It's hot and a little sticky outside, but Sam's down in the cool grass, stretched out on his stomach, escaping the worst of the weather

It's hot and a little sticky outside, but Sam's down in the cool grass, stretched out on his stomach, escaping the worst of the weather. He's got nowhere he has to be and no real deadline for the work in front of him because Dad's gone until who knows when. What started out as a full roll of grape Bubble Tape is lying on the grass next to his elbow. All the bits he's chewed out of flavor and into jaw-threatening elasticity are stuck in hard little nuggets to the inside of the lid. When he unspools the tightly curled end, it looks like there's only about a foot left. He flips open his knife, the knife that Dean let him swipe from him a couple of months ago for not sassing back to Dad for a whole week, and cuts the remainder of the gum into one-inch pieces, stacking them for easy access.

He pops a couple of wrinkly little squares into his mouth, working it up to get to a good bubble-blowing texture. The other pieces are a weird dusty purple that looks like the skin of a drunk elephant when he squints his eyes and tilts his head just right. Ew. Elephant skin.

Tossing aside his pencil, he watches it goes a little further than he meant it to. It's too nice a day to worry about Latin, and anyway he's not the one who Dad trusts to go on hunts, so what does it matter if he knows the exorcisms backwards and forwards or not?

He picks up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone instead. Mr. Russo at the library had said that this was the first children's book he'd enjoyed as an adult, and that there was a lot more going on in the book than the dolts on the school board could see. That had been good enough for Sam to check it out; Mr. Russo hasn't been wrong once, in the two and a half months they've lived in New Brighton.

The plastic wrapping crinkles as he sets the book in front of him and rests it against a rock. He props himself up on his elbows, ignores the weird babyish drawing of a guy on a broomstick on the cover, and opens the book to page one.

Fifteen pages later, he wants to throw the book as far away as he can. What the hell? Why would Mr. Russo give him, of all people, a book about a boy who lived through an attack that killed his parents? Doesn't Mr. Russo know?

Sam can't swallow past the knot in his throat. Dean's been keeping a pitcher of something cold in the fridge since the temperature hit eighty a few weeks ago and just kept climbing. Whatever it is today, a glass of it can only help. Sam gathers up his Latin text, his pencil, the stupid Harry Potter book, and the rest of the Bubble Tape. He spits the wad in his mouth out on the grass, wipes his sweaty forehead, and heads back to the house.

When he gets closer to the back door, he can hear Dean talking to someone. A few seconds later, he realizes it's the tone of voice Dean only uses when speaking to Dad - respectful and stubborn and quiet all at once. Shoot. He must have been really out of it if he didn't hear the familiar loud roar of the car coming down the street; maybe he was a little more caught up in Harry Potter's life than he realized. Good thing Dad's too busy arguing with Dean to pay any attention to him, because that little trick would mean an extra hour or two of training every morning for at least another week or so.

"Dad," Dean's saying, all careful and determined, "I think that this makes a lot of sense."

There's a weird clicking sound behind his words, like he's on a bugged phone line or something; it takes Sam a minute to get past the X-Files memories and figure out that it's just the sound of Dean handling the guns, taking them apart piece by piece carefully, like it's a fine art or something, cleaning each one, and then fitting them precisely back together.

"That's for me to decide, Dean," Dad says. Sam rolls his eyes. Why can't Dad let anything slide, even just once? It's not like Dean is going to go mad with power and lead a rebellion against him. Not Dean.

"Sammy starts high school in a couple of weeks," Dean points out.

Sam waits for Dad to snap back You think I don't know that?, but the retort doesn't come. Guess Dad forgot how old he was . . . again. Not like he was around for either of their birthdays this year anyway.

"It'll be good to stay in one place for the whole school year," Dean says quickly. "Sam will be happy with a year, Dad, you know it."

"You know that's not true," Dad says, sounding tired. Sam curls his fingers around the window sill, wishing he could peek inside, just to see if Dad is standing or slumped in a chair, if Dean is pretending to be totally absorbed in the weapons around him or if he's looking Dad right in the eye.

This time, Dean just flat-out ignores Dad. "I was thinking South Dakota. You could spend the time going through Bobby's library."

"Yeah? And who do you think is going to put food on the table? Or do you think Sammy'll be so thrilled that he'll offer to stop putting food away like it's going out of style?"

"Me," Dean says firmly, ignoring the second question and answering the first. "I'm eighteen now, and I can take care of that stuff. You've got better things to do than work the night shift at some shithouse for less than minimum wage."

There's a long silence after Dean offers his deal. Sam can feel his throat getting dryer by the second. Stupid Bubble Tape.

"You talked to Bobby about this yet?" Dad finally asks.

"No, sir." As if. Has Dad even met Dean?

"Maybe I'll give him a call later," Dad says, like he's making a huge concession.

"Sure," Dean says, clearly backing off. Dean always does that, and Sam can't figure out why he lets his ideas go like they're worth nothing, even the really good ones. "Dinner will be ready soon anyway."

Sam waits until he hears Dad shuffling out of the kitchen before pulling open the screen door. Dean's standing with one hip pressed against the counter and looking right at him. "I guess you heard we're moving, squirt," Dean says, then turns to the fridge and pulls out the orange plastic pitcher. It looks like it's about half full.

Sam grins, takes the cup Dean hands him, and gulps the sugary lemonade. It's too hot to stay in the kitchen while Dean cooks, so he takes his book and goes back outside to read a little more. He's just trying to figure out who the letters Harry keeps getting could possibly be from and how they could have been put inside the eggs - gross, they'd be covered in yolk and stuff - when he hears Dean yelling for him to come and eat.

Dinner is omelets, and that just figures, but Sam doesn't want to spoil the quiet by griping. Sam would bet anything that Dad's already talked to Bobby, from the way his mouth is turned down in a frown and Dean jumps even more than usual to do whatever Dad asks.

Later, when he's sitting up in bed, it hits him. Neither Dad nor Dean said anything about hunting.

He crosses his fingers, looks up at the ceiling, and whispers, "Please, no more hunting." But that's too much to hope for, so he tacks on an addendum, wondering if maybe this more realistic prayer might get answered: at least for this year. He goes to sleep happier than he can remember being for months.

"Dean," Dad calls from his room, and Dean abandons his breakfast without a second thought. Sam stays at the table, book open next to his empty cereal bowl, and bets himself a new roll of Bubble Tape that Dean will end up eating soggy Cap'n Crunch.

He only gets through a page and a half, though, by the time Dean gets back. Dean slurps his soupy cereal and grins at him like that's not the most disgusting thing ever.

"I'm gonna drive out to the Triple A office and pick up some new maps. Wanna come?" Dean says this with a straight face, like it could be a real treat.

"Nah. I want to finish this book before we move."

Dean doesn't respond to that, just tips the bowl against his mouth to get the last of the milk, and Sam has a moment of unease. "Dean, we are going, right?"

"Yeah," Dean says, gathering both the bowls and taking them to the sink. "We are."

But Sam's accustomed enough to Dad's high-handed way of making and taking back decisions to put off packing his stuff until Dean gives him the go-ahead. It's another gorgeous day; Sam figures he might as well get some fresh air while he reads.

"Oh, they have got to be kidding!" Dean says, laughing at the map of South Dakota he's got spread out over the kitchen table. There's a sweat stain that looks like an inkblot dampening his thin t-shirt, broad across his shoulder blades and tapering down to a narrow line along his spine. It's vaguely like a Georgia O'Keeffe painting of an animal skull, Sam thinks, remembering another book Mr. Russo had set aside for him.

"What?" Sam's perched on the counter; even plastic masquerading as marble is cooler against his legs than the thick, unmoving air in the house. "What's so funny?"

"Look at the names of these towns." Dean pulls him down and drapes one heavy arm easily across Sam's shoulders. Sam wonders sometimes if Dean realizes just how strong he really is.

Sam looks down too and reads out loud whenever he finds a good one. "Mud Butte?" Dean laughs, and Sam feels himself grinning in response. "Mound City?"

"That one sounds kind of dirty," Dean says. "I approve."

"Red Shirt," Sam continues disbelievingly, Dean's hand hot against his hunched back.

"Population zero," Dean says in a mournful whisper, warm mouth right next to the sweaty hair curling near Sam's ear. "Very sad. The good citizens of the town kept dying."

"I can't believe you think I'm a geek," Sam complains, wincing when Dean just gives him an enthusiastic, sweaty-smelling noogie. "Oh, look, here's one you could be the mayor of: Letcher."

"And here's one where they wouldn't let you past the city limits, squirt: Winner."

"Ha ha ha." He looks at Dean speculatively, but Dean's attention stays fixed on the map; Sam can see his eyes tracing driving routes to Uncle Bobby's place already. "Man, South Dakota is weird."

"Yeah, well, South Dakota's gonna be home sweet home in a week or two, Sammy, so brace yourself."

He knows that Dean's latest deal with Dad is mostly to help him; it doesn't matter to Dean where they live, as long as the girls are pretty and willing, and Dean's found plenty of them in even the smallest, most uptight towns. But he also knows that Dean will act confused if he says thanks, no matter how much he means it, so he just rolls his eyes and says, "Yeah. I can't wait," and grins when Dean snorts.

Being in the back seat of the car for this many hours on end totally and completely sucks. So what if he's the shortest? He should still get to sit up front for a couple of hours at least, maybe stretch his legs and even have some say in how loud the radio gets. But Dad's claimed the passenger seat since his sprained wrists won't let him drive, and it doesn't look like he's going to be abdicating that throne anytime soon.

It's weird to not have to rush; Dean isn't flooring it and relying on the radar detector he rigged up to alert him to the presence of any pesky cops. And it's maybe even weirder not to have a case to discuss. Sam's used to Dad and Dean having long, cryptic, bloodthirsty conversations about whatever they're after and how to get away even cleaner this time, but now there's no hunt on the horizon, so Dad is trying to make normal, everyday small talk. With him. It's so weird.

"You excited to start high school, Sammy?" Dad asks, and for a moment Sam just wants to wrap his arms around his father, despite the heat and even with the car's hot, sticky seat in the way, because Dad sounds like a befuddled TV dad, trying but not quite succeeding at connecting with his teenage kid.

"Yeah, sure, Dad," he says, and he can feel the dumb grin stretching his mouth. In the rearview mirror, he can see Dean's eyes light up. "I wonder if I'll be behind or ahead this time," he says, not even meaning it as a complaint.

Dad kind of half-turns, stiff and a little awkward; it's past time to find a rest stop. "If you're behind, it won't be for very long. You're too smart for that."

Dean makes a weird sound then, and Sam knows it's just surprise, and happiness, at how well they're getting along, but of course Dad can't let that slide, because you never know when your life will depend on your ability to stay totally silent. According to The Gospel of John Winchester, anyway. "What was that?" Dad asks, all sharp, smug just waiting in the wings.

Dean blinks once and then points up through the windshield and says, "I was just admiring those clouds. The ones shaped just like a really great rack."

And that's enough to get Dad laughing and elbowing Dean like they're best buddies again, because Dad also always says that thinking on your feet can save your life.

Dean comes from behind to win it. Sam sits back and pulls out the travel chess game that Uncle Bobby gave him years ago. It's hard to play against himself - he keeps losing track of whose turn it is, and rotating the tiny board is only giving him a headache. After a few miles, he gives up and looks out the window for as long as the daylight lets him.

There has to be a limit on how many cheeseburgers Dad and Dean can stuff into themselves in just one sitting on their cross-country trip. Sam stirs his dumpy little cup of chili and watches them eat; he's willing to swear at one point that Dad can unhinge his jaw like a snake trying to get a piglet into its belly.

It's unfair that they can eat like that and still be in shape, ready and eager to run and hunt and kill. Meanwhile, he's stuck with pounds he packed on just by eating the same food as them, weight that doesn't drop off even though he trains every single day.

Dad and Dean don't look like they're going to be slowing down anytime soon. He scrapes his plastic spoon along the bottom of the cardboard cup, still hungry. Dean looks up from his fries and holds out a burger still in its shiny, grease-stained wrapper and pushes the tray over just enough so that Sam can snag some fries. Sam says thanks with a nod, then makes a face when he has to pick all the stinky extra onions off Dean's burger and drop them in the empty cup before taking that first satisfying bite.

Looking through the cloudy windshield from the back seat, all that Sam can really see is that Uncle Bobby's wearing a different grubby baseball cap. Not that he can imagine Uncle Bobby playing baseball.

The old one was a beat-up blue, like worn-down jeans, and the brim had that perfect curl that the jocks always had on their brand-new caps. This one is forest green with some motor oil logo on it, and the brim is flatter. Other than that, Uncle Bobby looks exactly the same. His hair, visible through the mesh of his cap, is still that brownish grey, same as his beard. And he's still got enough of a belly to prop a book on when he's kicking back and reading. Maybe there's a little more belly than last time.

Sam scrambles out of the car when he sees what else is new. There's a new dog keeping Uncle Bobby company these days, and it's barking excitedly and scampering at the sight of new people; it's a Rottweiler that looks like it's not even a year old yet. "Hey, boy," Sam says, holding his hand out for a sniff and then a vigorous licking.

The puppy trots off to the patch of grass behind the house, turning to make sure Sam is following along and willing to play. After about ten minutes of throwing a stick, Sam's arm starts to ache, so he finally drops it and just rubs the pup down, loving the happy little growls he can feel under his hands. He leads the way back to the front of the house and settles in on the front porch with the puppy's head heavy in his lap.

The front door swings open abruptly and from behind him, Dean says, "Thanks, Bobby. We should probably get settled in before we start bugging you."

Dad can't shake hands really, not with his wrists all bandaged up and splinted, but he does nod in kind of a friendly way to Uncle Bobby. Sam doesn't think it's the bright sunshine playing tricks on his eyes that makes it look like Uncle Bobby's already regretting this a little.

Sam rolls his eyes. Dad pretty much needs a keeper to make sure he doesn't say anything that'll get him tossed out of yet another house, and Dean, of course, has decided that he's going to be it.

"Let's hustle, Sammy," Dean calls, getting into the car. "You and me are going to get the new place shining."

One fist pounding his other palm, Sam plays rock, crushing Dean's stupid inevitable scissors decisively, and Dean heaves a sigh and trudges to the kitchen with the bucket of cleaning supplies.

All Sam has to do is air out the two hot, dusty bedrooms in the back, dust and sweep them, and put sheets on all three of the beds. He takes his time on Dad's, doing hospital corners; Dad won't think of it as his way of saying thank you, but anything less would be taken as a sign of insubordination. He dumps Dad's duffels at the foot of the bed, knowing better than to try to unpack anything for him.

Back in the room he's sharing with Dean, Sam throws the remaining bags on one of the twin beds and starts sorting his clothes from Dean's. There's a big, chipped wooden dresser along one wall with more than enough room in there for all of their stuff. He finds himself humming Black Sabbath as he folds clothes, and that's just got to be a sign for him to get out of there.

He wanders back to the front of the house. Dad's sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee in front of him and a thick newspaper next to his elbow. Dean's scrubbing out the refrigerator.

"Hey," Sam says. "Can I go look around?"

Dad doesn't say anything, but Dean says, "Give me twenty more minutes and I'll take you somewhere awesome," like he already knows all the ins and outs of this stupidly named town.

"Yeah, okay." Sam flops down on the couch and picks at a threadbare patch on one of the cushions.

"You seriously need to re-evaluate your definition of awesome, Dean," Sam says. "Because government agencies are never it."

"Trust me, punk," Dean says around a grin, leading the way up to the glass doors. He still smells faintly of Lysol and bleach.

"We need an application for a Restricted Minor's Permit, please," Dean informs the bored-looking clerk behind the counter. She perks right up when she gets an eyeful of Dean, and Sam's not quite sure how it happens, but both the application and the written exam are in his hands immediately. He's not prepared at all, because he had no idea that he was old enough for even a permit, but the test doesn't seem that hard. Score one for South Dakota.

The moment he puts his pen down, the clerk whisks him behind the counter for the vision check. She's nodding frantically but barely listening to his answers as he recites each dwindling line of letters and numbers on the chart, and she gives his written test only the quickest skim before smacking it with a big red PASS stamp.

"You're in luck," she says. "One of the driving examiners is still here, so you can take the driving test right away. I can show you to the car -"

"That sounds great, Candy," Dean interrupts, digging in his pocket. "Sammy, if you'd rather, you can take your test in our car."

Dean tosses the keys over nice and easy, and Sam manages to catch them and keep his jaw from dropping. Dean's been teaching him how to drive, but he never thought he'd be giving him permission to take the car out on his own. Okay, so there'll be a grown-up in the passenger seat, but still. It's not going to be Dad or Dean, and Dean is saying I trust you. I know you won't let me down.

"Yeah," Sam finally answers. "I'll use our car. It's that one over there," he says, pointing it out to Candy.

"Nice," she says appreciatively, and when he turns in surprise to face her, he catches her eyeing Dean like a lion watching a gazelle on a Nature special. Typical.

Dean lets him drive home, not even muttering too many instructions under his breath, mostly just easy, easy and take your time and you're doin' fine, and on the way they find a pizza place that throws in garlic bread and soda for free if you order three large pizzas. "We could eat that standing on our heads," Dean says, smacking him on the chest with the back of his hand.

Dad's in exactly the same spot they left him in, only his mug is empty and crusty, the newspaper's got clumsy red circles all over it, and his bandages are stained with black and red ink. They eat in silence, sitting still to keep the heat of the day at bay.

Dean gets out a deck of cards when the paper plates are in the trash. It takes some finagling for Dad to figure out how to hold his cards comfortably, but they manage a few good rounds of gin rummy before Dad says it's bedtime.

Right. New school tomorrow. And he gets to stay for a whole year. It's been a while since he's been this nervous. He showers and tumbles into the softer bed, listening half-heartedly to the sound of Dean and Dad arguing - Dad proclaiming something and Dean making little murmurs of protest.

Whatever it is, it'll keep until morning. He rolls over, pulls the pillow over his head, and falls asleep.

When Dad walks into the kitchen the next morning with his wrists bare of bandages, Sam realizes what the fight last night was about. "Let's hit the road, jack," Dad says heartily while Sam contemplates dumping more Froot Loops into his milk. The skin on the inside of Dad's wrists is shiny and the same sick shade of pink as the leftover milk in his bowl. Sam pushes it away, then looks around in confusion when Dean doesn't swoop down like a vulture hopped up on sugar to snatch it away.

"Your brother trained and took off for work already," Dad tells him, impatience seeping into his tone. "Your lunch is in the fridge, unless you want a couple of bucks?"

Sam shakes his head. "Let's get this over with," Dad says, snagging the car keys from the counter. Sam grabs the brown paper bag from the fridge, stuffs it into his backpack, and dashes out to the car. Dad's already got the news station on the radio and the vents blowing cool air.

Ten minutes later, Dad's pulling into a narrow parking spot and putting the car into park. Sam turns to face him, waiting for the lecture on keeping his head down and his mind sharp, on not neglecting after-school training drills, and, above all, on not having an original thought in his brain. But Dad horrifies him by turning off the engine and opening his car door.

"What are you doing?" Sam asks, scandalized. Dad looks weird, in his dingy shirt and threadbare jeans, and that's not even mentioning his shiny wrists. "Dad! I know how to register for classes, okay?"

Dad stops, looking surprised. "You used to beg me -" he starts, then makes this weird little half-smile with one side of his mouth. "You don't need me comin' in, huh?"

Sam looks down at his feet. One of his shoelaces is untied. "You can if you want to," he says, squatting down to tie it.

"Yeah, alright, let's knock 'em dead," Dad says with a big cheesy grin when Sam stands back up, and mortifying as it is, Sam can't keep himself from grinning back.

Of course Dad charms the secretary sitting outside the principal's office, her desk lined with sad little teddy bears, and then he gets all buddy-buddy with the principal, who's still got his Army Corps physique and haircut. Sam wonders if they shipped him in, a tough-guy principal for a troubled school. But this school - the whole town, actually - seems pretty quiet.

"Mr. Winchester," he hears, and it takes Sam a minute to realize that the principal is talking to him and not to Dad.

"Yes, sir," he says automatically, and Dad and the principal both nod approvingly.

The principal holds out his hand and gives Sam's a hearty shake. "Welcome to Rapture High."

Dad's got self-preservation instincts out the wazoo, so he takes off before Sam has to report to the guidance office to arrange his class schedule. The office is jammed full of copier paper boxes, and there's almost no room for the chairs and desks too.

Sam's looking at the list of classes open to ninth-graders when a door in the back opens up and the principal comes through, one hand clamped firmly around the bicep of a white girl wearing a huge grey "Property of Rapture High Athletic Department" t-shirt; in his other hand, he's holding a scrap of material.

"Miss Heller," he says, waving the shiny blue cloth. Sam's decided it's a handkerchief, but he can't figure out why the guy's waving it around like there's going to be a drag race in the guidance office any minute now. "This is not appropriate apparel for an academic institution. I thought I had made myself clear on this topic last year. You'll wear the shirt I've loaned you for the rest of the day, including detention, and you will bring it back, washed and ironed, tomorrow. I do not want to have this conversation again. Do you understand me, Miss Heller?"

"Gotcha, champ," the girl says, snatching back the scrap and tucking it in the back pocket of her jeans. "Not that it's any of your business what kind of shirt I'm wearing."

Sam gulps.

The principal heaves a big sigh, one that works its way up from the tips of his toes. "Miss Heller, why do you persist in this attitude?"

"It's in the name," she grins, tossing back her long blondish-brownish hair. "I'm a hellcat."

The principal rolls his eyes and drops his hand. "Indeed," he says, and heads back for his office.

"Fascist," the girl mutters, coming up to the counter to stand next to Sam and rifle carelessly through the booklets and pamphlets fanned out in neat, bright semicircles. He watches her pull the hem of the oversized shirt through the collar to make a little Mary-Ann blouse; he gets a peek at a red lace bra and the soft-looking skin of her stomach and feels his face start to heat up.

He's startled by a hand patting his cheek gently. "Lighten up, frosh," she says. "It's only school, not real life." He thinks he makes a gurgling sound in his throat at the way she smells, all sweet and dangerous like a cherry firecracker or something, and she laughs. "Just one more year and I'm outta here," she says as she walks away. He watches her swaying hips and dancing hair all the way out the door.

"Mr. Winchester," he hears a disapproving voice say, and he rearranges the pamphlets hastily, takes a breath, slings his backpack down to cover his crotch as casually as he can, and moves toward his unsmiling guidance counselor.

The school's laid out like a capital H, and the four wings are all identical. It makes it hard to figure out exactly where he is, and it doesn't help that no one seems to use the actual room numbers.

"Oh, Mrs. H teaches in the math wing," one guy says when Sam asks the way to his Intro to Algebra class. Thanks, buddy, you've been a ton of help, he wants to say. Really.

He gets to Intro to Algebra two minutes late and slips into the last seat in the row. Good thing W comes at the end of the alphabet, because he's able to say "present" when his name is called out. Sam sneaks another look at his already tattered schedule while Mrs. Hershel launches into a speech that sounds like she's given it too often to still believe it, all about how exciting math is, and how algebra is a building block for so much more. He's got gym next. At least he knows he'll be able to find that; he seemed to end up at the gymnasium every time he got lost.

They change for gym at this school, and there's a bank of lime-crusted showers in the back of the locker room too. Without curtains, just to make sure that his humiliation is complete.

He didn't bring extra clothes, so he stands around awkwardly, compulsively rearranging his books and backpack in the tiny gym locker, shoulders hunched so no one can see what he's up to. He can't go out to the gym because he's learned from bitter experience not to be the first person out there. He just follows a couple of guys out to the main gym when they're finally changed. Some girls are already there, clumped together suspiciously in a tight huddle; they all seem to be fixing their hair or straightening out their shirts.

A tall bald guy comes out of an equipment room with a big cardboard box. He blows the whistle hanging around his neck and then flips the box, dumping dimpled red rubber balls and a heap of ratty, bright yellow mesh jerseys on the floor in the middle of the gym.

"Okay, people, listen up," the teacher says. "All we're doing today, to get the year started off right, is playing a simple game called dodgeball. You . . ." - he divides the boys with a sawing motion of his hand - "put on these jerseys." He splits the group of girls in half with the same unconcerned gesture. "Jerseys for you, ladies. Come on, come on, let's move it. I wanna see a little hustle out there!" The whistle blows again, a sharp high blast, and the game is on.

If he leaves out all the crap he has to endure from Dad's training regimen, there's very little Sam hates more than playing dodgeball. It's always seemed both pointless and cruel. He hopes and prays that Dad never comes up with Winchester Rules Dodgeball.

Sam's doing pretty well, weaving and dodging the balls whizzing by him like a champ, even if he hasn't actually gotten his hands on one yet, and that's when it happens. A big kid on the other team gets nailed in the shoulder, and he leaves the floor sulkily, dragging his feet. Now that he's gone, Sam can finally see who's been right behind him the whole time.

It's this girl.

She's beautiful. She's got hair the color of apricots, and a perfect oval face. She's turning a ball over in her hands as she nibbles on her lip, clearly considering her strategy; the movement sets off the silver charm bracelet she's wearing. He can't tell from here what color her eyes are, but they could be blue like the sky or hazel like -

THWONG! A ball hits him smack in the side of the head, and it's more the shock than the actual blow, but suddenly he's flat on his back on the shiny parquet floor and his head is throbbing. He can see her little lace socks peeking out from her bright white Keds and he thinks he hears a whistle blow.

There's a warm hand on his shoulder. He looks up to see some blond kid holding out his hand, ready to help him up. "Man, that looked like it hurt," the guy says, big brown eyes round like he's never seen anything so brutal.

"Not really," Sam says, not sure yet if he's lying. The guy must be pretty strong to pull him up so easily, but his hand is soft and unmarked by calluses. "Thanks, man."

"I'm Pete," the guy says. "And hey, you won the game for us. Snyder said going for the head's totally against the rules."

"I'm Sam. Glad to be of service." Sam rubs his head, and Pete cracks up.

He catches a glimpse of the girl as they trail off to their respective locker rooms. Her hair hangs halfway down her back, all sleek and shiny.

The cafeteria is a zoo. Sam's sure he read something in the guidance counselor's office about there being only a few hundred students in the whole school, but it looks like the entire population of Los Angeles recently immigrated to the Rapture High cafeteria.

Against impossible odds, Pete finds him and steers him to a table where a couple of the guys Sam recognizes from Intro to Algebra and World History are already scarfing down their lunches. The cafeteria food actually looks pretty good, if the way Dennis and Aaron are putting it away is any indication, and Sam regards his peanut butter and grape jelly on white with resignation.

Pete pushes his bag of Ruffles to halfway between them so they can share, though, as if they've been friends forever. Sam glances over at the other two guys. Aaron and Dennis have finished eating and are having a heated conversation about last night's episode of The X-Files, and he can tell they're deep enough in it that only the sound of the bell will get their attention.

He leans across the table a little, and Pete leans in too. "That girl from gym class," Sam says in a low voice. "Do you know her name?"

"Which girl?" Pete shoves a handful of potato chips into his mouth, looking around like he expects her to have a sign around her neck; Dad would have flayed him for a trick like that.

"You know. The girl."

"There were like fifteen girls in that class! Which one are you talking about?" At least Pete's keeping his voice down.

"Um. Reddish hair down to like here, um, shiny and straight?" Sam closes his eyes to summon the image more readily. "Oh! And a charm bracelet!"

"Oh. That's Jaime Collins."

Jaime. That's a beautiful name. It suits her.

"That stupid charm bracelet of hers drives me nuts," Pete adds, finishing up his milk.

"What? Why?"

"Because she never takes it off, and since I've sat behind her in pretty much every class almost all my life, I get to hear it rattle against her desk every time she moves even an inch. Sucks when we're in the middle of a pop quiz."

Sam's still stuck on an earlier point. "What do you mean, you've sat behind her all your life? Is she . . . is she your girlfriend?"

Pete starts to laugh. "No! No, we've just always had assigned seats, and since Collins comes right before Crawford, I was always right behind her, that's all."

Sam fixes him with a look that he hopes demands honesty. "Does she have a boyfriend?"

Pete leans forward, getting crumbs on his shirt. "Nope. It's kind of hard to get all worked up over a girl when you can remember her throwing up all over you in second grade. She was pretty pukey that whole year."

So what? She's not pukey at all now, and if none of the boys around here can get past that, then he's got a little more room to maneuver. He needs to think.

Or at least get tips from the master.

Dean's beaten him home, and is lying across the whole couch, boots kicked off and the sleeves of his shirt rolled up. Sam sees him crack an eye open for the standard once-over Dean always performs, even though Sam can perfectly well take care of himself, and in any case the kids around here are as soft as can be; he could see Principal Bergen posing a challenge, but not anyone else.

"So?" Dean asks, closing his eye casually and burrowing his shoulders deeper into the thin couch cushions. "Are you enraptured by school yet?"

"Sometimes you're so funny I forget to laugh, Dean," Sam says, and Dean grins. "How was work?"

"Good. Ed's a good guy. I owe Bobby for talkin' to him for me, but you can bet Ed's gonna make sure he gets his money's worth."

"Ed? I thought Uncle Bobby said his name was Russell."

Dean laughs. "Nah, that's just a nickname, cause he's always sayin' it. 'Lemme go rustle up a new transmission for this car,' I heard him say today."

"Oh." How does Dean do that, get everybody to just be themselves around him, and then fit himself in with them, even though he can never be honest about his job, and sometimes even his name is a lie? Sam can't even ask, because Dean never seems aware that he's doing any such thing.

But flirting, bagging a girl - those are things Dean would definitely help with. Sam opens his mouth to ask, then reconsiders. Maybe this is something he should figure out for himself. Over some leftover pizza.

Pete's sitting on a bench just outside the double doors at the front of the school when Sam finds him before first period. "Hey, what have you got there?" Sam asks, gesturing at the book on Pete's lap.

He recognizes that stupid drawing of the kid with weird-colored glasses, hair like he stuck a fork in a light socket, and a broomstick when Pete holds the book up. It's a hardcover copy, and it doesn't even have library plastic covers on it; Pete must be pretty rich to afford something like that.

"Hey, I read that just before I moved here," Sam says. "How far into the story are you?"

Pete smiles eagerly, keeping one finger in the book to mark his place. "Harry just met Hagrid, and they're going to that cool place to buy all the school stuff."

"Just wait. It's going to get really good."

The early bell goes off just then, and they join the throng of people shuffling into the building.

All through English, Sam is cursing not only the alphabetically organized seating chart that keeps him and Jaime a full room apart, but also his own previous failure to recognize that she's in a few of his classes other than gym. It totally sucks to think he might have missed something she said, or the way she looked when she wrapped a lock of hair around her finger.

Even from across the room, he can see the light red shine of her hair, just as bright as the silver clip holding some of it back. Mrs. Sims is saying something about a unit on poetry, and when Sam sees Jaime writing something down in her notebook, and registers that the rest of his classmates are doing the same, he mentally rewinds a little and this time hears that they've got to hand in an original poem in a week.

No problem. He's already got the perfect subject in mind. If he could just get close enough to see what color her eyes are, he'd be all set.

Principal Bergen greets them in study hall with enough of a smile - the corner of his mouth is turned up a quarter of an inch - that Sam starts to get nervous, and he stops listening to whatever it is that Pete is saying. His instincts are telling him he's just stepped into danger, but he can't figure out from which corner. Yesterday's study hall was totally uneventful, and the French teacher monitoring them had even left them alone a few times for phone calls or bathroom breaks or to adjust his beret or something.

"Hello, students," Principal Bergen says, rubbing his hands together briskly. "There's been a bit of a scheduling change. You will no longer have study hall fourth period. From now on you will all be enrolled in Home Economics. Let me just make this very clear: Home Economics is not a pass/fail class. There is no such thing as a pass/fail class at Rapture High School, with the exception of your time in the gymnasium."

He moves his arms like an orchestra conductor instructing them all to rise. "Gather your things and follow me, please. Ms. Bonling is expecting you."

Sam exchanges the same incredulous glance with Pete that he sees the rest of their classmates giving each other around him. "Cooking and sewing? This is gonna suck," Pete says grimly.

Sewing won't be so bad; he's used to it and he knows he can manage it tolerably well. Maybe he could even liberate a few needles and spools of thread for the first aid kit - no, wait. Dad hasn't brought up a single hunt since they got here, and neither has Dean. No need to remind them of what they're skipping if it's not occurring to them already.

Though if Dad keeps up with his track record, he's going to need first aid sooner or later, Sam figures. Uncle Bobby's bound to be like all the other hunters Dad's spent time with; he'll snap at some point.

"Okay, people, listen up," Coach Snyder says, and Sam wonders if that's his catchphrase. Then he wonders when he started calling the guy "Coach."

Still, he joins the huddle around Snyder, aware of Pete at his shoulder, and looks out of the corner of his eyes at Jaime. All he can see is a flash of her long hair, hanging over her shoulder until she tosses her head to smooth it back.

"The school board has decided that gym classes should be broken up into units, with a different emphasis each unit. The first one we're tackling is going to be . . . ballroom dancing."

Coach Snyder is practically rolling his eyes, and Sam feels a strong wave of sympathy. "Apparently, the school board feels you'll thank them once Homecoming rolls around and you're not just standing on the sidelines and drowning your sorrows in a cup of fruit punch."

Wow, he had no idea Coach Snyder could be so eloquent. "Okay," Snyder mumbles to himself, then starts counting them off, pairing them up.

There are a few more boys than girls, which makes the chances even smaller, but evidently nothing can stand in the way of destiny, because Snyder pushes him toward Jaime with a brusque, "Winchester, you've got Collins."

There is a God, and Snyder is His instrument here on earth.

As Snyder turns away to set up a boombox on a folding card table, Sam spares a kind thought for the school board, and another for his guidance counselor, the humorless Mr. Yates, for scheduling him in this gym class. And maybe one for Dean, for suggesting this move and getting Dad to agree. Yeah, Dean gets one too.

"Stand next to your partner and face me," Snyder calls. "All of you in one straight line. We're starting with the waltz. Now everyone watch once and then try it along with me. Ready?"

Snyder turns his back so that they can mirror him more easily, and starts calling instructions over his shoulder. Standing at one end of the line, Sam can see Snyder consulting the cheat sheet he's got inked on his hand. "Left foot forward, right foot over, left foot over. Right foot back, left foot over, right foot over. Now you guys. Try it with me."

They get through one step, most of them stumbling a little, but Sam sees that Jaime, next to him, moves so smoothly her hair doesn't even flutter.

Coach Snyder starts blowing his whistle to help them keep track of their steps, emphatic tweets in a long-short-short pattern. That's D in Morse code, Dean's usual sign-off when they're separated and have only alert whistles to stay in touch. Sam can feel his body respond as if this were one of Dad's training sessions, and his feet glide into place over and over.

"Okay," Snyder finally says, red in the face from blowing his whistle for five minutes straight. "Let's try this with music. Face your partners. Gentlemen, you'll start by going forward with the left foot, and ladies, you'll start by going back with the right. Men, hold your left hand out at shoulder level and put your right hand on her waist. Ladies, put your right hand in his left hand and put your left hand on his right shoulder. I trust you all can figure out how close you're supposed to get. Fisher and Zipes," Snyder continues, turning to the two guys who are partnered together, "I'll let you work out the details on your own. Everybody ready?"

There's a shuffling that echoes throughout the gym as they all try to remember exactly what Coach Snyder said. Sam starts to rewind a bit, but the touch of Jaime's light hand on his shoulder freezes his brain. Her charm bracelet is resting against his chest. She shakes her right hand a few times, and it finally clicks that she's waiting for him to take it in his. Her hand is warm and soft and he wants to drop it, wipe his own on his sweatpants, and then reclaim it.

She's looking down the whole time, and he can see apricot-colored bangs, long light eyelashes too fair to be seen from a distance, and a little square chin that's set in determination. And then she looks up and he has his answer: her eyes are big and blue and look like the sky on a perfect cloudless day. "I'm Sam," he says stupidly.

She smiles. "I know. You're new."


"You smell like sugar."

It looks like he needs to thank Ms. Bonling in his acceptance speech too, even though she said that the sugar cookies he and Pete had made in Home Ec were inedible. The list is getting pretty long, he thinks, as Coach Snyder hits play and "Open Arms" comes pouring out of the boombox.

Over lunch, Sam recaps what happened in gym for Pete, detail by glorious detail, and Pete just says "uh-huh" or "yeah" between bites of his pizza and tater tots. By the time Pete's on his pudding, he isn't even bothering to do much more than say "mmmm."

Sam's stomach growls, so he wraps up quickly and bolts down the food in front of him. It's gone cold and kind of tasteless, but at least it shuts his stomach up.

"Hey," Pete says. "You wanna come over to my house after school?"

"Uh, yeah, I guess." He's never been allowed to do that before, because Dad has firm rules about knowing where he is at all times and also because Dad doesn't want Sam returning an invitation and bringing anyone by to their place, which is usually in a pretty crappy part of town, and even when it's not, is always filled with dangerous weapons and information. But Sam doesn't know what the rules are here, now that they've settled down for a year. "We, uh, just need to stop by the place where my brother works first, so I can let him know where I'm gonna be."

"Yeah, sure. I'll meet you at the bench out front."

"Yeah, and Draco's just such a jerk," Pete's saying as they walk into Vanzini's Body Work. "I mean, all that stuff about Ron's family being poor? Not like it's anybody's fault, you know?"

"Yeah, of course," Sam says. "Hang on a sec." He scopes out the area until he sees a familiar pair of worn work boots peeking out from under a car painted a dusty-looking light blue, then kicks lightly at his brother's ankle. "Hey, Dean. I'm checking in."

Dean slides out and hops up, black grease streaked along his forearms. His eyes run quickly down Sam and then over to Pete. "Hey, Sam," is all he says, though.

"Hey, listen, can I go over to Pete's? This is Pete. Pete, this is my brother Dean."

Dean nods like it's not a big deal at all. "Sure. I can pick you up on my way home. Where do you live, Pete?"

"Over on Little Eagle Road, number seven. At the corner of Little Eagle and Eagle Butte."

Sam can barely hold back a snicker, remembering the conversation they'd had over the state map, but Dean keeps a straight face. "Yeah, I know where that is. I'll come by around seven-thirty?"


"And why don't you come over to our place for dinner tomorrow? You like mac and cheese?"


"You like vegetables?"

"Um, well . . ."

"Excellent," Dean says, then gets back down on his rolling board thing that looks like Marty McFly's homemade skateboard. "Have fun. Good to meet you, Pete."

Pete nods back. They're about two steps outside the shop when Pete says, "Just gimme a sneak peek at the ending. Tell me Draco dies in some 'tragic' wizarding accident at the end of the book," and Sam bites his lip and smiles.

Sam doesn't really get how Dean can listen to him while doing ten other things, but Dean nods and answers at all the right places, so he must be. "Okay," Sam says, taking a deep breath. "So I need to write a poem for my English class, and there's this girl, and . . ."

"And what, Sammy?" Dean's peering out the windshield at the street signs. "Would it kill them to have a streetlamp out here?"

Sam sighs. "And I need some help."

"With your English homework? Sorry, buddy, you're on your own for that."


"Alright, alright. You need help with the girl?"

"No." He's made up his mind to do this without Dean; Dean could probably trick or sweet-talk Jaime onto the living room couch in three seconds flat, but Sam wants this to be his victory alone. "I just . . . um, what rhymes with 'Jaime'?"

"Hang on, Sammy." Dean puts the car in park and hops out to pull Dad out of Uncle Bobby's house.

Uncle Bobby comes out to the front porch after Dad and Dean, one hand around the puppy's collar, and waves at Sam. Before Sam can get out and into the back seat, Dad's already got the back door open. Dean climbs back in and slams his door shut.

"Okay," Dean says, and Sam's expecting him to say something about work or ask Dad if he got anything good out of Uncle Bobby. But Dean goes back to Sam's question, not even picking up on the death stare Sam is aiming at the side of his head, because the last thing he needs is Dad finding out about any of this. "'Jaime,'" Dean muses. "Um, 'Amy'? Oh! 'Lay me'!" Dean grins hugely.

"Gross, Dean," Sam says, and faces forward again. "You're such a pig."

"Think about it, grasshopper," Dean says in his stupid kung-fu accent, and then Dad leans forward and asks Dean about work.

"Next time you come over, I'll make sure that the ping-pong table's cleared," Pete says while they're waltzing together, hands on each other's shoulders, both of them looking down at their feet to make sure they don't go sprawling on the gym floor.

"Why's it all covered up now?" Sam asks distractedly, wishing Coach Snyder would start using his whistle again; it's much easier to dance to Morse Code than it is to music. And he's really starting to hate "Open Arms." And Journey. And - he sneaks another glance over Pete's shoulder - that Brian kid who's over there dancing with Jaime and holding her a little closer than he really should.

Pete stumbles a little. "My dad and I used to play every night. When he moved out, I didn't really have anyone to play with, that's all. It's not a big deal."

It is, though; Sam can tell not only by Pete's face but also by the way Pete's hands seem to have lost their grip on his shoulders. "Is he still around?" It's pretty safe to ask, he figures, since Pete had muttered something about his dad's cooking while they were choking on the clouds of flour they'd raised with their disastrous oatmeal raisin walnut cookie dough during home ec last period.

"Every other weekend," Pete says, obviously trying really hard to smile and shrug. "Sometimes we go hiking or fishing or something. He's picking me up after school on Friday, and he said something about renting a boat."

"Sounds really cool. All my dad and I do together is argue or play chess. Mostly argue."

"Yeah," Pete says as the cassette grinds mercifully to a halt and Coach Snyder sends them back to the locker rooms.

Sam figures he better not press his luck, so he talks Pete into staying in the nice, air-conditioned school library after school instead of heading straight home. Maybe this way Dean will have the place cleared out of anything weird or hunting-related and have dinner on the table when they get there. It's tempting to call Uncle Bobby and ask if he'll keep Dad there, but given the way Uncle Bobby can gossip for hours with Dean, Sam wouldn't put it past him to horn in on the dinner too.

They find a table in the corner and get to work. Sam puts the poem out of his mind; until he stops hearing Dean's voice like a demented conscience chanting Amy! Lay me! Jaime!, he figures it's no good working on that. With a dissatisfied groan, he pulls out his Intro to Algebra textbook. Ugh, math. Maybe it won't matter if he procrastinates a little. Just a little.

"What are you working on?" he asks Pete.

Pete looks up from his notebook. "This proof for geometry."

"Oh." Well, now he feels stupid; he has no idea what a proof even is. "You're in Intro to Geometry? I thought that class was only open to sophomores." Pete might even be as good at math as Dean.

"Nah," Pete says, ducking his head down and getting back to work. "Just not a lot of freshmen take it." Pete looks up suddenly. "You know, Jaime's in that class too. She's really smart."

Sam grins. He knows Pete could not possibly care less about Jaime. "So, you're telling me she hasn't puked in class yet?"

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Pete says, totally deadpan, and then they burst out laughing. Mrs. Malley glares at them from behind the big front desk.

Sam is going to owe Dean for the rest of his natural life, and he figures he should start by cleaning the guns or mowing the lawn or something else horrible, but he doesn't care, because Dean's made everything perfect, like he mainlined every episode of Family Ties that he could get his hands on, and took lots of notes.

The house smells like dinner, like mac and cheese with onion powder and crushed red pepper and ground beef, like peas and corn mixed together with butter and salt. There's not a sign of weaponry or research anywhere, and the place is pretty tidy. Dean's even thrown a blanket over the ratty couch cushions.

"Hey, guys, dinner's gonna be ready in a few," Dean says, and Sam is just starting to think he's going to get away with this when Dad comes out of his bedroom with his journal in his hand, flipping through pages as he walks.

"Hi, Dad!" Sam says desperately, trying to catch his eye. "This is my friend, Pete Crawford."

Dad pulls up short and gives Sam a look that means we'll talk about this later, but he's at least nice to Pete, shaking his hand and saying, "Good to meet you, Pete."

Sam looks over at Dean for a cue, but Dean's looking totally unconcerned as he sets the table with their mismatched plates. He looks back at Dad, only to find him looking at Dean too, like he's also waiting for a script to follow.

"Hey, you know what I found last night?" Dean asks, setting out their glasses with cartoon characters portrayed in faded paint. "Our old dartboard. I set it up in our room, Sam, if you guys want to play a round."

"Great," he says, and leads the way, wondering if Dad's going to chew Dean out for allowing him to have a friend over, hoping he'll at least keep his voice down if he does.

In the bedroom, Dean's got the battered dartboard hanging on the back of the door, pristine darts lined up on the little table between their beds. He's only ever thrown knives before, during training sessions with Dad barking at him and Dean setting an example that's pretty much impossible to follow; it takes him a couple of throws to get used to the darts' heft, but pretty soon he's doing okay. Pete's not far behind; in fact, he's doing really suspiciously well for someone who hasn't been training under John Winchester for his whole life. "Wait a minute," Sam finally says. "Did you and your dad shoot darts, too?" Pete just shrugs like it's all perfectly innocent, and oh man, is it on now.

They play a few hotly contested rounds, until Sam's stomach growls and they head back to the living room. Dinner looks great, steam rising from the two big pots, ice cubes snapping in glasses of soda, and they settle in around the cheap metal-wrapped table and get right to it.

Pete doesn't seem to mind that Dean tells his dumb jokes with his mouth full, but the real shocker is that even Dad smiles at one of Pete's.

They're on the front porch, Dad and Dean on the lightweight plastic chairs he and Dean had dug out of the pit of despair that had once been a garage, and him and Pete down on the steps, all of them sucking down cherry vanilla ice cream and crunching on the pale, squat cones that taste mostly like styrofoam.

The sun is going down, reflecting purple off the car's blue hood and red off the primer-white front passenger door. This is the best night Sam's ever had - good food, his favorite ice cream, everyone getting along, and no training. Pete fits right in, and not in a weird way, like his dad is secretly a hunter too. It's just that Dean likes him and Dad actually seems okay with having someone else in the house.

"Come on, boys," Dad finally says; "you've still got school in the morning. Sam and I'll drive you home, Pete. Dean, you leave those dishes for your brother; I know you've got an early day tomorrow."

Pete stands and goes inside to get his backpack. Dad pushes Sam along too, with a hand on his shoulder. "You go inside too, Sammy, and get your wallet. You're driving."

Pete's mom comes out of the house to meet Dad, and Sam feels weirdly paternal as he sits in the driver's seat, motor still running, and tries not to eavesdrop on the conversation Dad and Mrs. Crawford are having, both of them hunched and awkward in the headlights, like they're on a date with chaperones. He can hear something about him and Pete both being "good boys," which makes him roll his eyes.

Mrs. Crawford isn't really pretty, but she's absolutely what a mom should look like, with her blonde hair back in a braid and no make-up or jewelry on. She and Dad smile and shake hands, and then she's leaning over to make eye contact with him through the windshield. "Goodnight, Sam," she mouths, then waves, and he keeps his hands on the steering wheel but smiles back at her.

"Sam," Dad says, getting back into the car, "we need to set some ground rules."

Oh, here it comes. "Let me guess," Sam says. "Pete can't come over again, no more friends at the house, and, oh yeah, get back to your dungeon, Sam."

"Button that lip, Sam," Dad says sharply. "And pull over. I don't want you trying to drive in the dark and sass back at the same time."

Sam obeys, because it's not like he wants to crash and die either. He puts the car in park, and Dad reaches over and pulls the key from the ignition. "Listen up," Dad says. "Dean told me you checked in with him yesterday about having Pete over today. So I'm not going to give you any grief about that, even though you should have asked me. And as long as you give me a couple of days' notice, you can have Pete over again, but not more than once a week. Understood?"

Sam nods vigorously, agreeing before Dad can take it back. This is way more than he ever thought Dad would concede. And if Dad likes Pete so much, then of course he'll love Jaime, and -

"Hey." Dad's poking him right in the middle of his chest, jamming one finger hard against his breastbone. "I'm not done here. Look at me when I'm talking to you, Sammy."

Sam looks up, and comes close to pointing out that in the dark, it makes no difference where he's looking, but he bites his tongue. Dad's obviously gearing up for a Dad-talk, the kind he breaks out once a year or so, when he and Dean are tired of communicating in grunts and bandages. "Now, having Pete over is okay. He seems like a good kid, and his mother seems like she's got a good head on her shoulders. And if he and his mother are going to offer you hospitality, it's only fair that you do the same for him; you never have to owe anybody anything. However. You are not to take this permission as license to bring all of your friends over, do you understand? No other friends, no parties, and especially no girls."

"What? Why?" Dad-logic is always a little strange, but that is just flat-out crazy.

"My roof, my rules," Dad says, and sits back.

"But what if . . . say my lab partner in bio is a girl, and we have to write a lab report, and -"

Dad cuts him off again. "I'll write you a note to get your purely theoretical lab partner switched."

Damn it. He knew he shouldn't have let that "say" sneak in there. "But why?" he wails.

Dad turns to look at him, and in that moment, Sam is fully convinced that his dad has eyes like infrared goggles, or maybe microscopes, because Sam feels totally naked under Dad's unshakable gaze. "Because I know how you get, Sammy. You've made friends with this boy Pete, and you might even stay in touch with him when we leave at the end of the year. But it won't break your heart to leave him. And I won't let you do that to yourself over some little girl you won't ever see again after the school year's over." Dad sits back in his seat, closes his eyes, and holds the keys out. "Now drive."

The drive home is quick and silent, with Dad simply gesturing whenever Sam needs to use his blinkers and turn.

Sam walks into the house, moping, then can't help sniffing the air contentedly. It still smells like dinner, and that's when he realizes Dean took Dad at his word and left the dishes in a messy clutter in the sink, though he did scrape the leftovers into plastic containers and stick them in the fridge.

Dad pulls his journal off the kitchen counter and sits on the living room couch. Dean strolls in, hair still wet from a shower, and chugs some milk straight from the carton. "Night," Dean calls on his way out, ending the performance with a long, disgusting burp.

There's no point in putting it off or trying to weasel out of it, so Sam gets to work on the dishes, counting on the blast of water to muffle his words but not his angry tone. He's scrubbing at the mac and cheese pot so hard, mumbling furiously all the while, that he doesn't even hear Dad come up beside him. Dad's first words, spoken in a rumble he can just barely hear over the running water, make him jump a couple of inches and drop the pot with a clatter and a splash.

"I don't want you to think I'm being unfair to you, Sammy," Dad says, still calling him by that stupid kid's name. As if Dad's ever cared about being fair. Sam just sets his jaw, picks the pot back up, and starts scrubbing it again. "You've gone and gotten yourself all worked up over a girl already, haven't you? Jaime Somebody, right?"

Of course Dad remembers that. He probably wrote it down in his stupid journal.

"Answer me, Sammy." Dad sounds serious.

Sam squares his shoulders. "Yes, sir. Jaime Collins."

"Then it looks like we're at an impasse, doesn't it? Tell you what, I'll make you a deal."

Sam tries to keep his expression as bland as possible while he sets the pot on the drying rack. "What kind of deal?" he asks, aiming for casual. Dad makes deals with Dean all the time, but he's never thought of Sam as grown up enough for anything more than barked orders.

"Gentlemen's agreement. You can bring Jaime over to meet all of us -" Dad raises a hand to keep Sam from interrupting "- as soon as your brother does the same with a girl he's serious about."

"That's totally unfair!" Dean never brings girls home; he always gets the girl to smuggle him into her house, or else he finds the local make-out spot and takes her there. Sam's about ninety percent sure that Dean's mapped all the Lovers Lanes in the contiguous forty-eight states.

"Like it or not, that's the deal," Dad says, smiling smugly. "You went from a straight-up no to a conditional no; your position has only improved."

Sure, Dad's all heart. He just doesn't want to have to put up with any arguments, so he offered up this sucker deal. Because it's not like Dad doesn't know he's pretty much conditioned Dean into not being serious about any girl, anyone who could get in the way of the family mission.

"Yeah, yeah," Sam says automatically, scrubbing at the artificial cheese crusted on the forks, then smiles as the answer clicks in his brain. Dean will bring his latest flavor of the week home if Sam just asks.

Too bad Dad's a freaking psychic, though, because he says, "And if you breathe one word of this to Dean, the whole deal's off." Sam goes utterly still, reeling when Dad claps him on the shoulder. "Goodnight, son."

Sam goes back to washing dishes, his mind whirring along. Isn't Dad the one who taught him that as long as there are rules, there are also ways to bend them? All he has to do is figure out the loophole in Dad's evil deal, and he'll be home free, sitting next to Jaime on the living room couch and holding her hand.

"Break up into groups of four," Mrs. Sims says, and Pete turns immediately, spots him across the room, and waves him over.

He could kiss Pete, because Pete's managed to snag Jaime and some other girl, Emma, too. Sam parks himself in the seat between Pete and Jaime, and all is right with the world.

"One person from each group come to the front of the room and pick up the books, please," Mrs. Sims calls, and Jaime takes the initiative. Sam can hear the gentle clinking of her bracelet as she weaves gracefully between the desks, her hair gleaming under the fluorescent lights.

"We're going to be starting Romeo and Juliet today. I'd like you to read through the Prologue as a group, and then discuss the questions on the board. When you turn in your answers, you can pick up your poems, which I've graded."

Romeo and Juliet. Really, this couldn't be going better if he got to plan it. Sam figures Mrs. Sims has just made a strong case to be included in his thank you speech.

"Don't forget," Coach Snyder says, and Sam waits to hear more pearls of wisdom regarding the fine art of ballroom dancing; anything would be better than having to listen to stupid Steve Perry and his totally faked sincerity about his stupid open arms. But Snyder pulls out a memo from the main office and reads it out loud. "Picture day is tomorrow. All individual portraits will be taken during your regularly scheduled gym class, in the gymnasium. Class pictures will be taken during first period."

That means he's going to miss English, and the chance to listen to Jaime discuss Romeo and Juliet, but still, he's kind of psyched.

Maybe it's kind of lame that he's excited for class picture day. He's had his picture taken before, plenty of times. But he's never stuck around long enough to pick the pictures up; he has no idea how he looks in photos. He wonders what the photography company does with the unclaimed pictures. Maybe, somewhere, there's a corkboard with pictures of him and Dean from every grade tacked up, like that's where they belong, like they're family.

Man, he should never have mentioned to Dean that he was having his picture taken today. This stupid collar on the button-down shirt Dean had hung on the back of their bedroom door, draped over the dartboard, is catching him at exactly the wrong spot on his neck. It's rubbing against the bug bite that's been itching for a day or two. He lifts his hand to scratch his neck, jostling Pete again, but Pete just elbows him back without making a big deal about it.

Not like Dean's neck is in much better shape, from what Sam had seen this morning. He's got a giant hickey on one side, and scratches on the other. Neither one of those things makes all that much sense to Sam. What's so sexy about sucking on someone's neck hard enough to bruise? It's got to take a while, too, and he wonders if the girl counted down the seconds in her head or something, until she knew she could stop sucking and there'd be a huge dark mark on Dean's skin, proof that she was there.

He'd wanted to ask who the girl was, if Dean was seeing her again, and if he could maybe bring her by the house so he and Dad could meet her, but Dad had been sitting right there, and Sam has no intention of giving Dad any excuse to call off the deal. Not that he's intending to play fair - Dad taught him that there was no such thing, anyway - but he needs a plan of action.

"Line up," Snyder says, punctuating the order with another sharp bleat from his beloved whistle. "Boys on this side of the gym, girls on that side. When I call your name, walk over to the photography area." Sam looks over and sees the familiar sight of the camera on the tripod and the backdrop painted to look like a blue sky with a hint of fleecy white clouds.

"Oh my goodness, young man." Sam looks up and sees a woman marching over to him. She's holding a big bag of cheap black plastic combs, the kind that men over ninety keep in their breast pockets. "Please, feel free to take one," she says, pretending to speak to all of them. She walks down the line with the bag held out helpfully, but Sam can feel her eyes fixed on him, and he blushes and reaches up a hand to try to get his hair under control.

"I can't take you anywhere," Pete says, and they both snort and start to laugh.

"Shut up," Sam says after he's gotten hold of himself. "You've got to help me." Pete gives him a look. "Not with my hair, duh. How do I get around this deal my dad offered?"

"I don't get it," Pete says. "What's the big deal here? Why doesn't your brother ever bring any girls home? Does he not date or something?"

Sam snorts derisively. "That's pretty much all Dean does. He sleeps with everybody. He just, he just never brings any of the girls home."

Pete's face wrinkles like he's really trying to figure this out, and Sam feels a warm surge of affection for him. "Maybe he doesn't bring them home because he doesn't really like them. Maybe he's gay."

The affection vanishes, and Sam cuts Pete off impatiently. "No, that's not it. You should hear him go on and on about, oh, man, she was amazing and wow, that girl should come with a warning." He stops himself before he spills the real reason Dean never brings anyone home - living on the move means there's usually nowhere to bring a girl except a cheap motel room shared by three men and their innumerable weapons. "Anyway, if you want to help, just assume that he likes these girls."

He can see Jaime across the gym. Her tight white jeans have rivets like shiny little eyes, and she's wearing something that makes her lips all glossy and bright pink. Even from here, he can see that she's taken the time to make her bangs a bigger puff than usual. That's the picture he wants to have hanging in his locker, greeting him every time he opens it to hang up his jacket or take out his books.

"Collins!" Coach Snyder shouts, and Jaime starts a little, drops the lock of hair she was twirling around her finger, then heads off in the direction he's pointing. "And . . . Crawford, you're up next," Snyder continues, turning to the boys' side of the gym. Sam watches as Jaime sits and lets the photographer touch her pretty little chin and guide her into a good position. Her smile is blinding, and the flash goes off.

Pete trots off as Jaime rejoins the girls, and Sam tries to concentrate on how to get Dean to bring a girl home. "Are you still thinking about this?" Pete asks when he comes back. "Maybe you should just accept that Dean hasn't met the right girl yet."

"No, that's not it," Sam says, waving a dismissive hand. As far as Dean is concerned, everybody is the right body. He hears something and grabs Pete's arm urgently. "Wait, what did Snyder just say?"

Pete looks like he's ready to escort Sam to the nurse's office, or maybe the loony bin. "He called Brian's name, crazy man."

"And what's Brian's last name?" Sam whispers; he has to be sure he heard that right.

"Heller," Pete answers, still looking concerned.

Sam smiles complacently and drops Pete's arm. "And the plan is born. This is going to be a piece of cake. Just watch and see."

"Wait, what are you doing?" Pete asks.

"I'm just going to talk to my good friend Brian," Sam says innocently.

"Hey, Brian!" he calls when Brian starts walking back over to where he dumped his backpack. "Over here!"

"Hey, Sam," Brian says. Up close, he looks tired. "What's up?"

"Do you have a sister?" Sam asks, then grimaces. He'd meant to be much more roundabout than that. It doesn't seem to matter, though, because Brian just nods. "And does she go here?"

"Yeah, Gen's a senior this year," Brian says, and Sam mentally pumps a fist in the air victoriously. He knew he recognized the name Heller. "Why? You want to ask her out? She only dates guys with cars, man."

"My brother has a car," Sam blurts out. "Hey, maybe they could go out." If the frankly disbelieving and amused look on Pete's face is any indication, he's really not a master of subtlety.

Brian's eyeing him suspiciously. "Why do you care who my sister dates?"

"I don't, man," Sam says honestly, spreading his hands in a gesture like his motives are totally above reproach. He scrambles to find an excuse. "I just thought it would be cool to get my brother out of the house, have him not hang around for one night of my life," he lies.

Brian starts to look really excited. "Oh! I hadn't thought about it like that. Yeah, it'd be good to get Genevieve out of the house, so maybe I wouldn't have to hear another lecture on how she should apply to County for next fall."

"Great!" Sam grins. There's no way this can fail. Dean plus a girl who calls herself a hellcat equals victory. Dad is in for a rude awakening.

"Genevieve?" Dean asks, stripping off his clothes and getting into his unmade bed even though it's not even all that dark out yet. "What happened to Jaime?"

"No, no, Genevieve is for you to go out with," Sam explains patiently, waiting for the high-five Dean's sure to give him when he finally understands that Sam scored him a date with a hot senior and Dean didn't have to lift a finger.

"Why would I want to do that?" Dean asks, rolling onto his side and propping his head up on one hand, clearly settling in for a lengthy discussion.

"Well, because, um, she's totally hot," Sam flounders. "She calls herself a hellcat, Dean! And she's a senior."

"Sammy," Dean says, then pauses. "I'm done with school. What makes you think I want to go back, even for a hot girl?"

"Well, who are you getting those hickeys from?" Sam asks, confused. He'd figured Dean had found girls willing to blow off classes or just take off during study hall.

"Ahhh," Dean says, rolling onto his back and aiming a wide grin up at the ceiling. "These marks of valor are from women, Sammy. Women with lots of experience. They come into the shop all the time, and say they need a tune-up."

"Great." Sam can't believe this. He's been thinking that Dean's actually getting work done while he's at the garage, but instead his brother has turned Vanzini's Body Work into some kind of grease monkey grotto. "Aren't those women married?"

"Hey." Dean's voice is sharp. "I wouldn't do that."

"Sorry." He keeps quiet for a minute, and looks down at his homework. Curiosity wins out over algebra. "So who was she? Today?"

"Man, she was gorgeous. Said her name was Delia, and – actually she works at your school."

"You slept with Nurse Downey?" Sam asks incredulously. From what he's heard, every boy in the school has faked a temperature at some point or another just to have her hand on his forehead.

"Downey soft hands, that's for sure," Dean says, totally unabashed and reveling in every minute of this TMI grossness. "And man, did she know what to do with them."

"I don't believe this," Sam moans, dropping his head down on his algebra textbook.

"What? What's wrong?" Dean asks, starting to sit up in bed.

"Nothing." He just needs to regroup, consider a new plan of attack. Really, if he'd succeeded on his first try, Dad would never have believed it, and probably would have banned Jaime from the house anyway, just out of spite. "Can you help me with my algebra?"

"Some of us have to work in the morning, Sam," Dean says, rolling his eyes, but he sits up all the way anyway. "Get over here."

Sam's barely listening while Dean explains two-variable equations and how they're actually easier to keep track of than one-variable equations. Instead, he's looking at Dean, trying to figure out his secret. If Dean can get Nurse Downey to sleep with him, then Sam needs to step it up, and bring his A-game.

Someone famous said something about doing all their best thinking in the bathroom, right? If no one did, then Sam's totally going to copyright it and every time someone gets a great idea in the bathroom from now on, they'll owe at least a little of it to him.

After he turned in Mr. Van Buren's ludicrously easy pop quiz on the cradle of civilization, all about the Tigris and Euphrates, he'd snagged a hall pass and made his way to the bathroom.

He's just zipping up in front of the urinal when he sees the faded message on the dingy blue tiles, about half a foot above eye level: 867-5309. Sam snorts, wondering if anyone has actually called the number, or if someone who'll answer to the name Jenny lives there. He's never paid much attention to graffiti before, but he'd bet that that number was inked in a bathroom in every school he's ever attended. It's kind of hard to believe that it's lasted this long.

And there, right above the fabled Jenny's number, Sam sees it, the answer to his problem and a clean way to win the bet with Dad. For a good time, call Tina! The message is in washed-out blue ink, and it's been written over a couple of times. Still, the words shine out clearly. There's a clumsy drawing of a dick next to it, and a phone number just below, seven little digits that burn themselves in Sam's brain as his salvation.

"What is up with you?" Pete asks over lunch.

"Nothing," he snaps. "Why?"

"Oh, no reason. My mistake. You always twitch and tap your foot like a deranged squirrel." Pete rolls his eyes. "I'm gonna go get a Twinkie."

"Sorry," Sam says, even as Pete's getting up and lifting his tray. "I just have a really good plan, and I want to get home and try it out."

"Guess you don't want to come over after school then, huh?" Pete asks, then busses his tray without waiting for an answer.

"Tomorrow, maybe?" Sam asks when Pete's back with his dessert.

"Whenever," Pete says. "I've got the ping-pong table cleared off now. Prepare to be creamed."

"Yeah, whatever," Sam shoots back, and then the bell rings, and biology beckons.

He's not quite sure what Dean's hours at the garage are, but he figures he's got about thirty minutes at least to call Tina and talk her into dating his brother. Well, not really dating, but at least screwing him expertly enough that Dean will want to bring her home and never let her go.

Sam thinks about writing a rough script for himself, but decides after sitting with his pen poised over a blank sheet of paper for five minutes that he's better off just winging it. He rubs his damp palms on his jeans and picks up the phone. The cord is long enough to stretch all the way to the couch, so he leans back against one arm and dials the number from memory.

"Yeah?" It's a guy's voice, a little hoarse.

"Hi, may I please speak to Tina?" Sam asks politely. Damn it. He hadn't counted on Tina having a boyfriend, or maybe a husband. Still, maybe it's just her dad or her brother, or a neighbor.

"This is Tina," she says, coughing right into the phone. He can hear the phlegm rattling around in her throat.

"Oh," he says lamely.

"Nah, I'm just kidding. Lemme go get her," the guy says, chuckling rustily at his own dumb joke. "Hey, Teen!" he shouts, nearly deafening Sam and prompting another coughing fit. "Pho-one!"

"Who is it?" a thankfully female voice yells back.

"How should I know? Some punk from your fan club, maybe."

"Alright, alright," she says, then purrs into the phone. "Hi, this is Tina?" There's a seductive lilt to her voice, something that makes it almost a question.

"Hi, this is Sa - um, I heard - um, I was wondering -" Damn, maybe he should have tried harder to write something down.

"Who is this?" Tina asks, only now she sounds suspicious instead of tempting.

"I, uh, well, um," Sam stutters, wishing he could just start over.

"Uh-huh. How old are you?" Wow, Tina sounds pissed now.

"I'm fourteen." There. He managed to say that without tripping all over his tongue.

"You think a fourteen-year-old can handle me?" Now she sounds like he's mortally insulted her.

"No! I was, I was hoping you'd go out with my brother." Finally, it's out there. "He's eighteen," Sam hastens to add.

"He's eighteen and needs you to set up dates for him? What is he, the Elephant Man?"


"Never mind. Listen up, kid. I'm not going to date you. I'm not going to date your big brother. I'm not into pity fucks, and if you ever call here again, I'll get my big brother to pound you into nothing more than a stain on the middle-school playground, got it?"

"But -" he starts to say reflexively, then claps a hand over his mouth to keep from blurting out anything else. The lady was crystal clear, after all, and he likes his spine where it is. He hangs up.

Back to the drawing board.

"Shove over," some guy yells, and Sam scoots down the bleachers bench until he's practically in Pete's lap, the thunderous roar of yelling kids echoing all around him.

"This is awesome!" Sam says, and Pete gives him a look like he's crazy. "Oh, come on, we got out of eighth period, and all we have to do is sit here and cheer when the football team comes running into the gym."

"And do the wave," Pete points out grimly, like that's as bad as streaking or something. "Yeah, okay," he finally concedes, "this is definitely better than my Spanish class. You know, I've never gone to a football game."

"Me either. You and your dad never went?"

"Team sports aren't really our thing."

Sam nods and looks around the gym. It looks totally different than it did a few hours ago when he was foxtrotting with Stephanie Mills. Now the lights are dim, and he can just make out a big banner the length of the court away that shouts !HOMECOMING! in huge yellow letters and bears an enormous purple bird that looks like a hawk or an eagle swooping at either end.

Principal Bergen comes out to stand in the middle of the gym, where a spotlight is shining. The noise dies down as he waves his hands for quiet. "Welcome to the fall pep rally for our Rapture Raptors, five time state champs!"

There's a burst of applause, quickly stopped, and then some muffled giggles. Sam wonders how on earth Principal Bergen came up with his truly terrible deejay voice. "Please put your hands together for the man who led them, Coach Carl Snyder!"

Now the roar sounds more genuine, people stomping their feet so that the bleachers shake, and Coach Snyder comes out in a jacket and cap with the same swooping bird printed on them.

Principal Bergen waits for a few minutes for the cheering to die down. "And to get things started, heeeeeere's the Raptorettes!" He shoves the microphone back onto the stand, then hustles out of the way with the whole thing. The spotlight in the middle of the gym gets wider to accommodate the girls filing in from the locker room.

Sam catches a familiar flash of pale red, and he freezes in his seat at the sight of Jaime in her dance squad uniform. Her hair is up in a high ponytail, the ends just touching the purple flowers resting on the shoulders of her tight yellow shirt. Her purple skirt is short, revealing strong, toned legs.

"Oh my god," Sam whispers, watching her get in line with the other girls, her cheeks pink with excitement, and one hip cocked right at him.

The music starts blaring from the same painfully tinny boombox Snyder trots out at every dance session, some horrible club music with a beat that starts to dictate the rhythm of Sam's pulse, and Jaime begins to move, always perfectly in time, nothing on her face except her awareness of the music. He can see, off in his peripheral vision, some of the other girls falling out of step or frowning in concentration, but Jaime moves like this is all completely natural to her, like she was born to do this. It's that same look Dean gets on his face when he's got a gun in his hands.

Jaime's skirt swishes up to flash her upper thigh across his vision, and as he's still reeling from that glimpse, the music ends, and the girls on the gym floor are panting with exertion and beaming with relief. All of them except Jaime, who's cool as a cucumber, not even breathing hard, just holding her pose until the dance squad captain claps her hands and they all get back into a long straight line to take their bows.

"Hey, Sam," Pete says when the tip of Jaime's ponytail has almost disappeared into the shadows of the locker room. Sam can barely hear him over the thundering of his own heart; it's like all of Jaime's adrenaline got channeled into him by mistake.

"Hey," Pete says again, this time poking Sam in the ribs. "Are you still doing this?"

Sam cranes his neck to watch for the last gleam of red, then swivels around to face Pete. "Doing what?"

"Crushing on Jaime," Pete says bluntly, while Sam looks around, horrified, to see if anyone heard that.

"Yeah, of course. She's perfect, man."

Pete looks puzzled and weirdly frowny. "I guess I thought . . . all those crazy plans you had, asking about Genevieve Heller, calling that Tina lady, I guess I thought you were just trying to beat your dad at his own game. Like you were proving something to him."

Sam shakes his head. "The whole point of the deal is getting to have Jaime over," he says firmly. Though Pete's right about part of it; it would be awfully sweet to make Dad see he's not just a little kid anymore.

"Yeah, but you don't even know her!" Pete says, sounding frustrated. "I mean, you got beaned once in the head and saw her and decided she was the one, right?"

"That's not how it happened at all!" Sam says, wondering why Pete's getting so worked up over this. "I saw her, stopped moving, and then got hit in the head." Wait. It doesn't sound a whole lot better when he puts it like that.

"Okay, whatever," Pete says, waving his hand dismissively. "Since then, you've danced with her once, and you sit next to her in English and never really say anything to her that isn't about Romeo and Juliet."

"I'm not going to say anything in class, especially with you and Emma sitting right there, listening!" Sam huffs.

"Yeah, I'm totally telling you to put the moves on her in front of Mrs. Sims and the rest of the class, Sam. All I'm saying is, you don't know even one thing about her."

"I know she puked all through second grade!" Sam shoots back triumphantly, and they both pause and then burst out laughing at the weirdness of it.

When he sobers up, Sam can hear Coach Snyder rattling off each football player's stats. He blocks out the noise and tries to think about what Pete's said. The thing is, Pete's got a point.

"You're right," he says, turning to look at Pete again. "But," he continues, satisfaction pouring through him as he realizes the answer is staring him right in the face, "you know her, so you can tell me all about her, and then I'll have something to say to her when I do get to talk to her."

Pete gives him another long, weird look, then says, "Okay." He shifts in his seat a little. "I don't know much, but, um, I know she's been taking ballet lessons since we were in first grade. She has recitals and everything. I guess she's pretty good."

Sam nods eagerly and closes his eyes. He can just picture himself in the front row, getting to watch her, not having to make do with stolen glances, just watch as she moves her body to tell a story. Her face would be all pale and serious, her hair up in a bun, and then when it was over she'd peek from around the curtain to blow him a kiss.

"Yeah," he says, opening his eyes. "No wonder she was awesome when we danced together. That's the kind of stuff I mean. What else?"

"Uh," Pete says. "I don't know. She and Emma are totally obsessed with Anne of Green Gables."

That . . . is not nearly as useful. "Why?"

"How should I know? It's not like I've ever read it."

Well, if there's one thing Sam does know how to do, it's research. This should be a piece of cake. And if at some future point, after they've talked about everything else they have in common, he has to actually read the book at her request, he can count on his abilities as an excellent skimmer.

"Thanks." He nudges Pete with his shoulder.

"You do know you're going to have to actually talk to her at some point, right?"

Sam nods, making a careless I've got it covered gesture with his hands, as the football players finally come crashing through the bright banner the cheerleaders have been holding all this time.

"Best two out of three," Sam bargains, panting hard. The only reason Pete wiped the floor with him so handily is because he's never really played ping-pong before, he's sure of it. He always thought it was a game old ladies played, all sedate and gossipy, drinking sips of iced tea between points. But the way Pete plays, it's like a blood-sport, and the ball is a blur of white spinning past Sam's bewildered gaze and just out of reach.

"Do you have to win everything, Sam?" Pete asks smugly.

"No! I just . . . never played before, and now I know all the rules, okay?"

"Fine." Pete smiles as he bounces the ball over to Sam. "Your serve. Or should I say, your funeral?"

"Just for that, I'll let you in on a little secret," Sam says, stalling for time to get his breath back. "Draco Malfoy wins. He gets Harry kicked out of Hogwarts, and Harry has to go back to the Dursleys, and that's it. The end."

"Shut up," Pete says, laughing. "I'm already past the part with the fake duel at midnight."

"Oh. Well, then where are you?"

"Talk and play, man. Come on, serve."

Sam puts the ball into play, trying to think of this not as a game of skill but as a fixed mathematical outcome. Great. He's screwed there, too; Pete's a year ahead of him in math.

The ball zooms by him again. "I'm at the part where Harry's found that mirror," Pete says. "One-zip, me."

"Oh, yeah. The Mirror of Erised." That had been a really tough chapter to get through and Sam had nearly given up a few times. Given that their things were almost permanently packed up, he didn't know where exactly any pictures of his mother could be in the New Brighton apartment, which box they could be shuffled into, but he'd never been more tempted to rip apart all the cardboard in his quest to find them. He knew from Dean that she had blonde hair and a big, bright smile, but that was all. He couldn't remember her voice, what she smelled like, or how she'd looked at him. In that moment, he'd hated Harry for having a way around that, an unfair fix for a fact of his life.

"Hey," Pete says, and Sam looks up.

"I thought we were playing," Sam says, trying to clear his mind of such depressing thoughts.

"Yeah, we are," Pete says, squinting at him from across the table like it's vitally important that he sees the expression on Sam's face at that exact moment. Pete finally quits staring and serves the ball with a little less spin on it than usual.

Before Sam can call him on it, the basement door opens and Pete's mom descends a couple of stairs, just enough that Sam can see her high heels. She's got a tear in her pantyhose starting at her ankle.

"Hi, honey. Hi, Sam. Have you boys eaten, or are you going to want dinner in thirty minutes?"

"We ate and we want dinner in thirty minutes," Pete answers promptly, and his mom turns her sigh into a laugh at the end.

"Thanks, Mrs. Crawford," Sam says. He knows he eats a lot when he's at their house, but Mrs. Crawford is a really good cook. And anyway Pete always scarfs down a ton of whatever Dean dishes out, and those jokes and stories Dean spins never seem to affect his appetite.

"No problem, Sam, you know that," she says, turning around to head back up the stairs. "It's always nice to have you over."

Just as Sam can feel his face starting to go a little pink at the compliment, she continues. "It's good to see one boy who'll eat his Brussels sprouts without making a fuss like a two-year-old having a temper tantrum."

"Ha ha," Sam mouths, then sticks out his tongue at Pete, who rolls his eyes and serves the ball.

"Hey -" Sam starts when he walks into the house, only to stop when he gets a look at Dean. "Are you okay?" he asks instead.

"Yeah, of course," Dean says, slurring his words a little, but not like he's drunk. More like he's hurt, like he's taken a direct hit and is trying to pretend there's absolutely nothing wrong.

That makes no sense, though. Dean hasn't been hunting on his own, has he? Dad for sure hasn't sanctioned any side trips, and there's been nothing weird in the papers anyway.

Sam leans in close to look at Dean's face. "Are you hurt?"

Dean looks so genuinely surprised when the question registers that Sam knows that can't be it. "Nah, promise. Just tired, Sammy, okay?"

"Oh." Sam crosses his arms over his chest. "Free tune-ups for all the local ladies?"

"Smartass," Dean says around a grin. "No, just had a lot of heavy lifting today, and Ed was out, so it was just me."

"But you're still seeing . . . never mind." There's no good way to ask if Dean's still up to his old tricks; nothing has changed for him, so why wouldn't he be? And Dad and his crazy bat-ears are probably lurking nearby, just waiting to disqualify him.

"Get some sleep," Sam says instead. "I'll do my homework out here so the light won't bother you."

Sam finds Pete sitting on their usual bench, back against one arm and his feet flat on the seat. The book is propped up against Pete's thighs, so it's hard to see how far into the story he is, but from the disbelieving look on his face, Sam guesses he's just found out what was beneath Professor Quirrell's turban.

Sam checks his watch. They've got about fifteen minutes before the bell rings. That should be enough time for Pete to finish the book if he's left in peace. Sam heads in early instead of sitting in the sunshine, makes a pit stop at his overstuffed locker, and finds his seat in English. He might as well look over the scene they're reading today, just so he can stop stammering every time Jaime lifts her eyes from her notebook - she has the prettiest handwriting - to look at him and ask what he thinks of the scene.

And there she is, like he's conjured her up out of nothing more than a wish. She's sitting in her seat, elbows on her desk, leaning forward and talking to Emma in an urgent whisper. Sam can't make out a word of what they're saying from across the room; the noise in the hallway from kids shuffling into the school before the first bell is too overpowering.

Still, he could go over there now, say something to her, to both of them, maybe just play it casual. He checks his watch again. Twelve minutes. Nah, that's probably not enough time to say something great. He'll totally catch her later, when he's thought of the perfect thing and they have all the time in the world to spend just with each other. Besides, it would be really rude to interrupt the conversation she's having now.

Sam didn't say a word about this morning, but for some reason Pete's all gung ho about this today. "Okay, now," he hisses, and pushes Sam a couple steps ahead of him and slows his own pace.

Sam can see Jaime at the end of the hall, catching that sweep of fair red hair in one curled hand, and bending to take a drink from the water fountain. It's like it's all slow-motion in his head, Technicolor too, and her mouth is pink and open and inviting as it breaks and bends the water's perfect curve.

His can't get his legs to slow down, and he turns, panicking, back to Pete. Pete's making shooing motions with his arms, like a bored matador, and Sam faces Jaime once more. He's totally going to do it. He's going to walk up to her and think of the perfect thing to say and she'll laugh and agree and together they'll figure out how to get Dean to cave in this weird battle of wills between him and Dad and yeah. That's what's going to happen.

And maybe it would have, if Jaime hadn't been wearing a sleeveless shirt, and if her pale pink bra strap hadn't chosen that moment to fall past her shoulder, and the sight of it hadn't stopped Sam dead in his tracks and made some huge senior behind him plow right into him and send him careening toward the lockers. At least he manages to get his hands up to brace for the crash.

Dean pulls up in front of the school promptly at six, back to being obnoxiously alert and chipper. "Where's Pete? We could give him a ride home too."

Sam slumps in the passenger seat. His backpack is a heavy weight across his feet. "His dad just picked him up. They're going on some fishing thing or something this weekend." He's not sure why he's being so vague. It's not like he doesn't know all of the details: Mr. Crawford came by and got Pete and then they were going to drive down to Lake Francis Case tonight, stopping for dinner at Harry's House, home of the world-famous dill pickles as well as Pete's favorite restaurant, and then they were going to walk into their cabin on the lake. And in the morning they'd get up early and take the boat out and fish and just hang out.

Okay, so he does know why he's not spilling all of it to Dean. He's insanely jealous, and Pete's attempt to make things better by saying, "Maybe you can come next time, Sam? I'll ask my dad," had only made things worse. Because there's no way Dad will let him go, out with people who wouldn't have the first idea of how to stay safe, and there's no way Dad would take him on a weekend like that either, even if they had the money and the time to do it right.

Dean doesn't say anything, just shrugs and peels away from the curb.

It takes Sam a couple of minutes to realize they're not headed in the direction of home. "Where are we going?"

"Bobby invited us over for dinner," Dean says. "I figured you and Dad could get your geek on in Bobby's library while Bobby and I fixed dinner."

"Fine," Sam mutters, slouching down even further.

All it takes to defeat a bad mood, though, is a puppy determined to lick every inch of your face. Uncle Bobby and Dean have no shame.

Dad doesn't say a word when Sam finds him in the room where Bobby keeps his oldest books, but he clears half the table of his stuff. Looking up with eyes that have gone red from too much reading, Dad just nods at Sam before going back to the book in front of him.

What's the point of even hoping Dad will give up his quest and just take him fishing? This, right here, is Dad's quest, his whole life, and nothing Sam wishes is going to change that at all.

"Dad?" Dean asks, as Sam watches Uncle Bobby pat his belly like a man well satisfied with what he just ate. "You ready to go, get out of Bobby's hair?"

Dad doesn't answer, just keeps muttering to himself like he can't get his mind to let go of what he's been reading. Sam's convinced the only reason Dad didn't bring a book to the table is the possibility that a priceless text might get meatloaf all over it.

"Go on, now," Uncle Bobby says as soon as Dad gets up from the table and walks away. "I'll make sure your dad gets home later tonight, or I'll pour him into one of the beds upstairs if it gets that late. You boys have fun."

"You want Sammy to sit in for you?" Dean asks, grinning widely.

"Hell no, boy," Uncle Bobby retorts, then musses up Sam's hair. "No offense meant, son."

Sam just blinks at the two of them in confusion. "What're you even talking about?"

"It's poker night, Sammy."

"Do I have to play?"

Dean looks confused. "You don't have to, no. Didn't you finish your homework already, though?"

"I have a book," Sam says. "Pete's dad brought it for him, and Pete said I could read it first."

"Okay, whatever you want, Sammy," Dean says as he eases into his leather jacket.

"It's Sam," he points out for the billionth time.

Mr. Vanzini says Sam can sit in his office and read, if he'd really rather do that than play a couple of hands with the guys, and Sam retreats from the clouds of cigar smoke and beer fumes gratefully. A bag of those chips would have been nice, though.

He sits in the big chair behind the desk and opens Pete's book. There's an inscription on the inside cover, just the date and "Love, Dad," but it's enough to set Sam's teeth on edge. He flips the pages grimly, covering the blue ink, and settles down to read.

The book is kind of weird, and it's a little hard to keep track of all the names and what exactly the hobbits are talking about half the time, and he finally gives up. He wants to go home, get into bed, and forget this day ever existed. Dean can drive him and then come right back if he wants; it'll be just like sitting out one hand.

Sam cracks the office door open. Now he can hear the bright buzz of conversation, punctuated by laughs and whistles. Mr. Vanzini, who looks like a Santa Claus hired by a really sketchy department store, is sitting back in his chair and talking around the cigar clenched in his teeth. "Man, I tell you, there's nothing like a garage bunny. The girls I used to pull, ah, I could tell you stories about them."

"Yeah, but we've heard 'em all!" the red-faced guy sitting next to him shouts. "It's the new kid who should be spilling. C'mon, man, I'm dying here - oh, and start with that Delia chick who came in the other day!" he pleads, clapping a beefy hand on Dean's shoulder.

"Me kiss and tell?" Dean grins. "Never gonna happen, Chuck." Dean puts his cards down face-up and fans them out in one smooth movement. "Pot's mine, anyway. You fellas oughtta be entertaining me."

"Dean," Sam says, leaning one shoulder against the doorjamb and holding his backpack in a loose fist. "I don't feel so good."

"I'm out," Dean says, standing up and doing a swift tally of his chips. "We'll settle up next time. See you tomorrow, Eddie Van Halen."

There's a lot of grumbling coming from the table, especially from Mr. Vanzini, who looks entirely unamused by Dean's nickname for him, but it's not threatening. At least Dean doesn't seem to think it is, since he's focused entirely on Sam. "Come on, princess," Dean murmurs into his hair, draping a smoky-smelling arm around his shoulders. "Let's get you home."

A pop quiz first thing Monday morning sucks. At least it's pretty easy, and he can write his answers without struggling to remember the lines from the play.

He does manage to wait for Pete by the door, which means Jaime has to brush past him. She smells really good, like always. Today she smells like a creamsicle, oranges and ice cream, and his mouth starts to water.

Today. He's going to line up next to her in gym and start a conversation. He just can't wait any longer.

Coach Snyder doesn't get them into a line to pair them off. He just jumps right into the instructions. "Alright, folks, today we're starting the tango. This is the basic step. Pay attention, because this one's complicated."

Sam can't figure out where his feet are supposed to go, and watching Snyder doesn't seem to help, not when he's really paying attention to Jaime's slim figure, three people down the line.

"I honestly have no idea what I'm doing right now," Pete mutters, stumbling a little over his untied shoelaces.

"Me neither," Sam says out of the side of his mouth.

Snyder blasts his whistle and looks down at his attendance sheet. "Okay, I want Fisher and Mills over here. Winchester and Barnes here." Sam looks around for Sarah Barnes, and together they head for the far corner of the gym where Snyder had been pointing. It looks like Snyder's trying to give all of them plenty of room for this dance, like they're suddenly going to start tearing up the floor with their awesome moves.

"And Crawford and Zipes over here," Snyder finishes. "Get in your dance positions," he calls, then heads over to the boombox.

From behind him, Sam can hear the scuffle of sneakers on the parquet floor, then a loud smack that he knows without even looking is the sound of a punch landing and echoing. He turns, and Pete's got a hand up over his face.

Sam doesn't even think about it; before he's aware of what he's decided, he's already across the gym, fists clenched and ready to rain down on Zipes. Zipes has no idea what he's in for, still too busy shoving Pete and growling that he's not a fag and doesn't hold hands with guys.

Snyder comes up behind him and grabs Sam's fist before he can let loose with it. Snyder's other hand hauls Zipes up by the collar and shakes him a little. Zipes manages to kick Sam in the gut as he struggles, knocking Sam to the ground.

"Winchester," Snyder says, his voice calm, "you and Crawford head over to the nurse's office. Barnes, you're running the class; I'm taking Zipes here to have a chat with Principal Bergen." He looks down at Sam, who flushes and scrambles to his feet. "Go on, now."

As the heavy double doors to the gym bang shut behind them, Sam asks, "What just happened in there?"

Pete shrugs and swipes at the blood flowing from his nose with the back of his hand. "He didn't like having me for a dance partner."

"But we've all danced with other guys before; there aren't enough girls in the class."

"Derek and I were never friends," Pete says flatly. "This is different."

"He's an idiot anyway," Sam says truthfully as they turn the corner. "And maybe he'll be suspended."

"That would be pretty awesome," Pete agrees, smearing the blood around some more. He looks down at his shirt, at the red spatters on it. "This is just gross."

Nurse Downey's door opens, and Pete's face is clean of blood, though it's still all over his shirt. There's a faint bruise darkening his left cheek. Sam raises his eyebrows and Pete nods. Nurse Downey says, "Sam? This way, please?" and Sam and Pete bump shoulders as they pass.

"Could you tell me what happened, please?" Nurse Downey asks.

"Uh, this guy, Derek Zipes, is an idiot. I don't know how that happened." He's surprised when she starts laughing, because he wasn't trying to be funny.

Suddenly, it occurs to him that he could talk her into coming over to the house for Dean, and that would be enough to win Dad's deal.

"Let's try this again," she says. She's even prettier when she smiles. "What happened to you? Why were you sent here?"

"Oh, um, cause he kicked me in the stomach."

"Goodness!" She looks alarmed now, her eyes all big. "And you didn't think to mention that before?"

"I'm okay, really." She looks like she's totally not buying it, so he tries again. "Not even a mark on me, I swear."

"Would you mind lifting up your shirt for me, please?" she asks.

Yeah, that's just what he wants, is for her to see the little rolls of fat on his stomach. What he needs is a distraction. "Hey, Nurse Downey. You're dating my brother, aren't you?" He immediately wants to kick himself in the gut; clearly, he hasn't gotten any sneakier since he called Tina and got himself threatened in return.

She looks surprised, and then she figures it out. "You're Sam Winchester. Yes, I've seen your brother a couple of times."

"And you like him, right?" he prods.

"It's very hard not to like him," she says. "Your shirt, Sam."

"I was just thinking, you could come by the house sometime, you know, to meet Dean's family." She's his last hope. He had no idea Dean saw any of the girls he slept with more than once; he must really like her, and that makes this totally okay.

"Why would I need to do that?" she asks. "I've just met you. Your shirt, please."

In desperation, he heaves his shirt up until the hem touches his nose. She bends her head to look closely at his gut, and he looks down at her shiny black hair and points out, "But you haven't met our dad."

"I've got a dad of my own, who's all I can handle," she says, then pulls his shirt back down. "Okay, hop down. You're done. I'll write you a pass for your next class."

"Don't bother, I've got lunch now," he says. "Don't you want to come over?" It's his last-ditch effort.

"Getting what you want isn't always the best thing for you," she says, straightening up the office and then looking him in the eye. "I hope I don't have to see you in here again, Sam. Good luck out there."

He's totally out of ideas. He's used them all up, and anyway, he still hasn't gotten up the nerve to just talk to Jaime, so maybe he should just forget the whole thing. And if Nurse Downey isn't awesome enough for Dean to bring home, he can't imagine who would be.

So he should just do his homework and go to bed like this is any other school in any other town, not the one place where he could actually be with somebody. He pulls his Latin workbook out of his bag and starts on the vocabulary exercises; at least with this class, he doesn't even have to think to get the homework totally right.

Halfway through the diagram of an animal cell for Ms. Kupchik, his stomach growls. He checks the clock. Dean should have been home hours ago. He heads down the hall and knocks on Dad's door. No answer, but it's not like this is an emergency. Dad probably lost track of time, going through Uncle Bobby's books, and maybe Dean called him and said he was getting a beer with some of the guys, or more likely, another garage bunny was all over him and Dean was having the time of his life.

Sam finds a can of chicken noodle soup in the cupboard and gets back to work, slurping up noodles as he labels the nucleus and mitochondria. He saves the little cubes of chicken for last, chewing them like gum as he puts all of his work back in his bag.

He tries to read a little more of The Hobbit once he's in bed, but he can't pay any attention to the characters when Jaime keeps dancing through his mind, dancing just out of reach. He turns out the light and lies there in the dark.

Dean's footsteps come thunking down the hall, and the bedroom door opens and Dean flips on the light. Sam blinks and squints against it. "Dean? Are you okay?" Dad had better not have dragged Dean on some hunt without telling him about it.

"Yeah. Oh, sorry, the light." The light snaps back off, but that glimpse of Dean looking all lit up is enough for Sam.

"Where have you been?" he demands. "What were you hunting?"

"I wasn't on a hunt," Dean protests, lying on his bed still fully clothed. Sam can hear twin thumps as his boots hit the ground. "I've been at work. Oh, man, Sam, you should see her -"

So he was right before about the garage bunny. "I don't want to hear it, Dean. I want to go to sleep."

"She's the one, Sammy," Dean says, still sounding dazed.

That's it. He's had just about enough of this. Sam turns the light back on, but Dean doesn't even shy away; Sam gets up in his face, but can't smell perfume or booze on Dean's skin or hair, and Dean's eyes look a little glassy but mostly okay.

"Where's Dad?"

Dean's eyes grow huge. "Oh, shit. Hopefully sleeping in Bobby's guest room."

"You're going to get in so much trouble."

"Not after Dad meets her," Dean says, his voice going all dreamy again. "You're both gonna love her."

Sam shakes his head and gets back into bed, turning off the light as he goes. Once he's got the sheets and blankets arranged properly, he finds himself grinning in the dark. He has Dad beat, and Dad doesn't even know it yet.

Sam's tired of waiting for Dean to just bring this girl home already. Dean's been coming home really, really late for a week, and there are dark circles under his eyes, but he still doesn't smell like smoke or alcohol or even perfume. "She's not ready to meet all of you yet," is all Dean will say, then smile his big dumb stars-in-his-eyes smile, when Sam asks. "She needs a little time, okay? Don't push."

Sam's starting to wonder if Dean found some freaky religious girlfriend who won't let him past first base, because there aren't any marks on Dean's neck and back anymore.

It's too weird to picture Dean with someone shy. Dean hasn't even told him her name or how he met her or anything; it's like Dean's protecting her or something. The whole world is topsy-turvy, as far as Sam's concerned. He wakes up early and slips a little holy water in Dean's morning coffee, but Dean just gulps it down and dashes off to work.

Dad's only adding to the weirdness levels. He's actually around more now that Dean's out at all hours, and one day he lifts his head from his journal, which Sam had figured would need to be surgically detached from his fingers, and offers, "Want to play a game of chess?"

Sam's got a test in World History he should be studying for, but he's never been able to turn down a chess match with Dad; this is their thing, just like Dad and Dean talk about cars. And hunting. And, okay, fine, pretty much everything else in the world.

He runs to his bedroom and pulls the little travel set out from under his bed. All the pieces are already in their proper slots, ready to get started. Dad always plays white and gets the opening move.

Forty-five minutes later, Sam, with his chin on the table and his body in a swayback sprawl, smiles victoriously up at Dad. Dad sighs gustily. "Best two out of three?" Dad says, and Sam nods eagerly.

The second match goes a little more slowly, now that they're remembering each other's favorite strategies, and at first Sam thinks Dad's conversation is merely a diversionary tactic meant to throw his concentration out the window.

"Bobby mentioned a hunt," Dad says, and Sam's heart sinks, because he'd hoped that this year would be time away from all of that. Dad, though, just won't let that happen. "I was thinking of heading out to take care of it this weekend."

Why wait? Sam thinks bitterly. Not like you're going to work Monday through Friday. He plucks his bishop from its space and moves it diagonally across the board, capturing one of Dad's pawns.

"I was thinking you could join me," Dad says, looking at the board with a faint frown.

"Me?" Sam hadn't considered that. "Not Dean?"

"Dean'll probably be working." Dad smiles. "'Sides, if the two of us left you alone, most likely you'd throw some wild party and get hauled off to the county jail."

Sam rolls his eyes. "Yeah, that's me," he says sarcastically, but Dad's grin is too infrequent a weapon to resist for very long, and he can't keep himself from smiling back or playing along. "There'd be strippers and music and drugs."

Dad nods solemnly. "That's what I figured. So. Bobby says there's something going on in a place called Snake Creek."

"Snake Creek Recreation Area? Right near Lake Francis Case?"

Dad looks up sharp at that. "How did you know?"

"Pete's dad has a fishing cabin there, so I've heard him talk about it."

"Pete ever mention anything weird?"

"No. I would have told you if he did, Dad."

"Yeah, I know," Dad says, surprising him. Dad pulls a folded sheet of paper from his back pocket. "This is all Bobby had to go on. You're going to handle the research on this one. I'll pick you up after school on Friday and we'll head out from there."

Sam doesn't mention how much he hates camping. He just sits back and waits for Dad to make his next move and get one step closer to total annihilation.

According to Dad's transcription of Bobby's recollections, college-aged men had a tendency to disappear from the area right around Lake Francis Case; some of them had been camping solo, and were only reported missing days later, but some were with groups who'd reported the disappearances within hours.

Sam gets as much of his homework done during Latin as he can. It's not like Mr. Lott is saying anything he doesn't know already, and this way he can keep his after school hours free for research. He ends up finding a lot of books on the area because it's the only local tourist attraction, and it stands to reason that the school and town libraries would be treasure troves to anyone looking for information about Snake Creek.

"What are you doing?" Pete asks when Sam comes back to their table with another armful of books.

"My dad and I are taking a trip over the weekend, and he warned me there'd be a quiz," he says, depositing the books on the table and then making the crazy sign by spinning his index finger near his temple.

"That's awesome," Pete says, and the lack of sarcasm in his voice throws Sam until he realizes Pete must have seen how jealous he was of the fishing expedition.

"Yeah," he agrees simply, and gets back to work. After a minute, Pete takes a book from the stack nearest him and settles in to read too.

Of course Dad wouldn't take Dean on this trip, not if this thing they're hunting likes to snatch college-aged guys, but given how easy things have been between him and Dad the whole drive up, Sam thinks that maybe Dad really did want him to come, for the two of them to work this hunt together.

The car's loaded up with salt and gasoline, guns and knives. Dad's got the radio off and a look fixed on Sam. "Talk to me, Sam. What do you think we're dealing with here?"

"I'm not sure yet. I think we should inspect the area before deciding anything."

"This doesn't have to be something supernatural," Dad warns, as if Sam's going to be seriously disappointed if it's not. "Boys that age can be a little reckless, and maybe a couple of them got lost or hurt."

"I couldn't find anything on any of those guys being found, though," Sam points out, and Dad nods approvingly.

"Alright, what did you find, then?" Dad asks, and listens while Sam goes through his notes, carefully cross-referenced and annotated.

They've got their flashlights out, ready for the moment the sun sinks low enough to be useless to them. They walk the path, clearly marked as part of the Lewis and Clark Trail, but nothing jumps out at them. They can't find any natural traps, any signs of struggle, or even a dip in the temperature.


"Nothing, Dad." Sam's flashlight beam zeroes in on an object just to the right of the path. "Hey, Dad? Have you been seeing a lot of animal bones?"

"Yeah. This area is known for deer and eagles especially."

"Right." Sam starts to move ahead, but Dad grabs his arm and pulls him back.

"Tell me what's on your mind, Sammy."

"I think the deer skulls I'm seeing . . . don't really look like deer. They're kind of deformed."

"And?" Dad shines his flashlight over to where Sam was looking last.

"And while it's possible that the local deer population has some kind of mutation, it seems weird that I couldn't find anything about it when I was doing all of this reading. Especially when a lot of the information in the brochures is about the local wildlife."

"Strange, but not impossible," Dad says. "Let's go back down to the camping grounds and go through your research again. We'll figure this out."

"Run that by me one more time," Dad says in the morning, squinting at him over a tin cup of coffee.

"Okay, so, a guy named George Shannon, nineteen years old, a member of the Lewis and Clark party, got separated from the rest of the group when a couple of the horses bolted, and he was sent to find them. He found the horses, but then couldn't find the rest of the group for twelve days. When he finally caught up with them, he was bearing three deer skins."

Dad takes a big bite of his hard roll. "And you think Shannon's the thing we're dealing with?"

"No," Sam says, sitting up but staying cocooned in his sleeping bag. If his theory is right, then this is one seriously cool hunt. "I think one of the deer he killed wasn't a deer at all. It was a shapeshifter who got caught wearing the wrong skin at the wrong time, but Shannon had no idea he'd killed a man. And that's the spirit we're dealing with."

Dad puts down his coffee cup. "That's pretty damned clever, Sammy," he says, exactly the way he says, "That's a fine shot, Dean," and Sam ducks his head down so Dad can't see his cheeks getting pink.

Dad stands and stretches. "Of course, we still need to test your theory out, so up and at 'em, boy."

Sam groans and worms his way reluctantly out of his nice warm sleeping bag.

"I gotta say, Sammy, you got a real talent for this kind of thing," Dad says, grinning in the passenger seat. "That was real smart, the way you put this case together."

"Thanks, Dad," Sam says, searching for a victory march on the radio. He settles on the Rolling Stones for lack of anything better, and Dad taps his fingers in time on his thigh.

"How's your other little project coming?" Dad asks, unable, or more likely unwilling, to keep the smirk out of his voice.

"Good. Really good," Sam says, beaming aggressively at Dad. Dad's face loses its amusement in an instant.

"And if I talk to Dean?"

"I haven't said a word to him about this. Swear on whatever you want."

"That's good." Dad clears his throat and folds his arms across his chest, looking out the window for the rest of the drive back home.

"Good job, dude," is all the congratulations Dean offers, but he makes Sam's favorite dinner that night - spaghetti with meatballs and peppers - and insists on hearing every detail of how Sam pieced it all together. In the morning, there's a stack of pancakes kept warm under a plate waiting for him.

It's raining out, so everyone's crowded into the gym. The banners from the pep rally are still up. At this distance, Sam can read the date of the homecoming dance, a week away.

He's got nothing to lose. He catches sight of Jaime coming in and then pulling her hair out of its ponytail to try to shake it dry. Each step he takes toward her echoes the thunderous beats of his heart. "Hi," he says when he's at her side.

She looks up through a veil of pale red hair. "Hi," she says, sounding surprised.

"I was wondering if you wanted to go to Homecoming. With me," he clarifies, just so she doesn't think he's taking a poll or something.

"Oh!" She flips her hair back and looks at him like she's never really seen him before. "Can I, um, can I let you know later?"

As if the knots his stomach is tying itself into will allow him to survive more than a few minutes. "Yeah, sure."

"Thanks, Sam," she says, and he turns and walks away before he can ruin the moment.

When he walks into English, he sees her and Emma, whispering and gesturing madly; he can't tell if they're arguing or agreeing with each other, but Emma looks right at him while Jaime's gaze never quite makes it all the way across the room.

He leaves a wake of whispers behind him everywhere he goes, and he wonders if Jaime's answer will factor in the opinion of every ninth-grade girl.

In home ec, while they make broth for their vegetable soup, Pete leans in and says softly, "So you finally did it?"

"Yeah," he says, stirring idly while Pete chops vegetables into precise rectangles.

Pete's eyes don't lift from the cutting board. "That's cool. And it's not even like you're having her over, so your dad can't say anything about this, right?"

Oh, man, how is he going to get this past Dad? "Right," he says weakly, and Pete frowns at him and puts the knife down.

Sam starts to babble. "You have to ask someone too, okay? I mean, if she says yes?"

Pete rolls his eyes. "You want a chaperone on your date? I don't think so."

"Not a chaperone. More of a double date, just so no one's nervous, that's all."

"Yeah, okay," Pete says. "Just let me know when she says yes."

"You're totally going to jinx this for me, shut up."

"You're such a dweeb, Sam," Pete says, smiling as he stirs the vegetables into the broth.

"Am not."

"Are too."

"Boys," Ms. Bonling says, materializing behind them, "are you quite done with this little argument and might you be able to concentrate on the project at hand?"

"Yes," they both mumble, and Sam starts washing up the cutting board and knife while Pete dumps the vegetable ends in the trash.

That was a good point Pete made, about dances not being covered under the deal, but Sam still makes sure that Dean's around and alert when he brings the subject up. "So," he starts while they're all sitting around the kitchen table, a bucket of fried chicken equidistant from all three of them. "The homecoming dance is this Saturday, and I asked Jaime to go, and she said yes."

"Dude, way to go," Dean says when he's finished licking the grease from his fingers.

Dad just sits and waits to see how Sam will get out of this one. "And if one of you would give me a ride, we could pick her up, and she wouldn't even have to come over." He's proud of himself for making it sound like this is an added bonus he's just thought of, instead of an idea he's been wrestling with for two days and nights.

Dad nods slowly. "I should be able to manage that. Saturday night, what, seven o'clock?"

"Eight. And maybe we could pick up Pete and his date too?"

"It'll be a tight fit, but I guess we could squeeze you all in. Not like you'll mind being on top of each other."

Sam heaves a sigh of relief. Of course that's when Dad has to go all evil again. "Dean, did you ever find that camera we bought back in Skokie? I think we might need it again on Saturday."

Dean smiles angelically. "Ed's got a video camera I'm sure he'd let me borrow," he says.

"The number of hours you're putting in, he better have a kidney he'd let you borrow," Dad says, and Sam excuses himself before Dad can think of anything else to torture him with.

Sam picks up the phone and flops back down on the couch. "Hello?"

"Sammy, hey. Are you, uh, going anywhere tonight?"

"It's ten o'clock on a Friday night in Rapture, South Dakota, Dean. Where could I possibly go?"

"Is Dad there?"

"Are you in trouble?" Dean sounds really shifty.

"Is Dad there?" Dean repeats.

"Yeah, you want me to get him?"

"No, I'm just bringing her home to meet you guys. I wanted to make sure you both were there."

Sam's jaw drops, and the sound of the dial tone is loud in his ears. "Dad!" he shouts.

Something in his tone must have told Dad this was serious, no-kidding-around stuff, because he comes out of his bedroom looking wary.

Sam takes a deep breath. "Dean's bringing his weirdo girlfriend over."

"And what? You want to lay salt down?" Dad asks. "For a minute there I thought something had happened to him."

"Oh. Sorry."

Dad shakes his head. "You know this one's name? Seems like you've been expecting him to bring her by."

"No. I don't know anything about her, except that he met her at work and he's crazy about her."

Dad laughs sadly. "Crazy, huh? I wasn't sure I'd ever see the day."

"Yeah," Sam agrees fervently.

Dad's eyeing him now. "I guess this means you get your way. You can have Jaime over if you want to. But not more than once a week, and you are always to stay here, in the living room, got me?"

"Uh-huh," Sam nods.

There's a honk coming from the driveway, and Dad says, "Guess his girlfriend's got wheels. Come on, Sammy, time to meet her."

They open the front door, and Dean's standing there with the biggest grin Sam's ever seen on his face. Next to him is -

Dad whistles. "A '67 Impala." Dean's eyes are tracking Dad's progress around the car. "You did this yourself, Dean?" Dean nods like he can't trust his voice if he tries to speak. "Hell of a job you did," Dad says.

"Where's your girlfriend?" Sam asks, feeling like something's going right over his head, but that's normal when Dad and Dean talk about cars.

They both start laughing. "You'll understand when you're older," Dad says, claps Dean on the back, and leads him inside. Dean trails his fingers against the side of the car as he goes, and Sam brings up the rear.

Dean's "girl" doesn't have all that much in the way of interior lights, but Sam can make out something really familiar about Pete's date when she and Pete get into the back seat. "Hi, I'm Lori," she says, sticking her hand over the back of the front seat to shake his.

"I'm Sam, and this is my brother Dean."

"Hey," Dean says. "Yo, Pete."

"What a cool car," Lori says, and Dean elbows him as if to say that he approves of Pete's date-wrangling abilities, and Sam better not have let him down in this department.

Sam's palms start to sweat when they make the turn onto Jaime's street. "Number sixteen, right?" Dean asks. Sam gulps and nods. Jaime's house is white with red shutters and a red front door, and when Sam gets out, the white stone path to the front door looks terribly short.

He rings the doorbell. A woman with hair that's blonder than Jaime's answers the door. "Hello, Mrs. Collins, I'm Sam. I'm here to pick up Jaime. For the dance."

"Aren't you just precious?" she asks, smiling at him. He hopes that was a rhetorical question. "Won't you come in?" That one's definitely not, so he does what she suggests and follows her into a living room with a cream-colored carpet and pale blue walls.

"Jaime's upstairs. I'll just run and fetch her."

"Okay," he says, but she's already halfway up the stairs and couldn't possibly have heard him.

Jaime comes down the steps then, in a soft-looking dress that matches her eyes and a fuzzy white cardigan on her shoulders. "You look great," he says as his palms go completely wet.

"Thanks," she says, grabbing her purse from where it's looped around the banister. "Bye, Mom," she calls, hustling him out the front door. "She was looking for the camera before," she explains, leaning close to whisper into his ear.

She smells like perfume, like flowers on a bright summer day. He leads her to Dean's big black car and grins and waggles his eyebrows at Pete, who's looking out through the rear window.

The ceiling of the gym isn't even visible through all of the streamers, and Sam guesses it looks pretty festive. Too bad they couldn't do anything about the smell of old sweat that still lingers in the air.

"So, this is your gym," Lori says over the music, looking around curiously, then bumping Pete with her shoulder. "Where you learned to dance and also get beat up by idiots."

Pete just says, "Yeah, this is where the magic happens," like it's no big deal that he's told this girl all about that. It seems weird to Sam that Lori knows all of this stuff when he's never even heard of her before.

"So, Jaime, I really like your earrings," Lori says next. "They're so pretty."

"Oh, thanks! You know, I got my ears pierced just before school started, because my sisters got theirs done when they were fourteen, and so my mom agreed that it was only fair that I get mine done at the same age, and I was really excited, but I can't believe none of them told me how much it was going to hurt, and oh my god, I was sitting in the chair, and the girl says, 'Hold still,' and then it was like my stomach just disintegrated inside me and I wanted to just leave, but then I'd only have one ear done, and I figured that if my sisters could take it, I could too, you know?" She says all of this in one breath, and Sam's a little alarmed at both her lung capacity and her pain threshold. "I really liked these, and my mom said I could get them because they matched my dress so perfectly."

Sam looks again. The earrings are silver, and her dress is blue. He shoots a confused glance Pete's way, but Pete looks just as bewildered. If Sam's supposed to know this kind of stuff, he's so, so screwed. How come Dean never let him in on any of this?

The Macarena ends, and it fades into "Open Arms." Sam groans, hears it echoed by Pete, and is just about to launch into a rant against Journey and all hair bands when Jaime turns to him. "Want to dance?" she asks, holding out her hand.

"Yes," Sam says firmly. He can waltz in his sleep now, doesn't even need to count the beats or pretend he's listening to Morse Code, and this is really happening. Once again, Jaime's charm bracelet is resting against his chest. Since Lori's remark about the earrings went so well, he figures he can't go wrong with the rest of her jewelry. "I like your bracelet," he says.

She's practically floating in his arms, she's so light, and this close, her smile nearly knocks him out. "Thanks! I got it when I was little, and every year, I get a new charm for Christmas." That sounds like a nice tradition. "I got this horse because I wanted a pony that year. And I got this five-pointed star because I'm the fifth person in the family. And I got this boat because I read Anne of Green Gables that summer and tried to do the boat thing with Emma. And I got the ballet shoe last year. That one's my favorite."

He wonders briefly if there's going to be a quiz later. No, maybe he's being unfair because he can't think of anything like that that his family does that he can tell her about. "That's cool," he says, and the song ends.

"So, what about you, Sam? What do you like to do?"

"Um," he says, heading back over to Pete, who's laughing at something Lori said. "I - I like to read and play chess and darts and stuff like that."

"Oh," Jaime says. "I've never played chess. Is it hard?"

"Not if you know the rules," he says. "Do you want some punch?"

"Okay," she says, smiling, and they head over to the refreshments table; while they go, he's explaining the different pieces and how they're allowed to move. She's just saying "uh-huh" over and over, and she sounds as bored as he felt when she was going on and on about her dumb charms.

Man, this is not at all how he pictured his night of triumph going. Why can't he think of something interesting to say?

He drains his cup and stalks back to where Pete and Lori are still standing and having a great old time. He needs to consult with Pete on how to make this night work. Just before he and Jaime reach safety, some idiot who's way too into Hootie and the Blowfish bumps into them, and Jaime's cup of punch gets knocked out of her hand. Her shoes have a new pink tint to them. "No," Jaime wails. "I just bought these."

Lori takes charge. "Don't worry; we can wash them off in the ladies' room. Come on." In that moment, when Lori reaches out to hold Jaime's hand and guide her away, Sam notices how much Lori looks like Pete's mom.

"Dude," he says, "is she your cousin?"

"Yeah," Pete says. "She lives three towns over."

"You totally cheated! You were supposed to ask some girl!"

"Lori is a girl, Sam," Pete points out, though the look on his face says he knows what Sam's getting at. "Anyway, how's it going? You guys looked good dancing together."

"Really?" Sam brightens a bit, then deflates when he remembers the mess he's made of the evening so far. "No, you were right. I don't know anything about her. She thinks I'm boring, and I have no idea what she's talking about when it comes to that charm bracelet of hers."

"So, what? You want to leave?"

He sort of does. Not that he'd ditch her or anything, but it would be nice to get out of these stupid chinos and button-down shirt and just hang out.

"You should give her another chance, Sam," Pete says. "She's probably as nervous as you are."

"Yeah, I guess."

"You could talk about Romeo and Juliet or something."

"Shut up." Sam laughs and punches Pete in the shoulder.

"Okay, okay. So, when did Dean get that car?" Pete asks, and Sam launches into the story of how he won Dad's deal.

He and Pete are arguing about kung-fu movies when Jaime and Lori return, and they all pile into Dean's car. This time it's him and Jaime in the back seat, and his hands are sweating again, even though she's left enough room between them that he doesn't have to touch her. She's still talking to Lori about something - sounds like it's Anne of Green Gables after all. Pete's totally ignoring Lori and the whole conversation to say something that's making Dean smile so wide that Sam can see it in the rearview mirror like a flash of light. Sam feels like he's on a different planet than them, nervous and tense and miserable. He takes a deep breath, sits up straight, and faces Jaime, but he has no idea who Matthew and Marilla are, and there's no point butting in if he can't say something awesome to impress her, once and for all. Slouching back down, he wishes things with Jaime could just be as easy as they are with Pete.


Maybe that's the answer. Maybe the person he brings home shouldn't be someone he likes from afar but doesn't know anything real about. Maybe it should be someone he can talk to all day, every day, about whatever pops into his head. Maybe it should be someone who thinks Dean is awesome despite his dumb jokes, someone who even likes Dad too.

Someone who thinks he's awesome.

It hits him like a dodgeball to the head, and Pete's eyes are smiling at him in the rearview mirror.

He kind of can't wait for school on Monday.