So far the cabin seems to be a safe enough place for them to hide out. John called around, found evidence that more banshees had visited the hospital in Decatur, clearly looking for them. But nobody there seemed to have any idea where the Winchesters had gone, so there didn't seem to be any signs that they were followed.
Nevertheless, John wants them to stay put another month, let any rumors and supernatural activity around their disappearance settle down again before moving them. Dean sighs because this place is beautiful, and the weather's still warm enough to give him a place to practice his swimming, but otherwise it's a lonely, isolated place to hide out, and staying here another month will mean they'll be starting school late.
But John is adamant. Wants both boys to start gaining some skills living outdoors, and figures this is a good opportunity. He teaches them how to build a fire using nothing but kindling and the right kind of rocks. He teaches them to make a fishing pole using a stick and some twine. He shows Dean how to catch wild rabbits and skin them, how to cook one over an open flame. It makes Dean ridiculously proud to watch Sammy eating the cooked rabbit, licking the grease off his fingers and looking up at Dean with a dimpled grin and sparkling eyes.
Dean and John practice shooting, handling, cleaning and repairing their firearms, and John gives Dean his own .45 as an early birthday present. One day he takes the boys into town, lets them check out books at the library, and Dean is so relieved to have some new stories for bedtime he practically cries. Sammy still prefers Dean's original story-telling, but at least now Dean has something to fall back on if he's just feeling too tired or irritable to give Sammy what he wants.
The nights begin to get cold and John chops wood for the stove, keeps it stoked late into the evening, writing in his journal at the table as the boys snuggle in their bed with a book or two, the knights of the round table being Sammy's current favorite, with its beautiful illustrations of gorgeous, long-haired warriors with upturned, sad-wise faces.
"They look like angels," Sammy breathes reverently, and Dean raises a skeptical eyebrow.
"Pretty sure there's no such thing as angels, Sammy," he says. He's already getting a pretty strong idea of the supernatural world that haunts them and follows them around, and as far as he can see none of it is good.
When their month by the lake is finally up, John moves them into town, registers them at the local
school, and finds a one-bedroom apartment for them. Sammy finally gets his cast off and Dean finds an old bike next to the dumpster in the back of the building, fixes it up and gives it to Sam, true to his word. The youngest Winchester spends hours riding round and round their new apartment complex, making friends with one or two other children whose parents are gone working most of the day.
Once they're settled with plenty of food in the cupboard John takes off again, and it's up to Dean to get himself and Sammy to school every morning, fix their breakfast and dinner, lock up and salt the doors and windows at night, then stay occupied and safe on the weekends.
They spend a lot of time at the public library, heading there after school when the weather turns cold and staying until closing. One night as they're walking home Dean feels the hair on the back of his neck rise and he glances into a dark alley as they walk by and sees what he thinks is the shadow of a man with glowing red eyes. His heart skips a beat as he keeps walking, holding Sammy's hand even tighter until the younger boy complains.
"Ow, Dean, too tight!"
"Walk faster, Sammy," he hisses into his brother's ear, "but don't run, okay?"
There's a swooshing sound behind them and Dean can't help glancing back, sees something dark and huge with what seem to be wings that are spread almost as wide as the alleyway and at least as tall. The wings spread, beat the air, causing a wind that rushes up behind them, almost lifting them off the ground. There's a flapping sound, and suddenly Dean's running, holding Sammy's hand and practically dragging him along, the single thought in his head that if they can just make it to the apartment, if they can just get in behind the salt lines, they'll be okay.
The flapping and the wind are behind and on both sides of them now, and Dean is fighting to stay ahead of it, not to get cut off because he can feel the thing trying to swoop in ahead of them, to stop them or engulf them and Dean can't let that happen. Can't let it take Sammy.
They almost make it to the corner, and Dean's still hoping if he can just get across the street, they'll be there, when the thing drops down in front of them and darkness falls all around, obliterating the light from the single streetlight, the Gas-n-Sip on the opposite corner.
Dean stops dead, drops into a protective crouch around Sammy, his back to the thing, as time slows down. He's aware of his heart pounding, of Sammy's gasping breaths against his neck, his hands in Sammy's hair and around his trembling little body, holding tight, whispering, "don't look, Sammy, don't look; close your eyes," against Sammy's hot little ear. He can feel the thing closing in, feels the air become denser, heavier, almost too hot to breathe, the flapping too loud in his ears, right next to his cheek. The moment before it touches him he feels a sob tearing out of his throat, right past his lips, into Sammy's ear.
"So sorry, Sammy," he chokes, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Oh no, please, please don't – "
Then there's a scream. It's inhuman and agonizing and right next to his ear so it hurts like anything, nearly shatters his eardrum. But the thing is moving away, darkness suddenly loosening, not so close, the air becoming breathable and lighter again, less confining.
Dean lifts his head, looks back over his shoulder, feels the flapping of wings and the air shifting but it's receding now, screams lessening, darkness receding. Old Sam is standing on the corner, stance wide, hair wild around his face, clutching a short, sharp sword in one hand, the tip tinged red with blood. He's staring up at the night sky, at the sound of wings flapping away into the distance, and he waits until the sound isn't audible anymore before he lowers his face, looks Dean in the eye, lets his arms slacken at his sides, his shoulders slump into their familiar hunch, till he looks almost harmless again, almost human.
Dean pulls back from his protective huddle over his little brother, pulls him to his feet as he stands, turning to face Old Sam. He's still shaking, still clutching Sammy against him with every instinct screaming to protect his little brother, to keep him safe.
"Come on," Old Sam is saying. "Let's get you home. I wounded the thing, but it'll be back. Let's get you safe."
But it doesn't come back, that's the weird thing. Dean barely has time to get Sammy into their rooms, salt the door and windows, doesn't even have time to ask Old Sam what the hell that winged thing was before Old Sam disappears. Which is a good thing, Dean tells himself as he gets ready for bed, flips on the TV for Sam while he fixes them PB&J sandwiches and milk for supper. It means they're safe again.
When John calls the next day, just to check in on them, Dean doesn't even mention the monster attack. It's Saturday, so they're staying home anyway, just watching TV and reading all day, and Dean is lulled by the ordinariness of the weekend schedule into feeling safer and more secure than they probably are. He doesn't want to give John an excuse to move them again, especially since he and Old Sam have the situation under control. Dean's handling it, and that's nothing new, he tells himself. Plus, if they're in imminent danger again, Old Sam will save them.
Dean doesn't realize it, but that moment marks a shift in his understanding of their situation. Everything before that moment was all about the job of looking after his little brother, keeping Sammy safe, following his dad's orders and learning to become just like him. Now, for the first time, it occurs to him that Sammy himself might be at the center of something bigger than just Dean's little lonely life. As soon as the thought hits him – Sammy's special – it feels right, feels like something he's always known. Makes sense of things in ways he doesn't want to think about too deeply. His mother's death. His father's obsessions and indulgent attitude towards his youngest.
Dean means to talk to Old Sam about it the next time he sees him, confront him with this idea that he's a kind of monster-slayer or something. Dean replays in his head the sight of Old Sam on the street corner that night, bloodied blade clutched in his hand, looking menacing and determined and huge.
My brother is a superhero, Dean's memory provides helpfully, and it makes his chest swell with pride.
Winter comes early in Michigan, and by Christmas there's over a foot of snow on the ground and the boys are in need of warm coats and boots. Dean's not too proud to accept the donated outerwear offered at a local church, and he learns to stuff extra food from their free school lunches into their backpacks to take home for snacks. For Sammy, he tells himself when the cupboards are getting particularly bare again and their dad still isn't home.
On Christmas Eve, Dean takes Sammy to church so he can see the lights and decorations and listen to the music. They huddle in the back pew, watching the well-dressed families in their Christmas finery, warm and well-fed and full of anticipation. They leave before the service ends, walking hand-in-hand through the quiet, snow-covered streets, back to their lonely, cold apartment where Dean makes them cocoa with lukewarm water from the kitchen tap. The heat went off two days ago and Dean didn't want to tell anyone for fear of drawing unwanted attention, so they huddle together under the blankets in their shared bed, shivering until their bodies create enough heat to let them fall asleep.
When they wake up their dad is back, swooping in like a force of nature, big, over-heated mountain of energy and tension, hustling them into the car as he mutters urgently about the wraiths he sighted just outside town, headed their way.
"Iron, silver, holy water," he lists out loud, checking the trunk for the items he needs to fend off the impending attack, then double-checking to make sure the boys are safely huddled into the backseat before he slips into the driver's seat of the Impala and guns the engine.
Dean can't fall asleep again, so he's wide awake when something appears in the road dead ahead. John swerves the car, narrowly missing the thing, cursing under his breath as he struggles to keep the car on the road. Dean turns and watches out the back window as the creature – shaped like a man but with long claws and teeth – turns to watch them speed away. Dean thinks he catches the eye of the thing, but he can't be sure because its face is a mask of peeling skin and long tendrils of something like hair but heavier, thicker, more like decayed tendons peeling off its head, fall around its cavernous face.
"Was that a wraith?" he finally dares to ask his dad, after enough time has passed and another one hasn't appeared, so he figures they might be safe.
"Yep," John agrees with a grim nod, hands white-knuckled from clutching the steering wheel so tightly. "Eats your brains, if it catches you. Silver kills it."
John can see that Dean is wide awake, unlikely to fall asleep again, so he pulls over, lets Dean climb into the front seat.
It's over an hour before John speaks again, and when he does it's like they've been talking the whole time, or like John's thinking out loud.
"Your mother and I never wanted this life for you boys," he says. "We wanted you both to grow up in a normal, healthy family with a permanent home, school, friends, sports, the whole nine yards."
He takes a deep breath, struggling with his emotions, and Dean knows this because he can see the film of tears in his father's eyes that always appears when he talks about his wife, his Mary, the love of his life and the mother of his children. His dad has always been so cryptic, so closed off about the things he does. Dean always assumed he was hunting evil, protecting him and Sammy and all the unsuspecting people who got in the way of evil things. Or were targeted by them for reasons Dean can't understand.
"Did you know that thing was coming for us tonight?" Dean asks. "Does it have something to do with Mom?"
"No," John shakes his head. "Nothing like that. These things have a kind of feral intelligence, but nothing rational, as far as I can tell. It has one motivation – to feed."
Dean shivers, glances out the window into the darkness, grateful to be safe in the car with his dad again. With Sammy.
"I can tell you one thing, though," John goes on, as if he's not changing the subject, even though he is. "We're not alone in this. And you should know that, Dean, in case anything ever happens to me. There are others. Pastor Jim, Sister Jo, you already know. My buddy Caleb, who you met last year. We're going to visit another man, Bobby Singer, and he's one too. Daniel Elkins. Bill Harvelle. It's all in my journal, and if anything happens to me you'll have that. It tells you everything you'll wanna know. Everything I know."
"Dad – " Dean's feeling panic rising in his chest, listening to his dad talk about not being around, possibly permanently. "Are you – is something after you?"
It makes Dean shake just to say it, but he needs to ask. He needs to know.
John glances over, meets Dean's eye for a moment, and Dean senses there's more to the answer to that question than John's likely to tell him. Again.
John shakes his head and smiles a little.
"You don't need to worry about me, son," John assures him. "I've been tracking and killing these things going on six years now. So far not so much as a scratch on me. I know how to stay one step ahead, always come out on top. Your ol' dad is just about the best there is, Dean. I'm just saying, always be prepared for everything, that's all."
"Yes, sir," Dean nods, but he can't shake the feeling that something bad is lurking, just out of sight out there in the dark, just watching and biding its time until the day that John Winchester isn't there to save them, to come charging in at the last minute to pull their bacon out of the fire.
Because the longer Dean lives, the more certain he is that the evil out there is after someone very close to him, already got his mom, and it's all going to be up to him in the end to save the people he loves.
They spend another month on the road, John driving nights, stopping at a motel during the day to rest. It's like that those first few months out of Blue Earth all over again, when they were just moving around a lot. Dean vaguely remembers doing this right after their mother died too, and he can't shake the feeling that they're running from something, like John's got them on the move to shake whatever it is that found them out this time just like he did those other times.
Then they stop at a salvage yard just outside Sioux Falls, South Dakota and John introduces them to Bobby Singer. Bobby looks at the two boys skeptically, grumbles when John announces he needs to leave them with him for a day or two, and turns to leave.
Dean can't help himself. John's erratic behavior lately has bothered him, and that talk in the car the night they left Blue Star haunts him. He doesn't want to let his dad out of his sight.
"It'll be okay, Dean," John assures his son, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder and smiling sadly, wearily. "I'll be home for your birthday. I promise."
Dean nods, even though he knows John rarely keeps that kind of promise – he's too easily distracted. Christmas, birthdays – not his thing. But Dean puts on a brave face because he knows it's what's expected, understands even at the age of almost-ten that his dad expects him to suck it up and be tough.
John depends on Dean, and that's what matters. Dean can't let his dad down, no matter what.
Hanging out at Bobby Singer's place isn't so bad really. Dean and Sam spend their days exploring the salvage yard, and Bobby lets Dean help him take apart and put back together one of the classic cars he's been working on.
"Taught your dad everything he knows about classic cars," he boasts. "He's got a real gem in that Impala. It'll keep running forever, if he takes care of it right."
On January 24th there's a cake on the table with ten candles in it, and a present to open. Sammy's more excited than Dean, demanding, "Open it! Open it!" before Dean's gotten over the shock of seeing the cake and gift in the first place. It's a tool-box, metal lid all shiny red and new, full of wrenches and screwdrivers of various sizes, little metal trays full of washers and screws.
"It's a starter kit," Bobby explains. "Every man needs a tool-box. This here'll get you started. You'll add to it as the years go by, but I wanted you to have one. This way I can add to it every time you have a birthday."
Dean fingers the spark plug gap gauge – Bobby showed him how to use one just the other day so he could change the spark plugs on the old Ford Mustang he's putting together.
"If you finish her before your sixteenth birthday, she's all yours," Bobby promises, and Dean shakes his head because he's just turning ten and sixteen sounds ancient.
John's gone so long Bobby finally takes the boys into town and enrolls them in the local school. By the time John returns Dean has finished the fourth grade and Sammy's graduated first grade. John's looking older; his hair is greying at the temples and his two-day beard is scraggly and uneven, grey in places. His eyes are red-rimmed, like he's either been crying or drinking. Maybe both.
When Bobby lets him in John falls to his knees and gathers Sammy into his arms, letting tears flow freely as he holds his youngest against him, fingers of one big hand tangled in Sammy's dark curls.
"Missed you boys," he breathes, his voice breaking as he hugs Sammy against him another minute, burying his face in the boy's abundant hair.
Dean has been washing and bathing Sammy since he was old enough to sit up, knows exactly how his brother's hair smells, and it's all he can think about as he watches his dad holding his brother; it's what he focuses on because otherwise he knows he'll start to cry too.
Finally John releases Sammy and stands up, laying a hand on Dean's shoulder and looking down at him with his trademark weight-of-the-world smile.
"You done good, boy," he says with a little nod. "I'm proud of you both."
He sends them outside while he talks to Bobby, but Dean doesn't go far – wants to stay as close to his dad as he can now that John's back. They sit on the porch and play Go Fish, half-listening to the men inside through the screen-door.
"It goes after kids," John tells Bobby. "I gotta have the boys with me. I can't leave them when that thing is on the loose just one state over."
"It's been almost six months, John," Bobby says, and his voice sounds strained. "Boys are settled in here. Dean's report card came back real good. Kid's a good student."
"I'm more concerned with his skills," John says. "How's his training coming along?"
"I had him working on his marksmanship, if that's what you mean," Bobby nods. "Took him into town a couple times so we could shoot some pool. He's gonna be a crack mechanic, John. He's got a real feel for engines. Knows how to pick every lock in the house. Had him join the town wrestling team – old buddy o' mine's the coach, so I can vouch for the quality of the training there."
"How are his research skills coming along?"
"Yeah, not so stellar," Bobby acknowledges. "And not cuz he ain't smart enough. He just doesn't like to sit still. Unless he's reading to his little brother, which is about the only way I could get him to focus on stuff. If he's got Sammy beside him, he'll read for hours."
"Yeah, well, Sammy don't need the nightmares," John mutters. "It's our job to protect him as long as we can. No need to ruin his childhood before we have to."
"Hear that," Bobby agrees grimly. "Speakin' of which, you do realize your youngest just celebrated his sixth birthday?"
John says nothing for a moment, and Dean imagines his face going dark and threatening, imagines him glaring at Bobby.
"Don't need you tellin' me how to raise my sons, Singer," John growls, and Dean hears the sound of a chair scraping the floor as John stands, then the sound of a bottle thudding onto the table. "We gotta go."
And just like that, they're back on the road.
When Dean thinks back on that summer of 1989, it's always painful. He's aware for the first time that he should be helping his dad, not staying behind to babysit Sammy. He knows he's too young, still too small to be very useful on a hunt, and he hates himself for it. He knows his dad is out there somewhere, putting himself in enormous danger for their sakes, for the sakes of all the kids this particular monster is after, and Dean wants to help so badly it hurts.
The feeling of uselessness makes him snap at Sammy, makes him wish for the first time that he didn't have a little brother, a little pest who asks endless questions, needs constant attention, has to be fed and bathed and clothed and cared for.
Old Sam listens as Dean complains, rants at him irritably because he can't take it out on his six-year-old brother, who he's just tucked in with a story and a goodnight kiss so that Dean can spend another hour doing dishes and laundry before he can collapse into bed, try not to worry about his dad all night again.
"It's not fair," Old Sam agrees, nodding sagely. "It's too much responsibility for one ten-year-old boy."
"No, you don't get it," Dean slips dishes into the sink after filling it with soapy water, starts methodically washing each dish and dumping them onto the sideboard to air-dry. "Dad's out there – he's out there alone with this thing. Alone. Cuz I'm not big enough to help him. It sucks."
"That's not your fault, Dean," Old Sam protests. "There's plenty of hunters who could help him. Dad doesn't need to hunt alone. He's just a stubborn lone wolf who thinks he has to take care of everything all by himself. Believe me, even when you get old enough and big enough to help him? He still does it. He still goes out alone. This is not your fault."
"No way," Dean wipes his hands on a dishtowel, turns to stare at Old Sam, who is sitting at the table with the glass of water Dean just poured him, looking younger than the last time Dean saw him. "No way he still hunts alone when I'm big enough to help him. That's what he's training me for. So we can be partners."
Old Sam shakes his head.
"That's what I thought when I was little," he says. "I always figured you and Dad were a team. But..."
He hesitates, bites his bottom lip, glances at the bedroom door, always slightly ajar so Dean can hear if Sammy wakes up or cries out in his sleep, so Sammy always has a little light in the room and can fall asleep when Dean's not in the bed with him.
"I probably shouldn't tell you this stuff," Old Sam says. "Your future isn't written yet. I mean, it is but it isn't. And I don't want to tell you something that might change it, because then I might not even be here in the first place, so – "
Old Sam shakes his head, looks up at Dean with a worried frown.
"Forget I said anything," he says. "You and Dad will make a great team. I promise."
The next week Dad leaves them alone in Fort Douglas, Wisconsin and the shtriga attacks Sammy while Dean's out playing video games.
It's only the second time Dean has ever seen a monster up close, and he freezes. He gets the gun up, points it at the thing leaning over his sleeping brother, but he can't pull the trigger.
"Out of the way, Dean!" John bursts in the door, doesn't hesitate, just shoves past him and shoots – but the thing is gone, out the window with a crash and a wailing moan that shatters the air and leaves Dean shaking.
John's got Sammy in his arms, running his hands over his little body, checking for injuries, but Sammy's so sleepy and bewildered he just lies limp against his father, barely opening his eyes to glance at Dean, confused by all the fuss and commotion, by the sight of his brother standing in the bedroom doorway holding a sawed-off.
John takes them back to Blue Earth that night, after giving Dean the scolding of his life, leaving Dean feeling so helpless and useless it's all he can do not to cry.
Because now he sees why John will never let him be his hunting partner. Now he understands what Old Sam meant.
It's because of this. Because he can't do a simple thing like watching Sammy and keeping him safe when there's a monster in town.
Dean has let his father down and things will never be the same.
"Why didn't you tell me?" he rails at Old Sam when the man appears beside him the next day.
He's just watched his dad drive off, just been dumped with Pastor Jim and Sister Jo again, like a little kid, like a useless appendage that his dad is grateful to be rid of.
He's already been shedding angry tears about it, here alone in a corner of the kindergarten classroom, a place he knows he can be alone at night and no one will come looking for him after lights out and Sammy's sound asleep in the same little room they shared when they first came to stay here, right after their mom died.
"I needed you!" Dean stamps his foot, stalks up to Old Sam and pushes him, hard.
Old Sam raises his eyebrows, stiffens a little, but otherwise gives no reaction. He's so tall and solid that Dean's hardest push doesn't even phase him. The man is built like a stupid giant tree, and he's just as intractable.
"You said you would always come when I need you!" Dean swipes angrily at the tears sliding down his cheeks. "You could have told me that thing would come for Sammy. If you just warned me about it I would've been there! We wouldn't be here!"
Old Sam is looking around, clearly confused, and he looks even younger than the last time he appeared.
"Where are we?" Old Sam asks, blinking in the gloom. The room is lit only by the hall light coming into it from under the door. It was Dean's first classroom, where Sister Jo was his teacher; she had liked him right away and taken a real interest in him, and this room would forever be a place where Dean felt safe, comforted after the tragedy that had befallen his family.
"It's my old classroom," Dean says now. "You never came here. They kept the babies and little kids in another room."
"Ah," Old Sam nods, then looks closely at Dean. "We're back at Pastor Jim's. After the shtriga attack."
Dean wipes the backs of his hands over his cheeks, trying to erase the tears there.
"You knew," he accuses Old Sam. "You knew this would happen and you didn't tell me. Now Dad's gone after that thing, alone, and I'm stuck here. He doesn't even trust me to look after Sammy anymore. I blew it bad this time, and now he doesn't need me anymore."
Old Sam sighs, shakes his head.
"He still needs you, Dean," he says softly, almost sadly. "He depends on you way more than he should, in fact."
"I made him lose the trail," Dean lets loose with another sob, his chest heaving erratically, tears sliding down his cheeks freely again. "I screwed up the hunt for him. Now he'll never find that thing and more kids will die and it's all my fault."
"Dean, Dad should never have left you in the first place," Old Sam sounds stern, angry. "If anyone is to blame for this, it's him. He left a ten-year-old to look after his six-year-old brother so he could hunt a monster that kills kids. Who does that? And then to blame you for what happened? That is so wrong, Dean, I have to tell you. It's borderline abusive, is what it is."
"Shut up! Dad is not abusive!" Dean slams his palms against Old Sam's chest. It's like slamming them into concrete but he does it again anyway. "He's a hero! And he counts on me and I let him down! I screwed up, not him!"
Dean's pummeling Old Sam's chest now, just letting loose with everything he has, whaling against the solid frame with little effect, sobbing, "My fault! It's my fault!" until Old Sam finally grabs his wrists, pulls him in hard and hugs him tight.
At first Dean struggles, tries to kick and push himself away, sobbing, "No! No! Shut up! I hate you!" but Old Sam tightens his hold, one long arm across Dean's back, his other hand in Dean's hair, holding his head against his chest, murmuring, "Okay, now, Dean. Let it go. It's okay. Hey, it's okay."
Dean sobs his rage and frustration into Old Sam's soft flannel shirt until the material is soaked through and the fight has finally gone out of him, until his body is trembling with exhaustion and grief, and still Old Sam murmurs quietly, gently stroking his hair, then his back as Dean relaxes against him.
"Is he coming back?" Dean asks eventually, and Old Sam's hands still for a moment before taking up their gentle, comforting stroking again.
"Yeah, Dean," Old Sam says. "He'll come back. He always does. You're his whole world after Mom died. Nothing else really matters to him. So yeah. He'll come back."
Dean feels relief flood through him like warm spring air, full of the smell of dark, rich earth and sunshine and sweat-spiced skin. Sam's skin. That same masculine, harder version of the way his brother smells. It's lulling him, overwhelming his senses with the familiar experience of being home, being loved, just like the way being wrapped around Sammy always makes him feel.
Even if he's the one who's being wrapped around this time. Which is when he realizes Old Sam is bending a little, trying to push his nose into Dean's hair, and Dean understands that Old Sam is feeling just what Dean's feeling, that familiar sense memory of home and brother, and it's comforting to him too.
Later, when Dean's curled around his six-year-old brother in their room, he buries his nose in Sam's dark sweat-damp curls and breathes deeply, finds the same rich scent, falls asleep breathing it in.
John comes for them just after Christmas. By that time they've been back in Blue Earth for almost six months, and Dean has decidedly mixed feelings about hitting the road again. On the one hand he's deeply relieved that John still wants him, still trusts him enough to give him another shot, still believes in his training and his future as a hunting partner. On the other hand, uprooting them again, especially from this place where they felt safe when they were most vulnerable, these people who cared for them after their mother died and they felt most alone – Dean finds it's harder to leave this time. He wonders for the first time if their father is doing the right thing, keeping them on the move like he does. Wonders – not for the first time and certainly not the last – what it is they're running from.
Sammy cries and clings to Sister Jo, at first flat-out refusing to get into the sleek black car again. Enough time has passed here in Blue Earth for Sammy to make friends, to feel he belongs in this school full of misfit children, all of whom have tragedy in their pasts like Sam and Dean. The heavy warding and protection spells surrounding the grounds have provided a haven they can never have on the road, and it disturbs Dean more than he lets on to tear Sammy away from it.
Nevertheless, he believes John when his father tells him they have to leave, that they've been found again and it's time to move on. And despite the fact that Dean knows exactly how lonely and dull their life on the road can be – will be – he pulls Sammy gently away from Sister Jo, murmurs reassuringly until his brother finally lets go, winds himself around Dean, so that Dean can load him into the backseat of the car, huddles with him there as they watch the school disappear through the rear window.
When Sammy's finally cried himself to sleep, John stops for gas and Dean untangles himself from his brother's body, leaves Sammy sleeping in the backseat so he can ride shotgun, telling himself it's where he belongs. Telling himself he's so lucky to have a dad like John, who protects them and keeps them alive and knows exactly what to do in every situation.
When they reach the motel outside Lincoln where they're gonna spend the day, John makes his calls, confirms what he told them when he picked them up. There were banshees circling the school, arriving just after they left, and even though Pastor Jim and Sister Jo were able to dispatch them fairly easily, it was clear they couldn't go back to Blue Earth for some time.
They spend five months on the road this time, barely stopping long enough in one place to register for school, much less actually attend. Dean steals textbooks from the classrooms and he and Sammy study in their motel or in the local library, where Dean steals picture books and non-fiction books on dinosaurs and wrestling. Dean practices his wrestling moves on Sammy, whose slight body is too small to be a real sparring partner, but his eagerness to help his big brother makes him an irresistible punching bag. He's a quick study, Dean must admit, making up for his small size by jumping onto Dean's back and squeezing his neck in a chokehold so tenacious Dean almost puts his shoulder out trying to break free.
John takes Dean out into empty fields for target practice, and by the end of the school year Dean is able to shoot an apple off a fence post at thirty yards, every damn time. John takes Dean down to the pool hall so he can practice his game, puts Sammy on a barstool with a Shirley Temple and a crossword puzzle. Sammy develops an interest in chess, and the old men at the chess table are delighted to have an eight-year-old boy as an eager pupil while his older brother shoots pool and plays darts with increasing accuracy and skill.
When summer comes, John takes the boys camping, has them review the survival skills he taught them the previous two summers, then leaves them on their own for a week with only a few cans of food and a lighter along with their camping gear. He gives them a map and a compass and tells them he'll pick them up at the main road fifteen miles away. All they have to do is get there.
It's terrifying at first, knowing they're really and truly alone, without any adults to go to if things don't work out. Without any food to steal if they get desperate. In need of water since their canteens won't last the whole week. Exposed to the elements unless they can get their tent pitched.
And that's not even taking into account the possible supernatural dangers.
"Un-fuckin'-believable," is what Old Sam says when he arrives almost three days later, taking stock of their wild surroundings and meager food supply with a shake of his shaggy head. "What kind of moron does this? Damn it."
"He's just trying to make us figure out how to survive on our own," Dean protests, relieved beyond all reason to see Old Sam pacing angrily in their pathetic little camp. They're not making much progress since Sammy fell and tore a gash in his calf, ripping his only pair of jeans in the process.
Dean used his extra tee-shirt as a bandage and washed the wound with his water supply, but they don't have antiseptic and now Sammy can't walk so Dean has to carry him, along with all the other camping gear.
"Yeah, I can see that's going real well," Old Sam snorts, hands on his hips as he stares down at his brother and his younger self, curled up together on the sleeping bag, eating snack-mix out of plastic bags because it's all they have left.
"I can do this," Dean protests as Old Sam examines the wound on Sammy's leg, making the child moan as he removes the bandage.
"This is gonna become infected," Old Sam announces. "Do you have any whiskey?"
Dean stares at him, and Old Sam shakes his head.
"Of course you don't," he answers himself. He stands up, strips off his jacket and shirts, then rips a piece out of his own tee-shirt to re-bandage the wound.
Dean stares, because Old Sam is huge. He's got enormous muscles, all over. His arms are like tree-trunks and his chest and stomach are totally ripped. He's completely terrifying to look at, almost naked from the waist up, and Dean can't tear his eyes away.
"Water?" Old Sam asks as he squats down next to Dean again.
Dean hands him his canteen, his hands visibly shaking, and Old Sam puts a steadying hand on Dean's arm as he takes the canteen, leaving the cloth on the sleeping bag for a moment.
"It's gonna be okay, Dean," he promises. "I'm gonna carry Sammy. You can bring the gear. Gonna get you guys out of here."
For a moment Dean says nothing, just watches as Old Sam cleans and dresses Sammy's wound. Then he climbs to his feet, stands looking down at both Sams, fists clenching and unclenching unconsciously.
"No," he says firmly, giving his head a little shake.
Both Sams look up, their expressions identical, and it's like seeing double except for the obvious age difference. Even Old Sam looks hesitant, expectant, like he's used to his big brother giving orders, and this is an order. It hits Dean then that Old Sam probably remembers this, remembers being seven and out in the wilderness alone with Dean and having some huge shaggy-haired dude show up out of nowhere to help.
"I need to do this myself," Dean says, summoning every ounce of courage he can. "Dad's counting on me. He needs me to show him I can handle this. I can do this. He's testing me, trying to see how I'll hold up under pressure."
Old Sam shakes his head.
"No, Dean," he says, his jaw clenching as he controls his obvious anger at the situation. "This is just Dad being an asshole. He's not thinking about you at all."
"That's not true!" Dean insists, puffing his chest out deliberately. "He needs me! He needs me to help him hunt for things. That's why he left us out here. If I can do this, then he can trust me again. Then he can let me hunt with him."
"And if you fall down a ravine and slice your leg open, like I did?" Old Sam gestures at his younger self. "How're you gonna get out? Who's gonna help you then?"
"Not gonna happen, Sam," Dean says firmly, widening his stance and clenching his fists until Old Sam looks up, looks right at him, sees his stubborn determination making up for whatever courage he lacks. "I can do this. I'm gonna show Dad I can do it."
Old Sam gazes at him, his brow furrowing as he lets his righteous indignation go, as he begins to accept what Dean is saying. There's a film of tears in his eyes when he finally lowers his head, nods once. He reaches for his over-shirt, slips it on over all that muscle, then absently rubs at his calf.
"You're both gonna need a hospital at the end," he says quietly. "I still have the scar."
The air shimmers as Old Sam disappears, leaving them alone again.
It takes them the full four days, and they're dirty and exhausted and dehydrated by the end of it, and Sammy's leg has swollen and it's oozing something greenish and gross and Sammy's running a fever, but they make it.
Apparently John had some idea of the shape they'd be in; he's already booked them a week's stay at a clinic near Sioux Falls, run by an old marine medic who specializes in treating hunters, and that's how Dean knows he's passed the test. Because his dad lets him recover from his ordeal in a secret bunker known only to people who do what they do, who've all undergone the kind of survival training that Dean has just done. Because that's how Dean joins the special force of men and women who fight evil and protect the world from utter devastation.
That's how Dean finds out he's earned the right to join his dad on the front lines.
Which is why, when he finds the wad of cash in a side pocket inside the jacket Old Sam left on the ground that day, he knows he's going to take his little brother and run.
"Who are we?"
Dean's standing in Bobby Singer's living room two days later, his mother-of-pearl-handled .45 pointed at Bobby, Sammy on the couch behind him, his bandaged leg elevated, still pale from blood loss and dehydration. His little body has fought off the infection and the wound has been stitched and bandaged properly now, but he's still weak, still needs painkillers and antibiotics and slow re-hydration and sleep. Mostly sleep.
Bobby stares from the gun to Dean's face, clearly weighing his options.
"You think I don't know you, boy?" Bobby tries, but his voice shakes a little and it's pretty obvious he's spooked. "You and Sam are like kin. You've spent more time here than anywhere except Pastor Jim's place, and don't think I don't know it."
"Who. Are. We?" Dean repeats the words with an emphasis on each word, enunciating carefully so there's no possibility of misunderstanding.
Bobby frowns, ignoring the gun pointed at him for the moment in his obvious effort to understand the question, to figure out where Dean is coming from on this.
"You're Dean and Sam Winchester," he says, clearly mystified. "Your mother was Mary Winchester, your father is John Winchester. You're – you're just kids, Dean. You've been through a lot, but you're just ordinary kids, far as I can tell."
Dean holds his aim another moment, absorbing Bobby's words and his facial expression, trying to decide if he's telling the truth.
"Put the gun down, Dean," his father's deep voice booms at him from a shadow in the kitchen.
He only startles a little. In fact, he's proud of himself for not letting on how shocked he is that his dad's already here, probably has been the whole time. John was here while Dean was escaping the clinic with Sammy limping and leaning heavy against him. He was here while Dean was flagging a ride on the highway and talking some drunken teenager into giving them a ride to Bobby's place. John was here while Dean was half-carrying Sammy into Bobby's house and laying him down on the couch so he could turn and pull his gun on the nearest thing to an uncle they have.
He should have known John would beat him here. Now he spares a glance at his father, still holding the gun on Bobby so they both know he means business, knows how to keep the gun steady even when he's being thrown for a loop.
Nothing like that moment with the shtriga back in Fort Douglas. Never like that, ever again.
"Son, I said, put down the gun," John tries again. "I know you have questions. I can see now you're ready for the answers. So put down the gun and we'll talk."
Dean is not going to cry. There is no way in hell that's happening, even when he can feel his eyes fill as he glances at his father again, slowly lowers the gun, puts the safety back on, places it carefully on the table, where he keeps his hand right next to it, knows it's there. Knows he can grab it up and aim again quickly enough if he has to.
John knows too. He nods slowly, glances at Bobby.
"Okay, Dad, I'm listening," Dean says.
John glances over at the couch, where Sammy is sound asleep, his little face relaxed and beatific in rest, framed in curls of dark hair, like something out of a fairy tale, like those pictures of angels they've seen in that book.
"Your brother doesn't need to know what I'm about to tell you, Dean, are we clear? He's not ready for it."
Oh, he's ready to be out in the wilderness with only his eleven-year-old brother to protect him for a week, but not for a little information about who – or what – the hell he is, Dean's mind screams at him, but it's Old Sam's voice he hears in his head. Dean's natural instinct to trust his father overwhelms even his brother's snark, even when his brother is right.
"Your brother is – he's special, Dean," John says carefully, and Bobby lets out a long relieved sigh, mutters, "Thank God," under his breath. Which is how Dean knows he was right – Bobby knew this about them too.
"What do you mean, special?" Dean demands, shooting a reproachful glare at Bobby.
"Sammy has a rare gift," John explains. "A special ability. At least we're pretty sure he does."
"What kind of ability?" Dean asks, but he already knows. He feels the hair on the back of his neck stand up, feels his palms start to sweat because he knows. He knows, but he's not going to tell.
John and Bobby exchange glances, and Dean can see they're weighing how much they should say, how much they can reveal to him.
He's not going to get the whole story, Dean can see that. Not if they can help it.
"We think your brother can shift time," John says quietly, his voice low as though he's afraid Sammy might hear them, even all the way across the room, even though he's sound asleep and dead to the world and only seven-freakin-years-old, for God's sake. "He's a kind of time-traveler."
Dean can't help the scoffing sound he makes. John's words are just that nonsensical, even though he knows they're true. Hearing it said is just beyond absurd, and it makes Dean feel a little hysterical.
"What, you mean like Doctor Who?" he suggests, sounding peevish even to his own ears. "You're sayin' Sammy's a Time Lord?"
John's jaw clenches. He frowns, lowers his eyes, and shakes his head.
"I knew you weren't ready for this," he says.
Bobby puts his hand on John's arm.
"No, he's ready," Bobby says. "Give the boy a chance. You've put him in charge of Sammy, made him his brother's protector. He deserves to know."
Nobody put me in charge of Sammy, Dean thinks wildly. He's always been a part of me. Always will be.
Then he remembers the night his dad put Sammy in his arms to carry out of the house. The night of the fire.
"So you and Uncle Bobby aren't just hunters," Dean suggests. "You're like a special squad of protectors. Like a supernatural secret service."
John lifts his eyes, pride replacing frustration as he hears the words, reads the realization in Dean's face. He nods slowly.
"That's right, Dean," he says quietly. "And you're one of us. It's what all your training is for."
"And this is why things are after us," Dean suggests. "It's why we're always on the run."
John nods, and Dean shakes his head a little.
"I knew it," he says softly. "I knew there was a reason you were moving us all the time."
"Moving targets are harder to hit," John agrees.
"But this thing Sammy can do," Dean frowns. "How do you know for sure he has it? He seems pretty normal to me."
"It's something that doesn't show up until a kid is older," John explains. "Twelve or thirteen, whenever the kids hits adolescence. But we're pretty sure he's got it. It's why he was targeted that night in the nursery. It's why your mother died. She was trying to protect him. They – they go after these special kids when they're young and vulnerable."
"What kinds of things?" Dean asks. "What was the thing that killed Mom?"
John hesitates again, glances at Bobby, sits down on the closest kitchen chair, puts his head in his hands. Dean and Bobby wait patiently for John to collect himself and go on, to scrub his hands down his face and clear the tears from his eyes before he answers.
"We think it was Samael," John says after he's cleared his throat and taken a deep breath. "Sometimes called Azazel. The Angel of Death."
"An angel?" Dean feels his mouth drop open. "Those are real?"
John nods shortly.
"Rare, but real," he says. "This one is an archangel. One of the seven. The lore says Samael was a guardian of Isaac, that he stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son. Then he was a guardian of Esau, Isaac's oldest son. We think he was the first Protector, the origin of the idea of guardian angels."
"But why would a guardian angel kill Mom?" Dean feels his voice rise, hysteria and panic at the borders.
John shakes his head. "We're not sure," John admits. "We think Samael meant to take our Sam, raise him to become a special kind of Protector. There's lore about that, about Samael taking special children and raising them as his own, giving them power and training them to do his work for him. Your mother would've done anything to stop that from happening. She gave her life for Sam that night."
John's eyes fill with tears and he brushes them away furiously.
"Do you think she knew?" Dean asks, his voice breaking as he fights down his own tears. "Do you think she realized what was happening?"
John nods. "Oh, she knew," he says with utter confidence. "She knew because Samael came for her, when she was little. She remembered."
"It came for her?" Dean blinks in confusion. "How – why? Why would it come for Mom? Was she..."
Dean answers his own question, feels the air suck out of his lungs as realization dawns, as he watches the faces of his father and "uncle" confirm his sudden understanding with grim looks.
"Your mother was a time-shifter too," John nods. "It runs in families."
Dean feels like he's been punched, like his insides have just been yanked out and laid bare. It feels impossible, rocks his world to think that his brother – and his mother – are some kind of –
But he knows. He already knows about Sammy. So why does it feel like he's finding out for the first time?
"Mom – " Dean feels like he's choking, like he can't get enough air.
"Your mother loved you, Dean," John reminds him. "Don't ever doubt that. She gave her life defending you and Sammy. She would do it again in a heartbeat if she had the chance. I know it."
"But why didn't she just – if she can travel through time, why didn't she just go back and stop it?" Dean knows, or he thinks he knows, but he still needs to hear his dad say it. Needs his dad to confirm his suspicions.
"Because she was exactly where she was supposed to be," John confirms with a slow nod. "She was protecting the people she loved."
"But she could've traveled back – before it happened – she could've stopped it. She didn't have to die!" Dean's sobbing openly now, hot tears falling steady and wet, rolling off his cheeks and down his neck into his shirt-collar. John shakes his head slowly, sadly, looking at his hands, twiddling his thumbs a little as if he'a tempted to reach for Dean but can't make himself do it.
"It doesn't work that way," John says. "I wish to God it did, but that's not how it works."
He's blinking back tears again, wipes angrily at his face with the back of his hand, clenching his jaw as he looks up at Dean again, stern and commanding.
"Now you know," he says, his voice hard. "You understand what we're up against. You see how important it is to be prepared. The things that come for us – for Sam – have to be stopped. Your training, all the monsters I hunt and kill, all of it – it's all for Sammy, so he can grow up and become who he's meant to be."
Dean's still sobbing, his body heaving and trembling with grief and shock.
"What?" Dean's voice is raw with crying, but he needs to know. "What is Sammy supposed to do, Dad?"
John glances at Bobby, and Bobby nods at him, and again Dean is overwhelmed by the secrecy, the knowledge these men have been withholding from him. From Sam.
"There are stories," John says. "Old stories. That's all they are. They tell us that we're all living in some kind of alternative universe, created back at the time of the angels, the time of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and the Garden. The stories say that what seems real and always seemed real isn't. And they say that a time-shifter can fix it, put things back the way they were, the way they're supposed to be."
Dean stares, trying to understand, to make sense of what John is saying.
"You mean, all the monsters, all the supernatural things – they're really NOT real after all?" he tries, but the double negative screws with his head and he's already thoroughly confused.
"Oh they're real, all right," John huffs a breath. "They're just not supposed to be real. They're supposed to be pretend. The world isn't supposed to be full of monsters, Dean. It's an accident."
"And you think – " Dean scrunches his brow, thinks hard to keep it straight. "You think Sam can fix it?"
John nods slowly. "We think so, Dean," he says carefully. "We hope so."
Dean shakes his head, trying to clear it.
"You understand now why I had to be so hard on you, Dean," John clarifies, lifting eyes full of pain and determination.
Dean has to look away; if he doesn't he knows he'll never stop sobbing.
"You see what I did," John says. "You understand why I did what I did."
It's like an order, like John's telling Dean what to think, how to feel, trying as he always does to control every aspect of Dean's life. But Dean knows he's keeping his own counsel on this, because he knows what John doesn't, and his instincts are screaming at him to keep his secret, to protect his little brother from this crazy destiny as long as possible. He can't ever tell John about Old Sam. Old Sam belongs to Dean, not Dad. Old Sam has always been Dean's secret, and as long as he stays that way Dean can feel he has at least some control over this crazy thing.
So Dean nods, fighting down the tears and the grief and all the pain so he can show his father that yes, he's on board. Yes, he sees. Yes, he understands why his father did what he did.
Which is why John's hard back-handed slap, straight across his face so that Dean feels nothing but pain and shock at first, then humiliation when he realizes he's been knocked sideways onto the floor, takes him completely by surprise; he never saw the blow coming because he was so wrapped up in the shock of his father's revelation.
"Never," John says, standing over Dean where he lies on the floor, squinting up at his father from the side of his face that isn't hurting and starting to swell. "Never point a gun at another hunter. Not unless you mean to kill him. And if you do, you need to be prepared to die, because most hunters would just as soon kill you as look at you. Are we clear?"
Bobby gives him an ice pack and he beds down on the floor next to Sammy that night, the pain in his face momentarily relieving the pain in his heart, and he wonders briefly if that isn't jut what his father intended. Sometime in the night he feels Sammy's fingers on his face, stroking gently, carefully, and he knows Sammy was awake for that last part with Dad. Dean kisses the little fingertips, then gets up and climbs onto the couch with his brother, snuggling between the back of the sofa and Sammy's body, careful of Sammy's leg and his own cheek, lacing his fingers with Sammy's and spooning his little body tight against Dean's chest, against his heart, where he belongs.
Old Sam is there the next morning, in the garage, when Dean goes out to work on his Mustang. He examines Dean's face with gentle, probing fingers, making sure of the bone, checking to confirm that John hasn't broken anything.
"Ow!" Dean complains, pulling away and batting Old Sam's hand irritably. "I'm okay! Just a little sore, is all."
"Dad's such an asshole," Old Sam breathes furiously, his chest heaving with frustration. "You had every right to try to get some answers, after what he put you through on that mountain."
"You coulda jus' tol' me," Dean says, his words a little slurred because his cheek is so swollen.
"I did tell you!" Old Sam protests. "I'm living proof of freaky supernatural power right here in your own family, Dean. What more do you want?"
"You coulda tol' me about Mom," Dean says petulantly.
Old Sam sighs, looks away for a minute, thinking, then nods.
"You're right," he agrees. "I should've told you about Mom. I didn't think it mattered."
"It matters!" Dean raises his voice angrily. "It matters, Sam! 'Course it matters! I find out my Mom's a time– a time – whatever the thing is – and nobody told me? Not even my time-traveling gigantic dork of a brother? What's the matter with you?"
Old Sam takes a long breath, lets it out slowly, shakes his head. He's young today, probably in his early twenties, and he's so good-looking it makes Dean's heart race.
"Okay," Old Sam sighs. "I agree, I probably should've told you. But I only found out myself after I started traveling. Meaning, you never told me, Dean. So what's up with that?"
"I was probably just trying to protect you," Dean reasons, finding it difficult to think straight, as he always does, when he has to imagine his older self making decisions like never telling Sammy about his weird-ass supernatural heritage.Yeah, he can imagine that, all right. In fact, it sounds like a damn good idea, and Dean decides then and there that Sammy doesn't need to know, needs his childhood to last as long as possible.
"I mean, you heard them last night, right?" Dean says, even though he's pretty sure little Sammy didn't hear a thing. "What Dad and Uncle Bobby said. You're supposed to save the world or something. How am I supposed to tell Sammy about that? Huh?"
Old Sam shakes his head. "You don't," he agrees. "I found out on my own. The first time it happened. I looked it up. I researched the hell of out it because you wouldn't tell me a Goddamn thing, Dean."
Dean frowns, ignoring the last part of Sam's accusation because he's suddenly overwhelmed by the first part.
"Oh yeah?" he growls. "When? I mean, how old were you -- how old is Sammy gonna be when he -- the first time he -- "
"Twelve," Old Sam breathes. "I was twelve the first time I traveled."
Five years, Dean thinks. Sammy's got five years to grow up. It's such a relief he wants to cry. Then he thinks back and realizes he's never seen Old Sam that young, which means --
Oh, to hell with it. This just couldn't get any more confusing, and his cheek hurts.
Which is the moment John takes to come striding into the garage, looking around with a frown before he looks at Dean, winces a little when he sees the bruise on his eldest's cheek.
"Who are you talking to?" he asks, and Dean looks over to where Old Sam was standing a moment ago, shrugs.
"Nobody," he answers, the lie slipping off his tongue so easily he doesn't even think about it. "Just thinking out loud, I guess."
"Huh," John nods. "Well, when you're done thinking so loudly, come on out here and lets do some target practice."
"Yes, sir," Dean nods, wiping his hands on the oil cloth he's been holding the entire time and sets it aside so he can follow his dad out into the yard.
PART THREE -- Back to Masterpost