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This is Sparta

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Title:This Is Sparta
Author: Lovesrain44
Genre: Gen
Word Count:13,119
Pairings/Characters: No pairings; Sam, Dean, and John
Warnings: Dark, angst, kidfic, some violence.

~

Sam sat on the top step of the cabin, looking out the long, white road, watching the dust settle through the hot, green trees as the Impala barreled away towards Atlanta. With his arms wrapped around his knees, he rocked a little bit, feeling the heat through his thin cutoffs and t-shirt. The clothes were hand-me-downs from Dean, and were already sticking to him, though it was only 9 in the morning. Mentone, Alabama, was not the armpit of the mountain country, but the small cabin two miles out of town, just along the ridge where the water of the river cut deep through the rocks, was.

He had until the afternoon to get his chores done, but seeing as it was going to get hotter than it already was well before noon, he knew he should get started. He had to cut wood to pay rent to the cabin's owner, a man Dad knew. Then he had to do dishes, for crying out loud, and then he had to oil the guns. Dean and Dad had cleaned them inside and out. Sam's job was to wipe them down with a last coat of oil and lay them out for inspection. Sometimes he had to answer questions about them, like a test. It was, he had overheard Dad say, to familiarize him with how they felt, their weight and heft in his hands. Then when Dad and Dean got back with the new crossbow, they were going to start training.

Standing up, he knew it was best to get started, but the sweat ran across his skin with just that motion alone, and it was going to be a whacked-out summer even before it started. Didn't seem to matter that he'd been on the team that had won the 6th grade division. Didn't matter that he'd won a trophy, for Pete's sake. Nothing Sam had done or said had kept Dad from packing them up and leaving the little town of Greeley, where Sam had felt his feet putting down roots. Okay, so he couldn't go to soccer camp, he understood that. But the rec center just down the street had been offering soccer matches for kids three times a week at only a dollar a time. That had seemed doable, but not to Dad.

Training, that was what Dad wanted for his boys. Daily runs. Guns. Shooting. Knife work. Latin. More running. All summer. Some sort of test at the end of it all. And the blasted crossbow. Dean was out of his mind with joy at the prospect, actually talking in bed three nights running before Sam had pulled a pillow over his head and Dean had taken the hint. He was glad for Dean, sure, but Sam didn't like the look in Dad's eye. It had been hard and glittery since they'd arrived three days ago, like he was chafing at their need to get groceries and settle in. And there were so many things that needed figuring out. Like how to figure out to work the hot water heater each and every time they needed hot water. Or how to work the backup generator, since the trees were known to down power lines in a high wind. And how to keep mold from growing in sneakers or damp rags left in a clump in a cabin with no air conditioner. It took Pine Sol and a drying line, Dad had figured out. Sam was already sick of the smell.

He wiped his hands on the back of his shorts, and decided that cutting wood should come first. Then dishes. Then oiling. Handling the guns was his least favorite; he would leave that till last.

*

Blisters. He had three of them all lined up at the bottom of his fingers, swelling under the pads and threatening to burst. Then, when he was doing the dishes, they did, letting in the soapy water like battery acid. He jerked his hands out of the sink and swore. It took him cold water and doing the dishes mostly with his left hand before the stinging settled down. At least he was almost done, and it was the afternoon.

Dad and Dean would be home soon, although that wouldn't be a huge improvement, because the second they did, Dean would be hopping with excitement to get started with the crossbow. And Dad would be right there with him, going over the damn thing like they'd never bought a new weapon in their lives. Checking it out, testing it, planning the training around it. Bow hunting had been bad enough. Sam's skin could still remember the welts from the damn bowstring hitting the inside of his elbow. Dad had told him to tough it out; it had been Dean who'd showed him how to rotate his elbow out of the way.

The heat in the house had finally stabilized by the time he started in on the guns, and a cross breeze had picked up. He opened all the windows, and allowed himself a glass of water and a banana, which was already starting to get brown. Then he laid some newspapers out on the table. He checked to make sure the guns were unloaded and put them all in a row. They gleamed up at him, almost dull, like their eyes were closed. Then he got the gun oil, and opened it. The smell was familiar, like cooking oil, only cold, almost dusty. Getting a rag just a little damp with the oil, he wiped them all down. The Glock, the Taurus, Dean's 1911, and the rest of them. Then he wiped down the rifles, one at a time, making sure not to get any gun oil on the wooden stocks.

It was hard to hold each rifle upright, and not rest the muzzle against anything, and then rub it down. His arms got tired halfway through each one, but he recited the names to himself as he rested. Winchester 1897, Winchester Carbine, M16, and then the Yellowboy. That's when his fingers, slick with oil, dropped the rifle to the floor. It wasn't loaded so it didn't go off, but the stock was cracked straight through up to the plate. He picked it up, his thumb tracing the crack. It was ruined. And outside, along the breeze, far down the road, he heard the rumble of the Impala.

It was almost like fists suddenly clenched themselves in his stomach. He hadn't wanted to clean the stupid guns in the first place. He didn't want to train. He didn't even want to be here, and yet here he was. Standing in a backwoods cabin, gun oil all up and down his front, a broken rifle in his hands, and his Dad on the way. He was going to get it, there was no getting around it. And Dad's whippings hurt.

Without thinking, he hurried over to the leather couch and shoved the rifle all the way under the cushions, pushing till his fingers hit the wooden frame. Then he straightened everything and hurried back to the kitchen tables where the rifles waited. His heart beat against his breastbone like a bird trying to get out. He moved the hair out of his eyes with his forearms and stacked the rifles up against the kitchen table. Slowly he put the cap back on the container of gun oil, and folded the greasy rag on top of that. And turned to face the door as the Impala pulled up in the dirt in front of the cabin.

He was washing his hands when the door opened, Dean and Dad's boots thumping on the wooden floor, the thumping echoing in his stomach. It wasn't going to work. Dad could count; he would see that one of the rifles was missing. Sam stepped away from the sink, reaching out like he meant to point to the couch and confess, but Dean shoved a box in his hand.

"More supplies," he said, voice bright and happy.

He was covered in dust from the road and sweat from the day stuck his shirt to him, but his eyes were like shiny green stones. Sam took the box.

"Put that away, Sammy, and then help us unload the car."

Sam looked up. Dad was standing by the doorway, dusty like Dean, with sweat under his armpits. Dad hadn't shaved that morning, so his five o'clock shadow looked hard, and he wasn't smiling. Which didn't surprise Sam any, seeing as how focused he was in that this summer should be extremely productive. Might have something to do with Dean turning sixteen next winter, and Dad's plans that Dean should start hunting like a man. You couldn't throw an untrained kid into that, even Sam was aware of how dangerous that could be. Dad's seriousness about the whole matter just made it even that more scary, though Dean seemed to feel the whole thing was a lark. And he wanted it, wanted it more than anything, except maybe the Impala.

Sam turned, not saying anything to his Dad's not saying anything, and put the box on the narrow counter and opened it up. Inside were first aid supplies, batteries, and more gun oil. He sighed. And started unloading the box. And then the next one. And the bags after that. And finally, just as he'd known it would, in came the crossbow. Black, shiny, and looking a whole lot like a sawed-off shotgun with a bow at one end. Dean came in with it cradled in his arms like a baby, a dangerous baby that could kill a man silently at fifty feet.

"Look, Sammy," he said, bringing it closer, his voice lowered as if he was in church. "Look."

Sam reached out to touch it with one finger. For a moment it looked as though Dean was going to jerk the crossbow out of his reach, rather like he thought Sammy would ruin it that way. But he held still, and when Sam's skin touched the side of the stock, it felt cold. Dead.

"It pulls seventy pounds," said Dean.

Sam knew that was a lot more than Dean'd been pulling with the conventional bow they used last summer. He himself had been pulling 20 pounds, which was, according to Dean, a baby's bow. He'd often joked if Sam wanted baby arrows to go with that until Dad had told him to knock it off.

Dad came in. "Put that away, Dean. Chores."

Dean put the crossbow lovingly away on the top of the fridge as Dad walked to the kitchen table and took in the fruits of Sam's efforts for the day. With his eyes he looked at the guns, and then the rifles. Then he asked, "How much wood?"

"Uh," said Sam, trying not to wipe his hands on his cutoffs and failing. "I don't know. Two bundles?'

Dad's reply was a low voiced sigh, as if that was what he expected from his youngest and was trying not to be disappointed.

"Okay," he said. Not approval, but dismissal. "Put these away. I'll make supper."

Holding out his hand, Sam took the keys to the Impala, and placed the guns and the rifles one by one in the trunk. He was covered in dust by the time he was done. As he walked back to the house, the sun started setting through the trees and the onset of dusk brought the first cool breeze of the day. His heart still felt tight, but it was going to be okay. Once a rifle went into the trunk of the Impala, it would be like a black hole. Nobody would notice if one was missing. Then, when he got his chance, he would take the Yellowboy out and bury it in the woods. He gave the keys to the Impala back to Dad with as much calm as he could muster.

Dinner was chili out of a can and crackers and milk. They were silent as they sat at the table, the wind from the open window blowing a little across their bowls. Afterwards, while Dean did the dishes, Sam ate a peach on the couch while Dad fiddled with the antenna on the TV. The picture came in fuzzy, but Sam felt more normal than he had all day.

"At least it's in color," said Dad, sinking back among the cushions, taking off his boots for the first time all day.

Sam nodded, hiding behind his peach. A huge part of his brain had forgotten that the couch was where Dad slept at night, but that was okay. He'd have to get rid of the rifle during the day, was all.

*

The cabin was small. There was only one bedroom, a long narrow bathroom, and the main room shaped like an L. At one end of the L was the kitchen, the table, the stove, and a long, chipped counter. At the other end of the L, near the front door, was the couch, where Dad slept, the ratty leather recliner, and the TV, which only got three channels and all of them badly. When Sam woke up on the fourth morning, the windows had been left open the night before. He could feel the dampness on his sheets and pillow, and opened his eyes to see Dean, already awake. Getting up and slipping on yesterday's clothes, striding out of the room with a purpose and an eagerness that Sam couldn't hope to match. Unless it were soccer he was going to, which it wasn't likely to be, not in the near future, not ever.

Sam trailed after his brother, scratching his ribs, smelling eggs and bacon and trying not to frown. Only Dean knew how to make eggs the way Sam liked them. He was careful. He took out the stringy white cord, and then beat the eggs to a froth. If they had any, he would add milk and cheese, and then fry them up slowly. Dad? He didn't take out the white thing, just cracked the eggs in the pan and stirred them a few times with his fork, making a mess of white and yellow so hard, Sam could barely get it down. As Sam walked up to the table and sat down with his back to the fridge, Dad came over with the cast iron pan, and scooped out a mess of eggs for each of them. And bacon as well, done nicely crisp, but the eggs. Sam stared at his plate, and reached for the pepper. If he put enough on, and ate everything fast, while it was hot, too hot to feel texture, he could get the eggs down. And then maybe Dad would make some fried bread to fill the corners of his stomach.

"Eat up, boys," said Dad. He was smiling, so thus far hadn't noticed Sam's frown. He felt like he was frowning with his whole body. He hated eggs this way. Hated them. But Dean and Dad were shoveling them in, white bits and all. Sam tried. Within two minutes, he had to leap up to explode his last mouthful in the sink

"There he goes," said Dean, the fork in his hand clinking against the plate. "Told you, Dad."

"He's got to learn," said Dad, and Sam was glad he couldn't see his father shoving eggs in his mouth. "Sometimes, you don't get them the way you like them."

Sam didn't say anything. He could feel the sweat on his forehead as he pressed it against his forearm. After a minute, he rinsed the chunks of white and yellow down the sink, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Then he went and sat back down again, taking up the bacon on his plate, crunching it between his teeth. Sooner or later Dad was going to figure out that there was only one way Sam was going to eat eggs. Ever.

"He wants fried bread, Dad," said Dean, swallowing down enough eggs for two. "And he likes his eggs scrambled."

"I can talk, Dean."

Dean shrugged. He didn't care, obviously. Today was the day. After morning training, he was going to get to use his new crossbow. Maybe he'd let Sam try it, maybe he wouldn't. Sam didn't care either.

"You think you deserve fried bread, after you spit up good food?" This from his Dad, waving a fork that had the white part of the egg on it. "You think you deserve eggs made special just for you?"

Sam hung his head and looked at his hands in his lap. He could eat day-old pizza, brown bananas, knew how to eat around the moldy parts of a slice of bread, could even make a supper out of fried hot dogs and a tin of anchovies. He could eat cheeseburgers every day for a week and would not complain. But he could not eat eggs like that.

"You don't, you know," said Dad, and Sam felt his eyes grow hot. It was going to be a horrible summer, especially if Dad got it in his head to break Sam of his finickiness. And no, maybe he didn't deserve the fried bread. But he wasn't going to eat these eggs.

"Dad," said Dean, standing up with his plate in one hand. "Sam-I-Am is not going to eat those eggs, no matter what."

"Look at me, Sammy." This from Dad, and Sam lifted his scowl from his plate. He had only gotten two slices of bacon. His stomach was growling. But he wasn't going to give in. Lunchtime would come soon enough in the form of baloney sandwiches or whatever.

"Are you just being stubborn? Trying on this little rebel act about the eggs just for fun?"

Dad's eyes were dark, his eyebrows coming down just the color of mud. Sam shook his head. He wasn't being stubborn. It just wasn't going to happen.

"Dean."

"Okay."

Sam looked up. Dean was reaching into the fridge, pulling two eggs out of the carton and then pulling down a bowl to crack them in. As Sam watched his every move, he took a fork and pulled out the cord. Then he beat the eggs, pretending to be using every muscle in his body, grinning at Sam, pretending to concentrate. Scowling at his own majestic efforts. Sam tried not to smile, but it was hard.

Then Dad got up and started up the flame under the pan that he'd cooked the bacon in. When it was so hot it sizzled, he dropped slices of bread in, and then stood there, poking at it with a fork to make sure they wouldn't burn. Dean turned with the bowl in his hand, and after wiping a pan out with a towel, heated up the butter in it. Sam could tell what he was doing by the smell alone, melting butter wafting along the morning breeze. There was a small sighing sound as Dean eased the eggs in the pan, and then stood there, watching. It was almost funny, the two Winchesters elbow to elbow, cooking breakfast all over again for Sammy.

They presented it to him with a flourish, the eggs golden and soft, folding over and over like waves. Beside it, a large slice of bread, perfectly fried, and dusted with salt and pepper. Dad put the plate in front of Sammy, while Dean pretended to bow. Then they both sat down, each with a slice of fried bread, dusted with salt, and ate with their fingers. Sam cut into the egg with his fork and brought it to his mouth. Swallowed it down, saying thank you without saying anything at all. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad summer after all.

*

Only it was. It got worse so fast, Sam thought he imagined it. First there was the run, along the chalk dust road to town and back. It was two miles each way as the sun climbed through the trees and the humidity grew so fast it was like a live thing. Sweat had long stuck his shirt and shorts to him by the time they got back to the house. He couldn't keep up even if he wanted to, but he had to finish. Dean was smiling, still, sweaty all over by the time Sam got to the house, and loving it. Then, after a drink of water, Dad led them into the woods, towards the rocks where the edge dropped off to the river. Sam could feel that it was a little cooler here, but drew himself up short when he saw what Dad had prepared for them.

"Dad," said Sam, almost choking. "Not the wild woosey."

"It's good for balance, son," said Dad.

Sam kept his mouth shut. He would have rather run to town and back all day than do this stupid thing. There were two ropes tied up to trees and stakes, running parallel to each other. He'd seen Dean and Dad try this one many times, usually slipping halfway because they were laughing. He didn't see how it improved their balance any, and the one time he'd tried it, at the end of last summer, he'd fallen within the first foot. Dean and Dad had laughed at him so hard, tears had rolled down their faces.

"You and Dean go first. Up, Sammy."

His whole summer was going to be like this, he knew it. Forced marches in the morning, after a fight over the eggs, and then stupid ropes, and then watching stupid Dean shoot his stupid crossbow. Where he would probably hit the bull's eye each and every time.

"Don't you stick your chin out at me, boy. You get up there. This will help your balance, and if you fall, you fall. That's part of being a hunter."

Sam opened his mouth, and then snapped it shut, knowing that if he said what he'd thought just then, it would bring more fury down than he had the energy to deal with.

"C'mon, Sammy, it'll be fun. You and me." Dean clapped him gently on the back and walked around to the other side of the ropes.

Sam sighed.

Getting up was just as hard as staying up, and Sam slapped at a bug that had landed against his sweaty face before grabbing Dean's forearms Indian style. They had to climb up at the same time, pulling against each other for balance. But since Dean outweighed Sam by a lot, Sam had to lean further back to balance his brother out. He overbalanced, and landed on the ground on one knee. Dean let go, his hands hard as they slipped off Sam's arms, and he knew he'd have bruises there within the hour. Dust flew up and more bugs swarmed.

"I'll help you," said Dad. He came forward and lifted Sam up by his waist. He held Sam on top of the rope, being his ballast while Dean grabbed Sam's arms again and he finally got both feet on the rope. Dad's hands on him were hard, but they held him steady as Sam scooted sideways, matching his pace to Dean's. His ribs were starting to feel raw, like they'd been scraped with a brillo pad, and then Dad slowly let go.

"You got it?"

Sam nodded, biting his lip, wanting to wipe the sweat out of his eye, keeping his focus on Dean. Dean was trying to make it okay, giving him a wink and taking it slow, not messing around just to mess with him. But they were about one-third of the way along, doing good, when Sam felt something fly into his eye and when he reached up to smack at it, he let go of Dean. Who fell over, literally, backwards, rolling down the slope, and not stopping till he hit a bunch of rocks. Hard.

Sam fell to his knees just as hard, but just as he expected Dad to start berating him for being clumsy, Dean made a sound as he tried to get up. Dad took off. Sam was two steps behind him, his knees smarting with grit, thinking that Dean would just get up and they would have to start again, and oh, how he wanted a drink of water.

"Dean?" asked Dad, hunkering down, pushing the undergrowth to the side. "Can you get up?"

"Yeah, I uh--" Dean started and then he stopped and as Sam got close, he could see the reason why. A jagged branch had caught Dean along the calf and opened it up. Through Dean's jeans, Sam could see skin and muscle and everything was bright red. "Uh," he said, looking up at Dad. "No?" Beneath the streak of mud on his face, he'd gone paper white.

"Shit," said Dad. "If you hadn't let go, Sam--"

Dean's hands were clasped around his calf, but it was going to take more than a bandage to stop the bleeding. Sam guessed stitches, and it wasn't going to be fun.

"Sam," said Dad with a snap. "Give me your shirt."

Sam took it off in a heartbeat, handing it over, wishing it weren't quite so damp with sweat. Wishing there was something more he could do. But Dad knew what to do. He took Sam's shirt and wrapped it tight around Dean's calf, and then scooped Dean up in his arms.

"Sam," he said now. "Run back to the house and get the first aid out and ready. Run."

Sam ran, heart beating in his mouth, sweat sticking his bangs to his forehead, but he ran. He heard Dad telling Dean to keep a good hard press against that leg, and then Sam pounded up the stairs and couldn't hear any more. The first aid kit was on the shelf next to the TV, but Dad wanted everything out and ready. So Sam put everything they might need on the chair, so that way he could move it to wherever Dad put Dean. He put the needle and thread out, the little clamps, the hydrogen peroxide, the cotton bandages, the tape. Everything. His sweat was cooling on his skin as Dad came in, blood from Dean's leg down his arm, his expression carved from stone.

"The couch," he said, and Sam swallowed as Dad laid Dean down. Pulled the chair over and stood hard by, waiting for orders. Ran for clean towels, ran for cold water, held Dean's hand. Watched Dad pulling needle and thread through Dean's skin. Ten stitches it took, with Dean holding so hard to Sam's hand that he felt his bones crack.

"Keep that foot up," said Dad, standing, wiping his hands on the last clean part of the towel. "A few days at least."

"But Dad, the crossbow--"

But Dad was slowly shaking his head. "It'll be a few days before you can walk on it, let alone stress it. You don't want stitches to burst and we don't want to race to the hospital. You keep yourself quiet. The crossbow will wait."

Dean slammed his head back on the cushions. Nobody looked at Sam. Nobody said anything to him, but he knew it was his fault. He felt cold as his sweat dried, even though it was getting hot in the house.

Then Dad turned to him. "Go get your brother some water while I clean this up. Then get another shirt on, we're going to go train."

"But Dad--" started Sam. The thought of training alone with Dad loomed up like a huge gate locking him in with Dad. Locking him in with the running and the focus and the anger. "I don't want--"

Dad took him by the shoulder and turned him around. "Not another word. Get Dean some water, and let's get going."

Sam went into the kitchen and ran the water till it was cold. His head itched, from bug bites no doubt, and from sweat drying now that he wasn't in the woods. And then, as he filled a glass with water, he thought about the rifle. He'd been planning to sneak into the cabin at some point or other, when Dean and Dad were occupied with the crossbow. Today, even. He was going to take the rifle out into the woods and bury it where no one would ever find it. But now, Dean would be on the couch all day, and Dad slept there at night. What was he going to do?

Water splashed over his hand, and he realized the glass was full. Overflowing. He turned off the tap and took a huge gulp of the water. It didn't really help his stomach, but at least he could walk over to Dean and hand the glass to his brother.

"Wait," said Dad. He eased Dean to a sitting position and then took the glass from Sam's hands and gave it to Dean. "You drink that, and take these." He shook out some painkillers into Dean's palm. "And I'll make you some beef broth later."

Dean looked pale and still as he took the pills and eased them down with the water. There was still a smear of mud on his face and blood on his elbow, and Sam stepped up, reached his hand out to touch.

"Get off me," said Dean, jerking his head away.

"Get your shirt, Sammy," said Dad, pulling him back. "Daylight's burning."

*

The daylight burned, and Sam's foul mood along with it. Heat that rose from the ground, up through the soles of Sam's sneakers, seeming to burn outward from his skin through his shirt. Which was, in about ten minutes, soaked through.

The compass exercises were okay, Sam didn't mind those. He felt comfortable with the map in one hand, the colored lines and squiggles of the backcountry around Mentone as comfortable as his favorite comic book. In the other hand, he had Dad's special compass with the sight and the mirror. And the exercises Dad gave him weren't hard, either. He liked orienting to a map, following a straight line, and finding Dad. That was the best part, to have Dad give him coordinates, simple ones. And then he would wait five minutes for Dad to walk away, through the woods. After which, he would try to sneak up on Dad, who would always be leaning against a tree, looking the other way, maybe on purpose, maybe not. And the smile he would get, teeth against the tan, the hand ruffling his hair. The comment that maybe Dad should cut his bangs.

But the sparring? It made Sam want to scream. Yes, Dad pulled his punches, and the bruises wouldn't hurt after a day or two. Yes, sweat ran into his eyes and the bugs were eating him, but he was used to that. Yes, he knew that Dean, lolling on the couch would much rather be in his place. But if Dad said it one more time, Sam's head would explode.

"You have to close the distance, Sammy," said Dad, saying it one more time. And then, followed by, as it was always followed by, "And don't forget to fight to your strengths."

His head did not explode, but it felt like it wanted to. And his arms hurt from holding them up in the protection position, elbows to chest, curled fists high.

Sam was shorter and lighter, but he couldn't move that fast, and any time he tried a kick, any kick, Dad could see it coming a mile off. Of course he could, he was ten times taller, and had Dad eyes in the back of his head. And then Dad would attack, and Sam always felt at a loss when he saw the kick coming, because he didn't know what any of them were called. And each of them had a counter kick. Dean knew. If Dean were here, he might shout it out to Sam and coax him along. As it was, the only thing he knew was when Dad switched from a closed stance to an open one. That, Sam could remember. It didn't help any though, as Dad swept his foot out and sent Sam tumbling to the ground.

"Come on, get up, son," said Dad, reaching out his hand.

Sam rolled himself up to a sitting position, forearms on his knees, tasting dust in his mouth, feeling the sweat pooling near his collarbone. He knocked Dad's hand away and sat there glowering at his feet.

"This sucks," he said, muttering.

"It only sucks because you're not good at it yet," said Dad, reaching down to pull him to a standing position. Sam felt like a boneless rag doll when he did this. And he did it a lot. "You keep practicing, and you will be."

"But I don't want to be," said Sam, looking up, thinking that this was as good a time as any. "I don't want to be a hunter, I want to play soccer."

For a moment there was only silence. It was so still Sam could hear his heart beating, and Dad's long indrawn breath while those eyes went dark, and narrow, and hard. Sam swallowed, but he stuck to his ground. Felt his chin jut out, and knew Dad wasn't going to like that, even before Dad grabbed him by the neck, and pushed him towards the house, making Sam stumble on his own feet.

"We're done here."

If Sam had succeeded in ending the sparring match, if that was his dream come true, it wasn't enough. For in the end, though they had stopped well in the middle of the afternoon with plenty of daylight left for more training, he had done the worse possible thing. He had failed. Failed to hide his distaste for sparring, training, and worst of all, hunting. That was the one thing he was never supposed to say. Dean had told him so, the last time Sam had said it, and the time before that. And the time before that. It was never ending.

Once in the house, Dad rinsed off in the sink, using his hands to splash water over himself, leaving his shirt stuck to his skin. Then, as Sam did the same, he began making a late lunch as Sam took his shoes and sweaty socks off and slumped in his usual chair at the table. From across the room, he could see Dean lying on the couch with his eyes closed.

"Is he asleep?" he asked Dad.

"Wake him up, he needs to eat."

Sam stood up. Waking up Dean was not the worst task in the world, since Dean woke up pretty easily. But that was because he had something to look forward to each day. He wasn't the one who hated every minute of it. Especially a summer like this one.

Sam felt the smack to the back of his head, and tripped forward, catching himself from falling by hurrying.

"Get a move on, Sam, I'm not the maid here."

With hot eyes, Sam hurried over to the couch, knowing that there was no right way to do this, because if Dean normally woke up easily, he didn't when he was hurt. Like he was now. And it was, partly, mostly, Sam's fault.

"Dean," he said, looking down at his brother, at the rise and fall of his chest, the sweat dappled on his forehead, lashes dark against his cheeks. "Dean, wake up." He pushed Dean's shoulder with the ends of his fingers, leaving a smudge of dust and sweat against the mostly white t-shirt.

"I'm up," said Dean, barely above a groan. "Not hungry."

"You'll eat," said Dad. He pushed past Sam with a large mug and a packet of crackers. "Eat that. Take it slow." He handed the mug to Dean and put the crackers on the side of his leg. "If you don't hurl, I'll make you a sandwich, and then give you some more pain pills."

Dean curled his lip at what was most assuredly beef broth, but he drank it. Then he popped a cracker in his mouth, let it soak, and then swallowed the whole mouthful down. He looked up at Sam with a glower, and Sam turned away. If he started apologizing, started talking, well, there was no telling where that would lead. It was too late to confess about the rifle, altogether too late.

"And you Sam," said Dad, going back over to the sink. "You want spaghettios in a can, I'm thinking?"

Sam nodded, getting two cans off the shelf, and handed the can opener to Dad. It wasn't that he couldn't open his own can, it was just that for some reason they had this little tradition, that if Dad was in the house, he opened the cans. It was a Dad thing. If he wasn't there, Dean opened them. Sam didn't think he'd ever opened a can in his life. He supposed he would at some point. But for now, he just watched. And Dad did it with flair anyway, setting the can down, and crooking in the blade of the opener into the metal in one, tidy motion. He never had to reset the opener, like Dean sometimes did. And his cuts were always of a piece. Smooth, all the way around.

Sam got the spoons and glasses for milk, and poured them each some. He had to put the milk back in the fridge right away or it would spoil in the heat. They'd learned that on the first day. Then he sat down at one end of the table, and Dad sat down at the other, plunking a can of cold spaghettios in front of each of them. They tucked in in silence, and Sam sighed as the food slid easily down his throat. Some foods were just better than others, they just were.

*

There were two more mornings of runs with Dad before the day got hot, then chopping wood after that, and then lunch with Dean, who fumed under his breath, demanded to be let up. And then the afternoons were spent in shooting practice. And then after, Dad made Sam handle guns, so he would get used to taking them apart, cleaning them, putting them back together. They did this on a table outside in the shade, which didn't help any, because the humidity had risen so high that you could almost see the water vapor passing before your eyes. Every move Sam made bathed him in salty sweat. He wiped his forehead with the back of his forearm for the hundredth time, only to have Dad knock him on the back of the head. Again.

"You get salt in the gun, Sam, and it'll jam on you. I've told you that, so quit it."

"Yes, Dad."

It was like a nightmare. Blisters didn't matter, the ache in the back of his thighs and arms didn't matter. The heat, to hell with that, Dad kept him running. Pushing the guns, telling him to pay attention. In the back of his mind, Sam knew what part of it was. Dad was used to training both Sam and Dean, or just Dean alone, so now, he only had Sam in front of him, and could devote all of his attention there. Sam wanted to say it, I'm not Dean, Dad, but he didn't dare. Just bit his bottom lip, wiped his hands on the back of his thin shorts and tried again.

"No," said Dad with a snap, "you unbolt it first, now do it again. Like I said."

The gun was slippery in Sam's hands, like the rifle had been. His stomach took a lurch, and he curled his fingers more carefully around the butt.

"Better," said Dad. "You can't let your mind wander, not when handling a gun, loaded or not."

The final reprieve came at sunset, the heat punching a hole through Sam's head as he and Dad climbed the stairs. Sam wanted a drink of water and then a shower, was never so glad to be done with the day.

"You'll be up tomorrow," said Dad to Dean as he opened the door. Sam scooted under his outstretched arm.

"Awesome," said Dean. "This couch is giving me a pain in the ass."

"Watch your mouth, Dean," said Dad, walking into the kitchen.

"No, I mean it," Dean's voice was level, which meant he wasn't kidding.

Sam turned around slowly to look at Dean, who was trying to lever himself up to a sitting position.

"Really?" asked Dad. "Well, you'll be up tomorrow, but in the meantime--" He walked over to Dean, and motioned for him to get up, just for a minute. "This old couch," he said, pulling off the cushions. "Nothing but cloth and wood frame at this point."

He knelt down and reached around the frame of the couch. Sam could see the places where the sweat had stuck the cloth to Dad's back, see the grime on the back of Dad's neck. Then everything went silent. Dad pulled out the rifle, now in two pieces, and stood up, looking at what he had in his hands.

"I didn't do it," said Sam, from where he stood in the middle of the room. He felt white all over, and suddenly cold.

Dean looked over at him, balancing mostly on one leg, his hand touching the curve of the arm of the couch for balance. "I did it," said Dean, now looking at Dad. He shook his head for emphasis. "I'm sorry, I--"

Dad stopped him with a look and then turned his head in Sam's direction.

"Sam, come here."

Sam made himself walk, though he now could not feel his feet. The rifle had been broken for almost a week now. No one had missed it, and he'd forgotten to bury it. Standing next to Dean, he made himself look up, or tried to. He made it about as far as Dad's chin.

"Both of you are lying," said Dad.

"Dad--" said Dean. Starting.

"Don't cover for your brother, Dean," said Dad. "Not to me. Now get off that foot."

Out of the corner of his eyes, Sam watched Dean put the cushions back on the couch and sit down, propping his foot up. Catching Sam's glance, Dean frowned, like he was asking what happened. Sam wanted to shake his head but didn't dare.

"You have one opportunity Sam." Dad motioned with the pieces of rifle in his hands. "One and one only. What happened?"

Sam opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His throat had rocks in it. He swallowed and tried again. Again nothing.

"You will look at me when you talk to me, Sam. Man to man."

Now Sam had to look up, and lifting his head felt like he was lifting the weight of his whole body. More sweat built on his neck, but he didn't dare wipe it away, not with the dark look on Dad's face. His brows were drawn together, mouth in a firm line. Hair sweatstuck to his face. The grip he had on the rifle pieces looked like it could crush stone.

"Sam."

It was an order. A direct one.

"It--it slipped. I was oiling it and it slipped."

"When was this?"

For an answer, Sam looked over at the crossbow that was on the table beside the couch, where no doubt Dean had been fondling it in private. "When you got--when you brought--" He sighed and stopped. Knew what was coming next.

"You broke this a week ago and never mentioned it? Never thought to stand up and say anything to me about it? Just skulked around hiding it, like some dumb kid--"

"Dad--"

"Be quiet, Dean." This came out as a bark, and Dean pushed himself back into the cushions.

"Sam, you could have come clean, and what do you think would have happened?"

Sam couldn't think of a thing to say, though a thousand answers raced through his head. He knew exactly what would have happened, knew exactly what was going to happen now, and then some. Being careless was one thing, lying about it was another.

"I asked you a question. Now answer it."

Feeling the scowl on his face, a mutinous, downturned thing that made his face ache, Sam let the words come bubbling up. "You'd have given me a whipping if I broke it, or maybe you wouldn't. Now you're going to whip me because I broke it and lied about it. So go ahead. See if I care."

"Watch that tone you're using with me, Sam," said Dad.

"You watch it," said Sam.

With one hand, Dad reached out and grabbed his wrist, and began pulling him into the kitchen.

"Dad--"

"Shut up, Dean, he knows the rules as well as you do."

Sam let himself be dragged, not because he felt he could have broken away, but because he didn't know what else to do. At least it was over, at least there was that; his stomach churned with relief. His wrist felt raw where Dad had a grip on it as he was pulled to the kitchen table. Dad took one of the chairs out of the way, and motioned Sam to the table. Then he began taking off his belt, unbuckling the buckle, pulling the leather from the loops of his jeans. Sam watched this, ice in his spine, unable to judge by Dad's hooded eyes exactly how hard a beating it was going to be. Usually he could tell, could sense the fairness that the punishment would fit the crime. But his disobedience had been so multi-layered, he couldn't tell.

"Sam, table. Don't make me tell you again. And don't make me make you."

Dad folded the belt in his hands, tucking the buckle and the end in his fist, and then waited. The air in the room was perfectly still and warm, the smell of damp floating through the window, the smell of Dad's leather belt cutting through that.

Shaking, Sam bent himself over the kitchen table. He buried his head in his arms, blocking out the light, locking himself in with his panting breaths, coming fast now even before the beating had begun. There was no lecture, nor any need for one; he knew what he'd done. So did Dad.

Dad didn't warm him up, like he used to when Sam was little. No Sam was a man now, man enough to shoot a gun, take it apart, and put it back together. Man enough to hear the whistle of leather through the air, to hear that only seconds before the pop of leather as the belt slammed into his backside, leaving behind a hot blossom of heat. Sam's sneakered feet scooted under the table; he scrambled to keep them straight, but it wasn't his fault that his legs weren't long enough to brace him there. He felt Dad's booted foot, then, moving in place like a racer's starting block, making sure that Sam's feet wouldn't shift forward. Sam didn't know whether or not to be grateful. Part of him was, because he would have made Dad even madder by not being able to keep his place.

The belt whickered through the air, slicing through his thin shorts like they were made of paper. Sam arched up from the table, hissing, his eyes watering. Dad pressed down a hard, hot hand in the middle of his back, and Sam jammed his fist in his mouth, wanting to lean away, to pull away. Not daring. By the tenth blow, he was crying, forehead pressed against the wooden planks of the table, sucking overly hot air into his lungs.

Then, at the twenty mark, it stopped. His ears rang, his throat was hot as iron in a fire. Dad stood behind him, breathing, long, hard breaths being drawn in and hissed out through his nostrils. Sam knew that sound. The beating was over, but not Dad's anger.

"Get up, Sam."

Sam got up, his knees knocking together, the room oddly white as he gripped the edge of the table. He watched Dad put the belt back on, leather through the loops, buckle end clicking as he did it up. He could almost hear Dean's anxiety on the couch, and thought about that, how Dean wouldn't have made a sound.

"You will never pull a stunt like that, you understand me?"

Unable to look up, Sam studied his feet. His ankles were coated with dust from the day, there were some spots where he'd smashed bugs with his palm, and somehow, something had cut him. Grass maybe.

"Sam, take that look off your face. Now."

Sam shook his head.

"Excuse me?"

Sam shook his head again, feeling the quiver all over his body.

"You have just thrown away your rights, Sam. There'll be no crossbow training for you until you learn to take orders."

Now Sam looked, fury replaced by cold anger. He felt it freeze up through his frame, and he looked up at Dad, scowling. "I don't care," he said. "You think I care? I don't want training, not even some stupid crossbow. Especially not some stupid crossbow."

"Come on, Sammy," said Dean, standing, trying to prop himself up on the couch. He could reach the crossbow on the table now, touching it with one finger. "Just apologize, it'll be okay, you'll get to learn. Right, Dad? If he apologizes?"

Dad gave a little laugh in his throat and moved to the sink, where Sam knew he'd wash his hands and face, like he always did. Spreading water all over the floor like he was in a barn or something. Sam knew what that laugh meant. Apology or no, there would be no crossbow training for Sam for two weeks and that was final.

Without thinking about it, Sam marched over to the table, grabbed the crossbow up with both hands and dashed it to the floor. It wasn't cocked but the bowstring was tight enough and the bow thin enough that the bow snapped and the string went flying. There was a resounding sharp sound as the butt cracked and the fiberglass shattered. Sticking out his chin, Sam looked at Dean, and then he saw Dad coming for him, marching across the floor like he had the enemy in his sights. Sam turned and sprinted out the door, slamming the screen behind him, pelting down the road and into the night.

"Sam!"

Sam ignored the shout as he heard the steps on the porch, the closeness even of Dad's exhaled breath. There was a mutter about keys, and Sam kept running, along the curve of the dusty road, now glowing in the starlight, licking like a ribbon through the trees. His elbows and fists pumped at his sides, his breath hard in his lungs. But the air was cool through his hair, and though he knew he couldn't keep running forever, he could run for a long while. This was, oddly, thanks to Dad's training, the daily runs, the goddamn sit-ups. Every day for the past two weeks. Yeah, Sam could run for hours, it felt like. For a moment, all he heard was his blood in his ears. Then he heard the growl of the Impala's engine and ran harder.

When he saw the flash of headlights, he fell to the ground and lowered his eyes. He let the black shape of the car go screaming past, inhaled old leaves, and tried not to panic. Exactly how far his little stunt would take him, he didn't know. But he was out of there. For now.

Getting up, he pushed the dirt from his knees, and started walking. His walking in the dark took him into town, where the streetlights were all on, and the bars were open. There were two bars, one on each side of the street. Sam slunk past them, staying in the shadows, saw the Impala turn the corner and head down a side street. Sam picked up his feet and ran through the rest of town, staying off the black top, and headed down the mountain. The trees were shaggy overhead, and the ditch was lined with gravel. It started to hurt his feet, and his calves were aching, so he ran on the road. His thighs felt like rocks, and the welts on his backside felt like they'd opened up, seeping now. Maybe bleeding.

He kept running. Paced himself, stayed to the darkness when a car would come by. It was five miles to the bottom of the mountain, where the valley dipped down, and the road followed the river. Out of breath, he stood at the crossroads, and wondered what time it was. Where he would head next. What he would eat. A thirteen year old could find work, couldn't he? Picking peaches or delivering papers? That's what other kids did, kids he met at school.

Then, standing there, standing still, hands on his hips, staring at the single blinking yellow light that marked the entrance to the bigger road, he realized he was thirsty. And it was cooler in the valley, near the water. As his sweat dried, he shivered a bit and pushed his hair out of his eyes.

Off to the left, tucked into the trees was an old fruit stand. Sam remembered passing it when they'd arrived in Mentone. Maybe there was still some fruit there. Maybe a spigot he could drink out of. He knew better than to drink untreated river water. Going closer, he saw that the fruit stand was not locked up, but as he opened the door, he saw that it was empty of fruit. They must clean up every night to keep animals from tearing the place apart. There wasn't a spigot either, just a roof supported by wooden poles, a dirt floor, and large, open bins for the fruit.

Sam tucked himself to the floor and leaned back against one of the poles. The dirt was cool and smooth, and the wooden frame walls cut the bit of wind that there was. He could imagine that the place could smell quite sweet if there was fruit for sale. But for now, it just smelled dry. And still. Sam closed his eyes. It only took a minute before his butt hurt too badly, so he lay on his side and curled around the pole. Cradled his head in his arms and tried not to think.

He would not sleep. He would rest, and then he would get up and start walking. He couldn't remember what was close, but figured if he walked south, there would be peaches growing there. He could pick those. And eat some.

*

A buzzing sound woke him, or a crackle in the silence, and as he opened his eyes, he realized that it was not dark. There was someone there, holding a beam lantern and placing it on the edge of one of the bins, tilting the lens to the ceiling. For a second, his heart thumped in his chest, thinking that someone bad had found him. Then he felt Dad's hand on his wrist, shaking him, heard Dad's voice say his name, and realized that he'd fallen asleep. Had stupidly fallen asleep, and of course Dad had found him. Dad, who could find a sugar cube in a snowstorm. How had Sam imagined that he could run away easily?

"Sam, get up, it's Dad."

Anther shake. Dad's hand was warm, and his voice sounded rough as if he'd been shouting.

Sam rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. He sat up, feeling the press of his weight against his welts. The bottom of his feet like he'd dipped them in tar and set them on fire. Dad's shadow loomed over him as he crouched down, the arc of light from behind him putting all of his face into darkness. But he knew Dad was looking at him, knew the expression, could hear the angry breathing. Smell Dad's sweat.

"Is Dean mad at me?" Sam asked. He put both of his palms into the dirt, fingernails scratching. Restless.

"You broke a valuable piece of equipment, you mouthed off at me, I've been searching for you for two hours, and you want to know if your brother is mad at you?"

Sam dipped his head. "Well, I know you are." It was a dumb thing to say, even before it was fully out, he knew it. Dad stood straight up, taking Sam with him, pulling him fully to his feet, one large hand in his chest pushing him firmly backwards into the pole. The light was now partially in Sam's eyes, and he raised his hands to block it. Dad turned and moved the light so it was fully on the ceiling, a large circle of white, spots on the lens cover showing up as dirty snowflakes there. Dust motes danced in the beam.

"I am," said Dad. Sam could see that jaw move as Dad spoke. "I'm at my wits end, Sam. You aren't getting any of this, and you're doing it on purpose. You're resistant to everything, and you don't seem to care."

"I don't," said Sam. He swallowed hard, felt Dad move closer, the rigid line of the body as it contained an angry shout. Even in the half-darkness he knew this. "I don't care. I just want to play soccer. Why didn't you just leave me in Greeley so I could play soccer?"

He could hear Dad grind his teeth, hear the inhale of breath, and feel the anger coming off in waves. "I'm not going to leave you in Greeley," said Dad, barely gritting this out. "And you're not going to waste your time on some game, when you should be training. I'm your father, and you will do as I tell you."

"You're not my father," said Sam, raising his hands as fists, pushing at Dad's chest. "You're not any kind of a father."

Then he felt it, the snap of Dad's hands in the air, the back of one meeting his face. The other pushed him to face the pole. Sam gripped at it, sucking at the inside of his cheek where he could taste blood. Dad was so, so mad, and Sam heard the belt come off. Knew he was going to get another whipping, and he couldn't make himself care. Today a beating, tomorrow, more running and guns, what did it matter?

Then Dad's mouth was at his ear, putting Sam completely in darkness now, the rough push of Dad's hand in the small of his back. Sam held as still as he could.

"It doesn't matter to you that I'm training you to be safe. It doesn't matter that I spent my evening, looking for you. You're only worried about your brother? Well, you think about that."

Then Dad stepped back, and in the darkness of the deserted fruit stand, the whipping began. It was worse in the dark. Sam couldn't see beyond the pole, but could see the arc of the loop of the belt, suddenly, clearly, as a shadow on the far wall. In the closed in space, there was nowhere for the echo of the blow to go but back into his skin. And the leather sliced at his skin like an electric rod, opening welts. There was a gust of air as the cloth of his shorts split. Fire, pressing him hard against the pole. Each blow, going down to his bones, and then shooting up again. Sam pressed his teeth against the back of his hand. Shook.

After ten blows, the beating stopped. For the moment. Sam could tell that Dad was far from done.

"Your brother is frantic with worry. He threw the keys at me, and wanted to come. I made him stay at the cabin, in case you came back." There was a pause. Sam could hear Dad running the belt through his hands. "Which you didn't. Of course not. Sam only cares about himself. What Sam wants."

"Th-that's not true," said Sam, trying not to whisper. Dad hated it when he whispered when he was scared. "I just don't want to t-train anymore."

"Oh, so now it's what you don't want, Sam?"

Sam let his forehead fall against the pole. He was so tired, and couldn't figure out what Dad wanted him to say. He was on the verge of saying it, whatever it was.

"You don't want to try your hardest, you don't want white in your egg, you don't want to be honest and admit when you've made a mistake--all these things you don't want and the world is just supposed to bend to your whims? It doesn't work that way."

Then he heard Dad lift the belt, and fold it over. Heard the leather cut through the air and braced himself. Hissed as it landed across his hips, tasted his own sweat as it raced down the side of his face and into this mouth. Dad made one sound of effort, and Sam knew, he just knew, even without looking, that Dad was clocking his arm all the way back. He was furious, and the belt told him this, curling around the outside of his right thigh, leaving a sting on his bare skin like a snake's bite.

At fifteen blows, Sam was sobbing into his arm, open mouthed, feeling the sting of leather that seemed to be shredding the skin from his legs and backside. He could hear his howls bouncing off the ceiling, and the sharp smell of his own sweat, pouring down his neck. Then the beating really began, each blow coming down hard, the pain winding through him like a dark coil, coming up again, spreading out through his skin.

His arms wrapped themselves tightly around the pole and he held onto it. Tried to keep breathing through the blows. Counted them. Got up to twenty-five before the air around him started to go white, and he felt himself slipping to the ground. He curled his arms around his knees and realized he was crying. And couldn't stop it either, not even as Dad crouched down beside him, his shoulders and head just humps in the dark.

"Are we done here?" asked Dad. Voice like iron.

"T-tell Dean I'm s-sorry," said Sam, managing only that as his shoulders shook and his lungs struggled for air.

"That you're sorry?"

"The crossbow," said Sam. "He l-liked the crossbow, and I b-broke it."

"Get in the car." Dad stood up. Sam could hear him put his belt back on and fasten it. "Get in the car now, or I'll pick you up and carry you there."

Dad was still mad.

Sam unfolded his arms and tried to uncurl himself, but his wrists felt like they were going to snap underneath his weight. He tried leaning to the side, using the pole for leverage, but that didn't work either. Rough hands pulled him to his feet, and Sam swayed there, thinking about walking, feeling the heat marching up and down his backside. Struggled with the swimming in his head, the white air that seemed to descend from the ceiling. With a hand on his neck, Dad walked him to the car, and Sam managed to stay upright until Dad opened the passenger door. Then Sam tumbled in, felt Dad lift his feet and place them inside the car. The door was shut behind him.

Then Dad was getting in the car, pushing Sam's head out of the way, but not making him sit up. There was a breeze, and Sam realized the windows were all rolled down. Dad didn't turn on the engine. He just put the keys in the ignition and sat there. Breathing. Sam could feel Dad's thigh brushing the top of his head. Then he heard Dad sigh.

"Sit up, Sam."

Sam shook his head. "It hurts to sit up." His face was sticking to the vinyl of the seat. He felt the tips of Dad's fingers stir in his hair. Then the fingers went away.

"Sit up anyway."

With one hand cupped under his shoulders, Dad helped Sam sit up. The backs of his thighs immediately began to sting, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. He curled against the passenger side door, feeling the breeze drying his tears as they fell new down his face. Sam looked out over the hood of the car, dotted with lights from the stars.

"You lied to me, Sam," began Dad. "You screwed up and then you lied about it. Then, when you got found out, you pitched a fit like a two year old. And then you ran away. When what you should have done was--"

"Be like Dean." The words stuck in his throat, lodged there along with the acid shooting up from his stomach.

Dad made a sharp sound, something like a bark of laughter, or a grunt of surprise. Sam wasn't sure. Nerves racing, Sam pushed his hair out of his eyes. Didn't look over.

"Yes, be like Dean. In that, when Dean screws up, he steps up and owns that. He doesn't run away."

Sam knew that this was true. But it was also true that Dean loved to train. Loved it so much that he was pissed when he couldn't do it. All of this could go without saying; Sam knew very well the merits of his older brother and how much that counted with Dad. A million times a million points; something Sam could never achieve. He shifted his thighs to ease the burn, but they were stuck to the vinyl too now. It was going to hurt when he got out of the car.

"You don't even try, Sam. And it's not going to help. I'm not going to stop pushing you. So you can either stop resisting, and take your face out of the dirt and try, or you'll just get scraped up. It's up to you."

Sam swallowed. "I hate training."

"And that's just too damn bad."

It sounded so final, subject closed, that Sam crumpled forward and buried his face in his elbow. Crying harder now, though he knew it would piss Dad off. Thought about Dean, worried, the ruins of the crossbow spread at his feet. Felt the pain in his chest, couldn't catch his breath.

Hands were on him, pushing him to lean his head against the seat. Rough hands, but not hurting.

"That's enough, Sam. You're done now."

Sam took at deep breath. His face felt hot. His mouth was dry, and he wanted a glass of water very badly.

Then Dad leaned forward and started the engine, turned on the headlights, and now Sam could look over. In the glow of the dashboard, a little starry from the tears clumping his lashes, Dad's mouth was downturned. He didn't look at Sam as he looped his arm over the back of the seat to check for clearance. He spun the wheel with one hand, and Sam winced as the tires went over a bump. Then Dad turned the wheel the other way and they were on the road, headed back up the mountain. Sam wondered what time it was. But he didn't ask.

After about a mile, he felt Dad turn to look at him as he drove. Sam kept his eyes looking out the window.

"Did you run all the way down the mountain?"

Sam shrugged. "Most of it."

"You're feet are going to feel like crap in the morning," said Dad. "Those shoes weren't made for running on blacktop."

Sam considered his toes. Yeah, they felt hot and hard. Wouldn't matter, because in the morning there would be more running and jumping and leaping. Guns. Heat. Sweat. He dipped his head to hide his scowl. Dad controlled the whole summer, if not the rest of his life, and there was no way around it. Not till he turned eighteen.

Dad didn't say anything else all the way back to the cabin. There was no porch light, but the lights inside were on. Dad parked the car, and motioned for Sam to get out. Sam knew it was going to hurt like hell when he pulled his broken skin away from the seat. He couldn't make himself do it, and jerked back when Dad walked around and flung open the passenger side door. He opened his mouth to explain, but Dad just grabbed him by the arm, and yanked. Sam yelped, almost falling over as his feet hit the ground. Still keeping hold of him, Dad marched up the stairs and into the house. Dean was waiting, sitting on the couch, all traces of the broken crossbow gone.

Dean stood up, white, mouth open. "Jesus, Dad--"

"Go to bed, Dean," said Dad, not letting go of Sam. "I'll take care of it."

It meaning him. Sam scowled. He watched as Dean did as he was told without even a backwards glance at his brother. Dad walked him over to the sink, got out a glass, and turned on the tap. He filled the glass and finally letting go of Sam, handed it to him.

Sam took it in both hands, downing the entire thing in one gulp. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, feeling the water rush through his system. Then he looked up at Dad.

"We're done here, Sam," said Dad, his eyes dark, face half in shadow. "I'm not going to let you not train, and that's it."

Dad stared down at him as if he expected something from Sam, like an apology or an explanation. But Sam couldn't give it. He was only sorry about the crossbow and nothing else. Mostly.

"Turn around," said Dad, motioning with his hand.

Sam turned around, hanging his head. He knew his shorts were ripped, and wondered how bad the back of his legs looked. Wondered if Dad was going to use iodine.

"If you weren't so goddamn stubborn--" said Dad, his breath hitching.

"If you weren't," said Sam, muttering.

Not quietly enough, apparently.

"What did you just say?"

Dad grabbed his shoulder and whirled him back around. Sam knew his most mulish scowl was in place, but he couldn't help it. He would train, but he didn't have to like it. Wouldn't be like Dean, yes sirring all over the place.

"I asked you what you just said, Sam, and I suggest you answer me."

"I said if you weren't," said Sam, with force.

Dad's hands turned into fists, and Sam flinched, his whole body jerking back. He couldn't help it, couldn't stand his ground, not when Dad looked like that, like he wanted to tear something apart and send it twitching to the ground. In pieces.

Then Dad ran his hand over his face, shoving his other hand in his pocket. Deep, still in a fist. He seemed to shiver then and then looked at Sam with still, dark eyes.

"You get cleaned up," he said, finally, his voice full of gravel. "And get to bed, you hear me?"

Without saying anything, Sam went into the bathroom, which was just off of the living room, and closed the door behind him. Without turning on the light, he pressed his face into his hands and leaned into the corner by the doorjamb. He shook, breathing in his own sweat, biting back the shout that wanted to make itself heard, to say exactly what he wanted to say. The part of him that wanted to go right back out to Dad and say it: This is bullshit. But as always, he didn't dare, and tried to breathe slowly, and dull the sharp beats of his heart against his breastbone.

There was a knock at the door. "Turn on the light, Sam."

He did this, the ends of his fingers numb, the lids of his eyes screwing down tightly at the naked bulb over the sink. Knowing that Dad could see the light, now, from under the door. That he was standing by, even now, to make sure that his orders were carried out. Sam made himself go to the sink, and took off his shirt and ran the water. He was very tempted to just make splashing sounds and walk out with his chin held high, but the chances of Dad figuring it out, and the wrath that would follow were too much to contemplate. So he ran his head under the tap and washed his arms and chest, and finally, took off his shoes and ripped shorts and underwear. And turned to look.

The backs of his legs were puffy and purple, with darker lines where the belt had caught sideways, and where the blood had dried and then stuck his skin to the vinyl seats of the Impala. He touched the back of his right thigh with his fingers, but the skin was deadened and hard. He was going to be walking on what felt like stiff planks for days. Not that that would stop the daily run and the rest of it.

Clenching his teeth, he grabbed a washcloth that hadn't been used too often from the towel rack and ran it under cold water. He bent over and scrubbed his ankles and legs and then his knees, and running the washrag under cold water again, folded it and placed it, with ginger care, on the back of one leg. He didn't rub, like Dad would've, he barely patted. Then he did the same with the other leg. Gently. Almost not at all, touching the washcloth to the welts, and then hissing and drawing it away.

"Everything okay in there?" This was accompanied by another knock at the door and Sam realized that Dad was standing just outside, and probably hadn't moved away the entire time.

Sam just stared at the door. When he didn't say anything, Dad said, "Sam?"

Sam swallowed and made himself answer. "Yeah."

He took another pass at the back of his legs and at the scrape he found along his upper arm. Then he tried cleaning the scratches from the wooden pole on the inside of his forearms. There was almost no point. And he was suddenly, so very, very tired.

He flopped the washcloth over the towel rack and put his clothes back on. This hurt, the elastic going over the welts like Velcro, the heat of the cotton almost too much. Picking up his shoes in one hand, he turned off the light and opened the door. Faaed his father, waiting, dark eyed and still. That mouth turned down in that frown, the way it did when he was angry. Or worried. Or any other time things weren't going the way he wanted them too.

"Get to bed. Now."

Without another word, Sam turned and walked away. He opened the bedroom door as quietly as he could, and stood there. It was late and it was dark. Sam ached from head to foot, his backside still ablaze. He put down his sneakers, feeling the grit that fell from them under his bare toes. The only thing that kept the room from being a sauna was the cross breeze through the windows. He took off his shirt and his shorts, and climbed over the footboard and into bed, not wanting to disturb Dean. Dean, who would have wanted to be fresh in the morning for the long-promised crossbow training, only now there wasn't going to be any. It would be a week, maybe more, till Dad could arrange for another one. Sam dipped his head, tried to find the pillow without making any noise, when Dean shifted in the bed next to him.

"Sam," said Dean, his voice thick.

"Dean," said Sam, "'m sorry, I--"

"Shut up," said Dean.

Sam clamped his mouth shut.

Dean lay there for a minute and then shoved himself out of bed and left the room, hobbling. Sam lay down, facing the wall, and tried not to cry. As much as he wished otherwise, he was stuck being a Winchester, and now Dean was mad at him as well. Not that Sam blamed him. Dean had been looking forward to using that crossbow and as Dad had so sharply pointed out, Sam's tantrum meant that now Dean would suffer as well. His fault. He was to blame, like he was for everything.

Shrugging himself down into the pillow, he closed his eyes, and tried to make his breathing even. His pillow was already soaked, his skin under his eyes itched, his neck was sticky, his feet were pounding. Nighttime runs were not his thing, especially not five mile ones. He'd pay in the morning, Dad had said. Well, he was paying now.

He heard the sound of the door shutting behind him, and Dean's feet as he padded over to the bed with a little shuffle as he kept most of his weight on his right leg. And then the dip of the bed as Dean got into it. Sam resolved to be as still as he could, to take up as little room as he could, when he felt something against his arm. Turning to look, in the near darkness, he could see that Dean was leaning over him. Was holding something in his hand.

"Here, take it."

Without asking what it was, Sam took it, his fingers twining with Dean's as he did so. Feeling the warmth of Dean's hand, and the warmth that had left on what turned out to be a spoon.

"Don't let it swirl off now."

Dean lay back down as Sam stuck the end in his mouth. It was honey, a big spoonful of honey, spun round and round and carried to him by Dean's hand. It was a gift. Sweet on his tongue with a bit of acid, raw honey, heating in his mouth, melting away, slipping down his throat. He sucked on the spoon till it was all gone, feeling the hot tears slip sideways down his face and into his ear. The honey eased the sting of his skin, but not in his heart. It was still going to be a long summer.

- end -