It was a beard.
Beyond fluff, beyond stubble, beyond bristle.
As the diner door slapped shut, Sam knew he was staring in disbelief, his own jaw slack.
He realized at once that it ought not be the thing. The thing ought to be that he hadn't seen Dean in eighteen months. The frigging thing ought to be that he was suddenly so relieved, so overwhelmingly, breath-stoppingly relieved his knee-caps had turned to slop and he needed to sit down as soon as possible.
But it was a beard... for crap's sake.
Obviously, it had some meaning. Only, in the weird confusion of reunion, Sam didn't put the right two and two together. All he could think was... Dad's car, Dad's jacket. Oh come on. Not the beard too. That's too sad, you're my big kick-ass brother and you are not that sad.
"Hey," he said as his big kick-ass brother brother arrived at an arm's length from where waited.
It was totally explicable, this beard. Although he didn't like to think about the family business rattling out of control far away from his pleasingly regimented day-to-day orbit, Sam was aware that hunts could be long. Like overland treks to Siberia long. So clearly beards could be for warmth or due to lack of motel bathrooms. Only, Dean wasn't currently on an overland trek to Siberia. He was suddenly here in a diner three blocks from the law faculty, perhaps to remind Sam he'd never escape his destiny or something. And surely, surely the grim drip-drip of his brother's insecurity hadn't driven him to totally re-modeling in the image of their absent parent? Because Sam so didn't need to start worrying about that mess again. He had a freaking exam in the morning for crying out loud. In twelve hours, to be precise.
All he knew was that Dean'd never grown a full Grizzly Adams before. There'd been a few back and forths years ago in which Sam had poured scorn on his big brother's pretensions to hirsute manliness, Dean had claimed with swaggering doubt that he could if he wanted and John had been unable to decide whether to run with the joke or get snippy with them.
It had been snippy in the end, Sam was pretty sure. Snippy, but no beard.
Now he stared across the vast wasteland of a diner table-top at his brother and his brother's new companion. He swished the backs of his fingers near his own chin in puzzlement.
"When did this...? Why did...? Dude."
Dean answered, but Sam was distracted by the rattling sound of the coffee cup against the formica.
Drink it, Dean. Don't play percussion with it.
Yeah. Dean was the one who could look like John, but Sam knew he was the one who could be him.
"You don't like the coffee?" He stared at the pool of liquid slopped in the center of the table, feeling vaguely defensive. His eyes followed Dean's retreating hand. But then he just had to look up at the too-long hair again. And the beard. The raspy noise it made when Dean rubbed clumsily under his chin with a bunch of knuckles was something that could get on Sam's nerves.
The whatthefuckery of the beard, however, might have to come after a routine interrogation about the whyhereandwhynow.
They fell, inevitably, into a pointless discussion about whose fault it was that so much time had passed without contact. Sam couldn't seem to keep Dean on track, couldn't get any comforting rises out of him or garner any intelligence on why Dean seemed to have been out there without John for so long. The very pointlessness was comforting in the end. But the beard was not. However often Sam swung the conversation back to it he couldn't seem to get a straight answer.
"So is this just a regular... you know... check-in?"
"Check-up?" Dean's wayward echo threw him.
"Check-in, check-up. Whatever. I mean, this is just you making sure I haven't been burning the candle at both ends?"
"No, Sammy. This is just me making sure some motherfucker hasn't been burning you at both ends."
Sam barked at laugh at the image, at the familiarity of Dean's delivery, and then sobered quickly as the couple in the next booth turned to stare.
"As you can see, both ends intact." He smirked, waiting for a lewd comeback and when there was none he felt a distinct increase in his sense of unease. It caused him to make a headlong rush at the nearest unresolved issue. "And you know, a phone call once a week would do it. Haven't heard from you in over a year, man. What the hell's that about?"
"Yeah," Dean said, eyes wandering away to something that didn't seem very interesting over Sam's left shoulder. "Sorry for ignoring all your calls."
"What would be the point?" Sam felt it was a fair question. "What would be the point of me calling? Half the time your phone's switched off so I wouldn't know if that meant you turned it off for some reason I don't even... or else you're dead. Or something."
"And the other half?"
"The other? What?"
"Am I talking weird or something, Sam? You don't seem to be following me."
"Dean. Why did you grow a beard?"
Dean's hand reached for it as if he'd forgotten it was there. He made the unpleasant rasping noise with his fingers again, then looked at them, surprised.
Sam shook his head. "Yeah so you need to take it off."
Dean tugged hard at the rough whiskers with a finger and thumb. He put the hand back on the table. Sam thought he was going for the coffee again only the limb landed next to it with a thump that seemed to startle them both.
"What?" Dean asked. He withdrew the forearm from the table-top, a drag rather than a lift. The other hand pushed away the coffee.
"You're staying over, right?"
"Just tonight." Dean's voice was gravelly-serious.
"Good. Great. Only..."
"Don't need to share your space, Sam. Got a motel."
"Great. Good." He drummed his fingers. "So why are you really here?"
Somewhere in the beard, Sam detected a smile. "You're my baby brother at college. I'm visiting."
"Dad all right?"
"You even know where he is?"
It seemed as if Dean was going to nod and then he stopped. There was a long, frowning pause.
"And you're all right?"
"Apart from that... on your face."
Only Sam was starting to feel more certain now. The beard was perplexing and out of place, but the beard was not the thing. Of course, Dean wasn't going to tell him what was, not unless it in any way threatened Sam's security.
"Jeez," Dean said, irritated now. "Don't get your..." He stopped. "Don't get... Jeez, Sam! Don't bust my fuckin' balls because I haven't fuckin' ... haven't... Jeez."
Sam couldn't decide if something was making Dean so mad he couldn't find his words, or if he couldn't find his words because...
"Hey, let's get out of here, Dean. Go back to your motel."
"Don't you have an exam?"
"In the morning."
Eleven hours and counting.
"You're Sam Winchester, dude. Last time I looked that meant IV caffeine and all night cramming."
Sam wanted to tell him that he was so damn well prepared this time, because this exam was life-changing important. Instead he just dug in his pocket to find something to pay the check. The table shook, cutlery and condiments jangling, when Dean rose to his feet. Like it was in his way. Like he couldn't maneuver himself out of a simple diner booth without... The next-door couple looked around again in disapproval.
They left the diner and it was starting to feel late. Somewhere between the diner and the motel, Sam decided Dean was telling him something without actually... you know, telling him. Was just allowing the weight of factual and visual evidence to stack up until it had become too damn terrifying to ignore.
First of all, most incriminating. Dean hadn't driven the Impala to the diner. He'd walked.
And then, clearly he'd been in the motel for longer than a few hours. As soon as the door was open Sam could see and smell that. There was ample proof of several days' occupancy - a pile of dirty towels, the detritus of more than a few really unappetizing meals. In fact, there was ample proof of several days' occupancy by a truckload of out-of-control buffalo.
"My God, Dean, this place is a wreck, what's with you?"
Dean said something that sounded like "pffftt". He looked like shit too. Sam didn't know why he hadn't really registered that before. Everything was falling into place too fast to process. Dean acting drunk when he wasn't drunk. The glance of shoulder off the door jamb as he'd walked in. The painfully deliberate attempts to concentrate when Sam addressed him direct. The almost imperceptible straying of one wavering hand to an indeterminate point on the back of his head.
The goddamn, freaking unnatural, ridiculous beard.
Watching his brother home in on the fridge and then attempt to prize the top off a bottle of beer was the killer reveal. The hand reaching for the door didn't look right to Sam at all. It moved strangely. It was the one that had nearly swept a cup of coffee off a diner table. The same one that had fallen, heavy as stone, right into Dean's lap without him seeming able to control it. And now it was so agitated he couldn't get a second's purchase on a damn thing. The sudden notion of a knife or a razor-blade being anywhere near those manic fingers made Sam's stomach dive for the floor. The bottle jerked out of Dean's tenuous hold and dropped with a thump, rolling under the nearest bed.
"Holy shit!" Sam said. "You can't shave!"
Dean stared at the hand as if it was Judas Iscariot himself.
"Crap, Sam. I can't do a fuckin' thing." He lifted his hand tentatively towards his head again. It wasn't shaking too hard, but it didn't seem to know where it was going.
Dismay hit Sam in the chest at speed.
There had to have been a blow to the skull. Sam was suddenly sure that if Dean would let him touch, in the unlikely event he'd allow him to delve through his hair, he'd find a scar. He'd feel it under his fingertips, ridged and ugly and significant.
"Oh Jesus, Dean. What the hell happened?" Sam took a deep breath. "When the hell did it happen?"
"It's really OK." Dean rubbed his face without much precision. "Really. I can drive except when I get tired."
"Where the hell was Dad in all this?" Sam was beginning to seethe, found himself starting to pace the room. "Does he know? Were you alone? Jesus, Dean, what the hell happened?"
"Whoah." Dean gave a drunken stagger towards one of the beds, as if the force of Sam's tirade had knocked him off balance. He sat down heavily. "Easy, Sammy, go easy."
"A hunt?" Sam pursued, not willing to give any quarter.
Dean closed one eye. "Maybe."
"There's no maybe about a hunt. Not one damn single maybe."
"Maybe it was a demon," Dean countered. He looked really bone-tired all of a sudden. Really washed-out, sunken-eyed, bone freaking tired. And his voice was off. "Maybe it was a poltergeist. Maybe it was a..."
"OK, forget what it was. What did it do to you?"
"I think it was a crowbar. Yeah. Might have been a crowbar."
Sam ran a hand through his hair.
"And what kind of damage? What did they say?"
"Well a crowbar," Dean said, as if that explained everything. "In my head."
"Fuck." Sam found himself on the other side of the room again, his feet unable to keep still. "Fuck, Dean."
He realized the thing now. In fact, he was nearly floored by it. His brother had made his way to Stanford to find Sam. Not to bug him, or bitch at him. Not even to protect him. He'd come here for help and that had never happened before, not one single, solitary time. Only of course there was no way under the sun he'd come out and ask for it in any words that actually made sense.
Sam swallowed. Moving close he put one hand on his brother's shoulder and just stood there, holding on, as if he was the unsteady one all of a sudden. "What... what do you want me to do?" He gripped so tight Dean winced. "What do you need me to do? For right now?"
"Beard," Dean said, swatting at it with his now wildly spasming hand.
"A shave? I can... I can do that." Sam wanted to still the un-natural movement, even for just a moment but he didn't dare.
If the damn beard was going to be the symbol, even if Dean wouldn't agree to anything else in the way of assistance, well so be it.
Fussing now, in his anxiety to show willing, Sam aimed for the bathroom. He ran hot water into the basin, pulled the only clean towel he could see down from a rail. Then he turned to the glass shelf under the mirror.
"Beardbuster, huh?" he said over his shoulder, unearthing the stolid green and white can from Dean's wash-bag. A crappy razor was in there, too, crusty with long-dried soap scum. "What do you call this?" He came out of the bathroom and Dean looked up at him, took a second or two to focus.
"'swrong with it?"
"It's a blunt blade on a stick, man. Gonna drag like hell. I should go buy you a new one."
Dean huffed crossly. "Don' need any of your freakin' gold-plated fusion proglide crap, Sam. Just shave the sonofabitch off."
Sam sat him in a chair in the bathroom. He draped the towel over his shirt. Just like in the movies. Then he shook the can of Beardbuster vigorously and squirted out a huge handful of foam.
Dean eyed it uncertainly.
"You ready?" It was an odd sensation, slathering frothy unguent on someone else's face. Not unpleasant, Sam decided, the smoothing his palms over all that wiry growth across Dean's jaw and cheeks. As he brushed gloop off Dean's tightly pursed lips with a knuckle, his brother's tongue come out to explore.
"Phthth," Dean said.
"Hold still. You're gonna have to hold still or I might..."
"Be careful, Sam." A clear growl. "But don' be a fucking girl about it."
Sam's own hand was shaking now and Dean drew his head back.
"Super." His voice was indistinct and he was sitting rigid in the chair.
"Shush," Sam said. "Let me do this. Let me do this for you."
He made the first stroke on the underside of Dean's jaw, felt him swallow in slow motion. The razor moved slowly, snagging against the swathe of hair and foam. Dean didn't close his eyes as Sam worked, but they remained at heavy-lidded half-mast.
Sam was quiet then. His hands had stilled and he felt clear-headed and focused all of a sudden. He tilted Dean's chin with one finger, held it in place as he moved the crappy razor under the familiar jawline again, as he came gently up under the curve of Dean's bottom lip, as he took care to trace the line of cheekbone, not work against it.
The beard was tough. It was tenacious, had a will of its own, clinging with all its strength to Dean's face.
"Ow," Dean said every few minutes but he didn't move, didn't try to shrug away. Once the left side was done, he rolled his neck slowly to give access to the right. He made the best face for Sam to get at his top lip, without even being prompted. It was a weird kind of teamwork. The basin was awash with beard before long, the towel liberally spotted with blobs of whiskery foam. Crappy razor or not, Sam was determined to get every last hair.
Perhaps when the thing was gone, Dean would get his strength back.
Like Samson in reverse.
Sam swished the razor in the water again, wiped it clean. He ran his eyes over the damp, flushed cheeks, radiating the warmth of steam and friction. With one corner of the rough towel he dabbed the sensitized skin dry. The head of the razor was beginning to wobble now, like it was giving up the ghost and Sam dropped it into the basin with a plop. He did a little upstroke with the backs of his fingers, just to test the smoothness. Then he did a downstroke, slower, as tender as he dared. Dean twitched. His eyes were nearly closed now and his jaw tightened with a suppressed yawn. He seemed almost boneless now, slumped into the chair, his hands lying motionless in his lap.
Sam flicked the towel away. He hooked a hand under the nearest elbow. "You're going to go to bed now. Sleep some." Dean's eyes cracked, which might have been the harbinger of some resistance, but none came. Sam managed to get his brother on his feet and steer him out of the bathroom with almost no deviancy from the straightest route.
He couldn't help a glance at the clock on the nightstand.
"Zam," Dean slurred, obviously alert enough to register the display too.
"Fuck the exam."
After a few minutes, Dean was lying unmoving on his side under two layers of blanket, the traitorous hands balled up against his belly and his shoulders rounded against any assault.
For long moments Sam didn't move away. He stayed where he was, leaning over the bed, listening to Dean breathe, watching the occasional tremor of eyelid. All the little details that might tell him something. His brother looked smaller without the beard, for sure. And not at all like John. He was asleep, peaceful to a degree, and that was a good, baseline fact that Sam felt he could work with.
Searching the outline of the head against the pillow, he realized he still knew almost nothing about what had happened. What Dean had been hunting, the force of the impact, if and how he'd been treated, for crap's sake, and what could now be done.
All those hours of study and so much left to learn. Sam lowered himself by degrees into a chair right next to the bed.
He turned the clock on the nightstand away from him so he couldn't see the display. Nine hours and counting.
All he needed to remember was the thing.
More fundamental and life-changing than any exam could ever possibly be.
Dean had come.