Caitlin Landon is perfect.
Sam knows this like he knows a hundred other truths about life. Sine squared of x plus cosine squared of x equals one. Dean snores only when he's sick and can charm his way into and out of just about anything. The best way to kill a werewolf is to shoot it with a silver bullet. Blood poisoning feels like being set on fire almost as much as being set on fire does. Caitlin Landon is perfect.
She has long red hair and one crooked tooth on the left side. She laughs with her whole body and wears sunscreen everyday that smells like raspberries. Her ideal sixteenth birthday would include German chocolate cake and a trip to Paris, but she's probably going to ask for a new pair of Converse and have ice cream, because her little sister is allergic to coconut. She's tall enough to look Sam in the eye and the first time they're partnered in biology she says his name like it means something.
"You can call me Caty," she tells him, and he feels like he's been given a gift. They spend the entire period cutting the fat off the back of their assigned cow eye and Sam never wants it to end.
When he climbs into the passenger seat of the Impala, he's grinning, because he saw Caty in the hallway after last period and she waved at him and it's been gray and threatening rain for a week but Sam's sure the sun is out now. Dean stares as he turns the key in the ignition.
"What are you so happy about? Ace another math test or something?"
"No." Sam doesn't want to explain to Dean about Caty. Dean will only tease him like he always does when it comes to girls, and Caty is a bright secret like the insides of a treasure chest that Sam doesn't feel like sharing.
"Just excited to do your homework then, huh geekboy." Dean whistles low like it's something shameful, but he's grinning too now and he even reaches over to roughly muss Sam's hair.
This is normally the point where Sam rolls his eyes and smacks Dean's hand away and retreats into the sullen silence he's crafted so well it can be worn like armor or wielded like a weapon. But it's hard to be sullen and think about the way Caty's charm bracelet kept brushing his arm during Biology at the same time, so he settles for just the eye roll and the hand smacking.
"Wanna get some fries before we go home?" Dean asks after the moment it takes him to register Sam is still smiling. He hasn't asked that in a while, and Sam knows in the small dark part of himself he usually tires to ignore it's because Dean got tired of hearing the word 'no.'
"Don't stick them in my milkshake this time," Sam says, because 'yes' would be surrender and 'I'm sorry' is utter defeat. "Order your own, okay?"
Dean laughs like it's a good joke and pulls the car out of the parking lot with enough speed to make a few girls standing on the curb scream. Sam tells Dean he should have aimed more to the right because those girls are in his History class and they didn't know when the War of 1812 took place, and they'd made fun of Sam's second-hand clothes. Then Sam is laughing because Dean makes a noise of outrage and looks like he's actually considering turning around and going back for another try.
Sam rolls his window down, then reaches across Dean and rolls his too, ignoring his brother's "Dude, get the hell off, I'm driving." He wants to feel the autumn air on his face, feel it whip through the car like a knife blade, fast and sharp and cool. Autumn is Sam's favorite time of year.
He's glad they're in the Midwest for now because it's the only place that really does autumn right. This town is smallish in population but large in area, flat and sprawling. Sam loves the way he can look off into the horizons and watch the red sun set over golden fields and it's like the world is on fire. He leans his head out the window as they speed down sepia streets and inhales the damp leaves and woodsmoke and the last blazing breaths of the dying year.
Dean tells him he's a freak but Dean's a summer boy, when the freckles cover his skin like stars and everything is as bright and lazy as his smile. Dean loves it when he can spray himself and Sam with the hose and work on the Impala in the blinding sunshine with his shirt off and have barely-dressed girls throw themselves at his feet.
Sam likes it in the autumn when the nights are a little too cold and he can picture himself touching Caty Landon's hair, the same color as the flaming trees.
When they get to the fast food place Dean buys three large fries and two large milkshakes, chocolate for Sam and a mix for him, but he sticks his fries in Sam's anyway. Sam gets mad but not really mad, because the leaves are swirling outside the car like a beginning and Dean has a smear of ketchup on his chin and Sam's going to see Caty again tomorrow.
The sun is setting by the time they amble the Impala to the edge of town and the rental house they're currently calling home. Sam stands for a bit on the porch to watch it go down across the field behind the house. The sun touches his face and the tips of every stalk of wheat rippling in the wind, and it feels like the world's on fire.
Caty invites him to go home with her the next week. They have a big biology project to complete by Friday, but she links her pinkie finger with his when she asks and bright hope bursts in Sam's stomach that this is about more than chromosomal pairs.
He tells Dean it's a group project so he can lie and say he doesn't know whose house he'll be at. He still isn't willing to share the way Caty smiles like it's just for him with anyone, and he wants the freedom to say he doesn't know when he'll be home without the threat of Dean coming to get him when he decides Sam has been out long enough.
Dean is pissed, and Sam gets a mix of the You Have Responsibilities As A Hunter and the Safety is Important Because We Know What's Really Out There speeches, and Sam always hates it when Dad's words come out of Dean's mouth. There's a million responses Sam has to all of it, but he doesn't use any of them because this is important.
"I'll see you later, Dean," he says instead.
"Before it gets dark, bitch," Dean answers like Sam's a ten-year-old. Sam stops himself from rolling his eyes and he's rewarded with a gruff offer of, "Call if you need to be picked up or whatever" and Dean isn't scowling when he walks away.
Caty is waiting for Sam by the front doors at the end of the day and Sam is glad because it puts them out of sight of the Impala, but he can still hear the throaty growl of the engine when it tears out of the side lot.
"I hate the bus," Caty announces as the rest of the student body swarms around them. "Do you mind walking?"
Sam tells her no, that sounds great. A block later she links their pinkie fingers together again and they stay that way until they get to her house.
It's an average white two-story that looks worn but loved, the opposite of the ramshackle house where Sam's currently living that gapes wide and broken like a human skull. Caty's house has bags of leaves by the curb, a porch with a swing, and uncarved pumpkins lining the steps.
"I have two sisters and four brothers," Caty tells him as they crunch their way up the leaf-strewn driveway. She smiles, and it's not an apology but more like a gentle warning, a Slippery When Wet sign. "Just so you know."
Sam says "Okay" and before he can even begin to comprehend what that's like Caty is opening the front door and pulling him in behind her.
The first thing Sam is aware of is noise. He reels for a moment before his brain starts to sort it out. The clink of dishes being washed and the happily babble of a toddler in the kitchen. Video games and someone shouting at the TV in the living room. The clatter of feet disappearing up the steps in front of them. Shouted questions from the backyard.
"I'm home," Caty calls into the cacophony.
Several voices respond with greetings but the one that stands out to Sam is the softest and belongs to a woman who emerges from the kitchen. She has a round face and a broad smile and is wearing a flowered apron that she wipes her hands on before saying, "You must be Sam."
"Nice to meet you, ma'am," Sam says as he shakes her hand. Her skin is soft and slightly damp from the dishes she was washing.
"Call me Lynn, dear." Her smile makes her eyes crinkle at the corners and she smells like flour and soap. "Are you kids hungry? There's still plenty of cookies left over from Becca's bake sale, or you can help yourselves to something else."
"Thanks, Mom." Caty kicks off her shoes and drops her shoulder bag on the floor, waiting for Sam to do the same before they go into the kitchen. Something small and squealing rockets straight into Caty's shins and she scoops the little girl off the floor the same way she took Sam's hand, unconscious and easy.
"This is Sophie," Caty says as she brushes against Sam to open the fridge, ignoring the toddler's tight-fisted grip on a sizable chunk of her hair. "She's five."
Sophie smiles shyly and hands Sam a toy train before squirming to be let down and dashing out of the room.
"You might want to wash your hands," Caty laughs, shifting through shelves that are piled high with groceries. Sam sees fresh vegetables, cling-wrapped cheese, tupperware containers filled with leftovers. "There's no telling where that's been."
She asks Sam what he wants to eat and he can't tell her "Everything" so eventually they settle on reheating the lasagna her mom made for dinner last night. They drink milk with it instead of soda and Sam thinks it's the best meal he's eaten in years.
Caty takes him up to her room next to get started on their homework. She shares the small space with both her sisters and it's messy and cluttered and wonderful, filled with all the kinds of personal trinkets and private memories Sam's never had the chance to get or save in his life.
They sit on Caty's bed with their knees almost touching, but nothing more because Caty left the door open with a rueful shrug and a mouthed 'sorry' that Sam doesn't want to think about too much. He's having a hard enough time focussing as it is with Caty's raspberry smell all around him and her eyes meeting his over their Punnett squares every few minutes.
Within an hour, Sam's met the rest of her family. Some of them stop by specifically to see him, like her thirteen-year-old sister Becca who giggles and runs away the moment Sam says hi to her, and her eighteen-year-old brother Liam who glowers protectively and reminds Sam of Dean so much he has to laugh. Then there's the nine-year-old Evan who wants someone to play Need for Speed II with him and who lights up when Sam tells him he never has before but he's willing to give it a shot later, and Caty's dad, round and balding, who is wondering if anyone's seen his glasses and looks utterly bewildered when Sam calls him 'sir.'
"I think that's all of them," Caty says with an apologetic smile after Liam makes one more over-casual pass outside the door. "Well, except for Jeff. He's away at college."
That word sinks long fingers into Sam's chest and squeezes, making him feel hot and cold at once. Caty seems to notice, because she tilts her head in that way she has and touches two finger with their bright blue painted fingernails to the inside of Sam's wrist.
"Do you think about college?" Her fingers stroke gently and Sam feels it all the way in the tiny secret place inside he guards like a burning sun. If it were anyone else asking, Sam might look away, but Caty's eyes are bright and her touch is gentle and she's smiling like he could say anything and she wouldn't mind. Still, one word shouldn't be so hard to get out but Sam's been keeping it tucked down deep for so long it takes him a minute to find it.
"Me too." Caty moves her fingers to his forearm, tracing patterns like the ones she doodles on the corners of her papers in class. "I don't know where I want to go yet, but I know I want to go. It's not easy with six kids but… I'll make it happen." She gives a firm little nod, and Sam flips over his hand so he can brush fingertips over the soft blond hairs on her arm.
"I believe you."
Caty hums, now sliding a palm over Sam's shoulder. "What about you? Made any plans?"
"Not yet, but I will." He brushes the sleeve of her t-shirt with his hand and tries not to explode at everything that's churning inside of him, aching, desperate, nuclear. "I'm going to make it happen too."
Caty hums again and leans in. "I believe you," she whispers.
With her this close Sam can count every faint freckle on her nose and cheeks. He kisses her instead. She tastes like lasagna and chocolate and sunshine through the changing leaves.
"You know something, Sam Winchester," Caty breathes when they pull apart, her hands on Sam's shoulders and his hands touching the ends of her sunset-red hair, "I think I kinda like you."
Sam laughs and kisses her once more, quickly, before the world moves and anyone else comes by.
He forgets all about Dean's order to come home before dark and he stays for dinner, eating with all seven of the Landons (except Jeff, he's away at college, Mr. Landon tells him with such pride that for several moments Sam can't swallow) then spends half an hour losing spectacularly at Need for Speed II with Evan while Caty laughs at his incompetence. When Mrs. Landon starts rounding the younger children up for bedtime, carrying around pajamas and toothbrushes, Sam has to get outside.
"Too much for you?" Caty asks gently as they settle on to the porch swing. The warmth from the day is rapidly vanishing and Caty tucks herself deliberately into Sam's side. He puts his arms around her and pulls her close, knowing he could never explain how it's too much and not enough and his heart aches with it all.
They stay on the porch swing for another hour before Caty's dad sticks his head out the door and offers Sam a ride home. Sam considers walking but he knows Dean would be really pissed at him then, and Mrs. Landon wrapped him up a plate of cookies to take home and he doesn't want them to get ruined. He asks if he can use their phone, and Dean is pissed but he agrees to pick Sam up anyway.
Sam and Caty sit on the porch swing again and Sam gets to kiss her twice more before he hears the tell-tale rumble announcing the arrival of his angry and very singular big brother. The Impala slides up the street like a black ghost in the autumn night, the leaves strangely silent under it's strong tires. Sam is half afraid once he gets inside it he'll disappear and this day will be nothing more than a dream and the lingering taste of sunlight, but Caty brushes his arm and says she'll see him tomorrow. The word 'promise' never crosses her lips but Sam hears it all the same and it makes it easier to leave her standing on the porch and climb into the car that's taken him away from so many things.
Dean has the music on loud and Sam knows this is his punishment for not calling sooner. He mumbles his apology under the wail of guitars and Dean lets it sink in a while before turning the volume down.
"You're lucky Dad's away on a hunt." He doesn't look at Sam and that's how Sam knows there's no threat in his eyes.
"Are you going to tell him?" he still has to ask, unsure if he's looking for a way to push Dean or placate him. Dean gives him several blocks of silence for an answer, then smirks.
"She's real cute, Sammy. What's her name?"
Sam sighs and gives up "Caitlin" because he knew this was coming and he knows it's one of the reasons Dean won't tell Dad, because Dean thinks he understands. He chuckles and makes some joke about the 'project' they were working on but Sam's not listening. He's fingering the cling wrap on his plate of cookies and thinking about Caty's mom baking them in her flowery apron, and Caty's dad eating two at once and laughing as he kissed his admonishing wife on the cheek.
When they pull up to their house it's emptiness hits Sam like a punch in the gut. There's no lights on inside and nothing but the field stretching behind it, wheat stalks all bent away like they're striving for something better. Sam walks up the sagging steps and pauses before going in the door because there's something bone-achingly terrifying about the dark silence inside.
But then Dean crowds past him and Dean turns on the light and Dean swears and trips over a table leg and Dean says, "Come on Sammy, you gonna stand out there all night?" and Dean drags him in by the arm and Dean is everywhere and everything. Sam feels a hot rush of guilt for picturing all night what it'd be like to have more siblings. Dean is everyone, any more of him and the world might explode.
Sam holds out the plate of cookies like a peace offering.
"Oatmeal raisin?" Dean says, wrinkling his nose like he's been offered cat food. "Ew, Sammy, what kind of—"
"Those are for me," Sam snaps, because he's doing a nice thing here and he just wants Dean to eat the damn cookies already. "There's chocolate chip ones on the bottom."
"Oh." Dean snatches the plate away, rooting around until he finds a chocolate chip cookie and shoveing the entire thing in his mouth. "'Fanks."
"Sure, Dean." Sam watches him eat four more cookies, then decides he's going to bed. "Night."
"Everything okay?" Dean asks right away, swallowing an enormous mouthful so fast it looks painful.
No. Yes. Sam doesn't know how to explain the sudden hollowness inside of him, like he's their house and he's been standing empty for years, slowly falling apart while waiting for someone to move inside and fix him up. He doesn't know how to tell Dean about the fire that blazed inside of him earlier that evening when he sat around the dinner table with a mom and a dad and five children and homemade pot roast and fresh salad and real fruit, and Jeff who's at college which makes everyone so proud of him. He doesn't know what to think about watching Caty swirl through her house of siblings, laughing and talking and arguing, but never once looking at any of them like they're her world.
"I'm just really tired," Sam says. The cold autumn wind whistles through the cracks in the walls, touching his skin and hair like kisses from the dead.
"Long day, huh?" It's half a joke and half something else. Dean grabs Sam in a headlock and ruffles his hair. "Go on and get your beauty sleep then, Princess."
Sam elbows him away but not very hard, and he makes sure to sink his fingers into Dean's waist in a retaliatory pinch so Dean knows he's pushing him off because as a little brother he has to, not because he's angry and he wants to.
He almost freezes when he realizes he doesn't know when it became necessary for him to make that distinction.
Dean doesn't notice his hesitation because he's already heading into the kitchen with the cookies, meticulously pushing all the oatmeal raisin to one side of the plate.
Sam strips down to his boxers and just barely remembers to brush his teeth before crashing into bed, feeling the kind of exhaustion that usually only comes after one of Dad's training sessions or a particularly intense hunt. He tries to remember how it felt to kiss Caty's lips or have her body pressed against his, but for some reason all he can think about is color of the leaves scattered across the street when Dean drove him home.
They're already starting to fade.
He rolls over, and Dean comes into the room, shedding clothes and climbing deliberately into his own bed. Sam stares at the curve of his back, bewildered. It's barely even eleven o'clock on a Friday night, and Dean, champion of the bars, able to get by just fine on four or five hours of sleep a night, is laying perfectly still in his bed like he has no plans of moving until morning. Sam could almost even believe Dean is asleep already if his breathing wasn't quite so smooth.
Sam almost says something. He almost gets up and turns on the light. He almost opens the window and shimmies down the back of the house to the wheat field outside, where there's supposed to be too much space and not enough air and blood-red streaks shot through an imperfect sky.
But he watches the too-steady rise and fall of Dean's back instead. The wind continues to blow through the walls, rattling like a dying breath.
It doesn't stop Sam from falling asleep.
Sam spends as much time as his dad will allow, and a fair amount of time his dad won't, at Caty's house.
It's not easy, with training and hunting and screaming matches that can go on for hours until Sam leaves or John snaps or Dean manages to force his way in between them and give them one good look with his shattered green eyes.
But the worst part isn't knowing John forbid him to be there, or knowing John doesn't give a damn that Sam's still completing all his homework and acing his classes, or the punishment in form of another bellowed lecture and extra miles and brutal sparring he'll receive when he goes back home. The worst part is the hurt in Dean's eyes when he comes to pick Sam up. And Dean always comes to pick Sam up.
Part of it is jealousy, Sam knows. Not because Sam gets to spend time with the Landons or Caty, but because they get to spend time with him. Sam remembers the feeling well from when he was younger and his brother started ditching him to spend time with a parade of girls who could offer a million things Sam could not.
When he grew up a little and the shine of hero-worship began to fade from his eyes, Sam told himself he didn't mind Dean leaving five nights out of seven to drink or hunt or fuck. It gave Sam his own space, time to do his homework or anything else he wanted in peace. Because no matter where Dean went or what he did, he always came back.
Now it's Sam's turn to be the one leaving, only what he's doing is much, much worse. It's one thing to sleep around or kill monsters or hustle pool, those things don't change anything, they don't even come close to touching the steel glass bonds of their family. It's another thing entirely to have a relationship. And, judging by the expression on Dean's face every time he pulls up in front of the Landon's and lets Sam climb in the car, having a relationship is a pretty horrible thing to do.
Sam's feels trapped, caught between Caty's world that he craves and his own world where he belongs. In Caty's world, there are gentle-eyed Moms who makes sure Caty and Sam bring umbrellas when they take walks in case it rains, and sandal-and-sock wearing Dads who can't find their baseball cap when it's on their head and who always makes sure the bird feeders are full to bursting. In Caty's world there are video games with multiple players and attending softball games played by little sisters and encouragement to do homework and three square meals a day and excitement that doesn't involve guns, and hugs that don't involve blood.
In Caty's world, Sam is called Sam, not son or boy or kiddo. Sam is liked, trusted, and accepted. In Caty's world, Sam can talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald or South American political strategies, and someone listens. He can say he's always wanted a dog and no one shuts him down. He can speculate about college and hear suggestions instead of shouting. He kisses Caty when no one's around, and touches her when they're truly alone, and runs fingers through her hair and listens to her talk and fills himself up with the shining possibility present in all of her hopes and dreams.
In Caty's world, Sam feels content.
In his own world, there's victory. There's knowing he's made a difference in someone's life, pressed a tiny dent into the fabric of the world. In Sam's world, there's a dad who takes two bullets to the chest and gets up swinging. There's men and women who look death in the eye and smirk. There's watching creatures that haunt Sam's dreams and drip hate from their jaws burn into nothing but ash. In Sam's world, there's heartache, and tragedy, and danger, and joy, and heroes, and power, and too much to loose, and too much that's already been lost.
In Sam's world, there's Dean. Dean, who will always take care of Sam, always look out for him, always share with him, always tease him, always infuriate him, always help him, always protect him, always annoy him, always believe him, always push him, always catch him, always love him.
In his own world, Sam feels complete.
Autumn rushes on like the desperate wind that precludes a tornado. Sam carves pumpkins, hunts a devalpa. He eats homemade apple pie with real ice cream, brings home a serving for Dean who still flat-out refuses any offer to join the Landons. He makes-out with Caty soft and slow, learns to shoot a fifty-caliber sniper rifle with perfect accuracy. He passes all his midterms with ease, breaks three fingers when a collapsible crossbow malfunctions. Caty covers every inch of his cast in bright swirls of color, Dean refuses to even look at it.
Sam is stretched thin like the gossamer strands of the spider web spread across his dirty bedroom window. The colors of autumn reach their peak, so bright they hurt Sam's eyes. He knows it can't last.
They pack up and leave town the first day of winter break, when all the trees are dead like skeletons and snow covers the ground like salt and ash from burning their bones. As the Impala pulls away from the crumbling building they were calling home, the wheat field behind it flattened and shriveled like the remains of a fire, Sam decides he hates autumn, he hates it.
He hates seeing all its beauty and color wither and fade, leaving only the cold and the dead and the ash, and Sam, watching it slide away from behind the unyielding black walls of the car.
He doesn't say goodbye to Caty.
He writes her a note, two long pages of thanks and apologies, but he rips it up and throws it outside, watching the pieces scatter and get lost among the rotting leaves.
He doesn't want to see her autumn-red hair stark against the ash-white snow, or her smile blindingly bright against the dull grey sky. He imagines her bleached and sucked dry like the bodies they dig from their graves. Someone who's already been lost by the time they are found.
And Sam decides he hates all of the seasons, not just autumn. He hates the way they change. He hates that for every sunny day in the summer when Dean is laughing and waxing his car there's a day like this in the winter, where Sam is trying not to cry and Dad with cuts still fresh on his face pushes the petal to the floor. He hates how they repeat without fail, the ash turns to rain turns to sun turns to fire, an endless wheel with them at the center, spun and alone.
Sam doesn't want any part of it anymore. He doesn't want to watch snow of salt and ash coat the bones of the dead. He doesn't want to trace tracks of water down Dean's face and know there's nothing he can do to stop them. He doesn't want to measure the sunshine, knowing it must be rationed because it will never last. He doesn't want to see the ground turn blood-red with leaves and feel the chill breath of change ever-threatening in the air.
Sam wants sunshine, all the time. He wants to wear clothes free of ash, and forget there's such a thing as fire and death. He wants something stable, something stationary, something safe.
Dean reaches a hand over the back of the seat, trying to find Sam's shoulder, but Sam shifts away. He doesn't want comfort right now. He presses himself against the window, watching the twisted black silhouettes of the trees looming from the side of the road.
Like ghosts, they leave his skin feeling cold and his chest feeling cracked, before fading away into the night.