Time seemed to disappear as the night wore on, and Sam wasn't ready for it to end. He hadn't let himself acknowledge it – had clung to the memory of the hostile parting to keep him on his path – but Sam had missed his brother. A lot. Dean had been so little of what Sam had been fleeing when he walked out to go to Stanford two years ago. Breaking from Dean had been unintended but unavoidable. They had been divided by their very different feelings toward John.
But as he sat there in the bar catching up with his brother, he discovered that Dean had not been completely on board with John's ultimatum to Sam as Sam had somehow always believed he had been. That, in fact, Dean had been furious at John for telling Sam he couldn't come back… that he'd taken off to hunt solo pretty much the day after Sam walked out. That Skye met Dean Winchester as a man lost for the first time in his life without family.
Sam stopped trying to see the possible signs of deception in Dean and Skye together. He stopped wanting to find it. He observed keenly, as he always had, and he saw that Skye made Dean happier than Sam had ever seen his brother.
As for Skye… Sam liked her. Besides her knack for making Dean smile like a love-struck teenager when he thought no one was looking, she was actually a sharp, quick-witted person. Perhaps a little more barbed than was to Sam's tastes, but it fit perfectly with Dean's.
There was something unique about her that Sam couldn't quite define or explain, but her love for Dean seemed true and just as intense as Dean's love for her. Sam was a romantic at heart, because he thought that was all that mattered.
At one point, Skye slid out of the booth and mentioned spotting an 'easy mark' near the tables just begging to be parted from his money. She threw Sam a wink then walked off, giving Sam the impression Skye was mostly making herself scarce so the brothers so long estranged could have some time alone.
"I like her," Sam stated when Skye was gone.
"Good," was Dean's succinct answer.
Sam snorted. "I'm glad you came… I know I acted like I didn't want to see you…"
Dean pressed his lips together. "Don't sweat it. I mean, did it suck ass? Yeah, but… well, you had to do your thing, or whatever…" Dean shrugged. "I left you alone, too," Dean added, as if to say 'see what I did for you?' Dean looked up, first toward Skye at the pool table, then over at Sam. "Actually… I would have stayed gone longer, but… Skye talked me into coming to see you."
"Yeah… I was going to give you your space, let you be all normal, or pretend to be, but Skye… thing is, she's real family-oriented. She didn't think it was right I shouldn't see you." Dean's voice lowered. "And she could tell that I wanted to."
Sam smiled. "Well, I'm glad she did. You know, like Jess said, if you two want to stop by more often… that'd be okay."
Dean's entire presence lifted. "Count on it, Sammy."
"And hey," Sam piped up, "maybe Jess and I can come see you at your place."
Dean sat, expressionless, then burst out laughing. Sam, startled, just blinked.
After catching his breath, Dean shook his head, "Dude, are you hearing us? We're talking about visiting each other, houses and spouses and the whole apple pie nine… how twisted is that?"
Sam chuckled. "Very anti-Winchester… but don't worry, Dean, as long as you're still hunting, you never have to worry about being considered normal."
Dean quirked a strange smile at his brother. "Wouldn't be normal even without the hunt."
"No argument here," Sam agreed, though somehow it felt like they were talking about slightly different things.
The two brothers settled into a comfortable silence while Skye sunk another shot (to the college kid's ever-paling complexion).
Things were almost perfect, which might have been why the hairs on the back of Sam's neck started to stand up seconds before the bar's lights flickered. Just once. No reason to think it was anything but a breaker on the fritz, but three people in that bar were trained to never take such a thing lightly. Sam and Dean froze, like pointer dogs in the brush who'd spotted quail, and Skye jerked upright and looked toward the ceiling.
The lights did not waiver again, but still…
Sam turned and pulled down the blinds on the window to peek outside. The day had been a perfect, cloudless California day, and the night was forecasted to be the same. Sam peered into the darkness, watching, waiting…
A jagged bolt of lightning spit from a single storm cloud in an otherwise perfect night sky.
Sam pulled back and met Dean's eyes. Dean was thinking all the same things.
"Were you guys tracking something here before you detoured to my place?" Sam asked.
Dean shook his head, clearly thinking a mile a minute.
Skye joined them and leaned over the table to whisper, "Felt like a flyby to you?"
"Yeah, it did," Dean agreed grimly, "but a flyby to where?"
It was all due to paranoia that made Sam fish his cell phone from his pocket and dial Jess's number.
It went straight to voicemail.
"Damn," he cursed.
"I can't reach Jess."
Dean and Skye looked at one another intently.
"I didn't really expect to," Sam added quickly, hoping he was wrong (even though everything in his gut was screaming). "She turns off her phone when she's studying… too easily distracted, she says."
"Did you try the apartment phone?" Skye asked.
"We don't have one, just our cells." Sam looked over at Dean. "Could be nothing, but could we…?"
Dean was already climbing out of the booth and handing off his keys to Skye. "Let's go."
Sam all but scrambled out of the seat, threw down a wad of cash for their bill, and hurried out into the parking lot with Dean and Skye. The freak storm cloud was already gone, moved on somewhere else. Sam dreaded to think which direction it had gone.
Dean got in the passenger's side while Skye slid behind the wheel. Sam, feeling like he was four again, piled in the back. Skye backed out of the parking space and peeled out in the direction of Stanford.
Sam tried to tell himself he was getting worried over nothing, tried to make his knee stop bobbing up and down spastically on the whole drive. Dean and Skye were focused, their energy deadly and dangerous. If Sam had doubted Skye being a hunter before, her intensity now dispelled his doubts. Sam wished he could slip back into that mental place, but this was Jess. He couldn't detach himself from that very scary fact.
She had to be okay. This day had been so perfect… he didn't want to have to pay the price for that.
Skye jerked into a parking spot outside the apartment building where Sam lived with Jessica. The car had barely rocked to a stop when Sam threw open the door and jogged across the parking lot. He had a vague sense of Dean and Skye hot on his heels, but he couldn't think of anything but seeing Jessica. He wanted nothing more than to explode into the apartment in a panic, find Jess sitting quietly on the couch, and feel like a complete idiot for freaking out.
He would love to look like a fool over this.
Sam unlocked the apartment door quickly and threw open the door. His eyes dropped immediately to the couch. Jess's books were out, a glass of water sat on the end table, and the old blanket Jess's mother have given her was balled up on the armrest. But Jessica wasn't there.
"Jess?" Sam called out.
Dean and Skye pushed their way into the apartment after Sam and fanned out, hurrying to check the place.
Sam strode toward the kitchen area… there was a pantry tucked away in the back of the kitchen, you couldn't see it from the door, maybe she'd gone for snack…
"DEAN!" Skye screamed.
Sam turned on a dime and bolted toward the bedroom.
He barreled his way in almost at the same second Dean did. They both jerked to a stop at the sight before them. It was unnatural and yet far from new to the Winchesters.
Jessica was pinned to the ceiling. Her eyes were open, her mouth gaping, but there was no sound. Her stomach was dripping blood down like rain.
Skye was standing on the bed, reaching up toward Jessica. She just grabbed a hand full of Jess's shirt when suddenly flames erupted, seemingly from Jessica herself.
"NO!" Sam yelled, surging forward.
Skye yelped when the fire licked across her hand. She jerked back, burned.
"Skye!" Dean bellowed, racing forward and yanking Skye off the bed.
Sam was climbing on it. The flames were billowing out, blanketing the ceiling, swallowing Jess as she stared and burned.
Sam tried to grab hold of her, but there seemed to be nothing but fire. The heat seared his skin, burned in his lungs, brought tears to his eyes. And still he tried to grab her.
The fire began to bulge outward, lapping at the walls and filling the room with an unbearable heat.
"JESS!" Sam cried.
Then Dean was grabbing him around the waist, hauling him physically off the bed.
"NO!" Sam struggled against Dean's grip. The apartment complex fire alarms were screeching in the background. Jess was completely consumed in fire.
Sam lunged for her.
"Sam!" Dean barked, shoving his brother toward the door. "We gotta go!"
"OUT!" Dean growled, and Sam had three inches and a good forty pounds on Dean, but Dean was winning anyway, manhandling him out of the bedroom, then out of the apartment.
Sam was trapped in the fire with Jess, it was all he could see and hear, so he was surprised to look up and realize that he was outside, in the parking lot with Dean and Skye on either side of him, watching the whole complex go up in flames. Other tenants were standing around in pajamas, watching wide-eyed as their homes went up in smoke.
The fire department showed up, but it was all too little too late. Sam stood numbly, unable to shake the image of Jess on the ceiling, pinned and bleeding.
"Let me see that," Sam heard Dean's voice distantly as Dean took Skye's burned hand in his.
"Mine's not bad," she insisted softly, "check Sam's."
Dean took Sam's blistered hands, examining them gently. Sam assumed they must hurt, but he didn't feel it. He couldn't take his eyes from the angry fire where his life used to be. Just a couple of hours ago… it had gone from perfect to ruined in so short a time.
A paramedic eventually came up to them, asking if they needed help. Sam jerked away and moved to the back of the Impala. The last thing Sam wanted to do was deal with people. Dean fielded the questions and sent the guy away… Winchesters knew how to tend their own wounds.
They stood there and watched until the fire was brought under control and the rescue team went in to look for survivors.
When the firefighters started to come out of the building, Sam strode forward and waited… hoping… praying…
They didn't bring anyone with them. No Jess.
Sam felt like crashing to the pavement. His head swam and his ears buzzed. This wasn't supposed to happen… he was normal now. He'd left this behind for good. It wasn't fair. Jess didn't deserve to die for Sam's twisted family legacy.
Sam couldn't fathom moving, but he knew all too well what happened next in a disaster like these. Investigators would start asking questions. He couldn't be there for that. Time to go.
Sam turned and caught sight of Dean and Skye. They were standing together, Dean's arms around Skye and her head tucked underneath his chin, but their expressions were one hundred percent hunter – lethal. Their eyes were intent on the building. In the light of the last lingering flames wreathing the building, their eyes looked almost gold.
Sam walked back to them as if in a dream. A nightmare.
He stopped before them, met their gazes in turn, and said, "We've got work to do."
As hunters, they understood. Without a word, without question, they turned to get in the car. Dean took the wheel as the only person without wounded hands. Skye rounded the car and took the front passenger's seat. Sam practically fell into the back seat.
While everyone at the scene was just beginning to get their wits about them, the Winchesters were heading out into the night. On the hunt for the thing that had killed Mary Winchester. And Jessica.
No one spoke. Dean didn't turn on any music. The car was deathly quiet but for the hum of tires on asphalt. The windows were rolled down to try and air out the smell of smoke and ash.
Sam didn't sleep, not exactly, but he lay down across the bench seat and found himself fading in and out of a strange fugue. He was aware at times, others just lingering in some state in between waking and not.
Once, when he was more or less aware, he saw Dean and Skye in the front seat. Skye had slid across the distance to sit with her side pressed to Dean. Dean's right arm was around her, holding her close.
They must have thought Sam was unconscious.
"Will he be okay?" Skye asked in a worried whisper.
Dean didn't answer right away. "I don't know. You don't ever get over that." Dean was the voice of experience there. He remembered Mary. He remembered the fire twenty-two years ago.
Another thick silence filled the car.
"I can't imagine if I lost you," Dean croaked softly to Skye as he held her tightly.
Skye simply rested her head on his shoulder.
Sam's stomach knotted. He buried his face in the seat, tried to hold back a sob, and fisted his painful, burned hands.
He wouldn't let Jessica's killer get away with murdering her. It wanted a fight, it had it… and now with the full fury of all the Winchesters against it.
Just like that, Sam Winchester was once again what he had been raised to be.