"You'd better turn on the news."
Sam's wife of thirteen years wasn't generally given to being cryptic, so Sam stopped multitasking and repositioned the phone against his shoulder. "Anybody I might have to give legal advice to?"
"Not unless you've lost your mind and decided to go back to corporate law," Sarah said.
Sam fumbled around for the remote and clicked to CNN, which showed him carnage. A Boeing 777 had gone down over Charlotte, North Carolina. True to form, the talking heads were expositing over something they had no information about. The accident was still too new even though it was hours old. Live action footage of billowing clouds of smoke rising out of a downtown area (uptown, Sam reminded himself) took up one corner of the screen while a voiceover repeated the same thing over and over, no details yet, no word of survivors, and an endless litany of text scrolled across the bottom. Flight took off from Douglas Int'l, broke apart in the air less than a mile over Charlotte minutes later.
He swung back to his desk and checked his email. FEMA had an automatic alert system for the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, DMORT for short, and the team for region four had been notified to converge in Newell, a little over five miles away. Sam was automatically cc'd on the list by the request of one of the addressees who wasn't a regular team member, but they called him out for damn near everything. Fully certified forensic anthropologists were rare.
"He's been called in," Sam said. "He's probably already long gone. It looks pretty bad."
"Tell him we said hi," Sarah said.
"Hey, wait," Sam said, a grin creeping into his voice. "I didn't even - "
"I can hold down the fort for a few days," she said. "Just go. He needs you more than we do. We talked about this."
And they had. She was perfectly capable of handling the legal clinic they co-owned for several days, and their three kids, and whatever the hell else came up.
Sam was silent for a moment. "I knew I married up," he said.
"Yeah, you did," Sarah said. "Find out where Charlie's at this week, too - we haven't seen her in weeks."
"Go, Sam," she said. "This one's bad. See if you can get him to come straight here when it's over."
Sam clicked the TV off after telling Sarah she was amazing at least four times.
Dean would know he'd seen the news and gotten the notification, but he wouldn't call. Some things had to stay the same, and this was one.
He picked up the phone, then hesitated, staring at it like it would tell him what to do. He could not slip up on this one. He'd failed to pick up Dean's signals before over the years, on the things that had seemed smaller, and they had left marks. He put the phone down. He had to go, now, before he lost any more time.
He had the flight into Douglas International to refect on where they'd been, something he rarely had time for. Dean had never bothered keeping track of everything; he'd always left that to Sam. Dean had always known how to move on, and it had always been Sam's job to keep score. It had been twenty years since the center line of their extreme road trip that had lasted from Halloween of 2005 to August of 2007. In later years he'd wondered how much of it had happened and how much his mind had filled in out of necessity. Time was a great equalizer and an unrelenting filter, casting the same fair half-light on everything. Some of the details had faded but the important things all remained.
All the close calls, for instance. They'd been equally blessed and cursed, in all things. Winchester luck never ran lukewarm.
He purposely never thought about the death of the fire demon because of the cost it had demanded, before and after. Dean had been right - there would always be something to hunt - but things had begun to drop off after the demon and his family were gone. It had been a harbinger of something bigger in its way but had also been their way in. The decline had been slow at first and then finally as noticible as the original increase in activity had been. A lot of the world had been on its way to hell in the proverbial handbasket for the majority of their lives, and it was still difficult sometimes to imagine a world where there really was nothing under the bed.
Dean had been ecstatic that Sam was still with him immediately after, even though Sam's main reason for staying - or so he'd originally thought - was gone. The thing that had killed Mary and Jessica was gone, not just banished but gone, and tens of demons at their hands besides, and he didn't leave. Dean's way of being ecstatic had been to look for something, anything to hunt, believing he could keep Sam with him if he kept him busy. It had been transparent and Sam had largely decided not to try and discuss it. When they'd found themselves reduced to poltergeist after poltergeist and not much else, Dean had finally admitted that there had been a turn. Not a quiet before the storm, but an actual shift in activity. John Winchester had gone overseas to investigate something on a tip. It was that quiet.
Dean had panicked.
There was no place for him in a quiet world.
Dean had come close to breaking before - anytime Sam had been hurt or missing, and the one time John had fallen into the wrong hands. He acted first and collapsed afterwards, once things had been set right, and it was a rarity. But Sam had never seen a genuine panic attack from Dean before. He would have done anything to fix it, conjure things for them to chase if he had to, but he's been relegated to standing and keeping a steady hand on the back of his brother's neck, murmuring to him while he hyperventilated.
Dean had expected to die hunting, had never imagined making it to thirty. Living could be harder than dying, sometimes. Sam had said I will help you through this.
Salvation had come two weeks later in California when an archeology professor from San Jose State they'd helped months earlier tracked them down after leaving messages everywhere. He was one of the few people they'd given their real names to. They'd cleared the man's property of some restless but ultimately harmless apparitions by figuring out that it had once been a large family farm. The developers had moved the stones to a local history museum but had not bothered to see if any remains...remained. The professor had done what Dean recommended - tearing down the gazebo, leaving the garden as-is, and fencing the area off. The boys had broken into the museum and taken the stones back.
Dean always knew exactly where people were buried in unmarked graves. He never admitted it, or explained how, but he knew.
No one raised a fuss over the 'missing' stones, and the haunting stopped. Dean had been more forthcoming about what they did and and where they'd been than he had in a long time, and when the professor had mentioned knowing someone they'd helped the year before, it had been an odd moment.
Small world, Dean had said later, and Sam had countered with maybe, but in our case I think it's more like 'full circle'. They had criss-crossed over their own tracks several times, and odds had been it would happen sooner or later. Dean may have begun to sense the end at that point, finally realizing they wouldn't be able to remain incognito for much longer. They were hard to miss. It would have helped if they'd been less striking to look at, or if Sam had been shorter, or if Dean had decided to let the Impala go after it was totaled.
The professor - Landry - knew too many people and found them more easily than Dean liked, but when he offered to sponsor and mentor Dean through an internship, Dean reacted with the same panic he had at having so little to hunt.
Sam had remembered asking Dean what he wanted for himself back when Meg Masters had set them up, the night the daevas had nearly killed them. Dean's only answer had been for you not to take off two seconds after this is over. That had been true, too true, and a lot more honest than Dean had intended at the time. But still not the whole truth. What Sam had spent years trying to guess at had been plain to a middle aged university professor within minutes.
Sam enjoyed irony, even at his own expense. Especially since it was finally Dean who left first.
Only after discovering that someone had misplaced his record in St. Louis. Sam figured he knew who had done it, but it didn't really matter. Dean was free.
They ended up sharing an apartment halfway between the two schools when Sam went back to Stanford and Dean found himself in situations he wasn't equipped for. A residence. With...stuff. That stayed where it was. All the time.
I'll help you do this, Sam had said. It might be hard but you're smarter than I am about a lot of stuff, and you can do this.
It was hard. Dean came with enough charm, both natural and learned, to fit in automatically in some ways. He was so uncomfortable with some of the day to day things of an average life that he was like a caged tiger, gorgeous to onlookers but willing to kill to get out. He had no problems with the coursework, not even the accelerated stuff meant to get him caught up. It was the idea of permanence that ruined him. He lasted five months before he bolted.
It had taken Sam two weeks to find him. There was no yelling or disappointment when he caught up to him in Texas. Sam didn't even mention going back. He simply used peroxide on the cuts Dean had on his hands from the two bar fights he'd started and asked the question again: what do you want for yourself?
Dean had been silent for a long time. A day later, he had gone with Sam without another word. He'd stopped panicking.
At the end of his first year, Dean declared for anthropology instead of archeology. Sam took an internship with a larger lawfirm and began a long distance relationship with Sarah, and Dean took courses during the summer when he wasn't working over at the Museum of Natural History in Palo Alto. They saw less and less of each other, but they were together. They could always find each other within minutes, and Sam never questioned or found it odd when Dean just suddenly appeared in the middle of some random day. Sometimes they stood and stared out the fifth floor windows where the firm's main client lounge was because Dean hated the upper floors of buildings. They didn't always speak; they didn't need to. Sometimes they talked about fate or karma or the one girl in Dean's sociology course that was too hot to be human, or why the hell did someone keep putting cinnamon in the goddamn coffee on the floor Sam usually worked on.
Sam had known for sure that it was real and permanent when Dean had stopped the credit fraud and got one in his own name instead, and got a concealed weapons permit for the gun he carried most often.
The trunk of the Impala stayed exactly the same, however. And likely always would.
When Dean decided to specialize in forensic anthropology, he'd had to take some of his coursework in San Francisco because it was one of the few places that offered the certification. But he didn't move out by his own decision until Sarah Blake decided to move across country to be with Sam.
The rule was that they had dinner at least once a week. And that had never been broken. Twice it had included their father, who had quietly professed his pride.
Every now and then, there was something to hunt. But not often.
Dean had been there when Sam made partner, had been best man at his wedding to Sarah, had paced the waiting room when Allie had been born. And Mary. And Leigh. Pregnancy had agreed with Sarah and there were three girls with dark hair and blue eyes in Sam's house, not counting the dark haired and blue eyed firebrand he was married to, and they sat on or around Dean when he appeared as if he was the guru of a cult. They minded him even in the worst of their moods, but they also took shameless advantage of him. Not one had been born without puppy dog eyes.
Dean had met Danielle between Allie and Mary (Sam marked time by his girls these days), and married her between Mary and Leigh. Their only child had been born a year later, and they had separated when Charlie was three. They split custody down the middle, and Sam lived for weekends when the number of girls in his house increased by one; Charlie was nine now, freckles and green eyes and strawberry blonde curls and a mouth as smart as her father's. That mouth looked like her mother's but the smirk it so often wore was all Winchester. Sam had given her the only childhood nickname that had stuck, yeah yeah, because it was her only reponse to anything you asked her when she was two.
When Sam had realized five years earlier that he hated the system, Dean had tied with Sarah for biggest supporter of the idea to bag it all to start a legal clinic for the same people getting screwed by the system. When Sam had wavered, Dean had shoved him back on course.
Sam jolted back to the present when the plane touched down, checking directions to the hotel again. He checked the news via the console in the seat in front of him, and the latest was much the same: the plane had come apart over the uptown area of Charlotte. No survivors. No cause yet.
In some ways, it was nothing more than another hunt.
Sam walked right into Dean's hotel room, knowing it wouldn't be locked even though it was after one am; Dean didn't even turn from the windows. "How's the practice?"
"Since we just emailed yesterday it's still pretty much the same," Sam said with a low, understated wryness that he'd picked up somewhere around the age of thirty. "I got the notification."
"Wow, that explains why you're here, Captain Obvious," Dean said. "You got the telegram." He dropped his voice into a more serious tone. "You didn't have to come, you know."
"Whatever," Sam said, putting his carryon down near the bed closest to the wall. Two singles. Dean always said you didn't have to but he planned as if Sam would be there. And Sam always was, when it was a bad one. "It's your week, isn't it? I could keep Yeah-Yeah for awhile -"
"She's with Jason," Dean said quickly, and Sam realized with a thud that Dean was already missing his daughter. Jason was her one other uncle, brother to Dean's ex. He never brought his only child on jobs, no matter how minor, because it was always disaster and loss and he couldn't even accidentally allow it to spill over to Charlie. "He was taking his kids to the fair anyway, wanted her to go too. She was already gone when I got the call."
"How come you didn't go?" Sam said. There had never been any animosity between Jason and Dean.
"She's getting older," Dean said. "She doesn't need her old man right on her heels all the time." He didn't believe a word of it, and the expression on his face said so even if his tone hadn't backed it up. He knew he was overprotective but he also knew his daughter didn't think so yet.
"You pretty much act like a preteen girl a lot of the time," Sam said. "It'll be awhile before she gets tired of you. Like, never."
"The pot and the kettle meet again," Dean said, but there was no smirk in it. Sam sat down on the nearest bed and finally acknowledged that the flight had killed his back.
"It's the buildings," Dean said, and he was so nonchalant about it that Sam felt a pang of concern even as he tried to make sense of the comment.
"I don't understand," Sam said.
The green of Dean's gaze was centered and calm but so distant that Sam realized he was already on whatever job this was, prepared to go and do whatever he had to.
"When the plane went. The buildings are close enough together that a lot of debris got scattered on the rooftops."
It sank in then, and Sam shifted his weight automatically because it was the only way he could momentarily distract himself from the mental image. Dean says debris and in that single word is a myriad of horrors that includes the thousandfold intricacies of the wreckage from a 777 and the remains of its passengers. When the plane had come apart the people inside would have come apart as well from the violence of it and there would be...pieces.
And the rooftops. Dean hated heights the way he hated planes. This was all that and worse. Dean would be spending his days and nights too high up, doing something no one ought to except that so many needed answers...and something to bury. Dean had laughed at the word closure their whole lives and what a damn waste all that standing around and talking is, when you could be doing something instead. He didn't laugh about it anymore. Not when he was called in for things like this.
"I'm involved in the processing and prep this time because the team for region four is kind of small and the local authorities are overwhelmed," Dean said. "I'm in with the coroners on this one to establish mechanism of injury, process, prep, and reconstruction."
"And you're the closest FA, like usual," Sam said. Forensic anthropologist. Even when he wasn't closest he was often requested.
Dean snorted. "Yeah, and you're gonna be bored. I won't even see you."
"Yeah you will," Sam said.
Dean looked at him again, and they spent a long moment just staring at each other without expectation.
Sam would share this with him and help him through it. It was what they had always done.
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