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Bleeding Our Colors

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Dean dials Sam’s number three times that week. His fingers have ghosted over the keys on hundreds of occasions, during long sleepless nights and more than one grueling hunt, but he rarely dials and never hits send. With Dad missing, things change. Dean feels a little like he’s coming apart, though he’s slow to think about how long the ache’s been in his chest, how convenient Dad is as an excuse.

He never manages to get up the nerve to actually call and he’s 200 miles down I-10 West before he admits to himself where he’s going. This time is different, he knows. There’s no waiting in the car, no hoping to see a glimpse of too-long hair or the corner of an upturned mouth and then putting the Impala in reverse. This time, there’s no pretending that’s enough.

His fingers clench tight around the wheel, knuckles white, until he feels the worn bits of leather digging into his skin. Dad will kill him if he sees the way he’s tearing up the wheel and the thought is enough to distract Dean from his own head. He pops a new tape in the player and leans back into the seat a little further. It’s just Sam, he thinks, and then laughs. Just Sam.

*

There are no lights on when he pulls up to the building, but Dean reminds himself that respectable people are probably sleeping. They don’t drive cross-country in the middle of the night, nothing to distract themselves from their thoughts but the white lines that all start to run together and the hum of the road. And after twenty years, they’re not much of a distraction at all.

He picks the lock, making a little more noise than necessary, and hopes that years of training will have Sam throwing him up against the wall in no time, that hours practicing in motel parking lots are etched into Sam like muscle memory. He makes it a little further into the house than he thinks is ideal and he’s braced for it when Sam tries to take him down. Dean admits it’s gotten harder to fight Sam since he grew like a weed his senior year of high school, but Sam catches a glimpse of Dean’s face in the light pouring in from the street lamp outside and Dean’s not above using Sam’s shock to pin him to the floor. Take every advantage you’re given in a fight—it’s a lesson they were both taught young—and Sam repays the favor a moment later.

There are a million things Dean wishes he knew how to say, but avoidance is what Winchesters really do best. It’s how they got here in the first place, the years between them a wall Dean can’t see over, so he asks for a beer and acts completely surprised to see Sam’s pretty blonde girlfriend come downstairs. He hits on her after she introduces herself and the look she gives him is entirely unimpressed. It stings, a little, but Dean can’t help wanting Jess to know that Sam’s a little rough around the edges too—wants her to see where Sam comes from and what he was smart enough to leave behind.

“Anyway, I gotta borrow your boyfriend here, talk about some private family business,” Dean says as a way to test the waters. “But, uh, nice meeting you.”

Sam tells Dean to say whatever he needs to say in front of Jess. He steps behind her, pulling Jess into the crook of his arm like she belongs there.

“Okay,” Dean says, never one to back down from a challenge, “Dad hasn’t been home in a few days.”

“So he’s working overtime on a Miller Time shift. He’ll stumble back in sooner or later.”

Dean has never been less amused by one of Sam’s smirks. “Dad’s on a hunting trip and he hasn’t been home in a few days.”

Sam’s reaction this time is exactly what Dean expects and he breathes deep, briefly comforted that not everything’s changed. Sam excuses them as they head outside, Dean grateful to him for the neutral ground. The arguments are nothing he hasn’t heard before and he’s no more impressed by them now than he was when Sam was in high school—less now, maybe, because with Dad’s life possibly on the line, Dean can’t believe Sam’s still saying no.

“So you’re just going to live some normal, apple-pie life? Is that it?”

“No,” Sam says and his denial catches Dean off guard. “Not normal. Safe.”

“I can’t do this alone,” Dean says.

“Yes, you can,” Sam replies, but his face softens.

“Well, I don’t want to.”

Dean can see the moment he gets through to Sam. It’s a look he knows well; for years he was the only one who could get Sam to do something he didn’t want to. After Dean explains the case, he asks Sam to come with him one more time.

“Dean,” Sam says, looking pained. “I really can’t. I have an interview first thing Monday morning.”

“What—a job interview? Skip it.”

“A law school interview,” Sam corrects, “and it’s my whole future on a plate.”

“Law school,” Dean repeats, shaking his head.

“Yes. It’s what I’ve been working on for years. I have to be here, I have to be ready.”

Dean knows a lost battle when he sees one, can see the change in Sam’s face, so he climbs off the hood of the car and slides behind the wheel. Sam opens the passenger door and hops inside, insistent.

“Dean, you don’t have to go,” Sam says.

“Oh, really? I don’t?”

“Stay, Dean, just through Monday. We can leave after the interview.”

“Dad could be hurt. People are dying,” Dean says. “I have to go. You can stay here for your law school interview. Keep it—keep all of it. The girlfriend, your whole new life.”

“Dean,” Sam says, “this isn’t a no. This is a not right now. I’ll call you Monday and you let me know if you still need my help. I’ll be in Jericho first thing.”

“Yeah, sure, Sammy,” Dean says, already brushing him off.

Sometimes Dean admits to himself he’s happy Sam got out.

Tonight is not one of those nights.

***

Sam might have been looking for safe, but he hasn’t been away long enough to forget that, his whole life, there has never been a such thing as coincidence. He thinks about the dreams he’s been having of Jess, of jolting awake in bed, sheets damp around him and hair sticking to his forehead. He thinks of Dean coming to visit, of Dad going missing on a hunt. Individually they’re just more things to add to the never-ending list of shit that goes wrong for the Winchesters, but together—together they settle in Sam’s mind like a weight, pressing between his eyes and making his vision pound.

“Was everything okay with Dean?” Jess asks, her head on Sam’s chest.

“I think so,” Sam says. “We didn’t really work anything out, but I think we could.”

She scratches his shoulder in reply and Sam closes his eyes, breathes her in.

“I haven’t talked to Dean in years, but I know he wants to talk to me, now,” Sam says quietly. “I told him I would call him after my interview, see if he still needs help. I almost went with him tonight. I wanted to.”

He feels Jess nod against his chest. “I don’t really know Dean at all, but I know he’s important to you. I think you should call him. But you made the right choice, Sam. Staying.”

Sam hums and wonders if that’s true, if Jess really would know or if she just thinks she’s right, but he tightens his arm around her shoulder anyway. He sees her blonde hair on his chest and suddenly remembers it fanned across the ceiling, a flash of heat and too bright light.

“Let’s do something tomorrow,” Sam says. “Cancel your plans with Steph and Isabel.”

Jess rolls on top of him and lifts her head to look into his face. “We’re just going shopping.”

“Exactly. Go next weekend. Let’s just hang out here, you and me. We can try that new alfredo recipe you found.”

She looks at him a moment longer before she nods, leaning forward to press a kiss to his lips. “Whatever you need, baby. I’m here.”

He doesn’t correct her tacit assumption that this is about Dean—it’s not a lie, at least—and he kisses her as he rolls her onto her back, proves to himself that she’s there and real and his.

*

They go grocery shopping together in the morning and Jess puts the game on while they cook. She keeps leaving the kitchen to yell at their television, so Sam silently takes over cooking duties, sliding over to the cutting board. He’s mincing garlic per Emeril’s instructions when he hears Jess open front door and, a moment later, invite Brady in.

“Sam,” she calls, “come greet our guest!”

Sam shakes his head, but leaves the kitchen anyway. He claps Brady on the shoulder and puts one arm around Jess. “Don’t you think someone should watch the stove, baby?”

“It’s just water. Turn it off. It’s not going to go bad if you leave it out.”

Brady’s gaze darts back and forth between them, weight shifting from one leg to the other.

“What’s up?” Sam says. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Just a little surprised you’re home,” Brady replies, eyes finally settled on Jess.

Sam eyes him curiously, pulling Jess closer. “You came over because you thought I wasn’t going to be home?”

“I just wanted to talk to Jess about something. It can wait a few days.”

“You sure?” Jess asks. “We can always send Sam back into the kitchen to cook for us.”

Brady hesitates, glances at their open kitchen, and speaks. “I’ll just catch you while Sam’s in class this week.”

He turns to leave, but not before Sam sees Brady’s eyes flash, black as the night he’s walking out into. Sam shakes his head in vain, as if to clear it, the rest of him stock-still.

“That was weird,” Jess says, voicing Sam’s thoughts. “Maybe not any weirder than he’s been lately, but still not right.”

“Yeah, weird,” Sam mumbles, mind whirring with thoughts of Dean and Dad and his dreams about Jess.

Jess kisses his cheek and squeezes his shoulder before heading back into the kitchen. “I’ll finish up dinner,” she says. “I know you’ve got a lot on your mind.”

Sam follows. “You can finish the game. I’ll call you in to work your magic on the garlic bread.”

He’s distracted all through dinner and not with thoughts of his interview. When he remembers, he squeezes the bridge of his nose and tries to think of a solution that doesn’t end with him being thrown across the room by ghosts again, back to melting silver down to bullets. He needs to call Dean, he knows, but he wants to put it off at least one more day. Sam clenches his eyes shut, clinging to Palo Alto and Jess and their apartment—the couch and the bed frame, the kitchen table and her plants that need to be watered every other day. He’s surrounded by evidence of the life they’ve built together, but can’t stop himself from imagining throwing all his clothes in a duffel, packing up and never looking back. In his mind, Jess is still there and except for the pictures on the dresser, it’s like Sam never lived there at all. He prays right there at the table, not for anything specific—not for answers or direction or an admissions letter to Stanford Law—just something to clear his mind.

*

Sam practically holes himself up in the library until his interview, desperate for all the mythology he can find on things that could make a person’s eyes turn black. He combs through rare books and every website Yahoo will pull up on the school’s computers, afraid to search anywhere Jess might see. He barely remembers to print copies of his resume Monday morning and the interview is over before he knows it, his last excuse for not calling Dean gone in a flash of rote questions and too-wordy answers. Suck it up, Sam, he thinks. He waits until Jess is gone, off to a meeting with her thesis adviser, and dials.

“Did you find Dad?” he asks by way of greeting.

“I see they don’t teach a class in conversation skills at Stanford,” Dean says, but he sounds pleased and Sam can’t help but smile.

“You didn’t think I’d call.” It’s not a question.

“I also didn’t find Dad, but I did find his journal. He left all his stuff in a motel. Looks like he left in a hurry. Or he wanted us—me—to find all his research.”

“What was it?”

“A woman in white. Had a nasty streak. Spiteful.”

Sam laughs. “Did you expect anything else while hunting a vengeful spirit?”

“Guess I shouldn’t have,” Dean says, smile evident. “But they aren’t always quite so active either.”

“Nothing you can’t handle.”

“No, Sammy, guess not,” Dean replies, all the lightness from a moment before gone from his voice. “How’d your interview go?”

“Fine,” Sam says. “Good, maybe. I was distracted, but I don’t think I said anything too wrong.”

“That’s, uh, great. That’s great.”

“Thanks.” Sam pauses and can hear the miles between them, heavy in his empty apartment. “Listen, Dean, I need your help.”

Dean is silent for long enough that Sam is afraid he’s going to refuse, but Dean speaks before he can start to excuse himself. “My help?”

“I want to tell Jess,” Sam says and when Dean asks why, Sam’s grateful he doesn’t pretend not to know what Sam’s talking about. “There’s been so much weird stuff happening. I feel like something’s off—really, really off.”

“Weird for us or weird for people with white picket fences and apple pie after dinner?”

Sam wishes Dean were in front of him to see the hole he’d be trying to glare through his skull. “Weird for everyone, Dean. And you’ve eaten apple pie at every diner in the United States.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean says, but Sam can hear him start to smile again. “What’s the ‘stuff’ you’re picking up on?”

“I don’t know,” Sam starts, suddenly afraid of sounding crazy. “Just you—coming back. And Dad being missing. When’s the last time that happened? And I’ve been having these dreams, of Jess dying. Like Mom did.”

“You want to tell your girlfriend you’ve been having dreams of her dying?”

“I didn’t,” Sam says honestly. “But I feel like I have to now. One of our friends came by the other night. He’s been kind of off for a while now, I guess. We haven’t really hung out much and he told me he was looking to talk to Jess, like he wouldn’t talk if I was there.”

“You think she’s cheating on you?” Dean asks, protective voice creeping in.

“What?” Sam replies, thrown by the suggestion. “No, not at all. Before he left, he, uh—his eyes. They went black, Dean.”

“Went black?”

“Yeah. The whole thing. Like they were all pupil.”

“And you’re sure you weren’t seeing things? Trick of the light, maybe?”

“I guess it could’ve been,” Sam says. “I did some research, though. I think he might be possessed. Like by a demon.”

“And when you add up weird dreams, a missing father, the return of a wayward brother, and possible demonic possession, you officially have something that is exactly our kind of weird.”

Sam breathes. “Right.”

“So, Jess,” Dean begins, but doesn’t finish, just lets her name hang in the air.

“I don’t know if it’ll make the dreams stop, but she has a right to know, Dean.”

“You know you can’t tell her just because you feel guilty, right? It’s not something you can take back the next day or pretend you never told her.”

Sam nods to himself. “I’ve thought about telling her before. I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me,” Sam says and it’s true, but it’s not the truth. Dean has to know, but doesn’t call him on it, so Sam feels like he can keep talking. “Never wanted to tell her more than I wanted to run away from it.”

“You’re sure?” Dean asks.

“Yes.” He hopes his voice is steady. He’s not sure but doesn’t want his brother to know it, knows there’s no way to do this if he starts running circles around his head again. “I still don’t want to hunt,” he says. “I won’t—I can’t—live like that. But I don’t want to run forever, either.”

“I get that.”

“Do you?” Sam says. “I feel like you’re taking this really well. What happened to the Dean that was all about protecting the family secret?”

Dean’s quiet for a long time and Sam kicks himself for pushing too hard, too fast. “I told someone. While you were at school.”

It’s so far from what Sam’s expecting to hear that he actually can’t come up with something to say, just sits staring wide-eyed at the wall in front of him.

“So, I get it, Sammy.”

“Right,” Sam says, “Of course,” and doesn’t push this time.

“So, uh, was this what you needed my help with?” Dean asks, incredulous. “You haven’t asked my permission to do things in years.”

“Shit hasn’t hit the fan like this in years, either.”

“I’ll give you that.”

“I didn’t need permission, Dean. I need you to help me tell her.” Sam pauses, waiting for Dean to force the point like he had, and he’s ashamed when it doesn’t come. “I want you to tell Jess with me,” he amends. Because he could do this alone—they both could—but it’s been too long and Sam’s headache is starting to fade for the first time since before Dean broke into his apartment and maybe, maybe they could learn to do it together, this time.

***

Jess likes to think she’s a levelheaded person. She hates alliteration and rolls her eyes when people claim to be cool, calm, and collected, but that’s what she is. And still, still she thinks no one would blame her for breaking a wine glass when Sam tells her about The Family Business. She doesn’t throw it against a wall, or crack it in her hands, but she does let it fall to their cheap terrazzo floor and the rate at which Dean kneels to start cleaning the cabernet makes her think he’s a little too grateful for the distraction.

“You hunt monsters,” she says, willing herself to look Sam in the eyes.

“Monsters is such a weird word. It has a terrible connotation—“

“Sam,” she says. One word, but it works.

“Yes, monsters. Mostly in the form of ghosts and other vengeful spirits.”

It explains so much and yet tells her nothing. For every insight she gains, she feels like the Sam she knows gets further away. She’d throw him a line if she could, she thinks, but Dean’s sturdy boot sticking out from under the table is a reminder that this may not be her fight anymore.

“And you didn’t tell me about these dreams earlier because…”

“Because I didn’t know how. I thought they were just nightmares at first,” Sam replies, shifting his gaze to his folded hands. “I’m not sure they aren’t just nightmares now. But I was having them for weeks and then Dean and Brady and—I just don’t know, Jess.”

She nods—can tell he’s trying to be fair and knows he’s coming up short—but fuck it, she thinks. Sam dumped this on all her lap and formerly well-adjusted people need time, damn it. “I’m gonna go,” she says.

Sam looks up immediately, stricken.

“I’ll be back, I wouldn’t do that to you. I’m just going to think about the very real possibility that there was a monster under my bed, that maybe my grandmother was haunting our old house and, oh, right, one of our best friends is probably a demon.”

Dean laughs, she can hear him from where he’s kneeling, and she can’t help wishing he’d never come to find Sam. It’s not his fault—she knows already that there’s no place for blame in this, whatever this may be—but right now it’s simpler than self-reflection. Blaming Dean is easier than examining what it means about her that she could live with someone—love someone—for almost two years and not know the most basic things about him, easier than trying to figure out if knowing that Sam spent his summers learning to wield a gun instead of going to camp actually invalidates anything at all.

She leaves without any real direction. She and Sam don’t really fight and, when they do, she’s never been the type to take off because she needs space. Jess walks down Middlefield to University, but the neon lights ask questions and offer no answers, so she keeps walking until she hits the Oval, sits in the grass and stops. She’s far from their apartment now, but Sam is all around her. She can see the Frost Amphitheatre from where she sits, where Sam had kissed her the first time, under the night sky, and the Math lab where he left her every Tuesday on his way to Spanish the first quarter they lived together. She sees benches and the main quad, all parts of her life with Sam.

Jess loses track of time. Someone giggles, loud and bright, and Jess is reminded of Sam, the way he laughs with his whole body. She gets up as the freshmen start pouring their way onto campus, remembering that she has somewhere she needs to be.

The lights are all out at the apartment when she gets back, save for the living room lamp Sam leaves on for her when she has late studio hours. She’s still lost in thought as she heads to the bedroom, but the sight of Sam and Dean asleep together is enough to make her pause. They’re facing each other, exact mirrors touching from knee to shin, like a line of reflection drawn in jersey sheets. Dean looks younger in sleep, years erased from his face, and she notices for the first time that Sam looks older. Jess starts to wonder again where she fits, but can’t make herself take the moment from them. She turns to leave as Sam stirs.

“Jess?”

“I’m just gonna go to the couch,” she says.

“Come to bed, baby.”

Jess hesitates. “Sam, there’s no room. It’s not a big deal.”

“I can make Dean move,” he says and he’s rubbing Dean’s shoulder before she can tell him not to bother. “Roll over, Dean.”

Dean grunts but complies and Sam fits himself to Dean like it’s nothing at all.

“Sleep?” Sam asks, hand outstretched.

Jess walks toward him and knows she’s crossing a line, even if she’s not sure what it is. “Yeah,” she says, feeling the weight of the day as she crawls behind Sam, “let’s sleep.”

She doesn’t know where Dean belongs, or what Sam needs from her anymore, but she fits perfectly next to Sam—the three of them fit together, she thinks—and it’s enough reassurance for the night.

*

Jess wakes up early the next morning and makes breakfast. It’s the only meal she’s actually good at and she wants to do something, at least. Dean’s the next one up, more alert than she expects him to be, but the conversation about training rises to the forefront of her mind unbidden and she thinks she’ll probably have to adjust a lot of her assumptions about him.

“Um, good morning,” Dean says.

“You don’t sound so sure of that,” Jess replies. “I’m making breakfast.”

“You need help with that?”

She shakes her head. “I was thinking we could talk?”

Dean says nothing as Jess brings the food to the table.

"I don't know what you want from me," Jess says. It's deceptively simple, but it's everything she means and if Dean could answer it for her, she might have to love him a little.

"I don't want anything from you." He doesn't sound apologetic when he says it and she appreciates that. “I didn’t even think he should tell you.”

"Why did Sam tell me? What made you come back?"

Dean stares at her, really looks at her face, and Jess wonders what he's trying to find. She blushes, hopes he doesn’t notice, and wonders if she passes the test. "I think he already told you why," Dean says and, after a moment, "I came back because he asked."

They sit in silence and if it’s not comfortable, at least it’s not demanding anything of her.

"So do you think he's right? Do you think there's some Big Evil Plan?" Jess asks—thirty seconds, ten minutes, an hour later. She can't help capitalizing the words in her head, distancing them from her reality.

"I don't—I don't know." Dean says it like it pains him to admit it, like he's failing them by not having all the answers. “I don’t know what Sam wants, Jess. I don’t know what you want or what you’ve talked about and I can’t even guess what the right answer is. This,” he says, gesturing to the food in front of him and the pictures she knows are on the wall behind her, encompassing more than one word should, “is so far out of my comfort zone that I don’t even know where to start. But I do know that Sam needs you with him on this. Sam—Sam thought you were worth it.”

Jess knows already that it’s probably the longest speech she’ll ever get out of Dean and she nods, eager to make clear that she’s listening—that she wants to understand, even if she doesn’t. Sam had talked about Dean a few times, more than anyone else in his family, and it had always broken her heart a little. Jess was sure she knew Dean, a deadbeat older brother Sam couldn’t help but love too much, dismissing his claims that it was complicated. Not everyone deserves your love, Sam, she’d said and her cheeks stain at the memory.

Sam comes into the kitchen then to break the silence, eyes darting between them. “Everything alright?”

Dean nods. “Jess made breakfast.”

“I see that,” Sam says, still in the doorway.

Dean digs in and Jess thinks he has the right idea. She looks back at Sam, who hasn’t even poured himself a cup of coffee, and rolls her eyes.

“Come on, Sam. There’s no cyanide in it.”

“Mmm,” Dean corroborates, “this is pretty delicious.”

It’s Sam’s turn to roll his eyes. “I always thought cyanide in your food would be a good way to kill you. You’d have eaten half the plate before you even suspected something was wrong,” Sam adds, but it makes them all laugh, and he picks up his fork to dig in.

“Dean and I are going hunting today,” Sam says a moment later and Jess sees Dean’s head snap up just as she expresses her disbelief.

“We need to find Brady. We’re gonna go check out his apartment. If I was right, he probably won’t be around anymore, but we have to try at least.”

“Okay,” Jess says, not questioning the urge. “I’ll come with.”

Dean vetoes her idea and Jess glares. When Sam doesn’t immediately come to her defense, she tries to come up with a reason for them to let her go. She thinks the misogyny argument probably doesn’t hold much cache with Dean and she doesn’t believe it anyway, not really. The fact that she’s completely unprepared to have this fight—wouldn’t even know where to start to try and change their minds—makes her back down more quickly than she might have otherwise.

“Fine,” Jess says, “but you’re telling me everything that happens.”

Dean defers to Sam this time and Sam is quick to respond.

“Absolutely,” he says, “of course.”

Jess nods and she watches the boys echo the motion as they finish their breakfast in silence.

A few hours later she watches them drive off without so much as a backward glance and, for the first hour, conjures up new and more improbable ways Sam could die. It’s just fear of the unknown, her rational brain tells her. Nothing’s going to happen. Brady probably won’t even be home, she thinks, and marvels at how truly weird her life has become in the last 24 hours that she’s taken as fact the theory that their best friend is being possessed by a demon. There’s tragedy in there somewhere, she imagines, and her mind slips to the stages of grief, wonders if it makes her more or less well adjusted that she moved right from denial to acceptance.

They boys are back before Jess has even left the couch and she turns the television on to at least pretend she did something but brood while they were away. The apartment yielded nothing—no trace of Brady, no signs of struggle—nothing but a line of sulfur on a windowsill in the bathroom. It’s apparently the confirmation they needed, but it does nothing to get them any closer to finding him or figuring out exactly what’s going on.

“I think I should head out,” Dean says. “Dad left a note in the motel. I’m pretty sure it’s coordinates. He’s sending me somewhere.”

Sam’s eyes narrow. “Dad has you on a goose chase?”

“Dad left me with instructions,” Dean says, “and it’s the best we’ve got, right now.”

“You know you don’t have to go just because he told you to, right?” Sam snaps. “He couldn’t even tell you to go himself.”

Dean glares. “I do have to go. I know you don’t get it, but this is what I have to do.”

“But—“ Sam starts and Dean cuts him off.

“Look, you don’t have any better suggestions and Dad is the only one with anything close to a plan. This is something, Sam.”

“You don’t have to go right now,” Sam says.

“We’re not getting anything done here. I wanna check out this lead.”

Jess watches Sam nod, but he doesn’t look appeased and though she’d never say anything, she thinks Dean is right. Sam and Dean stand at the same time and Jess looks at Sam as he watches Dean take silent inventory of his belongings.

“Call me if you find anything,” Sam says.

“Alright.”

“Even if you don’t find anything,” Sam adds.

“Sure,” Dean replies, already walking to the door.

Sam nods and Dean follows suit, throws a nod in Jess’s direction, too, and opens the door. He’s gone before Jess can react, less fanfare than when he’d arrived.

Sam heads to kitchen and Jess looks out the window, still sees headlights against the adobe-painted walls. She runs to the door before she can stop herself, bare feet pinched by the pavement. Dean sees her before he finishes backing out, but not before she sees him, before he can he cover the weariness around his eyes with a disarming smile.

“You have to call,” she says.

Dean’s smile widens. “Why, Jessica, I didn’t know you cared.”

It’s charming, back in place, but she’s seen him now and knows the difference, knows what he looks like when a smile reaches his eyes and what he looks like, alone in his car, every one of his 26 years and more written on his face.

“Please, Dean,” Jess says. “Call and take it from there.”

Jess doesn’t ask him to stay, like Sam had. She doesn’t offer to help and doesn’t make any promises, but she thinks Dean would prefer it that way.

“He needs you with him on this,” she tries.

“You too,” Dean says. “I’ll call.”

She knows he means it.

***

Sam gets into law school in December. He accepts the seat and thinks of Dean as he does.

Dean had called, like he said he would, and then kept calling. He sends texts too, stupid things about diners and the inexhaustible list of themes for shitty roadside motels and the new aliases he’s using, all stolen out of the liner notes of the cassettes they’d been raised on. Dean’s come back a few times since he first showed up, looking for a place to crash on his way to Tacoma, Olympia, Redmond—they’ll run out of cities before Dean admits why he’s there. Dean never brings any real news of Dad, just more orders, and Sam can see his frustration like a noose on a condemned man.

Sam goes by Brady’s apartment every few weeks to check if anything’s been moved, part of him always hoping that Brady will be there playing Tony Hawk and greeting him with a smile like he hasn’t in years, but there’s a growing layer of dust settling over the place and whoever’s possessing him must be calling his parents, because Sam hasn’t seen any missing-person reports. He doesn’t consider the alternative.

Sam thinks about having to leave Stanford behind. He knows there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to have this forever—has felt the walls closing in a little more each year after he first reached the frontier—but he’s determined to try for as long as he can, even if it means having to get back in shape. When he reads a piece in the student lit magazine about a haunting on campus, he decides to check it out, just something to get his feet wet. He picks up an EMF meter endorsed by the American Paranoral Society at Walmart for 40 bucks and feels his cheeks flush as he brings it to the cash register, but woman just tells him his total and asks if he wants a bag, completely unfazed.

Sam makes sure to leave it on the table where Jess can see it, though he can’t bring himself to tell her. He hears a barking laugh from the kitchen that afternoon and knows she’s found it, but Jess never asks questions. He waits until it’s dark and walks down to the old Arboretum, where a statue of an angel mourns Jane Stanford’s brother. The EMF meter stays quiet as he circles the memorial and Sam feels more than a little ridiculous, keeps his head down as he walks back home.

He texts Dean. I tried hunting again and all I got was this lousy EMF meter.

Dean replies. Ha. Your girlfriend told me.

Oh, good. Two of you to make fun of me. And, a moment later, Since when do you have Jess’s number?

I gave it to her last time I was there. Told her to call me if she ever got tired of your ugly mug.

He gets another text from Dean 15 minutes later. I found a hunt in Monte Rio. Could have you back the next day.

I’m in, Sam replies. This might be exactly what he needs.

Two days later, when he and Jess hear a honk outside the front window at 9 AM, Sam is ready, as promised, duffel packed and nerves on edge.

“My mother always told me I wasn’t allowed in the car with boys who honked,” Jess says, smiling. “I think we’re gonna have to have a conversation with him.”

Sam shoots her a questioning glance, but doesn’t say anything, just kisses her forehead and tells her he should be back in the morning.

“I’ll walk you out,” Jess says, following him to the door.

They hug on the front step and Sam sees Dean waving from the car as he jogs to the passenger side.

“You make sure to bring him home by curfew,” Jess calls to Dean, who grins, laying on the horn and turning the speakers on full blast.

*

Dean fills Sam in on the case during their short drive and it seems pretty standard: a woman is found dead in her house; husband is called in for questioning, but never arrested; now all kinds of weird things are being reported on their block.

“There was a fire at the neighbor’s house,” Dean says.

“We’re sure it’s not coincidence?”

Dean shrugs. “This’ll be a pretty big waste of time if it is.”

Dean has a suit and an ID ready for Sam, FBI agents Perry and Tyler today, and Sam stays to question the husband while Dean checks the rest of the house. It’s nothing like riding a bike, but it does come back quickly, and Sam knows he can level Randall “No, please, call me Randy” Thompson with his best sympathetic looks all afternoon.

“And you have any idea who could have done this to your wife, Mr. Thompson?” Sam asks.

“None,” Randy replies and the answer is wholly unsurprising, even as it frustrates Sam. “Everyone loved Jenna.”

“Well, thank you for your cooperation,” Sam says, Dean back at his side. “We’ll be in touch.”

Dean waits for the front door to close before telling Sam he found nothing in the house, but as they’re walking back to the car, the old Walkman-turned-EMF meter starts whining in Dean’s pocket. It gets stronger as they walk next door, indicator at the highest levels before they even reach the porch.

“Guess we were questioning the wrong guy,” Dean says, already stepping up to knock at the neighbor’s house.

“I don’t think the husband’s innocent,” Sam says. “He was so…scripted.”

“Is that a crime now? The law student would know, right?”

Sam rolls his eyes but smiles, though he’s stopped from replying by the door opening. There’s a young, attractive woman in the doorframe and they introduce themselves, ask if she can spare a moment of her time. She’s agreeable enough, but the amount of cleavage on display isn’t really Sam’s area of expertise, so he asks if there’s a restroom he can use and leaves Dean to try and flirt some information out of her.

An open door at the end of the hall catches Sam’s eye and he peeks in, finds a pretty standard bedroom, bed made and shoes lined up in even rows under the mirror. There’s a couple pictures on the nightstand, so he gets close enough to take a look, and sees a few of the girl who opened the door with people he doesn’t recognize from their research. The pictures on the bureau are more of the same, except for one, and Sam finds it highly suspicious that Neighbor Girl and one Randall Thompson should be together on a beach somewhere when Jenna Thompson wasn’t in any of the pictures.

“That answers a few things,” Sam says to the empty room and heads back to the foyer to make sure Dean hasn’t forgotten this isn’t a social call.

“What’d you think?” Sam asks when they’re back in the Impala.

“Of Stephanie? She was pretty hot,” Dean replies, “but she also had no alibi and didn’t seem particularly fond of Jenna. Pair that with the fire that happened in her empty kitchen last week and I think there might be more to the story.”

Sam shifts in his seat, excited that they’re on the same page, and tells Dean about the picture of Stephanie and Randall he found in her bedroom.

“Banging the neighbor,” Dean says, shaking his head. “Maybe I could survive the suburbs after all.”

Sam laughs. “It’s really not that bad.”

Dean takes his eyes off the road and looks at Sam. “No, maybe not,” he concedes.

Sam tries not to read anything further into Dean’s admission. “So what do we do while we wait?”

Dean shrugs. “Figured we could grab a bite to eat until it gets dark and then salt and burn, baby.”

They find a diner that looks like a hundred others Sam’s been to in his life and he orders a salad just to hear Dean bitch about it, eats every bite even though the vegetables are never fresh and the lettuce tastes like dirt more often than he cares to admit. Dean tosses a few french fries at him before the meal is over and Sam can’t help but laugh, flings a few back at Dean just for good measure.

They drive out to the cemetery after dinner and Dean throws Sam a shovel when they get out of the car, leads the way to Jenna Thompson’s headstone. Digging graves is no easier now than it was four years ago, but it’s okay once he finds a rhythm. It feels good to be working with his hands, to be working next to Dean, even if every scoop of dirt reminds Sam of the sadness they’ve uncovered here. Dean pours the lighter fluid and strikes the match, but asks Sam if he wants to do the honors. Sam shakes his head—he’s not ready, not yet—and Dean seems to understand. Sam keeps his eyes on his brother’s face and says a prayer for Jenna Thompson as she’s engulfed in flames.

*

“Sam,” Dean says, squeezing his shoulder. “Sammy, wake up.”

Sam means to tell Dean to let him sleep, but he’s sure that’s not what comes out when he hears Dean laugh at him.

“We’re at your apartment, get out and go sleep in your own bed.”

“You coming in?” Sam asks, slowly coming back to himself. “We have room. You should stay.”

Dean looks away. “I’m gonna head out now. Don’t want to let the roads get too crowded. You know how I hate traffic.”

Sam’s too tired to argue so he lets it go, tells Dean to let him know if he hears anything.

“Sure thing,” Dean says.

Sam’s halfway to his building before Dean calls out again, stopping him. “We made a hell of a team back there,” he says.

Sam takes in Dean’s face, unguarded but apprehensive, like Sam might disagree. “Yeah, we did,” Sam says, smiling.

Dean nods but doesn’t say anything else, just backs out of the driveway and takes his place back on the road.

*

Sam wakes the next morning to find Jess watching him, one palm resting on his chest and hair fanned out on the pillow behind her.

“I feel like people are doing a lot of watching me sleep lately,” Sam says.

Jess laughs softly. “I didn’t want to wake you. I know you got back late last night.”

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Sam says. “I know I didn’t call.”

“It’s okay. Dean let me know you guys were alive. Told me you ordered salad in a diner,” Jess says, wrinkling her nose.

“I’m still waiting to regret introducing the two of you.”

“About that,” Jess says, sitting up. “We should talk.”

He’s worried this is it, that this is where the tightrope snaps, and he watches as Jess draws her legs in, sitting tailor-style on the bed. Sam mimics her position and says, “What do you want to talk about?”

“Is this what you want, Sam?”

“What?” he asks, buying time.

“This,” she repeats. “Like it is right now.”

“It was one hunt, Jess.”

She shakes her head. “That’s not all it was.”

Sam’s never been able to lie when Jess is calling him on his shit and he doesn’t—can’t—tell her she’s wrong. “You don’t know what Dean was for me,” he tries instead. “What we’ve seen. The things we’ve done, Jess, I don’t think anyone could understand.”

“I can’t be Dean,” Jess answers.

“I wouldn’t want you to,” Sam says. “But I don’t know that I can choose, now.”

“You shouldn’t feel like you have to, Sam. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

He’s not sure what Jess is saying, if there’s an offer being made and, if there is, what’s on the table, but he says okay, tells her he’ll think about it and means it. He wonders if she does understand after all—if maybe they’ll manage not to fuck this up.

***

Dean gets a text when he’s about an hour out from Palo Alto. Jessica the screen reads, excited despite himself to see what creative new way she’s come up with to check if he’s still coming.

Taco Night! Can you pick up tortillas? Sam forgot. :(

Dean smiles and thinks of the first time he drove out to Stanford with an invitation. He’d told them he was thinking about taking a hunt up in Tacoma and wanted to borrow their couch for the night. Not used to making plans in advance, he’d forgotten to tell them when to expect him and the next day Jess texted him, checking that he hadn’t forgotten or taken a hunt clear across the country or just stayed in a motel for the night—any number of things Dean had half a mind to actually do.

Our couch gets lonely, she’d said. You can’t just ask a girl on a date and then stand her up.

Dean remembers laughing and what he had replied. Tell her I’ll be there at 10 tomorrow.

He thinks it might have become a thing he and Jess do, if he were the kind of person who had things, and it feels nice just to know people are thinking of him.

The apartment smells delicious when he gets there, warm and inviting. They both greet him when he gets there, Sam with a hug and Jess with more orders.

“Bring me the tortillas,” she calls from the kitchen, “and grab yourself a beer out of the fridge.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Dean says, throwing his duffel on the couch.

They eat around the table and it’s not the swapping of stories or the smiles or even the beer that gets to Dean but how easy it is, how much he’s always wanted but never hoped to have something exactly like this. This is fleeting, Dean reminds himself, and vows to set his alarm for an hour earlier. He won’t let himself take a job west of the Mississippi for a few months.

As planned, Dean is the first one up the next morning and it should be easier to leave like this, but he’s moving a little slow, so he puts a pot of coffee on, enough for three. He’s drinking his first cup when Jess walks in. She stares at him, clad only in a pair of Sam’s boxers and a tiny t-shirt, and Dean averts his eyes. Dean has seen quite a few of Jess’s tactics over the last couple of months, but this is a new one. He’s more than a little afraid of what’s coming.

“I need you to train me,” she says, sitting down in front of him, and he’s shaking his head before she’s even finished talking.

“No way.”

She watches him, sizing him up. “What do you think? I’m gonna go looking for hunts?”

“You don’t understand what you’re asking, Jess.”

Her eyes narrow. “I’m so tired of being told I don’t understand.”

“Sam would kill me. This isn’t what he wants for you.”

She reaches her hand across the table and grabs his wrist. “What about what I want?”

Dean doesn’t have an answer to that. “I don’t think I can, Jess.”

“I need to do this. I want to be ready, whatever happens. I need to be able to protect myself.”

Dean looks away. “Talking to Sam again…I can’t.”

“I need to be able to protect my family, Dean.” She’s still staring him down, unwilling to look away. “Please.”

Her plea resonates, leaving Dean feeling oddly exposed. He sighs. “You’re explaining this to him when he finds out. And believe me, he’s gonna find out.”

Jess squeezes his forearm and Dean can read her gratitude in her eyes for a minute before her gaze turns mischievous. “We still have a few hours until Sam’s alarm goes off. Wanna go now?”

Dean shrugs. “You know someplace we can shoot?”

Jess is an eager student, patient when Dean needs it and not afraid to ask for help. She’s completely unlike Sam in that way. Dean teaches her how to clean the gun first not only because gun care is important, but because he’s a big believer in putting pieces together to make sense of the whole. He explains about filling shotgun shells with salt and feels warmth in his chest when Jess approves of his ingenuity. He assures himself that Jess has a point, that self-defense is important, and what’s one more thing between them? Dean promises to make up a schedule for them, just the basics.

Jess is a fast learner. She’s thin but solid, and she’s tall, too, both of which give her advantage in overcoming recoil. Her aim could use some work, but practice is all it’s going to take, and he can’t stop himself from coming back even though he outstrips his usefulness a little more each time. He tells Sam it’s just for a place to crash and tells himself it’s just to make sure Sam and Jess are safe. Dean can’t stay away, not from Sam and not now, not when he feels like he’s finally doing some good. The trail on Dad gets colder every day, but Dean is finally doing something to help. If things come to a head—and they will, soon, Dean can feel it in his bones—they’ll all be ready for it when they do.

The day he plans to work on hand-to-hand combat, Dean watches as Jess comes downstairs wearing all black, from her leather pants to her tank top, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She looks like every teenage boy’s dream, everything Dean always thought he wanted, but he can’t help but miss her jeans and printed shirts, her hair soft and inviting around her face.

Dean takes her outside and teaches her some stances, but when it comes time to put them into practice, he’s unsure of how to proceed. Jess solves that for him though, kicking her leg high in the air and knocking the gun right out of his hands before he can react. Dean sputters and raises an eyebrow, inviting her explanation.

“I was too tall for ballet,” Jess says, shrugging. “I took karate until I was 16.”

Even as he laughs, knows just how fucked he really is.

*

It’s dark when Dean and Jess get home, but Sam—Sam who’s supposed to be at work—is waiting for them when they walk in.

“Hi,” Dean says cautiously.

“Is there something you want to say to me?” Sam asks. Jess walks over to sit on the arm of his chair, leaving Dean alone.

“I, um, I—“ It’s not the promising start he was hoping for.

Sam raises his eyebrows.

“I’ve, uh, been teaching Jess how to defend herself,” Dean says, steeling himself. “She asked me and I thought it was important for her to be able to protect herself.”

“I knew,” Sam admits. “I realized it a few weeks ago.”

“What?” Dean says, hearing Jess ask the same thing a moment later. Jess gives Dean a flash of a smile and it comforts him. He exhales the breath he didn’t know he was holding and turns back to Sam. “What was this then? Some kind of test?” If it was, he knows he’s failed.

Jess shakes her head, looking apologetic, as if she can read his thoughts.

“It wasn’t a test,” Sam says, crossing the room to stand in front of Dean.

“I don’t get it,” Dean replies, afraid of what it means. “Why’d you let me do this?”

“You thought she was important enough, Dean.”

Dean glares. “Of course—,” he starts, but he gets no further before Sam cuts him off.

“I couldn’t teach her,” Sam says, one hand cupped around Dean’s neck. “It had to be you. You taught me everything I know.”

Dean looks away. “I had help.”

“It was you, Dean.”

Sam leans in and they’re kissing, no period of adjustment, just lips and teeth and the wet, wet heat of Sam’s mouth.

“Missed this,” Sam says as Dean feels every word against his lips. “Missed you.”

Sam extends an arm to Jess, motions for her to join him—join them. She steps in between them, facing Dean, and he barely has to lean down at all before their lips meet. Her kiss is softer, slower, like she never had to rush before Dad got home. Dean takes all his cues from Jess, lets her set the pace, opening his mouth when her tongue traces his bottom lip. Sam’s hands come up between them, pushing under Jess’s shirt and lifting Dean’s as he goes, skin-to-skin.

Jess breaks the kiss, gasping, and Dean watches Sam’s teeth against her neck. “We should, ah, we should take this inside,” she says.

Sam hums his agreement, nails scraping against Dean’s stomach and making him shiver before pulling away. Sam leads the charge to the bedroom, stripping his shirt off as goes, while Dean stands in the doorway, taking it all in. He watches the way Jess’s back hits the mattress and the way Sam follows her down, the way they fit together effortlessly and the way neither Sam nor Jess can take their eyes off him.

“Come,” Jess says, eyes dark and wide, and Dean only hesitates long enough to etch the moment into his mind before doing as he’s asked.

*

When Dean wakes up, he knows exactly where he is, can tell whose hand is lying against the skin under his bellybutton and whose foot is pressed against his calf. He turns his face further into the pillow and breathes, all apple shampoo and a smell he knows as well as his own. He lets himself stay for just a minute—counts every second of his allotted sixty before carefully lifting Jess’s arm and crawling out of bed.

He feels like he’s doing something wrong, but they know he has to leave and he’ll let a phone call from Sam determine how quickly—if at all, a part of him can’t help but think—he comes back. His clothes are scattered around their room and he remembers the laundry he left in the dryer after his last session with Jess. Dean folds his clothes methodically and if he’s maybe taking more time than he needs, there aren’t any witnesses to call him on it. He finds Jess’s jeans and some of Sam’s shirts and he stops, realizes that he recognizes them all.

“Come back to bed, Dean,” he hears. He drops the shirt he was holding, caught, and turns to see Jess standing against the doorframe. She has a sheet wrapped around her body—something Dean didn’t realize people actually did outside of movies—and one of her eyes is still closed with sleep, but she’s smiling softly as she looks at him.

“I should go,” he says, feeling his face warm.

Jess tilts her head, her hair falling over one shoulder, and Dean wants to run his fingers through it, grab tight and never let go. Jess smiles again—more indulgent this time, like she knows what he’s thinking, and she probably does, probably knows exactly what she’s doing and what it’s doing to him.

“You should come back to bed.”

“I’ll be back,” he protests, but he doesn’t sound certain at all, feeling the weight of the proverbial morning after in ways he’s never had to before.

“I know,” Jess says, but she does sound sure, comes up behind him to press a kiss to his nape, grabbing his hands. “You have to go, but you’ll be back, and right now, you’re coming back to bed.”

Dean closes his eyes and nods, her lips still against his skin, and picks up the button-down of Sam’s he dropped earlier. She pads out of the room without looking back, giving him the benefit of the doubt, and Dean follows, drapes Sam’s shirt over her shoulders when he catches up to her.

“The neighbors can see you,” he says, biting his lower lip.

Jess turns and shoots him a smile, says, “Do I look like a girl who cares what the neighbors think?” and he watches her walk to the end of the hall before shaking his head and following.