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The Gauntlet

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Title: The Gauntlet (Sparta Verse)
Author: Lovesrain44
Genre: Gen
Pairing: None
Word Count:13,740
Warnings: Dark, angst, kidfic, some violence.
Verse:Sparta Verse

***

In the morning, Sam had breakfast and then went for a run with Dean before the heat of the day set in. When they got back to the cabin, Dean did the dishes while Sam dried them and put them away. He didn't have to chop wood, though he was expected to stack. He made the bed and carried the trash out.

He was supposed to be using his left arm as little as possible, so by the time chores were done, his right arm ached. Dad told them to put on their shoes and socks and took them out to the field where the targets for the gun and crossbow were set up. The sun simmered on top of the grassy field inside the circle of trees, and reflected right into Sam's eyes. He could feel the heat climbing up his legs as they stood there.

Dad bent down and picked up a long scythe and a metal bucket out of the grass. He handed Dean the scythe and Sam the bucket.

"What's this for?" asked Sam as he peered inside the bucket and balanced the thin metal handle on the tips of his fingers. "Why do I have to carry this?"

"Dean, take that scythe and cut a path to each target," said Dad. He turned toward Dean as he pointed out to the field, and with his back to Sam, Sam could see the sweat along the neck of Dad's t-shirt already starting to form in a rough triangle and the rough half-circles under his arms. "Make the path, oh, about an inch of grass as wide the targets are, and then about two inches everywhere else."

Dean hefted the scythe in his hands and nodded, ever the ready soldier. Sam rolled his eyes. The field wasn't the size of a soccer field by any means, but it was still pretty big, maybe half an acre. It would take an army to get all that cutting done, and here Dad was expecting Dean to do it by himself.

"Get the paths done first, and then the rest of the field. Do as much as you can before lunch; we'll keep cutting it each day till we get it all trimmed back."

"Why am I carrying a bucket?" Sam asked now to Dad's back, his voice rising a little. He could see why Dean got to use the scythe, it took two hands and Sam only had the use of one. But he couldn't imagine that he would be picking up the long strands of cut grass because the bucket wouldn't hold that much. And why was Dad ignoring him? He wasn't mouthing off, he just wanted to know what was going on.

"Okay, Dean? Take it slow; if you get blisters, we'll put a bandage on them."

Dean nodded again, looking very ready to produce as many blisters as were required, and strode out into the knee high grass, which was partially tromped in places by the previous trips to the targets. Would it be easier or harder to cut partially flattened grass? Sam didn't know, but he was suddenly glad it wasn't him on the scythe.

Then Dad turned to him. He already had the beginnings of a glower on his face, and sweat along his eyebrows, and it occurred to Sam that there were cooler parts of the country where they could have done the stupid hunter training, lots of them. Like Maine, or Minnesota, although, as he recalled, both those places had huge mosquitoes that could eat you alive.

"The bucket," said Dad, rather slowly, "is for you to pick up stones."

"Stones?" asked Sam. "Why do I have to pick up stones?" It didn't make any sense at all; he looked out at the field, at Dean already bent forward and cutting through the grass near the target for the bow and the crossbow, and Sam couldn't see any stones worth noting. But Dad had this frown, and Sam swung the bucket a little, and tried to shrug. "I'm only asking," he said. "I don't see any stones."

Dad bent down and picked up a little grey stone that was about a quarter the size of his palm. Dust sifted through his fingers as he held it out to Sam. Then he dropped it in Sam's bucket. It clunked hollowly at the bottom and the small weight of it jerked Sam's fingers around the handle.

"If you shoot a quarrel and it goes wrong and hits a stone, it might chip, and then we won't be able to use it," said Dad. "If you shoot an arrow and it hits a stone, it might shatter. If you shoot a bullet and it hits a stone, it might ricochet. All of these things are wasteful, and dangerous. Do you understand?"

Plus, although Dad didn't say it aloud, but a hunter's boy needed to learn to do what he was told without asking questions. His face said this, the bones beneath his summer-brown skin tight, as if daring Sam to do just that.

Sam didn't. He was so hot, he was out of the energy for rebellion at that point, so he nodded and started towards the section of cut grass where Dean had already been.

"Stay where Dean can see you, Sam," said Dad, calling out.

Sam stopped and stood there for a minute, feeling the scowl on his face as he looked back at Dad. He wasn't a baby; he knew how to stay out of the way of a moving scythe.

"Better get moving. I want two buckets by lunchtime and those stones don't pick themselves."

Dad turned and went into the cabin, because of course he was the Dad and didn't have to stay out in the stupid heat. Not when there was shade and beer to be had.

"Better get moving, Sam," said Dean as Sam walked up to him. He barely looked up from the blade as he swooshed it through the grass.

"Shut up," said Sam.

He allowed himself one long sigh, but just one. Not that he thought Dean would say anything to Dad about it, but it was almost too hot to breathe as it was, and it was taking just about all his energy to stand there. He listened to the blade as it made soft scry scry noises. The cut grass smelled good and damp, and it looked easy and fun the way Dean was doing it, intent on his task, his legs far apart, his waist twisting as he moved into the long grass. The grass started to pile up on his left, and Sam waited a minute till there was a space behind Dean, and the grass was at a perfect, Dad-approved one inch in height.

"I'll be here," he said, moving in but staying well on Dean's right. Then he sighed again and bent to pick up a stone he could now see between the short blades of grass. The cut grass flecked at his wrist, and he knew the skin was going to be raw by lunchtime. Dad probably knew that, but probably didn't care.

He wasn't on Dad's good side on any given day, and yes, of course the stones wouldn't pick themselves. Could he actually get two buckets worth by lunchtime? He didn't know, but the task was so cut and dried that there was no way he could get out of it. So he stooped, and bent, and lifted, and picked up stones, dropping them in a metal bucket, listening to the clang against the rim, warm beneath his fingers.

The path behind Dean continued to grow as the sun blazed overhead. The bucket got heaver as Sam found more stones, and there were a lot of them, more than he'd figured on. He had tried carrying the bucket in his right hand and gingerly picking up stones with his left, but that wasn't going to work because the sawed off edges of the grass caught on the bandage. Dad would know if he used his left hand, especially if the bandage was all messed up. And Dean might tell him, too. So he had to carry the bucket in his right hand and put it down each time to pick up the stones, while his left arm hung uselessly at his side.

It was taking forever, and there was no shade. Sam could feel the sweat running down the sides of his face, but his shirt was already soaked and there was nothing to wipe it off with. At one point, Dean put down the scythe and came over to where Sam was, and stopped in front of him and turned around.

"Here, use the back of my shirt," said Dean.

His shirt was sweaty in the middle, but dry along the edge of it, so Sam wiped his face, wiped the salt out of his eyes, and away from his eyebrows. Then, as he lifted Dean's shirt, he blew along Dean's spine, just to be nice.

"Thanks," Sam said, dropping the shirt. Then he turned around, too. "You can use mine," he said. Dean quickly did the same, and even blew along Sam's back, and for one, brief second, Sam felt a little cooler.

Then he saw Dad coming out of the house, and he felt hot again. As Dad got closer, he could see that Dad was carrying a plastic milk jug, swelling with frozen water, and dripping along the sides. Sam had seen the jug earlier, in the freezer when he'd opened it that morning, hoping there might be secret otter pops in there, and wondered what it was for. Now he knew.

"Here," said Dad. He handed the jug to Dean. "Start drinking this, and take it slow so you don't get a stomach ache. I'm going to run into town, and I'll be back in about an hour or so. Then we'll have lunch. It's almost too hot for this today."

Almost? Sam felt his eyebrows fly up, but he didn't want to say anything and get hassled by Dad or stir anything up that would make him mad enough to put the crossbow off limits to Dean for another week.

"Okay, Dad," said Dean. He twisted the lid off the top of the jug, his eyes on Dad's retreating back. "You first, Sammy," he said. He handed the jug to Sam.

Sam brought the mouth of the jug to his mouth and sucked at the melted water, not watching as the Impala rumbled away down the road. The water was so cold it almost burned, but his throat made no complaints and his stomach gurgled in a comfortable way as the water hit it. Dean was watching him, making sure that he didn't drink too much too fast, even though Sam knew better than to do that and get brain freeze. After another hard pull, he handed the jug back to Dean and waited while Dean drank and watched the water spill down Dean's neck.

Then Dean pulled the jug away and put the lid back on. "Okay, put this by the target, and we'll have another drink in a bit."

Sam did what he was told, but it was irritating to have Dean give out orders like he was Dad, like he was in charge of Sam. But he didn't say anything because he still felt bad about Dean getting a whipping over pushing Sam through the window.

And then they got back to work, stopping every now and then to take turns being the first to drink the melted water out of the jug.

***

By the time the Impala showed up in a cloud of dust and came to a stop in front of the cabin, Sam was halfway through his second bucket. He'd dumped the first bucket near the stairs of the cabin because he didn't know what else to do with them. Dean hadn't known either. The more important thing was that he was behind on the stones.

As Dad got out of the car, his gaze swept across the field. Dean's swathe of grass in front of the crossbow target was long and clear and perfect and almost finished. Dad smiled. Then he looked at Sam, as Sam came close, carrying the half-filled bucket in front of him.

"Not with your left arm, Sam," said Dad.

Sam let the bucket hang from his right hand, gritting his teeth against the aching pull of muscle. He stopped in front of Dad and shook his damp hair out of his eyes.

"Half a bucket, Sam?" asked Dad.

Sam pointed to the pile next to the stairs. "Bucket and a half," he said.

Dad shook his head. "Go get another half bucket, then. When you're done, then you can have lunch."

Then he turned to go into the cabin. "C'mon Dean, clean the scythe, now, and wipe it down. I'll fix us something to eat."

Dean did as he was told, naturally, Dean always did as he was told. And he was so perfect he got to sit in the shade while he used the oil and the cloth to clean the blade. While Sam, the non-perfect child, had to go back out into the heat and the sun and pick up more stones. It wasn't fair, and it wasn't fair, and why did Dean always get to do the fun stuff?

Sam made himself keep bending and picking up, and all the while his stomach folded itself in knots and he muttered under his breath and swore that the first chance he got, he was going to get a soccer scholarship and play soccer for the rest of his life. And not hunt anything. Ever, ever, ever again.

As he dug his hand down, one of the blades of grass made a long thin cut in his wrist, and the blood popped up in little beads beneath the layer of dust, and Sam threw the stone in the bucket, disgusted. This of course, knocked the bucket over, and he spent a good five minutes putting the stones back in the bucket. Only now, with the stones shifted, it looked like there was left than half a bucket. He sank back on his heels and sucked at his wrist and glowered at the cabin.

Dean was just finished up his task, and put the scythe away in the little shed by the side of the cabin. Sam watched him go up the stairs to say something to Dad through the screen door, and then he came back out again and opened up the trunk of the Impala. At least Dean had to carry the supplies in all by himself, but it didn't make Sam feel much better.

He turned away and tried to spot as many stones as he could in as close a circle as he could so that he wouldn't have to keep moving and craning his neck. There were a bunch of them, and he threw them into the bucket as fast as he could, still on his heels, kicking up little puffs of dust that stuck to his skin and coated his throat. But he didn't dare stop for another drink; Dad was probably watching through the window over the kitchen sink, and he was expecting a full bucket by the time lunch was ready.

He kept at it until Dad called from the house, "C'mon Sam, bring it on in."

Sam stood up and looked at the bucket. It wasn't full, but it was kind of full. If he didn't jostle the stones, it would stay looking kind of full. He picked it up with his right hand; the muscles in his wrist screamed at him, so he let his left hand help out a little bit, making sure to let go when he was close to the cabin. Dad came out through the screen porch and down the stairs to check his work.

He stared at the level in the bucket for a minute, and then, without smiling, he nodded. "Okay, then. Lunch time. Go in and clean up."

Sam didn't say anything, but put the bucket down next to Dad's feet and slunk past him to hurry up the stairs. The shade was a blessing as it settled down around his head and along the back of his neck. Nobody should be made to work that hard in the heat, but Dad probably thought it would toughen them up and didn't care how miserable it made Sam.

As he walked in and let the screen door slam behind him, he saw the two box fans sitting just inside the door. They were just waiting there as if they'd been invited in and didn't quite know what to do with themselves. He looked over at Dean who had already washed up and was pouring the milk. Dean shrugged, and Sam shrugged back. He didn't dare touch the fans but he hoped, he hoped, one of them was for him.

He washed up in the bathroom as fast as he could, using only cold water, and sluiced some over his head to trickle down behind his ears. It felt wonderful. He washed the cut on his arm, which stung. Then he dried off and he sat down in his seat as Dad came in and Dean brought over the plate of sandwiches. They were fried baloney on toasted bread, with blobs of mayonnaise along the edges, just the way Sam liked them. Of course, Dean and Dad liked them that way too, but Sam liked them the best. His mouth filled with saliva and his stomach stood right up against his spine.

They ate in silence. Sam washed down every other bite with a mouthful of ice cold milk, and worked his way through his two sandwiches. When he was finished he wiped off his mouth with the back of his hand, and made a contented little sound in the back of his throat.

"Good?" asked Dad.

Sam nodded as Dad wiped off his mouth with the back of his hand, too.

Dean got up and gathered the plates, and Sam got up to help, without being asked. Out of the corner of his eyes he could see Dad gathering up the maps and the compass and the little field notebook. He and breathed a sigh of relief. It would be hot in the woods, but at least they would be in the shade. Sam liked working with the maps because Dad used a different tone of voice or something, and it was easier to follow directions. Plus, he didn't yell as much.

The afternoon went by fast, and Dad even left them for a bit to test each other by picking a spot on the map and leaving the coordinates with the other boy. It was a little weird being in the woods all by himself, but it was always fun to hear Dean coming through the undergrowth, and to watch his head and shoulders break through the vines to come and stand next to Sam.

When Dad came back, they showed him their notes, and the coordinates they'd used; Dad liked to check to make sure they wrote the latitude and longitude in the correct order, with all the little symbols and everything. Then the wind picked up and stirred the hot air around and Dad said they were done for the day, and gratefully Sam followed them down the narrow path back to the cabin, the back of his neck relaxing for the first time since he'd picked up the bucket that morning.

They washed up and had dinner, and Sam took out the trash. When he came back into the cabin, the box fans had been moved and plugged in and turned on. One sat in the window of the bedroom, pulling the air out. The other stood near the doorway, pulling air into the bedroom from the main area.

When Sam went to bed that night, it was hotter than it had been all day. The ache in his right arm thrummed, and the sounds of the thunks of the stones hitting the sides of the bucket echoed in his ears as he lay his head on the pillow. But he was saved from drowning in sweat and misery by the miracle of the box fans. The white noise and the rush of air over his skin as he lay in the bed next to Dean sent him to sleep almost instantly.

***

The rock picking and field cutting went on for three more days until Sam thought he was going to drop. Then, one afternoon, just as Dean was finishing up the dishes and Sam had wiped the counters, Dad pulled out the first aid kit and set it on the table. He sat in his chair and motioned for Sam. Sam came over, and sat in Dean's chair; he had a feeling he knew what was coming. Behind him, Dean stood close by, almost bouncing on his toes.

"Today's the day," Dad said.

Sam thought he heard Dean make a little victory noise in his throat, but of course Dean would be glad about this. He'd waited long enough. The look in his eyes, when Sam glanced up, was full of glittery sparkles; it made him feel bad all over again for making his brother wait.

Dad thumped on the table for Sam to pay attention, and motioned for Sam to put his arm up there, which Sam did, feeling the thin edge of it under his elbow, and Dad's warm hand as it pulled on his fingers. Dean stood at his shoulder, breathing down on Sam's other arm, like a dog panting in the shade.

Dad took out the curved first aid scissors and cut along the edge of the now begrimed bandage, and Sam watched with careful eyes. Not that he thought Dad would cut him, but he wanted to focus on this and not on how his hand was shaking. Dad stilled it, cupping his hand along the inside of Sam's elbow. His eyes flicked up to Sam's, but he didn't say anything.

Sam tried to pretend he was made of something dark and still as the bandage fell away in a curve, white on the inside, speckled grey on the outside. His skin looked like it had been bleached several shades whiter than the rest of him, all pale and tender except for the curl of black thread above the row of gnarled red twists and bends in his skin.

It looked ugly, and Sam felt something wedge in his throat. He'd not remembered Dean's leg looking that bad when his bandage had come off. He was going to have a huge, nasty scar, right there on the inside of his arm, and the kids at school would make fun of him. Like they did. Like they always did. Wasn't bad enough he wore Dean's too large castoffs, and followed two steps behind Dean, always, unable to rack up the points that Dean seemed to be able to do without thinking about it at all, natural as breathing, whereas Sam--

Sam shook his head and looked away, feeling the burn in his eyes, sure Dad had done the stitches sloppy like that on purpose to teach him a lesson about how hard a hunter's life was, full of pain and bumps. And scars.

"That looks like it healed pretty good," said Dad, touching the edge of one of the black threads with his thumb.

"No it doesn't," said Sam, before he could stop it, his throat clamping down a second later. He tried swallowing but it hurt.

Dad looked at him, that wrinkle forming between his eyebrows in that way that suggested that what he'd just heard wasn't what he wanted to hear.

Sam tried to wet his now dry mouth by chewing on his lips, and he had to think fast. To come up with something that would make sense, that wouldn't erupt into anything that would keep Dean from being able to use his crossbow. "I mean--it looks funny."

"Yeah," said Dean, "but mine looked like that, at first, Sammy. Honest."

"It takes a while for the skin to smooth out," said Dad. He was reaching into the first aid kit, pulling out the rubbing alcohol and a swatch of clean cotton. "You tend to this, take care of it right, and it'll hardly even leave a white line."

Dad unscrewed the top from the bottle of alcohol and poured some into a cup. Then he dipped the scissors in. As Sam watched this, his heart was pounding, and he knew Dad was lying. Lying through his teeth, and Sam wanted to say it, say it out loud, you're a liar, but just then Dad lifted his head, his eyes meeting Sam's, and Sam clamped down on it hard enough to burn his throat. For Dean he would do this, for Dean, only for Dean, but it made him so mad, all of it. He scrubbed at the two hot tears that slid down his face, and then grabbed on to the seat of his chair.

Dean knelt at his side. "Don't be scared, Sammy, this won't hurt."

Sam shook his head and didn't look at Dean. He knew it wouldn't hurt, because he'd watched Dean's stitches get pulled out and Dean had been smiling. It was the only thing that wasn't a lie.

Ignoring all of this, Dad brought the scissors, small and silver in his large, brown hand, to the first curl of thread. His fingers were warm and slow. "This is how we do this," he said. "You snip the part on this side of the knot." The scissors went snip. "Then you grab the knot and pull. See?"

The pulling of the thread was a tiny tickle beneath Sam's skin and then it was over. Sam counted eleven stitches left to go, and tried to relax back in his seat. Dad took out another one, dipping the blades of the scissors in the alcohol again, pulling gently. "Don't be in a hurry to do this," he said, "even if you were in a hurry to put them in. The skin is fragile, you don't want to tear."

Bending in close, his hands on the table, Dean shifted beside him. "Can I try?"

"Yes," said Dad. He handed over the scissors, ignoring Sam sitting there. Dean followed Dad's procedure to the letter, and Sam began to feel rather like a dead frog in science class. When Dean pulled out two more stitches, Sam sat up.

"It's my arm," he said. "Let me do it."

"Ah," said Dean, poking him in the ribs. "It speaks."

"Shut up, jerk."

"Sam."

It was likely to be the only warning he got before Dad got seriously mad and not just irritated. Sam swallowed anything else he'd been thinking of saying, and took the scissors from Dean, and dipped them to clean them. He held the blades over his own skin, like that, close. The metal was cool, and the edge of his hand against his arm was warm. With a snip, he cut the thread, and then he pulled it out with the edges of his fingers, tickling himself. He almost forgot Dean and Dad were standing there, until Dean reached for the scissors.

"Let me do another one," Dean said.

Dad stopped him, his whole arm out, barring Dean's way. "It's Sam's arm," he said.

Sam finished clipping and pulling two more stitches out and then handed the small scissors to Dean. Who, with a flash of a smile in Sam's direction, took the utmost care with the final two stitches. It might be Sam's arm, but it was Dean's day, Sam could feel the push of energy through Dean's skin, the thrum of excitement he was radiating.

Dad took a moment to swipe a ribbon of antibiotic cream over the little holes left in Sam's skin with the curve of his thumb. To Sam's surprise, he rewrapped Sam's arm in a thin swathe of bandage. "Keep this clean and dry," Dad said, "then in a day or two you can take it off." He looked up at Sam with dark eyes, checking to make sure that Sam was listening to him. "The longer it's allowed to heal, the less the scar."

Getting up and stepping away from the table, Sam rubbed the cloth of the bandage, feeling the ugly ridges of the scar beneath the cotton. Then, as Dad cleared up the tags and tatters of the first aid, he tipped his head in the direction of the shelf where the crossbow sat and said to Dean, "Go to it, boy, I'll be out in a minute."

For one second, Dean held himself still, rising on the toes of his sneakers. Then he moved. Fast, like he'd been shot from a rocket, and faster than that, the crossbow was down from the shelf and in his arms. He cradled it just like a baby, a deadly, dark baby, and as Sam watched, he felt himself frowning. He didn't care that he wasn't going to be able to shoot the thing for a while yet, no, but why was Dean so obsessed with it? He shook his head, and moved his hair out of his eyes. To find Dad looking at him.

"Get your shoes, Sam, and let's go. You can learn plenty by watching."

He considered saying something about that, to remind Dad about the whole off limits rule that Dad had laid down. And not only that, but Sam had no interest in getting anywhere near the thing.

"Now, Sam."

Hanging his head, Sam put on his sneakers, and then tromped outside and down the wooden stairs, following close on Dad's booted heels. Into the bright sun, and across the gravel road to the unshaded field, where the weeds and grass had been brought under control by Dean's use of the scythe, the stones cleared by Sam's hand. And where Sam found himself standing, the heat banging down on his dark head, looking at Dean and Dad's backs as they huddled over the crossbow, twin-dressed in white t-shirts and blue jeans.

He might as well not even be there.

Dean had been reading up on this for weeks, Sam knew, so his hands were steady as they placed the crossbow on the ground and he slipped his foot into the stirrup.

Dad was right as his side, and he said, "Nice and slow, now, Dean. Do it firm; give both sides equal pressure." Dean's head tipped to one side as Dad's words soaked into him.

The click of the bow locking into place was audible, even to Sam, and he watched as Dean brought the butt to his shoulder. His whole body was perfectly still, not a single muscle moved, and Sam felt his mouth fall open a little, maybe in awe. He knew what this meant to Dean, and he wasn't going to say a word, didn't want to mess it up for Dean all over again. Then Dean turned his head a little to wink at Sam, and Sam smiled back, feeling a little better about the whole thing. There was no stopping it now.

"170 pounds of pull, Dean," said Dad, warning. Unnecessarily, because the way Sam figured it, Dean knew all there was to know about the crossbow, but more, it was this moment here and now that mattered, when his brother's muscles were taking the weight and heft of the thing, recording it to memory. No one picked this kind of stuff up faster than Dean. Not even Dad.

Dad placed a bolt in the groove, his fingers turning it so that one of the fletchings pointed to the ground. "Just aim. We'll adjust the sights a little when we see where she goes."

She. Sam kept himself from snorting, but only barely. Dad's eyes flicked towards him just the same.

Then Dean undid the safety and pressed the trigger, and just as Dad said, "Thumb," the bolt flew, slicing through the air with a hiss and shimmered bare inches over the target that Sam had helped Dad make.

"Tuck it down, next time," Dad said. "A crossbow bolt curves the same as a bow's arrow. And keep your damn thumb out of the way or the string will rip it off."

Dean's shoulders jerked at the criticism, and Sam rolled his eyes. Of course Dean would want to be perfect right out of the box, but worse, Dad expected it also. Still, Dean shot a smile Sam's way, blissful and sweaty. It was the high point of Dean's whole summer, so Sam knew he hadn't ruined everything.

Tucking himself down cross-legged on the ground, Sam wiped sweat from the back of his neck. Not that it would help, the lack of shade made it feel like the sun was trying to fry him as the dust bit into the dampness of his skin. At the very least, Dean had, at last, shot the damn crossbow, and pretty soon Dad and Dean would be so wrapped up in the thing that Sam could scoot himself inside, beyond the shade of the porch. They would be hours at it before they missed him. Until then, he had only to wait. This kind of training was easy.

He studied the pattern the bottoms of his sneakers were leaving in the dust between the grass, cupping the backs of his knees with both hands. He tried to locate the different clumps of cicadas among the trees. He listened to Dad's deep gravel voice as it snapped instructions, barked guidance. Watched Dad's tanned forearms as his hand reached out to set Dean's shoulders into line, as he motioned to the target and the sky beyond. And Dean. Tightly strung as the crossbow's line, and happy. So happy. Getting closer and closer to the bulls eye with each round of bolts. Sam sighed. There would be no end to his talking about it come bedtime.

Especially not when, after only an hour of shooting and dog-trotting through the sun-baked field to retrieve the quarrels from the target and beyond, and then try it again, Dean finally got a bulls eye, flat out. When they both came back from pulling the bolt out of the target and Dean reached for the crossbow, Sam was surprised to see Dad take it out of Dean's hands.

And turn to him.

"Sam, you're up."

"I'm--" he started. Dust curled around his ankles as he scrambled to his feet. "I thought you said--"

The law that had been laid down had been specific, no crossbow for Sam for two weeks, and it'd only been a little more than one. Or had he lost track? Yes, he had. It was almost two weeks ago that Dad had said that, three weeks since Sam had broken the first one.

Sam dug in his heels, felt the heat building up on his face. "I don't want to learn the crossbow."

Dad's eyebrows flew up, then they scowled downwards as he wiped away the sweat on his forehead with the back of his hand. "Sam, I'm not asking what you want. Now, get over here."

"I'm never going to use it," Sam said. "I'm not going to, besides, it's Dean's." He didn't want to touch it, not now, not ever.

He saw Dean's warning, a shake of the head, and the tightening of his face, the sweat shimmering on his neck, but only out of the corner of his eye. Dad moved forward, one hand carrying the crossbow, his other hand curled into a fist. He was two feet closer before Sam could blink, dark half moons beneath the arms of his t-shirt, jeans spotted with dust, his thumb cocked at the target, pointing, and as Sam looked up, his eyes were glittering.

"When I say now," said Dad, low, his jaw tightening over each word, "I mean now. You want to test me, Sam?"

Of course, Sam didn't, but the words slipped out of him before he could stop them. "I'm like bad luck or something, it'll be bad, so I'd better not--"

Dad cupped the back of Sam's neck with hard, hot, calloused fingers, and dragged Sam over to the cleared circle of earth where Dean stood. Bits of dried grass flew up from the side of Sam's sneakers as he stopped himself from falling when Dad let him go. He could hear Dad breathing in his ear, saw the bunching of Dad's shoulder muscles out of the corner of his eyes. Looked at Dean.

"Give it a try, Sammy," said Dean, mouth quirking up on one side, encouraging. "Don't be afraid of it, you can't be--"

Sam grabbed the crossbow out of Dad's hands. "'m not afraid," he said, mouth tight. "I just don't want to."

"No one cares what you want, Sam," said Dad. "I've told you that before." Then he clasped his hand over Sam's on the throat of the crossbow and pushed it down. "Did you see what Dean was doing? Stand like this." He demonstrated with the toe of his boot. "Put your foot in the stirrup, and then you--"

Sam was on the verge of shoving Dad's hand out of the way, but stopped himself. It was a done deal, in Dad's mind; the quiver of muscle beneath Dad's arm told him even more than that. Any resistance on Sam's part would earn him a smack down. A hard one.

He made himself take a breath. Following Dean's moves in his mind, he lowered the stirrup of the crossbow to the ground and put his foot in the curve, the heat baking into his back as he tightened his arms to pull the string into place. The dusky oil from the mechanism rose up under his hands. When there was a metallic click, he straightened up, tossing his head back to get his hair out of his eyes. Dad was right there, lifting the crossbow and guiding the butt to tuck it into the curve of Sam's shoulders. Looming close, his heat and sweat an intense cloak that Sam couldn't shake.

"Never dry fire," said Dad, close to Sam's right ear as he put the bolt into the groove. "All that pressure and nothing to push against, and you'll have a little explosion on your hands and fiberglass in your face." Then he pointed.

"Click off the safety, and keep your--No." He stopped, tugging at Sam's fingers. "Like I told Dean. Weren't you paying attention?"

Sam swallowed and moved all the vulnerable bits of his fingers out of the way. He could feel the pressure of the string against the bolt, the thrust building up behind the cock of the firing trigger. The stupid thing was more dangerous to operate than it was worth. He flipped the safety off with his thumb, then moved his thumb out of the way.

"Go ahead and fire," said Dad. "You'll miss, but that'll help us figure out how you'll compensate for Dean's site. And, actually, it's better if you can adjust for any--"

Sam hefted the crossbow into place. He looked out across the field, pulled the trigger, and the bolt flew. Straight out, into the sunlight, making a zinging noise and a thwump sound as it sank into the target. The crossbow suddenly felt light in his hands without the pressure of the cocked string, the weight of the bolt. His arms swung upwards, in recoil, the crossbow almost smacking him in the face, but Dad's hand was on his elbow to steady him.

There was silence for a moment, as the heat thrushed through the grass and the cicadas hummed and scratched somewhere in the bank of green trees, and they all looked at Sam's bulls eye.

The look on Dean's face was like a punch to the stomach.

"Well," said Dean, swallowing. "That was a lucky shot, huh, Dad?"

"Huh," said Dad. He was squinting into the heat, eyes on the target, jaw working as he thought it out. "Cock it up again, Sam."

Sam could see what Dad was thinking, understand it even, as Dad snapped out the order. Sam'd been working on his aim with his little 20-pound bow, trying to keep up with Dean, though he was never going to be able to shoot as far or as re-load as fast. But all things being equal, well, with the miracle of the crossbow in his hands, he could actually be as good a shot as Dean, and something could be made of this. The little glimmer in Dad's eyes told him everything.

The look on Dean's face told him even more. Dean's eyes were narrow, and his face had gone tight, like somebody had smacked him in the mouth. And he wasn't looking at Sam, no, he was staring at the bulls eye, like he was admiring it, like it didn't matter, though the stiff set of his shoulders told its own story. Dean was better than Sam at pretty much everything; Sam knew Dean wouldn't begrudge Sam besting him in something. But not this. Not this one thing that Dean had set his heart on, had been marching around with a gleam in his eyes over. Dean had been irritated enough with him as it was since they came to Mentone, this would just make it worse.

Sam looked up. Dad had been waiting, and his chest rose and fell as he took a deep, slow breath, as if gathering his last bit of patience.

"You're going to take another shot, Sam, and you're going to do it right now. C'mon, step up."

With his breath sharp in his throat, Sam did as he was told. There was a small crackle somewhere inside of him, and as he put his foot in the stirrup and cocked the bow, he realized it was something very close to the feeling he had when he'd kicked the winning goal the last time he'd played soccer. It would be cool to be good at this, but as he straightened back up and put the crossbow against his shoulder, he shrugged, trying to get rid of it. There was sweat in his eyes, and dust in his sneakers, and it was too damn hot for any of this. And he didn't want it. Not with what it would do to Dean.

Dad put another bolt into the slot, turning the fletching so it was facing the right direction. He nodded at Sam, his eyes never leaving Sam's hands. Sam flipped off the safety, and did everything the same way, breathing slow. And then, as he straightened up, he knew what he needed to do, what he had to do. Otherwise, Dad would be making a fast trip to Atlanta and back, bringing another crossbow up those stairs for Sam's own use. Making Sam good at it, making Sam perfect at it. And Dean would hate him for the rest of his life.

He looked at the dark line of trees cutting against the sharp blue sky and not at the target. Not even paying it any mind, he pulled the trigger and let it fly. Sure enough, the bolt went straight past it, digging into the grass with a little brown puff of dust.

There was a long, stretched silence as Sam put the crossbow on the ground. He watched Dean pick it up and dust it off, his fingers tight on the stock as he checked the safety, and finally he looked at Sam. But now, his eyebrows were drawn together as though he couldn't quite figure out what he was looking at.

"What?" asked Sam. "So I missed, so what? I don't want to do this anyway."

"Sam," said Dad, and Sam looked at Dad, trying to keep his face still. But something flickered across Dad's face, and the scowl was starting. Sam's heart jumped.

"You did that on purpose," said Dad. "You missed on purpose."

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did, now where do you think that's going to get you?"

"But I didn't--"

Dad held up his hand to cut Sam off. "You can't not do your best, that's like lying. To me, to your brother, to your--

"What difference does it make?" Sam asked, not caring that he was interrupting, ignoring the flare in Dad's eyes that sparked like a small eruption. He could feel the heat behind his eyes that had nothing to do with the temperature. His jaw felt hard and stiff. "What difference, because we lie all the time. All the time, Dad. About who we are, what we do--"

"So you did miss on purpose."

Now his head was thumping, both with the heat and the fury building, moving up his throat, feeling like his heart was bashing itself against his ribs. He didn't want anything to do with any of this and now he was stuck right in the middle of it, and he couldn't figure a way out. If he shot the crossbow again, Dad would be watching. He might not hit a bulls eye, or he might hit it, either way, Dad would know if he was aiming wild, and then he'd get in trouble because he didn't want to do it better than Dean. It wasn't fair.

"This is stupid." He heard the words come out of his mouth before he could stop them, felt the scathing ring in the air.

"Don't you take that tone with me."

Sam couldn't look at Dad. He looked at Dean instead and pushed back the hair that was sticking to his forehead, and spun on his heel to walk back to the cabin. "I'm not doing this any more. Just let Dean do it, he's the one who wants to."

"Don't you walk away from me when I'm talking to you."

The voice fell like stones around his ears, but Sam kept walking, telling himself that his knees weren't shaking, no not at all, that the cabin was only fifty feet or so away, that he could get out of this in one piece. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a flash of white and for a second he thought it was Dean, who was going to tug on his arm and ask him to come back and try, c'mon Sammy, just try--

But it wasn't Dean. Just as he took another step, Sam felt the hardness of a boot against his anklebone, his shin, and then down he went, into the dust, his face slamming against the ground, his knees taking the rest of the fall. Dad. It was Dad. He'd used that leg sweep move, from sparring, and of course, Sam hadn't been watching, hadn't seen it coming. He pushed up on his hands, and watched the blood drip from his nose, making dark and perfect circles in the dust. Dad grabbed him from behind and turned him around and set him on his feet, and Sam stood there, unsteady, knees stinging, his nose aching. He tried wiping the blood away, but it spread across his palm like a marching tide.

He could feel Dad looking at him, feel the weight of the glare that was surely there, the angry, dull disappointment; he didn't need to look at Dad to know it was there.

"You want to explain to me what that little maneuver was for, Sam?"

Sam shook his head, his chin tucked down, blood splatting on his t-shirt. He tried not to sniffle back the snot and the blood because he knew Dad would think he was pathetic and that would irritate him even more. Sam shook his head again. He'd messed it up so badly, but he didn't know what to do. He couldn't back down now--

"You'll look at me when you talk to me, man to man, Sam."

He could think about this or he could do it, either way, the results were going to be bad. How did he get himself in these messes, why didn't Dad understand that he couldn't be better than Dean at the crossbow, why did everything have to be so hard?

A second later, Dad stepped close, and Sam's head jerked back, and he looked up. Dad was right there, layered in sweat and anger. Breathing hard through his nose, and if Sam had ever thought to laugh at that, at how stupid Dad looked, when he did that, it wasn't now. Not now when that glare was aimed right at him and Dad was holding himself back by the barest thin line; Sam could see it in the vein pounding along the length of Dad's neck.

But he didn't step back, didn't let himself.

"If you ever--" said Dad, slowly, carefully, a pause marking each word, "I'm telling you Sam, just one more step out of line and I'm handing you a switch whipping. I don't care if it's next week, or tomorrow, or five minutes from now. You will toe the line, you get me?"

Sam's mouth went dry, like someone had sucked all the water out of him, all the air. Dean had gotten a switch whipping two summers ago, when Dad had caught him smoking with some local boys in the trailer park they'd been staying at. Sam had run and hid in the bedroom, but he could still hear the switch whistling in the air, still hear the one cry Dean had made the first time the switch had come down. Could hear it now, inside of his head, and all the cold from every winter of every year of his life settled right in the middle of his stomach.

"Well?" asked Dad, his jaw hard, his eyes flickering like dark slices of coal. "What's it going to be, Sam?"

He didn't dare move. Dad had put something out there, a challenge, and it could go one way or another. And the hardest part was that it was up to him which way he was going to go. The way his luck was going it would be exactly the wrong way, and Dad would take it as defiance, and then Sam would get it. His knees felt like they knocked together, making him unsteady, and Dad was waiting for an answer, but he couldn't let Dean down--He was frozen all over, lost in the heat and the push of Dad's anger. His mouth opened, dry, mind blank, and he and he couldn't say anything.

Dad stepped closer, and Sam let out a little squawk, and then he blinked. He could see right into Dad's eyes, see the clear brown of the iris against the dust-reddened white. And Dad was looking at him, something strange and flickering, like he was measuring Sam in his mind, and calculating how he could bridge the gap where Sam was coming up short. Because Sam was, he knew he was.

After a moment of silence, Dad said, "We clear, then? Fine."

Then Dad reached out and for a second, Sam thought Dad was going to smack him. But he only put his hand on Sam's chin and tipped his head sideways. He took his thumb and wiped the blood and snot from Sam's upper lip. Then he drew his hand away, and drew his hand across his t-shirt, leaving a dark smear.

Sam felt the air whoosh out of his lungs, feeling like he'd stepped up to the edge of something, only to have Dad, of all people, pull him back. The threat of the switch whipping was still in the air, but Dad was going to let it go, for the moment, but only if Sam did as he was told. Only if Sam picked up the crossbow and did his best. And Dad would know the difference if he didn't.

"I don't like the crossbow," he muttered, scowling, his heart thumping.

Dad chuffed him upside the head. Then his arms fell at his sides, his fists twitching like he wanted to grab hold of Sam, but didn't. They were back to status quo, it seemed.

"And I'm telling you that's too bad, and I'll keep telling you. Now, march."

Sam marched, his eyes on Dean standing there with the crossbow in his arms, the sun turning his arms brown, his hair to gold, the perfect son. Marred only by his frown as he looked at Sam and Dean coming towards him. Maybe he didn't like what he saw, maybe he was pissed that Sam was making Dad waste his time. Or maybe he felt sorry for Sam, his stupid little brother who couldn't do anything right. Sam didn't know, maybe he would never know.

"Alright, Sam," said Dad, breathing hard like he'd been running. "Let's try this one more time."

***

Sam washed the dishes, carefully using only the tips of the fingers on his left hand, keeping the newly healed skin under the thin bandage dry. He put his full concentration into the task, and pretended he was alone. Behind him, the box fans were going full bore, one in the bedroom window, and one blocking the way to the bedroom, filling up the door jamb, and making a small clicking noise. That was okay with Sam, as long as the clicking noise was steady.

He knew the box fans had been set up by Dad and he wanted to feel only resentment, but they sure did help. And he was almost tired enough to shove the fan in the doorway aside and just go lay down in the cool hum, but that would mean making noise, and then Dad would ask what he was doing, and Sam didn't want to be talking to Dad right now. He wanted to stay so far under that particular radar as to become invisible. He'd read about radars in school and about the kind of stealth planes that could fly under them. He wanted to be like that.

As he finished the dishes and wiped the counter, he could hear the TV being turned on and Dad was saying something to Dean about John Wayne, and Sam could hear Dean say yes, and then the volume got turned up. He pulled the stopper out of the drain and as the cold water sluiced the suds away, Sam ran his right index finger under the tap again and decided he didn't want to sit and watch TV with Dad and Dean, let alone a John Wayne movie. Dad loved John Wayne, and of course, that meant that Dean loved him too. Plus they'd probably already seen this one, whichever one it was, what was the point in seeing it again?

He thumbed the blister on his forefinger, where it circled in a tight half moon, all the way around at the first joint. The blister was from cocking the crossbow and then messing with the site and then firing the damn thing. He'd done that over and over and over, all afternoon. It hurt whenever he bumped it against anything, which he'd been doing constantly.

He wanted to pop it to release the pressure, but Dad always said no, and gave Sam hell when he did it. Blisters turned into calluses and that was the right thing for a hunter's hands. Sam had never dared say he didn't want to be a hunter until this summer, but saying it again, or doing anything out of line with being a hunter would be a bad idea. A really bad idea because there were so many switches in those woods. Plus, Dad knew the blister was there, he'd be watching.

Turning off the water and the light over the sink, he wiped his hands on his shorts, and walked across the wooden floor. He tried not to tip toe, but he didn't want to attract any attention. Any more attention, because he'd gotten enough that day. It had been bad enough to have Dad at his side, snapping commands, and pushing Sam's shoulder down each time it had been his turn to practice with the crossbow. They'd traded off, him and Dean, but even when it wasn't his turn, Dad had kept Sam close and made him pay attention.

He made it all the way to the screen door and had slipped through halfway when he heard it.

"Sam?"

It was Dad.

"Where are you going?"

Sam turned and looked at the back of Dad's head. He felt his shoulders tense and the awful twisting start in his stomach. He knew why Dad was asking. The last time Sam had gone out the screen door by himself at night was to try to run away. He'd gotten all the way down the mountain, but Dad had found him anyway. Even in the dark.

"Steps," he said. He waited with his hand curling around the edge of the screen door.

"Steps?"

"Just going to sit out here," he said. As hard as he tried, he couldn't keep the tone out of his voice, the one that Dad hated, the one that made him respond like he felt Sam was mouthing off.

"Just sitting," he said now. Then he let the screen door slam shut, and waited a second. There was nothing from inside the cabin, so that probably meant that Dad was satisfied, watching TV again, and not wondering if Sam was running off. And for the moment, Sam had the porch and the night to himself.

The night air under the eave of the porch was thick with damp; moths fluttered and bumped against the bare bulb next to the door, making weird flickery shadows on Sam's legs as he sat on the top step. His toes curled and uncurled against the rough wood and he could feel the splinters on the riser digging into the back of his calves. Out in the woods, the cicadas clicked and hummed, and there was a vague and faraway whoosh as the wind moved the tops of the trees.

But other than that, it was quiet. Sam brought his finger to his mouth and ran his tongue along the edge of the blister. It tasted a little like salt and then all of a sudden, it tasted bitter, and Sam knew he'd messed with it too much, and broken the blister. He spat into the air to clear his mouth. Pus drained in a warm line down his finger and across his palm. Sam sighed and rested his head on his other hand, with his elbow on his knee, and let his hand dangle to one side so the blister could drain.

It had been another awful day.

In Sam's mind, Sam's first bulls eye had been a fluke, but even so, Dad had wanted him to get there again. To that place where it had happened. And had kept at him all afternoon.

How were you standing when you did it before? Dad had wanted to know. Were your shoulders level? Do it again, Sam.

Standing in the heat had been crappy, not getting any breaks, except one for water from the jug, getting sweat in his eyes, all that had been bad. Having Dad barking orders had been hard, but watching Dean pretend to be glad that Sam was doing so well had been the worst part.

Because Sam had done well, Dad had said so. Or at least as well as can be expected at this stage.

He'd not known Dad was keeping score, exactly, until he turned his head to the side at one point to wipe away a gnat that had flown into it and saw Dad writing on a scrap of paper with a little stubby pencil. When Dad saw him looking, he showed both Sam and Dean the sheet. There had been two columns, one with a D and one with an S. The D column had lots and lots of 5's and 6's, and hardly any M's. The S column had a lot of M's, but there were also a few 8's and 9's.

So when you're hitting it, you're hitting it, Dad had said.

That's when Dean had stopped smiling, had stopped enjoying himself. His scores had gone all over the place, erratic, until finally Dad had called it a day, and told Dean to wipe down the crossbow and for Sam to check the field for errant quarrels while he made dinner. So out into the field Sam went with the sun cutting at an angle through the trees in blinding slices while Dean sat on the porch and wiped down the butt of the crossbow and checked the string and cleaned off the dust in the nice shade. When Sam had come up the stairs with the quarrels in his hand, Dean'd not said a word, but had followed Sam silently in and silently washed his hands at the kitchen sink.

Dinner had also been silent. When Dad had asked about it, Dean had shrugged his shoulders and said he was tired. But that was okay. It was okay if Dean wasn't tired and didn't feel like talking, Dad never seemed to have a problem with that. But if it had been Sam not talking, he'd be accused of sulking, and he'd catch it, he'd always catch it. It wasn't fair. Dad had even traded dish duty out and made it Sam's turn, and let Dean take a break. Let Dean watch a movie on the couch.

His stomach growled because he was still hungry, but he'd not felt like eating much, sitting at the table with Dean acting like that. And with Dad watching him like a hawk.

He checked his blister, moving his thumb across the top of it to push the rest of the pus out. It stung, but it was distracting him, and that was good. He looked at the rough edge of skin, and thought about tearing off the top to expose the raw flesh underneath; it would probably hurt and be even more distracting.

There was a click of the screen door, and Sam looked up to see Dean standing there, the screen door swinging shut behind him.

"You're not supposed to mess with those, Dad said."

"So?" said Sam, snapping back. Dean wasn't a tattletale normally, but he could feel the nerves in his stomach start up. "I know what Dad said."

"So why are you doing that?" Dean moved out from under the eave to stand on the top step next to Sam.

Dean's scowl said everything that Dean wasn't saying out loud. Sam didn't need anything else to tell him that Dean was pissed. But his mouth was all scrunched up too, like his feelings were hurt, but he'd be damned if he'd mention anything like that to Sam.

Sam stood up, and wiped the remains of the pus on his shorts, and looked at Dean. Dean was taller than him, and bigger. Those shoulders are going to be as wide as an axe handle, Dad sometimes said. But sometimes, like now, he looked different. Not like a big brother at all. Sam never knew what to do with that, never knew how to think or feel about it. Big brothers were supposed to be big brothers, always. At least that's the way it was in the books.

He tucked his head down and worried the edge of the blister, and watched a thin line of pus form along the edge. It gleamed in the acid porch light.

"I didn't want to be better than you," he said, low. "I don't want it."

He heard Dean snort, and looked up. That scowl was firmly in place, and Dean rolled his shoulders back. "Like you could ever be better than me." He watched Dean take a deep breath as the anger colored his face. "And you know what else? You suck."

That stung. Sam felt his eyes well up, blinked really fast so Dean wouldn't see and call him a crybaby. He tried to swallow, but his throat felt too thick. "I know it's your crossbow, but Dad made me and--"

"Shut up, just shut up." Dean gave him a little shove, two hands on Sam's shoulders. "And don't do me any favors, you get me? When Dad says aim and shoot, you do it, you just do it--"

"What's going on out here?"

Both of them turned. Dad was standing just on the other side of the screen door, with the hum of the fans and the murmur of the TV. His shoulders made a broad, dark outline; Sam could barely see the edge of his face. The worst part was that Sam didn't know how much Dad had heard. Whether he'd heard Sam say, I don't want it. And whether he would take that as Sam stepping out of line.

Dean shrugged, and turned his head away, just in that second, even from Dad, and Sam knew that as mad as he was, Dean wasn't going to say anything about the blister. Or complain, even, because that was Sam's job.

"Get in here," said Dad. He pushed open the screen door and stepped back to let them come in. It was actually a little cooler in the house than it had been on the front porch, and Sam knew it was the fans. The floor felt good beneath his feet, smooth after the roughness of the porch.

Dean went back to the couch and threw himself down on it, propping his feet up on one arm and tucking his head on the other. He was bathed in the glow of the TV while he ignored Sam. It didn't matter what was on, now, didn't matter that it left Sam to his own devices. And to Dad. Who was looking at him.

"What happened here?"

Dad was reaching out his hand and there was nothing Sam could do but hold his hand out so that Dad could take it and see that the blister had broken, and that the skin was all rough around the edges because Sam had popped it.

"I didn't mean to mess with it," said Sam, his voice coming out in a croak. "It just happened." He didn't want a switch whipping, not over this. Why couldn't he have left it alone?

"Alright," said Dad. He dropped Sam's hand and turned away. "Come here."

Nerves dancing in his stomach, Sam followed Dad across the kitchen in the darkness, with only the glow of the TV and some light from the front porch to light his way. Dad flipped on the light over the sink, and pulled down the first aid from the top of the fridge.

"Let's rinse it out first," he said.

"I really didn't mess with it, Dad," said Sam, getting a little desperate.

Dad paused a bit to look at him, placing the box on the counter. "I know that, Sam," he said. "The soapy dishwater probably softened it some. We'll get it fixed up."

Sam didn't know what to think, so he let Dad wash out the blister with the dishwashing soap, which stung. And then he watched Dad dry his hand and put on some antibacterial cream. Then as he was opening up a long finger bandage, he paused. Tucking his shoulders down a little, he asked, "So what's this about you not wanting to be better than Dean?"

So Dad had heard. And naturally, he was going to ask, and want an answer. But it was kind of quiet, and Dad was standing very still, and seemed to be in a listening mood, so maybe it would be okay.

"Just on the crossbow," Sam said, feeling rather bold at saying it out loud. "Because Dean likes it an' I don't want him to hate me."

"I see," said Dad. He started putting the bandage around Sam's finger. He smoothed the bandage with his thumb as he said, "Dean doesn't hate you, Sam."

"But he would," Sam said, insisting. "If I keep getting high scores."

Dad turned away to start putting the tube of cream and the box of bandages back in the first aid kit. For a moment, he acted like Sam wasn't there; his concentration was fully on what he was doing. But then he stopped, and put his hands on the edge of the box. He was close enough that Sam could smell Dad's sweat from the heat of the day.

"That won't work, Sam," Dad said, looking only at the box, at his hands. "You hold back, to be nice, and then Dean holds back, to be nice. And before you know it, you're both holding back." He banged the lid shut, and lifted it to put it on top of the fridge. Then he turned to Sam. His eyes were dark. "But what if you needed to save Dean's life only you didn't know how because you'd been holding back?"

The questions slammed into Sam, making him feel like he'd been running full out in the heat of the day. It scared him to hear Dad talking like this. But Dad wasn't finished.

"What if Dean got hurt because of that? How would you feel then? Would it be worth making Dean feel better now?"

Sam didn't know what to think. It would have been much easier if Dad had just punished him for popping his blister than to think about this.

"I don't know," he said. He didn't look over at Dean, but he could feel him there, lying on the couch. Could he hear what they were saying?

"Do you want Dean to die because you weren't doing your best?"

Sam's chin pushed out and he tried to tighten his mouth so it wouldn't wobble like he was going to cry, because he wasn't. He wasn't. What Dad said was mean. He knew it was mean, and it was all because Dad was trying to make a point, and he was using Dean to do it.

"Do you?"

Scowling, he looked at his feet and shook his head. He scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his hand, and swallowed. "No," he said. "No, I don't want that."

"So you're going to do your best?"

"Anything but the crossbow," he said, trying to get out that much.

"This isn't a bargaining table, Sam. It's all or nothing."

Dad had him in his cross-hairs. Either Sam agreed to do his best because he didn't want Dean to die. Or Sam didn't agree because he didn't care whether Dean died. Even if Dean hated him most times, Sam didn't want that.

"Well?"

"No," said Sam.

"No?" Dad sounded shocked.

"Er, yes," said Sam now. It was all mixed up in his head. He pressed his thumb into the bandage over his blister and tried to focus on that and not crying. Dad hated it when he cried, hated it when things weren't tied down and under control. His stomach lurched and growled at the same time; Sam pressed his arm across his middle to try and quiet it. "Yes, I'll do it. Do my best."

"Fine," said Dad. "Is that your stomach?"

Sam nodded, head down, his hair in his eyes.

"You still hungry?"

He didn't want to say yes, because that would mean that he'd not eaten his dinner, and Dad was always going on about wasting good food. But his stomach growled again, and so Sam had to nod again.

"Huh," said Dad. "Dean, you hungry?"

"Yes," said Dean loudly from the couch.

Dad looked at Sam. "Cereal it is, then." He was reaching up to the top shelf for the corn flakes, and the bowls, getting out the gallon of milk with one hand and the sugar bowl with the other. He started pouring out three bowls of cereal, and then he stopped. He turned his head sideways to look at Sam. "Layer it?"

This was how Sam liked it, and he nodded his head even though he didn't feel like smiling, since he'd just agreed to train and train hard, even if it meant he got better than Dean. So he rested his head in his hand and leaned on his elbow on the edge of the counter to watch. Dad shook out some milk over the first layer of corn flakes, and then added some sugar. Then he poured out another thin layer of corn flakes, more milk, more sugar, and so on, till the bowls were heaped with layers of cereal, cold milk, and lots of sugar.

"Here's yours," said Dad, handing him a bowl. "Get some spoons."

Dad carried the bowls over to the couch where Dean was and told Dean to sit up so he wouldn't spill, like Dean was three years old or something. That was kind of funny, but when Sam walked over with the spoons, Dean still wasn't looking or talking to him. Would it be worth it if Dean never talked to him again if it meant that he would never die because Sam had screwed up? Of course the answer was yes, it had to be. But as he sat next to Dean, it was hard not to look at Dean and start saying he was sorry then and there. Especially about the crossbow.

No one said anything as they watched the end of the John Wayne movie, though Sam didn't recognize which one it was. He slouched down and he propped the bowl on his stomach and watched the TV without really seeing it. His mouth was full of milk and corn flakes that crunched with satisfying loudness between his teeth, and his stomach was quieting down to a contented murmur. It was a nice treat, but it would have been nicer if it had been otter pops. He still hadn't had one all summer, and the way things were going, he wasn't going to. But he didn't dare ask. Not after today.

Pretty soon, his spoon was scraping the bottom of the bowl, and he could see Dean tipping his bowl back to drink the milk that way. Sam didn't like to drink milk after cereal had been in it, the little floaty bits would pass over his teeth and sometimes he thought they were bugs or something that shouldn't be there. But Dean didn't care. Dad didn't either. He was tipping his bowl back, too. Sam got up and hurried over to the sink to rinse his bowl out before anyone could see. Then, without being asked, he went over and got Dad's bowl and Dean's and took them over to the sink.

"Bed," said Dad, as he got up and turned off the TV. "Brush your teeth, and get to bed, we've got an early day tomorrow."

Sam didn't say what he wanted to say, that every day was an early day. Instead, as he followed Dean into the bathroom, he kept his mouth shut. As he chivied his way into a spot in front of the mirror, he tried to catch Dean's eye. But no, Dean was studiously following the line of his toothbrush, up and down, up and down. He wasn't going to give Sam any of his time, that was for sure.

By the time they'd gotten stripped down to their t-shirts and underwear for bed, and Dean turned off the light, the silence beneath the hum of the fans was huge, heavy bell over Sam's head. In the darkness, with his head on the pillow, staring up at the ceiling, it started to expand. What if the bulls eye had been a fluke, and the 8's and 9's were just accidents and he never really did get better? What if he never got the stance for knife throwing right, and the knife always went wild? What if he never learned to shoot a rifle properly and one day a monster came and killed Dean? What if--

"What's the matter with you now?" asked Dean over the fan, the tone in his voice telling Sam he was already out of patience.

"Nothing," said Sam. He swallowed, tried to swallow, but he felt two huge hot tears slide down the sides of his face and into his ears. He could hear his blood pounding, like he was underwater. He was never going to get better, and it shouldn't matter, hadn't mattered before, but Dad had said--and what if Dean died and it was Sam's fault?

"Oh for Pete's sake, are you crying? Just because Dad yelled at you?"

"No," Sam said. His throat was tightening up.

"Then what is it, and hurry up because I want to go to sleep."

Sam clutched at the sheet and pulled it up to his chin, even though this made him too warm. But he needed the sheet, needed something to hide under. Dean wasn't happy with him, and while that wasn't new, what Sam had to say would probably make it worse. But he had to say it, it was choking him.

"Sam."

"D-dad said," said Sam, starting, but then he stopped because his lips were going numb and he knew Dean would make fun of him for stuttering. "Dad said that if I didn't get better you would get k-killed."

"What?" He felt Dean sit up in bed next to him, a shadow of pale grey against the dark. "That's not what Dad said. Weren't you paying attention?"

Dean had been listening after all and had heard--

Sam rolled towards Dean. "Don't hate me Dean, I don't want you to die--"

But Dean shoved him back with a hard elbow as he slid back down under the sheets. "I'm not going to die just because you can't do what Dad says. And stay on your own side of the bed, crybaby--you'll get the sheets wet--it's just as bad as if you peed the bed."

Hot rage made Sam sit up, indignant, his mouth open. "I did not pee the bed!"

Just as Dean sat up to retort to this, a loud bang on the other side of the wall startled them both into silence.

"Knock it off in there," came Dad's voice, just about as clear as if he were standing right next to the bed. "Not another sound from either of you or I swear to god we'll get up and run laps. You hear me in there? Sam? Dean?"

"Yes, sir," said Dean.

"Yes," said Sam.

Sam slid back down till his head was on the pillow. He let the sheet fall at his waist and willed the fan's breeze to cool him off.

"He's mad," Sam whispered. His voice sounded wavery in his own ears, and he knew that would make Dean mad.

It did.

"He's pissed," snapped Dean, his voice a hiss. "Because you can't do what he says. Why can't you do what he says, why do you have to go and make a fuss every time you stub your toe?"

Sam took a deep breath and opened his mouth to try and explain but a second later, Dean rolled in close and clamped his hand hard over Sam's mouth.

"Shut up," said Dean low, but quite clearly. "Just shut up, or he's going to come in here, and you don't want him to come in here, do you?"

Sam knew that no he didn't, so he shook his head no and waited for Dean to take his hand away. Then he opened his mouth to try to explain, but Dean just poked him hard in the shoulder.

"Don't, Sam," he said. "Just go to sleep. Just--just go to sleep. Do me that one favor, okay?" There was a heavy thump as Dean fell back on the bed, and the sheets lofted over Sam's legs, and then settled.

His lower lip was still quivering, and he didn't want Dean to be even more mad at him, so Sam pressed the back of his hand hard up against his mouth and rolled away from Dean. He curled into the pillow, making himself small on the mattress, felt the dampness beneath his cheek.

Sometimes, when Dean seemed to like him, that made it okay, and everything was bearable. Even Dad yelling at him, or handing out a whipping, he could get through it if he thought that Dean was on his side, even a little bit. He could run laps or clean weapons or even eat nasty, Dad-scrambled eggs if Dean was there, with a friendly smack on the shoulder or even a there you go Sammy, I knew you could do it. But when was the last time he'd heard that? When was the last time anything had been good? And when was the last time he'd thought about playing soccer? When was the last time he could recall racing across a grassy green playing field, with a brassy blue Colorado sky overhead, and the soccer moms on the sidelines handing out kool-aid and cookies?

Sam felt himself shake hard enough to move the bed as he tried not to cry, but Dean wasn't saying anything, was just pretending Sam wasn't there. Sam buried his head in his arms and tried to calm himself by humming along with the fan, with his mouth pressed up against the pillowcase, breathing in and out as slowly as he could to ease the ache in his chest.

Dean slapped him in the back, hard. "Knock it off, you freak."

Sam swallowed and buried his head even further. It had been a long time since Dean had brought him honey on a spoon, too. It was never going to get any better. Never.