Author: Mirrordance

Title: Crash

summary: Set in the Stanford years. After a rough solo hunt, a hurting Dean camps out on Sam's couch. Sam's roommate notices a few things about Dean that Sam finds hard to hear.

Hi guys,

Big warning here: I have never written a fic with so mature and sensitive a material before, so please take note of the wary rating. Saying what the warning is about would spoil the story, but I guess at this point I just want to say that I hope readers would take in the tale with the open-minded sophistication I've come to expect of this particularly tough, edgy fandom :)

I wrote this fic in a couple of days, with a plot that just wouldn't leave me alone. My stories are usually better-planned, but I have posted a couple like Crash that just snuck up on me until it was done. I hope the quality didn't suffer and that you'd still have a good read.

Anyway, c&cs are as welcome as always, and here's to hoping I get to post my more-planned fics soon, haha. I hope you guys let me know what you think 'cos I swear this topic just makes me nervous. So, without further ado: Crash.

" " "

Crash

" " "

Palo Alto, California

2003

" " "

There was something inside Sam that always knew his older brother would come knocking one day.

He didn't know the exact circumstances around which it would occur, but he could and would always imagine it. Depending on his mood, sometimes it was a nightmare and other times it was a fantasy.

Dean would come in the middle of him on a date and leer at him to half his life, that's when his older brother would come. That date would be just one more woman in campus who ended up not being his girlfriend. Nightmare.

After he attended a memorial for a school shooting at a sister-university, he imagined his brother coming in to save the day if something like that should ever happen wherever Sam was. Dean would save the day. Sam would brag about knowing him, take him around. His older brother would wow them all with his pool skills as much as the heroism. That's how his brother would come. Fantasy.

Maybe he'd come battered and bruised from a hunt, needing Sam to help him. Sam had a roommate, so that would have raised questions Sam had no inclination to answer. Nightmare.

Or maybe if Sam was the one hurt or sick – like he had been last year, out for the count with fever and wishing his older brother was there with him with that snarky irreverence and also undeniable caring – that's when Dean would come. Fantasy.

Dean would come like an intrusion, then yank him back away to that other life, the one he had left behind. Then again, Dean could come into his life again, maybe even stay.

Dean would come and look like a stranger or worse, come in looking and being just like their dad, transformed from all the time Sam had been away. Then again, Dean could come and be exactly as Sam had left him, and they would treat each other in the exact same way, like no time had passed.

On any given day, Dean coming was either dreaded or welcome. Yesterday it likely would have been dreaded; Sam was caught right smack in the middle of mid-term hell-week. Today--

Sam pried open the door of his apartment irritably at the sound of the insistent, inappropriate midnight knocking that had woken him up from much-needed, too-little sleep. The only thing more surprising than finding Dean standing there was the fact that he had even knocked in the first place.

"Dean?!"

"Hey man, can I crash?" The question was so disarmingly casual and straightforward that Sam wondered if they'd just spoken yesterday, instead of... god, how long had it been? Imagination and reality, welcome and dread were mashed-up confusing at this hour of the night.

"Yeah, of course!" Sam exclaimed, stepping aside, opening the door wider. Dean led himself inside, and Sam's eyes narrowed in worry and thought as he walked beside him. No cuts, no blood, no bandages, no cast, no limp--

"Quit it with the X-ray eyes, Clark Kent," Dean told him wearily, not even looking at Sam but knowing without a doubt that he was being checked over, "I'm not hurt anywhere, I'm just tired."

Sam frowned, accepting this for now because in all objectivity, Dean did look all right. He not only seemed unhurt, he also seemed unbearably clean, as a matter of fact. Sam could smell the shampoo and the soap from where he stood, and the often-present car grease, road-dust and hunt-related grime was absolutely non-existent on Dean or on his clothes this night.

"Just tired?" Sam echoed.

"Yeah," Dean replied, and illustrated this by sinking on the battered old couch in the living room. The lumpy furniture looked like it could swallow him; he fell into the folds with a sigh. He leaned his head on the rest and closed his eyes. He looked all right, Sam amended, except for those eyes. They were dark-rimmed and sunken, the very illustration of days-awake.

"Came from a job?"

"Mmmhmm," Dean mumbled, in an affirmative.

He was beginning to drift, which made Sam jumpy. "You'll be more comfortable on my bed, you know."

"Your couch is nice," Dean murmured, "I'm good, thanks."

"No, seriously," Sam insisted, "Come on, Dean."

One of his older brother's eyes opened to look at him irritably, "What am I, a guest, someone you didn't know, someone you're trying to impress? I'm your frickin' brother. You can dump me anywhere in your pad and I'll be fine."

Sam sighed, as Dean closed his eyes again, "Okay well, ditch the jacket and the boots, at least. And get horizontal, will you?"

Dean growled under his breath but did as recommended, absently toeing off his boots and tearing off his jacket, not even bothering to open his eyes.

"Oh and I have a roommate, okay?" Sam told Dean, "So if you hear someone puttering around here who isn't me, try to not-skewer him, will you?"

"Sammy's living in with a boy," Dean mumbled; he was weary not dead, and so he could not find it in himself to resist that one. And then he just let himself fall to his side, already more out than awake. Sam lifted his brother's legs up to the couch, and Dean didn't even notice, already breathing heavily in deepening sleep.

Sam studied his face for a long moment, before taking the discarded jacket and draping it as a blanket over his brother. He also straightened the boots on the floor, left them neatly by Dean's feet.

"You're okay, right?" Sam whispered in the midnight-dark.

His question was expectedly met with silence.

Nightmare...?

...Fantasy?

He sighed, and decided it would be a good idea to let his roommate know that they had someone else in the house. The property was a two-bedroom apartment with a shared full-bath, a kitchen, and a living room. Dean would have been hard to miss.

Sam padded quietly over to his roommate's door, knocked quietly and peered in.

"Sam?" the other man asked sleepily, peering from beneath the covers of his bed, "What's goin' on?"

"Nothing, Nick," Sam replied, "Just wanted to give you the head's up, 's all. M'brother's camped out on the couch."

This perked up his roommate, whose eyes cleared of sleepiness as he raised himself up to his elbows, "No shit, really? There's actually another Winchester in the world?"

The comment wasn't unfounded; none of Sam's friends had ever come across his brother or father. He'd talk about them once in awhile but that was that, and he was generally a private person about his past. Old habits were hard to break too; growing up as he had, he'd learned to keep his mouth shut about many things.

"Yeah don't get too excited," Sam said wryly, "He's already out like a light and I don't know how long he'll be sticking around."

"I'm just relieved to get confirmation that my roommate's not some solitary sociopathic psycho killer, man," Nick said with a chuckle, "Now lemme alone, will you? Guy's sleepin' here."

"Yeah, yeah," Sam grinned, "See you tomorrow, dude."

" " "

Sam slept fitfully; having Dean resting just a few feet away was alien and discomfiting in the sense that it seemed both too near and too far. Too near because they haven't been within this proximity in more than a year; too far because anytime they were remotely near each other they've always slept in the same room, a mere arm apart.

He woke up early, checked on Dean and found him still-asleep. Mumbling unintelligibly a little bit and shifting, but definitely in-deep. Sam headed for the kitchen and examined the fridge and the pantry. Deciding that it's meager, distinctly college contents were profoundly inadequate and displeasing, he resolved to go out and buy some breakfast. In many ways, he wanted Dean to be treated right while he was visiting, and this included a good meal.

Moving quickly, Sam grabbed a sweater and his wallet, slipped on his running shoes. There was an excellent bakery around the corner from where he lived. The tree-lined, early-morning walk was breezy and relaxing, and he found himself jogging part of the way through it. He felt oddly refreshed as he breathed in deeply and drew himself closer to the smells of the fresh bread and brewed coffee.

"Sam," the proprietor had greeted him as he walked in. She was a middle-aged woman with flaming red hair and an abundance of freckles. Jacinda must have been a looker in the day, still was as a matter of fact, under the layers of happy-weight she had picked up from being both owner and best-customer of the bakery she ran with her husband.

"G'morning, Jaci," he greeted her as he looked across the display, "Oh, everything looks awesome."

Her smile broadened, "Wrangling a freebie from me again, Sam Winchester."

He flashed her one right back, "Always."

"Those dimples will be the death of me," she sighed melodramatically, "Hey, I haven't seen you in awhile."

"It's mid-term hell week, you know," Sam said as he chewed at his lower lip. Looking at the display case always confused him about what he wanted, "But m'brother's visiting, so I thought I should come by here and feed him the best."

She wiggled her eyebrows at him, "He as cute as you?"

"He likes redheads," Sam laughed, "And they love him. I'll bring him over, and you be the judge."

"Oh, I think I know the type," she said, "He must like blondes too. And brunettes. And everything in between..."

He laughed, picked out a loaf of freshly baked bread and home-made peanut butter for provisions, and a couple of bagels and some mini-pies that he knew Dean would just wolf down and mow over for breakfast. He grabbed three tall coffees – in case Nick wanted to join them – and then headed over to the checkout. Jacinda billed him for the coffee and the bagels, and then let him go with a wink. He grinned at her but said nothing, especially since there were a good number of people behind him in line, who wouldn't have been happy about not being as lucky.

Sam hurried back home, wanting Dean to eat the food when it was still warm and at their best. When he came back, his brother was still asleep and the only sight that was different from when he left earlier in the morning was that he found Nick standing a few feet away from Dean, as if he'd been watching him.

The sight of his brother unaware and vulnerable beneath a categorical-stranger's watchful eye got the hairs on the back of his neck standing on-end.

"What are you doing?" were the first accusatory words out of his mouth.

Nick looked up at him, startling a little. The surprise did not mask his troubled gaze, though. "He's uh... I think he's havin' a nightmare or something."

Sam looked at Dean's face, saw tear-tracks and more shifting and more mumbling. Nick standing there suddenly angered him, that this guy should see Dean like this.

"I was sleeping," Nick explained, apparently knowing Sam long enough to recognize some ire at the intrusion, "Heard someone cry out, then go quiet again. I went out to see what was going on, didn't know if I should wake him or not." He took the packages off of Sam's pliant hands, "Let me get this together."

"Sorry," Sam muttered at him under his breath, feeling pissed at himself for being so accusatory. Nick knew what the apology had been for and just ducked to the kitchen.

Sam sighed, looked at Dean still oblivious and so deeply not there. He reached a hand to touch Dean's shoulder.

It was like touching a live wire.

Dean's eyes shot open and he scrambled away with a wild, could-have-been lethal swipe that Sam dodged only because he was John Winchester's son. The two brothers looked at each other, equally stunned and Sam could only think, Thank god Nick hadn't tried to wake Dean up.

"You tryin' to get killed or something?!" Dean snapped at him.

Sam caught his breath; Dean's eyes were wild, but the tear-tracks were drying. "You were having a nightmare."

Dean just snorted at him, "Yeah, yeah. Who doesn't. Sheesh." In a lower tone, he said more carefully, "I really coulda kill-"

"No," Sam cut off that thought right away, which would have been an entirely new kind of nightmare for Dean, "No, you wouldn't have."

Dean ran his hands wearily over his face, "Hey, do I smell coffee?"

"Yeah," Sam said, breaking into a smile and calling out, "Yo, Nick! Come meet my brother here."

His roommate stepped into the living room with a hesitant grin, and immediately endeared himself to Dean by gripping his right hand in a tight, reassuring shake and handing him a cup of coffee with the other.

"Dean Winchester," Dean introduced himself, eyes warming, crinkling at the corners in that kindly way Sam did not even realize he's been missing. Dean did not trust people too often, but he wasn't sizing Nick up like Sam would have expected. Apparently, someone Sam trusted enough to live with was someone that Dean was willing to like.

"Sam brought food," Nick said, leading the way to the kitchen, where he had set up the four-seater table with breakfast.

"Awesome," Dean said as he got to his feet. He frowned at Sam's curious look. "What?"

"Nothing," Sam shrugged, "I guess it's just... nevermind."

"I did a background check on him," Dean murmured in explanation, moving past Sam to the kitchen.

"Dean, what- seriously-" Sam sputtered, knowing suddenly that Dean was not kidding. What was scrambling about the statement was the very idea that all this time he thought he'd been alone, Dean was still somehow around in his life, making sure he was all right. The thought was both strengthening, and all at once earth-shattering.

" " "

Nick excused himself to take a shower after breakfast, saying his first class was starting in an hour. The brothers watched him walk away and then looked at each other only after he had closed the bathroom door behind him. The Winchesters regarded each other, heads tilted, and eyes narrowed, as if they were contemplating the opening salvo that would set the tone of the game. Nick walking away was like a countdown to the shoot-out, the last of his steps before vanishing away analogous to a Three-two-one...

They were physically alone together for the first time since Sam left the family business – the family -for college. The thoughts of both men drifted unquestionably to that California bus-terminal-bound car ride, music-free because Dean was in one of those moods where he was courting a confrontation he did not want to begin himself, but felt they both needed. The air was toxic, lethal mix of past, present and future, of dad's anger, of both men's hopes and fears, desires, regrets...

"Come with me," Sam had asked, "We can just keep going, never come back, never look back. We can really just go."

"You know I can't," Dean replied.

"Why not? 'Cos dad said so? 'Cos dad--"

"'Cos it's not my life!"

"What," Sam retorted, "What's your life, Dean? All of this?!" – he had said 'this' with such spite and derision, like they were all dead in the dark already.

"What about you?" Dean asked his brother, breaking into Sam's contemplations.

"...What?"

"Class?" Dean asked, raising an eyebrow at the inattentiveness, "Wake up, dude."

"Mine starts an hour later than Nick's," Sam answered. He took a bite of his mini-pie; each one was so tiny he could have just shoved three of the entire thing in his mouth, as Dean might have done... He noticed then that Dean had been nursing the same one since they sat down. "What's wrong? Don't you like it?"

"Why so offended, Sammy, did you make it?" Dean asked wryly, but nevertheless took heartier bites, "You know you really didn't have to grab all this stuff. Seriously man, you don't have to bother with anything. I..." he hesitated, and Sam wondered what the continuation of the statement was. If he was gonna say he was just breezing through, or he was just checking on Sam, or he wasn't going to stay long, or he could look out for himself, or he didn't need anybody--

"I just really needed a place to crash for the night," Dean finished lamely, deciding that moment was the most ideal to shove the rest of the pie in his mouth.

"Yeah," Sam said quietly, "You looked absolutely wiped, man. Must've been some job you came from. At least you didn't get hurt or anything."

Dean chewed on, said nothing. But his eyes clouded, and it was a look Sam had never seen before. It was an abstract gaze, reminded Sam of one of those modern paintings he's had to look at for school, where the perspectives changed on the same image, some part of it depicted from afar and others from up close. His brother's gaze was distant and familiar, some version of him that Sam had never met before: it was the same injury and determination, sure, the same independence and need. But then a mysterious something else, something Dean may have acquired while Sam was away, something Sam couldn't understand. The only word he could think of to capture it was scar. Dean had grabbed a new scar while Sam was away. His brother looked very oddly dented, like a car slightly distorted by a hit and still undoubtedly being like the same vehicle.

"Hey uh..." Dean hesitated again, "You don't mind if I stuck around for a little bit, right?"

"Of course not," Sam said quickly, "You're not... on a job or anything though, are you?"

"Relax, Sammy," Dean said, face breaking into that disarming smile of his, "Your zone's clean as a whistle, or you'd have been seeing more of dad and me. It's just..."

His voice drifted off once more. That hesitation was there again, and for some reason neither of them could talk about what exactly Dean was doing there.

"Hey, wanna sit in on one of my classes?" Sam asked, filling in the void, "Since you're hanging out and all, take a look at what I've been doing here."

Dean blanched at him, "I didn't even wanna go to class whenI had to, Sammy. What in our long history together makes you think--"

"You'll like this one," Sam insisted, "We're doing this moot court thing on the application of American law to the cultural defense; we're exploring the effects of lore and religion and socio-cultural factors that impact the criminal behavior of some new migrants. The case we're doing involves this guy who killed another guy whom he kept insisting was some kind of a witch."

Dean frowned at Sam, saying flatly, "I'll say it again: What in our long history together makes you think--"

Sam actually laughed at his brother this time, feeling his cheeks warm, "Dude: everything in our long history together, how about that? You've gone to my fourth-grade declamations and lame-ass musicals in high school for crying out loud. If I'm speaking here, you're going and you know it."

Dean sighed, trying to look defeated but his eyes were lighting up that abstract-stranger's look Sam had seen earlier, "I guess nothing can be worse than that second grade haiku-reading. Or," he shuddered melodramatically, "That play about the value of nutrition, and you were this floppy vegetable."

"You told me I made a really great carrot," Sam pointed out.

"I was lying," Dean said, wiggling his eyebrows at his younger brother, "So sue me."

" " "

He played the promising pre-law student much better than he played a carrot, that was for certain sure. Sam's arguments were precise, incisive, vivid, well-paced and played, just... really damn good.

Dean sat in the back row of the lecture hall, watching Sam with keen, clear eyes, taking everything in. Sam had been right when he said Dean would find the topic interesting; he'd been even more right when he pointed out Dean's investment in the things Sam devoted himself to.

Dean had even toned down on the leather jacket and the jewels, like he was costuming up for research on a hunting job, except this time he was trying to portray a conventional, decent family member to his younger brother. This was, he'd found over the course of the years, one of the hardest roles to play.

He'd stepped out of the bathroom looking crisp and clean in dark jeans and a long-sleeved, gray knit shirt. The only jewelry he had on was the necklace Sam had given him when they were kids, and even that was slipped under the V of his shirt. Sam had looked at him like he was tempted to give Dean grief about the 'conventional' look, but thankfully bit his tongue. Dean had always dressed up a little for Sam's 'things,' knowing that he was always sort-of holding up a flag for his brother.

When they were younger, Dean tried to look older so that people would know that someone always had Sam's back. When they got older, it was more a question of having to look more respectable, like he was trying to show he was worthy of being this smart, promising kid's older brother.

Dean hung back when Sam's classmates congratulated him after the event, letting him have his time basking in all the academic glory. It was almost a simple desire, this normal-fixation of Sam's. It was just too bad he was born into the life and the family he was ultimately born into.

Sam started talking to a comely brunette, older than he was and from the look of things, was a little on the sassy Hispanic side with a touch of prim Asian. They glanced Dean's way, and then walked toward him together.

"Luisa, this is my older brother Dean," Sam introduced, "Dean, this is our team advisor, Luisa."

"Good to meet you," Dean told her, "So you did good out there. You actually made my little brother sound legit."

She laughed, shook off the compliment, "Oh you better believe me when I say he did a lot of that on his own. My bosses have their eye on this one as early as now, I can tell you that. If anything, it's my honor to be meeting the person who taught Sam Winchester how to read and write and be the kind of worker that he is."

"You're right," Dean said with a smirk, "I should get a medal for that. Kid's a handful."

Sam punched him in the arm, and then flitted away in a breathless, barely-comprehensible "Excuse-me-a-sec-I-gotta-talk-to-the-professor."

Dean and Luisa watched him walk away for a moment, before turning back to each other, "Seriously, Mr. Winchester, we are heavily invested in Sam's future."

"Me too," Dean said with a quiet smile, "And it's 'Dean.'"

"Dean," she repeated, like it was a robotic note-to-self; then again, she had these sharp, lawyer's eyes. He felt that maybe she didn't miss much. "So... you came by to visit just to watch?"

"No, actually," Dean replied, "I was just in the neighborhood, never had the chance to come see what the Sasquatch has been up to. It's a nice surprise."

"The pre-law program is very comprehensive," she explained, "This moot court event is a pretty decent initial exposure to what he can expect, moving forward."

"He's doing good?" Dean asked, even as he always already knew the answer to that one.

"He's the best," she replied, with that same simplicity that people have always resignedly approached his younger brother's prodigious brilliance.

"Yeah, just don't let him hear it," Dean said wryly.

She smiled at that again. "And how about you, Dean? What do you do? You must be pretty busy, having had no other time to visit your brother 'til now."

"I'm in the family business," Dean replied easily, "I go around the country doing deals for my dad with cars; buy, sell, restore, parts acquisition, repairs..." he expounded a few more details. It was a weird quirk of the human race, that the more one spoke about one's job, the less people wanted to hear about it, after all.

"That must be fun," she said.

"It was more fun when Sam was around," Dean found himself saying.

The honesty surprised them both, and her pretty, impeccably neat eyebrows rose. "I can imagine."

Sam returned to them, saying, "Hey – drinks at Stephen's tonight? Mandy's buying, it's her birthday."

"I'll be there," Luisa said, "It was nice meeting you, Dean. I hope to see you then."

"Maybe," he told her with a grin, the one he knew women liked. It came on unheeded, like it was either auto-pilot or self-destruction.

"Dude, who the hell is Mandy?" Dean asked.

"One of my classmates," Sam replied quietly, "The one whose been giving you the eye all damn class."

"What?" Dean asked, "I didn't notice any--"

"Losing touch in your old age, bro?" Sam smirked, "You're hanging out, so we might as well go, okay? Besides, I think she's buying the booze to make an occasion just so you'd go. Her friend gave me the not-so-subtle-hint."

"And why are we buying into this crap show?" Dean asked.

"Got anything better to do?" Sam pointed out.

"No," Dean conceded, reading his brother's face suspiciously, "Sam?"

"She's nice," Sam finally blurted out, "Maybe you'll like her."

Dean's eyebrow quirked at that, "And maybe I'll stay, you mean?"

Sam seemed surprised by that interpretation. He looked thoughtful for a long moment, like he was wondering himself if that was his motivation for insisting on this.

"I want you to be a part of my life," Sam admitted finally, and it should have been embarrassing but he said it so plainly, like the sky was just simply blue, "This is what I do, and these are the people who are my friends. You've looked some of them up which means I'm safe, whatever. But I want them to know you too. Is that fair?"

Dean frowned, "Fine. But I'm putting on better clothes. I'm fucking getting hives here."

" " "

Sam's second class was with a dour, old-school professor who wasn't big on welcoming sit-ins unless they were equally subject to her questions, which always seemed tailor-made to grind you to the point of ignorance and embarrassment.

Dean had laughed and found it tempting, but he knew to pick his battles. Sam can keep that one to himself, he figured, deciding on just hanging around town and meeting up at Sam's apartment later in the afternoon.

"But you'll be there, right?" Sam had asked, and his younger brother had grabbed him by the forearm, like he was trying to extract a promise. You won't go away when I'm suddenly not looking, was the clear subtext.

"Yeah, yeah," Dean said, and he said nothing else, because he was inexplicably touched by Sam's desire to have him around. Maybe he was missed here after all.

Dean walked around, found that he liked college towns; people were younger so they tended to be looser and more vibrant. Particular to Sam's neck of the woods was a beating diversity, and the place had this restless hum of ambitious, young, over-intelligence. Every few people who passed him by reminded Dean of his younger brother in some way, reinforcing the fact that Sam belonged here more than he belonged in the dark, his family being there notwithstanding.

The dark...

He shuddered, and then shook off the feeling, turned off his thoughts. He did not want to stumble into a tenuous black hole because the damn things seemed to be all over the place in his head lately. One thought bleeding into the next, and then the next and then the next, all of them safe until he remembers... the other stuff... and then suddenly his mind goes over this edge, into the dark, the part he's never sure he could ever climb out of.

The dark...

... Stop it.

He sat on one of the many benches situated by the sidewalks, making sure to stay away from the shadows of the trees, wanting to be subject to the radiance of the sun. He didn't know how long he stayed there just breathing, just basking in the warmth and the light.

Light. Light. Light.

A shadow broke into the glare, spindly fingers stretching toward him, landing on his shoulder cold and dark.

"Don't touch me," he hissed, backing away.

"Oh. Crap. Shit. I'm sorry!"

The voice was familiar. Dean struggled to place it. Dean struggled to place himself. He caught his breath, fought to think. Bench. Sidewalk. Stanford. Sam's fucking roommate.

"Dean...?" Nick called out, uncertainly.

Dean blinked at him, finally focused, finally finding his feet in this piss-poor, embarrassing situation. "What the hell, dude?"

"You were so spaced out," Nick said, "Didn't hear me calling. I was just passing through, saw you and thought I'd say 'hi.'"

"Well 'hi,'" Dean said wryly, "Sheesh. Sorry, man. Daydreaming, I guess."

The kid didn't buy it, Dean could tell by the eyes. Maybe he thought Dean was doing drugs. Maybe he fucking should. But Nick probably figured it wasn't his business because he just said, "Yeah this place can do that to ya. I remember my high school tour here, and there was just a ton of us wishing like hell we could get in."

"Yeah," Dean said absently.

"So you going to that thing of Mandy's later, right?" Nick asked.

"Yup," Dean replied, "I never turn down a free beer."

"Oh they have like, two hundred kinds of beer from all over the world on tap alone at Stephen's," Nick said, "Even more rare stuff in bottles. My personal favorite is this blueberry-flavored thing."

"Girly-drink," Dean smirked at him, just to get the edge off the wrong foot this conversation started with.

"Oh you're saying that now," Nick told him, "You'll bite your tongue later, I promise you that. You'll have such an awesome time here, Dean. You really won't regret visiting."

The promises – the latter ones, of course – Dean found endearing. It was, he noted, a testament to the devotion Sam's friends had to him that they were so willing to bring Dean into their fold.

"Thanks, man," Dean said, "I'm looking forward to being wrong about the chick-beer."

" " "

He was reunited with Sam by early evening. He was a little bit late, because he found a food-mart shortly after running into Nick and he got carried away shopping for foodstuffs for Sam's house.

"Where've you been?" Sam asked, arms crossed over his chest, "And is your phone off?"

"I'm here now, aren't I?" Dean snapped, shoving the groceries in Sam's arms.

The look his younger brother gave him after figuring out the contents of the bags was undisguised delight that he was there, underlined by the more discreet relief, compounded by just naked gratitude for the gesture.

"Oh man, you didn't have to," he told his older brother.

"Don't go bawling on me or anything," Dean told him, embarrassed by the open affection, "Maybe I just didn't want to starve while I was here."

They both knew it was a lie, but they both found comfort in it so they let it slip.

"Pay your keep, that's right," Sam told him smugly.

Nick, Sam and Dean walked the fairly short distance to Stephen's after placing the food in the formerly-pathetic refrigerator and pantry.

"Where's the Impala?" Sam asked.

"Why drive," Dean said smugly, "When we can walk home drunk?"

The early evening was cool and breezy and fairly-lit, and walking alongside Sam, Dean almost didn't mind the creeping darkness of the night around them.

"This is a nice place, Sammy," Dean said.

"Yeah," Sam echoed.

They walked in companionable silence, before Nick broke it.

"Nice you finally got to visit your brother, Dean," he commented, "We were starting to think you were imaginary."

Dean laughed, "Yeah well, my brother's a potato-sack-and-a-half of crazy."

"So what do you do, man?" Nick asked, "You in the army or something?"

Both brothers responded at the same time: "What makes you think that?"

"You guys are creepy," Nick resolved, before answering, "I don't know. I thought maybe that's why you've been so busy 'til now, maybe you were away or something. Besides, you kind of have this vibe going, I guess."

It was, Dean knew by expert opinion, a lie. Nick has been busying that too-smart Stanford-brain of his since they ran into each other this afternoon with what's been plaguing Dean, apparently. Dean thought the younger man would have accused him of doing drugs. He never thought he'd be suspected of spacing out because he had PTSD.

"Dad was in the Service," Dean replied, breezily, "And he has a personality like a virus, sometimes."

Any mention of their father usually had Sam bristling, and today was no different, "We got programmed, man. I was the virus in that outfit, the one messing up the plan."

Dean tossed his brother a warning look, "Anyway, that's probably why you'd think so. But I'm not in the Service. I'm in the family business." He gave her the same, slightly over-long spiel that he gave to Luisa, and was met with the same semi-interested result.

"Nice," Nick commented.

"How about you?" Dean asked, just to be polite. He'd meant it when he said he'd done a background check on Sam's roomie. Nicholas Carrigan was the fifth son of an old-money sugar mill family, which gave him the leeway to be both eccentric and idealistic, along with the money to enable these non-business-related 'vices.' His mom died a few months after he was born – suicide by post-partum depression. Not having known a mother, and only partially-raised by a distracted father, was probably one of the reasons why he and Sam got along. That, aside from the fact that they were both in pre-law, and both had that hero-change-the-world ambition. Sam was going to rid the world of 'natural' evil; Nick was was active in building communities, doing life-counseling for troubled teens and motivational talks in inner-city schools.

"Oh I'm pretty boring," Nick said, "I'm vanilla, this is absolutely it."

"Nick has four older brothers," Sam revealed, "I have to contend with one and that's already a nightmare."

"I'm a joy to be around," Dean countered.

"You both are a handful," Nick said, before stopping by their local watering hole, "Ah, here we are."

" " "

Oh he was wrong about the beer, all right.

Damn thing tasted like pie you can drink plied with alcohol, which meant that the damn thing tasted like Dean's custom-made heaven. Dean breezed through a bottle, and Nick looked at him knowingly.

"We shoulda put money on that," Nick said.

"You wouldn't wanna place money against me on anything else," Dean told him, looking at the pool tables situated on one corner of the bar suggestively.

Sam groaned, even as he laughed, "Dean, man, we are not taking these good people's money."

"I'm not a good girl," Mandy said suggestively, and their friends howled at her as she laughed, "I wouldn't mind."

"See?" Dean exclaimed triumphantly, "We can take away Mandy's money!"

"From a girl?" Sam asked him, "On her birthday? You put me to shame, brother."

"I wanna see you two duke it out," Luisa said, "I've seen Sam feed us dinner after a night on that thing."

"Well I'll show you where he picked up those tricks," Dean said boldly.

"I think I can take that bet," one of Sam's classmates, a guy named Walker claimed. They all had wacky rich-people names like that, Dean reflected. Nick and Mandy and Walker and Reese and Conner and all the other people sitting on their long, party table.

"But I think I'll let you have a couple more of these, man!" he guffawed, motioning for their waitress, who brought more of the beer that Dean liked.

"I don't mind the handicap," Dean said, "You're gonna need it."

They laughed on about a miscellany of things. Dean didn't know if it was the liquor or the weather, but he felt inexplicably warmed. The people who Sam liked getting along with him should not have been a surprise, in afterthought; after all, he and Sam got along. But in many ways it still remained so, because there was no question that these rich kids with their lucky lives were a far, far cry from what he's always known.

He finished his beer, was promptly handed another bottle by Walker.

"I guess this means you were serious," Dean told him.

"As a heart attack," Walker replied.

"Let's get to it, then," Dean grinned, rising to his feet.

"I'm gonna watch," Mandy said, and she rose with them, along with a few of her closest girl friends.

"Play nice, Dean," Sam reminded his older brother. For a second, he looked like he was contemplating standing up too, not wanting to leave Dean alone and at the same time, wanting him to have his own space. Dean made the decision for him, patted his shoulder in assurance as he passed him by.

"I'll even let him win a few," Dean winked at his younger brother, who beamed at him right back, but kept his seat.

" " "

They went back to Sam and Nick's apartment relatively early; everyone had classes the next day. Sam led the way in, followed by Dean, and Nick shut the door behind him.

"You gonna lock that?" Dean asked.

"Hm?" Nick looked at the locks, and then back at Dean, "I guess we forget sometimes. It's a pretty safe neighborhood, man."

Dean looked at Sam incredulously, "You forget too?"

Sam shrugged, "Sometimes."

"Oh Sammy, dad's gonna wring your neck," Dean said, going over and locking the door, and then the two bolts also, "You can never be sure, you know."

"Well I'm hitting the sack, guys," Nick said, "G'night."

"See ya tomorrow, dude," said Sam.

"Hey Dean," Nick called out as he walked away, "Teach me some of that shit on the pool before you leave, all right?"

"You got it," Dean promised. He turned to his brother after Nick closed the door before turning to Sam, "I was serious 'bout the locks, by the way."

"I know you were," Sam sighed.

"If I didn't think roomie over there would think you were crazy," Dean went on, "I'd insist on the salt lines too. But we checked this place out, so I think we can do without that... for now."

"'We?'" Sam echoed.

"Dad worries about you too you know," Dean said simply, walking toward the couch and sitting down. "Place is clean, like I told you."

"About dad," Sam began hesitantly, "Where is he?"

"Busy," Dean replied curtly, "Hey – you gonna use the bathroom? I wanna shower."

"Knock yourself out," Sam said.

" " "

When Sam woke up the next day, he found Dean still asleep, shifting restlessly in another nightmare-plagued sleep, moaning low. He loomed over his older brother, wondering if he should wake him or not. Sam felt troubled about this, to say the least; the nightmare-thing had always been more his problem than Dean's. But something happened since Sam left for Stanford, undoubtedly something that had scarred Dean in ways Sam couldn't begin to guess but the worst of which he could always imagine.

What happened to you while I was gone, he wondered, his heart yearning for that lost time and all at once dreading it.

The pain of having to wonder about this distracted him from instantly recognizing that he wasn't the only one awake in the house. He turned toward the dining table, already found Nick seated there with a cup of coffee. His roommate's brows were furrowed in thought, his index finger going around the lip of his steaming cup over and over, hypnotically. When Nick lifted his head to look at Sam, Sam knew without a shadow of a doubt that Nick had (again) witnessed Dean's agitated sleeping, and had been mulling about what it could mean.

Sam walked around Dean quietly, then sat down across from Nick. The roommates were quiet, making Dean's low moans seem all the louder.

"Has he always been a rough sleeper?" Nick asked, breaking their silence.

"Yeah," Sam lied, even as he resolved protectively that Dean would be sleeping in his room from here on out, away from the eyes and the judgment of strangers.

" " "

Sam went to class later that day, and then met up with Dean at a diner for lunch. When he walked into the restaurant, Dean was already seated on a booth and chatting with Mandy.

"Sam!" she squealed upon seeing him, "Look who found me."

"I did," Dean said with a cheeky grin which for some reason she found absolutely hilarious. She laughed heartily, placed a hand over his arm. Dean shied away from her a little, but she barely noticed as Sam slid into the booth, sitting across from them.

"How was class?" Dean asked.

"Nothing out of the ordinary," Sam answered, "Just gearing up for the rest of the semester, I guess. What did you do?"

"Went around," Dean replied, "Checked the place out." Subtext: Your neighborhood is clean and supernatural-free. (Sub)Subtext: You're still safe here, even without me. Sam deciphered the lingo easily enough, the same way he was able to comprehend the rest of Dean's statement.

"Looked through the papers for a job opportunity," which was code for searching for a hunt, "Found something interesting a couple states over."

"You're leaving?" Sam and Mandy said at the exact same time, in almost the exact same pliant whine. Sam's cheeks burned at Dean's cocky smirk; needing his older brother as much as one of Dean's port-girls did was embarrassing.

"Not yet," Dean replied, "It's one of those seasonal things, so I got time."

Sam's brows rose. Dean must have spotted something that fed or killed depending on lunar cycles, or odd anniversaries. He'd have to ask, later.

" " "

Sam had one more afternoon class, and pretty much regretted asking Dean at the end of their lunch what he was going to do to amuse himself while Sam was busy. Dean and Mandy had looked at him pointedly, making his cheeks flush again. His brother was really something; a couple days out here and he was getting laid, as opposed to... Never mind.

He tried to concentrate in class, but thoughts about where he would bring Dean drifted through the inevitable moments of boredom. Strangely enough, he seemed less inclined about bringing Dean anywhere than just hanging around, doing nothing-stuffs, normal stuff. They should watch a movie at the local mall, grab a burger, play basketball in the early evening, catch a game...

Sam left class late in the afternoon, checked his cellphone for messages and found one from Mandy saying nothing but: ":)" He laughed, vaguely wondering if he should be worried about his friend before deciding she's a toughie who knows what she's getting into. Dean was leaving soon, and he saw no reason to rain on their parade as they both tried to get whatever the heck it is they wanted out of their encounter.

He walked home, found Dean cooking pasta for dinner. He looked like he'd just taken a bath, his hair still wet and clinging slightly to his head, except he had already soiled his cleanliness slightly by the minuscule splatters of food on his shirt. He looked relaxed, at home. Even more, he looked like home. It was such a nice, heartening sight that if Sam had less of a sense of self-preservation, he'd have stalked over and hugged his older brother. Instead, he put his books and his bag down on the couch and said, "That smells great."

"Wait 'til you get a taste of it," Dean promised as he toggled, "You'll never look at penne the same way again."

"So you've come a long way from milk and cereal and zapping crap on the microwave, huh?" Sam teased.

"Hey, those were awesome dinners, brat!" Dean said indignantly, "I once had to do a job at an Italian restaurant-inn in upstate New York. These guys were old school, man. Great food. They tried to pay me and dad when the hunt was done but when we declined, they fed us like they owed a million bucks. And then they let us stay a few days for free, and fed us some more. I was starting to think they were fattening us up to eat us. I picked up a couple of kitchen tricks from them. Not to mention a couple of pounds."

"Anything I can help with?" Sam offered, earnestly.

"God, no," Dean said, "You know back when we were kids, and you were so smart the teachers kept saying everything you touched turned to frickin gold? Cooking is not one of those things."

Sam laughed, resolving, "I can wash the dishes."

"You'd better," Dean commented.

He watched Dean putter around the kitchen a little, before saying, "Hey, you mind sleeping in my room tonight? I wanna lord over the couch."

Dean raised an eyebrow at him suspiciously, "Why?"

Sam had formulated the lie earlier in the day and was completely ready for it, "There's a documentary I'm supposed to catch for class, it's slated for late at night on cable. Then I need to do a little bit of work after that. You mind?"

"It's your couch," Dean shrugged.

The brothers ate dinner together and Sam's eyes widened in surprise and delight at his food. He'd expected it to be good, but it was a homerun. Dean grinned at him knowingly, waiting to be told he was the man. Sam decided not to indulge him, which made Dean a little bit pissy, which in turn amused Sam. This made Dean focus his apparent need for culinary vanity on Nick, who arrived later in the night after his extracurricular work, and who mowed down the food and was consequently emphatic about Dean's masterful skills.

Nick ducked out of dishwashing duty by excusing himself to go to his room and do some work; it was a quirk of his roommate that Sam usually called him out on, except he really appreciated the time it let him and Dean to be alone. He washed the dishes, and Dean beside him wiped them down.

"I can finish up," Dean offered, "If your show's starting or whatever."

"Nah, I'm still good," Sam said.

They worked quietly side by side, and it was quick and efficient. Arms and hands and elbows and spaces danced around each other seamlessly, proof positive that the brothers still knew how to work next to each other.

Dean took another shower after dinner, and Sam took the time to fake a tableau on the couch; he spread around miscellaneous books and papers, tried to look like he was really working so that Dean would just go to his bedroom and sleep in private. Have nightmares in private. Dean went straight to Sam's room from the bathroom, and for some reason Sam felt a kind-of heady loneliness from when the door shut, like he was being deprived of his brother.

I really missed him, he realized, I guess I just forgot.

Bare moments after the thought, though, Dean stepped out of Sam's bedroom bearing Sam's pillows and his blanket. He heaped them on the couch to Sam's stammering, "Dean! You should - I don't need -"

"Sure you do," Dean said with finality. He put everything by Sam's left side, then sank to sit down on Sam's right side. "I won't bother you, I promise, geek-boy. It's just that I ain't sleepy yet and maybe your snooze-fest documentary will do the trick."

"Oh," Sam said, "Okay."

He hoped to god he could find something passable to fit the lie. The History Channel never disappointed, and he always found whatever feature on as interesting. He and Dean stayed up through a World War I documentary. On the following World War II feature, he started feeling Dean sink deeper against the couch, could hear him take heavier, slower breaths. He fell asleep, slumped against Sam's right shoulder. Sam had convinced himself that he would wake Dean up, tell him to get more comfortable in the bedroom. After this commercial, he would think. And then it became After the program, it's almost done. But he couldn't find it in himself to do that, to have Dean walk away and close the door. He wanted his older brother around because he missed him; they must have done this a lot as kids, except it was Sam leaning on Dean. He got bigger, and the roles have reversed and still he found comfort in it. He liked to think Dean found comfort in it too because as the night wore on, and Sam shifted from sleep to occasional semi-wakefulness to check on his brother, he was pretty damn sure Dean's nightmares have completely stopped.

" " "

Sleeping next to each other pretty much meant they woke up at the exact same time too. Someone would stir, the other would notice, and then they were both awake without knowing who started what.

"Let's go for a jog," Sam suggested, which Dean found acceptable with the promise of coffee and baked goods at the end of the line. He had to lend Dean sweats and a pair of sneakers; they weren't really staples of the Winchester duffel, haven't been since their father's training regimen had gone from exercise to field practice. Dean could run during a hunt in bad-ass boots and jeans all he liked, but it just wouldn't do for a morning campus run to the bakeshop.

"You really are a Sasquatch," Dean said, folding up the over-long sweatpants a little. At least they still roughly shared the same bulk.

They did warm-ups just outside of Sam's building. The sun had only been up a couple of hours so the morning was cool, the breezes soft against their skin.

"When was the last time we did this?" Dean asked, stretching his arms over his head.

"Just before you finally allowed me on the hunts," Sam said, "By then all the jogging's stopped."

"And there was only running," Dean murmured, "Huh."

Running after the things in the dark. Running away from them. Running away from home. Running after family who went away...

"Yeah."

They did about an hour of a truly vigorous run; his older brother took it easy on him at that rate, but Sam realized that naturally he'd lost some of the endurance he had back when he was hunting with his family. He knew he was going to be sore, but the sweat and the exertion felt refreshing, like all his senses were alive, like his body was perched on a wire. He almost wished for an easy hunt just then. Almost.

An annoyingly un-winded Dean led the way to Jacinda's bakery; he'd followed the smell without needing Sam's directions. They got in line, caught in the middle of the morning rush. Sam stood a head taller than everyone else, though, and Jacinda spotted him right off.

"Hello, Sam," she said, her smile going wide, and then distinctly wider with a glance at the older brother beside him. Dean was leaning over the glass display, already ogling the pies. Jacinda grinned at Sam cheekily, and then leaned over too, looking at Dean's face from the other side of the well-lit glass display. She rose up before Dean did and mouthed to Sam, "Pretty."

Sam barked out a laugh, catching Dean's attention.

"Hey, dude, I want you to meet--"

"This must be Dean," Jacinda cut Sam off, reaching her right hand over the display cabinet, "Hi, I'm Jacinda."

Dean looked mildly-amused, mildly-suspicious about the foreknowledge. But he shook her hand, gave her an easy smile.

"Oh wow," she said plainly, "You're real pretty."

Dean blinked at her, and Sam noticed the grip tighten on the shake, before his brother took away his hand.

"I'm sorry," Jacinda said quickly, catching the discomfort, "I didn't mean to embarrass you."

"Not something I hear all the time, I guess," Dean said quietly, turning his eyes back on the display, he glanced up at her reassuringly though, "You just caught me by surprise there, sugar."

Dean drifted away from her and Sam, looking at the displays like his eyes were devouring everything. He even picked up a menu, started reading through. When he was out of earshot, Jacinda turned to Sam and said in a low voice, "He is something, isn't he?"

"How'd you know his name?" Sam asked, not at all missing the fact that he'd never told Jacinda.

"Oh that crazy friend of yours was here yesterday," Jacinda explained, "Mandy has a mouth on her, I'll tell you that but this time, I sure appreciated it. I heard she practically got serviced by your--"

"I don't wanna hear it," Sam said good-naturedly, raising up a hand, "Jeez, Jaci, I don't wanna hear anything about it."

"Suit yourself," Jacinda sighed, "But if I were only younger, he'd be looking at me instead."

He and Dean headed for the register which was manned by Jacinda's husband that morning. He had caught her eying the Winchesters and appreciated it not at all. He overcharged them. She gave them a hearty discount. It all came down to the same, so Sam let it go, and dragged his 'pretty' brother out of there.

" " "

It was Dean who'd taught him about the birds and the bees. Whether he wanted to hear it or not was another issue, but yeah. It was Dean, such that by the time his father sat him down about it, he'd just pretended surprise and attention, just took it all in.

"Are we good with this, Sam?" his father asked, looking profoundly relieved that this one-normal-father's duty was finally brought to completion.

It shouldn't have been such a monumental surprise, then, that Dean coming back to his life taught him a couple of things about women anew. First, was that some of them kiss and told as much as the next guy. Second, that some of them threw caution out the window in favor of curiosity.

Mandy has been talking, that was plain enough. The fact that Sam's been getting an unprecedented number of text messages and calls and invites to go to this event or that – Oh and you can bring your brother too while you're at it, heard he was in town – guaranteed the latter. Whether the curiosity was about Dean and his alleged-servicing skills, or about Sam himself who'd always been private and suddenly had family visiting, was unknown. Either way, the invites were there, and since they weren't really doing anything he thought of drifting them by Dean, see if he wanted to go.

Sam was walking home from class when Nick caught up with him.

"Hey, man," Nick said, matching his pace.

"Headed home?" Sam asked.

"Gotta go work," Nick answered, "But I need to talk to you 'bout something."

Sam's brows rose, "Shoot."

"I dunno how," Nick replied honestly, "Which is weird, considering I've been doing this for a lot of people for a long time now. I've been wanting to bring it up, but I wasn't sure, and then I thought the friendly thing to do is to say it anyway, so at least you'd know and I've done my part..."

Sam frowned, stopped walking, "Nick – what the hell are you talking about?"

Nick bit his lip, looked away from Sam. He spotted a bench underneath a tree, led the way towards it.

"About Dean."

Anything that began like that almost always had Sam's defenses up right away. He crossed his arms over his chest, "What about my brother?"

"Now don't get like that," Nick implored, "Okay? I can't do this if... if you can't trust me to talk about this."

"He's my brother," Sam said emphatically, "And we've always only ever had each other. I can't trust anyone who says just anything about him."

"Fair enough," Nick breathed, "Okay. Okay."

"Okay what?"

"First things first," Nick said, and his eyes took on the focus of doing a job, instead of just talking to a friend, "Can you at least trust that we're friends, I consider you one of my best ones, and that I wouldn't do anything to hurt you?"

Sam nodded shortly, willing him to just get with the program.

"Second," Nick went on, "What I've been doing in the community – the life counseling, the talks – I've been at it for years, and I know I'm damn good at it. Don't you think so?"

Sam gave him that too.

"What I'm saying is," Nick summarized, "I'm bringing this up 'cos you're my friend and you need to hear it. And I think I have enough of experience to be able to say... Sam... I think your brother's been through a really traumatic experience that he needs to sort through."

Sam looked at him with set jaws, wanted to break his. Of course Dean has been through a traumatic experience. Or two or three. That was their life.

"Our dad's a strict son-of-a-bitch," Sam said, "And we lost our mom in a fricking fire. He's had to raise me, and we're piss-poor and had to move around a lot--"

"He came out tougher because of all that," Nick said, "So did you. That's why I know it's something else. He... I think he's been sexually abused, Sam."

"Oh for god's sake--"

"It's hard to hear," Nick cut him off, "He's your older brother and you can't imagine anything like that happening to him without him being able to fight, or be strong. But hear me out, okay? Hear me out, and then do what you will with it and I'll shut my trap. Okay? Let me do this, Sam. Let me do this 'cos I think it's right for me to bring this to your attention, as your friend. And then I'll leave it alone."

"Fine," Sam snapped, "Go ahead. But I'm telling you now, you're wrong."

"The nightmares," Nick enumerated, "How he cries in his sleep and asks for help and says 'stop' and 'no.' The hyper-vigilance with the locks. How many goddamn showers does a man need in a day. I caught him out here once, blitzed to the high-heavens. I thought he was drugged but I was wrong and I think by now I'd know. I grabbed his arm and he yelled at me not to touch him until he realized who I was."

Sam pressed his hands over his eyes, feeling a headache coming on, "Nick, that's just not possible, okay? We grew up different from everyone else. The nightmares? I get those too. The hyper-vigilance was a remnant from dad. The showers? He's had to work with a lot of dirt and grime so he's probably just used to it. The touching thing? You're lucky he didn't cut your hand off. We've had to grow up in seedy places, man, around really strange people. He's had to be like this to survive."

"But that's precisely my point," Nick pointed out, "Seedy places and strange people? Is it so hard to believe, Sam? Besides, all this is probably new to you too, right? I've seen how you look at him; you know this isn't right, you know this is different. He wasn;t always like this, and you're not like that either, even if you did grow up in the same way."

"'Cos he always protected me," Sam reasoned, "Took all this crap in on his own."

"Then maybe this is just one more piece of crap in the pile that he's had to deal with," Nick added, "And you know this latest thing with Mandy?"

"Oh god," Sam groaned, "I really don't want to hear about this."

"She's all mouthy with her friends about how perfect he was, how he satisfied her in every way?" Nick went on, "He'd given her everything she wanted, but she told me he wouldn't let her touch him."

"Nick, man," Sam breathed, "I really don't know what to say about this."

"I would be happy to be wrong," Nick told him, "But as your friend and as a professional, it was my duty to let you know, all right? Mull it over, Sam. And like I said I would be happy to be wrong, but I don't think I am."

" " "

They went back to Stephen's that evening, and Sam was only all too willing to ply himself with alcohol. Dean looked at him worriedly, but let him have his space. He dragged Nick away to one of the pool tables to keep his promise about sharing some of his pool skills. Mandy went with him again, and again, Sam stayed behind at their table.

Sam listened to the conversation around him with half an ear. He laughed at the right places, made the proper encouraging sounds, the requisite eye contact. But his eyes always strayed to his brother across the room, teaching Nick some of his tricks. A couple of strangers even drifted by, taking it all in. Everyone around him looked impressed.

"He's something, isn't he?" Luisa said from beside him.

"Yeah," Sam agreed, "I always knew I missed him, you know. But I guess I forgot."

She smiled, "So any other Winchester siblings popping out of the woodwork?"

"Yeah," agreed another classmate, Reese, "We have to know because I think Mandy's made it abundantly clear that this one's hers."

Sam smirked a little, glanced at Mandy laying the moves on his brother, putting a gently possessive hand on his arm. Dean side-stepped her expertly, and Sam thought back again to that day's earlier conversation with Nick. The absolute avoidance of contact with Mandy mirrored what he had witnessed at the diner, and how he'd reacted to Jacinda.

You're real pretty...

"It's just him and me," Sam said, and there was an unexpected poignancy to that statement that just hit him in the gut. He both suddenly felt and heard his phone ringing in his pocket. He looked up and down the table, frowned when he figured that anyone who could be calling him was there.

"I gotta get this," he said, rising up from the table. The caller ID showed Bobby Singer, so he moved to a quiet corner of the restaurant, still within clear sight of Dean.

"Hey, Bobby," Sam greeted.

"Sam," the older hunter's voice was uncharacteristically thin, strained. Sam's blood turned cold. Was this about their father? Was their father hurt, dead?

"Bobby...?" his voice sounded small in his ears, and he felt his heart thud madly against his chest. He knew his gaze had turned stricken, and shot up to his brother's face, considering if he should call out for Dean right now and at the same time, not wanting to make a scene.

"You sitting down, boy?" Bobby asked.

"Just say it, Bobby," Sam breathed, "Is it dad? Is he--"

"Sam, your daddy's fine," Bobby said, took a deep breath, "It's—it's Dean, Sam. Your brother's missing."

"Dean?" Sam echoed, and suddenly felt his brother's gaze on him. Dean blinked at him, and then stared, and then smiled slowly like he knew he was being talked about and why. Dean's look was soft, infinitely lonely. Far.He looked like a ghost from across the room. The distance between them seemed to lengthen and lengthen before Sam's very eyes as Bobby spoke.

"He went on a solo job," Bobby said, voice shaking, "It was a standard salt and burn, otherwise your daddy wouldn't have..."

He should end this now, Sam thought, but his gut felt twisted with instinct, and loyalty to his brother. If Dean wanted Bobby or their dad to know where he was, he'd tell them, wouldn't he? So he kept his trap shut, just held his older brother's lonely, knowing gaze from across the room.

"Anyway, this guy on death row practices the occult," Bobby said, "We thought it would be wise to salt and burn the bastard right after the execution to keep him from doing anything in the afterlife. Dean was gonna do it literally hours after he died, Sam. The felon shouldn't have had any power to do crap, but... but your brother's missing, Sam. He's been missing a week, now."

Seven days, Sam thought, his mind racing. Dean's been with him for three. That left four days, four long days unaccounted for.

"Found his car in a Texas motel," Bobby said, "But he ain't there. We tracked the GPS on his phone to uh... we found his phone in a secret room in this bastard's old basement. Ghost's gone, Sam, so Dean did something right, but then again, so's your brother."

"What uh..." Sam licked his lips, feeling his whole mouth go dry, "Bobby, what was this guy on death row for?"

Bobby paused, and the silence was heavy and stifling.

"Bobby--"

"Serial rape and murder," Bobby barked out, "He'd keep 'em around, alive for days doing... and then he'd kill them. He was on death row for eleven rapes and murders."

" " "

Sam hung up the phone with a stumbling goodbye, barely hearing Bobby yelling at him not to hang up, yelling at him to come by and help, talk to his dad who was going crazy with looking for Dean and thoughts of the absolute worst.

God, the room was spinning. He felt absolutely sick to his stomach. Dean had spent four unaccounted days with a convicted, super-charged rapist and murderer, in a secret room in his goddamn basement.

Dean was still looking at him with those injured eyes.

Sam's entire body was trembling, thinking back to seeing Dean at his door, looking like he hadn't slept in days. He thought back to his painful cleanliness, crying out and crying in his nightmares, and the violence with which he'd met Sam's waking touch.

Sam stepped forward, wanting to just be with Dean, wanting to just comfort him, wanting to fix him. But Dean's eyes abruptly shuttered, looked away from Sam and then turned down to Mandy beside him. He whispered something in her ear, and she nuzzled against him eagerly.

Dean then threw a rakish, disguised grin at his brother, waved him an overly-cheery goodbye. But his eyes had warned all-too-clearly: Do not fucking follow. And then he left the bar with Mandy on his arm.

" " "

Sam waited in the apartment for Dean, hanging onto his older brother's leather jacket. He'd left it behind at the bar probably in his hurry to leave, but Sam grabbed it, brought it home. Dean would come back if not for this conversation or for Sam, he'd come back for the damned jacket.

He sat on the couch, thinking that just yesterday he'd been sitting alongside Dean, sleeping the best they've both had since... well probably since they last did the same thing. He clutched at the jacket tighter. He glanced at his cellphone, checked the time. Dean had had four hours with Mandy by now.

"Screw it," Sam muttered, calling up Mandy. She answered after four rings, woozy and half-asleep.

"Sam?"

"Mandy can you put Dean on?" Sam asked.

"He just walked me home and left, Sam," she replied, "He's not with you?"

"Um. Bye," he said, hanging up and grabbing his house keys and a hoodie. If Dean wasn't with Mandy... A bar? Sam thought, racking his brains like this was a job or a big test.

Anywhere away from me and away from having to deal with this, soon emerged as the logical answer. When Dean sought refuge away from the hunt, away from having to face Bobby and his father after what had happened to him, what Sam now knew had been done to him, he'd left his car, hadn't he? He'd left the Impala and most of the things he owned. He'd left himself as the hunter, left their father, even. He'd left everything, escaped away to Stanford the way Sam escaped.

He's not gonna come back for a fucking jacket, Sam thought in a panic. He knocked vigorously on Nick's door.

"Nick!" he hollered, "I'm gonna borrow your car!"

Nick popped his head out, just in time to see Sam grab for the keys he's left on the kitchen counter.

"Sam, what's wrong?"

"Nothing," Sam said brusquely, meaning Everything and I can't begin to say what.

" " "

He'd found Dean sitting on a bench at the bus station.

Dean looked completely and absolutely naked sitting there: no jacket, no bag, no car to begin with. He looked hollowed out and emptied out, pale and trembling a little from the chill of the empty station's air-conditioning. He looked just as he looked when he first appeared by Sam's door: exhausted, but otherwise unable to close his eyes and rest, fearing for what lay in the dark if he wasn't watching.

This was Dean at his most alone and most afraid. He looked up when Sam entered; his younger brother would have been hard to miss. His eyes... god, those eyes... they looked relieved and terrified and ashamed and angry. Relieved someone still had his back, terrified of judgment, ashamed of what had happened to him, angry he was in the situation where he had to explain himself.

Sam said nothing, just draped the leather jacket he'd brought with him over his brother's slouched shoulders. He sat beside Dean, scooted closer, lending his older brother his right shoulder, just as he had the night before. He had no takers tonight.

"I was..." Dean stammered, staring at his hands, "I would have come back to them, eventually. Called them, let them know I was all right. Did you ah... you didn't...?"

"I didn't tell them anything," Sam murmured.

"Good," Dean said, breathing in relief, and it felt like a test he had passed, because suddenly Dean was leaning on his shoulder again.

"I've just been so fucking tired," Dean said, "I just needed a place to crash for a little while, get my shit together."

"Is it?" Sam asked, even as he knew the answer, "All together now?"

"No," Dean said plainly, "Pretty far fucking from."

"I'm not..." Sam hesitated, "I'm not gonna ask, what happened at that last hunt. But I wanted you to know... if you want to... you can tell me."

Dean snorted, "You really are gonna be a lawyer. It's the same, but not really."

Sam chuckled lightly, "So what bus ticket did you buy?"

"I was gonna head on over to Bobby's," Dean replied, "He's got a lot of booze, and none of the girly ones you and your rich pals keep drinking."

"You like them, admit it," Sam cajoled, "Both the beer and my friends."

"Yeah," Dean said, and Sam felt him shrug.

"Can't I change your mind?" Sam asked, after a long moment of silence, "Hang around a little longer?" Stay with me? Let me look after you for a change? Let me help? Let me fix this?

"Nope," Dean said decisively, "I don't wanna hang around too long; you gotta focus on studying, Sammy. This was the right thing to do, get away from... from all the shit in the dark." He shuddered noticeably, and they both pretended not to spot it.

"Find," Dean stammered, "Find time to look for a girl or something. Get a roommate who's a chick for cryin' out loud. 'Sides... Sammy, man. Crazy, intelligent rich girls just do not quit, do they? I have a feeling if I stick around longer I might wake up one day either married to that Mandy chick or... or chained by my ankles in a secret room in the basement, on-call for whenever someone needs a fuck."

Sam's breath caught. This was Dean, letting him in on those four dark days in the only way he knew how.

"It gets fucking tired getting fucking rode," Dean said, and the tone was pitch-black, the words acidic.

Sam's eyes stung as he listened, and his chest and throat hurt with trying not to explode. He was deeply and profoundly unhappy for his brother, and just blind-fucking-enragedat what had been done to him. That damned ghost was salted and burnt too damn soon, and no hell was low enough or burnt hard enough to punish him. Sam had wished he'd been at that execution, had wished he'd been the one to send him to hell. These made his new fantasies, and his new nightmares.

His entire body started to shake, and Dean's caught on, mirroring it. Or maybe it was the other way around, he didn't know. Someone stirred, the other noticed, and then they were both awake without knowing who started what...

"I'm gonna rip his lungs out," Sam said, voice low and savage, completely robbed of civility and control. The tears he'd been keeping leaked from his eyes. He was relieved Dean's head was on his shoulder, and that they weren't looking at his shoulder. But his shirt felt wet too, and he knew Dean had also reached the very end of his rope.

"He's done," Dean said, "I'm out of there, I handled it, I can handle the rest. I'll be fine."

Sam wanted to believe it. When he was a kid he always believed it, that Dean can fix anything, that Dean can weather anything. He wouldn't have left if he didn't believe that Dean could hack it. But maybe that was Dean's one undoing in raising Sam. 'I'll be fine' always inextricably gave the younger Winchester the license to go off on his own, to fly, to do what he felt he needed to do because Dean was going to be okay without him.

"And here I thought you needed me," Sam said quietly.

"Not you, Sasquatch," Dean said, sounding weary, "Just your bad-ass couch."

"What time's the bus loading?" Sam asked.

"In about six hours," Dean replied, "Not one of my better escape plans."

"Maybe you wanted me to find you," Sam said, before he changed his mind. He added before Dean could say anything to that, "Bobby's huh? I haven't seen him in awhile. I borrowed some wheels. I think I can drive you."

"What?" Dean snapped, and that got him sitting up to look at his brother, "Sam, no-"

"Hell week's over," Sam reasoned, "The rest of the semester's just picking up. I can do a couple days off."

"I bought the ticket already," Dean pointed out.

"That's too bad," Sam said.

"Sam," Dean said, his eyes glistening and imploring, "Leave it alone, okay? Leave me alone, you gotta. I... I need this, need to think, need to just... get my shit together."

The statement reminded Sam of a zombie hunt a long time ago, these mangled bodies with the quivering hands trying to put the torn-up pieces back together. The sight was more pathetic than horrifying, like death was a mercy.

"I just needed a place to crash, Sammy, literally," Dean implored him, "Needed some place where there were no questions, you know, no questions, no judgment, nothing... nothing that had anything to do about what the fuck happened out there. You gotta give me that, Sammy, you gotta. I get what you mean now, you know, about wanting to get away? I'll leave you alone after this, I won't bother you again in this life you got going here but you gotta... you gotta give me this, okay? Drop it, and just let me go."

"I can't," Sam said plainly, "I worry about you too, and that you gotta give me. So... I won't ask questions, I promise. But just... just let me drive you to Bobby's okay? And whatever you wanna say or not-say on the road is up to you. I am not backing down."

"Bitch-face just can't leave a man in peace, can he?" Dean sneered at him, but his eyes softened.

"We're going," Sam said with finality, before stretching his arms over his head, "But later in the day. Come on, man. We'll sleep properly in my house, then we'll hit the road first thing in the morning, I promise."

"But I'm good right here," Dean said irritably. Here was beside Sam, right on his shoulder, the one place where the nightmares – the memories - stopped.

"I'm not," Sam lied, "My ass hurts, so come on."

The younger Winchester rose to his feet, dragged a groaning Dean up with him.

"Sam," Dean hesitated, pausing by the exit of the station. His mouth opened, shut, like he was trying to find the words.

"No questions," Sam promised quietly, "Just let me bring you, okay?"

Just let me help you, let me catch you, let me be with you.

"Okay," Dean echoed, "Okay."

The End.

March 18, 2010

Afterword

Short this time compared with my other afterwords, haha... Anyway, as you know by now, the risky topic is actually not particularly landmark in this fandom: it's sexual abuse. I guess what I found different in my take is how privately it was being handled, just the level of constraint that I felt could have been how someone like Dean would have tried to handle it. No hospitals, no psychological help, hell, no outright discussion of what had happened even. I tried to utilize ambiguity about what happened to him in that basement, just enough to let Sam imagine the worst but to never really know. It was like how Dean had handled his post-hell traumas, I guess, just hiding it away. It's also how the people around him handled him; with some care, but never overbearing like they were scared any overt movements would make him run away.

Aside from that character trait, I wanted to explore an idea that came to me in the New York subway, haha... no, seriously, seeing nothing but darkness and tile in the rat race and you get to a lot of escapist thoughts. Sam left his family, John left Dean. These things weren't new because they were always leaving. What became different is that Dean let them. He let Sam leave for school. He let John go on solo hunts. For a man who always seemed like he was trying to keep his family together, he let these things happen and I wanted to come up with a reason why. Crash was partially inspired as a take on that; something happened to him that he couldn't face them for very long without having to face their questions, or how the event had changed his role from protector to victim.

Anyway, I hope it was a compelling or at least an entertaining read. Thanks for taking the time, and would be even more grateful if you let me know what you thought about it or what. C&C's are always welcome and 'til the next fic!