Sam felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He pulled it out, careful to keep it below the level of the desk so that his professor wouldn't see, and checked to see who was calling. Shit. Dean.
In the six months since he'd stepped onto the bus to Palo Alto, neither Dean nor Dad had called. The silence still felt strange, like closed and locked doors to adjoining rooms, but he was learning to enjoy being apart, being separate. For his whole life, he'd been defined as this man's son and that boy's brother, but now he could define himself, and even define them, any way he chose.
Dean's name, four letters on his cell phone display, felt like a knock on one of those doors. Sam's heart raced, but he stuck the phone back in his pocket. It had been six months, and he had only just stopped thinking about Dean with almost every goddamned step he took. He didn't want to answer.
Sam's phone rang again a couple of hours later when Sam was alone in his dorm room. Sitting on his bed, with a textbook on his lap, Sam had been trying to study, but Dean's call earlier had made him feel strange. Like everything around him wasn't quite real, like he wasn't quite connected to this world here, to Stanford. When the second call came, he recognized the feeling for what it was--a sense of being drawn away, pulled back into the weird world of the Winchesters. His only real home town.
He stared at the phone as it rang, but he didn't answer. In the silence afterward, he heard his last words to his brother, at the bus station in Iowa.
"I'll keep in touch," Dean had said. "Let you know where we're going next."
Sam's body still felt tight from fighting with Dad, his jaw tense, his head throbbing with anger and something like grief, and Dean's words felt like a collar on his neck, tying him to his family, roping him in to this whole mess of obligation and duty.
"Don't," he'd said. "Don't call me. I don't want to know, okay?"
And he'd had to turn away from the look on Dean's face, like they were sparring and Sam had come in under his defenses, hitting him full-on with a center shot. Sam had picked up his bags, then, to walk toward the line of people loading into the bus.
"Take care of yourself," Dean called out.
Sam started to form the words "you, too," but something angry, something ugly, formed in his chest, and he couldn't say the words. He couldn't turn around and look at Dean again. "Yeah," he finally forced out. "Whatever."
And then he stepped through the door onto the tarmac next to the bus. On the bus a couple of minutes later, he turned his head away from the window, careful to avoid seeing Dean and communicating with him again, even with his eyes.
When Sam realized he wasn't doing anything other than staring into space, he put his textbook down in disgust and headed off to the library to run some searches. He didn't allow himself to do this very often, only when he absolutely couldn't stop thinking about them, when he couldn't fit his curiosity or his worry into the box he had built for them in his mind. He thought of it as a kind of ritual, an exorcism perhaps, or a clearing.
At one of the computers in the reference section, he worked through the databases--LexisNexis, Infotrac, Alternative Press Index, Google--running a series of searches that would occasionally turn up traces of where the Winchesters or some of the other hunters had been. As usual, nothing turned up.
At the dining hall that evening, while he ate dinner with Jess and Angie and Chris, his phone rang again. He pulled it out of his pocket, knowing it couldn't be Dean again, and Jess leaned over to look at the display.
"Hey, who's that?"
"It's, uh," Sam paused, jamming the phone back into his pocket. "My, uh, brother."
"Is that why you're such a space cadet today? Is he bothering you or something?"
Sam closed his eyes, cringing at the knowledge that he'd let her think his brother was serious bad news.
"Next time he calls, give me the phone. I'll tell him to go to hell for you."
"No, Jess. Seriously, it's okay. He just called a couple of times."
She narrowed her eyes, glaring in the direction of Sam's phone, and Sam sighed, wondering why everyone in his life wanted to protect him so much.
When the phone rang the next time, he was sleeping, and the sound worked its way into his dream as a fire alarm. In his dream, he went to run out of the building, but he couldn't find a door, and in the rush of panic he woke up to his phone ringing on the desk next to his bed. He grabbed it, expecting to see Dean's name, but it was just an unfamiliar number. His groggy brain refused to cough up the location of the area code. Wyoming? Wisconsin?
Before he could decide whether or not to answer, the ringing stopped, the call switched over to voice mail. Dean hadn't left any messages, and neither did the unknown caller. Then the phone rang again, and his roommate grumbled something that sounded like, "Answer the fucking phone," so Sam stood up, walked into the bathroom, and flipped the phone open.
He didn't say anything, just held it to his ear, and in the small, dark room he could hear breathing on the other end of the line, breathing that he'd heard all his life, in more dark rooms than he could possibly remember. He felt a tangled knot of worry, anger and love working its way up through his chest into his throat, and he didn't know what kind of words he wanted to choke out.
"Sammy," Dean whispered, finally. "You there? Y'okay?"
"I'm here. Why--where are you calling from?"
"Motel outside Milwaukee. M'sorry for calling, I just--" Dean broke off, his breathing sounding rough and unsteady.
Sam leaned against the wall and let himself slide down to the floor, cold tile under his legs. One part of him wanted to hang up, didn't want to know anything. Another part wanted to know everything--what happened, where's Dad, are you hurt? He settled for, "What's going on?"
"Aw, just a job, you know. Wasn't fast enough. Kid got hurt."
"Just this…college guy."
"Big gawky freak. Kinda…" Dean paused, just breathing into the phone again for a minute. "Kinda reminded me of you."
"What happened to him?" Sam didn't want to know, but he had a feeling Dean needed to tell him.
"Malevolent spirit. Electrocuted four others before him."
"Shit," Sam whispered. "You and Dad got it, though."
"Not fast enough."
Sam felt like he was being pulled apart, wanting to hang up, wanting to see Dean, overwhelmingly not wanting to hear the pain in his big brother's voice. "Hey. Where's Dad?"
"Went out. He was pretty pissed about how the job went last night."
"You know," Sam heard his voice rise and took a breath, reminded himself that the walls to the bathroom were thin, that his roommate was sleeping just a few feet away. "It's such bullshit," he hissed. "Everything's Dad's orders, and then if it all goes to hell he's fucking pissed off."
"What are you talking about? Dad just wants us to do the job right. So do I."
"I'm talking about our whole lives! I'm talking about you going on hunts when you were twelve fucking years old!"
"I wanted to go!"
"That's not the point!"
"The point--" Dean broke off, huffed out a quick, angry breath. "I shouldn't have called. This is just--the only good thing about you being gone, Sammy, is that I don't have to listen to you two tear each other apart anymore. You know?"
Sam didn't know what to say to that. He rubbed his free hand through his hair and listened to the toilet flush in the room next door.
"I shouldn't have called." Dean's voice sounded rough and impersonal, detached in a way Sam had never heard directed at himself before.
"Nah, it's okay."
"No. You have your own life there. Everything going okay? You alright for cash?"
"I got a job, Dean. I'm fine."
"Good. That's good."
"Look, I'm sorry I didn't pick up earlier."
"No, you got nothing to be sorry for. I won't call again."
"Take care of yourself."
Then Dean hung up, and Sam was left holding his phone to his ear, listening to nothing. "You, too," he whispered into the darkness.
It was ridiculous to feel so suddenly lonely in a building full of people, on a campus where even now, in the middle of the night, he could find somebody to hang out with. He flipped his phone closed and leaned his head back against the wall. The first words he'd spoken to Dean in six months, and now they felt like the last.