It wasn’t the worst place they’d ever rented, but you wouldn’t know it from Sam’s bitch face. When they pulled up in front of the house, a decently-sized but obviously weathered structure, Sam made a noise in the back of his throat, barely loud enough for Dean to hear over the rumble of the engine.
“Got something to say, Sammy?” John said, cutting the engine and turning sideways to send a glare to the backseat.
“It’s Sam,” was the sharp retort.
John grunted something vaguely exasperated and turned back to shove the door open.
It was the shortest argument they had in this house, and they hadn’t even gotten inside yet.
It looked better on the outside than it did on the inside. John had probably never seen the inside, just laid out the cash for a month and signed a fake name. It wouldn’t be him living there anyway, not most nights. His thoughts sounded more like Sam than he was comfortable with, and Dean shook his head. It wasn’t so bad. It really wasn’t.
Sam hadn’t spoken in an hour. He walked through the door, glanced around, stalked over to the couch, and threw himself down, coughing pointedly as a cloud of dust arose. John ignored him, slung the weapons duffle onto the kitchen table. Dean took the brief moment of peace to carry the rest of bags to the bedrooms – Dad’s stuff in the larger bedroom, his and Sam’s across the hall. Blue wallpaper with clouds, two twin beds, one half-sized dresser. Dean’s stuff on the bed by the door, Sam’s on the one by a power outlet and a phone jack so he could use his computer. Really, it was all they needed.
By the time Dean came back to the living room, John and Sam were arguing, voices rapidly getting louder, words like “not soldiers” and “not always what you want” and “what would mom want” and “Dean never complains” surrounded by peeling paint and dust and disrepair.
Dean knew exactly why Sam didn’t want this life.
“I need you to take care of things around here.” And that’s what Dean did. Part time job during the day, pool or poker at night. Enough cash for food, utilities, ammo. Enough time to cook breakfast and dinner for Sam, to sign his transfer papers and listen to him complain about his classes, to clean guns and do research and fall into bed and sleep for a few hours before he did it all again.
“You shouldn’t have to live like this,” Sam kept saying. Dean wasn’t sure if he meant the job or the poker, cleaning the guns, or maybe it was the house. “You could be on your own, doing something you actually like, in a place that isn’t falling apart.”
He never told Sam that this is what he likes. Not the hardware store job, or the fights after poker, or even cleaning the guns with fingers trembling with exhaustion. But this. Taking care of his family.
It was the walls, Dean decided, that made the place look so pathetic. The lights were okay, but the paint had faded to grey, flaking off and forming a thin film of dust over everything. It looked like the home of some of the bones they had burned, and the paint dust made them both sneeze.
Some lady returned her paint to the hardware store because it wasn’t the right shade of white or some bullshit like that, and they had to mark it down ridiculously. So ridiculously, in fact, that Dean bought it, a roller, and some tape.
He sanded down the old paint and rolled over it in a some off-white shade with a stupid name over the course of three afternoons while Sam read to him from a college brochure the guidance counselor had given him, about the absurd classes they offered about obscure Russian vodkas and made jokes about professors using eighteen chalkboards in half an hour and Dean suggested studying for his vodka class at frat parties and sneaking into classrooms to fuck a girl against those chalkboards, printing the notes backwards across her spine. And all the while he painted on a smile so Sam wouldn’t see that Dean’s foundation was cracking.
Then John came home and Sam shoved the brochure back into his backpack, and they argued about school and John’s hunt because Sam had a test and didn’t want to skulk around under a full moon and why couldn’t they be normal, with family dinners and whitewashed walls and only have horror in movies and all that shit.
Dean could hear the fight much better now that the walls weren’t crumbling around them.
“Jesus fuck, Dean, why’d you use all the hot water?” Sam griped, and Dean turned from the stove to take in the stupid shaggy hair that dripped water on Sam’s last clean t-shirt.
“Sorry, Sammy,” he said easily. “In longer than I thought, I guess.”
“Sam,” his brother huffed but reined in his sarcasm, and Dean thought it might be a good day. Until he smelled smoke.
He spun back around to the stove, just as Sam exclaimed “Dean!”
Half the eggs were burnt. The other half were still liquid. Dean lifted the pan and peered at the coil, at the red in the middle and the cold black at the edges. “Cereal okay today, Sammy?”
“What the hell is going on?” John snapped, stumbling in bleary-eyed, reeking of last night’s whiskey.
“Sorry, Dad,” Dean said quickly, over a muttered comment from Sam, but it was too late. And then it was words like “if you were around more” and “protecting innocent people” and “you weren’t protecting anyone on a bender” and “what about us” and “I’m doing this for you” and “you should be grateful.” And Dean took apart the heating element of the stove, found a frayed wire, and it was such an easy fix once he got a new wire later.
They were still at it, with “never going to be like you” and “someday you’ll understand” and Dean forgot to use a towel to grab the heating coil, hissing “son of a bitch” and dropping the metal to the grimy tile, charred rust breaking off and scattering. And then it was “are you okay” and “let me see” and “not so bad” and “everything is fine.”
John put a gun in his waistband and left for the library. Dean let Sam eat the remaining half a box of Lucky Charms and tucked his own bag of peanut M&Ms into his brother’s backpack to make up for it.
Sam said the college thing was a joke, but Dean had seen the acceptances in his notebook. He wished Sam would just tell him already, because it wasn’t like Dean was going to be mad. He was the one who had snuck application money into Sam’s wallet, knuckles throbbing from the fight he got in after hustling enough cash for Sam to fill out as many applications as he wanted.
He’d listened to Sam read the essays out loud to proofread, even made some suggestions, and Sam had said they were for his English class, but Dean wasn’t fooled and Sam knew his brother well enough to know.
Dean had slipped a list of all the high schools Sam had attended, with addresses and phone numbers, into Sam’s bag the night after Sam threw a phone book across the room and bitched at his brother for having the TV too loud. Sam definitely knew that Dean knew.
If Sam would just tell him he was going to college, Dean would tell Sam he was proud. That he would be the smartest one there, that’s my geek boy, don’t forget to bang some co-eds while you’re there.
He wouldn’t tell Sam that he was hurt and sad and a little angry. That Dad was going to flip the fuck out and then get shitfaced. That he was already making up excuses to swing through California, looking up old legends and ghost stories and what might be a chupacabra out in the desert, saving them up for when he needed to see his brother.
Dean wouldn’t tell Sam any of that. He was proud, damn it, and all the rest could go to hell.
John’s boots made muddy tracks on the scrubbed-clean tiles of the kitchen floor, a red tinge to it speaking of more success than John was sharing.
“Never seen werewolves in a pack like this,” John said around the whiskey bottle as he took another gulp. “Fuck, careful!”
“Sorry,” Dean murmured, placing another stitch as gently as he could.
“Already been here almost three months and still haven’t got ‘em all,” John said, watching Dean sew up his shoulder.
“I can help,” Dean offered, but John shook his head.
“Not this time, kiddo,” he said, took another swig of whiskey. “Not til I have a better handle on it.”
Dean nodded, kept his gaze trained on his work as he placed the last few sutures. John handed him the whiskey bottle. “On three.”
He went on one. The anticipation always hurt more than the sting.
“Goddamn it, Dean,” John bellowed from the bathroom, over the hollow gurgling of the pipes and the trickle of the water. “Used all the fucking hot water again!”
Sam rolled his eyes, muttered though John had no chance of hearing through the door: “You’ve showered in the morning every day for twenty years.” Dean just shook his head.
It was the hot water heater. Dean found it in the hall closet, and took a look. Old pieces, held together with rust and grime. He found a flashlight in the kitchen and wedged himself into the closet. The pieces weren’t hot even though they should have been and he pried them apart.
“You know, it’s not his fault we live in this dump,” he heard Sam say, and actually gave in to the urge to roll his eyes because God but Sam would start a fight over anything. And John would always rise to the bait.
Dean didn’t actually know how these water heaters worked, but the problem seemed obvious. Two pieces with jagged edges, running against each other, trying to wear each other down, while all the debris built up between them. But take them apart, clean them, smooth the edges and let them fit, and it all ran smoothly again.
He listened to the rise and fall of deep voices, to the same words, same order, over and over again, and he cleaned up those pieces, took them apart, and put them back together. He heard two bedroom doors slam, heard shuffling and sighing and someone kicked at the ground, and then it was quiet, but still he worked.
It was early morning by the time he was done, and he’d be exhausted later at work.
But Sam woke up and had a hot shower before Dean made perfect scrambled eggs, and at least one morning went smoothly.
“Jesus, Dean, what are you doing?”
He was greasing the hinges on all the doors because John said Sam woke him up with the bathroom door. And Sam said that John was a paranoid bastard and normal people were allowed to pee in the middle of the night without getting a gun pulled on them. And while they were still yelling, Dean had pulled out the can of WD-40 he bought two days ago but hadn’t felt up to using and got to work.
But Dean was guessing Sam could probably see that. He raised his eyebrows.
“I’ll do that,” Sam said, snatching the can from Dean’s grasp, even though this was the last door left anyway. “Would you please just get back in bed?”
Dean sneezed and swayed on his feet, and suddenly Sam was crowding him, wrapping an arm around his blanketed shoulders and steering him back into their bedroom. Dean sat on the edge of his bed and peered up at his brother, blinking slowly. Sam palmed his forehead.
“God, you’re burning up. Who gets the flu in the middle of the fucking summer, anyway?” Sam pushed on Dean’s shoulders and he obediently lay down, let Sam cover him in blankets and put a wet cloth on his forehead.
“Just sleep, okay? I’ll call you in tomorrow,” Sam said, turning the clock to face away from Dean’s bed.
“It’s fine, I’ll be fine in the morning,” Dean muttered, trying to free an arm to reach for the clock, and having to pause to hack into his elbow.
“You’ve barely slept in weeks,” Sam said, and tucked the blankets back around Dean’s free arm, tighter this time like he was keeping his brother from escaping. “You don’t have to fix everything, you know?”
“Sure, Sammy,” Dean agreed, because some things weren’t meant to be fixed by anything but time.
He closed his eyes, listened to his own congested breaths, and he was almost asleep when Sam changed the cloth on his head, brushed a hand through his hair, and whispered “I’m so sorry, Dean. I have to do it, but I’m sorry.”
Dean woke up cold, feverish, aching and miserable and wished he had appreciated his last good morning for what it was. He wished he had known at the time, the last morning of feeling good, being healthy, having his whole family. He’d known it was one of the last, but he thought if he had known it was the very last, he might at least have made pancakes.
He listened to the shower run, stumbled out of bed when Sam came back to sit in a room still full of steam, clear his head. And when he came back out and saw Sam packing his bag, he knew what today was.
Dean insisted on making Sam breakfast, pancakes, even though he himself ate nothing, too anxious and nauseated to even want to try. Sam kept saying things like “c’mon man, sit down,” and “Dean, I can do this myself” but Dean persevered, pushing Sam away with “it’s fine” and “go away” and “bitch.”
Sam sat on the couch most of the day. He said he was reading, but mostly he was waiting. Dean was waiting too, but he couldn’t sit still, couldn’t let himself doze off, because these were the last few hours, and he couldn’t miss them.
He fixed the leaky pipes under the kitchen sink. Took them apart, cleaned the sink trap, put everything back together, to stay this time. He did the bathroom sink too because he already had the tools.
Dean was trembling with fever and Sam corralled him, herded him to the couch and plied him with juice and crackers. They watched some old sci-fi movie on TV but they came in halfway through, after everything had already fallen apart, and he couldn’t how it all went back together. He woke with a start at the end credits, slumped across the couch with Sam’s fingers in his hair and an apology echoing in his ears.
It was dark out by the time John returned from wherever he had spent the day, and Dean almost missed it except that Sam stood up, wordlessly held out a single sheet of paper, folded into thirds, creases well-worn.
The fight was so loud he thought the paint would crack and peel again. Thought the walls would come down, the pipes would burst, the world would cave in.
All the same words, all the same order, it was “Mom” and “soldiers” and “normal” and “don’t want to be you” and “you can’t stop me.”
It was “innocent people” and “have to do this” and “I didn’t raise you to be this way” and “you’re being so selfish.”
It was just sparring, a dance, it was a back and forth of jabs and dodges, the familiar rhythm, the words echoing around and around like there was nothing left in the world but Sam and John, two jagged pieces, running against each other, and all the things that had built up between.
It was “If you walk out that door, don’t you ever come back!”
It was the slam of the door and the echo of the last chord of a dance that ended on the wrong note.
John walked to the kitchen and cracked open a new bottle of whiskey. Dean watched him take three, four, five, six gulps, and then Dean followed Sam out into the night.
He was standing in the middle of the street, like he’d already forgotten everything Dean ever told him, “don’t play in the street,” “watch out for cars” and “please, Sammy, be careful.”
“Sam.” It sounded so strange in his voice, but this wasn’t Sammy, not anymore, not right now.
“You know I have to. You know that, right?” Sam said, and Dean nodded.
He reached into his pocket, pulled out a roll of bills. Dean’s money went to food, utilities, ammo, rent, and there wasn’t much leftover, but he skipped a few meals, turned out the lights, took some extra hours, because he knew. Sam had to, and he knew. He pushed the bills into Sam’s hand.
“Be careful, Sam,” he croaked past his sore throat. “Salt lines, at least. Don’t talk to strangers unless they’re hot. Call me when you get there.” He forced a whitewashed smile. “Call me and tell me about Russian vodka and the chalkboards, okay?”
Sam swallowed hard, nodded vigorously. He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again, reached out, pulled Dean into a hug. And then he shouldered his bag, turned, and walked away.
John flipped the fuck out, then he got shitfaced. And the next morning, John and Dean took hot showers, ate scrambled eggs that were not burnt at all, washed dishes in a sink that did not leak, turned out the lights on their smooth white walls, got in the Impala and never came back.
Sam called from Palo Alto with a new phone number and a smile in his voice.
Dean told himself it was better this way. He thought of the water heater, the sink, the stove, all of it. Of jagged pieces that didn’t quite fit, uneven edges running against each other, wearing each other down, of all the debris that built up between.
This was just how broken things worked. Sam had to go and Dean had to let him, because sometimes things had to be taken apart, in order to fit back together.