John Winchester was out on another hunt. "Stay here," he'd said before he left, and Dean had solemnly shut the door behind him and turned the lock. He knew it was probably really dangerous if they were being left behind, but then again, Sammy was barely ten, and Dean was the only available baby-sitter for miles, so there was a chance this was just routine.
He wouldn't know which until his father came home.
Dean turned on some stupid horror film, just so he could laugh at all the things they got wrong, and about half way through it Sam closed his school notebook and walked past him to pull his duffle bag from the closet. Dean turned the TV off and sat up. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"I'm moving in with David Cross from school," Sam told him matter-of-factly. "He said I could sleep on his floor, and wouldn't have to move away anymore."
Sam started pulling his clothes out of the drawers, and Dean just watched him for a moment, nonplussed. He slipped off the bed and took the duffle bag from Sam's hand, before dropping to his knees to meet his eyes. "You want to move in with some other family?" he asked.
"They play Checkers," Sam blurted out. "And they don't move all the time or get hurt, and they don't believe me that there's ghosts."
Dean bit his lip, and was caught between wishing his father were here and thanking god he wasn't. "But they are real, Sammy, and you can't ignore them."
"Everyone else ignores them," Sam said, and he looked bewildered now, like he couldn't possibly understand why he got stuck in this life when everyone else got to play Checkers.
"And they can," Dean said softly. "They can ignore them because we don't, because we keep them safe. What we do is important."
"I don't want to be important, I just want to be like everyone else," Sammy protested with ten-year-old indignation.
Dean sighed, and decided to try a different tract. "Wouldn't you miss me?" Dean asked. "If you left?"
"You could come with me," Sam said brightly, as though it was the perfect solution to everything.
He wouldn't understand Dean's silence or the sad smile he gave in response until much later, and even then, part of him would still resent it. Dean just took the duffle bag and put it back on the shelf, and then he sat down for a long time without saying anything.
Sam watched him, a little concerned, because he always worried when Dean was quiet.
"We're a family, Sam," he said eventually. "You don't get to trade us in for another."
Dean used to gain instant popularity in their new schools without trying, and Sam was far too caught up with that same sense of hero worship to resent it. Sam never fit in with the other students, but the teachers all loved him, and they all gave up on Dean after the first week.
It wasn't that Dean wasn't smart, Sam knew, it was just that it was a bit hard to worry about homework when he was out hunting demons, and harder still when he was doing twice as much as he should, so Sam could do his own assignments and get them turned in on time.
When Dean came home bruised for the third night in a row, John told Sam he'd be joining them on the next hunt. "Three is better than two," he'd said, "and your aim's gotten good."
"I have a spelling test," Sam told him, before glancing at Dean nervously. He'd slouched in the corner chair with an ice pack to his forehead and his eyes closed, and didn't seem to be aware of either of them. "And Dean isn't in any condition to be going anywhere."
"People are dying," John said, the same way he always did, the perpetual Ace up his sleeve. There weren't a lot of people that wouldn't pass up a spelling test to save a life, but Sam was learning already that it wasn't that simple, and if he wasn't careful it would never end.
"I'm not going," Sam said, meeting his father's eyes head on. He saw Dean open one eye to glance at him in surprise, before slouching further down.
"If I say you're going," John snapped, "then you're going."
"Dad," Dean said softly, "we can handle it alone."
"You've been screwing up all week," John told him, though not viciously; he sounded more afraid than anything.
Sam jumped to his feet, coming to stand between them. "Maybe that's because he hasn't had a decent night's sleep for months, and he's walking me to school everyday while you sleep in late."
John had glanced away. "We're leaving early tomorrow. It's a five hour drive."
"Well, you're going without me," Sam said. "I'm staying here."
"You're a kid," John snapped. "You'll do as you're told." He took off his boots and lay back on his bed then, before glancing over at Dean. "That headache any better?"
"I'm fine, it's gone," Dean said, but didn't look at either of them.
Sam glanced at him dubiously. He was paler than before, and Sam was fairly certain it was worse. He didn't say anything though, didn't speak for two whole days. In the morning he packed and got into the back of the Impala without a word, and worked equations while Dean drove through the first two hours.
Sam would have had something to say about that, too, but he was pretty sure driving helped keep Dean focused, never mind that he wasn't even old enough yet. John had called him a natural, and Sam only remembered the moment because it had gotten one of those rare genuine smiles out of Dean.
Dean had gotten his license when he was only fourteen out of some basement in Montana. He was twenty-one by seventeen, and Sam never used to understand why his brother was growing up so much faster than him.
The rest of his senior class was off in Cancun or Europe or LA for spring break, and he was driving down some road in Colorado with his brother bleeding out in the backseat. It was pretty much the strange story of his life.
"Hold on," he said again, urgently. He was going forty over the speed limit, and terrified that even that wouldn't be fast enough.
"I'm fine, Sammy," Dean told him, but it would have meant more if he could have gotten it all out in one breath, and not three. Sam chanced a glance behind him, swerving a little on the road, and wincing as he caught sight of the dark red-tinged liquid seeping through the fabric of his brother's shirt. It was hard to tell in the dark, but it looked like way too much.
"Put pressure on it," he said again.
"I think I know the routine," Dean told him, but then he groaned, his breath catching, and the fingers of his left hand grabbed onto the back of his seat and held on. He glanced out the window through blurry eyes. "You're going the wrong way."
"No I'm not," Sam said.
He could see Dean's eyes widen in the rearview mirror. "Hell no, Sammy, turn back around--"
"You're going to the hospital," Sam said, through clenched teeth. How many times had they been in this kind of situation and their father had insisted they stop on the side of the road to patch each other up instead of heading to an emergency room where they belonged?
Well, he'd sent them out alone this time, for the first time, and Sam had lost his focus and nearly gotten Dean killed; but he wasn't about to chance Dean's health to his own or his father's hands now. This time, they were getting help, whether Dean wanted it or not.
"No hospitals," Dean said, and for the first time that night he sounded honestly frightened.
The werewolf tearing into him was no big deal, but going to a hospital? Of course that would be scary. "Too late," he said, as he slammed on the breaks in front of the emergency entrance and jumped out of the car.
He opened the door and started pulling his brother out, and then he was surrounded by doctors and nurses, and they were taking Dean away on stretcher, and telling him not to worry, his brother was in good hands; better than the usual.
Sam explained to them that Dean had been mugged, stabbed with some kind of sharp object, he hadn't seen what. They said it hit nothing vital, but that he'd lost a lot of blood. Dean was pale when they finally let him in, dark circles under his eyes and a darker bruise streaked across the side of his face; Sam just took a deep breath, and tried not to think about how twenty-two stitches were all that was holding his brother together.
They had started asking questions already. What did you say your name was again, Martinez? Your brother has a lot of scars, a lot of old mended bones, Mr. Martinez. Is there something I should know about that? The doctors always sighed at his blank gaze, shook their heads sadly, like they thought they already knew everything. "Should I be calling a psychologist?" he asked. "Was your brother abused as a child?" Were you?
Sam says "of course not" without hesitation, the denial was instinctive, drilled into him, but really, he wasn't so sure. His father had never hit them himself, sure, but he'd sat them in the line of fire often enough. "My brother's just reckless," Sam said, and the doctor finally let him past and in to see Dean.
"It's okay," Dean said, on cue, and even tried to smile, "but, man, we shouldn't have come here."
"I couldn't fix that on my own," Sam said tightly. "You know that. You were going to die."
Dean's eyes were a little unfocused. "Dad could have handled it," he said, the way he always did; Dean really was twenty-one now, could buy his father beer without a fake ID, and he still thought John Winchester could walk on water if he wanted to enough.
"I'm not so sure," Sam said.
"God," Dean said, and closed his eyes, hands clenching around the sheets. "Dad. Have you called him?"
Sam glanced away. He hadn't. He knew how that conversation would go, and he'd screamed enough when Dean pushed him out of the way to last him the rest of his life; he really didn't need another legendary shouting match with the eldest Winchester on top of it.
"Sammy," Dean said with exasperation. "He's going to be worried. Call him."
Sam had his doubts about that. He'd sent them off to kill a werewolf alone while he researched some poltergeist, and what kind of father did that? What kind of father placed a shotgun in your hands with a smile, and said, 'happy hunting'?
Sam fumbled for his cell phone anyway, and stepped out into the hall. Dean didn't have to hear this, not if he could help it, never mind that Dean probably had all these arguments memorized just as well as him.
"Where the hell have you been?" was what he got for hello, and Sam closed his eyes.
"Dean was hurt," Sam said. "He says he's sorry for getting blood all over the Impala. He's so thoughtful, my brother, don't you think?"
A beat passed, a strange cool silence, and then John was speaking again. "How bad? Where are you?"
"Bad," Sam said, "but he's going to be fine, now. The doctors say he's going to be fine."
Silence again. John Winchester expressed emotion through the look in his eyes, and Sam could almost feel the steely gaze reach him through the phone line. "Get your brother and get back here," he snapped. "That's an order."
John hung up before he could protest, and when he went back in the room, Dean was already struggling to get dressed. He'd somehow managed to get in his jeans, but his socks and boots were still in a neat pile on the chair, and they'd had to throw the shirt away. They'd cut it off him while they rushed him through the halls, and it had been more red than blue by then anyway.
Dean had somehow managed to sweet talk the hospital staff into letting him keep his pendent on, at least, so that still hung around his neck, untouched and useless. Sam would understand why he kept wearing it if it ever started working.
"Get back in bed," he said, walking over and gently taking the leather jacket from Dean's white knuckled hands. "They want you here another day, at least."
Dean laughed a little incredulously. "Oh, and dad was fine with that, huh?"
"I don't care what he thinks," Sam said.
Dean sighed. "Either you help me put my shoes on, or I'll be walking out of here barefoot."
"Dean," Sam started.
"I'm fine," Dean said. He'd already ripped out the IV. Sam could see the blood welling up on his hand. "You saved my life, and I'm grateful, Sammy, but you know we can't stay here."
So Sam dropped down and helped him get his boots on, carefully helped him put on the leather jacket, and then he swung his arm over his shoulders and helped him to the parking lot. He opened the door and tried not to notice when Dean gasped out in pain as he strapped him into the passenger seat.
Dean was asleep by the time he got in on the other side, that or he'd passed out, but Sam fought his instincts to take him back inside the hospital and put the car in drive; and when he saw the motel looming in front of them, even as he hit the blinker and started to turn, Sam wondered what would happen if he drove right by it instead, and just kept going.
Dean was asleep and couldn't stop him, and maybe if he got them both far enough away, they could forget the way back.
It always started the same way. Either Sam used Dean as an excuse or college as an excuse or didn't even bother with one, but he'd find something, some crack in their father's armor, and then he'd split it right open with a kind of ruthlessness Dean would never have expected of Sam before he turned fourteen.
"You think you're a father?" Sam shouted. "You're not a father. Dean raised himself, and me at the same time. You had nothing to do with it. If anything, we survived despite you."
John clenched his fists and stepped forward. "I have tried my best--"
"You haven't tried at all," Sam said. "You don't have any idea what it takes. You may be the best damn hunter out there, John, but you haven't a clue how to be a father."
"Stop it," Dean said, so quietly that neither heard him.
"Fine," John said. "You want to go so damn badly? Then go, but don't you dare come back."
Sam spun on his heel and slammed into the other room, and Dean winced as the door smashed back into place. John's knees seemed to give out and he dropped onto the bed, beside a row of freshly detailed guns. "I can't do this anymore," he said, and his voice broke over the words, the way it usually only did when he said 'Mary', or 'your mother.'
Dean didn't know what he was referring to, what he couldn't do anymore, though he was fairly certain it wasn't hunting. John Winchester could always hunt. He could do it in his sleep. "He'll come around," Dean said, quietly, trying to get them back on their balance again.
This was the way it always went. They shouted while Dean watched, and then he carefully repaired them both until they could meet each other's eyes again without flinching.
Only this wasn't every time, because it wasn't every time Sam said he was leaving, and his father told him not to come back; Sam would say he was leaving, and his father was supposed to say 'like hell you are'. There was a routine to it, and Dean didn't know what to do now that all his careful work was breaking down.
"He'd better not come around," John said gruffly, and reached out to grab one of the guns, and take it apart, and clean it again. "You should help him pack, Dean, and say goodbye. He's made his choice, and we have to live with it."
Goodbye. Dean swallowed, and glanced at the closed door. Goodbye was for all those people they met along their way, not for his little brother. He turned around anyway, though, did as he was told; when he opened the door with a deep breath Sam was already packing, and not just his own things.
Dean let the door click shut behind him, softly, but loud enough that Sam would know he was there without turning around. Dean watched as Sam neatly folded clothes, neater than Dean ever did, and then set them in his duffle bag. "What are you doing?" he asked.
"We're leaving," Sam said simply. "You were there, you heard him."
Sam paused, and said, "Don't do this to me." He glanced up at him, and his eyes were dry, but he still sounded like he'd been crying. "I'm not leaving you here, Dean. He's going to get himself killed and take you with him and I am not going to let that happen."
"You don't want him making choices for you," Dean said, voice level and soft, unfailingly reasonable. "Fine. I get that. But you don't get to make them for me, either."
Sam dropped down on the bed. "You're not coming with me?" he said it kind of dazedly, like the thought had never before entered his mind.
"Dad needs me," Dean said.
"I need you." Sam couldn't believe this. Walking away from John and his revenge mission was one thing, leaving Dean behind was quite another. "I know you want nothing to do with college, but you can do pretty much anything, you could find a job easy and we could get a place--"
"Sammy," Dean said, shaking his head. "I can't go where you're going."
"You've never had the chance to try," Sam shouted. "He had you at a firing range when you should have been in little league. You don't have to listen to him anymore."
"I know that," Dean said. "I'm not here because I have to be. I'm not you, Sam."
"I can't do this alone," Sam said, glancing up at him pleadingly, because Dean had to know he was the one thing keeping him held together.
"He can't do this alone; you can," Dean said, and dropped down beside him.
"Since when do you side with him over me?" Sam demanded.
"I don't recall ever siding with either of you," Dean said, and scrubbed a hand down his face. "Mostly I remember getting caught in the middle."
"So get out of it," Sam said. "Come with me. We won't look back, just like he wants. It's all he's ever wanted, Dean, he wants to be alone and miserable."
"And do you want him to be alone and miserable?" Dean demanded. "Really, Sam? Is that what you want? You want to go live some nice little life and never hear from him again and never know what the hell happened to him or where he is or what got him or--"
"Don't," Sam said. "Don't make me feel guilty about this. I didn't pick this life, but I have a chance now, and I'm taking it. Don't hold it against me."
"I don't," Dean said. "I want you to be happy, Sam, and if normal does it, then go; but you can't have both worlds, it's one or the other. They don't mix."
Sam looked at his brother in disbelief. "What?" he asked quietly. "You want that too? You want me to leave and never look back is that what--"
Dean rested his head in his hands. "Of course not," he said, and then shot Sam a weak smile. "You ever need anything, you call me, you know that. That doesn't change; not ever."
Sam swallowed as it began to hit home what his life would be. Normal, maybe, that kind of normal where if he needed his brother's help he'd have to call him on the phone because he wouldn't already be there, right behind him, all the time. It would take a lot of getting used to, adjustments Sam had never thought he'd need to make, but it was the only way.
They were all wearing down from the fighting, and it had been building to boiling for years; Dean may not have been fighting with either of them, but it was wearing him down quickest, and Sam wasn't going to keep putting him in the crossfire if nothing else, it was something he'd accused his father of for as long as he could remember and somewhere along the line he'd started to do it himself.
"I just know I'll never be happy if I stay," Sam said, and somehow knew it was true; if he stayed he'd destroy himself and probably take his family down with him.
"Then finish packing, and I'll drive you," Dean told him, but in all the miles to the bus station, he never once said goodbye.