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This Kid's Not Alright

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Bobby heard John Winchester long before he formally announced himself. He heard him before Hannibal even barked out a warning. The idjit might pride himself on his hunting ability and plenty of people gave him all kinds of credit for his guile and his stealth but Bobby wasn’t ever going to give any credit to those reports if the damn fool didn’t stop driving a car that you could identify from a mile off. He shook his head. The guy had been a mechanic too, once upon a time. You’d think he could tighten up a muffler. Hell, Karen could hang a muffler properly, and she didn’t even want to know an Allen wrench from a pair of pliers.

He didn’t want to think about Karen in the same breath with the Winchesters.

He ambled his way out to the front porch to wait for the family – well two of them anyway. John had told him that much, close-lipped bastard that he was. Dean had gotten himself into some trouble back east, gone off to juvie or something like that, and somehow that didn’t surprise Bobby so much as sadden him. The way John had him carrying on it had only been a matter of time before he got himself caught doing some damn fool thing. Now John needed Bobby to keep an eye on the younger boy, Sammy, and Bobby would do a lot for those boys but Sammy had always seemed a little off to the scrap man. He hadn’t seen the boy since he’d been what, seven? And he hadn’t been sorry to see the back of him, either. Not that he believed what had been said about him, but the whole thing with Silas and Anderson had been just uncanny. A hunter like Anderson didn’t just show up out of nowhere looking for a seven year old kid, after all. And Silas had been one hell of a psychic - if he’d had something to say about the kid, he probably knew what he was talking about, right? And the deer – what kind of a seven year old could shoot like that, untutored? And not because he was hungry or hunting, but because he’d thought that the thing was going to hurt Dean. The boy was screwed up back then. Somehow he doubted that John’s nurturing and loving nature had changed him for the better. Maybe he’d be proven wrong, though.

The Impala rolled up, John looking like a thundercloud in the front seat and Sammy asleep in the back. It was hard to tell, between the angle and the darkness, but it didn’t look like the boy had gained much in the way of height since he’d been here last. Bobby shook his head. Weird and a runt. The kid never had a chance, did he?

John pulled up onto the grass before it stopped entirely. Bobby rolled his eyes. Leave it to John to be too good to park on the damn driveway like a normal person.

“Singer,” John called.

Bobby stepped out of the shadows. “Hush, Winchester,” he retorted. “You’ll wake your boy.” He kept his voice at a stage whisper, as though it would make a difference with the racket of John’s hollering and Hannibal’s barking. Why not bring in a big, old, brass band while they were at it?

“He’s out like a light,” Sam’s father dismissed, slamming the car door shut and going around to retrieve Sam. “He wouldn’t wake up if you threw him in a lake.”

The boy did indeed look like he was still asleep. A bottle of water fell out of the car and spilled its contents out onto the ground. Bobby sniffed. It was probably the most water his lawn had gotten all August.

John lifted Sam out and carried him up the steps and into the house. The child’s body was completely limp, head and limbs limp and dangling. “I got the guest room ready,” Bobby grunted. “You want to carry him up there?”

John followed him into the house and dropped his son unceremoniously onto the sofa. “Nah. Couch is good enough for him. Don’t want him getting soft.”

“Yeah, it would be a shame if he started thinking he was entitled to a bed and a little privacy.” He rolled his eyes. What the hell was wrong with the man? “Getting soft?” The kid was twelve and lived out of a car as often as not. Bobby doubted that “softness” was an issue for him.

“Sam doesn’t need privacy, Singer. He needs watching. If he could be trusted with privacy I wouldn’t have to take four days I can’t spare to leave him with you. He’s a runner. If he didn’t have Dean around to watch him like a hawk he’d be off to God knows where. He thinks he’s got a choice in this, Singer.” As soon as the boy had been dumped onto the sofa John strode across the room, putting as much distance as he physically could between himself and the boy. “Last year he took off even with Dean watching him. Took us three weeks to find him.”

Bobby grunted. “Did he ever say why?” He hadn’t heard anything about that through the grapevine, and he had a pretty good grasp on the hunter gossip. Not a lot of hunters even knew that John Winchester had sons, but those that were in the know generally assumed the three formed a united front against the forces of darkness.

“Who cares why? In my day if you deserted your post you got shot, end of story.” He poured himself a glass of Bobby’s cheapest bourbon and tossed it down in one shot.

“He was eleven, John. He’s not supposed to have a post.” He blinked several times, trying to make sense of the words coming out of John Winchester’s mouth. If he’d been possessed he wouldn’t have been able to get in the front door. Maybe he was a shifter – but a shifter wouldn’t have brought the boy his way. He’d have killed him and left him in a sewer somewhere.

“Sons are soldiers, Singer.” Well, that sounded like John at least. “You know that. Anyway, he’ll probably try to make a break for it at least once or twice. If you need to lock him up then you do what you have to do.”

“John, he’ll hear you!” What the hell kind of father talked so casually about locking his own son up right in front of the boy?

“He’s drugged to high heaven, Singer. Don’t worry about him.” He gave a thin grin and poured himself some more whiskey.

“You roofied your son?” He couldn’t help but glance over at the poor kid, still and silent on the couch.

“I needed to talk with you and make sure he didn’t hear me. You got a better way? The kid’s a sneak. It was the only way to make sure. I did what I had to. Anyway, I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone, so if you need to enroll him in school there’s the paperwork. He needs to keep up with his training; I’m not going to have him getting fatter just because Dean and I aren’t here to stay on his ass about it.”

“There’s nothing fat about that boy, John Winchester. Maybe if you let him gain a little weight he’d grow more.” And there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him either. Now that Bobby could see him in the light he could see that Sam had a distinctly underfed look, sharp edges where a kid his age should have baby fat. What had John been doing to him?

“If he had his way he’d sit around eating bon-bons with his nose in a book.” Was it Bobby’s imagination, or did Sam’s chest stop moving at that? No, he had to have been seeing things; the kid was breathing just fine. Besides, who the hell ate bon-bons? “Minimum of five miles of running every day, rain or shine. Sparring, strength training, shooting, bow hunting, knife fighting – you have to test him, Bobby, or else he’s just going to be lazy.”

“Does he have any favorite foods, John? Anything I can use to reward him with?” Bobby tried. He got the whole training thing, he really did, but a regimen like that sounded more like basic training than like something that was appropriate for a kid Sam’s age or size.

“He doesn’t need to be rewarded,” John retorted. “Saving lives is the reward. He doesn’t need a favorite food, he’ll eat what’s put in front of him or he’ll be hungry.”

“Okay,” Bobby exhaled, trying not to let his irritation show. “Tell me something, John. Why did you bring Sam to me? He’s already close with Pastor Jim. With Dean gone he’d probably be happier with someone he knows, don’t you think?”

“Jim’s too soft on him, Bobby. After Dean got busted the dumb kid got us evicted from our motel room, couldn’t even scrape up the cash to cover the rent until I got back to town. I mean, what the hell kind of kid can’t raise a little cash at twelve, huh? Dean could’ve done it.”

“Dean’s the one who got busted trying to raise food money, John.” Maybe it was impolitic to bring that up, but if John was going to compare the two kids to Sam’s detriment someone had to point out that Dean hadn’t exactly pulled things off. Or did John want both of his kids behind bars? It would sure free him up for hunting, but it was a far cry from the father who had seemed so concerned about his boys’ safety only five years ago.

“I left them plenty of cash. I have no idea what could have happened to it. Anyway, there’s something else.” His thick fingers wrapped around his glass.

“Of course there is,” Bobby sneered. “What do you need, Johnny?” He should have known that John Winchester would never come to him just for babysitting.

“It’s Sam. In a way, Dean getting arrested is an opportunity. There’s something… there’s something about Sam. Something different. Something…”

“He’s just a kid, John,” Bobby said firmly. Never mind that he’d just been thinking the same thing about Sam – something different, something off, something not quite right. Hearing it from the boy’s own father brought home to him just how wrong those thoughts were.

“He’s always fighting me, every step of the way. I’m teaching him to be a hero, and it’s like that doesn’t even matter to him.” John sat down with a heavy thud, eyes dull. “That’s just… that’s not right. I mean, Dean was my little man from the day he was born, you know? But Sam, Sam’s never wanted anything to do with me. He pushed me away from the very start. And he’s never missed Mary; it’s like he doesn’t even care that she’s gone.”

“Well, he never knew,” Bobby pointed out in as reasonable a tone as he could manage. “’Mother’ is just a word to him. He never experienced it.” Maybe the boy had been pushing him away because he sensed, on some level, his father’s rejection. Oh, sure, the man had been grieving. Bobby got grief; he understood the utter devastation that happened when the one person that made your existence worthwhile got taken from you. But that didn’t give any man the right to reject his own son like that.

“But he’s still supposed to mourn her,” John spat back. “It’s not right that he doesn’t even care! She is – she was – his mother!” Bobby risked a quick glance at the boy. His body was still slack, no reaction. Right, the drugs. John’s face was a mix of fury and desolation, the former winning out. He seemed to truly resent his youngest for… for what? For not mourning what he’d never known? For surviving when she hadn’t? It didn’t make sense. Of course, he’d be the first to testify that grief did funny things to a man.

“Okay,” he said said after a moment. “What exactly do you want me to do about that? I never knew Mary either.” Maybe that would break through to John, he didn’t know.

“That’s just one example. Every time we have a run-in with anything demonic or semi-demonic they keep talking about Sam. That hell-bitch, his teacher all those years ago, she kept saying that Sammy was ‘special.’ And then that psychic of yours – you remember? Silas? He said Sam was ‘special’ too. Anderson said Sam killed Silas.”

Bobby remembered those incidents. He’d been thinking of them only moments before the Winchesters showed up. The fact shamed him now. “John, Silas was torn to shreds. It was brutal. Nothing human killed Silas.”

“Kind of my point, Singer.”

The men stared at each other in silence for a moment. “You’re joking,” Bobby said finally, wondering if he was going to vomit all over John’s shoes. Who… who could honestly say that about a little boy they’d raised? He’d known mothers who had given birth to monstrous babies before, but they’d known what they were about. It hadn’t taken twelve years to figure it out and they hadn’t been as… human… as Sam. Yeah, the kid was off. That didn’t make him a monster.

“I need to know if there’s something wrong with Sam.” John’s voice was weird now – half desperate growl, half pleading whine. “I need to know if he’s even my son at all, or if whatever killed Mary did something to him, or if he’s some kind of changeling or what. I need to know if it’s safe to keep him around Dean or if…”

“Or if what?” Bobby knew his tone was dangerous now. He didn’t care if he offended John at this point.

“Or if I need to separate them,” John replied finally. “He doesn’t talk to me, he doesn’t trust me.”

“Can’t imagine why,” Bobby cut in drily.

“I figure that if you can get him to open up a little maybe you can figure something out, see if there’s anything ‘special’ about him or if he’s just a spoiled little brat who needs to knuckle down harder,” John continued, ignoring or not picking up on the sarcasm.

Bobby sighed. Part of him wanted to tell John exactly where to stick his suspicions. Tell him to go be a father and take care of the boy still in his care; tell him that all of the defiance and resentment were probably the result of his shitty attitude and not any kind of demonic interference. The rest of him recognized that John wouldn’t listen. He needed to be placated, not opposed right now. And hell, maybe he was right. John was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. “I’ll see what I can find out, John. But I’ll tell you now. I ain’t exactly seeing horns and a tail. I’m seeing a kid whose own father drugged him rather than have an actual conversation with him. Come on, let’s get his stuff.”

They went out to the car and got Sam’s lone duffel of clothing and a worn backpack. Bobby found himself walking behind John with his hands in his pockets feeling slightly ridiculous. He’d assumed the boy would have more stuff. It certainly didn’t take two grown men to carry these things into the house.

Bobby covered Sammy with a blanket from the back of the couch. It wasn’t the nicest thing – scratchy, coarse wool – but that probably suited John just fine. Not that the old bastard stuck around to comment; he took his own duffel upstairs and made himself comfortable in the guest room he’d denied his boy. Bobby sighed and went to his own room. Maybe John was able to fall into untroubled slumber, but Bobby’s was fitful and eluded him for a long time.

Bobby wasn’t a morning person, but he wasn’t a late sleeper either. Running a scrap yard made it difficult to sleep in very often, and he wanted to make sure he was up to take care of his houseguests—his parents hadn’t been prizes, but he wasn’t raised by hyenas. Of course, getting up early enough to get things ready for the salvage yard and getting up early enough to satisfy John Winchester were two very different things. When Bobby made it out of his room he found the guest room vacated and the bed stripped.

The living room showed that the boy, too, was awake. He kicked himself mentally for the thought. The boy had a name. He was not a case. He was a human boy, a child who had been abandoned by a father toward whom Bobby was nursing some powerfully unfriendly feelings at the moment. “Sammy?” he called out, seeing the neatly folded blanket and carefully stowed duffel.

Sammy appeared from the kitchen. The front of his shirt was wet. “Sir.” His face was carefully neutral and his eyes were – well. . . Bobby had forgotten about his eyes. He couldn’t quite make out what color they were supposed to be. When the boy had been younger he’d been able to turn those eyes onto just about anyone and get his way, his father being the only exception Bobby had ever seen. Right now his eyes were shuttered, closed off.

The hunter sniffed. “You made coffee?” he marveled, moving forward. None of his guests ever made him coffee.

The boy shrugged. “Yeah, well. I was up. Sir.” He moved back, eyes on Bobby the whole time. His entire body was tense, but he didn’t flinch when Bobby moved toward the cabinet where the mugs were kept. Bobby looked away, trying not to stare, and saw freshly washed dishes piled carefully beside the sink.

“Have a seat, kid. I’ll make us some breakfast.” He moved toward the fridge. He hadn’t had enough warning to stock up, not really, but he was pretty sure he had enough eggs and bread to get them through today. Who knew how much Sam would want, though? When he’d been twelve he could put away twice as much as he could now.

“I’m not hungry, sir. I’ll be fine,” Sam answered quickly. He stayed on his feet, grabbing an already-full mug of coffee from the counter nearest the sink.

Bobby paused. “You need to keep your strength up, kid. You’ve still got your running and your training to do.”

“I did my running, sir. And my strength training. Before Dad left.”

Bobby pulled his head out of the refrigerator. “Before the sun was up?”

“He wanted to be sure that I did it, sir.”

Bobby bit back a curse. He wasn’t about to go off on the kid’s father in front of him; he was still the kid’s daddy and Sammy surely loved him, no matter what the son of a bitch had said about the boy. “All right. Fair enough. But you should eat.” He fixed some eggs and toast and insisted that the boy eat them. The kid watched the food from the moment it left the refrigerator until it wound up on his plate, and Bobby felt a surge of anger at John Winchester that surpassed what he’d felt before. The man had drugged his own son, and clearly the kid knew he’d been drugged. On what planet was that okay? And why was Bobby just letting him get away with it like a chump? It made him complicit, part of John’s violation. “I ain’t doping your food, boy.”

“Of course not, sir.” Sammy poked at the eggs, moved them around on his plate and drank his coffee.

“Something on your mind?”

“Where’s Dean?”

“He got lost on a hunt,” Bobby lied. It was the official story, the one John had told him about even before Bobby had agreed to take Sammy on. “Your daddy’s gone lookin’ for him. I’m sure he’ll find him in no time at all.”

Sam folded his lips together and looked away for a moment, like he was checking a box. “Okay.”

No Winchester ever took something at face value, not ever. It was in the DNA; they’d break out in hives if they tried. “That’s it? Just ‘okay?’”

He nodded and offered a little smile. “I trust you, sir.”

Well that was just great. Now he felt like he was swallowing broken glass. Damn John and his secrets and lies anyway. “So your father asked me to keep an eye on you for a few days.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’re going to have to establish a few rules if we’re going to get along here, kid.” Sammy, he reminded himself. The kid’s name was Sammy. He was a person. He had a name.

“Of course, sir.” He turned those eyes on Bobby, perfectly blank and revealing nothing.

“Alright. First of all, you’re welcome to go play and whatever in the yard. Check in from time to time and let me know you ain’t dead. I’m going to have to trust you to know enough not to get yourself killed in the wrecks. Can I do that, boy?”

“Of course, sir.” He sipped from his coffee.

“Secondly, you don’t go off the property without permission.”

“Seems reasonable, sir.”

“No handling the décor without permission. Assume it’s all loaded.”

“Of course.”

Bobby bit his lip. He truly wasn’t good with children, hadn’t spent any time at all around them since deciding not to become a parent. Dean was the exception, but he was a great kid. He was the easiest kid to love, the easiest kid to get along with. He was so easy to read, so eager to please. It was so easy to see what he needed and so damn easy to give it to him. This one? Looking into his eyes was like staring into sea glass, and no twelve year old should be this poised, this adult. It was unnerving. “If you wind up having to enroll in the school here, you’ll do your schoolwork, boy. You hear me?”

“Of course, sir.”

“You’re welcome to do any reading you like but don’t mess up my stuff.” He tried to think of anything else. It was so damn hard to think with those eyes staring into him. “I don’t imagine I’ve got any books a kid would be interested in, but if you find something you’re welcome to it.”

“Thank you, sir.” He blinked. Once.

Bobby cleared his throat. Once. “Boy, your father tells me that you’ve got a… a history of taking off.”

“Sir.”

“Apparently you took off for some three weeks last year?”

His eyes went from neutral to flat; his lips folded thinly. “I’d rather not discuss that, sir.”

“I think it’s relevant, boy. You’re staying under my roof. I’m responsible for you. I need to know that I’m not going to have to watch a twelve year old boy every minute of the day, that I’m not going to have to lock you down. That ain’t what I signed on for, but I ain’t having you go walkabout either.” He shifted.

The kid’s jaw thrust out. “You got a bunch of pervert clowns in the basement?”

Bobby blinked. “No. Why would you ask that?”

“Then I’m probably not going to have to do that again.” He stood up, pushing his chair away. “Excuse me, sir.” He walked out of the kitchen and back into the living room. Bobby heard the door to the house close shut behind the boy a moment later.

He stared at the breakfast table. Had Sam just suggested…? No, there was no way that the Winchesters would have allowed that to happen. John had a lot of faults as a father, but between him and Dean they kept Sammy fairly well protected. There was no way that anyone was getting through their coverage. Just no way. But why would Sam imply. . . ?

He finished his breakfast. He didn’t think that chasing after the kid was going to get him anywhere. The boy would come back – Bobby could outwait a twelve year old. He finished his eggs, and then his toast. He drank the rest of his coffee, and then he poured himself another cup. Through it all he didn’t hear a peep from the boy, didn’t hear him come back indoors and didn’t hear him messing around outside, and that couldn’t be right at all. Weren’t kids supposed to be loud, boisterous? He hadn’t been the greatest kid, but at least he’d given some indication that he was still in the area.

Crap. Sammy hadn’t taken off already, had he?

Bobby raced out to the living room only to find Sammy seated quietly on the couch, a large book in his hands. Bobby hadn’t even heard him come back inside. He glanced up when Bobby ran into the room. “Is something wrong, sir?”

“I didn’t know where you were, boy.” The older hunter tried to get his racing heart under control. “You were so quiet that I thought – “

“You thought I’d taken off.” Sam’s lips folded together again.

“You do kind of have a history of that.” He took his hat off, twisting it in his hands.

“I told you that I wasn’t going to.” His teeth ground together as he fought to contain himself. Bobby could see a vein in the side of his face, standing out like he was straining at something. Such anger in a child so young! “You should probably go ahead and lock me up now. If you can’t believe that I’m not going to disappear between breakfast and the living room, just get it over with. You’re not going to be able to relax enough to have me around, and, like you said, you don’t have the time to ‘watch a twelve year old boy every minute of the day.’”

Bobby sighed. “Damn it, kid. You’re not supposed to be in jail here. Don’t make me put you there.”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “I walked into the living room and read a book. That’s all.”

And the kid, well, he had a point. All he had done was go into the living room, go into the library, get a book and sit down. He hadn’t done anything wrong, not a damn thing, and here Bobby was condemning him for it. “Your brother, he was a lot more, uh, boisterous. I guess I expected you to act more like him.”

There was no mistaking the little huff of air coming from Sam. “Who doesn’t?”

No kid as young as Sam should sound that bitter. “Do you miss your brother?”

“Of course. What kind of a question is that?” For the first time his voice showed emotion, and it showed several at once: resentment, confusion, maybe a little bit of contempt.

“Apparently the wrong one,” he sighed. “Are you worried about him?”

“Of course. He was lost on a hunt, wasn’t he?” The little bit of emotion disappeared, smoothing back over into a mask.

“It’s just… you seem awfully calm for someone who’s just lost a family member,” Bobby pressed, wincing. Yeah, he was treating the kid like a suspect again. Damn John for putting thoughts in his head anyway.

“Is screaming or crying or whatever else going to bring him back?” Sam challenged, bringing the full force of those eyes to bear on him. Otherworldly, Bobby though suddenly, randomly. Inhuman.

“Well, no, but –“

“Then why would I waste my energy on it?”

“Well, normally people don’t necessarily choose to do it. They just… do.”

“I think if I was going to have some kind of big freak-out I’d have done it when Dean first disappeared and left me alone in the motel room. Or when I got evicted from the motel room and had no place to go while I waited for someone to find my dad. It’s been a while, sir.”

Bobby frowned. The thought process made sense, objectively, but it just didn’t sit right with him. The kid was just too young to be that… that calm, that collected, that logical. “Okay, kid. So, ah, your daddy never did tell me how you got by while you were waiting for him.”

“He doesn’t know.” Sam shrugged.

“What do you mean he doesn’t know? Didn’t you tell him?”

“He wasn’t very interested. It’s not like it matters. I wasn’t able to find Dean, so.” He made a face and shrugged, eyes going back to his book. “Is that why he sent me here? Because I couldn’t find Dean and save him?”

“Boy, no one expects you to find your brother by yourself. You kept yourself alive and comparatively healthy. I just want to know how you managed it.”

Sam shrugged again, eyes still on his book. “I stayed in the motel room until I had to leave. I tried looking in the woods, but I couldn’t find any sign of Dean. After that, I stayed in a gardening shed in the cemetery and then I found an abandoned farmhouse. I broke into a couple of local restaurants to steal food at night.”

Bobby considered. “That’s mighty resourceful, kid.”

“Dean would have found us a motel room. Dean would have found us real food, food he didn’t have to steal.” Sammy’s voice was soft now, and his head bowed. “But someone will find him. Someone’s out looking for him, right? Pastor Jim or someone?”

“I’m pretty sure your daddy’s looking for him,” Bobby inserted carefully. It was a lie, of course, and nothing felt worse in that moment than adding to the caul of lies around that boy. Still, he didn’t need to know that Dean had in fact been arrested for stealing food. He just didn’t.

“Dad wouldn’t leave a hunt, sir. Not in the middle of one. He let me hear about it just for having to come get me and bring me here.” That mouth of his twisted.

“He’s your daddy, son. He loves you boys.”

Any hints of a crack in that bland mask disappeared. “Sir.”

Bobby knew a dismissal when he heard it. He got up and went back into the kitchen, intent on cleaning up the breakfast dishes. It was only when the last dish had been placed, dripping, into the drying rack that he realized that he shouldn’t have been dismissed by a twelve-year-old guest in his home.

The day passed in silence. Bobby had a few visitors to the scrap yard, all of them interested in the salvage side of his business rather than the hunting side. Sam stayed out of the way and out of sight. Bobby checked in on him a few times and the kid was plenty polite when he was found, but he didn’t seek out the hunter’s company and he didn’t initiate conversation. He showed no interest in lunch and took a few half-hearted bites out of his burger before thanking Bobby politely and trying to push away from the table. “Stay awhile, kid,” Bobby urged. “Keep an old man company.” He gave what he hoped was a reassuring smile to the boy.

Sammy didn’t look reassured. “Sir,” he said, sitting back down.

“Not a fan of burgers, then? I know they were always Dean’s favorite.” Dean had been a good topic earlier, a good way to get the kid talking before. Maybe it would work again. Bobby needed to get the boy to open his mouth if he was going to be able to give John any answers. Not that the man deserved any, he thought spitefully. Having those kinds of thoughts about his own boy, no wonder the kid seemed off. There was no way that John had been able to hide that attitude of his from the boy.

“They still are, sir.”

“What kind of food do you like, boy?”

A corner of the boy’s mouth twitched, just slightly. “I eat what’s put in front of me, sir.”

Bobby’s heart probably didn’t stop – that would have been a lot messier than things turned out to be – but he could feel the pains through his chest, feel his lungs strain for air. “You were asleep,” he objected. “You – your daddy was sure you were asleep.”

Sam turned his small body to stare at Bobby in disbelief. “Do you really think that’s the first time he tried to drug me, Bobby?” Sam snorted. “Come on. Never drink anything he hands you if it’s already been opened.” He rubbed his hands against his face a bit.

He sighed. “So you heard…”

“I heard enough.”

Bobby sighed. “You know, eavesdroppers rarely hear anything good about themselves. You ever think he might do that for your protection?”

“How does not knowing what’s going on protect me from anything?” He shook his head before letting it hang a little, hiding his face behind a curtain of hair. How did the kid get away with having hair that long in John Winchester’s army? “How am I supposed to do the right thing if I have no idea what’s going on or what the consequences are?”

“Maybe you’re not ready to know about some things yet, kid. I mean, you’re only twelve.”

“If I’m old enough for someone to stick a gun in my hand and tell me to pull the trigger then I’m old enough to know my father thinks I’m some kind of freak.”

“Aw, boy, that ain’t what he said,” Bobby tried.

“No. He said that his point was that nothing human killed that guy you sent me to see. And he said that he needed to know if I was some kind of changeling. If I was ‘special.’” The way he sneered as he spat out the word ‘special’ had to be genetic, because John had said it with an identical amount of hatred. “But you’re right. Technically he didn’t say ‘freak.’”

Bobby hadn’t felt so helpless since Karen. “I’m sorry, kid. You shouldn’t have to hear… I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I read his journal four years ago. It’s nothing new.” And it wasn’t. The kid’s eyes were dry. “Right now I just care about finding Dean and saving him.”

“Kid, you don’t have to worry about your brother, okay? That’s for your father to do. You can’t help him right now.” He put a hand on Sam’s shoulder and felt him tremble slightly.

“I should have gotten him out when I was back in New York,” Sam continued. “I should have found him. I should have helped.”

“There was nothing you could’ve done, boy.”

Sam paused, and then straightened his back again and nodded. “Is it alright if I get back to my book now, sir?”

Bobby sighed. Well, he’d gotten the kid to talk a little at least. “Go ahead, kid.” Sam turned and flashed him half a grin before gliding off toward the living room.

The hunter busied himself cleaning up before heading back into his study. In all of the excitement he hadn’t thought about any of the cases people had sent his way. Ellen Harvelle, from down in Nebraska, had sent him a few snippets about fires that had been popping up in the area. It was probably nothing, just a firebug, but it was right in his backyard. He really didn’t have an excuse not to check it out.

Chapter Text

kidnotalright

Bobby had hoped that he and Sam had experienced some kind of breakthrough and that the boy would become more open with him moving forward, but that wasn’t what happened. He didn’t say another two words for the entire rest of the evening. Sam tucked himself under his blanket on the couch when he got sleepy, making no more fanfare or fuss than burying his face into the cushion. They hadn’t even gotten him a pillow last night, Bobby realized when he finally pulled himself out of the study and saw that the boy had fallen asleep. Well, there was no point in waking him now. The poor thing had looked pretty wrung out by the end of their conversation; waking him up to give him a pillow would make Bobby no better than the nurses at the hospital who woke you up to give you a sleeping pill. So he made sure that the boy was tucked in tightly and not likely to fall off the couch or something – kids did that, right? – and went to bed himself.

The next day brought more of the same. He woke to find Sam showered, with his sweats washed and drying out back on the line. Had he washed them in the shower? That was kind of odd – although he supposed that John’s boys got used to washing their clothes wherever they could. He wasn’t one to judge. At least the coffee was made, and the eggs too. The boy waited by his chair until Bobby told him he could sit, which gave the older hunter pause. “You don’t have to wait for my permission to sit down to breakfast, boy,” he told the kid. “You can just sit.”

“Sir.”

Maybe this would be a good opening to use with the kid. “Is that something your dad wants? From you and Dean?”

“He likes to preserve discipline, sir.” Sam took his seat and moved his food around.

“You probably don’t care for that too much.”

The kid shrugged. “Does it matter?”

“I’m askin’, kid.”

“I’m pretty sure that it’s not normal. I don’t know if it’s something he would do if it was just him and Dean. Or if I had died and Mom had lived.” Sammy’s tone was contemplative rather than self-pitying or mopey, which should have made Bobby angrier. It didn’t. It just made Sam seem a little less real, somehow. A little less human. “I mean, I didn’t know him before and Dean doesn’t talk about before. So I don’t know. I don’t really have much to compare it to. But it doesn’t really matter how I feel about it, because how I feel about it isn’t going to change how he does things.” He shrugged again and took a sip from his coffee.

Bobby scowled. “That stuff will stunt your growth, kid.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Dad asked you to figure out if he’s going to have to kill me before he sees Dean again, and you’re worried about stunting my growth?”

“That has to bother you.”

Sammy didn’t say anything for a moment. “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. It’s not personal.” He looked away.

“What do you think I’m going to find out, boy? Hm?” Bobby kept his tone as soft as he could, but he couldn’t manage to put as much warmth into it as he wanted to.

“If I knew, I could do something about it myself, don’t you think? I mean, I’m just a kid. There’s nothing special or interesting about me. There never has been, and there never will be. But he’ll see what he wants to see. And so will you, because you’re hunters. There’s nothing I can do or say to change any of it. As long as Dean is safe I don’t much care.”

Bobby snorted. “What’s that supposed to mean, ‘because you’re hunters?’ You’re a hunter too, kid.” Sam had an odd way of phrasing things, he recognized as he listened. It wasn’t prissy – not by a long shot, that would never have flown with John Winchester. But it was definitely beyond his years.

“I’m not. To hear Dad tell it I never will be.”

“Don’t you want to be? I’d think it would be everything a little boy would want. Kind of like being a superhero, you know?” Bobby offered. He wasn’t sure how much of that he really believed to be quite honest. It was a job that needed to be done, nothing more, nothing less. But that wasn’t likely to appeal to a kid, and Sam was basically stuck in the life whether he liked it or not.

“How is killing things heroic?” Sam blinked back at him. “I mean, if you’re a single guy – or a single woman. . . are there women hunters?”

“There are a few, sure,” the older hunter nodded, trying not to get annoyed at the kid. He probably didn’t mean to insult his life’s work. It was one thing to see it as a job, another to reduce it to just “killing things.” “Your point?”

“Anyway, if you’re a single person, okay, fine. You do what you feel you need to do. But there’s another side to every story. I mean, the shapeshifter Dad killed last year – how do you know he didn’t have a family? As near as I could tell he wasn’t doing anything but hanging around and occasionally changing his face to rob banks.”

“Robbing banks is a felony, boy,” Bobby rumbled.

“So is credit card fraud,” Sam shot back. “But no one shoots Dad in the face with a silver bullet for that. Why is it a capital crime for a shapeshifter but only something that gets a white male human ten years in the state prison? Anyway – if you’re a single guy that’s between you and the shifter and the deity of your choice. And maybe there are some things that are so evil that they can’t be saved, I don’t know. Pastor Jim believes in demons, and I don’t see why they wouldn’t exist. Some of the witches out there are pretty evil. Some of them aren’t. But some of them are. There are probably some other things that legitimately have to die. Fine. “But if you’ve got kids, family, what the hell is heroic about putting them in harm’s way? About taking them and forcing them to become killers?” He shuddered. “Making it so that they’ll never, ever have a normal life – just hunting and killing until they’re dead. And we’ll both be dead long before we’re the age Dad was when he became a father for the first time. You know we will. We’ll never get married, we’ll never have kids, we’ll never have jobs, we’ll never have a roof over our heads. No one’s ever going to miss us except each other. And Dad, maybe. Depending on who goes first. All because Dad, in his infinite wisdom, decided that taking up a crusade in memory of a dead woman was more important than the lives she left behind.”

Bobby recoiled. “That’s a terrible way to think, boy.”

He smiled sadly. “I know. Dad and Dean keep telling me that I should be happy for the opportunity to spend my life serving others and risking my life for theirs, but I just don’t understand why my life isn’t worth as much as some stranger’s. I get that it isn’t, but I don’t understand why.”

Bobby took his hat off and ran his hand through his hair. Dean had never had questions like this. He had questions like, “Aren’t we supposed to be working with the double barrel?” and “How much cologne is too much for a girl?” “It’s not like that, kid,” he tried. “It’s supposed to be about being willing to make sacrifices. Giving those things up so that innocent people can go about their lives in safety.”

“But they’re not any safer than they were before,” Sam challenged. “We’re not supposed to even tell them what happened or how to protect themselves from the basics. So we could leave and something else could come along tomorrow and we’d have wasted whatever we tried to do. And you know what? It’s fine for an adult to make that kind of decision for themself. I mean, I still have issues with who gets to decide that a shapeshifter or a werewolf or whatever has to die, but that’s not the point. Deciding that for your kid – for a four year old? That just doesn’t seem right to me.”

“Your brother doesn’t seem to mind.” To be honest it hadn’t ever sat right with Bobby either, and he’d have been a damn fool to not see the effect it had on Dean. But hearing it from Sam’s mouth just seemed wrong, somehow. Here was a kid who probably hadn’t even discovered girls yet dissecting Bobby life’s work with careful, uncanny precision and coming to the conclusion that this life – the only life he’d ever known – was pointless at best and possibly straight-up wrong. It sent a chill right through Bobby’s blood.

“That’s because he buys into it. He thinks they’re doing some good.”

“And you don’t.”

Sam shrugged, lapsing into silence that was only broken by the sound of his fork moving things around on the plate again. “You ain’t much of an eater, are you?” Bobby observed after a few moments.

Sam shrugged again. He was going to end up dislocating both of his shoulders if he got any more emphatic. “I’m not hungry.”

“Boy, when I was your age I could put away three times as much as I can now and I’m pretty sure I’m doubling your intake. And I wasn’t doing half the physical crap you’re doing. You need to eat.”

“I don’t. I’m already too fat; I slow them down. I need to slim down so I can keep up with Dad and Dean.”

Bobby squinted at the kid. “Ain’t an ounce of fat on you, kid.”

“There is. Dean got hurt a few months ago because I was too fat and slow to have his back like I was supposed to.” The kid hung his head again, hiding his face behind his hair. The hunter felt the uncontrollable urge to find some clippers and give him a buzz cut, just so that he could see what was going on with the boy. He’d probably get punched for his trouble or maybe stabbed, but at least it would be a genuine reaction. “I need to get better. Stronger. Faster.”

Bobby sighed. “You’re twelve.”

“So? Dean was at least six inches taller than I was by the time he was twelve.” There it was again – that comparison with Dean. It itched, like sand in his shoes.

“Boy, Dean’s… well, he’s different.”

“Yeah.” Sam stood up. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to get back to my reading now.”

Bobby shook his head in surprise. “Yeah. Of course. I’m surprised you found anything in that pile o’ junk worth looking at.”

The kid offered a thin little smile. “You can always find a way to learn something if you put your mind to it. Thank you, sir.”

They both got up and went about their business for the day. In Bobby’s case that meant dealing with six new wrecks from around the county. At least three were from people driving under the influence of something or other. It gave him the chance to get groceries for the boy, but he couldn’t help thinking that if people would just stop driving drunk maybe there would be fewer wrecks to deal with and he could spare more attention for the fires cropping up all over the damn place. In Sam’s case his “business for the day” consisted of… something. Bobby wasn’t sure what, exactly. But it involved books and reading. It did not involve a lot of talking. Sam answered the questions put to him, though, and seemed as cheerful as the kid ever got, so Bobby didn’t worry too much.

He didn’t show a lot of interest in the meal Bobby prepared for the night – chicken nuggets, which the grocery store manager insisted that all boys Sam’s age would love. Sadie Mills furthermore insisted that chocolate milk was a godsend, the perfect reward for good behavior. Sam just gave him a pained look, took a few sips for politeness’ sake and retreated to his couch earlier than usual. He did turn on the television instead of retreating into the dusty tomes he’d found in Bobby’s study, though, watching the X-files instead of pursuing his mysterious studies.

If the boy had been a case Bobby would have found that important. And the boy, however much Bobby might rail against it, was a case. The chocolate milk – from the top dairy in the area – had been a barely tolerated treat. When John Winchester called later that night for a progress report Bobby didn’t have that much he was comfortable sharing, but he did feel comfortable talking about the boy’s physical health. “Does the boy have a problem digesting milk, John?” he asked point blank.

“Well, I mean, maybe he’s a little iffy if we’re eating somewhere that drenches everything in cheese sauce –“ the father defended.

“Okay, well maybe you’d be dealing with a little less sulfur if you gave him less cheese. The boy’s lactose intolerant,” he interrupted. “I mean don’t take my word for it, take him to a doctor, but that’s part of his problem right there. And maybe let him eat a little, he’ll grow more. Have you really been telling him that he’s fat, Johnny?”

“He needs motivation, Singer. He’s never going to get up off of his ass and do something if he doesn’t have one of us leaning on him. Anyway, this werewolf has taken a turn into Pennsylvania, I think. I’d best keep moving.”

Sam didn’t play. He didn’t seek out other children, not that there were any in the area of Singer Salvage, but he didn’t ask about the possibility. Bobby left the baseball gloves out in a prominent position, but even though he watched his charge carefully he never saw Sam so much as glance at them. He might have offered to go play a little catch with him, the way he had with Dean, if he’d shown the slightest interest but there wasn’t any there. Sam did his physical training every morning before Bobby woke, and then he sat and read. Sometimes he would take a book out into the yard. He didn’t seek out conversation, although he answered Bobby’s questions promptly and politely. As near as Bobby could tell, Sam’s life at Bobby’s consisted of morning workouts, avoiding food, and reading.

When Sam’s first full week at Bobby’s ended John called for another update. Bobby reported that Sam was doing his training faithfully; he did not report that he wasn’t sparring with the kid, because he didn’t want to hurt him. He did not report that he wasn’t shooting with him either. Sam’s words about putting a gun in his hands had been jarring, and Bobby didn’t want to have to face them. Occasionally Sam would tell him that he needed more ammo and that was enough for Bobby to be able to include it in his reports. As for the “other stuff,” that was going to take time. John didn’t like it, but that was the way it was going to have to be. If he wanted more details he could talk to his son himself.

The morning after that check-in Bobby woke to an empty house. There was no coffee waiting for him. There were no eggs. The blanket had been folded with the precision of obsession and hung over the exact center of the sofa back, but there was no duffel and no bookbag under the table. No boots peeked out from under the sofa, either. Anything that might have indicated that Sam had even been there at all had simply evaporated.

The kid had run off.

Bobby swore. The kid had promised him that he wouldn’t run off. Well, actually that wasn’t true, not entirely. He’d said he probably wouldn’t need to run off, not unless Bobby had “pervert clowns” in the basement. Which Bobby didn’t have. Bobby hadn’t given him any cause for concern, he hadn’t mentioned John’s fears since Sam had confronted him and he hadn’t asked him about anything that might remind him of his father’s suspicions. So he couldn’t have put the boy in fear.

Did he just maybe miss his daddy? Was that the issue? Sam didn’t seem to have a lot of love for his father, but then again Sam didn’t express much at all. The only thing that he seemed to care much about at all was Dean –

Oh. Maybe he’d caught it into his head to go looking for his brother.

“Balls,” the hunter cursed. Of course he would have done something stupid. He’d said it outright – if he didn’t have all of the information, if people kept things from him, he had no way of making the right decision. Why the boy couldn’t just trust that his father was doing everything possible for his brother was beyond Bobby – except it wasn’t, not really. He got in his truck and tore down to the sheriff’s office.

It hurt him that Sam hadn’t trusted him. He’d been nothing but good to the kid; he should have been willing to talk about his plans at least. What the hell kind of a damn fool just went and did things without talking about them first, talking about them with someone wiser and more experienced? John Winchester, that was who, and his boy was just like him. Bobby had never given the kid a reason not to trust him.

He supposed he’d never technically given the kid a reason to trust him, either. Sure he’d given him food. He’d given him a couch to sleep on, but how long had it been? A week and a half and the kid still didn’t have a pillow, for crying out loud? And Sam knew what Bobby’s job was. Bobby was the guy who was supposed to advise his father on whether or not to let him live. Why in the world would Sam trust him? Bobby ground his teeth and drove faster.

He raced into the sheriff’s office. Gerry McKenna was a good man; Bobby had saved him and his family from a poltergeist once. He gave the hunter a fair hearing at least and put out an APB for Sammy, although he agreed to go easy on him. “Explain to me again why his father didn’t just tell him that his brother’s in juvie,” McKenna sighed.

Bobby rolled his eyes. “Maybe because he doesn’t want Sammy to know his brother’s in jail?” he huffed. “I mean, Dean’s the only constant in that boy’s life. John probably doesn’t want that… that hero to be taken down, you know?”

“He’ll have to be, if the boy’s going to go and figure out where the kid is.” He shook his head. “You’ve got your hands full with this one, Singer. You ever think about maybe getting the kid some professional help?”

“The boy’s not crazy, he’s just down. He wants his brother. It’s only natural.”

“Nothing unnatural about needing some help when things get to be too much, Singer. There are people who are trained for that. They know the right words to use and everything, you know? Helps ‘em to get over stuff or get through it so they don’t wind up running off to wherever. Hey, you don’t even have to take him off to wherever to do it. They’ve got people in the schools now, you know? Have you enrolled him for the school year?”

“Let’s find him first, then we can worry about school. I don’t want to have to tell his daddy that I let him get away.” He grimaced.

“Has he got a habit of running off?”

“Apparently.”

McKenna folded his lips together. “Huh. Interesting. Well, let’s get to finding him then.”

Deputies were sent out with descriptions and instructions. Bobby, too, set out looking for the boy. The day drew to a close with no results, though, and a real fear began to claw at the hunter’s chest. What if something had happened to him? What if he’d been hitchhiking and taken by some kind of perverted stranger? What if he’d been mauled by a bear, or hit by a car? What if he just passed out from hunger or dehydration? It wasn’t like the kid had the sense to fuel himself when he did have someone taking care of him, never mind when he didn’t. What if he just lay down and died of exposure? Basically there was no way for this to end well for Sammy.

What was he going to tell John?

It was only at four in the morning that his fear was allayed by the ringing of his telephone. “I got your boy here, Singer,” drawled McKenna. “You want to come down to the station and pick him up?”

“You found him?” Bobby gasped. “Where?”

“Sheriff over in George, Iowa is a cousin of mine. Which is the only way he’s getting out of charges for attempted grand theft auto, I should add. He had the boy’s description and recognized him, so he called me instead of sending his butt up the river. I came and picked him up. You want to come and pick him up please?”

“Is he acting out?” That would be seriously out of character for Sammy, but McKenna sounded tired.

“I’ll explain when you get here. But I’m not taking my eyes off of him for even half a second.”

That sounded bad. Bobby rushed down to the sheriff’s office, where a pretty young deputy by the name of Jody Mills showed him back to the holding area. There he found Sam sitting in a chair, glaring at McKenna. Each of the boy’s limbs had been cuffed individually to part of the chair in which he sat. “What in the hell is going on here?” Bobby marveled.

“You neglected to mention, Singer, that your boy here is Houdini’s stunt double.” McKenna glared right back at Sammy, who seemed to be uncowed. “I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to get out of the cuffs and tried to make a run for it as soon as the car was opened.”

“And then,” added the deputy sitting across from McKenna, “he slipped the cuffs again and managed to get as far as the parking lot.”

Bobby turned to Sam. “You have anything to say for yourself, boy?”

“I can’t believe you brought the cops into this.” The words were ground out, almost growled. The contrast between this Sam and the almost too-calm, too-rational young man from the past week and a half could not have been more pronounced. “The cops? Really?”

“Thanks, Gerry. I’ll be sure that he knows what he did wrong,” Bobby told the sheriff through a tight grin. He put his hands on Sammy, gripping him tight as the deputy unlocked each individual cuff that secured Sam to the chair. The kid hadn’t gone down easily, that much was obvious; black and blue circles wringed his wrists. There would probably be other bruises on his small body, under the shirt, if the way he flinched at Bobby’s touch was anything to go by.

“No problem, Singer. I’m just glad we got him in safely. Give some thought to what we talked about, and don’t forget to enroll him in school. Middle school starts next week.” He offered half a grin. “They’ll have their work cut out for them. This one is a tough nut to crack. Wouldn’t say a word the entire time he was in custody, here or in Iowa.”

“I’ll make sure he sees the error of his ways. Thanks again, Gerry.” He kept his hand on Sam as he dragged him out of the station, not bothering to slow his stride to accommodate the boy’s shorter legs. He stumbled a few times, but Bobby just kept him moving until they got to the truck and then he cuffed him to the door when they got there. Sam just rolled his eyes but didn’t resist. “Don’t you roll your eyes at me, you little bastard. Do you have any idea of what you put me through tonight? You could’ve been killed!” Maybe his words were harsh, but so was the fury that rushed through his veins. He’d said he wasn’t going to run – he’d let Bobby think, even briefly, that he’d been molested the last time. It had obviously all been a set up to soften him up for this round.

“Saves you and John the trouble then,” Sam snarled, vicious. Those eyes weren’t blank and they weren’t neutral and they weren’t flat, not anymore. They blazed with a pure rage that no child should be able to summon. Bobby thought for a minute that the kid might lean over and bite him.

“I was worried about you, boy!” Bobby spat. “Do you understand me? I was worried about what might happen to you!”

“Why? Afraid something might get the job done before you found everything for my father? Why are you dragging me back? I know where Dean is! He’s the one you should be worried about!” Sam jerked on the cuff as two bright spots of color appeared on his cheeks. “For fuck’s sake, let me out of this truck and I’ll go myself, but I’m not just sitting by and letting him get… whatever.”

“Oh, you know where your brother is, do you?” Bobby sneered. “How did you figure that one out, genius? Huh? You couldn’t figure it out when he was taken but you know now?”

Sam’s glower looked like it could to peel the skin from his bones. Bobby felt bad as soon as the words left his mouth, but his anger still pumped through his veins and Sam’s response didn’t help. “Yeah, well I didn’t have your spell books then now did I?” he snapped back.

“Spell work?” Bobby growled. “You were doing spell work? In my house, without my permission?”

“They’re your books. And I didn’t do it ‘in your house.’ I did it outside. In the yard.”

“You little idiot! Do you have any idea how dangerous that could have been?” He thumped the steering wheel. “And what exactly do you think that you could have done for your brother if you had found him, huh? You’re a short, undisciplined kid who won’t think about his actions and won’t listen to authority. If he was in danger you’d just land yourself right there in it with him, and you don’t know that he’s in any danger at all. For all you know he’s perfectly safe, living it up with some nice foster family who’re giving him everything you say you want for him – a normal, safe life where he can have a chance for a future. Did you think of that before you decided to spend fifteen hours hiking across state lines to try to steal a goddamn car? Huh?”

“You don’t know that he’s with a foster family!” Sam screamed back at him. “I might be the only one who gives a crap about Dean but at least I care about him, at least I’m trying to help him!”

“Your brother ain’t the one who needs help here,” he reminded the boy. “You are.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Sam seethed. “You’ll do what you’re going to do. I don’t care.”

“You’ll care when I have to lock your ass up now that I can’t even trust you around the books,” Bobby pointed out. Sam just shrugged and looked pointedly out the window. In someone else Bobby might have described him as too tired to continue the argument, but it was clear from the way his shoulders practically vibrated and the proud set of his head that he was far from giving up.

Bobby moved Sam into the guest bedroom as soon as they got back to the salvage yard. He nailed the window shut before locking the kid in there for the day. After a couple hours’ nap he got up again and went about his work, still seething with rage. The boy had just taken off and hadn’t even apologized for it. He’d been doing rituals in Bobby’s house – didn’t he know how dangerous that was? But no, he knew better. He knew what mattered, and no one got to tell him different.

Bobby ate his lunch alone, waiting for his temper to subside. It was only as he started the evening meal that he began to feel like he could have handled Sam’s escape attempt a little bit better. He’d lost his temper. He’d hollered at the kid something fierce and maybe he’d had a right to be mad, but he’d been legitimately afraid for the kid. He had sounded like John Winchester. Worse, he’d sounded a lot like his own father there, at the end. There wasn’t ever any excuse for that.

And then there was the practical consideration of the boy’s feelings about him. Bobby had believed that he was making some headway with Sam, earning some trust, but as it turned out nothing could be further from the truth. The boy saw him as being in league with John, and if he was honest with himself he had to admit that Sam wasn’t wrong. John had put the thoughts in his head but they were there nonetheless. He didn’t like the fact that he’d so completely misunderstood the boy. He didn’t like the fact that he’d misread himself.

Finally, he had to evaluate his own caretaking. He’d locked the boy into a room and hadn’t brought him food or water since what, five o’clock in the morning? It was past six now. That wasn’t right. He needed to do better by the kid if he wanted to keep his body and soul together. Christ, no wonder the kid thought he was planning to kill him. He finished making dinner and went up the stairs to get the boy. He wasn’t sure what he expected to find. Maybe a trashed room. Maybe tears. Not a perfectly calm and composed boy lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. His eyes looked sunken, but otherwise he mostly looked contained. “You ready to come downstairs and have some food, boy?” Bobby demanded.

“I’m not hungry,” Sam informed him, glancing at him briefly before returning to his contemplation of the ceiling.

“When’s the last time you ate? Two days ago, before you run off?”

Sam didn’t even bother shrugging his shoulders. “Probably.”

“You even think about these things before you ran off or did you just decide that God would provide?” Bobby shook his head. “Get your ass downstairs.”

“I can eat when Dean’s safe.”

“He’s safe.”

“You can’t know that for certain.”

Something about his voice tipped Bobby off. “When’s the last time you had anything to drink, kid?”

“The first cop, over in Iowa, gave me some water.”

“After you walked for fifteen hours in the hot August sun. And then sat up here in the heat.”

The boy smirked half-heartedly. “Wasn’t my idea.”

“How much help do you really think you’d have been to Dean lying starved and dehydrated by the side of the road, idjit?” He shook his head.

Sam glared at him. “I had a plan.”

“Did you now? Get up and come get some dinner. We’ll talk once you’ve got some water in you.”

The kid took a long time getting up. Initially Bobby thought it was just rebellion, a sign of his sullen nature. When he remembered that this fatigue and listlessness were signs of dehydration, he offered his hand to help the kid up. It was ignored; Sam hauled himself to his feet slowly, but gracefully and under his own power. “You gonna cuff me to the chair?” he challenged as they walked down the stairs.

“Might as well,” Bobby agreed mildly. It pained him to do so, but the kid had proved that he couldn’t be trusted. He used two pairs of handcuffs to link Sam’s ankle to the chair; it took two so that the links could reach high enough to get over the stabilizing bar. “All right, here you go. Eat up.” He brought the boy a glass of water and, after a moment’s thought, brought a pitcher with him.

“So,” he said after watching Sam play with his food for a good five minutes. “You going to tell me what that was all about?”

“What, finding Dean?”

“No, jackass. The hunt for the Titanic. Yes, finding Dean. Your father is handling it. He decided you were going to stay here and you decided you knew better than he did. What… what made you a better judge of what was better for Dean than your father?” He took a mouthful of the meal he’d made. It wasn’t fancy, but it wasn’t bad. Sam wouldn’t even take a bite of it.

“Dad doesn’t care about Dean. He only cares about hunting. Dean doesn’t matter to him unless it’s about Dean being useful on a hunt.” He sipped at the water, sipped at it again. It wasn’t his first brush with dehydration, Bobby realized with a start.

“Is that what you really think?”

“It’s what I know.”

“Then what does your father feel about you?”

Sam huffed a little. “Well, I’m no good for hunting.”

“You could be. If you took orders.”

“I notice that no one gives you orders.”

“I’m a grown ass man.”

“What are the odds, do you think, that I’ll ever get to be one?” He stood up. “I’d like to return to my cell now.”

“Too bad. I ain’t done eating yet.” He took another mouthful. “You know, if your father wanted you dead he’d just kill you.” Maybe that would bring him around.

“He must have some reason he hasn’t done it yet. But I heard him talking to you. It’s on his mind. It’s on your mind. Quit playing pretend.”

“I’m trying to help you, boy.” Bobby bit his lip.

“I don’t need the kind of help you’re offering. I’m not Dean. I’m not going to become Dean. If that means I have to die so I’m not in the way? Fine. If I have to die so Dean is safer? Great. But don’t dress it up and pretend you’re helping me, alright?”

“It’s not pretend, Sam. You’re… you’ve got some problems. You need help.”

Sam looked away. He only opened his mouth to drink water for the rest of the meal.

Chapter Text

He brought the kid’s breakfast up to him the next morning, and made sure to bring plenty of water besides. He checked on him at lunch before heading out to go enroll him in school. Dinner consisted of chili and more tension. Bobby tried to draw the boy out on the subject of school. John had suggested that Sam enjoyed school, but the kid wouldn’t speak beyond “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir.” Bobby felt his ire rising. “What the hell is your problem, anyway?” he exploded at the end of the meal. “I could’ve let them send you up for grand theft auto, would you have liked that?” Sam shrugged. “All I’m asking is for you to talk to me, boy.”

“I don’t have anything to say.”

“You’re going to school next week.”

“They going to chain me to a chair there too?”

“You knew the consequences when you decided to take off, boy. Don’t you even try to make this my fault, like you wouldn’t run again if you had half a chance.”

Sam acknowledged this with a look. “What makes you think I won’t take off at school?”

“You like school. Your daddy says so.”

The boy snorted. “Like he even knows what I like.”

“Have you tried telling him?”

“Not in a very long time. I may be an idiot, but I do learn eventually.” He smirked.

Bobby counted to ten. “Tell me about your old school. Did you have a lot of friends there?”

“No, sir.”

“Why not?”

“Wasn’t there long enough, sir. Dad isn’t big on friends.”

“What about a girlfriend?”

“Right. No.”

“Why not? You’re at an age when you’re probably starting to notice girls. Dean definitely was, when he was your age.” That had to be a good approach, right?

Apparently not. “I’m not Dean. And even if I were noticing girls, they’re not going to be interested in a short fat kid who wears third-hand clothes that are stained with blood, guts and gun oil, okay? It’s not like I’m around long enough for them to see past anything superficial. So there’s no point.”

Well, it was words, at least. “So you think girls are only interested in superficial things?”

“That’s not what I said,” he gritted out. “Quit twisting my words. You’ve got plenty of excuses to give to Dad already without making crap up. When you first meet someone the only things you can tell about them are from from superficial crap – do they smell, how are they dressed, what do they look like. You have to get to know them to get to learn anything else about them. Everyone does that, guys, girls, everyone. We aren’t around long enough to get to know anyone beyond cup size and hair color and they’ll never get to know us any better than that.”

“Your daddy does keep you on the road an awful lot,” Bobby acknowledged without thinking.

“He doesn’t want us having any outside relationships. No friendships, no real dating relationships – nothing. So what’s the point? Why even bother talking to someone when you’re not allowed to matter to them and they’re not allowed to matter to you?”

“A man has needs, son.”

“Sure, maybe. But satisfying those ‘needs’ with anonymous strangers you pick up in truck stops seems hugely unfulfilling not to mention like a great way to pick up a disease or ten. I mean really – did none of you pass basic health class?” He shuddered. “I mean, why is it so wrong to want – to need – someone to be with on a long-term basis, someone who actually knows you and wants you instead of someone who just wants a quick –“ He blushed scarlet. “I am so not talking about this with you.

“That’s just not a life that people like us can have, boy,” Bobby told him gently.

“No no no. Uh-uh. That’s hypocrisy at best.” And he lapsed into silence again, arms folded across his chest.

And if he thought about it he had to agree with the boy. Bobby might choose to go the casual route now, but he’d known love with Karen. John had had Mary. The life he’d chosen for his sons essentially forced them into a life without romantic love – only familial, and from what Bobby could tell even familial love seemed kind of lacking. Dean – well, Dean didn’t seem to mind. He hadn’t seen the kid in about five years but from what he’d heard the boy didn’t have the slightest objection to short-term hookups. Clearly Sammy did. And long-term relationships didn’t usually work out well for most hunters, but was it right for a father to force that on his sons?

“It’s just the way our lifestyle works out, Sam. Maybe that’s something you need to let go of,” he tried gently. “If you’re going to be a hunter –“

“I’m not going to be a hunter.” He kicked his leg out, indicating the cuff keeping him attached to the chair. “Or did you forget why I’m really here?”

Bobby sighed. “I’ll bring you back to your room.”

“Cell.”

He gritted his teeth and escorted the child back to the room. It would be great if he could let the kid back out, but that wasn’t in the cards. Sammy didn’t acknowledge that he’d done anything wrong, and he’d dropped the pretense of innocence.

If Sam didn’t want to talk, that was fine. Let him stew in silence. Bobby had plenty of work to do on the case with all the fires. McKenna had been willing to talk to him about the damn things, and sure enough no accelerant was ever found at the scenes but the pattern was far too consistent to be coincidental. “It’s giving all of us nightmares, Singer,” the sheriff admitted. “We’ve had three deaths already and I don’t want there to be anymore, you know?”

Bobby did know. He ransacked his research to try to find any kind of supernatural nasty that might be causing the fires. A demon was his first thought. He trekked out to each of the scenes to examine them in detail and found no sulfur, but that didn’t necessarily signify anything. The fire department had turned high-pressure hoses onto the scenes, which would have washed away any trace of the stuff.

He started spending more time trying to put together demon signs and omens in the area. Cattle had been dying off a little more frequently than normal that summer. It had been chalked up to some kind of bovine disease, but there was no reason that couldn’t have been caused by the demon, right? Maybe the demon was possessing the vet who had diagnosed the disease. He made a mental note to figure out a way to go out to the vet’s office and get her to drink some holy water. Weather patterns had changed dramatically that year, even the national weather service had commented on it, demons weren’t necessarily off the table.

Should he warn Sam? Should he involve the boy? Demons weren’t something to mess around with, especially not if you were some snot-nosed kid with anger management issues. At the same time, the kid was going to have to learn sometime. He might not want to hunt but he wasn’t going to get much choice in the matter; John’s word was law in that family.

At the same time, of course, Sam was a case in and of himself. Bobby couldn’t let himself forget that even if he desperately wanted to. As near as he could tell there was nothing specifically inhuman about the kid, unless you wanted to count his will, but that didn’t mean that the boy was safe. His father had to know him better than Bobby did, and he couldn’t forget what had happened to Silas. He decided to keep Sam out of it as much as he could.

John called on Sunday night to ask about progress. Bobby reluctantly told him about Sam’s escape attempt and the measures he’d put in place to prevent another one. “Fucking kid couldn’t even wait two weeks before trying to defy me,” the elder Winchester snarled.

“Well, John, try to see it from his point of view,” Bobby tried reasoning. “He’s lost the only person who’s ever cared for him. Of course he’s going to try to help him. He doesn’t know that Dean is as safe as he’s ever been. He’s scared for his brother.”

“Yeah. I’m sure. I’m not sorry to have them separated a little bit, Bobby. I swear, Sammy’s bringing Dean down. Holding him back. And do you know they even move in sync with each other? It’s disturbing.”

“But not surprising, since Dean taught Sammy how to walk, ya idjit.” Bobby shook his head and poured himself a glass of whiskey. “The thing is, I need to keep him locked up now.”

“So no training. That’s probably why he did it now, so he could avoid having to move his ass.”

“Damn it, Johnny, no. That’s not it at all. He did it now because he figured out how to cast a locating spell. It’s the only thing he needed and he found it in my library.” He knocked back the shot and poured himself another drink.

“You’re joking. I know I’ve taught them both that messing with any kind of spell work is just out of the question. He knows better!”

“Yeah, well, apparently he doesn’t care if it gets him back to Dean. I made it clear that it wasn’t okay, that he couldn’t do that sort of thing, but I don’t think he was exactly open to logic at that point. Literally the only thing he cares about is Dean.”

“That ain’t right, Bobby. He should be focused on saving lives since his mother gave up her life for his.”

Bobby closed his eyes. “John. Listen. You ever think about telling Sammy the truth about what happened to his brother? Because I have to tell you – the kid made it all the way to freaking Iowa and only got caught trying to steal a car because the owner came out of her house unexpectedly. You think maybe he could have been the one to go out and steal food while Dean waited in the motel?”

“Nah. Sam’s not that competent. And he doesn’t need to know. The boys need some space. What are you going to do about school now that the police know he’s there – tell them he’s homeschooled?”

Was John Winchester seriously suggesting that Sam not be enrolled in school at all? “Yeah, I’m going to make him sit there and count ceiling cracks all day. No, he’s going to school, dumb ass. It’s where a boy his age should be. Meeting other kids. Meeting girls, hopefully.”

“Singer, it’s really best if Sam doesn’t get attached.”

“Then I’d wrap up your business quick and come back for him if I were you.” It would probably piss him off but he said it anyway. Damn the man, he’d left the kid with him he’d have to live with the consequences.

“You know I can’t do that. The kid can’t be trusted on a werewolf hunt. He’s too slow, too sloppy.” He sighed. “I’ll be along in a week or so, assuming that I can find the werewolf.”

“Fine.”

John wasn’t along in a week. Sam started school. Bobby drove him there and picked him up in the afternoons, promising dire consequences if the kid wasn’t precisely in position when he returned. What consequences he could possibly hold over the boy Bobby didn’t know; he’d already confined him to his room when he wasn’t at school or having meals.

About a week after Sam started school Bobby decided he could relax the boy’s restrictions to allow him to train – only under supervision, of course. This took some time away from his research on the fires, but he couldn’t in good conscience keep the kid confined to a bedroom full-time, especially not with his father calling him fat and slow all of the time. Assuming that his father decided to let him live – and that was an awfully big assumption, no mistake – he couldn’t afford to lose the muscle tone or speed from his regular training. He continued to show no interest in food, however.

“What do I have to do to get you to eat?” Bobby asked him one Saturday, about two weeks into the school year.

“I’m not hungry.” It was an automatic response.

“The school nurse called, you know. Said you’ve lost a lot of weight between last year and this.”

“Good.”

“Not good, boy. Not good at all. It ain’t healthy, boy.”

“It’s what my father wanted. I thought he knew best.”

“You know that’s not true,” Bobby told him. “I’m trying to take care of you, Sam. You’re supposed to be growing, getting stronger.”

“I’m honestly not hungry.”

Ultimately he found himself forced to give up on the demon theory for the fires. There just weren’t enough demon signs to make a case for such a thing. Demons were the rarest of creatures, cropping up maybe three or four times a year worldwide. He needed to be looking for something simpler. Witchcraft, maybe. Yeah, sure. There might be a witch out there starting fires – maybe the victims all had something in common. He started going over the victims’ lives with the help of the sheriff in the hopes of finding something that would link them.

Sam’s school life continued more or less on pace. He did his homework. He presumably took tests and got grades on them, but he never showed them to Bobby. Bobby did get a call from Sam’s math teacher asking if it would be okay to move him into the pre-calc math class; both the seventh and the eighth grade basic programs were proving insufficiently challenging for the boy. John would have said no, he didn’t want his boy standing out at all. Bobby gave his permission.

The school nurse hadn’t only called about Sam’s weight. She’d called about his mental health as well. Apparently the sheriff had made a personal recommendation that Sam speak to the school counselor. Bobby had laughed. “Let me tell you, ma’am,” he said. “If your counselor can get anything out of the boy you just go on and let me know, okay?”

“Well, by law the counselor can’t actually tell you anything, Mr. Singer –“

“I ain’t asking for anyone to break the seal on the confessional. I’m just saying that the boy ain’t likely to talk. But if you can get him to that’s great.”

He called back to check two weeks later. Sam was just as obstinate with them as he was with Bobby. At least it wasn’t personal.

Other teachers called. The art teacher liked his work – she thought he “showed promise,” but that his subject matter tended to be “dark” and “morose.” The English teacher thought he needed to “get outside more, and maybe make some friends.”

Bobby did keep trying to engage with Sam. His efforts were mostly one-sided, which offended the junk man. It wasn’t like the kid didn’t understand what was going on here. “I’m trying to understand you, kid. I need to be able to help your daddy get you, but I can’t do that unless you work with me.”

“He’s not interested in ‘getting’ me, Bobby,” Sammy retorted as they sat over yet another uncomfortable meal. “He’s trying to figure out how he can turn me into my brother and he can’t. I’m not… I’m not him. I’d love to be, but I’m just not. It’s impossible.”

“Do you think you could try to be more like Dean? Try to be more enthusiastic about hunting? That would make him happier.”

“I’d rather die.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little melodramatic?” he tried.

“Not really. I’m not willing to hunt. If hunting is the only life that’s available to me I’d rather have no life at all.” He shrugged. “It’s not that hard.”

“It’s not that bad a life kid. Learn to enjoy it. You get to be a hero!”

Sam sighed. “You’re not going to convince me, and even if I can convince you that I should be allowed to choose the live I live you’ll never convince Dad. We’re both just property to him. So.”

“So… what do you hope for, then?” he tried.

“I don’t.”

“There has to be something, boy. Everyone hopes for something.”

“I’ll work on that.”

“Sam, you’re way too young to be that cynical.”

“You’d probably think I’m too young for my father to want to kill too but here we are,” the boy snapped.

Bobby gave a deep sigh, deeper than he’d even intended. “Yeah, son. I know what you mean. But it’s not like that, really. Your daddy’s a hunter. He doesn’t so much want to kill you as he doesn’t understand you. And in his experience what he doesn’t understand is dangerous. He needs my help to learn to understand you and I’ve got to say, I’m not making a lot of headway here.”

“There’s nothing to understand. I’m twelve. I want to live a safe life, not get sacrificed to a revenge game someone else is playing. This is… this is normal. I’m not a freak for not wanting to get myself killed. Or for not wanting him to get me killed. For not thinking that someone I never even knew is worth my death. But there’s nothing I can do about it. About him.” He folded his lips together.

“You’re very close with your brother.”

“So?”

“You don’t think that’s a little… weird?”

He rolled his eyes. “So I’m supposed to be a robot now? For fuck’s sake, tell him to pick up a child development book.”

Even Bobby couldn’t suppress a snort on that one. “Yeah. Can’t say as I blame you there. He’s the only person who’s been around you, I guess.”

“Let me guess. He thinks I’m holding the Golden Boy back. Making him a worse hunter somehow, keeping him from being the very best that he can be.”

Bobby blinked. “How did you hear that, boy?”

“Because it’s nothing he hasn’t said before. Are you working a case, Bobby?”

“Eat something and I’ll tell you.” The way the kid carried on, rolling his eyes like that, he had to have the best-developed ocular muscles in the state. He still picked up a fork full of peas and carrots and put them in his mouth. “Okay. As it happens, I am working a case right now. I’m working a bunch of fires that have been sprouting up all over the county. The point of origin suggests arson. The places go up like it’s nothing but there’s no accelerant detected, not even cooking fat. I thought at first it was a demon, but there wasn’t any sulfur. Then I though maybe witchcraft, but I haven’t been able to find any commonalities between the victims to have that make sense.” He glared toward the library.

“Maybe there aren’t any,” Sam suggested. “There was a witch at this town, like, six towns ago. I want to say that it was in Maine? Mechanic Falls, maybe? The point is that they weren’t targeting people because of any kind of vendetta or grudge against them. They had a new toy, a new trick, and they wanted to practice with it.” He frowned. “Fire would be kind of weird for witches, though.”

“Why’s that?” The teachers kept telling him that the boy was smart. Maybe he should have listened.

“Because when you burn the hex bag the spell is broken, isn’t it?”

Yeah, definitely should have listened. “I suppose they could be making hex bags out of asbestos these days, but you’re probably right. Back to the drawing board.”

“Let me come into the library and I can help,” Sam offered.

“Why would you want to do that?”

“I’m bored. I like books. You’ve got a lot of them.”

“The last time I let you loose in my library you cast a location spell and ran off on me,” he challenged. “You going to summon a whatever-this-is into my study, boy?”

The kid glowered. “How would that help Dean?”

“He really is the only thing you care about, isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

And John Winchester’s solution wasn’t to broaden the kid’s circle but to isolate him even further. He shook his head. “Fine. You can help. But I’m going to be watching you, boy.”

“Fine.”

They went into the library and started work. Sam already knew approximately where to start looking, meaning that in the short time he’d been here and before he’d been confined to quarters he’d figured out Bobby’s organizational system and memorized where the different topics were piled. Christ, no wonder the kid made his daddy so damn nervous. They worked late into the night, Sam disappearing once to go get a notebook.

Bobby didn’t tell John that he’d brought Sam in on a hunt. He didn’t think that the patriarch needed to know, and he didn’t think that Sam needed the extra pressure of feeling like his daddy’s eyes were on him. He reported that Sam was doing well in school, which was of course completely useless to the father, and that Sam’s weight was of concern to the school, which the father laughed off. “They don’t have to live with him, do they?” he sneered. Maybe Bobby was turning psychic like Claire of Assisi, because he could practically see John’s sneer through the phone. “He’s got to be lean, Singer.” Bobby gritted his teeth and changed the subject.

Sam’s grades didn’t suffer now that he was working with Bobby. He did seem to perk up a little bit both at school and at home. He initiated discussions with his guardian, which he hadn’t done before. All of the discussions centered on the case, but they happened and they were started by Sam. Furthermore, the tone was completely different. Sam’s voice lost that hopeless sound, that desolation and spite. Bobby kind of liked it. If the kid hated hunting so much why was it that he seemed so enthusiastic about being involved with Bobby’s hunt?

Sam continued in school. He didn’t talk about school at home, and Bobby was pretty sure he understood why that was. His father had been pretty disparaging of the mere mention of school, after all. He made a point of calling in on a regular basis, both to make sure the boy was going to classes and to check on his progress. He thought the staff would object but it turned out they were delighted to have such an involved parent. Not that Bobby had anything to worry about on that account. No, little Sammy’s grades were top notch and his teachers were scrambling to find ways of keeping him occupied. The biggest issue was him throwing off the curve.

His teachers were concerned about his socialization, of course, and so was the school counselor. He was polite enough to the other kids, but he didn’t make overtures and they stopped making them for the most part. “I’m not supposed to talk about patients or their issues,” the counselor told Bobby, “but I feel that I need to bring some things up for Sam’s sake. How long do you expect that his father will leave him in your care?”

“There’s no way of knowing,” he admitted. “He could leave him here for another month or even two, or he could show up tonight. Why?”

“Because I believe that this lack of certainty is having a harmful effect on the boy, Mr. Singer. His records show that it’s been a fairly constant feature of his academic career?”

Bobby nodded. “His daddy moves around a lot; never did like being tied down.”

“I think it’s interfering with Sam’s ability to form relationships or normal, healthy bonds. It’s going to harm him in the long term. It’s already harmed him, Mr. Singer. He needs to learn to be around other people.”

Bobby grunted. “What’s he told you?”

“Not much,” the man on the other end admitted. “Name rank and serial number is pretty much everything. He’s done a good job of telling me that I’m in this position out of some kind of misplaced guilt, though. It’s funny – he’s so isolated, but he seems to understand people pretty well. It’s like he’s been watching them his whole life.”

“Yeah, well, that’s our Sammy.” Bobby sighed.

“Oh. He was invited to Danita Myers’ birthday party in two weeks.”

“Well that’s nice, her mom’s a nice lady. I remember Danita when she was just in pigtails.” He scratched his head. “I can give him a ride, it’s not a problem.”

“He said no. He was nice about it, of course, but he said no.”

“Why would he do that?”

“He wouldn’t tell me. I was hoping you could shed some light on that.”

“I’ll talk to ‘im. And I’ll call Debbie Myers.” He sighed. There was no cause for the boy to isolate himself more than was strictly necessary.

He did call Debbie, before Sam got home, and told her that unless something came up Sam was going to be at the party. The single mother sounded very relieved to get the news, although Bobby couldn’t see her face. “Oh, Danita will be so happy,” she gushed. “She was so upset when Sam said no! Truth be told I think she’s got a little bit of a crush on him. He’s been helping her with her homework in study hall and she’s been talking about him non-stop since he came to school.”

“Has she now? Well, that should make him happy. He’s a little bit shy.”

“He ain’t got nothing to be shy about, Bobby Singer,” she pointed out. “He’s already handsome, he’s only going to get prettier as he gets older. And he’s going to get very tall, you mark my words.”

“You think? He’s kind of a shrimp right now.”

“I’m a pediatric nurse, Bobby. Trust me. He’ll be a giant. And so polite!”

“You’ve met him, then?”

“Oh, sure. I came in to chaperone a field trip.”

Bobby hadn’t even heard about the field trip. He’d have to talk to Sam about that. “Well, I’m glad he’s made a good impression on you at least.”

Sam apologized for forging the permission slip form. “It was force of habit, sir. John – Dad – doesn’t want to be bothered with school stuff so we don’t. . .” He shrugged. “It won’t happen again, if you don’t want it to.”

“If I’m going to be your guardian, boy, I need to know what’s going on and have some clue where you are. Can you imagine what would have happened if your daddy had showed up for you while you were at the museum?”

“Opera, sir. But I see your point.” He looked at the ground.

“It’s alright, boy. I see why you did it. Listen. What’s this I hear about you not going to Danita Myers’ birthday party?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Oh. Yeah. It just doesn’t seem right.” He kept his eyes on the ground.

“Why the hell not, kid? From what I hear the girl’s already crazy about you.”

Sam blushed to the roots of his hair. “Well, that’s kind of the problem, sir.”

“What, don’t you like her? You’ve been tutoring her during study hall or whatever.”

“No, no. She’s nice. Smart, too. And she smells good.” He hunched in on himself a little.

“So what’s the problem, boy? She wants you at the party, you like her. Her mother likes you too.” He tried to stretch his mind wide enough to wrap around whatever issue Sam had created for himself here but couldn’t quite grasp it, whatever it might be.

“I’m still going to leave at some point. I don’t know when, and I’m not going to get to say goodbye or anything. It’s not exactly fair to her, is it? I mean, I’ll just disappear.” He looked up through his bangs at Bobby. “Kind of a jerk move, don’t you think?”

“You don’t have any control over that.”

“No. But I can control how much I encourage her.” He shrugged.

Ah. “Boy. You’re allowed to enjoy some happy times, you know. Even your brother goes out and has fun, gets together with girls or hangs out with a hunting buddy like Caleb. And your daddy has hunting buddies, and he enjoys female company too. It’s okay to talk to people who aren’t your blood relatives. You don’t have to just… hide yourself away like you don’t have anything to offer.”

“But is it fair to her? And I’ll just have to leave. Who says that I want to start something just to leave?”

“But you’ll remember the good times you had with her, boy. I wouldn’t trade the good times I had with my wife for anything in the world, even though they… came to an end.” Bobby grimaced. “You’ll be happier about the life you have if there’s some joy in it, boy.”

He made a face, a small one, and picked up a book. “So. Salamanders.”

“Lizards?” Bobby wasn’t going to get anywhere further, but hopefully the kid would think about what he’d said.

Sam pursed his lips and glared. Even when he’d been all of seven he’d made the same face; Dean had called it a “bitchface.” “No. Different writers have thought that they were different things. But the earliest commentary we have on them, from the Talmud, suggests that they’re created by someone who has burned in a fire in the same place for seven years.”

Bobby contemplated that for a moment. “How would that even happen?”

Sam grinned. It was the first real positive emotion he’d shown since coming here and maybe it was a little chilling that it was coming out because of such a grisly concept but at least it was a smile. He even showed his dimples, and Bobby had started to think those were entirely fictionalized by Pastor Jim. “Well, St. Augustine apparently thought that they were created by the flames of Purgatory. But I don’t think we have to get that exotic.”

“You don’t?”

“Nope. We’ve got plenty of opportunities right here on planet Earth to create salamanders, if the victim couldn’t manage to escape. Like, if they were restrained or overcome by fumes or something.” He offered a grimace. “Have you ever visited Centralia?”

“What, that place in Pennsylvania?”

“Coal fires, sir. You get a coal seam that goes up and it can burn for decades. Centuries, even. Centralia’s the most famous one, but it’s not the only one. You’ve got the Smoking Hills up in Canada, the Sego mine in Utah, New Straitsville in Ohio.” He gestured with one of his oversized hands at a stack of books. “It’s not out of the question. I mean, Paracelsus was more of the random-walking-lizard school of thought but don’t you think those would have drawn attention over the years? And I mean, he was kind of drawing from ancient sources but those sources were drawing from other sources, sources they didn’t necessarily respect.”

Bobby tried to contemplate someone burning for seven years. “I… so you think that there’s someone wandering around who… burned for seven years and is doing what now? Just burning things for the hell of it?”

“I don’t know, sir. The Prophet believed that they were just plain evil and ought to be killed. But…”

“I don’t suppose he offered any suggestions on how to kill one?”

“Not him,” Sam replied quickly. “But some French sources say that locking one in a confined space so it has to breathe in its own poison – so, carbon monoxide poisoning. But – I mean, don’t you think burning for seven years in the same place, without ceasing, wouldn’t that be kind of traumatic? Like, enough to kind of unhinge a person?”

Bobby shifted, uncomfortable. “Maybe.”

“So it can’t really be evil if it doesn’t know what it’s doing. I mean, this was a person once,” Sam insisted. “They’re not… they’re not in their own right mind, they’re not in control of themselves.”

“They’re killing people and burning half the town, boy!” Bobby exclaimed. “What is it that you’re trying to do here, bring it home and keep it as a pet?”

“No, sir. I’m saying that evil is a choice, right? And if the salamander didn’t make the choice to become this, and is only hurting people because it can’t control itself – if it used to be human, it should be helped, not hurt.” Sam’s jaw clenched and he blinked his eyes furiously.

“Kid….” Bobby rubbed his hand over his face. “It’s good to be compassionate. It is. But we have to remember that even if it’s not in control of its actions, it is killing people. People that have a right to live in safety.”

“What if there’s a way to save this person?” Sam insisted. “The person stuck inside the salamander – what if we can free them? What if we can stop them from hurting people and make it so they can’t start fires anymore?”

Bobby sighed. “Okay. You’re the one that figured out that it is a salamander. If you can figure out a way to turn it back before it kills again, I’ll back your play.”

Chapter Text

kidnotalright2

Honestly, Bobby had expected that the impossible task of saving the salamander’s putative humanity would force the boy to admit defeat and just let Bobby work on killing the sucker. He’d done well in finding a possible solution to what the critter was; the idea would never have even occurred to Bobby without Sam’s suggestion, and Bobby knew damn well that there was no better mind when it came to research. Sam could afford to focus on school and on that girl who’d been chasing him, and who he’d almost admitted to liking back. He could let the expert focus on things like patterns and victimology and figuring out who the thing was and how to trap it.

That’s not what Sam did, though. He still got his schoolwork done. He still did his training. He just cut some things out, and apparently those things included sleep. The salamander – if that was what it was – set three more fires over the time between when Sam made his hypothesis and the time that Danita’s party rolled around. Two were in abandoned buildings and had no casualties at all. One resulted in the death of Mildred Oster, aged 97. Apparently she’d died of smoke inhalation in her sleep, never waking up. This didn’t offer a lot of comfort to Bobby, but Sam looked a little less pale when he heard that small detail. Like it mattered to Mildred.

Sam’s grades didn’t suffer, but his teachers noticed his exhaustion nevertheless. Bobby fobbed them off with a very stripped-down variant of the truth. “Sammy’s a little anxious about the fires that’ve been cropping up around town,” he told them. “His momma died in a fire when he was a baby, and I guess it’s got him a little worked up. He’s been having trouble sleeping, but he’s been trying to channel that into something productive. Once the authorities get the situation under control I’m sure he’ll sleep for a week!”

He considered Sam’s evidence for the culprit being a salamander, and he had to admit that it looked good. Sheriff Gerry showed him some of the trace evidence from the scenes and it turned out that there was skin found at every scene, a good amount of it. The lab didn’t seem to think that the skin belonged to a human – the coloring was right, but the texture more closely resembled scales. That was consistent with a mythical salamander, at least according to DaVinci. Bobby told his comrade about the creature he thought they were hunting, and the sheriff winced. “I have to say that sounds farfetched, Singer, but so did a poltergeist before you saved me from one. And that skin – well, I can’t exactly explain that one away unless we start getting into lizard-human hybrids and that makes even less sense than salamanders.”

“It was the kid that figured it out,” Bobby told him. “Took him a few days, but he figured it out alright. Figured out how to kill it too, which I’m probably going to need your help with.” He explained about sealing the thing up and making it breathe in its own poison. “I don’t know if you’ve got anyplace to do that. I’ve got bays for body work, but the thing can burn through the paint curtains in about five seconds flat.”

“Yeah. I think we’ve got a place the bomb squad uses. It shouldn’t be a problem if you can get the critter over here. So things are working out with the kid, then?”

Bobby shifted, bones suddenly not quite aligned right. “I don’t know. He’s smart as hell, Bob. Too smart, if you know what I mean. And I know that the kid’s hurting, but it’s like he doesn’t want me to do anything about it, you know? He won’t let me in.”

“You can’t fix that kind of… that kind of hurt in a few weeks, Singer. Or, hell, even in months. You can make some progress, maybe. Has he tried to take off since that one time?”

“Nah. I ain’t even cuffing him to the chair at meal times anymore.”

Gerry gave him a look of unfathomable disgust. “Really, Singer? That’s how you handle a runaway?”

“Well what else was I supposed to do? He just took off! I couldn’t trust him to stay where he needed to be, and I couldn’t watch him every minute.” Bobby squirmed. “The kid didn’t even struggle.”

“All that means is that it probably ain’t the first time. Jeez, Singer. And you wonder why he won’t let you in!” Gerry shook his head again. “Come on, let’s get this site ready for your salamander thing. So tell me.”

“Yeah?” God, it might have broken Karen’s pure heart but it had been a damn good thing they hadn’t had children. He’d have been a terrible parent. Maybe not John Winchester levels of terrible – he didn’t think he’d have let Sam get to this point to start with – but he’d clearly screwed up with Sam too.

“What are you going to do with the boy long term?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, clearly his daddy’s not doing right by him. I ain’t saying that there ain’t some other things going on there, don’t get me wrong. Some people are always going to have problems. But the way the family responds to those problems can make things worse. You think you could keep the kid with you?” He led the way to his squad car.

“Who, me? Sammy doesn’t much like me and you already pointed out that I screwed things up pretty good with him.” He took the shotgun position.

“Yeah, and I’ve talked to the teachers at his school, too. They’ve all said how involved you’ve been, how encouraging of him. How much of a change they’ve seen in him since he started here. I think it could be good for him.” He shrugged.

“I don’t know.” He couldn’t exactly tell the sheriff that the boy’s father thought he might be a monster and need to be put down, could he?

The facility turned out to be perfect for what they had in mind. Now all Bobby needed to do was to be sure that he could figure out who the salamander was and how he could get him back to the bomb squad facility.

Sam, of course, wasn’t willing to let Bobby do the work by himself. Part of Bobby thought that it was because he wanted to help, to prove himself. Another part of Bobby thought that it was because he didn’t trust Bobby to do it right. He’d noticed that about Sam over the past few weeks – he had his ways of doing things, precise little things that had to be done exactly so. The blanket had to be folded with the corners and edges lined up precisely, the shoes had to be exactly in line with each other and facing the door (never the wall), laundry had to be washed a certain way and could only be put away in the duffel (never the drawers – he’d thought Sam might burst a vessel the one time that had happened). Sam checking the research and doing it again and having to do it his way was like that – not trusting Bobby to get it done “the right way.”

And Bobby couldn’t help resenting it slightly, though he tried. He told himself that Sam was a screwed-up kid, high strung and more than a little neurotic. There was a word for that kind of behavior, that kind of ritualism, and there was probably medication for it too –medication that Sam’s ass of a father would never spring for. But Bobby knew damn well how to do his job and it wasn’t for some snot-nosed little punk who’d never needed to shave to come in and tell him he wasn’t doing it right.

But then Sammy actually found things that Bobby had missed. He found little patterns that Bobby never noticed, and that chafed against the hunter’s pride. The kid hunched over the files until two or three in the morning every night until he finally turned to Bobby and said, “Ranch houses.”

Bobby looked up from his own books. “Come again?”

“Every building that the salamander has burned has been a ranch-style house. Every last one.”

“Okay,” Bobby admitted. “You’re right. But they built a lot of those for returning GIs after the war, kid. That don’t really narrow it down.”

“Do you have a map?” Sam asked. “One I can write on, not a fancy atlas?”

Bobby huffed and went out to his truck. He had a road atlas; he could replace it at the gas station if the kid marked it up too badly. “What you got in mind, kid?” he demanded, handing it over.

Sam grabbed a pencil. “Okay. The first fire was out here, on the edge of the county, right?” He placed an x on the location of the first fire. “And then the second was here. And the third here…” He continued plotting fires. Then he connected the points with a soft, sweeping arc. “He’s spiraling, Bobby. Literally. He’s spiraling toward some kind of a point right in here. There’s something he wants in this area here.” He drew a circle in a six-block area. “I don’t know what it is that he wants. But it’s somewhere in here.”

Bobby bit his lip. “Okay,” he said slowly. “That narrows it down. But how do we figure out who it is? I mean, that’s a pretty densely packed area. Lots of ranch houses, kid.”

“Yeah. But if we can figure out who in that area might have a connection to someone who’s been in an area with an active coal seam fire it might help.”

“Balls,” Bobby swore, taking off his hat. “I knew I’d regret becoming an old hermit. It could be almost anyone.”

“Almost anyone having a relative disappear for at least seven years into coal country or the Northwest Territories?” Sam raised an eyebrow. Too damn smart, that kid.

“That does kind of narrow it down,” he had to admit with a grin. “Lemme talk to Sheriff Gerry and I’ll see what I can come up with. In the meantime, off to bed with you. You need your sleep, kid, or you’re never gonna grow.”

He shrugged, but obeyed.

The next day they went into town instead of doing physical training to buy Danita her birthday present. Sam knew exactly what he wanted to buy her; she liked history best and he wanted to get her a book about the English Civil War because she’d been curious about it. Bobby let the kid browse the bookshop for a while. This wasn’t some big-box chain store; it was independently owned and Bobby knew the owner stocked a very eclectic mix of material. He noticed the kid lingering over a book about the history of South Dakota and made a point of buying it when the kid wasn’t looking. It would make a good going-away present when John finally came for the boy.

After the bookstore they did a little more shopping – Sam needed something new to wear to the party, something that wasn’t repaired and permanently stained. John might be annoyed that Bobby was “spoiling the boy,” but Bobby didn’t want Sam to feel hugely out of place. Then they went to dinner – nothing fancy, but not Bobby’s cooking and not Sam’s fussing. Sam even ate half of his dinner, which Bobby found nothing short of miraculous.

They went home and did some more research, and Bobby had to admit that it didn’t feel quite as tense in the house as it had for the past several weeks. The next day Sam went to school and Bobby got back to researching.

And the day after that was Danita Myers’ birthday party. Sam did his training before the party, making sure he was scrubbed clean and perfectly dressed before Bobby drove him over. The hunter noticed with a sinking sensation that the place was within the six-block spiral in which the salamander was likely to strike, and he could see by the look on Sam’s face that the thought had occurred to the boy too.

“Don’t you worry, boy,” he told Sam gruffly. “I’m pretty sure your friend’s house ain’t a target.”

Sam swallowed and nodded. “He’s scared,” the boy said. “He’s scared, and he’s traumatized. He’s probably not going to seek out a party full of twelve-year-olds, right?”

“No, he’s not,” Bobby agreed. “But you know how to get hold of me if you need to.”

“Yes, sir.” He got out of the truck. “I’ll see you later, Bobby.” He smiled shyly, just for a fleeting second before his face returned to normal and he disappeared up the walkway. Bobby sat back and let the pride wash over him; he’d accomplished something special.

Bobby drove over to the sheriff’s office. Gerry met him there. “What do you think, sheriff?” he asked. “Any clues about the people in that area? My boy’s in that zone right now and I’m a little antsy.”

“Your boy now?” Gerry smirked. “That’s good to hear. Well, I’ve got about ten candidates.”

“That’s all?” Bobby made a sour face.

“Well, let’s talk about them, shall we?” The young deputy Mills brought them some coffee and they started poring over files.

There was one man from the area who had disappeared with no explanation about ten years ago. They ruled him out – provisionally, of course – fairly quickly. He’d had no real connections – his parents had died before he disappeared, he had no close friends or lovers in the area, there was nothing that could possibly penetrate the trauma of burning constantly for seven years and pull him back to this area. There were two more who had left home for mining jobs in the western part of the state and never returned. Both had been declared dead, but no one knew better than Bobby that that didn’t necessarily mean anything.

There were three more men, and two women, who had gone to prison. Sam had referred to the salamander by male pronouns but that didn’t have to be the case. The salamander might have been a woman. Quick checks proved that both of the formerly incarcerated women were accounted for, though, as were all three men.

That left four possibilities. Two families had moved into the area without their menfolk over the past fifteen years. One had lost their father figure in a car accident down in Florida, which was tragic and might make for trouble down in Tallahassee sometime but probably wasn’t part of the problem that they were dealing with in the here and now. The other had ejected their father figure because of a domestic violence situation maybe nine years ago – Bobby remembered that case, now that he thought about it. Jane Wilson had been in terrible shape when she and her three children had fled their home. The community had rallied around her, essentially forcing her husband out. He’d slunk off for parts unknown not long after; perhaps a mine had taken him on. Maybe he’d taken his anger out on the wrong person and gotten himself into trouble. Bobby could certainly imagine wanting to toss the son of a bitch into a coal seam.

Another father had gone off looking for work when the meat packing plant had downsized and never been heard from again. It wasn’t out of the question that he could have tried his hand at coal mining. And the last family’s son had headed west, up and into Canada, for what was supposed to be the mountain climbing adventure of a lifetime and never been heard from again.

“Geez,” Bobby observed. “You’d think the whole ‘ten people just up and disappearing’ over the past decade and a half’ from the same six block radius would have stood out to someone.”

“I’m a sheriff, Singer. I’m not a babysitter. Most of them weren’t even reported missing or at least weren’t reported missing here.”

The hunter held up his hands, trying to soothe his friend a little. “Hey – I ain’t saying you did anything wrong. I didn’t notice either, and it’s my job to notice things like this. The one who did think of it was the kid.” He made a face. “I’m telling you, Bob, he’s too damn smart. Anyways, I like one of these four for the salamander. The one we know went somewhere with a coal fire is the Hudson boy.” He thumped the hiker’s file.

“Yeah, but that’s only because he actually went toward Canada. He could have shacked up with a girl in Vancouver and just be stoned out of his mind for all we know. This whole circling around thing… it’s kind of troubling. It makes me think…” He logged into his computer. “I’m wondering if there’s anything we’re missing. All of these guys would be missing their families obviously, but is there anything about their old lives that would draw them back beyond that? Something that might narrow down a target for them.” He started typing.

“What do you mean?” Bobby frowned.

“Well, I mean, did any of them have any outstanding complaints against them? Any, uh, any strong issues that might break through that kind of pain that you’re talking about from the seven years of burning?” He grimaced. “I can’t remember every single case myself, but that’s what this damn thing is for.” He thumped the monitor screen.

Deputy Mills came running into the room. “Sheriff, there’s been another fire. The Myers resi-“

Bobby rose to his feet. “What?” His hands and arms felt numb; his legs like they were disconnected from his body. “Did you say –“

“There was apparently a middle-school birthday party?” she hazarded with a wince. “Fire crews are already on the scene –“

He approached her. “You need to take me there. Now!”

She shifted her weight to better distribute it for a fight and tilted her head a little to one side. “Excuse me?”

“It’s okay, Jody. He doesn’t mean… His ward is one of the kids at the party. Give him a lift, if you don’t mind,” Bob added with a wave of his hand. He was already drawing his jacket on. “He’s mostly harmless.”

Jody glowered at her boss for a moment before turning on her heel and racing for her squad car. Bobby slid into the shotgun position, barely getting his door closed before she peeled out of the parking lot with the sirens blazing.

Fire crews were already on the scene by the time they got there, as were multiple ambulances. Debbie Myers sobbed on the neighbor’s lawn, with the neighbor lady holding onto her like it was taking all she could do to either hold her up or hold her back, it was hard to tell. There were about ten kids around her, a mix of boys and girls. All of their clothes bore traces of smoke damage, and all of their faces were smudged with soot. None of them were Sam. Bobby grabbed the nearest kid. “Where’s Sam?” he roared.

The kid gasped. “He’s –“ He pointed at the house, which had flames billowing from the picture window in the front.

The air left Bobby’s lungs like he’d been tackled. Sam was trapped in the house. He couldn’t lose him. Not like this. “What happened?” he demanded.

“Carl Staley came over,” said the neighbor lady holding Debbie up. “He used to live two doors down on the other side. He just walked into the house like he owned the place and the place started burning all around him.”

The name sounded familiar. He’d been one of the four, Bobby recalled. His hands shook. “And then?”

“We couldn’t get out the front door,” one of the girls insisted. “Three of us were in the kitchen and we got out through the garage, but the fire moved fast.” She started to cry. “Mrs. Myers got us out through the kitchen, but Danita –“

Debbie sobbed louder, beyond the neighbor lady’s ability to hold her up. Bobby took over for her and the nurse collapsed into his arms. “Danita?”

“Danita was still in the living room with the rest of them,” another kid responded. “There were sixteen of us.”

“So if only three of you got out with Mrs. Myers, how did the rest of you get out?”

“Oh, Sam Winchester,” a boy told him. “We kind of scattered – everyone was looking for an escape route. I went into the bathroom, but I couldn’t reach the window. It was up too high. Sam came in and took out the screen and helped me through it, then he went and looked for some others.”

“Me too,” added a girl. “Me and Katie Murray.” She pointed at the ambulance. “He helped her – her sleeve caught on fire, but he put it out. Then he helped us get out the window in the master bedroom.”

Each child told the same story. Sam had appeared at their side and helped them escape the fire, but hadn’t followed them, even though they’d expected him to be right behind them. Bobby shook his head. What the hell was that kid thinking? The fire had already spread so fast that the fire department was hanging back – the house was in danger of collapse. All anyone could do was stand and wait for the inevitable.

Every once in a while they would hear a scream punching through the roar of the flames and the whoosh of the fire hoses as they tried to contain the fire to the one building. The scream indicated another child being ejected from the building. Medics would race to the site, but they would only find another child that Bobby didn’t know; no Sam and no Danita.

Finally, the front half of the house collapsed in on itself. It felt like it had been hours, but it really hadn’t taken long at all. The salamander must have fueled the fire with its own energy somehow. On the one hand it was terrifying; the monster had managed to completely destroy a home in under fifteen minutes. On the other hand, it gave Bobby what he most desperately wanted to see.

It gave him Sam.

The boy stood in the little girl’s bedroom or what remained of it. The place had once been pink; now it was gray and sooty. Danita herself had huddled down between the bed and the wall in a kind of fetal position. Sam – his shirt wrapped around his nose and mouth as a kind of mask – crouched down and picked her up in his arms. He looked around himself, assessing the situation, and found a path. Even though it clearly pained him – even at this distance Bobby could see the agony on his expressive face – he raced toward the front of the house.

A firefighter ran toward them, arms out to take Danita from the boy. Sam gave the girl up willingly enough, but then he turned around and went back into the building.

“Now what the hell is he doing?” Bobby demanded without thinking.

Sammy walked slowly toward a lick of flame that seemed to hover in place, hands up. It was hard to tell from this angle, but it almost looked like he was speaking to it. After a moment – punctuated by wild coughing fits from Sam – the flame solidified into the form of a man. The man’s white skin seemed unnaturally clean for the circumstances - everything around him was smoke and ash but here he stood in gleaming, albescent glory.

Sam walked out of the burning wreckage, hands up and coughing like there was no tomorrow. Sheriff Gerry raced forward, gun drawn, and Sam paused in his coughing long enough to give him an epic bitchface. “He knows what has to happen,” Sam gasped. “He says he’ll go quietly. He can control it long enough for you to drive him there.”

Then Sam collapsed. A paramedic raced forward to tend to him, and Bobby lost track of time as he watched strangers struggling to revive his charge.

The next few days passed in a blur. Sam’s most severe injury turned out to be smoke inhalation, which surprised precisely no one. He had some pretty extensive second-degree burns but the hospital had a good burn unit and they were able to get those under control; chances were that he wouldn’t even scar. He spent just over a week and a half in the hospital for the smoke inhalation, which Bobby found that he was okay with.

There was absolutely no question of Sam or Bobby paying for anything. The parents of the children Sam had rescued came together and firmly insisted that they were taking on all of his medical costs. Bobby wasn’t going to argue – John hadn’t given him cash for an extended hospital stay, never mind that kind of intense oxygen therapy, and while wanted what was best for the kid, he honestly couldn’t have afforded it on his own. Part of him hoped Sam didn’t get used to it.

The salamander, Carl Staley, managed to talk, before being sealed into the bomb squad’s chamber. He had lived in the neighborhood, just as the woman had said. He’d started eyeing Danita when she’d been just a tiny girl. Neighbors had noticed. Her mother had noticed, and Carl had been “subtly encouraged” to seek employment elsewhere. His own wife had reported him missing, but more for insurance reasons than because she regretted his loss - she knew what he was. He’d found employment in a mine but had slipped up again, gotten caught going after a miner’s kid. He’d been tossed into a coal fire and found himself changed into a new kind of monster. He’d been out of control, acting only on impulse until Sam had talked to him, convinced him that evil was in fact a choice. It had been enough for Carl to stop himself and let Sam and Danita out safely. The problem, of course, was that evil had been part of his soul long before he’d transformed. He couldn’t rely on his newfound, fragile self-control. The chamber was the only solution.

Naturally, John Winchester showed up about five days into Sam’s ten-day hospital stay. Bobby cursed his luck. “Where’s the boy?” John demanded.

“Hospital,” Bobby admitted. He wasn’t afraid of John Winchester; he wasn’t intimidated by the other hunter. He wasn’t.

John looked genuinely curious. “Why?”

“Fire.”

“The place looks fine to me.”

He considered the full truth. He truly did. Why shouldn’t John know that his son needed to socialize, needed to meet other human beings and needed to know how other people lived? Needed friends? “It was a hunt, actually. Salamander.”

“We don’t go to hospitals, Singer. Too risky. Too much of a paper trail.”

“Oh, you mean too much of a record of you having two sons if you decide you need to rub out the younger one?” he sneered. “There were tons of witnesses, Johnny. It wasn’t like I could stop them. Anyway, he saved fifteen kids besides himself, and one of the mothers besides. Oh – and he’s the one who figured out what we were dealing with and how to kill it.”

John was silent for a moment. “Really.”

“Yeah. Really.”

“All by himself?”

He almost responded and then he realized what was happening in the parent’s head. “Christ, no wonder that kid’s so screwed up. I’m the one who told him what the parameters were. I showed him the case files. I told him about the fires, I told him what was happening. It took him time. He didn’t just… conjure up a salamander. That’s not how it works.”

“It’s not?”

“No. He’d have had to drop one into a fire seven years ago and kept it there. Since the poor kid has no idea what it’s like to stay in one place for seven weeks, never mind seven years.” He rolled his eyes.

“But you do think something’s wrong with him.” John pressed.

He sighed. “Yeah. I do. But not because he’s not human. He’s a human boy. A very human boy. Who, by the way, is very much aware of your real opinion of him.”

“He needs to take orders. He’s a soldier.”

“He’s not a soldier. He’s a boy. A scared and traumatized boy. He’s afraid to eat because you call him fat. He doesn’t know how to form normal relationships with other people because you’ve never allowed him to socialize. He broke out of here to go rescue his brother because he doesn’t trust you to take care of Dean. And he didn’t care that you want him dead because he doesn’t see life as worth living.”

“He told you all this?” John snarled.

“Not in one piece. I had to put it together because he didn’t trust me either. Because he figured out real quick that you didn’t leave him here just for babysittin’.” He fought against the urge to tell him the truth - that Sam was on to John’s tricks - but knew that would make Sam even less safe. “Johnny, your boy didn’t even care as long as Dean was safe. Don’t you see how screwed up that is? How damaged that boy is?”

“I do what I have to do, Bobby. I left him here because I had to know.”

“No. You didn’t want the truth, you wanted confirmation. You wanted to know that it was okay to kill your youngest son – that he was already too far gone to be saved. And the thing is, Johnny, he already believes it’s true.”

John shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. If he’s not… you know, if he is human, then there’s no reason he can’t buckle down and learn to be just as good as Dean.”

Bobby sighed. “When’s the last time Dean ran into a burning building and rescued sixteen people, John?”

“Dean does what he’s told when he’s told to do it!” the elder Winchester snapped. “He would never have run off on a damn fool’s errand. If I told him to leave Sammy where he was he’d have damn well done it. That’s the problem. Sammy doesn’t follow orders. Dean trusts me.”

“And you think this is a problem with Sam.”

“You’re damn right I do.”

Bobby sat down at the table again. “Look. John. Why don’t you just… leave him here? He’ll be safe, you know I can train him, and it would be good to have someone around here that’s got a head for the research. I’ve never seen a kid who likes it that much. He’ll be better off, you’ll be happier and –“

“Not happening, Singer. You’re besotted with him, just like Jim. You’ll both just coddle him. He needs discipline, not coddling. He needs a firm hand, not someone who’s going to let him bury his nose in a book. No – as soon as he’s done pampering himself in the hospital I’m taking him to go get his brother. Can’t have him getting soft.”

“He’s got a girl here, you know.”

Bobby knew as soon as he said it that it was absolutely the wrong thing to say. John looked like someone had thrown an entire bucket of cold water over him. “I want him out of here tomorrow.”

The doctors weren’t having any part of that, and neither were Sam’s singed lungs. But the same day that he was allowed to leave the hospital Bobby drove him back to the scrapyard and he was transferred to his father’s car without even being allowed back into the house. Bobby had packed up his things and taken a moment to admire Sam’s foresight in never allowing himself to unpack. He did take a moment to slip the book he’d bought for Sam into his bag.

He didn’t think he’d miss the kid’s sometimes-sullen, usually silent presence. He did, though. He couldn’t even put his finger on why, but it would hit him sometimes, suddenly, over the years. Dean was the easier Winchester to love, the one that Bobby maintained a relationship with as the boys grew older. He didn’t make any attempt to reach out to Sam when he went off to Stanford and didn’t try to stay in contact after Dean died.

When Sam brought up his plan of jumping, Bobby couldn’t help but think of the salamander – Carl, he reminded himself forcefully, Sam would want him to remember the man’s name. Bobby could do that much for him. And he could back Sam’s play, if only because it was the only game in town. At least, he thought to himself, it wasn’t Dean.

But when he found himself brought back to life just in time to see the ground close up over Sam, all he could remember was the boy who had wanted to help someone who had been changed and manipulated by forces outside his control. What lesson had Sam carried away from that incident? What lesson had he taken with him into Lucifer’s Cage? And how much of the lesson had come from Bobby? He didn’t know. He didn’t want to know. He let Castiel bring him back to Sioux Falls, and buried himself in his books.