Going through the motions that day – following the instructor's lessons in his martial arts class, then his wrestling class, having lunch, following George into the padded room where he practiced his telekinesis exercises – Sam didn't once acknowledge the crushing weight on his chest, the grief threatening to strangle his soul. When it was time for Sam to practice his computer skills, he hacked into the chat rooms and message boards where hunters usually posted their leads and discussed signs and omens in their areas, looking for and tracking supernatural activity.
What he found made Sam's heart race. Apparently something big was going on, very close by, and a lot of hunters were in on it. In fact, if Sam was reading the signs right, the Project was sitting smack in the middle of some serious shit. Sam had only a minute or two to absorb what he was reading, and to wonder whether he ought to warn someone that it looked like a large group of hunters was headed their way when he heard a loud bang, so loud it shook the entire building. Then the lights went out.
Sam had instinctively ducked his head with the initial concussion, which was a good thing, because another shuddering blast brought part of the ceiling down, slamming across the computer in front of him and totally obliterating it as Sam jumped back out of the way. There were shouts, running feet, screams, sounds of gunfire, and Sam could smell smoke, could see flames through the beveled glass of the door, gunshots getting closer, screaming and shouting on the stairs, then in the hallway right outside his door. Sam only had time to crawl under the desk, huddle there, hoping his smallness and the darkness would keep him safe, before the door was flung open and two men stormed into the room, guns raised, crouched in defensive postures. Or at least Sam imagined they were. He was huddled under the desk with his arms wrapped around his knees and his head down, trying to stay as small and quiet as possible as the men checked the room. He could read adrenaline-pumped fear masked by determined bravado coming off one of the men; the other was a complete blank.
The familiar voice completely caught Sam off-guard, and the gasp escaped him before he could stop it; he clapped his hand over his mouth and froze, hoping against hope that the men hadn't heard him over all the yelling and screaming and banging. And for a minute or two it was so quiet Sam almost thought they hadn't heard. Then the men were there, crouched down with guns pointed and a flashlight shining right into his eyes, so fast it made Sam gasp again.
The familiar voice, Dean's voice, coming from the shadowy figure shining the light in Sam's eyes, made Sam's heart leap, his terror dimming beside the sudden elation rushing through him.
"Dean!" Sam heard his own voice, choking out his favorite word, sounding small and desperate, terrified and relieved at the same time.
"This is Sam?" The other man – John Winchester, Dean's dad, he could read it in John's thoughts – raked his flashlight over Sam's slight form, and Sam could hear the doubt in his words, the dubious surprise in his thoughts.
"Yeah, Dad," Dean said. "This is Sam. Why?"
"Well, it's just..." John paused, eyebrows raised. "I thought Sam was a girl. I mean the way you were always out all the time when I called, with somebody named Sam, I figured..."
Dean frowned, shook his head a little, snapping the safety back on his gun as he reached for Sam.
"Hey, buddy, what are you doing here?"
But before Sam could answer, another blast shook the room, sending part of the ceiling down almost on top of them, this time bringing flames and fire into the room as well.
"Come on!" John shouted, grabbing Dean's shoulder. "We need to get out of here. The whole place is going down!"
Dean grabbed the front of Sam's shirt, hauling him up.
"Come on, Sammy, let's get you out of here."
But as Sam tried to walk they both realized he'd been injured; Sam's jeans were torn just above the knee where something had gouged his right thigh, probably a piece of jagged metal from the ceiling. Sam's jeans were soaked with blood and when he tried to walk a piercing pain forced him to fall to his knees and cry out.
Dean didn't hesitate. He gathered Sam's small body against him and easily lifted him into his arms, forcing Sam to cling to him as he swept the boy out of the room and into the inferno. The entire building was on fire, flames leaping up the walls and down the banister of the stairwell, moving so fast there wasn't even a lot of smoke yet. Dean moved quickly, sure-footed and determined, following John down the stairs. All Sam could do was hold on, watching in horror as the fire destroyed the rooms and offices where he had spent so much time over the past four years. On the ground floor there were bodies on the floor, and Sam had only a quick glimpse but he was shocked to see George and Carl, both sprawled on their stomachs, both obviously dead. Other familiar bodies dotted the floor, all people Sam had known, all dead and left to burn. Sam's head swam with confusion and shock; he buried his face in Dean's neck and squeezed his eyes shut as they ran toward the front entrance, away from the scene of carnage and brutality and destruction.
Sam had only a vague sense when they were clear of the building. The air was suddenly easy to breathe, and although it was a warm summer day it was cooler outside. Sam felt himself being laid gently into the backseat of a car; he kept his eyes closed because it helped dampen the voices in his head, the angry, brutal thoughts of hunters bent on death and destruction, grimly determined to "kill every monster in the place." They were all around him out here, at least a dozen of them, all focused on the Project and its immolation. He could see George's face in the mind of one of them, full of fear and surprise as the man bore down on him, drove a silver blade the size of a small sword into his chest.
Sam wasn't aware that he was whimpering and crying until Dean crowded into the car seat next to him, still holding Sam's body against him and murmuring softly.
"Hey, little buddy, it's okay. You're safe now. I've got you. You're safe."
Another thundering crash made Sam cower against the car door, Dean covering him with his body as if he could protect him from the destruction and death all around them.
"Come on, Dad, let's get him out of here," Dean said as John started the car and it roared to life, its rumbling vibration a sudden deep comfort to Sam. Half-remembered dreams crowded his mind, images of home, of family, of riding in this car with people who loved him. He was shaking violently now, tears still streaming down his cheeks, and Dean held him tighter, pressed his lips against Sam's temple.
"You're gonna be fine, Sam," he murmured. "Everything's gonna be all right."
Dean slid his hand up into Sam's hair, then down his neck, his shoulder, feeling and exploring every inch of Sam's body. It was soothing, and if Sam hadn't been in so much pain and shock he might have enjoyed it, although he understood Dean was just checking him for other injuries.
"What were you doing in there, huh?" Dean muttered, half to himself, as if he didn't expect Sam to be able to answer. "Did they kidnap you? Were you being held in there?"
Sam tried to answer, but his teeth were chattering badly, and he couldn't stop crying; it felt more like leaking, really, since he wasn't sobbing at all, just shaking.
"He's in shock," John said from the front seat, shooting a glance at them in the rearview mirror. "We should drop him off at Sioux Falls General."
"No way, Dad," Dean shook his head firmly. "He's just a little kid. We need to get him home. Someplace safe."
"Where's he live?" John asked, and Dean froze; Sam could feel him hesitate before he gave Sam's address, and Sam had the wild thought that Dean had meant to take him with them, to keep him. Sam wanted that so badly, to stay with Dean, it made his chest heave painfully, starting a fresh round of crying. Dean rubbed his back, then his arm, murmuring soothingly until they pulled up into Sam's driveway.
"Houston, we have a problem," John said, slowing the car to a crawl.
Dean looked up, out the front windshield, and Sam could feel his whole body tense.
"Jesus," Dean breathed, momentarily loosening his hold on Sam so he could take in what he was seeing.
Sam looked up too, saw what he thought was a stuffed animal on the front lawn, Jack lying beside it in an awkward position, unmoving...
Sam realized what he was seeing a moment before Dean pulled him close, slipped his hand over Sam's eyes. Sam's gasp was audible in the silence as John stopped the car, carefully drew his gun.
"Stay here," John commanded, slowly getting out of the car, on the alert.
Sam reached up and pulled Dean's hand away, stared at the body of his foster brother and his beloved Zoe on the grass, speechless with horror. He watched John Winchester cross the lawn at a crouch, keeping his gun cocked, whole body tense and alert.
Beside him, Dean was just as tense.
"I should go with him," he muttered darkly.
"He said to stay here," Sam almost whispered, his voice cracking. He kept hold of Dean's wrist, desperate to keep Dean with him, terrified of losing him too.
Dean's mouth set in a hard line and his jaw clenched, but he said nothing, stayed where he was as John climbed the steps to the porch, keeping his gun ready as he rapped on the screen door. None of the three expected an answer, and after a minute John pulled the screen door open and slipped into the house, out of view. Both boys sat in anxious silence for the five minutes it took for John to scope out the house. Dean apparently holding his breath, if the sigh he uttered when John finally came out was any indication. John shook his head once at Dean, then rounded the corner of the house to check the barn and shed.
When he came back, John's face was a mask of grim disgust.
"They even killed the animals," he announced as he slipped into the driver's seat, started the car, backing up so he could turn around in the driveway. "When we get to Bobby's I'll have him put in an anonymous call to 911. This isn't our kind of thing."
He looked in the rearview mirror at Sam, who had finally stopped shaking and crying or, in fact, moving at all. Sam could see the images in John's mind: his foster-mother, lying on the floor of the kitchen, his other foster-brother slumped over his lunch at the table, the cats and dogs and farm animals in the barn and out in the pasture behind, all dead. Sam could feel something cold and hard in the bottom of his stomach, creeping up through his chest and out to his arms and legs, tapping on the inside of his brain where the images replayed on an endless feedback loop, sending his mind deeper and deeper inside itself. He was vaguely aware of Dean waving a hand in front of his face, making him blink, and when Dean spoke his name Sam moved his head slightly, but somehow couldn't quite lift his eyes or focus on Dean's face, as compelling as it was. Sam felt like he wasn't all there, like his body was functioning without him; his mind was reading John's thoughts and his body was responding to Dean's closeness, but there was no connection. Sam just wasn't home.
"Shock," John announced. answering Dean's worried expression as he tried to get Sam to respond to him. "We'll figure it out when we get to Bobby's. I need that kid to give me some answers."
The ten-minute drive to Bobby Singer's place felt like hours, or just a minute or two. Sam couldn't remember later, and he definitely didn't want to think about it. His brain was trying to process the things he'd seen that day, but his soul was just checked out. He couldn't feel a thing. It was like being immersed in freezing water; in fact it felt a lot like that day in the lake when Sam had sunk like a stone and the water had closed in all around him and he had just given up, let it cover him and enter him and absorb his body like he didn't exist, like obliteration was the only reality.
"Sam?" Dean was speaking, had been speaking for awhile, had been trying to get his attention, and Sam tried, he really did, to focus on Dean's voice, his face. The car had stopped, and somehow Dean had gotten out, had pulled Sam's limp, unresponsive body across the back seat so he could gather him up, carry him into the cool, dark house. Sam was lying on a couch now, Dean hovering over him, John and another man – Sam guesses it's Bobby Singer – hovering behind him.
"Let's get that leg patched up first thing," Bobby was saying. Bobby's mind was full of death; he'd driven a silver blade into two or three "monsters," as he called the people who worked at the Project. Something called shapeshifters. He had presided over a demon exorcism in his basement the previous day; the demon had revealed the location of the Project, had sneered and taunted Bobby with his father's death before he gave up the information Bobby needed. Sam could see John in the memory, but not Dean.
Of course not. Yesterday was Sunday. Dean was with Sam. Dean was telling Sam he had to leave him.
The sudden pang of grief at the memory of Dean's parting words made Sam gasp; he could feel hot tears stinging his eyes so he closed them tight, felt moisture on his cheeks as tears slid down.
"He's crying again," Dean breathed. "That's good. That's good, isn't it?"
Sam could feel the hole in his jeans being ripped open, could feel Dean's gentle hands as he wiped away the blood, examined the wound.
"It's just superficial," Dean announced. "Just a scratch, really. You're gonna be okay."
Sam watched Dean's face as the older boy worked, cleaning the wound, pouring antiseptic on it, making Sam hiss and arch his back at the sting, but he didn't cry out. He was brave. Then Dean bandaged the wound and wrapped gauze around his leg to hold it, and Sam tried to give a shaky smile of thanks because he could see how concerned Dean was, how tense his face was as he worked and Sam felt like he needed to reassure him, to show him that Sam was gonna be fine.
"So this is Sam," Bobby muttered to John, and Sam was aware that they were standing off to the side, watching the boys speculatively. "I thought Sam was a..."
"I know," John nodded. "Me too."
"This kid is what, eight? Nine?"
"He's twelve," Dean threw over his shoulder irritably, still wrapping Sam's leg. "He's just a little small for his age, is all."
"I'll say," Bobby grunted. "If the kid was much smaller he'd be invisible."
"Kid's just lost his whole family," Dean breathed. "Everything. He's probably feeling pretty small right now."
John tugged Bobby aside, just out of earshot, but Sam could hear what they were saying, knew John was recounting the scene at his foster-home. He could see the images in John's mind again, fresh and vivid. When Dean finished and started to get up to wash his hands Sam clung to him, stared up with his eyes full of tears.
"Please, don't go," Sam croaked out, knowing how pathetic he sounded.
Dean smiled a little, reassuring. "Not going very far," he said. "Just need to wash this off. I'll be right here."
And true to his word, Dean was back in a couple of minutes, let Sam pull him down on the couch next to him. Sam snuggled in under Dean's arm, tucked his head under Dean's chin, and held on for dear life, just needing the physical closeness he'd never had with anyone else, not since those early years with a mother he barely remembered. To his credit, Dean allowed the cuddling, slipping his arm around the boy and pulling him in, running his other hand through Sam's hair, pushing it back from his face in gentle strokes, soothing.
"You're gonna be okay, Sam," he murmured. "Everything's gonna be fine."
Bobby went off to make the anonymous call to 911, and John hovered close to the couch, looking down at the boys huddled together there.
"I need to know what he was doing in that warehouse," John growled, and Dean shook his head sharply.
"Not now, Dad," he pleaded. "Sam needs a little recovery time first. He'll tell us when he's ready."
John shook his head, hands on his hips as he shifted, scrubbed a hand over his face.
"Bobby and I need to go back over, do some clean up at the site," he said. "Make sure we've covered our tracks."
Dean nodded. "I'll stay here with Sam," he suggested, and John hesitated, casting a glance at Sam that was full of doubt and suspicion. Sam didn't need to be a mind-reader to know John Winchester didn't trust him, felt uncomfortable leaving him alone with his son.
Dean saw the look in John's eyes and tightened his hold on Sam, rubbing his thumb back and forth over Sam's bony shoulder.
"Dad, he's a little kid," Dean reminded him. "I think I can handle this."
John scrubbed his hand across his face again. "We don't know if he's even human, Dean," he reminded his son. "Considering where we found him...He could be one of them. You know the drill, Dean. We need to test him. Silver, holy water..."
"I'll do it, Dad, I promise," Dean insisted. "Just give him a little time to recover first."
"He might not even be your Sam," John grumbled. "Shapeshifters may be able to read minds. There's a lot we don't understand about them. Now, Sam's entire family was slaughtered today. We find this kid in the warehouse where the monsters are. You think that's a coincidence?"
"No, sir," Dean agreed. "But whatever went down, it's not his fault."
"Oh, you think so?" John shook his head. "How do we know he wasn't in on it? Huh? How do you know he didn't kill his own family before joining his pals at the warehouse, huh?"
"Dad, that's crazy," Dean protested, his voice rising dangerously. "I've been hanging out with him all summer. He's just an ordinary, regular human kid. Nothing freaky or monstery about him. If he was involved in this somehow – and I'm not saying he is, just if he was – he'd tell us. He'll tell me. We just need to give him a little space right now. Kid just lost his family, okay? Just had his world turned upside down. Seems like we owe him a little sympathy and understanding right now, don't you think?"
"Don't take that tone with me, soldier," John growled menacingly. "We'll do it your way for now, but when Bobby and I get back, that kid had better start giving us some answers. You got me?"
Bobby had finished his calls and was hovering behind John, frowning at Dean and shaking his head.
"Well, that foster family of his was human, all right," he said grimly. "Just checked with a buddy of mine on the force who was first on the scene. After you idjits, a-course. Police are gonna be looking for this kid. We need to figure out what we're doing pretty quick here, before somebody accuses us of kidnapping."
"We'll figure it out later," John told Bobby, then turned back to Dean. "Bobby and I will be back as soon as we can. You boys stay here. Don't go outside. Don't call anyone or answer the phone unless it's me. Y'hear?"
"Yes, sir," Dean agreed.
John nodded grimly, cast one more frowning glance at Sam, shaking his head again as if he knew he was doing something he shouldn't, leaving Dean alone and unprotected with a potential monster. But even John couldn't bring himself to kill a kid, at least not while Dean was wrapped around him like a mother bear protecting her cub. And as much as it worried him, he was confident in his ability to handle this, one step at a time. At least, that's what Sam heard John telling himself as he snuggled in closer against Dean's warm chest, closing his eyes so he couldn't see the distrust in John's, the way he looked at Sam like Sam was a problem to be solved, or better yet, eradicated.
After the men left Dean breathed a sigh of relief, loosening his hold on Sam and pushing him back a little so he could look into Sam's face.
"You're a dirty mess, you know that?" Dean grinned a little, swiping his thumb along Sam's cheek, watching it come away covered in soot and grime. All the crying had mixed with the smoke and dust and Sam could only imagine how awful he probably looked, but he was suddenly too tired to care. With John and Bobby gone so that it was just Dean here, Sam could feel the strain and tension of the last couple of hours bleeding away, leaving behind a deep exhaustion that rattled his bones and made his eyelids heavy.
"Hey, whoa, don't pass out on me," Dean admonished as he helped Sam recline comfortably on the couch, or as comfortably as he could with his leg throbbing painfully. "I'm gonna go get you a washcloth and a glass of water. You must be thirsty. Do you want something to eat? Are you hungry? I'll bet I can make you a sandwich or something."
Sam tried to shake his head, really he did, but it was so heavy, his neck felt like it had turned to stone, and he just couldn't keep his eyes open, even to watch Dean as he walked away into the kitchen.
He must've dozed off, because the next thing he knew Dean was there again, sitting him up and tipping the lip of a glass of cool water against his mouth.
"Come on, little man, drink a little of this," Dean commanded softly, and Sam curled his lips around the edge of the glass and drank, reaching up to hold the glass for himself, his fingers brushing Dean's as he did. "That's it."
Sam gulped the entire glass straight down, and Dean was getting up again to refill it when Sam grabbed his wrist, instinctively needing Dean to stay with him, not sure how to express it. Dean stopped and looked down at him, the fond smile in his eyes warming Sam's chest, calming him.
"It's okay, Sam," Dean assured him. "Not going anywhere. Just getting you some more water, okay?"
Sam closed his eyes, sank back into the couch again. dropping into sleep almost immediately, only to wake a few minutes later to the feel of a warm, damp washcloth wiping his face gently. It felt so good, he lay still and kept his eyes closed, letting Dean wash his face, then his hands, then check and re-dress the cut on his leg, all the while focusing on Dean's nearness, on the strength and confidence conveyed by his touch. Sam had never felt so cared for, even in his dreams, even when he was a small child.
"You just sleep now, little guy," Dean breathed softly when he finished, laying a gentle hand on Sam's forehead, checking for fever. "There'll be plenty of time to talk later. I'll be right here, I promise. Not going anywhere."
When sleep pulled Sam down this time it was into a dark, dreamless place where Dean's constant presence was a warm comfort, a sharp contrast to all the years of lonely, empty beds. Dean was here, really here, even as Sam slept, keeping Sam safe, banishing the nightmares threatening to crowd his head and keep him from sleeping. Dean was here, with Sam, right where he belonged.
When Sam woke up he could smell bacon cooking. He'd slept for hours, he realized right away; it was dark out and his leg was stiff and sore. He stretched, pulled himself up to sitting, then twisted around toward the kitchen, where Dean was standing with his back to him at the stove, cooking.
For several minutes, Sam sat watching the muscles of Dean's broad back, his shoulders in the tight black tee-shirt, the smooth, almost hair-less skin of his strong arms as he moved the spatula and flipped the bacon, then finally turned to retrieve a plate from the table.
"Hey, look who's awake," he grinned as he caught Sam staring.
Sam blushed to the roots of his hair and looked down immediately, but he could tell that Dean knew he'd been looking at him, had been for some time. Dean knew and he didn't mind. Sam didn't really know how to feel about that. He didn't understand why his feelings for Dean were so intense, but it embarrassed him, made him worry there was something wrong with him. Something more wrong.
"You hungry?" Dean asked, as if he totally missed Sam's discomfort. Or as if he noticed but chose to ignore it. Or was totally okay with it. Sam dared to look up, met Dean's sparkling green eyes, got a wink and a smirk from Dean for his audacity. Sam shook his head, but his stomach gave him away, and Dean raised his eyebrows and tilted his head a little, as if to say, "Really?"
"Well, you sure sound hungry," Dean noted. He turned away again, cracking eggs into the hot pan, and Sam deliberately avoided staring, twisting the blanket that someone – Dean, obviously – had laid over him while he slept. "Bacon and eggs coming right up."
Dean sat with him while he ate, washed it down with another glass of water because apparently Bobby Singer didn't keep milk or juice in his fridge, and the only other beverage on offer was beer. Dean helped himself to a bottle after he cleaned up Sam's dishes, sat down in the chair next to the couch, and laid a small silver blade on the table beside him.
"Now Sam, I told my dad I'd run some tests on you before he gets back," Dean said solemnly. "I know you're not one of those – those things we killed back at the warehouse, but he wants me to prove it to him. Are you okay with that?"
Sam nodded, glancing at the blade, then back up at Dean's face, feeling his heart speed up and his palms start to sweat.
"What do I have to do?" he asked, voice shaking a little.
"Well, you've already been drinking holy water, so that's done," Dean gave a little reassuring smile, and Sam relaxed. "Now I need you to give me your hand. Palm up."
"Wh – what are you going to do?" Sam stammered, his shaking becoming suddenly more violent, head pounding. He put his hand out as Dean requested, and Dean took it in both of his large ones, uncurling Sam's fingers and running his thumb along the lifeline there.
"Hey, it's okay, it won't hurt," Dean assured him, rubbing at the lifeline. "Well, not much anyway. And just for a minute. Look, I'll do it first, so you can see."
Dean picked up the knife and ran the sharp edge along the meat of his own palm, and Sam watched in fascination as the skin split open and red blood welled to the surface.
"See? Nothing to it," Dean said, holding up his palm for Sam to see before reaching for a handkerchief to bind it with. "Now you, okay?"
Sam nodded, trying to control his shaking, keeping his hand in Dean's as Dean wiped the blade clean, then drew it carefully along Sam's palm. It was so sharp there was barely a sting as Sam's skin broke open and blood welled forth; they both watched for a minute, then Dean nodded, satisfied, and grabbed a clean handkerchief to wrap around Sam's hand.
"Good, Sam, you did good," Dean smiled his reassurance, closing Sam's small hand around the kerchief and tucking it against his chest. "Just hold it like that till the blood stops. You'll be fine."
"Those – those monsters were my friends," Sam blurted out, his voice small and scared. "They weren't hurting anybody. Why – why did you kill them, Dean?"
Dean looked shocked for a minute, his eyes wide, face pale. Then he shook his head, lowered his eyes, busied himself checking the cut on Sam's leg, re-dressing it.
"You don't know what you're saying, Sam," Dean's voice shook a little. "They must've drugged you or something. You were being held against your will. You're traumatized, is all."
"That was my summer school," Sam explained, too late to stop now. "They were training me. Showing me how to do stuff. I was learning how to be a super-hero."
"Is that what they told you?" Dean looked up, eyebrows raised skeptically.
Sam nodded. "They were helping me control my abilities, teaching me how to use them to help people."
"Using you, more like," Dean frowned, his voice low and rough.
"Manipulating you. Sam, those things weren't people. They were monsters. They were using you and your – your abilities – to hurt people. Real people. People who aren't monsters, or hunters. Just regular, innocent people, who don't even know we exist."
"You hunt monsters," Sam suggested, nodding. "You're a hunter."
"That's right," Dean nodded. "Me, my dad, Bobby...It's what we do."
"George said hunters are bad," Sam's voice sounded small, and he wasn't trying to whisper, but that's how it sounded. "George said hunters would want to kill us. Just because we're different."
Dean huffed out a breath, clearly irritated. "Well, George was wrong, okay? We don't kill innocent people. You are not a monster. None of those kids we rescued today are monsters. The monsters were those things who were brainwashing you. You were being conditioned for something. They were training you up for something, but you were not one of them, you understand me, Sam? I just tested you. That's what this was for. And you passed, okay? You're human. You're just a kid. Just a regular, ordinary kid."
Dean had worked himself up, and his righteous anger on Sam's behalf was making Sam's chest ache, making his cheeks hot.
"My foster family..." Sam's voice trailed off, his eyes burning with fresh tears as the memories flooded in. "They're not monsters either, Dean. Why did somebody kill them?"
Dean took a deep breath, scrubbed his good hand over his face, shaking his head.
"You got me, Sam, you got me," he sighed. "That, I don't get. Your family was human. That much we know. But they let you go to that...that summer school." He looked up at Sam, biting his lower lip absently. "For how long, Sam? How long were you going to the warehouse and training with those things?"
"Four years," Sam whispered, still shaking under the shock of Dean's revelations. In all that time, it had never occurred to Sam that his handlers weren't human. It just didn't. He accepted everything they told him at face value, so that now, hearing Dean referring to them as monsters, Sam simply couldn't take it in. Wouldn't he have known? Shouldn't he have known?
Dean was shaking his head, brow furrowed and lips pursed. "They had long-term plans, I guess," Dean said, glancing up at Sam, then away again as if he couldn't bear to look at him, as if this new information was making Dean see Sam differently.
Which was just not okay with Sam at all.
"You tried to warn me, Dean," Sam told him, desperate to regain Dean's trust. "I used to dream about you all the time, and you warned me about them. Well, not about George and Carl and the other guys, but about Dr. Clausen, and Jennifer. All of them at the clinic. You hated them. Then when Dr. Clausen made you go away...when I forgot you...but I remembered everything when I saw you here on the road that day, Dean. I remembered everything then."
Dean was staring, eyes wide, mouth open, uncomprehending and clearly freaked out.
"Wha..what are you talking about, Sammy?" he stammered. "You used to dream about me? About me?"
Sam nodded. "All my life," he said. "You and me, growing up in our house, riding in the backseat of the car. We're brothers. In my dream, you and me are brothers, Dean."
There. He said it. He finally told Dean his biggest secret, the one he feared the most because it made him sound so freaky, like some kind of stalker or something.
Dean was shaking his head, jaw clenched, lips tight. "That's impossible, Sam," he said. "That's just your weird psychic thing. My brother..." He hesitated, biting back some strong emotions. "My brother's dead," he said finally. "He died when he was a baby. In the fire that killed my mom."
Now it was Sam's turn to be stunned. That just didn't make sense. If he was supposed to be dead...But then Sam realized that he'd been holding out hope the entire time that it was true, that he really was Dean's brother, and the truth – yes, Dean had a brother, but he died – the truth shattered all of Sam's illusions in a single moment.
"Are – are you sure?" he heard himself asking, then cringed because it made him sound so needy.
"Yes, I'm sure," Dean barked, angry now, which made Sam feel even worse. He shouldn't be pushing this; it was obviously a horrible memory for Dean, probably the defining tragedy of his life, and he sure as hell didn't need Sam dredging it up again.
But Dean was riled up and seemed to need to go on, to make Sam understand. "I heard him screaming, okay? I remember my baby brother crying and crying, but I couldn't save him. The fire was too hot. Dad burned himself pretty badly trying to get into the nursery, but the flames drove him back. I let my baby brother die, Sam. I was supposed to protect him, look after him. That's what Mom always said. And I failed. You get me, Sam? I failed."
Dean was on his feet, pacing, his entire body crackling with frustrated energy, with the urge to do something – anything – to change what had happened that night. Sam didn't have to be a mind-reader to see how fresh the memory was for Dean, how even after twelve years he still beat himself up over something that happened when he was only four years old.
"His name was Sam, wasn't it?" Sam whispered, and Dean stopped, stared at him, clenching and un-clenching his fists, like he was wishing he could hit something. "He'd be my age exactly if he survived, wouldn't he?"
"Sam, you're not him," Dean shook his head. "You can't be him. The firefighters recovered the bodies. We buried them. I remember the funeral."
Sam felt a tear slide down his cheek, felt his chest tighten with grief. It shouldn't hit him so hard, finding out he wasn't Dean's brother after all, but he had been hoping it could be true since the day he'd seen Dean on that dusty road, and it was the hardest reality he'd ever had to face. He wiped angrily at his leaking face with his good hand, swiped the back of his handkerchief-covered hand across his sniffling nose.
"Hey, come on, it's not that bad," Dean slid to his knees in front of Sam, his hands on the couch, on either side of Sam's knees, leaned in so Sam was forced to look up at him. "It happened a long time ago. I'm pretty much over it."
No you're not, Sam thought but didn't say.
"How – how did it start?" Sam asked instead, pulling himself together so he could focus on Dean, get off his own wretched self-pitying head-trip. "The fire, I mean. Do they know what happened?"
Dean sat back on his heels, turned his face away and clenched his jaw, and for a moment Sam was afraid he wouldn't answer.
"Dad thinks it was a demon," Dean said finally, still looking off toward the window, giving Sam his profile. He was so close, Sam could see every freckle, every eyelash; he could smell the spicy scent of the gel in Dean's hair. "Dad saw the thing, in the nursery, hovering over the crib. It had yellow eyes and it was grinning at him. Mom was – the thing had pinned Mom to the ceiling somehow, and she was bleeding and burning. Dad thinks she was already dead, but he's not sure. He yelled at it – 'Get away from my son, you son-of-a-bitch!' – but the thing just laughed at him, just threw him backwards against the wall with a flick of its wrist – with his mind. Stunned him. When Dad came to, flames were everywhere. He tried to go back in, but..."
"So he didn't actually see the baby die," Sam clarified, hope rising in his chest again. "Maybe the demon took him. Maybe it left him with a foster-family, and he grew up and...and maybe I'm him, Dean, maybe I am your brother."
Dean looked back at Sam, his eyes glistening like two pools of warm sea water. "If you heard that baby crying like I did..." Dean lowered his head, squeezed his eyes shut, and Sam could tell he was fighting back tears. "No, Sam. Don't you think if I thought for one minute...Don't you think if I could have my brother back, if I thought there was a chance in hell he survived that fire, don't you think I want that? Don't you think I wish you were him? But you're not, little buddy, okay? You're not. Dad saw my brother die. I heard him. We buried him. This is all just some weird, freaky coincidence, that's all."
"But my dreams..." Sam tried again, one last time, because he couldn't not hope. He couldn't not wish it were true, despite everything Dean was saying.
Dean put his hands on Sam's knees, raised his eyebrows in a stern look that demanded Sam take him seriously. "When Dad gets back, we're gonna tell him everything you just told me, okay? Except the dreams. You got me? Your psychic stuff is creepy enough, and we don't want to give him more reasons to turn you back over to the system, you got me? If he thinks you're a monster-in-training, and then he starts thinking I'm your target or something...Well, let's just keep that part to ourselves. Okay?"
Sam nodded, suddenly terrified of John's return, of his final judgment on Sam's future.
It was already early morning when John and Bobby finally returned. Sam woke with a start when he heard the rumble of the Impala, the creaking and slamming of its doors. Dean was sprawled on the chair next to the couch, three empty beer bottles on the table next to him, snoring lightly, and he didn't stir as the front door opened and Bobby and John walked in. They were covered in soot, dirt, and grime, and they were both exhausted.
"Shower, then bed for me," Bobby declared, kicking off his boots and moving heavily up the stairs to the second floor.
John staggered into the living room, stared down at Sam for a moment, then took a step closer and laid his hand on Dean's head, stroking the soft, gel-spiked hair, then letting the back of his hand rest gently against Dean's temple. Dean shifted restlessly, muttered something indecipherable in his sleep, but didn't wake up. John looked up at Sam again, and his gaze was softer, full of his fondness for Dean.
"I want your side of this story, son," he said quietly, his deep voice low so as not to wake Dean. "But it can wait a little while longer. This has been a helluva day, and I think we've all earned a little rest, don't you?"
Sam nodded solemnly, grateful for the first show of real kindness from the big hunter. It was reassuring in a way Sam couldn't quite put his finger on, and it made Sam feel safe for the first time since yesterday morning, despite the horrible, graphic images of shallow graves full of salt and flame in John's head. It made Sam feel reassured and protected. John Winchester was not a man to cross, Sam could sense that easily, but he was also a good man to have on your side, if you could get him, and Sam decided right then and there that he would convince John to let him stay with them if it was the last thing he did.
"So the shapeshifters were training you," John clarified later that day, after everyone was awake and rested and showered and Dean had checked Sam's wound again. "Looks clean," he told Sam. "No infection." He was still on the couch, Dean next to him, watching John pace in front of them as he interrogated Sam. Bobby had just gone into the kitchen to get more coffee.
"That's what it looks like," Dean agreed. He'd repeated Sam's story to his father, almost verbatim, minus the dream stuff and light on the psychic stuff, which clearly worried John enough as it was.
"But you don't have any idea what they had in mind for you," John looked hard at Sam. "What their long-term plan was."
"He figured they were teaching him to be a super-hero," Dean stepped in to answer for Sam, shooting him a warning glance. "He thought he was learning to be one of the good guys."
"And your psychic mojo," John ignored Dean, kept his intense gaze focused on Sam, who tried not to squirm or look away. "Did you read anything in their minds about what they were planning? Anything at all?"
"Carl didn't know anything," Sam almost whispered, his voice shaking, and he cleared it before he tried again. "George had some kind of trick he used to keep me from reading him. I could catch glimpses of his thoughts, once in awhile, but it was...he...mostly he was thinking about sex."
Dean frowned at that, immediately interrupting again. "Did he bad-touch you, Sam? Ever?"
Sam shook his head. "He had the hots for Carl," Sam blushed at the memory of George's thoughts, not because they were particularly embarrassing, but because thinking about George's lust for Carl made him think of Dean, and that was...weird.
"And the rest of the shapeshifters...Could you read their thoughts?" John went on, and Sam shook his head again.
"George told me not to. He said it was important that I learn to control it, and he was trusting me. I never...Most of the time, even when I caught glimpses of other people's thoughts, it was just boring stuff: 'What am I gonna make for supper?' 'I hate my boyfriend.' 'The boss is a jerk.' Stuff like that. The martial arts teacher was a closet knitter. He had a big box full of hand-knitted scarves at home and he was very proud of them. The guy who taught wrestling liked to wear women's underwear."
"Okay, that's enough," John put up a hand, and Sam closed his mouth. He wished now that he'd disobeyed George and listened more closely to the thoughts around him during his time in the warehouse. He might have figured out a way to prevent all of this from happening.
But then he wouldn't be sitting here with John and Dean, interviewing for a place in the Winchester family, hoping against all odds they'd let him in.
"And you never suspected they were shifters," John clarified. "Nothing about them ever seemed off to you?"
Sam shook his head, trying to remember anything about George or Carl or his teachers that might have tipped him off that they were monsters, but there wasn't anything. They'd been kind to him, in a detached way, and he'd felt like he belonged, like his future as one of them was guaranteed, as long as he made progress and worked hard. He'd never questioned it.
"It's like I said, Dad," Dean stepped in again. "They had him really well brainwashed. He believed they were helping him."
"Yeah, I get that," John nodded grimly. "I just want to be sure they never had him do something evil with those powers of his."
Sam felt a stab of fear and he shook his head violently. "I never...never...They made me promise not to do what I did with them out in the real world. They didn't want anybody to know what I could do. They wanted everything to stay a big secret."
John's mouth tightened into a grim line, and he narrowed his eyes as he considered this for a moment, then shook his head.
"There were other kids in your classes, Sam," he said. "Did those kids have psychic powers too?"
"I don't know," Sam answered honestly. He thought back to his martial arts and wrestling classes, to the fleeting glimpses of the thoughts from the other kids' minds. "I don't think so. They were just there for the classes."
"The shifters ran a legitimate business," Bobby weighed in, stepping in behind John so that there were now three pairs of eyes trained on Sam. "Well, under-the-table income-wise, but basically the martial arts and wrestling classes were offered to the general public as a front for the behind-the-scenes stuff they were doing upstairs. They were running a pretty complex operation. All those other kids were just regular customers. Apparently, Sam here was the only 'special' student."
The three hunters stared at Sam for a moment, then John lowered his eyes, turned toward Bobby with a sigh. "Anything more about his family? What happened to them?"
Bobby shook his head. "Every living thing on that farm was killed, execution style mostly. Single gun-shot wounds, straight to the head. Must've happened fast, must've been more than one shooter. The police are calling it a multiple homicide, leaving the animals out of it. They're looking for little Sam here for questioning, but nobody's trying very hard. Right now the theory is, kid's dead too, body's in the woods or in a ditch or something.
"And here's the weird part," Bobby went on, hesitating for a beat to glance at John, then back at Sam and Dean. "There's no record of this kid in the foster care system. They know he lived at that farm because he was enrolled in school and the neighbors remember him walking the dog. But Child Protective Services's got nothin'. As far as they're concerned, he doesn't even exist."
"So, that's a good thing, isn't it?" Dean pressed. "They can't charge us with kidnapping a kid that doesn't exist, can they? And if they think he's dead they won't come looking for him."
Bobby glanced at John, who shook his head but wouldn't look at the boys.
"It's not the police I'm worried about," John said darkly. "Somebody somewhere thinks this kid is pretty important, and they don't assume he's lying dead in a ditch somewhere."
"You think whoever killed his foster family knows he's still alive," Bobby suggested.
"They know he wasn't at the farm," John nodded. "Now maybe, if we're lucky, they'll figure he died in the fire. All I know is, they've gone to a helluva lot of trouble to keep his entire existence a secret, and people who go to that kind of trouble don't give up easy."
"We can keep him safe, Dad," Dean insisted. "We know how to live under the radar. Sam's safer with us than he would be anywhere else, especially CPS. We can't give him up to them, Dad. They'd find him easy that way, and then...well, what if they've decided he really is too much trouble? What if they just want to find him so they can be sure he's dead? We can't let that happen, Dad. If we turn him in and he got killed, that'd be on us. You gotta see that."
"All right, Dean, that's enough," John put his hand up and Dean shut his mouth. Then John turned away from the boys, scrubbing one hand over his face, the other hand on his hip. Sam waited, soaking in Dean's nearness, daring to hope against hope that John would decide to keep him, trying not to listen too closely as the big hunter silently debated with himself. "Okay, here's what we'll do. We need to know everything we can about that organization. Sam, I know you were pretty little when you moved here. Is there anything else you can tell us about these people? Where's that clinic you mentioned? How far away is it? Then we need to try to track them down, stop them doing whatever it is they're doing. Bobby, see what you can dig up on our boy here. Birth records, school records. Don't kids have to have shots before they start school? Find out where Sam got his. Hit the public library, go back to the farm, poke around, see what you can find. I'll go back to the warehouse site, give it another look, call some buddies of mine to see if they can give us any leads on an organization of shifters. Dean, stay here and take care of the kid for now, pick up the phone only if it's one of us, ya got me?"
"Yes, sir," Dean agreed. "So...Sam stays? We're keeping him?"
John looked from his son to the small boy huddled next to him, shaking his head. "For now," he said. "At least until we can figure this out. If those things are trying to find him, he's safer with us than some civilian foster-home, no doubt about that."
Sam could barely answer John's remaining questions after that; his heart was pumping so loudly in his ears and his palms were sweating so badly that Dean finally put an arm around him, offering his steady reassurance so Sam could control his trembling excitement. They were keeping him! He could stay! He and Dean could be brothers for real! It was almost too much, after all he'd been through over the past twenty-four hours, to go from thinking he'd never see Dean again to suddenly being the center of the case he was working on.
And Sam was determined to show them they wouldn't regret it. He had skills and talents he could offer that would help them. Cranking up Bobby's old IBM desktop computer, he spent the rest of the day showing Dean how he could hack into databases in hospitals and universities, logging in as a student so he could access Lexis Nexis, as well as state and federal records databases.
Dean's eyes glazed over as Sam tried to interest him in the computer hacking, but when Bobby got back later that day he seemed to understand what Sam could do, and how much it could help them.
"You're a genius, kid," Bobby declared when Sam's research pulled up links between the Project's work in Sioux Falls with a university research facility in Lawrence, Kansas. But when John and Dean drove down, with Sam in the backseat, to check it out, the research assistants there told them the project had been shut down four years previously.
"They were using kids as test subjects," John explained in the car later, after he'd gone in posing as a representative from the state Board of Medical Examiners to question witnesses while the boys waited in the car. "The project had to shut down when someone reported them to CPS. The kids were apparently living at the clinic, bedding down in the basement somewhere. Not exactly above-board."
"Creepy fuckers," Dean muttered under his breath, glancing at Sam in the rearview mirror.
Sam was staring out the window, watching the familiar landscape slip by; the lawns and well-manicured streets of the University of Kansas campus giving way to comfortable, middle-class neighborhoods where he and Dean had walked and played in his dreams. Seeing it in real life, in real time, was disorienting and surreal. There was the park where Dean had pushed him on the swings. There were the monkey-bars they climbed and jumped off, daring each other to climb higher and higher until...Sam could still remember how it felt when he'd fallen, hit his face and passed out, given himself a concussion and a black eye. Dean had gathered him up, would've carried him to the hospital if people hadn't come running...Sam couldn't remember the rest of that dream; the pain probably woke him up.
John turned the car down another side-street, and that's when Sam saw it. Their old house, the one where he and Dean grew up. Still standing, not burned to the ground the way he had imagined based on what Dean had told him. Still there. Memories flooded Sam's mind: playing ball in the back yard, he and Dean riding their bikes up and down the street in front of the house, Dean shooting baskets in the driveway.
"You okay?" Dean had turned around in the front seat, was looking intently at Sam with those big green eyes of his, and Sam felt himself blush all over because he was so close, so present, not a dream at all.
Sam nodded. "Yeah," he breathed. "Everything's fine."
Dean gazed at him intently for another moment, then gave a brief nod, turning back to stare out at the landscape, his jaw moving almost imperceptibly. Sam understood with a start that for Dean, for Real!Dean, the memories here were not happy ones. This was a place of horror and tragedy for Real!Dean, who shared none of Sam's dream-memories of growing up with a brother and parents who loved him and all the warm, comfortable trappings of a normal, middle-class life. It saddened Sam, made him wish he and Dean were alone so he could hug him, crawl onto his lap and bury his face in Dean's neck and just cuddle there. But Sam was pretty sure Dean wouldn't allow that. Not now. Dean was staring stoically out the front windshield, jaw working as he ground his teeth, glaring at the peaceful suburban setting, and Sam was struck again by how well he could read Dean's expressions, even without hearing his thoughts.
John pulled the car into the parking lot of a small, nondescript building on the eastern edge of the university campus, and cut the motor. The building looked abandoned, or at least long unused, doors closed and padlocked, paint that must once have been white chipping and faded over the door where a sign must once have hung. John slid his arm along the back of the bench seat and turned to look at Sam.
"Look familiar?" he asked, and Sam looked around, squinting, trying to imagine the building when it looked freshly painted, when some kind of signage indicating that it was a clinic hung over the door, when the lot was full of cars and people were going in and out of the now cracked and pad-locked front door.
"I think I was sleeping when I came here," he suggested, remembering the disorienting feeling of waking up in a strange bed, realizing someone had carried him in and put him there while he was unconscious.
John nodded. "Let's take a look around," he suggested. "See if the place jogs any memories."
Sam wasn't sure how that could be possible, given the lock on the door; then he noticed Dean pull out a small flat case of locksmith tools from the glovebox, slipping it into the pocket of his jacket. He winked at Sam as he got out of the car, and Sam felt himself flush.
"Just need the right tools, Sammy," he said with a smirk, "and any door can be opened."
"Plus a helluva lot of practice," John reminded him as he led the way around the side of the building, looking for easier access. "Don't get cocky now, son."
"Yes, sir," Dean murmured obediently, falling into step just behind his father. Sam tagged along last, looking around nervously, worried someone would wonder what they were doing. The former clinic was located in an area of the campus that seemed to have several buildings that were no longer used, and no one had driven up or down the street for some time. Sam guessed they couldn't be seen from the road or from the other buildings, and it occurred to him that this might be the perfect place to conduct secret tests on orphaned or abandoned kids. Who would notice? Especially if the kids were being brought in and out at night.
John knew what he was doing; it didn't take long to find a side door which was easily opened, and when they got inside, darkness and an old musty smell of long disuse accosted their senses. After uselessly flipping a light switch, Dean and John both pulled out flashlights and started a slow, methodical search. Sam followed closely, bumping into Dean whenever he stopped, trying to pretend he wasn't terrified. The first floor contained offices, a reception area, and a couple of examining rooms, all empty and obviously unused for a very long time. None of it was familiar to Sam, and he kept shaking his head whenever John asked. When they found a stairway into the basement, however, then started to descend into inky darkness that felt even more oppressive for being underground, Sam balked. He could feel something down there, something dark and sinister; it curled up the steps toward him and wrapped itself around his body, cold and coiling and weirdly familiar, and Sam stopped dead on the stairs, halfway down, unable to take another step.
"What is it?" Dean asked, turned to look at him, shining his light just below Sam's face so he could see his expression. "What's wrong? You remember something?"
"Why'd you stop?" John called from the bottom of the stairs, turning to shine his own light back up at Dean and Sam.
"I think Sam's remembering something," Dean answered, his face softening as he reached for Sam, took a step back up toward him so he could put his hand on Sam's shoulder. "What is it, Sam? Can you tell us what you remember?"
Sam was trembling, the icy tendrils of the malevolent presence slithering around him, making a small rustling sound that was just beyond normal hearing, making him cold, making the sweat break out on the back of his neck.
"There's something here..." he stammered. "No, there was something here. It's gone now, but...It was something bad."
"Okay," Dean nodded encouragingly. "Can you come down a little more? Tell us what else you remember? What else you can...sense?"
And with Dean's reassuring presence at his back, Sam did. He moved slowly, grasping at the slithering wisps of evil, the imprint of something really bad but gone now, long removed. The rooms in the basement were all empty, not even a chair or a table or a bed, but Sam could still feel the echoes of terror and grief here, and he could almost hear children crying, the voices ragged with fear and overuse. When Sam entered the last room at the end of the hall he was hit with such a wall of invisible psychic pain it made him collapse in on himself, double up and fall to the floor, gasping. Dean was there instantly, warm, strong hands stroking his back, clasping his shoulder, his arms, murmuring to him until the moment passed, until Sam could get a handle on the pain in his head and push back, force it to let him go.
"I was here," he gasped, blinking up at Dean from his curled up position on the dusty floor. "This is where Dr. Clausen fixed me." It's where he made me forget you, he thinks but doesn't say. "Doctor Clausen was a bad man. He...there was something different about him, like he wasn't real."
"You mean like he was a ghost?" Dean asked, and Sam shook his head.
"No, but he wasn't right somehow," Sam struggled to make sense of his memories, of his younger self trying to read Doctor Clausen and finding something dark and ugly inside him. He looked up at Dean with a start as it hit him. "Dean, I don't think he was human."
"So he was some kind of monster," John suggested. "Another shifter, maybe."
Sam shook his head. "No. Something really, really bad. Not like George and Carl."
"Well, whatever he was, whatever this place was, it's all long gone now," John said. "My EMF reader doesn't even pick up any spectral activity at all, so what you're sensing isn't really here. It's just echoes."
"Had to be something pretty powerful to leave echoes that are still here four years later," Dean commented.
Sam was shivering so hard his teeth clattered in his head, and Dean put his arm around him, helped him to his feet, steered him out the door and back down the hall to the stairs.
"Let's get you out of here, little man," Dean murmured. "Too many bad memories here."
And Sam had to agree with him there.
ON TO PART THREE - Back to Masterpost