The Wellspring

Chapter Twenty-Eight - Cracks & Water


The first time Sam said his name, Dean was eating a cheeseburger. He remembers it well: the shoddy motel room, the wood chipping away from the table, Dad passed out on one of the beds with a hand over his face like he couldn't bear to be there, existing in that moment even while he was unconscious. And then there was Sam, crawling around on that gross-ass carpet in nothing but his stupid little diaper, stopping when he came to the chair where Dean was sitting, swinging his legs and eating the child-sized burger hot out of his Happy Meal, not willing to stop his consumption even to give the baby a glance. And then it happened. "Dea." And it was amazing.

The first time Dad said he was sorry, Dean had ice cream in his mouth. Granted, the apology never actually entered the air, but Dad looked at him with regretful eyes as Sam dozed in his lap, even reached across the table to ruffle Dean's unwashed hair and ask, "Maybe you should get an early night tonight, huh, champ?" to which Dean blinked and nodded and mumbled a "maybe" through a mouthful of vanilla and sprinkles.

The first time Dean realized he was going to lose his brother, it was toast. Cold toast, shoved in his mouth as he shuffled through the mail, dropped an envelope, picked it back up, and there it was. Dean never swallowed that toast.

And the first time Dean hears his kid scream "Dad!" like the sky is crashing down on him, it's bacon. Fresh-out-of-Bobby's-frying-pan bacon and it's fucking delicious, but he doesn't swallow that, either. Because his kid is screaming. And Dean's legs are moving and his hand is pulling his gun out of his jeans and he can't even fucking think.

He's out the door and in the snow and skidding to a halt in front of that tree, that stupid tree they insist on climbing and he was expecting broken bones and blood and maybe tears, but that's not what happened. That's not what's going on here, even if there is red splattered across the white ground and his boys aren't in the tree anymore. Alec's on his feet, pale as anything, and Ben's on his knees, pounding the living shit out of...holy fucking God, her. And she's not moving.

"Sam!"

But Sam and Bobby are already running past them, towards the entrance of the junkyard with shotguns in their hands.

"Benny. Ben, stop."

Ben's not stopping. She's not moving. Dean's handing his gun over to Alec with the order to "keep it trained on her" and then he's got his arms around Ben, is pulling, but the kid's pulling right back, pulling away from Dean, and this isn't the way it's supposed to be. He's not supposed to pull away. He's not supposed to be on his knees with a blank face and rhythmic fists, hammering out the violence like a machine because this is exactly what they wanted. And Dean doesn't want what they want.

"Benny, no. C'mon. Come with me." And he's pulling and muttering these words fast and sharp into the kid's ear, but Ben doesn't seem to hear him. He's locked himself to the ground, has resigned himself to the flooding nose and bleeding mouth and swelling eyes of this woman. He's gonna keep going until he kills her, and Dean can't let that happen. Ben's right here, but he's already so far away, it's like Dean can barely see him or feel him. If he kills her, he'll be gone forever.

He gets a handle on the kid's limbs and tries to still them, folds them, yanks back and then he's up and Ben's in his arms, flailing like a wild thing and he's finally making noise, is snarling and shrieking and kicking and Dean's gonna lose him. Dean's gonna drop him because he's strong, but he's not this strong. He's not Ben-strong or Alec-strong and he doesn't, he can't…

"You wanna hurt me?" It's hard getting the words out. This kid is taking everything out of him. "You wanna hurt me, Ben? You're about to. You're gonna hurt me if you don't stop."

Ben doesn't want to hurt Dean. The limbs slow, the snarls and shrieks fade into a heavy breathing and eventually, Ben stops. Ben goes limp in Dean's tired arms and Dean's so fucking relieved for just the second that he's got a handle on this. Just this. Because God knows what the fuck else is out there right now or what they're going to have to do to stop it.

He sets his boy down. Ben's crying. Or not really crying. There are tears, though, slipping down his little cheeks, from exertion or rage or both, probably both, and Dean swipes them away with a quick hand before reaching out to Alec.

"C'mere, kitten. Gimme the gun."

Alec doesn't move. Alec keeps pointing the barrel at the motionless, bleeding form in the snow and Dean feels something heavy drop inside of him.

"Alec? Give me the gun."

The kid doesn't even say no. He was full of no last night. No. I won't. Not today, though. Not right now. Alec doesn't even hear him right now, doesn't see him, because his eyes are on his target and his eyes are dangerous and so is his finger on that trigger and Dean's about to lose his innocence all over again.

"Alec, give. Me. The. Gun."

The kid's hand wavers a little, but his stare is hard and steady, and for a moment, Dean thinks this is it. He's going to lose them both, lose it all, lose every chance he's ever had to make his life seem somewhat okay again, to be worthwhile, because he's not going to be able to stop it, to erase it, to make it better. They're not going to get better. He's not going to get better. They'll stay caught in this spiral of a never-ending fucked-up childhood, trying to climb out and failing every time because their hands are slippery with blood, stinging from too much fire, and it never ends. Mom on the ceiling. Dad on a bender. Test-tube babies ripping another human apart.

And then Alec sighs and hands him the gun.

Dean would go limp with relief if he could. But he can't.

"Good boy," he says, but Alec doesn't look at him and Sam and Bobby are running back, stopping when they reach them.

"We didn't see anything," Sam says, his eyes going from the bleeding girl on the ground to Benny, who's still breathing hard, who's still got those angry tears coming out of his eyes, and finally, to Dean. "She alive?"

"She's playing dead." Alec's voice is soft, but cold. Dean can't help but remember forty minutes ago, when this same kid was bright-eyed and gleeful over the concept of homemade cards. "She's breathing."

"Cover me," Dean says, looking to Bobby and Sam and then he kneels down, feels for a moment like he's going to regret this, and touches two fingers to her wrist. There's a pulse, and when he looks at her face, her lip twitches. "I think it's time to stop playing games, don't you?"

No response. Dean digs his gun into her side. She takes in a sharp breath.

"I said, don't you?" There's no time for this shit. If she's not going to talk, he's going to kill her. He'll do it this time, because this bitch took everything. Everything. Alec can't go twelve hours without pausing and seeing all this terrible shit, over and over again in his little head. And Ben...Ben can't even look at Dean like he used to, can't say the name, can't hear the name, and he can't even fucking cry right anymore. He used to cry all the time, and he used to go to Dean while he did it and now it's just...it's nothing but angry water. Angry water that wants nothing to do with Dean.

And Sam...Sam almost left him again.

"I'm alone." The words come out in a hoarse crackle. "I came alone. Please..."

"Why should we believe you?" Dean asks.

"Because they're not out there, are they?"

"They could be somewhere else." Dean cocks his gun, presses it more firmly into her. She squeaks and shudders. "They could be somewhere else, waiting for your snappy little go-ahead."

"They're n-not. I came alone and if they find me, they'll kill me, too. I was useless to begin with and now...I came to help you. You and your funny brother and your little soldiers."

"Funny brother?" Sam's indignant whisper sounds like it was intended to be more of a simple mouthing of the words. Dean would turn around smirk at him if this situation wasn't so dire.

"I repeat, why should we believe you?"

"I don't know? Because what I'm telling you is true, I guess, and I have nothing else."

Dean searches her face with his eyes, takes in the worried expression underneath the blood and the bruises, the way her eyes are shifting around even though she's flat on her back and all she can see is sky.

I'm not supposed to talk.

She can't lie. They don't let her talk. Dean remembers now. They don't let her talk because she can't lie and...

Dean's not taking any chances.

"Search her and tie her up," he says, uncocking his gun and getting to his feet. "M'takin' the boys upstairs. I'll be down in a second and we'll...we'll see what we can get out of her."

Ben doesn't resist when Dean takes his hand, but he doesn't react, either. Dean doesn't feel any pressure from the small fingers, no indication that Ben's actually aware, that he's actually feeling him. Alec digs his heels in, watches Sam and Bobby heft the girl up with their hands under her arms. She can barely walk, and her eyelids flutter like she's about to pass out and then she smiles. Smiles. Dean wonders if his little boy hits hard enough to cause brain damage.

"I'm going to stay down here." Alec's voice is quiet and firm and final, his eyes not leaving their stumbling capture. "To help interrogate the prisoner."

Prisoner. That's what they were…that's what Sam and Dean were at Manticore, what Alec and Ben were, too, even if they weren't called that. Manticore takes prisoners. Winchesters don't.

"She's not a prisoner, Alec. And I need you upstairs."

"If she's not a prisoner, then what is she?"

"She's…" Dean doesn't know what she is. "She's the person who's going to tell us things we need to know."

"I'm still staying down here."

"I need you upstairs."

Dean can almost see the flames licking upwards from the bottoms of Alec's pupils when the boy fixes him with a glare. "Well, tough shit. I'm staying down here and I'm going to find out what's going on. You're not going to treat me like I'm too fucking young or too fucking stupid because it's my life, too. Mine. And I need to know how far we need to run and how low to the ground we need to stay. I need to know."

Angry water. They're both full of angry fucking water, and Dean doesn't have the time to catch all of it. He tries, though. He crouches down with Ben's hand still in his own, tells Sam and Bobby to take her inside, just give him a minute and they'll get on with it.

Just as soon as he…

"Dude…Alec, I know, I just…" Alec's eyes are little green fountains and Dean's fingers are inadequate basins, wet and sticky and oh, Jesus fucking God, this kid. "I know, kitten. I'll tell you everything. I promise, okay? Cross my heart."

"I need to be there."

"I know you do. I know, but I need you upstairs. I need you…" Christ. This is the last thing he ever wanted to say. "I need you to look after your brother for me."

Ben's hand twitches. Dean squeezes it.

"I don't need anyone lookin' after me," the boy says, and his voice is nearly dead, but there's still something sharp around its edges.

Dean swallows, turns, drops the hand from Alec's cheek to the kid's shoulder as he looks at Ben, Ben who's actually meeting his eyes for once. "Yeah, you do. You do and that's okay, 'cause you won't always. But right now, you can't be near her and I can't leave you alone."

Ben wrenches his hand away from Dean's hold with a fierce enough tug to throw him off balance. He falls to his ass in the snow, feels the wet and the cold seep through his jeans.

"I looked after myself long before any of you came along."

Dean remembers an hour ago, Benny's warm weight on top of him, the smiling face and the tentative declaration of victory. This is a different kid. This kid is a cracked egg, seeping out of his shell.

Dean gets to his feet, reaches a hand out towards his wayward boy. "C'mere." Ben doesn't come and Dean hates himself a little for what he says next, but there's no time. There's no time for this. Not right now. "Don't make me tell you twice."

Orders. Dean remembers that week of his life, when he was twelve-years-old and on the brink of puberty, that week he decided he didn't want to take orders anymore. And Dad…

Don't make me tell you twice.

Never. Dean would never make Dad tell him twice. The simple thought still chills him because Dad…back then, Dad was God, or what Dean thought God would be if there was a God. Dad was the thing that made Dean, that kept him alive, that sometimes looked at him with I'm-proud-of-you eyes and made it go away. All of it. All of that hate inside of Dean burning him like acid because he couldn't get it out.

Good little soldiers do what their dads tell them. And they never make them tell them twice, even when they're flinching at the words, even when their eyes are wild and terrified, their jaws clenched tight with resentment, and inside it's burning like a forest on fire, the need for those eyes to tell them you're worth the trouble, kid. You're worth something to me.

Ben grabs Dean's hand.

They go inside and up the stairs, avoiding the dining room on the way, because that's where they are. Bobby, Sam, and…her. And Dean's boys don't need to see her. Not anymore. Not again.

He deposits them in Bobby's bedroom, tries to swallow down the pain when Ben jerks away from him, climbs on the bed and backs up against the headboard, bringing his knees up to his chin and wrapping his arms around his little legs.

Alec stands at Dean's toes, tilts his head back and peers up at him in a wash of leery green. "You'll kill her, right?"

Dean's throat goes dry. Sam told him all about that conversation, how Alec said he wanted them all dead. Except Sam described it more as a pissing contest over who was darker on the inside, not…not this, this reality of the words "kill her" coming out of a baby's mouth.

"I'll do whatever I have to do to keep you safe."

"Which means you'll kill her."

"Which means I'll kill her if I have to, but I'm not killin' anyone who doesn't need to be killed."

"If you don't, I will."

Dean misses the kid from an hour ago, the sullen face, the dragging feet, the obstinate shake of the adorable head that made him feel all of fourteen again. Fourteen, when Dean was in charge, and in control because Dad said so and Dean did what Dad said. Dean was what Dad told him to be. Fourteen and nine. Or ten. Sam was nine or ten when he used to listen to Dean.

Now Dean's thirty and nobody's telling him what he is or what he's supposed to do. And he was nine once, nine or ten, and not innocent at all, but he was more innocent than this. More innocent than if you don't, I will, more innocent than pointing guns at girls with a finger trembling with indecision on the trigger.

Less innocent than having someone take the gun away. Less innocent than hand-holding or lap-sitting or jacket-stealing. Less innocent than Batman underwear.

Dean's innocence is a tipping scale. He has to keep the weight on the right end.

"You won't. You're not killin' anyone."

Alec's eyes are a brewing storm. "If you don't-"

"Then you won't. You're gonna stay right here."

The boy clenches his fists and looks away and lifts his foot off the ground for a lingering moment. Dean waits for the kid to kick him in the leg, but it doesn't happen. The foot drops back down, the eyes situate themselves back on Dean's face.

"You're bossy," Alec says.

"You're a lot like your Uncle Sam," Dean replies, because it's true. It's always a war with this kid. "I'll be back up as soon as I can."

He turns around. Then stops, looks over his shoulder because he knows better than this. He knows from experience that you don't leave tiny Dean Winchester-shaped kids filled with fear and crushed by responsibility. "Benny?" Ben looks up, green eyes peeking over his knees. "Look after your brother for me?"

Alec's head tilts to the side and he eyes Dean from under narrowed lids. "I don't need-"

"Yeah, you do," Dean cuts him off. "Just as much as he does." He drifts a hand over Alec's head one last time before exiting the room. He shuts the door behind him with his stomach at his feet and guilt in his throat.

She starts fidgeting when he steps into the dining room, fidgeting in that hard chair, her upper body and ankles bound by ropes knotted by capable and experienced hands. Dean doesn't want to think about how many times they've been here, or how fucked up he always feels when there's a girl restrained and pleading. It's the visual. The visual is all wrong. Even if she's murderous. Even if there's something inside of her making her inhuman and Dean hates this fucking job, even if this isn't about the job. Not this time. This is about his boys.

"Please-"

"Shut up." He can't listen to it, and Sam and Bobby are both looking distinctly uncomfortable and a little pale, like they've just seen or heard something disturbing.

"It's about goddamn time," Bobby grunts, but it's not malicious, just tired and impatient and Dean doesn't blame him. Bobby shouldn't have to deal with all of their shit.

"I had to get 'em settled. I don't want them down here." He won't apologize for it. Bobby doesn't expect him to, either, considering the way he's nodding his head.

"Dean." Sam's quiet and earnest and there's something in his hands that Dean didn't notice before.

"What's that?" he asks.

"It's a polaroid."

"I thought they stopped manufacturing polaroid film last-"

"Dean."

Right. That's not what this is about. This is serious time and Dean has to be serious and he is serious, he feels like there's something large and murderous swimming around in his stomach, in fact, like fucking Jaws or something and he can even hear that scary ass music in his head while it's doing it, while she sits there bleeding and trying not to cry, and the kids are upstairs, tense and waiting for that moment to run; while Sam and Bobby are right here, their faces wearing that familiar expression of exasperation because why is he going off-topic now of all times? Why does Dean ever go off-topic.

He holds out his hand and takes the offered photograph.

He swallows down the vomit and raises an eyebrow.

"I thought you'd need photographic evidence," she says, and he never noticed how high-pitched her voice was before. It's soft now, like a whistle in the breeze, and it's creepy - the hairs on the back of his neck are standing up like they do when he's stupid and alone and wherever he went off to without Sam is empty. And something dead is nearby.

Something dead is in front of his eyes.

It's red and green and brown and he barely notices the form or the flesh because all he sees is the blood, the blood leaking out of the hands he shot holes into, and the blood he had nothing to do with. The blood in the grass and the slack body against the bark of the tree, facedown in the dirt and it's not like Dean's never seen a dead body before. It's not like he's never seen a picture of a dead body before, but this...it's making him nauseous, because she's over there in that chair, creeping him the fuck out, and that shark in his stomach is a shapeshifter, shifting into nothing but a feeling of sick satisfaction.

He wants so badly to pretend its real.

"Who sent you?" he asks.

"I came alone," she says, and she sounds nervous now. "I told you, I came alone."

"This is fake." He shoves the polaroid at Sam, pulls his gun out of his pants and stalks over to her, leans in close. "Tell me it's real."

"It's real," she whispers.

"Dean." Sam's shaking his head. "Dean, it's not fake."

"They're the government, Sam. They probably have polaroid film up the freakin' whazoo."

"It's not fake," his brother repeats. "The picture...it's not..." Sam trails off, sharp eyes scanning the image for what is most likely the hundredth time in the past five minutes, keeps shaking his head. "It's not shopped. It's not digital and it hasn't been rendered on here...it's real."

"Then it's staged." He looks her in the eyes and now they're so close their foreheads are almost touching. But they're not touching. Dean doesn't want to touch her. "You staged it, didn't you? Staged it with him."

"No."

It's not real. It can't be real. She's playing them.

She can't lie.

But she's lying. She has to be lying, because Dean can't believe her. If he believes her and she's lying, that's when the door opens. That's when this precarious and vulnerable situation explodes into something they can't handle, something they'll never escape from and Alec and Ben...they'll hate him forever. They'll hate him forever and they'll have every right to because he failed them. And Sam. They'll take Sam and he'll be a lab rat, held down by guns and sedatives, every precaution taken so that dangerous fucking head of his won't blow up their entire operation.

And it'll all be Dean's fault. The destruction of his family and what they were and what they'll never be.

He cocks his gun. Her sob is silent and the tears are few, but she doesn't resist, she doesn't fight or strain against the ropes binding her to the chair, doesn't flinch when he sticks the barrel under her chin, and murmurs, "He won't call me Dad anymore."

"I'm sorry," she says. "I don't know what that is."

"Dean." Sam's behind him. "Dean, stop."

Dean ignores him. "You led them here."

"I didn't," she insists. "They're not here. They're not here because I didn't bring them."

"You led them here and they took us away and bad things happened. He was getting better. He was getting so much better."

"I'm sorry."

"You don't know what that means."

"It means...I wish I didn't. I wish I never. I wish I wasn't."

"But you are and you did. You caused it. You led those sons of bitches right to us and now they're all messed up in their little heads. Kids that little should never be so messed up."

She's trembling now, and the tears are rapid. She tries to blink them away and her voice rings like a broken siren, "But you got them out. You got your little soldiers out."

"They're not soldiers. They're too fucking little to be soldiers." Soldiers are big. They're big and strong and they lift you when you're small enough to lift, kiss the side of your head and look at you with adoring eyes before touting you off to that place where you dream, where your mother joins you later and tells you not to worry because the angels are watching over you. Soldiers don't break or burn in the fire. They live. And they don't expect you to be what they are, or should be. Not when you're too fucking little to be a soldier, and far too little to raise another. "They're just kids. They're babies."

"I killed him," she says, and now she's trying to move her head, to get the barrel out from under her chin. "I killed him for you."

"If you did kill him, then you're a killer."

Dean's flying off the handle. He can feel himself coming apart, can feel his brain sinking into the fog and his blood rushing through his body, his heart hammering away, the driving instinct to just...shoot. Shoot her. For his brother and his kids...and this man behind him, the one grabbing him by the back of the shirt and trying to pull him away. He'll shoot her for Bobby, too.

"Dean. Come on, boy. Ease up."

Dean doesn't ease up.

"Aren't you?" she asks. "Weren't you made by a man? Isn't that what he turned you into? A hunter? A killer?"

"No. That's not-"

"Dean, son." Bobby. Bobby's grizzled hand is on his hand, pushing it down, pulling it away, disentangling the gun from his grip and Dean's not stopping him. "C'mon. Step back."

Dean doesn't step back, though. He just looks at her, at her shiny eyes staring him down, the light reflecting off of her damp cheeks as she lets her head drop, at rest now that the gun is gone.

"That's what they made me," she says. "I'm what they made me to be. A hunter. Sometimes a killer. Most of the time I'm just something to be hunted. I'm just a toy used for training. I'm chased and I'm stabbed and I'm healed and then I'm chased again. I'm not like your little sol...babies. I'm not like them. I was too early. I didn't come out right, but they let me live because I wasn't like the others. I wasn't too hairy or too dumb and they could use me. They could test me until they got it right and then they could...they could try to make something out of me. And this is what they made."

This is what they made.

"And you're under this impression that I don't feel it," she continues. "That I'm not feeling it right now. I'm not your 493 or your 494 or those names that you call them. I wasn't that special. I wasn't anything more than dirt from the beginning and I'm still dirt now. Do you know what it feels like to be dirt, Dean Winchester?"

Bobby's hand is gripping his shoulder, tugging, and this time Dean steps back.

"Of course, you don't. The man that made you didn't call you by a number, did he? He didn't break your bones or touch you like you weren't real or throw you out into the field for practice for...him." She's looking at Sam. "He didn't tie you up and tell you to hold still because he needed to see the funny things your brother can do with his mind...did he?" There's hope in the end of the question. She's looking at Dean again, searching his eyes, searching for some kind of understanding, some kind of solidarity and Dean can't give it to her.

He didn't. Dad didn't...Dad wouldn't ever...The sorry eyes and the ice cream and the bedtime were rare occurrences, but they happened. They happened sometimes.

"No," Dean says. "He didn't."

"I did it for me," she tells him. "I killed him for me. He didn't make me, but he was the one who kept it going. It didn't stop. It didn't ever stop until he stopped breathing."

Dean doesn't know how to respond to this, so he doesn't. Not for a long time. Bobby's hand is still there, still on his shoulder and it grips him tight whenever he tenses even a little and makes to move - and Sam's so close behind him, Dean can feel his brother's breath beating down the back of his neck.

"Why now?" he finally asks. "You've been there so long. Why now?"

Something washes over her eyes, fades the shine of the tears. Disappointment. "You don't believe me. Still."

"Why now?" Dean repeats. "Why?"

"Because they got away. They got away and I thought they'd drag them back but they didn't, not until I found you...not until I brought them to you. And then they got away again. With you."

His spine is a ladder and her voice is climbing it, delicate steps like a spider's legs. "What's your point?"

"I'm not dirt. My point is that I'm not dirt. I did my job and I did it well and they still...they just kept throwing me back to those little, yapping dogs."

"Kittens," Dean mumbles.

She pauses and blinks, tilts her head a little to the side like she's trying to understand and then she just gives up. "I climbed the fence after you while they were still distracted by the jeep and I watched you. I watched you shoot holes into his hands and I thought you were going to finish it. I wanted you to finish it, but you couldn't do that, could you? He was scared and bleeding and you couldn't...there's still something soft about you. Whoever made you, made you wrong."

Dean can't listen to this. "You haven't answered my question. Why now?"

"You," she says, and he remembers when he met her in that room, that grey room on that exam table, the wound on her leg and the blood dripping from it. Her face was okay, then, though. It wasn't bruised and cut like it is now. Her face hadn't met Ben's fists, yet.

"Me," he replies, unsure of what this is exactly, of what she's saying.

"You kept calling them yours. I thought you were crazy and you kept showing all of these...emotions. They were yours and you were concerned and I kept thinking to myself that you were going to break. That they'd break you when they turned the little ones, but they didn't do either. You got out. With them. With him." She nods to Sam. "You all got out."

"Yeah..."

"But only you. You four. I thought you were going to kill him, I really did. I thought you were going to kill him and we'd all get out some way or another when you did, but you didn't. So I did. I killed him because you couldn't and I thought you'd be grateful for that."

Dean would have done it. He would have. He was going to do it, he was going to finish it, end it all. He had that gun pressed to the bastard's throat, had that life in his hands bleeding away and that was the problem. It was a life. A terrible waste of a life, but it was a life, composed of blood and water, flesh and skin, and there was darkness inside of it, sure. A shitload of darkness that caused so much fucking pain, but it wasn't...it wasn't the kind of darkness his daddy taught him to kill.

Which isn't to say he's not grateful the son of a bitch is dead, because he is. It makes him sick to his fucking stomach, but he is.

"I am," Dean tells her. "It makes me sick to my fucking stomach, but I am."

"You should be. I did it for you."

She's looking at him now in a way that makes him uncomfortable. Dean shifts on his feet, glances back at both Bobby and Sam who are looking at him with raised eyebrows that are a little too disturbed to waggle suggestively. The bastards.

"You just said you did it for-"

"Me."

"That's right. And last time I saw you, you didn't talk like this."

"I wasn't allowed to talk back then."

"But when you did, it was different. You were-"

"I was afraid. I don't have to be afraid of them when I'm here and they're not." And her eyes slip from his face, because that's what it comes down to, what it always comes down to with kids from...there. He watches as her gaze drifts quickly through every corner of the room before settling back on him, eyes wide and asking that question he's been asking her ever since he managed to wrangle that gun out of Alec's hands. Are they here? And if they're not, where the fuck are they?

She shakes her head, tries to shake the expression off her face. "You can kill me if you want. I'll hold still."

They're not going to kill her. Dean's not sure what they're going to do with her, but they're not going to kill her.

"Nobody's going to kill you." Sam's using that gentle voice of his, that soothing voice, that Dean-I-promise-you-the-car's-okay-now-just-settle-down-and-breathe voice.

They're not going to kill her, but they can't just let her go. Dean wants to be able to look at her and see something else, but all he sees is the blood and the fear and the years of desensitization, the patience and the waiting, the footsteps so soft they're almost silent through the grass, and then the kill, bloody, but swift. All he sees is a broken shell with little left inside. All he sees are Alec and Ben, because this is what they would be if they'd stayed, if they'd stayed long enough for those assholes to suck them dry. To suck everything human right out of them.

And this girl doesn't know what home is. She might lose it and go back to where she came from. Home is the place you know.

"I think maybe the panic room. Ain't no other place," Bobby's voice is right in his ear and Dean nods, because it's awful but there really isn't any other place for her right now. They can't just let her loose, free to roam in and out of the house, free to roam away. And the boys...the boys won't go down in the basement.

"Um...Girl?" He doesn't know her name. He doesn't know her number, either. Designation. Whatever. "We're gonna figure something out for you, but right now we have to..." Keep you contained. "Keep you here."

Suspicion. Dean sees it in her eyes as she nods, as Sam moves to get her water, as he tips it into her mouth. Bobby breaks out the first aid kit and Dean tends to the open wounds, tries not to cringe as he touches her. Nobody moves to unbind her. She keeps her eyes on them, muscles tensing whenever a touch feels like more than skittering of fingers across her skin, inhaling deeply whenever Dean moves his head too close.

"Where are you keeping me?" she asks when the ropes finally come off, vertigo hitting her as soon as she stands, and Dean grabs her, steadies her as his brother takes hold of her arm.

"It's, um...it's cozy," Sam tells her. "There's a bed. And a fridge."

A cot and an empty fridge.

"We'll bring you food," Dean tells her and they move, and it's all good until they open the basement door, until she sees the stairs descending into darkness and that's when she hisses through her teeth, struggles against their hands.

"That's a basement," she says, her voice trembling, a low note on the verge of a rise. "You're putting me in a basement."

"It's just for now," Sam soothes, gripping her as she tries to pull away. "And we'll come down and give you food and make sure you're okay-"

"Basement," she says, and those tears are there again, panicked and angry, and that shark is back in Dean's gut, chomping away. Angry water. "You're putting me with the anomalies."

"No," Sam says. "We don't have anomalies. We promise."

But it doesn't do any good. She writhes and flails and they barely manage to drag her down the stairs without stumbling and falling and cracking their heads on the concrete below. She shrieks and it's terrible, inhuman even, and the sound is full of the kind of anguish that breaks everything in its presence. Dean can feel himself cracking as Bobby opens the door, as they heave her inside and slide the iron shut after her.

Her eyes are wild behind the barred slot and she's gasping for breath and sobbing and then she collects herself for just a second, just long enough to get it out.

"I did it for you."

"M'sorry," Dean tells her, and he means it, he does. Right now, they're not any better than the place she came from, that place that locked her away when she was unneeded or unwanted. That place that locked Alec and Ben away, that would lock Sam away, too, if they ever got their hands on him. "It's not forever. I promise you."

"You still want to kill me."

She's inconsolable. Dean opens his mouth to try to say something else, but there's nothing else to say, so he just stands there and tries to choke down the weight in his throat. He feels his brother by his side, Sam's arm brushing against his, they're standing so close.

It's Bobby who snaps them out of it, with a tug to their shirtsleeves and a reminder that Alec and Ben are upstairs and waiting, probably gnawing their little fingernails to the quick, they're so nervous. "I reckon she'll wear herself out eventually," he says, though it sounds like his voice is being pushed forward by something half-hearted and heavy because she's crying and shrieking and begging, and they can hear her body banging against the iron, bruising what's already been thoroughly bruised. "Maybe she'll even fall asleep."

Maybe she'll knock herself unconscious.

That fog in Dean's head is thick as Bobby leads the way up the stairs. He freezes at the landing, shifts when Sam's ginormous body nudges him out of the way.

"Dean?" Sam asks.

Dean remembers Ben and how he used to cry because he couldn't make sense of all that shit in his head...how he doesn't cry anymore for that same reason. Downstairs, she can't make sense of any of this. There's just that room they threw her into.

"Dean," Bobby says.

Dean remembers Alec shaking like a diabetic. He remembers lifting the boy into his arms and breathing him in, the nervous fear accompanying their return to that room where he was told to stay. All by himself.

I don't wanna be alone again.

He asks, "Are we the monsters?"

Sam and Bobby stare at him like he's cracked, which makes perfect sense, because he is. Dean is cracked. They made little boys out of his image and then they cracked them, cracked him, cracked everything around him. His shell, all that terrible shit inside of it seeping out, that anger that defies all of his sense, those questions he was always strong enough to keep inside during times like this, and that need to cling, cling to the first warm thing that smells like his blood, his brother, his father, his sons.

Dean needs to not be cracked anymore.

"It's just for now. We're gonna figure something out." Sam's always trying to be reasonable, and he reaches out a hand to rest on Dean's shoulder, possibly to squeeze it in comfort, but Dean jerks away. Because he needs to not be cracked anymore.

"Yeah. I know."

He doesn't know.

"Kid." Bobby's hand is on the back of his neck. Dean tries to get away from that, too, but the grip tightens, pinches a little, like Bobby's a bitch and Dean's his newborn, half-blind offspring and everything about this analogy is fucked except for the Bobby being a bitch part. Bobby's totally a bitch. Sometimes.

"Dude-"

"I'm going to take care of it, Dean."

"How?" He doesn't mean to snap it, doesn't mean for it to come out as belligerent and suspicious as it does. And it's possible that he feels slightly cowed by the narrowed-eyed, irritated glare he gets in response. Possible.

"I'll tell you that when I get it done." The gruff bastard. Bobby doesn't usually say things like this, doesn't usually expect them to keep their goddamn questions to themselves like Dad used to, but here he is. Dean just stares at him, slightly slack-jawed, and Sam's next to him, probably with the same look on his face and they just stand there until Bobby heaves a sigh, pulls Dean away from the door and shuts it. "What are you idgits still doing down here? Kids were upstairs last time I checked."

Alec and Ben are upstairs. That's where Dean goes, with Sam at his heels.

He opens the bedroom door and Alec's a cannonball launching himself at Dean, arms wrapping greedy and tight around his waist, little head tilting up to look at him as he asks, "Are we going now? Are we getting the hell out of dodge?"

This kid. Dean splays a large hand across the narrow back, soaks in the buzzing energy as he manages a soft smile. Just for this kid. "We're okay, kitten. We're okay here."

They're okay here. Even if she's screaming in the...no.

Ben's still on the bed, his chin still on his knees and he's staring at them, but not saying a word. He hasn't moved. Not an inch. Sam moves over to him, sits down on the edge of the mattress and tries to touch him, but the boy jerks away and doesn't even spare him a glance while he does it.

Alec unwinds his arms, takes a step back. Narrows his eyes. "How do you know?"

"Because I know," Dean replies, knowing full well this won't satisfy his little mon...no, Alec's not a monster. But he is little. Little and Dean's. "If I didn't know, we'd be halfway to Canada by now."

Alec glares.

"How do you know?"

"She provided photographic evidence," Sam interjects. "It's okay, Alec."

"Can I see it?"

"No," Dean says, and he hears his brother's voice meshing with his own. They haven't done that in a while.

"I need to-"

"Alec." Dean snaps even though he shouldn't and he's well aware that he shouldn't, and he kneels. The movement is fluid. He grabs the boy and tugs him forward before he can take another step back, and Alec stumbles right into his arms, holds still and doesn't make a sound as Dean wraps his arms around him, tight and suffocating like an anaconda. He's warm and he's breathing and he's here and Dean hasn't fucked it up completely, not yet.

"What?" Alec mumbles into his shoulder, and Dean finally feels the reciprocation, the small hands on his back, one of which smoothes over his shirt, goes up and then down and up again, barely hears the breath of, "S'okay, Daddy."

Fuck. Christ. This is the reason. Alec's seen things and done things, and sometimes they've been terrible things and Dean knows it, but then there's this, this guarded piece of innocence in the midst of the destruction and Dean needs to keep that whole. Dean can't let that be tainted by guns or blood or dead men. Not anymore.

"I promise you it's real," Dean mutters. "You can't see it, but it's real. It's too fucking gross and you're too small for things that gross."

"But I..." Alec trails off. Dean knows what he would say if he kept going. There's already all those fucked-up things he's seen that he'll never unsee, and who or what does Dean even think Alec is, anyway? But he doesn't. He doesn't say these things. He stops himself and the hand stops rubbing to pat Dean three times on the back in a somewhat demeaning manner. "Alright, Cuddles. I think I need some oxygen now."

"Don't call me Cuddles," Dean grumbles, but he unwraps himself, rocks back onto his heels. "You believe me?"

Alec takes a while to respond, his eyes flickering over every aspect of Dean's face like he's studying a rather complex specimen. Dean holds still, waits, keeps eye contact until the boy finally, slowly, nods. Then Alec takes a step closer and leans in, whispers, "I think Ben's broken. He won't talk. Make him talk."

Dean lifts his gaze to see Sam watching Ben, his gigantic hands curled around the comforter so as not to be tempted to reach out again, to try to coax him when he doesn't want to be coaxed. Ben hasn't moved, not much anyway. His chin's no longer on his knees, but his nose is, tucked into that warm, closed spaced between them, with his eyes cast down to his feet. He's all closed up, this kid.

"Ben?" Sam asks, and there's hope in his voice, but not much of it. Dean swallows at the look in his brother's eyes when the boy doesn't respond. He's already dead from today, but Sam and that look just slaughters him all over again because two and a half-decades ago, "Dea" wasn't so amazing after the first five hundred times. It was so not amazing, in fact, that there came a point when Dean would stop listening to it and the baby's eyes would well up and then he'd start crying. Sam always needs to be acknowledged. Sam always needs to know that he belongs.

Alec understands this about Sam. "Uncle Sam? I think it's time you took me out for my first beer."

Sam's lips twitch and he gets to his feet, peels longing eyes away from Ben. "And by beer you mean...?"

"Ice cream?"

"Sounds like a plan."

"With sprinkles."

"Sure."

"And beer."

Sam snorts in amusement, but he lingers for a moment, long enough to tell Ben they'll bring him some ice cream, too. Ben doesn't acknowledge the offer. Ben just stares at his feet.

Dean watches his brother and his kid exit the room, Alec's voice quietly asking right before the door shuts, "Where is she?"

The room seems heavier without them. And smaller, even though this space between Dean and Ben seems ridiculously huge. But it's nothing. Dean closes it in three strides, in fact, drops onto the edge of the bed and just waits because he doesn't know how to talk. He gets over it sometimes, for short periods, but when it comes down to those moments when the importance is undeniable, Dean's an emotional mute.

So is Ben, apparently, when he's cracked. Cracked like Dean.

He doesn't know how long they sit there, how long he waits, but it seems like it's been forever and Ben's still sticking to his catatonic guns. Dean just wants to unwrap him, to physically untangle those arms from around those legs, to tip that head up, and exorcise all of those terrible thoughts right out of his boy. He wants to see them leave, wants to witness the black smoke spiral into the air and vanish because then he'll know they're gone.

They'll never be gone, though. Dean knows this. Dean knows the bad stuff never really goes away, but he can dream when it comes to Ben. And Alec.

"Did you kill her?" The long-awaited whisper fills the room, soaks into the walls. Ben is somehow everywhere Dean can't touch, even though he's right here.

"No, baby," he says. "I didn't kill her."

The pause is long, the next question hesitant. "What'd you do with her?"

"She's in the basement."

Ben's breath hitches. He slides his legs through his arms and places his hands on his thighs, spares Dean the quickest of glances before focusing on his own fingers. "Is she a 'Nomlie?"

It always comes back to the monsters in the basement.

"No, Benny, she's not."

And then again, with the not talking. Dean listens and all he can hear is the exhalation of Ben's breathing, quiet and quick, and a little harsh. He waits, wishing he knew what to say, knew how to convince this kid that everything's going to be fine, that he doesn't have to worry about anything anymore because Dean's going to take care of him for as long as he can, until that day comes when he finally keels over from one too many double bacon cheeseburgers.

But Ben never believes him. Promises of I'll always want you get fucked up somewhere along the way, taken hostage by memories of things that don't exist, and things that shouldn't. And every time Ben shies away, or looks at him with fear in his eyes, or stumbles over his words because this entire concept of family was beautiful in the beginning, but now it's one of those things that he won't let himself see or can't trust himself to believe, that's another crack. Another crack running straight through Dean, and there's so many of them now, he's not sure anything will ever be able to fix him, or his boys, or his brother-

"Am I?" Ben asks, and the cracks become obsolete.

Dean shatters.

Are we the monsters?

He twists and bolsters himself up with an arm bridging over Ben's legs, tilts the kid's head level with a finger to his chin and growls, "No." And Ben flinches. And Dean softens. "God, no. Ben, you're not."

"Then why am I so messed up?"

"You're no-"

"Don't lie to me," the boy snarls, and his eyes start to leak. Dean moves to wipe them, but Ben bats his hand away. "I'm messed up. My head's all messed up. You can't tell me that's not true because you're not me and you're not in here."

"Benny-"

"No." His small fist rubs over an eye, swipes hard past the tears running down his cheekbone, leaving a slight smear of red in its wake. Blood.

Dean snatches the hand up, grips it when Ben tries to yank it back, but there are no cuts, just a smattering of dry crimson accentuating the lines of his tender skin, and Dean swallows. He doesn't deserve to be a father. Fathers don't leave blood on their sons' tiny hands.

He lets go, gets to his feet. "C'mere."

"No." Ben shakes his head, shrinks back into the headboard.

Dean kind of wishes Sam were here right now. Sam's the one who's good at the coaxing and Ben, for the time being, is the kind of kid who needs to be coaxed. But Dean's not Sam. "You can come by yourself or I can carry you. Whichever way you want it, sweetheart."

Wary green eyes. That's all Dean sees as the boy slowly edges himself off the bed and onto the floor. Dean guides him to Bobby's bathroom with a hand on his shoulder, twists the sink faucet on and waits for the water to warm.

Ben's back to not saying anything, but he keeps looking up at Dean in quick intervals before he looks away again, curious despite himself. And for once, he doesn't pull away when Dean reaches down and gently grips his wrists to direct his little hands under the stream of water.

There's bar soap on an old shell-shaped soap dish in the corner of the counter closest to the wall, and Dean picks it up, runs it over the backs and palms of his boy's hands and then tosses it aside when he's managed to work up a decent lather. He can feel the coarseness of his own hands as he rubs the soap into the sides of Ben's, kneading the remains of her blood into nonexistence, and he never lets go because he never wants to, keeps hold as the water sluices over their skin and washes the suds away.

He dries their hands with what looks like a reasonably clean towel, eyes on task even though he can feel Ben's intent gaze touching his temple.

"The other you couldn't touch me."

Dean's stomach clenches in the worst way, but he tries not to show it. He hangs the towel back on the rack and picks a clean washcloth off of a chipped shelf.

"There ain't no other me, kid," he says, and he leans down, hefts the boy up with one strong arm to set him on the countertop. "There's only this me." He turns the faucet back on, checks the temperature. Wets the cloth.

"I know," Ben says softly, and he shudders and closes his eyes when the soaked washcloth touches his cheek. "I know that."

"Do you?" The cloth drips. Dean should have wrung it out, but he didn't, and now there's a stray drop of water on Ben's nose. He touches it with a finger and swipes it away. Squeezes the cloth over the sink.

"I do." The kid's voice is cracking. "It's just sometimes...my head is messed up. It doesn't work right and I thought he was you, I did. I wanted you there, and he was there and he looked like you and talked like you and I wanted it to be you. But you said things-"

"It wasn't me, Benny."

"...He said things. He said mean things. You didn't want me-"

"Who didn't want you?"

"He didn't want me."

Dean understands messed-up heads because he has one himself, and he, too, has mastered the art of believing in fathers who aren't real...but John was no superhero, and Dean's no hallucination.

He trails the washcloth over and under Ben's chin. "He wasn't real. He couldn't not want you because he wasn't real. So who didn't want you?"

Ben can't answer that question. Dean moves his ministrations to the back of the boy's neck, feels him shiver through the cotton.

"That's your first clue. Everyone wants you. Even the people who should never have you, want you. S'okay, though. I'll never let 'em get you because I want you a helluva lot more." Dean lets the rag drop into the sink with a slap against the porcelain. "Can you believe me when I say that?"

Ben looks at his knees. Dean holds his breath, but he can only hold it for so long, and after a minute, he says, "Benny."

Ben doesn't look up. "I could see him. You told me to believe in the things I could see."

Dean did. Dean did tell him that.

"But he couldn't touch you."

Ben swallows, shakes his head. "He couldn't touch me."

Of course he couldn't. Hallucinations aren't corporeal.

Dean snatches one of the kid's hands up from where they're resting on his thighs and squeezes it.

"Am I real?"

The kid lifts his head, finally, looks at Dean with red-rimmed eyes and tears that aren't angry – which is completely and utterly awesome, because water should never be angry. Water is pure. Water washes the dirt and the blood away. "Yeah," Ben says. "You're real."

"You're damn right I'm real." Dean's real. He always knew he was real, but it never seemed like that great of an accomplishment until this moment. "And do you remember that thing I told you? When we first met?"

Ben blinks. Dean can see the tears rolling out from under his closed lashes, streaming down the curves of his little face and part of him wants to wipe them away, but most of him wants to let them fall. Kid hasn't cried right since they got out. Sam's cried and Alec's cried and fuck it, Dean's even shed a tear or two when nobody was looking, but Ben…for Ben, it's the first time. Like a baby just out of the womb.

And the kid hasn't answered the question, yet. So Dean prompts him. "Benny?"

Ben looks up. "I need a bath before I get in your car?"

Dean snorts. "Close, but no cigar. Try again."

Ben's hand is still warm in Dean's, and the pressure of the small fingers is comforting even as the kid lowers his head again. "You're not gonna let anything bad happen to me."

"Yahtzee." That's exactly what Dean said. That's exactly what Dean should never have said. Not then. Not when he had no real understanding of their situation. "And I failed you. I fucking failed you, kid. I failed you miserably. I let them get you even though I kept promising I wouldn't and they hurt you again. They hurt you and your brother and I sat in that cell trying to find a way out and I couldn't. I couldn't stop it even though I should have and those sonsabitches were fucking with your head and putting you in places where you shouldn't ever be. And they made you feel like you didn't belong to me and I need you to know that's not true. I'm sorry…I'm sorry I let them get you. I…" He didn't mean to do this. He shouldn't do this because this is what his father did to him, smothered him with apologies that changed nothing, and Dean doesn't even have the excuse of being drunk off his ass. "Christ, Ben, I'm so sorry."

Ben pulls his hand away and Dean feels empty for that split second before the kid launches at him, before those arms wrap around his neck and he feels that hot breath against his skin, hears the quiet, "It's okay."

It's not, Dean wants to say, but he doesn't. He doesn't because he can't because he's drowning. He's drowning in this kid in his arms. He's drowning in that funny thing Sam has in his head and that look Alec gets in his eyes every time he loses himself in those thoughts that he should never have. He's drowning in the girl in the basement and in the snow outside, in the screams, and in the cracks in his skin made by memories of things both terrible and amazing.

"Daddy?"

He's drowning in the knowledge that water is an incredible thing. He wishes he had some right now because his throat is dry as hell and he doesn't trust himself to speak - but he does. He swallows, and says in a voice that is low and hoarse, "Yeah, Benny. I'm right here."

The arms tighten. The face nuzzles further into his neck.

Time disappears. Cracks form and heal. The faucet drips. Dean can't help but think that there's a rhythm to this cycle, blood and fire and family.

Ben slips off the counter and into his arms and Dean knows he's real, he's always known, but something about the kid's weight solidifies that fact. Ben is real and Dean is real and they're cracked to all hell, but they're here. For the first time in a long time, they're right here.