Oh God, that hurt.
Sam shut his eyes again, rather than let the pain continue. Not the brightest idea he'd ever had, by any means. He just hoped all this had worked, otherwise he was going to have to kill Bobby for messing up the spell. Still, he wasn't going to get anything solved by sitting there with his eyes squeezed shut.
He risked opening one eye, slowly, and was rewarded with a bit less pain than the first time he'd tried it. He opened the other just as slowly, and when they finally stopped watering from the pain, he tried looking around.
A motel room. Not exactly where they'd been aiming for, but hopefully it'd be close enough. They'd only get the one chance at this, after all. The spell wasn't safe to do twice.
He shook his head. He could almost hear Dean's voice, ordering him around as usual, C'mon, Sammy, get your ass in gear. We won't get anything done with you sitting around brooding all day. And he'd be right. Sam wouldn't get anything accomplished, lying here staring at the ceiling.
He rolled over, and started to sit up. And stopped, jaw gaping in disbelief at the sight of his brother looking so much younger than he'd planned for. Oh, fuck.
They hadn't missed their target by a few days or hours. They'd missed it by years.
He bolted for the bathroom. There was no way he could afford to have a full-fledged freak-out in front of Dean, who'd been asleep in the other bed. As it was, he barely managed to get the door shut and make for the toilet before he started vomiting. This was not good. This was, in fact, the antithesis of good.
He was just glad that Dean was a heavier sleeper as a teenager than he was as an adult. And that Dad had apparently chosen to get two adjoining rooms this time, rather than having all three of them together. Dad would have woken up halfway through his dash through the room and be up and following him into the bathroom a minute later. He did not want to deal with all of this with Dad glaring worriedly at him.
When he'd finished throwing up all of his stomach contents, plus a few superfluous organs, he flushed the toilet and climbed shakily to his feet. He needed to get the facts, find out what exactly had happened. Find out when he was, because they'd definitely messed up that portion of the spell by at least ten years. He was only supposed to go back a little over a year, just far enough back to stop Dean from agreeing to that stupid deal, from dying. Not end up reliving his teenage years. Gazing into the cracked mirror over the sink, he flinched. He hadn't looked like this since he was fourteen, before his big growth spurt when he'd shot up to be taller than Dean.
Shit. Shit shit shit. They'd definitely screwed this one up.
And he didn't have any real time to sit there and deal with this rationally, because Dean was knocking on the bathroom door. "Sam, get your ass in gear. Dad wanted us to head out early."
He splashed some water on his face quickly, and scrubbed at his eyes. "I'm almost done, Dean, I'll be out in a minute." He'd have to adapt to all this on the move. Great.
Well, at least he'd already been fourteen once before. It couldn't possibly be as hard doing it the second time through. Right?
Okay, maybe it was that hard. He'd forgotten how he used to eat when he was young. Dean kept shooting him suspicious looks through breakfast as he poked at his eggs. Stanford had been a great school, but the dining there was lousy. The third time he'd tried their cooked breakfast, he'd ended up sick for the rest of the day, and had stuck with the health food afterwards, since it at least wouldn't give him botulism. He'd never regained a taste for eggs in the future.
But now he'd found himself in the past, and his fourteen-year-old self had always loved fried eggs and pancakes. Sam hadn't managed to bring himself to eat them. He'd taken one bite and almost choked himself on it. Dad had been easily waved off with an "I'm not feeling that good this morning," but Dean hadn't been as ready to accept his explanation. It never had been easy to fool his brother.
They'd been on the road now for a few hours, and he'd finally managed to find his own journal and confirm the dates on when he was. He actually was fourteen, had been for a month and a half at this point. It was the first summer that he'd gone out on all the hunts with Dean and his father. Before then, he'd stayed in whatever motel room they'd grabbed for the night, worrying about whether the other two would come back intact.
Knowing when he was had good and bad points. On the one hand, at least now he wouldn't say or do something utterly stupid and anachronistic in front of his father and brother. On the other hand…. Sam knew what the next hunt was going to be. It was one of the few hunts from this long ago that he could remember every detail of. Because on this hunt, Dean was going to come very close to getting himself killed.
They were tracking down a series of deaths and maimings in a small town at the fringe of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in eastern California. In Sam's memories, Dad had led the research, and they'd eventually decided that it must be a particularly nasty angry spirit. They had only realized their mistake after it was too late, after Dean ended up with his back shredded and his neck almost broken by a demon-possessed mountain lion that they weren't prepared to fight at all.
That was what had happened originally. He wasn't about to let it happen again.
They'd hit the affected town tomorrow, and spend a day or two in research. He had to figure out some way to convince Dad to research possessions, before he decided that the signs pointed to a vengeful ghost. Once Dad made a decision, it would be too hard to sway his opinion. Sam at fourteen wasn't exactly all that good at research, and Dad wouldn't listen to him without more support than he could easily muster.
But Sam at twenty-four was good at research. Better than Dad had been, as a matter of fact. Stanford had forced him to learn a few tricks he'd never picked up hunting, had taught him how to tell good resources from bad at a glance, instead of after three hours worth of research. He'd find the discrepancies they'd missed initially, find them before they went up with the wrong equipment. He had to.
For a small town in the middle of nowhere, Piaton had a decent library. The town newspapers were stored on microfiche instead of being stuffed into a dusty basement room, and the mythology section included a good helping of local legends and Native American folklore in addition to the standard book or two on Greek myths. And one of them held exactly what he was hoping for, a segment on various possessing spirits in the local tribal stories.
He took a moment to glance around the room. The coast was clear, even the reference librarian who had been helping them earlier had left in search of cooler temperatures. The perfect time to ask John Winchester a couple of leading questions.
"Dad?" he asked, trying to get his father's attention. Since reading microfiche was his father's least favorite part of research, Sam figured he had a pretty good chance that his father would be willing to stop for a bit.
Sure enough, John paused the microfiche machine and turned to face him. "What is it, Sammy? Did you find something?"
He raised the book he was reading far enough that Dad could see the title. "I was just reading about possessing spirits, and I was wondering. Do demons ever possess anything other than people? Like local animals or objects, stuff like that?"
Dad frowned slightly, but it was the kind of frown that meant he was thinking something through before answering, not the kind of frown that meant he was about to tell him to stop asking questions and get back to work.
Dean had looked up as well, and he perked up at the sight. His older brother always did better listening to someone talk about whatever they were hunting than he did doing the reading. From the perspective of an additional ten years experience, Sam was pretty sure that said a lot about how Dean processed information. When he'd been fourteen, he'd just thought that Dean was being stubborn when it came to that kind of research.
When Dad did speak, his voice was low and measured, but his gaze held a measure of respect and appreciation for Sam's question. "Demons usually prefer human hosts, Sammy. They enjoy the pain and anguish their hosts feel when they watch the demon's actions. But a lower-level demon often has problems controlling a human host, and animals put up less of a fight. If the demon just wants to cause pain, an animal has strong natural weapons and can easily be driven to attack humans they'd normally ignore or avoid."
Dean popped in with the next question, just like Sam had hoped. "So what kinda signs do you look for to see if a hunt's going to involve wasting Fido the demon-puppy?"
Okay, maybe not exactly the phrasing Sam would have picked, but it worked. Dad actually laughed, which was always a good sign. "It'd probably show up as a string of random attacks, people with no connections to each other. The bodies would be ripped to shreds. If the demon can't possess a human, it's going to make up for it by inflicting as much damage as it can, and violent death will give it more energy than anything else. The attacks would probably be in one general area of town, but I'd assume they'd be more spread out than we'd normally get with a vengeful spirit."
That was probably as far as Sam could afford to push it with Dad. The idea had at least been planted, and Dad should hopefully start seeing the warning signs he'd just outlined in this spate of attacks. He ducked his head again and went back into research mode, keeping an eye out for any evidence that would help point Dad in the right direction.
Three hours later and he was ready to call it quits for the day. Judging by the way that Dean was fidgeting as he read through his stack of newspapers, his older brother had been ready to stop an hour ago. He never had been that great when it came to sitting still for long periods of time.
Sam sighed. He knew asking this was going to make Dean a bit more suspicious than he already was, but it was a good move for the long term.
"Dad," he said, to get his father's attention. When he looked up, Sam continued. "It's getting later, and I think it'll have cooled off outside. Shouldn't Dean and I do our training before it gets dark?"
Sure enough, Dean's jaw had dropped. Sam at fourteen hadn't exactly hated training, but he'd never been the one to suggest they do it, or remind Dad when he forgot about it. Dad nodded absently, his mind clearly still half in his research. "That's a good idea, Sammy. You two head over to the park we saw and get working. I'll be over in a while."
Dean shot him wary glances as they walked out of the library and started over the three blocks to the park. Finally he grabbed Sam's arm and forced him to stop. "What the heck's going on, Sam? You never want to train."
And here came phase two of his plan: show Dean that he didn't have to make all the sacrifices in their family. "You looked like you were going to go nuts buried under all that research. I thought training would give you a break. Do you want to go back there now?"
Idly, Sam wished that he'd actually done this more often the first time he'd been this age. Dean looked like he didn't know whether to be more surprised that his brother had done something for him, or pleased because of it.
After a few seconds Dean seemed to get a hold of himself again, and his face lost the vulnerability he'd been displaying. "'Bout time you wised up. Do you want to start off with the run?" he asked, as they hit the park entrance. He didn't wait for an answer, just headed off towards the jogging path he'd apparently spotted. Sam rolled his eyes before following. Some things never changed. Dean's aversion to any and all kinds of emotional honesty was one of them.
They'd run the requisite three miles and were midway through sparring practice when Dad came to find them. He didn't say anything more about the case they were working on, just stood back and offered suggestions to both of them.
Sam was still working on readjusting to his younger self's body size and comparative lack of reach. Too many times in their practice he'd tried for a grip or a hold that he didn't have the arm length to complete yet. And this time it was Dad shooting him the odd glances, between barking out corrections on both his and Dean's forms.
Finally Dad called a halt and sent Dean to go walk off the rest of his energy. Dean shot Sam a sympathetic glance, but headed off as ordered. It wasn't exactly hard for either one of them to read the warning signs for an impending lecture, and Sam knew he'd walked straight into this one.
Sure enough, the second Dean was out of immediate earshot, Dad turned to face him. And actually, given the lecture that Sam knew was coming, his father's face looked rather sympathetic.
Dad walked over to the nearby park bench, and gestured that Sam should take the seat next to him. This was never a good sign. Dad never beat around the bush when it came to telling you what you'd done right or wrong. To see him attempting to come up with a tactful way to broach a lecture felt wrong.
Well, when all else fails, pre-empt the lecture. "I screwed up there, didn't I?" he asked.
Dad laughed for a second, like he hadn't been expecting Sam to admit to it so easily. Pulling himself back together, he responded, "Yeah dude, you did. There's a reason I don't want you trying the blocks and grabs I'm teaching Dean yet, and you just proved it. You don't have the right reach for all of them to work out yet."
Then he turned slightly in his seat to face Sam a little more. It was still so strange to look up to see his father's face again. To look up to see anyone's face, for that matter, but the feeling was heightened with Dad. "But Sammy, I'm proud of you too. You have to have been practicing those moves on your own for a while, to do them as well as you did out there with Dean."
Sam was pretty sure his ears had turned pink. He'd forgotten how good it had felt to get praised by his dad for something. They'd spent so many years in conflict with each other in the original timeline. It felt odd to accept a compliment for something he hadn't actually done, but he couldn't exactly tell his father "no, sorry, I haven't actually done any extra training on my own, I just remember ten more years of it". It wouldn't exactly fly.
So he stuttered out something incomprehensible even to his own ears, and Dad clapped him on the back. "Just remember that there's a reason I haven't been teaching you those moves yet. I don't want to see you trying them on a hunt when they're more likely to backfire on you. Keep to the stuff that works for you now, instead of trying moves that you want to be able to pull off later on."
Standing up from where he'd been sitting on the bench, Dad spoke again. "I've parked the Impala at the front of the park. Why don't you go wait there while I find your brother?"
And saying that, he strode off in the direction Dean had headed.
It took two more days of research before it happened. Dad had stopped telling them to research local ghost stories by the end of the second day of research, and midway through the third day he stopped reading back issues of the newspaper in favor of a stack of demonology texts he'd kept stored in the trunk of the Impala.
That alone had been enough to make Sam want to cheer. When they'd finished their research and training on the third day, Dad was grinning down at the both of them. "You pinned it on the first day, Sammy. There's been a lot of cougar sightings over the past few months, more than makes sense for their reported population here. And one of the newspaper articles mentioned a sulfurous residue at the site of the last victim."
Dean broke in then. "So we're going to be wasting a demonic cat? All cats are evil, Dad, how are we going to tell we're done?"
Dad's smile shifted slightly from the one Sam had always mentally labeled "gonna-go-a-hunting" to the one Sam had eventually determined meant that his older son had simultaneously amused and annoyed him. Dean, who had always been better on picking up the nuances of Dad's expressions faster than he did, had already shifted gears into his own hunter mode, and quickly changed his tone. "Sorry, sir. But really, how are we going to make sure we've got the right one? And how the hell are we going to get it to hold still for an exorcism?"
Dad's grin switched back into gonna-go-a-hunting, and he replied, "Caleb's got a friend not that far away, and I've already given him a call. He's got a tranq-gun with a set of darts already filled with the right amount to knock out any cougar twice over. We just need to add in a shot of holy water and we'll have the cat and the demon out of commission long enough to get the job done."
Sam had to smile himself. The hunters' network spread across the country, and it came in very handy at times like this. Especially since none of them had any reason to hunt him in this time line. This job would be over soon, and with the right equipment this time, and Sam on the lookout for what had happened last time, Dean wouldn't get hurt. Things were working out just fine.
The next time he found himself thinking that things were working out just fine, he was going to have to punch himself. By this point, he should have known better.
The three of them had avoided the possessed mountain lion's initial attack unscathed, but both Dad and Dean had missed with their first round of tranquilizer darts. The cat was faster than any of them had expected, faster than Sam had remembered from the other timeline.
Dad had thrown a glass vial full of holy water at its feet when it had looked prepared to leap at one of them, and the drops that had splashed up from that seemed to be keeping it in line. Dean was scrambling to re-load his tranq-gun while the stalemate lasted, and Dad was keeping it at bay with more holy water bombs every time it looked to be making a move.
And Sam was frantically reading off the exorcism ritual, concentrating as much on keeping an eye out for Dean as he was on the familiar Latin rhythm. The demon was obviously aware of what it was that Sam was reading off, going on the growls and glances it kept making in his direction. It was a situation sure to kick his adrenaline into overdrive.
He only had one more paragraph to read through when the demon made his move and leapt straight for him. Dean's gun fired in the same moment; and as Sam stumbled back a few steps, the mountain lion collapsed in front of him.
He swallowed nervously, and rushed through the last paragraph as quickly as his tongue could wrap itself around the Latin syllables. Black smoke poured out of the big cat's mouth and nose, and billowed up in an angry cloud before draining away.
Sam sat down fast. He didn't think his knees were strong enough to stay standing. He'd done exorcisms in the original timeline, but not when the thing being possessed was something that was just as likely to inflict harm on him after the demon was gone. Between that and the final bit of worry about Dean slowly ebbing away, well, standing ceased to be an option. Sitting was good, he could do sitting for a bit longer.
"Sammy?" Dad called out.
He waved his arm vaguely. "I'm okay, Dad, it was just a bit…" he trailed off. He didn't exactly want to put everything he'd been feeling into words right now. He had a feeling it would end up coming out as a jumbled mess. It didn't exactly help that his fourteen-year-old body wasn't exactly able to deal with the adrenaline surge as well as his twenty-four year old one had.
Dad jerked his head at Dean, who had already started walking over, without waiting for orders. As Dean passed in front of Dad, Sam heard Dad say quietly, "Good work there, son," before walking with him the rest of the way over to where Sam was sitting.
And for the first time Sam was glad to have accidentally gone this far back in time. Dean uninjured, and grinning at the gruffly worded compliment from their father, was worth it.
When they reached him, Sam held out a hand and Dad pulled him up to a stand before clapping him on the shoulder. His eyes were crinkling from the smile on his face, and turning to look at Dean as well as Sam, he said, "I'm proud of both of you. You kept your heads and did good work out here today."
Then turning to look at the sky, he laughed. "Now let's get out of here before it gets too dark or someone comes to see what those gunshots were all about."
They were on the road within a few hours of getting off the mountain. Sam couldn't stop himself from grinning, and hoped the other two would excuse it as the aftermath of a successful hunt. He'd done it. He'd changed the past, improved Dean's life a bit.
But he had a lot more work to do, now that he knew he could change things for good. So many people they'd lost, so many things to set right. So many deaths he could prevent, Jessica, Pastor Jim and Caleb, the other special children…
He might have finished this particular job, but his larger task was just beginning.