Suck it up, John. You can do it. Don't think about the look on his face when you chew him out – that'll make you falter. Don't think about those eyes of his – Mary's eyes – you'll soften and fold like a cheap suit. Don't think about his faith in you, his devotion, his limitless trust. And for God's sake man, whatever you do, don't think about what you said to him the last time you spoke with him. Hard as rock, tough as nails. That's what you are.

"Dean," he said gruffly and without preamble when he heard his son's voice say 'hello' on the other end.

"Dad…" The change in the tone of Dean's voice from 'hello' to 'Dad' was staggering. Rage in the former doused to a timid, doubt-filled acknowledgement in the latter.

"You had better not be thinking of stepping one foot outside that door, son," John intoned. "I thought I made my instructions pretty clear regarding your grounding."

There was a long pause and John tried not to visualize what he knew must be going on in his eldest son's head right now. Dean would be furious and defeated all at once.

"Answer me when I speak to you son," John barked. You're an asshole, shit father, you know that, John?

"Nossir. I was just…" Dean sounded like he was struggling to keep his emotions in check. "I… wait a second. How in the hell did you know I was leaving?"

That was a tone he'd never heard his eldest use with him before.

"You watch yourself, Dean," John warned.

A loud sigh of irritation and then a brief pause.

"Sam called you." Dean's voice was flat.

"Yeah, he did," John replied. Soften up a bit, you jackass. Dean's a good kid – the best kid, in fact – just give him an inch. "Look Dean, I know you're pissed as hell, and you wanna go get some payback for what that fuckerhead did to your brother. But you can't."

"They kicked the crap out of him, Dad!" His voice was a plea. "If you could see him now, you'd be fighting me just to get the first swing in, I swear!"

"I know, kiddo," John soothed. "And I know you just wanna look out for your brother, like you always do."

"Damned straight!"

"But you ain't leaving that house, and you sure as hell are gonna stay away from those football players. Do I make myself clear?"

"But why?" John nearly broke at the bewildered tone of Dean's voice.

"Because it's too risky," John said. "You gettin' in a fight could bring the cops in, for starters. And you'll be guaranteed to be expelled."

Dean snorted a laugh through the phone.

"So? You think I care about that?"

"I care!" John said heatedly. "You will graduate high school, Dean. I've been pretty lenient with you when it comes to school because I know it's not your thing, and that you'd rather be hunting with me. But at the very least, I expect you to graduate on time."

"I don't need a freakin' diploma to be a hunter, Dad."

"No, you don't," John conceded. "But your mother would roll in her grave if you dropped out. And no son of John and Mary Winchester is going to wind up a high school drop-out."

There are special levels of Hell for dicks like you, John. Throwing Mary at him like that? Why not just carve his heart out with a plastic knife?

There was dead silence on the other end. John felt cold creeping up through his intestines, knowing he had really pummelled his son with those few words. There was no backpedalling out of it, either. He'd have to barrel ahead.

"So no fighting with the football players," John said gruffly, clearing his throat in an attempt to banish the constriction there that was beginning to choke him. "That's an order."

"Yessir." If it was possible, Dean's voice sounded even more hollow than it had before.

"Good."

And with that John hung up, gasping for air through the tightness in his chest and the crushing invisible grip that was closing around his throat. He blinked away unshed tears and steeled himself to be strong. Dean would be fine. Dean was made of tougher metal than John could ever hope to be. Still, John was glad to be far away from Bobby Singer's place at that moment, knowing that those soulful green eyes would shatter him if he were faced with them now.

888

Dean tended to Sam's wounds in silence, his pale face a mask of cold detachment. Sam wanted to crawl in a hole and die for having been the cause of that look, for having sent their Dad after Dean like some kind of rabid pitbull. But he had had no other choice. Dean would have had the momentary satisfaction of beating the crap out of Todd Weston, and then would have had to deal with the consequences of it for a long time to come. Sam had the feeling that Todd was the kind of weasel who would charge Dean with assault even though he himself had gang beaten a kid four years younger than him. In fact, Sam was sure of it. The young man had clearly shown himself to be a spineless coward.

"Dean, I'm sorry," Sam pleaded quietly, hoping to draw his brother out of his silent ministering. "I know you hate me for calling Dad, but I didn't have a choice –"

"I don't hate you, Sam," Dean replied. But the coldness in his voice, and the steel in his gaze as he deliberately avoided meeting Sam's eye, was proof enough that he was, at the very least, beyond pissed.

"I don't want you to get involved!" Sam pressed. "I know you just wanna protect me, and if Todd Weston weren't such a rat-faced loser I'd be egging you on to kick the crap out of him. I would – you know I would! But I just know that the whole thing will only end up getting you in trouble. And I don't want you getting in trouble because of me."

Dean paused, giving his younger brother a deep, hard look.

"It's my job to keep you out of trouble, Sam. Not the other way around."

"But Dean –"

"Enough!" Dean snapped, sighing heavily. "Look, I don't wanna fight with you, you gangly little freak. You're outta jail free this time because you just had the snot pounded out of you. Got me?"

Sam nodded, relief washing over him. It made him ache to think of his big brother being angry with him and feeling betrayed by him. Of all the people he'd ever met in his life, Dean was the one person who was always on his side.

"Kay, Dean."

"But just so you know, calling Dad was a real suck-ass thing to do."

Sam gulped.

"Yeah, I know," he admitted.

"Bitch." Dean said, smiling.

Sam couldn't help smiling back.

"Jerk."

They sat silently for a moment, allowing the tension to ease out of their backs and shoulders, until Dean finally sighed again and stood away.

"All right. Moment's past. Awkward now." He scooped up the remaining gauze, bandages and ointment into his palm and crossed the living room, heading toward the stairs. Sam watched him go, noticing that there seemed to be a heaviness about Dean that weighed upon him, like invisible hands were pushing down on his shoulders. Dean paused at the bottom of the stairs, laying a hand on the railing.

"And for the record, Sammy," he said. "There's nothing I wouldn't do to protect you. Trouble or no trouble. Nothing."

Sam felt a chill pass through him at his brother's words as he watched him climb the stairs. He knew, without a doubt, that his brother meant every word. And that thought scared him, a lot. He hoped he'd never have to see how far his brother would go to keep the promise he'd just made.

888

The rest of the week passed in relative normalcy, with Dean helping Bobby in the salvage yard during the day and both hunters researching the mysterious deaths in the evenings. Unfortunately, nothing was coming up on the hunt front. They simply didn't have enough information, and what they did have wasn't enough to help them pin down what kind of creature or entity they were dealing with. Bobby had at first thought that it was some kind of vengeful spirit, but he couldn't for the life of him explain the death echoes and the number warnings. Seven meant absolutely nothing to either hunter, and the research was bringing up squat by way of explanation.

Bobby had secretly called John to warn him about the real threat that seemed to be facing Dean, but John had refused to get involved in his true, stubborn-ass fashion. He'd promised to do some research on his end, but had very snarkily pointed out that there were two adept hunters, as well as an insatiable researcher in the form of one Sam Winchester, present at Bobby's place with an almost unlimited library of supernatural lore at their disposal. He was sure that between the three of them they could get to the bottom of the killings and put a stop to them long before Dean was ever in any real danger. "Besides Bobby," he'd said, "I'm following the first lead on the thing that got Mary that I've had in months. It's tied up in something big – possibly end of the world big – and I gotta see this thing through."

And for that reason Bobby had decided not to let Dean know that he'd called their dad. There was no point in letting the young soldier know how much of a heartless bastard his father was – it was obvious he was desperate enough for the man's approval. Learning that John knew about the danger and had refused to come home to help eliminate it would be a crushing blow. So he kept that information to himself and silently hated his friend a little bit more for his treatment of his boys. After all, avenging the thing that killed Mary would be one hell of a hollow victory if his kids weren't even alive to celebrate with him. But that was John for you. Blind and stubborn as a mule.

For his part, Dean was very glad to see the week come to an end, feeling that his grounding had been something of a blessing in disguise in that it prevented him being able to go to the Halloween dance on Friday night. Tina had called on Thursday to try coaxing him into sneaking out to go to the dance, but Dean had adamantly refused, feigning reluctance and disappointment as best he could. Apparently she didn't hold a grudge for the way he'd so rudely stuffed her into her car and dismissed her from Bobby's property. "I blame it on your head injury," she'd teased. "Your one get-out-of-jail-free card."

By the time Sunday rolled around, Dean was ready to claw his own eyes out from the hours spent poring over books in fruitless research. They'd still not managed to find anything remotely promising, even with Sam's added help, and the whole thing was beginning to feel like a huge waste of time.

"Ok you know what? I give up!" Dean growled in exasperation, slamming shut the book he'd been reading and running his hands through his hair in frustration. "So far I've found sixty different creatures, demons, and monsters that in some way involve the number seven. There's a creature that steals people out of their beds every seventy-seven years… And here, a wraith that sacrifices seven virgins on the blood moon every turn of the century. And this one – my personal favourite – a kind of shapeshifter that can replicate itself seven times, so you have to keep killing it like a freakin' cat with its seven lives."

"Cats have nine lives," Sam corrected, peering up from his book.

"I know that asshat!" Dean spat. "I'm sayin' it's like a cat because it's got more than… Oh forget it. This is freakin' pointless Bobby! How the hell are we supposed to narrow this down?"

"You're raising your voice," Bobby replied, not bothering to look up.

"Sorry," Dean mumbled apologetically. "But seriously man, I don't know what the hell the number seven is supposed to mean. It could mean I got seven days – well, I had seven days – now I'd only have two left – or it could mean that I'm the seventh victim…"

"Hey, maybe it was James's way of telling you to go buy a lotto ticket," Sam suggested with a grin. "You know, lucky sevens?"

"I like the way you think," Dean replied, his own face splitting into a wide smile. Dean was always one to appreciate the value of humour when he was stressed or anxious.

The truth was this whole business was really starting to freak Dean out. James's death had been so unexpected, and the death echo had unnerved the young hunter more than he wanted to admit. The fact that he might well have been banging the guy's little sister while said guy was in his death throes (Roy had said that James had gone missing on the Saturday night, hadn't he?) filled him with cold dread and just the slightest smidgeon of guilt.

Wow, Dean thought. Just over a week ago, he'd been sitting at the library researching floating sex dream women, thinking that he was being haunted by some kind of succubus, only to have that fear completely abandoned and replaced with this new death echo phenomena. Now that he thought about it, he hadn't had a single dream about the floating woman in over a week. Not since the night before the party. Not since he'd slept with Jessie and that other chick. Not since James disappeared.

These troubling thoughts swam through his head as he settled into a restless sleep that night, filled with tossing and turning, ghostly apparitions warning him about seven deadly sins and seven days and the seven of Hearts. None of it made sense, but the constant screaming of multiple voices, hoarse from torn vocal chords, was enough to make him break out into a cold sweat as he bolted upright in bed. He found himself wishing his dad were here – he'd know what to do. But his dad was working on a big case and needed to keep his attention focused there. Dean couldn't distract him with this now. He'd just have to handle it on his own.

888

It was strange returning to a school he'd barely attended, returning to friends he hadn't made and teachers he hadn't won over, after an entire week's absence. Sam was pleased as punch to be seated in the passenger's side of the Impala with his big brother – the dynamic duo together again at his favourite place in the world. God he was such a geek in his love of all things school. But in spite of his enthusiasm, the tension was also clearly evident.

"And you promise you won't get into it with Todd Weston or anyone else on the football team, right?" the shaggy-haired kid said when the rumbling of the metal car's engine stilled in the school parking lot.

"I already said I wouldn't," Dean replied tersely. "Now drop it, geekboy. But if anyone even thinks of layin' a hand on you again, all bets are off."

"Dean!"

"Can it, Grandma. Now get your ass to class and quit your whining. You're givin' me a headache with all your damned nagging."

Sam grinned and scampered away with his bookbag slung over his shoulder.

Dean made his way out of the car very reluctantly, listening to the groan of the car door as it creaked loudly shut and thinking that it was mimicking the sound of his own heart in anticipation of walking through those doors to the prison of school. He was determined he was going to stay out of trouble to prove to his dad that he could keep it together for Sammy's sake. And if that asshole Boomer gave him attitude, which he was sure he would at some point, he would just have to swallow it down like Alanis's jagged little pill. And no, he didn't like her music.

English class was his first class of the day. That would be his first test of strength. He'd have to see that smirking dick Todd Weston and not pound the crap out of him in front of all and sundry. Yes, it would be a test. He clenched his fists, massaging his fingers reflexively against his palms, to calm himself. Would not be beating up Todd Weston. Nope, definitely not.

He traversed through the crowded halls, found his locker and grabbed all the books he'd be needing for the morning, slinging them under his arm and shoving his coat inside. So far so good. In the three minutes he'd been in the building he hadn't been accosted by an ornery principal or taunted by any jocks who seriously needed to be reacquainted with the word bruise. A good start.

The tension in his shoulders kicked up a notch when he took his seat in English class. Todd Weston was wearing the smirk Dean knew he'd be wearing, watching him with narrowed eyes that were twinkling with savage delight. Dean averted his gaze and tried not to grind his teeth. That muscle twitch in his jaw was a dead give-away and he knew it; it was one of the biggest tells for Dean Winchester but was also the most reflexive. He did it without even knowing it.

"Morning everyone," Miss Miller called out as the last of the students found their seats and the room settled into relative quiet. "How was everyone's weekend? Mr. Winchester! Glad to see you're back. I hope you're feeling better."

Dean made a non-committal sound in the back of his throat.

"Well, we've finished with Romeo and Juliet and are now ready to dive into Jane Eyre. Books out!"

Dean cursed inwardly as his fellow students reached inside their bags to draw out their respective copies of the book he'd forgotten to bring and hadn't bothered to start reading yet. Crap, crap, and double crap. For appearance's sake, he went through the motions of searching through his pile of books, pretending to be surprised and dismayed that Jane Eyre wasn't among them. He looked up in time to see the teacher watching him with her head cocked to the side, a curious frown on her face.

"You forgot your book?" she queried.

"Yeah. Sorry."

"All right," she said, sighing. "Take mine. But only for today. Next time you forget your book you can make up for it in detention."

Dean plastered on his most polite smile, suspecting it came out more like a grimace, and promptly began rifling through the pages of the book the teacher had just plopped onto his desk. So not a good sign. His spidey sense told him that his day was about to nosedive. It was inevitable. By the time the day was through he knew he was going to earn himself a detention. It was like it was his destiny.

But he made it through English class without incident. Miss Miller had pulled him aside at the end of class to warn him about goofing off, it being clearly obvious that he hadn't done any of the reading by his participation (or lack thereof) in the class discussion. 'You're a bright young man,' she'd said. 'And it's a waste of my time and of your potential when you don't put any effort in.' Great. Now she cared. Dean had feared this would happen.

That knot in his shoulders tightened further when he noticed the smell of her perfume as she attempted to motivate him with her little pep talk. She smelled so good it almost made his mouth water, which in itself would normally be a sickening thought because she was a teacher and that was just gross. But she was youngish for a teacher, and damn she had long legs, and her hair smelled so nice he had to resist the urge to touch it. What the hell was the matter with him?

Second period Biology passed uneventfully. Dean managed to float through, daydreaming about smashing Todd Weston's face in and imagining how the jock would probably scream like a girl if he ever saw even one of the supernatural beings Dean and his dad had hunted over the years. That would definitely wipe the smirk off his stupid face. By the time lunch rolled around he dared to hope that he might make it through the day without getting a detention after all.

888

"Hey Dean!" his little brother's voice called just over his shoulder. Dean turned in his seat at his table in the cafeteria and gave Sam a small grin.

"Hey, Sammy."

"It's Sam," he corrected, huffing in irritation but taking a seat across from his big brother nonetheless. "How'd your morning go?"

Dean smirked.

"I didn't get in any fights, if that's what you're hinting at," he said archly.

"Just checking."

"Dude, I can control myself you know. I'm not a freakin' cave man!"

"If the club fits," Sam taunted, taking a big bite of his sandwich. He paused in mid chew and made a face. "What the hell is this, Dean?" he asked through a mouthful of bread.

"It's an egg sandwhich."

"Then why does it taste like Ranch dressing?" he began spitting the bite out into a napkin.

"Sorry. Bobby ran out of mayo. I had to improvise." He took a hefty bite out of his own sandwich and chewed thoughtfully. "It doesn't taste so bad."

"Says the guy who likes beer, and puts anchovies on his pizza," Sam snarked, taking a large swig of juice to wash away the taste in his mouth.

"Whatever," Dean replied. "Next time you can make your own freakin' lunch."

Sam huffed and rifled through his lunch bag to see what other items were available for him to eat. He pulled out an apple and bit into it sulkily.

"What?"

"Nothin'," Sam lied. "It's just, I'm really hungry and this apple isn't going to be enough."

Dean rolled his eyes and slid his own lunch bag across the table.

"Take mine," he said, taking another bite from his sandwich. "Will two apples be enough, or do you need more? Of course you need more. You're a growing, bottomless pit. Hang on."

He stood up and fished through his pockets for change. Grinning when he found a five dollar bill and a few quarters, he made his way toward the lunch line.

Sam watched his brother leave and marvelled at the fact that Dean never thought twice about spending money on Sam, never hesitated in giving up his own cash if it meant Sam was fed, or clothed, or had money to do the things that normal kids did, like going to the movies or going to the arcade. And he never seemed to mind it, either. His generosity was unconscious, like it was ingrained, parental even.

"Hey Winchester."

Sam closed his eyes in dread, hoping he'd imagined the taunting call of Todd Weston but knowing that he hadn't. He felt a hand clamp onto his shoulder from behind.

"Where's your big brother, huh?"

Sam pried the jock's fingers off of him, giving his wrist a sharp twist that caused him to gasp in pain, and replied, "Go to hell!"

A few people had gathered around to watch the interplay, having heard through the school grapevine that Todd and his buddies had given the youngest Winchester a thorough pounding the week before. It was enough of a disruption to gain Dean's attention, who left the lunch line to check up on Sam only to discover the menacing jock attempting to discreetly manhandle him.

"You got exactly three seconds to get your fucking hands off my brother," Dean growled, storming through the crowd. "Touch him again, and I swear to God…"

Todd straightened up and smirked, holding his hands out in front of him in exaggerated surrender. Then, with deliberate movements for all the word to see, he proceeded to poke Sam roughly in the arm.

"I heard your dad's real strict," Todd said with an arched eyebrow. "I'm betting he told you not to fight me."

"One."

"But then, you probably wouldn't have the guts to fight me anyway. You've been hiding at home with an 'injury' for a whole week."

"Two."

"What's the matter?" Todd taunted. "Afraid to face off with someone who's actually got friends?"

"Three."

Todd reflexively took a step back away from Sam and it was Dean's turn to smirk.

"That's more like it," he said, his eyes narrowing dangerously in a steely green glare. "Come on, Sam."

Sam stood up from his seat and made to scurry to his brother's side, but Todd Weston grabbed him by the back of his shirt and yanked him back, causing him to lose his balance and sending him sprawling in an awkward heap on the floor.

Yep. It was Dean's destiny to be in detention.

He erupted like a volcano, vaulting over the table with lightening speed and pummelling the jock for all he was worth. He didn't need to rely on his combat training, he simply fuelled his rage and his fists became sledgehammers, built for pounding and flattening and crushing. With his own reputation on the line, Todd fought with equal vigour, his heavy fists crashing madly, his legs kicking out wildly, in an attempt to best his smaller opponent. They rolled and flailed, punched and kicked, snarling in rage and hatred, until Dean eventually got the upper hand and manoevered himself on top of his opponent, pinning him to the ground and pummelling him with a series of punches. For Dean, all pain was like an afterthought, flies tickling at the thick hide of a horse as it blinks them away.

He didn't hear Sam's pleas for him to stop, nor did he hear the teachers screaming at him to stop this instant. His ears were buzzing and all he could do was pound until the struggling form beneath him began to still. It took three people to pull him up and restrain him and by that time he was shouting madly, "I will fucking kill you!"

He knew he was in trouble then, because the entire cafeteria had fallen deathly silent, save for Dean's panted breaths and Todd's ragged gasps. There were at least five teachers surrounding him, and Principal Boomer was screaming something that Dean couldn't quite make out. He was too busy grinning from ear to ear at the sorry state of Todd Weston's face, for he definitely looked to be in as much pain or more than Sam had the week before.

"Are you listening to me, Mr. Winchester!" Boomer bellowed, his face red with shock and rage.

"Not really," Dean heard himself say. It was a struggle to scramble his way back from the adrenaline rush, back from the rage, so that he could focus on the here and now. The here and now looked ugly.

Aw, crap!

"My office! NOW!"

Dean wasn't sure he had ever seen an authority figure look so angry. Boomer was positively savage with anger, prowling down the hallway like a lion and pacing his office as he waited for Dean and Todd to follow him in. Todd was made to wait at the reception desk while Dean was ordered into the office.

"You are a disgrace!" Boomer raged, slamming the door to his office shut. "I have never seen such savagery in all my years of teaching!"

Dean stared angrily at the floor. This was it. He was going to be expelled. But he didn't care – it was worth it. He'd protected Sam. That was all that mattered.

God, Dad's gonna kill me!

"From the moment you walked through these doors you've been nothing but a menace!" Boomer continued, his face darkening from red to a dangerous shade of purple. "You've got all the makings of a career criminal with your violent outbursts, your lack of respect, and your terrible attitude!"

Look at the floor. Look at the floor. Don't punch the principal and if you're lucky you'll only be expelled. Maybe they won't call the cops. Aw, fuck.

"I've seen your kind before," he went on. "Good-for-nothing punks riding a one-way train to jail!"

Yup. Definitely calling the cops.

"Do you even have anything to say for yourself?" He'd stopped pacing and was staring at Dean with angry, wide eyes.

Nope. He really didn't. If the man had half a brain and cared even a little bit about the kids in this school, he'd have noticed that a group of jocks had beaten the crap out of Sam the week before. But it was obvious this guy only saw what he wanted to see, and only paid attention to the things he wanted to keep an eye on. Nothing Dean said would make a difference, and he sure as hell wasn't about to beg to be listened to.

"Look at you!" Boomer spat, resuming his pacing as he stalked in a half-circle around Dean, watching him as a predator watches its prey before it pounces. "You're not even sorry! I can see it in your eyes. You think this is some kind of joke?"

"No sir, I don't," Dean said darkly, clenching his jaw and causing the tell-tale muscle twitches along his jaw line. "And if I had to do it again, I would."

"Well then, I guess the expulsion will be worth it!"

Dean raised his head and looked the large bald man in the eye, and thought he saw the man flinch. If he had to guess, Dean would say he was probably channelling his inner John Winchester, casting looks that could wither with smouldering eye beams.

"Yup," Dean said. "I did my job so I got no regrets."

"Your job?" Whatever Boomer had expected Dean to say to excuse or explain his behaviour, this wasn't it.

"That's right, my job. I looked after Sammy. And if you were even a little bit competent at doing your job, maybe my little brother wouldn't have gotten the crap kicked out of him by Todd Weston and half of the football team at lunch hour last week."

"What?"

Dean was still too furious to explain, and the stubborn Winchester in him didn't want to bother justifying himself for doing what he was supposed to do, what he'd been raised and trained to do. But it didn't matter because Boomer had stormed out of his office to yell at Todd Weston and to order the secretary to have someone fetch Sam Winchester. After a brief flurry of activity the truth was revealed, casting a very different light on the situation.

"Well then," the principal said at last, when everyone else had cleared out and it was just Dean and Todd with him in his office. "Here's what we're going to do. In-school suspension for both of you – for a month. You will serve detention every day after school and at lunch hour. And if, at the end of the month, you haven't broken any more rules or gotten into any more trouble, then neither of you will be expelled."

Dean decided, reluctantly, that he could live with that. Todd Weston, however, looked like he had swallowed a balloon that was blocking off his air supply.

"But… Principal Boomer… What about football?"

"Consider yourself suspended from the team," he replied darkly.

Dean grinned but then quickly masked it when the principal shot him a withering glare.

"Now get out of my sight, both of you," Boomer said with an angry sigh that came out more like a growl. "Your suspension begins now. Go see Mr. Booth."

And with that they were both dismissed. Dean wondered just how dead he would be when his father found out. But then, if things with the death echo thing went the way he feared they would, maybe it wouldn't matter.