Title: Everyday Heroes
Characters: Sam, Dean
Summary: What is the measure of a man? Sometimes, it's found in the midst of epic struggle. Sometimes, it's in the spaces in-between.
Disclaimer: All SN things bright and beautiful, the Kripke made them all.
Notes: With gratitude to Faye, who is anything but superfluous, and to Kaly, whose constant nagging encouragment not only helped this along, but spurred a spin-off fic of its own ("Through the Eyes of a Child").
Outside Bisbee, in the express checkout, Sam was silent as the boy counted out spilled change and rumpled ones and came up short.
"What do you want to put back, hon?" The cashier was kind, but it didn't really help.
The boy put his hand to his forehead in a gesture far too old for his age and said, "We need the milk."
The cashier had started to set aside the rest when Sam put his items in the middle of the boy's. "I've got this."
Sam could tell the boy didn't want to take it – didn't know what it meant, was maybe even a little scared. He raised his hands and backed up a couple of paces, let the boy take his time to decide. Tried not to think about how much he looked like Dean at that age – strong and capable and achingly young. The young, though, Sam could only see now.
The cashier's hand hovered over a loaf of white bread, waiting until the boy finally nodded. It was hard to say who looked more relieved.
He waited until the boy had gathered up his bag and started to walk away before he moved up. The boy hesitated in the automatic door, let it bang a time or two as it tried to open when it already was. "Thank you."
Sam just smiled, waved a little, watched him cross the parking lot and then the busy street.
He stopped the cashier before she rang up the second sandwich, said he really didn't need it. He grabbed his own bag and headed back to the motel.
Dean was leaning against the door of the Impala, waiting. "You got everything?"
"Yup." Sam put the alcohol in the first aid kit along with a replacement Ace bandage. He kept the ibuprofen out – Dean would need it soon, whether he admitted it or not. He tossed Dean the ice pack and the sandwich and closed the trunk.
Dean had the ice pack on his knee and the sandwich half gone by the time they pulled out of the parking lot. "Where's yours?" he asked around a mouthful of turkey, the other hand loose on the steering wheel.
"Ate it on the way," Sam lied as he stretched out a little. "You think the credit cards'll be waiting in Topeka?'
"Yeah," Dean swallowed. "Shouldn't have cut it so close." Neither of them mentioned the applications had been forgotten while they'd been miles into the backcountry, hunting down a wendigo that had killed four hikers. Excuses – even good ones – didn't pay the bills.
"We got any cash left?"
Sam shook his head. "Used the last of it."
Dean nodded, took another bite. "I'll find a poker game tonight. Looks like we might be sleeping in the car."
Sam groaned more out of habit than complaint – he'd outgrown the car before he'd been old enough to drive it.
"Suck it up, Sasquatch." Dean grinned, clapped Sam's thigh. "Not her fault you're freakishly huge."
"Not my fault you snore like a bear."
Dean just glared, turned on the radio, let the dulcet tones of ". . . And Justice For All" fill the air.
- o -
In Red Oak, Dean left Sam at the library while he went to wash the car. On the way back through one of the main intersections, there was a car stalled partway through the turn, effectively blocking off traffic from all four sides. Horns blared and angry shouts punctured the summer air, and Dean spied a small figure in the front seat, hands waving helplessly. He pulled off to the side, put the Impala in park, and went to see what was going on.
The car was a brown Oldsmobile Cutlass that had seen better days. The same could be said of the driver – an old man, short and wizened, liver spots painting his face and arms. He was frantic, almost in tears, agitatedly muttering, "I don't know what to do."
Dean tapped against the open window, tried not to startle him. "You need some help?"
Rheumy eyes turned to him and the man grasped his hand before he could pull it away. "It won't start. I can't move it. Oh, this is terrible."
Gently, Dean pried the man's fingers off, shook his hand before letting it go. "How about you pop the hood for me, let me take a look around?"
The man complied, still moaning a little, high-pitched and wheezing. Deans clasped his shoulder, held it briefly, and the man seemed to calm.
A muffled thump and the hood was open. Dean pushed it up and propped it, leaned low over the engine. The older cars – American, at least – had similar layouts, and it didn't take Dean long to find the problem. He tightened the distributor cap, then checked the spark plugs, just because. Wiped greasy hands on worn jeans and let the hood close, solid.
"Give her a try now."
The engine turned over in a heartbeat, and the man laughed, delighted – a drawn-out giggle that sounded ridiculously like Sam's. Dean smiled as the man gestured him over, gasped a little in surprise when his second handshake was turned into a hug and then a kiss, of all things, loud on his cheek. Ducked his head and tried not to be embarrassed. The man laughed again, called him sonny, reached for what looked like a worn leather wallet.
"No, sir. It's my pleasure. You have a good day, now."
The man was still smiling at him, waving as he pulled away. Dean hoped he paid better attention to the road once he was out of sight.
He was late back to the library, and Sam was sitting on the stairs.
"Where've you been?" Genuine curiosity, but Dean shrugged it off.
"Took the scenic route." Eyes focused on the road as Sam settled in beside him, talking about what he'd found in the archives.
- o -
Another hunt, another hospital, and if that sounded little bitter, well – it was.
Sam's back ached, not just a twinge but a bone-deep pull that caught him every time he breathed. His head was even worse. Not for the first time, he felt like an old man trapped in a 23-year-old's body. Or maybe it was the other way around.
A nurse pulled back the curtain, pulled out the IV with a minimum of fuss and told him to rest.
"'ve you seen m'brother?"
He slurred a bit, and her mouth quirked as she answered. "He's in another room, here on the floor."
Confusion and fear spiked simultaneously and he lurched up. Dean's hurt. How did I forget? Where is he?
It took a minute to realize the nurse's "Mr. Daltry!" meant him. Her hands were on his arm, stronger than he would have expected, although it could have been that he was just so tired.
"Mr. Daltry, your brother's fine. He wasn't injured. He's just talking to another patient."
Sam let himself relax, relieved, closing his eyes against a wave of dizziness.
"You really need to rest, all right? I'm sure your brother will be back soon."
He nodded, eyes still closed, listened as her muffled footsteps left the room.
He might have dozed for a bit; he wasn't sure. But when he opened his eyes again, Dean wasn't there. The dizziness wasn't either, and he decided it was safe to put his feet over the side of the bed and stand. His head throbbed a little less, though his back was still killing him. He pulled on the thin robe draped over the footboard and limped toward the hallway.
He couldn't make out the words, but heard Dean's voice, only a couple rooms away. A woman laughed, full and breathless and Sam couldn't help but grin. Only Dean could find romance in a hospital. Well, Dean and a thousand soap opera characters.
He paused in the doorway, leaned unseen against a colorless wall. Dean's back was to him, facing a tilted bed, the woman lying in it hairless and wan. But smiling bright as anything, even with tears in her eyes.
"I'm serious – sexiest woman I ever knew was this bald girl in Phoenix. Man, she did things that would have made a gymnast jealous. It's totally the hair. If I were you, I'd never let it grow back."
The woman shook with giggles, slapped Dean playfully on the shoulder. "Dean, you're terrible."
"I bet you say that to all the boys." Sam knew that leering tone, pictured the smirk on Dean's face.
"Oh, if I were a few years younger, or if . . ." Her expression was wistful, sad, and Sam watched Dean wrap a hand around hers.
"Forget younger. I like my women with a little experience." She squeezed and Dean leaned forward. "I mean it, Annie. You call me as soon as you bust out of here and we're going to hit the town. It'll be the best night of your life."
The light hit her face just right, and for a moment, she looked . . . angelic.
Sam turned away as Dean asked for her phone to program his number, certain Dean meant every word.
He was back in his own room, almost asleep, when a heavy hand pressed on his forehead. "Dean?" Sleep-muddled, still concussed, Sam forced himself to focus.
"How're you feeling, Sammy?" There was a crease between Dean's eyes, the one that meant he was worried. It had been there a lot lately.
Sam reached up, patted Dean's cheek awkwardly. "You're a good man, Dean," he mumbled, already sleeping again. But not before he saw a gleam of something startled but pleased shine in Dean's eyes.
- o -
Dean looked up from his newspaper, wondering what was taking Sam so long with the coffee. It was a crowded day on the Pier – every day was a crowded day on the Pier – but he had a clear view of the coffee shop, and Sam was nowhere in sight.
Dean watched the door, but there was only a steady stream of college-aged kids and soccer moms, young couples with yappy little dogs in tow.
"Probably waiting on his double cappuccino with extra foam." Dean rolled his eyes, straightened the paper, picked up reading where he'd left off.
A minute passed and his eyes were back on the door. Impatience finally won out and he folded the paper, stuck it under his arm as he crossed the plaza. A tinkle of bells rang when he pushed the door open, but no one looked up.
Sam was still missing – not waiting in line, not sitting at a table near the front or an overstuffed chair in the back. Dean marched toward the restroom, growling in frustration, but Sam wasn't there, either.
Frustration warred with worry as he made his way back to the door. He hit Sam's speed dial, had almost pressed 'send' when he spotted a head above the crowd. High above the crowd and topped with ridiculously shaggy hair.
Sam was talking to someone – a man, almost as tall. There was a little girl in the man's arms, wrapped around him like kudzu. Her face was buried in his neck and he rocked her as he gestured toward Sam.
Dean sped up a little, then stopped a few steps away, hand loose over the gun in his waistband.
" . . . really, can't thank you enough. I don't know what I would have done if – " The other man's voice broke and Sam put a hand on his shoulder. The little girl burrowed closer, long blond curls cascading down her back, over his shoulder as she watched Sam.
"It's no trouble. I'm just glad we found you." Sam shook his head, smiled at the girl. "Don't you go wandering away from your Daddy again, you hear?"
She reached out to him then, both arms high, fingers wiggling. Sam looked a little shocked – a little worried, too, until her father laughed and let her go. She plastered herself to him, arms and legs squeezed tight, face square in Sam's chest. Sam stood there for a moment. Just stood.
There was a look on his face it literally hurt Dean to see – a moment where surprise turned to joy and then utter devastation. Sam dropped his chin to the top of her head, squeezed his eyes shut and just held her. Like she was everything he wanted and nothing he would ever have again.
A heartbeat passed and the girl was back in her father's arms, Sam seeming dazed but composed.
"Come on, Jessica. Let's go find your Mama. Thanks again, Sam." This time, it was the man who hugged him – one-armed and manly, but sincere. They disappeared into the morning crowd.
Sam was so still it was like everyone around him moved in fast forward. Dean held his breath, waiting for the spell to be broken. Knowing there was nothing to be said.
Sam turned like he'd known Dean was there, all along.
"Hey. You still want coffee?"
"Nah, I'm good."
Dean stared a little, tried to see something Sam wasn't showing. But his face gave nothing away.
They walked back to the car, Dean catching Sam's arm before he headed to the passenger's side. "You want to drive?"
It was almost – almost – a smile. Dimples, anyway, and more than Dean was expecting.
He tossed Sam the keys, watched him open the door, thought about blond curls and blue eyes and Velcro-monkey hugs. Pictured Sam with a child of his own.
You'll make a good Dad, Sam. That's going to happen. One of these days, you're going to make a really good Dad.
- o -
The sirens went off, but there was really no warning. The devastation was instant and fierce.
They'd been listening on the news, tracked the cells by weather alert. They'd huddled the Impala under a bridge over Highway 41 and waited it out, unscathed. Sedalia was not so lucky, though, and as Dean maneuvered them through town, there were major signs of damage everywhere.
They heard sirens again – quieter, the sound of fire trucks and ambulances. A swarm of people gathered around the rubble on the corner of a block, gestures frantic, not quite organized. Searching.
A look was the only discussion they needed. Dean pulled the car onto an open side street and Sam was at the trunk before the engine stopped, grabbing shovels and the first aid kit. Dean pulled out the ax and two blankets. They didn't even bother locking up.
Despite the terrible weather of an hour earlier, the day waxed hot and humid. They'd stripped down to T-shirts, bandanas over their mouths as they dug through dust and debris. There was a silent recognition of the pain here – people calling out for loved ones, hopeful and grieving by turns.
It seemed like an eternity before the first shout went up – the kind of joy that only comes from salvation. One survivor, then two, and then a few more, until all were present and accounted for. A miracle, but their work wasn't done.
They were split into different groups as formal search parties were arranged, Sam's team heading north and Dean's south. The sun had nearly set before they saw each other again, grateful to see the same relieved tiredness in each other's eyes. No casualties. A day of loss but ultimately victory. A day when the burden of survival was shared, instead of theirs alone.
There was a chili supper at the Baptist church, the beer clandestine but welcome. They laughed and talked and ate and for one night were part of a family, a community, bigger than they had ever known.
It was hard to remember, sometimes, that the world had good things in it, too. Good people. A beauty even hardship couldn't touch.
Dean nudged Sam's knee as he stood. "You ready to go, little brother?"
Sam was ready and stood with him, though there were protests all around.
"Next time you boys are in town, you come have dinner with us."
"And the kids would love to see you."
"Don't forget about Marlene's wedding!"
"I've got money on your Spurs game!"
Hugs and kisses and a Dixie plate of lemon bars and a hundred different well-wishes for the journey still ahead of them, even if not a single soul they'd talked to knew who they really were, what they did. Today, for once, it didn't matter.
Dean whistled on the way back to the car, and Sam smiled. Dean reached out and shoved him, laughed a bit when Sam shoved back.
They settled into the car. Dean turned the key and pulled the lights on but it was Sam who chose the music.
"Zeppelin?" Dean looked as incredulous as he sounded.
Sam tried to frown but couldn't hold it. He hid the slant of a grin turning toward the window. "Don't make a big deal about it."
Dean, of course, always had to look the gift horse in the mouth. "Your secret's out now, Sammy. You're one of us."
He sang along with "The Immigrant Song," loud and grating and far more off-key than he had to be. Sam groaned and made a show of plugging his ears.
And the road hummed on beneath them.