Title: This is How Normal Works
By: nixa_jane
Pairing: gen
Rating: PG-13
Summary: He doesn't miss hunting. He doesn't even miss John, most of the time, but there's this deep phantom pain where Dean used to be, hovering in the empty air beside him.

The dorm room is about the size of a motel room, without the complementary cable or even a decent size TV. He's in this alone now, and the other bed is empty, covered in shadows that don't move and he thinks that maybe, he might sleep better if he'd been stuck with some obnoxious roommate, no matter how many times he's been told how lucky he is to have gotten a room to himself.

It's not the dark Sam's afraid of. He's used to the dark, even if it's been interrupted by slants of neon vacancy signs for most of his life. He doesn't need a knife under his pillow like--

Well, he just doesn't.

Still, he gets up sometime before midnight, and salts the door, and then the window. He still doesn't feel safe. It's not the dark, though, that scares him.

It's the empty bed on the other side of the room.

He makes friends easy. Always has. Dean could get half the girls in a town to fall in love with him the first two days, but chances were they'd hate him before they were quite ready to move on, and Sam was different. Sam made actual friends, people he liked talking with, studying with, and leaving always felt like ripping a Band-Aid off an unhealed wound.

Dean would just lean back in the passenger seat with his sunglasses on, and say thank god they were heading somewhere new. He'd just fall in love all over again with the next place and forget it just as soon.

It's different here than it was before. He's not going to be moving on before the end of the semester, he's not moving on at all, and his name never changes anymore. Sam Winchester, he always says when asked, every single time.

He's just starting to get caught up in this new world when the phone rings, and Sam doesn't know how he got the number; he doesn't ask. They never talk about anything of any real importance, and that's the only reason Sam doesn't hang up.

These little interruptions are comforting at first. John may have gone from two sons to one because of one screaming match too many but Dean wasn't about to write off a brother, not for something as trivial as college, if for anything at all, and he misses Dean's voice, anyway, smug and teasing as it always is, when he says things like, "how's California?" or "do the girls really walk around in bikini tops and short shorts?" or "learned to surf yet?"

Sam can never stop the slow fond smile, and he always shakes his head even though he isn't there to see it, always asks, every time, "what's wrong, Dean?" or "what have you gotten yourself into now?" or "what have you done?" because he's learned that Dean only calls when he's desperate for distraction, which probably means bed-ridden, even if that's something Sam would rather not think about.

"Why does something have to be wrong?" Dean asks, mock-innocence and something else at the edge of it, like he's stalling for time, and building a lie. "I just tracked down a werewolf. A werewolf, man. Come on, we love those."

"Since when?" Sam asks wryly.

"Don't you remember that time in Ohio?" Dean asks him incredulously. "With that hairy bastard freak hanging out in the biker bar? Those were good times, Sammy."

"It dislocated your shoulder," Sam says wearily. "And broke your leg."

"Yeah, but then I shot it," Dean says, like the end is all that matters, and not the bruises it takes to get there.

"I'm not going hunting with you," Sam says. "So don't even ask."

"Yeah, okay," Dean says. "You don't know what you're missing, though. Exams, killing things, killing things, exams. Jesus. Where the hell did we go wrong with you? You're supposed to be a Winchester."

Sam rolls his eyes. "Goodbye, Dean," he says, and hangs up the phone.

The first time Dean calls for reasons other than annoying him, he's on his first date with Jessica, and she's across from him, smiling that sweet smile as she traces her finger along an empty wine glass.

He almost doesn't answer it, doesn't want to ruin this perfect moment, but there's a feeling of unease tingling at the back of his neck, and he forces himself to look away from the soft focus of Jess's gaze and lift the cell phone.

"Sammy?" It's Dean's voice, but it's breathless and fading, and he starts talking about a succubus, and their goddamn wiles, and oh, yeah, how's California again?

"Where are you?" Sam asks, his tone is eerie and calm and as terrified as it ever gets, and he barely notices the way Jess stops smiling at him, and leans forward intently instead. "Where are you, Dean?"

"Illis Motel," Dean says, "Right outside of Tahoe. I don't think there's any point of you coming, Sam, but if you could try and call Dad, I couldn't get through, and I know you're not talking to him but--"

"I'm coming," Sam says. "I'm coming right now. Don't worry."

He doesn't even realize, until much much later, that he left the restaurant without even saying goodbye to the girl he thought he could marry.

It takes almost two days to get there, but it would have been longer if he hadn't hotwired that car he found in the parking lot of a Seven Eleven eighty miles outside Palo Alto. He'll regret it and worry about it later, but not now, now he couldn't care less, because the only thing that matters is getting where he's going.

He finds Dean in the bathroom of the dark room, knees to his chest, head down, painted in the corner by a half circle of salt. He kneels in front of him and lifts his head, worried about the glazed look in his eyes. "It's still here," Dean says. "You shouldn't have come."

Sam sees it flicker in the mirror then, a beautiful woman with a smile like the devil and faded skin, too pale to be anything living.

It's been nearly two years now, but a lifetime wouldn't be enough to forget his particular childhood, and his hand wraps around the machete at Dean's feet. He takes her head off as he stands, then salts and burns her, right on the motel floor. They'll have to run now, find another motel in another town, but Sam isn't thinking that far ahead.

Dean stands shakily, scratches down his sides, looking as pale as she had, when he saw her reflection in the mirror.

"Jesus, Dean, what the hell happened?" he asks, and Dean flinches like he's been hit.

This brings it all back. It was hard to remember, while he was talking to Dean on the phone all those times, what he'd been so desperate to get away from. It wasn't that he wanted to outrun Dean, or even John, but this. This aftermath that they were so used to, those quiet times after escaping death, those showers to wash off the blood and god knows what else.

Those times of watching Dean almost die, and almost die, and Dean stepping in front of him and Dean bleeding and Dean--

"You didn't have to come," Dean says. "I had it under control. I wasn't quite...myself when I called you, but I would have gotten--"

"What are you even doing on a hunt alone?" Sam can't keep the accusation out of his voice. This isn't Dean's fault, he reminds himself. It's not Dean's fault these things are real.

"I wasn't," Dean says, and he looks hurt. "I was...taking time off."

"You never take time off," Sam says.

Dean glares up at him. "Yeah, well, I did, and I let my guard down when I shouldn't have. I don't need a lecture from you, of all people--"

"I was on a date, you know," Sam says tightly. "When you called. Dropped everything to come here, so I think I can--"

"So sorry to have ruined your date by nearly having the life sucked out of me, Sammy. It won't happen again," Dean says quickly, and with a smile, and Sam feels a little sick, because those are the kinds of defenses Dean uses on everyone but him. He's never used that smile on him.

And it hits him then that they have changed. No longer finishing each other's sentences so much as cutting each other off, and he feels more apart from Dean standing two feet from him than he has the last two years, sharing pointless conversations on the phone.

Sam calls one of his friends and tells him he's had a family emergency, asks if he could explain to his teachers, get his work, and he'll be back next week, for sure. Dean keeps telling him to just go, already, just go, but Dean can't even walk across the room without falling to his knees, and John still isn't answering his phone.

"I don't want him to know about this anyway," Dean says softly, and Sam can understand that. John would see this as weakness, where for Sam, it just leaves him terrified.

He forgets sometimes that just because he's stopped hunting these things doesn't mean Dean has too. "Dean, look, just promise me that you're--"

"What, going to be more careful?" Dean asks snidely. "Isn't that my line?"

"I'm not the one that decided to have a one-night stand with a succubus," Sam snaps.

"Just get out," Dean says, his voice is quiet but the words are hard, and Sam thinks he actually means them this time.

Sam sighs. "Look, if you're hurt, then you can always call me, Dean, and I'll get to you as fast as I can, you know that, but I'm done hunting, I don't want to keep getting dragged into this--"

"Don't worry," Dean says, using the same tone John had when he said 'don't come back.' "I won't call anymore. Maybe that'll make it easier for you to forget about us. Because that's what you want, right?"


But Dean is just shaking his head, and then he's on his feet, ushering Sam to the door with more strength than he should have. "Just go," he says, and he says it like what he really means is go before I ask you to stay, because they both know he won't. He can't.

And then he slams the door in his face, and the hanging plastic nine rocks loose and flips, stopping as a six; but Dean keeps his promise, and doesn't call.

Not even when Sam finally realizes he wants him to.

Near the end of his third year, he and Jessica decide to get a place together, off campus. It's the first real home he's ever had, if you don't count the first six months of his life, or the Impala.

Jess handles the decorating. She's not overly concerned with it, but she has a kind of natural grace when it comes to finding the right place to put things, and Sam isn't used to having things let alone having the skill to figure out where to put them.

She lines up a series of framed photos on the mantle. Her parents. Her grandparents. Aunts and uncles and cousins and friends, and she saves spaces for him. "So you can put your pictures up," she tells him.

He doesn't miss the curiosity in her voice. She wants to see them. He can't even remember if he's mentioned their names.

He finds it somewhere, with it's chipped frame and plastic cover instead of glass, and places it next to all of hers, because this is what normal people do, put their families on display, smiling and happy and full of perfect memories--he doesn't know them, of course, this version of his parents, but sharing it feels strangely like an accomplishment anyway.

In his wallet there is a picture of him and Dean, frayed around the edges with a winding fold down the middle, but that he keeps where it is. That picture would give too much of himself away to whoever saw it, so he hides it away, a secret part of himself.

Dean would understand that, he knows. Dean hid the best parts of himself too.

Jess's arms wrap around his neck and she leans into him. "Are those your parents?" she asks.

"Yeah," Sam says, but the word feels odd in his mouth, the way lies always used to. "She died when I was a baby. The man in the picture died with her."

"I'm sorry," Jess says softly, and with understanding, like something has clicked into place. "I can't imagine how awful it must have been to lose both your parents so young--"

"John Winchester is still alive," he interrupts. "I'm pretty sure nothing can kill him."

She frowns at him, looking caught between concern and irritation. "Sam--"

"He'll just never smile like that again," Sam says, and pulls his eyes from the picture. "I never knew either of those people. Not really."

Jess suspects he was abused as a child.

It would explain a lot. All of his many scars, some of them nearly as old as him, obviously worn and grown into, carried nearly all of his life. There's a lot of them, Sam knows, not as many as Dean's got, not close to as many as his father, but they're there, even if most of them are faint, and there's way too many for someone his age, too many for anyone, really, and he knows she's curious.

She never says it outright, never asks or pushes. He supposes she thinks he'll come clean when he's ready, and he wonders what she'll do when she realizes he has no intention of letting her know that part of himself. He just lets her continue to draw her own conclusions. He lets her examine that lone photo on the mantle with that little frown she gets, like she's trying to see through the picture to the people it held.

She finds the picture of Dean and him, eventually, because she asked him if he had twenty dollars and he laughingly told her to get it herself, forgetting what he'd hidden there.

She sits beside him and watches him for a minute before she holds it up and says, "Who's this?"

He can see all the questions she never asks burning in her eyes now, all the slack she's cut him and let him avoid until now, and he knows he has to give her something; and it seems wrong, anyway, that the two most important people to him don't even know the other exists. "My brother," he says. "Dean."

She looks back at the picture. "You look happy," she says.

He remembers that day. He'd just finished up his junior year, and Dean had put him in a headlock and snapped a picture with his free hand. They'd both been laughing too hard to think the picture would come out, but by some odd miracle it had. "I was."

"He looks a lot like your mother, doesn't he?" she asks, after a moment. "They have the same eyes."

Sam swallows. "Never really noticed before," he says, and takes the picture from her hands. "But yeah, I guess a little."

Jess sighs when he volunteers no further information, and he wants to tell her that it's better this way, that she doesn't want to know. She wouldn't understand, though. She'll say 'I'll understand' and 'you can tell me anything' until the moment he tells her, and then she'll wonder who she's been living with all this time.

Because people don't really want to know the truth. They don't want to know what's out there. Sam knows they don't, because most of the time he wishes he didn't know it himself.

It's why when he sees it in his dreams, his beautiful Jess on the ceiling, he pretends it doesn't mean anything, and just goes right back to sleep.