Title: The Existence of Forgetting
Author's Notes: You can find the prompt at the end of the fic.
Summary: Sam thinks he’s being haunted. Or maybe he’s just crazy. But all he wants, really, is to finally talk to his brother.
At first, Sam thought it was his imagination. He just missed his brother, that was all. After the woman in white in Jericho, Sam had come back to Palo Alto, had his interview, and had waited to hear from Dean. He only got a few text messages the first few months. They should have been enough, were enough before Dean had broken into his apartment and into his life. But Sam wanted to see his brother, wanted to talk to him and that was the reason he kept thinking he saw a flash of Dean’s face among the Stanford crowd, or walking down the sidewalk through the window, or sitting at a bar on the other side of the street. It didn’t make any sense, though – if Dean were in Palo Alto, he would come and see Sam, wouldn’t he?
Most of all, Sam couldn’t understand why, one day, Dean had stopped answering his texts.
“Think something happened to him?” Humphrey asked with his usual bluntness from where he was lying on the couch, watching the white ceiling with disturbing focus. Sam didn’t answer because he was aware that his friend wasn’t really expecting a reply, and because the question hit too close to home. Something happening to Dean? Yes, indeed, it was awfully likely.
“Maybe you should write to him?” Humphrey said, and Sam raised his head from his notes in surprise. His friend had stopped looking at the ceiling to turn his gaze in Sam’s direction, and he looked kind of high, face slack and eyes barely focused, but Sam knew very well that his friend didn’t do drugs or alcohol. He just naturally had this slight disconnect from reality, or maybe he had to learn it to counter the unintentional cruelty of the cinema-loving mother who named him Humphrey.
“My brother doesn’t have an address,” Sam said.
“Oh, okay.” And just like that, Humphrey was back to being unconcerned, and Sam was relieved. That was what he liked best about Humphrey – the guy never felt the need to know more than what you were willing to share. Also, he was on the top of the short list of friends who were still talking to Sam.
Sometimes – too often – Sam wanted to blame Dean for the way it went down between him and Jess. Between him and all his friends, really. He was always close-mouthed about his past, but that was part of his charm, or so he was told. Turns out that there is only so much mystery people can take before they start to feel betrayed or suspicious. Dean and the trip to Jericho was only the trigger; after that, Jess had started asking the questions she’d always kept for herself before, and Sam hadn’t dealt with it very well. It had always seemed easier to think of the time before Stanford as something separate and remote, of himself as a different person, but seeing Dean again had made clear how much he was fooling himself. He was one and only Sam, too much and not enough. And for whatever reason, Jess wanted to know Sam.
“I can handle the truth,” she would say.
“No, you can’t,” was always his retort. She thought she could, but oh God, there was no way she could handle the truth.
When they’d broken up, it’d been easier for most of their friends to put the blame on Sam. He was the stranger. He’d always been, despite his best efforts. She kept the apartment – Sam didn’t want a place that would remind him too much of her, and she’d been the one who’d found it anyway. Sam had crashed on Humphrey’s couch, and never left.
Not long after that, he’d started to see Dean.
Sam’s second hypothesis was that he was being haunted. The thought struck him one night, waking him up and making him sit bolt upright in his bed, his breath short and sweat running down his back. That was it, his brother was dead – dead, dead – and Dean, God bless him, couldn’t let go and had attached himself to Sam, was going to follow him everywhere until he drove himself, drove them both crazy. Sam choked on dry sobs for several minutes, biting his fist savagely not to let out any sound, until he ran for the bathroom and threw up in the toilet.
He salted doors and windows. If Humphrey noticed, he didn’t comment on it. Sam took on carrying salt and iron on him at all times. He tried to call his father but always got the voicemail – If this is an emergency, call my son Dean at 866-907-3235… Maybe he was dead, too. Maybe they’d died together, and Sam would never know what happened.
For a while, Sam didn’t see Dean again and he thought he had succeeded in repelling his brother’s ghost. He cried a whole day, so much that several of his teachers were concerned by his puffy eyes and asked him what was wrong. Like they would understand what Sam was mourning – his brother’s presence, his touch on the world. He smiled and said he was fine, that it was stress, nothing to worry about.
Then one Saturday as Sam was crossing the street he saw a man in a leather jacket on a bus, and when the man turned his head to look out the window, Sam recognized without a doubt the familiar nose, cheekbones, and chin. The bus went past Sam, so close he could almost have reached out and touched it, and Sam could have sworn that the man’s gaze brushed over him without a change of expression.
“Dean!” Sam shouted, but the bus was already down the street and cars were honking their horns all around him.
His ghost theory didn’t hold anymore, if it ever did. It wasn’t unusual for ghosts to appear at day, but it was rare and Sam always saw Dean during daytime. There was never any cold spot, or light flicker, or any of the telltale signs of a haunting. There was just Dean, sometimes too far away for Sam to be sure, but that man in the bus, there was no way Sam could have failed to recognize his brother so close.
“I think I’m going crazy,” he said to Humphrey, who nodded gravely and said, “It’s okay, Sam. It’s not so bad, you’ll see.” Sam chuckled at that, though he wasn’t so sure that it was a joke. Humphrey wasn’t known for his sense of humor.
Sam checked every motel in town, with each of the Dean’s aliases he remembered. He didn’t find anything, not that he’d had too much hope. If his brother didn’t want to be found, for whatever reason, there wasn’t a lot Sam could do. The question, of course, was why. Sam didn’t have the impression that they’d parted in too bad terms last time. He had even hoped that they were on their way to mend what had been broken.
He distracted himself by working and fortunately, law school was time-consuming. He only had the time to eat, sleep, work, and sometimes when he walked in the street or across the campus, his eyes lingered on the faces in the crowd, when there was no one to tell him off. He just had a hard time letting go. He felt like he was living in limbo, in-between this world and the dark world of his past, only needing to know, know where Dean was, how Dean was, why he was hiding.
Maybe it was like a four-leaved clover, only to be found when you’re not looking for it, because it was a cold, windy day that he ran into the answer to his questions, while he was walking fast with his hands in his pocket and his shoulders raised.
“Sorry,” he mumbled when his shoulder bumped into someone’s arm, not too gently. He heard a pained groan and raised his head to see whether he’d seriously hurt the person, ready to apologize more profusely. His eyes caught the leather jacket first, and his pulse quickened, but he thought it was coincidence and wishful thinking, that it couldn’t really be… There were freckles, and Sam’s eyes met green ones that he’d known all his life.
His brother’s face – no mistake possible, not this time – shut down, and Dean looked wary, like waiting for a blow to come. The hundred possibilities Sam had considered those past months ran through his mind – Dean cursed, possessed, amnesiac, abducted by an evil cult that wouldn’t let him contact his brother. Seeing the absence of recognition in Dean’s eyes, the closed-off look, made it seem like amnesia was the correct answer.
“It’s me, Sam,” Sam said, stupidly. If Dean had forgotten all about him, it was unlikely that the mere mention of his name would do more than confuse him. But instead of the “Sam, who?” that Sam expected, Dean’s expression changed again and his eyes widened, his mouth opened a little, making him look lost and young. Shattered. Then, as quickly, a mask fell over his face and Dean smirked.
“Hey, Sammy! Fancy meeting you here.”
“Uh, you’re in Palo Alto. I live here.”
“I know,” Dean said, sounding strangely defensive.
“You do? Then why haven’t I heard of you in months?” Now that he had Dean in front of him, alive and looking more or less well, fear and worry had left place to anger. “What the hell, Dean? Where the fuck have you been?”
“I’ve been busy.”
“So busy that you couldn’t pick up the goddamn phone? That you couldn’t send me a fucking text?” His voice was rising, making people passing by turn their heads and whisper, but he couldn’t care less. “Do you know how worried I’ve been? I thought the worst had happened to you! I just… I mean, I thought that since the hunt in Jericho we could at least… I don’t know, speak to each other.”
“I’m sorry, Sam, my phone got trashed. I didn’t get your messages.”
Sam lifted an eyebrow. Dean looked earnest enough, but something didn’t add up. The whole thing felt off, starting with the fact that his own brother hadn’t even recognized him, and Sam’s stomach churned a little.
“Why didn’t you… call me when you got your new phone?” he asked.
“I… Look, Sam, can we talk about this somewhere else? I don’t know about you but I’m kinda freezing. What they say about California, it’s all false advertising.” He smiled a little, but it didn’t touch his eyes.
“Okay,” Sam said. “Let’s go to my apartment.” A thought struck him. “Where’s the Impala?”
Dean stiffened, his uneasiness unmistakable and sending alarms through Sam’s brain.
“She’s parked somewhere,” Dean said with a vague gesture of the hand. “It’s too far. How close is your apartment? I can take the bus.”
“Yeah, right.” Sam snorted. “Don’t worry, it’s close. We can walk, it’s just a couple of minutes away.”
Humphrey was home, though he was supposed to have class. He didn’t move from his usual position on the couch when Sam and Dean came in.
“Hey, man,” Sam said. Humphrey condescended to open his eyes. “Dean, my roommate, Humphrey. Humphrey, this is my brother Dean.”
“Hi,” Dean said.
Humphrey sat down, looked at Dean for a few seconds, and said, “So you’re Dean.”
“Uh, yeah. That’s me.”
“Where the fuck have you been?”
“Excuse me? Do I know you?”
It should have sounded sarcastic, an answer to Humphrey’s rude and overly familiar behavior, but Sam could see at the way Dean’s eyebrows joined in a frown that he was serious.
“No, you don’t,” Sam answered in his friend’s place. He looked at Humphrey. “You don’t, right?”
Humphrey shook his head.
“Feel like I do, though, with the way you talk about him. You had your brother freaked, man.”
Dean blushed faintly and didn’t say anything.
“Uh, Humphrey, my brother and I, hmmm…”
He was hesitant to kick his friend out of his apartment, but the kind of conversations Winchesters generally had weren’t for anyone’s ears.
“I have to go,” Humphrey said, taking his jacket from the back of the couch. “I have stuff to do.”
Sam smiled. Sometimes, Humphrey had unexpected bursts of perceptiveness, and Sam was glad it was one of those moments.
“Don’t you have class?” Humphrey shrugged. “Thanks, man,” Sam said. Humphrey waved a hand in dismiss. Once the door had slammed behind him and Sam and Dean were alone, an awkward silence settled in.
“So, Dean,” Sam said. He was going to start pestering his brother with questions, but Dean looked so painfully uncomfortable that Sam took pity on him. “Why don’t you take a seat? You look tired.”
“Yeah,” Dean said. “Had a rough… week. Month, year. Whatever.”
He went to a chair and reached out to drag it to him, but his hand missed the back by an inch or two. He breathed in sharply, clenched his hand into a fist in a frustrated motion, then tried again with a better aim and sat down with careful movements, purposefully avoiding looking at Sam. Sam leaned against the side of the couch, not sitting down, and he folded his arms on his chest. Whether it was a defensive or an offensive gesture, he wasn’t sure himself. He just didn’t know what to think.
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” he asked. Because something had happened, that much was sure and Sam wasn’t going to let Dean bullshit him on this.
“There was…” Dean was looking at the wall in front of him, the white wall that neither Humphrey nor Sam had bothered to decorate. “There was an accident. Well, a fight, it was a fight.”
Sam’s breath caught, the ball of solid fear that was growing into his chest went up his throat and he thought he might puke. He looked his brother up and down, scanning any visible patch of skin, every limb. There was no scar, no limp, just the weird careful way Dean was moving and of course, the fact that he had failed to recognize his own brother. He burned to press Dean with questions, to beg him to assuage his worst fears but his brother looked smaller than usual, fragile almost, so Sam bit down his words and let him tell his story the way he wanted.
Dean cleared his throat and said, “Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a brain injury, and there was… damage. Permanent. They think it’s permanent. You never know, though.”
“How, um, how bad?” Sam’s mouth was dry and the words came out barely audible. Brain damage sounded bad enough, but he had to know more. Dean turned his head to look at him and had an unexpected smile.
“It’s not so bad,” he said. “I was pretty lucky, actually. They told me a lot about brain injuries and really, I could have ended a lot more fucked up. The changes I suffer from are mild and easy to deal with.” He was still smiling, but it didn’t look real, and he sounded like he was repeating some lesson learned by heart. Sam had a feeling that Dean was stalling, and he had to keep himself from bursting with impatience and worry.
“What are they? If they’re so mild, why don’t you tell me already?”
Dean sighed, rubbed his mouth.
“It’s stupid stuff. Like, my balance is shot to hell. My hand-to-eye coordination, too. I can’t drive like that.” The smile had turned miserable.
“She’s safe at Bobby’s. I can’t risk crashing her, can I? So I get around on the bus.” His mouth twisted in disgust.
Sam gave himself a couple of seconds to digest the information.
“What else?” he asked, bracing himself.
“My memory – I forgot little things, your phone number for instance. And…” Dean looked at him right in the eye, stared like he was trying to learn and memorize every feature of Sam’s face, like they were never going to see each other again. “I don’t recognize you,” he said.
“What? What do you mean?”
“I don’t recognize anyone. All the faces look the same to me, now. Bland, unremarkable. It’s called prosopagnosia. But you can say ‘face blind’ if you want to make it sound less freaky.”
“That’s…” That explained everything. Why Dean could look at him without a hint of recognition, while still obviously remembering who he was.
“You know what’s funny? It wouldn’t really bother me if it wasn’t for the hunt. I mean, there’s not a lot of people in my life who I need to identify, but I can’t lead any investigation like that. I can’t drive, I can’t hardly shoot without risking hitting an innocent bystander,” Dean was working himself up, frowning, his face reddening in anger, “and I can’t even tell one dude from another so I might as well be shooting in the dark anyway!”
He stopped talking and pinched his lips, breathing heavily.
“Dean,” Sam said quietly. “Why are you here?”
Dean’s face went emotionless.
“I won’t bother you, don’t worry.”
“Don’t be a moron, it’s not what I meant. Why are you wandering around Palo Alto, why did you never come to me? You said that you forgot my number, but you could have found me if you wanted to. Why are you here if you don’t want to see me?”
“Seeing you was the whole point, Sam. There are different degrees in prosopagnosia, and without any reference I couldn’t know how bad it was. I couldn’t get a hold of Dad. I went to Bobby and didn’t recognize him but I figured… Maybe you, I’d be able to.” He let out a bitter chuckle. “So much for that, I guess.”
They let a silence stretch. Sam’s heart was beating hard against his ribs, loud. He felt nauseous, felt like he was standing on the edge of a bottomless pit that was going to swallow him whole.
“But why didn’t you…”
“Sam, just… Just leave it, okay? Can you not… I’m really tired.”
Sam pressed his lips together to keep the questions inside.
“You can sleep here, if you want.”
“I don’t want… Your friend.”
“Don’t worry about Humphrey. He won’t mind, I swear.”
Humphrey didn’t come back for the night, which settled the question neatly. It happened often enough that Sam didn’t worry, was even relieved to have more time alone with his brother, even if they didn’t talk much.
Sam forced Dean to take Humphrey’s bed – he won’t mind, no, really – and his brother fell asleep quickly once his protests had died. Lying down on the couch, Sam kept his eyes open in the dark.
Sleep found Sam at dawn for a short time. He woke up with a flail of limbs, alarmed by something unidentified, and looked at his cell phone. It was 9:00.
When there was no answer he struggled with his blanket until he managed to untangle himself from it. He went to Humphrey’s room and found Dean standing near the bed, shirtless and barefoot, only his jeans on, one hand gripping the bedpost and the other pressed against his eyes.
“Dean?” he called again. “Are you okay?”
“Oh.” Sam came closer, reaching out with one hand. “Do you need…?”
“Fuck off, Sam,” Dean grumbled, sounding more weary than pissed. “It’ll pass.” He took his hand off his eyes and turned his head slowly, looked at Sam. “See? All good, now. Coffee?”
“Are you sure coffee is a good idea?”
“Oh, for god’s sake.”
“Okay, okay.” Sam raised his hands in surrender. “Forget I said anything.”
Dean seemed to perk up once he had his coffee. Sitting on the kitchen table, holding his cup with both hands like it contained nectar, he was almost smiling. It seemed as good a time as any for Sam to ask what was on his mind.
“There’s something I don’t understand.”
“Why do I feel I’m not gonna like where this is going?”
“Why didn’t you try to find me if you were in Palo Alto all this time? I mean you didn’t think I was just gonna throw you away, did you?”
“I already told you. I forgot your phone number. And I wasn’t in Palo Alto all this time. I just came here… once in a while.”
“You didn’t try my apartment? Well, my former apartment. Jess would have told you where I was.”
“I, um, I forgot your address too.”
“Since when does that stop you? You can find anything if you set your mind to it. Not like I was hiding.” Not like Dad.
“I was, ah… I had other fucking things on my mind. Shocking, I know. Are you done now?”
Sam frowned. Dean’s harsh tone spoke of anger, but he was avoiding looking at Sam – hiding something.
“Wait a minute,” Sam said.
Sam went to the living room to grab a pen and a piece of paper, came back to the kitchen and quickly scribbled down. The whole time his brother’s eyes were on him, making Sam feel like he was performing some obscure magic trick.
“Here, take this.”
Dean didn’t move to take the paper.
“What is this?”
“My new address.” Sam’s finger pointed at the words on the paper. “So you won’t forget it.”
Dean was silent, staring intently at Sam’s handwriting. The expression on his face scared Sam with its familiarity – it was the way he had looked at Sam the day before.
“Dean,” he said, “Are you… Can you read it?”
His silence was a sufficient answer. Sam crumbled the piece of paper with his fist, feeling the bite of his fingernails in his palm.
Dean let out a heavy sigh, like he’d been holding his breath for a while.
“It’s like with faces. I see your eyes, your mouth, your nose, but they… They don’t look like anything I can recognize. The words…” He looked around him and his gaze fell on a newspaper laying around on the counter. “F – I – R – E…”
“Fire,” Sam supplied. He wished he hadn’t said anything when Dean glared at him.
“Thank you, professor, you proved my point. I can see the letters, I can name them, but I can’t make out the words. I don’t know how anymore. And that, you know, that’s pretty much the icing on the cake.”
Sam opened his mouth, but closed it when he realized that he didn’t know what to say. Sorry? Sucks to be you, man?
“Don’t you have class?” Dean said, startling Sam out of his thoughts.
“Yes, but I’m not going, I’m staying with you.”
“I don’t need you holding my hand, Sam. Go to school.”
“Go! I wanna be alone.”
A lump in his throat, Sam moved slowly, turned his back to Dean to leave the room.
The tone was gentler and Sam stilled.
“I’ll be here when you come back.”
Sam smiled, but didn’t dare say anything.
At the end of the day Sam hurried back to the apartment, afraid he would find it empty. Humphrey didn’t look like he was back, but Dean was lying on the couch, eyes shut, and Sam took the opportunity to examine his brother’s face, the new lines on it and the general weariness. Dean was tired, Sam could see it, exhausted by the constant effort of having to adapt to new limitations. Sam came closer and Dean’s eyes snapped open.
“Sam?” he asked.
“It’s me,” Sam said. “You can go back to sleep.”
“Not tired,” Dean grumbled as he straightened up. “How was school?”
“It was okay.”
“Where’s your friend? I don’t think I’ve seen him all day.”
“Don’t worry about him, he’ll come back eventually. Now, sleep. I have homework to do.”
“Then I should get going. It was nice seeing you, Sammy.” He moved to stand up, but Sam positioned himself in front of him and pressed a hand against his chest. Dean lost his balance and fell back on the couch with an undignified yelp.
“Hey, you little shit! Get outta my way!”
“Dean,” Sam said in his most pacifying tone. “Why do you want to go? Why can’t you let yourself rest for a while?”
“I can rest somewhere else. I just wanted to see you. Now that it’s done, I can go.”
“Why would you rest somewhere else when I’m here?”
In his mind, Sam was already making plans to convince Dean to stay with him, to completely let go of the hunt and start a new life here. Or if he couldn’t, he’d find something else, some way to make the two of them work again. There was no need to feel that torn up all the time, no reason why he couldn’t still have everything he wanted.
“Stay at least a few days,” he offered. “Then if you want to go, I’ll let you go.”
Dean didn’t seem fooled. Sam didn’t know what he could still see on his face, how it looked to Dean now that it didn’t look like Sam anymore, but his brother had obviously retained some knowledge of him.
“Okay for a few days in your palace,” Dean said. “Life has been crazy lately.”
He lay down again, closed his eyes.
“Do you mind if we go find the Impala this weekend?”
Sam sat down, held his breath and before he answered, he let himself dream about tomorrow.
“Of course we can. Haven’t seen Bobby in a while.”
Prompt: The boys meet again by chance after a prolonged absence (Stanford or otherwise), and Dean has a permanent injury that makes it difficult/impossible for him to hunt.