Chapter 1: Now
Dean knows it’s him.
There’s no way he could ever mistake the mop of brown hair, bangs just long enough to get into cat-like slanted eyes, or the dimples deep as caverns as he smiles. The man – and when did his Sammy become a man? – laughs, loud and booming and deep, arms stretched high above his head. A curvy young woman, she can’t be any older than Sam, with blonde curls that reach below her shoulders and a face flushed red – but a smile tugging at full, unmade-up lips – is jumping on her toes trying to grab whatever Sam’s holding in his outstretched hand that she can’t hope to reach.
She stops, looking up at a smiling Sam with some mixture of amusement, irritation, and exasperation and Dean watches – gut clenching at the obvious closeness between them, something that feels familiar to him even though he hasn’t felt anything like that in a long time – as one corner of her lips stretches up in a mischievous smirk. Bright hazel eyes widen, Sam’s lips turning down and he just barely bites out a "Don’t" before the girl has both hands up, fingers curling into the sides of his ribs until he’s panting out breathless pleas for her to stop, red crawling up his neck and face until his cheeks are painted crimson.
"Joanna Beth, would you leave your brother alone, you’re scarin’ off the customers."
'But mom, he took my book and won’t give it back!"
Joanna – apparently – sticks out her bottom lip and glares good-naturedly at the man in front of her, who starts slowly lowering his arms to his sides, book still clutched in his grasp. He sticks his tongue out but sucks it right back in when the woman – who he’s assuming is Joanna’s mother – with brown hair that comes down to her shoulders and a gruff, no nonsense look about her, turns stern, brown eyes on him.
"Samuel Harvelle, you give Jo back her book right now or do I have bend you over my knee?"
With a sigh, Sam holds his hand out and Jo takes her book with obvious glee, tongue between her teeth but Dean is still stuck somewhere back at Samuel Harvelle and it’s as though the oxygen has been sucked from his lungs as he stands frozen, eyes wide on his brother who he hasn’t seen in nine years. His brother who Jo just called her brother and that rankles something deep inside him, eyes focused so hard on Sam that he doesn’t realize anyone is speaking to him at first.
"Hey there stranger, what’ll you have?"
Dean blinks, eyes flitting over to Jo’s mother – not Sam’s mother because Sam’s mother was Mary and she’s gone but Sam had Dean so it was almost okay, but then his brother was gone and he was alone – as she leans forward, hands planted firmly on the bar in front of her, white towel draped casually over her shoulder while she waits for him to order. The others behind the bar turn to look at him as well and he knows the exact moment Sam recognizes him, ever-expressive eyes widening.
A barely audible "Dean?" breathes past Sam’s lips and Ellen – because that’s who she must be, who he originally came here to see – tenses and holds out an arm, wrapping a hand around Sam’s wrist before she tugs, placing herself more firmly in front of him in a protective stance Dean remembers from years ago. Jo’s brows turn down, looking between Dean and her mother and finally to Sam, grabbing his other wrist when he sways on his feet, almost threatening to fall over. Dean jolts forward automatically, instinct still ingrained to catch his brother before he falls – something he knows he’s failed at, but he can’t fight instinct – but the cock of a shotgun halts him before he can get a foot off the ground.
"Jo, take your brother upstairs."
Before Dean can blink, Jo is pulling a shell-shocked Sam through a door behind the bar and he listens to the muffled pounding of feet on steps, eyes focused on the woman pointing a shotgun at him. Hands held out in a show of surrender, Dean forces himself out of the daze seeing Sam again after so many years left him in.
“You John Winchester’s boy?”
Dean bristles at the sneer in her voice when she says John’s name, but it isn’t surprising; his father just rubs some people the wrong way. Even Dean, who has only been able to just barely tolerate the man since the night Sam ran away. Since the night, nearly ten years ago now, his dad got so drunk he didn’t realize Sammy was gone before it was too late.
"I’m Sam Winchester’s brother."
The woman scoffs and shakes her head, glaring at him over the barrel of her gun. "You lost the right to call him that the night you and your father sold him to a pair a' demons." She doesn’t give him the chance to protest, his brows furrowing in outraged confusion – how dare she accuse him of selling his Sammy to anybody. Especially a pair of demons, after everything he’d always done to protect his little brother. "Now you best head on out the way you came if you don’t want a bullet in the chest."
Ellen looks up from the glass in her hand at the sound of the bar door opening. It’s late, near closing time, but she’s never been one to turn away someone in need of a strong drink after a long hunt and she’d rather they come to her than going out and getting themselves into trouble. Especially the ones who show up with blood stained into their clothes. It happens more often than she cares to think on; that and more. There’s little Ellen Harvelle hasn’t seen in this world.
So it comes as twice the shock when she sees Rufus Turner come striding in, dark face twisted in a scowl deeper than usual, (and that’s a sight to see alone) with a kid trailing behind him looking banged up and moving slow and skittish, eyes on the ground. He isn’t tall; when Rufus pulls him – gently, Ellen notices which is another sight to behold, Rufus ain’t the kind to be all that gentle even if he likes someone – to stand just in front of him, the top of the kid’s head barely reaches the middle of Rufus’ chest. His eyes, and most of his face, are hidden behind unruly hair, long and tangled-looking like it hasn’t been brushed in too long. Skinny fingers tug and twist at a threadbare shirt that hangs off him and his shoulders are stiff and tense but slumped down like he can make himself even smaller.
She shifts her gaze from the kid to Rufus and raises an eyebrow, staring him down with her sternest look until he caves, scowl easing off as he rolls his eyes like Ellen is trying to be difficult when he’s the one who dragged some poor kid into her bar lookin’ like death warmed over.
“Ellen,” Rufus grunts with a nod. Her eyes are drawn from the hunter to the kid again when he flinches, fingers gripping the threadbare shirt tight enough that his already too-pale knuckles are turning white. Setting the glass down on the bar top, Ellen throws the drying cloth over her shoulder and steps out from behind the bar, moving slow and careful.
The kid tenses when she stops in front of him, no longer fidgeting his fingers in favor of nearly tearing his shirt to pieces instead. She bends ‘til she’s at his height but he still doesn’t look up from the spot on the ground he’s been staring at since they walked in here.
“Hey there, Sweetie,” she starts, voice low and soft like when Jo was little and crawled into her bed after a nightmare with her stuffed dog, Oscar, held close. If anything, the boy tenses further, pulling his knobby elbows into his sides and almost letting go of his shirt like he’s going to cross his arms across his chest (or maybe hug himself). He shivers when she holds out her hand, but seems to relax when she doesn’t touch him, “I’m Ellen.”
Rufus lets go of the boy’s shoulder and is thankfully smart enough to stay quiet. The bar is painfully silent while she waits for a response but the stillness pays off when minutes later, fingers loosen their hold on the hem of his shirt and the kid’s skinny hand is gripping hers. His hand shake belies his size; strong, if a bit unsure. His voice is small, not changed and deep from puberty yet. But it's rough like he hasn’t spoken in a long time, like he’s been screaming. “Sam.”
He still won’t look her in the eyes but she smiles at him anyway, calling up all her experience from soothing Jo when she was little and not too old for her mother to take care of her. “You hungry, Sam?”
His hair sways a little, revealing frightened shining eyes when he shakes his head. It’s an obvious lie – from the looks of the boy, he hasn’t seen a fitting meal for far too long.
“No?” She straightens and turns back to the bar, heading into the back. Rufus ain’t leaving until they talk – not that she thinks he’d leave without makin’ sure Sam was okay considering how gentle he handled the kid when they came in – and there’s no way she’s gonna let Sam go any longer without getting some food into him.
There isn’t much to choose from so late – the kitchen closed hours ago – but she’s got some soup left over from her own dinner. Add in a packet of saltines and it’s nothing fancy but it’s substantial and filling and hopefully not too much for his malnourished body to handle.
When she comes back out, they’ve moved to a table. It’s at the far end of the bar and it isn’t lost on Ellen that it’s the perfect spot to keep an eye on the kid from anywhere in the bar. The kid – Sam – lifts his head, nose up like he couldn’t help himself once he caught a whiff of warm tomato soup and the hunger is clear in haunted hazel eyes. Setting the bowl down in the center of the table, Ellen puts the plate of saltines next to it and slides both until they’re right in front of him.
“I know you said you weren’t hungry but I was really hoping you could help me out. I had all this soup left over after the dinner rush tonight – apparently soup isn’t big on the menu when you’re drunk,” she pauses and the corner of her lip twitches up when Sam gives a small smile, “and it’ll just go to waste if somebody don’t finish it off and I’m full up. Think you could help a lady out?”
Sam shifts his gaze from the food to her and their eyes meet for the first time since Rufus brought him in. He nods hesitantly, lips moving in a silent yes, like his throat is too dry to get the words out and she makes a note to bring him a glass of water.
“You’re a life saver, Sam.” With a wince that makes no sense to Ellen, Sam lifts a shaking hand to drag the bowl a little closer before picking up a cracker and dipping it into the soup.
It’s a blur of movement after the first bite makes it into his mouth; he’s gripping the spoon in the bowl and shoveling mouthfuls like he’s afraid one of them will take it away from him and the sight breaks her heart. But it also hardens her resolve to find out what happened to him, why Rufus brought him here and she looks pointedly at the hunter who’s got one eye on the kid even as he nods and stands up. Sam tenses at the movement, pausing uncertainly, mouth open wide with a cracker halfway there.
“What was I thinkin’, givin’ you soup and crackers without anything to help wash it down?” she says with an exasperated shake of her head. It gets the response she was hoping for; Sam shrugs one of his shoulders and finishes the cracker in his hand before whispering, “S’ok.”
“Still, I better get you somethin’ to drink. Water okay, Sweetie?”
He nods, a little less hesitant this time around and Ellen walks to the other end of the bar, grabbing the glass she set down when they first walked in and makin’ a show of pouring water from the hose when she feels the weight of his eyes on her.
Sam sips the water when she first hands it to him, and his voice is a little less rough when he whispers his thanks. Nodding, Ellen turns to Rufus and hits the back of her hand against his shoulder to get his attention, “Well come on then, Rufus. You look like you could use a drink of your own.”
The hunter doesn’t hesitate, making it across the bar in a few long strides. Ellen takes her place behind the bar, grabbing a tumbler and a bottle of whiskey, the good kind she keeps in stock for him and a few others. Pouring more than his fair share, she holds back the glass when he reaches for it. “Get explainin’, Rufus.” She keeps her voice low; if Sam’s smart he’ll know who they’re talking about, but the poor kid don’t need to hear it.
He holds his hand out expectantly, eyebrows raised and she hands it over, watching as he knocks it back in one swallow. The burn of the alcohol seems to have no effect, something she’s gotten used to around hunters, her Bill was the same, and he sets the glass down. She doesn’t pour anymore into the now empty glass, just leans against the counter and waits.
For a minute the only sounds in the bar are the quiet crunchslurpcrunches from Sam and the occasional cricket’s song. Then the hunter sighs, wiping a weathered, calloused hand over his face. “Ran across a demon after takin’ care of that damned werewolf in Lexington – "
Rufus has had enough of these damn stoplights and how he keeps hitting them right when they turn red. He’s finished his hunt – that werewolf didn’t stand a chance against him, let alone him and Bobby – and he's tired, and way too sober considerin’ the sun is down. There’s a bottle of Johnny Walker waiting for him in his motel room and another at his place all ready for when he heads out tomorrow.
Another red light and he’s about ready to get out and walk to the motel – his damn truck can wait ‘til tomorrow – when movement in the corner of his eye catches his attention. He turns to peer out of the passenger side window, expectin’ to see some kids walking around, thinking they’re so tough for being out at dark.
And he does see what looks like a group of kids but from where he’s sittin’, it don’t look like the one being shoved around, back and forth between them is there for shits and giggles.
But it ain’t his business and when the light turns green, he’ll press down on the gas pedal and book it the rest of the way to his room and his old friend whiskey and forget he ever saw a damned thing.
That’s the plan, at least, until one of those damn mini-cars drives past him in the right lane and turns - headlights trailing over the trio that caught his attention – and the one holding the scrawny kid still while the other goes at him gets caught in the beam, eyes flashing dangerously in the light.
The light finally turns green and he drives forward, switching lanes and taking the next right. Grabbing the silver knife he always keeps on his person, Rufus double checks for his flask of holy water – because a good, a living, hunter is prepared for whatever the hell fate wants to throw his way – and slams out of the truck with a huff. Why did he have to see the damn shifter? Why not Bobby – the miserable cuss has got a crazy need to help people whenever and whatever way he can.
But Bobby ain’t here and Rufus can’t just let a shifter – probably two shifters – run free just because he’d rather be knockin’ back a finger or two before passing out for the night. The door creaks when he slams it shut but he doesn’t think either of the duo will care, or even notice, considering how they’re messing with some kid in plain sight. With one last check that he’s got what he needs – and deciding to grab his gun with the consecrated bullets, another just-in-case – Rufus is as satisfied as he can be with this whole damn situation that at least he should come out of this alive.
When he’s finally walking by the trio again – and only the one is a kid like he’d originally thought, the short one between them. The other two are still younger than him but the way they’re holdin’ themselves make it obvious now that he’s up close that they’re not one hundred percent human. They don’t look anything alike, so they aren’t a couple of shifters who’ve assumed the identities of family. The blonde one is tall and would be the more intimidating of the two in size if it weren’t for the way the dark haired one holds himself straight and commandingly – that and the way the shifter who’d caught his attention keeps shifting his eyes back to the shorter one, waiting for cues.
“What’re you lookin’ at?” the blonde one calls, tightening its hold on the kid’s shoulders until he whimpers, but Rufus sees how he isn’t tryin’ to get away.
The one on the other side raises a dark eyebrow, expecting him to shake his head and walk away like he hasn’t seen anything and Rufus would like nothing more than to do just that but there’s a shifter tormenting a human – as far as he can tell, he hasn’t had the chance to look at the kid’s eyes past too-long bangs of shaggy brown hair – and he can’t just let that go, no matter how much he doesn't want to get involved.
So instead, Rufus straightens up, lips curling in an annoyed sneer, “Me? I’m just lookin’ at a coupl’a soon to be dead dicks and a kid who ain’t got the sense to run.”
The kid looking up through his fringe, shred of defiance sparking in dark eyes and pale hands clenching into fists just before he wrenches himself forward and out of the shifter’s slackened hold, isn’t the reaction he’s expecting but it’s something he can work with. The first shifter goes down almost too easily, too shocked from the boy’s sudden movement to dodge the knife Rufus launches at its chest.
Pulling his gun out from behind, Rufus aims at the darker one, peripherally aware that the kid hasn’t gone far but managed to find a place just out of the line of fire to hole up in for now. It’s a surprise – a pretty damn gigantic surprise – when the thing’s eyes flash and he’s staring into onyx black instead of the expected pale yellow of a shifter’s.
The demon doesn’t look put out, lips twitching into a smirk that’s more amused than anything. Rufus’ fingers tighten around the flask he’s been carrying at his left – he’ll congratulate himself on being the smart son of bitch he is later – and holds it up higher, taking aim.
Just as he’s about to throw his arm forward and douse the damned thing, black eyes turn and zero in on the kid with a wink, “See you later, kiddo.”
Then it throws its head back, mouth opening in a silent scream and Rufus watches the black smoke pour out and away until the meat suit’s all that’s left, collapsing unconscious – or worse – on the cold, hard concrete.
“Any idea why a shifter’d be runnin' with a demon?”
Ellen pours another generous helping of the whiskey, seeking Sam out with new worry in her eyes only to find him polishing off the last of the soup and lookin’ like he could stand to eat another bowl or four. But there’s color in his cheeks and even though she can’t see his eyes, the tension he’d been carrying just minutes before has eased off some. In fact, the kid looks about ready to drop where he’s sittin’ and Ellen needs to get him into a warm bed and soon.
Rufus shakes his head, lips twisted in the dark scowl all hunters share, the one that says he doesn’t have all the answers and it’s gonna piss him off until he finds them. “It doesn’t make a lick a’ Goddamn sense.” He takes a long pull of the amber liquid in his glass and swallows, tongue runnin’ over his teeth as he runs his index finger across his chin thoughtfully. “But the kid ain’t got a family far as I could tell and he’s got a demon on his tail. And I’m not keepin’ him- “
“He’s not a dog, Rufus.”
“Regardless, he needs protection – our kinda protection.”
They fall quiet for a moment, Rufus tilting his glass back and forth on the bar top before swallowing back the rest. Ellen glances at Sam one more time, watching the way he sits with his back straight now that there’s no food to bend forward for, head twitching up irregularly and she would bet money he’s sneakin’ glances of his own at them and waiting to see what they’ll do. Even as straight as he’s sitting, the fatigue he must be feeling is obvious in the way his whole body sways occasionally forward or to the side before he snaps back up in the seat.
“Right now the boy needs a good night’s sleep. We’ll deal with the rest in the morning.”
Not giving the hunter a chance to respond – knowing he’s got no objections if it means he’s not responsible for this kid anymore – Ellen walks out from behind the bar and back to Sam. “You look like you’re about to drop where you’re sittin’. Grab your bowl, we’ll put all this in the sink then get you layin’ in a proper bed, all right, hon?”
Sam nods, a jerky little motion, and stacks the bowl, spoon, and glass up when he stands. He sways a little on his feet, but it’s only a second before he’s standing straighter than she’s seen all night and she leads him behind the bar, holding open the door for him to step through. Shooting a look over her shoulder, Ellen raises an eyebrow as Rufus pours himself another drink, “You good?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he nods, knocking back another swig. “Gotta go see Bobby about a dog.”
“The hell’re you talking about, lady? I’d never – ”
The cock of the barrel cuts him off sharply and he takes an involuntary step back, arms still held out in front of him.
“Like I’d believe a word outta your mouth. Now leave or take a bullet to the chest. Your choice.”
A scowl mars Ellen’s face, finger tightening over the trigger and Dean backs up, slamming out of the bar with tense shoulders. The last thing he wants to do is leave when every muscle, nerve, instinct in his body is telling him to rush in, grab Sam and drag him out into the Impala. And never let his brother out of his sight again. But he can’t do a damn thing to get his brother back if he gets himself shot and bleeds out on the floor of a hunter’s dirty old bar.
Sam obviously remembers him; he knows he heard his brother say his name. If he could just talk to Sam, he could find out what the hell that woman was talking about.
What he needs is a plan.
Sam rushes to the window, dragging Jo from behind where her long fingers are still wrapped around his wrist. It’s getting harder and harder to drag air into his lungs as he stares through the glass of the window that acts as a look-out on the nights Mom feels the need to keep an eye out on the lot or make sure the rowdier patrons leave when they’re told to get gone.
There he is. Walking toward a sleek black car that dredges up another wave of memories, the smell of leather rich in the air, feeling warm and comfortable and safe, held close to the body of the boy who was always so much larger than life in the eyes of his hero-worshipping little brother. God, he looks so different now. A little smaller than Sam remembers him even though he's actually grown. Broad around the shoulders and he walks like he’s fighting every step, an invisible weight dragging him down and muscles tensing to turn around.
Sam almost wants that. Almost wishes his brother would turn around and storm back here and hug him, tell him that he loves him. But he knows better than to hope Dean would want him back, would say that to him even if that was something Winchesters did.
But Sam’s not a Winchester, hasn’t been for a long time. Longer than he’s been separated from them. For so long he didn’t know what he was, who he could be. Then Rufus saved him and Ellen took him in and he finally had a place in the world, a name to call himself and take pride in. He’s a Harvelle. A Harvelle can use the ‘l’ word without someone bleeding out in the backseat of an old car. A Harvelle can balance normal with hunting and not be considered wrong or a freak. A Harvelle doesn’t taint everything around them.
And a Harvelle doesn’t wish the family that threw him away would take him back.
A light, familiar hand rubs apologetically at his arm when he starts, having forgotten he isn't alone in the room.
"Yeah?" he whispers back, voice rough and tired and smaller than it's been in a long time as he watches his brother slide into the Impala, settling into the driver's seat like it was made just for him. Sam catches himself wondering when John would have given him the car and let him drive around on his own.
Dean's probably safer by himself than he'd have ever been with Sam in the way.
"Was that really… your brother?"
Jo's voice is soft, hesitant. Something he doesn't think it's ever been, even back when he first ended up at the Roadhouse. She's probably the only person who never treated him like he was fragile and could break at any moment, with any sudden movement or loud noise. Even back when he almost was that broken.
When he opens his mouth to answer, the "Yeah" gets caught in his throat with what feels like his heart and maybe even part of his stomach so he swallows the words and emotions back, nodding instead. His hair falls into his eyes, making it hard to see but it doesn't matter because the Impala has long been out of sight, dust settled back into the ground like maybe she'd never been there; like seeing Dean had all been a crazy dream.
But Jo turns him around to face her with the hand still holding his wrist, lifting her other hand from his shoulder to ruffle his hair up. He huffs in surprise and tries to dodge her long fingers but it's no use and he only ends up falling back onto the spare bed, dragging Jo down with him until they're both sprawled out side by side. A smile twitches at his lips when she shifts and looks at him, her shoulder brushing against his. The look on her face is one of triumph, grin wide and chin up in victory and it takes him a minute to realize it's because his hair is no longer in his eyes and he's smiling.
"What really happened?" She wraps a hand around his wrist again, brown eyes wide and curious but as warm as her mother's, and Sam knows if he chooses to shrug the question off and change the subject or stay completely silent, she won't hold it against him.
Jo is the only one who never treated him like he was made of glass, but she's also the only one out of them that doesn't know exactly what brought him to their door. She knows that Rufus saved him from a demon and that Ellen practically adopted him on the spot, but he never told her anything himself except that he has an older brother he used to look up to like no one else. A brother named Dean who he'd thought would always be there for him no matter what. And that Sam hadn't seen him since he was ten.
Sam bites his lip, searching her face and finding nothing but patience so uncharacteristic of her. Her hand squeezes gentle reassurance into his wrist when he takes a deep breath, attempting to build a wall against memories he tries to pretend weren't realities of his past.
The grip on his shoulder tightens, his Father's fingertips digging in painfully and Sam bites his lip to hold back the sound that tries to claw out of his throat. Even with the evidence to the contrary bruising into his shoulder, Sam still hopes this is all some horrible nightmare. He knows that he and his Dad don't always get along, especially in the past two years after he found the journal his Father keeps and he found out what his family really does. But no matter how much he fights the man, Sam still loves his Dad and he can't believe this is really happening.
He'd woken up in the passenger's seat of a moving Impala, his Dad at the wheel as stoic and hardened as Sam had ever seen him. None of his questions – where are we going? Where's Dean? What's going on? – were answered on the drive and Sam didn't know what to think about any of it. Dean left earlier, threw a wink over his shoulder with a 'don't wait up' when Dad told him he could go to the town's local Arcade for a couple of hours. A reward, Dad said, for doing so well on the last hunt. Sam sulked some, but fell asleep when he realized that was easier than trying to deal with being alone with their Father for a couple of hours. He now wishes he'd stayed up because they're in an empty parking lot in a town he doesn’t recognize and his Dad is looking at him like he's a complete stranger.
The two men who'd been there when they arrived are also looking at him, but they're wearing smirks. Shivers run up his spine and he tries to take a step back, to run back into the Impala and figure out a way to drive it back to their motel and Dean himself if he has to but the grip on his shoulder only holds him more firmly in place.
So far he's been tuning out the conversation between these men and his Dad, some words making it through that he wishes he hadn't heard – How much? It's what we agreed on. We'll take him off your hands. – because there's no way they can be saying what he thinks they're saying.
When Dad pushes him forward and lets him go, when another large, unfamiliar, hand wraps around his upper arm, Sam regrets not paying attention. The surprise doesn't freeze him for long and in the next moment he starts struggling in earnest, looking up at his Dad with wide, confused eyes.
But he's only met with hardened, brown eyes on his. And this is worse than when Sam thought his Dad was looking at him like he was a stranger. It's so much worse, because this is an even more familiar, painful expression and Sam doesn't understand why his Dad is staring at him like he's something they hunt.
Like he's a monster.
His words, somehow, cut even deeper than the disgusted sneer he wears when he spits them.
"We always thought you were damn worthless, Sam. Seems like I was wrong. Some people have offered big for you, boy, and we get everything we need. Some cash and the persistent thorn in my side gone."
"You d-don't. D-Dad, you don't mean… I'll be better," Sam promises, emotion clogging his throat, fear swirling in his stomach. He's pulled further away from his Dad by the unforgiving grip on his arm and terror rips through him. It's worse than when Dad and Dean go on hunts, worse than when he found out about what their Father's job really is and that he was expected to be a part of that life someday. Because Dad's just letting these men take him and doesn't even look upset.
"Dad! Please! Dad!" But his Dad doesn't even twitch and Sam feels tears that had welled up in his eyes start to fall. "Dad! Dean!"
There's a sharp jolt of pain in the back of his head, and the last thing Sam sees before the darkness swallows him up is his Father's back walking away from him and back to the Impala.
"That… that's what happened?"
Jo slides her hand down from Sam's wrist and slips her fingers between his. She squeezes his hand in what she hopes is a comforting gesture when his hand is so much larger than hers. But there's nothing else she can offer him, there's nothing she can do to make his past go away no matter how badly she wishes she could.
He nods, usually bright hazel eyes shining and wet. It makes something in her chest ache, seeing him look so much like he did when she first met him. Tired and scared and unsure, so different than she'd seen anyone look before.
"But Rufus got you and brought you here…"
She's cut off by the strangled sound Sam makes.
"I was ten when Da- John got rid of me." His words are spoken so softly that she almost doesn't hear him.
Jo almost wishes she hadn't.
What kind of father would do that to his son? Her mom always told her John Winchester was the wrong kind of person, a hunter she never wanted to get mixed up with and while she hadn't doubted her – someone who owns a hunter's bar has more than enough experience to know when a person is trouble – it's still a shock to hear exactly what he'd done to Sam.
She lets go of Sam's hand, eyes misting at the way his ever-expressive face falls, like he thinks she doesn't believe him. Like he thinks she doesn't want anything to do with him now that the truth of just how long he'd been without a family before Rufus brought him to them is out.
But she refuses to let him believe that. He's her brother. Since her mom told her that Sam would be staying with them – since she saw the way he ate their mom's eggs and bacon and pancakes like he'd never seen food before – Jo knew she was going to make sure he had someone he could turn to and she's succeeded so well that she's found a brother in him just as much as she hopes he's found a sister in her. There's no way she'll let anything make Sam think this can change that.
Jo doesn't give Sam the chance to move before she's surging forward and wrapping her arms around his shoulders in a tight hug. Normally, Jo's head would be pressed against his chest or shoulders but lying on the bed, she's able to pull him in until his head is under her chin the way her mom used to hold her after she'd had a nightmare or when she'd scraped her knee.
The floorboards creak quietly and Jo sees her Mom walk in. Dark eyes soften when they land on Sam where he's clinging to Jo. His fingers are curled into the fabric of her shirt behind her, stretching the material and she couldn't care less that they twist tighter when her Mom puts a hand on his shoulder.
She pets the top of his head and the gesture is familiar, something her Mom has always done for Sam on his rough days – that used to be so frequent, but he hasn't had now in what feels like forever. It always seems to calm him down and this time is no different; the fingers twisted into her shirt loosen gradually until Sam has let go altogether, pulling out of Jo's hold and swiping a hand roughly over watering eyes like his reaction is something to be ashamed of.
Jo wishes she could find John Winchester and hurt him just like he hurt her brother.
"It's gettin' late, kids. I already have Ash closing up for the night – "
"What, M-mom," Sam interrupts, tripping over the word like he hasn't since the day he called her that the first time, his voice scratchy and strained, "It's not even that late. You can't let my f-fuc – "
"Now you stop right there Sam Harvelle." Her tone is stern but her eyes are even softer than when she walked in not five minutes ago. If the situation wasn't serious, Jo would have laughed at how fast Sam's mouth shuts before he mutters a quiet "Yes, ma'am". Their Mom has that effect on people. It's almost funny to watch when it's not being directed at her. "First, it's my bar and I can close whenever I damn well please. Second, I don't want to hear one word out of your mouth implyin' anything about you is wrong. No buts. Your past is your past and you can't change that, but it don't define you and the only ones in the wrong on any of this is that sorry excuse for a family that were fool enough to let go of someone as special as you. Got it?"
She smiles at him, resting a work calloused hand against his cheek and patting it gently until he nods with a small smile. His face is open, eyes wide and glowing with pleased surprise. He wore that look a lot the first year he spent with them. Like he couldn't believe they could possibly feel that way. "And third, I think we could all use a night off. So what do you think? Bowl a' popcorn, some junk food, and something trying to pass for a horror movie sound good?"
This is something they used to do a lot, when Jo seemed to decide Sam needed someone close to him, someone who was closer to his age than Ellen and all of the Roadhouse's patrons. She'd sneak into his room and fill his uneasy silence with nonsensical chatter, sharing junk food with him while they vegged out for the night. It helped him through a lot of the rougher patches he went through. Whenever she "accidentally" fell asleep in the room, Sam was able to sleep for one night without nightmares he wishes weren't the memories that they are.
Watching horror movies – throwing popcorn at the screen when the characters inevitably run up the stairs or decide to investigate the strange noise alone – with Mom and Jo helped settle his nerves enough that he was able to fall asleep where he was crowded between them on the large bed in his room. Sam loves his Mom for buying him a bed big enough for the three of them. She'd taken him and Jo out one day back when he had more bad days than good, and she kept finding the two of them asleep in the same room, if not the same bed, more often than not. It's perfect when just what he needs is a movie marathon and he's sure that was Mom's plan all along.
Sam doesn't like to think about what happened to bring him here, though. His own family didn't want him, but he's found a new one; one that took him in without a second thought. He feels incredibly lucky to have found a mother in Ellen – something he'd never had before when it was just John and Dean and nothing but moving around – and a sister in Jo, closer than he thought he'd be able to get to someone again. As close as he thought he and Dean were. He'd do anything for them and after countless nights like last night, Sam finds balmy comfort in the knowledge that they feel the same way.
With a growing smirk, Sam looks at where Jo is still sleeping, clutching the overstuffed pillow under her head. Sitting up slowly to keep from jostling the bed, he slips off of his mattress and grabs what he needs from the top of his dresser. After the emotional whirlwind of yesterday, Sam could use a little unwinding and what better way, he thinks as he creeps close to Jo's sleeping form, than to pull a small prank on his sister. Gently placing the rubber spider on her cheek, he smiles, tongue in his teeth, and uses a lock of blond hair to tickle the skin right beside the fake spider.
Her eyebrows bunch, lips twitching down at the corners and it takes all of Sam's control not to break into a fit of laughter before she even sees it. One more light brush over her cheek is all it takes for her nose to twitch and wrinkle, eyes scrunching tighter closed before they start to flutter open. He makes sure he's close to the door for a quick escape and waits, biting his lip as he watches her blink, slow and sleepy.
Then she reaches clumsily to get rid of what's interrupting her sleep. Her hand collides with the body of the spider and her eyes sweep to the side. When she finally sees what's on her face. all hell breaks loose. Sam has to slap his hands over his ears to protect his eardrums from the shriek Jo lets out – she could give a banshee a run for its money. He doesn't even try to hold in the laughter bubbled in his chest when Jo launches herself off the bed with flailing arms, hair flying around her head like it's taken on a life of its own. She freezes mid-flail and looks at him, eyes wide and panting. The shock melts into understanding and he's faced with one of her famous, and deadly, glares, her arms falling to her sides in a deliberately slow movement.
Throwing her his widest, teeth flashing grin, Sam bolts from the room and lets his long legs carry him out through the hallway. Footfalls pound behind him, followed by loud yells of "You're so gonna pay for that, Sam!". He stomps down the stairs, taking the steps two at a time; he may have the advantage of longer legs, but Sam knows better than to underestimate his sister and he wouldn't put it past her to catch up with him by pouncing on his back. She's always been fearless and sneaky in their tussles. His cheeks hurts with the force of his smile and it feels good, great even, after yesterday.
Looking over his shoulder, Sam doesn't see where he's going and he slams into something – somebody. His smile drops for a whole second before he hears a familiar, gruff voice. "Watch where yer goin', you idjit."
When he turns back around, he's faced with the man who'd done even more than what Mom could when he showed up – got him caught up with all the years of school he'd missed – and Sam's smile widens. He has to look down now to look Bobby in the eyes, something he's still getting used to after being the smallest of everyone for so long. But that doesn't stop him from wrapping long arms around the man's shoulders and pulling him into a hug.
It's been a month since they've seen each other. Bobby drove down for Sam's 18th birthday party, the one Mom insisted he have no matter how many times Sam tried to tell her he didn't need one. He wishes they saw more of each other, but Bobby's got his hunts – and when he's not out, he helps hunters with research and running phones in case they need to confirm their identity – and Sam had school and helping out at the Roadhouse to save up for college, when Mom lets him. But Sam spends a couple of weeks at the Salvage Yard in the summer. He runs around with Rumsfeld and devours any book he can get his hands on in Bobby's library – supernatural or otherwise. Bobby even lets him sneak looks at the actual business side of the salvage yard.
The rest of the year, Bobby comes around whenever a hunt is finished and is close by if he can spare the time.
Mom pokes her head out from the kitchen and dining area separate from the one she uses to make food – wings and sliders and whatever other greasy food people like to eat with their beer – for customers and Sam sees her roll her eyes when Jo huffs next to them, obviously wanting her own hug from the hunter before they sit down for breakfast. The small smile Mom's wearing isn't as strained as it was last night and Sam thinks that watching those movies together in his room wasn't just to make him feel better.
He steps back, still smiling, and releases his hold on Bobby so Jo can squeeze in before Mom yells at them to hurry it up. Jo slides by him, glaring over her shoulder and he responds by sticking out his tongue just before she turns back around to give Bobby one of those blinding grins he knows she learned from their Mom.
"Hey Bobby," she says brightly when she lets him go, voice showing no sign of the threatening tone she’d taken on when chasing Sam down the stairs.
"Spiders, huh?" Bobby’s eyes dart to Sam for a moment before meeting Jo’s again and his sister pouts, her bottom lip jutting out, when she nods. Spiders are the only thing Sam has ever found that freaks her out the way clowns do for him. There’s a reason he keeps a rubber spider - or five - handy in his room.
Sam just shrugs with a smug smirk. It’s not often he can get the drop on Jo; at least when it’s not in retaliation for whatever prank she pulled first. Bobby shakes his head at both of them, turning and throwing his arms around Sam’s neck and dragging his head down into a noogie that Sam can’t shake out of until the hunter lets him go, wrapping an arm around his shoulder and leading him into the kitchen, Jo snickering behind them. Sam just huffs and pats his hair down with a pout of his own that disappears when he smells the tell-tale aroma of pancakes and warm syrup.
"Smells awesome in here, Mom," he moans, straightening in the seat Bobby practically drops him onto and pulling a plate stacked with pancakes in front of him. Mom smacks his hand away, though, and he slumps in the chair with a put-upon sigh, corners of his lips still turned up.
Bobby sits next to him, bumping shoulders and rolling his eyes when Mom turns back to finish the eggs.
"I saw that!"
"Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about woman."
"Where's Ash?" Jo asks in between their exchange.
Mom gives Bobby one of her looks, the ‘don’t think you can pull one over on me, mister’ glare that she’s had years to perfect on them. "In his room, where else?" she answers seamlessy, setting a heaping plate of eggs on the table with the pancakes so they can dig in.
They finished breakfast an hour ago and he and Bobby are sitting out on a two-person swinging chair, enjoying the sun and weather before the summer heat starts in earnest.
Sam knew Bobby would have to bring Dean up sooner or later; he isn’t set to go back to Bobby’s just yet this summer and Bobby doesn’t usually come out in June when Sam will be there in a couple of weeks. Mom had to have called him and told him to come and make sure Sam is okay. He’s actually surprised it took Bobby this long.
The knowing doesn’t keep him from freezing, working his jaw and trying to ignore how his eyes are growing wet already. "Yeah," he whispers to keep his voice from cracking.
Bobby rests a hand on Sam’s shoulder, squeezing it in a reassurance that he’s there for Sam - a reassurance Sam no longer needs, but never fails to make him feel better; knowing he isn’t alone anymore.
"Don’t know why he came," Sam says, voice strengthening enough for it to come out a little louder. His growing curiosity and that nagging question, at the back of his mind - what brought him here? - keeps it steady as he continues. "He looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him."
"He probably heard about a hunter’s bar and decided to check it out. That’s how a lotta hunters end up on yer Mom’s porch."
Nodding, Sam relaxes back into the chair and sighs. The swing's chains whine as the movement causes them to sway. "I miss him," he confesses quietly, words barely audible in the summer breeze.
The hand on his shoulder tightens again and Bobby smiles, but it’s sad this time. "I know you do, kid. I know you do."
Bobby slams the door of the beat up Chevelle he’d fixed back up to get him through his hunt with Rufus. The Roadhouse parking lot is empty of any other cars; it’s the first time Bobby’s seen that when it isn’t the hours of the day Ellen keeps it closed. But the sun is just setting in the west, casting pink-orange hues of light over the old bar and there should be at least three cars somewhere around. Even when there aren’t hunters around, Ellen’s place gets a few customers out this way that have nothing to do with the supernatural and everything to do with getting a drink or three before heading back to whatever awaits them at home or in their motel room in town.
The only reason for it to be this empty is Ellen shutting the place down for the night - and Bobby can’t remember a time since he met the woman that she’s been willing to do that. Hunters are always in need of a place to unwind in relative safety and she has never been one to deny them that. He’s even known her to let a few in during their closed hours; since Bill, she doesn’t seem to feel right sending people away. They’ve all got a reason for showing up at her bar, after all.
So Rufus wasn’t pullin’ his leg, then. Or so out of his mind with Johnny Walker that he was making crazy things up. It’s been known to happen more than once, and Bobby don’t appreciate getting sent on wild goose chases. But this one was too close to home to ignore.
A kid named Sam, being tossed between a demon and a shifter. A kid named Sam with slanted hazel eyes and floppy brown hair who looked all of fourteen years old.
The description is too familiar and he felt too much hope blossoming as Rufus described the kid he’d saved - the kid who needed their protection, and Bobby doesn’t think he’s ever seen Rufus care like that since the man helped him deal with what happened to Karen - to not check the man’s story out at the risk that it might all be some alcohol induced episode.
Inside the bar is just as empty as its parking lot and Bobby heads behind the counter. He goes into the back, past the small kitchen right behind the door and further towards the larger dining area where Ellen and Jo make and eat food for themselves. He's just about to push into the room when he hears a small, quiet voice so painfully familiar his heart clenches in his chest.
It's a little muffled through the door, already spoken so softly that it takes him a second to process what he's heard, but he does hear it. And his heart is suddenly stuck in his throat because Bobby knows that voice. It's been four years since he's heard it, but Sam's voice obviously hasn't changed yet.
He's also using the Winchester's signature line. John never could accept if they were anything less than fine. Seems Sam picked that up himself, even when he's probably as far from fine as can be.
Pushing the door open, Bobby peeks inside to find them seated at the dining table. Ellen's putting a spoon of something – he thinks it's mashed potatoes – back into its bowl from where it had been hovering over the empty plate in front of someone Bobby would recognize anywhere, even after all these years.
"Sammy?" he breathes, almost disbelievingly because it's nearly too much to hope that this really is Sam.
But when wide, hazel eyes shoot up fearfully before shaggy bangs fall forward to hide their expressiveness from the world Bobby knows he can't be anyone else.
He’s grown. Still small for his age - God can little Sammy really be a teenager already? - but taller than he’d been at ten, even sitting. And too skinny to be anything but unhealthy, though the way Ellen was eying the kid’s empty plate and the spoon she’d put down, she’s planning on doing something about that.
Bobby steps further into the room, letting the door shut behind him. But the look on Sam’s face is enough to give him pause. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Sam look so scared before. Not when looking at him, not even after Bobby found out Sam knew what John did - why they sometimes stayed with Bobby if John would be gone for more than a couple days at a time.
It's been too long since he's been called that – Dean's taken to callin' him by name, without the title since he's gotten older – and he hadn't realized just how good the title makes him feel. How important to have become family to John's boys. Even after four years, even looking as scared as a mouse faced with a house cat, Sam called him that.
"It sure is good to see you, boy."
Ellen is looking between them, eyes darting back and forth without moving her head and drawing attention to herself, and Bobby can't help but be surprised that it looks like she hadn't discovered just who Sam is yet.
Unable to stand still anymore Bobby steps forward, slow and careful to not spook the boy whose eyes grow wider at his approach. By the time he makes it across the room and around the table, he's sure the only thing keeping Sam from bolting out the door is Ellen's strong, reassuring hand on the kid's shoulder.
He rests his own hand on Sam's other shoulder, and it's too bony and breakable under even the gentle touch. Sam is trembling, minute little shudders Bobby wouldn't have noticed if he didn't reach out to the boy, but it's just as heartbreaking as the fear clear in his watery eyes and Bobby wants to assure Sam that there ain't anything to be afraid of. From him or Ellen or even Rufus.
Letting go of Sam, Bobby stoops down enough to wrap his arms around Sam's skinny shoulders and pull him close to his chest. Sam whimpers, like he expected something else – like he expected to get hit – and Bobby wants to know what happened to him in the years he's been missing to cause a reaction like that in him.
The trembling is worse now but Bobby just holds tightly onto Sam. He's had four years of not knowing where Sam was, if he was okay or even alive, and there's nothing that will make him let go of the kid before he's ready. "God, I missed you."
The sound that comes out of Sam is muffled against Bobby's shoulder. It sounds almost pained but before Bobby can pull away, or even loosen his grip, Sam's skinny arms tangle around his back and the boy burrows closer. The tremors ease off as Sam buries his face against Bobby.
Sam sniffles, fingers curling into the back of Bobby's shirt, and the gruff hunter isn't surprised to feel a damp patch start to grow. He sees Ellen watching them with a small smile on her face and returns it with a watery grin, refusing to let any of his own gathering tears out yet. Sam needs this more than he does, needs to just let everything out of his system before they can talk about everything – before Bobby can ask all the questions he's had in his head since Sam disappeared.
"You don't hate me…"
The words come out soft and awed, like Sam doesn't quite believe what he's saying but hopes they're true.
"Why would I hate you, Sam?"
Sam stiffens in his arms and tries to pull away. Bobby loosens his hold and leans back just enough to look the boy in the eye – or try to, but Sam turns his head down and shakes his hair to cover his eyes. He'd used that move back when he was ten and scared but didn't want Bobby to see it, even though it was always obvious and went without question that a young Sam would be upset about his Dad and brother going on another hunt.
"Sammy," he says quietly, forcing himself to ignore the way the kid flinches, "I would never hate you."
It's clear Sam doesn't believe him, briefly struggling harder to get away before he slumps in Bobby's hold. Every line of the boy's body screams defeat and fatigue and Bobby wishes he knew what exactly he's dealing with here.
"John and Dean hate me." Bobby hadn't known five words could possibly contain so much pain but those slice through him, sharp as the silver knife in his belt. "Why wouldn't you?"
"Your Daddy don't hate you, boy," he starts, but Sam shakes his head furiously. The boy's body is trembling again and he isn't surprised when more tears start to stream from his eyes, leaving new tracks over previously dried ones. "Why would they hate you?" He has to ask, needs Sam to see, to know, that his family could never hate him. Because he needs to know how Sam got the crazy notion in his head in the first place.
"M'worthless," Sam whispers, eyes flicking up to Bobby's for barely a second before he's looking back at the hands curled in his lap. The words are like a slap to the face and Bobby wants to interrupt but Sam is opening his mouth again and finding out where the boy is getting these ideas from is more important than refuting the obvious anyways. "Only worth what they paid for me."
Ellen looks just as taken aback as Bobby feels when he chances a glance at her. "What who paid for you, Sammy?"
Sam's eyes trail slowly up from his hands to meet Bobby's gaze head on. His face is blank, almost slack and empty of emotions. "Belial and the shifter. The things he sold me to."
It's been weeks since Bobby came to the Roadhouse. Weeks since he saw Sam for the first time in four years. It feels longer, like a lifetime since Sam Winchester told him what John did, what the kid's Dad told him before selling him to a pair of monsters without a second glance.
He doesn't know what else Sam has been through. There's a lot of time unaccounted for in between John selling him at age ten and Rufus saving him a month ago at fourteen. But that night Sam was spent, exhausted with the effort of retelling what had to be one of the most painful experiences in the kid's life and Bobby doesn’t have the heart to push for any more. They've got Sam back and safe at the Roadhouse and Bobby has only been back home once; long enough to grab everything he needed to strengthen the wards already in place on the grounds – and add a few new ones. They'll worry about helping Sam through the other memories of his past in time.
Right now Bobby has something else he can put his focus on.
Sam's washing the dishes from dinner. Jo stands next to him, drying each one he hands her and prattling on about nothing at all. She's been doing that since he showed up – Bobby wouldn't be surprised if she'd done it before the hunter had gotten there – but it seems like the constant chatter doesn't bother Sam in the least. In fact, Bobby's seen tension built up in the kid's shoulders melt slowly away until they just barely droop, no longer scrunched up to his ears, with each word Ellen's daughter says. It's probably nice to have something to pay attention to other than his thoughts.
That's something Bobby hopes to help with.
The boy barely pauses in his scrubbing, noticeably more comfortable than he'd been even two weeks earlier. Bobby made sure his steps were heavy enough to be heard, but the second night he'd spent there – and more than a few nights following it – that hadn't been enough to keep Sam from shooting up like someone had taken a cattle prod to him. Some of the tightness in Bobby's chest eases with the evidence that Sam's already made progress. His cheeks are even starting to fill out, losing some of their gaunt, hollowed look now that he's got Ellen feeding him.
"Yeah?" Sam's voice is still quiet, but he was always quieter than Dean and John so Bobby isn't sure that's something they need to work on fixing as well.
"When you got a minute, I got somethin' I want to talk to you about."
If he wasn't listening for it Bobby would have missed the minute stutter in Sam's "O-kay." He doesn't sigh, doesn't want Sam to hear something in it that isn't there, but he feels the urge bubbling in his chest.
Bobby retreats from the kitchen with a nod of his head, thankful to hear Jo's voice trailing after him and filling the otherwise silent room as he starts up the stairs.
The stairs have never felt as ominous to Sam since he's been staying here, even when under Ellen's watchful eye. As much as he's tried to prepare himself for whatever Bobby is going to tell him now, he doesn't want to hear how right John and Dean were to have gotten rid of him while they had the chance. But he can get through it; he's no stranger to taking care of himself and when Bobby tells Ellen he's too much trouble Sam will handle that as well. He's been doing fine at it for years as it is, even managing to stay clear of Belial.
Bobby is sitting in the room Ellen set Sam up in the night Rufus killed the shifter – he'd rather not think about what that will mean for him the next time the shifter's demon boss finds him. The hunter is looking through a pile of papers, flipping and scanning each page, eyes darting side to side. Sam pauses at the door, reluctant to step past the threshold and snap Bobby out of his reading.
It's taken out of his hands when the floor creaks, giving slightly under the shifting weight of his feet where he can't get himself to stand still. Bobby looks up over the papers in his hands, lips stretching into a smile that Sam wants to believe is pleased at seeing him standing in the doorway but can't let himself hope too hard.
He's been seen so there's no excuse to keep standing outside the door. No matter how badly Sam wants to turn around and run down the stairs, out of the Roadhouse and as far away as he can if it means he doesn't have to be reminded how worthless he really is. But Bobby is looking at him expectantly and Sam can't deny the man he'd once thought of as family anything, doesn't deserve to do anything but what the hunter wants him to. Taking a deep breath and pretending he doesn't feel the shake and hitch audible in it, Sam steps into the room and sits on the bed across from the desk Bobby is perched at.
"You wanted to… talk to me about something," he said quietly, running his fingers over the soft, warm comforter on the bed. It helps a little, giving him something else to focus on while he waits for Bobby to start talking.
"Relax Sam," Bobby starts, as soft as Sam's ever heard his voice. Softer than he thought the gruff hunter could possibly be, even after he'd first shown up at the Roadhouse while Sam and Ellen and Ellen's daughter, Jo, were sitting down to dinner that night a month ago. "You're not in trouble or anything, okay?"
Confused, Sam looks up before he knows what he's doing. Bobby's still got a smile on his face, though, and Sam feels his shoulders ease a little, muscles relaxing where he hadn't even noticed they were tense.
"I wanted to talk to you about school, actually."
Whatever Sam had been expecting the man to say, that isn't it and he's floored. He doesn't know what to say, even as the corners of his lips twitch down into a frown. He hasn't thought much about school since he woke up in a dark room with Belial and that shifter staring down at him with wicked smiles painted across their stolen faces. Everything in his mind shouted at him to find a way out, and when he'd finally done that it was an endless stream of Don't get caught, can't get found, Dad hates me, Dean hates me, What did I do? What do I do now? Don't get caught…
"What do you think about me tutoring you? Just until you're caught up enough to get back into a real school, of course."
It's almost too much to hear. How could Bobby even think about wanting to help him get back into school? Where is he going to go? He doesn't have any of those motel rooms to stay in like he'd had back before John got rid of him – back before he'd known he isn't worth the effort.
But he can't help but hope. School was the one place he felt like he belonged. It didn't matter that he was always the new kid and sometimes it hurt that he couldn't make friends. Hurt worse when he couldn't keep the ones he did find. But he's always loved books and learning. Research was the one side of hunting that Sam thinks he could have enjoyed helping with if given the chance. He knows now that he would have just been more of a liability, a burden, than anything else to his family, but he would have done his best while he could. And the possibility that he might be able to get that little piece of normalcy back… It fills his ears with a faint buzzing, blood rushing past and heart racing as though he's just done the laps John used to put him and Dean through.
"Really?" he asks, trying desperately to keep his voice even. Despite how hard he's tried – how often he's had to keep himself calm and collected to survive – Sam hears how breathless and wistful he sounds.
Bobby doesn't seem to mind, smile and eyes brightening like Sam's just found some priceless tome that hasn't been seen in centuries. Sam can't remember the last time someone looked so happy over him, over something he said. Genuinely happy. Not the sneering smirk the demon is so fond of wearing every time he catches up to Sam, always the same no matter what body he's possessing. "Yeah, I went to one of the schools in the next town over and got everything I'll need to try and catch you up – and find out where I can get the actual books and materials."
"U-Uncle Bobby, you didn't have to – "
"I want to."
The rough ground digs into Dean's knees where he's crouched behind a bush that's just starting to dry with the summer heat. His attention is focused on the back porch of the bar, just far enough away that he won't be seen. He'd heard about the hunter's bar from Caleb a couple of weeks ago. His friend mentioned how the woman who runs the place helped get him the info he needed on the werewolf he'd been tracking in some city in northern Nebraska. But Dean hadn't been able to spare the time to come before now. He wants to kick himself now that he knows his little brother is here. Has been here long enough to be calling that Ellen woman "Mom".
Harvelle's Roadhouse looks different than Dean imagined it would. The hunter's bar is a lot larger than he'd been anticipating. It doesn't look like much from the front where he'd parked the day before. Just like many of the back roads bars he's frequented, all beat up wood and smoky windows. But the back, he's found out, is extended more than any bar he's been to. Two stories high, with a back porch. Complete with an old porch swing where Sam sat down with Bobby a couple minutes before.
Dean watches Bobby squeeze Sam’s shoulder, heart heavy and clenching in his chest at the easiness - the familiarity - the two share. He hasn’t seen the man he’d considered his uncle, family, for more than half of his life since the man chased John out of his salvage yard with a threat of shooting him full of buckshot if he ever stepped foot on his property again. His Dad was confused and pissed but told Dean in no uncertain terms that if Bobby was through with them, they were through with Bobby. It’s one of the few times he’d disobeyed John without a second thought - even after the man let Sam run away, too drunk to know his ass from his elbow, Dean still did what his father told him to do until he was old enough to gain his own independence - but he wishes he hadn’t. Calling Bobby only to be ignored was bad enough. Having his uncle pick up once to tell him to lose his number hurt almost as much as losing Sam.
Now he wonders how long Bobby has known about Sam - where to find him, that he’s even alive - and kept it from them. Refused to pick up the phone even to tell Dean that his brother is okay, all because of something John did to make the man, who’d once told him that family didn’t end with blood, hate the both of them. But that was just like John; he’ll do whatever the hell he wants - whatever he thinks is the right thing - and damn the consequences, even the consequences his own flesh and blood will have to face in the aftermath.
Sam looks shaken up and keeps rubbing at his eyes, wiping away tears before they get the chance to fall. Dean recognizes the gesture, has used it himself more than once since his little brother disappeared without a trace. He wants nothing more than to rush out of where he’s hiding and make everything better for his little brother - make Sam stop crying - but he has to wait this out. Wait until he gets the chance to talk to Sam where Bobby or the woman who thinks replacing Mary is acceptable can’t interfere while he gets the answers he needs.
It doesn’t take nearly as long as he thought it would. Mere minutes later his little brother - not so little anymore, definitely getting taller than him the little brat - is swiping his eyes one last time and stranding, stretching his arms high over his head and arching his back like an overgrown cat in the sun. The kid – though he’s barely a kid anymore, gotta be eighteen by now – looks over his shoulder through the door leading back into the space behind Harvelle’s Roadhouse and Dean thinks his opportunity for the day has passed and he’ll have to come back again in the morning. But Sam says something over his shoulder that he can’t make out from his distant spot behind the bush and then he’s facing forward and walking down the porch steps and onto the grounds.
Without a second glance, his brother shuffles away from the Roadhouse. His shoulders are hunched forward, making him look smaller. Dean wonders how his little brother feels about being so tall now after having always been the small fry he was, smaller than all of his classmates and constantly needing Dean to show the other little punks what happened to people who picked on Dean Winchester’s little brother. It looks like he’s still growing into his lanky limbs but it’s obvious from when Dean first saw him that he knows how to be comfortable in his own skin. Something Dean doesn’t think he ever saw of the little brother he remembers who wanted nothing more than to be normal, like the other kids whose parents didn’t drag them around different motel rooms and new schools where he was always the new kid and never got to have any friends for more than a few months. He hates that he didn’t get to see his Sammy grow up into the man he is now, but he can’t help but be grateful that the kid got the chance to grow up, to get comfortable in his skin like Dean always hoped he would.
Dean waits until Sam is passing by his bush to stand, knees creaking in a way they shouldn’t yet at his age. He holds his arms up, hands palm out facing his brother, trying to look as non-threatening as he can. Sam doesn’t spot him right away but Dean sees the moment he does in the way his brother trips and stumbles before righting himself, eyes wide and panicked, whole body looking like it’s been frozen in place, paralyzed.
"Hey Sammy." Dean doesn’t fight the relieved smile threatening to break out across his face. It’s almost surreal, standing in front of the little brother he hasn’t seen in nearly nine years.
Sam keeps staring at him, blinking hard twice like he isn’t sure Dean is real, in front of him and talking to him. His throat bobs up and down and his grimace makes it look like swallowing sandpaper would have been more pleasant than the possibility of seeing Dean standing in front of him.
That hurts almost as much as seeing Bobby and Sam together had.
"Dean?" He sounds just as uncertain and hesitant and shocked as he had when Dean first walked into the bar and saw him laughing with that girl.
"It’s…. It’s really good to see you, Sammy."
Sam’s face pinches, lines crinkling his forehead in such genuine confusion that Dean doesn’t hesitate to step forward and grab his brother in a solid hug. The look on Sam’s face, like he honestly doesn’t understand that his brother is relieved - happy- to see him, alive and well, is too much, too wrong and Dean refuses to let that be okay.
"W-why are you hugging me?" The question comes so quietly, barely a whisper of breath. But Dean doesn’t have to strain to listen - his body has always been attuned to what Sam needs and even all those years apart don’t seem to have dampened his, as a six year old Sam once called them, super big brother abilities.
"How can you even touch me?" Sam continues, trying to wriggle out of Dean’s hold. But Dean has gone eight years without his little brother and like Hell is he going to let the kid go now that he’s got him. Especially when Sam isn’t making any sense.
"You’re my brother Sam, why wouldn’t I hug you?"
Sam doesn’t seem to hear him, body trembling in Dean’s arms like he’s terrified. He’s still talking. "God, how can you just… say that? What are you even doing he —? I'm wrong. You know, you know I'm wrong and f-fucked up and tainted and why…?"
The full weight of Sam sagging against his chest barely fazes him, even with Dean still reeling over what he’s hearing. How can his little brother think that about himself? There isn’t a bad bone in the kid’s body; wasn’t when he was ten and still isn’t now - not if he’s so scared about being wrong that he thinks his brother shouldn’t even be touching him, like it’s contagious. Like he’s diseased. Or is the disease. The sleeve covering his shoulder is suddenly wet and the realization that Sam is crying on his shoulder, so silently that he wouldn’t have known without the wet patch growing where the kid’s head is hidden away from sight, snaps him back to reality.
Curling his fingers around Sam’s shoulders, he gently pulls away and tries to catch his brother’s eye. "God, is that… is that why you ran away, Sam? Because you gotta know it’s not true."
Sam’s head snaps up and it’s the first time his brother has looked him in the eye deliberately since he surprised him. His eyes are wide, glistening and wet and his cheeks are red and blotchy from crying on Dean’s shoulder. The lanky muscle under Dean’s hands tense but Sam has stopped trembling; he looks like what Dean said has shocked him still.
"I… I didn't… Dean?"
"Didn’t what?" Dean prompts when Sam just keeps staring at him like he’s never seen him before.
"Is this a joke to you?" And suddenly Sam’s jaw ticks, eyes narrowing and cheeks flushing. He looks furious and stands up straighter under Dean’s grip. Dean feels the stretch of his arms and marvels at how much his Sammy has grown; the kid is just as tall as him and looks like he isn’t done growing yet. "Act like you care just to, what? Throw me away again?"
"What the hell are you talking about?"
The distant squeak and slam of a door barely registers with Dean, who feels like he’s becoming more confused by the second.
"I didn’t run away!"
His chest heaves faster with each breath. It feels like Sam's been running, air cold and harsh and catching in his lungs. He rips away from Dean's hands, heart tearing along with it because how can Dean ask that? How can his brother stand there, watching Sam with wide eyes like he doesn't know exactly what happened to Sam eight years ago?
Dean looks so much like Sam remembers him. Older, maybe a little rough around the edges, with frown lines he'd already been working his way towards getting at fourteen years old. But the hurt in his eyes when Sam shoves away from his grip, the confusion in his eyes is so familiar and even though Sam's head is telling him that he can't trust this man, his heart is telling him - reminding him - that his brother was the only one he could trust before he'd been tossed away, before he'd found a new family of his own. That has to count for something.
The sound of footsteps rushing closer are dulled by the blood rushing in Sam's ears, the throb of his chest so hard and fast he's afraid it might just burst through his ribcage. Some of the anger he'd built up rushes out of him, face feeling less hot as his expression softens, stance losing some of its tension.
"I didn't run away," he repeats quietly, voice more even than it's been in Dean's presence since he was ten.
Uncle Bobby steps next to him and Sam can see in the corner of his eye how wound up the hunter is, red-faced and ready to bark at Dean to get the hell away from them as fast as his legs can carry him but he grabs the man's arm and holds him back with a quick tug and small shake of his head. He doesn't even look at Bobby, can't bring himself to take his eyes off of his brother who's staring at the man at Sam's side with shining wide eyes, gaze flitting back and forth between them until they finally rest on Sam. "Then what the hell happened?" he rasps and it sounds like he's been swallowing glass, painful and sharp in Sam's ears.
"John sold me." It's easiest to just say it and Dean's always preferred the 'rip off the band aid' method more than easing into things.
Dean flinches, mouth dropping open in an 'o' of shock that would be humorous in a lighter situation. His throat bobs once, then twice, before he tries to speak again but it manages to come out even raspier than before. "What… He… What do you mean?"
"What's it sound like he meant, boy –"
"Uncle Bobby," Sam interrupts softly, tugging the man's arm again. Dean looks like he's close to passing out, hands on his hips as he bends slowly at the waist, breaths starting to come as fast as Sam's when he's on the verge of an attack. He lets go of Bobby and takes a slow step forward, ignoring the way Bobby tenses, preparing for some unseen attack behind him. Dean watches him the whole time, eyes wide and pleading and so unlike the cocky, collected, unfazed-by-anything brother he remembers.
"You really didn't… know?"
He sounds as vulnerable as he feels, a flicker of hope sparking in his chest even while he tries to warn himself against it.
"Sam," Bobby warns quietly, but the hunter sounds just as hopeful as Sam feels and that flicker in his chest flares, glowing bright and warm when Dean shakes his head. His brother looks lost, like someone's ripped the carpet out from under him – crestfallen – and Sam knows he'll feel guilty about putting that look on the man's face later, for not believing his brother would love him even when he doesn't deserve it. But right now all he can do is step right into Dean's space and hesitantly hold his arms out, curling his fingers around them hem of Dean's over-shirt. He squeaks in surprise when Dean pulls him forward, wrapping him in a near bone crushing hug that Sam melts into once the initial shock wears away.
Dean doesn't hate him. Dean didn't know. Dean still wants to be his big brother.
Sam doesn't think he's been this happy since the day he accidentally called Ellen 'Mom' and she looked at him like he'd made the sun rise.
Even if he doesn't deserve it, he wants to keep this feeling forever.
"Sammy," he chokes out around the lump in his throat. He closes his eyes against the sudden wetness building up, a heavy pressure Dean refuses to let out in front of people, let alone his little brother who has to have gone through more, and worse, than anything Dean could have imagined. And especially not in front of Bobby, who obviously hates him as much as he hates John. It can wait until he gets a moment to himself – something he hopes isn't for a long while yet. He'd be content to stand here hugging Sam for the rest of eternity.
When he hears Sam's answering "Dean", it's almost impossible to hold it in. It's everything he's needed to hear since he found out Sam had run away – but he didn't run away, not really and Dean can't think about that right now; not when he's having trouble keeping it together already. Sam sounds as choked with emotion as Dean is and it would almost be comforting if he wasn't so wound up.
The sound of more footsteps and a quiet gasp snap Dean out of his thoughts and Sam startles against him. They pull back at the same time, looking over at Jo who's standing next to Bobby and staring at them with her mouth agape. Sam wipes at his eyes, though Dean can't see any tears that have fallen yet, and shakes his head; silent answer to an unasked question. Dean's heart clenches in his chest again, knowing he and Sam used to be like that and wishing for the millionth time that they hadn't been separated, no matter how it happened.
"S'ok, Jo," Sam says, brushing his hands across his thighs. He smiles wide, flashing those ridiculous dimples and straight, white teeth. Jo raises an eyebrow and looks Dean up and down warily, but her shoulders seem to relax at the look on Sam's face. "Go tell Mom that I'll be in, in a little while. Okay?"
She's not even looking at Dean anymore, all of her attention focused solely on Sam. There's no chance she's older than him, but everything about her screams 'protective' and for the first time he's thankful that if Sam didn't have him, he found people who care about him enough to protect him from the person they thought hurt him.
"Quit worrying so much, it's not good for you," Sam nods his head to Bobby, "Uncle Bobby will be out here to keep an eye on things."
"Okay," Jo draws the word out slowly, obviously still reluctant to leave her… brother with a person she's never met and hasn't nearly earned her trust. But when Bobby gives her a quick nod as her eyes flick to his, she nods back, wrapping delicate looking fingers around Sam's wrist for a brief moment before turning and heading back to the Roadhouse. The three of them are quiet, silently watching until she steps through the screen door and out of sight.
He can't stop the flinch, however small, when Bobby's voice breaks the silence. It doesn't sound angry or harsh like he'd tried to prepare himself for, the way the hunter had sounded when he told Dean to lose his number four years ago.
"I didn't know," Dean whispers, eyes on his boots. He can't bring himself to look at Bobby. The man he still thinks of as an uncle, no matter how short and sharp he'd been back then. What if he doesn't believe Dean?
"Come here, kid."
Before he knows what's happening, Dean is being pulled forward and crushed in his second hug of the day – more than he's had in longer than he cares to think about. He ignores the natural instinct to pull away and make light of the situation, like he's always done when things have gotten to be too much. Instead, he throws his arms around Bobby in return, still refusing to give in to the burning need to cry - can't let go of that last piece of control he's clinging to as tightly as he is to the hunter in front of him.
"Ya got nothing to apologize for, idjit."
Bobby pats his back, a gruff sign of affection Dean didn't realize he'd missed just as much as the man himself. He moves to step back but Bobby doesn't let him go. Dean tenses unconsciously, unsure what he's expecting to happen, but it certainly isn't what Bobby tells him.
"I'm the one who's sorry." His voice is quiet and Dean sneaks a glance at Sam to find his brother has backed up enough that they can have this little moment in peace. He's even looking over his shoulder at the Roadhouse rather than directly at them. His brother always was better at understanding the importance of privacy, even at a young age; something Dean hadn't given much thought to growing up the way John raised them. "Family don't end in blood and I ain't letting you go again, you get me boy?"
Dean huffs a surprised laugh, and if it comes out a little broken and wet Bobby doesn't call him on it. "Yeah," he breathes in relief, feeling the last of his worries seeping out of him, "I get you."
And Dean does. It hurt, losing Sam and then what felt like the rest of his family. John, being unable to forgive him for letting Sam go. Then Bobby, with that phone call. But if he'd thought beyond a doubt that Bobby had done to Sam what they told him John did, he would have done exactly the same thing. Probably would have done worse.
Thank God his little brother had someone there for him when Dean couldn't be.
He feels Bobby's nod more than sees it and the man pats his back one more time before letting him go. It's nice, he thinks, not letting the moment feel awkward or embarrassing with only Sam there to witness it.
"Now we best get inside before mama bear comes out with her shot gun."
Sam rolls his eyes, stepping back into Dean's space and Dean doesn't bother fighting his grin or the urge to throw an arm over his little brother's shoulders. "You know she hates it when you call her that," Sam says with a laugh before tossing a look at Dean over his shoulder, "He's right, though."
They've barely taken a step toward the Roadhouse when the outline of Ellen becomes visible through the screen door, arms crossed in front of her and obviously holding herself back from coming out herself.
"That's a helluva mom you've got there, Sammy," he offers quietly.
Sam turns to him, eyes wide in surprise before his expression melts into a look of understanding. He bumps his shoulder into Dean's with a small smile. "You have no idea."
They're sitting across from each other on Sam's bed upstairs. Mom herded them all into the dining room behind the bar for dinner. Dean sat on Sam's right, so close their arms brushed whenever he moved, and Jo took the seat on his other side while Mom and Uncle Bobby sat across from them. It was quiet for the most part and Sam appreciates that no one ragged on Dean or treated dinner like anything was different. There was still tension around the table that he isn't used to feeling anymore, but they all ate and Mom filled the somewhat awkward silence with stories about the bar that they've all heard more times than Sam can count.
When they'd finished eating – Mom giving him a pointed look with one of her thin eyebrows raised high in expectation when Sam started pushing his food around on his plate until he gave in with a small sigh, ignoring Jo's snort and the way Dean's eyes darted from Mom to Sam, an almost wistful smile on his face – Mom sent him and Dean upstairs and put Uncle Bobby and Jo to work, washing the dishes and setting up the bar for the night.
"What do you want to know?" he offers quietly, wanting to avoid Dean's eyes but unable to make himself look away. It's been so long – too long – since he's gotten to just look at his brother and he doesn't want to miss a second of it. He refuses to take this time with Dean for granted, the way he'd done the first ten years of his life.
"What…" Dean pauses, eyes turning glassy and wet but Sam knows better, even now, than to acknowledge it. And he knows what it's like fighting tears, feeling like letting them out was wrong. He'd felt that way a lot before the Harvelles, even back when he'd still been a Winchester and John made it clear that emotions were useless in their job. A weakness that Sam's always carried in spades and worn on his sleeve. "What made you think I was in on it?" He says it like it leaves a bad taste in his mouth, a grimace twisting his face into an expression Sam hates seeing, knowing he's partly responsible for putting it there.
"He told me. Or… he. He said we. That you both thought I was," he tries to keep his voice from cracking, but it's nearly impossible to talk around the lump in his throat and try to keep all of his emotions in check at the same time, "worthless."
Sam shrugs, wishing he hadn't taken what John said and believed every word of it. One word. That's all it took to keep him separated from his brother all these years. "I didn't have any reason not to believe him, but I shouldn't have. I'm so sorry, Dean, I should've –"
"Don't you dare finish that sentence, Sammy. Don't even think it. You were a kid, Sam, and you were thrown into something confusing and horrible and even when you could finally think straight it was just like you said. You didn't have any reason not to believe anything he said."
Dean grips his shoulder, firm and unwavering strength in his eyes that Sam tries to grasp himself. His chin quivers and he bites his lip to stem off another breakdown – just one in a long line of them that Sam wishes he could control - until they're done here.
"What happened after?"
The hand on his shoulder doesn't let up and Sam tries to draw the strength to bring these memories to the surface when all he'd ever wanted was to bury them down deep and never think about how it was his life, his experience.
Sam blinks awake slowly, wishing with everything in him that when he opens his eyes and his vision clears everything that happened before will turn out to be a dream. That he'll wake up and roll over to see Dean on his bed, despite his brother's insistence that he's too old to share a bed with his geeky little brother anymore.
Instead his eyes open to the same bare wall in the same bare room they'd dragged him kicking and screaming into after he woke from the blow they'd given him. The back of his head is still tender and he winces when he runs his fingers through his hair. There's a tray of food on the ground by the door across the room and he shudders when he thinks about one of the men coming in after he'd lost his battle with exhaustion.
The food is ignored with a defiant glare that no one is around to witness. Sam gets up slowly, careful not to jar his head if he can help it. There's a second door to his right and with one more glare and derisive sniff at the tray on the ground, he walks up to it and turns the knob slowly, easing the heavy wooden door open.
It's dark, even with the light coming from behind him, and he fumbles for a light switch when nothing immediately jumps out at him.
He pushes the door the rest of the way open when the lights over the sink flash dimly on. It's a bathroom. Across from him is a grungy looking shower with a clear, plastic curtain. A toilet sits just in front of it on one side and the small, off-white sink is beside that. There's no mirror, but the place where it should go dips into the wall. He realizes, with a jolt that sends a dull throb through the bump on the back of his head, that there had to have been a window there before. With a weary glance at the other door, Sam bites his lip and steps in front of the sink.
The painted-over wood is cold beneath his hand when he presses against it, and it doesn't give at all. He puts his other hand against it and pushes again, leaning with his whole body, but nothing happens. Rocking back and forth, Sam tries to get it to budge even an inch, careful not to make too much noise.
His frustrated sigh gets caught in the back of his throat, unwilling to admit defeat yet and Sam digs the tips of his fingers into the corner where the wall and the wood covering his only way out meet. The paint chips just a little beneath his blunt fingernails, but he still can't manage to do any more. He repeats that attempt at each corner and all four sides, rocks back and presses the flat of his hands against the whole thing again.
"Come on," he whispers, refusing to admit to the desperation in his voice. He was raised to survive by John Winchester. Dean had taught him how to get himself out of almost anything. He has to find a way out of this.
He hates it here. All he wants is to go back home, stretch out in the backseat of the Impala and listen to his Dad's old rock n' roll cassettes while Dean sings off key, occasionally turning to check on Sam as though something could have gotten him while they're driving. But his Dad hates him, Dean hates him. Something deep in his chest aches knowing that and Sam thinks it must be his heart shattering because Dean is the most important person in the world to him and if his big brother hates him, what is he supposed to do now?
Before he's even aware of what he's doing, Sam starts pounding against the unmoving piece of wood in front of him with his fists. It stings, but he doesn't feel it. He can't hear his frustrated, pained breaths, doesn't feel the tears that welled up thinking about his family – his brother – spilling over his cheeks. His vision is tunneled at the wooden square that could be his escape if it would just. Open. Up.
Suddenly he's shoved away, bruising his back against the wall behind him and losing his breath. He looks up with wide eyes that he squints into a glare at the sight of the blonde one staring at him with a nasty smile.
"Nice try, you little brat. But your weak human hands aren't going to get you out of here." The man sneers, leaning down towards him, and Sam doesn't have the chance to cringe away before overly strong hands take hold of his shoulders and drag him out of the bathroom, tossing him into the flimsy mattress he'd woken up on. "Look at you," he sniffs, glancing at the untouched tray of food. Sam flinches, ignores the twinge in his back when he tries to disappear into the wall, when the man kicks the tray and knocks all of the food and water onto the ground. They glare at each other for a moment, though Sam's feels a little weaker than he had been a minute ago with the way his body is shaking against his will, before the man scoffs, "Worthless," and walks back out the way he'd come.
Sam feels the tear that falls, this time, at the sound of the lock tumbling, trapping him inside once again. He looks numbly down at his knuckles, bruised and bloodied. They don't look broken and bend just fine when he curls them into fists. Little fists. Little, weak, worthless hands that can't even get him to freedom.
Staring at the mess of food all over the floor, Sam slides onto his side. He curls up, dragging the thin blanket around himself and closes his eyes, wishing futilely one more time to wake up somewhere else.
"Seemed a bit easy, gettin' the mighty John Winchester to give him up."
The voice filters in clearly, the same one he heard not a minute ago, and Sam flinches before he can stop it. But the door doesn't open. He squints his eyes just barely open and stares at it, unable to block out their voices.
The second man laughs and the sound sends a chill down his spine. He pulls the thin blanket tighter across his shoulders and around his chest.
"Johnny caught himself a demon with a big mouth. Learned all about his youngest's destiny. Seems the hunter wasn't too keen on keeping a demon tainted kid around when he's already got that other spit-fire of a son."
His cheeks are hot and his bottom lip hurts with the force of his biting it. He knows, just knows they want him to hear this. He has barely heard them at all since waking up in this place and now they're speaking loud enough to hear clearly from where he's yet to move on the bed. But their cold chuckling fades off quickly and soon enough Sam is left alone with his own thoughts once more.
Demon tainted? He knows those two words are going to haunt him the rest of his life – however much longer that is.
The food might actually taste decent, better than some of the diners he's been exposed to, if he could manage to taste anything right now. But he only eats because if there's anything he knows, it'll only make things worse if he doesn't keep as fit as he can. And he's ashamed to admit, even just to himself, that he's afraid of what the one's reaction will be if he doesn't eat what's there after he'd kicked that first meal to the floor the first day. For the past two days, though, he hasn't felt any side effects from their food and he doubts they've been drugging him when they obviously know how incapable he is of escaping on his own.
Sam puts the tray back down by the door, careful not to drop it and bring attention to himself when he hears muffled voices coming from the other side. They aren't even bothering to keep their voices down from what he can tell and he barely has to press his ears against the cool wood to hear what they're saying.
"I'm getting sick of this dump, Belial." He recognizes the first voice as the taller of the two. The one who found him trying to get out before, the one who's been bringing the trays of food as far as he's seen.
"I'm getting sick of hearing you say that, shifter," another voice replies dryly, a hint of mocking in his voice. Sam hasn't heard that one speak much in the days he's been here, but he knows he'll never forget the voice of the man his father sold him to.
There's some shuffling and what sounds like a chair scraping across old wooden floors. "What's so special about this one?" he asks, but it sounds like he knows the answer already. Complaining just to complain. Sam presses closer into the door, holding his hands flat against the wood to keep his balance.
"I'm not letting that bastard, Azazel, win," the other hisses angrily. Sam's eyebrows turn down, frowns at the strange, unfamiliar name. "Taking his favorite little soldier and keeping him as mine? Mmm, I can't wait to see the look on old yellow eyes' face when he finds out the favorite to lead his little army is someone else's pet."
"So what do we do with the brat now?"
Sam's fingers curl into fists at the answer.
"I guess it's just about time we start his… training." The words are punctuated with a cold, self-amused laugh, but Sam doesn't stick against the door to hear it.
He can't stay here. He can’t. There has to be some way for him to get away from the things outside that door.
The room is too small, all of a sudden. Sam has barely noticed anything about it since that first day, too busy believing that there was no way he could save himself because Dean's always saved him before, but now his brother hates him and he would be stuck with them forever. But he's nobody's pet and he refuses to ever find out just what "training" him might entail.
Lips thinned to a determined line, Sam marches into the bathroom and glares at the square of wood, the only thing keeping him from getting out. With a quick glance to his right he listens for any approaching steps outside the door but the food they'd given him before their discussion had only been his second for the day – lunch – and if they decided to wait until closer to when they'd been giving him dinner each evening so far, he has a little time to work with.
It's still not much, though, and he closes the bathroom door silently shut beside him before he starts peeling at the already chipped faded blue paint. Beating the wall had done nothing but get him caught last time and he doesn't have the muscle yet, not like Dean who at fourteen is already stronger than any of the older jocks at the high schools Sam has seen, to break it without weakening it somehow first. He scratches and scratches, carving a gap into splintering wood, biting his lip closed to keep from hissing when it digs right back into his fingertips.
The bathroom feels like it's getting warmer. A droplet of sweat runs down Sam's temple, but he can't make himself stop to wipe it away. He can almost hear a clock ticktickticking in his head as he works, counting down before one of them comes in to finally drag him out again. He studiously ignores the way the light wood, paint all but gone where he's been digging, has grown red and wet and sticky and how the tips of his fingers sting, nails cracking and splitting as much as the wall beneath them.
Heart pounding in his chest, thumpthumpthumping in his ears, Sam glances over his shoulder again but he can't hear anything beyond the blood rushing through him and the scratch of nails and skin against wood.
Finally. Finally, he thinks with a cut off breath, he feels the wood starting to give under his hands. Sam steps back for a second, wipes sweat from his forehead and doesn't think about anything but getting out. Can't look at his hands and see just how red and broken they are, can't think about how his forehead is wetter, stickier than before he'd swiped at it.
All he allows himself to focus on is pressing his palms flat against the splintered wood with an ear always tuned on the door and the room just outside of it. Everything blurs and slows and Sam holds his breath and pushes with everything in him.
The wood gives with a quiet snick before cracking across the middle. Fresh, chilly, air blows across the tips of his fingers and Sam can breathe again. He leans all of his weight forward until the broken pieces fall to the ground outside and there's enough space for him to squeeze through.
In a quick move, he's balancing on the sink and poking his head out of the hole he'd created – he'd done it. There's nothing out there that he can see but the glare of the sun starting to set in the sky and a field that's empty of anything but bushes and trees but Sam doesn't care. A brief glance at the ground right outside shows nothing in his way and he carefully eases his head back inside before sliding one foot out, – thankful that he'd been left his shoes when they confined him to the room – then the other, and let the rest of his body follow.
Patting shaking hands over his torso and legs, there aren't any injuries besides his hands themselves. Sam doesn't waste another second before he's taking off into the dry brush, careful to not make a sound, all the while hoping he'll reach a road or a path that'll lead him anywhere but here.
He'll figure out what the hell he's going to do next when he reaches civilization.
His legs are screaming with fatigue by the time he reaches one. The city is larger than many he remembers living in through his life. Just big enough to walk around anonymously; no one seems overly concerned with the lone ten year old boy walking around. But if his family taught him anything, it's how to stay invisible.
It's cool out, but not freezing. The sun is almost set when he first sees them. A group of three kids, one taller than the other two. He wouldn't think anything of it except for how they're walking so much like him. Staying off of everyone's radar, even though the sidewalks are mostly clear of people now that the sun is down and the cold is sweeping in. The taller one looks around, head turning to each side occasionally. He puts a hand on the littlest one's shoulder, but Sam isn't close enough to hear whatever they might be saying to each other. They all seem to have each other's backs, though. The three of them keeping an eye out for anyone and when the tall one finally notices Sam watching them, he steers them to the left and out of Sam's sight.
Sam doesn't try to follow.
His presence can only bring them trouble. Especially if - when, a voice that sounds heartbreakingly like John whispers at the back of his mind – Belial catches up to him.
His plan to stay away from them, however, is shattered when one of the younger ones – a girl with blonde hair and wide blue eyes – gets caught pick-pocketing by her mark. Her companions are too far off when the man she tried to take from makes to grab her and Sam acts on instinct, unable to let anything happen to her when all she's trying to do is survive on her own. Something he's still unsure he'll be able to do himself.
He grabs her and runs as quick as his still-tired legs can carry the both of them. The man isn't angry enough to follow them more than a few feet but Sam keeps running until he's closer to where he'd seen the trio disappear to the night before. He almost excepts to find a real live Fagin running the group when he gets there.
Instead, he finds a group of kids smiling, some smirking, at him. Grateful for helping one of their own. A couple of them are older, teenagers. And some are younger than him, as far as he can tell.
One of the boys walks straight up to him, slowing his approach when Sam can't help a worried half step back. The boy looks close to Dean's age, maybe – Sam bites his lip against the pang in his chest at the thought of his brother – with shaggy brown hair that looks better kept up close than Sam thought it would have. His voice is still unchanged, a little higher than it might be in another couple of years, when he speaks.
"I'm Ryan. What's your name, kid?"
"Come on, Sam," Ryan says with a jerk of his head. Sam looks up at him and nods, pushing away from the slightly padded ground of their hideout.
One of the younger boys, PJ, is called next and then Ryan is leading them out of the relative warmth and safety of their out-of-the-way building and into the dark streets of town once again. He leads them to an alley on a street that's as empty as they ever seem to get once the sun goes down. The alley is only dimly lit by the street lamps at the mouth of it. It's empty inside, except for a couple of dumpsters, but that's exactly how they need it.
It isn't the easiest thing in the world, trying to find anything edible this way. Sam realizes after the last three nights that he never quite appreciated everything his father did for him and his brother. Guilt settles low in his gut at the thought, that maybe there was reason behind his Dad hating him so much.
"Sammy's turn," Ryan whispers.
"It's Sam," Sam says with a scowl he's sure can be heard, if not seen in the darkness. That name is for family and even though his brother probably hates him now that he's sure John told him everything about how tainted he is, Sam doesn't think that will ever change.
PJ keeps his back to them and his eyes on the lip of the alley, ready to warn them of anyone passing by. Ryan links the fingers of both hands together and bends at the waist, nodding to Sam when he's ready. Sam nods back and sets one foot in the boy's hold, steady and balanced as he can be when Ryan boosts him up. He kicks one leg over the edge of the dumpster, followed by the other and soon enough he's digging through for anything they can get.
It's a dirty job, but Sam figures at this point he doesn't deserve much else.
Ryan takes him aside, after Sam's thanked everyone for helping him when they didn't have to. The boy squeezes Sam's shoulder with one hand, holding a couple bills out to him with the other. Sam starts to shake his head, eyes wide.
"I can't take that."
"You can and you will," Ryan says, tone broking no argument. "It's not much, but hopefully it'll help get you where you need to go. Or get you started once you get there. It ain't easy getting around as young as you, so watch your back."
"Good luck, kid."
He nods, hesitantly taking the bills out of Ryan's hand and smiling gratefully. Ryan gives his shoulder one last squeeze.
Sam hikes his pack up on his shoulder and turns away from the kids who helped him when they didn't need to. It's easy to, once again, stay out of the radar of the people milling around the sidewalk.
Sam isn't quite sure where he's going to go from here. Wherever it is, he thinks he might just stay on the lookout for some more street kids. Blending in is his best way to keep from getting caught and that's just what he needs.
But for now he's going to figure out if he's got the skill to stow away on a bus out of town.
Dean tucks his brother into the covers of his oversized bed. The soft, dimpled smile Sam gives him is almost enough to take away from red-rimmed eyes and splotchy, flushed cheeks and he doesn't care that his baby brother is too old to be tucked in and fawned over like a child. Dean hasn't had the chance to take care of his Sammy in far too long and he's going to take every opportunity he can get to do so now.
He gives into an urge he's had since he calmed Sam enough to lay down and curls a hand into Sam's hair. His brother lets out a little sigh, eyes drooping closed and tension easing off his skin, melting away until he's letting out little puffs of breath. Dean's lips tip up at the corners and even he isn't sure if it's a sad or happy smile. He wishes he'd been there, that he hadn't ever left that night and given John the opportunity to take Sam away from him.
But he's also so relieved that he's got Sam back. No matter what John thought or hoped, he can't keep them apart forever. Nothing can, and Dean feels something in his chest loosen in the knowledge that he and Sam will always find their way back to each other.
That doesn't make it easier knowing what his brother went through before he was adopted into this new family.
The door to Sam's room creaks. Dean looks over his shoulder and scoots around to face the door, his back to the headboard with Sam sleeping to the left of his hip, when he sees Jo poke her head in.
"How is he?"
"He's okay. Sleeping."
It feels awkward, talking to the girl who's obviously so protective of his brother. The girl who considers Sammy to be her brother. He's not sure how he feels about that, but Dean knows there's always going to be a grateful edge to any of his emotions regarding the Harvelles for how they've taken his little brother in when he didn't have anyone else.
She steps into the room, dressed down to a soft looking pair of navy blue pajama bottoms and a thinner, matching long-sleeved top. Her full lips quirk up and light worried lines creasing her forehead relax in relief when she walks around to the other side of the bed, eyes gliding over Sam's face and down as though she can see through the blankets and skin and muscles, straight to the soul underneath.
Before he can react, she's reaching for the blankets. Not wanting to wake Sam, Dean hisses, "Hey" as quietly as he can, but she quirks one thin eyebrow up. The expression looks so much like the one her mother gave Sam at dinner to make sure he ate the rest of the food on his plate that Dean pauses, mouth open until he blinks himself out of it and shrugs a little. She pulls the blankets up and slips onto the mattress beside Sam, wrapping long fingers around one of his bony wrists. Sam leans toward her in his sleep and Dean has a brief, insane thought that maybe there is something more between them, but he dismisses it just as quickly when he thinks about everything he's seen of the two of them. They're really not all that different to how he and Sam had been.
The quiet of the room is broken briefly by Jo's sleepy, "Night," and Dean finally lets his muscles relax. The blankets and their warmth are too tempting to resist for long and he soon finds himself underneath them, Sam bracketed safely between Jo and himself. As carefully as he can with the exhaustion from the revelations of today finally catching up with him, Dean reaches out and holds onto Sam's other wrist.
It's there, warm and comfortable and within reach of his brother, that Dean is finally able to succumb to sleep, hopeful for what the next day might bring.
"Did you call Rufus?"
Bobby nods, scratches at the scruff of his beard as he watches Ellen take out a third glass and set it on the bar top. She uses so much force that he almost expects it to shatter into pieces. Thankfully it doesn't, just makes a clink that's loud in the quiet of the bar. "He ain't far out. Shouldn't be more'n an hour to get here."
"Good," Ellen says with a determined nod of her own, fire in her eyes. The woman is fierce as he's ever seen. Angrier than she's been since she found out it was the kid's own father who got rid of him. "I'm gonna go check on Sam."
Bobby isn't the least bit surprised, but it's the first time the boys have had time to themselves after being separated for years. "You just saw him at dinner not two hours ago," he tries halfheartedly. Even though they've been up in Sam's room since they finished dinner and Ellen just sent Jo up after they finished re-stocking some of the bar, he knows there's nothing that'll stop a mama bear from checking her cubs and Ellen is as much a mama bear – to both Jo and Sam – as he's ever seen. He's not too keen to get on her bad side on a good day. To do anything now would be downright suicidal.
She gives him a small nod and a stern, "Keep an eye out," before she's breezing through the door to the back.
The first room she passes is empty but Ellen hadn't expected her daughter to be sleeping in there. Jo's made a habit of sleeping in Sam's room since the kid first came around. Back before he'd realized they weren't going to just kick him out after a couple of nights. Back before he'd understood he could take the comfort they were trying to offer.
Back then her daughter would wait until the boy was sleeping and slip into the room, swift and stealthy as her Daddy had been on a hunt, only to sit on a chair Ellen had set up in there and keep watch. The poor kid hadn't known how to take it at first, seemed to think they were making sure he wouldn't steal anything or slip out into the night without so much as a by-your-leave, but Jo kept at it. Chased his frequent nightmares away with a simple touch to his wrist; younger than him and still somehow taking up the position of protector. One he'd finally gotten used to, that he appreciated. They've been like siblings for years now and Ellen is so proud because she must have done something right when raising her little girl if that same little girl – the one who'd come to her clutching a stuffed dog, all quivering lips and tear-tracked cheeks asking to stay with her after a nightmare more times than she can count – could handle Sam better than the rest of them.
Since Dean showed up making them realize he's innocent in everything John did nine years ago, she's a little more floored at how familiar his actions are because she's seen them in Jo for four years now. Somehow without any of them noticing – except maybe Sam but he's never said anything – Jo had managed to step up as the protector Sam used to have in his big brother. Not replaced him, even Ellen can see there's no replacing the young man she'd seen at dinner who looked too old for his age already. But Jo had been exactly what Sam needed and she's overcome with the urge to hug her daughter close and drag Sam and Dean in with her.
Her eyes sweep the empty room one last time before she steps back, closing the door behind her.
There's only a dim sliver of light coming from the bottom of the door at the end of the hallway. Ellen pauses in front of it with her hand held just above the knob for a long moment before shaking herself and gripping the cool metal. The door slides open easily and she pokes her head in only to pause again.
The image of Jo sleeping on Sam's left side, probably clutching his wrist in a loose grip beneath the blankets piled on top of them, doesn't surprise her in the least. What's halted her where she stands, bent with her head in the room and the rest of her body still in the hallway, is the extra person sleeping on Sam's other side. Dean is curled on his side, back to the door, and practically wrapped around Sam, protecting him even in sleep; even after eight years apart.
She eases the door open just a bit further, steps fully into the doorway. Leaning against the frame, she tilts her head to the side and feels the last of her tension melt away, at least for the moment. The fire in her veins has simmered down, sure to boil over in less than an hour when Rufus comes in and they get down to business. But there's something like hope swelling in her chest at the picture presented to her right now; Dean and Sam and Jo huddled together on Sam's oversized bed that she first bought to ensure there would always be room for the three of them on those nights he needs the company, needs to forget for a while what his life had been before he'd come here.
Sam's growing up. He'd already been too old for his age when Rufus saved him; after what his life had been, even before John had sold him. Now he's eighteen and he's staying over the summer to help her out at the bar but he'll be heading off to college in the fall and Jo still has another year to go before she can follow him there. Something Ellen really wants her daughter to do, selfishly hoping Jo's need to watch over her older brother will encourage her to try out a life of academia before trying to follow in her father's footsteps.
It's been a growing worry, though. That her Sam will be alone again for months, even if it's at school doing something he wants to be doing. He won't have his big bed and an overprotective sister and mother every night to get him through the odd nightmare or panic attack the way he does here. But now Dean is back in Sam's life, slotting himself in even in one night almost like he'd never been gone. Dinner hadn't been as awkward as it should have been, and he's even taken up the side of the bed that leaves him closest to the door like Sam had told her once in one of his extremely rare stories about his life back before he'd learned how horrible his father really was.
Dean had been inseparable from Sam all through dinner, close enough their arms had touched the entire time and the image in front of her suggests he'd been just as unwilling to leave Sam even when they're sleeping. That hope inside of her grows. Maybe Dean will be willing to follow his brother to school.
She knows a thing or two about hunters after all these years, knows even after finding out how far off the reservation their father is – has been for longer than Dean has probably had time to process yet – that he won't be able to stop that itch for a hunt. Not yet, at least. But maybe he'll make a temporary home base in Lincoln, go hunting every couple of weekends and settle down just enough to get a job. Make some legitimate money that Sam won't feel guilty about his brother using.
After another moment of self-indulgence, eyes sweeping over the trio, Ellen backs out of the doorway and shuts the door. They've got time to decide what Dean will do later. Right now she has a human monster that needs dealing with.
Rufus's voice filters into the back and Ellen shifts the case of beer in her arms with a huff, barely resisting the urge to roll her eyes. She'd had Jo bring a case out after dinner, busy work to make sure Dean and Sam got enough time to themselves before she went upstairs to undoubtedly join them. But she'd needed to get away from the two hunters bickering at each other like an old married couple and unable to come up with a solution between them, Ash sitting quietly in the background.
Figuring out what to do about John Winchester should require something a lot stronger than the case she's got in her hands, she knows, but at least one of them has got to keep a clear mind. She's already had a glass of the whiskey she keeps in stock for Rufus and while her tolerance is high she's going to stick with a cold beer for the rest of the discussion.
Bobby's voice comes through, just as frustrated as he'd been when she walked out for some air, "Evil as he is, the man is still human. We ain't in the murdering business, Rufus."
Rufus snorts, shifts enough that his stool scrapes against the ground. He sucks in a breath, ready to give his idea of a plan again no doubt, and Ellen pushes back into the room. Bottles clink together shrilly when she drops them onto the bar top harder than necessary. But it gets the men's attention just fine, both turning around to face her. Only Ash doesn't react at all, too busy typing away on the laptop he brought with him when he showed up at her bar in March. It's a monster of a machine, taken apart only to be put back together with some of the kid's additions she can't even hope to understand. Bobby's forehead is crinkled a little, eyebrows raised in silent question while Rufus looks at her expectantly, leaving her with the impression that he's got better things to do than wait for what she has to say.
Grabbing one of the bottles, she's got it popped open in a quick move made familiar after years of owning her bar and crosses the floor to join them at their table. "Okay gentlemen, here's how this is gonna play out." She gestures to Ash with her beer, "Ash here is gonna work his magic, ain'tcha hon?"
"Yes, ma'am," he answers with a smug smirk, turning the clunky computer around. "Been working on these since Dean-o showed up."
The screen, bright in the dim lighting, boasts one of the most authentic looking fake passports she's seen. It's quite the feat. Owning a hunter's bar, she's had more occasion than most to see all sorts of fake identification. She doesn't know where Ash managed to get a picture of John, but the kid has been full of surprises since he somehow succeeded in adopting them for his own. He's sure hiding a lot of smarts in that mullet-covered head of his.
"Johnny boy is gonna find a hunt somewhere down in Mexico or, hell, Tibet for all I care. Shouldn't be too hard with Ash's connections to find someone willin' to… persuade John across a border or two. " She turns to look at Ash again, nodding. A quick click across the keyboard and there's a birth certificate with John's name on it. "Ash is makin' it so he won't be able to find his way back over here anytime soon. It ain't gonna be easy with this proof here that he ain't from the US, don't you think?"
Bobby is looking at the screen, wide eyed and awed. Even Rufus looks impressed, though he's hiding it behind his Johnny Walker easy enough. "This is the plan boys," she continues, unable to hold back her smirk any longer. "We toast to it tonight and tomorrow we'll do what needs doin'. When the boys ask, last we heard, John left the country on some hunt he couldn't resist. And hell, we'll only be lyin' a little."
They're silent for a moment, mulling it over but Ellen's still got enough patience to wait them out. Rufus rolls his eyes but occupies himself with another swig of his drink while Bobby nods. "Sounds like we got a plan."
The men raise their glasses, clink them with each other's and then Ellen's bottle. Ash salutes his own beer before getting up and helping out with the customers just walking in. Most of her regulars haven't been in tonight after she closed up shop early the night before. But she made sure to keep the lights on out front in case some of them did try to come in for a drink tonight.
Bobby and Rufus spend another hour in the bar drinking and Ellen takes over for Ash with a few more late night customers that show up, sending him into his room at the back. It feels good to lose herself in the work for a little while, even if it's a slow night.
Just before she goes to bed herself, she can't resist one last peek into Sam's room. When Dean blinks blearily over at her, body tense until his eyes adjust just enough to see who's in the doorway, she sends him a relieved, thankful smile and gets a nod in return.
Sleep comes just a bit easier than she thought it would after that.
But when he opens his eyes and looks up, he realizes there's someone lying beside him. And that person isn't Jo, doesn't have a halo of messy blonde curls flared out across one of the extra pillows. Blinking to clear away the sleepy blur, Sam's breath catches at the sight of squinting green eyes – still familiar after all these years – starting back at him. Dean smirks and ruffles his hair until Sam wrinkles his nose and backs up with a laugh, knocking into the warm body on his other side.
Jo wakes with a disgruntled huff of surprise, pushing back against him before curling around her pillow and falling back asleep with a short snuffle that will make excellent blackmail material later.
Sam's still laughing when he's being pulled forward by Dean's arms wrapping around him and pulling him close. He closes his eyes and returns the hug, laughter dying down until all that's left to show for it is an aching gut and a smile on his face. As well as he can recall, his brother had never been quite as tactile as a ten year old Sam but it still feels familiar and right and he doesn't mind making up for the years lost between them little by little.
"God, it's good to hear you laugh, Sam."
He chuckles again, breathy and quiet. "It's all just good, I think."
"Such a girl," Dean teases into his hair. "Always knew you should'a been named Samantha."
Sam pulls back and shoves at Dean's chest. "Jerk."
"Bitch," comes the familiar retort and Sam thinks that nothing could wipe his smile away today. Especially when Jo shoulders him over with more sleepy frustration and Dean chuckles at the both of them.
His stomach grumbles, reminding him that while he'd eaten the night before it wasn't as much as he's become accustomed to. He can't bring himself to feel embarrassed over it, though. Then Dean's stomach echoes the plea for food and Sam smirks.
"Guess we should head downstairs."
"Yeah," Dean sighs, flopping onto his back and stretching until his back pops. Sam follows him off the bed and lets Dean have first dibs on the bathroom while he grabs some clothes from his dresser. There's another fake spider in one of the drawers and he contemplates pulling the same prank on Jo, but he can already picture her conspiring with Uncle Bobby to get him back. He shuts the drawer with a shudder and turns, shoving past his brother into the bathroom, laughing when Dean just reaches up and ruffles his sleep mussed hair.
Dean looks over at the man sitting at the table. He looks up when Sam calls his name, dark eyes squinting the way Dean's do the morning after he's had too much to drink. He winces a little at Sam's voice but gives his little brother a tight smile and a nod. "Hey there, shorty."
Raising an eyebrow, Dean watches as Sam only shakes his head and rolls his eyes at the nickname. "What're you doin' here?"
They sit at the same table they'd had dinner at the night before and Dean barely pays attention to his little brother's conversation when he catches a whiff of whatever Ellen is cooking in the next room over.
"Stopped over for a drink last night, figured I might as well stay to check on the trouble magnet."
"Whatever. You bring trouble 'round way more than I ever have," his little brother retorts, throwing a crumpled paper towel at the man sitting across from them. Rufus dodges with what looks like barely any effort. It's a little impressive given that he still looks like he had one too many drinks last night.
Ellen comes in just as the paper missile flies by the hunter and flicks Sam's ear with a huff after setting down a pan of scrambled eggs on the table. "No throwing things at the table, mister."
"Yes, ma'am," Sam says, eyes scrunched up as he rubs his ear. Dean's snort turns to a full blown laugh when his little brother sends him a glare that could peel paint. Rufus chuckles a little and only raises his eyebrow, apparently unimpressed, when Ellen turns stern eyes on him.
"Dig in boys," she says after a moment. Dean startles, eyes widening while the rest of him remains stiff, when Ellen's squeezes his shoulder gently. It's almost as surprising as when he'd seen her just inside the door last night. He expected her to kick him off into the chair or at least give him an annoyed look. He definitely hadn't expected her to smile at him and leave the room as though it was completely normal to see other people sleeping in the room with his little brother. She walks back through the door to the kitchen, calling over her shoulder to save room for the bacon she's taking off the stove now.
"Where's your sister?" she asks Sam when she comes back in. It's still weird to hear them refer to Jo as Sam's sister, but Dean thinks he can get used to it easily enough when he thinks about how Sam reacted to her the night before, even in his sleep. And the way his little brother smiles at the mention of her now. Dean's only been there for a day. Less than. He doesn't plan on letting Sam out of his sight for awhile, so he'll have some time to adjust to his little brother considering someone other than him family.
"You know her, she needs all the beauty sleep she can get," Sam answers with a smirk that's immediately wiped away when Jo walks in and sneaks up behind him, silent as a cat, and flicks his ear in the exact same spot he'd seen Ellen get before. "Ow!"
Rufus smirks behind his glass of water and Ellen chuckles across from them. Dean laughs into his hand, trying and failing at the wide-eyed innocent look he adopts when Sam turns to him, mouth agape and glaring in mock betrayal. "You're supposed to be on my side here." He rubs his now pink ear again, lip sticking out in a pout sad and pathetic enough to melt lesser men.
"You think I want to go up against those two?" Dean shrugs his shoulder in the girls' direction. He shakes his head, shuddering exaggeratedly. "No thank you."
"Put those puppy eyes away, squirt," Bobby gruffs. He ruffles Sam's hair as he walks past them to the end of the table at their left. Sam huffs a laugh, lips turning up at the edges and smacks Bobby's hand away.
"What is it with you guys and my hair?"
"Maybe if you'd get a haircut," Dean cuts in, grin splitting his face.
"Shut up, jerk," Sam grumbles, knocking Dean with his elbow. But he's still smiling, eyes bright and happy and Dean feels his heart swell, threatening to burst and clog his throat.
"Bitch," he retorts dutifully, elbowing his little brother right back.
Everyone has a smile on their face, except Rufus who's lip is only half turned up in a smirk like he's amused with how ridiculous they all are, when they start filling their plates and dig in. They've still got things they need to discuss, but Dean is happy to wait until they're all full before they do.
He's afraid he won't be able to stop himself from getting used to it.
Dean's voice breaks the thick silence. Sam can't tell whether it had been a tense silence. His brother feels relaxed enough beside him, but he learned even before he'd been on his own after the demon bought him that he can't let himself be fooled by anyone's seemingly relaxed stance. Either way, it's Sam who tenses now. He can't help it.
"Yeah," he says around the tightness of his throat. Because there's nothing else he can say right now, but it isn't any easier when he knows this is when Dean's going to leave.
His brother's arm is heavy and warm when it wraps around his shoulder. Fingers curl into his shirt and Sam's breath catches a little when Dean tugs him closer but he lets himself relax into his brother's side. "Always knew you were the smart one, Sammy."
There's a faint buzzing in Sam's ears because this isn't right. Dean isn't supposed to be giving him a soft, wistful smile and holding onto him like he isn't willing to let Sam go just yet. He should be nodding and telling Sam that he's glad he's okay but he's got a life that doesn't include tainted little brothers who are going off to college and don't hunt.
But Dean just stares down at him, a little sad and a lot knowing and Sam holds his breath when his brother speaks. "You know, you still wear your heart on your sleeve."
Sam winces, remembers how much of liability that had always been. How weak that always made him to John. He hadn't realized he'd been showing everything he was feeling on his face but he isn't as surprised as he should be. Dean will probably always be the person he can't hide anything from, no matter how long they've been apart or how short they've been back together.
"Sorry," he starts, but Dean's hand tightening over his shoulder stops him from saying more.
"You've got nothing to be sorry about. And I'm not going anywhere," he assures when Sam looks over at him again. "I've finally got you back. There's no way in Hell I'll be letting you go anytime soon. If that means I'm following you to some nerd school, then I'll be there."
The swing creaks to a slow stop when Dean sets the flat of his foot on the patio. He turns until they're facing each other and Sam feels himself relax just a little more at the soft look on his brother's face. Dean's always looked older than he is, even when they were kids and his brother wasn't a teenager yet. But now he looks a little how Sam thinks he might have looked if they hadn't grown up the way they did; raised into hunting and then losing his younger brother and dealing with a father that probably hadn't ever been able to pull off the act of caring father rather than drill sergeant.
"Have you set up a dorm or anything yet?"
Shaking his head, Sam briefly chews at his lip. He tries to get a hold on the hope building inside him. "Not yet. I've mostly been focusing on helping out here, saving up for when I'm out on my own."
"Good," his brother says with a sharp nod. "It'd be a hassle trying to figure out the paperwork for living off campus if you were already signed on for a dorm room."
"What are you – "
"It'll be good to have a home base, somewhere to come back to after a hunt. Maybe I could find some legitimate work. I've always been pretty good with cars."
"You want to…?"
Dean smiles, eyes crinkling at the corners and making his freckles stand out in the summer sun. "Told you, Sammy. Couldn't get rid of me if you tried. You'll get sick of me."
Sam sits back against the swing with a relieved sigh, kicking the ground to get them moving again. "Not possible," he breathes, looking out at the birds in the sky again. Dean doesn't move his arm off of Sam's shoulder and Sam feels his smile grow into something wide and genuine and happy.
That's how Jo finds them when she pokes her head out the screen door a couple minutes later announcing that lunch is ready and Sam needs to come in to set the table. Sam gets up and ignoring his brother's teasing digs about how domesticated he's become.
It's looking to be a good day. Suddenly, he can't wait for the day when school starts.
2 Months Later
Sam wipes the back of his hand across his forehead. Their new apartment is air conditioned but he's sticky and hot from moving the furniture around his room, trying to figure out the way he likes it best. Mom let him have his extra large bed from his room back at the Roadhouse. He'd been happy, excited to keep that little bit of home. He hadn't thought about how much work it would be to get into his bedroom and then to have to slide it around to each wall until it was just right. But the work was worth it and now he has a room that's more comfortable than he imagined it would be.
The couch they set up earlier is just soft enough that he sighs in relief when he finally sits down. Dean and Jo will be back with dinner from some take out place near the apartment building, soon and Sam pats his grumbling belly consolingly. The room feels too big right now, though. He fights to squash the niggling worry creeping up in the back of his mind; keeps telling himself that he'll be fine on his own for a little while.
For the most part, Sam has been able to work through his fears that Dean will leave him for good. His brother hasn't given any indication that he plans to leave him or thinks that Sam isn't worth the trouble. That attitude has gone a long way towards lifting that weight from Sam's shoulders. There isn't something wrong with him. He isn't worthless, no matter what that shifter said.
But he still worries when he's left alone, with nothing to distract him but his own thoughts. Especially because since Dean showed up at home two months ago, Sam's rarely been on his own. He's had his brother with him. Or Jo, or Mom, or Uncle Bobby. Even Ash. He tells himself that he isn't alone now, not really. Mom and Uncle Bobby are downstairs, grabbing the last of their supplies and Dean will be back soon, Jo right behind him.
"Ya gonna sit there like a potato all day or ya gonna come help an old man out?"
Bobby's voice jolts Sam out of his thoughts and Sam breathes a grateful sigh. He watches the hunter standing in the doorway for a moment, smirking.
"Don't say it," the man says just as Sam opens his mouth.
"Oh come on," Sam whines, but he levers himself off the couch and walks over to his uncle. "D'you really think we'll need this much salt?"
There are four bags of rock salt about the length of Sam's shoulder to his waist lying at Uncle Bobby's feet. It must have taken more than one trip for him to get them all here, even with the elevator to help. "Why didn't you come get me earlier?"
"Dean said you were finishing getting your room set up. Now you gonna help me or what?
Sam chuckles. "Yeah, yeah."
The bags are heavy, even for Sam who's been helping Mom with crates at the bar since he was sixteen. They can only carry one at a time each. It takes a couple of minutes, but they get the salt into the apartment and Sam leads Uncle Bobby to the closet he and Dean have designated for his brother's hunting supplies.
"Seems a little excessive. Even for you, Uncle Bobby," Sam says when he closes the closet door. "You and Mom and Dean have all triple checked the wards already."
"You can never be too careful, squirt."
The grim look on Uncle Bobby's face speaks volumes.
He hasn't forgotten about Belial. Won't ever be able to forget him and Sam knows he'll be able to recognize him even if he shows up wearing a different host the next time they're face to face. The Roadhouse is one of the most warded places he could have lived, only outdone by Singer's Salvage Yard, and Sam knows that he was lucky to have ended up there. He had managed to push that fear away, keeping the demon's last words to him - See you later, kiddo - from repeating over and over when he decided to continue with school. The fear that he'll meet that other demon Belial had been trying to steal him away from, Azazel. But that the other people in his life, the ones closest to him, are doing what they can to keep him protected, even when he won't be living with all of them anymore, means more to him than he can put into words.
"Thanks," he chokes out around the lump in his throat. He swipes the knuckle of his hand over his traitorously wet eyes. Sam is beyond grateful when Bobby busies himself with looking around the room, giving him a moment to calm down.
"All right, who's hungry?"
Dean blunders into the room, breaking tension he was unaware had been there in the first place. Sam grins, pats his stomach when it growls again at the smell of take-out. He takes one of the bags from his brother and follows him to the coffee table sitting in front of the couch. There's a small TV on the other side of it. Not the best or biggest out there, but it's better than some Sam remembers from the motel rooms they used to frequent and definitely better than having nothing.
Mom walks through the door a moment later, Jo just behind her. His sister has the last bag of food on her arm and Mom is carrying the small ice chest from the truck that she wouldn't let Sam look in for the whole drive here.
"Everything put away, boys?" she asks, glancing between Sam and Uncle Bobby. Sam nods towards the closet.
"Yeah. We're stocked and warded against anything that might try to find its way in."
"Well alright then," she says with a smile, sitting on the floor by the food-laden coffee table, her back to the TV. The ice chest makes a wet, sloshing sound when she puts sets it down.
Jo settles in next to their Mom and Uncle Bobby chooses a spot on the couch. He grumbles under his breath and Sam snickers when he catches bits and pieces that sound like, "Too old to sit on the damn floor". He ducks out of the way of the hand his uncle swipes at him, bumping into Dean. But his brother barely budges against his weight. And he doesn't say anything about it when Sam doesn't move away, instead relaxing into his side.
His Mom and sister smile at the two of them and Sam rolls his eyes, but smiles back. He sees his brother smiling, too, out of the corner of his eye. It's tempting to laugh at how ridiculous they're being. And he knows that Dean is probably itching to mock all of them. But after they all finish eating, his Mom and Jo and Uncle Bobby will be heading out, leaving him and Dean to their apartment. Classes start next week and they want to give him and his brother time to get used to their place and get to know the area a little more before he's bogged down by homework and Dean's busy job searching and researching hunts close by. So Sam doesn't mind that they're being more than a little sappy because it's the last time he'll be seeing the people he's called family for the past four years until his first break in the semester and he isn't quite ready to say goodbye yet.
They pass the cartons of food around, piling heaps of Chinese take-out with plastic forks onto paper plates because the real ones his Mom gave him are still in the boxes marked "Dinnerware" in the kitchen. When everyone's plate is full, his Mom leans over and opens the ice chest. Its hinges squeak in protest, lid opening to reveal ice and cold glass bottles of beer. She takes one out and pauses for a just a moment before holding it out to Sam.
Eyes widening, he looks from her to the bottle and back again.
"Mom?" he asks, taking the offering hesitantly. It's a shock because she had always been adamant while he helped at the bar that working there didn't mean he was allowed to drink what he was serving.
She smirks a little, brown eyes warm and proud. Sam is still a little surprised when anyone gives him a look like that. It makes his stomach do a flip, leaves him feeling warm and happy. She doesn't say anything right away. Instead she grabs another two bottles out and hands them to Uncle Bobby and Dean, setting one for herself just above her plate.
"I'm really proud'a you, Sam," is what comes out of her mouth when she finally speaks.
"Thanks," he says after a quiet moment, forcing himself to stop opening and closing his mouth like a goldfish.
"But if I hear about you drinkin' more than an occasional beer before you're twenty-one, I ain't afraid to drive up here and give you a piece'a my mind," she finishes with a stern look that's softened by the way her lips twitch up.
"Yes, ma'am," he chuckles, twisting the cap off of his beer and taking a small sip. It's cold and bitter and not the best tasting thing he's ever had to drink. But he takes another sip anyways.
"Why didn't I get one?"
Jo crosses her arms over her chest, pouting. She glares when Sam snickers behind his bottle.
"You're only seventeen, dear," Ellen says, patting her daughter's arm.
"But Mom, Sam – "
"Sam is starting college in a couple days. When you start college next year, you'll get one."
Jo huffs, rolling her eyes, but she nods. "Fine."
"Shut up," she says when Sam sticks his tongue out at her. But she laughs a little and scoops up some fried rice.
Sam starts eating too and soon the room is filled with the soft sound of chewing and plastic against paper.
All too soon, they've all eaten. Sam is pleasantly full and Dean's satisfied groan beside him indicates his brother is as well. His Mom grabs each now-empty plate despite his protests, "Let me mother you this one last time, hon."
"You'll see the boy in a couple months, Ellen," Bobby exasperates, but he smiles at her with fond indulgence.
Cleaning is fast and easy with only paper plates and plastic forks to worry about. His Mom throws them all into the empty plastic bags the food came in and Dean nods towards Jo, bumping Sam's shoulder when she starts grabbing the cartons that still have some food in them. He gets up and grabs some, too, following her into the kitchen to put the leftovers away in the refrigerator.
"You know you can call me anytime."
Jo speaks so quietly that Sam almost doesn't hear her. When he turns away from the open refrigerator she's looking down at the countertop, fingers fidgeting with the top to one of the containers. Standing up straight, he lets the door shut closed behind him and takes a short step to stand next to her, nudging her with his elbow.
She looks up at him with wet eyes and the sight causes his to mist up as well. It hit him days ago, when they were first brought his bed into his new bedroom, that he was going to be without her for the first time in four years. She'd had nights away from home, staying with friends from school when Mom let her. But this isn't just a night apart. He won't see her again until Thanksgiving break, and then it'll only be for a couple of days. It's going to be hard to know that she isn't just a bedroom away if he needs her. But her words now ease some tension he hadn't realized was curling in his gut.
"I know. You didn't think I'd run away to college and forget all about my little sister, did you?"
"Yeah right. I'm impossible to forget."
"Damn straight," he chuckles, wrapping his arms tight around her. "Love you, Jo."
"I love you, too. And I’m gonna miss you. Won't miss your stupid pranks, though." She smacks his arm and he pulls back, rubbing the spot exaggeratedly.
"Pfft, my pranks are hilarious," he grumbles.
They put the rest of the leftovers into the fridge in silence. When they come out, Uncle Bobby is checking the supplies in the closet for the fourth time, listing things to Dean who keeps nodding. The bag of trash is hanging from his Mom's arm, swinging loosely.
"All right, you boys are all set," Bobby says with a firm nod.
That seems to be the cue for them to leave and Sam nods. "We'll walk you guys out."
The five of them take the elevator down to the first level. Their silence feels heavy to Sam, weighed down with the unease of being on his own again. The past four years with the Harvelles have flown by too quickly and he almost wants to cling to them and go back home. But this is his chance to make his own life, despite what John Winchester tried to do to him. The saying goes that the best revenge is living well. And this is Sam's first step to doing just that.
He sniffs when they make it outside, pausing by Uncle Bobby's Ford truck. Jo steps up first, collides so hard with Sam's chest that he staggers back. Dean's hand between his shoulder blades helps steady him and he hugs her back, buries his face in his sister's hair and breathes her in for just a moment. Jo pulls away hesitantly, wiping quickly at her eyes, and moves to Dean while their Mom takes a step closer. She reaches up to pet Sam's hair a little, tries pushing his bangs out of his eyes but they stubbornly fall right back down. They share a laugh and Sam opens his arms. It's hard to keep calm, but he doesn't want to cry. He's done that enough in his life, when things were bad and only seemed to get worse. But now things are looking up and he isn't going to cry when he's got something to be happy about.
"Go to class and study, but don't forget to live a little okay?"
He nods and Dean comes up behind him again, arms empty of Jo now. "Don't worry, Ellen. I'll make sure the kid gets out once in a while."
She sniffles a little when she pulls back but she's smiling and Sam lets her go slowly.
Uncle Bobby fidgets with his cap, pausing when he seems to realize what he's doing and rolling his eyes at himself. His hand lands heavily on Sam's shoulder and he smiles. "Be safe, squirt."
"Yes, sir," Sam says with a nod, voice rough.
"Good. See you in a couple months. Keep your idjit brother out of trouble and call me once in a while."
Dean scoffs, mumbling, "Keep yourself out of trouble," behind them.
"I can do that."
The man nods and squeezes Sam's shoulder before turning and getting into the driver's seat. Sam and Dean take a couple of steps back while Jo gets in on the other side, followed by his Mom.
He never fooled himself into believing he could have this. Not even before he'd been adopted into the Harvelle's family. Back when he'd been a Winchester, even at ten he'd known there was no getting out of what he did. He still planned to try at the time, but then John had sold him and he'd gotten away only to wind up alone for four years without school and without a family.
But here he is. At University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In his own apartment. And with his big brother. Somehow, against all odds, Sam has found something he's always wanted. A family that's supported him, even though they aren't blood. He worked through years missed at school well enough to earn a scholarship that paid for his classes and books. And Dean is back in his life, willing to find a job somewhere in town and only take hunts close enough to their place that he can be done in a couple of days.
Sam had never fooled himself into believing he could have this, but he does. And even with the possibility of another run-in with Belial looming somewhere in the future, Sam is happy.
Sam smiles, a little wistful and a lot content, and waves goodbye to his family. Dean puts a solid arm against his back. His hand is warm and steadying at the nape of his neck and Sam leans a little further into his brother's side. Uncle Bobby honks the truck's horn and then they're driving off, leaving Sam and Dean alone.
"You okay, Sammy?"
He nods, turning to look at Dean. They're eye-level now, and Sam thinks he's still got some growing to do. Not much longer before he ends up taller than his older brother.
Dean grins, eyes crinkling at the corners. He lets go of Sam's neck to drape his arm the rest of the way across Sam's shoulders.
Neither of them moves to go back up to the apartment until long after the truck's headlights have disappeared into the distance.