Disclaimer: The televsion show 'Supernatural' and the characters of 'Supernatural' are not mine. This story intends no copyright infringment.

Notes: This was originally written for the SPN Summer Gen Ficathon, for pesha, whose request I received.

The Year of Living Quietly

How it starts is Dean is fifteen and Sammy is eleven, and Sammy stops talking.

What makes it worse is that neither Dean nor John notice. Sam's always been kind of quiet, except for when he was first figuring out how to talk and then never shut up, and except for when he was two and three and wanted to tell Dean all the stories he could think up. But Sammy grew into being a quiet kid, more content with reading a book or doing homework than interacting with the other kids at whatever school they'd set themselves up at that month.

And he'd always been good at letting Dean know what he wanted or needed without saying a word – they had that unspoken thing down, had unshakeable routine – so Dean didn't really pay that much attention to the fact that Sam stopped saying "Yeah," and "No," or even, "I don't know, man, shut the fuck up," replacing words with tilts and shakes of his head, shrugging movements.

How Dean clues in to the fact that his little brother has seemingly gone mute is: they are at the newest in a long string of schools. Dean is at the high school and Sammy is at the elementary, and they are conveniently across the street from one another. Dean usually goes over to Sam's playground after the day is up to walk his little brother back to their apartment. It's not like Sam doesn't know the way back himself, but Dean's sort of used to being around his brother all day when they're on the road, on the hunt, and school feels like a weird and disruptive pattern to him; so he takes the first chance that he can get to see Sam.

He and Sam usually meet at the school fence, the corner closest to the basketball hoops. Usually Sam beats him there, but sometimes Dean leaves class a bit early since he really can't stand staying in one room for that long most of the time, and sometimes it just doesn't even seem worth it to try all that hard. That day, Dean gets to their habitual meeting place five minutes or so before Sam, and he leans against the fence, waiting. Thinks he'd probably look pretty cool if he could smoke a cigarette at the same time, slouched with smoke breathing out of his mouth. Only if he dared do it, Sam would give him that look, the one that was disappointed and harsh and warning all at once – and Dad would know, the way he always freakishly knew. "No messing up your health," he said. "That's one thing you don't get back one hundred percent if you screw it up."

This trio of girls walks by. They look Sammy's age, though they're wearing make-up and too-short skirts, and Dean is creeped out by the fact that they're showing more skin than the girls in his classes who are at least four years older. One of them is saying, "Well, yeah, but don't you think it's weird? He's always just" and she makes a complicated hand gesture, at which her friends laugh. One says, "Yeah, yeah – I know what you mean. I don't think I've heard him say even one word since he got put in our class. If he wasn't so good at P.E., no would even know he was there." The last one laughs. Not really a cruel laugh. "I totally wouldn't even know his name except that Mrs. Faire put us in the same group and called him Sam."

They're walking away, and Dean can't hear them anymore. And Sam is walking towards him, that small smile on his face like he's got a secret, or like he's pleased, or both.

"Hey Sammy," Dean calls out. His throat feels a little tight, and he notices that Sam's gaining inches on him again – it doesn't matter how often Dean gets a growth spurt, Sam always follows him within a month, and whatever height Dean gained Sam matches, surpasses. "How was school?"

Sam tilts his head. Not bad, but boring. Shrugs. Glad to be done. Makes a brief abortive movement to his stomach, slightly widens his eyes. Kind of hungry.

"Yeah, yeah," Dean says, leads the pace down the street going to their apartment. "There's still some leftovers. Or cereal. We gotta eat late tonight, Dad wants us doing research at the library."

Sam nods, but it's not a nod that just says yes, it's a nod that says, oh well, nothing better to do, maybe we'll get lucky and find an interesting poltergeist or something and quirks his eyebrow, which means, I bet I can find something before you can, his version of challenge.

Dean rolls his eyes. "Dude, you couldn't beat me in a dozen years. Now come on, let's get going."

Inside he feels a little sick. He doesn't know why. It's not like he can't understand Sam, and it's not like it matters that no one else can hear what Sammy is saying. But it's still like there's something that isn't quite right, and he has to think about what that might be, and why.

x

They don't usually stay in any one place for longer than three months. The average is usually just one. It's never really bothered Dean, moving around – well, maybe it did when he was younger and was making friends with kids who had moms, and their moms smelled nice and invited him over for dinner (not that he ever accepted), maybe then Dean felt a sort of ache when they had to leave.

Dad never apologized. Never said, "I'm sorry, son, I know that this life is hard on you." If he had, Dean might have hated him. Instead Dad clapped his hand on Dean's shoulder. Told him he needed to practice his shooting, his aim wasn't going to get better on its own; never pretended that they weren't anything other than family fighting a war.

The things Dean has learned from his dad:

how to run without stopping or slowing, steady pace, heavy boots

what it means to hold a gun and to shoot with intent

the way small moments can become anchors, touchstones – how their Dad looks at him and Sammy, how they're his anchors, and the responsibility of being that to this giant of a man, this indestructible man

how it feels to be loved so fiercely the world could end and the love would still be there, warmth like a blanket that comforts as much as it smothers

blessings in Latin and Greek, rhythmic as a steady pulse

the feel of having a purpose.

And of course, just like it's been since before Dean really remembers, when his Mom was still alive and waddling around with a belly bigger than his head, his purpose is Sam. Somewhere in the back of Dean's head, beneath conscious thought and decision, there is a mantra chanting sammysammysammysammy on non-stop repeat. So even though they had to leave all the time, and Dean began to learn to not make 'best friends forever' or promises to 'keep in touch', Dean had Sam, his brother who he wrapped the entirety of his purpose around.

It was enough. It was always enough. In a world of three people, his dad and Sam became Dean's gravity, the dual suns he revolved himself around, their hands their smiles their tousled morning faces, these the people he cherished.

And just like they were his universe, he was theirs.

It didn't mean anything, not anything, that Sammy wasn't talking anymore. That he had stopped protesting the constant moving around five towns ago, and even before that had gradually been winding down his anger. Giving up on fighting against their Dad's need to find the next hunt, giving up on getting Dean to fight for him, be on his side. Dean figured it was just Sammy growing up out of being a spoiled brat.

It didn't mean anything, because Sammy still talked – not with words, but gestures.

It didn't mean anything that Sammy didn't make friends, that he no longer tried to make friends, that he would move away if someone tried to touch him that wasn't Dean or their dad.

It didn't mean anything.

Except it obviously did. There was something wrong. Even if Dean could delude his head into thinking otherwise, he couldn't convince his body – his sick to the stomach body, his cramped up choking body, his instincts that couldn't be fooled by empty rationalizations and that knew beyond a shadow of doubt that there was something wrong with his little brother.

x

True to pattern, they'd swung out of their latest home on a long weekend, hit the road with the trunk full of three duffels and an assortment of weaponry. Dean waited for Sam to drop off in the backseat before he turned to his dad. They weren't listening to any music just yet, so Dean could talk quietly and still be heard.

"Something's up with Sammy."

His dad tilted his head minutely as a sign that he was listening.

"He's stopped talking. I mean, completely. I haven't heard him say anything for at least a week." Dean twisted his hands in a complex pattern that could have been part of an unconsciously remembered blessing ritual, but was more like a nervous habit. "He- I don't know if he even knows he's doing it."

His dad sighed. "Dean, I know you worry about your brother, but he's fine. It's just a part of growing up. You went through something like it, too, around his age."

Dean swallowed and looked out the windshield. It was near to spring right then, and his sixteenth birthday was coming up. Even though it was night, the sky wasn't particularly dark. Just enough to be comforting.

He didn't like to argue with his dad. He used to leave that up to Sam. "This is different, sir. Sam's not like me. I was being a jackass. You know that. But Sam – if he wanted us to do anything different, he would be loud about it. Or at least a brat. But he's not. He's just…" Dean glanced behind him, at his sleeping brother's face. Slack and young with ridiculously long bangs. Sam was leaning his head against the window, cheek flush to glass. "He's just shut down, like he's a machine."

His dad sighed, again, an impatient yet understanding sound. "He'll get over it, Dean-o." Dean flinched at the old nickname. His dad looked at him, one quick glance, and relented. "I'll tell you what, if he isn't over whatever this is in a few weeks, we'll talk again. Figure something out. Good enough?"

It wasn't really a question, but Dean nodded anyway. "Yes, sir." He tilted his head back to the headrest and looked out the window, mindlessly watching the scenery until he fell asleep, and in his dreams, they were still driving. One long boundless stretch of road.

x

A couple of weeks later, Sammy is the same, and Dad is occupied with a possible werewolf – though it turned out to be a hellhound, after all – and won't hear of the issue when Dean tries to bring it up again.

So Dean bides his time, and brings it up a week after, when they're in a new town, settling into a new apartment, enrolling themselves into a new set of schools. Dad shakes his head when Dean starts to talk, though, says, "Leave it, Dean, I've got to worry about setting up our credit cards right now," and he's got that tense look to him so Dean shrugs and nods and backs off.

They leave that town a little early, when one of Dad's esoteric contacts drops him with a lead, and they're chasing some vengeful spirit across a strip of highway, and then they're holing up in Blue Earth for a week, and Sammy's still not talking, goddammit, and Dean is tired of waiting – even though his dad is kind of busted up, on Tylenol with butterfly bandages holding his skin together – Dean still comes up to him and says, firm, "You said we'd talk, and we haven't talked."

It's enough like saying, 'You promised', enough like implying 'You're breaking your promise', for Dad to blink at Dean with slightly hazy pain-filled eyes and nod. "All right," he says. "All right, let's talk."

Sammy is somewhere out with Pastor Jim. Dad is sitting at the kitchen table, this round rickety thing that Pastor Jim says his own granddad built decades ago. Dean pulls up a chair, rests his elbows on the tabletop, and leans forward.

"He's not getting better."

Dad nods. "He's not."

"It's not good for him."

"He can't always be happy, Dean, no matter how much you might want him to be." Dad has this soft look in his eyes, a mixture of exhaustion and affection and exasperation.

Dean shakes his head; no, no. "It's not about him being happy, I don't really care if he's happy, I want him – he needs to be, he needs to be good. Healthy. He's not – he's not, you know he's not good right now, you've seen how he is with anyone not us, even Pastor Jim. Like they're not real people."

Dad closes his eyes. "What do you mean."

"Last week. When we were cleaning up that mess on the highway, the salt and burn, when the second spirit came out of the woodwork and started to attack that family" – Christ, but it had been a mess – "Sam didn't even lift a finger to help them. He didn't even notice them screaming. He had his head stuck in one of those damn books of his, and he only looked up when I got thrown into a tree. He only helped after he saw I was in it." Dean sighs; shakes his head again, but in a thoughtful way this time. "Later I asked him why he didn't try to help earlier, and he was puzzled. Dad, he didn't even know that there had been anyone else there but us."

There's this weird, extended silence. It's tense, it vibrates, it rattles Dean's bones. His dad sits there, at Pastor Jim's ancient table, cupping his head in his hands. Pale, from blood loss and stress both. Quiet, despairingly quiet, as if he knew something like this was coming, and of course he had to have known, he's their dad, he doesn't miss a single thing. Dean somehow arrogantly thought that he'd been the only one to notice Sammy's gradual retreat, or maybe he just didn't want to acknowledge that his dad would notice and do nothing, but there it is.

"Dean," John Winchester says, voice low and intense, "the thing Sammy needs right now is stability. He needs to stay in one spot and to put down roots. But if I let him do that, if I let any of us do that, it makes us open. Do you understand me, son? If I let him stay it'll break him, sooner or later."

"Dad. He's breaking now."

They stare at one another. Not challengingly, but bleakly, because both of them are right, and neither of them has a clue what to do about it.

"Just for a little while then," Dean says. "A year." He's not quite sure that it'll do anything good for his little brother, if by staying in once place for a year before moving on it won't somehow make it worse for Sam, but he's got to try. "We'll set up somewhere out of the way. You don't even have to stop hunting, I can take care of Sam and stuff, I'm old enough to handle it."

Dad is still. He says a quiet, "Let me think about it."

Dean nods, gets up to leave the kitchen. Maybe find Sammy. Maybe watch some television, Pastor Jim has a decent movie collection.

If the answer ends up being no, Dean will just find a new way of asking.

x

The answer ends up being yes, on a conditional basis. Dad relents to renting a place in Blue Earth, and even pays in advance for four months, making sure to do it in front of Sammy who shows a small crack in his oblivious shell with a widening of eyes and a quick, questioning glance to Dean.

The conditions of this extended stay are: Dean is to check in with Pastor Jim every morning and every night when Dad isn't at home with them, Sammy is only ever out of Dean's sight when they are separated by school, they keep up with their training – which means the Latin and the sprinting and the weapons practice, they stay off the local law enforcement's radar, they eat properly when John isn't around to make sure of it, they don't break any significant laws without a good reason. If they catch wind of anything remotely like a hunt, they do not go after it themselves, but rather let him or Pastor Jim know about it

The place they've found is pre-furnished, with a scuffed but solid table and matching chairs, one queen size and one twin size bed, a decent television with cable, a refrigerator and a toaster oven. The carpeting is a strange green-brown-yellow colour. Dean secretly suspects that it was once blue. It could do with a steam cleaning, and Dean is a little wary of the way patches of it clump together; but, given that this is his home for the next year, he looks at everything with a favourably benign eye.

"What do you think, Sammy?" he asks, wraps his arm around Sam's head in a rough half-hug. Sam struggles his way out of it, face slightly flushed and hair flopping all over the place. He shrugs, and doesn't overtly look any more engaged with this apartment than he has with any of the others they've ever stayed in – except for that one, three years or so ago, that had a strangely beautiful view of sunrises that even Dean stopped to appreciate – and Sam still doesn't say anything. But Dean does note the way Sam is cataloguing the apartment more closely than he has done before. Taking note of the smaller details, taking an interest.

It's a good start.

They take a week off of school to get settled in. Dean and Sam share the queen sized bed and their dad takes the twin. Pastor Jim supplies them with strange culinary concoctions, typically in the form of some sort of casserole that more often than not tastes wonderful as long as Dean doesn't look at it. Pastor Jim blesses the windows and the doorways for protection and warding, blesses the kitchen and bathroom sinks to sanctify all the water falling from the taps, blesses Sam and Dean and their dad with a solemn joyous expression on his face.

Their dad stays. Putters around the apartment, goes about town, enrolls each of them at school. His face is slightly absent in expression, and it's easy for Dean and Sam to see that he is thinking about movement, about the hunt. But he isn't restless, which is something Dean has to be grateful for; his dad is just – biding his time, making sure that Dean and Sam are set up all right without him for that first stretch of weeks.

Sam is visibly puzzled by all this, and gets more withdrawn than ever – even his body language is quiet now – and Dean has to admit that it does feel really strange, going grocery shopping and buying bags of flour and potatoes rather than prepackaged sandwiches and semi-nutritious overly-processed junk food. They have apples, in a bowl, on their counter. And three cookbooks in one of the kitchen cabinets, that their dad has already flipped through and marked the recipes he thinks Dean and Sam should be able to handle on their own. Sam is strangely fascinated by the cookbooks, and abandons whatever book he's reading just then in favour of reading recipes back to back.

Even school is different, now that Dean knows he's staying. He started out with his habitual casual brush-off, but now he actually has to deal with the consequence of being an ass. It's weird, to know that the people he ignores today will remember him tomorrow. Sam hasn't exactly made friends just yet, either, mostly due to the fact that no one can hear what it is that he says with his body, and also because he's still at that stage where he ignores that people other than Dean and their dad exist.

But it's all going pretty good, or at least Dean thinks, and while it still feels remarkably weird and off to be settling in, making an effort to form familiarity, it's also easy in a way he hadn't expected. Dean is good at routine, at doing what is expected, and it's… nice, to have 'expected' stay the same day after day.

The problem comes about a month in, when their dad remarks casually over dinner – another of Pastor Jim's freaky casseroles, this time a seafood theme and Dean swears he sees tentacles, which is simultaneously freaky and cool – that he has found a hunt and that he'll be leaving the next night. Dean's been expecting it. Of course he's been expecting it, he's not stupid, he knows his dad, he knows how this arrangement was always going to work. But he still feels, just a little, like he's been punched in the gut, and he has to breathe deeply and evenly for a second before he can say, calmly, "Cool. You know what it is?"

Their dad lays out the details of the hunt, his voice slow and methodical, injecting choice bits of wry humour at times. This is part of his teaching style, to make the hunt interesting to his boys; and Dean lets himself get interested, lets himself learn how his dad's thoughts move in patterns to match the patterns of the hunt, and how that leads to a system where he can recognize the killing patterns of a vengeful spirit on his own, one day.

The other occupant at the table has gone still, not even poking at the scraps of maybe-squid or the fleshy bit of a leftover scallop.

"I should be back in five days, give or take," their dad says. "I'll be checking in. And you know to stay in contact with Jim."

Dean nods. "Yes sir," he says, and starts clearing off the table. He feels a little twinge at the thought of not being able to go along, not that he ever really did that much to help. His dad rarely even let him leave the Impala. But it was still experience, and still a chance to get to see what it was like; still adrenaline, still adventure.

Sam is sitting quietly, hunched over his plate. Dean ruffles his hair going past. Sammy's due for a haircut soon, he muses, thinks about letting someone else do the cutting for a change – they'll be here for a while, he can ask around at school for a decent barber, since whenever he cuts Sam's hair, Sam manages to squirm at the worst possible moment and end up with an uneven 'do. Then he has to go and whine about it, which is just annoying and makes Dean want to smack him, which he does, and then that degenerates into a wrestling match Dean always used to effortlessly win and still does, for the most part, though Sam has begun to be effectual when he fights back, even if it's just by a little bit.

It's a trade-off, staying with Sam instead of leaving with Dad. It has its good and bad aspects; it wouldn't be life it didn't, but Dean is good at compromise, knows how to navigate its tricky paths, and has calculated the balance to be in Sam's favour this time, most times.

x

Dean doesn't really know that he's learned these things from his mom, since she died when he was only five or so. But before she was a body burning, she taught him:

how kitchens are supposed to feel warm and smell like spice and lemon, full of light and the waiting sense of food cooking

that pillows feel nicest when they have air fluffed into them, and the way they make a satisfying 'whump!' in the midst of a pillow fight

what it feels like to have your baby brother kick you from inside your mom's belly

it's as natural to love your family as it is to breathe, and just as unconscious, just as necessary

the most important thing when someone you love is upset is to hold them and not let them be alone, smoothing hands over hair and backs, gathering close and not letting go.

While she was a body burning, Dean's mom taught him:

it only takes a second for everything to change beyond recognition.

x

They really only spend money on groceries – clothes they get decently cheap at the Salvation Army, or random thrift stores, and Pastor Jim supplies them with ammunition – so, even though it's not like they're rolling in cash, they can afford to splurge every once in a while. Their routine, now, is to look through the cookbooks Thursday night, make lists of dishes that would look good together, and figure out what ingredients they don't already have. They go shopping after school Friday, at the market two blocks over; they don't have a car handy, which means that they have to carry everything back by hand which is a little bit annoying, but Dean slots it mentally as 'training' which makes it bearable.

Sam puts everything away in the kitchen, and Dean cooks up a quick pot of spaghetti. Sam takes care of the tomato-garlic-meat sauce and Dean slices up a salad. Their one concession to being unsupervised boys is a shared coke. They eat at the table and Dean tells Sam about his day. Sam tilts his head in interest, quirking his eyebrow to ask a question. After, they stack the dishes in the sink. They alternate who washes and who dries, and they usually leave it until after homework is over with.

Dean phones Pastor Jim and chats for a few minutes, answers, "Yes sir, Dad's supposed to be home tomorrow night at the latest," and "We're all fine, we're doing just fine. Sammy's been busy researching for a school project of his, I'll let him know you say hello," and "Yes sir, we'll see you Sunday."

They are weirdly regimented in their goodness. Dean honestly finds it soothing, if constricting, to be this wholesome all the time. The thing is that their staying in Blue Earth, in their apartment, is contingent on Dean keeping to the rules that his dad set out to ensure that they would be safe, and if those rules get broken and their dad decides he can't trust Dean after all, then they'll be back on the road and back in motels, and Sammy will just shut right back down.

They wake up early on Saturdays. Laze around, watch some television; go for a run, stop by Pastor Jim's for target practice. They have weapons at home, and on them, of course – but none so elaborate as Pastor Jim's collection. They get back to the apartment in the early afternoon and spend the rest of the day cooking, both of them in the kitchen making a five course meal. Their dad comes home and drops his bag by the door, grins, asks, "What's for dinner boys?"

x

Even when their dad isn't at home (and god, that's strange, 'home'), Sam and Dean sleep in the same bed. They always have in motels, and it's comforting to have Sam curled up next to Dean's ribs, so that Dean can feel the shift of air in Sam's lungs through his chest as if they were connected by inhalations, exhalations. Dean can vaguely remember sleeping like this a long time ago, when he was smaller than Sammy is now and their dad would gather both of them in his arms to go to sleep. And before that, too, Dean vaguely remembers: softness, long blonde hair, a rose-citrus smell. He knows his mom must have held him and slept.

They go visit Pastor Jim a few days out of the week, let him feed them and help them with their homework. Pastor Jim wouldn't mind having them live at the Church with him, Dean knows, but it's better having an apartment of their own to call home. Sam is actually surprisingly possessive of the apartment, and doesn't even really like Pastor Jim coming over, let alone any of the few friends Dean has managed to make at school.

Dean doesn't really have any illusions about how he comes off to his classmates, a punkass kid with authority problems (because the only adults he respects are the ones who can beat his aim, who can keep their cool looking into the face of something that wants to kill them), but that hasn't stopped a few of the other kids from approaching him, or at least being warily friendly. Sammy's still aloof and still drives his peers off with a strangely glazed, blank expression that seems to say that he doesn't see them, doesn't care about them, would prefer to not be in their presence. Dean's seen him give a pair of giggling girls the zombie routine and it freaked him right out.

But they have settled in. They have made this their home, made it familiar and comfortable, have made weekly traditions. Dean now definitively knows that Sam sucks ass at doing the simple things in a kitchen like making rice or pasta or even boiling water, but that he can handle the finessing details like a pro, knows just the right amount of spices to add to anything for it to taste like something out of the ritziest restaurant. Dean, weirdly, is great at baking. They discover this when Sammy scowlingly brings home a notice from his teacher that all of the students in his class are participating in a fundraising bake sale, and he'll need to bring in two dozen of home-baked goods by Friday.

Dean raises his eyebrow at that, says, "Fundraising for what?" Sam shrugs and goes to lie down on the bed, opens up a library book – on Celtic folklore, Dean idly notes, knowing Sam's doing some research for one of Dad's contacts, a gruff guy they've met a few times, 'Bobby' – and ignores Dean puttering through the by now well-thumbed three cookbooks. Dean's starting to think about expanding their collection.

Well, Dean's not about to let Sam alienate himself further by being the only kid in the school without a plate of cookies, or brownies or whatever, so he cracks the biggest cookbook to the dessert section and starts to look for something they already have all the ingredients for. He's feeling too lazy to walk over to the market, and anyways, they're running a little low on money right now – their dad's hunt ran a little overtime and he didn't leave a whole lot of cash lying around.

Two hours later, the apartment is flooded with the smell of peanut butter cookies baking. Sam eats the entire first batch. Dean rolls his eyes, pours each of them a glass of milk, and makes up a batch of chocolate chip too. From then on, baked goods make their way onto the cooking schedule and Dean finds himself learning how to make scones, of all things, for breakfast, unloading a baker's dozen onto Pastor Jim on Sundays; makes pies for desserts and muffins for snacks. Sam is wholly approving – made evident by the way he eats everything right out of the oven – and their dad takes bundles of cookies and brownies with him when he leaves for his next hunt.

They've been living there for a good six months, settled in and happy, following a set routine, and Dean is content with it. Sam must be too, he thinks, since he's been smiling a little bit more and Dean has seen him actually sort of interacting with his classmates. And one day, like a switch suddenly thrown on, Sam starts to talk.

It throws Dean for a loop, when Sam says the first word he's spoken for the last year, at first because it's so early in the morning that Dean thinks he must still be dreaming. But no, Sammy really did mumble, "G'morning," to Dean on the way to the bathroom, and over the breakfast table, he really does say, "Pass the cereal." His voice is oddly deep. Dean realizes, then, that Sam's voice must have broken while he was in the midst of his quiet routine, which is weird because Sam is still pretty young – just past twelve – and he was supposed to have a familiar voice when he started to talk again. Dean misses Sam's odd, high-pitched child's voice. But more than that he's missed Sam talking at all.

He feels elation bloom and linger in his chest, which makes each indrawn breath taste sweet in the back of his throat. Worth it, he thinks, to stay so that he can hear Sam. He figures it wouldn't really do to scare Sam off talking, so he restrains the urge he has to whoop and grab Sam up in his arms and instead passes the cereal, musses up Sam's hair affectionately, cups the back of Sam's neck. Goes into the kitchen and says off-handedly that he's thinking about making some pancakes, does Sam want any?

x

It's good and it stays good, Sam talking, reaching out to other kids his age, telling Dean about his day – at first haltingly, then in a rush like a flood of words has been dammed up in his throat all these long months – and the first time their dad comes home from another of his long exhausting tracking missions and hears Sam chatter a bright and happy, "Dad!", the look on his face is unguardedly joyful despite its weary cast. Their dad doesn't say anything about it, but he does look to Dean over top of Sam's head, and they share a quiet unspoken moment that Dean would never be able to translate to words, but knows will always remember what was meant.

And then things start to go to hell, a little bit at a time, the inevitable downward turn of their climbing slope. Because a talking Sammy is a return to the petulant Sammy who wants what he knows he can't have, who likes to pick fights and scream at his dad and brother when he's feeling restless. A talking Sammy means an aggravated Dean, and unfortunately the rule that Sam is never out of sight unless at school still holds, and so the apartment rapidly becomes not so much a home as a prison. And Dean wants to get out – he wants to leave, he wants some room to fucking breathe, but he still remembers the shtriga, and no matter how pissed he is at Sam, he's not pissed enough to risk it.

It really starts with the field trip – the three day camping field trip – that Sammy's class was fundraising for. Dean should have known those peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies would come back to bite him in the ass.

Sam wants to go – he doesn't come right out and say it, but he starts to ask about maybe borrowing a sleeping bag off of Pastor Jim, and he brings home a permission slip – and Dean has to say no, even if he doesn't want to, he has to. He made a promise to their dad and he's going to keep it, even if Sam's face sort of crumples and then flattens. He doesn't eat dinner, or help Dean clean up; it's a Thursday, and he doesn't even look at the cookbooks for new recipes. He very pointedly doesn't crash onto the queen sized bed, and instead takes the twin.

The next thing that tips Sam to the side of being aggravating is one day, he brings home a kitten. He doesn't even try to hide it, like he did that one time when he was six and found a stray, clutched it beneath his shirt and snuck it into their motel room's bathroom. Their dad found it two hours in and made Sam sit down and listen to all the reasons why they couldn't have a pet cat just now. Dean tries to follow in his dad's footsteps there, tries to use logic to let Sam know that they won't be able to keep the cat, but Sam is stubborn.

"We can keep her," he insists, "We're staying here, she can stay too."

"We're not staying forever, Sammy!" Dean rests his forehead in his hands, grips his hair in exasperation, frustration, god, who knows – anger, he's so fucking angry he can't see straight, he hates that Sam makes him into the bad guy. "Dammit. We're not staying forever, Sam, and it's not fair to give her a home she can't keep."

Sam looks at him with a face drained of colour, his lips pinched and pale, and stalks as far away as he can inside of the small apartment.

It's not until later that Dean realizes what it was that he said, how deeply he unintentionally hurt his brother and probably has been hurting him, without even thinking about it.

During that evening's call to Pastor Jim, he asks if the old guy would like some feline company. Pastor Jim has always caught on pretty fast. He says, "Any time you'd like to drop her off with me, she has a place."

Sam gets to keep his fucking cat. He names her "Caelis" and she falls asleep on Dean's face.

x

Their dad likes Caelis. "We used to have a cat," he tells Sam, one hand on Caelis' purring head. "Your mother found him wandering around in the garden one morning and decided to feed him. He never went away." Their dad doesn't mention what probably happened to the cat, just keeps on petting Caelis who takes to the steady strokes with closed-eye pleasure.

Sam beams and Dean scowls. The little fur-beast enjoys scratching up Dean's shirts, clawing his shoelaeces, suffocating him in his sleep by curling up right over top of his nose and mouth. Plus, Sam isn't the one who has to lug the heavy-ass bag of cat food back to the apartment, not to mention the litter; and he's definitely not the one that empties the litter, either, or worries about what will happen if the landlord finds out that they've snuck in an animal that their lease says they can't have living with them.

God, Dean hates being the responsible one. As soon as Sam is finished growing up, Dean vows, it's going to be his turn.

x

Then there's that weekend their dad doesn't come back. He doesn't check in or let them know that he'll be delayed an hour or a day, he just doesn't come home.

Dean hovers over the dinner they've got laid out on the table – Chinese theme, this time, with wanton soup and sweet-and-sour pork, fried rice and lemon chicken. Homemade fortune cookies for dessert. Sam sits on the queen-sized bed and reads a book on esoteric exorcism rituals, Caelis curled up to his feet napping. They don't say anything.

Dean starts to put away the food, saying, "It'll keep better this way, and I'll heat it up when Dad comes in."

Sam doesn't say anything. Just nods, and turns his page, and keeps on reading.

They don't go to sleep. Midnight passes, then one, then two. They stay up, waiting. Dean thinks about making some coffee but his nerves are already pretty wrecked. He paces. He thinks about what might have gone wrong, why their dad didn't let them know he'd be late. In the morning, well before service begins, he and Sam go out to Pastor Jim's and knock on his office door, and tell him that their dad is missing.

x

They keep on going to school because they can't afford to have any attention drawn to them that might cause trouble, but Dean's even more out of it than usual and he knows that Sam has mostly gone back to being mute. Pastor Jim offered to let them stay with him while he looked for their dad, or to even come stay at the apartment with them, but Dean shook his head. "We're big boys, sir," he said. "Our dad left us alone, he knew we could handle ourselves." By his side Sam nodded.

The rent will be a problem if their dad doesn't come home soon, though; there's an emergency credit card Dean can use if it comes down to it, but the card's not in any name that the landlord is accustomed to seeing them use, and even that small detail could cause trouble. It makes Dean's head hurt, being paranoid, thinking about all the ways that this could go wrong. He starts to stress bake, and runs out of counter-space after the muffins have been unloaded next to the three layer cake and the platters of cookies and brownies. Sam doesn't eat any of it; the Chinese food feast has gone bad inside their fridge, but Dean doesn't throw it away until it starts to look as if it's gaining sentience.

It's really only been a couple of days. Dean has to tell himself that. Their dad has been late by a couple of days before. He always phoned first, but still, it's not anything new. Pastor Jim isn't even all that worried.

They're looking for him, Pastor Jim and his network of contacts. Dean and Sam meet one of the hunters who's set to hunt their dad, a guy named Caleb who looks like he's only got a handful of years on Dean, but who also handles a knife with the same sure confidence Dean has seen in his dad before. He grins at Dean and Sam, says, "Don't worry guys, I'm good at tracking, and I know what John was on the trail of. I'll have him home to you in no time."

Before Dean can think about what it is he's saying, he blurts out, "I'm coming with you."

Beside him Sam lets out a startled gasp, and Pastor Jim's expression tightens. Caleb looks at Dean, then quirks a quick grin. "Well, I won't say no, but you might want to think about that a little bit."

At the same time, Pastor Jim says, "Dean, son, I need a word."

Sam doesn't say anything at all.

In the hallway, Pastor Jim grips Dean's elbow and says, low and intense and almost threateningly, "Your father did not leave your brother in your care for you to abandon him at the first sign of trouble. He is scared. I will not let you make him alone, too."

"He'll stay with you," Dean shakes Pastor Jim's hand off. "Him and Caelis. They'll be fine. We'll back before he even has a chance to miss us."

"I am not what he needs. Dean Winchester. You will follow your father's orders. You will stay where he knows you to be safe, and you will keep your brother safe. Do you understand me?"

Dean wonders when Pastor Jim ever got around to sounding like his dad, but he nods sullenly anyways. "Yes sir," he says, and goes back into the room where Caleb looks uncomfortable and Sammy is pale and withdrawn, half-hugging himself and looking much much younger than he has any right to.

Goddammit. He clenches his fist. Goddamn.

x

If Dean can't go after their dad, and if he can't get away from his brother, he is, at the very least, going to get drunk. He doesn't have much experience with it, but he does have plenty of determination. He gets the older brother of one of his 'friends' to buy him a bottle of Jack Daniels, goes home to his shitty apartment and straight to the bathroom. On the way there he says to Sammy's wide-eyed face, "See you in the morning." He locks the door behind him and slumps to the tile floor.

He drinks until he pukes (about a quarter of the bottle, he's not used to this burn just yet), then he gargles his mouth and drinks some more. Until he's blacked out passed out on the floor, to the sound of Sammy pacing outside the door on the other side.

x

The morning after he's better. Calmer. Sicker. He stays home from school, manages to putter around in the kitchen enough so that Sammy raises his eyebrow at the sight and smell when he comes home that afternoon. "You were busy," he says, inane because that's the only safe zone.

Dean grunts. His throat is sore from throwing up most of the night and all of the morning.

Things get… better, the only real word for it, less tense. Sam doesn't pick fights anymore, just pets Caelis and watches Dean pace and worry. Pastor Jim checks in on them multiple times a day, which Dean would find annoying if he weren't using them as a chance to ask if there's been any news of their dad yet.

The air goes mostly grey, for the longest time. It's either that or have Dean wind himself up so tightly he can't breathe. Sam takes care of him, reminds him that he has to eat and go to class. Sam is worried too, but the only thing Dean can do for that is tuck Sammy up next to him in bed at night, make his little brother feel warm and cocooned.

He goes on living this half-life of not knowing for twelve more days, and then Pastor Jim knocks on the door, breathless excited, saying, "We've got him, boys, we've got your dad. Caleb is bringing him home."

x

John Winchester is a tough man, but even he can't escape being mauled by a hell-beast and thrown down a cliff without a few complaints. His shoulder is dislocated, his left wrist and right ankle broken; bruised ribs, gashes running across his back and chest, a concussion he was ridiculously lucky to not die from.

He's going to be out of action for at least two months, and Dean is absurdly happy about that. It's a good two months, all three of them together again like they haven't been for longer than a weekend lately, sitting down to dinner together – their dad mostly stays out of the kitchen, knowing his sons have a good thing worked out, but occasionally shooing both of them to the main room to watch television, hobbling around and producing lasagna and garlic bread that neither have ever had before. He pets Caelis and asks how classes went, what they learned that day. It's all so – so – domestic. Peaceful, happy, something a real family would have.

By the time their dad can move around without wincing and accompany them on their daily sprints, it's almost summer and school is just about to let out. Their dad says, "I found something that looks interesting. I was thinking you boys could come with, once the semester is done."

Dean can't help the grin that widens his face, and he's unthinkingly saying, "Hell yes, yes, of course, let's go."

Sam beside him is quiet. He says, slowly and seriously, "We're not coming back here, are we, if we leave."

"Well, I was thinking on it," their dad says. His dark eyes are intent, and he doesn't take his gaze off of Sam. "This year has worked out pretty well. Maybe we should look into you boys staying for another."

It's not exactly what Dean wants – he likes the stability, but he's been going stir-crazy all the same – but he knows it's what will make Sam happiest, so he's glad that their dad has decided it would be okay to stick around, that it would be safe.

Except Sammy isn't smiling or gleeful, isn't saying, "Really?" like it's the best thing to ever happen to him; he's shaking his head slowly. "But it wouldn't be permanent, would it, Dad? We might move the year after. Or maybe in the middle of the year. Or you might go missing again."

None of them has talked about their dad's vanishing stint. Dean almost wants to smack Sam upside the head.

Their dad nods soberly. "Those are distinct possibilities, Sammy. I'm not going to make any promises I can't keep."

"Then," Sam takes in a deep breath, "I think we should just leave. I think it would be better if things went back to how they were before."

Their dad says, calm, "If that's what you want. We'll do that if that's what you want, Sam," and walks over to pull Dean's little brother into a hug, and Dean's little brother puts his face against Dean's dad's broad chest and makes small, suffocated sounds. When Sam pulls out of the hug, his eyes are brighter and wetter than before, but Dean doesn't say anything and neither does their dad.

x

The things Dean has learned from his brother:

the satisfaction of watching someone eat what you've cooked for them and ask for seconds

how to be protective but not stifling, how to notice the small things that are actually the big things, how to keep on caring even when dead tired, even when the only thing you want to do is sleep

the feel of a body curled up trusting, sleepy and close to the skin

bravery enough to let go of something so desperately wanted

what it means to be responsible, what it means to never be alone.

x

They haven't really bought that many new things, so it's easy to pack everything up into the Impala. Dean sticks the three familiar cookbooks in his duffel, on the off-chance that they end up in a motel with a kitchen, or maybe an apartment for a month or three. He's become ridiculously attached to them. Pastor Jim takes in Caelis, along with her litter box and leftover bag of food. "She likes to go to sleep being petted," Sam tells Pastor Jim, his face miserable, and kisses Caelis goodbye on her forehead. She meows plaintively. Dean succumbs to grudging affection and gives her a goodbye pet.

Pastor Jim smiles, says, "She'll be waiting to see you again next time you boys drive through."

They clean up their apartment, empty out their fridge and cabinets – the extra dishes and pots and pans go to goodwill, all the things that they don't necessarily need – and wash down the bathroom sink and mirror.

Their dad has left to give the room keys to the apartment manager. Sam is staring down at the freakish carpet, morose, and Dean slings his arm over his shoulders. "You're not going to go all freakazoid again, are you?"

Sam shakes his head. "I didn't even really know I was doing it before," he half excuses himself. "I'll be more normal, promise. I just wish we didn't have to go."

"Hey." Dean pulls Sam in closer. "This isn't really home, you know. You're not going to be missing anything by leaving." Sam sighs and slumps into the curve of Dean's body.

"One day," he says into Dean's side, voice muffled, "One day I'm going to make a home and never leave it." The words give Dean a strange, foreboding sense of dread.

He thinks, You're my home, to Sam but doesn't say it out loud. Instead, "Let's get out of here, Dad's waiting."

He's the one who pulls the door closed after them. They both hear the final click.

Outside their dad is in the Impala, engine revved. Dean clutches Sam a little closer to him. He's never really wanted to stay, but he doesn't really want to go, either.

Sam is the one who tugs himself out of Dean's grasp, who leads the way down the hall and down the stairs and out the door. He's not subdued, but determined. The entire year has been worth it, to see that rigid and undefeated line of Sam's back moving away from him. To know that Sam isn't broken, or close to breaking, that he is strong and will stay strong and won't run from the hard decisions.

Dean steels his will and follows after. He doesn't look back.


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