I Can't Trace Time

Things changed after the demon was destroyed. Some of it was expected -- the demon was gone, and its influence over their lives was fading in legion bits, both subtle and pronounced. The one Dean appreciated most was Dad hunted with them again.

Not every time, but more than half the jobs they went on brought all three of them together, and for the first time since before Sam had left, Dean felt like their family was whole again. And when it wasn't all three, it was sometimes he and Sam, and sometimes he and Dad, and sometimes -- though rarely -- Dad and Sam. They slipped into the work with an ease that Dean knew was partially forced, but at least they were all willing to make it work. Dean figured soon enough the ease would come naturally.

Other changes were less important as far as Dean was concerned. Dad inherited property from Caleb's estate. It wasn't much, just an old farmhouse on a couple of acres of unfarmable land in eastern Nebraska. They didn't exactly move in -- but it became a place to leave their bags, and a place to forward personal mail, and when Sam wasn't on a hunt with them he would be there. Every time he stopped in, Dean saw the place looking more and more hospitable.

Dean teased his brother about nesting, and Sam usually replied by throwing something at Dean's head, then making him help fix something or clean up dirt and stains from a million years ago.

Six months went by and there was another change. He and Sam were on a hunt, Dad was home in Nebraska. He'd called them that morning, letting them know he'd arrived after his own job was done, and wished them luck. One more little change, Dad answered his phone when Dean or Sam called. Dean was careful never to mention it, but after everything else it was maybe the one change he liked the most.

That night, when he and Sam got back to their motel room, Dean had reached out for his brother -- the same way he had a hundred times before, over years and miles and unnumbered rooms and side roads.

Sam slipped away from his hand without glancing back.


It was possible, he thought, that Sam was tired or distracted or -- well, no, it wasn't really possible because he couldn't remember the last time either of them had said 'no.'

Sam shrugged and looked back over his shoulder. "I don't--" He stopped and Dean could only read one thing in his brother's face. Apology.

"Don't feel like it?" Dean grinned, willing to tease his brother for the rest of his life for that one.

But Sam shook his head. "I just.. don't. OK?"

Dean frowned and stayed where he was, just inside the door, watching as Sam went to the second bed, kicking his duffel bag against it -- moving it away from the bed Dean's own bag was resting against.

The only time they didn't, anymore, was when Dad was in the next bed or the next room. "Dad's in Nebraska," Dean said, feeling stupid and confused.

There was a brief grin. "Yeah, Dean, I know. It's just -- I don't think we should anymore." Sam looked away from him, but there was no defiance or regret or anything in his face that would explain this. All Dean could see was the same hint of apology, like Sam was sorry for forgetting to order his coffee while Dean was in the bathroom.

Dean felt his jaw drop. They'd had this conversation exactly once. A week after Sam turned sixteen, he'd wanted everything that Dean had been carefully offering, but Sam had earnestly wanted to discuss everything to make sure it was OK. Dean had indulged him -- knowing that if his brother understood something he was more likely to accept what Dean could just feel. They weren't hurting anyone, they weren't creating mutant offspring, and no one who would care -- especially Dad -- had to ever know.

As Dean watched, Sam just grabbed his toiletry bag and headed for the bathroom, giving Dean a sort of muted look as he went past. But he didn't say anything else, and when Dean was in bed, lights off, Sam came back out and went silently to the second bed. Dean didn't say a word as Sam crawled under the sheets, and he saw Sam roll onto his side, back to Dean -- as though they were sleeping together and Dean could ease himself around his brother, spooning him.

Dean watched for a moment, then looked up at the ceiling, counting beheaded zombis until he fell asleep a long time later.

When they got back to Nebraska a week later, Sam announced the next change which, Dean thought, maybe explained the first one.

"I talked to one of my professors at Stanford," Sam said quietly as they all sat around the table at dinner. "I've got an interview with the law school -- they said that under the circumstances the two years I took off won't affect my chances of getting in." Sam glanced at Dad, but never looked over at Dean.

Dean watched as their dad nodded, slowly. The relief on Sam's face was obvious.

Dean said nothing.

A few days later Dad left with Sam to drive out to California, talking about the garage in Poteau that he'd noticed for sale. There wasn't much cash, but their dad said something about an old friend making him a loan. Sam had grinned wide when Dad mentioned it. They'd talked about school while Sam packed, and Sam had actually teased their dad about not knowing anything about 'new fangled cars.'

Dean just watched them go.

When Dean drove away from Dad's place, he had a map on the front seat of the car. The engine still rattled and the frame still creaked, but Dean knew his baby still had a lot of miles in her. He'd spent enough time with Dad, fixing her and removing any trace of her wounds -- healing more than the car, Dean had thought, especially when Sam had joined them. The ease of it had flowed through him until Dean had been sure that nothing else was waiting.

He gripped the steering wheel tightly, ignoring the map that was etched into his brain. Driving south through the Ozarks, Dean thought about the last time he'd come this way on his own.

He'd nearly died in these mountains, head almost lopped off by the spirit of a murdered boy. Dean had gone back after the bleeding had stopped and vanquished it, digging up what had remained of the kid's bones, half-buried at the base of a huge tree.

Despite that sort of experience, Dean had always liked the mountains. Admittedly, the ones he liked best were the ones with paved access and motels nearby. But the mornings, sitting by the edge of a crevasse with nothing but trees ahead and on either side -- Dean liked it best in early fall, when the leaves were beginning to turn but the air had only the slightest bite of chill to it.

He parked his car at a scenic turnoff, fourteen miles inside the Arkansas border. Dean stood at the edge of the road, shins against the railing, and looked. The wind was cool, tugging at his face and the collar of his jacket, and after a few minutes he heard the birds returning to their perches. There was a rustle of leaves as something ran through the underbrush, and as he breathed, he noticed the smell of wood and dirt and water.

Dean thought about the newspaper in his car. Obituaries he'd found of three dead girls over the space of seven months, officially mauled by dogs. It could be almost anything, Dean knew -- including actual dogs. But it was something to look into. There was something about the lack of dogs the authorities had found to blame, that made Dean wonder if it wasn't something else.

After a minute, Dean turned and walked back to his car and got in. South, again, and the air grew only slightly warmer as he drove.

Miles behind him, in Nebraska, sitting on the kitchen table, Dean's cell phone rang.

Dean drove.