Title: Heroes for Ghosts
Summary:It's a time of change. While Sam had always looked up to Dean as a brother, stand-in father & hunter, Dean has to step up when the school is in financial trouble and Sam needs a different kind of hero: a good student? Dean is just a little out of his element. Set post-After School Special.
First off, thanks for all who read and reviewed my last fic The Bough Breaks. The response was as insightful and encouraging as always. I haven't posted in awhile, and this was because I've been out of the country and jumping from airport to airport which means that (1) I've had little time to sit down to work on fic-writing; and (2) going to different places keeps inspiring me with new ideas that I end up starting stories and starting others and never finishing anything.
Nevertheless, in the last few days I have finished a multi-chapter, plot-driven fic that is now hitting the beta-stage, Open, Shut which should come out very soon, and this offering, Heroes for Ghosts. It is one of those majorly unplanned stories that just sank its teeth into me and is now almost done. This is a work in process that is near completion... after just three days of fervent writing! I hope the quality didn't suffer, especially since there's no beta for this one. I'll explain more of how this story came about in my standard post-fic afterword. In the meantime, concrit is always welcome and without further ado:
" " "
Heroes for Ghosts
" " "
1: Fork in the Road
" " "
"Oh you cannot possibly be seeeeeeriouuuuus," Dean groaned as he blearily pushed himself off the bed and up to his elbows to glare at his younger brother.
"Keep it the hell down!" he heard his father yell at them from the bedroom next door. John banged at the thin walls to make his annoyance even more clear.
"Sorry Dean," Sam said sheepishly, ceasing the anxious pacing that had woken Dean and now their father.
"Sam," Dean hissed at him, "Get in your damn bed or I swear to god I am knocking you over the head."
"I tried," Sam said plaintively, "I can't sleep."
"And I can't sleep with you tearing a path on the floor," Dean growled, laying back down and closing his eyes.
Sam sat on the foot of Dean's bed, and Dean's eyes crossed in irritation when he felt the bed respond to Sam's restless leg-shaking. He lifted his head from the pillow and looked at his brother, who had also started biting his nails.
Dean gave out a world-weary sigh, "Okay, what?"
"Nothing," Sam said in a breath, a beat before reconsidering, "I'm just worried."
"I hadn't noticed," Dean said dryly before letting his tone soften, "About what, man? If you let me sleep I'll take care of it."
Sam smiled tentatively. "If you could do anything about it, then I wouldn't be worried, would I?"
Dean frowned, because the openly honest and flattering statement pleased and embarrassed him. "Sam – What?"
"The school's in a lot of financial trouble," Sam said, "And they're considering cutting on the extracurriculars... some of the students have started a fund drive."
"Oh my god somebody's been giving you chocolatey energy bars," Dean groaned in realization, recalling that booths and tables have been set up around the high school selling baked goods and chocolate, manned by student volunteers. He knew from miserable experience that the already-naturally-active mind of Sam Winchester plus sugar usually equaled to a Sam on overdrive, with a side of headache for Dean.
"It's for a good cause," Sam shrugged, "I've been using up my lunch money and my allowance on 'em."
"Buy a decent lunch tomorrow for god's sakes," Dean snapped, "I'll buy your share, I promise. Anything, man, to keep you from this damned sugar high."
Sam shrugged again, "They're cutting off a lot of the less popular extracurriculars and free classes. They're even getting rid of some sports teams."
"Anyone cutting off music classes by any chance?"
"It's not funny, Dean," Sam admonished him, "They're shutting down Latin club."
"Aw, I'm sorry Sammy," Dean said, and he truly meant it; that was the only extracurricular that Sam and John could to agree on, and Sam was damned good at it.
"They should just shut down the football team instead," Sam seethed, "Those guys are jerks, and they're a cost center that hasn't won a game since 1953. It's all just... hegemony."
He said the last word with a lot of venom, and though it sounded familiar, Dean didn't bother with thinking about it too much. "And you wonder why you're unpopular."
"I'm not unpopular," Sam argued, "I blend in. I'm normal. You, on the other hand... why do you have to be cool everywhere we go?"
"I'm cool everywhere we go," Dean grinned at him lazily, "'Cos I'm cool everywhere."
Sam rolled back his eyes, "So there. I was worried. I can't sleep knowing what I know. Can you?"
"Actually yeah," Dean yawned, "Sammy, try not to wear yourself out over the things you can't do anything about."
"But there's gotta be something," Sam argued, "And it's 'Sam.'"
"Go to bed, Sammy," Dean said, "And no more chocolates for you."
" " "
Bug-eyed-toothy-thin-girl never would have registered in Dean-world if she hadn't been one of Sam's Latin club friends. She was manning the volunteer booth the lunchtime that Dean came up to the table, bidding sloppy-joe day goodbye in favor of living up to his promise to Sam from the night before.
"Marthena," he greeted her with a cocky smile and slapped on the table whatever money he had set aside for that day, "How far can all this get me?"
Her large eyes widened all the more, "Oh this is very good of you, Dean. Really. We're uh..." she glanced left and right, "We're not doing so well."
"But that's not such a surprise, is it?" Marthena replied as she grabbed a handful of chocolate bars for him. She carefully made sure that Dean got each of the available flavors, "I mean, not a lot of people wanted to join our clubs in the first place, why would anyone want to save us?"
Dean frowned as he accepted the chocolate bars. It was the older brother in him or maybe the monster-hunter, he figured, that created this deep and profound desire to go protect... something. He had a soft-spot for the weak and defenseless in this miserable David-and-Goliath world. Not to mention he had a soft-spot for things that Sam enjoyed, and an even softer-spot for protecting one of the few things his younger brother and his father could passionately agree on.
Dean spotted a few of his classmates emerging from the cafeteria, three guys from a grade lower than his but in advanced placement. They were a little clumsier than his senior classmates, and desperately wanted to fit in more with the older group. He flashed them a huge grin and waved them over.
"Hey Dean!" they greeted him as they stopped by the booth.
"Hey, guys," he nodded at them, "Marthena here cut me a really good deal, and only for me and my pals. Buy a bar and get one free."
Marthena opened her mouth to argue, but Dean kept her quiet with a pointed look. In one minute he sold three chocolate bars, and picked the 'one free' from the pile he just bought.
When the three underclassmen thanked her and left, Dean gave her advice that he knew from his experience while trying to live on the meager budget that his father often left for him and Sam: "Spin it a little, sweetheart. Give out pricebreaks, like a 4 for the price of 3, or buy one get another for half-off or something. You'll make up the lost money with how many more you'll sell doing it."
She had blushed at 'sweetheart,' and he was too self-aware and vain to have missed it. He just smiled at her wider, "And make sure you ask for the same deals from your supplier. Make sure they know your situation, and always get from the same ones; you'll have more leverage to ask for things."
He opened one of his chocolate bars and took a big bite off. He was hungry, and this was all he would have for the rest of the day now, "Oh. And prom season's coming up, so swap some of the choc bars for those diet-things. Low-fat, no-fat, bird-food bars, crap like that. The chicks would buy from you guys instead of the lunch lady. You're supposed to know this, 'Thena. You're like... a girl."
"I don't think about stuff like that," she said, awed, "How do you..."
"Me and Sammy are like army brats," Dean said with a shrug, enjoying his chocolate, "We keep moving, so we end up kind of... observing a lot, instead of being a part of things. You watch more than participate, and you spot some things that other people might miss."
"Thanks, Dean," she said, "I'll make sure we do all of that."
" " "
Sam walked toward his older brother at the end of the day, when he spotted Dean waiting for him by his locker. A couple of girls were with him, but Sam preferred to ignore them. Not that he was mean or that they were. It's just that everyone seemed to know that Sam was Dean's weakness, and they kind of looked at Sam functionally, as if he was Dean's pet dog: they used Sam as a reason to talk to Dean - "Oh is he your brother? He's sooooo cute," or decided that Dean would like whoever the dog liked best, so they cooed and crowed all over him.
"Sam-may!" Dean greeted him, clapping him on the back, "You remember..."
Blah, blah and blah, Sam filled in because it was the same in every school, just as he was always told by any new friend he made, 'That's your brother with Blah?'
"Hey," he gave them a small smile, and then turned to Dean, "You ready?"
"Was waiting on you, man," Dean said, and the brothers moved around the girls and walked down the hall. They stopped once or twice to say hello to this person or that. Sam watched his older brother with that sense of awe that still always caught him unawares sometimes.
Generally speaking, Dean behaved whenever he knew that they were staying at a particular place for a fairly long time; that meant studying and doing homework and being polite, because he didn't want to fall under the eagle-eye of any authority that could jeopardize their father with Family Services. In the nice, 'good-people' towns that Dean actually liked, he went from behaved to outright charming, and this was one of those places. It struck Sam how easy it was for Dean to fit in if he only wanted to, like it was just a matter of turning something on or off. Then again... why in the world should Dean find school life hard when 'hard' in Winchester-definition was a mother killed by a demon in a house fire, a troubled father, little money and ridding the world of evil. Of course this was a walk in the park for Dean Winchester, he's gone through hoops the rest of his life. Not to mention... a lot of what they did was an act, and what was one more con? They were practically trained to charm the pants off people if needed.
The brothers stepped out of the building, started walking toward the small house they rented that was a short walk just off the road. It was a pleasant walk on a rugged road lined by dots of trees and shrubs and small shops and houses.
"I sold fifty bucks of candy today," Sam reported to Dean with a beaming smile.
The light tone and expression must have caught Dean unawares, because he was endeared enough and disarmed enough to grin down at his younger brother and say, "You would."
"Marthena told me you helped out today," Sam said, "Thanks, Dean."
"No skin off my nose," Dean shrugged, "I mean, I'm starving as hell and you can bet you're paying all your dues by cooking dinner tonight."
"That wasn't part of the deal!" Sam argued, "Besides... you hate my cooking, dad hates my cooking, I hate my cooking. You said everything I make tastes like egg-white. Why bother?"
"You're right," Dean sighed, "And I'm like, really hungry."
"I'll wash the dishes," Sam said brightly, "Oh, and I'm doing this essay you have to check on."
"You're already better than me with that stuff," Dean pointed out.
"But I need to see if what I want to say is getting across," Sam said, not bothering to deny it and was quite proud of that fact, "There's this writing contest I want to join. Everyone in the clubs that are about to get axed are joining everything left and right that they could find, so that we can donate money to the cause."
"If you win money," Dean said wryly, "You should just donate to the Winchesters."
"But we're always fine," Sam said simply, "It's the other guys that no one gets to look out for."
" " "
"Dessert," Dean said, slapping three candy bars on top of the dining room table and sliding two of them toward his father and his brother.
"Should you be having sweets this late?" John asked, putting a hand over Sam's when the youngest Winchester reached over to take his.
"I'm fourteen, dad," he said as he rolled back his eyes and picked up his candy bar, "Not four."
"Well 'cos there's three of us in this house, son," John said dryly, "Not one. And when you're awake, everyone's awake."
"Well that's not my fault," Sam said as he defiantly chucked half the entire bar into his mouth and got up to start with the dishes, "And I need to stay up, I have work to do."
"He's writing an essay for a fundraiser," Dean explained to their father, "Or else it's bye-bye to the Latin club."
"And keeping the football team which hasn't won a game since 1953!" Sam explained as he picked up the plates quickly and washed them with frustration. The sugar high was beginning to take hold.
"The fundraiser's where the chocs are from too," Dean said, "Sam's practically been sniffing the damn things lately and that's why he's a little...intense."
"It's a terrible situation," Sam said with a grave shake of his head.
Dean smirked behind his back, still finding amusement in his antics even at his age. "So uh... sir, I was thinking we could interest you in a bar or two. Or three or four."
"I'd give money to keep that club running," John shrugged, "It's good that Sam is taking an active interest in Latin. It's something you should also be getting into."
"Hey I'm allowed like, one rebellion," Dean said, "This is it."
"You're not allowed any!" John said, but nevertheless handed Dean a five dollar bill.
"Another satisfied customer!" Dean cheered.
" " "
Oh Happy day...
Dean wanted to shoot himself and anyone who ever came up with Sister Act 2 as he stood in the back of his music class choir line, mouthing the words to the song as his classmates sang and played instruments and his teacher conducted. They've been to four schools this year and every music class teacher had picked this song or Joyful, Joyful as a class project and it was driving him nuts.
The teacher walked from one end of the chorus line to the other, and then back again. She gave him a narrowed eagle-eye, and he groaned inside knowing that his faking had been spotted. When the bell rang, he didn't bother with a rushed exit, already expecting that she would ask him to stay over.
She leaned back against her desk and crossed her arms over her chest. Mrs. Winkler was a twenty-year veteran, and had probably seen all kinds of bullshit in her classroom. Then again, she's never met him before, has she? He flashed her a smile.
"Something tells me you're used to this," she told him wryly. He'd always appreciated her dry sense of humor and her straightforward style.
"At what?" he asked innocently.
"Being asked to stay back," she replied with a graceful wave of her hand, "For this misdemeanor or that."
"'Cos kids tend to act up when they grow up in tough domestic situations," he told her mock-gravely.
"Oh no," she said bluntly, "Not always. There's something about you, Mr. Winchester, that leads me to believe that your motherless little renegade act isn't a lost cause."
The act fell, because the 'motherless' part of her statement was something he wasn't used to dealing with so casually. Most people tended to dance around it, not knowing how to breach the topic with him in a sensitive manner. The thing is, there was never any way he could discuss his mother that would not hurt, and they might as well just hit him with the damn questions and commentary head on, like ripping out a band-aid.
Still, his defenses raised and his smile faded. "What is this, a Stand and Deliver moment?"
She realized she crossed a line, but was not going to apologize. She just opened her hands to him earnestly, "I just need you to try harder in class."
"Not everyone's cut out to be a musician," he pointed out.
"But no one can be bad at everything," she said, "We've tried you on the instruments but you said you didn't have time for learning or practicing them. I put you to singing and you're not even trying. I'm this close to giving you a maracas."
Dean smirked at her, "That would be... entertaining. Got a cowbell?"
"I need you to try," she said earnestly, "And I need you to practice."
"Practice makes perfect, right?" he snorted, "But if no one's perfect, why practice?"
Her lip quirked in humor, and he sensed a weakness.
"Come on, Mrs. W.," he implored her, "Not everyone's cut out for this."
"I know but people don't pass in my class unless they give it a shot," she said primly, "I need you to try, Dean, because I don't want to have to fail you."
Dean racked his brain for any other argument. If he failed this class, his dad would have his hide not because music class was important to hunting, but by god, he sure as hell would hate to be bothered by something like this.
"I mean you like music, don't you?" Mrs. Winkler asked, "I see some of the shirts you wear to class. Unless of course you w--"
"I'm no poser, thank you very much," Dean cut her off, "Yeah, I like music. Just... just not the kind you like to teach."
She tilted her head at him thoughtfully, and picked up a guitar.
"Oh god," Dean groaned miserably.
"Indulge me," she said, taking no offense as she started strumming. He recognized the opening to The Rolling Stones' Wild Horses right away.
"Ever heard of Rockapella?" she asked him as she kept playing, "These schools pick rock songs and do them in a choir. That's pretty cool, isn't it?"
"I don't know," he shrugged, "But anything beats Oh Happy Day as long as it's different."
"Fair enough," she said, "I change the song, you start to sing?"
"No!" he exclaimed, "I mean, why would you have to change everything for one guy? It's like... a hassle. And embarrassing. No. Don't do that. I'll play ball, I promise."
"Yes!" he said emphatically, "Yes, all right? Sheesh. This is like coercion."
"I'll see you in class," she told him with a smile, "Good talk."
"For you," Dean muttered under his breath as he grabbed his things and went out of the classroom.
" " "
There was a certain logic to their morning rituals, which was just as strategic as any other family activity of the Winchester men. One of John's few unwavering father-roles was to wake up the earliest and take the first shower, and then rouse his boys. Sam would take the next shower, and Dean would go to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Once Sam is done taking a bath, Dean takes over the bathroom as Sam and his father eat. When he gets down to breakfast, he stuffs everything in his mouth in minutes, and they still have time to wash the dishes before John drops them off at school before going to work, or wherever else he needed to be. Dean took the last shower because he took the longest and would have robbed the other two men of hot water. The water turning cool was also a fair indication that he should be getting out, like a timer. He also ate last because this he was fastest at, and they could still have time to wash the dishes before leaving the house.
And so it was that Sam and John were eating breakfast and respectively going over homework and yesterday's newspaper (salvaged from the neighbors' when it's thrown out at the end of the day), when they heard Dean singing Oh Happy Day in the shower.
At first, neither man thought they heard right. But at a particularly high, gargling note, Sam peered up at his perplexed father and started to laugh. The high note ended at a yelp when the water turned cold and a few minutes later, Dean stepped into the kitchen while drying his hair.
"Having a happy day?" John asked him, face carefully neutral.
Dean's face reddened, "These walls are damned thin."
"You sounded good," Sam said generously.
"Shuddup," Dean muttered, shoving a piece of pancake in his mouth, "My music teacher's givin' me a hard time."
"Well just play along," John said gruffly, "I'd be pissed as hell if you get in trouble over shit like that."
"I know, I know," Dean said, "I was fricking practicing, wasn't I?"
"Watch the tone."
"I'm sorry sir--"
"I meant in the shower," John said, and his face was just as nonchalant but his eyes were simmering with humor, like it seldom was. It made Dean blush and his heart swell, but he hid the pleasure in his face by ducking his head and punching the laughing Sam on the arm.
"Yeah, yeah, laugh it up buddy."
" " "
Dean found out that his younger brother won $500.00 in that contest along with everyone else in school, when the win was announced over the PA system during homeroom. It was a corporate-sponsored junior essay-writing contest about the environment. Dean was pleased but unsurprised; he had read the thing and was bowled over. He also found out along with everybody that Sam had donated most of it for the preservation of the endangered clubs.
He caught up to his younger brother during lunchtime, spotting him manning a candy bar booth and eating chocolate for lunch.
"Hey Sammy!" he called out, and the kid was beaming at him with his chest out, looking profoundly pleased with himself, "You've been holding out on me. How long have you known?"
"Since yesterday," Sam grinned at him wickedly, "I guess I just wanted to see if you still listened at homeroom."
Dean snagged the candy bar Sam was eating and kept it from himself, "Go get real food, doofus. I can watch the booth 'til you get back and I won't eat 'em all."
"Hey, uh..." Sam fished in his pocket and handed Dean a wrinkled white envelope. Dean knew it was the rest of the prize money right away, and refused to touch the thing. "You were right about keeping some of the money for us. It's been awhile so I think Dad will gear up for a hunt soon, and this is, you know, for when he leaves us."
"Aw, Sam," Dean said, "You should keep that stuff. Save it for a rainy day, or buy something nice and reckless for yourself. Dad always gives us enough."
"He always gives us enough 'cos you always end up starving," Sam pointed out, "We barely scrape by with whatever he leaves behind and you almost always have to go do something dangerous just so we could eat."
"Playing poker, pool and darts is hardly--"
"People hate losing, Dean," Sam sighed, "And when you're winning you have a big mouth so yeah, it's dangerous. Keep the money, it'll go back to my stomach anyway. And I did keep some for me."
"Yes," Sam said emphatically, "Just... hang on to it or something. It's kind of like you hustling for money and spending it for us, right? Writing that essay is like me, hustling. I mean did you read that thing? I wrote down a lot of bullshit."
Dean grinned at his younger brother affectionately and took the envelope with a lot of reverence, "Go grab your lunch, potty-mouth."
" " "
Sam bought the cheapest sandwich he could find and then ran right back to the booth, where Dean was just waving off three girls who apparently just bought from him.
"You're kinda good at this," Sam told him.
"High school is so predictable," Dean told him with a wistful expression that made him look ten years older, "The things that people want, what they need to hear... it's like low-hanging fruit."
"You talk like you're not one of us," Sam joked, nervously. He sat beside Dean and started with his sandwich.
"We're not like any of them," Dean said, plainly.
"Don't you wanna be?" Sam asked as he chewed, "I mean... from that last school, up in Truman. You had this really cool girlfriend, you had friends. Don't you want all of that?"
"They weren't my friends," Dean said, "Not really. And Amanda was just a sweet little fling. One of my cutest ones, but, still."
"Hm," Sam sounded unconvinced.
"What is this, Oprah?"
"I was just wondering," Sam said, "No biggie."
They sold more chocolate bars in the lunchtime they spent sitting together than Sam alone in one day, all of them from women. Sam on his own appealed to girls because he looked earnest and needy, like Oliver. Dean all alone appealed to women because everyone wanted to be the one to tame a rebel. The two of them together was a coup. When Dean had mentioned 'low hanging fruit,' he knew exactly what he was talking about.
"For services rendered," Sam told his brother, handing him a chocolate bar for free at the end of the lunch period.
"I sound like a man-whore," Dean snickered, even as he accepted, "I'll see ya after class."
" " "
Their father was already home from work by the time they got there, and the small dining table was taken over by research. He looked up as they walked in, his eyes set and focused. And just with one look, the brothers knew their father had left the building and the hunter had taken his place.
The Winchesters were not like any other family, but life was not always about the hunt. Their extended stay here, for instance, was so that Dean could graduate from high school after all the shuttling around that they've been doing this year. Normalcy came and went, just as that morning's levity had come and gone. Sam sighed heavily at the unwelcome change. He looked up at his brother, though, and found a steely, hungry glint in Dean's eye. Dean dropped his school bag right where he stood and sat across from their dad. Sam clutched at his bag tighter, and then took his time taking it to a chair in the next room.
"Sam," he heard his father urge him to go faster, and he felt inexplicably but profoundly irritated.
Something had changed for them since their last school, something he couldn't quite put his finger on, something that emerged just now that they were getting into hunting mode again.
Dean was hungrier than ever for the hunt, and Sam remembered him saying We're not like any of them. His friend Marthena had told him of his older brother's oustider's view of high school, and Dean himself had told Sam that people in school were like low-hanging fruit. His externality was unnerving, as if everything in the normal world was an act or a game, and the only reality was what he knew: darkness, and hunting. It's as if Dean's already said goodbye to this life; so much that Sam had even noticed that for the first time, his brother wasn't even touching the women in this school.
"I'm coming," he mumbled.
Did he change too? Why was it that after their short stint at Truman High, suddenly his father's bark was far less fearsome than staying in this dreadful family business forever and not living the life he wanted to live?
"Sammy, come on," Dean urged, "Shake a leg, will 'ya?"
"I'm coming," he snapped, before reigning in his temper.
"Ho-kay," Dean said, "I guess it's that time of the month again. And I was just gonna tell dad the good news."
"I won an essay contest and got some money and donated everything to Latin Club," Sam said quickly, throwing his brother a warning look when Dean opened his mouth to correct Sam about the money-thing.
"Good," John said gruffly, shifting in his seat, as if the scholarly feats of his sons made him uneasy when he was entirely focused on something else.
Dean raised a brow at Sam in inquiry, but let it slip. Sam didn't want his father to know about the money he had set aside for his family. Whenever Dean did it, he never let John know that they often came up short on cash or that a lot of the time he had to hustle on his own because he felt their father had enough on his plate to worry about things like that. It would have embarrassed the hell out of John, not being able to provide for his family. But Sam's reason was different; he kept it from John because he felt that providing for himself was the first kind of independence he'd ever felt in his life. Like it gave him a license to fight back a little. And besides, his father was damned well supposed to know what he was giving wasn't enough without having to be told.
He sat with his father and Dean, and listened with half an ear.
" " "
"What's going on with you?" Dean asked him quietly that night, when the had all gone off to their beds.
"I'm just stressed out."
"You think too much about everything," Dean yawned, "You should relax a little, Sammy."
"Yeah, how?" Sam snapped, "We're having all these problems in school, I have some tests coming up, we're going on a hunt in two days, and another one three days after that, and--"
"Don't you be biting my head off!" Dean protested.
Sam bit back the rest of his tirade and closed his eyes, took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. I guess it's just... life's hard enough without the hunting."
"You talk like we can just do away with it," Dean snorted, "It's more like hunting's hard enough without the rest of life getting in the way."
Lying in bed, Sam realized that he and his older brother were emerging out to be two very different people. He'd do away with the hunt if he could, and Dean would do away with the normal if possible. It was like day and night, the way they were beginning to look at things. It felt like a fork in the road, and the realization was a little bit like a cleave in his heart.
To be continued...