Word Count: ~ 5000
Warnings: Mentions of alcoholism and suicidal ideation. Multiple POVs. Spoilers for all aired episodes.
Author’s Notes: Many thanks to my awesome betas/Ameri-pickers – you know who you are!
The title of the story is taken from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned.
Dear sw0rdy, as you will see I tried to mix several of your prompts, I hope you enjoy.
Summary: There’s no such thing as Retiring From Hunting Monsters For Dummies.
The beep of her phone alerts Maria that Jamie won’t be coming along tonight after all, goddammit, and she curses herself for having already bought a drink. Being alone at a bar is awkward as hell, at least if you’re a woman. Makes you look like a skank desperate to pick someone up or like an alcoholic or both.
She licks a stripe of sugar from the rim of her strawberry margarita, and wonders if she’ll still be able to walk home on her own two feet if she downs the whole cocktail in about three seconds.
That’s when she sees him.
He’s wearing a dark red shirt which makes his skin gleam, and looks vaguely familiar in the way most handsome men do. He’s the generically attractive type of guy you might see at the cinema or on your private TV screen, except for the hard lines on his face which speak of real drama, not the kind you see on The Vampire Diaries or Dr. Sexy, M.D. A second glance tells her that he’s limping slightly, favoring his left leg. RL drama right there.
He sits down at the bar two feet away from her. Up close he has the unhealthy look of someone who’s recently lost a lot of weight, and not voluntarily. Plus he exudes the tired aura she’s come to associate with soldiers who’ve returned from war. (Or with Frodo, post-Mount Doom. Especially with Frodo.)
Because she’s never been very sensible in her choice of boyfriends, all that only heightens his appeal.
Catching the barkeeper’s attention, he orders a Coke. His voice wraps itself around the words in a low, hesitant growl and his eyes flick to the collection of bottles behind the bar with a mixture of fear and longing. One of his hands is shaking.
When the bartender sets down a Coke in front of him, he ignores it in favor of rubbing a hand over his right knee. From the way he was limping previously and how his forehead is scrunched up now, she guesses that he must be in pain.
He doesn’t notice her looking. She wishes he would.
She wants to speak to him – to the only other person in this bar who doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself. To the only other person who clearly doesn’t want to be there. To the only other person who’s alone.
Who happens to be an ex-alcoholic with a fucked-up knee. Christ, what does that say about her?
If only she’d dressed up as anyone other than herself. Then making her move would come to her a lot easier.
Hey, maybe she could still try for a sassy, Afghanistan or Iraq? And if she’s lucky, he’ll come back with No shit, Sherlock. But what if she spooks him and he has a full-blown PTSD panic attack right here in the bar? It’s not like she has much experience with traumatized ex-soldiers.
Before she can make up her mind on how to approach him, a big hand slaps down on his shoulder, startling him. Following the hand with her eyes she sees that it belongs to a similarly big guy –
And then she’s already jumping down from her seat, shouting, “Sam! Sam, hey!” Because it’s Sam, the nice guy with the pretty hair that she did such a cute genre-mashup with two years ago or so. (Sam, the guy who let her down rather bluntly. That part she refuses to dwell on.)
Both men swivel around to face her. Handsome And Possibly Traumatized Ex-Soldier’s expression is wary, Sam’s puzzled. It’s hurtfully obvious that he has no idea who she is.
“I’m Maria,” she explains, “though you probably only know me as Gholandria the Wicked.”
Recognition lights up on Sam’s face. He smiles at her. Something in her chest begins to flutter at the sight of those dimples, just like last time. “Oh, right. We met at the LARP thing.”
Of course that explains why she thought Handsome And Possibly Traumatized Ex-Soldier looked somewhat familiar – he was there too. (Though he wasn’t quite so raddled back then. Must have been before his latest – and fatal – deployment.) If she recalls correctly, he was the Queen of Moondoor’s handmaiden.
Shit, probably they’re boyfriends. She always had the bad luck of hitting on the gay ones.
“…That’s my brother Dean,” Sam’s voice cuts through her thoughts. There’s something so mellow and yet determined about the way he talks, it’s intoxicating. She could listen to him all day. (And night.)
Hearing the implied not gay, not gay, not gay… doesn’t hurt either.
Dean gives her a half-hearted smile. Once again his eyes dart to the liquor bottles behind the bar. Sam’s eyes track the movement, and his mouth twists, displeased. The line of Dean’s shoulders is tense with resentment. It makes her think that Sam must have been the one who got Dean to quit.
“What brings you to Omaha, Sam?” she asks.
He glances awkwardly at his brother before replying, “We visited some friends in Sioux Falls, and now we’re back on our way to Lebanon, Kansas. What about you?”
“I moved here last year for my MBA.”
“Wow, that’s great,” Sam says with the sort of forceful enthusiasm that sounds more embarrassed than sincere. Dean’s lips twitch sarcastically in answer.
There’s a moment of silence and Maria can almost hear them think: What’s a fangirl like you doing in the austere world of business? She can’t really blame them. She thought so too before she met Jamie.
She takes a sip from her cocktail. It tastes too sweet and artificial. She should have ordered Sex on the Beach instead. Or at least have insisted on a salt rim.
Blushing and biting her lip, she stares at the two brothers. Dean clearly has no interest in talking to her, treading restlessly from one foot to the other, and Sam doesn’t seem any better at chatting people up than she is. Just imagine that you’re Gholandria the Wicked and a cute FBI agent has ended up in Moondoor with you, she tells herself. But all she can come up with is a strained, “So what do you do, Sam? When you’re not LARPing?”
“Umm, we … this or that… we used to move around a lot, and now we… well Dean injured his knee pretty bad, so…” he trails off with a feeble shrug. It doesn’t escape her how he always says we and keeps throwing concerned glances at his brother.
It’s weird, picturing a pair of brothers who must be well in their thirties working together, living together, doing everything together. It makes her think of what Jamie said about those forty-year-old Stormtrooper-twins at Comic Con.
The way Dean glares back at his brother every single time he catches him looking doesn’t make the whole thing any less weird. Maybe it’s not just the drinking, or rather non-drinking, that bothers him. Maybe he isn’t ready yet to accept that his damaged knee no longer allows him to do whatever move around a lot means. It sounds pretty much like nothing and everything.
Not that an extra touch of mysteriousness ever put her off.
Out of nowhere, Sam adds in that wonderfully gentle voice of his that she can’t seem to get enough of, “I used to go to Stanford.”
She whistles, impressed, and tries hard not to wince when she accidentally knocks her teeth against the boat-shaped end of her cocktail stick. She honestly hadn’t expected that. “Wow! That’s so awesome! What major?”
“I wanted to go to law school, but then some stuff happened…” He sighs. “My girlfriend died.”
“That’s awful,” she blurts out, too surprised that he would share something so personal with her to come up with proper condolences.
He doesn’t look put out, though. Instead he rewards her blunt exclamation with a fresh flash of dimples. “Yeah, well… Dean was there for me.”
This time, Dean doesn’t glare at his brother. Instead he stands there studying his feet, shoulders slumped, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth. There’s a story right there, Maria thinks, only she has no idea what it is.
“Anyway, after that I just needed to get out…” Sam continues unprompted. It’s almost as though he’s glad that he finally got a chance to talk about all this. The thought makes her feel doubly sad for his sake. “Then other stuff happened…and I dunno, that’s just the life, I guess.” He doesn’t sound resigned, though maybe a little wistful.
“You could always go back,” she suggests, hoping it doesn’t sound too much like, You know, you could always come to classes with me, and you could sit next to me in class, oh and while we’re at it, we might as well move in together and marathon through Game of Thrones and have kids and be happy ever after.
Before Sam can reply, Dean slaps a hand on his shoulder. “Man, I’m beat, I’m heading back to the motel. I’ll just leave you and Lavender Brown to it.” He nods in her direction with a tight smirk, puts a five down next to his untouched Coke and turns away.
Maria watches his retreating back feeling vaguely hurt.
“Sorry ‘bout that,” Sam says to cover up Dean’s gruffness, watching his brother limp away with a blend of annoyance and anxiety churning low in his gut. “He’s – Things haven’t been easy lately.”
Actually, that’s a vast understatement. Not that life’s ever been easy on them, but the past year really took the friggin’ cake.
For this is what happens when you beat the literal Darkness and end up closing the gates to Heaven and Hell in the process – you fuck up your knee on a run-of-the-mill hunt and there’s no angel around to fix it.
Meaning that Dean lost the one thing that gave his life purpose, because there’s no use going after monsters if you can’t run away from them when things go sideways.
Meaning that they both lost one of their few remaining friends, who’s now locked up in Heaven forever (and hopefully just locked up, it’s not like he was on best terms with his brothers and sisters), thanks to them and their unwillingness to read the small print. Yet although Sam misses Cas, misses him terribly, he knows that it’s nothing next to what Dean feels; because while Sam’s usually quite content with just his brother for company, Dean’s always been a people person at heart.
And if all that hadn’t already been more than enough to swallow, Sam forced Dean to give up the only coping mechanism he ever had apart from decapitation: booze, booze and more booze. It’s not like Sam had much of a choice. He hadn’t lost his brother to hellhounds or the Mark of Cain or the Darkness, so he certainly wasn’t gonna lose him to something stupid like liver failure, or worse. But seeing Dean’s struggles, he thinks he might as well have clawed off his brother’s skin layer by layer and made him eat it, and on some days he can’t even remember anything worse than this.
There’s no such thing as Retiring From Hunting Monsters For Dummies, and Sam’s beginning to get why.
Maybe we'll be different, he hoped once upon a time.
Dean had no hope left, even back then. Sammy, it ends bloody or sad. That's just the life.
He refused to acknowledge Dean was right then. Took refuge in demon blood and delusions of grandeur instead, and look what happened. It’s been humbling, to say the least.
There’s still a part in him, though, which hopes and can’t accept that now they’re both safe and together for the very first time in their lives, no apocalyptic nastiness looming on the horizon, no literal deadlines, no demon deals, no nothing, somehow they’re still not happy.
The world’s as calm and peaceful as it will ever be, and, honestly, that’s good enough for Sam. But Dean, stupid, good, brave Dean, isn’t on board with that line of reasoning. Someone needs to take care of the small monsters of this world, Sammy. Well, Sam’s always been better at blocking out the freakish accidents that might happen all over the country as soon as you turn your back. What kept him up at night sometimes when he was with Jess, and later with Amelia, was always the thought of Dean, and not of some random poor soul who might get torn apart by a wendigo or a werewolf because Sam wasn’t there to help. This time they’re both out for good, and Sam’s okay with it. If only the same were true for his brother.
It’s been four months and he’s starting to fear that Dean will never adjust to civilian life.
The look of childlike confusion on Dean’s face earlier when they pulled into Omaha and Sam asked him, Pizza or steak? resurfaces in his mind. It’s one he’d really like to forget. It’s one that should have no place on his big brother’s face. Dean kept clenching and unclenching his hand, tremors running all the way through his fingers and arm, and rolled his lips against each other, as though Sam had asked for the fourth root of pi.
Sure, Dean agreed as soon as Sam took pity on him and decided, I’m feeling more like pizza tonight. Then he picked listlessly at his pepperoni. Sam never thought he would miss his brother’s voracious and frankly disgusting eating habits, but he does. And he’s beginning to think that if only Dean would bitch at him for babying him, it would be a blessing.
Naturally, Sam did his research. He even talked to Cole, and several of his military buddies. He knows that lack of appetite and an inability to make even the smallest decisions are possible symptoms of both withdrawal and PTSD.
It’s just that he’s never quite stopped hero-worshipping his big brother, and part of him refuses to accept that the man who made angels and demons tremble honest to God struggles with something as petty as an alcohol addiction.
Not that Dean would ever admit to having one in the first place.
Sam will never forget the look of pure shock on Dean’s face when he took the whiskey bottle out of his hand and told him no, breaking one of the top ten Winchester Rules Of Dealing With Shit And Not Talking About It. It almost made him take it back on the spot – almost.
He blinks and refocuses on the pretty girl in front of him. Maria. Right. To her credit, she doesn’t look offended or bewildered that he zoned out on her. All she’s doing is peering up into his face with an expression of kindly concern. It makes him think of Jody’s face, asking, And how are you holding up, Sam? Offering, You can stay longer. The girls won’t mind. He really wanted to. But of course then he spotted Dean twitching in the backyard and that was that.
“Sorry, sorry,” he mumbles, rubbing a hand over his face. It comes away clammy with sweat. God, he could really have used a break. He’s beginning to feel like a crab that molted its old, too small shell and forgot to grow a new one.
“It’s alright,” Maria says, smiling up at him. A handful of sugar crystals cling to her bottom lip, glistening faintly, and it’s almost too sweet to bear.
No, it’s not, it’s not alright at all, he wants to reply. Because what bothers him the most isn’t the sleeplessness, the tremors, the lack of appetite, the irritability or the taciturnity: No, he misses Dean opening his beer for him. Even when Dean was angry at him for choosing Ruby or for not looking for him when he was in Purgatory, he always opened Sam’s beer for him. On some days, that was the only thing that made Sam hold on. It was one of those tiny quirks that made Dean Dean and them them. It made Sam feel cherished, loved, safe. And he’s not sure how he’s supposed to live without that.
But he can’t admit any of that. Not to Dean, not to this nice girl. So he settles for a lame, “Sorry, you were saying?”
“I just wondered if you want to go back to college now you’re no longer doing… whatever it is you do.” She blushes bright scarlet, and it suits her.
For a moment, Sam can picture it. Bending down to kiss her burning cheeks. Taking her home. Seeing the world through her eyes, simple and bright. Going back to law school, then a nice quiet teaching job, a house, a dog, kids… And of course Maria always at his side, cute and blonde and awesome. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t. Since they both quit hunting, if he settled down now, he wouldn’t have to worry about Dean getting hurt because Sam wasn’t there to have his back…
And that’s where the shiny castle in the air collapses on itself, its pieces scattering over the sticky linoleum floor of the bar.
Because while he can readily imagine a life without hunting, and a suburban family idyll even, a life without his brother seems utterly impossible.
He shakes his head and watches her face fall. “No, I – I don’t want that sort of life anymore. Dean – he’s all I’ve got, and I can’t – I don’t want to live this life without him.”
As soon as the declaration has left his mouth, he becomes aware that he’s just confessed to a complete stranger what he never actually told his brother himself. The realization is followed by the memory of Dean’s face before he left, closed-off and dejected. God. No matter how much they both hate heart-to-hearts, maybe it’ll honestly help Dean to know that Sam’s in this for good and that he’s not making him sober up to vegetate in an empty bunker afterwards.
So he excuses himself, stumbling over the words in his haste. “It was nice meeting you again… Maria, but, uh, I really need to… Anyway, bye.”
As he turns away, he hears her murmur, mostly to herself, “And that’s why he’s all you’ve got.” There’s no spite to the words, just a good dose of disappointment and exasperation.
He shrugs his shoulders and heads for the exit, gleaming red and inviting above the parting crowd.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, Dean thinks, leaning against the inside of the door of their room at the La Costa motel, and pounds his fists against the wooden surface for good measure.
Figures that his first visit to a bar since he went on the wagon developed into an unmitigated disaster.
Not being able to order two shots (or three, or four) sucked. Okay, that’s a bit of an understatement. Back there, a boundless craving unfurled in his veins, reminding him of those ugly days when he was fighting the power of the Mark; once more there was this whole other thing inside him, threatening to control him, making him gnash his teeth with the effort it took not to bang his head or someone else’s against the bar, hard.
What wouldn’t he have given to behead a couple of vamps, just to take the edge off. Right then he missed hunting so much it hurt, and not just the saving people part of the family business.
There was only one other person at that god-forsaken place who might have understood that, and yet he was also the last person Dean could ever admit that to. Somehow, Sam’s talked himself into the crazy conviction that Dean is a good person, and maybe that’s even worse than those miserable months when Dean felt sure his brother hated him. That wasn’t you, Sam told him when Dean slaughtered a group of civilians, got one of their last hunter friends killed. It wasn’t your fault, he said when Dean tortured souls in Hell and enjoyed it. But Dean knows better. Sure, he’s eaten up with guilt, revisiting his sins in countless nightmares, but he also remembers the rush of power and satisfaction, because he’s a sick son of a bitch, and he likes to kill. It’s only a matter of time until Sam realizes that his rose-colored idea of Dean is nothing like the reality, and then he’ll hate him for good. There’s no need for Dean to speed up the process with a couple untimely confessions.
Dean slams his fists against the door again, and his knuckles come away tingling, granting him a second of respite before the memories of the bar attack him with fresh vengeance.
No chance of tossing back a cold one would have been punishment enough. But since every attempt at a smile already made him feel dizzy and nauseous, mingling with the local wildlife wasn’t an option either, and his hands were shaking too much to distract himself with a round of hustling.
Still – even crappier than that whole long list of crappiness put together was the fact that at the damn bar of all places Sam had to walk right into a girl who might as well have been wearing a Smurf tee reading Hi, I’m a clone of Jessica Moore.
She – Maria? – seemed cute and friendly, even fun, at least Sam’s hopelessly geeky idea of that. If Sam decides to stay with her Dean really can’t blame him.
It’s not like Dean’s ever had any real dreams about a life without hunting. But Sam did, always, always did, and now he might as well get to live them, rather than having to hang out with his invalid brother who doesn’t know what to do with himself when he can’t start the day with a few shots of Jack. He’s already put Sam through way too much shit the past few months, it’s not fair. Sammy shouldn’t have had to deal with any of it, especially not that time shortly after Dean fucked up his knee when he mixed a bit of alcohol and painkillers. (Okay, a lot of alcohol and painkillers. But he hadn’t tried to kill himself, not really.) I hate you so much right now, Sam had said, then, as he shoved his fingers down Dean’s throat. He hadn’t even sounded angry, just tired. Dean’s selfish as hell, but not even he could wish Sam any more of that.
It’s just, although he’s been expecting this day to come ever since they stopped hunting and maybe even hoped for it, for Sam’s sake, he prayed it wouldn’t come so soon.
In his dreams – not that he sleeps all that much these days – he keeps seeing the cold, distant Sam from his fake Djinn world, saying, I guess we just don’t really have anything in common. – Hunting, was the only thing Dean had been able to come up with back then, and try as he might, he still hasn’t managed to find another answer. Well screw that. It’s gone now, irrevocably, the only thing that ever tethered Sam to Dean’s frail existence.
He rubs a hand across the pale, unscarred spot on his forearm where the Mark used to be, a visible reminder of what he was, gone now like so many other things, and wonders if Sam will even come back tonight.
He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, trying to block out the distressing thought of Sam and the melee of cheesy sunset beach pictures all over the room that torments his already fraught visual nerves. But the throbbing behind his eyes only intensifies, so he opens them again.
That’s when he catches sight of the minibar at the other end of the garish room. The neon red letters of the motel sign outside are reflected faintly on its smooth, off-white surface, except for the three broken ones, spelling out L OST like a warning. His stomach lurches uncomfortably. His skin vibrates with the temptation to cross the room and open it. In all likelihood it’s empty. Sam would have been stupid not to clear it out earlier while Dean was in the bathroom, and if there’s one thing his little brother isn’t, it’s stupid.
Except sometimes where Dean’s concerned.
He doesn’t move. He couldn’t possibly say what he’s afraid of more – to find out that Sam emptied it, or that he didn’t.
It’s like that trick with the cat – as long as you don’t check the box, it might still be alive. Dean’s not quite sure what he means by that metaphor, and he doesn’t care to give the matter further consideration.
His gut twists more violently then, and all thoughts of cats and minibars desert him as he hurries into the bathroom where he empties the meagre contents of his stomach into the toilet.
Once he’s stopped heaving, he slowly rises to his feet, steadying himself on the sink. The room is spinning. Something behind his eyes still throbs dully. His knee has decided to join the general concert of pain, protesting against the uncomfortable position he forced it into a moment ago. He washes his face over the sink, but the water does nothing to revive him.
As if through a haze, he spots his face in the mirror, a pale blur of bloodshot empty eyes and skin covered in sweat, shaking. He’s shaking. Or maybe he isn’t, maybe this shivering’s just crawling all over his insides.
He blinks against the blinding pain behind his eye sockets, trying to bring the terrible chimera of his reflection into focus. But his eyes won’t obey him, or his reflection won’t, or he won’t, who can say, and what he sees looks nothing like himself and everything like the monster he feels.
He slams his fist into the mirror. Splinters rain down on him as his stupid knee gives out and he topples over, sprawling on the cold bathroom tiles, no chance of getting back up, his leg pounding furiously. On the edge of his vision he glimpses a shard of glass lying not two inches away from his right hand. He could take it to his wrists, he notes distantly. It would work.
A wave of darkness swallows him up before he can reach out for it.
Next thing, there’s a voice cutting through the fringes of his awareness, steadily growing louder. Sam’s.
“… toss away all your tapes and spray-paint pink flowers on the Impala… come on, Dean, please, I mean it…”
The words don’t really register, but the tone does. Sam sounds frantic, frightened, and he should never sound like that, not as long as Dean’s around to protect him. So he tears himself away from the soothing numbness enveloping his senses and blinks his eyes open.
He’s half-sitting, half-lying on a dingy motel bed, propped up against Sam’s knee and shoulder. There’s a pillow under his right knee and what looks like a bag of frozen peas wrapped around it. Sam’s anxious young face is about two inches from his own, near enough that he can make out the golden specks in his eyes, tempestuous like the sea in the picture right behind him that’s framing his face like an otherworldly halo.
“Hey.” Sam’s face splits into a grin. His dimples appear right in front of Dean’s eyes, two bright spots, so bright it’s dizzying, and maybe Dean briefly blacks out again at this point.
Dimly he notes the words “I’m sorry.” floating past his ear without sense or connection. And then someone’s saying, “Meant to, but I didn’t,” and blinking he realizes that, huh, it’s his voice, and he has no idea where that’s even coming from, not really.
Sam pushes a glass of water at his lips. “Drink that.”
Dean complies, even if it tastes stale in his mouth. Then his eyes fall once again on the picture of the ocean that Sam’s worried forehead and wild hair seem to rise out of like a particularly exotic fish. Or maybe a mermaid.
“The ocean,” he mumbles, “wanna go to the ocean.”
“Of course,” Sam answers, “anything you want.”
Dean swallows. “You don’t need to –” Come with me, he means. But his voice comes out plaintive enough to sound like leave, I’ll be better, I’ll try.
“Shhh,” Sam soothes him, as if he understands everything that Dean’s trying to say. He gets up then, and returns a minute later with a first aid case. Dean stares at it in confusion for a moment before he notices that his hand is bleeding, and the sheets are soiled with blood.
Sam sits down beside him and begins to bandage his palm. His fingers are gentle against Dean’s skin. Watching his brother, Dean sees him open his mouth with great deliberation, his eyes still focused on the task in front of him, and suddenly the last remnants of peaceful oblivion scatter away as full awareness of the situation slams back into Dean. Fuck, he curses inwardly, now Sam’s gonna bring up a facility again, and honestly, why shouldn’t he, when Dean’s more trouble than he’s worth, and there’s a girl out there who looks like Jess.
However, what Sam says is, “You know, the next time you feel like smashing a mirror, please warn me in advance so I can shave first.”
He keeps his tone light and teasing, and Dean feels the corners of his mouth quirk up in answer.
“It’s not my fault you have such abnormal hair growth,” he grumbles. Thankfully, his voice only wobbles on the last syllable.
Sam looks up at him then, solid and kind and just a little solemn. “You and me,” he says, pressing Dean’s gauze-wrapped hand, a reassuring touch, just on the edge of painful, “it’s always been you and me.”
It reminds Dean vividly of another scene, another bandaged hand: Sam’s poor maimed hand, then, jerking in his grip like a ship caught in the middle of a storm desperately trying to cast anchor. Squeezing it, pushing his thumb hard against Sam’s wound, a connection of flesh and blood in every sense of the word, Dean had asked Sam to trust him above all else. Stone Number One.
He looks back at Sam and thinks that maybe now his turn has come to believe and build upon it.