Title: My Father's Favourite
Rating: T (for the occasional "F" bomb)
Disclaimer: Not for profit. No copyright infringement intended
Characters: Dean, Sam, John, OCs, with surprise guest appearances
Word Count: 8941 (in this chapter)
Summary: Pre-series. 11 year-old Sam is feeling adrift when faced once again with the prospect of moving to a new town to start all over again. When a messenger of God appears in a dream, Sam prays that his family will stay put so they can be safe and normal. It's a case of "be careful what you wish for." Very sick!Dean.
It isn't fair.
Sam skulks in shuffling, scuffing footsteps, kicking a rock with an angry swipe of well-worn second-hand sneakers and following its skip-jumped path, sulking his way home from school with newly-budding anger welling deep within his chest. He grits his teeth and stares hard at the ground, watching the wayward pebble dance ahead of him as he jerks it for another frantic tumble down the sidewalk, Dean nattering along contentedly beside him about some cootie-infested girl, oblivious as always to his little brother's woes. That, or the stupid jerk knows he's upset and is deliberately ignoring it.
"Anyway, she was at least a B-cup. Probably a C," Dean says with an emphatic head nod, his eyebrows raised high in his forehead as if contemplating the sublime nature of bra sizes.
"I'm tellin' you Sammy, high school girls are so much cooler than those tight-asses in middle school."
Like Sam cares.
Dean's fifteen now, and apparently that makes him some kind of expert on girls and sex. Dad joked once that Dean got a triple dose of teenage hormones, but Sam thinks (for once) that their father was right. Sam's pretty sure Dean's still a virgin, but if his big brother has his way he won't be for long. It's girls, girls, girls with Dean – morning, noon, and night. When he isn't interacting with them (flirting, getting shot down, or making out with them behind the bleachers in the football field), he's talking about them, or daydreaming about them, or just staring at them as they walk past. Pretty much the only thing that ever draws Dean's one-track mind away from girls is hunting: that he is even more gung-ho about.
And the less Sam thinks about that the better. Because Dean and hunting? It's a can of worms that's only recently been opened, wriggling in Sam's guts and twisting him up inside in ways he never even knew were possible. But Dad loves Dean's enthusiasm. He eats it up. He actively encourages it.
It's wrong. And it's not fair.
Dean's failing English. He has a regular detention slot at lunch hour these days, and has been suspended at two different schools in the last six months. He skips classes on a regular basis, got caught shop-lifting at a convenience store two towns back, and generally is about as bad as any kid Sam has ever heard of.
But he's still Dad's favourite because he's a good soldier.
Does Dad care that Sam made the soccer team and won Most Valuable Player at last weekend's game? Does Dad care that Sam has the highest grade in the whole class for Social Studies, English, History, and Science? Does he care that Sam's submission for a writing contest won and was published in the local newspaper? Does he care that Sam auditioned and got the lead role in the school play?
Sam would answer 'no' on all counts, except that in a few cases in the above-noted list John Winchester cares a great deal. He cares, for example, that Sam's soccer games are early on Saturday mornings (which means he has to get up early to drive him there when he could be nursing a perfectly good hangover instead). He cares about 'being a damned chauffeur' to Sam's rehearsals and practices after school. He cares a whole lot about the amount of time Sam devotes to his studies and rehearsals and practices when he should be sparring with his brother, or learning to shoot with the new sawed-off, or practicing his knife-fighting. He cares that Sam is 'wasting his damned time' with his head 'shoved up his ass.'
Did Sam mention that his Dad is a major jerk?
So it isn't fair. And Sam, being an eleven year-old bundle of insecurity and angst, is keenly feeling the sting of being a disappointment to his father when he knows he should be making the man proud. Any other father would trade in his left nut (that's what Dean would say) to have Sam for a son. But not John Winchester.
So yeah. Sam's feeling pretty pissed at the moment. And his stupid brother isn't helping matters.
"You're quiet," Dean muses aloud. "Got too much stuff swirling around in that giant geek brain of yours?"
"Shut up Dean," Sam mumbles by way of reply. He doesn't want to talk. Doesn't want to be distracted from his bad mood or cheered up. He's nursing this feeling of resentment. Cradling it to his chest and giving it a safe, warm home where it can fester into something dark and deep and hot.
He doesn't look up, but he can feel his big brother's eyes on him, knows that Dean is studying him now like he always does, trying to get a reading of him so he can figure out what's the matter. Then he'll try to fix it, in his own backward, hardly-helpful way.
"Someone giving you a rough time at school?" he queries at length, scrutinizing with his keen green eyes (which Sam is studiously avoiding with his shuffling and rock-kicking).
"Cos I already told you – just gimme a name and I'll set the little bastard straight."
Sam sighs inwardly but refuses to respond.
"'z'it a girl?" Dean hazards dubiously.
Sam snorts a laugh and rolls his eyes.
""Kay, didn't think so," Dean shrugs, and Sam can hear the smile in his voice. "But I figured I'd ask."
He walks in silence for a full beat before ploughing ahead again.
"So…. If it's not bullies and it's not a girl… Did you—is this like a school thing? Did you fail a test or something?"
Like that would ever happen.
He must have said it out loud because Dean snorts and laughs.
"Yeah, you're right. It was a long shot. So what then? What's got your panties in a twist?"
'Like you care,' Sam wants to say, but doesn't. Mostly because he knows Dean cares. Dean might pretend to be a hardass like Dad, but he always cares about the things that upset Sam. He might not agree with his little brother, but he'll do what he can to make it better. It's his way.
Still, Sam knows that Dean won't agree with him about this. He'll say that Sam's being too sensitive. Probably call him a girl, too. Then he'll explain all the reasons why Dad does what he does, and why Sam's just a selfish little freak who thinks only about himself. But Sam can't help it. He just… He just doesn't want to leave again, for a whole host of very important reasons.
That's what's got this particular eleven year-old in such a tizzy. Being a disappointment in John Winchester's eyes, while doing its number on his youngest son's self-esteem, is something the little boy could live with. He's been doing it long enough that he's learned not to let it get to him too badly. It's just that, the more he excels at school, and the more he flourishes with his grades, with his practices, with his rehearsals, the more Sam craves just the tiniest bit of validation from his old man because these things matter too.
And they matter enough to Sam that he really, really, really wants to stay this time. More so than any other time or any other town. Like, he's been praying every night for the last month that God will let them set up roots here forever, like a normal family.
The house they're staying in isn't anything special. It's the top floor of a duplex in a dodgy part of town, literally across the railroad tracks on the outskirts of a beat-down industrial district. The boys have a forty-minute walk to and from school every day and even though it's early May, there's still a bite to the air most days that says Spring isn't yet ready to make way for Summer's warmth. The nights are cool enough that the boys end up sharing a bed more often than not to conserve body heat. But there's a full kitchen and an old box TV that Dean fixed up, and the couch is used but in a well-worn, comfy way that Dean says is "lived in."
It's certainly nothing to brag about, but it's stable and the space is open and both boys have admitted to feeling more at home here than they have anywhere else for a long time. Dad's even got a job working construction for a crew that builds houses in these new residential neighbourhoods on the other side of town. It's steady work, but the scheduling's broken up with each job, which means that Dad can leave town for days at a time to do research or kill the latest evil thing a few towns over.
It's a good set-up: it reminds him of Uncle Bobby with his home base at the salvage yard, or Pastor Jim with his small parish in Blue Earth. Nothing fancy, sure, but stable enough. The boys are still sharing a room, but at least they have their own beds. And when Dad's out of town on a hunt, Dean'll sometimes take Dad's bed to give Sam some privacy (or more likely to seek privacy for himself so he can whack off or something).
Even Dean seems to be liking it here (if the string of girls trailing after him, calling him to talk about who knows what, and giggling at everything he says like he's actually funny, are anything to go by). Sam's got a best friend named Matt whose birthday party in July is going to be a trip to the water park, and he's heard that they have a Festival of Lights in the town square every Christmas, with sleigh rides and hot cocoa and roasted chestnuts.
It doesn't have to be perfect. Dad would still be an jerk, and Dean would still be a skirt-chasing ass. But they'd finally belong somewhere, be part of something that was nice and normal. Why can't they have that?
"I just wish we could stay," Sam finally admits with a defeated shrug. He dares to glance up at his big brother, noticing right away that Dean's eyes are downcast, his long lashes casting shadows on his freckled cheeks. Then twin crescent moons of forest green peek up before his heavy lids squint thoughtfully.
"Dad'll probably let us finish up the year here," he offers up, lips pursed together tightly in a thoughtful pout.
And why is it that he always looks like it takes so much effort to think?, Sam wonders. Dean's face is a veritable treasure trove of odd expressions, 99% of which are the direct result of the cogs in his head turning at a slow burn. And okay, that's probably not fair. At least 50% of Dean's facial expressions are to express some kind of joke, laugh, or or shine with a joie de vivre that only Dean Winchester would feel living the sucky lives that they live. Then a remaining 30% are devoted to trying and failing to mask his weepy, gooey, hurty centre. Dean's tough, Sam knows, but there are hurts in life that leave a sting, and if you know Dean you know where to look to see it in his eyes. That leaves probably 20% for his various Thinking Faces. His Thinking Faces are made all the more entertaining when coupled with his Thinking Gestures (like the head scratch or thumb-to-lip-tug).
"That'll give us at least, like, two months here," Dean says. "By then your play'll be done, right?"
"But after that," Sam says hopefully. "When the hunt's done, and school is done, I just wish… I want to stay here, Dean. I want to live here, like a real family."
"We are a real family." Dean's got that testy tone to his voice that says he's about a nanosecond away from being seriously pissed off.
"Fine, a normal family then," Sam corrects. "Why can't we be normal and stay in one place?"
Dean scoffs like Sam's just said a dirty word.
"Normal sucks, Sammy. Town like this, most people are fighting to break the hell away from normal. Besides, what Dad does? It's important. It's a rough gig, and sure it might get lonely sometimes, but it saves lives."
And here we go, Sam thinks. We're back to the same old song and dance. This is precisely why he didn't want to talk about it with Dean. Dean's their father's perfect brainwashed little soldier. Of course Dean doesn't get it.
"I knew you'd side with him," Sam grumbles as he picks up his pace, abandoning the rock that'd been his kicking companion since they left the elementary school.
They don't talk for the remainder of the walk home. Dean trails just slightly behind, giving his little brother space, or maybe just staying out of his way. Sam's secretly glad, because right now he feels like crying.
When they leave this town, things are going to be bad again. They'll have to start over in a new place, make new friends, get new lodgings, and they'll be outsiders again just like they are everywhere they go. And then Dad'll get it in his head to take Dean hunting again, especially with school over for the summer. And then Dean'll… Dean could…
It was scary enough to learn the truth about what Dad does. Sam remembers feeling like nothing would ever be right again when he learned that monsters are real. It's one of those things that changes you, like when normal kids learn there's no Santa. He went from believing the world was one way, only to learn that it's something else entirely. Something darker and scarier than he'd ever imagined. But that was Dad's choice, at least. Dad hunting monsters maybe even felt a bit like balancing the scales a bit, because Dad's big and strong and, according to Dean, 'freakin' indestructible.' Maybe it's a good thing that John Winchester is out there, fighting all those evil things that lurk in the dark, keeping everyone safe.
But Dean's fifteen years old, and much as he might like to tell himself that he's a man now, he's not. Sam knows he's not. 'Cos when Dean got back from that black dog hunt in Minnesota six months ago, he had nightmares about it for weeks afterwards. And Sam caught him crying in the bathroom the night after the hunt, when he and Dad got back from the hospital after having Dean's broken arm reset and casted. Dad might be indestructible, but Dean's only a kid and he breaks just the same as everyone else. Dean could get killed on the next hunt.
What's so wrong with normal, anyway? Why is it Dad's job to keep everyone safe from monsters? How come everyone can't know about monsters and protect themselves? Like having salt lines and protection sigils alongside the smoke detectors and fire extinguishers in their homes? Why does it have to be some big, stupid secret?
Winchester Rule #1: We do what we do and we shut up about it.
'You wanna spend the rest of your life in a rubber room strapped to a bed in five-point restraints or wearin' a straight jacket, then sure – go right on ahead and tell everyone about the banshee your brother and I banished last week.'
See? Sam's Dad is a major jerk.
And okay, maybe he gets that people would think that they were crazy if they told them the truth. But it's the truth. Eventually they'd realize, wouldn't they?
Sam carries these thoughts deep in his chest, where they swirl up, branch-like, sprouting leaves and buds and juicy, ripe fruit in his head. He almost walks right past the duplex they're living in, but Dean's there in a pinch to cuff him around the head and call him a space cadet.
They don't talk much as the evening progresses. Dean gives Sam his space, making idle chit chat while he stirs a pot of boiling noodles they bought at the Bulk Barn and tends the sauce pan with the canned tomato soup in it, adding spices to taste and killing the time with pointless chatter. Sam does his homework at the kitchen table, makes the odd non-committal grunty sound by way of reply, and basically sticks his nose to his books to avoid interacting with his big brother, the casserole chef extraordinaire.
When the noodle-soup concoction is finished baking in the squeaky-hinged oven, Dean serves up a plate for each of them and leaves the rest (a sizeably larger portion) for Dad. They eat in silence, and Sam has to admit, the food's pretty good. It's hit or miss most days with Dean's cooking (the debacle with the canned salmon and cream of mushroom soup still turns his stomach when he thinks about it), but today's is a definite hit. He even allows himself the indulgence of licking the plate clean. Dean's pleased grin is so bright it almost makes him forget how bummed he is about everything else.
When Sam wakes up at exactly 2:04 to the sight of a man looming over his bed, his first instinct is to scream. He starts like he's just been electrocuted, his instincts hampered by the stunned just-awake feeling of panic. He sucks in a breath, his heart beating wildly in his chest, and prepares to scream.
"Hey there, champ," the strange man says conversationally, pleasantly, as if it's perfectly normal and acceptable for him to be looming over a sleeping 11 year-old.
"What…" Sam gulps, his eyes darting over to the other bed, where Dean's sprawled bonelessly, sound asleep and apparently dead to the world. Which is strange, really, because Dean's an even lighter sleeper than Dad.
"Just thought I'd come by to have a little chat," the man says before taking a seat on the edge of Dean's bed.
Dean doesn't move.
"Say howdy," the man goes on with a grin that's illuminated by the streetlight beyond the window.
Sam should be screaming for help right now, or at least panicking, because there's a strange man sitting on his brother's bed, and Dad hasn't run in here to shoot him yet, and Dean isn't waking up or even moving. This is like some kind of… dream or something.
"I'm dreaming," Sam whispers.
"Head of the class," the man winks and makes a loud check sound in his cheek. "But that doesn't mean that this isn't real, if you catch my drift."
Sam doesn't, but since it's a dream he supposes that it doesn't really matter much. Maybe the strange man won't mind explaining, though. Just in case it's important.
"Who are you?" Sam asks instead.
"I have a lot of different names," the man says with a shrug. "Of course, who I am doesn't matter so much as why I'm here. Right, Sammy?"
It's weird the way he says 'Right Sammy?' like he knows him, full of fondness and intimate in a way that feels familial, like how Dean or Dad would say it.
"Okay," Sam admits slowly. "Why are you here?"
The strange man grins again, and it's an open grin that feels deep enough to swallow him whole. Makes him feel like the world's opening up under his feet. Makes his stomach flutter with something like fear.
And then the room gets real warm, the air seeming to thicken and shimmer with invisible waves of heat, before the man's gleaming eyes shine bright and gold, like swirling, dancing embers of the sun. The light from the streetlamp glint's off the swirling amber like the dancing licks of a flame. It's almost kind of pretty, in a terrifying, dreamy, surreal kind of way.
"I'm here," the man with the yellow eyes says in a conspiratorial whisper, "to tell you that angels are watching over you."
That makes Sam's heart speed up a bit more, because it's very unexpected. He'd thought that his strange night visitor was some kind of monster or something, but since he's talking about angels, it must mean that he's good, too. It must mean that he's some kind of messenger or something, like Pastor Jim talked about. A messenger of God.
"Angels?" Sam whispers, completely awe-struck and sincerely hoping now that this isn't a dream. "Really?"
"You betcha!" the yellow-eyed messenger says cheerfully. "Angels. Or… angel. One. The brightest and most beautiful of them all."
Wow. There aren't words for how the little boy is feeling right now. He wants to be skeptical, but he's too filled with hope and desperation to do anything but bask in the intense feeling of relief that comes with this visit. Angels. Angels watching over him.
"Why?" Sam dares ask, still sounding star-struck. "I mean, why is this angel watching over me? Is it like my guardian angel?"
Pastor Jim had talked about those, too.
"Something like that," Yellow Eyes grins. "And lately you've been praying pretty loud, Champ. So the Morning Star sent me to let you know that everything's going to be okay."
Everything's going to be okay. That's what Dean's always saying. He'll lay his hand on the back of Sam's head, strong and reassuring, and talk about everything and nothing, baseball and carburetors, soothing the ache while Sam sniffles through the last of his tears after a nightmare. Everything's going to be okay, he says, when Dad's been gone two days too long on a hunt without checking in with the boys to let them know he's not dead. Everything's going to be okay when they've run out of money and there's no food in the fridge.
Everything's going to be okay.
"He's going to take care of you," Yellow Eyes soothes. "Anything you want."
That sounds too good to be true, no matter how much Sam wants to believe it implicitly. Still, he's a Winchester, and you don't grow up with John Winchester without inheriting a hefty amount of skepticism.
"If the Morning Star is answering my prayers," Sam wonders aloud, "how come he's not here in person. How come he sent you instead?"
The messenger's smile falters fractionally, grows tight and slightly quirking at the edges.
"You're a sharp-shooter, Sammy boy," he admits proudly. "Knew I couldn't pull one over on you."
He leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and peers intently at Sam with eyes swirling with sickly yellow.
"See, the thing they don't tell you about angels in Sunday School," he explains, "is that they're a whole lot bigger and brighter in real life than they are in the story books. So bright, in fact, that just looking at an angel would cause you to go blind. And that's the God's honest truth," he says solemnly, raising two fingers to tap his forehead. "Scout's honour."
"But because you're a messenger, you can talk to the angel?" Sam prompts.
The man looks very satisfied when he nods. "Exactly. So you tell me what you need, and I'll pass it on to your guardian angel friend. Whatever you want – you just name it, and it's yours."
Sam has to be dreaming. This can't be real. He wants it so badly to be real, but that's not the way the world works, right? At least, not if you're a Winchester. Other people get their prayers answered, but Winchesters live outside of that, on the fringes. They don't… they don't get what they want.
"I want to stay here," Sam blurts, maybe a little too quickly. "I want us to stay here together, as a family." More calmly, less desperately. "I want Dad to take care of us and not go away on hunting trips."
He thinks the man smirks at this, but the genial smile is back too quick to tell.
"Of course," he agrees. "Life on the road is no place for children."
"I don't want Dean to get killed hunting!" Sam adds emphatically. That's probably the most important one of all, really.
"I just want us to be normal."
Yellow Eyes grins, sharp and snake-like. Triumphant.
Two weeks later, Dad tells them they'll be leaving as soon as the school year's done. Sam decides then and there that the messenger in his dream was full of crap, and that, if there are angels, they're not listening to the desperate prayers and pleas of Sam Winchester. They're probably busy, off fighting world hunger or comforting starving kids in Africa or something. They're definitely not meddling in John Winchester's plans to drag his kids across the American landscape like so much luggage.
Sam doesn't think about the dream again. It was stupid anyway, and quite frankly he's embarrassed with himself for how seriously he'd taken the whole thing. He'd woken up with a smile, for goodness sake! He'd been so relieved he'd been practically walking on air, to the point that he'd even given up giving his Dad a hard time about the holes in his sneakers or the rip in his bookbag.
God, he was such a chump for believing that was real.
A month after the dream, Dean comes home from school early with a bad cough and a head cold. He goes to bed early, leaving Sam to worry about fixing his own supper for once, and doesn't come out for the next three days. By that time he's full of fever and shivering with chills, his breaths laboured and his skin so pale and waxy he looks like a ghost. Since Dad's actually around to notice, he makes Dean stay home from school and fills the medicine cabinet with cough syrup and cold pills to help with the sinus pressure in Dean's face. When Dean's breathing gets worse and the cold hasn't shaken after a week of bed rest, Dad takes Dean to the doctor (grumbling the whole way because he doesn't have insurance yet at his job 'cos he's only been there for two months, and they can't use fake insurance 'cos they've been in town too long to not get caught).
Dean comes back with a couple of different prescriptions and a crisp, white doctor's note to stay off school for the next two weeks. Acute pneumonia and a sinus infection. He takes his illness in stride, watching TV like he's on Christmas vacation or something, and cleaning the guns when he gets bored. The antibiotics do their thing: the infection and pneumonia clear up and life goes back to normal.
They've got two weeks left of school before summer starts and Sam's trying very hard not to think about the fact that they'll be leaving soon. The days are getting warmer – summer will be here soon – and the nights have lost their bitter chill. Dean's still pretty pale, and tires easily, but the weather's great and Dad's got them training with early-morning runs every day to get their strength up.
Drama rehearsals have stepped up too: every Tuesday and Thursday after school, and Saturday afternoons. Dad's taken extra shifts at the latest site so he can pick up some extra cash before they move, so it falls to Dean to get Sam to drama and soccer practices and back. In truth, Sam prefers it that way – Dean's unbridled and, albeit, embarrassing enthusiasm are infinitely preferable to Dad's grumbling and bitching. He'll take Dean's wolf-whistling and "Way to go Sammay!" shouts any day (even in the empty, enclosed space of the school theatre). Besides, it's pretty awesome that Dean actually stays to watch the practices and rehearsals, instead of just dropping Sam off like Dad does.
The night before the play opens, exactly one week before they're supposed to leave, Dean falls in the shower. It's Sunday afternoon and Sam's taking it easy in a lazy sprawl on the couch, still in his PJs even though Dad's already asked him twice to go get dressed. But it's one of those loungy days, and neither of the boys have much interest in moving about. Dean had finally gotten up, peeling his aching body up from the couch with a groan and said he was getting in the shower to try to loosen himself up a bit.
He's been stiff and sore for the past week, muttering about growth spurts and aching joints whenever Dad wasn't close enough to hear him complain. Sam figures he was still feeling off from the pneumonia, which had really knocked him on his ass.
Sam stretches on the couch, considers going to his room to curl up with Robinson Crusoe, and then pauses when he hears the long squeal of flesh squeaking against wet fiberglass, followed by a loud thump. He waits a beat, listening for further sounds of movement, and then turns with a snap to the right when he hears his father make a sudden lurch from his seat at the kitchen table.
"Dean?" Dad calls sharply.
The shower's still going, that much is easy to hear, but if Dean makes any kind of reply, neither his brother nor his father hears it.
"Dean?" Dad shouts again, more urgently this time as he takes long, sure strides towards the bathroom at the end of the hall.
Sam feels a sick, fluttery feeling of uneasiness dancing around in his insides, stands up and makes to join his father. He stops when the man holds out a hand in warning, ordering him to stand down, stay away.
"Dean!" Dad shouts through the door. "You okay in there?"
Through the steady sound of water beating against the shower wall, Sam thinks he hears a faint mumble that sounds like, "Dad." That's all it takes to get Dad moving. He tries the knob and swears when it won't turn.
"Sam! My lock pick – now!"
Sam doesn't think, he just moves, his body responding like a horse sprinting ahead at the start gate when the bell goes off. He flies past his father down the hall, straight into the master bedroom, and lunges for the duffel bag near the side of the bed. Trembling fingers fumble through bundles of dirty socks, a blood-stained t-shirt, jeans neatly folded, pouches of talismans, the flask of holy water, and then, there – he's got it – the well-worn leather casing of the lock-pick kit. He grasps it tightly and launches towards his father, kit extended with a shaking hand.
Dad takes it wordlessly and orders Sam to step back. The door is open within seconds and Dad surges inside like a bear into a snack-filled campsite. Sam wants to follow but doesn't, knows that Dad'll kick his ass for not doing as he's told. He hears Dad swear and then there's nothing but soft mumbling in that quiet, 'Everything's gonna be okay' voice that Dad only ever uses when things are really bad.
"Sam, go get me a blanket!" Dad yells from inside the bathroom.
Sam doesn't need telling twice. He runs back into his father's bedroom and grabs the bedspread, bundling it into his arms before dashing back to the bathroom. Dad's still using the calm, soothing voice when Sam reaches the bathroom, and when he finally crosses the threshold and steps with bare feet onto the cold, tiled floor, he finally understands why.
Dean's lying half on his side, half on his stomach, with a threadbare towel draped protectively over his hips to cover his privates. His cheek is pressed tightly against the floor, a cut on his temple bleeding sluggishly, and he's got his left arm tucked tightly against his chest, moaning in pain. Dad looks up when he hears Sam enter and reaches out with strong hands to grasp the blanket. He shakes it once before laying it out over Dean, but not before Sam catches a glimpse of the miles of white skin marred by dark, angry-looking bruises dotting the entire landscape of his body. And bone – Sam can see sharp angles poking out from spine and rib and shoulder blade, too exposed for someone with Dean's appetite and musculature.
"I gotta move you now, buddy," Dad whispers before scooping the blanket around Dean and easing him to a sitting position.
Dean groans and leans into Dad's side as if to anchor himself, digging his head into Dad's shoulder. Dad wraps his arms around him and just holds him a minute, rubbing his back and patting his hair and generally looking way more tender and touchy-feely than Sam's ever seen him. It's… it's terrifying.
"You with me?" Dad asks.
Dean nods weakly and peeks blearily up, trying for a grin and failing when he grimaces in pain.
"Pretty sure I broke my arm," he mumbles.
"Pretty sure you did, kiddo," Dad agrees. Then, more seriously, "There something you wanna tell me?"
Dean frowns but doesn't say anything, looking dazed and mildly confused.
"Has someone been hurting you?" Dad asks quietly as he takes Dean's face by the chin to tilt it upwards, forcing him to look him in the eyes. Dean's brow creases, his expression completely uncomprehending.
Dad's expression darkens, but he keeps his temper in check, if only barely. It's actually kind of amazing to watch, Sam thinks, considering how much Dad has to be freaking out right now. Dean looks like someone locked him in a cage, starved him and beat him for about a month. And Dad's doing a really good job of reining in his temper, considering he's got to be feeling the urge to go get the thing that hurt his boy. It's his MO, after all.
"Who did this to you?" he demands, grabbing Dean's good arm and pulling it straight to show off a trio of blue-black bruises along his biceps.
"What're you…" Dean asks, then trails off when he catches a glimpse of his own bruised flesh. "Holy crap!" he exclaims. Then, noticing a faded brownish-yellow bruise on his elbow, "What the hell?"
"Sam, go to your room."
It takes a moment for the order to register, and by the time it does, Dean seems to have come back to himself enough to realize two important things: 1) that his little brother is hovering in the bathroom doorway while he and his father play Where the Hell Did That Bruise Come From?; and 2) Dean is naked underneath the blanket that's wrapped around him like a cape.
"Jesus, Sam! Get out, you freak!" Dean snaps, cheeks flushing with embarrassment.
And it shouldn't hurt as much as it does, but Sam feels the sting like a slap to the face. It hurts because he's scared and he doesn't want to be shut out from what's happening. It hurts because Dean is his brother, and he wants to know that he's okay. It hurts because once again it's Dad and Dean, the dynamic duo, and Sam's delegated back to the kiddy table. He doesn't even bother to hide the tears as he rushes to his bedroom, slamming the door hard behind him.
He stays under the covers, buried head two toe in blankets too hot for the season like some kind of ripe mummy, and does not stir and inch when the door opens maybe ten minutes later. The footsteps shuffling through the room are heavy – not Dean's – and there's only a moment's pause before the door clicks shut. Dad busies himself with opening drawers and then sits on Dean's empty bed and just waits. Sam can hear the springs creak when he sits.
"I wanna thank you for your help earlier," Dad whispers in his deep, gravelly voice. "Might not have seemed like it at the time, but I really needed you back there."
Sam doesn't reply, though he does feel the faintest flutterings of pride swelling in his chest. He pushes them back, though, because the lump that's forming in his throat is kind of choking him.
"So it looks like your brother fell in the shower," Dad goes on conversationally. "Says he got dizzy and tripped. I'm gonna take him to the ER to see about getting his arm casted. Maybe get them to check him out. Make sure the pneumonia's fully gone."
Sam sniffles beneath the blankets.
"Will you be okay for a few hours here by yourself?"
Oh hell no.
Sam throws the blankets off his head and springs into a seated pose, hair mussed in staticky chunks on his forehead.
"I wanna come with you!"
Dad actually snorts a laugh at that, and Sam can see that his deep brown eyes are warm and misty-looking. He smiles down at his youngest son in a way that looks almost like a frown, like his lip can't quite pull up into that grin the way it's supposed to. Like he might be about to cry or something.
"Yeah, okay," he says before standing up to ruffle a large, calloused hand through Sam's hair. As if there were any doubt that Sam would come.
"I'm gonna take these out to your brother," he says, lifting the fresh set of clothes folded neatly in his hands. "You uh, might want to bring a book or somethin'. Likely we'll be there for a while."
A while turns out to be a big honkin' understatement. The trip to the ER takes eight hours and by the end of it everyone's so tired and cranky that no one says a word for the entire car ride home. Dean's arm is freshly casted – again – and his chest X-rays came up clear. No pneumonia. The doctors ran a bunch of blood work and then did something called a biopsy because Dean's white blood cells were too high. Whatever that means.
The results are supposed to come back in a few days, and they'll get a call if the doctors find anything. In the meantime, all three Winchesters are waspish and exhausted and starving. They stop at a diner at 6 a.m. and have the Early Bird Special, and Dad tells them both they can stay home from school if they want. It's Big Clue #1 that something is wrong, and both boys know it, too, because Dad's usual motto on days like this is "Suck it up, buttercup!" The fact that he's giving them a free pass to ditch school because of a night at the ER doesn't slip past either brother's keen sense of observation.
So they both end up going to school, if only to be contrary. Sam can't tell for sure, but he's pretty sure that Dean feels the same way about it that he does – that it's about to hit the fan and they'd better get while the getting's good. And somehow sitting around at home and waiting for bad news, waiting for the results of that biopsy, feels a lot like waiting for the other shoe to drop. At least being in class will keep them busy.
Dad drives them both to school, which is Big Clue #2 that something is seriously wrong, but neither brother comments on it. They go to the High School first and Sam watches his brother amble out of the car like an 80 year-old man, moving gingerly in the early-morning light as he maneuvers his aching hip with each pain-filled step. They'd had to draw part of his bone marrow out of his hip through a big-assed needle (which Sam can't really grasp the logistics of, but understands had to have been a pretty uncomfortable procedure, pain-killers or not), and Dean is clearly feeling the after-effects of it now. Dad tries one more time to convince him to stay home, but Dean just waves him off with a half-hearted grin.
Sam watches his brother straighten his posture, watches as he draws on reserves of strength that would make grown men twice his size envious, and struts along the cement path towards the front door of the school without faltering even once. It brings a fresh tickling of tears pricking at the back of his eyes, a lump to his throat big enough to choke him.
"He's gonna be all right, right Dad?"
Seeing Dean make his confident, casual entrance to the school, no one would ever suspect that anything was wrong with him. That means he has to be all right. The engine purrs loudly in her soothing rumble, but Dad's lack of a response makes Sam's skin shiver with cold.
"Dad?" he presses.
Dad sighs and scrubs a hand along his face before shifting the gear stick into reverse.
"Yeah, Sammy. Dean's gonna be fine."
Dad orders pizza for supper. He's quiet and broody and doesn't offer up any explanations for the odd indulgence, only stating that Dean deserves a break from cooking for one night. It would be a treat, but the tension is so thick Sam's pretty sure birds would smack dead into it. Then Dad goes ahead and asks them each in turn how their day went.
Dean goes pale and drops his half-eaten slice of pizza onto his plate with a wet plop.
"Am I dyin'?" he asks bluntly.
Sam's blood freezes, his heart hammering so hard in his chest it hurts to breathe. He turns to face his father in slow motion, peeking up from beneath his bangs as though to hide behind them.
"Don't be an ass!" Dad snarks, but doesn't quite make eye contact.
"Then what?" Dean presses. "You're bein' all… creepy with the pizza and the Ward Cleaver routine."
Dad chomps onto his slice of pizza with a determined, almost angry zeal, his nostrils flaring as he stares resolutely at the table and chews vigorously. Sam watches him, then watches Dean, sees the way Dean's eyes soften with understanding.
"Dad?" Dean tries softly, but Dad just digs in with another angry bite and continues chewing.
"Hey," Dean leans his elbows on the table. "It's okay, Dad."
"The doctor called," Dad says after a heavy swallow, nearly cutting Dean off, his voice like sandpaper. "Got your results back from the biopsy. So we gotta go in for the results, and then for more tests."
He sniffs stiffly and takes another bite, like it's no big deal. But the doctor had said that they'd call if they had news. That no news was good news. So that means that it's bad news.
It's bad news.
Nobody will tell Sam anything. It's all hushed voices and patronizing nurses leading him away to the cafeteria for a muffin, or showing him where the vending machines are. They took Dean away hours ago to run a battery of tests, and Dad's been a frightening mix of deadly calm quiet and demanding, obnoxious asshole. He knows what's wrong with Dean, but he's not saying a word to Sam about it. Protecting Sam's poor baby feelings.
They're already making appointments for Dean to see an On-Call-ogist, which Sam supposes is some kind of doctor who's at the patient's every beck and call. That has to be good, right? A doctor just for Dean? Dad doesn't seem to think so. He's looking more harried and frantic by the minute, and when a lady in teal blue scrubs shows up with a clipboard and asks Dad to finally get to filling out their insurance forms, he nearly throws a fit.
"I gotta check with my boss, I already told you," Dad grits out through clenched teeth. "I've only just qualified for coverage through the company plan, and I haven't got my plan number yet. Do you people not speak fucking English?"
It's rude, sure, but true, as far as Sam can tell. Dad had joked about it last night when they'd brought Dean in to the ER for the broken arm.
'Good thing I made it past the three-month mark, there, Ace,' he'd said with a dimpled grin. 'Gonna have to give Mitchell a call on Monday to get the insurance info so you don't put us in the poor house.'
In retrospect… Man, Dad sucks at levity.
A few hours later Sam catches sight of his brother – freaking finally – as he's wheeled through a set of double doors marked Oncology (not On-Call-ogy). The nurse leading the chair is a big, burly black guy in dark blue scrubs, and he and Dean are chatting and joking like they're old friends.
"And I swear man, they were this big," he hears his brother saying, holding his hands out palms up, fingers squeezing the air as if cupping two very large coconuts. Or, you know…
The nurse throws his head back and laughs.
"Sounds like she's got some pretty good genes," he says, and Dean nods emphatically.
"Oh hell yes," he says. "Great kisser, too."
It all looks so easy and light and normal that Sam thinks for a moment that the doctors must have gotten something wrong. Dean looks fine – albeit pale and skinny in ways he's never been before. Ever. But he's laughing and joking and being his usual self, and the nurse is joking right along with him. They don't joke like that with people who are sick or dying, right? They remain properly somber and serious.
"Hey, kiddo!" Dad exclaims with false cheer, sounding tired in spite of the dimply smile. "Got you all sorted out for now?"
"We've scheduled him in for a spinal tap on Friday," the Oncologist says, appearing out of nowhere from behind the big nurse like some kind of creepy, swoopy vampire. "Once we get the results from that, we'll be able to start the first round of chemotherapy. I'm sure we'll have your insurance information all sorted out by then."
Dad gives a brusque nod, not once taking his eyes off Dean, but Sam's eyes are glued in horror to the doctor, who's just dropped the mother of all bombshells.
Chemotherapy means cancer.
He cries the entire way home. Loud, hiccupping, snotty sobs that leave his shoulders heaving, his face red and splotchy, his head pounding out a steady drumbeat behind his eyes. He cries shamelessly, terror-fueled sobbing wracking his entire frame as both Dad and Dean try to offer up useless words of comfort from the front seat.
"Dude, I'm gonna be fine," Dean says lightly. "It's only leukemia. That's like… a kid's disease. That's nothing."
Sam catches his father's eyes through the rear-view mirror, watches the way they sharply cut to Dean before turning back to the mirror to look intently at Sam. Dad clearly doesn't agree that leukemia is nothing, but he doesn't want to contradict Dean, either. Maybe Dean doesn't realize how serious cancer is.
"Sam…" Dad says tiredly. Everything he's said in the last twenty-four hours sounds like it was dragged from the lungs of a man that hasn't slept in eighty years.
"You need to buckle down, son. Rein it in. You're only gonna make yourself sick by freaking out like that, and right now we need to focus on Dean. Need to be strong for him."
"Dad…" Dean warns.
"Being hysterical isn't going to help your brother," Dad goes on. Which makes Sam feel even worse.
"Dad!" Dean says, more sharply this time.
But Dad's shaking his head no, his bottom lip jutting out stubbornly as he grips the steering wheel so tight it looks like he's choking it.
"No, Dean," Dad orders. "You don't get to play this one down like you do everything else. You don't get to protect Sam from this."
Dean casts a quick, guilty look back at Sam before facing their father.
"Sure I do," he shrugs. "My disease – my choice how we play this thing. And anyway, there's no sense worrying Sam about it. I'm gonna be fine."
"Goddamnit!" Dad growls and jerks the steering wheel hard to the right, tires squealing as he slams the breaks and sends the Impala into a terrifying fishtail before righting it onto the shoulder of the road where it slows and inevitably stops to the crunch of tires on gravel.
He's breathing hard, like he just ran a marathon, his eyes fixed firmly ahead, his shoulders rising and falling in panted breaths as he resumes strangling the steering wheel. Then he turns to Dean and his eyes are angry and wet.
"Sam," he says, eyes still trained on Dean. His lip jiggles but he doesn't cry. Not quite. "Your brother's got leukemia. Acute lymphocytic leukemia. It's a type of cancer that spreads fast."
"Dad don't—" Dean whispers, voice thin like paper.
"They're gonna start him on chemotherapy this Friday so we can try and kill off the cancer cells. The faster they start, the faster we can beat this thing."
Sam's always heard people say that knowledge is power, but this – this knowing – doesn't make him feel powerful at all. He feels about two feet tall, and about as powerful as an ant under a magnifying glass. He feels helpless.
"It's gonna get a lot worse before it gets better," Dad says, still looking at Dean.
He's lost the fight with his tears, a few of them dribbling down his chin and catching on his whiskers. But Dean's right there with him, shiny tracks trailing down his pale, freckled cheeks as he looks up at their Dad with real, child-like fear in his eyes. Sam's never seen his brother look so scared.
Then Dad does something really unexpected (even more shocking than the crying). He grabs Dean by the shoulders and yanks him in close for a crushing hug. Dean resists for only a moment before melting into it, skinny, bruised arms (one in a shiny white new cast) gripping at the worn leather of Dad's old leather jacket. Dad tips his head in Sam's direction and gives a fast, jerky nod, a silent command to get on up to the front seat.
Sam scrambles over the large bench seat and Dad shimmies aside to make room for him, opening his embrace to include his youngest child as all three Winchesters cling to each other for a rare moment of desperate, vulnerable affection. Which, of course, is Dean's cue to crack a joke.
"Wow," he says through the fabric of Dad's shirt, his face mashed into Dad's collarbone. "You'd think I had testicular cancer with this lovely chick flick moment we're having here."
Dad stiffens for a moment, then throws his head back and laughs, deep from his belly. It's so open and honest and filled with relief and grief that Sam finds himself laughing along with him (even if he doesn't quite get the joke). Then Dad sniffs and lets his arms drop so that he's not quite holding his sons, so much as he's petting them awkwardly, one hand on each boy's shoulder.
"All right," he says at length, nodding to each son in solidarity. "We done with the slumber party confessional moment here?"
Sam and Dean both nod solemnly.
"Good. Now, here's how it's gonna be," Dad says. "Dean – your focus – your entire focus – is on getting better. You don't worry about taking care of me and Sammy—"
And here Dean tries to protest, but Dad just barrels on ahead.
"—we're taking care of you for a change. That's an order. You are going to kick this thing's ass. And son, believe you me, this might just be the toughest sonofabitch you will ever face. Got me?"
Dean nods, his green eyes wide but determined.
"And Sammy," Dad says, turning those dark eyes on him with a warm but serious expression, squeezing his shoulder tightly in a one-handed grip. "You're gonna cut me some slack, okay? No more bitching about practices and rehearsals. We're gonna be back and forth for doctors visits and tests and treatments, and Dean's schedule trumps yours. Period."
Sam gulps and nods, trying his hardest not to start crying again.
"We're gonna be sticking around here for a while," Dad explains. "That means I'll be working full-time and possibly overtime so I can bring in extra cash flow to help cover medical expenses. That means I don't got time for all the things you'd like to do. It sucks, but sometimes you gotta make sacrifices.
"But," he goes on, "that doesn't mean I want you to give up everything. Okay? It just means that… Well, we'll try, okay? We'll get you to your practices when we can, and we'll get you to the birthday parties when we can. But when we can't – and there'll be times when we can't – no lip about it. You don't give me or your brother grief about it. Are we clear?"
Sam doesn't know how he finds his voice through the constriction in his throat, but he manages a solemn "Yes sir" that seems to be enough to satisfy the old drill sergeant.
"There," Dad says. "Now get your scrawny asses off my lap so we can get home. My legs are going numb."
It's as good of a pep talk as either boy is ever likely to receive from their father, so they take it like the brave soldiers that they are. As they're pulling back onto the highway, Dean turns in his seat and grins at his baby brother.
"See, it's not so bad," he says lightheartedly. "And hey, looks like you got your wish. We're gonna be sticking around here after all."
It's with a sense of gut-wrenching, paralyzing fear that Sam realizes that he'd gotten what he wanted, after all.