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Breathe

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“Hey, Dean, I -- “

Shit .  Dean grinned wolfishly at his baby brother even as his long, lightly freckled  arm snaked out to crank the volume on the stereo.  

Highway to Hell blasted out of the speakers.

Dean mouthed the words -- maybe even sang them, though no one would have been able to hear him over the thunderous music -- and Sam laughed.  He reached for the volume knob, and Dean slapped his hand away without taking his eyes from the road, bobbing his head in time to the chorus.

Sam kept trying for three successive songs, then finally gave up.  He lay back in the seat, resting his head on the window, and closed his eyes.

Dean turned the music down.  “You gonna take a nap, little brother?”

Sam opened one eye, slanting a look at his chauffeur.  “Might as well, since you won’t fuckin’ talk to me.”  He closed his eyes again, snuggling in.  “Not like I haven’t seen you for more than like, two seconds, in couple of fucking weeks.”

Dean sighed.  “Alright, alright.  Enough with the guilt trip, man.”

“Not a guilt trip,” Sam muttered, voice petulant.  

“Yeah, well, your ovaries are clearly in a bundle about something, and I don’t wanna sit here with you pouting for the next couple hundred miles.”  Dean’s irritation was a mask for his anxiety.  There was too much he didn’t want to say, and his brother had a way of weaseling things out of him.  Those liquid eyes were like a truth serum sometimes.

“I just wanted to thank you --”

“Dude!”  Dean chuckled.  “Seriously?  No need, baby bro.  I got your back.  Always.”  Without looking, he reached over and patted his brother’s chest.  “You’re college-bound, man.  Goin’ off and makin’ us proud.  No way was I gonna sit back and let some vamp ruin that.”   No way could I live through him killing you.

Or turning you.

“How do you...how much do you…”

“College?  Dude, you holed up in Flagstaff .  What the hell else is there in friggin’ Flagstaff besides a college?”  He glanced over at his brother, confirming his suspicion.  “And you talk about college, like, all the time, ever since you were way younger than you are now.”  Dean shrugged, focused on the long and empty highway stretching out in front of him.  “It’s what you’re supposed to do, Sam.”  His voice was soft.  Resigned. “I can feel it.”

“Does Dad know?”

Dean shook his head sadly.  “What he knows and what he’ll admit are two different things, bro.”

Sam licked his lips.  He looked down at his fingers, picking nervously at the seam of his jeans.  “I can’t believe he didn’t kick your ass back there.”

Dean grunted.  “Yeah.  I sure as hell earned it.”  His eyes flicked to his brother, then back to the road.  “Even if he had, it wouldn’t have stopped me from doin’ the same damn thing all over again if it needed to be done.”  I’d take a beating for you any day, Sammy.   He refused to look at his brother as he added, “You’re worth it, Sam.”

“Jesus, Dean.”  Sam bit his lip, swiping the back of his hand over his eyes.  “And you’re not?”

Dean blinked, turning his head to stare for a fraction of a second, then faced forward once more.  “That’s not what I’m…”  He pursed his lips, brow furrowed.  “Some people are just…”  He shook his head.  Never tried to put this into words before.  “Some people are meant to live in this world, Sammy.  To work and thrive and raise families and all of that.”  He shrugged one shoulder.  “And other people are meant to make sure that can happen for them.”

“So that’s it, then?”  Sam turned in his seat, squaring off against his brother, face hot with indignation.  “You’re expendable, and I’m not, because of what -- fate?”

Dean scowled.  “No!  Not fate.  I don’t believe in that shit.”  He flicked a glance at Sam and sighed.  “I’m not trying to make you mad, Sammy.  I’m just telling you what I see, and you know we aren’t all the same.  Some people do great things, and some people do mediocre things, and some are just...background.  Fillers.”  His hand twisted on the steering wheel, textured leather massaging his palm.  “Me and Dad, and people like us -- soldiers, police officers -- we’re here to make sure the rest of you get to be great or mediocre or fillers.  That’s our role; it’s what we’re made for.”  He smirked a little, remembering Tina.  “And it’s got it’s perks.  I ain’t complainin’.”

“Oh, yeah?  Then why were you at Caroline’s?”

Cold rushed over Dean, and his breath caught in his chest.

He couldn’t move.  Couldn’t look at his brother.

What does he know?

“Bobby told me,” Sam accused.  “Said Dad was --”  He stopped, and Dean risked a glance at him.  “That’s why  he didn’t beat you, isn’t?”  His voice was triumphant.  “I saw Caroline go into the room with him.  She stopped him, didn’t she?”  

Dean didn’t answer, fighting for mental equilibrium as relief replaced terror.   He doesn’t know.  Thank god, he doesn’t know.

“I mean…” Sam faltered, uncertainty rushing back like a tide.  “That’s what...Bobby said Dad figured out...he was going to Caroline because he wanted to…”

Dean chuckled.  “Geez, Sam.  You’d think we were talking about a whore house or somethin’, the way you’re all tongue-tied!”  He blew out some of his tension.  “Dad’s tryin’ to change, and Caroline is helping.  She’s a psychotherapist.”  He grinned at  his brother.  “Bet you’re jealous.  Took a lot of schoolin’ to get that many letters after her name.”

Sam rolled his eyes.  “So, is it helping?”

Dean raised his eyebrows at Sam.  “Dude.  Before I came to get you, I bounced him off a wall to get him to tell me where you were.”

Sam’s eyes went wide.  “What’d he do?”

“Nothin’.  Just told me you were in Albuquerque.  Didn’t even try to stop me when I left.”

“But after you came back --”

“I was like you: sure he was gonna beat my ass.  He told me to go ‘wait in the room’.”

Sam grunted, knowing what that phrase meant.

“So I got ready, you know?  But then he came in, and Caroline was with him --”

“Dude!  She saw you?”

Dean rolled his eyes.  “Don’t get too excited there, Fantasy Boy.  I was on the bed, covered up.”   Mostly .  “But she lit into him anyway, and then they both left, and when he came back, he just chewed my ear off.  He never hit me, not once.”

“Huh.  So it’s working, then.”

“Seems like.”

Sam shook his head, awed.  “Damn.  She’s good.”

Dean snorted.  “In more ways than one, I think.”

Sam’s eyebrows rose, disappearing into shaggy bangs.  “You?”

Dean barked out a short laugh.  “No: Dad.”

Sam widened his eyes dramatically.  “Seriously?”

Dean canted his head to the side, half nod, half negation.  “I think so.  I mean, I never caught them at it or anything, but...I’m pretty sure.”

“Wow.”

“How ‘bout you?  You seein’ anybody?”

Sam looked startled.  “Me? No.  ‘Course not.”

Dean glared at him.  “Why ‘course not’?  There some new rule I don’t know about, says you gotta be virginal ‘til I’m too old to tease you about gettin’ laid?”

Sam chuckled.  “No.  Jerk.”  He shrugged.  “I guess I’ve just been so focused on getting into college that I just...haven’t really tried, you know?”

Dean nodded.  “Best to go into it single, anyway.  Don’t wanna be tied down to one when there’s a whole damned campus full of female nerds to choose from.”

Sam punched him in the shoulder, and Dean yelped out a laugh.  “Seriously: I bought you a pack of condoms for your birthday, but the rate you’re going, they’ll expire before you even open it!  Might as well keep ‘em myself, get you some Vaseline and Kleenex instead.”

“I’m not the one spending two hours alone in the bathroom every morning,” Sam countered, cheeks and ears reddening.

“Shit, dude, you have no idea.”  Dean’s body hummed as memories of Tina filled his head.  “I met this chic, sweet little thing named Tina.  Seemed innocent as hell -- “

“Dean!” Sam groaned, covering his ears dramatically.

“I won’t go into details.  Promise!  But I gotta tell somebody, and you’re the only friend I’ve got!”  He turned emerald puppy dog eyes on his little brother.  “Please, Sammy?   Please ?”

Sam closed his eyes as he leaned his head back, palms slipping away from his head.  “I am so going to regret this.”

Dean chuckled.  “Actually, you probably would’ve laughed  your ass off if you’d been there.  So this chic is so innocent I swear I can almost see her halo, right?  But she walks me into her bedroom, and it’s like a frickin’ dungeon in there, and she’s got all this bondage stuff, and what she called ‘toys’ --”

Sam’s hands were back over  his ears, and he was chanting “Lalalalala” at the top of his voice.

Dean laughed.  “You don’t let me tell you now, I’m gonna wait ‘til we stop for food, and it’ll be in a much louder voice with a whole lotta people around us.”

Sam rolled his eyes, but he moved his hands to his lap.  “That’s emotional blackmail.”

Dean grinned.  “I know.  Ain’t it great?”  He patted  his brother on the chest again.  “I was gettin’ to the part you’ll like though, Sam: it was intimidating as hell!”

Sam cocked an eyebrow at him, skeptically.  “Really?  Something involving sex intimidated you ?”

Cold washed over Dean, running from head to toe as if a bucket of ice water had been up-ended over him.

The fog is lifting and he knows what’s next  and this “No!” is panicked, louder, and he arches his back, bucks his hips, desperate to escape --

“Dean?”

He startled, frantic eyes darting to Sam, chest heaving, knuckles white against the steering wheel.

“Dean!”  Sam leaned forward, concern edging his voice.

Dean shook his head.

Blinked.

Smiled.  

“Sorry.  Just strolling down memory lane.”  He rubbed his palm along his thigh, transferring clammy fear to concealing denim.  “She taught me some things, Sam.”  He chuckled.  “Gotta say, it was pretty awesome.   She was awesome.”  He had his breathing under control, but his heart still thrummed painfully in his chest.  He smirked at his little brother.  “I’ll have to ask her if she’s got a sister who likes young, overgrown geeks.”

Sam groaned, dropping his head back onto the window.  “Please don’t.  Saving myself for those Stanford girls, remember?”

The news did nothing to calm Dean’s panicked heartbeat.  “Stanford, huh?  So you decided?”

Sam smiled, righting himself.  “More like they decided: full ride scholarship, baby.  No tuition or books for the entire four years.  All I gotta do is maintain a good GPA and cover room and board.”

Dean’s mouth gaped.  “Seriously, Sammy?”

“Eyes on the road, Dean!”

The older brother blinked, eyes flicking from the road to his younger sibling and back again.  “You’re not pullin’ my leg?  You seriously got a free ride?”

Sam glowered.  “What, you think I’m not smart enough?”

Dean blinked, jerking his head in surprise.  “No!  Hell, no!  I mean, I know you’re a freakin’ genius!  It’s just….”  He slapped his palms on the steering wheel, and his face split in a huge grin.  “Holy shit, Sam!”

Sam laughed, and the look in his eyes reminded Dean of the time he’d surprised his little brother with fireworks.  

“That’s just….that’s awesome, man!  I mean, I been tryin’ to figure out how to make enough to pay for all of this, because there’s no way you can get by with credit card scams, not in college, and we all know how well hunting pays --”

“Wait, wait, wait:  You were going to pay for me to go to college?”

Dean’s eyebrows furrowed.  “Of course.  What did you think would happen?  I’d let you go, act like I’d never had a brother, expect you to sink or swim on your own?”

“Well...yeah.  I mean...that’s...I didn’t really think it all out, but I did sort of….”

Dean glanced out the side window, willing his tears not to form.  “I don’t know what Dad’s gonna do, Sam, but ‘look out for Sammy’ has always been my rule number one.  That don’t change just ‘cause you grow up, dude.”  He swallowed, and it was painful.  “Way I see it, you’ll need me more than ever.   You won’t be able to watch your own back.  Not with all the studying you’ll have to do.”

“So you’re coming with me?”  Sam didn’t try to hid the hope in his voice.

Dean bit his lip.  “No.  I can’t leave Dad alone.  No telling what he’d do.”  He flicked a glance at Sam.  “But I’ll be checking on you, a lot , and I’ll always be just a phone call away.  Any time, any reason, you just gotta pick up the phone.”  He cleared his throat.  “‘Kay?  You got that, bitch?”

Sam didn’t bother trying to hide his tears.  “Yeah, jerk. I got it.”