Title: Under a Haystack
By: Emily Brunson
Pairing: gen
Rating: PG-13
Summary: A curse leaves Sam with a very different version of Dean.

1. Red Sky at Morning





It doesn’t catch him at his best. Who is, right after waking up?

And he’s tired as only a sound beating by a nine-year-old girl who just happened to be a really freaking sneaky werewolf – what’d you call them when they were kids? Werepups? – and a grade-A-plus hella nightmare can make him, and so he just doesn’t have much in the way of reflexes. Which is why, he figures, it takes him so long to get what’s happening.

Exhibit A: Dean is not in his bed. That part Sam gets. Kinda hard to miss.

Exhibit B: Small lump under Dean’s covers, on Dean’s empty bed. One could be forgiven for thinking the lump is just – covers. Lumpy covers. The bedspreads are maroon and white and pink, and they’re already lumpy; pushed every which way, they will naturally form a lumpish mass. Lump, identified.

Exhibit C: Only not. Because after staggering into the bathroom to pee and brush his teeth, seeking out his boots which had ended up one under one bed and the other under the other, he sits down on the lump and it yelps.

Exhibit D: Under the lumpish covers, a kid. No kids in this room until this moment, that Sam’s been aware of, but this is a kid, who stares up at Sam with wide, flat eyes, as shocked as Sam himself, wearing a camo tee-shirt about eight sizes too big for him.

So he has to cut himself some slack, because well, it isn’t every day you find a strange kid in your brother’s bed.

There’s really no way to say it that doesn’t sound like a damn pedophile.

Sam bends forward and gapes at the kid, says, “What the fuck,” and that’s when the kid kicks him in the face. Hard.

Smooth move, he thinks later, but at the time he claps his hands over his nose, which is suddenly gushing a real fountain, bawls, “Oh, you liddle SHID,” and falls back on his own bed.

The kid sits up, gives him another flat scary look, and then screams bloody murder.

“Waid a seccud,” Sam yells, and the kid stands up on the bed, still screaming, and ducks Sam’s grasping hand, slippery as a goddamn eel. Kicks out at him again – this one Sam ducks, although it’s more because the kid’s standing on a mattress and struggling with the shirt that fits him like a full-length gown than any real smooth moves on Sam’s part – and makes a pretty damn fine leap at the door. There’s no time for admiring it, because the door’s open and the kid’s running, and Sam’s dripping blood from his probably broken nose and catches him in the parking lot, right when the housekeeping lady is standing on the balcony above them, staring.

“Help!” the kid shrieks, kicking and flailing his arms and catching Sam another whack on the face, this one on his chin. “Help, he kidnapped me!”

Sam claps his hand over the kid’s mouth, and the kid bites him.

The cleaning lady mutters something in Spanish and turns back to her cart. Sam schleps the kid back into the room, hanging by his teeth from Sam’s hand like a mutant tee-shirt-wearing badger, and then shakes him off. The kid thuds to the carpet, slithers back against the dresser.

“You are DOT baking a good first imbresshud,” Sam says. His index finger is howling with pain, joining the infernal chorus with his nose.

The kid twitches, and Sam shakes his head. “Uh, uh. I don’d thig so.”

And then takes another look, because those eyes spitting murder at him are pretty familiar, yes? Familiar in a wild freaky sort of way. Greeny hazel, over a nose covered with freckles. And that’s Dean’s tee shirt, isn’t it? Dean always gets those Army-drab tee shirts at the surplus places.

“My dad’s gonna kill you,” the boy says with evident satisfaction, and that’s when Sam’s morning-slow, only mildly concussed brain informs him that this is not just a child in Dean’s shirt. This kid with blood on his mouth and Sam’s messy death gleaming in his feral green eyes is, in fact, DEAN.

Dean, minus about seventeen or eighteen years.

Sam sags down on the bed and says, “ohshit.”

~~~~~~~~

His nose doesn’t appear to be broken. No thanks to Mighty-Midget!Dean, who continues to glare at Sam from where he sits on the closed toilet, looking like he’d like to finish the job.

“Don’t even have any shoes on,” Sam says, while hot water runs over his throbbing right hand. “I don’t remember you being able to kick like that.”

“Eat shit and die,” Little!Dean says.

Sam blinks at him. “Does Dad know you talk like that?”

“Fuck you.”

Sam wraps his hand in a dry washcloth and fumbles for the hydrogen peroxide. “How old are you anyway?”

“Penis breath.”

Sam bites down hard on his lower lip to keep from laughing. “Okay, then. I’m gonna say around, what? Six?”

Kid!Dean draws up so indignantly Sam laughs anyway. “I’m not six! I’m not a baby! And you’re a bad man!”

“Not that bad, kid,” Sam says, still grinning. The grin fades. “How the hell….”

Dean tenses, eyes flickering in the direction of the door, and Sam shakes his head. “Not getting the drop on me again. I trained with the best.”

“You’re slow,” Dean says crisply, “and you’re stupid, and you won’t be able to run from my dad. He catches things like you. All the time.”

“Not quite like me,” Sam replies. His nose is red, but otherwise looks pretty normal. He wraps some gauze around his index finger and calls it good.

He keeps Dean’s wrist in his hand when he goes out. There’s no struggle, not yet, but one look at those calculating eyes and a few things occur in rapid succession in Sam’s now fully operational brain. First, his little experience with elementary-age children is no preparation for suddenly becoming – at least on the hopefully short term – a kid’s guardian.

Second, he misses Dean – grown-up Dean – like he’s woken up with his right arm chopped off.

And third, kid!Dean is not at all what he remembers. He doesn’t remember the potty mouth, he doesn’t remember this utterly untrusting reptilian stare, and he sure as shit doesn’t remember hearing about Dean doing some time travel when they were kids.

As far as Sam knows, that never happened. And that means this isn’t time travel. This is DEAN. Who’s been…regressed, somehow. Maybe. Or something.

And this pint-sized version of Dean obviously has no idea who Sam is, or where they are. This Dean thinks his dad will gallop in wearing his white hat and save the day. Hell, this Dean probably thinks Sam’s a demon.

He stares down at the kid, marveling at that fragile little wrist in his grip, and Dean snarls and kicks him on the shin.

~~~~~~~~~~~

There’s more screaming, when they hit the parking lot again. This time Dean’s screaming for his dad, and Sam’s starting to feel just a little bit weary of hearing how Dad’s going to shoot him, cut him up, poke his eyes out with a knife, slice him so his guts dangle out on the ground, eat his brains for breakfast, etc., etc., and so he just sticks the squirmy little fucker in the car and locks the doors.

“Sorry,” he says through the window to the concerned-looking guest who’s poking her head out of the room next to the one they’ve just vacated. “I’m getting his Ritalin prescription refilled today.”

“Help!” Dean shrieks, yanking at Sam’s grip on his arm. “He’s gonna kill me!”

Sam turns and looks at him. “If I were gonna kill you, kid, trust me, I’d have done it already.”

Dean subsides to lizard-like staring again, and Sam lets go of his arm, not without some trepidation. “You stole my dad’s car.”

Sam swallows and says, “This is my car.”

“No, it’s not. It’s my dad’s. See?” He opens the glove box, and smiles triumphantly when papers, old half-eaten bags of chips, and a loaded Colt semi-auto tumble out. “That’s his stuff. You stole his car.”

He reaches for the gun, and Sam thinks, How old was Dean when he learned to shoot? Hopes it wasn’t seven or eight, and snatches the gun out of Dean’s hands. “Oh, no. I’m so onto you. No way.”

“My BROTHER could kick your ass, and he’s only three!”

Shit. Dean is seven years old. Christ on a soggy cracker. “Don’t be too sure of that,” Sam tells him.

“Know what I’m gonna do after my dad kills you?” Dean grins with infernal joy. “I’m gonna set your stinky guts on FIRE!”

“Sounds like fun,” Sam says wearily.

“And then –“

“So where is this all-powerful dad of yours anyway?” Sam asks, meanly, and Dean’s mouth shuts like it’s spring-loaded. “I don’t see anybody racing in to save you, kid. Just me and you, all right? So why don’t you shut it, and let me figure out what to do?”

Dean’s eyes are wide, and Sam feels like he’s just kicked a dog lying run-over in the street. Dean stares at him, and his lips wobble, and then he looks down at his lap and doesn’t say a word.

“Oh God,” Sam moans. He hasn’t even started the fucking car yet. “I’m sorry, D – kid. I didn’t mean that. We’ll find your dad. I’m not a bad guy, really. I’m not. You don’t know that, I realize, but I swear, I’m not gonna hurt you.”

Dean sniffs, very softly, and whispers, “He’ll come. He always comes.”

“Okay, and when he does, you know. That’ll be great. I mean, except for the part where he kills me, okay. But until then –“ Sam clears his throat, puts on his best suitable-for-all-ages kind face, and says, “Until then, would you mind not freaking out on me quite so much? We’re gonna work it out. I promise.”

He smiles, but Dean doesn’t smile back. He looks little, and scared, and Sam thinks, God damn it, because this regressed little-kid Dean really IS just a kid. A child, who woke up in a strange room with a strange man and is scared out of his mind. Probably dealing a hell of a lot better with all the strangeness than most kids do, sure, but when you get right down to it, seven years old is seven years old, and Dean had seen enough shit by this age to know that sometimes the Bogeyman was real, sometimes there really WERE things in closets and under beds, and sometimes they fucking ATE YOU.

“It’s okay,” Sam whispers. “I promise.”

Dean shivers in his gigantic grown-up tee shirt, and doesn’t say anything at all.

~~~~~~~~~~

Dean’s big to carry, but he’s got no shoes and the parking-lot asphalt is already melting in the July sun, so Sam slings him on his hip to get him to the door. Dean endures it, still silent and no longer struggling, and Sam is surprised at the little hurt twinge when Dean scrambles away the minute they’re inside.

“You’re not gonna scream again, are you?” Sam asks, hunkering down to look Dean in the eye. “We got a deal? I don’t hurt you, you don’t hurt me?”

Dean regards him distrustfully, but after a moment he nods.

More than one person looks at them while Sam finds the clothing section. Dean, he is beginning to realize, is a cute kid, a very pretty child in spite of his perpetual suspicious scowl, and people notice. A heavyset woman in a green pantsuit coos over him, and Dean jerks away, the flat look back in his eyes.

“She was just being nice,” Sam mutters at him.

Dean just pads next to him, frowning a little while he looks around Wal-Mart. Probably looking for their dad, Sam thinks tiredly. Yeah, you and me both, kiddo.

He buys a couple of sets of clothes, because he doesn’t know how long Dean will stay a seven-year-old and people start noticing if your kids don’t wear shoes or have anything that fits. Sneakers and socks and little-boy underwear.

When the stuff’s bought, he takes Dean to a restroom and tells him to get dressed. Without the tee shirt, Dean is so small it hurts Sam someplace deep inside. He doesn’t ever remember seeing Dean small, ever remember thinking of him as being small. To his little-brother eyes, Dean has always had a bigger-than-me glamour, and it is bittersweet now, while Dean climbs into his crisp new jeans and shirt, struggles with the laces of his stiff new sneakers. To Sam, Dean’s always been larger than life. This jars him, makes him feel helpless and scared and overwhelmed with the sudden responsibility.

He holds out his hand, and Dean just looks at him.

“So we don’t get separated,” Sam says.

“What’s your name?” Dean asks sadly.

“Oh. Sam. My name’s Sam.”

“That’s my brother’s name. Only we call him Sammy.”

Sam smiles. “Good name. What’s yours?” because Dean hasn’t told him yet, and he’s not supposed to know, he thinks.

But Dean looks down, and Sam wonders if in a minute he’ll be biting and screaming again, because Dean looks like he’s bracing himself for something.

Then Dean gives a hurt-sounding sigh and puts his hand in Sam’s, fingers clinging with surprising strength, and Sam realizes he’s going to be hard-put not to be pissed off if a regressed John Winchester shows up ten minutes from now to reclaim the elder of his two sons. Because Sam’s fallen in love with this little boy, already knows he’d give anything to keep him safe and make him smile someday, and the irony of it just about kills him.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

2. One Shoe Off, and One Shoe On





They’d briefly discussed heading west/northwest before this unexpected development, and Sam’s feeling the pressure to get out of town. Hole up someplace, maybe West Texas or Taos or Santa Fe or wherever, until Dean re-grows up, or Sam can figure something out. But he definitely needs to put some space between them and Houston. Blood relative or not, Dean’s not his kid, and those displays at their motel might have gotten unwelcome attention Sam just doesn’t know about yet. Those kinds of things have a way of coming back to bite you on your unsuspecting ass, so after a fast-food lunch near the highway he piles them both in the Impala and heads out.

But when they start leaving the city behind, Dean freaks on him. They’re on a smaller highway, not the interstate, and traffic isn’t bad, which is all that saves them. Suddenly Sam’s got a lapful of pissed-off kid, grabbing at the wheel and screaming at him to stop, let me out, you ugly piece of shit, and the car tries to fishtail and Sam brings it to a shuddering halt on the shoulder.

“Don’t you EVER do that again,” Sam roars, adrenaline hitting his veins like pure crank. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“You’re not my dad!” Dean screams back. “Now he won’t be able to find me! Let me GO!”

It’s surprisingly hard to fight Dean in this size and shape; it’s like holding onto a pissed-off cat, and Sam feels like a giant in a glass factory, so aware of how delicate those little-boy arms feel in his hands. But he finally manhandles Dean to a standstill, clasps him against his chest and feels Dean’s heart going a mile a freaking minute.

“I’m not your dad,” Sam agrees quietly, nodding. “I know. And I know you want him back. But he’s not here, D – kid, and –“

Dean arches his back, and there’s another struggle. Shorter this time; Sam thinks he’s getting tired. “Where is he? What’d you do with my daddy?”

“Dean, I didn’t do anything! You just woke up like this!”

Dean goes very still, and Sam can hear his fast panicked breathing. “You said my name,” Dean says in a low accusing voice, and twists in Sam’s arms until he can glare at him. “How’d you know my name?”

Sam nods slowly. “Okay, I’ll tell you. But will you just sit still for a minute so we can get off the highway first?”

Dean ducks away, slithering back into the passenger seat, curling into a protective ball.

“Okay.” Sam checks the road, pulls them back into traffic. “I think there’s some kind of roadside park not too far from here. You okay?”

Dean props his chin on his knees and wraps his arms tightly around his legs.

It’s about twenty miles to the rest stop, not nearly far enough for Sam to come up with any kind of reasonable story for how he knows Dean’s name, what the hell is going on here. He parks as far away as he can from the two RVs already at the stop, and watches Dean carefully while they climb out. Dean sits on the other side of a concrete table, and Sam sighs and lowers himself onto the seat, leaning forward on his elbows.

“Okay. You know weird things sometimes happen, right? And just because they’re weird, just because people say it’s just imaginary stuff doesn’t mean they can’t happen?”

Dean gives a hesitant nod. “Like the thing that killed Mommy.”

“Like that, yeah.” Sam swallows; it’s been twenty-two years for his Dean, but for this one it’s practically yesterday, and he can see the wan look in Dean’s eyes, the desperate loneliness. “Sort of. And something really weird happened to you, too. Last night.”

Dean presses his lips together, then whispers, “Am I dead too?”

Sam exhales loudly, shakes his head. “Oh, Dean, no, man, you’re not dead. I didn’t mean to make it sound like that. You’re fine, okay?”

“But –“

“What’s the last thing you remember? Before you woke up in the room with me?”

Dean shrugs. “Dunno.”

“Think, okay? Were you at home? Where do you live right now?”

“In Portland.”

“Was that where you were? At home?”

Dean nods hesitantly. “I had to practice, and then Dad said he’d be back real soon, and I should keep an eye on Sammy. That’s my little brother.”

“Did you fall asleep?”

Dean looks down and says, “I didn’t mess up. If anything had happened to him I would have known because he was right there with me.”

Sam leans forward again, puts every bit of conviction in his voice that he can. “I’m sure you’re right, Dean. I know you took real good care of Sammy. So did you go to sleep?”

“Yes,” Dean whispers. “Sammy was already asleep, and I was –“ He looks away, lips trembling. “I got sleepy.”

“That’s okay. I swear, that’s fine. But you were at home when you went to sleep?”

“Uh-huh.” Dean’s eyes are starry with tears. “Is Daddy mad at me? Sometimes he gets mad.”

There is something terrible about the matter-of-fact quality to Dean’s voice, something that burrows into Sam’s stomach and burns like acid, and he shakes his head vigorously. “No. No, Dad’s not mad at you.”

“Are you sure? He didn’t come.”

“That’s what we have to talk about.” Sam considers, then gets up and comes around to sit next to Dean on the warm bench. “See, something sort of – magical happened to you last night, okay?” Sam sighs. “You know when I told you my name was Sam?”

Dean nods minutely.

“This is gonna be really hard to explain, but the reason I know your name is because I’m your brother. I’m your Sammy.”

Dean gives him a speaking look, and then snorts. “Sammy’s just a baby. You aren’t Sammy.”

“Well, where you were, I was a really little kid, yeah.” Sam nods slowly. “But this is much later now, and I’m all grown up. And until this morning, you were grown up, too.”

There is absolutely no comprehension in Dean’s wide, tired eyes, nothing but confusion and that wandering fear. He doesn’t say a word, and gives only a token resistance when Sam takes his hand and warms it between his own.

“See, the last thing you remember, it was about 1986? Was that the right year?”

Dean nods so vaguely it isn’t really an affirmation, but Sam takes it as one. “And now,” he says carefully, “it’s 2006. It’s about twenty years later, okay? Somebody – did something to you, I’m not sure what. And it made you get a lot younger, overnight.”

Dean starts to cry, silently and without any histrionics. It’s a kind of exhausted un-self-conscious weeping that tears at Sam, makes him feel helpless and useless, and Dean doesn’t struggle while Sam gathers him against him, strokes his skinny back and rocks him a little. There’s no answering clasp of arms around his neck; Dean isn’t welcoming it, just enduring it, a fact of life, and Sam isn’t sure he’s taking any comfort at all from it.

“It’ll be okay,” Sam says thickly, feeling his own eyes sting more than a little. “I’m gonna figure out how to fix things, Dean. I am. But Dad’s a long way away right now, and I don’t know how to find him. We’ve – you and me – we’ve been looking for him for a long time, and we found him once, but now he’s gone again, and we’re on our own. Just me and you, all right? Just for a while, until I can make things right.”

Dean lays his hot cheek against Sam’s shoulder and sighs. He’s not really crying anymore, but his weight is limp and Sam thinks, Maybe he needs a nap or something. Is he young enough for naps? “You okay?” he whispers, and feels the pause before a slow nod. “I’m sorry. I know it’s scary. I’m scared, too.”

“Are you really Sammy?” Dean asks softly.

Sam smiles against Dean’s bright gold hair. “Yeah, I really am.”

“You got big.”

It makes him think of his Dean, of how if it had been Sam who regressed like this, Dean would have known what to do. Sam’s floundering, terra incognita, and he stands, awkwardly clasping Dean to him. “Tell you what,” he says quietly while he walks back to the car. “Why don’t you get in the back and sleep for a while? You sleepy?”

“Supposed to watch Sammy.” But Dean’s voice is a blurry mumble, and he yawns on the name.

“Well, this Sammy’s okay for now, I promise.” He opens the back door and slides in, untangling Dean from around his neck and laying him on the leather seat. Revealed, Dean’s face is blotchy with tears, and his eyes are already at half-mast. Sam reaches out to push the hair from Dean’s forehead and smiles, and Dean’s eyes finish fluttering closed.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Sam hopes maybe by the next morning Dean will have reverted back to his grown-up self. It happened overnight; maybe it can un-happen the same way.

No joy. Sam isn’t sleepy anyway; too keyed up and a little wary of nightmares, and so he watches Dean instead. Dean as a child sleeps differently from adult Dean; this is a totality of sleep, and after a while Sam stops worrying about being quiet because he’s pretty sure Armageddon would only make Dean turn over and sigh, and maybe not even that. The Dean Sam remembers was too vigilant to ever sleep so heavily. This Dean hasn’t learned all those lessons yet.

It’s nearly two when Sam grabs his phone and hits the speed-dial.

“Hey, Dad,” he says, and sighs. “I figure you won’t pick this up for a while, like I have any idea when or if you ever pick up your messages at all, but anyway. We got a little bit of a situation here, I guess. I think something maybe – put a curse on Dean. Anyway, I’m gonna see what I can do about breaking it, but I could always use a little help. He’s kinda – different right now.” He snorts. “And that’s putting it mildly.” A stab of frustration makes him add, “So if you can take time out of your busy demon-hunting schedule to call me back and maybe give me some pointers, I’m all ears, okay? Okay. Later.”

The call doesn’t make him feel much better. Dad’s the last person he’d trust to know beans about proper child-raising, and it’s mostly on the off chance he might know anything about specific kinds of curses than anything else that Sam bothered calling at all. Hell, Dad never showed when Dean was dying. Why would he make the effort if Dean’s just a little younger now?

It IS a curse. Must be. Who’d want to go back and relive their childhood? Sam’s dead certain he’s glad he’s done with his own.

Sleep wins out sometime after four, the deadest darkest time of night, and Sam wakes up with a gasp to watery sunlight and the remnants of a dream he thankfully can’t clearly remember. He sits bolt upright in his chair, hissing at the soreness in his body from the awkward position, scans the room, but Dean’s a motionless figure on top of the sheets, splayed every which way, and Sam relaxes.

He decides it’s cool to risk the time for a shower – needs it like air to breathe – and when he comes out of the bathroom Dean’s sitting next to the window, wearing the Army tee shirt, staring out at the parking lot.

“You want some breakfast?”

Dean nods without looking at him. “Sam?”

Sam touches his wet hair and thinks about how kids just accept things, don’t over-think or dismiss out of hand. Sam has said he’s Sammy; Dean believes him. It’s marvelous and terrifying. “Yeah?”

“Look.” Dean points to a smear on the window and turns wide eyes at Sam.

“Is it dirty?” Sam rubs the towel over his head and tosses it on the mattress before walking over. “What –“

“Looks like –“

“Crap.” Without thinking, Sam grabs Dean’s arm, sweeps him up against him, backing away until his legs hit the bed. He sits without strength, gazing at the streaked window.

“Somebody put that there?” Dean asks in a hushed whisper.

Sam chews on his lip before he says, “I’m not sure.” He can’t say what he’s thinking. It’s on the tip of his tongue: Dean, are you thinking what I’m thinking, only this Dean isn’t thinking it, this Dean is looking at him like he has all the answers, knows exactly what to do, just like Dad always did, and Sam doesn’t have a goddamn clue.

“Don’t go outside,” he says, lifting Dean off his lap.

Dean follows him, watches him take out the journal. “That’s Dad’s,” he whispers. “But it doesn’t look new anymore.”

“Little wear and tear, yeah,” Sam agrees absently, thumbing through it, past the yeti and the Scandinavian crap. There. He glances at the window, back at the shaky sketch. Not identical, but sufficiently similar that he’s fairly sure he’s on the right track.

He looks at Dean, who’s still watching him expectantly. Ghūls like children. Like to take them, and eat them. Sam’s stomach clenches hard, and he makes himself smile. “Probably just graffiti,” he says calmly. “Nothing to worry about.”

Dean gives him another doubtful look, but then nods equably. “Can we get breakfast now?”

Sam nods stiffly. “Sure, buddy. Hey, comb your hair, okay? You look like a haystack.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Ghūls are able to travel by day, but don’t like it much, and so he’s pretty sure this one’s just marked the room. They’ll be leaving anyway, now that Sam’s aware of the threat. No problem, right?

At the diner next to the motel he gets a paper and checks the headlines, but there’s nothing about newly missing kids. If it was only a few hours ago, though, it wouldn’t have made the front page yet.

A cop car pulls up outside, two uniforms getting out, and Sam has a brief moment of panic, thinking they’re after him, something to do with Dean’s outbursts yesterday. But the cops are headed for the main motel office, and it feels no better to realize, sharply, that if the ghūl is around, there may be someone else’s child missing right now.

What would Dean say? We gotta check it out, Sam. That’s what we do, remember? We help people.

He watches Dean wolfing down blueberry pancakes, mouth smeared with indigo-tinted syrup, and wonders who would help him if it were HIS child missing right now. Not that Dean is his son. But the fierce shock of fear and anger in his chest jolts him anyway. He wants Dean back the way he was – older, wiser in his own cockeyed ways, aggravating and annoying and so deeply loved it’s like the granite that holds up Sam’s soul – but until that Dean is here again, Sam will do anything in his power to keep this one safe. Come hell or high water. No ghūl or any other fucking creature is getting its claws on this kid.

The waitress sets the check on the table and smiles at Dean. “He’s a cutie,” she tells Sam. “Gonna be a heartbreaker when he grows up.”

“Probably,” Sam agrees, and digs for his wallet.

Outside, he walks Dean back to their room and tells him to pack up. “Where are we going?” Dean asks.

“Hang on. Don’t open the door for anybody.” He waves the key to show Dean he has it. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Okay.”

There’s a clot of people over near the office, guests and a couple of uniformed employees. Sam sidles up, glances at a potbellied man wearing a wifebeater gone gray with too many washings. “What’s going on?”

The man lifts his chin. “Those folks over there, little boy’s missing.”

Sam feels a chill like cold fingers, sliding icily down his spine. “Jesus.”

“Didn’t see no kids last night.” The guy shrugs and works at the lump of snuff in his cheek a moment. “You?”

“Just mine,” Sam says.

“Got two at home. Nine and fourteen. Good boys. How old is your boy?”

“Seven.” Sam gazes over the heads in front of him, sees a woman and man embracing, the mother’s sobs audible from a hundred yards away. The father looks old and bewildered, eyes circled with rings of white.

“You look young for having kids.”

“Stranger things have happened,” Sam murmurs. “Excuse me.”

He’s heard enough. It’s too exposed to get out any equipment, but ghūls leave their spoor all over, easy to track if you know what to look for. Most people don’t; they think it’s dirt, schmutz, just an annoyance. They can’t see the jagged, insane intelligence behind the marks. Doors, walls, windows – there will be signs.

He finds them on the lobby window, and on two other guestroom doors, eight and sixteen. And the window of his own room, of course.

He stares at one of the intricate smears, and hears Dean’s adult voice next to his ear: “Now that’s just nasty.”

But when he turns, there’s no one there.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

3. Old Father Baldpate





That afternoon, sequestered in their room, Dean practices with the throwing knives.

It’s creepy, watching a little kid handle a razor-sharp knife as competently as he does. Sam’s supposed to be doing research – boning up on killing ghūls, along with, oh yeah, by the way, figuring out a way to break the curse currently affecting his previously older brother – but instead he’s studying Dean, watching him whisper near-inaudible admonishments to himself.

“See it go in,” Dean murmurs, eyes closed. “That’s what he said.”

There’s a chalked circle on the motel-room door, and Sam draws a breath to tell Dean that defacing motel property will be expensive and therefore a no-way-Jose, and blinks when the knife thuds home. Not the absolute center of the circle, but inside, and it’s a solid hit, more solid than he’d have thought a seven-year-old could do.

“Dean?” Sam asks.

Dean looks at him, already hefting the second knife in his hand.

“You don’t have to do that. Dad’s not here.”

Dean gives him a lofty, disinterested look, and goes back to not-staring at the door target. “I’ll find him,” he says. This time the knife hits almost dead center.

Sam pushes the laptop aside and stands. “Wow,” he says slowly. “You’re pretty good at that.”

Dean retrieves the knives and rubs his fingers over the divots in the fake wood. He doesn’t reply.

“What else can you do?”

Dean shrugs as he walks back to stand by the dresser. “Lots of stuff. Dad says I need to practice more.”

“What kinds of stuff, Dean? Here, give me those.” He takes the knives, and endures Dean’s offended scowl, sitting on the edge of the bed. “What about school?”

Dean’s full mouth draws into a familiar frown. “School’s boring,” he says. “It’s not the important stuff.”

“School’s not boring. School’s important, too.”

“It won’t help,” Dean tells him indifferently.

Sam swallows and says, “Come over here.”

Dean sits where he’s told, his face still studiously blank, and Sam reaches out to turn the laptop to face them. “Here. Read this.”

Dean glances at the laptop and frowns. “What’s that?”

“It’s a computer. A portable computer.”

“There’s no such thing. Dad said –“

“Don’t think about what Dad says. Just for a second, okay? Just read it to me.”

Dean squints at the screen, and then looks at him. “That’s boring, too.”

“I can’t put you in school right now. So think of it as – homeschooling, okay? Wait, most kids in 1986 didn’t -- Never mind. Just read it, Dean.”

Dean’s eyes narrow. “You’re not my dad,” he says. “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Sam nods, and says, “That’s right, I’m not Dad. But right now I am your older brother. And that means I get to say, right? I’m in charge.”

“I don’t got an older brother,” Dean whispers.

“I don’t HAVE an older brother, and right now, you do. I’m Sammy, and I’m older than you are, and I want you to read that to me. Can you read?”

“Course I can read. I’m not a baby.”

“Then read me that. Out loud, please.”

Dean’s face has gone a dull pink, and he looks back at the screen with a flicker of dread, colored with shame. That’s when Sam knows Dean hasn’t learned to read yet. He’s seven, and seven-year-olds should be reading, but Dean’s gazing at the laptop like Sam’s told him to translate a wall of Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Anger boils up in him like lava. THIS is Dean’s childhood. Priorities that have nothing to do with him, that have everything to do with John Winchester’s quixotic demon quest, screw a little kid’s education, social skills, anything but what’s needed to hunt, to kill. Does Dad even know – did he know – that Dean doesn’t know how to read yet? What about math?

“I can do it,” Dean says, sounding shakily defiant. “I can.”

Sam blinks, and pushes at his rage, a familiar feeling of packing a suitcase, zipping it up over too many things he can’t say aloud. “That one’s kinda complicated, anyway,” he mutters, nodding. “I’m not sure I could pronounce all those words very well, either. It’s okay, buddy.”

“Daddy says –“

“Dean, right now I don’t want to hear about what Dad says,” Sam interrupts, launching himself to his feet and pacing over to the other side of the room. “Okay? Just -- Let’s leave Dad out of it for a while.”

“You’re mean,” Dean says. “You’re not Sammy.”

He wants to snap at him: No, I’m not Sammy, I’m SAM, stop calling me by that stupid nickname, and would you just shut up and leave me alone for two minutes, is it too much to ask? Except that’s too close to what Dad would say, isn’t it? He’s all for leaving Dad out when he wants to but when it comes down to it, he’s doing the same goddamn things.

Sam draws a deep breath and comes back over. Dean’s looking at him with wall-eyed uncertainty, doesn’t smile when Sam does. “Hey, sorry,” Sam says gruffly. “Look, let’s go grab some dinner, okay? I want to be back before sundown.”

“Not hungry,” Dean says, dropping his eyes to stare at his lap.

“Liar. You’re always hungry.”

Dean shrugs.

“Okay, come on.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

He’s made some kind of critical error, because the tenuous trust established yesterday has mostly disappeared. Dean’s silent, uncooperative, and just pokes his food with his fork, doesn’t eat much. Sam’s feeble attempts to draw him out over the dinner table are met with the return of the lizard stare, but now Sam sees through that, knows Dean is pining for his father, for the life that’s familiar, and there is nothing he can do to restore that, even if he wanted to. He isn’t sure he does. The anger is still there, banked like good coals but ready to flare up again when he lets it, and he can’t stop thinking about all the things he never knew, never saw, because he was too young to know what it was. It had never been Dad who encouraged his studies; always Dean. Dean, who went over homework with him, Dean who when he didn’t know, either, consulted dictionaries and notes over his shoulder until they both got it. Hell, Dean was sometimes the only one who saw Sam’s report cards, read his letters from teachers or whatever. Dad was too damn busy, and when he wasn’t, he was too distracted, and sometimes he wasn’t either one, but drunk or getting there, and Sam wonders now just who Dean was, anyway, his brother or his goddamn REAL father after all.

But there had been no one to play that role for Dean himself, and it shows now, shows in Dean’s reluctance to trust, in his reliance on himself even at this absurdly young age. Sam has no doubt that Dean could probably do okay in a lot of respects if Sam – grown-up Sam – weren’t here at all. He’d remember to brush his teeth, bathe, clean his goddamn weapons. For Dean, childhood is a matter of height and outside perception, not fact; for Dean, childhood is pretty much over already, and that makes it hard for Sam to eat, too, his overdone fish sticking in his throat like a wad of wet newspaper.

“I gotta do some things tonight,” he says, after swigging half a glass of water to push the swallow down.

Dean looks alert suddenly, fork sagging in his grip. “Are we hunting?”

Sam regards him soberly. “I’m going hunting,” he says carefully. “You’re staying in the room.”

Dean’s mouth turns down. “I can help. Dad lets me help. I’m good at it.”

“I know you are. And maybe you can help me next time. But not this one, Dean. I mean it. This one’s different.”

Dean stares at him, the distant façade vanished. “Is it – that one? The one that made Mommy catch on fire?”

“No.” Sam pushes his plate away with something like revulsion. “No, not that one. But this one -- It hurts people, Dean, especially little kids. I need to know you’re safe, so I can do what I need to do.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Okay. And I’m gonna trust you to do that, okay? But you’re staying at the motel.” He nods, more to himself than Dean, who is glaring at him anyway like he wants to argue some more. “Come on, I need to make a stop on the way back.”

He buys books at the local Barnes and Noble, the most basic ones he can. Primers, really. The Rosetta Stones for Dean’s impaired learning. Dean wanders around the children’s section, and when Sam comes over to get him he sees Dean watching the group of children sitting listening to a woman reading aloud, something about a china rabbit named Edward. Dean’s face is a study in silent conflict, and while Sam watches Dean presses his lips together, then creeps forward, sitting Indian-style on the edge of the carpet, outside the circle but close enough to listen.

They need to get going. But Sam doesn’t have the heart. He stands motionless, arms full of books that aren’t very entertaining but quite educational, while Dean listens to the woman read the story, edges a little closer until he’s almost inside the group of children. All of the too-adult look has gone from Dean’s face: he’s rapt, caught by the story and the knowledge of other kids like him around him, strangers but not, and he blends. He really blends, he’s a child listening to a story, that’s all.

The woman finishes, the other children start clapping, and Dean scrambles to his feet, his eyes wide as if he’s realized he’s done something wrong. There’s worry in his eyes when he reaches Sam’s side, only relaxing when Sam smiles down at him, touches his bright hair.

“Good story?”

Dean hesitates, then nods. “Do we have to go?”

“Yeah. Hey, give me a minute.”

He catches the woman as she’s talking with a parent, shuffles his feet awkwardly and meets her smile. “What book was that?” Sam asks.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.” The woman cocks her head slightly. “Kate Dicamillo is a marvelous writer, isn’t she? Newbery Medal winner.” She looks at Dean, who’s standing uncertainly waiting. “Might be a little old for him, though.”

Sam spots the stack of books nearby. “He’s precocious.” He adds the book to his stack, and gives the woman another fast grin before heading to collect Dean.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The missing boy hasn’t been found yet. If asked, Sam could have told the authorities there would be very little, if anything, to find by this point anyway. Ghūls eat everything. That little boy – and Sam feels his stomach clench every time he says it in his mind – is long gone, permanently, and there will be another child victim tonight if he doesn’t succeed in stopping it.

So at sunset he puts together his version of the mutant Winchester Care Package, and keeps himself from recoiling while Dean silently assists him. Checking what he can, the seal on the holy water Sam will almost certainly not need, the ammo cartridges he will definitely need, coiling the rope into a neat circle while Sam hunts for the firestarters. Dean is silent and efficient; he’s done this much more than once, and Sam is grateful and stricken with sharp, awful yearning for his older brother.

He zips the bag. “Good work,” he tells Dean, who nods gravely. “Now listen.” Sam sits on the edge of the bed. “You know the drill. You stay here. No matter what. No matter what you hear, or see, or think you see or hear. Right?”

“But what if you need me?” Dean says.

“I’ll be fine. Trust me. Nothing’s gonna happen, it’s all under control.” He smiles, and hopes he doesn’t sound too much like a liar. He has never, ever done this by himself. Never without the safety net, somewhere, of Dean, or their father, or both. He feels like the world’s biggest impostor, in front of a really tough crowd of one. “When everything’s okay again, I’ll be back. Won’t take that long.”

“Promise me,” Dean whispers.

“Promise what?”

“You’ll come back.”

Sam swallows. “I promise, Dean. Okay?”

“Pinky swear?”

Sam smiles and pinky swears. “Lock the deadbolt,” he says, slinging the bag over his shoulder and touching the doorknob. “And when I come back, I’ll say – uh – it’s Edward. Like the rabbit in the book. How’s that?”

“Dad just says, Let me in, Dean.”

That makes Sam laugh. “Okay, but this way we’ll have our own code. That’s what brothers do, right? You have code words with Sammy, right?”

“Yeah,” Dean says doubtfully.

“Okay. So this way, if I ever say, It’s Sam, let me in, you’ll know NOT to. Just in case.”

“O-kay.”

“So Edward gets me in the room, and Sam doesn’t. Got it?”

Dean nods vigorously.

Sam pauses. “And don’t touch the guns. Okay?”

“Dad let me –“

“Don’t care what Dad did. This is Sam’s rules now.”

Dean gives a tiny twitch of his lips, almost a smile. “You mean Edward, right?”

“Right,” Sam agrees, smiling slowly. “Edward it is.”

“Come back,” Dean says.

“I will.”

He turns the knob, and the door flies inward, a waft of putrid air smacking him in the face before the impact sends him sprawling back. Sam thinks distantly, Well, no need for secret passwords and pinky swears this time, and the ghūl snarls and flattens him with one clawed foot.

~~~~~~~~~~~

4. Hide his head under his wing, poor thing





It’s the moment he feels what Dad was talking about, all those years ago, all those times. You won’t have time to think. Just react. There will come a time when your brain will actually hinder you rather than help.

Son of a bitch. Dad was right after all

The ghūl’s foot squeezes all the air out of him, and for a second Sam can’t drag any more in, just freezes in place, and then he thinks about Dean, Dean in the ROOM, and he takes a whooping gasp and flings himself after the thing. It’s sniffing the far bed, and Sam utters a snarl of his own as he reaches into the bag on the other bed and the sword seems to leap into his hand, bright and lethal and so eagerly ready.

The ghūl howls when Sam thrusts, feels flesh giving beneath the blade, and hot black blood spurts. The creature whimpers, grasping at the sword, and twists. Sam tries to hold on, but blood is on his hands, burning like napalm, and he can’t hold, sees the ghūl yank the blade out of its side and fling it to clatter uselessly against the wall.

Sam screams, “You’re too fucking late! He’s not here! Hey! Look at me when I’m talking to you, asshole!”

Black, angry eyes glare down at him. The ghūl is big, bigger than he had imagined, and pain is transmogrifying into anger, frustration: it’s hungry, knows there’s a nice tender juicy child around here someplace, its favorite supper, and Sam has something to do with the fact that it can’t FIND that child yet.

And as long as it’s up to Sam, it never fucking will.

He meets that basilisk stare and grins, reaches down to grab his packed bag of tricks. “Right here,” Sam says clearly, holding up the bag. He can almost see Dean’s fiendish glee in his peripheral vision: kick its ASS, Sammy. Yeah, man. Gonna do my best.

“But,” he adds, “you gotta go through me first.”

The ghūl snarls, and Sam turns on his heel and runs.

Draw it AWAY from Dean, yes, the imperative is as clear as the delighted terror in his veins: I know how to DO this, you ugly prick, draw your bleeding ass away from the room and out in the open where I can kill you. Yeah, baby. Come on.

His breath comes fast and cold in his chest, feet pelting across the parking lot, into the grassy expanse of empty lot beyond. Behind him, the ghūl utters a hoarse barking cry, claws clittering on the asphalt. The wound has maybe slowed it down a little, but Sam’s going all-out, legs pumping for all he’s worth, and he can just about feel the ghūl’s hot breath on the back of his neck. This terror is like euphoria, and he’s going to either whoop with weird joy or piss his pants, or maybe both, but for the moment he just runs.

There are trees, a business beyond the lot, and Sam tears around the corner, skids on the sidewalk and almost wipes out, then flings himself forward again. In a brick alcove, he stops short, breath whistling in his ears, and gropes in the bag, bringing out the loaded shotgun. Shoves extra shells in his pockets, peers around the corner.

Ghūls are basically walking stomachs, but they’re not entirely brain-dead, and this one’s been wounded already. It doesn’t just come after him. Scents the air, its breaths sharp and animal, and the claws are slower now, clicking down to a walk.

Sam raises the shotgun to his shoulder and rounds the corner. “Looking for somebody?” he pants, and fires.

The shell takes the ghūl up high, where a shoulder would be if its physiology looked like some normal thing instead of an Escher drawing on crack, and it flinches back but doesn’t fall. Sam reloads fast, unthinking, hands moving as coolly and efficiently as Dad’s, but when he lifts to fire the ghūl has slunk behind the building.

“One more,” Sam grits between clenched teeth. “Come on, you fucker, dance with me. You think you’re eating HIM? Think again.”

He stalks forward, and sees nothing. And looks up, and the ghūl grins down at him, clinging to the eaves with its four-inch claws, and Sam doesn’t have time to aim before its huge paw sends him flying across the little manicured spot of lawn, thudding against the dumpster.

Oh, that hurt. He’s lost the shotgun, and the bag is behind him, safe and useless in the building’s alcove. And he’s pretty sure this time he can’t get his breath back, because his lungs are two big sacks of concrete in his chest, useless.

The ghūl drops to the sidewalk, shambles forward. Ghūls like children, but they’ll settle for grownups, oh yes, like lamb versus mutton, you pays your money and you takes your choice, and Sam fights to get some oxygen and thinks, Dean. Dean, I’m real sorry, buddy. Guess maybe I couldn’t do this on my own after all. You take care now. Hope you grow up tonight. I really hope so.

He turns his face in revulsion as stinking breath fills his nostrils, and the ghūl utters a sharp, puzzled-sounding bark. Sam blinks blearily upward, and sees the ghūl standing erect on hind legs, hands clutching its chest. A glowing wound has appeared, a slim stalk of wood branching from its very center. A little curl of smoke wafts away, caught by the steady breeze.

Sam whoops a welcome breath and turns awkwardly, looks behind him. Dean stands very still, the crossbow still held steady, his eyes hard to see in the murky light.

“Holy shit,” Sam tries to say, and has to cough instead when his lungs seize up and demand air instead of talk.

The ghūl shudders, sagging to the ground, and Sam dives out of the way, gasping and trying to curse. Beside him, Dean lowers the crossbow. His young face is blank, and in it Sam can see the man he will one day be again: cool and the tiniest bit cruel, matter-of-fact now that the deed is done. No recriminations.

Then the flash forward is gone, and Dean’s expression crumples, fills with fear like milk poured into a glass.

“Here,” Sam wheezes, and reaches for the crossbow, sagging limply in Dean’s hand. “Go get the bag. It’s over there.”

Dean goes where he points, nervously skirting the whining ghūl, and trots back a minute later with the heavy bag. He takes out the lighter fluid, holds it out to Sam.

“You want to?” Sam gasps.

Dean shakes his head quickly.

“Stand back.”

He holds his chest while he gets up, but the pain’s already down to a dull roar, and he douses the ghūl fast. It’s early enough people will be up still, and lots will have heard that shotgun. Not a bad thing, actually; a fire here stands a good chance of burning this building, so the fire department will need to be called anyway. You don’t leave ghūls alive. Unburned. They only crawl away and heal, and before you know it they’re back again. Take no prisoners, it’s the Winchester Way, by God, and he digs matches out of his pocket and lights the whole book, flinging it on the whining thing’s back.

It goes up like a torch, foomp, and Sam draws back, nose wrinkling at the stench of blazing fur and flesh.

“You okay?” he asks Dean breathlessly, and Dean nods and then leans forward and vomits on his feet.

~~~~~~~~~~

It’s long practice, on both their parts, and they get packed up and out of there in under ten minutes, fast and efficient. Sam’s grinning while he piles into the car, and beside him Dean has a shaky smile on his face, too, pale under the parking lot’s sodium-lamp glare but okay. There are people milling around, so Sam doesn’t peel out. Just starts the car and leaves, see ya, sorry about the mess but you know how it is with demon-hunting these days. Hell on the landscaping.

He smells smoke and puke, and it’s like perfume to him right then, familiar and disgusting and welcome. “Kicked its ASS,” he says, and rubs his chest a little. “Dude, you were AWESOME! The crossbow! What did you do?”

Dean says tremulously, “Didn’t know what to take. Daddy said one time to use the silver-tip bolts when you weren’t sure. And I put this on it, too.” He holds up the other plastic bottle of holy water. It trembles in his hand.

“Covering all the bases.” Sam reaches out and ruffles Dean’s matted hair, still grinning. “Awesome,” he repeats, shaking his head. “You are truly Dean, man. A little shorter, but wow.”

He glances back at him, and Dean claps his hand over his mouth.

“Aw, not in your car.” Sam pulls over right there, and Dean scrabbles to open the door, scooting out and landing on his hands and knees.

It penetrates slowly, bogged down by adrenaline and the animal pleasure of winning, of a righteous kill. Dean’s on the ground, barfing like he’s throwing up a lung or two along with his stomach, and Sam springs out of the car, circling around and dropping to kneel next to him. Under his suddenly anxious hand Dean’s back is tight as a bowstring, shaking badly.

“It’s okay,” Sam croons, rubbing helplessly while Dean just keeps on retching, and now he’s crying, too, at the same time. “We did it, Dean, everything’s good, you did great.”

Dean raises his head. A string of puke hangs from his mouth, and he lifts his wildly shaking hand and wipes his lips on the back of his hand. “I nuh- Never kuh-KILLED anything. Before.”

“Oh, man,” Sam breathes, sagging to sit on the pavement.

“I want my DADDY,” Dean moans, and leans over to vomit some more of the nothing in his stomach.

Stunned, Sam nods, swallows hard. Then he fumbles an old tissue out of his front pocket and waits until Dean’s spasms look like they’re done, before reaching out to wipe his mouth for him.

“I didn’t know,” Sam whispers, using the other end of the wadded-up tissue to swipe at Dean’s nose. “I’m sorry, honey, I didn’t realize you’d never –“ He swallows again, shakes his head. There isn’t much he CAN say. His Dean never killed anything until he was twelve. That was with Dad. Now, here with Sam and no Dad in sight, instead of having a better life Dean’s managed to be in on a kill at the tender age of seven.

Way to go, big brother, his mind jeers at him. Yeah, this is a REAL good life for a kid. Shoe’s on the other foot now, ain’t it? And how’s that crow taste, anyway?

Kinda…burnt?

He ignores the stink, tosses away the tissue and folds Dean into his arms, and this time Dean comes willingly, crying in hoarse huge whoops, beyond words.

~~~~~~~~~~~

It takes a while to get Dean anywhere near calmed down. Sam sits silently, leaning against the Impala’s front quarter-panel and rocking a little, watching the hubbub from a safe distance. Cop cars, check; fire trucks, check. It isn’t a bad fire, from what he can see. Doesn’t look like the building caught, at least. That’s good. He’s down with the demon-killing, way down with that, but he generally tries to draw the line at arson. Hazard of the trade sometimes, but then again they’re generally four miles outside Boondocks city limits, or farther, and Dean was pretty good about making sure things didn’t get out of hand.

Dean, now, is still hiccuping with the aftermath of the gigantic post-hunt meltdown, and Sam presses his nose against Dean’s hair and closes his eyes and thinks, I’m so completely not prepared for this. He deserves more. Way better than this.

When even the hiccups are gone, he gently pulls away a few inches. “Ready?” he asks quietly.

Dean nods, and gives a tired sigh.

He puts Dean back in the passenger seat, and buckles the seatbelt around him before closing the door firmly and circling back to the other side.

Just to be safe, he drives about twenty miles down the road, nearly to Austin before stopping at an isolated little motel a few hundred yards off the road. He looks over, and sees Dean is fast asleep, face pressed against the door, hands curled in his lap.

Toting Dean, who doesn’t even mutter or budge when Sam scoops him out of the car, he goes into the tiny office and gets a room. The clerk is an enormously fat woman, with ravishing ivory skin, and she doesn’t even give Sam the hairy eyeball for his disheveled appearance. Just gets a sweet look on her face, looking at Dean.

“Past somebody’s bedtime,” she says, smiling.

“Way past.” Sam tries for an answering smile. “Hope you have a vacancy.”

She plucks a key from a battered board and slides it over the counter. “You’re in luck. Two left. This one’s closer.”

“Thanks.” He signs the register, hands her a card he hopes isn’t too rubberized by this point, and ducks out again.

He leaves the Impala where it is, juggles Dean while he takes out their bags, and thanks the clerk under his breath when he sees their door just a hundred yards or so away. And to think, if he were Dad, he’d have two kids right now, not just this one. And wouldn’t THAT be fun?

The room is neat and fresh-smelling, bright carpet and two beds that look like Mecca to Sam. He drops the bags and eases Dean onto the near bed, frowns at his dirty face. Dean is beyond caring, at this point, but Sam flinches at the thought of what the clerk must have seen, and goes into the tiny bathroom and wets a washcloth.

Dean stirs when Sam wipes his face, and whispers a groggy, “Daddy?”

“Shhh.” Sam rubs away the remains of the vomit, the dirt, the smoke. “Everything’s okay. Go to sleep, buddy.” He takes one of Dean’s hands and wipes it off, thinks about these tiny hands grasping the heavy crossbow and firing. How had Dean managed to cock the thing in the first place? He envisions him pulling with both hands, the terror of not knowing where they’d gone or what had happened to Sam. The courage it had to have taken to follow, and fire.

Dean reaches up and touches Sam’s cheek, his face sleepily wondering. “Don’t cry, Sammy,” he whispers. “Daddy’ll take care of us.”

Sam sniffs and wipes Dean’s other hand briskly. “You get a bath in the morning, first thing.” He manufactures a smile, and reaches to yank the covers out from under Dean, pulling them over him. “But I guess it can wait until then. Go back to sleep, okay?”

Dean nods. His eyes are puffy and bright green from crying. “Night, Sammy.”

“Night, Dean,” Sam whispers.

He stands, feeling his knees wobbling beneath him, and wipes his own hands on the cloth, swipes it over his face. His eyes are burning, and it isn’t from smoke. His chest throbs, combo shot of being stomped and then tossed like a ragdoll, but he’s pretty sure nothing’s actually broken. Just had the wind knocked out of him, and then redux.

In the bathroom, sure that Dean is rock-solid sleeping, he peels out of his filthy clothes and lets them drop on the floor. The water’s steaming hot, and he lets it sluice over him, and then leans his head against the tile and lets the sobs bubble up, safe from prying ears.

What the fuck does he think he’s doing? His mind can come up with a hundred different ways Dean could have died tonight, and fifty more for himself. It doesn’t help, knowing he’d gladly die in Dean’s place – if that happens, who will watch out for Dean? He’s just a little kid, maybe a little better at some pretty arcane skills than any others Sam has known, but it doesn’t matter. Dean’s a child and John Winchester’s life is dangerous for grownups, but for a kid it’s too easy for it to be downright deadly.

He sees those daggerlike claws ripping into Dean’s defenseless belly, and coughs a sob like a bullet, shaking his head wildly. No. No, it can’t BE like this. Dean has to grow up again, has to be HIMSELF again, because Sam cannot do this, cannot be – brother and father and warrior chief all rolled into one. It’s too much, it’s too damn much.

After a while the water starts to cool off a little, and Sam washes with jerky automatic motions, rinses and dries himself off and goes to find something clean to wear. Dean lies motionless under the covers, sweet face lax and too young in sleep. Sam steps into shorts and tugs on a tee shirt, sighing with bone-deep weariness.

He drops a forlorn kiss on Dean’s warm cheek before turning down his own bed and flicking off the lamp. He’s asleep before he can worry about what kinds of nightmares this will kick off in his subconscious.

~~~~~~~~~~~

5. To see a fine lady upon a white horse





It’s a long drive, and he wants an early start. Dean puts the whammy on that right away. Not that it’s intentional, but when Sam wakes him up Dean feels hot, and by the time Sam’s plunked him in the bathtub he’s certain it’s a fever. Dean’s eyes are dull, none of his usual child’s enthusiasm about him.

Kids, Sam reminds himself, catch everything that comes down the damn pike anyway, and besides, last night was pretty exhausting for both of them. He makes quick work of the bath, and smiles while he towels Dean’s skinny body dry.

“Not feeling too good this morning, huh.” He waits for Dean to nod, and wraps him in the towel. “Come on.”

He puts Dean back in bed and digs out their thermometer. Med kit’s always pretty well-stocked; it isn’t like they want to visit ERs any more than they have to, and the vast majority of viruses can’t be treated with anything but fluids and bed rest anyway. Dean’s temp is 100.3, which doesn’t worry Sam too much. He’s fresh out of kid’s Motrin, however, and so he tucks Dean in, makes him promise not to open the door for anyone but Edward, and ducks out to find a drugstore.

The bug isn’t serious, but it sets him back a couple of days, taking care of Dean while he pukes and sniffles and mostly just sleeps all the time. The downtime is good for research, since Sam is cooped up, too, hoping he doesn’t catch whatever Dean’s got. But he feels fine, and while Dean’s zonked out Sam gives the laptop a workout.

Curses, it appears, come in all shapes and sizes, tailor-made for the unfortunate recipients. He’s already aware that they’re heavy mojo, requiring a lot to put in place. Not a job for the weak, or the neophyte. But he can find absolutely nothing on specifically age-related curses. Or de-aging, as it were.

More troubling, he can’t think of anything that would explain why it’s Dean who’s regressed back to the second grade, and not both of them. Of course he’s thankful, the minute he thinks it; after all, they’d almost certainly have landed in state care if the whammy had taken them both. He has an instinctive fear of such, a paranoid infection caught from his father. That would be a disaster, no two ways about it, so better than it’s worked out as it has, even if he feels like the blind leading the extremely young and vulnerable.

Finally, late on the second day, Dean’s up and, if not quite his usual slightly feral self, pretty much restored. They are desperately low on cash, and that night Sam takes out the super-ultra-emergency stash, hidden away in Dean’s boot heel. It ain’t much, but it should suffice for what he needs.

“Where are we going?” There’s no question in Dean’s voice; he’s well-accustomed to moving around already, and his streak of pragmatism is already fully functional.

“Northwest,” Sam tells him, stuffing the money in his wallet. “You feel all right, kiddo?”

“I’m okay.” Dean sips Gatorade and watches him carefully. “Am I gonna get tall like you?”

Sam smiles. “Pretty close, yeah.”

“Are we gonna look for Dad now?”

“Well, right now we’re going to see a friend. And we might be able to find out where Dad is, or we might not, I don’t know yet.”

Dean’s expression becomes pinched. “Are we gonna see more monsters?” he asks quietly.

Sam hesitates, then sits next to Dean on the bed. “Maybe,” he says honestly, putting his arm around Dean’s narrow shoulders. “But we’re not looking for them right now, okay? We’re not hunting. This is just – a road trip. Okay?”

Dean nods, with no little relief, and Sam feels that now-familiar stab in his belly: this is no life for a child. Not even a Winchester child.

“You know,” he says carefully, “that thing with the crossbow you did the other night -- You saved my life, Dean. That’s pretty big.”

“It was gonna eat you,” Dean says, leaning against him.

“But you didn’t let it eat me. Remember how you said you needed to watch out for Sammy? Well, you did, you did a real good job. I’m really proud of you.”

Dean’s smile is wan but real.

~~~~~~~~~~~

It’s barely dawn when they set out the next morning. By Sam’s calculations they can make the drive in one long-ass day, but he’s already decided to break it in two, considering Dean’s still getting over his kid-flu. So they stop that night in Blackwell, Oklahoma, and after a greasy meal at a crowded diner where there appears to be nothing on the menu that isn’t fried and/or smothered in cream gravy – a menu that appeals to Dean, predictably enough – they each barely have enough energy to bathe before crawling into bed.

That night, Sam has his first nightmare since the Dean-regression.

He shoots bolt-upright in bed, a scream tangled in his throat. The room is oppressively quiet, Dean out like a light in the other bed, and it takes Sam a few minutes to get his breathing leveled out. The sheets stick to him, wet with flop-sweat, and he makes a face and flings them away.

True-seeing, or just stress? A part of him still wants to believe that most of the time a cigar is just a cigar, that nightmares come with the demon-hunter territory and are just the way his brain decompresses, gets rid of unwanted and unneeded baggage. And there’s been a lot of baggage lately, no doubt about that.

But while he goes into the bathroom and runs a glass of salty-tasting water, he meets his own eyes in the mirror and acknowledges that there is a qualitative difference between brain-dump dreams and the quality he’s reluctantly learned to recognize as precognition. This nightmare is the latter, and his head is already getting that thick, heavy feeling of a headache struggling to be born.

He takes four Tylenol and then goes to pick up the journal. On one of the few remaining unmarked pages, he scrawls the images from his dream. Inscrutable, like they almost always are at first, but he has to get them down, make sure he doesn’t lose this brief clarity. They will mean something; of that he’s certain. What that is, well, remains to be seen.

When he’s done, he sets the book aside and glances at Dean, a motionless lump in the next bed. Is it Dean, for whom the dream proclaims something coming? Or Dad? Because the two are inextricably intertwined, moreso now than ever before. Dean is Dad’s child, not Sam’s; Dean is, in a way, Dad’s responsibility. But Dad is nowhere to be found, on the run from things he will not reveal to them, and Sam’s left holding the bag right now. Do these cryptic images mean something for any of them? Or for some poor schmuck Sam simply hasn’t met yet?

He lies back on his sweaty sheets, wincing a little. Still a bit sore from the thing with the ghūl, although it’s just a reminder now, not anything terrible.

Tomorrow he may be able to get some answers. He hopes so. He is tired, so very tired. And he wants his brother back, the way he was. Wants that with a ferocity that kind of scares him.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The closer they get to Lawrence, the tenser Dean becomes. The weird thing about it is, Dean isn’t exactly reading maps yet, and Sam hasn’t told him where they’re going. Dean just seems to know, and near Wichita he turns to look at Sam.

“This is a bad place,” Dean whispers shakily. “Bad, Sammy.”

Sam swallows and shakes his head. “It’s just a place, Dean, I promise. And we’re gonna be with a friend here. Nothing bad will happen to you, okay?”

But Dean’s fidgeting gets worse, and about a mile after the merge onto I-335 he flips.

“Go back!” Dean screams, yanking so hard on Sam’s arm he nearly pulls them into the semi lumbering by to their left. “Turn around!”

“Dean, cut it out!” Sam gives him a shocked look. “Chill out, okay?”

“NO! No, it’s bad, and I don’t WANNA!”

His head has been a steady miserable ache all day, and now Dean’s screaming feels like he’s taken a hatchet and driven it deep into Sam’s brain. “DEAN. Calm down, just – stop screaming. Now. All right?”

Dean’s flat green eyes flare, and he draws a deep breath and screams wordlessly, for all he’s worth.

“Fuck.” Sam yanks them over into the right lane, aiming for a business exit. He’s shaking suddenly, rage and exhaustion and lingering fear, new fear because Dean hasn’t pulled any shit like this in days, and why NOW? Dean isn’t psychic, Dean doesn’t KNOW they’re near Lawrence, he can’t even read the goddamn highway markers, so where is this coming from?

There’s a gas station on the access road, and Sam pulls in, over to the side. “Okay,” he yells over Dean’s ongoing clamor. “Stop it! Look at me!”

Dean’s silence is all the more startling. He stares blankly at Sam, waiting.

“What is it, Dean?” Sam puts all the patience he can into his voice, fighting nausea from this crucifying godawful headache. Even his smile feels like it will break if he tries too hard. “You’re freaking out on me, and you’re not telling me why. What’s going on?”

“It’s a bad place,” Dean whispers, eyes welling with tears. “I don’t wanna be here.”

Sam nods slowly. “I know bad things happened, the last time you were here. But that thing is gone, Dean, it’s not here anymore. Lawrence is just a place now, it’s not –“

“NO!” Dean roars, and flings himself at the door, stumbling out.

“Crap,” Sam mutters, and swallows bile before he climbs out of the car.

Dean’s sitting on the curb, in front of the restrooms, and Sam squints in the sunshine, staring down at him, and finally folding himself up to sit next to him. “Okay,” he breathes, shading his eyes. “Let’s talk.”

“You won’t listen,” Dean mutters. “Dad would listen. He would.”

“I am listening, Dean. So talk. I know this isn’t where you want to be. Okay? But –“

“Daddy said we wouldn’t ever have to come back here. It’s a bad place.”

Sam nods slowly. “Is it the place that’s bad? Or is it just that it feels bad to be here, where stuff happened?”

Dean wipes his cheeks furtively. He still won’t look at Sam.

“Dean, I won’t let anything happen to you. Do you know that? The demon that killed her – it’s not gonna get you, too. It’s gone. I swear. I really swear, Dean – it is long gone, and Lawrence is just a town. Just a place. That’s all.”

“But that thing back there,” Dean whispers. “It was a bad thing, too, and it was gonna eat you.”

It hits Sam then, what this is really about. This isn’t about their mother’s death, or Lawrence as such, not even close. This is about Sam, and what Dean saw before he shot that crossbolt.

This is about the people Dean loves, leaving him. Being killed, in front of his eyes. Lawrence represents that, the loss of their mother, the loss of a home, everything Dean trusted and knew, crumbling in one night of fire and terror. And there is nothing Sam can do, really, to fix that, to make life safe enough that that can’t happen again. He sees Jess burning, sees the terror and agony on her well-loved face, and he knows.

His throat is so tight he can barely squeeze words out. “We’re okay,” he manages, pulling Dean close against him. “We’re safe right now. That’s what counts, Dean.”

Dean presses his face against Sam’s shirt, and says, “I don’t feel safe.”

Neither do I, Sam thinks, and clenches his eyes tightly shut.

~~~~~~~~~

He isn’t able to offer any reassurances that aren’t flat-out lies, but Dean seems better after that, at least no more screaming, and Sam and his thumping headache are grateful for it. Dean even perks up a little, seeing the pretty little street with the park beckoning from the corner.

“Stay here for a second.” Sam puts the Impala in park and turns to look at him. “Let me go see if she’s home.”

Dean nods gravely. “Daddy came here once.”

“Yeah. I heard.” Sam smiles and touches Dean’s hair. “Back in a minute.”

But she’s already standing on the porch, not quite smiling, hands on her hips. “Of course I’m glad to see you,” Missouri says. “Seen you comin’ for days and days.”

Sam gives her a shaky smile and walks up the steps. “Then you know why I’m here?”

She touches his cheek with warm fingers, and the half-smile disappears. “That part wasn’t so clear. I saw you, but not your brother. But he wasn’t gone, just – different. Like there was a place held for him, a space where he was supposed to be, but nothing else.” She cocks her head to the side, gazes at the car. “Still feels that way.”

“He – changed,” Sam blurts, and swallows grief and exhaustion. “Really changed. And I don’t know how to fix him.”

“Oh, child.”

“I want him back the way he was. Help me. Please.”

She nods soberly, and looks at the car again. “Bring him in.”

Sam turns, clears his throat. “Dean?” he calls. “Come on, buddy.”

He hears Missouri’s indrawn breath when Dean comes around the side of the car. Sees Dean for the first time all over again: bright shock of hair and freckles scattered over his nose and cheeks, small and shy as he walks up to the porch and stands very close to Sam’s leg.

“My gracious Lord,” Missouri whispers, eyes round with surprise. “Why, you’re just about the cutest thing I ever saw. You remember me, child?”

Dean doesn’t move, then gives a small flick of a nod. His hand slips into Sam’s, clinging tight.

Missouri’s wide eyes meet Sam’s. “So this is how. How I couldn’t see him no more.”

Sam nods, and then coughs a bitter sob, out of nowhere. “I can’t do it without him,” he croaks. “I can’t. You have to help me make him right again. Please.”

And then he’s crying, trying not to and failing utterly, and Dean gapes up at him with his mouth open and his face crumples, too, uncomprehending and so terribly innocent, and Sam can’t stop. Leaning against the corner of the house, braying sobs that feel like he’s breaking in half.

Missouri’s voice says gently, “Come on, Dean. It’s all right. You want a cookie? I baked some just this morning. Chocolate chip. You like those?”

Dean’s hand slips out of Sam’s, and Sam puts his hands over his face and sits down on the porch while Missouri and his brother vanish inside the house.

~~~~~~~~~~

6. She sat by the fire and told a fine tale




After a while he’s aware of Missouri’s warmth next to him, seated on the porch step. Sam coughs and wipes his cheeks and asks, “Is he okay?”

Matter-of-fact, Missouri holds out a clump of tissues, and pats his back after he takes them. “Oh, Dean’s just fine, sugar. I introduced him to Duchess, and they’re already best friends.”

Sam blinks at her. “Duchess?”

“Oh, don’t ever tell her she’s a dog. She KNOWS she’s really a human.” Missouri gives a fond smile. “Out back. No,” she says, when Sam starts to rise. “Just leave them be. Little boys and dogs are like butter and honey; they just go together naturally.”

Sam subsides, and turns his head to blow his nose. “Guess you’re wondering how this happened.”

“I’d say a curse. From someone pretty powerful, too.”

“That’s just it. I don’t know who put the curse on him. If I did, I feel like I could – break it, undo it.”

Missouri’s eyes are dark and not without sympathy, but her words hit him like two-by-fours. “Sugar, it don’t work that way. You know that.”

Sam glares at her. “Of course it does. There has to be a way! I just –“

“There are curses, and then there are curses,” she interrupts, nodding to herself. “Some, well, it’s just a matter of appeasement. Fixing whatever got broken, or messed up. Some, though.” She pauses, and sighs. “Some, there ain’t no fixing, Sam. Some you just gotta learn to live with.”

“So what are you saying?” Sam demands, drawing back a few inches and staring at her. “That – Dean’s gonna STAY this way? I won’t accept that! I refuse!”

Missouri lifts her chin. “Come on inside. I think we’ll need coffee for this.”

“I don’t WANT coffee, I want answers!”

She nods. “And I got those, too, but I don’t know that you’re gonna want them once you know what they are. Come on. If you don’t want coffee, I do.”

It’s cool inside Missouri’s house, comfortable, and Sam glances around before following her down the hall to the kitchen. He’s never seen this room before, but it fits his preconceptions: cozy, clean, organized. It smells like baking, something sweet, and his mouth waters. He sits at the battered table and watches while she busies herself making their coffee. The phone rings, and Missouri glances at him.

“Why don’t you go check on that boy? I need to take this, and the coffee’ll be a few minutes.”

The hallway ends in a screen door looking out over the small, tidy backyard. Sam can already hear laughter before he opens the door, and has to smile when he sees Dean ruffling the ears of a medium-sized dog, shaggy fur almost the exact shade of old gold as Dean’s own hair.

“Looks like you made a friend,” Sam calls, stepping down onto the grass.

Dean casts him an open, unguarded smile, and Sam’s heart clenches at the strangeness of that totally natural boyish look on Dean’s face. “That’s Sammy,” Dean informs the dog, who gazes up at him with tongue-lolling adoration. “He’s my brother. Used to be my little brother and now he’s my big brother.”

Sam lowers himself down next to them, grins when the dog sniffs his hand and then dismisses him in favor of Dean. “You have chocolate on your face.”

Dean snickers and goes back to bonding with the dog. “Missouri made cookies.”

“Oh, really? Awesome.”

“They were good.”

“Feel better now?” Sam asks.

Dean nods. “Can I go to the park? I bet Duchess would like the park.”

Catching his hopeful look, mixed with no little slyness – Duchess isn’t really the one who wants to go to the park, after all – Sam finds himself laughing. “Well, it’s kinda late now. How about tomorrow?”

“Okay.”

“Hey, I bet this is hers.” Sam reaches out to grab a battered tennis ball. Dean crows, and jumps up to fling the ball across the yard. With a sharp bark Duchess tenses and flies after it, and Dean throws his head back and laughs, unfettered, just purely happy in the moment.

“Told you,” Missouri says from the open screen door. “Love at first sight.”

Sam climbs to his feet, brushing grass off his jeans. “Totally.” He walks over. “Coffee?”

“Just about ready.”

“Hey, Dean?”

Dean looks up from where he’s wrestling with Duchess in the grass. “Yeah?”

“Be careful.”

“I’m okay.” Dean rolls his eyes and turns back to the dog.

The cookie smell is mixed with coffee now, and Sam accepts a cup, sighing as he sits back at the kitchen table. “So,” he says after tasting the coffee. “I’m not gonna like hearing this, am I?”

Missouri settles in with her own coffee, in a chipped red cup. “Well, that depends on you, doesn’t it?”

“You know, I really hate it when people answer questions with questions.”

“I didn’t much care for Dean, when I met him last year.” Her honesty makes him squint at her, and she raises her eyebrows and shrugs. “Can’t tell a lie. Something about him back then, felt like biting on tinfoil. Hard edge to him, hiding so much of who he was.”

Sam shifts awkwardly. “Dean, he’s got his own coping mechanisms. You have to look deeper than that.”

“Oh, I did. And what I saw was good. No doubt about that. I’d have done more than razz him if I didn’t.” She looks down into her cup. “He’s already learned some of that hardness, that boy outside.” Now she looks back at Sam. “Only it’s already different for him. Just this little space of time. You’re changing things, Sam. Already have, a little.”

Sam nods grimly. “Maybe not for the better.”

“Can’t tell that yet.” Her expression hardens. “Breaking a curse like the one fixed up your brother requires a sacrifice, child.”

“Anything,” Sam says. “I mean that.”

Missouri nods and says, “A mortal sacrifice.”

Sam swallows. “Someone has to die?”

“Someone already has died. You think power like that comes from the air? A curse like that, someone is dead. And someone else, who loved that person like you love that boy out there, they done it.”

“Then,” Sam says carefully, “why isn’t Dean dead?”

Missouri shifts in her chair, takes a sip of her coffee. “When you put love in the mix – love like I think caused this in the first place – funny things can happen. See, you can’t shape a high-level curse to your will, not completely. Ain’t you ever heard of the genie that grants wishes, and all of ‘em backfire? You gotta read the fine print, that much is always true.”

Dry-mouthed, Sam nods. “So this – backfired.”

“Oh, I didn’t say it did. But whatever that person called down on poor Dean out there, it took the form of proper vengeance.” Her eyes narrow. “Y’all had any dealings with children? Before this happened?”

Sam’s mouth opens, closes, and then he whispers, “A werewolf. She was – young, not as young as Dean, but –“

“Then there you have it.”

“But we didn’t kill her! We – didn’t have the heart, either of us.”

Missouri sighs, and reaches out to touch his wrist. “Baby, something happened back there. Maybe something you just don’t know about yet. And whatever it was, it cost some daddy or mama their baby, and that curse rained down on your brother’s head. Eye for an eye, Sam: you won’t break that curse without a like sacrifice.”

His headache is crucifying; he touches his temple and feels his stomach churning from the strong coffee. “He’d do it for me,” Sam whispers. “I know he would, without hesitating. How - How can I do any less?”

Missouri gives his arm a squeeze. “You’re hurting right now, and you’re real tired. It’s a handful, keeping up with a child, guess you’re learning that now.”

“I feel like – I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says unsteadily. “What if I let him get hurt? A few nights ago –“

“I know. I know you both did what you had to do, to make sure nobody else got hurt. And you been carrying that around ever since, like it’s your fault that that boy saw such awful things, but Sam, it ain’t you that brought that ghūl to life, nor made it the way it is. You know that. In your heart of hearts, you know that good and well.” She draws her hand back, smiles at him sadly. “It’s just the way things are. And both of you are just fine, aren’t you?” She cocks her head when Dean’s delighted laughter carries from the open back door. “Children got their own strength, Sam. Wouldn’t none of us survive if that weren’t so.”

“He’s not a child,” Sam whispers. “Not really.”

“Shouldn’t be. But that’s no grownup out there right now, either.”

He nods slowly.

“You’ll stay here tonight, won’t you? Been a while since I had overnight guests, and I been looking for an excuse to get out those new linens.”

He produces a shaky smile. “I’d like that. Thank you.”

“You’ll see things clearer in the morning.”

He isn’t sure of that, but he nods anyway.

~~~~~~~~~~

Missouri makes a huge supper for them that evening, pork chops and all the trimmings, and a peach pie. Sam’s stomach is still dicking with him, so he doesn’t do much more than pick at his food, but Dean demolishes two platefuls, no sign that he was sick with a stomach bug only a couple of days ago.

After coffee, which does absolutely nothing to lift the caul of sleepiness now sliding over Sam’s eyes, Missouri shows them down another hallway, revealing a guest bedroom and, further down, another bedroom that was clearly once for a kid, although Sam thinks it was definitely for a girl if the pink wallpaper is any indication.

The bedtime rituals are becoming less unfamiliar. Not comfortable, but a kind of routine. It strikes Sam, watching Dean brush his teeth, how often his memories of such times are tinged with Dean’s influence. Dad might have done the best he could – Sam’s of two minds about that, although he’s developing more than a little reluctant sympathy – but it was once again Dean who enforced the bedtime rules, Dean who –

Well. Sam swallows. If Missouri’s right, he’d better get used to the role-change. At least on the short term.

It’s barely dark when he pulls Dean’s door to and goes to bed himself. He can hear Missouri talking endlessly on the phone, a muffled conversation Sam doesn’t try to overhear. The bed is high and old-fashioned, and Missouri’s new linens smell like the packaging, a sharp-sour scent that reminds Sam of Elmer’s glue.

He’s asleep, and then his eyes open and a part of him knows this is the dreamscape, this isn’t reality, not quite, but it doesn’t really matter anymore. His life is hedged with nightmares, bordered and shut-in and defined by them these days, and in his dream he thinks, Is this the dream? Or is everything else?

The worst part is, he still has a headache in his dream.

Dean, turning to grin at him, pop bottles and candy in his hands, eyebrows waggling like, hey, see, two of the four major Winchester food groups. Sam draws a breath to scream, Don’t go, don’t fucking GO, DEAN, and their father says, Let him go, Sammy. You want him to give you freedom, but you won’t do it yourself. How fair is that? Be fair to your brother.

Sam tilts his head back and stares into the sky, and sees Jess against the clouds, mouth gaping and tears falling. When he looks away, screaming, a woman walks down a sidewalk, holding a child’s hand. What a beautiful pair, mother and son, and the blond boy glances up at Sam on their way past, smiles a luminous smile and winks. He has blood caked in the corners of his mouth. Sam reaches out to take the woman’s arm, and she snarls at him, revealing sharp, long teeth.

At the end of the street, the deserted, dusty street, lies his father, dead in a pool of dark red blood.

Sam sags to his knees, and looks down at his arms, covered with flames.

He screams, and opens his eyes, his real eyes, maybe, is there such a thing as real, he can’t tell anymore. Stares at the little boy staring at him, and gasps, “You’re not him. I want him BACK.”

Dean doesn’t say anything. His expression is hard to read, maybe scared, maybe something else, something wrong, and Sam flings the heavy coverlet back, stumbles off the too-high bed and staggers before his knees finally cooperate.

“Sammy?” Dean asks, in his piping child’s voice, high and terrified.

Sam lumbers out the door, down the hall, and finds himself in the backyard. Duchess growls, then subsides, standing stiff-legged by her kennel, as wary as Dean no longer is, and Sam sobs and goes on, until his back is against a tree, cool middle-of-the-night air soft on his wet cheeks.

Sam is not going to see Dean again, his Dean, Dean is gone, nothing but memories that now seem like Star-Trek temporal-anomaly doublespeak. There won’t be any more convenience-store breakfasts, no more teasing about cassette tapes and no more junior-high pranks. Dean is DEAD, HIS DEAN, his BROTHER, and Sam howls his grief to the sky, and hears Duchess joining the chorus, bewildered and vigilant and unbearably sad.

Then Missouri is gathering him to her perfume-smelling breast, soft hands and softer voice, crooning without words, and Sam leans against her and gasps, “I MISS him.”

“Shhh. Oh, child, such power. Oh, baby, yes, it’s hard to bear, isn’t it?”

“It’s like he’s – DEAD, I lost him, and I’ll never get him back.“

“Go on, let it all out.” Missouri rocks him as he’s rocked that child, that imposter, the changeling bearing his dead brother’s name. “It don’t feel like him, I know that. He’s your big brother, and he’s always done for you, only now it ain’t the same.” Her broad hand curves over his head, strokes his hair. “But child, sometimes those dreams don’t give us the whole story. You know that. By now, you know it, don’t you?”

He can’t think of anything to say, because he doesn’t, he isn’t sure of anything. Missouri hums under her breath, a tune Sam can almost identify but not quite, and when he raises his head he sees Dean sitting on the back porch stoop, motionless and silent. Watching, a child with his nose pressed to the glass, looking in.

He can’t stand that, can’t see that loneliness that so completely matches his own, and so he pushes away, stands with his arms hanging at his sides and says, “Oh, Dean,” and Dean’s pale face crumples.

Sam drops to his knees, holds out his arms, and Dean trudges over, cheeks shiny with uncomprehending tears. He’s a solid weight against Sam, a kind of comfort Missouri could never be, no one else on the planet ever could be but the one who’s not here, who IS here, and Sam smiles shakily when Dean’s arms lock around his neck. The dichotomy is still there, but as long as this lasts, it will always be there, and isn’t this a gift, of a sort?

“It’s okay, Dean,” Sam whispers. “We’re okay.”

Against his shoulder, Dean nods.

~~~~~~~~~~

7. The queen was in the parlor eating bread and honey




In the morning, bleary-eyed and exiled to the yard while Missouri talks with a client, Sam sips coffee and watches Dean engaged in trying to teach Duchess how to play dead on command – complete with many laughing demonstrations, flinging himself on the ground over and over again. Duchess isn’t going to learn it, Sam can see that much, but dog and boy are both having so much fun he keeps it to himself. There’s been little fun in Dean’s life so far.

He knows, now, that he came here to leave Dean, safe in capable and hopefully willing hands. Shuck this burden, console himself with the knowledge that alone, he could travel faster, get more done. Figure it all out without having to deal with a little boy’s presence.

But something’s changed, something so deeply buried that to seek it out is to reach into his own soul, and he could no more abandon this Dean now than he could rip out his own beating heart. So he laughs at the sound of Dean’s gleeful giggles, and finishes his cup of coffee and sets it on the step and calls, “Hey, Dean. Since Missouri’s got company, wanna go to the park?”

“Yeah!” Dean leaps up, revealing grass-stained elbows and knees.

It’s just a respite, but it’s welcome, strolling down the street with Dean perched on his shoulders, the dog dancing and barking as she gazes up at the boy Sam carries. They have to hit the road, probably later today, but Sam has always loved the little flashes of normal in his life, the things that feel so odd because they’re what everyone else takes for granted, and he indulges himself and Dean, too, sets him on the thick grass at the park and watches him tear away, heading for the enticement of swings and jungle gyms.

After a moment of watching, he sits on a bench and smiles at the woman at the other end. “Nice day,” Sam says.

She nods and smiles back. “I wish I could bottle up that energy,” she remarks, shading her eyes to look at the playground where Dean and a handful of other children are hurtling around. “Better than coffee.”

“Way better.” Sam laughs. “That would be awesome.”

“Which one’s yours?”

Sam says, “The one on the slide. That’s Dean.”

“My daughter’s on the swing set. In purple.”

He looks at the pretty little girl, nods.

“I haven’t seen you and your son here before, have I?”

Sam feels his smile slipping. “He’s not my son. My brother.”

“Oh.” She nods sagely.

“We’re just visiting.”

“How do you like Lawrence?” she asks, bright with neighborly interest, and Sam feels it like a shadow over the sun.

“It’s a nice town,” Sam says carefully, turning to watch Dean in inaudible lively conversation with another boy near the slide.

The little girl trots over, and her mother stands, hands on the girl’s shoulders. “Enjoy your day,” she says warmly, as if she really means it, and Sam nods jerkily and replies, “You, too.”

Dean has his hands on his hips, and Sam sees the other boy reach out and push him, and there is no sun, only clouds while Sam stands up and thinks he’d better go check. He’s not close enough to stop it, just near enough to see Dean’s hot, angry expression, lips thinning dangerously, and Sam draws breath and yells Dean’s name at the same time Dean makes a fist and punches the other child right in the nose.

“Oh, shit,” Sam groans, and breaks into a run.

Then it’s a flurry of separating the two struggling boys, the other kid bigger than Dean but in no way equipped to take on a child who started hand-to-hand combat training before he started kindergarten. The other boy’s nose is gushing blood, much like Sam’s first introduction to Dean himself. Dean is a spitting struggling demon in Sam’s arms, cursing a blue streak, and Sam faces the other boy’s dad and feels his heart sinking even further.

“What kind of kid are you raising?” the red-faced man thunders, scooping up his own now-wailing child. “He’s a goddamn wild animal!”

“It was my turn, asshole!” Dean cries, twisting in Sam’s arms to shoot a lethal glare at the man and boy both. “Fuck you!”

“DEAN!” Sam turns away from the blustering father and shakes Dean a little in his arms. “You can’t just hit people because they piss you off! No hitting, understand?”

“He’s a DICK, and –“

“I’m really sorry,” Sam says over Dean’s head, looking over at the other guy. “He’s – going through some stress, and –“

“I don’t give a shit about his fucking stress,” the father says. “I think he broke Zeke’s nose!”

“Serves him right!” Dean spits, and grins triumphantly.

“Okay, ENOUGH.” Sam stares right into Dean’s sparking eyes. “Enough, Dean, not another damn WORD. Stop it.”

Dean opens his mouth and Sam gives a single shake of his head. “I mean it.”

“You’re gonna pay for his doctor’s bill!” the father shouts. His face is so red he looks like a guy on the threshold of a heart attack, and Sam thinks maybe it’s way past time to hit the road again. The other child has already stopped crying, and Sam can see the nose isn’t broken, just bloodied.

Sam steps a few feet away, and looks at Dean.

“Didn’t do nothing wrong,” Dean says sullenly.

“Yes, you did, Dean.”

“Did not! He pushed me! Dad says –“

“Yeah, I’ve heard that speech, too.” Sam nods grimly. “Somebody pushes you, you give them back plus. But Dean, fighting isn’t always the answer. Sometimes you have to give a little ground. Did he really cut in front of you?”

“He was gonna.”

“But did he?”

Dean’s silent, and Sam nods again. “So he just made you mad, and you hit him.”

“Dickwad.”

“And that’s another thing.” Sam waits until Dean reluctantly meets his eyes. “You need to stop cussing so much. It’s rude, Dean, and I know you learned it from Dad, but even Dad would agree with me here. You cuss like that in front of him?”

Dean’s lower lip sticks out, stubborn. “You’re not him.”

“You don’t, do you? Because you know what would happen. He’s whale the tar out of you. Wouldn’t he?”

Dean looks away.

“Okay. We’re gonna go back over there, and you’re gonna apologize to that kid.”

“No WAY! He’s –“

“It’s what normal people DO, Dean!” and Dean gapes at him like Sam’s just screamed it in Icelandic. “Okay? Just DO it, and let’s get the hell out of here.”

It works out better than it might have. Dean apologizes, although Sam and everyone else with eyes and ears knows he means it about as sincerely as a diehard Dodgers fan saying he doesn’t mind losing the pennant, and the other kid is already pulling at his dad’s arms and saying he wants to go swing, and Red-Faced Dad reluctantly nods and mutters, “Boys do shit like that, don’t worry about it.”

Sam walks away with Dean stalking silently at his side, and thinks, What do I do now? Punish him? Try to reason with him? The guy’s right, Dean isn’t like other little kids, not even close, and do I try to make him like those kids? Or just say, This is Dean?

He’s nowhere near an answer when they get back to Missouri’s house, and Dean disappears into his room without a word. Sam sighs and wishes for a magic wand.

~~~~~~~~~~

He packs and thanks Missouri for her hospitality, smiles dutifully when she pats his cheek.

“You don’t believe me, do you?” she asks. There’s only placid calm in her expression, no censure, but Sam fidgets anyway.

“It’s not –“ he starts, and pauses. “More like I can’t believe you,” he says. “Can’t afford to.”

Missouri nods. “That’s all right.”

“Dean -- We’re going back to Texas. I have to know, you know? See for myself.”

She nods again, doesn’t say anything, and he wonders what’s hidden behind her dark gentle eyes. But he doesn’t ask. Just kisses her cheek awkwardly and goes to find Dean.

Dean is listlessly flipping through a book, relic of the long-ago daughter who called this room home, and Sam makes a face thinking about the books he’s bought and not even taken out of the sack yet. There are brightly colored pictures in this one, and Sam wonders if Dean gets the gist of the story from those, or if he misses too much not having the words.

“Ready?” he asks, but Dean doesn’t look up. His mouth is a straight line, lips pressed resolutely together.

“We could stay here.”

Sam shakes his head. “This isn’t our home, Dean. We’re guests, and we can’t impose any longer. Besides, we have stuff to do.”

Still staring at the picture – some kind of pink too-fluffy animal, Sam can’t tell which – Dean says, “Does this mean we’re not on vacation any more?”

“Vacation?”

“Because I don’t have to practice.” Dean regards him soberly. “Dad keeps saying we’re gonna go on vacation, but we never do. But then you said I didn’t got to practice, and so that’s what this is.”

“I guess you’re sorta right.” Sam smiles tiredly, touches Dean’s hair. “We kinda needed to take a break, didn’t we?”

“Am I ever gonna see Daddy again?”

Sam’s throat clamps down tight, and he looks away. “Dean –“

“I’m not, am I?” Dean’s mouth tightens even more, and he flings the book away. “You lied all the time. Liar.”

Sam reaches down to pick up the book, smoothing its ruffled pages absently. “Dad’s older now, just like you were,” he says slowly. “He doesn’t know what happened to you. We have to take it slow, Dean, see if we can fix it first. Okay?”

Dean doesn’t nod, but he doesn’t resist when Sam raises his eyebrows and says, “Come on, let’s say goodbye to Miss Missouri.”

Dean gives Missouri a dutiful hug in the living room, and casts a sad look at the back screen door, where Duchess is making high whining noises. “You come see us anytime,” Missouri tells Dean, hunkering down so she can look him in the eye. “Me and Duchess’ll be waiting.”

Dean nods.

~~~~~~~~~

Dean is quiet while they drive. Sam’s attempts at conversation are met with monosyllables when Dean bothers to reply at all, and after a while he thinks maybe he should stop trying. Give Dean some space. There’s a funny look in Dean’s eye now: Sam can’t say what it is, but it makes him feel helplessly uneasy all over again, and he wonders just exactly when he’ll get the hang of the parent thing. Because this morning was a disaster, and last week was a nightmare, and he’s pretty damn sure he’s not making this kid’s life any better than the first kid’s was, and maybe worse.

They stop at a gas station just off the interstate at about seven, and Sam watches the glorious red-and-orange sunset while he pumps gas, thinks about how if he and Dean are going to drive all over creation much longer they really should buy a hybrid vehicle, ditch this gas-guzzling relic. Can’t afford it, and hybrids ease Sam’s environmental conscience a little. Only the idea of Dean behind the wheel of a Prius or something is like picturing him in a tutu: it just doesn’t fit, jars him like crazy, and he grins and shakes his head and screws the gas cap back on when he’s done.

When he comes back out after paying the attendant, Dean isn’t in the car.

“Dean?” Sam shades his eyes, squinting at the brilliant glow off the western horizon. “Hey!”

There isn’t a reply. Checks the restrooms, but aside from bits of toilet paper and a ton of disgusting grime, there’s no one there.

The attendant frowns at him when he goes back inside, asks if he’s seen a little boy wandering around. “Nope, no kids, ‘cept that one.” He points to a bigger boy visible through the window, hands in his pockets while a man who has to be his dad fuels a Suburban. That kid is thirteen or fourteen, easy. If the black glossy hair wasn’t an instant message all its own.

Sam looks back at the attendant. “He’s wearing a red tee-shirt,” he says hoarsely. “Seven years old. Jeans, and sneakers.”

The man shakes his head and scratches his nose with one grimy fingers. “Didn’t see him when you come in, either.”

“Damn it,” Sam whispers. “He was right there!”

“Sorry.”

This time he makes a closer circuit, goes around back, and scans the interiors of the three other vehicles at the station on his way back. Luggage, unfolded maps, discarded convenience-food wrappers, and another kid – this one about three, and fast asleep – but no blond boy, no red shirt, no nothing, and Sam’s breathing too fast now, his heart thumping in his chest. He stops by the Impala, places his hand on the hot hood and sees his fingers shaking like palsy.

Two possibilities. Someone took him. Someone grabbed him out of the car while Sam was inside, leaving him alone.

Or no one took him, and Dean split.

Sam tries to swallow, but there’s nothing but his stone-dry tongue, mouth making little smacking noises when he pries his lips apart. “Dean?” he calls, and the sound of his own terrified voice makes his guts feel as if they’ve come loose, shivering inside his body. “Dean!”

A couple walking back to their big shiny Expedition give him curious looks, a little concerned, but that’s all.

~~~~~~~~~~~


8. Cry baby bunting, Daddy’s gone a-hunting





He curses when he opens the trunk, because Dean’s things are missing. Kid-Dean’s things, a change of clothes and he’s gone through the secret compartment and one of the Colts and both of the throwing knives are missing. Dean hasn’t been abducted. Dean is GONE, Dean hit the road, vaya con huevos, hasta la byebye, and Sam’s still shaking but now it’s with anger, frustration, a million shades of crap all adding up to I will kick your skinny seven-year-old ASS when I find you, Dean, don’t you DO this to me.

And the thing is, Dean can DO it. Any other kid and Sam would probably find him, but Dean knows good and goddamn well how to go to ground, one of the first things Dad taught them, remember? When you can’t run and you can’t fight, hide. Hide well.

Sam checks the ammo on the second Colt and jams it into the back of his jeans, pulls his shirt over it so it won’t show, and slams the trunk. They’re in fucking Nowhere, Oklahoma, not even a wide spot in the road so much as an excuse to build a half-dozen gas stations and two fast-food places just off the interstate, and if he calls the cops it’ll be state troopers, and what kind of shitstorm will THAT be?

And beneath it all, gazing around wishing he’d let Dean buy those new night-vision goggles he’d wanted back in Syracuse, he’s thinking, Why, Dean? Why’d you do this? Was it THAT bad? What?

There aren’t any good hiding places around the buildings. But he checks the insides, goes into the lavatories, even checks the ceilings. No one he asks can remember seeing a little kid by himself. Plenty with parents, none on their own.

Why doesn’t he remember Dean being such an amazing pain in the ass as a kid?

And maybe Dean left on his own, just put on his boogie shoes, beat feet, vamoosed the hell out of Dodge, but how about now? Now he’s out someplace, can’t be far because seriously, how far can a seven-year-old kid GET, anyway, but this place is hairy with traffic, tons of vehicles in and out all day and all night. Trucks, station wagons, sedans, motorcycles, Christ, in and out and back on the interstate in no time flat, and any of those could have stuck a little blond kid in the back seat and who’d know? It’s dark, it’s busy, no one looks anyway.

He dodges a meandering Lexus and sprints across the access road. The grass next to the culvert is deep, unmowed, and he sees the outline of a frog leaping out of his way, sproing. His feet sink into invisible muck, and his shoes make a slurping sound when he tugs them free with each step.

There is no one in the culvert, no one skulking around the overpass. No bums around here, no homeless.

Sam cups his hands on either side of his mouth and screams, “Dean! God damn it!”

The overpass whispers back, “ammit, ammit,” and Sam wipes tears from his cheeks and turns back.

There will be no tracking Dean in the dark, in this place. All Sam can hope is that he’s gone to ground, although where that would be, Sam hasn’t got a clue. Obviously; he’d be there if he did. He drives anyway, loops from access road south to through street to access road north and around again until it all looks exactly the same to him, headlights and taillights and the few watery parking-lot sodiums and the rest of it black, endless stretches of blank empty space where daylight would show roads and fences and fields.

At four he parks the Impala in the deserted McDonald’s parking lot and shuts his eyes. But when light burrows its fingers over the horizon, pink and gold and innocent, he hasn’t slept. The thrumming anxiety in his chest has become dull, permeating fear. He remembers the feel of it, from months before, endless driving and no music and the awareness of Dean next to him, dozing and dying in the passenger seat. This fear is like that fear, relentless and almost monotonous. Tinged with the expectation of loss

a few weeks, maybe a month, we can’t work miracles

like waiting for surgery to remove a limb.

He blinks in the pale light, and takes out his cell phone.

~~~~~~~~~~

The Ottawa County sheriff’s office is located in a smallish three-story building, and it smells strongly of burned coffee and onions, or maybe body odor. It isn’t a good smell, whatever it is. Sam swallows nausea and pushes his Styrofoam cup away. Surprised this shit hasn’t eaten through, like the acid in Alien. Pictures it boiling away at the table, the floor underneath, and landing on some bald guy downstairs. Sam can almost hear the startled scream.

“You doin’ all right, son?”

The voice shocks him, and he jerks his head up, glaring before he recognizes the deputy who’d answered his semi-hysterical call, what, six hours ago? He can’t tell what time it is. Time to find Dean. That’s all that counts.

“No,” Sam says hoarsely. “Anything?”

The deputy is named Ortega, and he has a face accustomed to smiling, but there is no smile on his tanned cheeks right now. He looks tired, and frustrated. The chair creaks when he sits down. “Got a whole lot of folks looking for him,” he says after a pause. It is, Sam thinks, the closest he can make himself come to saying, “We don’t got diddly-shit.” “Dogs should be here in another hour or so.”

They will use dogs to try to track Dean. And manpower, because Sam’s an unknown, but his driver’s license still gives his real identity and unlike Dean he isn’t officially dead yet, and he’s checked out, and Dean’s his younger brother and there’s no reason for these nice people to think things might be skewed, that this seven-year-old whose disappearance has mobilized an entire county’s worth of deputies and troopers and local law enforcement, not to mention more than a few good-hearted townspeople from Miami and Ottawa, Oklahoma, is anything but a possible runaway, or kidnapping victim.

Everyone’s so nice. And Sam knows, knows it like he knows his own face, they will never find Dean. They aren’t prepared. They don’t know. They are the normal people Sam so desperately wanted, once upon a time, to emulate. Normal is finding out your parents died and you have custody of your younger sibling, not waking up one morning to become an instant father. Not having your older brother OLDER brother wake up your much, much younger brother, victim of a werewolf’s curse, unbreakable goddamn fucking curse.

“Sam?” Deputy Ortega looks genuinely concerned, dark eyes narrowed. “You got any family I could call for you? Anyone around here you know? Ought not to be alone right now.”

Sam shakes his head. “There’s no one.”

“Because if you want –“

“I need to go.”

He wobbles when he stands, too long sitting uselessly around when he should have been out there all along, never trust the authorities, Dad had practically beaten that literally into them from as far back as Sam can remember, they mean well but they’re useless, the kinds of things we hunt will never make it on the state’s most-wanted list, boys, and he shakes off Ortega’s steadying hand.

“Thanks,” Sam says absently, and walks away. There are people staring at him, hushed people, eyes filled with the same pity and worry and thank-god-it’s-him-and-not-me, people thinking about how they’ll hug their kids extra-tight tonight and lock the doors and watch the news for anything about that poor missing seven-year-old.

He hates all of them.

He rents a room at the first motel he sees, and lays out his gear on the nearer of the two beds. There is no reason to believe Dean has fallen into supernatural hands, or paws, or whatever, but Sam cannot go hunting without the basics. And those sorts of things find them, find Winchesters, and sometimes he wonders if he ever did his family’s cracked genealogy he would discover that demons and witches and werewolves and goblins have been haunting them for centuries, millennia. Wonders if Dean’s curse is only the pallid reflection of a larger, older curse, one placed on all of them from time immemorial. May you live in interesting times, some shit like that. They sure as hell do.

So he packs guns and adult-Dean’s razor-sharp knife, no throwing weapon this but made for cutting, slicing, paring away. The basics: things for flesh and blood, and not. Extra ammo. Holy water, and flares, and firestarters, and salt and a Zippo lighter. EMF, and binoculars. Flashlight and GPS and a heavy blister pack of batteries.

The bag is weightless while he strides back to the Impala. He’s wasted precious time, following the normal course. Winchesters aren’t normal. He feels it like a cold blade in his gut, that awareness: the worst anyone can imagine is nothing. Nothing, compared to what he knows, what he has seen since childhood. Dean has run away, and instead of coming back as Sam knows he would have done by now, he’s stayed gone, and that means something has him. And Sam is going to get him back. Period.

~~~~~~~~~~

Eight hours later, in the middle of a dark barren field less than two miles from the interstate overpass, he sees a bobbing light where there should be none.

“Dean,” Sam whispers, and settles his pack on his back and takes off.

The light jerks, flirts and puffs out, and when Sam slows it flickers to life again, just as far away.

He doesn’t know what it is, or might be. He’s broken his cardinal rule: research before ass-kicking. It could be anything: will o’ the wisp, ghost lights, could be a goddamn UFO. This part of Oklahoma is as dark and unknown, and he gives chase but the light vanishes, and this time it takes a while for it to return. As far-off as ever.

High and thin, like a vanishing train whistle, the sound of a child’s far-off scream.

Sam gives a grunt like he’s been gut-punched and lumbers forward again.

The field is endless. He will never catch the light. He stops, panting audibly, and closes his eyes tight. His brain feels like a rubber ball, tethered by the slimmest strand to his body. It is natural, as instinctive as breathing, as dangerous as putting a plastic bag over his head while he jerks off, and the meat part of him cries out in terror while his mind drifts upward, bobbing like the light, zooming along the stunted tips of dry grass and weeds. It is so much easier this way, so much harder, but Dean screams again, a sound pregnant with terror and exhaustion, and Sam keeps going. Ducking his mind to follow, until the light is so near, and it notices him, it sees him, and for an unbreathing unthinking moment they stare at each other, and when Sam bobs the light does, too, and when he backs away it follows him.

Yes, yes, you fucker, come to me, bring him BACK TO ME, and when Sam pries his eyes open again his eyelashes are matted together and he feels the ice-cold minuscule prick of pain as a few are pulled loose, and the light is directly in front of his face.

A few feet away, outlined in pale bluish light, is Dean. The tee shirt is torn, and his shoes are missing. He lies motionless, and a woman bends over him and touches his cheek, smeared with dark, and then glares at Sam. “You can’t have him,” she says. “He’s mine.”

Sam blinks blood from his eyes and rasps, “No, he’s not.”

He can see tears on the woman’s luminous cheeks, like little trails of dry-ice vapor. The air is crisply cold. “They took her from me,” she says, kneeling at Dean’s side. “And they wouldn’t give her back. But I can have him. He’s my son. My beautiful, precious boy.”

Sam digs his hand in his pocket. The balloon feeling is gone, as if it had never been. He says, “No, he’s John Winchester’s son, and my brother, and you take your fucking hands OFF HIM,” and flings a handful of salt into her face.

The light looms, flares to icy-hot intensity, until Sam feels as if his bones must glow, the mutant x-ray from hell, kinda literally. His ears are ringing, and above that tinny noise he hears the ghost shrieking, wailing her grief, her rage. Eyes burning, he gropes for Dean, feels cold flesh beneath his hands and scrabbles to pick him up. Dean hangs limply in his arms, eyes closed and lashes making sharp feathery shadows on his cheeks in the actinic light.

He shakes his head at the light, warningly, and it ebbs, back to the soft ethereal glow. The woman’s weeping is fading, following the light as it retreats, back to its eternal bobbing, searching.

Sam draws a deep breath, and feels for Dean’s pulse. So cold, so lifeless in his arms, but his heart beats, steady and so very slow. With a hoarse sob Sam presses his lips to Dean’s chilly dirt-smeared forehead, and turns away.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dean sleeps, if it is sleep, beyond dawn and all the next day. His pallor is striking and frightening, as if he had been put into suspended animation, cryosleep or something, but Sam knows he heard a scream, two of them, before the apparition was lured back to him, carrying Dean with it. He doesn’t know what has put Dean into this Sleeping-Beauty stupor, and he cares how only to the extent that he can figure out how to break it.

Catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror, he sees blood dried on his cheeks, his upper lip. Around his EARS, and he hastily wets a washcloth and scrubs it away.

A warm bath does nothing much for Dean, nor does bundling him under all the blankets. Finally Sam curls up on the bed, cradling Dean’s naked blue-white body to him, and shivers with the bone-deep cold. It’s hot outside, baking sheets of heat, but waves of deep cold radiate off Dean’s body, and Sam thinks, Hypothermia, use body heat, it’s not as shocking to the system, a slow warm-up.

At sunset, forty-eight hours after he disappeared, Dean wakes up, jerking soundlessly in Sam’s arms, flailing.

“It’s okay,” Sam croaks urgently, holding on, enduring a bonk on the chin from Dean’s bucking head. “You’re okay, Dean. It’s me, Sam. Sammy. Look at me. Come on.”

Dean shivers convulsively over and over, eyes wide and petrified. It seems to penetrate, though, and he burrows against Sam, hands clutching his shoulders.

Sam sighs and sees Dean’s bright hair move with his breath.

After a bath – very hot this time – and wearing two shirts and two pairs of socks, Dean stops shaking quite so hard. But he is eternally silent, aware but not responding in words, and the sharp ache of rebuke in Sam’s chest falters and fades in the fact of his ongoing worry. Wherever Dean has been, wherever the revenant took him, it was too long, and Sam can’t even make his brain consider what would have happened if he left the hunt to law enforcement. They will still be out there, no doubt, looking vigilantly in all the wrong places, and his guilt is brief and weary. He’ll call soon. Let Ortega off the hook. For now, his concern is the boy swaddled in nearly every item of clothing he owns, quiet and unmoving on the bed.

“Hey.” Sam squats and places his hands on Dean’s knees. “Let’s go get something to eat, huh? You hungry?”

Dean’s eyes are filled with distant, wondering uncertainty. He starts to nod, then halts, brow furrowing as if Sam’s wanting him to solve a quick quadratic equation, and Sam swallows the immediate surge of fear

will he be all right will he come back did part of him get lost back there how did I find him what did I DO

and says, “Soup. Or chili. Want some chili?”

Dean nods for real this time, and holds out his arms to be carried.

They find a little restaurant about two blocks from the motel, and Sam calls Ortega while they’re waiting for their bowls of chili. Dean says nothing while Sam explains that yes, he found him, no, he hadn’t gone far, just hid real well, and they have to get moving, their aunt is expecting them in Dallas.

“CPS gonna need to make a report,” Ortega says reluctantly. “Any time this sort of thing happens.”

“Who do I need to talk to?” Sam asks, knowing he never will.

After a few minutes it’s done, and Dean stares at his chili like it’s some inscrutable puzzle before picking up his spoon. His hands shake too badly to eat at first, but he keeps on trying, and the color is slowly leaching back into his cheeks, his eyes losing the haunted emptiness of earlier.

They have pie for dessert, and it may be the combination of spice and sugar that make Dean seem better. But after the plates are gone Sam reaches out and takes Dean’s grubby hands in his.

“I’m sorry,” he says shakily. “I’m sorry, buddy.”

“You came and got me, didn’t you?” Dean’s voice is a pale whisper, but his eyes are wide and earnest, gazing into Sam’s. “You found me.”

“Yeah,” Sam says. “I did. I always will, Dean. Always.”

Dean gives a grave nod, and casts a brief flicker of a smile at the waitress when she brings the check.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

9. The knave of hearts he stole the tarts and took them clean away





He does his belated research after Dean has gone to sleep that night. Dean – the old Dean – would have known this, Sam is sure of it. They’re in the so-called Spooksville Triangle, and he finds the ghost’s story on the first page of Google hits. A mother, whose daughter went out on a foggy night and never returned. A grieving mother, searching for her child by lantern light and never finding her, until she went insane.

It’s standard fare, and he thinks about the ghost’s words – you can’t have him, he’s mine – and he can feel no anger towards it, not anymore. Maybe it would have been Sam, if he hadn’t found Dean. Wandering eternally, a flashlight instead of a lantern, calling Dean’s name and hoping to lure someone else’s child away, never the same but a welcome replacement.

And just how did he find Dean, anyway? Because whatever happened out in that field, Sam doesn’t know what it was. Sending his MIND out of his body, luring a revenant back to himself? That isn’t precog, that isn’t teke, that’s something ELSE new, and he’s damn sure he couldn’t do it again right now. Knows it for a stone fact. But at the time, there had been NOTHING he could not do, not with the power of his terror and determination backing him up.

Like Max, and the telekinesis, wasn’t it? Dean’s quick sharp death at the forefront of his mind, galvanized by that vision, and moving some goddamn furniture was a piece of cake.

He wants to ask Dean about it. Dean, I think some of these things only work when I’m scared, when I have nothing else to lose. When I’m scared for YOU. What do you think? Am I full of crap, or what? If someone else is in danger, will it still work? Could I move furniture or have an out-of-body experience or bend a goddamn spoon if it was anyone BUT you? Or does it only work when the person in danger is someone I love?

But he can’t ask Dean that, because he won’t know, and the Dean in Sam’s head just shrugs, because he doesn’t know, either. Doesn’t know anything Sam doesn’t, because the only place that Dean lives any longer is in Sam’s memories.

Because he’s paranoid, because the mention of CPS has got him thinking like their father, Sam makes them get a very, very early start. Dean isn’t himself, still too quiet and puzzled-looking much of the time and all he seems to want to do is sleep, but he can do that in the car and be out of harm’s way at the same time, so Sam packs him carefully in the back seat, tucks a blanket around him and adds a stolen pillow before heading out.

They veer east to hit Arkansas instead of continuing through Oklahoma, and Sam feels better when they cross the state line. No signs of pursuit, nothing funky, but he checks the rear-view mirror a lot, partly looking for staties, partly to watch Dean. Who sleeps all the way to Ft. Smith, wakes for a lukewarm breakfast sandwich, and promptly goes to sleep again. Maybe he should see a doctor. Maybe this daze he’s in is a sign of something ominous, but Sam pulls over three times that afternoon to check Dean’s temperature and it’s pretty much normal, and he’s certainly not in any pain. The last thing Sam wants to find himself explaining is how a child was brought into the clinic suffering from the aftereffects of hypothermia in the middle of summer. He’d be lucky to fight off CPS; if they really got hard-assed on him, it would be cops he’d be sweet-talking.

He’s eager to hit Texas, get where they’re going. Missouri’s words echo in his mind, but so do his doubts. He’s aware that curses are hinky things, that each is kind of unique and is broken in its own specific way, but the number of serious curses that truly cannot be broken is small and definite.

Dad would know. And late in the afternoon Sam turns off at a roadside park, gets Dean awake and settled in with a juice box and a snack, and stands outside the car to call.

“Hi, Dad,” he says, watching a semi maneuver into the rest area. “I wanted you to know, right, this stuff, the thing that happened to Dean -- Nothing’s changed. I’m gonna try to find out how it happened, you know, but we were at Missouri’s, and she said –“ He clears his throat. “Said there wasn’t anything I could do. We’re about to hit Texarkana right now. Look, Dean -- He’s younger, Dad. A lot younger. That’s what happened, and you know, I’m doing the best I can but I could really use your help. He’s – Dean’s okay, but he’s just a little kid, you know? Doesn’t really understand stuff, and he misses you. He keeps asking when we’ll find you, and it’s one thing when it’s, you know, the regular Dean, but he’s seven fucking years old. So call me. Please? Any time. We’re headed back down to Rockport, probably stay tonight in Nacogdoches or someplace, but do this for Dean. He’s – “ Sam smiles. “He’s a cute kid. And all this, it’s kinda hard on him. All right. Please call.”

When he looks in the back seat Dean has cracker crumbs on his lips, and he doesn’t look quite as distant at the moment. “Where are we?” he asks, looking so interested that Sam feels a glad clench in his chest.

“Here, share.” He takes the cheese-and-cracker combo Dean holds out, and chews. “Almost to Texas.”

“Didn’t we just come from there?”

Sam nods and swallows his food. “We gotta go back. Unfinished business.”

“Is it monster business?” Dean asks matter-of-factly.

Sam reaches out to brush Dean’s hair back. Needs a trim, bad. “Kinda, yeah. Not hunting, though. I just need to do some research, that’s all. Ask some questions.” He smiles. “Nothing to be scared about.” He hopes, and feels the smile slipping.

“I’m not scared,” says Dean in his very rational voice. “What happens then?”

“Well, I’m not sure yet. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”

That gets him a faint nod, while Dean slurps the rest of his juice. “Okay.”

“Ready?”

“Yep.”

Sam pauses. “Dean, I’m sorry. About the other day. I’m sorry it made you feel like you had to run away.”

Dean looks away, face resolute in the waning afternoon light. “Won’t do it again.”

“Well, I hope not, but maybe we ought to talk about why you did it at all. You really scared me, buddy. Scared me so bad.”

Dean glances at him, but there’s no ripple in the impassive features, so very adult-Dean right now. Hiding things, keeping a stiff upper lip. “I was mad,” he says indifferently.

Sam nods cautiously. “So you left when I wasn’t looking. What happened then?”

“Dunno.”

“Dean –“

“I don’t remember, okay?” Dean says loudly.

Sam says nothing, watches with his throat drying, and Dean shifts a little and looks back out the window and whispers, “It got cold. And then you came.”

“You don’t remember seeing a lady? With a lantern?”

Dean shakes his head. “Just got really cold. That’s all.”

The weird thing is, Sam can’t tell right now whether Dean is lying or not. And he thinks that scares him, too, maybe just as much as the ghost thing. Maybe a little more.

Feeling not a little like a child himself, Sam asks, “You still mad at me?”

“No,” Dean says without pausing, shaking his head. “I’m okay.”

“Good.” The sense of relief is startlingly sharp. Sam leans over and gruffly kisses the top of Dean’s head. “That’s good to know.”

“Sam? Are we ever gonna see Dad again?”

He’s glad Dean can’t see his face from this angle. The twinge of mixed guilt and fear is too strong for him to hide. Unlike Dean, he’s not all that good at putting a good face on things, and kids have good bullshit detectors built in. Especially this one. “I hope so,” Sam whispers. “I really hope so.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

He’s sort of verbally committed to Nacogdoches for their overnight, so he finds a place to crash and they get settled in. He’s surprised Dean’s sleepy after his marathon naps, but while Dean yawns and slides under the covers Sam gets out the Dicamillo book and looks at Dean speculatively.

Dean’s look brightens, and so Sam stretches out next to him and points the bedside lamp so he can read the pages. He missed most of the story back in that bookstore, and it is good. With Dean curled next to him, warm and sturdy, it’s like the rest of the world doesn’t exist. Just Edward’s adventures, and the safe security of their little room.

Dean’s asleep before Sam finishes, and he’s so comfortable himself he doesn’t want to move yet, so he reads silently and quickly through the rest of the book, curious about the ending. Then, unsure if he wants to smile or maybe cry a little, he gets Dean tucked in and puts the book away in his bag.

His cell phone rings at ten minutes after eleven. There’s only one person who could be calling. Sam goes outside, leaving the door ajar so he can hear if Dean makes a sound, and perches on the Impala’s hood.

“Hi, Dad,” he says softly. “Thanks for calling me back.”

“Seven?” His father sounds incredulous, unsurprisingly. “Sam, how in the hell?”

“I think it’s a curse.” Sam shrugs. “The only possibility I’ve been able to come up with so far.”

“You have to break it. You need Dean, not – this. We can’t afford this.”

“Dad, this IS Dean. I mean, minus twenty years, but still. It’s definitely him.” Sam smiles, shaking his head. “Man, the first time he saw me he kicked me in the face. You’d have been proud, I swear. Great reflexes, like –“

“Listen to me.” Dad’s voice is grainy and immediate, and Sam sort of hates how his spine straightens, hearing that curt command. Fucking Pavlovian, when you come right down to it. “There’s business waiting, and I need you boys to see to it. I can’t fix this for you; you have to do it on your own. And the clock is ticking, you know that.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Sam says bitterly. “God, why did I even bother.”

“Stop whining,” comes the immediate reply. “Dean wouldn’t whine. He’d get the job done, Sam, period.”

“Dean? Oh, well, let’s talk about Dean, Dad,” Sam says crisply. “Want to know how Dean and I spent the last two days? Trying to warm Dean up after a goddamn ghost grabbed him and kept him for twenty-four hours. Want to know how the ghost got him? Because he was looking for YOU. Ran away from me, decided he could find you on his own. You’re all he talks about.” His voice wavers, and he keeps going anyway. “It’s all he wants, to see you. To see his DADDY. You gonna tell him to suck it up, too? Is that what you told him when he really WAS seven? Because I dare you. I fucking DARE YOU to look in those eyes and face him and –“

“Stop.”

Sam does, mouth shutting abruptly, because his father sounds as choked as he feels. And that’s not a tone Sam ever hears from him, not often enough for it to sound anything but alien. John Winchester never loses that edge, but this guy sounds like he’s on the brink of crying.

“What – does he say?” Dad asks after a long uncomfortable moment.

“Aw, man. Daddy’ll come get me. Don’t worry, Sammy, Dad’ll take care of us.” Sam gives a watery sigh. “He doesn’t understand, you know? Not everything. To him, this is like a vacation, and pretty soon you’ll come get him and he’ll know what the hell is going on. But you won’t, will you?”

There is another long pause, and his father says, “No.”

“You BAST –“

“He can’t see me, Sam. We can’t afford that.”

“Why NOT? It’s such a little thing! Christ, can’t you do ONE –“

“Because I can’t be his father right now. Not like before.”

“What –“

“I don’t have TIME!” Dad roars, and Sam jerks as if he’s been slapped. “There’s no TIME, Sam, don’t you see? I don’t have time and neither do you! Things are progressing! I can’t have you off – changing DIAPERS or some crap while we –“

“Dean’s a little old for diapers,” Sam says slowly. “And he doesn’t even know how to read. Seven years old, and he barely knows half the alphabet. Did you know that? Back then? What, did he fall through the cracks? We moved around all the time, and darn, we forgot Dean’s elementary education back in Boise. Guess we’ll just have to leave it.”

“He learned. It took time, but he learned.” He sounds – affronted, and that makes Sam feel so very tired.

“Dad, listen to me. Missouri -- She said she didn’t think the curse could be broken. That someone died to make this curse real, and unless someone else dies, it won’t break.”

“Well, she’s wrong.”

Sam snorts softly. “Yeah, that’s what I said, too. Only what if she’s not wrong? What if Dean is stuck this way? What do you want me to do, Dad? Leave him? Stick him in an orphanage someplace and –“

“No.” It’s quiet, and fervent. “Of course not, don’t be absurd.”

“Well, what then?”

“He dealt with this before. He’s tough. He can handle it.”

“Yeah, I’ve seen how tough he is. And I’ve seen what it costs him, too, I’ve seen how hard it is for him. He’s a little KID! And you want me to put him through it all over again? No way. No fucking way.”

He can hear his father swallowing. “All right, then,” comes the measured response. Calm, cool, back under control. Let’s deal. “What do you want from me, Sam?”

“I want –“ Sam sags a little. What does he want? For John Winchester to act like Dean’s father instead of – what? Dad was always a hunter first, then a father. Hell, putting it second on the list might be ambitious. Always knew he loved them, and always knew the first thing on his mind was hunting. Always had been, Sam’s whole life.

“I want you to give him a hug,” Sam says huskily. “And tell him everything will be okay.”

“I’m – nowhere near you. I can’t, I.”

It gives Sam an odd, clenching feeling in his gut, hearing the uncertainty in his father’s voice. That wandering, tell-me-what-to-do sound. His anger has evaporated. He takes a slow breath and says, “Then talk to him. Just say hello. Please, Dad.”

A very long silence, and then, “All right. Put him on the phone.”

“Hang on.” He goes inside, and shakes Dean’s skinny shoulder with his cold hand. Dean blinks at him, giving a groggily questioning noise, and Sam says, “Guess who wants to talk to you on the phone?”

Dean sits up and rubs his eyes with both fists. “Who?”

“Here.” He puts the phone in Dean’s hand, helps him because Dean has never used a cell phone, doesn’t quite grok that such a tiny thing unattached to a cord actually works. Frowning, Dean says, “Hello?”

Sam stands straight, backs up a few steps, and sees Dean’s face dissolve into wonder. “Daddy?”

And that’s kinda when Sam loses it, the room gets all blurry and sparkly, and he sits down on the edge of the next bed and has to wipe his cheeks, because Dean’s whole BODY is suddenly wide-awake, wonder morphing into tears while he says, “I miss you, Daddy.”

He wishes he could hear Dad’s responses, and is glad he can’t. Thinks maybe it would just finish undoing him, unravel him until he can’t do anything but lie there and cry, so he smiles at Dean, nods encouragingly, while Dean listens, and asks his questions, listens some more.

Dean’s eyes go to Sam. “He said – he’s all grown up, but he’s really Sammy.” Dean presses his lips together, listening, and nods. “Yes, sir. Okay. Are you gonna come get me now?”

Sam stands up sharply, turns away, because Dad isn’t coming, Dad will never come, not like Dean wants him to, needs him to, and the sound of Dean’s forlorn sobs burns into Sam’s skin like acid. If Dad’s close to the fucker that killed Mom and Jess, then he needs to keep going. And in the same moment, his brain snarls, Yeah, because that’s more important than a little kid. Just a little squirt, who gives a shit about him? It’s all about the hunt, Sammy-pie. That’s all it will ever be about, and don’t you fucking forget it.

But Dean isn’t crying anymore, and when Sam risks another look Dean’s wiped away his tears, is nodding slowly at whatever Dad is saying. And it feels ridiculously good to hear Dean whispers, “I love you, too, Daddy,” because nothing else really matters except Dad said it, said what Dean needed to hear.

“Will you call me again?” Dean asks, and even smiles a little at whatever he hears. “Okay. Yeah. Bye, Dad.” He looks at Sam. “He wants to talk to you again.”

Sam takes the phone, holding it loosely at his side. “You okay, buddy?”

Dean gives an unsteady nod. “Yeah.”

“Gimme just a minute.” He strides outside, and holds the phone to his ear. “Yeah.”

“Jesus, Sammy.” There is a breathless sound to Dad’s voice, one Sam finds weirdly familiar. Shades of his own reaction, when it first happened. “He’s really – a child.”

“Yeah, no joke.” Sam nods slowly.

“I – remember. I remember him, that age. He -- We were in Amarillo, six months, and then there was the vampire in Enterprise. Alabama. My god.”

“Thank you for talking to him. I think it helped.”

“I understand now. I think.” Dad still sounds shaky, but there’s a depth of belief in his voice that was entirely absent before he spoke to Dean. “Sam, I – apologize, I thought -- I don’t know what I thought.”

That I was just bitching for the hell of it, probably, Sam thinks dourly, but doesn’t say it out loud, for once. “It’s okay,” he says instead, although it isn’t, not really. Doesn’t matter. “But if this doesn’t work -- If I can’t break this curse, then things are gonna change. They have to change.”

“You can still do the work.” Dad pauses, and then adds, “But of course. He’s a – child. It was different when you were kids. Had to be.”

Not that different. Let’s not veer off into revisionist history. “Call him when you can,” Sam says tiredly. “He needs to hear from you.”

“I will,” Dad promises, in a tone Sam doesn’t trust. “Let me know what happens. Please.”

“Yeah. I can do that. Thanks for calling.”

“Be careful. He can still help, but.”

“I know. Believe me.”

His father hangs up without anything more, and Sam closes his phone and has to swallow a couple of times before he can make himself go back into the room. Dean is still sitting up in bed, knees clasped to his chest. He looks alertly at Sam.

“Feel better?” Sam asks, coming over to sit next to him.

Dean nods.

“What did he say to you?”

“That he couldn’t come get me right now, because there were things he had to do. Hunting things.”

There’s a steadfast belief in Dean’s eyes that Sam hates, suddenly. Hates that his father has inspired such faith, such trust, and yet abandoned this child in the very same breath. “What else?” Sam asks hoarsely.

“That I had to do what you say, because you’re my brother, and you’ll look out for me. Because that’s what brothers do.”

Sam nods with difficulty. “Well, he’s got that part right.”

“And you’re gonna make me grown-up again.”

“Did he say that?”

“Yeah. And then I can help again, because I’ll be big like you and strong.”

“You want that?”

Dean looks up at him, a dry expression – “duh” – in his eyes. “Well, yeah.”

“But it’s okay to be little, too, right?” Sam watches him carefully. “Right? Because Dad and me, we’re not sure this will work. You might get big again, you might not. And either way, you’re still Dean. Big or little.”

“But I can help better if you make it work. Chasing the bad things.”

“True. But.” Sam pauses uncertainly. Then thinks, It’s late, kid is zonked, and I have no idea how I’d say this anyway. “Listen. Time to go to sleep, okay? We’ll talk more in the morning.”

Dean stifles a yawn and nods. “Okay.”

But after Dean’s asleep, Sam sits up, staring out the grimy window and glancing at his silent phone from time to time. Where is Dad now? Is he close to what all three of them seek, or is that a fantasy? Does it matter anymore?

He has no answers. Just questions piling on top of more questions, an endless growing mountain of uncertainty.

He goes to bed sometime around two, but sleep is a long time coming.

~~~~~~~~~

10. Eleven, twelve, dig and delve




Rockport is hot, and the only thing saving it from unbearable mugginess is the breeze coming in off the Gulf. Sam’s still got chiggers from the last trudge through this particular patch of mixed grass and weeds, and he figures he’ll have a whole new crop very soon.

Dean gazes up at the gulls and other birds that flock around this restful wild place, and doesn’t ask any questions. He’s been quiet since they got here, quiet since before then, but his hand is firm in Sam’s.

Between two stubby salt-scarred trees Sam stops. A woman faces him, holding her hand up to secure her long, graying hair. Sam nods slowly, and says to Dean, “Stay very close.”

With Dean at his right heel, Sam walks slowly over. “I’m looking for Lily,” he says carefully. “Do you know where she is?”

He doesn’t remember this woman’s name; she wasn’t directly involved in the confrontation a few weeks ago. Her expression is completely useless to him, blank as paper. “Dead,” she says, her eyes flicking down to look at Dean.

Sam stares at her. “But – we didn’t –“

“What, kill her? Maybe not by your standards.” The woman lifts her chin at Dean. It’s still hard to read her, but Sam is sure there is nothing motherly about that look, nothing warm or welcoming. It’s just assessing. “This is him, isn’t it? The one who was with you.”

“My brother, yeah.” Sam nods grimly. “That sea air, man, really takes the years off. Doesn’t it?”

The woman smiles, a wintry look as inhuman as she is. “If you’re looking for Lily’s papa, you’re wasting your time. He’s long gone. They all are. Except me.”

“What happened to Lily?”

She just gazes at him, and he fancies he can see the teeth behind her frigid smile, long, sharp. Canine.

“Tell me!” Sam snaps, and feels Dean flinch at his side. “We could have killed her, but we –“

“Should have. Instead you let the pack do it for you. Humans,” the woman spits with disgust, the first real human emotion showing in her face. “We don’t have time for your mercy. We never have.”

Sam is staring at her. A chill creeps up his spine, colder by far than anything the woman says. “The pack?” he echoes stupidly. “The pack – killed her? She didn’t do anything.”

The woman shrugs, scratching behind one ear and waving at sand flies. “We keep to ourselves. In spite of what you think. But you came around, and you touched her. HE touched her,” she adds, staring again at Dean, who looks pale and resolute, staring back. “And the pack won’t stand for that. Contamination.”

“God, you’re acting like we -- we RAPED her, and I swear to GOD, that didn’t –“

“What you did, to us, was a kind of rape. It was trespass,” the woman says with meaning. “Now the den is ruined, the pack dispersed. It’s all over. Unless someone does something, tries to drag us all together again, we’ll die out. There have been wolves on this alluvial plain for nearly two hundred years, human. Now thanks to you, we’re an endangered species.”

A part of him should feel proud of that – werewolves are not nice creatures, although it’s rare to find ones as civilized as these. But he only feels shaken, and subtly shamed.

“Was it her father?” Sam asks softly. “Who did this to Dean?”

Now the woman laughs, short and sharp, like a bark. Her golden eyes dance with amusement. “We all did,” she says. “Every last one of us. Our last task, I suppose you could say, before going our separate ways.”

Sam nods slowly, and whispers, “Why? Why – make him younger?”

“Ask the wind. Maybe the wind knows.” Her smile is gone; she looks older, and disinterested. “That’s the form it took. We didn’t know.” And don’t care, either, is the unspoken addendum.

“And to break it? The curse?”

But she’s turning, her form subtly rippling, and Sam flinches and calls, “Please. Tell me?”

“Break an egg,” she calls over her shoulder. “Ask it how it can be fixed.”

And then there’s a bitch standing where she was, a wolf with the same golden eyes and humorless grin on her face. She noses at the dress her human form had worn, and utters a sharp, lonely-sounding yip before taking up the fabric between her teeth and trotting away.

~~~~~~~~~~~

An hour later Sam sits motionless on the sand, watching Dean venture out into the foamy curls of water, yelping when his toes get wet. They’re not entirely strangers to big water, but most of Dean’s life so far has been very landlocked, and this is a rare treat.

“What’d you call ‘em?” Dean calls over the raucous cries of the many gulls circling overhead.

“Sand dollars. They’re round and flat.”

“Okay!”

He shades his eyes and watches Dean slowly scanning the sand under his feet, and thinks, This is it. This isn’t going to change. Dean is – this way. Growing up all over again.

It doesn’t feel as strange as it did, hearing it from Missouri’s lips. She was right, but there’s a sense of closing the circle now, coming back here and speaking with the werewolf woman. He wonders why she stayed if everyone else left, but there is always someone whose love of home is too strong to break. Maybe she thinks the rest will return one day, and she’s keeping the home fires burning. Maybe it’s just something werewolf that he not only doesn’t understand but can’t. He didn’t know touching a werewolf would desecrate it in the eyes of its kin, after all. In talking with Lily, in touching her with kindness and staying their weapons, they had killed her as dead as if Dean had let fly with the crossbolts, Sam with his silver bullets.

There are avenues he hasn’t explored yet. Literature darker than anything you find on the damn internet, the things Dad never talked about unless he’d had a couple of Scotches, and even then only in tones of dire warning. “There are things out there that will make you worse than what you hunt,” he’d said one night, the time when they were waiting for Dean, when Sam was fourteen and Dean was supposed to be back already, the night they’d gotten the call from the ER, when Dean was in that wreck. Not his fault. Sam had wanted to know what Dad meant. Worse? How could they be worse? They were the damn good guys. But Dad had gone over to refill his drink and the phone had rung, and Sam watched Dad eat a peppermint on the way to the hospital and knew he wasn’t drunk, Dad hadn’t ever seemed to GET drunk after a while, just as if any liquor he drank went trickling out the bottom of his shoe instead of metabolizing. And by the time Dean was discharged a week later, Sam had mostly forgotten that bleak hint.

But never completely. He knows there are other avenues to the goal they seek. Roads less traveled, shadowy spooky lanes that parallel the good-guy interstate and might even be shortcuts. But Sam doesn’t need Dad, or Dean, or anyone else to tell him the risks that go along with the easy way out. Never has. What’s the point of fighting, if all it gets you is a first-class ticket to hell?

He stirs, brushes sand off his jeans. Dean has wandered down the deserted beach about two hundred yards, small and still in the distance, and Sam yells, “Find any?”

Dean shakes his head. “Not yet.”

“Here, I’ll help you.”

They don’t find any sand dollars that afternoon. But the Gulf water is blood-warm and comfortable, and it’s too shallow to really swim but it’s worth getting his shirt and jeans wet to see Dean capering around like a blond-haired seal, giggling and splashing and looking behind him at his footprints, filling with water.

~~~~~~~~~

There’s a text message from Dad when they get back to the motel room. Coordinates, and a rare real message: Tell Dean I said to wait an hour after he eats before swimming.

Sam swallows. He’s always wondered if Dad kept tabs on them, called on one or another of his vast network of weird-ass contacts to check up on them, see what they were doing when he could not. So he knows they’re near the beach. Does he know because someone told him? Or because he’s next door, hiding as he is so very good at doing?

Doesn’t matter. Even if he’s a hundred yards away it might as well be a hundred miles, or a thousand. They’ll be all right.

He shows Dean Dad’s message, and then has to explain why you should wait a while before swimming after you eat. Sam suspects that’s kind of an old-wives’ tale, but Dean pays earnest attention, and Sam’s perfectly certain Dean will always, always wait an hour. Now, and for the rest of his life. It’s just the way Dean is.

They eat fat Gulf shrimp at a pretty little restaurant, and Sam sees Dean’s nose is going to peel from his sunburn. His freckles are darker, and his hair already lighter. It suits him.

And when they get back, Sam takes out one of the primers he’s been carrying around, and makes Dean go over his letters.

“Did Dad tell you I had to do this?” Dean’s look is accusing, although not the sort of angry look he’s given Sam when he’s really upset. More like – testing.

Sam shakes his head. “Nope. This is all my idea.” He stretches out on the bed and props his chin on one hand. “You remember what you said, a little while ago, about wanting to help me?”

Dean nods, still looking a little wary.

“Well, if you can read, you can help me a LOT more.”

Dean purses his lips, and is for a brief instant really DEAN, the same expression, the same lemme-think-about-it demeanor. And Sam can only smile, because it hurts but it hurts in the right way. Dean didn’t die. Changed, oh yes, but Dean hasn’t left him, Dean is right here, in the slightly defiant cock of his head, the red lips easing into a reluctant half-smile. The tapping of one impatient foot.

“Like what?” Dean asks.

“Maps, for one. Road signs.” Sam glances around dramatically, and then lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Clues, even.”

Predictably and wonderfully, Dean’s smile flashes bright. “Yeah,” he breathes. “That’d be good. Told you I could help.”

Sam smiles and nods. “I never had a single doubt about that, Dean,” he says honestly. “Not ever.”

~~~~~~~~~~~

He’s thinking about where the hell they’ll go now, what he’ll do. There’s a job, and the coordinates tell him it’s someplace in rural New Mexico, not that far from where they are now.

But they’re down to plastic instead of money, about forty left in cash is all, and he’s scared the plastic will be declined pretty soon. He’s never bothered with continuing the scam; always had Dean to do that. Now he’s thinking he better come up with some kind of plan, fast, or they won’t just be driving in the Impala, they’ll be sleeping every night in it, too. And his body’s just too long to let him do that more than once in a blue moon. Not to mention how much it would suck in a more general way, for Dean, too. Maybe be an adventure for him occasionally, but regularly? No way.

Getting a job, as the older version of Dean used to take some dark pleasure in reminding him on all too many occasions, isn’t much of a solution. The money sucks, the hours blow, and you gotta pay taxes. Sam has nowhere to leave Dean while he gets some kind of crap job, anyway.

Which leaves him with several options, none of which are all that palatable. Beg, borrow, steal, hustle. He’s not ready to beg, and there’s no one at this point to borrow from. Stealing’s an option. Hustling -- Well, everything he knows about that, he learned from the little fellow just now biting his lip over drawing endless series of letters in a manila-colored notebook on the floor. Sam is nowhere near Dean’s former brand of slick, but he’s not without his own strong points. It’s worth a shot.

As it turns out, he doesn’t have to do it. In the middle of lunch, a sandwich eaten while Dean pores over the ruled tablet on the table, his phone chimes a message, and tells him to pick up something at the local HEB. The something is money, wired, he is sure, through their father, and Sam doesn’t care how Dad got it, or knew they were flat broke. He just cares that it’ll see them through for a little while.

Child support. Something like that. Whatever.

The next day, they head for New Mexico. It’s a shedu, lurking around the outskirts of Roswell, and the morning after they arrive Sam sees its footprints in the ashes he’s spread outside the door. He kills it that night, no return of Dean to the rescue but Sam handling it with dispatch and not a little satisfaction, and the next day they spend the morning at the UFO Museum, and Sam buys them both tee shirts and takes pictures with a cheap disposable camera. When he drops it off to be developed, he prints one of Dean’s many P.O. box addresses on it, and hopes he’ll remember to check the next time they’re in Reno.

They’re heading generally westward, no destination in particular, and Sam isn’t sure if he’s waiting for something from Dad, or just for inspiration to strike. Dean has been happier since his talk with his father, applying himself with reluctant diligence to the homework Sam gives him, the basic math and reading and writing. Dean catches on fast enough that Sam suspects he really did learn something his first two years in school, just never really had any time to enforce it.

On a dusty highway just past Tuba City, Arizona, Sam opens his mouth to point something out to Dean off to their right, a hawk of some kind. And there’s a moment when the world goes still, an instant flash-photo of desert landscape and a bird frozen in flight, a sense of pressure in the bridge of Sam’s nose and the feel of his eyes bulging in their sockets. Then everything dissolves into black, and then vivid color, a lightning-quick series of images.

When he comes back, there is blood in his mouth, the car is tilted at a crazy angle in the ditch, and Dean is tugging Sam’s arm and yelling his name in a hysterical tone Sam has never heard before.

Dean looks unhurt. But his terror touches something deep inside Sam’s breast, something hot and uncomfortable and afraid, and he ignores the cut on his mouth from biting the steering wheel, doesn’t think about how the hell they’ll get the car out of the ditch. He just grabs Dean, hugs him. Thanks God they survived another of Sam’s brain-bomb specials.

If he can’t be trusted to drive, they’re truly screwed. But that night, sucking on a piece of ice and wishing his Tylenol would kick in faster, he thinks maybe this was a blessing. He can learn to recognize the signs, take action before the precog strikes. Pull over, at the very least. As long as it’s consistent. If it is, it’s doable.

It is. It takes two days to get the Impala’s bent front axle repaired, and Sam chucks the credit card after paying because it’s gonna bounce like the proverbial India-rubber ball after that highway robbery. And outside Boulder, meandering their way toward another set of coordinates, he sees the photo-effect again, and jerks the car off the highway, a tiny, nondescript roadside park, jolts them to a stop before the images explode behind his eyes.

When it’s done, and he’s caught his breath, he looks into Dean’s anxious eyes. “We have to go to California,” Sam says rustily. “Right now.”

Dean nods soberly, and picks up the map. “Where?”

A headache is coming. Ravening over the horizon, black eyes narrowed and pitiless, and Sam can’t avoid it. Can only hope to endure it, hope it doesn’t last. “Just a second,” he slurs, and opens the door to throw up.

He can barely see, and it takes Dean’s voice to calm him enough to start the car again, guiding them with his own eyes and descriptions to a motel not too many miles down the highway. “I can’t,” Sam manages, when they creak to a stop by the front office. “Sorry.”

Dean takes his wallet and nods. “I’ll do it.”

Sam doesn’t have the wherewithal to object. And Dean does, comes back with a key and steers Sam to their nearby room. “Told him my dad had a migraine,” Dean says softly, and Sam is hurting too much to wonder where Dean learned the term. He crawls onto the bed, and eases a pillow over his head.

It’s Dean who brings him the med kit a little while later, helps him find their stash of Vicodin, and fetches a wastebasket for Sam to throw up in. It should be humiliating, being nursed by a little kid, but Sam is only grateful, thankful that some of the painkillers stay down, that they’re safe and Dean is effortlessly quiet, the only sounds the AC and the scribble of crayons on paper.

When Sam wakes up the next morning, Dean is curled next to him, still fully dressed, long lashes dusky on his cheeks. Sam’s headache is gone; the urgency – go now, California, now now NOW – isn’t. But he smiles anyway, reaches out and runs his thumb over Dean’s freckled cheek. “Thanks, buddy,” Sam whispers, although Dean is asleep, can’t hear him. “Couldn’t do it without you.”

Dean’s eyelids flicker, and he sighs a little in his sleep but doesn’t move.

~~~~~~~~~~

11. Ashes, ashes, we all fall down





The brain-bombs take them to Lake Alpine, California, where something is eating the good townspeople, without bothering to kill them first. Sam’s been thinking zombies, maybe, but it turns out to be a gaki, a hungry ghost that isn’t only eating people but just about anything else, including everything Sam can throw at it in terms of weaponry. Holy water has no effect. It can be diverted with salt, but Sam has a weird suspicion it’s because it doesn’t like salt, as a food additive, rather than any demon-deflecting properties per se. Bullets and crossbolts just whicker through it like air. Which, in a way of course, it is.

On the fourth night he kills it with an incantation in broken Japanese and a meal of enokitake mushrooms and grave dirt, a theory based on some of the loosest associations he’s ever had the nerve to test out in the field, and after it dissipates Sam whispers, “I’ll never look at stir-frys the same again,” and trudges back to the motel to check on Dean.

It’s good to be back in California, though, and the next morning Sam lies in bed gazing at the sun poking through the worn curtains over the window and thinks, It has to be up to Dad. Because Sam can’t keep on risking himself and leaving Dean to fend for himself. No doubt Dean has skills, arcane and mundane, and on the short term he can handle things. But if Sam is killed, or worse, Dean will be entirely alone, and that isn’t an option.

There is still that red coal of vengeance lying hot and angry in his belly. But nearby are other responsibilities, ones he refuses to shirk, and later that morning over breakfast he looks over at Dean and says, “How would you like to stay around here for a while?”

Dean’s table manners need some work. He licks ketchup-smeared lips and shrugs. “Right here?”

“Well, California. I went to school here, college, and it’s pretty familiar. As much home as anyplace, I guess.” Sam nods slowly. “Wouldn’t it be good to stop moving around so much?”

Dean shrugs again and replies, “So we just hunt around here then?”

Sam smiles, leaning forward a little. “That’s just it. Maybe we don’t hunt for a while. I can put you back in school, I can get a job. Get a nice place to live.”

“But hunting is what we’re supposed to do. Daddy said.”

“Well, maybe if everything had stayed the same, you know? But things are different now.”

Dean lays his fork on his plate and looks down. “Because I got little.”

“I’m not saying it’s your fault,” Sam says immediately. “It’s not that at all. And maybe we can use California as a home base, you know? And when we hear about things nearby, we can check them out, do what needs to be done.”

“Can I have a dog?” Dean asks, and Sam stares at him and then laughs out loud.

“You’re damn straight you can have a dog,” Sam tells him, and the uncertainty on Dean’s face becomes a rare, luminously happy smile.

“That’d be good,” Dean says firmly.

“Yeah,” Sam whispers. “I think so, too, buddy.”

~~~~~~~~

He isn’t sure exactly where to put them. Palo Alto’s a natural spot, but the thought of enrolling to finish the last requirements for his degree, while obvious, doesn’t hold much appeal. Not until he’s made them a place that’s a little more solid, let Dean have a taste of what it’s like to stay in one place for longer than a month or two.

He’s tentatively decided to take them a little north of the Bay area, maybe up near the Oregon border, near the coast, when everything changes.

They’ve gassed up in a tiny town that doesn’t even have a population sign, maybe isn’t a town at all, just a fuel stop. It’s beautiful, though, winding coastal highway, an incredible view of the Pacific to their left. Sam finally has to pull over, smell the salt air, think about how he could get used to this again. Dean is wide-eyed at the panorama, fervently agreeing that it’s real pretty, yeah, and maybe we could go swimming.

“I bet we could,” Sam agrees, hand gentle on Dean’s sun-warmed head. He grins down at him. “Want seafood tonight?”

Dean nods enthusiastically.

Sam thinks, later, that all it takes is a moment of inattention. A split second, while he takes in the view, builds the castle of their new life inside his head, lets himself just relax into it. He hears Dean say, “Oh, look.” But Sam doesn’t, not right away, because he’s busy congratulating himself on the perfection of his plan, going over the call he needs to make to Dad to tell him what’s going on. They’ll need an apartment, or maybe even a house if Sam can find work that pays well enough. It would help if he’d actually finished at Stanford, but hell, even being admitted is good, and he’s got plenty of skills. Including those appropriate to an office setting as opposed to the more esoteric ones he and his family have shared for so long.

And so he’s slow turning around to see what Dean’s looking at, and for a second he wonders just how Dean got all the way across the highway without Sam noticing. He can’t tell what it is Dean’s seen. Doesn’t really matter; Sam lifts his chin and calls, “Dean! Hey, come back over here, stay off the highway.”

Which makes it sort of his fault, because Dean’s trotting back, grinning and mouthing words Sam can no longer hear because the bomb is dropping, he can see it all and this time he knows he won’t be in time. There is no time, the candy-red SUV’s coming fast, way above the speed limit, around the curve that has hidden Dean from view, and Sam’s feet scrabble in the gravelly dirt and can’t find purchase.

Dean looks to his right, mouth still open but this time with surprise, and there is a tiny, too-brief squeal of tires and a sickening thud that Sam will never, ever forget. And Dean disappears briefly, flung high and to the left, and when the SUV shudders to a halt several hundred yards further down the highway, Dean’s lying in the ditch, and he isn’t moving.

It isn’t even a demon, or anything supernatural. Just a goddamn gas-guzzling American automobile.

Sam utters a scream of denial, and staggers forward, hunched over as if the SUV has hurt him, too. Dean looks so terribly small. Lying on his back, staring up at the sky. Sam flings himself down, can’t bring himself to touch, ghosts his hands an inch above Dean’s chest, and Dean blinks and says “Daddy” very clearly.

Sam’s eyes are blurry with tears, and he blinks furiously, can’t be blind now, I have to SEE him, it might be the last time, he’s all broken, his HEAD is broken. There is a dent in Dean’s skull, not just a dent, a POTHOLE, big enough for Sam to fit both his fists inside, and clear fluid runs from Dean’s ears.

“Sshhh,” Sam says, bending close and kissing Dean’s scraped cheek. “Be still, honey,” he whispers. “You’re gonna be fine. I promise. Everything’s gonna be just fine.” But it isn’t, it can’t be, they’re a long way from help and Dean is dying, there is blood everywhere and beneath that shock of wheat-gold hair Sam can see Dean’s BRAIN showing.

Dean’s lips move, but Sam can’t hear the words. A bubble of blood forms between his open lips, and pops, sprinkling little drops of red on his cheeks.

There is someone behind him, jabbering, a woman’s hysterical voice: “He was just RIGHT THERE, I didn’t SEE him, oh my god I didn’t mean to HIT HIM.”

“No,” Sam whispers. Draws back, shaking his head. “No, no, it doesn’t HAPPEN like this.”

“Doesn’t hurt, Sammy,” Dean says, with a funny wheeze in his voice. “It’s okay.”

It’s his smile that finishes undoing Sam. Smiling, because even when he’s seven and dying Dean is still somehow Sam’s older brother, still trying to look out for Sammy, make him feel better, and there is nothing Sam can do to make DEAN better. It is too late, he dropped his guard, and Sam groans wordlessly, cups Dean’s hand between his own and leans his head back and screams to the sky, “NO! I won’t allow it! You take me instead! You fucker, you want your mortal sacrifice, you fucking GOT IT! Take me! You let him LIVE!”

The woman is staring at him, backing away, and Dean’s eyelids flutter closed, and Sam shoots to his feet, stalks back to the highway and straddles the yellow line and bellows, “ME!” Thumps himself in the center of his chest, hard and not even touching the pain inside. “He’s just a little boy! You don’t GET him. You take ME! My life for his! That’s what you WANT! DO IT! DO IT, YOU FUCKER!”

Someone says, “Sam?”

But it isn’t Dean, too old a voice, not nearly high enough, and Sam whips his head around, glares, don’t FUCK with my goddamn sacrifice-in-progress here, bucko, and sees Dean propping himself up on his elbows, a confused look on his face.

Dean. Grown-up Dean, HIS Dean. The real Dean.

Whole, and staring around himself with utter incomprehension.

“What the fuck?” Dean mutters, and Sam gives a low, broken cry and sags to his knees.

The woman screams, and Sam hears the wail of tires, but doesn’t look around. Just stares disbelievingly at Dean’s slightly stubbly, otherwise entirely intact face as he sits up, brushing gravel from his palms. “Okay,” Dean says hoarsely. The shirt and pants he’d had on as a child are now ripped to shreds, and he picks at the remains of his jeans and says plaintively, “What am I, the Incredible Hulk?”

Sam smiles, and then bursts into tears.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Dean doesn’t remember a bit of it. He holds a newspaper like it’s a rabid dog, just long enough to look at the date, and then flings it aside.

“So you’re telling me I lost a MONTH?”

“A little over a month, actually.” Sam feels sort of like he’s an asthmatic who’s just getting over a really bad attack. It’s still hard to breathe; his chest feels delicate. Almost as fragile as his mind, staring at Dean – HIS Dean, decent again in grown-up real-Dean clothes – and trying to believe it all really happened.

Dean purses his mouth, doesn’t nod. “And I was a kid.” Flat.

“Seven years old.”

“And you’ve been…babysitting.”

“Pretty much,” Sam agrees with a wheezy laugh. “Talk about your role-reversals, huh?”

“Which was a curse. That you broke, with a mortal sacrifice. In which nobody died.”

Sam’s smile vanishes; he feels cold again, and looks away. “Would have,” he whispers. “Was going to.”

There is a very long silence, and then Dean’s dry voice: “You let me get hit by a CAR?”

“Hey, it was YOU who wandered off! Should have put you on a damn leash!”

Dean looks affronted. “Hey, I was a kid, not a DOG.”

“And I still owe you for kicking me in the face.”

Dean stares at him, then grins. It is a beautiful sight. “Man, even at seven I could kick your ass. I KNEW it.”

“You did NOT kick my ass. It was my face, and don’t think –“

Dean snickers, and says, “Face it, Sammy. Truth hurts, I know.”

Sam pauses, and then smiles a little. “Yeah. Guess it does.”

“Hey.”

“What?”

Dean pats the car. “You take care of her while I was watching Sesame Street? You did, didn’t you? Because if I get in that car and I find out there’s a problem, so help me God, Sam, I will do more than kick you in the face.”

Sam thinks about the ditch outside Tuba City, and immediately decides that there are times when judicious lying is nothing short of a survival skill. “The car is fine,” he says smoothly. “I mean, you took some naps back there, and as long as there were no incontinence problems –“

“I was NEVER. A bed-wetter.”

Sam lifts an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”

Dean’s mouth opens and then closes, and then he says, “This is totally unfair.”

“Why? You changed MY damn diapers when I was a kid. This just – evens the score a little.”

“I’m the oldest. This –“ Dean waves his fingers and makes a face. “Is just plain unnatural.”

Sam bites the inside of his lip and says, “But illuminating.”

Dean snorts, and opens the driver’s-side door. “Yeah, illuminate my ASS,” he mutters.

Sam’s feet crunch in the gravel as he circles around to take shotgun. Inside, he glances over at Dean. Dean, who is a very normal twenty-seven years old, that bright gold hair darkened to sandy brownish-blond, freckles faded with time. But the hazel eyes are the same. He can still see that little boy in the man seated next to him. A little battered – it ain’t the years, honey, it’s the mileage – but that’s Dean. His Dean.

“Next time,” Dean pronounces, “it’s you who gets cursed. Okay?”

“Hey, don’t blame this on me. I think I deserve a medal for not putting you in foster care.”

Dean darts him a narrow look, and Sam grins. “Actually, you were a pretty cute kid. Funny-looking. But cute. Sort of. When you weren’t kind of – uncivilized.”

“You’re not gonna hug me or anything, are you?” Dean glares at him. “Because, dude, I’m NOT seven years old.”

Sam ignores it, reaches out and touches his hand to Dean’s spiky, messy hair. “Nah,” he says softly. “You’re back to being you, all right. Warts and all.”

“I got NO warts. They wouldn’t DARE.”

Sam smiles, and takes his hand back. “I think I liked you better at seven.”

“So if it had been you, you’d have been what? Two years old?”

“Don’t remind me.”

Dean turns the key in the ignition, reaches for the box of battered tapes, and says, “Bet you made us listen to NPR and boring shit like that. Emo rock.”

“Not Metallica. Please, Dean. Doesn’t teaching you to read count for ANYTHING?”

“Dude, I could read. I KNOW I could read.”

“Not when you were seven.”

Dean selects a tape and brandishes it like a talisman. “Sammy.”

“It’s SAM, and would you –“

“Hagar.”

Sam thinks about it. “Compromise?”

“Can’t drive in California without Sammy Hagar. It’s a law.”

“Yeah. Right.”

The opening chords of “High Hopes” twang in Sam’s ears, and Dean grins and yells, “I bet chicks loved me when I was seven. Chicks dig kids.”

“Yeah, Dean,” Sam says, pretty sure it’s inaudible over the music. “Everybody loved you.”

Dean puts the Impala in gear and throws a little gravel when he digs out, and Sam leans his head back and smiles.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Little Boy Blue come blow your horn
The sheep’s in the meadow the cow’s in the corn
But where’s the boy who looks after the sheep?
He’s under a haystack fast asleep.
Will you wake him? – No, not I;
For if I do, he’s sure to cry.


END