The Impala pulled up into the small, dreary parking lot of the nearby minimart. It was a chilly day with surprisingly biting cold winds. Dean shifted into park and pulled the keys out from the wheel base. He pocketed them as he leaned across the passenger seat, coming quite close to Sam, and unlocked the door manually. He then stepped out of the car, flipped his collar, and huffed out an exaggerated reaction to the cold. He moved around the front to the passenger door and opened it.
Dean didn't look down or into the passenger seat. He just absentmindedly wrenched it wide open and stood in the space, holding his hand out and looking up at the market's plastered food sales. He squinted up at one.
"Hey. Mini-sausages are only 5 dollars a pack right now," he said, impressed.
Meanwhile, Sam was sitting in the passenger seat, looking at Dean's hand outstretched to him with a glazed look on his face.
Dean didn't move to peak under the roof to get a look at his brother. He just looked down at his own hand and, after a beat, shook it. Like a prompt. One more beat. Dean was surprisingly patient. Shake.
Dean felt his little brother's tentative grasp around his hand and he tightened his grip reassuringly. Sam stepped out of the car. He looked haggard; pale and lost… Skinny, short (if Dean could believe it), and… Small.
Still holding hands, they walked into the grocery store together. Dean couldn't have cared less.
The two of them walked down the aisles, Dean pushing the cart with one hand, holding Sam's hand with the other. It wasn't weird, either. When Dean had to pull the cart out in the beginning, Sam was fine to be let go for a second. As soon as the cart was settled and aimed down the right aisle, Sam was back at his side, and their hands came back together like magnets. Dean didn't think about who reached for who first; there didn't seem to be an answer.
The terrible oldies station aired and echoed through the store - it sounded like someone had pressed the PA button and pushed the mic up to the easy listening radio. The floors were clean, though, and there were a decent number of people around. It was five o'clock; people were getting off work (off school) and picking up a few snacks and groceries before they headed home.
Sam stayed close to his brother, but looked, for all intents and purposes, as though he was simply walking near him. It was actually quite difficult to notice that they were holding hands. Sam was very, very careful not to bump into others. He often made sure to have space to maneuver within the radius he'd established around Dean.
Dean took it in stride, too. He never called attention to it, never catered to it and never discouraged it. He was always calm and casual, relaxed. It didn't necessarily mean that this was how Dean actually felt, but how Dean felt was the least relevant thing Dean could think of to, well, think of.
When they had first started grocery shopping like this, Dean would knock into Sam sometimes, but he'd never complain about Sam's insistence to be so close to him. Instead, surprisingly, he'd gently press Sam's hand in apology. After a couple times, they had worked out a system where Dean would indicate where he was going to move by gesturing slightly with the hand he used to hold Sam's. Sam would feel and move accordingly, and they'd get their grocery shopping done seamlessly (if not a little longer; Sam was obviously not in the way to tag-team a grocery list).
Everything had been picked up – deli, cereal, a couple frozen pizzas, mac & cheese, those noodles shaped like letters (Sam loved those), among a few other odds and ends (Dean's giant bag of M&Ms). Dean had rolled the cart to wait in line – there were only two cashiers at the moment and about a dozen people waiting in line. Dean stared into the distance absentmindedly, tapping his foot and unconsciously tapping Sam's hand with his thumb to the beat of the oldies song. A woman in front of them had just reached for a newspaper and started to read it. The cashier was ringing through a man's groceries with the conveyor belt moving. The bell ding-ed at the door and a woman walked in with her toddler. Two people five feet behind Sam and Dean met each other.
"Sam! How are you?" The two men greeted each other. At the sound of Sam's name uttered by a stranger, Sam increased his pressure on Dean's hand a little bit. On autopilot, Dean squeezed back while looking over casually, then turning back to stare up at the massive New Years decorations that had been reduced after the holidays.
"Sam look up, look at that…" Dean commented, smiling wryly. "You think we should get some of that stuff? Throw some glitter at Dad when he gets home?" Dean laughed at his own joke, imagining their father's reaction.
The till rang out in front of them. A man in his late twenties came up behind them to stand in line as he talked matter-of-factly on a cell phone. An infant started crying somewhere off in the back of the store. The intercom music turned off for a second: someone must've lifted the telephone book off the mic's button. Sam bowed further into Dean. It was an imperceptible move; Dean stepped to angle himself more towards Sam.
Suddenly something shattered in the back and the infant started to cry loudly, shocked and alarmed by the sound. Dean saw Sam flinch.
Sam released his grip from Dean and backed up a couple of steps. Dean watched, then moved hesitantly towards his brother to bring him back in line.
"Sam c'mon," Dean whispered, reaching for Sam's hand. Sam flinched away, slapping Dean's hand.
"No, don't…" Sam whispered. He was staring at the floor, his hands in the air almost covering his ears.
"Sam… Sam!" Dean whispered to Sam, leaning towards him. Dean didn't move from behind his cart in line; didn't approach Sam. He saw Sam's hands start to shake.
"Sam-" Dean extended his hand out to Sam again gently.
"N-NO!" Sam suddenly yelled back, swatting Dean's hand away again and backing up in fear, smacking against the sunglasses display. The entire display crashed behind him and Sam jumped and turned around looking at it.
Dean watched, struck by the sudden onset of Sam's behavior, but quickly composed himself. Dean turned around and looked at the guy on the phone, watching Sam in surprise. Dean turned back to Sam, whose eyes were wide as he realized everyone in both lines were watching him. Sam backed up, trembling, his breath starting to come in gasps until he saw a dark figure coming towards him.
"S-stay away NO! No! Don't-! Please!" Sam fell over as the figure came up to him. All of a sudden, the figure disappeared from view again and Sam was left on the floor of the grocery store. Everything felt like it was spinning and Sam felt like he couldn't breathe. Like he was suffocating.
At Sam's pleading when he approached, Dean reconsidered his strategy as his heart started to tear apart. Seeing Sam in the haze of fear on the floor of a grocery store was alarming… Scary. But he had to take care of it.
"Sam hold on… Hold on Sam," Dean ordered to his shaking brother. Sam backed up slowly in shock and fear as Dean swiveled around and noticed every single concerned adult waiting in line at the grocers' looking straight at him. He ignored it and took the cart and wheeled it to the side of an aisle three feet away.
"Hey, dude, s'he okay?" The guy behind him asked Dean loudly, voicing the expressions worn on the crowd watching Sam's display. Dean walked past the guy, making a beeline to his brother.
"Yeah he's fine," Dean replied gruffly, in an undertone.
Sam was staring at something in the distance in horror, still on the floor. Dean reached Sam's line of sight again and Sam's expression turned into grotesque fear. Undeterred and faster than Sam's frantic backwards crab-crawl to get away from him, Dean gripped one arm under Sam's thighs and the other around his back.
"NO!" Sam screamed in severe panic, ringing the eardrums of every patron watching. He started to cry and scream nonverbal sounds, trying to wrench himself out of Dean's grasp. Dean held him tightly and within a split second of grasping him, he'd lifted him up and kicked open the grocery store door into the freezing weather outside.
"NO PLEASE I CAN'T-"
The door slammed shut by the force of the wind, but the patrons inside still heard Sam's screams coming from outside. Most of them kept watching through the glass windows. Quite a few of them had their hands on their hearts and mouths in surprise and anxiety.
"DON'T DO THIS STOP PLEASE!" Sam screamed directly into Dean's ear as Dean held him tight. He walked out into the parking lot and stopped right next to the Impala, not sure whether to put Sam into the car or not. It was freezing cold out, but he didn't want to jar Sam any more than he already had. He just knew he had to get Sam out and away from onlookers.
"Sammy, Sammy you're with me, Sam. Dean. I'm Dean," Dean tried whispering as he held him, rocking him.
"NO NO YOU I CAN'T DO IT I'M SORRY!"
Dean's eyes glanced over through the glass of the grocery store. So much for no onlookers. Dean gave them his best death glare from where he was standing, holding his 11 year old brother across him in the freezing January weather.
"I'LL BE GOOD I PROMISE I SWEAR IT!" Sam screamed and sobbed. Dean clutched him tighter, never getting used to how unnerving Sam's words were. Dean closed his eyes, pained to have to hear this.
"No, Sam. I'm sorry. Sam. Sam it's Dean. I'm the one holding you. You're safe, Sammy. You're safe with me," Dean kept repeating to his traumatized brother.
"Noo noo please," Sam cried, lowering the volume. Dean kept rocking him.
"It's Dean. Sam, it's me. We were at the grocery store. We're safe. You're safe. You're with me, okay?" Dean reassured, trying to get through to his sobbing brother, now hanging limp in his arms and trembling. After a few minutes, Dean set him on top of the Impala and simply held his waist. Slowly, Sam started to recover.
"Breathe, breathe for me. That's good. Good," Dean coached and Sam looked at him. For a second, Dean saw recognition, but suddenly his eyes glazed again, then lit up in anger.
In the blink of an eye, Sam shot out a perfect right hook at Dean. If Dean hadn't seen it in Sam's eyes, he would have only seen out of one eye for the rest of the week. As it was, Dean deftly angled out from it and snatched Sam's wrist out of the air.
"Okay! Time to go in the car!" Dean said out loud to himself somewhat humorously as he held Sam's wrist and used his keys to open the back door of the Impala. Before Sam could really make another move against his brother, Dean maneuvered Sam's wrist to around his neck and picked his brother up again. Just as anticipated, Sam started screaming again as Dean grabbed him.
"PLEASE STOP NO!" Sam yelled. Dean scooped him, one hand under his knees, the other holding his back.
"Sam… Sam stop struggling. Sam it's okay, it's okay," Dean kept saying as he inched into the back seat.
"Shh.. Shh Sam do you see where we are?" Dean prompted as he held his brother in the backseat. He framed Sam's face with his hand gently. "Look around, Sam, where are we?" Dean pressed. He watched his little brother go through what seemed like layers of reality in order to finally get to his answer.
"The… The… Im-" Sam staggered.
"The Impala, right, Sam." Dean looked into Sam's eyes, smiling genuinely. Sam finished looking around the Impala and stared right back up at Dean, eyes wide. "You back with me?" Dean asked, his hand pressing into Sam's chest, then other carding fingers through Sam's hair. Sam sniffed and gave a shaky nod. "Yeah?" Dean pushed Sam.
"Yeah Dean," Sam whispered. "Sorry," he finished, slowly lifting himself up out of Dean's lap and wiping his tears away. He faced away from his brother, now that he was sitting up and facing the window.
"What set you off?" Dean asked quietly. There was no judgment in his voice. Sam shrugged, ashamed, and wiped his nose with his sleeve.
"I don't know," he grumbled, feeling worthless. How is he supposed to stop flashbacks if he doesn't know what starts them?
"Do you need your inhaler?"
Sam shook his head, feeling worse. He thought about the flashback, the scene he must've made in the grocery store. What a pathetic piece of work he really was...
Dean watched Sam's body language in the back seat. It wasn't difficult to tell that Sam was feeling terrible – ashamed. Dean saw Sam's shoulders curl in even further than they normally do and shudder.
"Sam- hey… Sam…" Dean reached for one of Sam's shoulders as he moved closer until they were right next to each other. "Sam-" Dean didn't make an effort to look at Sam's face as he pulled his brother into him a little bit; Sam turned into the hug. "Don't be upset about this stuff, Sam. I'm not embarrassed, okay? So you shouldn't be. Relax," Dean reasoned out loud as he felt Sam working on controlling his breathing against his chest. Dean bit his lip in anticipation of the next question he asked. "What did you see?"
About ten minutes later, the patrons of the local minimart saw the two kids get out of the car and walk back across the blustering winds. The bell rang out, snapping them all back to their normal activities even though they had been watching the boys approach, holding hands. A few of them were able to steal a few looks at the little one – his eyes were red, and he looked tired. But he looked okay. The older one looked weary, downcast, as he moved to grab the cart and get back into line. The man with the cell phone that had been behind them was now almost about to get his groceries onto the conveyor belt, but offered for them to go ahead of him. The two of them gave him small smiles.
"Thanks, man," the older one said, and the man smiled sympathetically. The boys calmly stacked their small number of groceries onto the belt and the older one paid.
The cashier was an older women in her 60s that wore reading glasses halfway past her nose. She smiled at the two of them.
"You boys all right?" She asked with a maternal tone. Dean looked at her in surprise, then something akin to gratitude.
"Yeah we're good, thanks," he replied with a forced smile.
"Good," she replied, giving the small one a wink. The smaller one tried to reciprocate with a smile.
"Thanks," he murmured, as the groceries were bagged and handed to them.
Dean held the door open for Sam as they left, keeping a gently resting palm against Sam's back as they walked back to the car again.