rating: 14a for language and some subject matter. Also, smart!Dean!
notes: 8177 words of gen futurefic much too influenced by my summer lit class. Special thanks to kiraboshi, without whom this wouldn't have existed at all. All quotes from here.
summary: So, it's all over and Sam's looking back at what he wanted to be. Dean's looking forward trying to make up his mind.
soundtrack: Philip Glass - Solo Piano (zipped album)
You know that poem, the one that everyone quotes? That "not with a bang but a whimper" one? It's by T. S. Eliot, by the way, and it's much better in context, but this will do.
'Cause yeah, that's exactly what it was like. Because Sam was expecting something bigger. Maybe an explosion or something, but definitely not this smoking... smoky thing on the ground. I don't think he expected a whole lot of nothing, which this was. A whole fucking lot of nothing.
When Sam was little - really little, like three or four - they all stopped at a motel with one of those tiny little in-ground pools. You know the kind, with dead leaves in the bottom and dead dragonflies floating on top. It was hot, and Dean shrugged off his shirt and jumped in. Sam would have gone in after him, and John held him back before he toppled into the pool, little baby jeans and all.
"Sorry about that." Dean said. He was at the edge of the pool and he still had his little boy voice. John nodded at him, and he hopped out of the pool, dripping wet, and grabbed Sam's hand. "Let's get inside, huh?" he said, not worrying about sounding tough. Not yet.
They woke up groggy and hung over, nothing unusual, considering the circumstances. There was a note on the outside of the door and it didn't have anything on it other than a new phone number and when Dean read it, he felt an awful lot like kicking somebody's head in.
'Cause this was it. This was all he had left. Sam stepped past him and grabbed the note, swearing at the door, the paper, the sky.
Dean nearly punched him in the face.
"I need coffee," he said instead. Sam shook his head.
"Nah, we need to get going."
He didn't need to finish the thought because Dean sighed and finished it for him. "So, that's it then. Huh." Dean kicked against parking lot gravel, not saying a whole lot but he didn't need to. "I can drop you off, I guess."
Sam looked over easily, saying that he guessed so. Dean sure wasn't about to show it, but he felt as if someone dug their nails into his spine and twisted; he fought it like he always did, grabbing his bag, not bothering to check out, sliding into the Impala wanting not a whole lot more than to hit the throttle and get the hell out of this too-tight, too-closed-in parking lot. Sam nearly walked over to hit him upside the head and I'm pretty sure he didn't have a clue how to make what he wanted to say sound right, like the way he meant it, instead of condescending, like the way Dean was going to hear it. He got into the car and tried anyways.
"Feeling attached to this... place?" Sam asked, and Dean leveled a glare at him. "Feeling attached to anywhere in particular?" Sam clarified, but Dean just glared at him harder with a side of fuck off annoyance.
Sam grinned a little and didn't bother trying to hide his invitation as anything else. "Want to come back to Stanford with me?"
Dean started the engine and didn't say anything until Nothing Else Matters finished playing. In the lull between songs, he said something along the lines of somebody's got to teach you how to party right and Sam laughed.
I'm guessing that the drive back to Palo Alto took a hell of a lot longer than Dean planned. No surprise, not really, because Sam wasn't one to just let things go and wasn't about to start now. He insisted on stopping at every possible haunting or fucking pseudo-X File on the way, as if trying to prove to Dean that he didn't want to give this - hunting things, saving people - up. Dean thought he was being a little obvious about it, and at the fourth gig that ended up being some high school kids playing an extended grad prank, Dean finally gave in to the urge and kicked Sam in the shins.
"The fuck?" Sam complained as he hobbled around.
Dean looked at him pointedly. "I'm not stupid, dude. Neither are you. Let's get you to school and then let's find me some real gigs, okay?"
Sam grumbled unintelligibly, feeling like he ought to say something more and not sure how exactly but he finally gave up with an abrupt nod. "Fine, Dean. Whatever. Just... you know."
Dean tossed Sam the keys and slid over to the passenger side, popping Back In Black in before Sam said anything about drivers and cakeholes.
"Yeah. I know."
Remember that time with the mirrors? That whole Bloody Mary gig? See, the thing is that Dean kind of figured out what Sam's secret was. It wasn't that hard, not if you knew him that well, and the whole not sleeping at night, seeing Jess up on the ceiling thing kind of lent itself to the assumption that if the nightmares were this bad now, what was stopping them from being bad before?
Dean sometimes thinks in effect = cause. He figured that the reason the whole secret thing worked was because Sam didn't tell him. The agency, the will to power or whatever he'd heard it called was more important than the actual fact. He wasn't surprised that Sam didn't know his secret because Dean already knew Sam had stopped paying attention. Back then, anyways.
The first thing Sam did when they finally hit Palo Alto was give Dean directions to the roadside bar Sam sometimes went to. He usually went there by himself, never with Jess, sometimes with a couple of friends, but he always left absolutely trashed. He didn't tell Dean that, though - he already thought Sam couldn't hold his liquor and Sam wasn't about to hand him any more ammunition. Dean did give Sam a surprised look when the bartender greeted him by name - "helped him with a little pest control problem a while back" - Sam explained, and Dean grinned at him like he always did when Sam referred to hunting-related college exploits, however obliquely.
When they got their drinks, Dean leaned against the bar and peered at Sam over the beer bottle's label. "What is it about this place, huh? It's like every other bar we've ever hit, down to the bad music and the sticky floors." Dean sucked back the bottle, setting it down to eye a waitress appreciatively.
"That's it, huh? Just like every other bar we've ever been to." Dean hated spelling things out like that but sometimes that's the only way Sam knew that he got it.
Sam grinned and didn't say anything.
Dean thought about the house in Lawrence, and how it hadn't been home since it'd burned. How nowhere had been home since then, not really.
The landlady at the apartment they'd scoped out wasn't very inviting, but she didn't need to be as long as she took their money at the right time and didn't kick them out. Sam figured that the lack of recent references and the fact that they were just these two tired, scruffy guys with nothing but a hot car and a couple of duffel bags didn't help. It didn't take that long to find, Sam had scoured the papers for a couple of days looking while Dean happily fleeced some over rich kids with a pool game anybody else could have seen right through. He hadn't seen the need to pull out the special skills with people that wouldn't appreciate it.
Sam watched Dean carefully as he set his bag down. It'd seen significantly more wear than Sam's and that always weighed on Sam's mind when he noticed it. The landlady handed him a copy of the lease contract, a little x beside the space where Dean had already signed. Sam pictured the label beside the buzzer reading Winchester/Winchester and he wondered if Dean ever had a place in his own name. His real name.
Well, maybe not his real name since he was technically dead and wanted and all that, but a legal name, one that would develop a credit history and that he might have to pay taxes on. It was frightening in that what a huge world kind of way.
"Stop thinking." Dean said, and Sam realized he hadn't even noticed the landlady leave. Dean was already pulling out salt and iron, walking around the whole apartment intently, looking for weak spots or weird vibes or openings to the outdoors or anything, leaving lines where he noticed something.
"At least it's furnished." Sam said, but Dean pointed out that being able to count the sum total of their furniture on two hands - one table, two chairs, one couch, two beds, one chest of drawers, one nightstand and one stuffed raven straight out of Psycho immediately dubbed "Bates" - didn't necessarily deserve a huge extra charge at the end of the month. Sam pointed out that buying it themselves would have been more expensive and there's no way they would have been able to make a find like that bird. Dean noted that theft was a perfectly reasonable option and Sam nodded thoughtfully.
"Help me move the extra guns and salt and blankets in." Sam said, and Dean considered to himself that they were going to have to find a better hiding place for the guns than under Bates' stand, 'cause the bird's huge but the .45's a different kind of unwieldy.
They split the army blankets between them, surprised to discover they had more than they thought.
"It's summer. You're actually gonna take classes during the summer?" Dean had about twelve of their guns, ranging from small caliber .22s to heavy-gauge shotguns, spread out over the kitchen table.
Sam looked up from his registration papers. "Yeah, Dean. I didn't go to school for a year and a half - might as well pick up some classes. We're here already." Sam flipped through the undergrad course catalogue, checking requirements and circling courses. Summer didn't offer a whole lot, but there was always something.
Dean grabbed a swab, checking barrels and rhythmically cleaning. "Makes sense, I guess." He pushed Sam's registration papers over and Sam shoved the day's newspaper at him. Dean flipped through it quickly in between guns, scanning obituaries, then the headlines.
"Anything there?" Sam asked.
Dean shook his head. "Not our kind of jobs. Couple of things the cops maybe ought to look over. I'll check 'em out if there's a pattern but nothing's sticking out."
Sam kicked back from the table. "I've got to drop these off at the Registrar-"
"-show me where the library is." Dean interrupted. "Stanford's got a few libraries, right? Might come in handy, you might as well show me."
Sam nodded. "Sure. Need to get a card for you, should be easy."
Dean stole a comic book from a library once, when he was after the cŵn annwn in '03. More than once, probably, but this one... I think maybe he's still got it, TOLEDO PUBLIC LIBRARY stamped on the inside front cover. He had checked, and it hadn't been borrowed since October of 2002. He figured that no one would miss it.
He wasn't sure how he got away with it. The librarian, this matronly woman in her mid-forties, looked awfully closely at the ID he used to set up an account, and she handed him his books uneasily, as if Basic Digital Electronics by Alvis J Evans and The Mysteries of the Goetic Theurgy by Arthur Edward Waite and V for Vendetta by Alan Moore didn't belong in the same pile.
He sat in an otherwise empty motel room and read them one after another, making notes he hoped would be useful because he figured that making an EMF reader would be a hell of a lot easier than walking up to a counter in an electronics department and asking "hey, you got anything I could use to hunt down the undead?" and besides, who didn't love some obscure dusty books with mysteries and theurgy in the title?
He had to look that last word up, because he didn't have a clue what it meant.
He brought the other ones back when he was finished reading them, but he held on to V, because there wasn't much he liked better than stories about tragic heroes in masks who always did the crazy insane right things.
"Can you believe people leave bags lying around?" Dean rifled through some drunken freshmen’s wallet, pretty certain that the owner was in the throbbing mass of people out on the dance floor. Sam kept an eye out, but in a student bar like this no one was paying a lot of attention to belongings, just drinks and partners - justifiably more worried about getting roofied than getting their wallets stolen.
"Just hurry up," Sam hissed, and Dean grinned triumphantly when he pulled out a brand new looking student card, picture ID looking close enough. The music in the club was deafening, playing something so loud it was indecipherable.
"Got it. Let's go before my ears start bleeding." Dean didn't bother lifting a couple of twenties from the wallet, figuring that the late charges he's going to rack up will be bad enough.
"No kidding." Sam said.
Sam always sat three rows from the front. He focused too much on the professor, true enough, but that didn't mean he wasn't paying attention to what was going on behind him. He always remembered faces, and names when he could. He followed opinions, eavesdropped on conversations going on around him, counted steps to the nearest exit. It was hard to let go of habits like that but more than once they'd helped him out, like during fire drills or when calculating how long it would take to get to the door in time to accidentally bump into someone.
This time was no different. It took him about a quarter minute to catalogue the room and its contents; a tallish, blonde professor, no windows, over bright lights, two exits, about fifteen average looking students, three muscled-up jocks he could probably take in a fair fight and one girl in doc martens sitting the back left corner. All of this in addition to the pervasive sense that something was wrong. He couldn't place it, not directly, but it grated on his nerves and it was hard as hell to concentrate on anything else.
It faded fast, though, like a weird smell you get used to after a while. It buzzed around the edge of his mind but this class was interesting, more or less, and he figured he might as well get used to it, at least until they figured out what it was. Nothing that bad, he figured, but it wouldn't be real easy to study.
The girl in doc martens pulled out her laptop and it made that annoying Welcome to Windows sound. Sam considered stealing Dean's laptop for notes, but then he thought that he could maybe just take normal notes. He pulled out a notebook and pen from his bag and doodled at the margins of the first page while the professor went over the syllabus.
Syllabi are the same wherever you go.
Sam trudged through the door, tossed his keys onto the kitchen table and paid attention to the fresh line of salt beneath the threshold. It was later than he'd expected to get back, and Dean was obviously home from his hunt since the Impala was parked in their designated space, fitting awkwardly in between 13A's rust bucket Honda and 13C's rust bucket Ford. There was a sticky note on the fridge, just saying "back, sleeping, takeout in fridge." Sam lifted the note off the fridge and opened the door to look, noting the cold curry and a half-empty two-four of coke. He grabbed a bowl and warmed some up, taking it into the living room where he saw Dean napping on the couch, muted CNN flickering on the television.
"Hey." Dean groaned, moving his legs so Sam would have come someplace to sit.
"How'd the hunt go?" Sam asked around some curry, eyes flicking to the TV to catch the headlines.
"Slow. Easy. Poltergeists don't have any fight in them anymore." Sam looked over at Dean, noting the green-purple bruise at his temple.
"Sure they don't." Sam said, but he knew that Dean was right; it had been a slow few months and both of them wondered if killing off The Demon had anything to do with it. They didn't talk about it, though. "So, I'm taking this class - Postmodern Literature and the Role of the Reader - and there's definitely something up with the room."
Dean perked up. "Yeah? How'd you figure?"
"I don't know. Just feels... weird, I guess. Not bad, not really, but not right. You know?" Sam spun his fork around his fingers, glancing over at Dean with a c'mon expression all over his face.
Dean was always surprised by how much Sam managed to say without saying much of anything at all. "Yeah, I guess. Want me to come with next time?"
Sam nodded. "Sure. Couldn't hurt."
Dean hadn't told Sam about the job he'd found until just before he left. He wasn't sure what he was waiting for exactly, and he was kind of afraid, kind of hoping that Sam would offer to come and help out. His classes were starting the next day, though, and Dean was kind of unsure about setting a precedent for missed classes when he knew that's not what Sam wanted. Not in the long run.
Dean just let it drop at dinner the night before he left, telling Sam that it would be easy, not big deal, something he could handle on his own and be back in a couple of days, three max.
"You sure?" Sam asked, the unspoken offer in the air.
Dean let go of the apprehension he didn't know he was holding. "Yeah, I'm sure."
"Okay." Sam said, and he tossed Dean another box of takeout. "You know, we should maybe get groceries, or something."
"You get right on that."
They both laughed because it was funnier than it ought to have been and that was okay.
Dean walked beside Sam casually, but places like this always freaked him out. They were in a tunnel heading towards the library, and while Dean caught his bearings easily, he wasn't overly fond of spaces with limited entrance/exit doors.
"How'd you find this?" Dean asked, and he winked at some blushing girl in doc martens.
"Jess showed me, back in first year." Sam didn't break every time he talked about Jessica anymore, but Dean didn't like to bring her into conversation. They lived on the opposite side of campus, trying to stay away from Sam and Jess' old apartment mentally, if not physically. Dean didn't know if Sam ever went back, or if he went to visit Jessica's grave, but Dean did, once. He'd stayed long enough to make sure she was at peace, then he'd left.
"And this is the fastest way to get to your class?" Dean asked, and Sam nodded his head.
"Yeah. Not a lot of people know about it so it's never crowded." Sam left it at that, but Dean shrugged. They got to the class quickly enough, and they had a brief tussle over where to sit, compromising by settling somewhere in the middle.
"You're right, Sam." Dean said. He felt it as soon as he walked in, but whatever it was didn't feel malevolent or evil or anything, just... off. Not quite the way it was supposed to. He looked around the class, noting the dorky kids with laptops up at the front, normal people snapping gum off to the side, and that girl in docs at the back. It didn't seem like they might know what was going on, and the professor herself was at the front, her notes scattered across a stand.
Sam always wrote pages and pages of notes, and this time wasn't any different, especially since Dean was there to scope out the room and he didn't have to worry about it. The professor - Dr. F. Lister - talked about Kurt Vonnegut and Breakfast of Champions and the role of the uncanny in The Leather Man and Sam wasn't surprised to see Dean listening.
As soon as the class was over, Dean bumped into his shoulder and asked, "What's post-structuralist? And who's Foucault?"
Sam smiled openly. "You are in for a treat." he said.
Post-structuralism, as Dean found out, was basically a reaction to structuralism. I know, that doesn't help much, but hold on. See, structuralism says that meaning can be derived from a work independently of its cultural context. Like, say, Romeo and Juliet was about a pair of dumb kids in fourteenth century Italy, and that's that.
Post-structuralism says no! Meaning and cultural context are inextricably entwined! You should take into account sixteenth century English norms, culture and history, and what Shakespeare had for breakfast the day he started writing!
They tend to use a lot of exclamation marks and grammar that doesn't always make sense. Also, post-structuralists make up words, but so does everyone.
And I'm not even gonna talk about Foucault, 'cause the man just needs to get to the point.
There was a structural engineering textbook lying on counter, beside a couple of mugs they liberated from a diner in Wisconsin. It was carefully placed to look casual but impossible to miss, and Dean mentally rolled his eyes at Sam. He picked it up anyways, out of curiosity, and by the time Sam came out for breakfast, Dean was yelling at the textbook, saying stuff like why the extra support beams when a perfectly good keystone would do. Or something like that, because I know nothing about engineering and Dean's probably smarter than I am anyways.
"Stop yelling, dude." Sam said, and Dean pointed to the eggs on the stove. "You cooked eggs?" Sam said incredulously.
Dean glared at him. "I can cook. You should know, Sammy." Sam shoveled some omelette onto a plate and sat down across from Dean, who started talking to the textbook again.
"Dude's whack." Dean declared. Sam was about to pour him some orange juice but Dean waved him off and nodded at the cheap percolator they liberated - and it truly was a liberation, the thing was being held hostage behind an espresso machine - from a cafe outside LA. Sam groaned but got up to get some for both of them.
"How's that?" Sam asked. He slid one cream and two sugar packets over to Dean, who opened them both and automatically stirred them into Sam's coffee.
"Mmmm?" Dean said, and Sam grinned. "Don't think that I don't know you bought this for me." Dean flipped the book over and pointed to the hundred and fifty dollar price tag on the back. "Hope you don't think I'm going to buy you a pony for your birthday."
"Damn." Sam said, deadpan. "I wanted one so bad."
"Got a job." Dean pointed to one of the papers they had between them. "Check this out." He shoved a paper at Sam, and he had to scan the page twice before he found what Dean was referring to.
"Park rangers discover third mutilated bear in as many days." Sam read aloud. "Sources say the animals were eviscerated."
"Yummy." Dean said as he munched on his eggs. Sam made an eww! face.
"Semantics, Dean!" Sam called, voice drifting into the living room from the kitchen but Dean scowled.
"The fuck's a semantic?" he yelled back, and Dean could hear Sam's head hitting a wall in there somewhere.
"It's an argument based on-"
"-I know what semantics are, dude. Honestly." Dean shook his head, even though Sam couldn't see it, and he kept reading aloud, "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism: in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality... the relation between organism and machine has been a border war."
Sam walked back into the living room, chopsticks from the chinese takeout waving in the air as if illustrating his point. "You can't argue that cyborgs aren't people because people aren't machines. We're back to this semantics thing - what about a machine that's so close to human you can't tell the difference? Didn't you ever see Battlestar Galactica?"
Dean plucked some kung pao chicken from Sam's takeout box and settled back against the couch. "Little busy with the hunting thing, dude. Besides, where's the last place we've stayed at that's had that sci-fi channel? You can't prove it based on a TV show anyways. Cyborgs aren't people. People have souls; machines just don't. Not now, anyways. They can't hop up all self aware and whatever." He twirled his chopsticks and looked around, noticing how his things were scattered all over and settled. He kind of liked it but it felt stifling too.
Sam fell onto the couch beside him and a grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Deus ex machina, Dean? All the crazy stuff we've seen and you don't think it's possible? Killer truck, anybody?" He talked around a mouthful of fried rice and Dean stuck his tongue out at him childishly.
"You ever try to exorcise a computer? They're part of somebody else but they aren't all on their lonesome. Besides, that truck was part of somebody, not just killing people all by itself." Sam nodded, conceding the point but not satisfied with Dean's conclusion.
"Okay, but what about something like Blade Runner or Dark City?" Sam asked, but Dean frowned.
"Only seen Blade Runner. You mean implanted memories or something? Like maybe what I remember is just something that somebody's stuck in my head but not actually mine?" Dean tossed half of an egg roll into the air and caught it with his mouth. Sam nearly laughed but he managed to restrain himself.
"Yeah." Sam said, almost smiling. "Say you are a cyborg - a robot - and you had no idea because you think you remember all this stuff that didn't actually happen."
Dean wadded up the chinese food wrappers and threw them at the garbage can. "Dude, would it matter? Seriously, would it really matter? I wouldn't know, obviously. You wouldn't know. I'd still be the sexiest son of a bitch in the state and you'd still be sidekick geekboy extraordinaire."
Sam lobbed a fortune cookie at him.
He sometimes wondered if his brother was a MENSA candidate in leather jacket disguise. And then Dean did something unbelievable stupid, like something so crazy he couldn't believe Dean was still breathing, and Sam decided that maybe Dean had been dropped on the head one too many times as a child.
It kind of hurt to realize that maybe definitely Dean had been knocked around more than he let on, because heaven forbid any display of weakness. Oh no, not the Winchester men, not with their teflon-coated, steel-plated little hearts of gold.
Dean had taken the engineering textbook with him on a hunt, and it came back bloodstained, dog-eared, and missing the introductory chapter.
"I really needed some burnables, dude." Dean said, by way of explanation. "I didn't feel like burning the whole thing, though."
Sam took it as the apology it was meant to be and left it at that. He found it bookmarked later, at a chapter about reinforcing load bearing sections in small buildings.
This last gig wasn't hard, not really. Dean usually did most of the driving, but the barghest just south of Venice Beach must have thought Dean was tasty because it'd manage to nip at Dean's legs, leaving some deep scrapes that required frequent dousing with holy water. Sam assumed that they must have hurt like a bitch because Dean didn't argue when Sam asked for the keys.
For Those About To Rock started midsong as soon as Sam turned on the ignition, and he handed Dean the journal they were using to catalogue their hunts. Dean looked around as if he'd just woken up. "Paradise, huh?" He teased, and Sam shook his head.
"See, that's why I think Baudrilliard messed up. Or tragically ironic, I can't tell anymore. The U.S. is not fucking paradise, and I've never been to Disneyland." Dean made a notation in the journal, 'barghests appear to be more susceptible to iron west of Rockies, unknown why.'
"We could always go to Disneyland, I guess." Dean said through clenched teeth and Sam glanced at the cuts on Dean's leg. They'd almost stopped bleeding.
"Nah. Overpriced rides and guys dressed up in mouse suits? Decent beverages at three times the usual going rate? Please." Sam grabbed a pencil and scribbled still possesses only really ugly dogs in the margins.
Dean laughed and coughed at the same time, but Sam knew he was going to be okay. "No sense of romance, Sammy. This is why you never get any girls." He muttered quietly to himself that this explained everything.
"Hey, Sammy?" Dean said softly, and Sam hummed in response. "You, me, finished job, open road..." Sam waited until Dean closed his eyes, almost asleep and he put in Cat Power on low volume. If Dean listened, he never let on. The journal slipped from Dean's lap on to the floor and it lay closed.
"Paradise." Sam whispered.
Dean talked in class a lot. To Sam, to the professor, to the kid that was two rows ahead of them and to that girl in martens at the back. He was pretty egalitarian in his attention, and Sam was secretly kind of pleased by the whole thing. Pleased by the fact that the professor knew their names, and not because they missed every other class or because they were ruckus-causers but because they were smart and spoke up.
"That's it. I'll see you next class, but I'll see Sam and Dean now, please." Dean lowered his boots from the chair in front of him, and he glanced at Sam. The fuck? his expression said, and Sam shrugged. Maybe we've been found out Sam mouthed, and Dean shook his head.
"You're thinking Dean's been found out, huh?" Dr. Lister asked, and Dean shot Sam a dirty look. "I don't care about that. It's not like you're submitting huge essays that I have to mark or writing finals I've got to verify. Actually, you're great. I have all the benefits of a great student and none of the work." Sam shoved Dean with his shoulder, grinning, but Dean was waiting for the catch.
"What I'm actually worried about, though, is how you two are always showing up to class looking as if you've been in a fight." She touched Dean's sleeve where there was dirt smudged across the elbow, and Sam noticed the bruise high on Dean's right cheekbone. He wondered if he looked like that too.
"Our jobs can get a little messy sometimes." Dean said charmingly, and Dr. Lister smiled. Dean didn't think he'd fooled her, though.
"I have no doubt. Just don't do anything stupid. You are both very clever, and I wouldn’t want to see that go to waste." Evidently Dr. Lister thought that they were up to no good, and the irony that she was only half wrong buzzed up and down Dean's spine. He got the sense against that something here was off, but he couldn't pin it down. She dismissed them, reminding Sam that the term paper was due in two weeks and that she expected especially good things.
"Something feel weirder than usual to you?" Dean asked as soon as they got out of earshot, and Sam nodded.
"Something... insubstantial. You know?"
Dean's hand ran along the railing of the staircase leading back to the main floor. "Yeah, I know." He said. "Still innocent enough, just not all there."
"Hmmm." Sam said.
Sam stood over the stove, stirring something on the stovetop. It smelled good and Dean hadn't realized he was hungry until he'd walked into their little kitchen.
"Hey." Sam nodded at Dean, and it was easy. Familiar. "Try this."
Dean bent to taste, and it was good even though he had no idea what it was, not exactly.
"Mmmmm. What's this?"
Sam grinned. "Veggie chilli."
Dean scowled, and Sam didn't hold back his laugh. After a beat, Dean relented and got out the forks and knives.
There was a knock on the door, and Sam looked up from his paper. Nobody knocked except for the landlady on the twenty-seventh of each month, and they've had no visitors the entire time they've lived here. Dean was already moving towards the door, and Sam got out of his chair, catching the Glock Dean threw at him and saying "Just a minute!" at the door with the same breath.
Dean moved to open the door, guns all poised, and his breath caught in his throat when he saw his father on the other side.
Dean looked at Sam quickly, and Sam relaxed. John stepped in, and for a moment everything was awkward until Dean grabbed a couple of beers from the fridge and wordlessly handed them around.
"What brings you to Palo Alto?" Sam said, by way of greeting, and he motioned for their Dad to take one of the kitchen chairs, which he did. Dean leaned by the fridge and as close to the beer supply as possible, and Sam moved to join him.
"Haunting at Stanford. Didn't you guys notice?" John stripped the label off the bottle slowly, in between words meaning didn't I teach you better?
"Sam noticed something off about one of the classrooms, but we've checked it out and there's nothing there."
John caught Dean's tone, and he peered at his son. "You both checked it out? When?"
Sam plucked his dad's mostly empty bottle out of his hands and poured the rest of it down the sink. Dean didn't move to stop him and John scowled. "Dean's been coming with me to some of my classes." Sam said, looking at his father straight on as if daring him to say that Dean had better things to do.
"Really." John said, and he leaned back in the rickety chair.
"Yeah." Dean said. "Turns out higher education comes in handy sometimes." He shot his dad a crooked grin and John relented.
"Fine. We'll all go and check it out."
Not that John didn't trust his sons, or whatever. He just figured that nobody could really split focus like that, and he was pretty sure his boys would screw up somewhere along the way. My personal opinion is that he still kind of hoped they'd hunt full time, even though he knew that's maybe not what Dean wanted and definitely not what Sam wanted.
He didn't want to admit that being here - on campus - made him kind of uncomfortable. There were a hell of a lot of things he didn't know and every time he saw the word 'Stanford,' he remembered that.
"According to Baudrillard, what has happened in post modern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world. 'The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra- that engenders the territory.'"
John considered that he had no idea what the map was. The professor paused, drank some water, and the class rustled around a little bit.
"Kind of like Mordecai. The Tibetan thought forms? Remember?" Dean whispered to Sam, and Sam nodded.
John had no idea what they were talking about. He pretended to himself that he didn't really care, either.
"I get it - like the constant reproduction and representation of an idea recreates an image, more. Or better, or stronger. It's not new, just a reiteration of old ideas." Sam said quietly, as to not interrupt. He leaned across John so that Dean could hear him better.
"Exactly." Dean said. "The belief in an idea or an object makes it more real than the idea or object itself. The simulated is just as good as-"
"Aren't you paying attention?" John said irritably, and Sam rolled his eyes.
"Obviously, dad. Hyperreality? Desert of the real? Didn't you ever see The Matrix?" Dean said quickly, not taking his eyes off the professor.
John shook his head. "Paying attention to the strange vibes, Dean."
"Yeah. Sure." Sam answered. "They haven't changed; they've been here the whole time."
"But-" John started.
"Shh, she's talking, dad." Sam said.
Dean put his boots up on the seat in front of him. "D'ya ever think that hunting is just our lives on a 1:1 scale?"
When they got back to the apartment, John and Sam nearly got into another fight because John said that it obviously was the professor - didn't anyone notice she never touched anything and she seemed kind of, um, insubstantial and they didn't do anything because they didn't want the class to end. Sam yelled back because John was right.
Dean just stripped the trusty .45 and started cleaning it, even though he hadn't used it that hard. He didn't feel like playing UN Peacekeeper again, and they weren't ever going to learn how to settle a fight if he kept doing it for them.
One of them made a harrumph sound and that was that.
"He's saying that family values never existed." Dean said. It was obvious that he was kind of amused by the idea, if the way he was loading that sawed-off shotgun was any indication. He twirled it around his index finger like John Wayne might have, and rested it across his shoulders, safety on.
"Don't tell me that." Sam whined. "But I guess he does have a point." Dean threw a couple of shells at Sam's head teasingly and Sam caught them.
"You're talking about this dude as if you know him. Isn't he dead?" John said. "We've got to focus, boys."
"Is he dead?" Sam asked. "I don't remember." He waved at the new and kind of bloodstained copy of The Lesser Key Of Solomon that he'd managed to find at a yard sale - a yard sale! he thought - and Dean passed it to him.
Dean shrugged. "Does it really matter? He'd annoy the hell out of you either way and I can't argue with that." He laughed, and then he handed his dad an extra rock-salt loaded pistol-grip shotgun.
There was this one time, in Miami, that Dean nearly ran off the road because some soccer mom in her ugly minivan forgot that whole right-of-way thing. I'd expect him to start swearing, or at least be pissed off, but he took it in stride. Sam was probably seventeen or so then, and John was back at some shady little beachside motel.
"What the fuck?" Sam started, and Dean shrugged.
"She just forgot. Let it go, Sammy."
You kind of figured they'd be coming for you, and frankly, you're surprised it took them this long to figure it out. Well, it's not like you were hiding or haunting anybody, except your own house, maybe. You're not actually sure why you're still here, but you think that maybe you'll understand, one day. It's already been weirder than you thought, because you always kind of figured that once you died - that was it. There were no life-afters, no bump-in-the-night or whatever - but looks like you were wrong. Looks like there was something after all. You kind of wished you knew that while you were alive, but it's not like you can change it now.
Not that you're objecting, even though you do think it's kind of pathetic that you're limited to your house and the Stanford campus. Not that surprising, considering that's where you spent all of your time anyways. No one noticed that you didn't really touch anything anymore, mostly because when you did you kind of... just went through it. At least your muscles didn't burn anymore so pretending to be sitting in a chair for a three hour long meeting wasn't as bad as it might have been.
You kind of expected to be stuck in this in-between state forever. You certainly didn't expect a student - especially one you'd never taught - to pick up on the strangeness that you seemed to be made out of. It was kind of relieving, actually.
And then he brought his friend - brother - whatever - and you figured out that they weren't exactly the normal kind of students; they were something else. Not... better, exactly, but different and you wondered if they'd put you to rest and if you even wanted to be put to rest.
Your body was on the chair in front of a fireplace, more intact than it ought to have been. The book you were reading when the stroke hit had fallen face down, and pages were bent against the grain. You wanted to pick it up so it wouldn't get damaged but your hands went through it every time you tried.
You managed to go online, somehow, in a very 'ghost in the machine' kind of way, and you discovered that there are a lot of things you wouldn't have thought about during your lifetime but now, during your afterlifetime, you might pay just a little more attention too. Things like how ghosts aren't exactly spooky tales, and how the symbols and icons you'd seen on some of your more religious students had power in them. Things like how salt and fire were meant to purify. You think the symbolism is a little overdone, but then you remember back to a film lecture you sat in on; thinking about how watching 2001: A Space Odyssey now seems kind of like watching one big cliché, until you realize it's the original text. The start of a lot of things.
They're outside, you can sense them. It's not like they're hiding, not exactly, but they are being careful. All three of them were here, and you're kind of surprised because you could have sworn the eldest man - you're not sure who he is, exactly - wasn't awfully keen on their being here.
Here, in the attending-Stanford sense. You assume they'd be here putting you to rest regardless.
You opened the door before Dean could kick it in. You're not sure how you did that, exactly, but you weren't overly concerned.
"Huh?" he said as he stepped in and Sam was with him. The other man was a few steps behind and you thought about how appropriate that was. How different they were.
"I'm dead." You start to explain, and Dean just looked at you the way he looked at some poor kid who just didn't get Virilio or Foucault. Even though you could tell he just wished Foucault would get to the point already.
"We know. We're here to put you to rest."
"Oh," you say. "Well. Um, should I do something? Maybe leave a note or something?"
"Saying what? ’I'm dead, sorry about that?'" You knew Dean was the snarky one from the moment he walked into your classroom with that damned swagger, and he actually seemed to be teasing you.
"Class marks, actually," you say, and Sam perked up at that. You weren't surprised. "I'm gonna give both of you A+'s just for the hell of it."
"Can you do that?" This came from the older guy, the man you now assumed was their father. Which was weird, because the first thing you thought when they walked in together wasn't that they were brothers.
"I can do whatever the hell I want, right? I'm dead."
Sam grinned at that, and you liked making him smile.
You settle, more or less, in a chair beside your body. "What do I do now?" you ask and Dean kind of half smiles at you.
"Close your eyes, I guess."
You do, and you hear the sound of salt being shaken out of its container and then... and then...
Shhh. We're not supposed to know.
They stood in front of John's truck, unconsciously partitioned off between who's staying and who's leaving. It's not surprising, not at all.
He suspected that he'd be stopping by every couple of months or so, presumably to stock up but they all knew better, even if none of them were going to say it. "Take care of each other, okay?" John said, heaving a duffel over his shoulder and carrying some extra ammo that his sons had given him.
Sam elbowed Dean in the ribs just as he was about to say "yes, sir" and it came out more like "yeaahhoww!"
John knew his boys were gonna be just fine.
Dean wasn't sure what he was supposed to do now. He hadn't been to a graduation before, not even high school. They just handed you the dinner menu rolled up pretty and you had to collect your actual diploma at the front office anyways. Dad said it was a waste of time and money, and Dean agreed, until now. Now it seemed kind of like a party where everybody’s about to get trashed and everybody’s just glad to have it over with. He grinned a little as Sam made it back down the aisle, carrying his degrees and smiling. Didn't Derrida write something about this?
"Nice work, Sammy." Dean said, and he looked down at his boots. The astroturf they had at these kinds of things always annoyed him. The artifice of it, maybe.
"Thanks, Dean." Sam said, his voice all bubbly and Dean wasn't sure exactly how to say want to stay with me anyways? without it coming out all pleading.
"What are you going to do now?" He asked instead.
Sam avoided the question, shoved his hands in his pockets and rocked a little. "So, where's your next gig?" Dean saw what Sam was doing, but he was hardly about to press Sam to answer. He scratched the back of his head and thought for a second.
"Green River, Wyoming. Looks like maybe another skin walker, but I'm not sure yet." They started walking back to the Impala, bumping into each other on every other step. Dean had parked the car in a no parking zone, and Sam wondered if Dean had the car blessed or something because it was always untouched.
"So, say it's a skin walker. Lots of people getting blamed for what it's done and probably willing to pay for reasonably priced legal services?" Sam looked at Dean sideways, and he caught Dean's nod. "Guess they'll need us, then."
Dean paused midstride, but Sam wasn't sure he would have noticed it if he hadn't been paying attention. "Yeah, guess I will." Dean said quietly. They stopped in front of the impala, and Sam held out his hand, smiling.
Dean tossed him the keys.