Episode Twenty: Altered

By : BurstynOut

Part One

 


Dean huffed audibly and closed the cell phone with a click, dropping it into the seat beside him while his left hand clenched the steering wheel and kept them safely on the nearly deserted highway. The sun was setting and he’d taken off his sunglasses a bit too early, it seemed, as he squinted into the fading light, a crease in his forehead that Sam knew was more than just defense against the dying glare.

“Still no luck reaching, Dad?” Sam asked, looking up from the phone in his lap at the sound of his brother’s frustrated exhalation.

“No,” Dean answered, and from the intonation, Sam knew he wanted to offer an explanation but had already given every one he could possibly come up with. They hadn’t heard from their father in almost a month. No phone calls, no voice mails, no coordinates, nothing. Dean’s hand tightened on the steering wheel under his little brother’s quiet scrutiny. “And no one else, either.” He gestured toward the cell distractedly. “I’ve tried everyone on the contact list. Half of ‘em go directly to voice mail and don’t return the calls, and the other half say they are temporarily out of service.” He bit the inside of his lower lip contemplatively. “I’m starting to think something big’s going down, and we haven’t gotten the memo.”

Sam pursed his lips and looked at his brother, nodding slowly and wishing he could offer some explanation himself. But his mind was a blank. Truth be told, he’d been thinking the same thing himself. It was one thing for their Dad not to answer, but when Bobby didn’t pick up, or Joshua…well, Sam had to agree, something was definitely up. He tapped the phone in his hand against his thigh distractedly. “I’m sure we’ll get someone eventually.”

“Yeah,” Dean said with a small grin that Sam knew was as much an acceptance of the younger brother’s reassurance as it was an attempt to offer some in return. Hell, what was brotherhood if not the mutual sharing of false hope? Dean flicked his eyes in Sam’s direction, fell to the phone in the younger brother’s lap, and back to the road in the smooth manner of someone who’d spent years trying to check up on someone else without the second party noticing. As prone as Sam was to playing the mother hen, he was certainly stubborn when it came to accepting the watchful protectiveness Dean doled out in return.

Taking a moment to digest Sam’s hunched posture and nervously fidgeting fingers, Dean said, “How ‘bout you?”

“What?” Sam asked, drawing his gaze back inside the car from whatever distant nothing he’d been staring at for the last couple hundred miles.

Dean nodded toward the phone in Sam’s lap. “You having any luck reaching anyone?”

“Huh…oh, no,” Sam said, moving his hand to the phone as though he’d meant to keep it hidden and forgotten. “’Ts my old phone from Stanford. No service on it,” he mumbled. He took a deep breath, obviously trying to compose himself, and reached decisively for the glove compartment door. He popped open the box, pulled out the cord they used to charge the phones, and plugged it into the cigarette lighter. “I was just getting ready to charge it up, take a look at some of my old video that’s stored in it.”

Dean’s eyes darted out the window and back to the road as he bit back the urge to tell his brother what a bad idea that seemed to be. The older Winchester often put on a show of careless nonchalance, but he knew that Sam had been thinking about Stanford and Jess a lot lately. He’d been letting it slide, because he had come to accept that, yes, there were some things that Sam needed to keep for himself. He couldn’t help but wonder, though, if this might be a line Sam ought not to be crossing. He refrained from saying anything, but psychic boy seemed to already know what was on his mind.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Sam began, voice edging on confrontational.

Dean raised his eyebrows in mock amusement, not wanting to fight with his brother, especially when they seemed to have lost contact with anyone and anything else familiar. “Oh you do…?” He grinned wryly. “Then you owe me a dollar.”

Sam leaned back against the passenger door, turning toward his brother incredulously with a questioning smirk dancing across his face and lighting up his eyes. “A dollar? For what?”

“C’mon, spice boy, porn ain’t free.” He pointed to his head, raised his eyebrows, and grinned lewdly, “And this is the good stuff. Which one were ya watching? Huh? Was it the one with the two hot chicks from New York? Or maybe the police babe from Chicago? Ooh, the hair wash girl from when we stayed with Bobby…”

Sam’s head rocked back against the window as a soft chuckle bubbled out of his chest. “Dude, TMI. Anyway, I thought peep shows were a quarter.”

Dean shrugged. “Inflation,” he said, “it ain’t just the easy way to get a date without leaving the motel room anymore.”

“Dean!” Sam tried to sound offended, but it was impossible to do through the ear-to-ear grin that had spread across his face. He just shook his head and plugged the cord into the phone.

Dean’s grin faltered slightly as he saw Sam’s hands proceed with the task of charging up the phone. He cleared his throat and darted his eyes away to hide his disappointment at the brief nature of their reprieve. “So, uh,” he ducked his chin slightly, obviously uncomfortable, “you wanna tell me about it?”

“Not really,” Sam answered.

“Well, suit yourself.”

Sam looked down at the phone for a long beat, and Dean knew the part about not wanting to talk was just BS. His instincts were confirmed a moment later when Sam spoke up.

“It’s just…” Sam paused, and Dean kept his eyes fixed on the road ahead as though he wasn’t worried about his brother and had all the time in the world. “Well, it’s kind of an anniversary, or, it would’ve been, you know, for Jess and me.” He put his fingertips to his forehead as if willfully smoothing the tense wrinkles forming there. “There’s a few messages from her on this phone still. I had it on me, when…” His voice broke off. “Everything else burned. It’s all I have left.”

“I know.” And as much as it had hurt Dean when Sam had left all those years ago, it hurt him more that everything Sam had left for had been taken from him so violently. He wasn’t about to take away what remained. He pulled his eyes from the road and looked at Sam, really looked at him for the first time in hours, and Sam met his gaze. “Just so long as you’re just remembering,” he swallowed, “not psyching yourself up to do something stupid.”

Sam’s gaze dropped, and they drove the rest of the way in silence.

****

Sam waited for the sound of the shower spray and the first wisps of steam to come under the ill-fitting bathroom door before he scooted back against the headboard of the too-small bed and opened the phone. Now fully charged, the screen displayed the prompt that he had three saved video messages. He’d played them all a hundred times before, but as he clicked play on the first, and Jess’ smiling face appeared in the frame, he felt like he did the first time he’d seen her.

His chest clenched against a bubble of what could have passed as acid reflux if it hadn’t been for the deep, aching emptiness of the burn. He’d forgotten how much he missed her; the bright gleam of her smile, a smile that seemed to reach into his soul somehow, pierce the shadow of growing up Winchester, and make it okay to just be Sam, Jess’s Sam. The sight of that smile again brought crashing back the sheer mass of everything that had been ripped from him when Dean had ripped him from the flames and left behind everything he’d ever thought he’d wanted.

It wasn’t that he wouldn’t have given it all. If he’d known then what he knew now, he’d never have been so stubborn about giving up the search for Dad and returning to Palo Alto. If he’d known then how much better off Jess and Becky and all of that shining future-upper-middle-class crowd would have been without him to bring the fire and darkness down on them, he’d have never gone there in the first place. He wasn’t a selfish bastard, just, well, somewhat ill-informed. Had he known the Demon was hunting him, not the other way around, he’d have passed on the future until he’d dealt with the past.

Jess flagged a test paper in front of the camera phone. “Look baby,” she squeeed, her voice like ice-laden willow branches tinkling together in the winter breeze, “I got an ‘A’ on my Latin test.” She focused the phone on her face and batted her long, dark lashes while pursing her full lips. “You know I couldn’t have done it without you. I am sooo gonna thank you properly as soon as you get home.” With another flash of her perfect smile, she pressed her lips to the camera before it went dark.

Sam let his thumb trace over the screen, the image of her sweet kiss burned onto his retinas, despite the screen being black. He was sorry to see it fade.

He was sorry for a lot more than that, too. His eyes glanced to the bathroom door and he could still see the worried glance Dean had cast in his direction as he’d slipped inside. He was sorry Dean worried so much about him. He was sorry there were times, in the past, when he’d taken Dean’s worried protectiveness for smothering oppression. He was sorry that the Dean that came to find him in Palo Alto was a broken, re-glued porcelain replica of the mighty hunter brother he’d left behind. He was sorry there were years of Dean’s life that Sam would never know and that there were years of his that Dean would never share. He was sorry Jess would never kiss her own children with the soft lips she’d brushed against the phone.

But he wasn’t sorry he’d kissed those lips. He wasn’t sorry he’d wanted Jess’s children to be his children, or that he’d wanted to build her that house and the picket fence where those children could grow and be happy. He wasn’t sorry that he hadn’t known he was never meant to have those things. There was no way he could have known, and if he had… If he’d known his life was bound to the Demon, and that everyone around him would suffer for that binding… Well, what would he have been without hope?

So, despite what Dean may have thought about him replaying these old messages, digging up these old bones memories, Sam wasn’t sorry for doing it. He wasn’t sorry that he’d been happy once. And he wasn’t sorry he wanted to be happy again. He was only sorry it had been such a long time since he’d believed it was possible.

He clicked on the menu and started playing the second message. A small smile played out on his lips. Disneyland. He’d almost forgotten.

Jess had insisted on bringing Sam to Disneyland on their last Spring Break. She’d made it quite clear that she found it appalling that any child could grow up in the United States of America and never visit the Magic Kingdom. She’d practically dragged him kicking and screaming from their apartment where he’d been bound and determined to spend the entire break studying for the friggin’ LSATs. He wasn’t sorry she’d done it.

The scene on the screen became more familiar as it played out. Jess was grinning, her long blonde hair fluttering in the breeze, and the sunlight glared off her white short suit in a way that made her look downright angelic. She was at one of the photo op posts that overlooked Sleeping Beauty’s castle, chatting it up with Prince Charming himself. Sam could vaguely recall the dorky grin that had pulled at the corner of his mouth as he’d filmed the conversation.

“What’s that handsome?” Jess teased, batting her eyelashes and tossing her hair over her shoulder flirtatiously. “You want to marry me and take me back to your castle?” She turned and looked at the towering castle with its spiraling turrets painted in pinks and blues. “That castle over there?” She put her hand to her mouth in mock wonder. “That would be like a dream come true.” She feigned a swoon. Then her eyes turned to look into the camera. “There is just one problem with that plan, though,” she said, eyes darkening.

“What problem would that be?” Prince Charming asked, playing along.

She ducked her chin a little sheepishly, kicking the toe of her sandal along the sidewalk. “It just so happens, that I am completely…undeniably…irrevocably…” She accented each word by taking a step closer to the camera and gazing into the lens from beneath her lashes, “…head over heels in love with my boyfriend.”

Sam could remember how his heart had leapt at the precise moment that the phone started to slide down as he’d prepared to sweep her into his arms. Just as the frame fell to her feet and the entwined shadow of his between them, she skipped away playfully. The camera lifted just in time to see her leap into the arms of some poor dude in a Pluto costume. “Isn’t he dreamy?” She laughed with a tease. And the video cut off.

The smile still pulling at the corners of his mouth, Sam clicked onto the next message. Jess re-appeared, this time in a baby tee and boyshorts. She was sprawled on her stomach across their bed, the phone clasped in her hands as they dangled over the edge. He could just barely see the freshly painted toenails, cotton balls still tucked between the digits, as she kicked them around behind her distractedly. “Oh baby,” she whined softly, lips pouting out, “I’m so bored here all by myself. Enough studying already. That cranky old librarian sees you more than I do anymore.”

She traced a finger over her bottom lip, along her neck and just under the neckline of her t-shirt before letting her head fall sideways onto one outstretched arm, long hair pillowing around her face. “What’s she got that I haven’t got?” She moved the phone closer to her face so that all he could see was her mouth. “Come home now. I promise, I’ll make it worth your while.”

Sam glanced around the room quickly. Even though he could still hear the shower running, he wasn’t taking any chances on Dean walking in and seeing that. Dean had had escapades, trysts, interludes that Sam was sure could make a sailor blush with shame. Sam had had a lover, and the difference was the complete lack of shame. Sam wasn’t sorry for that either.

He was about to close the phone back up, knowing that Dean would be out in a few minutes, when he noticed with perplexing incredulity that the text prompt indicated that he had one un-played video message. His brow crinkled. He was pretty sure that he’d never seen that on there before, and there’d been no service to this phone since…

He glanced at the date on the display: November 1, 2005, and every ounce of giddy pleasantness that had settled over him in his reminiscing was instantly strangled by the wave of anguish that squeezed him from the inside out. The day before she died…

His thumb trembled visibly as he instructed the phone to play the message.

Jess’ face appeared onscreen once more, but Sam had to squint to see it. It took him a moment to realize she was barely backlit by several candles lined up on their kitchen counter. He thought it might have been another one of her romantic, come hither messages, but there was a little too much white in her eye, a little too much tremble in her voice, a little too much sheen to her forehead, and he knew she was afraid.

“Sam,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. “I know you’re not nearby, and I don’t know when you’ll get this message, but I had to call anyway.” She looked around her as though she thought someone might be sneaking up on her from out of the darkness. “It’s just… things are weird here, baby. The lights keep flickering out. The TV won’t keep a signal. I asked around, but aside from some power surges on the floor, no one else seems to be having the same problems. I don’t know…maybe I’ve seen too many bad horror movies, but I’m getting seriously creeped out.” Sam could see her one free arm wrap around herself protectively, long fingers working worriedly at the flesh of her opposite arm. “Sam, I’m scared. Please come home.”

The phone jerked and Jess’ head turned quickly as she looked at something off camera. “Who’s there?” A beat. “What?” Another beat. She turned back to the phone. When she spoke again, Sam nearly let the gizmo fall from his grasp. His eyes were focused on her lips which clearly said, “I love you,” but no matter how many times he played the message back, he heard something else entirely, like a bad dub on one of those old Kung Fu movies Dean used to watch when they were kids. He replayed the message one last time to be sure, putting the phone directly on his ear the second Jess turned to look into it that last time.

“Alea iacta est.” What the hell?

Then the phone did fall from his grasp as the bathroom door flung open and Dean entered the room, surrounded by a steamy mist. He had one towel wrapped loosely around his waist and was scrubbing another over his short hair, large droplets of water still clinging to his eyelashes, as he turned and froze at the sight of his baby brother, pale and stricken atop the bed. He studied Sam silently for several long beats, then began rubbing the towel through his hair once more. He stalked over to the corner of the room where they’d dropped their duffel bags. Keeping one hand at his waist to prevent the towel from slipping, he bent and grabbed Sam’s bag from the floor. In one fluid motion he turned and flung the duffel across the room onto his brother’s lap.

“That’s it,” he said authoritatively. “‘Nuff reminiscing for one night. Get your ass up. We’re going out.” Sam opened his mouth to protest, but Dean’s jaw clenched and he tilted his head defiantly, eyes boring through his younger brother. “That wasn’t a request.” Dean flung the loose towel onto his bed and began digging through his own bag brusquely. Realizing that Sam still hadn’t moved, Dean turned his head to look at him over his shoulder, eyebrows raised expectantly. “Up!” He demanded. “Now!”

He turned back to his rummaging, mumbling under his breath. “Might not have anything constructive lined up to do in this town, doesn’t mean we gotta sit here and rot.”

Sam wanted to argue. He held the phone up, mouth agape in preparation to tell Dean what he’d just seen, but to his dismay, the message he’d just played was gone. He spent several seconds randomly pressing buttons and searching for it in vain, but all that remained were the three original messages. Sam shook his head in bewilderment. Maybe I do need a drink. He grabbed his bag and stalked off into the bathroom silently.

Local Bar

Sam leaned back in the chair, his long legs splayed out carelessly under the table as he peeled at the label of the beer bottle he’d been sipping on for the last hour. He glanced up every now and again from under his furrowed brow to watch Dean.

His brother was in his usual hunter form, stalking around like a big cat, the women of the establishment unaware or unwilling to acknowledge that they were the prey. Sam watched as Dean struck up a conversation with one busty blonde, only to have his head turned by a curvy redhead that paraded by and start a second conversation with her. Sam swore the next time Dean ended up in the ER, which , according to Sam’s watch, would probably be, oh, anytime now, he’d hit the docs up for a Ritalin script. If Dean didn’t have ADD, then Sam was pretty sure there was no such thing.

Dean caught Sam’s near-leer of disapproval in his direction, rolled his eyes, and excused himself from the company of the petite brunette he was currently charming. He walked cockily over to his brother’s table, set his beer down with a clunk, and dragged the chair out from under the table, lifting it just enough to make it scrape across the floor raucously. He spun the chair around backwards, straddled it and leaned forward to get in Sam’s face.

“Dude, you keep looking at me like that, and people are gonna think you’re my jealous boyfriend or something.”

Sam raised his eyebrows, determined not show just how little he cared about whether his brother got laid that night.

Dean leaned back in the chair and threw his hands up. “Whatever. You don’t wanna mingle, why don’t I go bring someone over here to meet ya?” He leered over his shoulder. “That blonde over there? Huh? I bet she’d wipe that gloom and doom look off your face.” He leaned closer as if to whisper in Sam’s ear. “She’s got a tongue piercing,” he said, pulsing his eyebrows.

Sam glared back at him from half-hooded eyes.

Dean shrugged. “Hmph, not your type then.” He looked around the bar again, eyes rolling a little loosely in their sockets to make Sam wonder just how many beers he’d had already. “Oh!” He exclaimed. “Tawnia over there…” he pointed to a petite brunette, “…is a gymnast. Heh?”

The glare of doom. “Dean, would you stop trying to pimp me out, already?”

“Ah, c’mon little brother. Is it so wrong for me to want to put a little color in your cheeks?” He quirked a smirk. “Preferably all four…”

“Dean!” Sam growled, lowering his gaze.

“Sammy, Sammy, wait…” Dean said throwing up his hand to end the tirade. “Check this one out.” He held the beer bottle in his right hand, took a long swig off of it, and pointed across the room with the pinky finger of the same hand. “Tall, well-built, long legs…” Dean rattled on, taking another drink off of his beer.

With a sigh, Sam turned to see what poor girl his brother was leering at now. He heard Dean’s snicker too late as he met the gaze of one tall and very well-built, long-legged indeed, MAN. The dude smiled back at him flirtatiously, having obviously been eyeing him up from behind for some time already.

Dean almost choked on the last swallow of his beer when Sam turned back and glared at him, eyes barely slits. “There’s my color,” Dean laughed pointing at the flush rising over Sam’s cheeks. After a few seconds, the laugh faded and Dean shook his head, standing up. “Fine, if you’re so intent on sucking all the life out of the room, I think I saw another fine drinking establishment a couple miles down the road. Maybe I’ll head over there and leave your sorry ass to sulk in peace.” He straightened and frowned. “After I hit the john.”

Sam could tell that Dean was in no condition to drive, but he was pretty sure Dean would pass out in the bathroom or, at the very least, forget about the other bar by the time he came out. He wasn’t too worried. He shook his head and watched his brother make his way to the back of the bar.

Once Dean was out of sight, the weight of the phone in his pocket seemed to grow by several tons. Unable to get the thought of his earlier episode with the phone out of his mind, he gave in to the temptation to fish it out. He torqued his head sideways with a little smirk, his brother’s happy drunk antics having succeeded in lightening his own mood by several shades.

He leaned forward, covering half the table with his large upper body, the phone held out at arms length. He twirled it around distractedly, warring with himself as to whether he was going to open it again. Finally, the phone won out, and he clicked it open.

The original three messages were still there. Sam sat upright quickly and looked at the screen more closely. For the second time that night, an unplayed message prompt flashed across the tiny monitor. He tried to check the date, but that information was unavailable. His curiosity piqued, there was no way he could ignore the mysterious prompt, so he checked around to make sure that Dean hadn’t come out of the restroom yet, and hit play.

At first there was only some garbled sound, but Sam recognized the song as “Invisible Man,” by Queen, and he knew there was no way the message was from Jess. After a few seconds, flashes of light and movement began to appear on the screen. Sam realized that whoever was holding the camera was either shaking or just moving erratically.

He had a sensation of overwhelming vertigo as the entire recording device flipped around, forcing him to place a hand on the table. The image began to move back and forth like a zoom lens alternating between macro and panoramic view. Sam could barely make out a face in the flashes of momentary clarity. Dean!

His fingers tightened around the phone, willing the image to still so that he could figure out what was going on. He could make out the interior of the Impala, though it was distorted somehow. Sam realized that Dean had the phone on but apparently didn’t know that it was in camera recording mode. He seemed to be trying to see the numbers in order to place a call.

Some loud touch tones drowned out the music for a second, several numbers apparently pressed simultaneously. Then the whole phone shifted closer to Dean’s mouth. “Hello?” Dean’s voice was weak, thready, and his breathing seemed erratic.

“Dean hang it up and start again,” Sam caught himself saying. He knew that there was no way that Dean could hear him, but then, there should be no way he was getting messages on a phone with no service, either.

The shaking stopped suddenly, and Sam was finally able to make out the predicament that Dean was in. The entire passenger compartment of the Impala was filled with greenery and branches, the windshield shattered, and the door caved in. The phone slid slowly back from Dean’s face, and Sam saw with horror that his brother was covered in blood. He realized with a start the reason that the phone had stopped shaking. Dean’s eyes were half-open and fixed in a far-off stare. Dean!

“Dean!” Sam yelled to the phone. “Dean!” But Dean didn’t move, and Sam could no longer hear him breathing.

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