Author's Note: this fic was written for a prompt from the queen of Dean!whump – roqueclasique. She asked for a Stanford-era story, but to tell you the rest of the prompt would give it away!

Sometimes, Dean imagines being an only child.

Not when he was growing up, of course. It never even crossed his mind then. Sammy was just… always there.

Sometimes stuff just belongs where it is - it's so obvious, you never think about what if it wasn't there. Like the heart beating in his chest. Wow, that's pretty sappy! Damn morphine…. Like… maybe a pie without the crust. Or, yeah, like the Impala without her tape deck. Some things just fit together. It never even occurred to Dean to consider life without Sam - until the day Sam declared a giant do-over on his life, and decided to re-invent himself as Joe College.

So. Yeah.

Since Sam left, there isn't any homework cluttering the table or the bed when Dean wants to clean the guns. No more tripping over someone's sweaty size-13 running shoes. No opening the fridge to find some idiot finished off the last of the takeout.

It's just like being an only child. Right?

It's great.

And Dad - he doesn't do anything to contradict that illusion. He hasn't said the word 'Sam' or even 'your brother' once since the day Sam shoved everything he owned in a single duffel bag and walked out the door. It's like Sam never existed.

So if Dad's erased Sam, and Sam sure as hell isn't thinking about them, then Dean figures he might as well try to get on board, too.

'Try' being the operative word. Like trying to pretend it doesn't ache just as much as any wound he got hunting. It doesn't really work all that well even when everything's going right. And when Dad leaves Dean to work a case alone while he chases a lead in a neighboring state, like now… well, Dean's having a little trouble following the game plan.

At least when Sam was around, he was pretty good backup, and Dean wasn't as likely to get tossed like a pizza by a vengeful spirit. Which is exactly what happened at oh-dark-thirty last night, as he was dropping a lit matchbook into Obediah Twambley's open grave. If Sam hadn't bailed, he'd have been there to apply his otherwise-pointless Rubik's Cube skills to the bones in Dean's shoulder joint. Which would have sucked, sure, but not as much as trying to drive with his arm screaming and his vision graying out. Dean had barely made it back to the Anchor Motel. Housekeeping found him passed out in the parking lot.

And if anything's worse than waking up in a hospital, Dean thinks, it's waking up in a hospital alone. With a dislocated shoulder and probable concussion from when he crashed into the crypt, and torn cartilage in his knee from when he hit the ground.

After that many hours out of alignment, the swelling and muscle spasms in his shoulder called for what the doc called 'aggressive sedation,' which always leaves Dean groggy. That little ER visit maxes out his last credit card, too, one he was counting on to last him another month.

Not that any of that's Sam's fault. Except for how it totally feels like it is.

So. Dean's pissed. And screwed. He has enough cash on him to pay for another night in the motel and to fill the gas tank one more time. That should just about get him to that ghost town in Nevada where Dad is. With maybe a single ten spot left over – to cover food, beer, cigarettes, and that prescription the doc scribbled out for the good stuff? Not by a long shot.

The last time Dean dislocated that shoulder, Sam had snaked the car keys and slid behind the wheel of the Impala with unholy glee. And Dean was stuck riding shotgun. So - nope. He doesn't miss the pain-in-the-ass jerk at all.

That's what Dean tells himself, anyway. And he sure doesn't miss Sam's mother-hen routine afterwards. If Sam were here, he'd be annoying as hell, opening doors for him like Dean was an old lady, asking him if he was okay, like he thought Dean would ever admit he wasn't.

Dean doesn't miss Sam. Which means Dean doesn't miss the way his brother could always find the painkillers in their first aid kit, either. Those times when the morphine drip Dean got at the hospital made him so confused and fumble-fingered that he could barely work the keycard in the motel room door, much less find and open a bottle of pills.

Of course, he doesn't miss the way Sam always kept the tackle-box they used for a first aid kit well-stocked. Part OCD and part wuss, that's Sam. Not Dean, though. Dean's cool. But he does have a tendency, in the heat of triage, to not notice if he's using up the last of the sutures or bandages or painkillers. Not until the next crisis when he discovers – oops, they're out.

Sam, the anal-retentive princess, would notice. And re-stock.

Dean? Well, he's pretty sure he's out of pain meds again.

But he doesn't miss Sam. Sam who? Dean's an only child.

Clearly, what Dean is, is someone who needs a day off. He should have admitted he wasn't at full strength when Bobby called; should have told him to find somebody else. At the very least, he could have told Bobby he had to head to Nevada, that his dad might need back up.

But this one isn't another ghost, this case Bobby tossed his way. It's a creature that's stealing kids.

And Dean just can't turn his back on kids.

Bobby said kids had started disappearing again in the Bay area, just down the highway from where Dean dug up Old Man Twambley. Every few decades, Bobby told Dean over a scratchy phone line, a creature's been sighted lurking in the shadows around there, and then kids turn up dead. Or don't turn up at all. Probably a boogeyman, Bobby thinks, but this one is more gruesome than most he's heard about. This one grabs kids and then scratches their eyes out so they can't get away.

Now kids in San Mateo County are going missing. And the one kid that escaped claimed that whatever tried to snatch him had claws, and had gone for his eyes.

Dean shudders. If that creature has surfaced again, he's gonna hack that sucker up and fry it into bacon bits.

He just needs to know two things. How to find it, and how to kill it. How to kill it with one hand tied behind his back, because basically, that's all he has to work with.

How to find it might not be too hard, he thinks. The police aren't taking six-year-old Donovan Barbosa's story seriously, not when he said it was a monster that grabbed him. Especially not when he boasted about using kung fu to get away. Dean figures he'll talk to the kid after school lets out, find out more about where Donovan was when something tried to snatch him and exactly what he saw.

Meanwhile, he has an hour or three to see if there's any special lore on how to kill it, since Bobby's references had stopped short of providing that useful bit of information.

The best library in the area would be… oh, right. The one at Stanford. Of course. So that's where Dean is headed, but he's not even tempted to look up Sam. In the first place, Dad would have his hide if he did. And besides, seeing Sam again would probably feel pretty much like ripping off a limb. It would definitely mess up that whole only-child gig he's working on.

On campus, Dean asks a perky co-ed how to find the main library and she's more than happy to offer him directions - and her phone number, in case he needs help getting anywhere else later.

It's too bad he has other plans tonight – she's totally his type. Curvy, with shiny brown shoulder-length hair…. Damn.

He tucks her number in his pocket and reluctantly watches her walk away. The view is every bit as nice as he expected.

Making his way across the lawn, his shoulder and knee remind him pretty emphatically that he might not be up for those kinds of calisthenics tonight anyway. He reconsiders the doctor's orders to use a sling, and briefly wishes he'd listened. His right arm feels like it's made of lead; something to cradle the dead weight of it would help. But wearing a sling always feels like it's advertising his vulnerability. Plus, he's going to be needing both arms tonight, so he might as well get used to the discomfort.

He just hopes he won't have to run, not when walking is this painful.

The library comes into view, and it's impressive. It's huge; makes him think of a temple. Sammy probably imagines this is what heaven looks like, the geek. Three ornate sandstone arches stand several stories tall, each sheltering cathedral-sized windows and a pair of heavy doors.

Dean picks Door Number 1, the closest one, and takes the stairs slowly, his knee too swollen to bend much.

As he steps into the shadow of the arch, he almost misses Sam coming out the last set of doors.

Maybe if his little brother wasn't a head taller than everyone else, Dean wouldn't have noticed him at all. But Dean doesn't really believe that. He's had a sixth sense about Sam since before he can remember, and if Sam is nearby, he thinks he'll always know it.

Dean melts into the shadows without even thinking about it, but it doesn't matter. Sam's not looking in his direction; his face lights up and then he's bounding down the last six steps in two long strides. Dean sees a shimmer of blond hair, and then Sam is blocking his view. All Dean can see is Sam's backpack over his right shoulder, bulging with books, and a girl's hand reaching up to brush Sam's hair away from his temple. Sam shrugs, answers her apparent question, and takes her hand. Her fingers curl around his and they turn and start across the quad. Dean can see that she's tall, like Sammy. She fits him. She says something that makes Sam throw back his head with a deep, rich laugh that Dean doesn't even recognize.

That hits Dean like a punch to the chest, the kind that knocks the wind out of you. Sam hasn't been gone that long, that Dean could forget what his laugh sounds like. Dean remembers everything - the baby chortles, the pre-school giggles, the grade school snickers and…

…if he thinks about it, maybe he hasn't heard Sam really laugh like that since his voice changed. Maybe it's been years since there was anything in the daily Winchester life that made Sam as happy as he sounds right now.

Well, screw you, Sam. No wonder Sam's never called. Sure, Dad told him to 'stay gone', but since when did Sam ever listen to Dad? The truth is pretty clear: Sam's got a new life and he doesn't need them.

Damn. That 'only child' thing needs a lot more work. Dean lowers his head and disappears inside the library. He doesn't need Sam either. But he wouldn't say no if another pretty co-ed volunteered to help him find the right stacks. Maybe even a cheerleader this time….

An hour later, Dean emerges out into the winter sun again, cranky, and shoulder throbbing. Oh, he found the folklore section eventually, on the lower level of the east wing. For all the good it did.

Sam had always liked – okay, tolerated - the hunts near college towns best; he said their archives had more 'esoteric resources' than the small town public libraries. Esoteric. Damn Sam and his four-syllable vocabulary. Sure, colleges probably do carry more references on folklore, but it's also true that nobody ever checks out the weird shit in local libraries. It just sits on dark shelves collecting dust, waiting for a Winchester to turn up. Whereas in a university, some idiot's probably doing a term paper or something on boogeyman lore. All the books Dean needed were checked out. The freakin' shelf was empty.

So that's an afternoon wasted. But at least now school will be over, and he can finally go talk to this Donovan kid.

It turns out Donovan doesn't go home right from school; he goes to some After School program that was created by Stanford in a rundown part of town. Apparently, the University got funding to renovate an old building into some sort of an early childhood lab for the education department, and that's where Donovan goes after school. Dean's not exactly sure what an 'early childhood lab' is, but that might actually make it easier, he thinks. It usually works out better to talk to kids when their parents aren't around. He finds a place to park on the street around the corner, levers himself out of the Impala gingerly and limps toward the building.

There's a large parking lot behind the Center, black asphalt edged by a broad grassy berm and all surrounded by a chain-link fence. A handful of early arrivals are already there, and more kids are streaming in, huddled in ill-fitting jackets to protect them against what passes for February cold in California.

Off to the side, near a rusty park bench, Dean sees two little boys about six years old kneeling across from each other on a strip of grass. One's a short kid with curly black hair, and the other one's a taller kid with… Dean might say unenviable eyebrows. Bert and Ernie, Dean names them. Their hands are held up, palms facing each other, close but not touching. The smaller boy's hands float in the air ("wax on, wax off", Dean thinks) and the other boy tries to follow, like he's a reflection in a mirror.

Dean watches for a moment, unnoticed. The two boys take turns leading and following, speeding up and slowing down, forming patterns that look a little like a lightning bolt, a stick figure, and then a star. After a couple minutes, they finish their game, scramble to their feet, and begin to practice something else that looks to Dean like it might be intended to be a martial arts move. Maybe. If you were six years old and had an amateur for a teacher.

Ernie positions his feet very carefully, one in front of the other. Bert waits till Ernie nods, and then he raises one hand slowly, ready to grab him. While his arm's still coming up, Ernie grabs it with both hands and then he steps forward, ducking under the outstretched arm and pulling Bert off balance. Then Ernie spins completely around, facing the opposite way now, without letting go of his grip on Bert's elbow and wrist. The taller boy can't stay upright, not with Ernie tugging his arm like that. So Bert goes splat, landing on his back with a loud "oooomph!", and Ernie lets go with a triumphant shout.

"See! See! I told you! That's how I got away!" Ernie is dancing with excitement, like he has to pee, and then whirls around at the sound of soft applause.

Dean stops clapping and walks up to them, mouth quirked in an approving grin. "Let me guess," he says to the short kid. "You wouldn't be Donovan Barbosa by any chance, would you?"

Ernie's eyes light up and he starts to nod like a bobblehead toy. The other kid scrambles to his feet, eager to be included. "Yeah, he's Donovan. I'm Patrick!"

"I'm Dean." Dean sinks onto the park bench and leans forward a bit, his bad arm resting on his good knee. "That was a pretty cool move," he tells them. "What was it? Karate?"

The boys shake their heads in unison.


They shake their heads again. "It's…." Donovan chews his lip, trying to remember, and finally shrugs. "Well, I forget what it's really called, so we just call it Kung Fu. Sensei – that means Teacher – he says it's okay if we wanna call it that."

"It's Japanese!" Patrick adds. "Wanna know how it's different from judo or karate?"

Dean is actually more interested in trying to get Donovan to tell him about the boogeyman. He's also wondering how long he's got before someone turns up to challenge a suspicious stranger talking to the kids. You never know, these days. But the boys don't wait for him to answer.

Donovan re-positions his feet, one foot slightly in front of the other, in the same ready stance as before. "Suppose, Sensei said, you were crossing the road and a big black car suddenly came speeding around the corner Right At You." He raises one hand flat, fingers rigid. "Sensei says if I was a judo master, I could try to save myself by smashing the car with a huge judo chop!" His arm slashes the air, and then he holds the pose for a second before stepping meekly back. "But I don't want to do that."

"You don't?"

"No!" Donovan stands down, and Patrick takes over. "Or if I was a karate master, I might do this!" He stands like a stork, and then his foot stabs the air inches from Dean's knee. "I could do a big karate kick and kick the car off the road, and it would crash into a tree!"

Patrick wobbles on one leg, and Dean's left arm darts out to steady the boy before he falls on his ass again. "That would be awesome," Dean tells him.

"No!" The boys are both adamant about that.

Donovan explains earnestly. "Sensei says we should learn to get out of the way, and move to a Safe Place. He says in Aikido we just concentrate, and then…." Donovan demonstrates a side step that looks like a clumsy matador dodging a near-sighted bull. "Then I can just step aside and the car will miss me."

"Aikido! That's right!" Patrick tries to snap his fingers once, twice, then he shrugs bashfully and gives up. "We're learning 'Aikido'."

"But – " Dean's confusion is real. "Why is that better than judo or karate?"

Donovan leans forward, face close to Dean's, and says in a loud whisper, "Because maybe there's something you don't know about the car."


"Yeah." The boys exchange glances, and then Patrick nods and Donovan turns back to Dean.

"Sensei says maybe the car is coming down the street so fast because it's being driven by a kid who's too little to drive. He can't even see over the steering wheel very well. But his dad is hurt and bleeding, and he has to get him to a hospital!"

"AND his little brother is in the back seat!" Patrick adds breathlessly. "And NOBODY is wearing a seatbelt!"

Donovan searches Dean's eyes, like he's imparting a secret of vital importance. "That boy driving the car is really a hero, Sensei said. Not a bad guy. So… if we learn how to move to a Safe Place, the car won't crash, and everyone's okay."

Dean rocks back, the sudden flashback knocking him breathless. It can't be. Sam's a college student, not friggin' Kwai Chang Caine.

But he remembers a rain-slick road, windshield wipers pounding like a frantic heartbeat, and Dad slumped against the passenger side door. Not moving. A small voice in the back seat trembles, asking, "Is Daddy gonna be okay?" And Dean standing on the gas pedal, flooring it.

Patrick pokes him in the shoulder – the recently dislocated one – and Dean is yanked back to the present with a spike of pain.

"Sensei says if we're ever in trouble, we should just get away, and then tell a grown-up. And that's what I did!" Donovan declares proudly.

That's his opening, Dean knows, to ask Donovan about the creature that tried to grab him. But there's a sudden ache in his throat that seems to have stolen his voice.

Before Dean can say a word, a tiny bird-like woman comes fluttering across the playground in their direction. "Patrick. Donovan," she calls. "It's time to come in." The boys scramble to join the other kids massing by the door, echoes of "Bye, Dean!" tossed over their shoulders. The woman turns to him, a welcoming smile on her face. "You must be one of the new graduate students here for the Early Childhood Development lab? I'm Lois Hammond."

Dean blinks and recovers quickly, rising to his feet. "Right. I am. A grad student." His eyes skate over to the two boys who are now elbowing each other to see who'll be last in line. Dean still needs a chance to talk to Donovan about the attack. If pretending to be a grad student gives him a free pass to stick around, he can do that. But does she really think I look like a prospective kindergarten teacher?

"I see the boys were showing you some of their martial arts lessons," Lois says. Dean can hear the amused air quotes in her tone.

He huffs a laugh. "You know, when I was that age, schools frowned on fighting."

"That isn't fighting, dear," she tells him. "No, not at all. There's no punching or kicking in Aikido. It teaches the children patience and self-discipline and how to follow directions. And tumbling and balance and physical fitness. And they have fun, of course, too."

Dean remembers Dad teaching him and Sam to fight. No one style favored over another; they learned a little of everything, and then some. The fun came from trying to beat the crap out of each other. No punching or kicking? Where's the fun in that?

He doesn't say that out loud, but maybe she senses Dean's skepticism, because she starts to explain. "Oh yes, the children all thought they were going to be miniature Jackie Chans when they started. More like Tasmanian devils. It was a real challenge for the teacher to get them to move slowly and deliberately, so he could correct their form…."

It sounds more like a yoga class than self-defense. Dean would rather be interviewing Donovan, but Lois is his ticket to getting inside, so he makes himself look interested.

"He solved the problem," Lois is saying, a corner of her mouth twitching upward, "by having one child in each pair be the defender. The other one…." She pauses for dramatic effect. "The other one pretends to be a zombie!" Her arms rise up, outstretched, her jaw slackens, and she takes a clumsy step forward. It reminds Dean more of The Mummy than Night of the Living Dead. Of course, neither of those monsters really had that slightly embarrassed, self-conscious blush tinting their cheeks, like Lois has, but he gets her meaning, and grins.

She drops her arms and smiles, inner child still lurking under that gray bun and wrinkles. "He invited me to demonstrate the 'shiho nage' move with him one day, before he had the children try it. The children thought it was hilarious, watching a little old granny like me take down a young man who's as big as a tree!"

Lois looks fondly toward Donovan, a hint of exasperation creeping into her voice. "I suppose Donovan told you about his adventure – how he used that move to get away from a 'monster'?" She shakes her head ruefully. "He has quite a vivid imagination, that boy! Anyway, the children are willing to practice in slow motion now because, you know," she says, eyes twinkling, "zombies aren't very fast."

"That's generally been my experience," Dean agrees affably, and her eyebrows arch up; she seems amused. But Dean's not thinking of the hunts with Dad when he faced his first real zombies. He's remembering the nights Dad was gone, and he had to try to keep his spastic little brother occupied and distracted. Tag isn't a particularly good game with just two people, and definitely not when you're cooped up in a small motel room. Unless you make it Zombie Tag, that is. Then the goal is to see how close the zombie can get to you while you dart and dodge and defend yourself with pillows and dive over beds to get away. Of course, if you do get tagged… it's your turn to be undead.

It can't be anyone else… Dean thinks, still struggling to believe it. Sensei Sam. I'll be damned.

Lois turns toward the back entrance to the building. "It's time we get started. If you'll follow me, I'll show you where the observation room is."

Observation room?

She leads the way inside, skirting the stragglers who are bunched up just inside the entrance. Dean follows, but can't help stopping when he sees a little girl in a pint-size 49ers jersey jumping up and down, trying in vain to reach a hook on the wall to hang her coat. Lois glances back, smiles, and gestures that Dean should just follow her when he's ready.

Dean plucks the yellow slicker from the little girl's hands in mid-leap and snags it easily on a peg. He starts to drop to one knee to fix her sneaker's dangling shoelace, too, but he finds his knee just won't bend like it should, and before he can figure out a solution she's skipping away. He stands back up carefully, hugging his arm protectively against his chest so it doesn't get jostled by the mob scene around him. Kids are busy wedging their backpacks and lunchboxes into cubbies, and Dean's memories shift and click into place like the old-fashioned View-Master he stole from a garage sale once.

--- Dean at the same age as these kids, and his brother a sturdy two-year old toddler. Sammy struggling to get Dean's book bag on his own shoulders, then strutting around the room with a gleeful, "My backpack!"

--- Sammy at five, kicking the chair rungs because his feet didn't reach the floor. His chair pulled up as close to Dean's as he could possibly get, so he could do Dean's homework with him at the kitchen table. Because Sammy didn't get any take-home work in kindergarten, and he wanted to do homework, too.

Dean sighs. Back then, all Sammy ever wanted was to be just like his big brother…. When did that change?

Patrick and Donovan are racing each other for the last empty peg. Dean shakes off the reverie, gives in to a sudden impulse, and grabs Donovan as he's about to dart past. He stoops down to murmur something in the boy's ear, and then straightens with a wince. Donovan cracks a big buck-toothed grin and nods enthusiastically, and then cups his hands around his mouth to whisper to Patrick.

Lois is still waiting for Dean by the door marked Admin, so he ruffles Donovan's hair and heads into the office-slash-observation booth.

The shades are drawn, the room darkened, but there's enough light for Dean to see four other students, two guys and two girls, milling around by a long table in front of the window. The window looks out over an empty room, and it clicks now: it's a two-way mirror. When Lois follows Dean in, everyone sits quickly, like a crazy game of musical chairs. It's just his luck that the last vacant spot is between the two guys. Dean grabs the back of the chair with his left hand, pulls it out, and takes a seat.

The guy to Dean's left reaches into a backpack and pulls out a shabby, dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice, 'USED BOOK' stamped on the cover in large letters like that wasn't completely obvious. Then he rummages deeper, digs out a spiral notebook, and starts idly doodling. He introduces himself as Seth. Dean's other neighbor is Bill Czolgosz. C-Z-O-L-G-O-S-Z. Bill spells it out with a sigh, like he's been asked how to spell it so many times that he just wants to save everyone the trouble.

Dean turns to face forward, absently rubbing his shoulder, watching the still-empty studio. His knee aches and jitters restlessly. At the far end of the table, he hears the two girls talking about 'the Kung Fu teacher' and his ears perk.

"He's not even an education major. I hear he's pre-law."

"I heard he got a full-ride to Stanford. He must be crazy smart."

"If he got a full scholarship, what's he doing working here?"

"Full ride just covers tuition, room-n-board, you know. It doesn't cover all the essentials."

"What essentials?"

Bill is eavesdropping, too, but directs his answer out of the corner of his mouth to Dean and Seth. "Duhhh. Beer!"

Seth has a better idea. "Condoms, man. I'm pretty sure scholarship money doesn't cover condoms!"

Atta boy, Sammy. Dean leans back in his chair, and can't help feeling a little pleased. Maybe Sam hasn't completely outgrown trying to be just like his big brother.

Despite their lowered voices, the girls can hear the guys perfectly well. The redhead turns away dismissively. The other girl gets a thoughtful look on her face, like she just imagined the Kung Fu teacher in a whole new light. And kinda likes it.

There's movement in the room; kids have started pouring in from the hallway, chattering to each other, toeing off their shoes and leaving them in a pile at the edge of the mat. Seth elbows Dean. "There's Mr. Miyagi now."

Despite the goofy martial arts title, Sensei Sam isn't wearing a gi, just the same jeans and sweatshirt he'd been wearing at the library. He fills the doorframe, taller and broader than Dean remembers, and then stops just inside the room, motionless, nothing but an eyebrow quirking at the chaos around him.

Immediately the children drop to the mats, kneeling down and sitting on their heels, eyes straight ahead, respectfully facing their teacher. There's more than a little of John Winchester in Sam, Dean thinks, no matter what either of them wants to believe.

These kids, though, are fidgeting like a bunch of eager puppies being trained to sit, but who can't wait to jump up and get their heads patted and their ears scratched. Sam scrapes off his own sneakers and nods at the kids, and they all bow, bending at the waist and placing their hands flat on the floor.

There's a prolonged moment of stillness, like that moment just before you release the puppy and toss the treat. In that moment, Dean lets himself really look at Sam. He has that up-half-the-night, fake I'm-not-really-tired look that Dean knows so well. Despite that, Dean also sees someone who looks self-assured and comfortable in his skin, in a way that teenage Sam never was. He notices, too, a little bruising on Sam's temple, and a dark streak that Dean's trained eye identifies as a row of tidy black stitches under the eyebrow, creeping out to disappear under Sam's tousled bangs.

It occurs to Dean that the boogeyman he came here to hunt was known for trying to claw the eyes out of its victims.

Sam and Donovan exchange glances, and Sam gives the boy a subtle thumbs-up before bowing formally to the class.

And Dean realizes that he doesn't have a job to do tonight after all.

He knows something else, too. Dad may have cut Sam off, but Sam isn't pretending to be an only child, or an orphan. He isn't trying to forget his childhood, his family.

Or else, he is trying, and he's even worse at it than Dean is.

Lois walks behind the observers. "Sam has a surprising empathy with these kids," she's saying. "He never makes them feel inferior just because they're poor or because they were latchkey kids." She stares meaningfully at the grad students, and the red-haired girl has the grace to look sheepish. "In return," Lois continues, "the children respect him and cooperate."

Dean thinks she's maybe a little smitten with Sensei. For a second, he's almost sorry for what's about to happen next. Almost.

Something strange is going on in the studio. The children have all started shuffling toward Sensei, arms pawing the air, bleating "Brains!"

Sam looks bewildered. "What - ?"

"Brains!" The kids lurch closer. The nearest ones stagger within reach, bony arms flailing, clawing at him. Sam dodges them and looks down to see a little blond pixie clinging to his leg like the denim was Velcro. He plucks her off by the back of her waistband and holds her suspended at arm's length, where she dangles in midair like an undead Superman, whimpering, "brains…."

"What -?" Sam tries again.

Donovan's voice pipes up clear as the bell in a pinball machine. "It's a Zombie Apollyclips!" he shouts, and grabs Sam around the waist. Patrick launches a tackle from the other side. And then Sam is teetering, falling, hitting the mat hard, and they're all swarming over him like… well, like maggots, Dean thinks. If maggots giggled, maybe. Sam's surprised laugh is loudest of all.

It's a sound Dean won't forget.

"So much for cooperation and respect," Bill hoots. "It looks like a Romero version of Gulliver's Travels."

"Gulliver and the Zombie Apocalypse?" Seth quickly sketches rotting flesh and bloodstains on the figure that graces the cover of his lit book, and Bill gives him a high five. "That's exactly what those stuffy classics need - a little more zombie action!"

Dean can't argue with that.

Dean isn't going to try to talk to Sam, he's decided. For one thing, there's Dad's orders. And for another – what would they say to each other?

Sam's happy.

And Dean discovers he doesn't want to jeopardize that.

So he digs out a pack of cigarettes and gestures with it toward the door. Seth shrugs, Lois frowns, and Dean doesn't care. He limps out of the building and he doesn't look back. When he reaches the Impala, he leans against her for a moment, lets her hold him up. It's only to be expected, as beat up as he is, and no sleep last night, and when was the last time he ate, anyway? After awhile, he opens the car door and sits behind the wheel, rolls down the window and lights up. Takes a long shaky drag, watches the smoke curl, and sits some more. He doesn't need to stay, doesn't need to try to talk to Donovan again; he knows that.

It's just hard to pull away.

Finally, as the sun begins to set, and he can see parents starting to show up to pick up their kids, Dean moves. He uses his left hand to twist the key in the ignition, tugs the gearshift into drive, and leaves.

The drink does ease his injuries a little. That other pain, that hollow place inside, is healing on its own. Hearing Sam laugh and knowing he was responsible for that, knowing Sam hasn't tossed away his childhood like yesterday's trash… Dean can live with this.

In the morning, Dean figures he'll head out to Nevada, hook up with Dad.


Right. Dad.

What the hell is he gonna tell Dad?

The beer buzz is making his thinking a little fuzzy. (Okay, so a couple chicks bought him a few rounds. It would have been rude to decline. And Dean Winchester wasn't raised to be rude to the ladies.) He fumbles for the light switch in the motel bathroom, and gropes for the toothbrush and toothpaste where he left them on the sink, beside the open first aid kit. But - there's a bottle of Tylenol with codeine on the counter, too. Dean was sure he'd been out.

Pretty sure.

Hadn't he?

Maybe the morphine he'd gotten in the ER had turned his brain into pudding for a while. It wouldn't be the first time. Maybe the bottle had been there all along and he'd just overlooked it. But – could he have missed that chemical ice pack earlier, too? The one under the Ace wrap that's staring him right in the face?

He's really too tired – or wasted - to think about it right now. The only sleep he's had in the last thirty-six hours was the unconscious kind, and that never really counts.

Dean swallows a couple painkillers, cracks the ice pack and presses it to his shoulder, and lets his eyes drift shut in blissful relief. All that's left is to pass out for the next eight to twelve hours and he'll be good as new. Or good enough, by Winchester standards anyway. So he limps to the bed, crawls under the covers and….

Some idiot has short-sheeted the bed.

"Dammit, Sam!"

Dean doesn't know when he'll get his revenge. Or where. But that doesn't matter. All that matters is that he knows he'll get his brother back one day. That's his last conscious thought as he sinks into healing sleep. Smiling, though he'd never admit it.

He knows he'll get his brother back.

= end = (original prompt was for "Fic. Sam-at-Stanford teaches a martial arts class to little kids."