“Sam. Sam, there are chickens. There are just—just chickens wandering around.”
Sam exhaled sharply as he closed the door to the Impala. “Yes. Yes, there are.” He ran a hand through his hair and looked around, feeling somewhat nervous.
It was definitely a farm of some kind, the suburban-looking house surrounded by open fields with goats and sheep. There was a barn, out of which chickens came to roam free, and between the barn and house was a little shop.
“Come on, Liam. We’re gonna go look inside.”
Liam hopped out of the car and immediately grabbed onto Sam’s hand, sticking close. “Is this the bookstore?”
“Yeah, it’s a bookstore for schoolbooks.” Sam started walking toward the building, noting some boxes of books on either side of the door marked ‘FREE.’ Definitely worth a look later. “We’re just gonna check it out, okay?”
Liam nodded dutifully.
Sam opened the door and ushered Liam in, following him and holding the door for Dean. He glanced around, unsure of where to start. There was a woman behind the counter, and she offered a friendly wave, but she was in the middle of helping another customer.
Still, everything was labeled pretty clearly, so…
“Um, let’s… start with math.” Sam put a hand on Liam’s back and gently nudged him in the appropriate direction.
Dean was right behind him, mumbling under his breath. “There’s, like, eight people in this tiny store. Why are there so many?”
Sam rolled his eyes, eyes skimming the spines of numerous math textbooks. “Lots of people homeschool, Dean. Besides, a lot of them are probably pairs or groups, like us.”
Dean leaned in close, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I think the lady at the counter is Amish. How did she even get here? I didn’t see any horses or—”
“Dean,” Sam scolded in a harsh whisper.
Dean didn’t say anything, but he was still glancing over his shoulder from time to time, looking uncomfortable. He almost seemed more weirded out by the homeschoolers than the chickens.
“Okay,” Sam mumbled, scanning the books again. “It looks like it’s all sorted by the, I don’t know, brand of curriculum? If that’s a thing.” He ran a finger down the spine of one of the books. “Saxon Math… that sounds vaguely familiar…”
All three of them jumped, which caused the young woman behind them to jump a little herself. She held up her hands, taking a half step back when Liam hid behind Sam’s legs.
“Sorry! Didn’t mean to scare you.” She laughed softly, and the smile lingered on her lips as she spoke. “I also didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but… you’re new at this homeschooling thing, aren’t you?”
Sam chuckled nervously and rubbed the back of his neck. “Wow. That obvious?”
She winced sympathetically. “Yeah, kinda.” She held out her hand. “My name’s Nicole.”
“Sam,” he replied, shaking her hand. “This is my brother, Dean, and my son, Liam.” It felt a little weird to say, even if they had discussed it beforehand, but Liam only drew closer.
“Well, it’s really nice to meet you.” Nicole offered an exceptionally bright smile when she looked at Liam. “Hey, there.”
Liam ducked behind Sam again, fully hiding his face.
“Sorry. He’s kinda shy.”
Nicole waved it off. “Psh. Don’t apologize for that.” She cleared her throat then, gesturing to the shelf behind them. “So, you were looking at math?”
Sam glanced at the books. “Uh, yeah. We’re not really sure… what to do.” And didn’t that make him sound entirely incompetent?
“Hey, nobody does when they first start.” Nicole shrugged it off, resting her hands on her hips. “One of the biggest things to remember is that homeschooling isn’t schooling at home. It’s a whole different kind of teaching.” She gestured with her hands as she spoke, moving in a way that said it was largely subconscious. “It took my mom a couple years to figure that out. Things got a lot easier once she did.” She turned to Liam then, crouching down with another friendly smile. “What grade are you in, Liam?”
Liam twisted his foot on the carpet. “I, um… I think I’m supposed to be in sixth grade, but…”
“Not quite sure?” Nicole shifted her position, knees scraping the carpet through the holes in her jeans. “That’s okay. Can I tell you a secret?”
Liam looked up at Sam for permission, which Sam granted with a nod, and then he looked back at Nicole. “Yes, please.”
She lowered her voice and cupped a hand to the side of her mouth, keeping the information close. “Once you’re homeschooled, you really won’t know what grade you’re in.”
Sam frowned in confusion—as did Liam and probably Dean, though Sam couldn’t see him—but he waited for her to continue.
“Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. When you’re homeschooled, you do what you’re capable of in every subject. So, for example, when I was in eighth grade, my math was right where I was, but my spelling was a grade behind, while my history and science were ninth grade, and my writing and reading were both college level.” She smiled warmly, pushing up the sleeves on her flannel shirt. “You don’t have to do what your grade is when you’re homeschooled. It’s okay to take your time and learn at your own pace.”
Liam thought about that for a second, and then he opened his mouth. He stopped, thought for another second, and then he started again. “You were homeschooled, too?”
“Yup.” Nicole smiled proudly, holding up her right hand to show her class ring. “I went to kindergarten, but I was way ahead of my classmates, so I was bored. And because I was bored, I got in a lot of trouble.”
Liam blinked his wide eyes. “Really?”
Nicole laughed and nodded. “Oh, yeah. Came home with bite marks and everything.”
Sam’s eyes widened slightly, but Dean actually snorted a laugh at the statement. Briefly, Sam wondered if Dean had ever come home from school with bite marks.
It wouldn’t have been that much of a surprise, to be perfectly honest.
Nicole either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and she continued her story, still down on her knees to be level with Liam. “My parents pulled me out of school, intending to put me back in after I fit in my grade a little better. But Mom and I fell in love with homeschooling, and we never looked back.” She ran a hand through her hair again, brown eyes flickering over her shoulder at a brief increase in volume, but then her attention was back on Liam. “I graduated as a homeschooler, and my brother has been homeschooled since day one.” She gestured vaguely to the shelf behind him. “Is it okay if I help you guys find some books?”
Liam once again looked to Sam for permission, and Sam once again gave it.
It’s like I’m not here. It actually made Sam smile a bit, like the woman at Knoebels. It was good to see people interact with Liam like he was his own person, not an extension of Sam and Dean. Because… well, Laim was his own person. Far too often, people forgot that children weren’t possessions or pets—they were people, and they deserved to be treated with respect.
“Okay, well, let’s take a look.” Nicole straightened up and leaned past Sam. “Sorry, I’m just—gonna grab this quick. Sorry.” She pulled out a mostly white book. “This is Life of Fred. I never got to use it, but my brother and some family friends have, and it’s pretty cool.” She sat down cross-legged and patted the floor next to her, beckoning them to join her.
Liam quickly did so, and after a moment of hesitation, Sam did the same. Dean just sort of leaned awkwardly against a nearby bookshelf.
Nicole was unperturbed. “Okay, so, for your grade, you would start with Fractions, which is what I grabbed. Life of Fred works like this.” She opened the cover and scooted a little closer to both Sam and Liam, pointing to various things as she explained them. “Life of Fred is actually a story about a kid who is a professor at Kittens University.”
Liam giggled at that. “I like kittens.”
“Probably because cats in general are awesome, but that’s just a guess.” Nicole grinned, shifting her position so her legs were bent in front of her, at which point, her right leg started bouncing. “So, you read the story to find out what Fred is up to, and the story teaches you a concept, and then—and this is the really cool part—it explains why the math works the way it does.”
Sam actually paused at that. That’s kinda cool. He glanced up when he saw movement and caught Dean inching closer and leaning against the bookshelf that let him look over Nicole’s shoulder.
“So, at the end of every lesson, there’s something called ‘Your Turn to Play.’ That’s where you practice the thing you just learned. Then, every four or five chapters, you do something called a ‘Bridge.’ It’s ten questions going over what you’ve learned, and if you get them all right on the first try, you get to skip the next four bridges.”
Liam blinked, astonished. “I can—I can skip lessons?”
“You can skip practice.” Nicole held up a finger, booping him on the nose. “Think of it like this: imagine if there was a class for walking. You know how to walk, don’t you, Liam?”
Liam smiled and nodded, confused but amused and still willing to engage.
Nicole ran a hand through her hair again, which Sam was starting to think was a nervous habit, and then she continued. “You don’t have to think about it, and you don’t need to practice. You know it inside, outside, and upside-down. Now, in public school, you might be in a walking class with kids who don’t know how to walk as well as you. Maybe because of an accident, maybe because they aren’t where you are developmentally, or maybe because they just aren’t ready yet. Everyone learns at their own pace, and that’s fine, but it can be a little frustrating for you, because you spend a lot of time practicing something you already know while the other kids catch up.” She indicated the book by lifting it up slightly. “That’s what you would be skipping. If you need to do all five bridges, that’s totally fine. That’s what they’re there for, and it doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. But if you already know the math like you know how to walk, you don’t have to waste time practicing them. Does that make sense?”
Liam nodded seriously—Sam absently realized he was doing the same, more intrigued than he thought he would be—and then Liam pointed to the pages again. “What if, um, what if I’m not quite there yet?”
“Not quite where?”
“Um, fractions. I mean, I kinda am, but…” Liam trailed off and tugged on the hem of his shirt, embarrassed.
“That’s okay!” Nicole gave him an encouraging smile and pointed to the shelves. “If you aren’t quite ready yet, there are three intermediate books you can start with. Besides, they’re really good if you’re new to the whole homeschooling thing.” She smiled warmly, nudging him on the shoulder. “Sound good?”
Liam nodded and then looked at Sam. “Can we try that?”
Sam wet his lips and nodded. “Yeah. I wanna look around a bit, but yeah.” Mostly, he didn’t want to rush into anything. “That sounds good.” He rubbed the back of his neck, looking at Nicole. “What’s, uh, what’s the difference between the different kinds of curriculum? I mean, obviously, the best curriculum for Liam isn’t going to be the best for everyone, but… is there one that’s generally considered better?” He couldn’t help but feel another surge of incompetency, and he felt a twinge of embarrassment and some lack-of-preparation panic.
“Mmm, nothing comes to mind, but there might be one. I can tell you all the different ones I tried personally, if that would help. Math was a huge problem subject for me, so…” She shrugged her shoulders. “Or you could give me a general idea of what you’re looking for, and I could tell you what curriculums kinda fall in that category.”
Sam glanced at Dean briefly, but Dean was still being largely unhelpful.
Honestly, Dean still seemed unnerved; like the entire concept of buying textbooks and taking charge of Liam’s education was upsetting him.
Sam cleared his throat. “Uh, are you… I mean, do you mind helping us out? I don’t want to keep you if…” He trailed off as she started to shake her head.
“Not at all. I’d love to help.” She looked at Liam then. “That cool with you?”
Liam smiled and nodded, a little sheepish, one hand wandering back to grab Sam’s shirt.
Nicole smiled brightly. “Awesome!” She gestured vaguely to the wall of books. “You were looking at Saxon Math when I came over. That’s pretty basic, traditional math. It’s sort of an inside joke among homeschoolers that everyone hates Saxon Math. I think people tend to exaggerate, but… it’s not a crowd favorite. Same thing with Abeka Books. Now, if Liam likes more hands-on, visual learning, there’s Math-U-See…”
It turned out most of the patrons in the store were Nicole’s family; her sister, brother, nephew, and mother. When Liam started to get bored, Nicole encouraged him to play with her nephew and brother—nine and fifteen, respectively, which put twelve-year-old Liam right in the middle—and she jokingly said they could be The Three Musketeers. Then, after some pushing and prodding on Nicole’s part, Sam and Dean agreed to talk to Nicole’s mother, Kim. A conversation started, and then a snowball effect took over.
With every subject, Sam felt a little less out of his element, and some of the statistics were encouraging for both Sam and Dean. When Nicole told them the average homeschooler with dropouts for parents scored higher than the average public schooler, Sam glimpsed a little tug at the corner of Dean’s mouth. Granted, homeschoolers with dropouts for parents didn’t score as high as homeschoolers with college-educated parents, but the education of homeschool parents was incredibly less influential than the education of public-school parents. It put a little bit of light in Dean’s eyes to hear that; reignited his ‘if anyone can do it, I can,’ attitude.
It was good to see confidence on Dean’s face again.
Now, Sam wasn’t stupid. He knew the statistics and averages were all well and good, but homeschooling wasn’t an automatic guarantee that Liam would get the education he needed and deserved. Sam had a lot to do with the outcome, especially in Liam’s younger years, and Sam was determined to do the best he could.
Still, Sam asked for Nicole’s argumentative research paper on the topic—which she provided, along with some other resources—and graciously accepted some books from Kim, who assuaged Sam’s anxieties with accounts of her own early homeschooling days.
Kim had joined the army right out of high school, and she later attended college but never obtained a degree. She had often worried about the education Nicole was getting, especially when family emergencies or busy schedules kept them from doing schoolwork for days or weeks at a time. She got nervous before every evaluation—an annual assessment of a homeschooler’s progress—even though Nicole passed with flying colors every time.
In the end, Nicole graduated with thirty-two high school credits, fifteen college credits, and a 4.0 GPA. Her brother was excelling as well, easily surpassing the necessary requirements.
Sam was a genius. Sam had earned a free ride to Stanford. He could homeschool Liam. Even with hunting, even with everything else on his plate, he could do it. He knew he could.
It took four hours for them to start wrapping up, and then Sam and Dean entered a parallel dimension. They put almost two hundred dollars’ worth of books on the counter, and Kim paid the bill before Sam could even touch his wallet. They were told the store was a consignment shop, and when they explained their always-on-the-road situation, the owner told them to email her when they were ready to get new books, and she would tell them what she had in stock and whether the books they had were worth something. They watched as the teenage brother gave Liam his phone number, and the nine-year-old nephew gave Liam his email address, both of them genuinely excited to stay in touch.
Sam didn’t really know what to do with all that, but he definitely didn’t get misty eyes.
He simply offered a polite smile and a word of thanks when Kim gave him her email address and told him to reach out with any questions he had. Sam just wet his lips when Kim took him by the shoulders and told him he was going to be an amazing teacher, and he merely swallowed and glanced away when she did the same for Dean, right before following it up with the assurance that she would be praying for all three of them.
Now, when Kim demanded a parting hug and fully embraced him, Sam might have held on a little longer than necessary. He might have savored the sensation, wondering what hugging his own mother would have felt like, and it might have touched him that Kim didn’t seem to mind.
And when Kim demanded the same hug from Dean, Dean might have held on a little longer than necessary, too; he might have shifted in place, like he wanted to get closer but knew that wasn’t really appropriate, and maybe he bit his lip when Kim accepted the extended contact.
But neither of them got misty eyes. That just wasn’t the Winchester Way.
They took their books, they thanked everyone for their kindness, and then they piled into the Impala and hit the road. They looked in the rearview, knowing they would likely never return, and they didn’t say a word about it. They turned up the music, they drove a little faster, and they left Pennsylvania. They started looking for their next case, and they found it in a series of suspicious heart attacks. They moved on, like they always did, leaving the people and places behind. They did it like Winchesters.
And Sam knew he should have just enjoyed the kindness. He did. But he couldn’t keep his mind from wandering down a very specific, very dangerous, almost intoxicating path.
If Kim or Nicole—or anyone else from the store—got possessed, would Sam be able to save them without drinking demon blood? Or would he have to return to the old ways of a fatal stab wound or a painful, often lethal exorcism? Of course, on the other hand, he could only imagine how disgusted they would be if they knew he drank demon blood to fuel his supernatural powers, especially considering the apparent faith they had.
It made his head hurt. Was there another option? Was there a way around the either-or? Was there a way everyone could win? Was there another way to fuel his powers? Was there something he could do that didn’t feel like a blow to the gut?
Sam didn’t know. It had been almost a month since the incident at 425 Waterman, and he still didn’t know. He didn’t have a clue, and he was getting desperate.
Sam quickly decided he wasn’t going to think about that. He was going to close his eyes and remember how nice their time in Pennsylvania had been. From Knoebels and the Phoenix to the kind strangers in the curriculum store, it had been a good couple of days. He was going to focus on that.
He had to.
Sam cleared his throat and gestured to Liam, who was bouncing on his toes less than three feet away. “I, uh, had a family emergency, and there was no one to watch my son, so…”
Mark Hutchins—a reptile-loving man who lived next door to the victim they were investigating—shrugged it off with an easy-going smile. “No problem. I love kids. Just, uh, no handling the animals without some help.”
Sam turned slightly, smiling when he saw Liam standing as close to the glass tank as he could without actually touching it. “Did you hear that, Liam?”
Liam nodded, never once taking his eyes off the lizard on the other side of the glass. “Don’t pick up the animals.” He turned then, his face scrunched up and perplexed. “Can I pet them if I’m careful?”
Mark laughed good-naturedly and nodded. “Sure thing, little man. Uh, but only if the cage is open-topped.” He glanced at Sam then. “He seems like a good kid. It’s the rough n’ tumble boys and the screechy kids you gotta watch out for. They tend to think live snakes are just as durable as rubber ones.”
Sam winced at the mental image. “Ooh. Yeah, no, that’s not Liam.”
Dean cleared his throat and shifted on the sofa, unusually off-put; he hadn’t been acting right since they left the morgue, and the menagerie of scaly creatures wasn’t helping. “Uh, so when was the last time you saw Frank O’Brien?”
“Monday.” Mark let the snake that was wrapped around him wander over his hands while he talked. “He was watching me from his window. I waved at him, but he just closed the curtains.”
Sam hummed curiously. “I see.” He briefly considered how to press forward. “Did you, ah, speak to him recently? Did he seem… different? You know, scared?”
“Oh, totally.” Mark shook his head, almost in disbelief, still letting the snake around his neck have free rein of his body. “He was freaking out.”
Sam glanced over at Dean to gauge his reaction, but he just saw thinly veiled terror and an attempt to look at every creepy, crawly thing in the room at once. That can’t be good.
“Do you, uh—” Dean managed to tear his eyes away from the critters, just barely regaining his composure. “Do you know what scared him?”
“Yup. Witches.” Mark said it like it was the simplest thing in the world.
“Witches?” Sam echoed, expressing the appropriate amount of shock for someone who didn’t believe in the supernatural. “You mean witches like…?” He let it hang, hoping Mark would do what just about everyone else did and fill in the blank.
“Well, ‘Wizard of Oz’ was on the other night.” Mark looked over toward Frank’s house again. “Frank was totally convinced Elphaba was coming after him.”
Dean blinked. “Elephawhat?”
“Elphaba!” Liam bounced on his toes, still enthralled in the reptiles but apparently equally focused on the conversation. “And nooobody in all of Oz, no wizard that there is or was, is ever gonna briiing meee doooooown!”
“Yeah, see? Little man knows.” Mark gave Liam a little round of applause and a thumbs up before turning back to the brothers on the couch. “You know, Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.”
Liam looked over his shoulder, chewing on his lip. “She wasn’t wicked. She did her best, but nobody treated her fair.”
“You got it, buddy.” Mark laughed, completely unperturbed by the snake now crawling up and over his skull. “Smart kid you got there.”
Sam had absolutely no idea what either of them were talking about, but apparently Liam and Mark did, and it appeared to be a good thing. So, Sam smiled and nodded and tried to keep the interview going. “Yeah, he is. We’re very proud of him. Uh… back to… Frank. Was there anything else that scared him?”
“Dude, everything else scared him.” Mark shrugged his shoulders. “Al-Queda, ferrets, artificial sweeteners, plastic skeletons, glitter, those Pez dispensers with their dead little eyes—”
“What can you tell us about Frank?” Sam interrupted as gently as he could, flashing a quick, forced smile.
“Well, I mean…” Mark stammered for a moment, glancing down in something resembling guilt. “I mean, the guy’s dead, you know? I—I don’t wanna hammer him… I mean, you know, he got better.”
Sam blinked. “He got better?”
“Well…” Mark glanced down again. “Back in high school… he was kind of a jerk.”
“A jerk?” Dean echoed, voicing the confusion Sam felt.
“Yeah, like a bully. I mean, he probably taped half the town’s butt cheeks together.” Mark chuckled almost nervously. “Mine included.”
Liam giggled. “You said butt cheeks.”
Dean started to laugh, too, but he quickly cut himself off. “So, he wasn’t exactly good at making friends. Think he made someone mad enough to want revenge?”
“Well, I don’t…” Mark frowned, contemplative, and then his expression shifted to a new kind of confusion. “Frank had a heart attack, right?”
“Just answer the question, sir.” Sam was trying hard not to lose patience, but it was simultaneously irritating and nerve-wracking when people started pushing back with questions of their own.
Thankfully, Mark was easy to sway. He thought about it for another moment, and then he shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. Like I said, he got better, and after what happened to his wife—”
“His wife?” Dean exchanged a look with Sam. “So, he was married.”
“She died. About twenty years ago.” Mark briefly dropped his eyes again. “Frank was really broken up about it. I think it gave him a little perspective.”
Dean nodded slightly, his gaze steadily fixating on the snake in Mark’s hands until he was forced to lean back, his expression uneasy.
Mark only laughed. “Oh, don’t be scared of Donny. He’s a sweetheart. It’s Marie you gotta look out for. She smells fear.”
Sam looked over at Dean, intending to share an odd look, but he immediately did a doubletake when he saw a massive, pale yellow… Marie, probably, slithering over the back of the couch.
Dean saw her, too, and he inhaled sharply, sitting up straight and trying to remain calm.
“Snake!” Liam rushed over to the couch and got down on his knees, very carefully reaching out and stroking the snake’s head. “She’s pretty.”
“Isn’t she, though?” Mark grinned. “You got a great kid. He’s a Wicked fan, he likes snakes, he’s not a disruptive little devil child…” He nodded, still grinning, and repeated himself. “You got a great kid.”
Sam looked at Liam with a fond smile, and despite his mounting concern over Dean, he was able to soak up a moment of contentment and pride. “Yeah.” He smiled a little wider. “I think he’s pretty great myself.”
“Dean. Dean, we gotta go!”
Dean jumped, trying to drag himself from the haze of panic and finding himself confused by the sight of Liam jerking on his arm. Liam looked afraid, his little hands clutching Dean’s sleeve as he stared with wide eyes. That didn’t make sense. Liam had no reason to be afraid. They were alone in the motel room, and the door was locked. Dean was afraid, of course, but Dean was infected. Dean was supposed to be afraid.
Which was good, because Dean was terrified.
“Dean, there’s someone in the hallway. There’s someone coming, Dean. We gotta go. We gotta go right now!”
Dean took a second to register what was being said to him, his adrenaline-drunk brain barely capable of processing anything that wasn’t right in front of his face. He was much more afraid of the ceiling giving way and dropping the upper levels of the building on them, or maybe Liam sticking his finger in one of the very suspicious-looking outlets in the wall. Those were things already in his line of sight, and his frenzied brain took the simple images and ran with them. His brain didn’t care what was in the hall.
Come on, come on, come on. You’re still a hunter. You gotta protect Liam. If someone’s coming, you have to get out of here. Dean rubbed his face and jumped to his feet, heart pounding against his sternum. “Uh, right. Right, let’s—let’s get out of here.”
Liam ran to the window—it was open already; had Dean done that?—and clambered through, turning around to pull Dean by the shirt. “Come on, Dean! Hurry!”
Dean struggled to keep his feet beneath him, lightheaded and dizzy, but he got through just as the motel door was kicked in. Still pulling his leg over the sill, Dean saw the sheriff and suddenly found himself energized. He grabbed Liam into his arms and sprinted across the parking lot toward Baby, having no plan but knowing he needed to do something.
Dean placed Liam on the ground and opened the back door at the same time, panting from the run. “Get in,” he ordered, repeatedly looking over his shoulder as he went to the front.
“Dean, can you drive?” Liam pulled the door shut behind him. “Sorzie said you’re sick.”
“Well, Sorz—Sam isn’t here right now.” Dean compulsively put his seatbelt on, unable to stop himself from wasting those extra seconds, and then he twisted the keys. He threw Baby in reverse and backed up before putting her in gear and peeling out of the parking lot. “Seatbelt, Liam!”
Dean barely registered Liam’s obedience, looking into the sideview mirror. He could see the sheriff chasing after him, running across the parking lot and screaming. It looked like his gun might have been drawn, but Dean couldn’t really tell unless he stopped looking where he was going altogether, and he wasn’t about to do that.
“We just gotta find somewhere nearby to stop.” Where, Dean didn’t know, because the sheriff probably had a car, too, and Dean was about to die, and he couldn’t die behind the wheel, or there would be a crash, and Liam was in the back, and Liam was his responsibility, and his chest hurt, and his head hurt, and it hurt to breathe, he couldn’t breathe, why couldn’t he breathe?
“Dean?” Liam grabbed onto Dean’s arm and gave it a squeeze. “Dean, it’s okay. Don’t be scared.” He squeezed Dean’s arm again. “Can I help?” He started to crawl up to the front before Dean had the chance to answer.
“No, Liam, stay in the back!” Dean tried to block the opening with his arm, but his fear kept both hands glued to the steering wheel, and he could only stretch so far. “Liam, if I wreck, you’re gonna go flying. Sit back down and get your seatbelt on.”
“I’m okay, Dean. Everything’s okay.” Liam held Dean’s arm a little tighter, plopping down in the passenger seat facing Dean. “You know, Miss Greene—she was my favorite therapist—always said it helps to talk about things, even if they make you feel bad. You can talk to me, Dean. I’m a really good listener.”
“I can’t—” Dean put a hand to his head, trying to block out Sam—not Sam, not Sam, he was just hallucinating again—and the mocking laughter. “I can’t talk about this, buddy, I just—I just—” He still couldn’t breathe. I gotta park.
“He’s right, Dean. You really should talk about it.”
Dean swerved, barely getting back into his lane before a collision occurred, eyes freezing on the rearview mirror longer than they should have. Lilith. Horns blared, lights flashed, everything was bathed in red, there was so much screaming, everyone was screaming.
“Hi, Dean! I missed you! Did you miss me, too?”
“You’re not real.” Dean gripped the wheel and sped up, swinging into a library parking lot and speeding as far away from the building and cars as he could get. “You’re not real.” He brought the car to a screeching halt and threw it in park, pressing himself back in his seat. “You’re not real, you’re not real, you’re not—”
“Who’s not real?” Liam tugged on Dean’s arm. “Dean, you’re scaring me.”
I can’t do that. I can’t scare Liam. I already did that once, I can’t do that again. I can’t. No more hitting in front of Liam. No scaring Liam. Dean forced his eyes to move from the mirror to Liam’s face. “It’s… it’s someone… from when I was missing.”
“Dean,” Lilith sang, bouncing in the backseat, bouncing on the pillows Liam loved so much, getting blood all over them. “Are you gonna tell him all about the fun we had in Hell? I know you remember every second of it, and there are so many good memories to choose from.”
“Did they hurt you when you were missing?” Liam looked up at Dean, concern in his eyes but not a lot else. It didn’t freak him out that Dean was talking to things that weren’t there. It didn’t freak him out that Dean was on the verge of a meltdown. “Was it a bad place?”
Dean nodded stiffly, wiping his eyes before any kind of moisture could gather. “It was—it was a very bad place, buddy.” He forced a weak smile. “There were bad people there, and they—they did things to me that—that I can’t—”
“You know, you’re still gonna die, Dean.”
“Are you stuck?” Liam’s words overlapped the tail end of Lilith’s, his little hands tugging on Dean’s clothing. “Are you stuck in the bad place? Like stuck there in your head?”
My chest hurts. What—what will it do to Liam if I die right in front of him? Dean tilted his head back and panted, body heaving as he struggled to get air into his shrinking lungs. Come on, Sammy… come on, please, I can’t go back… I’m scared… please…
Lilith laughed, so tangible and suffocating and right there in the backseat. “Sammy can’t save you this time any more than he could last time.”
“Not that I would bother trying,” Not Sam drawled, his voice more disembodied and displaced than Lilith’s. That was one nightmare that couldn’t quite take hold, at least.
“Hey.” Liam reached out and touched Dean’s cheek. “Dean, it’s okay to be stuck sometimes. I know… I know the bad feelings don’t go away… and sometimes you feel them from the beginning all over again… but you’re not there anymore.”
“You’re still gonna burn, Dean,” Lilith sang.
“And it’s about freakin’ time,” Not Sam muttered.
“Do I need to yell at your angel?” Liam crawled a little closer and wrapped his arms around Dean’s head, pulling it against his chest. “I will. I’ll yell at anybody if it’ll make you feel better.”
Dean huffed out a weak laugh and put his hands on Liam’s ribcage, heart clenching at how small the bones felt beneath his hands. “It’s okay, buddy. It’s alright. I’ll—I’ll be fine.”
“Your angel can keep you away from the bad place. So can me. So can Sam.” Liam gently petted Dean’s hair. “Me and Sam love you a lot, Dean. We’ll protect you.”
Dean took a deep, shuddering breath, but he wasn’t quite capable of managing a smile.
Liam hugged Dean’s head and continued to stroke his hair, humming softly.
Dean ignored the little knee digging into his thigh, taking another breath and squinting in confusion. “Are you humming… American Pie?”
Liam smiled proudly and nodded, still humming the tune.
Dean smirked slightly and leaned against the significantly smaller Winchester, fingers drumming along to the beat, tapping Liam’s ribs in perfect cadence. “Bet you don’t know who sings that,” he breathed, muscles spasming in his chest.
“Don McLean.” Liam replied without missing a beat.
“What?” Dean turned his head slightly. “You cheated.”
Liam giggled. “How did I cheat?”
Dean took a few deep breaths and rubbed at his sternum, relief flooding his veins and bringing with it a sudden lack of pressure and pain. “I think…” He took another deep breath, and while his heart still pounded in his chest, it didn’t seem to be getting faster. “I think Sammy fixed me.” Thank God.
Liam squeezed Dean’s head, moving a little closer and very nearly shoving his knee in a place Dean generally preferred not to be kneed. “No, I fixed you. I’m taking the credit.”
“You fixed me?” Dean caught his breath, leaning his head back against the headrest with a tired smile. “How did you manage that?”
“My humming is magical.” Liam grinned, just a bit devilish in his glee.
Dean chuckled softly, barely able to get a laugh out with his lungs’ desperate campaign to reacquaint his blood with oxygen. “Yeah, okay. We’ll say you fixed me.” He looked at Liam, curiosity crinkling his nose. “How did you know Don McLean sings American Pie?”
“Pandora,” Liam replied simply. “I used to listen to it all the time, and it always shows the songs and artists together, so I learned both.”
“It’s like radio, but it’s online, and you get to create your own stations. Mom had an account… and I used to log in when I could get to a computer at my fosters homes and stuff.”
Dean nodded weakly, still out of breath. “We’ll have to get you some kinda music thing…” He glanced in the backseat and saw it was completely devoid of evil little girls. “Maybe get you your own account.”
“That would be cool.” Liam smiled a little, and he then he cocked his head to the side. “Dean… you really aren’t in the bad place anymore.”
Dean smiled at him, a fluttering sensation cutting under his ribs at the mere mention of Hell. “I know, buddy.”
Liam looked worried, but he didn’t say anything else. He simply pulled Dean’s head against his chest and held on tight. “I love you, Dee.”
“I love you, too, Lee.” Dean sighed softly and rubbed Liam’s back, vacant eyes staring out beyond the windshield. “I love you, too.”