AN: Whoo! Here's to us surviving yet another "apocalypse"!
"You either haul ass or I'm kicking you all the way there." said Dean.
It was morning. More specifically, it was the morning after Halloween, which meant that a lot of the people in the town were at home nursing severe stomach aches, tooth pains, and the occasional hangover, leaving the streets deserted yet peaceful in a way. After the noise and riotous activities last night, it was nice to have a bit of reprieve, and the fact that it was rather early gave Dean the feeling that the world was theirs for the taking, for now anyway.
Of course, he could not take full advantage of the practically empty blocks since he had to drag Conner along. His friend was groggy, for lack of a better term, and half of the time Dean felt as if he was pulling a stubborn, groaning sack of rocks. Actually, a sack of rocks sounded pleasant about now; at least a sack of rocks would not complain its way through several streets, demanding either to be returned to bed or to curl up in the nearest shade. The only thing missing now was for Dean to drag Conner's face on the pavement itself, what with his friend's sheer unwillingness to move forward.
"I don't think it's more effective to haul – " started Conner.
"Will you just hurry? The sun's already in the sky and someone might throw away what I've set up." said Dean, getting a little grumpy at the pace they were going.
That sparked Conner's interest. "What did you set up?" he asked.
"You'll see." said Dean as they reached another block.
"Where are you taking me?" inquired Conner, who was more alert.
When the butcher shop came into view, Dean knew that they were almost there and picked up speed. It struck him that Conner's stiff movements could be attributed to the wrestling match they had last night. His friend must still be a little sore and maybe that was one reason why Conner did not want to go out so early.
Beside the shop was an alley and Dean led them into it. Ten empty bottles and tin cans were arranged in a row and stood on an old, scarred wooden plank, which was supported by a couple of cinderblocks. Dean was glad that he managed to find them all in such a short time. During this hour, the butcher shop on their right was still closed, so that meant they can carry out their business without some guy yelling at them for trespassing on his property. If he guessed correctly, this alley was where the deliveries would be taken in and out.
Conner released himself from Dean's grip and walked over to the cans with a scrutinizing gaze. "Is this supposed to be some form of mediocre artwork?" he asked.
"Medi– ?"Dean let it go for now and went next to him. "No, it's not art. It's target practice!" he exclaimed.
"What for?" asked Conner, tilting his head sideways.
"To open up a beauty parlor. What do you think, genius?" replied Dean. He turned toward him and every trace of humor and sarcasm vanished. "If you're gonna stay with us for a while, dad needs to like you. And if dad knows that you're good at hunter stuff, he's bound to let you stick around a little longer." he said.
"I thought you're going to help me get home?" stated Conner.
Dean actually felt a bit of disappointment at those words, though he did not show it. To be honest, he was getting used to having Conner around, so much that he had even grown to like seeing him everyday. Sammy was good, reliable company; he was his brother and there was no changing Conner was a friend, someone who could have stepped out of Dean's life if he really wanted to, yet decided to stay.
"We will, we will. Just… you just never know, you know? I mean, what if it takes us months to get you back? Dad doesn't like dead weight hanging around. You understand?" said Dean.
"I understand." answered Conner.
And for an instant, Dean pictured Conner and himself hunting alongside his dad in the future, reloading ammunition, discussing strategies, bickering in some forsaken wasteland about which diner had better-tasting burgers. As much as it bothered him leaving Sam in the dark, Dean cannot handle his brother knowing the truth, that everywhere they go their dad's well-being was constantly on the line because he was fighting monsters, that they would never have a shot of having a normal life since this was something that cannot go away. They did not have a lot, but Dean will do everything in his power so that Sam can keep his innocence for as long as possible. This was why his brother was not here with them.
"Okay, good." Dean put his hands together and rubbed them vigorously for what was to come. "Those cans over there? Your first exercise is to knock 'em down using a slingshot."
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a slingshot. It was not his; like the cans and bottles, he found the materials scattered about the streets and assembled them into something useful. Halloween had always been one of the crazier holidays, and people tend to bring some weird stuff with them. This would be Conner's own slingshot, his first official weapon.
Conner took the slingshot into his hands and stared at it curiously, and for a second he looked displeased.
"Don't get me wrong; I've seen how good your throwing aim was. It's that, this time, you're gonna be aiming with a weapon, not just with your arms." explained Dean, thinking that maybe Conner thought his skills were not enough.
He gestured at Conner's new slingshot and brought it to eye level. "Using your hands is easy and all, but sooner or later you're gonna get tired and your aim might mess up. Plus, your throwing power won't always be the same all day." said Dean, trying to channel his dad's knowledge and military reasoning. "With something like a slingshot, you can aim at farther targets. And you won't be as tired when using one." he continued.
Conner stared at his slingshot for a moment. "Can't I just use blades?" he inquired.
That was kind of a surprising comment; Dean had never pegged Conner to go for sharp pointy things. "Blades are way too fancy for you." he said.
"I quite like blades." remarked Conner as simply as if he was talking about his favorite sandwich.
"No blades. They're too – what's the word?"
"Noticeable." said Dean. "No blades for you." he firmly concluded.
"How about a knife?" prodded Conner.
Dean was not even sure if he was serious with that. He imagined Conner running around with scissors in a graveyard and attempting to cut a ghost. It was messed up."Not unless you're battling origami monsters." he replied.
He thought that would be the end of it.
"What about a sword?"
"Would you just practice using your slingshot?" snapped Dean.
Conner's posture slumped in defeat. He looked at his slingshot then gave Dean an impassive stare. "There's no ammunition." he muttered.
"Well, go find some. That's part of training." said Dean.
"If I had a blade, I wouldn't have to look for ammunition." Conner murmured as he searched the alley for rocks.
A minute later, he came back with a handful of small stones and a bent nail. Conner studied the contents of his hand for a few seconds, then his slingshot in the other. A look gradually manifested on his face, one that Dean could tell was hesitation, as if Conner was not sure of what he was doing anymore.
"Go on." said Dean, motioning to the bottles and cans that were ever so slowly acquiring dust.
A quiet sigh left Conner's system, marked only by the subdued lowering of his shoulders and the slight squint of his eyes. He turned to face his targets and readied himself until he felt to be in the right position. He got a stone, placed it in the slingshot, and aimed.
Conner picked up another stone and flung it again. The stone hit the wall.
The third stone was ejected. It crashed into the water spout by the side.
The fourth stone hit a bunch of weeds growing along the crack between the wall and the ground.
The fifth stone collided into the butcher shop's back door.
The sixth hit an innocent pigeon that had decided to rest in the alley.
"If a monster had been coming at us, we would be dead already. Ten times."grouched Dean, watching the poor bird fly away in a panic.
"I'm not used to controlling this device." huffed Conner.
"Try again." said Dean.
Conner did so. The stone bounced off the wall and struck Dean's leg. Dean made a loud yelp and half-stumbled to the ground.
"I can't aim properly with this." stated Conner as he lowered his slingshot and turned his back to the cans and bottles.
"Seriously?" Dean cried out. He massaged the sore spot in his leg before unceremoniously snatching Conner's slingshot from him. How can Conner miss even a single target? Certainly the slingshot itself was not to blame; after all, Dean had made it himself, so there was no way the thing can malfunction. Perhaps it would be best to show his friend how to handle a weapon of sophisticated craftsmanship.
Dean raised the slingshot and aimed it at one of the bottles. "It's easy! All you gotta do is lock on the target and – " The stone flew forward…
…there was the nerve-wracking sound of glass shattering, yet it did not come from the bottles.
"Were you targeting the window?" asked Conner.
For what seemed like a year, Dean stared at the shop's broken window in stunned horror before processing what had happened. His gaze fell on the slingshot and it dawned on him that the elastic band was not correctly adjusted, and that a section of the wood was apparently flimsy, which meant that the aim would always be off no matter how talented a person much for sophisticated craftsmanship.
Suddenly, a man emerged from the back door; his face was a livid shade of ripe cranberries and his mouth was set in a vicious snarl, similar to a wild animal preparing to rip its prey apart. The man, most likely the owner of the shop, pinpointed Dean and Conner and let out an angry yell.
"Run!" screamed Dean.
They both dashed out of the alley, neither brave nor willing enough to glance over their shoulder. The mad slapping of their footsteps echoed throughout the empty streets; their pace quickened with every building they passed and it became hard to distinguish if their heartbeats were going faster or if it was the other way around.
"This never would've happened if I had a blade." argued Conner.
Dean threw him a glare. "Oh shut up!"
Later, after passing onto a bewildered Sam the wisdom of carrying a supply decent elastic bands so as to avoid infuriating people who possess giant meat cleavers, the three of them ended up in an arcade. Judging by the number of kids running around everywhere, Dean guessed that the town's school was still in a holiday mood and classes were still cancelled. Either that or everyone here was playing hooky. Nevertheless, that was not their problem.
Within their first few minutes inside, Dean had been teaching Conner how to play Pac-Man, a game he was lucky to get his hands on since there was a lot of people in the arcade. Since their training session did not go as planned earlier, he had to think of other ways to help his friend hone his hunting skills. Pac-Man ought to teach Conner basic hand-eye coordination, as well as strategic planning.
"See? Easy as pie." said Dean, backing away from the controls and letting Conner have them. He had just finished another level and, surely, Conner should know how to play by now.
"No windows will be broken?" asked Conner, and his voice was so flat that Dean had no idea if he was joking or being completely serious. A playful glimmer lit up Conner's eyes and his mouth twitched into the barest smirk a second afterward, and then Dean knew that his friend was being a smart-ass.
"If you wanna keep anything else from breaking, I suggest you play and work on your sense of strategy." said Dean, only partially concealing the threatening tone in his words.
"I'm certain my strategy is careful enough that I don't break windows." said Conner.
"Bitch." Dean remarked automatically.
The moment the word left his mouth, he realized that this was not Sam he was squabbling with, but he had uttered it anyway. He was aware that it was a demeaning, mocking term, though it can also be an endearing moniker, at least whenever he used it around his brother. It meant that he was close to someone, and that someone was close to him, and that they were both comfortable enough with one another that they could act like uncivilized idiots.
However, Conner shrugged it off as if it was just one more part of the banter and played his round of Pac-Man. After observing him for a few minutes and saw that he was doing well, Dean left Conner's side to look for his brother. He wondered if Sam had gotten into any trouble, or had at least been the source of jealousy amongst the rest of the kids because of his advanced talents; after all, Dean had taught him a couple of techniques when it came to games.
When Dean located him, Sam was vigorously clobbering the moles in the Whack-A-Mole game. He was jumping all over the place and proclaiming unintelligible death cries once in a while; he was so 'energetically focused' on his game that some people were backing away at the sight of him.
"Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!" Sam shouted as he brought the soft mallet down multiple times.
Dean deemed it safe to approach his brother when a round was over. "Sammy, I'm pretty sure that those things are dead." chuckled Dean.
"I just wanna knock 'em down good." replied Sam, panting as he glanced up at him.
"What happened to rainbows and happiness and world peace?" Dean inquired.
"I wanna win lots of tickets so that I can get the toy ship." said Sam, and he pointed at the front desk where the prizes were displayed. At the topmost shelf was a war ship with authentic-looking cannons and crew; its sails were snowy white and the small wooden boards were robust and glossy.
Dean almost hated ruining Sam's wearying achievements. Almost. "You do know this game doesn't give out tickets?" said Dean. He used his foot to tap at the bottom of the game to indicate that it had no ticket dispensers.
The mallet fell out of Sam's hands and rolled on the floor. "Aw, man." he moaned.
"There's a ton of other games that actually give out tickets," consoled Dean, putting his arm around Sam's shoulder to steer them to another section of the arcade.
"I'm too short to reach the controls." Sam griped.
"And that is why you need to eat your vegetables." said Dean. He ruffled his brother's hair and did not stop until Sam tried to squirm away from him, a grin hiding underneath his untidy mop. "Come on, there's gotta be one game here you can reach." said Dean as they explored the arcade.
They searched for nearly fifteen minutes, and so far all the games they had seen were occupied and it appeared that, most probably, the players would not be giving up their spots any time soon. Soon, they were beginning to attract attention, the kind that made passersby feel sorry for them because they were wandering aimlessly in search for a game to play. Also, it made the other players feel smug and powerful since they had a game to play and they did not. Dean was one step away from beating the cocky smiles off their sweaty faces.
Eventually, someone came up to them: a guy who was maybe thirteen or fourteen, with a tiny girl holding his hand. Dean surmised that she was the guy's younger sister, and that she was around six.
"Hey, you guys looking for a game?" asked the guy.
"Yeah," said Dean.
"My little sister and I just finished. Just turn the next corner. Streak and Soar." said the guy as his hand abruptly gestured to their left.
Sam was elated and was dragging Dean toward the following corner in less than a second. "Thanks." he called out.
Streak and Soar. Dean had never heard of that game before, albeit he was excited at the possibilities. Perhaps it was a game with fighter planes battling and crashing into each other, or even alien space ships waging war against the Earth. Maybe they had to pilot a plane like it was a real one.
As they found the game, Dean had never even entertained the notion that the game might include butterflies. It was pink and had smiling butterflies populating its surface; flowers that were made to resemble paint palettes formed a sort of garden at the base. Exaggerated, overly-sparkly stars lined the sides of the game, and the tune that barfed out of its speakers was sweeter and more obnoxious than the combination of a music box and preschool songs.
"Aw, no. It's a chick game!" exclaimed Dean, revolted. He should have known this would be the case; no one in their proper mind would bring their little sister to the arcade unless she wanted to really play something.
"But, Dean, it looks nice!" said Sam.
They were not doing this. There was no way in hell that he was letting Sam, or any other respectable guy, play that stupid, girly, hideous –
Conner briefly looked up from his game of Streak and Soar. "Hello." he greeted them. He pressed a few buttons and the sound of giggling and shrill cheering could be heard, like the butterflies were absolutely delighted at what was taking place.
"See, even Conner likes it!" said Sam, rushing over to Conner's side to watch him play.
Dean stared at the scene before him in shock. "What happened to Pac-Man?" he asked, outraged.
"I got bored. It was a repetitive cycle." replied Conner without tearing his gaze from the screen. He pushed another button and the sound of something splashing echoed across their tiny area. The light from the game shone on Conner's face, and Dean was horrified to see that it was rainbow-colored, as if Conner had been hit in the face with the actual thing.
"Hey, Conner, I get to play after you, alright?" asked Sam eagerly.
"Alright." said Conner.
"Are you guys for real?" Dean cried out.
"This game is more strategic than Pac-Man. This involves precise aiming and timing, the knowledge of rationing your supplies properly, fortifying your – "
"Yeah, yeah, I got it." said Dean, wishing to hear none of Conner's ridiculous explanations. He chose to sulk in a corner, as far away as he could get from the perky laughter and gaudy colors of butterflies and flowers without losing sight of Sam and Conner.
Despite his initial loathing, Dean gradually became aware of the fact that he was smiling, that his heart was warming at the sight of Conner and Sam spending time together. It was not that he was starting to approve of their gaming choices (dear God, he did not!), but it was because they were bonding. They acknowledged one another and enjoyed the presence of the other; they got along rather well and Dean sometimes had to remind himself that he was not Conner's sole friend, and that was fine with him.
This was a long shot – the most far-fetched wishful thinking Dean had ever thought up ever since wanting his mom back – though he found himself hoping anyway, hoping beyond hope that Conner stay longer with them. Conner could teach Sam the things Dean would be unable to, or simply decided not to, like with the silly game they were currently playing.
Conner was patient, understanding, and kind; he was naïve and curious in a way that would connect easily with Sam, who was just as wide-eyed about the world. Yet Conner was also brave and loyal, and the reason why those traits appealed so much to Dean was because they matched his own. With the life of a Winchester, the most important people they could ever meet were the sort that could be relied on, someone who had their back, someone who accepted the brutal flaws and embraced the fierceness of their spirit, someone who understood what being broken felt like without letting the cruelty of the world bring them down, someone who chose to do something so that life can be a bit better.
Maybe Conner can be part of the family.
Maybe Dean was getting his hopes up.
For the meantime, Conner will teach Sam how to paint the butterflies in Streak and Soar. Later, Dean might give him the phone number for a pizza delivery so that Conner's possibly odd choices in flavor and toppings would surprise them all at night. Then perhaps Dean can convince Sam to help him prepare what Conner needed to say when their dad returned. Their dad never took well to new people, so it was crucial that Conner would have a good impression on him.
Of course, that was for later. Right now, Dean will watch them paint butterflies and try not to gag or cringe too much.
Streak and Soar is a game I made up and, to my knowledge, is entirely fictional.
Have a very Merry Christmas, you guys! Thank you for all the support and love!