Hi everyone! The response to this story has been, for me, overwhelming, and I am so grateful to everyone who has read and enjoyed it.
I do want to mention here that I would appreciate it if this story wasn't posted on other sites or linked to in non-fandom spaces without my knowledge. I love all the Tumblr fic recs and LJ shout-outs, but for sites like Goodreads, I am uncomfortable with my fan work being accessible there. If you have a question or aren't sure what I mean by this, before sharing the story, please feel free to PM me and I'd be happy to talk to you about it.
Thanks, and I hope you enjoy!
When his dad comes back into the clearing with a scrawny kid in tow, Dean isn't surprised.
He's disappointed. He's sad. He's angry, and there's something sick roiling in his stomach that feels like guilt and disgust, but he's not surprised.
The tip came four days ago, that there was a Lilim kid currently in Wisconsin who, according to the grapevine, was seeing stuff about the Yellow-Eyed Demon. It was Steve who'd called John, told him that the kid was on the black market now, available for the right price. That the kid's powers were on sale to the highest bidder.
Dean hadn't known that this kind of shit happened among Hunters until they got to Wisconsin—his dad had, wisely, not told him what they were doing. But Dean knows what Lilim are, and everybody says that Lilim aren't human, that they're creatures, just like the other creatures they hunt every day. Like witches. Part human, okay, but demon-tainted. Part-demon. Enough demon to cancel out whatever humanity they have, with powers that are often useful to Hunters—usually stuff like precognition, but sometimes stuff like telepathy and pyrokinesis. They don't always have good control over their powers but the ones that do, they're invaluable, the others had told Dean. Could do things like spot omens and attacks days before they happened, give the Hunters the heads-up they needed to stay a step ahead, or help on a hunt.
The ones that don't have that kind of control are still creatures, goes the argument.
But the kid that John's got by the arm, who's pulled as far away from Dean's dad as possible without actually trying to get his arm back, the kid whose eyes don't leave John and are bright with fear, the kid who looks like he hasn't eaten in a couple of days and is obviously favoring his left leg...
This kid looks an awful lot like a person.
"Dad," Dean says, standing, and he knows his judgment is all over his face because John doesn't look at him.
"Did you finish setting up camp?" John asks, marching the kid right past Dean. The kid doesn't even look away from John for a second. Dean, smaller and slighter than John even if he wasn't the son and therefore subordinate of the two of them, is obviously less of a threat.
"Yes, sir," replies Dean, a little offended that John would even ask.
"Salted and warded?" John barks from where he is by the tent, and now Dean doesn't know why he bothers to ask because he's obviously checking anyway.
"Yes, sir," Dean sighs. "And I made stew. It's just about done. Are you hungry?" He falters. "Either of you?"
And then the kid looks at Dean.
Dean freezes in place under his attention. The kid's eyes are wide and uncomprehending, and if he hadn't been obviously reacting to Dean's words and not just his voice, Dean would've wondered if he spoke English. As it is, Dean knows he understands the words individually; it's the sequence he's apparently having trouble with.
The kid keeps staring, so Dean starts to make some observations. He's filthy, a fine layer of dirt covering him pretty much all over, and his hair is matted and he's obviously injured in a couple of places. Dean had seen him limping, but he's also cradling his arm around his middle, which means either he's got a hurt arm or something happened to his ribs. There's a tightness in his lips, a grimace trying to come out, that says whatever it is, it hurts. Dean knows John didn't do that—wouldn't do that, not even if he didn't think the kid was human. Couldn't do that to something that looked so much like a kid. (Right?) Whoever had the kid before did it.
But what that means is the kid doesn't have great control. Even just picking things up over the past four days, Dean knows enough to know that if he could control his visions, nobody would dare lay a hand on him. He'd be worth too much.
(There's that roiling sensation again.)
His hair is a sort of middling brown and overgrown, and his eyes are a hazel that's mostly green, glossy with terror that's slowly fading into confusion. He's way smaller than Dean, skinny, gawky, all knobby knees and elbows and limbs that are longer than the kid seems to expect them to be, so Dean puts him at thirteen or fourteen.
And it takes so little time for him to calculate that it can't be anything but instinct: that's how old Sammy would have been.
Dean feels a swelling in his chest that he knows is going to turn into tears if he doesn't do something about it, so he walks up to his dad and the kid with a determined gait, only to stop screechingly short when the kid flinches.
John looks down at him with a lip curled, then looks up at Dean. "The warding's good," he says, and it's testament to how distracted Dean is that he doesn't even respond to the rare praise. "I'm not hungry. I'm going to go to sleep. You can take first watch?"
"Yes, sir," Dean responds quietly, watching the kid like he's some easily spooked colt. The fine trembling in the kid's limbs and the shallow rise and fall of his chest don't do anything to dismiss that impression.
"First watch also means watching him," John reminds him, and now it's Dean who flinches. John's eyes darken slightly as he says, "Dean."
"Got it, Dad," Dean interrupts quickly, not taking his eyes off of the kid. "Sleep well."
John looks like he wants to argue, but just goes into the tent instead.
Dean and the kid stare at each other for a long time, but the kid breaks first, looking down and fidgeting with his dirty tee shirt. "Sorry," he mutters.
Dean frowns, but doesn't ask the obvious question: sorry for what? Instead he clears his throat uncomfortably, and the kid looks back up, from under his bangs. "You hungry?" Dean asks. The kid nods, and Dean attempts a grin. "I made some stew. Nothing fancy, mostly potatoes, but I had some dried meat, too, so it's not just rabbit food. Come on, there's plenty."
The kid follows a couple of steps behind Dean and sits once Dean's seated by the small fire that the stew is bubbling over. Dean grabs two bowls and ladles them both full of stew. He hears, but doesn't feel, his stomach growl, and he frowns.
Oh. Not his stomach.
The kid looks mortified but just stares at the ground like he's willing it to swallow him up. Dean chuckles, and the kid startles. "Hey, man, it's cool, you're hungry," Dean says. "I'm hungry, too. Eat up." And to make sure the kid understands that it's okay to eat, Dean digs in despite the heat of the stew.
The kid watches him for a long moment, then picks up his own bowl, and Dean grins around a mouthful of stew. But then the kid gets up on his knees and rocks back onto his heels, looking around the campsite. "Where should I go to eat?" he asks softly.
Dean takes a minute to respond, swallowing the stew thickly. When he does respond, it's with, "What?"
The kid stares at him like he's stupid. "Um. Where would you like me to go to eat?"
Dean's sure he looks as stupid as the treatment the kid's giving him suggests, but he can't help but furrow his brow. "I don't know, here's fine, unless you want to go somewhere else," he replies, finally, with a shrug.
That seems to surprise the kid, who settles a little more firmly in his crouch as he echoes, "Here?" And then adds, "With you?"
Dean sets his bowl down on the ground and rubs the back of his head like he does when he's anxious. "Yeah, dude, where else would you go?" he asks. "We're in the middle of the freaking woods. Also, I mean, I'm here, the food's here, why wouldn't you stay?"
He doesn't like how his voice has taken on this note of pleading, but it's not really important right now, because the kid looks like he's halfway ready to bolt. Dean tenses minutely, ready to run after him if it comes down to it because John will kill him if the kid's gone when he wakes up. The kid's lanky, but he's small and injured and Dean figures he can catch him pretty easy without hurting him.
And that thought stops Dean, and he looks over at the kid, noticing the way his weight is on his right leg as much as he can manage while still balancing, how he's still got his arm pressed against his side. "Hey," he says, and the kid jerks, almost spilling hot stew all over himself. "Are you, um, do you even feel well enough to eat? Because I can get the first aid kit and patch you up if you want before we eat."
The way the kid shuts down is startling. He sits back on the ground with a thud and puts his bowl in front of him, crossing his legs and hunching his shoulders, eyes firmly on the ground. "I'm fine," he says quietly. "No, I'm fine. I'll eat. Sorry."
"It's all right, dude, it's whatever," Dean assures him, picking his bowl back up and waiting for the kid to follow suit. He finally does, lifting the spoon to his lips cautiously, watching Dean surreptitiously and spilling some of the stew back into his bowl from the shaking of his hands. But he eats.
That's all Dean's asking.
They eat in silence, the kid finishing his stew over the better part of an hour in small spoonfuls. Dean supposes that's good, because it looks like it's been a while since he's eaten and if he ate too fast he'd be likely to chuck it shortly after. But the fact that a kid that young understands that you can't eat fast when you're really hungry doesn't really speak well of the regularity of his meals. So Dean eats slowly, too, because he doesn't want to just be staring at the kid once he's done with his stew.
Dean's dad brought the kid back to the campsite about an hour ago, which Dean knows without looking at his watch means that it's creeping up on midnight. The kid's eyelids flutter once, but he shakes his head briskly and puts his empty (and that's empty—the kid scraped the sides and then sopped up the rest with a bit of hard bread Dean gave him) bowl on the ground. He tucks his knees under his chin and looks off to the side as Dean finishes his last mouthful.
When Dean goes to grab the kid's bowl, he finds it already gone and his own is plucked from his hands. He looks up, frowning, and sees that the kid is putting things away. "Is there somewhere I can wash these?" he asks, eyes flicking around the campsite uncertainly.
"Give 'em here," Dean says, taking them back, and the kid makes this soft, panicked noise in the back of his throat and Dean feels instantly terrible. "Hey, dude, no, it's fine. I just...I got it, okay? You've got to be wasted. I'm on watch for now so you can either just pull up some blankets and crash here or you can head into the tent with my dad. Either way."
There's no understanding in the kid's eyes. "I...you want me to go to sleep?" he asks.
Dean cocks an eyebrow. "Um. Yeah. I mean, aren't you tired?" The kid nods. "Then, uh, I mean, that's usually a good time to go to bed. And it's almost midnight." He forces a crooked smile as he adds, "Past bedtime for squirts like you."
That earns Dean briefly narrowed eyes, followed by a studious blanking of the kid's expression, and Dean realizes he's neither introduced himself nor asked for the kid's name. "What's your name, man?" he asks now.
The kid straightens a little bit, his gaze back on the ground as he says, "Luke."
"'M Dean," Dean replies, sticking his hand out. The kid—Luke—actually flinches back from it like he's afraid Dean's going to hit him. "Woah, dude, calm down," Dean soothes. "Just gonna shake your hand."
"Why?" Luke asks, suspicion twisting his features.
"'Cause it's what people do when they meet each other," Dean explains. He's surprised when the kid scoffs. "No, it is."
"When people meet each other," Luke repeats. "Not when Hunters meet Lilim. Okay? So you can quit pretending to be nice to me, because you and your dad aren't the first Hunters I've been with."
"It's not like that," Dean says unconvincingly.
"It's exactly like that, and it's always like that," Luke snaps, and he glares up at Dean, his bright eyes daring Dean to do something about it.
And when Dean steps closer to him, Luke ducks his head and braces himself.
"Dude," Dean breathes, stepping back and holding his hands up. "It's okay, man, I'm not gonna hurt you."
"I'm sorry," Luke murmurs. "I'm sorry. That was out of line. I'm sorry."
A thousand things run through Dean's mind to say, things like it's okay and I'm really not gonna hurt you and could you please stop acting like I'm some kind of serial killer because it's weirding me out, but instead he walks over to the tent and pulls a fistful of heavy blankets out. He stretches one out on the ground and hands another to Luke, keeping one for himself. "Get some rest, if you can," he says, watching the kid's hands as they tremble around his death-grip on the blanket. "We'll probably move pretty early in the morning."
Luke settles down onto the blanket, pulling the other one tight around him, and Dean sits a little ways away, wrapping the blanket around his shoulders. Dean knows that the kid's not sleeping, and that he won't, not for a long time, if at all tonight. But he doesn't say anything, doesn't make a big deal about it, just sits huddled in his blanket with a rifle loaded with salt rounds in his hands.
About an hour passes in silence, Dean keeping his eyes keenly focused around the woods surrounding their campsite, the fire dying to embers, Luke still not sleeping to his left. It takes all of his will power not to turn and watch the kid, but he knows it would only make Luke uncomfortable. Scared, even.
Dean knows what it is to be scared. He spends a lot of his time scared. And he's had things be scared of him before. He's seen it in the eyes of the monsters he and his dad hunt right before his knife goes in, right before the light fades once the bullet hits true. He's seen that.
But kids, they aren't scared of him. He's great with kids. Everybody says so. When he was in school, before he dropped out after his sophomore year, the younger kids always liked him, always went to him if they were getting bullied, even if he'd only been at that school a little while. And when there are kids involved in a hunt, he's always the one who calms them down once the monster is gone. His dad's no good at that and they both know it. So he's the one who gathers the little ones into his arms and sits down in the corner with them, shushing them and wiping their tears away and telling them that it's okay, the monster won't hurt them anymore, he promises.
And he knows that it's the closest he'll ever come to making it up to Sammy for letting him get taken, all those years ago.
So the way Luke looks at him, that hunted, fearful look, the one that's just waiting for the pain to start...Dean can't take it.
So he doesn't look.
He doesn't look, but he hears the leaves crunch as Luke rolls over, and he feels the weight of the kid's gaze on him, and even then he's still and just keeps looking out into the woods because he'll be damned if he lets anything get the jump on him tonight.
He doesn't look until Luke says, "Thanks for the stew, and thanks for letting me sleep out here with you."
"Hey, man, no problem," Dean says quietly, fighting to keep the little smile off of his face at the reluctant tone of the gratitude. "But you're not sleeping, exactly."
"I always have a hard time going to sleep the first night with a new Hunter," murmurs Luke, and the smile is wiped from Dean's face.
"You can go to sleep," he replies. "I'll watch you, okay? Nothin's gonna happen while I'm here. I promise. I'll keep you safe."
It's almost too quiet to hear when Luke whispers, "Gotta protect Daddy's investment, after all."
"Got nothing to do with it," Dean says firmly, turning fully to Luke and ignoring the wince at his slightly raised voice. "You hear me? I don't give a shit what kind of fucked-up situation we're in right now, and I know that not caring isn't something you can afford to do, but all I know is this: I'm here, I'm older than you, I've got the gun, and if any fugly comes out of these woods I'm puttin' myself between you and it. Because you're a kid, and that's what I do. Doesn't matter who you are."
"Or what I am?" Luke's voice is almost challenging, but Dean hears the softness and the real question in his words.
"What you are is a kid," Dean replies, "and I protect kids. Always."
Dean shifts his gaze back to the woods because he's not gonna cry. Shit, it's been almost ten years, and he's not gonna cry about it tonight. Not in front of Luke. How's the kid supposed to believe Dean can protect him if he sees him crying like a bitch? So he stares resolvedly out into the woods, which means he doesn't see it when Luke scoots a little closer to him.
He hears it, though.
It doesn't help that tight feeling in his chest, but it makes it different. A little warmer. And he looks over and down, and Luke's looking up at him, a little wary like he's afraid Dean's gonna tell him to back off, but he closes his eyes and takes it when Dean ruffles his dirty hair. He doesn't even wince. "Go to sleep," Dean mutters. "You're gonna be wrecked tomorrow and the Impala's awesome but take it from me, sleeping in the back seat is no fun. And you are not riding shotgun."
For a moment Dean regrets his choice of words, afraid that Luke might take it wrong—you can't ride shotgun because of what you are—but then the kid smiles gently, sleepily, and says, "Because you're older?"
"'Cause I'm older," Dean agrees. "Go to sleep."
Luke's mumbled and unironic "Yes, sir" doesn't sit well with Dean, but he doesn't make a fuss about it, just tugs the blanket a little further up onto Luke's shoulders as his breathing gets heavier and more regular.
When John doesn't wake up for his watch until nearly four, Dean doesn't complain, and when John settles in without apology to take over, Dean pulls his sleeping bag from the tent and lies down next to Luke, between Luke and John.
John doesn't say anything.
Breathe in two three four
Out two three four
In two three four
Out two three four
If he makes it look like he's sleeping the older boy will leave him alone
He won't ask any more weird questions or touch his hair like that again
Like Luke's a person
Like Luke deserves comfort
Like he's not going to turn around and hit Luke the first time he does something wrong which is going to be eventually because there's always something Luke does wrong, he can't help it, he just doesn't know how to keep a civil tongue in his mouth and he's still clumsy with his big long limbs so he knocks stuff over
He'll stop saying stupid things like "it's not like that"
(of course it's like that)
And anyway rule number seven is "never sleep the first night you're with a new Hunter"
Because if you sleep then you can't protect yourself and when you don't even know what you're protecting yourself from it's a hundred times worse
Nobody's tried to do anything yet but he's only been here for a couple of hours
But then the older boy
Then Dean comes up next to him with his own blankets, curls up in them, when his dad takes over the watch
He doesn't let Luke stay alone with his dad
(His dad who's so big and rough and frightening like a normal Hunter, who dragged Luke back without a word from his old owner's camp to Dean's camp with his hand so tight around Luke's arm that he's going to have bruises in the morning)
He stays with Luke like he thinks it'll make Luke less scared
And the worst thing
The very worst thing
The thing that goes against rule number one
("Don't ever, ever trust a Hunter")
Is that Luke is less scared with Dean next to him.
He doesn't go to sleep because that's stupid
But he feels something frighteningly like 'safe' when he hears the older boy's deep, even breathing beside him, between him and Dean's dad
And that is when Luke knows he is in trouble.