Tags/Warnings: weechesters, outsider POV
Summary: It’s late fall, and when two little boys start hanging out at the local library next door to the town’s elementary school, the librarian thinks she knows what’s going on.
Link to art: A03
Link to fic: A03
A/N: Many thanks to blackrabbit42 for providing a quick and thoughtful beta reading. Also much gratitude to the mods of this year’s gencestbang. Y’all are awesome!
The two boys are quiet, for the most part, so at first Chelsea barely notices them.
It’s not unusual for unattended children to hang out in the library after school. It is a public space, after all, and the children’s room of the Weston Public Library is a fairly comfortable place to hang out. It’s got cozy beanbag chairs for children and parents to sit and read together. It’s got a corner with a Dr. Seuss Cat-in-the-Hat rug and a box of toys. There’s a low table with stools for children to sit on and color. Friendly posters of children’s book characters hang on the walls. It’s right next door to the town’s only elementary school, so kids often walk over after school.
The little one likes to color, so Chelsea leaves a box of coloring sheets and a carton of crayons on the low table with the colorful plastic stools.
The first time he brings her one, she does a double take. Solemn multi-colored eyes gaze up at her as he thrusts the colorful dinosaur paper into her hand.
“Thank you,” she murmurs appreciatively.
The little boy grins and Chelsea is almost blinded by the cuteness of his dimples.
The boy’s big brother is all wary frowns and guarded looks. He doesn’t trust her, doesn’t trust his little brother’s ability to charm every adult, and Chelsea gets that. Respects his protectiveness.
She had a big brother of her own. She gets it.
Sammy plays with the blocks, asks her for more coloring pages, and she gives them to him with a smile, all under the watchful eye of his older brother.
The first time she finds them sleeping in a corner behind the science books, Chelsea leaves them alone. She knows she should wake them up, tell them the rules: no sleeping in the library.
But she doesn’t. They’d been coming in every day for over a week at that point, never causing any trouble, always leaving fifteen minutes before closing. She figures they’re probably latchkey kids whose parents are working and don’t want them to come home to an empty house. She’s seen it before — kids come in where it’s warm and safe, wait till closing, then walk home or meet their parents in the library parking lot. The parents often hold down more than one job, or move around to avoid debtors and creditors. The town is surrounded by farming country, so there are lots of migrant families who move through, stay while the parents do seasonal work, then move on.
Chelsea keeps an eye on the corner of the library where the boys are sleeping, and sure enough, at fifteen minutes before closing they’re up and out, slinking along the back wall to the door, slipping out into the night before anyone wonders what two young boys are doing all by themselves at that time of night.
She wonders, though. Especially those two nights a week when the library doesn’t close until 9:00. Where do they go? She thinks she understands why they slip out before anyone can ask where they’re going. It’s her responsibility to question them if they’re still unattended at closing time. Library policy says she must call the non-emergency phone line at the police department, report unattended children in the library at closing. The police will try to find the parents or, failing that, take them to Child Protective Services, where they could very well end up in foster care, legally removed from their parents for neglect.
These boys know what they’re doing.
They always come in right after school. Sometimes the little one sits at a table and colors while his brother dozes in one of the chairs provided for parents. Sometimes they cuddle together in one of the beanbag chairs and whisper to each other. Sometimes the older one reads to his little brother. The librarian guesses the little one just started school, which would make him about five years old. The other one seems to be at least a couple of years older, probably nine or ten.
They’re adorable. Sometimes Chelsea wonders who their parents are, if they ever came into the library or just instructed the boys to go there after school. She suspects the latter. She wonders if she’ll ever see the parents, and she suspects not. The parents are clearly using the library for free after-school day care, and she’s fine with that. As long as they’re not being disruptive, kids are always welcome in the library without a parent.
One night, as she shelves books on science experiments, she hears little Sammy whining.
“I’m hungry,” he says. “I’m hungry, Dean!”
It’s the first time she’s heard the big brother’s name.
“I know, Sammy,” the older boy says softly. “Me, too.”
“Can’t we get something to eat now?”
“You know we need to stay here till the library closes,” Dean says. “That’s Dad’s rule. Then we can go back to the house and fix dinner.”
“Peanut butter and banana sandwiches?” Sammy asks.
“Can we ever have macaroni and cheese again?” Sammy asks.
“You know the power’s out,” Dean says. “We can’t cook anything till it comes back on.”
“Will it still be cold, too?”
“You can sleep with me again, Sam,” Dean promises. “We’ll keep each other warm, just like we always do.”
Chelsea stops her shelving as the boys’ words turn her blood to ice water.
It’s freezing out, and these boys don’t have any heat or electricity in their home.
Where are their parents? How are they allowing these little boys to sleep in a cold house? Chelsea wonders, not for the first time, if the boys are being criminally neglected. Maybe she should report them to Child Protective Services. If they’re being abused or neglected, it’s her responsibility to report, even if she’s not technically a mandatory reporter. She has a moral obligation.
Chelsea bites her lip as she listens to the boys settle down together.
“I’m hungry,” Sammy whines again, softer and less plaintive this time.
“Shhh, try to think about something else,” Dean says. “Want me to read to you?”
Sammy must have nodded, because pages rustle and the boys settle again as Dean starts reading.
“Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there lived a poor woodcutter and his two children, a boy named Hansel and a girl named Gretel.”
Chelsea dares to lift her head so she can peek at the boys through the bookshelf as Dean continues reading. Dean sits with his back against the wall, a large book of fairy tales open on his lap. Sam’s snuggled up under one of Dean’s arms, gazing intently at the pictures as Dean reads.
They look like characters from a Dickens novel. Depictions of children in literature was the focus of Chelsea’s Masters degree, and in her spare time, she writes stories about children who lead challenging lives. Sam and Dean strike her as perfect real-life characters for the kind of fiction she writes.
Chelsea wishes she could paint or draw. These children would go on her wall, as a reminder to herself and everyone else that the work she does matters. It helps.
She provides a safe, warm place for children to hang out, read, and play, even if it’s only temporary.
The idea that they go back to a cold, dark house after they leave here makes her blood boil. She wishes she could offer them a place to stay, somewhere to go that isn’t cold and empty of parental care.
“Holly? Hey, it’s me,” Chelsea greets her school-teacher friend a few minutes later by phone. “You got a minute?”
After she describes what she’s seen and overheard, Holly gives a low whistle.
“Definitely sounds like neglect,” she agrees. “What did you say their names were?”
When Chelsea tells her, Holly clucks her tongue.
“You think the older boy is about nine or ten?”
“Yeah, I’d say so, but the little one can’t be more than five,” Chelsea says. “Definitely too young to be left alone all afternoon, day after day.”
“I think you should file a report, Chel,” Holly tells her. “Just because you’re not a mandatory reporter doesn’t mean you can’t tell CPS. These kids sound like they could be in real trouble. What if there’s no parent coming home to care for them?”
“They mentioned a dad,” Chelsea says. “He’s the one who told them to come here after school.”
“Yeah, but who knows if he’s around? It sounds like they let themselves into a cold, dark house at night after they leave the library. Does Dad come home later? Does he come home at all? Maybe he’s abandoned them.” Holly clucks her tongue. “I would definitely report them, Chel.”
Chelsea bites her lip, then her nail. “I don’t want to scare them,” she says. “I mean, if I report them, won’t they send somebody right away? The boys will know I was the one who called. They’ll never go back to a library again as long as they live.”
Holly takes a deep breath. “So talk to them,” she says. “When I see a kid who looks like he might be abused, I talk to him. I ask if he feels safe at home. If he says no, then you tell him that you can help with that. You can call a special hotline number and talk to somebody who can help. He can stand there with you while you do it.”
Chelsea huffs out a harsh laugh. “So you lie,” she says. “You tell him he’s going to be better off.” She shakes her head. “But you know as well as I do, kids who go into foster care suffer, too. Sometimes more. Sometimes siblings get separated, put in different homes.”
Holly sighs. “It’s an imperfect system, sure,” she acknowledges. “But it’s better than going home to a cold, empty house every night. It’s better than whatever neglect those kids are experiencing.”
“You don’t know that,” Chelsea says.
“No, you’re right,” Holly says. “I don’t. But I do know one thing.”
“What’s that?” Chelsea asks, curious.
“You called me,” Holly says. “You’re already doing something. You’re already acting on your instincts, trying to do the right thing.”
“Dean?” She approaches the boys cautiously, smiling tentatively.
Dean looks up with a wary frown.
“Hey,” she clears her throat. “I just wanted to check on you, make sure you’re all right.”
“We’re fine,” Dean says, defensive.
Chelsea crouches down in front of them, not too close. “So, I couldn’t help overhearing. You and Sammy don’t have any heat in your home, is that right?”
Dean’s green eyes widen and his cheeks pale. He’s obviously panicked.
“We’re okay,” he insists, voice tight with fear. His arm tightens around his little brother. Sammy blinks up at her, eyes round and trusting.
This is not how Chelsea intended this to go.
“I’m just concerned about you,” she says, sounding false even to her ears. “Are you and Sammy safe at home? Is everything okay there?”
Dean nods. His face is so pale that his freckles stand out like bright reddish-gold dots on his fair skin. His eyes shine like emeralds. His ears are red. They’re a little pointed, she notes. Elven.
These children are extremely adorable. Her heart breaks for them.
“Are you sure?” Chelsea presses. She just hates the idea of these beautiful children going home to an empty, cold house. It’s more than she can bear.
“We’re sure,” Dean nods. “Everything’s fine at home. Our dad takes good care of us.”
It sounds like a rehearsed speech if she’s ever heard one.
“Ms. Chelsea?” Sammy squirms out from under Dean’s arm, drawing her attention away from the older boy. He picks up a paper from a small pile of coloring pages on the floor beside them and holds out another colorful dinosaur picture. “This is for you.”
“Thanks, Sammy. It’s beautiful.”
The little boy beams at her, and just like that, her fear is dispelled. This child is obviously loved. He looks well-fed, too, with his rich mop of dark hair and his chubby, dimpled cheeks.
“It’s Sam,” Dean corrects. “His name’s Sam.”
But Dean’s relaxed again. He can see that Chelsea’s not going to call anyone. As much as it pains her to think of their obvious poverty, she knows there are worse things than being poor.
The important thing is, these boys are loved.
That night, the boys leave the library and never come back.
Chelsea never stops thinking about them, wondering if she did the right thing, wondering if she shouldn’t have done something more. She thinks about them often in the months that follow, hoping they’re all right, hoping things worked out for them.
Many years later, when the beautiful young man with the floppy dark hair and the slanted eyes comes into the library one day and greets her by name, she looks up from her desk and smiles, trying to place him.
“It’s me. Sam.” The young man smiles, dimples popping. “I made dinosaur pictures for you, about twenty years ago.”
It takes her a second, but then she remembers.
“Sammy! Wow! You got big!”
The young man blushes, dimpling again, and Chelsea puts her hand out, lets him take it in his big paws and shake it gently.
She can feel the power in his grip, and it sends a shiver down her spine.
This man could crush her hand without even trying.
“We’re just in town on a job,” Sam explains apologetically. “I had to stop in, see if you were still here.”
“Still here,” Chelsea half-laughs. Nothing much ever changes in her life, that’s for sure. “So how’ve you been?”
“Good,” Sam says, but something in his eyes tells her otherwise. “Fine. Busy.”
Chelsea nods. “Your brother — Dean, is it? How’s he doing?”
Sam looks surprised that she remembers Dean’s name, and Chelsea lets herself preen. She’s always been good with names.
“Yeah,” he says. “He’s fine, too. We’re still together, actually. Still working together. Family business.”
Chelsea considers prying further, but suspects she’ll get nothing but lies from this point forward. She’s always had a sense about these things, when people are lying to her.
Sam never lied to her when he was little, but that was a long time ago.
“Good to hear, Sam,” she says warmly. “Good to hear. It’s great to see you.”
“Yeah,” Sam smiles again; he seems relieved that she didn’t ask more questions. “You, too.”
He turns to go, then stops, turns back with another dimpled smile, shy. “I remember this place with a lot of fondness,” he tells her. “You were really nice to us. I always felt safe here. Thank you.”
Chelsea feels her face break open in a wide smile. These are the moments she lives for. This is why she became a librarian.
“My pleasure, Sam,” she tells him. “Take care, now.”
She watches as he crosses the parking lot, gets into the passenger side of a long black sedan. The car roars to life, and she imagines Dean behind the wheel, the little freckled boy with the elven ears, all grown up tall like his brother.
Chelsea lets herself imagine that Sam’s grown up just fine, that his life turned out okay. It’s a relief, knowing that she made the right choice all those years ago. All her worrying about them suffering abuse or neglect if she didn’t call CPS was for naught after all.
She can’t shake the uneasy feeling after Sam leaves, though. Something’s not quite right.
But it’s got nothing to do with her, she tells herself. Sam’s an adult now. He survived.
Better than some of the kids Chelsea sees. Sam and Dean survived.
They’re the lucky ones.