Title: Flagstaff
Characters: Dean, Sam, John
Pairings: none
Warnings: mild spoilers to past events alluded to in 5.16. Child abuse. Rated "T" for language.
Summary: One of Sam's 'greatest hits' in heaven was his two-week vacation from his family in Flagstaff. According to Dean, there were some consequences "when Dad came home" that Sam had no idea about. This is my take on those events. (mean!John - he's on a roller-coaster ride, folks. Loving and horrible.)

There are sayings about things that happen behind closed doors. There are parables about the grass always being greener on the other side. There are metaphors about walking a mile in another man's shoes. All three of these literary devices are occasionally employed when dealing with the unknown, sometimes as a warning, and sometimes with longing; and all three make an appearance in this story, which could be seen as a cautionary tale, or perhaps merely as a glimpse into minds and lives of three individuals so wholly different from each other, yet so intimately connected, in ways that only family can be. It serves as a lesson for them, gentle reader, or an example, of what you know, what you think you know, and what, it turns out, you never knew.

Flagstaff, AZ – July, 1995

It was a brilliant plan. A diabolical, crafty, ingenious plan, though Sam said it himself. He was getting out of here. Getting away. Had scoped out an awesome shack down by the Army recruitment centre to squat in, his bookbag was packed with clean clothes, munchies, some basic survival staples, and he'd even managed to swipe sixty bucks from Dean's emergency stash. With Dad out of town (six days now and counting) and Dean climbing the walls with boredom the way he always did when Dad wasn't around to keep him busy with pointless drills, weapons training/handling, or grueling maneuvers, Sam could practically taste freedom on the horizon. And let's face it, tricking Dean wasn't exactly rocket science. All it took was some whining, some wheedling, some humming, hawing, sulking, heavy-sighing, and Dean would pretty much cave for anything Sam wanted. And what Sam wanted – unbeknownst to Dean – was a chance to make his escape.

"Fine!" Dean relented with an aggrieved sigh that was more like a growl. "Jesus, just stop your damned whining already. Fine. You can go to the damned library – but I'm picking you up at 3 whether you like it or not."

Never mind that Dean had tried plying him with other diversions. 'Come on, Sammy! I bet old man Barker downstairs's got a baseball bat we can borrow – let's head on over to the diamond by the Junior High and have us a game!' Or 'Movies. My treat. We can catch a matinee, have some popcorn – extra butter – and a shit as ton of gummi worms. Whaddya say, Sammy?'

Of course, the diabolical escape plan depended entirely on Sam being alone when he made his break, so that meant Dean couldn't be there.

'I'm with you like every second of every day,' Sam had griped, going for his most petulant, put-upon, insolent pre-teen voice. 'What I want is to get away from you.'

Tried not to notice the momentary flash of hurt on his big brother's face. But really, what sixteen year-old would rather hang out with his kid brother on a Saturday than do, say, anything else?

Sam knew, though. Dean wasn't making plans with him because he had some kind of secret yang for his company: Dean was following orders. He was keeping Sam on a tight leash, like Dad wanted. Was keeping him under that ever-watchful eye, reporting back to Dad like the perfect soldier he was. 'Yes sir! No sir! Can I lick your boots, sir?' And Sam was so sick of it he thought for sure he'd scream if he didn't get out soon.

And the library was his ticket out.

'I just… Can I go to the library or something?' trying to sound casual, like it was a last-resort kind of plan, and not the crux of his entire mission for freedom. 'You can just drop me off and pick me up later.'

And Dean had been shaking his head before Sam was even finished.

'Dad said we have to stay together, Sam.'

If Dad told Dean to jump off a cliff, he'd probably do it. Probably salute before he plummeted off the edge.

'God, why are you so stupid!' Sam had huffed with disdain. 'It's the library, Dean! A public place. There'll be old ladies and students there, not monsters. Dad lets me go to the library all the time!'

'Dad's not here.' Safe, pat response.

'He'd let me go.' Valid counter-argument.

'But he's not here.' Stubborn, stupid big brother.

Sometimes you have to fight dirty. Dad taught them that. So Sam had pulled out the big guns.

'You're not doing this 'cos of Dad,' he'd accused. 'You just don't want me going to the library because you don't like that I'm four years younger and way smarter than you.'

'I'm happy not bein' a freakin' geek loser, thanks,' Dean'd replied, eyes flinty. That last one had hurt him; Sam could tell by the way Dean's jaw muscles twitched.

From there it was a steady barrage of underhanded insults, selfish, petulant accusations (some of which he actually believed, some he didn't), and a constant assault of, 'It's just the library!'

'Why can't I go?' 'You're such a jerk!' 'It's just the library! What the hell's supposed to happen in a library?' 'Dad would let me go.' 'You're just being an asshole on purpose!' 'I'm gonna tell Dad that you were smoking behind the school with Angie Lewis the other day.' He'd even thrown in an 'I hate you!' for good measure.

And Dean finally – finally – cracked.

"Fine! Jesus, just stop your damned whining already. Fine. You can go to the damned library – but I'm picking you up at 3 whether you like it or not. If you're still sick of me by then, you can go hide in the fuckin' bathroom for all I care."

Sam tried his best to hide his sigh of relief.

"We're having a little chat when Dad gets back," Dean threatened as he swiped the apartment key off the kitchen table and stuffed it into his back pocket, mumbling angrily to himself. "Tell him to get some Midol and tampons 'cos Samantha's finally got her fucking period!"

See? Easy to manipulate.

Of course, Sam Winchester wasn't really going to the library. Or rather, he wasn't staying at the library. He was just going, escorted by Dean like he was some kind of bodyguard or something, for the sake of appearances. Stand at the door, wave goodbye to the big brother, head inside, wait twenty minutes, and then make a break for it. It'd take him probably a good hour to walk over to the Army recruitment centre, but Sam didn't want to rely on public transportation in case some well-meaning bus driver by some miracle remembered him.

He was going AWOL – on vacation – and didn't want to be found. The fewer people he interacted with, and the fewer people he had contact with, the less chance there was that Dean or Dad would be able to track him down quickly. He had already stashed a grocery bag full of books at the run-down shack he'd be squatting in for the foreseeable future, and was going to put his stolen money to good use the moment he got settled by using the payphone on the nearby street corner to order some pizza. He'd hunker down with his books, his pizza, and maybe nab some soda from the store down the street. Hiding in plain sight (no hitch-hiking or bus-hopping, though), but not easy to find.

It was perfect. And it got even better when he met Bones. Sam had always wanted a dog.

Dean was freaking out. He was freaking the fuck out. At first he'd been annoyed. Really annoyed. Planning ways to make his little brother squeal like a pig majorly fucking annoyed. But after waiting twenty minutes outside the damned library with no sign of Sam he'd taken it upon himself to track the little brat down and make him pay. Only he hadn't found him.

He scoured every inch of the place, checking and re-checking the bathrooms, the stacks, the study carrels, the circulation desk, the special collections centre on the third floor, the computer stations in the atrium. He did three sweeps of the place and came up completely empty. No Sam.

Then he started pestering the chick at the circulation desk and got a heap load of nothing for his trouble. Sam hadn't signed out any books – and yes, she'd been working the desk since 10 that morning, she would have seen him, she promised. She hadn't seen him. No one had seen him, and did Dean want to call the police?

Yeah, if Dean wanted his father to put his foot through his ass, sure, he'd go ahead and call the police. Nothing makes a Dad proud like drawing CPS on the family. No freakin' thank you.

So Dean had assured her that Sam had probably got bored and gone home on his own, and promptly went to find a payphone so he could call the apartment in case Sam answered.

He didn't.

Sam wasn't at the library, and he wasn't answering the phone which meant he probably wasn't at home. Unless he'd fallen asleep? Dean hoped that was it, rushing home with fingers tingling with nervousness, praying that he'd find his kid brother crashed asleep in bed, or sprawled all loose-limbed on the couch.

He wasn't.

The apartment was empty, just as Dean had left it a few hours ago. There was no sign of Sam. So Dean went back to the library and continued his search, employing stealth this time so Miss Nosey-Gonna-Call-CPS wouldn't notice him and start asking questions. But there was still no trace of Sam.

He wandered the streets, checking in shop windows, bookstores, clothing stores, candy stores, toy stores – anywhere Sam might have wandered off to in the general vicinity of the library. Nada. Then he doubled back to the library and searched again. Called home again. Went home again. Went back to the library. By 9:00 pm there was still no sign of Sam and Dean was officially panicking.

"Something's got him," he muttered to himself. "I let him go off alone and now something's got him."

Something or someone.

There weren't many things Dean could think of, supernatural things anyway, that could snatch a kid in a public place in broad daylight. Rawheads were pretty damned conspicuous, with the whole rotting, scabby-flesh and gnarled fists thing they had going on. Shtriga's operated at night and attacked kids while they were snug in their beds. Plus, they didn't nab them, they just fed off 'em or something (Dean wasn't clear on what it was Shtriga's did, and didn't dare ask his Dad). So what else did that leave? Skinwalkers could pose as humans, but they didn't blend in well with their animal spirits behind the wheel. Ghosts usually operated at night, and besides that, Dad wouldn't have brought them to this town and left a haunting in the library without ganking it first. Not with Sam's geeky love of books.

Now that Dean thought of it, what were the chances that Dad had left them with any supernatural badass undetected and at large? Slim to none, really. No way would Dad have left them here if there was somethin' evil on the loose. He was too good and too careful for that.

So that meant what, exactly? Human monsters? Some pervert nabbing Sam and dragging him off God knows where to do God knows what? Just thinking about it made Dean feel like he was going to puke.

He'd fucked up. He'd fucked up so bad, and now Sam was gone. Sam was gone.

Dean paced the sidewalk outside of the now-closed library and tugged at his hair in sheer desperation, lightheaded with worry and nearly sick to his stomach. He had to find Sam. There had to be clues: footprints or tire tracks or… fucking breadcrumbs. He didn't care – he just had to find them. There had to be some kind of trail. Crooks were always slipping up, making mistakes, leaving roadmaps behind of all the steps they'd taken. He had to just think. Just think, use his head, and follow the clues. There had to be clues.

But first he had to call Dad.

He made his way to the nearest phone booth on wobbly legs that felt like they were made of rubber. His hands shook as he fished some change out of his pocket, the phone in his hand weighted like an anvil when he lifted it from the receiver. Dean prayed to God his voice worked as the phone rang and rang and rang, Dad's voicemail finally kicking in.

'This is John Winchester. Leave a message.'

"Hey, Dad." Dean had to clear his throat to bring some strength to his voice. He was not gonna punk out now and lose his nerve. He'd fucked up and now he had to fess up like a man. "It's Dean. Listen, uh… I can't—I can't find Sam. He's been gone all day and I think something mighta took him. I've looked everywhere and I can't—"

Dean gulped past the choking constriction in his throat.

"I'm tryin' to track down some clues, like you taught me, but Sammy's missing, and I could really use your help, Dad." Then, thinking it needed to be said. "'m Sorry. I screwed up, I know. But I'll get 'im back. I promise. But could you just… Could you come home? Please? Sammy's gone and every second counts, and with you here we could really track this thing—"

And the beep abruptly cut him off, announcing that he'd run out of message room.

"I'll find him," Dean whispered into the night, phone still clutched tightly against his ear, nothing but dead air on the other end. "I promise, I'll find him."

It was Sunday morning by the time John got around to listening to his messages. It'd been a rough hunt, and he'd had to turn his cell off while he cased an abandoned tenement building in search of a revenant that'd been squatting there. Then he'd found the thing munching on some poor bastard's arm and nearly got his skull cracked when it got the upper hand and sent his head crashing into a wall. But the silver blade through the thing's heart pretty much sealed the deal and it died just like every other evil thing dies when John Winchester sets his mind on killing it.

The clean-up was a bitch, though. The sick sonovabitch had been nesting there for quite some time, stashing its victims' remains in heaps all over the damned place. John had had to make a supply run just to get enough salt and kerosene to clean up the putrid mess.

So when he finally got around to checking his messages on Sunday morning, he was emphatically not in the right frame of mind to hear Dean's panicked voice announcing that Sam was missing. Twelve messages. Each one more frantic and desperate than the one before it.

'Dad? You're probably on your way home now – at least I hope you are – but… please, I've looked everywhere. Something's got Sam. I don't know how, or what, but… Sammy's gone, Dad. Sammy's gone.'

That last message was enough to send John into overdrive. He was two days out and had no idea what he was dealing with. If it was something supernatural that'd taken Sam, John would need the arsenal in the Impala's trunk. But damnit, Sam'd been missing almost 24 hours, and John just wanted to fly back to his boys so he could get the search going as soon as possible.

In the end he chose sticking with the weapons. Better to play it smart and be prepared than run in half-cocked and risk losing Sam for good. John called Dean back and left a few very terse instructions on places to check and wards to put up, just in case the thing was coming after Dean next. Then he drove like the devil was chasing him, not stopping to sleep, barely stopping to eat or piss, keeping himself awake and alert with alternating coffee and whiskey injections. By the time he made it back to Flagstaff he was high on adrenaline, caffeine, and alcohol, with enough anxiety and fury pounding through his veins to light him up like a supernova.

Dean trembled at the sight of him. John didn't offer up any words of greeting or comfort, just barreled into the apartment and took inventory. The place looked like it'd been torn apart, clothes strewn in piles, furniture moved away from the walls, carpets peeled up in the corners. Dean'd obviously looked for signs of entry, supernatural or otherwise, and had found nothing. But John wasn't the leader of this operation for nothing, and made a point of checking everything for himself.

"You say he was at the library when he went missing?" John asked tersely once he was sure that there were no clues worth following in their apartment.

Dean nodded, blinking through his own exhaustion.

"I was supposed to pick him up at 3 on Saturday, but when I got there he was already gone. I looked everywhere but there was no sign of him."

John paused a moment and let that little bit of information sink in. Then he turned, shock, anger, and disbelief warring in his features.

"What do you mean you were supposed to pick him up? Where the hell were you?"

Dean's eyes were wide and dark, his face pale and ghostly. The kid probably hadn't slept since Sam went missing almost three fucking days ago, but John couldn't find it in him to sympathize much when he read so much guilt on Dean's face.

"Where the hell were you?" he repeated in a growl.

This couldn't be happening. John was hallucinating and hearing things. He had to be. Because no way was this happening again. No way had Dean run out on his baby brother again so he could play fucking video games. John had tanned his ass after Fort Douglas to make sure the lesson sunk in.

"I'm sorry. I screwed up – I know. I should never've—"

"Where. Were. You?" John repeated.

Dean gulped and tried to straighten up to his full height, owning his guilt, accepting responsibility like his Dad taught him.

"Here, sir," he said quietly. "Sam wanted some time alone, so I thought… It was lunch time, crowded library, lots of people around. I figured he'd be safe for a couple hours."

"You figured he'd be safe?" John scoffed. "How's that working out, huh, Dean? Does it look like your brother's safe? Huh? Does it?"

Dean gulped again and then cast his eyes to the floor in shame.

"No sir," he whispered.

His meek surrender fanned the flames of John's ire, fuelling the building rage within as real-life images of Sam at age five with a Shtriga leaning over him trying to suck the life essence right out of him, and imagined images of Sam at age twelve with a pack of werewolves feasting on his lifeless carcass, danced before his mind's eye. Or maybe there was a human monster behind this one. Maybe some kindly-looking pervert had led Sam into the library stairwell and snatched him right from under everyone's noses – and maybe that kindly-looking pervert had Sam tied naked to a bed somewhere right now using and abusing his baby boy…

The thought made him hysterical and light-headed. He didn't even feel his hands clench into fists, didn't even register that he was stalking towards his eldest until he'd grabbed the kid by the neck of his shirt and shaken him until the kid's teeth clacked.

"You're fucking useless!" John bellowed. "You hateful, selfish… Are you happy now?"

Dean's wide green eyes opened impossibly wider, hurt and disbelief flashing through his too-pretty features. Sixteen now and looking more like Mary every day. It made John ache so deeply he had to gnash his teeth to keep from screaming or crying.

"No!" Dean insisted, voice cracking. "Dad, I would never… I didn't even wanna let him go, I swear! But he wouldn't shut up about it and –" he gulped again, licking his lips nervously before casting his eyes down again. "Doesn't matter, I know. I was in charge and I shouldn'a let him go out alone. 's my fault."

But resigned acceptance wasn't what John needed. He wanted to breathe fire.

"You're damned right it's your fault!" he raged as he slammed his eldest against the wall. Dean grimaced in pain, breathing through his nose to stem the tide of rising panic, but otherwise didn't struggle.

There was a voice, a tiny, feeble voice in the back of John's head protesting that this was his own fault. He'd been the one to leave his kids alone for the better part of a week. He'd been the one charged with protecting them, protecting Mary's babies, and he'd not been there when Sam got taken. He was the father, damnit. This was his job.

But that voice was deafened by the roar of panic pounding through his ears, by the rush of disappointment and anger flooding his system because Dean was on duty, and he was supposed to be able to count on Dean. And he'd dropped the ball again, left Sam alone and now Sam had been taken. Sam could be… He could be dead.

Sam could be dead.

The next ten minutes wouldn't be his proudest, but John wasn't one for apologies. And right now, at that very moment, he wasn't thinking about remorse or restraint. Fear possessed him like cloying black smoke down his throat, overriding his better judgment with accomplices like anger, terror, exhaustion, and Jack Daniels. Fear for his baby boy, who'd been ushered into this nightmare life with his mother's golden hair swirling in flames above his crib while the ashes of her flesh rained down on his tiny, squiggling body, made John wild and mad with grief.

He grabbed Dean by the throat with an iron grip and slammed his head into the wall once in warning. Dean gasped and squirmed madly, trying to break his father's hold on him, but John was immoveable as stone. With one hand he loosed his belt from the buckle and slid it free from the loops of his jeans and Dean's struggles renewed with interest when he realized what was coming.

"Dad please – I'm sorry!" he begged. "Please – you promised!" Eyes wide and haunted. "You promised you wouldn't!"

John remembered: a year and a half ago. John and Dean on a hunt. There'd been an infant gutted in its crib. John had drowned his horror and grief in Jim Beam and had come home three sheets to the wind and taken the belt to Dean for no reason. And he'd cried afterward and apologized. Promised. 'Never again, Dean. I promise.'

But then, Dean had promised. He'd promised to look after Sam, to take care of him while John was out taking care of business. He'd promised to keep his little brother safe, and he'd fucked off and now Sam was gone.

Promises weren't for shit if you weren't gonna keep 'em.

Dean managed to break his father's hands free in a move that would've made his old man proud on any other day, but tonight John wasn't interested in combat or defensive training. He was teaching a lesson here – one Dean wouldn't soon forget, he'd make damned sure of it. So he grabbed his retreating kid by the wrist and spun him, shoving hard and pinning him face first against the wall.

"If you value your life," John growled in coffee-whiskey flavoured puffs against his son's cheek, "you'll stay still."

"Dad please!" Dean pleaded in a voice so young, so raw with fear of what was to come it would have broken a lesser man's reserve. "Please don't! I'm sor—"

John silenced him with a punch to the kidney that made the kid's knees buckle.

"You're sorry?" John demanded before aiming another harsh jab to the same tender spot. "Not nearly as sorry as you're gonna be."

He stood back and folded the belt in his hands while Dean lost his battle with his trembling legs and sunk to the floor, gasping in short panted breaths as his body instinctively tried to go fetal with the pain radiating through his lower back. The kid was barely holding himself in a crouch, his legs sort of wobbling weakly beneath him as he tried to find the strength to get up, to run, to protect himself. John didn't give him a chance.

The first slap of leather hitting compact muscle and shoulder blades was like the crack of a whip. Dean gasped but didn't cry out, so John hit him again. And again. He let the belt fly, raining down a series of blows that slapped against the thin cotton of Dean's t-shirt in rapid succession. Like Sigurd at his ancient forge, if his belt were a hammer and Dean were a piece of red-gold glowing steel, muscles rippling with sweat as the fires burned hot and bright, John brought his arm down again and again, pounding the worn, hard leather into his son's flesh, beating the lesson into his very skin, shaping the lesson into a fine, sharp edge. He let it fly until streaks of red bled through Dean's t-shirt, until the stream of tears running down his own cheeks blinded him, until he had to suck back a wad of snot because he couldn't breathe through the stuffiness in his nose from crying.

Dean didn't move when John dropped the belt to the floor, except to flinch in anticipation of more punishment to come. His head was down, his eyes averted, like a dog offering its belly in complete submission. His cheeks were red and blotchy, wet with tears and flushed with shame. His shoulders hitched on triple-inhaled breaths, but he didn't say a word.

For three whole minutes the only sound to break through the complete stillness of the apartment was the joint panted breaths of father and son. John stared at his hands: large, calloused, capable hands that had just whipped his kid, his own son. He looked at Dean, who didn't move, just remained crouched on the floor like a kicked dog, waiting for permission to get up, or waiting for the order to stay down.

John couldn't stop his tears as he contemplated what to do next.

When it felt like he could move again, Dean peeled himself up off the floor, stifling a groan of pain as his back spasmed in flashes of hot, burning agony, and took a few tentative steps towards his weeping father. Dad was just… wrecked. That wild, animal look in his eyes still shone through, but grief rapidly overpowered it and took its place at the forefront. Like Dean, Dad probably thought Sam was dead. It was amazing the man could string two words together, all things considered.

"We gotta find him," Dad croaked out, a tired, broken old man when all the anger'd left him.

"It's okay, Dad," Dean promised, a whisper and a vow. "We'll find Sammy. You're here now. We'll find him."

Dad looked at him then. Really looked. His dark eyes were glistening and glossy with tears, his lip and chin trembling perilously as he fought back the tears choking at the back of his throat. His cheeks dimpled as he tried forcing a smile, white teeth showing through the grimace borne of his grief and worry. Dean watched as those eyes bore into him, weighing him, waiting for confirmation and absolution both. So Dean held his father's gaze, acknowledging everything his father was asking for. The man nodded, apology accepted, maybe, or acknowledging that he'd been forgiven.

Because Dean would always forgive him.

"All right," Dad said with a loud sniff, weak moment over. "Get this shit cleaned up. We're heading to the library in 10."

"Yes sir."

Business as usual. Dean could deal with business as usual. With Dad back in the game, there was no way they wouldn't find Sam now. That was all that mattered. Sure, his head hurt from where Dad'd cracked it against the wall, and his whole back was on fire, and he'd probably be pissing blood for the next few days… But Dad's fit of anger was over now, and if they found Sam quickly Dad probably wouldn't hit Dean again. And it was Dean's fault, so…

Now was the time to suck back all the pain and focus on what really mattered: finding Sam. Dad knew what to do. He'd hunted every kind of evil thing there was – he could do this shit with his eyes closed. He'd find the clues Dean had missed and he'd have Dean's baby brother back in no time. And if Dean was really lucky, his Dad would forgive him for being such a useless screw-up.

Dean was stuffing his clean laundry back into his duffel bag when Dad caught his first clue (man was a pro, after all).

"Dean, where's the rest of your brother's stuff?" he asked sharply.

Dean arched a questioning eyebrow and watched as his father held Sam's partially-stuffed duffel in one hand, the other rifling through the bag's contents as the frown on the man's face grew deeper, darker.

"It's all there, Dad," Dean offered. "I tossed it out onto the floor lookin' for hex bags or curses or whatever, but I didn't get rid of anything. It should all be there."

"Yeah, well, it's not." Dad tossed the bag and stomped into the bathroom, cursed, and then stomped back into the boys' bedroom.

"His toothbrush is gone," Dad observed darkly. "How is it you didn't notice that?"

That was a very, very good question. He'd been too busy freaking out about Sam being missing to think about the kid's toothbrush, to be honest.

"So you're saying… what? That the thing that took him packed an overnight bag?"

Dean picked up the discarded duffel and began counting items: 1 pair of jeans; 2 pairs of socks; 2 pairs of undies; 1 dirty undershirt; 2 used hotel towels (and since when had Sam started stuffing his duffel with towels?). Jesus, there was hardly any of Sam's stuff here.

"How much money did you have saved up in your emergency stash?" Dad demanded.

Pieces were starting to click together and Dean really didn't want to contemplate it. But he was already crouching by the side of his bed, reaching under for the hidden shoe box with his emergency savings inside. He pulled the lid open and began counting the wad of money.

There was $60 missing.

The sudden sting of an open-handed slap to the face startled a gasp out of him. Dean dropped the money onto the floor and tumbled back onto the mattress of his bed, shocked and numb, while Dad seethed above him.

"Son," he said in a dangerously low voice. "I want you to dig your head out of your ass and listen real carefully, you got me?"

Dean gulped and nodded, willing the tears he could feel pricking the back of his eyes to go away so his Dad wouldn't see.

"Your brother played you," the man remonstrated, anger and disdain making his voice thick and heavy. "He pestered you like he always does, and you let him have his way like you always do, and then he screwed you like you were a five-dollar hooker."

Dean wanted to argue – Sam wouldn't do that, not to him – but his voice wouldn't work. Instead he merely swallowed and blinked away the building tears.

"Sam didn't get taken," Dad went on loudly, as if he was talking to someone who was very, very slow. "He ran away."

That… That just wasn't possible. It couldn't be possible. Sam wouldn't do that. He wouldn't. Sure, the kid was moody and introverted and could be kinda selfish sometimes, but what twelve year-old wasn't? He wouldn't have just packed his shit into his bookbag and taken off like that, leaving his Dad and brother to worry about him. He wouldn't. Except it was looking like he had.

Dad shook his head ruefully and smiled. Like he was proud. But Dean was still trying to process the unfathomable prospect of Sam having tricked him like that, on purpose, letting him think that he was dead, so he could run away.

"And you just let him do it, too," Dad continued. He sounded amazed and disappointed at the same time. "You were supposed to be watching him, protecting him, and instead you got bamboozled by a twelve year-old. That's the kind of sloppiness that gets people killed, son. Could get your brother killed."

There was pity there now. Dean could see it in his father's eyes. My son's a huge, moronic disappointment who's gonna get his brother killed. He's so stupid he got tricked by a little kid. And anger. Of course there was anger. It was so easy to set off the raging bull that was John Winchester.

"He's been gone three days and in all that time you didn't notice that he'd packed himself a week's worth of clean clothes, his toothbrush, and sixty bucks worth of your hard-earned cash. Anything could have happened to him in that time."

Dean agreed – he did. Sam had been on his own for three fucking days. Anything or anyone could have found him. And Jesus, Dean had completely missed it. It was all there but he hadn't wanted to see it. And in three days, Sam could have gone anywhere. He could have taken a bus to Mexico, for Christ's sake, or hitched a ride to Disney World. Dean had been so fucking stupid.

When his Dad came back with the belt, Dean didn't even try to beg.

Two weeks. It took two weeks for Dad and Dean to track him down, and in that time Sam had gorged himself on pizza and gotten sugar high off Mr. Pib for fifteen consecutive days. He'd run through his supply of used books and graduated to a set of graphic novels he found at the comic shop two blocks away. Bones, the wayward Golden Retriever, had become his new best friend and, incidentally, made an awesome blanket warmer when it cooled off at night inside the unheated little shack he'd been squatting in.

Sam was pretty sure they were the best fifteen days of is life.

He'd never really had anything outside of his Dad and brother before. Life was always cramped and tense and there was always work to do. Dad couldn't ever just let them be kids and enjoy a day off: they always had to be doing something that was related to the hunt, like training or cleaning weapons or studying up on ancient runes. Being away from that for fifteen days had been such a beautiful slice of freedom, like breathing fresh air for the first time in twelve years.

Still, it was probably good that Dad found him when he did, 'cos the $60 he stole from Dean was down to $2.33, and aside from penny candy, Sam wasn't really sure he could make that stretch much further. And he was pretty sure the dog had fleas. And school was starting up again in a month, and Sam didn't want to be a homeless, junior high school dropout.

When he heard the familiar rumble of the Impala pulling up to the 7-11 at the corner, Sam knew the jig was up. Dad would ask the clerk at the counter if he'd seen Sam, and the clerk would point Dad directly over here, and Sam's escape vacation would officially be at an end.

So he opened the door and went outside and waited for his Dad to notice him.

It didn't take long. Dad closed the car door with a plaintive creak and scanned with his scrutinizing, hawk-like eyes, taking in windows and doorways, front doors and fire escapes, phone booths and shop windows, until his gaze finally settled on Sam.

It wasn't the greeting Sam had expected. The man didn't shout, or shake him, or kill him. He just… hugged him. Grabbed him by the shoulders and held him so tight Sam thought his ribs were going to crack. And then he held him some more. He used one big hand to pet Sam's hair, pulling Sam's head to his chest with enough force to leave Sam feeling dizzy.

"Don't you ever do that again," Dad whispered fiercely. "Jesus Christ, Sam!" He sounded so angry and relieved Sam didn't quite know what to make of it. "When we couldn't find you…? We thought… We thought you were…"

Wow. Dad was crying, or he sounded like he was. Sam was so overwhelmed by his father's sudden show of vulnerability that he found himself squeezing back, his skinny arms wrapped tight around his father's waist.

"I'm sorry," he mumbled half-heartedly. If he'd worried them that badly, then he supposed he was kind of sorry. But he wouldn't take it back. Even now that it was over, he felt a rush tingling up the back of his spine just thinking about what it had felt like to answer only to himself, to have his own space, to have room to think and be himself in without being criticized or made fun of all the time.

"Your brother and I – we looked everywhere for you!" Dad whisper-shouted.

"I'm sorry," Sam repeated, feeling genuinely sorry now. He really hadn't meant to worry them. "Hey, where is Dean?"

He had expected to see his brother hot on their father's heels. Wherever Dad went, Dean was sure to follow.

"He's waiting in the car," Dad rumbled in his regular whiskey-soaked voice as he finally pulled out of the embrace. "Now go grab your shit. We're heading to Jim's for a little bit."

Sam tried not to feel hurt that Dean hadn't even come to see him. He peered across the street at the sleek, black beauty that was the Impala and noticed his brother's silhouette in the passenger side of the front seat: stiff and upright, a soldier at attention. Stupid jerk was probably giving Sam the silent treatment to punish him for running off.

"Oh, and Sam?" Dad called after him as Sam reluctantly made his way to the door of his soon-to-be-vacated home. "You're grounded until further notice."

Sam sighed and tried to contain his contented grin. It had totally been worth it.


A/N: For those of you who were looking for hurt! or abused!Sam in this story, I sincerely apologize. I just don't feel that this partciular event could have been traumatizing for Sam in the way of punishment, considering he seemed to have no idea that there'd been negative consequences to his two-week sojourn as a runaway. Not only that, I can't imagine Sam would have counted Flagstaff among his "greatest hits" if he'd had hell to pay for it when he got home. (I remember when I was a kid: those times I misbehaved for something that was spectacularly awesome at the time and then got reamed for it later, I always felt sick and gross about it after-the-fact, and the punishment ended up leeching all the fun right out of the memory.)

Having said that, I have also selected the ages very carefully to reflect what I felt was symptomatic behaviour of someone who was too young to have had an idea of the consequences at the time. So in this story Sam is 12 - a very resourceful 12, yes, but 12 nonetheless. He's young enough to be caught up in his own brilliance, in his own excitement, but old enough to have learned how to get by on very little (having watched Dean do it for so long).

And Dean is 16. Old enough to be capable on his own, but young enough to still be impressionable, to take an event like this and internalize it. John's language might seem over-the-top to some, but having grown up with similar emotional abuse at the hands (tongues?) of alcoholic parents, I can attest to the fact that phrases like "If you value your life" and "you're useless/hateful/selfish" are common weapons in the verbal assault arsenal of parents who don't know any better at the time. (*Wow - thanks for oversharing!*)

Anyway, thanks so much for reading, and I hope you like it. If you've got a second, lemme know what you think (even if it's to disagree with everything I've just said). lol.