Thanks to Hal for beta.
Sam and Dean in the aftermath. Future fic.
Down Like Water
He hadn't planned on stopping, just wanted to get a glimpse of Sam and verify he was still breathing. It wasn't the kind of place Dean pictured for Sam, with its log cabin frame and red pipe roof, two floors high and encased on either side by trees. The hood was covered in pine fronds in the hour he'd been sitting here, California's version of an autumn fall, and he could smell the ocean through the open window.
He'd seen this movie before, played his own part in it. Not a habit he wanted to get into, particularly if they were just going to spin through it all again in ten years. But then he was on the second floor in front of the apartment number Sam left on his voicemail three months ago. When the door opened it wasn't Sam but a woman, tall with brown hair and curves and a paint-splattered tee-shirt.
"Hi," she said, adding an orange streak to the others by wiping her hand on her shirt. "Sorry, we're just painting the office. Are you from the school? Is Sam expecting you?"
"I'm pretty sure not," Dean said.
Her eyes was friendly but quizzical when he didn't elaborate, then Dean caught sight of Sam in the hallway behind her, paintbrush in his knife hand. "Hey," Dean said, as if he'd last seen Sam two hours ago instead of two years.
He'd filled out a bit, no longer as out of step with his frame, and the rest of him seemed perfectly aligned with his setting. Multiple Sams from over the years rolled into one. The woman had stepped back to let him in, but Dean stayed where he was, wondering that he couldn't read Sam's expression, if it had been that long.
"Kate, this is my brother, Dean."
"So I gathered," Kate said, and Dean refocused his attention to her. Not smoking hot but pretty, even with her hair pulled back and covered in paint. Her smile was curious but thankfully non-intrusive. "Don't mind the mess. We had to clear everything out of the office."
To Dean's eyes the place didn't look messy but lived in. Books were stacked on the floor of the hallway along with a lamp and a pile of loose CDs. Sam still hadn't told him to come in, and Kate was beginning to look uncomfortable holding the door open, then Sam said, "You want a beer?"
"Yeah," Dean said, and Kate closed the door behind him.
Sam ducked through a door next to the entrance, presumably to get rid of the paintbrush, then crossed through an open arch to what was probably the kitchen. Dean remained in the entranceway, walls a little too confining for his taste, and looked at Kate. A few dozen lines zipped through his head but bottomed out against the incongruity of the setting and the fact that she was sleeping with his brother.
"I'm just going to finish up," she said, resolving the dilemma.
He found Sam at the counter of the kitchen, leveraging an opener on two bottles of beer. Dean took one and leaned back against the counter's edge. "So what's going on?"
"Dean," Sam said, his tone telling Dean to cut out the bullshit; he wasn't playing along. "You want to tell me what you're doing here?"
"Hey, I can't stop in to say hi? Check in on little brother?"
"Sure, you can, but you don't."
Dean shrugged, swallowed some beer. "Call me unpredictable. Nice place, by the way," he said, looking around the small kitchen crowded with cookbooks, a few bowls, and a wine rack under the cabinets. He'd never liked kitchens. "So law school, huh."
"Second year," Sam said, the wariness in his voice strong enough to make Dean wince.
Kate's voice carried in from the office. "Sam, can I borrow you? I need your height."
Sam put his beer on the counter. "I'll be right back," he said, as if Dean was likely to slip out the door again as soon as he left, which, all things considered, was pretty astute.
Dean wandered into the living room, beer in hand. A pair of french doors looked out onto a balcony the size of a small deck, a skyline of treetops above the railing. The room was light and could have been cut from the pages of Decor&Style, which he knew because of the blonde he'd shacked up with in Lincoln who'd wanted to be an interior designer. She used to cut out pictures of furniture from magazines, things like chairs and tables and bathtubs, and spread them out on the bed and his chest like a giant dollhouse.
A narrow table stood flush against one wall, cluttered with pictures. Kate and some people he didn't know; Sam and some people he didn't know. Sam and Kate together. He picked up the photo propped up behind it, taken at that hippie evangelist camp in Colorado they'd spent the summer he was twelve -- he and Sam flat on their stomachs in the grass, reading, maybe, or just screwing around. Sam was looking up, straight at the camera, but Dean was looking down.
"Hey," Sam said from behind him. Dean replaced the photo and turned around. "It'll only take a few more minutes to finish this coat, then we were going to stop for dinner. You're staying, right?"
Dean's first impulse was to say no before entangling himself more in this life that wasn't his, a Sam that wasn't his any longer. Kate seemed nice but he didn't want to hear about her work, her interests, or any other part of her life, and Sam -- he wasn't sure what he could stand to hear about Sam.
"Sure," he said instead. "I can stay the night, but I've gotta leave first thing."
"Great," Sam said, and Dean saw a clear blue sky behind a windshield, sun hitting the road ahead in a haze of asphalt and dried grass, until the image faded, dissipated.
The balcony came with a table set and grill, which Sam loaded with steaks and sliced eggplant. Dean left the eggplant on his plate. Kate didn't talk about her work but she did talk about her interests, pulp movies being one of them, and he was drawn into conversation with her despite himself, feeling rusty with the talk. Conversation the last two years had consisted of pick-up lines and the occasional beer with another hunter, topping each other's ghost stories and bitching about the thanklessness of the job. And conversation with Sam those last few months had been mostly argument, until words became battering rams and Dean had welcomed the long stretches of silence between them.
Sam just listened to the two of them, though he'd been right there with Dean watching spliced-in HBO and sneaking into moviehouses when they were in towns big enough to have one.
"You need another beer?" Sam asked him, stacking their plates for the trip to the kitchen.
There were already two empty bottles in front of him, but Dean said, "Sure."
Sam balanced the plates in one hand to open the french doors. Kate's eyes followed him, and Dean could see her thinking about the plates, but her eyes were soft with a look Dean recognized but hadn't seen in a while.
"He talks about you a lot."
Dean played with the label on one of the empty bottles, picking at the corner until a strip tore off. "Yeah?" he said, and he could feel her discomfort filling the table with a cloud of awkwardness. "I guess it's better than the alternative."
Sam came back with two beers, and Kate stood up. "I'm going to shower," she said, eyeing the backs of her hands still flaked with orange paint. "I don't think this stuff ever comes off."
Sam handed one of the beers to Dean. The sun had already disappeared behind the treetops and it was bordering on chilly, the sky a grey roof above them. "So you're going to tell me why you're here?"
"No reason," Dean said, and Sam looked at him, disbelieving. "Really, I swear. Pinkie swear. I was in the neighborhood, okay? You live fifty miles from a nest of sheep demons. I figured I'd stop by first, mooch some free food and beer. And hey," he said, holding up the beer bottle to complete his point.
"Whatever," Sam said. He drank from his bottle and looked out over the trees. "So how's hunting?"
Dean shrugged. "Always stuff needing killed, you know that."
"Are you okay with that?"
Dean looked at him above the neck of his bottle. "What do you mean?"
"That it never changes. That no matter how many you kill, there's always more to take their place."
"It's a job, Sam, not a mission."
"Just not much of one," Sam said.
It could have been two years ago, the way these conversations rolled back into the same tired grooves. "Look, Sam, you're the one who wanted out, not me."
"I know," Sam said quickly, before Dean could get a steam on. His eyes slid from Dean's. "I don't want to fight."
Easy for him to say; he'd always held all the cards. But Dean relented, took another sip of beer, watched the sky grow darker.
"You know, Ellen called me about a year ago. Wanted to know if I'd seen you."
"Yeah, well, I don't get around her neck of the woods much anymore." The last time he'd seen Ellen, she'd cut off his whiskey and called him worse than his father, then threw him out when he took it as a compliment.
"So you're okay?"
"Jesus, Sam, can we stop with the Lifetime Special?"
To his surprise, Sam was laughing. "God, I'd forgotten what a prickly bitch you are. Sorry to expose your soft underbelly."
"Fuck off," Dean said pleasantly, and for a second they were back in the early days, all team spirit and day-glo warmth, memory slipping through him like the hum of an engine.
"Listen," Sam said. "Kate's taking off tomorrow for her parents for the weekend." Dean wondered if they'd had a conversation back there amid the paint cans. "Why don't you stick around for a few days."
A few days could be a lifetime. This wasn't a job; there wasn't anything needing fixed. He liked his days to be either starting or finishing. There was a reason the job didn't come with vacation time. "We'll see," he said, and took another drink from the bottle.
He woke when the sun rose, used to heavy drapes at the window, not these half-assed blinds. For a moment the disorientation was so thick he felt like he was choking on sunlight. The blanket Kate gave him last night was tangled around his feet, and he'd pulled the back cushions of the couch off while he slept, scattering them on the floor next to him in a moat of feathered foam.
Two days ago he'd been in Arizona, dry heat worse than the cold of a Nebraska winter, sun framed by an unrelentingly blue sky. He was there three weeks, picked up a fence-laying job for enough cash to see him through the end of next month, found a desert Mapinguari preying on campers up in the Superstitions and stayed that night in the mountains once it was dead.
A door opened softly; voices. The barely heard sound of footsteps on carpet as Sam passed behind the couch on his way to the kitchen, then Kate. The murmur of conversation faded in and out of his hearing along with the drip of brewing coffee. He could hear patterns underlying the words, their intrinsic rhythm, and it was worse than being a voyeur. He couldn't escape. His brain and body conspired to slow time down into the boxy spaces of this living room. He felt horribly exposed here, nothing familiar to ground him, confined and defined.
"How much does Kate know?" Dean asked, as they balanced the filing cabinet between them to push it back against one newly painted wall. The damned thing was small but heavy; two of his fingers slipped on the metal edge before they got it in place, and he bit back a curse.
"More than she'd like," Sam said.
They'd pushed the desk back and Sam's computer, and Dean helped restack the CDs into the tower, one glance at the titles confirming Sam's relapse of taste. He wasn't sure about the orange walls but figured it was supposed to be cheerful or conducive to higher brain functions. Probably just so Sam could stay awake while reading the very large and dry-looking law books they put back on the bookshelf.
"So what'd you tell her?"
Sam was under the desk replacing computer connections, and his voice came through muffled. "She knows about Dad. Jess. A little bit about the demon, though I think she attributes that to the projections of a fragile mentality."
Dean snorted. "She's got you pegged all right." He waited until Sam was done with the computer and out from under the desk. "Speaking of fragile mental states -- "
"Dean," Sam said, warning in his voice, and Dean knew he was treading on territory they'd declared off-limits two years ago, but the fear of what Sam might do if he pushed it had already materialized.
"Come on, Sammy, I know they didn't disappear when we killed the demon."
"So what, am I still seeing things? Moving furniture with the power of my mind? You know if that were true, I could have just saved us some back ache."
"So you're saying they're just gone?"
"What I'm saying is that everyone has something they live and deal with. This just happens to be mine."
"What the hell, Sam," Dean said, then shook his head, at a loss for words. It wasn't they who killed the demon, it wasn't Dean, and how Sam could go from that to this Dr. Phil analysis of the petty shit that might give someone a few sleepless nights -- well. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"Yeah, well, I'm not surprised you think so." Sam glanced around the room, order restored to its predictable office-ness. "Did we get everything?"
"You forgot your lamp," Dean said, but he didn't make any effort to get it. Sam gave him a look as he pushed past him to retrieve the lamp from the hallway. He placed it on the desk, plugged it in, turned it on.
"Wow, Sam, you could be an accountant in this room."
"Go to hell, Dean," Sam said.
The place Sam took him for lunch was down by the ocean, squeezed between an antique shop and a tattoo parlor, the interior splashed with bright blue walls and a row of gold-framed mirrors. Dean expected a palm reader in the corner and maybe a few hanging crystals, but other than the alarming number of mirrors and the waitress's orange hair, it only rated about a two on the weirdness scale.
"You know some guy in Texas died from having too many mirrors in the house."
Sam glanced up from his menu, eyes narrowing in a silent what the fuck. "What are you talking about?"
"Too many mirrors. All the reflections in the house bounced off one another, turned into some kind of refracting spirit that started slicing chunks out of the dry wall. One day he got in the way, cut right through his intestines."
"Dean, it's stories like that I'm just as happy not knowing."
"Hey, just thought you might be interested." Dean picked up his menu, glanced over the sandwiches: tomato and avocado, turkey and avocado, brie and avocado. He was sensing a pattern as well as an intense craving for guacamole.
He put the menu down. "So you tell me a story."
"Tell me a story. Something that's happened the last two years."
"Dean, nothing's happened to me the last two years that you'd be interested in."
"Come on, how do you know that? I'm interested in lots of things." The waitress came by with their drinks, and Dean waited until they'd ordered and she'd left before continuing. "Just one thing. It can be a small thing, I won't take points away."
Sam leaned back in his chair, legs folded awkwardly under the table and his eyes lit by the challenge. "One thing, then you'll shut up about it?"
"Sure," Dean said, because promises were easy.
"Last year, I almost killed a girl. I was in the computer lab working on a paper and didn't hear her come up behind me until she put a hand on my shoulder. Broke her nose in two places and gave her a killer black eye."
Dean had to remember to breathe out again. "Jesus, Sam."
"Yeah. She was all right, and we knew each other a little so she didn't press charges, but yeah."
Dean's eyes flicked to the window. Locals out walking the shoreline, singles and couples and baby strollers, a clear blue sky meeting miles of ocean. "You know that's not who you are."
"Maybe," Sam said. He tore the top off a sugar packet, emptied it into his iced tea. "Who wants to take that chance?"
Two years ago he'd driven Sam to the San Antonio Greyhound station, the bus to Fresno scheduled to leave in an hour. He stayed with Sam for the length of it, though at that point Sam probably would have preferred to wait alone. He drank his coke and ate peanuts from the vending machine while Sam stared through the window at the buses coming in and out of the station, dropping people off and dispersing them again in a machinery of movement.
It wasn't where Dean thought it would end, but then that wasn't something he spent time thinking about. If he was being honest, he'd assumed they could skip that part, that beginnings and endings wouldn't apply to them, as if they belonged to some other space entirely. Steady like a stream, like a protected zone. Water didn't have endings, but they'd proved earthbound.
The walk from the restaurant back up to Sam's place was short, all things considered, and when they were back on his street, the Impala covered in another bushel of piney detritus though otherwise unmarked, Dean fingered the keys in his pocket. "I thought I'd drive down to Madera, take care of those sheep demons."
There was an invitation there, and he knew Sam recognized it as such, but he didn't expect to be taken up on it. Sam didn't disappoint. "Are you coming back tonight?"
Dean shrugged. "Sure. Cheaper than a motel."
Sam didn't return his grin, just looked at the car, a couple of emotions passing over his face before he turned away. "Be careful," Sam said, and Dean watched him walk back up to the apartment.
Sheep demons really weren't demons, hunters just called them that because of the red eyes and lack of social skills. They weren't sheep, either, but rather preyed on them; sheep and the occasional baby, which is why anyone gave a shit in the first place. Lots of things killed sheep and no one cared but the farmers, but babies appealed to hunters' maternal streaks.
He'd never tackled one before but heard rumors of the nest while in Arizona, ran into another hunter who had specifics but was heading east so Dean said he'd take it. They were a little like hairless foxes, a little like wolves, if you put the two together and had the composite walk upright on a pair of thick hind legs with claws that could sever a man's jugular. Easy to kill once you were in range; you didn't even need silver. But getting silver had never been the hard part.
He sat in the Impala and watched the sun fall. The demons were holed up in an old croft just up the side of the hill from this dirt road. They'd sleep through midnight before leaving the nest. He had a rhythm in place for waiting -- the best of Ted Nugent running through his head mixed in with snapshot memories, ones he'd stored away and only took out at times like these. Never ones he expected but stupid shit, like the time he'd tried to make a wooden horse for Sam and it looked like a moronic six-year old had carved it, all blocky head and shapeless legs that didn't look anything like a horse. Sam just laughed when Dean gave it to him, and that made it all right. He put it on the rear dash of the Impala and they took turns knocking it over with rolled-up pairs of socks, Dad yelling at them to quit it, until it disappeared somewhere on the road from Jackson to Little Rock.
He waited until the sky cast the long hills and oubuildings of the sheep ranch in negatives, then grabbed the Bowie, made sure the gun was loaded though it wouldn't be of much use, and made his way up the side of the hill just as the sun dipped behind it and disappeared.
There were three of them curled up among old canvas bags and the rotting wood of the croft. Ugly fucking things, maybe three feet from nose to tail, that made gargoyles look like the Mona Lisa. He got two of them cleanly while they slept, cutting their throats with quick efficiency. The third one woke just as he leaned over it, uttering a high pitched screech that made the hair raise on the back of his neck, red eyes blazing as it sank its teeth into Dean's forearm.
"Jesus fuck," he swore, shaking the thing off him before it could dig in a hind claw. The stench of the others' deaths was already filling the small space of the croft. It could smell its own death, recognition in bloodshot eyes, and when it came for him Dean got the knife in under its jaw and yanked through until it flipped over on its side, bleeding out on a pile of canvas.
"Fuck," he said again, and pulled up the sleeve of his jacket. The bite hurt worse than it was; the thing's teeth had barely gotten a foothold in the leather. Well, fuck. He wiped the blade on one of the bags and checked the rest of the croft, all signs pointing to just the three of them.
He splashed lighter fluid over the corpses, added some extra to the canvas bags. No wind tonight, and the place was treeless for a good hundred feet around.
Not ready to light it up yet, he sat outside the croft on a nearby rock. It was gorgeous out here even in the dim light, all dark rolling hills and dusty access roads. Better than four walls and a deck any day, but it was hard to appreciate shit like this when you were the only one out there. Where there should have been satisfaction he just felt an odd silent space, broken only by the distant baa of sheep.
Yeah, you should be fucking thanking me, he told them, and tossed a match through the doorway.
The day Ash called about the demon, they were sleeping off a hunt outside Atlanta in an old gothic B&B that was surprisingly cheap, a place as close to death as they were and just as bounded by the past.
It was four in the afternoon before he woke. Southern sun angled through the window to rest on Sam, sleeping in the bed next to him. He looked as dazed and relaxed in sleep as he never did awake. Dean watched until the light slid from the window frame and the room was dark again, two hours yet before Ash would call, holding onto the image under the weight of an emotion he couldn't name. Etched in his mind like a sigil; the advantage of not recognizing joy until long after the fact.
He picked the lock on the apartment, not knowing if Sam was still awake but preparing a few choice words about the absence of a deadbolt. A light in the office was on, and he peeked in on Sam sitting in front of the computer, leaning back in his chair and looking at Dean.
"How'd it go?" Sam asked, then his face stilled when he saw the blood on Dean's sleeve, expression sliding away like water over stone.
"It's not mine," Dean said. "Or actually, yeah, most of it's mine." He leaned against the doorframe. It wasn't what he would have chosen for Sam, but there was something comforting about seeing him work under the glow of the lamp, books that had nothing to do with phantom ancestors or gargoyled baby-killers spread open on the desk.
Sam turned back to the computer, the line of his shoulders a polite little barrier. "There's a medicine cabinet in the bathroom if you want to get cleaned up."
"Thanks," Dean said.
He found peroxide in the medicine cabinet and poured it liberally over his arm, washing the blood away to reveal two incisor marks barely bigger than large moles. Hardly worth bandaging, but there was gauze in the cabinet so he finished the job and taped up the ends. His blood-spotted buttondown he left rolled up in the corner of the bathroom, then splashed his face to get the grit and lingering ash out of his eyes.
When he left the bathroom, Sam was in the kitchen making sandwiches.
"You really are into the domestic thing," Dean said, just glad Sam was making enough for two. He squeezed past Sam to the refrigerator, finding and pilfering two bottles from Sam's stash of beer.
Sam spread mustard on slices of bread. "Why are you here, Dean?"
Dean, looking for the bottle opener, was listening with only half his attention. "What?"
"Why are you here?" Sam repeated. "What made you think this was a good idea? Do you think I want this shit back in my life? I mean -- god, Dean. You should be in a fucking hospital."
"For a bite from a sheep demon? They're no worse than those little yapping dogs." He found the bottle opener in a drawer filled with dishtowels and potholders, and missed the way Sam's hand tightened on the knife. When he turned back, beer in hand, Sam was braced against the counter, words coming out as if he were biting off the ends of them.
"When are you going to be too old for this, Dean? When you end up like Dad?"
"Hey," Dean said, pissed-off now. "If you want to play house, pretend everything in your life is normal again, that's fine. I know exactly what a bitch it was to get you to stop crapping in your pants and use the toilet when you were three, so don't think this set-up of yours means anything more than what it is."
"And you think you know what it means."
Dean leaned back against the counter. "Look, Sam, if it makes you happy, then I'm glad, too. But don't think you fit in here any more than you did out there, because then you'd pretty much be missing the point."
"Goddamnit, Dean," Sam said. He turned, and Dean had a moment to think Fuck before Sam's fist crashed into the cabinet above Dean's head, hard enough to splinter wood.
Dean stared at him. "Jesus, Sam."
Sam looked back, wide-eyed, like it wasn't Dean he was seeing or it wasn't Sam. Then a little color crept back into his face, and he turned his hand over to stare at his knuckles. "Fuck."
"Yeah, you're gonna want to put ice on that," Dean said. He went to the freezer, noticed his hand was shaking, and had to stand still a moment in front of the icy blast of the freezer, the chill of it like a remote steadying grip as cold air seeped into the room.
He found ice in a bucket, grabbed one of the dishtowels from the drawer and passed both over to Sam, who took it like he couldn't figure out what it was for.
"Move over," Dean said.
"Move over," Dean said. "I don't trust you with my sandwich."
Sam moved. Dean finished one of the sandwiches, not his best creation but extenuating circumstances applied, and passed it and one of the beers to Sam. Sam held the dishtowel-wrapped ice to the back of his hand and left the beer and sandwich on the counter.
"I'm pretty fucked up, Dean," Sam said.
"Yeah, I know," Dean said. He didn't know what it was like to kill another being just by wanting it; everything he ever wanted he'd had to work for, and he liked it that way. He figured it was some sort of built-in mechanism to keep the world spinning the way it should. Sam never had that luxury. But if he started counting up the unfairnesses in both their lives he'd might as well turn in the armory, take up yoga, and buy a condo down in Palm Beach.
He finished the other sandwich then reached an arm out to Sam, cupped the back of his neck like he used to do when they were kids, screwing with Sam's hair in a way he'd always hated, but this time he just rested his hand there -- and god, it still galled him that Sam was taller than he was, but it was all right, he was still his little brother.
His hand slid away. "Your aim sucks, by the way."
"Yeah, well." Sam looked down at the counter. "I wasn't trying to hit you."
"Good to know," Dean said.
They took the beers and sandwiches out onto the deck, night sky painting the chairs and table grey and carrying the salt of the ocean.
Dean should have known Sam was done when they left that warehouse in Lawrence, reason number one hundred sixty-seven never to return fading further behind the more miles Dean logged that night, until he found an open motel and put Sam to bed. He'd stayed up flipping through channels until his skin no longer felt alien and he could look at Sam without seeing one thoroughly fucked up demon and a man who should never have been the catalyst for it.
"Would you have done anything differently?" Sam asked, and Dean was surprised he'd ask the question, that Sam didn't already know the answer to that.
"Of course not," he said. He didn't return the question. Some things he was just as glad to leave buried.
Sam looked out past the railing, face set in an expression called up from memory -- Sam squinting up at him with a hand raised against the sun, thinking through something with the gravity of one still carrying baby fat. Mind casting for answers beyond what Dean or Dad had ever been able to give him, looking to dig them out from the sun.
Voices drifted up from one of the downstairs apartments, the mellow, ending stages of a party, a few words breaching the background hum of conversation like the crash of breakers. Dean drank his beer and waited. It took a while but Sam came back to himself, smiled.