Sam tried to keep his eyes open while the old green van sped along the interstate. He wished they had taken Dean's car and not dad's. The Impala had better cabin-lights for reading and Dean would always keep the mood up with loud music. With dad, everything felt so different.
He tied to read to stay awake, but the text in the book he was holding open in his lap, got blurred. The pale light inside the car didn't help matters much. He hadn't had more than a couple of hours sleep between school and research the past few days. He felt the tiredness literally weigh him down and irritation simmered just under his skin. He shifted his eyes to look out the side window, the darkness just about to lift and the cool of the night was rapidly vanishing. The sun was finally rising over the horizon and he blinked against the light that burned his itching eyes.
Another state, another hunt with insecure outcome awaited them. He was so tired of this! Tired of having to wear Dean's old clothes, tired of being ready to bolt at any given instance. Tired of never being able to take anything for granted. He wasn't quite able to comprehend how Dean was so cheery about all this, how he was able to always keep his game-face on? Looking over at his brother, who was currently talking into his cell phone, excusing himself for not being able to make it tonight to some girl. Promising he'd make it up to her.
Sam wanted his own cell phone and not have to share one with Dean. A cell phone with giggling girls asking for his brother every time Sam answered a call. Dean teasing him for getting no action. Last time Sam had been on something resembling a date, Dean had asked, loud enough for the girl to hear, if he had scored? Leaving Sam to blush the hell out of himself and totally making a fool of himself.
Not that he would ever be able to get a real girlfriend. Who in their right mind would go out with him when Dean was around? Dean didn't stumble over his own feet, Dean didn't get afflicted by total loss of words when a girl spoke to him. Sam had never seen him blush either and he could feel his cheeks getting hot just thinking about how damned awkward he felt around girls.
God, he so hated this!
The book was yanked from his lap.
"You done reading the girly book?" Dean was leaning over the seat, grinning at him, reading the title and shaking his head at the picture on the cover. "Fugly dudes!"
"The Outsiders, huh? Very fitting for a freak." With a grin he opened the book and his brow creased. "You got this for outstanding achievement in English Lit? Yeah, that'll help you when the going get though!" Dean tossed the book back at him, boxing his arm. Sam smiled, acknowledging Dean's way of showing appreciation with a fondly muttered 'jerk'.
"Geek-boy!" Dean turned back to watch the road, the smile still lingering on his lips.
"Dean, quit teasing him and check the map for a place to get some food."
Sam diverted his eyes back to the fields switching by.
There was no way to hide from the badly masked glee in his father's voice.
Normal people would have at least had a decent dinner, not take out from a greasy hamburger joint, when their son finished his sophomore year with awesome grades. Grades that he had worked his butt off for. Normal people would notice he was good at something! Normal people would pat his back and say 'good job', not give him a freakin' lecture because he hadn't packed his stuff in under five minutes.
Sam felt his eyes slide closed when he leaned his brow up against the window. Shutting out the world was the only way he was able to escape. School had become a sad excuse of a safe haven; free from constant critique about how much less he was in comparison to Dean, from unspoken disapproval and the growing sensation of never being enough. He didn't quite fit in at school either, but at least he was able to soak in how life was supposed to be. And it sure as hell wasn't what he had.
And now school was out for the year, he'd lost that little sliver of normalcy to hang on to. Most kids would consider him a total freak for enjoying getting up every day and going to school. Maybe he was what all seemed to think - a freakish misfit?
He had no real place in this so called family or the world around him. Even Dean was slipping away from him, getting tired of him. And why wouldn't he be? After all, he'd never reach up to dad's and Dean's skills in hunting, he'd never be that good. Dean had had to put up with him since he was born, without having a say in it. Dean needed his freedom. Sam knew that one day, he'd simply have to leave, find his own way by leaving everything behind. Turn his back on it and work out his own path. The only thing he'd miss about his life was Dean, but his brother would be so much better off without him around.
Sam pressed his brow to the window, to the coolness of the glass that fogged up from his exhales. Waiting really was the hardest thing.
In the front seat dad and Dean were discussing the breakfast options at hand, like companions out on a routine job. Sam clammed his eyes tightly shut.
John watched his youngest son in the rear-view mirror. With his head leaned up against the glass, Sam's face was out of view and John flicked his eyes back to the road. That was very much what Sam was about lately. It felt like he was disappearing, floating away from them in silence. The shouting matches from last year had almost vanished and only popped up during practice or work. Sometimes John missed them because at least when Sam was shouting, all pissed off, he was still there with them. All John got now were searing glares and the, very Mary-like, killing silence. John had no idea how to handle his youngest son, Sam seemed like a mine field in a foreign country.
"There's that joint a mile ahead, dad," Dean spoke from the passenger seat. "The one we stopped at a few years back. The pie was awesome!"
John chuckled; Dean's appetite for greasy food and pie was becoming a legend all of its own. "You've got it son!"
Dean had become his confidant, an easy relationship as long as Sam wasn't in the middle. It had taken a toll on his eldest to be the peacemaker and his brother's keeper from a very young age. But he had turned out right after all. A good head on his shoulders, a trimmed body and a will to kill; the perfect soldier in their private war. Dean liked the hunts, looked forward to them and gave his all. John recognized himself in his eldest son, and he was proud. Dean just seemed less complicated. Sure he had come home drunk on beer at fourteen, stayed out all night when he wasn't supposed to and failed an order every once in a while. But John knew he could always count on Dean to come through without endless debates. And Dean was the one John relied on when it came to Sam. Dean got though to Sam, read him much better than John supposed he ever would.
John looked back in the rear-view mirror; Sam hadn't moved and he shifted his eyes to Dean, quietly asking what was up with the youngest member of their family?
Dean immediately responded to the cue and turned over. "Hey Satschquatch? Do literal freaks like you eat in other than French restaurants? I can run inside and ask for red napkins to pave the way for your highness."
"Shut up, Dean!"
John smiled at the harsh words; the tender inflection in the voice was still unmistakable.
Sam deliberately held back enough to drop behind Dean when they walked to the diner. He felt his father look at him from the side and it irritated him to no end. Why wouldn't his father just say what was bothering him? So he hadn't put his all in packing his duffel bag? It wasn't like anyone's life depended on his packing speed right at that precise moment. He'd done all the research he was able to do about their current case at the local library, he needed microfilms or copies of old newspapers to be able to do a more thorough search. Some things you just had to be on location to do. He glared under his bangs, a silent protest at the sideways glances he got. Those evaluating looks really got him pissed off. How was he supposed to right when he didn't know what, exactly, was wrong?
Sam kicked a stone out of his way, sending it flying onto the granite clinkers framing the paved pathway they were trudging in the bleak morning light.
"Woah, Sammy, what's up with you? Some nerdy chick stood you up or what?" Dean slowed his pace to flank Sam, elbowing him amicably.
"Geez, ain't we all sparkling sunny today? Despite all the nerdy girls flailing over you and your over-sized brain when I picked you up yesterday. That short one was really hot! I was wondering why she was hitting on you."
"Nobody was hitting on me!" Sam slanted another glance at his brother.
"The blond one so was! You're just too literally inclined to notice the important things in life, like a certain score for instance." Dean grabbed Sam's sleeve and yanked him up the stairs.
"Can you be any more single-minded, Dean?"
"Boys!" Their father was impatiently holding up the door for them.
Sam didn't look his way, just filed himself in through the door. Dean grinned at the young waitress; a white-toothed, flirty grin that had the girl giggle and bow her head, smiling shyly back at Dean.
Dean watched his sulking little brother while scoping in the last slice of pie. Sam's hands lay loosely fisted at the sides of his plate, head ducked and eyes trained to the right. Dean followed his line of view and noted the family by a table besides the window. A young mother holding a baby with her arm curled around the child whose arms flailed happily in the air. Across the table sat a bouncing girl, maybe five years old, giggling when her father smiled and tickled her side. The sunshine fell across their table, perfecting the happy view.
Dean's heart surged and he dropped his gaze to his brother's hunched shoulders. Sam's head hanging tiredly, bangs shadowing his eyes.
Sam had refined escaping into his own little world close to perfection these past couple of months. Closing them off, moving away and retreating into silence that made Dean wonder where his real brother had gone and who this was that had taken his place? He'd never felt so estranged from his brother before and it seemed their worlds were drifting apart.
It became painfully clear in this roadside diner with table-cloths worn so thin that the plastic table peeked through the threads. The squalor did not take away from the calm joy at the table to their right and Dean knew it was what Sam wanted. A normal life.
"Sammy?" He reached out to touch his brother's arm.
Sam jerked, his hand moving into his coat-pocket and rummaged around. Dean squinted his eyes in surprise at the movement. Then Sam handed him a ten dollar bill, righted himself to sit straight and turned his gaze to the table-cloth.
It felt like a slap to Dean's face. Okay, so he had been on about them being virtually penniless until his next pay-check a couple of days ago. He'd been pissed at not being able to take Sharon out. Jesus, he had never implied it was Sam's fault, never even thought it! The jibes about Sam growing at a rate that was about to make the clothing industry very happy had been a fucking joke! Was that what this was all about?
He'd never expected to get the silent treatment from Sam, not the way Dad got it on a regular basis since the screaming matches ended. That night he'd expected Sam to bitch about it, or get on a sparring verbal match with him. But Sam had mumbled an 'am sorry' and closed himself in the bathroom. Dean had never thought he'd miss the verbal confrontations as much as he did. This silence was more painful than a bullet wound.
With a glance at their dad, sitting at the other end of the table with his eyes resting on the youngest Winchester, clearly questioning what was going on as much as Dean was. Dean shrugged his shoulders in reply and their father's eyes trained to the right and spotted the family. There was a brief look of pain and guilt before he let his gaze fall to the table-top. And Dean knew that they both shared the same sentiment. It was like Sam was fading away from them. Drowning in his self-imposed silence.
The Winchester men had never been much of talkers, except Sam when he was little. Man, the kid was able to fire off fifteen questions per second and drag confessions out of you with his frickin' puppy-eyes. Not to mention the bitchy faces he made when he thought his chains were being yanked. The looks he threw spoke loud and clear.
It had been easier back them. Now he was stuck between a brooding Satchquatch and a father that had no idea how to handle this new, very foreign person in the backseat. Because a wrong word could lead to days of determined silence and cold shoulders turned on you. A silence so loud it drove their father up the wall. And Sam knew this, he knew it so fucking well and he was using it to deliberately make his stand for who-the fuck- knew what reasons. And dad wasn't the one to budge, he'd answer with the same silence, expecting Sam to cave.
Thing was that they were both so stubborn that hell would freeze over twice before either of them gave in on any disagreement between them. It sometimes seemed the only way they were able to connect was through loud fights. Dean suspected both got freaking perverse kicks off the clashes. At least they did communicate with the shouting matches. Was that lost too now?
Dean cursed himself for not taking his baby on this hunt. It would be easier if they didn't have to cram up in dad's van. If he had his Impala, he'd be able to crank Metallica up so loud it would deafen the silence.
Because right now, the tension was choking him and if it stretched on for much longer, he was sure more than someone's fuses would blow and it was bound to become ugly.
"Sam? You done sulkin' yet?" Leaning over the table to catch the eyes hidden under the bangs, Dean nudged Sam's arm.
Sam looked up, briefly meeting with Dean's eyes before casting a furtive glance at their dad at the other end of the table. With reddening cheeks he nodded almost imperceptibly and rose to pull on his torn coat.
For a moment Dean was rattled by the look in his little brother's eyes. His brother's usually so expressive eyes were dulled with something akin to resignation. He wanted to speak out, ask what the hell was wrong but Sam turned and walked towards the exit before Dean got the words out.
It occurred to Dean that Sam seemed all alone in the world, even in a diner crammed with people.
Sam leaned onto the old van, waiting for Dean and dad. For a moment he had just wanted to keep walking, put one foot before the other and see where he'd end up. But dad was an excellent tracker and there was no way he'd be able to stay hidden for long. And running away wasn't the answer, it would be wrong to leave Dean like that, to handle dad's wrath because of something that he had no control over.
He slid in to sit behind Dean, felt safer that way. Dean flipped him a Mars-bar from the passenger seat and Sam just held onto it for a moment, looking at it like it was a treasure. He still had Dean, and that was what kept him together. "Thanks, Dean."
There was another 170 miles to go, maybe he could get some sleep?
"Make yourself useful, Sam!" Dad handed him a stack of papers. "Go through these and make a neat list of what we actually know about this thing we're hunting."
"I can do it, dad," Dean offered. "Sam looks tired."
"Son, you're never well-rested enough with this kind of life. Anything can pop up anywhere. Sam needs to learn always to be ready, tired or not. This will be good training. It's for his own good."
The engine roared to life and Sam muted his protests.
They arrived at their destination in the afternoon, having stopped only once to fill the truck up and get some coffee. Driving through the town in search for a reasonably priced motel and a diner, John groaned inwardly. It had been a long a tedious drive, the sun beating down on the asphalt, clouds of dust seeping in through the open windows. Dean had fallen asleep but his youngest still sat with his head bent, scribbling away in the notebook he always carried in his duffel bag. John had glanced periodically in the rear-view mirror, waiting of an opportunity to ask how the research was coming along. Sam never looked up. But John noticed the tiredness oozing off his youngest; shoulders hunched, movements slower than usual and the hand grasping the pen lost the grip occasionally and he had to bend over and look on the floor for the fallen equipment.
Maybe he was driving his youngest too hard? After all he was still growing, an inch a day for what it seemed and he needed food and sleep. At times he wondered if Sam's height fooled him into thinking that the kid was older? Dean hadn't been allowed to come hunting actively before he turned sixteen, Sam had been with them since he was thirteen. John always tried to keep him in the background, but he was still right there at the hunt. John just didn't want to leave Sam behind, not alone. It just wasn't safe.
He spotted a sign for a motel with vacancies and a diner just when he turned left off the road running straight through the town.
"You hungry, son?"
Dean stirred, waking up and the moment he did, Sam didn't have to answer.
Because true to their family dynamic; Dean took over. He always did, to protect Sam.
John wondered where it had all gone so wrong? Was it when he started finding out things about his son? Was it back when he went to Missouri and she hinted that evil may want Sam for reasons unknown? Was that what had made him hide Sam? From his mind and from the world? Some thing's you just can't dwell on. Because he loved his son and the prospects of having to maybe kill him had built a wall between them ever since he started hearing the rumors. A wall John had clung to, in hopes of not loving his son if the worst came true. He knew better now; no wall stopped him from loving Sammy, it may be that it made him love him more. The fierce protectiveness he felt for both his boys clashed with the fact that one day, he might have to kill Sam. He simply wasn't able to handle that and the notion was constant ache in his chest and an eerie sense of doom.
And pushing Sam away was the only way to prevent himself from going insane. Still, pushing his youngest away resulted in a guilt that sometimes threatened to choke him.
He loved both his boys; Dean was his pride and joy, Sam was his constant reminder of Mary, his greatest fear and deepest pain. And still he couldn't stop loving him, not even if he tried.
Parking the van, he remained staring blankly ahead, lost in thought. He should talk to Sam, explain things. But how could he, when he himself only had bits and pieces of the puzzle?
"Dad?" Dean's voice broke through his reverie.
"Let's check this place out and get some food," he replied and got out of the car. The ache in his chest making his voice unintentionally gruff and impatient.
He caught Sam's fleeting glance over the car, a question in the hazel eyes searching his. A question never voiced, because before John was able to address his youngest son, Sam walked away.