Disclaimer: I do not own Supernatural. Written for fun, not profit.
Notes: Story spans from pre-series to a scene from season 1, so no real spoilers past season 2. "The Benders" is the only episode directly referenced. Written for the cwbigbang at Live Journal and to fill the hc_bingo prompt "phobias."
Fires came and went, and with each appearance, something would flutter in his chest, his mouth would dry, nausea sweeping over him in tune with a quiet excitement he hoped didn't show on his face. It had been a while now since flames had thrown him off his game. He had met them firsthand in battle; he had felt their heat on his palms, on his face, stinging his eyes. He could smell smoke these days without it taking him two decades back in time, so when he knew there was heat coming from somewhere behind him, his world didn't crumble apart, even though, at the back of his mind, he knew what was coming next.
The yellow glow caught his eye, and for a moment, Dean couldn't comprehend its presence or purpose.
"You think this is funny? You brought this down on my family…" the old one said. Papa Nutjob.
Dean didn't think a damn thing about this situation was the least bit funny, but he was too caught up in the circumstances, his eyes darting from the hot poker to the man leaning in close and back again, to comment on the God-damned irony of the dumbass's statement.
Over and over, at his own insistence, Dean had proven to himself that he was in control. With every flash of a match dropped into a grave, with every choice to watch a body be consumed to embers. He hadn't frozen when he'd seen the flames in Sam's apartment, threatening his brother, because he was in control, not the fire. He had frozen when he'd seen the flaming figure in their old house—but for a different reason altogether.
So why should this, a piece of heated metal, not even an open flame, make his heart jump into his throat?
"Alright, you wanna play games? We'll play some games."
Dean grimaced, closing his eyes and himself off for a split second, as if to press the reset button, but it wasn't an easy task with Jeb-the-Cannibal's eldest holding his head back with grubby, clawing hands.
He told himself it was because he was alone, surrounded by a gun-toting family of cannibals who currently had him tied to a chair. It was the vulnerability of the situation—Winchesters were just not built for such. But Dean wondered if maybe the panic building in him wasn't something more.
What was he afraid of? He couldn't think clearly enough to be sure, but he knew it had something to do with that heat, that promise of fire in the metal rod.
Papa Nutjob stood up straight again, giving his offspring a glance. "Looks like we're gonna have a hunt tonight after all, boys—" eyes back to Dean "—and you get to pick the animal. The boy or the cop?"
Dean's brain took its sweet time trying to form words to meet the question, instead feeding him a steady repetition of SamFireSamFire. Breathless, he sputtered out the first thing on his mind, the truth, because, on occasion, it worked. "Look, wait—wait! Nobody's coming for me—it's just us."
"You don't choose, I will."
The promise didn't have time to soak in. Dean's eyes rolled up in his head before the sensation fully hit. The burn was intense, hot and cold and too much, and the hiss of the fabric being melded onto his skin—"Son of bitch!"—was deafening, if only to him. It lasted just a second, just long enough for his face to twist in pain and fear, before the poker lifted from the spot, a wisp of smoke trailing it.
Dean couldn't feel it anymore, the spot where it had kissed his flesh, just tense, stiffened muscles screaming from his shoulder. The fire can't hurt me. It was a foolish thought to have, composed of words he'd whispered to himself so many years ago, hoping their utterance would make it true, because of course the fire could hurt him. Why'd he ever think otherwise?
The hands holding his head far too intimately tightened their grip, and the poker was suddenly near his face, so close to his eye that he could feel the heat searing his lashes.
"Next time," Papa Nutjob said, "I take the eye."
The fire can't hurt me, but the one controlling it could.
The boys were background noise, their voices blending in with the high-pitch of the television while John leaned over the breakfast table, drawing a line of smooth black ink under a quote in the article he was reading. A second later, he carefully tore the sheet of newspaper in half, tucking the portion he needed into his journal before going back to the book of local legends he'd borrowed from the small town's library.
He paused, eyes not really taking in the tiny type, as he considered what he was doing. It was unnatural, being inside, with both his boys not a few feet from him while he researched a case. Not that he hadn't done this before, but since Sam had gotten old enough to read, John had tried to keep anything containing more gruesome details hidden away until the kid was asleep.
John's eyes lifted. The boys were huddled on the far bed, both disappearing inside over-sized sweatshirts and paying him as little attention as possible. He could feel the tension growing between them when he saw Sam leaning in with a book, trying to say something. Dean slid back against the head of the bed, eyes trained on the tv across the room, and swatted away his brother, as if he were a wasp flying into his line of sight.
"I said knock it off, Sammy!" Dean snapped.
"Boys." John didn't speak loudly, but both of his sons must have heard, because they stiffened, giving him twin tight-lipped glances, before quieting.
Sam's gaze stayed put a bit longer, though, skimming over the pile of books and local journals on the table and stopping at the box of shotgun rounds currently being used as a paperweight. His brow wrinkled just a bit, but he didn't ask about them, going back to reading his own slender book instead.
John sighed. It was hard to believe both his boys knew what he did now. He'd hoped—hell, he'd prayed—he could keep Sam out of the loop just a bit longer, at least until he was eight, nine, but he hadn't had it in himself to be angry with either of them when he'd returned to their room a few months back, two days late for a Christmas he'd never meant to miss and in desperate search of his missing journal.
Christ, he supposed he was lucky Sammy had asked his brother what it all meant, was still young enough to believe in the possibility of the supernatural, instead of taking the book to his teacher and getting his old man hauled off to a mental ward. Could have been a damned disaster.
John hated himself for it, but he couldn't help but think that things would be a bit easier now—that was not the reaction one should have after finding out their youngest's innocence was taken from him, but he couldn't help it. With Sammy aware of his real job, his mission, even if he didn't really comprehend its extent, John could drop the charades, work by daylight, and start training Dean a bit harder without having to put up with a game of twenty questions.
"—but, Dean, you said—"
"I don't want to see your stupid book, Sammy!" Dean let out a breath that could have been a groan. "You're supposed to be taking your bath anyway—you smell like a troll."
"But it's too cold."
"The heater's on. Quit being such a princess."
"I'm not a girl!" Sam slammed his book onto the foot of the bed, crossing his arms over his chest in defiance, but his pout didn't last out. Even from where he was sitting, John could see the spark of curiosity in his narrow gaze. "…Dean? Are trolls real, too?"
Dean didn't even look up from the Thundercats. "Yup, and they eat stinky kids."
"Nuh-uh. Dad, are trolls real?"
Maybe 'easier' wasn't the right word. John ran a hand down his face, suddenly exhausted. His boys must have noticed because their bickering cut off just as suddenly as it had appeared, and Dean's voice was calmer when it returned in the form of a gentle order.
Somehow it didn't come out as the impatient bark John could taste on the tip of his tongue. How a thirteen-year-old had managed to perfect something he himself hadn't yet been able to master, John hadn't a clue. Probably came with being the better parent. John winced at his own thought. He'd never meant for that to happen; he'd never meant for his eldest to fill that role for his brother, but he couldn't take it away from Dean now. Couldn't let Dean just play the part of the annoyed older brother. Couldn't afford to. I'm sorry, Mary.
John pushed himself up from his chair, his back popping in protest or relief, and he could feel his kid's eyes trailing him cautiously. When Sammy had disappeared along with a set of clean pajamas, John wasn't sure, but the sound of running water echoed out from the bathroom.
"I'm going to catch a few hours sleep before I head out, so keep your brother quiet," John said, stepping over to switch off the tv. "You still got the money I left last time?"
"Good. Don't spend it unless the front desk starts asking questions." John knew he didn't need to bother with the rest, with reminders, with warnings. "If I'm more than three days, call Jim. He's closest."
John's body wanted to leave it there, drop down onto the next mattress and shut down until the A.M. rolled around, but his eyes caught sight of the picture on the front of the slender library book perched on the foot of his sons' bed, and he hesitated. The man, in his helmet and uniform, at the center of the photo, holding up a hose jetting a white stream of water into the sky, should have been the focus, but all John could see were the flames in the background, dancing from high windows. It was a children's book, one of those illustrated nonfiction books boys Sammy's age loved to flip through. But this one wasn't on spiders or castles or battleships, like the others John had noticed floating around recently. Firefighters, read the battered cover.
Christ. No wonder Dean was so quiet.
John swallowed the knot at the back of his throat, and he reached down, picking the book up and unceremoniously dropping it on top of the unzipped backpack littering the narrow strip between the beds.
"Sammy just wanted to show me a picture."
Dean's voice was so low, John almost thought he'd imagined it. He eased himself down onto the edge of the mattress, elbows digging into his legs as he leaned forward, holding his son's gaze. He knew the kid was waiting for him to speak, to say anything, but he lost the words before they could ever make it out of his mouth.
John had been dancing around Dean's issue with fire for years now. He'd tried, right after…He'd tried to find a way to approach it. And he'd thought, when Dean had started talking again...he'd thought that meant this would fade with time, too.
John pinched his lips between two fingers, biting down the truth of the matter: he didn't have the stomach for this. He didn't have the stomach to talk to Dean about his fear of fire, because he didn't want to think about why it was his boy was afraid of it in the first place. Finally, he let out a breath.
"When you were little, you had this toy fire engine." John felt his chest tighten, but he clasped his hands, holding himself steady. "Your mother was always afraid you'd break a piece of the ladder off and swallow it, but I said you were old enough to play with it…Said every boy should have one. We bought you a plastic red helmet to wear, too." He shook his head, smiling slightly at the memories, and trying not to consider how few times he'd let himself share them with his kids. "You used to push that thing around the house all day, putting out imaginary fires."
When he looked back up, Dean was turned away, hiding whatever was under his long lashes, his face so white and pinched John could have counted his freckles by lamplight alone.
At four years old, his little Dean had wanted to either be Daddy or a firefighter when he grew up. It wasn't until a few years after the fire that John had realized Dean still answered that question the same, when teachers asked, as they always did. Even though he was afraid. Even though he'd thrown up at the first, and last, birthday party he'd been too, when he'd seen the candles lit. Even then, he still wanted to be a firefighter.
No one had asked him in a while, but John knew, whether he said it or not, Dean still wanted that, in the back of his mind. Would still answer that question the exact same way, and that it had nothing to do with putting out fires and everything to do with destroying the thing that took away his mother.
Mary. God, it hurt to think about her.
John nodded to himself. He'd put it off for too long, but it was time Dean grew up. It was time Dean got over this, before he started hunting.
"When…" John didn't have to finish the statement. His son was already staring up at him, knowingly. "I had nightmares, about fire, for a while."
Those green eyes widened in shock, but John went on, before Dean could ask questions, before John was forced to admit those nightmares still came. That he'd only gotten better at hiding them over the years.
"But, son, fire is just a tool. Fire didn't kill your mother. A monster did. You understand that, right?"
Dean slowly sat up straight, giving one curt nod. "I understand, Dad."
John could see the doubt there, in those eyes. Words wouldn't be enough; some fears were buried too deep. He opened his mouth, and closed it again, letting it go. "Make sure your brother gets to school on time. I'll be gone before you wake up."
I'm sorry, Mary.
Smoke met them at the front door, and, for a split second, Dean couldn't remember if he was awake or dreaming. The rush inside was too fast and too slow, and Sam's pitched voice a low hum in his ears. Somewhere along the way, he'd dropped the groceries he'd been carrying. Somewhere along the way, he'd clasped onto his brother's arms, holding him tight in front of him. Still. Safe.
There was smoke in their room. He'd seen it. Smelled it. Felt it.
Where there was smoke, there was fire, but he didn't see any flames. Couldn't see them anywhere. Couldn't find where that puff of black, that biting scent, that scratch at his throat and sting at his eyes, had come from. Couldn't find it anywhere.
In the walls. It could be in the walls. Could be under the floor. Could be on the ceiling…
Dean tasted bile at the back of his throat.
He'd told Dad. He'd told him Sam was too young to be left alone. He'd told him, even though he'd really wanted to go, to help with the hunt, even so, he'd offered to stay behind with Sam. But Dad said it was time he started to go with him. And now there was fire. There was fire here, where Sammy was. There was a fire, and he couldn't find it, and it was here—
The words broke through.
Dean took in a shaky breath, realizing he'd been asking something when his brother's voice finally became clear. How much had he said aloud? Had Sam answered? Dean blinked, trying to think of something other than that faded cloud of smoke.
Sammy, overgrown hair hanging in his face and shading his eyes, was only an arm's length away and staring up at his brother, afraid. Afraid because of the fire? No. Dean didn't think so, and he felt blood rushing up to his cheeks. His fingers hurt from where they were wadded in the short sleeves of Sam's tattered T-shirt, and he loosened his grip, taking a step away.
"I'm sorry," Sam said, his voice almost at a whisper. "I didn't…I didn't mean to."
Dean thought that was one of his questions, but it came from beside him, at the front door he'd left wide open when he'd ran inside, and he didn't have to look to know his father was standing there, confused and cautious but not afraid. Not afraid because he'd heard Dean's outburst and knew the threat for what it was. And wasn't. Dean felt the embarrassment flooding through his veins anew, and he stumbled back, to the center of the room, away from the kitchenette, and his brother.
The tension left Sam's body, and Dean could see the relief in his gaze, even if he didn't quite understand it—the smell of fire was still in the air. How could he relax?
"Dad." Sam licked his bottom lip, giving his big brother a nervous glance before looking away again. "I'm sorry, Dad. I—I was trying to cook some soup, and the dish rag was sitting too close. But I put it out in the sink, and—"
John cut him off. "Are you hurt?"
Sam shook his head. "No, it didn't even—"
"You could have died." Dean wasn't sure when his voice had returned to him. It spilled out, gagging him. "You could have died." Like Mom.
The steady rumble of the engine was a familiar lullaby. Calming. Comforting. Just as John had known it would be. Still, John wasn't put at ease, his knuckles white against the wheel as he took to the blackened rural roads, the headlights cutting a path through the night.
It felt odd, these days, having Sam sit up front with him. It used to be that Sam would put up a fuss when his big brother would get to sit shotgun, but over the past few years, John had quit being the center of his youngest's attention. Now it was almost awkward between them, as if the two of them didn't know quite how to behave around each other.
Sam kept it to a near whisper, just barely heard over the sounds of the even breathing from the back seat, where Dean had planted himself without a word of complaint to either of them, and finally fallen asleep. John had told the boys they would go for a drive, let their room air out, and he'd meant it. They'd been a hour out when John had turned off, a destination in mind.
"He's fine, Sam," John answered.
"He was screaming at me." John wasn't sure when Sam had started using that tone of voice with him, but it didn't like it. It made every word sound like an angry accusation. "He never screams at me like that. He freaked out like he was...He freaked out."
"You should have been paying better attention, Sam. You're old enough to be more careful in the kitchen," John returned, anger in the comment, even though it wasn't meant for Sam.
Sam huffed, but didn't take the bait. He grew quiet a moment longer. "It was just smoke. I didn't think…I've never seen Dean so afraid."
John didn't reply, his gaze ahead, on the next turn off. A metal sign hung between two rods, its words too faded to read in the glare of the headlights, but it was easy enough to guess the second word. Sam had. John could feel it, too, the very moment his youngest realized where they were going.
"Is this the grave you and Dean were going to tonight?" Sam's eyes widened slightly, and John could feel them on the side of his face, burning a hole straight through him. That accusatory tone returned. "What are we doing here, Dad?"
John pulled off the road, a mile out from where the old cemetery met the new plots. He heard a rustle from the backseat as soon as he killed the engine, and he had to ignore the sickening twist in his stomach.
In the rearview mirror, he could Dean's open eyes looking back at him. "Sam, stay in the car."
John was sure that one day soon Sam was going to quit listening to orders like those. John almost wished he was already there, that someone would tell him he was a bastard who should stop while he was ahead, but his boys only shared a glance before Dean slid out of his seat, going straight to work.
The spring night was still and warm, and the walk to the grave-site fast. Hours ago, he'd been here, without his shovel, without his supplies, staking out the area with his son. The daylight and the elderly couple visiting one of the newer graves had left John with no option but to wait for his next opportunity. He'd always planned on sending Dean back to the car when this time came.
Silently, they worked, shoveling for hours as the moon moved across the sky. The spirit made no appearance, and John wasn't sure if the lack of interruption could be considered a blessing or not. A distraction from the deed might have cut through the thick air between them.
Dean already knew what was coming next.
John had seen it in his eyes. When his son had taken the shovel out of the trunk of the Impala, Dean had realized what was he was going to be asked to do. And he hadn't spoken a word since. Hadn't begged to stay in the car with Sam. Hadn't frozen when John pulled the red tank of fuel out. But he knew.
John helped him out of the grave when his shovel struck brick. The antique burial liner had long since collapsed around the coffin, and the wood beneath was splintered. All too quickly, John was done clearing the body, and he climbed out of the hole, sitting on the damp earth beside his son.
"You know what to do."
Dean nodded, quiet.
John let out a shallow breath, wishing he hadn't noticed the way his son's fingers were trembling when he handed him the tank and told him to pour. When he laid a circle of rock salt in the grass and dirt around his boy and sprinkled the rest over the skeletal remains in the grave. When he pressed the box of matches into his son's palm.
"It's a tool. A hunter's weapon, just like a knife. Nothing else. Understood?"
John listened to the night. Too silent. No protests.
Fear existed for a reason. Fear kept people alive. But, he couldn't afford for his son to be afraid any longer, even if he had a good reason, even if he'd be safer without the flames around him.
"I want you to stay put," John said. "Stay here until it's completely burned, until the flames go out."
Dean swallowed, eyes trained on the shadows of the grave. John guided his hand, sliding a match against the scratch surface of the box, and he set the dark on fire. John turned his back and walked away, alone.
The ash caught on his damp lashes, whitened his dark blond hair, speckled his cheeks with smudges. He found himself sitting on the dew-wet ground, knees under his chin, when the coral red of dawn peeked over the tree-line. The scent of smoke saturated his clothes, but it was no longer any stronger than the tang of bile he'd left in the grass, and the sweat dripping off his skin had long since disappeared, leaving him chilled instead of flushed.
At some point he'd stopped trembling. At some point the embers had went cold. At some point he'd picked his shovel back up and set about re-burying the grave.
His hands were on fire. They burned with every movement, with every touch, the blisters open and leaking water and blood. But the wooden handle and his missing gloves were to blame, not the flames.
The flames hadn't touched him. They hadn't reached out, pulled him inside. They hadn't been able to go anywhere.
Watching them die…Watching the fire go out had left him electric, his heart bouncing against his ribs, trying to jump out of his body. Watching it disappear had almost made him feel powerful. Almost.
Next time, he told himself, he'd do better. Next time, he'd watch more closely, and he'd feel even stronger when it was done.
When he finally pushed himself up, he walked back to the car with their supplies in tow, and his dad pressed a new black Zippo lighter into his hands. His to keep.
Dean ran his finger along the thumbwheel and watched the spark flicker.
He should have noticed earlier. A good father would have noticed. John knew he should have felt angry with himself, but, instead, he only tasted a familiar bitterness on his tongue.
It wasn't like he'd never been called to the school counselor's office before, especially for his eldest, but the last meeting, the one he actually attended so that the boys could stay put another two weeks while he finished his hunt, that visit should have ripped off the blinders.
But it hadn't. He was used to civilians pointing out "troubling" things about this boys that they didn't know jack about, so he'd ignored what the woman had been trying to say about Dean. Hell, he'd been so pissed to be called there when his kid wasn't even in trouble that he'd all but stomped out with Dean in tow.
Now, though, it came back to him. A nosy chemistry teacher had reported Dean to the counselor, "concerned" about his relationship with fire. Something about warning signs and vandalism. John had almost laughed when he heard that—if these people even knew how useful fire was in his line of work...
Wasn't that what he'd always taught his sons? Fire was a tool; fire was a weapon.
John stepped away from the pyre his son had constructed, trying to give his boy the nod of approval he deserved and failing. A part of him wished he hadn't told Sam to stay in the car while they cleaned up. Sammy would have seen it, if he'd ever let his youngest see his brother in action.
He should have noticed earlier, how Dean always insisted on being the one to light the fires, how the glimmer of light in Dean's eyes was so much different these days when the boy spotted an open flame. Fear, he was used to seeing there. Fear, he could deal with, so long as it didn't slow Dean down anymore. But this? It wasn't fear. Wasn't just fear. It was obsession.
Dean's eyes stayed on the flames crawling over the werewolf's remains. It wasn't lust there, behind that gaze, but an intense fascination, as if the flames were alive, threatening to leap the moment he looked away. He was so focused on the fire, John wondered if the boy would stray if he ordered him to leave. Or if he'd even hear him.
John had thought he'd fixed things, or, at the very least, made them better, but this…Something wasn't right here. He'd fucked his kid up somewhere along the way, and the mistake was as plain as day in those green eyes.
Once, when this boy had been small enough for him to hold, he'd said he'd wanted to be like Daddy or a firefighter when he grew up. And he'd ended up a firestarter instead, and far too much like his daddy. God, Mary would have kicked his ass for this.
Dean tore his eyes away from the fire. His gaze dimmed. John could almost see the walls falling back into place, blocking away that part of his son once more. "Want me to stay with it?"
He knew he needed to say no. To break the habit then and there. But it had been a long year. Two adolescent boys he didn't see often enough, too many hunts and not enough. Christ, and after what had happened to Bill Harvelle on their hunt together…No, now wasn't the time. Dean was sixteen, and he needed this still, this sense of power.
So, John only nodded and tapped his fingers against the flask of whiskey in his jacket, wanting to lose himself for a few hours while everything burned away. "Until it goes out."