Master of None

Summary: Sam had been pretty sure his day couldn't get any worse. He'd figured wrong.

Disclaimer: Not ours.

A/N (Faye): This fic is written for Authoressnebula. I've always loved nebula's enthusiasm (and her love of limp!Sam!) so when we found out there was a plan to do something special for her, I was all over it. Much thanks to sendintheclowns, who is so much fun to write with. She is responsible for a large part of my participation at all these days--and she puts up with a LOT from me. I appreciate her not just as a fellow fan but as a very, very good friend. Also, thanks to our three betas Floralia, blueeyeddemonliz , and gidgetgal9. Also, personal thanks to my favorite lurker (who needs a username!) who gave this a once-over as well and assured me with her squee. Anyway, this one's for your, Nebula! You deserve it, for all the fic you've entertained others with, and just for being YOU.

A/N – Sendintheklowns: I've been in a funk when it comes to writing lately but the mega talented and persuasive Faye kindly pulled me out of it by talking me into co-writing a story with her for Authoressnebula whose writing I absolutely adore (All Locked In is perfect in my book). Floralia, BlueEyedDemonLiz and Gidgetgal9 consented to beta for us and they did a wonderful job (scum-bug anyone?). I'm very lucky to be surrounded by such generous, talented people.

-0-

Sam had been pretty sure his day couldn't get any worse. After all, they were about to move--again. Which made their dad stonier and more difficult to talk to than usual, and it just made Dean hyper enough to make it impossible for Sam to focus on anything except what Dean wanted. And on top of that, they were picking up and leaving before Sam had a chance to finish out the term in school, which would make his transfer even more difficult when they finally settled again.

So yeah, this day had pretty much sucked from the start. Not much worse than all that, he'd figured.

He'd figured wrong.

Lying on his back, he could feel the dull throb of blood pulsing in his temples. He cracked his eyes open to find Dean, eyes wide and panicky, hovering over him, and then he remembered.

Dean had wanted to try some exotic submission hold on him before they left for their next gig in the morning. Sam had declined, his body had endured enough abuse for one day, but then his older brother had gotten surly. Dean, who never asked for much, wanted to do this so to keep the peace he'd finally agreed.

Everything had been fine until Dean applied pressure to Sam's neck; the same neck that was bruised because some hulking alpha jock at school had tried to shove him into the locker…by curling his hand around Sam's throat and squeezing. Another moment in his less than stellar day.

So when Dean had changed the position of his arm and it had scraped over his tender neck, he'd gasped. Dizziness left him reeling in Dean's arms and the next thing he knew, he was on the grass, blinking up at his brother.

His insanely protective, older brother who was about to flip out on him.

He knew the signs and symptoms and could forecast the gathering eruption. After all, he'd had sixteen years to learn everything there was to know about his brother. In fact, he could predict the upcoming tirade nearly verbatim in his mind. Sam couldn't take care of himself because he was too young, short, weak, naïve…fill in the blank. Sam needed a keeper, jail warden, full-time baby sitter, all of the above and then some to keep him safe.

And worst of all, Dean was going to dog Sam's every step for the next week to try to fulfill all those crazy responsibilities.

It wasn't that Sam wasn't grateful to have a brother like Dean; his older sibling was pretty much his world since their dad was gone so much. Dean always made sure Sam had enough to eat, got to school, didn't get bullied, practiced his training moves. And it was nice to have someone there, someone who remembered that he existed at least--a familiar face from place to place and hunt to hunt.

Sam had always had to deal with more bad than good, so he could definitely appreciate Dean's finer qualities even in the face of his more frustrating ones and the minor annoyances that only brothers could truly appreciate. After all, in addition to being over-protective and insanely obsessed with submission maneuvers, Dean also had poor taste in clothes--well, poor taste in clothes that Sam could steal, anyway.

A brutal growth spurt had left his jeans too short, unless the flood look was returning, so Sam had lifted a pair of Dean's jeans for his own use. Soft and broken in, they were way too loose around the waist but fit him in the legs. But his belt kept them from falling and he hoped Dean would never catch on; his brother was territorial when it came to his clothes. And playing his music. And driving the car.

But Dean was still awesome.

The thing was, Sam wasn't a little kid anymore. He could look out for himself. And that's why passing out like some girl and waking up to his looming, freaked out brother was so frustrating; it was hard to make an argument for being independent when you'd just blacked out.

So yeah. This day was about to get a whole lot worse and Sam was pretty sure there was nothing he could do about it.

-0-

It wasn't supposed to happen like this; the book had been very explicit about how to do the move and having your victim pass out wasn't the intended result. Preventing them from moving was the goal, not choking them out.

Especially when the victim was Sammy.

They were leaving tomorrow morning, which meant everything had to be packed up, and it was Dean's job to make sure it got done. But throwing crap in a bag was easy, and they had all night, and Dean had been cramped up in the house all day by himself. He needed to expend some energy, have some fun. So before he and Sammy started in on the task of packing, he just wanted to try out the Abdominal Stretch with Claw. He'd read about it in the book his dad had given him and he was excited to use it; he was totally into submission moves and who better to practice on then Sammy?

And who didn't want to know a move that could be called the claw?

Only Sammy was quiet, more quiet than usual. He'd slunk into the house and headed straight for his room. Dean had cajoled and whined and was about ready to yank his shorter, lighter brother outside without his consent when Sam had finally capitulated.

Dean mentally reviewed the move. The attacker stands behind the victim, reaching around the victim's body with one leg so it is around the victim's side and between their legs, hooking the leg on the same side as the attacker's leg. The attacker wraps their arm which is closest to the victim's head around the victim's head or arm which is up. The attacker then uses their free hand to grab the victim's side/stomach and apply pressure. The victim should be forced to bend slightly to the side.

He quickly realized his mistake; he'd accidentally executed the straight forward Abdominal Stretch and put pressure on Sam's neck, pulling him upwards, instead of wrapping his arms around Sam's head and raised arm. A rookie mistake, one that would annoy Sam, but no harm, no foul. So why the hell was Sam imitating a rag doll all of a sudden?

One moment Dean had been shifting his grip, his arm inadvertently settling against Sam's throat, and the next his brother had been a sagging weight in his arms, Dean scrambling to hold him up.

Lying Sam on his back on the grass, Dean dropped to his knees next to him. "Sammy? You with me?"

His sibling was pale, his tan from training outdoors fading to white. Those expressive blue-green eyes were closed, mouth slack.

Dean picked up Sam's wrist and quickly found a pulse. It wasn't too strong or too thready or too slow or too fast; Goldie Locks would be proud, because Sam's pulse was just right. But why was Sam unconscious? He wasn't faking it, Dean knew that much. He could tell the difference between live and dead weight.

Only Sam wasn't dead.

The neck of Sam's hoodie looked a little restrictive so Dean tugged, loosening it. His eyes widened as he saw red marks circling Sam's throat. Marks in the shape of fingers.

Dean hadn't used his hand, he'd used his arm.

He was going to tear the bastard who dared touch his little brother limb from limb. Of course he had to wait until Sam told him which scum-bag had laid a finger on him.

Suddenly, Sam was blinking up groggily at him, glassy eyed. Dean watched as an impressive array of emotions played over his features, eyes widening, face flushing and then lips pulling into a mutinous straight line – surprise, embarrassment and finally frustration.

Dean got an arm behind Sam's back and supported him into a sitting position before his little brother swatted his arm away. "I'm fine."

He couldn't help it, he rolled his eyes in response. Sam exasperated him, there was no doubt about it. Claiming he was fine after he'd just passed the hell out in Dean's arms. But, exasperation or not, Sam was also the most important thing in his life along with his dad and hunting.

Pushing too long bangs out of Sam's face, he noted that his brother's eyes had cleared. And were staring at Dean with accusation in their sparkling depths. Dean put his hands up. "I didn't do anything! I mean I wasn't supposed to pin your throat but it shouldn't make you pass out! You're too--"

His brother pushed himself to his feet, glaring. "Forget it, Dean. Whatever you're about to say, just save it. I'm fine. I'll be in my room packing. For yet another move. Oh joy."

Dean hated when Sam was sarcastic. That was his own shtick, not his little brother. Sam was innocent and naïve and…stomping away, very pissed off. "Hey, I'm not done with you! Tell me who put their beefy hand around your throat! I'm going to go teach them a lesson…hey, Sammy!"

-0-

John had spent the day at the library, gathering information on Spring Heeled Jacks. He'd hunted one before, but only one, and it had been some years ago and his knowledge gained from that hunt had been sparse. He never approached a hunt unprepared, no matter how simple it seemed to be.

That didn't make him relish it any more. Some research he didn't mind. There was a certain beauty to it. The complicated mess of plotting patterns, of putting together clues and figuring out patterns. His note taking was extensive and his breadth of knowledge was expansive.

But a Spring Heeled Jack? Not high on his hit list of evil things to be eradicated. This was one he would have gladly pawned off, even to Sammy. Dean would have found a Jack boring even in his early days of hunting.

Too bad Sam had thrown a damn hissy fit and trudged off to school instead.

Sam was the strangest child. Unlike Dean, who John swore he knew better than himself; Dean liked fast women, fast cars, eating, drinking and hunting. His time was spent in the pursuit of these things. Except for when he was looking out for his little brother.

As he walked in the door, he could hear pounding within. Dean was yelling. "Open the freakin' door, Sam, or I'm going to kick it open...I'm not screwing around here!"

No one pushed Dean's buttons like Sam. Actually, no one pushed buttons in general quite as well as Sam did. He sighed heavily, throwing his backpack on the table before moving down the hallway. "What now?"

His oldest son whipped his head to the side to look at John, frowning heavily. "I tried the Abdominal Stretch with Claw except it was more like a regular Abdominal Stretch and Sammy passed out. And he's got marks on his neck, in the shape of fingers. And the little jerk won't tell me who did it and won't open the door."

Dean was so upset, he was out of breath. And true to form, it was because Sam's well being had been threatened – his youngest had passed out during a training maneuver and someone had dared manhandle him, probably at school.

He was pretty sure Dean viewed Sam as his own personal property and didn't take kindly to others abusing his brother; that was Dean's sole providence. From the moment John had placed Sammy in Dean's arms and told him to run, Dean had protected him fiercely.

John sighed again. He could understand Dean being worked into a froth; now he needed to see Sam, make sure his youngest was okay. "Why don't you pack up the kitchen? By the time you're done, I'll have this all sorted out."

His stubborn son stalked away, mumbling under his breath about stupid little brothers.

John knocked on the bedroom door that the boys shared. "Sammy, it's Dad. I need to talk to you."

He didn't need, or even want to talk to Sam; more times than not, all he got for his efforts was a quiet, sulky boy he didn't know how to communicate with. But he did need to see with his own two eyes that Sam was okay. His youngest had a way of getting into scrapes and if he didn't keep an eye on him, his injuries and illnesses tended to get out of hand. Despite Sam's training, the kid seemed like a magnet for trouble, and his slight frame didn't help matters. Though Sam had finally started to grow like a weed in the last year, it only made him even skinnier than John had imagined possible, which John knew made Sam look like an easy target.

Why Sam was so insistent on letting that image persist was another issue entirely.

The doorknob turned and the door swung open. Sam didn't look him in the eye, but left the door open far enough for him to come in. "Hey, Dad," he muttered.

Sam moved back to his bed where his clothing sat in neat piles, waiting to be packed in the large duffle bag on the floor. Tension radiated from him, evident in the straight line of his back and shoulders and the way his head was held high.

John shuffled uncertainly inside. "So, um, Dean said he tried out a new move on you and didn't go as expected."

He heard a soft snort and then Sam turned to face him. "I'm fine. I'm not dizzy, my color is good…there was just too much pressure on my throat."

Those large, slanted eyes still wouldn't meet John's. He walked over, grasping Sam's chin in his hand, rotating the head up. He could see the marks Dean had mentioned. They were probably the reason Sam had passed out. Bruises on the neck were a bitch.

His son tolerated the scrutiny for a while and then stepped back, bumping the bed with his legs. Sam looked like he'd rather be anywhere but here, talking to his dad. "So what happened to your throat?"

Now he got the eye contact he wanted, Sam's eyes blazing. "Some jerk at school tried to shove me in a locker but I took care of it. I don't need Dean fighting my battles for me. I can take care of myself."

The doubt must have shown on his face even though John worked hard to keep a stony expression because Sam huffed before turning back to his project. Clearing his voice, John changed the subject. "We leave at daybreak."

His brain couldn't abandon the subject but he kept his thoughts to himself. His youngest might think he could take care of himself but he hadn't proven that to John's satisfaction. Sammy had always been small for his age and was just now coming into his own, limbs lengthening and stretching. But he was still too slight and his coordination wasn't quite there. Maybe his training wasn't going quite as well as John had thought.

For the moment, John knew enough to keep his mouth shut. But he knew he'd be watching Sam extra close on this hunt.

-0-

Minnesota. The land of lakes, Pastor Jim, and, apparently, Spring Heeled Jacks. Minnesota was one of their more frequent destinations it seemed. Though not really a convenient state for a stopover, Sam knew that his dad's list of friends were few and far between and not even John Winchester's gruff form of agnosticism could alienate Pastor Jim. Which was fine with Sam. As far as the hunting buddies went, Pastor Jim was one of the best. Soft spoken and a keen listener, Sam had found it a bit of a refuge even when everything else was utterly crappy. In fact, Jim had been one of the few people Sam had ever really been able to talk to--about things like God and good and evil. Dean was usually pretty good at letting him ask about most things, but when it came to God or their mother, all bets were off, and it didn't take much to figure out that those two things were related somehow.

Pastor Jim had answers, that was what it came down to. Not the black and white directives his father gave him or the need-to-know crap Dean liked to try to pull, but actual answers, or at least more questions that got him thinking. So, really, Minnesota was actually a step up in the world for Sam, especially considering the hell hole they'd just left, even if they weren't going to be visiting Pastor Jim right away.

Still, Sam was going to be the new kid. He was going to have to figure out his classes and his schedule all over again. And on top of all that, he was going to have to prep for the next hunt, because clearly Sam was past the age that he was allowed to opt out.

Which meant that getting ahead in trigonometry would have to wait another day. Right now he had to read up on Spring Heeled Jacks, which was his father's best guess at their latest hunt.

If he thought he could get away with a little free reading instead, he would. But his father's withering gaze had him pinned in the rearview mirror and Dean's haphazard quizzing of Sam's knowledge of supernatural beings kept him focused on the task at hand.

To be fair, this was a new one to Sam, and even to Dean. It wasn't the run of the mill spirit or a werewolf or anything that Sam had seen before, so the extra knowledge probably would be beneficial in the long run.

The fact that he had to believe that just made him think how completely screwed up his life was.

And to think most kids felt over-protected when their parents set a curfew at 10 PM. Sam couldn't even ride in the back seat of the car without an interrogation or plan for the future without considering what supernatural lore was native to the region.

"Where do they come from?" his brother asked.

Sam sighed. "The first recorded sightings were in England. As far as supernatural creatures go, this one's fairly new."

"Well, think about it," Dean chastised. "What does that probably mean?"

"Considering the reports are kind of distinctive, you'd think it was a ghost," Sam said.

Over the seat back, Sam saw his father shake his head and Sam felt himself shrink a little. So much for proving himself through his knowledge.

Because that was what this was about. It wasn't just prep work or passing the time. It was about Sam proving he could do it. About Sam showing them both that he was up to the challenge. It was a constant pressure, and after the incident with Dean's submission hold, Sam knew they were watching out for him more than ever. Just looking for a way that he could screw up, that they could correct him on the error of his ways, point out his weaknesses so he could never forget them.

They always assumed the worst. They assumed that Sam had gotten his butt kicked by bullies at school, not that Sam had done his best to not make a scene while still getting the goon off his back. They assumed that Sam was too weak to hold up under normal sparring conditions without considering that Dean's constant experimentation was hard to keep up with, as was the constant changes in his body.

Dean clicked his tongue. "Too corporeal for that. I mean, ghosts flicker in and out, but this thing jumps around, touches people."

"And breathes some kind of fire," Sam added in. "I know that. You just asked me about the fact that it's new."

Dean nodded. "Well, it could also be a monster by another name. Some kind of older creature making a new name for itself. That's why you've got to look at the other characteristics, the descriptions, the method of attack. So you can figure out its origin."

Yeah, Sam could see that. And he could have figured that out--but they never gave him a chance. It seemed like everything was a set up for failure. Leading questions about the hunt that never let him reason out loud. Fighting sessions where he was paired again Dean, who was always faster and stronger, no matter what Sam did. He just couldn't win sometimes, and it was more than a little disheartening.

"Come on, Sammy," his brother said. "I'm just trying to get you to think like a hunter. We have to figure out what this thing really is in order to know how to kill it."

As if Sam needed to be reminded of that. Sighing, he knew an argument would get him nowhere. "Past reports have talked about its ability to leap. Like I said, its breath. Some reports make it seem less human, more, I don't know, demonic. Claws and oilskin and stuff."

"Keep it simple, Sam," his father lectured.

Sam resisted his urge to roll his eyes. It would be nice if he got more than two seconds to even talk things through before he was being treated like he couldn't figure it out. "So it's probably got some kind of demonic heritage," Sam said. "Some kind of demon incarnate? Which would explain its superhuman abilities. And its appearance."

Dean nodded approvingly, and he even seemed to be glowing. "Good," he said. "Recent reports are similar, though this one looks more human than not."

"Then how can we be sure it's demonic?" Sam asked.

Dean looked sidelong at his father, who raised his eyebrows. "There aren't many modern cases around the country, but even with the cape and the flourish, these guys always leave behind traces of one thing: sulfur."

Well, gee, it might have been nice if they'd included that in the background they'd given him. Historical texts were helpful, but modern science certain did give them an advantage.

It was a continual test. Always trying to make him stronger, faster, smarter, better. Because he just wasn't good enough.

The fact that Sam didn't want to be better in that kind of way was clearly beside the point.

It just seemed too typical. Sam gets into a fight and they want to protect him and completely ignore that Sam handled it just fine, on his own, his own way. Because there was only one way in this family: the Winchester way.

Which was great for Dean, but made Sam miserable.

He'd have to work harder then. Not to make them happy, but to earn some space again. If he didn't, this next move would be worse than the last. And that was saying something, considering that the courses he'd been stuck in were filled with information he'd already learned and apparently being new, tall, and eager to please made him the target of every two-bit jock in the stupid place.

He shifted through the notes again, looking at the history, the mysterious presence, the gentlemanly facade. "So how is it attacking now? Back then it didn't even seem to kill people. Scared them, scratched a few. But there's little record of them actually murdering, so why is it our gig?"

Dean looked mildly impressed. "Well, death isn't the only supernatural inconvenience."

"But it's the kind we go after," Sam shot back.

"Reports started out minor," their father cut in. "The appearance of a mysterious figure unnerved a few people. Then he showed up in the middle of a traffic intersection. Caused a couple of accidents, one pretty bad. Then he swiped a teenager for a few hours. Kid made it back unscathed, but the pattern's clear."

Sam didn't need it spelled out for him. "He's stepping up the attacks."

"And so how long before he starts to kill? Maybe never, but it's a chance we can't take," his father agreed. "Besides. It's supernatural. We kill it."

It was so black and white. No margin for disagreement. "Silver bullet to the heart?" Sam asked.

"And then we torch the corpse," Dean added in, sounding far more excited than anyone should. "Can't go wrong with fire."

Sam shuddered a little involuntarily. Monsters. Fire. Not his favorite subjects. What kind of hunter would he be anyway?

Dean was grinning at Sam again. "See, Sammy," he said. "All it takes is some focus."

Great. That was so not the lesson Sam was taking away from this.

Still, Sam wasn't stupid. There were some battles to fight, some to let go, and some to fight in secret. The goal now was minimal conflict, proving himself, else he'd never be happy.

Because Sam wanted time to read. Books he liked. He wanted time to do his homework, to join a club or something. Maybe write for the school newspaper. Those were things he liked, things he enjoyed. Hunting was like chores, a requirement. He just wanted to do the bare minimum and make it through.

The balance was off, though. The more they doubted him, the tighter Sam's leash would be.

So this Spring Heeled Jack? Better watch it. Because Sam didn't care so much about the Jack itself, but this was Sam's chance to prove himself and gain the freedom that he needed to do anything he liked at all.

-o-

Dean had to admit. This hunt sounded kind of boring.

Sure, he had to put on a good face. His father wasn't one to tolerate sulking, and in the end, that was just the kind of example Sammy didn't need right about now.

But a Spring Heeled Jack? That hadn't actually directly killed anyone? There had to be some kind of nasty poltergeist or a demonic possession that was more worthy of their time and more interesting to boot. Dean was all up for new challenges, so in that regard adding a Spring Heeled Jack to his list of conquests was good and all, but boring.

And not his father's style.

Then again, this probably wasn't about his father's style or Dean sharpening his skill set. This was about getting Sam back in the game, upping his game, giving Dean and their dad a chance to watch Sam in action and see if they could get the kid back on top of things again.

After all, Sammy was getting pushed around by bullies. Still. He'd sort of hoped they'd left that behind. Especially since Sam had finally hit a growth spurt. Now they just needed to bulk the kid up and no one would think twice about messing with Sam, because he'd look as dangerous as he was.

Because Sam was dangerous. He could kick any normal kid's ass any day of the week. So why was Sam pussyfooting it? Why was he getting pushed around? Didn't make sense.

Then again, Sam hadn't been making much sense lately. Something had changed in Sam. Sam had always been focused on hunts ever since his dad officially let him in on the family secret. Sam didn't quite like it as much as Dean did, but the kid was good at the prep work even when he hadn't been allowed to participate in the kills. All good signs that his brother was ready to fall in line and be a part of the family business.

And then? Sam changed. Puberty made some kids horny and other kids emotional roller coasters. It made Sam distant and withdrawn. Wanting to spend more time at school. Still obsessed with making friends, doing homework, even extra-curriculars. Which might have been cute were Sam still an innocent eight year old who didn't know better. But Sam did know better. All that crap--it was getting him sidetracked and now they were all paying for it with some inane hunt with some wussy creature with quasi-demonic origins. The best part--the only good part--would be watching the thing go up in flames.

That hardly made the research phase any more fun. Because it wasn't enough to identify the thing, but they had to figure out where it was holed up. Otherwise, waiting for an attack would be foolish at best and just plain stupid at worst. The attacks were random and unpredictable. Spirits had patterns. Creatures of demonic origin? Just liked their kicks.

So they had to track the thing. Which meant talking to people about where they'd seen it, where it went. Clues from its appearance, from its methods.

Of course, it wasn't a coincidence that their father had given Dean the task of following up with the group or terrorized coeds. Sometimes being the good son? Really paid off.

Better yet. They were sorority chicks.

Now if there could just be a spur of the moment wet t-shirt contest, he'd be in heaven.

Business before pleasure. A cruel fact of the universe.

The girls were roommates, an elementary ed major and a communications major. A blonde and a brunette. Both juniors. Names Rachel and Mindy or Rebecca and Wendi or something like that.

They had invited him into the main room, which was sadly empty of other girls, though he could hear some in the kitchen, and he could only hope they'd walk by. If not, he could always feign hunger (which, man, was his stomach grumbling for real or what?).

Not that Renee and Cindie weren't quite enough, but fantasies and all that....

"So you're with the campus paper?" Rochelle asked.

"Uh, yeah," Dean said, turning his focus back to the task at hand. He scowled at his notebook. "Just, you know. Trying to stay on top of the student body."

Raquel (that had to be it) didn't seem to get it (communication major, what did Dean expect?) and Bindi looked vaguely intrigued.

"So the attack," Dean said.

"Wasn't so much an attack," Raquel said. "Just some weirdo."

"Probably some frat boy initiation," Lindy agreed (which, was Lindy even a name?).

"But you said the guy moved quickly? Like track star quickly or--?"

"No, that's the weird part," Raquel said. "The dude was, like, jumping. One second he was there then the next he was over there."

"Optical illusion," Sydney said (because Sydney sounded more plausible than Lindy). "Must have been. Some kind of freakish elaborate hoax to see if we'd scream."

"Did you?" Dean prompted, not sure why it was relevant, but the thought of them screaming made him get a little excited.

Raquel shrugged. "He was just some weird perverted underclassman, I'll bet," she said. "So skinny and all. And that costume. What a stupid costume!"

"What did it look like?"

"Like some freaky-ass old fashioned wedding or something," Raquel said. "Cape and a hat."

"And a trimmed mustache," Sydney added in.

"A mustache?"

"A super well cared for one," Raquel confirmed. "And he spoke all dignified like."

All dignified like was surely a very technical description. Perhaps Raquel could benefit from Sydney's communication classes to help improve her clarity. "And what did he say?"

"Some crap about a lovely evening for a stroll and two lovely ladies should never walk alone," Sydney said. "Total freak all the way. I mean, who takes the time to set that kind of crap up?"

"What else did he do?"

The girls exchanged nonplussed looks. "Jump around, rattled on," Raquel said. "Tried to swipe at us a couple of times."

"Swipe?"

"Yeah, the freak was wearing some kind of claws or something. Didn't get close enough to do anything," Sydney said.

"Um, no," Raquel interjected. "He totally scratched my skirt. My leather skirt. That thing cost me, like, two hundred dollars."

Sydney nodded sympathetically. "I know, and you bought it in Chicago."

"And it's the only skirt that gets me free drinks when I'm at the bars."

"So you two were out drinking?"

Sydney shrugged. "On our way home. But you're not going to print that, are you? My mom would totally freak if she knew. She already is convinced I need to start carrying mace or something after this freak."

Well, that wasn't exactly encouraging. But still, these girls didn't have much to say. It fit the description of a Jack to a tee. The jumping, the monologuing, the clothes. Even the claws.

Raquel giggled. "Though we must have been pretty wasted," she said. "I swear, I saw the dude, like, breathe fire."

Sydney looked surprised. "Me, too! I thought I was totally tripping!"

Breathing fire, check. This was a Jack. And the lesson Dean had learned? That Jacks were the lamest supernatural dicks around, couldn't even scare a couple of half-drunk sorority girls.

The other lesson? That he had missed out on a lot by not going to college.

"Well, thank you, ladies," he said. "I have what I need."

"You sure?" Raquel asked.

Sydney looked somewhat concerned. "And you're not printing the part about the drinking."

"Or the miniskirt," Raquel said. "I put that on my mom's card and she doesn't know."

Dean grinned. "Ladies, I'm a journalist. I have my standards."

"Well, maybe you can, well, wave your standards," Sydney suggested. "Just this once."

Dean caught her drift. "Well, maybe," he said. "But I'll need your names and numbers. For, you know, any follow up interviews."

"I do love a man who's on top of the story," Sydney said, and Raquel giggled.

Dean just bit his lip to hide his glee.

-o-

Mary had always told him not to compare his kids. To not think back to what Dean had done, to not think about how many dirty diapers a day Dean had had, or how soon Dean learned to crawl or sit up or any of that. She lectured him often that their boys were different, distinctive, and that it was detrimental to all of them to compare them.

Still, sixteen years later, it was hard advice to follow. Especially when his boys were so damn different.

Dean was eager and compliant. Damn near perfect. Brilliant on the hunt. Anything John asked, Dean did. There were a few missteps here and there, but Dean was the good little soldier that he needed to win this fight, to keep this family together.

Sam on the other hand--well, Sam was not. Sam was smart, thoughtful in a whole different way. He could see things, understand things. He was a perceptive kid, always knowing what questions to ask and how to ask them. And he had the perfect puppy dog eyes that could get him just about anything the kid damn well pleased.

But where Dean followed orders, Sam questioned them. And it wasn't that John didn't tolerate Sam's curiosity. It was his open insubordination and perplexing hesitance to act that pushed all his buttons. Where Sam used to ask why they moved around so much or why monsters wanted to kill people, now the kid asked why they had to hunt at all. Why they had to give up so many things, why they had to spend so many hours training. Those questions were counterproductive and indicative of a bigger problem with the kid.

Namely, he was distracted. He wasn't living up to his potential. He was whittling away his time on studies and friends and putting his life at risk. He wasn't even fighting back when he was supposed to, which was perhaps the biggest lapse in training John could see. He didn't encourage his boys to violence, but getting beat up? Letting bullies get the upper hand? Wasn't just stupid but dangerous. If Sam had been on a hunt and passed out like he did during his scuffle with Dean--well, that could be the difference between life or death.

So the Spring Heeled Jack? Sam's hunt. Sam would have to know every detail of it, he would have to be part of the kill. After all, he was sixteen. Time for him to step it up--a lot.

And one more comparison? Dean was fun to work with. Witty and engaged.

Sam just looked miserable.

Slumped at the lone desk in the motel room, skimming the text in front of him half heartedly in the dim light. Every now and then, John could see him longingly eye his discarded book bag on the couch.

The kid still wasn't getting it. They'd been in town for nearly a week, checking with the locals, talking to the victims, getting the low-down from the cops. He had consented to let Sam start school, but had insisted that his nights were all prep work and training, reading up on the interview notes, sorting through the police reports, then endurance training, hand-to-hand, some target practice. It was his hope that the kid would figure it out what he needed to be focusing on, but no such luck. John would just have to make it a little clearer.

"How's it going?" he asked, eyes steadily on Sam over the journal open on his lap.

Sam's shoulders sagged a little. "Fine," he mumbled.

"What have you learned?"

"Not much new," Sam said. "Same stuff I've learned all week. He jumps a lot. Gentlemanly approach but some weird features. Breathes fire. All the reports talk about the fire. And his cape."

"Then don't look for what we already know. Think about what we don't know."

"Location," Sam intoned.

"So what have you figured out about its lair?"

Sam sighed, shifting through the papers in front of him. "Well, he can move--fast. So he can scale a wide distance. But I plotted the attacks on a map."

"And?"

Sam turned, holding out the map. "And it looks like there's a general zone for the attacks. I figure he's holed up somewhere in the middle."

"So we know the general location," John agreed.

"And so then you think about its personality. For as much as it likes to put on the appearance of a gentleman, it's old. It'd probably want something familiar to call home."

"Such as?"

"My best guess is something wooded. Remote. Nature is always the same. And some of the historical reports suggest that some attacks happened near the woods."

"Which means?"

"Here," Sam said, pointing to an area on the map. "It's sort of small but it's the closest thing to that description in the area. It would provide him a place to hide out during the day. And the kid who was taken reported seeing trees and wandered out of these woods."

And damn it all if the kid couldn't put it together. John had already suspected the woods, that was their usual MO, but he needed Sam to do it. Sam had a lot to learn, a lot to prove, so John was willing to take this one slow--for Sam's sake.

He couldn't forget, though, that no matter how well Sam put it together, this was still the rudimentary stuff. It shouldn't have taken this much pressure to make Sam figure it out. As far as he was concerned, this was still catch up for Sam.

"So what?" he prompted.

"We pick a night, take hand guns and a lighter, and comb the woods. If he's corporeal, he'll have real needs for shelters and food, so he shouldn't be too hard to find."

This was the plan he'd already discussed with Dean this afternoon, but Sam didn't need to know that. "Tomorrow then," he said. "We'll need to get the fake IDs finalized in case we run into trouble and we have to scope out any possible problems."

He could see the relief on Sam's face--for all the wrong reasons. The kid grinned, "So can I go do my homework now?"

John had been expecting as much, but it was just the wrong thing for the kid to ask for. The kid had only been enrolled in school one week and at this rate? They weren't going to be here more than two more weeks. Sam didn't need to worry about school. He needed to worry about this hunt, because no matter how simple a Jack seemed, Sam needed to assume the worst.

And Sam was worried about homework.

"No time for that," John said, giving Sam a steady look.

Sam didn't back away. "But I did the research," he said. "I figured it out."

As if it were that simple. Sam was getting pushed around by bullies, and he thought two hours of work was going to make it better. "You have training, don't you?"

"But I did my morning regimen," Sam protested. "And it's at least a two mile walk from school."

"Dean does so much more than that."

"But Dean's out picking up girls right now," Sam said.

Damn Dean and his bragging. "Your brother also isn't getting pushed around at school and passing out during mediocre hand to hand practice."

Sam's jaw just dropped.

"We need to get you back on track," he explained, not harshly, but sternly. There was no room for argument, no space for disparity.

"But--"

"No buts, Sam," he said, his voice hardening a bit. "You will be on top of your game for tomorrow night. Just a short run to top things off tonight, okay?"

A thousand protests flitted through Sam's eyes, but his face fell, resolved, before he said, "Yes, sir."

With that, he got up and moved stiffly past John to the bathroom. John could hear rustling before Sam reemerged and headed toward the main door.

"Two miles, no less," John ordered. "Then stretches."

The sound of the door closing behind Sam was the only answer he got.

And John was struck with another comparison. Where Dean was readily obedient, Sam was begrudgingly so, and it was so damn tiring to deal with.

-0-

Since training once a day was suddenly no longer enough, Sam was greeted at 4:30 AM with a brusque wake up call, demanding he be dressed in sweats and behind the motel in fifteen minutes. Where as evening training was more of a solitary experience, running and cardiovascular stuff, the morning stuff was a family activity of the worst possible kind.

Sam had spent a good portion of the morning training with Dean under his dad's watchful eyes. Make that over watchful. If Sam was supposed to kick high, he always fell short of his mark. If he was supposed to go in low, he nearly decapitated himself on his brother's muscular forearm. He was lucky he hadn't received anything worse than a bloodied nose and a bruised hip after his showing this morning.

And it really sucked out loud because he'd been trying. If he had gone through the exercises with his usual lackluster effort, he'd probably have done better. His focus was working against him, like his mind and his body weren't quite in synch anymore. Growth spurts, stress, exhaustion--Sam couldn't be sure, but wished like hell it would just stop.

As it was, Dean had looked at him like he was retarded and his dad had looked at him as though he was an alien life form. And today, Sam might just believe it.

Winchesters were supposed to naturally take to this shit but Sam was an aberration.

To make today even more stellar, since it was Saturday there was no respite of school. All training, all the time. The new Winchester motto.

After training exercises, he'd been ordered to work on Latin translations. His dad had crossed his arms and glowered when Sam had asked if he could work on the school assignments he was missing. Dean's Latin was suspect at the best of times and Sam's pronunciations were better than his dad's so he didn't understand why he was being made to waste his time.

No, scratch that. He did know. He was being put in Remedial Hunting across the board. Until his performance improved in the field, all of his skills would be hit hard at home to compensate. Arguing would get him nowhere and since he actually enjoyed Latin, he kept his mouth shut after that.

A shadow blocked his light as he poured over the Latin textbook and he looked up to find his dad staring at him with irritation. "It's going to be a long night, son. I think you'd better get some sleep while you can."

Sam was certain he looked like a spaz as his mouth opened and then snapped shut, the proverbial fish out of water.

Sleep wasn't such an unusual thing and it might have even been a welcome break were it not the middle of the afternoon.

Dean was standing by the door, arms crossed.

Apparently he'd managed to piss them both off. He didn't understand how; sure, he'd sucked during the morning training session but since then he'd put his head down and concentrated on the task at hand, one assigned by his dad, not even stopping for lunch.

Snapping the textbook shut, Sam set it on the nightstand between the two beds. Striving hard to keep the attitude out of his voice, he responded, "Yes, sir."

He kind of felt like he was being sent to bed without any supper.

His dad huffed out a sigh, his usual response to Sam these days, and motioned to Dean as he headed toward the door. "Dean and I will be right outside. We'll go get something to eat when you're up from your nap."

The door was yanked shut before Sam could respond.

Little Sammy had been put down for his nap while the big kids got to play outside.

The nerve.

Sam snagged The Scarlet Letter out of his bag. It was the book his English Lit. class was reading right now and it at least featured an element of the supernatural. It made him feel as though he wasn't completely dishonoring his father's wishes. It was splitting fine hairs but he'd be damned if he was going to snuggle down and sleep like some over-tired toddler.

Voices drifted through the open window, disturbing Arthur and Hester's conversation.

"He's not ready, Dad. You saw him out there this morning. He's a disaster."

Dean's words wounded him to the core; his brother thought he was a disaster.

"I know he is. We're going to have to stick close to him but he's sixteen now and it's time he was a full participant in hunting. At his age, you had several successful jobs under your belt already."

As usual, Sam couldn't measure up to his older brother. And it burned like acid in his stomach, rising up his throat.

Throwing down his book, he stretched out on the bed, covering his eyes with a folded arm. The voices receded but their words had marked Sam indelibly.

He was a total fuck-up and his family didn't have any faith in him.

Did they ever stop to think for five second about why? That maybe Sam was four years younger than Dean and couldn't be as good. That maybe his entire body was in full-on rebellion mode as his arms and legs were longer than they were supposed to be. Or maybe, even the unimaginable reality that Sam didn't like hunting. He didn't like to train. And that maybe, just maybe, that was okay?

He was pretty sure those thoughts hadn't crossed either of their minds. The recourse? Train him until he fell into line, until they broke his will, until there was nothing left of Sam's dreams at all.

It shouldn't have surprised him. This was all they knew. Dean liked this stuff, bought into it. He wanted it. And try as Dean did to make things better for him, to help him, Dean just didn't get it.

And now Dean thought Sam just didn't get it, just like their dad.

This hunt, it was his shot at redemption. Prove himself here, and he might just gain back enough freedom to keep himself sane.

Fail, and he may be screwed for the rest of his life.

Yep, this was shaping up to be the worst hunt ever.

-0-

At least it was almost over.

Dean was pretty sure that was what they were all thinking as they made their way to the wooded area Sam had identified as the Jack's hide-away. Not because the Jack was big and scary and particularly important, but because this hunt was wearing them all down.

No, check that. Sam was wearing them all down.

Dean had been downright horrified at Sam's performance during training this morning. Their dad had found them an isolated patch of land next to a cemetery to work out and what should have been an enjoyable time had been the pits.

Sam couldn't execute anything. His little brother's limbs were too long and snaked out at all the wrong times. Dean was lucky he hadn't been maimed. Sammy was lucky he only got popped on the nose and dumped on his side.

It was hard to see his brother like this. Contrary to what Sam thought, Dean wanted him to succeed. Sure, it was fun to razz him but not when Sam sucked this bad.

And it wasn't just about living up to the Winchester name; Dean was getting pretty worried that Sam couldn't defend himself if push came to shove. Was it possible that Sam had tried to fight the bullies at school and failed? It didn't seem likely, but hell. Dean had seen better performance from cheerleaders when it came to hand-to-hand (those damn cheerleaders could be as agile as they were peppy sometimes).

It was Dean's job to protect his brother, but taking him on a hunt right now would be like painting a gigantic bulls-eye on Sam's back. How could Dean be expected to keep him safe under these conditions?

The more he thought about it, the more he worried about having Sam participate in the hunt at all. Sure, the kid had found all of the information needed for this job but that was nothing new. Sammy always excelled at research.

But Sam's entire demeanor was off. When his little brother had been ordered by their dad to work on Latin translations instead of homework, he hadn't argued. In fact, his brother looked worn down, depressed.

Hell, if Dean had a workout like the one Sam had just had, he'd be depressed, too. And embarrassed.

To make matters worse? Sam had been even quieter, if that was possible, after his nap. He'd picked at his dinner listlessly, ignoring Dean's attempts to jolly him out of his funk. The only time he responded was when their dad asked him a question and then he answered with the minimum amount of words and only looked up briefly.

Whatever had Sam's panties in a twist, Dean couldn't be sure. Psychological, emotional, school, training, physical--it could be anything. But what he did know for sure was that Sammy better watch it or their dad was going to go medieval on his ass.

The Impala pulled off the road on to a packed dirt driveway, hidden behind thick brush. "We'll hike in from here. Grab a bag out of the trunk and let's hit it."

Sam quickly clambered out of the back seat and was first in line to snag his cache of weapons. Their dad looked Sam up and down before handing him the khaki knapsack. "You take the point, Sam."

Dean exchanged an uneasy glance with his dad as Sam turned without comment and headed for the thicket of trees ahead. While Sam had been sleeping, he and his dad had talked about how the Jack probably had set up camp at the edge of the trees and here Sam was taking them right into the heart of the wooded area. Easier access to town, they figured, and it was probably easier to navigate while jumping without lots of trees in the way.

His dad shrugged but his face and posture were resigned. They were going to let Sam figure this out the hard way. Which meant it was going to be a long night.

They'd walked single file, ducking branches and leaves, for fifteen minutes when they entered a small clearing. Sam put his arm out to halt their progress. He was looking up at the night sky.

Dean looked up but didn't notice anything out of the ordinary. Clouds obscured the moon. Hardly any stars were visible. The trees swayed in the breeze.

Suddenly something dark swooped down from the treetops, heading straight toward Sam. His brother held his ground; it was the wrong tactical move so Dean tackled him to the ground.

Visions of Sam passed out on the grass danced in Dean's head. Nothing was going to get to his brother without going through him. He shifted his body to cover more of Sam's

Sam squirmed. "Jesus, Dean, get off. It's just a bat."

Dean glowered. "If it was just a bat, why'd you stop and do your Lassie routine?"

Reluctantly, Dean rolled off his brother, chagrined, giving him an extra shove as he pushed himself to his feet. Just a bat. So maybe he'd overreacted a little. With Sam traipsing them aimlessly through the woods and his atrocious sparring performance, he had a right.

Sam slowly climbed to his feet, brushing the dirt and twigs from his jeans. "The branches at the tops of the trees are broken down, I thought maybe…"

"Maybe what?"

Both brothers startled as John Winchester s voice quietly growled from behind them. So far his dad had been a silent observer, leaving the talking to his sons.

Sam shook his head. "I thought maybe Spring Heeled Jack used this area as kind of a launching pad as he hopped to his hide-away. See, all of the branches are bent going in that direction…"

Dean jumped into the conversation. "I know the Jack can leap but that seems a little farfetched, don't ya think? Me and Dad thought maybe he'd picked a place on the other side of this stand of trees. It's more accessible for his nighttime wanderings that way."

His brother stepped back, looking down and away. "You and Dad talked about the location and didn't think it was worth mentioning to me?"

Now Dean felt like a heel. He hadn't thought about how Sam would feel, left out as their dad compared notes with Dean and left his little brother in the dark. "Just normal review stuff."

"So why did you even bother letting me go into the woods?" Sam asked, and the accusation was clear in his voice.

Dean shifted uncomfortably. It hadn't been mean-spirited. This was about Sam's ability to pull this off, but that didn't mean that they weren't going to have all the right back ups in place.

His dad cleared his voice. "Boys, time's a-wasting. Dean, take the point. Sam, head back to the car."

Sam's shoulders drooped, totally demoralized.

Dean didn't think Sam was ready for the hunt but he didn't think exiling his brother to the car was the answer. After all, Sam had done a ton of work on this one, and even if it wasn't all grade A work, it was still work. Sam deserved the follow through.

Still, Dean couldn't deny it--a launching pad? The kid needed to stop reading sci fi novels in his spare time. Conjecture was good, but there was no evidence that pointed to anything quite like that. The reports said the thing could leap, but people exaggerated that crap, and surely someone would have been more freaked out if the thing was jumping around like Sam seemed to think.

Maybe leaving Sam out wasn't a terrible option, just given the level of distraction. This kind of stuff had to be figured out in advance.

He wanted to keep Sam safe and as far as he was concerned, that meant leaving Sam out of the hunt. But how could he keep Sam safe if he wasn't nearby? And what good would it do Sam's ability to hunt if he was sulking in the car?

His dad surely had a plan, his dad always had a plan, but Dean sort of wished they'd talked about this. Maybe included Sam in on some of it--it would have kept the sulking to a minimum, at least, and might have avoided the need to send him back.

Still, a mopey little brother and a hard-assed father. This hunt sucked out loud.

-0-

John had watched as his sons debated about broken tree limbs and Jack's hiding place. Sam was so far out in left field, it wasn't even funny.

The tree tops were all bent in the same direction but they pointed due south from where John knew the creature's lair had to be hidden. He'd already scoped the area. Found a few likely hiding places along the edge of the trees, all of which were consistent with the direction and method of attacks. By stalking the edges, the Jack could better gauge its victims, better stalk its prey. The Jack may have reverted to nature to hole up, but it was still drawn to civilization, even if it could never be a part of it. It would get as close as it could get without being found.

Between Sam's wayward theories and Dean's over-protective nature, this hunt was derailing faster than John could keep track of it.

It was time to take command of things before they seriously went FUBAR and someone did get hurt. Clearing his voice, he rapped out his orders. "Boys, time's a-wasting. Dean, take the point. Sam, head back to the car."

Dean frowned and Sam looked at the ground. No one said anything.

His oldest son finally moved forward, bumping shoulders with the youngest. Sam lifted his face and tried to smile but even from his vantage point, John could see it was more like a grimace.

John searched his mind for something he could tell Sam, something positive he could take from the experience. His mind was a blank. Not only was Sam not physically ready for the hunt but his much-vaunted brain had been a no-show. Maybe they'd trained him too hard, pushed too much--the kid just wasn't with it. Setting Sam loose under these conditions was just begging for trouble.

Time to let Sam stew, finish the hunt, and then rebuild the entire damn effort tomorrow.

Giving his youngest son a wide berth, John passed through the little clearing, watching Dean's straight and steady back. But he couldn't leave things between he and Sam like this and turned around, words of encouragement forming and dying on his lips as a loud crash sounded from above.

Tipping his head back, John watched with fascination as the Snidely Whiplash look-alike pounced downward, cape flowing behind him.

The sight would have been exhilarating – there was nothing like the thrill of the hunt – except for the fact that the hulking form was headed straight for Sam who hadn't set foot out of the tiny clearing yet.

His gun was up and aimed, and his angle was good, no risk of collateral damage, and he fired before he could think twice.

His bullet was dead on, but the Jack was faster than he'd anticipated. The thing had sprung again, a leap so powerful that it rustled the air.

John had to blink, trying to figure out where it'd went.

He glanced to Dean, feeling a little frantic, who was spinning, gun still out and ready to fire.

He was turning to look at Sam when he realized he'd fallen victim to the very stuff he preached again. Overconfidence. Never take a hunt for granted.

And he had taken this one for granted. The only other Jack he'd downed had been easy, in and out. He'd tracked the thing, it had been more predictable than this one, found it mid-attack and shot it in the heart while it made lackluster jumps and blathered pointlessly.

But there was that chance that maybe he'd caught one past its prime. Maybe they didn't have as much leverage in town. There were a thousand possibilities and he hadn't considered them thoroughly enough.

Because there was the Jack, poised behind Sam, one arm wrapped tight around his son's neck, pulling the teenager back against its lithe form.

And the damn thing was grinning. "Careful, careful," it chanted mockingly. "I apologize for the blunt introductions, but I dare say that you did fire first, good sir." It bowed its head in a farcical apology.

John gritted his teeth, narrowing his eyes. He could get off a head shot, but it was too risky. No other part was visible enough to shoot, not with Sam secured in front of him. "Let him go," John ordered, trying to keep his voice strong and even. Never show weakness, not even when the crap has hit the fan and it was all his fault.

The Jack raised a pointed eyebrow, its curled mustache twitching. "Leverage, good sir, is as powerful as the devil himself. You can threaten fire and brimstone, come bearing firearms in shows of pitiable force, but in the end we both know you are inescapably at my mercies."

Over a hundred years and the thing hadn't changed at all. The archaic mode of speaking. The dress. This was a monster straight out of the history texts, all the predictable flourishes and moves, so how the hell did John let it get the drop on him? Worse, his sons? He wanted to teach Sam a lesson, not get the kid caught.

Sam was still, looking grim-faced and ready to move in the Jack's grip. John tried to catch his son's eye, but Sam seemed to refuse.

The fact that the Jack wasn't deadly on its own was some solace, and was the only leverage John had at the moment. "We also know that you like to put on a nice show, but there's little substance beneath your blunder," John said.

The Jack's eyes widened, seeming to glow with a spark of dark red. Its arm tightened, and John saw Sam stiffen, a surge of panic lighting across his face before settling into uncomfortable acquiescence.

"You do mock me to test me so," the Jack seethed. "A strong leader knows not to provoke his enemy, not to bluff when the odds are so stacked against him. This one is yours, I trust? Along with that other trigger happy lad? I know of your ilk, the roguish and those of the hunt. I would assume you fancy yourself a bit invincible, yet still, I am one movement away from breaking this youngster's neck, which I'm afraid he might object to."

John hated to be wrong, hated it more than just about anything. What he hated more, however, was to be wrong when his sons were at risk. To be wrong and get them into trouble. Dean was restless beside him, twitching and waiting for him to lead, to make the right choice and get them the hell out of here. "Let him go," he demanded, but it sounded strained to his own ears.

The Jack seemed to sense John's frustration. Its face brightened, adjusting its grip on Sam's neck again. "I am afraid that is not an enticing offer," it said, its voice sickeningly sweet.

"Let him go or I'll blow your head off!" Dean spat next to him, and John could easily hear the frustration in Dean's voice. His oldest was calm and cool under pressure, at least until Sammy was involved. And given the muted grappling of his son's hands against his captor's arm, Sam was more than involved.

"My lad, you are lacking in the proper language skills," the Jack admonished. He looked down at Sam with an expression of mock concern. "I wonder if this one suffers from a similar affliction." Sam twisted, but John knew it was no use. Even if Sam had been on top of his game, Spring Heeled Jacks possessed a supernatural strength. The Jack looked at John again, a bemused expression covering its pointed features. "Children these days, so lacking in manners, in respect. It is our duty, I suppose, to choke the defiance out of them."

To prove its point, the Jack pulled Sam even closer, causing the boy to gasp as his feet left the ground momentarily.

And John couldn't help it--he fired. Purposefully wide, but close enough to get his point across.

The Jack didn't flinch, and its mouth twisted into a feral smile. "Good sir, perhaps your memory is short," it said. It tightened its grip on Sam, pulling roughly at him. Sam's body jerked, feet stumbling, searching for the ground, and hands beginning to claw, the facade of self-control withering. "Or else I would surely think you would not make such foolish blusters of false bravado."

It was Dean who acted next, a blind charge that was as desperate as it was brilliant. Throwing the enemy off, surprise. All they need was some clearance--

Then the night split again. In a motion faster than John could track, the Jack had sprung, a blur of movement that took Sam right with him. When John blinked, the Jack was gone and there was no trace of Sam.

Then the cackle from behind.

Dean whirled a half second behind him and they found themselves looking again at the Jack, who was standing at the edge of the clearing. Its free arm was wielding its cape to the side, the other still tight around Sam's neck. His son seemed to be weakening, his hands not struggling, his expression dulling. Then, the cackle gave way to a roar, as the Jack opened its mouth and breathed out its blue flame.

The aura was bright enough to hurt John's eyes, but he didn't dare look away. This Jack was nothing like the other one, nothing like the previous reports. Something was different about this one, this time. It could just be playing games, but he wasn't sure he wanted to risk Sam's neck on that assertion.

And if John blinked, if he lost contact, then he could lose Sam.

He didn't move, didn't dare, and forced his eyes not to trail to Dean, who lurked behind him in the shadows. Divide and conquer. Dean wouldn't need to be told. John just had to keep his attention front and center to give them a chance.

Its eyes glowed as its self satisfied smirk widened. With another flash of blue, John could see its fingers elongate to points and the pale facade of skin went translucent enough to see its darkly pulsing insides. "Pity the man who does not learn from his mistake," it said, its voice dropping to an unearthly pitch. "Too many of my brethren have fallen for that trick. I, myself, do not wish for much beyond what all men crave. To be noticed, to be feared, to be remembered."

"Remember this, bitch," Dean said, his gun firing. By moving in stealth, Dean had attained a side position, which was damn smart of the kid.

Damn smart, but not good enough.

Another explosion and the Jack was gone, and John cursed as he tried to follow it with no luck.

"Clever boy, clever boy," it cooed. "You push me and you tempt me and now I fear I have no choice but this: to take what is yours and make it mine."

The Jack's grip was unwavering and strong, and Sam was clearly losing the struggle with consciousness. With another good shake from the Jack, John stifled a curse, and Sam's arms fell limply to his sides as his eyelids fluttered closed.

John was just about to open his mouth, to negotiate, to something, but the Jack threw its head back, another bout of blue fire emitting from its mouth, before turning its steely gaze back to John with vehemence.

"Pretty boys and their pretty toys, all mine, all mine," it said. "You will try, like many before, but forget that it is not always darkest before the dawn. Sometimes it is darkest in men's own foolish mistakes. Time will tell for you, and what to make of this boy here?" It motioned to Sam, who was completely limp now. "I am lucky to have the lives of a cat, and shall we see if he has such luck? Good night, good sir. I fare you as well as I would any man who cannot save what matters most."

With that, another gust of air, stronger this time, swirling the dead leaves and leaving a rain of broken branches in its wake.

John turned, desperate, looking for a sign, for anything, but this time the Jack was gone, disappeared into the wood, taking all traces of Sam, and the last vestiges of John's master plan, right along with him.

TBC