It’s the middle of the night on a godforsaken stretch of road somewhere in Nebraska that Sam first does it, and it’s because of AC/DC’s Touch Too Much.
“She liked this song,” Sam murmurs. Dean looks over at him, surprised that Sam is awake and surprised he is saying something about Dean’s music besides Turn it down or Really? A third time?
Sam must have interpreted Dean’s look as confusion, however, because he elaborates. “Jess,” he says, as if there was any other ‘she’ he would talk about with that raw, broken edge to his voice. “Jess liked this song.”
“Really?” Dean has to be cautious here, because he knows there’s a million things he could say that would make Sam clam right back up and probably several that would make Sam punch him in the face or try to throw himself out of the car, but it’s been a month since they left Palo Alto and Sam hasn’t talked about Jessica once, so Dean turns his eyes back to the empty road and picks his words carefully. “Good taste.”
Sam snorts gently, and if it sounds a little wetter than usual Dean doesn’t comment. “I think one of the reasons she liked it so much was the first night we went to a bar together it was playing and I…” he glances at Dean, furtively almost, like he’s embarrassed or maybe there’s some sort of joke there. “I made a face or something and she laughed…”
It’s like crawling through broken glass. Dean has to go slowly, make the right move, or he’s going to be cleaning up blood. Wish I coulda known her isn’t right, but neither is What do you mean ‘made a face’? There’s a constricted, throbbing part of himself like a blister that wants to demand how it was possible for Sam not to tell Jess about him and Dad. A similar part, or maybe the same part, wants to say Tell me more.
“Do you want me to turn it off?” Dean asks instead, hand hovering over the dashboard.
“No, leave it on.” Sam’s already settling back in his seat, eyes drifting closed. His comment might almost have been an extended bit of sleep-talking if not for the lingering expression on his face, as though something inside him has broken loose, and like a tooth it’s kind of painful and a little strange but it had to come out. And now maybe, Dean hopes, maybe it can start to heal.
It’s another two weeks before Sam mentions Jessica again.
They’re in the car again, but this time it’s quiet, no music, no sound other than the soft swish of the Impala’s wheels on the pavement as they cover mile after mile. They returned earlier from a hunt to their motel covered in blood, though not their own for freakin once. The spirit they wasted had a proclivity— Sam’s word, not Dean’s. “Who the hell talks like that?” were Dean’s words— for spewing body fluids and while it turned out to be a relatively easy kill it made for one hell of a clean up.
Luckily they both showered before the knock came at their door. The manager stood outside, looking harried and more than a little terrified, and asked them rather forcibly to leave. Well, those were Dean’s words. Sam’s were “threw them out on their asses.”
Dean expects him to be angry, to be sighing and grouching as they speed away into the silent night— because of course the motel they are forcibly asked to leave (“thrown out of”) is the only one in this tiny buttfuck town and of course this tiny buttfuck town is several hundred miles from anywhere else— but Sam isn’t angry. He actually laughed when they slid into the Impala, the manager’s threats to call the police if they didn’t leave right now ringing in their ears. Dean hasn’t heard him laugh in longer than he cares to remember. For the first sixty miles Sam even speculates with Dean about all the conclusions the manager might have drawn from their bloody entrance and their profanity-filled exit (courtesy of Dean’s words, not Sam’s).
By the time they reach “gay terrorists who got in a fight at a classic car convention over a rival’s opinion of their upholstery that ended with a Satanic ritual and a liquor store raid in which they drink only Patrón” Sam is laughing again, short and bright, like a firecracker in the night. Dean is laughing too, but seeing Sam look so happy and young and carefree Dean wonders if he might actually start crying instead.
They lapse into silence for a moment (because really, where can you go after gay terrorists?) but it’s not the buzzing, itchy silence they’ve spent so much time in these past weeks. The adrenaline is still present enough to keep either of them from feeling tired, but there is a sense of relaxation that spreads through the car as if the Impala has taken a huge sigh and they’re both carried on the gentle exhale, flying through the empty night.
“She baked a lot,” Sam says suddenly. This time he doesn’t wait for a look from Dean to add, with a slightly determined air, like gritting teeth but not as violent, “Jess. Jess baked a lot.”
Non sequitur, Dean thinks. It’s Sammy’s word, not his, but he likes the sound of it and he’s taken to using it ever since Sam exasperatedly snapped the meaning at him a few weeks ago. Mostly he uses in contexts that are completely wrong, like when his lighter stops working or a cute girl doesn’t respond to his flirting, just to see how annoyed it makes Sam. But in this instance he thinks maybe it kinda works. Or maybe it doesn’t.
“It was one of the reasons she wanted an apartment so badly,” Sam continues and the feeling of glass returns, only this time it’s all around them, in the air like tiny diamonds and Dean doesn’t even want to breathe wrong for fear of shattering something. “Baking was kinda hard to do in the dorms. She made cookies, mostly.” He glances at Dean, and it’s another one of those looks that Dean can’t quite read in the fragile glass interior of car. “Sometimes pie.”
“I love me some pie,” Dean murmurs appreciatively, the back of his neck going hot while his fingers gripping the wheel go cold. He doesn’t know what to say, and worse, he doesn’t know what Sam wants to hear. Is he trying to get Dean to like Jessica? Because as much as it sucks— and it really, totally, abso-fucking-lutely sucks— Dean is never going to get to know her. Sam can talk about her as much as he wants, describe every little detail of her until his voice is gone and his throat is raw— and glancing at Sam, eyes over-bright in the dark car, Dean has a brief flash of panic that’s exactly what he’s planning to do— but it won’t bring her back from the dead. It won’t make her anything more than a memory in Sam’s mind.
But Sam doesn’t keep talking, and he doesn’t burst into tears or hysterical laughter either like Dean is a little afraid he might given his unusually cheerful mood earlier. Instead Sam just shrugs and says, “I preferred the cookies.” Then he settles back in his seat and starts arguing about the best way to get to the state border.
Dean argues back because that’s what he always does and he can feel the brutally delicate glass fading from the air as he boasts about intuition and deliberately sticks greasy fingers on the map Sam is trying to read.
But part of him wants to ask what kind of cookies Jess baked and when exactly they rented their apartment and how Sam afforded it. Part of him wants to yell at Sam for not calling and telling Dean before about this girl he was living with in a long term, in-love sort of way. Part of him wants to curl up in a ball of shame and regret for not calling Sammy and asking about things like that himself.
Of course, he needs Sam’s words to help him figure out his own, and so when Sam smacks him on the arm with the now throughly crumpled map Dean just flicks Sam’s ear and doesn’t say any of those things at all. The Impala glides down the empty road, two boys inside carried on a sigh through the dark.
When Sam was younger and he was allowed to, he could out-babble even the most talkative little kid.
He wasn’t allowed to very often, because Dad was usually all Be quiet, Sam, we’re on a hunt or I want you focussed on this case or What the hell is a Mathlete?
But when it was just Dean and Sam and Dean was feeling magnanimous (Sam’s word, one that had Dean feeling the exact opposite when his ten-year old brother first used it then rolled his eyes at Dean for not knowing what it meant) or else was just too tired to put up any sort of fight, he let Sam babble to his heart’s content. He would half-listen for hours as Sam chattered on about anything from what he’d learned that week in biology to the playground they drove past three towns ago to the way he’d discovered to work the toaster so it didn’t burn their toast.
As he got older, Sam began to replace his chattering with sullenness, his rapid anecdotes with glowering silences. It got to the point where the most talking he did was when he was screaming at their Dad and everything he hated about his life. Still, there were times when he and Dean were alone and the world was quiet and still that Sam would start with some insignificant little facts, then, with a few nudges from Dean, break right open and start babbling like he was a kid again, the words seeming all the more rushed and necessary for his holding them in.
The babbling is making a come-back though now it usually involves recitations of entire encyclopedia pages (Dean’s words, Sam calls it “relevant information”) about the creatures they’re hunting, or else interesting facts about the places they’re going and people they’re meeting (Sam’s words, Dean calls it “a bunch of boring-ass History channel crap.”) Dean thinks he might find this shift in topic kind of funny in an ironic way if it wasn’t so damn depressing.
The quiet moments, the brief pauses in the pulse and throb of their world when they are alone and together and the sky isn’t raining fire and they can breathe with their whole bodies, Sam now uses to talk about Jess.
It’s still fragments, bright shards like light through stained glass, pieces of a whole. But it seems to get easier for Sam, from the occasional half-broken comment in the sheltered night of the Impala to entire stories over the checkered diner table and plates of pancakes.
It gets easier for Dean too. And harder.
Sometimes he feels like he’s having conversations with this girl he’ll never know rather than his brother. He sees her in the corners of the room, the backseat of his car, the fringes of his mind. She’s flickering and kind-of smiling and half-dressed— hey, Dean only saw her once, and it was a pretty nice sight— and when Dean looks at her he sees his heart breaking.
She is everything Sam wanted when he stormed out of this life and their family four years ago. Not normal, safe. She is everything Sam’s lost because of this life and their family. Not normal, safe. She’s everything Sam’ll probably never have again, not with this life, their family. Not normal, safe.
The more Sam talks about Jess the more Dean feels the weight of her presence, to the point where he almost considers the possibility of her becoming a ghost and what they would have to do when they return to her grave. Then he remembers she already burnt and when Sam asks worriedly through the bathroom door if Dean’s okay he manages to shout back some lie about never buying a burger from a gas station again.
It takes Dean a while to realize this swooping, gnawing sensation in his stomach when he glimpses blond curls at the edges of his eyes is something else, something more than just his grief for Sammy, his regret and his anger and his guilt about this girl who loved his brother and he’d only met once then watched her die. It takes him even longer to realize just what exactly it is.
(“Always the slow one” used to be Sam’s words, before it stopped being a joke and became an attack. “Sometimes it pays to take your time” used to be Dean’s words, when making everything possible into a sexual innuendo was an acceptable counter and not a line of defense.)
Dean is sitting on the couch of their relatively nice motel room— relatively nice in that it had several things most roadside places with neon signs don’t, like a couch— watching TV and half-asleep when the realization strikes. Sam is sitting on his bed with his computer, his typing slowly ceasing as he drifts through smoke-filled rooms inside his head.
“She sang in the shower,” Sam mutters, and though Dean is just conscious enough to register the words he feels the now-familiar sensation like he’s been kicked in the gut. “And she was actually pretty good.”
And then, and then, it hits Dean and he nearly bolts off the couch. He whips around to stare at Sam, eyes wide and breath caught in his throat and heart pounding fast and rough like he’s just been chased down by a wendigo. The singing, it doesn’t really match at all— non sequitur— but it clicks in place, and Dean remembers being sung lullabies and eating fresh-baked cookies with milk and love and warmth and someone holding him at night. Not normal, safe. The lurching, throbbing pain in his stomach makes sense now, the heavy weight on his chest and the blond hair in his eyes make sense now, now that he’s realized how much Jessica reminds him of his mother.
And yeah, maybe it’s really fucking creepy comparing his little brother’s dead girlfriend to their dead mom, but in that moment in the motel room with time suspended on his gasp, Dean just finds it a little wonderful and sort of awful and really, really sad.
Sam’s staring at him, staring at him with eyes that haven’t really looked alive since Dean pulled him away from that fire, away from that warmth and back into this life, eyes like broken glass, and Dean knows he can’t put it all into words, everything in his head from Jessica to their mom and all the things in between like I’m sorry and I had nightmares for years and I’d do anything to fix this but I don’t even know where I’d start, but he can manage one, one word, and so he says it and it comes out like a curse, or maybe a prayer.
Sam doesn’t understand, how can he when Dean can barely get it together himself, except maybe Sam does understand because he’s scrambling off the bed and he’s crying and Dean’s crying too— when did he start crying?— and Sam sits besides him on the couch and grabs his leg and Dean seizes Sam’s shoulder and it’s not a hug but it’s a hold and it’s what they both need right now. “No chick flick moments,” were Dean’s words. “If it weren't for pictures, I wouldn't even know what Mom looks like,” were Sam’s.
One of them is shaking, or maybe both of them, trembling like the world is crumbling away beneath their feet. Dean’s sure he’s leaving bruises on Sammy’s shoulder the way he’s gripping him (“Skinny,” Dean’s, “Shut up,” Sam’s) but Sam’s got both hands clamped near Dean’s knee now like his bracing for impact, bracing for the next blow, the next part of their life that’s going to be ripped away from them with blood and fire.
“She left me.” Dean doesn’t know who says it, who chokes out the words into the shuddering silence of the motel room where everything is coming apart. “I wish I could have known her,” is the broken reply. Then “I’m sorry” repeated over and over like the words to an exorcism, only they can’t purge this from their lives and maybe they don’t really want to try.
Then the shaking stops and Dean isn’t exactly sure when he leaned forward or how his arm made it around Sammy’s neck but he’s got his forehead right up against Sam’s temple and they’re both breathing and for a moment Dean thinks, “thank God,” which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense unless at some point they both stopped.
“We’ll be okay.”
They’re not Dean’s words, or Sam’s. They’re in the seconds between Dean’s breaths on Sam’s cheek, in the spaces where Sam’s weight presses down on Dean’s leg and against his chest, in the empty corners of the room where blond women have disappeared and the nightmares may take refuge, just for this night.
“We’ll be okay.”
They’re not Dean’s words, or Sam’s, but they just might be the truth.