Sam studied himself in the mirror for quite awhile as he tried to correctly knot his tie with shaky hands. Sweaty palms made it extremely difficult and the collar of his freshly pressed dress shirt felt as though it was constricting his airway.
After a few minutes he gave up and let the tie hang loosely from his neck, picking up the stack of note cards on his dresser instead. He flipped through them aimlessly for a few seconds before he cleared his throat and stared into the mirror once more. As he read the handwritten words his mind started to wander, something it had been doing quite frequently lately. Sam tried to focus on the speech but his hands started to shake even harder. He slammed them back down and fell onto the edge of his bed with a loud sigh.
There was so much he needed to be doing, so much he needed to prepare for but he just couldn’t seem to get his mind working properly. He was trying to delay the inevitable for too long but the main event was drawling closer and he was far from ready.
A knock on his door startled him from his thoughts and he quickly made as though he was straightening his tie, hands becoming tangled as they refused to work together. His mother snickered as she walked into his room, obviously not buying his act.
“You’re going to do fine.” She moved to stand in front of him with a smile as she easily fixed his tie.
“I just expected things to be different.” He kept his head bowed, staring at the tie hanging evenly now.
“This is a big day for you, honey, and no matter what, you should be proud of that.”
“It would mean more if Dean were here.” Sam stood from the bed and moved in front of the mirror again but he was unable to stare at his reflection for long.
“He’d be here if he could.” His mother placed a gently hand on his shoulder and he lifted his head to catch her gaze in the mirror.
It wasn’t hard to notice the sadness in his mother’s eyes and he realized he had forgotten to think about how the rest of his family was handling the emptiness left in their lives. Things had been centered around him lately and as much as Sam always hated being the center of attention, he had let it protect him this time. He had been so busy with school that he hadn’t allowed much time for his family, but every day when he came home a little more broken, they were there to hold him together.
“I know.” He said with a small smile.
“Breakfast is almost ready,” She planted a kiss to his temple and smoothed down the arms of his shirt. “Dad made your favorite.”
“Blueberry pancakes?” He asked.
His mother laughed as she headed for the door, turning back to him with a wide smile, “I think he’s even making it a smiley face for you.”
Sam watched as his mother disappeared into the hallway and when he turned back to his reflection, he realized that he was actually smiling. Not just a small, fake smile, but a genuine, dimple showing grin. He could barely recognize the expression. The smile faded the longer he stared at himself but for a moment he saw a glimpse of what used to be.
He checked his wardrobe over once more before he picked up his note cards and read through them, using the mirror as his audience. This wasn’t the first time he had to speak in public but it never got easier.
When he was satisfied with his speech, he stuffed the cards into his back pocket and gave himself one last appraisal in the mirror. He shook his head and tugged at his collar before he turned away completely and headed for his door.
On his way down the hall he stopped for a moment as he passed the room beside his own. The door was open but the light remained off, as it had for quite some months now. He swallowed the lump in his throat and rubbed gently at his eyes as he forced himself to keep moving.
“How does it feel to be graduating high school?” his father smiled brightly as Sam entered the kitchen, a plate of pancakes already sitting at the table for him.
He wanted to be pleasant and share in the excitement, but he’d forced far too many smiles lately that he was fresh out of them. Instead he shrugged his shoulders and dug into the delicious smelling pancakes with the whipped cream face.
After a few moments his mother joined them at the table but the family remained silent. There had been a time when the breakfast table was full of chatter and a general excitement to start the new day.
Now everything seemed to have lost a bit of the light it used to hold and Sam knew he was to blame for most of it. His parents have tried countless times to engage him in conversation and ignite the spark that he once held. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t give to have it back himself, but his hope had slowly faded over the last few months as he began to grow accustomed to the empty space at their table.
In the beginning it hadn’t bothered him nearly as much. There had been phone calls and weekend visits here and there, but even those hadn’t been enough to make everything okay. Sam remembered the first night he fell asleep clutching the phone, waiting for it to ring but it never did. That had been the first of many missed calls and while he had quickly learned to expect them as well, the ache in his chest never hurt any less.
Six years ago, when his family had driven away from Annapolis, he had been proud and excited. Now, even though he was more proud than ever, he couldn’t deny that the excitement had worn off after four years of infrequent emails, short visits and unpredictable phone calls.
He realized his struggle wasn’t even the hardest, but he couldn’t help being a bit selfish at times. Life was so easy six years ago and he hadn’t been ready for the sudden change in his perfectly balanced universe. Ready or not, there had been no avoiding it. Suddenly his life was different and there wasn’t a thing he could have done about it except wait. Sam was never very patient.
“You almost ready there, sport?” His father’s voice pulled him from his musings. “We’re going to be late if we don’t leave soon.”
“I want to make sure we get a great seat.” His mother said with a smile.
He nodded as he stood up from the table, gathering the plates and placing them in the sink before he excused himself and headed for the living room. Sam was never ready for anything lately but as his hour dwindled closer, he realized that being ready never seemed to matter.
He stopped by the mirror in the foyer and took a deep breath, checking his tie one last time before he grabbed his cap and gown and headed for the car. No one would even see the expensive tie hidden beneath the blue gown, but his mother had insisted he wear it.
Sam waited by the car, watching his parents exchange smiles as they walked out the door. They looked genuinely happy and for a moment he almost believed that everything was alright, that nothing was missing, but his heart wouldn’t let him forget.
However, as his mother stepped beside him and kissed him once more on the temple he decided that pretending for one more day wouldn’t be too bad. If not for himself then he’d stick the smile on for his parents. They deserved a reason to be happy and Sam couldn’t deny them that.
Just as his mother moved to walk away, he wrapped his arms around her slender waist and hugged her tightly. She tensed at first, but then she relaxed and wrapped her arms around his shoulders in return. It had been quite some time since he had allowed his mother to hold him, giving up on the support she has continued to offer. As he stood there, head resting against her chest, her hand gently brushing through his hair, he realized that he needed this support now more than ever.
His mother was the first to pull away, but she kept her hands on his shoulders, holding him out in front of her as she smiled down at him. He actually returned the gesture, enjoying the way her smile brightened and a familiar light flickered in her green eyes.
“Ready, Mr. Valedictorian?” She asked as she cupped his cheek gently.
“As ready as I’ll ever be.” He said with a chuckle as he reluctantly turned away from his mother and climbed into the backseat, mentally preparing himself for what laid ahead.
His high school years were ending and Sam would be moving away after the summer, moving on to his college education. While the idea of college excited him, Sam still remembered his first day of middle school as if it were only yesterday and a part of him wanted to go back to that time when life had seemed so simple.
He remembered being excited to ride to school with his brother. Dean had just gotten his license the summer before Sam started school and had been more than happy to drop him off at the middle school. Sam remembered hoping that showing up with his cool big brother would give his social life a boost.
He watched as the car passed by his old middle school and remembered how Dean had made sure to grill him on all the usual safety procedures and even included a few pointers on impressing the girls before letting him out of the car. Sometimes Sam wished he had actually paid more attention to the last one.
Finally Dean had given him a firm pat on the shoulder and then pushed Sam out of the car with a bit more force than Sam had been expecting. He remembered fumbling out of the door and quickly grabbing his backpack before slamming the door to his brother’s beloved car.
He had smiled as Dean glared at him through the opened window and then waved a quick goodbye before heading toward the school. Dean had called out to him, just loud enough for Sam to have heard over the loud clatter of students around them.
“I’ll pick you up after school, geek boy.”
Sam remembered the relief he felt when the day had finally come to an end and he had been positive that middle school was going to be even worse than elementary school. Dean’s reputation hadn’t helped since even the teachers had seemed unenthused by his presence in their classrooms. He had shuffled out of the school that day with his book bag hanging low on one shoulder and his head bowed to the ground.
Dean’s car had been parked right outside the building, in a space Sam had been fairly certain was restricted. Without a word Sam had tossed his book bag into the back and sank into the seat beside Dean. His brother had waited a few seconds, watching Sam closely, before Dean pulled out of his illegal parking spot and headed home.
Except that they hadn’t made it home. Sam remembered that they ended up outside of Charlie’s Ice Cream Shop instead and he knew then that he he hadn’t fooled Dean.
“We could skip the ice cream if you want,” Dean said.
“I know you want it more than me.”
“What better excuse for ice cream then to cheer up your little brother.”
“So you’re using me?”
“Don’t be like that, Sam.” Dean had climbed out of the car and shut the door as Sam had done the same. “I’ll even let you get sprinkles.”
“How generous of you.”
Same remembered how Dean hadn’t even bothered to ask him what he wanted before Dean ordered their ice cream, but Dean never had to ask. Sam always got the same thing, two scoops of mint chocolate chip with whip cream on top.
The two of them had found their usual table, the one by the window, and sat down beside each other as they watched the people walk by the store front. He remembered how Dean had stayed silent as they ate their ice cream but as soon as Sam finished off his last bite, Dean’s knee was banging into his own.
“You going to tell me what happened or do I have to guess?” Dean asked.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Sam had focused his attention on his empty dish.
“Did someone mess with you at school?”
“No, Dean, everyone left me alone.”
“You’re upset because no one picked on you?” Dean nudged his chair and Sam looked up slowly.
“No one even talked to me,” he had whispered. “I don’t like being picked on but at least it meant someone noticed me.”
“It was your first day of middle school. No one talks to anyone.”
“Because you’re all scared.” Dean had laughed and playfully nudged Sam’s shoulder. “Everyone was in the same position, Sam. You were all new kids.”
“I guess you’re right.” Sam agreed.
“I’m always right.” Dean rolled his eyes and Sam snickered.
“Thanks,” he held up his empty ice cream dish with a smile. “for the ice cream.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Sam remembered having many similar conversations with Dean and every one of them had always made him feel better, no matter the situation. His brother had always known exactly what to say and that was one of the several things he missed about Dean.
Sam felt a tap on his knee and turned his attention toward the front of the car where his father was watching him in the rear view mirror. He shook his head slightly, pulling himself out of his fond but painful memories, and noticed the crowd of graduating students standing outside the building. Half of them Sam didn’t know because even though Dean had been right and he eventually made friends, he definitely wasn’t a socialite. The friends he had were all he needed and even that small group may never speak to him again after graduation. Sam was okay with that.
He took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh, mentally trying to prepare himself to take the final step of his high school career. His parents turned to him with twin smiles and he forced a tight grin. With one last look outside he grabbed his cap and gown and dragged himself out of the car before he could talk himself out of it any further.
He was happy to finally be finished with high school and he was honestly quite proud of his accomplishments. Finally, after years of hard work and a nonexistent social life, he could say that it had all paid off. Stanford, his first choice, was offering him a full ride based on his academics and in just a few short months he would move to California to study law. He had been planning for college ever since he learned the word and it hadn’t taken him long to realize his desire to become a lawyer.
All of a sudden he realized that his family had gone silent and he pulled himself out of his thoughts, eyes glancing around the table. He figured one of them had asked him a question but no one was even looking at him, they’re eyes had all gone to the door.
The whole diner went silent and Sam wasn’t sure if it was because he couldn’t hear or if everyone was just as stunned as him. His mother and father were suddenly turning back to him with wide smiles as they began to stand from the table, followed by his grandparents. Sam tried to process everything but his mind just wasn’t functioning properly.
Once things seemed to settle in his head he realized his family had cleared the diner, leaving him alone at the table. He wanted to run after them but when his eyes found the door again he realized why his mind was suddenly scrambled.
“Hey, little brother.” He stared intently at the man walking towards the table, blinking a few times to ensure himself that his eyes weren’t playing tricks.
“Dean?” Sam questioned.
“In the flesh.”
“What happened to you?” He wasted no time getting to the point.
“Trip took a little longer than expected.” Dean said with a wide smile. “I’m here now though and my timing is impeccable as always.”
“You missed the main event.” Sam told him, trying to hide his disappointment.
“There you go doubting me again, man.” His big brother playfully reached across the table and smacked his arm. “If you hadn’t been so focused on that damn speech of yours then you would have seen me.”
“You were there?” His eyes widened suddenly and he smiled, actually allowing his dimples to show.
“Of course I was,” Dean leaned back in his chair and folded his arms behind his head. “Got there just in time for your boring speech.”
“Was it really that bad?” Sam asked, cheeks going red.
His brother laughed but leaned forward once again, looking Sam directly in the eye. “They were the best words to have ever put me to sleep.”
Sam stared at Dean for a few seconds before his serious face cracked and he smiled, “What a compliment.”
“Don’t expect anymore.”
They fell into a comfortable silence for a few moments and Sam couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the man sitting across from him. It had been nearly six months since he had seen his brother and even though he kept telling himself six months wasn’t long, looking at Dean now proved how long it actually was.
His brother hadn’t changed much physically, still sporting the same crew cut and wearing the same uniform Sam’s seen him in the few times he visited Annapolis with his family. The vibrant light that Sam saw in Dean’s eyes told him that something had definitely changed. The waitress appeared at the table and quietly spoke to Dean as if she didn’t want to shatter their moment. Sam wanted to thank her but before he knew it, she headed back into the kitchen.
“Would you look at her?” Dean ruined the moment instead, eyes following the woman’s retreat.
“She’s probably older than mom.” Sam informed him with a hint of disgust.
“Age doesn’t mean anything.”
“She’s probably experienced.”
“Stop it.” He fought the urge to cover his ears and cringed as Dean continued.
“Probably could show me a thing or two.” Dean said with a laugh and Sam knew his brother was enjoying his displeasure.
“Please,” Sam begged, though the smile on his face deceived him. “That’s way too much information.”
“I’ve been away for months, Sam.”
“So you have to make up for lost time?”
“Dang right I do.” Dean said as he politely took his drink from the waitress with a smile. “Six months with twenty other men. I deserve a bit of fun.”
Sam waited till the woman was out of ear shot before he replied, “With a grandmother?”
“She’s barely forty.” Dean’s eyes find the waitress and Sam was positive his brother was not looking at the name tag. “Besides, she’s definitely into me.”
“And you figured that how?” Sam asked.
Dean turned back to him with a weird smile, “She’s been flirting with me.”
Sam rolled his eyes, “She asked you what you wanted to drink.”
“It’s how she asked.” Dean said. “Plus, she winked at me.”
“I’m pretty sure she had something in her eye.”
“You’re just jealous.”
“What would I be jealous of?”
“That even after I’ve been gone so long, all the girls still want me.” Dean once again folded his arms behind his head and leaned back in his chair.
“You’re completely delusional.” Sam shook his head but continued to smile.
“Come on, admit it.” Dean pushed. “You liked when I was gone. You actually stood a chance.”
“Not exactly.” Sam’s smile finally fell and he’s suddenly found his plate of cold food much more interesting.
“You’re still no good with the ladies, huh?” Dean asked, nudging Sam’s leg beneath the table.
“I kind of had other things going on.” He admitted, though he wasn’t sure Dean even heard him.
“You could have had fun you know.” Dean told him, voice becoming just as soft as Sam’s.
“Yeah I know.”
“Then why didn’t you?”
“I just didn’t.” Sam blurted out before he quickly changed the subject. “It’s your first night back. I bet you have lots of stories to tell.”
“They can wait.” All signs of joking had vanished and Dean was completely serious now.
“Please?” Sam begged, wanting nothing more than to forget the past six months, especially since his brother was finally home.
“I want to know what happened with you while I was away.”
Sam was instantly sitting up straighter in his seat, intimidated by the unfamiliar tone Dean used.
“Nothing happened, man.” He confessed.
“That’s what worries me.” Dean leaned forward, elbows resting on the table.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sam became defensive though he wasn’t sure why.
“Six months is a long time for nothing to have happened.”
“Well it didn’t?”
“What were you doing then?”
“I had school.” Sam’s voice rose with anger. “I went to school, studied hard and now I’m going to college. What were you doing?”
Dean stared at him in confusion, “You know what I was doing.”
“I don’t understand why though.” All of his anger vanished and he deflated in his chair, shoulders slumping forward.
“I had to find my place, Sam.” Dean admitted softly. “School had always been your thing but it wasn’t for me. I had to figure out what I’m good at; what I’m meant to do in life.”
“Did you find it?” He asked, once again sitting up straighter as he focused on Dean.
“So, you’re going to Stanford, right?” Dean asked.
“Yeah,” Sam confirmed, oddly content with Dean’s unspoken answer. “I got a full ride.”
“How’d you get to be so smart?”
“I think I was adopted.”
Dean laughed as he nodded in agreement, “You’re probably right because you may be smart but you definitely missed out on the looks.”
“Looks aren’t everything.” Sam said with a grin.
“That’s what ugly, smart people say.”
“At least I don’t hit on grandmothers.” He argued.
“I don’t see age,” Dean’s eyes roamed the diner, trying to find the waitress again, but then he turned back to Sam. “Only beauty.”
“You don’t see anything but your own satisfaction.” Sam playfully kicked his brother’s shin, smiling when Dean curses out loud.
“Six months, dude.” Dean grunted out in mock pain, smile giving his act away.
“I know.” Sam said, smile falling into a slight grimace at Dean’s reminder.
“It feels like I’ve been gone for years.” Dean told him and Sam nodded in agreement.
“Felt like forever.”
“I told you I’d come back though.”
“Everyone told me that.” Sam lifted his head and met Dean’s worried eyes.
“You didn’t believe them?” His brother questioned, sounding slightly wounded.
“I was scared.” He admitted, eyes falling to the table again.
Dean nudged his arm gently and he met Dean’s green eyes once more. “Me too.”
They fell silent for another few moments and Sam wasn’t sure if it was because they had run out of things to say or if they just needed a moment to digest everything. Eventually the silence became too much and Sam was the one to break it, needing to fill the empty air between them.
“I’m glad your back.” He confessed with a smile, cheeks growing slightly red. “Thanks for being there.”
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Dean smiled in return as the waitress returned to their table, setting down two bowls of ice cream in front of them.
Sam stared at the silver dish and smiled, “You even remembered the whipped cream.”
He greedily dug into the double scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream, enjoying the way Dean was doing the same across from him. Six months is a long time, long enough to change someone for better or for worse, but some things will never change.