Title: Open Season (Complete)

Author: chemm80

A/N: Had it with the angsty Hell!fic? Wanna take a trip to the happy land of denial, far, far away from the Deal and all its repercussions? You've come to the right place.

Dean watched from the Impala as the school building vomited a stream of bodies, like a bad cheeseburger that wouldn't stay down another second. Damn, but he was glad to be out of high school. He'd never felt like he belonged there, always outside it all, looking in through a dirty window. He'd served his time because his father wouldn't hear of him quitting, even invoking his mother's name when he otherwise never mentioned her at all.

It had been a waste of time. Everything he'd ever really needed to know he'd learned at the knee of John Winchester, not in fucking kindergarten.

He didn't know if Dad intended it that way, but dropping in and out of towns like these was a kind of training, a lot like a hunt. You had to be on your guard, scout the situation, and gather intel, then piece it together, figure out what and who you were dealing with. Like who the big dogs were—the dangerous ones—and who were the victims. Try not to be the latter.

This was hostile territory.

It wasn't the usual drill, a town this small. Dad mostly picked a school big enough they didn't stand out, but not big enough they'd get lost in the crowd. Dean knew how to handle those. John had rules which his boys were long past needing to recite. Don't draw attention to yourself. Keep your stories straight. Stay under the radar.

Sam knew how to blend in all right, but that was going be a hell of lot harder to do when the entire student body consisted of less than two hundred kids. Schools were minefields and full of tripwires, all connected in one way or another to child protective services. Dean was past that now, but Sammy was still young enough to disappear into the foster care system if a broken bone or too many bruises attracted the wrong kind of attention.

And that wasn't the only danger. These small towns could be meaner than any big city in their own way. They lulled you into a false sense of security with their good ol' boy friendliness and picket fence bullshit. You had to be ready for the bared fangs behind the smiles.

Fighting was usually the wrong answer too, even though an open, honest fight would have suited Dean better. Trouble was you never got one of those. You were always outnumbered and he wasn't a fool. So he bullshitted the ones he could and picked his battles, fighting only when he had to. Well…maybe once in a while just because he wanted to.

Sam wasn't like him; Dean never wanted him to be and he made it his business to give him that luxury. In some ways it was easier for Sam. Adults in general, and those in authority in particular, usually liked him. Trouble was, that in itself made him a target for a certain contingent. Sam was good at avoiding this group. Usually. And if he had to, he could defend himself. Mostly.

And it wasn't like Dean could go wading in and kicking ass every time Sam slipped up or wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if he could be there 24/7. If he jumped in the middle every time things started to go bad he wouldn't be doing Sam any favors. Sooner or later they'd catch him alone and make it worse for him. Besides, no matter how responsible he felt for the kid, he wasn't looking to make him into a complete pussy.

A pussy who should have had his ass out here half an hour ago. Dean had his hand on the door handle ready to go look for him when Sam shambled around the corner of the building. He scanned his brother for signs of trouble in paradise—marks, bruises, dried blood. This dreary daily inspection had become a necessary evil when they'd gotten too old to go to the same school. It was one that Dean had hated with a white-hot passion at the time. Now that Sam was so damned big, he did it more out of habit than necessity.

Dean watched Sam fold his lanky frame into the car and thought he looked about the same as he had that morning: all gangling six foot three inches of him, a hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet, wild mop of hair sticking out all over. Dad had given up making him cut it, maybe deciding to pick his battles, too. Dean noticed they never seemed to have trouble finding another bone of contention, though.

"'Bout time."

Sam cut his eyes at him, said nothing. One of these days Dean was gonna knock that smart-ass eye roll right off his face.

"I don't have time to sit around here waitin' on you to kiss your faggoty little friends goodbye."

"Yes you do."

Okay, yes he did, but that was a cheap shot. And another reason he already hated this little piece of shit town. Jobs were nonexistent and he was losing his mind with nothing to do but sit around the crappy rented house all day. Actually that was the only reason he was picking Sam up at all. They weren't even a mile from the school. The smart-mouthed little shit could have walked.

"Fine. You can walk home tomorrow. Bitch."

"Fine. Jerk."

Dean sigh was lost in the sound of the ignition. He was pretty fucking tired of Dad leaving them behind. Nothing the supernatural could dish out pissed him off as much as Sam's rebellious teenage bullshit. But every once in a while Dad got a wild hair up his ass that they needed to have some sort of "normal" life, or that Sam did anyway, and Dean was stuck with Sam-sitting detail.

Dean wasn't so convinced that this strategy was really all that good for Sam, anyway. Oh, any idiot could see that he wasn't suited for their life, unstable as it was, always on the move. The problem was this was just a little pit stop for them. It wouldn't last, no matter what they did. Dad would change his mind, maybe get a lead he couldn't ignore, or—well, who knew what the fuck he was thinking sometimes.

Dean had no problem at all with their rambling lifestyle. He needed to go. He loved the hum of the wheels on the road; the sound, the feel of it—they hit him like an electric charge, as familiar and vital as the blood running through his veins. Every minute they stayed here sucked a little more life out of him.

But Sam—he would always hate having to start over. Dragging it out just made him more stubborn when he had to let go. He'd start wanting to hold on to the place, the people, the comfort of routine. Dean had seen it so many times before and they'd always gotten through it, but he worried about what it was doing to Sam over the long haul. The constant pressure was either rubbing a callus or wearing a blister, and a blister could get messy when it finally ruptured.

"Basketball," Sam grunted without preamble, startling Dean into a confused frown.

"Basketball? What the fuck're you mumbling about?"

Sam looked out the window. He rubbed the side of his nose with his index finger. "They want me on the fucking basketball team."

Dean barked a laugh.

Sam turned to look at him, serious and sullen.

"You're not kiddin,' are you?"

"No. That's why I was late. The coach was trying to talk me into it."

"Are you gonna do it?" Dean asked carefully, not sure what answer he expected, or wanted.

"Fuck, no. Why would I?"

Dean considered. "Why would he even ask you?" How come he's even noticing you at all?

Sam shrugged and shook his head. "I guess I screwed up. We have a free half hour at lunch. I usually just read or do homework, but yesterday they needed another body for three-on-three and they talked me into it. I guess one of the guys told the coach."

"Did you tell him you never played? For real, I mean?"

"Yeah. But I don't think he cared. I guess height is all you need to play b-ball here in Podunk."

--

Sam knew something was different as soon as he walked into school the next morning; he just wasn't sure what. When he turned his back to the hallway and began to work the combination on his locker, he felt a tingling between his shoulder blades. Somebody was watching him. Years of training kicked in. Sam covertly checked over his shoulder, trying to identify the threat.

He couldn't locate anything or anyone specific. In fact, it was surreal, the way everybody seemed to be looking at him. Oh, they weren't really staring, so much as they were just kind of looking at him differently. He started to sweat. He got his books and headed for class. He slouched his shoulders a little, as usual, trying to make himself less noticeable. He knew how this was done—don't walk too fast or too slow, don't make eye contact—the old disappearing act just didn't seem to be working.

"Hey, Sam. 'Sup, man?"

Sam jumped and looked around at hearing his name, raised his eyebrows at the freckle-faced kid at his shoulder. "Uh, hey…dude." He couldn't remember the guy's name to save his life.

"So, you gonna play basketball?"

One of the guys from the basketball court the day before, then. Jack? Joe? Billy Bob? Fuck if he knew.

"Uh, I don't think so. I'm not very good. I really haven't played that much, you know?"

"Hey listen, you're good enough, dude. Trust me," he chuckled.

The bell rang.

"You think about it. We can really use you," Billy Bob said, walking away backward. Sam's confused look followed him as they both ducked into their next class.

When Sam came back into the hall after class, it wasn't any better. He could still feel them all looking at him and it was really creeping him out. They were whispering, looking while trying to look like they weren't looking—doing everything but pointing and staring. He'd never felt anything like it. Sure, it had been getting harder for him to blend in the bigger he got, but this was ridiculous. He'd lost his cloak of invisibility somewhere and he'd sure like to know what the hell had happened to it. People saw him now.

At lunch he made a point of staying out of the gym. It was late winter, but a warm enough day to sit outside in the lee of the building. The heat of the sun radiating off the brick felt good on his face and chest. Hell, it felt good to be alone. He let the sun bake the itch from his skin, still crawling from whatever weird-ass shit was going on here today. Seriously, he'd checked his zipper half a dozen times already. As far as he knew he hadn't done anything particularly embarrassing in the last few days. Pod people? He was starting to wonder.

By the time his lunch break was over, the peace and the warmth of the bricks at his back had him thinking it was just his imagination, some random attack of paranoia, but as soon as he walked back into the building the principal pulled him aside.

"Mr. Winchester? Can I see you in my office please?"

Shit. What could he possiblywant? Something catching up with him from some previous school, some other town? Screwed up paperwork? He was sweating again.

The principal sat down at his desk and cleared his throat. He indicated the man already seated in one of two chairs in front.

"Sam, this is Mr. Gorman, the school counselor. We've taken a look at your transcripts. There are quite a number of different schools represented here."

"Yes sir. We move around a lot for my dad's work." Stock answer. So far, so good.

Mr. Gorman leaned forward and tapped the papers on the principal's desk. "Sam, we've been looking over your grades."

Sam raised his eyebrows. He figured on a couple of gaps and maybe an incomplete course here and there, but it couldn't be that bad. What he had managed to finish was damned good. What the hell?

"Is there a problem, sir?"

"These are very good grades, Sam, as I'm sure you are aware," Mr. Gorman said. "Easily good enough to attend college. Are you considering that?"

He was more than considering it—he was hell bent on it, though he hadn't said so to anyone. But what could it hurt to tell this guy what he probably wanted to hear anyway?

"Oh, yes sir."

"That's excellent," Mr. Gorman answered. "But there's more to it than just good grades, son. These days the universities, especially the better ones, are looking for well-rounded students. They expect that you will have participated in community service or extracurricular activities, or both."

Oh. Sam thought about it. If ridding the world of supernatural evil wasn't community service in its purest form he'd be hard pressed to say what would be, but he didn't see himself explaining that to these two, much less to some college admissions board someplace.

He wondered exactly what these two fine gentlemen expected him to do about the awkward situation to which they had just considerately brought his attention. Luckily they were happy to fill him in.

The principal cleared his throat. "Sam, I understand Coach Robinson has asked you if you'd like to join our basketball team."

--

"You want to play basketball?" Dean frowned.

Sam finished chewing a huge mouthful of frozen pizza, swallowed. His mouth quirked. "I'm not sure I have a choice."

"Well I guess times have changed since I was in school, back in the day. Last time I looked basketball wasn't a required course."

Sam looked down at the table, considering. "It's weird here, Dean."

"What do you mean, 'weird'? Supernaturalweird?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe it is a cult. I'm starting to think basketball might qualify as a religion around here."

"Huh. Well, even if it is, there's no reason you have to convert." It sounded a little like a question to Sam. "Or are you a born-again basketball freak? Gonna start dying your hair weird colors and wearing a wedding dress now, Dennis?"

Sam rolled his eyes at the last, but he wasn't done with this.

"I don't know, Dean. Yesterday three of the guys on the team practically begged me to play, plus a couple of teachers. Oh—and then there was the little visit with the principal and the school counselor."

Dean's eyes widened. "What did they say?" Sam knew he was referring to the latter two. School administration involvement in their lives was never a good thing.

"They said I should be thinking about college. And that I need extracurricular activities on my application." He avoided looking at Dean, who had gone suddenly and suspiciously still. "But I don't think it's about that. I think they just want me on the team 'cause I'm tall."

Dean took the bait and relaxed a little. "Well, you are a giant freak. And speaking of, won't you kind of stand out?"

"I think that horse is already out of the barn, Dean."

"Now you're even talking like a hick. We seriously need to get out of here."

Sam had instinctively avoided talking about his college plans with Dean and he wasn't going to start now. He'd made up his mind to do this, but he'd need to handle Dean carefully.

"Look, Dean, what can it hurt? The season's more than half over, and I won't even be eligible to play until the last three or four games anyway. It'll get them all off my back." Sam looked down at his food. "Besides, we'll probably be gone by then anyway."

Dean didn't say anything else and Sam looked up. His brother's steady gaze made him uncomfortable. He had the feeling Dean saw a lot more than he was saying, not that that was anything new.

--

Dean let the Impala idle at the curb and watched Sam until he was inside the building. Not because he was worried about anything happening to him, but because he just didn't have another fucking thing to do. It had been almost a week since Sam had decided to join the jocks. Dean kept dropping him off at school, but let him find his own way home. He had to stay after school for basketball practice every day now and he might be done any time between 4:30 and 7:00.

The thought of going back to the depressing little house and watching shitty daytime TV made him want to put a bullet in his brain. Even with the neighbor's stolen cable, there wasn't much worth watching, and still less worth doing.

He drove aimlessly through the town. Maybe there was something here that needed killing, other than a bunch of stupid rednecks, and those were so thick around here he wouldn't know where to start. He left the school and cruised around a curve leading to the main highway. Nothing he hadn't already seen. There was a grain elevator, a convenience store and a truck stop. Oddly, there were two banks, and the place was lousy with churches.

Shit. The grand tour killed all of three minutes. The truck stop seemed to be the busiest of the three "hot spots" on the highway and it had a small restaurant, so he pulled in.

Truckers actually seemed to stop at the place, so Dean figured it would be safe to order breakfast. He hated to eat alone, but lately it was either that or starve. He bought a newspaper to have something to do, but it really didn't hold his attention. Even if he happened to find something interesting, he couldn't go after it. Dad would skin him for even trying to hunt anything when he was supposed to be watching Sam. He wondered briefly how he was supposed to be doing that when he never saw him.

He sat down at a small table. It looked surprisingly new and clean, no stains or cigarette burns. The waitress was cute enough that his smile was a little more than just polite, causing her to look back over her shoulder at him on her way back to the kitchen. She missed her path and raked a chair with her hip. His smile got a little wider. She blushed and fled.

The place was pretty quiet, nobody but him and a table of five or six older men smoking and drinking coffee and shooting the shit. Farmers, probably. They all had on stained jeans and work shirts, except for one guy who was wearing an honest-to-God pair of bib overalls. Overalls? Jesus. Dad dropped us smack in the middle of Cornfield County.

Yep, he decided. Farmers. The talk was all about rain and livestock and pretty soon Dean was only half listening, though he had to smile a little when one of them told a particularly old (and dirty) joke. Then something snagged his attention.

"I hear they got a new kid on the basketball team."

"Yeah, I heard that. 'Sposed to be big, like six foot five or somethin'."

"You got a grandson on the team, don't you Jake?"

"Yep. Lane says he's a big 'un all right. Hadn't played much, though."

"Well, he don't need to be all that good if he's that big."

Considering the size of the town—and the size of the kid they were talking about—there was no way the old buzzards could mean anybody but Sammy. It gave Dean an odd sensation in his stomach. He didn't know why it should worry him, exactly, but he felt defensive, territorial. There was a boundary they were crossing here, a violation of the invisible Winchester line that separated "us" from "them."

"He hadn't been here very long. Won't be eligible until a couple of games before the district playoffs."

"Might be the edge we need this year."

"We sure need somethin'. It 's been way too long since we made it out of the region."

"Yeah. Robinson's been slipping the last few years. It sure wadn't like this when my boys played. Makin' it out of the region wadn't even a question. State trophy was all we had to worry about back then."

The conversation turned to talk of grandchildren away at college. Dean finished eating and got up to leave. As he passed the old guys' table, Farmer Overalls caught his eye and nodded at him. It surprised him and he narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but he returned the nod.

--

"Move! Move! Move! Twenty seconds! Come on, you buncha fucking pussies! Move your ass, Martin!

In the space of a week it had become clear to Sam that Coach Robinson was a major asshole, and possibly borderline psychotic. On the other hand, his teammates did seem to do an awful lot of complaining and threatening to quit. Sam didn't see the point. He was starting to wish that the worst ones would just quit already and save him listening to their pissing and moaning.

Besides, it wasn't that bad. If these boys thought the workouts were hard, then Coach was right—they were pussies. Sam would take this over one of his Dad's little nature hikes any day. At least this was just running on a level surface, and indoors even. It was a fucking day at the beach compared to tromping through the woods all day in the rain or snow or wind or all of the above, up and down hills, loaded down with a ton of gear and all the salt you could carry. John Winchester could fucking school Coach Robinson in the art of running your ass into the ground.

A whistle screeched. Ten boys gratefully stopped running and staggered to the sideline.

"All right, ladies, listen up." the coach said loudly, more to be heard above the noisy gasping for air than out of any apparent emotion. "Away game tomorrow. Collar shirt, no jeans—you know the drill. Go." He waved them toward the locker room.

They oozed down the short ramp in a cloud of stink that only a mob of sweaty adolescent boys could manufacture. The coach's voice followed them down, "And get some sleep tonight. That means you, too, Martin. Stacy can put her cocksucking mouth to good use somewhere else for one night."

Sam's shoulders tightened at the crudity of it. Locker room bullshit was one thing, but it got tacky for him when specific girls were named. Not to mention this guy was supposed to be the adult here. He turned to look over his shoulder at Jason Martin. Jason had his eyes closed and his jaw was clenched. "Fucking asshole," he ground out. Sam didn't disagree.

The other players concentrated on unlacing their shoes, either not hearing or pretending they didn't, some of them tiredly wandering to the showers. Sam walked in with his head down and he had his forearm leaned against his locker before he noticed the jersey hanging on the front. Morton Coyotes, #21. Huh. I guess that's me. He shook his head and half-smiled. I'm a Coyote. Awesome.

He was halfway across the gym parking lot, walking into the cold wind with his shoulders hunched and his head pulled down, when an extended cab Silverado pickup pulled up beside him.

"Hey, need a ride?"

Sam stopped and looked in at Jason in the driver's seat. Mostly out of habit, he said, "No, it's okay. It's not far. But thanks."

"It's cold out here, man." Sam shook his head, but Jason just rolled his eyes and kept talking. "Quit shaking your head and just get your ass in the damned truck, Winchester. Let's go."

Sam sighed. It was cold and he was tired and it didn't look like the guy was going to take no for an answer. What was the big deal anyway? Sam jogged to the passenger side and climbed in.

"Can't have the big man catching pneumonia or something."

Sam smiled ruefully. "Yeah. Like I'm gonna play anyway."

"You never know. You won't get my spot," Jason smirked, "but from what I've seen you'll give Lucas a run for his. He's fat and lazy—got nothing going for him but size. You're just as tall as he is and a hell of a lot quicker."

Jason put the truck in gear and pulled out of the parking lot. Sam pointed to his left. "About a mile down this way."

"I gotta say, I'm impressed, man. You've kept up pretty good with the workouts so far." Jason snorted. "Better than some of these pussies that have been there every day this season."

Sam smiled faintly. "Well, I try to stay in shape." Having a drill sergeant for a father would do that for you.

Sam pointed to the house. The Impala was pulled up in the ragged front yard.

Jason pulled to the curb. "Wow, that's a sweet old car."

"It's my brother's."

Jason said, "Yeah, I heard your Dad was working out of town. Just you and your brother here, right?"

Sam huffed an uneasy laugh. "You heard? From who?"

Jason just grinned. "Welcome to life in Podunk, Sam."

Sam didn't smile back. He wrapped his arms a little tighter around himself. Their big family secret made it so easy to lie, to keep everything to himself, or everything that mattered, anyway. It was weird knowing people were talking about him behind his back.

"Oh, also, my mom wants you to come and eat supper with us on Monday."

"Uh, I appreciate the offer, Jason, but I don't think it would be a good idea." He was polite out of habit, but he was uncomfortable. First the guy insisted on giving him a ride and now an invitation to his house? What did he want?

"Come on, Sam, give me a break. Mom's driving me nuts, having a fit about how terrible it is that you boys are all alone over here and shit, living on truck stop burritos and frozen pizza."

Sam had to laugh at that. "She's pretty close."

"I mean, Dad will drive you nuts with his basketball bullshit." Jason lowered his voice a register and imitated, "'Back in the day, we respected the game and ourselves…' He grinned. "But take my word, man—Mom's pecan pie is totally worth it."

Sam smiled faintly. "I'll ask my brother," he agreed, knowing Dean would never go for it anyway. He got out of the truck. "Thanks for the ride."

Jason nodded. "Any time, dude." He dipped his head to look at Sam through the open door. "I mean it, okay? You let me know if you need something. It's a team thing. We got each other's back."

--

"Keep that elbow in now, Sam."

The assistant coach's name was Bryant and seemed like a decent guy, enough so that Sam seriously wondered how he could stomach working for Robinson. Coach Bryant was a sawed-off little fireplug with a flat top, and Sam found the picture of him playing any sort of competitive basketball ludicrous. He seemed to know what he was talking about, though.

He'd shown Sam how to shoot a free throw correctly, lining up the seams so he could check the backspin, put plenty of arch on the shot, and then follow it through. Sam had improved his free throw percentage to 70 percent (most days) and it seemed to impress the coaches, so he figured that must be pretty good.

It made sense; he did spend most of his practice time shooting free throws. That was where they stashed the second-string players when they weren't needed. It was their job to make the starting five better, not necessarily to replace them. Sam didn't really care if he played or not; if he had a choice he's just as soon not. But shooting, he could do.

There was a reason putting a basketball through a hoop was called shooting, Sam had found. It was a lot like firing a gun. It required the same concentration and eye-hand coordination. Square your stance, focus on the target for a couple of seconds, take a deep breath, then steady, aim and fire. Spring up through the knee, bend your elbow and just watch the ball drop over the front of the rim. Sam actually found it kind of soothing, toe to the line, sliding in one shot after another, listening to the whisper of the net when the ball dropped smoothly through.

The blast of a whistle rudely interrupted his Zen session. Sam picked up the ball and jogged over to the forming huddle. He balanced the ball against one hip and waited for the stream of shit to start flowing. Robinson had such an ugly mouth on him; just having to listen to it made Sam feel slimy.

"Now, we've got a game to play tonight, whether you little shits feel like getting off your sweet asses and risking your nail polish and your hairdos or not. I'm not liking all the sorry-looking ass dragging I'm seeing here this week and if something doesn't change you're gonna see how you like playing with my foot up your ass."

This was apparently Robinson's idea of a motivational speech. Sam was less than inspired, but it actually was rather mild compared to some he'd already heard in just the short time he'd been here. He couldn't imagine how some of these guys had actually put up with it for years. But the season was getting close to the end, and he would get credit for it on his transcript whether he ever set foot on the court during a game or not. He just had to let the coach's shit roll off him a little longer.

--

As the team took the floor that night, Sam was feeling a little overwhelmed. The gym was hot and smelled of sweat and popcorn. He was surprised, as always, by the crowd in the stands. Where the hell did they all come from? They could empty the town and not wind up with this many warm bodies.

It was all making him a little nauseous. Not that he was nervous or anything. Just because he was technically eligible to play this game didn't mean he would.

He sat at the end of the bench, as far from the coach as he could get. The game stayed pretty close, so he wasn't particularly worried about having to go in. From what he'd seen, Robinson would run his starters into the ground before he'd substitute. The team was struggling a bit by halftime, but still alive at only four points behind.

Sam tuned out most of Robinson's halftime tirade, but some of it worked its way through.

"…if you can spare another few minutes of your time Lucas, what with trying to pass shoelace tying and gettin' your buttons all done up in order, I'll try to explain this play to your dumb ass one more time…"

Sam knew for a fact that Lucas had learning problems and so did every other person in the locker room. Hard to miss which kids were pulled out of class for extra help in a school this size. What a dick.

The starting five rallied—in spite of the coach's halftime speech, rather than because of it, Sam figured. The Coyotes managed to stay in range of their opponents, but never could pull ahead. As the minutes ticked away, Robinson worked himself into a frenzy. He had toned his language down for public consumption, but he was pacing up and down and around the bench, muttering under his breath. The benchwarmers shrank their necks into their hunched shoulders a little further with each circuit he made.

With two minutes left on the clock, the Coyotes finally took possession on a turnover, only two points behind, and Robinson signaled for a full time out. The cheerleaders took the floor, knowing it was their job to make enough noise to cover the worst of the coach's swearing. The players huddled up. Robinson went off.

"What's the matter with you morons? I give you a simple play to run—one you've been running since goddamn junior high—and you stand around out there with your dicks in your hands! And I swear to God, Lucas, if you don't start gettin' some rebounds I'm gonna make your life so miserable, you'll wish you didn't have one!"

Didn't have what? Sam wondered. A life or a dick? There was a lot more, but Sam ignored it. A short warning buzzer signaled the timeout was about to end. They broke the huddle. Sam didn't envy the five who took the floor.

Jason in-bounded the ball to Lane Garner, the point guard, and he dribbled it down to their end, calling the play as he came down. He passed it off to the left wing and the motion offense began to cycle around the paint. Lucas had his shorter defender pinned and held up his inside hand. The easy lob grazed the tips of his fingers and continued out the baseline boundary.

Sam barely managed to duck Robinson's clipboard as it came flying down the bench, with the coach right behind it. He was momentarily confused when the coach grabbed a handful of his jersey and hauled him to his feet. "Go in for Lucas! Get your ass in there now!"

Sam stumbled to the scoring table and sat down hard on the sub bench. Lucas came out of the game in a fit of temper. He pointedly didn't tell Sam who he'd been guarding. That was really a minor issue, however. Sam knew where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to do. The real problem was that playing in front of a crowd was a hell of lot different than scrimmaging in practice. The noise was a big distraction and so was the sensation of everyone looking at him. He loped onto the floor feeling awkward and stupid, like every eye was on him, just waiting for him to screw up. He shut it out as best he could and went to play some defense on number 11.

It was really pretty simple in theory; just keep yourself between your man and the basket. In practice there were a lot more variables. For one thing, Number 11 was a hairy sonuvabitch, and he stank. Not just with the physical effort, like everybody else, more like —oh my fuckness, Sam gasped. He had to turn his face away from the guy's right armpit, which was full in Sam's face as he called for the ball and got it. He faked left and pivoted right, catching Sam full in the gut with his right elbow. Sam's breath whooshed out of him, and he gasped for air. He made a mental note to puke later, as the shot went long and bounced off the opposite side of the rim. Jason snagged the rebound and passed it out front. Sam sprinted down the floor to his position at the post.

He had barely made it under the basket when Lane panicked. Coach was screaming and Lane flung up a fairly wild shot from just outside the three. The rest of the team hadn't even had time to set the offense. Hearing the calls of 'Shot!' Sam stepped neatly around the wall of stink surrounding number 11. He saw the shot was going to fall short and drove himself upward. As the ball bounced off the front of the rim, Sam was there, neatly tapping it in for two and tying the game. As it dropped through the net, the buzzer sounded, signaling the end of regulation play.

It didn't seem like such a big deal to him, but as soon as his feet touched the floor after the shot, he was surrounded by his teammates, pounding his back and scrubbing hands in his hair. He still hadn't gotten used to the proximity of bodies that basketball—being part of a team—entailed. Normally there was a bubble of space around him that few crossed into and he kind of missed that. His ears were suddenly roaring with more than just the noise of the crowd. He was dizzy and sick and his middle was still aching from the elbow shot. Concentrating desperately on not vomiting, he let his teammates sweep him off the court.

--

Sam was back riding the bench for the overtime without a word from Coach Robinson, good or bad. It was a relief. He didn't need that kind of pressure. What he really kind of needed right now was some time to process.

Sam scrubbed his face with his hands, not really caring too much how the rest of the game turned out as long as it didn't involve him doing anything about it. He leaned his elbows on his knees and tried to look interested anyway, in case anybody cared.

As the clock ticked the remainder of the game away, his eye was drawn across the gym. One of the cheerleaders was smiling at him. He forgot the final score before the bus made it back to town, but he remembered that smile.

--

Dean had fallen into a routine of heading to the truck stop every morning for breakfast. The coffee was good and the food wasn't bad. He would browse through the paper and eavesdrop on the town gossip. Which was some boring shit, mostly. It was all about who was marrying, divorcing, or reproducing. It was worse than a fucking daytime soap. Not that he ever watched those, but he was afraid he couldn't rule out that level of desperation if he had to hang around this waste for much longer.

Monday morning again. Another week in fucking paradise. Dad had called this weekend, a Saturday morning call being the closest thing to a regular routine of contact they had, and Dean had all but begged him to get them out of here. The most Dean could get him to promise was they'd talk about it later. "Can't right now kid, but I think I'm getting close to the end of this thing. We'll see where I am by next weekend." Great. Thanks a lot, Dad. I'll just be over here beating my head against the fucking wall.

He had finished his breakfast and was thinking about seeing what time the waitress got off work tonight. Her name was Jackie and she was about his age, taking classes at the local community college in an attempt to get out of the town. She'd made it reasonably clear she was up for some extracurricular activity. And that was sure as shit better than sitting around the house alone all night. Sam was going to be out anyway.

"How'd it go?"

"Okay, I guess."

"Oh. Good. Did you play?"

"Uh, yeah. A little."

"Yeah? And how'd that go?"

"All right, I guess. I scored a couple of points."

"Really? Defense trip over your knuckles draggin' on the floor?"

"Funny." Sam hesitated. "Hey, listen, Dean…uh, one of the guys on the team asked me to come over for dinner on Monday night."

"Yeah? Well, you two crazy kids practice safe sex now, you hear?"

Sam made a disgusted noise. "Look, I know it's not a good idea to get involved with these people and I know all the reasons why. His parents invited me and I told him I'd ask you. So I asked. I'm gonna shower and go to bed."

Without taking his eyes off the TV Dean said tiredly, "Sam, go if you want. These nosy-ass freaks already know everything there is to know about you, down to the stains on your undershorts. Might as well get a decent meal out of it."

Dean put the paper on the table. As he pushed his chair back to leave, he looked up to see Farmer Overalls standing over him.

"Hello there, young fella. Mind if I sit for a minute?"

Dean held his palm out to the chair on the opposite side of the table. "Please." It wasn't like he had anywhere to be.

The old guy put his hand out and Dean shook it. "Jake Norris. Good to meet ya."

"Dean Winchester."

"You're living up at the old Tanner place, aren't you? You and your brother?"

Dean breathed a laugh. "Word sure gets around."

Jake chuckled. "Yep, around here it surely does…it surely does." He nodded out the window at the Impala, shining glossy black in the morning sunlight. "You've got that baby fixed up slick."

Dean couldn't help his smile. "Yes sir."

"The fifties were more my decade, but I'm gonna say that's a '67?" At Dean's nod, he went on. "So, Dean. What's a young man like you doing sitting around here drinking coffee with us old fogies every morning?"

Dean's smile was rueful. "Mr. Norris, the truth is I just don't have much else to do."

"Call me Jake. And I might be able to help you out with that. That's one reason I wanted to talk to you."

Dean was wary out of habit, but he'd attracted more than his share of weirdos in his twenty years and he didn't get that vibe from this guy. He raised questioning eyebrows.

"My guess is that a man with a car like that, in that kind of condition, probably knows a thing or two about an engine."

"I might." Dean nodded slightly, with a quirk of a smile.

Jake acknowledged his caution with a twinkle. "I have this old pickup that I've been wanting to rebuild for my grandson to drive, but I just can't get up and down to crawl under the damned things like I used to. If you'd be interested in working on something like that…well, I can pay you to do it just as easy as I can pay a mechanic in Doverton and I wouldn't have to haul the damn thing all the way over there."

He was actually a little surprised at how much he wanted to say yes. His fingers itched at the thought of getting his hands in an engine again, grease under his fingernails. And at this point—God, he would have rebuilt a tricycle for something to do. But he knew better.

"That's real nice of you Mr.,…uh, Jake… but I don't have any tools or really any place to work on a job that big."

"Aw, don't worry about that. I already bought most of the parts. I used to mechanic quite a bit at one time, so I have all the tools you'd need and a pretty nice workshop to use 'em in. What do you say?"

Dean knew he should say no. For one thing, they probably wouldn't be here long enough for him to finish the job, (please God) and Dad had taught him to finish what he started. But Sam was doing his own thing, didn't really need him for anything, and the idea of having a reason to get out of bed in the morning, some sort of purpose here, just tipped the scales for him.

Dean shrugged. "Well, okay then."

Jake stood up stiffly, grunting a little, and Dean stood up with him, shaking his hand again to seal the agreement.

"When do you want to start?"

Jake waved a hand at him. "Ah, the damned thing's been sitting there for years; it can wait one more day. Come on over to the elevator with me for a minute."

The grain elevator? Why the hell would he want to do that? The question must have showed on his face, because Jake waved him on and walked toward the door. Dean guessed technically the guy was his boss now, so he went along.

They got in their separate vehicles and drove about the length of a city block to the grain elevator. It was a large metal building with windows on three sides. It was dark inside, but when Dean's eyes adjusted he saw that every inch of the place was jammed with odd items—everything from bug spray to horse tack to plumbing fittings. It seemed to be a combination feed and hardware store. He kind of liked the way it smelled, like grain dust and machine oil and diesel exhaust. He followed Jake to the back.

There were two other men around Jake's age, both wearing stained jeans and work shirts. He thought he recognized them from the truck stop. Hell, before long he'd probably start recognizing everybody in town. He closed his eyes and offered up a silent prayer. Please, Dad, get us out of here before then.

Jake was making introductions and pointed to each in turn. "Will and Bob, this here's Dean." They both nodded and he nodded back.

"Dean, you ever play forty-two?"

--

Sam was late for his next class. Mrs. Murray had asked him to help her with some books on a shelf too high for her to reach. As he rushed out the door of the building, the sun was bright in his eyes and he didn't see Lucas until he already had a handful of Sam's shirt and was slamming him up against the wall.

Great. Here we go again. Lucas was almost as tall as Sam and probably outweighed him by fifty or sixty pounds. Sam fell into standard bully-handling mode and acted scared, not hard to do with the rush of adrenaline he had going on. While he made a point of not looking Lucas in the eye, he had time to think about the sorry fact that he was so used to this at the ripe old age of sixteen. Hell, probably happened at least three or four times a school year. It just came with the territory of always being the new kid. Getting bigger almost seemed to make it worse, not better. More of a challenge that way, maybe.

Lucas was in his face now. "Listen, asshole. You don't come in here thinking you can take my spot on the team. I'll cut your balls off and shove 'em down your throat first."

Sam let his books fall to the sidewalk and held up both hands, palm out. See? I'm innocent.

Sam always tried to reason with them first. "Hey, man—I don't want your spot, okay? I didn't want to play in the first place."

"What's the matter? Our team not good enough for you, faggot? You should be down on your knees thanking Coach for the chance to play, you little pussy!"

Sam was having a little trouble following the logic. First he's pissed cause I'm playing and then because I don't want to?

As Sam finished the thought, Lucas shook him with the hand still wadded in his shirt, making his head rattle against the wall. Yeah, typically reason didn't work all that well. Sam decided he'd had enough of this shit. He didn't particular enjoy being pinned to walls, much less by this foul-breathed motherfucker. He'd be damned if he'd stand here and court brain damage as well.

"Lucas," Sam began, then leaned forward and sniffed at him, frowning. "You stink."

Lucas goggled at him for a second, then his face twisted ugly and he pulled his right arm back and swung at Sam's face. Sam blocked the punch with his left forearm and swung his right elbow hard into the side of Lucas' neck. Lucas bent forward at the middle with a wheeze, and Sam grabbed the back of his neck with his left hand, rotating his own body off the wall as he slammed Lucas into it headfirst. Lucas flopped to the ground with a groan—right at the feet of the principal.

"You boys need to come with me."

--

Dean hadn't played forty-two—as a matter of fact, he didn't have the first damned clue as to what it might be. Apparently Jake had decided to change that.

It turned out that forty-two was a little like poker, a game that Dean was quite familiar with. You had to bet on your hand at the beginning and you needed four players, which was how Dean wound up sitting in a grain elevator/hardware store with three farmers, any one of whom was old enough to be his grandfather, listening to the clack of dominoes sliding across a rickety old card table.

Dean actually didn't have to fake an interest in the game. The rules were pretty simple—only multiples of five mattered in the scoring—but you had to pay attention. Bob was sitting to his right and Jake across from him, which made Jake his partner.

After the first hand, Dean noticed Bob digging at his left eye with his index finger. He was wondering if this was some sort of signal to Will, when Bob popped his glass eye out and laid it on the table beside Dean. As corny as it was, Dean had to laugh when Bob said, "I'm keeping my eye on you." Will and Jake seemed to get a kick out of it, too, even though it was obviously a well-worn gag.

By the time they'd been playing an hour or so, Dean was starting to get the flow of the game. The three experienced players often knew what every person at the table had in their hand after one or two plays, and would shove their dominoes flat on the table at that point, already knowing how the rest was going to play out. While Dean was trying to puzzle out one of these coups, Will spoke casually.

"That sure was a pretty put-back your brother made the other night."

Dean looked at him blankly.

"Down at Harrisville Friday night."

"Oh. Yeah." He had no idea what they were talking about or what he was supposed to say. Thanks?

"Too bad we lost the game anyway. But we wouldn't have had that overtime at all if weren't for that basket. He's what—a sophomore? Kid's got potential."

"Yeah," Jake continued. "Tall as he is? Got good hands, too. I tell you though—the kids all think this 'dunking' stuff is so great, and I imagine he can do it, but playing smart is a lot more important over the long haul. And that's what he did Friday night – played smart."

It really hadn't crossed Dean's mind to go to the game. Even if he'd thought Sam was going to play, Dean didn't think he'd expect him to be there. But it bugged him that these strangers knew something about his brother that he didn't. It wasn't right.

Dean was starting to feel like he'd fallen into some weird parallel universe here. The town where everybody knows your name.

--

"You're late."

"Yeah. Had to run extra." Sam slung his books on the table.

"Why? I heard you were the big hero Friday night."

Sam laughed. "Yeah, right."

"Made the tying basket? Sent the game into overtime? Any of this ringin' a bell?"

Sam frowned. Dean had an expression and an edge to his voice that he didn't quite know how to interpret. He seemed a little annoyed, but Sam couldn't figure out why. Deciding the best defense is a good offense, or whatever—shit, I'm even thinking in basketball now—he went on the attack.

"How do you know all that? You're talking about me behind my back now? With who? Who do you even know here?"

Dean didn't answer the questions. "You could have told me about it."

Sam snorted and flopped down in a chair. "In the first place, it was no big deal. Besides, I'm not giving you a play-by-play. Go to the game yourself, if you want to know what happens."

"Maybe I will."

"Whatever. Like I care."

For a second Dean looked like he might call him on the smart mouth, but then he changed the subject.

"So—the extra running?"

"Oh. There was a little fight today."

Dean leaned forward, frowning, and started quite obviously scanning Sam for damage.

"I don't see any marks." Dean raised his eyebrows questioningly.

"Well, I did say it was a little fight. Dumbass farmboys." Sam shook his head.

Dean sighed. "How long?"

Sam didn't even ask. He knew what Dean wanted to know.

"That part was kinda weird, actually."

"What do you mean, 'weird'?"

"We got pulled into the office, the principal lectured us for a while, we did the extra running and that was it. End of problem."

Dean frowned. "That's it?" He knew from long and extensive experience that fighting at school bought you a minimum three-day suspension, no matter who started it.

"I know," Sam shrugged. "I thought the same thing. I guess the rules aren't the same for jocks." He rolled his eyes, letting Dean know he didn't consider himself one of that category.

"I think you might be right Sam. It is an evil cult."

"Well Dean, I got a free pass today. If that's evil, I'll take it." He got up and headed for the bathroom. "I'm gonna shower."

"Oh, that's right. You've got a big date tonight."

Sam kept walking, flipped him the double eagle over both shoulders.

Dean yelled after him, "Don't use all the hot water, bitch." He grinned. "I've got a date, myself."

--

Sam walked over to the Martin's, too proud to ask Jason for a ride and he damn sure wasn't asking Dean. It wasn't far anyway. No place in town was.

He really wasn't looking forward to this, wasn't sure why he'd come in the first place. He didn't belong here. There was no white picket fence, but the house did look like something out of a magazine—all red brick and white trim. The grass was winter-brown, but the yard was obviously well cared for. He thought seriously about turning around and leaving. He could call Jason later and make some excuse.

He got to the bottom of the driveway and what might possibly be a pack of wolves started a racket to wake the dead, or at least enough to bring Jason out the front door.

"Dude. Get in here so those idiots will shut up."

Sam stepped inside and the house smelled like heaven, or pot roast maybe—same thing to him right now. Scratch leaving; he was fucking moving in. He was always starving anyway, and the extra laps this afternoon had left a cavern in his gut. He felt a little wilted at the realization of the amount of food it was going to take to fill the void. Way more than was polite, obviously.

Sam followed Jason through the foyer to the living room. Sam had to pull his attention away from by far the biggest TV he'd ever seen when Jason introduced him.

"Dad? This is Sam."

Jason's dad got up from the recliner and Sam saw where Jason got his height. He was easily tall enough to look Sam in the eye. Sam stuck out his right hand. He didn't miss the subtle look of approval the gesture earned him.

"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Martin." And that was the right thing to say, too, judging from the man's widening smile.

"You, too Sam. I've heard a lot about you. Hey, good job Friday night."

Sam's smile was embarrassed. What was he supposed to say? "Aw, shucks?" He settled for a mumbled, "Thanks."

"We're pretty proud of our basketball program here—lots of tradition. In fact, Jason's a third-generation Coyote." Sam suppressed a snicker at the description. Considering his proud smile, Sam thought it unlikely that the man would see the humor.

A trim, blond-haired woman walked into the room, drying her hands on a towel.

"Now Mike, the boys don't want to hear your basketball stats…," she said, then added under her breath, "…even though you can recite every one of them," earning a smile from both boys and a mock frown from her husband.

"Stop it, Lisa. You're embarrassing your son," he said good-naturedly. "This is Sam."

"Hi," Sam said, nodding a little shyly.

She smiled warmly and rested her hand on his upper arm. "I'm glad you came, Sam. Hungry?"

"Yes, ma'am," he said, with an enthusiasm that made her laugh.

"Good thing," Jason said. "Mom always cooks a ton of food. Eat all you can—save me eating leftovers all week."

Lisa popped the back of his leg with the towel, making him jump and yelp. She laughed. "Shut your smart mouth. You love my leftovers. Julie!" she called. "Time to eat!"

Sam followed them into the dining room feeling distinctly awkward. He was waiting for some sign of where he was supposed to sit, when a girl he assumed was Julie bounced in. He was reminded again that the local grapevine knew a hell of a lot more about him than he knew about it. He hadn't even known Jason had a sister, much less that she was a cheerleader. A cheerleader with a familiar smile.

--

Julie had green eyes and shiny dark hair and she was sitting straight across from him. She kept smiling and doing this flirty thing with her eyes that made it hard for him to concentrate. Still, Sam thought he managed pretty well, putting away an embarrassing amount of Lisa's pot roast and pecan pie while simultaneously nodding at the appropriate points in Mike's basketball stories.

To hear Mike tell it, he had played in the "last real glory days" of Coyote basketball, and tell it he did. It was obvious to Sam, if not his dad, how Jason felt about it; he hardly spoke and he'd been getting more and more interested in his plate as the meal progressed.

Jason's mother pushed the food on Sam like a drug dealer, but he finally had to call a halt.

"It was really good, Mrs. Martin. Thank you."

"You're very welcome, Sam. I enjoy feeding people that appreciate it so much."

"We appreciate it, Mom. It was good." Jason picked up his empty plate and walked into the kitchen, giving his mother a kiss on the way past. Sam grabbed his dishes and followed.

They set their plates in the sink, and Jason clapped Sam on the shoulder.

"Well, you might as well get it over with, Sam."

Sam frowned questioningly.

"The Madden ass-kicking I'm about to give you."

Jason was right about the ass-kicking. Sam had played games in arcades a few times, but didn't have much experience with the game system. Jason wasn't quite as good at pool, however, so Sam was able to get his own back when they switched to that.

He felt comfortable moving around a pool table and he started to relax. He was liking this more than he'd expected. He could probably count on one hand all the times he'd actually just hung out with somebody his own age. There was no sense getting used to it, he knew, but he figured he might as well enjoy it while he had the chance.

Jason leaned over the table for a shot, shrugging his shoulders as if loosening them up. His shirt collar shifted and Sam's gut tightened. There was a bruise on Jason's neck and Sam had zero doubt as to what had caused it. That's a fucking thumbprint. The kind you got from being choked. He'd seen it enough times to know.

Sam wasn't naive enough to think that just because the family looked perfect on the outside that everything was necessarily all sunshine and roses inside. Jason's dad? He seemed pretty intense about the whole basketball thing. Sam didn't know what to do or say about it, if anything. He didn't know Jason that well, but he wasn't stupid. Jason wasn't going to want to chat about this.

Jason missed the shot and Sam went to take his, trying to figure out what to do. He thought his encyclopedic vocabulary should yield something appropriate to the situation, but he couldn't come up with a thing to say. His way with words had picked an inconvenient time to take a vacation.

On the other hand, Jason had already decided that his best strategy at this point was to try to throw Sam off his game by talking shit.

"I heard about you taking Lucas down, dude. How'd a scrawny little shit like you get that done, anyway?"

"He kind of lost his balance and hit his head on the wall. You might have noticed he's not that coordinated." Sam's concentration was off and he missed badly. It was fine with him if Jason thought his trash talking was the reason.

"Very true. Still, he usually doesn't get the worst end in a fight. Looks like you got off without a mark."

Sam straightened up. That was an opening and this was as good a time as any. "What about the mark you got there, Jason?" Sam asked quietly, nodding at the bruised thumbprint. "You run into a wall too, dude?"

Jason froze, then turned his face away and rolled his shoulder toward his neck, shifting his collar back over the spot.

"You guessed it. Your shot, man."

Julie spoke from the doorway, startling them both.

"Robinson did it."

Sam's chin dropped. He frowned at Jason. "Coach Robinson did that?"

Jason snapped, "Shut up, Julie."

"I wanted to tell Mom and Dad, but he threw a fit and made me promise I wouldn't."

Sam had seldom felt more in over his head. "You gotta tell somebody, man. This isn't just going to go away."

Jason looked away. "Yes it will. It's nothing. Don't worry about it."

Sam swore. "God, what an asshole! How can you keep playing for him, Jason?"

"What choice do I have? You heard my Dad." He muttered.

Sam's jaw clenched. "Is this what you meant about the team having each other's six? 'Cause if it is, they're doing a fucking sorry-ass job of it." Jason didn't answer, wouldn't look at him.

Sam took a deep breath, let it out again. His tone softened. "You can't let him get away with that shit, Jason."

"He already did."

The three of them stood there for a long awkward moment.

"I think I'd better go," Sam finally said. Jason just nodded. Sam gave his shoulder a brief squeeze as he walked to the door of the rec room.

Sam said his thanks to Jason's somewhat surprised parents and walked out. It felt like quitting.

--

Dean came in from Jackie's about midnight. Sam was already in bed, but Dean didn't bother trying to be quiet. Sam slept hard anymore. Probably all that growing; Dean sometimes thought he could actually hear him creaking with it in the night. He kicked off his boots and sat down on his bed, turning on the lamp.

"You need a shower."

Dean jumped, but he'd deny the little gasp to his dying day. "Thought you were asleep."

Sam rolled over to his back and put his hands behind his head. "I was. You make enough noise for ten people."

Dean snorted. "I move like a cat, dude."

"Well, you do smell like an alley cat. Maybe that's what you're thinking of."

"I smell like sex, which is something you know nothing about. I can see how you got confused."

"Hmph. If sex smells like extra onions, then yeah, you got me there."

"Oh that's right, you had dinner up at the Big House. What'd you have? Down in the ghetto, we had to make do with truck stop cheeseburgers."

Sam's face brightened and he sat up, swinging his feet over the side of the bed. "Oh God, it was so good, Dean…pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, pecan pie…it was amazing."

Dean grunted. "Sounds good. So what's the problem?"

"What? No problem. I said it was great."

It was kind of sad, really, Sammy thinking he was all covert ops and shit, when he was so fuckin' easy to read.

"Come on, Sammy. If everything went 'great', you'd be mouth breathing and moaning some pasty geek chick's name in your sleep by now, not sittin' here annoying the shit out of me."

Sam's chin jutted out stubbornly, but he wanted to talk about it, Dean knew. Dean enjoyed this about as much as he would have enjoyed lancing a boil, but understood that this was no less necessary for his brother. Understanding didn't make him patient, though. Dean snapped his fingers at him.

"Let's go. Spit it out already. I'm tired."

Sam bit his thumbnail, then dropped his elbows onto his knees and leaned forward.

"I found out something tonight that I really didn't want to know."

Dean raised his eyebrows slightly. "What? Jason's gay?"

Sam rolled his eyes.

"You're gay? 'Cause that's not really news…"

"Dean, it's the coach. Coach Robinson," Sam interrupted.

"Your coach is gay?"

The look on Sam's face was a warning. Enough. Dean went serious and still.

"Okay, what about him?"

"I knew the guy was a dick, Dean. I just didn't know how bad it was. I mean, he screams and talks shit all the time, but I didn't think too much about it. It wasn't that much worse than Dad when he's in drill sergeant mode…you know, the yelling and stuff."

Dean suddenly had a feeling he really didn't want to hear the rest.

"Jason has marks on his neck, Dean," Sam blurted. "Finger marks, you know? From somebody choking him. His sister says the coach did it."

Dean wiped his hands over his face. "Shit."

"Yeah, that's what I said." Sam flopped back down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. "What am I supposed to do, Dean?"

Damn it, he'd known that question was coming. He wished he had the answer. He really wished Dad was here, but wishing got him jack shit. He'd just have to try to calm Sam down, buy himself some time until he could get hold of Dad.

"Sammy, you're not supposed to do anything. I know you want to, but you can't get involved. It's not your business.

"Of course it's my business, Dean! I'm part of this…part of the team."

Dean raised his eyebrows, surprised. He thought Sam sounded a little surprised, himself. But he could only put out one fire at a time; he'd think more about what that last part meant later.

"Has the guy done anything to you?"

"No."

Dean relaxed a little. If he'd answered differently, this might have been a whole new ball game.

"Look, Sammy. You didn't see what happened. There's nothing you can do."

"Dean, I can't just let it go!"

It did feel chickenshit, turning a blind eye. But this was a major shitstorm waiting to happen. They couldn't go kicking at a little anthill of a town like this, stirring things up, especially without Dad here. When it all came boiling out, they'd get stung, big time.

Besides, with the way these people all had their noses up each other's ass? Somebody had to know this was going on already. Dean was briefly amused that he was the one putting on the brakes for a change. He was usually the first one to pitch a handful into the fan, but this time they had to stand clear.

Dean dredged up his best don't-fuck-with-me voice. "Look at me, Sam." He waited until he had eye contact and held it like his life depended on it. "Yes, you can 'just let it go'. You have to. I don't like it either, but you have to stay out of this. Do you hear me?"

Sam shifted his eyes away first. "I hear," he muttered.

Dean swallowed hard and stood up. Crisis averted, for now. "Good. Get some sleep." He decided Sam was right. He needed that shower.

--

"Sam?"

He snapped his head up. Mr. Turner was standing at his desk, looking at him expectantly.

"I'm sorry. Could you repeat the question?"

"I didn't ask a question. I'm picking up homework. Do you have yours?"

He rifled through his notebook. "Oh, yeah, uh… here you go."

The halls of learning had been pretty much wasted on Sam that day. He had spent it alternately trying to figure out a way to get Jason to report Coach Robinson and wondering what he was going to do himself. He'd completely lost any desire he might have had to play basketball, which admittedly wasn't that urgent in the first place. He did feel an obligation to at least some of the guys on the team, though, including Jason.

When the bell rang he gathered his books and headed for the door. He searched the hallway for Jason. He hadn't seen him all day. Shit. He was probably avoiding him.

Then he saw Julie getting her stuff from her locker and went over.

"Hey, Julie."

Wow. That smile. And the rest of her was pretty nice, too.

"Hi, Sam." She cocked her head and looked up at him through long dark lashes. Okay, now he'd completely forgotten what he'd come over here to say.

"Uh, hi?" You moron. Pull your head out. "Um, hey Julie, I haven't seen Jason around today. Is he, uh…okay?"

She stopped smiling. "I guess. Listen, Sam. Don't bother talking to him about it. He won't tell anybody. He'll just keep putting up with that jerk til he graduates." She put her hand on his arm. "It's really nice that you care about this, Sam, but it's a lost cause. You can't help."

The second bell rang.

"Gotta go. See you later." When she was halfway to the exit door, she looked back, caught him watching her and waved at him, giggling. He waved back awkwardly and then took a sudden interest in the water fountain. Maybe he'd just stick his head under it. It was way too warm in this building.

Sam debated quitting the basketball team with himself all day, right up until the last bell rang and he found himself in the locker room. He didn't know how, but maybe he could still do some good by staying around. Maybe keep an eye out, stop things from getting worse. Besides, Dad had taught him to finish what he started. The last regular season game was on Friday. He could handle it that long.

--

The Coyotes took the floor to a packed home gym and the pounding beat of AC/DC. Sam smirked as they jogged around the court and lined up in front of the right-side backboard. It figured they'd play a moldie like TNT. Dean would be right at home here.

Sam jumped and caught the ball in the air, laying it up off the backboard and over the rim to the other side. He relaxed into the warm-up, one of the few parts of the games he actually enjoyed. There was no pressure and Robinson would be on his best behavior until the tip-off.

Jason seemed okay, too. He was smiling as they formed two lines for lay-ups. Sam had to laugh when Jason picked up the ball, elevated and slammed the ball down through the net, earning whoops of approval from the crowd. He jogged to the end of the line behind Sam.

"Go for it, Sam. If I can dunk it, you can, you big freak."

Sam chuckled. "No way, dude."

"Come on. Don't be a pussy."

"Forget it." Then the cheerleaders wandered onto the court, and Sam kind of stopped hearing Jason at all.

--

Dean felt out of place and claustrophobic in the crowded gym. He leaned against the doorjamb and watched the players run out onto the floor. They were a goofy-looking bunch, loping down the court. Sam was just as bad as any of them, all long arms and gangly legs, like some kind of loopy giraffe. Dean shook his head. At least they had good taste in music.

He watched Sam dribble up to the basket, jump up and stuff the ball into the hoop with both hands. Dean's eyes went wide. Damn, the kid could jump. He laughed out loud when Sam hung off the rim for a second before dropping to the floor. As the crowd cheered, Dean got a strange punched feeling in his gut he couldn't identify. He went to look for the concession stand. He was probably just hungry.

--

By the fourth quarter, Sam was starting to get nervous. It was a close game and a rough one. Lane had already fouled out and Lucas and Jason had four fouls apiece. He finally began to relax when only thirty-five seconds were left on the clock, the home team down by one point. It looked like both posts were going to make it to the end of the game.

Sam really didn't give a shit who won. In fact, he would really rather they lose, because then their season would be over. He'd be sorry for the rest of the guys, but at least he'd be out of it for good.

The Coyotes brought the ball down the floor, hoping to hang onto the ball long enough for one play, one good shot. They passed back and forth at the top of the key twice, three times. At a scream from the bench, they changed plays and Jason popped up to the high post. He got the ball and pivoted left, falling over the knee of an opponent shoved up behind his. He went down hard. His chin hit the floor and his head bounced up and then down once more. The whistle blew for the foul. Jason got up slowly, putting his hands to his chin. Blood started dripping through his fingers.

Both teams were in double bonus. The Coyotes were shooting two. Sam was watching the team manager shoving a towel under Jason's chin and wondering how bad it was, not even paying attention to the ref—the ref who was calling for Robinson to send in a substitute for the shooter.

"Winchester! Get your ass over here."

Oh shit.

--

Dean heard the tone of the crowd change and leaned around the corner of the doorway to see what was up. He watched the kid who'd busted ease himself up off the floor. Huh. He hadn't been expecting blood. Quite a bit of it, too. He looked for Sam and found him, still planted on the end of the bench, growing roots there maybe. He wondered if Sam cared enough about that to make it worth giving him shit about it later.

Wait a sec. Maybe not. It looked like they were putting Sam in for the bleeder. Dean checked the scoreboard: visitors 53 – home 52, eighteen seconds left on the clock. This could be interesting.

Sam toed the stripe with only four opponents lined up on both sides of the lane. The other players were all on the other end of the court. Dean was fascinated by the change that came over his awkward little brother as the ref threw him the ball. He looked bigger, older—all business. Dean wondered briefly if he got that look when they were on a hunt, but had no way of knowing. It was always too dark.

One bounce, two. Sam lined up the shot and the opposing crowd began to shriek "Rebound!" pounding the seats, doing everything possible to distract. But Sam was all snake-eyed concentration. He bent his knees and pumped the shot through the net smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. Dean knew good body mechanics when he saw it and this was a beautiful thing to watch.

The crowd exploded and Dean grinned wide. The referee bounced Sam the ball and he got set for the second shot. Dean watched him eyeball the rim for exactly two seconds, dribble it twice; then he jacked it up and away easy, sending it floating through the goal.

Dean let out a whoop with the rest of the home crowd, as they took to their feet, screaming, waving arms, jumping up and down. The clock was running and the ball was still technically in play, but it was all over. One last wild shot from outside the three fell short. Final score: 54-53. They were going to the district playoffs.

And Dean didn't give a flying fuck about that right then, or the complications it might cause them later. There was only one person he cared about in the sea of bodies in that gym, and tonight he was a hero.

--

Most of the crowd had gone and Sam still hadn't come out. Dean was leaning against the hood of the car, thinking about letting Sam find his own way home, but he didn't feel right about that tonight for some reason. The kid was probably hiding out in the locker room, waiting for all the backslappers to leave.

Still, he wasn't going to wait out here all night. He went back inside the gym, which was quiet and empty of spectators. Where the hell was Sam, anyway?

Oh, there. Sam, you dog. He was standing at the door to the locker room talking to a cute little cheerleader. She must have been waiting at the door for him to come out. Geez, no wonder Sam wanted to play basketball if chicks like her were part of the deal. No way Dean was interrupting this one. It'd be worth a lot of mileage later.

Suddenly both Sam and the girl started and looked toward the locker room. Sam whirled and slammed through the door. Dean was already moving. This couldn't be good.

As Dean reached the locker room door, he heard a loud metallic crash from inside. He shoved and the heavy wooden door slammed against the brick wall with a bang. Sam was sitting on the floor against the lockers looking dazed, palm on the concrete trying to stand up. The head coach was standing across the room pointing at Sam, screaming.

"You don't belong here, you little shit! Get out before I…"

He didn't finish. Dean had him by the collar and up against the wall. The older man's face was beet red and he was gasping for air. Spit flew as he started in on Dean.

"You've got one second to let go of me, you little cocksucker, before I…"

Dean's voice was hard. "Before you do what?" he gritted. "You go ahead and try me, you sorry son of a bitch. I never wanted to fuck anybody up so bad in my life."

Robinson's voice wasn't quite as loud this time. "You'll be sorry you messed with me, you little…"

Dean leaned in a little more. "Look at me, motherfucker. Tell me you think I'm afraid of your sorry ass."

Whatever Robinson saw in Dean's face seemed to drain the fight right out of him. Dean saw it and shoved him toward the door. Robinson righted himself, straightened his jacket and turned and walked out of the locker room. It wasn't until the door shut behind him that Dean noticed there was another player on the floor.

"Dean," Sam said as he gave the kid a hand up, "this is Lucas."

--

Two days later, Sam was out front packing the car when Dean heard a pickup drive up. He watched them through the open front door. The driver had a bandage on his chin. Dean recognized the little cheerleader when she got out of the passenger side and walked over to talk to Sam. Dean never did get her name the night of the game and Sam hadn't said.

The bandaged kid got out and walked up to the house, reached out to shake Dean's hand.

"You must be Sam's brother, Dean. I'm Jason Martin."

"Jason," Dean nodded. He pointed to his chin. "You busted pretty good there."

"No big deal. Chicks dig scars."

Dean laughed and nodded. "No question."

"So you guys heading out?"

"Yeah, we're meetin' our Dad."

"That's good." He looked sidelong toward the curb. "I'm sorry Sam's leaving, though. We could sure use him on the team. District tournament next week."

Dean huffed a laugh. "I don't think either of us is too popular around here right now, Jason, especially with your coach."

"Coach Bryant's all right. He's the head coach now. Robinson's out. That's one of the reasons we came by today, to tell Sam. And you. I heard you put the fear of God in that asshole the other night."

Dean smirked. "Well, fear of somethin', anyway."

"You did us a huge favor. Jerks like him, they never stop. Til somebody stops 'em. I'm just sorry I never stood up to him." He looked away.

Dean really didn't know what to say to that. He cleared his throat and watched Sam and the girl, still standing next to the Impala. Jason looked at them and then turned back to Dean.

"We'd better quit holding you guys up. It was good to meet you, Dean. Take it easy." Dean nodded and Jason walked back toward the street.

"Winchester, get your grubby paws off my sister!" Jason called, and laughed when Sam gave a guilty start.

Dean shook his head. Sam wasn't even in arm's length of her. He was gonna have to give the kid some tips or something. Otherwise he'd never get laid.

Jason slapped Sam on the shoulder and he and the girl got into the truck. Sam waved at them both and turned and walked back to the house.

"Hurry up and get your shit together, Sammy. We're finally gettin' out of this hole."

--

They pulled out onto the main highway, drove past the convenience store, past the grain elevator. Dean slowed the Impala and turned into the truck stop.

"Let's get some coffee, Sammy. Gotta long drive."

"Go ahead. I don't want anything."

"Come on. Get your ass out of the car. At least go the bathroom or something. I'm not gonna stop every five minutes."

"I just went. Besides, if I don't drink coffee I won't need to stop."

Dean just raised his eyebrows and looked at him, waiting.

Finally Sam gave up and they got out. He followed Dean inside.

An old guy in overalls smiled brightly at Dean and Dean walked over and shook his hand. What the hell?

"Hey, Jake."

"Dean. You headin' out?"

Dean smirked. "Nothing gets by you."

Jake returned his smile. "Nope, it doesn't. I'm sorry to see you boys go, though. You sure came through the other night, Sam. The team'll miss you."

"Uh, thanks. I'll miss them, too."

Dean gave him a stop-being-a-girl look and got himself a large Styrofoam cup of coffee.

"Guess we'd better hit the road, Jake."

Jake stood up and pulled some bills out of his pocket.

"I'd better pay you what I owe you, then."

Dean put his hand up. "No, sir. You don't owe me anything. I didn't finish the job. You keep your money."

"No, Dean. You earned it."

"I was raised to finish what I start, Jake, and I can't do that. I can't take your money either."

Jake moved a step closer and shoved the money down to the bottom of Dean's shirt pocket. When Dean started to protest, he put his hand up and said, "Now you listen to me, Dean. I got a grandson on that team and I've known every one of them boys all their lives. You showed us something we should have seen for ourselves and we owe you boys for that."

Dean shook his head and started to reach for his pocket.

"Now don't be stubborn, Dean. I'm years ahead of you in that department. Go on. I don't want to hear any more about it." He waved them on. "You boys take care, now."

Dean quirked his mouth and looked down at the floor, then back up at Jake. He finally just lifted his hand in a wave, turned Sam by the arm and they walked out the door.

As Dean pulled back onto the highway, Sam said, "I didn't know you had a job here."

"There's a lot of things you don't know about me, Sammy."

He smiled brightly at Sam and then turned his eyes back to the road. With a pure and savage joy, he let the hammer down, feeling the Impala's rumble vibrate up through the base of his spine. He had some recharging to do.