Notes: Title, inspiration, and all Sam's onstage lines are from the play Our Town, by Thornton Wilder. The quote in the summary is from 1.16, 'Shadow.' Dean is twenty-one. Sam is seventeen, halfway through his senior year of high school. He has already applied for colleges and scholarships, without Dean's (or John's) knowledge.
Dean had been in this stupid auditorium for way too long.
Correction: he had been outside this stupid auditorium for way too long. The audience wasn't allowed in until just before the show, not even the part of the audience which had driven its little brother there three hours early because its little brother was in the freaking play. Public high schools were almost as bad as cheap motel rooms. If he had to look at these stupid ratty couches and this freaking broken vending machine and this ugly-ass carpet for one more minute . . .
("Dean, it's like, three hours until the show. Go get dinner or something."
"And leave you here? Like hell."
"Dean." Sam was going to roll his eyes right back into his head one of these days. "It's a play rehearsal, not a werewolf hunt. I've been fine here every afternoon for the past three months."
"Yeah, and you had your cell then. Get used to it, little brother; 'till we get the money and you get a new phone I'm sticking to you like glue."
Sam rolled his eyes again, but didn't argue.)
At least getting there early had some advantages. Dean took what was probably the only seat with a decent view of both the stage and the rest of the auditorium. Even better, once the rest of the audience began to arrive he managed to catch the eye of one of the only females who didn't look like either jailbait or the mother of jailbait.
"Hey," he greeted her with his most charming smile as she walked over. She smiled back, and sat down in the chair right beside him, ignoring a whole row of empty seats. "I'm Dean."
"Julia," she introduced herself. "Do you know someone in the play?"
"My brother," Dean confirmed, his calculated smile sliding into genuine pride. "He's the Stage Manager." He still didn't get how that was a real part, but Sam had been pretty emphatic about it.
("It's like the narrator, Dean. Except it's more than that. He interacts with the other characters, sort of . . . slips into different roles as needed. But at the same time, he's disconnected from it all. A spectator as much as an actor."
Dean once again had the feeling that there was something going on in Sam's head he didn't understand. He'd been getting that feeling more and more often these days, and he didn't like it at all. He also had no freaking clue what to do about it.
"Whatever you say, man.")
"My sister's playing Rebecca," said Julie (or whatever). Dean didn't know or care who that was, but he nodded politely. "Did you see any of the earlier shows?"
"No," Dean answered, eyes on the stage. Someone was moving around, arranging tables and chairs. It was dark, but Dean didn't need to be able to see well to know that it was Sam. His movements were carefully controlled, the way they were when he was hunting. It took him a lot of effort these days, when his natural tendency was to just kind gangle all over the place, as if all his new height was trying to escape out his elbows.
He had stalled about a year ago at an embarrassing (for Sam) five-foot-four, which Dean had been totally okay with. Really. (And any medical student in Ithaca who claimed that an astoundingly handsome stranger had grilled her for an hour about malnutrition and stunted growth and the real nutritional value of Spaghettios and Lucky Charms had probably had a bit too much to drink and was definitely not to be trusted.) They had all, with varying levels of resignation, figured that would be about the end of it.
Then, of course, Sam had shot up another eight inches over the summer, making him almost as tall as Dean. (Yes, almost as tall. Dean's little brother was not taller than him, and if he sometimes looked like he was it was only an optical illusion because he was so damn skinny.)
"It's my first time, too," Julie-or-whatever informed him. "I wanted to go to one of the earlier shows, but I had class – what about you?"
"Work," Dean replied, and continued before she could ask him to elaborate. "What school do you go to?"
She answered, but he wasn't really listening anymore. Sam had come to halt on one side of the stage, watching from the shadows as the last few people wandered in. The lights faded out, everyone fell silent, and for a moment there was complete silence. The room seemed to be holding its breath.
A spotlight snapped on.
"Oh," Julie-or-whatever breathed.
'Oh' was right. Sam was dressed in an old-fashioned suit which made him look even thinner and taller than he actually was, a sharp black streak in a circle of light. He was leaning against the side of the stage with casual confidence, not a hint of the anger or awkwardness or general discomfort which he usually displayed. The light emphasized his cheekbones and his jaw line. Really, Dean had to admit (silently, to himself), the kid didn't look half bad.
Sam began to speak.
"This play is called 'Our Town.' It was written by Thornton Wilder; produced and directed . . ."
His voice carried easily throughout the room as he listed the credits (weird, Dean didn't think they did that it plays). Steady, even, just a touch deeper than his regular speaking tone. Dean relaxed back in his seat, letting his brother's voice wash over him as he described the layout of an imaginary town. He walked here and there, pointing to non-existent landmarks. Dean was starting to get the feeling that this was sort of a weird play, especially when Sam introduced the first character – some doctor – and immediately followed up with his date of death, twenty-nine years from when the play was set.
Some other people showed up, and Sam stepped back. Some kid was talking to the doctor guy about nothing interesting. Then, suddenly, everyone froze. Dean actually jerked in surprise, adrenaline surging through him, what the hell mixing with you're freaking kidding me and an overpowering surge of get to Sammy – but his brain caught up moment later. It was just part of the play. Sam was stepping forward again, the light going weird and sepia toned.
"Want to tell you something about that boy Joe Crowell there," Sam said, nodding to the kid with a fond smile. "Joe was awful bright – graduated from high school here, head of his class. So he got a scholarship to Massachusetts Tech. Graduated head of his class there, too. It was all wrote up in the Boston paper at the time. Going to be a great engineer, Joe was."
Sam's smile dropped. His face held an expression Dean recognized – recognized and hated. It was a haunted, weary look, the one Sam sometimes wore when he thought no one was looking, the one that made him look much, much older than seventeen. Dean gripped the arm of his seat hard, reminding himself that it was all fake, Sammy was fine, he was only acting, still telling the story of some fictional kid.
"But the war broke out and he died in France. – All that education for nothing."
The lights went back to normal, and then it just got really boring for a while. A bunch of boring-ass people went about their boring-ass lives. Julie-or-whatever poked Dean excitedly when her sister came on stage – he had to hand it to her, the girl was really good at being an annoying little shit, if that was what she was going for.
Sam's next part was even more boring. Seriously, why the hell would anyone want to know statistics about an imaginary town?
More boring-ass people with boring-ass lives, and what was beginning to look suspiciously like a boring-ass teen romance. Sam (who owed Dean big time for this) had another monologue, about history and preserving books for posterity and crap. Then there was even more boring stuff, bad singing and awkward barely-even-flirting and Julie-or-whatever's sister going on about the moon.
The second act started out a bit better, Sam giving a short speech about the nature of time or something. For someone who spent most of his time hiding behind his bangs, the kid sure seemed comfortable on stage.
It went downhill from there. There was a going to be a wedding, apparently, which meant flashbacks to a time after the original time but before the current time which was before the actual time . . . ? Dean had no idea. It was too boring for him to bother sorting it out.
Sam had another speech, in any case. This one was about weddings, because the Stage Manager was also the Minister. Because that wasn't confusing or anything.
". . . Like Mrs. Gibbs said a few minutes ago: People were made to live two-by-two." Sam's eyes found Dean's in the audience, and then dropped again before Dean could figure out the emotion in them. The following pause was slightly longer than natural – only slightly, and Dean was sure no one else had noticed.
Sam picked up the thread again, and Dean went back to not paying attention. He was trying to figure out whether their money was going to stretch over the weekend, or if they'd have to live without electricity in their rental house for a couple days. It normally wouldn't be a problem, but Dad was laid up with a broken leg, which meant Dean was the only one bringing home the bacon. Sam had offered to get a part-time job, but that would have meant dropping the play . . .
("Really, Dean, if we need the money –"
Dean could tell that he meant it. Sam, no matter what Dad sometimes said and Dean sometimes thought, wasn't selfish. Not when it came to their actual wellbeing. He would give up the play if Dean asked him to.
Dean could also tell that it would crush him. It had been a freaking miracle that Dad's recovery time happened to coincide almost exactly with the play at the local high school. And Sam had smiled, and he'd been so happy, and Dean wasn't going to take that away. He'd never forgive himself, even if Sam would.
"Don't worry about it. You do your play, Sammy. I'll handle the money.")
"That's all the Second Act, folks. Ten minutes' intermission."
The lights came back up in the auditorium, leaving Dean blinking in the sudden brightness. Julie-or-whatever was watching him with thinly-veiled amusement.
"Not finding the play super engaging, huh?" she asked.
"My life is more interesting than this play," Dean replied. "Your life is probably more interesting than this play," he amended, since his life was more interesting than most things.
"Maybe it gets better in the last act. It did win a Pulitzer, so there must be something there."
Dean made a skeptical sound.
"Your brother's really good, anyway. 'Scuse me." She stepped past him and he watched her go, appreciating the way her skirt hugged her ass. A middle-aged woman across the aisle shot him a disapproving look. He winked at her, unapologetic, grinning when she blushed scarlet and looked away huffily.
Ten minutes wasn't long. Soon people were filing back into their seats, and the lights were coming down in the auditorium and up on the stage. The set had been augmented by a couple rows of chairs in which people sat eerily still, staring straight ahead. They were freaking creepy.
They were supposed to be freaking creepy, it became apparent as Sam began to speak again, his solemn, steady voice only adding to the stillness of the scene. It was a graveyard, apparently, and the people in the chairs were dead. Sam listed off a few of them, said some bullshit about people mellowing after they died (Dean had to suppress a snort), and then retreated again to make room for a visitor and an undertaker.
Freaking morbid play. No wonder Sam liked it so much.
Half the teen romance was dead, it turned out. Dean really couldn't bring himself to care that much. She was having a bit of trouble adjusting, wanted to go back and relive the days with her family. Dean couldn't blame her for that, he supposed, even as her mother (also dead) and then Sam tried to persuade her otherwise.
If Sam had really been trying to persuade her she wouldn't have stood a chance, but he was just acting and the puppy-dog eyes didn't even make an appearance. Instead he spoke to her seriously, warningly.
". . . as you watch it, you see the thing that they – down there – never know. You see the future. You know what's going to happen afterwards."
Dean felt a chill – not a grab-the-rock-salt chill, just an uneasy prickling at the base of his spine, like he always felt just before he realized that something really, really bad was going on in Sam's head. But that was stupid. Sam was acting. He was damn good at it, sure, but that entreaty, that little hitch of pain in his voice, that was all fake.
The girl hadn't been convinced. She was living and witnessing a day in her childhood, a birthday. She marveled at her parents' youth and forgotten details as her mother – or the memory of her mother, or whatever – went about her tasks with oblivious cheer. Sam looked on with sad, sad eyes, and Dean dug what were probably going to be permanent nail-marks in the arm of his seat.
It caught up with the girl eventually, of course. Her mother ignored her tearful pleas to look at her, just for one minute, see the time that had passed, see what they had now and wouldn't, soon. The girl broke down sobbing, and Sam brought her back to the graveyard. He stepped back into the shadows, and Dean relaxed. Damn, but the kid was good. Almost made Dean wonder how many times that over-bright, heartbroken look had been fake when it was directed at him. Not that he'd ever take the risk that it wasn't, and Sam knew it, too, the little bitch.
Dead people talked some more about nothing Dean could be bothered to pay attention to. Then Sam stepped forward again, drawing a curtain with him until he was once again alone on stage. He spoke about the imaginary town again, and then the stars.
"Scholars haven't settled the matter yet, but they seem to think there are no living beings up there. Just chalk . . . or fire. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. The strain's so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest."
He pulled a pocket watch from his waistcoat – a pocket watch from his waistcoat – and began to wind it.
"Hm . . . Eleven o'clock in Grover's Corners. – You get a good rest, too. Good night."
The lights went down, and that was . . . the end, apparently. The applause began a little tentatively (Dean wasn't the only one confused, it seemed), but gained enthusiasm when the auditorium brightened and the actors came out to take their bows. Dean gave a cheerful wolf-whistle when Sam took his turn, earning himself a glare from the woman across the aisle and a bitchface from his little brother.
Once the bows were finished, Dean pushed his way through the milling crowd and down to the stage as politely as he could manage. (Well, okay, maybe more like as politely as he felt like, which wasn't very when those people were between him and his brother, however innocuously.) One of the other actors was clapping Sam on the back as he approached.
"Cast party at Eric's after strike. You game?"
"Uh . . ." Sam hesitated, glancing at Dean. The other kid followed his gaze and grinned.
"Hey, man, if your brother's half as cool as you make him sound, he can come, too."
"Aw, Sammy, I'm touched," said Dean, flinging an arm around Sam's shoulders and giving a brief squeeze to convey the sincerity beneath his joking tone.
"Shut up," Sam muttered, flushing hotly, though the fact that he didn't try to shake Dean off was its own unspoken message. All his natural awkwardness had returned with a vengeance, and when Dean withdrew it was as much to keep from getting disemboweled by an elbow as to avoid a public chick-flick moment.
"So," the other kid prompted, wisely not commenting on the exchange. "Cast party?"
"Up to you, Sam," said Dean with a shrug. Sure, hanging out with a bunch of drama geeks wasn't exactly his idea of a great Saturday night, but they'd be leaving town in a couple days and if Sam wanted to go to a party with his friends, Dean wasn't going to begrudge him. Anyway, maybe some of those senior girls were eighteen.
"Actually, uh, I don't think so," said Sam, surprising him. "I'm kind of tired. Sorry."
"No problem," the other kid replied good-naturedly. "I'd better go get changed. See you!"
The other kid bounded off, but Dean's focus was entirely on Sam. Sam liked people. He liked the other drama geeks. He liked normal. It wasn't like him to turn down anything that would let him pretend to be a civilian, even for a few hours.
"You getting sick?" Dean asked, reaching out to feel for a fever. This time Sam did shake him off, batting his hand away and making a face.
"I'm fine," he claimed. "I just want to go home, okay? Look, I've gotta get changed and help with the set. I'll be back in ten minutes."
He took off, not giving Dean time to protest that the last time Sam had wanted to go home was probably about ten years ago.
Dean waited by the stage, trying to sort through his confusion. Was this just one of Sam's weird reactions to stuff he read? He had gone vegetarian for a month after reading The Jungle, much to Dad and Dean's dismay, and he still made a face whenever Dean tried to feed him red meat. Was he upset about them leaving soon? But he usually got pissed off about that, not depressed.
When Sam returned nine minutes later, Dean was no closer to figuring out this latest turn in his brother's labyrinthine state of mind. He slouched along and slid into the Impala without a word, either not noticing or ignoring Dean's increasingly worried looks.
"Pizza or burgers?" Dean asked as they pulled out of the high school parking lot.
"Pizza it is."
Sam remained silent as they drove to the pizza shop, his long frame folded in on itself and his forehead pressed against the window. He barely seemed to notice when they pulled up to the neon-lighted storefront.
"You coming in?"
He gave a miniscule shake of his head. Dean frowned as he turned off the car and went inside, shooting glances over his shoulder while the pimpled cashier rang up their order way too slowly. By the time he got back to the Impala he had already resolved to force a thermometer under Sam's tongue and make him go to bed as soon as they got back to the house, but the sight that greeted him when he ducked into the car made him stop short.
Sam was crying.
"Sammy? Sammy!" Dean hastily shoved the pizza into the backseat and closed the door. Sam tried to curl away from him, but he stopped him with a firm hand on the back of his neck and a gentle one on his face. He could feel tears beneath his fingers, but no fever heat. "Whoa, easy, man. C'mon, talk to me, what's wrong?"
Was he hurt? Had something happened? Had there been a girl or something in all those hours spent rehearsing after school and Dean hadn't noticed? Something worse? Had something been going on for weeks and Dean hadn't noticed? How?
Sam shook his head, closing his eyes, breath hitching.
"Sammy," Dean repeated, a plea as much as a command.
"I'm –" Sam shook his head again, choking back a sob. "I'm fine," he insisted, in what had to be the least convincing use of the phrase ever (and between Sam and Dad and himself, Dean had heard some pretty unconvincing ones). "It's just – acting, it's all about emotion – sometimes it's hard to make it – make it stop again, y'know?"
"Yeah, okay," said Dean, though he didn't know at all and it was not okay in the least. Sam was calming slightly, no new tears replacing the ones which Dean wiped away. "Look, we don't have to go home right away. You wanna go for a drive or something?"
They did that, sometimes, when a hunt was really bad or Dad was really drunk or the motel room was really too small for both Sam and Dad's tempers. It helped, usually, though the resulting peace seemed to get shorter and shorter with every passing month.
This time, Sam shook his head and pulled away. Reluctantly, Dean let him.
"Let's just go home. Please."
"Sure thing," Dean agreed. The remainder of the drive was pretty much the same as the first part, except that now Dean wasn't even trying to hide his worried looks. Sam wiped his eyes as they pulled up to the house. It was a pretty nice place, by their standards; a real kitchen and a decent TV and everything. Even had an honest-to-god grandfather clock in the living room.
There was a light on, and Dean cursed silently. Dad was even harsher than usual these days, frustrated by his immobility, and no matter what was wrong with Sam, Dean was sure he didn't need to deal with Dad on top of it.
"Sammy, you sure you don't want –" he began, but Sam was already climbing out of the car. Dean snagged the pizza and jogged after him, coming through the door in time to see Sam hesitate beside the couch where Dad was laid up, surrounded by newspaper clippings and books of lore. The cast was coming off tomorrow, and they'd be leaving for a new hunt on Monday.
"Hey, Dad?" Sam asked, his nervousness a stark contrast to the confrontation and defiance which usually colored his tone.
Shit. Was Sam in some kind of trouble? Something so serious that he felt the need to take it to Dad?
"Yeah?" Dad responded without looking up.
Sam licked his lips. Dean held his breath.
"Need any help?"
Dean nearly dropped the pizza. Dad twisted around to stare at Sam, who shifted uncomfortably, dropping his gaze.
". . . could always use your help," said Dad at last, thankfully with none of the accusation which could have accompanied those words. "Pull up a chair, son."
Sam smiled, eyes still shining with the remnants of tears.
Dean spent the next hour watching something he never thought he'd see: Sam and Dad, working together, willingly and even cheerfully. After that, Dad did something else unprecedented: he closed the books and turned on the game. Sam grinned widely, began to reel off statistics about the teams, then caught himself – but Dad just smiled indulgently and nodded for him to continue, which he did, with relish.
Dean left the half-finished pizza on the table and sank into an armchair. It had a terrible view of the television, but he wasn't watching the game. Whatever that thing had been back there with Sam, it wasn't quite gone – there were still shadows in his eyes when the conversation lulled and the several times he visibly bit back some answer or comment. But Sam was laughing, and Dad was smiling, and just for a moment, they were all together. Just for a moment, they were happy.
Behind them, the clock ticked.