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Soldier Son

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Title:Soldier Son
Author: Lovesrain44
Genre: Gen
Word Count:14,151
Pairings/Characters: No pairings; Sam, Dean, and John
Warnings: Dark, angst, kidfic, some violence.

~

The light woke him, a silver sharpness followed by blackest silence. Sam sat straight up in bed, heat falling like a blanket, and waited. He counted with his breath, one, two, three, and then, his heart hammering, heard the thunder rolling up the sides of the hills, bouncing away, bouncing back. Sweat danced on his scalp, he was only barely conscious of Dean in the bed next to him, sleeping away, dreaming as if to the softest lullaby. That was Dean, immune to the casual noise of a thunderstorm, but if Sam said so much as a word, he would be awake. And then teasing: you're not afraid of a storm, are ya, Sammy?

Sam shook his head in the darkness, felt some sweat slip into his eyes. He wasn't afraid of storms, nor of the dark. It was the black silence, in between the lighting and the thunder, that grabbed his heart and wouldn't let go. There was something so quiet and still then, reaching out. He'd been scared of it as long as he could remember and never told Dean. Because Dean would let it slip to Dad, and then Dad would concoct some exercise, some lesson about not being afraid of that space, the blankness.

Light shattered the room into daylight, and Sam clamped his teeth into his lower lip, just as there was another flash of light and a huge boom. He could smell the rain on the wind, and waited, hands hot against the mattress, his stomach heaving like he'd been running too far, too fast, in hot weather. The backs of his legs felt raw against the rough sheets, and sweat pooled down between his thighs. Sparks flew across his window and he heard something go snap and sizzle. And then it was quiet. And totally dark. Silent for a moment, and then the rain came down. A shush sound, like a curtain falling.

Something was wrong. Sam crawled out of bed, held on to the iron bedstead and crept towards the door. If Dean or Dad caught him up, he'd say he was going for water, a drink of water because it was so hot. Who knew what time it was, maybe it wouldn't matter that it was so late.

But as he opened up the bedroom door to the main room, he realized something was wrong. The light on the clock on the stove wasn't glowing as it normally was. The hum of the refrigerator was silent. The fan that sat on the side table next to the couch where Dad slept wasn't making any noise at all. His heart thumped, feeding the tingling in his hands and legs. He could smell something, it was like burning, like when the engine of the Impala got too hot.

Sam licked his lips. Maybe he needed a flashlight. That would help. Then he could go back to bed and get some rest before morning. Tomorrow, Dad was going to pick up the crossbow for Dean, and when he came back, well, it would be the happiest day of Dean's life. Which was fine for him. Sam would probably have to do extra miles while Dean learned the crossbow. Which was fine too. Sam would rather not touch another crossbow as long as he lived.

As he crossed the floor towards the shelf against the wall, he thought he heard something behind him. Then, with a start, he realized someone was standing next to him, reaching out. With a squawk, Sam jumped back, sweat building in the backs of his knees, along the inside of his elbows, anywhere that heat could pool.

"Sammy," came the whisper. It was Dad. "What are you doing up?"

His knees knocked as he looked up. Dad's hand landed on his shoulder, not hard, but quick. Sam'd been doing his best to stay under Dad's radar, so, naturally, here he was, right in the bullseye. It'd been a week since what Sam referred to as the crossbow incident, which for some reason, when Dad overheard him talking to Dean, made him laugh out loud. It wasn't funny, and Sam refused to join in, scowling, crossing his arms over his chest. Which made Dean laugh, even though he didn't know why Dad was laughing. They'd been in an open field under a hot, clear sky, setting up an obstacle course and Sam had never wanted to throw something at both of them so badly. The field had been littered with stones along the edge. He'd almost reached for one, he'd--

"Sam."

That was an order. Sam could hear it in his voice. "I--" he said. "The light, um, I can't see--"

His hand brushed against Dad's side as he pointed, realizing only a second later that it was really, really dark, and that Dad wouldn't be able to see what he was pointing at. So he said, "On the stove."

A second later, Dad's hand went away, and Sam could almost see the outline of his shoulders as he moved towards the window and the stove. If it wasn't also cloudy and raining, he might be able to see the expression on Dad's face. As it was, everything was black lumps. Lightning flickered outside, setting the clouds to a swirling grey lace, lighting up Dad's profile as he looked out the window. Sam didn't realize he'd moved until a second later, when the thunder came, and he was, standing next to Dad and shaking so hard his teeth chattered.

"Power's been blown," said Dad. "And the generator, too. Damnit. Don't open the fridge till I get the generator fixed."

Suddenly Dad shifted, and his hand was on the back of Sam's neck. "You're not scared of a thunderstorm, are you, Sammy?"

"No," he said, because truthfully the answer was no. He wasn't afraid of thunderstorms, he was just afraid of the space between. And maybe he was thinking a little too hard about that part because his voice rippled out of him, like a sad door stuttering on its hinges.

"Sammy," said Dad. It was a question, and it wanted answers.

"No--" Sam began again, but as he stared out of the black square of window over the sink, lightning flashed diamond hard across his eyes, and the silence followed like a great yawning mouth. He moved away from the window, away from Dad. But Dad moved even quicker, and even in the darkness, grabbed on to Sam's arm and held tight. The grip was like a finger trap, and his bare feet couldn't make enough purchase on the wooden floor to get him anywhere. He sank into stillness, feeling the blood pound through his arm, chin tucked against his chest.

"What are you doing up anyway?"

Sam swallowed and listened to the thunder, the rain on the leaves outside the windows.

"Sam." Dad shook him.

"I'm getting a flashlight," he said.

He felt Dad's hand ease up on his arm.

"I don't think so," Dad said. "You don't need a flashlight to go to bed. Which is where you should be, right now. So march."

"But--but I want a flashlight. I know where they are."

"Doesn't matter. Now, get to bed."

A bolt of lighting cast the kitchen into daylight, and Sam could easily, just for a second, see the scowl on Dad's face. It told Sam everything he already knew, that Dad was well on his way to irritated, already thinking of fixing the generator, and certainly not worried about his youngest who only wanted a flashlight to keep the silence away.

His throat tightened, and he thought about getting a flashlight anyway, maybe if he went and got one right now, there was not much Dad could say about it. So he moved, shifting sideways, feeling with his bare feet along the boards.

"It's just a crutch, Sam," said Dad. Not moving. Dark now, in the darkness.

"I don't care."

"And I said no."

If he'd waited, if he'd been more quiet, if he'd just gotten the flashlight before Dad had gotten up, none of this would be a problem. He knew that. It was just a flashlight, for Pete's sake, it wasn't going to save him from any monster, he knew that. But it would save him from the quiet between the flash and the thunder, and so he reached for it.

Dad grabbed him again, right around his upper arm and yanked. Hard, spilling Sam backwards, the hand slippery, making him stumble.

"It's just a flashlight," said Sam, snapping at the dark, yanking his arm away, "just a stupid, freaking flashlight, so why can't I have it?"

"Keep your voice down."

"You're the one who's shouting!"

But Sam realized he was shouting too now, and backed away, the bottom of his feet damp, his heart clenching up like he'd run too far, too fast.

"So help me, Sam--you get to bed. Now."

It was so dark and so hot that his hair, salty with sweat, slipped into his eyes and for a moment, he really couldn't see. But he knew that he had to move and move fast, out of arm's reach, out of the way. The edge of that voice told him that Dad was keeping his temper in check, but one more spark would set it off; Sam didn't want to test it. Not so soon, and not in the dark. His face and the backs of his legs still hurt, and the last thing he wanted was for Dean to wake up and stumble from the bedroom to ask, sleepily, what was going on.

He grabbed hold of the first thing he came to, the wall beside the bathroom door, and ran his hands along the plaster till he got to the bedroom door. As fast as he could, he whipped it open and then closed it behind him once he was safely inside. The air, almost motionless, settled on his skin, pulling out every last bit of calm. He wasn't shaking, he told himself he wasn't shaking. But it wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. What difference did a little flashlight make? If Dean had wanted a flashlight, Dad would have given it to him, no questions asked. But he, Sam, was not allowed. It just wasn't fair.

"'am?"

Dean. He'd woken up, Sam could hear him moving against his pillow.

"Water," he said, keeping his voice soft. "Got some water."

"'t me some, will ya?"

Sam stood there for a minute, but Dean was back asleep before he could reply.

*

When Sam got up the next morning and stepped into the kitchen, it smelled like a week's worth of old garbage. Dad was standing at the fridge, running his hands over the rubber seal, testing it.

"Is that breakfast?" he asked, coming closer. The smell was amazingly bad. He resisted the urge to reach inside of his shorts to ease his underwear away from a particularly hard welt on his butt that lived just under the curve of the elastic. It'd been troublesome for the last week, and Dean had started making fun of him doing it. Sam had made sure to wear his longest shorts so that no one would have to look, but it didn't keep it from hurting; his backside and legs were still dark with bruises only now turning to blue.

"It was," said Dad, straightening up. "Where's Dean?"

Good morning, Sam.

Good morning, Dad.

Sam sighed. "Bathroom," he said instead.

The bathroom door opened, and Dean made a face as the smell of the open fridge hit him.

"What the he-- what happened?" He too came closer to the smell, as if it was too much for him to resist. "Oh, man, what died?"

"The generator, for one," said Dad. "Dean, get a plastic bag and clear this mess out of here. Sam, get some paper, make a list."

Dean was already reaching beneath the sink, the obedient one, which didn't stop him from complaining. "How come Sam gets to make a list?"

"His handwriting's neater."

Sam tried not to smile at this as he got some paper and a pencil from the drawer and sat at the table as far as he could from the open fridge. It felt a little funny sitting in Dad's chair, with his back to the wall where he could see everything in the little cabin.

"Milk," said Dad, "bread, butter, eggs, cheese…." Dad paused for a minute, and Sam wrote everything down. Then the list continued with the usual things like lunchmeat and mayonnaise, all the things that hunters ate. Then Dad moved back and let Dean at the fridge. "I'll get some baking soda too, we're out of that, and you boys can give this thing a good clean out."

"Can't I come?" asked Dean.

"Not this time," said Dad, and the unspoken message was clear. Sam had gotten himself knee deep in trouble the last time, so he wasn't to be left alone. "You look after your brother."

Naturally Dean didn't argue. Sam bent over his list, touching the back of his teeth with his tongue, not minding spending time alone with Dean. Looking forward to a day without Dad.

"Can we have nectarines?" he asked.

"Sure," said Dad. "If they have them."

Sam wrote nectarines down, and then he thought of something; it would be funny if he wrote it down. On the very next line, in clear, careful letters he wrote Otter Pops. It might make Dad laugh, maybe he would get them, but if Sam asked outright, Dad was sure to say no. This way was better.

Dean looked over his shoulder and whispered, "Marshmallow fluff," so Sam added that next. Not that it was likely to happen that Dad would buy any treats at all, not with them in training, but it never hurt to try.

Dad took the list from Sam and moved towards the living room, gathering his journal, jingling his keys in his hand. There was a gust of air as he opened the front door, a slight wind sweeping through the screen door. It smelled like more rain.

"You boys, get some dry cereal for breakfast, do your chores, and then a run, and then, when I get back with the new crossbow, after I fix the generator, we can try that out."

Dean smiled at Sam, looking over his shoulder at Dad getting ready to go. He couldn't wait. Had been waiting. Which was no one's fault, really, though Sam had apologized at least three times till Dean had told him to shut the hell up. It was okay. Dad had promised to get an even better crossbow for Dean this time. Something stronger. Sam-resistant. Sam tried not to think about it.

"Can we go swimming if we get finished?" Sam asked.

Dean's shoulders went up, even as he pretended to ignore the question. According to him, you weren't supposed to ask for things, but Sam didn't agree. If you never asked, you never got. "It's hot. I want to go swimming."

Dad sighed, and Dean became very involved in the fridge. "Sam, here, hold this," he said, handing him a packet of cheese folded in tin foil that might still be good, trying to stave off the argument. Sam put the cheese on the table with a thump.

Dad jingled his keys in his pocket, checking his journal to see that a pen was tucked inside of it. He didn't raise his eyes from the journal as he spoke. "We've talked about this, Sam." Using that low voice that seemed to indicate that Dad's patience on the subject was already thin. "The path down to the river at the bottom of the falls is too steep, you'll just have to wait till I have time to clear it so it's safe."

Sam scoffed.

"And above the falls, nice as it may seem, that smooth water is a sure sign of the power of the water over the rocks, and you'll just get yourself killed."

"So the answer is no?"

Dean shook his head, like he was trying to warn Sam. It was too late, the question was already out there.

"The answer is no. For the last time. You want to get mouthy and ask me again?"

Sam held his mouth closed by force of will alone. Glaring at Dad as he went out the door.

"Bye, Dad," said Dean to the retreating back, the slamming screen door.

He waited a minute till they could hear the Impala growl to a start and then snapped a glare at Sam. "What is wrong with you?"

Sam didn't even bother to pretend he didn't know what Dean really meant. "I was just asking, is all."

"You always ask," said Dean. Leaving half of what he wanted to say unsaid. "You never--" But then he stopped, because Sam knew he'd tried explaining this before, and it never made any sense. According to Dean, asking was greedy; you didn't ask. You waited till you'd been given it. Till you'd earned it.

Dean returned to his task, shaking his head, and Sam grabbed a box of dry cereal and munched on that, using his hands, twitching his back against the ladders of the chair where Dad usually sat. When Dean was finished and tied the trash bag closed, he grabbed a handful of cereal, and stood there, next to Sam, chewing on it with his mouth open, trying not to breathe through his nose. Dean had left the fridge open to air, and the kitchen still smelled like old food.

Sam got up, went into the bedroom, and pulled on yesterday's t-shirt, checked the laces on his sneakers. When he came out, Dean was just doing the same, one leg propped up on a chair.

"Run?" Dean said now, wiping his hands on his jeans. Running was best before it got hot, Sam knew this, plus there was no getting out of it. Even if the backs of his legs still felt a whole lot more like dead wood than living flesh. At the very least, he had a mostly Dad-less day ahead of him, so that had to be counted as something good.

When Dean walked out the door, Sam was close behind. They left the cabin unlocked, without even hooking the screen door. There was nothing to steal, the guns were all secured in the Impala, and besides the cabin was too far out in the woods for a casual thief to want to chance it. Besides, Dad had said it would look funny if they locked up and no one else did. It was a lesson about blending in, about being one of the locals. The disguise of the common man.

And now the morning run. They both knew the route, and Sam knew how to ramp up after fifty feet or so, how the sweat kicked in, and the sun sparkled through the green leaves overhead. Damp dust beneath his feet. His breath coming strong and smooth inside of a hundred yards, and he knew he could run forever. Beside him, Dean kept pace, sweat making his hair dark. Smiling at Sam.

Sam could keep pace for the first two miles, but on the way back, would lag behind. But then, he was only thirteen. He couldn't keep up, but he could do the whole distance. He'd overheard Dad once tell Dean that Sam would have legs one day. Long ones. Thoroughbred legs. But for the moment, he had a Quarter horse heart. Sam didn't know what this meant, but he longed to ask.

Meanwhile, the earth was solid beneath his feet, his path sure, two miles to town, two miles back. The was breeze nonexistent, the sweat now sticking his shirt to him, the air like a thick blanket, rising up from the moss-speckled ground, moist like the river, but everywhere and all around.

"Dean?" asked Sam, not quite panting. At pace, at Dean's side.

"Yeah," said Dean, concentrating on the road ahead.

"Do we have to run the whole way?"

"Yeah."

"Dad's not here," said Sam.

That much was obvious. But what Sam was not saying, not exactly asking, was less obvious. Dad's not here, so let's not run. If they both didn't do it, then that would make it okay. Why did they have to run every day anyway?

The torment of an order unfollowed, however, would whisper in Dean's ear until he confessed it to Dad. Sam waited a moment, his eye catching the first traffic light in town, the way the clouds packed in the sky, lowering down on the wooden and brick buildings, and in his mind's eye, Dean's face. Confessing to Dad.

"Doesn't matter," said Dean, slowing down, allowing Sam to catch his breath. "We gotta do this run." And not just because Dad said so, that went unspoken between them, but because a run was good training. You never know where you might need your legs to take you. So run, Dad said, and run they did.

At the first sidewalk corner, they paused a minute to catch their breaths, to check their time on the town hall clock. Sam heard thunder in the distance, rolling through the valley like low drums. Everything felt cloaked in hot wool.

"Take your time coming back," Dean said, catching Sam's eye, smiling, doing the big brother tease. There was no way Sam could keep up at this point, it wasn't nice to tease, but Sam's wasn't bothered by it. Read the unwritten message underneath, almost as if he knew that one day, if Dad was right about his legs, he would outpace Dean with absolutely no effort at all. "And if it's raining, we're off the hook for any outside chores."

"Pray for rain," said Sam, with a grin. Anything to get out of cutting wood.

"You wish," said Dean, and sprinted off along the paved road headed east, and then along the chalk road that edged the forest, and then right into it. The cabin was hidden in the woods, but anyone local would have known right where it was. Dean didn't bother to be circumspect about it, that would only attract more attention than Dad would want.

Sam followed behind, slow enough so that the dust in Dean's wake had time to settle. He didn't mind running, once he got started, but it was the principle of the thing. He used to do wind sprints for soccer, and that made sense, because of the stop and go action of the game. It didn't make sense to run non-stop for four miles, when a monster could surely catch up to a man over a far shorter distance than that. And, if it couldn't catch up because it shambled like a zombie, then there was no point running.

When he got to the cabin, he pounded up the wooden steps, his feet echoing through the floor as he hit the top riser, sweat pouring down the sides of his face as his body came to a halt. Then he swung open the screen. Dean was getting a glass of water and Sam tromped in beside him, reaching for the glass. Dean handed it over, untasted, like it was instinctual. He watched as Sam drank it all down, in one breath and then got himself another glass. Drinking the water, he smiled at Sam over the rim. When he was finished, he set the glass down, and said, "Chores."

*

It didn't start to rain, so they chopped wood. Or rather Dean chopped wood like the obedient son, hefting the axe over his head, cutting through logs till the back of his shirt was black with sweat. Sam piled the logs in the cord they were building, and collected the chips in the metal trash can. They didn't have gloves, and Sam always thought they should, but when he'd said something about it one time, Dad had replied that calluses built character and that was the last of that idea. It almost made sense to want to toughen your hands for hunting, but what if you didn't want to be a hunter? Soccer players never used their hands, so it wasn't going to matter to Sam. But he couldn't tell Dad that.

Then they picked up stray branches in the yard from the storm the night before. Then they went in and Sam swept the floor while Dean washed the dishes. They both made up their shared bed together, and Dean folded back the sheet on the couch, and plumped up the pillow.

Then a gust of wind raced through the open windows and it started to rain.

They did what they so seldom got to do when not on the road, which was a whole lot of nothing. Sure, in the Impala, there was nothing much to do either, except respond to Dad's pop quizzes, or play License Plates (though Sam felt to old, really, to be playing that one), or Bug, Bug, Punch, though Dad tended to frown on that one after one sock in the arm too many, mostly on account of the fact that Dean would practically leap over the seat in his exuberance to get at Sammy, and thus block Dad's view in the rearview mirror. Or Sammy would yelp too loudly, or something. Mostly they just sat, doing nothing. Which was completely different than sitting around the cabin doing nothing. There was the TV, which they turned on right away, and even though it was only something about waterfalls in Russia on PBS, it was in color and was something. They played a few card games like Spit and War, sitting on the couch together, and ended up flinging the cards at each other, until the whole thing turned into 52 Pickup.

Then they had lunch, or what passed for it, cold tuna out of a can with no mayonnaise and no bread. There wasn't even any milk to wash it down with.

"What'll we do now?" asked Sam, brushing the crumbs from the table on the floor. "It's still raining."

"Maybe we could go out looking for berries," said Dean. He put the washcloth down and looked out at the rain through the window. And then at Sam, holding the broom in his hands, the end of which seemed twice as tall as he was as he tried to push the dirt from the floor into the dustpan.

"In the rain?"

"Yeah," said Dean. "'fraid you'll melt? Cause you're not that sweet, you know." That was the old joke from The Wizard of Oz, that the witch melted in water because she was made of sugar.

Sam rinsed their forks in the sink and put them in the drainer. Dean closed the window over the kitchen table, in case the rain shifted direction and whistled for his brother. Walked out the door without looking back, knowing that Sam would be right close behind, thundering down the steps to be at his side. Which he was. Dean smiled at him, and Sam looked up and smiled back.

The second they were out from under the shelter of the porch, they felt the rain. Which was, in the summertime in Alabama, like a lukewarm shower. It came straight down too, not like in Colorado, where it came down sideways and was so cold it might as well be snow. Or New York, where it shot down like grey arrows and drilled into your skin. This was okay, this was nice.

"Where are the berries, Dean?"

"Towards the path to the river below the falls," said Dean. "I mean, we won't go down it, right? But they're along that way. I saw them when Dad and I walked through the woods our first day here."

Sam tried not to frown at the memory of being left at the cabin in case the phone guy showed up, and he'd been pissed as Dad and Dean had driven off. Dean had said that someone had to stay behind, right? Sam was the most logical one, most of the time, but it got old. He shook his head and followed behind Dean, not saying anything. Their clothes became dark in the rain, and the dust beneath their feet, so powdery and light that morning, stuck to the bottom of their sneakers and began to run with miniature rivers of its own.

Sam liked the feel of the rain running behind his ears, along his neck, down his spine. He liked the coolness, especially welcome after the muggy heat that sank into the bones and made it hard to move around fast. It was easier in cooler weather, to do all the running and jumping and leaping that Dad wanted. Too bad the jobs Dad chose weren't always in cooler climates. Not too far north, like Minnesota in winter or something, but--

"Hey, Dean?" asked Sam.

"Yeah?"

"What kind of berries? Ones to eat, right?"

"No, dorkface, poison ones."

Dean was obviously trying not to smile. He even wiped his eyebrows with his thumb, as if trying to swipe aside the rain, but it was no use. His mouth curled up, like it had a mind of its own, and the joke was out.

"Oh, sure," said Sam, pretending to smack him in the arm. "Poison ones. You eat 'em first, in that case. I'll watch."

They followed the path as the rain slowly let up, branches snagging on Dean's jeans a bit when the path narrowed, low brush smattering his thighs with rainwater. Behind him, Sam followed closely, humming under his breath, and when Dean looked back, grinning, rain dripping from his chin.

At the spot where the trail headed down the cliffside and towards the river, they could hear the sound of the falls, like a faraway roar echoing through the trees. They stood under the trees for a moment, listening, and Sam felt spots of rain as they fell from the leaves on the tall trees overhead. He looked where Dean was pointing to the clump of bushes to the right and to the left of the main trail.

"Blackberries and raspberries," he said. "Watch for prickers and stickers, and for Pete's sake, don't eat anything that you don't know."

Sam considered this. Raspberries were Dean's favorite, but Sam liked them too. There were only so many raspberry bushes, and tons of the blackberry, and Dean was waiting so that Sam could choose first. He reached out to the closest bush, a raspberry one, and plucked the biggest, reddest, mist-speckled berry right off. And popped it into his mouth. He tipped back his head, bangs falling back from his forehead, closed his eyes, patted his tummy, and pretended to moan with pleasure. Then he moved to the left of the path. Where the blueberries were.

"More for me," he said. "You can have the raspberry." Just to be nice.

For a second, Dean looked like he wanted to call bullshit, but then he shrugged and let it go, and stepped off the path to crouch down next to the raspberry bush, gingerly putting his hand in through the spiked branches as the drops of rain from the leaves on the trees splatted all around them, and the red smell of the berries rose in the hot air.

*

When they got back to the cabin, they were soaked to the armpits and covered in scratches and berry stains. The sky was just edging towards twilight, and since the rain had gone, the air was getting thick again. Warm, as if making up for the coolness of the afternoon. Dad shouldn't be too much longer, had said he'd be back before dark.

"He's late. Should I get supper on?"

"Get what on," said Sam. "There's nothing to eat.

They walked up the wooden steps, looked around the cabin and realized they'd left the TV on. Dean looked at Sam. Sam looked back at him.

"I won't tell if you won't," he said.

Dean frowned. That wasn't exactly right, but it was just the TV after all. They turned it off when they were supposed to most of the time, and that was okay, wasn't it? Didn't hurt anybody, really. He looked at Sam, his eyebrows drawing together. "Just this once," he said.

*

When the Impala pulled up along the long, chalk-covered road, bringing a swirl of gasoline smell and the heat of the engine, Dean raced out to meet it. Sam followed behind, lagging, stopping on the top step to watch as Dad turned off the engine and got out. The door squeaked as he did this, and then, after he shut it, there was nothing in the air but the sound of the ping of the engine as it cooled and the wind in the leaves.

Dean was practically quivering in his skin as he approached Dad, his arms opening up, and Sam could see that he was smiling. Dad was trying hard not to smile, though, like he wanted to be stern but couldn't.

"Did you bring it?"

"Course I brought it," said Dad. "Unload the car first."

It was one more delay for Dean, that he seemed to take very well. There was no way Sam could have, had he been this excited about something. But Dean just shrugged, and jerked his head at Sam to follow, as he began unloading the back seat of the car, taking in groceries and boxes of supplies. Sam joined in, doing his part, but the evening was quickly growing dank and still as another storm started to form over the trees. Up the stairs and down the stairs they went, with Dad watching for a minute before he went inside to grab some tools and took the part he needed and went out around the side of the cabin to fix the generator.

"It's in the trunk," Dean said to Sam at one point, as they crossed paths at the doorway. "I know it is."

Where else would it be? But Dean was so excited he didn't realize how stupid he sounded. Sam knew he would never get this excited over a weapon, ever. There were better things, funner things to want. Not some black, boring, spidery looking killing machine. But Dean was strange like that.

They brought in and put away the dry goods; Sam noticed that there were neither Otter Pops nor marshmallow fluff, but he didn't say anything. Dean gave a quick swipe at the insides of the fridge with a solution of baking soda and water and then they put all the groceries away. It was so hot, and there was no wind coming through the open windows, Sam took off his socks and sneakers so that he could pad across the wooden floors in his bare feet. Dean did the same, savoring the cool of the planks as the damp rose through the windows and the screen door. Sam could taste the moisture on his tongue.

Dad came in, streaks of grease on one arm. He handed Dean the keys to the trunk, and looked down at his bare feet. For a moment it looked like he wanted to say something about that, but then he shook his head. "Go to it, son," he said.

Dean raced out, and Sam stood on the porch and watched him come back, cradling the crossbow that was wrapped in a towel in his arms.

As Dean came up, a huge smile on his face, Dad came up behind Sam and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "Let Sammy see," said Dad, although it was supposedly another week before Sam was supposed to get his privileges with the crossbow back.

Dean unfolded the towel so slowly that Dad practically laughed.

"You going to rock it to sleep, boy?"

Shrugging, Dean unfolded the towel the whole way, and held up the crossbow, smiling one of his rare, huge smiles. His eyes glittered like green stones as he looked up. "Thanks, Dad."

"Yeah," said Dad. "See that you take better care of this one, Dean."

The rain was starting to splatter on the porch, so they went inside. Dad walked to the fridge and then grabbed a beer, which couldn't have been very cold, and then went outside again.

"Give me five," he said, "and I'll get some supper on."

The screen door slammed behind him and through it, Sam could see Dad sitting on the top step, barely out of the rain, shoulders hunched forward in his sweat-circled t-shirt. Atlanta was a long way to go to get a crossbow for just one boy, but then, it had been for Dean, so Sam figured Dad felt the effort had been worth it.

"Let me see," said Sam, reaching for the throat of the crossbow.

"Not like that, idiot," said Dean, pushing his hand away.

"I'm not going to ruin it," said Sam, because as Dean glared at him, that's what it looked like he was thinking.

"I know," said Dean, after a second, "but you're gonna hold it wrong, do it like this."

Dean took one of Sam's hands and wrapped it around the butt. Then, handing it over, he took Sam's other hand and wrapped it around the shaft. "Like that."

It was incredibly light, for all it was so wicked looking. The black surface looked almost dusty, though Sam supposed that was on purpose, since the last thing a hunter would want was the gleam of a weapon shining out through the darkness, alerting one's enemy to one's location. He twanged the fingers of the string, strung but not quite taut.

"Don't do it like that, dork," said Dean, reaching. "Give it."

Sam jerked the crossbow out of reach, holding it close to his body. Irritation rose like spikes at the thought of Dean getting something so new, when there hadn't been anything for Sam in the boxes and bags. What Dean wanted, Dean got, and he hadn't even had to ask for it.

"No," he said, "I'm still holding it."

"You're only going to drop it."

"Dad said you had to let me see it." Sam's voice rose.

"See it, not fondle it." Dean took a step closer, backing Sam behind the open door, towards the wall.

There wasn't anywhere to maneuver, so Sam stood his ground, keeping the crossbow close. "I'm not fondling it," he said.

"Boys," said Dad from the porch. "I said five and I mean five."

Dean ducked his chin, mouth curled in a frown. "Knock it off Sam, and give it to me."

"After I see it."

"You are seeing it. Hell, you're practically hugging it."

"Better than jerking off over it."

Now Dean's eyes narrowed, but instead of saying anything mean back, he reached out with one hand to grab the crossbow, and with the other, he pushed against Sam's chest with the palm of his hand. Hot and hard; Sam could feel Dean's anger through the force of his hand, and then Sam's feet slipped on the floor, damp from the rainwater coming in through the half-opened window. Sam saw Dean's eyes widen as Sam's arm went straight through the pane, glass cracking with the weight of his fall. Then he stopped himself, head slamming against the wooden sash.

There were thundering footsteps across the front porch as Sam, unthinking, pulled his arm backwards through the spikes of glass. His arm hurt. He looked at Dean, blinking.

"I broke the window," he said, and he knew that was bad. There was no money for new windows, and never mind the hassle it caused to replace it.

The screen door slammed open, Dad's boots hard on the floor as he swung the door back to see.

"What the holy hell?"

Sam looked up at Dad, sweaty and angry in the half-darkness of evening.

"I broke the window," he said again. Then he looked down at himself, one arm cradled against his t-shirt that was now turning dark. His bangs fell over his eyes like a curtain and he tried to shake his head to move them out of the way, but this made him dizzy. He unclenched his fingers, just for a second, and it was like unkinking a garden hose; blood swelled from the long cut like fresh, warm juice.

"Dean," said Sam, but his voice, breathy, made it come out Deeeeeeeeeeean.

Dean took a step towards him, but his toes met the sea of glass sparkling at Sam's feet. Neither of them had shoes on.

With a shove, Dad pushed past Dean and scooped Sam up with one arm, crushing his ribs, sending bare legs flying. Dad's boots crunched on the glass as he marched to the sink, setting Sam back on his feet beyond the ring of glass on the floor.

"Stop gawping, Dean, and get the first aid." He took Sam's shoulders in his hands. "Now, Sammy, let go and let me see."

"No," said Sam. He felt hot all over. And then cold, like a sharp wind was blowing through him. He could see the glitter of rain against the broken window, he was in such deep, bad trouble there would be no getting out of it. Not ever. His voice hitched up into a sob. "It hurts."

Dean came up and set the first aid kit on the counter and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. The air was hot and thick with the earthy tang of blood. Dad washed his hands at the sink, and dried them.

"I know it does," said Dad, bending forward now, voice low. "I need to look so we can decide bandage or stitches."

"No stitches," said Sam, voice breaking. "No."

But Dad just shook his head, eyes shuttering half-closed in that way he had when he was going to do what he had to do, even if it was bad. His big hands were brown and cool against Sam's skin as he cradled Sam's arm, fingers curling as he pulled Sam's death grip apart. Then he prodded the cut with blunt fingers as Sam's blood ran down his elbow.

"Stitches," he said.

Sam jerked his arm free and blood splatted against the cabinet and the window.

"Dean," said Dad, in a very low voice, making Sam shiver and pull away. But Dean was right there, holding him, pressing him against the edge of the sink.

Something rose in Sam's throat that felt like a scream that thudded back down in his gut like something else. His heart pounded like a million fists all going at once, thumping through his arm like something was hammering on it. Dad grabbed his arm and Sam tried to move away but was trapped against Dean's side.

"Will you fucking just hold him?" demanded Dad, snapping.

"I am," said Dean, and Sam could feel his chest move as he spoke.

"I said hold, not dance."

Dad was threading the curved needle with new black thread, or trying to. He muttered a curse, then tried again. There was blood on his arm and his side, and Sam knew what he was going to do. Didn't want any of it.

"I don't want to be here." It was no consolation that Dean's arms shook as they held him.

Dad finally threaded the needle and rolled the end of the thread between his fingers to smooth it. When he turned towards Sam, Dean's whole body jerked and Sam's along with it, Dean's ribs against his shoulder.

"Don't you have--?"

"We're all out," said Dad. "We used the last of it on you. I'll give him something after."

For a second, Sam didn't know what Dad was talking about, but as Dad clamped his hand down on Sam's wrist, he knew. There was no numbing shot, nothing to kill the pain. He was going in cold, and Sam was going to feel every inch, every last stitch. He was frozen there as he felt the first, icy slide of the needle, and for a second everything went white. But Dad's hand loosened as though to get a better grip, and Sam grunted and turned, bumping into Dean, feet slipping on the blood-damp floor.

Dad grabbed him by the back of the neck, fingers digging into muscle and bone, holding him still. Sam's eye caught the glint of the needle still in him, thread swaying across his arm like a thin, dark snake.

"Damnit, Dean, if you don't hold him, it'll tear, and that'll hurt worse. I don't want to have to tie--for Christ's sake, just hold him."

A shiver ran up and down his entire body, and for a moment Sam considered fighting. Dean's hand was curled around his jaw, one thumb wiping away tears he hadn't realized were there.

"Sammy," said Dean, soft. Coaxing. But when Sam lifted his face, Dean looked as scared as he felt.

Sam knew what Dad didn't want to do. Dad didn't want to have to tie him down so that he couldn't move. It wasn't a sure thing that he wouldn't go ahead with that anyway, if Sam continued to fight. His mind told him that there was no getting out of this, even as his body shook. Blood was starting to dry in ragged dark brown pools along the sink's edge. He swallowed and looped his other arm around Dean's waist, nodded against the sweat-soaked dampness of Dean's t-shirt, and held on.

"Okay, go," said Dean.

Dad went. As fast as he could, careful as he could. While Sam knew that, even as he watched the tiny little loops forming along his torn flesh, knitting it together, each loop felt like Dad was pulling a fire-hot iron cord through him. The needle was huge when it was in him, even though it seemed no bigger than a curved piece of wire in Dad's hand. At one point, he felt like he was going to fall over, was swaying back and forth, when Dean turned Sam's face away, and covered his eyes with his calloused palm. Then Sam couldn't see any more, could only feel, his free hand clenching and unclenching against Dean's waist, hot tears soaking into Dean's t-shirt.

"I'm going to have bruises," said Dean.

Dad made a sound in his throat, and then Sam heard the snip of the scissors, and the coolness of air across his skin as Dad lifted his hand away. Only when Dad was tying up the ends of the long bandage covering the stitches did Dean let him go, let him look. The bandage was white, with a little butterfly knot at the end and Dad ran his hand gently along the length.

"That should hold for a few days."

Sam's arm thumped with the pulses of his heart like it was pressing against bone. Dad led him to the leather chair, made him sit and propped his feet up, lurching the handle of the footrest out. Sam felt like it banged his head but he didn't say anything because quicker than that, Dad would remember who had broken the window and when he whipped Sam, he knew he couldn't take it, especially not with his last whipping less than a week old. His arm hurt so bad, and he felt cold all over, even as his hair stuck to his forehead with sweat.

"Clean up that glass, Dean," said Dad, and Sam had to squint to see what he was doing. Something at the counter with a loaf of bread.

"Sammy can't--" said Dean, on the floor, kneeling, picking up glass pieces and throwing them in the trash.

"I know that," said Dad, his voice snapping. He walked over to Sam with something on a plate and knelt down by the arm of the chair. "Sam," he said. "Look at me for a minute. Okay?"

Sam made himself look, but he felt like crawling into the cushions and hiding there till somehow the window was magically fixed and it was cooler. Much, much cooler.

Dad's hand touched his forehead, pushing away Sam's damp hair, and then he put the plate up on the armrest. "Eat this."

Looking at it, Sam saw that it was bread and butter and sugar, folded in half. Little lumps pushed up through the bread. He reached for it, and saw Dad nod, his face still, dark eyes tracking Sam's every move.

"I crushed up some pain pills, opened the antibiotic capsule. There's plenty of sugar there, Sam, so eat the whole thing for me, okay?"

Oh. That's what Dean had meant, why Dad had snapped. Sam had never been able to swallow pills, even baby aspirin, so he either ground the pills between his teeth, or sometimes, Dad would crush them for him and put it inside of a sugar sandwich. Like this. It tasted good, even though it sometimes made even sugar bitter, but Dad was looking at him like he expected Sam to refuse, and was preparing in his mind his contingency plan.

Sam turned in the chair, his skin sticking to the leather, took the sandwich and ate it. Dad stayed by his side the whole time, watching him, making sure it went down. Sam licked the corner of his lip where the last fragment of powder lingered and tried not to make a face. It tasted awful, but then it always did, and then Dad put his whole palm on Sam's forehead now and took a deep breath. A little bit of sweat ran down in front of his ear, glistening against the tan of his skin. "Okay," he said. Then he stood up and took the plate back to the sink.

Dean was finished picking up glass and had swept the floor and for a moment, as the air grew squalid and dark outside the open door, the air moving as though pushed by a current.

"Dean, come here."

Dead did as he was told, as he always did, and Sam's heart began to thump even harder at the thought of it. Dean would make it clear who had broken the window and then Sam would be in trouble. He wanted to run, but his head felt light and his legs felt like lead, and there was no way he could run far enough, fast enough to get away from Dad.

"Mind telling me what happened?"

Dipping his chin, Dean studied his feet.

Dad flipped on the light over the sink. "Dean."

This made Dean lift his head so he could look Dad in the eye and talk man to man, which is how Dad liked it, how Dad insisted it be.

"Sam wanted to look at the crossbow," said Dean, and Sam's stomach clenched like a fist. "So I let him, but then he wouldn't give it back."

It was true, all true. That's what made it more horrible.

"And then?" Dad's voice was almost soft.

"So I took it and then I pushed him."

"Through the window?" Dad's eyebrows rose and there was a horrible glitter in his eyes. "You pushed your brother through a window?"

"I didn't mean to, not through the window, Dad, honest. I just pushed him is all, I didn't know--"

"Didn't know what, Dean? How hard you were pushing? How close he was to the window?"

Sam couldn't see Dean's face, but he could see his brother's shoulders roll forward, and his hands grabbing the cloth of his jeans to hold them still.

"I'm sorry, Dad, I didn't mean to hurt him, I just wanted--"

"That crossbow has been a damn time bomb--" started Dad, and then he stopped. Looked over at Sam and then back at Dean, eyes black and snapping, and he was taking off his belt. "Get over here."

Sam started to move, but then Dad grabbed Dean by the back of the neck and pulled Dean over to the kitchen table. With one foot, he kicked the chair out of the way, and made a snapping noise with his fingers to tell Dean to bend over.

Sam's mouth opened, just on the verge of saying it, of reminding Dad that he was the one who had broken the window, not Dean, but Dad was leaning forward, saying something to Dean and Sam couldn't get the words out. Dad folded the belt in half and then he whipped Dean twenty times, hard and fast, Dean's back curved over the table, his whole body as still as stone. Sam stayed where he was, skin against the leather chair growing hot and sticky, breath coming shallow as the prickles rose up from his gut. He knew he was next, figured he was next, but then Dad pulled Dean to a standing position and put his belt back on.

Dean's face was white, and he looked at Sam with tears standing in his eyes, so bright, Sam could see them from all the way across the room.

"I'm sorry, Sammy," he said. His t-shirt, ratty around the edges and bloodstained, was dark under his arms.

"Fine," said Dad. "Put on some God damned shoes, and get something to nail over that window before the rains come. Pronto. Then change your shirt. I'll get some supper going."

Dean walked past Sam without another word, creating a little current of air as he opened the screen door, not letting it slam when it closed behind him. In another moment Sam knew he would hear the pounding of a hammer and nails as Dean did the impromptu repairs, but suddenly Dad was standing over him, holding out his hand and helping Sam stand up and walk to the table. When Dad sat him down in his chair, Sam knew, with certainty, that he wasn't going to get a whipping. At least not today. Not for this. Although it didn't quite seem fair that Dean should take the entire blame, and he opened his mouth to talk, but his mouth was dry, blocked.

Dad went to the kitchen sink and washed up, bending forward to sluice water over his neck, letting it drip down to darken his t-shirt. Then he stood there, looking out the window for a minute, like Sam wasn't even there, and then he turned, scowling, to look at Sam.

"Beef broth, then," he said, and Sam shook his head.

"I'm not hungry. Just want to go to bed."

Dad didn't even hesitate getting out the little saucepan and opening a can of beef broth with the can opener. Sam could smell the salt as he poured it in, and heard the pounding outside the window as Dean went at it. Watched while Dad went to the clothes box by the couch and slipped into a clean t-shirt.

"No, Sam," said Dad, almost ignoring him as he came back. Except that he had another t-shirt in his hand and lifted Sam's arms over his head to strip off the bloody one and exchange it for the clean. Then he tossed both garments in the direction of the bathroom.

"But I'm tired," Sam said, feeling exhaustion pulling at him like strings as he lowered his arms. He looked up at Dad as he pulled the store-bought pasta salad out of the fridge. The only thing saving them both from sweating into two puddles was the breeze coming through the open window over the table.

"And I need you to stay up for a little bit till I can give you more pills, make sure you're okay, and then you can go to bed."

"But I want--" He started to get up, pushing his good arm against the surface of the table, when Dad whirled on him, slamming a large hand down next to his smaller one.

"Sam, I mean it. You'll do as you're told, or so help me--"

The pounding outside had stopped and the light from that window was completely blocked by plywood.

Sam sat back down, shrinking against the wall, feeling some kind of blackness behind his eyes, which were hot, but he didn't want to cry. He wanted to scream, wanted to push past Dad and then past Dean coming up the stairs, obedient, having put away the tools he'd used, having done what he was told. It wasn't fair, it had been an accident, Dean didn't deserve to be punished for that.

"You better settle down, or arm or no arm, I'll be taking my belt off again, you understand me?"

Sam felt his scowl pull at his whole body, but he didn't have the energy to stand up and say I hate you like he wanted to, so he turned and laid his forehead on the table and curved his good arm around his head. Felt his stomach turning.

"Sam?"

Sam licked his lips and then nodded. "Yes, I hear you. Can you please leave me alone now?"

Sam could feel Dad's body tighten as he stood there and then the screen door slammed. Dean's footsteps echoed on the wooden floor as he walked into the bedroom to change his t-shirt.

"What's for supper, Dad?" asked Dean when he came out again, and Sam could imagine, with his eyes closed, Dean rubbing his stomach, like everything wasn't awful, like he'd not just gotten punished for something that he'd not actually done.

"Pasta salad," said Dad, and Sam could hear Dad rummaging in the fridge to pull stuff out, someone washing vegetables, chopping at the counter, doctoring the salad up. Sam waited till his head cleared, and his stomach settled a bit before sitting up. He pushed his hair out of his eyes, and realized that his arm didn't hurt quite so much, and the back of his legs didn't hurt at all, but that he wasn't going to be able to eat anything without throwing up. Pain pills did that. He'd forgotten.

He watched Dean take the trash out, and change his shirt, and when Dad laid plates and utensils on the table, Sam made himself useful placing them around. Otherwise, he was going to start talking, saying what he felt, saying stuff that would make Dad mad. It was already an awful day, why make it worse.

Dean washed up at the sink and sat down, and Dad placed a mug of broth and a plate of crackers in front of Sam. Sam looked up at him and could see it in Dad's eyes. Dad meant business; he didn't even need to say it. Sam pulled the mug towards him with his fingers and waited while Dad sat down and served himself and Dean from the bowl. They ate silently. Sam was quite fond of pasta salad normally, but tonight he didn't have the stomach for it. Instead, he sipped on the broth, and put a cracker in his mouth, and then sipped on the broth again. It was hot, but not too hot, and salty. His stomach danced around a bit, but he kept it down. Felt the warm air push across his forehead as the storm outside the window came closer.

Halfway through supper, Dad put down his fork and looked at Dean, mouth pulled into a frown.

"Nobody touches that crossbow until Sam's stitches come out. You hear me?"

Dean flinched with his whole body, but he didn't say anything. He was sucking in his lips, making them a thin line, and Sam ducked his head.

"I'm sorry, Dean," Sam said, feeling even worse about it than he had before.

"Shut up, Sam," said Dean, his voice cracking. He had tiny pieces of sawdust in his hair, and the back of his neck was dusty.

"Dean."

That's all Dad needed to say. That's all Dad ever needed to say to Dean and Dean would hop to or toe the line or march or whatever it was Dad wanted.

Sam pushed his plate and mug away and rested his head on his arm on the table.

"Sam, pick your head up."

"Can I be excused?"

There was a long silence. Dean stopped chewing, and Sam could actually hear Dad breathing in and out, slowly. Twice.

"No. Pick your head up."

He knew what that was about. It wasn't about what was wrong, or what hurt. It was pushing through it, bucking up, like a good soldier. Dean did it as easy as anything, always. Sam took his head off the table and looked over at him. Dean had started eating again, hardly fidgeting in his seat at all though he looked at little white, a little glassy eyed. Which was probably due to the thought of having yet another whole week, maybe more, where he couldn't use his precious crossbow, and not the whipping.

"We'll spend the extra time finishing the obstacle course, and set up the field for the crossbow," Dad was saying now, scooping up the last of his supper with his fork. He pushed a bit of broccoli on there with his thumb and then licked the oil off. "Dean, you'll be on the scythe, and Sam, even with one arm you can collect rocks and help me make a target."

"Why?" Sam asked. "What difference will the rocks make?" It was the stupidest thing he'd ever heard of, and he knew it showed on his face because Dad pointed his fork at him.

"Did I say you could ask why?" Glaring.

Sam glared right back. "Why?"

"Sammy," said Dean, "could you just--"

"You're excused, Sam," said Dad.

Sam got up from the table and staggered to the couch with more gratitude than he knew how to express. His head wanted to go down, it was just that simple, and as he sank into the cushions and laid his head in his arms, he felt the beef broth come up. But he swallowed, it was just too much trouble to move, and Dad would just make him some more and make him drink it. Just too much trouble. Everything in his body felt like it was swimming and his head felt as hard and as heavy as a bowling ball. He could hear the table being cleared and then Dad telling Dean to do the dishes. Then he heard Dad's footsteps coming closer just as the thunder started rumbling right outside through the screen door.

"Sam," Dad said. "Sit up."

He did. For once he did, he couldn't manage anything else. Parts of him had started to go numb.

Dad had a washcloth in his hand and wiped his face with it. "Too much pain medication, I think," Dad said.

"My stomach hurts."

"Dean didn't have this reaction," said Dad. He took the washcloth away, then took Sam's arm and traced the length of the bandage with his fingers. "Looks like this is holding."

"I'm not Dean," said Sam, muttering. Looking up at Dad through his eyelashes, thinking for a moment he saw two Dads, and neither of them happy.

"I can see that," came the reply, rather low, like Dad was trying to keep from laughing.

Sam didn't think that it was very funny, but stomping across the wooden floor, Dean came over, wiping his hands on his jeans, attentive even with splotches of sweat already on his t-shirt and his backside probably feeling like a block of wood; Sam wanted to hit him. And then the rain started, sizzling hard against the ground.

"Dean, check the windows on the car."

Dean went out like an obedient dog, slamming the screen door behind him.

Sam jutted out his chin. "I didn't throw up," he said.

A current of air raced through the room, and Dean came flying in again. Sam knew with the thunderstorm, if it was a heavy one, he'd be spending the night, once again, waiting for the silence to get him. Then he realized Dad had asked him a question.

"What?" asked Sam, trying to focus, his stomach doing a slow stroll up his throat.

"Were you going to?" asked Dad again.

Sam nodded and looked down to see that he was gripping Dad's wrist and digging in his fingernails.

"Going to," he said, feeling his chin shake and his mouth coat itself with spit.

With one arm looped around his middle, Dad hauled him off to the bathroom just in time for Sam's head to be over the toilet when his stomach did a gigantic rollover and everything came up, splashing. He scrambled to keep from bumping his arm against Dad's ribs, but it didn't work, he couldn't get his feet under him in time, so as he spat up throatfulls of brown liquid, his body started screaming.

"Leave me 'lone," he tried, squirming away, but Dad held him by his waist. Then his stomach did another heave that made his spine crackle as he tried to breathe through it. He heard Dad say something to Dean about a cold washcloth, and realized that all three of them were now in the hot, narrow bathroom. He rested his head against the toilet seat and looked up at them while his stomach collected itself for another go.

"Get out," he said, low in his throat. "Will you get the fu--" Then he stopped.

Nobody moved.

Then Dad reached over and flushed the toilet, took the washcloth from Dean, and placed it on the back of Sam's neck. Or tried to. Sam squirmed away, and then lurched to his knees to hurl one more time. Dean reached up to the little window and opened it, and Dad handed him the washcloth so he could wipe his face. He ached all over and his arm throbbed, but his stomach was empty, so at least that part of him didn't hurt.

"You done?"

Sam nodded and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet as Dad used both hands beneath his arms. He thought about otter pops, and then he said it. "I want an Otter Pop. Little Orphan Orange."

"Well, there aren't any," said Dad, and what followed in the silence after his statement as he led Sam back to the couch was obvious. The boys were in training and treats were not allowed. Not even little ones.

"Dean, get him some water," said Dad, and then he motioned with his hand that Sam should lay back down.

Sam took in the sticky leather of the couch, hung his head, and sighed. With the storm rolling in good and proper right over their heads, the dampness and the humidity were like an unwanted weight. He thought about snow and he thought about winter, but it didn't help.

"Sam, sit down before you fall down."

"I'm not going to fall," said Sam, in return, but he sat down because his knees told him to. Not because Dad told him to.

He sat down and rested his head against the arm of the couch. As soon as he did this, his head started to swim, and the room felt like it was swaying back and forth, back and forth, like a lazy summer swing. But as long as he kept his mouth shut and didn't think about food, didn't move, he was going to be okay. He told himself that.

"I'm hot," he said, finding himself saying this aloud without any intention at all to speak.

Behind his closed eyelids, he felt movement. Someone put the rotating fan near his head, on low, and someone else put a cold, folded washcloth on his forehead. It felt icy, almost painful, for a full minute, and then it started to feel better. He heard the clink of a glass being set on wood. Someone sat at the other end of the couch and hauled Sam's feet up onto a lap and began wiping his foot and ankle with another cold cloth. Sam squinted his eyes open, expecting to see Dean, but it was Dad. He tried to jerk his foot away, but Dad gripped his ankle and held on.

"Sammy." That was all Dad said. He said it like he said Dean's name when he wanted instant obedience and no questions asked. Sam closed his eyes and relaxed his legs and let it happen. Let strong hands wipe down both of his feet and his ankles, his calves all the way up to his knees, making him feel many degrees cooler. Then Dad stopped, the washcloth draped across Sam's toes, and Sam let himself drift.

Dean came up. Sam could tell by the footsteps.

"Did you clean up the rest of the puke in the bathroom?" asked Dad.

"Yeah," said Dean, and Sam cringed. Had he thrown up on the floor? He wanted to say something, but it was easier not to. "Sam keeps saying he's hot at night."

"I'll get some box fans next time I'm at the store," said Dad, his voice a faraway rumble that reminded Sam of water across gravel.

Sam drifted on the silence that followed, but sensed Dean was still standing nearby.

"I'm sorry Dad, about the--"

"Then learn from it," came the reply, without any gentleness now. Sam could picture Dean's shoulders sagging, the chin ducking down, and he wanted to shout at Dad to stop, to leave Dean alone. He knew Dean hadn't meant to do it, why couldn't Dad see that? But no, he had to grind it in, punch the lesson home.

Dean's footsteps and the slam of the screen door told Sam that Dean had gone out to the front porch to be alone, extra thuds on the wooden risers told him that Dean had gone down them, was perhaps headed out to the field, to crouch low and sit in the grass and feel the storm pass overhead. Dean wasn't afraid of anything, and certainly not thunder or lighting, let alone the silence in between. Sam envied him that.

Dad stayed with him, sitting on the couch for a good long while, watching TV, keeping the washcloths on Sam's feet and head cold. Then he got up and went into the kitchen, and Sam heard him at the counter, opening the fridge. He came back and patted Sam on the shoulder, and when Sam opened his eyes, Dad motioned for him to sit up. He was holding a little plate with sugar sandwich, folded over.

"Twice as much sugar," he said, "and half as much pain meds. Eat up."

Sam sat up, took the sandwich and ate it, it tasted of sugar and butter and hardly anything bitter like it had before. His stomach lurched around a bit, but if he held still, he knew he could keep it down. As he finished, Dean came back in again, his shoulders damp with rain, but still not happy.

"And drink some water, too," said Dad, holding out the glass.

Sam took the glass in two hands and took several gulps, wiped his chin with the back of his hand.

"Bed, Dean," said Dad, and Dean nodded and went into the bedroom. "You too, Sammy, and if you wake up and your arm hurts, wake me."

"Yeah," said Sam. Nodding.

Dad hauled him to his feet, and Sam went into the bathroom to brush his teeth and pee, a little awkward using only one arm, and as he walked into the bedroom, he saw that Dad had taken another beer and had gone out on the front porch again to drink it, the wind whipping the screen door closed behind him. Sam walked into the bedroom: Dean was lying there under a single sheet with the light on the nightstand still on, waiting for Sam, still not smiling. Sam walked to Dean's side of the bed, and stood there, listening to the rain stream outside the open window.

"It's not your fault," he said.

"It is," said Dean, looking at him, lips still drawn, eyes half hooded. "I shouldn't have--"

It was like trying to carry a rock up a hill only to have it come rolling down on you again. "Dad shouldn't have whipped you," he said, "it was an accident."

"But I pushed you, Sam."

"An accident. It was an accident." Sam said this with certainty. He knew Dean hadn't done it on purpose, why didn't Dean? Dean obviously needed something to make him feel better, because words weren't doing it. The medicine was kicking in now, his arm felt numb, and his lips, and his welts didn't hurt at all. His mind was going muzzy, but he still felt a stab of anger at Dad drinking a beer, treats for grownups, but none for his sons. Not even stupid Otter Pops.

"Hang on," he said. "I'll be right back."

Sam opened the bedroom door slowly, and checked. Beyond the now dark living room, Dad was still on the porch, the lightning flickering his outline into clarity. Shoulders curled forward as if he were leaning into the darkness, into the rain. Sam crept to the cupboard and got out the honey, reached into the drawer for a spoon. It took both hands to open the jar, which hurt his stitches a little, but it would be worth it. He dug in for a big spoonful of honey and hurried it into the room. Dean looked at him as he walked in. In a second he knew what Sam had, what he was up to.

"I don't want that," he said.

"Yeah, sure, sure you do." Sam held out the spoon to him. It glinted like it held a pool of gold. "It's honey, like you gave me."

"Sam," said Dean, flopping back his the pillow. He looked up at the ceiling, his jaw pushed forward. "I don't want it. Take it away."

"But Dean, it'll make you feel better."

Dean rolled over towards the window, turning his back on Sam. "Take it away."

Sam switched the spoon to his left hand and poked Dean with a finger. Predictably, since Dean hated this, he turned and faced Sam, almost sitting up now, eyes blazing.

"Don't you get it, you moron? I almost cut you to ribbons, I don't deserve it so will you fucking get it away from me?"

Sam's mouth fell open as shock rippled through him. He'd not known Dean felt this bad, and he shouldn't, because Sam was the one who had--

The door to the bedroom opened, bringing with it the wind from the front door. And Dad. "What in the hell is going on in here?"

Sam tried to hide the spoon, but as Dad flicked on the overhead light, he felt the stickiness along his left wrist, looked down to see the honey soaking the white bandage yellow. There was a moment of utter stillness, even the storm seemed to pause to take a breath, and Sam felt the horrible day well up in his throat. The back of his eyes grew hot, and he just felt tired all the way to his bones. He couldn't walk a straight line without messing it up, and by the look on Dad's face, those dark eyes taking in the whole room in an instant, he knew there was no hiding from it.

"I--" he began, but Dad marched into the room, reaching out for Sam, and Sam couldn't move away fast enough.

"What the fuck is this?" asked Dad, and Sam could smell the beer on his breath, the dash of rain that he'd brought with him, and the heat of his anger, pushing through his skin. "Sam, I am so tired--" Then he stopped, holding Sam's arm in his hand, dark fingers curling around the bandage. "You've got honey everywhere. Dean, get up and clean this floor before the ants come."

Dean crawled out from between the sheets, barelegged except for his briefs, Sam could see the ladders of welts across the backs of his thighs for a second before Dad pulled him into the kitchen and flicked on the light over the sink. Sam could hear Dean rummaging in the bathroom for a washcloth; Dad gripped him, mouth working, and Sam tried hard not to let his knees knock, and fought the knot in his throat, but then Dad pulled out the scissors from the drawer, he couldn't help it.

"No, Dad, please--" Hot tears ripped down his face as he tried to pull away.

Dad's eyes flickered like he was going to lash out, like the time in the fruit stand and Sam jerked and pulled, but Dad had him by the wrist. Sam felt like a squirrel in a leg-trap, panic ripping at his heart, everything inside him fluttering, banging at his ribs.

"Don't--" Sam said, his voice catching in his throat.

Suddenly, Dad let him go, and as Sam backed himself against the edge of the fridge, he put the scissors on the counter. "Sammy," said Dad. Not moving. Not reaching out. "I'm only going to cut that bandage off and put on a new one. You've got honey all over, I'm just going to--I'm not going to hurt you." His voice was low, and he was standing absolutely still.

Sam brought the back of his hand to his mouth to cover it, tasted the honey there, looked down, realized he'd dripped it along the bandage, and some was on his leg. Honey would make the sheets sticky, he knew that.

Dad tipped his head, the way he did when he was waiting for an answer or a response, and it wasn't gentle, but it was sure. Sam knew that look, the waiting posture that Dad got when a ghost might appear or a boy was on the verge of doing as he was told without having to be told twice.

He took a deep breath that jagged his lungs against his ribs and made himself walk to the sink to stand right next to Dad in the near darkness. Still shaking.

"Here," Dad said, reaching for Sam's left arm. "Put your arm up here, and keep it steady."

Sam placed his arm along the edge of the counter, and only realized that he was still gripping the spoon, the now honeyless spoon, too tightly when Dad used his fingers to pry it free and let it fall into the sink with a small clank. Then Dad reached over Sam's head for the scissors and eased the point beneath the bandage.

"Hold very still," Dad said, looking down at Sam, and Sam looked up into dark eyes, Dad's head bent very close, and did as he was told. He could see the sweat on the back of Dad's neck, and the stain around the neck of his t-shirt, and smell the day's sweat on him, from the ride from Atlanta in the heat, from making supper, from sitting on the leather couch.

Dad started clipping, each snip loud and metallic, the metal cool against Sam's skin. The scissors never once snagged his skin or his stitches, and Dad cupped Sam's hand in his rather than bracing it down. He was quick too, and the bandage soon fell into the sink in a folded, sticky clump. Then Dad ran a soft thumb over the black, curling thread woven into his skin. "See?" he said, "still clean. It's healing well, but you need to stop--" Then Dad stopped, and Sam nodded his head at the unfinished sentence. Stop screwing around, otherwise it won't heal.

Dad pulled a dishtowel off the hook, wet it, and began wiping Sam's hands and wrist. He wet it again and wiped Sam's arm, and bent down to wipe Sam's leg. Then he straightened up, cupping his hand under Sam's chin, looking for honey. "It's like you rolled in it," he said, almost to himself. Sam tried to duck his chin but Dad was wiping his forehead with the towel, his cheek.

Dean came up behind them, silent on bare feet.

"Get another roll of bandage, Dean," said Dad, as he checked the other side of Sam's face, turned up the wrist on Sam's other arm. "I think I got it all."

Dean got the bandage and handed it to Dad, who unrolled it a little and began winding it around Sam's forearm, covering the black stitches with a swath of white. Dean took up the scissors and cut the edge away while Dad held it taut. Then Dad tied a little butterfly knot at the end, and tucked the bow neatly away. The tips of Dad's fingers were dark against the white as he tapped the edge. "That'll hold, provided you don't wrestle a bear."

This made Dean smile, Sam could see it out of the corner of his eye, but he was too tired to respond like that As he looked up at Dad, Dad wiped his forehead with the t-shirt over his bicep, eyes closing as he looked away.

"Get him another clean shirt, Dean," said Dad, "and get him to bed."

"Yes, sir," said Dean.

Then Dad walked over to the screen door, opened it, and went out onto the porch. Walked down the stairs and into the darkness, into the silence between the lightning flash and the bark of thunder. Sam could hear the crunch of his boots on the gravel, his heart pounding. He didn't realize he'd started towards the door, until Dean grabbed him.

"Sam," said Dean. Pulling.

"But--" He didn't want Dad walking out into the darkness, into the space between, but he couldn't explain it to Dean any more than he could to Dad.

"Give it a rest, Sam," said Dean, giving his good arm a hard yank. "Bed. Now."

Sam let himself be pulled into the bedroom, let Dean help him tug off the honey-dappled t-shirt, and on with a clean one that Dean got from the laundry box. Dean pointed at the bed and Sam crawled in on his side, holding his bandaged arm close to his chest as Dean flicked off the overhead light and crawled in next to him. Then Dean turned out the lamp on the nightstand, and in the darkness, Sam could hear and feel him thump his head down on the pillow.

Even with the rain, it was still warm; even with the sheet kicked off, Sam felt like he was melting into a lukewarm pool of water. That was the drugs, he knew, but it didn't stop his mind from racing around and around, over the fact that it had been the worst day ever. As bad as the crossbow incident, as bad as the day Dad told Sam they were moving from Greeley and leaving the soccer team far behind. Everything was wrong, now especially, now that Dean still couldn't learn how to use the crossbow, and no matter what he said, it was, and would always be, Sam's fault.

"Dean?" he asked, turning his head on the pillow, towards the lump that was Dean. "Are you awake?"

"Sam," said Dean, his voice hard. "I don't want to talk about it and I don't want to talk to you, so just go to sleep."

Lightning flickered across the valley, jumping through Sam's skin. For one second, he could see Dean's profile, even a smatter of freckles, and the small glint of something in his eyes. The silence came, like a sliver of blackness, and on the heels of that, thunder booming through the trees.

When it was quiet again, quiet except for the rain shushing through the leaves, he reached out to pat Dean's arm.

"I'm sorry, Dean," he said, low. "Really, really sorry."

Dean raised his arm to make Sam's hand fall back, but he did it slowly, almost softly, rather than shoving it off. "Doesn't matter," he said. "Hunters need patience."

"Not this much," said Sam, pushing his head back into the pillow. "It's crazy for Dad to--"

"We're not talking about it," said Dean, "now go to sleep and I mean now."

Dean rolled to face the wall, and Sam sighed. It was the worst summer ever, and there wasn't anything he could do to make it better. Nothing to do to change the look in Dad's eye or his determination to have both his sons be hunters. Sam rolled to face the window. He could watch the storm that way, and keep his eye out for the silent darkness to make sure it didn't come through the window, and listen to the thunder bark across the stones and along the river, echoing like blood pounding in his ears, hot damp air racing across his skin, promising more running, more sweat, more summer. More hell.

~fin