"Dad's missing," Dean says, dipping his head to try and catch Sam's eyes.
"Is that an explanation or an excuse?" Sam asks, and isn't surprised when Dean doesn't answer.
They leave on a Sunday.
Dean watches Sam from the corner of his eye. Quick, darting glances in the flash of the streetlights as they flicker past, increasingly few and far between as they drive east out of Palo Alto. Sam pretends not to notice.
It's been a week since Jessica and the apartment he shared with her went up in flames, blonde hair and law books and uneaten chocolate chip cookies, all burning. A week of going through the motions, searching for leads that don't exist in a town that seems suddenly so trite and cliche with Dean by his side, a waiting ember, a hidden spark, bright against the colorless backdrop of Stanford and its equally colorless residents. Sam spends half of his time in a hazy daydream (how could this ever have been my life?) and the other half resisting the urge to wave his arms above his head, scream, do something, anything, to pull Dean's attention away from a world that is no longer his and possibly (probably) never was. Because Dean looks at the soft-swaying trees and stuccoed campus apartments like he wants to set the whole damn state alight and watch it crumble down to dust, due penance for stealing the one thing Dean ever loved in a way that wasn't purely explosive destruction, and these days Sam isn't sure he cares enough to stop him.
He's once again homeless, with nothing but the clothes on his back and the guns in the trunk and his brother in the seat beside him, but what really bothers Sam is that he can't seem to get the smell of smoke out of his hair.
The silence stretches between them as the miles fall away. Sam leans his cheek against the cool hardness of the impala's passenger window, feels the vibration of her engine in his bones. Dean squirms because he can't stand the stillness, can't cope with the quiet, doesn't know what to do with it, doesn't know what to say or what to think when he can hear too much and not enough. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel, stops when he realizes what he's doing. His hands flit to and away from the radio dial without ever touching it. Sam knows he wants to turn it on, pop in a cassette, roll down his window and howl into the night, but Dean knows that Sam hates his music, knows he will grimace and flinch away from the screech of guitars and the crash of drums, and right now he feels he owes it to his little brother to be respectful of his muteness.
But it's a long drive, and Dean is Dean no matter what he's done or what he tries to do, and eventually he can't help it. He starts to talk. He begins stories and leaves them unfinished and half-told, cracks shitty jokes and laughs at the punchlines when Sam doesn't. He runs his tongue over his teeth. He slides sidelong, desperate smiles to the ghost in the passenger seat.
Sam can tell he's trying his best, knows that Dean never meant to hurt him.
It doesn't change a thing.
He can't find it in himself to wish that it did.
It takes six hundred miles for Sam to speak. Dean stops at a gas station to refuel, piles him with beef jerky and coke, and Sam leaves his bottle of soda uncapped in his hands until it's warm and flat. Sweat sticks his hair to the back of his neck in damp curls and glues him to the leather seats, but he doesn't move to wipe it away. Dean pretends he isn't watching, drives too fast.
When Sam finally speaks his voice is rough, thick with emotion and tacky with disuse.
"I know you killed her," he says, and out of the corner of his eye he sees Dean shake his head. He looks up just in time to catch the smile disappearing from his brother's face.
They drive for two days, crossing through Nevada and Utah before they hit Colorado. Dad left his journal behind in Jericho, coordinates printed inside in his neat, blocky script along with Dean's name. It hadn't taken much fumbling with a flashlight and a map to figure out where they pointed.
Which is to say the middle of fucking nowhere.
"More cryptic bullshit. Typical dad."
Dean makes a good show of ignoring him, but Sam sees the way his fingers tighten on the steering wheel, the way his eyes narrow, crows feet shattering his skin like cracks, too deep for someone so young. They could be laugh lines on anyone else, but he knows better. Knows how the corners of Dean's eyes fold into gashes when he's bleeding out, when he's walking on a broken leg, when he's carrying Sam out of a burning room with his hands and hair reeking of gasoline. Laugh lines on anyone else, but on Dean they're a deeply etched record of a lifetime of pain. Pain received, pain inflicted. On Dean, it all ends up looking the same.
Sam doesn't blame his brother for what happened, not really. Dean is what he is, and he's pretty much always been this way. Sam's fault for not expecting it, for not watching more closely, for letting her out of his line of sight after he'd seen the way his brother looked at her. He knew better. He should have known better.
John isn't waiting for them at Blackwater Ridge. If he was ever there to begin with, he isn't anymore.
There is, however, a handful of missing persons reports and a girl whose brother vanished in the midst of a camping trip. She answers the door with a distrustful expression on her face, and Sam thinks that that's smart of her. Not nearly so smart to open her door to two young men with fake rangers ID, but Sam isn't worried, and he's right not to be. Dean takes one look at her curly black hair and dismisses her entirely, all professionalism and comfortable lies.
Sam's the one who figures out it's a wendigo. Dean's the one who gets his ass strung up in an abandoned mine.
Fear makes Sam's voice come thin and high and strained as he says Dean's name over and over, shaking him until his eyes flick open with a grunt and a grimace. Dean nods, winces. Sam saws at the ropes, accidentally nicks Dean's wrist with the edge of his knife in the process and ignores the way his brother's mouth twitches upward, the way his gaze sharpens as his eyes go hooded and dark.
Sam cuts Dean free, and catches him when he falls.
They slay the monster, save the girl and her boys, and the story ends happily for the Collins family. Battered, but safe. Together.
Dean watches Hayley herd her small, broken family home, and Sam watches Dean, watches his face grow light and clear and almost sad, almost happy, nostalgic and wistful and warm all at once. And Sam remembers this Dean. This Dean, with the wild, sharp edges tucked away. This Dean who smoothed the hair back from his fevered forehead when he was little, eyes grey and focused. Who picked up the shards of broken bottles and collected them in the cup of his palm while somewhere upstairs something else shattered and John roared his grief into the night. Who whispered Sam to sleep with stories about this angel who watched over them, this angel with golden hair and green eyes and a smile that soaked the whole world in sunlight, who sang so terribly and loved so fiercely.
His throat closes, and he wants to reach out, to grab hold of this Dean and keep him here. But already the expression is slipping, going lopsided, melting off of his brother's face like wax and leaving his eyes hollow, his smile distorted. His gaze swings over to Sam, and the corners of his mouth are curling, twisting, his grin flashing delirious, a lit match in a gunpowder warehouse, and there's the smell of burning wood, burning hair, burning flesh. That acrid, choking reek that Sam can't wash away, can't forget, can't ignore.
I can't, Sam thinks. And then again. I can't.
Can't do this. Can't stay here with Dean. Can't be what he wants. Can't be what he needs because all Dean needs is to stop, and that will never happen.
They get into the impala. Sam slides the key into the ignition and says, "We gotta find dad."
And just like that all the arguments and the bitterness and the years of silence don't matter. Because Dean looks at the world like he's going to take a sledgehammer and his fingernails to the whole fucking thing and tear it all down, break it into a billion pieces and piss on what's left behind, and Sam doesn't know how to stop him, doesn't know that anyone can. Except dad, who always knew how to chain Dean down, how to pin him to the floor with a word and a look, how to take that sloppy, vibrating energy out from under Dean's skin and turn it into mission, purpose, mercenary efficiency. How to shift Dean's eyes from one hunt to the next.
"We gotta...gotta find him," Sam says into Dean's silence, can't meet his brother's broken bottle eyes. Can't. Just can't.
"We'll find him, Sam," Dean says, and the words are right but his voice isn't; too flat, too passive, too cool. Like he knows what Sam is thinking, like he can read it in his averted eyes and shadowed profile. We'll find him, Dean says, but Sam hears the rest.
We'll find him, but you're not leaving again.
You're not leaving me again.