"Jeez, Dad, what are you waiting for?" Dean said, fingers idly toying with Sammy's hair. His younger brother was curled next to him on the bed, eyes fixed on his book. "$25, 000? That could set us up for a long time."
John shrugged, gazing out the window through the plastic blinds. "I know," he conceded. "But I already had to go on TV and show your pictures to the whole world when we were looking for you. If you boys are ever going to get your normal lives back..."
Dean smoothed a soft brown curl between his fingers and glanced down. Sammy's eyes had left his book and he was looking up at him somberly. His little brother still wasn't saying much, but Dean understood him just fine.
"Things are never going to be normal again," Dean said quietly. Then he looked up at his father's pained face with a smile. "Dad, Sammy and me will be old news in a few weeks. But twenty-five G's is twenty-five G's. Right?"
"They just want me to take a few pictures of you for a magazine spread and give them some copies of old snapshots. And of course they want an exclusive interview. With me, not you boys." John's jaw tightened and his gaze lingered on Sam, who was bent back over his book. "They know better than to ask to interview you two."
Dean had heard the nurse's story of his father pretty much beating up the two journalists who'd snuck in and got to Sam. He carded his hand through Sam's hair and gently cupped the nape of his brother's neck. Part of Sam was still curled in on itself, grieving and sore. The journalists responsible were lucky Dean had been unconscious at the time, or he'd have been right there helping his dad kick the snot out of them.
"You should do it," Dean said firmly, and John nodded. Unspoken was the understanding that a great many other people had probably offered a lot more money for interviews with the two of them. Unspoken because for no amount of money would his father put him and Sam through any more.
Sam had dozed off in that sudden way he had these days, and Dean smoothed his thumb over the flickering pulse in his throat. "Sammy's going to be okay, Dad."
John crossed to the bed and touched Sammy's hand where it lay on his book. "I just wish he'd say more," he murmured thickly. "It hurts to see him so... closed in on himself."
"He's just healing," Dean told him. "Being... down there. So quiet and isolated for so long. Everything out here feels loud and jarring. It's like he's bruised, Dad. And he's just protecting himself for a while till it fades a bit."
"Did he tell you that?" John asked curiously.
Dean shrugged. "He doesn't have to," he said. "I feel the same way."
His father tilted his head. "Do I have to worry about you going quiet on me as well?" he asked, half joking, half serious.
Dean huffed a laugh. "It's different for me. Sam understands that. He knows I'll be all right as long as I have him to look after."
"You've done a good job so far," John said, and curved a hand over Dean's shoulder and squeezed.
Dean accepted the compliment, wondering a little at himself as he did. Once it would have meant the world to him, words like that from his father. Now, however, the only praise he needed was the warmth of his brother's body next to him as Sammy sighed in his sleep and curled a little closer.
By Gillian Middleton
The cabin by the lake had been Pastor Jim's idea. A friend of a friend owned it and lent it out. It had one dirt road leading down to it, and anyone traveling on it let the occupants of the cabin know they were coming long minutes in advance by the dusty plume thrown up behind them. It had the basics of life: electricity; indoor plumbing; soft, comfortable beds. And all around it was a wide veranda, covered with chairs and hammocks and benches.
That it was a place for hunters to rest and heal was obvious. Dreamcatchers spun lazily over the beds. Fine white patches marked the spots on the wooden floors where years of feet had trodden rock salt into the grain. An ancient iron horseshoe hung over the door.
And there was an air of peace about the place that they all felt at once. Even as Dean let his dad and Sammy help him from the back of the car, even as he stood and looked up at the faded old wooden cabin, he felt it.
Sam felt it, too. He hovered next to Dean as they climbed the low stairs to the veranda, but his eyes were all over the place, brighter and more alive than Dean had seen them in weeks. Down through the trees was the glimmer of the lake, brilliant blue in the April sunshine, and Sam paused for a moment at the railing and stared, eyes half-closing in pleasure at the sight. Dean leaned against him, accepting the supporting hand at his waist.
It had been a shock at first, for both of them, leaving the hospital. Dean had felt his heart start pounding in his chest as the wheelchair he was in was pushed closer to the back doors. They had left in the early hours, their departure a secret from all but the staff on the ward. The Impala had been parked by the kitchens; his dad and Sammy had walked beside him. Patches of sunlight had glimmered through the glass doors, and it had been almost a relief when Sam's steps faltered, because Dean was being pushed forward and couldn't bring himself to object.
"It's okay, Sam," Dad had said. And that had given Dean a chance to catch his breath.
It was the first time either of them had been outside in six weeks.
Sam had stayed close to him when his dad helped him up, and Dean remembered stumbling down the stairs almost in a daze, overwhelmed by the sun and the noise and the smells. Then there had been a moment when Dean had leaned against the open door of the car with Sammy pressed against him and their dad loading their bags into the trunk.
Dean had seen Sam's head tilt, and his breath had caught in his throat as he followed that gaze upwards. In the heartbreaking blue of the April sky, a small white cloud scudded slowly across the wide expanse. The gentle breeze that guided it had caressed his face, stirred his hair, made him shiver a little with its early morning chill.
The unease that had gripped him slid away, and he couldn't help a small huff of pleasure. Next to him, Sammy had shrugged, the corner of his mouth turning up.
Leaning against the veranda now, looking out on the view of their newest temporary home, Dean pressed against Sam and saw that half-smile blooming, a pleased flush mantling his little brother's pale cheeks.
It was a pretty good place.
John tossed them a set of keys which Sam narrowly missed. Dean snickered, and Sam poked his tongue out and bent over to scoop them up.
"Go on inside and pick out a bedroom," Dad said, a duffel bag thrown over his shoulder and a gym bag in each hand. "I'll make up your beds, and you can catch a nap."
"A nap?" Dean complained, holding onto the doorjamb as Sam twisted a big iron key and the door opened with a creak. "Can't we walk down to the lake?"
John cast him an incredulous look as he carried the bags into the hall. "Dean, a puff of wind could blow on you right now and you'd fall over. Go find a room, and I'll look for the linen closet."
Dean followed Sam down the hall, turning into a big, airy room with wide, double-glass doors leading onto the veranda. Sam unbolted the doors and flung them open, taking a deep breath of clean air. Dean collapsed on the edge of a bed, feeling the drag of exhaustion in his limbs. He hated the fact that a few hours snoozing in the back seat could wear him out. He hated the fact that he could hardly remember what it felt like to feel strong.
"Good choice," John approved, dumping an armful of sheets and blankets on the bed Dean was sitting on and shaking a sheet out over the adjoining bed. "Sammy, I left the tin of salt by the door. Can you go get it and freshen those rings up?"
Sam nodded and trotted out, and John followed him with his eyes for a moment before tucking the sheet in and throwing another over the top. "Think you'll like it here, kiddo?"
Dean nodded, eyes drooping. Despite his protests, that bed was looking pretty welcoming right now, and he barely waited for the blanket to settle before toeing off his sneakers and standing up unsteadily. His father pulled a corner back and took Dean's elbow as he sat on the freshly made bed.
"Rest," John said gently. "You, too, Sammy," he said as Sam returned with the salt. "I'll finish that."
Sam handed the can over and kicked his own shoes off. Without a word, he pulled the covers down, climbed over Dean, and settled against the wall with a sigh. Dean pulled the covers back up and snuggled down, breathing in the slightly musty scent of the clean sheets. He figured a person had to sleep on the same old sheets for a month before they could really appreciate how much that was worth.
"Sammy, I'll make up the other bed for you," John said, an odd ring to his voice, and Dean cracked open his eyes and looked at their father curiously.
"It's okay, Dad," he murmured as Sam curled against him.
"Sammy, Dean needs his rest more than you do right now. Why don't you climb into your own bed so you don't disturb him?"
It was a suggestion that sounded more like an order, but Sam kept his eyes closed and Dean could hardly keep his open.
"It's okay," he repeated sleepily. "I'm used to it."
As Dean drifted off, he thought for long seconds that his dad had left the room, and then there was the snap of sheets being shaken out and the lemony tang of the fabric in the air. But John didn't say anything else.
Dean woke with a start, eyes flying open and staring blankly up at the ceiling. Yellowing old plaster, cracked and peeling, loomed above him, pressing him down. Panic caught at his chest, choked him, sobbed in his throat as he tried to take a breath. For endless seconds he couldn't breathe, couldn't move, pinned in place by weakness and fear.
"Dean?" Hands gripped him, caught his shoulders, a face swam into his vision - wide, anxious eyes; long strands of hair falling over his brow.
"Sammy," he gasped, panting for breath. Sammy was here, Sammy was afraid, tears in his eyes, fingers trembling as he cupped Dean's cheek. He had to be strong for Sammy's sake. Dean took a deep breath and blinked, and over Sam's shoulder he saw wooden beams, dusty and a little cobwebby at the corners.
"Dean?" Sammy whispered, and, heart still pounding, Dean closed his eyes and opened them again, assuring himself that they were out of that place. Memories came rushing back and he groaned, rolling away from Sam, thrusting his feet over the side of the bed. "Get Dad?" Sammy said anxiously, and Dean shook his head, feeling the beads of sweat on his brow. His heart was still pounding in his chest; he had to bite his lip to stop his jaw from trembling.
"Dean?" Sam said again, and Dean turned his head, hating the look of fear on his brother's face.
"I'm okay," he managed.
Sam looked doubtful. "Dad?" he said again.
"No, Sam, I mean it," Dean ground out. "And don't give me that look," he added harshly when Sam gazed back at him. "You should be more worried about yourself than me, dude. You're the one who hasn't strung more than three words together in weeks."
Sam blinked at him, his worried look fading. He shook his head a little, eyes crinkling as he huffed a silent laugh. Dean hung his head and smothered a remorseful snort of his own. Long fingers cupped his cheek, turned his head, and they leaned forward, foreheads gently pressed together. Dean's panic was settling, his heartbeat slowing under Sam's calming touch.
"Sorry," Dean whispered.
"Bad dream," Sam said sympathetically, and Dean closed his eyes. There was no hiding anything from Sam. Every morning in the hospital, they had awoken to a nurse shooing Sam back to his own bed. The doctor had shaken his head over it; their father had set his jaw and tried not to worry about it.
They all thought that poor, silent Sam was seeking comfort in the night, and Dean didn't even have the guts to tell them any different. To tell them that he was the one needing comfort and Sam had instinctively known it.
Dean cast a look at the ceiling, a shiver running down his spine. In those moments after waking, it had seemed so real. Endless, frightening moments when rescue was forgotten and all he had to wake up to was hunger and pain.
Sam was still studying him, questions in his eyes. In the hospital, the doctor had told them not to blame Sam for not talking. The anxiety disorder he was suffering from was as real as the pneumonia that had weakened Dean's body. With time, the doctor said, Sam might recover his normal voice, might be able to verbally share what he was feeling.
But right now Sam wasn't communicating. Neither was Dean. He just made sure nobody knew that.
Except Sam, of course.
"I don't want to worry Dad any more," Dean explained, this time avoiding the silent understanding in his brother's eyes. "I'm hungry," he continued prosaically, and Sam nodded and pulled away from him. "And I need to pee." He stood up with a groan, rubbing absently at the old, dull ache in his chest. At least it didn't hurt to breathe any more.
Sam crawled past him and thrust long limbs from the bed, standing up and yawning. He turned and offered his big brother his hand, but Dean shook it off irritably. "Now who's treating who like a baby?" he muttered.
Sam just lifted one brow and followed him out of the room. Dean stopped in the middle of the hall and turned a quizzical look on him. "Dude, didn't you get tired of watching me go to the bathroom a long time ago?"
Sam's shrug managed to convey the idea that it wasn't anything he hadn't seen before, so what was the problem?
"Sam," Dean said quietly. "I'm okay. You don't have to hover around me."
John stuck his head around the corner. "I thought I heard voices," he said, and ran a glance over his eldest son. "Dude, you need a haircut."
Dean lifted a hand to his head and smoothed down the fair waves. Damn hair was sticking up like a crest. "Bathroom?"
"The white door," John said, pointing to it.
"Me first," Dean said with a pointed look at Sam, before closing the door behind him.
"There's another bathroom in my room, Sam," he heard Dad say, but Sam was waiting outside the bathroom door when Dean emerged, and he stalked past Dean and poked his tongue out again.
"Yeah, Sammy, that was cute when you were five," Dean told the closed door. He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts, forcing a smile onto his face. Then he took a deep breath and walked down the hall.
"Yeah." Dean sat down at the kitchen table and leaned forward on his elbows. "When am I gonna stop feeling like an old man?"
John laid a basket of hot rolls on the table and ruffled Dean's hair on the way back to the bench. "Doc said it would take a couple of weeks to get your strength back."
"That sucks," Dean said. "I need to get back into shape, Dad. And start training again."
"Training can wait," John said firmly, carrying a casserole dish over and lifting the lid.
Dean gaped at him. "Training can wait? Who are you and what have you done with my father?"
"We have the cabin for as long as we need it." John turned a smile on Sam as he padded in, still in stocking feet. "And we have plenty of cash, thanks to The Weekly News magazine. Like I said, training can wait until you guys are up to it."
"Yeah, when do we get to read that story anyway?" Dean asked, ladling out a helping of lasagna for himself and handing Sam the spoon.
"Uh, let's see, never?" John said. "Seriously, dude, why would you want to?"
Dean blinked, unsure himself. "I just wanted to see what pictures you gave them of us," he said lightly, and John gave him a wink.
"Don't worry, Dean. That one of you naked on the bearskin rug will never know the light of day."
Sam laughed and Dean lifted an eyebrow. "Knock yourself out, little brother," he said. "Maybe Dad gave them that one he took of you in the bathtub when you were three."
Sam glanced suspiciously from him to their father.
"Don't worry," Dean said patronizingly. "You can hardly see your little dingle. You had too much mud on you."
"Mostly mud," John corrected, but Sam refused to bite. He just shook his head and went back to his meal.
"You're no fun," Dean complained.
They finished the meal quietly. Dad nodded at the boxes of groceries he'd packed away and mentioned that he planned to make another trip into town in a few days.
"So if there's anything in particular you want, add it to the list."
"M&M's," Dean said automatically. "And chips. Beer?" he added hopefully.
"Definitely," John said. "All for me."
"Dad," Dean started in his best reasonable tone.
"Dean," John said mockingly. "You're on medication. No alcohol, even if I was inclined to share my beer. Which I'm not."
"Being sick sucks," Dean said, pushing away his plate.
"You can't finish that?" John nodded at the remains of the meal on Dean's plate. "It wasn't even that big a serving."
Dean pushed the plate at Sam, who finished his own meal and set about finishing his brother's. "The doctor said a lot of small meals are better for a while, anyway. So." Dean looked around. "Where's the TV?"
"Uh, yeah. About that." John looked apologetic.
"Dude, you're kidding," Dean said incredulously. Then he gave a hopeful smile. "You are kidding, aren't you?"
"Sorry," John said, shrugging.
"Where's that shopping list?" Dean said. "Put 'Buy A TV Set' on it right now."
"I'm not even sure we'd get reception out here," John said reasonably. "I'll call Pastor Jim to ask, and maybe pick up a secondhand set in town."
"What am I supposed to do until then?"
"Sleep," John said. "Take some short walks with Sam. There's an old barn out back with some fishing rods."
Dean's mouth turned down and he slumped back over the table. "As if I haven't suffered enough," he said gloomily.
"Well, why not take a leaf out of Sammy's book?"
Sam looked up from the last bread roll he was buttering.
"And read a book," John advised, standing up and clearing the table.
Dean rolled his eyes. "I'm more a magazine person," he explained. "I prefer blurb to text. And lots and lots of pictures. Preferably of cars. Preferably with scantily clad women leaning against cars."
Now it was Sam's turn to roll his eyes. In the hospital, a book trolley had come around the wards, and Sam had borrowed a couple, devouring them in two days. Word had somehow gotten around the hospital, and books had begun arriving: adventure, mystery, sci-fi. Sam soon had a box of books that had occupied the front seat of the Chevy on the drive to the cabin and that now sat on the floor by the kitchen bench.
"There's always the old stand-by," John said, tossing a worn old pack of cards on the table. "Who wants to deal?"
By 8:30, Dean was drooping again, and John gathered up the cards and ordered him to bed. Dean was too tired to argue.
"Tomorrow I'll get the clippers out and cut your hair. What about you, Sam?"
Sam half-shrugged and stood as Dean pushed his chair back.
"You don't have to go to bed yet," John told him. "You're not recovering from pneumonia. Stay up and read for a while."
Sam just shrugged again and left the room. John's face was a study in exasperation, and Dean smirked and patted his father's shoulder on the way past.
"Bet you never thought you'd miss arguing with him," he said.
"Dean?" John said, and Dean turned around, rubbing at his eyes.
John opened his mouth, then closed it and shook his head. "Never mind. Sleep well."
Sam was already in bed when Dean shut the light off, leaving the door ajar. The hallway light shone through the crack in the doorway, spilling an angle of yellow light over the dusty floor boards. Tinny music from the old radio in the kitchen echoed softly down the hall. Dean padded over to the bed and sat down, pulling off his socks and tossing them onto the unused bed.
"Dad mad?" Sam asked.
Dean shot him a look over his shoulder and sighed. "Just a little freaked. You know, you could have sat up for a while and read. Not made it so obvious you couldn't wait to leap into bed with me, subtlety-boy."
"Tired," Sam said stubbornly.
"Yeah, me, too," Dean said, climbing under the covers and stretching out. Sam pressed against the wall next to him, his body inches away and Dean could tell by the quality of the silence that he was upset. "Come here, dummy," he whispered, and reached out to tug him closer.
"You mad?" Sam mumbled, and Dean shook his head, pressing his lips to Sam's temple.
"What do you think? Dad just doesn't understand, Sammy." He sighed. "He thinks I'm giving into you. Babying you. And I don't know how to tell him..." Dean broke off, swallowing hard.
Sam's fingers curved around his neck, cupped the back of his head, stroked through his hair.
Dean jerked under the touch, curving closer, pressing Sam to him.
"He doesn't understand how much I need you," Dean whispered.
Sam nodded, turning his mouth to Dean's and ghosting over his parted lips. Then he was pushing Dean over onto his side and curling in behind him, wide hand sliding over his hip and underneath his t-shirt.
"Want a story?" he breathed against his brother's neck, and Dean's tension faded. He chuckled and then squirmed as knowing fingers slid over his belly and pressed low and hard where it sloped down to his groin.
"Think you can put that many words together, Sammy?"
"Words?" Sam scoffed, then began to press a series of suckling kisses onto the nape of his neck, while his hand slid that necessary inch or so lower.
Dean bit back a groan, all too aware of their father down the hall, and caught Sam's hand, wrapped his own around it, guided it. For weeks in the hospital, all he'd wanted was Sam close to him, safe by his side. Alive and well. And now, in an instant it was all back, Sam's want and desire crashing over him like a wave, carrying him, lifting him. Turning him on so hard and so quickly he was spurting before Sam had even worked up a good rhythm.
Sam was chuckling against the back of his neck, but the warm, mellow feeling in Dean's belly was spreading through him, smothering any irritation he might have felt at his little brother's smugness.
"I totally spooged you," he grunted, guiding both their hands for a few last, smooth strokes, teasing tiny, trembling aftershocks from his loins.
Sam started to wipe his hand on Dean's t-shirt but Dean caught it and lifted it, taking a deep breath of the scent of their linked fingers.
"Hey, Sammy? I dare you to lick it," he whispered, belly quivering at the thought. Sam bucked involuntarily against him, and Dean felt his brother's dick, freed from his track pants, pressing against the small of his back.
"Gross," Sam muttered, but he was already lifting his hand, and Dean twisted his head, eyes widening as Sam's tongue emerged and licked down the length of his own index finger.
"Shit," Dean hissed, and he turned in Sam's arms, now feeling that leaking heat against his belly, pressing and jerking as Sam licked his lips thoughtfully. "Shit," Dean repeated, and then he was tasting his own come as he crushed Sammy's flushed lips beneath his own. Dean slid his hand, still slick with his essence, down Sam's belly and found his dick, long and thin, flushed and hard and hot. He pumped urgently, swirled his thumb around the head, thrust his tongue into Sam's mouth and then pumped again, all the time smothering Sam's little panting cries of pleasure.
Always, even in their darkened prison, it had been like this. Quiet and hushed, as if their touches were too private and secret to be spoken aloud. As if even that stifling dimness was a presence intruding upon them. Dad worried about how close they were already, he sure as hell wouldn't understand this. Dean had stopped trying to understand it a long time ago.
He just knew he needed it, needed Sammy now, and that it was a bone-deep need. Sam protected himself with his silences; it wasn't stubbornness, but a real anxiety that kept all his fears and pain locked up inside him. And yet with Dean, in the privacy of their nest, he could communicate everything he needed.
Dean protected himself like always, with a grin and a careless shrug. But here, in their private place, he could admit to himself what Sammy instinctively knew. That he was hanging on by a thread. That nightmares plagued him. That sometimes his hands shook and his chest hurt and he would swear he could smell once more the damp, musty fug of their prison.
Under his hand, Sammy was coming, skin taut as he arched and whimpered, quivering and sighing his pleasure. With a contented hum, he lifted their twined hands, and Dean needed no prompting to lick Sam's finger, tasting both of them on it, swallowing gratefully. And the wave crested and carried them over, washing their tangled limbs to shore. They lay panting in each other's arms, breathing each other's breath.
Eased into a deep and hopefully dreamless sleep.
Dean sat on the verandah, towel around his neck, John standing behind him.
"One straight back and sides coming up."
"Just get rid of all the girly wavy bits," Dean said, crossing his arms impatiently. He shot a smirk at Sam, perched on the steps, ever-present book in his hands. "One girly haircut per family is enough."
"Sam's next, aren't you, Sammy?" John said, carefully trimming the tender nape of Dean's neck.
Sam shook his head, eyes firmly on the book.
"I promise I won't cut it too short," John coaxed and Dean smothered a smile. Their dad was so not the coaxing type. Usually he'd be ordering Sam into the chair, Sam would be getting that mulish set to his jaw, and in five minutes John's face would be red and Sam would be stalking off somewhere to brood.
Coaxing seemed to be working better, though; Sam had tilted his head and was considering it.
"Come on, dude," Dean joined in. "You're gonna be cooking under that mop when it starts getting hot."
"Dean'll make sure I don't go nuts and give you a military do," John said.
Sam considered a moment longer before he finally nodded, and Dean relaxed under the gentle buzz of the old battery-powered clippers with a silent sigh of relief. Things would be a lot easier if Dad got his way now and then. At the moment, he was being a model of patience and restraint, but Dean knew his father well enough to know that that wasn't going to last long.
He also knew him well enough to know that their sleeping arrangements were going to be coming under scrutiny soon. Their father hadn't said anything, and Dean was pretty sure he didn't suspect anything - he wasn't that restrained. But he didn't like it, that much was clear. He'd put a stop to Sammy crawling into Dean's bed at night years ago, and with the benefit of teenage wisdom and experience, Dean realized it was just about the time he was hitting puberty.
Dean hadn't actually minded so much then. Privacy was becoming an issue, and there was nothing like waking up with morning wood under the curious eye of your little brother to really cramp your style. And Sammy had reached the 'I'm a big boy now' stage, as well, so it hadn't been that big a drama.
And that's how it would have stayed, if everything hadn't changed.
After their haircuts they walked down to the lake, Sammy rubbing curiously at his new, shorter hair. Dad had parted it down one side and combed it flat, and Dean wasn't sure he liked it. It made Sammy looked about six again, when Dad used to wet the comb to pull it through his curls, then flatten it all down to look presentable.
Sam did now what he used to do then: he ran his long fingers through it and ruffled it up.
Dad carried the fishing rods and an old woven tackle box over his shoulder, Sam had blankets and his book, and Dean was allowed to carry a bottle of water and nothing else. It was an easy walk through long grass, but Dean was still glad to arrive at the shore and collapse onto the blanket that Sam shook out on the ground.
"How many fish do you want, boys?"
Dean and Sam exchanged looks. They'd never known their father to fish a day in their lives.
"Uh, our lunch isn't gonna depend on you catching anything, is it?" Dean said, glancing doubtfully at the smooth surface of the water.
"Oh, ye of little faith," John said, tossing down the spare rods. "I'll have you know I used to go fishing all the time before you were born. Of course, that was fly fishing, in a river," he conceded, peering at the fishing reel. "Which is slightly different, I grant you."
"This should be interesting."
"Don't worry," John said absently. "You won't starve." Then he froze, breath caught in his throat. He looked so stricken that Dean instantly forgave him, and fought down the flare of pain that caught in his chest. John's remorseful gaze shot from him to Sam, who was sitting cross-legged, gazing blankly down at his book. His fingers were gripping the edges and he was swallowing hard.
"Long as we don't have to eat beans, hey, Sammy?" Dean said carefully, laying a gentle hand on Sam's back and stroking. John took a step towards them, but Dean shook his head, knowing that Sammy would shake out of the momentary shock in a few seconds. Little things reminded Dean all the time, but he breathed deeply and got through it. Sam did the same, taking a deep breath, and then another.
Finally he relaxed under Dean's hand, fingers uncurling from the edges of the book. He glanced up at Dean and gave a small shrug.
"Or peaches," he said hoarsely, and Dean smiled and pulled him close for a second, squeezing his shoulders and pressing a kiss to his ear.
"Never never again," Dean agreed. "Even peach cobbler is right out."
John was still standing, holding the fishing rod, looking forlorn. Sam looked over at him and gave him a small smile, and John mustered a tentative smile in return and turned back to his work.
Despite the less than promising beginning, the outing was a success. Dean stretched out on the blanket, content to let the dappled sunlight and the gentle breeze play over him. Sam lay at an angle to him, book propped on his chest, head on Dean's shoulder.
John caught three fish.
Days passed slowly, long and bright, with the promise of early summer. Every morning they trekked to the lake to fish; every afternoon Dean and Sam napped, lying on top of the bed with only a sheet thrown over them, long white curtains billowing into the room, stirring the salt into patterns on the floor. Sam didn't need the naps like Dean did, but despite their father's gentle hints, he wouldn't let Dean rest alone. Dean would often jolt awake and search instantly for Sam, always finding him by his side, eyes full of concern.
In the evening they played cards, or read, and Dean reluctantly picked up Ender's Game and was instantly absorbed, head bent over the book, glancing up every now and then to feel his brother's eyes on him. Dad worked on his journal, looked through his own books, making notes, writing steadily in his strong, sloping hand.
At night they climbed into bed and curled together beneath the covers, spooned together on their sides, hands linked over Sam's belly. Sometimes their father looked in on them before making his own way to bed; Dean would open his eyes and see him standing in the doorway gazing at them, outlined by the dim light from the hall.
Eventually the door would creak closed, and Sam would turn in his arms and nuzzle against him. And they'd get lost in each other again.
A few days after they arrived, John declared that it was time to restock the larder.
"Don't forget the TV," Dean reminded him, sitting curled up on the worn old couch.
"I thought you were enjoying your book,' John said, scanning his shopping list.
"Seriously, Dad." Dean forced a grin. "I'm going into The Simpson's withdrawal here."
"Okay, dude," John said, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'll look for a secondhand set." He paused, scratched at his chin as if turning something over in his mind, and finally reached into his jacket.
He pulled out Dean's .45. "I'll only be a few hours," he said. "Will you two be all right?"
Dean reached out and took the gun, feeling the weight of it. Sam looked on solemnly as Dean wrapped his hand around the butt, letting the familiarity of it soak into him. This was power in his hand, protection for him and Sammy. If he'd had a gun on the street that day...
"If anyone shows up, stay out of sight and wait for me to come back," John ordered. "Don't go any further than the lake."
"Yes, sir," Dean said, checking the safety and stowing the gun in the back of his waistband. It pressed against him, its weight both reassuring and worrying. They trooped out onto the veranda and watched John reverse the car and drive off down the rutted driveway, following the plume of dust until it disappeared around the bend.
It was the first time they'd been alone since their prison. Sam slipped his hand into Dean's and squeezed. Dean shot him a rueful smile.
"Weird, huh? All the stuff we survived, just the two of us. Now I feel like a cat on hot bricks."
"Walk?" Sam said, nodding towards the lake.
Dean sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. "Okay. But no fishing."
They found their usual spot and sat down on a blanket, gazing out at the still surface of the lake. A cooler wind was coming up, and grey clouds edged the horizon. Dean drew his legs up and rested his chin on his knees.
"Okay?" Sam asked, and Dean shot him a look. His little brother sat cross-legged next to him, his closed book on his lap.
"Always," Dean said lightly. Then he jumped as Sam swung the book and hit him on the knee with it. "Hey!"
"Are you okay?" Sam repeated.
"Careful, Sammy," Dean said sarcastically, rubbing his knee. "That almost sounded like a complete sentence."
Sam glared, and Dean glared right back. He knew what his brother meant, but damned if he was going to play Dean-bares-his-soul today.
That morning he'd woken shaking and panicked, tears on his face, the smell of damp earth in his nostrils. Heart racing, he'd stumbled out of bed and fumbled for the bolts, finally easing the top one as Sam's steady hands unbolted the bottom. Then he'd pushed the doors open wide and stood braced in the doorway, sobbing in one deep breath after another until he'd felt light headed.
And Sam had stood beside him, clutching the back of his t-shirt, as if Dean might suddenly take flight and disappear into the fresh, new day.
Since then he'd felt Sam's concerned eyes on him a dozen times. He felt them now, beneath the anger and the frustration.
"I'm okay," Dean said gently.
Sam opened and closed his mouth, shook his head, banged his book on his own knee, and Dean realized that his little brother really was trying to speak. For weeks, Sam's words had been clipped and brief, his body language doing all the talking for him. John and Dean hadn't pushed him to talk, and Sam had seemed content to let his eloquent shrugs and silences speak for him.
But now he was struggling for words, a sheen of tears in his eyes. Dean wanted to reach for him, but forced himself to stay still. This was Sam's battle; Dean could not fight it for him.
"Come on, Sammy," he whispered. "You got something to say, little brother?"
"I'm scared," Sam managed finally, chest panting as if he'd been running. "Worried... Your nightmares..." He broke off, shaking his head. "I don't know what to do."
"You're doing okay so far," Dean coaxed. "Talk to me, Sam. Tell me what's worrying you."
"You are!" Sammy burst out. And then it was like a dam had broken, and words poured from him in a gush. "Y-your eyes when you wake up, and you look at me like you don't know me! Th-this morning when you couldn't breathe, I th-thought you were gonna smash the glass doors to get out! It's getting worse, Dean, and y-you don't even want to admit it!"
"Whoa," Dean said, taken aback. "Well, I guess I asked for that."
"You didn't tell the doctors, you won't talk to Dad," Sammy said breathlessly. "I f-feel like I'm all that's holding you together, and what if I mess it up? This morning I couldn't even call Dad for help!"
"Okay, Sam, calm down," Dean said as Sam's chest rose and fell with panicked breaths. "You done good, okay? You got your words out." Dean grabbed Sam's shaking hands and squeezed. "You realize that, right? You're talking?"
Sam's hands squeezed back and he blinked rapidly. "I guess," he said dazedly. "I don't think I really tried before. I just got scared this morning, that's all."
"Hey, well if that's what it takes," Dean teased. "It was almost worth me freaking out."
Sam glared and pushed his hands away. "Don't joke!"
"Come on, Sammy," Dean said reasonably. "I'm sorry you were scared, okay? I didn't realize I was putting too much on you."
"That's not what I meant," Sam shot back. "I want to be there for you, it's all I want! But what if I screw up, Dean? What if you need me and I'm not there for you? That's what I mean."
Dean absorbed this. "Yeah," he said slowly. "I get that." He caught Sam's eyes, and all the memories were there, just below the surface. "I get that," he repeated. "But, Sammy, it's okay. I'll be okay."
Sam looked doubtful. "Dean..." he began, but Dean cut him off.
"Listen, Sam, I had pneumonia, and I got over it, right? You've barely said a word in three weeks, but you're getting over it. This will get better, too."
"I want you to tell Dad," Sam said.
"Please, Dean," Sam said. "Just let him know what's going on?"
Dean sighed. "All right, I'll talk to Dad."
Sam looked hopeful. "Really?"
Sam's shoulders relaxed a little, and the pinched, worried look faded from his face. "Okay," he said.
"That doesn't mean you get to go quiet on me again," Dean warned.
"I didn't mean to." Sam frowned, looking as if he was groping for words. "I didn't mean to stop talking." He shrugged. "I just couldn't..." He broke off in frustration.
"Dad said you were talking okay at first," Dean reminded him. "Then those reporters came."
"They had a camera," Sam said. "And the light was so bright it hurt my eyes. I was worried about you," he confessed. "Because you were still sedated. I felt helpless again."
Dean hid his anger at the reporter who'd slipped past hospital security and tried to get a scoop. "I'm sorry, Sam," he murmured.
Sam looked down at his hands. "Did you know about... those others?" he asked faintly.
Dean laid his hands on Sam's knees and pressed reassuringly. "Dad told me," he said.
"I saw their faces in the picture," Sam said. "And I knew, Dean. I knew what they suffered. I knew how they died. I knew that could have been us, and no one would have ever found us, either."
Dean couldn't take the torment on Sam's face a moment longer; he stretched out his arms and Sam crawled into them, curling into his lap like a little child. Dean held him close as he'd held him in their prison, arms wrapped tightly around the person he loved with everything that was in him. He could feel Sam's heart beating in his chest, fluttering like a caged bird behind his ribs.
"Sammy?" he said seriously. "Sammy, do you remember how it was for us, there at the end?"
Sam's hands clutched at his arms. "Yeah," he whispered.
"Remember how we even stopped being so scared? Because we knew that it was nearly over, and soon it was all going to stop hurting?"
Sam nodded jerkily against his chest.
"Well, that's what it was like for them, there at the end," Dean said with hushed certainty. "And now their suffering is over, and they're together, and there's no more pain, or hunger."
Sam drew in a shuddering breath.
"They're gone, Sammy," Dean continued. "And you have to let it go, too."
"I'll try," Sam said, then he turned his head to his brother's breast, and Dean felt his shoulders shake as he shed a few tears. Dean tilted his head back and gazed blindly at the sky, tears pooling in his own eyes. Gratitude that Sammy was talking again. Grief for the ones that nobody could save. Wonder at Sam's warmth and strength in his arms.
That was all worth a few tears.
Drops of rain had already started to fall when the Impala turned in the drive and roared down to the cabin. Sam and Dean met John on the porch, and he swung out of the car and ran a comprehensive look over them, just as he always did when he came back from a trip, long or short.
"All right, boys?" he asked, just as he always did.
"Yes, sir," they chorused, and Dean shot Sam a glance and raised one brow.
"Hey, Dad," Sam said cheerfully, accepting the sack of groceries. "Did you get the TV?"
"Yeah, I-" John spun around. "Sammy?"
"Hey, Dad, guess what?" Dean grinned, patting Sam on the back. "Sammy's talking again."
John stepped closer, and Sam shrugged a little bashfully. "It's no big deal."
Dean rolled his eyes.
"Sam," John said, one of his rare, wide smiles breaking out. He reached over and clapped Sam on the shoulder, squeezing hard. Sam shrugged again, a pink flush on his cheeks.
"It's starting to rain," he pointed out, and for a moment or two longer John just stared at him, foolish grin on his face. Then he absorbed the words and frowned.
"Dean, grab that sack from Sammy and get out of the rain. You've only been out of the hospital for a week."
"Yes, sir," Dean said smartly, grabbing the sack and climbing the stairs.
"And put a sweater on," John called. "Keep your chest warm."
Dean stood at the top of the stairs and watched his father haul out another sack of groceries and put it in Sam's arms. "Go take care of your brother," he ordered softly and Sam nodded and followed Dean up the stairs. John pushed the rain damp hair back on his forehead and closed his eyes for a moment.
Dean nudged Sam with his shoulder and left his dad to it.
The TV reception was fine, and they set it up in the kitchen so that they could watch while they prepared dinner. Sam and Dean chopped up the salad while John heated the tacos and cooked up the beef and refried beans. It was the perfect meal for a cool, rainy evening.
Dean pushed his plate away and drained the last of his coke, while The Simpson's played in the background. He kept his eyes on the screen, trying to pretend that Sammy wasn't nudging him under the table and nodding towards their father. Finally, he nudged back and glared, and Sam set his jaw and sat back in his chair.
"Sammy," John said, helping himself to another beer. "Would you mind getting started on the dishes? I want to have a private word with Dean. Out on the veranda," he said to Dean, nodding to the front of the house.
Now the look Dean exchanged with Sam was tinged with dread. What did their father want to talk to him about privately?
"Sure, Dad," Sam said, and John paused and smiled at him.
"It's good to hear your voice, son."
Sam smiled back at his father, waited till his back was turned and raised curious eyes at Dean. Dean shrugged, more than a little bit spooked.
Out on the veranda, John settled back in the old wicker chair. "So, Dean," he said casually. "What's going on between you and Sammy?"
Dean's heart froze in his chest, his breath catching in his throat. "What?" he managed.
"All those frowns and significant nods he's been giving you all evening. I get the feeling there's something he wants you to tell me."
Dean's breath escaped in a rush, and he felt light-headed for a moment. "Oh," he said stupidly, shock vying with relief. "Uh, yeah, there is."
John lifted his beer to his lips and took a healthy swig. "Well?"
After everything that had just rushed through his mind in the last few seconds, it was almost easy to open up now and admit the truth to his father.
"Uh, I've, um, been having these dreams," Dean began slowly.
John frowned, and Dean rushed on.
"Nightmares," he amended. "I guess they've been getting kind of... intense."
John leaned forward, wicker creaking under his weight. "What do you mean, intense?"
Dean shrugged awkwardly. "I mean, hardly like dreams at all. I wake up and it's like I'm back there, you know? And I'm awake, but I'm still trapped in the dream. I can smell that damp, earthy smell. I can feel the pressure of the walls beating down on me." Dean wrapped his arms around his chest as the memories rose, stark and bare. "This morning, I woke up and I could hardly breathe. I... I guess I scared Sam." He trailed off awkwardly. "Which might have been a good thing, because it got him mad enough to start yelling at me, and he couldn't do that without talking again."
John studied him for long moments in the light of the full moon, and Dean squirmed a little under that serious gaze. He half-wished now that he'd kept it to himself, as he'd intended all along. His father had enough to worry about without hearing what a wuss his oldest son was being.
John heaved himself out of the chair and sat down next to Dean on the top step.
"These dreams," he asked quietly. "You say you can smell your prison? You physically feel like you're there again?"
John took another deep pull at his beer. "I had a friend in the Corps," he said softly. "Bennet Cobb - Benny we called him. I met him the last year of my tour and we..." John huffed a laugh and shook his head. "Well, let's just say, we went through a lot together, one way or another. He was from Kansas, and we kept in touch for a while when we got home."
Dean turned on the step and studied John's face. His dad never really talked much about those years.
"Couple months after we got home, I get a call from the VA. Benny..." John cleared his throat. "Benny tried to cut his wrists." John caught his son's eyes. "He was suffering from PTSD. Like Sammy was. Like you are, Dean."
Dean shook his head automatically. "No, Dad," he said shakily. "I've just been having some bad dreams, that's all."
John patted his shoulder, eyes sympathetic. "I think you've been having flashbacks, son. They're like nightmares, only much more vivid and frightening. Benny said he could smell the jungle, hear the choppers. That it was like he was back there."
Dean looked away blindly, caught up once again in memories.
"Benny was one of the bravest men I knew," John said. "But he was also a stubborn S.O.B. who didn't want to admit to what he saw as a weakness. Until it was almost too late for him."
"It - it feels like a weakness," Dean admitted, unable to meet his father's eyes.
"Well, it's not. No more than what happened to Sammy meant he was weak. You don't believe that, do you?"
"No!" Dean said vehemently. "You don't know how brave he was, Dad. When I was so sick I couldn't help him or comfort him any more, he never gave up! He..." Dean trailed off, as his father gave him a small, knowing smile.
"Right," John said. "It has nothing to do with weakness, Dean. It's just the mind's way of coping with everything you went through."
Dean absorbed this for long minutes, looking out into the moonlit night, feeling the comforting solidity of his father sitting next to him. "So, what do I do?" Dean finally asked.
"What you're doing," John said gently. "Talk to me, talk to Sammy. That might be easier now he can answer back. And after all, you've been here for him, haven't you? Ever since you woke up in the hospital he's never been more than a few feet... away..." John blinked, and Dean slumped as he saw his father's quick mind putting it together. "That's why," John said. "That's why Sam has been sticking so close to you. I thought..."
"You thought I was taking care of him," Dean said miserably. "But it was the other way around." He looked away, an embarrassed flush on his cheeks. "And I knew what you thought, and I let you think it. Because I was too ashamed to admit..."
"Didn't we just settle this?" John interrupted. "Dean, you've got nothing to be ashamed of. You and Sam..." He shook his head. "You're the two bravest people I know. Surviving what you did, doing whatever you had to do to keep it together, to stay present. I'm so proud of you both."
Dean felt a warm flush in his cheeks at his father's words, but at the same time there was a niggle of unease.
doing whatever you had to do to keep it together
What exactly did his father mean by that?
"Dad?" he said cautiously.
"Dean, I was a soldier," John said. "I know the bonds that two men can form in those kinds of circumstances. And I'm so glad..." John's voice grew hoarse and he cleared his throat, looking away for a moment. "I'm so glad you and Sammy had each other to get through it. That was my only comfort when you were gone. Hoping and praying that you two were together."
Dean's unease faded at the sincerity in John's voice and he frowned, trying to understand what his father was telling him.
"I've been worried as hell about you two for the last few weeks, but I think I was worried about the wrong things." John huffed a self deprecating laugh. "Sammy's talking again, and that's down to you. You've been having flashbacks, and Sam's been getting you through it. And that's the way it should be. I trust you boys to take good care of each other."
"We do, Dad," Dean said faintly. What was really going on here? Did he have the wrong end of the stick again; was he just hearing what he wanted to hear?
"Dean, you and Sammy will always be close. But you know, don't you, that this kind of... intensity will fade? I know how it all seems right now, but trust me. Things will get back to normal for both of you."
Dean nodded, thinking hard about what his father was saying. He meant that what he and Sam were feeling was strong because of what they had gone through. He was saying that when they felt better it would go away. And if he did know about the other stuff, the private stuff that happened in bed... Then he was saying that would go away in time as well.
"Until then I trust you to take care of Sam." John glanced over his shoulder at the screen door and raised his voice. "And I trust you to take care of your brother right back, Sammy."
Dean followed his gaze, and after a moment Sam's shadow edged around the door. "I wasn't listening," Sam said defensively. "I just happened to be passing by."
John glanced at him, and Dean snorted a helpless laugh at the spark in his father's eyes. John's patient face broke up and then he was laughing his deep, baritone laugh and Sam was shoving the screen door open and standing with his hands on his hips.
"Is anybody gonna help me with these dishes?" he demanded indignantly.
"So Dad thinks we're gonna grow out of this?" Sam asked. His hair was ruffled from the pillow, and his skin looked pale blue in the bright moonlight, gleaming through the thin curtains.
Dean rolled onto his back and pulled Sam's head to his shoulder.
"I think it's more he hopes we're gonna grow out of this," Dean admitted.
Sam lifted his head and gazed at him in the moonlight. "Are we?"
Dean wondered. What exactly were they supposed to be growing out of? The sex? The need to be close? The love that bound them tightly to one another?
It didn't seem likely. "Nah," Dean said.
Sam's shoulders relaxed. "Damn straight," he muttered, and laid his head back on his big brother's shoulder.
John stood on the veranda and watched his sons tossing a baseball back and forth in the meadow in front of the cabin. Dean tried his best fastball, and Sam leapt for it, catching it in his new mitt and holding it high with a triumphant grin.
"Not bad!" Dean called, and Sam pushed his hair back and rubbed the ball on his shirt cockily.
Sam's hair was longer already, John thought, and damned if he wasn't taller as well. These weeks of rest had done him good. Dean kicked through the long grass and said something quietly to his brother that had Sam throwing his head back and laughing loudly.
His oldest, too, was finally looking better. He still suffered nightmares and the occasional flashback, just as Sam would still withdraw inside himself now and then. But he was slowly learning to talk to his brother and his father. And his father was learning to listen.
They looked so grown up, John thought. So tall and strong and grown up. Dean was a young man now, and Sam wasn't far behind him. And yet they were still just his boys underneath.
Probably always would be.
"Dad!" Dean called, and the boys jogged over to the foot of the stairs. "Someone's coming."
A plume of dust rose up from the end of the long drive, and John shielded his eyes as a worn old truck came into view.
"It's okay," he told his sons, noting with approval the alert set of their stances, the way they stood shoulder to shoulder. "It's Bobby, I was expecting him."
"Hey, Winchesters!" Bobby called as he pulled up next to the Chevy. "Happy Birthday, Sammy!"
"Sam," Sam corrected with a smile, stepping forward as Bobby swung out of the car and thrust his hand out.
"He's too grown up to be a Sammy any more," Dean explained, taking his own turn shaking Bobby's hand.
"John," Bobby said with a nod, and John nodded back. He and Bobby had thrown their share of words and fists over the years, but the man had come through for John when he needed him, calling and offering his help as soon as word got around that the boys were missing.
Folks had called from all over. Even in the midst of his fear for his sons, John had been surprised. He hadn't known he had so many friends.
"You boys look okay," Bobby said. "Looks like this place is doing you good."
"Come in," Dean said. "I'm finally off my medication, so maybe Dad will loosen up and let me have a beer, now we have a visitor."
"And it's my birthday, so maybe I can have one too," Sam said hopefully.
"Yeah, Sam," John reminded him. "Your fifteenth birthday."
"Speaking of which," Bobby said, circling his truck and pulling open the passenger door. "I bought you a birthday present, Sam."
He straightened with a grin, and Sam grew still, surprise rounding his eyes.
"A puppy," he breathed, almost leaping the hood of the truck as he hurried around it.
"She's a golden retriever," Bobby told him, laying the puppy in the boy's arms. Sam immediately buried his face in her blonde coat, hugging her to his chest.
John could feel Dean's anxious eyes on him, and when Sam looked up there was worry written on his face. There was also a trace of his old stubborn defiance, and curiously, John was glad to see it. Sammy just wouldn't be Sammy unless he had that chin of his up and was preparing to butt heads over something.
"It's okay, Sam," John said, to put their fears to rest. "I called Bobby up a few weeks ago and asked him to look out a likely pup."
Amazed surprise dawned on Sam's face, and his eyes sought his brother's incredulously.
Dean's sigh of relief was probably audible only to his father, but his grin lit up his whole face as he met Sam at the front of the car and laid a hand on the puppy's head.
"She's gorgeous," he said, and Sam beamed.
"She's a fine pup," Bobby confirmed. "A little bit crazy, but she'll grow out of that."
"What're you gonna call her?" Dean asked, petting the dog's silky ears. Bobby climbed the stairs and stood next to John, looking on as the boys dropped cross-legged to the grass and stood the pup between them.
"I must be nuts," John said, as the squirming bundle nuzzled Sam's gentle hands.
"Every boy should have a dog," Bobby said firmly. "Besides, look at them."
The puppy had silky paws planted on Dean's chest and was licking his chin, and John had to revise his opinion about his son being all grown up when Dean chuckled and fell backwards into the long grass. Sam flung himself down as well, and the puppy romped happily between the two of them.
"You done good, Johnny," Bobby murmured.
John thought he was probably talking about giving in and letting Sam have his puppy. Maybe even that he meant bringing the boys here and giving them a summer of peace.
Or just maybe he was talking about those two miracles down there. His sons. Mary's sons. And the fact that John was finally figuring out that they were everything in the world that was important.
"Yeah," John agreed.