By: Ridley C. James
Author's notes: I am so appreciative to everyone who took the time to write me about this story. I know I've said it before but Reviews really are food for the muse, and mine has been living high on the hog, as my granny use to say. Thanks! So Much! -Ridley
"Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." -Tolstoy
Sam Winchester watched as a final handful of dirt was thrown onto the casket that had been lowered into the ground just moments before and ducked his head as he felt the hot tears slide onto his wind stung cheeks.
This shouldn't be happening.
John was standing off to his right, looking solemn as usual. His thick dark hair was being tossed around in the wind and his hands were folded behind his back. He had his head bowed as the preacher prayed, but his brown eyes were open, staring unseeingly at the ground.
Sam never understood why people closed their eyes when they talked to God. Didn't they want to see Him, just in case? Maybe it was because they were scared of what they would see. That had to be it, because his father wasn't afraid of anything.
Sam kept his eyes wide open as the preacher continued to speak in a hushed tone. He'd never been to a funeral before, not one he could remember anyway, and he didn't want to miss anything.
His mother was the only person that he had really known that had died, and he'd been just a baby when she had been buried, so it wasn't really like he knew her at all. In all honesty, he didn't quite understand the concept of it. Loss. It was such a big and scary word to have so few letters. Four. It had four letters and it was what the preacher had talked about through the whole service.
Sam might not have been sure of what it was, but he could feel it surrounding him, making it hard to breathe, making it impossible to feel safe, or warm.
The reverend finished and people began to cry harder. Sam cried harder too.
His father gave him a disapproving glance out of the corner of his eye, but he felt his brother's arm slide across his small shoulders and pull him in close to his side, and Sam knew it'd be alright.
Once the people started to disperse, John stepped closer to where they were and bent down in front of Sam and his brother. "I've got to stay here until everyone leaves. Then I'll salt and burn the body and we'll go get some dinner, okay, guys?"
Sam turned his gaze to the graveside where a little girl and a woman still stood. The little girl had long blond hair and when the wind blew it looked like the waving wheat fields that he and his family had passed through in some state that Sam couldn't quite remember the name of. She had a white flower gripped tightly in her small hand, which she tossed into the big hole before she turned and walked away, her yellow hair flowing behind her.
"Did you hear me, Sam?" John's stern voice had his five year-old son focusing on him once more. "You listen to your brother and don't get into any trouble. We don't need any attention drawn to us."
Sam nodded. "I'll be good, Daddy."
John stood and walked away leaving his sons to take themselves back to the truck that he had parked on the other side of the graveyard.
"Let's go, Sammy." Nine year-old Dean Winchester reached down and took hold of his brother's hand, noticing with a grimace how cold the tiny fingers were. He'd have to get Sam some gloves the next time they were in a Wal-mart. The big stores were always easier to steal from.
When Sam didn't move along with him, he sighed, and stooped down so that he was eye level with his kid brother. "Sam, let's go to the truck where it's warm. You're going to catch a cold."
Sam's big brown eyes were still staring at the plot of earth where the coffin had gone into. A single tear escaped the long lashes it had been trapped among and zigzagged down the little boy's red cheeks.
"Sammy, why are you crying?" Dean reached up and turned the solemn face towards him. He gently brushed the offending moisture away with his thumb, and studied his brother's face. "You didn't even know those people."
"They were so sad," he said, as if that explained everything. Sam had never seen anyone so sad before. He'd seen people angry and frustrated, and happy, but never so sad, unless he counted his daddy. Sometimes his daddy looked very, very sad, but then he'd just get really mad. Sam didn't like it, not one bit.
"That's because someone they love just died." Dean glanced towards the grave and then back to his brother. "Someone in their family." The older Winchester could remember all too well what that was like. Sometimes his heart still hurt when he thought about his mom.
When the wind picked up again, Dean reached out to tighten Sammy's coat around him. "People get really sad around death."
"Not, Daddy. He gets mad. Daddy likes to kill things."
Dean sighed. He wasn't sure how to explain to a five year-old what exactly it was that their father did. He was almost ten, nearly twice Sammy's age, and he wasn't sure he understood it himself. "Not always. It's just that sometimes when someone dies in a really bad way or when they were really bad when they were alive, then they can't rest really well. So, they hang around causing a lot of problems."
"Like that bad ghost that pushed me down the well."
Dean nodded, grimly. "Yeah, like that one."
"Will that little girl's daddy come back as a mean ghost?" Sam stared off into the distance at the crowd of mourners still moving like a dark wave towards the line of parked cars around them.
It took Dean a moment to follow his brother's train of thought, but then he recalled the little blond girl whohad looked to be about Sam's age. Shehad cried during the whole service. "If Dad doesn't stop him, probably."
"Was he a bad man?"
"Yes." Dean had heard his father on the phone with someone talking about the things that Wilburn Meadows had done. His father had thought him possessed. Maybe that little girl was crying with relief that her tormentor was gone.
"Dean, did Daddy kill that man?"
Dean swallowed hard, remembering his father running the ceremonial knife through the creature's heart. Thankfully, Sammy had been in the truck asleep, but Dean had seen everything as he stood guard over his little brother.
He looked into Sam's eyes. "Dad did what he had to do, Sam. He saved that little girl, a bunch of other little girls, too." Dean didn't know that for sure, but he had to believe what he was saying was true, not only for Sam, but for himself. "He's a hero."
Sam didn't appear too convinced, but he nodded in agreement just the same. "Does everybody die, Dean?"
The question caught him off guard, and the pained expression on his little brother's face felt like a quick punch in the stomach. He shouldn't lie to Sam, wouldn't lie to him. "Yeah, Sammy, they do."
Tears suddenly filled the large brown eyes again. "I don't want you to die, Dean. Please, don't die."
Sam was sure he didn't ever want to feel the way that he sensed those around him were feeling today. He didn't want Loss to find him.
Sam didn't want his daddy or his brother to be put in a large hole in the ground where he could never talk to them or hug them or ever see them again. That just couldn't happen.
Before Dean could come up with a reply to the distraught plea, he found his arms full with Sam's shivering little body. The five year-old clung to the older boy, burying his face into Dean's shoulder. "Promise me you won't die, Dean. Not ever. Promise you won't leave me."
Dean hugged the little boy tightly, looking up at the dark cloud-covered sky above them, and did the only thing a big brother could do. "I won't, Sammy. Not ever. I promise."
"You promised." The whispered words were almost subconscious as Sam traced small circles with his finger on Bennett's kitchen table. "You promised, Dean."
He wasn't really sure why the memory had sprung to his mind, but the image of his first funeral wasn't something he really wanted to recall while his brother was having surgery.
Maybe it was the fact that Dean had never lied to him before then. Even as a little kid, a part of Sam had known his brother wasn't telling him the truth. But, at the time, it had been all that Sam had wanted to hear.
In fact, ten years hadn't changed things a whole hell of a lot.
The last thing he'd said to Dean before his father and Bennett had returned to the examination room was, "Please don't die, Dean."
It had surprised him that he'd actually spoken the words out loud, and Dean's reply shocked him even more. "I won't, Sammy. I promise."
Then he'd given the blood that Dean had needed for the surgery and his father had exiled him to the kitchen. Sam glanced up to the clock on the wall. He had now been waiting for almost an hour.
When he heard the door to the exam room finally open, Sam nearly knocked over the chair in his haste to stand up.
His father stepped out looking tired and older than he had ever remembered seeing him. There was a moment of vulnerability on his hard features, but when he raised his head and saw Sam watching him, the look vanished and he motioned for his son to stay there.
Sam watched as he pulled the door shut and started walking down the short hallway separating them.
"Is Dean alright?" The words tumbled out as soon as John stepped into the small dining area. "Did the surgery go okay?"
John was still wearing scrubs and they were splattered with blood, a sight that caused Sam's already nervous stomach to do flips. His father's face was grim, but he nodded his head, and walked past Sam straight to the coffee pot on the counter. "He's fine. Bennett is finishing up, and then you can go in and see him."
Like I need your permission. Sam knew he was being childish, but the sight of his father was not a comfort at the moment, but more of a catalyst for all the emotions he'd been fighting for the last three hours.
John took a drink of the strong brew that Bennett had probably made earlier in the evening and not for the first time that night wished it had been something much, much stronger. Like whiskey, or tequila, or at this point a beer would have sufficed. The look on Sam's face made him long for anything that would deaden his overtaxed nerves.
"You're brother is tough. He'll be up around in no time."
"So you can have him out hunting the next evil thing on your list."
John ignored the jab, and took a chair. He eased his tall frame into it, taking another drink of the coffee, so he wouldn't say anything he would regret later. Sam looked like hell, and he was pretty sure the kid was about to reach his breaking point. He'd seen the familiar storm brewing for days.
"He could have died." The picture of that crazed lunatic stabbing his brother was permanently etched in his memory.
Dark eyes lifted and held Sam's accusing gaze. "But he didn't."
Sam couldn't believe the nerve of the man. "Am I suppose to be grateful to you for that. Is Dean?"
"The gratitude should probably start with Bennett."
"Dean wouldn't have been here if it wasn't for you. For this hunt." Sam wouldn't have been here either, wondering if his brother was going to live or die.
God, John was tired. Tired of fighting, of hunting. He was so sick of not knowing what he should be doing, and then having his face rubbed in the fact that he had indeed failed so miserably.
"I know you have a problem with me, Sam. I get it!" His voice rose despite the fact he was trying his best to remain calm. "There's no way I could miss it! You're pissed at how our lives are. You hate what I do, what we do as a family. But that's just the way things are, son."
"Things are the way you want them to be. You don't care that I should be in school or that Dean should be in college or that we should have a house and a yard and a dog." Sam could feel himself shaking, the anger and frustration bubbling to the surface.
"You think I don't want those things for you and your brother. You think I dreamed about your lives, our lives, turning out like this." John waved a hand around the room, gesturing to the situation more than their surroundings. "I do what I have to do to keep you and your brother safe, and yes, I'm proud that we help other people along the way to finding out the truth."
"Truth?", Sam spat. There it was again. The word tasted dirty in his mouth. Sam had really begun to hate the sound of it.
It had become his father's mistress and he courted it with every fiber of his being, giving his beloved truth every bit of himself and his energy until there was nothing left for anyone else.
"The truth is that you put your sons in danger everyday. You risk our lives for what? Revenge? Nothing you do will bring Mom back. Nothing! But you're going to get one of us or yourself killed. Then what will be left of our family?"
John stood and in a rush of anger threw his coffee cup against the wall, it shattered sending coffee and shards of glass scattering across the floor. Sam flinched and a cold realization settled in. Dean wasn't there to protect him. He'd never realized until that moment just how much his brother's presence kept them both stable.
"What the hell is going on in here?" Bennett had just finished bandaging the last of Dean's wounds when he'd heard the shouting then the crash that followed. Knowing what the infamous Winchester temper was capable of, he quickly left his sleeping patient to find the rest of the dynamic trio before they wrecked his house.
John and Sam both turned to look at the veterinarian, but neither spoke. "If you didn't like the coffee, you could have just told me" He motioned to the mess. "I could have made some more. Maybe decaf."
John raked both hands threw his hair and glanced at Sam before silently turning and storming out the back door and into the pouring rain.
Sam started to follow, but Bennett grabbed his arm. "Give him time to cool off, boy." When dark eyes glared at him, the doctor jerked his head towards the hallway. "I know someone who needs you more."
"He looks so pale." Sam reached out and laid his hand against Dean's bruised cheek. It was like ice to the touch.
Bennett nodded, pulling another blanket from a cabinet and carefully draping it over Dean. "Blood loss will do that. When he wakes up, we'll move him to the guest room. It'll be warmer in there."
"So he's going to be okay?"
Bennett stared at the kid, not quite able to make out exactly what emotion he saw swirling in those dark eyes, so much like John's. "Your brother is one tough kid. I have a feeling he'll be back to chasing the ladies in no time."
Sam smiled. "He'll be glad to hear that."
"What about you, you got a girlfriend?" Bennett turned and started working on cleaning his instruments and putting them away.
"No." Sam pulled a stool next to his brother's bed and sat down. He picked up Dean's cold hand, the one free of the IV, and held it. "We move around too much."
"That must be tough." Bennett cast a quick glance over his shoulder. "I guess you don't get to make too many friends either?"
"No." When Sam did get to go to one school for an extended period of time he found it pointless to invest in getting to know someone. Besides, by the time he was no longer the freaky new boy, he was leaving.
"How about sports? Do either of you boys play?"
"Dean played T-ball. I've seen the pictures." Sam watched his brother's chest move up and down, allowing it to calm his frazzled nerves. "I always thought I'd like basketball."
"You're tall enough." Bennett laughed. "But can you jump?"
Sam shrugged and felt his eyes growing heavy as he stifled a yawn. "I can fight. I'm really good at that."
Bennett looked surprised and stopped what he was doing. "Fight? Like boxing?" For some reason Sam didn't really strike him as a scrapper.
Sam shrugged. "Boxing, kick boxing, Karate, anything hand to hand, and I got it covered."
"You don't say?" Bennett knew that the old John Winchester, sharp shooter extraordinaire, was one of the most efficient killers he'd ever seen work, but Sam was just a kid. Surely his old friend didn't train his sons in the dark arts.
"I can shoot too." Sam glanced up at him as if he could read his thoughts. "Rifle, pistol, machine gun, bow, not to mention throwing stars, and even swords. If it was meant to kill something, I can handle it."
Bennett's frown deepened. He'd never allowed his own son to eventouch a weapon. "That's not really something you see a call for in many schools or team sporting events these days."
"Not unless it's a school for mercenaries." The teen turned his gaze back to his unconscious brother. "But there aren't too many of those around."
"No, I guess not." Bennett shook his head to remove the mental image that Sam had just given him and went back to his cleaning. He supposed that Sam's talents were shared by his brother and that would explain the numerous, curious, scars he'd noticed on Dean.
Bennett cleared his throat. "What else do you like to do, Sam?"
"I like to read." Sam leaned his head over onto the table and let his forehead rest against Dean's arm. "I like to research stuff, figure out how things fit together. I like history and mythology."
"That sounds like my son. He's a big shot lawyer in Washington D.C." Bennett couldn't keep the pride out of his voice. "He fights for the little man, you know. Taking on big corporations and conglomerates who think they can run the world just because they control the almighty dollar." Bennett turned back to look at the teen. "Maybe you could go to law school."
Sam lifted his head and his eyes brightened just a little. "I want to go to college."
"Then that's what you should do. There's plenty of scholarships out there if a man is willing to work hard enough for them."
Scholarships only worked if you were in high school to get them. Sam rested his chin on his free hand and sighed. "Sometimes wanting something doesn't make it happen."
Bennett shrugged and put the last of his instruments away. "I don't know about that." He walked past Sam and squeezed his shoulder. "Maybe it just depends on how badly you want it."
When the teen looked up at him, Bennett glanced towards Dean. "And what you're willing to sacrifice to get it."
Sam watched the man go, and then turned back to rest his head once more. He would sacrifice a lot to be normal. As he grew older, he was more sure of that everyday. Maybe he was willing to sacrifice as much for his own freedom as his father was willing to sacrifice for his freedom from guilt. Maybe, he was even willing to sacrifice his family.
Dean shifted in his sleep and a soft moan filled the silence. He mumbled Sam's name, but didn't open his eyes or awaken. Sam squeezed his hand. "I'm here, Dean." And suddenly, the thought of leaving his big brother for a normal life fled his mind as quickly and quietly as it had entered.
"Here. I thought you could use these." Bennett found John in the barn out behind the house. He was sitting on a stack of hay in one of the empty horse stalls, still dripping wet from his time spent cooling off in the rain.
The veterinarian handed him a towel and a heavy overcoat and then smiled as he held up a thermos. "This baby is shatterproof."
John snorted, and shook his head. "Sorry about the mess."
Bennett took a seat on the hay stack beside his friend and laughed. "You think you're the first one to put a dent in that wall. Back when Tyler was a teenager, I think I had stock in stucco."
John opened the thermos and filled the lid to the brim. "Dean alright?"
"Yeah, Sam's sitting with him."
"Right." John took a drink of the coffee, enjoying the oddly comforting burning sensation as it went down.
"Those two are pretty close?"
John nodded. "Oh yeah." He glanced at his old buddy. "It's been that way since their mom died." An image of Dean sitting in Sam's crib, protectively holding his baby brother flashed unbidden to his mind.
"Hell, it might have started in the womb. Dean was so damn excited to have a baby brother. He started asking for one his second Christmas, and that was all he could talk about the whole time Mary was pregnant."
John raked a hand through his hair and sighed. Things had been so different then. "Mary was so afraid that Sam was going to be a Samantha. I think she thought Dean just might be heartbroken if that happened. But Dean never had any doubts, he even picked the name out. It was from some book his mom had read to him."
"You seem to have done a good job with them."
John nearly choked on his coffee. "Did you meet my son, Sam?"
Bennett laughed. "Seems to me he's a lot like his old man."
"God, don't let him here you say that, Bennett." John sighed. "Actually, he's a lot like his mom. He's sensitive and kind, and sometimes too honest for his own damn good. Maybe he did get all his bad qualities from me, but believe me, there aren't many of those."
As Bennett listened to John talk about his kids, he had no doubt the man adored his boys, but he had to wonder at the circumstances that apparently surrounded the small family. Something just didn't add up. "I can't imagine being a single parent, man. I had hard enough time with Sarah to back me up. When we divorced, Tyler was already out of high school."
"Mary and I had so many plans for them. I screwed most of them up." He took another drink of the bitter brew, hoping it would dissolve the lump that had lodged painfully in his throat. "They deserved a lot better than what they got stuck with."
"Look, Johnnie, I don't know what you've got going on now," he was pretty sure he didn't want to know, "or what you've been doing these last fifteen years, but I do know that you love your sons. That much is obvious, and you're still with them. You're hanging in there. You didn't eat a bullet when Mary died." If Bennett were honest, that was exactly what he had expected the man to do when he had learned of the tragic accident. "And you didn't drink yourself into oblivion. A lot of lesser men would have."
"Oh, I drank." A rush of memories flooded through John's mind. "More than I should have."
John glared at the other man, anger filling his features, but the wrath was all directed inward. "Don't rush to put me on some pedestal, Ben. Honestly, Dean raised Sam. And as to who raised Dean? Well, let's just say that he was five going on thirty. He grew up in the instant that I placed his little brother in his arms and told him to run out of our burning house." John shook his head. "Maybe the father in me died in that fire with Mary."
"No way." Bennett shook his head. "The man I saw in there tonight was a father."
Bennett remembered how upset John had been. His hands were shaking so badly, he hadn't been a whole helluva lot of help during the surgery.
Despite Dean's bravado, the kid had been scared when it came to going under. John had kidded with him, and then comforted him with the tenderness only a parent could offer. "You did what you had to do to save your son. I'm guessing that's what you've been trying to do all along."
"Maybe." John stared at the dirt floor. "But, I'm afraid that I'm going to fail them, and it will cost them their lives. I don't know if I can keep doing things the way I have been. I'm going to lose them one way or another. I can sense it." He lifted his gaze to Bennett once more. "I have nightmares about it."
The vet could almost feel the pain radiating off the other man. He wished he was better with words, although men didn't usually find the need for them much. A good swift kick in the ass was usually the preferred technique.
"You're only human, John."
"So are they." John rubbed a hand over his beard. "Sometimes I think I forget that they're still kids. Kids who have every reason to hate their own father."
"I don't think those boys hate you, John."
"Again, have you met my son, Sam?"
Bennett smiled. "He doesn't hate you. Well, maybe he does a little right now. But, most teens hate their parents at some point. I'd be more concerned if he was all roses and sweetness."
John laughed, but the sound that he made echoed more of hurt than joy. "He use to be so sweet. God, he was a cute kid. I couldn't hardly say no to anything he wanted. I swear sometimes I think Dean was more strict than I was."
"He'll be that way again, Johnnie. He's just trying to find his own way to being the man he wants to be."
John tilted his head and smirked at the other man. "You took Psych classes in medical school, didn't you?"
"Hey, they were required," Bennett defended. "Besides, they kind of came in handy when I was trying to manipulate Tyler into doing something he didn't want to do."
"How's Tyler doing?" John asked, slightly relieved to be talking about something half way normal for a change.
"He's good. Lives in D.C. Works as a lawyer there."
"You must be real proud."
Bennett smiled. "I am." He crossed his arms over his chest and looked at John. "Sam tells me that he wants to go to school."
So , his old pal wasn't going to let it go. "School isn't all its cracked up to be." John felt an old familiar guilt rising to the surface. "Both my boys are smart. I've made sure they've kept up with reading and writing, and anything else that they are suppose to have. Dean graduated last May, and anytime we're in one place for a while, I put Sam in school."
Bennett held up his hands in mock surrender. "Easy, big guy. That wasn't an accusation. I was talking about college."
John raised an eyebrow at his friend. " College is a long ways off."
"Seems to me it's already on the boy's mind."
The oldest Winchester shook his head. If Sam went to college, it would be hard, almost impossible, to protect him. "He's always got something on his mind. Last week he wanted to be a stunt car driver." Or, was that last year? God, how the time flew.
"I'm just saying that maybe that could be something you two could work on together. Kind of like a bonding thing, you know?"
"Couldn't we just work on a car? I'm good at that."
Bennett laughed. "I think you could get away with that with Dean, but something tells me Sam is going to make you work just a little bit harder."
"Yeah." John took a deep breath and let it out nice and slow. Bennett didn't know the half of it. "Sam is going to be very, very, hard."
"This bed is way too hard," Dean complained for about the twentieth time since being moved into Bennett's son's old room.
He was making a quick recovery and Sam was sure that thier dad would be itching to get back on the road as soon as possible, especially since old man Hayes' body had been discovered the day before.
Sam glanced at his brother and then went back to studying the chess board in front of him. "You're stalling."
"Am not." Dean grumbled and gingerly leaned forward. His hand went to his injured chest, and if Sam hadn't recognized the move for the sympathy ploy that it was, he might have felt bad. Dean painstakingly moved his piece, taking great satisfaction in saying, "Check."
Sam bit his lip to keep from smiling. His brother had fallen so predictably into the trap he had laid out for him. "Sorry, Bro." He took Dean's queen. "Check Mate."
Dean fell back against the pillows, not even flinching from the impact. "I hate this game."
Sam laughed. "I know Monopoly is more your speed, maybe even Candy Land, but this is all I found in the closet."
Dean looked around the room where he'd spent the last two days. There were shelves of books and magazines, but he'd yet to find any Sports Illustrated or anything with scantily clothedwomen in it. "Man, his kid must have been a geek."
Sam looked offended. "He's a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Bennett said he was top in his class at Stanford."
"Like I said," Dean sighed, moving around to get more comfortable, "a geek."
"Would you think I was a geek if I wanted to go to Stanford?"
Dean grinned. "I think you're a geek now, Sammy."
"Sam," the fifteen year-old growled. Now that his brother was back to him old self and the threat had passed, the nickname had to go. "And I'm being serious."
"Why would you want to go to school if you didn't have to?"
"To get an education, to get a career."
"Your brain's almost too big for your head now, Sam. And you've got a job. You're a hunter."
"Is that all you ever want to be." Sam dumped the game pieces back into the wooden box he'd found them in. "Don't you want to go to school.? You could study science. You always liked chemistry."
Dean shrugged. "I like what we do now. Besides, it's not like Dad's going to be too keen on me up and deciding to go to school."
"Who cares? You're nineteen, man. You can get out." God, Sam only dreamed of being eighteen. Didn't his brother realize he had a one way ticket to freedom.
Dean looked confused. "Leave? Just ditch you and Dad?"
"It wouldn't be like you were abandoning us. In fact, I could come with you." The more Sam thought about it, the better it sounded. "We could get an apartment, and I could get a part time job and go to school…and…"
Dean held up a hand to stop his brother. "Whoa, Sam. To begin with, there's no way Dad's going to go for me going off to school, and even if he did, there would be no way in hell that he'd let me take you with me." That would definitely be a deal breaker for Dean.
Sam hadn't really thought it through far enough to realize that Dean might not want him to come. "If you wanted to go by yourself then…"
"Did you just hear what I said, brainiac?" Dean couldn't believe his brother would think he'd just ditch him. "Dad is your Parent, which means he gets to say what you do and where you go, at least for a few more years. I don't have any say in the matter, Sammy." The argument with his father at the lodge was all to painfully fresh in Dean's mind.
It wasn't right. Dean was the one Sam remembered taking care of him when he was little. It was Dean who quieted his childish fears and who was always there now, when Sam needed to vent or just wanted company. Dean had signed his grade cards and the few and far between field trip forms. His brother had picked his clothes out, fixed his lunches, and even tucked him in at night, which was kind of embarrassing to think about now. But, nonetheless it was true. Wasn't that what a Parent did?
"I'd go with you." Sam hadn't worked all the details out, but he was certain of that one thing. If Dean wanted him, he'd be there. "Dad won't stop me."
"Sam," Dean's voice softened, at the determined look on his kid brother's face. "Don't get all worked up here. I'm not planning on going anywhere. College isn't something I'm really into right now. I want things to stay the way they are. We're all together, a family. That's how it should be."
Sam frowned. His brother really didn't get it. If he stayed where he was, Dean could end up dead. Sam was almost willing to be left behind if it meant at least one of them got out ofthe hell that they lived in. "Do you really want to hunt bad things for the rest of your life?"
"I prefer to look at it as ridding the world of evil to make the universe a safer place for all mankind. Kind of like Superman."
"Superman?" Sam almost laughed. "You're kidding, right?"
"Hey, I could pull off the tights. I have been told, on many occasions, that I have a great ass."
Sam shook his head. "I could have done without the image of you and your assets in tights, thank you." He picked up the pillow that the chest board had been resting on and tossed it at his brother. "Besides, we both know you just like killing things."
Dean caught the flying object with only a slight grimace of pain. "I do enjoy a good toasting of bones every now and then." He launched it back at his brother.
"You're a freak, man." Sam ducked and the pillow sailed past his head and onto the nightstand where it knocked some dishes from their previous night's dinner onto the floor.
They didn't break, but the crash was impressive. Both boys paled slightly as the door to their room opened and John Winchester stalked in. "What in the hell is going on in here?"
Dean and Sam looked at each other and then Sam glanced at their father. "Sorry. I must have fallen asleep and fell out of bed."
Dean had been right back at the lodge. The lame excuse sounded especially stupid coming out of Sam's mouth.
John rolled his eyes, but decided he wasn't going to be goaded into an angry mood today. After all, he was turning over a new leaf. "Just make sure you clean it up. Bennett is going to start charging us for room service, not to mention keeping the damage deposit."
"I'm injured." Dean looked at his brother. "That means you have dish detail."
"So what else is new."
"Well, this for one." Both boys looked at John as he pulled a brightly wrapped package from a bag he was holding. "I know it's late, Ace, but Happy Birthday." He handed the gift to Dean, who, for a moment, looked too stunned to take it. Finally he smiled and grabbed the box.
Sam shook his head at his brother's childish enthusiasm. "Amazing how quickly you've recovered."
"You're just jealous." Dean waggled his eyebrows. "It's not your birthday."
"Technically, that's true." John pulled another present out of his bag and tossed it to Sam. "But considering my tendency to forget things, I thought I better cover my bases."
Sam caught the present and looked even more surprised than his brother had.
"Thanks, Dad." Dean held up the new Walkman, complete with several cassettes. "I think my other one was a lost cause."
"The guy at the store said I should go for something called a CD player, but I figured with your collection of tapes, you'd be better off with the old school one."
"Good call." Dean grinned and tore into the Poison cassette.
"Are you going to open yours, or are you waiting for Christmas?"
Sam shrugged and tore off the paper. He couldn't really recall the last time that his father had brought him a birthday present. It must have been around five years ago. Dean always picked up the slack though.
What he found had him shooting his father a very confused look. Three books lay nestled in the wrappings. One was a study guide for the SAT, another for the ACT, and the third was a huge one on Ivy League schools. "I don't understand."
It was John's turn to act nonchalant. "Bennett mentioned you were interested in college. The lady at the bookstore said it was never too early to start studying for the entrance exams. If you score high enough on one of those tests, you could get a full ride."
"I'm not sure what to say." Sam wasn't sure what he expected but this definitely wasn't it.
"Thank you is the polite thing." Dean elbowed his brother. "Of course you could always yell it at him if it makes you feel more comfortable."
"Bite me." Sam nudged him back and then looked at his father. "Thanks, Dad. It means a lot."
"I'm not finished." John handed the bag over to Dean, who nearly destroyed it pulling out what was left inside.
"Swim trunks?" He held up two pairs of blue and black shorts. "Uh, Dad, I hate to sound ungrateful, but it's like November and we're in upper Washington State where the sun never shines."
John nodded. "True." He sat down on the edge of the bed and eyed both his sons. "But I thought we might drive down to California, go out to LA, where the sun always shines. Spend some time at the beach just hanging out."
"Like for a vacation?" Dean was not believing his ears. Not once had they ever gone on an official vacation.
"Who are you and what have you done with our father?" Sam was sure that a pod person was sitting with them in the room.
John sighed, meeting his youngest son's doubtful gaze. "I just thought that we'd take some down time, give your brother time to recuperate. That is what you wanted right?"
Sam blinked again. Of course that's what he wanted. "Are you serious?"
Dean smiled. "Girls in bikinis. That's my kind of medicine, dude."
"We could go to Disneyland."
Dean reached up and smacked his brother on the back of the head. "What are you, five?"
"Hey, I've never been there, and not all the rides are for kids."
"You just want to meet Mickey, admit it." Dean laughed. "You use to say he was your hero."
A disgusted look filled Sam's face. "At least I don't fantasize about prancing around in tights and a cape."
"So, we'll hit the road tomorrow at 5:00 AM sharp, boys." John rose from the bed, although neither of his sons seemed to notice. "Don't stay up late discussing the trip."
Sam and Dean continued to argue back and forth, the comments growing more derogatory as they went. John shook his head and decided it was best to slip out while he could.
He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, a slight smile tugging at his mouth as he heard the almost childlike laughter coming from inside. Maybe that psychology stuff did work.
John took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Sometimes the truth was overrated. He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets.
It was still there.
He could feel the piece of paper he'd written on just that morning, and his fingers closed around it like a lifeline. Taking it out, he carefully unfolded it and silently read his own neat penmanship.
Local woman dies in house fire. Husband makes wild claims of vengeful spirits. One child lost, one rescued. Second incident involving fire in the last two months.
John folded the paper once more, sliding it into his shirt pocket. He let his hand linger over his heart, and leaned his head back against the door. "Forgive me, boys." He squeezed his eyes tightly shut, blocking out the image of the man he'd become. "Please forgive me."