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These Lies we Cherish

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Privacy doesn't mean the same thing when applied to Sam as it does when it's applied to John Winchester, so Sam isn't terribly surprised or concerned when John storms up to him with something clutched in one hand. He should be, but he doesn't realize that until a bit later, when he realizes precisely what it is that John's holding.

Sam is in the process of putting a sandwich together with lukewarm lunch meat on the end table beside the sheet-covered couch in the house they're squatting in when John storms into the living room.

Sam. What is this?”

That voice and those words aren't particularly rare when it comes to Sam. It doesn't help that John knows all the good hiding places. The fact that they move often enough and with so little warning that they have to be ready to go at any time only narrows the list of places Sam can hide things. In the past, John has stormed out with the exact same words and a book Sam stole from a library. After that, it had been a textbook on criminal law Sam had bought from a book sale, and then a cigarette lighter with a dragon on it that he'd won in a card game from an old man in a bar.

This time, it's different. As soon as Sam sees what his father is holding, a chill flushes through him.

Sam sees the envelope and the logo on his acceptance letter, red and white. The papers crinkle in John's fist, and Sam shakes at the carelessness with which his father handles his future.

“What is this, Sam?” John repeats, and the words are barely-voiced, more a growl than anything.

“Give it back,” Sam whispers.

The paper crinkles further, dwarfed by John's fist. “What did you say to me?”

“Give it back, Sir.” Sam says. A part of him cringes at his tone of voice. He knows he shouldn't talk like this, but he can't just back down. Not for this. Not when it's important.

Sam's thoughts turn to Dean, who's there for him every time he needs him except times like this. Even Dean gets tired of stepping in to break up fights between his stubborn little brother and his hard-headed dad. Sometimes, even Dean needs a rest. There are very few things Sam wouldn't give for that not to be the case. He needs Dean's support, now more than ever.

“I won't have you speaking to me like that, Samuel Winchester.” John takes a measured step forward, and Sam shrinks back. There was a time Sam would have welcomed the nearness, a time he longed for a hug or just a few kind words to let him know he was worthy. He's given up, though. He and John speak a different language, and none of his natural skills or interests are compatible with what John wants from him.

So instead of stepping closer, or stepping into line like he's sure his Dad expects, Sam finds himself spewing out the angry words again. “You won't have to in a couple months now, will you? I'll be gone and then you won't have to worry about me messing things up.”

“No.”

Typical John. Cold, hard, brooking no argument.

“No what?”

“You won't be going anywhere. You'll be right here. Now pack your things. There's a hunt in Jefferson City I've gotta see to.”

“I won't.”

“You damn well will,” John says, voice getting quieter and more gruff, eyes narrowing. Without warning, his hand lashes out, twining into Sam's collar. Sam has grown a lot lately, but John still towers over him by a good few inches. The rough, dry skin of John's knuckles drags under Sam's chin as he lifts, stretching the collar of Sam's tee. “Because I told you so. I won't hear any more lip from you, son. Now, I'm gonna go get rid of this letter and we won't speak any more of this, you hear?”

Sam hears; of course he does. Hearing isn't the problem.

Sam looks away, pressing his lips together.

Sam feels the tension build in John, and a part of him knows (thanks to a drunken, late-night chat they'd when Sam had helped John get to bed because Dean had been sleeping off pain pills with a recently re-set dislocated shoulder) that John is like this because he's afraid if he loses control (of anything, really) that he'll lose his boys.

Knowing doesn't help, though, not now.

“You answer me, boy!”

Sam presses his lips together tighter, chewing the flesh of his bottom lip between his teeth, and doesn't look at his dad.

“Dean,” Sam whispers instead, the word tumbling from his lips before he's conscious of speaking it.

“That's right,” John says. “Dean!

Fast footsteps clunk over the floor and Dean pokes his head in. “Sir?”

“Get your things and get 'em in the car. We're leavin' tonight.”

Dean nods and turns to go.

“Dean,” Sam says again, “Please.”

Dean stalls for a moment in the doorway, blinking as his gaze slides between the both of them. “I, uh—”

“Dean, get ready to go,” John says again.

“Yessir,” Dean mumbles, and the way his eyes lower is sort of an apology in itself.

Sam knows. He's not stupid. He knows that Dean can't always be the hero. He can't please both John and Sam all the time, and sometimes he has to choose. A dirty, dark voice inside Sam reminds him that when push comes to shove, Dean usually chooses John, but he crushes the voice down and pacifies it with remembered instances when Dean stood up for him.

When Dean is gone, John's gaze turns right back on Sam. “Now, you go get ready to leave,” he says. The fingers clenched in Sam's collar loosen, and he lets Sam down until he's not standing on tip-toes. “And we won't talk about this again.”

Sometimes Sam backs down.

Not today. He relaxes, lets John think he's going to obey, but as soon as John turns, fists loosening, Sam lunges forward to tear the acceptance letter from his father's fingers. And Sam is quick, agile. He's good.

He learned from the boy who learned from the best, and Sam has always been light on his feet, flexible. He's never been as strong as Dean, but he's always had a wider range of motion; the handful of times he's won during their sparring sessions are down to that.

He plucks the paper out of John's hands and springs back a few steps before John realizes what's happened, clenching his fist too late, turning around with renewed rage in his eyes.

“Sam,” he says, head cocking to one side, eyes cool and unblinking with threat. “I won't say it again.”

“You don't have to,” Sam breathes, and adrenaline kicks through him, burning in his stomach and tingling to his extremities. “I heard the first time, and the answer is still no. I'm old enough to make my own choices.”

“You'll never be old enough to make your own choices, Sam! Not with what's out there. Not if you don't listen to me and learn how to hunt these things. Not until we kill that thing that killed your mother.”

There it is: the Winchester Family Credo, the words that two gruff men have lived by for years and years.

“I don't even remember her!” Sam finds himself yelling, and tears prick his eyes as a wave of weakness washes over him, so strong he can hardly stand. “I don't remember Mom at all. This isn't my fight, Dad! It's not my cause. You and Dean can do what you want, but I can't fight for a woman I never even—”

The punch comes as a surprise, really. John has a way with words, a way to build up and tear down that most drill sergeants would envy, but he almost never resorts to talking with his fists. Before Sam can finish his sentence, though, bright shards of pain explode along the side of his head, and he's sure for a second that the force of the punch tore his ear off. His vision jolts and sparks with color, and then he's gone.

He comes back to himself after a little while, and John still looks pissed but also worried.

Sam hurts everywhere. His head is cradled (imprisoned, really—neck crooked at the wrong angle and aching like he slept on it) against the curved metal feet of the end table, throbbing with a vengeance. He bit his cheek at some point, and his mouth is flooded with the taste of blood. He feels warm, jagged skin and a zing of pain when he darts his tongue over the wound. Worst of all, though, is breathing. He probably fell on the edge of the end table with all his weight on his way down—must have—because his chest is on fire. He doesn't dare to touch it, but just trying to sit up makes his wavering vision darken with black static as the pain throbs inside him like something he'll never get out.

John stares at Sam with his mouth half-open, like he wants to try to explain this away. “Sam,” John starts.

And then the cavalry arrives.

Sam hears the back door (all the better not to be seen by any neighbors) crash open, and then Dean's voice, coming closer, “Has anyone seen my butterfly knife, 'cause man, if I lost that thing—”

Dean stops dead when he gets to the door.

“Dean,” Sam whimpers from the floor, chest burning with each breath, and he can tell that Dean knows something is wrong with Sam even if he can't tell what.

“Sammy?” Dean whispers, and then slower, hesitant and almost afraid, “Dad?”

“Dean, you stay out of this. Sammy's gotta learn his lesson.”

Dean barrels inanyway, kneeling next to Sam, turning his face to see his eyes, pressing firm touches everywhere until he gets to Sam's ribcage and elicits a bitten-off scream. Dean recoils as if he feels every bit of his little brother's pain. “Shit, Sammy, I think it's a broken rib, at least one. What the fuck, what the actual fuck, Dad—” With wide, darting eyes, Dean seeks John out.

John looks apologetic for a second, withering under Dean's accusatory glare, but then he swells with anger again. “Y'seen the letter, Dean? Did you keep it from me, too?”

“What letter?” Dean glances from John to Sam and back again.

Sam just shakes his head from the floor, once, firm and slow. When John starts to speak again, though, he shakes his head harder, making little hiccuping sobs he can't hold back. This isn't how he wanted Dean to find out.

John steps forward. “You know our boy here plans to run away, leave us, and go to some college somewhere, just throw us and the family business in the trash on the way out? Did you know that, Dean?”

Dean's gaze spins to Sam, questioning, but he goes rigid when Sam meets his eyes, words jumbling from his lips as a whimpered apology.

“No,” Dean says. “No. Sammy isn't—he wouldn't—”

“He did. But it's a mistake he won't make again.”

Dean looks like he's going to cry for a second, hands still gentle on Sam's shoulder and one side of his face, but then he draws back and shuts down. “Sammy?” he asks.

“M'sorry, Dean. I was gonna tell you, had it all planned out...”

“You're leaving,” Dean breathes. Sam twists to get a look at his face, ignoring the slice of pain the movement causes. He flinches when he sees his brother's face, the way the green eyes are closed down and narrow, lips pursed white and bloodless.

“Dean, I wasn't going to—”

Shaking his head, Dean stands. “You need... I'll get a rag. For the blood.” He leaves without looking back. From the floor, Sam sees his muddied boots turning the corner, and his whole body buzzes with the guilt of it, the fresh memory of Dean's face closing down, betrayal in every line.

Dean can't just do that. Both of them have been lying to him or betraying him his whole life, promising things that just won't ever come true, and all Sam wants is to be safe, to live in a place where the shuffling noises after midnight are sleepy feet instead of vengeful ghosts. This thing Dean does, trying to straddle the line, Sam hates it, and hates it more because he understands it.

The momentary truce lasts until thirty seconds after Dean's gone. The water is running in the kitchen, high-pressure, non-stop, way too long to just wet a rag, and John steps in.

“Sam,” he says, low and grating. It's his soldier voice, the one that never fails to get his sons to hop-to and do whatever he asks. But once—just once, damn it—Sam doesn't want to crush down the words and pretend like this is something he can do for the rest of his life.

Sam's mouth tastes like blood. “Dad, I can't.”

Sam never had a daddy phase. John was never really a daddy for Sam. It's always been yessir, nosir. “Dad” is as close as he's ever gotten. A part of him knows (thinks, wants to believe) that his father loves him, but the truth is, John has been running all over the continental United States since Sam was old enough to remember anything, and a few treasured memories of tight hugs or mutterings of I'm proud of ya, Sammy, have never been quite enough to make him sure. Sometimes he thinks his father treasures him, is afraid for him. Other times he thinks his dad may just be afraid of him.

“I can't,” he says again, louder, forcing the unwieldy words past his lips, loud enough to be audible over the ringing in his head and the wail of pain that speeds his blood through his veins and makes his heartbeat pulse in his ears.

John is quiet for too long, hands white-knuckled and shaking at his sides, and nausea rolls through Sam, forcing him to swallow hard. Sweat breaks out over his body, cold and prickling. He can't throw up now. Sam draws in a few deep breaths until the sick feeling subsides.

“Sammy,” John says, and it almost stops Sam, that name on his father's lips, like Sam matters. He coughs out a breath that wants to come out as a sob, and he shakes his head, lifting himself upright with the help of the table, the wall, the arm of the couch until he's on his own two feet.

“I can't,” Sam says, and he knows it's stupid. He needs more words, damn it, but he can't even think of them, can't think of a way to tell them that this is killing him, that it's either go away or go crazy. Sam can't keep a sob from raking through his throat as he stumbles into the hallway and finds his bag of clothes. He stuffs the crinkled, sweat-damp acceptance letter inside.

“Sammy,” John says as he follows his youngest son down the hall, and his voice is deadly, steady and cool.

Sam swings his bag up over his shoulder. It's never felt this big or this heavy before. He edges past the older man and stalks through the halls until he gets to the door. He stops, waiting. Even years later, he won't be able to say what he was waiting for. He just knows it never came. If it had... if it had, would he have stayed?

John breaks the expectant silence with his next words: “If you go out that door, Sam, know this. You don't have a home here anymore.”

“I will,” Sam says, embracing the stab of anger and adrenaline because it's easier. “I'll go.”

He opens the door, fingers trembling. It's still summer but the cool of evening carries a bite this far north.

“You walk out that door, don't you ever come back, Sam,” John growls, and he looks at Sam like he's expecting something, too. It's at that moment that Dean bustles into the living room, near-expired antibiotic ointment and partially-unwrapped bandages in one hand, wet rag in the other.

Sam watches Dean's face fall as he processes John's words. “Dad,” he whispers.

“No, Dean. Sam here has to make a choice. He can choose to be a selfish bastard, or he can choose family. He can't have both. Ain't that right, Sammy?”

It is, but it shouldn't be. In real life, where people sleep without fear of death, not too many children have to make a choice between family and education. But no one ever said the Winchesters were normal.

“Sammy,” Dean says, shaking his head, eyes wide and broken like he's already lost Sam. “Please.”

A part of Sam, the part that was raised listening to Dean because Dean always knows what to do and what to say, wants to back down.

He's gotten this far, though, and he knows he'll resent it, resent them, if he puts his stuff back and burns the letter. He'll remember the time he was a coward and gave up the chance to taste safe.

A part of him still holds on to the dream that Dean might join him in California, and Dean can pick up girls on a beach somewhere and they can visit the Grand Canyon during spring break. “Dean?” he manages, choking out the words. “You—you could... come with me?”

Dean looks at Sam like he's grown another head, and John snorts as if Sam made a joke so bad it doesn't even deserve laughter. Dean remains rooted to the floor, hands full of bandages, waiting to care for Sam like he always does.

Sam doesn't trust himself to speak, so he just opens the door wider, meets Dean's eyes—wide and wet like Sam knows his own are—and then Sam shakes his head, and he turns around, and he runs.

After he gets far enough that the house is barely Poptart-sized, he watches the door, watches to see if Dean will come out after him.

Dean doesn't. Sam keeps running. He knows he's running toward something, and that thing is good, but he feels like he's running away.

 

- oOo -

 

“Kid. Hey. Wake up.”

Next thing Sam knows, he's at the bus terminal and a warm hand clamps down on his shoulder, startling him awake. Through the window, fogged with his sleeping breaths, his hazy eyes see gray sky and a handful of other buses like the one he hopped to get here.

He should be more worried than he is about how much time he's lost, but everything is hazy. He remembers wasting a few hours being pathetic staring at his phone (no calls) and thinking about going home (no chance) before he found his way to a blessedly semi-enclosed bus stop and hunkered down there until a bus came by. The sun was coming up when he caught the bus, and Now it's early morning.

“Hey,” a voice says, and Sam looks up to see warm caramel skin and dark eyes under a cap. “Last stop, time to get off. I figure you’re looking to transfer?”

“Mm. Goin' to California.”

A woman. Tiny silver stud earrings and a smile like she's never seen monsters. “You can check the schedule in the lobby, but just off the top of my head, I wanna say you can catch that one in about twenty minutes.”

Sam nods and tries to stand, wincing at the fresh agony that movement brings. He swallows down a brand-new surge of nausea and forces his lips to work. “Th...nnk'you,” he slurs. His mouth tastes like clotted blood and dead things, and his vision is still blurred even after blinking the sleep away.

Hefting his bag onto his shoulder feels like a whole new sort of torture. When did it get so heavy?

“You all right there, kid?” the woman says, leaning down. “Can I call someone for you? The police? Your family? You look like you took a beating.”

“'Mm’okay,” Sam mutters. “Jus'...” have to go, he wants to say, but the connection between his lips and brain is shorting and really, he just wants to sleep and wait for the next bus. Ignoring the concerned sounds the lady is making, he stumbles through the empty bus and across the lot until he's in the terminal.

Every light is too bright, his pack too heavy, his body too slow. Sam sinks into a chair and wishes he could go back to sleep, because being awake and aware just means that he has to remember that he walked out the door on his family for the last time. Running away when he was younger was different. It was an escape, but he always knew, somehow or another, he'd come back. Running away was finding time to breathe, and the dramatic part of his younger self liked the idea that his family might care enough to worry and look for him.

He knows he can't go back, this time.

Sam fairly collapses into a hard, plastic chair, head throbbing.

He's been making plans for a long time, practicing in the mirror. So, Dean, you know how I like to go to school?

And of course Dean would have retorted with something like, Yeah, I know. Freak. But he would have been smiling, and Sam would have known (he does know) how Dean brags about him to his colleagues at the garage he's been working at part-time, says things like that Sam, he can go places, you know?

And then Sam would bring up the subject of college, and say he applied to a few, just for kicks, you know? And then he'd tell Dean how he got in, and Dean would be proud. Inevitably, Dean would be all wounded, like, But you're not gonna go, are you? and Sam would have to figure that one out, but he'd invite Dean to come along, and maybe they could get out together.

That's all gone, now. It all happened in the worst possible way, and Dean probably hates him now. A part of Sam is angry, too. Dean does this thing when he's hurt, where he shuts down and turns all his focus inward, but Sam needs him. He knows it's selfish, that he wants Dean to listen and follow him and take his side against Dad, but he can't help it. Sam pulls out his phone again, scrolls to Dean's number.

He doesn't call. Dad's had all night to work on Dean. Sam knows the kinds of things Dean will say if he calls right now, and he can't handle them.

A heavyset man settles down into the seat beside Sam, head cocked to the side to support his chunky mobile phone. He fairly yells into the phone, gesticulating in great sweeps, and normally that wouldn't be a problem, except his arms spread the air everywhere and bring the odor of his overly-generous aftershave straight over to Sam.

The nausea he's been battling comes back in a tide, and it takes only a few moments for Sam to scramble up from his seat, stumbling down the hall. His hazy eyes flicker up along the walls, looking for signs that indicate a restroom.

Finally—there. Around a corner is an innocuous little blue sign, and he scrambles past a yellow 'wet floor' sign with a taped warning to 'PLEASE USE OTHER RESTROOM' on it before falling to his knees in a stall that reeks of cleaning fluid and retching over alarmingly blue water.

Gagging with damaged ribs: definitely not an experience he’s looking to repeat.

He has a few seconds to worry about splashback—the only thing worse than throwing up is having puke and awful blue cleaning fluid splash in your eye 'cause you can't hold yourself up—before his stomach wrenches and the meager contents of his stomach spill into the bowl. He hasn't eaten much in the last twelve hours, so most of what comes up is stomach acid. The bile burns his throat, and his eyes are watering by the end of it, and he's so damned tired. His head won't stop pounding. He knows it's his pulse thumping away inside his skull, but it feels more like a hammer, and just tipping his head to the side makes the pain spike, makes his head feel so heavy he might not be able to lift it again.

He can't help whimpering at the stab of pain he gets when he reaches up to flush, and the roar of water so close to his ears only makes it worse.

He hears something crashing nearby, a sharp sound like a slap to the ear and then deep, thrumming noises that echo into his bones and make his teeth rattle.

Sam pulls his phone from his pocket with shaking hands as the noises crest.

Only when his slitted, barely-open eyes catch sight of sea-foam green coveralls does he realize that the sounds were footsteps. Someone stands there with bright blue gloves (Sam has never really thought about how painful—actually physically agonizing—that color is to look at) and a spray bottle in one hand.

The lilting murmurs resolve into words after a while, and Sam’s pretty sure he catches, “…call someone? …need a…—try?”

Sam grumbles and bats away questing hands. Jerk. He bets this fellow wouldn’t be cheerful if someone tried to manhandle him while he had a migraine-level headache. The pain in his head has successfully overtaken the steady stab from the broken ribs (bruised? fractured?), but even the most careful movements make the pain in his chest reach a crescendo.

“Don’t,” he whispers, but the word comes out mangled.

He feels his phone being plucked from his hand, hears, “Gonna call, okay?”

The man is pale with blotchy freckles, but he's not the right kind of freckled, not the same shade of pale. Sam doesn't need a hospital, doesn't want one.

The man steps away, and Sam hears, “Hey, look, I called the number I saw most often in his recent calls—”

The man stops, fades out. Sam swallows, tries to focus on the words. “No. Your brother? …Jesus. Hey, he’s—” Sam misses the next chunk of words. “…an ambulance, okay? Huh? I—I’m not sure if—yeah. Yeah. Okay. Knock yourself out. I’ll just…”

The footsteps come closer, and Sam feels something warm and smooth against his ear. After a moment, a fuzzy voice comes through.

“Sammy?”

Dean.

“I’m… Sammy, are you listening? Can you hear me?”

Sam tries to make an affirmative noise. His head is killing him, though, and it comes out more like a whine.

“—gonna…ten minutes out, okay? Phil’s gonna call for help, but I’ll be there soon. You wait for me, you hear?”

Sam makes another noise, hears Dean’s gruff goddammit and the growl of an overtaxed engine. “Hang on, Sam. I’m coming. I’m—” There’s silence for a moment, and Sam thinks it’s just the signal fading out, but then Dean speaks again. “Sorry. I’m sorry, Sammy.”

The phone is pulled from his ear, and Sam hears a beep, and then three quick sounds. “Yeah, I need an ambulance?” the guy says.

And Dean is on his way, but he’s not here now, so Sam just relaxes, leaning all his weight up against the cool porcelain, and lets himself go for a while.

- oOo -

The next thing he knows, Sam feels his throbbing head being lifted and tipped this way and that, rough fingers cupped under his chin and the rasping calluses of a big thumb rubbing over his cheekbones. It should be a bad feeling (objectively, it is), but it's more comforting than anything else could be.

Sight and sound come in slowly, and he hears a voice, “Fuck, Sammy, I'm sorry, I should've made sure—you shouldn't have—not like this, you shouldn't have left like this.”

Sam opens heavy eyes and tries a smile. “M'sorry...had to. Dad wouldnn'..”

“Shh. Shhhh, you don't have to talk. Ambulance is coming—” Dean's head whips to the side, and he addresses the janitor. “Right? You called, didn't you?”

The man must nod, because Dean just sighs and turns back to Sam, pulling him against Dean's chest like he did when Sam was a lot younger. Sam knows he's too old for this. He knows, but this may be the last time. Sam tries to lift his head from Dean's chest to get a look at his eyes, but Dean reaches up and cradles the back of Sam's head, whispering under his breath and running the fingers of his free hand through Sam's hair.

He sighs into the smell of engine grease and Dean's aftershave, and focuses on making his lips work. “Mmh, y'can... come with me,” he manages, and Dean says nothing.

He must not have heard. Sam tries to clear his head and readies himself to say it again. “Dean—”

“Shh,” Dean says, and even though Sam can't see his brother, he knows what expression he's wearing. At the same time, he knows that Dean heard him. Dean's voice, when he speaks, is scraped raw and bitten-back, his breaths broken, but Sam knows his eyes will be dry. This is a happy moment, and neither of them is allowed to cry right now.

“Sammy,” Dean whispers, hands busy stroking through Sam's hair and down his back (gentle, feather-light so as not to disturb the broken ribs). “You hear that? The ambulance is coming. You're gonna be all right, huh? You're gonna be all right.”

They both know it's not true, but it doesn't hurt to pretend for a little while. The rising wail of sirens pounds at Sam's skull, and he buries himself in his brother until the paramedics pull him away.