Ten days later, Blue Earth, Montana:
"So…do you believe Dad did what that that guy said he did?"
They'd been at Pastor Jim's place for over a week, and so far Sam hadn't asked any questions about the man who had attacked and tried to suffocate him in a box too small for his growing body. Dean had been relieved since he was still on the fence as to what to think…now it looked like his grace period was over.
The first day in the motel had been bad for Sam, the muscles in his arms and legs cramping and twitching so badly that the boy had nearly been screaming with pain before Dean had gotten the worst of them massaged out.
Sam hadn't wanted anyone else to touch him, but he'd finally relented and let their Dad help because John's hands were bigger and had more strength. The older hunter was able to get the cramps out more quickly, and the exhausted teenager finally fell asleep at the first break in searing agony. He'd slept though the morning and had missed the slight disagreement his brother and father had over the unfinished hunts that both John and Caleb had abandoned to rescue Sam.
All Dean would say was that he didn't care if the hunts needed to be finished…he wasn't leaving Sam alone so that was it. It was finally agreed that John and Caleb would work together to finish both hunts while Dean took Sam to Jim's cabin as planned. John wasn't crazy about being away from his boys, but he knew the importance of making sure the hunts were finished.
Once at Jim's place Dean hovered over Sam, constantly checking his wounds and asking if he was hungry or needed pain medication. Finally, after four days of the constant attention, Sam was growling and Jim was laughing.
It took nearly a full week for Sam's muscles to stop cramping and causing him to fall or drop things. Other than the severe muscle cramps, his wounds had been minor. He had only needed a few stitches in one of the gashes, and his cracked ribs were kept tightly wrapped and were slowly healing. The raw places where the ropes had dug in had required nothing more than antiseptic cream and bandages to help them heal. Dean nursed Sam through it all, steadfastly refusing Jim's help though it was frequently offered.
As he slowly recovered, Sam was quiet. He kept saying that he was fine, that he was just tired, but Dean knew better. He could tell that something was bothering his brother and just waited it out…it wasn't a long wait.
On their third day with Pastor Jim, an unexpected storm blew up and knocked out the power for the cabin. It happened in the middle of the night, and Dean was roughly awakened by the shout of his name from his half asleep, confused, and obviously terrified little brother who'd opened his eyes to find their room pitch black and imagined himself back in the box, thrashing to be free.
It took Dean nearly 20 minutes, a lantern from Pastor Jim, and a painful blow to his face before he was finally able to get Sam securely into his arms. He held the trembling teenager tightly, talking softly to calm him down and convince him that he was safe…that he was free from the box…that he could see light if he opened his eyes and looked at the lantern.
Once Sam understood where he was and who was with him, he calmed down a little. It was then that he also began to talk about his fears and nightmares. All Dean could do was sit and listen and hold him until he'd fallen back into a troubled sleep.
John called every night to check on them, but he hadn't pushed to speak with Sam, which both relieved and annoyed Dean. He rolled his eyes at the usual orders to make sure they were training each day to stay in shape.
"Sam can barely walk a mile before he cramps up, so I'm sure a 10-mile run would be real helpful," the older brother groused to the calm holy man as they watched Sam lie on the couch in Jim's living room while reading a book.
Dean didn't push the training thing. He did have Sam clean his .45, but only as a way to test how his hands and fingers were moving…he didn't time it like their Dad would've. He never timed Sam on anything nor did he time himself when he was teaching his brother something new.
By the end of the first week, Sam was feeling better and starting to get restless and edgy. He actually asked to spar outside…John never recognized it, but as long as no one was pushing the kid, Sam usually didn't mind the sparring or weapons practice…as long as it was just the two of them.
Sam found that he didn't mind so much when Jim watched or came around during their sparring matches after he saw that the man wasn't going to snap at him for not being as good as Dean or not taking Dean down fast enough. He was still weak and unsteady, so Sam wasn't as quick or agile as he normally was when he could sometimes take his brother off his feet.
"He's gonna bitch at me," Sam muttered one day when his left leg gave out and he'd collapsed to the floor of Jim's padded training room in the basement. "He'll make me…"
"Dad won't make you do anything, Sam," Dean interrupted. "I'll make sure he knows you're not up to par yet…and whatever he does have you do when he gets back…I'll be right there to do it with you," Dean promised and meant it. He'd seen Sam after one of John's training sessions and knew the kid wouldn't be able to handle one of those yet.
By the time they began watching for their Dad and Caleb to show up, Sam was almost back to normal. He'd taken to exercising in the morning with Pastor Jim while Dean just looked at them both like they were crazy and went back to sleep.
They cleaned all the weapons in Jim's storage room one rainy day and then spent the next afternoon on the dock fishing. It made Dean smile to himself to watch his brother's dimpled smile come out when they did something so simple, so normal, as catch fish that Jim then cooked.
It was these moments, the times when it was just them and he could make his brother laugh, that Dean was reminded that Sam was just still a teenager, a kid really, with a chance at normal still there for him. That night as Dean watched Sam fall asleep, his hand curled under his pillow and the soft glow of a small lamp highlighting his face, he swore that he would do something to give him that life.
Now they were sitting on the deck waiting to hear the sound of John's truck when the question came out…Dean hesitated and stared into the trees for a long moment.
He'd been considering that question himself for days. Dean had learned growing up that when it came to hunting, his father could be a bit more than obsessed and determined.
Dean had seen the man do things that could have turned out disastrously if just one thing had gone wrong. He'd also seen himself and Sam get hurt because of John's one track mind, so it wasn't all that farfetched to believe the things that Clay Baxter had said.
But admitting that to himself and saying that to a kid who already had serious doubts about not only hunting but also about their father were two different things…so Dean did what he always did when trying to find a fragile balance between his brother and father: he coated the lie with the lightest white covering he could pull off and prayed it didn't come back to bite him in the ass.
"I think Baxter and his buddy were two hotheads who probably didn't know what they were doing and got in over their heads. I think Dad was being stubborn and hardheaded as usual and insisted on doing things his way. We don't have any way of knowing exactly what they were doing…or what Dad was doing…or even if it was being done at the same time…so I think the ghost got lucky and rather face his own mistakes, the guy just laid the blame on Dad." He turned to see that Sam's eyes were calm as they watched him, considering the words. "I also think Dad's a lot more experienced than he was 10 years ago and knows more about what not to do on a job so mistakes like that don't happen."
"So…you don't think he'd…" Sam cut the next question off with a shake of his head. "Never mind," he muttered, pausing a beat before while playing with the band around his wrist. "I really do appreciate you taking the time away from hunting to let me rest up. I…enjoyed just getting to spend time together."
Dean could easily translate his little brother's words. The kid had enjoyed it just being them, pretending to be normal, instead of wondering when the next monster would pop up or having to watch every word or step they made so no one started asking too many questions. "Yeah Sammy, I've enjoyed it too." He glanced over to see the frown forming as Sam watched for their Dad and Dean made a sudden decision. "Go get your jacket and tell Jim we'll grab dinner in town," he announced.
"Huh? Where're we going?" Sam asked, standing to follow his brother, surprised by this sudden announcement. "Dad's supposed to be here soon and…"
"Yeah…and Dad can wait for us." Dean knew the man would hate that and he'd get lectured later on but seeing the cautious joy filling Sam's face told him he was doing the right thing. "We're going to the movies and eating out. Your choice of movie and food…though if you pick some foreign flick I will put Nair in your shampoo again."
"Right, no movies with subtitles…got it." Sam laughed as he hurried to grab his jacket and tell Pastor Jim where they were going while Dean sent a text to Caleb to prepare him for the possible blow-up.
By the time the brothers got back from seeing a comedy and action flick and eating dinner, it was late and Sam was half asleep in the front seat; his head was slumped over on his balled up jacket against the passenger door, a familiar position for the teenager.
Dean took the drive up to the cabin slowly, seeing the big black truck already parked there. He saw his father and Jim waiting in front of the cabin and knew that his delay had not been appreciated. He shook his head as he parked and just sat there for a moment, as if preparing to do battle. As he reached for the door handle, he heard Sam begin to stir. "Stay put and go to sleep," he encouraged with a gentle touch to the back of his neck. "I'll grab our bags and be right back."
"He pissed?" Sam knew that was probably the reason Dean wanted him to stay in the car, but since he was still tired and a little sore from sitting at the movies for so long, he decided not to argue.
"More than likely…but it'll be at me, not you this time, so you sleep and I'll be back." Dean knew if John jumped on him right now, Sam would get involved and he didn't want that. Of course he also knew his Dad knew better than to jump on him around Jim and Caleb, so he probably had a good few hours to work on his counter-argument. "Hey."
John's bearded face was stern, but it did slowly lighten as he turned from Jim to eye his oldest and then looked past him to the parked Impala with a raised brow. "Have fun?" he asked mildly, but the unspoken bite was there if you knew to listen for it…and Dean always listened for it.
"Yeah, he did…and yeah, Sam's doin' much better now after your enemy hurt him…thanks for asking, Dad." The sarcasm was easy for Dean as it was a part of his personality. He didn't always use it on his Dad but when he did, it usually served a point. "I'm grabbing our bags and then we'll follow you to whatever state you've picked for our next hunt…but just one thing, Dad…" He paused as he got close to John. "I don't know what you did back then. I don't really give a crap either since it's water under the bridge…but I'm going to say this to you now, Dad…if you ever put Sam in harm's way like this again or on a hunt because you're too stubborn to do it another way, then I will either take him and walk away, or I will do to you what I told that asshole I'd do to him."
Caleb's groan was heard while Jim frowned, tensing more as he went to reach for John in case the man lost his temper…it was well known that he did not like to have his orders questioned.
"You threatening me, son?" John asked mildly, a small grin showing as if surprised, but then it slowly faded when his son's lips curved in a smile that was pure challenge. "Remember who taught you what you know, Dean."
"No, sir." Dean replied easily, cocking his head while holding his father's gaze steadily. "You always taught us that Winchester's don't threaten, we promise. So I'm promising that if you ever let my brother be hurt, then I'll show you what else I've learned…because protecting Sammy? That will always be what I do…against anyone." His eyes were harder than normal until he slowly stepped back to smile. "We'll follow you."
Dean was thankful to see that Jim had already brought their bags down to the steps. He nodded his thanks since he also knew that the extra bag would have things for Sam and him that the Pastor would've packed as gifts or treats.
Dean easily shouldered all three duffels and tossed a nod to Caleb who was leaning on the deck rail as if waiting to see if he needed to come down or not. He exchanged a handshake with Jim before finally stopping to meet John's eyes fully, sliding his gaze to his sleeping brother and then back.
With that Dean walked away, tossed the duffels in the trunk, and got back behind the wheel of the Impala, making a turn to head back down the drive to wait on the main road for John.
"He's what you made him, John," Jim reminded softly, a little chilled by the icy tone he'd heard in Dean's normally cocky voice. "You brought this on yourself. I think you'd better start watching your mouth and how you handle those boys because Dean's not the obedient little boy anymore, and his loyalty is to that boy riding beside him. You push Sam and you'll be pushing Dean too, so just try to think of what's more important."
John knew what was important. He just wasn't sure how to keep it from falling apart as he watched Sam grow and feared what would come for his son as he got older.
He hadn't liked Dean's attitude, but he had come to accept that his older boy would always put himself between him and Sam…and the longer it went on, the more John could see that Jim was right. Dean's loyalty was to the boy he'd practically raised, and he feared what his boy would do if it came down to protecting Sam against the ultimate threat.
He noticed the idling Impala as he pulled onto the main road and pulled up beside it. Dean rolled his window down and looked up at him. "Might have a werewolf over in Indiana. He up to that yet?" he asked, voicing his concern without actually speaking it.
"So long as Fido doesn't decide to chew on him in a library then yeah, he's good for that." Dean's reply made it clear that Sam would be doing research and not actually on the hunt. Werewolves were still things Dean didn't like Sam to hunt because while his brother was good with a gun, he wasn't as quick on the draw as Dean was yet. Dean also knew that Sam was not yet 100% recovered from his recent ordeal.
"Keep up then," John nodded, accepting Dean's decision even if he might not like it too much. He started to roll up the window but stopped to lean back out to eye his son. "Dean…you know you can't always protect him like this," he began slowly, seeing the muscle twitch that told him Dean's temper was on the surface. "He has to learn to hunt or…"
"He'll learn on his terms and on mine, but the more you push him, the faster you'll push him away…just keep that in mind," Dean returned and then rolled his window up, essentially ending the conversation.
Once he was trailing behind the truck, Dean glanced over, smiling when he saw that Sam was sleeping peacefully again. He turned the volume down on the radio before he slipped in one of his favorite tapes and making himself relax behind the wheel.
It had been a hard couple of weeks and Dean made himself a promise that he would never let Sam go through anything this again no matter who he might have to bury himself.
"Gonna make this better for you one day, Sammy," he murmured, hoping he could in a way that still allowed him to keep his family intact.