Sam's earliest memories were of a woman with soft arms and a tired voice. She smelled like onions and soap, and when she rocked him to sleep she sang to him, country songs and old Irish ballads, sad and lonely and only a little off-key. Sam could remember sleeping on the rough carpeted floor in front of the t.v., where he spent a lot of the day while she was at work, watching Scooby Doo and Tom & Jerry cartoons. Sometimes he got so hungry he fell asleep sucking his fingers, unconsciously seeking the dream-world that hovered just past the edge of his consciousness.
Sam's other earliest memories were dreams of a boy who cuddled with him in his crib, whispering to him to help him fall asleep, pressing soft kisses against his cheeks and forehead. He and the boy played together on a thick carpet in a sunny playroom, pushing a popcorn-popper lawn-mower and riding on a yellow plastic push toy with a seat that raised up so Sam could store his blocks inside. Sam's first words were "ball" and "Beam." As he grew and his pronunciation improved, his favorite word turned from "Beam" to "Bean," and by the time he was three it came out right every time.
Sam's dreams were always the same. He was a normal little boy growing up in a normal family with a mom and a dad and an older brother. In his dreams Dean was always there, playing cars with him, sharing his snacks, teaching him to throw a ball in the yard. Sometimes they sat together on the couch and watched t.v. and then Dean got bored and started to tickle Sam until he was gasping for breath, rolling around on the couch and the floor with Dean like puppies. Sometimes they played so hard Sam would fall asleep against the older boy, curled up with him on the floor or the couch, sometimes in the bed they shared.
When he woke up back in the real world he was alone, always in the same tiny one-room apartment. Sometimes the woman was there, sometimes she was already gone to work and he waited, watching t.v. and eating the scraps of food she left for him, mostly left-overs from the restaurant where she waited tables. Sometimes he drifted back to sleep, spent a couple of hours playing with Dean in his dream-world, eating real home-cooked food, feeling safe and protected and loved.
One night the woman didn't come home. Sam waited, slept off and on, dreamed a whole day with Dean, then woke up and waited some more. When the door opened and two policemen came into the apartment, Sam was half-asleep, so hungry and dehydrated he couldn't even answer their questions. He just let them lead him out to their squad-car, belt him in with his blanket and a bottle of water and take him away.
He never saw the woman again, never called her mother or mom or mama, even in his memories, even though he later decided that's who she must have been.
For several years, Sam's dream world with Dean was the only stable thing in Sam's life. In his waking life he moved from foster-home to foster-home, never staying more than a few months at each place.
"He's a little freak," one foster-mother complained to her husband. "All he does is sit in a corner by himself and stare into space. He creeps me out, and I want him gone."
The children in these "homes" were cruel, pinching and hitting, pushing and biting, hissing "freak" and "creep" at him until Sam folded so far into himself he had to be relocated with a new family. In between foster homes there were extended stays at a clinic, a shadowy, frightening place where Sam underwent treatment for some kind of ailment that no one ever explained to him. Those visits were terrifying and often painful, and Sam's confusion and lack of understanding sometimes drove him even further into himself, so that later he would forget how long he was there. Those horrifying experiences fading into a foggy half-remembered nightmare from which Sam learned to wake himself at will.
In fact, later on Sam would swear he had spent most of those four years with Dean, in their house in a nice suburban neighborhood where he had a mom and a dad and a shiny black classic car to ride back and forth to Little League practices and family picnics. He and Dean took swimming lessons, learned to roller-skate and ride a skateboard, and on his fifth birthday their parents gave Sam a new bicycle. Dean taught him how to ride it. He went to school and excelled and had friends to play tag with him in the schoolyard, and if anyone ever bullied him for being smallest in his class, Dean would make the bully apologize, sometimes by just standing there glaring at the kid until he turned into a blubbering mess and begged Sam to forgive him.
In the shadowy world full of pain and fear that Sam knew of as "reality," Sam's treatments included daily sessions with a young clinician named Jennifer, who had him lie on an examining table while she attached electrodes to his forehead, then injected him with something that put him to sleep. In these medically-induced dreams Dean was different, agitated and tense, looking over his shoulder all the time like something or someone was watching them.
"Don't tell them about me," he told Sam. They were on the street, walking toward the University of Kansas, and the sky was overcast and threatening, the air heavy with the promise of rain, crackling with electricity. A storm was coming. "They're trying to make you do things you don't want to do, Sam. You have to fight them, okay? Promise me you'll fight them."
"Okay," Sam agreed because he couldn't ever say no to Dean, no matter what it was his brother wanted.
When Sam was eight, Jennifer took him upstairs, into an office where a stern, grey-haired man sat behind a desk, rifling through the papers in a file. He looked up when Sam entered, motioned him into the chair opposite, then waited until the clinician left the room, shutting the door behind her. Sam recognized him vaguely as one of the doctors who provided his treatment, although he hadn't seen him for some time.
"So you're Sam," the doctor pulled his glasses off and peered at Sam grimly.
"Yes, sir," Sam answered, falling back on the manners that had been grilled in him over the past four years, fighting to keep the fear and uncertainty out of his voice.
"I understand you've made good progress here," the doctor – Dr. Clausen, the name-tag on his desk read – stared at him appraisingly. "You have real promise."
Sam was silent, not sure what to say to that. He sensed that Dr. Clausen wasn't going to be honest with him, and Sam was wary and suspicious.
"Your abilities could use some training, Sam, and I'm willing to invest considerable resources in doing that. Out of all the kids we've had in here over the past several years, you seem to be the most talented." Dr. Clausen reached for a single sheet of paper on the edge of his desk, scribbled something on it. "You've reached the age of reason, and I think you're old enough to understand the difference between fiction and reality, isn't that right?"
Sam frowned uncertainly. "I think so, sir," he answered, and Dr. Clausen nodded.
"For example, you know Santa Claus isn't real, right?"
Sam nodded. He'd never received a Christmas present in his real life, or a birthday present, for that matter, so it wasn't hard to imagine that the idea of a benevolent fat man who delivered presents on Christmas didn't really exist, except in his dreams.
"And you know the difference between dreams and real life, right?" Dr. Clausen went on, his voice suddenly wheedling and conspiratorial, as if he was letting Sam know that he understood Sam's darkest secrets and was encouraging him to share his most intimate beliefs. It made Sam flush with anger, made him instantly defensive. Sam's dreams were nobody's business but Sam's, and he was darn sure not gonna talk about them with this mean old man who poked him with needles when he was tied to an operating table.
Dr. Clausen could see the stubborn set to Sam's jaw, the flash of anger in his eyes, and it made him smile and sit back in his chair with a satisfied nod. "I thought so," he said smugly. "Jennifer's told me about your little fantasy world, how you talk to your imaginary brother in your sleep. You've told her all about that charming little suburban life, under hypnosis, haven't you, Sam?"
Sam clamped his mouth shut, staring at Dr. Clausen in shock and disbelief. Nobody was supposed to know about Dean or his other life, that other place. Sam had been so careful never to mention it to anyone, to keep it safe and hidden and private so they couldn't take it away from him, so they couldn't force him to give it up.
"It's all right, Sam," Dr. Clausen was nodding, but Sam wasn't fooled. "No harm done. Except that imaginary brother is getting in the way now, isn't he? He's telling you not to cooperate with us. I think we may have to do something about that."
Dr. Clausen shook his head, and Sam tried not to panic. There was no way he was giving Dean up. And he was almost a hundred percent sure there was nothing Dr. Clausen could do to force him to do something he didn't want to do if Sam set his mind to it. That was what this was all about, wasn't it? Sam's special mind-powers? At least that's what he thought he remembered, among the jumbled recollections of his fractured young mind. He was here for some kind of special treatment designed to help him focus his natural psychic abilities.
"Dean's just trying to protect me," Sam explained. "He thinks it's his job."
"Of course he does," Dr. Clausen said, smiling, and it was the creepiest thing Sam had ever seen, hands down. "But he's a little misguided, don't you think? You don't need protection, Sam. You're perfectly safe here. You don't need anyone interfering with the development of your talents. You're a big boy now. You can take care of yourself. We're just trying to help you along, make sure you realize your highest potential. Nobody's trying to make you do anything you don't want to do."
Dr. Clausen went on and on, soothing and calming, until Sam wasn't even aware of hearing his voice anymore, just knew that he felt relaxed and safe and hopeful, sure of himself.
When Sam woke up later in his cold little bed in the clinic dormitory, he wasn't sure why he was there. He couldn't remember falling asleep, but that wasn't unusual. Time played tricks on him in this place underground where there were no windows and they kept giving him medicine to make him sleepy. There was an itch at the back of his brain, like something important he should try to remember, but the more Sam concentrated, the harder it was to focus. He felt sad and lonely, but that was nothing new, and when he hugged his pillow in his arms and curled himself around it, pretending it was his imaginary brother, he could almost hear Dean's voice, soothing and comforting him, reassuring him that everything would be all right, nothing bad could happen as long as Dean was there.
But when he finally drifted off again, his sleep was dreamless, empty, as if something had been blocked or pried loose and torn out. And no matter what Sam did after that, no matter how he concentrated as he fell asleep, telling himself that this time he would go to that special dream place where he felt safe and loved and cared about, where his older brother was always there, Sam never dreamed about Dean again.
Within a week Sam was settled into a new foster-home, this time on a farm near Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with an older woman who ran a shelter for injured and abandoned animals. Sam shared a room at the back of the house with two boys who were both older than he was and had both been there for awhile. They were orphans, like Sam, and had also been in foster care most of their lives. Karen Richards, the woman who ran the place, had never had children of her own; foster children and shelter animals were her kids, she explained to Sam as she set him up with his own bed and laid out a new toothbrush for him in the bathroom.
"We run a tight ship here, Sam," she told him, brusque and efficient. "Each of you has chores to do every morning and after school, after homework. Rules are posted on the doors and in the kitchen, and I expect them to be followed precisely, am I clear?"
Sam nodded. "Yes, ma'am," he agreed, and Karen smiled kindly.
"We're gonna get along fine, Sam," she assured him. "You'll go to school, get a good education, learn to be responsible and work hard, you'll do well here."
And Sam surprised himself by fitting in better than he could have expected. It only took a week or two for Sam to fall into the routine, to get with the program, and overall it was a decent, stable home for Sam, the first one he'd ever really had. It almost made up for the cessation of his dreams, although the constant ache in his chest reminded him of his loss on a daily basis, especially at night. He couldn't help feeling Dean was there, just beyond reach, every time he fell asleep, and it left him aching and empty in the morning, missing a part of himself he never knew existed until it was gone. Sam filled the void by following a daily routine of chores and school and homework and more chores. On Saturdays, a man named Carl picked him up in a pick-up truck and took him to a warehouse where he took wrestling and martial arts lessons in the morning, then worked upstairs with a man named George in the afternoon. George introduced him to The Project, as he called it, a special unit of the FBI that did research on paranormal activity.
"We seek out kids like you, Sam," George explained. "Kids with special abilities. Telepathy, telekinesis, other mental talents. The Clausen Clinic tested you, found that you have real potential in that area. They sent you to us, and from now on you'll work with us once a week."
George went on to explain that he would teach Sam to control his abilities, to use them to help people. He could practice using his gifts in the safety of the Project's warehouse training facility, where no one would know, and George would give him brief homework assignments, easy tasks to complete out in the world of his everyday life each week, to help him practice.
"You have a gift for empathy that's stronger than anything we've ever measured before, Sam," George went on. "We believe your gifts could help people with terminal illness, disease, even mental illness. With practice, you can learn to reach into a person's mind, persuade them to heal themselves. You can do great good in the world, Sam. Would you like that?"
Sam nodded, bewildered and uncertain but willing to go along with what George was telling him. It was the first time anyone in the real world had talked about a mission, or a purpose, for what he could do. Until that moment, Sam had always kept his psychic abilities to himself, hidden deep inside like a dirty little secret he felt he should be ashamed of. Early on, Sam had learned to keep silent, keep his eyes down, avoid responding when the whispery voices talked to him because he knew they weren't real, they were somebody's thoughts, not the words they spoke out loud, and they weren't really meant for him to hear. His abilities made others fear and revile him, and after years of teasing and abuse from children and adults alike for being a "weird-o," Sam had become sullen and withdrawn, unwilling to speak unless spoken to, and only then in short, cryptic responses when he could be sure he was really hearing the person speak and not just imagining the voice in his head.
The idea that he could use his despised secret talent to help people gave Sam hope. For the first time in his young life, someone appreciated what Sam could do, instead of fearing and despising him for it. George and Carl and the others at the Project showed Sam how he could use his talents in a positive way, to do good things, and Sam was primed to accept and feel inspired by what they told him. The misery of Sam's life up to this point had prepared him perfectly to take George's word for it, that Sam was special, that he could do good in the world. It was almost as if Sam had been groomed for it.
The next four years passed comfortably for Sam. He did well in school, even if he was too shy and withdrawn to make friends. Caring for the rescue animals on the farm was a solace he didn't fully understand, and Sam's emotional development revolved around the various dogs and cats. An old mare someone had abandoned became a special companion for over a year, and Sam taught himself to ride her bareback through the fields surrounding the farm, relating long, rambling monologues out loud about his life growing up with Dean, making it real in his mind by bringing it to life with language.
When the old mare contracted hoof-rot and had to be put down, Sam cried alone in the barn for a week. He buried his face in the fur of his favorite dog, a golden retriever named Zoe, who became his constant companion thereafter.
Saturdays at the Project were like entering another world, one where Sam was in training to become a super-hero, where he felt important and useful. George reiterated how essential it was for Sam to keep the Project a secret, but that was easy for a boy who rarely talked to anyone human anyway. Sam had a natural talent for computers, and as soon as George showed him the basics of coding Sam was soon hacking into databases all over the country, determined to prove his usefulness in ways the Project hadn't foreseen. His psychic abilities were reserved for use only on the Saturdays in the warehouse, with outside homework assignments in which he practiced controlled mind-reading. His subjects were his foster brothers, whose teen-aged thoughts were consumed with cheerleaders, sports, and beer.
One day while he was researching his own talents, he discovered that people with psychic abilities weren't the only "freaks" in the world. At first, when he clicked into chat rooms and message boards about vampires and werewolves, he assumed it was all a joke. But when he found an on-line community of "hunters," full of tips on killing various kinds of monsters, some claiming first-hand experience, Sam couldn't resist checking it out.
"Monsters are real?" he asked George, who narrowed his eyes at Sam and studied him for a moment too long before answering.
"The thing you should understand, Sam, is that hunters are real," he said. "There are people out there who would hunt and kill you, just because you're different. Just because they think that what you do is evil. They're crazy, sure, but they're very deadly."
Sam could feel his heart pounding dangerously in his chest; he could feel his palms start to sweat. "But werewolves? Vampires? Those things are real?" he persisted.
George shook his head. "I've never seen one," he said. "Hunters think they're real, though, which is what makes them so dangerous."
"But would they kill me if they found me?" Sam's voice rose; he was starting to shake.
George put a reassuring hand on his arm. "We're safe here, Sam," he said. "Nothing's going to come after us here. Nobody knows about us, about what we're doing here, except you and me and Carl, and maybe one or two of the others. We're completely safe."
"But the monsters," Sam persisted. "What about them?"
George sighed, shaking his head. "Maybe there are monsters in the world, Sam, but they're extremely rare. The hunters are the real monsters. These guys who devote their lives to finding so-called monsters and killing them are a threat to all of us who research paranormal activity. They would destroy us if they found us. That's one of the reasons we keep what we're doing here so secret. Do you understand?"
Sam nodded solemnly, and George smiled, got Sam refocused on his task, and the crisis passed. But Sam couldn't help researching hunters and monsters; as much as it scared him, the idea of a secret world of supernatural activity operating just under the surface of every-day reality held too much appeal for Sam to resist. It felt familiar, like the way reality and fantasy had always existed side-by-side for Sam, sometimes blending, sometimes clearly separated.
Sundays after church and chores, Sam took Zoe for walks on the country roads around the farm, sometimes exploring deep into the corn fields, pretending to be lost. And it was one such Sunday in mid-summer, just after Sam's twelfth birthday, that everything changed.
The sun was already doing its shimmery late-afternoon light thing, making the dusty road look like it ended on the edge of a lake. Sam walked slowly, letting the sun's heat make him feel lazy and sleepy, so that when he saw the pick-up truck parked at the side of the road and the figure bending over its engine in the distance, he almost thought it was a mirage. As Sam drew closer, he could see that the figure was a young man, not much older than Sam, but fully grown, muscles strong and solid in his tight black tee-shirt, his back soaked with sweat, leaning in under the raised hood of the truck so that the hem of his tee-shirt pulled up, exposing a strip of pale skin above the waist of his jeans.
Zoe trotted up to the boy, panting and sniffing, and the boy straightened up and turned toward Sam just as Sam felt a jolt of recognition that set the blood pounding in his ears. Sam had been ready to ask if the boy needed some help, but when the boy turned the full force of his attention on Sam it was as if the world fell away beneath his feet and suddenly Sam was falling, blackness swirling around him in a dark cloud that made his skin buzz and his head spin. The next minute Sam was on the ground, opening his eyes to find green eyes gazing worriedly from a handsome, freckled face that was at once intensely familiar and different at the same time. Older, Sam realized as he blinked at the boy bending over him, but still the boy from his dreams. Dean.
"Hey there," Dean murmured in a voice at once deeper and rougher than Sam remembered. Older. "You okay, buddy?"
"What happened?" Sam asked stupidly, pretty sure he knew exactly what had happened.
"You fainted, I think," Dean said. "Just collapsed. Must be the heat, huh? Here, let me get you some water."
It took all of Sam's willpower to avoid reaching up to grab hold of Dean as the older boy stood up, went back to his truck for a water bottle. Zoe circled in, panting and licking his face, wagging her tail and whimpering a little.
"I'm okay, girl, I'm okay," Sam assured her, rubbing the back of his head, which hurt like the dickens from hitting the hard paved shoulder of the road. He pushed himself up to sitting, and would have climbed to his feet on his own if Dean hadn't come back with the water, squatting down beside Sam so it suddenly felt like a better idea to stay right where he was. He took the bottle, fingers brushing Dean's, and the electric shiver that went through him surprised Sam, almost made the world spin again.
"Whoa there, buddy, don't pass out on me again," Dean's hands were suddenly on Sam's shoulder, on the back of his head, holding him up, and Sam felt every touch like bolts of electrical current, overwhelming but keeping him conscious. "Come on, now, just a little water and you'll be right as rain. That's it, I've got you now, little buddy. You're okay."
Sam gulped the water, ignoring its warmth from sitting in the hot truck. He focused instead on swallowing, on getting himself back under control.
"You live around here? Is there somebody I can call?" Dean's voice was warm and soothing, pushing all the right buttons, making Sam flush with pleasure and relief.
Sam shook his head. "I live right up the road," he said, letting Dean help him up, holding onto his arm until Sam was steady enough to stand on his own. "I'm okay. Thanks."
"Don't mention it," Dean said. He stood aside, rubbing the back of his neck, his other hand on his hip. "I'd give you a lift, but as you can see, my truck's busted."
Sam nodded, handing the water bottle back to him, empty now. "What's wrong with it?" he asked.
Dean shrugged. "Battery's dead," he said. "Stupid thing's a piece of junk, but it's mine, at least for the summer, as long as I can keep it running."
"If you want, my foster-brother can probably give you a jump," Sam offered.
"That'd be awesome. Thanks." Dean stuck out his hand. "I'm Dean Winchester, by the way."
"Sam," Sam choked out as he shook Dean's hand, fighting the tears stinging the back of his throat. Having the older boy say it, even though Sam had already been calling him "Dean" in his head, was more emotional for Sam than he cared to admit, although he never doubted for a moment it was really the boy from his dreams
So Sam and Dean walked back to the farm together, Zoe circling their legs and panting in the heat, and Sam tried not to blush when the boy's arm brushed his, or when he turned that dazzling smile on Sam as they small-talked.
"You lived here long?" Dean asked, and Sam shrugged.
"Four years," he answered. "How about you?" Sam felt his hopes soar; maybe he'd see Dean again. Maybe they were neighbors.
"Me? Nah," Dean shook his head, pushing his lips out in a tough-guy pout. "I'm just passing through. My uncle runs Singer Salvage, on the other side of town. My dad dropped me off with him yesterday while he does a job in Boise. He'll be back in a week or two, then we'll hit the road again."
"Don't you have a home someplace?" Sam asked, already amazed by the differences between this boy and Sam's dream-brother. "Don't you go to school?"
"Nope, I'm done with school," Dean insisted. "My home is the open road, kid, going wherever the jobs are, helping my dad with his work."
Sam sighed. "Sounds so cool," he commented wistfully. "All that traveling. I never go anywhere."
"Well, that's cuz you're still young," Dean admonished. "You're what, nine? Ten?"
"I'm twelve," Sam said. "Just finished sixth grade."
Dean raised an eyebrow, gaze sweeping over Sam, making him blush. That was when it hit Sam that he couldn't read Dean's thoughts; the older boy was a silent, blank space in his mind. It was a relief, definitely, but also a little disconcerting.
"Huh," Dean seemed a little dubious, a concerned frown creasing his handsome brow. "Your folks feeding you?" he asked.
"My folks are dead," Sam answered, more bluntly than he intended, knowing how creepy it sounded. "I've been living in foster care since I was four."
"Huh," Dean nodded, like he'd figured it out, and Sam remembered he'd already mentioned he had a foster-brother. "I think I know a little bit about that. My mom died when I was little. It's just me and my dad now."
Sam felt tears smart in the back of his eyes and his chest pulled tight; Dean's confession and his empathy were like an offering. It felt like Dean was extending the hand of friendship through their perceived shared grief. It made Sam feel a little guilty for not mourning the woman who cared for him when he was little, the woman he knew must've been his mother, even if his memories of her didn't have the emotional impact that Dean's memories of his own mother obviously did. Sam had the distinct feeling that Dean rarely opened up about his personal life, that he didn't get close to people as a kind of unspoken rule, and Sam was flattered and charmed, grateful for Dean's attention and completely overwhelmed by it.
They walked slowly, partly because of the heat, but mostly because Sam didn't want their time together to end, this golden, magical reunion which wasn't really a reunion at all but a meeting, a beginning. And he was just brazen enough to hope that Dean was feeling it too, brushing his arm against Sam's shoulder as they walked, looking down at Sam with a look of fond surprise, like he was learning something new about himself, like Sam was giving Dean the gift of a new self-awareness, showing him a side of himself he'd never known existed. And despite his shyness and his furious blushing, Sam couldn't stop grinning, couldn't stop sneaking glances up at Dean through his bangs, catching those clear green eyes smiling back at him. The air itself felt brighter, sparking with an almost electric chemical reaction each time they touched, each time their eyes met. Sam hoped Dean felt it too, was in fact pretty sure he did, from the way the older boy slowed his steps, dragged out the walk as much as Sam was doing.
Eventually they reached the farm, where Sam's oldest foster brother, Jack, was working on his own truck. Jack shook Dean's hand and agreed to drive him back to his truck with jumper cables right away, any excuse to get off the farm for a few minutes a no-brainer for the restless teenager. After Dean climbed into the passenger seat of Jack's truck he leaned his arm on the open window and looked back at Sam with a little wave.
"See ya around, kid," he said. "Maybe we can go see a game or go fishing or something."
"That'd be great," Sam grinned so wide it hurt, and Dean winked at him, returning Sam's smile with one of his own. The sun made his eyes sparkle, overwhelming Sam with the renewed conviction that something miraculous had happened this day.
Sam went to bed that night half-expecting to be transported to the dream world where he had spent almost every night until he was eight years old, but instead he had a dream of the young man on the road, his wide smile and sparkling eyes, the feel of his calloused hands gentle and soothing on Sam's back, helping him get up after his fall.
Sam spent three days a week that summer at the Project, training relentlessly. He spent the time when he wasn't there (or doing chores at the farm) with Dean. Dean showed up the following Tuesday, and thereafter whenever Sam was free, picking him up in his battered pick-up to take him to the lake to go fishing, to the ballpark, to the movies. Karen, Sam's foster-mother, was genuinely charmed, if a little skeptical at first. She seemed relieved that Sam had finally found a friend who didn't walk on four legs. Sam didn't question why the handsome young man seemed to prefer spending time with Sam to anybody his own age; he was too grateful for the attention, too afraid that it would stop, that Dean would suddenly decide he was wasting his time and move on.
Of course, Sam wondered why he had dreamed about Dean for most of his life, but for a while he was so amazed and relieved that Dean was real, all he could do was bask in the general pleasure of his company. From what he learned about Dean, the boy's life had been nothing like Sam's dream of him. Dean Winchester had grown up on the road with his dad, who was some kind of traveling salesman, since the fire that took his mother's life when he was four. It was a sad, if unremarkable, life, and Sam knew better than to pry once he'd determined that Dean had nothing in common with Sam's dream-brother. Which begged the question of how and why Sam had dreamed about the boy in the nice suburban home in the first place. It was a mystery that Sam would ordinarily have tried to solve with research at the library, or on the computers at the Project, until he could satisfy himself that there really was no connection.
But Sam had already lost Dean once, and this coincidental reappearance felt too much like magic, and Sam was loathe to break the spell, to do anything that might make Dean disappear again. He kept Dean's presence secret from the Project on instinct; they had disapproved of Sam's dreams, so Sam couldn't trust that they wouldn't do something to get rid of the real Dean, if they knew he existed. Then there was the miracle of Dean's obvious interest in him, which made no sense, and Sam couldn't bear to do anything that might shake Dean loose or turn off his interest in Sam. He wondered if Dean had ever had a dream of him, if he recognized Sam somehow, the way Sam recognized Dean. He decided quickly not to push it, though, rather to just accept it for as long as he could and call it incredibly good luck, outrageous coincidence, miracle, magic, anything that kept it happening.
Dean knew a lot about having fun without any money. He showed Sam how to climb the fence and get in for free at ball games, how to wait outside the movie-house exit doors until someone came out, then sneak in and spend the day watching Apollo 13, Batman Forever, and Jumanji in air-conditioned comfort. Dean knew how to pick locks so they could get into Sam's school to play basketball in the gym after the custodial staff went home for the night. He knew how to jimmy the coke machine so it would give up free pop. He could lie with such ease and charm it took Sam's breath away, convincing the dumpy, bored girl at the candy store that he had given her a ten-dollar bill when he'd only given her a five, so they could get extra candy before their trip to the movie theatre. Dean could convince the gas-station attendant that the pump was malfunctioning so they could get free gas. Sam was startled and impressed the first time Dean used a credit card with a fake name on it, buying them a delicious dinner at the local all-you-can-eat buffet.
"I have to be careful, because Uncle Bobby lives here," he explained to Sam when he signed the credit card receipt. "If somebody figures out I'm scamming them, it could be bad for him. So I'm careful where I use this card. Only places where I know the staff is too bored and underpaid to pay any attention. 'Course, the food's lousy, but hey, it's all-you-can-eat, right?"
Sam had to agree with him there. He vividly remembered times in his childhood when his stomach was so empty if felt like it was ready to start eating itself. Finding a way to eat double his normal portion seemed like a good idea to Sam, and he wholeheartedly approved of Dean's strategies, even if it did upset his stomach.
"Jesus, Sammy, you've got an iffy gut," Dean commented on more than one occasion after Sam had managed to barf up most of their meal, or fart so much in the pick-up that Dean decided they should just park the truck and walk. "You got food allergies or something, little dude?"
Sam had to shrug because he really didn't know. No one had ever taken the time to have him tested, and his trips to doctors had been few and far between outside of his residential time at the clinic. His meals at the farm were wholesome and nutritious, Karen's old hippy tendencies guaranteeing that the boys ate a lot of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Sam had an instinctual aversion to a lot of the processed and fried foods that Dean seemed to favor, but he valiantly ate whatever Dean put in front of him, too dazzled by Dean's attention to complain.
Being with Dean felt unreal, and there were times when Sam doubted it was actually happening. He considered the idea that his brain had short-circuited and somehow flipped him temporarily back into the dream-world of his childhood, managing to give him this more grown-up version of his dream-brother as compensation for all those years without him. He loved this fantasy, but at the same time it terrified him because it suggested that Dean could just disappear at any moment and he might never see him again. The possibility that his dream-world had never happened, that all those years of dreaming about Dean and the life he led in that comfortable little Midwestern university town were an illusion devised by his own misery and loneliness, made Sam so sad he could barely stand to think about it.
The fact was, reality and fantasy blended dangerously in Sam's mind, always had, so that there were times when he was with Dean that reminded him of other times, until he remembered that those other times had happened in his dreams, that they weren't real. Like the time they climbed the monkey bars in the playground and Sam fell off, hit his face on one of the bars on the way down and gave himself a black eye, for example. Or the time they climbed onto the equipment shed behind the baseball diamond and jumped off, only Sam landed wrong and broke his arm, so that Dean had to ride him to the emergency room on the handlebars of his bike.
Then came the day Dean took Sam to the lake to go fishing. When they got there it was too hot so Dean yanked off his tee-shirt and jeans, barely giving Sam time to recover from the shock of all that pale skin and toned muscle before he dove off the end of the dock.
"Come on in, Sammy," Dean called when he surfaced, shaking the water off his head and treading water easily. "The water's fine."
Dean's exuberance was infectious, and besides, it was damn hot. Sam tried to ignore his own self-consciousness as he pulled his tee-shirt off, dropped it to the dock, then kicked off his rubber-toed sneakers and reached for the button on his jeans. He was keenly aware of Dean watching him as he pushed the denim down his skinny legs and stepped out of the jeans, leaving himself clad only in his tighty-whities. It was tempting to cover himself with his hands, but he knew how useless that was, so he backed up a few steps and took a running leap off the end of the dock, pulling his knees up to his chest as he jumped, cannon-balling into the water, going for goofy to counter Dean's graceful dive.
The water was cold. It closed over Sam's head as his body sank, black and deep and relentless, rushing into his mouth and his nose and ears, pulling him down. He let his instincts kick in at a certain point, uncurling his body so he could kick his legs, pump his arms, turning his face up to the watery light of the surface, taking huge gulps of air when he finally broke through. He could see Dean's laughing face only a few feet away, watching, treading water with strong arms, bare shoulders tensing as they moved. He had a moment of clarity as he realized he didn't know how to swim, had never been in water over his head in his life. Then the water closed over Sam's head again as he sank, the familiar feeling of unreality making his head spin.
Suddenly he was flashing back to memories of swimming with Dean, but they were dream-memories. Dean had taught him to swim at the town pool near their house; they had ridden their bikes there, and Dean had led him deeper and deeper into the water till his feet couldn't touch bottom anymore and he was floating, floating with Dean's steady hands on his back and shoulder, holding him up, Dean's encouraging voice telling him to relax, let the water keep him buoyed. The sun beating down was warm, soothing, like Dean's hands, now almost barely there as Sam floated free, ears filled with water so that all sound was muffled, making Dean's voice sound dim and rich and no longer comprehensible, growing dimmer as Dean moved away, letting him go, leaving him to float endlessly on a sea of sun-warmed water, forgotten and alone.
There was a pain in his chest; it was growing, getting sharper, then Sam's head cleared with a jolt of terror and he realized he was drowning, not floating, that he had been sinking the whole time, passed out or so deep inside his memories he might as well have been unconscious. Now Sam recognized the pain in his chest as his lungs fighting for air, struggling to avoid breathing in water, nearly bursting with the effort. Sam kicked frantically, disoriented, staring around him at nothing but darkness, unable to make sense of what was happening to him except that he was dying, completely immersed in water with no visible way out.
Then Dean was there, his face hovering close in the gloom, his hands grabbing Sam's flailing arms, pulling him close, then getting his arm around Sam's neck, pulling him back tight against Dean's chest. In Sam's panicked state he was sure they were going down, deeper into the water, and he fought, frantic, even as his oxygen-deprived brain assured him that Dean wouldn't hurt him, was trying to help. But Dean held him tight, using his free arm to pull them through the water, kicking in short, strong spurts till they broke the surface and Sam gasped, his body automatically sucking in air, almost passing out from the need to ventilate.
"It's okay, Sam, I got you," Dean breathed into his ear, and Sam stopped struggling, let Dean drag him toward shore, still keeping his choke hold on Sam's neck, keeping his head above the water, keeping him safe. When his feet touched the muddy bottom of the lake Dean let him go, turned him around so he could scramble up the beach on his own, Dean's hand a reassuring pressure on his back until they collapsed side by side on the shore, breathing hard.
"Dude, why didn't you tell me you couldn't swim?" Dean asked when they'd both caught their breath, pushing himself up on one elbow so he could look down at Sam.
Sam rubbed his sore throat, then ran his hand through his tangled hair. "I thought I could," he answered truthfully. "I remember taking swim lessons when I was little."
"Well, you must've had a helluva terrible teacher, then," Dean huffed out a sharp laugh.
Sam flushed and shook his head, feeling weirdly defensive of the dream-brother who had taught him more than just how to swim. "There's something wrong with my brain," he confessed, suddenly needing to confide in the older boy. "I mix up stuff that really happened with stuff I made up. I get confused sometimes."
Dean peered at him, reached over and pulled a wet twig out of Sam's hair, dropped it. "What are you talking about?" he asked, frowning. "You're the smartest kid I know. There's nothing wrong with your brain, far as I can tell."
Sam flushed with pleasure at the praise, suddenly overwhelmed by Dean's nearness, all that freckled bare skin just a few inches away.
"I'm a freak," Sam whispered, the words rushing out, needing Dean to know. "I see things that aren't there. Sometimes I hear voices."
"What, like a schizo?" Dean was still frowning, obviously making a real effort to understand.
Sam shook his head, biting his lower lip. "I'm psychic. I read people's minds. I have visions." The words spilled out of him before he could stop them, before he could control the urge to tell Dean everything, to spill his guts because he needed Dean to trust him, to know who he really was and to like him anyway. It was suddenly the most essential thing in Sam's existence, the thing he needed more than air.
Dean's reaction was classic; he raised his eyebrows in surprise, sat all the way up so that he was a few inches further away, just staring at Sam in silence for a full minute, considering. Sam could swear he saw a fleeting look of suspicion and fear, wiped away almost instantly by anger and indignation, replaced just as fast by a self-satisfied nod of recognition, like Sam had suddenly confirmed something Dean had already suspected.
"Yeah, that makes sense, actually," Dean said finally, nodding. "I've heard about people like you."
"You have?" Now it was Sam's turn to be surprised.
"Sure," Dean shrugged. "Jedi knights. Vulcans with their mind-melds. That little kid in Poltergeist."
"Those people aren't real," Sam noted, disappointed.
Dean shifted uncomfortably. "Maybe not, but I know about people like you in real life, too."
"You do?" Sam was skeptical.
"Sure," Dean repeated with another shrug. "My dad and me run into all kinds of people in the work we do." He hesitated, then asked, "So what, you can read my mind?"
Sam shook his head violently. "Not you," he said firmly, and was rewarded by Dean's visible relief. "I like being with you because I can't hear your thoughts at all." He blushed furiously, although he didn't understand why he should feel so embarrassed. He'd been sure Dean would understand, had sensed it since the moment he met him. "It's peaceful. I like to hang out with animals because they're peaceful too."
"And you have visions," Dean suggested. "What's that like?"
Sam sighed. "It's just confusing, mostly," he admitted. "I see things that turn out not to be real. Or I dream about something and then it happens in real life."
"Sounds a little creepy," Dean suggested, but Sam shook his head.
"Not really," he said. "Just confusing. I have a lot of false memories, like I remember learning to swim, but I guess I didn't really."
"Yeah, well, we can fix that, you know," Dean said. "If you want to. I could teach you."
"Yeah?" Sam sat up, flooded with hope. "You'd do that for me?"
"Sure," Dean shrugged. "How hard can it be, teaching a kid to swim? You just gotta get comfortable in the water, learn how to trust it. Once you can float and put your face in the water without panicking, you're over half-way there."
"When can we start?" Sam asked, all excitement and eagerness. He was just sure it would come back to him if Dean was there to guide him.
"Right now, if you're up to it," Dean smiled. "Dad always says, if something scares you, get right back in there and fight harder. Show it who's boss."
"Yeah," Sam nodded, getting up, looking dubiously at the water.
"And next time, we get you a decent pair of swim trunks," Dean grinned, and Sam flushed hot with embarrassment, which made Dean grin broader, made him reach out and ruffle Sam's almost-dry hair.
They spent nearly an hour letting Sam get used to the water again, staying in the shallows so Sam could feel the bottom, and just as Sam had suspected, the feeling of being in the water was more familiar than not to him, and he was floating face down as well as face up by the end of it, Dean's hands just a gentle pressure on his back, not even holding him up, just there.
They came back to the lake almost every afternoon that week, and Sam was swimming in no time, making Dean proud of him for being such a quick learner, confirming Sam in the quality of his earlier lessons with his first teacher, even if those lessons had been dreams.
On the following Sunday it rained, so instead of swimming Dean took Sam out for ice-cream. They stood together against the wall of the little store, under the eaves. Dean finished Sam's ice cream when Sam complained of a sore stomach, scraping the bottom of the little styrofoam cup to get every last drop of the sweet cream as Sam tried hard not to watch Dean's obvious pleasure in every bite. Then Sam stuck his spoon out in front of him and closed his eyes, concentrating as he knew how to do, focusing his mental energy on the spoon in his mind. He was rewarded almost immediately by a gasp from Dean, and when he opened his eyes the little white plastic spoon was curled in on itself, like it had melted and reformed that way. Sam grinned despite himself as Dean took the gnarled thing in his hand, fingers brushing Sam's with that now-familiar electric tingle, and Sam wondered if Dean felt it too, although he never let on if he did.
"Now that could be useful," Dean commented as he turned the plastic over in his hand. "If you could do that with door-locks or alarm systems, you'd be all set for a life of crime."
Sam shook his head. "Nah," he said. "It's not something I can control very well. It comes and goes. I probably couldn't do it if I really had to."
"I'll bet you could," Dean insisted. "I bet you could do anything you set your mind to. You're a pretty amazing kid."
Sam blushed furiously, ducking his head and shoving his hands into the pockets of his jeans, glancing up through his bangs at Dean with a grin he couldn't control. Dean's face broke into a smile when he caught Sam's look.
"Fuckin' adorable, too," Dean noted, reaching over to ruffle Sam's hair. Sam leaned into the touch, so Dean grabbed him around the neck in a headlock with the crook of his arm, pulling Sam against him and giving him noogies across the top of his head.
Sam struggled weakly, pretending to shove Dean away when really he was loving the closeness, the easy physical tussling, the warmth and firmness of Dean's body against his. He could smell Dean's cologne, the leather of his jacket, the faint spicy scent of after-shave, something sharp and smoky that Sam couldn't recognize, and the sweaty, musky smell that was all Dean. Sam had the wild thought that he could capture this, that he could hold it in his mind forever so that no matter what happened later, he could always return here, to this place in time when Dean had his arms wrapped around him, when Sam's face was pressed into Dean's chest and all of his experience was just pared down to these sense memories, this perfect moment, forever.
Then Dean released him after giving him a final squeeze, cuffing him lightly on the back of the head as he bumped Sam's shoulder with his arm.
"Come on," Dean said. "Rain's stopped. Let's get you home."
Later that evening, Dean came back. It was already dark out, and when Sam ran out on the porch to greet him he could tell immediately that there was something wrong.
"My dad's back," Dean explained as he sidled awkwardly, scuffing his toe in the dirt. He had his hands in the pockets of his jeans, bow legs wide, and he kept shifting his weight and wouldn't look Sam in the eye. "We're leaving in the morning."
Sam's throat closed up and tears stung at the backs of his eyes.
"When will you be back?" he asked, hearing the squeak in his voice and hating himself for it.
"I don't know," Dean admitted, and damn if his voice didn't sound a little choked up too. " I don't know, Sam. It could be a while."
"But..." Sam's nose was running, so he sniffled, brushed the back of his arm over it, which only got snot on his sleeve and now there were tears sliding down his cheeks and he wiped angrily at those, making it worse. He was sure his face was an absolute mess, but he couldn't seem to stop it. "But you'll come back, right?"
Dean's eyes were full of tears when he finally looked at Sam and realized how upset he was.
"Of course, I will," he lied, and Sam could tell he was lying because he looked away again when he said it. "We always come back here. Bobby's here. He's the nearest thing to family we got. Well, him and Pastor Jim. So a-course we'll be back."
He said the last looking straight at Sam, huge green eyes intent and serious, stupid long lashes dark and wet against his freckled skin.
Sam wasn't sure how he did it, but when he suddenly threw himself at Dean, tucking himself against the older boy in a desperate, bone-crunching hug, Dean sank into it, wrapped his arms around Sam and laid his chin on the top of Sam's head.
"Thank you," Sam breathed as he pulled Dean's warm scent into his lungs, pressed his wet cheek against Dean's chest, memorized the feel of his body under his leather jacket, the lean muscle and smell of after-shave, sweat, and that sharp, smoky smell that Sam couldn't quite place.
"Okay," Dean soothed, allowing the hug for another minute before gently pulling Sam's arms loose, stepping back and holding him at arm's length for a minute. "Okay, Sam. It's okay."
He didn't say goodbye; at least he seemed to understand that saying goodbye would destroy Sam's fragile self-control, maybe his own as well. So Sam stood silently, trying not to cry as Dean walked away, got into his truck, and started the engine. He didn't wave though; the little wave he usually gave had been a promise he couldn't keep this time, and they both knew it.
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