Title: Like Sand, Through an Hourglass
Author: alakewood
Warnings: AU. Spoilers for iPilot./i
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 3800+
Summary: Dean leaves the Impala with Sam while he goes off to war; John puts down real roots and receives the the kind of news a father never wants to get. But did Dean really die in Iraq?
Disclaimer: As always, I own nothing.

oxoxo

Dean crossed the San Francisco Bay on the 84 bridge, entering East Palo Alto. Driving down University, Dean could see obvious African-American influences if he knew where to look – a gazebo here, carved wooden stools there – but the closer he got to Palo Alto, to Sam, the more he saw the faces of white people. White people dressed in business attire seeming completely at ease with displacing the people that had once been the majority of the area. Dean knew a little about Palo Alto's history – researched the area as soon as Sam disappeared to Stanford – wanted to be able to envision his brother in his new environment. Sam with his arms piled high with books, Sam laughing with friends, Sam happy...

He'd already called the registrar's office on his way into town, knew that Sam was living in Crothers Hall; he parked along Escondido Road and waited. School had already been in session for a few of weeks but most of the kids walking around still had that carefree, summer attitude about them. There was one student, however, tall and lanky – nearly a full head above the kids he passed – with a heavy-looking backpack slung over his shoulders, more books in his arms, who seemed apart from the easygoing atmosphere of his classmates.

Dean stayed in the Impala, kept an eye on the front doors of the dorm and waited. Eventually, he pulled a folded sheet of paper out of the glove compartment, one side printed with a news article that was part of the research he'd done for a hunt a week ago, the other side blank. There was an old ink pen he'd swiped from some motel (months or years ago, Dean couldn't remember) wedged between state maps, and he took that out too. It took a couple of scribbles to get the ink flowing, then he started his letter to Sam. He knew this was the wrong way to go about things – writing a letter – and he told Sam as much in the first line, but he couldn't do it face-to-face or over the phone because neither way was conducive to the whole running away thing Dean was doing.

The letter was brief, covered no more than half the page, told Sam that he was right – some things were more important than the hunt, not that there was anything nearly as important as finding and killing the thing that murdered their mother, but Dean was confident John would be successful in finding the monster. He told Sam that he hoped he was happy, that, after everything they'd been through since they were kids, Sam deserved as much if not more than every person they'd ever helped. Told Sam to take care of the Impala because he'd be back for her eventually, and that John wasn't the horrible father Sam had thought he was when Sam abandoned him and Dean just a couple of years ago.

It was a couple hours later when Sam reemerged from the dorm, fingers of his right hand threaded through those of the left hand of a tall, leggy blonde, only a couple inches shorter than Sam. She was beautiful and they were laughing, and Dean knew that he was right not to disrupt Sam's new life by confronting him face-to-face. But he started the Impala and followed them down the street.

They met up with a few other friends and went out to dinner, then to a bar, and Dean couldn't get over how happy, how content, his brother was. He hung around, followed Sam around on Saturday, too – his brother accompanied by the blonde all the while – and was there on Sunday when Sam left his dorm early in the morning in a suit, clutching a tie in one hand as he jogged to meet his girlfriend.

He followed them to church, watched as the man who must've been the girl's father gripped Sam's hand in both of his as he shook it, smiling. Watched Sam lightly embrace the woman who looked like an older, more sophisticated version of her daughter; watched Sam's impeccable facade falter only slightly as he readjusted his tie. They started to head into the church, but something made Sam pause mid-stride and he said something to his girlfriend. She nodded, kissed his cheek, and dissapeard inside the church.

Sam turned, eyes scanning the street, and Dean ducked a little lower in his seat even though there was no way Sam could feel Dean watching him. But Sam's gaze moved from car to car, lingering on the the Impala half a block down the street. Then Sam was heading down the stairs, the sidewalk, in long, purposeful strides, only stopping when his girlfriend appeared in the open doorway and called after him. Dean could see the almost torn look on Sam's face, could see his shoulders slump as he sighed, then, with a parting glance to the shiny black car down the street, he turned his back and headed into the church after his girl.

Dean had seen more than he needed to to make sure Sam was okay, so he returned to the street outside Sam's dorm, folded the short letter he'd written to his brother and shoved it into an envelope marked 'Sam Winchester' on the front. He climbed out of the Impala, ignoring the ringing of a cell phone that was sure to be his father, and made sure the doors were locked before heading around to the trunk to take out his duffel. Once everything was accounted for, he dropped the keys into the envelope and sealed it. He slowly walked into Sam's dorm and left the envelope at the front desk with bespectacled girl that just watched him with wide eyes, nodding at him as he told her to make sure the letter got to Sam.

He took in as much of the Stanford campus as he could, imagining Sam studying on those steps, laughing with friends at that table, reading a book under those trees, and headed for the nearest bus stop.

oxo

Sam was trying to dig his room key out of the front pocket of his bag while clutching a couple of books to his chest when Lucy, the girl at the front desk of the dorm, stopped him. "Sam?" she asked, reaching for a package in Sam's mail slot on the wall. "Some guy dropped this off for you on Sunday."

Sam accepted the envelope, immediately recognizing the scrawl which his name was written in even if he hadn't seen it in years. "Who?" He pushed his books onto the counter and dropped his backpack at his feet.

"I don't know. Just said to make sure you got it."

Sam tore one end of the envelope open. "What did he look like?"

"Um...a couple inches shorter than you, maybe. Darkish blonde hair."

"Green eyes? Wearing a weird kind of necklace?" Sam grasped at a phantom amulet lying on his chest.

Lucy nodded. "Green eyes, yeah. But I don't think he was wearing a necklace." She paused, eyebrows drawn together as she tried to remember. "Dog tags, I think. Yeah. Kind of looked like an Army recruiter or something."

That kind of threw Sam for a loop, but it had to be Dean. He tipped the envelope sideways, catching the keys as they slid out, caught the folded note between two fingers and opened it. Sam, the familiar scrawl began, I know I should've called or waited to talk to you face to face, but I don't want to interrupt your life here. You've finally got the normal life you wanted and the next line was scribbled out. I've got some things that I've got to do, so I'm leaving the Impala with you. Take care of her. I'll be back for her when I'm done. The note wasn't signed, but it didn't have to be. Even if Sam hadn't recognized Dean's handwriting, the note's content would've tipped him off.

Dean had been at Stanford. Dean had been right there and didn't even try to contact Sam outside of this stupid, impersonal letter. "I'll be right back," he told Lucy, shoving his books to one end of the counter and pushing his backpack out of the way with his foot, then heading back outside. He glanced up and down the street, looking for the Impala's familiar glossy black paint, walked to the corner of Galvez and Escondido, and there she was. He hadn't seen the car in over two years, hadn't expected to feel the sudden rush of emotion at the sight of slick paint and gleaming chrome. It took him a moment to work up the nerve to slide behind the driver's seat, then he was there, key in the ignition, turned her over and listened to the comforting sound of the engine before it was drowned out by AC/DC. Sam couldn't suppress a smile, turning the music down.

He heard a faint, high beep from the glove box and opened it up, reached inside. There were a few cell phones inside, only one of which was actually working. Fifteen missed calls, all from 'JW.' Sam knew, without a doubt, the initials stood for 'John Winchester.' He replaced the other two phone in the glove box, turned the key off, and climbed out of the car. Dean's cell in hand, Impala's keys in his pocket, he headed back for his dorm.

x

He stared at the phone in his hand, amazed at how much anxiety a hunk of plastic and a few electronic pieces could instill in him. It took him a good four or five hours to work up the courage to open Dean's cell and call the number he was certain was his father's.

Sure enough, John Winchester answered on the second ring, "Dean?" sounding worried and angry and tired all at once.

"Uh, no, Dad. It's Sam."

"Sam?"

Sam had never heard his dad sound quite so surprised. "Yeah."

"Where's your brother?" All worry now.

"I don't know. He left me a letter, told me to take care of the Impala – that he'll be coming back for it. Where's he going?"

When John sighed, it sounded frustrated. "Dean was in New York for nine-eleven," he said. "Didn't hear from him for a whole week while he helped dig people out of the rubble, tracked down the vile creatures that were taking advantage of the situation out there. He was so disgusted and angry at the thought of terrorism...We hunted together for a while, then he completely dropped off my radar six months ago. Finally called me a couple weeks back, said he'd passed basic and would be heading over to Iraq."

"What?"

"I never took your brother for such a patriot, either."

x

Sam didn't even have the thought to marvel at the fact that he and his father had had a civil conversation, could only think that Dean had gone off to war without even saying goodbye. He'd never really liked the idea of war – tried not to think too much about the one going on on the other side of the world – he'd seen enough violence growing up. But suddenly the war had become personal.

He scoured the news for information about the war, his heartbeat faltering every time he heard about American troops dying in action. He wondered if he was ever going to see his brother again and hoped that all the shit their father put him through, all the things he'd fought and killed and survived to tell about would be enough to keep him alive. Would be enough to keep Dean from coming home in a pine box.

oxo

For the first time since Mary died, John put himself back on the grid. Rented a house, got a real job for the weekends while he hunted the other five days of the week. Wanted to make sure that Dean would be able to find him. Dean, or the uniformed officers that would come bearing a folded flag.

He kept himself busy, checked in with Sam every couple of weeks. Hated that it took Dean going to war for them to be able to speak again. Hated how every time Sam called, he'd tell John, "Dad, it's Dean," as though Dean being Dean was enough to keep him alive. Left him wondering if he'd prepared his son for that kind of life. It was one thing to fight and kill supernatural creatures that shouldn't exist anyway, but to fight against human monsters – to have another person be your target, your enemy...

x

It had been twenty-three months since Dean had left the Impala with Sam and had gone off to fight in the war in Iraq. John had been on his way out the door when a black sedan pulled into his driveway behind his truck. His heart lurched – he wasn't prepared for this. Two men stepped out, in Army dress blues, one bearing a triangular-folded American flag. The conversation was a blur – something about an ICBM, didn't recover a body.

He called Sam, Dean's freshly minted dog tags gripped so tightly in his palm they bit into his flesh. "He didn't- He's-he's not..."

"Dad?" Could hear the hitch in Sam's breath like he knew what John was about to say. Suddenly hated that they were having this conversation over a cell phone and not face-to-face.

"They brought me a flag and his tags. He's not coming back."

oxo

Dean heard the explosion after he saw it, felt the ground shake under his boots, sand and dust shaking loose from the small house. He ran to the top of the sandy hill and looked out across the valley to where his entire camp was engulfed in flames. He glanced back at the house, hearing the cry of the giant bird somewhere in the midst of the small Iraqi town, torn between returning to camp to assess the damage and continuing with his hunt.

He'd been recruited for a special ops team, they'd gone completely off the Army's radar on a mission and no one knew where they were – returning to camp would only draw attention (the deadly kind) to himself. Besides, the monstrous bird had already carried away three of the local kids, only one of whom Dean had actually known. He'd surprisingly bonded with the kid over an old Metallica song. He reminded him of Sam when he was a kid.

A man in a dress shirt and slacks appeared in the house's doorway, nodding when Dean held a finger to his lips. He followed Dean into the alley between the houses, watched as he unsheathed the blade at his hip and crept further into the darkness. After a few minutes, there was a loud screech, like twisting steel, then total silence.

The man found Dean collapsed under the dead bird, three deep claw marks across his chest seeping blood, unconscious.

x

Dean came to, grit of sand in his dry mouth, every muscle and joint in his body aching, in complete darkness. He could hear fabric flapping in a light wind, heard a couple of men speaking outside the tent in hushed Assyrian. Dean slowly crawled towards the tent's opening, wincing as the skin of his chest pulled taut on the stitches holding the gashes closed. The men were only a few yards away. One eyed Dean, reached for the bag at his feet and pulled a water bottle from it.

"Where am I?" Dean questioned in halting Arabic.

"About twenty-five kilometers south of Bayji," the man with the water bottle said as Dean took it from his hand.

Dean's camp hadn't been much more than fifteen miles east of Al Hadithah. That was a good fifty-mile difference. "How'd I get here? Who are you?"

The water-bottle-man exchanged a glance with the other two men and they said their goodbyes, heading for an old, rusted-out Toyota pickup. "Ibrahim Mahmoud," the man said, offering his hand. "You were brought to me, along with the Anka."

"The what?"

Ibrahim led Dean over to another tent that Dean hadn't seen, held a flashlight up and waited for Dean to move the flaps of canvas aside. "The Anka. We thought they were all dead," he nearly whispered, eyes wide with wonder. "Then you. American. You kill it." He shook his head. "You're not just a soldier, are you?"

Dean stared at the enormous bird, which he remembered having a wing-span of at least twenty feet, now laying motionless, wings folded to it's sides, the dark feathers of its chest gleaming with blood in the dim light from the flashlight. He let the flap close and took another long pull from his bottle of water. "No," he finally said.

"You're a hunter, too."

Dean eyed him warily.

Ibrahim laughed. "It's good. Okay. I was on my way to find a wraith in Hakkari when Hashim called me, brought you here. You've been out for three days."

"What about my camp?"

The expression on Ibrahim's face turned serious. "There were no survivors," he said.

"But I survived."

"We found no identification on you, no tags, nothing. The news report said the blast was so bad they couldn't identify the bodies. To the United States Army, you died in that explosion."

"Do you have a phone?"

Ibrahim gestured to the bag he'd pulled the bottle of water out of. "Satellite phone. Doesn't work." He watched Dean cross the sand towards the bag, followed. "Look. If you want to get back to America, I know a guy."

Dean rummaged through the bag until he found the phone. "Can I have the light?"

Ibrahim just held it for Dean, shining it on the exposed back of the phone when Dean removed the cover. "This wraith I'm tracking...I could use your help. You help me kill it, I'll get you home."

Dean knocked the sand out of the inside of the phone, readjusted a couple of the wires, arranged this and that, then slipped the back cover on. He pulled out the antenna and pressed the 'On' button. All he got was an earful of static, but it was a connection. He dialed the only number he'd memorized – his father's cell. Static, static, then a crackled, "Hello?" before anything else John had to say was swallowed up by silence. Figured – the one time he really needed the stupid piece of technology to work, it didn't. Dean turned his eyes up to Ibrahim. "How far is Hakkari?"

x

What Ibrahim had been led to believe was only one wraith had turned out to be five. Dean had added four more claw marks to the ones he'd already received from the Anka. But, in the end, Ibrahim's Turkish contact, Kivanc, had pulled through. Falsified a passport for Dean and had him on a plane out of Istanbul three weeks after Dean's camp was destroyed. After a two-hour layover in Berlin, he was back on a plane headed to New York, where he had another layover. He didn't want to dwell in the city long, didn't want to relive all the memories had of the place – could only think of getting back to Sam, to his father, knowing that they both probably thought he had been killed in action.

He pulled the scrap of paper out of his pocket, the corner of one of Kivanc's maps, on which he'd written down Sam's phone number and his father's. John's phone was disconnected, but Sam's just rang and rang, then, finally, a girl answered. "Hello?" She sounded breathless, half-asleep.

Dean glanced at the watch on his wrist, it was late. "Uh, yeah. Hi." He heard the boarding call for his flight to San Francisco. "Is Sam there?"

"No, he's not," she yawned. "Can I ask who's calling?"

"It's Dean. I'm his-"

"This isn't funny," she interrupted, sounding fully awake. "It's not funny at all. Who is this, really?"

"It's Dean. Look, I didn't die-"

"You're sick." Then Dean heard nothing but dial tone.

Just as well – he needed to board his flight. He'd see Sam soon enough.

x

Dean got off the plane in San Francisco and pick-pocketed fifty-seven dollars from the man in front of him unboarding the plane, then another forty from a woman at the baggage carousel. He hailed the first cab he saw and gave the driver directions to Sam's apartment in Palo Alto.

Sam's apartment was across the street from a small, all-night diner and Dean had just enough change left from his cab ride to pay for a couple cups of coffee while he waited for Sam. Finally, two hours before sunrise, the Impala rolled into a space in front of Sam's apartment building, John's truck parking behind it. Dean abandoned his cold cup of coffee and started across the street. "Dad?" he called. "Sam?"

Both men, at the trunk of the Impala, turned towards Dean's voice, both looking wary and on-edge. Sam's left hand slowly moved to his side, Dean catching the glint off the blade he held tightly. "Dean?"

"I tried calling. Three and a half weeks ago. Dad, do you remember?"

John and Sam shared a glance. "My son's dead. What are you?"

Dean held his hands up, palms out, standing just a few feet away. "Dad. My camp was bombed. I wasn't there. I was hunting an Anka. It's this huge bird like a-"

"I know what it is," John spat.

"I don't know what they told you, but I'm not dead. Obviously."

"They came to my door. There was a service."

Dean dropped his head back and groaned. "They couldn't identify any of the remains they found, Dad. Just assumed there were no survivors. Besides, my team – there were seven of us – we were doing covert ops. Only a handful of people knew what we were doing. Nobody knew we were there."

John and Sam shared another look.

"I know what you're thinking. Try the silver, the holy water, try to exercise me - whatever. It's me."

Sam's grip on the knife loosened marginally. "Dean?"

He took a few steps closer. "Yeah."

Then Sam's fist was connecting with Dean's face, the knife clattering to the pavement, and Sam's long arms were wrapping around him in an over-exuberant hug.

"Ow," Dean said, holding his jaw as Sam pulled away. "Dude, seriously?"

"Don't 'dude, seriously' me. We thought you were dead."

Dean glanced at his father, reached out a hand.

John took Dean's offered hand and pulled him to his chest.

The awkward hug only lasted a moment, then Dean took a step back, scratching at his neck. "Thought I was dead," he echoed, shaking his head, then leaning over to pick up Sam's dropped knife. "Come on. I'm a Winchester."