Title: Swath of Interstate
Summary: A dozen years ago, John muses, against his will, on his boys and the circumstances surrounding their first hunts.
Disclaimer: As you might recall, there's been a little thing called emancipation, happened a few years ago, so I don't own anyone.
It wasn't that John believed there was anything innately wrong with holidays. It was just that there were things in life that were more important than red-letter days on the calendar. There were things more pressing, more urgent than whatever candy and decorations and plants were appropriate on this particular date. His youngest son, he was sure, could rattle them all off. Valentine's Day: cinnamon hearts and chocolates, and red roses, and sheets of tiny Ninja Turtle tear-on-the-dotted-line cards; St. Patrick's Day: Wear green, Dad, everybody's Irish on St. Paddy's Day (and he didn't have a clue where the kid had heard that line); Easter: food colouring and hard-boiled eggs (he'd come home once to find his sons working industriously at the kitchen table, dozens of glasses of pastel liquid spread about, it seemed, and a carton of eggs half-empty on the counter. "What the hell? Where'd you get the money to buy—" he'd picked up the cardboard box and squinted suspiciously—"a Happy Bunny Egg-Colouring Kit?"
Startled, seven-year-old Sammy had dropped a bilious green egg; it hit the table with a sickening squish before rolling onto the floor in a mess of eggshell and goo, and Sammy burst into tears. That was a happy Easter).
Independence Day: parades and fireworks and fried chicken, he could hear his youngest boy instruct him earnestly. Dad, the whole country's having picnics today; why can't we?
And Labour Day, now. In a motel in western Oregon. Four hundred miles from their latest apartment. Sammy's insistence that despite the name, it was the day you were supposed to take off: "School starts tomorrow, remember," he lectured, "so it's supposed to be a day of rest to prepare."
It wasn't any such thing, but how do you tell a ten-year-old that it doesn't matter if it's Christmas; spirits don't follow calendars and exorcisms must be performed as soon as possible, whatever the day of the week?
"This is more important," he boomed. "You will do as I say. Sam, you know we don't choose our hours. This isn't a nine-to-five office job. We work when we have to, and today is one of those days."
"Every day is one of those days," muttered Sam, scuffing the toe of his shoe on the kitchenette's beige linoleum. The seam between the rubber sole and the fabric upper of the shoe was fraying, and a sliver of Sam's red sock showed.
"Excuse me?" he barked. His voice seemed to echo off the dark wood panelling that lined three walls.
"Oh, I agree," said Sam, nodding exaggeratedly, apparently trying out his brother's sarcasm. It didn't fit his little-boy features, the chubby cheeks, the shining eyes, the ever-present dimples, and it didn't last long: soon his face screwed up in fury and the prelude of tears, and he shouted, "Because I was asked if I wanted to go burn up some stupid person's bones. Because I want to miss the beginning of school." His voice hitched through the last phrase.
Anger coursed through John's veins; he could feel his pulse quicken. This one always made his blood pressure rise.
That one intervened.
"Hey, hey, Sammy, relax; you don't mean that." Gentle, calming tone. Dean patting his brother's shoulder. "Remember when you were eight and I got to go hunting? You begged and begged to come. For a whole year, until Dad figured you were big enough to come along. You got to start hunting earlier than I did, you lucky—dog," Dean amended quickly, glancing at his father.
"You wanted to come, Sammy. Remember? What we do, it's better than what doctors and policemen do." Dean's tone was earnest, convincing. "Anybody can do that." Disdain at what most people thought a noble profession was. "But we deal with what people don't know exists. We kill monsters, Sammy, so other people can sleep at night. So they aren't bothered or possessed or killed by the spirits. There aren't many people who can do this, Sammy, so it's our responsibility to do what we can." Pride, now, filled his voice.
John drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. His eldest son's enthusiasm was unending, and his heart swelled to see such eagerness. Both of his sons, so very earnest. And about so very different things. They would be the death of him yet.
But Sammy was placated: "Okay, I'll come," he muttered, though he stamped his foot to show that he was still upset. "But I don't have to like it," he warned loudly. He turned on his heel and strode off to his suitcase on the far side of the room. If he could have, he'd have slammed the door behind him.
Dean and John exchanged glances: such a myriad of emotions swept across Dean's features that John could only register a handful: exhaustion, self-satisfaction, sorrow, and a nearly visceral plea for approval.
John didn't have time for this. "Pack up," he ordered. "We'll leave in twenty."
There were vast stretches of this country that were entirely empty, which was somewhat frustrating when your job required you to travel by car, and just the thought of getting their arsenal on a plane gave him a headache. If one whole section of the nation were uninhabited, it would be easier; he could just ignore that corner of the continent and deal with the rest. But no. There were population centres in the east and the west and, essentially, a thick band of nothing in between, with only a few splotches of civilisation here and there.
It wasn't the driving he minded. It was the combination of a dark swath of interstate, no cities, and two sleeping boys in the backseat. The quiet gave him time to think, to reflect, and introspection seemed wholly unnatural to John Winchester. Dean's comment about Sam wanting to hunt flew into his head unbidden, and he mused wryly, in spite of himself, that truer words were never spoken.
It had all started, he was fairly sure, about three years ago. John leaving for a hunt, giving last-minute instructions—There's food in the fridge; Make sure you're not late for school in the morning; There's a shotgun by my bed; Call Pastor Jim if there's a problem; Take care of Sammy—and Dean rolling his eyes and all but saying I know, Dad, I've been doing this my whole life.
John not-saying I better be able to trust you.
Dean getting unnaturally quiet, head down, frequent glances at Sammy.
Brisk good byes.
John's return a few days later, everything just peachy.
One day, in Minnesota, Dean asking—and it looked like he'd spent the morning getting up the courage to ask and steeling himself for the answer—when he would get to go hunting.
John gazing at him, lips pursed. A nod in seven-year-old Sammy's direction. "But—" began Dean.
"But nothing. If you come with me, who's going to protect Sammy? Dean, you'll come hunting when Sammy can stay by himself."
Not noticing the flaw in his logic: that Dean was seven years old and in charge of a toddler the first time John had left him overnight; that this was concern for Sammy that had never been expressed for Dean.
John saw signs for Portland ahead, lining the side of the interstate, and roused himself. Where was this coming from? He wasn't a man given to reflection. He was a man of action.
He drove through Portland, concentrating fully on the car immediately ahead of him in the heavy traffic (so much for Sam's pronouncement of everybody staying at home on Labour Day), but once through Vancouver, his thoughts returned irretrievably to Dean's first hunt.
Dean hadn't brought up the subject of his hunting again, after that once; it had been, of all people, Sammy who had suggested it. They'd spent the day in the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C., researching a persistent spirit that was haunting a family in Alexandria. Over a supper of peanut butter sandwiches, cut on the diagonal (because once, in a moment of weakness, John had relinquished control of one meal a week to each son, and this was the height of Sammy's culinary prowess), John had spoken at length to Dean, and to Sam, about what the spirit was apparently drawn to, and how one man—that is, John—could bind it safely.
John loved these times, when he got to instruct his sons in the ways of the hunter. Dean listening, rapt, nodding at all the right places. The boy was a born hunter: he was a crack shot with a shotgun and a crossbow both, could rattle off the signs of demonic possession as quickly as most people recited the alphabet, and took crap from no one. Though he certainly had a somewhat brash impulsivity to him, John was sure it would mature over time into a healthy confidence to make good decisions quickly. For instance, right now. The spirit seemed to reside in, of all things, the old root cellar in a shed. Dean's solution? "Fill it in. Get a bunch of dirt and fill it in."
John had the grace not to laugh, but he methodically poked holes in the boy's argument until Dean nodded in agreement.
Sammy listening just as hard as his brother, but forever interrupting, asking for clarification of this and why hadn't he done that, and John, not a patient man at the best of times, found himself snapping at the boy to shut up and listen, son, I've been doing this a whole lot longer than you. The boy was too damn inquisitive for his own good.
With time, Sam had learned it was best to just listen quietly, but, occasionally, when the solution seemed obvious to him and no one else, he couldn't help but speak up. "Why don't you take Dean with you? He can say the binding ritual while you distract the spirit to keep it corporeal."
John was rarely a man caught speechless. "I can't take Dean with me!" Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dean's face fall. "Sammy, you mind your own business, you hear me? You listen, you learn, but I don't need an eight-year-old to tell me what to do, okay?"
And Sammy had sighed, got up from the suitcase he was sitting on—there were only two chairs in the motel room and, as always, he'd drawn the short straw and when the family gathered around the small table to brainstorm, as his father called it (Sammy knew from school that brainstorming meant that everyone got to say something, everyone got to give input, not just Dad), he was the one stuck sitting on a piece of luggage—and picked up the book he was reading, The Great Brain Does it Again. In that story, even if their father got mad, Tom and J.D. always managed to do the things they wanted to.
John had spent the rest of the evening formulating a plan of action for the night, and left the room at 10:30, both boys pretending to be asleep under the covers of the bed farthest from the window.
When Dean and Sammy woke in the morning, their father hadn't returned yet, which wasn't altogether surprising, although he'd planned to be back by daybreak. The boys ate peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast, too, and watched cartoons on TV, and ate the last of the bread at lunchtime. "When's Dad going to be back?" asked Sammy, and his brother replied:
"How am I supposed to know? Dad'll be back when he's finished the job. Stop bothering me with stupid questions, Sammy." And Sammy knew that Dean was worried, too.
Bloody and battered, John had returned that evening, after his sons had eaten a supper of Scotch mints and gummy bears, because that was all that was left in the motel room and Dean was not going to leave to get more food. The boys snapped into action, getting the first-aid kit out of the bathroom, getting towels to stanch the bleeding, not asking what had gone so terribly wrong.
Over lunch the next day, John—his left wrist wrapped in Ace bandages, a large square of gauze taped to his right calf, a neat row of butterfly bandages on his forehead, his right eye blackened rather impressively—had told his sons the new plan. "We'll go back tonight," he announced around a mouthful of corn chowder. His left hand temporarily out of commission, he'd opted for a meal that he could eat without the use of a knife.
Sam and Dean exchanged glances, wondering if they'd heard right. "We?" ventured Sammy finally.
John nodded, feigning confusion at his son's question. "Yeah. Dean and me."
There was utter silence, broken by the waitress coming up and asking, "How's the food? Should I top up your coffee, sir?"
"Please," said John, and requested more napkins for Sammy, who had knocked over his glass of milk in surprise.
When the table was dry again, John resumed outlining his plan for the night, and both sons listened, speechless.
That, John decided now, looking at without seeing the mile markers slide by the side of the road, was the beginning of the end. Sam lent much more credence to his brother's stories than to his dad's, and Dean, fully aware of the depth of Sammy's awe, did not intend to disappoint. More than once, John found himself calling sharply, "Dean! Don't exaggerate. Tell him the truth. That poltergeist did not throw you across the room. It merely knocked you over." Or, "Sam, your brother's left out the part of the story where he shot at a squirrel, thinking it was the chupacabra."
Nevertheless, Sam was undeterred. Far less inhibited than Dean was about asking for anything he wanted (despite John's best efforts to teach him pragmatism), Sam immediately began begging to join in on a hunt.
"I'll do everything you say, Dad," he wheedled.
"You'll do everything I say, regardless," John responded.
"But I'll be a big help," Sam went on. "You always say you're glad Dean's along because he's another pair of eyes and ears, so isn't a third set even better?"
Not necessarily, kid, if it means I'll have to identify you at the morgue one of these days, John thought but didn't say.
"I can read the exorcisms for you. My Latin's better than Dean's, that's what you always say, right?"
Where that boy of his learned to reason, he never knew.
As John gazed out at the forested landscape, he admitted to himself that he was entirely too soft for his own good. It had taken Sammy only a year to wear him down.
Sam's first hunt had been a piece of cake, something that would have taken John half an hour but took his family the whole afternoon.
Once they'd returned home (the car ride had been torture, both boys jabbering excitedly, reliving the hunt in a painfully detailed and repeated blow-by-blow commentary), John had congratulated his sons on a job well done. He'd even said they'd go get ice cream after supper, to celebrate. "Wow! Thanks, Dad!" Sam had shouted exuberantly, and launched himself at his father like a horse out of the gate. Only years of training had kept John from stumbling, surprised as anything, as he caught his son in his arms.
John's ruminations were interrupted by that same son.
"Dad, weren't we supposed to take the Eighty-four?"
"Yeah, we're going to." John glanced in the rear-view mirror. He didn't know how long Sam had been awake, but their large Rand McNally road atlas was open on Sam's lap and clearly he'd been studying it.
"Um, we just passed the junction with Route Four… We're in Washington State, Dad. We should have turned off way back in Portland. Um, like fifty miles ago."
John sighed heavily. Damn it all, he knew reflecting on things was never going to end well. "Guess we'll just have to turn around then."
"Great. We're never going to get home, are we," muttered Sam morosely.
And suddenly John was hit with a pang of loneliness and nostalgia for their little blue house in Lawrence, and he couldn't answer.
Luckily, there was Dean, he of all the answers when John didn't know what to say, couldn't say the right thing, just waking in time to hear the last of the conversation. "Sure, Sammy," he murmured sleepily. "'Course we'll get home. Just… you know, a bit later than we'd planned."
The words echoed in John's head and he wondered if Dean really believed them still. 'Course we'll get home. Just later than we'd planned. Would that it were true, John thought to himself. What he wouldn't do to make it happen.