The air outside Bobby’s house is parched and shimmering with heat, and Dean hasn’t come in all day.
Not since Sam called him out — again — on his grief for Dad, and yeah, he’s maybe been clawing too hard at that, fighting Dean to make it match his own. Most of Sam wants to march right back out there — with a beer, or a water, if nothing else, it’s too hot to be working without one — but Bobby’s been watchful all day too, waiting, worrying, and Sam figures that if Bobby thinks it’s best not to interfere, he’s probably onto something.
Bobby’s been great, honestly. They’re at his place because they can’t not be at his place, not until the Impala is done, but Sam’s almost forgotten what it’s like to have another hunter to rely on, a place to sleep that isn’t a motel. They’ve been spending a lot of time together, him and Bobby, while Dean armors himself in his work. Bobby’s been wordlessly, endlessly kind, handing Sam translations to puzzle over and oddball artifacts to try and crack, and just now he’s standing vigil with Sam in the shade of the porch, listening to the buzz of a thousand grasshoppers and worrying about Dean.
Something about it makes Sam feel strangely, suddenly adult, both younger and older than he’d ever thought he could be. Maybe that’s growing up. Understanding how young and clueless you really are.
“Bobby,” he says, suddenly shy, dangling the hand holding his longneck bottle over the porch railing, “hey, I gotta — thanks, man. I don’t know what we’d’ve done without you, this last week, and I —” He swallows. “Just because my dad’s dead doesn’t mean — I know how much of an asshole he could be. Not many hunters would’ve given him a second chance. Him or his family.”
Bobby gives him a measured look. Sam’s been getting a lot of those, but Bobby never presses. “You boys’ve always been welcome here, Sam.”
Sam laughs self-consciously, rubbing the back of his neck. “Thanks, Bobby. Still. Coming through for Dad at the end of it — it was big of you. Trust me, I know how hard it could be to forgive the guy.”
A funny expression settles across Bobby’s face. He seems to be thinking, deciding, and then after a moment, he says, “Sam, your daddy’s the one stopped talking to me. I never wanted to shut your family out.”
That startles Sam so much that for a moment he just stares. “What do you mean?” he manages after a pause.
Bobby gives him a well deliberated shrug. “You remember the last time you and Dean stayed here?”
Sam thinks back. “Yeah, it was — I was 15, I guess? Right after I — after Flagstaff. Dad came and picked us up one night, in this big rush to get to South Carolina on a black dog case, and never — we never came back. I always figured that you and he had a fight and we weren’t welcome anymore.”
“Yeah, well.” Bobby shrugs. “There was a fight, sure enough, but John’s the one decided we were done with each other.”
“Why?” The question’s out of Sam’s mouth before he can stop it, riding his wave of surprise.
Bobby shrugs again, then scrubs a hand over his face. “I told him he’d be doing you boys a favor if he didn’t come back."
“Now, listen,” Bobby says, eyes on the distant trees. “I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead, and what’s past is past. You boys grew up all right. More than all right. And John —” He shakes his head. “He carried around more than any man should ever have to. Plenty of hunters do, but not all of them have a couple of boys to raise at the same time, and —”
He stops there, and Sam fidgets. “What?” he asks after a moment.
Bobby spares him a glance. “Well, I guess forgiving John Winchester for what he put you boys through ain’t something I’ll ever be able to do, but I never meant to shut your family out, either.”
Sam stares. “You fought with him after Flagstaff.”
“Yup,” says Bobby.
“And told him not to come back for us? That we were — better off here?”
“That’s the size of it.” Bobby turns to look at him straight for what feels like the first time in a long while. “I never would’ve, Sam, if I’d been thinking. Shoulda known better.”
“Bobby,” Sam says weakly. “I mean, God knows I had enough issues with the man to fill a book, but — really, for us, you’d — ? I mean — I know I ran away, and I don’t mean to — to sugarcoat things now he’s gone, but it’s not like the man was abusive.”
Bobby snorts. There’s no humor in it.
Something subtle shifts in the universe. Sam feels like the old wooden porch is suddenly a slope of sand beneath his feet, like its apparent stability can disintegrate with one wrong step. “Bobby?”
“Sam,” says Bobby. “Your dad had two sons.”
The world is spinning out around him. Sam clutches the porch rail like the only solid thing he can reach. “Bobby,” he says, and he can hear his voice is high, trembling. “Are you saying — are you saying Dean —”
“That’s your brother’s business to tell,” says Bobby, steadily. “Or not tell.” He pauses, then adds: “All I’m saying is — you ain’t the only son grappling with your daddy’s fucked up legacy.”
It takes Sam long minutes to respond, minutes that seem to stretch into hours. Things fall apart, he thinks inanely. The center cannot hold.
“At least tell me what question to ask,” he says, finally, in almost a whisper.
Bobby gives him a long look before answering. “Ask your brother about Flagstaff,” he says.
It’s not even that hard to piece together, once Bobby’s put him on the scent. It’s not like the man was abusive. Ask your brother about Flagstaff.
‘Cause that’s the thing. Sam was way too wrapped up in self-righteous adolescent anger at the time to think about it, but Flagstaff — Dean was beat to hell when he and Dad showed up. They both said it’d been a ghost hunt — well, Dean couldn’t talk for a while, jaw wired shut, and Sam gave him shit about that for weeks, but he never disputed the story. Never presented anything but a solid front of disapproval. Sam remembers wallowing in resentment of the both of them for weeks.
It’s not like the man was abusive. Ask your brother about Flagstaff.
And it all makes too much sense, too much sickening sense. Because as much as Sam wanted his independence, it had always hurt him, a bit, that they’d gone hunting while he was out in the wind. That they’d put him on hold for a case. And maybe they had to wait on leads, he reasoned, but — still, he’d always harbored a secret sense of betrayal about that. Because it doesn’t make sense that Dad and Dean would do that. Especially Dean, who’s always — always, always put Sam first.
Ask your brother about Flagstaff.
And Sam knows, he knows, that the amount Dad put on Dean about protecting little Sammy was probably too much, that Dean’s been looking out for him since he was four years old. And if Dad came home to find Dean had let Sam slip away —
He barely makes it to the bathroom in time. When he’s finished, he grips the lid of the toilet tank with a shaking hand, sour smell of vomit filling the air, and cries.
Dean is sitting in the dirt with his back against the Impala, facing out toward the trees. He’s got a tire iron gripped in both hands. The Impala’s hood is dented and battered, one window smashed, and broken glass litters the ground. Dean’s eyes are rimmed in red.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Sammy,” he says, without looking up.
So Sam just sits beside him, propping up his arms on his knees, and doesn’t say anything.
After a few minutes, the tension in Dean’s shoulders seems to ease, just a little. And it seems cruel in a way, like a betrayal, to do this now, but Sam can’t help it, can never help it, so he says, “Bobby said something.”
Dean doesn’t look up. His eyes are on his hands. “Something ‘bout what?”
“About Flagstaff,” says Sam, and holds his breath.
Dean tenses immediately, eyes darting quickly toward Sam and away again. He doesn’t speak.
“Dean,” says Sam, knowing the words aren’t right but he has to get them out anyway, “when you — did Dad do that?”
“Jesus,” Sam breathes.
His brother twitches like he’s about to say something, makes an abortive gesture. “Look, Sam, it’s not like I — you don’t know the whole story, okay? He had reasons to be pissed.”
Sam gapes. It takes him a minute to find words. “You —” he splutters. “I can’t believe you’re defending him. For — Dean, your jaw was wired shut. ”
That earns him a bark of mirthless laughter. “Yeah,” says Dean, “I noticed.”
“And — what? You’re gonna say you deserved that? Just ‘cause I ran away?”
“It’s not just —” Dean frowns. “He found out where I was when you split, okay?”
Sam doesn’t get it. “What, were you with a girl or something? ‘Cause —”
Dean cuts him off with another of those awful laughs. “No, Sam,” he says. “Not with a girl.”
The pieces just aren’t adding up. “I don’t get it,” Sam says, stupidly.
“It’s not that fucking hard, Sammy.”
“You were —” Sam tries. “Dean, are — you could’ve told me if — when you say not with a girl do you mean — you were with someone who… wasn’t a girl?”
Dean makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. It’s the closest to acknowledgement Sam might ever get.
“And Dad — found out?”
“Dean,” says Sam, and his voice has a distant, tinny quality, like all the sound in the world has gone flat and strange. “Dean, are you gay?”
“What? No!” His brother’s violent reaction makes Sam jump, sets his already tense nerves quivering. “Sam, it wasn’t — we just needed the money, okay?”
He says it like that makes it better.
He says it like that makes it better, and the treacherous ground Sam’s been balancing on for the last two hours slumps and gives way, cascading downward and taking him with it, and he’s not sure which way is up, doesn’t know how many of the things he knew or thought he knew about his family were ever true to begin with, because Dean is saying — Dean is saying — Dean is saying he was with a guy for money, saying it like it wasn’t that uncommon a thing, and he’s saying it like the money makes it better.
“When I wanted new sneakers,” Sam says, and he’s surprised to find his voice so calm. “And you said you’d try. I always figured that meant — that meant you’d talk to Dad about it, try to convince him. It didn’t, did it?”
Dean flinches, and doesn’t speak.
“Dean, I didn’t need them that bad!” Sam bursts out, grief breaking through the wall in his chest. “Jesus, I — if I’d known —”
“Stop,” says Dean, and his voice is iron and shaking at once. “Just stop, okay, Sam? I don’t need you fucking judging me, not today, okay? Tomorrow you can — have at me, whatever, I don’t care. Just give me a fucking day.”
Sam just stares.
Because it all makes so much awful sense, that Dean would see this as a thing to be ashamed of, something he did wrong rather than something wrong that was done to him. That Dean would see Sam’s reaction as judgement, not as guilt. And there’s a part of him that wants to flee from the enormity of that, go back to the house and lick his wounds and try to figure out how he can possibly convince Dean otherwise, but that — he can’t do that, he can’t leave Dean thinking that’s even a remote possibility.
“Dean,” he says, voice shaking. “I’m not judging you. Okay, man? I promise. I’m judging myself, for being fucking stupid and selfish and blind, and I’m sure as hell judging Dad. Not you. I —” He swallows. “I don’t think you’ll like this word, but I gotta say it anyway, ‘cause you were the victim there, Dean. Have you heard of victim-blaming?”
Sure enough, Dean flinches, but he also shakes his head. “Sam, don’t — I knew exactly what I was doing, okay? It wasn’t rape, I wasn’t a kid.”
It shocks Sam, the easy way Dean can say those words, even though it shouldn’t. It means he’s thought about them. And if he’s thought about them, then — “What about the first time?” he asks.
“What?” says Dean.
“The first time,” Sam repeats. “How old were you?”
Dean’s mouth tightens, and he doesn’t say anything.
“I know you don’t want to tell me,” Sam says quietly. “Do me a favor, and do it anyway?”
“It’s not that simple,” Dean grates out. “I mean, the first time I — or —” He stops. Fidgets with his ring. “Twelve,” he says.
Sam’s mouth feels like the Sahara. I didn’t even know about monsters, he wants to say. I didn’t know about monsters, and you were dealing with human ones. “What happened?” he asks instead.
Dean shrugs. “Dad was late on rent. In — Spokane. That guy we were renting from, Norm, said he’d let it slide if I —” He stops, jaw clenching. “Did him a favor.” He glances up. “He didn’t force me, Sam.”
Sam laughs hollowly. “I’m pretty sure that counts as forcing you, Dean.”
Something in his brother snaps.
“No, Sam,” he grates, eyes flashing up to meet Sam’s for the first time. “It doesn’t. You know why? You think I don’t know how it feels to be forced? To be too fucking young, to realize Dad’s been pulling his punches with you all that time in training, ‘cause it doesn’t really matter how good you are when the other guy’s got 100 pounds on you in close quarters? It’s a relief . It’s when you realize you’ve lost this fucking round, and all you gotta do is survive it, don’t gotta do things right or smile or talk or any of that shit, don’t gotta negotiate the price, ‘cause you’re not getting paid anyway. The first time? The first time, I had all the time in the goddamn world, no one making decisions for me, just him sitting there in that fucking chair and me with no goddamn idea what I was doing, positive I was gonna screw up and get tossed out on my ear with nothing to show for it. Okay? Don’t tell me I was forced, Sam. I wish to God I’d been forced.”
Sam’s eyes are wide and stinging. “Okay,” he says.
Dean slumps back against the car. “Jesus,” he says, after a moment. There’s a tremor in his hands that builds like an earthquake, and his breath is coming fast. Two tears escape his eyes — squeezed shut — and slide in tandem down his face. “Jesus.”
“It’s okay,” Sam says, softly, miserably. “Dean, it’s okay.”
“It was May,” Dean says. Speaking seems to quell his shaking some; he takes deep, careful breaths. “That stupid fucking — lilac festival. You remember how many fucking lilacs they had there?”
Sam’s chest aches. “Yeah,” he says, “I remember.”
“You wanted to see the parade,” Dean says. “You’d been all pissed about not getting to celebrate your birthday.”
There were lilacs at the motel, too. Sam remembers them by Norm’s office, outside the window, nodding with purple blossoms.
“I don’t remember,” Dean says, “if you went.”
He sounds crushed by it. More deeply ashamed than of any confessions so far.
Sam swallows painfully. “I went,” he admits. “With a friend from school. His family. I — forget their names.”
Dean lets out a sigh, and tilts his head back against the Impala, eyes closed. “Good. That’s good,” he says.
Sam’s life story is etched, not in years, but in towns.
Winchesters are fluent in geography — Schuylerville means werewolf, Eloy means chupacabra, Jericho means woman in white. Names double as markers of time, too: Flagstaff is Sam alone, but it’s also Sam at fifteen, Sam just beginning to discover how deep the rebellion in him runs.
It’s something different for Dean.
Some momentous names are ones they share. Lawrence, of course. Jefferson City. Others — Spokane — passed Sam like a ship in the night, anonymously earth-shattering.
He doesn’t like to think how many names tell stories he’ll never know.
Dean comes inside, at last, that night for dinner. He eats his potatoes in silence, shoulders relaxing by fractions of degrees, and lets Sam and Bobby’s sporadic conversation flicker past him like static on a TV.
He doesn’t speak to Sam until later. Sam’s brushing his teeth, mouth full and foaming, bathroom door ajar, and he only sees Dean in the mirror. Dean grips the doorjamb and watches his own hand, doesn’t meet Sam’s eyes. “It’s not about that,” he says.
He’s planned this, of course. Sam’s helpless to respond, gagged by his own toothpaste, can only make a vague, encouraging grunt that Dean utterly ignores.
“It’s fine,” says Dean. “I’m fine. It’s — it’s just not about that.” He says it with finality, like that’s all Sam needs to know.
“O-kay,” Sam manages, frothy.
He might attempt something more. But Dean nods once, decisive, and then he’s gone. In the mirror, Sam catches the white in his knuckles just as he releases his grip.
By the time Sam emerges, he’s fast asleep, or making a convincing show of it, pillow over his head and arm dangling toward the floor. He doesn’t stir or attempt a snore. His fingers just twitch, briefly, brushing the wooden planks, and Sam leaves well enough alone.
Outside, the weather is changing. Sam feels a headache pressing in, and wonders what time he’ll awaken to rain on the roof. Already the wind is testing the house’s walls.
Sioux Falls, he thinks. A refuge in a storm. But this disquiet will outlast the weather’s.
He’s still worrying when his tired mind finally stumbles to sleep.