A/N: This story was written in January 2007 for the Agents With Style zine A' Hunting We Will go, which was published in May 2007. After duly waiting the requisite year, here it is in internet format! I was almost Kripke'd by A Very Supernatural Christmas, but as Sam is nine and Dean thirteen in this story, I think I just about dodged the bullet and this story does presume Sam knows what John does 'for a living'!
RATING: PG-13. However, please bear in mind that not everything is as it seems in this story, and that it does include minor instances of violence or threats of violence towards children. Contains no graphic violence, sex or language.
DISCLAIMER: You might think I don't own the boys, but I've got a Contract with Dean's name on it...
BETTER THE DEVIL
The instant Dean Winchester opened his eyes, he sensed it.
Something in the room that shouldn't be there.
The darkness was heavy and cloying, and he had to blink several times before he could focus on the sliver of sodium streetlight spearing through the gap between the curtains and creeping across the foot of his bed.
His first instinct was to grab the knife he kept hidden beneath his pillow; but his arms felt like lead weights pinned to his sides, and it was all he could do to turn his head toward his little brother's bed.
Straining into the darkness as he struggled to take his next breath, the light beyond the window was just enough to illuminate Sammy's outline, the little boy's chest moving up and down as the nine-year-old took slow, even breaths.
But even as Dean watched his brother sleeping, a silhouette even darker than the darkness filling the room passed in front of his eyes, a jet black shadow between the two beds, blocking all but Sam's face from Dean's line of sight.
His next instinct was to cry out, scream for Dad, scream for help. But there was no one here to cry out to; no one here to help. Dad had been gone three days and he'd be gone three more and no one else was going to come running, no matter how hard or how loud Dean screamed.
As far as adult protection went, right now Dean was pretty much it.
"Sam! Sammy!" His voice died on his lips, vocal cords constricting as he tried to alert his little brother to the danger, all attempts at moving as weak and as useless as his voice.
Whatever it was, it was man-shaped, Dean could at least see that, a large hand reaching to push the thick dark hair away from Sam's forehead while the other gently pulled the pillow from beneath the boy's head.
Dean's eyes widened in terror, voice screaming silently in his head, "Sammy! Sammy!" as the intruder slowly lowered the pillow over Sam's face.
Gritting his teeth, Dean concentrated so hard on moving it physically hurt, but nothing seemed enough to raise him from the bed, to give him the power to even lift his head from the mattress; it was almost as if something was sitting on his chest, pinning the teenager beneath its weight so that he could barely even breathe.
Gasping for air, he saw his baby brother's body begin to buck as the pillow was clamped harder over his pale face, hands scrabbling upwards in an ineffectual effort to push his attacker away.
In his head, Dean's screams intensified, but were soon drowned out by those of his brother.
"Dean! Dean! Help me!"
But he couldn't.
He couldn't do anything.
All he could do was watch as his brother's form continued to jerk and spasm, each movement more violent and desperate than the one before.
Until finally, he stopped.
Sam just stopped moving altogether, his screams dying in Dean's head.
And all Dean could hear over the rasping of his own ragged breathing was a low, guttural laugh.
The dark silhouette removed the pillow from the younger boy's face then, revealing Sam's dark eyes, wide open and staring sightlessly at his big brother.
The big brother who was supposed to protect him.
Dean heard his own voice, hollow in his ears, distant and faraway and almost indistinguishable from the harsh, pitiless laughter.
The figure began to turn then, pillow still clutched in his hand, as a startlingly familiar yet altogether alien voice muttered, "Don't worry, son. Your turn next."
Dean felt it lean down toward him. Felt its breath on his cheek. Felt rough, cold fingers brush against his lips as the words, "Ssh, it's alright. It won't hurt. It'll be just like falling asleep," were breathed into his ear.
And as the pillow moved relentlessly toward his face, he caught a glint of something shiny on the intruder's left hand.
A wedding ring.
"Ssh, little one. Just close your eyes. This won't hurt. Not like it hurt your mom."
"Just close your eyes."
The last thing Dean saw were his father's eyes gazing down at him.
"Just close your eyes, Dean."
Dean's eyes snapped open, hand flailing for the knife hidden beneath his pillow as he adjusted to the sudden light in the room and the big, frightened eyes mere inches from his own.
"Dean, I had a nightmare!"
Sam was tugging at Dean's t-shirt, fingers gripping the threadbare cotton so tightly Dean was almost dragged right off the bed.
Breathing hard, Dean tried to remember where he was, what was happening.
"Dad?" The word came out like a knife jerked from a fresh wound, and Dean sat up fast, blinking as he focused on the room around him.
Sam had turned on the nightlight, bedclothes in a twisted heap on the floor between the two beds, pale face covered in a thin sheen of panicked sweat.
The younger boy's eyes were bigger than they had any right to be, the sheer terror there reflecting Dean's own sense of disorientation, near panic and – and something else. A pain he recognized so keenly that it was all he could do to choke back the tears threatening to overcome him.
He'd seen Sammy, his Sammy, lying there, eyes hollow and empty and lifeless: staring at him. Just staring at him. Why didn't you protect me, Dean?
And he'd seen Dad…
There were tears running unchecked down Sam's waxy cheeks, a rare occurrence these days, and his bottom lip was trembling as the fingers gripping his big brother's t-shirt became a convulsive fist pulling the older boy closer.
"Dean – it was – I saw – you were…" The rest of Sam's words were choked off in a sudden hacking sob, and Dean instantly forgot his own terror, scooching over in his bed and pulling his kid brother in next to him like he used to when he was little, not sure if he was offering comfort to Sam or craving comfort from him. Perhaps a little bit of both.
Sam's sobs seemed to relent somewhat as the younger boy buried his face against Dean's shoulder, Dean stoking his hair gently as he tried to ignore how badly his hand was shaking.
"When's Dad coming home?" Sam's voice was distorted by the fabric of Dean's t-shirt, thick and distant and almost overcome with fear.
"Soon," Dean murmured, heart beating a little faster as he answered, fingers still entwined in his kid brother's dark locks.
"Dean?" Sam whispered hesitantly, raising his head slightly so that he could stare at his brother with red-rimmed eyes.
Dean met his gaze uncertainly, almost afraid of what Sam was going to say next.
"I – in my dream…" Sam bit his lip, his grip on Dean's t-shirt tightening again.
Dean continued to hold his little brother's gaze evenly, even though he wanted nothing more than to look away. "What did you see?" His voice was as thick as Sam's, almost too deep to be his.
Sam blinked. "Dad hurt you."
Dean swallowed. "How?"
Sam's head was still raised. Looking at him. "He put a pillow over your face and you couldn't breathe and…and…"
Took a breath.
Pulled Sam closer.
"I –" Dean hesitated, uncertain whether he should tell Sam the truth. "I had the same dream," he managed eventually, Sam's eyes widening in shock. "Only…only in my dream, Dad hurt you." He felt Sam's body tense against him.
"He said I was next –"
"Just close your eyes –"
"This won't hurt –"
"Not like –" Dean stopped.
Sam was still looking at him. "Like Mom."
Dean took another breath.
"Dean? Dean, did it – did Mom – did she –" Sam blinked. "Did she hurt?"
Dean swallowed again.
Wrapped his arm tighter around Sam's shoulder.
Pulled him real close.
"I don't know, Sammy."
"But Dad. He wouldn't… He'd never…"
"Just close your eyes, Sammy."
"I don't want to."
"It's alright. I won't let anything hurt you. Not ever."
Sam raised himself up on one elbow, big eyes staring right into Dean's. "But what if it hurts you first?" His fingers tugged convulsively at Dean's shirt. "Like it did in my dream?"
Dean sighed, stroking Sam's hair some more. "Dad'll be home soon."
Sam nodded. "That's what I'm afraid of."
Sam was sitting at the kitchen table, foot kicking nervously at the table leg as his older brother tried not to burn the eggs again.
"I don't wanna go to school today," the younger boy said quietly, resting his chin in the palm of his hand while the other traced abstract patterns on the ugly Formica tabletop.
Dean was rattled. It didn't take a genius to see that. He hardly ever burnt stuff, and so far four pieces of toast had already been consigned to the trash, not to mention his first attempt at scrambled eggs.
"We have to go to school," Dean muttered absently, frowning as the toaster popped just as the eggs were ready. "Or Dad'll get in trouble."
"When's he coming home?"
Dean cursed, sucking at his burnt fingers as he tossed the toast onto a plate before snatching up a knife and smearing a thin layer of margarine across the bread. "Soon," he replied, scraping half the eggs onto the plate before setting it in front of Sam. "Here."
Sam just stared at the eggs as Dean re-filled the toaster. "Dean –"
"It was just a dream, Sam." Dean didn't even turn around, concentrating a little too hard on fixing his own breakfast.
"A dream we both had, Dean!" Sam returned, willing his brother to turn and face him. "You think that's normal?"
Dean sighed. "Nothin' 'normal' about us, Sam. Never gonna be." He shoved the frying pan into the sink with a metallic clatter, snatching his toast from the toaster and wondering how thin he'd have to spread the last sliver of margarine in order to vaguely cover both slices.
Dean sat heavily in the seat across from his brother, gazing at his breakfast with the same lack of enthusiasm as Sam.
His kid brother was staring at him in that annoying way he had, brows raised as he went in for the kill. "Dean, do we have to go to school…?"
Goddamn it, no way Dean was falling for the doe eyes today. "Since when did you not want to go to school?" he demanded instead, shoving his hands across the table, knocking into his brother's in an attempt at a little forced levity. "Huh, Mr. Bookworm?"
Sam's brow crinkled. "Since we both dreamt our dad killed us," he answered, grabbing Dean's wrist and holding on. "Dean? Something's wrong. Maybe Dad's hurt. Maybe –"
"Sammy." Dean looked over at his brother sternly, and the younger boy released his death grip, leaning back on the uncomfortable metal chair and folding his arms across his chest glumly.
Sam knew Dean hated it when he said stuff like that. What if, what if, what if… There had already been a couple of occasions when Dad had been late back from a hunt; or just not come back at all, causing Dean a terrified phone call to Pastor Jim. Those times, while Sam worried and pestered and talked non-stop just to drown out the thoughts swimming around like sharks in his head, Dean, conversely, would grow unnaturally quiet, sullen and withdrawn, constantly looking out the window when he thought Sam wasn't watching, face set into a perpetual mask of emotionless determination, building a wall around himself so that Sammy wouldn't see how scared he was.
Of course, Sam knew exactly how scared Dean was. Well, maybe not exactly. After all, Sam had an advantage Dean didn't: Sam had Dean.
But with each successive what if, maybe, what if, Dean became a little more expert at building those walls. And Sam became a little more scared that one of these days they'd get so high he wouldn't be able to scale them any more.
"It's not polite to stare, Sammy."
Sam blinked. "I wasn't staring."
Dean bit his lip, glancing at the clock on the busted up microwave. "We're gonna be late."
Dean stood then, all purposeful and decisive.
And Sam knew right then it was all a front. A front Dean put on especially for his kid brother's benefit.
"C'mon, runt. We gotta go."
"But Dean –"
"You know Whiney Sammy doesn't impress me any more than Puppy Dog Eyes Sammy, right?"
"I'm serious, Dean!"
Sam stood then too, pulling himself up to his full height, which, though admittedly still a couple of inches shorter than his older brother, didn't seem to undermine that way Sam had about him, that way of making his presence felt, that confidence, that sometimes Dean just didn't have. Or maybe didn't want. Sometimes Sam could command the attention of an entire room just by getting to his feet like this, while Dean sat in the corner, quietly overlooked, quietly watching everything.
Dean sighed heavily. "You're always serious, Sammy."
Sam ignored the jibe. "What if Dad's in trouble?"
There was that "what if" again.
"Why would you even think that?" Dean frowned at his brother, clearing the barely-touched breakfast plates from the table, before picking up the younger boy's backpack and checking he had everything he needed for the day.
"The dream, Dean."
"Dad would never hurt us." Dean didn't even look up, mouth set into a thin white line as he mechanically shoved a brown paper bag of sandwiches into the top of Sam's schoolbag.
Sam took a step toward him, reached out a hand to still the older boy's jerky movements as he began stuffing books into his own backpack. "Dean."
Dean stopped, eyes flicking upwards to meet Sam's, freckles standing out harshly on his pale skin.
Sam took a breath. "What if – what if it's a warning?" he asked. "The dream. What if someone's trying to warn us –?"
"About what, Sammy?" Dean's voice was harsh, like rough sandpaper, but Sam kept his hand fixed firmly on his brother's arm.
He gulped, afraid how Dean would react to what he was about to suggest next. "About Dad," he managed quietly, eyes determinedly fixed on his brother's.
Dean's jaw tensed visibly, fingers gripping the math book still clutched in his hand a little too tightly. He continued to hold Sam's gaze for a long moment, before finally looking away. "Why would anyone need to warn us about Dad?" he asked at length, not angry like Sam expected. Scared.
Sam inclined his head, fingers still closed around Dean's arm, his older brother for once not pushing him away.
"Maybe," Sam said quietly. "Maybe something… Maybe something got to him. Did something to him."
Dean looked up then. "Like – like possession?" he hazarded, unsure, brows drawn together, Sam's first clue that maybe Dean had been thinking the same as he had.
Sam shrugged, not entirely sure himself what he was suggesting.
Dean seemed to think about that for a second, before finally shrugging Sam off and continuing to pack his schoolbag. "Dreams don't work like that, Sammy," he said at length, voice low, measured. "They don't mean anything. They can't tell the future –"
"But we had the same dream, Dean!" Sam's voice was only slightly less measured. He knew better than to suggest Dad was anything short of Superman when Dean was around, but he also knew that something wasn't right. And he knew Dean knew it too. "It's got to mean something."
Dean looked up at him. Then he shrugged, almost as if he didn't want to think about it anymore. "Right now," he said, handing Sam his backpack before hefting his own up onto his shoulder. "It means we're late for school. Come on."
Sam watched the second hand on the big clock at the front of the classroom slowly ticking down the seconds until three o'clock.
Generally, Sam, unlike Dean, was a big fan of school and reveled in those few short hours of normality he was allotted each day.
Well, today had been different.
He'd been and found Dean at lunchtime, like he often did when they were relatively new to a school. Some kid in the grade above him had already taken an instant and irrational dislike to Sam and his hand-me-down clothes, so he was finding it harder to make friends here than he usually did, and he guessed in situations like this, no matter how grown-up and independent he liked to consider himself, he always tended to retreat toward the comfort blanket that was his older brother.
No way Jeff Simmons would pick a fight with Sam when Dean was around.
Dean had been sitting on his own as usual, scruffily-sneakered foot banging against the low wall surrounding the parking lot, looking down at his hastily-packaged peanut butter sandwiches with all the enthusiasm of a cowboy in a salad bar.
Sam plopped himself down next to his older brother without a word, Dean not even looking up.
"Hey," Sam said, pulling out his own lunch with a little sigh.
"Hey," Dean returned, still not looking up.
Sam unwrapped his sandwiches, taking a hesitant bite before producing a can of Pepsi. "Wanna share?" he asked, holding out the fizzy beverage.
Dean glanced up at the proffered drink before shaking his head and wordlessly returning to glowering at his lunch.
Sam ate in silence, stealing sidelong glances at his brother every now and then, just to check whether the older boy was eating.
Dean wasn't eating.
Sam sighed, sipping at the cola and wondering what to say. He wanted to make Dean feel better, but he wasn't sure how. "I'm sure Dad's okay," he managed at length. Weak, he knew, but he wasn't used to doing the comforting: that was Dean's job. Always had been, always would be, no matter how grown-up Sam thought he was. Hadn't last night proved that? One little night terror, and confident, independent Sam Winchester had been reduced to Dean's little brother Sammy in a matter of seconds.
Dean's eyes flickered upwards, the ghost of a smile hovering over his lips.
Sometimes Sam wished he was psychic, just so that he could understand what was going on in his big brother's head. "What's so funny?" he asked.
Dean met his gaze thoughtfully. "You're stealing my lines, Sammy," he replied.
Sam matched Dean's smile hesitantly. "Well one of us has to be the grown-up, right?"
Dean looked away again. "Yeah," he agreed slowly. "I guess one of us does."
It was that sad look, that old-before-his-time look about Dean that made Sam ache inside. And it was that look that sometimes made Sam hate John Winchester, hate him for what he'd done to them; for what he'd done to Dean. Without even realizing he'd done it.
And that was why today Sam was watching the clock, anxiously determined to be the first out of the classroom, not the one who hung around behind the rest of the class to ask the teacher a hundred inquisitive questions, like he usually did. He'd be ready, he'd be waiting for Dean, and he'd go straight home and not beg to visit the library on the way and he'd be good. Good, and perfect, and no trouble. The perfect little brother.
And not a burden.
Because that's how he felt when Dean got that look.
Finally, the bell rang, and Sam was off like a shot, books already packed into his bag before the class was even dismissed.
He made short work of the busy hallways, dodging the mass of excited kids milling around the lockers, some hanging around to wait for friends, others heading purposefully toward the exit.
Finally, he was outside, taking the steps two at a time, looking for his brother…
Which is when he noticed something else entirely. Something he wasn't expecting to see for another three days.
Dad's sleek black Chevrolet Impala, parked in the street directly in front of the school's main exit, all hard black lines and shiny chrome.
And Sam felt a chill run through him as the familiar tall figure leaning against the passenger door straightened as he caught sight of his youngest son.
Instinctively, Sam's eyes sought out Dean, who, it turned out, was only a few feet ahead of him, standing absolutely stock still in the middle of the sidewalk, kids streaming past him on either side; an island in the middle of a fast-flowing river.
Dad didn't move toward them, just stood looking at them, a slightly puzzled expression on his weathered face.
Sam looked from Dean to Dad and back again, suddenly aware of the rigid set to his brother's shoulders and the uncertainty of the older boy's footing, as if he'd been caught mid-stride and flash-frozen where he stood.
Sam moved first, jumping down the remaining steps and pulling up just behind his brother, his hand reaching out almost unconsciously for the older boy's shirt sleeve as he turned his gaze upwards, into round hazel eyes that reflected nothing short of terror.
Dean was scared.
Dean was scared of Dad.
The realization hit Sam in the chest like a wrecking ball, fingers tightening on Dean's arm and heart speeding up a little as Dad took a hesitant step toward them.
Dean looked down then as if only just returning to himself, eyes blinking furiously as he gradually processed his kid brother's presence. "It's okay, Sammy," he said automatically, pushing his brother slightly further behind him as he turned to meet their father's expectant gaze.
Sam, for once, didn't resist his brother's over-protectiveness, grip on Dean's arm becoming two-handed as Dad took another few steps toward them.
Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
And Sam didn't need to be psychic to know that Dean felt it too.
"Boys –?" Dad's voice was its usual softly-spoken tenor, slightly questioning, a frown crinkling his dark brow.
Dean looked up at him, opened his mouth as if to speak, swallowed, before finally managing, "You're early," in a trembling voice.
Dad's frown deepened, at the same time a tiny smile breaking out on his lips. "Anyone would think you weren't happy to see me."
Sam glanced about them, oddly aware of the other kids, the other parents, all witness to this strange tableau, and he suddenly felt like he was trapped in one of those snow globes, a multitude of faces pressed against the outside of the glass, looking in at him as someone shook his world.
Dean made no reply, stood rigid. Good little soldier. But he was trembling. Sam could see that even from where he was standing, could feel the shudder through his arms.
"We didn't expect you for three days." Sam found his voice suddenly, stepping out from behind his brother, edging slightly in front of him and raising his chin.
Dean glanced down at him, blinking hard, voice dying in his throat.
Dad holding a pillow over Sammy's face…
The partially-amused expression on Dad's face altered slightly, almost imperceptibly, a tiny shift in the set of his mouth. "Yeah, well. I finished early," he said, voice just this side of indignant. "If that's okay with you, Samuel?"
Sam gulped. He knew he was in trouble when Dad used his Sunday name. But he still wouldn't let it go, dog with a bone, even when the hand that had been grasping Dean's shirt sleeve felt a sudden nervous tug backward: Dean trying to pull him away, trying to get him to back off.
But Sam, always questioning, always wanting to know why, didn't back off easily, standing his ground with a suspicious frown on his young face. "Why?" he demanded, giving voice to that constant need for answers and explanations. "Why are you back early?"
Dad's amused frown was now an annoyed grimace, and he took another step toward his younger son, storm clouds gathering in his darkening eyes.
Sam felt Dean trying once again to pull him away, but the younger boy stubbornly refused to budge.
"I don't have to answer to you, Sammy," Dad said through gritted teeth. "You're not my C.O., in case you hadn't noticed."
"And I don't think you're ours," Sam returned as quick as a flash, a slight intake of breath from his brother alerting him to the very real possibility that perhaps he'd gone too far this time, even if Dad wasn't possessed.
If Dad's eyes were stormy before, there was lightning in them now. "What's that supposed to mean?" he demanded, another step forward, only an arm's length from Sam.
"He – he just meant –" Dean put in, finally finding his voice.
"You be quiet," Dad snapped, pointing a stern finger at his eldest son, who swallowed hard, before he turned his angry eyes back on his youngest. "I won't have you disrespecting me like this, Samuel Winchester –" he snapped, suddenly raising his hand toward the smaller boy.
Sam's eyes widened considerably, a sharp intake of breath preceding a high-pitched, "But you said –" before he was cut off by Dean suddenly grabbing him by the back of his shirt collar and yanking him behind him, almost pulling the kid off his feet.
Sam looked up at Dean as the older boy turned quickly to face their father.
"Don't you touch him –" Dean spat through gritted teeth, never getting to finish the sentence as the back of his father's hand suddenly connected hard with his left cheekbone.
Sam froze, clinging to Dean's arm as the older boy staggered back a step under the force of the blow. Regaining his senses, Sam started pulling at his big brother's arm, trying to pull him away.
But Dean didn't move, just stood there, a look of absolute shock on his face as a red welt colored his cheekbone and a tiny trail of blood began to ooze from his lower lip.
Sam could hear Dean's breathing, short and ragged, even louder than his own hammering heart, the older boy continuing to stand there motionless for a second, trembling from head to toe, gazing up at his father through a watery haze as he blinked back stunned tears.
Dad had never hit Dean before. Hell, Dad had never hit either of them before, and Sam couldn't shake the feeling that this was all his fault.
Dad's jaw was so tense Sam thought it might break, his eyes dark and unreadable. He looked away for a second, absently spinning the wedding band on his left hand; the same hand that had just struck his eldest son in front of a dozen witnesses.
But curiously, no one turned in their direction: students, parents, teachers, all continuing along their way as if nothing untoward had happened.
Sam glanced around him uncertainly before finally managing to squeak, "I just meant –" before his voice hitched in his throat, breathing labored as he blinked back tears of his own, "– that you said – that you said that we should make sure it was really you. If – if you ever did anything – anything unexpected…" He trailed off, for once sounding like an ordinary nine-year-old boy, clinging to the arm of an older brother who suddenly looked much younger than thirteen.
"Get in the car." Dad's growl was low and threatening, and Dean didn't resist when Sam tugged on his arm, not looking up at his father as the younger boy steered them in a wide berth around him.
Sam didn't hear his father's heavy footsteps behind them immediately, almost as if he had paused for some reason before following his sons to the waiting Impala. Despite his innate curiosity, Sam didn't turn to investigate, merely continued to push Dean toward the big Chevy, his older brother seemingly unable to move under his own power.
When they finally reached the car, Dean stopped, opening the rear passenger door with a shaky hand, leaning against the metal frame as if he'd collapse in a heap on the sidewalk if he didn't, bending forward slightly as he motioned for Sam to get in the back seat.
The younger boy made to follow Dean's instructions, his big brother turning away from him slightly as he passed, as if not wanting him to see the tear making its way down his bruised cheek.
Sam paused, half in, half out of the car, hand resting gently on the one Dean had clenched tightly around the doorframe.
"You believe me something's wrong now?" Sam asked urgently, ducking his head into the Chevy as their father closed in on their position.
Dean swallowed hard, eyes awash with betrayal as he carefully watched their father open the driver's door and get into the car without a single glance in their direction.
"Yeah, Sammy," he muttered, voice thick with choked back tears. "I believe you now."
Chapter Two coming soon! If anyone would like to leave me a review that would just be lovely of you!