He stood in the doorway watching his younger brother sleeping.
It was silly, Dean Winchester knew. It was also probably obsessive, but he didn't care. A few hours ago could have lost Sam, so he was entitled to a little obsession.
He'd almost lost Sam once before. Their father had left them alone to hunt a striga – a creature that sucked the life force from children – and it had come after Sam. He'd only been 7 at the time and Dean 11, but that hadn't mattered to Dean. It was his job to make sure nothing happened to his little brother and he took that responsibility seriously. Maybe more seriously than a kid should, but their lives weren't exactly normal.
Sam groaned and moved in his sleep, but he settled back down without waking. Dean had already taken a couple steps into the bedroom they shared, and he quietly backed up to the door when it was clear Sam wouldn't awaken.
They were in some nameless Midwest town, living alone in yet another crappy apartment until their father finished his job with the werewolves. It was a routine pursuit, if there was such a thing to a supernatural hunter, and he was expected back the next day. They weren't here for the werewolf, Dean knew. His father had come across a lead to the thing that had killed his mother 13 years ago.
John Winchester hadn't said anything more than that and Dean knew better than to ask. Their dad would tell the brothers what they needed to know when they needed to know it.
It was summer, so the brothers didn't have to go to school. Well, Sam, anyway. Dean had managed to convince his father that he didn't need to finish high school, though he'd had to pass the equivalency test to get a GED. That was John's only condition and Dean had jumped at it. He wasn't stupid, he just didn't like school. He hadn't even had to work very hard to pass the test.
Dean's attention was back on his brother when Sam moved again.
"It's okay, Sammy," he said gently, not wanting to wake him. "You're safe."
The words were probably as much for Dean's benefit as his brother's, but there wasn't anyone around to call him on it. After a few more minutes, Dean went to the living room. The apartment wasn't that big; he'd be able to hear Sam if he woke up. Hell, he'd probably hear Sam if the kid rolled over in his sleep.
Dean kicked off his shoes and plopped tiredly down on the couch. There was no real reason he couldn't go to bed, but he felt like he should keep watch. For what, he didn't know. It hadn't been something supernatural that almost took Sam away from him.
"I'm bored," Dean complained. "Let's go to a movie."
"You can go." Sam didn't look up from his book.
"I'll buy you a large popcorn."
"I don't want a large popcorn."
"We have soda here."
"We can go by the bookstore on the way home."
"You won't leave me alone long enough to read this one."
Dean fell into the chair their father had claimed when the first moved into the furnished apartment a few weeks before. He picked up a car magazine from the end table and flipped through it before tossing it back onto the table.
Sam rolled his eyes and looked at him. "If I go to a movie with you, will you let me read when we get back?"
Sam rolled his eyes and put the book aside. "Are you sure you're older than I am? I mean, because sometimes you really don't act like it."
"Just put your shoes on."
"Do you even know what's playing? Or what time it starts?"
"There are six movies at the theater across town. We'll find something."
"You know," Sam said as he opened the door a few minutes later. "You really need a hobby."
"I have a hobby," Dean playfully pushed him forward. "Annoying you."
The brothers managed to agree on a comedy that started ten minutes after they got to the theater, not that Sam really cared. After the movie, he wouldn't admit that he'd enjoyed it even though he'd laughed through most of it. As promised, Dean had purchased a large popcorn that they ended up sharing and Sam decided he wanted to stop at the bookstore on the way home after all.
Dean browsed the magazine rack while Sam perused several different sections. Sam was a voracious reader with a large number of interests. He tried to use libraries as much as possible to keep costs down, but also because they had to travel light and carrying boxes of books wasn't feasible. Of course they were rarely in one town long enough to make the library much of an option.
Dean became antsy once he'd looked over all the magazines, but he knew better than to rush his brother as he looked through the bookstore. Even though Sam had liked the movie, he'd only gone because Dean wouldn't leave him alone, so Dean figured he owed him his time with the books.
Pretending to read a car magazine he already had, Dean sat in an overstuffed chair near where Sam was currently browsing. He noticed a wistful expression on his brother's face as he reluctantly put a book back onto the shelf only to pick it up again a moment later.
Money was always tight – supernatural hunters didn't make a regular salary – and Dean was pretty sure Sam's pockets were empty. It wasn't below Dean to steal for necessity and, as far as he concerned, anything Sam wanted was a necessity. He knew Sam wouldn't let him steal the book and thanks to a series of lucrative poker games the other night, Dean had a decent amount of cash at his disposal.
"You want that?" Dean asked, coming up behind his brother.
Sam seemed startled by the question. "What? No." He quickly slid the book back onto the shelf.
"Sammy – "
"It's okay, Dean. We shouldn't spend money on another book."
Dean looked at the title. "It's a book about mythology. That's reference material, Sammy. It's a business expense."
"Business expense," Sam snorted. "Yeah, Dad will agree with that. Besides, I have a book to read."
"And knowing you, your nose will be in it the rest of the day. And night," Dean chuckled. "You'll need another book by tomorrow anyway, and I told you I cleaned up the other night."
"It's okay, Dean. Really."
Dean heard the words, but he also saw the look in Sam's eyes. If it was up to Dean, Sam would never want for anything. Their dad looked the other way when Dean tried to spoil his little brother, but Dean never felt like he could do enough.
"Are you going to make me come back here on my own to buy it for you or can you save me the trouble and let me get it now?"
Sam looked at the book, his expression clear. Dean didn't wait for him to answer; he took the book and headed to the check-out counter at the front of the store.
"You didn't have to buy this, ya know," Sam said once they were on bus back to their apartment.
Dean glanced at him and saw the book balanced on his lap. Sam's knees were touching the back of the seat in front of them. A few months away from his 14th birthday, he was already as tall as Dean and his legs were longer.
Sam ran a hand over the cover. "Thanks."
Dean stopped short as he walked into the bedroom they shared. "No? No, what?"
"You said you'd let me read if I went to the movie with you. I went. Now let me read."
"You aren't hungry?"
Sam looked around the room and seeing twilight outside the window, he looked at the bedside clock. It was almost 6:30. He'd been reading for 3 hours and now that he knew what time it was, he was starving.
'Where are you going?" he asked, pretending not to care.
"I thought we could go to Pedro's."
"Why don't we just order a pizza?"
"I wanted to stop by the video store, too."
"I don't want to go out."
"Seriously, Sammy, you and your books…" Dean sighed.
"You should try reading sometime."
"I read." Dean sounded offended and Sam hid his smile.
"You need to get out once in a while – get some fresh air." Dean tried again.
"I was out earlier, remember? We went to a movie." Sam had never intended for his brother to leave without him alone, but he didn't want Dean to know that. Sometimes it was just too easy to get to him and it was always fun.
"Fine," Sam groused as he stood up, seeing the annoyed expression on his brother's face. "But what I said before about you being older? I'm really starting to wonder."
"Yeah, well, we'll see when I kick your ass during our sparring tomorrow."
"That has nothing to do with being older," Sam pointed out as he slipped his feet into his tennis shoes. "That's just being a bully."
"A bully?" Dean exclaimed. "Are you serious?"
Sam looked at him with a glint in his eye that he couldn't hide and Dean reached out to playfully muss his hair.
"Hey!" Sam pushed his hand away.
Dean laughed and walked out of the room, Sam close behind him.
"Pick something already," Sam complained as Dean walked down the same aisle of the video store for the third time.
"Patience, Sammy," Sam repeated, mockingly.
Dean looked at him from the corner of his eye, but said nothing. He wasn't sure if his brother was complaining for real this time or trying to get a rise out of him again.
In answer to Dean's silence, Sam sighed and wandered off to look through a bin of used movies for sale.
There were a few other people browsing the aisles and even though he appeared to be engrossed in his search, Dean was keenly aware of his surroundings. It was something John Winchester had insisted his sons learn how to do and it was now second nature for Dean to completely take in any room he walked into. He rarely missed anything. Sam was still learning, but he was getting pretty good at it, too. When he wanted to be.
Dean finally decided on two videos and made his way to where Sam was trying to entertain himself. He could spend hours in a bookstore or library, but apparently 20 minutes in a video store was too much for him to bear, Dean thought with a small smile.
"Ready?" he asked Sam walking up behind him.
"Yeah," Sam said, obviously startled by his brother's sudden appearance.
"Sam." Dean shook his head. "You should have known I was coming. You can't let anything sneak up on you."
"I know," Sam sounded defensive. "I just -"
"Yeah, you just. You know what Dad would say."
"Dad's not here, is he?" Sam said with more venom than Dean had expected.
Not wanting to start the same fight again – the one where Dean defended their father's actions and Sam ended up pissed off and sulking for hours – Dean headed toward the counter at the front of the store. "If you want anything, grab it now."
Sam said something that Dean couldn't make out, but was at his side as he paid for the rentals.
"One more errand," Dean said as they walked toward the bus stop down the street.
Sam groaned. "Now what? You said we'd order pizza."
"And we will so you can bond with your books all night without interruption," Dean said. "But I want to get a slice of pie from Rachel's. A new batch gets baked on Thursdays."
Dean didn't have to look at Sam to know he'd rolled his eyes, but he didn't care. It was on the way and Sam would probably give in and get some, too. If not, Dean would order a piece of his favorite for him and Sam would happily eat it later.
Dean took a deep breath. He hated that particular word and Sam's attitude was starting to annoy him. He rarely asked anything of his brother while giving in to his almost every whim, and if there was something else Dean could think of to keep them from going home for a while longer, he would make sure they went just to spite Sam. Dean hadn't been certain that Sam's bad mood was real before, but he was sure now and he didn't like it.
"You could have just let me stay home," Sam grumbled as they walked the half a block to the diner.
Dean didn't bother to respond.
"I'm not a little kid," Sam continued.
Dean still didn't rise to the bait.
"And I know how to take care of myself."
"Just drop it, okay?" Dean demanded, suddenly angry. "We're here now and we'll be on the bus in 15 minutes. You'll be buried in your book in less than half an hour."
"I'm still not a little kid," Sam muttered. Dean heard the surprise in his voice – it wasn't often that Dean showed any rage toward his brother.
The diner wasn't very busy when Sam and Dean walked in. There were only a few customers scattered around the room and two waitresses stood chatting behind the counter. Nathalie, the younger of the two and a redhead about Dean's age, turned toward the brothers with a radiant smile on her face. She glanced at Sam but her attention was clearly on Dean.
"We've got fresh apple pie," she said as Dean approached.
"Can we get two pieces to go?" Dean rested his elbows on the counter near the register and leaned forward.
"I'm going to the bathroom," Sam mumbled, pushing past his brother.
Dean watched him go, trying to ignore his own irritation.
"To go?" Natalie asked, twirling some of her hair around a finger. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, we need to get home."
When Natalie made no move toward the pie case, the older woman sighed. "Why don't I get that for you?"
Neither responded, their eyes still locked on one another. Dean had taken Natalie to a movie two nights before and they'd ended up in the backseat of the beater car he'd borrowed from the old man who lived in the next apartment. He wasn't a bad guy and seemed to like the brothers very much even though he didn't know them very well. Dean figured he was just lonely and Sam liked listening to his seemingly endless supply of stories.
Natalie matched Dean's pose from the other side of the counter, the tips of her fingers touching his. "I wasn't sure you'd actually come in tonight."
"Why wouldn't I?"
"You haven't called me since…" her eyes glistened wickedly.
"Yeah, sorry about that. I just –"
"You don't have to make something up," Natalie said with a small laugh. "I'm not looking for a long-term romance, just a good time."
"Yeah?" Dean couldn't hide his surprise.
"Maybe tomorrow night? My folks will be out – you could come to my house. I have to work until 7, but I can bring some food home and I've got some movies…."
"Yeah, that sounds great."
The other waitress put a plastic bag on the counter next to Natalie as two men walked into the diner.
"Sit anywhere you want," she called to them. "I'll be right with you."
Dean's eyes were still on Natalie, but he still saw one of the men sit in the booth closest to the door while the other continued to the back of the diner and into the men's room. The older waitress nudged Natalie when she walked past her and the teenager managed to pull herself away from Dean long enough to hit a few keys on the cash register.
An older man and woman stood up and walked toward the door, hand in hand. "Goodnight Gladys," the woman said as they passed the older waitress.
"Goodnight," she called brightly before turning her attention to her new customer. Once they were gone, the place was almost empty.
Dean pulled some money from his front pocket, wondering what was taking Sam so long in the bathroom. As if in answer, the door opened, slamming against the wall behind it. A woman in a rear booth screamed and Dean saw a stranger's arm around Sam's throat, pushing him forward. There was a knife to Sam's throat and Dean froze.
"I want everything in the register and the safe," his companion said calmly as he stood up, a gun sweeping the room. "And if you would all be so kind as to remove your wallets and jewelry, we won't have to hurt the kid."
He suddenly pointed his gun at a man at the counter. Dean saw he'd taken out his cell phone and, apparently, the robber had seen it, too.
"All cell phones on the floor, please," he said as if he was asking for tickets on a train. "Let's not have any heroics, okay?"
The man's voice was meant to be soothing, but Dean was far from relaxed. Sam's hands were on his captor's arm, his face contorted in fear, and his eyes fixed firmly on his brother. Dean looked at him, silently telling him to stay calm. He was already nauseous, but when Dean saw the gun under the man's t-shirt, he knew there would be no way to get Sammy away from him.
There had to be something better to rob, Dean thought as he assessed the situation. Some place less visible from the outside…somewhere his brother wasn't.
"Let's go people," the gunman said again, somewhat less patiently than before. "Cell phones, wallets, jewelry. Now!"
Sam grunted when the other man tightened his grip and moved the blade closer to his throat. Dean's hands were balled into fists at his side, anger washing over him.
"You, too, cowboy," the man said when he turned to look at Dean and then Natalie. "Empty the cash register, cookie."
Dean slowly pulled his wallet from his back pocket, wishing he had his gun with him. He had a couple blades under the legs of his jeans and he was fast, but not as fast as a bullet – or the knife at his brother's throat. Glad most of his cash was at home at least, Dean put his wallet in the bag the gunman held out.
Natalie's hands shook as she pulled all the money from the cash register and dumped it into the same bag. Dean nodded at her encouragingly, but most of his attention was on Sam. Even though the few people in the diner were complying with the orders, the man was still hurting Sam.
"Come on, dude," Dean yelled. "Leave him alone. People are doing what you want."
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Dean realized he'd made a mistake. Instead of loosening his grip on Sam's throat, the man smiled darkly at Dean and squeezed tighter. He pressed the knife into Sam's flesh, causing him to cry out in pain as a small trickle of blood begin to flow.
It didn't take long for all the money and valuables to be collected, but it seemed like hours to Dean.
The man holding Sam pushed him forward with an awful grin on his face. Dean shuddered despite himself.
"Behind the counter, cowboy," the other man said as he pointed his gun at Dean. When Dean didn't move, he nodded to his partner and whatever he did caused Sam to fall to his knees.
Dean's first instinct was to attack, but his more rational side won out and he moved to Natalie's side. She grabbed his hand and Dean felt her shaking, but he was more interested in Sam's condition. Dean was relieved the blood was already drying and when he caught Sam's eye, his brother gave him a subtle nod.
A car squealed to a stop at the curb outside and the man closer to the door backed toward it, his eyes sweeping the room. The other man pulled Sam up by the collar of his t-shirt and dragged him toward the door.
"Leave him," the man at the door said as he pushed it open with his back.
Dean almost sighed in relief, his eyes still on Sam's. He not only felt Sam's fear, he could see it. With a sadistic smile and an a look at Dean, the man holding Sam kicked the back of his leg. Sam cried out, but before letting go of him, the gunman rabbit punched him in the kidneys. Sam curled into a ball on the floor and the robber walked past Dean with a satisfied grin on his face. The gun now pointed at him didn't stop Dean from taking a step forward.
"Uh-uh," the man said musically, turning the gun on Sam. Dean saw his finger twitch on the trigger and he held up his hands in surrender.
"Now, please," the first man said sounding bored. He let the door close as he moved toward the car.
As soon as the second robber was out the door, Dean ran to Sam's side.
"Sammy." He touched his brother's shoulder, but Sam shied away with a small whimper. "It's me, Sammy."
"Dean?" he asked in a miserable whisper.
"I'm right here. Let me check you out."
"I know, Sammy. Let me see."
Sam uncurled, holding on to the bottom of Dean's t-shirt while the older boy quickly felt for injury. He didn't think the hit to Sam's back had done any real damage, but he knew it would be painful for a few days.
Dean heard the activity around him. Gladys called 911, then rushed around making sure the few other people in the diner were all right. She knelt next to Dean. "Paramedics are on the way."
"No, Dean," Sam whispered, Dean's shirt still firmly in his grasp.
Dean kept a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. Don't worry."
Hospitals and emergency rooms weren't generally an option for them - hunting supernatural creatures wasn't a job that came with medical benefits. Their father had started teaching them basic first aid when they were very young and now their skills weren't far behind military field medics. But Dean knew there was no way to avoid police reports and medical exams – at least not immediately.
He didn't think Sam was very badly hurt, but he wouldn't mind making sure. The paramedic who examined Sam agreed with Dean's silent assessment, but insisted on taking him to the hospital for an x-ray in case there was unseen damage to his kidneys.
Dean gave a statement to a policeman while Sam was being examined at the small hospital. Dean told him that he was 18 – which was the age on the fake ID in his wallet – and that he and Sam were only in town temporarily while their father was taking care of some business nearby. The cover-story seemed to satisfy the cop, who was more interested in what had happened at the diner, anyway.
It wasn't much longer before Sam was given a clean bill of health. Other than some bruises and residual pain, he would suffer no ill effects from the attack. He was given pain medication and a prescription for more before being sent home with Dean.
Natalie had come to the hospital after giving her statement at the diner and she drove them home. Sam was asleep before she pulled into the apartment complex parking lot, but Dean wouldn't let her help get Sam upstairs. He promised to call her, but seeing her again didn't seem as interesting as it had earlier.
On the couch, Dean heard Sam cry out and he was in their bedroom in only a few quick steps. He quickly calmed his brother and holding on to Dean's t-shirt again, Sam told him about the dream that had awakened him.
"It's over," Dean assured him.
"You shouldn't have let them take me to the hospital. Dad's gonna be pissed."
"No he won't. Besides, they didn't even want our insurance information. Even if they had, I would have handled it. We needed to know for sure you weren't hurt too badly. That shot to your back – "
"Totally unnecessary," Sam muttered.
Dean smiled. "Yeah."
"That's a good sign," Dean said. "I didn't exactly get around to ordering that pizza, though."
"Are they still open?"
Dean glanced at the bedside clock. "Barely."
He made the call, then helped Sam out of bed and to the bathroom. Once Sam was settled on the couch with pillows and a blanket, Dean sat on the old coffee table in front of him.
"Sammy, I'm sorry."
"What for?" he looked confused.
"I never should have stopped for that pie."
"There's no way you could have known what would happen."
"I should have been paying more attention when I was in the bathroom. I didn't even hear the guy come in," Sam admitted, refusing to look at his brother.
Dean rested his hand on the blanket over Sam's leg. "He had a gun, Sammy. You wouldn't have been able to do anything even if you had heard him."
"Yeah, but…" Sam's head was down, but he lifted his eyes just far enough to see Dean's face.
"It's all right," Dean assured him. "You just need to pay more attention, though, okay? It wouldn't have mattered this time, but it might the next. Got it?"
"Hey, Dean?" He asked, his tone sly.
"Yeah?" Dean was wary.
"You didn't happen to bring home the pie, did you?"
Dean rolled his eyes and Sam laughed. They were eating pie when the pizza was delivered half an hour later.