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Title: The T-Shirt
Summary: AU Stanford era. It's been a long time since Dean's seen Sam, and now they're meeting at 3am on a back road in-the-middle-of-nowhere California.

Rating: PG13
Genre/Spoilers: Dean and Sam (gen). None.
Warnings: This isn't a happy fic Deathfic, sadfic, AU Stanford era
Word Count: 1700+
Disclaimer: I don't own Supernatural that privilege belongs to CW, Kripke and Co, I'm simply borrowing them for a while. I'm not making a profit, this is just for fun and all the standard disclaimers apply.
A/N: I wrote this a few months back for a prompt left by [ profile] kettle_o_fish for the Happy Birthday, Sammy! challenge at [ profile] ohsam, and then got distracted and forgot about it. Please take note of the warnings, this isn't a happy fic. A huge thank you to my wonderful beta [ profile] harrigan for her help and encouragement. I've tinkered so all mistakes are mine.

The T-Shirt

“I've been waiting for you.”

It's the first time Dean's heard Sam's voice since he left for Stanford well over a year ago. Well, maybe there were one or two tinny voice mail messages, and maybe Dean listened to them before pressing delete. But that was back then; when Sam was supposed to move forward, and Dean couldn't drag him back.

“Well, you picked a real shitty way of getting me here.” It's bitter, and Dean's anger is burning hell-fire hot. He's fisting his hands, knuckles cracking like buckshot and just as loud on this deserted back road.

“You wanna walk?” Sam says it in a way that's so casual, like it's normal to meet your brother at 3 am on the side of a road in-the-middle-of-nowhere California.

Dean nods, not really trusting his voice to say the right things. They follow the ram-rod straight road, tall trees stretching their branches like finger tips into the pitch-black night sky which is dotted with stars and constellations that Sam would probably know the names of, but Dean's not in the mood to ask.

The flashlight in his hand flickers and he smacks it hard against the palm of his hand. They're silent for a long time, and it's uncomfortable but familiar. A shiver sprints down Dean’s spine; he should have brought his jacket.

“I, uh, I don't really know what to say to you, Dean.”

Dean huffs, shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders like a petulant little kid, but he feels that he has the right to be a little pissed off right now. He kicks a small stone and watches it skitter across the tarmac until it's out of sight. “You think I do?”

There's a pause, and when he looks at Sam his brother’s eyes are huge and wounded, as if Dean just ripped his heart out or something.

“My phone was destroyed and there was no way to get in touch with you. Jess tried, I know she tried. She talked to everybody on campus, asking questions about you, if they had a contact number, anything. She talked to the admissions department, but I didn't list any family, she put out feelers in the local newspapers and online. But nothing.”

Jess. The girlfriend. Dean had almost forgotten about her.

Sam's voice is shaking and he stops talking, eyes falling to the ground. “Dean, I watched her cry about it with our friends. I saw it all.”

His hands are pulling nervously at his mouth in a way that's just purely Sam; and for a moment it feels like they've never been separated, like Sam never left, and Dean hasn't missed out on so much of his brother's life.

“So Jess knows about me, but not about what we do? Jesus, Sam, how many lies have you been spinning to that girl?” The words are clipped and jagged, razor sharp and ready to wound, and he watches as Sam winces, feels that split second of hot satisfaction before it all comes crashes down.

Sam doesn't answer, but he doesn't need too. Sam went to Stanford because he wanted a new and normal life, which meant leaving behind his old one, locking it all away along with everyone in it. Even his own damned brother.

“Do you know what happened?” Sam whispers, not looking Dean in the eye.

Of course Dean knows what happened, but for some reason he can't say it out aloud; in fact he's pretty sure he hasn't voiced it to anyone, like if he keeps it to himself it's not real. Of course he's not going to tell Sam that, just like he's not going to tell him about the dreams he has where they drive in the Impala for miles, just the two of them, criss-crossing the country; saving people, hunting things, the family business.

“I didn't even know at first, and it was like...waking up every morning and trying to piece my life together; what I did, what I said. But eventually the memories came back; of the car and the headlights, the screech of brakes, and then...well, then it was just about leaving signs for a hunter to follow.” There's a pause, and Sam steps closer. “I was hoping it would be you. I want it to be you.”

The problem is Dean doesn't want it to be him. He doesn't want to be here at all. If only he hadn't seen that damn newspaper. If only he hadn't followed those leads, and talked to the witnesses about the ghost of a tall young man seen wandering up and down the roadside asking for his brother.

It's dark, and the flashlight is still stuttering, but weirdly, Sam looks good, y'know, if you don't look too closely at the blood on his torn clothes, and how it's matted into his hair and running rivers down his neck, or the fact that every now and then he flickers like static on an old motel TV.

They're still walking along the side of the back road, the kind they used to drive as a family of three from hunt to hunt. Up ahead Dean thinks he can see evidence of the accident; broken trees, and blackened tarmac. But it doesn't feel enough; how can this be all that's left? A life ended in this very spot, and there should be a hole ripped in the tarmac, trees felled for miles and thick black smoke; an epicentre of an explosion, because that's what it feels like to Dean, and this? It's just not enough.

“It's down here.”

Sam turns around and walks down a steep rocky embankment. Dean's feet are numb and he stumbles on tree branches that claw at his clothes and draw beads of blood on his skin, following Sam like he should have done years ago. Maybe if he'd done that, if he'd picked Sam instead of Dad, come to Stanford and lived a different life, they wouldn't be here right now.

Sam stops still, looking down at a tree branch. It's a piece of black material hooked onto a branch. Dean's looks it, like if he stares long enough, and hard enough, it'll magically reverse time and undo all of this.

There's a pattern on the material, the edges of what looks like a red letter Z. That's when he realises that what's tying Sam to this world is more than just a piece of cotton.

Dean remembers the day that Sam found a Led Zepplin T-shirt in a thrift shop maybe ten years ago, his proud face beaming when he'd handed it to Dean. He'd worn that damn shirt nearly everyday until the cotton got stretched out, and Dad told him to throw it. But even then he kept it hidden in the bottom of his duffle.

He looks down and sees where Sam's stretched-out black T-shirt is torn, can see a few more of those red letters underneath the flannel shirt he's wearing. He'd always wondered where that T-shirt had gone when Sam left for Stanford.

“You're a thief, you know that?”

His voice is shaking, and it feels like he's not really here, as if a part of him is floating away, and maybe it is, and he'll always feel like half of a whole person.

“Promise me you'll go and see Jess; that when this is over, you'll go straight to her.”

Sam sounds so sure and sincere, like Jess will fix everything that's broken. Maybe she will, maybe that's what she does; fixes broken things. But what if Dean doesn't want her to? What if there's a part of him that wants to carry the pain he's trying to bury with him forever? Because really, what else does he have?

He doesn't remember pulling out the lighter from his pocket, doesn't remember walking closer to the tree, but he does feel rough bark cutting into the palm of his hand. He thinks about how after all these months, after all the weather and obstacles in its way, that little bit of material found its way onto that branch and stayed there, like it was waiting for Dean to find it.

“You're the best brother, Dean. I want you to know that; that I never stopped thinking about you, that I talked about you. But Jess will tell you that. She'll tell you everything.”

Dean flicks the flint on the lighter, the flame dancing in the breeze, and then he looks at Sam; he sees his pain-in–the-ass little brother who bitched and generally made his life a million times harder, but also a million times brighter. Sam always made everything feel worth fighting for.

“I had the best big brother, and I always knew it.”

Sam's smiling a crooked smile, eyes filled with tears and words that have never needed to be spoken. Dean sees those dimples in the cheeks of a chubby one-year-old, and in a gangly teenager who left his family behind, and right now he sees them in a young man whose life was cut too short.

Sam was the better person, he was the one who was supposed to do great things, to help people, even if behind a lawyer's desk, or some shit like that.

“Goodbye, Sammy.”

The flame meets the material and it burns brightly and quickly, just like Sam. Dean doesn't blink, refuses to miss the moment that his brother leaves this world. The sun rises in the distance, and streams of soft light spill from in-between the trees and warm his icy skin; and then Sam is just gone.

Dean stands there for a long time, trying to remember everything, trying to store it all away in a safe place where he'll never forget.

He had a little brother. His name was Sam. He was far too tall, and bull-headed stubborn. He liked eating salads, and growing out his hair just to piss off their Dad. He was painfully shy around girls, but in the end he had a girl that loved him. He was wicked smart, and one day he would have saved the world.

He was the best little brother a guy could ever have.

The End

For the prompt: Sam goes to Stanford. He and Dean lose contact, especially after the big blow up that severs any ties once and for all. Through the years, Dean assumes the radio silence is intentional, that Sam has his apple pie life and finally left his real family behind. He thinks about tracking Sam down when a hunt lands him in Palo Fucking Alto.

Turns out Sam's been dead for years and that ghost that Dean's in town to handle has an awfully familiar face.

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