Tina is dead on her feet.
It's been a stupidly long week already and it's only Wednesday. Ben has been hacking his lungs up the past three nights so she's barely managed an hour's sleep at a time, and now that the doctor's promised it’s nothing life-threatening she's finding it increasingly difficult to sum up the maternal strength to provide yet more honey and lemon at 3am. To make matters worse, Lily's started griping too, hoarse little voice warning that the Killer Flu has far from left the Shandy household.
Tina's well aware she hasn't been the most pleasant of clerks today, but then again people don't expect manners and polite conversation when they draw up at the scrubby Gas 'n' Go. Still, Tina likes to make an effort, ask where people are headed, make a little small talk, isn't it horrible weather we're having, that's a fine ride you've got there ma'am, anything else I can get you? Usually she likes to make people smile, ‘cause if that’s the only real good she can do in this world then she’s damn well going to do it.
Not today though, because Tina has had it to here with today.
The light above the cash desk flickers jarringly, and Tina sighs through gritted teeth. She shifts on throbbing feet and runs an impatient hand through her bangs where they fall grimy and greased in her eyes.
It's getting on for 9pm and she's thinking about calling up Jamie to ask if he can start the late shift early when the entrance door bleeps and two kids walk in, the surprisingly cold April chill gusting in behind them and sweeping up the aisles, making Tina shudder.
Tina frowns, clocking the security camera on the desk to check she's seeing things right.
Yep. Definitely kids; not the usual teenagers who sometimes stumble in around this time, eyes glazed and clothes on inside out looking for more drink. The two boys don't look like trouble, far too young for that, and they're apparently alone too, seeing as Tina hadn't heard the familiar crunch of gravel that signaled a car arriving.
The taller boy rounds the aisle nearest the cash desk, tugging the little one, presumably his brother, behind him by the hand. He can't be much older than Ben, Tina thinks with an unsettled twinge in her stomach, certainly no older than 9. The little one looks to be about 4 or 5, unruly dark curls falling into a round babyish face.
"Heya boys, can I get you anything?" Tina calls, smiling at the older boy, because she may be near-sleeping standing up, feet aching in her trainers, but something about this is setting off all her warning bells and she's suddenly feeling very awake.
"We're good thank you ma'am," the boy says politely, giving her a small, careful smile in return, "just lookin'."
He's a good-looking kid, Tina thinks, or at least he will be when he grows a little. Strong jaw, naturally lean, with eyes green enough to notice from this distance. In a lot of ways though, he looks grown already. His clothes are sturdy but worn, patched messily in places, and there's something about the dullness in his expression, a tired, distant look that Tina's never seen in her kids and never particular wants to see in them either. Something like the thousand-yard stare she used to see in the eyes of her daddy and his friends when she was a little girl, and ain’t that enough to send a shiver down the spine.
The boy never for one second lets go of the younger kid’s hand.
"Alrighty then," she says measuredly, keeping up the cheery facade, "just you shout if you need anything."
Tina watches them on the security camera feed as they make their way around the store, pausing in the Essentials section to pick up some milk, the older boy ducking down to the bottom shelf cheapo basics that are mostly out of date. They stop frequently, the little one crouching to peer at certain items, thumb in mouth, eyes wide and curious, his brother waiting for him, watching him, sometimes offering a smile or a quiet comment that Tina can’t quite hear. He’s a picture of parental patience, but there’s something innately wrong about seeing it in the actions of a kid who hasn’t hit double digits yet.
After a short circuit, they start to head Tina’s way, back over to the cash desk.
As they're passing the candy section, the younger boy pauses again, little sneakers scuffing on the lino as he pulls out of his brother’s hand, forcing him to stop and turn. He reaches out to the chocolate bars, makes a grabby hand gesture, and then looks up at the older boy, big brown eyes imploring. The plea is obvious, universal, and Tina’s seen that exact same puppy-dog-eyed look on Lily so many times that she feels a sudden, overwhelming rush of affection and an acute desire to close up as soon as these boys have gone and get home. Damn she misses her own kids after long days like these.
The older boy however seems well-attuned to this particular technique and just rolls his eyes, a smile quirking his lips.
“Hell no Sammy, you greedy guts. You ate, like, four o’ those the other week.”
Sammy mumbles something incoherent and reaches up to tug at his brother’s jacket.
Tina watches, caught between incredulous disbelief and a faint sense of horror as the older boy’s face closes up in response to whatever his brother just said; the flash of childish teasing vanishing as though it had never been there at all. Boarded up behind the same deep-seated tired look that seems to haunt this kid.
"You know why we can’t Sammy," he says quietly, and even his voice sounds tired, faintly hoarse, as he holds out his hand.
Tina has a hard time not gawking when Sam just goes with it.
He doesn't ask twice, doesn't whine or gripe or throw himself to the floor in a screaming, red-faced tantrum like Lily used to do. He just ducks his head all-forlornly like and takes the older boy's hand again, quiet as the grave.
And with that Tina decides that the situation going on here is far from a-okay, and she steals herself as the two approach the counter, determined to find out exactly what's going on.
"Little late for you two to be out all alone isn't it?" She says pleasantly, as she helps the older brother (he can’t be anything but) stack up their few, measly, squashed-box and cut-price items on the cash desk. "Your mom sent you in here to pick up some things for her?"
As if any mother in their right mind would send kids as young as these two out on their own at this time of night.
The older boy stiffens slightly, his face closing off again, eyes flashing to Tina dark and defensive. "Our dad's out of town for a few days. We just ran out of a couple o' things." The emphasis on 'dad' leaves no room for questioning that a mother isn't in the picture.
Tina attempts to mask her horror and bites her tongue. An 8 year old left alone to care for a preschooler? She wouldn't trust Ben with a goldfish let alone another human being. And she can see right through the ‘ran out of a couple of things’ BS. The items on the cash-desk; milk, cereal, beans and jerky strips, speak of end of the line rations. Tina was one of 6 growing up in two bedroomed flat. She knows this shopping list.
"He's home tomorrow so it's no big deal," the boy says, firmly this time, as though he’s reading the judgment on Tina's face.
"Sure thing son, sure thing.”
Sammy is staring at the cash desk display of Hershey bars, thumb in mouth, eyes just level with the edge of the counter. He's a little paler than his brother, cheeks a little gaunt, none of the puppy fat Lily had when she was his age, and the unnatural glint in his eyes hints of a hunger that's more than a day old.
"You're Sammy right?" Tina asks him gently.
Sammy jumps, hand clutching his brother's tightly, gaze snapping to Tina's.
"Sam," he corrects quietly, taking his thumb out of his mouth, and then pauses for a second before adding- "and dis is Dean" as though he's not sure if it's the right thing to say.
Dean scoffs a little, looking down at his brother with a fond expression. "You hafta introduce me to everyone Sammy? I don't even need to speak anymore do I? Not at the rate you're catching on."
Tina laughs, and plucks the Hershey bar Sam had been eyeing from the display, dropping it into their shopping bag. She can afford a dollar for this kid.
"Here Sam, that one's on the house okay?"
"You don't have to do that- we don't need-" Dean starts up at once, expression abruptly hard again.
"Oh I know you don't need my charity sugar," Tina interrupts smiling, "I can see you're more than capable of taking care of yourself. But Sammy here looks like he could do with a little caring too."
Dean puffs his chest out, face going red, and Tina can see she's hit a sore spot, that Dean clearly takes Sam's welfare very seriously, probably more seriously than his own, and he opens his mouth to fire something back at her when Sam interrupts, reaching up over the desk to pat Tina's hand carefully with a small, grubby, chubby fingered-palm-
"Thanks," he says earnestly, and Tina didn't even know 4 year olds could do earnest but this one certainly can, and she thinks she might just tear up because of it.
Dean sort of deflates, and his mouth shuts, clamping down on whatever he was about to say.
"That's alright kid," Tina says gently to Sam, "your big brother's just looking out for you isn't he? Ain't nothing can argue with that."
Sam seems to go a little shy then, and ducks into Dean's side, tucking his face under his brother's elbow so he dosent have to reply to Tina.
"He's just tired," Dean says, softened by Sam's sudden show of wariness. He ruffles Sam's brown, cowlicked curls with his other hand and then reaches into his pocket to put the money on the counter.
Tina counts it over quickly. They're 70 cents short, but another instinctive surge of feeling tells her that these kids are down to their last dime, so she doesn’t mention it, just slides the crumpled notes and quarters into her palm.
"Anything else I can get you boys?" She dosen’t really want to let them go back out into the cold.
"We're good thank you ma'am," Dean says politely, just as he did before, just as he probably does multiple times a day to concerned mothers asking about him and his brother. And then he's leading Sam away by one hand, shopping bag in the other.
Tina watches them go, chewing her lip hard, fingers twitching on the counter top. She's in half a mind to call out, to stop them, invite them over for some proper food, a night in a room that isn't the dingy motel in town, but she can't quite summon up the courage. Dean would only refuse her ’charity’ anyway. Her maternal instincts, the side of her brain that is telling her she needs to look out for these boys, so clearly neglected and tired and alone, wages war with her frankly practical side that Tina’s always been proud of; they aren't orphans, they've got a father and a roof over her head, and anyway, they're complete strangers- kids, sure, but strangers- and she's got enough to worry about with the Final Notice bills and two sick kids of her own-
And that's when she sees Dean sliding a packaged cake from the shelf surreptitiously into the shopping bag, barely even pausing as he heads to the exit, pulling Sam along with him a little faster.
"Hey!" Tina yells, instinctive, rounding the counter in a second, "just what d’ya you think you're doing?!"
Dean speeds up, acting as though he hasn’t heard, breaking into a near-jog trailing Sam behind as they hit the final aisle.
”You stop right there!” Tina hollers, and breaks into a run too, she shoulda known, shouldn't have fallen for such an easy trick: two cute boys, rough themselves up a bit, act out a sob story a blind man could see through and whaddya know, the perfect cover for theft. Tina half-runs, half-stumbles to the end of the aisle, blocking their path, opening her mouth to start a lecture, ready to start demanding the truth this time, whether they really are just theieves or whether their Dad is in on it too- probably his idea in the first place-
But then Sam trips, too-short legs failing to keep up with Dean’s pace and he hits the lino on his hands and knees hard, crying out.
The effect is instantaneous.
Dean skids to a halt meters from the doorway and scrambles back to his brother, falling clumsily on his knees as he goes, dropping the shopping bag and sending food skidding across the floor, the milk crushed into a slippery mess and soaking through his jeans as he pulls Sam up from where he’s curled up -
”You’re okay, you’re okay Sammy-”
Sam’s not crying, even though his little four-year-old face is screwed up in pain, and somehow that just makes the aching hole Tina can’t help but feel for these boys grow all the larger.
Except they’re thieves, and there’s no getting round that.
”Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t call the cops,” Tina threatens, still panting to catch her breath, and like hell is she gonna call the cops but the point still stands-
Dean spins round on the floor eyes wide and terrified, hands held out in a gesture that couldn't be anything else but surrender-
"Please ma'am, please don't call ’em, I've gotta look after my brother, Dad'll kill me if he finds- just please, you can have it all back, the cake, everything, even the stuff we've paid for I don't care, just please let us go, we’ll go right now, I’m real sorry, honest, I didn’t mean- we just-"
Dean's kneeling in front of Sam, one hand keeping the younger boy pushed behind him, but it's Sam who catches Tina's eye.
He's not looking at her.
He's looking up at Dean, expression confused, anxious in the face of Dean's fear and desperate pleas, and with a shuddering, hitching breath, he begins to cry.
Not loudly mind, just quiet hiccuping, gut-wrenching sobs half-brought on by tiredness no doubt and Tina's anger melts instantly away.
At the first sob, Dean's face just crumples.
He snaps back around as though he's on strings that are somehow connected to his brother and Tina’s presence dosen’t even matter anymore, and instantly starts up trying to peel Sam's small hands away from where he’s hiding his face.
"Shh, shh Sammy," Dean murmurs, a tone of desperation in his voice that makes him sound on the verge of tears too, "c'mon kiddo don't cry, please don't cry Sammy-"
This time Sam doesn’t obey. If anything, his cries get louder, the quiet hiccups growing to agonized wails, and he burrows into Dean’s arms.
Dean pulls him tighter into his chest, shhing him, right there on the floor in the middle of the grimy Gas 'n Go, spilt shopping strewn everywhere, a growing puddle of milk extending around them, and Tina throat goes tight and hot and she feels horribly out-of-place, as though she's intruding on something she has no right to witness.
Dean stays like that for a while, murmuring softly to Sammy who stays wrapped tight in his arms, stroking his back and hair with a trembling hand, letting Sam scrub his tears into Dean's shirt.
Dean doesn't do a thing about his own tears, tracking silent paths down his cheeks.
They look for all the world as though they’re barely keeping it together, the two of them, as though they’ve seen and done more than either of them can really understand, as though they’ve been limping along, making it through the concerned queries and the motel hook-ups with grim determination for long enough, and now everything has reached its peak and come crashing down around them.
Tina thinks she might cry as well.
She bends down, starts to pick up the strewn items, packing them back into the flimsy shopping bag. Calling the cops seems ridiculous now, accusing the two boys-
"Why did you have to take the cake?" Tina asks quietly, voice a little tight around the painful lump in her throat. Somehow, she already knows the answer.
"It’s his birthday on Sunday," Dean says, voice cracked, even though his expression is back to being shuttered and defensive over the top of Sam’s head, and Jesus, this kid really hasn't hit double digits yet?
"And you're out of cash," Tina finishes softly, "your Dad didn't leave you enough?" Christ, her heart’s breaking for these kids.
"Somethin’ like that." Dean's dosen’t move, but his hands tighten around his brother, whose whimpers have quieted to weary snuffling noises.
Tina finishes repacking the shopping bag, bar the packaged cake and the spilt milk, and then puts the bag by Dean's side.
"You can take what you've paid for son," she says, standing over them and resisting the urge to lay a hand on the boy’s shoulder, "but stealing is never okay. Even for birthdays. You coulda asked and I might well have given it to you."
Despite the tears and the spilt milk and the horrible sense of despair and desperation that hangs heavy and painful in the air, she feels like she has to make some sort of a point here. Dean is good kid, that much she can tell, and for a young boy to be so compassionate, so self-sacrificing at such a young age; well, Sam was going to grow up good. But that didn’t mean she was Mother Theresa herself. Might as well teach the boys a lesson in morals.
Dean glances up at her warily with too-bright eyes, like he can't quite believe she's letting them off.
"And you're not gonna call the cops?”
"I'm not gonna call the cops," Tina fights back a sudden urge to smile.
“Or the socials?"
Yeah, that one isn’t so funny.
"Or the socials,” she says with a sigh, “though I goddamned well should. You at the Blue Rooms motel on this side of town?"
“You payed up there till your Daddy gets home?”
“And you got enough money to keep you going till then?”
“Like I said, he’s home tomorrow-“ Dean starts, indignant,
Tina cuts him off with a fierce glare. “Don’t mistake me for being stupid sugar, I’ve got a boy myself your age and I know a lie when I see one.”
Dean shuts his mouth in a hard line, shifts Sam away from where he’s curled up against his chest, and starts to get to his feet.
“I’ve a half-mind to pay your Daddy a visit whe-“
It’s like she’s shot him- Dean’s back to looking stricken and terrified in a heart-beat-
“Please, I’m meant to - my brother-“ he starts, voice cracking in a way that makes Tina wince, and oh hell no, she can’t bear to do this again.
She picks up the bag of shopping dripping with milk and holds it out to Dean.
“Alright, alright. Just take what you paid for and we’ll call it even okay? Just pretend it never happened.”
For a moment Dean looks like he’s going to refuse, on point of principle, in-keeping with this messed up idea of refusing pity or charity and it’s so goddamned hypocritical the poor kid must be so confused.
But then Sam says-
“Dean? Can we go now?” and Tina can tell that that’ll be the final word whether Sam knows it or not. Dean’s shoulders slump, like the whole ordeal has aged him somehow, and nods.
“Sure Sam, we can go.”
He takes the bag and meets Tina’s eye one last time.
“Thank you ma’am.”
“Don’t worry about it sugar, just don’t let me catch you doin’ anything like that again.” Tina tries to get a smile out of him, but Dean’s already ducking his head, nodding again all contrite and guilty (and it’s just so wrong, so wrong on an 8 year old kid Tina kinda wants to scream) and then turning for the door, tugging Sam after him.
She watches them go, passing under the fluorescents in the parking lot like child-ghosts, skin eerily green in the light, before disappearing into the dark shadows onto the sidewalk.
Tina doesn’t think she’ll ever see them again.
But she hopes they get back safe.
That night, when Tina finally gets home and climbs the stairs to kiss the kids, snivelly and grouchy, goodnight, she holds them a little tighter before she lets them go.
Dean is woken up on May 2nd by Sam jumping on his head, yelling at the top of his voice that Dean is the bestest, bestest, biggest brother in the whole wide world in-between making growly noises with his new dinosaur slippers.
“Again? Sam you’re meant to wait for me to wake up before you open your presents!”
Sam pauses, looks momentarily crestfallen.
“But dinosaurs!” he insists, and well, the kid has a point, they are pretty awesome. Dean had been eyeing them at the Walmart from last August, waiting for the price to come down.
“Yeah they are pretty awesome,” Dean concedes and pinches Sam under the armpit to make him squirm.
Sam squeals, always so predictable, little kids are the best, and scrambles back to his bed to use his duvet as a dinosaur cave.
“I’m pretty awesome!” he says, voice muffled under the safety of the blankets.
“Nope. I’m the awesome one. We can’t both be awesome that’d be dumb.”
“Okay!” Sam chirps and Dean laughs, because birthdays have always been a bit of letdown since he’d learnt from kids at school that they’re not supposed to be limited to an extra dessert at whatever diner they happen to be at and a new shirt. It was another way in which he’d had to accept it just wouldn’t be the same for them as it was for normal people.
But since Sam got old enough to know what it is he’s always extra-hilarious when it comes round to his turn. Totally hyped like he knows it’s something to get excited about. Dean does what he can, always gets him a little something, but it’s never enough to warrant the insane bouncing-off-the-walls Happy Sam that he gets to deal with every May 2nd.
“Can we go to the park?! Play dinosaurs?” Sam asks, sticking his head out from the foot of his bed, hair sticking up all over the place.
“Sam. They’re slippers. Y’know, for wearing inside.”
“And?” and it’s that thing that Sam’s started doing lately, mimicking Dean’s sulky pre-teen emphasis when he’s grouchy and doesn’t want to have to deal with a 4 year old brother, but Sam never gets it quite right and it cracks Dean up every. goddamned. time.
So Dean says they’ll go and Sam goes a little crazy with excitement and it looks like it’s going to be an alright day, because even though they’re out of food for real now, Dad’ll be back by 5pm and Sam’s way too hyped to notice that he hasn’t eaten a square meal in days. But when they step out of the motel door, Sam very nearly goes flying, stumbling over something right on the doormat and-
It’s a basket, traditional wicker style, laden with food.
Bread and milk and Spaghetti-O’s and Fruit Loops and double-choc cookies and cupcakes that look homemade holy shit and candy- Hershey’s and Snickers and Tootsie Rolls and Nerds and right in the middle of it all, like the jewel in the goddamned crown, a packaged birthday cake, a note tucked under the plastic-
Happy Birthday Sam!
Love, Tina (the Gas ‘n’ Go lady) xx
P.S. It’s not charity when it’s a birthday present