I took a group of kids skating this weekend, and as I was skating around, this is what I was thinking about. When I wasn't thinking, "Man, my hip hurts" and "I hope I don't wrench my knee" and "I'm too old for this."
I haven't abandoned Frail, I promise, just having a hard time getting things to go the way I want. But I'm hopeful that I've about gotten through the hard part. I hope.
"But I want to go to the skating rink."
Sam's pout was audible, though muffled, from where he was slouched on the couch, chin tight against his chest. He was staring at the television, arms crossed resolutely.
"Come on, Sammy."
Dean's impatience was tinged with desperation.
"It's my birthday." Just the slightest hint of self-pity. "You said…"
Dean closed his eyes.
"Fine," he bit out.
"Really?" Sam's voice cracked with surprise and pleasure. "You promise?"
"I just said it, didn't I?" Dean slapped two plates down on the dinette table in their small kitchen. "Come get lunch." He tossed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the plates.
Sam was off the couch, barely containing his excitement as he scrambled toward the table. "Can we go right after we eat?" Sam threw himself into one of the chairs, grabbing his sandwich.
"Sam." Dean said it sharply. "Get the milk."
Sam bounded out of the chair, flinging open the door to the refrigerator.
"If we go right after we're finished, we can skate all afternoon," he said enthusiastically.
Dear God, Dean thought. Kill me now.
Birthday parties at the skating rink were all the rage for the kids in Sam's 5th grade class, and Dean figured Sam had been to at least three Saturday morning celebrations in the last couple of months. The rink was only a couple of blocks away from their apartment, so Dean had been assigned the task of walking his younger brother to and from each party. He'd mostly tuned out Sam's rambling debriefings of the parties, uninterested in who had skated with whom and whether or not Joey Baker had really held Tiffany Hyde's hand during couple's skate. Dean paid enough attention to tease Sam if the boy mentioned a girl, but other than that, he couldn't have cared less.
But as Sam's birthday had approached, the younger boy had begun to drop subtle hints about the type of party he wanted. Dad, of all people, had actually picked up on it first, and gently told Sam that they weren't able to afford that kind of party right then. Sam had taken the news stoically, assuring Dad softly that he understood, but the unhappy silence Sam had wrapped around himself for the next several days had made their father gruff and impatient with guilt.
To top things off, John had left town on a hunt the day before Sam's birthday. A particularly vicious poltergeist had been terrorizing a young family, putting the adolescent daughter of the household in serious danger. Dad had explained the situation to the boys, short, Dean knew, because he was angry at having to make this choice. But as much as Dad hated missing Sam's birthday, their father's sense of duty to protect anyone threatened by forces that most people refused to acknowledge would win out over a birthday every time, no matter how much he regretted it.
Sam had simply nodded, refusing to meet his father's gaze. He wouldn't ease Dad's conscience by saying it was OK this time. It wasn't OK. And they all three knew it.
Sam had stayed in his room until Dad left, emerging as the sound of the Impala's engines faded into the distance.
"Hey," Dean said as the younger boy slouched into the room.
Sam dropped onto the couch next to his brother.
They sat in silence for awhile, Dean idly flipping channels.
"You know Dad's really sorry," Dean said finally, looking over at his brother.
Sam lifted a shoulder.
"What do you want to do tomorrow?"
Sam shrugged again.
"We'll do whatever you want, OK?" Dean elbowed his little brother, digging in gently until Sam squirmed away from him, a slight smile erasing the sulk.
"Stop," he huffed, inching down the sofa.
Encouraged by the smirk, Dean followed.
"You gonna make me?" he teased, reaching over and running nimble fingers over Sam's ribs.
"Stop!" Sam shrieked.
"Make me, little man," Dean goaded, getting down to business.
Five minutes later, breathless and giggling, Sam rolled off the couch onto the floor, finally escaping his brother's long, tickling fingers. He scrambled away, putting the coffee table between himself and Dean.
"Do you mean it? Can we do whatever I want?"
Dean was off the sofa himself, crouched, arms spread, as he made a feint toward Sam.
Sam flinched, staggering back a couple of steps, grin still in place.
"You bet. Whatever you want."
Which was what had gotten him into this mess.
Dad had called at 7:30 the next morning to wish Sam happy birthday and remind Dean where he'd hidden Sam's present. Sam had been quiet, but responsive as he talked to their father, even smiling a couple of times and laughing once. That morning, Sam had been content to exercise his birthday power by dictating the type of pancakes they would have for breakfast and the cartoons they would watch.
Around 11:00, he'd started in on the skating.
Dean had tried to talk him out of it, but after an hour of arguing, he'd given in.
Dean laced up the battered skates he'd been handed by the attendant. Sam had already gotten his skates on and was gliding back and forth in front of Dean while he waited.
"Hey, there's Joey!" Sam said suddenly. He squinted at the table where the other boy was seated. He was trying to make out who else was there, whose birthday it was.
"I don't recognize anyone else," he said with satisfaction. Dean could tell Sam had been afraid he'd been left off someone's guest list. He sighed, bending his attention back to his skates, tugging at the laces. He was stalling.
"Come on," Sam demanded, suddenly impatient.
Dean stood unsteadily. Why had they put the rink so far from the place where you put on your skates, Dean wondered testily. Arms spread, Dean scooted across the carpeted floor toward the hardwood floor, tripping slightly a couple of times. He gritted his teeth.
Sam had raced ahead of him and was skimming across the floor of the rink. He'd completed two laps by the time Dean had found a place on the edge, grip firm on the metal railing.
"Come on," Sam said, holding out a hand.
Dean looked at him disdainfully. "Dude. I'm not holding your hand."
Sam rolled his eyes.
"Fine," he said. "Are you just going to stand there?" he asked.
Maybe, Dean thought.
Reluctantly, he let go of the rail. Taking small, careful steps Dean ventured onto the floor.
Sam was frowning at him thoughtfully as Dean inched along.
"Don't take steps, Dean, roll," he said critically.
Dean glared, but Sam was oblivious, eyes on his brother's feet.
"Slide your feet," Sam commanded. "Like this." Sam demonstrated, rolling his skates easily along the floor.
Dean scowled, concentrating. He slid his right foot forward.
But even as he got the first foot started, the other began to slip back behind him. Eyes widening as his legs began to stretch out in opposite directions, Dean windmilled his arms trying to catch himself before he fell. No such luck
Damn, he thought resignedly as he went down.
John pulled into the parking lot of the skating rink and leaned his forehead against the steering wheel. God, I hurt. He was exhausted and beat to hell and more than anything, he wanted to go back to the apartment, get in a hot shower, take as many Advil as he could without ODing and fall into bed. He'd be there right now except for the voicemail message he'd gotten from his oldest son.
Uh, Dad. Yeah. I know this poltergeist thing is probably gonna take awhile, but if you do, uh, get done, you know, today, we're at the skating rink, OK? Until it closes. Around 5, I guess. But then we'll be home. So.
There'd been a huge sigh, then a muttered, Jeez, I can't believe I let him talk me into this. And the message ended.
Sitting in his car, trying to catch his breath after his encounter with the ghost, John had snorted at the tone of Dean's voice coming over the phone—such exasperated affection for Sam and teenaged mortification at the thought of spending his afternoon roller-skating with his little brother.
But Dean would do it, John knew. He'd bitch and moan to himself, mostly under his breath, but ultimately he'd let himself be cajoled by Sam's delight into enjoying himself.
John had smiled and put the car into gear.
Now sitting in the parking lot, John felt like his body had stiffened to the point of immobility, but gritting his teeth, he levered himself out of the car and went inside. .
He explained to the gum-snapping girl at the door that he was just there to pick up his kids, not skate, and she buzzed him through the door without a second glance. John walked cautiously through the throng of children and adults in the staging area. There were kids and grown-ups on skates and in street shoes, picnic tables decorated with home-made Superman cakes and Barbie balloons, screaming and laughing and a level of noise that made John's head hum.
Crossing the floor, he found a clear space on a wall, and he leaned against it, scanning the crowd of skaters for his sons. He spotted them quickly, eyes automatically drawn to their figures even in this swarming mass of people.
Dean was standing carefully, close to the edge of the rink, and John could tell from his stiff posture that he was not at all comfortable on the skates. He held himself upright, arms slightly askew as he balanced, moving slowly across the floor. He wasn't actually clutching the rail along the side, but he was close enough to grab it should he stumble.
Sam was, quite literally, skating circles around his big brother. John could see Sam's face, bright and animated as he chattered to his brother. Dean was smiling down at Sam, responding as the younger boy talked, but also clearly trying to concentrate on remaining erect. Sam's stocky, little-boy body was a stark contrast to his brother's lanky frame. Dean had hit a growth spurt over the last several months, and it still startled John to see how tall his eldest had gotten—he was all angles and edges these days, elbows and wrists protruding, cheekbones suddenly sharply visible without the remnants of baby fat that so recently softened his face.
John watched them closely as the boys made their way around the rink, Dean gaining confidence with each pass. He wasn't nearly as comfortable on the skates as Sam was, but his footing was getting steadier and his speed increased. John would never say that Dean did anything "gingerly," but John also knew that Dean was still figuring out what to do with his extra length in more ways than one, so he was amused to see his sometimes reckless older son skating a little hesitantly.
As Dean skated the long straight oval of the rink, Sam zipped in and out around him, sometimes veering off to skate with a group of boys his age who looked vaguely familiar to John. As soon as there was a break in whatever game the younger boys were playing, Sam would gravitate back to Dean, skating beside him or in front, occasionally reaching out to take his brother's hand, matching Dean's movements, skating briefly in sync with the older boy before darting off on his own again.
Dean kept a watchful eye on his brother as the two skated. When Sam wasn't next to him, Dean tracked his location unobtrusively—never so obviously that Sam was aware he was being watched, but closely enough that John noticed. Occasionally, Dean was distracted by the groups of girls who swirled around the rink, holding hands and giggling as they peered at him, hands coming up to cover their mouths, eyes sparkling as they skated by.
John shook his head. That, right there, is trouble just waiting to happen. John had always thought his sons were the most beautiful children he'd ever seen in his life (not that he was biased), but he'd been startled recently by the number of heads Dean turned. So far, Dean seemed unaware, focused, as he always had been, on taking care of his little brother and helping his father. But John knew that soon, inevitably, girls were going to become an issue. Dean's devotion to the family—his steady presence—was something John depended on heavily. And the thought of sharing his son's attention with anyone else unsettled him vaguely.
Mine, he thought fiercely as he watched Dean smile shyly at one of the girls who brushed past him, knowing it was selfish, feeling his heart constrict at the thought of losing the boy—even to growing up.
Mine, he thought again as his younger son skated into the picture, wrapping his arms around Dean's waist to steady himself as he tried to stop, almost upsetting the older boy's precarious balance. John smiled as the two clutched at each other, struggling to stay upright, feet slipping and sliding under them until Dean finally managed to regain his equilibrium. He had a firm grip on Sam, arms wrapped protectively around the smaller boy as they steadied.
John couldn't hear their voices, but he could imagine the conversation as he watched their faces—Dean annoyed, Sam repentant, but also starting to giggle. John saw the reluctant smile on Dean's face as he moved Sam away from him, more confident now of his balance, shoving the younger boy firmly. Sam's smile turned into a grin as he rolled backward, and then spun gracefully around, showing off as he zoomed away.
John forced himself off the wall, making his way slowly toward the rail where he'd be able to flag down one or both of the boys.
Sam's shout shifted John's eyes away from the rink in time to see his youngest son hop over the border of the skating area. The carpet that surrounded the rink slowed Sam down enough to keep him from knocking his father off his feet, but he was still moving pretty fast when he slammed into John's arms.
John returned the hug, looking down into Sam's exultant face. He rubbed a rough hand over the top of his son's short hair, palm coming away slightly damp with little boy perspiration.
"Turns out that poltergeist wasn't as big a badass as I'd been led to believe," he lied with a smile.
Still with his arms around his father, Sam turned his head toward the skating rink.
"Did you see Dean and me?" His eyes sought out his brother, but came back to John immediately. "Did you see Dean skating?"
"I did," John assured him. "I saw you almost knock him on his butt."
John raised his voice so that Dean, who was now approaching could hear.
"Whatever," the older boy grumbled, as he rolled to a stop in front of his dad. "We didn't fall, did we?"
John met Dean's eyes and saw the gratefulness shining there. John felt his heart skip at his son's approval, feeling that he didn't really deserve it. But Dean had always been generous with his forgiveness, and John accepted what he was offered with a smile and a tight chest.
Sam would forgive him, too, for the moment, content with his father's presence here at the end of his birthday. It would be a short-lived peace, John thought, but he'd take what he could get for now.
One arm around Sam, John slung the other over Dean's shoulders.
"So, where should we take this brand-spankin' new eleven year old to eat?"