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Kansas.  Zeppelin.  AC/DC.  The clatter of cassettes against each other is the only sound Dean registers as his fingers skim over the plastic cases.  Metallica.  Black Sabbath.   Another stack examined, another stack dismissed.  Motörhead.  Blue Ӧyster Cult.  Van Halen .  He drops the final tape back into the box without ceremony, slamming the lid on top and practically throwing the whole bundle to the seat beside him.  Nothing stops it from falling directly onto Baby’s leather, tapes rattling in the process, and the sight of the box unobstructed on the passenger seat is the final straw.

Dean’s breath hitches in his throat and he just can’t take it anymore; he’s out of the Impala in seconds, shutting the door quickly -- but gently, always gently -- behind him.  Part of him just wants to take off, to sprint up and down the California foothills and lose himself in the feeling of his feet pounding into the grassy land, but he can’t bring himself to actually do it.  He can’t leave the Impala on her own.  Even if he could, he doesn’t have the will or the energy to follow through on the jog.

Baby’s silent for the first time he can remember.  No classic rock pours from her speakers, no laughing -- or even shouting -- voices fill her.  She’s filled with ghosts, but not the kind he knows how to deal with, the ones that come from the death of a person, the ones that a little bit of gasoline and a whole lot of salt can dispel.  They’re the ghosts of a very different kind of finality, of a letter and an argument and “You walk out that door, Sam, don’t come back.”

And they’re everywhere .  They’re in the driver’s seat: a straight-backed figure with a leather jacket and a perpetual frown.  They’re in the passenger’s seat: a floppy-haired teenager out with his brother, thinking not of the father that hadn’t been in town for months or the mother that hadn’t been around for years but of normal stuff like his new school and his new friends.  They’re in the backseat: two children playing games or fighting or laughing or crying, but always together, always a little boy willing to do anything for his younger brother and the younger brother that idolized his elder until he wised up and changed his mind.  And they’re definitely in the box of tapes sitting in that self-same, now-empty shotgun seat.

 

A long, long time ago

I can still remember how that music

Used to make me smile

 

Those tapes were theirs .  Not John’s or Dean’s or Sammy’s, but the Winchester’s .  They were old and worn and just this side of dead, but the Impala played cassettes, and their family wasn’t ever exactly normal anyway; something about hunting the supernatural tended to throw societal conventions to the wayside.

And then there were the days when Dad was gone, when Dean grabbed the keys to the Impala from their dad’s bedside table, took Sammy, and hit the road.  Then, it was blaring music and wind whipping through the open windows and easy, genuine smiles for an afternoon.  They weren’t gone long and they didn’t do much beyond drive but it was their time, together.

 

And I knew if I had my chance

That I could make those people dance

And maybe they'd be happy for a while

 

But their dad would come home, and Sammy would become Sam, and then Dean was the one playing the music, putting on a show to distract each one from going for the other’s throat.  He made it work because he had to.  He kept Sammy out of the training and the responsibility for as long as possible, played Dad’s researcher and Dad’s hustler and Dad’s soldier and hoped that was enough.

And it was, for a good long while.  He played whatever role was needed, and Dad got his fights and his bloodshed, and Sam got his innocence and his normalcy, and it was fine .  It wasn’t perfect -- more fights than he could count ended with him stepping between the two of them, blocking barbed words and thrown fists alike -- but it was family , and you don’t just give up on family, so of course it was worth it.  Yeah, it wasn’t perfect, but it was fine and they were almost smiling.

 

But February made me shiver

With every paper I'd deliver

Bad news on the doorstep

I couldn't take one more step

 

But then February came and Sam was smiling for a very different reason, one that Dean  never knew existed.  Sure, he knew in some distant corner of his mind that college was something normal people did, that Stanford University was a thing, that Sammy was definitely smart enough to get in, but he never even considered that his brother would want to leave them, to leave him .  He still doesn’t know how the kid managed to submit an application without either older Winchester knowing, or how the letter even got to them -- they were in some skeevy motel, far from any of their home bases -- but it did, and everything changed.

Dean should’ve seen it coming, really, should’ve known what Sammy was doing.  He practically raised the kid, after all, learned his mannerisms.  Sometimes he wonders what would have happened if he’d known, if he would have stopped his brother from sending off that application.  He suspects he wouldn’t have, same as he didn’t stop Sam from leaving in the end, same as he hopped in the Impala and drove the kid to the bus station himself.

Many times, he thinks he did know it was coming.  Maybe not explicitly, but on some level of subconscious instinct that heralded the day the fissure between Sam and their dad would turn into an outright schism.  Sam Winchester was smart and capable and just as stubborn as John Winchester, and Dean simply wasn’t capable of being the glue to hold them together no matter how hard he tried, stuck in the middle without being able to do anything.  

He couldn’t do anything to head it off, and he couldn’t do anything when it finally happened, when Sammy stood up in the middle of a conversation and held out that clean white envelope, already ripped open, for their dad to see.   Dean couldn’t see the letter, didn’t know the specifics, but he knew the basics of what was coming as soon as their dad’s face had darkened, that familiar look of explosive rage flashing across it.  He was ready for it, ready to defuse the situation, to say whatever it took to calm them down.

But this was no normal argument and there was no defusing it.  Not at the beginning, not halfway through, and especially not once those fateful words -- the ones that still ring in his head on loop: “You walk out that door, Sam, don’t come back.” -- were said.  Sammy was gone for good, and Sam Winchester was walking out the door and down the road with a head full of steam and no regrets.

 

I can't remember if I cried

When I read about his widowed bride

But something touched me deep inside

The day the music died.

 

Afterwards, once John stalked off to the bedroom with a bottle in hand, the letter balled up and dropped to the ground, Dean picked it up and smoothed it out.  The words were typed up, fancy and professional, overly-enthusiastic to the extreme.  He read through them, sure what they’d say but needing to see them for himself; it was with a combination of pride and devastation that he processed the words, “ Sam Winchester, Congratulations!  It is with great pleasure that I offer you admission to the Stanford University Class of…”

He read through it again, eyes catching on the exclamation marks, mind stuttering on the cheeriness imbued in the words.  The words were so happy, so congratulatory, and Sam agreed with them, when all Dean could see was, “Dean Winchester, It is with deep regret that I inform you of the death of all of your purpose in life because you screwed up, buddy.  Your life has been nothing but ‘Save Sammy’, and now Sammy’s gone and you’re gonna be alone, all because you can’t raise a kid for shit.  Sam wasn’t happy and it’s your fault and now he’s gone…”

He kept the paper, refolded and slipped back into its envelope before being tucked into that box of tapes.  He knows it’s safe there, knows that no one will find it for the simple reason that no one is around to look.  Even if some stranger did happen across it, they wouldn’t know what it meant, wouldn’t get the significance of that small white envelope with its scarlet crest; everyone who would know what it meant to him was gone.

Dean doesn’t remember crying that night but he must have done if the dried stains on the paper meant anything.  He can vaguely remember his eyes stinging while he darted out into the cold winter air, dismissed at the time with him too focused on getting to the Impala -- on giving Sam that final ride to the station and delaying the actual separation for as long as possible -- to care about the small droplets drying on the paper, discoloring and wrinkling the professional cream stationery.

Now, though, he does care, cursing them for marring the paper whenever he looks at the letter.  He does so frequently -- almost nightly -- in the so-called comfort of his room, pulling out the cream-colored sheet and rereading the inked words over and over, a bottle of Jack clenched in one hand as he sprawls out on yet another motel-room bed.  He’s had the words memorized since mere days after Sam left, and he’s been tempted to just chuck the damn thing -- it’s not like he’d lose any of the content with the words indelibly inscribed in his head -- but he can’t bring himself to actually do it.  It’s one of the only things he has left of Sammy, and severing that final tie is just too much.

 

Did you write the book of love

And do you have faith in God above

If the Bible tells you so?

 

Dean can remember his mom, to some degree, though his memories range from vague impressions to memories of startling clarity, considering they belonged to a four-year-old.  He can remember the fire, of course, and the feel of Sammy in his arms, but he remembers, too, sick days spent beneath the covers in his bedroom, tomato rice soup delivered to his bedside.  Nights of “Hey, Jude'' in her familiar, lilting voice lulling him off to sleep.  That same voice telling him that everything was going to be okay, that “Angels are watching over you.”

He believed that, at the time.  He had faith, once, that there was a God, that there were angels watching over everyone and protecting the good.  And then a yellow-eyed demon broke into their home and slaughtered his mother above his brother’s crib and he learned about all the things that can happen to good people .  Suddenly, the idea of a higher power existing became even more ludicrous, even more fantastical.  Any remnant of that faith dissipated as Sam passed over that motel room’s threshold and headed off to California.

He also learned, quite early on into the hunting life, that every hotel and motel had one thing in common: in the top drawer of the bedside tables, there was always , without fail, a Gideon’s Bible.  He thumbed through it from time to time, reading it out of curiosity or when he ran out of new stories to tell Sam before bedtime, and he came to know most of the tales within.  The book -- or, Book, he supposed -- was filled with stories, each designed to inspire religious zeal, to tell the story of the all-knowing, omnipresent God… 

And Dean couldn't stop questioning why Why would God punish the original sin with the creation of death when humans are his children, when an omniscient being must have known from the beginning that Adam and Eve would be unable to resist the temptation of the forbidden fruit?  Why would He send a Flood to kill the world instead of trying to fix it?  Why wouldn’t He help the countless people who need it, the innocents destroyed by adversity and pain and suffering and evil?  Why should there still be ghosts and demons and wendigos and all the other nasty creepy-crawlies they dealt with daily?

Why would God allow a demon to kill Mary Winchester, innocent mother of two boys?

 

Now, do you believe in rock 'n' roll?

Can music save your mortal soul?

And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

 

No, Dean put his faith in other things, however flawed a plan that was.  He trusted in blood ties and loyalty and family to hold them all together, and that failed.  He trusted in himself to be enough for John’s sense of vengeance and for Sammy’s desire for normalcy, and he failed.  He trusted in Sammy, believed -- hoped -- that leaving the hunting life and leaving Dad didn’t mean that he was leaving Dean , but that, too, failed.

Instead, their family unit broke.  Fractured.  Splintered.

Dad left right after Sam, taking off in the middle of the night while Dean slept in one of the motel’s uncomfortable twin beds; he woke up a few hours after to find a note and the Impala’s keys on the unused second bed, Dad’s bags gone with barely a trace he’d been there at all.  Later, he tucked the note in the envelope that held Sammy’s acceptance letter, pulling it out from time to time as a reminder of just how badly he’d screwed up time and again.

Sammy cut off contact two years after he’d left for Stanford.  Dean found the voicemail on his phone the night after a particularly rough hunt, blood -- some his, some not -- still caked on his clothing, hands trembling as he held the phone.  Somehow, the words hurt more than the injuries ever did, but he still saved the message on his phone.  It was weak of him, maybe, but he needed something , some kind of human voice to get him through the days of driving and fighting and impersonal hotels carried out in near-silence.  To get him through the nights when Sammy wouldn’t take his calls and he couldn’t listen to the awful “Leave a message at the beep” again .  On those nights, he whips out his phone and dials his inbox, needing to hear something genuine from his brother, no matter how much it hurts.

Hey, Dean.  Uh… Yeah, you’re probably asleep, huh?  I, uh, I’m glad, really… It’s… easier… this way.  I know you, uh, I know you weren’t happy when I left, and I’m sorry for that, but I had to get out, Dean.  I can’t....  I can’t live that life.  I mean, m-monsters, and hunting, and… and Dad?  You can’t ask that from me, Dean.  But that’s not the point… I just… I thought I could do both and I just… I can’t.  I’m surprised you can’t feel it, the way... what you do... hangs over these calls.  I can hear it in the background, when you clean the guns or when you were just running, but we never address the fact that you’re still out there, still hunting, still fighting Dad’s fights.  One of these days, you’re not going to pick up and I’ll be stuck here waiting and wondering.  I can’t do it anymore.  I’m sorry.  Don’t call me again.”

Some days -- when Dean pushes past the fact that he’s lost his family and it’s all his fault, when he lets himself feel the bitterness of his loss without the vicious self-reproach that usually accompanies it -- he can’t help but see the horrible irony of the situation.  Sammy hates their father, but, in so many ways, he is just like the man.  Even their goodbyes were the same: a message left behind as they rushed out the door, an impersonal afterthought of a farewell as they cut bait and ran, dropping their liabilities -- liabilit y , single, because it was the same dead weight bringing down both of them -- in a motel room and running out before they could get pulled back.

And now he’s alone with an empty car and an unringing phone and the same pattern of drive, hunt, drink, drive, drink, hunt, drive .  It's a weak echo of the past, a pale imitation of days spent on the road with Dad and Sammy, the sole commonality being the blare of classic rock ‘n’ roll from the speakers, and the music simply can’t make up for the emptiness of the car, can’t drown out the roar of the silence.  The only thing keeping him from sticking his pistol in his mouth and pulling the damn trigger is that he doesn’t deserve it, hasn’t earned the simplicity of a bullet in the brainpan.

He’s lived his life according to three basic tenets, so simple that anyone should be able to do them: obey orders, save people, and, above all else, protect Sammy.  He failed the most crucial job he’d ever had, drove his brother off to the company of strangers at some high-falutin school, so he has no right to take the easy way out.  He’s only good for a select few things; screwing one up merely means redoubling his efforts on the others.

 

Well, I know that you're in love with him

'Cause I saw you dancin' in the gym

You both kicked off your shoes

Man, I dig those rhythm and blues

 

Knowing he screwed up did nothing to stop him from, on the few occasions a hunt took him particularly close to the West Coast, driving that little bit extra and heading to Stanford.  The first few times -- right after he got that voicemail that proved just how much he failed -- he called first, just to let Sam know that he was in town ( alone ) and wanted to meet up, no strings attached.  The calls were never answered, never returned or even acknowledged.  He half-wondered if they hadn’t been delivered, if Sam had changed numbers or broken his phone and the message wasn’t delivered.

And then, in the middle of that first semester of radio silence, he finally learned what a fool he was to even hope that was what happened.  He wrapped up a rather uneventful salt-and-burn -- some vengeful spook near Berkeley -- and drove the final 30 miles to Stanford, phone to his ear as he exited the Impala.  He assumed the ringing from somewhere to his right was coincidence until he actually looked over and saw Sammy, a blonde girl on his arm and wide smiles on both their faces.

And then the ringing phone registered in their minds, and Sammy looked at it, and that smile disappeared in favor of a frown as his finger darted across the screen.  It took too long for Dean to register that Sammy rejected his call , and, by then, the blonde was already pulling Sam into the gym just behind them, kicking off her shoes as she went.  They didn’t bother to close the doors as they went, and Dean watched as Sammy’s shoes joined the girl’s and they started to dance, the startup to “When a Man Loves a Woman” spilling out into the night.

Were he in any frame of mind for rational thinking, Dean would have turned away and left his brother to it.  Instead, he froze there, standing numbly and watching his brother smile and laugh and dance and kiss to the strains of rhythm and blues.  

The lyrics were what finally broke him out of his trance, worming their way into his head as he re-entered the Impala and took off.  It wasn’t an easy, peaceful drive, but one of pedal-to-the-floor speed, propelled by gas and the taunting echo of “ He'd trade the world “ and “ Turn his back on his best friend .”  He left the state in record time, stopping at the first non-California motel he found.

He crashed in the motel room that night, sapped of any energy to hustle for funds or company, devoid of the will to do anything but drink.  The burn of the liquor in his throat and the familiar warmth as it hit his stomach were paltry distractions, but they pulled him from his thoughts enough that he was actually able to sleep that night.

 

I was a lonely teenage broncin' buck

With a pink carnation and a pickup truck

But I knew I was out of luck

The day the music died

 

Intellectually, Dean knew all along that Sam going off to Stanford was an ending.  Even as he said “see ya later” that night at the bus station, he knew that Sam would get sucked into college life, that calls and texts would be few and far between.

Complete radio silence was unexpected.

Sam actively rejecting his calls was unexpected.

Sam actively rejecting him was unexpected.

He hasn’t fully accepted it, though.  Sammy doesn’t want to see him?  Fine.  Dean can deal with that.  It hurts, but what hasn’t?  Sammy doesn’t have to see him.

But that doesn’t change the fact that he raised the kid and he’s not going to -- hell, he can’t -- let Sammy just swan off to some fancy college all on his own.  Dean needs to see , needs to know that his brother is safe and happy, even if that happiness is contingent on his ostensible absence.

So, he still visits when he’s in town, still swings by the school and makes sure that Sam’s doing alright.  Eventually he learns the blonde’s name -- Jessica, though she goes by Jess -- and watches as, unsurprisingly, Sam swiftly rises in his classes.  Each time, he leaves without speaking to his brother until it’s like he ’s a ghost, haunting the campus of Stanford with a ‘67 Chevy Impala at his side.

 

Now, for ten years we've been on our own

And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone

But that's not how it used to be

 

About two years have passed with Dean on his own.  He still hears from their dad, still meets up with him on the occasional hunt, but it’s nothing like it used to be.  For the most part, the only contact they have is through a monthly call: five minutes of bare-minimum conversation just to make sure they’re both alive and moderately safe before it ends and silence returns.

And Sammy… he’s grown resigned to the silence from his brother, but he can’t help the flare of worry each time he hears of a suspicious death nearby.  He scans the newspapers nationwide in search of hunts, but he positively scours those from California, just to be safe.

He might be less nervous if Sam actually kept his training going, but the kid was swiftly losing his touch.  On those occasional, silent visits, he could see where Sam’s reaction time was just a little too slow, where he left himself open to attack from anyone in the crowd of people.  It was unnatural to see Sam amidst the civilians, looking just as relaxed and clueless as the rest of them: a rolling stone stationary enough to grow moss, a wolf slowly assimilating with the sheep.

 

When the jester sang for the king and queen

In a coat he borrowed from James Dean

And a voice that came from you and me

 

Sam isn’t the way he used to be, by any stretch of the imagination.  Back when he was Sammy -- cute, chubby little twelve-year-old Sammy who still viewed his brother as a hero and not a screw-up, a role model and not a cautionary tale -- he was innocent in a different way.  Dean preserved that for as long as he could, keeping him from the hunts and the death and even the research until that horrible Christmas where he was finally forced to say, outright, monsters are real .

After that, he matured: too quickly.  Sammy grew up, learned about monsters and research and blood and death, learned to fight and to hunt until he was deadlier than most people twice his age.  Then came his It’s-not-Sammy-It’s-Sam stage and the beginnings of his rebellions, but he still stayed, still let Dean call him Sammy with little more than a huff of air and his trademark bitchface that only grew stronger with time.

Neither Sammy nor It’s-not-Sammy-it’s-Sam were Sam Winchester, though.  Sam Winchester is normal and boring, nothing but a law student; he has no fake IDs stashed in his pockets and no weapons in the trunk of whatever vehicle he chooses to drive.  He has a girlfriend and a permanent apartment and, hell, he doesn’t have a car at all.

Of course, Sam doesn’t have a family either, but maybe it’s better that way.  It’s better that Sam emancipated himself from both of them -- Dad, yes, because they were never going to get along, but Dean, too -- for his own sake.  It hurt, but Sammy had to get away to have his best chance and that’s all Dean has ever tried to give him, so of course he let it happen.

He wishes he had the opportunity to talk to Sam one final time, to tell him… well, he isn’t sure what he wants to say -- chick flick moments are definitely not his specialty -- but he needs to say something because Sammy doesn’t even seem to get that everything Dean has ever done has been for his brother.

Sure, he wears the jacket he got from his father , and sure, he hunts the monsters and fights the fights with his father , and sure, he’ll obey orders from his father without a second thought, but, at root, his entire mission in life boils down to those two words indelibly ingrained in his very core: protect Sammy .

The issue came with Sammy’s headstrong, stubborn nature, with the way he always knew what was right and dissenting opinions could go to hell.  He didn’t get that, sometimes, picking a fight with Dad was strategically unwise, that he was more likely to get what he wanted if he didn’t make every little thing into a squabble.

No, Sam was too obsessed with instant gratification to think about planning and strategy.

He wanted money for a field trip, so he marched up to Dad and demanded it -- and Dean’s support in the resulting argument -- rather than simply waiting for Dean to hustle up a little bit extra at the bar.

He wanted to hang out with friends, so he went to the trenches on the matter rather than simply waiting for the inevitable nighttime alcohol binge that would leave Dad passed out on the bed, insensible to Sammy -- with Dean as his ever-present bodyguard -- sneaking out of the motel room.

He wanted Dean’s support on every single topic under the sun and he didn’t care that Dean’s voice came from both of them, from a desire to agitate for the most peaceful solution.  His behind-the-scenes strategy wasn’t always immediate defense, wasn’t obvious loyalty, and, to Sam, that might as well have been betrayal.

 

Oh, and while the king was looking down

The jester stole his thorny crown

The courtroom was adjourned

No verdict was returned

 

In some ways, Dean’s glad Sammy doesn’t get it.  He had no problem intervening in a few more fights if it meant that his brother never had to think the way Dean did.  The way Dean does .  

Sammy doesn’t have to walk into a conversation already profiling because he never really had a need.  The kid was perceptive, and he always picked up on more than Dean ever wanted him to, but, for the most part, Dean was the one running interference between his father and his brother.  Dean was the one to listen for slurred words, to look for glassy eyes and long, languid movements that always overshot their mark.  Dean was the one who noticed long stares into nothing and the white skin of clenched knuckles.  Dean was the one who spent half of his conscious thought focused on when to make themselves scarce and what not to say.  And Dean is still the one to look at his conversation partner to see what lies they’d believe, what strategies to exploit.

That burden -- which a small, whispering part of Dean pointed out belonged to a father and not a brother before being silenced by the beat of protect Sammy drumming in his chest -- was Dean’s to carry, not Sammy’s.

It was Dean’s to carry, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear Sammy throw it back in his face before storming out the door.  Even after all he’d done, all the meaningless, talked-over protestations and strategic pacifications he’d used to try and get them both to just calm down , his baby brother just up and walked out, a bitter, angry, “You never support me against him” still echoing in the room as the door slammed shut with terrible finality.

 

And while Lenin read a book on Marx

A quartet practiced in the park

And we sang dirges in the dark

The day the music died

 

The slam of the door seemed to echo in the silent motel room, sonorous and conclusive as it marked the end of an epoch.  The Winchesters were gone, replaced by Dad and Sam and Dean, separate entities pinballing away from one another.

Sam, so much like the father he hated, took a page out of their dad’s book and stormed off, marching down the paved street outside of the motel like he was determined to walk all the way to Stanford (or, at least, the bus station).  You never support me against him.

Dad, so much like the son he had essentially just disowned, left to the bedroom, hiding in his version of a normal life as he practiced his long-standing, already-perfected routine of drinking himself into a stupor.  You walk out that door, Sam, don’t come back.

And Dean just sat there, alone in the room where it all went down, trying to wrap his head around the fact that Sammy was gone , mourning the loss of the one person he could never bear to lose, the murder weapon -- that innocuous piece of fancy stationary -- clutched in one hand.  Sam Winchester, Congratulations!

 

Helter skelter in a summer swelter

The birds flew off with a fallout shelter

Eight miles high and falling fast

 

Dean Winchester is not easily rattled.  He learned that monsters were real when he was four years old, and he started training to fight them immediately after.  He could stitch a wound at five, shoot a gun at five-and-a-half, clean their weapons at six, kill by seven, and hunt by nine.  He had his first drink at fourteen, his first bar fight at sixteen -- he took care of the few injuries he sustained in the brawl on his own, since John Winchester had disappeared to do who knows what, who knows where -- and his first stay in the hospital during a particularly vicious wendigo hunt at seventeen.

And yet, sitting there at that table, letter in hand, he was lightheaded and nauseous in a way blood and gore never managed.  The room was positively dizzying as it swam around him, and his left hand -- the one not near-strangling Sammy’s acceptance letter -- was gripping the table as tightly as possible in an attempt to anchor himself.  The sensations faded, eventually, only to be replaced by a numb emptiness that somehow managed to be worse.

For all that Sammy insisted they’d keep in touch, it all felt an awful lot like grief.

Which didn’t make sense because that was insane : Sammy wasn’t dead , he was just moving .  He’d be there, in California, right on the other end of a phone or a road trip, and all Dean had to do was place that call or take that drive...

Except even that half-hearted reassurance couldn’t cover up the feeling, deep in the pit of his stomach, that Sam was throwing them -- him -- away permanently for what had only ever been a cover , a backup plan .

Admittedly, Dean had never liked school.  It had always been that cover for him, a way to minimize the observational fallout of their lifestyle.  Without it, nosy bystanders might notice that their father hadn’t been around in a few weeks, and then would come the calls to CPS or the truancy officer and the trouble too extensive for Dean to handle on his own.  Send those same boys to school, though, and the narrative changes: the absentee father becomes a hard worker on the night shift, all because his sons assimilated just that little bit more into the community.

So, yeah, he went to classes (mostly) and played Dean Winchester, citizen, but it was all just another part , and he followed it as little as he could.  He sat through Literature, but he merely pretended to absorb lectures on To Kill a Mockingbird -- at least Frankenstein had been funny -- as he read 16th-century werewolf lore under the table, researching that night’s hunt.  Half-ignored biology classes on bird species classification turned into study periods for him to memorize his dad’s creature identification lessons.  (He did pay attention to the dissection lessons, but they never covered how to reach the heart from outside the body, so it was a complete waste of time.)  Even Gym was pathetic; he’d done harder training for as long as he could remember, and shooting apparently wasn’t part of the curriculum.

Sammy, though… Sammy loved it.  He loved the useless classes that would never have a practical purpose, the material that would never save either of their lives.  He threw fits whenever they moved schools and dragged his heels each time they started somewhere new (up until he fell in love with that school and the cycle repeated).  It was never a backup plan for him; it was another piece of that normal life he coveted, and he couldn’t understand why Dean and their father wouldn’t agree.

Dean knows that, when Sammy stood up and handed over that envelope, flying high on the thrill of getting accepted (and accepted with a full-freakin’-ride because Dean’s brother was a freaking genius ), he wanted their father to be proud.  And Dean knows that, underneath the anger and the grief, their father was proud.

But Sammy wouldn’t look close enough for that.  Sammy -- who needs instant gratification, and who picks fights, and who thinks he knows everything -- wanted pride he didn’t have to work for, and his hopes for that were destined to be dashed.

 

It landed foul on the grass

The players tried for a forward pass

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

Now, the halftime air was sweet perfume

While sergeants played a marching tune

We all got up to dance

Oh, but we never got the chance

 

Sammy looked happy.

As he dropped that letter on the table, he was positively beaming with happiness and exhilaration.  Like a kid, he rocked back on his heels, one foot tapping with impatience as their father reached for the letter.  He even started talking -- rambling, more like -- his words spilling out in awkward fits and starts until he eventually fell silent, watching their father fight with the envelope and extricate the paper within.

Dean wasn’t close enough to see anything -- he was sitting at the other end of the room, wrapping up a sprained ankle from the most recent hunt -- but he knew that Sam was happy, which was enough.

Or, at least, it was enough until he looked at their father.

If the way Dad had looked at the envelope as it lay before him hadn’t been enough to make Dean nervous, the look on his face as he looked over the letter definitely was.  It cycled through a pattern of idle curiosity, annoyance, and disgust, like the white paper with indistinct black words and a red seal was something foul.

Dean knew an argument was coming as Dad slammed the paper down, slapping it against the tabletop with a monotone voice that almost belied the anger lurking underneath as he said, “What is this?”

Sammy knew it, too -- Dean could see him swallow heavily, rocking motion faltering slightly -- but then the smile almost came back and Sam was talking again.

 

'Cause the players tried to take the field

The marching band refused to yield

Do you recall what was revealed

The day the music died?

 

Dean no longer remembers exactly what was said that night.  Most of the exact words have faded into the past, lost to time and grief and drink.  His specific recollections of that night consist of two phrases that will never leave him and a letter tucked into a box of cassettes.

He remembers what it was like, though.  Even now he remembers the sickening dread that seized his stomach as Sammy started talking about some school in California called Stanford , the helplessness as plea after plea for them to calm down went unnoticed or shut down -- Shut up, Dean!  This is between me and Dad.  If you’re not going to help me on this, just shut up!  -- the sickening can’t-watch-can’t-look-away feeling, like he was watching a car crash in slow motion, two stubborn animals butting heads in a clash that would draw blood.

Dean remembers them as they fought for control, each one insisting that the other submit in a feedback loop that only made things worse.

Don’t be an idiot, Sam.  You’re not like them.  You’re a hunter.

I don’t want to be a hunter.

But you are one.

No, you’re a hunter.  Dean’s a hunter.  I’m not, and I want to go to college.  Stanford’s a good school, Dad.

School doesn’t matter, Sam.  What the hell good will some damn degree do with what’s waiting out there?

I can handle myself; your so-called training saw to that.  And that degree will mean that your son isn’t hustling money from some bar, but earning it.

Come on, Sammy, what’s-

It’s Sam .

You watch your tone.

Silence.

College degrees are overrated, Sam.  Your mother didn’t have one and she did just fine.  Or have you forgotten about her?

Of course I haven’t forg-

No, you’re just going to let her down.  She died in your room .  She was protecting you.  And you decide to go screw with law books instead of hunting down the bastard that kill-

It isn’t about her anymore, Dad, it’s about you !  Your crusade hasn’t been about her in years.  She doesn’t care .  She wouldn’t want this for me.  For Dean.  For you.

How the hell do you think you know anything about what she wanted?  How dar -

Fine, forget it.  But any other father would be proud of a full-ride to Stanford .  What does it say about you tha-

Proud?  You want me to be proud that my son is running off and abandoning his duty?  His family?  We need you here , Sam, not off on some fancy college campus with civilians that won’t have your back.  Damn it to hell, what were you thinking?

Look, Dad, I’m going.  You can’t stop me; don’t even try.

You walk out that door, Sam, don’t come back.

Don’t worry, I won’t.  

And Dean had tried.  He’d practically begged his brother to stop, to just think , to calm down and talk to him -- not Dad, just him -- before he walked out of the door, but Sam was pissed off and didn’t hesitate to shout, voice full of vitriol, into the empty motel room.  You never support me against him.   Six words.

You never support me against him. , as though Dean hadn’t tried to shut down the argument before it got that far.

You never support me against him. , like he hadn’t devoted his life to supporting Sammy against the world.

You never support me against him. , as Sammy packed his bags and left the room with a slam.

 

Oh, and there we were all in one place

A generation lost in space

With no time left to start again

 

Dean finished wrapping his ankle and hurried out after him, snagging the Impala’s keys on the way out.  The kid hadn’t made it far -- smart, he might be, but directionally gifted he was not -- and was standing cluelessly at a fork in the road, trying to decide which way to go.  He might have been eager to set out on his own -- he was definitely feeling puffed up about it if his mannerisms were anything to go by -- but he sure scrambled over to the Impala, sliding inside with practiced ease.

It wasn’t the same, though.  For all their rides in the Impala, they had never been so quiet, so stiff.  Even on the very few and far between instances when they hadn’t had classic rock spilling from the Impala’s tape deck, there had still been conversation , jokes and banter to liven the journey.

On that ride, though, instead of that easy camaraderie, there was merely space.

The silence was heavy and thick, impenetrable save for the echoes of the argument reverberating between them.  The words Sam had said -- hell, even the words John had said -- hovered like storm clouds, and it was only a matter of time before the deluge would start.

Except it didn’t start because neither spoke.  Sam slouched over against the door, hand tapping wildly on the bag he held, forehead leaned against the window in a way that was sure to leave oil on the glass and, were it any other night, Dean wouldn’t have allowed.  And Dean focused on driving, on keeping moving and preserving the tentative peace they had going, unwilling to start another argument that he couldn’t stop.  Instead, the silence stuck around as miles passed by.

The space didn’t disappear when they got to the bus station, or when Sam got out and headed to his bus, or even with Dean’s tentative, “See ya later.”  And it only widened as the doors of the bus closed behind his baby brother and Sam Winchester took off for Stanford.

 

So, come on, Jack be nimble, Jack be quick

Jack Flash sat on a candlestick

'Cause fire is the Devil's only friend

 

Hunting alone is drastically different from hunting with a partner or two.  He has no safety net, no backup plan.  Technically , he can call Dad (if he’d ever pick up the phone) or Bobby if he has to, if he needs information from them; if he’s in trouble -- life-threatening trouble -- he can call and cross his fingers and hope they’d be able to help in time.

In practice, though, the theory falls short.  Sure, technically, Dad and Bobby are just on the other side of that line.  That doesn’t change the fact that, most of the time, Dean covers his own back, earns his own money, hunts his own monsters, stitches his own wounds.  He lives alone, eats alone, fights alone.  On hunts, his support is gone and it’s just him and the monster.

It catches him off-guard sometimes, when he’s lost in the adrenaline of a hunt and the heat of the moment lets him forget that he’s alone.  Occasionally, he’ll sense that something’s missing , that there should be at least two people on that particular hunt.  Occasionally, he’d expect his father to be there, charging ahead, his brother to be lurking just behind him.  Once, while tangling with a rawhead in south Illinois, he’d actually shouted out for his brother to get the damn kids out of here, Sammy! as he fought to get a shot with the taser; it was only after, once the volts passed through the damn thing until it was little more than goo and he turned around to find a silent room with both kids still cowered in a corner, that he remembered: Sammy’s gone .

That catches him off guard more frequently than anything else.  He can handle himself, can hunt on his own -- hell, he was fighting solo at times even before it became his every day -- and definitely doesn’t need backup, not the way he needs to protect his brother.  But when he can’t see his brother mid-hunt, every fiber of his being tells him this is wrong and then it’s all instinctive.  It’s instinctive when he diverts his attention for a split second to try and watch his brother’s back, when that surge of panic fills him as he can’t find Sammy, where’s Sammy, protect Sammy , when his focus slips and he’s left open to attack before the crushing weight of Sammy’s gone falls back into place.

Usually, he can recover.  Usually, it’s just a falter in a well-planned hunt, a minor tangle in an otherwise-smooth plan.  Usually, nothing comes of it but a reopening of that wound -- Sammy’s gone -- and he moves on, dodging as quickly as he can to avoid whatever blow was taking advantage of his momentary distraction.

But sometimes it’s not as easily avoided, and all the nimble sidestepping in the world can’t stop it.  Even then, though, it’s not usually that bad, nothing more than a concussion or a dislocated shoulder to deal with once he’s ganked the thing and gets back home.

And then there was the demon in the French Quarter.

The hunt itself shouldn’t have been that hard.  Dad had spent hours teaching about demons, about their weaknesses and their skills.  It should have been easy.

It should have been easy, but something was off about the whole damn thing from the very beginning.  Before he even entered the building -- a warehouse on one bank of the Mississippi -- that same sense of something’s missing set him on edge as he retrieved his guns from the Impala’s trunk.  It only worsened as he actually got inside, the mere sense of being ill at ease replaced by crawling skin and literal hair-raising tension, and all of that paled as he actually tracked her down.

She didn’t seem surprised, for one thing.  She looked relaxed, unperturbed.  Languidly serpentine as she tilted her head to look at him, eyes shifting black as blood-red lips twisted into a predatory grin before parting, a sibilant rendition of his name slithering its way out into the room.  It wasn’t the first time a freak knew his name, tried to use it to psych him out, but this was beyond the pale and he couldn’t quite tell why.

And then a different name slipped from that sanguine mouth, slid in amid poisonous words carefully aimed at his core, each striking with deadly precision.  Where’s your brother, Dean-o?  Little Ssssammy all grown up and left you behind?  Ssssafe and ssssound in California, huh?  Unless… I mean, I don’t want to insssinuate anything, but… are you sure about that?

Intellectually, Dean knew it was definitely (probably) a lie.  Intellectually, he was quite (moderately) certain that Sammy was safe.  Intellectually, Dean knew that demons were always (mostly) unreliable.

But that didn’t change the way his heart stopped in his chest, the way his breath faltered as that familiar surge of can’t find Sammy, protect Sammy, where’s Sammy slammed into him.  It didn’t change the way his concentration slipped, just for a moment, his eyes darting away from the demon to scan the room -- Sammy, where’s Sammy, protect Sammy -- for just long enough.  It didn’t change the fact that the demon was able to move in that split instant, taking advantage of Dean’s momentary distraction to summon something from a pile of rubble nearby.

It wasn’t until the damn thing was embedded in his shoulder that he recognized the jagged spear of rebar for what it was.

At about the same time, he registered the rough, sandpapery feel of concrete beneath his knees, the tell-tale ache in his bones following impact with hard ground.  He barely had time to absorb the sudden shift in position brought about by his literal collapse before the demon stepped over, coiling into a crouch before him and propping herself up with one leather-gloved hand wrapped around the rebar, the motion sending searing agony radiating through him.

He vaguely registered that she was speaking, but her hissed words blended into a cloud of noise that he couldn’t quite parse as she rocked back and forth, hand still wrapped around the metal in his shoulder.  Each jostle felt like fire burning through him, sharp sparks of pain cascading down his arm and across his chest.

And then there actually was fire as her hand bursts into flame, the heat coursing through the metal and turning the javelin white-hot inside him.  Part of him was almost thankful for it as the black edges on his vision disappeared; the other part of him -- the part that felt like dying from the sensation of lightning coursing through his veins -- pointed out that the black only disappeared because his vision whited out for a few seconds.  He pushed them both aside in favor of reaching out his hand, fingers seeking the book he’d dropped in her attack.

The flames let up eventually -- dimly, he couldn’t help but think it was proof that eternity had an expiration date -- but the metal didn’t cool, the smell of cooking flesh continuing to rise from his shoulder in noxious tendrils that set his stomach heaving.  The room was swimming slightly, the demon’s face distorting and reforming blurrily in front of him.

He could hear her above the erratic stutter of his heart in his ears, her words vicious and barbed as they slithered out from a cage of perfect white teeth that, to Dean’s pain-hazed mind, looked like fangs.  There was no escape from them, nothing to distract him from what she said, from the way he couldn’t even rebut what she said because he knew -- he knew -- it was all true.  You couldn’t protect him, Dean-o.  That’s what it’s all been about, isn’t it?  Sssammy, Sssammy, Sssammy.  I can see it, you know, burning inside of you… a bright little spark right here, tucked away at the very center of your sssoul… It’s a ssshame you failed, Dean.  It’s the one thing you have.  You really should see it; that little purpose is the only part of you that isn’t as bad as any demon.  You could be one of usss, you know, ssso easssily… Douse that ssspark and there goes Dean Winchester.  Wouldn’t that be sssomething?

He focused on the book, on the feel of its spine as his fingers just grazed the binding, the old leather flaking under his touch.  Each time he shifted, the metal in his shoulder slid around, and his teeth were clenched so tightly under the strain of keeping quiet that his jaw ached.  Still, that was all he needed; if he got that book, it would be over for her.

But she knew that, so of course she was watching.  Of course she noticed his hand slipping closer to the damn thing.  Of course she was ready to reach over and kick it away, resting most of her body weight on the rebar in his shoulder as she set the book skidding into the corner.  The spear slid in deeper, fully encased in his shoulder and resting just beneath his collarbone, scraping against the bone as she returned to her coiled crouch.

The taunting didn’t let up, barely pausing as she sent the book flying.  You didn’t think it’d be that easssy, did you, Dean?  Oh.  You did, huh?  I don’t know what kind of idiots you’ve been dealing with, but you’ve got to be sssmarter, Dean.  Clearly Sssammy got the brainsss, huh?  Off to Ssstanford while big bro stays at home with his alcoholism and his ssslacking… Tsk, tsk, Dean, I’m… I’m disssssappointed.  No wonder baby brother decssided to leave.

Ignoring her was a lot harder without the promise of salvation at his fingertips, and her words continued to drill into his head, a maelstrom of her barbs and his pre-existing thoughts that sent all consideration of the book to the wayside in favor of you failed Sammy, you failed, failed, failed.  He shook his head to clear it, but it was half-hearted at best.

Sssammy’s gone, Dean.  Not just at Ssstanford, either, but gone.  Dead.  Decsseasssed,  Isn’t that sssplendid?  There’s nothing left, Dean-o.  Yet even now, you’re thinking it… Protect Sssammy, sssave Sssammy.  It’s easssy to sssee that little flame flickering.  You’ve always told yourself that you’ve done your best, haven’t you?  Did your best with little Sammy.  Helped him when he fell down.  Sssoothed his nightmaresss, healed his sssicknesses.  It’s what you’ve said, over and over: “I’ve done my bessst.”  Well, bad news, Dean-o.  Your best wasssn’t good enough.

Her words were slow and saccharine, her face still twisted into that self-satisfied smirk despite Dean only half paying attention to her.  He was sure there was something ironic in him kneeling at a demon’s feet, his sins and failures displayed out in the open, but too much of him was focused on trying -- and mostly failing -- to push past her words to dwell on it.  He pinned his eyes to the concrete in front of him, focusing on the throbbing of his shoulder, grounding himself with the pain until he was more focused on it than on her words, on the physical torment rather than the emotional.

But she was paying attention to that too, and, all at once, the fire was back, conducted down the rod until his skin was outright sizzling, the pain nearly unbearable.  The flames took longer to die down, the secondary heat longer to dispel, and her face floated in front of him through it all, sharp and carnal in its sadistic glee.  By the time the heat dissipated, he was barely sitting up straight, sagging against the pole she was holding steady just high enough to be viciously uncomfortable, and she was speaking once more, though her words were again lost to the haze of pain in his head.

And then, through the fog, he heard it: Sammy .

And, despite her having said it countless times throughout the conversation, none had sounded quite like that one.  That one was a warning.  Even if the words were lost in the deluge of pain hammering into him, the tone was quite clear: she was threatening Sammy.  If she was threatening Sammy, she needed him as leverage.

A dead brother isn’t leverage; a live one is.

Which meant that Sammy wasn’t dead.  Sammy was alive and well and living in Stanford -- even if that hurt in its own way -- and that bitch of a demon was lying.  And that?  That made things very, very simple.

Sammy was alive.  Dean hadn’t failed him yet.  And he wasn’t going to if he could avoid it, so he had to kill this demon.

That took one of two things: the book -- hidden in some corner to the right part of the warehouse -- or a weapon of some other kind -- and the demon had certainly gotten rid of any and all weapons in the place.

Well, any and all weapons… save one.

He looked down at the metal bar in his shoulder, and then at the demon in front of him and her hand on the pipe, and everything calmed down into simplicity of a familiar, well-worn motto: Protect Sammy .

Dean could see as realization dawned on her face, as she processed that she had screwed up, her eyes fixed in horror at the very center of his chest.  And then he was throwing himself backwards, unable to hold out a shout of pain as, in one fluid motion, he wrenched the pole out of her hands and then pulled himself off of it.

His vision faded again, just for a few seconds, and then he was back in his own head.  His shoulder was throbbing fiercely, the ache taking up all of his torso, but he forced himself to clench his hand tightly around the pole. And then, slowly but surely, he labored upright, driven by the urge of protect Sammy flowing through his veins.  Each motion was an agony slicing through him, threatening to send him crashing back to his knees -- or, worse, to unconscious oblivion on the hard floor -- but he kept moving until he was stalking towards her, the rebar brandished in one hand.

Because, even as he called the pipe “rebar”, it wasn’t: no way in hell was the thing he pulled out of his shoulder mere steel.  Even if he hadn’t recognized the pipe as iron on his own, he had been watching her, and, while it hadn’t occurred to him at the time -- he was far too concerned with the metal in his shoulder that she kept freaking moving -- she hadn’t ever actually touched it bare-handed.

And, as her skin sizzled when it came into contact with the metal, as he slowly drove her backwards until he finally found the book leaned against one wall, as he picked it up and started  the incantation, as the black billows of smoke poured out of her, he couldn’t help the grim sense of satisfaction.  She had threatened Sammy , and she wouldn’t survive.

And, as his injury finally caught up with him and he collapsed to the floor, vision fading to black, the final words drilling through his head in a mantra of reassurance were: Sammy’s safe, Sammy’s safe, Sammy’s-

 

Oh, and as I watched him on the stage

My hands were clenched in fists of rage

No angel born in Hell

Could break that Satan’s spell

 

Dean woke up to the sounds of sirens wailing.  They were harsh and strident, echoing around the warehouse as he slowly came to, eyes slightly blurred in the hazy in-between that marked the boundary dividing waking and unconsciousness.  He could see patches of sky through the skylights overhead, dimly noticing that it was darker than he remembered it being when he arrived, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on where , exactly, he had arrived.

He knew he should get up and move -- chances were, the sirens were there for him after all -- but he didn’t get around to actually doing it.  His entire torso felt heavy and immovable, pinned to the floor by the pulsing ebb and flow of heat from his shoulder.  He had vague recollections of metal burning white in darkness, of sibilant hissing that surpassed the crackle of burning skin, of flickering flames casting shadow against bland, grey walls, but they vanished before he could grasp them solidly.

His coat had twisted under him as he fell, the brick-like sturdiness of his phone digging into his side where its pocket was trapped beneath him.  He barely managed to shift enough to extricate it before collapsing back to the ground, a huff of air escaping him as the motion exacerbated the fire raging in his shoulder.  The sound of shouting voices approached, but Dean couldn’t bring himself to pay attention to them, more focused on flipping open his phone to get something -- anything -- by way of information.

The screen lit up, a missed call visible, uniform and all-capital letters carefully spelling out a name: Sammy .

And then it all came rushing back.  The hunt, the demon, the rebar, the flames, the stink of searing flesh… everything slamming into place sharply enough that his shoulder faded to the background for the first time since he’d woken.  The flashing of lights was still visible through the skylights, and the voices were just audible as a door in the distance slammed open, but everything was suddenly very simple, the world completely encapsulated in a single digital word.  Sammy .

So, he rolled over to his side and propped himself up with his hands, and then his elbows, and then his knees, until he was finally standing and staggering his way across the room.  The floor was crowded with boxes, water stains showing where rising tides had penetrated the building and lapped at the merchandise, and Dean did his best to skirt them carefully.  He failed from time to time, staggering into a stack of something that sounded breakable -- hopefully it wasn’t expensive -- but he kept moving.

He stopped partway through his mad dash for the exit to check on the demon -- or, rather, the poor woman the demon had possessed -- where she lay sprawled on the ground.  She hadn’t fallen far from where he had, but it might as well have been miles with how hard it was to cross the distance.  She didn’t move, even through his clumsy attempts to labor downwards without straining the hell out of his shoulder, but it took a shaking hand to what should have been her pulse to confirm that she was dead.  With her eyes closed, she almost looked asleep.

And then came the long and arduous task of crossing the rest of the room, lurching his way over to the door.  He got outside just as the room’s other door slammed open, crashing against the wall with a bang that reverberated across the storage area.  A few seconds’ pause of leaning against the warehouse and a sprint across wet Louisiana grass later, he was sliding into the Impala and getting the hell out of Dodge.

He didn’t dare slow down until he reached a nearby motel and, by then, his shoulder was protesting with each minor jerk of rubber over gravel.  It was too easy to fall back into putting up a front, hiding how it hurt just moving his uninjured hand to sign for the damn room, ignoring the manager -- a slightly-balding businessman-type with curious eyes -- in favor of getting his keys.

Room 333 was nice enough, but Dean didn’t really pay attention to it.  It had the same characteristics of every other motel -- tacky bedspreads, grubby windows, a small table, and an even smaller bathroom -- and, while it lacked any kind of uniqueness, it was safe and comfortable.  They had never really had a home growing up -- Dean had faint memories of the house in Kansas, but they, too, had faded with time -- so the inside of grimy motels had filled that gap, memories from each blending together until every motel room was home.  Dean’s bag ended up on the floor in seconds, leaned against one of the interior walls in a precarious position that he had neither the time nor energy to rectify; hell, he barely had enough in his reserves to fish out his jury-rigged first aid kit and drop it on the bed before following it with careless abandon.

He knew he was lucky -- the wound was deep, yes, but the demon had (intentionally or otherwise) mostly cauterized the wound with her fire stunts and he hadn’t been unconscious nearly long enough to lose a fatal amount of blood, so, really, he was fine -- and he knew that he technically had to look at the thing and patch it up, but those white letters on his phone kept floating in front of his vision -- was the room spinning, too, or was that just him? -- and driving his thoughts far from Louisiana.

So, he fished out his phone and flipped it open again, eye caught by the bright red notification that signified a voicemail’s arrival.  He didn’t hesitate to open it -- the nauseous twisting of his gut ever since hearing Are you sure about that? and Sammy’s gone spurring him onwards as shaking, bloody fingers fought for purchase on slick plastic in his desperate need to hear that his brother was okay -- and the thing was to his ear in no time, Sammy’s voice spilling out.

Hey, Dean.  Uh… Yeah, you’re probably asleep, huh?

And then, just like that, everything changed.  The final ties that made his brother Sammy dissolved, replaced with upstanding, normal , apple pie Sam Winchester who didn’t have a father named John or a brother named Dean or a life of hotel rooms and credit card scams.  Sam Winchester who didn’t have a gun tucked in his waistband or a knife under his pillow.  Sam Winchester who lived in Palo Alto and had an actual home .

Dean called Sam immediately.  The demon’s words were still resonating in his head, intertwining with the phone ringing in his ear and the familiar, all-consuming need to know if his brother was okay.  The dragging seconds it took for the call to ring through were suffocating, his breath stilling in his lungs in a painful rendition of bated breath as fearful anticipation turned his grip on the phone shaky.

And then the call connected, a brief moment of encompassing relief washing over him as Sammy’s familiar voice spilled from the speaker.

And then the voice continued, expanding from a mere Hello to something far longer, something with instructions to Leave a message after the beep!

The panic slammed back into place all at once, reigniting suddenly until he could barely stutter out a breathless request -- demand? -- to be called back as soon as possible.  He disconnected the call as soon as he was done speaking, the small move of closing his phone setting his shoulder to seizing.  The phone slipped from his hands, sliding across the mattress with a smear of blood as he curled around the injury, fighting to see past the darkness crowding in on his vision with each pulse of his heart.

As much as he wanted to just leave , to head out to the Impala and drive to Stanford, wasted motel room be damned… he had to do something about his shoulder or he wouldn’t make it a quarter of the distance.

So, he sat up, laboring to a pseudo-seated position before starting to work.  If pulling off his jacket was agonizing -- it was -- then taking off his shirt was worse; the latter was caught in the wound, fibers joining with the tacky blood seeping from the hole in his shoulder, and he ended up just ripping it off, unable to stop a grunt as the shirt pulled at the injury.

Judging by his shoulder, the rebar had been about two centimeters in diameter.  The skin was puffy and raised, bright red blistering distorting the edges.  A constant, if slow, trickle of blood was spilling from it.  It hurt , and every touch felt like that fire was coursing through it again.

And yet everything was easy.  It was easy to rip that cloth away, to open the wound again.  It was easy to pour alcohol over it, to feel the burn of amateur sanitization shoot across his chest.  It was easy to press a pad of gauze overtop it and tape it into place despite the painful contortions it took.

It was easy because, once again, it was for Sam.

The demon had known what she was doing, had quite successfully implanted that fear for Sammy in his head, enough that not even Sam’s voicemail -- the words of which were playing in his head in a horrible, incessant loop -- and the explanation it provided could meliorate the dread he’d felt at Sam missing his call.

No, that dread followed him, not letting up as he finished bandaging his shoulder or even as he finally gave in to the pull of unconsciousness that had hounded him since he started.  It followed him the next day -- he tried to call Sam then, too, only to get voicemail once again -- as he started the 33-hour drive across the country, from Louisiana to California.  It followed him as he ignored turn-offs and motels and hotels in favor of gas stations and coffee shops, the haze of exhaustion held back by caffeine and energy drinks.  It followed him through his second day of nonstop driving -- another call to Sam went to his voicemail partway through -- and past the blue sign with its bright yellow flowers and its Welcome to California!

It followed him all the way to Stanford, all the way until the school colors and bright, pressed uniforms of some parade came to view and he saw Sam in the crowd, his hair long and mussed as he smiled out at the pep rally or whatever the hell it was.  He looked happy and safe, and only then did that dread fade, banished with concrete fact: Sammy’s safe.

Dean didn’t stay long.  The president of the school stepped up to speak, smile wide and false as he broadened his arms and shouted out to the crowd.  The first few words were trite and cliche, patently propagandizing in a way that had Dean clenching his fists at his sides, and Sammy was still smiling that damn innocent smile, and Dean couldn’t stay there and watch and risk that happiness, so he turned and walked away.  There would always be next time.

 

And as the flames climbed high into the night

To light the sacrificial rite

I saw Satan laughing with delight

The day the music died

 

But now, now that he knows that Sam isn’t just preoccupied with school or parades or brainwashing speeches, now that he knows that Sam is actively ignoring his calls, he can’t get the afterimage of that smile out of his head.

It hovers at the back of his mind whenever he calls Sammy, leaving one of countless voicemails on his phone that he knows will never be listened to or answered or returned.

It’s burned behind his eyelids, greeting him every time he closes his eyes with a glow as brightly luminescent as white-hot iron before it plunges into a shoulder.

It flickers in the dancing light of each salt-and-burn job he does, a vicious distortion of that innocent Fourth-of-July smile with very different fires licking at the sky.

It’s the memory of that smile that drives him forward, that keeps him from saying to hell with it and visiting Sammy.  Even as each day passes, the dull ache of loneliness worsening with each tick of the clock, he can’t bring himself to go back because Sam is happy .    Sam is happy in a way he’d never be with Dean there screwing it up, and that’s enough for him to stay away, to keep himself sane with recordings and voicemail inboxes.  It’s easy.  It’s for Sammy.

 

I met a girl who sang the blues

And I asked her for some happy news

But she just smiled and turned away

 

Dean went to Stanford a few times in those first two years, in the awkward space of time mid-transition between Sammy Winchester, hunter, and Sam Winchester, civilian.  Palo Alto had been far too clean for him, far too professional and soft and modern and pretty for a man who wore leather jackets in place of suit coats, carried weapons at his belt in place of a pager, drove a gas-guzzler of a classic car, and kept his socks in the sink.  He kept himself standing most of the time he was there, and any time spent sitting was filled with the awkward sense that he was getting dirt, dust, and ash over Sam’s pure white couch.  He definitely didn’t belong there.

Still, he took note of the address, scrawling it beneath the return address on that well-worn Stanford acceptance letter, forever memorialized in blue ink on cream parchment.  His visits were never long -- status updates, more than anything, and a thinly veiled excuse for Dean to see his brother and make sure he was okay -- and Sam’s Stanford campus apartment (which, Sam was eager to point out, was a dormitory, but we call it a dorm , Dean ) was tiny, but it felt like home, just like each and every motel in each and every town across the country.

And then, mere weeks after he’d gotten Sammy’s voicemail -- mere days after he’d finally given up and changed Sammy to Sam in his phone’s contact list -- right after that ghost job in Berkeley, he drove down to visit his brother.  The drive was shorter than the last time he’d booked it over to Stanford -- Berkeley was a hell of a lot closer than Louisiana, after all -- but the same sense of white-knuckle panic filled him as he made the journey.  It had been mounting steadily over the months since he’d heard anything from his brother, ever since that devastating voicemail arrived, and he could no longer shove it away as they approached the three-month mark.

And then he pulled up outside the dorm -- See, Sammy?  I listened.  I’m trying.  Don’t do this, Sammy, please. -- and he went to the buzzer on the wall, eyes scanning for Winchester in typewriter-like script.

It took him two passes through to accept that it wasn’t there.

He could see where it used to be, could see where it had been covered up by another bright white sticker, the name Remington etched out in dark letters.  He barely processed the name, barely registered propping himself up against the brick, barely noticed anything beyond Sam’s gone .

He didn’t realize that he’d pushed the buzzer until the sound of the door unlocking breached the haze he’d fallen into, barely moving enough to open the door before the lock reengaged.  Dimly, he considered stopping to think about a plausible story, but the pulsing beat of protect Sammy, what’s wrong, where’s Sammy meant that any sense of strategy dropped as he crossed the threshold into the building.

Remington was a young woman in her twenties, bright red hair clustered in a messy cascade of curls that looked just a little too much like fire for Dean not to be reminded of Louisiana, of those flames in that damn warehouse.  She was pretty -- stunning, really -- but he wasn’t focused enough to notice it like he usually would, couldn’t quite get past the panic thrumming through him, past the shaking of his hands or the way he couldn’t quite pull in enough air.

He could see enough to know that she was confused, though, to register the slight widening of green eyes as she looked through the crack of a door, the chain stretching taut across the gap as suspicion flitted across her face.  “You’re not from Panda Express .  What do you want?”

It was a familiar situation, just like any other hunt: tell a lie, make it convincing.  Just like any other hunt; it should be easy.

But any other hunt wasn’t about Sammy , wasn’t a hunt to find his brother, who had somehow gone missing from his perfect life, and he wasn’t convincing when he took a few seconds too long to start speaking, reaching for a reasonable cover as he went, his usual improvisational skills faltering just a little with every second that Sammy is missing ran through his head.  “Good afternoon, Ms. Remington.  Sorry to bother you this morning… David St. Hubbins from campus H-health and Safety.  I need to ask you a few questions about-”

Ironically, it wasn’t his subpar ad-libbing that got him into trouble.  She didn’t even seem to notice the slight stutter as he spoke, the tiny fumble as he pulled out his badge and raised it to the gap in the door.  No, it was the name -- the one thing that had actually gone normally -- that gave him away.  “David St. Hubbins?  Seriously?  Spinal Tap was my dad’s favorite movie, dick.  Get your laughs somewhere else.”  And then the door was closing, his one avenue of investigation about to slam shut.

“Wait.  Wait !  My name is Dean Winchester.”  It was a total breach of everything they’d been taught, but she was closing her door and never mind that he could technically wedge it open or kick it down, Sammy’s missing and Ms. Remington from dorm 669 might have information.  The door faltered in its resolute path to close.  “I’m looking for my brother.  He’s missing.”  The door opened a little.  “His name is Sam Winchester and… and I need to find him.  He lived in this apartment for the past two years and now he’s gone.  He isn’t here and he won’t answer his phone…  Do you know anything about him?”  The door opened more.  “I just need to know he’s okay.  Please.”

The silence that followed was absolute, as though everything stilled all at once.  And then her voice, tentative and quiet, slipped out between the door and the jamb.  “You could be lying.”

“I could be.  But I’m not.”  The wait continued, agonizing and paralyzing.  “Please.”  It was little more than a whisper, just barely audible as the energy to project deserted him.

The door didn’t move, but, after a few more beats of quiet, she spoke again.  “I don’t know much.”

“Whatever you can tell me."

“I got the apartment about… I don’t know, three months ago?  Landlord said the guy’d moved out.  Got some other apartment on campus or something.”  The door opened a little further and he could see her face as she shrugged and smiled and shook her head.  “I’m sorry, that’s all I know.  I hope you find him, but please leave.”  And, with that, the door closed, leaving Dean to stand alone in the empty hallway.

 

I went down to the sacred store

Where I'd heard the music years before

But the man there said the music wouldn't play

 

Dean wasn’t able to stomach the tapes playing in his car as he drove around the campus, couldn’t let the familiar tunes play in the Impala when every thought in his head eventually twisted into Sammy’s missing .  Those tapes were theirs , not his, and he couldn’t play them alone without getting overwhelmed and shutting it off again.

And even when his wild careening around Stanford, through that bizarre stroke of luck, led him to the gym, to see Sammy dancing with his girl, even as he shot out of California as quickly as he could to hide from voicemails and inboxes and lyrics that struck just a little too close to home… Even then, just the thought of playing music was loathsome and nauseating.

So the tapes lurk there, hiding in the footroom of the passenger seat, nearly untouched.  Occasionally, he’ll pick one up and try to play it, but, when the opening bars of whatever song he picks aren’t greeted with the customary complaints about mullet rock and updated technology, the sudden, crushing sense of loneliness slams back into place, worse even than before the music temporarily staved it off.

 

And in the streets the children screamed

The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed

But not a word was spoken

The church bells all were broken

 

No, the Impala stays quiet.  His daily life doesn’t have the familiar soundtrack of classic rock anymore; rather, it’s been replaced by the sounds of the hunt, by screaming and crying and the endless cacophony of death and destruction.  He’s lost track of how many monsters he’s hunted since Sammy left, since that voicemail arrived and changed everything, the days blending together into one big blob of drive, hunt, drink, drive, drink, hunt, drive.

More oppressive even than the noise, though, is the silence.

It doesn’t make sense, but the crush of noise was nothing compared to the roar of the quiet, to the way nothing was really spoken .  Sure, he talked to the witnesses and the families and law enforcement, but it wasn’t the same as days of joking and laughing and banter in the Impala, to singalongs to “Dead or Alive” or “Eye of the Tiger.” 

 

And the three men I admire most

The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost

They caught the last train for the coast

The day the music died

 

No, those days are trapped in the past, caged behind “ You walk out that door, Sam, don’t come back. ” and “ Don’t worry, I won’t. ”  There’s no chance for them to return -- none that Dean can foresee, at least -- and he’s slowly but surely making his peace with the idea of a silent car, of lonely motel rooms and no company aside from whatever he can get in a bottle or at a bar.

He’s slowly becoming resigned to it for the simple reason that there’s nothing he can do.  It doesn’t matter that he has to hold himself back from subconsciously guiding the car to California and Sam Winchester, that he has to stop himself from using what little he learns from his calls with Dad or Bobby to figure out where , exactly, to find John Winchester.

What matters are those three basic principles, those three missions: obey orders, save people, protect Sammy.

And if orders tell him to stay away from Dad, and if protecting Sammy means staying the hell away from him , too… Well, then it’s simple: he’ll stay away.

It’s better that way, really.  Sure, it bothers him from time to time, that unfortunately familiar sense of wrong, wrong, wrong filling him as he drives away from California or hangs up the phone without tracking Dad down, but it’s… it’s better.

Dad’s always moved faster on his own: more productive, more successful, just… more when Dean wasn’t there to slow him down.  If the shtriga with Sammy all those years ago proved anything , it was that his instincts simply weren’t up to par.  And, obviously, they hadn’t gotten any better: he might be 26 now, and he might be able to carry out hunts on his own -- when his mistakes will affect him and only him -- but he wasn’t partner material.  There was a reason Dad left him behind, splitting in the dead of night; it was strategically wise.  It’s ridiculous -- he's trained since he was four , after all, taught by the best hunter he knew, if not in the community as a whole -- but he still isn’t good enough to back someone up; it’s safer for Dad to go into a fight alone than to rely on someone who would let him down.

And Sam… There was no question what was best for Sam.  He craved normalcy, security, stability ; his wasn’t a destiny of hunting and fighting and stealing.  He’d cut the first tie -- that was severed one night in February so long ago, as he stepped onto the last bus to California of the night and disappeared -- and he’d cut the last -- snipped a little more with each curt word of a voicemail until it finally gave way -- and Dean wasn’t going to be the one to drag him back in. The kid wanted his safety and his happiness, and that was all Dean had ever tried to give him, so of course he’d let it happen.

So, with Sam on the West Coast and Dad somewhere on the East -- at least according to the small hints he’d dropped during their last conversation -- Dean stayed safely in the middle, zigzagging between the two without getting too close to either.

It wasn’t lonely.  It wasn’t .  It was simple.  Drive, hunt, drink, drive, drink, hunt, drive.

Simple.

 

And they were singin', bye-bye, Miss American Pie

Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry

And them good ol' boys were drinkin' whiskey and rye

Singin', "This'll be the day that I die

 

But tonight, standing on the California foothills and looking out on the lights of Stanford beneath him, he can’t do it anymore.  He should have learned from his encounter with that demon so long ago, but all the selfishness in the world can’t forever obscure the danger Dean brings to Sammy simply by visiting.  All it would take is one creature to track him to Palo Alto and that coveted safety would be destroyed; all it would take is one errant glance from Sam for hunting to encroach once more upon his normal life, for that carefree happiness of liberty to dissipate.  For all Dean courts danger, for all he lives off adrenaline, this risk is just a little too big.

No, tonight isn’t a visit.  He isn’t stopping by, fresh off some hunt in a neighboring city or adjacent state, dropping in to check that Sammy’s okay before disappearing again.

Tonight is a goodbye.

A proper goodbye, this time, not a half-assed “See ya later” at a bus station as Sam darted impatient glances at the itinerary or a short, matter-of-fact voicemail left while Dean was bleeding out on a warehouse floor.  The kind of sendoff he would have wanted to give Sammy if things were different and that fight hadn’t happened and the music hadn’t slowly died away to leave silence in its wake.

It was always him and his brother, for almost as long as he can remember, two against the world.  He never expected Sammy to leave, but he always knew how it would go: the Impala, a stiff drink, and the two of them, together for one final time.

Well, he has the Impala and he has the drink -- something strong, higher quality than the normal swill he drinks -- and he can just see the lights of Jessica’s apartment as he leans against Baby, and that’s… Well, he’ll make it enough.  It’s as close as he’s willing to get.

Because, as much as he wants to see Sammy one more time, to split one final drink and share one final toast and maybe, just maybe , have one more good memory before he leaves, it doesn’t matter.  Sammy needs him to stay away, so stay away he shall.

He viewed California as a base over the past few years.  It was a constant, even if he couldn’t bring himself to truly like it, and now it’s inherently Sammy enough that it feels like a home, even when it doesn’t feel like a place that fits him.  There are memories steeped into the area, etched into the pavements and burning in the city lights simply because Sammy’s there .  It’s a dam, a repository of memories and emotions so absolute that, even if he hadn’t set foot there once , he’d consider it home.

But, if he’s learned anything over the years, it’s that homes are temporary and, sometimes, the way to preserve one is to leave it.  And now, he’s finally ready.

So he opens the whiskey, rolling the crystal bottle in his hands for a second before raising it into the air, a tribute and a memorial mixed into one as he salutes in the vague general direction of Stanford University.  And, as he takes a swig, barely noticing the burn of the liquor scalding his throat any more than he notices the slow, though steady, dampening of his cheeks, he can’t help but smile.

He’ll miss Sammy -- of course he will -- but he’s emptied his California-based levee of memories, dropping them back in the Impala and her box of tapes, in the long-silenced music that was theirs , in the sturdy parchment of a Stanford acceptance letter and the thin, ripped sheet of motel stationary tucked into that same box in that same car.

It’s paradoxical and confusing -- his life has been save Sammy, protect Sammy, Sammy, Sammy, Sammy , but now the way to protect Sammy is to leave , to trust (hope) that he’s taught his brother enough to survive on his own, to leave Sam with nothing but his apple pie lifestyle and wish for him to be happy -- but Dean doesn’t need to understand the contradiction to know what needs to be done.

He needs to leave.  And he will.

So he raises his bottle one more time, tilts it to Sammy one more time, and says goodbye one more time.

And then he turns and walks back to the Impala, settling inside her as naturally as ever.  It takes him a few minutes, but eventually he turns to the box on the seat beside him, opening it and flipping through.  His fingers hesitate slightly as the feel of rough paper greets them, but he shifts again and all he feels is plastic.

This time, it’s easy to pull out a case, to pop it open, to slide the tape into Baby’s player and wait for the music to play.  This time, the music isn’t dissonant, doesn’t clash with the silence.  This time, it plays as easily as ever, filling the car with the tail end of a Don McLean song as the tape picks up right where it left off.

 

This'll be the day that I die.