Disclaimer: Kripke keeps my soul in his sock drawer. I own nothing.
A/N: This is a companion piece to 'While You Were Sleeping' (you don't need to read that first). Also, tomorrow I'm having two dozen Umpa Lumpas carry the golden statues of TammiTam and Adara-chan67 to my house where they will be erected in my front garden as a lasting tribute to their wonderful magical beta-ness.
A/N2: Kokoda2007, this one-shot is especially for you. I hope you don't mind too much that I've wandered away from the road I had intended to take because once upon a time this was a simple tale about Sam and some poison ivy.
A Lesson For Beginners
It's nightmare-dark in the forest.
It's been raining and the air is heavy with the cloying sickly-sweet smells of the fall. There are pine cones littering the ground, scattered amongst the dead decaying leaves and it's growing steadily cooler the deeper they hike into the scrambled mess of trees and tangle thick foliage.
After four hours of steady walking they stop in a clearing, to take a break. Not long, just long enough to get their breath back, Dad says. Dean slumps down on the ground, using his rucksack as a chair; he leans with his back against the large trunk of an old Engelmann Spruce. His head hangs down, eyes focused on his hand in the waning dusk light, watching his quick fingers which are moving a coin so that it ripples back and forth across his knuckles. He's been practicing on and off for weeks; Sam said that it makes him look like a Las Vegas magician and Dean simply grinned and said, "I know, cool, right?"
It's quiet save for Dad's steady breathing and Sam can hear the muffled tinny sounds of something thrash rock heavy trickling out from Dean's walkman earphones. Sam has a book tucked deep in the bottom of his rucksack. He badly wants to retrieve it and read for awhile but he knows his dad won't be happy if he finds out that Sammy's brought his English homework along. So Sam pulls out a canteen and swallows a few gulps of the tepid water instead.
Sam's calf muscles throb with pain. Dad likes to walk fast. Fast but on the alert. Striding forwards like the whole damn world's going to up and disappear if they don't move it along double-time.
Every so often, Dad's hand will shoot up, a warning signal, and they'll dive for cover, crouching in the thick mud, behind clumps of bushes. They hide like that in the shadows—holding their breath to avoid making small clouds of vapor with their warm exhales—until Dad gives the all-clear and they can start walking again.
There's dried mud on Sam's clothes and patches of it clinging to his face. A thick smear of dark brown runs right across his forehead, where he's swiped at his brow with the back of his hand. Itchy and uncomfortable, it looks like a second skin ready for shedding.
Sam wonders what time it is; the way his stomach aches with hunger pains makes him think it must be past suppertime. Raw berries and a granola bar don't make a satisfying lunch for a twelve-year-old who's growing like a weed.
It's creepy enough in the forest—in the rapidly increasing darkness—that Sam would be afraid if he wasn't already somewhat used to this sort of thing and if it weren't for the fact that Dean and Dad are with him. In any case this joyless trampling through the woods isn't even a hunt; this is Dad's idea of training. Night hikes are an important part of training, or at least, Dad thinks so.
Sam still can't appreciate the significance of lugging around a rifle. It's awkward to carry, like a lead weight in his hands. It's a fine piece but Sam couldn't care less; it's heavy. But Dad won't be satisfied until the rifle has worn grooves into Sam's palms from where the barrel sits, until his fingers are calloused from wrapping around the trigger guard and the gun is no longer merely a weapon but an extension of Sam's arm.
The rifle Sam is carrying is one of Dad's favourites, the walnut stock worn smooth and polished from where it fits pressed against the shoulder. He's not certain whether or not Dad will expect him to use it tonight. They're not on a hunt, so there's nothing to shoot at except a possessed raccoon, perhaps? There are bobcats and bears out here, sure, but sightings are rare and Sam really doesn't want to push his luck trying to hit a ravenous Yogi who's eager to fatten up in time for hibernation.
"Sam." Sam jerks his head up, realizing he's been gawping at the rifle for a good five minutes, as though he'd never seen one before.
"Sir?" Sam fires back without thinking. Dad likes it when Sam makes the effort to treat training and hunting as serious business.
"I want you to go on up ahead, see if you can scout out the best route. We're only around three miles from the cabin."
Sam shudders involuntarily at the order. Scouting a route. On his own. In the dark. Awesome. "Yes, Sir."
"Dad, I can..." Dean has taken one of his earphones out and he's holding it dangling from between his fingers.
"Dean, we already talked about this." John's eyes darken as he exchanges a look with Dean. "Sam needs to learn and his navigation skills need improving." He turns back to face his youngest. "And anyway when Dean was only ten he could scout better than any hunter I'd ever met."
Something flashes across Dean's face, too quick for Sam to identify but Dean rushes to give him a weak smile. He knows exactly how Sam feels about Dad comparing them all the time.
Sam frowns at his dad's choice of words—he knows his navigation skills aren't that bad; in fact, they're pretty damn good. He wonders how many other kids his age can use a compass as well as he can. And even without a compass he's read enough to be familiar with other methods of navigating, like the fact that moss grows more profusely on the southern side of tree trunks in the Northern hemisphere. But Sam knows better than to try arguing his case with his dad.
"I've got it. I can do it," Sam mutters, clambering to his feet and reaching down to lift his rucksack over his shoulder.
Dad nods approvingly and Dean...Dean looks troubled. For a split-second there's this intense look of unhappiness on his face. But whatever internal battle he's fighting, he must be winning because the next time Sam glances at his brother, Dean's wearing his lopsided grin again.
Dean saunters over, making an effort to appear casual but he still looks a touch tense. He sticks out a hand and ruffles Sam's hair, smirking all the while because Sam hates it when Dean messes up his bangs. "See you soon, Tonto."
Sam bats Dean's hand away and makes a show of huffing loudly, even though he does feel a little better now. With a half-hearted wave he starts walking, heading on alone with an industrial flashlight in one hand and the rifle in his other. Man, it would be just his luck to be jumped by Yogi right now. He'd probably drop the rifle and try to shoot the bear with his flashlight.
Sam's only been walking for around twenty minutes when he hears a noise that sounds exactly like gunfire coming from behind him.
Sam freezes and swings his flashlight around wildly, the wan yellow beam illuminating nothing but bare tree branches making strange shadows dance across the ground. Oh shit, oh shit. He turns and runs, heading back the way he came, ignoring the brambles that whip at his ankles and feeling increasingly sick when he hears more gunfire. Then, abruptly, the echoing bangs stop.
Sam can't think straight. All he can hear now is blood pounding in his ears, his feet pounding on the ground, a ceaseless pleasedon'tbedead pounding through his head.
When he reaches the place where he left his father and brother, Sam's worst nightmares are instantly realized.
They're gone and their packs and weapons are gone too.
Sam's eyes scan the ground and quickly find the coin, Dean's quarter, at the base of the tree where his brother had been sitting. There's no sign of any blood, but there are a handful of spent bullet casings that are still warm when Sam reaches down to pick one up and rolls it across his palm. Surely they couldn't have been dragged away by something. Not his dad. Not Dean. "Please come back," Sam whispers but he's struck by terrible certainty that there's nobody around to hear him. There is no way in hell Dean would leave him out here which, Sam realizes, can only go to prove that something bad has happened to his family.
Tears quickly start to spill down Sam's face, making lazy track marks through the caked on mud. He shouldn't be crying; babies cry. He's twelve, a hunter. He wipes the tears away angrily, angry with himself for being weak, but his eyes still sting and his nose is running. He looks around; his rifle has nothing to aim at—there's only empty darkness. He's cold but he feels colder on the inside.
It's then that a cackling laugh erupts from the trees around him. Mocking him, his misery. He sees a blur of movement to his right and fires. It's a blind shot, a wasted bullet, but whoever the fuck is out there—whoever has taken his family away from him—he's going to make them pay. He's going to kill them, shoot them full of holes. But even if he does that, he'll still be alone. He could blast away all the evil in the world but he'd still be alone.
Sam doesn't care what happens to himself anymore; he wants to take revenge with the rifle his dad pressed into his twelve-year-old hands even through it really ought to have been a soccer ball, or a baseball bat or a goddamn catcher's mitt. He wants his family back and if they really are dead then he wants to lie down on the cold ground and die too. Then they can be together again, his nearest and dearest, his fucked up little universe, his...Jesus Christ, stop it.
He's breathing too quickly, hyperventilating, he's deep in the forest and his father and brother are gone. Dead.
Another horrible cackle rumbles out from amongst the surrounding trees and Sam spins round. "Where are you? Huh? Show yourself." Sam screeches. Rage overtakes fear, pulsing through his skinny frame. He goes deathly quiet the second he sees her.
She moves silently out from between the trees and with inexplicable grace. She has a strikingly beautiful face but her beauty is offset with a pair of viciously cruel eyes which are focused right on Sam.
She truly does have the face of an angel—except for her eyes—but she has the body of a monster.
Sam's never seen anything like her before, doesn't think he's seen anything like her in his dad's journal either but maybe at Bobby's house...Sam recalls one particular battered green book, its many pages crammed with illustrations and if he's right about this, then there's a good chance he's face-to-face with a Harpy.
Sam can see a broad expanse of stubby golden feathers sticking out from where her wings are tucked in behind her back. She's tall—easily has at least a head's height over his dad—and stick thin, her long bony arms have clawed hands which are reaching out for him. Sam remembers his training, turns his body so that he is facing her head on, pulls his shoulders back, steadies his stance, makes himself as tall as he can manage. "Did you take my family?" Sam spits.
He takes a few steps closer and holds his rifle so that it's aiming at her instead of at the ground. He's not sure where this bravery has come from only that it's born of somewhere dark, the dark depths of his utter despair.
She doesn't speak—not a single word. Instead she moves towards him, lightening fast. Sam fires without the need for forethought, it's a swift gut reaction and he sees his bullet pierce her shoulder. Her whole body jolts as it absorbs the impact but it only slows her down a fraction. He lifts the rifle to fire again but it jams and his finger tugs uselessly at the trigger.
The jammed weapon gives her the opening she needs. In an instant she's on top of him, ripping away the rifle as she fastens her hands around his forearms. Her touch is white-hot agony where sharp claws needle at his tender skin.
She's impossibly strong, her vice-like grip unbreakable. He's being lifted and he feels himself being thrown. His body and then his skull slam hard onto the rock solid ground with a stomach-churning crack and a greedy blackness rushes forward to claim him.
As John watches Sam walk away through the trees—the light of his son's flashlight gradually dimming the further away he gets—he turns back to face Dean. "It's our job to make him ready. Evil doesn't care if you're an infant or a frail old man. I need to know that Sam can do it, can take a life when the situation demands it. You remember your first kill?"
"Yeah, I do." Dean nods slowly.
He remembers sweat beading on his brow and running in icy rivers down his back. Watching his hand holding the knife which slides like its moving through butter in and out of the Chupacabra. Once, twice, three times. Then the body at his feet, gushing blood making glistening black puddles on the ground. The aftershocks that ran through him like he was caught in the middle of an earthquake, puking up his breakfast at the side of the road...Dean remembers alright. "But you didn't trick me into making mine."
"This isn't how I want things to be, but Sam's not like us, Dean. Sam's different. He thinks too much, analyses every order I give. Sometimes, with the life we lead, it really is just a case of kill or be killed."
Dean rubs a hand through his short hair angrily. Yeah, Sam's different. He's gentle and caring and I want him to hold on to that for as long as possible. "I don't like lying to him. I don't like any of this."
"Listen to me. She only gets aggressive when someone wanders too close to her territory, but she's picked off four hikers in the last year alone. She's old; it'll be an easy kill for Sam. He's a good shot." John tugs briefly at Dean's sleeve. "Come on, we need to move." John lifts his rifle and fires a few shots, one after another, into the air.
They take cover a few hundred yards away, where they know they will have a good vantage point. John keeps a restraining hand on Dean's shoulder as they watch Sam run back into the clearing, John grimaces when he notices that Sam is crying.
John feels Dean's body twitch anxiously under his hand when the Harpy appears and he scarcely relaxes even when Sam's first shot hits its target. But then something seems to go wrong. Sam is panicking, his rifle has jammed. John can see Sam's arm straining with the effort of trying to make the weapon work.
The Harpy makes a grab for Sam, lifting him so that his feet are kicking at thin air and then she callously throws him. Sam falls hard and when he doesn't get up again it's Dean who bolts out of their hiding place first, firing his Glock as he screams out Sam's name.
Dean's eyes are glued to his brother and so his first two shots go wide. John sucks in a breath, crouches down on one knee and takes careful aim with his rifle. His bullet hits home right between the Harpy's cruel eyes. She sways drunkenly before she staggers and then drops, her body rolling to a stop only inches away from where Sam is laid crumpled, still and lifeless.
"Sammy? Please, Sammy?"
Sam's eyes shoot open, eyeballs rolling as he tries to focus. Dean's bloodless white face is peering earnestly down at him. Dean looks all out petrified but he's so unmistakably one hundred percent alive that Sam wants to giggle with relief, absurd as it may seem, considering his leg is on fire. "I'm burning?"
"No, Sammy. Your leg..." Dean's voice cracks and the words peter out as Dean sucks in a hitching breath.
Sam lifts his head, pressing his chin into his chest, and he can see his left leg is twisted, pearly white bone sticking out through a jagged tear in the denim just below his knee and blood, so much blood, his blood. Actually seeing the injury seems to make the pain increase tenfold. The burning sensation erupts into a raging fire and Sam smashes his head back onto the earth, trying to get away from the pain of the flames which are eating at him. "It—it hurts."
"I know, kiddo. Christ, I know." Dean looks scared, on the verge of tears, which is downright crazy because Dean does not cry.
"I thought—I though you were dead." Sam whimpers, reaching hands fisting at the front of Dean's t-shirt. There's a rapidly forming bruise spreading out from underneath his hairline, one side of his forehead looks like it's been daubed with finger-paints, a grisly mix of yellows and purples.
Dean does cry then, fat tears which drip from his nose and soak wet patches on Sam's thin jacket. "Shit, Sammy, I'm so sorry. We should never..."
Sam doesn't hear the rest, he finally passes out. It's a merciful relief. The flames can't reach him in the ink black darkness.
Sam's not fully awake but he's no longer asleep, either. He's lingering in some state of consciousness limbo, but it's all good because he's not in much pain and he's no longer burning anymore.
He can feel soft leather beneath his fingertips, not Dad's jacket but rather the cool smooth lines of the Impala's upholstery.
He can hear the steady rumble of the car's engine and beyond that, the sound of disembodied voices, filtering in through his awareness. Dad's voice and Dean's. He knows then that he was in danger and alone but right now, right at this moment, he's somewhere safe—Dean, Dad, Impala—his entire sense of home.
Their voices are raised, angry and that's not the way things normally go. Normally it's his voice and Dad's that get heated and raised. Not Dean's, not Dad's good soldier...but that's not fair, Dean came back for him and for all his blasé front, Dean loves him and Sam feels a sharp stab of guilt for thinking ill of his brother, however briefly.
Sam tries to focus on what they're saying but it's hard to concentrate when his head is spinning with a weird sensation which feels like he's riding on a rollercoaster. It's takes a lot of effort but he manages to pry his eyelids apart and from his horizontal position he can tell he's laid out on the back seat of the Impala.
Looking up, all he can see is Dean's chin and nicely enough, right up Dean's nose. He has his head cushioned on Dean's lap, that much he figures out for himself pretty quickly.
Dean looks furious, so much so that he hasn't even noticed Sam's eyes are open. "He could have been killed." Dean's usually resonant tone has a tremble to it too which Sam has never heard coming from his brother before.
"Dean, calm down, for God's sake, I would never have let things get that far."
"Get that far?! He's got an open fracture; he could have bled to death. I can't believe I let you talk me into this."
"Sam needed to learn how to shoot to kill." John mutters, soft but defensive, as though he's trying to convince himself, not his eldest son.
"But not like this Dad. You let him think we were dead. Can you imagine how that must have felt for him? Can you?! He's only twelve. Fuck, this is messed up."
"Dean!" John twists his head around ready to admonish his son's bad language but he freezes when he sees Sam's half-open eyes staring dully at him. "Sammy?"
Sam feels Dean's whole body go rigid. Dean's hand starts moving through his hair, not playful mussing this time but offering comfort, reassurance. A spike of pain shoots through Sam's leg; it isn't the unbearable fire of before but it's still bad enough that Sam pales and his mouth draws into a tight line. "Hey, hey, take it easy," Dean mutters softly, "You'll be at the hospital soon and then you can get some of the good stuff. This will take the edge off for now."
Sam feels Dean's hands take hold of his arm and there's a sharp sting before warmth floods through his veins and he sinks back into welcomed unconsciousness.
As Sam's heavy head lolls back to rest against Dean's chest, John forces himself to focus on the road ahead and yet although he's trying to concentrate on driving, his mind is working overtime. Sam heard what they had been saying; his son knows the 'training' was a set-up hunt for him to make his first kill out in the field.
John's grip tightens on the steering wheel because quite honestly, he doesn't know if his son will want to see him when he wakes up.
The next few hours are a blank for Sam. He doesn't remember the rest of the journey to the hospital, or being admitted for surgery. He doesn't see the way his father and brother's relationship crumbles into stony silence as they sit side by side in the waiting room.
Dean fidgets—adrenaline still pumping—with one knee bouncing he tries to busy himself by scraping out the dried blood from underneath his fingernails with a miniature pocket knife.
Meanwhile John clutches at Sam's rucksack. John doesn't even know why he brought it in from the car. Thinking Sam might need it perhaps; the battered canteen or the box of bullets stored inside. John grunts and doubts that was the real reason. He strokes a hand across the coarse material, fingers rubbing at the faded blue canvas, knowing that he brought it so he could hold it, feel closer to his son somehow. It hurts to think that he's let himself become so disconnected from his youngest son in the first place.
He unzips the bag and, ignoring Dean's critical gaze, rummages inside. There's a book shoved in deep at the bottom. John pulls it out and stares at the tattered dog-eared cover. 'The Last of the Mohicans,' a school book, which Sam must have hidden there when he had been specifically instructed only to bring essential gear.
John flips through the book, the margins filled with the blue ink of Sam's hand-written notes. Sam's a mystery to him. So full of passion, so intensely strong-minded, so exactly like Mary that John can barely bring himself to look at him sometimes. But none of that is Sam's fault so when is he going to stop punishing the kid for it?
Sam's doctor is friendly and chatty but her torrent of words take awhile to sink in. She gabbles animatedly saying how the surgery went well and although it was a nasty break she expects it to heal just fine. She smiles and adds that they have been lucky; there had been no dirt in the wound and no bone infection. Dean doesn't return her smile and wonders if Sam feels lucky, lying in a hospital bed, recovering from surgery.
Sam is in a shared room. There are four beds in total and Sam's is in the far corner, the pale yellow curtain pulled closed around it. The other beds are surrounded by bunches of bright flowers, cards and the odd helium balloon and John suddenly wishes he'd brought something for his son; a sports magazine, perhaps, or some candy, but he really doesn't have a clue what Sam even likes these days.
Dean doesn't wait for John's lead; he steps forward and pulls back the curtain, quickly easing himself into the chair closest to his brother. Sam's asleep, unsurprisingly. John stands at the foot of the bed, watching his sons, partly uncertain where he fits in the picture now and partly afraid that he might have given up his place a long time ago.
One of Sam's hands is folded underneath his cheek, a position he sometimes adopts when he's deeply asleep and one that serves to make him look all of his twelve years, young and fragile.
John can't stop replaying the moment in his head when Sam was hurt, the moment all sounds ceased, the forest faded away and all he could see was his son's grave right alongside Mary's. Suddenly the room is too small, the sight of his failings too much and so he does the only thing he can think to do: he turns tail and runs.
When John returns to the hospital, he's not certain how long he's been away; he's not even sure where he's been except that he drove the Impala until the fuel tank was running dangerously low.
The curtain is closed around Sam's bed again and John can hear low voices coming from behind it.
"Oh thank you, God."
"No need to be formal, 'Dean' will do just fine."
"Dean, you know, they have nurses here that can do that?"
"I can go fetch the battleaxe who's sitting at the nurse's station if you want. She's the one with hands like a lumberjack."
"No...You do it."
"It amazes me how you could find the only patch of poison ivy in the whole damn wood, Sammy."
"Huh. Sorry, I'll try to watch where I'm flung next time."
John sucks in a breath, he's uneasy although he knows Dean will have covered for him. That Dean will have told Sam that Dad has simply nipped out for a really long coffee break. He also knows Dean will have had the talk with Sam by now, one that he's overheard many times before in different variations over the years. This time it will probably have gone along the lines of "Dad did it to try and help you Sam, Dad wants you trained so you can defend yourself, Dad loves you."
And the simple truth is that John does love Sam, and Dean too. He isn't so blind that he can't see his sons are still children but they are in a war and he'll be damned if he's going to loose them like he lost Mary. He may train them hard, treat them like soldiers, his toy soldiers but if it saves their lives then it's got to be worth it.
John pulls back the curtain. Dean is busily dabbing at Sam's arms with a wad of cotton soaked in calamine lotion and they stop talking almost instantly to stare up at him. John shifts his weight from one foot to the other, feeling like he's wide open, laid bare, all his insides on display and ready to be examined by some old-style soothsayer.
The relief in Dean's eyes at seeing that his dad has come back is obvious, painfully so, to the point where it makes John's chest ache. "Hey, Dad," Sam says with a small soft smile on his face, but John can see something else flickering underneath, barely visible and yet still right there.
It won't be until many years later, with Sam far away at Stanford that John, sitting alone in the Impala waiting for Dean to pay for gas, will look back at his life wondering exactly when Dean assumed the role of being Sam's primary protector. He will sort through his stockpile of memories and pinpoint that moment in the hospital room, the expression on Sam's face, the moment he realized Sam's trust in him was gone.
Maybe it wasn't Sam who had things to learn. Maybe it had been him all along.
Author's end note: I hope anyone reading this who has read my stuff before will already know that I don't hate John. I'm actually very fond of the guy. I just think that he would have made mistakes raising his sons and this was my take on what one of those mistakes could have been.