Author: RedLotusOasis
Rating: T (for some mild language and violence)
Warnings: See above
Disclaimer: I don't own Supernatural or any of its characters. If that changes you'll know, because the show will suddenly begin airing new episodes year round and feature an alarming amount of limp!Sam. Keep your fingers crossed.
Recipient: Bugsy88/Blood Ecstasy. I really hope you enjoy it!
Word Count: It's a beast, weighing in at just under 20,000 words!

Prompt: Wee!Sam stands up for a kid that gets picked on. I originally started the story with a much younger Sam, but the plot ended up taking on a life of

its own and Sam ended up a bit older. I hope it still works for you, Bugsy!

Summary: A new town, new friends, and difficult decisions put Sam in a dangerous position.

AN1: Please go check out the many great strories written for the Summer of Sam Love at http://community(DOT)livejournal(DOT)com/summer_sam_love/ And thanks so much to Faye Dartmoth and Sendintheklowns for facilitating such an awesome event!

AN2: You should all send a prayer of thanks to Faye Dartmouth for providing a lightning fast but still blindingly insightful beta, without which this story would be far less coherent. Thanks, Faye - you rock! I tweaked after her beta, so any and all remaining mistakes are mine alone.

AN3: This story assumes that Sam is 13 and that Dean has only recently turned 18.

Dean knew, as soon as he set foot in the apartment, that Sam and Dad were going at it again.

Son of a bitch, he thought bitterly, can't I just have ten minutes to have a Coke and catch my breath before this crap starts up?

"Damn it, Sam, we're not going to be here long enough for it to matter!"

Apparently a few minutes of peace is too much to ask…

"But Dad-"

"I said no, Sam. We're done discussing it."

"It's not fair!" Sam shouted, his voice cracking.

A door slammed, and Dean heard his father heave a long-suffering sigh. Deeming it safe to enter, Dean stepped cautiously into the kitchen. John was lowering himself into one of the mismatched kitchen chairs, beer in hand and a look of intense frustration on his face.

"Dean," he acknowledged, "How was work?"

"Oh, you know… Boring as hell. You an' Sammy have a blowout?"

John scowled, took a swig of beer.

"Caught the end of it, did ya?"

"Yeah," Dean chuckled humorlessly, "Kinda hard to miss. What's the problem now?"

"Sam wants to sign up for a soccer program. Don't know why that kid can't get it through his head that we don't have the time or money for that kind of indulgence."

Dean ducked his head into the fridge to grab a soda, and to hide his grimace from his father. John Winchester seemed to have a pathological inability to understand that Sam was wired differently than them.

"Yeah, well, he just wants to do something normal, Dad," Dean said carefully, leaning his hip against the aged yellow countertop and popping open his can of cola.

"Dean, don't you start in on it now, too," John warned, scrubbing a weary hand over his stubbled face. "I've just gone six rounds with your brother over this crap, I don't have it in me to argue with you, too."

"Naw," Dean hurried to explain, "You're right, I know that. Sammy just… He doesn't always see things like we do, is all I'm sayin'."

"That's for sure," John agreed flatly. "Why don't you go try to talk some sense into him, Dean. At least make sure he hasn't packed up and climbed out the window or something."

Dean rolled his eyes – Sam might whine and stomp and complain, but the kid was fiercely loyal to his family. He would never run out on them, and the idea was preposterous enough to be amusing. Grabbing another soda out of the fridge, Dean nodded at his dad and ambled towards the bedroom.

He paused at the closed door and considered knocking, but he knew Sammy, and he knew his kid brother would just tell him to piss off in his current mood. Then Sam would lie in bed and think himself into an emo tailspin without anyone to curtail the downward spiral. Sam might say he wanted to be alone, but the truth was, he needed someone to snap him out of it.

Plus, it was Dean's room, too. Who said he had to knock?

Sam was lying face down on his bed when Dean opened the door, head resting in the cradle made by his crossed arms.

"Go away," he mumbled, and Dean was dismayed to hear the tears in his brother's voice. Sam was really feeling the hurt on this one, then. Dean hated the helpless feeling he got whenever Sam cried, and everything in him cried out to fix it.

"No can do, Squirt," Dean said evenly, dropping heavily onto the mattress next to his little brother.

Sam deigned to lift his head far enough to shoot Dean a petulant glare, eyes damp and red, then buried his face again. At thirteen, Sam still had the semi-soft features of a younger boy, and his attempt at a menacing expression was more humorous than intimidating. Still, puberty was getting a foothold in the youngest Winchester, and Dean had speculated on more than one occasion that Sam was going to have one hell of a bitch-face when he shed the baby face.

"So," Dean continued, picking absently at the lint on Sam's blanket. "Soccer, huh?"

Sam huffed bitterly into his pillow.

"Yeah, like it matters. Dad said no. He always says no."

"That's not true, Sammy. He-"

Sam sat upright with an angry jerk, scowling.

"Oh, really? Name one time he let me do something normal, Dean!"

Dean frowned and scratched at his scalp.

"Uh… Didn't you… weren't you in some play when we lived in Poughkeepsie?"

Sam gave a choked laugh.

"I was in kindergarten Dean. And even if you count that, that's one time. I can probably list a dozen times he's said no in the last two years alone!"

"Come on, Sam, that seems a little steep," Dean said, regretting the words as soon as they left his mouth. The one thing he knew to never do was challenge Sam's memory on stuff like this. Kid had a steel trap for a brain, and that went double when it came to the aspects of their lives that he saw as unfair.

Sam's eyes narrowed dangerously and he held up his hand, ticking the score off on his fingers.

"He said no to little league in Montana. No to Boy Scouts in Oregon. No to the science fair in Florida. No to every field trip my class took in Indiana. No to-"

"Jeeze, okay. Enough," Dean interrupted. "Do you keep a journal of Dad's parental failures or something? He has his reasons, Sammy. He's doing the best he can."

"No," Sam insisted, eyes welling up again, "He's not. I knew you'd take his side!"

With a frustrated sound, Sam threw himself back down onto the mattress, narrow shoulders shaking and hands fisting in the pillowcase.

Damn it, Dean thought wearily. He was so tired of being in the middle of these battles. He just wanted to make Sam feel better, but all he was doing was making it worse.

"Sammy," he cajoled, laying a soft hand on Sam's back.

"It's Sam!" Sam growled, twisting away from Dean's hand.

"Sam," Dean sighed, "I'm sorry."

Sam hiccupped miserably in response, but Dean could see his breathing slow a little.

"You're right," Dean continued. "It's not fair. I know it's not, and so does Dad."

Sam turned his face just enough to peer at Dean.


"I'm not taking his side," Dean rushed to say, "I'm just sayin'… this is our lives, man. This is just our family, you know? Some people don't even have this much. I know you hate it-"

"I don't hate it!" Sam insisted, rolling to his side and swiping an arm over his wet eyes. "I don't. I know why we do this, and I l-love you guys. I just- I want something for me every once and a while, ya know? You and Dad, you're good at hunting. And you love training and shooting. Everything I like… None of it means anything to you guys. Dad thinks it's all useless, and I know you try to be supportive, but you only care because it's important to me, not because you think those things actually matter."

Dean gaped for a moment, completely taken aback. This was not the reaction he had been expecting – was that really what Sam thought?

"I just… I just want to have something normal for a little while," Sam muttered, sounding defeated. "I know it can't last, but it would be nice to pretend for a little while."

"You had eight years of pretend, kiddo," Dean reminded him gently. "You've got a lot of catching up to do."

"It wasn't eight years of pretend, Dean! It was eight years of being lied to and not understanding why our lives were so strange and messed up. The only reason I have a lot of catching up to do is because you guys kept the truth from me for most of my life!"

"We didn't see it as lying," Dean said, a spark of anger forming. "We were trying to protect you, Sam. We wanted you to have at least a little bit of time to be a normal kid before you had to know the truth."

"I know," Sam said miserably. "I know you did the best you could. But just because I didn't know why our lives were so weird doesn't mean I didn't know something was different about us. And now that I know, it's like Dad is determined to make me live and breathe hunting to make up for lost time. I just- I want a break. I don't want to bury my head in the sand, I just want a little time to be normal without feeling like I'm being kept in the dark. I'm sure that sounds stupid to you, right?"

"Sam," Dean said carefully, "It's not stupid."

In fact, it made a lot of sense, and Dean felt a surge of guilt that he'd never thought to consider the things Sam was saying.

"Yeah," Sam sighed, flopping back onto his pillow. "Sure, Dean."


"I'm kinda tired," Sam interrupted. "Can I just be alone for awhile?"

"Sure," Dean said, rising to leave the room. "Get some rest."

Sam was burying his face in his pillow again when Dean slipped out of the room, and Dean's gut clenched.

There had to be some way to put this right.

In his room, Sam lay curled up on his bed, fighting back hot tears.

He was so angry at his Dad, at how unfair their lives were, and now he felt even worse. Dean had only tried to make him feel better (as he always did), and Sam had just made him feel guilty. He'd seen the look on Dean's face when he'd made his little speech, seen the guilt and the pity in his eyes. It wasn't his brother's fault that their lives were a never-ending parade of dirty apartments and motels, greasy diners and dangerous, bloody encounters in the dark. It wasn't Dean's fault that Sam never got a chance to keep friends, or be a part of anything normal. But Dean would shoulder that responsibility all the same, just as he had with a thousand other burdens that never should have been his to bear.

As much as his brother loved him, though, as much as he tried to look out for his little brother, Dean would never understand how their life affected Sam. Dean was smooth, confident, funny – he had adapted to their nomadic lifestyle with ease and never looked back. When they rolled into a new town, Dean was the immediate focus of all the girls within a ten mile radius. The boys all accepted Dean into their circle without a second guess. Dean slipped into their lives seamlessly, and when it was time to leave, he slipped out again without pause.

Sam, on the other hand…

Sam was always the New Kid. He was the awkwardly small kid with the bad haircut and the ill-fitting clothes. The kid who brought his lunch to school in a used paper sack and had holes in his sneakers, the kid that no one knew, the kid who was a little too quiet and a little too smart to be popular. He thought that maybe he gave off some sort of pheromone that identified him as "geek," "outsider," "weird." The other kids treated him with bored disinterest at best, malicious contempt at worst. They seemed to sense that he was no more than a temporary presence in their lives, no more than a ghost or an easy target. Sam sometimes imagined kids flipping through their yearbooks, glancing at his picture and asking each other Did he go to school here for a while? What was his name?

The few times that Sam had managed to make some sort of friend were nearly as bad. With typical irony, as soon as Sam found a kindred spirit their Dad would inevitably announce that it was time to move on, and no, Sam, there's no time to say goodbyes. Sam would leave with his family, feeling hurt and lonely, guilty for disappearing from the lives of the few people willing to befriend him.

He'd wanted to play soccer simply because being part of a team meant being part of something. He could've had some fun, been normal, and when it was time to go again maybe it wouldn't hurt as much to leave teammates as it did friends.

Who was I fooling, Sam thought bitterly, sniffling into his pillow.

I give up.

Three days later, and things were tense in the Winchester household. Sam had spent most of that time holed up in his room alone, doing homework as though his life depended on it. When he did emerge, he looked sullen and tired – listless. John eyed Sam suspiciously, as though waiting for the yelling and the arguing to resume, and Dean felt anxious, jittery, and more than a little frustrated with his father. He'd tried broaching the subject of Sam's mood (and the reasons behind it) with their Dad, but John had shut him down with frustrated lines about family duty and sucking it up.

John Winchester was a great man, a great hunter – but sometimes he just sucked at being able to listen. And when he got his mind set on something, he was like an immovable brick wall. Luckily Dean had long ago mastered the art of negotiating with his father, and now he had something to work with. A sheaf of papers clutched in one hand, he sought out his father after work and found him at the kitchen table.

"Dad, I need to talk to you."

John glanced up from the bowie knife he was sharpening and raised an inquisitive brow.

"It's about Sammy."

John sighed, and leaned back in his chair, his face settling into an expression of frustrated resignation.


"Please, just listen, Dad," Dean implored, sitting across from him at the table. "This is important."

"Ok," John said gruffly, crossing his arms over his chest. "What is it?"

"Sam needs a break from hunting."

John gave an incredulous and slightly annoyed snort.

"Sam doesn't even hunt, Dean. He's too young, and he's not getting a break from training – he has enough to catch up on as it is."

"That's not what I mean," Dean said. "He needs a break from this life for a little while. I know you think he's just being difficult-"

Another snort.

"-but I think he's getting seriously worn down by all of this. If we just gave him a little bit of normal, I think he'd fall in line a lot quicker. He could still train, but if we just stayed somewhere long enough for him to finish out the school year, I think it would be good for him."

"Dean, you know how important hunting is. We can't just let people die because Sam wants to join yearbook."

"I'm not suggesting we do," Dean said carefully, suppressing a twinge of frustration at his father's black and white thinking. "It's not really the hunting that's the problem, it's the moving around that comes with it. But I've done a little research, and I think I have a solution that keeps everyone happy."

John looked briefly surprised, but nodded for Dean to continue.

"Tennyson, Georgia," Dean announced, spreading the papers out in front of his father. "It's an equal distance from six different hunts. You know that stuff you taught me about magnetic fields and concentrations of supernatural activity? Well, I looked online at some geography and aerospace sites, and there's a high level magnetic field in that area. There are two suspected poltergeists to the north, a banshee just southwest of the county, and a vengeful spirit and two possible witch covens to the south."

"That's real good work, son," John said, leaning forward to peer at the clipped articles with sudden interest.

"There's only two months left in the school year. We could set up camp in Tennyson and have easy access to the hunts. It'll take us at least two months to do all the research, preparations, and actual hunting to take care of all six, and in the meantime Sam can finish out the school year in one place. I'll make sure he does his training, I promise. He can have a break from all the moving for a few months, we can all have a break from the arguing, and in the process we can finish six hunts."

John leaned back again, a considering look on his face.

"The vengeful spirit's already killed three people," Dean said, knowing his father couldn't turn away from the responsibility of taking out a lethal spirit.

"Let me make this clear," John sighed. "I'm only agreeing to this because these hunts need to be taken care of. The rest is a nice side effect, but I don't want Sam thinking that all he needs to do is throw a hissy fit and we'll fall all over ourselves to accommodate his wishes."

"Yeah," Dean said, "Of course."

Wouldn't want Sammy to think what he wants matters, he thought with a hint of bitterness.

"And you need to make it clear to him that he'll be keeping up on his training, and when it's time to move on there's to be no whining, no arguing, nothing."

"I will," Dean agreed. "This'll work, you'll see."

"Yeah, well," John sighed, "We'll see."

You will, Dean thought vehemently. Sammy has what it takes – you've just got to give him a little room to grow.

Tennyson, Georgia turned out to be one of those towns that would have looked right at home on a postcard or in a snow globe. Sam loved it immediately. The well-kept white houses, the quaint town church, the old-fashioned general store, complete with a cluster of old men playing cribbage out front. It all spelled normal. Safe. Like the antithesis of his own life.

All of this was made even more exciting by the knowledge that they got to stay here, at least until the school year was out. Sam hadn't realized how much the constant uncertainty of their lives had weighed him down until he got a reprieve from it. He always half expected their Dad to pick them up and leave without a moment's notice, the possibility hovering over him like a threat. He had even taken to leaving all his non-essential belongings (what few of them he was allowed to have) packed up and ready to go in his duffel. John Winchester would hardly delay departure for a battered copy of A Wrinkle in Time or a science fair trophy – it was safest to have them tucked away and ready to go.

But here… Here, he'd be able to put his books on a shelf. Maybe hang a picture or two. Sam knew it wasn't really permanent, but at least this time he had a timetable, knew when they'd be leaving it all behind, and he could plan ahead. He could join a soccer team without knowing he'd be gone before ever playing a game. He could complete school projects and know that his teacher would actually see the results. Dad had promised. More importantly, Dean had promised.

Dad's promises didn't hold the same weight they once had, but Dean wouldn't lie to him. Not about the stuff that mattered. That fateful night when Sam had finally learned the truth about their lives, he'd made his older brother swear not to lie to him ever again about the important stuff. Dean had promised, and he'd kept that promise faithfully.

Face pressed against the back window of the Impala, Sam took in the regal cottonwood and oak trees, breathing in the sight of a place he could call home, even if it were only for a few months. This was it – his chance to be normal for just awhile. He wasn't going to screw it up, no matter what.

"Our place should be right up here on the left," Dean said from the front seat, pointing through the windshield at a row of small pastel houses. "One-thirty-five."

Sam wriggled with ill-disguised excitement as John slowed and turned to pull into the drive of a mint-green house. There was a small yard, a mailbox at the curb, even a tiny screened-in porch. It looked incredibly, wonderfully non-descript. Like every other little house on this street. It was perfect.

Inside was even better – their nomadic lifestyle meant that, when they did stay long enough to rent a house or apartment, they rented someplace furnished. This usually meant folding card tables, beds that were one step up from cots, and couches that were little more than receptacles for various fluid-related stains and possible venereal diseases.

This place, though- there were worn but clean rugs on the floor, an overstuffed gingham sofa and matching armchair, a lovingly used oak table, even curtains on the windows. The appliances were old, bordering on vintage, but had been well maintained and held a certain retro charm. There was a handmade cross-stitch framed above the kitchen table that read "God Bless This Home," and some mismatched china dishes in the cupboards.

Down a short hallway off the living room were the bedrooms – three of them. They were all tiny, barely big enough to accommodate furniture, but all three had wide, bright windows that let the light in and made them feel warm and open.

Their dad claimed the largest of the three, and Sam (feeling happier and more generous than he had in months) graciously took the smallest and let Dean settle into the midsized room.

Sam's room held a twin-sized oak bed with a simple, rustic headboard and a matching dresser with four wide drawers. The bed was made up with calico sheets and a floral bedspread. When Sam sat on the mattress he sunk into its softness and a sweet, clean scent wafted up from the linens.

Grinning so hard he thought his face might break, Sam sprawled back on the bed, closing his eyes and letting the sun through the window warm his face. He'd unpack later, fill the dresser top with his books and empty his entire duffel for once.

But right now, all Sam wanted to do was savor the moment while it lasted.

They'd arrived in Tennyson on a Friday, so Sam had had the whole weekend to settle into the house and explore the town. Dean had rolled his eyes a lot, making comments about po-dunk little Normal Rockwell towns and bitching about having to sleep on floral sheets, but Sam knew it was all for show. Just as he knew Dean was the reason they were even here in the first place. When Dean had speculated that the reason Tennyson itself was supernatural-free was because it was too boring of a town for even the dead, Sam had just smiled knowingly at him, hugged him, and said thanks, Dean.

His brother had squirmed in the hug and adopted an exaggerated expression of discomfort, but had reciprocated with a brief pat on the back. Sam could see the warm pleasure in Dean's eyes and knew his brother was happy that they were there.

John had called ahead and enrolled Sam at Tennyson High, so when Monday rolled around Sam was all set to head to school. The school was an easy twenty minute walk from their house (Everything is an easy walk from everything, here, a sarcastic Dean had pointed out) and Sam had no trouble arriving on time for the first bell.

Tennyson High School was a small school, and the arrival of a new kid (even a lowly freshman like Sam) generated some excitement. Sam was used to the staring and the whispering, the overheard speculation on who he was, where he was from, and what the heck he was doing at their school. Students at small schools like THS, though, often responded with a sort of poorly subdued glee along with their curiosity. Sam thought maybe he should have worn a tee shirt that read "Fresh Meat" or something. Still, there didn't seem to be any maliciousness to their reactions, so he just shrugged it off and went to the office to check in and register in person.

His first class turned out to be History, one of his favorites. The guidance counselor had kept him too long with cheerful questions about his family and his interests, so he was ten minutes late to class. Slipping in the door as unobtrusively as possible, Sam shot the teacher an apologetic look.

"You must be Samuel Winchester," the teacher announced warmly. She was a tall black woman with wavy, shoulder length hair and surprisingly light eyes. Her age was hard to place, but she looked young and her casual jeans and snug blouse suggested a woman closer to her twenties than her thirties. She was rather stunning, actually.

"Uh- yeah. I'm Sam," he stuttered, horrified to feel himself blush a little.

"Well, Sam, welcome to Tennyson High. I'm Ms. Beauton, and I'll be your guide through the wonderful world of history. If you'd like to take a seat, we're discussing the American colonial period."

"Yes, Ma'am," Sam said, shuffling his armload of new textbooks and thanking all things heavenly that Ms. Beauton hadn't made him recite the usual, embarrassing mini-biography of "I'm-Sam-and-I'm-from-so-and-so-and-blah-blah-blah." There appeared to only be one open seat, between a heavyset girl with red hair and a blonde boy with farm-bred good looks. Sam muttered apologies as he squeezed between desks and plunked down into his seat. The blonde boy raised an eyebrow at him but gave him a crooked, friendly smile, which Sam returned. The girl waved a hand in a small, shy wave and Sam smiled warmly at her, causing her to turn an alarming shade of pink and duck her head.

"Well, class, can anyone tell me about the unification of the British colonies?" Ms. Beauton asked, and Sam did his best to focus on his class work and not make a fool out of himself on his first day.

The rest of his morning classes went well, and by lunch Sam was feeling cautiously optimistic about his chances of having a nice, normal, all-American school year. Several kids had been openly friendly to him, and so far no one had stuffed him in a locker or called him a geek, so all in all things were looking good.

Having loaded his lunch tray up with remarkably edible-looking fare, Sam scanned the lunch room for someplace to sit. The lunchroom at a new school always reminded Sam of one of those National Geographic specials on the law of the jungle. He could almost hear the narrator in his head:

Uncertain, the young homo sapiens hesitates in order to weigh his options. A wrong move at this juncture could mean certain unpopularity among his peers. Should he choose to align himself with the wrong pack, his social fate will be sealed. If, however, he approaches the Alpha teens too early, he may be seen as a threat and dealt with accordingly. However he chooses, the young male must act quickly – the others will soon pick up the scent of fear and respond with prejudice. How will he proceed in this uncertain situation, so fraught with danger? Let's watch, shall we?

The red headed girl from History was sitting alone at a table in the corner, and Sam considered joining her. Though considering her reaction earlier when he'd smiled, the poor girl might have a stroke if he spoke to her. There was a table of giggling girls to his right (clearly out of the question), some jocks straight ahead (maybe? But not likely) and one or two empty tables scattered throughout the room. Maybe sitting alone was best, even if he ran the risk of looking like a loser.

Over to his left, the blond boy from History caught his eye and waved, indicating a vacant seat at his table. Saved from his indecision, Sam smiled and picked his way over to the waiting seat.

"Hey," the boy grinned, shoving a few fries into his mouth. "I'm Rick. You're Sam, right? Westchester, or something."

"Winchester," Sam chuckled, sticking out a hand. "Sam Winchester. Nice to meet you, Rick."

Rick gave his hand a quick pump, fingers still greasy from the fries.

"Thanks, for the seat, I mean," Sam said awkwardly.

"Hey, no problem," Rick said breezily. "Let me introduce you to these rejects you're sharing a table with."

Pointing at the four other people at the table in turn, Rick did a roll call.

"This is Benny Horton, our local emo kid,"

Benny flipped Rock off but smiled from underneath long, black bangs.

"And Missy Pereux, who's in total denial about being in love with me,"

"You're plenty in love with yourself for all of us, Prick," Missy laughed, flipping long blonde hair over one slim shoulder. "Hi, Sam."

"Hi," Sam squeaked.

"And Gus Frank, he's our best soccer player – plays Forward on the varsity team," Rick continued, pointing to a tall brunette. Gus waved and smiled, looking disinterested.

"And last but not least, Jude Conner, who has no special skills other than being occasionally funny."

"Hey, Sam," Jude said, rolling his eyes at Rick. "Welcome to THS – the most tedious place on Earth."

Sam smiled shyly at the group, trying to project an air of quiet confidence.

"So, Ms. Beaton – she's a hottie, huh?" Rick exclaimed out of the blue.

Sam, who had been taking a sip of his chocolate milk, choked and sputtered at the blatant observation.

"It's okay, dude," Rick laughed, pounding him on the back. "Everyone heats up a little the first time they see her. Poor Henry Thomas popped a stiffie when she told him he'd done nice work on his term paper last year."

"Yeah, everyone called him Henry Hard-On for a year," Missy snorted.

Still wheezing a little, Sam managed to laugh and shake his head.

"Yeah," he rasped, "She's pretty… uh… pretty."

"That's putting it mildly," Jude grinned. "I wouldn't turn down a chance for a little one-on-one tutoring with her, that's for sure."

The statement was so reminiscent of Dean that Sam instantly relaxed.

"So," Benny chimed in, "You just move here?"

"Yeah," Sam said, "My dad travels a lot for work. We just moved here from New York."

"Wow," Missy said, sounding honestly impressed. "Talk about a downgrade – New York to Tennyson. You must be ready to die of boredom already."

"Nah," Sam hurried to say, "It's not so bad. It's kind of nice, actually, to get a break from… that lifestyle, you know?"

"If you say so," Jude chuckled. "But I'd give my left nut to ditch this one-horse town and see the big city."

"That's assuming you have any nuts to speak of," Missy said dryly, "Which is a pretty big assumption."

Jude gasped in mock hurt, adopting a theatrical pose with his hand over his heart, then launched into a diatribe about Missy's dubious honor.

Sam sat back and laughed as they teased each other good-naturedly, glowing with happiness when they made a point of including him in the fun. By the time lunch was over, Sam had been invited to hang out with the group the following day after school, and Gus had offered to put in a good word with the soccer coach for him so that maybe he could try out.

He was filled with excited anticipation by the time the final bell rang, and felt like he was walking on air all the way home.

Dean was waiting for him on the front porch when Sam got home, sprawled comfortably in one of the Adirondack chairs with a beer in one hand.

"Hey, Wonder Geek, how was the daily educational grind?" he asked, smiling around the bottle as he took a swig.

"It was… really good," Sam said, unable to keep a grin off his face. "I think I made some friends."

He was still riding the emotional high of his school day, excited and relieved to have had such a good first day.

"Wow," Dean smirked, "Look at you, Mr. Popularity! I guess some of my charm has rubbed off on you after all. Any hot chicks?"

"De-an," Sam whined, slumping in the chair next to his brother, "Don't call them hot chicks – I'm pretty sure it's illegal for you to ogle them. They're, like, half your age. "

Sometimes Sam thought his brother would chase after anything with breasts and a pulse. Luckily a lot of Dean's Casanova act was for show, and Sam knew Dean was far more honorable than most people gave him credit for.

"Well unless you spent your day at the elementary school instead of the high school, that's unlikely," Dean said.

Sam rolled his eyes and stretched, listening to the sound of birds chirping across the street and feeling wonderfully content.

"Dad's at the library, doing research for that poltergeist," Dean informed him. "He wants you to run two miles and then work on your knot tying and your Sanskrit."

"Yeah, okay," Sam agreed without hesitation. He was feeling good enough that Dean could have told him to run across town and it wouldn't have phased him. "I'm just going to change and then I'll go running. I found a good trailhead up the road, leads down to a quarry."

Dean raised an eyebrow, seemingly surprised at Sam's unusual complacency. "Sounds good. Let me know if you need any help with the knots."

"Sure thing, Eagle Scout," Sam ribbed playfully, darting out of reach as Dean tried to swat him in retaliation.

"Bitch," Dean muttered.

"Jerk," Sam called back over his shoulder, ducking into the house to change.

Sam walked to the trailhead to warm up, then stretched and took off down the trail at a steady pace. He ran along a winding path, through woods humming with insects and the sound of birds. The late afternoon sun filtered through the leaves so that the light looked green and soft, and Sam found himself picking up the pace and actually enjoying his run. The trail was about a mile and a half to the quarry, and he decided to run all the way to the end. He would still have more than enough time to practice his Sanskrit and knots, and his dad would be happy with the extra mile.

Sam was sweaty and happily weary by the time he got to the clearing containing the old quarry. Loping to a slow walk, he stretched and breathed deeply, pleased with himself. He was so caught up in his thoughts that he nearly jumped out of his skin when a familiar voice called out,

"Sam? Is that you, dude?"

Heart hammering in his chest, Sam whirled to see Rick, Missy, and Jude perched on an outcropping of rock.

"Holy crap, man, you scared the hell outta me," Sam laughed, trotting over to the group.

"Yeah, well, we were a little surprised to see you come crashing out of the underbrush, too," Jude laughed. "You run?"

"Yeah," Sam said, "My dad's an ex-Marine. He's a fan of mandatory PT."

"That sort of sucks," Missy said, leaning back and sticking her chest out.

"Nah," Sam said, surprising himself, "It's not so bad. Well, the sparring sort of sucks, since my older brother always manages to kick my ass, but I like running. What're you guys doing here?"

"We come here sometimes just to hang," Rick said. "No one bothers us here. Well, except random runners, apparently."

"Oh, uh, I'm sorry," Sam stuttered, suddenly flushed. "I didn't know anyone would be here, and I-"

"Dude, chill," Rick laughed. "I'm kidding. It's cool. Why don't you hang out with us for awhile?"

"Uh," Sam hedged, "I'm not sure I have time. I've got… chores at home, and my dad'll be pissed if they're not done by the time he gets home."

"Oh, come on," Missy insisted. "Just for a while?"

Sam looked up at their friendly, smiling faces and felt his resolve crumble a little. Looking at his watch, he estimated that he could probably spare a half hour to hang out if he really pushed himself on the run back.

"Yeah," he smiled, "Okay. Just for a little while."

As anticipated, Sam had to push himself extra hard to make it home in time and was sweating and winded by the time he stumbled through the door. Dean gave him an inquisitive look but didn't comment, and Sam took a quick shower before buckling down to translate a few passages of Sanskrit.

It had totally been worth the punishing run home to spend a little while just relaxing with some normal, friendly kids his own age. They had seemed genuinely disappointed when Sam had announced he had to leave, and he allowed himself a small glimmer of hope. He couldn't believe his luck – making friends like them on the first day of school. They didn't even care that he was a freshman, despite the fact that they were all Juniors. This whole town was like a quaint little dream come true (though Dean would tease him mercilessly if Sam ever said that out loud).

By the time their dad got home, Sam had skillfully translated six Sanskrit passages and tied a row of perfect clove hitches and halyard bends. John looked over the translations and the knots with a pleased expression, clapping Sam heartily on the back.

"Nice work, son," John said gruffly. "Are you going to do your run before or after your homework?"

"I did three miles already, sir," Sam said, trying to keep from looking too smug.

"Now that's some good hustle, Sam," John smiled. "Glad to see you finally taking your training seriously. Take a break – I brought pizza for dinner."

Gladly putting the knot manual and line away, Sam joined his family for dinner. Rambling cheerfully about his first day of school and devouring a slice of mushroom and pepper, Sam missed the unspoken See, told you it would pay off expression on his brother's face and the responding look of grudging acceptance from John.

Dean went to bed that night feeling content and quite pleased with himself.

Sam was clearly thriving, even in the short time they'd been in town. The look on his little brother's face over pizza that night had been priceless. Dean hadn't seen Sam so relaxed and happy since he hit puberty, and it warmed him more than he would ever admit that it was his idea, his doing, that had caused the shift in Sam's outlook.

Just as Dean had suspected, Sam was far more willing – eager, even – to prove himself in training when he had something for himself, as well. Whether or not their dad would admit it, Dean knew John could see for himself that this had been a good idea. Sam was happy, Dean was happy, and with Sam falling in line with training and no arguments, John couldn't complain, either.

As he drifted off to sleep, though, Dean couldn't repress a faint twinge of concern. Sam had to remember that this was all temporary. If he let himself get too attached to this place, these new friends, it would be hard to leave. Dean didn't want to see Sam get hurt.

He could only hope that, when the time came, Sam would be able to take these months as the gift they were and move on without his heart breaking.

Sam's second day at school went much as the first had – his classes were easy enough that he didn't stress about them, but challenging enough that he wasn't bored. He continued to be met with a mix of friendliness and curiosity, and discovered quickly that being friends with Rick and the others gave him an automatic in with many of the more popular kids. He'd had Biology with Missy, who'd immediately waved him over and offered to be his lab partner. Sam had felt flushed with pride and a vague sense of attraction as she's shot him coy looks through her bangs and labeled plant structures.

He'd sat with the small group again at lunch, and managed to gather from some of the jealous looks he received that sitting at Rick's table was something of a coveted position. Sam couldn't quite suppress a flush of pride, realizing that, for perhaps the first time in his life, he was one of the popular kids.

Rick had sidled up to him in the hallway after final period, tossing a casual arm over Sam's shoulder and grinning.

"You still up for hanging out?" He asked.

"Yeah," Sam said, "for sure."

He'd cleared it with his Dad, who had apparently still been impressed enough by Sam's efforts the night before to agree with little more than a Don't stay out too late.

"Where are we going?"

"Figured we'd head out to the quarry again. The others are gonna meet us there. Missy's sister works at the pizza place in town, so Missy said she'd bring pizza."

"Cool," Sam grinned. "Sounds good. I've just got to swing by the office and grab the emergency contact forms my Dad forgot to sign, and I'll meet you out front, ok?"

Rick gave him a thumbs up and trotted off down the hallway, and Sam hurried to the office to get the forms.

The admin assistant had shuffled around looking for the forms for a few minutes before sighing and saying, "Oh, my. We're all out of copies. Let me run make some more, Dear, and I'll be back in a jiffy."

So Sam was sitting on a bench in the hallway, tapping his leg impatiently, when the red headed girl from his History class approached shyly and smiled.

"Hi," she said softly. "Um, is Miss Rogers in her office?"

"She just went to make some copies." Sam smiled. "But she'll be back in a minute. I think. What she actually said was a jiffy, and to be honest I have no idea what that means."

The girl laughed, covering her mouth self-consciously.

"I'm Sam," Sam said, extending his hand and trying to look non-threatening.

"Mia," she replied, flushing a deep pink as she took his hand and gave it a brief, shaky squeeze.

"Nice to meet you, Mia. Why don't you sit and wait with me?"

"Okay," Mia breathed, looking slightly overwhelmed. "Uh… thanks."

Mia sat, shifting uncomfortably, and there was a short, awkward silence before Sam cleared his throat and said, "So, you live here in town?"

"Yeah," Mia said, sounding less than pleased about it. "All my life. My dad runs the general store downtown, and my mom used to be a nurse at the clinic before she passed away."

"I'm sorry," Sam said sincerely. "About your mom, I mean."

"Oh," Mia said, sounding flustered. "I probably shouldn't have said that. I mean, I wasn't trying to make you pity me or something, and I shouldn't be telling you my life story, I just – I still feel bad if I mention my Dad and I don't say anything about Mom, like I'm leaving her out. But now I'm just doing it again, boring you with my stupid life and I should just shut up now before-"

"Hey," Sam interrupted. "It's okay, you're not boring me. My mom passed away when I was just a baby. I understand what you mean."

"Really? That's good. I mean, that you understand – not that your Mom passed, obviously that's not good, and I'm really sorry about that."

"It's okay," Sam assured her. "Thanks."

They chatted for a few more minutes before Mia paused and, looking painfully nervous said,

"Hey, so, um… I know you don't really know me, and you probably have better things to do, but if you're ever bored on a Saturday, my dad has a board game tournament at the store - out back - and you could stop by. You know, if you didn't have anything else going on. Not that I think you wouldn't – I'm sure you have lots of interesting stuff going on. But-"

"Sounds fun," Sam said, giving Mia a reassuring smile. "I'll stop by for sure, if my dad gives me a break from t- uh, chores."

"Really?" Mia beamed, looking surprised. "I mean, that's great! I'll even give you a fountain soda, on the house!"

"Awesome. I'll just-"

"Hey!" Rick's voice shouted from the school entrance, and Mia jumped in alarm. "Winchester, are you coming or what? The pizza's gonna get cold!"

"Yeah, Rick, I'll be there in a sec. Sorry!"

Rick, who had been leaning around the open doorway, rolled his eyes in a theatrical gesture and disappeared again.

"Sorry," Sam sighed, turning back to Mia. She was looking slightly ill, her face pale and a little pinched around the mouth.

"You're friends with Rick and them, huh?" she asked softly.

"Yeah, I guess," Sam said. "They're pretty cool. We're going to hang out at the quarry once I get the forms I need. You could probably come if you wanted."

Mia shook her head vehemently and stood to go. "No, no – that's okay. I've got lots of homework to do, and I should probably get going. Uh, nice to meet you, Sam. I'll see you around school, maybe."

"Ok," Sam said, confused at the sudden shift in Mia's mood. "I'll see you Saturday then, for board games?"

"Yeah," Mia said softly, looking pained. "Sure you will."

Then she turned and hurried towards the door.

"Hey, Mia, are you alr-"

But she had already disappeared outside, and Sam was left wondering what the hell had just happened.

Sam had almost forgotten about Mia's strange behavior by the time he was settled around an open box of pizza with Rick, Missy, Benny, Jude, and Gus. They were sitting on the same sun-warmed jut of rock by the edge of the clearing, joking between bites and teasing each other good-naturedly. Missy had sat down right next to Sam, so that her knee brushed his thigh when she crossed her legs, and Sam felt oddly thrilled every time her knee grazed his jeans. She was wearing her long hair down today, and Sam found himself thinking stupidly that the sunlight looked pretty in her blonde locks. He could only imagine how Dean would tease him if he could hear that thought.

"So, Sam, Mia cornered you in the hallway at school, huh?" Rick said suddenly.

"What? Oh, yeah. Well, she didn't corner me, we were just talking."

"Whoa," Jude exclaimed, leaning forward. "Dude, steer clear of that chick if you want to preserve any sort of social respect here."

"Yeah," Gus piped in. "She's completely weird. A total loser."

"She's actually pretty nice," Sam said hesitantly, a little thrown by the quick shift in attitude.

"Seriously," Missy said, putting a slim hand on his shoulder. "You don't want to get wrapped up in her drama, and you really don't want people to start thinking you like her. Trust us."

"Um, okay," Sam stuttered, not sure what else to say. Everyone was staring at him, waiting for him to say something, and there didn't seem to be any alternative other than to agree with them. This was his chance at normal, accepted, and these kids had taken him in immediately and made him feel welcome.

Who was to say that Mia wasn't someone to avoid, really? Maybe she had a whole other mean, devious side that Sam just hadn't seen yet. But remembering the painfully shy way she'd shaken his hand, though, and the surprised pleasure when he'd said he'd try to come on Saturday, Sam knew that wasn't true.

"Well," Missy smiled, standing and pulling her tank top off to reveal a bikini top. "Now that that's settled, who wants to go for a dip?"

Sam tried to smile as he joined the others on their way down to the water, but he couldn't shake a sense of guilt and a little shame. The sight of Missy in a bikini (which would have no doubt caused his hormone-ridden brain to implode less than five minutes ago) barely caught Sam's attention, and he found himself wondering how he'd thought she was pretty just minutes before. Jude's jokes sounded flat and sort of mean, now, and Rick's wide, earnest smile suddenly looked more than a little predatory.

They've been nothing but nice to me, Sam reminded himself. Don't screw this up.

Still, he couldn't shake the memory of Mia's face at the sound of Rick's voice – tight and ashamed and a little scared – and wondered just how nice they'd been to her.

Sam found himself half-avoiding Rick and the others the next day at school. It wasn't so hard, actually, since his Friday schedule had no shared classes with them. He saw Rick in the hallway once on his way to Biology, and waved and smiled, but his heart wasn't really in it. He begged out of eating lunch with the group with a half-truth about needing to go to the library to study, but ended up sitting in the reference section staring at the same paragraph for the entire lunch period trying to sort out what to do.

The thing was, other than their apparent casual disdain for Mia, Sam really liked these kids. Each of them was like a little piece of the life he craved – popular, athletic, funny, admired. And for some reason, still unbeknownst to Sam, they had taken him into their little group with stunning swiftness. They'd been friendly, inclusive, and eager to get to know him. It was the first time Sam had ever slipped so easily into any sort of social acceptance, and the most friends he had ever had in the same place and time.

But something in his gut clenched unpleasantly every time he thought about the way Missy's mouth had scrunched up in distaste at Mia's name. Or the way Rick's face had shifted into an expression of condescending scorn when Sam had said she was nice. He thought about himself, going along with what they said, and felt mildly ill.

He didn't know what to do.

He still didn't know what to do by the time school ended for the week and Rick approached him on the front steps.

"Hey, Sam," Rick said, falling into step with Sam as Sam turned down the sidewalk towards their house. "Got plans tomorrow? We were thinking of catching a matinee, maybe hanging out at Gus' afterward.

Mia's face popped into Sam's head, smiling as he said he'd come to play board games.

"Actually, I've got a lot of stuff to do around the house tomorrow," Sam found himself saying. "I've been slacking on my chores and my dad is getting a little pissed. I've gotta catch up on some stuff or I'll be doing PT all next week and then I won't have any time to hang out."

"Oh, come on, man! You can sneak away for a few hours!"

"Dude," Sam said, incredulous, "My Dad's an ex Marine. There's no sneaking away from him."

"That sucks," Rick pouted. "Well, maybe next weekend we can catch another movie or something. If your dad doesn't have you doing pull-ups or beach landings or something."

"Yeah," Sam smiled. "Sure thing."

"Okay, well, good luck with your indentured servitude, Sam. I'll see you Monday!"

Sam waved as Rick headed off in the opposite direction, feeling like a liar for not telling Rick the truth about his plans.

Head down, Sam made his way home and tried not to think about the fact that he had been relieved to see Rick go.

Sam got up early Saturday to spar with Dean and work on his marksmanship, hoping to be done by lunch so he could stop by the general store and say hi to Mia. He'd laid awake late the night before, thinking about Rick and Mia and his choices. He didn't want to cut ties with his new friends, but he wasn't willing to keep them at the expense of someone else. He'd weighed all the options, over and over again, making lists in his head, until he'd decided that he just didn't know any of these people well enough yet to make an informed decision. He'd decided to go see Mia today and try to sort out her side of things as best he could, then go from there.

John had seemed pleased with Sam's improving bow skills, and he'd managed to briefly pin Dean when they sparred (right before Dean flipped him and won the match, but still, it was more than he usually got.) Once again, his hard work in training paid off and his dad let him go into town at noon without any argument.

At the general store, Sam nodded a greeting to the old men sunning themselves out front and searched the interior for Mia. There was a tall, rather rotund red headed man behind the counter filling up penny-candy jars – Mia's dad, Sam gathered.

"Hi," Sam said, and the man looked up and grinned broadly through a thick red beard.

"Can I help you?"

"Uh, my name's Sam Winchester – I know Mia from school. She invited me to come by for some board games today."

"You're a friend of Mia's?" the man said, sounding excited. "I'm her dad – Norman. Can I get ya a soda or something? We have birch beer – I make it myself. Ten times better than root beer!"

"Sure," Sam said. "That sounds great."

Plucking a brown glass bottle out from the cooler, Norman passed it to Sam and stuck his head out a nearby window to shout Mia's name. Sam shuffled his feet and waited for Mia to appear. The birch beer really was good.

"Yeah, Dad?" Mia asked, appearing in a doorway to the left.

"Hi, Mia," Sam said, waving and smiling. Mia looked slightly dumbstruck, staring wordlessly at Sam for a moment before her face broke out in a grin that mirrored her father's.

"Sam! You came?"

"Yeah," Sam said. "I've been looking forward to it. How're you?"

"Oh, I'm – I'm just fine. Thanks. I was just setting up Scrabble. Do you like that game? Because we've got others, if that's not your thing. We could-"

"Sounds great," Sam chuckled. "I love Scrabble, but no one in my family will ever play me. Dean, my brother, says that I cheat. He didn't believe that xenoglossy was a real word, even after I showed it to him in the dictionary."

Mia laughed, and Sam heard Norman chuckle off to the side.

"Well," she said, "I'm the reigning Scrabble champ around here, so it'll be a monumental showdown. Do you wanna come out back and help me set up?"

"Yeah, sounds good. I'll-"

Sam was interrupted by the tinkling of the bell over the shop door and a familiar laugh. Mia, who was facing the door, looked abruptly anxious, and Sam felt a guilty lurch in his stomach.

"Sam?" Rick said from behind him, and Sam took a deep breath and turned to find Rick, Missy, and Gus all staring at him with surprised, wary expressions. "Dude, what are you doing here? I thought you had chores or something."

For a split second, Sam could see both ways this could play out. He could lie and say Yeah, I do, my dad just sent me down here for some groceries, but I've got to get home again. Rick would roll his eyes but laugh, and they'd make plans for later in the week. Sam would try out for the soccer team. Maybe take Missy to the spring formal. He could enjoy the rest of his time here as one of the popular kids, hanging out with friends and being normal, accepted, and happy. He could walk right out of this store with them, never even turn around to see the hurt look on Mia's face.

Or, he could tell the truth, stand up for Mia, and lose his friends and his place in their social circle. He could once again be the dork, the outsider, the one who didn't belong. No more weekend get-togethers, no more lunch table full of joking and laughter. He hated being that kid – but, then again, that was what Mia lived with every day. Did he really want to be one of the people that made her feel that way?

Rick and the others were staring at him, waiting. Sam took a deep breath.

"I'm all done with my chores for the morning," he said, trying to keep his voice from shaking. "I came down here to hang out with Mia."

Rick snorted out a harsh laugh, looking amused.

"Yeah, Winchester, good one," he chuckled. "Come on – ditch the loser and let's go hang."

"Hey," Norman growled, slamming down a jar of Swedish fish. "That's my daughter you're talking about. You can turn right around and get the hell out of my store."

Rick shot Norman a haughty look but didn't move.

"She's not a loser," Sam said, voice stronger. "She's a great person, but you're too much of a conceited, shallow jerk to see that. Why do you have to be such an ass to her?"

The expectant grin was gone from Rick's face in an instant, replaced by anger and confusion.

"What?" he said, sounding slightly dangerous. Behind him, Missy was sneering and Gus glared. "What the hell, Winchester? We took you in and treated you good, and you're going to choose her over us? She's a nobody."

"It's not just how you treat me that matters, Rick. I have no interest in being friends with someone who's cruel and petty, and I have no interest in hanging out with bullies. Mia's a better person than you could ever hope to be."

"You're making a big mistake, Sam," Rick said, fists clenched at his sides. "I hope Tubby there is worth it."

Norman was coming around the counter, murder in his eyes. Sam stepped forward and put a steady hand on Rick's chest, shoving him back towards the door. Rick stumbled back into Missy and Gus, who gave twin exclamations of surprise and outrage.

"Leave. Now," Sam said, staring Rick in the eyes. "You're not welcome here."

"This isn't over, Winchester," Rick growled as the others slipped out the door. "You're going to wish you hadn't crossed me. Have fun being King of the Losers, freak."

Face red with anger, Rick followed his friends out the door and Sam heaved a sigh of relief. Norman shoved the shop door open, bell clanging, and shouted at the retreating teens.

"Don't even think about setting foot in my shop again, you spineless little twerps!"

Sam turned to look at Mia, who was staring at him with something akin to wonder. There were fresh tear tracks on her freckled cheeks and she was hugging herself protectively.

"I'm so sorry," Sam said, taking a careful step towards her. "I had no idea those guys were such jerks when I started hanging out with them."

"It's okay," Mia said, a tentative smile creeping back onto her face. "I can't believe that you said those things to them. No one's ever – I mean, you didn't have to stand up for me like that."

"Yes," Sam said emphatically, "I did. They had no right to talk about you like that. Are you okay?"

"Yeah," she sniffled, straightening up. "I'm – I'm good."

Norman reappeared and wrapped a big arm around his daughter's shoulders, pulling her to him. Mia smiled up at him, leaning into his chest.

"I'm okay, Daddy," she promised. "Thanks for running them off."

"Those jackasses better hope they're never stupid enough to come back in here," Norman growled. Taking a deep breath, he looked at Sam intently. "Thanks. For sticking up for my Mia."

"Of course," Sam said, slightly uncomfortable with their gratitude. "Let's not let them ruin our afternoon, okay? Are you still up for some Scrabble, Mia?"

"Yeah," She smiled, giving her dad a quick kiss on the cheek before stepping away. "Unless you're afraid of getting your ass whooped by a girl."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Sam laughed, and followed her out into the courtyard.

Despite the nagging worry over Rick's last words to him, Sam found that he felt better than he had in days.

An afternoon spent with Mia further cemented in Sam's mind that he had done the right thing. Mia was shy and had a tendency to ramble when nervous, but she was kind and had a sharp wit once she relaxed. She'd been a challenging Scrabble opponent, and Sam had had a good time with her.

It was later than he intended that he finally made it home, and Sam could tell that his Dad was slightly annoyed at the hour.

"Cutting it a little close, aren't we?" he asked Sam, raising one eyebrow.

"Sorry, sir," Sam said, trying to sound apologetic. "I lost track of time."

"Well," John said, pouring himself a cup of coffee, "Why don't you go for a run, get a few miles in before dark, then we'll work on hand-to-hand."

Sam stifled a groan, knowing that he was going to get his ass handed to him in hand-to-hand, especially if he had to run beforehand. Still, John had been pretty lenient in allowing Sam to have time to himself, and the fragile peace between them had improved. He'd do his two miles without complaint and hope that the delicate balance could be maintained.

"Okay," he said. "Just let me change."

John looked mildly surprised at Sam's lack of complaint, but simply nodded.

Ten minutes later, Sam was changed into his track pants and a tank top and headed toward the trailhead. It was hot and sticky, and he was already sweating unpleasantly. By the time he got to the trailhead, the mottled shade of the woods was a welcome relief. He did some quick stretches and set off at a good pace.

Sam could only imagine what was waiting for him at school on Monday. No doubt Rick would have spread the word that Sam had fallen from the ranks of the popular. It would be back to being the freak, but oddly the idea didn't bother Sam as much as he thought it would. Now that's he'd seen what Rick and the others were really like, it didn't feel so much like a loss. At least he had a friend in Mia. And, like all of the places he'd lived, this place was a temporary pit stop on the Great Winchester Road Trip. Eventually they'd leave it all behind, and Rick and the others would fade into nothing more than memory.

Feet thudding against the worn dirt path, Sam was so caught up in his thoughts that he didn't see the dark shape stepping out next to the path until it was too late. He had just enough time to realize that he wasn't alone before something rough and heavy struck him just below the knees. Still moving at a fast pace, Sam was helpless to prevent himself from slamming into the ground as his legs were knocked out from under him. His hands, flung out instinctively to catch himself, skidded along the rough dirt painfully, and his chin bounced off the earth hard enough to make him see stars. Dazed and more than a little shocked, Sam pulled his throbbing hands in towards his chest and tried to roll over. Someone's foot stepped down hard on his upper back, pinning him on his stomach and pushing the air out of his lungs.

"Just look at my luck," Rick sneered, and Sam's blood went cold. "Finding the high and mighty Sam Winchester out here in the woods, all alone."

The foot on his back pressed down, and Sam moaned.

"I told you this wasn't over, you little freak."

"You made the wrong choice, Sam," Jude's voice said, somewhere to his right, just before a foot connected painfully with his ribs. Sam grunted and got his hands under him, eyes tearing up as his shredded palms pressed against the dirt. Hot, throbbing pain was blossoming on his ribs, but he shoved upward with all his might and rolled to the left, struggling to get to his feet as soon as Rick's weight was off his back. Moving quickly, he grabbed at Rick's ankle while the other boy was still off-balance. Twisting and pushing up against the sole of Rick's foot, Sam managed to topple the older boy. Rick grunted as he dropped to his side on the ground, growling and kicking his foot free from Sam's grasp.

Taking the opportunity to roll to his feet, Sam braced his feet and let his knees bend slightly, bringing his hands up to complete the fighter's stance.

Rick was climbing to his feet, a look of focused anger marring his farm-boy face. Jude stood just behind Rick, a lethal smirk twisting his mouth, Gus and Benny behind him. Benny held a tree branch about as thick as Sam's forearm – what he'd used to knock Sam off his feet, most likely.

These were not odds that Sam liked.

"You shouldn't have done that, Sam," Rick said. The other boys were fanning out to the side in an attempt to surround him, and Sam shifted back a little to get some distance.

"I didn't start this," Sam said. "I don't want to fight you, Rick."

"Damn straight you don't," Rick laughed. "Puny little runt like you? I could snap you in half."

"Yeah? That why you had to bring three other guys to back you up?"

"You disrespected all of us," Rick growled. "Why should I be the only one entitled to a little… retribution?"

"You're one to talk about respect, Rick," Sam said, eyeing the other three boys nervously as they continued to flank him. "We never would have had a problem if you had treated Mia with a little respect."

Rick laughed, the sound cold and anything but amused. "That girl is a loser. Why the hell would I ever waste my time with her?"

"You're too much of a shallow bastard to ever be able to answer that question," Sam said, voice hard with anger. "And that's your loss. I can't believe I ever wanted to be friends with you."

"Well, Sammy-boy," Rick smirked, "That's not something you need to concern yourself with anymore – we're way past being friends, now."

As though through some unspoken signal, Jude and Gus rushed Sam from both sides. Their approaches were sloppy, obvious, and Sam saw them coming a mile away. Shifting his weight back onto his right leg, he back-stepped Gus's swinging fist and ducked under Jude's attempt at a cross-hook. Jude stumbled at the lack of expected resistance to his forward momentum, and Sam helped him along with a well-placed kick to the back of his knees. Gus's uncontrolled swing left him exposed and unbalanced, and Sam jabbed him hard in the stomach with two rapid punches, following it up with a swift upper-cut to Gus's jaw. Gus sat down hard, groaning as he flopped onto his back in a semi-conscious daze.

"Son of a bitch," Jude yelled, scrabbling back onto his feet. Rick was advancing from the front, looking pissed but a little less casually confident. Benny glared silently, spinning the tree branch in his hand as he stepped over Gus to flank Sam from the left.

This time when Jude came at him, it was tighter, more controlled. Sam barely dodged the blow, pushing Jude's arm off-center with his forearm and forcing Jude to turn farther into the punch. A roundhouse kick to the ribs, and Jude went down swearing and panting. The kick had unfortunately turned Sam farther away from his other two opponents than he intended, and he realized too late that he'd given Rick an opening. Turning and ducking, he tried to avoid the punch, but Rick's fist connected solidly with his left cheekbone and toppled him to the ground. His eye watered painfully and he blinked frantically to clear his vision as he moved to regain his feet. His eye was already swelling shut, so he didn't see Benny step in from the left, swinging the tree branch to strike Sam across his shoulder blades.

Crying out in surprised pain, Sam dropped to his knees in the dirt and fought to catch his breath.

"Not so strong now, are ya?" Benny sneered, jabbing the end of the branch under Sam's chin to force his head up. Rick stepped up beside Benny, grinning dangerously as he flexed his hands into fists, and he could see Jude, hunched over but upright, behind Rick. They were too close, there were too many of them, and Sam was in too vulnerable of a position. If he tried to make a move, if he tried to get up or fight, they'd be on him in seconds. Sam's chest constricted in fear, his mind scrambling for a way out of this. He heard his Dad's voice in his head, saying If you don't have any other weapon, you still have your brain and your mouth – use them, try to talk your way out. Say whatever you have to to get away.

"Listen," Sam panted, putting his hands up in a placating gesture. "We don't have to do this, okay? You win. I'm sorry. You can tell everyone at school that I begged for mercy or pissed my pants or whatever you like, but let's not-"

Rick's fist slammed into Sam's jaw this time, effectively shutting him up. Blood flooded his mouth immediately, and he spit a spray of crimson down the front of his shirt as he struggled to stay upright.

"I'll tell everyone at school whatever the hell I want, Winchester," Rick sneered. "I sure as hell don't need your permission. But you know what they say – actions speak louder than words. I think a little visual evidence is the way to go. That way everyone who sees you will know what a little bitch you are."

Sam got as far as taking a breath to speak, to try to somehow convince them to stop,before someone's foot connected with his solar plexus and drove him onto his back. Then it was a hail of feet and fists and, he suspected, that tree branch, exploding against his skin like little supernovas of pain. He tried to curl up in a protective ball, bringing his arms up to cover his head like his Dad had taught him, but someone grabbed at his wrists and pinned them to the ground. There were snippets of voices filtering through the red haze surrounding him, snarling words like freak, bitch, and gonna pay.

Then something hard connected with the side of his head, and the world around him burst like a balloon before being washed away by darkness.

Sam regained consciousness with a startling jolt, his body still screaming at him to run, fight, something! His heart pounded against the inside of his ribs like someone trying to break down a door, and his muscles spasmed in a painful attempt to make him move. The sound of his breathing was loud and wet, gurgling through a mouthful of blood. Shaking with panic and hurt, Sam tried to open his eyes. Only the right one would open, revealing a patch of scuffed dirt and dead leaves. Something in his chest flared white hot, and he coughed violently. Bright red blood spattered onto the leaves under his face and he moaned pitifully, rolling onto his back. Everything hurt, and nausea roiled like a hot acid in his stomach.

What the hell happened to me? Are we on a hunt? Oh, god – Dad, Dean…

"D-Dean," he gasped. "Dad…"

There was no answer other than the faint whisper of wind in the trees and the hum of insects. The leaves above him, backlit by fading sunlight, swayed and fluttered in the breeze. Sam stared, watching the silhouettes of birds flit through the branches, and felt mesmerized. It was so tempting to just lie there and watch the shifting green play of leaves. He thought maybe he could just drift away again, follow one of the sparrows that darted overhead, away from the aching mess of his body.

But he still had no idea where he was, what kind of danger he was in. What kind of danger his family was in.

You've gotta move, Sam, Dean's voice said in his head.

Sam gritted his teeth, alarmed to feel one of them move, and rolled back onto his side. He breathed through a moment of vertigo, then tried to push himself up using his hands. His palms burned and pain flared up his wrists, and Sam sobbed in frustration as he thudded back to the ground. Turning one hand over, he could see that his palm was abraded and full of pebbles and dirt. There were swollen red finger marks around the bony part of his wrist, already flushing purple as they turned into bruises. Taking a deep breath, Sam braced his elbows against the ground and tried again. His arms shook and his breath caught, but he managed to work himself into a hunched sort of seated position. Taking a moment to catch his breath, he panted through his mouth. His nose felt clogged and swollen, and when he raised a trembling, tentative hand to touch it his whole face throbbed in protest.

Blinking his one good eye in an attempt to focus, Sam took stock of his surroundings. He was on a path on some sort in the woods, and he was alone.

"Dean?" He called again. "Dad?"

Still no answer, and Sam's panic ratcheted up a notch. They'd never leave him alone and hurt, he knew that. Something must have happened to them.

No, Sam thought desperately, ignoring the pain in his hands as he pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. They're okay. They've got to be okay. I'm going to save them.

Wobbling uncertainly for a moment, Sam considered the path. He had no idea which way to go, but he doubted he'd be able to make it up the incline to his right. Praying that he was going to right way, he stumbled off to the left.

Dean stared at the clock, one leg jittering anxiously.

Sam had been gone for more than an hour now, on a run that should have taken him no more than thirty minutes. The late afternoon sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky, and a pit of unease had taken up residence in Dean's gut. It was possible that Sam was just shirking his duties, or had met up with friends and lost track of time, but every big brother instinct that Dean had screamed that that wasn't the case. Sam had been doing well with his training and his responsibilities. Things had been good, and Sam was smart enough to know he'd be screwing that up if he decided to duck his training. Something was wrong. Dean knew it.

Finally, Dean heard the slam of the Impala's door in the driveway, announcing John's return from the local store. Shooting up out of the kitchen chair like he'd been stung, Dean rushed to meet his father at the door.

"Dad," he exclaimed before the porch door was even halfway open, "Sam's still not back from his run."

"What?" John said, juggling a bag of groceries and looking mildly annoyed. "Didn't he leave right before I did?"

"Yeah – that was more than an hour ago. He should have been back by now. I don't think he'd just run off to hang out with those kids from school. Something's wrong."

Looking more concerned than annoyed now, John moved past Dean into the kitchen and set down the groceries.

"He's definitely not hanging out with that crowd from school," John said, running a hand through his hair. "I had a talk with Norman, the man who runs the general store. He said there was an incident there this afternoon while Sam was hanging out with his daughter, Mia. Those kids Sam's been spending time with – they came in and started in on Mia, bullying her, and Sam stood up to them. Norman wanted to thank me for what Sam did. He said he and Sam drove those kids out of the store, but the leader of their little pack looked more than a little pissed at Sam."

Dean's guts clenched in icy fear even as he felt a swell of pride for Sammy, sticking up for that girl. Those kids Sam had been hanging out with were older than him, bigger, and they outnumbered him. Sam could hold his own pretty well in a one-on-one fight, but he was still small for his age and outnumbered, he'd be in trouble. The altercation at the store, combined with Sam's unusual and unexplained tardiness, spelled trouble.

"Dad," Dean said, already snagging the first aid kit out from under the sink, "We need to go find Sammy. Now.

Where am I going?

Sam stumbled again, his foot catching on a root. The woods were spinning around him in a lazy loop, and his thoughts were getting more and more hazy. He knew he was supposed to be going somewhere, doing something, but every time he tried to grasp those thoughts they slipped away from him like eels. The only thing he was sure of was that he needed to keep moving, keep putting one foot in front of another, no matter how much his body insisted it needed to stop.

He thought maybe it was getting dark. Or maybe that was him. His one good eye seemed to be taking longer and longer to open between blinks, and twice now he'd opened his eye to realize he'd veered off the path without realizing it.

Dean, he thought feverishly, but couldn't remember if he was going to Dean, or if Dean was coming to him. God, he hoped Dean was coming to him…

Sam's foot snagged on another root, and this time he went down hard. His raw hands drove into the ground all over again in a useless attempt to catch himself, and the resulting pain tore a feeble cry from his throat. Wheezing against the renewed pressure on his chest, he flopped over onto his side and sobbed. Tears made hot tracks down his cheeks, cutting through the dried mud of dirt and blood that coated the side of his face. His nose throbbed as he cried and his left eye, still swollen shut, ached as tears forced themselves from under the inflamed lids.

He knew he couldn't get up again. Maybe, if he just closed his eyes and rested for awhile…

Please, Dean… Please come and get me.

Sam curled in on himself, cradling his hands to his chest, and let his good eye drift shut.

Knowing that Sam usually ran along the path that led to the quarry, Dean and John had driven the Impala straight for the trailhead. Dean's heart was hammering with poorly suppressed panic, and he knew he was in danger of rushing into things ill-prepared, but John didn't say anything if he could see the alarm in his eldest son's eyes. His father knew to trust Dean's instincts when it came to Sammy, and Dean suspected that John was beginning to feel an edge of panic, himself.

The sun had disappeared over the horizon, and while it was still light and rosy out in the open, the trail was shaded and dim. Dean had slipped out of the car and gripped his heavy Maglight flashlight in one hand once they'd reached the trail, breaking into a swift jog as soon as his feet hit the path.

They'd gone no more than an eighth of a mile before John, keeping pace close behind Dean, had called a stop.

"Dad, we've got to keep going," Dean insisted, something like an invisible string pulling at him to move.

"Dean," John rumbled, crouching at the edge of the path, "look at this. Here – there are signs of a struggle. Footprints."

Heart sinking, Dean aimed his flashlight at the ground and looked. There were several sets of footprints, sneakers, about the right size for teenage boys. The prints were all over the place, intermingled with wide scuff marks and bits of disturbed earth. And there, in a dark, congealing smudge, blood. Dean's breath hissed out of him in a mixture of fear and rage, and he heard John's sudden intake of air as he looked where Dean's flashlight was aimed.

"Son of a bitch," Dean growled. "I'm going to kill them."

"First we find Sammy," John said lowly, but Dean could hear the hard steel in his voice. Those kids were dead. "Here – those are Sam's trainers, aren't they?"

Dean looked where his father was pointing his flashlight and nodded. Those were Sammy's tracks, alright. Both Winchesters followed the prints (running) from further up the path, to the place where they disappeared amid the scuffle of other prints, then to the uneven, staggering gait that continued down the path towards the quarry.

"He's moving," John said, standing and heading further down the trail. "And the other tracks head back towards the road, so he's alone."

Dean was relieved that Sam's attackers hadn't followed him further into the woods, but he couldn't help the twinge of guilt he felt at those words because Sammy was hurt, and alone.

I should have protected him, Dean thought bitterly. And no matter how illogical it was for him to feel guilty over something he never could have foreseen, he was Sam's big brother, and he'd failed to do the one thing that mattered over all others.

Protect Sammy.

Setting his jaw in determination, Dean took off running down the path. He could hear his father behind him, keeping pace, but his mind was set on only one thing – finding his little brother. The beam of his flashlight bobbed dizzyingly over the path in front of him, leaving strange after-images behind his eyes, and it was getting harder to see the areas not illuminated by his light.

That was why, less than ten minutes later, Dean nearly tripped over his brother before he saw him, facedown and motionless in the middle of the path.

The sound of his brother's voice was the first thing Sam heard. Dean's familiar cadence pulled him from the security of unconsciousness like he was a fish on a hook, fighting against being drawn back into the pain and fear of the waking world.

"-e's bleeding behind his ear," Dean was saying, other confusing bits of conversation overlapping each other in his father's and his brother's voices.

"-ose is broken-"

"-ribs, maybe just cracked-"

"-ake up, Sammy, come o-"

There was something warm and solid against his right ear, a fast but steady thump-thump, thump-thump sounding under its surface. It was a beat that had comforted him to sleep as a little boy, a beat that he'd woken to in the back seat of the Impala more times than he could count. It said you're-home, you're-home, and Sam knew he was lying against Dean's chest.

A gentle hand smoothed the bangs away from his brow, and Sam blinked his good eye open. He was looking up at Dean's chin, his brother's face dark against the last bit of light filtering through the treetops. Dean was looking somewhere past Sam's head, his expression tight with worry. Sam tried to say his name, but only managed a rough whimper.

Dean's face swiveled instantly down to meet Sam's confused gaze, his eyes warming. "Sam? You awake, kiddo?"

Sam blinked blearily in response, trying to swallow past the dryness in his throat.

"Here," Dean said gently, putting a canteen to his lips. "Take small sips."

Sam sipped gratefully at the tepid water until he had to stop for breath, still unable to breathe through his nose.

"Dean," he whispered. "What- Where are we?"

"We're still in the woods," his father said, John's dark profile appearing close to Dean's. "But we're gonna get you out of here, son, and get you fixed up. You're gonna be okay."

"Sammy," Dean said, rubbing small circles on Sam's shoulder with the hand that was holding Sam to his chest. "Did those kids from school do this to you?"

Running on the path. Being knocked down. Rick, sneering as his fist swung towards Sam's face.

"Yeah," Sam said, alarmed to hear his voice tightening with tears. "I'm sorry. I-I let them get the drop on me."

"Hey," Dean said, voice strong. "Don't you dare apologize, Sam. This wasn't your fault. We're going to make sure those shitheads pay, but right now all we need to worry about is taking care of you."

Sam tried to hold back a breathy sob, whimpering as the effort taxed his bruised ribs.

"I m-messed everything up," he gasped, closing his eyes wearily.

"No, Kiddo," Dean said insistently. "You did great. You didn't mess anything up. But you gotta keep your eyes open for me, okay? Don't go to sleep, Sam. Sam? Come on…"

But Sam was already drifting away again, the comforting thump of Dean's heart following him into the dark.

Dean clutched his brother closer to his chest, fighting the urge to squeeze Sam too tightly. The kid was a mess of bruises and blood – Dean wasn't even sure where he could put his hands that wouldn't hurt Sam. Not that Sam was awake to be hurt – he'd slipped back into unconsciousness after a brief period of lucidity, and was now disturbingly still and silent other than his wet breathing.

John was taping a pad of gauze over a still-oozing gash behind Sam's ear, and Dean could see the tension in his father's shoulders even in the low light.

"We've got to get Sam out of here, Dad," Dean said, cradling Sam's head gently against his chest with the hand that wasn't supporting his brother's torso. "He needs a hospital."

"I know, Son," John rumbled, wiping Sam's blood off his hands on his jeans. "I've done everything for him I can here. Can you lift him, or do you need me to-"

"I got 'im," Dean said immediately, hooking an arm under Sam's knees and struggling to his feet. Sam moaned a little at the motion but remained unconscious, his head lolling limply before coming to rest against Dean's neck. Sam's skin felt unnaturally cool where it pressed against his, but Dean couldn't tell if it was the chill of oncoming night or shock that was to blame.

"You're gonna be okay, Kiddo," Dean whispered into Sam's hair, gently adjusting his hold before following their dad back up the path.

Dean's arms were shaking with strain and his back wet with sweat by the time they reached the road and the Impala, but not once during the long trek back had he even considered asking John to carry Sam.

There wasn't a chance in hell Dean was letting go of his brother. Letting go simply wasn't an option.

Not now, not ever.

Later, Sam would remember only hazy snapshots of that night.

Waking up in the back of the Impala as his dad took a turn too quick and the inertia jostled him painfully.

Dean, talking to him in a low soothing voice, his brother's fingers smoothing his hair.

Strange hands, pulling him out of the back of the car and onto a stretcher as he flailed and called out for his family.

The sharp smell of hospital antiseptic and the buzz of unfamiliar voices as blurry figures moved around him.

Dean's fingers, clenched in his, steady and reassuring. That was what he would remember most clearly.

Dean's fingers were still resting gently on the back of his hand when Sam woke up in his hospital bed, soft morning light bathing the room in a rosy glow. He felt woozy and slightly disconnected, the way he always did with painkillers in his system, but the pain was thankfully muted – more of a background noise than the full-fledged orchestra of sensation he vaguely remembered from the night before.

Dean was slumped wearily in a chair next to his bed, chin resting on his chest and his hand resting on Sam's. Sam tried to move his fingers to grasp Dean's and let his brother know he was awake, but his hand felt stiff and sore and the aborted movement sent a twinge up his arm that had him gritting his teeth. Dean must have felt Sam's hand twitch, though, because he stirred and groaned, swatting himself in the face clumsily as he tried to rub the sleep from his eyes.

"Sammy? You awake?" he asked, blinking blearily and leaning forward.

"Hey," Sam croaked. His voice sounded as if he hadn't used it in a year, but Dean still grinned like it was music to his ears.

"Hey, yourself. How're you feeling?"

"Not too bad," Sam said, trying to smile back despite the pull of a split lip and a swollen cheek.

"Dude," Dean grimaced. "Don't try to smile. It makes my face hurt just watching you."

"Jerk," Sam whispered.

"Bitch," Dean replied, right on cue.

Sam shifted restlessly, trying to get comfortable. His ribs twinged unpleasantly, and he was struck with the sudden memory of Jude's foot driving the breath from his body. He remembered Rick, standing over him with a tree branch in his hand and a smirk on his face, and shame and disappointment flooded him

"Dean," he said softly, "I'm sorry. I really screwed things up."

"Hey," Dean said sternly, squeezing his arm. "None of this was your fault, okay? You didn't screw anything up."

"Yes," Sam said, eyes tearing up, "I did. I never should have gotten involved with those guys, and now everything's messed up. You tried to let me have a little bit of normal, and I ruined it. I ruined everything."

"Sammy," Dean said, voice thick with concern and surprise. "You didn't. You stood up for someone who couldn't stand up for herself. You did the right thing, little brother, and I'm so proud of you. This isn't your fault. It's those bastards who did this to you that deserve the blame."

Sam raised a hand to carefully wipe an errant tear away, wincing as his stiff fingers came in contact with his face. He always felt raw and too emotional when he was hurt, and it was hard to ignore the sense of injustice and disappointment that filled him when he thought about how quickly his plans for their time in Tennyson had crumbled. All he'd wanted was just a few weeks of being a normal kid in a normal school. He'd let himself believe that he could have friends, and that for once he wouldn't be the freak. He'd gotten just a taste of that life, then had it stomped (quite literally) into the ground.

"I'm sorry," he said again, unsure rather he was apologizing for crying or for messing up their chance at a quiet few months in a nice place.

"It's okay," Dean sighed, his thumb rubbing small circles on Sam's forearm.

John chose that moment to appear in the doorway, two cups of coffee clutched in his hands. He smiled tiredly when Sam looked at him, making his way over to sit heavily in the chair next to Dean's.

"Hey, Kid, you're awake," he rumbled, handing one of the cups off to Dean. His face tightened as he took in Sam's damp eyes. "Are you in pain? Do you need me to get a nurse?"

"No," Sam said, "I'm okay. How bad am I messed up?"

John sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face, taking a gulp of coffee before answering.

"You're pretty banged up," he said. "But you're going to be fine. Coupla bruised ribs, a lot of bruising and scrapes. You've got a nasty shiner and your cheekbone is badly bruised. Some cuts on the inside of your cheeks, and your nose had a hairline fracture but nothing was out of place. Your palms are pretty scraped up, but they cleaned them off and they should heal up fine. You also had a concussion, and they put in four stitches behind your ear where you were hit."

"Oh," Sam said, a little overwhelmed. "Is that all?"

John chuckled sarcastically and Dean managed a tight smile.

"When can I go home?" Sam asked, already sick of the smell of hospital.

"Doc's gotta look you over sometime this morning, and as long as he's happy you can go home later today," John said.

"Okay," Sam said, snuggling down further into his pillow and trying to stifle a yawn.

"Get some rest, son," John smiled. "We'll wake you before the doc gets here."

"You'll stay?" Sam asked, looking between his father and brother.

"Not going anywhere without you, Sammy," Dean promised, pulling the blankets up and tucking them around Sam's shoulders.

Despite the many aches and pains in his body, Sam fell asleep with a sense of warmth and safety, knowing Dean and his Dad were watching over him.

The hospital had discharged Sam later that afternoon with strict instructions to take it easy, and Dean and John had driven him home to bundle him up in his bed. The doctor had given him a prescription for pain meds, and Sam found himself dozing on and off most of the evening and following morning. Dean and his dad would check on him periodically, bringing him magazines and soup when he was awake. Dean even wheeled the TV and VCR into Sam's room, producing several VHS movies for Sam to choose from. He'd fallen asleep halfway through The Goonies, and woken up a few hours later to Dean tapping softly on the doorframe.

"Hey – Sam," Dean said, smiling as Sam blinked wearily at him. "You up for a visitor?"

"Huh?" Sam said, still trying to gather his faculties. "Visitor?"

"Yeah. Mia stopped by to see how you're feeling. Think you're up to saying hi?"

"Yeah. Sure," Sam said, pulling himself up into a seated position.

Dean disappeared around the doorframe, reappearing a moment later with a distraught looking Mia, who was carrying a white cake box and a bag. She gasped in dismay when she saw Sam's battered face, tears welling in her eyes.

"Oh, Sam, I'm so sorry," she said, moving tentatively into the room.

"Hey, it's not your fault," Sam rushed to assure her. "Plus, it looks worse than it is. I'm going to be fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah," Sam smiled. "I'm sure. Are you okay?"

"You're asking me if I'm okay?" she asked incredulously. "Yeah. I'm okay. Just a little… shaken up, I suppose. I mean, I knew those guys were jerks, but I never thought they'd do something like this."

"Yeah," Sam sighed, "Me either."

"My dad's hanging out in the kitchen with your dad," Mia said, sitting in the chair next to the bed and rolling her eyes. "They're talking about skeet shooting. Personally, I just don't get the appeal.

"Me either," Sam smiled. "But that's good, that they're getting along."

"Yeah," Mia said, smiling back. "Though I think they were just waiting for me to leave the room so they could come up with some sort of revenge scheme against Rick and the others."

Sam's smile faltered a little and a niggling anxiety blossomed in his chest. He knew his Dad would never conspire to break the law with a civilian, but it raised the issue of what, exactly, his family was planning to do about the people who'd put him in his current state. Sam knew his family, knew how they thought, and none of the possible "solutions" he could envision them devising meant anything good for Rick and his friends.

"Oh, here –" Mia exclaimed suddenly, breaking him out of his morose thoughts as she grinned and held out the box. "I made you some cookies. Double chocolate with dried cherries. I hope they're okay."

"That sounds great," Sam smiled.

"And I brought you some magazines and some crossword puzzles, so you can work on your vocabulary for our next Scrabble tournament. If you want to have another Scrabble tournament, that is. I mean, I understand if you don't want to hang out with me again, after what happened-"

"Mia," Sam interjected, "I'd love to have another tournament. And none of this was your fault."

"I suppose so," Mia said softly, ducking her head. "I still feel responsible, though. No one's ever stood up for me like you did, Sam. It- it really meant a lot to me. I'm just sorry you got hurt because of it."

"Well, I'd do it the same way all over again," Sam said, and Mia gave him a shy, beautiful smile.

"You know," she said, "You're something of a hero at school now."

"What? Really? They don't think I'm, you know, a loser for getting my ass kicked?"

"Oh, no," Mia grinned. "You never really got a chance to see it, but Rick and his gang were mean to a lot of people at school. Plus, you know, the only thing people want more than to be friends with the 'popular' kids is to see them fall on their faces. Even some of his other friends are distancing themselves now – I guess ganging up on someone and putting him in the hospital was taking it too far, even for Missy. She's been going around school trying to tell people that she was never really friends with them. No one's buying it of course, especially since he was supposed to take her to the semi-formal this weekend."

"Oh, yeah," Sam said. "I'd forgotten that was this weekend. Are you going?"

"Me?" Mia laughed humorlessly. "No. I don't really, uh, do school dances. Sitting alone and watching other people dance isn't my idea of a fun Saturday night. How about you? Think you'll try to go, if you're feeling better?"

"Nah," Sam sighed. "I'm with you – I've never been to a dance before, but sitting alone while everyone else has fun doesn't sound that great."

"Oh, well, you wouldn't be sitting alone," Mia insisted. "I guarantee you. There are a ton of girls at school right now that would fall all over themselves to go to the dance with Sam Winchester, Hero of Tennyson High. People are pretty impressed that you managed to fight back like you did. You bruised a few of Jude's ribs, so he's been hobbling around like a geriatric. And you knocked out two of Gus's teeth, so now he looks like the inbred hillbilly he really is. Everyone thinks you're awesome."

"Wow," Sam grinned, brightening. "I really had no idea. I guess there might be hope for the rest of my school year, after all."

"Hey - how're you kids doing?" Dean said from the doorway, sticking his head into the room and grinning. "Had to come check up on you two – figured it wouldn't be proper to leave Sammy here alone in a bedroom with such a beautiful lady. People might talk."

Mia flushed a bright scarlet at Dean's uninhibited praise, giggling nervously, and Sam felt a swell of affection for his brother. As crass as he might sometimes seem, Dean had a caring soul, and Sam knew that Dean had chosen his words carefully in order to flatter Mia.

"My brother, the Cassnova," Sam smiled.

Mia laughed and got to her feet, shifting nervously.

"Well, I should go and let you get some rest," she said.

"Okay," Sam yawned. "You should stop by this weekend for that Scrabble showdown."

"Sure," Mia said. She hesitated, then bent to give Sam a quick, gentle hug. "Thanks, Sam," she whispered. "You're a good friend."

The aches in Sam's body felt receded just a little, some of the sting erased by Mia's soft words.

Later that evening, Sam was woken from a groggy sleep my the muted sounds of his brother and his father moving through the house, speaking in low, somber voices. Laying in his bed trying to stretch away some of the stiffness in his limbs, Sam listened to the indistinct rumbles of their voices. There was something about their tones – a familiar sort of anticipation and focus – that set his nerves on high alert.

They were getting ready to hunt, and this time, Sam knew it wasn't anything supernatural they were after. Climbing gingerly out of bed, Sam shuffled out into the hallway, bracing himself with one hand on the wall as he inched quietly towards the livingroom.

"-lives on Sycamore Street, and that Jude kid's over on Maple," Dean was saying. "Do you want to split up, or do this one at a time?"

"It'd be quicker if we split up," John answered. "The quicker we get this done, the quicker we'll be able to leave."

"Wait – what?" Dean hissed. "Leave? Why're we leaving? If we do this right, none of those little bastards will dare trying to press charges. We don't have to run, and the school year's not over."

Sam heard John sigh, and could imagine his expression. "Bobby says there's talk of some demonic activity down in Memphis. It's not confirmed, but I think we need to check it out."

"Can't one of Bobby's other contacts check it out, at least see if it's legit before we uproot again?" Dean said, sounding frustrated.

"Dean, this is important. It could be the thing that killed your mother. I'd really rather handle it ourselves."

"Dad," Dean said, "You promised Sammy. After what's just happened, you're gonna break that promise and drag him to another state in the condition he's in, for something that might not even be a valid hunt?"

There was a moment of strained silence, broken by another, longer, sigh from John.

"You're right," his Dad said, voice strained and. "I just- I'll call Bobby in the morning, tell him we can't check it out right now."

"Okay," Dean said softly. "Thanks, Dad. I know how much you want to- well, just thanks."

"Yeah," John said. "I suppose now that there's no rush we might as well not split up. We can head over to Sycamore first, then-"

Giving a little cough to announce his presence, Sam shuffled out of the hallway into the living room, yawning as though he'd just woken up.

"Sam," Dean said, "What're you doing out of bed?"

"Hungry," Sam lied. "What're you guys doing?"

"Uh-" Dean said, looking guilty.

"Just researching a hunt, son," John said. Sam looked back and forth between them for a moment, taking in their dark clothes and stiff posture.

"You're going after Rick and the others, aren't you?" He asked, even though he already knew the answer.

"Sam-" John sighed.

"They need to be taught a lesson," Dean growled. "What they did was unforgivable, Sam. Someone needs to do something."

"Then let someone other than you guys do it," Sam said. "Please, don't go after them."

"We're not going to kill them, Sam," John said. "We won't even do any permanent damage."

"Speak for yourself," Dean muttered, looking livid.

"I don't care," Sam insisted, sinking onto the couch beside Dean. "I don't want you to hurt them."

"What?" Dean exclaimed. "How can you try to protect them after what they did to you? They deserve it, Sam."

"I know," Sam said. "It's just – You guys are really good fighters, and they're just stupid teenagers with bad attitudes. If you go after them and blindside them, gang up on them so they don't have any chance of defending themselves, then you're just doing the same thing they did to me. It won't make anything better, it'll just sink you to their level. That's not right. That's not us."

John was staring at Sam with an expression that was part surprise, part pride. Dean sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face in frustration.

"Okay, Sam," John said, and Dean nodded.

"I really want to kick their asses, Sam," Dean whined, looking a little bit like a petulant toddler.

"I know," Sam smiled, squeezing his brother's shoulder. "But if you really want to help me, just leave them alone, okay? And get me a grilled cheese. I'm still hungry."

Dean made a comical long-suffering expression but got up and moved into the kitchen, where Sam could hear him rummaging for a pan.

"Dad," he said softly. "I know we agreed to stay here until the end of the school year, but do you think… I mean, can we maybe leave soon?"

John looked confused. "I thought you wanted to stay."

"I did," Sam sighed. "But that was before my epic beat-down. Everyone at school knows what happened, and they're laughing at me. I just want to move on. If that's okay."

The lie felt sour in Sam's guts, but he kept his expression open and steady as he stared at his Dad.

"You're sure?" John asked.

"Yeah," Sam said, proud of how sincere he sounded. "Just – can we stay until Sunday? I have something I need to do Saturday night."

"Sure, kiddo," John said, smiling. "That works."

"Thanks, Dad," Sam said, working his way back to his feet. "Can you ask Dean to bring my sandwich to my room? I think I'm going to go lay down again."

"Sure," John said. "Sam –"

Sam paused, turning back to look at his Dad.

"I'm proud of you, son. Really proud."

Smiling, Sam nodded and made his way back to his bed.

Lying in his room waiting for Dean to bring him his sandwich, he tried not to think about what he had just given up.

It's just high school, he told himself. It's not important. Not as important as my family, and Dad needs this hunt. I can't ask him to give that up, not if it might be about Mom.

It was better this way. His Dad could check out the hunt in Memphis rather than being tied here because of Sam, and Dean wouldn't have a chance to change his mind and go after Rick.

He'd just have to make the best of this weekend, and that would have to be enough.

Saturday night when Sam walked into the school dance with Mia on his arm, there was an eruption of applause from his schoolmates. People came up to clap him gently on the back and shake his hand. Word had spread that Sam was leaving town the following day, and someone had made a goodbye poster which had been signed by a good portion of the kids present. Sam had accepted it sheepishly, folding it and tucking it into his pocket to read later. By the time he and Mia had a moment to themselves Sam wasn't sure which of them was blushing more from all the attention.

"I still can't believe you brought me to the dance," Mia said, tugging nervously at the hem of her emerald green dress. Her hair, normally down and hiding half her face, was pulled into an elegant up-do. "I mean, I'm glad, but if you want to hang out with other girls or something I understand. Since we're just going as friends and all, and I can already count six girls working up the courage to come ask you to dance, you don't have to be stuck with me all night-"

"Mia," Sam grinned, "I asked you to the dance because I wanted to go with you. You're my friend, and you're the one I want to spend time with tonight."

"Oh," Mia said, sounding a little breathless. "Okay, then."

The rest of the night was a perfect little piece of normal. Mia and Sam danced (as much as Sam's still-healing body could dance), people continued to wish Sam well, and several people even commented on how pretty Mia looked.

"I guess some of your fame is rubbing off on me," She joked to Sam, looking startled but happy.

"They're just taking the time to notice what they've been stupid enough to miss all this time," Sam told her. "And you do look beautiful tonight."

Out of all the great moments that night, the radiant smile Mia gave him then was quite possibly the most wonderful of all.

Sunday morning Dean was up early, loading their duffle bags into the Impala. John was doing a final sweep of the house, and Sam was sitting on the porch saying goodbye to Mia. Dean could see her crying, and Sam's answering expression of sadness, and felt a sickening twist of sorrow for his brother. It wasn't fair that Sam had done the right thing, the honorable thing, and been hurt and rejected for it. If those jackasses at Sam's school had half a brain between them, they would have recognized what an amazing kid Sam was and given him a freakin' medal. It burned something inside Dean that his brother was being driven away from his chance at a little slice of normal just because his school mates couldn't recognize integrity if it jumped up and bit them on the ass.

Sam had been doing so well here – just this little bit of stability had made a world of difference in the kid, and as much as he'd been itching to hit the road again, Dean hated to see that end.

Sighing, Dean moved to heft Sam's bag into the car. The side pocket was unzipped, and when Dean tipped the bag into the trunk the contents spilled out.

"Damn it," Dean muttered, scooping a few books and a folded piece of poster board up to shove them back in the bag. There was writing on the poster board, and it caught Dean's attention. The visible writing read Good luck, Sam, we'll miss you! in red marker. Below that was Sam – You're awesome! Keep in touch! Frowning, Dean flipped the paper and scanned more expressions of friendship and well-wishing.

What the hell?

Sam had told them his schoolmates had rejected him and laughed at him – it was the principal reason Sam had given for wanting to leave Tennyson. But there were dozens of signatures on the poster – in a town the size of Tennyson, a pretty good proportion of the school. Sam had lied. But why?

Dean thought back over the last few days, trying to find the motivation behind Sam's actions. With a sinking feeling, Dean recalled the night Sam had busted them getting ready to go after Rick and the others. They'd been talking about that hunt in Memphis – if Sam had been listening, he would have heard how much it cost their father to pass on that hunt. It was the only explanation that made any sense.

Sam had heard them that night, and given up his last few weeks of peace and quiet so that his family could have what they wanted. He was sacrificing what he wanted, for the greater good. So many times when Sam had complained about their lifestyle or argued with John and dug in his heels, Dean had wished that Sam would grow up and see the bigger picture, be willing to compromise and accept their life. Now that he was doing it, on his own, Dean felt a strange mingling of pride and deep sadness.

Sam was an amazing kid, and he was going to be a great man someday. But Dean was beginning to worry about the things Sam was going to have to give up along the way. Sam had been right when he'd said that the things that were important to him didn't have a place in their life. Dean cared about those things, even John cared, but like Sam said, it was only because they meant something to Sam. As long as Sam was stuck living in the shadows with them, his own dreams would never really have any merit. Dean was finally starting to understand how much that mattered.

Tucking the card gently back into Sam's duffle, Dean remembered his frantic thoughts as he'd carried Sam out of the woods – his determination never to let go of his little brother. Turning and watching Sam hug his friend goodbye, Dean realized that holding on might not always be an option. Not if he wanted Sam to be happy.

Sam wanted – needed – something that their life couldn't give him. Someday he would find a way to have it, and Dean would have to let him go.

Saying goodbye to Mia had been the hardest part about leaving. Sam couldn't help the surge of guilt he felt when she cried and hugged him goodbye. She'd baked more cookies for them, "for the road." Dean would be ecstatic, seeing as how he'd devoured most of the last batch she'd made with enthusiastic glee.

John had given Sam permission to give Mia one of the P.O. addresses they kept active, and Sam had dutifully written down Mia's address and promised to write. Sam was determined to keep in touch with her, and was surprised at how sad he was to say goodbye. She'd become a good friend in short time, and that was a rare commodity in his life.

As his Dad pulled the Impala out onto the street, Sam stared at their little house and tried to memorize how it looked. He stored away every little piece of it in his memory, like a template – blueprints for something he could only dream of having right now.

In the front seat, Dean twisted around to look at him. There was an inscrutable expression on his face, something like pride and sorrow and fondness all muddled together.

"Maybe we could come back someday," Dean said. "There's bound to be some sort of supernatural activity around here again, with the magnetic fields."

"Yeah, maybe," Sam said, smiling.

"You okay?" Dean asked, and Sam knew he meant more than just Sam's healing bruises.

"I'm okay," Sam said, and it was true.

There were years and thousands of miles stretched out in between him and what he dreamed of having, but he would get there someday. He would do his best with what he had now, make his family proud. He'd do the right thing, no matter what, and every time he did would bring him one step closer to that dream.

AN: Thanks so much for reading! Reviews are always appreciated, should you feel inclined to let me know how you liked it.