Traveling with Ben is an experience. Alone with Sam, he's the perfect little Winchester child. He's bright, curious, and attentive. He takes orders without question and never complains that he's tired or bored. He reads Latin on the road and watches the hotel-room TVs like there's a code there that he's trying to decipher.
Sometimes in the truck, Sam will nudge Ben into telling him stories, bits and pieces of Ben's life. Sam's not sure what's made up and what's real. There's a story about Ben and all of his brothers and sisters hunting a rabbit, running through the woods. "And then it tried to shoot us," the boy says, "But it missed and we caught it." Ben's so serious that Sam can't laugh at him, and it makes him wonder.
Sam thinks the story about Jack getting the shakes and being taken away is real. Ben's too upset that the Blue Lady didn't save him for it to be fictional.
Sam asks once, why Ben ran away. He seems like such a good little soldier that disobedience of that scale couldn't have come easily to him.
Ben's quiet for so long that Sam thinks it may have been a bad idea to bring it up.
"Max got the shakes," the boy whispers at last. "When the men came for her, Zack wouldn't let them. We didn't know where to go but we had to leave the bad place. In the woods, Zack said to scatter and run. We didn't want to, but it was an order." His voice becomes grimmer than a child's should be. Sam wants to pull off the road so he can concentrate only on Ben, but he's afraid the boy will stop talking altogether if he does.
"The soldiers in the woods tried to stop us. They had superior numbers. I eliminated as many as I could but I think they still took down Zack as he brought up the rear."
Ben says "soldiers" like he doesn't understand that they were people -- fathers, brothers, sons. Sam feels like the responsible thing to do is to talk to him about it. His fingers itch for the cell-phone, to call Pastor Jim maybe, or dad. He needs someone to tell him how to explain this to a nine-year-old, but he's on his own here. To Sam, the value of a human life is so ingrained that he almost can’t define it with words to someone who doesn’t seem to feel it.
The lights of the next exit glow off of the low-hanging clouds up ahead and Ben shifts in his seat, the closest he ever comes to saying he's hungry.
"Dinnertime?" Sam asks, and pretends he’s not relieved to change the subject, to go back to the regularly-scheduled "how to pass for normal" lesson that he’d planned. This week’s goal is get Ben used to expressing a preference of any type. "So what looks good?"
In the truck-stop that Ben chooses it’s like every other diner and burger-joint they’ve been in. Ben puts on a bright front and chatters with the waitress. Sam’s started letting him spin the stories. Their last names and their destinations change every time, but Sam’s always his uncle, Dean’s always his dad.
Ben can fake normal for about as long as it takes to eat a meal and get back in the truck. Any longer and he starts to look brittle around the edges; his smiles grow more fake, his voice flatter.
Normal kids confuse the hell out of him; it's like they’re so alien he’s not even sure where to start to connect with them.
Anyone talking to Sam for too long makes Ben anxious, especially if they're clingy women who were just almost murdered by some scary creature.
When they’re on a job, he’s all business. He wants to kill the Nomlie as quick as they can and move on to the next. He has neither interest nor compassion for the people Sam's trying to protect, beyond the fact that Sam cares.
In September, they work a haunting on the second floor of a tiny old house in Hines, Oregon, and Sam discovers that ghost-hunting with Ben is bad. Up until that point, everything they’d gone after together had been some sort of physical creature—a gator-man down in Louisiana, zombie Elvises in Vegas, a pair of Jersey Devils. Pound for pound, he'd bet on Ben against anything with a body. The kid was quick, alert, a trained fighter and tougher than someone his age had a right to be.
He doesn't move as the knife-wielding deceased psychopath appears behind him. It's not even on his radar; it must not cause a vibration through the floor or displace air or however it is that Ben always seems to know where the bad thing is going to hit from.
Sam shouts his name and the ghost grabs him. Ben startles when the spectral hands touch him, but it's too late. The shadow of old man McCabe lifts Ben's struggling form over his head and throws him over the rail and down the stair-well.
The instant that Ben's out of the line of fire, Sam shoots the ghost in the chest. It growls and scatters to nothing, and Ben calls "I'm good!" from down below.
They've only got a few seconds before it comes back for more, so Sam hurries, stuffing the trophies that are keeping the spirit tied to this world into the fireplace and dousing them with lighter fluid and salt. Ben rushes back to his side as he's tossing in a match. This time the boy keeps his back to the wall and his shotgun at the ready. His eyes are huge, but Sam's not getting fear-vibes from him; it's more like he's trying to see in a spectrum of light not visible to his eyes.
The flame takes just as the ghost comes back and it dissolves before it can get to them. There's a few seconds of peace, and then the EMF meter in Sam's pocket makes a noise harsh enough that both of them flinch. At the same time, the television screen in the room across the hall lights up like a flare and then every light in the place goes out.
And then nothing. Dust motes dance in the late afternoon sun filtering in through the lacy curtains. They wait. And wait. Ben looks up at Sam, and Sam shrugs. He fishes the EMF meter out of his pocket and the thing is melted to slag inside, warm to the touch and stinking of fried electrical components.
Not good, Sam thinks. He and Ben cover each others' back until they're in full daylight again. On the street, everything's eerily quiet. People are standing around the small town's street, talking to each other in nervous, loud voices. Cars are stalled out everywhere, like they died where they were. There's a narrow plume of black smoke on the horizon.
Sam's stomach does a slow roll. Where did a simple salt-and-burn go so wrong? What had they done to cause this?
"Truck. Now." He tries to make it look casual as he follows Ben, but nobody seems to notice them or care. He stops at the case in the back for just long enough to change the gun with salt rounds for ordinance with more stopping power.
He slots the key into the ignition. "Come on, Betty," he whispers.
Ben watches him with wide eyes, picking up on Sam's stress. "Is it Nomlies?" he asks.
Sam turns the key and the Sierra rumbles to life. "I don't know," he says, because he hasn't lied to Ben yet.
People notice the sound of the engine in all of that quiet. A man runs up as Sam's backing out of the driveway and bangs on the passenger-side window.
"Hey!" The man yells as he steps up onto the truck's running board, one hand on the side-view mirror. "Hey! Take me with you!"
The shot-gun Ben levels at his face seems to make the guy reconsider. Sam's GLOCK convinces him he'd be much happier staying there.
Driving's a challenge; cars are broken down on the curbs and half in the driving lanes. People wander the streets looking lost and confused. Sam turns the knob on the radio but it's dead; there's not even static. The police band is just as silent.
"Sam, why does our truck work?" Ben asks, and Sam's been wondering that himself. Whatever's happened, it's huge. If it's something evil, the wards and charms on the vehicle shouldn't have been powerful enough to stop it.
Which leaves either an act of God or it's a non-supernatural phenomenon. The only thing man-made that Sam can think of that'd do this sort of damage is....Shit.
He digs the EMF meter out of his pocket again and passes it to Ben, who turns it over in his small hands and looks back up at Sam. "Electro-magnetic pulse?"
Sam feels a flush of pride, even if this wasn’t something he taught Ben. He wonders if this is how dad felt when Sam soaked up Latin or Dean ran his first pool-table.
"Nuclear?" It's a good follow-up question.
Sam shrugs. "I don't think so." He turns into the Rite Aid parking lot. People are staring. There's no other vehicle moving around. Even with the Sierra being so old and turned off when the pulse hit, they got lucky that nothing important was too damaged for it to run.
Most of the civilians look confused, and Sam takes that as a good thing, but he knows it won't last. He mentally takes the chaos in New Orleans after the hurricane and multiplies it by the entire west coast. Add in plane crashes, infrastructure damage, logistical breakdown...he gives it twelve hours before looting begins, twenty-four before there's rioting in the big cities.
There aren't many places he can think of to ride the storm out. None of those are exactly close. And they'll need supplies to get there.
He gives Ben the handgun. Hopefully they're early enough to pull this off without a hitch.
"Guard the truck," he tells the boy. "Don't shoot anybody you don't have to." He squeezes Ben's shoulder. "Most important, guard yourself. Primary mission objective. Do you understand?"
Ben nods once. "Yes, Sam."
In the darkness of the drug-store, Sam calculates that he has no more than fifteen minutes before some idiot thinks Ben won't shoot and gets himself killed. He makes it in and out of the store in a little over ten. One cart's pushed in front of him and one dragged behind. He's got water, some canned foods, first-aid supplies, four hand-baskets full of script meds and a few important vitamins.
Ben's standing over some accountant-looking guy when Sam hits daylight again. He's got the guy's wrist locked with one hand and his knee pressed against the man's elbow. The gun in his other hand is keeping the rest of the crowd at bay. The man is cursing and begging by turns, but Ben doesn't seem to care what he has to say.
"You good?" Sam calls as he starts unloading carts into the truck.
Sometimes Ben's cool efficiency is a frightening thing.
They get out of town without killing anybody, and for today, Sam counts that as a win. They’re two hours away, Ben sleeping in the passenger seat, using the storage compartment between them for a pillow when Sam wonders at his own reactions to all this. A year ago, he’d have stayed in Hines, helped them organize; defended them if things got bad.
It hadn’t even occurred to him to expose Ben to that, to force him to deal with civilians for that long. He rests a hand on the sleeping boy’s shoulder. They’d have known Ben was different within a week. Sam knows better than most what frightened people are capable of doing to those that are different.
The trip to South Dakota should only have been two or three days easy driving, but it stretches out for weeks. With the roads so dark, Sam doesn’t risk driving at night. They’d attract too much attention with the headlights and if something happened to stop them, it’d be hard to get away.
When dusk comes each night, they find a place to pull off and hide the truck. Sam grabs a few hours of rest in a sleeping bag on the ground while Ben keeps watch.
They siphon gas out of broken-down cars and break into the underground tanks at gas stations. It works, but it takes so much time.
Two days into the trip, Sam picks the lock of a rest stop supply closet and steals fourteen industrial-sized rolls of toilet paper.
Sam doesn’t trust a large group of people to not be stupid, so they skirt around the bigger towns, taking the back-roads instead of the interstate. It costs them a day’s driving once, when they hit a town that’s closed itself off and put a fence across the road through.
Even avoiding the cities, there are still scattered groups of refugees, people with nothing to lose trying to get east to someplace safe. They push shopping carts or ride bikes. Occasionally there’s another vehicle, but not many. The National Guard has put up barricades on the major highways and some of the minor ones; tent cities spring up in those places, and there’s no benefit to getting trapped there. Winchesters carry good maps, and Sam manages to navigate around the roadblocks.
Once, they see cargo planes dropping parachuted crates on a city. So it’s not the end of the world, Sam thinks. Good to know.
A few times Sam stops the truck in a friendly-looking town and leaves Ben hidden and guarding while he tries to find out what’s happened. He hears rumors of terrorists, failed bomb-testing and a nuclear reactor explosion, but nothing with any proof behind it.
About a mile from Bobby’s place they pull off and hide the truck. Sam figures it’ll be safer to take the last little bit on foot.
The gate’s in sight when the crack of a rifle firing rings out and a warning shot pings through the branches overhead. Sam ducks and dodges behind a tree.
"Bobby?" He calls out. "Bobby! It’s Sam Winchester!"
Sam experiences exactly two seconds of relief before he realizes that Ben isn’t beside him, and in this situation, not having Ben under control can be the worst kind of bad ever.
"Ben! Stop!" He shouts, because that’s worked before. "Regroup on me." He moves in the direction Bobby’s yell came from. To his relief, Ben materializes from the underbrush. He moves into formation just behind Sam’s left side, watching his back.
"Bobby’s a friend," Sam says, just to be sure that Ben understands. "He’s one of us."
"Yes, Sam," Ben replies as they stand at the foot of the deer blind.
"Sam," says Bobby as he climbs down. Sam remembers the days when he would have dropped those last six feet. "I didn’t expect you to come all the way out here." And yeah, Sam probably wouldn’t have expected it of himself either.
Sam grins as he takes the handshake that Bobby offers and the hug it becomes.
"I wasn’t traveling alone," he says and steps aside.
Bobby’s eyes widen in recognition and he leans in to peer closer at Ben’s face. "Good Lord, if he ain’t the spittin’ image of—" and Sam doesn’t want to hear the name.
"Bobby Singer, Benjamin Winchester."
Bobby holds out his hand and Ben shakes it, looking as official as a nine year old can. Bobby frowns at the shake and reaches out to put a big scarred hand on the boy’s forehead.
"Sam, this child’s burning’ up."
Ben doesn’t flinch at the touch. Apparently the words "he’s a friend" have more weight than Sam would have thought.
"He just runs a little warm," he says, but by the doubting look he gets he knows there will have to be a talk sooner or later.
The front gate is welded shut, so they bring the truck in the back way. The pulse did less damage this far east, but it’s still a little crazy. The local towns are closed to strangers and Bobby decided to winter alone rather than be at the mercy of small town politics. He’d been out trying to bag one last deer before going to MREs for the season.
They watch Ben getting to know the dogs—Sam to make sure he doesn’t feel threatened and hurt them, and he guesses Bobby watches to make sure they don’t hurt Ben.
"Bobby," Sam says as Ben’s being nuzzled around by a mastiff twice his weight. "We would like to stay here for the winter if you can afford to have us. If not, we’ve got some supplies we’d like to trade before we go."
Bobby scoffs like he’s insulted. "You know you’ve got a place here, Sam. Him too. Besides, there’s safety in numbers if you trust the numbers. It’s not like you don’t have any skills to bring to the table."
Ben accepts a slobbery lick from the salvage-yard pack’s alpha bitch with a stoic grimace.
"’sides, the dogs like him."
Preparing for winter is hard, but somehow it’s one of the simplest times of Sam’s life. Bobby has a cot for Sam to sleep on and they pull the bench seat out of an old Dodge for Ben.
They hunt deer with bows and squirrels with slingshots and save the real ammo in case there’s two-legged trouble later. The generator runs the freezer and they do without electricity for anything else to make the gas last. They move their beds into the room with the fire and close off the rest of the house. Bobby cuts down and sections a few trees and Sam splits wood until he has calluses on his calluses.
Ben’s days are just as long and almost as hard as the men’s. He’s not big enough to swing the ax, but he stacks the logs up as Sam sections them. He takes care of feeding the dogs and learns to butcher meat and he never ever complains.
He’s wary of Bobby, but not confrontational. He does what he’s asked to and is polite about it too. He’s a little quieter around the older man but more himself and less pretending that he is with "normal" people. Sam feels it’s an improvement, but more than once he catches Bobby frowning. Not angry at the child, but puzzled.
"Is that boy alright?" He asks one day after Sam pulls an inch-long splinter from the palm of Ben’s hand and Ben doesn’t so much as flinch.
"He will be," Sam says.
That night, after he’s told Ben "lights out," he gets two of the last beers and goes with Bobby to sit on the porch.
"I don’t know if he really is Dean’s son," he confesses, and starting out big like that makes the rest easier to say. "I don’t really see how he could be."
Bobby frowns and sips at his beer, just letting Sam tell the story.
"When I found him, he was running from a place called Manticore. I think it’s some sort of genetics lab. I don’t know if it’s government or private, but Ben says they made him there."
The beginnings of a headache press against the inside of Sam’s forehead. It makes him feel so sick and helpless to think about Ben this way, but Bobby has to know who, what, he’s let into his home.
"They taught them things there that nine-year-olds shouldn’t know. I think he’s killed, Bobby. Killed people.
"I want him to be alright but some days I don’t know how to help him."
Bobby’s quiet for a long time, then he sighs like an old man. "Well, hell."
There’s silence on the porch for a bit more. Sam doesn’t offer to leave again; Bobby’s man enough to ask if that’s what he wants.
"They messed him up good, huh?" There’s no pause for an answer from Sam. "But he’s still just a boy. A child needs a home, Sam."
"Thanks," Sam says, and they sit and watch the stars for a while.
When Sam goes back inside, Ben’s still awake so Sam crouches down to check on him.
"I’m sorry, Sam," Ben whispers.
Sam sighs and brushes the hair back from Ben’s face. It’s getting long; they should cut it soon. "Ben," he begins, "The things you did at Manticore—I’m pretty sure there was some bad stuff in there. But you’re nine years old, and all you knew was what they taught you." He takes Ben’s hand and opens it with the palm against his own much larger one.
"Nobody blames the gun when someone is shot. They blame the shooter. They made you be a weapon and that’s not your fault."
Ben’s eyebrows bunch together and his lips do this strange little quiver. Sam knows he’ll just lose it if Ben cries on him.
"My brother killed a person to save me, once. I killed someone trying to save him." Before the pulse he never would have said what comes next.
"Sometimes there’s no other way." Ben’s watching him with an intensity that’s almost uncomfortable. "I hope it’s a decision neither of us ever has to make again, but if it comes up the only option we have is to try to do the best thing and forgive ourselves and each other no matter how it turns out. Okay?"
Ben nods. "Yes, Sam." And Sam hugs him for the first time.
"I’m not mad at you," he whispers against the boy’s dark hair, just so they’re perfectly clear. "And I won’t leave you."
"I won’t leave you either," Ben whispers back, and Sam has no idea why the words hurt so damn much.