Sam stops by the post office every day after school. He's glad Dean's got a real job, which means he can't show up at the bell to pick Sam up like he's still in first grade. Even though Sam's taller than he is now, Dean still treats him like a little kid. It drives him crazy, and it makes it really hard to make friends, which Sam has always been bad at. That's probably Dean's fault, too.
He picks up their mail, and then he goes to the second PO box, the one Dad and Dean don't know about, that he rented with his own money, after Dean made Dad promise they would spend the whole semester here so Sam could graduate with kids who actually knew his name.
It's stuffed full of large envelopes today, forwarded from the PO box he'd rented back in Utica, which is where they were living when he filled out his college applications.
He pulls them out, and lays them on the cool granite counter, breathing deep to try to calm the fluttering in his belly.
He knows big envelopes mean acceptances, but he also knows he's not going anywhere that doesn't offer him a full ride. (He doesn't want to think about not going anywhere at all.)
Sam rubs his sweaty palms on his jeans and then picks up the first envelope, the one with the red Stanford logo stamped on it. This is his dream school; he's kept the brochure under his mattress like one of Dean's porn magazines, thumbed through it as often as Dad has his stupid journal.
The cream-colored paper is heavy and textured, and Sam forces himself to read it.
Dear Mr. Winchester,
Congratulations! You've been selected for admission for the Fall semester at Stanford University.
Sam doesn't absorb anything after that for a good five minutes.
"Young man, is everything okay?" There's a little old lady with blue hair and rhinestone-studded glasses staring up at him.
"Everything's great," he says, smiling so hard his face aches and shaking himself out of his dream of the future. He's also been accepted to Georgetown, Princeton, and Binghamton, which was his safe school. He gathers his stuff together, lays it neatly into his backpack, and walks home.
Dean's been working double shifts at the gas station while Dad's away, and he always smells like motor oil and gasoline. Sam's not expecting him to be home yet, but the car's parked in front of the house. Sam drops his backpack and grabs the letter, eager to share his news. He rushes through the small house, looking for Dean. He's not in the living room and when Sam heads back towards the bedrooms, he can hear Dean singing over the sound of the shower. He stops to listen, surprised that Dean's not singing Metallica or something. Instead, he hears the bluesy sweetness of "Tupelo Honey." Dean's got a pretty decent voice, and there's genuine feeling behind the words. No doubt he's thinking about the car, which Dad left behind for the first time, because Sam can't remember the last time Dean saw a girl more than once. When he hits the chorus, he sounds happy.
Sam looks down at the piece of paper in his hand, and knows that after he shares his news, it'll be a long time before he hears Dean that happy again.
Sam wakes slowly, warm and comfortable under the blankets. He takes a deep breath, surprised and pleased to be able to breathe through his nose for the first time in days. He does a quick inventory, and comes to the definite conclusion that he feels better.
He keeps his eyes closed, dozes a little, enjoying the feeling of being able to breathe freely. He can hear the clank of metal and he opens his eyes just enough to see Dean sitting at the desk, cleaning the weapons.
Dean looks like he hasn't slept in days--he's unshaved and still wearing the same clothes he had on yesterday, but his hands are sure on the weapons and he's humming softly to himself.
Sam can't quite make out the tune, but he's sure he knows it, or he would if he were more awake. There's something familiar about it, and something vaguely comforting, as well. It's different from when Dean hums Metallica to calm himself down, or bellows along with Sabbath in the car, and Sam wonders if he even knows he's doing it.
The humming turns into words, so soft Sam's sure he's not supposed to be hearing them, and he makes himself as silent as possible so Dean won't know he's awake. He lets the song--recognizable now--wash over him, easing the tightness in his chest that has nothing to do with his recent cold and everything to do with the way everything's been fucked up between them since Dean came back. Maybe since Dean went to hell in the first place.
Now that Sam thinks about it, he can't recall hearing Dean hum or sing once since he's been back. The last time was on the road to New Harmony to confront Lilith. He thinks of everything Dean's been through, everything they've suffered and lost, because he couldn't kill her then, and promises himself that the next time they meet, things will go differently.
Dean's really getting into the song now, and Sam realizes he used to sing it when they were little, the two of them huddled under the covers in motel rooms not unlike this one, waiting for Dad to come home; Dean mumbled the words then, unsure of them until he got to the chorus. Too bad nobody'd ever told Dean he didn't have to carry the world on his shoulder; now it's the only thing anyone tells him, the only thing he seems to hear.
Dean wraps up the "na na na nas" and glances over at Sam, who pushes himself up on his elbows and then knuckles sleep out of his eyes as if he's just woken up.
"Morning, princess." Dean wipes his hands on a rag, gets up, and comes over to the bed. "You enjoy your beauty sleep?" But the gentle hand on Sam's neck belies the gruffness of Dean's tone. Sam leans into it, but Dean draws it back quickly once he's assured himself Sam's fever is gone, ruffling Sam's sweaty hair as he pulls away.
"Yeah," Sam says, grinning. "I feel much better." It's true, though he's still a little wobbly when he stands, and Dean notices, grabs his elbow until he's steady enough to hit the bathroom on his own. He could probably use another day's rest, but he's not going to ask for it; not after all his talk about Dean being the one who's weak. "You ready to pack up and hit the road?" he asks in between brushing his teeth. He scrubs vigorously, trying to wash the taste of sickness away.
"Nah," Dean says. "I paid for another night." Sam gives him a surprised look and he shrugs. "The snow is crazy deep out there and the roads haven't been cleared."
Sam nods. "Okay."
"And there's a Star Wars marathon on TNT today."
"Okay." Brushing his teeth has pretty much exhausted all the energy Sam's got, so he shuffles back to bed. "Thanks," he says when Dean comes over and untangles the comforter and the blankets, and pulls them up over his shoulders, and they both pretend Dean's not tucking him in.
"Whatever. I'm not doing this for you, Sam. I'm doing it because I'm not taking the car out in these conditions."
"Whatever you say," Sam mumbles around a yawn, and falls asleep to the familiar sound of Dean complaining about the condition of the roads.
Sam doesn't know how he got out of Lucifer's cage. For one endless moment, he was trapped for eternity with Lucifer and Michael and Adam, still fighting to keep control of himself, and then the next, he was lying on the grass in Stull Cemetery, staring up at the rising sun.
He remembers everything that happened while he was there, but in a distant way, as if it happened a long time ago to someone else. He lies there for a long moment, breathing in the humid night air and the scent of dirt and grass. It's a definite improvement over the smell of sulphur, burning flesh, and blood.
His first instinct, after he takes a leak (he leaves the cemetery for that; no point in pissing off any spirits still hanging around), and finds something to eat, is to find Dean. He's not sure how long he's been gone--forever in hell could be only a few months topside--but he's sure Dean's still alive. He would have heard otherwise, even trapped in the deepest bowels of hell.
It's a moment's work to hotwire an old pickup he finds in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, and then he's off. There's no GPS and he doesn't have Dean's ridiculous ability to remember every road he's ever driven, but he's spent enough time behind the wheel to know how to get where he's going without much trouble.
The radio fades in and out as he drives, so he turns it off, too long without silence in his own head making even static too much to bear.
He pulls over just outside of Chicago, sleeps for a few hours, and continues his drive. He doesn't have a phone, and he's not sure he'd bother to call first if he did. It's dark when he arrives in Cicero. A dog barks in the distance, and Sam watches Dean eat dinner with Lisa and Ben like a normal happy family, and wonders if he should say anything at all. He drives away, needing time to think, and checks himself into the local motel.
In the morning, he waits until the morning rush hour, or Cicero's version of it, anyway, is over. If he's going to talk to Dean, he wants to do it privately, and he figures Ben will be at school and Lisa at work. He parks the truck down the block and walks towards the neat little house, wondering if he's just bringing death and destruction with him the way he always has before.
Dean is outside in the driveway, detailing the car.
Sam stops to drink in the scene, its homey familiarity easing something in his soul. The only difference from the hundred other times he's watched Dean do this is that there's no Zeppelin blaring loudly from the speakers. The neighborhood association probably frowns on it, and it makes Sam smile to think of Dean living in a place where there's a neighborhood association, and living with someone who might actually care what they think.
Dean might not be blasting the radio, but he's singing something. Sam holds his breath, like that'll help him hear better (a leftover habit from childhood, when he'd thought holding his breath would keep him safe from monsters), and it takes him a few seconds to recognize the song, because it's one he never in a million years would have expected his brother to know of, let alone sing along to.
Dean doesn't know all the words, but he gets by with meaningless mumbles until he hits the chorus, where he does a pretty good job.
"So, you're, like, the lost Indigo Girl?" Sam says, strolling down the driveway like he went out for doughnuts and coffee fifteen minutes ago, instead of having been locked up in hell for four months.
Dean whirls, silver flask and spray of water gleaming in the morning sunlight. "Christo."
Sam smiles and holds his hands up in surrender. "It's me," he says. He takes a step closer, and then another when Dean doesn't try to shoot him or stab him. "It's me," he says again, close enough now for Dean to pull him into a rough hug that's so tight Sam can't breathe, and he's totally okay with that.
Dean leans back to look at him, assessing eyes wide and bright with tears. Sam takes a moment to do the same thing. He wonder if Dean is okay, if he's happy. If he's as glad to see Sam as Sam is to see him. And then he realizes there's more than one answer to those questions, and they're ones he doesn't really need to ask.
That doesn't mean Dean doesn't have questions of his own. "Sammy, what--how?"
"I don't know. I woke up in the cemetery yesterday morning. We'll figure it out."
"Let's not look a gift horse in the mouth," Dean says, his voice thick with emotion. They pull apart, but Dean keeps a hand on his arm, fingers curling in the sleeve of Sam's shirt, like Dean's afraid he'll disappear if he doesn't hold on.
Sam nods. There'll be time enough later to discover who brought him back and why. There are more important things to do right now. "So, you finally admit that I have good taste in music?"
"I admit nothing," Dean says. "I don't know what you're talking about." He's smiling so wide that Sam can see the lines around his eyes and mouth are deeper than they used to be, and there's some grey hair at his temples Sam doesn't remember being there before.
"Now that I know you're a fan, you'll have to let me hook up my iPod when I drive."
"The hell I will!" Dean lets go of him and grabs a rag, which he tosses at Sam. Sam catches it easily, inhaling the familiar scent of Armor All with a smile. "Now that you're back, you can help me with the tires."
Sam agrees happily, glad to be home.