Slipping Through the Cracks by Kokoda2007
Disclaimer: I don't own Supernatural or the characters …
Author's Note: Written for my entry in the Writers Guild December/January prompt challenge, "cold". I was scrambling to meet the deadline, so beta'd in part by Supernaturaldh. All remaining mistakes are my own, but those run-on sentences, I do on purpose :)
Summary: With the burden of hunting consuming their lives, John and Dean let their responsibility, for what should be their first priority, slip through the cracks. Pre-series. Sick Sam.
Fourteen year old Sam dumped his bag by the back door and shrugged out of his sodden coat, hanging it up on one of the hooks on the wall. He shook his head, distributing a fine spray of water into the air, before pushing the damp locks away from his face.
Balancing against the wall, he reached down and pulled off his boots, one painful tug at a time, before turning them over and inspecting the soles. The rubber was worn through in spots on the bottom of both boots; the tired footwear well past it's expired by date. The boots hadn't been new when they'd come into his possession, and he'd outgrown their comfort months ago. Now they just let the water soak slowly in, until his feet were squishing in wet socks and feeling the ridge of every pebble he walked across.
He let the old boots drop to the floor and peeled off his wet socks with a grimace of distaste. His feet felt like he'd been running barefoot across a field of snow, and he knew he needed to ask his dad again for some new shoes, maybe even a jacket and another pair of jeans.
The temperature inside was almost toasty and he could feel the heat start to penetrate his damp clothing instantly. Grabbing up his damp school bag, he made his way towards the source of the heat, his frigid hands rubbing together as he tried to warm up, fine tremors rippling across his skin as his damp jeans clung to his thighs.
His dad barely looked up as he walked past, a cursory nod his father's only acknowledgement of his presence. Books were spread across the old timber table, pages tagged and marked for referencing and cross-referencing, and it looked as though his dad hadn't moved from the same spot in hours. The silence was almost overwhelming, and he hesitated for a moment before breaking it.
"Dad?" Sam watched the frown flitter across his dad's face at the softly spoken word, but it elicited no further reaction.
Sam felt awkward as he waited for his dad to answer, unsure of what response his interruption would produce. He swallowed heavily and repeated the gentle word. "Dad?"
John looked up at Sam, exasperation clear in his tone. "Can this wait?"
"Yes sir," Sam mumbled in reply, watching as his dad heaved a sigh of relief before turning away, his father's attention already focused back on the books laid out in front of him.
Sam stepped away from the table, backing quietly from the room, a lump of discontent lodged firmly in his throat.
His tiny bedroom at the back of the small house was cold, too far away from the kitchen for the heat to penetrate. The gap in the window didn't help; the rotten timber frame separating from the pane of glass. He'd used a whole roll of tape to try and seal the gap, but the constant moisture was already causing the edges to peel and the wind to find its way inside.
Tossing the bag beside his bed, he quickly stripped out of his damp clothes and changed into something dry. Careful not to disturb his father, he carried his damp jeans into the kitchen and draped them over the back of a chair. Aided by the heat from the old cooker, he hoped that they'd be dry by tomorrow morning.
Returning to his room, he swung the bedroom door wide open, hoping to draw in the warm air from the rest of the house; maybe make his night a little more comfortable. Dragging a blanket off the bed, he wrapped it around his shoulders, grabbed his school bag and shuffled his way into the living room.
He rummaged through his school books and retrieved his homework, before dragging himself to the tatty couch parked in front of the old television. He listened as the rain started up in earnest, pounding against the old tin roof. Tucking his feet under a cushion, he opened up the text book on his lap and flipped through until he found the requisite chapter he had to read. He ignored the damp curls that clung to the back of his neck and the empty pit in the centre of his stomach, losing himself to his studies.
Their dad left early the next morning, a wad of notes stashed in the empty coffee can and the usual set of stern instructions his way of saying goodbye.
Sam watched the Impala pull out of the driveway, a quick glance a Dean showing the wistful look on his face. Sam couldn't help feeling a twinge of guilt, knowing he was the reason that Dean had to remain behind.
Five days later, Sam sat at the kitchen table, munching on a sandwich as he watched Dean empty their emergency stash of money onto the kitchen bench.
Dean frowned as he pocketed the bulk of the cash, slipping just a few lone notes back into the battered tin. "Rent's overdue," he muttered.
"Dean, d'you think -?"
"Job's probably just taking longer than Dad planned; you know how it is Sammy."
Sam nodded, "Yeah," he replied, leaving the rest unspoken. It was their way of dealing – like maybe if they didn't give voice to their fears, then everything would be alright. Their dad would storm through the front door, sleep deprived and rough, and all would be magically forgotten.
Shoveling the last bite of sandwich into his mouth, Sam glanced at the loaf of bread, seeing only a few slices remaining. Pushing his plate aside, he ignored the hunger pains still racing through his stomach and pushed himself to standing. "I'm goin' to get started on my homework."
"Geek," Dean muttered under his breath, just loud enough so that Sam could hear on his way out of the room.
Two days later, almost as suddenly as he'd gone, their dad was back. John looked like he hadn't slept in a week, and Sam knew that observation probably wasn't far off the mark. Unshaven and unkempt, smelling like smoke and death, John dragged himself into the kitchen searching for the elusive pot of coffee.
Sam scrambled to brew up the last of their rations, just so damn relieved that their dad was back.
With each day that passed, winter seemed to become more firmly embedded, the cold got colder, the wind harsher. For the first time, Sam found himself almost wishing they could move on, find some place warmer, but a new hunt beckoned a few towns over and it looked like they were set to stay.
The days grew darker until it seemed there were only a few bleak hours of daylight, snow and sleet and rain obliterating the sun.
And it felt like he was always cold.
Three layers of shirts under his too thin coat made little difference against the biting wind.
The sound of knives being sharpened led him to his dad; the assortment of weapons on display in various stages of assemblement didn't come as much surprise.
"Uh Dad?" Sam waited patiently until his dad looked up.
"Something up Sam?" John lowered the knife to the table until he could give it his full attention again.
"I was wondering, if you're not too busy, maybe we could - ." The sudden shrill ring of the phone caused Sam's voice to trail off.
"Can this wait Sam?" John asked; already out of his seat and striding to reach the phone.
"Yeah," Sam spoke to his dad's retreating back. It could wait.
The wind whipped around him, pulling at his clothes and hitting him with tiny spears of freezing air. The walk home from the bus stop seemed to take longer than usual as he wrapped his arms around himself and kept his head lowered towards the ground.
Thin pieces of cardboard wedged into the bottom of his shoes and two pairs of socks did nothing to keep out the muddy slush of snow that covered the side of the road. The cardboard soles were rubbing against the bottom of his feet, and the blisters that had seemed inevitable had made an unwelcome appearance. The condition of his feet seemed secondary to his other concerns now though, as it was the rest of his body that was wracked with cold. No amount of layers seemed to be a sufficient buffer against the weather, as winter crept upon them with steadfast determination.
He knew his dad didn't work and bring in a steady pay check like other parents. He knew the ramshackle timber cottage they were currently renting was the best that they could afford. He knew there was no money for anything but the barest of necessities, and sometimes, not even then.
But he'd seen the sign at the corner store, a tatty piece of paper stuck in the window advertising for a junior to stack shelves and clean the store after hours. The manager was a small wiry man, but he'd been friendly when Sam had enquired about the position, and if he got his dad's permission, he could start work straight away. Maybe, if he got a job after school, he'd be able to help out, get a new pair of boots and a winter coat.
Sam entered the kitchen, not surprised to find his dad seated in his usual spot at the table.
"It's freezing out," Sam announced the stark obvious, quickly removing is damp outerwear and moving to stand in front of the stove.
John glanced up. "Winter's almost here. Goin' to get a lot colder than this son."
"Running a few last minute errands for me." John pushed his research aside. "I want you ready to head out as soon as your brother gets back. Job shouldn't take more than three or four hours, now that I've narrowed down the search area."
"You're staying in the car."
"That's final Sam."
"Why can't I just stay at home then?"
"Soon as the job's done, we're going to head on over to Pastor Jim's place; he has a few books and things I need to pick up. We'll spend the rest of the weekend there."
"Oh." Sam felt crestfallen.
"Something else you need to say Sam?"
Sam looked up. "I ah, the store down the end of the street, the manager's looking for someone to help out. Said the job's mine if I can start straight away."
"Not this weekend Sam." John dismissed the notion.
"Maybe if I talk to him again, I could start next week." Sam stood nervously.
"No point committing to something like that Sam. You've got other responsibilities; school, helping out your brother and me, you know that. You'd just end up letting the guy down."
Sam shifted his feet. "I just thought --."
"Well you thought wrong. We just don't have time for this right now Sam."
The note from his teacher was burning a hole in his pocket, but he couldn't bring himself to fish it out and hand it to his dad. The class was going on a field trip next week, and he needed to take in ten dollars to cover the cost.
Sam sat curled in the back seat of the Impala, a book perched on his lap and another couple resting on the seat beside him.
He let his eyes drift out the window to stare into the darkness, hoping to see some sign of his dad and brother. They'd been gone a couple of hours already, and although Sam knew it was too soon to expect their return, he couldn't help but feel hopeful.
Deep down, he knew his dad wouldn't have left him in the car if it wasn't safe, but he still felt vulnerable and very alone. The spot was so isolated, no houses in the near vicinity, only row upon row of towering trees, blocking what little moonlight could creep out from between the clouds.
His flashlight was a small comfort against the darkness, but the cold was inescapable.
And all he could do was wait.
Dean yanked the car door open, his eyes sparkling and his face flushed with adrenaline. "God Sammy, you should have seen it," he rushed out, almost bouncing on the soles of his feet as he roused his brother.
Sam quickly gathered up his book before it could slip off his lap. "It's Sam," he reminded automatically, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.
"Whatever," Dean tossed back with a smile, his euphoria filling the small space. "And damn it was huge, and fast. God Sammy, you should have seen it."
"Yeah, you said that already."
Sam couldn't help the smile that spread across his face as he listened to his brother gloat and carry on, just glad that Dean had returned unharmed.
He could hear his dad tossing things into the truck, before John too swept into the car with a cloud of cold air and a slam of the door. Sam wrapped his coat a little tighter around himself and rested his head back against the corner of the seat, feeling like an eavesdropper as his brother and dad fervently discussed the details of the hunt.
Pastor Jim welcomed them like the long lost family Sam wished they were.
Sam welcomed the freedom from harsh reality.
Dinner around the table, all of them seated together, sharing a large pot of stew and crusty bread. So what if the conversation was of cattle mutilations, suspicious murders and unexplained suicides. A warm fire in the corner, a soft bed upstairs and tomorrow's breakfast waiting in the fridge in the kitchen.
But reality beckoned, and before Sam could count his blessings, they were piling into the car again, readying to make the return journey home.
It started as a tickle in the back of his throat a few days later, irritating, but easily pushed to the back of his mind.
Then the tickle took up a permanent home low down in his throat, until his voice was a raspy croak that no amount of cough syrup seemed able to shift. So Sam kept talking to a minimum, sending Dean an evil glare every time he made a joke about Sam's voice finally breaking.
And the cold grew colder. Inches of snow became a foot; a foot became waist high mounds shoveled up to make clear passageways that only the sure-footed would attempt to navigate.
And Sam hated winter. He hated how the chill that never seemed to leave his bones. How the sleeves of his coat didn't quite stretch to cover his wrists and how no amount of layering could make him feel truly warm.
John had research littering every flat surface as he frantically prepared for an upcoming hunt, wanting to be ready at the first break in the weather. Sam was treating his dad like a trapped bear, treading carefully around him and trying to stay out of sight whenever possible. John Winchester didn't take too kindly to forced entrapment in any one place, regardless of whether he had someplace else to go or not.
John looked up from his paperwork when Sam stepped into the room. "Son."
"Dad," Sam croaked, before clearing his throat and trying again, relieved when it came out clearer the second time around.
A frown grew across John's forehead. "Your throat still bothering you?"
"I think it's getting better," Sam said with total honesty, glad that chugging on cough syrup for the last few days seemed to finally be having some small effect.
"Good. That's good." John nodded, giving Sam a final glace before focusing again on the papers spread out in front of him.
"I told Mrs Person from next door that I'd shovel the snow from her path this afternoon -– if that's okay."
John looked up at Sam with a smile, knowing that the grandmotherly lady next door would ply Sam with hot chocolate and freshly baked cookies for his efforts. "Just make sure you clear our's as well, okay?"
Wielding a shovel, Sam followed his dad's orders and cleared a path from the front door to the street before heading next door.
With half a dozen of Mrs Person's cookies lining his stomach and two more in his hand, Sam took a moment to catch his breath. With both paths cleared, it was tempting to head back indoors. But winter brought opportunities that Sam's latest growth spurt finally enabled him to exploit. Hoping his dad wasn't keeping track of time; he hefted the shovel onto his shoulder and headed to the neighboring homes, ready to offer his services.
As afternoon turned to dusk, the sweat beaded his brow and the damp seeped into his clothes, but the kindly donations for services rendered weighed his pocket until going on the school field trip was more than just a possibility.
Stowing the shovel on the front porch, Sam made his way back indoors, quickly shedding boots and coat before making his way to the bathroom.
The hot shower chased away the numbness from his fingers and toes and Sam basked in the feeling of warmth. He stood under the hot spray; eyes closed and head down, the water running over the back of his neck and down his body, relaxing each muscle in turn.
He tilted his head back, raising his face to the warm spray and running his fingers through his wet hair.
And he just stood there, soaking up the heat, until Dean's vicious pounding on the door shattered the serenity. "Sam, you asshole, you better not be using all the hot water."
Biting his tongue against the retaliation that threatened to spill from his mouth, Sam turned off the water and stepped out of the shower.
Sam slid the permission slip towards his dad later that night.
"How much?" John asked.
"It's covered." Sam quickly replied, a glow spreading across his face as his dad scribbled his signature across the bottom of the crinkled paper.
Grabbing back the piece of paper, Sam folded it carefully and darted from the room, securing the folded note in his school bag before his dad could change his mind.
It was the cold that woke him. Tiny tendrils of ice seemed to wrap about his body as he huddled and shivered under the too thin blankets. He could see the white puffs of air drifting upwards with each breath he exhaled, taking a little of his body warmth with them.
He rubbed a hand across his chest, feeling the cold deep down to his very core.
Glancing across at the luminescent numbers on the digital clock he stifled a groan, hating that it was almost time to be awake anyway. He wanted to curl into a ball and bury himself back under the mound of blankets.
Knowing that no amount of huddling was going to deliver the heat his body so desperately craved, he sighed with resignation and levered his heavy limbs out of bed.
Eyes still blinking awake in the early morning light, he stumbled by touch, hand trailing along the wall, until he reached the bathroom.
By the time he'd showered and dressed, he could already hear the first stirring of sounds coming from the kitchen.
"You wet the bed or something?" Dean accosted him as soon as he entered the kitchen.
"Huh? No!" Sam denied indignantly, slumping down into a chair and resting his elbows on the kitchen table.
"I've ah, got that field trip thing today."
"Yeah, well you have fun with that one, geek boy. Running around, collecting specimens sounds like a real blast."
"It's for biology Dean."
Dean raised his eyebrows. "Biology huh? You know, I can think of a whole lot of better ways to be exploring biology."
"That's all you think about Dean."
"Hey, if your downstairs brain got used half as much as your upstairs brain, then maybe you'd -"
"I'd what? Be thinking with my dick?"
"You make that sound like a bad thing, Sammy boy."
"No, I'm awesome.
"Yeah, you keep telling yourself that."
Dean smiled. "Not my words, Sammy. Sylvia from down the street, she said -"
"Boys," John greeted, cutting off Dean's words mid sentence.
"Dad," they said in unison, staring at their father standing silhouetted in the doorway. Dean couldn't help but wonder how much their dad had overheard.
The field trip wasn't everything he'd hoped.
The weather worked against them. The other kids, wrapped up in coats and hats and gloves maybe didn't mind so much, but Sam was miserable.
The cold was a part of him now, filling that void between his ribs and lungs, refusing to loosen its grip. It wasn't a sudden thing, he knew that, it'd been creeping along, taking more and more ground until his body was hostage to it.
He felt lethargic and sick, and the outing he'd looked forward to so much, had worked so hard to go on, held little joy. He stayed on the sidelines and participated little, relieved when the class was finally herded back onto the bus, marking the end of the day.
He was surely dying, he decided, as he dragged his protesting body through the front door of their rented house.
Silence greeted him.
It's not like he'd been expecting the sound of rattling pans or joyous laughter, but maybe the TV in the background or the crackly radio blaring from the kitchen, certainly the wafting smell of brewing coffee.
Not stillness and absolute quiet.
"Dad? Dean?" He called, feeling a little uneasy as he shrugged out of his wet coat, before venturing further into the house.
The scribbled note, weighed down by a dirty coffee cup in the centre of the kitchen table, captured his immediate attention.
Reading the words brought little surprise. Another hunt had demanded his dad and brother's immediate attention, taking them away again. They'd be gone all night, planned to be back by first thing tomorrow morning – all going well. Sam scanned the rest of the instructions, already knowing the drill.
Sam glanced around the kitchen, seeing nothing but empty space, and suddenly feeling very alone.
With no facade to maintain, he deflated, letting the last of his energy desert him.
He was tired. Bone-weary tired.
It was a struggle to drag himself the short distance to his bedroom, steadfast determination pulling him the last few feet.
He stumbled to the bed, the sagging mattress seeming like a small slice of heaven as it beckoned to him to collapse down onto. He resisted the urge to just flop onto the bed, knowing that the damp shirt sticking to his skin needed to come off. So he slumped down onto the edge of the bed, awkwardly pulling off boots and jeans and shirt before skittering under the covers with a whispered groan.
The cotton sheet scraped against his exposed skin as he pulled the bed covers in tightly around himself.
Still the shivers racked through his body.
He couldn't seem to get warm.
Sam woke to darkness.
Disorientated and confused.
"Dean?" He whispered, tossing his head from side to side, searching. "Dean?"
His legs tangled in the blankets and he felt trapped, overheated. "Dean?" He called again, louder this time, as he thrashed out, frantic to free himself.
He kicked against the bindings, fighting their hold on him, desperate for freedom. He was trapped, burning, the fire licking at his skin.
And then the darkness took him.
The color drained from Dean's face as he dropped to his knees beside his brother's bed. "Dad!" He yelled; his voice laced with undisguised panic.
"Sammy? Sam?" Dean urged, wiping the damp, sweat soaked hair off his brother's face.
He couldn't believe this. He'd expected Sam to be in the kitchen, burning toast or something when they'd arrived home. Sam hated to be late for school.
Yet the house was cold, undisturbed, sending a shiver of alarm through Dean as soon as he'd stepped through the door and walked down the silent hallway. Sam wasn't where he should have been.
The scene that'd greeted him when he'd pushed open Sam's bedroom door would be imprinted on his memory forever.
Clad only in boxers and a t-shirt, Sam lay on the bed, the covers a mangled mess on the floor. The room was frigid cold, and Dean could see small puffs of breath pant from between Sam's lips and dissipate into the air.
Sam didn't move.
His skin was as grey as a tombstone, deathly, and Dean had to focus on the small rise and fall of Sam's chest, the staggered breaths, to convince him that his brother was alive.
Reaching out a hand to Sam's chest, Dean felt the scorching heat radiating off him. "Hey Sammy, come on, wake up."
Sam groaned, and right then, it was the sweetest sound Dean had ever heard. "That's it Sam, come on, time to wake up."
Then Sam seized.
And Dean lost his composure.
"Dad!" Dean screamed, just as their father came barreling into the room.
The monotonous beep of the machine by Sam's bedside was comforting. Dean liked the tangible reassurance than Sam was breathing and his heart beating.
On the surface it seemed that things were going to be okay.
But Dean knew better. Things weren't okay, not even close.
Sam was in the hospital, and no amount of doctors' reassurances could make that okay.
He needed Sam to wake up.
So he waited. Kept watch.
He listened to talk about viral infections and a weakened immune system.
Listened to empty words of comfort.
And sat, waiting.
John and Dean remained by Sam's bed-side, taking short breaks in staggered shifts. But Sam remained still and passive, unresponsive to their presence.
Dean didn't stop talking. A constant whispered monologue, pausing every now and again as if expecting Sam to answer, continuing when there was no reply.
John held Sam's hand, stroking gentle swirls into his palm, pleading silently for Sam to wake.
Sam woke to muted light and unfamiliar sounds.
His head felt heavy and fuzzy, his tongue thick and dry in his mouth. He rolled his eyes to the side, seeking the familiar touch, his gaze coming to rest on his father sleeping slumped in a chair.
Sam rolled his head to the other side, following his brother's voice. A tired smile greeted him, Dean's eyes shining in the soft light as they met his.
"Dean," Sam croaked, running his tongue over dry lips."What -?"
"Shhh," Dean whispered, already reaching for a glass of water, "it's okay, you're in the hospital."
Sam wanted to drink thirstily, but Dean held the glass tightly, only letting him take small sips.
"God Sammy, you scared the crap out of us." Dean admitted, grasping onto Sam's hand and leaning closer. "How're you feeling?"
Sam blinked, his eyelids already feeling heavy again. "Tired," he said sleepily, letting his eyes drift closed and his breathing deepen.
"Go to sleep Sammy, we'll be here when you wake up."
Only when there was talk of Sam finally being able to return home did John leave the hospital and make the arduous trek home alone. Snow lay heavy on the ground, all the way to their front door, and it seemed like forever ago that Sam had readily raced outside to shovel it clear.
The house already felt deserted, so cold and lacking in life, and he felt a shiver of fear race down his spine as he thought of what so easily could have been.
With an empty duffel bag in hand, he headed down to Sam's room.
His eyes paused briefly on the broken window before scanning the rest of his son's room. Sam's possessions were meager, barely making a mark on the nondescript room. What was there was meticulously neat. Ordered. As if Sam was already packed and ready to go. And John wondered exactly when he'd stopped trying to make their house a home.
With a heavy heart, he pulled open some drawers, looking for clothes to take to the hospital for Sam.
The offerings were slim.
He couldn't find a shirt without a stain or tear. He pulled out a few neatly folded t-shirts, recognizing them as off-casts of Dean's, already well worn before they were handed down. He let them fall back into the drawer.
The only jeans he could find were in a crumpled heap on the floor, cold and damp to the touch. He shoved them aside and bent down to retrieve Sam's boots.
The brown leather was scraped and scuffed, the rubber soles worn to a smooth edge on the heels. But the cardboard, molded in from wear, peeking at him from inside the boots was his undoing. He slumped back on the bed, the boots in his lap, a single tear gliding down his face.
Oh God, what have I done?
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