Loose Ends

A/N: Happy Sammy's Birthday! This story was originally published in Rooftop Confessions #6.

by Swellison

Sam Winchester rolled his shoulders, substituting that bit of activity for moving his legs, tucked under—honestly it felt more like into—the Impala's passenger side dashboard. At times like this he missed Jess's bright blue PT Cruiser, or at least the Cruiser's bucket seats that allowed him to push his seat back to practically the backseat and blissfully stretch his legs. Thoughts of the Cruiser inevitably led to Jess... Sam thumped his head against the passenger window, knocking his mindset back to the present.

He stared at the highway in front, spotlighted by the Impala's headlights as the car rolled along I-79. Sam caught the wording on a small green destination sign, "Erie 21 mi" as they advanced northward. Wisconsin had been unseasonably warm—Dean would've said freakishly warm. Did Peter's supernatural activities at the lake have something to do with that? Pennsylvania was firmly settled into early December winter, the highway cleared and drivable, the ground hidden beneath a half-foot of snow. He glanced from the white-covered roadside shoulder to Dean, in his familiar position behind the wheel, attention seemingly absorbed by his driving. Sam knew that if he coughed or sneezed, Dean's head would immediately swivel in his direction and he'd hear, "Are you all right, Sammy?" But Sam wasn't the one who'd drowned out Dean's cassette tapes with the frequent hacking of an oncoming cold; that had been Dean. Not that his stoic brother would admit to being sick, especially nothing as girly as a cold.

True, Sam and Dean had both dived into chilly Lake Manitoc to save Lucas, and they'd emerged equally drenched. After the dramatic rescue, Dean had focused his attention on Lucas and Sam, making sure they'd been wrapped in blankets and sipping hot cocoa before he'd gratefully accepted a blanket for himself from Andrea. Sam had gone along with Dean's fussing, used to his big brother's over-protectiveness. In hindsight, he should've paid more attention to Dean, insisted that Dean look after himself, too. Just Dean being Dean.

But Dean had surprised Sam during their just-completed hunt in Wisconsin. His brother's quick and firm two-way attachment to Lucas was a case in point. Sure, Sam could see Lucas glomming onto Dean; he remembered how safe it felt being looked after by the pint-sized version of his big brother, let alone the adult. Dean must have appeared downright awesome to a scared kid like Lucas. And Dean had genuinely liked Lucas, too, even confessing to Lucas things he'd never told Sam about Mom. Sam recalled standing stock-still in the doorway to Lucas' bedroom, listening to Dean's earnest words.

"Hey, when I was your age, I saw something really bad happen to my mom, and I was scared, too. I didn't feel like talking, just like you. But see, my mom, I know she wanted me to be brave. I think about that every day, and I do my best to be brave. And maybe your dad wants you to be brave, too."

Dean's words had shocked Sam, because until then, he'd never even considered the idea that Dean worked at being brave; being brave was just part of the package that was his big brother. Dean was a doer, a fixer, who embraced Yoda's philosophy: "There is no try. DO—or do not." Part of that was due to their upbringing.

"Dean, clean my guns, I didn't have time to last night."

"Yes, sir, right away."

"Drop and give me twenty!"

"Yes, sir!"

"I want you to go over sidekicks and blocking with Sammy, he's not doing it right. You've got plenty of time to practice before dinner."

"Yes, sir. I'll go get him."

"Dean, I'll be back on Tuesday. Look after Sammy and no breaking curfew, you hear me?"

"Yes, sir. Of course I will, Dad. Do you have food for the road?"

When he was younger, Sam had thought Dean was invincible, a superhero, almost. Then, sometime in his early teens—maybe after Sam had faced down Dirk the Jerk at Truman High—he realized that Dean wasn't really all that different from himself. They lived a freakish, lonely life. Trouble was, at fourteen Sam was beginning to detest that life, while Dean loved it; soaked it up like a sponge. Or at least he'd always given Sam that impression. . .But maybe that was a false impression and he didn't know Dean as well as he thought . . .

Sam was suddenly acutely aware of the four years he'd spent away from Dean, realizing that in the intervening years while he'd grown from a teenager to a man, Dean had changed, too. The thought was mildly unsettling, because Dean had been the one constant in Sam's upside-down and sideways life.

Dean coughed, breaking into Sam's thoughts. His coughs and sneezes had started out sounding muffled, but they had begun bursting out more and more frequently as the hours accumulated.

Sam knew he couldn't get Dean to take any cough medicine while he was driving, even the non-drowsy stuff would be a no-go. Therefore, he had to get Dean out from behind the wheel. "What say we stop in Erie?"

Dean looked him up and down. "You tired, Sammy?"

"A little. It's been a long day."

"Wuss." Dean rolled his eyes, peering at his wristwatch. "It's not even ten. The night is still young."

"You've been driving all day, how much farther are you planning on going? We don't even have a firm destination, at the moment."

"Exactly, so why waste the money on a motel?"

"Wait a minute, you're not thinking of driving straight through the night?" Sam tossed Dean an incredulous glare.

"Why not?"

"For one thing, it sure won't help your cold—"

"I'm not sick!" Dean interrupted, loudly.

"And if you're really worried about money, we should stop someplace, scope out a bar and you can play poker."

Dean swiveled in his seat to meet Sam's eyes directly. "Now I know you're up to something, you never encourage my fundraising activities. What's going on, bro?"

"Nothing, I'm just a bit cramped here. I'm not used to—" Sam halted abruptly, but they both knew what he was going to say: "I'm not used to this, any more." From there, Sam found himself reflecting on why he was back on the road, his thoughts pinwheeling once again to Jess and the huge gaping hole in his heart that had previously been filled with her presence, smiles, laughter, teasing, wisdom, and love...

Abruptly, Dean sneezed. "We'll get a room at the next exit," he said quietly.

The Motel 6 off of I-79 was sparsely furnished, but clean. The décor consisted of off-white walls and blown-up old photographs of Erie's famous canals hung over each of the two double beds. The bedspreads were an unimaginative shade of beige that matched the motel's bathroom.

Sam shifted in the room's rickety straight back chair, trying to get comfortable while hunched over the laptop at the table. Dean was stretched out on the bed closest to the door, semi-watching the television, remote clutched in his hands. Dean had switched channels twice since reluctantly bedding down about twenty minutes earlier, grumbling that he could've kept on driving for another two, three hours, easy.

Sam snorted. Doeshe really thing I didn't notice him wincing and squirming behind the wheel as the afternoon progressed? Seriously, I'd have to be deaf to miss hearing that hacking cough—that's a helluva cold he's got. Not totally unexpected after a little bout of winter lake-diving.

Not to mention Dean was probably still feeling the effects of the wendigo's attack, because no one bounced back overnight from almost being wendigo chow. How out of practice does Dean think I am, anyway? Sure, he'd only been back hunting since he'd left Palo Alto and...Sam's anger collapsed, dipping towards the barely contained grief that could pop up at a single thought of California or Jess or home...

Shaking his head to clear it, Sam turned his attention to his brother. Words from the television sounded loud enough for him to identify Dean's TV fare as a JAG rerun. Kind of surprising, that Dean would be watching that legal drama. On the other hand, maybe not. Sam could see where the military emphasis on structure and doing things by the book would appeal to his brother. Besides, most episodes had a Marine in them. Sam scowled. Further evidence of Dad's long arm reaching out and influencing Dean's choices, even in such minutiae as television programs.

Sam refocused on the laptop, glancing at his home page's tagged mailbox. He clicked on the mail icon and stared at four new messages, all from friends at Stanford. He shot Dean a glance from beneath his lanky bangs, checking. He saw Dean fiddle with the remote, muting the television.

"Researchin' this late at night?" Dean asked.

Sam didn't want to mention his friends' emails and subject himself to Dean's "the hunting life is a lonely life" spiel. "Looking for traces of Dad." The lie sprang easily to his lips. Once a Winchester...

Dean sighed. "You know Dad, Sammy. He's a regular Houdini when he doesn't wanna be found. Not by whatever's chasing him—and not by us, either."

"Why not? Why can't he just pick up a freakin' phone and call us, tell us where he is like any normal human being would?" Sam completely forgot that he'd brought up the subject of looking for Dad as a diversion.

"He's a Winchester." Sam heard Dean's unspoken preface: "He's not normal." Dean then stuck up for Dad, as usual. "He's got his reasons, Sammy."

"Don't give me that 'need to know' crap," Sam snapped. "I've had it—"

Dean's harsh hacking cut him off. He sounded like he was coughing up a lung.

Sam was suddenly thrust back into yesterday, and the cold water of Lake Manitoc. He recalled his desperate effort, searching underwater as long as he could before coming up for air, empty-handed. He remembered staring bleakly at the still water surrounding him for several agonizing seconds before Dean resurfaced, gasping, with Lucas grasped tightly to his chest. Sam snapped back to the present. He and his big brother were settled into a third-class motel room, on the hunt again, on the road again. All he really wanted to do was to get Dean to fall asleep, let the healing process begin. Medication would certainly help that along.

Sam rose from the table and stepped into the bathroom. He emerged shortly, crossing over to Dean, handing him two cold capsules and a glass of water. "Take this—it'll help your cold."

"I'm not sick," Dean protested automatically.

Sam glared until Dean reluctantly swallowed the pills and drank some water. Then he took the remote from Dean's hand and turned off the television.

"Hey, I was watching that!" Dean pouted, sounding a dozen years younger than his present age.

"It's a rerun, Dean. I'm sure you've seen it before. Now, get some sleep and you'll feel better in the morning."

"I've forgotten what a nag you are, Samantha," Dean grumbled into his pillow as he settled deeper under the covers.

"Night, Dean." When he heard Dean's labored breathing even out into sleep, he quietly resumed his seat, bringing the laptop out of hibernation. He read the first email and started to reply. "Hi Becky, I'm on a road trip with my brother..."

*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*

Dean blinked awake, automatically scanning the motel room for anything amiss. His reconnoitering ended with the alarm clock, the LCD displaying 7:13. Early for him but late for—he glanced past the clock, saw Sam slouched on the other bed, back against the headboard, open laptop resting on the blanket covering his chest. Dean rose quietly and bent over Sam, gently removing the laptop. He inadvertently pressed a key while holding the computer, activating its monitor. Sam had been composing an email when he fell asleep. A cursory glance showed several instances of Jess's name. Dean quit skimming the message, obviously meant for one of Sam's Stanford buddies. Sam never talked to him about Jessica—even when they'd been in Jericho, on what was supposed to have been a weekend expedition to find Dad, Sam had kept the conversation away from his life at school.

Dean set the laptop at the foot of his own bed and then turned back to Sam. At least the kid was under the covers, not on top of them, although crashing in front of the computer was not the best way for Sammy to catch his zzz's. Removing the second pillow that was propping Sam up, Dean gently pulled back the covers and nudged his little brother into lying flat on the bed, Sam not waking up past a murmured sigh as he was resituated.

Since he was awake, Dean walked into the bathroom, took care of business and swallowed a couple of cold capsules—no need for Sammy to know about that—then returned to his own bed. Sam's rest was usually curtailed by nightmares and Dean was determined to let Sam sleep as long as possible, already writing off today as a stay-in-the-motel day. Unwilling to risk waking Sam up by watching TV or any other activity, Dean crept back to bed and fell quickly asleep. Long ago, he had learned that stockpiling sleep was part of a hunter's life.

"NOOOO!" Sam's scream woke Dean some time later.

Dean sprang out of bed. "Sam!"

Sam writhed on his back on the bed, kicking legs exposing his still-clothed body as the covers went flying. "Jess!"

"Sam." Dean stood in the gap between their beds, noting that Sam's eyes were closed as he reached towards his brother, repeating, "Sam!"

"No, no!" Sam pushed off the bed, his flailing arms first colliding with Dean, then wrapping around him. Sam strained against Dean, head tilted towards the ceiling. "No! Jess! No!"

Dean realized with sickening certainty what Sam's nightmare was about; they were unwittingly reenacting the tail end of it. He firmly extricated himself from Sam's grasp and forcefully pushed him down flat on the bed.

"Jess! No!"

Dean really didn't want to slap Sam, but he had to break through his brother's nightmare, now. Plan B. He grabbed Sam's upper arm and pinched, hard.

"Owww!" Sam's yelp was loud, but it wasn't the desperate screaming it had been seconds ago. Dean watched as Sam's eyes popped open, surprised. Sam rubbed his arm and Dean could tell hewas back in the here-and-now when he growled, "Did you just pinch me?"

"I had to—" Dean started to say, when Sam reached out and swatted him.

"Jerk."

Dean swallowed his automatic 'bitch', not allowing himself to be sidetracked. He sat on the edge of Sam's bed as Sam pulled himself into a sitting position. "You were having a nightmare. I woke up and you were screaming 'No!' and 'Jess!' I couldn't wake you up until I pinched you."

"Oh." Sam's eyes darted sideways. " Sorry about that," he mumbled.

"You don't have to apologize, bro." Dean sighed. "It's just—you've been having these nightmares for a while now, ever since . . . Don't ya think it's time you talked about it?"

"I—I can't, Dean." Sam swallowed. "Not yet."

"Okay, but no more staying up all night to avoid nightmares—"

"I wasn't—"

Dean cut off Sam's words. "If you wanna wear yourself out so you fall into bed and don't dream, I've got just the ticket: training."

"Training?" Sam echoed, face incredulous.

"Yeah. We can start today, an easy, brisk five-mile run down the highway. You gotta admit you're a little rusty, Sammy."

"Rusty? I'll give you rusty." Sam unexpectedly launched himself towards Dean, long arms encircling Dean's torso as he twisted and yanked them both sideways towards the other, unoccupied side of his double bed. Dean felt Sam's hands let go of his tee shirt as he continued to roll past the edge of the bed, hitting the floor with a thud.

He jumped to his feet. "Sam—"

Sam tumbled across his bed and rose fluidly to his feet, facing Dean from the other side of the bed. "You ready for round two?" he challenged.

"Easy, Tiger. Maybe I was a little hasty with that rusty comment," Dean placated, taking two steps away from the bed. "I'm gonna grab a quick shower and then go out and get us some breakfa—" his eyes darted to the clock –"lunch."

*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*SPN*