Summary: Pre-series – Dyslexic Sam, Awesome Dean – Jumbled letters. That was all Sam saw as he anxiously gazed at the newspaper in front of him.
Disclaimer: Not mine
Warnings: Minor language and a less cuddly John than I usually write...'cause dads can't be awesome all the time like big brothers can
A/N: I'm not sure where this came from; maybe it's because the school year just ended for me. But I've always wondered about the circumstances surrounding Dean's decision to drop out of school and then later earn his GED. Here's my AU explanation...
All these words they make no sense. ~ Linkin Park
That was all Sam saw as he anxiously gazed at the newspaper John had set in front of him. It was all he had ever seen when he looked at printed material – mixed-up letters and backwards words.
Only John didn't know that.
No one knew that.
Sam was 13-years old and had successfully bluffed his way to eighth grade with only one person knowing his secret – Dean.
Because they were never in one town long enough for Sam's teachers to suspect a reading problem...and John was usually gone, chasing the demon that killed Mary or some other case of the week.
But Dean was always there; had seen Sam quietly struggle with his homework assignments since the kid had been in elementary school; had sat beside his little brother for hours every night – even now that Sam was in middle school – helping and explaining and reading what Sam couldn't.
In the early years, Dean had been the one who had patiently corrected Sam every time the kid had confused "b" and "d". Dean had been the one who had encouraged Sam to try sounding out a word "just one more time". Dean had been the one who had looked at a seven-year old Sam with nothing but love and concern when the kid had confessed one night that he couldn't read.
He just couldn't.
Sam sighed as he remembered how he had apologized that night – and so many nights since – for his failure; for saddling Dean with a stupid little brother.
"You're not stupid," Dean had immediately barked; had looked pissed at Sam's use of that word and had held Sam's face between his hands to make sure the seven-year old was listening. "And if you ever say that again, I'll kick your ass. You hear me?"
Sam felt his mouth twitch in a smile; having lost count how many times he had heard that speech – and that threat – from his brother over the years.
But even now, Sam could still see Dean nodding that he understood about Sam's reading problem – that he had already known – and could remember how his big brother had thumbed away his tears that night and had promised he would fix it.
And if he couldn't fix it, Dean had said they would figure out how to deal with it...together.
And so they had.
For the past six years, every school night had become the same routine – hours spent side-by-side in the motel room of the week; hunched over open textbooks and notebooks; Dean trying everything he knew to help Sam decode and comprehend what he was expected to read and discuss and be tested on in class.
Between hunts, Dean had done research; had figured out Sam was dyslexic and while there was no "fix" to the condition, there were ways to treat it through learning strategies and tutoring methods.
So, that's what they did.
With the focused devotion that he had always given anything that involved Sam, Dean had continued to be his little brother's tutor; had originally tried to keep up with his own homework assignments as well but had quickly abandoned that idea because Sam had needed his complete attention.
And since Sam succeeding had always been more important to Dean than his own success, Dean had gladly sacrificed his own academics for his little brother's; had allowed himself to fall behind so that Sam could move ahead.
Dean had never said that, but Sam still knew it; knew that Dean had once been a good student; knew his big brother used to do his homework and study for tests before he had decided none of that mattered when compared to Sam.
Sam sighed, wondering what he ever did to deserve such an awesome brother, and glanced toward the bathroom; the shower spray muffled behind the closed door as Dean washed away the remnants of the night's hunt; a simple salt and burn across town.
From the opposite side of the table, John followed Sam's gaze and arched a questioning eyebrow; freshly concerned about Sam's prolonged silence and about how the attention of his youngest seemed to wander these days.
Sam sighed again and glanced back at John, knowing what was expected of him – to read the newspaper article as he had been previously asked to do so that John could take notes in his journal; their dad preferring that method to reading the article himself; saying it was quicker.
But what John didn't know was that Sam had no idea what he was looking at. He saw the letters and knew they were supposed to form words, but they meant nothing to him; as if someone had dumped the entire alphabet into a disordered heap on the page.
Sam squirmed in his seat, wondering if his dad knew he was stalling.
John's irritated expression indicated that he did. "We don't have all night," he reminded dryly and nodded toward the newspaper.
Sam stared at the wrinkled paper lying on the table between him and his dad; its black ink smudged from being handled with sweaty hands; its edge fluttering in the draft created by the blasting air conditioning unit rattling against the motel room's wall.
Sam shifted in his chair; his legs bouncing anxiously beneath the table; his shoulders tense as he leaned slightly forward as if being closer to the paper would somehow help him read the words.
But although Sam was squinting in the poor lighting provided by the single bulb shining on the table, it wasn't his vision that was the problem; it was the way his brain processed written language.
He recognized a few letters – could name them and their corresponding sounds – but beyond that...
You can do this, Sam heard Dean's voice coach him, although his brother was still taking his sweet time in the shower. Pick out the letters you know and go from there. One word at a time, Sammy. Sound them out...
Sam swallowed; feeling physically sick.
Because while that strategy usually worked, it was also painfully slow and tedious...and made it excruciatingly obvious that he wasn't reading with the expected ease and fluency of an eighth grader.
Sam glanced at his father still sitting across from him.
John wasn't the most observant parent but even he would realize that type of reading wasn't normal for Sam's age.
And that was all Sam had ever wanted – to be normal; to be able to look at a book or a newspaper or the back of a freakin' cereal box and read it like normal kids did.
John frowned as he watched his youngest continue to squirm in his seat; Sam's small hands nervously fidgeting with the edge of the newspaper as he stared intently at the article; as if the kid was willing the words to read themselves.
John sighed. "Sam..." he called, readjusting his open journal lying in front of him on the table as the shower shut off in the bathroom.
Sam's attention darted to the closed door, knowing he had to stall for only a few more minutes before Dean would join them.
"Dean can read it," Sam suddenly announced and reached for the newspaper; eager to make it disappear. "He always reads it."
John scowled at Sam's obvious attempt to dodge. "Dean has guns to clean," he informed his youngest; his calloused fingers sliding the paper away from Sam's grasp.
Sam nodded; because Dean always had guns to clean after a hunt...which would explain why this particular duty – reading newspaper articles to John that could indicate the possibility of another hunt – fell on Sam tonight.
"Dean does both," Sam reminded his father, earning a scowl.
"Usually," John agreed coolly. "But not tonight. It's past time you started pulling your weight around here with hunts, Sam. And this is where it starts – research."
Sam shifted again in his chair and listened to the sounds of his brother moving around in the bathroom as he frantically searched for another way to escape the task at hand.
Because he couldn't do it.
John sighed harshly; his patience instantly gone. "What's wrong with you?" he demanded, staring intently at his youngest.
Sam shook his head in denial even as his heart pounded in his chest; because was this some kind of trap? Had John known all these years that Sam couldn't read...and this was the night he had decided to prove it?
Sam startled at John's loud voice and blinked as his father crisply snapped his fingers mere inches from his face.
"What's with you?" John pressed; his words rephrased but his tone still sharp with annoyance.
Sam shook his head once more. "Nothing."
John looked doubtful. "Then stop draggin' ass or daydreaming or whatever the hell it is you're doing over there, and read the damn article. Jesus..."
Sam's eyes widened at John's clipped words as he swallowed against the fear and anxiety and helplessness that rose in his throat; wondering what his dad's reaction would be when he threw up on the table...because that was exactly what he felt like doing.
There was a beat of silence; Sam inhaling shakily, preparing to out himself as the illiterate dummy he was...when Dean came to his rescue.
Just like he always did.
"What's all the yelling about?" Dean asked as he rubbed one of the bath towels over his wet hair; his tone casual as he stood in the now open doorway of the bathroom, but his expression indicating that regardless of the reason, he didn't like John raising his voice at Sam.
Sam's attention darted to Dean; his gaze latching on to the amulet resting in the center of Dean's chest and feeling strangely comforted; feeling relieved and dangerously close to tears at the familiar sight of his brother standing there in boots and jeans and a black t-shirt, fully prepared to handle whatever situation he had walked in on.
Dean narrowed his eyes at Sam's distressed expression and then glanced at John, noticing the newspaper lying on the table between his father and brother...which explained everything.
Dean sighed and tossed the wet towel on the counter beside the sink before switching off the bathroom's light and crossing to Sam as the kid continued to sit opposite John at the small table near the motel room's door. "You okay?"
"Yeah," Sam answered quietly and nodded as he stared up at Dean, though the rest of his body language – from his tense shoulders to his misty eyes – suggested otherwise.
Dean returned the nod, not fooled for a second. "Good," he replied anyway and then glanced again at John. "New case?" he asked as if he didn't already know and waved vaguely at the newspaper still lying on the table.
John shrugged. "Not sure yet. Sounds like it might be, but I haven't read the whole thing." He paused, pinning Sam with a hard stare. "And since your brother seems to be illiterate tonight..."
John shook his head, allowing the annoyed gesture to communicate the remainder of his thought as he simultaneously closed his journal and snatched the newspaper from the table before standing and crossing to sit on his bed closest to the door.
Sam's gaze flickered to Dean; his eyes wide at John's use of that term to describe him.
Dean felt his own anger flare, but he knew John had no idea how hurtful that word was to Sam; knew their dad was only frustrated with what John perceived as a moody kid refusing to read just because he could; having no clue that was actually the problem – Sam couldn't.
Dean sighed – sometimes hating the secrets he and his brother kept from their dad – and forced a smile. "Sam's fine," he told John, though the words and the gentle squeeze he gave to Sam's neck were more affirmation for an upset little brother than for a disgruntled father.
Sam relaxed marginally into Dean's touch as John glanced up at his oldest.
"After all..." Dean continued, his smile widening. "Who can read on an empty stomach?" he asked incredulously and then winked at his brother. "Right, Sammy?"
Sam hesitated but nodded his agreement; staring at John to see if their dad bought that explanation as to why Sam had not done as he was told.
John sighed, his gaze flickering between his sons before he chuckled. "Does everything hinge on food these days?"
"Yep," Dean drawled, knowing he had successfully defused yet another tense situation between his dad and kid brother. "We're growing boys." He paused, glancing meaningfully at Sam. "Well...some of us are."
Sam scowled. "Shut up," he returned, though he sounded more tired than angry. "One day I'll be taller than you."
Dean made a dismissive sound and rolled his eyes. "You wish," he told his brother and patted the kid's back as he turned toward the door; silently telling Sam they were leaving.
Recognizing the familiar sign, Sam pushed away from the table; smiling shyly at John as his father watched him stand.
"Where are you going?" John asked; his tone and body language more relaxed than either had been minutes before.
Sam shrugged and glanced at Dean; having no idea where they were going but welcoming the chance to escape the motel room, especially if it was just him and his brother going out.
"I can't function on awesomeness alone, Dad," Dean smoothly informed and then casually draped his arm around Sam's shoulders as the kid stood beside him. "And if we don't feed the runt, he'll never grow."
"Hey!" Sam protested and shoved against his brother.
Dean laughed and playfully shook Sam by his thin, narrow shoulders.
John chuckled at his sons' antics. "So, I guess that means you're heading to the diner across the street?"
"Yes, sir," Dean confirmed, opening the door and waving Sam through. "Bring you anything?"
John shrugged. "Sure," he responded, clearly not as enthused about food as his oldest. "Whatever sounds good. Got money?"
"Good. See you in a few..." John paused, watching his youngest fidget on the sidewalk outside the motel room. "Be careful. And – "
" – watch out for Sammy," Dean finished in unison with John and then smiled. "Dude. It's not my first rodeo."
John chuckled at the phrase Dean had been using since they had arrived in Texas two days ago. "Noted," he replied dryly. "But it's a dad thing," he further explained as to why he felt the need to constantly tell Dean to watch out for their youngest.
Dean nodded, because he understood what it was like to worry – especially about Sam – and wondered if John knew it was a "big brother thing" to protect the little brother at all costs; including keeping secrets and living a lie.
Dean sighed and forced a smile as he closed the door behind him and turned to his brother. "Alright, Sam-I-Am..." he called, reverting to one of the nicknames he used when Sam was younger. "Chow time."
Sam nodded but said nothing; both brothers walking beside each other in companionable silence as they crossed the motel's parking lot.
Dean kept Sam within arm's reach as they walked; his gaze expertly scanning the surrounding area for potential threats as he waited for Sam to voice his worry.
And as Dean expected, it didn't take long.
"Dad knows," Sam quietly told Dean as they reached the street's edge.
Dean shook his head. "Please," he scoffed, splaying his hand in the center of Sam's chest and stopping the kid on the sidewalk as he checked both ways for traffic. "All Dad thinks is that you were being a moody little bitch."
Sam scowled. "Nice."
Dean chuckled. "Would you rather he think something else?"
"No," Sam answered immediately.
"Alright then..." Dean returned.
Sam sighed; squinting in the headlights of oncoming traffic and wondering if Dean really thought he would run out in the street if his big brother didn't keep his halting hand on his chest.
"Is that all that happened?" Dean asked; releasing his hold on Sam as the last car passed. "He just asked you to read that newspaper article?"
Sam nodded. "He said it was time I started pulling my own weight with hunts and that started with research."
Dean snorted. "Sounds like our old man," he replied, his tone strangely bitter.
Sam glanced at his brother as they crossed the street together but said nothing; wondering if Dean ever wished their lives were different.
Not that it mattered.
Because their lives would never be different.
They would always be hunters; would always bounce from town to town, from case to case. And Sam would never be able to read...which meant Dean would always have to pick up his slack...which meant John was bound to get suspicious one day...which meant...
"I'm sorry," Sam blurted, overwhelmed by his thoughts; wondering what it was like to actually like yourself. "I'm sorry," he said again and stared up at Dean as they stood outside the diner.
Dean shook his head. "Don't start, Sam," he told his brother. "I mean it. Everything's fine, okay?"
"No, it isn't," Sam countered, feeling tears sting his eyes. "Everything's just gonna get harder, Dean. I'm gonna be in ninth grade next year. That's high school. High school's hard!"
Dean sighed, recognizing the signs of an impending little brother meltdown. "Listen..." he began, grasping Sam's arm and steering the kid to the side of the building. "If I say everything's gonna be fine, then everything's gonna be fine. Right? Have I ever lied to you?"
Sam took a shaky breath. "No."
"Damn right no," Dean agreed heartily. "And I'm not starting tonight."
There was a pause.
"And there's something else I should probably go ahead and tell you, so you have time to bitch about it and get your head around it before the school year starts..."
Sam narrowed his eyes. "What?" he asked, dread crawling up his spine.
Dean sighed, because this news was not going to be received well.
"Dean, what?" Sam pressed; his nerves already on edge.
"I'm not going back to school, Sam."
Sam blinked. "Wh-what? Why?" He paused, realization instantly dawning. "Because of me?"
"Sam – "
"It is because of me," Sam interrupted, answering his own question. "I can't believe this," he whispered, his voice tight with suppressed tears.
Sam shook his head, his feelings beyond words; hating how his reading problem made him doubt everything about himself; made him apprehensive and self-conscious and convinced he was a burden to Dean.
"Sam – "
"Dean, you can't!" Sam insisted, emotion making his voice crack.
"I can, Sammy," Dean replied calmly, squeezing his brother's shoulder. "I've already made the decision."
Sam shook his head. "Dad won't let you."
Dean snorted. "He already knows, Sam. In fact, he was glad."
"Glad?" Sam repeated. "What kind of father is glad when his son quits school?"
"Ours," Dean answered simply and then smiled encouragingly. "It's okay, Sam. School's not important to me like it is to you."
"It used to be," Sam countered and swallowed against the emotion that continued to rise in his throat.
"Well, not anymore," Dean replied honestly. "Nothing is more important than you, Sam. And if me quitting school means you getting to college someday..." He shrugged. "No contest, kiddo."
Sam blinked, losing his battle against his tears and feeling the salty moisture slip down his cheeks. "No..." he whispered, because he didn't know what else to say. "You're the one who should go to college, Dean."
"Nah," Dean scoffed. "That's not me, Sammy. Not really. Besides, Dad needs me on the hunt. Somebody's gotta have his back."
"But who has your back?" Sam asked quietly.
Dean quirked a smile. "Well, I thought you did..."
Sam gave a watery smile in return. "I do," he promised and nodded for emphasis.
"Damn right you do," Dean agreed heartily. "And who's got yours?"
"You do," Sam responded.
"Bet your ass I do," Dean replied and pulled Sam toward him; hugging his emotional, overwhelmed little brother. "It's okay, Sammy. You and me against the world...right, kiddo?"
Sam nodded; his face rubbing against Dean's shirt.
There was a pause; older brother silently comforting his younger brother in the relative privacy of an alley that bordered a diner in a no-name Texas town.
"This is gonna be a good change, Sam," Dean finally said, rubbing Sam's back as the kid continued to lean against him. "I was getting too cool for school anyway."
Sam choked out a soft laugh.
"And now I'll have time to help Dad during the day with research and interviews...and then help you at night with homework without having to worry about anything else."
"Yeah, I guess..." Sam agreed quietly, knowing Dean had made up his mind about the issue and wouldn't budge because Dean was convinced his decision was best for Sam.
Sam sighed and pushed back from his brother, staring up at Dean. "You're gonna get your GED."
Dean arched an eyebrow.
Sam nodded. "You are," he told his brother. "I mean it. That's the only way I'm agreeing to this."
Dean chuckled, amused by how serious Sam sounded; as if the kid had a vote in this decision; as if they both didn't know that Sam needed Dean's undivided attention if the kid was going to make it through high school and graduate.
"Dean..." Sam called, blinking up at his brother with those huge eyes that usually got him whatever he wanted.
Dean chuckled again. "Fine," he agreed. "But only because I had already thought about that. Not because you used 'the look' on me."
Sam smiled. "Sure," he drawled.
Dean rolled his eyes as a beat of silence passed between them.
"Alright, runt..." Dean sighed; his tone affectionate as he ruffled Sam's floppy hair. "I think that's enough sharing and caring for one night. What d'ya say we eat?"
Sam nodded eagerly, suddenly realizing how hungry he was. "Do they have salad?"
Dean cringed dramatically.
Sam laughed. "It's good for you."
"Maybe for you," Dean countered.
Sam shrugged. "I like it. But do you think they have it here?"
"Tell you what..." Dean began, looping his arm around his brother's narrow shoulders and steering the kid out of the alley and toward the diner's door. "If you can find it on the menu, then you can order it."
Sam hesitated but nodded; familiar with this "lesson".
Because while it had been years since they had actually used it, Sam knew that Dean still had a copy of Fun Tips to Help Kids Read in the bottom of his duffel.
And this just proved it.
Sam smiled, reminded of how lucky he was to have Dean in his life; to have a brother who loved him enough to do anything for him...even if that meant sacrificing everything else.
"You hear me?" Dean asked over the tinkling of a bell as they entered the diner.
"Yeah," Sam replied and focused on the menu hanging on the wall behind the counter.
Dean nodded. "What letter are you looking for?"
"S," Sam answered and scanned each of the red-letter words until he found it.
"What next?" Dean prompted, watching as Sam stared at the word on the menu board.
Sam paused, silently saying "salad" to himself over and over.
Dean nodded. "Keep going," he told his brother. "You know the drill. You're not getting it until you spell it."
Sam groaned. "I might starve at that rate."
Dean shook his head. "Not on my watch. Now spell, bitch. Before Dad comes looking for us..."
Sam laughed, refocusing on the word.
Dean did the same. "What comes after the 'A'? S-A…"
"Good," Dean praised. "Then?"
Sam swallowed. "Another 'A'."
Sam hesitated, frowning as he continued to stare at the red-letter word on the menu board.
"Sam..." Dean called expectantly.
Sam shook his head, glancing at his brother. "There..." He looked back at the menu. "There isn't any other letters. That's it. S-A-L-A-D. That spells 'salad', right?"
Dean nodded and grinned. "Just testing ya, kiddo."
Sam bitchfaced his brother; the expression slowly dissolving to a smile.
Dean laughed. "Alright...you found your order. Now find mine."
Sam's eyes widened. "Seriously?"
"Don't I look serious?"
Sam groaned. "'Cheeseburger' is a long word, Dean."
"Practice makes perfect, Sammy," Dean responded, totally unfazed by the whine in Sam's voice. "Let's go," he prompted and nodded at the menu board.
Sam sighed but began visually hunting for the first letter.
Dean smiled proudly, listening to his little brother slowly spell "cheeseburger"; the kid stumbling over a few of the letters but otherwise doing well.
"Very good," Dean praised when Sam had finally finished spelling the word and squeezed the back of his brother's neck. "Very, very good." He paused. "Who taught you how to spell like that?" he asked teasingly.
Sam didn't miss a beat; staring up at Dean through his fringe of bangs and smiling, dimples and all. "My brother."
Dean arched an eyebrow. "Yeah?" He returned the smile; emotion tightening his throat. "He must be a pretty awesome guy..."
Sam nodded proudly, continuing to beam at Dean. "He is."