Sam never thought he would see the day when the Impala was packed full of kids.
They spent the rest of the night driving children home, filthy and exhausted and a little worse for wear, but alive after their time being held by the Changling.
They'd briefly considered taking them all to the hospital, a veritable school bus full of battered children on a really screwed up field trip, but there was far too much danger that the Winchester boys would be unjustly arrested as the perpetrators. It wasn't like the Changling story all the kids would tell would fly with the authorities.
It seemed best just to get the kids back to their parents.
Ben was the one who decided which kid they took home next. Sam sat behind the wheel watching the young boy in the rearview mirror turn to the child next to him, put a hand on their shoulder, and call them by name. Sam listened to this kid, this eight year old boy who'd been through just as much as the shell-shocked kids next to him, tell his friends how they were going to be okay and how they were going to take them home.
"Ben?" Dean would ask gently from the passenger side and crane around to look at the boy in the back with the others. Ben would make his choice, rank ordered his friends by who needed to get home the most, and told Dean where the next child to be returned lived.
Dean gave Sam a nod indicating that he do as Ben said.
It was strange, watching Dean take his lead from a boy. It was the kind of quiet faith John had always had in Dean when they were growing up.
Sam began to realize what Dean meant by his 'gut' telling him that Dean was Ben's father. By the time they dropped off the last of Ben's friends at the break of dawn, Sam's gut was saying it, too.
When Ben was the last kid in the car, he silently climbed over the back of the front seat to sit down between Dean and Sam. Only once the other kids were safe at home did Ben let himself sink down against the seat and look as tired as he must have felt.
"Ben?" Dean asked softly.
"M' okay," Ben mumbled, then he looked up at Dean and smiled. "Thanks for coming to get us."
Dean brushed his hand over Ben's hair. "Hey… you ever need me, I'll be here." Dean's expression went dark with the year-end deadline fast approaching. "Or, if I can't be, Sam will help you." Dean looked at Sam with silent pleading in his eyes. Sam swallowed. He could read the look loud and clear. 'When I'm gone, watch out for Ben?'
Sam put on the most convincing smile he could muster and looked down at Ben when the kid glanced his way. "You bet, Ben."
Ben cocked his head to the side pensively. "This is what you guys do all the time? Help people?"
Sam glanced down at Ben and then up at Dean. Ben followed Sam's gaze back to Dean.
Dean gave a dismissive shrug. "Yeah… this is what we do."
Ben smiled. "That's awesome. You two are, like, superheroes."
Dean chuckled. "Yeah, but not the kind that wear tights."
"No, the cool kind," Ben agreed.
Dean studied Ben closely a long time in the brightening light of day, then dug into his pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. He fetched a pen from the glove compartment, leaned forward to use the dash as a table, and said as he scribbled, "I'm going to give you my cell number. And this… this is Sam's. If you ever need anything, just give one of us a call."
Ben accepted the paper solemnly, carefully folded it, and put it in his pants pocket.
Sam spared a glance at Dean, but the quick look was not enough to decipher all the thoughts and emotions playing across his brother's face.
Ben, without a word, slid over toward Dean, sidled up next to him, and leaned into his side.
Dean froze a split second, then put his arm around Ben and drew him closer.
Ben rested his head on Dean's chest a second before pulling away to look up at Dean and gesture between them and their 'snuggle' with one hand. "This doesn't mean I'm a wussy, does it?"
Dean smirked and Sam felt the pit of his stomach clench.
"Nah… Sammy needs a hug once in a while too."
Sam shot a dark look at Dean, which Dean ignored.
"And you don't think Sam's a wussy, do you?"
Ben shook his head and put his head back on Dean's chest.
Dean shrugged and patted Ben's arm. "Well, you're still young."
For a while the silence was filled only by the rumble of the Impala's engine.
After a few minutes, Dean whispered, "Sam… circle around a bit."
"What?" Sam looked over and saw that Ben had fallen asleep slumped against Dean's side. Sam looked up at his brother, about to argue that they should get Ben home to his mother. She'd be worried sick.
But at the pleading look in Dean's eye, understanding flared and Sam made a left turn instead of a right. Gently, Dean pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed a number.
"Lisa? It's Dean."
Sam could hear an anxious voice on the other end but could not make out the words.
"Lisa, Lisa… Lisa, listen for a second… I know... No, don't call the cops; Ben's with me… He's fine… He's sleeping right now, but trust me, he's all right… I… I'll explain later… We're on our way to your place… I just wanted you to know he's okay and I'm bringing him home."
Sam pressed his lips together and his hands tightened around the steering wheel.
Dean's voice thickened noticeably. "You're welcome." Dean hung up the phone and dropped it back in his pocket.
Ben slept through the entire conversation.
Sam turned on to a residential road where he could slow down and spared a longer look over at the passenger side of the car. Dean was staring down at Ben, his arm wrapped around the sleeping boy as Ben curled against Dean's side.
"For what it's worth," Sam whispered, "I think you're right."
Dean looked up at his brother.
Sam looked meaningfully down at Ben. "I think he is yours."
Dean swallowed convulsively and cleared his throat. "Maybe… Sam… I was actually scared for a while there."
Dean sighed. "Maybe Lisa was right to want me out of the picture. I mean, look at the kind of trouble we're constantly getting into. People in our lives are just put in danger."
Sam's knuckles on the steering wheel were white. "I know."
Dean looked up apologetically. "I… sorry, Sam, I didn't mean to…"
"It's okay. I know you didn't. But you're right. If I could do it all over again and walk the other way the day I first met Jess…"
When Sam trailed off, Dean waited. When it was obvious Sam wasn't going to finish on his own, Dean prompted, "Would you? Walk away?"
Sam looked down forlornly. "I… I don't know. I'm not sure I'd have the strength to do it… but I know it's what I should have done to protect her."
Dean and Sam spent a long time in silence, Dean watching Ben sleeping as though determined to commit every detail to memory. It was a desperate kind of need to take in every aspect of this moment, every precious second, but finally Sam could drive in circles no longer and turned in the direction of Lisa's house.
It was close to ten thirty when they were back in the neighborhood of Lisa Braeden, on her street, when Dean gently shook Ben. "Ben?"
Ben grumbled and burrowed deeper into Dean's jacket.
Dean smiled wistfully. "Come on, Ben… we're almost home."
Ben blinked open his eyes and gazed up at Dean. "Home?"
"Yeah," Dean said just a little too brightly, "and I know your mom will be really happy to see you."
Ben smiled and suddenly reached up and looped his arms around Dean's neck in a hug.
Dean held the boy to him and, for the briefest moment, shut his eyes.
Without any mushy words exchanged between the two, Ben sat back down between Dean and Sam just as Sam made the turn into Lisa's driveway.
Lisa came exploding out of her front door and ran toward the car.
Sam stopped the Impala and shared a brief look with Dean before the older Winchester got out of the car and stood back to let Ben race toward his mother.
Sam was slower to get out, and he lingered in the open door of the car. He watched his brother with Lisa and Ben, and he knew from the lines of Dean's shoulders and the rigidity in his spine that Dean was going to do the one thing Sam hadn't had the strength to do.
He was going to walk away.