Word Count: 15,000
Summary: Dean, rather than Sam, gets disillusioned with hunting. So he enlists.
Notes: I've been working on this fic since early July. Would you believe I watched Generation Kill for research? I seem to have gotten somewhat distracted. That said, I had to play rather fast and loose with actual events (canon and real life) to make this work. Hopefully the end result is worth it. Thank you so much to rosekay, who is the best beta a girl could ask for.
The first thing they tell the grunts right out of basic is not to play poker with Staff Sergeant Winchester, even if he smiles at you real pretty. Every time, some hotshot cowboy does it anyway and winds up bare-ass naked the next day lying in his own vomit, unable to remember how he got there or whether there’s a single dime left to his name.
This amuses Dean endlessly. He likes having a reputation.
“And that’s the baddest motherfucker around, grunts,” Cpl. Max Cooperman says to the two additional bodies they’ve added to the company just out of 29palms. He smiles, focusing hard on the ignition coil in the HumVee he’s been tooling around with. He knows the poker story is coming next. Cooperman always makes him look like the long lost deity of five-card stud.
He nods perfunctorily at the two ate up and dusty Pfcs and has to bite the inside of his cheek. He’ll wait a few days getting their measure before he bothers to learn their names. Replacements get sent home the fastest, rarely in the same shape they arrived. For now they stride heavy in their boots, shoulders thrown high because they survived Basic, but they’ll learn. Dean doesn’t ever remember feeling like that; his entire life has been a lesson in humility.
“Back of your neck’s burning, Sergeant,” the captain points out as he passes by. “Forgot your sunscreen,” he says at Dean’s questioning look. He nods at Dean’s sir and continues walking through the camp. Dean’s been standing out here for hours, tinkering with a too-large wrench and blunt fingers. The poker warning has already come up twice. Right now it’s just standing time, blazing hot sun and fuck all to do. Times like these there's nothing better than trading tall tales about how he got so good.
“Sergeant can’t actually read, played cards to fool everybody otherwise,” is one teasing claim, like Dean isn’t standing right there under the sun listening to it.
“Lost his shirt so often he just decided to be the best, and the next day he was,” Cooperman says, divorced from the replacement babies. He wants Dean to teach him, but Cooperman’s face telegraphs everything. He’ll need to get Botox first.
McCarthy, the platoon sniper, gives a face-splitting grin and says, “Fucked a pro poker player up the ass to steal his secrets.”
Dean’s never told them he learned in the dark corners of off-track roadhouses and crummy Irish pubs while his dad shot the shit and tried to soak in as much alcohol as he could. It was just something to do while he was supposed to be minding a little brother quietly reading beat-up Hardy Boy mysteries.
“Don’t front, fools,” he finally calls back, slamming the hood down. “I was just born genius.”
“Shut your fucking trap, Winchester,” Cooperman says affectionately and Dean laughs. In the west the sun is starting to set brilliant orange and scarlet. He misses the pink skies of dusk back home, even though Sammy ruined it that one time by telling him it was pollutants when they were driving on 496 back stateside. A beautiful contaminated sky.
“So, what’s the SitRep?” McCarthy asks when he turns back to them.
Dean doesn’t know. Same old, same old.
He's not sure if his father’s name got him assigned to the Seventh Marines or if the recruiting officer just saw some spark in him that Dean himself wasn’t aware of. His dad was awarded the bronze star in Lebanon. Got out just before the truck bombings in Beirut, just in time to see Sammy born. Dean remembered that when they brought Sammy home, it wasn’t just the baby that seemed new, but the father, the career soldier with the dark eyes and the gruff laugh.
Dean was glad of the placement, proud of it. He worked hard and he didn’t look back, not even when the letters from Sam stopped coming.
When the mail arrives there’s nothing for him. “Don’t you got a girl at home?” one of the babies asks.
Dean shakes his head. “I don’t stick with just one.” He revels in the ensuing catcalls and loads his weapon. Dean isn’t lying. He’s never had a real girlfriend. He had a fling with a reporter, a committed relationship of sex, when he was stationed in Afghanistan. She’d liked it rough and never wanted him to take off his tags. But there’s nobody to send him candy or letters. He doesn’t mind. He always knew he was going to be standing on a line, telling the world I’m not going to let anything get through me.
He steps out from under the canopy of his cammie net and walks out into the bright blaze of the morning sun, boots crunching hard on loose gravel. In the Mojave, where he’s based out of, the desert is covered by scrub and ringed by mountains—the world always just seemed to stop at those weathered peaks. Here there are miles of unbleached rock and the world seems to go on forever. Dean might’ve been made to stand on a line, but he still has it in him to question where they drew it.
They roll into a village filled with untrained men handling heavy weaponry. Dean jumps out of his HumVee to retrieve Cpl. Gage after he’s shot in the gut. A tiny piece of Dean’s ear is nicked off by stray shrapnel, and he bitches enough that the medic threatens to sedate him. Gage is gonna make it, although there’s some worry about bullet fragments being lodged close to his spine. Kid used to do hip-hop. Probably not anymore.
“McCarthy's lady sent him the Band of Brothers DVDs,” Cooperman tells him one morning at 0600 when he wishes he was brushing sleep sand from his eyes rather than propping them open with toothpicks to keep awake.
Dean yawns. “Why are you fucking jarheads so gay for that shit?” he asks as he starts breaking down their camp. Marines like to think of themselves as an invisible silent force, but you can always tell where they’ve been. Dean supposes there’s something right about that too.
Max puts his hand over his heart and says plaintively, “Sergeant, please.”
Dean snorts. “You want me to watch?”
“That’s what she sai—” Max starts, but Dean’s clever elbow to the gut cuts him off.
After they get through another firefight, another grueling trek through the heat with blistered lips and sweat-damp gear, shouting at people who can’t and don’t try to understand them, somebody produces a gritty portable DVD player. The men in Dean’s team gather around with half-eaten MREs.
After an episode Dean says, “Nix totally wants to fuck Winters’ pale Irish ass.”
McCarthy shakes his head, run his fingers over the scrubby blond growth of his regulation haircut. “Fuck that, Sergeant, I want to fuck Winters’ pale Irish ass.”
Reflecting on it, Dean cannot imagine being that afraid for his life. Not like the men who fought in World War II. None of them here are afraid for their lives. They’re jacked up on adrenaline, on the Metallica they pump into their helmets when they go out and level a town. Dean remembers fear. He remembers how his heart pounded when he ran from vengeful creepy ass spirits, how it felt like it would explode when he didn’t think Sam would move fast enough.
He gets up, nods to Cooperman and strides out of the hastily erected tent into the blinding glare of the afternoon.
They get a hole right through one of the radio transceivers. Nobody notices until they make camp. They don’t have spares or parts. They never do. Dean gets notice to come deal with it just as he’s taking a piss. Kelly, a soft-spoken private who could snipe a running rabbit at zero visibility comes to fetch him. He blows on his palms and wipes them on his pants, rifle slung loosely over a shoulder.
“Alright,” he says, doing up his BDUs.
FNGs and reservists always bitch about the lack of privacy. Any marine on their first tour has a word to say about it. But Dean was raised without personal space. When he’s back home in his tiny linoleum-floored apartment, he rattles all over the place in it. Dean turns around to Kelly’s averted eyes. He follows his gaze, but sees nothing but grass fields. It occurs to him suddenly that Kelly may have the shine. He blinks at him in surprised wonder.
“The transceiver, sergeant,” Kelly reminds him, closing down any questions he might’ve asked. Dean lets it go. It doesn’t matter.
Four different soldiers watch him pry the busted thing apart and start twisting wires together. They act like they aren’t fascinated, the same way Sammy did when Dean would work on the car. Sam would lie on whatever scrubby patch of lawn they could keep green and pretend to have his eyes focused on his homework.
It crackles to life and Dean gives a proud flourish. The master sergeant, an electrical engineer who’s been with the corps since cassette tapes, shakes his head in wonder. Dean smiles. He jumps down from the HumVee and heads back to his own. Good memories, rare memories, warm him the entire way.
Captain Preston’s a good officer. They call him Mother behind his back. His face never betrays anything. Other officers in the company start to show strain around their mouths as the months progress. Preston’s face is smooth, even though they all know he’s giving himself an ulcer with unshed worries.
He’s got two kids at home. A boy and a girl. Dean met them once at 29palms. The way they’d laughed and tumbled over their daddy had stuck with him for days. Sarah, the girl, was six and had a slight dentalized lisp, but she reminded him so strongly of Sam at that age, mouthy and precocious. Dean had thought hard about calling him up. But something about the way she’d pulled her daddy’s pant leg, assured of his attention, had stopped him cold. Dean’s father would’ve taken him by the shoulder and thrust him away without a break in his conversation.
Preston’s not meant for here. He’s meant for World War II when men were raised on hard times and the words of Patrick Henry. Give me Liberty or give me Death. Mother was built custom for that war.
Here, there is dust and a sense of wrong. Dean left the back roads and the shady mountains filled with sprites and ghouls when things stopped standing out in such sharp relief. Black started to seem gray-edged. He’s not sure anymore about this either. None of them should be.
They hook up with the Fifth Marines outside Fallujah. It’s the first time the mail has reached them in days and the 1/5 is already flush with care packages. They dump excess candy on Iraqi children whose faces have not yet taken on the strange and despairing cast of their parents.
Cooperman’s mom sent him The Devil’s Dictionary, and as they try to un-fuck stuck weapons and service broken machinery, he reads it aloud. Pfc. Archer and L Cpl. Lafleur, the babies, squint against the sun. Dean sits with them, going over tomorrow’s game plan. They call out words for Cooperman to define. Coward. Taint. Sodomize. Defenestrate. Slay. Fornicate.
He’s been stumbling over the definition of sycophant for the last ten minutes. Kelly supplied the word with his gaze on a brown-nosing private following their CO around. “ ‘Is't not enough that thrifty millionaires who—who loot in freight and spoliate in fares blah blah blah…see you groveling their boots to lick and begging for the favor of a kick?’” Cooperman sticks out his tongue and thrusts the book aside. “Man, this one’s no fun.”
“Spo-li-ate,” Tyler says, drawing out the syllable, “What the fuck does that mean?”
“Rub off dead skin or whatever,” Cooperman says with an unimpressed look at his book.
McCarthy stares at him and then starts laughing. “That’s exfoliate, you ignorant fucker.”
“Whatever, at least I’m not hard-up for a manicure or whatever,” Cooperman shoots back. Dean sticks his tongue in his cheek. They all have dirt and grease under their nails but McCarthy.
“You can always tell a dyke if she takes care of her nails,” Dean says, pouring over the map of Fallujah he had drawn up for him.
Cooperman cackles. “Well McCarthy, if some pussy shows up that’ll consider taking your diseased ass, you can always wave your fingers as a selling point.”
McCarthy grins back sharply and says, “You ask your mom what she thought about my fingers.”
“But what the fuck does spoliate mean?” Tyler repeats, breaking the conversation thread up. They all laugh. “I’m serious, Cooperman, look it up in that book.”
Cooperman waves him away. “Nah, it’s not even gonna make any sense. He keeps writing it out like poetry or some shit.”
“It means to pillage and plunder,” a voice says over Dean’s shoulder.
Dean’s map falls off his lap he stands up so fast.
Sam’s face is dusty and there are lines underneath his eyes, but he smiles ruefully at Dean. Dean’s still taken aback every time he has to look up to meet Sam’s eyes. He missed every inch Sam got over 5’8, and he still carries that image of a gangly 14-year-old in his head.
“Sir,” Dean says and watches Sam’s expression shift. He holds Sam’s unreadable gaze for a long moment before eventually breaking it off. “How’s captain’s bars treating you?” Dean had heard about it. He should’ve made the connection last night when his platoon commander, Lt. Marchman, told him the plan was to meet up with 5th marines.
“Not too bad,” Sam says, eyes sweeping back to his neck of the woods where some boys in the 1/5 are having a push-up contest. “Walk with me?”
It’s not an order. Dean can say no, but his feet start walking before the rest of him catches up. Sam falls into step beside him. “How are you?” he says, eyes flicking to the nick in Dean’s ear.
Behind him, Pfc. Archer says unquietly, “What the fuck was that?”
McCarthy replies, “That’s his brother.”
“But it was all loaded and shit,” Archer replies.
“His younger brother,” Tyler clarifies.
Dean shrugs. “I’m fine.” Neither of them give any sign of having heard the exchange behind them.
Sam was all betrayed when Dean enlisted. It was Clinton’s last term in office. Dean got out of school one evening—his last class was auto shop—and he drove into town and just walked right into the recruiting office. He had no idea what the world was going to look like just a few years later, but he remembered Demi Moore in A Few Good Men. Marines “stand upon a wall and say, ‘Nothing's going to hurt you tonight, not on my watch.’”
Sam shouted at him, “You—you joined the military because of a fucking movie? Did you even think about college?”
Dean hadn’t. College was for pussies who didn’t know what was out there. Dean did know what was out there even if it wasn’t as good and evil as he thought it was. He couldn’t just go from that to some state school with keg parties and loose cheerleaders. He was always going to be a trained killer surrounded by people who bled too easily, who hurt too quickly. At the time he couldn’t envision doing anything else.
Four years later he got a letter from Pastor Jim. It was full of the usual prattle. Ever since Dean’s dad stopped talking to him, Pastor Jim had stepped up, trying to pretend everything was okay. He told Dean about John, about the hunts he knew of, what Sam was up to, how things were in Blue Earth. Dean treasured these letters. They were full of nothing and yet they meant the world.
This time, buried between a paragraph on Blue Earth’s weather and a recent surge in werewolf activity was this: Sam’s going to Annapolis in the fall. He got into half the Ivy League and Stanford, and he says he’s only going because it’s completely free, but we all know it’s so that he can be closer to you. The lord only knows why you don’t seem to have a lick of sense between the two of you.
Dean hadn’t called home in six months. He did then, not caring that it was 4 am in Colorado where his Dad and Sam were holed up. Sam had answered anyway, voice thick with sleep.
“What the fuck, Sam!”
That had woken him up real fast. “You don’t get to be upset, not at fucking all.” And then he hung up.
“You look like you’re remembering,” Sam says as they walk past officers’ tents and carefully cheerful grunts.
“I am,” Dean replies.
“I heard you’re up for another commendation,” Sam says.
“Mm,” Dean hasn’t seen Sam since his leave just after the invasion. Sam was already a midshipmen second class by then and suddenly sprung up to his full height. He’d looked strange with the military high and tight—bare. Dean had left with an odd feeling roiling in his stomach. When he stepped off the plane in Iraq, he’d felt a weird sense of relief.
Sam graduated in 2006. He’s been leading men through the shit for two years like he didn’t once insist on holding Dean’s hand on the walk to and from school, like he hadn’t stripped his pizza of olives and hidden them in a folded up paper towel in the kitchen whenever they ordered it, like he hadn’t snuck into Dean’s bed every time he had a nightmare.
“What are you doing here, Sam?” He says, dropping the sir bullshit. He didn’t say this when Sam was at Canoe U. He didn’t say this when he first heard of Sam’s deployment. It’s probably overdue.
Sam doesn’t try to pretend that Dean’s saying something that he isn’t. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
He looks back in the direction of camp, eyes going far-away. He needs to get back, Dean can see it in the way he levels out his shoulders. He glances back at Dean and reaches up to run gentle fingers over the shell of Dean’s ear. “Take care of yourself.”
And then he’s walking away. He turns back when the sun makes his figure look dark against the sky and calls back, “And stop hustling your men, nobody will play poker with me.”
Dean laughs, hand going to the breast pocket on his flak jacket. Sam bought him the beaten-up pack of cards at a dime store with a quarter he picked up off the street.
They finally send Dean’s battalion home in March. After a week in his apartment, he’s ready to start breaking the plates and setting stuff on fire. It’s too empty here, and Dean has never been good at being alone. He knows what it would look like from the outside. Another fucked up vet returning home. But Dean’s not like that, when he thinks of what he’s seen in his short life, only a part of the worst of it was in Iraq. If Dean’s fucked up, it’s not war that did it to him.
He smokes furiously while listening to Dark Side Of The Moon, stubbing cigarettes out after fifteen minutes and then lighting new ones like the flavor has run out.
There’s a cache of illegal IDs in a metal strongbox hidden under the floorboards in his closet, five legally purchased firearms in a gun rack in that same closet, and a whole ton of weapons underneath the false bottom of his trunk that have been purchased south of the law. Dean considers it his own buyback program. Also, if the shit comes to him, as it has been known to do to retired hunters, Dean will be ready. But it also means now he has all the means to start thinking about unretiring himself. A really bad fucking idea, because the last thing he needs is to get arrested and then kicked out of the Corps because the silence got too loud in his house.
The doorbell rings.
Sam's leaned up against the balcony rail, looking at the over-chlorinated pool gunked up with leaves. Dean hasn’t ever swum in it in the entire time he’s lived here. Granted, in the entire time Dean’s lived here, he was halfway around the globe pissing in latrine trenches and eating food heated up over a Bunsen burner or a C4 fire.
He has to struggle not to say something that sounds pissed off. Sam smiles like he can see the battle going on behind Dean’s eyes. His hair has already grown out of its regulation haircut slightly, bangs curling over his forehead.
“It’s strange to be home,” Dean says before he can help himself. Was there any place that ever was home?
Sam doesn’t argue. “You going to invite me in?”
Dean rolls his eyes. “Come in, Sam. You want a beer?”
“That sounds amazing right now.”
Somehow a beer becomes two, and then they’re cycling through the channels. Sam’s favorite movie from when he was kid, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, comes on TBS.
“We have to watch it!” Dean says, flushed with alcohol.
“Oh no,” Sam says and shakes his head. “So not a good idea.” He takes a long sip of his beer. But they do watch it, and when the part with the shredder comes on, Sam laughs so hard he snorts beer out of his nose. Dean wishes he had a camera to capture Sam’s horrified expression.
He shakes his head fondly. “You are so sad.”
“Shut up,” Sam replies, congested, dabbing at his face with a napkin.
Dean stares at him, lying on his couch, seemingly relaxed. He blinks and a thought comes to him. “We should go on a road trip.”
“What?” Sam says, freezing.
“Vegas, Grand Canyon, Glacier Park.”
“Dean,” Sam says like he’s measuring every word. “We’d kill each other.”
Dean stares hard at him. He twirls his empty beer bottle around on the table top. “You’re here.”
Sam holds his gaze, and there’s something in it Dean can’t place. It makes him feel a little hollow inside. There used to be nothing about Sam he didn’t know. His likes and dislikes, his hard days and bad days, his first kiss, his first lay—everything and probably too much.
“Okay,” Sam says, taking one long last pull on his beer. He looks at it like he’s trying to figure out how he got here. “Okay.”
They get up the next morning around noon. Sam makes French toast that he won’t tell Dean how he learned to cook, and they hit the road after Dean’s fourth helping. Dean takes one look at Sam’s late model Toyota and says, “We’re taking my car.”
The way Dean drives they hit Vegas in the early evening. They crawl through traffic down the Strip and Sam looks fascinated, like he wants to launch an anthropological study.
“We are not staying at Bill’s Gamblin’ Hall and Saloon,” Sam says before Dean even opens his mouth. “Or Excalibur.”
Dean grumbles. They wind up getting a room at Mandalay Bay. Dean finds it a bit of a disappointment. The room could be in any of the motels he stayed in with Sam as a kid. The only difference is they have to keep the curtains drawn against the desert sun.
When they head down to the casino and Dean sits down at a Craps Table, Sam gets a lost look in his eye.
“Are you interested in seeing Cirque Du Soleil?” he asks.
“What?” Dean says, paying more attention to the cigarette girl who’s taking his drink order than Sam at his elbow.
“Well, I’m interested in seeing Cirque Du Soleil,” Sam says, eyes skating over the casino.
Dean turns back to him. “So get tickets?”
Sam takes a deep breath and says, “Yeah, I think I will.” He departs with a swift nod. Dean is left blinking after him. Sam’s acting like a recovering gambling addict and Dean has no idea why.
Dean loses the $80 in chips he brought to the table, but he doesn’t really mind. He’s not really into gambling. He’ll bet on pool or in poker, but in those situations he knows he’s going to win, so it’s like any other controlled outcome and therefore not really gambling.
He likes Vegas because you can do anything, see anything—if you have a kink, there’s probably an outlet just for you. And Dean’s not a very kinky guy, but he likes the notion. He came here once with a couple of guys in his platoon—O’Connor, Toretto, King, and Powell. O’Connor was put on disability in December after shrapnel had to be dug out of his knee. It’s a little odd remembering how they boisterously roamed the Strip, hopping between strip joints and vaudeville revues. And Sam wants to go to Cirque Du Soleil. He can’t quite get his head around it.
He realizes he hasn’t seen Sam in a while. So he takes a last swig of his drink, says some charming goodbyes to the girls hanging off his chair, and sets out toward the sunshine.
He finds Sam in the one bookstore that Caesar’s Palace has. It’s a fairly cramped Barnes & Noble, but Sam sits among the shelves reading a glossy penguin classic of Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native. It hadn’t taken Dean long to find him. It’s like he has Sam lojacked. He wonders if he could put his finger to a map of the AO and find him—plot out the route of Sam’s company across the greater Fallujah area from intuition alone. A few years ago, when Sam was first deployed in Al Anbar, he might even have tried.
“What’s up?” Sam says, not looking up from the book he’s got balanced on his knees.
Dean shifts his weight on his feet. He means to ask if Sam wants to go to a tittie bar with him, but instead he says, “Why are we here, Sam?”
Sam sets his book aside, surprised. “You…wanted to come.” He looks defeated.
“Not if you didn’t,” Dean says. His mouth tastes sour. He wants to know how to make it work with his brother. That’s all he’s ever wanted past primary concerns like food to eat and surviving out in the hot sun with RPGs flying past his head.
Sam sighs. He looks like he’s debating whether or not to say something. The book is forgotten as he stands up, lying lost in the middle of the cheap B&N carpet. Sam smoothes a hand down his pant leg and says, “There were four years of Dad after you enlisted.”
Sam paid off the headstone. Dean had always assumed it was Dad’s hunter buddies who’d taken care of it, because he’d never been hit up with the bill. Dean hadn’t spoken to him or Sam in months when he got the word. And it was just so coldly ironic that Dad had survived Beirut, septicemia, one heart attack, thousands of stronger faster creatures gunning for him, only to die in a car accident off I-495. Sam got the word while he was on his first Libo in Australia. Pastor Jim told Dean about it when he’d called to ask how his father could be dead. It fucking sucked. Dean wished it could’ve been different. He’d never used to wish that, but somewhere, before the moto tattoos and months spent cooped up only in the company of other men, he’d started.
“What happened here?” Dean asks. He feels bad enough about it that Sam is able to convince him to go to one of the high-end Japanese restaurants.
Sam’s eyes seem to blur, his gaze locked on some distant past that probably should’ve been Dean’s. “We were here in Vegas when I told Dad I was going to Navy—” A waitress interrupts them by setting down complementary bowls of Miso soup. Sam nods thanks at her, but Dean feels his face fall into ‘fuck off.’ Sam takes a perfunctory sip of his soup and then shakes his head. He keeps his eyes down on his bowl when he starts speaking again, “You have no idea how hard it was to get a congressman to nominate me. But we didn’t have any money for schools. Dad wouldn’t file for the FAFSA and I wasn’t a legally emancipated minor. We couldn’t—I just…”
He’s silent for a long moment and then he speaks, voice lowered, hard, “What happened here, Dean? Hell happened here.”
Dean hadn’t thought Sam leaving would’ve been any worse than Dean leaving. He’d thought maybe Dad let Sam go because nobody had said anything. He should’ve known. The miso gurgles uncomfortably in his stomach, and he pushes his bowl away. Sam raises his eyes to meet Dean’s. They seem bright, cheery, like he’s ground the few raggedy imperfections out and now everything is all right. Sam shakes his head and reaches across the table to Dean’s hand until there was only a paper’s width of space between their fingertips. “I don’t blame you,” he says. “Nobody blames you.”
“Okay,” he says and tries to let that statement be enough. If anything he feels guiltier. He wants so desperately not to have heard any of it.
They leave the next morning. Dean wakes Sam up so early he nearly has to shovel the pancakes and bacon he ordered from room service down his throat. “Jesus, I’m never going to make good on my sleep debt,” Sam says, holding a cup of coffee in a nearly limp hand. And then he straightens, shoving the exhaustion right out of his system. When he stands, going over to his duffle to grab some clothing, Dean sees the officer, not his brother.
“I hear your men love you,” Dean says, unbidden.
Sam scrubs a hand through his hair. The strands stick up, static. “So you were keeping tabs on me,” Sam says over his shoulder. There’s something chiding in his tone. There are a lot of things Dean could say in this situation. But it’s all bullshit. Sam ended up in the same division and they both know that wasn’t God’s fortunate hand.
Sam lets it go. He visibly subsides. “No more than your marines love Mother,” he says and heads for the shower. A sudden image of Sam as Captain Preston rushes into his head. That’s the man Sam’s going to become, two kids who are going to worry about him, PTA meetings when he’s not off leading his men through fire. Sam wants that. He wants a family—a whole, unfractured unit with no other purpose than to live, to be together, to grow old. Sam wants that so much that when Dean left for 29stumps, Sam followed and made the marines his family. But while it works for Dean, it’s not always going to work for Sam. Sooner or later Sam’s going to go off and build his own family. One of his choosing.
The shower clicks off while Dean sits staring at his palms. The door opens and Sam steps out in a cloud of steam. His eyes snag on the alarm clock and he shakes his head. “Jesus, Dean, it is fucking early,” Sam says. He never used to swear, but that’s not something you can really keep up, surrounded by grunts who’ll jerk off with you standing just around the other side of a LAV. It doesn’t seem odd in his brother’s mouth. Dean hates being conscious of the fact that he missed so much.
He showers quickly, scrubbing hard enough to burn. When he gets out, Sam's reading Return of the Native again, but he doesn’t ever remember Sam buying it. He wonders if he stole it—unlikely—or if he went back, snuck out while Dean was asleep and bought it. Time used to be, everything Sam did woke him up. But the best officers, they knew how to tread softly, in more ways than one.
The I-15 North through Valley of Fire is like a dusty scar cut through the land. Dean’s driving too fast and he doesn’t care. They listen to the old tapes he keeps in a box when it gets too difficult to track down a classic rock station. Sam doesn’t protest or fiddle with the music. He Googlemapped the entire route to the Grand Canyon, although Dean thinks after looking at the route just once he could get them there without it.
Dean loves the open road. His favorite place to drive is Maine in the summer, because it feels so unblemished by humanity, and the world just seems to stretch and stretch and yet seem so empty at the same time. He has brief moments where he feels like that in Fallujah, when they’re not being lit up every fifteen seconds by teenagers who haven’t seen anything of the world.
Then he ratchets the other way and he’s filled with intense hatred for the country. It’s back in the fucking dark ages. Even when the infrastructure was still in place. He wonders how the world could be allowed to get like that. He’d like to believe there was some demon fucking shit up. God, he would love to believe that. But if there’s one thing he understands now, it’s that, in some ways, hunting was a way of not taking responsibility. Hunters believe that shit is fucked up because demons exist, but it isn’t true. The metaphysical, the monsters and ghouls, they barely upset the machine. If it had, people would know, just like they’d had to come to terms with AIDS and global climate change. Ergo, what dad had been doing, what they’d been doing hadn’t been that important.
When he realized that, he left. He dropped everything and tried to make himself a new man. But it didn’t work because he couldn’t let go of Sam. Driving through Utah, Dean feels compelled to ask, “Would you have left if I hadn’t?”
Sam looks over the top of his sunglasses at him. “I don’t know, Dean. Maybe? I hated hunting.”
Dean chewed his lower lip and flicked off the radio. “I thought you hated Dad.”
“It was unfair, our entire lives were unfair, and I didn’t understand why my dad had to be mine. Why I couldn’t have somebody else’s?” he sighed and pushed his sunglasses back up. “But I didn’t hate him, I just wanted more than he could give.” Sam waited a beat. “I thought you hated hunting.”
“Nah,” Dean said and forced a smile. He swallowed. Dean had adored Dad. He had thought he hung the moon. The only time he’d ever felt the kind of disappointment Sam had walked around with was when Dad said, ‘Get out!’ and meant it. “I loved the hunt, but it stopped making sense on me, and when your entire life stops making sense, you’ve got to burn it to the ground and build a new one.”
He didn’t miss the hurt look that crossed Sam’s face. He wanted to say he’d never meant to burn that bridge. He’d done his best to stay in touch. But there was something wrong there—the way he felt about Sam, and when those feelings had come, twisting in his chest and spreading through his belly, he’d had to burn that bridge after all. Not for himself this time. It was too bad he hadn’t counted on what Sam would do.
An 8 track of Golden Earring’s greatest hits comes on and he has to speed up when the opening chords of ‘Radar Love’ sound through the speakers. Dean looks over at the radio. “What music do you listen to?” he asks. He honestly doesn’t know. He remembers that Sam had briefly loved Blink-182 in high school. He'd gotten invited to a concert by some flat-chested brace-face, and Dean remembers his honest surprise when Sam said yes.
Sam looks at him funny. He chews at his lower lip and then says, “A lot of Chili Peppers, Porno for Pyros, Blind Melon…” he trails off at Dean’s blank look. “The Foo Fighters?” he tries.
“IIIIIIIIII I’m a one way motor waaaaaaaaaaaaaay,” Dean yowls, drumming arrhythmically on the steering wheel.
Sam laughs so hard tears well at the corners of his eyes. “There’s a really awesome acoustic version?” he says placatingly. Dean thinks he might be asking if he might play it later.
“Acoustic? Ain’t none of that weak tea liberal hippie shit is playing in my baby,” Dean replies and strokes a hand down over the car’s dash.
“Are you serious? An acoustic guitar is cause for ire?” Sam shakes his head. “Your eardrums must be all warped.” Dean smacks him on the shoulder hard enough to burn his palm, but Sam laughs and says, “Eyes on the road.”
They reach the Grand Canyon just before noon. The sun blazes down so bright the skin of Dean’s arms are as white as paper in the blaze. He laughs, wind whipping through his hair. It seems so alien and at the same time everything he always expected. Dean’s been a lot of places, corners of the world where he feels like he’s right at the edge, about to fall off. He used to be afraid to fly. You don’t have any control as a passenger in a plane, can’t see what’s ahead or what’s behind. The corps beat that fear out of him. Now he’s afraid of being swallowed up. Of being forgotten.
He has a classic car and a brother he has to review like a history test, otherwise there’s no mark of him in the world. No friends outside the Corps, no living relatives. He and Sam could both die any day and their legacy would end with them. He turns to look at Sam and finds him already looking back.
“You’re thinking a lot,” Sam says.
“Just look at this place,” Dean says, throwing an arm out.
Sam grins. “I know, the last time I was here—”
“The last time you were here?” Dean interrupts, voice emotionless.
Sam hesitates before answering, “I came before I reported for active duty, one of my friends is from Arizona—Flagstaff. We all came to visit because his family was…was something else.”
Dean swallows. He doesn’t know why his stomach feels leaden, sunk somewhere past his knees.
They stop in Bryce Canyon because it’s on the way to Glacier Park. It’d be stupid to just gun through. On the drive out to the Canyon Amphitheater, Sam points out that the spires are called hoodoos.
“Yeah, it’s like an actual geological term,” Sam replies.
They pass a couple of cheap $30 a night hotels, and settle in on a Best Western. They never got to stay in these when they were younger. Always the cheapest option with the cement pool and brackish floating leaves if there was water at all.
After a greasy dinner in the Cowboy’s Buffet & Steak Room, Sam digs around in his duffle until he finds a pair of black trunks. “You want to come?”
Dean grins. He never had a swimsuit as a kid. They never went to the public pool after Mom died. She used to take him all the time and he would wear those air-filled water-wings and paddle around. Sam didn’t even have that. He was tossed into the water until he learned to keep himself above it. Now, watching him dive into the empty pool, Dean can see how much has changed. Sam’s strokes are powerful and fast, yet lazily graceful. He doesn’t take a breath until he’s swum the entire length and back.
“Are you just going to stand there staring like a drill master?” Sam says, putting his feet on the bottom and pushing his wet bangs out of his eyes. By now his hair has grown out long enough that nobody would ever know he regularly buzzed it off. Dean jumps in beside him, sending a wave of water up and over Sam.
When he surfaces, Sam shoves him. “Thanks, asshole,” he says with a muted smile. “I think this pool is like ten yards long.”
“What are you thinking?” Dean asks. He loves the feeling where he hasn’t quite adjusted to the temperature, and it still feels mildly cold. He takes a moment to revel in it.
“I’m thinking 200 free, 100 fly, and 50 back,” Sam replies, rotating his shoulders. Dean can hear his officer voice around the corners and it sounds right in his mouth. He thinks maybe he should chafe at it, his baby brother telling him how it’s going to be. But it’s sensible.
“35 laps? You’re buying me a beer if I finish first,” he says and pushes off from the wall, ducking his head under the water. Neither of them brought goggles, it seems stupid now when he has to keep his eyes closed from the burn of chlorine. He’s faster than Sam at freestyle, enough that in the 13th lap he actually laps him, but Sam is phenomenal at the butterfly which has always been Dean’s worst stroke and he slams through those ten laps like the water’s not even there to form resistance.
He hasn’t worked out since they left. There was a gym in the hotel in Vegas, but Dean despises the treadmill. He’d gone running every morning when he first got back—by force of habit, but also to quiet the ringing in his head. He’d found he couldn’t sleep at night if he didn’t exhaust himself. In some ways, being with Sam all the time is taking care of that. He holds his breath for two stretches, trying to push the thought out of his mind. When he finally turns his head to suck in air, it feels like the most important thing that’s happened to him.
They pull up at the edge seconds apart, breathing hard. Dean says, “Passing the swim qualifications at Basic was one of the hardest things I ever did.”
“Yeah, dad prepared us pretty good for everything else, but swimming…” Sam trails off and hauls himself up out of the pool in one heave. His trunks cling. The weight of the water has dragged them low on his hips and Dean can clearly see the dimples in his spine. He drops his eyes.
“Do you ever wonder if he was proud?” Dean asks, nearly wanting to cut his own tongue out the minute the words are out of his mouth.
Sam turns to stare at him. His skin takes on a slightly metallic sheen in the shifting atmospheric lighting and Dean finds it mesmerizing. Sam says slowly, “Of course he was proud. You told him to go fuck himself. Dad said fuck you to everybody his whole life, you don’t think he understood that?” Dean huffs out a breath and Sam frowns. “I know understanding is not the same as agreement, but he got you, Dean, more than he ever got me.”
The air is fraught. Dean’s breath seems to echo off damp tile. He shakes his head and hears water slosh inside his ears. “He didn’t love me more than you, Sam,” Dean tells him. It’s the same voice he used when Sam was afraid of the dark, when he felt like the kids at school would never like him, when he thought he could never do good enough in school.
But Sam can never let things be easy, even when it should be. “Don’t lie to me,” he says, picking up the criminally tiny towel the hotel offers for free. He towels his hair to end the conversation and when the strands fall spiky and disarrayed over his forehead he says. “You want that drink?”