Disclaimer: See Chapter 1.

Establishing Priorities

Chapter 2

Three days, Shakespeare's Macbeth, and a chunk of the Canterbury Tales later, Dean was at the table eating breakfast with Sammy when his father walked in, heading straight for the coffeepot. Glad he'd swigged the last of the forbidden cup he'd poured a meager ten minutes ago, Dean surreptitiously got up to rinse the mug out at the sink, sincerely hoping he was managing to look casual.

As he reached the sink, however, his father stilled, frowning down at the coffeepot even as Dean's insides froze.

"Dean, did you drink some of this?"

"What makes you think I'd drink some?" Dean asked, hoping the deflection would work. Lying outright was too damn risky with his father and it so rarely worked.

Of course, a lame ass response rarely works, either, he thought, wincing inwardly at how stupid he'd just sounded.

"You didn't answer my question, which tells me pretty much what I wanted to know. But I want to hear you say it."

Shit, Dad. C'mon! Do we really have to do this? Why you gotta hear it if you already know?

"Dean," John prompted when Dean didn't answer immediately.

"I had to," Dean blurted out, unable to stop the words from spilling out of his mouth. Not for the first time wishing he could control himself a little better at times like these. When he was angry, he could clam up pretty well, but otherwise, the filter between his mouth and his brain seemed to be on a mostly permanent hiatus.

Or it could just be the caffeine…

"You had to?" John asked dryly, quirking an eyebrow as he waited for Dean to elaborate.

"You're making me go to English. It's hell, Dad, absolute hell. Without caffeine, I'm not gonna make it," he told his father earnestly, meaning every word. It wasn't a lie. Ms. Lyman was nice enough for a teacher, he supposed, but English bored the hell out of him. It had definitely made for a crap-tastic weekend. He'd been doing English assignments for three days, and he still wasn't finished. And the early bedtime had sucked ass majorly. It was almost as bad as getting up at the ass-crack of dawn to do more English.

So he felt totally justified in sneaking one freaking cup of coffee.

"Fine," John told him, apparently in good enough of a mood to let the infraction go this time. "But no more than a cup. And if I hear that you're too jittery and wound up to sit still in class, I'm cutting you off, understand?"

"Yessir."

"Did you finish those assignments?" John asked as he began to pour himself a cup.

"Almost."

"And by almost, you mean you're lacking…"

Shit.

"A book report and an essay, a few worksheets."

Or five, but who's counting?

"Why aren't they done?"

"Um…the worksheets 'cause I've been busy with the other shit, and the essay 'cause I just finished reading the parts of the Canterbury Tales that I'm supposed to write the damn essay about."

"And the book report?"

You noticed that, huh? Shit.

"I'll get back to you on that."

"Dean. Why isn't the book report done?"

"'Cause I have to actually read 'a book of my choosing' to do the book report, and the only thing I've read lately isn't something I can write about."

"Yeah, since Playboy's the last thing you read," Sam broke in with a laugh. "It isn't exactly known for its well-written articles," he finished, and with a fake smile, Dean reached out to smack his younger brother in the back of the head.

"Nobody reads a Playboy, dumb-ass," Dean retorted. "They aren't reading material—they're strictly for—"

"Dean," John interrupted, shaking his head pointedly at his oldest son before he could finish the sentence.

Like he doesn't know. Seriously.

"Now that we've established that the last thing you read wasn't a Playboy, why don't you enlighten me and tell me what it is that you did read?"

"The Satyricon. Well, the werewolf parts anyway. Most of that shit's dry-as-hell, Dad, but the werewolf parts are fucking cool. Then again, I think Ms. Lyman would disagree, don't you think?"

"You're still writing a book report, Dean. Go by the library during your lunch period and get something appropriate."

"Like what?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow at his father skeptically.

"Why don't you ask your brother?" John asked as he finished off his coffee and went back for more. "He reads a lot—he can probably suggest something you can stand."

"Yeah, good idea," Dean said before Sam could protest, grabbing his younger brother up in a headlock for a world-class noogie.

"Ow! Quit it, Dean!"

"Dean, stop tormenting your brother. 's bad strategy, son—you don't want to piss off somebody you need help from. Trust me, I know that for a fact."

Yeah. Truer words and all that…

"Tell me something good to read, Sammy," Dean told his little brother as he released him.

"Why should I, jerk?" Sam retorted, rubbing at the crown of his head with a disgruntled expression.

"Because if you help me out, I won't bug the hell outta you."

"Okay, then…read Jane Eyre. You'll love it," Sam told him, and Dean frowned, not sure he liked the sound of it. Not to mention the look in Sam's eye when he'd suggested it.

"Does it have zombies in it?"

"Uh, no."

Damn.

"It better not be some stupid-ass chick book, Sammy, or I'll kick your ass, I swear."

Sam was silent for a moment, and Dean knew without a doubt that his brother's book suggestion was a no-go.

"Try Catcher in the Rye instead," Sam told him after a moment, sighing regretfully.

"Any zombies in that?"

"No, Dean. No zombies."

"Well, is it about baseball?"

"No. Just a foul-mouthed asshole. You'd like it."

Dean grinned, ruffling Sam's hair as he opened his mouth to comment.

"Alright, Dean, listen," John said suddenly, knocking on the table to get Dean's attention as he sat down at the table. "I've gotta go outta town today, probably won't be back until late tonight. So that means you're gonna have to hold down the fort. You'll need to pick the twins up from school, make sure everyone gets dinner and—"

"Dad. You've been leavin' me in charge since I was ten. I think I know what to do," Dean told him bluntly, a little annoyed by the implication that he couldn't do his job.

"Yeah, I guess you do. Make sure you come straight home and get started on that English work that you haven't finished yet, and do your homework. And don't try to weasel out of it—your sister will rat you out in a heartbeat."

Yeah, she totally will.

She wouldn't do it maliciously, he knew, at least not usually, but she couldn't keep a secret worth a damn.

"Dean, did you hear me?"

"Yeah, yeah, I heard you," he told his dad absently as he shoved the last of his toast into his mouth. He was already dreading what was no doubt going to be a long-ass day.

"Oh, and leave your English notebook on the table for me when I get home—I expect to see Ms. Lyman's signature. If I don't, I'm going to assume you skipped, in which case, you and I are going to have problems. You get what I'm saying?"

"Yessir," he mumbled, wishing his dad wouldn't bring all that shit up in front of Sammy. Of course, at that moment, Sam snickered, and it completely set Dean off.

"Why don't you shut the hell up?" Dean snarled, aiming a glare at the thirteen-year-old.

"Stand down, Dean," John said sternly. "Sam, go get your shoes on—you two need to get going."

"I swear, if he starts in on me in the car, I'm gonna beat the shit outta him, Dad," Dean said bluntly as he shoved his chair back and went to dump his dishes in the sink.

"I'm beginning to reconsider letting you have the coffee," John said with a sigh.

"Nevermind," Dean grumbled, grabbing his books and heading for the door for what was sure to be a crap-tastic Monday.

----------

One pop-quiz, two badly dressed teachers, and four equally bad lectures later, he was staring at the clock in his calculus class, watching the minute-hand painstakingly tick closer and closer to lunch. He had a dollar burning a hole in his pocket, just waiting to be shoved into the vending machine in exchange for some extra caffeinated sustenance before his English class, and he could already taste the Pepsi, cool and sweet on his tongue.

's almost as good as getting laid. Almost. Yeah, getting laid is first, with pie running a close second. But Pepsi comes right after that. Followed by M&Ms, of course. And cheeseburgers…damn, I'm hungry.

Eight minutes and thirty-two seconds before the lunch bell was scheduled to ring, the office buzzed the room, interrupting Mr. Schuler in mid-lecture.

"Mr. Schuler?"

"Yes?" Mr. Schuler asked impatiently, obviously more than a little put out by the interruption.

"Sorry for the interruption, but we need Dean Winchester in the office."

Oh fuck.

Dean immediately set his mind to trying to figure out what he could be in trouble for, automatically eliminating a few options. He hadn't been in a fight since the first week of school, and he'd managed to stay under the radar as far as that one went anyway.

Haven't written on any walls…and I erased the shit I wrote on my desk in Mr. Montgomery's class…and I've been pretty damn subtle about make-out sessions in the janitor's closet. 'sides, if somebody had seen that, I'd have been confronted on the spot. They wouldn't wait to call me on that…shit, what did I do?

"Mr. Winchester."

Mr. Shuler's voice pulled him abruptly back to the present, and he looked up to see Mr. Schuler holding out a hall pass.

"Go directly there, Mr. Winchester—if you're not there in a few minutes, they'll buzz back. No detours."

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes—as if he would be stupid enough to try and duck out when he'd been called specifically—Dean slammed his book closed, grabbed his stuff, and headed for the door, snatching the pass out of Mr. Shuler's hand as he brushed past him.

When he reached the office, the secretary handed him the phone with a look Dean couldn't quite decipher.

Oh, shit, please don't let this be about Dad.

"Hello?"

"Dean Winchester?" an unfamiliar female voice asked, and Dean felt his heart stop in his chest, his first thought being that it was just what he feared, that the person on the other end of the line was calling from a hospital to tell him that something had happened to his dad.

"Yeah…um, I mean, yes, ma'am."

"Janine Nielson. I'm the principal over at the elementary school." And at that moment, Dean couldn't decide which he felt more: relief or worry.

"What's wrong?"

"We're having some trouble with your sister, I'm afraid. We tried to get in touch with your father, but so far, we haven't been able to reach him."

"He's out of town for the day," Dean explained impatiently. "Look, what's wrong with my sister?"

Man, it still feels weird to say that.

"We'll she's currently wedged herself under the cabinets here in the office. I could pull her out, but I'm worried that it would do more harm than good. She's terribly upset."

"Is she crying?"

"I'm afraid so."

Shit.

"What set her off?"

We're not entirely sure—what little we've been able to garner is that some of the other children in her class said something to her. What exactly that was, we're still not sure. But it wasn't until we couldn't reach your father that she really got upset."

You fucking told her you couldn't reach Dad?! Are you shitting me? Dammit!

"Is Braden with her?"

"He hasn't budged from his spot in front of the cabinet. He's been trying to talk her out, but so far, he hasn't had any luck."

Of course not. Because that would be too easy.

"If she'll listen to you, tell her I'm on my way. I should be there in ten minutes," Dean said, not bothering to wait for confirmation before he hung up. He didn't waste time signing out or trying to explain, simply heading for the door without a backwards glance for the secretary who was calling his name.

-----------

It took a hell of a lot longer to coax Aubrey out than he'd reckoned, and he'd stupidly thought that she'd go back to class once she'd settled down. But no, when she finally did emerge, she latched onto him, her arms around his neck and her legs wrapped around his torso as she clung to him.

As he carried her to the car, Braden following along behind with their backpacks, Dean glanced down at his watch, cringing when he saw what time it was.

"Shit."

Dad's gonna tear me a new one when he gets home.

"Wha's wrong, D?" Braden asked, staring up at him as Dean unlocked the Impala.

"I missed English."

"But you miss English all the time," Braden pointed out reasonably, clearly not understanding why Dean was upset.

"Yeah, but this time, Dad's gonna kick my ass for it. I'm supposed to get Ms. Lyman's signature. He's gonna fucking kill me for skipping class right after he all but told Ms. Lyman I'd be in class from now on."

"But it's not your fault," Braden stated as he slid into the car and scooted over to make room for Aubrey.

"I don't think anybody gives a shit, Bray," Dean told him as he managed to pry Aubrey away from him long enough to get her into the car. She dropped heavily onto the seat, perched on her knees while she waited for him to get in before practically gluing herself to his side.

Ass kicking from Dad aside, I better stop by and hand in all that shit I did over the weekend, at least try to explain why the hell I missed class or Ms. Lyman's liable to call Dad and get my ass in even more trouble than it already is.

Two Metallica songs, eight Peanut M&Ms, and four stoplights later, Dean wheeled into his parking space at the high school. It was almost 2:15, which meant his English class was a few minutes from ending. Lucky for him, Ms. Lyman had her planning period right after class, so at least he wouldn't have to go looking for her.

Like that's going to make it any better. This is gonna suck out loud.

Knowing he was only delaying the inevitable by sitting in the car any longer, Dean heaved a sigh and climbed out of the car, grabbing his backpack and catching Aubrey as she dove into his arms. Braden piled out without a word, shutting the Impala's door behind him as Aubrey buried her face in Dean's neck and settled against him with a shudder.

They hit the main hallway right as the bell rang, and within seconds, the hallways were flooded with noisy high school students, all clamoring to socialize and get to their lockers before their next classes. Without slowing, Dean reached back with one hand and pulled Braden in front of him, steering the eight-year-old by the shoulder. Ignoring the strange looks he was getting, Dean guided Braden to Ms. Lyman's door before pausing.

"Look, why don't you two wait here—I'll only be a minute," Dean said, bending to put Aubrey down, only to bite back a curse when she refused to relinquish her grip. And without Sammy, Dean knew there was no way in hell his sister was gonna go for it. "Shit, Aubrey—c'mon," Dean groaned.

"Nooooo," she whined, tightening her grip on him even as he tried to peel her off. But when choking became a real concern though, he finally admitted defeat, hefting her a little higher and shifting her weight to one arm so he could knock lightly on the door frame.

Ms. Lyman looked up, her frown at seeing him turning to a look of unconcealed confusion when she saw twins.

"Um…so, yeah, I'm sorry I didn't make it today. Something came up," Dean told her as he walked into the room.

"I'm listening," she replied guardedly, setting her pen down and focusing her attention on him, her eyes flickering surreptitiously from Dean to his younger siblings.

"Family emergency, and Dad's outta town 'til tonight. There was no one else."

"I see," she told him, and Dean grimaced.

Not exactly the forgiving response I was gunning for. 'course, I guess it's all relative—she could be totally bitching me out.

"But I got most of the work done that you sent home," he told her, letting his backpack slip off his shoulder only to realize that he didn't have two free hands with which to unzip the stupid thing. He stooped to put Aubrey down, but she whimpered pitifully, tightening her grip on his neck.

"Aubrey, c'mon, cut me some fu—freaking slack, here," Dean said softly, only barely managing to catch himself before the harsh profanity slipped out.

Without a word, Braden stepped up beside Dean, unzipping the backpack and grabbing a somewhat crinkled stack of papers out before walking forward to place them on the edge of Ms. Lyman's desk.

"Um…I didn't finish everything, but I swear you'll have the rest by Friday."

"Have a seat, Dean," she said after a long moment, and with a cramped feeling in the pit of his stomach, Dean dropped into a chair, shifting Aubrey until she was settled sideways on his lap. She slumped against his chest with a shaky, exhausted sigh, and Dean tightened his grip on her comfortingly for just a moment before looking back at Ms. Lyman.

"Are these your siblings?"

"Yes ma'am. Well, two of 'em anyway."

"You're 'posed to introduce us, D," Aubrey mumbled into Dean's shirt, earning a smile from Ms. Lyman. "Pastor Jim says it's good manners."

Shit.

"Ms. Lyman," he began with a heavy sigh, "this is my sister Aubrey, and my brother Braden."

"Hey," Aubrey mumbled, peering back at Ms. Lyman with a shyness Dean had rarely seen, while Braden settled for a stoic nod. "Are you Dean's English teacher?"

"Yes, I am," Ms. Lyman told Aubrey warmly, and Dean wondered absently why she couldn't be like that in class.

"Oh. Sorry," Aubrey said sympathetically. "D don't like English."

Way to be helpful, Aubrey. Thanks.

"Yes, I know," Ms. Lyman replied, a hint of regret in her voice, though Dean honestly couldn't figure out why the hell she'd care whether Dean liked English or not.

So long as I do the work, what does it matter? Oh wait…I'm not doing the work. Right.

"That's why he skips my class so often and doesn't do his work," Ms. Lyman went on to say, cutting her eyes at Dean pointedly.

"But Daddy was real mad about that, and he said D had better get his shit together or he was gonna be in really deep shit," Aubrey said matter-of-factly, and Dean winced, wishing that Aubrey hadn't chosen that moment to spout John Winchester vernacular. "D said he wasn't gonna skip no more, and he's workin' real hard on his homework. It ain't his fault he wasn't here today, so please don't be mad at him. It was my fault," Aubrey murmured miserably.

"No, it wasn't," Dean told her vehemently. "It's the fault of those little shitheads in your class that upset you in the first place."

And it's Dad's fault for going outta town without telling you.

"Aubrey, I'm not mad at Dean. Disappointed, yes. But mad, no."

"But—"

"Aubrey, hush," Dean told her, his voice soft but firm. "Look, Ms. Lyman," Dean said, turning his gaze on his English teacher, "I'm sorry that I missed your class right after my dad told you I'd be here. I was gonna be here, I swear to you. But some things are more important. And even though it means I'm gonna get my ass handed to me when Dad doesn't see your signature on my non-existent notes for today….well, I have priorities. And family comes first. I just wanted you to know that I wasn't skipping just to piss you off."

"Why don't you tell me what happened, and then I'll decide whether or not to give you my signature."

Dean could hardly dare to hope, but if she went for it, he could manage to avoid the major ass-chewing he'd get if he didn't bring home her signature. Of course, there was always forgery, but it was risky. His dad tended to figure it out, and even on the off-chance that he didn't, the truth would no doubt come when his dad called Ms. Lyman for an update. Which he would, Dean knew, because that's what he did when he told a teacher he'd stay in touch. Dean knew that, too, because he'd had a lot of experience.

Shit, what do I tell her? Not much is gonna be convincing enough. Fuck. I'm gonna have to tell her the truth.

"Their mom died a couple of months ago," Dean told her, not really wanting to talk about what he considered family business but not really seeing any way around it.

's the one time that the truth is actually more convincing than any lie I could come up with, which is saying a lot considering what a master bull-shitter I am. Still, I don't like tellin' her this shit. 's nobody's business but ours.

"Oh?" Ms. Lyman asked, and Dean suppressed a sigh, getting that she was waiting for more information. Which Dean was going to have to supply, since she was the only one who could save him from trouble with his dad.

"Aubrey's having a hard time at school because she's scared something might happen to one of us," Dean told her with a sigh, trying to keep it as simple as possible. "And with Dad outta town today…she got upset. The school didn't have anyone else to call but me."

"I see," Ms. Lyman replied, looking back at him sympathetically. "I'm very sorry to hear about your mother, Aubrey."

"Thanks," Aubrey whispered.

"But it looks like you have a father and brothers who care about you quite a bit. Your older brother even skipped class to come get you," she told Aubrey with a soft smile.

"Yeah, D's nice and he loves us. He didn't at first, 'cause we have different mommies, and when Daddy found us, D wasn't feelin' good. He was real sick—he even had to go to the hospital. But he's better now, and he changed his mind about us. He looks after us real good when Daddy has to be gone somewhere," she told Ms. Lyman, obviously not seeing any problem with telling a stranger all about them.

"That's very sweet of—"

"Can we go home now?" Braden asked sedately, interrupting her without looking in her direction, his eyes never once wavering from Dean.

"Dude," Dean said, glancing over at his little brother with a stern expression. "Seriously. 'm dealing with something here. And you're bein' rude."

"Sorry," Braden said unapologetically, still staring placidly back at Dean with an unwavering gaze. "So can we?"

Dean sighed, suddenly feeling more tired than he had since he'd been in the hospital.

"Shit," he mumbled, dragging a hand through his hair before looking back at Ms. Lyman. "Look, I'm sorry about all this, but I can't stay any longer. If I need to stay for detention or something tomorrow, then I will, but right now, I gotta get them home."

"Hand me your notebook, Dean," she said, holding out her hand. With a sigh, Dean reached down and dug it out of his backpack before handing it over to her, already imagining the note she was no doubt about to write to his father. Taking a worksheet from the top of a stack on her desk without a word, she signed her name to the bottom and slipped it into the pocket of his notebook. Closing it, she pushed it across the desk toward him with a hint of a smile lurking at the corners of her mouth.

Dude, no way.

"Get the worksheet done before your father gets home, and I suspect he'll never know."

"Really?"

"Don't misunderstand me, Dean—this is a once-in-a-lifetime offer. I expect you to be here tomorrow, come hell or high water. Otherwise, I will be calling your father. Do you understand?"

"Yes ma'am," Dean told her respectfully, well aware that she was being more than fair with him. It was only fair to cut her some slack, too. Grabbing his notebook, he passed it to Braden before climbing to his feet, Aubrey still held securely. Shifting her once more to one arm, he relieved Braden of the weight of his backpack and shouldered the bag once more, nudging Braden towards the door. As he reached the door, he paused, turning back to Ms. Lyman with a questioning look.

"Yes, Dean?"

"I don't get it," he told her.

"I'm afraid I don't understand," she replied, frowning at him with confusion.

"I mean, I've been a total ass. So why would you help me?"

"Because, Dean," she began with a sad sigh, "there are some things that are more important than school work," she told him, glancing at the twins before meeting his eyes. "It's all about priorities. And I think you and I have finally come to an understanding about that. So I'll see you tomorrow, yes?"

"Yes ma'am," he replied, and though he knew it would most likely be boring as hell, he would be there tomorrow. And the next day, and the next until their dad packed them up and moved them away again. Because she was right. They all had their priorities, and if only this once, they were all on the same page.

Family came first. Always.

Even before boring-ass poetry.