Dean noticed it immediately, probably before Sam even knew he was doing it.
The kid at his side was leaning back in his seat, staring out the passenger side window, with his shaggy brown hair covering his eyes; none of which was new. What caught the older man's immediate attention was not how Sam was sitting or where his gaze was being directed, but rather what he was doing with his hands. He was rubbing them together, as one would if they were applying lotion - and even though he was a total pansy, Sam wasn't much for hand cream; no hunter was, soft hands were irrelevant because callouses were inevitable and oily hands would make it difficult to properly grip a weapon.
Dean sent another side-long look in Sam's direction and the second he saw the young man's continued hand motions, he recalled instantly the purpose of the action and how many times he had witnessed it before.
Sam wasn't applying imaginary hand-lotion; he was trying to warm his damn hands!
The moment the realization hit him a familiar anger began to rise, seeping its way into his veins and coursing through his body. His grip on the steering wheel tightened, it being only appropriate way he could currently release some of the flowing fury.
Dean glanced once again over to his right and watched as Sam rubbed his hands more vigorously, unconsciously attempting to generate heat into the frozen limbs; the sight caused the elder Winchester's anger to flare and suddenly the death grip on the steering wheel wasn't enough and he began to clench his teeth as he was lured into recalling an unfavourable, but unforgettable memory.
It happened almost a decade ago, back when Sam was only fourteen years old.
He was as scrawny as ever, the growth spurt he hit making him a little taller, but even thinner. No matter how hard Dean tried, he felt as though he could never get quite enough meat on the kid's bones, probably because he was such a lame eater. When your little brother preferred to spend all his time with his face in a book, getting him to eat any food at all was a chore. Dean found himself doing all he could just to maintain enough fat on the kid to keep his ribs from protruding too clearly through his skin. It didn't help that they never seemed to have enough money to buy anything that didn't originate from a can. Sam was also far too picky for his own good, not that Dean could blame the kid, he was certain that he would be perfectly happy to never again lay eyes on another can of spaghettios.
He was really hoping that Sam would remember to eat this week, as his older brother would not be there to force-feed him. He and Dad were heading out on a hunt, about three hours away from where Sam was going to be. John was originally going to bring the fourteen-year-old along, but there was no school around where the hunt was and Sam - as predictable as always - had insisted he be enrolled in school.
It was not the first-time Sam would be staying in a town on his own for a period of time, but that didn't make Dean any more comfortable with it. He was having to head to the hunt early, his Dad insisting that he hone in on his research skills and get a head start on the case while he stayed behind to get Sam enrolled in school – though deep down Dean knew that he was being sent away because he'd pissed his father off by arguing with him about not leaving Sam alone. He hated that John knew his week-spot, hated that he used it against him, hated that his dad understood that the best way to punish him was separating him from Sammy, and he hated that John used the time that his sons were apart to teach the youngest Winchester lessons that Dean couldn't protect him from.
He hated it.
But he couldn't do a fucking thing about it, because if he fought harder to keep it from happening, his punishment – his forced separation from his kid – would only be extended. Dean knew the best way to prevent it, the best way to keep Sam in his sights and always be there for him, was to try his hardest to keep the peace; even if it meant siding with John on occasions where he sure as shit didn't agree with the man; even when that meant Sammy would stare at him with those giant puppy-dog eyes full of betrayal, because in the end it was what kept Sam safe and that was all that mattered.
It was all that had ever mattered.
But it was too late to smooth things over now, his dad had already made his decision, and the man never wavered, so Dean had to be sent away – or 'ahead on a hunt' as his father put it.
They found a hotel in the town within walking distance of the high school and checked in; after pulling all Sam's stuff out of the Impala and getting him situated in the room, Dean had run out of excuses to hang around. He managed to get his little brother to pull his nose out of a book long enough to say goodbye.
"Sammy, don't forget to eat some food while I'm gone, if you get any skinnier people are going to be able to see right through you."
"Don't worry, Dean, you eat enough for the both of us." Sam replied, the smile on his face displaying the dimples that always made him look years younger than he was.
"Nice one, Bitch. Now, don't stay up reading all night and make sure you get your ass to school on time, and remember, anything you need just…"
"Give you a call, yeah, I know. We've been through this before. I'll be fine. Don't worry about it, Jerk." Sam finished, walking up to Dean and nudging him playfully with his arm. He was trying to cheer him up – Dean could sense that much, because even though Sam was just a kid, on some level Dean knew that he understood what was really going on – that Dean wasn't being sent ahead to start the hunt out of necessity, but rather he was being sent away because he had dared to go toe-to-toe with John Winchester. John thought Sam believed his excuses for sending Dean off, but he didn't understand how irritatingly intuitive the young boy was, the kid always knew way more than he was supposed to.
Years ago this would be the moment where Dean found himself with an armful of little brother. Sammy used to always wrap his little arms around the older boy before he went anywhere, even if it was just to school; but things were changing, he was getting older and while he was still very much the baby of the family, he was no longer the clingy little bugger that he used to be. If he were being entirely honest, Dean would admit that he sort of missed the hugs he used to receive on an almost regular basis from the kid, but he would never confess such an outrageously girlie thought aloud.
"Alright, see you around, Sammy." he said as he messed up the young teen's mop of already unruly hair.
"It's Sam." The younger Winchester mumbled, stepping from his reach and attempting to fix the mess that had been made of his head, but as the taller boy headed to the door, Sam called out.
At the sound of his name he turned around, never able to help the instinctual response he always had to the little squirt, and waited patiently for Sammy to gather his words.
"Just, uhh, be safe. Alright? And don't forget to call if you're going to be longer than a week. Okay?" He requested quietly, allowing his bangs to fully cover his eyes.
"Yeah kiddo, you know I will." Dean replied, tone soft and reassuring, maintaining a smile on his face until the younger boy finally looked up to see it.
When he was moderately sure that he had done as much as he could to ease his little brother's fears, he exited the room, trying hard to mentally reassure himself that Sam would be alright on his own. Stepping outside he saw his dad transferring the laptop from his truck into the Impala, so that he could use it to do research once he arrived at the next town. Without even looking in his direction his father began to recite the list of orders for him to follow.
"You better get going, I want you there before dark to check out the scene and then you should have time to talk to some of the witnesses before getting a room and starting on the research. No cutting corners on the research, Dean, it has been mediocre at best. That's another reason I wanted Sam here, you won't be able to get him to do all your work this time. I should be in town by the time you're finished your training tomorrow morning and I want you to be able to give me the full run-down. Got it?"
"Yup." Dean confirmed, straightening out the different weapons his dad had simply tossed into the back of his baby.
"Pardon?" John asked, with an edge to his voice.
"Yes sir." He corrected himself, firmly closing the trunk of the Impala.
John nodded his approval as he turned to head into the motel, only stopping to look back at Dean when he called his name.
"You're going to enroll Sam in school this afternoon, right?" At John's nod, Dean continued, "And make sure you get him enough groceries for the week? He really needs some fat on those bone-"
"He doesn't need fat. That boy needs some muscle." John corrected.
"Well, either way he is going to need at least a week's worth of food, and something more than soup." Dean declared, speeding up his speech once he noticed his father was about to protest, no doubt in an attempt to point out the nutritional value of soup and the fact that he is not 'made of money'. "And Dad, you have to get him a new coat and gloves."
This was something that had been nagging at Dean since they entered Michigan, it was January, no snow, but very cold. Almost the moment they had entered the state they had dug out the winter gear, Dean's and John's jackets being thick enough for the cold, but Sam's was light, hardly warm enough to be considered a fall jacket, let alone winter. Due to the kid's recent growth spurt, his winter jacket from the previous year was far too short and his gloves much too small.
"The jacket he has is pathetic. He was shivering all the way here." Dean explained.
"Well I don't know how; cause don't think I didn't notice that you had Sam dressed in almost every piece of clothing he owns. I could see from the rear-view mirror of my truck that you had the kid in at least four different layers."
"That's cause it's friggin cold and he doesn't have a proper jacket. Seriously Dad, you need to get him a decent winter coat. I'm not here to drive him to and from school and he's got at least a twenty minute walk both ways, that plus all the training you want him to do, he is going to be out in the cold weather an awful lot and he needs a warm coat and gloves." Dean insisted, trying his best to tread carefully in the already aggravated waters, but unable to leave such significant matters undiscussed.
"Dean, Sam will be fine. Stop worrying." John assured nonchalantly, with a shrug of his shoulders.
"I have to worry about this, because I don't want Sammy to freeze to death and I know that he won't tell you what he needs and you won't remember, so I have to remind you. Now, just promise me that you'll get him a thick coat and some warm gloves." Dean rushed, almost getting it all out in one breath, nervous of being further disciplined for stepping out of line.
There was a pause of tense silence during which the teen had to force himself to maintain eye-contact with his father, denying his desire to look away. He held his stance, re-affirming the fact that he was not backing down, that he was confident in his requests, and this was a matter on which he was very willing to argue, if need be.
John was staring at him accusingly, but Dean remained steady, his face calm, just waiting for the condemnation he was sure to receive. Finally, his father took a deep breath, letting it out with a put-upon sigh.
"Alright Dean, though I don't see why you think you need to tell me what my own child needs, I will make sure to get Sam a better coat."
Dean knew that he was pushing it, but this was not an issue on which he was willing to compromise, even if it meant attracting the wrath of the great John Winchester, or rather, more of his wrath.
His father's eyebrows rose practically into his hair line as he sucked in another deep breath, holding it for a moment before releasing it harshly; this sort of breathing had generally been a technique the hunter used to calm himself, often making an appearance whenever he was having a discussion with Sam.
"And gloves." John relented, in a tone declaring that he was not at all content about the conversation that was taking place.
Nodding his head, pretending that he hadn't been holding his breath over his dad's possible reaction, Dean opened the car door and slid behind the wheel.
By the time he looked back up through the windshield, after starting the engine, he saw his father's back as the older man entered the motel room; and just as he began to pull out of the parking spot he spotted Sammy's face at the window as the young teen peaked around the curtain. The brothers made eye-contact immediately, Dean tried not to grimace at the sight of such intense fear and worry residing in his little brother's eyes, a look he had seen almost every time he left Sam behind. He threw a confident smile the kid's way, hoping that it would accurately disguise his current distress as well as ease his baby brother's worry. Sam gave him a small smirk, but that veil of fright and concern never lifted from his eyes. Dean kept the content look on his face until he had pulled out of the motel parking lot and was directed toward the highway, then, and only then, did he allow the mask to slide off and reveal the uncertainty lying beneath.
Dean had done everything his dad asked and was on his last lap around the motel by the time his father arrived in town the next morning.
"Did you get him a coat and mitts?" Was the first thing that came out of his mouth the moment he saw John emerge from his pick-up truck. His dad gave him an exasperated look as he reached back in the cab to pull out his duffel.
"Sam is fine, Dean." He declared as he waited for Dean to direct them towards the room.
"So you got him-"
"He has everything he needs." His father interrupted. "Sam will be fine. You need to learn to focus less on your brother and more on the job."
"I know, you say that all the time." Dean mumbled, leading the way to the room he had checked into the previous night.
"I tell you it all the time, because you can't seem to get it through your thick head. Now enough about your brother, I need you to give me the rundown on this case." His father grouched as he pushed past the teenager and into the room.
Dean closed the door quickly behind him as he entered, trying to keep the cold air outside and being reminded again how chilly it was and how Sam better have gotten a new jacket. He decided to not push the matter though, because the last thing he wanted was to be separated from his little brother again, or for longer. Besides, John was right, Dean needed to focus on the job, the better he did the job, the better he could protect Sammy and the sooner he could get back to him; so he let the matter drop, simply trusting that his father knew how to take care of his kids. In an attempt to let go of the constant nagging concern, the teen began filling the older hunter in on everything he had managed to find out about the hunt.
A week later they had made a whole lot of headway on the case and were hoping to be able to wrap it up in the next couple of days. Dean had called Sam yesterday to tell him know they were going to be a little longer. The kid had sounded off, Dean still couldn't put his finger on why, but the conversation had left him extremely unsettled and he had yet to shake it. Even now as he was tracking in the woods with his dad, he couldn't get his mind off Sam and was constantly thinking about all the different things that could be the matter.
Bullies being his go-to assumption.
Sam had always been far too small for his age, that and being the new kid, consistently made his baby brother the number one target for anyone bigger and meaner than him, which - these days - consisted of just about everybody. The only reason Dean had ever regretted dropping out of high school was that he wouldn't be there to defend the kid, keep him from being shoved into walls and attacked with both words and fists.
Dean had given his brother the third degree, practically interrogating him over the phone, but the little shit hadn't budged, insisting that he was "fine" and begging Dean to stop pestering him already.
The teen was pulled from his thoughts by his father's harsh demand, realizing he had stopped moving and was now much further behind his dad than he had been when they started out. He quickened his steps, avoiding the older man's scolding gaze as he approached.
Then his phone went off.
Dean knew better than to ever have it on a ringer setting, but the vibrating was not completely silent either. He heard and felt it immediately, unfortunately John did as well, whether due to his keen sense of hearing or the noise was actually that loud - Dean wasn't sure. He felt his father's eyes burning into his skull as he dug out his phone, flipping it open the moment he glimpsed at the caller I.D.
"Sammy?" His voice was drenched in concern, he knew something was wrong. He had just called Sam yesterday with a promise that he would call again soon, so there was no way the kid would call him first unless something was wrong, seriously wrong.
Dean waited a second, only hearing stuttered breathing on the other end of the line, which seemed to validate his concern almost immediately.
"Sammy? What is it? What's wrong?" He asked, almost aggressively, demanding to know what had hurt his little brother and already thinking of ways to make it pay, whoever or whatever it was.
It wasn't a question or a statement, it was more like a plea that came out sounding suspiciously like a sob; and that was all it took for Dean to turn on his heels and start booking his way back in the direction he had come, back to the Impala. The moment he turned he heard his father's voice, questioning his actions, but he drowned it out, focusing solely on interpreting the unsteady breathing coming from his cell.
"Yeah kiddo, I'm right here. Now I need you to tell me what's wrong, can you do that?" He was treating Sam like a child, he knew that, and the fact that the stubborn little brat didn't jump on him for it told Dean exactly how distressed Sam really was.
That was definitely a sob, the teen sped up, jogging now, not knowing if his father was following behind him and not taking the time to find out.
"It's me, Sammy, I'm right here and I'm going to fix everything, but first I need you to tell me what happened. I need you to do that for me little bro, okay? Will you do that for me, kiddo? Please?"
Dean was almost begging now, knowing that orders and demands never worked with Sam, something his dad hadn't quite figured out. He also knew that his little brother was a sucker for helping others, therefore if Dean made it so that answering his question would be helping him, he knew that Sam would do it. He didn't like taking advantage of Sam's weakness for helping people, himself in particular, and it was something he very rarely did, but it was what he would have to do to get the kid to talk.
"My hands, Dean." Sam whispered. Dean could tell by the quiver in the younger boy's voice that he was trying not to cry, but he could almost see the tears running down that round face as Sam bit his lower lip, something he always did to try and stop from breaking down.
"Your hands? What about your hands, Sammy?" He questioned, his voice level, as he worked to figure out exactly what could be wrong.
"They're re-really cold, Dean."
The older boy couldn't help but realize that Sam was saying his name every time he spoke and that every time it came out like a desperate plea meant to break his big brother's heart in half.
"Cold? Warm them up then." He didn't understand what the issue was.
"I ca-can't, Dean."
"Run them under some warm water."
"I di-did, it hurt wo-worse, it burned and n-now…" Sam faded out, as though someone used a remote to turn the volume down as he spoke.
"What about now? What's happening now, buddy?" Dean asked.
"My…my hands are …the-they're changing col-colour." Sam choked out.
"Colours? What do you mean? What colours?" He queried in confusion.
"They're…they're turning bla-black, De."
There it was.
Dean knew it was coming if he didn't diffuse the situation.
The child in Sam always came out when he was scared or hurt and 'De' was what he had called his big brother almost until he turned eight – when it eventually dissipated, but it was name that returned when his brother was feeling vulnerable; and whenever he said it that way, like it was the only thing he was holding on to, it tore Dean to pieces.
"Hey Sammy, it's going to be alright, you're going to be fine. I need you tell me why your hands are black, are they bruised? Did someone hurt them?" He could see the Impala, his baby sitting there beautifully under the night sky, waiting patiently for him to come back to her and, damn, did he need her more than ever right now.
"No, they're co-cold, De. Really, really cold an-and they hurt. They hurt s-so bad."
Dean felt his eyes welling up and quickly wiped at the moisture, there was no time for his tears, he needed to focus on Sam.
"Alright buddy, it's alright, just try to keep them as warm as you can. I'm on my way, alright?" He reassured as he ripped the door open, knowing his baby would understand the harsh treatment, because it was for Sammy.
"NO! Don't hang up! Don't leave me, Dean!"
The young adult was shocked by the volume of his brother's voice. He had struggled to hear what the kid was saying the entire conversation, every word practically a whisper the whole time, that the sudden volume change had Dean startled. Not to mention the shock at what his brother had said, so desperate for him to stay on the phone, he had allowed himself to actually believe that the older boy would just hang up on him.
"Hey Sam, Sammy! I'm not going anywhere alright?! I'm on my way to you right now, we'll talk until I get there, okay?" He said, calming his little brother, pulling him back from panic.
"Okay Dean." Sam replied, returning to his hushed tone.
As Dean started the car he heard the passenger door open and felt the car dip as his dad dropped down into the seat, roughly slamming the door closed and giving his eldest child a hard look, a look which Dean did not bother to return or acknowledge. He also did not answer his father's demanding questions, understanding the man's frustration, but not having time to pay heed to his orders.
"Where are you, Sam? Are you in the room?" Dean questioned, needing to keep his little brother calm as well as struggling to understand the situation.
"Yes" Came the quiet reply, followed by a hitched inhale.
"Okay, good boy, Sam. Now can you tell me if anything else is wrong? Does anything else hurt?"
"I'm j-just cold." He stuttered.
"Just your hands?"
"No…every-everywhere is cold, De"
At the younger boy's response, the teen gripped the wheel tighter, feeling his muscles tense with fear.
"Did you try having a warm shower?" He inquired lamely.
"I tried… I couldn't…it hur-hurt my hands. I…I couldn't t-turn the nob."
It was then that Dean noticed Sam's voice was always slightly muffled, he thought it had just been because he was trying not to cry, but he realized it was also because Sam had the phone sandwiched between his shoulder and his ear and he was stuttering.
The kid couldn't even hold the phone.
Sam's hands were so cold that he couldn't get them to work enough to hold the phone or turn the tap and if Dean hadn't been number one on speed-dial he doubted his brother would have been able to call him at all.
This wasn't good, cold, painful, black hands meant frostbite and if more than just his hands were cold, that could mean there was frostbite somewhere else on his body, all that plus the chattering of teeth he could hear on the other side, it could mean hypothermia, it could mean death. he shuddered and pushed his baby to speed up.
"Okay Sammy, I understand, but I need you to get warm." The moment he said that he could sense the man on his right stiffen and the guilt that began to flow off him was almost tangible. Dean's suspicions were confirmed, and the anger began to overwhelm the fear that had taken up residence in his gut.
"I'm tr-trying De. I'm under all the blank-blankets…but I'm still c-cold." Sam stammered that as though he had let his brother down, as though he felt like a failure for being unable to gain control of his body temperature, and that only fuelled the fire that was rising through the older teen's body.
"And I-I tried to do… to do the training Dad want- wanted me to, I did Dean, I tr-tried really hard, but I j-just got s-so col and it hurt… and…"
"Stop it, Sam!" Dean commanded. "Don't worry about it. You did great, you're doing great and none of this is your fault! Okay, little brother? You go that?"
He could tell that Sam was just being compliant, he wasn't truly convinced that what he said was true, but he would settle for compliancy right now. Once Sam was safe, Dean would make certain he understood that none of this was his fault, but right now he just needed him to be okay.
Dean heard a gasp from the other end.
"What Sam, what is it?" He couldn't hide the urgency in his voice and apparently his father sensed it because he could feel his hand on the phone, trying to pull it from his ear, no doubt getting impatient to find out exactly what was going on. Dean turned his eyes from the road long enough to send a menacing glare to the man next to him and hunched his body further to the left, making it clear that he was not getting the phone.
"Dean…I thi-think the phone is dy-dying." Sam said, a twinge of desperation in the statement.
"Don't you have the charger?" Dean asked.
"Ya-yes… but I can't plu-plug the phone in, my…my hands, they-I…" Sam was stuttering trying to find a way to explain that his hands wouldn't cooperate long enough for him to be able to plug in his cell phone…the entire situation was beyond wrong.
His baby brother should never be in that kind of pain, he should never be so physically damaged that he couldn't adjust a shower nob or charge a phone.
Dean had failed.
He knew that.
He was supposed to protect Sam, keep him safe; but here he was, not with him and soon not even able to talk to him, leaving him alone, injured and vulnerable.
The older boy wanted to be sick.
"Dean, it…it's dying, th-the battery is re-really low, it's going to shu-shut off s-soon." His brother stated, dread coding each word.
"Sammy, it's fine, okay? What about the motel phone? Can you call me on that?" He asked, searching for a solution, knowing he was still two hours away as he pushed the gas pedal even closer to the floor in a hopeless attempt to defy the laws of time.
"I tri-tried De, I can't…can't dial, the b- buttons are s-small and I ca-can't hold it a-and…"
"That's okay Sam, it's alright, it isn't your fault okay?"
"M'kay Dean" Sam muttered, he could almost see him biting his lip, trying to stop it from quivering as moisture filled up his eyes.
That image - though imagined - tore at his very soul and had him cursing the distance between them.
"We will just keep talking until your phone dies, and when it does, Sam, don't worry about it, because I am on my way. When it happens, I want you to just keep cuddled up in the blankets and do anything else you can think of to keep warm and keep your hands warm. You are going to be okay and I am going to be there soon. Okay, buddy?" He explained as calmly as he could manage.
"O-Okay D-Dean, just hurry, al-alright?" Sam sounded so much younger than fourteen, and Dean was forced to blink the moisture from his eyes, causing a single tear to run unobstructed down his face.
"Ya buddy, I'm going as fast as I can." The teen replied quietly, keeping the agony he was feeling out of his tone.
There was silence for a little while, during which Dean had horror scenes playing in his head, all the different ways this could end up bad for his kid brother were assaulting his mind.
"Dean?" Sam whispered quietly.
"What is it, Sammy?" He responded, willing to do anything to help the kid.
"What if I can't-"
The sound of a dial tone interrupted his baby brother's question and Dean was left listening to that incessant beeping until he finally released his death grip on the phone, dropping it into his pocket and placing both hands on the steering wheel. There was silence, he could feel his dad's eyes on him, and he knew that the older man would have to be blind not to see the complete fury written all over his body.
"Don't, Dad, just don't. There is absolutely nothing you could say that would excuse what you've done." He bit out, trying to maintain some sort of calm in his reaction.
"What I've done? I haven't done anything!" He defended.
"Exactly, you didn't do anything! I practically begged you to buy that kid a bloody winter coat and you didn't even do that." Dean lost his battle at calm about halfway through his response, the picture of his shivering cold hurting baby brother stealing his composure.
"I didn't have time to go clothes shopping, Dean, but I left Sam some money and told him to get his own coat."
"What about gloves, did you leave him money for that?"
"I left him enough."
"How much?" He knew he was making his dad angry, though he hadn't looked over at him once, he could tell by the way his father's answers were getting louder the longer this conversation went on. There was silence, silence that told him everything he needed to know, but he still wanted to hear the confirmation come right from John's mouth.
"Twenty bucks." It was said assertively, as though John genuinely believed that he hadn't screwed up.
"Twenty bucks! You can't get a winter coat for twenty dollars! And you sure as hell can't get a coat and gloves with that." Dean declared, trying get through the older man's thick head.
"Well he will have to make it work. I'm not made of money."
And there it was, the go-to defense John used every single time they went without basic necessities.
"You keep saying that, but if you had enough to go for a few beers last night then you sure as hell should have had enough to buy your own kid a fucking coat!" Dean seethed, no longer pulling any punches, astounded that this man could make up excuses for letting his youngest son down in such a crucial way.
"I didn't see you bitching when you were drinking those beers last night, Dean. And Sam needs to learn how to make do, you can't be spoon feeding him all the time."
"How is he supposed to make do? This isn't a luxury he can just go without; it's clothing he needs to stay warm so he doesn't freeze to death. What kind of solution do you expect him to come up with when you don't leave him enough money to get the things he needs!?" Dean hollered, turning for the first time to glare incredulously at his father.
"He finds what he can with the money I gave him."
"He can't find a coat that is going to keep him warm for twenty dollars! There was no thrift shop in that godforsaken town, where is he supposed to find a winter jacket for that pathetic amount of cash?" He asked in disbelief.
"Well if he doesn't have enough he will have to make some of his own money. I can't always be around to provide the kid's every need. You've found work to make extra money."
Dean knew what his dad was referring to, the last few years whenever they were staying in the same location for more than a couple weeks Dean would find some odd work, just small temporary jobs that provided some extra cash. Some extra cash he would use to send Sammy on the field trip to the museum with the rest of his class, or to make sure that they got to eat more than toast and beans while dad was away for weeks at a time. He did it because he had to, because he was tired of never having enough, he was tired of watching his baby brother go without, but his dad failed to see the difference in Dean's and Sam's situations.
"I'm older, Dad! I didn't start getting real jobs until I turned sixteen! No one is going to hire a little fourteen-year-old kid who's still in school. Besides, gawd knows the kid wouldn't be able to make time for a job between school and all the training you have him doing!" Dean's exasperation level had hit a maximum.
He knew his father could be unreasonable, hard-headed, and unwilling to negotiate, but his blatant refusal to accept any responsibility at all had his eldest son completely baffled.
Dean was met with silence, he knew that meant next to nothing, it didn't mean he had won and it didn't mean his father had seen the light, it just meant that John could no longer maintain the level of cool he had so far been able to handle and was now calming himself down, which he could tell by the hunter's breathing pattern. Dean let it die, knowing that no progress was being made and that the next time that man opened his mouth the teen would be forced to throttle him.
The rest of the drive was made in tense silence, both of men glaring out the front windshield. By the time they made it to town the gas pedal was practically at the floor and Dean's baby was being pushed to go faster than he ever thought she could.
They pulled to a stop in front of the Sam's motel and Dean dived out of the car, almost losing his footing on his sprint to the room door.
"Sam!" He called, knocking firmly on the wooden door, hard enough to get his attention but not to scare him; that idea was thrown out the window the next second when John started pounding on the door, hard enough to splinter it. The teen jumped, startled by the force of his dad's knocking, recovering quickly and putting a hand out to stop the older man.
"Dad, cut it out, that's not helping and all you're going to do is draw attention." He said, looking around to make sure none of the other room doors had opened.
"Sam, open up!" John bellowed, shrugging his son off and pounding on the door again. Dean went to try the doorknob, knowing it would probably be locked but hoping it wasn't, considering that making a scene would be unavoidable if he was forced to break the door down. To his surprise the door was unlocked and he pushed it open, shocking his dad who was about to start in on another round of merciless pounding.
He pulled out his gun instead, an action which Dean copied, as they slowly entered the room, scanning it for danger. He realized the beds were empty, which put him on high alert because that had been exactly where he expected to spot his little brother. He did notice, however, that both beds were missing blankets. Dean proceeded to rake over the room with his eyes until he spotted a bundle of blankets on the kitchen floor, he was moving across the room before his mind had even registered exactly what he was seeing. Once he reached the tiny nook known as a motel kitchen, he noticed the shaggy brown hair that was peeking out of the lump of blankets piled on the floor in front of the oven door. Dean dropped to his knees immediately, lifting off layer after layer until he uncovered the thin, lanky body that had been hiding underneath.
He wanted desperately to just take that small kid in his arms and make him all better.
But he knew better.
He had been trained better.
Dean knew before finding a solution he must assess the problem, which meant giving Sam a thorough once over before lifting him into his arms and blowing this popsicle stand.
"Sammy." He called quietly, but louder than a whisper, he felt his father at his back and silently begged him to not do anything to startle the little boy curled up on the floor. Thankfully the older man seemed to be content with taking Dean's lead for the moment, as he squatted down and gently placed his large hand on top of his youngest son's head.
"Sam." The teen tried again, a little louder this time.
He watched as the shaggy head turned towards the direction of his voice and he brushed those too-long bangs out of the young face to see two hazel eyes staring up at him.
"There you are little brother. How you doing, buddy?" He asked, running his thumb across Sam's cold cheekbones, itching to get a look at his hands, but still waiting for a verbal reaction from the young boy.
"De?" It came out quieter than a whisper, with a gravely edge to it, a weaker tone than had been heard on the phone hours earlier,
"The one and only, kiddo. Now, you going to let me take a look atchya or you going to lay on this hard floor all night?" Dean queried, the light air in his voice contradicting the heavy weight of the present situation.
"M'hands, De." Sam gasped, eyes going wide as he tensed up.
"I know, kiddo. You going to let him take a look at them?" Dean asked, one hand cupping his little brother's face as he ran the other one down Sam's shoulders, feeling the frigid skin through his brother's sweater. Once he got to the young boy's elbow, Sam tensed up even tighter, pulling his hands impossibly closer to his chest.
"Sam, show us your hands now, son."
The youngest Winchester flinched at the command, whether due to the volume of it, or that the boy hadn't known their father was in the room to give it. Sam gave no response to the demand other than the flinch, which Dean found some degree in relief in, because there was nothing more normal than Sam completely disregarding a John Winchester order.
The older teen smirked and leaned in even closer to his little brother, stopping about an inch from his face and began to speak quietly to the injured boy.
"Sammy, I'm going to fix it okay? But I need to see what it is that I need to fix, so can you please show me your hands?" He waited a minute, not getting any movement from his baby brother, prompting Dean to once more appeal to the kid's weakness of helping others. "Sammy, I need you to trust me? Do you trust me, kiddo?"
It took less than a second for Dean to receive the small nod he knew was going to arrive.
"And you know that I would never do anything to hurt you?"
Again, there was a nod.
"Good, now I need you to show me your hands, please Sammy."
And then came the final words he knew would seal the deal.
"For me, buddy?"
Dean didn't have to wait long until Sam slowly allowed his arms to begin to fall away from his chest, unresisting when he gently gripped the slim forearms, bringing them out into view.
"That's it, little man. You're doing great."
Dean continued his mantra of quiet encouragement as he guided Sam's arms into his lap. The small hands were covered in dish cloths that Dean slowly began to unwind on the right hand. His brother unleashed a whimper, after which his father began to gently card his fingers through his young son's hair, trying to calm the kid. Dean looked up from what he was doing briefly to observe the scene playing out in front of him, impressed with his dad's attempt at comforting and wondering if he would ever witness that side of the gruff hunter again.
Dean almost bit through his lip trying to prevent form unleashing the gasp that was caught in his throat the moment he could finally see his little brother's hand. It was discoloured, completely grey except for the tips of his fingers and edges of his palm where green and black spots were covering Sam's skin. Dean gently placed the tips of his fingers on the palm, it was cold to the touch, like the rest of the kid, but it was also dry and cracking, even bleeding in some spots.
Dean looked up hearing his dad curse under his breath. He was holding Sam's other damaged hand gently in his big palm, examining it closely as he slowly turned it over, eliciting a small cry from the young teen. John met his eyes, and for one brief extremely rare moment, Dean witnessed the sheer terror and guilt reigning in his look.
"Sam, do you hurt anywhere else?"
"No." His brother responded, so quietly John was unable to hear it, he looked at Dean for an answer and he shook his head to indicate what Sam had said.
"Good, that's good." Their father responded with a solemn nod of his head.
"But…" Sam began, going quiet before he completed his thought.
"What? Kiddo, what is it?" Dean inquired, bringing Sam's chin up so he could see his eyes, careful not to disturb the discoloured appendage resting in his lap.
"I'm really cold." Sam whispered, his eyes gathering moisture as he looked at his big brother pleadingly. Dean was about to reassure him, saying that he would be alright and they would have him warmed up in no time, but their father spoke before he had the chance.
"How cold, son?" He asked.
Sam squinted at the question, looking unsure what he was meant to say.
"Sam, how cold are you?" Dad repeated, a little rougher this time.
"Really, really cold." He whispered, his gaze remaining on his face as their father shifted around resting a hand on Sam's forehead for a moment before moving it under the teen's layers of clothing to place it on his stomach.
"He's not shivering" John mumbled, moving his hand further under the kid's shirt, up to his ribs.
"What?" Dean asked in complete confusion, but not breaking eye contact with Sam, refusing to deny him the only comfort he was able to provide at the time.
"He's freezing. His skin is frigid, but he's not shivering. He should be shivering. When he was on the phone with you, was he shivering?"
"Umm, ya, I think so. He kept stuttering and his breathing was really broken up." Dean explained, racking his brain to recall whether that could have been from Sam crying or being cold. "If he's not shivering anymore doesn't that mean…" Dean trialed off, refusing to say the word as not to scare Sam, but knowing his father knew what he was getting at.
Shivering was the body's way of trying to warm itself up, so if someone is cold enough to need warming up, but not shivering, that wasn't good. Sam was becoming hypothermic, if he wasn't there already.
Without a second thought, or even a glance in his dad's direction, Dean rolled his brother onto his back and began wrapping him back up in the blankets he had previously been buried in. He secured Sam's hands gently against his chest, unable to block out the soft cries that escaped from the boy's throat as he did so, and then he lifted him into his arms, pulling him close to his chest and heading for the door.
The moment he stepped out into the chilly night air Sam flinched violently in his arms, releasing a sob, causing Dean to pull him closer to his body. Their dad was at the Impala seconds after, pulling open the passenger door before running over to get into the driver's seat. Dean slid into the car, careful not jostle Sam too much and before he could even close the car door, John was ripping out of the parking lot. The sounds the tires made was not pretty, but he found himself completely unconcerned, don't get him wrong the Impala is his baby, but Sammy came first, before anything or anyone.
As their father drove frantically back towards the highway, knowing that the nearest hospital was almost two towns over, Dean did as much as he could for Sam. He took off his jacket, draping it over the skinny legs, then he pulled open his flannel button up and tugged his t-shirt up, tucking it under his chin, leaving his chest completely bare. He did the same with Sam's back, pulling his layers up as far as he could without having to remove them. When he could get as much of Sam's back uncovered as possible, Dean quickly pulled the slim frame against his chest, skin to skin. The touch was frigid, the kid's cold invading his warmth and he prayed that his heat would invade Sam's cold in the same way, and then he wrapped the blankets around them, trapping the warmth underneath. He knew body heat was more effective when you were chest to chest, but he did not want to cause Sam's fragile hands anymore pain, so this would have to work until they arrived at the hospital.
By the time the Impala's tires came to an abrupt screeching stop in front of the hospital doors, Dean was shivering and Sam was barely coherent. John raced around the car, opening the door and moving to pull Sammy from his arms, but Dean wouldn't allow it. He ignored the reach, lifted his brother out of the car as gently as possible, and raced through the hospital doors.
Everything was a blur after that, Dean remembered very little. He did recall hearing his dad demand help, and then people were pulling the frozen boy from the teen's arms. He only allowed himself to let go when his father told him that he couldn't do any more to help Sammy and that he needed to let the doctors handle it.
Dean remembered his dad having to hold him back when Sammy was wheeled away on a stretcher, and then there was waiting. It felt like it went on for years, he couldn't recall exactly how long he paced in that overcrowded waiting room until someone finally called out "Family of Samuel Thompson."
Dean didn't blink at the new last name, was used to having a different one every time one of them had to make a hospital visit, an occurrence which was becoming more common then he cared to admit.
"Are you Samuel's guardian?" The doctor asked Dean as the teen approached him. Now if that didn't give away how young that kid looked, Dean didn't know what would.
"Yes." He replied, ignoring the harsh look that came from his father, but he wasn't lying.
The day he turned eighteen his dad and he signed papers declaring that they had shared custody over Sammy. Dean had the papers prepared since he was sixteen and was forced to watch his little brother ripped from his arms and dragged out the door by Child Protective Service workers. It hadn't taken him long to talk his dad into signing the papers, John may have been a control freak, but he knew that there was a good chance that some night he would fail to return from a hunt and it would be better for everyone if Dean was already registered as Sam's guardian.
The doctor squinted at the two of dishevelled men, probably trying to figure out if Dean was telling the truth, before simply shrugging his response.
"Follow me." He instructed.
The doc lead them down the hall, stopping in front of a patient's room. Dean peeked around the door and saw his baby brother lying very still on the bed, but even from the door he could hear the heart monitor beeping steadily, which brought temporary relief to his soul.
That relief was short lived, disappearing the moment the doctor laid out the diagnosis; hypothermia, third degree frostbite on his hands, second degree on his nose, beginning signs of malnutrition. At the last one Dean tore his gaze from the young teen in bed and turned accusing eyes on his father, feeling the anger that had previously been overruled by fear, rise back up. John did not have the decency to look the least bit guilty, but rather continued to studiously give his attention to the doctor.
Dean spent two nights by Sam's side, watching him shiver.
Their dad came and went between the hospital and hotel; not that he cared, he hadn't even looked at the man since the doctor first gave them Sam's diagnosis.
The doctor reported that his little brother just barely avoided having some of his fingers amputated; gangrene had been missed by a hair. The doctor's kept using words like 'miracle' and 'lucky' but all Dean could see how much damage had been done already.
How much pain he hadn't been around to prevent.
How badly he had failed his kid.
Sam woke up a few times, but he was never near coherent enough to have an actual conversation; however every time he did rouse, he would look at Dean and croak the same short phrase.
It tore at the older boy's heart every damn time because Sam always said it as though he was surprised and relieved at the same time, as though he hadn't expected his brother to show up. Dean never got the chance to ask him about it, the kid would practically be back asleep - barely managing to get those two words out, let alone answer his brother's accumulating amount of inquiries.
On the third day, the doctor told them that Sam was out of the woods, no longer hypothermic, and thanks to one of the many tubes attached to him, malnourishment was no longer impending. The moment his father heard the news he told him he was heading back out to finish the hunt, told him he had to take the Impala because they left his truck out there.
"Like hell you are!" Was the most appropriate response Dean could conjure at the time.
"Dean, this is not up for negotiation. I need to go finish the hunt that you ran out on and I need a car to get there." John proclaimed.
"I didn't run out on anything. I ran to my little brother and the only reason I had to do that is because you don't know how to fucking take care of the kid! Besides, Sam and I are going to need the car. Doc says he should be released soon and the moment that happens we are getting into the Impala and driving south. So, if you need to go back there you better take a damn bus!" Dean seethed, keeping his voice low as to not wake Sam who was still sleeping in the bed two feet from this conversation.
"Don't blame all of this on me, if you didn't coddle the boy so much he would know how to take care of himself, and if you think…"
"He's a kid! He isn't supposed to have to take care of himself! He isn't supposed to have to beg to be enrolled in school, he isn't supposed to be afraid to ask for money to buy supplies, or food, or a fucking coat! You're his father, you are supposed to take care of him!" Dean was getting aggravated now, unable to prevent the rise in his voice.
"Don't you think I know that?!" John cried out, sounding broken, no longer on the defense, but more as though he was begging his eldest to understand. "I do the best I can, but I don't have time for all that. I have to focus on the hunt, because when I don't people get killed."
"I know that, Dad." Dean allowed, with a tone as understanding as he could muster in the moment. "The hunt has to be your priority, I get that, really I do; but Sammy has to be mine. He is still a kid and he needs to come first and since you can't put him first, I do, but you have to get off my back about it. Stop harping on me for always worrying and thinking about the kid; and stop telling me to focus less on Sam and more on the hunt, because it's never going to happen. You have to quit punishing me by sending me away from him every time I question you or piss you off. You have to stop trying to toughen him up by shipping me off and leaving him alone. You need to let me put him first. You always told me that taking care of Sam was my job, so for fucksake, Dad, please just let me do it! I'm begging you!" Dean's voice was cracking, though he tried not to look weak, he knew by the end of his speech it was nothing more than a desperate plea.
It didn't matter what his father said, Dean would always put Sammy first, he had always been first; but Dean knew that if he could get John to agree that was how it needed to be and stop riding his ass all the time, it would make the teen's job a hell of a lot easier.
"You're asking my to just hand over my parental rights? You're asking me to just let you make all of the decisions regarding my own son?" John asked with an incredulous look, the same one he had given Dean early this year when the younger man had told him to sign the papers declaring their shared guardianship over the youngest Winchester.
"You already have, Dad! I have been making decisions for Sammy since he was four, you just never paid enough attention to actually notice. Don't make me out to be the bad guy. I wish to God that you could be the father this kid deserves, the one that would look out for him and make him a priority, but you've proved that that's not possible. I trusted you to take care of him. I trusted you to listen to me when I told you he needed a coat and mitts and some decent food, but I realize now that was a mistake. I can't trust you to put him first. I can't trust you to take care of him."
Dean was angry.
He knew that.
He was angry at how horribly his father had failed his baby brother.
He was angry that the hunt was and always would be his number one focus.
He was angry that his kid couldn't grow up the way he should be able to.
He was angry that Sammy had wound up in the hospital because Dean didn't do his fucking job.
He was angry at how fucked up their lives were.
"I love you boys."
Dean was surprised by the quiet statement that left his father's lips, he had been prepared for an outraged, bitter response, but not that.
"I know you do, Dad, and so does Sam. You love us, but we aren't your focus and we won't be as long as the monsters are still out there. So find them, and make them pay for everything they did to this family and then re-learn how to be the father you were before all of this shit happened; but until then, I will take care of Sammy and he will be my priority. Because he's a fucking child, Dad, and that's what he needs."
It wasn't a question anymore, Dean was no longer asking for permission to make the decisions in all things Sam, it was a statement, a declaration that Sammy was his and John better back the hell off.
John understood the order, he nodded his head casting a look in Sam's direction, and then he left the room, no final words or demands, just a silent exit. Dean watched him leave, releasing a breath he hadn't been aware he was holding, and returned to his rightful seat next to his kid's bed.
The teen was startled by the sudden word, as quiet as it was. He pulled his head up from where it had been resting at the edge of his little brother's bed. Soft, mostly clear eyes met his gaze as he stood to get a better view of the boy.
"Hey there, kiddo. How you feeling, little brother?" He asked, in a hushed tone as he gently rested his hand on the mop of brown hair.
"Good." Was the simple reply.
He gave his brother a look that exhibited his disbelief, prompting honesty.
"I'm kinda cold, my hands are stinging, and I'm sort of thirsty." The young teen croaked.
At the last comment, Dean immediately reached for the cup of water he had already prepared for this exact moment.
"Here you go sleepy head." He said, raising the cup to his baby brother's mouth.
Instinctively Sam went to take hold of the cup, stopping only when Dean gently pushed his arm down, knowing there was no way he would be able to grip the cup with his hands as bandaged as they were; Sam gave him a curious look, but opened his mouth as the cup was tipped towards it.
"Thanks, De." Sam said a little more clearly when he was finished sipping at the water. Dean responded with a simple nod of the head as he returned the glass to its designated place on the side table and sat back in his designated place, a hard, unaccommodating, plastic chair.
"What happened?" Sam asked once he had taken his seat.
"What do you remember?" Dean questioned, legitimately wondering how much of the entire experience the kid had been coherent for.
"Uhh, I was really cold and my hands…" Sam trailed off, clearly not wanting to worry the older boy by describing exactly how much pain he had been in. "And I turned on the oven to warm up, but I wasn't getting warmer, so I tried to have a shower, but my hands… and then I called you. That's it."
"You don't remember my coming back?" Dean asked, thinking that Sam had seemed relatively awake at that point.
"No." Came the whispered reply.
"Well I showed up a few hours after you called, you weren't answering the door when I knocked and I was about to break in before I realized it was unlocked."
"I remember trying to lock it when I got home from school, but I couldn't." Sam interrupted guiltily.
"It's okay, Sammy. I wasn't accusing you, just telling you what happened." Dean assured, gently squeezing his brother's skinny forearm. "Anyways, when I went in you had yourself buried under a mound of blankets, lying in front of the oven door. You were sort of awake, but I guess not really with it. Once Dad and I saw your hands we brought you straight here." He finished quietly, proud that his voice remained steady the entire time.
"Dad?" Sammy asked, questions in his eyes.
"Yup. Anyways the doc said you were a little hypothermic, you got frostbite on your fingers and nose, and that you are one skinny-assed kid." Dean relayed with a smirk, downplaying his little brother's injuries by miles, thinking that he need not know how bad off he had truly been.
"Since when is having a skinny ass considered medically relevant?" Sam asked with a slight smirk.
"Since your ass is so skinny that the doc called you malnourished." Dean replied bluntly, no longer able to make light of such a serious situation.
Sam's eyes went wide, clearly taken aback, as Dean continued to stare directly at the younger teen, demanding answers with his look. "Dean…I…it's no big deal, alright?" Sam insisted softly, begging Dean to drop the matter with those ridiculous puppy eyes of his.
"No big deal? You're joking right? I mean you better be fucking kidding! Cause last time I checked malnourishment was a pretty big deal, and my little brother being malnourished is a huge fucking deal! I mean what the hell, Sam? I'm gone for a week and you just decide to stop eating?" Dean declared, not trying to scare the kid, but needing him to comprehend the gravity of the situation.
Sam's only response was to ashamedly look down at the white sheet covering his chest, allowing those long bangs to fall in front of his eyes, those same bangs Dean had just spent the last three days brushing out of his face. Dean smirked, allowing his momentary frustration to die down before gently grabbing hold of Sam's chin, forcing his hazel eyes to meet the green ones.
"I'm not mad at you, Sammy, okay? You just scared me is all. You understand?" He asked, encouraged when he received a slight smile and a small nod from the young boy. "Good, now you going to tell me what happened?"
"Okay Dean." Came the quiet response, Sam always warming his big brother's heart with such unconditional trust.
"Alright good, now how bout you start with why you went all Buddha hunger strike on me?" Dean questioned with ease in his tone, but intense concentration in his gaze.
"Gandhi went on a hunger strike, Dean, not Buddha." Sam replied, showing the first double dimpled smile Dean had seen since he'd left the kid in that motel over a week ago.
"Whatever, geek boy." Dean snorted, waiting patiently for Sam to begin.
"It's not that I intentionally tried not to eat, I just sort of forgot…and then I was too cold to care." Sam explained, taking every effort to avoid his brother's gaze.
"You forgot? Seriously kid, when have you ever been able to pull one over on me? Especially with a lie as lame as that. Now I've been sitting here for three days waiting for the truth, and I will get it, even if I have to sit in this hard-ass chair for three more days." Dean explained calmly, but with a firm tone so that Sam would know he was not in the mood to take any bullshit.
"Three days?" His little brother whispered, finally looking up at him with those big hazel orbs.
"Yeah, Sammy, three days. So you going to tell him the truth now or what?" Dean asked, allowing slight irritation to enter his tone.
"I wasn't lying!" Sam defended.
Dean replied with the look he always gave his kid when he didn't believe him, and it worked as well as it always did.
"Alright, so I didn't forget to eat, but when I got really cold I honestly wasn't hungry." Sam insisted, reflecting the intensity that lay within his eyes.
"Alright, little brother, I believe you, but what about before you got really cold, why weren't you eating then?"
"I ate the first couple days, honest Dean, I had peanut butter sandwiches, but then when the bread was gone all that was left was the soup Dad bought and…well…" Sam trailed off, breaking eye-contact once more.
"I know soup isn't your favourite, but if that's all you got that's what you eat. You can't be so picky all the time-
"Dean," Sam interrupted. "It wasn't that I didn't like it-it was…well Dad, ummm…"
"What, Sam? What did Dad do?" Dean inquired, more sternly than he had intended, feeling the anger towards his father make an aggressive return, wondering what else the man could have possibly fucked up.
"He didn't mean to, I think he just forgot…" Sam started again, quieter this time.
"He forgot what?" Dean questioned, attempting to hold on to the little patience he had left.
"It was tomato." The kid mumbled, looking down at his bandaged hands.
Dean looked away, body rigid and jaw clenched, doing what he could to not let the fury flowing through his veins take over.
The only goddamn thing on the planet that Sammy was allergic to; how could John possibly forget his youngest son's one allergy? Dean couldn't understand it, the day they found out that Sam was allergic to tomatoes had been one of the most terrifying days of his life! How in the world could John forget about that?
And Sam, being the stubborn little bitch that he was, obviously wouldn't let the man know that he'd screwed up. Of course, why would he? Their dad would probably just tell him that he wasn't 'made of money' and to 'make do'.
The older boy growled, his anger no longer confined.
"Dean." Sam said, as calm as ever, acting as though he hadn't been completely disregarded and let down by the two people that were supposed to protect him.
"Don't 'Dean' me, Sam." He barked, looking into his little brother's imploring gaze, "I'm just trying to figure out how the hell Dad forgot that you were allergic to tomatoes!"
"It's okay." Sam assured, all puppy eyes and forgiveness.
Dean scowled, rolling his eyes, knowing that this whole situations was as far as anyone could get from 'okay', but letting it slide for the sake of the little kid looking over at him as though he were some hero, when really all Dean had done was let him down.
"Why didn't you call me sooner, Sammy? I mean you went days freezing and…and starving." His voice broke, Dean gave himself a second to swallow the growing lump in his throat, before continuing. "Why didn't you call me before it got so bad?" He finished with a whisper.
"The same reason I didn't tell Dad about the soup, I'm tired of being a burden, Dean."
"Just let me finish, you wanted the truth right?!b Well that's it, I'm tired of being the weakest link and the disappointment, but mostly I can't stand being a burden, especially to you."
Dean could hardly look at the kid before him, staring up at him under all that hair with those big, pleading eyes.
"That's crap, Sam." He stated flatly, inwardly smirking at the teen's startled expression. "You are way too smart to be a weak link or a disappointment, and you sure as hell are not a burden!"
"You're just saying that." Sam muttered turning his watery gaze downward.
"No, I'm not. Look at me." He placed a hand gently on the back of the young boy's neck and waited for the hazel eyes to meet him, continuing only when they did. "You are smart, you get straight A's in all your classes even though that should be impossible with how often you switch schools. You're becoming a great hunter and you are already the best at research, why do you think I always have you do mine?" Dean queried with a grin, getting a small smirk in response. "And most importantly, you are my little brother. Taking care of you is not a burden, Sam, it's my job."
"But it shouldn't be." Sam interrupted.
Dean gave him a confused look.
"You shouldn't have to take care of me, you're only eighteen! Taking care of me shouldn't be your job!" Sam insisted, much to his older borther's shock and frustration.
"I don't think you are understanding me here, kid. Taking care of you is my job, it's one that I volunteered for, one that I always wanted and still do. It's a job I'm never giving up no matter what Dad says or how much you bitch about it, because it is who I am, Sammy."
Dean was not a fan of chick-flick moments and he rarely contributed so passionately to them, but this was important and he needed Sam to understand.
"So I don't want to ever hear you talking about this burden shit again? You understand? It's not true and it sure as hell ain't worth you getting yourself killed over."
There was silence after Dean's heartfelt lecture, he dropped his head into his hands, too emotionally drained to continue the conversation, and Sam seemed to be - for the first time in his entire life - at a loss of what to say.
"Thanks De." Was the quiet response that came minutes later.
Dean looked up to see a couple tears had gotten loose and were making their way down Sam's face. Those puppy dog eyes of his were as big and loving as ever and that dimply smile had Dean almost choking on the growing lump lodged in his airway. Refusing to give in to the utter girlishness of the moment, and searching for a way to bring some testosterone back into the room, Dean responded with a simple nod. Avoiding giving a verbal reply, knowing that if he did and his voice cracked - like he knew it was going to - and the tears that he was barely holding back were released - like he knew they wanted to be - he would probably start growing boobs or something.
"I wasn't going to get myself killed."
Dean was confused by Sam's sudden statement.
"Oh yeah? Really? So almost freezing to death was all just part of the plan then eh?!" He stated, instantly being bombarded by images of his baby brother curled up on the floor trying desperately to get warm, damaged hands held against his chest.
"No, I bought the best coat I could find with the money Dad left me."
Dean cringed as the mention of Dad and the pitiful amount of cash he expected Sam to survive on.
"And then I was going to try and make some money so I could buy some food and maybe some gloves."
"Make money doing what?"
"I don't know, I tried to get a job at the grocery store and a couple other places, but they all said I was too young." Sam sighed.
"That's because you are too young!" Dean confirmed, assuming such a fact had been obvious, but apparently neither Sam nor his father were able to comprehend it.
"You could always find work." Sam whined.
"That's cause I'm older."
"No, Dad only thinks you started getting jobs a couple years ago, but I remember you finding jobs when you were my age."
Dean squinted at his little brother, knowing that what he was saying was the truth, but also knowing that he wouldn't understand that Dean had been desperate to earn money then so he could take better care of the kid. The older boy thought it best not to share that tidbit of information, knowing how Sam would twist it and find a way to blame himself for his brother having to find work at a young age, realizing that he would never truly understand that taking care of Sam was something Dean had always done willingly, something that had always given him the greatest reward. Sure, he never technically got paid for looking after Sam, but it gave him more reward than any job he could ever have. The way the kid always looked at him like he was his hero, the way he loved him with everything he had, and the way he trusted him without question, that was Dean's pay, and it meant everything.
Not wanting to confess all those feelings and come off like a complete pansy, he stuck to a manlier response.
"Well Sam, when I was fourteen, I looked sixteen. You on the other hand are fourteen, but you look like your twelve. Maybe if you got a little taller and grew some hair on that baby face of yours, you wouldn't have had a problem finding a job." Dean declared, smiling when he heard Sam laugh in response.
"Sure, whatever you say, Jerk!"
"Don't you forget it, Bitch."
By the afternoon of the fourth day Dean was loading Sam into the Impala. He signed the release papers the second Sam's doctor gave him the okay, eager to get out of there, knowing that child service workers were probably on their way - no doubt they would be alerted when a minor with signs of malnutrition was admitted into the hospital - and knowing how they loved to appear right on release day.
Dean had read up on all the information he needed to understand how to treat the remaining frostbite. He knew how to change the bandages on Sam's hands, and that the kid would be more prone to the cold weather now, especially his hands. Dean knew that now Sam's hands were much more susceptible to frostbite due to the damage that had been done and that they would have to take extra precaution to keep them warm. He knew that Sam needed to gain some weight back, something Dean had not needed the doctor to tell him, because the moment he watched his kid trying to hold up the pants that had fit him a couple weeks ago, Dean knew that the younger boy had lost far too much of the little fat he had to begin with.
The elder Winchester bundled Sammy up in the passenger seat, the stubborn brat had refused to lie down in the back, insisting he belonged upfront. The first thing they had done when they left the hospital was purchase a brand new, fleece-lined coat and good quality thermal gloves (even though he had every intention of never allowing Sam out in the cold again, Dean figured they should have them just in case). Sam had tried to argue his way out of them, seeing the price tag and insisting they were unnecessary, but big brother had put his foot down.
Once they got back into the Impala and Sam was under enough layers to satisfy the older teen, Dean pointed his baby south and just started driving, knowing he wouldn't be stopping until he hit warmth. The kid asked at one point where John was, Dean said he had gone to finish the hunt and that he would text them when he was done and meet up with them when he could, which was all true. Sam seemed content with the answer and promptly fell asleep, head resting against his big brother's shoulder instead of the window on which he would normally lean.
Dean smiled, turned his music on quiet, and didn't stop driving until he hit Florida
The hunter was pulled from his trip down memory lane at the sound of Sam's voice, glancing to his right he saw the young man staring at him, his large hands clasped in his lap - Dean could tell that his brother was making a conscious effort not to rub them together.
"What, Sam?" He questioned, noticing his jaw was sore from how hard he had been clenching it.
"It wasn't your fault." Sam declared, sounding far too understanding and caring and chick-flicky.
"What wasn't his fault?" Dean queried, feigning ignorance, thinking there was no way his little brother could read him that well.
"You don't think I know what you're thinking about? You're keyed up about as tight as you can get, you've been grinding your teeth for the past hour, and you keep looking over at my hands every five minutes."
Okay, so maybe his baby brother did know him that well.
"So, I'll say it again, it wasn't your fault."
"No, no it wasn't. It was Dad's." Dean growled, knowing that this was a conversation he wouldn't be able to escape from. It was true, he did blame John for that entire situation. He also blamed himself for not doing more, but Sammy didn't need to know that.
Shockingly enough, his aggravated response was met with silence. The driver glanced over to his right to meet his brother's wide eyes.
"What's your problem?"
"It's just…you usually find a way to blame yourself for … well … pretty much everything, and you hardly ever blame Dad for anything." Sam explained, conveying complete curiosity with both his tone and expression.
"I only blame myself for things that are actually my fault, Sam. You're the one with the guilt complex. And just because I don't fight with dad all the time, doesn't mean that I don't see when he fucks up."
"Yeah, maybe, but even when he does screw up, you rarely hold a grudge. That's more my style." Sam replied with a small smirk.
Dean snorted, "Yes, it sure is."
He left it there, hoping that Sam wouldn't continue to pry, but by the way the dork proceeded to stare intently at him during the small period of silence, he knew he wasn't going to get off so easy.
"So why haven't you let it go?" Sam questioned, gentle, but insistent.
"Because, Sammy, some things just aren't forgivable, alright?! And nearly getting you killed? That's one of those things. I can't let that go. I won't forgive someone who almost costs you your life, no matter who they are."
"Especially Dad." Dean seethed, taking a calming breath before continuing.
"I don't hate him, Sam, and I'm not as angry with him as you seem to be, but I won't forgive him, not for that." Dean stated, taking a quick look at the young man's hands. After a couple seconds of watching them shake from cold as the kid tried to hide them in his sleeves, Dean had the heat in his baby blasting and all the vents aimed directly at his little brother. As he returned his gaze to the windshield, he watched out of the corner of his eye as Sam shyly glanced his way before slowly pulling his hands from his sleeves and placing them directly in front of the vents, releasing a small sigh as he did.
That was all it took for Dean to take that anger he had directed at his father and turn it on himself.
How could he just forget?
Dean knew it had been a few years since they hunted together, Sam being at Stanford and all, but how the hell could he just forget? Here they were, heading to Missouri in December, Sam's hands were only going to get colder the farther north they drove.
What the fuck kind of brother was he?
First, he screwed up so much that his kid brother got frostbite, and next he completely forgot about it; how easy it was for Sam to become cold, how his hands started shaking from November to March if he was anywhere remotely north in the country.
No wonder the kid chose to go to school in fucking California.
"You're doing it again." Sam pointed out, his hands still resting in front of the vents.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Dean asked, fairly certain he already knew the answer he was about to receive.
"I didn't want to-" Sam began.
"I swear to god if you say the word 'burden' I will kick your ass." He growled.
"Then what do you want him to say, Dean?" Sam sighed in resignation.
"How many times are they going to have to go through this?!"
Dean was frustrated now, running out of ways to make his little brother understand that taking care of him was the most important thing he did in life and was something he wanted and needed to do, it was what made him who he was – and he was fucking proud of that.
"I'm sorry, Sammy." He confessed, surprising both of them with the whispered phrase.
"What? I thought you said you didn't-"
"Not about that."
Though, he was sorry about that. He was sorry he hadn't fought harder be the one to stay behind to get Sam enrolled in school and settled. He was sorry he hadn't trusted his instincts, he was sorry he had trusted his father to put Sam first, he was sorry that he had put keeping the peace ahead of his kid's needs; all mistakes Dean would never make again, not ever.
"I'm sorry that I forgot, you shouldn't have to remind me. I know that makes you feel like a burden, even when you sure as hell aren't."
"Dean, come on man, it's alright."
"No, no it's not. I should have remembered. I shouldn't have picked a hunt up north at this time of year."
"Oh come on, seriously dude, we can't refuse hunts just because I get a little cold."
"You don't get a 'little cold'! You could very easily get frostbite."
"I know, I know, I'm prone to frostbite and easily hypothermic. That's why you always tried to talk Dad into hunts further south during the winter and the few times you couldn't you would tell him to go on his own, or you insisted on buying me the warmest, most expensive coat and gloves you could possibly find." Sam recalled, looking over at his brother with a smile, the love oozing out of those hazel eyes forcing Dean to look away before he got sucked in. "And I appreciate that, I really do. I could never thank you enough for having my back, and I still can't believe that Dad wouldn't put up too much of a fight when you insisted I got a new coat and gloves every winter and wouldn't let me train if it was too cold out." Sam finished with complete and utter admiration in his voice.
"Dad and I had an understanding." Dean responded bluntly, leaving no room for elaboration.
No, he didn't think he would ever tell Sam about the conversation he had with their father by the kid's hospital bed, the conversation where he practically declared that Sammy belong to him and John Winchester was not to be trusted with Dean's baby brother.
"Well … thanks, for always being there for me." Sam stated softly, still looking in Dean's direction.
"Oh gawd, are we going to have to hug now or something?" The driver whined rolling his eyes and then glanced at Sam, only to see his hands clenched and still shaking. "Geez kid, don't you have some gloves?" He asked, turning the heat up another notch, even though he was starting to bake.
"No." Came the simple response.
"Come on kid, you know you always need to have a pair of gloves around! What about the ones I got you before…" Dean trailed off not knowing how to word the end of his sentence.
Before Sam went to school?
Before he left his family?
Before Dean's heart was torn from his body?
"Don't hav'em." Sam replied curtly.
"Really? What'd you stick them through the shredder or something? Those were some hard-core gloves." Dean was shocked that his little brother, who had always taken ridiculously good care of his possessions, had managed to wreck a pair of very good quality gloves.
"They weren't exactly fire-proof, Dean."
The older man almost choked at the whispered reply, the fire, gawd how could he forget that all of Sam's belongings went up in flames just a couple months ago.
Could he not remember anything important anymore?!
"Guess we'll have to buy you another pair then won't we, Jack Frost?" He joked, wanting to bring some levity back into the conversation.
"Jack Frost? Really?" Sam snorted, rolling his eyes.
"Why were you surprised when I came?" Dean cursed himself, why did he keep bringing up the past, especially when the conversation was just starting to move out of chick-flick central?!
"At the apartment? Well you didn't call-
"No, back when you were fourteen, at the hospital. Every time you woke up you would look at me and say 'you came' like you were surprised or something." Dean knew he probably just should have dropped the matter, hell Sam probably didn't even remember, but he had to know. Had he let his little brother down so massively that the boy didn't trust him to be there when he needed him?
"I don't really remember much about the first few days we were at the hospital; but I remember before, when I was trying to get warm, before I called you, that I wasn't sure if Dad would let you come get me." Sam relayed, looking over nervously.
"What the fuck would make you think that Dad could stop me from getting to you?" Dean balked in disbelief, did he really come off as the 'good little soldier' that strongly?
"I don't know, Dean, it was a long time ago okay?" Sam said defensively, which gave away the fact that he was lying right through his teeth.
"You do know, so tell me."
"Alright, but you have to promise not to get pissed."
"I can't do that, Sam."
"There's no compromising with you is there?"
"No there isn't, so just spit it out."
"It's not even that big of a deal."
"Why don't you let me decide that."
"Fine, it was just after you left the motel, I asked Dad why he was staying instead of you – a part of me knew that he was punishing one of us, or maybe both, but I wanted to see what he would say - and he said that you wanted me to learn to do things on me own, and that I couldn't depend on you for everything." There was a pause, Dean knew that Sam wasn't finished yet and he was already back to white-knuckling the steering wheel.
"What else did Dad say, Sam?" He bit out.
"He…uh… he said that you had to focus more on the hunt, that if you kept focusing on me instead you would end up getting yourself killed, so I had to man-up and pull my own weight…or something like that." Sam finished off, nervously biting his lip and giving his big brother a side-long glance.
Dean was unable to respond, concentrating instead on maintaining some level of calm as he continued to clench every muscle in his body.
"I knew you didn't think that." Sam continued, "I knew it was just Dad's way of trying to get me to grow-up and fend for myself, but it hurt, you know? The way he said it- it just- it made me feel like I wasn't good enough." Sam admitted, turning away from the driver to direct his gaze out the side window.
Dean couldn't believe their father could have that to Sam – and yet it sounded just like the eldest Winchester. It was no wonder the kid always felt like a burden. Dean couldn't wait for them to find John, so that he could personally kick his old-ass all the way to Mexico for making Sammy feel so goddamn worthless.
"That's why it took me so long to call you, I guess. I didn't want to admit defeat. I wanted to prove to Dad that I could do it, that I could take care of myself." There was a pause before Sam let out a bitter laugh. "Look how well that turned out."
"Don't, don't you do that, Sam. There was nothing you could have done to make that situation any better. Dad screwed you over. You survived a hell of a lot longer than any other kid your age could have; left in a shitty motel, with crappy clothes, a pathetic twenty dollars, and a bunch of food you couldn't even eat." Dean was vibrating with rage and bitterness, which was made obvious by both his body language and tone of voice.
"Hey, I'm supposed to be the angsty angry one, remember?" The younger man pointed out with a smirk, no doubt attempting to calm his brother down.
"Don't I know it." Dean joked, "So Dad pulled a dick move and you didn't want to call so that you could prove you were capable, or whatever, but none of that explains why you were surprised I made an appearance - why you thought Dad could keep me from coming."
"I knew you hated to argue with him, hell, you hated it when I argued with him. I knew that you were trying to keep the peace so that we wouldn't be forced to be apart much longer. And I knew that at the end of the day you still trusted him, the same way he did with you, and I was worried that if he gave you a direct order you would have a hard time not following it."
"You're right, I hated arguing, but that never meant that I wouldn't do it, Sam. And direct order or not, there was nothing Dad could have done to keep me from coming when you called." Dean explained.
"I know that now." Sam admitted.
"Good, cause not even the great John Winchester can keep me from you, Bitch." The older man declared, smacking his little brother on the leg and flashing him a signature Dean Winchester smile.
"Thanks for that, Jerk." Sam replied, his voice dripping with sincerity.
Dean smiled, patting one of those knobby knees before returning his hand to the wheel.
He was still angry at their father and still felt guilty as hell, but he let those emotions die down for the time being, because right now things were good.
Right now, he was driving his baby to the closest clothing store, where he was going to buy Sam the warmest most expensive coat and gloves he could possibly find.
Right now, his little brother was safe and sitting right next to him.
Right where he belonged.
Right where he had always belonged.