Signs of LifeAuthor: pecansodaRecipient: astri13Rating:
For the prompt: Sam as the older, more protective brother.
~2,500 words. Thanks and much love to the amazing H., who was both kind and patient enough to beta this. I hope it’s okay! :)Summary:
AU. "This wouldn’t happen with Dad," Dean says, sullen, as Sam pops the hood on the Impala to examine her gleaming metal viscera, her tidy order laid out in silver and bronze and deep reflected light. "He always knows what to do."
In his dreams, only he is unchanged.
They pass like ghosts -- Dean, Dad; he knows but never sees. A flickering gold that’s fire or angel’s hair.
The same dream never comes a second time. Scenery shifts, evolves. Dean; gone with a burst of static. The dream spins, tilts wild on its tectonic hinge.
In his dreams, a bitter dryness: a taste in his mouth like ash.
These are the things Sam never expected -- heat, bright on his face, hollowing out his eyes so he couldn’t even cry; the weight of the bundle in his arms; the kick of his first shotgun; an extra side of bacon on his plate at a diner in Minnesota when he was eight, the waitress who’d smiled at him and ruffled his hair; the flicker of a werewolf running, the bright curve of its claws and the wicked downwards slash.
In the end, it makes sense that leaving he’d understand. Maybe never in the way that Dean does but more than any of those things that took the breath from his lungs. That he’d know, from the first time Dean raised a shotgun in his hands and didn’t even flinch, that it would only be a matter of time.
The next three hundred miles of dirt road taste like rain. In the rear view, he eyes the darkness heavy at the horizon, the wind that rakes the scattered trees and thirsty patches of faded green lining the road side. He imagines the storm, the driving rain. Rocks, small stones, fragments of old and broken glass; they grind under the Impala’s tyres and bring with them the sound of thunder. Bright, sparking light chases them along the back roads and across the border, reflects on road signs as they pass and when they hit the next town over, so too does the storm.
The motel’s the usual -- half a dozen cars, one guy behind the counter -- it clicks over into the hundred others that they’ve breathed in before. Through rain-streaked windows, neon lettering fragments into a thousand skittering fireflies.
Dean doesn’t say a word and slams the car door with too much force.
It takes Sam three trips between the Impala and room seventeen. The rain cuts a little deeper each time, burrowing that much closer to skin.
He shrugs out of his jacket, his jeans, his shirt; black with rain, so heavy with it he could be drowning. He stands under the showerhead for an hour, until the chill is chased clean from his fingers, his bones; he opens his eyes under the spray. The steam leaves him heady and weak, hollows him out.
He sleeps and, for the first time in years, sees nothing.
"This wouldn’t happen with Dad," Dean says, sullen, as Sam pops the hood on the Impala to examine her gleaming metal viscera, her tidy order laid out in silver and bronze and deep reflected light. "He always knows what to do." Eyes dark in his face, the way shadow cuts across his brow. Summer sun hanging high in the sky but he doesn't even squint, eyes too still, mouth too hard.
"Dad's not here. I am," says Sam. Smoke billows into his face: he waves it away, but already he can feel his eyes pucker.
Dean's mouth quirks, the sharp rise of one corner like he thinks Sam’s trying to be funny. "Yeah, I know."
The sun beats down on their backs with white, flooding light. There’s not a car to be seen, dust stretching bone-dry from east to west.
"I’m on so many painkillers I can’t even shit," Dean declares, finally, into the empty heat, while Sam tinkers with the engine ineffectually.
Sam doesn’t even look up from where he’s examining the carburettor. "Language, Dean."
"What are you going to do? Ground
He stills; says, very quietly to keep the shake clear from his voice, "That’s not fair."
Dean raises one eyebrow at him, arms folded over his chest as if to say -- Isn’t it?
He watches Sam fumble his way through the toolkit, the rattle-hum of screwdrivers spilling on the roadside, how they glint silver in the dust and scattered rocks.
"Oh, for the love of -- move over, Sam."
Dean bustles him out of the way and plucks the spanner from his hand. "You can’t just fiddle with the bolts and hope it fixes itself," he mutters, eyes fixed firmly on the engine. He points. "Problem’s right there."
Funny how the world seems smaller when they’re on the open road. Dad, Dean, Sam; the hunt. Their possessions defined by the dimensions, the height, width, depth of the trunk of a car. After a while, everything capable of reduction, commodities trimmed to fit or discarded in the dearth of headlights on the road behind, the rising dust. Spare clothes. Old toys. A relationship. A life.
Light filters in from the vacancy sign, ambers and pinks and lurid green casting slanting shadows in strange and unusual shades. His hair’s clammy on his face, sticks above the neck of his shirt. He kicks the tangled sheets from his legs and tries to breathe around the rush of air caught in his throat.
He splashes water on his face. The chill tightens his mouth, draws back the lids from his eyes.
He thinks maybe inertia will fit with the awkward angles of his first shotgun; that maybe he will get up in the mornings, eat breakfast, go to class, drive to work, go home again and find the world too big after all. He thinks his joints will itch with remembered-movement, phantom limbs clothed in his own.
He thinks of Dad, the summers lining his eyes like the maps they used to live by, and the thought leaves him cold.
Cheap plastic tile, he can feel the creeping veins of it on the soles of his bare feet. Knows, without looking, the cracks. The mirror, too, is broken at one corner, a series of minute fractures as fine as spider silk. In it, he can see the rounded shape of Dean curled up in the far bed. If he is still, he can count Dean’s breathing by the rise and fall of his chest, illuminated faintly by pale orange and tinged with yellow.
His own reflection stares at him, tired smudges underscoring his eyes, sharpening his face into something pinched and feral.
When he wakes up, he’ll be eighteen.
When he wakes up, Dean will be gone, a rumpled sort of nothing at the end of Dean’s bed where his bag was, but the Impala still in the lot, the keys on the coffee table where Sam left them when they checked in.
Two days pass, and that untidy space at the end of Dean’s bed, the negative space that folds in on itself to swallow its own hollows, is still there. He buys take-away, pokes it around in the Styrofoam carton with the television on mute: faces flecked with noise, ribbons of non-colour shot through the picture. The antenna’s still on the floor behind the cabinet. He doesn’t bother righting it.
In the next room down, a radio crackles: static and a tinny melody strained through layers of plaster and peeling paint, something diluted and wan. He doesn’t recognise the song. He thinks of the Impala, the box of tapes in the back seat, the roar of gravel under the purring bass, the passing lights and open windows that remind him of (Dean
) the open road.
The third day, Dean says, "Damn it, Sam."
Mouth skewing, a muscle jumping in his jaw, a vein at his temple; he slumps back against the door and he’s shaking, he’s shaking so hard the wood jitters on its hinges.
Dean’s at that awkward stage, gangly limbs and two left feet: he’ll be tall, but Sam’s not sure how tall yet. He’ll fill out in the next handful of years, muscle to balance out the height. Now Dean’s just a jumble of limbs and sharp elbows, face that he hasn’t grown into scrunched in pain, lips peeled back from his teeth, sharp and white; the last of his baby teeth gone years ago.
"Damn it, Sam," Dean says again, louder, note of hysteria as he tries to fight off Sam’s arms, and he won’t stop shaking.
Sam folds him in against his chest, a hiss that could be his stitches or something else tearing -- the way Dean finally stills and then just trembles there, fragile as bird bones; too much white in his face, in his eyes, the frozen staring green.
Dean huffs out this choked, twisted thing, a laugh or a sob or some sort of limbo caught between, a sound like he’s dying.
Sam’d say -- I’m sorry.
Sam’d say -- This wasn’t a choice I ever wanted you to have to make.
Because he is. But, somewhere beneath the bright bubble of pain in his chest, beneath the memory of Dean’s hands red with his own blood, the kick of that first shotgun, it was.
"I found him, you know," Dean says. "Didn’t think I would, but I did. I found him." I found him
, like awe, like confusion, like he can’t quite believe it himself, the awkward shape of it on his tongue; how it contorts his throat and stains him in bewilderment. "I sat in the lot outside the motel for two hours, just staring at the little bar of light under his door."
Sam looks up from the battered map on the table. Dean’s staring at him over his knee, one bare foot tucked up close, his toes curling over the side of the bed, the muted patchwork comforter.
Dean says, "Why didn’t you leave? I took off, took all my stuff. I left you the Impala, the credit cards. It wasn’t like I’d ditched you in the middle of nowhere with twenty bucks and no car. For all you knew, I could’ve been gone for good. Why did you stay?"
And something knots high in Sam’s belly, between a cramp and a knife-blow, the slow-crawl realisation that, after everything, Dean would go to the ends of the world for them but can’t understand that Sam might -- could, would, will -- do the same for him without a backwards glance, can pretend a nursery was never stolen into the night by flame. He says, as though to reply, in a voice that feels coffee-stained, gravel-worn, "Why’d you come back?"
A shadow passes across Dean’s brow, a brief, vulnerable darkness. Dean shoots him this loose grin. "Packed everything but the Tylenol."
Sam smiles back. It hangs awkward on his face, some ill-fit, something he’s grown out of, or that’s grown out of him. "Guess I didn’t have much to leave for."
Sam doesn’t delete the one half-message Dad leaves in his voice mail, the two seconds of silence shot through with traffic. There’s no anger or guilt or remorse or loss in staring at the words on the screen; they steep in his periphery when he looks away.
Dad doesn’t call again.
Dean doesn’t mention it, in the way that he never does, but he doesn’t have to. He goes outside their room sometimes, or Sam comes back in from the shower and Dean’s eyes are blank, turned in
and away on something he doesn’t say, and Sam’s cell is never quite where he left it.
Dad’ll find them eventually, Sam thinks, when the words lingering between are dead long enough to be buried, when he’s ready to find them, when they’re ready to be found, when all this brittleness is hard enough not to break.
They drift for a while. They drift, try to find a place, somewhere unassuming, a groove of some sort in which to settle.
Towns silhouette on the horizon and fade away with quiet melancholy into the darkness of the rear view. Gas stations and bright-lit diners, their menus marked with strange and unusual names; the waitresses who slide an extra side of bacon onto Sam’s plate with conspiratorial eyes and soft-smiling mouths.
Dean doesn’t touch the paper. Sam pulls out the Sudoku pages for him, and Dean chews the end of his pencil into splintered wood, muttering occasionally into his coffee, while the little grid fills steadily with numbers and his pancakes grow cold by his elbow; the intermittent rustle of turning pages across the table that tells him Sam’s still there.
Sam skims headlines, skips articles, and stares a while until black typeface blurs into fog. A handful of days tumble by: diner, motel, gas station, repeat. A convenience store where he lets Dean buy enough candy to melt his brain. He hands Dean the Sudoku, but somehow can’t make it past the front page.
The Impala’s tyres know dust and dirt road like their bones know transience. The glow-stream of passing street lamps, the worn fit of steering wheel under callused hand: these, for a while, are enough to breathe by.
The house is a modest one-storey nestled in a quiet neighbourhood between other one-storeys of similar modesty and varying colours. There’s little lawn to go by but an old tyre hangs from the tired, peeling tree in the overgrown square of the front yard, a remnant of whatever ghosts had laid root there before.
Dean’s halfway up the tree before Sam has even gotten the keys out of the ignition, a flash of colour disappearing into the higher branches and seconds later a triumphant figure sitting on the rooftop, skinny legs dangling off the side.
"It’s a yes," yells Dean.
"You don’t even know what it looks like inside."
There are children laughing at the end of the street. At the house directly opposite, a small elderly woman putters outside to take out the trash.
A roll of Dean’s eyes. "So I’ll camp up here if it’s rat-infested."
Across the street, the elderly woman nearly drops her garbage bag, scandalised. Dean waves at her, grinning, and she bustles hastily inside, closing her front door with a snap.
The tree creaks but holds steady under his weight. When was the last time he climbed a tree? Probably before he gained that last foot and a half, Sam thinks, pulling himself up through those thinning upper branches to find foothold on the roof.
"Take your time, why don’t you?"
"Climbing trees gets harder once you actually hit puberty."
Dean chooses to ignore this statement. "I like it here, I think," he says. It’s more energy than Sam has seen in him in weeks, some of the flatness gone from his eyes, the way his face just lights up, the way things might just be okay.
"Yeah," says Sam. "I think I will too."end