AN: This is set in the same continuity as my story "Cars," but you don't have to read either story to understand the other.
Between the Lines
"We're here." Dean Winchester reached under the dashboard to pop the trunk before climbing out of the driver's seat. His muscles felt stiff, and his spine made little popping noises when he raised his arms overhead and arched his back to stretch. "And about fucking time, too."
"Language, Dean," John Winchester said, but his tone was too mild for a proper rebuke, and Dean suspected his father was mainly doing it out of habit. Still, he muttered a dutiful "sorry, sir" as he went to get the guns out of the trunk.
The Impala was Dean's this month, won back in a vicious round of Texas Hold'em after three straight months of defeat, which meant he'd done most of the seven hours of driving that had brought them here, to an abandoned graveyard and the rotting remains of a church that was apparently being infested by a pack of ghouls. Dean thought it might've been nice to find a diner and grab something to eat before dealing with smelly undead things -- it was a fair bet that none of them would have an appetite afterwards -- but one look at the glowering thundercloud that was currently impersonating his kid brother in the back seat convinced him that John had been right: it was better to get it over with.
He took a pair of Remington 74s from the trunk, handed one to his father and took the other for himself.
"Sure you don't want one of us to come in with you, Dad? We could--"
"No last-minute changes to the plan." John reached past Dean for the can of lighter fluid. "We do it the way we discussed it. Tell your brother to get a move on."
Tell him yourself, Dean thought for the thousandth time, and bit back the words, also for the thousandth time. John and Sam had been giving each other the silent treatment since the start of the trip. At first, Dean had considered it an improvement over the earlier shouting, but after seven hours he thought he could happily go the rest of his life without ever hearing another variation on "tell your brother this" and "ask Dad that." He'd grimly repeated everything he was told to repeat and filled the silences with music, but by the end of the drive even Metallica had started to wear thin.
Now wasn't the time to force the issue, however. Dean grabbed a flashlight from a box wedged in next to the spare tire and flicked it on, aiming the beam to illuminate Sam's slouched form in the back seat.
"Move your ass, Sammy! Evil won't hunt itself." Dean waited for the inevitable growl of "it's i Sam /i ," but it didn't come. Instead, Sam silently gave him the finger before climbing out of the back seat and stomping over to retrieve his Glock .45 from its case in the trunk.
"All right, boys, you know the drill." John took the flashlight from Dean and slammed the trunk shut with a little more force than was strictly necessary. "Take your positions and look sharp. Anything other than me comes out one of those doors--"
"--Shoot it. We know." Dean slung the rifle over his shoulder. Ghouls, like zombies, were in the gross-but-easy category of things that went bump in the night. Fire generally did the trick, and a soft-nosed bullet to the head took care of the occasional straggler. "I'll take the front. Sam, you take the side door."
Sam grunted something that presumably meant agreement and stomped off to his assigned spot, clicking the Glock's safety off as he went. John stared after him with a worried frown.
"He'll do his part," Dean said. "He always does." He hoped Sam wouldn't make a liar of him this time. This wasn't the first hunting trip Sam had to be dragged on under protest, but it was the first one he'd genuinely fought against. All over some stupid geek award that he had won. For a i history essay /i . Dean hadn't even known they gave awards for history essays until Sam came home to announce it two days ago, glowing as if he'd scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
And yeah, all right, maybe it was kind of a big deal, being a statewide contest and all, but none of it changed the fact that there were rotting corpses walking around eating people in northern Iowa, and something needed to be done about that. Sam didn't care, though. Sam wanted to go to the award ceremony and get his little medal and his framed certificate, and have his picture taken for the local paper. Sam, in Dean's considered opinion, needed to get his priorities straight.
Not that anyone had asked Dean's considered opinion on the subject. Sam and John had spent two days duking it out at ever-increasing volume without Dean getting a word in edgewise. It had ended with Sam announcing that they couldn't make him go if he didn't want to, and John thundering that he wasn't going to be back-talked by a snot-nosed thirteen-year-old punk and that if Sam thought he was too big to be picked up by the scruff and put into the car, he had another think coming. Fifteen minutes later, Dean had pulled the Impala out of the driveway with his father glowering in the shotgun seat and a disheveled Sam sorting himself out in the back. It would've been funny if the tension in the air hadn't been so thick.
Still, willing or not, Sam was here now and he was too smart to let a fit of the sulks distract him when distraction could get somebody killed. Wasn't he? Dean watched his father disappear into the musty darkness of the church, and edged sideways in search of a new vantage point from where he could watch the front and side of the building simultaneously. It didn't work very well; there were trees in the way and the slope of the ground was all wrong. In the end, the best Dean could find was a spot where he could pace back and forth, alternating between a clear view of the front entrance and a slighly obstructed view of Sam, crouching under a weeping stone angel with one wing broken off.
Three steps right, turn. Three steps left, turn. Three steps right, his father's flashlight beam bobbing in the dark. Three steps left, glint of moonlight on the gun in Sam's hand. Three steps right, a flicker of flame in the far depths of the church. A crash, an enraged howl, and four rifle shots, one right after the other. The flames flared brighter, climbing up the walls, and Dean caught a glimpse of his father, down on one knee, hands braced against an overturned pew. A vaguely human-shaped shadow lumbered out of the fire toward him, and Dean sprinted for the door.
"I'm fine!" John rose to his feet. The ghoul swiped at him with one burning arm. John ducked under the blow, fell back a step, swung his rifle like a club. It must've connected with something, because the ghoul gave another howl and fell back into the flames. Dean began to relax, but then another one burst out from behind the burning pulpit and staggered toward the side exit, howling and flailing its arms. John started after it, but the fire blocked his way, and the ghoul was moving ridiculously fast for something that was half-decomposed and on fire. It was out the door in an eyeblink, heading straight for the spot where Sam would be waiting for it. Dean waited for the shot, but heard only the crackling of flames.
Fuck. Dean turned and ran, shouting Sam's name at the top of his lungs. He was just rounding the corner when he finally heard the shot.
Sam was standing in front of the angel statue, feet braced wide apart, the gun still pointed at the door. The ghoul he'd shot lay crumpled at his feet, still smoldering.
"You all right?" Dean called out.
"Yeah." Sam lowered the gun. "Are there any more of them?"
"I don't think so." Dean glanced over his shoulder. "Dad?"
"We're good. The others are burning inside." John came up the slope, breathing hard. He raised the flashlight up to his shoulder, and Dean could see that the corpse at Sam's feet was missing most of its head and that Sam's face and shirt were splattered with dirt and blood and black gloppy bits. "You okay, Sam? Any of that blood yours?"
"No." Sam shook his head. "I'm fine."
"Right," Dean said, "if by 'fine' you mean 'totally disgusting.'" He felt giddy with relief and shaky with adrenaline. He hated hunts like this, the ones that left him all jazzed up with nothing to fight. It would take hours for the jitters to wear off. It gave him a headache and it made him babble. "You do know you have ghoul brains in your hair, right?"
"Uhm…" Sam said, "hold this, will you?"
He slapped the Glock into Dean's outstretched hands, doubled over, and spewed his lunch all over somebody's grave.
"What the hell was that?"
"What was what? You said to shoot anything that comes out the door, so I shot it."
"When it was three feet away from you! Were you waiting to shake hands with it first or something?"
"The gun jammed."
"Like hell it did."
"You think I'm making it up?"
Dean gritted his teeth and clenched his hands on the steering wheel. Was it only a couple of hours ago that he'd been wishing that his father and brother would start talking again? What the hell had he been thinking?
"--Paying attention instead of indulging your little temper tantrum--"
"You do think I'm making it up! Great, so now I'm a liar on top of everything else, huh? Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dad."
"You want confidence? Try earning it once in a while."
"You know, you don't have to bring me along on your stupid hunts. If you think I'm such a screw-up, why don't you leave me at home?"
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
"Duh, what was your first clue?"
"Don't you dare take that tone with me, you little--"
Dean checked the rear view mirror and slammed on the brake. The Impala sqealed to a halt, abruptly enough to send his father bucking forward against his seatbelt and Sam tumbling off the back seat. The joint burst of swearing was actually kind of amusing.
"Sorry." Dean plastered on a grin. "There was a deer in the road."
His father looked as if he didn't quite believe it, but he'd been looking back at Sam rather than forward at the road, and was in no position to complain.
"Fine," he grunted after a while. "Get going."
"Actually," Dean said, "I'm really beat. Mind driving for a bit so I can get some sleep?"
That shut them up, at least. Dean switched places with John, reclined the seat back as far as it would go and closed his eyes. He was ready to fake sleep for the rest of the drive if that was what it took to keep everyone quiet, but apparently he was more tired than he'd realized, because when he opened his eyes again, he was in his own bed at home, sprawled fully dressed on top of the covers, with no memory of how he'd got there. The sun was shining through the open window, and Dean was feeling more hungry than tired, so he got up and wandered out to see what he could scrounge from the fridge.
Sam sat at the kitchen table, looking freshly scrubbed and wearing clean clothes. He had the Glock field stripped on the table in front of him and his cleaning kit on the chair by his side, and he was running a wet patch through the bore with jerky, overly precise movements that spoke of barely contained rage. Dean stopped in the doorway.
"Hi," he said.
"This gun," Sam informed him through gritted teeth, "has never jammed once in ten years. Therefore, if it jammed last night, it must be because I haven't been taking proper care of it. Therefore, I'm taking proper care of it. In case you were wondering."
"Good morning to you too." Dean gave fervent mental thanks to whichever kindly power it was that had allowed him to sleep through that particular conversation. "Where's Dad?"
"Right. Where else?" Dean walked into the hallway and opened the basement door. From below, he could clearly hear the steady pounding of fists against punching bag, punctuated by the occasional grunt. Dean eased the door shut in silence and went back into the kitchen.
He took a jar of instant coffee from the cabinet over the stove, put a kettle on to boil and sat down across from Sam.
"Look, you know Dad only gets that way because he's worried, right? You could've been killed last night."
"Yeah. Sure." Sam's hands went perfectly still for a few seconds before resuming their work. "If I'd known that nearly getting killed is what it takes to get him to give a shit, I would've done it ages ago."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nothing. Go away."
"Sam…" Dean pinched the bridge of his nose and reminded himself that if he lost his temper now, there wouldn't be a single rational person left in the house and that couldn't possibly end well. "You're not still stewing about that award, are you? Give me a break."
"I said go away."
"My kitchen too, hello? What the fuck's your problem, anyway? You won. It's official. They're not going to take that away from you just because you weren't there to pick up your fucking meda--"
"Shut up!" Sam slammed his fist down on the table with so much force, the entire kitchen seemed to rattle. He looked and sounded so much like their father, doing that, that Dean rocked back in his chair, startled. Then the moment passed and he was just Sammy again, with his bangs in his eyes and his face still round with baby fat, sulking at the kitchen table.
"I don't care about the goddamn medal, Dean," he said, "and I don't care about the ceremony, okay? That's not what it was about."
"Funny, it sure sounded like it was all about that when you and Dad were going at each other the last couple of days."
"Then you weren't listening," Sam said wearily. "What else is new."
"Not listening? Dude, the way you two went on, there were deaf people in China listening. But if you think I missed something, why don't you say it again in short words and at normal volume and maybe I'll get it through my thick head, okay?"
"I'm sick of talking about it," Sam grumbled, but it was a half-hearted sort of grumble, and after a few moments he put down the bore brush and ran his fingers through his hair. "It's just that I worked three weeks on that essay, okay? And I really think I did something good. All by myself, without you or Dad having to teach it to me first."
"You did do something good," Dean said. It seemed like a perfectly true and reasonable thing to say, which is why he was caught by surprise when Sam's face suddenly went cold and shuttered again.
"How the fuck would you know?" he snapped, and turned away from Dean to rummage in the cleaning kit.
Dean pinched the bridge of his nose again. i Don't lose your temper. Don't lose your temper. Don't lose your-- /i "You know what? It's too early in the morning to deal with you and your mood swings."
"It's one in the afternoon."
"Exactly. I'm going to go clean up." Dean turned off the stove, reluctantly abandoning thoughts of coffee, and stomped out of the kitchen.
A lengthy shower, a shave and a change of clothes later, Dean felt relatively human again, or at least in no immediate danger of murdering anyone he was closely related to. In this newly charitable frame of mind he checked the kitchen, found it empty, and went to knock on the door of Sam's room.
"What now?" Sam demanded. Dean decided to take that as an invitation to come in.
Sam was sitting cross-legged on the bed with an open three ring binder in his lap and a textbook propped up on a pillow in front of him. He glared when Dean entered, but didn't immediately yell or throw anything, which was probably a good sign. The one chair in the room had a pile of dirty laundry on it, so Dean sat down on the battered trunk at the foot of the bed.
"So," he said casually, "what is it about?"
Sam peered at him suspiciously. "What?"
"Your essay. What's it about?"
"Oh." Sam brushed his bangs back from his face. "Uhm. The McCarthy trials."
"McCarthy. Right." Dean scratched the back of his neck. "That was the Communist-hunting guy?"
That actually got about half a smile out of Sam. "Yeah. The Communist-hunting guy."
Dean considered his options and resigned himself to his fate. "So… can I read it?"
The half-smile turned cynical. "You don't want to read it."
"What, are you kidding? I live to read award-winning seventh-grade history essays. It's the highlight of my year, right up there with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Hand it over, Sammy."
"It's Sam. Jerk." Sam sounded more amused than irritated, another good sign. He picked up his knapsack from the floor, dug around inside and eventually produced a stack of neatly typed pages in a clear plastic binder. Dean's heart sank as he flipped through it to check the page numbers. Twenty five pages and a bibliography. There were footnotes, too.
"Your eyes are glazing over," Sam said.
"They are not." Dean tucked the binder under his arm. "They're gleaming with anticipation. I'll bring this back to you later, okay?"
And now, finally, Sam's smile was for real. "Okay."
Two hours later, Dean returned to the kitchen to find his father getting toast crumbs and coffee rings all over the Sunday paper.
"Hey, Dean. Want some coffee?"
"No thanks, I've already had three cups." Dean put his empty mug in the sink and sat down. "So how's it going?"
"Well…" John scratched his unshaven chin. "Aside from apparently being the worst father in the history of the universe, I'm fine and dandy. You?"
"I may no longer be the worst brother in the history of the universe. The jury's still out."
"Let me know when the verdict comes in." John drummed his fingers on the table and stared moodily into his coffee.
"Don't worry about it," Dean told him. "Sam's not really mad, he's just really… thirteen."
"That's what I keep telling myself." John didn't look especially convinced. "But I don't remember you pulling this shit when you were thirteen."
"It's a ploy." Dean slouched in his chair and smirked. "I'm lulling you into a false sense of security. Then, just when you're thinking you got off easy with me, I'm going to knock up the police chief's daughter, burn down the high school and run away with the circus."
"Now see," John sighed, "any of those things, I'd know how to deal with. But Sam… I don't suppose you could talk to him or something."
"Already done." Dean tossed Sam's essay on top of the paper. "Read it."
John picked up the binder, flipped through pages and winced. "What, the whole thing?"
"Yes. The footnotes, too."
"There are footnotes?" John's eyes were glazing over. "Will there be a quiz later?"
"Probably. When Sam comes down for dinner. I'd make notes if I were you."
"Have you read it?"
"Every last word."
"Care to give a short summary?"
"No. If I had to suffer, you have to suffer."
"I see." John gazed at the title page with the grim expression of a man about to go into battle. "I suppose I'd better get started, then." He took one last bite of his toast and left, taking the binder and his coffee mug with him.
"Have fun!" Dean called out after him. Then, feeling a great deal more virtuous than usual, he grabbed a couple of apples from the fridge and settled down to read the Sunday funnies.