Title: If That Mockingbird Don't Sing
Summary: From a prompt at the ohsam comment-fic meme, by the ever-lovely and talented rainylemons: The Jessica Moore Sam was living with at Stanford? Not his adult girlfriend, but his barely out of diapers kid. Mom died in childbirth, took off, whatever, but Sam's left with his baby and when Dean breaks in, he finds Sam alone in a small apartment with his little girl.
Characters: Sam, Dean, Jess, OCs, a couple of minor canon characters.
Rating: R so far
Disclaimer: If any of this belonged to me, let's just say I probably wouldn't be writing fanfic about it...
Warnings: violence, angst, and descriptions of small children dying. Nothing too graphic, but since that's a major trigger it needs mentioning.
Neurotic Author's Note #1: This is all rainylemons' fault. She keeps prompting things that make me think I can write them, and then they turn into freaking epics. This is going to be a WIP, open-ended, much in the way of Roses in December (which I am totally going to finish, I promise!).
Neurotic Author's Note #2: Holy crap, man. What is it with me and pilot AUs lately? I don't even know. /o\ Also, rainylemons, my inner canon-compliant self refused to let the baby be any older than she currently is. Sorry. :(
Neurotic Author's Note #3: Allow me to apologize in advance for how sporadic the updates on this are likely to be. I have a notion of where this is going, but not exactly how I'm going to get there. Yay for experimentation!
It's not what Dean was expecting. Sure, he'd dropped in on Sammy before, though all those other times he'd made sure to stay far away, where his brother couldn't see him, and he'd spotted the pretty blond bombshell that Sam was apparently dating. This was confirmed when he caught them making out on a park bench, Sam's hands working their way to a spot that definitely shouldn't be explored too openly while in public, and Dean grinned and whispered 'Attaboy,' under his breath.
So when he comes back, two years after the last time he and Sam spoke on the phone, he just lets himself into Sam's apartment, opening the window like it's nothing (and it really is), and spares a thought for the beautiful girl from before, and wonders if Sam went all doe-eyed over her (and he probably did) and whether that means he might get to spot her in her skivvies tonight —or hopefully less. Not that Dean is an utter douche who would poach his brother's smoking hot girlfriend, but there is nothing wrong with just admiring from afar.
He's kind of taken aback when a huge fucking monster launches itself at him from the shadows, all muscles and animal ferocity, and for a few seconds Dean is actually afraid for his fucking life because it feels like his little brother is actually trying to kill him. He only manages —in a desperate and really shitty move— to knock Sam onto his back by kicking him just above his trick knee. Sam lands hard, winded, and Dean straddles his chest, knees on the ground, breathing hard in the gloom of Sam's apartment.
"Whoa, there, easy tiger!"
It's wonderful, to fall back into the old patterns, to find the old Sam right there, the way he remembers. Granted, Sam is about three inches taller and forty pounds heavier than the scrawny kid he put on a bus for Stanford, eyes wide and frightened under his bangs. This Sam, though, doesn't have any such look in his eyes. He's wearing a familiar-looking bitchface as he demands to know what Dean is doing there, but his eyes, his whole stance speaks of a confidence that he never had before. Good Christ, but his Sammy's a man, now, Dean thinks, chest swelling with pride.
"I can't go with you," Sam says bluntly, when Dean lays out his cards, and it's like a stab to the gut.
"What? Why not? It's just a weekend, Sammy, just to check out this one thing. Okay, maybe a long weekend, if you include tomorrow, but no more than that. We'll be in and out, easy-peasy, no sweat."
"I have obligations here. Responsibilities. I can't... I can't just up and leave anymore."
"Oh, like what?" Dean scoffs. "Your law school thing?" He smirks as Sam jerks in surprise. "Yeah, you thought I wasn't going to check up on my little brother? I heard about that. Full ride, all that. You're doing good for yourself, and that's fine, but I can't do this one on my own."
Sam rolls his eyes. "Yes, you can."
It's half the truth. He can't quite meet Sam's eyes. "Yeah, well, I don't want to."
Sam sighs. Drops his head, and it's what Dean was waiting for, the moment he knows Sam has capitulated. But instead of asking about the case, Sam takes him by an elbow. "Come with me."
"Sammy, what—" Dean trots after him, suddenly having to keep up with Sam's confident, long-legged gait.
"It's Sam. Just shut up, or you'll wake her. I'm amazed you didn't already."
Dean grins. "You got a hottie stashed in that room of yours, Sammy-boy? Why, you sly dog, if I—"
He pulls up short just past the threshold. There's a queen-sized bed in the room, obviously a little too short for Sam the way the covers are pulled diagonally across the bed from where Sam must have gotten up in a hurry. But what draws his attention isn't the bed, or the rickety dresser, or even the fading photograph of him and Mom and Dad and baby Sammy in front of the house in Lawrence twenty-two years ago. It's the crib. Painted white and oh-so-ordinary-looking, and yet Dean finds himself staring at it the way he sometimes ends up staring at the victims of the stuff he hunts, like he can't quite figure out just how life ends up like this.
"Sam?" he asks quietly, not even sure what the question is.
There's a plaintive mewl from the crib, and immediately Sam is hovering over it anxiously, and scooping up a child in his arms. Dean blinks, because none of it really makes sense. There's a baby in Sam's apartment, which otherwise looks like any other student's apartment except maybe for the salt lines Dean couldn't help but notice, and the almost-unnoticeable knives concealed in a couple of easily-accessed places —which makes Dean damned glad he wasn't on the receiving end of one of those things a few minutes ago. Sam bounces the child —a girl, if the soft blond hair is anything to go by— and murmurs something to her before planting a soft kiss on her temple. Then he settles her in the crook of one muscular arm and turns an almost defiant look on his brother.
"Dean, this is Jess. Jess," his tone turns softer, "this is your uncle Dean."
"What... I... you," he has to physically restrain himself from flailing. Dean Winchester does not flail.
Sam pulls an epic bitchface combined with an eyeroll. "Anytime you feel like being coherent, Dean. Don't mind your uncle Dean," he says to the kid, poking her gently in the stomach. "He's very silly sometimes. Why don't you wave hi?"
The kid —Jess, Dean corrects himself, and oh God, Sam has a daughter— looks at him a little dubiously, and then Sam's finger digs just a little harder into her belly and she giggles and brings up a hand in what's obviously a very uncoordinated attempt at a wave, and Dean is pretty sure his heart just did something that hearts are normally never meant to do. She's got fucking dimples, just like her father's. Their eyes are the same colour, and she's got that wide-open smile that used to make people fall at Sammy's feet when he was small.
Dean takes a couple of steps forward. "Hey, gorgeous," he says, putting out his arms, and his heart does that weird, not-normal thing again when Sam hands her over without a moment's hesitation. "So I came looking for a beer, but it turns out what your dad's got here is way more awesome."
Sam clears his throat, and when Dean tears his gaze away from the little heartbreaker currently leaning her head against his shoulder, he's a little surprised to see his brother's eyes shining maybe a little too brightly. Sam shrugs, sheepish.
"She looks like you."
"So let me get this straight," Dean finally has his hands on that beer he wanted, while Sam is nursing a Coke from the fridge. "You have a kid, a kid who very close to a year old, and you didn't think it was necessary to tell m —tell us?"
Sam shrugs, obviously uncomfortable. "I wanted to, I did. It's just... I didn't think Dad would... and the way you and I..." he lifts a hand in a helpless gesture. "I didn't want to risk it. I don't know. It was a shitty thing to do, and if I could do it over again I would, but I can't."
Dean nods. It's about as close to an apology as he's going to get from this guy who's really not his dorky little brother anymore. "So what about the mother?"
It's weird, asking like this, in Sam's perfect, neat-freak little kitchen. The whole place is spotless, and part of it is how Dad raised them, with military precision —be ready to move out on a moment's notice, always keep everything in parade order— but part of it is visibly all Sam. This isn't just a place where he lives, Dean thinks, it's a home. There are pictures on the wall, and not just movie and concert posters, but honest-to-God framed pictures, painting replicas and etchings and crap. A giant spider plant tumbles from a pot hanging in the kitchen window, and there are cheerful magnets pinning notes and grocery lists to the fridge. The kitchen sink is gleaming, and the drying rack is filled with small plates and plastic baby bottles and nipples and a couple of weird-looking curved plastic spoons that are obviously not designed for adult use.
"She left. Up and took off maybe a month after Jess was born, and left her with her parents," Sam says it quietly, staring at his can of Coke. The memory's fresh enough that it obviously still hurts. "We weren't together by the time she found out she was pregnant. I thought she was going to... you know, deal with it," he makes a vague gesture with one hand, and Dean thinks he can understand why his little brother doesn't want to utter the word abortion under the same roof as his baby girl, "but she didn't. She gave birth, and I thought she would keep Jess and I would figure out a way to, uh, you know, be there. I'm not a deadbeat."
"'Course you aren't."
Sam blinks, surprised, as though he somehow forgot who he was talking to. "Right. Anyway, it was all kind of a mess there, right before she left. In the end, though, Jess' grandparents didn't... didn't want her," he almost chokes on the words. "And I'm her father, right? So it was no contest, in court. I have a job, I have a place to live, I'm studying to become a lawyer. No-brainer, as far as the judge was concerned. So I have sole custody now, and her mother doesn't have a say in any of it."
"Wow." Dean whistles through his teeth, takes another swig of his beer. "So... this is your version of the white picket fence, huh Sammy?"
Sam looks around, shrugs, but a smile creeps over his face. "Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is."
He looks happy, Dean thinks with a pang, an expression he hasn't seen on his brother's face well and truly since they were kids. At the time he'd thought it was just teenaged hormones and angst playing havoc with Sam's emotions, but now... It was the life that was doing it to him, draining all the joy out of the happy-go-lucky kid who used to eat all the Lucky Charms, and replacing it with that terrible, haunted look Sam would get whenever Dad was late coming back from a hunt, or whenever they were standing over a grave, the smell of lighter fluid sharp in their nostrils, watching the remains of some poor lost soul crackle and burn. Fuck, Dean thinks.
"You, uh, you okay for money?" he asks, because he can't think of anything else that won't come out sounding all wrong. Even that's not the right thing to say, but he's out of practice when it comes to Sammy.
"We're getting by," the tone is defensive, but mild enough. There was a time when it would have come out sounding both snappish and sulky. "I'm not planning any trips to Aruba any time soon, but we're not starving and we're not homeless and I'm not crippled by debts, so on the whole I'm doing better than a lot of my peers."
"Look at you, all responsible, and shit," Dean grins around the neck of his beer bottle, and Sam grins back.
"I know, right?"
Dean sighs, good mood evaporated as quickly as it came. "Look, Sam..."
"Yeah, I know. The thing with Dad. You're sure he's not just on a bender? I mean, look at the date..." Sam drops his gaze, and Dean nods, shrugs.
"No, it's not that. This time's different. He left me a message," he pulls out his cell phone, hands it over so Sam can listen, and watches as his brother's expression shifts, and suddenly it's ten years ago and they're all hunched over Dad's tape recorder while Dad explains to Sammy what he's supposed to be listening for.
"You know there's EVP on that, right?"
"Just like riding a bike, isn't it?"
Sam snorts. "Riding a bicycle never involved anyone dying gruesomely."
"You just haven't been around the right traffic accidents."
"Well, it's nice to know you haven't changed. Good to have some constants in life." Sam looks away, shutting Dean out again, the way he started the minute he decided he was going to leave his family forever and swan off to Stanford.
"Don't be like that. You want to hear what the EVP sounds like when it's cleaned up?" It's a peace offering, one he hopes will appeal to Sam's geekier research tendencies, and he's not disappointed when Sam relents with a put-upon sigh.
"Yeah, okay, show me what you've got."
Dean crashes on Sam's very comfortable sofa, and sleeps like the dead. Actually, given how poorly the dead generally sleep in his experience, he sleeps way better than that. He awakens to the sound of Sam quietly moving around the kitchen at six o'clock in the morning. He sits up a little blearily, scrubs at his face with both hands, feeling three days' worth of stubble scrape against his palms. Definitely overdue for a shave. And probably a shower, he thinks, trying to remember the last time he had one. It's been a couple of days, for sure. There's been a little bit too much month at the end of the money lately, what with being busy looking for Dad and not taking the time to do much by way of haunting the local bars and looking for a likely hustle.
There was a minor argument about the whole question of where Dean was going to be spending the night, wherein Dean kind of felt self-conscious in here now that there was a baby —it's not like he's a paragon of virtue, and who knows if that can damage a kid even at Jess' age?— and tried to escape back to the Impala, claiming he had a motel room already paid for. Except, of course, that Sam has always been able to see right through him when he lies, and the only question has always ever been whether or not he's going to call him on the lie right then and there or later. Sam's like Dad in that respect, and God help little Jess if she ever tries to lie to her Daddy.
"Just take the couch, Dean," Sam had huffed, and it was too stupid to try and keep up the pretence.
He staggers into the bathroom, groggy after the first good night of sleep he's had in God knows how long, and sags in utter bliss under the shower. Not only does Sam have fantastic water pressure in here, but the shower head is high enough to accommodate a guy his size, which by extension means that Dean doesn't have to crack open his skull on the shower head either. He allows himself to luxuriate for a few extra minutes, takes his time shaving —because what baby enjoys beard burn when their uncle kisses them?— and brushes his teeth before going to join Sam in the kitchen.
Sam is already washed and dressed and busily feeding some sort of pale-coloured mush along with a bunch of cut-up fruit to Jess, who has most of it smeared on her face and collecting in her plastic bib. In spite of her interrupted night of sleep she's cheerful enough, giggling and bringing her hands together in what might pass for clapping, even though it doesn't actually make any sound.
"Good morning," Sam is focused on his task, trying to coax the mush into Jess' mouth. "Sleep okay?"
"Better than okay."
"Coffee's next to the sink."
"Bless every bone in your body," Dean pulls a mug out of the drying rack and pours himself a cup. Sam still brews it strong enough that Dean can practically stand his spoon up in it, and the aroma is intoxicating. Sam's cup is on the table, and Dean grins when he spots the flavoured creamer next to it. "Still putting that girly crap in your coffee?"
Sam just nods. "I like it, and it's cheaper than Starbuck's. Jess, it would be helpful if you actually swallowed some of this, sweetheart," he says to the baby. "You like banana, remember?"
"Have you tried airplane noises? Used to work for you."
Sam turns and holds out the container. "Hey, you want to have a go, be my guest. She eats better for other people anyway. I tell myself that it's the novelty of the experience, rather than because I'm a shitty parent."
Dean swallows his coffee, and surprises himself by accepting the challenge. "Just like riding a bicycle," he repeats, and Sam throws him a look he can't quantify at all.
Just like Sam said, Jess takes to him like a fish to water, and finishes half a banana in record time, along with several spoonfuls of the mush that Dean doesn't even want to try to identify. By the end she's covered in even more of the stuff than before, and even Dean hasn't escaped unscathed, with a smear of whatever-it-is drying on his cheek. Without even thinking about it Sam licks his thumb and wipes it away, and Dean squirms and ducks.
"Dude, seriously, that is gross! Even I never did that to you."
"Dad used to. Maybe it's a parenting thing."
"Well, it's gross. You wipe your spit on me again, and we are going to have words."
Sam just grins. He's working on his second cup of coffee, cradling the mug in his hands and watching Dean with his kid like it's the most awesome show in the world, and Dean doesn't remember the last time he saw Sam smile like that. If this is what a life away from hunting means for him, then maybe Dean will just keep it that way, he thinks, mopping a little ineffectually at Jess' face with a soft washcloth.
"You really need help on this one, don't you?" Sam asks softly, and damn, but his little brother is still apparently able to read his mind on a whim.
He shrugs. "I get it, man. You can't just leave her here by herself, and it's not like we can take her with us. It's goddamned dangerous."
"Dad took us with him."
He ignores the implied criticism. "We were older, and he never took us on the actual hunts. Besides, you had me to look after you, and Jess doesn't have an awesome older brother to make Spaghetti-Os for her at night."
"She's too young for that," Sam replies, but the correction is automatic, just something to say to prevent himself from saying everything else that's bouncing around in that freaky brain of his, Dean can tell. "There's a woman who babysits for me, when I have to work. I can ask if she'll stay here for the weekend, take care of Jess, but I have to be back before Monday morning, no matter what."
"Law school interview."
Dean presses his lips together, nods. "Your whole future on a plate, huh?"
"A really nice plate, yeah. You want to give Jess a bath, and I'll make some calls? There's a a basin in the bathroom, and she really likes to play with the squeaky green octopus thing. Don't ask, I don't even understand it myself, but it works."
"Hey, who doesn't love Cthulhu?" Dean looks over, and Sam's astonished expression feels like a couple dozen needles jabbing into him. "What? A guy can't enjoy horror classics?"
Sam just shakes his head. "Sorry, dude. Just, the idea of you voluntarily reading anything kind of blows my mind." He tilts his head, giving Dean a considering look, and Dean suddenly can't quite get a read on him anymore. "I guess a lot more changed than I thought."
"Guess so. Okay, sproglet, bath time!" He scoops Jess out of her high chair, holds her at arm's length and twirls her once, which gets him a squeal of joy mingled with terror.
"She's going to puke on you if you do that."
"Puke washes out. Make your phone calls. I'll be introducing her to the mysteries of Cthulhu in the meantime."
"Why am I suddenly not surprised?" Sam rolls his eyes, but he's smiling as he reaches for the phone. "God, I hope Pat doesn't kill me for calling this early."
It's just like old times. Sam folds himself into the passenger-side seat, bitches at him for running credit-card scams, and makes a face at the bag of junk food Dean tosses into the back seat. Dean points out that hunting isn't a pro-ball career, Sam shrugs and doesn't point out the myriad ways in which Dean could make an honest living, and then pulls out the box of cassette tapes Dean keeps under the seats.
"Some things haven't changed, I see. Aren't you going to ever join the twenty-first century?"
"Nothing wrong with my music. It's classic."
"Except that it's on cassette tapes. And really? Metallica? Mötorhead? It's the greatest hits of Mullet Rock. If you insist on having backward taste in music, you should at least get it in MP3 format. These will dry out and warp eventually."
"Only if you don't take care of them. And I'm not douching up my baby with any of those pansy-ass gadgets you like so much."
"You know the rules, Sammy," Dean grins, shoves a tape into the player and cranks up the volume. "Driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole!"
"'Sammy' is a chubby twelve-year-old. It's Sam."
Dean's grin grows wider. "Sorry, I can't you, the music's too loud!"
The way Sam huffs and scowls before hunching down in his seat, arms folded sulkily across his chest, Dean can almost convince himself it's like nothing at all ever happened.
It's just like old times, he repeats to himself as he pulls out his new U.S. Marshal's badge and bluffs his way through the local cops in Jericho like a card shark in a room full of blind people. Sam's a bit rusty, but it really is like riding a bicycle, and soon they're hip-deep in clues and witnesses and research, and it feels damned good to have Sammy next to him, fighting him for control of the computer in the library, snapping at him for being a smart-ass toward authority figures, and generally being the Robin to his Batman, the Luke Skywalker to his Han Solo.
Then Sam finds the article about Constance Welch and her two dead children, and suddenly he goes quiet. It's subtle, and at first Dean doesn't even notice, but when they've been in the car for fifteen minutes and Sam still hasn't said a word, realization dawns.
"Hey, you okay?"
He reaches over, chucks his brother on the shoulder. "It's the kids, huh?"
Sam's hands twitch in his lap. "The little girl was only a little older than Jess is. I can't begin to imagine..."
"Hey," Dean cuts him off before he can finish the sentence. "Cases with kids always suck. Don't think about it, okay? You'll just drive yourself nuts."
Sam nods, but telling Sam not to think about something is like trying to get a dog to let go of a favourite bone, and Dean can tell he's still brooding about it hours later, back on the Sylvania bridge off Breckenridge road, where Constance Welch took her swan dive. It's stupid to pick a fight with his brother now, about trying to live the life he's always wanted, but Dean does it anyway, throws his lifelong desire for 'normal' and 'apple pie' back in his face like it's a bad thing, like it's not what Dean wants for him anyway.
"Not normal, safe," Sam snaps at him. And that's it right there, that new protective streak, because Sammy is a father now and it's not like Dean can blame him for that, except that he does, kind of. Sam's going to spend the rest of his life lying to his kid, lying to everyone he knows, because he knows what's out there and he's choosing to ignore it, and how is that even safe.
"Mom wouldn't have wanted this for us," Sam says, adding insult to injury, and Dean can't help it, shoves him roughly up against the closest support post. He doesn't even bother to fight against the red haze he always sees whenever someone mentions his mother, which hasn't been for years, because Sam is the only one who's ever dared to do that.
In the next three minutes Constance Welch drives them literally right over the side of the bridge, and Dean's last thought before he hits the icy water is that he might have killed Sammy, and left his daughter an orphan. He flails in the river, finds a shallow spot and drags himself onto the bank to the sound of Sam's panicked shouting for him, and all he feels is relief, even though he's soaking wet and freezing and covered in what smells like raw sewage, because Sam is safe, and that's all that matters right now.
There's no mention made of anything that happened before as they make their way to the nearest motel, and all thoughts of the fight are driven from their minds the minute the desk clerk tells them their father reserved a room there for the whole night. Dean ducks into the shower the minute they get inside —and he can't help the glow of pride as Sam picks the lock in under fifteen seconds— leaving his brother to examine the debris left behind. Dad left in a hurry, that much is obvious. He grabs Dad's old leather jacket off the back of a chair, shrugs into it, and Sam doesn't so much as bat an eyelash. It's not the first time Dad would have let him borrow the thing when he's off on another hunt, after all. Sam is staring at Dad's wall, where he's strung together all the clues he was looking at, his face pinched.
"Dad found what it was. It's a woman in white."
It all makes sense: the victims have nothing else in common. Dean opens his mouth to say something clever about the men's sexual activities, but something in Sam's expression stops him. It's not actually funny, he thinks. Constance Welch went crazy and murdered her children in her bathtub, and what sort of mother does that?
"She didn't know what she was doing, Sammy. It's not her fault."
Sam nods tightly. "I know."
"I'm going to head out, grab us something to eat. You want something?"
"Whatever you're getting for yourself. And, uh," Sam hesitates, "I just wanted to, you know, apologize. For before. What I said about Mom..."
"Hey," Dean holds up a hand. "No chick-flick moments."
Sam snorts. "Fine. Jerk," he grins up at Dean through his bangs.
"Bitch," Dean throws over his shoulder, halfway through the door. "Try not to go all emo on me while I'm gone."
He leaves Sam calling his babysitter on the phone to check on Jess, and promptly gets himself arrested. Thank God for call waiting, is all he can think as he gets himself slammed face first on the hood of a police car. It's not the first time he's been on the wrong side of the law, and a timely paperclip and an even timelier fake 911 call from Sam have him free just as evening begins to turn into night, and as a bonus he got Dad's journal back, which is the best and worst news he's had all week. It's weird, he thinks, how his world can come back together and fall apart right at the same time. Sam or Dad, Dad or Sam. He never seems to be able to have both at the same time, like it's some fucking awful choice that he has to make, like it's a trade.
He's got Sam on the phone when he hears everything start to go to hell in a handbasket, and he steals some guy's motorbike and floors it to the end of Breckenridge road, Constance Welch's order of 'Take me home!' ringing in his ears. By the time he gets there, dropping the bike on the side of the road like it's nothing, she's already got her hand in Sam's chest, trying to rip out his lungs or his heart or maybe both, and Dean doesn't have anything on him except his useless .45, so he empties the clip into her head for lack of any better ideas. He lucks out, because it turns out no one told Constance that she's immune to bullets, and Sam already knows how to fix this —which apparently involves ramming his baby right into the middle of Constance's living room.
He's never been so happy to see a ghost die in his whole entire life.
Dean smacks Sam behind the head when they drive away, just for good measure. "You ever do that to my car again, I will be the one ripping your heart out from your ribcage!" he says, because he's so goddamned happy that Sam is still alive and has his heart beating, intact, inside his chest where it's supposed to be.
Sam just rolls his eyes, rubbing at his sternum, where five finger-sized holes are burned into his t-shirt. "So what are you going to do about the coordinates Dad left?"
He drums his fingers against the steering wheel. "Going to go check them out, I guess. He wouldn't have left town in a hurry like that if it wasn't important, and he wouldn't have left his journal behind unless he was sure I'd be following, making sure this stuff is taken care of."
"It's not like him to leave a case unfinished, especially a cut-and-dried one like that," Sam says, picking at the skin on one of his fingers, and it's not hard to guess that he's thinking about the dead kids again, their ghosts pale and flickering, waiting to drag their mother into whatever afterlife was waiting for them all. Wherever they are, Dean hopes they're happier now.
"Dad trusts us to finish it."
"You know I can't come with you this time, right?"
"Yeah, I know, the interview. I can still get you home in time to catch some shut-eye before then. You won't look like a zombie, at least."
Guilt is radiating off Sam like a beacon. "Thanks."
There's nothing but silence after that, which Dean fills by turning up 'Highway to Hell' as loud as he can stand it as he floors it back to Palo Alto. Sam falls asleep, head against the window, and he looks younger like that, a little more careworn than Dean is accustomed to. They haven't mentioned the elephant in the backseat this whole trip —because Dean doesn't want to get into that, not when he's got to leave Sam behind again. There are at least ten fights they could be having right now, about why Sam left, about why he never calls, about the fact that he has a kid who's well over a year old and never told them —never told Dean, which is more important. Dad is missing, and even though Dean is sure he's not dead, he might die before Dean can find him, and he'll never know that he's a grandfather. Dean just doesn't want to argue with him when this might be the last time they see each other for God knows how long, maybe another two years, even, depending on how things work out. That's the thing with hunting: you never know.
"You want to come in?" Sam asks, when Dean drops him off, but he shakes his head.
"Better not. I gotta get a move on, go find Dad, let him know the good news."
"Yeah," Sam hesitates. "I'd rather you didn't. Just... maybe call when you find him? I'll talk to him. It should come from me."
"Because you did so well with that before." Dean sighs when Sam's expression darkens. "Yeah, okay, fine. But you promise you'll tell him. And for God's sake, pick up when I call you, you hear?"
Some of the tension bleeds out from Sam's shoulders, and he manages a small smile. "Yeah, I promise. I'll even call you myself, if I remember."
"Don't strain yourself, or anything," Dean rolls his eyes, then switches on the ignition again. "You take care, Sammy."
He doesn't wait for Sam to correct him, doesn't look back as he drives off. If he steps on it, he thinks, he can make Blackwater Ridge in about fifteen hours. Colorado is two states over, but it's not like he hasn't driven further in a night before. He's not going to think about Sam, he tells himself, or about the kid, or about any of it. He's not abandoning his brother, he's leaving him to the life he chose, voluntarily, for himself. It's a good thing. There is no reason to feel bad, or guilty, or any of it. It just is what it is, he tells himself. If circumstances had been different, Sam might have come with him, but there's no way he'd drag a baby into this sort of life, and even if he thought he might want to, Dean would never let him anyway.
So there's no reason to look back. No reason to turn the car around. No reason to drive back as fast as the Impala can take him. No reason at all except a sudden, unshakeable desire to see Sam one more time before he goes, to hold that kid he barely knows in his arms and listen to her giggle again. He pulls up outside in time to see a flickering glow in the upstairs window, and he barely has time to think That's Sam's room before he's sprinting up the stairs, taking them two by two and kicking the door in.
The apartment is filled with smoke and the stench of rotting eggs. He doesn't stop to think about that, just ducks as low as he can and barrels straight into Sam's bedroom. The bed is empty, the walls and ceiling alight but not the floor, and when he looks up all he can see is the empty-eyed stare of a dead woman, her white nightdress burning away around her, her face twisted into a rictus of terror.
He spots his brother a second later behind a wall of flame, arms above his head to shield himself from the worst of the heat as he tries desperately and in vain to get to the far wall where the crib is —was. There's nothing left there, and for a moment Dean doesn't even understand what he's seeing. Where there was a crib before there's nothing but smoke and roaring flame, like a black hole composed entirely of fire. He stays rooted to the spot, staring, just as Sam hurls himself headlong into the inferno with a wordless yell.
Instantly Dean is moving, throwing himself after his brother. He catches him by the belt just before the flames can swallow him whole, hauls him back in an awkward move that sends both of them tumbling to the floor. Sam is still screaming, and he fights Dean every step of the way as Dean struggles to get them both up and out the door, forcing him to pull out every single dirty trick he knows to force him outside, where Sam collapses in his arms on the grass, choking and coughing and still calling out for Jess in-between sobbing gasps, pleading with Dean to let him go back in there.
"You can't go back in there. She's gone, Sammy! She's gone. I can't let you go back in, you hear me? She's gone!"
Dean hauls him all the way into his lap, wraps his arms around him and locks his ankles around Sam's legs just in case Sam tries to make a break for the burning building, but all the fight has drained out of him, and he stays where Dean put him, shaking, right up until his eyes roll back into his head and he goes limp in Dean's arms.
There's nothing to do now. He hangs onto Sam as tightly as he can, even though there's really no need. He pets his hair and talks reassuring nonsense to him, rocking him a little the way he used to when Sam was small enough for him to do it and needed comforting, except that this isn't a scraped knee or a bad dream, it's an honest-to-God nightmare from which Sam is never going to wake up, and so Dean lets him stay unconscious while he listens to the sound of distant sirens in the night.
Sam stays unconscious for two days. He's inhaled a shit-ton of smoke, and when the EMTs pry him out of Dean's grasp they find second-degree burns on both his arms and in smaller patches all over the rest of him. A harried-looking doctor reassures Dean that they won't need to do anything drastic like skin grafts, that the burns will heal with time and proper medical treatment, and hurries off to deal with some other crisis that Dean can't bring himself to care about.
Two people died in the fire, and suddenly Dean finds himself in the weird position of being a witness in a police investigation. He doesn't know anything about the dead woman except that her name was Pat or Pam or something and that she was babysitting for Sam while they were out of town. The police are astonishingly nice, something Dean is really not accustomed to, and he realizes to his surprise that they consider him a victim in all this. Him and Sam. It's not a role he's played in, well, twenty-two years. Victim of a fire. Apparently it's all a pretty clear-cut case of faulty wiring, and there isn't even a trace of suspicion in the officers' eyes when they ask him to relate what happened. They're looking at him with sympathy, pity even, he realizes, when he tells them about dragging Sam away from the burning remains of the crib. It's damned unsettling, that they can't see just how wrong all of this is.
He sticks close to Sam's bed. It's not a coma, and that's the only thing Dean can be grateful for, because when Sam wakes up, it's not much better. He's drugged up on painkillers, arms swathed in bandages up to his elbows, his hair singed and uneven, half of one eyebrow and all of his eyelashes missing, and the look in his eyes is one Dean has seen far too many times among the victims he's interviewed. The ones who've lost a brother, a sister, a kid. The ones who've lost what was most important to them in the world and don't know how to make sense of anything anymore.
Sam signs out of the hospital AMA the evening of the second day. He's still coughing occasionally, and they have a list of instructions as long as Dean's arm in order to care for the burn injuries on his arms, but he refuses to stay in the hospital a minute longer once he's awake. Dean checks them into a motel, using an emergency credit card stashed in one of the Impala's secret compartments, and threatens to tie Sam to the nearest bed if he won't lie down. He forces painkillers and orange juice into him, along with a muffin from a box he picked up at a convenience store, just so the meds won't destroy Sam's stomach lining.
"I thought I would go back tomorrow," Dean doesn't say where, because they both know what he's referring to. "See if there's anything I can find, bring back for you."
Sam shakes his head. "There's nothing there that I want anymore," he says, voice hoarse, and it's only partly because of the smoke inhalation.
Dean goes anyway, and while the bedroom is nothing but rubble, the whole place hasn't quite burned to the ground. Firefighting techniques have improved since he was a kid, apparently. He pulls the collar of his t-shirt up over his mouth as he sifts through the ruins, trying to block out the stench of rotten eggs and burnt-out embers. There's almost nothing salvageable. The books are a smoky loss, the furniture not worth bothering with, and the photographs that Sam kept were all in the bedroom. He does find Sam's cell phone and wallet in a jacket hanging near the front door. The jacket reeks of smoke, but the phone appears to still work, and the wallet is intact. Dean flips it open, and closes his eyes when he sees the plastic flip-out case with photos of Jess, from when she was even tinier than she is —was, Christ— right up to a recent picture of her and Sam, which looks like it was taken in one of those booths. To his surprise, he finds a picture of him and Sam, too, taken about a year before Sam left for Stanford, just leaning on the Impala and smiling at the camera. Or, rather, Dean is smiling, and Sam's got his head ducked down and is staring up at Dean through his bangs like he's hanging on every word coming out of his brother's mouth. Behind that one, folded into quarters, is a photocopy of a photo of Mom and Dad, kept for so long that the creases have turned white. Dean swallows, scrubs at his eyes, and decides to get the hell out of there, because obviously the fumes are getting to him.
Going through what's left of Sam's belongings is the least of Dean's worries, he finds. It turns out that, even if the fire burned so hot that there weren't any remains (and, God, he nearly retches when the police tell him that), there are still arrangements that have to be made. God, arrangements. He slips an extra sleeping pill in with Sam's other meds, because the idea of having to go look at tiny coffins with his grieving brother is making him feel sick to his stomach. He picks a simple one, one he's pretty sure Sam would —well, not like, because what is there to like about any of this?— but maybe one he would have picked out himself. He lets the funeral director make decisions about the details, and is very proud of the fact that he doesn't deck the guy for talking about making the funeral 'tasteful.'
"Look, guy," he holds up a hand to stop him mid-prattle. "My brother's baby is dead, he's barely out of the hospital, and he's doing his best interpretation of the walking dead. I gotta tell you, I am not particularly concerned with this funeral, except that it's going to give him, God, I don't know, closure or something. So just keep it short, simple, and to the point, and we'll call it good, okay?"
The funeral director nods, and Dean figures maybe he isn't a douchebag, just a guy who has to handle a lot of grieving people every single day. "Of course. I do understand how difficult this is. We're equipped to handle almost every aspect of the funeral. I do have to ask whether you'll be wanting a cremation, or if your brother wishes your niece to be buried. In which case, we can discuss the purchase of a plot that's within your means."
Dean shakes his head, and this time there's no smoke to blame for the stinging in his eyes. He clears his throat, tries to speak, clears it again. "There, uh, there's no body. There was a fire. They never found Jess' remains."
The guy looks honestly shocked. "I am so sorry. I'll arrange for a closed casket. Would you like to wait for your brother to discuss the financial aspects of this?"
"No. No, Sam's not up for this. Let's just do it now, and get it over with," Dean says, and all he can think is that he'd rather be tortured while hanging from his thumbs from a ceiling than having this conversation.
Then he rests his head in his hands, and does his best to just get through it.
Dean is startled by the number of people who come to the funeral. There are a few of his professors at college, ranging from short women dressed in earth tones with silver short-cropped hair to men around their father's age who apparently never met a tweed they didn't like. Sam's boss from the bookstore where he works is there, a sombre-looking Indian man dressed in what Dean figures must be traditional get-up for a funeral, and a couple of Sam's co-workers. Most of the people attending are Sam's age, classmates who come up and introduce themselves to Dean like it's the most normal thing in the world that Sam has a brother he never talks about. Although it turns out that Sam did talk about him, in a limited capacity. There's only so much you can say about your older brother when you can't mention your upbringing or what said older brother does for a living.
Sam barely acknowledges them. He sits dry-eyed through the whole funeral, which is mercifully short and mercifully free of any talk of God or angels or being 'called home,' and stands stiffly when his friends come up to him and wrap their arms around him. Some of the girls are crying openly, more than a few of the guys are tearing up, and Dean himself isn't exactly at his most cool and composed. One guy, a good-looking blond who looks like he stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, gives Sam a bone-crushing hug, careful to avoid his bandaged arms and hands, then reaches over to give Dean a firm handshake.
"I know you've probably got more offers than you know what to do with, but if there's anything I can do, anything at all, all you have to do is let me know."
"Uh, thanks," Dean is too busy watching Sam. "Sorry, I didn't catch your name."
"Oh, the name's Brady. And I'm serious. Your brother helped me through a serious rough patch. I owe him more than I can ever say. So, you know, if you need a place to stay until your insurance pays up, or whatever, mi casa, su casa, etcetera."
Instinctively Dean steps in front of Sam. "Thanks, but I got it."
Brady nods. "Older brother's prerogative. Got it. You just let me know, though. Sam here's got a lot of friends, we'll all be more than happy to help in whatever way we can."
"Yeah, okay, thanks."
Sam looks like he's about to drop right where he's standing. There's no wake, nothing after the simple ceremony, and Dean hustles him back into the Impala as soon as humanly possible, trying not to worry too badly about the fact that Sam hasn't said a word in over twenty-four hours.
"You want some more painkillers, Sammy?" he asks him when they're back in the motel room. Sam is pliant enough, letting himself be moved around like an oversized marionette. "You need anything? You need to tell me if your arms are hurting you."
"They're fine," Sam says softly, voice cracking.
"Hey, it speaks," Dean forces a grin. "Have some painkillers anyway, and let me take a look. May as well change the dressings now, that way we won't have to worry about it later." He starts unwrapping the bandages carefully, revealing the burns that are just beginning to heal, red and angry and still weeping in places.
Sam flinches a bit but doesn't move, just grits his teeth while Dean tends to the wounds. In another few days they'll be healed enough that Sam won't be completely helpless, but for now even brushing his teeth and zipping up his pants is a trial, and if circumstances were different Dean knows he'd be dealing with a little brother who was bouncing off the walls in frustration. He finds himself wishing that that was the case.
"Sam, I know it's early, but I need to know what it is you want to do, here."
Sam just shakes his head. "You saw what happened."
"Yeah, I saw."
"Pat's dead because of me. Whatever that thing was, it killed her and —and Jess, and don't tell me that it wasn't because Pat was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If I'd been there..."
"Then you'd be dead too!" Dean says fiercely. "God, Sam, you were there. Maybe not right away, but you were there at the end and you almost died. And no," he shakes Sam by the shoulders when he sees his brother opening his mouth to utter words that can never be unspoken, "don't you dare say what's about to come out of your mouth. Don't you damned well, dare! No matter what else happens, I don't want a single fucking part of this world if you're not in it too."
Sam looks at him a little dazedly, and then his face sort of crumples and he lets himself fall against Dean, burying his face in Dean's neck where it joins his shoulder. He doesn't cry, although Dean sort of wishes he would, already, instead of letting it all fester. He just sort of clings, hands lying uselessly in his lap, and Dean can hear him breathing hard.
"I want to go."
He pats Sam's back. "Okay, we can go. Anywhere you want, Sammy. Where do you want to go?"
"I want to find Dad. And then I want to hunt down the evil fucker that did this and tear it apart, put it back together and then tear it apart again." Sam is shaking in his arms, but the quiet words send a chill down Dean's spine.
"Okay. Okay, Sammy. We'll find Dad, and... well, we can't fix this, but I promise we'll find the evil sonofabitch and make it wish it was never born."
Sam pulls away, eyes still deceptively clear. "Then I guess we've got work to do."