debbiel66: (Sam and Dean cloudy sky)
[personal profile] debbiel66
Title: The Road, Again
Author: debbiel66
Characters: Dean, Sam (refers to Lisa and Ben)
Spoilers: S5 spoilers all the way through to 5X22; AU Season 6
Rating: R (language) Gen
Word Count: 7600
Disclaimer: not mine
A/N: A huge thank you to [livejournal.com profile] callisto65 and [livejournal.com profile] ariadnes_string for the the wonderful beta!

Summary: Now comes the part they don’t teach you in hell…learning how to be brothers again.




The Road, Again



Then

A couple weeks before Dean moves out, Ben comes home from Sunday school with a story about some Jacob dude who beat down an angel. According to Ben, the guy didn’t really beat up the angel but more like wrestled him until the angel got tired and took Jacob out by messing up his hip.

It sounds unlikely, and Ben thinks the whole thing is stupid. First off, if angels are real—and that’s a big if—then wouldn’t they have wings and halos and be toting harps? What kind of guy would want to risk getting taken out by one? It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to be known for.

Dean hasn’t told Ben about angels. He and Lisa want Ben to stay a kid as long as he can, so they don’t talk about what Dean did before he came to live with them. Ben will learn the truth soon enough. Kids have to grow up sometime, but Dean is adamant that it’s not going to be on his watch.

So, Dean messes up Ben’s Sunday school hair and tells him to go outside and practice for soccer. Tryouts are coming up, and he should forget all about that dumbass angel crap and focus on the things that matter.

Out of habit more than precaution, Dean checks the room to see if anyone is listening, human or otherwise. It would be just like Cas to show up now to tell Dean he really shouldn’t lie to the boy. But Cas has been maintaining radio silence for over a year, and Dean figures Cas gets what he deserves if he’s bugging Lisa’s house.

Once the kid heads for the park, wearing his cleats and shin guards, Dean googles “Jacob and the angel” to see if the story checks out. It turns out to be legit. Not only did this Jacob dude wrestle with an angel and live to tell about it, he also ended up earning all sorts of eternal kudos.

And it pisses Dean off.

It isn’t fair. Sam takes down an angel—two angels!—he never gives up, and he gets damned for his trouble. Where is the justice in that?

The truth is that there is no justice, not on heaven or on earth, and that’s when Dean realizes that he’s done trying.

Nothing really changes. He keeps going to his job at the community center working with disadvantaged kids. He sometimes buys groceries, worries about the price of gas and electricity, shuttles Ben to the hundreds of places that Ben needs to go. He remembers to nod and ask follow-up questions when Lisa tells him about her day.

But Dean isn’t really there—truth is he’s never been there for her. Lisa deserves someone who loves her enough to fight for her—deserves a man who wants to wrestles angels for her. Dean is not that man. Without Sam, he’s not sure who he is any more.

Two weeks later, Lisa tells him that it’s time for him to move out of the house. He’s known this has been coming for a while, and Dean doesn’t even bother arguing. There’s no point. Everything he fought for in this world is gone. Dean is sick and tired of trying to pin angels to the ground to make them bless him and his brother.

Five days after he moves out, the world as he knows it comes to an irrevocable end.

Dean wakes up to the sound of his motel door creaking open. It’s Sam, bleary-eyed and shell-shocked Sam, who doesn’t flinch at the name of God, exorcisms, holy water, or at any other invocation from heaven or hell that Dean comes up with.

When he knows it is Sam, Dean hugs the crap out of his little brother and cries harder than he ever has his whole freaking life.

“What happened, Sammy?” he finally manages to whisper.

Sam just looks at him. “I won.”

And Dean doesn’t let him go.



***


Now


Sam is shivering again. He’s always cold. “Can you turn up the heat?” he asks. Even though eternal damnation didn’t turn out to be so eternal, a year hosting Lucifer seems to have screwed up Sam’s internal thermostat for good.

“Yeah sure, Sammy.” Dean’s shirt is stuck to his skin with sweat, but he’ll turn up the friggin’ heat anyway. The rattling in the vent makes him ruefully shake his head. One of these days, he’s gotta pry the vent up and get the damn Legos out of there.

Sam slumps against the door. He sleeps more than he’s awake these days, like he’s making up for lost time. Dean remembers they never let you sleep in hell…it must be a little too much like grace for demons.

Dean cracks the window a little because he’s gotta breathe. It’s mid-August, and the car was warm before, but Dean isn’t gonna bitch about it. He will never forget Lucifer’s pitchfork traced on frosted glass, and he has no idea what it would feel like to have that kind of cold running through your veins, crystallizing underneath your skin.

“You can put a tape in. Just don’t turn it up too loud.”

Dean glances over, surprised. Sam hasn’t been able to handle music playing. The first time Dean tried playing Zepellin, it was like Sam was coming out of his own skin. He couldn’t even sit still, squeezing his arms, rubbing his hands obsessively back and forth over his jeans, scrunching up his entire face like he was having a freakin’ vision again.

“Whatcha in the mood for?” Dean asks, trying to sound casual about it.

“You choose.”

Dean grabs a tape from the box and shoves it in. He’s gotta smile when Metallica comes on—it’s been way too long. Lisa never liked his music all that much. Ben did, but Dean never really wanted to listen to it without Sam anyway.

Dean drums his fingers against the wheel and hums a little, because he’s not up for singing. Sam’s already asleep. It’s not normal exactly, but it’s better than it was just a few weeks ago, when Dean first got Sam back. Their “new normal”. It’s a start. Dean lets the open road take him where it wants to.


***



If Hell left its mark on Sam’s body, then Dean can’t find it. There is no angel’s handprint, no demonic birthmark, no physical landmark of his time in the pit.

But Sam is plenty screwed. His senses are all fucked up for one thing. There’s the constant feeling of being too cold and his hyperactive hearing, but there’s also the fact that ordinary sunshine makes Sam’s eyes feel like they’re burning.

Just because they both went to hell, doesn’t mean they had the same experiences or came back the same way. Sam doesn’t want to talk about it, and Dean doesn’t push. Instead, he buys Sam sunglasses at gas stations, hoping to find a pair that will actually help, but Sam says the pain comes from the inside out. And Dean totally gets that—he does.

Dean knows there are things that have no words. Not a single living soul understands what hell was like but the two of them.

Dean rubs his eyes with one hand, keeps the other on the wheel. He’s so freakin’ tired. They’ve been driving through the night, even though they’ve got no place they need to be. It’s the only thing that feels right—being on the road with his brother. And Sam sleeps better with the car moving than parked, so Dean just keeps going.

They haven’t called Bobby to tell him that Sam’s back. Dean feels bad about that, but he’s afraid to take any chances with Bobby so active in the hunting community. Bobby’s the big man on campus these days. The guy got a shot off at the devil, helped stop the apocalypse, that sort of crap. It’s not like Bobby’s the one bragging about it, but the hunting community is like junior high all over again, and Bobby’s one of the popular kids. He attracts too much attention. Dean doesn’t want to bring any of that attention on Sam.

There’s no way that Bobby would ever do anything intentionally to hurt Sam now that he’s back, but some of his hunting buddies might be up for bagging Sam’s head for a trophy on their wall. Dean can’t risk it. He remembers Sam’s body on the other twin bed after Roy and Walt killed him. There’s nothing to say they won’t try again or another hunter won’t step in to finish the job that they screwed up.

Dean will tell Bobby eventually…just not now. It was hard enough telling Lisa that Sam was back, that he was hitting the road.

“Dean?” Sam is looking over at him, hair hanging in his half-lidded eyes. “It’s the middle of the night. Where are we going?”

Truth is that Dean has no fucking clue. There is no plan, and he’s just figuring it out as he goes. Maybe it’ll be enough. After all, they saved the world with less.

“Go to back to sleep,” Dean says.


***



It’s been a long time since a motel’s vacancy sign looked like home, but Dean is bone tired. They’ve been driving for two days straight without making a stop for anything more than food and gas, and even though Sam seems to be able to sleep anywhere, Dean has gotten used to sleeping in a bed.

The past year has made him soft, waking up every morning to fresh hot coffee and cereal with cold milk from the fridge. It’s a good thing he never really knew what he’d missed until now—it might have been enough to break him. Dean parks the car and resists the urge to check for missed messages. It’s not like she is supposed to be calling him, but he does miss the sound of her voice.

He wonders what they’re doing right now. Whether they’ve gone out to buy school supplies yet. School starts up next week, and Ben can’t fit into last year’s clothes. Kid was growing like a weed when he left. Sam didn’t start growing like that until later. It’s funny to think of Sam as a late bloomer, but he was.

Dean wonders if he should send something—a new backpack, some electronic crap. Maybe he’s into something new by now. Kids grow up a lot, and it’s already been over a month. Ben’s already started soccer practice, even though the season doesn’t start until September. The last time he called her, Lisa says Ben was doing well as a defender but that he needs to practice dribbling. Lisa is a better soccer player than Dean ever had any hope of being, so he doesn’t pretend that his being there would have helped the kid’s game, but he could have watched and cheered on the sidelines.

Damn, he hates this…

“Dean—what’s going on?” Sam is waking up next to him. He’s got a blanket wrapped all around him, even though the air in the car is muggy and way too warm. He blinks and takes in the familiar setting—the flickering motel light, the check in sign, the mostly empty parking lot. “Why aren’t we getting out?”

Dean goes for the easy answer. “Just thinking about how much money we’ve got. Making sure we have enough for the night.”

Last he checked, he had about a thousand dollars of credit on his last remaining card. He used to have an American Express card with Lisa, but they closed out all their joint accounts before he left. She wanted him to keep his name on their bank account until he got himself established, but he’d turned her down.

Now he’s gotta admit she had a point. Having one year of a traceable work history for over thirty years of life doesn’t exactly cut much weight with lenders. He has no way of paying off what he owes on the card.

“We don’t have to stay in a motel. We could just pull over somewhere. I don’t mind.”

“Well, I do mind—sorry Sammy. I’m not up for sleeping in the car again.”

Sam pulls the blanket tighter around his shoulders. “You should have stayed where you were, Dean. Lisa—she was good for you. I don’t get what you’re doing, staying here with me.”

Dean stares. Sam’s little speech is practically an oration compared to his normal monosyllabic responses. It’s not like he’s rude—he just doesn’t talk that much any more.

“Dude. Lisa and I were over before I even knew you were alive. Don’t go guilt-tripping about it. You and me are done with that sort of shit.”

“Would you have left Indiana if it wasn’t for me coming back?”

Dean sighs—he’s just too tired for this crap. Sam always had terrible sense of timing for his caring and sharing sessions. “Sammy, it’s over. I tried. Believe me, I did. I kept my promise, and you can’t hold me to more than that.”

Dean cannot believe that Sam is actually scowling at him.

“I know you loved her.”

“Damnit, Sam…I’m not talking about this. I’m just worried about the money, that’s all.”

“Fine.” Sam crosses his arms over his chest, and honest to God, he’s pouting. “We could apply for new cards.”

“I don’t run credit scams any more.”

“Fuck, I’ll do it then,” Sam grumps, his jaw twitching rebelliously. “It’s not like I’m trying out for altar boy any time soon.”

Dean rolls his eyes, but he is amused and enormously reassured by his brother’s tone of voice. It hints that some of the old bitchy Sammy is still in there lying dormant underneath the hell-worn shell.

He leans over and smacks Sam upside the head like he used to when Sam was a dumbass kid, about to do something stupid. Sam ducks and glares a little more.

“Look Sammy—we have enough to pay for tonight. We probably have enough for the rest of the week, and when we run out, we’ll figure out what to do then. We can hustle some pool, come up with something. We’ll earn our keep, I swear it.”

Still glaring, Sam says, “Okay.”

Dean does a double take. “Okay?”

“I’m agreeing with you, jerk.” Sam is already opening the car door. “Just don’t get used to it.”

Like Dean could get used to anything with his pain-in-the-ass little brother around.


***



It turns out that Ben left his DSI game controller somewhere in the trunk. It’s gotta be wedged in there deep because Dean has taken everything out, and he still can’t find it. They would never have known it was there but for the fact that it comes to life every now and then, playing something that sounds vaguely like a Broadway show tune.

That’s what Sam claims at least. Leave it to Sam to know what a Broadway show tune sounds like.

They are crossing the Oregon border when it starts up again. Sam looks over almost guiltily. “It’s gotta be some WiFi thing that activates it. If you pull over, I could probably find it while it’s playing.”

“Driving, Sam. I’m not stopping to look for the freakin’ game.”

“We could buy Ben another one.”

“That’s all Ben needs,” Dean grumbles. “More electronic crap.”

He doesn’t want to be that kind of person in Ben’s life—the kind who takes him to baseball games when he’s in town and sends stuff to make up for the fact that he isn’t there. Adam taught him that much—that maybe the only thing worse than having John Winchester for a dad is not having John Winchester for a dad…

Sam clears his throat. “Lisa might take you back, you know. It doesn’t have to be too late.”

Dean turns and glowers at his brother. “Forget it, Sam. Drop it.”

Dean doesn’t have time for this bullshit, and besides, the DSI is already slowing down…most likely, the batteries are dying. Right now, it sounds like some freak show carnival dirge. Probably that stupid Mario game or something.

No matter how much Dean had taken up Ben’s case, Lisa wouldn’t let Ben play with war games. Said there was enough violence in the world without turning it into a game for little kids. Dean didn’t like the way she glared at him when she said it, but he didn’t argue. It was one thing, among many, that they’d agreed to disagree about. In the end, the list had just gotten too freakin’ long.

Sam, however, is like a border collie with his ball stuck in a tree. “C’mon, man, you had an okay life with her. I’ve never known you to give up.”

Dean grips the steering wheel so hard it hurts, but it’s better than decking his brother. He and Sam don’t hurt each other any more. Not physically, at least. “This isn’t giving up.”

“Then what is it?”

Dean has been holding it in for too long. “It’s living, you stupid sonofabitch! I have what I want. Why is it so hard for you to figure that out?”

Sam just stares. “But the house…Ben and Lisa…”

Dean swears under his breath and pulls off over he crashes his car because his idiot brother is pushing all his freakin’ buttons.

“Goddamn it Sam, do you really think I’d be better off without you?”

“It’s not that—it’s just you were good with them, and there was a chance. I never wanted—”

Dean raises his hand, silencing all that inarticulate crap. “I’m only gonna say it once, Sammy, so you better listen.”

“Dean, you don’t have—”

“I mean it. Shut the fuck up or I swear I’m gonna give you that beat-down I owe you.”

“Okay, I’m listening.”

Dean scowls at his little brother, just daring him to interrupt. “Lisa and I broke up before you came back, remember? I wasn’t even living in the house. She and I both tried, but it didn’t work. It wasn’t my life. I want this, Sam. I want you. Now please don’t make me talk about it anymore, you’re driving me crazy.”

A small, pleased smile lifts the corners of Sam’s lips. “You missed me.”

Dean throws his hands in the air. “Seriously, kill me now.”

“Asshole,” Sam says, but he’s still smiling.

Then he closes his eyes. Dean can tell by the furrowed forehead that Sam’s not trying to go to sleep. It’s just that the light is bothering him again. Sam says the sensitivity been fading, but it’s still there. It could be so much worse. All of this life could hurt Sam, and not just the bright and shiny parts. Dean lets out the breath he’s been holding and pulls back onto the two-lane highway.

He can hear the music from Ben’s game controller winding down in the back. It’s true that if he looked for it, he could probably find the damn thing, but he doesn’t try very hard. There’s a part of Dean that likes it on the road with them, surging on and off at unpredictable moments. It’s kind of a talisman, like Dad’s phone was for years…reminds him of what he’s lost. Then he glances over at Sam.

He’s not forgetting what he’s got, either.

***


“I know things,” Sam announces one night, on a boring stretch of dark road, no oncoming headlights in sight.

“Good for you, Sammy,” Dean says with a smirk. “Glad to know all that education paid off for you.”

Sam’s forehead furrows, and oh shit, he’s serious. “Bad things, Dean.”

Dean does not want to hear this. But suddenly thinks about Sammy as a little kid, constantly proclaiming to the world how much he knew. He would tell it to everyone—amused truck drivers, benevolent waitresses, unimpressed motel clerks.

Most of all, Sam would tell it to Dean. Again and again and again….


“I know everything.”

“Nobody knows everything, buttface. Not even Dad.”

“I do.”

“That’s stupid. You don’t know how buildings are made.”

“I do. I really do.”

“No you don’t. You don’t know how car engines run.”

“I do. I read it in a book.”

“Books don’t know crap. Besides, you can’t read.”

“I look at the pictures. And books know everything, so that’s how I learn it..”

“I thought you were the one who knew everything.”

“I do. I know what I don’t know.”



And honest to God, Dean never knew how to argue with that.

“Dean, are you listening?”

Dean sighs. “I’m always listening, Sam.”

“Yeah, right.” Dean notices that Sam’s shivering again, even wearing a jacket, so he reaches for the heat.

“I’m listening now, all right? Go ahead—emote away.”

“Thanks,” Sam says dryly. He is quiet, looks out the window instead of talking. It’s something Dean has noticed about his brother since he’s been back. Sam doesn’t have the same sense of urgency that he used to. He’s rarely in a hurry.

“C’mon dude. I’m waiting. Spit it out.”

Sam looks down and bites his lip. Dean can tell that he doesn’t really want to say it. And truth be told, Dean isn’t sure that he wants to hear it.

“I know about evil,” Sam says at last.

“No shit, Sammy. Evil wore you.”

“It’s not that.” Sam is starting to look pissed, which Dean is oddly grateful for because pissed is better than the alternative. “It’s something else I learned…you know…while I was…there. In Hell.”

“Sam, just tell me.”

Then Sam just blurts it out, “I know why God created the potential for evil.”

It’s not at all what he expected, and Dean shudders instinctively. There’s a knowing look on Sam’s face, and it’s not at all pleasant.

For an awful instant, Dean feels like he’s back at Stull Cemetery again. He can almost feel Sam’s fist pounding into his face, crushing skin and muscle, Sam’s soul lost to pure evil.

No. Dean has enough issues with God without knowing there was a reason for what happened to Sam—that it was done on purpose by a God who is still missing in action.

The heat blasting out of the vents is too much. Dean can’t breathe, and he cranks down the window, sucking in fresh air, hoping he can’t die from his heart exploding out of his chest. Because—honestly? He can’t deal with this right now. He doesn’t want Sam to be an expert on evil. He just wants Sam to be his little brother again.

“I know it’s kind of a big deal,” Sam says quietly.

“Gee, Sam, you think?” Dean wipes at his eyes, which are just red and irritated by all the driving. There is no way he’s crying again.

“Do you want me to tell you?”

“No!” Dean snaps. And he doesn’t. Isn’t it enough that together, they saved the world? Do they really have to have all the freakin’ answers on top of that?

“Are you pissed at me?”

“No, I’m not pissed…I’m just kind of freaked.” Dean places both hands on the wheel and pleads, “Look, dude. All that crap they put you through, Sammy…I know it’s bad. Believe me, I know. You and me…we’re okay. We’ve got time to make sense of the rest.”

Sam looks for all the world like that little kid who had all the freakin’ answers, but he doesn’t look smug about it this time.

Sam bites his lip and nods. “I can wait. I’m not going anywhere.”


***



Sam gets sick, and Dean can tell that he is almost relieved. Demons don’t get sick, but people do. There’s nothing like the common cold to establish one’s fucked up humanity.

Sam has always been snotty as hell when he’s sick, and this time is no different. Dean tosses a box of Kleenex onto his lap after they stop for gas. It’s the girly kind with some kind of lotion built in, but Sam’s nose gets all chapped and red anyway.

Sam tries to hide the worst of it, but by the way he’s sneezing and hacking away, Dean can tell he’s miserable. Sam needs a break, and this more than anything overrides Dean’s worry to spend the rest of their money.

While filling up the tank, Dean calls home—reminds himself it’s not home any more—and Lisa insists on paying for the motel room after he tells her about Sam being sick. Dean says no at first. He doesn’t want to take money from her and Ben. It’s bad enough he’s not helping out anymore. Bad enough she’s living this life alone, and Dean now understands enough about the civilian world to know it’s not easy.

But Lisa tells him, “It’s not for you. It’s for Sam. Don’t you think he deserves to sleep in a real bed when he’s sick, after all he’s been through?”

It’s not fair because there’s nothing Dean can say to that. Lisa always liked Sam. Always said she would’ve been happy to have had Sam live with them, be part of the family. Dean never told her exactly what happened to Sam in the cemetery outside Lawrence, but she knew it was bad.

He whispers his thanks and closes his eyes when she puts Ben on the phone.

Ben warms up after a couple minutes, and Dean listens to the boy moan about school starting up. He tells Ben not to worry about his soccer team. He’ll be awesome, the best player on the team, Dean just knows it.

Ben doesn’t sound so sure, but he says it’s cool. He’ll try, but he’s gotta go. Someone’s at the door, and his mom’s calling him. Dean stares at the caller ID on his screen for a long moment before he brings himself to end the call.

Dean finds a decent motel on the outskirts of a sprawling town. Their room has a kitchenette, so Dean heats up a mug of soup in the tiny microwave and dares Sam to bitch about it. Sam isn’t up for bitching though. Sam sleeps and sneezes and sleeps some more, and it’s pretty boring.

So Dean spreads maps over the table and draws Xs over all the places they’ve been. He circles the places they’ve saved. It looks like an out of control Tic Tac Toe game by the time he’s done and the Xs are ahead, but it’s kind of satisfying looking at it, knowing he and Sam have made a difference.

But Sam isn’t getting better. He starts wheezing when he coughs, and Dean remembers the asthma that used to flare up every time the kid got a freakin’ cold. You would think that going to hell would have manned-up Sammy’s lungs, but no. It seems that asthma, like damnation, is eternal.

Dean makes Sam drink caffeinated soda and buys him over-the-counter inhalers, but it’s only getting worse. Sam’s lungs rattle when he coughs, and he says his chest feels tight. He’s even wheezing in his sleep, struggling to get enough air, and his pulse is going way too fast.

Dean steps outside and calls Lisa for advice. Less than an hour later, he’s waiting in an emergency room with his wheezing brother.

It’s pretty freakin’ ironic. With everything Sam has been through in the past few years—dying a few times, getting the crap beaten out of him, concussions, stab wounds, asphyxiations, blood-letting, addiction and detox, not to mention going to hell and back—Sam hasn’t landed in a hospital ER since Dad died.

Sam took out the devil, and now he’s being taken out by a cold. It would be funny if Dean wasn’t getting pretty damn freaked out by the fact that his little brother can’t breathe.

Dean tries to stay calm, but Sam is a mess—eyes watering, nostrils flaring and nose running, dry coughing so violently, he’s gagging and retching. Sam is drenched in sweat, which hasn’t happened since he got back from Hell.

Apparently, asthma is considered a true emergency, and the triage nurse doesn’t even bother with the paperwork. By the time she’s done taking Sam’s temperature and getting his blood pressure, there’s an attendant in the doorway with a wheelchair, and they’re taking Sam away.

Dean tries to follow, but triage nurse blocks his way. “Don’t worry, hon. Your brother is going to be fine. They’ll get him started on Atrovent, and he’ll be feeling better soon. You made the right call, bringing him in before it got worse. Asthma can get out of control pretty fast.”

Dean doesn’t realize he’s still moving forward after Sam until he feels her hand on his shoulder. “Seriously,” she says kindly. “He’ll be fine.” She goes back to her desk after Dean takes a deep breath and takes the clipboard she’s handing him.

Dean tries to fill in the blanks, but his brain isn’t cooperating. He reminds himself that this is how life works—the exhausting and terrifying real life he’s been stuck in for the past year, where people get sick and bills have to be paid and kids leave their toys behind in the wilderness of the family car. This life isn’t cheap. It’s costly, and Dean is so poorly prepared for it, it’s not even funny.

He stares at the section asking for insurance information. He has no idea how he’s going to pay for this. It’s not like Sam came back from hell fully insured, and Dean doesn’t have any fake insurance cards anymore. Ironically, Dean is still insured as Lisa’s domestic partner, but that doesn’t do Sam much good.

When he’s done with the forms, he calls Lisa back and tells her what’s going on. She says him he’s doing the right thing by his brother and that he’s a good man. He hangs up, feeling more shaken than he did before.

Dean has no idea what it means to be a good man. All he knows is that he’s tried to be a good brother.

So he sits back on the orange plastic chair and tries to smile at the triage nurse who is still studying him with unrelenting concern. He rubs the heels of his palms against his eyes. Tells himself it’s okay—it’s good. Sam is going to be fine. It is just life. Nobody said it was going to be easy.


***



The antibiotics and inhalers kick in after a couple days, and Sam starts feeling better. He tells Dean that he wants to go to San Francisco. It’s the first time that Sam has asked to go anywhere other than back to Indiana, so Dean just shrugs and starts packing. He has no idea why Sam would want to go to San Francisco, but Sam simply says they’re already in the state, and it’s a place he never thought he would see again.

It’s true that they haven’t been to San Francisco since Madison, but they’ve both lost so much since then that Dean believes it will be okay. In hindsight, the year before Cold Oak was a good year compared to what came after. San Francisco doesn’t have worse memories than anywhere else.

It’s not long after Dean drives over the Golden Gate and into the fog, before they realize that being in a city makes Sam feel like he’s coming out of his skin. There’s something about the rusted out cars parked on sidewalks, the sprawling graffiti, and broken glass. Sam says he feels like the walls of the tall buildings are closing in.

“I can feel the demon blood in me,” he whispers, and that’s all it takes. Dean is getting the hell out the city.

PTSD isn’t something that just goes away overnight—Dean knows that more than anyone.

They head out over the Bay Bridge, out of the fog, through a tunnel, and into sunny suburbia on either side of the freeway. It’s not as good as being in the middle of nowhere, but Sam starts to breathe easily again even though he’s squinting painfully at the sun, and Dean feels himself begin to relax as well. The sun is already going down. They’re going to have to think about where to stop for the night.

They have money for a room if they want to spend it. After he’d talked to Lisa at the hospital, Dean had broken down and called Bobby. Dean doesn’t think he has ever heard another human being as pissed off and overjoyed in his entire life as Bobby was when he took that call. Bobby threatened to kick Dean’s ass for about fifteen minutes before telling him that he was sending enough money to pay for the medical bills and to keep them going for a while. Dean had insisted that they didn’t need his money.

But Bobby swore at him some more and said, “Consider it a bonus for saving the goddamn world and all. But you two idjits better haul ass and come visit me if you know what’s good for you, or I’m gonna track you down myself.” Dean heard Bobby’s voice break. “Dean…you gotta tell Sam…”

But Bobby couldn’t get out the rest out, and he’d finally just hung up on him..

So thanks to Bobby, they’ve got enough money for a room, but Dean doesn’t want to spend it if they don’t need to. He’s gotta think about things like prescription refills and decent food for Sam. Funyuns and beer aren’t going to help Sam kick this thing. The ER doctor lit into him for not carrying an emergency inhaler. Sam had protested that he hadn’t had an attack in years, but the doc said it only took one time. Inhalers cost fifty bucks a pop, even generic, not to mention the antibiotics and all Sam’s Nyquil crap.

Dean figures it’s time to start hustling pool again. He’s still not willing to run credit scams. With their shared credit history, there’s too much of a risk that any fraud could get traced back to Lisa if they got caught.

Dean takes the off ramp and glances over at Sam, his face is half lit by the setting sun. Just like that, Dean doesn’t give a crap about their dwindling cash flow because it’s a freakin’ miracle that Sam is here at all.

It’s a miracle that they’re both here, in the Impala, on a road that could take them anywhere. It’s kind of awesome, in the old biblical sense of the word. And Dean feels something in his chest loosen a little like maybe he can breathe again.

But Sam is looking around, confused. “What are you doing? Why are we getting off the freeway?”

“We need to find a place for the night.”

“We’re running low on cash aren’t we?”

Dean shrugs. “We have enough.”

“Bullshit,” Sam mumbles, not buying it.

But Dean doesn’t care. Sam is tired. The ER doc said Sam has to take it easy, so the asthma doesn’t flare up again. “We’ll get a room,” he says. “No big deal.”

“We could pull over,” Sam suggests. “Park somewhere.”

“Not around here.” Already, they’ve passed a brand new mall and condominium complex. “Trust me…I just spent the last year in this kind of place. They arrest you if you’re not driving a hybrid. We’re gonna have to find a room.”

“We could camp,” Sam says quietly.

Dean stares. “Here? You wanna pitch a tent in the Target parking lot?”

Sam aims an irritated look at Dean before coughing worrisomely into his elbow. Dean hates that friggin’ cough more than he can say.

When he gets himself together, Sam says, “There’s open space at the end of this road.” Sam points vaguely east at a mountain range not too far away, glowing pink from the reflection of the setting sun. “It’s a state park—they’ve got campgrounds. It’s not free, but it’s cheaper than a room.”

“And you know this because….”

“Jess’s parents live out here.” Sam shrugs. “We used to come out for the weekend. Jess liked to camp, so sometimes we’d do an overnighter in the hills.”

Dean tries not to laugh. “No friggin’ way. You hate camping. You used to bitch every time Dad got out the tent.”

“It’s different camping with your girlfriend than with your marine sergeant father,” Sam retorts. “Besides, it’s not like I hated camping with you.”

Dean has to think about that. He definitely remembers Sam’s griping when they were kids. But if he thinks about it, he can’t really remember the last time Sam complained about camping out, whether it was the two of them stretched out on the hood of the car or whether they took the trouble to pitch a tent. He had always assumed Sam hated camping. Never thought about the fact that maybe Sam had changed.

“You’re still sick,” he says, swearing under his breath as the light turns red before he can make it through the intersection. He really hates driving in “planned communities” with their pre-programmed signals. It’s gonna take a half hour to drive a mile.

“I’m fine,” Sam says indignantly. “C’mon, Dean, I survived Hell. I think I can survive a cold. Besides, it’ll be fun.”

Dean hasn’t heard the word “fun” come out of his little brother’s mouth in as long as he can remember. That alone is almost enough to make him agree on the spot.

So he heads toward the state park because Sam wants him to.

Because it might be fun.

“Christo,” he mutters under his breath just to be on the safe side. He tries not to smile when Sam starts cracking up.


***


Dean cannot stop laughing.

“It’s not that funny,” Sam snaps, still glowering.

But it is funny. It really is. Because Sammy’s campsite…his friggin’ state park is named Mount Diablo. Which translates, of course, into Devil Mountain.

Somehow, while camping in the great outdoors with his girlfriend, Sam had missed that little detail.

Sam is freaked by the name at first and thinks it’s a portent, but Dean is damned if he’s gonna let the devil decide what he’s gonna do and where he’s gonna go. Lucifer is locked up tight in his cage. Let him rot there. Dean is going camping with his little brother.

So Dean pays the overnight fees and drives past the friggin’ gate, ignoring Sam’s panicked, “Dean, are you sure?”

Dean floors it up the mountain road. “We won, Sammy. ’Bout time we start acting like we did.”

Dean drives past their assigned camping site, over winding miles of golden, summer-baked grass until they get to the summit. Dean parks far enough off the main road so a ranger won’t spot the car, and they climb out to take a look around. It’s a gorgeous, pink and gold twilight, and they can see all the way to the fog rolling past the Golden Gate in the west and over to the Sierras in the east. The warm wind whips Sam’s hair in his eyes, but for once, he doesn’t look like he’s freezing.

Dean checks his cell and is bummed that there’s no service. It’s a shame he can’t tell Ben about this view. Ben would love this place. The three of them had gone hiking a few times, and Dean wishes he’d let himself enjoy it more than he did.

In hindsight, it’s one of the main things that Dean regrets. He is sorry that he let his soul-rending grief for Sam overshadow what he had with Lisa and Ben. It was never fair to them, and it wasn’t fair to him either. But Lisa and Ben had deserved someone who loved them more than anyone else, and Dean could never give them that.

But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s sorry.

Sam is pulling the green cooler out of the trunk, and he fishes out two dripping bottles of beer, handing one to Dean and keeping the other for himself.

“Are you supposed to be drinking that?” Dean asks pointedly.

“Dude, I’m taking antibiotics and asthma meds, not narcotics,” Sam says with a bit of a smile.

“Yeah, all right. Just drink it slow.” Dean doesn’t want him to start wheezing again.

Sam climbs on the hood of the Impala and scoots over to make room. The sun is going down. If they’re going to pitch their tent, they’d better do it soon. They could always sleep in the car, but Dean thinks it would be better for Sam to be able to stretch out.

But for right now, Dean just wants to finish his beer and enjoy the view. Wait a little longer for the stars to come out. It’s been a long time.

But then Sam says quietly, “There’s a haunted Toys R Us in Indiana.”

“There’s always a haunted Toys R Us. It never turn out to be anything,” Dean retorts, scowling at Sam. He is not going back to Indiana.

Stubborn sonofabitch that he is, Sam says, “You can go back and see them, you know.”

Dean finishes off his beer, wishing he had something stronger. He’s been trying to cut back on the drinking. Lisa had asked him to stop drinking so much. Since Sam came back, it’s been a helluva lot easier to keep that promise.

“What if I don’t want to go back?” he asks.

“You want to. You know you do.”

“Sam, I can’t.” Dean rubs at his face, feeling suddenly weary again. “I can’t keep jerking her around. Lisa told me to go. It was her decision, and she was right.” Dean forces himself to look Sam in the eye because it’s important that Sam know this. “It was the right thing for me too. Sammy…this is the life I want. I’m choosing this. You’re not forcing me into anything.”

Sam snorts. “You act like it’s gotta be all or nothing.”

“Because with our lives, our lifestyle, that’s the way it’s gotta be. I love her,” Dean says, knowing it’s the truth, even as he says it. “But I didn’t love her enough.”

“Are you sure?”

“I know what love is, dumbass.”

Sam rolls his eyes but doesn’t bother arguing with that. “You could be her friend,” he says. “You could give them that.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It is that simple,” Sam says. “Dude, I’d come with you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I think we’ve got it pretty well established that neither of us does very well on our own.”

Dean stares at his brother. He has no idea what to say. So he turns slowly and watches the sun set over the distant bay while he thinks it over. It honestly has never occurred to him that Sam would be willing to stay, no matter what. If the choice is Sam or being there for Lisa and Ben, then Dean will choose Sam every time.

But this…this changes things.

The sun is down when Dean says, “Ben wants me to come to Back to School Night. It’s in September. I know it’s a long way to go just for a stupid school thing…”

“We’ll go,” Sam says right away.

Something in Dean’s chest eases up, like he’s finally able take a deep breath. “I guess we’d better take a look into that Toys R Us while we’re there. Don’t want any little kids getting hurt by a friggin’ poltergeist.”

“It’s an easy gig,” Sam says agreeably. “Salt and burn.”

Dean swallows. “Sammy, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

“You think I do?” Sam scoffs. He leans back until his head his rests against the windshield. “Dean, I don’t even know how I got through the day.”

Sam zips up his jacket and pulls the hood over his head, and Dean frowns. If Sam can’t handle California in August, then how the hell will he handle Indiana or anywhere else for that matter?

“Sam…”

“I’m okay,” Sam says quietly, tilting his head toward Dean. “It’s just gonna take time.”

Dean takes a long, hard look at his brother…and then chooses to believe him. Because maybe, that’s how it ends when you take on angels. Maybe you don’t get eternal kudos. But maybe it turns out okay in the end anyway.

Dean’s not fooling himself—it’s over with Lisa. They gave it a shot, and it didn’t work out for either one of them. But they’re friends. They like each other’s company. It wouldn’t hurt for Dean to drop by and visit every now and then. Besides, there’s an apartment complex that does weekly rentals not far from Lisa’s neighborhood. They liked Dean at the community center. Said he did good work with the kids. Maybe they’d hire him back. Maybe Sam could work there too when they weren’t on a job.

Or maybe Sam could just hang out and get better. He could read some books or take an online class. Maybe he could practice soccer with Ben. Dean knows that Sammy used to be good—he got a trophy as the team’s MVP. Sammy’s coach had pointed him out as the best defender on the team during the one game Dean had watched.

Sam had been all over that field, playing awesome defense. It would be the end of the world if the ball got past Sammy Winchester—that’s what the coach had said.

Nothing gets past Sam. Just thinking about it makes Dean smile.


The End



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August 2011

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