Dean parked the Impala next to his father's truck in the motel parking lot. He almost sighed in relief. He'd like to think it was good to be home but he didn't think that "home" was a motel in the middle of bum-fuck Idaho. Home was, however, wherever his family was at the time. So he guessed bum-fuck Idaho would have to do.
After the last few years of contemplating dropping out all together, Dean had graduated high school. It hadn't been easy, his father started sending him out on his very own hunts when he was sixteen. Always the easiest sounding ones but still, it was like his own passage to manhood. Sometimes jobs were a little more complicated and he'd miss a week or two of school but they'd be in a different school a day or two after, so it didn't make much of a difference. In the end, he had the required credits but skipped the ceremony and celebrated by meeting up with Caleb for another job, a real one, more dangerous . . . though he hadn't told his father that. Dean may be eighteen and he may now own the Impala (since John FINALLY bought a shiny new truck) but John was still too damn protective. At least Dean hoped that was why his father didn't like him doing more risky hunts and not because Dean was incompetent.
At any rate, the hunt had taken a week less than he and Caleb had thought and rather than just hang out with Caleb for another week, he decided to head to Idaho to join his father and his brother, Sam.
Dean hadn't called ahead to let them know either. He knew that his father would probably approach the door warily with his gun at the ready but that was okay. He wanted to surprise his kid brother.
At fourteen, Sam didn't exactly have the hero-worship he once had for Dean. Though he could see every time he had to leave, Sam would be more sullen and moody than usual, and that was really saying something. Every time Dean came back, Sam would be cheerful and happy and he would always looked just a little relieved. Dean could understand that, Sam wanted Dean to come back alive and in one piece after all.
Dean smiled slightly, as he picked up the folded up hoodie next too him. It was dark grey and had UCLA printed across the front. Just something for Sam, reminding him that wherever Dean went, he'd still think of Sam.
It was just too girly to say out loud.
Dean got out of the car and he could already hear his father shouting from behind the paper-thin door of the motel room. Dean heaved a dramatic sigh. Dad and Sam were fighting again. He didn't know what fight they were having this time though. He usually pegged it on Sam moving to another school or having to miss some days because of a job they needed his help on. Fighting during the summer months was never a good sign.
Dean dragged his feet as he approached the door, wondering briefly if he could just go hit a local bar for a couple of hours and come back when things had calmed down a little. He hated having to act as buffer between his brother and his father. Especially since he knew he'd automatically side with Dad, he was Dad after all and that Sam would resent him for it.
As Dean hesitated at the threshold, he heard a loud crack from inside the room, followed by a muffled cry, Sam's cry, and then a thump of something hitting the floor.
Dean had the door kicked in before making the conscience decision to do so. Once the door was open all he could do was stare in utter confusion.
To the left, Sam was picking himself off the floor, on shaky legs, staring at Dean in shock, his nose was bleeding and his left eye was currently swelling. Across the room from him was John, beer in one hand and swaying slightly, he too was looking at his eldest son in bewilderment.
That look quickly morphed into a scowl, "What the hell do you think you're doing, Dean? Think we can afford to pay for that door?"
"What the fuck is going on here?" Dean asked instead, looking back and forth between his brother and his father.
"You watch your tone, son." John growled at him.
Dean always listened to his father, always followed orders. Right now though, Sam, his little brother, was bruised and bloody and that was all that mattered. If Dean didn't know any better, he'd say that John had hit Sam. That couldn't be it though, John had never raised a hand to him or Sam before, not once, no matter how angry he got. So this had to be something else, it just had to be.
Dean needed answers, he had to know the truth, so for the first time in longer than he could remember, he ignored his father.
"Sammy?" Dean said in a quieter, almost gentle voice. "What happened?"
Sam's eyes darted back and forth between his older brother and his father. He looked nervous, scared even, he began twisting his fingers together, shifting from one foot to the other.
"Sammy?" Dean prompted.
"I - it was my fault," Sam shrugged, looking down at the carpet, "I - I didn't clean the guns like I was told, I - I . . ."
Sam just trailed off, made a gesture with his hands and shrugged again.
A cold feeling settled in the pit of his stomach and Dean knew, John had hit Sam. More than once by the looks of it. By Sam's reaction, it wasn't the first time. So how long had it been going on?
Dean thought back over the last few months, of all the times he left, when Sam was sullen and withdrawn and wasn't there just a hint of fear on his face too? And the relief in his eyes when Dean came back, was it the same look he had when Dad dropped them off at a motel and took off?
The cold feeling gave way to white, hot fury. Father or not, no one hurt his brother, no one.
"Sammy," Dean said in a carefully controlled voice, his eyes on John, "get your stuff."
When he made no effort to move, Dean looked over and saw Sam staring at him in confusion.
"C'mon," Dean snapped. "Pack up, get goin'."
Sam started to gather up his belongings and Dean turned his attention back to John. His father looked at him with confusion and anger.
"What do you think you're doing now?" John hissed.
Dean didn't answer him right away, instead he waited until Sam had all his stuff packed in his duffel bag and backpack. Neither Sam nor Dean ever had very much stuff, made for fast and efficient travel. It didn't take long before Sam was standing in the middle of the room, duffel in hand, backpack on his shoulder, still looking confused and lost.
"Go get in the car, Sammy." Dean instructed him, "I'll be out in a minute."
Sam hesitated, looked between him and John again, "Dean . . . ?"
"Get in the car," Dean said slowly, and with one last look at his father, Sam left the room.
Once Sam was out the door, Dean said, "I'm taking Sammy away for a while."
John sneered at Dean, "You can't-"
"I'll call in a day or two," Dean interrupted his father for maybe the first time in his life. "Give you some time to sober up."
Dean turned his back on his father and went out to the Impala.
Sam was standing by the passenger side door.
"I told you to get in the car," Dean said exasperated.
Without a word, Sam opened the door, tossed his bags in the back and got in. John was standing in the doorway of the motel room. Dean slid into the driver's seat.
"Dean?" His father called, "Dean! Get back in here."
Dean started the car.
"Get back in here," John barked. "That's an order."
In all certainty for the first time in his life, Dean disobeyed a direct order and pulled out of the parking lot.
"Dean, where are we going?" Sam asked once he saw the lights of the upcoming town.
Dean shrugged, "Dunno, somewhere away from Dad for a while."
Sam was quiet for a minute, then, "You don't have to, Dean. I told you, it was my fault-"
"No," Dean cut Sam off sharply. "It wasn't, Sammy."
"But, Dad . . ." Sam sounded confused, "he said . . . you disobeyed an order, you-"
"Are you hungry?" Dean spoke over his brother.
Dean knew what he'd done. He knew that he'd probably be in deep shit for it later. It didn't matter, his dad had hit his baby brother, if he hadn't been Dad, Dean would have beat the crap out of him then and there.
Dean saw Sam shrug in answer to his question.
"Well, I'm starving." Dean stated simply.
Sam smiled slightly, "You're always starving."
Dean grinned, "How 'bout some Micky D's?"
Sam brighten a little. They didn't usually go to fast food chains, their father constantly picking local diners and cafes since those had the most information about the area they were in.
Dean went through the drive-thru and parked in the parking lot to eat. He watched as Sam wolfed down his food.
"Whoah, easy there tiger," Dean admonished. "It's called fast food but it's not goin' anywhere, slow down a little."
"Sorry," Sam mumbled around a mouth full of fries. "We didn't have dinner."
"Must've missed lunch and breakfast too, the way you're eating," Dean said.
It was supposed to be a joke but the fleeting look that Sam gave him before his eyes dropped to his lap spoke volumes.
"Sammy," Dean spoke slowly, stomach beginning to sink. "Did you eat today?"
Sam's eyes darted up to Dean before dropping again and he shook his head.
"When's the last time you ate?" Dean asked, dreading the answer.
Sam just shrugged and Dean reached out and tilted Sam's head up, making his little brother look him in the eye.
"Tell me," he said gently.
Sam bit his lip, "Couple days ago . . . I guess."
Sitting back, Dean swore softly and ran his hand over his face. Father or not, he really ought to go back and at the very least punch John in the face. He might not be able to block it if he was drunk enough.
"Don't be mad," Sam's whisper broke the silence in the car.
Dean looked down at his baby brother who was looking back fearfully with tears standing in his eyes, the bruise around his eye standing out against his pale skin.
"I'm not mad," Dean hastened to assure him and it was only a half-lie, he wasn't angry with Sam at least, then he started the car, he needed to put as much distance between himself and John Winchester as possible.
Once he roused his brother, Dean herded him into the room and called dibs on the bathroom. Sam used it afterwards, taking his duffel with him to change, which wasn't too unusual. Sam was at that age where he felt awkward changing in front of other people, even his own brother. Dean plopped down on the bed closest to the door and flipped on the television, he was going to have to do some serious thinking in the next couple of days but right now, he was too tired.
When Sam came out he was wearing flannel pajamas. Dean cocked an eyebrow at him.
"Sammy, it's a little warm for those don'cha think?" He asked as Sam dropped his bag by his own bed and crawled onto it.
Sam just shrugged, Dean was getting a little tired of that gesture. As he watched Sam tug at the too short sleeves on the nightshirt, Dean saw the edge of a livid bruise near his wrist. Then Dean understood why Sam had chosen those particular pajamas.
They had all gone on a hunt a week before Dean graduated. It had been short and fairly simple but they'd all got a little banged up by a poltergeist. Dean knew for a fact that Dad hadn't taken Sam on another hunt while he was gone. Any bruises Sam would've had, had to have faded to at least a yellow-green color by now. Even if they hadn't, Dean always had a mental catalogue of Sam's injuries, past and present. He was the one that always took care of them after all. Dean knew that Sam didn't have that bruise on his arm before.
He scooted to the edge of his bed, facing Sam, "Sammy, come here."
Sam gave him a confused look, "Dude, I'm right here."
"Just come here, stand in front of me," Dean clarified.
"Why?" Sam asked suspiciously.
"Just do it," Dean said calmly.
With a sigh, Sam did as he was asked, looking down at Dean questioningly.
"Take off your shirt," Dean stated.
Immediately, Sam wrapped his arms around himself, "What? Why?"
"Just take it off," Dean told him, he already had an idea of what he'd see but he was really hoping it wasn't too bad.
"No," Sam shook his head. "No way . . . perv."
"Sammy," Dean said softly, looking his brother in the eye, silently communicating with him that Sam needed to do this, he need to show Dean what had happened.
Sam looked away from Dean for a few seconds, focusing on the flickering images on the television. Finally, he grabbed the hem of his shirt and pulled it off.
Dean was pretty proud that he didn't gasp. He covered his shock well, even if he had to rub both hands over his face this time and then keep them over his mouth. Sam chest and arms were littered with fresh bruises, very dark too, whatever had left them had hit Sam hard. Dean reach out and coaxed Sam to turn around and saw the same bruising on Sam's back, though the bruises there were slightly larger.
Brushing his fingers along a patch of bruised skin, Dean breathed out, "Jesus, Sammy."
His brother pulled away and sat back on his bed, refusing to look at him.
"How long?" Dean asked.
He saw Sam's shoulders tense up, knowing what Dean was asking. Then just as suddenly, they sagged again, as though Sam just decided that he might as well give into the inevitable.
With another sigh, Sam said, "Since you started going on your own jobs."
"Fuck," Dean spat.
For two years his father had been beating Sam. Not just slapping the kid around, not just smacking him now and then but actually beating him. Dean never wanted to hurt some one so much in his life.
"Don't be mad," Sam whispered, staring at him imploringly like he had in the car.
"Sammy," Dean tried to sooth, "I'm not mad at you."
Sam shook his head, "Don't be mad at Dad."
Dean gave him a confused look, "Sammy, what Dad did-"
"It was my fault," Sam interrupted him.
Dean closed his eyes briefly, "No, Sammy."
"It was," Sam insisted, "you know I'm not like you. I'm not as good as you and I'm always screwing up and not following Dad's orders. You know that, Dean. He's just been . . . trying to teach me . . . trying to get me to learn to be a better hunter, like you."
"Sammy, that's bullshit and you know it," Dean fixed him with a stern gaze.
It wasn't like Sam to defend their father like he was now. He never thought that Dad was doing the right thing. Sam loved Dad, sure he did but he'd never defend him, not over something like this.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Dean asked, "I would've done something. Why didn't you just come and tell me what was happening."
Sam looked down, his lower lip trembled.
Dean slid off his bed and kneeled in front of Sam. He brushed Sam's hair out of his eyes and cupped his cheek.
"Sammy . . ." he said softly.
A tear slid down Sam's cheek, "I didn't want you to have to choose." He said in a small voice.
"What do you mean?" Dean asked, letting his hand drop to Sam's knee.
Sniffling, Sam explained, "I know you Dean, I know you'd feel like you had to choose sides." His breath started hitching but he pushed on, "This time, you'd have to choose between me and Dad. If you chose me, you'd lose Dad. I knew I couldn't make you do that, I couldn't be responsible for that. You'd lose Dad and then you'd hate me for it. If you chose Dad then . . . then . . ."
Sam just shrugged, tears now pouring freely down his face.
Dean grabbed Sam, as gently as he could to not hurt him further, and pulled him into his arms. Sam wrapped his arms around Dean's shoulders and began to cry in earnest. Dean pulled away enough to get Sam to look him straight in the eye so that he'd know that what Dean said next, he meant.
"Listen to me Sammy, and listen good." Dean began, "There is no question whatsoever, who I would choose. It will always, always be you. And I could never hate you. You are the most important person in my life, you always have been, you always will be. I promise you, I will never let anyone hurt you, ever again, do you understand me?"
Sam nodded and Dean pulled him back into his arms. If he shed a few tears himself, at least Sam wouldn't see him.
Every night though, while Sam slept, Dean kept going over things in his mind. He needed to make some decisions and he need to call John. He still wasn't sure what to do yet. His whole life had just been upended. Dean had grown up respecting, looking up to and generally worshiping his father. To Dean, John was a superhero and could do anything and he wanted to be just like him. Kind of like Sam had always looked up to Dean. Now though, it was like he didn't even know his father. He was suddenly this thing who had hurt his kid brother. Dean was having trouble reconciling the father he knew and portrait painted of him by Sam.
Eventually, the decision was actually very easy.
Sam always came first in Dean's life. He always had and always would. The only way to make sure that Sam would be okay and protected, was to take matters into his own hands.
In a diner just outside Tuscon, Dean called his father from a payphone where he could keep Sam in plain view.
His father picked up on the third ring, "Dad?"
"Dean? Where are you, son?" John sounded relieved and thankfully, sober.
"We're okay, Dad." Dean evaded the question, "I just need you to listen to me for a minute, okay? We're not coming back."
"Dean-" John started.
"Just listen," Dean cut him off. "Sammy told me, Dad. He told me everything, about how you started hitting him when I wasn't around. I saw the bruises but I would have known it was the truth anyway because it broke his heart to tell me. I can't let you hurt Sammy anymore, Dad, I just can't."
"Dean, listen -" John tried again.
"No," Dean shook his head, even though he was on the phone. "I've listened to you long enough. My whole life, I listened to you. You know how I've always followed orders, always done what you asked me to? Well, that's what I'm doing now. I'm looking after Sammy, just like you always told me to do.
"I'm not gonna tell you not to look for us, I know you probably will anyway. I know you'll probably find us too, you've always been a great tracker. I'm just gonna tell you, if and when you do find us, leave us alone. I'm gonna take care of Sammy, I'm gonna get him through school and teach him everything I know about hunting. We don't need you in our lives anymore. If Sammy wants to see you when he's old enough, then fine, but that's gonna be his decision."
John burst out, "Dean, you can't-"
"I already am," Dean interrupted him again. "One more thing, Dad. If you ever, ever try to take Sammy away from me . . ." He swallowed hard and pretended for an instant that he wasn't talking to his father, filling his voice will all the malice and venom he could muster, "I will destroy you."
Before his father could say anything else, Dean hung up and went to join his brother at the table he was at.
Sam looked up from the menu he'd been pursuing, "Everything okay?"
Dean gave him a worry free smirk, "Everything is perfect."
Sam rolled his eyes and muttered, "Musta gotten that counter girl's number then . . ."
It wasn't until two weeks into August, Dean decided they'd better settle down. Sam had to start school soon and they needed to find a place to stay.
They found a town just large enough that people kept to themselves. Dean was already familiar with enrolling Sam in school, having done it for John the last couple of years. Dean found a dinky sparsely furnished two bedroom apartment. The carpet was stained, the curtains smelled of mildew and the bathroom smelled like cigarettes but they had their own rooms for a change and it was theirs.
For the first few weeks, even after he started school, Sam kept most of his stuff in his bags, so used to having to leave at any time. After a while, he slowly started to spread his stuff around his room, marking it as "his".
Dean eventually had to face fact that he had to get a job. Going out-of-town once a month to do a bunch of hustling and running credit card scams when he lived in one place was not a good idea. He ended up busing tables at the local diner (which he found funny for some reason) and worked Friday and Saturday night at the local video store. So they got plenty of free food and movies rentals.
After school on weekdays, Sam went to the diner and did his homework and ate dinner and waited for Dean to get off work. Friday, Dean would drop him off at the apartment before heading to his second job and Sam would wait up for him because he usually brought home the new releases for the following week. They would both wake up late on Saturday and Sam would go to the library. Sam would work on school work and study lore and any other supernatural thing he could find in the library or online. Sunday was Dean's only day off and he would take that time to spar with Sam or practice shooting or teaching him how to handle different weapons that Sam hadn't learned to use yet.
After the first couple of months, Sam began to tentatively make friends. Not all the kids were keen to befriend the bookworm wearing secondhand clothes but he still managed to become included in a small group of kids.
Setting down roots after so many years of being on the road was toughest on Dean. He was so used to picking up and leaving every few weeks that he felt a little lost sometimes. Then he would look at Sam, see how much more relaxed he was. He smiled more often, he laughed more, Sam was happy. It was all the incentive Dean needed.
Dean was grateful for everything he'd learned from his father. He learned how to shoot, how to fix cars, how to hunt things people didn't believe in.
Of all the things he learned, what he took most seriously was the lessons on how not to be a father and how to take care of his little brother. They were the only lessons he planned on remembering for the rest of life.
He never meant to hurt Sammy. He'd sooner cut off his own arm than hurt his son. At least that's what he'd always thought.
Then every year he didn't find the thing that killed his Mary, he drank a little more. He mourned a little more. He got a little more angry. Then there was Sam who wasn't like Dean, who was contrary and always at odds with him. When Dean started leaving, when Dean wasn't there to help defuse things, suddenly John was lashing out at his youngest. He'd like to say he was like a man possessed but he knew better. In his business that was more than a saying.
John had hurt his boy and he deserved to lose him.
John had a lot of regrets and one was taking away Dean's entire childhood by making him the caretaker of Sammy. But watching them now, parked a good distance away from the local park where they were sparring together, he could see Sammy.
His Sammy that had become quiet and withdrawn and angry at the world, he didn't exist now. This Sammy was happy and smiled and seemed to be having a good time even as he was training.
Dean had done the right thing, John hadn't been fit to be their father for a long time now. Though he regretted that Dean had to take that responsibility, he was still proud of him. Proud, even though he really shouldn't be because God knew he hadn't raised him.
Nevertheless, Dean was a better man than him.
Maybe someday his boys would forgive him, even if he didn't deserve it.
John watched as Sammy and Dean crouched down low now, intending to race each other to the Impala. Both tensed, readied . . . then Sammy took off before his brother, Dean raced after him and caught him just as Sammy reached the car. Dean got him in a headlock and rubbed his knuckles against Sammy's head. Sammy pulled away and they pushed each other around for a while but they were both laughing.
John smiled knowing that as long as his boys had each other, they would be okay.