Three years. He'd always thought he'd go back to school when it was over--finish his degree, get his life back together. But what kind of life can a man have when the only thing he sees when he closes his eyes is the puff of smoke as he shoots his own father, the surprised look in his dad's eyes as the bullet from the Colt tore through him. How can he go back to California and be normal when he wakes up screaming more nights than not, when he's alive in a world where Dean bled to death in his arms?

His existence narrows to the cab of dad's old Sierra, the next town, and the next job. He's too stubborn for suicide, too determined to make the Dark pay for the Winchester blood it's claimed. He's not careless when he hunts, but he's not afraid either. And he's tired. And Wyoming's the ass-end of nowhere. And his entire left side aches from being thrown into a damn tree.

It's been hours since he last saw another vehicle. The air is so clear that everything's sharper than it should be. There's a dreamlike quality to the night that threatens to lull him into a sense of unreality. The white of the snow on either side of the road reflects his head-lights back at him, a never-ending glare.

When the boy stumbles out of the tree-line just ahead of his high-beams, Sam's first thought is that he has to be a ghost--that no real kid could survive out here for even minutes, barefoot, dressed in nothing but a hospital gown.

You don't brake for ghosts on an icy road his rational brain is saying, sort of like a normal person thinks Don't swerve around squirrels, it's too dangerous and not worth it.

The boy turns towards the light, his eyes unfocused, dazed. He collapses in the middle of the lane, and Sam knows it's not a living person out there. And he's still swerving and pumping the brake. There's a limit to how fast a big pick-up can stop. The back-end sweeps around and goes off the road, but it doesn't hit anything, and it doesn't flip.

When the world stops spinning, the kid's still laying there, not replaying the scene, not getting up to eat Sam's eyes or something. The only motion to be seen is the drifting white plume of exhaust coming from the truck.

Sam grabs a silver knife, a shot-gun full of rock-salt and a blanket before stepping out into the frigid air.

The kid still isn't moving and Sam starts to run. The cold cuts through the light jacket he'd been wearing in the heated cab in two seconds. First-aid for hypothermia, shock, and frost-bite all cycle through his head. He crouches beside the small body, feeling for a pulse with one hand while he wraps the blanket around it with the other. The boy's heart-beat is faint beneath his fingers and he scoops the kid up in his arms; warm becomes the first order of business.

Back in the truck, Sam cranks the heat up as high as it goes and strips the kid out of his snow-damp gown. From behind the seat he gets one of his own clean t-shirts and wrestles unresisting arms into it.

Skin so white it was almost blue begins to flush a healthy rosy color by the time Sam's checking fingers and toes for the probability of falling off. He's surprised that none of them are stiff and black. All in all, the kid looks pretty healthy. He's scratched all to hell and his feet are torn up like he'd been running for days. He looks to have been well-cared for before this, though, if Sam's any judge.

Mystery boy is fit, fed and muscular for his age. Sam turns the small hand palm-up and has a flash of nostalgia at the calluses. Junior's in training for something, growing up strong and tough. The scale of the exercise is a little off though, even by Winchester standards. Sam chafes some warmth into the small fingers and looks around at the icy stillness. A sense of wrongness is growing in him, getting stronger as minutes pass and nobody comes out to make sure the little guy is alright.

Then he glances down and sees the tattoo. The side of his face twitches at how wrong it is for there to be a freakin' bar-code on a child's neck. The warning in his head escalates to a code-red. People don't bar-code their well-loved children, no matter how fucked up that love is expressed. People bar-code things, possessions they don't want to lose track of. The boy's been running, most likely from whoever marked him like a piece of merchandise, and really, that's enough for Sam.

He uses the winch on the front of the truck to pull it out of the ditch and then concentrates on getting the hell out of Wyoming.

A dozen miles of snow and trees roll by and then Sam feels the kid's gaze on him. He glances from the road and into the hazel-brown eyes, then back again.

"You okay?"

There's no reply from his passenger, but another quick look shows him the boy hasn't lost consciousness again.

"Are you hurt?" He tries.

"Sir?" And it's like the kid doesn't understand the question.

Only life with his father gives Sam the right words, the right tone.

"Are you injured?"

The boy's tone sharpens and he sits up a little straighter. "No, sir."

Tough kid, Sam thinks. "What's your name?" He softens his voice, trying to connect with the boy like a person, not a soldier.

"X5-493, sir."

Well that worked great, not that he really expected otherwise. Still, it's the way Sam wants to play this, as long as he can.

"That's a serious name for a small guy." There's no response. "My name's Sam," he can feel the child's attention, but there's no outward response. "My brother, he used to call me Sammy. Do you have any brothers?"

The kid's voice is softer, smaller, when he speaks out. "Yes, sir. They call me Ben."

Sam manages to contain his grin to a small quirk of his lips. "Ben." It's more than he had hoped for. "What are you running from, Ben?" He looks over to see how the question's taken, but Ben's attention is fixed on the religious medallion that Sam's dad hung on the rear-view mirror all those years ago.

"The Bad Place,"

And yeah, Sam will have more questions for Ben later, but for now it's enough. Conspiracy theory isn't exactly Winchester turf, but he can recognize one when he steps in it.

"Get some sleep," Sam tells Ben. He plans to drive until he can't any more, then smuggle him into a hotel room, fix his wounds there.

"Yes, sir," Ben leans back against the door and closes his eyes. There's something disconcerting about a child that accepts an order to sleep instantaneously.

"It's Sam, not sir,"

"Yes, Sam," Ben answers, putting the exact same inflection on the new word.


At 3am he stops the truck at a gas-station. Ben's awake before the engine dies. "Hide here in the floorboard," Sam tells him without looking down, and he does--no "Yes, sir," no noise at all. Sam covers him with the duffle full of clothes before he gets out to refill the tank.

In the little shop he almost picks up some child-size, tourist-crap t-shirt, but is glad he didn't when the clerk says "Hey, did you hear about those kids?" He plays dumb and adds a bag of corn-nuts to the growing pile on the counter.

"State trooper was looking for them a few days ago, said a hospital van tipped over on a curve in the road and by the time rescue vehicles arrived they'd all gone off on foot."

"Is that so?" Sam asks as he slides Marc Derry's Visa across the counter. He glances pointedly out the window, where it's barely ten degrees above zero. "It's a shame then. I don't think an Army Ranger could survive out there the way it's been coming down this week."

He means it, too. Collecting his bags and his mega-jolt-sized coffee, he wonders where Ben's been all this time and how the hell he's still alive. He goes back through the cold and gets back in the truck and is almost surprised Ben's still there.

"Stay down," Sam murmurs and the boy does. A few miles later he slows down and opens the quick-mart bag. "All clear. Here, dinner time." He passes over a pack of Oreo cookies, a soda and bag of Doritos.

Something in his chest goes sideways as the kid turns the packages over in his hands like he can't figure out how this is food or how to eat it. Who the hell raises a child that doesn't know the Oreo cookies packaging?

One hand on the wheel, Sam takes a package at a time from Ben and opens them with his teeth, then lets the boy explore the food at his own pace. When he looks over, Ben's eating the Doritos with more care than seems necessary; there's an expression on his face like he's still not sure what he's eating.

It's only after Ben's been quiet for a while that Sam looks over and sees him staring glassily at the windshield.

"Hey," he says, and Ben turns his attention that way. "Look, unless there's a reason for us to be awake, you can sleep whenever you need to, okay?"

Ben gives him one of those curt military nods. "Yes, Sam." But he still clings to wakefulness.

Frustration wells up and Sam wishes, not for the first time, that Dean was here. His brother may have played the confirmed-bachelor, no-use-for-kids act, but he had a way with children that was instinctive. He did pretty good raising a younger brother, Sam thought. Add in his better understanding of his dad's military mindset and he was sure Dean would know what to say and do to get through to Ben.

He keeps the Sierra's headlights pointed south, the radio on a news station and his coffee close at hand. He uses Denver to shake off any possible pursuit the same way a man on foot would use a fast-moving stream to confuse the hounds. He takes a convoluted route around the city and almost doubles back on his path to end up headed east when it's over.

He stops at a no-tell motel in Hudson Colorado. Ben slides down to the floor-board without being told to. Sam dumps out the largest duffle bag and hands it down to him.

"Get in." Something in the kid's eyes strikes a familiar chord, but he can't place it. "I'll be back in a second," he says; I won't leave you, is what he means--I won't abandon you.

Sam goes in and pays for a room. The desk clerk doesn't look at him twice. Everything feels right, quiet. He comes back and moves the truck to the parking spot nearest the room, then shoulders the bag full of seventy-five pounds of small person.

His bruised side protests the weight, but there's not a peep from the bag, even when he stumbles and it bounces off the door-frame.

When Ben climbs out of the bag in the well-lit room he looks like a kid who's been on his own for maybe a day in the middle of spring. Not out-doors for half of a week in the dead of winter.

"Go get a shower," Sam suggests, and receives the expected "Yes, Sam" as Ben snaps off to the bathroom.

While Ben's cleaning up, Sam salts the door and wards the room, then goes to the truck for clothes and first-aid supplies. His t-shirt is ridiculously large on Ben, but it'll work for him to sleep in.

He's reluctant, almost afraid to touch the kid, not eager to see evidence of another kind of abuse. Ben barely seems to acknowledge it as Sam cleans the scratches--doesn't flinch even when the peroxide bubbles or when Sam has to scrub the gravel out of the cuts on the soles of his feet. He's running a fever; Sam guestimates one ibuprofen should do it. Ben pops it down his throat without question.

Sam's washing a smudge of dirt and blood off of Ben's cheek when it registers--a similarity he can't ignore or blow off. It's there in the color of Ben's eyes and the shape of his face, in the scattering of freckles across his nose. Dean. It cuts like a blade, the old hurt made new again. For a second, Sam thinks he's lost his mind, seeing what isn't, what can't possibly be there.

After Ben's bunked down for the night, looking so small in the exact center of the queen-sized bed, Sam goes out to the truck. The photo is tucked into dad's journal, the new one that he only ever half-filled. He stares down at himself and Dean, from at least twenty years ago. He stares for a long time.

In the morning he can think about all this logically. For now, he's sore and tired and the place in his life where Dean should be aches like a week-old gunshot wound.

He sits in the truck, holding the picture until he has himself under control. He wonders if dad had nights like this, separating himself from his boys so they wouldn't see his weakness, his grief--being strong for them even when it made him so alone.

When he leaves the truck, he takes the medallion off of the rear-view mirror. Ben had been looking at it earlier, he figured. Maybe he'd like to have it.


Sam wakes first the next morning. Ben's lying exactly where he had been the night before. He's so still that Sam's worried for a moment, but the steady rise and fall of his chest is reassuring. He takes advantage of the morning's quiet to get the first shower.

As he scrubs shampoo through his hair, Sam starts working on a plan. There's dad's way--dragging a child all over the country, leaving him in hotel rooms and ratty apartments while Sam goes out and risks his life and Ben's future by fighting supernatural creatures.

And behind door number two: Keep Ben safe. Stop hunting while he de-programs the boy and teaches him how to be normal, even if it's only an act. If anybody can teach a course in "how to not look like a freak," it has to be Sam Winchester. He's got a cell-phone full of numbers. Somebody in there has to be willing to take the boy in--maybe one of the families they've helped out over the years, one that knows there's more to the world than meets the eye.

The plan should take three months, tops.

He finishes his shower and wraps a towel around his waist.

Ben is standing at the foot of his meticulously made bed at parade rest, eyes forward, still as a statue. Sam groans and pinches the bridge of his nose between his thumb and fore-finger. Okay, so maybe it's a six month plan.