Author's Notes: This story touches lightly on child abuse and domestic violence. Good news to some, not so much to others. Fair warning.


"Can't we just stay at a hotel?"

Dean put the car in park and turned off the headlights. "We don't have the money, Sam- how many times do I have to say it?" Dean killed the engine and the brothers sat in dark silence. "What's your problem? Why don't you like Tina and Richard?"

Sam ducked his head and turned away, facing the window. "I just don't," he said, and Dean recognized pouting when he saw it.

Dean rolled his eyes and looked the opposite direction, through the driver's side window and towards the well-lit, modest, ranch-style house that belonged to their aunt and uncle. It looked just as Dean remembered it last, fitting his memory of all those years ago. Sam was barely a teenager then, and had been growing increasingly quiet and withdrawn as he grew. Things were awkward back then, and Dean was grateful that Sam had outgrown that phase.

Or- he reconsidered, glancing again at the sulking form next to him- maybe not.

Dean sighed. "Well unless you can give me a valid reason why we shouldn't take advantage of a free room and board- not to mention free dinner- then we're going."

Sam shifted, wrapping his arms tighter around himself and he refused to look away from the dark and quiet street.

Inwardly, Dean groaned. Clearly, his little brother was bothered by something, and Dean hated to see that- even if he'd never admit it. But on the other hand, he was not a mind-reader, and if Sam couldn't speak up for himself then he'd have to suffer.

"Alright then," Dean said matter-of-factly when Sam's time was up, "We're going in. Let's go."

Dean pushed open his door and the resulting squeak broke the silence of the night. He pushed it shut behind him and started up the sidewalk, taking a small amount of satisfaction when he heard Sam following, albeit reluctantly. His gaze traveled over the house as he walked. The hedges were trimmed to perfection, the shutters were deep and bold in color, the siding was well cared-for, and a welcome sign hung off the house beside the front door, waving gently in the breeze. It was a picture of the all-American house, and Dean could not understand why Sam was acting like this. This sorta stuff was right up his alley.

Dean stepped up onto the stoop and pressed doorbell's illuminated button. A soft song of chimes sounded within the house, and Dean waited, studying the polished dark wood of the front door.

Sam was standing quietly behind him.

A dog began barking and instantly, the smiling face of a golden retriever appeared behind the textured window parallel to the door. The dog continued to bark, stamping with his front feet as if demanding Dean to enter the house.

Great, Dean sighed softly. A dog.

Seconds later a booming voice could be heard over the barking, then the dog promptly vanished and Dean couldn't help but hear Sam's quick intake of breath.

Before he could even turn around, the front door was pulled open and his uncle's large frame filled the doorway. They looked at each other for a moment, comparing the memories to what stood before them now.

Then Richard's face broke into a smile. "Dean? Is that you?"

Dean smiled back, realizing painfully just how much Richard looked like his brother, John Winchester. "Uncle Rick."

Rick pulled Dean into a hug and Dean could smell baking chicken as the aroma wafted through the house. His stomach burned reflexively.

"How've you been, boy?" Rick asked, releasing Dean and pushing him arm's length away. "Boy you've grown up!"

Dean fought to keep a smile on his face at the rough handling. He opened his mouth to reply, but Rick's gaze moved over his shoulder and his brows furrowed.

"Sammy? That you?"

Dean backed up and turned towards his brother, who shuffled his feet in a way Dean hadn't seen since before Sam hit puberty. Sam pulled his gaze from the ground and looked up, squinting a little at the bright light coming from inside the house. "It's me," he replied, then broke eye contact once more.

"Well come up here, boy, and let me get a look at you!"

Sam looked uncertainly at Dean, like he was about to do something very painful. Dean raised one eyebrow. What the hell was wrong with him? Richard and his wife were nice people, and had taken the Winchester family in on more than one occasion, for weeks at a time even. The bond between Dad and Rick was almost as strong as the bond between Dean and Sam. They had even left Sam here for a few days while he recovered from pneumonia, and Tina had taken great joy in nursing the young Sammy back to health. By the time Dean and Dad had returned from the hunt, Sam was fully recovered.

At last, Sam moved forwards, joining Dean on the concrete stoop. Rick grabbed him and hugged him tightly, ending with a firm, jostling pat on the back. "You boys have done your daddy proud. Where is he, by the way?" Rick looked over them and out to the dark street.

"Uh, it's kinda a long story," Dean started, watching as Rick absent-mindedly scratched his short, dark beard.

Rick looked back to Dean, his face impassive as he studied the older brother. "Oh," he said cautiously. "Well perhaps you better come in then."

Rick stepped back and Dean was the first to cross the threshold. As soon as Sam was inside, Rick closed the door. The smell of cooking food was stronger inside, and the heat felt good after being in the cool night air.

"Let's go see Tina, then we can eat and you boys can tell me all about John," Rick smiled, and led the way past the carpeted stairs and through the living room.

Dean had only taken two steps when the clacking sound of canine toenails scrambling over polished hardwood floors filled the air behind him. He turned, just in time to catch a panting, exuberant dog-head in his crotch.

He fought back an 'oomph' and tried to push the mass of golden hair away. "Got a dog, I see," he commented, shoving the animal in Sam's direction.

Rick turned long enough to roll his eyes. "It's the wife's dog," he grumbled. "Just kick it away."

Dean smiled as he watched the dog circle his brother, slobbering all over anything it could reach. Sam looked up with pleading eyes, holding his hands at his chest as the dog jumped for them.

Dean smirked and turned away, following Rick into the kitchen.

"Tina?" Rick called. "We've got company. Guess who it is."

A slightly plump, blonde-haired woman straightened and shut the oven door, then turned towards her husband's voice. Her eyes locked on Deans, and they both smiled.

"Dean Winchester, is that really you?"

Dean smiled, but it became forced once he realized she was heading for him with outstretched arms. There was only so much hugging he could put up with at one time.

"That's him alright," Rick replied as Dean was squeezed against his aunt's bosom.

Dean was beginning to understand why Sam had been so reluctant to stop here.

"Well look at how big you've gotten," she said, astonished. "You're taller than I am!"

"Hey Sam, quit messing with that dog and get in here!" Rick yelled over his shoulder.

"Sam's here too?" she asked, her smile becoming impossibly bigger. "My little Sammy?"

Seconds later, Sam appeared at Dean's side, wiping his hands on his pants.

Dean jumped back, out of the way as Tina grabbed Sam in a bone-crunching hug as well. His gaze traveled over to the kitchen table, which was partially set, and swallowed as his stomach bubbled silently.

"Well don't just stand there all night, get these boys some food!" Rick said, moving further into the kitchen.

Dean took his cue to follow, and soon the men were seated at the table as Tina brought the dishes over. Dean felt something warm and wet in his lap and he looked under the table to find the dog resting its head on his thigh, looking up at him with liquid brown eyes that rivaled Sam's.

Tina moved next to him, scooping a sort of casserole onto his plate, and noticed the dog. "Oh, Ralph, go on now, let Dean eat his meal in peace."

She began quietly shooing the dog, until Rick's booming voice overpowered hers. "Go lay down, Ralph!" he shouted, and even Dean jumped a little.

The dog disappeared in a flash of long hair and clicking toenails.

Dean looked across the table to Sam. He sat very still, his head down and staring at his full plate, and looked very small, very tense. Dean kicked him under the table. When Sam looked up and fixed those soulful green eyes on him, Dean plastered an exaggerated smile on his face, hinting that Sam should do the same. Slowly, Sam returned the fake expression.

"So, tell me what that brother of mine has gotten himself into this time," Rick spoke up, stabbing at his plate as Tina took her seat.

"Oh, uh, well…" Dean fumbled. He couldn't tell Rick that Dad was missing; then Rick would launch a nation-wide search, sponsored by the police or FBI. As much as Dean wanted to find Dad, it just couldn't be done that way. There were so many pending charges that would be filed: impersonation of federal and government agents, credit card scams, unregistered weapons, fake identities… No, if Dean wanted to find his Dad, he'd have to do it himself. "It's nothing, really," Dean said, adding a disarming smile. "He just went on a camping trip with some buddies in Georgia. He'll be gone till the end of the week, so Sam and I decided to take a little road trip."

Dean held his breath in the following judgmental silence.

At last, Rick smiled. "Ever since he became a daddy, he loved the outdoors," Rick said, then took another mouthful of food. "And to think I could never get him outside when we were kids! Your grandfather had to threaten to tan his hide before he'd play football with me!"

Rick and Tina dissolved into laughter and Dean glanced at Sam, who still wore his painted-on smile.

Dean grabbed his glass and raised it to his lips, smiling as he muttered into it, "This is gonna be a long night…"

o0O0o

"Take me with you."

Dean looked at his little brother, whose eyes were wide as he stood well-within Dean's circle of personal space. "Dude, back off. You have to stay here and entertain them." he emphasized the couple in front of the TV with a jerk of his chin.

"Dean, please, I want to come. Don't make me stay here."

Dean shrugged on his leather jacket, then looks into Sam's eyes. "I'm going to the bar to get us some money. While I'm there, I'm gonna find me a girl and possibly… you know, hook up. So no, you can't come. I don't allow spectators." Sam opened his mouth and Dean cut him off with a raised finger. "I already told them you'd stay and tell stories about Dad. You'll be fine. You can play with the dog and eat Aunt Tina's apple pie. It'll be the normal family you've always wanted."

Something very much like hurt flickered across Sam's eyes, darkened by the dim hallway lighting. "So why do you get to go?"

Dean shook his head in exasperation. "You sound like you're 6, Sam. I don't know what your problem is, but these people are letting us sleep here for nothing. We have full stomachs and most importantly, they're family. If you're so desperate to leave, then let me go hustle the pool table and we can leave in the morning."

It took a while for Sam to lift his gaze from the floor. "Fine."

Dean flashed him a smile. "Good." He reached for the door. "I'll be back later… much later. Don't wait up."

Sam managed to lift one corner of his mouth in a smile. "Be safe… you know, and all that stuff."

Dean grinned brilliantly as if he were already tasting his success. "You always say things so delicately, you know that?"

Seconds later, Sam was left staring at the front door, alone in the foyer.

He sighed, and the soft sound echoed in his heart.

o0O0o

It was nearly two in the morning when Dean coasted against the curb in front of Richard's house. The Impala's large engine was even louder in the dead of night, and Dean shut it off quickly. Most of the lights inside the house were off. Shadows moved across the window of an upstairs bedroom, and Dean wondered who the night owl was.

He clicked off the headlights and pushed open the door. The hinges groaned in protest, and Dean pushed the door shut as quietly as possible. He was making too much noise already.

Dean made his way quickly up the sidewalk, keeping his eyes peeled for shadows in the darkness. In the distance, two cats screamed at each other and what sounded like a bloody fight ensued. Dean shuttered- how anyone could own such an animal was beyond him.

He patted his back pocket, smiling at the thick wad of cash there. Sure there were better ways to get money, but there were also worse ways. Hustling a pool table was not a bad way of brining in some income. It made him proud that he was able to use his skills to provide for himself and Sam.

Dean jumped up onto the concrete step and grabbed the doorknob. It had been left unlocked; this wasn't the type of neighborhood that demanded top security. He stepped inside, pulling the door shut softly behind him. Two reflective eyes watched him from the corner, then with a jingle dog tags, Ralph trotted up to greet him.

"Some watch dog," Dean muttered, patting the dog twice before shrugging out of his jacket.

He had just hung the jacket on the hook when an angry voice broke the silence, the words muffled by the walls. Ralph pinned his ears back against his head and tucked his tail, then trotted back into the shadows. Dean watched the dog go, then looked up the stair case with a puzzled expression. The voice was Richard's, and Dean had yet to hear a second. Who was he yelling at? It was the middle of the night, they should all be asleep.

A loud bang followed by Tina's scream of protest had Dean running up the stairs. The hall light was off, but light spilled out of the master bedroom and the voices carried from there. Without hesitation, Dean charged forward, stumbling to a stop in the doorway.

He saw Sam first- pinned to the wall by Richard, whose large hand was wrapped in a crushing grip around Sam's neck. Tina was in her nightgown, screaming and pulling on Richard in an effort to separate the two men. Later, Dean would remember that her cheek was swollen and red.

"Hey!" he shouted, breaking himself from his shock and grabbing Richard by the shoulder. Tina stumbled backwards and out of the way as Dean pulled his uncle off his little brother. Sam's hands went to his throat as he slid down the wall, dropping to the ground in a heap. Tina quickly went to his side, kneeling on the floor beside him.

"What the hell are you doing?" Dean exclaimed, drawing Richard away from Sam and Tina. "What's going on?"

"That punk has no right to interfere in our lives!" Richard shouted, his eyes wide with rage and his fists clenched tightly. "He always was a trouble-maker! If your father can't teach him some manners, then I will!"

"He hit her, Dean," Sam wheezed, trying to sit up as Tina rubbed his back.

"You little-" Richard spun and before Dean knew what was happening, the larger man had crossed the room and delivered a vicious kick to Sam, who curled into himself.

Dean jumped. "Hey!" he cried, moving forward and grabbing Richard once again.

Richard spun and hit him, and it was at that moment when Dean cursed himself for the few celebratory beers he'd had earlier. He stumbled back, bringing a hand to his eye to check for blood, and looked up.

In the background, Tina was crying loudly and Sam slowly rose to his feet, using the wall to stand up. Dean blinked as the effects of the blow made themselves known. His face stung and ached, and he could feel the skin getting hotter by the second. Richard knew how to hit, Dean would give him that.

"I want both of you out of my house," Richard growled, breathing heavily and his shoulders tense. Dean couldn't help but think the man looked very much like a bull ready to charge the matador.

"No problem," Dean replied, checking his eye once more as he turned towards the door. Man, that hurt.

"Dean!" Sam said in that argumentative tone of his. Dean looked at Sam, who was leaning against the wall, pains of line on his face, looking as stubborn as Dean had ever seen him. "We can't leave her," he said, jerking his head ever-so-slightly towards the distraught woman beside him.

"You most certainly will leave her!" Richard argued, turning on Sam and holding up a rigid index finger.

Dean saw Sam flinch, and it was at that moment when he understood Sam's apprehension about coming here. He suddenly felt sick, realizing that scenes like these had happened before when he had not been here to protect his little brother.

"It's okay, Sam," Dean said calmly, working himself between Richard and Sam. He looked into Sam's eyes, trying to convey the message that this time, Sam should abide by his word. He had a plan.

"You listen to your brother, you little shit," Richard taunted from behind Dean. "Get out of my house."

"You shut the hell up," Dean interrupted, holding up a hand without looking at his uncle. "Sam, come on. Now."

"But-"

"Sam, now!" Dean ordered, grabbing a fistful of his brother's shirt and pulling him towards the door. Dean left the room first, pulling out his cell phone once he was in the hall.

"Dean, we can't-"

"Shut up for a minute," Dean said, already dialing the illuminated buttons of the phone. As he started down the stairs, he hit the 'send' button and held the phone to his ear. Behind him, Sam followed.

They were at the front door when the operator picked up. "911, what's your emergency?"

Dean grabbed his jacket and yanked open the door, quickly ushering Sam outside as he relayed the house address. This wasn't the type of evil he was trained to handle. Dad had taught him how to use salt and herbs and spells against demons and spirits, and Dean knew when something was out of his league. Abuse should be dealt with by the law, not by an almost-30 year-old with a fake badge.

Dean folded the phone shut just as Richard's heavy form came stomping down the stairs. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean saw Ralph huddled in the corner, and he motioned for the dog to run outside.

It obliged.

"Dean!' Richard yelled, and Tina appeared at the top of the staircase. "You listen to me, boy- I was only doing your daddy a favor!"

Dean stood in the doorway with his back to the street and prayed Sam would stay away. "And you listen to me- if you ever lay a hand on him again, I'll kill you."

Dean didn't know if he were bluffing or not.

"Well don't get your panties in a wad," Richard huffed, stopping a few feet away. "What goes on in this house is none of your brother's damn business."

"It must suck to be you," Dean replied coldly. "Having to beat up women and children in order to feel strong. No wonder Dad moved away from here."

Richard's face twisted in anger. "You watch your mouth. Your Daddy was a strong man. We were raised the same way, by the same firm hand. I can't believe his lets his boys act like such… imbeciles."

"Dean?" Sam called and when Dean turned, Sam was standing behind him on the lawn, the shotgun in his hands.

"Jesus Sam, put that away!"

Richard laughed. "What do you think you're gonna do with that, boy? You gonna shoot me?" Richard raised his arms mockingly.

Sam frowned, holding the gun tighter.

Dean scanned the streets. "Sam, go wait in the car. I'll be there in a second."

"No, I believe the runt wants to take a shot at me!" Richard teased, moving forwards.

"Richard, please," Tina spoke up, standing behind her husband.

At the edge of the property, Ralph began barking madly.

Dean kept his eyes glued to Sam, noting the tension in his brother's shoulders and the anger smoldering in his eyes.

Dean knew he wouldn't shoot.

"Well come on then, here I am? Or aren't you man enough?"

At that, Dean faced Richard. "He's more man that you'll ever be."

"Why you-"

In the distance, a siren wailed in the air and Richard halted his swing. Dean relaxed, but not for long. "Sam, get in the car," he ordered.

"You called the cops?" Richard asked, disbelieving. "You little chicken shit-"

"My brother and I are gonna get in that car and leave. If I were you, I'd forget real fast that we were even here. Unless, of course, you want me to tell the cops about how you hit my brother too. That'll add at least five more years onto your sentence."

Richard looked furious. "I… you… I-"

The sirens were getting louder and in the distance, red and blue lights flashed symbolically. "I think your testimony needs a little more work there, uncle."

Dean cast a glance at Tina, who smiled sadly from behind Richard. She was a good woman- one who would turn in her husband for the violence against her nephews, if not for herself. Dean was only sorry she'd lived with it this long.

He turned, stepping off the stoop and made his way towards the Impala, ignoring Richard's threats as he walked. As ordered, Sam was waiting in the passenger seat, although his hands were still clutching the shotgun. The dog joined Dean as he reached the driver's door and leapt in the car before Dean could grab him. The police were coming and he had no time to wrestle with the animal, so he ducked in the driver's seat and started the car. They couldn't be here when the cops arrived. There was too much they couldn't say.

With one final glance at the house, Dean threw the car in drive and stepped on the gas.

o0O0o

"Alright dog, get out."

Dean shifted his weight, stomping a foot impatiently as the Golden Retriever climbed onto the front seat and slowly jumped to the ground.

"Don't look at me like that, this is your house," Dean replied, pointing. He looked down into the sad brown eyes and sighed. "He's gone now, you'll be fine. Just go."

Sam chuckled. "I think he likes you."

Dean frowned. "Well I don't like him." He looked at the dog. "Go!"

Sam shook his head. "For someone who doesn't like him, you sure spoiled him the past 24 hours."

"Well he had to eat, didn't he?"

"Dean, you don't even share your food with me."

Dean rolled his eyes. "The dog asked nicer than you ever did."

Finally, the dog slinked behind the car and back into its own yard. "Good boy," Dean praised, watching as the dog trotted around the house towards the dog door.

He brushed his hands together and reentered the idling car. "Well, that's that."

They had spent the day driving aimlessly, killing time until the cops left and it would be safe to drop the dog off. Sam had been quiet- more that usual- and Dean assumed it was just as much from pain as it was hurt feelings. Dark bruises circled Sam's neck and Dean winced every time he looked at them. Sam hadn't said a word about his feelings or any mushy stuff like that, and Dean was grateful. What's done is done, and as much as he wanted to change the past- in more ways than one- Dean simple couldn't do it. He could only defend his little brother in the here and now.

As Dean pulled away, Sam spoke up, his voice a little hoarse. "We should have seen how she was doing."

"Well send her some flowers," Dean replied. After a moment, he added, "She'll be fine."

"We turned her life upside down," Sam shot back. "How will she pay the bills?"

"She'll get a job like everyone else, Sam." Dean adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. "Tina's a strong lady, she'll be just fine without that bastard."

Sam seemed to shrink against the door. "I'm sorry, you know… about your eye and all."

Dean shrugged. "What's one more shiner, right?"

Sam looked straight ahead out the windshield and said nothing, but the silence was very charged.

"What?" Dean asked reluctantly.

"What?"

"Come on, Sam, spit it out. Jesus, you're harder to figure out than Lassie sometimes, you know it?" He glanced at Sam. "What is it girl? Someone fall off the cliff again?" he teased.

"Screw you," Sam huffed.

Dean thought back to last night, sighing once more at his strike-out with the women.

He'd never tell Sam though.

"Look, I'm sorry you had to go through that when you were littler," Dean said, sobering. "If Dad and I had known, we would've kicked his ass right then."

"I know."

"Why didn't you say anything?"

Sam snorted. "Uh, hello? Didn't you see how big he was? He said he'd kick my ass. I was scrawny back then. I was scared."

Dean grinned. "Dude, you still are scrawny."

Sam stared at him for a moment, then turned away, shaking his head. "You're such a dick."

"Hey, you're the one trying to start a chick-moment. You know I don't do those."

"Oh right, I forgot. Captain Insensitive has no emotions."

"It's better than being Captain Girly-Boy."

"You're just pissy because you didn't get laid last night."

Dean's eyes widened in shock before he could hide it. How did Sam always know that stuff? "Go to hell."

"Ass."

"Bitch."

The two brothers glanced at each other across the dark expanse of the Impala, and in that short moment, they read nothing but love in each other's eyes.

Then, thoroughly weirded-out, Dean hit the 'play' button on the car's cassette player and turned up the volume.

END