It was some time the next afternoon when Cal finally found himself back outside the Winchester's motel. He'd called Dean from the hospital the previous morning to reassure him that no-one would be asking any questions about their involvement, and that no-one would be investigating the warehouse where the body (which Dean had by then removed) and blood evidence might swing things in their direction.
He'd have been there earlier but Sarah had been reluctant to be alone, only seeming to calm enough to answer questions if she knew he would be close by. When she was finally safe and sleeping Cal had been too exhausted to think about doing anything other than sleep himself.
The Dean that answered the door was bleary eyed and unshaven, but he also exuded a level of peace and calm that had been absent every other time Cal had seen him. One that made all Sam's defences and devotion make sense, and caused Cal to regret some of his more bitter thoughts and words.
Dean strode back into the room leaving Cal to close the door and follow. The curtains were drawn, and when the door was closed the atmosphere was stifling and oppressive, but Dean made no sign that he noticed the warmth. Remembering again the frightening cold of that freezer, of Sam's skin, Cal was grateful for the heat to keep his own chills at bay.
His eyes were searching for the younger Winchester before they had even fully adjusted to the gloom, and they didn't have far to look in the small, functional room the pair were currently calling home.
Sam was a small figure curled under a swath of blankets on the far bed, just a pale face and dark locks peeping out from under the covers. Flakes of dried blood were dotted across one cheek like the worst kind of dandruff, but Cal knew washing Sam's hair thoroughly would not have been one of Dean's main priorities yesterday.
Cal had wanted to see Sam awake and moving, anything to banish the image of him prone on that cold tile floor from his brain. But Sam's hair was partially covering his face, and was fluttering slightly in time with his breath, and Cal would take what he could get.
"Is he..?" he'd taken a step towards the bed but his voice was low and he turned to address the question to Dean. Dean jerked his head in the direction of the small kitchenette at the other side of their room, and when he turned and headed in that direction Cal followed, giving the sleeping Sam his privacy.
"Yeah, he's okay." Dean breathed, leaning back against the kitchen cabinets and scrubbing one hand over his tired face, "He's just exhausted," Dean finished. With one arm wrapped around his middle and his other elbow propped against it, hand still around his mouth and holding his head up, Cal knew Sam wasn't the only one.
"His temperature's pretty much back to normal but he's already wheezing – hopefully it'll just be a bad cold. It fed off him pretty heavily so his energy levels have taken a hammering, but he'll bounce back. And you didn't think he'd piss it off," Dean made eye contact with an affectionate smile.
Cal nodded, allowing his stomach to unclench slightly.
"What about you? Have you slept at all?" he asked.
Dean shrugged and let his arms drop, sighing deeply. "I got a few hours, on and off. But Sam taking a swan dive on the way to the bathroom this morning kinda woke me up, and I've been up ever since."
"I thought…" Cal started, slightly alarmed.
"He just needs to take it easy. And a couple more bruises at this stage aren't really going to make a huge amount of difference." Dean was going for casual, but his eyes betrayed him. "How's Sarah?" Dean asked, turning away to rummage through the cupboard behind him, pulling out a mug and pouring a drink from the steaming coffeepot at his side.
"She's doing okay," Cal told him, moving to accept the drink Dean was now extending in his direction. "I stopped by the hospital this morning. They're letting her go home this afternoon; whatever it did to her there was no lasting damage."
"Physically at least."
Dean shifted awkwardly.
"She isn't going to say anything," Cal assured him. He knew well enough by now that Dean didn't trust easily. Well this time he was just going to have to, because Cal had done what had been asked of him and he trusted that Sarah would keep her word. She needed that trust to heal – Cal would not allow Dean to hinder her recovery by pushing the matter.
"Not that you're going to stick around long enough for it to matter?" Cal added ruefully. He knew how they worked by heart.
"Probably not, no," Dean's smile was strained.
They'd been on the road with bleeding wounds, bullet holes and concussions – it was a testament to either how worried Dean was or his faith in Cal that they were still here at all.
By the way Dean's eyes kept straying to the other side of the room; Cal didn't think it was the latter.
The sound of 80s rock music saved him from having to respond, and Dean fumbled quickly in his pocket for his phone. Dean's eyes darted quickly to the bed as he answered the call and he moved forward, craning his neck to check that Sam was still sleeping, before saying a word.
Reassured that Sam wasn't stirring, Dean excused himself with his eyes and left to take the call, closing the door quietly behind him.
Cal stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, uncomfortably aware it now held only him and a defenceless, sleeping, Sam. He'd be lying if he said he'd never thought about it, but those had been idle daydreams; he'd never actually believed he'd be in this situation and he felt guilty, dirty somehow for being there now, Sam so close yet so unaware. For having had these thoughts he knew he would never act on.
It wasn't just the knowledge that Sam didn't want him in that way; in reality Cal wasn't sure he did either. It had been months, but Cal had never really allowed himself to move on. Wasn't really ready to – and the difference between fantasy and physical reality was startlingly brutal. And it was unwelcome.
But Sam was a lot more real to him now than he had been even 48 hours before. There was no unearthly purity and light. His guardian angel had been proven to be a man, an as lost and equally confused man, with all the inadequacies and flaws that entailed. Sam might be better than most he knew, but it was unrealistic and unfair to think that someone so young, someone struggling so much themselves, held all the answers.
He felt no awe or excitement in being here. Not the tingling anticipation he might have expected. Just humbled, and comfortable, and needed. Because he had saved Sam's life, and he had intentionally done so, but that didn't mean he owed Sam anything. It didn't mean there was more for him to do. It didn't matter if Sam opened his eyes or not before Cal left, his job was still complete. Anything else, any other time they got, was just a bonus.
Either Dean had not been as stealthy in his exit as he'd liked or Cal's thoughts were too loud. Or maybe Sam had just sensed the changing presence in the room, felt a shift in the atmosphere acutely enough for it to rouse him.
"Hey," Cal whispered, moving to hover by the bed, hoping to head Sam off before his awareness kicked in fully. "It's Cal. Dean's just outside, he got a call."
Sam's eyes had fully opened and managed to focus on him by the time he'd finished speaking, but there was a time delay between Sam hearing the words and the slight nod of acknowledgement.
"How you feeling? Really."
Sam looked even worse close up than he had the day before, back when white and red had been his main colours and he'd had that sickening bluish haze. Now Sam was still pale but the bruises on his chin and temple were of varying hues of purple and green, the grazes on his cheek and split lip the darker russet of clotting blood.
Sam shifted slightly under the covers and screwed his face up in a wince, hissing slightly.
"Shit," Cal murmured in alarm, looking over his shoulder to the door, both wanting Dean back and worrying what the other man might think he was walking in on.
"That 'bout covers it, yeah," Sam smiled ruefully, reassuring despite the slight slur to his voice, and Cal wanted to be annoyed with that answer, at Sam for still feeling the need to protect him, to keep in his own thoughts and needs and concentrate on Cal's. He would like, just once before he left, for Sam to tell him what he was actually feeling, what he actually needed, to trust Cal enough to let him help – but it felt fitting somehow that they would go out this way, with Sam maintaining his silence.
"I'm gonna be okay," Sam told him, and he smiled, and it wasn't anywhere close to what Cal had wanted, but it was enough.
He nodded past the lump in his throat. It was hard to see Sam like this, to have it visually confirmed how dangerous and how taxing their lives could be. He had lived it, if only for one night, and it had been a terrifying, eye opening experience. One he never wanted to repeat.
He had been desperate to know what he should be doing with his life and had thought Sam was there to provide him with the answer - and he had. It just hadn't been the answer that Cal had been listening out for, and he'd almost missed it. Sam had told him time and time again this was not a life to get into lightly, that there was nothing glamorous about what they did – and the blood and filth and the smell of fear had proved that all to brutally to be true.
But Cal was still sorry to see that dream fade. He wanted it to be true almost as much as he'd wanted it sitting across from Sam in that diner, looking into his eyes and seeing understanding and acceptance in them for the first time in days. He wanted Sam to be the answer he sought, and he wanted to be able to answer those questions he could see locked inside this hunter; the ones he seemed forever unable to vocalise.
But that wasn't his place. Sam might be thrashed, and he might be exhausted, but he looked more at peace than Cal had ever seen him. He and Dean both did. He didn't know what had happened between the two of them since Cal had left them huddled in the front of their car – he doubted somehow that Sam had done anything but sleep – but somehow it had been healing for them both.
And Cal really was going to go. If he wasn't needed here, he had no reason to stay. No reason to ever see Sam again. It should have been liberating; he wanted it to be, but it was still as terrifying a prospect as it had ever been. Knowing his dependence wasn't healthy didn't mean he could snap his fingers and stop needing what Sam represented. But he was an emotional crutch, and it was long past time Cal learnt how to walk alone.
He still had no real home, no job, and no family – none that wanted him – and all the decisions that had brought him here were as clear as ever.
His knees wobbled slightly and he had to sit down before he embarrassed himself and fell to his ass at Sam's feet. He settled himself on the edge of Sam's bed with enough force that it bounced a few times as it adjusted to his weight. Sam hissed again but Cal couldn't have got up if he'd wanted to, and Sam shook his head before Cal could even attempt his apology. The look in Sam's eyes suggested he knew exactly what Cal was thinking, exactly why this was so hard.
Because goodbyes were rarely easy.
The door clicked open behind him and Dean slipped quietly in, locking eyes with Sam, assessing, questioning, before he was even fully in the room. He made no comment about Cal's new seat, and didn't berate him for having woken Sam.
"Who wa' son phone?" Sam questioned sleepily.
Dean shook his head to indicate that it didn't matter, but he answered the question in response to Sam's raised eyebrows.
"Bobby. He has those consecrated rounds ready next time we're in the area. You're so nosy." Then, "We don't have to move."
Sam nodded and relaxed back into the pillow. Cal hadn't even realised that Sam was tense, or what the question had been, until he sagged on hearing it answered.
"W' 'bout you?" he asked, turning his gaze once more to Cal. "When're you headin' out?"
"Actually I was gonna hang around for a few days. Sarah asked me," Cal clarified, turning to Dean, but the elder Winchester's face was deliberately neutral. "She still has a lot of questions, a lot of fears to work through."
"You were good with her," Dean commented, "Knew what she needed to be at ease."
"I've been there," Cal replied. They'd been there once too, they must have, but maybe they'd forgotten that. Or maybe they'd just never had that initial innocence to be shattered. But there was always something else out there, something else to fight, and they could very rarely stay still for long. He'd wanted someone to help him pick up the pieces, and he'd thought that person should be Sam, that he should finish the job he'd started by saving him physically, and save him emotionally too. And he hadn't been alone in that thought. It had been echoed back at him by other lost souls he had met on his travels.
But they had neither the time nor the energy to do it all themselves. If they had to see each case through to completion they would never leave, and there was so much more still out there to do.
And it wasn't just the victims of supernatural incidents that were in need of help. The world was full of confusion and doubt – violent crimes, assaults, and bereavement. There were so many different ways to hurt. The world was full of people that needed someone to talk to; Cal had learnt to see that, and had learnt to listen.
Sam might not have allowed Cal to try that ability out on him, but he had still shown Cal that he was capable of it, in his own way. And he'd said there were ways of moving forwards without turning to hunting. Maybe Cal wasn't as lost as he'd thought.
"And after that, who knows," Cal continued, musing aloud. "Maybe I'll go back to school, see if they've held my place open for me."
San nodded, relaxing further.
"You sure?" Dean questioned. "There might be a job going here, stalking Sam. As a security device. Just until I've saved up enough to get him micro-chipped like a dog."
"Hey! 'm right here." Sam spoke up indignantly.
"Yeah, you are," Dean muttered affectionately.
And it was time for Cal not to be.
"I should go," he blurted out, standing abruptly. After making the decision, finally, it seemed easier to just act on it now, not drag it out. He'd wanted this for so long, to be here, in their inner sanctum, both their guards as low as they would probably ever allow them to go. The idea that he would be here but not want to stay was ludicrous to him even now, and he was aware that if he didn't leave soon he never would. It would always be so easy to convince himself to stay.
"We're gonna hang around for today," Dean told him, "But we'll probably be heading out in the morning." Cal nodded his understanding – he knew what Dean was trying to say. They would be more careful this time, more aware of how he had tracked them. When he watched them drive away he would not be able to hunt them down again. This time when they left, it would most likely be for good.
"Here, take my new number," Sam offered, indicating in the air for a pen.
"It's okay." Cal couldn't believe he was saying this either. "You have mine. And I still have Dean's if ever…" he trailed off, shrugging.
He needed a clean break. If Sam was a mere phone call away he would be forever tempted to call it. But it was a comfort to know he could still get in touch with them if needed. To know Sam could still reach him, and probably would when Cal was ready for it. That they would always be able to send work each other's way. Because as long as people like the Winchesters were around there would be victims in need of someone to talk to, someone who could actually listen.
He clapped Sam's shoulder lightly before turning away from the bed, subconsciously following through on the gesture Sam had been unable to complete all those months before.
He turned back to face from the open door, not so much hesitating as prolonging the moment, savouring it. He had followed Dean into that warehouse, and he had been terrified, but this right here felt like the bravest thing he had ever done.
Dean had sunk into the seat that Cal had vacated, close, relaxed, and a solid presence between Sam and the world. Sam had propped himself up slightly on one elbow to watch Cal leave, and he wondered fleetingly if they were both checking to make sure he really went this time.
He locked eyes with Sam one last time, and received that tentative smile that made his heart clench. Then he walked out of the door and closed it behind him.
Losing Thom was still an ache, constant and undiminished, but Sam was right – without even noticing Cal had somehow learnt to live with it there, forever just brushing the surface.
He had a vague plan, but no real idea where he would go from here, what he would become. But he had the rest of his life to figure it out.