Author's Note: This was written for the SPN_J2_Xmas fic exchange over at LJ for antrazi. I mixed two of her prompts: Despite everything he ever imagined, Sam has to adjust to the new rules of normal life in Stanford he never even knew existed and Dean during a haunt, Stanford era and somehow ended up with this. Merry Christmas!

Also, many thanks to the lovely moviegeek03, who helped me wrangle my thoughts into something remotely resembling a story.

Disclaimer: I own nothing you recognize.


Coming Home


With a tired sigh, Dean stuck the tip of his shovel into the loose dirt and wiped a dirty hand across his sweaty forehead. Filling in the grave after salting and burning a corpse somehow always seemed harder than digging it up in the first place, though the digging was actually more work. But with the digging, there was always the threat of the spirit showing up, meaning that Dean was always on guard and working quickly, adrenaline pumping under his skin. After the fire waned and he'd closed the coffin once more, though, Dean was left with a hollowed out feeling as the adrenaline left his system. The shovel always seemed about ten times heavier when he went to fill the dirt back in.

At least when Sam had been with him, he'd had someone to share the work and shoot the shit with. His brother might be a pain in the ass, but he was also a good distraction. But Sam had left a couple of months earlier for college, abandoning Dean and their father to the family business for normal.

As if a Winchester were ever going to ever have a normal life.

Dean shook his head; no point in getting maudlin about it at this point—especially without alcohol as an excuse. He hefted the shovel over his shoulder and headed for the Impala, which was parked out of sight from the main road. No need for any patrolling cops to see the car and get curious about what it was doing in the cemetery after hours. He tossed the shovel into the trunk and slid into the driver's seat. He grabbed his phone to check the time—4:37 a.m.—and see if he had any missed calls—he didn't.

He dialed his father's number but wasn't surprised when it went right to voicemail. John had said he was going to be out of cell range while he tracked the wendigo he was after, so they should just meet up on Monday; if he didn't make the meet, only then should Dean worry—it was the same protocol as with every hunt since Dean had started hunting on his own. Still, he figured he'd leave a message in case the wendigo went as quickly as Dean's haunting.

"Hey Dad," he said. "It's about 5 a.m. Friday morning and I just finished up this case in Oakland. Let me know if you toasted that son of a bitch early. Otherwise, I'll see you Monday."

Dean hung up and ran a hand over his face; he was probably smearing dirt all over, but he wasn't all that concerned. His room was paid through this morning, meaning he'd be able to grab a shower and a few hours of sleep before he had to make any decisions about what to do with the extra few days he earned himself.

He headed back to the motel and considered faceplanting into the mattress but decided to wash the graveyard off first. After a quick shower, Dean flopped into the squeaky mattress and promptly passed out. His phone alarm went off a few hours later; he groaned when the clock read 10:15 a.m.

He would've liked nothing more than to sleep for the rest of the day, but checkout was at 11 and he didn't want to stay another night—John had drilled it into him to never stay more than a few nights at a time on each fraudulent credit card and Dean had already been in town three days. He really should move on, maybe hustle some pool and pay cash for the next room.

Dean gathered his belongings, many of which had found their way to the various corners of the room during the course of his stay, and stuffed them into his duffel. He tossed his bag into the back seat of the Impala before dropping the room key off at the front desk with a flirty smile for the woman working. She blushed and smiled shyly back and Dean winked at her before heading back to the car. After turning the local classic rock station up, he grabbed a cup of coffee from a drive-thru on the way out of town and was on the road before he had a chance to think about where he was going.

On days when he didn't have a hunt on tap, Dean just liked to drive, letting the Impala take him where she would—just him and his baby on the open road with the tunes cranked. Just a few months ago, that had included Sam in the front seat, but…

Dean shook his head and turned up the ACDC song on the radio. He was nodding along to "Back in Black," enjoying the feel of the sun on his face through the windshield, when he noticed the sign for Palo Alto. He did a double take as the car seemed to take the exit on her own.

"Baby, are you turning on me, too?" he muttered in betrayal as he followed the signs toward the Stanford campus.

He pulled into a parking spot across the street from the dorms and contemplated getting out; he knew where Sam's dorm was—he'd made a note of it from Sam's housing assignment letter before his brother had left—but considering it was the middle of the day, Sam probably wasn't even in his room, either in class or at the library, like the studious nerd he was.

Dean pulled his phone from his pocket, finger hovering over Sam's name for a minute, but then dropped it onto the passenger seat. Sam had been at school for a few months and had probably settled into a normal life like he was coming home—something the Winchesters hadn't had in nearly twenty years—and would want nothing to do with Dean and their fucked up life.

That also meant he should probably leave since Sam would recognize the Impala. Dean pulled off campus and drove around aimlessly for a while, checking out the scenery of the place Sam was calling home for the next four years of his life. He had to admit, as he passed a group of girls in spaghetti straps and short shorts walking down the sidewalk, he could see the draw. He eventually stopped at a local burger joint and chowed down on a double bacon cheeseburger and some unfortunately dry fries before driving around some more.

Without anything else to do and the sun starting to set, Dean headed for a local no-tell motel and checked in with a different card than he'd used in Oakland. He hoped part of the meet on Monday was going to include picking up a new batch of cards since they'd been using the current ones for a few months. They had a PO Box in Phoenix, where they were planning to rendezvous.

After throwing his duffel onto the spare bed—he didn't think he'd ever get out of the habit of booking a double, no matter how many times John barked that it was a waste of money to get an extra bed— he flopped down on the bed and flipped through the staticky channels the TV was getting through the twisted rabbit ears perched on top of the set. He settled on some Western that was halfway over before going out to the car to grab the weapons bag. He sat on the edge of the bed and started cleaning his sawed off as the movie played.

Most of the weapons were already clean—he hadn't needed much equipment on the last job, the snore that it was despite the body count it had started racking up when John had gotten wind of it—so when he'd finished reassembling his sawed off and his Colt, he ran a hand through his hair. He glanced at the clock; it was only about 8 p.m. on a Friday night and he was sitting in front of a crappy TV with another John Wayne movie starting.

Dean rolled his eyes at himself and grabbed his keys. He'd seen a bar within walking distance of the motel, which hopefully meant he could either hustle some pool or pick up a chick for the night. Either way (or both on a good night), he needed the distraction. He had no idea why he was still in Palo Alto when Sam had made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with his family.

Liar, a traitorous voice in the back of his mind accused. If you really didn't want to see Sam, you wouldn't have come in the first place.

Shut up, Dean hissed at the voice before shoving it down as far as he could, pushing the door to the bar open and stepping inside.

He was pleasantly surprised to see that the bar was nicer than the outside might have otherwise indicated. There were a couple of pool tables off to one corner, some booths and tables against to the other, and there was a live band playing. The crowd mostly looked like college students and 20-somethings. Perfect. Dean headed for the bar and ordered a beer before sauntering over to the pool tables, maneuvering around the people dancing to the music.

Dean was on his third beer and was up a couple hundred bucks when he heard him. He was in the middle of his shot when he heard the familiar laugh and scratched.

"Shit," he muttered as his opponent gloated, but he ignored the kid. Instead, he looked up to see a group of college kids making their way to the bar, a familiar shaggy head towering over them. Dean's stomach twisted.

Sammy.

Okay, so Dean might've stayed in town because he wanted to see his brother, but now that they were unexpectedly in the same room, he suddenly didn't know what to do with himself. Give him a ghost or a black dog any day; but this family drama? That was the last thing he wanted to deal with now… Or, well, ever.

No, he wasn't ready to face Sam with feelings of hurt still simmering under the surface since his kid brother's departure in August. Dean didn't want to say anything he was going to regret, and he couldn't promise himself that he wouldn't blurt something stupid out if they did come face-to-face, no matter how much Dean ached to just be brothers again.

He grabbed his beer and left the money he was up on the table, and, ignoring the protests and questions from the kids he'd been hustling, headed for a rear booth where Sam wouldn't be able to see him unless he was looking. Instead, he watched Sam, curious as to how his brother had been adjusting to the life of a college boy.

Sam was in the middle of a group of six: three girls, including a pretty blonde who kept glancing at him with a soft expression, and another two guys. Sam seemed a bit tense, Dean thought, though he only noticed because he knew Sam as well as he did. Outwardly, Sam was all friendly smiles and warm laughs, but Dean recognized the line of tension in Sam's shoulders.

It was the same posture he'd adopted when he'd started interrogating witnesses on hunts—he seemed perfectly comfortable and put the people around him at ease, but Dean could always sense the unease just under his brother's skin, discomfort at the act he was putting on. Dean raised an eyebrow. Huh.

As the group grabbed sodas from the bar, Sam stayed close to one of the guys, casually bumping shoulders with him, his smile actually reaching his eyes when the other guy looked at him. Dean frowned, something twisting in his chest at that. He thought he heard one of the girls call the guy Brady as they moved toward the tables. Dean narrowed his eyes, deciding that he didn't like this Brady guy.

Dean melted back into the booth as far as he could, hoping to stick to the shadows the closer Sam and his friends came. Luckily, they claimed a table near the front so they could see the band, but Dean still had a good view of Sam's profile.

The tension was still there, though Sam was returning the hot blonde's smiles with a few shy smiles of his own. Sam was never the ladies' man that Dean was, no matter how many lessons had tried to give him over the years, but Dean supposed some girls dug that awkward puppy thing Sam had going for him—and this girl definitely seemed to be one of them, though she was sharing conversation equally among the group.

As Dean watched, he noticed that Sam was reluctant to be pulled into conversation, unless Brady was the one to make a comment. He never seemed to start a conversation himself, and more than once he looked lost as his friends talked around him.

Finally, the girls got up to dance as the band started playing more upbeat music. Brady and the other guy rose to join them, but Sam remained seated. After a few words with Brady and the girls that Dean couldn't hear, the blonde sat back down. Sam's eyes widened a moment and the tension in his shoulders increased, but he managed a smile.

He kept glancing back toward Brady, who, when he met Sam's gaze, would roll his eyes and gesture back toward the blonde. And slowly, Sam started to relax. He grew more animated as he spoke. This was the Sam that Dean knew well.

Not too bad, Sammy.

The group finally left a little after midnight. Sam's face was lit up with a grin as he walked out between Brady and the blonde. Dean watched after him a long moment, considering what he'd seen, before pushing himself back to his feet. He headed back over to the pool table and grinned.

"Okay boys, let's do this."


The next day, Dean headed over to Stanford mid-morning. He parked the Impala a couple of blocks in the opposite direction of the restaurant Dean overheard Sam mention the night before that he was meeting his friends at. He waited until he saw his brother leave the dorms with Brady before making his move. When he got to the building's front door, a girl was leaving, and she held the door open with a blush when Dean smiled at her in thanks, though she never needed to know that the thanks was for saving him from needing to steal a keycard to get into the building.

Sam lived in room 312, according to the letter Dean had seen in July, so Dean jogged up the stairs to the third floor. He didn't pass anyone else, but he figured on Saturday morning most of the students were probably sleeping off hangovers anyway. He wasn't surprised to find the door to Sam's room locked when he tested it, pulling out his lock pick. After glancing up and down the hallway once more, he made quick work of the ancient lock and slipped inside the room.

The room was small and housed two twin beds, two desks, and two dressers. Dean recognized Sam's side of the room immediately; the near side was sparsely decorated and was neatly organized, books and papers piled neatly on the desk next to a closed laptop, while the far side seemed far more like a teenage boy lived there, with posters of movie stars on the wall, laundry thrown over the back of desk chair and the top of the open closet door, and books scattered across the floor.

The far side also had a decently-sized TV on top of the dresser, though it was angled so it could be seen from both beds, and there was a mini fridge situated between the two sides of the room, a few empty mac and cheese boxes and empty soda cans on top.

Dean studied Sam's side a bit more. An open backpack leaned against the side of the desk, a binder and textbook visible. The bed was made, the sheets a blue and green plaid that looked used. A textbook sat on the floor next to the bed with a highlighter on top of it, a couple of sheets of paper sticking out from the pages. Dean looked through the various texts—it looked like Sam was taking psychology, biology, literature, calculus, and sociology classes. Dean raised an eyebrow at each book and snorted.

"Nerd," he muttered fondly. Sam was probably enjoying the hell out of the classes, too.

Dean sat down on the bed, frowning when he felt his foot come in contact with something hard. He knelt down and reached under the bed, pulling out Sam's beat up duffel. It was heavy. Curious, since Sam hadn't taken much with him the day he'd gotten on that bus, Dean pulled the zipper open and his eyes widened. He reached inside the bag and pulled out a couple of knives, Sam's favorite Taurus—though the chamber was empty—a vial of holy water, and a half-filled jar of salt.

Huh. You can take the boy out of the life…

"That's my boy," Dean said as he put Sam's supplies back into the bag and sliding it under the bed again. He couldn't help but feel a wave of pride for his brother wash over him; as much as Sam might want out of the life, he wasn't stupid. He wouldn't be out looking for hunts, but he would be able to protect himself and his roommate, anyway.

It left Dean with peace of mind that he hadn't been expecting when he snuck in. But that was Sam, always doing something to surprise the hell out of Dean.


Sam came back from lunch with Brady and his friends Mallory and Jessica around 2. Brady was on the phone with his mother as Sam unlocked the door to their dorm, eyes rolling as he told his mother that no, he couldn't come home for Thanksgiving this year because he had a huge paper due the Monday after break and he'd never get any work done at home but that he'd be there for Christmas.

Sam stepped aside to let Brady in, and his roommate drifted over to his side of the room, dropping onto the bed as he spoke. Sam shook his head with a faint smile, trying to ignore the jealousy threatening to rise in his chest at the normalcy of Brady's family routine, as he shut the door. He was about to sit down at his desk and get some reading done when he noticed a piece of paper sticking out from under his pillow.

He frowned and made his way over to the bed and pulled the paper out—it was an envelope. His name was scrawled on the front and Sam's breath caught; he would recognize that handwriting anywhere. He tore the envelope open and found a wad of cash and a note.

S-

Sodas at a bar when a pretty blonde is checking you out? C'mon, little brother. I taught you better than that. And got you your first fake ID.

But I'm glad the college life is treating you well. Just make sure roommate of the year doesn't find your under-the-bed stash. And I'm not talking about the porn. That, you should totally share.

- D

Sam snorted. He supposed he should have been surprised that Dean had been at the bar last night or annoyed that his brother had snuck into his room and gone through his stuff, but mostly he was relieved; he and Dean hadn't said much to each other since Sam had left months ago, and he'd been missing his brother like a limb.

Sam'd wanted to get away from hunting and away from their father, but he'd never wanted to leave Dean. But Dean had refused to stand up for him the night he'd left for school and it had hurt Sam more than he could've anticipated. He wanted to talk to his brother, but he didn't know how, not when they'd each made their choices about the lives they wanted. He didn't know how to fit into Dean's life anymore, and he was pretty sure his brother felt the same.

But Sam would be happy to take this olive branch for what it was. He grabbed his phone and found Dean's name in his contacts.

Brady can afford his own porn, he texted. A beat, then he typed out another message: And thanks.

Dean's reply came a few seconds later. Hey now. No chick flick moments, bro.

Sam huffed a laugh and dialed Dean's number.

"Sammy?"

"Hey." Sam's breath caught for a moment at the familiar—safe—sound of Dean's voice. But he recovered himself quickly. "You, uh, still in town?"

Dean hesitated. "Maybe. Why?"

"You want to get a burger? My treat. It seems I just came into some money."

Dean snorted. "Did you now? Well, what kind of big brother would I be if I didn't spend your money?"

"A shitty one," Sam supplied with a smirk.

"Don't I know it," Dean agreed. "I'll be there in twenty."

Sam grinned and hung up. He turned to Brady, who was still on the phone, and waved. Library, he mouthed and his roommate nodded. His family was something he was still loath to talk about with anyone; no need for Brady to know where he was really going. Sam also knew he'd never be able to focus if he waited in his room, and his antsy tendencies would undoubtedly get Brady asking questions that Sam didn't want to answer. Instead, Sam headed out of his room and down to the front of the building to wait.

And when he heard the familiar rumble of the Impala approaching fifteen minutes later, something warm settled in Sam's chest. It felt like he was coming home for the first time in months.


- fin -