It wasn't necessary to read his mind to see that Dean was in his element, working their way across the country in the summer heat, taking cases wherever they could find them, putting down evil and saving lives. Sometimes when Sam glanced over at him, staring out at the landscape with that placid self-assurance that Sam knew as a mask for Dean's inner torment, Dean seemed so content it made Sam's chest ache, and he couldn't stop looking. Dean's profile was the most familiar thing in his life, often the last thing Sam saw before he fell asleep at night and the first thing he saw when he opened his eyes in the morning. It was something Sam felt he didn't deserve, the idea that he put that look on Dean's face, that Sam was the reason for Dean's happiness. It was too much, weighed like an especially sweet kind of terrible burden, a responsibility he couldn't possibly be worthy enough to handle. At times like that, Sam felt sure the other shoe was just about to drop, that something awful was right there on the edges of his consciousness, just waiting to crash in and destroy everything, just as it seemed to do whenever things were going half-way according to plan.
A week after Sam's birthday, the other shoe dropped. They were on the road, back-pedaling to Topeka after a job in Lincoln, Nebraska, when Bobby's call came in.
"Got something you boys need to see," he announced, sounding almost breathless, like he'd been running, which was so unlike Bobby it made Sam sit up straight on the bench.
"What is it?" Sam asked, and he could almost hear Bobby shaking his head.
"No, you gotta see this," he insisted. "It's not something I can tell you over the phone."
"Okay," Sam sucked in a breath, glanced at Dean, who was frowning deeply. "We're about three hours away."
"Good," Bobby hung up, and Sam sat staring at the phone for a full minute, wishing, not for the first time and definitely not for the last time, that he could read minds long-distance.
"No idea," he answered Dean's questioning look. "He says he needs to tell us in person."
When they arrived at Singer Salvage, John's GMC truck was already parked out front, and John was pacing the yard in front, obviously waiting for them, none too patiently.
"He says he won't tell me till you two arrive," he growled angrily, then took a step back as Sam unfolded himself from the front seat. "Jesus, Sam. What have you been eating? You've grown another foot at least."
"Y'all gonna just stand there, or are you gonna come in and let me show you what I got?" Bobby's voice boomed at them from inside the house, and they all filed in, Sam with his hands in his jeans pockets and his shoulders deliberately hunched so he didn't tower over the other men, at least not deliberately.
Bobby had photographs laid out on the kitchen table, and at first glance they looked identical, and completely nonsensical. Sam read excitement and trepidation in Bobby's manner, but his thoughts were so confused and jumbled Sam couldn't make heads or tails out of them, so he turned off his sensors and pushed up beside Dean at the table, brushing shoulders in a natural gesture of solidarity.
"What've you got, Bobby?" John demanded. "What're we looking at?"
"DNA strands," Bobby answered, pointing at the first of three identical photos. "This is the sample I took from Sam back when he first came to us, six years ago. This one, I took in May, just after Sam's graduation. And this one," he pointed to the last of the three photographs, "this one's Dean's. I took a sample from each of them so Jack could make that protection amulet for Sam. Jack said I needed to give him a Dean sample and a not-Dean sample, so he could compare them and be sure he was using the right one."
"They look alike," Sam noted. "I don't see the difference."
"Exactly," Bobby looked up, gazing at Sam, then at Dean, and finally at John, and Sam could feel his heart start racing, sweat start to break out even though he was standing completely still. "That's exactly what Jack said. He thought I'd given him two samples from the same person. Then he compared them to the one I'd given him six years ago, and again – a complete match. That don't happen in nature, Sam. It only happens when the subjects are closely related."
The silence in the room was suddenly so complete it was as if time had stopped. Sam was pretty sure he was holding his breath, and probably his heart had stopped as well, frozen in the moment as Bobby's words sunk in and Sam's mind raced, trying to make sense of what he was hearing.
John spoke first. "Are you saying Sam and Dean are related?" he demanded, confusion and disbelief making him belligerent.
"I'm saying they're brothers, John," Bobby clarified, needlessly, since he'd already said it. "Same mother, same father. Full siblings."
"But that's impossible," John shook his head. "Mary and I didn't have any other children. You'd think I'd know if we had. This doesn't make sense."
"John, this is Sam," Bobby's voice was soft and careful, like he was speaking to a human grenade who might explode any minute. "This is your son. I don't know how, but apparently he survived that night after all. Somebody pulled him out of the fire and took him. Maybe the demon that set the fire, I don't know, but that's what happened, because here he is, and this is scientific proof, boys. I had my friend check and double check before I called you all. This kind of science is pretty new, but it doesn't lie."
John turned to look at Sam, really look at him, and Sam could read the confusion and doubt in his mind, could hear the moment it gave way to recognition, John's mind suddenly flooding with memories of that night, of seeing the demon leaning over the baby's crib, picking up the baby, John protesting with every bone in his body as the demon looked up at him, cradling the baby in one demonic arm as he flung the other hand out toward John, sending him flying backwards out the door, into the hallway, crashing into the wall, John's head hitting hard, dazing him, knocking him out so that when he came to the room was already fully engulfed in flames and smoke, the empty crib only barely visible through the dark, roiling clouds.
Sam could feel the moment John realized how completely he had suppressed that memory, how he had believed the firefighters who had told him the baby had probably died but the fire had been so intense it had simply incinerated the small body, composed as it was mostly of soft cartilage. They had buried an empty coffin, and John had told Dean the baby was dead along with his mother. It had been deeply traumatizing for both of them, and John had never for one moment reconsidered his narrative of the events of that night. Until now.
The emotions flickering across John's face brought tears to Sam's eyes; he could feel the exact moment John knew, really knew, that what Bobby was telling him was true. From the moment he first met Sam, John had suspected, he had just repressed that suspicion because it didn't jibe with his made-up memories, and because he didn't want to set him or Dean up for another fall if it turned out he was wrong. But having it all be true after all confirmed John's judgment in adding Sam to the family in the first place, and he easily adjusted to the idea that this explained why he had trusted Sam from the start, why he had allowed Sam to get so close to Dean. It had been the right thing to do, and he had felt it in his bones, even without fully understanding why the boy filled the Sam-shaped hole in their lives so perfectly.
Now he did. Now John understood.
Sam was being hauled into a bone-crushing hug before he even knew what hit him. John's eyes were filmed with tears as he held the son he'd never known he'd found until now, the child he assumed he'd lost nearly eighteen years ago. John's big body shook with emotion and all Sam could do was hold on, hugging back as John murmured, "My boy," and "My little Sammy," into his shoulder in his rough, choked voice.
Sam became aware of a roaring in his ears, knew it for the feeling of emotional overload that precipitated one of his attacks, like that day on the road when he first met Dean. Reality was cracking again, doing that thing where Sam wasn't sure whether he was dreaming or not. Sam felt oddly detached, like he was watching the scene from a distance, through a blue-tinged lens, making everything seem grainy and almost black-and-white, drained of color. He was aware that he should feel happy to know the truth, to have his childhood dreams come true, to find out that he did indeed have a father and a brother who loved him and had somehow, miraculously, found him and claimed him without anyone even realizing who Sam really was. And being hugged tight by John, surrounded by John's powerful feelings of gratitude and the fierce, possessive loyalty and pride that John called love, Sam could almost believe those feelings were his own, too. Like father, like son, his brain reminded him. I'm just like my dad.
Then Sam looked up, over John's shoulder, and his eyes met Dean's, and the world fell away. Dean's face was a mask of shock, pale and drained of color, his mouth hanging open and slack, a sheen of sweat on his forehead and pooled in the hollow of his throat. His eyes seemed huge in his pale face, and his whole body seemed suddenly smaller, more fragile and delicate, younger. It was like the little boy who had suffered through the trauma of that night all those years ago had been hovering beneath the surface, hiding deep inside under years of denial and repression, and all the habits of survival and perseverance ingrained in Dean were suddenly scraped away so that scared little child was all that was left.
"Dean." Sam's instincts screamed at him to go to his lover – his brother – and offer comfort, to smooth the distress and panic and sheer terror from his beautiful, beloved face. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else was of the slightest importance, and Sam wasn't even aware of extricating himself from John and taking a step toward Dean until Dean blinked, momentarily startled out of his shock by Sam's movement. Then the look of shock was replaced by sheer horror; Dean's hands went up as though he would push Sam away if he got any closer, and he took a step back, toward the door.
"No," he breathed, his voice shaky and broken. "No, Sam. No."
Sam recognized the panic, realized Dean was ready to flee, took another step toward him out of sheer instinct, only half aware of saying his name again. Then Dean turned and barreled out the door, letting it slam behind him as he bolted for the car. Sam started right after him, might have stopped him if John and Bobby hadn't both grabbed him and held him back.
"Let him go, son," John said firmly. "He needs to process this in his own way."
"No, you don't understand," Sam protested, struggling to push away from the older hunter. "He's out of his mind right now. He'll drive off the road!"
The Impala roared to life just as Sam managed to break free, run pell mell out of the house, jumped off the porch and into the driveway as the car peeled off, leaving Sam in a cloud of dust and with only a quick glimpse of the back of Dean's head, the tense set of his shoulders.
"Dean!" Sam stomped his foot, grabbed his cell phone out of his pocket and punched in Dean's number. "Listen to me," Sam said to Dean's voicemail, pacing in the driveway and running one hand through his hair. "I know what you're thinking. I mean, I know you. We'll work this out. It'll be okay, I promise. Just come back. Come back to me, Dean, all right?"
He hung up, feeling stupid and useless and wishing he could delete the message, so he dialed again and left another one, trying not to sound so needy and desperate this time. "Hey, this is good news. It really, really is. Turns out I've got a family after all, and you've got the little brother you always wanted. It's weird, yeah, it's really weird, but it's good weird, Dean. For once, something good has happened here. So call me."
After pacing for another minute or two, Sam made a third call, unable to fight the rising panic in his chest, the fear that nagged at the inside of his head. "Hey, Dean. Please don't run from this. We can work it out, okay? I'll do anything you want. If you don't wanna – if you need a break from us, whatever – hey, it's okay, man. I get it. I do. Just please, call me, okay?"
Sam paced for a few more minutes, fighting with himself over the urge to call again, finally throwing the phone angrily against the side of the house, watching it shatter with a satisfying smattering of plastic pieces. Rage boiled up from Sam's gut, making him need to hit something, someone, anything. It was just so unfair! All his life he'd wanted Dean to love him, and Dean did love him, but that hadn't been enough. Sam had wanted more. He had pushed and pushed until Dean had given in to Sam's ravenous hunger, his insatiable need for Dean in every way, despite Dean's protests that he wasn't gay, that he was confused by their bond. And Sam had played that for all it was worth, Sam had used the soul-bond as an excuse to bind Dean to him, to have him all to himself and keep him close. And it was Sam's possessive, consuming love that had driven Dean away, just as Sam had known it would.
Being brothers wasn't really the revelation for Sam that it was to Dean; Sam had grown up thinking of Dean as his brother, wishing it with all his heart and soul, then when he was old enough, wanting Dean physically as well. There wasn't anything bad or wrong or dirty about that, in Sam's mind. Incest was just a word. Sam and Dean were special, an exception to every rule, and this was just the way they were.
But Sam knew it was different for Dean. He hadn't grown up thinking of Sam as his brother, and he certainly wasn't thinking of him as a brother when they began their physical relationship. Dean's main concern had always been Sam's youth, their relative ages, fearing to take advantage of Sam before he was old enough to give informed consent. After being so careful, after trying to do everything the right way in his own mind, Dean would of course feel horrified to discover he'd been fucking his own brother. It would feel like the ultimate screw-job, like no matter how hard he'd tried to do right by Sam, he'd messed up in the worst way possible.
Sam sat down in the dirt, put his head in his hands, leaning his elbows on his bent knees. Fuck. This was beyond fucked-up, and the worst part was there wasn't anything Sam could do about it. He couldn't make Dean see it differently, couldn't convince Dean that it was okay to screw your brother since your brother had always thought of himself as your brother anyway, so if anyone had been committing incest here, it wasn't Dean. But Sam knew that wouldn't matter to Dean; the incest itself was repulsive to Dean, and he'd been just as engaged in it as Sam was, however unknowingly. Dean would accept just as much blame as he could for their relationship, probably managing to convince himself that Sam was totally innocent because he was younger and Dean should've known better, should've trusted his instincts and never started a sexual relationship with the younger boy in the first place. Instead, Dean would blame himself for giving in to his desires, desires he should have repressed. If he could have just held on like he knew he should have, until Sam was eighteen, they would've found out about the brother thing and saved themselves from a lot of depravity.
Because there was no way Dean Winchester would ever knowingly fuck his own brother.
Sam sunk his hands into his hair, grabbing fistfuls, yanking as hard as he could, relishing the pain. He would do that, he decided, inflict physical pain on himself, to atone for making Dean love him. Because Dean didn't deserve this shit; he was a good, moral person and Sam loved him for that, looked up to him and admired him for his strong, ethical sensibilities, his goodness. There was no separating the man from his moral code, and Sam knew in his bones that Dean would survive this, would come to see it as the mistake that it was, would put it behind him and eventually forgive Sam, if not himself.
And all Sam could do at this point was to make it as easy for Dean as he possibly could. He owed Dean that.
Sam heard the screen door slam, felt the vibration and the crunching gravel as John Winchester moved heavily down the steps and across the driveway, stopped next to Sam, touched the top of his head with the tips of his fingers. Ordinarily Sam would've leaned into the touch, would have accepted the comfort John was offering. But he was too deep in his own agony to so much as lift his head, couldn't even be bothered to read John's thoughts.
"You know, I think I was always hoping it was really you, Sam," John said finally, after a silence so long Sam thought he'd never speak. "I guess I sort of knew, ever since that day we pulled you out of that warehouse. Out of the fire. It felt like you'd come back to us, even then."
Sam lifted his head, stared down the road in the direction the Impala had gone. John stared too, still petting Sam's hair, fingers strong and gentle.
"He'll be back," he said after another minute. "He'll adjust. Family means everything to him, and you're family now, Sam, for real. No take-backs. No temporary foster-families. You're Dean's brother, and we're all he's got. He'll be back, mark my words, son. He's loyal to a fault, that boy. You never have to worry about him leaving, no matter what you do. No matter what you've done. You hear me?"
"Yes, sir," Sam answered, nodding automatically, tamping down on his humiliation and guilt; he could sense that John knew about them, but was choosing to be pretty damn mature about it, not blaming him exactly, but also making it clear he expected it to stop.
"You and Dean are brothers in more ways than one, Sam," John said. "Brothers-in-arms make a tight, unbreakable bond. When you've fought side-by-side with someone, like you and Dean have, there's nothing stronger. Not even blood. You two make a great team, always will, once you get past this thing."
Sam nodded, his throat tight, fighting back the tears at the edge of his vision, the weight on his chest. "I have to go," he said, feeling suddenly ill, like he might throw up if he sat there one more minute, listening to John, letting the man dictate his future to him. He pulled himself up off the ground, weaving a little as he headed back into the house, trembling with the effort to contain his rage. Bobby was sitting at the kitchen table, studying a map and flipping through a book that looked like it was about five hundred years old. He looked up when Sam came in, looking around wildly for a minute before he realized he'd left his duffel in the car with Dean.
"You look like you could use a beer," Bobby noted, getting up to get one from the refrigerator. They both heard the roar of John's monster truck starting up outside, and Sam took the opened beer from Bobby without a word, chugging down several swallows as the sound of the truck receded into the distance. Bobby raised his eyebrows, gestured towards the other chair at the table as he sat back down, but Sam shook his head.
"I have to get out of here," Sam said, hating how his voice shook, taking another swallow of the beer, needing it to numb some of the ache in his chest. "Do you have a truck I can borrow?"
"Running's not gonna solve your problems, Sam," Bobby reminded him. "Things have a way of following you around, biting you in the ass. Someday you just have to turn around and kick back."
"Yeah, well, not today," Sam said, grimly. "I don't want to be here when Dean gets back, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to see me either."
"That boy loves you with everything he's got, kid," Bobby said flatly. "Don't ever think he don't. Now, you wanna leave, not face him right now cuz your feelings could get hurt, I get that. Life sucks sometimes. It throws you curve balls when you least expect 'em. Don't mean you gotta run away, stick yer head in the sand. You need to man up. Face yer fears. That's the only way to make sure they don't get the best of you."
Sam was shaking his head, slammed the empty beer bottle down on the table. "No! I can't do that to him. I won't! I've been stupid and selfish, Uncle Bobby, and it's not fair to Dean. He doesn't deserve this shit. I have to let him go while I still can, while I have the strength to do what I know I have to do." He paced back and forth in front of Bobby, clenching and unclenching his fists, agitated and restless. "I'm not running away, I'm giving Dean his freedom. Don't you see? If I don't go now, Dean might take me back, but it won't be on his terms; he'll be giving in to me because it's all he knows how to do, and he'll be hating himself for doing it. I can't let him do that. I have to be stronger than that."
"Jesus, Sam, you sure know how to beat yourself up, don't ya?" Bobby stared in disbelief, then shook his head. "That's the craziest, most mixed-up bunch of self-pitying horse crap I ever heard. Dean's a big boy. He's not gonna let anybody make him do something he doesn't wanna do, even you, ya idjit."
"Maybe," Sam groused doubtfully. "But I still need to give him some space right now. Do you have my amulet?"
"It's right here," Bobby opened a drawer in his desk, pulled out the leather-stringed little brass object, put it in Sam's hand. "But you don't really need it, y'know. Turns out, you've got Dean inside you, have had all this time. You and him share the same genetic material. You're literally wearing part of him."
"But the visions..." Sam frowned in confusion. "I don't understand."
Bobby shrugged. "Nobody knows how the whole twin-soul thing works," he said. "Maybe you made yourself sick because you were missing him so much. Or maybe you're so tuned into him that you can sense when he's in danger, like when he's on a hunt, and it makes you literally sick with worry. Either way, it's not life-threatening, as far as I can tell. You can probably control it just by thinking yourself through it, or whatever you do when you have to control your psychic mojo. You know more about this stuff than I do. You two are the first sibling soul-mates I've ever heard of."
Sam looked down at the amulet, turned it over in his hand, then gave it back to Bobby.
"Give it to Dean when he gets back," Sam said softly. "If he wants it."
Bobby pursed his lips, squinting a little as he considered Sam. "You're really leaving," he said finally. "You got any idea what that'll do to Dean? You just leaving?"
Sam took a deep breath, let it out slow, shook his head. He needed to go now, before he lost his nerve. "Yeah, I think I do," Sam sighed. "But I can't stay. He'll be hurt, but not as much as if I stay."
"You sure about that? You absolutely sure leaving's the right thing to do?"
"No," Sam admitted. "But I know if I stay it'll be the most wrong thing I ever did, and I've done a lot of wrong."
"Sam, you're eighteen years old," Bobby reminded him. "You've got your whole life ahead of you."
"Yeah, well so does Dean," Sam sighed. "He deserves to start fresh, be his own man without his weirdo freak of a little brother hanging around his neck, holding him back."
Sam shoved one hand into the pocket of his jeans, comforted to find a few wadded up bills there, maybe even enough to buy a bus ticket. He stuck the other hand out to Bobby, who ignored it and pulled him into a hug instead.
"Take care of him for me, Uncle Bobby," Sam breathed into the older hunter's shoulder.
"You call him, you hear me?" Bobby shook him a little as he released him, clutching his biceps for emphasis. "You give it a couple of days, a week at most, but you call, y'hear?"
Sam hesitated, pretty sure he couldn't do that, believing he wouldn't be able to talk to Dean for a long time, convinced he just wasn't strong enough for that. But Bobby looked so intense, so serious and worried, that Sam finally nodded, albeit reluctantly.
"Promise?" Bobby pressed.
"Okay, yeah, I promise," Sam lied, feeling terrible, thinking of the shattered cell phone out in Bobby's driveway.
"John is gonna be as mad as hell, you think o' that?" Bobby shook his head. "He just found out his infant son was kidnapped by the demon that killed his wife. You're the best clue he's got to what happened to her. You think he's gonna just let you walk away?"
Sam sighed. "I know," he said. "He'll know where to find me if he needs to."
Bobby shook his head. "You're leaving me to deal with two pissed-off Winchesters," he muttered darkly. "I think I might just hafta come with you."
"Sorry," Sam mumbled helplessly. "I'm sorry, Uncle Bobby. I gotta go."
"All right then," Bobby nodded finally, after giving him another hard look. "Let me get my keys. I'll run you down to the bus station."
An hour later Sam was on the bus, headed west, nothing but the clothes on his back and fifty bucks to his name. Bobby had insisted on buying the bus ticket, had given him a fake credit card to use in diners along the way, hopefully also for new clothes when he got to California. His scholarship included room and board, so all he had to do was get there, but he was nearly a month early, so there would be expenses.
Sam was four hours out of Sioux Falls before he fell asleep, dreamed of Dean, sitting in the seat next to him on the bus, watching him sleep. He woke up with a start, his cheeks wet with tears, glanced at the empty seat next to him as fresh tears flowed. He wiped them away furiously with the sleeve of his hoodie, sniffling uncontrollably until the middle-aged woman across the aisle reached over and handed him some tissues from her purse.
"Off to college?" she asked kindly, and when Sam nodded, blowing his nose, she nodded sympathetically. "Homesickness is a bitch, ain't it?"
She smiled, blinked, and her eyes flashed obsidian black.
Sam woke up with a start, cold sweat beading his brow and the back of his neck. He glanced at the empty seat next to him, then at the man sleeping in the seat across the aisle. No middle-aged woman, no Dean. Just Sam and his fucked-up brain playing tricks on him again, freaking him out with memories of the last time he and Dean were apart.
"I can do this," he murmured to himself, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, focusing as he knew how to do to calm himself, to control the whispering voices and hallucinogenic imaginings of his tortured mind.
It wouldn't be easy, and sometimes it would be damn hard, harder than anything Sam had ever tried to do in his life, but he would manage. He would go to college, get his degree, work in the summers waiting tables or washing dishes, maybe call Bobby once in awhile, just to keep his hand in the game, keep his hunting skills sharp. Maybe catch up on news in the hunting world, hear about how Dean and John were doing. Sam could do that, at some unspecified time in the future, he was sure he could. Eventually he'd be able to think about Dean without crying, without feeling like his heart was being slowly ripped into tiny strips of bloody, useless gristle and fed to him, piece by piece, while he choked and sobbed and begged to die because living without Dean was so much more painful than even the slowest and most wretched death.
The days and weeks and months would pass, Sam knew, until the pain became a dull ache, until he could think about Dean with a distant sadness, a deep, thick, solid thing like a rock in the pit of his soul, worn smooth by years of sorrow. And then, the day would come that Sam might be able to see Dean again, or even just talk to him on the phone, hear his voice without collapsing into an inconsolable puddle on the floor, sobbing for days afterwards. There would come a day when Dean might show up at his door, green eyes sparkling with mischief, leather jacket and gelled hair smelling like home and love and all the things Sam thought he would never know again.
That day might come, Sam knew, if he could just get past the now, the endless and forever now of pain and misery and horrible, wrenching grief. Someday he might be able to face Dean again, maybe even be his brother again, like they were all those years ago in Sam's dream. Maybe someday. Maybe.
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