Dean had to tie Sammy's arms together with a shoelace, Dean explains patiently, because Sam was taking boogers out of his nose and arranging them in a pattern on the knee of Dean's shorts while Dean was asleep. And Dean did not appreciate it.
"All right, well, if he's bugging you, then you tell me and I'll handle it," John says, twisted around in the front seat to reach in the back and untie his five year old's arms, Sam still mucus-glazed and red-faced from his attempt to struggle free. "Don't put him in a straightjacket, for chrissakes."
"What's a straightjacket?" Dean asks, perking up.
"Just—" John takes a deep breath, wills himself calm. It's too fuckin' hot for this.
"He means don't tie me," Sam bursts out and breaks into a fresh wave of tears.
"Sammy, can it," John says, exasperated, runs a hand across his damp forehead. "Dean's sorry, aren't you Dean?"
"I don't get why I have to apologize when he's the one who—"
Dean glowers for a second, but at John's warning glare he lets out a long-suffering sigh.
"I'm sorry, Sammy," he says dully.
"No, you're not." Sam flings the words at him with the passionate flair of a wronged woman, and John can't help but smile a little at his brokenhearted tone.
Dean looks crushed, though, brow knotting together fretfully. "Yes I am," Dean says, more convincingly than before. "I am, I'm really sorry. Quit crying, c'mon. Look, look what I'll give you if you stop crying."
Dean shifts in the seat to dig into his pocket, comes out with a linty, bent-sticked orange Tootsie Pop that John knows for a fact he's been saving since he got it free at a bank three days ago.
Sam regards it suspiciously for a moment, then looks at his brother through tear-clumped lashes. "Really?"
"Okay," Sam says firmly, like he's just brokered a deal, and takes the lollipop from Dean's outstretched palm.
"Can we keep going now," John asks with exaggerated courtesy, "or am I gonna have to leave you guys by the side of the road?"
"You can keep going," Sam says royally, and Dean folds his arms and stares down at his lap. John pulls the Impala out from the shoulder of highway where he'd yanked it furiously off the road, hot August air rushing thick into the car, and he wishes they weren't still nine hours away from Ohio and the poltergeist-infested house John's promised Bobby he'll take care of. He can't wait to kill something.
He glances in the rearview, sees Sam sucking happily on his – Dean's – lollipop, watches Dean press his forehead to the glass of the window and stare fixedly out at the rolling green and gold fields, teeth worrying at his lower lip. It's not fair, John admits, that Sam gets a lollipop and Dean gets shit, even though he knows it was Sam being a little brat in the first place. He makes a mental note to buy his eldest son a whole damn bag of Tootsie Pops next gas station they stop at.
John reaches out and turns the music back up, an old Crosby, Stills Nash and Young tape he'd found for fifty cents that weekend at Goodwill, and he raises his voice, singing along, tries to meet Dean's eyes in the mirror and wipe that frown off his son's freckled face.
"Don't you ever ask them why," he sings, "if they told you, you would cry – so just look at them and sigh…"
"I hate this song," Dean grumbles.
"I like it," Sammy says sweetly, and John kind of wants to smack him.
They've been on the road for three days, stuck between one gig and the next, and they're all more than a little antsy. The A/C busted yesterday, right after Bobby's call, and John hasn't found the time to repair it yet, so the Impala is like a sleek black oven, cooking the belt buckles to a hundred degrees and baking his kids' brains 'til they've both started acting like a couple of flea-ridden monkeys, hooting and whimpering and fidgeting and poking.
They should stop early for lunch, John thinks, even though they picked up some donuts just a couple hours ago – that way they can take their time in an air-conditioned diner, get the boys milkshakes or something that'll cool 'em down. Maybe put Sam down for a nap in the car so John and Dean can head to a field and Dean can get in a little target practice.
It's only been a few months since John's begun regularly drilling Dean with firearms, but already the kid's proven himself to be a natural shot… and John is proud, sure he is – but it hasn't quite settled, yet, seeing a rifle cocked so casually to his nine year-old son's shoulder, long lashes casting shadows on his cheek as he squints to sight down the barrel, small mouth set, sure.
John curls a lip and shrugs, trying to physically dislodge the image, because it's a stupid thing, getting squeamish over something that's going to save his boy's life. Like being frightened of broccoli.
He leans forward in the seat, sweat trickling down his neck, and pulls his t-shirt up a little so it'll quit clinging damply to his lower back. Fuck, it's so fucking hot. He's got a mostly-healed gash in his side that's itching like a bitch, and it's all he can do to keep from peeling back the gauze and going at it.
"Quit touching me," Dean says from the backseat.
"I'm not, I'm tapping."
"I'm gonna tap your face in if you keep pokin' me, Sam, seriously, stop it."
"I hate you."
"Ask me if I care."
"Do you care?"
"Aw, shut up, Sam!"
"Shut up, both of you," John barks, and they fall blessedly silent. John knows it won't last.
The highway thins, becomes a two-lane instead of four, and John keeps his eyes out for a food exit: a Roy Rogers, McDonald's, anything, but it all seems to be filling stations and Wal-Marts advertised on the blue Exit signs.
Finally he catches a glimpse of something that looks promising – Pete's Pizza Palace, Exit 142, and he swings the Impala off the highway and onto the ramp.
"Are we stopping?" Dean asks, a note of fear in his voice. "Are you mad?"
"I'm not mad," John reassures him. "Just hungry. You guys hungry?"
"No," says Sam placidly.
Dean makes an indecisive face. "I wanna get out," he says finally.
"Yeah, well, we're gettin' out. How 'bout pizza, you want pizza?"
There's no answer, and John grits his teeth, sucks in a breath through his nose. Fuck it, they don't have to eat yet. He just can't drive anymore until he sits in some air conditioning for five goddamn minutes and cools down, literally and figuratively, before he accidentally murders one of his kids.
He follows the signs for the pizza place, finds it in a huge brick building with a mural of a pink balloons painted on one side – turns out Pete's Pizza Palace is part of Bill's Bowling Alley, Your Place for Fun!
Yeah, John thinks, eyeing the balloons. Right.
"Are we going bowling?" Sammy asks excitedly, and John knows it probably makes him a terrible father, but he kind of wishes Sam couldn't read so damn well already.
"No," John says. "We're eating pizza."
"Bowling sucks, anyway," Dean mutters. "Pizza sucks, too."
"You wanna do me a favor and save the attitude?" John snaps, because there is no way in hell that Dean thinks pizza sucks, and John's not in any mood to put up with this shit. "Help your brother with his seatbelt and get outta the car."
Outside, it's not quite so muggy as it is in the enclosed Impala, and John takes a moment to stretch, careful of his side, and he shakes out his legs, aching from the long drive.
"It's so hot," Sammy says in a tone of wonder. "It's so hot the ground is making waves."
"That doesn't make any sense," Dean says irritably. "Why're you so stupid?"
John snags him by the collar of his t-shirt, gives him a gentle shake. "Your brother's bad enough," he says, quiet, complicit, just for Dean's ears. "Don't make me worry about you, too, okay?"
"Whatever," Dean says, but a moment later he reaches out and grabs Sam's hand as Sam's trying to dart out in front of an old Corolla. Sam accepts it immediately, wrapping his fingers around Dean's, and John relaxes a little.
The building looks like a warehouse outside, but inside it's fluorescent-lit and blessedly, blessedly cool, filled with the hollow echo of bowling balls and the rattle of pins being knocked over. The tinny music of arcade games filters out from the side, and John cringes as he sees Dean's green eyes go wide with lust.
The pizza place is off to one side of the alley, and John ushers his kids towards it, plops them down in the corner where he can keep an eye on what's going on.
"Dad," Dean starts, hesitant, and John digs into his pocket, comes out with five quarters and slaps them into Dean's hand.
"That's it," John says. "I don't want you coming back here asking for more, all right?"
"Yes sir," Dean says, and he flashes his father a rare, bright grin and skitters off towards the video game consoles.
"I want—" Sam starts, but John reaches out and tugs Sam closer to him in the booth, fits an arm around his shoulder.
"How 'bout you and me just hang out, huh?" he says.
Sam gives him a level, piercing look that's way too sharp for a five year-old, a look that says, I know what you're up to but I'm gonna play along because I feel sorry for you.
"Okay," he says measuringly. "Do you think Dean's a jerk?"
Christ on the crapper. "No, Sammy, I don't."
The waitress comes over, then, heavily-eyelinered and looking miserable under the layers of buttons and bowling decals she's got plastered all over her washed-out red uniform.
"How's it going?" she offers halfheartedly. "Drinks?"
"I'll take a coffee," John says. "You guys got orange juice?"
"I want coffee," Sam declares.
"Yeah, we got orange juice," the waitress says, smart enough to ignore him. "You want a small?"
The coffee is burned, but the orange-juice is fine, and Sam guzzles it cheerfully while John breaks a couple creamers and two bags of sugar into the bitter sludge. There's a family on the other end of the restaurant-area, a haggard-looking mother and a skinny, miserable father, with two boys who keep flicking pepperonis and squawking at one another. The parents have given up, John sees, lost all hope of control, and it makes him feel perversely better. Two parents, one parent – maybe even if Mary were here…
But that thought's too painful today, so John chases it off with a gulp of acrid coffee.
"Go away," Sam says, and John snaps his head up, sees Dean standing there, an anticipation in his eyes that has dimmed somewhat with Sam's admonishment.
"Dean," John says, "what'd I tell you?"
"Go away 'cause you're a jerk," Sam adds.
"No, Dad," Dean says, holds out his palm, and John sees with surprise that there are still four quarters stacked in it. "I just – there's this other thing – I dunno if they take quarters, though, and I thought – and Sammy can do it, and I think you'd like it – and – "
"Just spill it," John says tiredly. "Either I'm gonna say yes or I'm gonna say no."
"Laser tag," Dean says, rocks forward a little on the balls of his feet.
"Laser tag," Dean repeats, pointing, and John follows his finger to the far corner of the alley, where his eye catches the glow of blacklight and the neon flash of letters spelling out LaZer Tag!
"You put on these shirt armor things," Dean says, "and then you get lasers, and they're like guns –" he pauses to give his father a meaningful look "—and you shoot at people and when you hit them their shirt-things light up or something, and you get points, and they said Sammy isn't too little, I asked them, and they said you're not too big, and it's only three dollars per person—" he holds up three fingers "—and you get to play for twenty minutes. And I think it'd be good practice," he finishes.
John digs his fingers into his temples, shakes his head. "Dean—"
"Because you have to aim, and point, and shoot, and so it'd be like, like, like you-know-what except a game."
"What?" Sam asks, frowning.
"There are lights and stuff," Dean says, addressing Sam now. "And I asked and they said it's really fun. Don't you wanna play, Sam? You can be on my team."
And for all Sam's been willfully trying to piss Dean off all day, it's this last bit that makes him light up with eagerness.
"Yeah – Team Dean."
"Can we, Dad?" Sam asks.
"Please?" Dean says. "You can have these quarters back, that's a whole dollar. So it'll only be eight dollars if all of us wanna play."
John doesn't correct Dean's logic, but he reaches out and takes the quarters, considering. Twenty minutes just sitting alone in the cool of the bowling alley sounds pretty great to John, right now, to tell the truth, and Dean doesn't really ask for that much. John doesn't see any reason to say no.
"All right," John says, and Dean's mouth drops in a delighted O.
John leaves five bucks on the table for the drinks, and follows Dean to the end of the alley. There's a group of excited-looking kids already lined up, and a few parents who give John weary, knowing smiles that he doesn't return.
He feels like an imposter in groups like this, like he's playing a part, and he can't help but look at these parents and wonder what the hell they're teaching the children about how the world really is.
"Okay," says a woman at the front of the line, claps her hands once. "All of you who want to play this next round, hands up!"
Hands shoot up, Dean's first among them, and a couple parents' as well. John tries not to snort at that.
"You're not playing?" Dean asks, looking back at his father.
"Not this time, kiddo."
The woman starts calling instructions, then, herding the group into a room to get suited-up, and John coughs up the six bucks when asked and waves as the door shuts behind them, Sam looking forward excitedly, Dean still craning his neck over his shoulder at John.
"Parents can watch," an alley employee tells him, gesturing to a dark window where a couple mothers are already pressed to the glass. "If you want to."
John doesn't want to – he wants to slump down in one of the cracked plastic chairs and close his eyes, but he finds himself wandering over anyway.
The window is dark, nothing behind it, and he crinkles up his brow.
"You see anything?" he asks the woman next to him, and she laughs.
"No, they haven't put the lights on yet."
And as she speaks, a blacklight comes on and the room inside is lit up in an eerie glow. There are obstructions all over the room, kind of like an obstacle course, their edges lit up with white and yellow tape, and the surrounding area is dark.
Suddenly doors open on both sides and people spill out into the arena, barely visible in the dim light, and John squints, looking for his kids.
He spots them almost immediately – Dean a taller shape, Sam tucked behind him.
The game is easy, and he catches on pretty quickly: there are two teams, one on either side, shooting at one another with these ridiculous light-guns that apparently need to be re-charged every few minutes.
"Kinda spooky, isn't it?" the woman next to him asks, laughing nervously, and she turns around, puts her back to the glass and looks at John.
"It's pretty dark," John agrees, not sure what she means.
"Yeah, and…" She shrugs, shakes her head. "I'm always trying to keep the boys from all those stupid violent games out there, but they somehow roped me into this one. It seemed so harmless, but – still, I don't like seeing them with guns. Even fake ones." She shudders a little. "It's just not something a mother ever wants to imagine, you know?"
John presses his forehead against the glass, watches Dean crouch behind a barrier and take aim.
"Or a father, I'm sure," she offers after a moment, clearly taking his silence for offense.
"Yeah," John says finally, and she stops trying to make conversation, gives a last, unhappy glance at the window and then goes to read the newspaper in one of the waiting chairs.
The game is only twenty minutes and John watches every moment. Dean's team wins, and he and Sam are both flushed and grinning when the buzzer goes off and the kids come back into the hall, blinking a little in the harsh bowling-alley lights.
"We won!" Sam says as soon as he sees his father, and John nods.
"I know," he says, "I saw. You guys hungry?"
"You saw?" Dean asks.
"Over there," John says, pointing. "Through the window."
"Did you see me score?" Dean wants to know.
"Yeah," John says. "I also saw you take some stupid risks."
Dean pauses a little at that.
"C'mon," John says, herding them into the booth. "You want pepperoni?"
"Yeah!" Sam says.
"Tell you what," John says, hands Sam a twenty. "How about you go up to the counter and tell the girl you want a large pepperoni pizza, then come back here, okay?"
Sam takes the twenty, holds it for a second and looks at his brother. "Dean, do you want pepperoni, too?"
Satisfied, Sam trots off to the counter, stands on his tiptoes and waits patiently for the girl to look over her register and see him.
Dean turns towards John, expression schooled, and John wishes to god he didn't have to do this, but he does, if he wants to keep his kids alive, he does.
"Three things," John says. "One. You turned your back to the enemy. I don't care if it was just a game, because one of these days it's gonna be real, and you don't ever do that, Dean, you understand?"
Dean nods a little.
"Two. Your brother got hit more than you."
Dean flinches. "But he's just a –"
"That's right, he's just a kid, and he's not as good at this as you. But you know what that tells me, Dean? It tells me you weren't lookin' out for him. How many times did you get hit?"
Dean hesitates. "Once?"
"How many times did Sammy get hit?"
Dean shrugs miserably.
"You don't know?"
Dean shakes his head.
John presses his lips together. "Five times, Dean. Your brother got hit five times." He swallows, because he doesn't like thinking about this, but it's true and Dean needs to know. "Sammy would be dead right now, if those guns were real."
Dean goes pale behind his freckles, big eyes going even bigger.
"I'm sorry," he says, swallows. "I'm sorry, I didn't – but we won, though, Dad. You saw that? We won."
"It's not a win if you're not alive to see it," John says, and it's harsh, he knows it's harsh, but goddammit, their life is not a game, and the sooner Dean learns this the better. There aren't any flashing lights, no nervous mothers, no chances to re-charge. Just the sound of your own heartbeat, the weight of a gun in your hand, and something trying to kill you. John'll be damned if he lets Dean get killed because he learned bad habits from some fucked-up game.
Sam comes back, then, hops up into the booth next to Dean and looks across at his father, nervous, like he can sense the tension in the air.
"I got pizza," he says. "Pepperoni. Here's the change."
He deposits a crumpled handful of bills into John's waiting palm, waits for some acknowledgement, but John's still got Dean's gaze caught in his own, isn't going to let it go until he thinks his son understands.
Finally Dean ducks his head. "Yeah," he says. "Okay."
"What?" Sam says.
"Nothin'," Dean says immediately, gives Sam's hair a ruffle. "You get the pizza?"
"I just said."
"Oh, yeah." Dean nods, blinking a little too much, and John runs a hand down his face, gives it a scrub, wonders how the hell other parents handle this kind of shit, these games that aren't really games. It seems unfair that John has to do it alone. Unfair that he's the one who has to put that look on Dean's face.
The pizza comes and they're preoccupied with eating for a while, with ordering more juice and more coffee. John watches as Sam peels off the pepperonis from his pizza and arranges them carefully on Dean's plate, and he wonders at how one minute Sam seems like the most precocious little snot on the planet, and the next he's freakishly attuned to his brother's mood and desperate to make it better.
John buys them both chocolate milkshakes on the way out, which goes a little ways towards perking Dean back up, and they head back out into the stifling heat, to their oven of a car, the seatbelts boiling hot to the touch.
Sam climbs in first, but John puts a hand on Dean's shoulder, holds him back.
"Hey," he says. "Remember I said I had three things to tell you?"
"Yeah," Dean says, and John hates it that he can physically see his son brace himself for what's coming.
"Number three," John says. "You've got a hell of a good aim, kid."
"That big guy, the old one? You downed him what, four times?"
"Yeah," Dean says with the beginnings of a smile. "He was slow, though."
"Maybe, but that other kid, with the Rangers jersey? He was fast, but you got him anyway."
Dean ducks his head, smiles onto the pavement.
"That was good," John continues. "That was really good, Dean."
And Dean grins, finally, and despite the blazing heat of the day, it's like the real sun just came out, and John finds himself grinning back.
"What are you talking about?" Sam asks from inside the car. "I'm hot."
John claps Dean on the shoulder. "Get in."
Dean gets in. John starts the car.
The windows go down, the music goes up, and the road rolls on.