Technically, he's not spying on Sam. Spying involves staking out someone's house, following their girlfriend, and using telephoto lenses to watch them through their kitchen window without their knowing. Dean has not done any of these things. True, he's watching Sam, but the guy is outside, in plain view on the beach that just happens to be directly below where Dean has parked the car, and Dean is using the detached scope of his sniper rifle, not a telephoto lens. And if Sam doesn’t know Dean is watching, it’s only because he’s not paying attention.
Dean is just checking on Sam, since he happened to be in the area, anyway. The guy won't answer any of his phone calls, so it's his own fault if Dean has to resort to what, okay, essentially boils down to stalker behavior in order to confirm that his kid brother is alive and well.
It's dusk, and Sam is sitting with five other college kids around a fire pit, laughing and toasting marshmallows and being normal. Dean is so intent on watching his brother enjoy himself, teeth flashing in that huge, dorky grin that lights up everything, that he doesn't notice Alba sneaking up under his open window at all. Either that, or the kid is a lot stealthier than a seven-year-old has any business being.
"Boo!" She pops up in front of the sniper scope, and it's a really good thing that the scope isn't attached to anything with a trigger, because Dean jumps hard. As it is, he has his .45 halfway out from under his jacket before he registers the small, white face, plastered all over with a pleased smirk.
"Holy freaking hell, Alba, don't do that to me!"
"I got you!" she crows. She's wrapped in a sheet, toga-style.
"Yeah, yeah, you got me, now never try to get me again, okay?" He puts the gun back under his jacket and scrubs his face with his hands. "I could hurt you by accident."
"Okay," she agrees. She starts pulling on the handle of his door, trying to open it, but it sticks and her child's strength isn’t equal to that of a thirty-seven-year-old temperamental car door.
Dean watches her struggle for a second, then, feeling slightly vengeful, he pops the handle from his side, making her almost topple over when the door swings suddenly open with a creak. She doesn't fall, though, just regains her balance, rights her toga, and begins climbing onto the seat next to him, leaving him to scoot hurriedly out of her way. Once she's in the car, she reaches for the door, trying to shut it, and almost falls right back out again. Dean chuckles despite himself and reaches over her to slam the door home. That accomplished, he turns to regard the little girl currently occupying his seat behind the wheel.
"So. Fancy meeting you here," he says.
"I'm not here for much longer," she replies. "I was just going to watch the ocean while I waited to go back home, but I saw you and I thought it would be fun to come say hi. I'm sorry I scared you," she adds, not looking at all apologetic.
"Yeah, I'll bet you are," he says, and the smile in her eyes surfaces on her face.
"Who were you spying on with the telescope?"
"That wasn't a telescope, it was a sniper scope, and I wasn't spying on anyone, I was just checking on my brother."
"I didn't know you had a brother!" she gives him a scolding look, as though this constitutes a heinous lapse of communication on his part.
"Yeah, a younger brother named Sam. He's down there on the beach, living it up." Dean tries not to sound too bitter, but he suspects that Alba catches something in his tone anyway, because her eyes narrow ever so slightly.
"Why were you checking on him from way up here? Can't you just go down and see him?"
"He doesn't want to see me," Dean replies, as lightly as he can. "But I want to see him, so I check up on him from far away, and he's none the wiser, and we're both happy."
Alba frowns at him, opens her mouth to ask a question, then closes it again. Finally, she peers up at him and asks, "Doesn't he miss you if he never sees you?"
"Nah," Dean shakes his head and manages to put a smile on his reply. "He's got a whole normal life going on, he doesn't need me rolling in and messing it up all the time."
"But you miss him." It's not a question.
"Yeah," he admits, after trying to work up a denial and failing. He lets out a sigh. "Yeah, I miss him like hell."
She regards him silently, head to one side and face solemn, then pulls herself up on the seat back to throw her arms around his neck, like that day on the side of the road in his past and her future.
"Hey!" he says in surprise, and reaches to return the unexpected embrace. He finds himself holding folds of empty sheet, nothing but air left in the space where a moment ago a little girl was feeling sorry for him.
The first time Alba meets Dean, he sees her first. He’s returning to his motel just after dark, and he finds her wrapped in a towel and trying to pick the lock of the motel laundry with a safety pin. She doesn’t see him, she’s so intent on the lock, which she’s picking one-handed because she’s using the other hand to hold the towel up. He grins and starts walking quietly down the hall. Every time they meet, this kid has had the advantage on him; it’s only fair that the joke be on her for a change.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he says in his most official-sounding voice. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”
She spins around, wide-eyed, and he sees the tear-tracks down her cheeks. He sinks instantly to his knees, hands up, palms out, feeling like the biggest heel in the entire freaking world.
“Hey, hey, Alba, it’s okay, it’s just me, it’s Dean, I’m sorry!”
She just backs into the door of the laundry, choking on a sob, and continues to stare at him with wide, frightened eyes. He realizes that she’s the youngest he’s ever seen her, tiny and shaking, and that she’s pinning the towel to her chest with her forearm while her hand rests limply against her bare collar-bone, the wrist swollen and purple.
“Geez, kiddo, what happened to you?” When she doesn’t answer, he tries another tack. “Alba, do you know who I am?”
She shakes her head, fear and exhaustion fighting for the upper hand in the lines of her mouth.
“Okay, my name’s Dean Winchester, and I know you’re Alba DeTamble, and I know you’re here because you time traveled. I’m not going to hurt you, you’re going to be okay.”
She accepts this with a nod, though she looks like she still has reservations about whether or not she’s really going to be okay. She takes a huge, shuddering breath and finally squeezes out a “Hi.”
“Hi,” he replies, and starts taking off his jacket. “Let’s get you into something a little better than that towel, huh?” He pulls off his flannel shirt and holds it out to her.
She gives him a long, wary look, but eventually she nods. The shirt almost reaches the floor on her, and he helps her pull the sleeves on and rolls them up until both hands are visible.
“Looks like you hurt yourself pretty good, here,” he comments, glancing up from her wrist and into her eyes, now dry and serious. “Look, I know you don’t really know who I am yet, but will you let me take a look at this to see if it’s broken?”
She regards him for another long moment before nodding mutely.
“Okay, this’ll hurt a little bit, but I’ll try to be really quick.” He bends the wrist gently between his fingers, testing for the grind of broken bone, but all he gets is a sharp intake of breath from Alba. He looks back at her face, and she’s clenching her teeth, but her eyes are open and fixed on his face. He folds her arm back against her chest and says, “Okay, all done. Just a bad sprain. Why don’t we get you some aspirin. You hungry?”
Another nod. He looks her over, and realizes that while his flannel is an improvement on the towel, it’s not going to cut it if he wants to take her anywhere, and just once he’d like to see her wearing shoes. He thinks for a minute, then stands.
“Alright, well why don’t we get you something a little more your size to wear and we’ll go get something to eat, huh?”
“Okay,” she whispers.
“Okay,” he replies, and takes out his lockpicks. There’s a family of four staying in a room down the hall, and Dean’s pretty sure the little girl is about Alba’s size. He listens at their door until he’s sure no one’s home, then goes to work on the lock. Alba watches him with almost professional interest now that she’s calmed down a little. When they get inside, it’s the work of a few minutes to find the right suitcase—it’s the only pink one—and pull out a cotton dress and tiny underwear with fish printed on them. Dean glances around the room while Alba changes in the bathroom, and locates small, orange flip-flop sandals under a table. Then they’re back out in the hallway, and Dean’s locking the door behind them.
“Won’t she be sad when she finds out I took her dress and her shoes?” Alba asks, as they start down the hallway toward the exit.
“Well, you were gonna rip off something to wear from the motel, I figure this is the same thing only it fits you better.”
“But this belongs to someone. It’s hers.” She plucks anxiously at the dress’s skirt. “I usually just take things from stores. Things that don’t belong to anyone. It’s not fair that she won’t have her dress just because I need it.”
“Well the usual rules about what’s fair don’t always apply. Sometimes they have to make an exception for people in special circumstances.” It’s only after he says it that he remembers her sitting in the back seat of his car, eating oatmeal cookies and stating her position on stealing and fairness and how they apply to time travelers. Alba still doesn’t look completely convinced, so he adds, “But if it’ll make you feel better, I’ll make sure these get back where they belong after you leave, okay?”
“Okay.” She gives him a serious nod and sighs, as though this is a weight off her mind.
They walk across the street to a Denny’s, where Dean orders a burger and Alba orders the most elaborate breakfast on the menu. Dean asks the waitress for a bag of ice, and while they wait for the food to arrive, he makes her take two ibuprofen and hold the ice around the sprain. He can tell when the pain starts to ease, because Alba starts looking around with interest at the busy restaurant and kicking her feet in their stolen orange sandals. “Rhiannon” starts playing on the speaker over their booth, and she smiles the first real smile of the evening.
“My dad hates this song.”
“Well your dad has good taste; there’s something just not right about Stevie Nicks.”
She laughs a little, and then the waitress is putting two plates (because the pancakes get their own, there’s so many of them) in front of her, and Dean’s burger follows. Alba starts devouring her meal with a vengeance. He wonders if time travel does something to the metabolism, or if she’s just one of those kids who can never get enough to eat. He makes slower work of his burger than usual because he’s busy watching her decimate the scrambled eggs with cheese in a series of enormous mouthfuls. When she gets to the pancakes, she slows down a little, cutting them up into precise sections, which gives her long enough to ask a question.
“How many times have you met me before?”
“Four times. Most of ‘em were kind of fly-by, but a couple years ago we had sandwiches on the side of the road and talked for a while. You told me about your dad and a little bit about time travel.”
She regards her plate dolefully for a moment, then asks “Do I get better at it? At time traveling? I’ve been doing it for a little while now, and it’s just . . .” Her breath hitches and she trails off, looking exhausted. Dean is terrified that she’s going to cry again.
“No, hey, Alba, listen: you’re a pro at it. You act like it’s no big deal, like it’s just something you do, and you enjoy it.”
“I do?” she says, looking hopeful.
“Yeah, you do. I mean, come on, you keep running into me, right? What’s not to enjoy?”
And the smile’s back, thank God. She starts eating her pancakes again, taking a breath that is only a little shaky. When she finishes, and both plates are completely empty, she sits back with a tired sigh and asks, apropos of nothing, “What kind of sandwiches?”
Dean blinks at her. “Sorry, what?”
“What kind of sandwiches do we have on the side of the road when I’m older and I enjoy time travel?”
“Peanut butter and honey,” he answers, because he remembers that she will remember, and holy crap, this kind of thing could really mess with a guy’s mind.
“Mm,” she murmurs, as if in approval. The waitress drops off the check, and Dean pulls out his wallet for a credit card. Alba tilts her head to read it upside-down when he puts it at the end of the table, and asks “Why does your credit card say ‘Hector Aframian’?”
“Well, I’m another one of those exceptions to the rules about fairness and stealing and that kind of thing,” he replies, with an easy grin.
“Well, I have this job, and it doesn’t really pay very well—actually, it doesn’t pay at all, but somebody has to do it—so if I want to do my job and still put gas in my car and eat and stuff, I have to bend some of the rules sometimes.”
“Is that why you can pick locks?” she asks.
“Yeah, that’s why I can pick locks. I have to be able to do stuff like that, in my line of work.”
“My dad is really good at picking locks. He left me videos on how to do it. One time I time traveled to the same place as him, and he showed me how to do one I didn’t have a video for.” She’s getting really drowsy now, head leaned back against the hard vinyl seat.
“Well, you stick around long enough tonight and I could give you a few pointers, if you want.”
“You use lockpicks,” she scoffs sleepily. “Lockpicks are for babies.”
“Hey, I’m hell on wheels with a paperclip, too, missy. I just carry the picks ‘cause it speeds things up.” He can see she’s fighting a losing battle to keep her eyes open, so as soon as the waitress brings his card back, he gets up and offers Alba a hand. “Wanna go back to the motel?”
She nods heavily and slides out of the booth, takes his hand and promptly trips over her flip-flops. He reaches to pick her up, and after a moment of stiffness, she relaxes and lets him. He walks back to the motel with her head on his shoulder and her good hand clutching the collar of his shirt, and he thinks that a guy could seriously fall in love, if he weren’t careful. When they get to his motel room he sets her down, and she crawls unselfconsciously into the bed, favoring her hurt wrist and shedding her sandals. She looks incredibly small and defenseless in the middle of the huge bed.
“You know, Alba, not that you have anything to worry about, here, but you may want to keep in mind that you can’t just trust any old guy who offers to let you stay in his moldy motel room.”
“You’re not any old guy,” she replies.
“Well yeah, that’s true, but how do you know that if you’ve never met me before?”
“Alba told me,” she says, as if this should be obvious. “Big Alba. Older, from later. Dean, with green eyes.
He sleeps on the couch, which is too short to allow him to stretch out completely. When he wakes up in the morning, she’s gone. He collects the clothes and sandals before he checks out and leaves them outside their proper owner’s door, wondering what the anonymous little girl whose dress Alba borrowed for the night will make of that.
Dean wakes up slowly, head fuzzy from drugs and the special brand of exhaustion that comes from spending too many hours on his back in a hospital. At first he fights to stay asleep because being awake means having to think way too hard about stuff that should just come naturally, like breathing, for example. But apparently he’s all slept out because his efforts seem to just hasten the waking process. When it becomes clear that he’s losing the battle for unconsciousness, he lets his eyes open and blinks in the light from the hospital room window. At first he doesn’t recognize the girl sitting on the end of his bed who glances away from the window, finds him awake, and smiles.
“Hi, Dean.” And then it’s Alba, only older than he can remember seeing her before, the baby curves of her face and shoulders giving way to longer, more athletic lines.
“Hey.” He tries to return the smile and mostly succeeds. “How long you been there?”
“A while,” she replies. “I’m not here for much longer.” She’s wearing a pair of scrubs that—wonder of wonders—actually fit her pretty well, and her voice is lower and softer than he remembers. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and adds, “Too bad, I like hospitals.”
“Hospitals suck,” he says with conviction.
“Well, I like them when you’re not in them.” She says it with a sigh. “It’s easy to find clothes and nobody wonders why I don’t have shoes. What did you do, anyway?” she asks, gesturing to the heart monitor and the cords disappearing down the neck of his scrubs.
Dean runs through a dozen possible responses and settles on most of the truth with a side of cocky indifference. “Freak accident involving a puddle and a few thousand volts.” He adds a shrug for good measure.
Alba raises an eyebrow but instead of inquiring further she glances around the room, sees the sweatshirt hanging over the back of the chair, and asks, “Where’s Sam?”
“Probably back at our motel.” Doing his damnedest to hunt up some kind of miracle because he can’t take “fatal myocardial infarction” for an answer.
“Is he okay?” asks Alba.
Dean frowns and can’t help sounding a little defensive when he says, “He will be.”
“Not what I asked.” She gives him a small, ironic smile.
“Hey, Sam isn’t the one stuck in the hospital with nothing to do but watch daytime TV,” Dean protests. Her smile softens, and she pats him on the knee, her hand warm through the sheets.
“Well, I’d stay and keep you company if I could, but…” She shrugs. “You know.”
“Get better,” she admonishes, as if he’s here with the flu or a broken bone. “And take care.” With that, she’s gone. He watches her scrubs collapse down into the space where she was a moment ago and thinks that he’s not going to get better, but if he’s going to “take care” then the first order of business is to get out of this sucky hospital and back to Sam.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3