The Winchesters entered the area as a unit; poised to pounce once the objective had been sighted. John moved forward down the center with Sammy slightly off to his left, but always in John's line of sight; Dean had a little more range, roving steadily away from John and to the right. John kept his eyes peeled, knowing how difficult it was to find this particular target. Just a moment of distraction was all it took for them to lose the advantage.
"Dad! Over here! I found the kid clothes!" called Sam excitedly. John cursed under his breath as he moved toward his youngest son. Sammy knew better than to give his position away like that! Now everyone looking for child sized items would converge and they'd have to fight for every stitch of clothing they wanted to look at. It was bad enough being here on a delivery day when it was more crowded than usual, but Dean needed new clothes and it couldn't be put off. Such were the joys of "shopping" at the Salvation Army.
John's growing irritation burst in a bubble of suppressed laughter – not only had Sam found the kid clothes, he'd thrown himself spread eagle across the rickety table to claim his position and was giving a lady in a red t-shirt a baleful glare every time she tried to approach.
"That's enough, Sammy." John said as he peeled Sam off the display. Sam had sense enough to throw himself across the shorts and pants knowing that those were the items of most importance because they were harder to find and fit. Even as John pulled him back, Sam kept his hands on a number of items to make sure he had the first claim on them glaring at the hovering lady all the while. Sam might have forgotten the directive not to give his position away, but he obviously remembered the first rule of shopping at the Salvation Army – if you think you may want an item, never put it down; once it's out of your hands it's open season for everyone else.
Sam's announcement had drawn a crowd like John had feared; a number of other women and one or two men. John wasn't able to see Dean through the growing throng that had already begun to make a mess of the table. He gave a sharp whistle knowing Dean would hear it and come find them.
"You said jeans, right Dad?" Sammy didn't wait for an answer as he forged ahead. "I think these three look like they might fit. But look, there are some nice black pants too. Maybe Dean could wear those on special days at school or something." Sam tried to juggle the pants he clutched tightly to his chest even as he attempted to pass the items one at a time to John for inspection. John marveled at the generosity of his little boy; he'd made it clear before they left the motel that this trip was to outfit Dean, and Sam enthusiastically agreed. He hadn't asked for anything for himself, content in the knowledge that he'd be getting Dean's hand-me-downs. It briefly crossed John's mind that his boys shouldn't have to live like this, but this was not the time to dwell on that. They had a mission to complete.
In the time it took for John to sort out the items Sammy had claimed in addition to a few picks of his own, Dean had made his way across the store and worked his way through the crowd to stand by them. Though Dean was being very careful not to jostle anyone, other people around the table were not so considerate. A high elbow to his sunburned shoulders caused Dean to hiss in pain; he twisted away from the contact even as John interposed himself between the offending shopper and an intensely irate Sammy. The lady in the red shirt tsked disapprovingly at the man who had elbowed Dean and snatched a pair of pants right out of his hands in retaliation.
John managed to cut off any verbal response Sam was going to give with one meaningful glance. Shoving all of the pants back into Sam's arms to distract him, John guided him by his elbow to the far side of the table; Dean followed. It wasn't until they'd staked out a spot by the wall and were momentarily settled that John noticed that Dean was carrying something. The look on Dean's face clearly said I know this isn't what we came in here for, but he knew the rule about not putting things down as well as Sammy. Dean must have been looking at the jacket when John whistled and in his rush to respond never put it back on the table.
The jacket Dean was carrying looked like it was in pretty good shape. There was nothing flashy about it, it was all about function. It was a standard, green army jacket that had obviously been well cared for by its last owner. It looked like it had a lot of wear left in it; John should know, he still had the jacket he'd been issued from his days in boot camp.
Sam noticed the jacket about the same time John did. "What's that, Dean? An army jacket? Here…I'll hold it for you." Sam unceremoniously dumped the pants on the floor and reached out for the jacket.
"Sam!" John's disapproval was clear and Sam immediately bent to pick up the scattered garments.
"It's okay, Sammy. I can just put it down…. I didn't mean to grab it." But Dean's expression clearly indicated that he really didn't want to put the jacket down. He could see the vultures circling just as well as John could. The man who had elbowed Dean earlier was very obviously listening to their conversation and was looking covetously at the jacket.
John moved very deliberately between Dean and the man at the table, cutting off his line of sight. "Why don't we just hang on to it for now, and we'll see how it goes." John ignored the sound of disgust from the man, but out of the corner of his eye he caught a nod of approval from the lady in the red t-shirt. John quickly reshuffled the garments. Somehow, Sam did end up as the keeper of the jacket. In order to keep hold of it and still have his hands free to help with the pants, Sam expedited things by putting the jacket on. Holding both arms above his heads he jumped up and down a little to cause the sleeves to fall back to his elbows. Then he held out his arms for pants from John.
Dean, meanwhile, had toed off his sneakers and wedged himself into a corner between a rolling rack and the wall. With John and Sam standing in front, it was the most privacy they'd be able to manage short of finding a dressing room somewhere which was unlikely. Quickly Dean stripped down to his boxers and stepped into the first pair of jeans. Methodically each pair of pants was inspected and either accepted or rejected. John was grateful that when it came right down to it, jeans were jeans, and were an acceptable article of clothing to wear to school. As long as they weren't worn out too badly in important places and left Dean some room to grow, they were good enough.
Satisfied with their success finding four pair of jeans, John let the boys wander together looking for t-shirts while he looked for sneakers. Somewhere along the way, possession of the jacket had shifted from Sam to Dean who was wearing it just like Sam had. It didn't engulf the thirteen year old as completely as it had his nine year old brother, but to John's eyes the jacket make Dean appear very small; small and young.
It hit John again, that this was no life for his boys. Sam shouldn't be so excited to find "nice black pants" for Dean to wear on special occasions – they should just have that. Dean shouldn't have to strip down to his underwear in a public place – they should be able to shop in a real store like other families. What made it all worse was that this was his boy's version of "normal" – they just accepted it because that's how things were. But it broke John's heart because the way things were was not the way things should be.
After an unsuccessful hunt for shoes John headed back toward the boys who had established themselves in position by the tables with the t-shirts. John paused to let a volunteer with a rolling rack pass by, then stood watching the boys. Sam had made peace with the lady in the red shirt; he now viewed her as an ally against the man who'd elbowed Dean and was cheerfully sorting shirts with her. He kept trying to pass the lighter colored shirts to her; John overheard him say, "The darker colors are better for hiding stains." She chuckled indulgently and John was silently grateful that Sammy didn't go on to explain exactly the kind of stains they were trying to hide.
Dean seemed to have more of a system for inspecting t-shirts. From John's vantage point he could see Dean was much more interested in t-shirts with logos than the plain shirts Sam was sorting through, so Dean was standing at a different table facing Sam and the lady. Occasionally Dean would put one shirt off to the side and hold it in a pile under his left hand while the shirts he'd disregarded outright made a much bigger pile in the center of the table. There was another small pile that Dean kept in front of him. The last shirt Dean picked up brought a genuine smile to Dean's face followed immediately by a teasing gleam.
"Hey Sammy!" Dean called to get his brother's attention.
Sam looked up expectantly from where he was standing across the table. Dean shook out the shirt he was holding so Sam could see the image on the front. "I found a shirt for you!" Sammy wrinkled his nose in disdain.
"Those are Go-Bots, Dean." Sam explained with exaggerated patience. "I like the Trans-FORM-ers." John smiled; no matter how many times Dean pretended to mix up the popular robots, Sam never seemed to pick up on the fact that he was being teased about it. But Dean wasn't finished.
"How about this one?" Dean held up a grey Voltron shirt.
Sam rolled his eyes expressively. "That one actually says "Voltron" on it! That is not Transformers!" Sam huffed a little and tried to get back to work, but Dean wasn't finished yet.
"This one…what about this one?" Dean waved the new t-shirt around like a matador trying to get the attention of a recalcitrant bull.
Sam couldn't resist looking. "Thundercats are for babies, Dean!" he responded indignantly.
Dean had already moved on to the next shirt, but he couldn't hold back a giggle. "Wait...wait! I found the perfect one for you!" Dean waved around a the light blue shirt adorned with two My Little Pony unicorns on either side of a brightly colored rainbow.
"Dean!" Sam yelled, just about at his snapping point, "that shirt is for girls!" Dean could no longer stand upright because he was laughing so hard. He leaned forward on the table propping himself up on his elbows unable to contain himself. John could see Sam was torn – on the one hand, he was full of indignation in the way only a put-upon little brother can be, but on the other hand, hearing Dean laugh like that – really let himself go and laugh – was such a rare thing that it didn't seem like he could bring himself to interrupt.
John was just about to intervene when Dean pulled himself together. Wiping the tears from his face with his right hand, Dean held up his left hand in a gesture of "hold on, I'm stopping now". Sam shifted his weight and looked suspicious. "For real, Sam." Dean took a deep breath and focused himself. "What about this one?"
John could see by Sam's expression that he didn't want to give in and look, but he couldn't resist. Sam's face lit up with glee when he recognized the Autobot insignia on the dark grey shirt. "That's a good one, Dean!"
"That is a good one, Dean." John agreed as he moved to his eldest son's side. Just in time John remembered Dean's sunburn so instead of clapping Dean on the shoulder, and swatted his head instead. "You can start refolding the rest of these and putting them back where they belong." It was an order, but it was said with a smile; Dean took the admonition with good grace.
John started rifling through the pile of shirts Dean had collected on his left side. If the shirts were any indication, Dean was developing an interesting taste in music – AC/DC, Metallica, Led Zepplin. John wasn't sure where the boys would end up in school or what kind of dress code would be involved, so most of the logo shirts would go back; but not all of them.
John tapped the pile of shirts Dean had pulled aside for himself, "You can pick two of these. Put the rest back neatly."
"Yes, sir." Dean acknowledged the instructions even as he continued folding all of the other shirts he'd tossed aside earlier.
Before heading over to where Sam was waiting, John snagged the t-shirt with the Autobot insignia on it and placed it on top of the pile of jeans he was carrying. Sam didn't miss the move John had just made and bounced a little as John made his way over. "What've you got for me, Sammy?"
Sam ran down the piles of shirts he'd sorted – long-sleeves here and short-sleeves there. Just like he'd advised the lady in the red shirt, Sam tended to pick the dark neutral colors – black, navy, gray. John approved and made some final selections. By the time John and Sam had completed fixing their table display Dean had finished his as well and made his way over to where they were standing. He passed two shirts over to John.
"We did good work today, boys."
"Yes, sir." Both boys were just as pleased as John. They weren't always this successful when they shopped at the Salvation Army; it was very hit or miss. Today was just one of those days when they walked away with almost everything they needed…and maybe a little something more.
"Why don't you pass me that jacket, Dean?"
Dean blinked and looked down; it seemed that he'd forgotten he'd put the jacket on. Dean shrugged out of the jacket, but didn't hand it to John right away. "I'll put it back, sir. I know where it goes." Sam looked crestfallen, but Dean's expression remained neutral.
"If you put it back, how am I going to pay for it?"
The boys shared a disbelieving glance with each other before Dean looked back at John. "It's not pants or a t-shirt. It's not what we came in for…"
"Sometimes" John began as he plucked the jacket out of Dean's hands, "sometimes, you don't get what you came in for." He deliberately laid the jacket on top of the other items he intended to purchase.
"Thanks, Dad." Dean solemnly met his father's gaze; it was a look way too old for a thirteen year old, but there was no doubting the sincerity in his face.
"You're welcome, kiddo." John smiled slightly. "Now why don't you boys wait outside while I take care of this, and then we'll head out to the museum."
"Yes sir!" was the response in stereo.
John kept his eyes on the boys as they made there way together out of the store. Sam even held the door for the lady in the red shirt on her way out; she thanked him and patted him on the head. Dean was bound to give him a hard time about that – and wasn't that the way things should be? With a smile on his face that reached his eyes, John thanked the sales clerk and left the store to spend a summer afternoon on a field trip with his boys.