Authors Note: Oh my goodness. This came out dark, dark, dark. It's far darker than I ever originally planned. I don't know how that happened. The idea for Filtered spawned from my last story Redemption, thus why I'm labeling it AU. This is the first of three parts. I have no beta, so all mistakes are my own. Reviews are welcomed and well-loved.
Warnings: Teen!chester, pre-series, AU, Rated T/ NC-17, mentions of child abuse and molestation.
Disclaimer: If I owned these characters, I would no longer be in student debt. I'm just borrowing them.
"Dean hated letters from Sam. He had only gotten three letters from his brother in his entire life, but it was enough. If Sam left a letter for Dean, it meant Sam didn't plan on walking out in one piece, or Dean couldn't follow." ~ Redemption, Part Three
1. I'm sorry
Sam was two hours late for dinner when the doorbell rang. Dean stopped glowering at the TV and dreaming about how many ways he was going to murder his younger brother to get up and answer it. A girl from Sam's class stood on the other side, shifting nervously from one foot to another as she looked around at the seedy motel. Dean didn't know her name, and really only recognized her because of the frizzy, bright red hair.
Her eyes widened when he opened the door. Dean could only imagine that he didn't look happy. She didn't say anything, just held out a white envelope. His name was written on the front of it in blue swirling, curling letters. It was unmistakably Sam's handwriting.
Dean's eyes narrowed, but he didn't take the note. "What's that?" He asked. Behind him, a laugh track from the TV echoed out the doorway.
The girl stuttered and stumbled over words for a minute, tucking red curly hair behind a pale ear, before finally spitting out: "Sam told me to give this to you." There was a lie in there. This girl was no friend of Sam's. The time Dean had seen her in the school yard, she had been sneering at his brother. Sam had shrugged him off when he'd asked about it, so he hadn't asked again.
"And why couldn't Sam give it to me himself?" Dean demanded, crossing his arms over his chest, knowing he was intimidating. He was only sixteen, but he was almost as tall as his father and had a good muscular build thanks to all the training his father insisted on.
The girl shrank back a bit, her shoulders hunching. "Because this is his last request," she said with a guilty cringe. Her eyes flicked around, first looking at the dying light beside the door, then at Dean's bare feet, then behind her to the silent, streetlamp lit parking lot. Then her nerve snapped into place. She gave an exaggerated sigh. "Look, will you just take it?"
The phrasing of 'last request' was still bouncing around in Dean's head when the girl flicked the envelope at his feet and turned to leave. He grabbed her arm, his hold tight enough to make her yelp. "I've done what I came here to do. What more do you want from me?" she asked, her voice terrified.
"I'd like to know where Sam is," Dean said, effortlessly holding her in place. He kept his voice low and hoped she didn't scream. The neighborhood wasn't a good one, but that didn't mean there weren't people who would call the cops.
The girl glared at him, slammed her heel down on his bare foot and knocked him over with a shove. He spit out a curse as she pulled away from him, his mind telling him to both stop the girl and rub his toes. The laugh track sounded again from the TV. "I don't know, okay?" the girl said, tears and fear mixing in her voice as she turned and ran. "I don't know, and I don't want to!"
The girl was gone into the darkness before Dean could get back on his feet, and he was left in the doorway of the motel and the parking lot breathing in cold December air. He watched the corner she had disappeared around for a moment, her words running through his head. She had sounded scared, but he didn't think he was the cause of it. The envelope sat on the freezing concrete beside him. With a sigh, he ripped it open. A single torn and muddy piece of paper was inside. In Sam's girly swirling writing it said: "I'm sorry."
What the hell did that mean?
Dean zipped up his jacket as he stuck the note to his father on the brown, stone-aged mini-fridge and shoved the tattered apology from his brother into his pocket. He could see his breath in the air as he headed out to the Impala.
Dean didn't know where his father was. John had dropped them off at the old, roach-infested, mold-encrusted motel in the middle of the city over a week ago. There had been a series of murders in the suburbs, and John suspected someone was dabbling in the occult. The targets had been teenagers, and John told Dean that keeping them in the city away from the case was better. Plus, teachers in cities asked fewer questions about absent parents. There was just too much going on in a city to save everyone.
So with his father gone, Bobby not picking up his phone, and anyone else Dean knew to call for help too far away to do any good, Dean figured he was on his own.
It was mid-December. It was dark, cold, and the roads were icy. At least it wasn't snowing. Dean didn't actually have his license yet even though he was finally old enough. He'd been driving since he was twelve, so he figured he'd pass if he ever took the test. John had supplied him with all the fake IDs he could ever need to pass as an adult after an emergency room trip that had made a few social worker's heads turn. Sam was a magnet for trouble.
Dean took a deep breath as he pulled the Impala up to the middle school where he had dropped Sam off that morning, his eyes scanning the groups of kids still hanging around. Sometimes Sam stayed and played with the soccer team even though he couldn't officially join. Dean let out his breath when his brother wasn't there, and continued on.
Sam wasn't at the library. Or at the coffee shop where the old grandmotherly woman often fed the brothers left-over treats that no one had bought. He wasn't at Blockbuster, and he wasn't at the used book store.
With each place that Sam failed to be, Dean's feeling of dread grew worse.
Sam was missing. Dean didn't really understand what was going on, but he was pretty sure his brother had been kidnapped. The idea sounded ridiculous, cliché; something that only happened in books or movies. Regardless, his brother had somehow gotten involved in something that would make him have a "last request". And Dean hadn't known about it. That irked him. He should have known what was going on. It added to his frustration.
Running out of places to search, he began just driving around, circling all the places his brother might know. Maybe Sam would be walking on the side of the road, all a big joke to get Dean back for the itching powder he had put in Sam's duffle bag. Dean was grasping at straws as he drove further and further out of the city, but it was all he had.
It was past dawn when Dean returned to the hotel. The brightness of the sun made his eyes sting, and the reek of alcohol made them water. His father was passed out in bed, the lime green comforter not doing much to contain the older man's snores, note on the mini-fridge apparently unread. Or read and forgotten about. Or read and uncared-for. Although Dean wouldn't let himself believe the last option. Their father loved them, wouldn't let anything happen to them if he could stop it. John probably hadn't read the note and thought that both Dean and Sam were at a movie.
Dean stepped closer to the bed, intending on waking his father up, telling him about Sam. Dean's gut dropped to his feet when he noticed a white envelope tucked in his father's hand. Pulling it from his father's grip, he looked at Sam's hand writing spelling out 'Dad', looked at the same message Dean himself had gotten on another torn, muddy strip of paper: I'm sorry.
And then Dean understood what happened: his father knew what Dean didn't, and had drunk himself stupid in a wish to forget.
"I'm sorry," John said. "They took him. I'm sorry."
Dean sighed. He never, ever wanted to hear an apology again. Not from Sam, and not from his father. Not from police or teachers or supposed friends. Dean just wanted his brother back.
Instead he got 'I'm sorry' over and over again. He didn't understand how his twelve year old brother had disappeared three days before and no one had seen anything. He didn't understand how his father had just curled up in a whiskey bottle and refused to do anything. Or how his brother's final request was to apologize for something Dean didn't even know what he was apologizing for. Unless his brother knew this would happen. And that Dean would not accept.
Could not accept.
Dean partially wanted to find Sam just to kill him himself.
"Dad, just tell me what you know," Dean pleaded as he watched his father fight to open the bottle of alcohol. He had already read his father's journal. He knew about the cult in the suburbs, he knew about the grisly deaths: kids dismembered with crushed skulls and burst eyeballs and lengths of burned skin. He had also made the connection that all the kids were city kids; a connection John had apparently failed to make quick enough. It was the type of mistake his father rarely made. Typical Winchester luck that it would come back and bite them in the ass. "Why can't we go find Sam?" Dean asked.
John finally pulled off the top, took a slug of the whiskey, and banged the bottle thickly on the linoleum as he put it down. There was screaming from next door: strings of curse words and banging doors. John was still slouched against the wall. It was where he had fallen when Dean had punched him an hour ago. Dean had thought that he was going to get his ass whipped, but his father had just sat there, looking desolately up at Dean. It reminded Dean of how his father was after his mother had died.
A chill raced down Dean's spine. His throat tightened. He could barely speak the next words, but he forced them out: "Sammy's still alive, isn't he?"
The arguing next door paused for a moment, and then the woman let lose a loud shriek of indignant rage punctuated by "Out! Out! Out!"
John swallowed a few times, his eyes locked on Dean's as his hand searched in his jacket pocket. He pulled out a small plastic Ziploc bag and held it out for Dean to inspect. "I don't know," John said.
Dean wanted to cry.
The bag held a chunk of slightly curly brown hair bloody at the roots, and a small bloody fingernail.
On the fifth day, in the early morning, Dean woke up to the sound of his father crying. His father didn't cry, and it was tying more knots in Dean's stomach. He rolled off the couch with a shiver, instantly awake. The front door was wide open and his father crouched in the doorway in the morning light, rocking back and forth.
Dean approached cautiously. "Dad?" Dean asked. His toes were going numb from the cold. His father was muttering an apology over and over.
When he stepped close enough, Dean could see a blanket-wrapped bundle in his father's arms. He frowned, unable to make his mind register what it was he was seeing. When it did, he wished he could unsee it.
It was Sam: blue, black, and bloody. His face was beaten near unrecognizable, his arms were cut: slices precise and clean to draw out the pain before bleeding to death. Dean could see bare arms and legs, all black and blue and a few at unnatural angles. It took a moment for Dean's mind to register that Sam's clothes were gone, leaving him with only the blanket for protection from the cold.
Dean didn't think past that, couldn't absorb the possible implications; instead, he reacted. The ambulance was there before his father could even protest using a hospital. Not that Dean would have heeded his father anyway. It was easier to ask forgiveness than permission.
At some point, Dean noticed that his father was sober. It might have been when the coffee was shoved into his hands in the too-full waiting room. It might have been later, in the beeping of the white, white ICU when their father had leaned over Sam and whispered "I'll fix this, Sammy."
It didn't really matter when his father had regained control of himself. It only mattered that he did, because then Dean knew that everything would be okay, that it had to be. Even super heroes had weaknesses. And some part of him still believed that his father was a super hero.
On the sixth day, Sam woke up. Dean called him sleeping beauty as he held up some ice for his brother to eat and Sam smiled weakly. John entered soon after; face grim after talking to Sam's doctor. Dean watched his father's eyes scan over his youngest son's form before he bent down and gently kissed Sam's forehead. He listened as John whispered white lies to Sam that Dean didn't contradict, lies that covered up the fact that John had spent the past days drunk to oblivion and believing that his youngest was dead.
Dean swore to himself that he would never tell Sam the truth. Sam didn't need to know. So Dean took the knowledge and crammed it as far down inside him as it would go. He had to believe that it would all be okay, that their father would fix things like he promised.
Later, Sam slept, woke from nightmares, slept some more. Dean spent that day beside his brother's bed, telling Sam dirty stories for lullabies and running his fingers through his brother's greasy, knotted hair.
On the ninth day, after John had gone to get dinner and it was just the brothers, Sam opened his eyes and looked at Dean. He didn't say anything; he hadn't said anything at all since waking up in the hospital. He hadn't even spoken to the cops. There were rings of bruises around his neck resembling hand prints, so Dean wasn't sure if his brother couldn't talk or didn't want to. Dean hadn't kept track of all of Sam's injuries, didn't understand the medical jargon, so he had left it to John to worry about. He just knew that his brother was a beaten mass of swelling, bruising and broken bones; encased in casts, wrapped in bandages, and surrounded by beeping machines that doctors checked every hour. Three days and the bruising still looked black and fresh, three days and the swelling in Sam's face was just beginning to lessen.
Dean swore that if he ever found who had done so much harm to Sam, he'd kill them.
"Hey, Sammy," Dean said when Sam continued to stare at him. He held up a chip of ice, slid it passed his brother's lips, watched as Sam's throat worked to swallow the little bit of water. "You want another one?" Dean asked when Sam licked his lips.
Same shook his head, licked his lips again. "Dean," he said in a voice raspy with disuse, "I know who's been committing the murders."
Dean handed his list of names to his father, fingers of his other hand white knuckled into a fist. The motel was silent, no couple arguing on the other side of the walls. John looked at the list Dean had compiled, held it up to his own as if his suspicions were confirmed. Dean looked at his father's two-week-old beard, the dark circles under his eyes and thought he hadn't ever seen his father look so tired. "No apparent witchcraft?" John asked.
Dean shook his head, the shadows from the dim lighting exaggerating his movement.
No. Not Yet. Just people.
"People are crazy," John said as he passed Dean weapons and equipment.
Dean nodded as he packed everything into a small duffel. He and his father were going hunting.
Dean listened to the rhythmic thwak, thwak, thwak of fist hitting face as he cleaned the blood off his blade on the black robes of one of the several dead men on the ground. Around him the woods were dark, with only the occasional stretch of headlights making it all the way to the clearing. It was cold, and his breath puffed white before him. There was a bloody noose hanging from one of the tree branches, and he tried not to think about what it was used for, tried not to imagine his brother there.
Dean stood straight when his blade was clean and resisted the urge to stab the man again. In Dean's opinion, they had all died too quickly considering they had beaten, molested and killed at least ten kids. Especially considering they had beaten, possibly molested, and almost killed Sam. But Dean and John had to be quick; before anyone came looking for these men or became suspicious of the bon fire his father planned to make with their bodies.
Sheathing his knife, he picked up a dropped gun and went over to his father.
The man his father was beating was mostly dead, his facial bones crushed, his nose caved in. Dean knew who it was anyway: Sam's homeroom teacher. The man who had sent a video tape to John warning him to stay back from the cult or else; a warning that went unheeded. The man had then offered Sam a ride home and Sam had trusted him because it was his teacher, someone who was supposed to be safe. Sam never made it home, and John had received a lock of Sam's hair and a fingernail while Dean had been riding around the city looking for his missing brother.
It was only because Sam was smart and fast and partially trained that he had escaped. The cult hadn't chased him because they thought he wouldn't survive naked in the cold fighting dehydration, bleeding wrists, and broken bones. Sam refused to talk about the details of the week he was gone. This made Dean both worried and relieved. He was relieved because he didn't really want to know. Worried because the longer he went without knowing, the worse things would become in his mind.
Thwak. Thwak. Thwak.
There was a loud crack after the last hit; the sound of a neck snapping. The man's head lay at a funny angle and John stopped hitting him. He was dead now; beaten to death as so many of his victims had been.
"Never again," Dean heard his father whisper into the night. "Never. Again." Dean nodded his agreement.
John stood and staggered a few feet from the body, his back to Dean. His knuckles were oozing blood down his fingers, and his shoulders sagged. Dean stepped up to the body while aiming the gun. He shot a bullet into the heart, into the brain, into the crotch. Then he spit.
"Pile the bodies, Dean," his father said in a voice quiet and rough.
Sam was the only surviving victim of the cult, whose members were all mysteriously murdered one after another after the main group had been slaughtered. It was a media frenzy, and everyone was dying to get a picture, an interview, to learn what the survivor saw and how he escaped. Especially as the police kept finding more evidence than they had ever wanted to of things they had never wanted to see: abuse, molestation, torture. The news said there were pictures and video tapes. John and Dean were terrified of what might be someplace in someone's pile, but neither of them had the courage to ask Sam. They didn't really want to know.
So in the dead of night they snuck out the back door of the hospital mere hours before their fake healthcare was spotted. Sam wasn't well exactly, but well enough. He was bruised and had casts and was on as many painkillers as a cancer patient. But if they stayed, they chanced losing Sam to the government because the nurses were curious and reporters were digging for information on their family.
Stashing crutches and paper bags of stolen medicine into the trunk of the Impala, Dean watched his father carry Sam away and tuck him into the high black truck John drove. He saw his brother's head nod as John asked him questions and fiddled with blankets and Gatorade bottles. Then, as Dean climbed into the driver's side of the Impala, his father nodded to him and they left.
Six states and their father was still insistent on driving further before even looking for a new hunt. He refused to stay in a motel, and wouldn't leave Dean for more than half an hour if they were in a store or restaurant. He wouldn't let Sam out of his sight.
Six states away and they were still seeing the cult in all the newspapers. Dean didn't read the articles anymore, and he didn't want Sam to either. It was over. It had to be over.
Standing in line in a grocery store as they restocked on snacks and bandages, one newspaper had the picture of all the dead children paraded across the front. One of the pictures was of the frizzy, bright red-haired girl. Sam stared at it as their father unloaded items onto the conveyor belt and paid. Dean frowned, reached over and folded the first news paper over to hide the faces of the dead children.
"They were all in school with me, Dean," Sam said quietly, shifting on his crutches. "I knew them all. I think I heard some of them die."
Dean felt a shudder run down his spine. He said nothing because there wasn't anything he could say.
"I was told that everyone got a last request, and everyone asked to be let go. Then they died. I knew they weren't letting me go. " Sam said.
So he had written notes saying 'I'm sorry' to Dean and John.
At Dean's silence, Sam met his gaze and held it. "I thought for a long time, and I couldn't think of anything else to write but I'm sorry. All I could think was that I never should have gotten in that car. That I was going to die because of it, and that you and Dad had taught me better."
"There was nothing for you to be sorry about, Sam" John spoke from behind them as he shoved his wallet into his back pocket. Dean looked to his father, grateful, because Dean hadn't had any idea what to say.
John picked up the plastic bags filled with supplies and handed one to Dean. "People are crazy," he said as he placed his now free hand on top of Sam's head. He smoothed Sam's hair down until his hand held the back of Sam's neck, his thumb gently running over Sam's cheek. "There was nothing you could have done. They got what they deserved."
There was a pause as if Sam was debating his father's words, but after a moment he nodded. "Okay," he said, and John gave a soft smile. Dean wondered if his father missed the lie in Sam's voice, or had just chosen to ignore it.
"They're all dead, aren't they?" Sam asked Dean in the dark of the Impala. They were parked in a dark parking lot on the side of some little known international route. The parking lot lights were off; the building for the parking lot abandoned and boarded up. In the dark and the quiet, it seemed like the world was holding its breath, waiting for spring.
More days and states had past and their father had only just relaxed enough to let Sam out of his sight and into Dean's care. Dean was grateful; he loved the Impala and driving the open roads. But it had been strange driving alone. Sam had always ridden with him before. It was too quiet by himself, and Dean didn't really like the silence.
The back seat was no longer as big as it had been when they were young and each boy could curl up on half the seat to sleep. It wasn't even large enough to have kicking wars, like it had been when Dean hit thirteen and a growth spurt into adolescence had suddenly had him gobbling up space that he hadn't just weeks before. But they both managed to fit, if a little more snugly: Dean's legs stretched out across the seat and his back to the door with Sam more or less stretched out on top of him using Dean's chest for a pillow. They were stopped someplace in the south; Georgia or something where true winter had yet to touch.
"You and Dad killed them, didn't you?" Sam asked again when he didn't respond.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Sammy," Dean said, pulling himself from the edge of sleep. He felt his brother shift and could practically feel Sam's eye roll. A streetlight in the road flickered and Dean watched the twinkling orange light through half opened eyes.
"They were people, Dean," Sam said. "Bad people, but they were still people."
"People can be monsters too," Dean said. People were crazy. His father's words. At the thought, Dean automatically glanced at the large truck parked in the lot next to them. He wondered if his father was asleep.
"If I became a monster, would you kill me?" Sam asked and Dean almost snorted as he glanced away from the truck and down to the top of his brother's head.
"You'll never be a monster, Sammy. I won't let you," Dean said, rather proud of himself for keeping the ridicule out of his voice. The idea of his brother, the one itching to lecture him on humanity, turning evil was ludicrous.
The silence stretched, and Dean was on the edge of dreamland when Sam spoke. "Dean," Sam said, "I'm okay." It was a lie, and they both knew it. Dean didn't have to point out that Sam was still black and blue and he couldn't walk without crutches.
"I've read the papers, and I see the way you and Dad have been looking at me," Sam trailed off but Dean didn't interrupt. For some reason his brother made most of his confessions at night, as if his secrets were only safe in the dark. Or maybe it was so the secrets wouldn't be able to circle him like sharks in the ocean when the sky had no light. "They didn't touch me. Mr. Jameson wouldn't let them. And there are no pictures or video," Sam paused for a moment. "I burned it all." His voice was bitter, as if there were more to the story than he was telling.
Dean took a deep breath, waited a heartbeat, two, watched the flickering streetlight die and then breathed out. "Go to sleep, Sam," he said quietly. There was more to the story but Sam needed time, and Dean wouldn't push. It would all come out eventually, the lies and truths, on quiet dark nights like this, like pus leaking from an infected wound.
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