Title: Comfort Food
Characters: John, Sam, Dean
Word Count: 2,643
Disclaimer: The Winchesters belong to Eric Kripke, not me.
Summary: It had been a bad month all around for the Winchester men, but John found a way to bring them all together and make things a little better.
Notes: spnsummergen story for inksheddings! Thank you to missyjack for the beta.
John pushed the cleaning rod through the barrel of the shotgun and scrubbed it out thoroughly, checked the mechanism and the exterior for defects, then closed it up and buffed it with a cloth until the metal shone. He bent forward awkwardly and set it down on the floor with the rest. He was finished, damn it all. Every firearm, every blade cleaned up, ammo counted and organized, list made up of things to replace--he couldn't think of a single other task that needed to be completed.
He leaned back against the sofa cushions and looked at his foot propped up on the threadbare ottoman, at the bulky white cast that had kept him from hunting for three weeks now. If John Winchester knew one thing about himself it was this: he was not a man well-suited to a life of leisure. If he knew a second thing about himself it was this: he was an idiot.
Hobbled. Useless for hunting for weeks or more. People maybe dying who didn't need to, all because of a mistake--a mistake only an amateur ought to make. With almost eight years of hunting behind him, John knew he had no excuse for putting all his weight on that rotten step. He'd been checking out a simple haunting--more a nuisance case than a danger--and he'd ended up on his ass with a snapped ankle. No way to avoid an ER visit, he drove there with his left foot working the pedals. The part in between--the part where he had to crawl 30 feet to get to the Impala--he was just glad the boys hadn't been there to see him.
Three weeks later, he was off the pain pills and allowed to gimp around, but he could barely drive, much less hunt. And, because his life was just a bundle of happiness wrapped up in marshmallows and sunshine, Sammy had come down with the chicken pox just about the time John's ankle stopped feeling like it had an ice pick stuck in it. The boy only had a mild case, nothing like the full-on misery Dean had suffered when he was three, but he was still stuck home from school, moping about missing a field trip and bored to tears in between naps.
And Dean--John had been too looped on painkillers for the first couple days to realize that Dean was staying home from school to help drag his ass to the toilet and back and bring him water and bologna sandwiches in bed. He'd put a stop to that quick--cut the pills back to half and made sure both boys went to school, trying to ignore the way Dean worried his lip between his teeth and hesitated in the doorway with his book bag hanging in his hands.
And now that John was on the mend, Dean had his eye on Sammy. He'd wanted to stay home again, but John put his foot down, firmly as a man could with a cast on one of them. Sam's fever never did get too high, but still Dean reminded John at least once a day not to give him any aspirin. As though John didn't know. As though he couldn't hear Mary reminding him to keep the baby aspirin away from Dean every time he looked at the spots on Sam's skin.
It was a shit month all around.
Rustling movement from the boys' bedroom and the quick approach of stocking feet over the rough carpet heralded the end of Sam's most recent nap. The slightly changed slant of early afternoon sunlight let John know that he'd drifted off himself for a few minutes. Not like there was a whole hell of a lot else to do.
"Daddy!" Sam skidded into the room fully awake, despite his sleep-smashed hair, no trace of the sleepy boy he'd shepherded back to bed in the late morning.
"Yeah, Sammy." John sat up straighter, weary already at what the gleam in Sam's eyes might mean.
John smiled at that, glad for the sign that Sam was feeling better. He hadn't been in the mood for much more than juice and peanut butter crackers for the last couple of days. "Well, what do you want? We've got noodles."
"No, I want somethin' else!" Sam stood in the middle of the room, twitching his gaze back and forth between John and the little kitchen.
"Well, there's some leftover chicken for sandwiches."
"Peanut butter and jelly?"
"I could scramble you up some eggs. How about that?"
"Dad!" Sam stopped twitching and turned his glare full on John. "That's for breakfast! It's not breakfast time."
John closed his eyes and bit back the desire to shout. The kid was bored, at least as bored as John was, and still a little sick, and John just didn't want to feel like that much of a bastard on top of being half-lame. "Tell you what, Sammy. We've got some of the good macaroni and cheese up in the freezer. I was holding onto it, but you can have it. Sound good?"
When John looked over at Sammy he saw his own expression turned back on him--the boy's eyes were closed, his lips pressed into an annoyed line. "Dad," he said when he finally opened his mouth. "Dean likes mac and cheese, not me. Don't you remember? I don't eat orange things!"
"What? What about cheez puffs?"
"Gross! Dean likes those, not me. It's not right for stuff to be orange like that." Sam sounded outraged at the thought, like John had suggested serving kittens for dinner.
"But what about oranges?"
"That's different! Duh, they're supposed to be orange. They're the exception that proves the rule, remember?"
"What about carrots?"
"Well…" Sam scuffed his toe across the carpet and looked away, scratching his fingers across his stomach. Looked like that oatmeal bath from earlier had worn off.
"They're supposed to be orange, aren't they?" John pushed, enjoying making Sam squirm just a little to justify his crazy theory.
"Yeah, I guess," Sam allowed. "But I still think they're gross."
"What about macaroni and cheese that's not orange?"
"But…" Sam looked confused, and he switching to raking his fingers over his arm, scratching through the fabric of his sleeve.
"Stop scratching." John reminded him, his voice low, and Sam dropped his hand back to his side.
"I never saw any macaroni and cheese that wasn't orange. Does it taste orange? What color is it?"
John was about to ask Sam to explain exactly what orange color tasted like, but the truth was he knew just what he boy meant. Dean loved the stuff--loved cramming his face full of round crunchy orange snacks and making boxed macaroni and cheese himself, stirring the orange powder into the noodles and butter and milk. The frozen macaroni and cheese was far better, and John kept it for the occasional treat, something that could be heated up and eaten when he was exhausted and starving after a hunt. Still, though, Sammy was right. It tasted orange.
"No, it doesn't taste orange. It's white, and it tastes like good cheese and pasta. What do you think?"
"Mmmm, it sounds good!" Sam started scratching idly at his leg, but lightly enough that John didn't feel like reminding him again. "Do they have it at the store?"
"No, but I bet we can get what we need to make it."
Usually, when he planned on staying in one place for longer than a few weeks--the school year, or at least the semester--John liked to find a place that was a little ways out of town, off the beaten track. He liked to have more room for training, for target practice, room to give them space against the eyes of the people who always wanted to judge him. This time, they'd had to take a place in town, but that was turning out to be lucky. Last thing they needed was property around them to contend with when John was limping around on a crutch, Sam was sick, and Dean was looking worn-out enough without calisthenics and running on top of it.
A bonus of living close-in, especially in smaller cities like the one they'd landed in, was that a couple of phone calls and the promise of a generous tip could almost always get you groceries delivered to your door. John had put together a list that would keep them in necessities for a week or so and then sat and made sure he'd remembered everything he needed for the macaroni. He didn't have a recipe, had never seen it written out for that matter, but he had it in his brain underneath a decade and a half of other information--demons and incantations and highway maps, car repair diagrams and house listings and baby books.
He'd helped his mother make it dozens of times, stirring the cheese in her old cast iron pot. They'd have to deal with the kitchen supplies they had on hand, but John was used to that by now. He'd finally called in the grocery order and then watched some kind of ridiculous court show on TV with Sam munching on an apple next to him until the delivery arrived. When the knock came at the door, he limped across the room with his stick shoved up under his right arm. He paid the delivery boy and then passed the lighter of the two bags over to Sam and carried the heavier one, loaded down with a gallon of milk and half a gallon of juice, into the kitchen.
Sam was scratching again, hand slipped up underneath the back of his shirt, and John knew he had to find something better for those restless fingers to do. "Put the bag down and go wash your hands. You're helping."
"I am?" Sam looked shocked, and John understood that. He almost never let the boys help him in the kitchen. They could make something themselves if they wanted, and he knew Dean frequently did, but when he was working in the kitchen he just wanted to get it over with, and helping hands always seemed to make it take twice as long. He didn't like to let cooking become something more than sustenance, the necessary rituals for nutrition and fuel.
Go beyond that, and it was too close to working side by side with Mary in their comfortable, sunlit kitchen, enjoying having the space of a real kitchen after being cramped in the tiny one at his apartment but still finding their hips bumping together. Too close to sitting at the little round table, holding a freshly-warmed bottle in one hand, a baby tucked into the opposite arm. Too close to the life they could never have again, and the reminder hurt.
But the memories of making this macaroni and cheese belonged to his mother, and maybe that didn't have to hurt so bad. Plus, well, his boys deserved to learn that not everything with that name was orange and came out of a box.
John found an old cheese grater in a high cabinet--a little rusty, but not too bad--and cleaned it up with steel wool before putting it and a plate and a big bowl on the table, along with the cutting board and a knife for himself. Sam came running back into the room with his hands held up in the air like a doctor on TV.
"I'm ready to help!"
"Okay, go ahead and sit down at the table." John poured a big glass of juice in case Sammy got thirsty while he was working then sat down and gestured at the blocks of cheese sitting on the table between them. "Okay, we've got mozzarella, Monterey Jack, and cheddar." He pointed at Sam. "White cheddar, not yellow."
Sam grinned smugly and John picked up the block of mozzarella and sliced it open with his knife. "Okay, just grate this over the plate here on the medium-size holes and dump it in the bowl when you fill up the plate. And watch your knuckles--we don't want blood in the cheese, you got it?"
"Got it!" Sam set to rubbing the block of cheese against the grater with enthusiasm, Between holding the cheese with one hand and holding the grater and plate steady with the other, he didn't have a hand free to scratch his chicken pox rash. He was so focused, his tongue sticking out of his mouth as he bent over the grater, bangs bobbing up and down as he put his whole little body to the task, that John didn't think he noticed the itching much anyway.
John cut the hard block of cheddar up into tiny cubes with his knife and added it to the bowl with Sam's shredded mozzarella. He sliced the package of Monterey Jack open for Sam and then moved into the kitchen, setting up a big pot to boil the macaroni. He'd had the grocery store bring him two boxes of the small shells--his mother's favorite. Sam was drooping down towards the table by the time be got half-way through the second block of cheese, so John sent him off to take a nap on the couch and sat down to finish the job himself while the pasta boiled.
By the time Dean was due home from school, the macaroni was in the oven, and the aroma of melted butter and baking cheese filled the kitchen and living room. John was standing in front of the oven, checking to make sure that the edges were browning but not burning, when he heard the door open.
"Dad!" He called out, walking toward the kitchen so swiftly that he didn't notice Sam napping on the couch. "You're not supposed to be standing on your ankle!"
"Shhhh." John held his finger to his mouth, and tilted his head in the direction of the couch. "My ankle's fine, son."
"Sammy!" Dean whispered, turning to hurry back over to the side of the couch. John limped over to stand beside Dean and then wrapped his arm around Dean's shoulder.
"He's fine, too." John nudged Dean away from the couch and let his boy help him back across the room to the little dining table, where he sat down with a quiet sigh of relief and gestured for Dean to sit in the chair beside him. "His fever's about gone, and his appetite's back. You've got to stop worrying so much. Winchesters are made of strong stuff; you know that."
"Yeah." Dean bit his lip. "I just--"
"I'll make it an order if I have to."
Dean nodded, looking down at the table for a moment. "So, what's for dinner?"
"Macaroni and cheese."
Dean looked up, alarmed. "But Sammy doesn't like--"
"He'll like this kind. He better--he helped make it." Dean looked doubtful, and John shook his head and patted Dean on the shoulder. "Come on, help your old man make a salad."
Dean walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge, pulling out the fresh veggies he found inside. John followed, taking the globe of iceberg lettuce out of its bag and peeling off the outer layer before rinsing it under cold water and putting it down on the cutting board. A cucumber followed, then a pair of small, deep red tomatoes.
"No carrots?" Dean asked, his head inside the fridge as he dug around looking for more salad ingredients.
"We're doing Sam a favor and making this meal orange-food-free."
Dean laughed, and his smile, suddenly relaxed, made John grin in response.
It had been a shit month all around, but right then, for one meal, he wouldn't trade it for the world.