said. "And he took a shower and got ready while I was making breakfast."
Sam gave her an expectant look when she paused. What was she getting at, anyway?
"And then he sat here for an hour waiting while I ate breakfast and started working on the last of my homework," she said after a moment. "Didn't make any small talk, didn't try to charm me out of my pants. Just waited. Silently. Until you got up."
Oh, was that all? "Nah, he does that all the time," he explained. "It's just Dean's way. He wouldn't leave the house till he knew I was awake and could look after myself, is all. He's done it since we were kids."
"Hmm," she said, and looked out the window again. "Sam, did you ever ask him why he was taking this vacation?"
"Of course I did," Sam said.
"And what did he say?"
Rebecca's voice was patient, expectant. Though Sam had no clue what, exactly, she expected. "He wouldn't tell me," he said. "I mean, he spouted some bullshit about it being the normal thing to do and making money for gas, but he wouldn't tell me the real reason. And I know he had one."
"I imagine he did," she said softly, then turned back to smile at him. "I'm sure he'll be okay in a few days, Sam. In the meantime, there's eggs in the fridge, if you want to make yourself some breakfast."
"When haven't I wanted eggs?" he said with a grimace of hunger, and smiled his way over to the fridge as she laughed.
Dean was still acting weird a couple of days later, however, and Sam had no idea what the hell to do. Interventions weren't his thing, and even though he'd gotten pretty good at the sensitive talking shit out thing, it was never something he was good at with Dean. His psychic powers didn't seem to work with Dean either, which pretty much left investigation and guesswork if he wanted to figure out what was wrong with his brother.
With all the practice he'd had over the last six months, the investigating part should have been easy. But Dean wasn't a restless spirit or a haunted house, he was Sam's brother. Sam couldn't just go to the local library and dig up the skeletons in the closet- he knew where all of Dean's were buried. He just couldn't figure out which one was fucking with Dean this time.
Dean was usually the strong one, the one who didn't let shit get to him. Except for what Sam thought was an unhealthy devotion to all things John Winchester, Dean was as sane and stable as any guy who hunted ghosts could be. It was Sam who had problems, who was never satisfied with his life, who brooded and lost sleep while Dean tried unsubtly to figure out how to make things better in his own unique Dean way. And the role reversal was freaking him out.
Sam liked to think that he was more subtle than Dean, but if his brother slid around his hints one more time, he was going to just flat-out ask him what the fuck was going on, and to hell with trying to be subtle. This was his brother, and he wasn't going to just let shit slide.
Sure enough, when Sam got up the next morning and Rebecca made herself conveniently scarce, he asked Dean how he was sleeping and Dean answered with an absentminded, "Fine," without even looking up from his Corn Flakes. Sam felt his temper spiking, but kept a lid on it since it wouldn't actually do him any good. Getting angry never did, with Dean.
"Dean, you and I both know that you're not actually sleeping at all. So cut the shit. What's going on?"
Dean flinched, almost invisibly, but Sam caught it. He always had been observant, and he was observing Dean pretty closely right now. "Nothing's wrong," Dean said, which would have been almost convincing if he didn't look exhausted and if Sam hadn't had so much practice with Dean telling white lies.
"Bullshit," Sam said. "Something's wrong. I just wish you would tell me, is all."
Dean's mouth tightened with temper. "Like you did?" he snapped, and turned back to his Corn Flakes. "Leave it, Sammy."
"Look, I'm sorry, but you already knew what was up with me," Sam said. "I just didn't want to talk about it when there wasn't any point. But I don't have a clue what's going on with you, and that's a problem. And don't call me Sammy," he added as an afterthought.
"Sam," Dean said. "Leave it, okay? I'll be fine. We're on vacation, aren't we?"
"Yeah, and what's up with that?" Sam said. "You never told me what prompted this 'vacation' thing."
"I wanted a break from hunting," Dean said. Sam was torn between laughing his ass off and just being impressed that Dean had managed to say it with a straight face.
"You did not," Sam said. "You haven't had a break from hunting since you were six years old, you once told me."
"Well, then I'm long past due, aren't I?" Dean said in a too-reasonable voice. Sam didn't really have a decent retort to that. "Right, then, it's settled," Dean added, his voice overly bright, and went back to his breakfast.
Sam gave up and went back to his room, acknowledging that round to Dean. Five minutes later he heard Dean leave for work, and he sighed as he went to go take his shower.
He hadn't gotten any closer to figuring out what was wrong with his brother, but he did have an idea about how to pry it out of Dean. Staying in one place allowed them to avoid each other- what they needed to do was hit the road again. Sam could tell that Dean was pretty stuck on this vacation thing, but maybe, if he could find a case close to Stanford, he could pry his brother out of his little hidey-hole routine and get information out of him while they were on the road.
Plan of action decided, Sam finished up his shower and went to find his own breakfast with a lighter heart.
Dean did not take too well to the whole hunting idea. Sam found them a nice, simple case about two hours away- poltergeist, probably from the foster kid that was living there. For them it was practically a walk in the park.
Dean vetoed it, not with arguments that Sam had expected and carefully prepared counters to, but just a flat, "No." And then he walked out.
It was insane.
Sam had no clue what to do when his brother was like this. Normal Dean was brash, cocky, argumentative, stubborn, and confrontational. This Dean was like a pod Dean, a Dean that didn't talk much, worked hard, didn't flirt, and walked away from arguments. Sam halfway entertained the thought that Dean had been replaced by another skin-shifter, but after an application of holy water (slipped to him in his soda- Dean didn't complain that it was too watery) and several other tests, he was forced to discard the idea. Dean hadn't been replaced by someone else; he was just fucked up.
Unfortunately, Sam didn't know what issue had done the deed this time. He'd run through the usual suspects- Dad issues, Mom issues, and the big one since college, Sam issues- but none of them seemed to fit. Which meant that it wasn't one of the old, familiar skeletons in the closet. This was something new.
Which made it dangerous.
Sam still liked his hunting trip plan, and the poltergeists were still there. He resolved that he was going to get Dean to go with him, even if he had to drug his brother.
Dean was less than appreciative when Sam informed him of this, but Sam just didn't care. "This whole vacation thing is fine," he explained, very logically. "But it's not what we're meant to do. It's a cakewalk case, Deano. You and I both know it. We can get it done on a single Saturday, and that's including driving time. Why not?"
"We're taking a break from hunting, remember?" Dean snapped back. "And why are you trying so hard with this? I thought that you hated hunting."
Sam was very, very careful not to overuse the Eyes, because then Dean would know that Sam was manipulating him, instead of just guessing. Sam kept the Eyes to a low "who, me?" phase, rather than the full-blown, "These are not the droids you're looking for," innocence.
"I don't, not really," he said. "But it's what we do. You said it yourself. We can't just sit here doing nothing while people are in danger."
"Speak for yourself," Dean said. "You're doing nothing; I'm working."
By a great act of sheer willpower, Sam managed not to grin triumphantly. Man, it was perfect when the mark played right into your trap. At that moment, he understood completely why Dean enjoyed hustling pool.
"Fine, then," he said, doing his best to sound seriously disgruntled. "I can always go by myself." Dean looked upset at that, as Sam had known he would, so he pressed his advantage. "I trained with Dad too, you know. I can handle myself."
"You really can't," Dean said, then paused, looking like he'd had no control over his mouth right then. Sam carefully hid his smile. Gotcha.
"Then come with me."
Dean glared at him for a long moment, then sighed and caved. "Alright," he said. "We'll go Saturday, so I'll have a day to heal up before work if things go to shit."
Sam grinned. "Saturday it is."
Dean just glared at him again. "I just want you to know," he said precisely, "that I know what you just did and if I weren't so pissed at you I'd be impressed." Then he got up and left the room.
Sam didn't care, because he knew he'd won. As soon as the door shut behind his brother, he started grinning like a loon, and he didn't stop until Rebecca came back in with groceries to be carried and it was time for dinner.
Three days later they were in the car on their way to the case, and Sam was trying and failing to come up with a way to broach the topic of What Was Wrong With Dean. Of course, he could just come out and say it, but that was particularly tactless and also, tailor-made to get Dean's back up and keep him from actually responding. Hinting around hadn't worked for him so far, but then again they were trapped in a car and Dean wouldn't be able to actually walk out on him,
He argued back and forth on it in his head for so long that they were pulling up to the house before he knew it, and they were out of time. Maybe he should leave it for the car ride back… Nah, fuck that. Enough delaying.
"Hey, Dean…" he started, just as his brother reached for the door handle. Dean let his hand drop and turned around to face Sam, his glare already in place.
Sam winced. Dean didn't use the old nickname much- hadn't since it had finally gotten through his thick skull that Sam really hated hearing it. Now he pretty much only said it if he was really worried or upset- or really pissed.
Sam was betting on the third option. "I just wanted to-"
"-Talk," Dean finished for him. "Yeah. I know."
Sam glanced at him with surprise. "You do?"
"Contrary to popular belief, I am not a complete moron," Dean said. "I know why you manipulated me into taking this case. You don't give a damn about the people in this house, you just wanted a chance to corner me. Which is why I want to get out of the car, go into the house, and get this over with as fast as possible."
Sam opened his mouth to protest but Dean beat him to it. "But I know you're not going to leave this alone, I might as well tell you what you've been after."
Sam could definitely be satisfied with that. As long as Dean started talking sometime in the next five seconds so that Sam didn't die of suspense.
Dean must have seen this in his face, because he started talking. "It was after Lawrence," Dean said. "That I finally put it together."
"Put what together?" This was what Dean called an explanation?
"All the pieces," Dean said, not really answering. "Why Mom, why Jessica. Why every single bad guy we fight seems to have such a hard-on to kill you."
Um. This was new. "Huh?" Sam said intelligently. Dean scowled at him.
"C'mon, don't tell me you hadn't noticed. I get attacked, but they're always trying to kill you. There's a pattern there, Sam. Any moron could see it."
"I thought it was just because I wasn't as good at hunting as you were," Sam said, bewildered. "You ride me often enough about me getting soft at college and stuff."
"That's teasing and you know it," Dean said. "But I'm not teasing now. Everything out there is trying to get you. Because of your gift."
"What, because I get a few dreams and a few weird feelings I'm some sort of prize?" Sam laughed and shook his head. "You're getting paranoid, Dean."
"Doesn't mean everything isn't out to get you," Dean said. "And you don't just get dreams and weird feelings. You're stronger than some of the best out there and we both know it. Or did you think Missouri wouldn't mention it to me?"
"Mention what?" Sam said, playing dumb.
"That you're the most powerful psychic she's ever met," Dean said. "And she's no slouch. Seriously, did you think I didn't know? I'm not stupid."
"I know you're not," Sam said. "It's just… I'm really not that strong."
"Yeah, you are," Dean said. "You could see Mom before I could, remember? And you use it to kill baddies. It's not that hard to see why they'd want you out of the way."
"I'm still not sure that everything out there wants to kill me," Sam said. "I mean, it could just be coincidence."
"Back in Lawrence, that poltergeist almost killed you twice," Dean said. "It beat up Missouri and threw knives that I could duck, but it almost choked you to death. And the second time around? It let all of us out of the house and then slammed you around and pinned you to a wall. It would have killed you if Mom hadn't killed it first. The Woman in White. The Wendigo. The skin-shifter. Mom in your nursery. Jessica. Need I go on?"
"The Wendigo went after you first," Sam protested.
"No, it grabbed me and Haylee because we walked right into its fucking trap. When we got in there, though, I stomped around yelling insults all on my lonesome and the fucking thing still went after you like you were the tastiest thing on the menu. Are you getting me now?"
"Yeah," Sam said, more than a little shaken. "So you're saying that all this shit really does have something to do with me?"
"For once, it really is all about you," Dean confirmed. "And it just keeps escalating."
Sam was quiet for a moment. "That doesn't explain you, though," he said.
"What about me?" Apparently it was Dean's turn to play dumb.
"Oh, I don't know," Sam said sarcastically. "How about the way that you're getting next to no sleep and this weird-ass vacation thing, for starters?"
Dean didn't answer for a long time, long enough that Sam was starting to think that he wouldn't answer at all. But, finally- "I had nightmares," Dean said quietly. "Of your dying. Me not saving you. It's why I can't sleep."
Sam didn't move, though internally he was staggering. He was the cause of Dean's not-so-little bout with insomnia? Dean really worried about him that much?
"And the vacation?" he said aloud.
"Wanted to get away from it for a while," Dean said. "Figured that if I knew you were safe and not hunting I'd worry less." He laughed, a dry, humorless sound. "Man, how wrong I was."
Sam studied him carefully. There was something that Dean wasn't telling him, something that he was holding back. What could be worse than the bomb he'd already dropped?
"What are you hiding?" he asked. Dean looked at him with innocence too good not to be faked. Plus, it was Dean. He was never innocent.
"Hiding?" he asked. Sam took a brief moment to be smug about the fact that Sam's "who me?" was better than Dean's by a country mile.
"Yeah," Sam said. "There's something that you're not telling me. Something else."
Dean opened his mouth, but a scream from inside the house cut him off. He snapped it shut and looked over at the kitchen window, where there were some flying utensils visible- including some pretty sharp knives.
"We'll continue this later," he said, opening his door and jumping out. "Right now it looks like they could use our help."
"As long as it is continued," Sam said, following him. They both grabbed shotguns out of the trunk and headed towards the harmless-looking front door.
They didn't even make to the porch before things went all to hell. Something grabbed Dean, slamming him painfully against the stone walkway, and Sam had just whirled around to check on his brother when the door whooshed open and Sam was unceremoniously yanked through.
The building was pitch-black inside, though all the windows were uncovered and distantly, Sam could see the weak December sunshine filtering through. And it was cold. Christ, but it was cold. Sam was dressed for winter in one a heavy coat of Dean's that he'd stolen out of his brother's closet- it was too broad in the shoulders and just a little too short because Dean bought his coats short enough to show off his ass, but it was warmer than anything Sam owned. Unfortunately, the cold that came from the haunting was a hell of a lot worse than anything a California winter had yet thrown at him, and he started shivering convulsively in seconds.
He didn't let it stop him, though. He was on a mission, and that mission was to find the source of the poltergeist and exorcise its ghostly ass before it could cause anyone anymore trouble.
Faintly, he heard another scream from the kitchen. That was probably the source, then. It wasn't too unusual- kitchens were a place where everyone gathered, a family place, and if the poltergeist was feeding off the emotions of the foster child in the family, then it would be lashing out at family and family places.
He couldn't even see the hand in front of his face, and the walls were too cold to touch unless he wanted to lose the skin on his palms, but he remembered which direction the scream had come from, and so he stumbled blindly that way. He didn't have any weapons on his other than his usual hunting knife, the shotgun in his hands, and a bottle of holy water in his pocket, so he wasn't exactly feeling prepared to face flying cutlery or whatever else the poltergeist was doing. He hoped like hell that Dean would be able to get through the front door and come to his rescue, because after Dean's revelation in the car about the supernatural gunning especially for him, he wasn't feeling too secure.
He managed to find the kitchen with a minimum of effort, guided by a succession of piercing screams, but stopped dead in the doorway. Dishes were flying now, as well, and the foodstuff in the cupboards and refrigerator were strewn across the counters and floor. The door that led to the back porch and the door that looked like it led down a back hall were slammed shut and obviously not going to be opened any time soon, leaving Sam to think that the poltergeist had deliberately left the doorway that he was standing in clear, in order to lure him into its grasp. A cautious step into the kitchen, followed by the slamming of the door behind him, confirmed that theory.
Shit. Dean was right. They were all out to get him.
A quick, surveying glance found the foster kid, huddled in a corner behind an overturned table. Right. Now if only Sam could find some salt…
He slipped past the screaming mother, who didn't even seem to notice that he was there, and started frantically going through the mess of bottles on the counter. One of them had to be a salt-shaker, it had to be…
He didn't have time to find out if one of them was, in fact, a salt shaker. Because the next thing he knew, he'd been lifted up and slammed backwards against the cupboard, with a force that was enough to crack the back of his skull hard against the wood. He was hit with a dizzying wave of pain, followed quickly by a rueful sense of déjà vu.
Dean probably wasn't coming to save him this time, though. He'd seen Dean hit the flagstones of the sidewalk. He'd seen the limp slump of his brother's unconscious body. Dean wasn't going to be chopping any doors down today. Sam was on his own.
With this fact in mind, he set about trying to get himself un-pinned from the cupboards he was being held against. He was startlingly unsuccessful, and the one time he did manage to get at least a hand free, it was slammed back again, and this time Sam heard a crack and a grinding pain. Broken. Perfect.
The flying knives looked like they were organizing, now, and were aimed straight for the now-huddled family. The foster kid was still tucked behind the table, his knees held to his chest, rocking back and forth, and from this angle Sam could see tears streaked on his cheeks. He didn't want this. The poltergeist had gained enough power to rage about without any sort of subconscious direction, but it was still feeding off the kid's energy. If Sam could just get some salt and holy water on him, he could cut the link and send the poltergeist floating back into the ether, but it was starting to look like he had as much chance of walking on the moon as he did to get his hands on some salt, much less make it over to the kid to exorcise the poltergeist.
Sam started struggling in earnest now, wrenching hard against the invisible bands that wrapped along limbs and torso. And then, out of the corner of his eye, he realized with a sinking sensation that the knives were turning, turning to aim at… him.
He shouldn't have attracted attention to himself. Because now he was going to die.
The door blew off its hinges, and Dean was standing there, surrounded by the seething, boiling, cold darkness that filled the rest of the house. The glow of the flickering kitchen lights painted shadows on Dean's face, making him seem both beautiful and terrible, and he was scowling with such intensity that Sam was suddenly very sure that the poltergeist didn't stand a chance.
The poltergeist was obviously not so impressed, because the knives changed directions yet again and headed for Dean. Dean just picked up the door he'd kicked off its hinges and used it to catch the knives, the same way he'd used the table back in Lawrence. Poltergeists, apparently, were fairly predictable.
The spinning dishes and cutlery sagged in the air as the poltergeist faltered, obviously unsure what to do next. They were in luck that it was a young one, despite how powerful it was- older ones, like the one back in Lawrence, attached themselves to an entire house, instead of one person, and didn't need a power source. In addition, they were much, much more cunning, and knew hundreds of different ways to stop someone who was trying to stop them. An older one never would have faltered- this one was confused enough about the failure of its first volley that Dean was able to make it all the way across the room and pull out two bottles from his jacket pocket.
Salt. And holy water.
The poltergeist apparently realized what was going on, because the sagging cutlery suddenly straightened up again and started pelting against Dean, but Dean had dealt with worse pain than that, and he didn't even twitch as forks and spoons hit his shoulders and back. He stared grimly down at the kid, said, "Sorry, but this'll only take a second," and then simultaneously poured both holy water and salt over the top of the kid's head.
"Be gone!" he shouted. "Be gone! Be gone!"
And then, after giving the command three times, through salt and blessed water, he whirled around and growled, "Get the hell out!"
All the hovering dishes and utensils dropped like a stone, hurting everyone's ears with the splitting crash. Sam fell, managing to catch himself against the edge of the counter with his unbroken wrist, and pulled himself to a shaky standing position.
Dean turned to the cowering parents, a disgusted expression on his face. "Next time you get a poltergeist, call a priest. And there will be a next time if you don't get that kid into therapy, because he's practically got a neon sign over his head, asking to get haunted."
"P-poltergeist?" the mother stammered, while the father just stared, slack-jawed, at Dean.
"Yeah," Dean said. "They exist, blah blah. What the hell did you think was ripping up your kitchen, a strong wind? Now, if you don't mind, I'm getting my brother and getting the hell out of here."
He crossed the spacious kitchen in a few strides and reached Sam's side. "You okay?" he asked, all irritation forgotten in favor of his concern.
"Peachy," he said. "Left wrist broken, knot on my skull. I'll be fine."
Dean quickly moved to Sam's right side, and slung his arm across his shoulders. They limped out of the house, passing through a splintered front door that Dean had obviously hacked to pieces in order to get to his brother.
Sam paused on the front porch to get his breath back- getting slammed against those cupboards had done something to his ribs, and he only hoped that they weren't broken- and Dean helped him sit down on the steps.
"Soon as we get in the car I'm driving you to the nearest doctor," he said. Sam glared at him.
"I'mfine," he said. "All I need is a splint and a few ice packs, and I'll be okay till I get back to campus." He paused, glancing at the car. "You do still carry a first-aid kit in there, don't you?"
Dean rolled his eyes. "Of course I do. What do you take me for, Sam, stupid?"
Sam very carefully didn't answer that, and Dean glared back at him before going down to the car to get the splint.
Splinting a broken wrist was always painful, but Dean had a lot of practice with pretty much any sort of injury imaginable, so it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Dean bound his ribs, just in case they were actually broken, and gave him an ice back for the lump on his head.
Sam watched him as he went back to the car and neatly packed away both the first-aid kit and their weapons. Dean always had been a freak for keeping things neat and orderly- shades of their military upbringing at John Winchester's hands- and today was no different. In fact, Dean tended to be even more meticulous in the wake of some battle or other kind of crisis. It was his cool-down ritual, his way of soothing instincts that were shouting things like, "Club mastodon over head!" thanks to the adrenaline that was coursing through his system.
Finally it was over and he came back to sit next to Sam. Sam found himself listing to the side, instinctively moving into his brother's body heat, and though, Why not? and leaned against him.
Hesitantly, Dean's arm crept around his shoulders, and Sam settled more fully against him with a sigh. Dean tilted his head sideways until he was resting his cheek on the top of Sam's head, and Sam has his head snuggled into the crook of Dean's neck.
These were his favorite times, hands down. Not the hunt, not the research that reminded him of college, not even spending hours sleeping the day away thanks to their "vacation" at Rebecca's off-campus apartment. This, the little quiet moments when it was just him and his brother, close like they should be, instead of at odds or worrying or whatever was wrong with them at any particular moment, just together and happy. Nothing, Sam was sure, could be better than this.
"I thought you were gonna die," Dean mumbled into the top of his head. "I thought you were gonna die and there wasn't anything I could do to stop it."
"But you did," Sam reminded him. "You kicked its ass straight back to hell and didn't stop to take names. And I'm fine."
"You're not fine," Dean said. "You have a broken wrist and possibly broken ribs. How is that fine?"
"Um, I could be dead?" Sam pointed out. "I prefer a couple of cracked bones to being dead, really." He craned his head, but still couldn't see Dean's face. "What are you so upset about, anyway? I'm not dead, you're fine, and the poltergeist is gone. Job accomplished."
"It's the first time you got hurt," Dean said, and Sam gave a disbelieving snort in reply.
"I get hurt every time we take a job, Dean. We both do."
"Bruises, maybe a cut or two," Dean said. "Nothing this bad. I should have said, it's the first time you got seriously hurt."
"Since I started hunting again, yeah," Sam said, getting it. Sam used to get hurt all the time- it was how Dean got so good at patching up various injuries, practice on his little brother- but he'd always thought that it was just because he was the younger one, the one who just wasn't as good as his Dad and his big brother. Now that he knew that there was really something gunning for him, well, it put an entirely different spin on things. And while a cracked wrist wasn't anywhere near as serious as things could have gotten, it was the first real goal scored by the other side. No wonder Dean was upset. Probably the only reason Sam had even made it this far without getting worse was because Dean was busting his hump in a big way to save his ass.
"Yeah," Dean said. "If I hadn't broken through that door-"
"I would have been dead," Sam said bluntly. No reason not to say it, because they both knew the truth. "But you did. You always save my ass, Dean. I know you've got my back. I wasn't afraid." Which was a lie, but it was what Dean needed to hear.
"Liar," Dean said softly. Well, Dean always had been able to read him far too well for comfort. "You didn't think I was gonna make it."
"Well, I did see you unconscious."
"You were right to worry," Dean said. "And you've got to be more careful. Because someday, I'm not gonna be around to save you."
That sounded suspiciously like- "Dean, are you… trying to tell me something?" Sam was pretty damn sure that he didn't want to know. His brother was fine. Dean was always going to be fine. Dean was the unbreakable one, the one that the monsters couldn't touch.
"No," Dean said. "I'm not trying to tell you anything."
"Yeah, you are," Sam said, abruptly sure. "Dean, what's going on?"
Dean wrenched away, and Sam half-fell sideways. A hand shot out to catch himself, which was thankfully his uninjured wrist, but the jolt did painful things to his wrist.
"You want to know, Sammy?" he said. "You really want to know?"
"Yeah," Sam said, though he wasn't really sure any more. Dean's face was… scary-intense. Fear and guilt were visible, yes, but there was also something else… Heat, and a sort of sick certainty, and Sam realized, too late, that he had no idea what was going on.
"I've been trying to tell you this," Dean said, and kissed him.
Sam couldn't react, couldn't think, couldn't even breathe. Dean was kissing him, and this was nothing he ever could have imagined in any universe. He couldn't even push Dean away, but after a second, Dean pulled back on his own, panting harshly, his eyes narrowed in a glare.
"I wish you'd have listened enough to tell me no," Dean said, and then he turned on his heel and stalked off towards the car. Sam didn't realize what he was doing until the engine started, and he tried to stagger to his feet, tried to yell and stop him, but he could see Dean's white face through the windshield, and Dean wasn't thinking about anything but getting away.
Sam leaned against the post next to the steps and watched the taillights of the Impala disappear into the distance. When he realized that he wasn't going to be seeing the headlights any time soon, he fished his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed a familiar number.
"Hey, Rebecca?" he said, when she picked up and said an absent hello. "Things didn't turn out so well. Would you mind coming to pick me up? Because I don't think Dean's coming back."
It took ages for Rebecca to get him back to Stanford, and even longer after that to get his broken wrist properly set. The doctor who did it clicked his tongue and made approving noises about the person who'd splinted it up, and Sam just gritted his teeth and deliberately didn't think until he was back at Rebecca's spacious apartment.
He knew, after a single glance, that Dean had already come and gone. Several demonology texts that had been scattered around the living room were gone, and on the kitchen table rested two letters, one for Rebecca and one for Sam. Rebecca's was short, and she didn't let him read it but apparently Dean had pretty much just said thank you, and it contained Dean's copy of the key to the front door. Sam's was much longer, and he didn't read it until he'd gone over every inch of Dean's room, just to make sure that there was no way that Dean was coming back.
He lay down on Dean's unmade bed, on sheets that still smelled like him, and read the letter.
Sammy, it said in Dean's aggressive handwriting. Sorry, Sam. I guess I already proved that I know you're all grown up, huh?
You might have figured out already that this was what I was hiding. And I didn't intend to tell you. Ever.
I was going to leave, after a while. Because I knew that eventually I'd slip up, kinda like I did back there, and it would be over anyway. I was going to leave before that happened, so you could remember your brother as not being such a freak.
But I guess that plan's shot to hell, and things are what they are. I never thought that things would end up like this, but… Well, it's not like I'm used to things not turning out right when it comes to you.
I'm long gone by now. I'll keep hunting, and I'll keep looking for Dad until I find him. I promise you that much. If I find the thing that killed Mom and Jess… Well, I'll kill it, and I'll make sure it knows I'm doing it for you. I owe you that much.
I don't really have anything else to say. Just that I love you, even though you probably don't want to hear that right now, and yeah, we've had our issues, but you're the best brother I could have had.
If you stay away from hunting, I think you'll be safe. So stay safe, Sam. I don't want to have to stick around after you're gone.
Sam stared at the letter a long time, and read it over at least three times. Then he got up, walked into the kitchen where Rebecca was waiting, and grimly asked, "Can I use your phone?"
In the end, it actually wasn't that hard to track Dean down. Sam had grown up with him, knew him better than anyone (bombshells about hidden incestuous lust aside) and had spent months on the road with him, so he knew his patterns. Plus, Sam had just had several months of practice in tracking down his father and Dean, for all his skill with hunting and tracking, was not all that low-profile.
Sam found him in a bar in the kind of small town that Dean preferred, actually drinking at the bar for a change instead of playing pool. Sam hung back and watched him for a while, and realized that Dean wasn't drinking to get drunk, was in fact just sipping at one beer and was still completely sober.
Sam had a lot of things he wanted to say to Dean, starting with how much of a moron his brother was. How could Dean possibly think that running off was the right thing to do? God, what an idiot. Sam had walked away from his family once, and he'd spent the last several months with his brother learning what kind of damage that had done to Dean. Did Dean really think that Sam was going to let him do the same? Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Sam didn't know what he was supposed to think about the fact that his brother wanted him. Sexually. It seemed almost too fantastical to get his head around, too bizarre even for his life, but at the same time he knew it was true. Because Dean had kissed him. And then Dean had run away.
And Sam wasn't just going to let that stand.
So he stepped out of the shadowed corner he'd been lurking in, and walked right up to the bar. Dean didn't appear to notice when Sam appeared at his elbow, but Sam knew him. The lines around his eyes got slightly deeper, and his shoulders moved upwards just a fraction of a degree as his body tensed. Dean knew he was there.
"Stop pretending you can't see me," Sam said, and Dean gave in and turned towards him. He didn't meet Sam's eyes, though.
"How'd you find me?" he asked. Sam sighed and leaned against the bar top.
"If you wanted to be low-profile, you should get a different car," he said. Dean just shook his head.
"Should have known," he said. "I'm not giving up the Impala, though."
"I know," Sam said. "You love that car."
"Yeah," Dean said. And then fell silent. And he still didn't meet Sam's unwavering gaze.
"We're gonna have to talk about it eventually," Sam said finally. Dean whipped his head around and glared at him.
"No, we don't. I left for a reason, Sam. I'm done here." He pulled out a twenty from his jacket pocket and threw it on the bar before stalking out, leaving Sam staring thoughtfully at his retreating back.
Well, okay. If he was being honest with himself, he hadn't really thought that it would be that easy. Dean didn't talk about things at the best of times, and this whole thing was a bigger problem for him than anything that had come before. But Sam sure as hell wasn't going to give up, just like that.
He went after him.
Dean apparently knew Sam well enough to know that he would, and that he wouldn't give up until he got his talk, because he was leaning against the hood of the Impala, smoking a cigarette. It looked so natural- Dean, the lone demon-hunter hero- and at the same time so fucking wrong. Because when Sam was sixteen he'd bitched him out about maybe getting cancer, and Dean had scoffed at dying from something as normal as cancer, but he'd quit.
And because Dean was sitting in the middle, with no room for Sam to sit next to him, taking away Sam's spot on Dean's car and, symbolically speaking, in Dean's life. Sam would like to say that he was being overdramatic, but he knew that Dean was doing it deliberately. To make a point.
"When did you start smoking again?" Sam asked, even though it wasn't what he wanted to say. That happened a lot to him, when he was with Dean. Everything came out wrong. He couldn't let it this time, couldn't afford to screw things up, or he'd really never get his brother back.
"When do you think, Sam?" Dean snapped, and took another drag. Sam sighed, and thought about leaning against the car next to him, in the spot that was supposed to be his, but- No. Dean would jump away if he tried, he knew it was well as he knew his own name. So he just crossed his arms over his chest and stayed where he was.
"Those things'll kill you," he said.
"I'll be dead before they have the chance," Dean said harshly. "And we both know it. Don't look at me like that, Sam. Hunting ain't exactly safe. One day, it's gonna get me killed."
"I won't let it," Sam said, and Dean just laughed hoarsely and shook his head.
"You won't be around to stop it," Dean said. "I don't even know why you came after me."
"Because you're my brother, Dean!"
"Exactly!" Dean exploded. "You're my brother, Sam, and I just can't stop…" He trailed off, hunched down a little like he wanted to ward off the cold, and took another defiant drag of his cigarette. "I'm such a sick fuck. And you're better off out of this life, anyway. Away from the danger. Away from me."
"That's bullshit and you know it!" Sam shouted back. "Dean. You're my family, and I'm not letting you walk off. I don't give a shit about the rest of it."
"You should," Dean said, his face twisted with self-loathing. "I'm not going to be able to be good forever. Sooner or later I'll slip up and do it again. I can't make it be right, Sammy, I just can't. I'll slip up, and you'll leave. It's better to leave it like this." He paused, and looked at Sam with his soul-destroying eyes. "You shouldn't have come after me, Sammy. It would have been so much better all around if you'd just let me go."
"Like hell." Sam didn't even recognize his own voice, it was so low. "Like hell, Dean. I'm not letting you go. Not ever if I can help it, and definitely not like this." Dean didn't look any different, didn't look like any of this was getting through to him, and in desperation Sam grabbed his shoulders, ignoring Dean's tiny flinch. "I don't care about the rest of it, don't you understand that? You're my brother and I'm not letting you go. If you've got a problem with that, I suggest you get the hell over it, 'cause that's the way it's gonna be."
"I can't," Dean whispered.
"Youcan," Sam said fiercely.
Dean wrenched himself away. "No, Sam, I can't!" he shouted. "You don't understand. You can't. I've wanted you forever, and eventually I will screw up and do it again. Do you get it, Sam? I can't hold back forever. I shouldn't be around you."
Sam stared at him, long enough to make Dean drop his gaze. Sam reached out and put a hand on his brother's shoulder.
"Dean," he said, and waited till Dean looked up. "Dean, you can't push me away. When you drive out of here, I'm gonna be sitting beside you. And nothing you can say or do is gonna change that."
"Sam," Dean said, his voice just a thread, and Sam said, "Nothing," putting all the force of his determination into his words. He would repeat himself as often as needed, do whatever it took to get through to his brother. They would make it through this, and Sam was determined that they would not be parted.
"Alright," Dean said, his voice barely audible, but Sam heard him. He heard him, and Dean looked panicked as a grin started to spread across Sam's face, but Dean wasn't allowed to take it back. He'd already agreed, and Sam wasn't going to let him take it back.
Sam wanted to hug his brother, wanted it so badly because that's what they did, that's how they sealed moments like this, but he knew damn well that Dean would skitter away like a frightened horse if he tried, so instead he settled down on the hood of the Impala, in his spot, carefully leaving room for Dean like Dean hadn't before. And Dean gave him a wary, cautious look, but then he settled down next to Sam, and Life Was Good.
They sat in silence for a long, long time, Dean's cigarette smoldering down to ash on the gravel next to Sam's boot where Dean dropped it. Sam ignored it.
Finally, Dean said, "You drive here?"
Relieved, Sam replied, "Rental car," and pointed it out. He grinned like crazy when Dean made a disgusted noise in the back of his throat.
"What a piece of crap," he said, and turned to look at Sam. "The rental agency the kind that picks up its own cars?"
"Yeah," Sam said. Dean grinned, a paler version of his usual smile, but good enough for Sam, who hadn't seen him smile in far, far too long.
"Alright then," he said, and slapped the hood of the Impala affectionately as he got to his feet. "I'm driving."
And just like that, things were back to normal.
Only they weren't, Sam realized a minute later. Because after he got in the car, Dean took a minute to light another cigarette before starting the car, and he left the window down as he drove so the smoke would leave the car. He didn't look at Sam when he did it, and he didn't look away, either. He wasn't doing it to be spiteful. He was just making a point.
And another minute later, when they both reached for the tape deck at the same time, their hands brushed together. When Dean jerked away as if burned, Sam realized sadly that things were really never going to go back to normal, or what passed for normal for them, and he'd have to learn to live with that.
But that was okay. Because he had his brother back. And he thought that maybe, if they were lucky, the two of them could build a brand-new normal, for just the two of them.
Sam knew that he was going to try.