Author: Guede Mazaka
“Daddy! Daddy! He’s here!”
She always spotted him first. It’d worried Sam a little bit in the beginning, wondering at how his little miracle of a daughter could sit up in her crib and gurgle “Deanie” before anyone could hear the car, but he’d gradually let it go. Once they’d made it past her brother’s third birthday, he’d stopped hoping it was just a harmless leftover of her daddy’s past and started believing it. “Good girl, Jessie. You’ve got good eyes,” he said, stooping down to pick her up.
He held her to the window and she shrieked in joy so loudly that her mother came running from the kitchen, stark fear on her face. And sometimes Sam remembered it was only the fear of all mothers for their young, and sometimes—like now—he forgot and he thought it was then again.
“Oh, sorry, Jessie.” Sam immediately loosened his grip and handed her off to her mother, who had taken in the situation and was smiling tiredly at them. “Dean’s coming in.”
“I’d better throw on my frumpy sweater, then,” his wife replied with gentle humor. She hoisted Jessie in her arms and carried her off up the stairs for a quick facewash while Sam opened the front door and stepped outside.
The road was good, solid pavement here, turned gray with use, but despite that Dean did his damnedest to pull up in a swirling cloud of dust. He banged his way out before the old Impala had even finished settling back on its haunches, arms flying out to frame his crooked but wide grin.
They wrapped around Sam like an old blanket, like a set of old chains. Welcoming was easy; disengaging was the tough part. And like always, Dean didn’t waste time. He leaned back with his hand still on Sam’s shoulder and squinted up at the house. The dying rays of the sun gilded most of his head, but left one streak near his temple a shocking paleness.
“So how’s everyone? How’s Jessica?” he asked. His eyes flicked to Sam. “You tell her where her name came from yet?”
“Dean…” Sam shrugged off his brother’s hand, but grabbed him by the elbow and started pulling them towards the porch.
“Hey, I’m just asking. She’s what, eight now?” A deprecating laugh slipped out of Dean’s mouth. He slapped Sam’s back with equally false camaraderie as he twisted out of Sam’s hand. “I remember when you were eight—”
Deep in Sam’s head, buried beneath his temples and the bottoms of his eyeballs, came that old throbbing. Its edge cut through his voice. “Dean.”
His brother startled, then subsided. The smile faded from his face and he shoved his hands in his pockets as he stood back a pace. The past eight months had graven the lines running from either side of Dean’s nose to his mouth into full-fledged grooves; they made him look gaunt and weary when he was sober-faced. “You know, there’s still things out there.”
“Yeah. I know. Look, we’ve been over this—I did what I had to because I never wanted my children to have to do it. I don’t want them to have that life,” Sam said. He tried to keep the irritation out and the firmness in, but Dean always had unsettled him and that still held true. He exhaled at the end, wanting to say more and knowing it wouldn’t be received well.
“Okay. I understand. That’s a real noble goal, Sammy.” A light laugh trickled out of a window above them and Dean looked up, expression softening. The deepening shadows and kinder light of dusk smoothed the years from his face so he was sixteen—sixteen and standing on some city street somewhere, staring at a woman hugging her son with the kind of yearning that used to send people sailing off to find the end of the world. Then he looked back at Sam, and he was coming hard onto forty again. “But just in case you’ve forgotten, people are still fighting out there.”
For all that Dean was the one with gray in his hair, Sam suddenly felt old. Old and tired, like the worn-out men lining up at the VA office near where he worked. “I know, Dean. It’s a war. But you know, sometimes soldiers come back from a war and they don’t want to fight anymore, and are you going to ship them back anyway? Or do they only ever get a pass if they’re crippled or KIA?”
Dean flinched, which was not what Sam had been expecting. Maybe he’d spoken a little more harshly than he’d thought…though to his ears, he’d sounded about as forceful as a man in a chain gang.
But before Sam could ask, Dean put up an arm and scratched the back of his head. He ducked and chuckled too lowly at the ground for Sam to tell whether it was ironic or sarcastic, and then he glanced up again. “Hell, I’m tired. And I missed you.”
After a moment, Sam started to smile. “Yeah, I—”
A dog barked nearby, and then something banged against plastic. Sam tensed up, but Dean was moving past with easy motions, not worried at all, and so Sam relaxed. He watched Dean go back to the car and let a big golden lab out of the backseat. The dog jumped up—kept its paws off of Dean’s leather jacket, Sam was amused to see—and yipped happily when Dean tousled its ears.
“Down, you hyperactive son of a bitch. C’mon, get down. Down, Sammy—” Dean stopped, then flushed. He shot a guilty look at Sam.
“You missed me,” Sam said, amused.
Shrugging, Dean finally pried Sammy off his legs and nudged the dog over; the lab spent a few seconds sniffing Sam’s feet before it attempted to leap him as well. “Yeah, well, Caleb can’t road-trip now, and it’s just weird without somebody playing backseat driver.”
“Jessie’s going to love him.” Sam pushed the lab off him and patted its head, then motioned towards the door. “You staying for dinner, at least?”
“I’m always up for a little family time, here and there,” Dean replied. There were points in his words, but he mostly dulled the tips. He crouched down and wrestled with Sammy a moment before getting up and coming inside with Sam.