*** Sam ***
It’s been nine days since he reached Palo Alto and moved into his new room in the dorms. A room that, for the first time in his life, he is not required to share with his big brother. Instead with someone else, a stranger.
Sam doesn’t even know his name. Only that he’s scruffy and mousy and apparently a computer geek. He vaguely recalls the guy politely asking him if he wanted to go grab some lunch, he doesn’t remember how rudely he’d declined and gone back to not unpacking his stuff. Fact he never did grab any lunch, until late evening. He forgets to eat breakfast the next morning and dinner the same night, and the next and the one after that.
He barely sleeps more than two hours at a stretch, waking up to nightmares of Dean and Dad being mauled by werewolves and chimeras. The dark circles only accentuate the dullness in his eyes that once were a crystal clear sea green just like Dean’s. Seems like outside of his classes where there’s just barely enough reason to distract his hyperactive brain, he simply forgets to make any efforts altogether. The bags stay unpacked, and his roommate looks at him funny. There’s a notice tacked to their door about his pending fees that he never sees (so not a hundred percent free ride after all,) not that he could do anything about it even if he did.
All he sees, all he remembers is that look on his brother’s face as he stood by, watching Sam board the Greyhound that would carry him far, far away from his family. He remembers the thick wall that rose between his father and Sam after their last showdown that left John’s fingerprints on Sam’s face for days. He remembers the heavy silence that rode between him and Dean in the Impala from their motel to the bus stop. And maybe it rode all the way to Stanford with him because he still can’t find the words.
Every time he picks up the phone, and he lets the bell ring and waits to hear Dean’s deep, cynical voice on the other end…
Sam doesn’t respond. Can’t. There are no words.
“Speak up my man, I don’t bite. Not on the phone.”
Dean chuckles, Sam tries to smile. Covers the receiver’s mouth with a trembling hand and leans against the nearest wall, struggling not to burst into sobs right there and then.
Sam hangs up then. Gives in to the traitorous tears, ducks to get out of the way of a victorious hockey team happily charging into the dorm.
*** Dean ***
Dean hangs up on the eleventh crank call he’s received in ten days. Ten, long days of aching emptiness. Ten days of life with half his purpose to live, missing. Gone. To all the way across the country and there isn’t a damn thing Dean can possibly do about it.
Well, not for himself, maybe. But what sort of a big brother would he be if he let a geographical technicality stop him from doing his job?
If there's one thing that Sam Winchester does really, really, phenomenally well, it's wallow in guilt. And no one but Dean knows that better. All the ins and outs of Sam wallowing, well, Dean knows those tricks well. Sam won't sleep, won't let himself relax enough to fall asleep, he'll forget to eat, and after a few days of that, things like salting windows and doors start to slip too.
That's why he's currently en-route to Stanford, carefully stopping to rest, eat, take care of himself, baby the Impala. He's going to take care of Sam and the wallowing once and for all, with the assistance of the maple paddle he's got tucked in his bag.
Dean had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. He's given Sam enough time to work it out himself. But in his heart he’d known this would happen all along. Sammy’s troubled conscience wouldn’t let him settle into the new life he’s chosen for himself. If Dean were a lesser man, a lesser brother, he’d consider that poetic justice. But he is Dean Winchester. And nothing is more important to him than the happiness and well-being of his little brother.
It is nearly evening when he finally stops driving and his eyes prickle like a bitch. The lady at the registration office is generously accommodating, and Dean soon finds his way to Sam’s dorm. Nobody is home. He reads the due date on the payment notice and rips it off the door; Sam won’t need to look at it anymore. Then settles down on the floor for the long wait. Occurs to him that this may be the first and last time the twenty-two year old will ever see the inside of a college dorm.
It means absolutely nothing to him.
The roommate arrives first. Dean smiles at him, introduces himself as Sam’s big brother. The boy just shrugs and goes about his business. Doesn’t know when Sam’s supposed to be back, doesn’t know how he’s doing. Nothing. Dean frowns but not in surprise and lets him be, hoping the boy would leave because his Sam is going to need his privacy tonight. And lots of it.
*** Sam ***
He can’t believe what he is seeing.
Thinks maybe the sleep deprivation has manifested itself into hallucinations after all. The vision, sprawled out on the floor a second ago, now stands before him… not smiling, not frowning, just… there. And then he’s being pulled into a rough embrace, which is when Sam decides to give in. If this is a dream, he’s happy to be held by it forever.
He clings to his big brother like a man drowning and doesn’t care who pauses to gawk at them in the busy corridor. Dean pulls away, looks into his eyes in a way that lets Sam know why he’s here. The storms gather in his eyes and his legs start to shake until he has to reach out for Dean again or collapse to the floor instead. Dean catches him, shushes him, whispering soft words into his greasy, unkempt hair.
“It’s okay. I’m here now, come on…”
Sam tries to say something, anything… but the words still won’t cooperate. Dean pushes the door open and with one look, sends the mousy guy scurrying out of the room for the rest of the night. Sam wonders if he has any idea of what is about to transpire, if he’s guessed it somehow. On the upside though, if that guy could see Dean, then he really must be here, right?
Dean locks the door and checks the perimeter of the room, out of sheer habit of course. He tuts and murmurs something about salting and runes and a part of Sam wants to rolls his eyes.
“I see you’ve already forgotten everything Dad taught you, Sammy.”
How’s Dad? He wants to ask, he needs to know. Instead all he does is stand there, with his fists bunched up in the sides of his ragged jeans that now look two sizes too big for his slender frame.
“He took off the next day, hunting devil dogs in North Dakota.”
“He’s fine. He’ll be back this weekend.”
Good. Because if Dad leaves too then Dean would be left all alone and… the thought breaks him a little more and Sam has to look away hurriedly. Before Dean can see the selfish need in Sam’s eyes, not that he doesn’t anyway. Sam needs to be here, in Stanford. As much as he hates it, hates not knowing if his family’s doing okay… he needs this to be his way out for good. He needs this freedom to be. Just be.
But he also needs Dean to forgive him, give him his blessings. Sam needs, just needs. Then needs some more.
Yeah. Sam knows he’s a selfish bastard.
“Come here, Sam.”
Sam looks up then, notices Dean has already made himself comfortable on his bed. His lips quiver and the tears start to roll down his ashen cheeks. And then he sees it, lying inconspicuously beside Dean on his threadbare duvet. The paddle.
*** Dean ***
It had started out as a joke, an empty threat, that paddle. Story goes, one of those sweet old grannies the Winchesters saved from a poltergeist 'gifted' it to John after seeing how one of his boys almost died because he deviated from the plan. John had accepted just to laugh at the look of blatant horror on his sons' faces. But as it turns out, he never used it at all. Doesn't mean the paddle never got used.
“I’m waiting, Sammy.”
The boy is frozen to the spot, surely by now realizing this really is about to happen. Remembering how hard his big brother can hit, and how much that piece of wood biting into his flesh can sting. Forgetting why he ever thought he could possibly want this.
“Dean, I… you don’t have to do this…”
Dean can’t stop the angry snort. Typical Sammy behavior… first he drags him all the way to California with his wordless calls for help, then tries to duck out of what’s coming to him with a ‘No thanks. I changed my frikking mind’.
“You know I do, kiddo.”
“No. Listen… please I…”
Dean hates counting, really he does. Hated it when Dad did it to him, hates it now when he must do it for Sam.
Sam snivels, wipes his face on his blue denim shirt that once was Dean’s and takes his first baby step. Dean waits, long enough for Sam to make it to his side, because he really, really does hate fucking counting.
“I know, Sammy… come on.”
He decides to do the rest himself, pulls Sam closer to him and unbuttons his jeans. Pulls them down along with the boxers and ignoring Sam’s meek protests, he quickly pulls him sideways and over his lap. Sam’s upper torso lands on the bed with his back arched upwards and his butt precisely lined up over his big brother’s knees.
“This is gonna be a big one, kiddo. But know this, when we’re done here, you’ll be a free man. I forgave you a long time ago, kid. This is so you can forgive yourself.”
And with that, and because Dean couldn’t possibly utter another word without breaking down himself, he raises his hand and brings it down hard and fast and multiple times over both bare cheeks.
Sam snivels and jerks and mewls in growing pain but he stays in position. He claws at his sheets and he bites on his lower lip hard, kicking on reflex at the especially hard smacks. Minutes pass and tears run down his face but he still wouldn’t let the sobs escape.
Stubborn little brat.
The next pause is longer than the last one, and Sam’s body goes taut as a bowstring when he realizes what Dean is reaching for. He tries to get up, only to be pushed back into place and held there by a stronger, more determined big brother.
“Don’t fight me, little brother. You’ll only make it worse.”
Sam whimpers, squirms beneath the heavy arm that wraps around his slim waist and winces his eyes shut. Dean rests the paddle on Sam’s already scorching rear, the coolness of the smooth maple surface a shock to his very system. And then he lands the first stroke.
Now they’re getting somewhere. He starts slow but firm, then gradually adds more and more force until Sam is really writhing and sobbing and screaming for mercy.
“Dean, please stop!! Please…!”
The older brother bites his lip and carries on, meaning no less business than before. And several minutes later, when he feels the tension and the struggle finally leave his baby brother’s body, Dean breathes out, at last.
*** Sam ***
Sam doesn’t notice his brother throw the paddle to the floor. But he does notice his shoes and jeans being tugged off his ankles and the boxers’ fabric scratch him like the time he fell into a massive needle bush, except much worse. His brother hadn’t stopped laughing for hours that day, right now though he doesn’t make a sound.
“Is it over?” he whispers, because the silence hurts more than the fire in his butt, even as Dean is busy hefting him off the bed and turning him around to hold Sam on his lap, face up for a change.
“You tell me. We can keep going if you want.”
Sam tries to chuckle, only manages to gasp as he lets his brother manhandle him until his head rests in the crook of Dean’s neck. Reflexively he pulls his long legs up to curl up as best as he can against Dean’s chest. His body is limp and exhausted, his mind craving the rest he’s been denying it for weeks. A casual brush against Dean’s thighs makes him hiss with re-ignited pain.
“Shh, it’s okay…”
Sam smiles, giving into the gentle rocking and wishing it’d never stop. How long has it been since Dean held him like this? Willingly?
“Don’t be, Sam. It’s your life now. And you made a choice. Dad will just have to accept it. Period.”
Sam looks up into his brother’s face then, his vision still blurred from the water which he swipes at with one hand before entangling it back into Dean’s grey flannel.
“And what about you?”
Dean sighs, his turn to grasp for words. Looking away like he does when he is trying not to cry. Sam cries for him instead.
“I knew this was going to happen, sooner or later. Been expecting it, dreading it for years. And like I said, kiddo… I forgave you a long time ago.”
Of course Dean would know. He always does. And of course Dean forgives him, he always did. Sam feels his eyelids drooping, his breathing ten times easier than it has been in ever so long.
“Please stay…” Sam whispers, not sure if Dean hears him and in no position to ensure he does, as he steadily sinks into a deep untroubled sleep in his brother’s arms.
Morning comes and it’s like Dean was never there. Sam wakes with a jolt immediately regretting it because his ass still remembers and they aren’t exactly happy memories. The duffel bag is gone, so is the paddle. No note, no goodbye… nothing. Nothing but a constant throbbing ache, and the fading paddle-shaped prints on his behind that he manages to twist and glance at in the shower. Trust Dean to do a painfully thorough job always, no matter what.
He is entering the room just as his roommate is getting ready to leave. They nearly collide, then dance a little around each other to get out of the other’s way.
“No, my bad… here. You go first.”
The scruffy guy mutters a quick “Thanks” and is about to leave when Sam turns around. “Um, sorry about last night. I didn’t hear you come back in.”
“Yeah well,” the boy isn’t meeting his eyes. “Your brother’s kinda scary. Besides, my parents have a house nearby. That's where my sister Becky lives so, I kinda hang out there a lot anyway.”
Sam chuckles in huge relief. “That’s great to know. Thanks…”
There is a second of awkward silence and then, “I’d better go.”
The boy turns around to leave.
And he stops again.
“S-Sam Winchester. And I’m… look man I’m sorry… my head’s just not been in the right p-place ever since, since I got here.”
It’s the first, most honest thing he could think of. He lowers his head and smiles softly, wishing it’d be enough. And it is. The guy adjusts the strap of his shoulder bag shyly and smiles back.
“Yeah, I kinda miss my folks too.”
Rocks back and forth on his heels for a while before he realizes what he’s doing and stops. “I’m Zach. Zach Warren.”
Sam smiles his widest then, Dean was right… the puppy dog eyes do work every time. He makes plans to catch up with Zach and his buddies for lunch later then sees him off. Then he starts unpacking his stuff.
This time for real.
*** END ***