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Separate History

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For 83 years, Rugby, North Dakota was called the geographic center of North America. Its population throughout the latter half of the twentieth century fluctuated at just under three thousand, and when Dean watched the town come into view through the windshield of his father’s car, he felt cozy. Nestled in the rich green shrubbery that pervaded the border between Canada and the United States, with no oceans and no lakes around for many miles, he felt like he was wrapped up in a blanket stitched of his life.

To his right was Bemidji, Minnesota, where John had bought him his first slice of apple pie last year, after they’d wasted what he remembered as a slug monster that lived in the eponymous lake.

To his left lay Grangeville, Idaho, where Sammy had taken his first steps. Even amid the haziness that came with memories from under the age of ten, Dean recalled Grangeville viscerally. Their stay there had been very brief, but John had spent nearly all of it holed up in what Dean remembered as the kitchenette of wherever they were sleeping, and Dean had no toys to speak of, so for tens of hours a day, he hobbled around after Sammy, who was restless even then. Dean couldn’t remember a single moment of Sam’s life when Sam hadn’t been chasing after something. He’d crawl around the living space and stick lint in his mouth, and Dean would have to scuffle with him to pull it out.

In Rugby, John had heard reports of a ghost, though additional information was still scarcely given to Dean. He had turned twelve recently and already knew how to shoot the three guns John routinely left behind when he told Dean to watch out for Sammy, but John didn’t rely on him much beyond that. As they turned onto Main Street, rows of lush trees came into view, obscuring the gray February sky. Sam’s head fell off Dean’s shoulder briefly as the car rolled over a speed bump, and then he jerked up, blinking blearily.

Dean glanced at him, eyes catching on the line of slobber streaking Sam’s chin, and his hand jerked to swipe at his own shoulder, “Gross! Did you drool on me?”

Sam made a face, back of one wrist rubbing his face clean, and croaked sleepily, “Where are we?”

John didn’t look away from the road as he called, “Wait in the car, boys,” and parked outside of what looked to be a bed and breakfast. After the echoing slam of his door, the car fell silent. As the sun set, life took on an eerie quality, half-dream and half-nightmare, and Dean could feel his eyes straining to focus in the steadily dying light.

Sam sat beside him, immobile, slobber hand resting neatly between two pages of the book he’d been reading earlier, holding it open like he was planning to keep reading. The swinging double doors through which John had disappeared into the building had small square windows near the top, and an orange light filtered through, traveling in no particular direction. Dean squinted in an effort to spot shadows of human shapes, but there was nothing.

Sam finally yawned and shuffled away from Dean, swinging his legs down into the foot well. “Did you know in 1971 they stopped calling Rugby the center of the continent? It’s, like, a big dispute now. Several towns think they are.”

Dean, without actually taking his eyes off the double doors, rolled them. “Yes, you told us that in the car yesterday. And three days ago when we started driving.”

Sam kicked at the back of the passenger seat, sulking. “I think it’s cool.”

Dean leaned over and ruffled his hair, earning a yelp and a string of complaints. “I know you do, buddy.”

The hand that was bookmarking Sam’s worn copy of A Wrinkle in Time finally closed its pages, and Dean watched out of the corner of his eye as Sam slid a finger down its spine reverently. Sam muttered, “Someday I’ll find people who think it’s cool, too, and I’ll talk to them about it.”

Dean looked at him. “Hey, I never said I don’t think it’s cool. And besides, where’re you gonna find those?”

Sam shrugged one shoulder. “There’s a lot of people in the world. I could live with them, maybe.”

Half of Dean was amused, picturing Sam at a big sleepover, wrapped in a sleeping bag, stacked next to hundreds of other kids his age, all lying in silence and reading books. The other half clenched with discomfort. “What, you’re gonna run away from home? Get yourself adopted?”

Sam looked up at him, his eyes shifting colors with every gradation of the sun in the sky. “Maybe.”

--

Sam was an unhappy kid, as he got older. Listless and agitated at the same time, and Dean used to wonder what he’d done to make Sam that way. Sam spent more of his life with Dean than with anyone else, so whatever made him so pissy must have been something Dean had put out there. It rankled.

From town to town, school to school, Sam was weighed down by profound dolor, and it caused chronic tension between the three of them whenever they spent time together. John couldn’t stand Sam’s ingratitude and sharp tongue, confused by the very idea that a kid raised in nothing much still somehow had found a way to expect more. With every request to join a sports team (a thinly veiled plea to stay in one place longer) and every fight about a hunt jeopardizing one of Sam’s grades (a totally unveiled demand to respect Sam’s priorities), the rift among them grew ever wider.

Dean himself sometimes felt blindsided, shaken by how little Sam wanted to spend time with him, when from the ages of one to seven, he’d clung to Dean like a garment.

One day, after school got out at two-fifteen on the dot and Sam walked up to Dean with his backpack stuffed to bursting, Dean reached over to adjust the straps a little, for physics reasons, when Sam batted him away irritably and took off walking.

Dean sighed and followed slowly. “You realize if the straps were shorter, the bag would be higher, and you wouldn’t have to bend your knees to stay vertical?”

Sam blew a lock of hair out of his face, and Dean saw it flutter to the side and then fall back forward. Made a mental note to give Sam a trim when they got home.

“You haven’t even hit puberty, to be so fucking angry all the time.”

Sam huffed and stopped, turning. “I want my own room.”

Dean blinked. In the last few years, their stays in different places had become more frequent and less lasting, so John had resorted to motel rooms – edge of town, close to a convenience store, two queens. John slept on the pullout couch. Dean and Sam had slept in different beds ever since Dean had turned eleven, and the morning wood and restless, heady dreams that had sprung upon him a few months later reinforced the change. It was cramped and intimate, three people sharing a small space, but John was present just as much as he was not. Dean had created all of Sam’s rituals, shaped his taste in clothes and shower preferences and his nighttime cravings for junk food, so it was easy to get by when it was just the two of them and each had his own bed. “Your own motel room?”

“Yeah.” Sam crossed his arms, the picture of petulance.

Dean started walking again, and carefully lay an arm across Sam’s shoulders, willing his brother to turn and walk with him but afraid that Sam would shake him off again. “Why do you need your own room, Sammy?”

“It’s Sam,” he said almost mechanically, “and I want my own space. I’m sick of sharing everything and not getting a minute alone without both you and Dad knowing where I am and what I’m doing. We don’t even have doors.”

“But you know it’s safer this way. If me and Dad didn’t know where you were, how would we protect you? Your screams would I’m sure be as girlish as always, but they wouldn’t reach us from several doors over.”

Sam cracked a smile, elbowing Dean in the ribs, but kept his arms crossed in front of him as they walked. The happy tilt of his lips was a rarity, something Sam had traded in a few years back for scowls and eye rolls and angry retorts. Dean let himself give in to the urge and used his free hand to tickle Sam while his arms were crossed like that, and they ended up brawling right there on the sidewalk, landing eventually in the grass and breathing heavily through huffed laughter. When Sam sat up, wrenching himself out of Dean’s grasp, he finally said, “I don’t think I know who I am.”

Dean’s arm dropped, elbow bent for a second as his hand balanced in the air, and then straight as his knuckles hit the ground. “You’re Sammy.”

“Sam,” was the instant reply, with a light kick to the shin.

Dean, still wheezing, pointed one finger at him, “See, you know who you are.”

Sam flopped to the ground, eyes slanted to the sky, and sighed. His neck lay perpendicular to Dean’s arm, and Dean wondered if he’d let him hug him. Didn’t risk it. “If you left me in my own room with a stack of money for food and no research, I don’t know what I’d do. I feel like everything I do is just what you and Dad do, and I have no real feelings about any of it. I don’t love it and I don’t hate it, and if you were gone, I would probably just disappear. I hate that.”

Dean let his thumb rub at the shoulder bone sticking up through Sam’s sweater, pointy and thin. Sam had dropped weight recently, after he cut himself off from Dean and John’s diet of mostly diner-ready carbs, but he was also growing like a weed, the weak nutrition of salads and fruits not really nourishing him. Dean felt like a parent, now more than ever before, just constantly listening to a barrage of complaints that he had no way to resolve and hadn’t prepared his soul for. Sam was always a thinker, busy introspecting and evaluating and connecting dots that probably weren’t meant to be connected. Too much thinking was too much self-pity. People with real issues didn’t have time to think, and Dean couldn’t remember the last time he had a chance to sit back and wonder about the meaning of his life, too busy counting money and planning meals and doing the bare minimum for school and helping John out with hunts.

But that was the eternal boundary between him and Sam, carved in the sand the day Mary had died. Sam would always be the baby, and Dean would always have to take care of him, and it could never change.

--

When Sam ran away from home – from Dean – it was an ordinary Tuesday afternoon in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was supposed to walk home after school, but when Dean checked the clock at 3, 3:15, and 3:25, he was not there. He wasn’t there at 4, 4:45, or 6, either.

Along with genuine panic as to what may have happened – a monster? a pedophile? a serial killer? – Dean’s blood was frozen with a very real fear of John. Much as he liked to imagine himself independent of his father, that childish fear of the unknown and the imposing finality with which John had assigned him the task of protecting Sam had set up camp somewhere inside him and he figured it would never come out. Being afraid to let anything happen to Sam was automatic now, guided instinctually by fear of repercussion, but now threaded into an additional, independent and genuine fear of losing his little brother.

It had long stopped being just his job to take care of Sam, but the part of him that was too young and did not understand was still very much a part of his psyche, and he would probably never find a way to love Sam without some desperation at the root of it.

That day would, for many years, be the worst day of his life.

--

When he found Sam two weeks later, it was the adult Dean inside him who felt chewed up and trodden to find out that Sam had done it by choice. Nobody had taken him, nobody had forced him – he had simply left.

Sam was thirteen, but he was Sammy. Sammy, who had never stolen even a pack of gum, who had been afraid to hold a gun for the first few months that John had included them in his training, who was so sensitive and kind that every female teacher from Oregon to Maine had looked at him like a puppy on the side of the road. And he was also Sammy, who walked out of school on Tuesday, looked down the street to the right at where the motel – where Dean was, then turned left and walked away.

In all the years he’d expressed his distaste for their life, Sam had still always shown a kind of loyalty to Dean, like he knew that if he fucked up, something between them might crack. Dean wondered when Sam had stopped caring 

He was too raw to scold or argue. He felt bruised and battered. When he had walked out to the car, Sam had trailed behind him, somewhat chastened, and sat shotgun silently. The drive home was tense, and Dean didn’t speak to Sam for four days.

On the fifth day, Sam woke up to see Dean sitting at the table near the door and nursing a long-cold cup of coffee, and sat up. In the quietest voice, he offered, “I’m sorry,” but it didn’t carry any kind of meaning. Sam may have been sorry to have made Dean worry and spend two weeks driving around and searching like a madman for a kid brother who could have been dead in a ditch. But Sam wasn’t sorry he had run away; he would probably do it again. Like that choice was beyond reproach. Like Sam was entitled to it.

--

When Sam hit fifteen, he was up another few inches and steadily gaining on Dean in height. Still scrawny with stupid hair that he refused to cut, he took to walking around and looking at Dean dolefully.

That summer he stopped reading his endless books and, in a turn of events that made even John raise an eyebrow, started hanging around Dean. They sparred a lot and, with Sam finally in the same general developmental bracket as Dean, their physical training could finally be done in pairs. Afterwards, they’d fight over first shower, then flip coins to figure out where to get breakfast. They’d lounge on the couch watching late night infomercials and throwing popcorn at each other, go skinny dipping in the lake several blocks away, and spend hours in libraries helping John with research.

In May, when they were in San Francisco and enjoying the coolest summer in the continental states, they ended up strolling through major streets and enjoying some sense of what normal people’s lives were like. Sam had dragged him into every free museum in the city the previous week, and now, with little else to do to keep his crazy brain running, he wanted to walk.

Sam stopped outside a display window for Tiffany and Co. across from Union Square, eyes wide and jumping around from jewel to jewel like he wanted to devour them.

“You want yourself a ring, Sammy?”

Sam made a face, both at the nickname and the question, one finger stabbing at the glass near the bottom. “Mom’s ring looked like that, in a picture I saw.”

Dean squinted at it. “Dude, I’ve never even seen her ring in any pictures.” He stepped back to take a look at the whole display and whistled. “I doubt Dad could afford this, though. Like, ever.”

Sam snickered, “Of course not. I just like to imagine her life, you know. If it was different.” He lifted a hand to rub at his mouth, and the next words came out muffled. “If she’d had something better.”

Dean felt a twinge under his rib. This was the most they’d ever talked about Sam’s relationship with Mary; he had to imagine one to make up for the one that was not there. That Sam was even willing to admit it was surprising, because he’d taken to keeping a lot of himself locked away.

That evening, Dean bought them both beer with one of his fake IDs, and Sam was hit so hard with it that he ended up lying halfway on top of Dean as they sat on the Rincon Park grass near the water. A man sitting a few feet away stood at half past eleven when his watch went off with an alarm, and Dean observed through lidded eyes as he shook out his blanket and folded it up under his arm. When he walked away, it felt like Dean and Sam were the only ones for miles.

Dean looked down at the kid, whose gangly arm was thrown loosely over Dean’s waist and the hand attached to it was picking at the grass by Dean’s hip. “You okay there, Sammy?”

Sam made a soft noise, blinking, but didn’t move.

“You already have something planned for us tomorrow? At this rate, you’ll be asleep until noon.”

Sam made another noise, moving his mouth like he didn’t like the taste of it, and sighed. “Nah.”

Dean let his head thump to the ground, satisfied, and stared up at the sky. Stars were starting to quietly blink into existence, and the clouds drifting over them were melting into nothing. He felt warm inside, both from the beer and the general mood he was in, with Sammy so close and, more than that, Sammy wanting to be so close. “Hey, Sam?”

Sam hummed, the vibrations of it reverberating in Dean’s chest like it was empty.

“Do you picture, uh, me and you? In a different life? Like – like with Mom?” Dean figured it was an awkward enough topic that Sam would sit up or attempt to make eye contact, but he only squeezed closer, eyes shut, nearly hugging Dean’s entire body now.

“Sometimes. But different isn’t, like, better. I think we wouldn’t like each other much, if we had normal lives. So that’s,” he paused. “Y’know, that’s weird.”

Dean frowned. “Why wouldn’t we?”

It was so quiet for so long that Dean thought Sam had either fallen asleep or refused to answer, but eventually, after Dean let his own eyes slip shut, Sam sounded small when he said, “I’m pretty fucked up, I think. I like totally different things than you and Dad. If we were normal, can you even imagine us doing anything together? You’d be playing sports with Dad, and I’d be … reading, somewhere. Far away from you.”

The question came unbidden, totally reflexive, and Dean was shocked he’d let it slip out of him at all. “Sam, do you not like me?”

Sam sat up, looking at him in alarm. “Of course I do. Dean, all I’m saying is that life is basically just cause and effect, from birth to death. Who knows who we would be if Mom was alive? That’s such a big component, there’s no way something wouldn’t be different. We might have had other siblings, you know? Other brothers you had more in common with. Maybe I’d even like Dad a lot.” He smiled then, come on, Dean, laugh, that was funny right? Dean obliged, feeling heavy and uncomfortable.

Sam looked him in the eyes until it seemed like he was satisfied with what he saw, but Dean couldn’t forget it, after. It felt, for the rest of his life, like Sam had inadvertently told the truth, and Dean’s bones felt like they were all attached to the wrong places. If someone he’d effectively built from the ground up with his own hands didn’t even like him, then what did that say about him?

“Anyway,” Sam mumbled into Dean’s ribs, “it doesn’t matter. With Mom I can imagine, but this is the life that we have.” A ship’s horn blared at a distance, and Sam tensed up, like he wanted to move away. “Did I tell you I got Jamie’s phone number?”

Dean snorted, trying to pull himself into the present and avoid letting Sam know what he’d done to Dean’s insides. “Is that the chick from the diner? Kid, you can do better.”

Sam pulled himself up to his elbows, eyes lowered. “No, Jamie from the bookstore. Remember?”

Dean racked his brain quickly, not very confident in his memory but interested nonetheless. “Nah, Sam. She cute?”

Sam opened his mouth, closed it, and sighed. Rolling onto his back, he shut his eyes again and rubbed them with both hands. “Yeah. You’d get along, I think.”

Sam never went on dates, so it was all a moot point. Something about nothing lasting and wasted efforts and total lack of purpose, even as he carefully watched Dean sprint through women like it was a marathon, completely uninterested in making anything last. Sam would stare at him when he’d talk to a waitress or barista, eyes squinty and irritated, but resigned. Dean didn’t understand, and Sam never tried to explain. Dean figured he was waiting for marriage or something, which was so much in keeping with the rest of his views that it couldn’t have been too far out of the ballpark.

Dean hummed, ripping a blade of grass beside him and sticking it in his mouth. They dozed there until midnight and ambled home buzzed and sleepy.

Later, in a different town in July, Dean managed to finagle tickets to a rock concert in a neighboring city, and they road tripped joyfully, Baby’s seats covered in candy wrappers and empty cartons of McDonald’s fries that rarely lay scattered for more than a day, now that the car was Dean’s. He took better care of her than John ever did. 

When “Wheel in the Sky” came on, Dean rolled up the volume and rolled down the windows, singing with abandon that he hadn’t possessed for many years, not around Sam. When Sam started crooning with him, off key and voice cracking every bar, it was the brightest day in years.

On the way home, they stopped at roadside attractions, doubling back and weaving through unplanned rest stops, a lazy kind of contentment filling the car.

It figured that such bliss was temporary. However close he and Dean had grown that summer, Sam didn’t let it last, and by the time school started again, he was closed off and stony, worse than before.

--

Sam started his SAT prep long before it even struck Dean that, hey, what if Sammy tries to go to college? That was in May, when Sam was close to graduation and with a spring in his step that was so unlike him that Dean was practically forced to question it.

Sam took his SATs in April of the previous year.

It was early August of 2001 when Sam pulled out the Stanford envelope and waved it in his and John’s faces with something that didn’t make sense: joy. Pride, Dean would have understood, hell – Dean was so proud of him that he felt lighter than air, for a second, before he realized that Sam was going to go.

In later years, Sam would spit back at him that Dean had been just like John, had felt no sense of accomplishment or happiness for Sam, just wanted to drag him into a senseless life that Sam hated. But Dean had. That was the worst part of it all, the thousands of emotions that wracked through him that night, ripped straight from his throat to his solar plexus and exploding out of him.

Among the fear, the despair, the pride, the shock, the betrayal, and the dying conviction that somehow, some way he’d get to keep Sam, there lay a confusing sense of hopeless and knowing acceptance.

John was everything: father, leader, friend, protector, teacher, and partner. But John would leave, because John was unmoored. He flitted from motel to bar to hunt to whatever else called his name because he was, after Mary’s death, completely at his own service. But Sam was never further than a few feet away, too little or too young or too aimless to really have anyplace else to go, and that was something Dean thought would last forever.

That Sam had found such a huge fork in the road and made his own decision about which way to go tore at something raw in Dean. Although for nearly a decade, Sam had sulked about like he was better than both Dean and John, refusing to share anything or to listen to what they had to say, Dean always had the hope, even after Flagstaff, that he meant enough to Sam that such a big secret, such a fundamental part of Sam, couldn’t be hidden from him. 

It was never about Sam leaving. Sam had been steadily walking away since he found out what John did for a living, and he had rarely looked back. Dean had no worry that Sam would be safe in a giant town of nerds, living amongst them and filling his big head with stuff that meant more to him than any Latin incantation. But what about Dean?

Sam told him later that night, hushed and rushed like the dams had finally broken, when he’d taken the SATs and when he’d started the applications. Knowing that was worse than knowing nothing at all. As he drove Sam, he felt exhausted, like he’d been punctured when he saw the envelope and slowly bleeding out all the way to the bus stop.

--

By December, Dean could sleep a full six hours without the inducement of alcohol, and even decided to contact Sam for the first time. The small packages of half of his monthly budget and stacks of skin mags that he mailed every four weeks were all received without response, and they’d exchanged no words since the night Sam left.

One Saturday night, during a brief reprieve from a case inside a Deloitte in Ohio, Dean left John in the motel with his journal and stood at a phone booth, staring at it as he worked up the courage to dial.

The number he’d snagged from the Dean of Students was the standard one assigned to the dorm room where Sam lived, but Dean felt like it wasn’t the right one anyway. It couldn’t be so easy to hear his brother’s voice when he was so fucking far away.

After four rings, someone picked up. A girl. “Hello?"

Dean couldn’t make himself speak. He slapped a hand over the receiver and breathed shallowly.

After a little rustling, the voice came back, more aggressively. “Hello? Are you looking for Sam and Brady?”

It jarred, to hear some stranger’s voice speaking his name like that, so flippantly, like it wasn’t everything. Dean squeezed his eyes shut and waited. There were muffled murmurs on the other end, and then Sam, laughing in response to something Dean didn’t hear, said in his honeyed voice, “This is Sam.”

Before Dean knew it, tears were streaking down his cheeks and he could barely control his breaths, which shook his body with an urgency he hadn’t known he felt. He hung up.

-- 

Four days later, there was a voicemail on his phone when he walked out of the shower. It was five in the morning in Richmond, so two in Palo Alto. Dean pressed play before he recognized the area code, and then it was too late. 

“I know it was you,” came the familiar dulcet voice. “You think I’m fuckin’ dumb.” Dean frowned. Sam was drunk. “Remember how I asked you to come with me, Dean?” Hearing his name was somehow more startling than the rest of it. He felt anonymous until then, like they could be two totally separate people and it could all have nothing to do with him. His name meant Sam knew Dean was listening, and that was terrifying. “You just sat there, like I’d let you down, like I was your biggest fucking disappointment.” Suddenly, a change of tone. “You know I have straight As? That’s not on you anymore, that’s all me. So you can stop feeling guilty or whatever the fuck you like to do in your self-pity, if that’s what – if you think that you did this. I did it all on my own, there’s your proof. You did nothing to – you did nothing.”

Dean leaned forward, elbows on his knees, ready to slide from the edge of the lumpy queen mattress into the stained motel floor.

“Stop sending me shit. I have a full ride and I work at the campus bookstore. That’s what it means to live in the real world, Dean. You can have things and you can build on top of them. You go up.” A hiccupping sound came through the speaker, then a cling of glass. “If you don’t plan to be a part of my life then stop. Stop your aborted half-assed bullshit. Either be there or don’t.”

There was a silence long enough that Dean thought that was the end of the message. He stared at the screen for a second, and then heard a tinny, “I hope you’re happy.” Dean clambered to replay the message, but it took four rounds for him to understand that it wasn’t sarcastic.

--

John sent Dean on a hunt to San Francisco in the fall of 2002, and Dean carefully stayed away from any place where people Sam’s age congregated. He drove wistfully past the house they squatted in all those years ago and stopped at the bookstore where Sam had spent most of those days, to look for lore.

A familiar face peeked out from a neighboring aisle, plastered to a man slightly taller than him, with bright eyes and freckles that almost took attention away from his name tag. He smiled broadly, kindly, gesturing to the shelves Dean was perusing. “May I help you find anything?”

Dean’s breath caught in his throat, entangled between now and then, and then he rasped, “Just looking around.”

The striking face smiled more broadly, and one hand came up to rub through its stubble, shaved intricately to frame the angular jaw and high cheekbones. Shiny red hair snuck in strands out of the black beanie on top of it. “Well, I’m Jamie, so feel free to find me if you have any questions.”

Dean nodded shakily, fingers rising to cover his mouth, and stumbled back a step as he watched Jamie retreat.

Sam had been trying to tell him, then, back in that park on the water. He was trying to open up that entire summer, in all the ways that had flown over Dean’s head. Had Sam gone on a date with this guy? Was this the reason he'd never dated girls? It was just another piece of a puzzle Dean felt like he was seeing for the first time. For eighteen years, Sam was an arm’s length away from him every day and also entirely out of his orbit.

--

Seven months after Jess’s death, or, as Dean called it in his head, after Jess, Sam got stupid wasted in a bar several miles outside of Tallahassee. He was leaning on the bar, forehead in his hand, dumb little smile on his face, the whole spiel.

Dean was tickled, if for no other reason than that at least Sam wasn’t crying. If a drunk wasn’t crying then there was no broken psyche, at least not for the moment.

As the place began to empty out, Sam got more talkative, long legs sprawled out and leaning heavily into Dean’s side. “I get Dad, now. He hit a fucked up extreme, but he was – he was destroyed. I get it, you know?”

You know, Dean repeated in his head. Sam said it so much his whole life, like he wasn’t sure that everyone was on the same page with him on anything. “She was the love of his life,” he supplied unhelpfully, thumb scratching at the ugly label on his own bottle.

Sam swayed a little, shaking his pointer finger at Dean in accord. “Maybe that’s the difference.”

Dean blinked. “Between you and Dad?”

Sam took a slow swig of his beer, dropping his head onto his arm. He didn’t speak again for a long time.

--

For the next five years, Dean learned in new and increasingly creative ways how little Sam wanted to hang around. But after a lifetime of being run away from, Dean didn’t know if he could be blamed for hanging on so tightly. Maybe Sam was right, and life was all about cause and effect. If Sam had felt about Dean the way Dean felt about him, maybe Dean would loosen his hold a little. Or, hell, maybe Dean would be the one hightailing the other way.

But watching over Sam and keeping him breathing were needs carved into his bones and on every organ, pulsing with the thrum of his heart, a constant desperate need to keep close. For as long as he was alive he’d miss Sam like a limb, wherever Sam was. And if the angels were right and they shared a heaven, he’d also do it while dead.

--

The May when Sam dies is the first May that Dean has ever resented. May was the month that brought Sammy to him, thirty years ago, and it also took him away.

He spends most of it in a drunken haze, sleeping in the car or, when he has a sudden terrible bout of semi-sobriety, in some dingy motel room on the outskirts of nowhere.

On May 31st, Castiel shows up and zaps him out of his stupor as he lies on a bed in clothes he hasn’t taken off in over a week. His eyes hurt in a way that feels chronic, and he blinks them blearily at the sudden light from the bedside lamp. Or maybe it’s been turned on the whole time. 

He sits up gingerly, muscles straining like they haven’t been used in years, a tick in his neck subsiding slightly, and he wonders offhandedly if it’s been there the whole time he was passed out. Everything looks gray and brown around him, dark and darker, and the ache in his chest balloons up cruelly. He feels heavy but empty, alive but dead. His mouth tastes like he’s been vomiting for several hours.

“What,” he snarls, head in his hands, pounding.

Cas’s even voice flows through the air, less tortured than anything has a right to be in a world without Sam, “You made a promise.”

“What fucking promise,” he snarls again, teeth starting to chatter from whatever he’s done to his body in the previous weeks.

“To Sam. You told him you would go find Lisa.”

It feels like they talk more, endlessly, and also it feels like Cas disappears immediately after his proclamation. When Dean opens his eyes, the angel is gone, and Dean’s missing a chunk of time. A meaningless one, in the big picture, but he wonders how long he’s been sitting there. His head feels like it will explode if the pounding in it gets any louder, and he smells himself on his clothes as he shifts, gagging.

In hell, ten years have passed. How long has it been in the Cage? There’s no souls there to torture, there’s no reprieve. Sam can’t break like Dean did, because breaking is meaningless. He could have been broken a thousand times over by now, but he has no reprieve. The torture cannot end.

Two days later, he feels stable enough on his feet and sober enough behind the wheel to drive to Lisa’s house. Two weeks after that, he packs up the car and drives all the way to the Atlantic, only stopping for gas and water. With his feet in the sand of a state he’s not sure of the name of, he hurls his empty bottle of scotch into the ocean, sobbing without tears. There are no tears left. If he can just picture that Sam is somewhere over the horizon, even if he’s suffering, even if he’s in pain, it’s still easier to live with himself. Because then the world still has Sam in it; he didn’t just die to save it with absolutely no one to give him thanks.

But Sam isn’t there. Sam isn’t anywhere. He didn’t even leave a body behind for Dean to bury. With a body, Dean could have hoped for a ghost. He would have carried the bones around with him forever in the hope that he’d get haunted. He’d let Sam’s ghost beat him six ways from Sunday, he’d let it kill him.

He almost drowns that night, when the tide comes up around him in a brief half hour between three and four, and Dean lies there, waiting. Maybe it will work.

It doesn’t. He wakes up at dawn to the squawk of seagulls. Three days later, he’s back in Michigan.

The summer swims by slowly and unnoticeably. Before he knows it, Lisa’s taking Ben shopping for school supplies, and it tears a new hole in his chest to watch it. The piles of brand new pencils and notebooks Ben carefully stacks on the living room table, so cheap and ugly, are still leagues better than anything Sam ever had. Ben runs home the week before September starts, gleefully showcasing his new backpack, still with a tag attached, in those typical boy colors of vomit green and depression blue, nothing like what Sam would have chosen. It was an investment, Lisa tells him: a thick material decorated with a reputable brand, making it close to a hundred bucks’ worth of regular stitched cotton, completely worthless in the real world. But kids need this stuff, Dean knows. For an entire fall he’d tried to save up for a fancy coat for Sam to wear in Vermont, something John didn’t believe in, even with the harsh winter ahead. Then the allowance John had left them ran out, and all the savings went toward putting any kind of food on the table.

Sam had been distraught.

Dean dreams about all the times he let Sam down, drove him away, and it’s still better than the shit that enters his head in the waking world. Watching all Sam’s betrayals on repeat at night is a reprieve, a welcome distraction from the overwhelming grief. In his dreams, he doesn’t wish he’d died first, doesn’t wonder how little effort it would have taken to just jump into that pit with him, because in his dreams Sam doesn’t give him a choice.

Maybe, after losing him so much and in so many ways, it’s really no surprise that Dean starts dreaming that Sam jumped in that Cage just to get away from him.

--

On the first day of October, Sam shows up on his doorstep. It’s a quiet Friday, and Ben and Lisa aren’t due home for several hours. Dean’s on a lunch break from work, still chewing his burger when he opens the door.

It says a lot about how little he’s recovered that he doesn’t care if it’s a shapeshifter. It could be a demon. It could be Lucifer himself. Dean opens the door wider.

The smile on Sam’s face is innocent, like something from when he was twelve and still months away from figuring out that he hates Dean and Dad, still eager to be part of the family he later grew to resent. Dean just stares.

“Dean." He pauses, eyes roving over Dean's face like he's cataloguing it. "I, uh, I’m alive.”

There’s nothing Dean can say to that. He doesn’t believe it, but if he’s broken enough that his brain is supplying this hallucination, he’s not going to ask to be fixed. A niggling thought at the back of his head suggests calling Castiel, but his entire being revolts at the idea. If he’s fucked in the head, then that’s how he wants to stay.

“I don’t know how. A couple weeks ago, I woke up back at Stull, and my memory was messy. It took a few days.”

Dean doesn’t want to let him into the house, even ignoring the salt lines that will probably not let him through. Letting in whatever this is will endanger Lisa and Ben, and even if he dies in five minutes or in a few days, they shouldn’t be a part of it. He takes a step over the threshold and looks up at his brother. He’s afraid to speak now. Maybe hallucinations are supposed to be one-sided. He doesn’t want to scare it away.

Sam’s face looks remarkably youthful, like he was sleeping all these months and recovering from the torment of his life. He smiles lopsidedly and speaks again, when Dean just stands there, “Uh, how’ve you been?” Dean barely has a second to react before he speaks again, “I mean, I know it’s been. Uh. That was probably a stupid question. On Monday I finally found you and I was still figuring everything out, you know? Just stood in the street kind of staring and trying to remember. Felt like I was imagining it. I can’t believe you actually, uh, came here, I guess. Can’t believe you stayed.”

His voice flows like melted caramel over Dean, exactly the right tone and texture, a voice it is impossible to capture in memory but impossible not to recognize. Dean lets his eyes flow down, down over the plaid shirt and jeans that have been imprinted forever on his eyelids, the clothes Sam died in and the clothes he would live in forever in Dean’s memory.

The pain he feels is exquisite, choking him but also forcing him to keep breathing, because every new second is a second he gets to see Sammy again. It feels so real that he doesn’t even mind whatever happens next. One last time to see Sam. And maybe he’s come here to kill Dean. That’s fine, he figures. Dean was the last thing Sam saw, and Sam will be the last thing Dean sees, and it will all be okay. Maybe this is Lucifer come to take him down to hell, and a more inviting proposal has never been made.

But Sam just stands there, smiling goofily, studying him right back. “Do you – do you work or anything? Are you hunting?” His smile disappears at the last word, and Dean smiles reflexively, as if to make up for it. Whoever this is, they’re doing a great job. It’s Sammy, spot-on.

He clears his throat after a second of hesitation. If speaking will make this thing disappear, he’ll never speak again. But he wants it to stay, and maybe talking back will get Sam to smile again. “The garage on Fifth. ‘S my lunch.” He waves his half-eaten burger in the air, eyes never leaving Sam’s face. His brother huffs ruefully as his eyes catch on the junk food.

“I didn’t come here to ask you for anything,” Sam’s face takes on a quality Dean remembers seeing when they spoke to witnesses, cajoling but sympathetic, serious but concerned. “I’m gonna go drive up to Bobby’s for a while, figure things out. But you’re the first – you’re the first one I wanted to -” He coughs weakly, eyes dropping to his hands. Dean’s eyes follow. Long fingers, sinewy and sleek, the same fingers that held up the acceptance letter under sickly motel lights, shaking with excitement. “I’m glad you’re doing okay.” Dean’s eyes jump back up. Sam’s are on him, too, the color as ephemeral as always, switching from blue to green to brown in between blinks. Impossible to grasp, just like the rest of him, even in memory. 

“Yeah,” Dean breathes out, eager to keep him talking for as long as it takes for the hallucination to time out.

It doesn’t work, and Sam, still facing him, takes a few steps back, until he reaches the end of the porch. Then he smiles, waves, and walks to a ’74 mustard Bricklin SV-1. As Dean watches, the ridiculous car rolls down the street and fades from existence.

Dean stands there for an hour, with his eyes trained on the intersection, waiting for it to reappear. With stones in his gut, he heads back inside.

--

Reaching out to Bobby is out of the question. Whatever had visited him seemed benevolent, and doubtful Bobby would let it within a mile of him without ganking it even if it wasn’t. But if he is crazy, and Dean is sure he is, then calling Bobby is the same as calling for help, and he doesn’t want any. This sickness he can live with.

--

He waits with bated breath for another apparition, but it’s quiet for the rest of the year. In January, as he’s closing up shop at Smith’s Auto, there’s a crunch in the snow behind him. He slams the garage door all the way shut and turns, halfway alarmed and halfway convinced it’s just a civilian with a broken down car.

There’s no sounds along the block, and it’s such a dark winter that most people were indoors by five.

Sam stands at the curb, hands tucked into his jacket pockets, healthier than Dean’s ever seen him. At least, as his own body decays, he can project a better Sammy. He’s got a superhuman glow, the kind of perfection that grows on the memory of people who don’t exist anymore. Everyone is better in death, but Sam’s just as good as he always was. Dean can’t remember a single real flaw.

“Hey,” Sam says in greeting, and it sounds funny. Sam never said that to him when he was alive, it was always straight to business. He looks like he really doesn’t know what to do next. Dean’s got to give it up to his mind, it’s real creative.

“Hey,” he says back. He rubs his hands together and begins pulling on his gloves. His eyes don’t leave Sam.

“I’ve been.” Sam looks down, familiar drop of fringe following, and his face is obscured for a second. Dean’s frightened that when he looks up his eyes will be black. Frightened he won’t mind.

But they’re not. Sam chuckles mirthlessly and glances back up. “I’ve been keeping a distance, letting you keep on keeping on, I guess. But it’s weird, not talking to you all the time. I don’t want to break what you’ve built here, not at all. But can you – can you call? Just once in a while? I’m over at Bobby’s now, permanently.”

Dean blinks. There’s a single light bulb near the garage, beaming down on Sam from behind him, and it’s barely bright enough to see the color of Sam’s coat. He’s suddenly thrown back to Rugby, North Dakota, the first time he felt this hazy lack of wakefulness. He might be asleep right now. He has no idea. That was the first time Sam told him he was going to leave him. It’s comical now, to listen to his hallucination beg him to stick around. Or maybe it’s the opposite. If Sam is a figment of his mind, then he’s talking to himself, begging the Sam standing in front of him to keep in touch. It’s funny. Dean can’t make himself laugh.

“I get, uh, if you don’t. That’s fine, too. I don’t mean to – look, I’m not going to be able to stop myself from checking in. So I hope you don’t hate me. For that.” Sam looks uncomfortable then, like he doesn’t know how to stand or how to make himself less visible. So very like the Sam before Stanford. A kid, just desperate to know what he’s supposed to be and what he’s in this world for.

“Okay,” Dean rasps. A Sam who wants to follow him around is so fresh and beautiful to him, in a million years he wouldn’t have been able to tell him no. Not that he had any desire to.

Dean approaches the curb, and Sam watches him. They exchange another glance, and as Dean starts to trod along the sidewalk, Sam joins him. They walk in silence to Lisa’s house, where Dean pauses at the walkway and then continues to the front door without a glance behind him. It’s too painful to watch Sam blink back out of his reality. Easier to be the one to shove him back into his brain.

--

Ten days later, Sam’s at his morning coffee joint, sitting by the window with his hands wrapped around a chipped mug, a sad smile on his face. Dean sits across from him. He wonders if these conversations are visible to other people, or if all of it is in his head. He hopes equally for both.

“The coffee’s good here. I see why you like the place,” Sam motions to the table. He’s scruffier, with a beard Dean’s never seen on him, and it looks pretty great. He wishes he’d got to see it on Sam when he was alive. Would have been another thing to tease him about.

Maybe it’s the crisp winter morning outside, maybe it’s that he’s had some time to get used to it, maybe it’s because he figures there’s little risk that Sam will stop showing up, but Dean says, “What have you been doing in town?” He’s kind of curious what his mind will come up with.

“There was a hunt,” Sam swallows with a quick jerk of his head, like he stopped his nod halfway. “A couple towns away. Just a regular ghost, quick and easy.” Dean smiles. Back to the basics. The easier the hunt, the safer Sam is. Dean can follow his id’s logic. “Gonna head back this afternoon. Trying to get back by midnight.”

It’s a Saturday, and Dean’s not due at work until two, so he settles in. Might as well milk it. There doesn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to when the hallucinations start, and something in his chest tightens at the prospect of waiting another three months to see Sam’s face. “How’s Bobby doing?” He hoped Bobby was good, in the real world, made a mental note to call him soon.

Sam’s eyebrows jumped a notch, like he was surprised Dean was asking him, rather than Bobby himself. “He’s, uh, good. Doesn’t let me drink and gives me lots of research to keep busy. I still don’t know where I’m headed from here, but staying with him and just keeping a low profile’s as good as anything else I could do.” When Dean doesn’t say anything, just keeps watching him, he goes on, “I’m kind of surprised nobody’s tried to find me. I figure, just pulled out of the Cage like that, there’s got to be some angry forces, right? Some angel or demon out to put me back where I came from.”

Dean purses his lips. Not a good road to go down. His brain should know better than to convince him that Sam can’t just walk around on earth in peace.

“Sorry. You probably don’t want to think about that stuff. How’s Lisa? Ben?”

Dean shrugs one shoulder, not really interested in discussing them. He sips his coffee, eyes roving over Sam’s face like he’s scared he’s never going to see it again. He is. The fear squeezes him, makes him put his mug down and lean forward conspiratorially, suddenly desperate for answers. They’ll be made up, all his own psyche hitting back at him, but he’ll do anything to keep Sam’s body across from him and talking. “When you were a kid, you had this obsession with Cheers. You’d watch reruns before bed and it made you happy like nothing else. I never got that.”

Sam looks confused for longer than necessary, Dean thinks. This isn’t a real conversation. “Uh, I guess it was just the upbeat interactions. Everything was happy and real problems didn’t exist. Or, they did, but in a cartoonish way. Like a little laughter cured everything. But I was a kid, everything had pretty rounded edges then.” He watches Dean, trying to understand something. Dean watches him back. “Are you okay?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Ben watches these stupid cartoons, just really mind-numbing shit, and I keep remembering how you were always looking for plots and character development and whatever. It drives me crazy when he doesn’t ask questions. I can almost hear you asking them in the silence.”

Sam shifts uncomfortably. “He grew up differently. Lisa probably has the answers that Dad never did. There’s no real reason for him to look for more.”

It catches at Dean’s chest or throat or something very pained and weak inside him, and he says, “You were the only one in the world who so fucking desperately looked for more. I think you tore me apart worse than the hellhounds, each time you –” He cuts himself off, suddenly aware that this could be a monster, rather than a figment of himself. Divulging pain is the dumbest thing he can do, if that’s the case.

Sam looks pale. Good.

Dean twitches his muscles into less of a grimace and more of a grin, voice slightly lighter when he says, “Anyway, you’re not running now. I know it’s not even real, but if this is the only way I can get it?” He shrugs. A car door slams outside, and Dean watches a young father walk to a bank across the street with a toddler in his arms. “I wish Dad would show up. Mom, too.”

Sam’s eyes are wide. Dean looks deep into them, still guessing their colors, and looks away.

“Remember when you said you imagined things for her? I’ve been doing that. It’s nice. I think she’d like to live in California. SoCal,” he specifies with a bite, to clarify to no one in particular that Stanford is a pile of dog shit to him still and forever, “someplace where it’s warm and happy. She and Dad never had us, and she divorced him, and moved down there to live out of wedlock with some surfer. Named Chad.” A smile breaks out on his face despite himself. Sam’s watching him with intensity. “And Dad never got fucked up over her, just found some nice girl in Kansas and had a bunch of kids and died in his sleep at ninety.” He thinks about it for a second. “Yeah.”

Sam finally murmurs, “Never had us?" 

Dean nods emphatically. “Better for all involved.”

Sam’s quiet. His fingers rove over the crack in the ceramic of his mug, and Dean watches their motion, hypnotized. Such a huge chunk of Sam’s body, but he’s never paid much attention to it. He’s glad he’s able to reproduce it. Something pulls at the back of his mind, but he ignores it. Instead, he says, “Where’s your scar? On your thumb, from the ghoul in Kentucky?”

Sam looks down and then back up, closing his eyes like he’s just remembered something. “Oh, I showed up topside brand new, it seems. Kind of like you did, after hell.” Dean feels warm, proud of himself for that one. Sam deserves to be scar-free and perfect. A new lease on life.

“That’s real good, Sammy.” Sam’s eyes crinkle in a weird way at the nickname, a mix of exasperated and pleased. Dean’s never seen it before. “You look real good.”

Sam clears his throat, a pink hue to his face now. Another new one. “You, too. I didn’t try to expect you’d recover very well, but I’m really glad Lisa’s helped you. You seem content. And at least you’re not hunting anymore. That was all I ever wanted for you.”

Dean feels off kilter. “Yeah, well, you made me promise, first of all. And I’m pretty sure you’re confusing me with you. You were the one who wanted hunting out of the picture.”

“Dean,” Sam sounds tired, “I didn’t want us to hunt at all. I wanted you and Dad to be safe and looking for a life that meant something. Among people, among friends. Where nobody was at immediate risk of dying. I begged you to come to Stanford with me. And when you told me I was selfish for it - that stayed with me forever. I spent the next four years terrified you’d die on a hunt and I wouldn’t know.”

Dean’s curiosity is piqued. He had no idea his subconscious could be so sentimental. “That why you told me to fuck off and stop calling?”

Sam looks angry, at nothing Dean can discern. “I thought I was giving you an ultimatum. I thought you’d make the obvious choice. You fucked off and stopped calling on your own.”

Dean’s irritated, but still aware enough that he’s up against his own self not to raise his voice like he wants to. “You all but told me I was adding nothing to your life. You were so above it all, above me and Dad, above the money I worked blood, sweat, and tears to send to you – “

“That’s not what I said!” Sam exclaims. It’s louder than the rest of their conversation, but not enough to be noticeable yet over the hum of the early morning buzz around them. “You kept sending me that shit like penance for fucking up, and it pissed me off! You didn’t fuck up! I wanted to go to Stanford and stop hunting, and that was a good thing. You had no right to hang it over your head like a sword that you hoped would finally fall.”

Dean tried to catch his breath. The niggling at the back of his head turned staticky and threatened to deafen him. He looked up at the menu above the cash register and let himself cool. This conversation had tipped him off his game, and he was confused at how he’d brought himself here. “There’s no use pretending that you even felt our absence. Dad was busy hunting Yellow Eyes and I was doing my own hunts for the first time and we both needed you.” I needed you. “You were too busy jerking off into textbooks to remember what holy water was.”

Sam flushes again, and Dean likes that. Finally, he gets to see Sam’s real thoughts, not hidden behind the wall Sam built twenty years ago. It’s only fair - Sam’s thoughts are Dean’s thoughts, anyway. “For the record, I kept a vial of it in my backpack at all times. Dean, why are we -?” His eyes jumped between Dean’s, that puppy look slowly coming over them. “Why are we rehashing old hurts? This was ages ago.”

“Well, I never got a chance, did I? And this is just going to have to do. As much as you liked your chick flick moments, they were never about real things. You didn’t talk about anything that mattered after you turned fifteen, and that summer was the most fucked up thing you ever did to me.”

“What –” Sam looks upset, now. A look Dean’s accustomed to; he feels bitterly satisfied. “What are you talking about? What summer?” But he looks like he knows. 

“The summer you pretended we were friends, brothers even. For no fucking reason you started liking me, and then for no fucking reason you stopped. That was the last time I ever had you, the way I always thought maybe you really were on the inside.” He finishes his cup and motions for another. “Anyway. Will never know what the fuck you were doing.”

Sam looks like he used to, locked up tight and no key can ever open, just the same. The most Sam-like expression that exists. No trouble at all, projecting that.

“You kept so much shit from me. I don’t even know why. I told you everything, I gave you every burned up chunk of whatever I had, because I didn’t know how to make you talk. Everything I sent your way hit a wall. And Dad didn’t do that to you. I didn’t do that. I don’t know why you turned out the way you were.”

Sam’s got a pinched look on his face now, pissed and ready for blows. But Dean’s not going to fight. So neither will Sam. “That’s rich, Dean. I told you plenty. You closed your eyes to what you didn’t want to see, and I’m not responsible for that.”

“Exactly what did I close my eyes to?”

There’s a sudden gush of noise in the kitchen, the combined starts of two coffee makers, a rolling sound of machinery that comforts him. Sam speaks over it, drawing Dean’s attention back roughly, “How about Stanford, for square one? I took those SAT tests in front of you, for days and days during my junior year. I asked you questions from them. I wanted you to be a part of it, but you didn’t.” Dean wonders if this is all the work of a djinn. Maybe he’s passed out somewhere in a ditch while in the real world, Jack’s waiting for him to clock in, and maybe he won’t be found in time. Maybe, better, the real world is still one year ago, and Sam’s alive. But a djinn’s supposed to give you something better; May 2010 was the worst month of his life.

“I never saw that. How the hell was I supposed to know it meant anything? You stopped talking to me – really talking, Sam – long before that. So, yeah, I started taking what you said at face value, and you can’t blame me. You made sure I knew I wasn’t welcome in the life you planned for yourself.”

Sam’s jaw drops. He looks shocked. How much of Dean’s energy is going into creating these reactions? He’ll keep drinking coffee, if that’s the magic of it. But then, Sam seems to process, and his mouth curls, uglier than Dean’s ever seen it. “Abandonment issues doesn’t even begin to cover it,” he says wryly.

Dean stands, suddenly sick of the game, eager to go back to reality where Jack’s expecting him at two, hoping it’s as close to two as possible. He turns to the door and walks out.

--

It’s half past six, and time to close. Dean’s spent the day working off most of his energy breaking down a totaled Honda in the strip yard behind the main building, smashing it past recognition. He needs a drink. Echoes of the conversation from the morning keep showing up in his thoughts, and they feel visceral, almost too sharp on his nerves to be real. But that’s par for the course.

He’s sitting in the main office, turning off all the building lights via switchboard, when he hears a knock.

Wearily, he lets Sam in. He steps over the salted threshold without a hitch. It makes the vague tension in Dean’s head coalesce again. He pushes it down. “Back so soon,” he says, petty, since it’s himself he’s talking to. It feels good anyway. “Never made it to Bobby’s?”

“I was thinking about what you said, and I’m pretty sure we have completely separate histories of our lives. I don’t – I’m not even sure what it was that – and I can’t believe we went this long with that wall between us. I honestly had no idea, Dean.” He sounds so earnest. It makes Dean kind of want to understand.

“Right.”

Sam huffs, frustrated like he was as a kid, petulant. “I have never wanted to leave you.”

Dean’s flayed, he’s bleeding all over the floor, he’s sure of it, because the core of him has just been ripped out and dropped onto the ground for all to see. There’s nobody here but him, and it hurts to look anyway, too shameful, too pathetic to see the light of day. The one thing he’s ever wanted to hear from Sam, and now he knows it, and knows that he never will. Some of that must show up on his face, because not-Sam (never Sam, never will be Sam, Sam died and Dean died with him) steps closer, eyes calculating.

Dean’s hand drifts to the switchboard, searching for purchase as his body sags. “You left in every possible way, as many times as you wanted. You can’t say that shit to me.”

“What would be different if I stayed? You keep saying it like it broke you, but you’re not the one –“ Sam stops, rearranges himself somehow. “What did I take away that Dad couldn’t give you? And Cassie? And,” he makes an aborted motion to the door, “and Lisa?”

“A partner,” Dean snarls. He’s rabid with the sweet relief of liberty from the shame that’s lying on the floor between them now. Nothing left to lose. “I had nothing, Sam, not like you. I couldn’t manage the grades, and, to be fucking frank, I didn’t want to. Hunting things is the only thing I’m good for, the only thing I know inside and out, have trained my entire life for. So forgive me if I didn’t want to indulge your idle fantasies of a world where I wasn’t who I was! I want to save people, I want to hunt things, I want to use the tools I was given to do something for the world. You never did, and that’s fine. But you know what’s fucked up, in a really shitty way? I was the only person in your life for the first eighteen years of your life who cared about what you wanted day in and day out, and you have no idea of the sacrifices I had to make to keep a smile on your face and a shirt on your back. But the moment you were over there,” he can’t say the word, he’ll choke if he does, “I could just go fuck myself and never contact you again. So it never made sense to me why I felt malformed and crippled with you gone, when you were so happy to get away. It seemed messed up that for eighteen years we were not just not on the same page, but in totally different areas of the library. But I made peace with that, too. You know why I’m pissed, though?”

Sam’s lips are parted and his eyes are wide. He shakes his head almost imperceptibly.

“Because I was so fucking honest about it. I told you that it fucked me up, and then you went and kept doing it and doing it and doing it, like it was a fucking joke.”

The space between them feels cold, but Dean is burning up. Must take a lot of adrenaline to keep this scene running. He feels worn to the bones and wonders if that means he’ll finally have a dreamless sleep tonight.

Sam’s panting too, like he was spewing it out along with him. His eyes look mercurial, wet. “If that’s what you’ve lived with, I’m sorry. You can’t think that I felt good about – you can’t think I knew.” His gaze jumps behind Dean, then to the wall to his left, then to the floor. Finally, he glances up again. “I spent my whole life just trying to cover my bases, and I honestly never had time to notice the shit it did to you, and I’m sorry for that, I really am. But.” Between one moment and the next, he has Dean’s jaw in both hands, thumbs connecting under his lip, and then his mouth is on Dean’s, wet and hot, salty with tears Dean just now sees on Sam’s face. He watches with detached curiosity, wondering where this got pulled out of, because it’s not his. He knows all his shame, and this isn’t part of it. When Sam finally pulls away, it’s jerky and panicked, like he’s about to run. “That’s what I’ve lived with.”

And he runs.

--

Bobby calls him later that week. They haven’t spoken since Stull, and Dean feels guilty, but he can’t imagine how he could have worked up the courage to call. The ball was always in Bobby’s court. He’s grouchy and sighs every other word, but Dean figures something’s really up. Towards the end of a brief tirade over Lionel, a brand new member of the hunting community who fucked up a wendigo case in every conceivable way, he finally says, “You and your idgit brother.”

The world tilts on its axis. Dean’s hand is frozen mid-whisk, and he’s sure the phone’s about to slip from his shoulder. He sets the eggs down and carefully grips the tiny rectangle that’s got a hold on his throat. “What?” His voice sounds like he’s underwater.

Bobby goes on, like he didn’t just crack Dean’s world in half. “Sam came back lookin' like he saw your daddy’s ghost, all sweaty and skinny like he used to be. An’ before sun-up, he was gone again, not even a note. I figure you two had some new fight, and I just wish you’d knock it off. Haven’t y’all been through enough?" 

Every possibility runs through Dean’s mind. Bobby is possessed. Bobby has a gun to his head. Bobby is a shapeshifter, the same one who kissed him four days ago and ran away. Bobby’s a figment of Dean’s imagination, and that means his entire world could be a trick and he won’t know it. That sets off a panicky sweat, but, Dean realizes morosely, he honestly wouldn’t mind. He’s been half alive for eight months and his half-lives can keep collapsing in on themselves, he can’t fight it. “How long have you been talkin’ to Sam?” he finally forces out of himself, teeth gritting in protest against every word.

“Boy,” Bobby grunts, annoyed, “he’s been here since fall, moping around my house wondering why you ain’t calling. Why ain’t’cha, perchance? White picket fence really agreeing with ya?”

Dean leans over the kitchen counter, caught between a headache and an itch to drink himself into a stupor. “Christo,” he whispers.

Bobby pauses, and then grouses, “The hell you sayin’, boy? You can’t even see me, to begin with. And wouldn’t the right time for that have been when you picked up the phone?”

“Bobby,” Dean pleads, urgent, “Do you have Sam’s number?” The static at the back of his head is roaring now, finally breaking through the punches he’s dealt it. Maybe this is all a trick, but whatever’s been pulling at his brain from somewhere near his spine since October makes him buy the facts at face value. He’s so fucked up, he can’t even think about it.

Bobby reads it to him, then repeats it as Dean figures out how to breathe without dying. “Dean,” he says, just as Dean’s about to hang up, “Let it be a fresh start, will ya? I can’t watch you two repeat the past." 

It takes Dean four tries to dial all the right numbers, and the seconds that tick by as the phone rings take a physical toll on him, but it’s all nothing for the way Sam’s candied voice washes over him. “Hello?”

“Sam,” Dean whispers, voice nearly gone. “You’re alive.”

--

Sam, blown away by the past five months and what they’ve meant to Dean, nearly falls in his haste to climb out of his vomit colored Bricklin and starts performing all the tests they know of. By the end of five minutes, he’s soaked in his own and Dean’s batch of holy water, cut up with five different knives, and licking salt out of a packet Dean fishes out of a McDonalds bag in the Impala. He also moves his shirt to the side to show the unbroken lines of his tattoo.

When he first chuckles, Dean can’t bear to join him, too numb from the sudden electrocution of his existence, but then he finds himself collapsed in hysterical laughter, both amused and very much not, doubled over in the middle street as his brother stands and helplessly laughs along with him.

The sight of it is too much for Dean, and he crouches down, head in his hands, breathing heavily and watching Sam swim shapelessly in his field of vision. He figures out it’s tears that have misshapen him only when Sam crouches next to him, patting him on the shoulder gently. He smells so much like himself - Dean can’t believe he totally missed that – that it’s heady, a drug Dean’s never known to appreciate. He wrenches an arm out and grabs Sam’s collar, pulling him roughly forward and toppling them both into a pile of plaid and jeans on the asphalt.

“A Bricklin?” Dean gasps, fist clenched in Sam’s shirt to avoid swinging it at him. “A fuckin’ disaster on wheels?”

Sam’s mouth is buried somewhere near Dean’s shoulder, and it spreads a warmth over Dean’s skin that’s been missing for so many years. “Felt fitting.” Dean pulls Sam’s face up and stares at his lips, punch drunk with euphoria, and then forgives them, with everything in him, for what they couldn’t communicate.

They have all the rest of time to break down their differences over what went down in their life. Dean lets himself laugh up at the sky and feel Sam’s heart beneath his hand.