Title: Vagabond Highway

Author: HalfshellVenus

Characters: Sam and Dean (Gen)

Rating: K+

Summary(Pre-Series to S1 Pilot): Sam never really belonged, not anywhere, but that didn't mean he'd ever stop trying.

Author's Notes: For writers_choice, this is "Stray."

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Dean would say they had a home, a place where they belonged—even if it stretched and shifted across state lines and highways, moving from one town to the next until it was like they'd lived everywhere and nowhere all at once.

But for Sam, that never felt true—it didn't mean anything. Wherever they went, they were usually on their way to being forgotten by the next cycle of the moon.

Sam wanted nothing more than to put down roots in something stable, to build a life that wouldn't change with every passing lead or rumor or one of those sudden bursts of restlessness that always returned to drive their father onward.

Who am I? he wondered, with no lasting mirror to reflect back the truth of himself as seen by anyone other than Dean or Dad. He'd never be Winchester enough to satisfy either of them, always measured more by his failure to fulfill—or worse, by the fact that he didn't live it, breathe it, want it like either of them did.

He got good at making friends. The truth of it was, he no other choice—he needed to fit in with the crowd, and couldn't count on ever keeping anything he found. He learned the art of getting along, wielding it with incredible skill everywhere except within his family.

There was a difference between wanting to be liked and needing to keep a foothold on a sense of identity that was already always under attack.

Other people had lives Sam envied—friendships dating back to preschool, family reunions, town traditions. When he made friends with someone like that, he couldn't help turning up at their doorstep and slowly slipping inside the family fabric, like he was hoping to be adopted.

The more he absorbed of those other lives, the more the richness of that permanence called to him. Only in the twisted logic of all-things-Winchester could wanting the American dream be considered selfish and wrong. Sam wanted it all—a life without running or secrets, one at last lived outside the ever-present shadows of darkness and death.

At Stanford, he finally found what he'd been looking for. Everyone was starting over just like he was, ready to make sense of themselves in a new place and hoping to find new friends along the way. Sam felt easy with himself for the first time ever, able to just enjoy where he was and the people he met without having to try so damn hard all the time. He could pass off his background the same vague way any military kid might, always evading deeper questions. He knew he wasn't the only one reshaping his own past.

He missed Dean, even missed Dad, for all the times he'd wanted to be out from under their demands and disapproval. But even so, this was still the life he would have chosen.

It was a shock, having Dean show up one night. Sam was halfway to his future with Jess, and suddenly there was Dean—reminding Sam of everything he used to be. All those years of practically worshipping Dean twisted inside him, as he looked at his brother now—more wild than he remembered, or maybe Dean was always that way—and the up-close smell of leather and gun-oil and ash twined through him until it was hard to breathe.

Soon they were on the road together, looking for traces of their father. It was both half-alien and all-too-familiar, falling back into that life, but it was temporary and Sam could never really say no to Dean any more than Dean could ever do the same to him.

The trip was disjointed, Dean alternately cocky and unsettled. Half of Dean's life was in the Impala, the other scattered through the scraps and clues and questions in the motel room their Dad had so mysteriously left behind.

Dean had never belonged anywhere except inside his own family, Sam suddenly realized. He probably never would. Sam had Jess waiting for him back home, Jess and a circle of good friends, but Dean had nothing but a string of hints and messages and Dad's old journal to guide him on.

Surely they'd turn up something, Sam thought, unable to ignore the desperation in his brother's every movement. It hurt—just like it hurt to see how happy Dean seemed to have him back, and to know how badly Dean needed him and Dad both.

They'd find Dad soon, though, and then Sam could go back to his own life, safe in the knowledge that Dean was settled away once again.

But as they drove down yet another road of half-possibilities and bleak promise, Sam watched Dean in the glow of oncoming headlights and wondered why he'd never noticed which of them had actually always been lonelier.

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