"Goddamit, Samuel!" The sound of glass smashing, from an empty bottle of Jack tipping off the table to the floor with the force of John's palms smacking down on it. Then the crack of his hand hard against Sammy's face. "You don't get it! You're never gonna have a normal, apple-pie life! You lost any chance of that when your mother was killed. Over! Done. Gone."
John sat down in his chair, rubbing his hand over his beard, stubble gone into overgrowth through neglect. Dean stood in the doorway, rigid and quivering, set to Defcon 1. Little Sammy folded his skinny arms over his chest, man-sized palm print standing out livid on his face, and glared at his father with surprising intensity for a nine-year-old boy.
"Gone," John repeated dully.
Sammy kicked off from the stove against which he had been leaning, where the trigger of this particular fight (yet another pot of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for dinner "instead of what normal families eat for dinner, with like, actual vegetables") sat congealing. "I hate you! I just… I hate you!" Sammy shoved past Dean and thumped down the hallway of the rented house to the tiny room he shared with his brother.
John, his face bright red, slammed himself to his feet and shoved the table back. "Get your ass back here!" The sound of a door slamming was his only reply. "Samuel Winchester, do as I say!" John made to follow Sammy down the hallway. Dean moved into the doorway to block him.
John swayed on his feet, limbs gone dangerously unpredictable from the fifth of whiskey he'd ingested since noon that day.
"Don't get in my way, Dean."
Dean thrust his jaw forward stubbornly and stood his ground. "Dad. C'mon. Let me. I'll talk sense into him."
John curled his fingers into fists at his sides. "Stubborn. Just like your brother. Sammy doesn't listen. Never listens. Time for talking's gone."
Dean swallowed hard. "No, Dad."
"What did you say?" John's eyes gleamed.
"Please. Dad. Let me take care of it. You're…"
Dean said nothing, face gone white.
"It's just… You said it yourself. When you drink a lot, you get…"
"Get out of my way." John walked up to Dean and stopped inches from him, towering over his son.
"No sir. I can't… Please. Let me deal with Sammy."
"Gonna kick his ass, or I'm gonna kick yours. Your call."
Dean's hands, clenched at his sides, shook but he met his father's gaze straight on and did not move out of the doorway.
"Gonna take his punishment? Again?" The words came out sluggish and slurred, tongue thickened by alcohol. John was on the verge of passing out. But he still had enough left in him to split Dean's lip and bruise his ribs before raising his hand to his forehead and sinking to the kitchen floor.
Dean considered himself as having got off lucky this time.
He dragged his practically comatose father to the bedroom and let him pass out there, and went to deal with Sammy.
Dean shut the bedroom door hard. Sammy sat curled up on the mattress, arms wrapped around his legs, shaking with rage. "Christ, Sammy, why do you always have to be so much trouble? Why do you have to provoke him?"
Sammy saw the damage John's fist had done to Dean's mouth, and his huge eyes got even bigger. "Why does he always have to get drunk and hit us?" Dean's jaw tightened at that. John mostly only hit Dean. Dean saw to that.
"You just don't get it, do you?" Dean slid his tongue over his bleeding lip.
Sammy exploded from the bed in a tangle of skinny limbs and brown hair and threw himself in front of Dean.
"I do! I get it! You think I don't but I do. You and him, you're mad mom's dead and you want to get even. But I don't! You guys loved her. Not me!"
And something broke inside Dean, the wall he worked so hard to build.
"Goddammit, Samuel, you ungrateful little shit, you take that back!" Sammy recoiled at the fury in Dean's voice, retreating until his back was against the wall. Dean swept his hand along the dresser, knocking Sammy's crystal dragon to the floor, its slender neck snapping instantly, and then Dean's fist slammed into the wall, just an inch from Sammy's face.
The color drained from Sammy's reddened face. Even his lips turned pale. His body, a frantic whirlwind of motion a second before, instantly came to a dead stop. He didn't even seem to be breathing for a long moment, his big brown eyes locked onto his brother's green ones. Then he whispered, "Yes sir" and dropped his gaze.
Dean looked at his hand, bleeding slightly from the knuckles, like it belonged to someone else. Like the beefy fist of a monster had been grafted onto his own arm. Looked at his little brother, gone quiet and still against the wall, barely breathing, staring at the floor.
"I'm sorry, Dean. I'm sorry. I take it back. I swear." Sammy wouldn't look up at Dean, and kept his face tipped down. A tear slipped out from underneath his long eyelashes. Dean lifted his hand to wipe it from Sammy's cheek, and Sammy flinched, jerking his head back.
Sammy flinched. Away from Dean.
Dean felt it like a punch in his gut.
"Don't hit me, Dean. Not you." Sammy's voice cracked.
Dean pulled Sammy close and wrapped an arm around him, petting his hair, wiping away the tears now streaming down Sammy's face, choking back his own. "Not gonna hit you, Sammy. I'd never hit you."
Sammy was stiff in his arms, and didn't relax like he always did when Dean comforted him. He just shook.
"I'm sorry, Sammy."
"God, so fucking sorry. I'd never hurt you." Dean drew Sammy down to sit on the bed with him and stroked his hair.
"It's ok." But Sammy didn't stop shaking.
Finally Sam stopped crying, although his muscles were still tight and hard.
Dean felt sick to his stomach.
"Hey, you hungry?" Sammy nodded, rubbing his face hard with the heels of his hands. Dean got to his feet and rummaged in his jeans pocket. "Got some money left. How 'bout I run to the corner store and get salad stuff?"
Sammy sniffed. "Sure."
"Be right back. Dad should be out like a fucking light, so don't worry."
As he stepped outside the bedroom, Dean cast a glance over his shoulder at Sammy sitting cross-legged on the bed. He was rocking back and forth, eyes frantically darting around around the room and up to the ceiling, as though he were desperately searching for something. Something that wasn't there.
When he felt Dean watching him, Sammy closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them again, his face bore a composed expression, with such a weight of sorrow behind hit, he looked much older than a child of nine. "I'm real sorry I got Dad mad, Dean."
Dean let his mouth twitch in a wry smile, triggering a flare of pain as his split lip cracked open. "You're a pain-in-the-ass little brother, but you're MY pain-in-the-ass little brother."
Sammy smiled back, but the smile never reached his eyes.
Dean pushed his way past the screen door and through the solid wooden one, hands gripping plastic sacks full of iceberg lettuce, a decent-looking cucumber, a package of button mushrooms, a pouch of croutons and a container of Wishbone Blue Cheese dressing.
"Hey, Sammy, I got your favorite," Dean called down the hallway, setting the bags on the kitchen counter. There was no answer.
"Sam?" He opened the bedroom door. No Sammy.
He checked the bathroom. It was empty. He poked his head cautiously in John's room, where he lay face down on the unmade bed, snoring like a four-star general.
Sam wasn't there.
Dean ran out back. "Sammy?" No Sam in the old swing set. No Sam on the low branch of the oak tree.
Dean pelted back inside the house and into the bedroom, and looked around, this time with the perspective of a hunter.
One of Dean's army surplus duffels was missing. Some of Sam's clothes were gone, as were his shoes and boots. A few books were missing from the little bookshelf above their shared desk.
On the nightstand on Dean's side of the bed lay a See's butterscotch lollipop. Their favorite. They fought over them more bitterly than seemed fitting for something as trivial as candy. Sammy must have been hiding one.
Tucked under the lollipop was a folded scrap of paper.
Dean fell onto the bed like the tendons of his legs had been cut. He unfolded the paper and read it:
Dean-I'm sorry I'm so much trouble. Maybe you and Dad won't fight anymore if I'm gone. I bet you'll find what killed Mom real easy now without you having to always take care of me.
The first thing Dean did was run to the bathroom and throw up.
Then he went to find his little brother.
Sammy took shortcuts through people's backyards instead of walking along the street where Dean and John might see him, driving around looking for him. He didn't know where he was going. It didn't matter. It just mattered that he left. He just knew that the kind father he remembered from when he was little had gradually been replaced by an angry, bitter man with a hair-trigger temper, who drank all the time, who looked at him now like a problem to be dealt with, not a boy to play ball with. He knew that John never smiled at him anymore, and was always mad at him, like Sammy was always doing it wrong, whatever it happened to be.
And Dean was becoming like Dad.
Dean, who was everything to Sam, who never knew his mother and who had lost his father's love without knowing what he had done to make that happen. Sam, who never had friends more than a few months because they moved around so much, who was still too young to have any of those feelings for girls (or boys). It was Dean who taught Sam how to tie his shoes, how to tell time, how to clean a pistol, how to whistle, how to do everything. It was Dean that played with Sam, hung out with him, told him stories, watched TV with him, told jokes, wrestled with him, comforted Sam when he woke from a terrible nightmare, kept him safe from their dad's drunken rages. Dean, who had always protected Sam, and wouldn't do anything to hurt or scare him.
And now Sam was scared of his brother.
And this is how a frightened little boy came to find himself jumping fences in the dark with a heavy duffel bag over his shoulder, 24 dollars in his pocket that he slipped from John's wallet, and a gnawing pain in his stomach, the collar of his t-shirt cold and wet from the tears dripping down his face in a slow, unending trickle.
Dean had remained calm for the first two hours of searching for Sammy. He figured he was just hiding nearby and only wanted to scare Dean a little. But when he turned up nothing in Sammy's favorite spots to go when he was sad (the fallen trunk of the buckeye tree on the edge of the baseball field, the big flat rock on the banks of the creek, underneath the bleachers), panic nearly shook his heart right out of his chest.
It was completely dark now. It was getting pretty cold, too, with a piercing wind. And his Sammy was out there somewhere all by himself. Not all monsters are inhuman, Dean knew, and a boy with beautiful brown eyes and a sweet, trusting disposition was in terrible danger alone in the world.
Fear flooded through Dean, and guilt. This was all his fault. He should have protected Sam, kept him safe from the scary things.
Instead of becoming one.
Sammy talked a good game, trying to be brave like his big brother and his dad, but he was a lot more sensitive than he tried to let on. With Dean at his side, he wasn't afraid of much (spiders, clowns and really old people).
But Dean wasn't at his side. Sam was all alone, in the cold and dark–real country dark– and now that he knew there really were things that went bump in the night, things that weren't human, things that might relish the chance to harm the little boy of a Hunter, the little shiver of fear was building into a full-on flood. Every creak of a tree branch, every flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye made his heart pound a little faster.
He nearly screamed like a girl when a cat jumped off a stone fence in front of him, and decided he had to find a safe place to hole up until it got light. And then he smelled something that made his stomach rumble. Woodsmoke. The kind that meant food, not fireplace.
He followed the scent until he came the source: a homemade smokehouse in the backyard of a spacious white house, a thin spout of smoke issuing from a skinny chimney. Hunger seized him like he hadn't eaten for days. He had eaten that morning, but Dad forgot to feed him lunch and he didn't want to bother Dean to stop cleaning all the weapons and make him something. There wasn't anything in the house that didn't need stovetop cooking, and nobody let Sammy near the stove by himself. "Might get burned" was all Dad would ever say about it, and Dean's face always got tight and closed off when he said stuff like that. And then there was the fight over the packaged macaroni and cheese.
So when he snuck over to the smokehouse door, saw it was not locked, and cracked it open, he thought that surely he would be forgiven for stealing a little food just this once.
All sorts of things hung from hooks and strings, secured to wooden rods stretching across the smokehouse. Hams and duck legs and great long loops of sausages, a whole turkey, dangling flaps of jerky and long flat salmon filets on wire racks, soaking up the cool smoke being pulled through the smokehouse from the slow-burning fire in the firebox.
Sam grabbed a fat summer sausage and several big pieces of jerky, and raced to the back of the year, fearful he'd been seen. But it was late–nearly 1 am according to his sweep-hand watch–and the owners were in bed. His teeth snapped through the casing of the sausage as he took a giant bite, ravenous. This would take care of his hunger, but he was cold and tired, more tired than he'd ever been in his life. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a large grey shape. A metal shed in the back of the property. As was customary in this trusting little town, it too was unlocked.
He shuffled inside, and sat cross-legged on the hard wood floor, stuffing his mouth with smoked meat and sipping from his water bottle.
When he had eaten enough, he stuffed the remaining sausage into the duffel, tugged the zipper of his jacket all the way up to his neck, and slipped a garment out of the bag before closing it up. He laid Dean's t-shirt that he'd snagged from the laundry basket on top of the duffel, pulled socks over his hands to keep them warm, and collapsing on his side, he wrapped his arms around the duffel and burrowed his face against the soft, worn cotton. He was cold–terribly, surprisingly cold–and exhausted, and every little creak and rustle frightened him, but the scent of Dean was all it took to let him fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Dean wasn't going back without Sammy. Besides, John would be useless, either still blind drunk or tipping over into his debilitating hangover. So he rubbed the sleeve of his jacket against his nose, gone runny from the sharp cold, and kept searching.
"Sammy? Where are you?" He peered under old junkers, searched the shadows of trees for the shape of a small boy, tried to imagine what he would do if he were Sammy. Best chance of getting a ride out of town was on the two-lane highway at the back of town. But he knew Sammy would stay off the surface streets if possible, to stay out of sight.
So he trusted his gut and tracked Sammy through the quasi-residential swath of houses and land between their house and the highway.
And tried to keep the shivering panic to a simmer. But after an hour of walking, it reared up as he trekked through the cold and dark, knowing that his little brother was out here all by himself. He had to crouch down in his tracks, gasping for breath, digging his fingers into the dirt.
He was going to find him. He was going to find him or die trying.
And then the faint scent of hickory smoke drifted into his consciousness. His stomach groaned at the smell. He hadn't eaten all day, not since breakfast.
And neither had Sammy.
Dean tracked that scent like a Kentucky bloodhound, flinging his lanky teenaged body over fences and through back yards, until he saw the stream of smoke illuminated in the moonlight.
He stood next to the smokehouse, fingering the unlocked latch, carefully taking in every detail of his surroundings. Trying to imagine what Sam would do.
He would grab something to eat.
He would need to eat it immediately. He'd be tired and freezing by now. And Sammy loved to take a snack into bed and curl up with a blanket and a book, chewing on a chunk of cheese or an apple until he fell asleep with the book folded over his face.
It didn't take long for Dean to spy the shed.
He wanted to race to it, screaming Sam's name, fling the door open.
He walked to it slowly, and hesitated a moment before cracking the door open and shining his flashlight inside.
When the light played across the form of Sammy huddled on the floor, Dean rested his face against the door jamb and breathed in the cold night air, legs gone weak and unreliable from the crashing wave of relief, eyes locked on his baby brother. When he realized Sam had run away, he thought his heart had broken as much as a human heart could break. Then he saw his Bad Company t-shirt laid out on top of the duffel bag, Sammy fast asleep clutching it, his head on the bag exactly where Dean always found Sam's head nuzzling his chest every morning.
And he learned the human heart could break so much more.
"Sammy!" Dean dropped to his knees at Sam's side and shook him awake. Sam rubbed his eyes with his fists, like he did when he was just a little guy.
"Dean?" Sam stared in disbelief. "…Dean? What… how did you find me?"
Dean yanked Sammy into his arms, pressing one hand to the back of his head, burying his face in Sam's hair, breathing it in.
"I'll always find you, Sammy." At those words, Sam melted into Dean's embrace, no rigid muscles, no pulling away, just hugging him back as tightly as he could muster.
And Dean broke, sobbing into Sam like it was going to tear him apart, crying like neither of them had ever seen him do in his life, body racked with it, harsh sounds ripped out of him. When the first rush of it had poured out of him, he was able to formulate words through the sobs.
"Don't leave me, Sammy. Don't ever leave me like that."
Sammy made a low moan of pain, crying against Dean's jacket. "I'm sorry, Dean, it's ok now, I'm sorry, won't ever leave you, was so scared, Dean, I was so scared, love you, it's ok, I love you, won't ever leave you…"
And little Sammy held his big brother and petted his face for a long, long until he stopped sobbing.
"C'mon. Let's get you home." Dean stood up on shaky legs. Sam fished out the partially eaten summer sausage and handed it to Dean. "It's good. You can have the rest."
Dean gnawed the sausage, desperate to get something in his stomach. Sam shoved the t-shirt back inside the duffel, zipping it shut, and glanced up at Dean with an embarrassed look on his face. Dean pulled Sam to his feet gently, slinging the duffel over his shoulder, and held Sam close. "I can't sleep without you either."
Sam was so cold and exhausted, he was stumbling after barely a mile. So Dean picked him up in his arms and carried him the rest of the way home.
John was still passed out when Dean entered the house, weary and half-frozen, Sam asleep in his arms. Dean carried him into their bedroom and got him changed into his flannel pajamas, put clean socks on his ice-cold feet, then tugged off his own jeans and threw on a worn pair of sweatpants and a pair of wool socks.
Then he settled the half-conscious Sam into bed and climbed in next to him.
"Never hurt you, Sammy." Dean reached for Sam and pulled him close.
Sam clung to Dean like a long-legged barnacle. "Never leave you, Dean."