Get in. See Sam. Get out.
That had been the plan, right up until some overzealous security guard caught him “loitering” by the girls’ dormitory and asked to see his student ID. Apparently he was going to be reported for breaking curfew, which was frankly hilarious. If Stanford Security thought they were intimidating enough to keep kids from breaking curfew, they had another thing coming, especially if your dad was John Winchester. The guard folded with a swift jab to the face, but Dean could hear him radioing for backup as he ran.
Crap. This was supposed to be easy, a quick stop on the way to Oregon where John was waiting with another hunt. Dean hadn’t told his dad he was visiting Sam. He hadn’t even told Sam. It wasn’t even a visit, technically.
Get in. Get out.
So much for the plan.
Dean skidded to a halt near the entrance to one of the academic buildings and hunched over, hands on his knees, to catch his breath. The night was still, broken by the quiet sound of crickets and the buzz of sodium lights from the streetlamps lining the concrete sidewalk. Suburbia. How Sam could stand to live in this pathetically manicured…
Dean straightened—and was jerked back, shirt twisted tight around his neck. He spun, going with the movement, fist up and ready. His punch glanced off the shoulder of his attacker and Dean mentally compensated. In the shadowed light from the streetlamp he could see his attacker was tall, taller than he—
Sam yanked Dean another step closer, then shoved them both against the side of the building. There was the sound of footsteps as a security guard came up the walkway to check the door of the building, then retreated, off to another part of campus. Only then did Sam release his grip on Dean’s shirt, stepping back and letting the silence stretch between them.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Dean grinned and pushed off the wall. “Nice to see you too, little brother.”
“Did Dad send you?”
“To do what? Bring you back?”
Sam’s eyes were black in the dark but Dean could see a muscle tick in his jaw, the flash of white as his teeth dug into his bottom lip. Sam nodded, hands on his hips, and Dean couldn’t tell whether he was relieved or disappointed.
“So what are you doing here?” Sam said.
Dean shrugged. “Came to see you. Make sure you made it and weren’t starving on ramen noodles.”
“Well, I made it. And I’m not starving. Thanks for stopping by.”
Sam leaned over and pulled a bag from behind the bushes, slinging it over his shoulder and striding past Dean to the darkness cloaking the back of the building. Dean watched him and almost barked a laugh when he realized.
“No way.” He jogged to catch up with Sam, keeping pace with his brother’s long strides. “No way. You’re hunting. You’re on a hunt.”
Sam didn’t answer and Dean bumped him with his shoulder, face splitting with glee.
“I don’t believe it. Wait, can I get a picture? This is unbelievable.”
“I’m sorry, I just— Seriously? You came all the way to frigging Stanford so you could carry on doing what we do by yourself?” Dean’s laughter was gone as quickly as it appeared, replaced by the bitter anger that had made its home in his stomach the day Sam left. “Why apply for a degree at all, then? Who needs Stanford when all you needed to get away from us was enough money to rent a place somewhere?”
Sam stopped at what looked like a janitor’s entrance and dropped the bag, swinging around to face Dean. “I didn’t want to leave,” he said. “I don’t know what Dad’s twisted this into, but none of that is true. I wanted to go, yeah, but I never wanted to leave.”
“Not a lot of difference between going and leaving from where I’m standing.”
“So stand somewhere else.”
Dean looked behind Sam at the bare door and tipped his head to it. “This really a hunt?”
Sam shifted his weight. “Yes.”
“Not regularly. Just this.”
Dean considered. “What is it?”
Some of the tension drained from Sam’s shoulders as he answered. “A professor died in his office last quarter. They haven’t gotten around to emptying the room and his spirit is sticking around, messing with a lecture hall during classes.”
“One of yours?”
Sam huffed a laugh. “Yeah. Con Law. I noticed the projector always shorted out on Thursday mornings.”
“Same time Dr. Dolittle used to teach his class?” Dean guessed.
Sam nodded. “I’m guessing there’s something in his office that he’s still attached to. Figured I’d take a look. If anything it’ll give the new professor some peace.”
“She doesn’t know projectors, that’s for sure.”
It was surreal. Like worlds were converging and Dean wasn’t sure which one he was supposed to be fighting for. Sam at Stanford, Dean and Sam at Stanford, hunting and apart and together hunting again.
“So,” Sam pulled out his lock pick set and jerked his head at the door, “you wanna?”
Their footsteps echoed in the empty hallway, but Sam’s shoulders were loose as he led them through the warren of academic offices to one removed from the rest and picked that lock too. The door swung open to reveal a room that had probably been a closet before it was an office. A desk was crammed in one corner, a worn leather chair behind it. Books lined the walls and a box of papers—essays and lecture notes—sat on the floor next to the chair. Sam clicked on a flashlight and Dean followed suit.
“You’re not worried about cameras?” he asked.
Sam shook his head, running a finger along the spines of the books on one shelf. “No cameras in the academic offices, just at the front entrance.”
“In case someone needs to ask their professor for a little extra credit, huh?” Dean said, and Sam shot him a withering look. “Okay, so what’s your bet? Favorite pen? Book? Letter-opener?”
“Book,” Sam said promptly. “His office is a mess but his personal life was meticulously organized.”
Dean crouched to dig through the papers in the box while Sam checked the bookshelves, then the desk drawers. The flash of movement from the corner of his eye took a split second to register, but before Dean could warn Sam the spirit had jerked his brother away from the desk, its hands twisted in the collar of Sam’s hoodie.
Dean pulled his gun and cursed. He’d left his shotgun—and the salt—in the trunk, arming himself with his boot blade and a Beretta, both of which were useless against something incorporeal.
Sam’s fingers were clawing at his collar, struggling ineffectually against the spirit’s hold. His face was a dull red but he managed to get out, “Bag. Iron.”
Dean dove for the bag that Sam had dropped by the desk and emptied its contents on the floor, thanking Sam’s Boy Scout habits when a crowbar clattered to the ground. The spirit had let go of Sam’s collar in favor of shoving him into the wall with both hands wrapped around his neck. It turned when Dean lunged, giving him a glimpse of crazed eyes behind wire-rim glasses and a dull sweater vest before he swung the crowbar and the spirit dissipated with a shriek. Sam slid to his knees, coughing, and Dean tossed the crowbar back at the bag, reaching down to offer his brother a hand.
“You okay?” he asked as he hefted Sam to his feet.
Sam nodded. “’M fine,” he croaked. He grinned unexpectedly. “Hey, batter batter.”
Dean shook his head, a matching grin stealing over his face. “Idiot.”
“Me? I’m not the one who forgot the salt. Dad would kick your ass if he knew.”
Dean cocked an eyebrow at Sam. “You planning on telling him?”
Something like regret flickered in Sam’s eyes. “No.”
Dean turned back to the desk. “Think whatever it is that’s keeping the old guy around is in here.”
“Was.” Sam pulled a small, bent leather book from his pocket and tossed it to Dean. His triumphant smile morphed into alarm when Dean uncapped the accelerant.
“What?” Dean asked when Sam snatched the book from his hands. “I thought you said there weren’t alarms in here.”
“There aren’t any cameras in here, you idiot. You want to set off the smoke detectors and get caught?”
Dean shrugged. “I don’t have an academic career on the line.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Besides, could be fun.”
Sam’s face had grown solemn. “Well, I do.” He stooped to repack the crowbar, accelerant, and a canister of salt in the bag, then stood, slinging it over his shoulder. “Come on,” he said, almost gently. “Let’s go burn this thing.”
Sam gave him directions to a park nearby and they drove, Sam settled in the passenger seat like he never left, Metallica providing a counterpoint to the engine’s hum. For the first three minutes there was silence, then Sam asked, “Seen anything weird lately?” and Dean gave him a summary of his latest hunt (which turned into a detailed description of a tall blonde at a bar in Missoula who could do things with her mouth that had made Dean’s head spin). Sam countered by telling him about a girl in one of his classes—Jessica—then diving into a rambling list of his favorite classes when Dean started looking too interested. Sam complained about Dean’s music, like always, as he thumbed through Dean’s tape collection. Dean joked about Sam’s hair. Sam punched him in the arm.
By the time he pulled off at the park, Dean’s palms were sweating. He couldn’t leave Sam again. He couldn’t.
Sam tapped on the roof of the Impala and Dean’s head whipped around to see his brother peering at him through the window, diary in hand. “What’s the holdup? You trying to remember where you left the matches?”
“No.” Dean swallowed and pasted on a grin, forcing his fingers to unclench from the steering wheel. “I’m trying to remember how you became such a wuss.”
Dean got out of the car and watched as Sam shook salt in the pages of the diary, then doused the thing with accelerant. He placed it on the pavement a few feet from the Impala’s bumper and nodded at Dean. Dean ripped two matches across the pack and dropped them on the book. The pages instantly lit, the edges curling up and blackening in the flames.
“Easy as pie,” Dean said and Sam nodded.
“Yeah.” Sam pursed his mouth, then stuffed his hands in the pockets of his hoodie with a sigh. “Almost too easy.”
“You think we got the wrong thing?”
Sam shook his head, almost wistfully. “No, but I’ll keep an eye out to see.”
Dean kept his eyes fixed on the book’s burning pages. “Dad would be happy to have you back, Sam, you know that.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Well, he would.”
Sam considered for a minute. “It wasn’t Dad I wanted to get away from. I mean, it was but…” He trailed off. “It didn’t have to go like it did. I never wanted to give up hunting. Just the life. Dad doesn’t think there’s a difference.”
Dean nodded, looking up as Sam shifted to face him.
“You want to stay?” Sam asked. “Just for a couple days?”
Dean scrubbed a hand through his hair, trying to smile and failing. “Yeah, about that. Dad’s expecting me in Oregon, day after tomorrow. I just swung by because I thought… I wanted to see you. Make sure you were doing okay.”
Sam’s head bobbed earnestly. “I am. I’m happy here.”
“Good,” Dean said. “That’s good.”
The book was little more than a pile of ash, scattering in the light breeze. Dean took a breath, figuring now was as good a time as any.
“I’m still living that life, Sam. I don’t know for how long—maybe a year, maybe forever.”
“You mean, as long as Dad is,” Sam said bitterly.
“Maybe. Yeah. But hey,” Dean smacked a hand against Sam’s chest, “you never know. I’m not exactly predictable.”
That surprised a grin out of Sam. “I don’t know, man, you can be pretty predictable.”
“Get in the car. And be thankful I’m not making you walk back to Stanford.”
“Fine. Get out.”
“You’re going to make me walk the whole twelve miles back to campus? The horror!”
Sam rolled down his window as they pulled onto the freeway and nudged Dean with his elbow. “Admit it,” he crowed over the whump of air, “you missed me.”
“Yeah,” Dean said. “I do.”