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With the Strength of Lions

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Title: With the Strength of Lions
Author: lovesrain44
Warnings: Violence, angst, hurt, but not a whole lot of comfort
Verse: Sparta Verse
Pairing: None
Word Count:17,359

*

For a moment, the slow hush of the river beneath the low bent trees was all the sound there was. Beyond that, the hum of the forest played a scratchy green sound in Sam's ears as he hunkered low in the water, bare feet braced against the gravel and stones, feeling the slow, cool rush of water over this thighs and hips. As he peered over the edge of the line of willow sticks, he could see that there were three fish circling around, all alive, fat and sassy, and they would make the best cookout ever. Ever.

It had been so hot that Dad had driven them that morning to a wide place in the river, many miles below the falls, for an impromptu fishing trip. Then, Dad had showed him and Dean both how to catch fish with their bare hands. How to stand in the water until your body became the temperature of it, to lower your hands slow and keep them there. To tickle the water like river grass, to trick the fish into thinking they were safe, hiding in your hands. It had been fun, even just standing in the water where it was cool, a break from the neverending training in the pressured heat that sucked all the air out of Sam's lungs.

But Sam had grown antsy and Dad had banished him for spoiling the stillness and sent Sam upriver, where the water was low over the stones, and where his fidgeting and splashing wouldn't bother anyone. Sam didn't mind. He had the silence all to himself, with the water all around him, soaking him cool to his bones, and the green trees overhead, cutting off the aching heat of the sun.

He'd meandered ankle-deep along the banks, and when he'd gotten past the first bend in the river, far enough so that he couldn't see or hear Dad or Dean, he'd built the weir. He'd figured it was just the idea of it that Dad wanted to teach, how to catch fish with no hooks or bait, to clean them against a log, and then cook them over an open fire. The idea of it.

It was just a little weir, after all, built out of broken and bent willow sticks and it had caught three fine fish in almost no time. He watched them swim around, and though no other fish came, he still hoped Dad would be pleased.

It might have been ten minutes later when Dad came striding up the middle of the river, carrying a burlap sack, water splashing up to darken his jeans all the way up his thighs, walking through it like it was nothing. Sam stayed where he was, enjoying the coolness; as soon as the fishing trip was over, as soon as Dad got them back to the cabin, he was liable to make him and Dean run a few miles. They'd gotten out of it that morning, but Sam didn't think for one moment that Dad had forgotten.

Dad came up to him and stopped, water surging around him. His jeans were wet all the way up, and he was dripping water from his hair. He looked at the weir; there was no way he didn't know what it was.

"Sam," said Dad. He pulled the sack into folds between his hands, as though he meant to start folding it. "When I said with your bare hands, I meant with your bare hands."

"But I did use my hands, to build the weir," said Sam. He stood up. The water sluiced down his bare legs from his shorts; his shirt stuck to him.

Dad stood there scowling for a minute, then he peered into the weir. Sam peered in too, just as one of the fish flapped its fat tail against the surface of the water. It wouldn't be fair if Dad made him let the fish go, just because he'd not thought of the idea himself. It wouldn't be fair if Dad got mad because Sam couldn't do it the same way that Dad and Dean had.

He unfolded his hands to show Dad. "I didn't have a knife, I didn't have anything, honest."

"Where'd you learn how to do this?" asked Dad, still looking at the weir. His voice was low in that way he had when he was considering something that might prove useful.

"Well, it was that book on Indians, how to live like an Indian, the one--"

"The one you made such a fuss about turning back in to the library in New York?"

Yes, New York, in a little town called Red Hills, which is where Sam had stumbled upon a collection of books someone had given the old library, all of them to do with Mohawk and Iroquois and Abenaki Indians. The Indian tribes knew such cool stuff back in the old days, how to build canoes and make moccasins and, yes, catch fish in a weir.

Dean had made fun of him for being so obsessed, and Dad eventually made Sam give the book up, even though no one else was interested in checking it out. Sam had tried to memorize as much as he could before he'd turned it back in. That was two summers ago; at least he'd remembered how to build the fish trap.

Sam waited, looking at Dad, trying not to move and distract Dad from thinking, even though, quite suddenly, his thigh started itching like crazy.

"Well," said Dad. "You understand the difference between the letter of the law and the intent of the law?"

Sam started to shake his head yes, but then he had to shake his head no. He had no idea what Dad was talking about.

Dad tipped his chin to his chest and seemed to be smiling, but Sam couldn't be sure. Then Dad lifted his head and ruffled Sam's damp hair, and handed him the burlap sack. "It means we're eating these fine fish of yours, because Dean and I didn't catch a thing."

Trying to hide his smile, Sam dipped his head, too.

*

They stood in a damp circle with the sun streaming through the trees overhead while Dad showed him and Dean how to kill and gut fish. It was kind of gross, but interesting too, if you didn't mind your hands stinking like fish bile. First you sliced their heads off as fast as you could, and then you sliced them open, even if they were still flipping their tails. Then you had to pull the guts out and fling them into the woods. Then you cut off the spine and the tail and flaked off the scales with the edge of the knife until all you were left with was white slabs of still-warm fish.

"You have to scale them fast, so the oil from the skin doesn't get into the meat, you see, Sam?"

Sam stood as close as he could to Dad's elbow as he demonstrated on the first fish, and then, he let Sam and Dean do one each. Dean had cleaned a fish before, so he was all confidence and speed, but this was Sam's first time, so he took it slow. He did each part carefully, as carefully as if he were handling a live gun, enough so that Dean started to get antsy.

"Don't be such a girl, Sammy, it's not going to bite you," said Dean, giving him a whack to the back of the head.

"He's fine, Dean, you go build a fire if you want something to do," said Dad. He clapped his hand on Sam's shoulder and smiled down at him with dark eyes. "Take your time, Sammy, there's plenty of good meat and rushing it could ruin the flavor."

Same swallowed his pleasure and turned back to cleaning the fish, keeping his fingers away from the blade as he cut and trimmed, till he was left with the white slabs.

"What kind of fish are these, Dad?" Sam asked. Dad had told him before, but he'd forgotten.

"Bluegills, I think," said Dad, "anyway, they'll be good eating, catching them and cleaning them like this."

"How do we cook them?" Sam asked now. He was done with his fish so he gave it a little pat and then wiped his hands on his shirt.

"On sticks, like the Indians," said Dad. He pulled out some sticks with pointed ends that he'd gathered and cut.

"Actually," said Sam, not meaning to interrupt, but unable to stop himself. "The Indians built little grills, racks of woven sticks and stuff. Sometimes, they baked them in clay, but that was only if--"

Dean laughed out loud at this and fell over in the dust as if overcome with Sam's geekiness, but Dad just snorted and clapped Sam on the shoulder again.

"That's fine and true enough, but we're going to do it this way, so everyone gets a stick they can hold over the fire."

That was okay by Sam, there was pretty much nothing funner than sitting in front of a fire with a stick, roasting a large chunk of fish at the end of it. Especially since Dean made really good fires, he knew how to lay the little smudge of moss and scraps just so, and how to lay the sticks and logs so the whole thing lit up right away and was very pretty while it burned.

They all sat in the dust next to the fire, which was a little hot in the middle of the day, but it was still nice to be sitting still and roasting fish, in the shade instead of running or eating leftovers in the cabin. Sam watched Dad and Dean stare at the fire, each in their own thoughts, but by the set of their shoulders they were as relaxed as Sam was.

Sam made sure to turn his fish every thirty seconds so it would get nicely crisp and brown on each side. They didn't have salt or butter to season the fish but that was part of the lesson: how to eat something when there is nothing else to eat.

"Is it done?" he asked Dad because he wasn't sure how long fish should cook.

"Two more minutes, Sam; turn your fish, Dean."

Dean turned his fish, and Sam counted to thirty four more times, and then, after the nod from Dad, pulled his fish out of the fire and laid it on a rock that Dad had collected to use as plates. There was a little dust on the rock, but that was part of the lesson too, how not to be too finicky. Dad and Dean did the same while Sam waited for the fish to cool. But he was hungry, so he dug in with his fingers wincing at the heat, and shoved a chunk of fish in his mouth. It was so hot, he had to open his mouth to cool it while Dean laughed at him, till Dad chuffed Dean gently on the back of the head to get him to stop.

As for the taste? It was amazing, it tasted wild and fresh, and even without salt and butter, there was a nice tang to it, maybe because the fish had drank river water all its life, and ate fresh bugs or whatever it was that fish ate. It was delicious, and Sam finished his first piece quickly, and then reached for the pile of raw fish for some more.

"Two pieces each," said Dad, while reaching for his own second helping.

Dean didn't like fish all that much, but even he ate two full helpings, like Sam did. Then they squabbled over the last little piece sitting there. Dad said he was full, and Sam pushed the fish towards Dean, to be nice. Dean smiled at him while he cooked the piece, turning it ever thirty seconds like Sam had, and then he split it with Sam even though it was no more than a mouthful for either of them. Then he ruffled the back of Sam's head, like Dad had done.

To clean up, all they had to do was leave the rocks at the river's edge where Dad said the raccoons would come and finish the scraps they had left. Then Dad got the plastic gallon milk jug from the trunk of the Impala and let Sam be the first one to fill it up with water from the river and pour it over the flames to put them out. Sam felt important as he hauled the water up the bank and tipped the bottom of the gallon jug to pour the water in a perfect circle. The fire sizzled and spat and the smoke twisted and got in their eyes, but Sam manned it out and didn't stop pouring till he was out of water.

Then Dad kicked dirt over the sticks and charcoal and Dean hauled and poured the second gallon till the fire wasn't even smoking, though Sam could still smell the smoke in the air. When Dad was satisfied the fire was out, he put even more dirt on it, and had Sam and Dean do the same till they were all covered with dust.

"Can't risk a forest fire," Dad said. "These woods are too pretty to burn."

Sam looked around him. The woods were pretty, he'd thought so when they'd first driven up, but he never thought he'd heard anyone agree with him, let alone Dad.

"Okay," said Dad, "time to go home."

They piled into the Impala, dusty, smelling like river water and fish, with streaks of grime on their faces and in their clothes, stains that would never come out. Dad talked to Dean all the way back to the cabin, while Sam rolled down the back window and leaned out as far as he could to catch the breeze and the sweetness of the afternoon air.

It was the best day ever.

*

Sam felt the current of the water rush past his ankles. The river was a little faster than it had been at the spot where he and Dad and Dean had gone fishing a few days back. It wasn't as nice a piece of river either, but he wanted to have a day like the fishing trip had been, so when he and Dean had been on an afternoon run through the woods, Sam had turned off the main path and had followed a narrow bit of dirt that he knew led to the river, running as fast as he could. When he heard Dean following him along the path, Sam had gone in the water without saying a word, thinking that if he went in, Dean would have to follow.

The water was darker here, the bottom beneath his feet less sure. He had to pinwheel his arms a little to stay upright as he took a few more steps away from the bank, and he wondered if this might not be the best idea, after all.

But the air beneath the leaves, over the water, was silky and green compared to the scythe-cut sharp field where the shooting targets were. Even the dark, still porch of the cabin wasn't as cool as the air over the river. He felt the sweat drying along the back of his neck like a sure, clear glaze of cool ice, and it was the coolest he'd been all summer (except for the fishing trip), so he took another step. And then another, catching the breeze from the top of the water against the back of his knees and sighing.

"Sam!"

Sam didn't turn his head; he would just pretend he didn't hear. After all, the rush of the river was loud enough to block a whole lot of sound so that even Dean shouting at him might not be heard. Come to think of it, the birds in the trees were pretty loud, too. Nope, he couldn't hear a thing.

"Come back out of there, you know what Dad said!" Dean was really raising his voice, as if he expected the loudness of it could draw Sam right out of the river and up the short bank obediently to Dean's side.

And yes, Sam knew what Dad had said, Dad always had plenty to say and none of it was fun. None of it was about any opportunity for Sam to do something he liked. He was sick and tired of running and sparring, of chopping wood and fighting with Dean all the time. And most of all, he was tired of being hot. Just sick and tired of it. Now that he wasn't hot, he was going to stay that way. He leaned forward to gather the green water into his hands and splash it over his head. The water trickled down his hair and behind his ears, as cold as snow.

"Sam!"

Come to think of it, he was sick and tired of Dean's voice, too. It was starting to sound just like Dad's with the same bossy tone, barking out orders day and night, and never once offering to take Sam to a schoolyard or a local athletic field where he could play soccer for an afternoon or something. Well, Sam had had enough. He was going in.

He took three more quick steps, rising up on his toes to push off a flat rock that teetered beneath him, and then landed with both feet in what felt like a deep bowl of sand that sent him in water past his knees. Sand started sifting into his sneakers. But it was solid enough, he'd landed fine, and he turned to look at Dean and smirk at him, to show him how fun this was and maybe Dean would just give in and join him. They could both get cool in the water, they'd both say they'd took a run through the woods like they were supposed to, and Dad would never find out. He didn't have to; it was ridiculous that they had to run every day, anyway.

Dean was standing at the very edge of the water, looking at it, and then looking at Sam. He shook his head.

"You better come out, it's pretty fast," he said. His voice was low, but Sam heard it anyway; he always heard what Dean said.

Sam shook his head in return, tossing his hair out of his eyes. "Who's the baby now, huh?"

"I'm not a baby," said Dean, retorting before he clamped his mouth shut, realizing that saying you weren't a baby meant that you obviously were. "I just got more sense than you."

"And I'm cooler than you," said Sam. He swept his hands through the water and lifted them up, drops trailing from the sides of his palms. "See?"

Sam could see Dean relenting, just a bit, as he looked at the water, and then over his shoulder towards the cabin, as if checking for Dad. The cabin was more than a mile away from the bank, and since it was the very place Dad had told them not to go in the river, it would also be the last place he would think to look. Sam could see all these thoughts going across Dean's face and he felt the happiness bubble up inside of him. Dean was going to come in, they could have some fun. And, more importantly, Dean was going to be on his side for once.

Dean's foot moved an inch in the water, his sneakers still on, like Sam, and Sam turned towards the other bank, wanting to get deeper, to be in position when Dean came close enough to dunk. Of course, it was a foregone conclusion that Dean would be able to shove Sam's head under the water first, he was older and taller after all, but even that would be part of the fun. Sam wouldn't mind, if it would make Dean laugh and not be so mad at him all the time. Except for the fishing trip, Dean hadn't liked him all summer.

"Sam."

That was Dean. Sam could hear the indecision in his voice, and Sam lifted his foot to turn back around to watch Dean come in with him, just as a cold push of water rammed against him and he went down, his head going under the surface, catching him off guard. He sputtered for air, and pushed himself up with his hand, grinding his skin against something rough, a buried log, maybe or a gritty patch of stone. The river dragged him along, scraping his legs across the sharp rocks along the bottom. The water rushed past his ears and as he lifted his chin above the water, he realized he couldn't grab on to anything and that the river was starting to carry him downstream.

"Sam!"

Sam could hear Dean's voice perfectly clear this time, sharp like a knife over the surface of the water. Sam scrabbled for something to hold onto. His eyes were just about level with the bank, where Dean started walking into the river, moving towards Sam as the water got thunderously loud in his ears, the pull of it getting stronger, making it very hard to stand up.

Just as Dean was in up to his knees in the water, something smashed into Sam's back, causing him to spread into an arch as the water boiled against his chest and into his mouth and nose. He was coughing even as he could hear Dean yelling at him to turn around, so he tried doing that, and found himself hugging a large, sharp-edged rock, pressed against it as the water sliced into his back. He spat the sand and water out of his mouth and tried to take little breaths.

He hunched his shoulders and hung on because he could see it right away, he was stuck. Even without Dean or Dad explaining it to him, he could see it. If he stayed on the rock, he had a pocket of air to breathe in, as the foaming air cut around him on either side. But if he moved to the side of the rock, he would get torn into the dark pocket of water beneath the foam, where he wouldn't get any air at all. He would drown. But how long could he stay like this? His hands were raw and his toes were already numb from hooking against the rock, and where had his sneakers gone?

Somewhere to his left, he could hear splashing, and looked up to see Dean's white face, with his freckles standing out like dots, not five feet away from him. The swirling water was foaming past Dean's thighs, and his hands were out as if he meant to grab Sam and rescue him like Superman or something. But they were many, many feet away from where Sam had gone into the river, and though the bank on either side seemed a little closer now, the narrowness of the channel meant that the river was rushing faster, past rocks and unseen deep parts where the water churned and churned and never saw daylight. How could Dean possibly pull him out of that?

"Go get Dad," said Sam, shouting past the roar of the water. He was sure Dean heard at least part of that, because Dean looked back over his shoulder, towards the bank, as if measuring the distance.

Dean opened his mouth, and out of the corner of his eye, Sam could see that he was talking, but Sam couldn't hear a thing. The worst of it was, Dean didn't move, didn't go back to the bank at all, not to get Dad, not to save himself. Maybe he was stuck.

But if he was, there was no one to get Dad, and if they got swept down the river, Dad would never know what happened to his boys. He would always wonder where they had gone. Of course, being Dad, he would probably be able to follow their tracks and figure out what had happened that way; he'd know they'd gone in when they weren't supposed to, and worse, he'd know that Sam had gone in first, against some very specific orders. He'd be pissed beyond imagining, so maybe it would be better if they got sucked away by the river.

Sam looked over his shoulder again, and breathed through his nose as the water drummed on his face and neck. He could see Dean's face, whiter than iced paper, his eyes huge and green, as green as the leaves overhead. He wasn't saying anything, just looking at Sam with his eyebrow doing that little quirk that it did when he was thinking hard. Maybe he was thinking that his kid brother was an idiot for getting them into this jam, and Sam certainly wouldn't blame him.

But Dean wasn't trying to save himself, that was for certain, and whether it was because he was stuck or because he was going to stay and die with Sam, that meant that Sam wasn't going to die alone. But he certainly was going to die; the realization hit him hard, as his chest filled up with a cold dread, like an icy hand had clenched at his heart. His eyes got hot, he didn't want to cry, he didn't want Dean to see him crying, he wanted to be brave like Dean was. But he was going to miss Dean, miss him forever. Miss him forever, more than anything. More than soccer, even.

Sam looked away from Dean, and back at the rock, and let himself slip forward a little. A lot, with the water pushing at his back. He felt his breastbone press against the edge of the rock as the water rushed up the back of his neck, icy against his spine. His hands started to slip on the sides of the rock, and somewhere, beneath the surface, something was scraping against his thigh, over and over; it would hurt if his legs weren't so cold.

He heard a noise, and turned his head towards Dean again. But Dean wasn't looking at him, he was looking at the bank. At the bank, many, many feet behind them, where Dad was standing.

Sam turned away again. He wouldn't miss Dad, that was for sure. Besides, he was so cold he couldn't even shiver, so what did it matter?

He heard shouting. Dean was saying something like hold and on, but the two words didn't make much sense over the roar of the river, and what was Dad doing anyway. Sam heard the splashing before he felt Dad's touch and as he was lifted into warm, hard arms, and after one astonished look at Dad's tanned face, he curled his arms and legs around Dad's torso and hung on like a monkey, as water streamed down his arms and legs.

Dad started walking upstream, one arm beneath Sam's bottom, the other curved around his back, a hand cradling his head.

"Hold on," said Dad in his ear, above the roar of the river. "If I go down, just hold your breath and keep holding on, you hear me?"

Sam nodded against Dad's neck. "Yes," he said, and then realized he was whispering. Dad hated that. "Yes, Dad," he said, a little louder.

As Dad moved, Sam could see that Dean was still standing in the water. Stranded there, water up to his hips now, balancing sideways a little, his one hand under the water as he propped himself against something to hold himself in place. Dad walked right past Dean, and never slowed down, never even looked at Dean.

And just as Sam was wondering why Dad had rescued him first, Dad must have slipped, because suddenly, Sam's head was under the water, and he couldn't quite catch his breath as his head slammed into something. It would have felt harder, but there was something behind his head, cushioning the blow.

Quicker than that, Dad stood up again, spitting as Sam coughed water out of his mouth. There was a low growl in Dad's chest that Sam could hear against his heart, Dad's breath hard in his ear as he struggled against the heavy flow of the river. Walking, step by step, his stride pausing as his boots struggled to find purchase against the rocks and gravel. Until, with three quick strides, Dad was at the bank, at the exact sloped spot where Sam and Dean had first gone in the water.

Dad uncurled Sam's arms from his neck, and peeled Sam's legs from his waist and dropped Sam to the ground. Without stopping, Dad walked into the river again, and Sam could see was wet up to the neck, and that his eyes were hard and focused, and that he was walking towards Dean, coming in at an angle, marching through the deep spots, not stopping till he had his arm around Dean's shoulders. They walked back together, using the force of Dad's legs to break the rush of the river, and Dean's energy to move them forward.

When they arrived at the bank, Dad suddenly let Dean go, like he'd done with Sam, and then he turned away, standing there with his back to them both, breathing hard. He propped a hand up along a tree, fingers digging into the bark, his hand fisting and unfisting over and over. His head was bent forward, and he didn't look at them. Sam saw something bright and red seeping along the back of Dad's forearm. He felt the back of his own head, which had the beginnings of a sore spot, and he thought maybe it had been Dad's hand cushioning the back of his head when Dad had slipped. Maybe.

"Dad?" asked Dean. He stood there dripping, looking at Dad. Ignoring Sam.

Sam made himself stand up, since no one was going to help him, obviously. He was soaked through, and the heat of the air along the bank and under the trees hit him like a blow, burning through his icy cold skin as the water streamed from his t-shirt and shorts. He started to shiver. He had no socks, no shoes, and his feet were raw. He thought of the mile long hike through the woods with the stones and pokey pine needles, not to mention Dad barking at his heels the whole way, and sighed. It was going to be terrible, no matter what.

It was very still for a minute, though Sam thought he could hear as the water plopped from the bottom of Dad's jeans onto the tops of his boots. If they didn't get the boots dried properly, they would be ruined. But maybe they were so soaked they were ruined anyway, even though Sam was starting to get the feeling that his boots were the last thing on Dad's mind.

Dad turned around. Slowly. He kept his left hand low at his side, but Sam could still see that it was mashed up, all purple and red. Dad looked at Dean, and then he looked at Sam as his water dripped from his hair, down the sides of his face.

"Where are your shoes?" he asked. His voice was level, though his eyes glinted, and Sam looked down at his feet.

They were bare, and spotted with dust. Beneath that, while they were raw from the rocks in the river, they weren't bleeding. His toes were warming up, and he wasn't going to die. At least not today.

"Uh," he said. "The river. They're in the river."

"Good sneakers, Sam," said Dad. "Wasted through your careless, reckless--"

Sam frowned. He remembered that Dad said the sneakers weren't much good for running on blacktop, and Sam hadn't liked them all that much. "Maybe I need new sneakers anyway," he said. Then he shrugged his shoulders, feeling the damp cloth along his sides fold up. "Maybe."

Dad closed his eyes, and then opened them, shaking his head at nothing. Dean moved forward, his mouth open like he wanted to say something, but then Dad shook his head at Dean and looked at Sam.

"You can't walk through the woods like that," he said. "C'mere." Then he bent down on one knee, and gestured to Sam, so Sam walked forward and climbed on Dad's back. He should have been too big for this, but he had no shoes and Dad was always going on about the dangers of going barefoot, so. Dad curved his arms backward to support Sam's legs and butt, and Sam circled his arms around Dad's shoulders as Dad shifted his weight and stood up.

"Dean, you walk ahead," said Dad.

Sam saw Dean's jaw move like he was trying to not say something, but then he did what Dad said, like he always did, and headed up the path through the woods towards the cabin. Dad was close on his heels, going almost at a trot, as if he had too much energy to hold back. Sam hung on, feeling Dad's heartbeat through his ribs, feeling the warmth of his skin, smelling the dampness of Dad's dark hair. Sam was still dripping, but warming up, as the hot air swirled around them, feeling like a sauna as his shirt steamed along his back. By the time they reached the cabin, they were just about as damp as they had been in the river, only hotter.

At the bottom step, Dad released his arms and lowered Sam to the ground in one quick motion.

"Inside," he said.

Dean pounded up the stairs, and Sam followed him, slipping past the just-closing screen door, where he could smell the dark still air that told him Dad had been sharpening knives.

They walked towards the kitchen table where the whetting stone and knives and a little rag sat in a row. Dad walked up right behind them, flicking on the kitchen light with his undamaged hand. Before Sam could sit down and rest his shaking knees, Dad pulled out his chair at the kitchen table and sat down. His shoulders hunched, and for a minute he didn't say anything as he looked at the wooden floor, damp from their shoes, from the water still dripping from them all. Then he straightened up, his shoulders going back, his mouth in a firm line. His eyes were dark as he looked at each of them in turn.

"So? One of you want to tell me what happened?" He waved his good hand at them both with an almost dismissive air. "Other than the obvious, I mean."

Sam clamped his jaw shut. He wasn't going to admit to anything. It was an accident, anyways. If he'd not gotten stuck in the river, then Dean wouldn't have come in after him, that's all. He realized he was shivering now, in the relative cool of the cabin, but he didn't want Dad's attention focused on him, so he wrapped his arms around his waist and tried to keep still.

"I'm--it's my fault," said Dean.

Sam rolled his eyes, feeling the bitterness well inside of him, because of course Dean would say that, would not only start confessing right away, but would say that he'd done it. He'd take the blame, like he always did.

Dad's eyebrows rose in his forehead.

"Sam wanted to go in the river," said Dean, continuing, though he had to pause and take a swallow. "He wanted to so--so I let him. And then I w-went in after him, so I could go wading too."

As lies went, it was a whopper because it wasn't even close to how it had happened. Nor was it going to help, as far as Sam could see. Dean should have said something like, Sam slipped from the bank and I had to go in and rescue him, something like that. Something that would make neither one of them to blame. Something Dad could understand, that Dean had to rescue his little brother, once again. If Sam took some ribbing about being clumsy enough to slip, well, he could take that. He had in the past and would again in the future. It was all fine by him.

Dad didn't say anything as he looked at Dean, but the muscles in his jaw tightened and he started to glare. At Dean, which felt pretty strange, since Sam was always the one being glared at, always the one at the end of that look that said he'd just failed Dad in too many ways to count.

Dean opened his mouth, and Sam could sense that he was on the verge of starting to explain, to tell more of the story of what had happened, but he was obviously shaken by being glared at and Sam couldn't really blame him. It was hard enough as it was, but if you weren't used to it, it would be even harder.

But Dad shook his head. "I don't want to hear any more. Go out and cut a switch, Dean."

Going a little white, blinking, Dean stood there for a second, his hands at his sides, looking at Dad.

"I said go cut a switch; I told you I didn't want you going in the river above the falls and I meant it." Dad said this with utter quietness.

Dean snapped his mouth shut, and without a single word, or glance at Sam, turned on his heel and marched across the floor and out the door, ever the obedient son, willing to do whatever Dad said to do, no matter what it cost him.

As the screen door slammed shut behind Dean, Dad looked at Sam for a second, and then got up to go to the sink, where he turned on the cold water and began running the water across the back of his hand. He was going about it like it was ordinary first aid, which it was really. But he was going about it like there was nothing else wrong, like he'd not just sent Dean out to cut a switch, which was the worst, the worst ever.

Dad's whippings hurt as it was, but switches cut into the skin, into bare skin, and Sam knew this because last time, Dad had made Dean pull his pants and underwear down. Sam hadn't stayed long enough last time to watch, but he'd seen enough to know how it happened. He looked at the door to the bedroom, at how thin it was, and wondered how much pillow he'd have to pile over his ears to block out the sound.

Dad was taking the first aid box down from the top of the fridge, and he put it on the counter to pull out the long cloth bandage and some first aid cream. He used only one hand for most of this, keeping the other close to the side of his body. Sam watched, shaking, though he couldn't figure out why; he'd watched Dad do first aid hundreds of time.

"Help me with this bandage," said Dad.

Sam walked forward, his heart pounding against his breastbone, a fierce buzzing in his ears. He took the tube of first aid cream and spread it over the back of Dad's hands, gentle over the ripped-open skin and swollen knuckles. Then, with the guidance of Dad's fingers, he wrapped the bandage around and around, criss-crossing it like you were supposed to. Then he tied the little knot, like Dad had taught him. He gave Dad's hand a little pat, like Dad sometimes did to him, and looked up.

Dad's eyes were dark and hooded, and his hair was all witchy and damp around his forehead. He didn't look happy, wasn't really looking at Sam, and Sam backed away, just as the screen door opened, and Dean walked in. He carried the switch in his hand, some thin, pale wood he'd found that looked like it was no bigger than one of his fingers. He walked at his normal pace, neither fast nor slow, and Sam could barely stand to look at him, when he was being all brave like that. Was he doing this for Sam? Or did he really think he was responsible for not stopping Sam?

Dad moved the whetting stone and the knife to the counter. As Sam watched Dad motion Dean over to the table, and Dean laid the switch there, it was all so confusing.

"Take your pants down," said Dad, "underwear, too."

Dean moved his hands to the fastening of his still-damp jeans. Dean was getting a whipping because they had gone in the river and shouldn't have. Sam knew that. But he could hear the river roaring in his ears, along with Dean calling Sam! Sam! Sam! And it was only that Sam realized that the only reason Dean had come in the river was to save Sam. None of this was Dean's fault.

Dad picked up the switch.

Before he could even think, or take a single breath, Sam walked up to Dad, his bare feet slapping a little on the wooden floor, and put his hand on Dad's wrist, on the one that held the switch.

"Dad."

"Not now, Sam."

"But Dad--"

"I said not now."

Sam was shaking all over, ice cold, soaking wet, with the sound of the river mixing with the pounding of his heart. He almost couldn't even move, but still he managed to slip between Dad and Dean, flattening his back against Dean's side, as his breath skipped and his knees started knocking together.

Dad looked at Sam, his chest rising as though he was taking a deep breath to yell at Sam.

But Sam had to do this, even though the thought of it scared him to death and made his heart lurch in his throat. And it was the right thing, the very right thing; it wouldn't be fair to Dean any other way.

Sam took the deepest breath he could and started talking as fast as he could, before Dad could stop him, before he could stop himself. "I went into the river first. Dean told me not to and tried to grab my arm, but I went in anyway. Then I got stuck, so he came in to save me. So it's my fault, I'm the one who deserves whipping. Me."

Everything froze. Dad's eyebrows flew up again, but he looked like he'd been smacked in the head with a pole and he was looking at Sam like he'd never seen him before. Or like Sam had just walked into the room and without any provocation at all had spat into his face.

Behind him, Sam could feel the muscles in Dean's side start to quiver.

Then Dad asked, "Dean, is this true?" Even though it was perfectly obvious that it was. Which was good because, since Dean was all out of lies, he wasn't saying anything at all.

Dad's throat moved as he swallowed and lowered the switch to his side. "Fine. Dean, over there." He pointed at the wall near the bedroom door with his bandaged hand, and a second later, Sam felt the weight of it clamp down on his shoulder.

"Since you're incapable of looking after Sam," Dad said to Dean, "then your job now is to watch."

It wasn't fair that Dean was still being scolded for something that wasn't at all his fault, but it wasn't as bad as him taking a whipping that wasn't his. But he couldn't look at Dean.

Sam felt the cold start rushing through every part of him and as Dad pressed on Sam's shoulder to push him to face the kitchen table, his breath started coming very fast, making his head feel like a balloon that was about to start floating away. He could barely hear Dad telling him to take down his shorts and underwear, but he knew that's what he was supposed to do, so he did it. And even though his hands shook and his fingers fumbled with the button and the zipper, he managed it.

He felt his clothes snag damply on his thighs, but Dad grabbed them and pulled them down further. Then Dad pushed him forward to bend at the waist until Sam's head was touching the surface of the table. He wrapped his arms around his head, and his breath came back at him in damp puffs. He was shaking all over, and his eyes were hot. A little sound came out of his throat, and even though Dad hadn't yet hit him he was already crying because he knew it would be one stroke for every year he was old. And it would hurt bad, even at half that many; Dean had been very forthcoming the last time with the details of just how much.

Sam closed his eyes. He heard the swish of the switch through the air, and the shift of weight behind him and he could picture it in his head how far Dad was clocking his arm back. When the switch hit his bare skin, whistling as it landed along the backs of his thighs with the heat of electric wire making Sam jump. There the blow sizzled for a second or two and came back to the surface just as Dad hit him with the switch again, this time along the curve of his bottom, where the skin was the most tender. And as that one sizzled, and the one after that, Dad hit him again and Sam's bare skin was so hot he was burning. He pushed up to get away, but Dad took his hand and pushed Sam back down hard enough that Sam could feel the edges of the bandage he'd tied around Dad's hand.

His chin smacked against the surface of the table, and Dad hit him again with the switch, right on the same spot he hit the first time. Sam moved his legs, trying to push up, to get away, but Dad's hand was a heavy weight, and the skin on the backs of his legs felt like they were being opened with a knife, that they were raw and bleeding. He counted in his head, how many was that, four? He wasn't going to make it, he knew he wasn't going to make it to five, let alone twelve, and then Dad hit him again, right along the crease of his thighs where they met his bottom, and he screamed out loud, the sound ripping right from the bottom of his lungs.

Dad seemed to pause, just for a second, but it didn't stop the whipping. Dad kept up with the switch, cutting Sam's skin with each stroke of the branch, and Sam's throat grew raw from the sounds he was making, couldn't stop making, somewhere between crying and roaring as the tears poured hot down his face. He knew Dad would have approved of Sam more, if he'd taken it like a man, but it felt like Dad was peeling him, skin from bone, one stroke at a time.

And from Dean, not one sound.

Somewhere along the eight blow, Sam lost count, and his chest felt hollow as black spots danced in his vision. Or maybe that was nine, he didn't know, and his eyes had gone dry even though he was making this odd, high sound each time the switch landed, leaving a long, stinging hot red line on his skin, so clear and sharp that he could almost see the outline of it in front of him. Dad's hand was a hot brand on his back, and he knew Dad was sweating in the heat, in the sauna that was the cabin, could smell the blood and the salt, and wondered how much of it was his own and how much was Dad.

Dad hit him with the switch again, even though it was right on a spot where the skin felt already opened, Sam could only gurgle in his throat, salvia choking him, making him feel like he was going to throw up all over the table. His head circled with some dizzy feeling, and the table started tilting, and then he heard the clatter as Dad threw the switch on the table. He didn't let Sam up, instead he kept pressing his hand down.

"Stay there, Sam, and take a deep breath," he said.

Sam took a deep breath and opened his eyes to look at the switch. He vaguely heard Dad tell Dean to go change into something dry, but it was the switch that held his attention. No longer pale and new, it was worn and streaked with something that darkened the wood.

He looked away and let his eyes close and laid his cheek on the table, listening to his heartbeat and feeling the blood throb and pulse under his skin, almost seeing the purple and red welts growing along his backside. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck and his hair was sticking to his forehead.

Then Dad took his hand away, and pulled up Sam's shorts and underwear, at least most of the way, and Sam tried not to yelp at the quick slide of edges of cloth against rough skin. Sam grabbed the open waistband and held on, waiting for orders.

"Go change," Dad said.

Sam straightened up, using the edge of the table for balance when he wobbled. Dad didn't reach out a hand to help him but then of course he wouldn't. This was part of being punished for doing something like disobeying a direct order.

Without looking at Dad, Sam hobbled into the bedroom where Dean was just finishing pulling his head through the opening of a dry t-shirt. He tugged it to his waist, and closing the door halfway, suddenly reached for Sam and pulled him into a tight headlock.

Sam struggled for a second, his hair whipping across his eyes, and then stilled when he realized Dean wasn't choking him, just holding him, with Sam's damp back against Dean's dry chest. But still, he was holding Sam tightly, his arm a band across Sam's throat so Sam couldn't get away, and so that Dean's breath was hot in his ear.

"If you ever do that again, I'll end you, you hear?" Dean's voice was low, and razor sharp and Sam didn't doubt that Dean meant every word, even though he wasn't sure whether the that was making them both going in the river, or taking the whipping in Dean's place. Either which Sam would do, if he felt like it, besides, it hadn't been Dean's fault.

With a quick twist, Dean let him go and went out of the bedroom, closing the door behind him. Leaving Sam completely alone.

Sam reached into the open drawer for a dry shirt, it didn't matter if it was Dean's or his at this point, and dry clean shorts and underwear. His knees felt unsteady and he wasn't sure if he was going to be able to take off his damp clothes without screaming out loud. But as he walked around to his side of the bed, he knew it couldn't be helped, it had to be done.

He put the clean clothes on the bed and with one stiff motion, took down his shorts. They snagged on his knees, and he yanked them all the way off, stepping out of the damp mess, not looking at the dark thin streaks of blood, not thinking about it at all. But he couldn't do the same with his underwear, which felt already glued to his skin in places.

So he didn't. Instead he pushed the cover and top sheet back and lay face down on the cool, white sheets, and shoved his head under the pillow, circled his arms around his head once more and let himself cry. Not a loud, snot-filled kind that might bring any attention, but a small, thin one, with hot tears slipping down his chin and soaking the sheet beneath his face. He hurt all over, from the bangs and smacks and scrapes that the river had given him, to each pounding welt the switch had left. He hated the world. He hated Dad, he hated everything. And Dean, Dean was still pissed at him, even though the only thing Sam had wanted to do was have some fun, to get Dean to have some fun with him.

He was exhausted by the time his tears trailed away, and then Sam heard a very small click as the door to the bedroom opened. He let the pillow slip off as he lifted his head, sending his hair in all kinds of crazy directions, and looked. It was Dad. He had dry pants and a different shirt on and his sleeves were rolled up, and the bandage on his hand stood out stark and white against his tan. He had the first aid tube in his hand.

"Go away," said Sam, low, though he knew he was dancing with danger even as he said it.

"It'll help keep the skin from scarring," said Dad. He took a step in the room and closed the door behind him. Sam watched Dad come closer to the bed and wondered what Dean was doing, where he was, whether he was sorry Sam had ever been born.

"I don't care," said Sam, snapping, though he did care about scars; he hated them.

"Sam," said Dad. He sounded tired.

"I don't care! Go away, I hate you!" If Dad had hit him hard enough to break the skin and maybe cause scars, Sam really didn't want to have to think about it. It made him sick to his stomach to think about it.

Sam shoved his head back under the pillow and held it down with both hands. In spite of this, he felt Dad sit down on the edge of the bed, and Sam was startled by something cool as it touched the bare skin over his ribs. When he realized that it was the first aid tube, his body relaxed and the wires that had strung themselves through Sam's whole body began to unfurl, one by one.

"You want me to do it?" asked Dad.

Sam shook his head. Then Dad pulled the pillow away slowly, making Sam's head slip quietly to the mattress. Sam left the hair covering his face; he didn't want to look at Dad right now.

"You want Dean to do it?" asked Dad.

Sam shook his head again. He just wanted Dad to go away forever, but his throat felt thick and he simply didn't have enough energy to say it again. He didn't have anything left to fight with. And even he could figure out that Dad probably knew this, and was just sitting there, very still, not going anywhere, and would keep doing it until Sam gave in. So, Sam reached with his hand and picked up the tube, and handed it backwards in Dad's direction.

"You," he said.

"Okay," said Dad.

With his bandaged hand, Dad reached under Sam's stomach and lifted him his hips enough to pull his underwear down with his other hand. Sam hissed and closed his eyes as the cloth slid quickly over his welts; some of them had dried and held on to the cloth. Dad pulled his underwear all the way down to his knees, and Sam just let it happen. It was going to happen anyway; Dad had decided on the course of action, that first aid cream would follow the switch whipping and that was that.

As Dad lowered him back to the mattress, the bandage of his hand scraped across Sam's ribs. Sam turned his head away so he could bite his lip without Dad seeing. If it hurt, which it would, he didn't want Dad to know that it hurt, and he didn't want to cry anymore anyway because his eyes were burning and they felt dry, and he wanted a glass of water, even though he wasn't going to ask Dad.

Sam could hear Dad undo the top of the tube, and felt the first cool touch of Dad's fingers as he spread the first aid cream across the topmost welt. The cream stung for a second, and Sam's skin tightened, but then the sting faded, leaving a dull throb behind. Dad put the cream on the second welt, lower down along the curve of Sam's bottom, and it was done so lightly that Sam began to realize how gentle Dad was being. How slowly and carefully he was going, when he could have slathered the cream on, like he sometimes did, like the time when he was really pissed at how badly Sam had gotten himself messed up and outdone by Dean when they were sparring, and Sam knew that Dad felt that Sam should really, really start applying himself.

But this wasn't like that. Dad moved like a ghost, leaving a swath of cooling cream behind, using the edge of his thumb to smooth it over each welt, double over the welts where he'd hit the same place twice. And all without a sound, something wispy and ethereal, making the edges of the hurt all over Sam's body take a back step, and then another. If he had an aspirin sandwich with plenty of sugar, that might help, too. But he doubted Dad would make him one this time.

Then Dad was done and screwing the lid back on the first aid tube, and with another lift to Sam's stomach and a snap of elastic, he pulled Sam's underwear up and stood up from the bed.

"Five minutes, Sam," Dad said. "Then you need to get dressed and come out to supper."

Then he was gone, and Sam let himself take a very deep breath, closing his eyes so he didn't have to see anything anymore.

Sam must have fallen asleep because the next thing he knew, Dean was shaking his shoulder. Sam opened his eyes, and squinted, but the only light shining in the cabin was from the light in the kitchen.

"Better hurry," Dean said, "Dad says you've been in here too long."

As Dean left, Sam struggled into his clothes, blinking away the sleep in his eyes, trying to be awake enough to be coordinated, but feeling numb and stupid. He'd picked out shorts that were baggy and long, not only to make sure the cloth didn't rub across his welts, but to keep anyone from seeing them. It was one thing to get a whipping, it was another to put up with eyes looking or staring, sympathetic or not. Sam didn't like it.

But even as he bent over to pull up his damp shorts from the floor to put them in the dirty laundry pile, he realized his whole body had taken a beating in the river. His shoulder especially, where he'd banged into the rock, felt like someone had punched him over and over. Not to mention there were big scrapes along his calves, raw skin that hurt when he touched it. If Dad made him spar with or do anything strenuous anytime soon, he was going to cry like a baby, all over again. And worst of all, his chest felt strange and empty inside, and he didn't know why.

He pulled on a t-shirt, and, finally dressed, Sam made himself walk as casually as he could out into the main part of the cabin. It was later than he realized, with the air through the window turning to cool as the shadows began to darken the trees.

The light over the kitchen table was the only one burning; Dean had laid out the knives and forks and glasses and plates.

It took Sam a second to realize what Dad was bringing to the table. It was camp spaghetti, the kind Dad could make with the sauce and noodles all in one pan, frying it up as easily over a campfire as over a stove. It had a special flavor all its own, and Sam's stomach growled with hunger as he sat down. Or tried to. His bottom hurt so badly that he had to curve one leg beneath him and sit propped up on that. But then, as Dean poured the milk and Dad dished out the camp spaghetti, nobody was paying him any attention anyway, so it didn't really matter.

What mattered was the fact that the spaghetti had chunks of stewed tomatoes in it. Normally, Dad would use the jar of spaghetti with the blue parrot on it, the kind that was all smooth except for bits of herbs and garlic. It was the kind where the tomatoes had been put through a blender before they even saw the jar, and it was Sam's favorite. Whatever kind Dad had used tonight was obviously not Sam's favorite. Even worse, since Dad knew that Sam hated stewed tomatoes in any form, he'd obviously served this particular brand on purpose. Why couldn't Dad use the good sauce?

Sam knew that if he tried to eat his supper, he would be miserable and puke. He couldn't say this out loud, but he could scowl at his plate as Dad pushed it towards him, all filled up. Sam stared at it. There weren't even any sliced up hot dogs put in, the way Dean sometimes did it, so unless Sam could poke around the tomatoes to get at the noodles, there wasn't much to eat. And he was starving.

As Dad and Dean started eating, it took a second for anyone to notice that Sam wasn't, but since Dad had eagle eyes, Sam wasn't really surprised when Dad stopped and looked at him from beneath dark eyebrows.

"You eat your supper, Sam," said Dad.

Sam pushed out his chin, and crossed his arms over his chest. Dad might be the boss of him, might be able to hold Sam down over the kitchen table and punish him, but the only way he was going to be able to make Sam eat stewed tomatoes was if shoved them down his throat and made him. And Sam didn't think that even Dad would go that far.

"You eat what's put in front of you and you do it now, or I'll be handing out another whipping." Dad shook his fork at Sam, and Sam just glared at him.

Dean had stopped eating, his fork paused halfway between his plate and his mouth, eyes on the table, and Sam's heart started pounding like crazy in his chest. He wondered where the switch had gone, and whether Dad was keeping it close by, just in case one of his sons got out of line again.

"Now," said Dad, his voice low and threatening.

There was no reason, simply no reason Dad couldn't have made something Sam liked to eat, or at least something he didn't hate, no reason at all. No instead, he made something Sam didn't like, made it on purpose, and now he was going to make Sam eat it, so he could teach Sam a lesson on who was boss.

And Sam realized he wasn't going to put up with it. He hated Dad, he hated this horrible summer, and most of all, he hated stewed tomatoes.

"I'm not eating this," he said, keeping his voice low.

Quickly, he undid his arms and with a flick of his wrists, he pushed the plate away from him. It was only supposed to go a little ways, but with the anger all bunched up inside of him, he must have pushed harder than he realized because the plate went flying, past Dean, past Dad's arm and off the table where it fell with a splat, face down.

Then Dad stood up and shoved the table, and his plate went spinning to fall on top of Sam's plate. Except Dad's plate broke in two pieces, and Dad stood up, reaching for Sam, and Sam stood up, fast and ducked behind his chair, with his back pressed against the fridge. It wasn't any kind of good place to be, it wasn't secure, and it was a corner, so he was backed in if Dad came any closer and there was no telling what he would do.

Only, Dean stood up and put his hands on Dad's chest, fearless in spite of the blaze in Dad's eyes like a live, dark thing that wanted to hurt Sam, saying, "Dad, Dad," until Dad stepped back, his mouth working, shivering all up and down like Sam had never seen him.

"It was an accident!" said Sam, shrieking. "An accident!" He didn't mean to shove his plate so hard, why was Dad so mad? Why would Dad look like he wanted to kill Sam over a broken plate?

"You did it on purpose," Dad roared from his chest, "so don't tell me it was an accident, nobody made you, you could have gotten killed--"

Sam had no idea what Dad was talking about. Was he still mad about the river? But he'd already whipped Sam for that, handed out a switch whipping that Sam had volunteered for because he knew he'd been wrong. And it had been a hard whipping besides, because Sam wasn't going to be able to sit down or sleep on his back for a week at least.

Dean made a motion at Dad, like he was trying to make Dad stop doing something with just his hands. He was looking only at Dad, and not at Sam, concentrating all of his energy there. Dad's mouth snapped shut and he tightened his whole body, his hands going into fists, and that had to hurt his bandaged hand a lot and Sam didn't understand any of it.

With a sudden twitch, Dad turned and marched across the floor, much as Dean had earlier. He snagged the keys from the hook and went right out the door and into the night, letting the screen door snap shut behind him. They heard the door open and slam and the Impala's engine rumble to life. After a second, the tires ripped across the gravel as Dad drove away.

Leaving the two of them standing there among the remains of their ruined supper.

Dean was very still, and grey around the edges, shaking a little as he stood there, and by the glitter in his eyes, maybe he might cry. But Dean never cried, not even a little.

"I don't--" Sam started, but so many things didn't make sense, he didn't even know where to begin. "I don't get it. Is he leaving us?"

Suddenly Dean was close, looming over him, poking him in the chest. "You almost got us killed today, you dumb fuck," he said in the same voice he'd used when he'd pulled Sam in a headlock. "You freaked him out, and you haven't even once said sorry."

Sam backed up, stepping back until he was pressed against the edge of the kitchen sink. The river had left bruises all over, so this hurt, and he tried to move to one side or the other to get away from Dean, but Dean was there again, hands up like he wanted to push or punch Sam. Hard.

Of course he was sorry, sorrier than anything, but he'd already taken a whipping for Dean, had stepped up for it, even, and wasn't that enough? But Dean needed to hear it, so he said it. "I'm sorry, Dean."

"Not me, asshole! Dad!" Now Dean really looked like he wanted to punch Sam, and Sam flinched away, blinking fast. He didn't know he could take it if Dean was that mad at him. As for Dad, he just didn't get it.

Dean backed off and pointed at the floor, pushing his chair out of the way. "Clean up this mess," he said.

"It's not my turn," said Sam, protesting, on general principle, since Dean hadn't accepted his apology.

Now Dean did shove him, hard, banging Sam's spine into the counter, but he looked sorry right away as his hands dropped to his sides.

"I don't know whose turn it is," said Dean, sounding tired.

That was kind of like an apology. Sam made himself let it go and got a bowl from the cupboard to scoop up the mess on the floor. Dean pulled a washcloth from the drawer and rinsed it with cold water, and together they cleaned up the ruined camp spaghetti dinner. They even poured the milk back in the jug, and did the dishes together, with Dean washing and Sam drying and putting them away after.

Then Dean swept the floor while Sam manned the dustpan. The whole time, Dean kept his eye on the screen door, kept his head cocked to listen for the Impala, but even by the time they were done with the mess and the dishes and had packed the spaghetti away for another day, there was no sign of Dad's return.

Dean went to sit on the couch, and Sam started to follow him but Dean turned and gave him a look and waved him away. Dean wanted to be alone, so Sam went and sat in his chair at the table, with his leg bent beneath him, resting his head in his arms as he watched the door. Dean didn't turn on the TV. The cabin grew quiet, so quiet Sam could hear the cicadas in the trees, and an owl, and the murmur of the generator.

"I'm thirsty," Sam said at one point.

"So get a drink of water, no one is stopping you."

Sam stood up, and his legs were throbbing all up and down before he'd even taken a step. He tried to pretend it didn't hurt as used his hands to cup water under the tap and drank like horse. When he was finished he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He could feel the rippling parallel lines of heat down his legs and wished there was an easy way to take aspirin.

"Do you want a sandwich?" he asked Dean.

Dean shook his head. "Not hungry."

That was a flatout lie. Dean had probably had maybe two bites of his supper before Sam had ruined it all, so he had to be starving, just as Sam was. His stomach was eating its way towards his spine, and he had to have something or he'd never get to sleep. He'd never get to sleep if Dad never came back either, but that was another matter.

"Can I make one for me?" he asked now.

Dean half lifted his head, looking at Sam, and then let it fall back against the arm of the couch. "Better not," he said, his voice faint.

Sam settled himself back in the chair, shifting on his knee to get comfortable. Dad had never been a bed-without-supper kind of Dad, had never used it as punishment, never let a boy go to bed hungry if he could help it.

Of course there had been that one time in El Paso, where Dad had had some kind of run in with the law and they'd hid in an empty apartment building and dined on water and chewing gum and peppermints for two whole days, but that was different. It had been a little bit like an adventure. Afterwards, Dad had gotten fast food chicken and soda and donuts and special sliced mangos just for Sam and fed them all until they'd fallen asleep fully clothed on the beds at the motel they'd checked into.

So Sam knew he could eat, there was no rule that he couldn't eat without Dad's sayso, but they'd not eaten their suppers and there was a rule about that: no desert or anything else unless you'd eaten what was put in front of you. Sometimes the rule was broken, there were always circumstances, but it was Dad who decided what the exception would be. But Dad wasn't here right now, and Sam couldn't figure out whether this was an exception or not. So he laid his head in his arms and watched the door and felt the echo of his heartbeat beneath the surface of his skin.

It took a long while, and maybe he'd fallen asleep, but he thought he heard the sound of the Impala's engine, and lifted his head to check. Dean had heard it too and leapt from the couch to race to the door, swinging the screen door wide open so that it banged on the outside of the cabin. Sam saw the headlights swinging over the front steps as Dean went out, and he stood up to follow Dean. The backs of his legs felt stiff, and every step he took made the welts sting and burn like they were alive, so he stopped when he got to the middle of the cabin.

He heard Dad say something to Dean, and Dean said something back, but their voices were too low to hear, and the stomping of Dad's boots on the steps was loud enough to drown it out anyway. When Dad came in the doorway, it felt like he was ten feet tall, and Sam felt very small standing there in his bare feet. But Dean had said something about saying he was sorry, to apologize for almost getting them all killed today, and so Sam opened his mouth, as Dad came closer, to do exactly that, for Dean.

But Dad held up his hand. "Not now, Sam, I've had enough for one day." Then he walked over to his chair at the table and started taking off his boots. They had dried funny and stiff, and Dad had to tug to get them off, and Dean went to help him, but Dad waved him off. Sam could only stare, feeling hot all over. When his mouth started getting all wobbly, he bit down on it to stop it because Dad had already had enough for one day, but what he meant was that he'd already had enough of Sam.

As Dad peeled off his socks and stuffed them in the ruined boots, without looking up, he said, "Did you boys eat?"

That's not what he expected Dad to say. Sam blinked and shook his head as Dean said, "No, Dad, we waited for you."

While Dad thought this over and looked at his own toes, Sam pictured every food in his head that he could: day old tuna sandwiches, brown bananas, anchovies in tins, cheese that you had to trim the green mold off of, pizza for breakfast, hot dogs that had gone hard and wrinkled, anything. He could eat anything like that, but not stewed tomatoes. He begged Dad with his mind not to have Dean pull out the camp spaghetti and reheat it for a late supper.

Which of course is exactly what Dad did.

"Camp spaghetti it is, then," said Dad, standing there in his bare feet. "Sam, you can set the table and then pour the milk."

Sam's stomach sank to his knees, but as Dean got the plastic bowl of spaghetti out, Sam saw that it was almost nine o'clock, almost too late to be eating, but he was so hungry, he wouldn't be able to fall asleep if he didn't, so what was he going to do? Maybe he was actually going to have to eat the tomatoes.

Turning his mind away from this thought, he moved around Dean and Dad and got the plates and the forks and the glasses and arranged them on the table. He got the salt and pepper shakers out too, thinking that might help with the taste.

Dad was doing something at the counter with Dean standing nearby, but their backs were too broad and too close together for Sam to see what they were doing, so he poured the milk, and then put the jug away. Then he sat in his chair and propped himself on his leg and waited while he listened to the sounds of the camp spaghetti being heated in the frying pan. Maybe he even smelled butter; his stomach certainly did, and stood up and growled.

Sam took a sip of milk and tried to be calm; he was too tired to kick up a fuss about it. Maybe it wouldn't be so horrible, after all, it'd been years since he'd eaten a stewed tomato. Maybe they were like olives and got better with time.

He also smelled garlic, which was strange, since camp spaghetti didn't really have garlic that you could smell or taste, though it was listed as one of the ingredients on the label. Sam had checked. Though why he was thinking about this now was beyond him; his head felt dizzy, so he rested his cheek on his propped up hand and listened to Dean use the toaster, which was also strange.

Finally, Dean brought over the pile of buttered toast, and Dad brought over the bowl of camp spaghetti. Only instead of being long strings of spaghetti with huge chunks of stewed tomatoes in it, everything was cut up into little pieces, and Dad had even chopped up garlic and fried it in butter and tossed that in. Yes, there were still stewed tomatoes everywhere, but they were little little, only pieces of red at that point.

Sam looked up at Dad, he knew his confusion was showing in his face.

"Eat," said Dad. "Just shut up and eat, okay?"

Sam nodded. His throat felt a little thick, and he didn't quite know what to say. He was going to have to eat the stewed tomatoes, but still, even though he was giving in, so was Dad.

Dean snorted and took two pieces of toast and began to make a sandwich out of the spaghetti. Now the toast made sense to Sam and he did what Dean was doing, trying not to grimace as he saw how many little pieces of red were on his slice of bread. Instead, he covered up the pile of chopped spaghetti with another slice of bread and squished it down. Dean reached over and cut the sandwich in two for him, and then cut his own. Dad just picked up his whole sandwich and bit into it with white teeth.

Sam picked up one half of his sandwich and bit into it like Dean was doing. He chewed, tasting the spaghetti, and the garlic, but hardly any of the tomatoes. There was only a faraway tang of it, and he was able to chew and swallow like it was anything else.

He found that Dad and Dean were looking at him expectantly.

"It's the texture," he said, around another mouthful.

Dean snorted around his sandwich as he took another bite, while Dad only frowned and looked away from Sam, at something else, the wall maybe. Still the sandwich was very good, as was the cold glass of milk that Sam finished off in record time. He wished there was enough spaghetti for two sandwiches, but between what he'd spilled and Dad spilled, there was only enough for one each.

Dad pushed his plate back and looked at the empty bowl, like he was still hungry too. Then he looked at Sam and Dean.

"You boys go to bed, I'll get the dishes."

"But it's only just after nine," said Sam before he could think.

Dad took at little breath, and flicked his eyes at Sam, his expression level and calm, but it looked forced. "I said go to bed, Sam."

He felt Dean tugging on his sleeve, so Sam got up and left the dishes on the table, and walked away, which felt weird, because Dad never did it like this. But Dean kept walking and so Sam followed him into the bathroom where they washed their faces.

Dean looked down at Sam. "You need some more cream for those legs? I think there's some in the cupboard here."

He was reaching for the medicine cabinet, and taking out the tube, but Sam shook his head, and took the tube from Dean. His legs felt stuff and his backside hurt, but then it was supposed to. Besides, he didn't want Dean putting cream on his bare behind, that would just be too weird. Most of him still felt numb and tired anyway.

"I can do it myself, I'm fine."

Dean frowned at him and brushed his teeth, and didn't say anything more to Sam.

When Dean left, Sam shut the bathroom door and took down his shorts and underwear to put the cream on as best he could. But he couldn't see all of the back of him and probably got as much on unwelted skin as on the skin that really needed it. When he pulled up his clothes, he felt the cream smearing around, so maybe he should have let Dean help him. Anyway, it was too late now because now he smelled like the first aid cream, all medicine-y, and Dean was sure to say something nasty about that.

Then Sam brushed his teeth and looked at himself in the mirror. He looked like a boy he didn't even know and he didn't feel right, there was still that tightness in his chest and stomach, and maybe he'd eaten too much spaghetti, too fast, he didn't know. But he felt like someone had punched him, right in the stomach, even though no one had. He finished up as fast as he could and didn't look at himself in the mirror any more.

By the time Sam was out of the bathroom, Dean was already in bed with both fans going, and the door propped open. Sam stepped over the fan and flicked off the overhead light and crawled into bed next to Dean. He swallowed, trying to get rid of the tight feeling that had moved up to his throat.

As he lay on his side, in the darkness, below the sound of the fans, Sam could hear Dean settling in, his breathing slow.

"Hey Dean?" he asked.

"Yeah?"

"Are you awake?"

"Yeah."

"Can I have some honey? On a spoon, like you did that one time?"

Beside him in the bed, he felt Dean freeze. Then he drew his breath in fast, and said with a hiss, "You think you deserve honey after what you did today? And you still haven't said sorry to Dad, you little shit, so no, you can't have any honey."

Sam flinched like he'd been slapped hard in the face.

Dean rolled over with his back to Sam, huffing as he settled the sheet under his arm. Sam could poke him to make him roll back over, but he didn't dare.

"I did try," he said to Dean's back. "You saw. Dad waved me away, said he'd had enough of me."

"What he said was," said Dean, and it sounded like he was talking through grit teeth, "was that he'd had enough. Of the day. Of you and me almost getting killed in the river. Of us almost drowning."

"But Dean," Sam said in a voice that felt very small, "we didn't really almost drown, did we?" A pounding had started up in his chest, all of a sudden, and his lungs were aching in a way that made him feel like he was in the river all over again.

Suddenly Dean sat up and loomed over Sam, his eyes bright flickers in the near darkness.

"You're like one of those idiot smart kids or something, Sam," said Dean, biting off each word, teeth snapping. "You know all about Indians, you can hit a bulls eye with a cross bow easier than most people can snap their fingers, you can find your way out of any forest with your eyes closed, but you're still so stupid you just don't get it, do you."

 

Sam shook his head, his mouth open for air, trying not to make any noise that Dean might remark on and make fun of. He pulled the sheet close up under his chin and couldn't say anything. Couldn't move.

"When you were going in," said Dean, snarling, "and I tried to stop you, that river was rising. I don't know, maybe it had rained up the valley or something, but that water was fast, and you went in even though Dad said not to--"

"I just wanted to go wading," said Sam, choking on his own breath, because he couldn't understand why Dean was still so mad. "Like when we went fishing, I just wanted another good day, like that."

"What you wanted," said Dean, "is what you always want, which is to throw Dad's orders right back in his face, just because you want to, because you don't think you have to obey orders or something, I don't know--"

Dean stopped and rubbed his forehead hard with the palm of his hand, pushing up his hair into weird spikes. Then he started talking really fast. "You fight him on everything, and maybe that's just the way you are, but you fight him even when he's trying to keep us safe, even when he says to not go in the river above the falls, because the water is just too fast there--and today, when it was rising, you couldn't even see it, or you didn't want to, because all you could think about was getting back at Dad."

Dean stopped again, and this time he was panting hard. He'd not raised his voice at all, but he'd said more in one breath than Sam could ever remember him saying. And it was hard things, stuff Sam didn't really want to hear, like the time Dad had convinced him to keep training, because if he didn't, then maybe he wouldn't be ready to rescue Dean from a tight spot. And maybe today, he'd only not rescued Dean, he'd dragged him into danger, made him come into the river, when it had been rising--and all of a sudden, Sam couldn't breathe at all.

Even though it made the back of his legs sting as if his skin was ripping open, he sat up with his hands on his chest, the sheet falling away, his mouth open, looking at Dean, finally getting it.

"I almost got us killed," he said, feeling like he was choking. He could hear the river rising in his ears.

But Dean just shoved Sam in the chest till he fell back on the bed, right on his welts, his head landing with a thwump on the pillow.

"Don't start your drama with me, princess. I was there, and you were just being an airheaded girl when you went in, la la, follow me Dean, and not once," here Dean paused to poke Sam in the stomach with his sharp finger, "not once did you listen to me, just like you never listen to Dad, and you're such a little bitch that you don't realize that it's eating him up that you almost died today. That I almost died today, but he rescued you first, and you don't even remember."

Dean slammed back down on the mattress again so hard it was a lucky thing that Dad didn't hear him and come in and yell at them both for messing around when they should be sleeping. His back was to Sam again, and now Sam's stomach hurt even more and not just because Dean poked it.

But he did remember. He remembered Dad walking right past Dean to get to Sam first, leaving Dean in the river as he rescued Sam. Maybe that had been because Sam had been further out in the river, in more danger, because he was the youngest, he didn't know. His breath started tripping up and down his throat like it was trying to find the way out but couldn't. And his stomach was tangled in achy knots, like ropes that were alive, and it was suddenly very hard to lay still.

"Dean," he whispered in the dark, "I'm sorry, honest, I didn't know--"

But Dean punched his pillow, interrupting Sam. "If you don't shut up, I'm going to punch you in your fucking freak face, you got me? I mean it."

Dean did mean it, Sam could tell because Dean didn't usually cuss at him like that, didn't make threats he didn't plan on following up on, and Dean was right, Sam had almost gotten them killed today, and at dinner, he'd made the fuss about the tomatoes like the incident at the river never even happened, and now the expression, the flat, emotionless expression on Dad's face made sense. Or at least a little more than it usually did.

And just as he was making up his mind whether to go out and apologize to Dad, the door opened away from the fan, and although Dad didn't turn on the light, he was a presence in the doorway.

"What's going on in here? Dean?"

With a small yelp, Sam slid off the bed, and scuttled to curl against the wall under the headboard. This was stupid, it wasn't like they couldn't find him, but just for a second, he needed it dark. And the floorboards where cool, even if they were a little dusty, and Dean wasn't on the bed bedside him, hating him and making threats about punching him in the face. And anyway, he was shaking all over, his teeth clacked together, and the backs of his bent legs hurt like they were on fire. He put his hands over his ears, but all he could hear was the roar of the river and Dean screaming Sam! Sam! Sam!

Dad clicked the light on, and Sam could see Dad's bare feet between the legs of the bed and the end of the sheet that trailed off on Dean's side.

Above him the bed squeaked.

"Where's Sammy?" Dean asked.

"He went under the bed," said Dad.

Sam heard Dean roll back over with a heavy sigh. "He's just being a stupid princess, all this drama, and he can't even--"

"That's enough Dean. Sam, come on out of there."

Sam stuck out his chin and shook his head, even though he knew that Dad couldn't see him.

Dad walked around to Sam's side of the bed and knelt down so he could see Sam. His eyes were dark, and his face was very still. Sam looked back at him, his mouth open, trying to get enough air.

"Sam, what are you doing?"

Sam shook his head again, and in his ears the river still roared, and Dean was screaming Sam! Sam! Sam!

"Is this about today?" asked Dad. "Is this about the river?"

Sam took a hard, deep breath and the words came tumbling out. "I almost got us killed today, all of us, one at a time. Going in the river, I just wanted to go in the river, and go wading again, but I got stuck and Dean came in and then he got stuck and then you came in and then you slipped, and you rescued me first, and we almost died and now Dean hates me, and I c-can't breathe, and--"

Sam curved forward into a little ball, burying his head in his arms, and tried to keep breathing, even though he felt like he was going to run out of oxygen with every other breath. Maybe Dean was right and he was a drama princess, but it was all suddenly just too much. If Dean had gotten him some honey, then he would have known that somebody liked him, at least a little bit, only now, nobody liked him and he was under the bed, feeling like he was trapped in a corner with no way out, and he never wanted Dad to look at him that way again, ever, ever--

Something was moving, and Sam lifted his head. It was Dad and he was reaching for Sam. His hand was only inches away and Sam scooted back.

"You need to come out of there, Sam; don't make me have to shove this bed out of the way."

It was only going to end badly if Sam kept it up, and Dad didn't understand, like he never did. He probably thought Sam was just making a fuss because he could, and he certainly wouldn't want to hear how hard it was for Sam to not start crying right this minute.

"Sam."

"No whipping," Sam said, clearing his throat to get it out. Dad was going to be able to grab him in a second, and he would, if he really wanted to.

"No," said Dad, like he agreed. "At least not today."

Sam stuck out his chin and didn't move. "I almost killed Dean today, and everyone h-hates me."

"No one died today, and Dean doesn't hate you, Sam, and I don't hate you." Dad stretched out his hand a little more. "But maybe you don't like yourself right now, maybe that's what's got you all worked up."

 

"I can't breathe, Dad."

"That's enough, Sam," said Dad. "C'mon."

Sam shifted his body, just a little, but it was enough so that Dad could grab him and drag him hard across the wood and out from under the bed. He pulled Sam to his feet, and held on to his shoulders while Sam blinked in the brightness of the light.

"Take a deep breath for me, okay?" said Dad.

Sam tried.

"Okay?" asked Dad.

"My chest feels all tight, and my stomach is all running around and--"

"You're worked up from today, and I didn't think--" Dad started and then he stopped, a big sigh working its way up from his chest, making Sam feel bad.

Everyone was tired and he, Sam, was just making it worse, and all because he wanted some stupid honey on a stupid spoon. He wasn't going to ask for it, ever again, no, he was just going to breathe in and out, slowly, so Dad would know he was okay, and would turn out the light, so everyone could get some sleep. And in the morning, after chores, they had running, and Sam would be the first one up, and he would be ready, he would go running, he would--

"Sam," Dad shook him. "Sam, take a breath, take your hands from your face and look at me."

Sam let his hands drop, he didn't even realize what he'd been doing. Dad was standing close, with a hand on Sam's shoulders, heavy and warm.

He felt very small as he looked up at Dad, and then, without thinking, Sam leaned a little sideways so he could bury his face in the crook of Dad's arm, and just not think of anything, for just a minute.

But Dad pushed him away, though Dad's bandaged head came up and cupped the back of his head, just like he'd done in the river. Sam wasn't going to cry, but he gave a shuddery little breath, just the same as he tried to quell his beating heart and ignore the memory of Dean shouting his name.

"He's--" started Dean.

"Not now, Dean," said Dad.

Dad made Sam look up at him. His eyes were stern.

"When I say not to do something because it's dangerous, I'm not just saying it to hear myself talk. You understand?"

Sam nodded. His eyes were hot and his chest was still tight, but it was getting better, because Dad was looking at him like he was a dumb kid, and not like someone who'd tried to kill them all--

Dad snapped his fingers at Sam. "That's enough Sam. What's done is done, and I want you to go to bed and let Dean sleep. In the morning, well, you'll need new sneakers, and I need new boots."

"Dean too," said Sam. Even if Dean was still pissed at him, he should get new sneakers if Sam was.

"Fine. Now everyone go to bed. If I hear another word--"

"You won't," said Dean.

"I've heard that before," said Dad. Then he flicked off the light and put the door back against the fan.

Sam stood there for a minute, in the darkness, while his eyes adjusted. He felt stiff all over, and the pull of exhaustion was so hard, the thought he might fall asleep standing up.

Even so, his mind still wanted to go on, to run through the memory of the day, of the water, and the foam, and Dad striding through the water like it was air, pulling Sam off the rock and into his arms, saving him. And leaving Dean there to die.

Sam shook his head. He didn't want to think about it any more.

"Get into bed, idiot," said Dean, "or sleep under it, I really don't care."

"I'm tired, Dean," said Sam as he crawled into bed, and collapsed on his front, with his face turned towards Dean.

He felt the cotton sheet being laid over him, falling lightly, like dandelion seeds.

"Don't be such a girl," said Dean, but his voice was soft like he wanted Sam to really listen to him. "Try rescuing two stupid kids from a fast, deep river, and then you'll know tired."

"I didn't mean it," said Sam, also keeping his voice low. "I tried to say I'm sorry to Dad; you saw me."

Dean sighed, and there was a rustle of sheets as he pulled them up to his neck. "I know. Try again tomorrow or something. He'll listen, I know he will. When he's not so freaked out."

"Can I have some honey?"

"No."

But Dean's no didn't hurt as much as it had before, besides which, Dean wasn't threatening to punch him now. And had made only a little snotty comment about Sam hiding under the bed to get away from Dad.

Sam sighed, his brain filling up with the memory of being rescued first, and waiting on the bank for Dad to go after Dean. Those had been long seconds, while he waited, too much like dying all over again, and the memory of the foam and the sharp rock and the water all around made his heart beat faster. So he scooted closer to Dean, and paused, then scooted a little closer, till he could bend his neck and rest his forehead on Dean's back.

He did this and waited for Dean to protest, and then, when Dean didn't (though he was surely still awake), Sam moved even closer till he could tuck his hands beneath Dean's ribs and rest his head on them. Then, close to Dean's warmth, and familiar, comforting smell, Sam breathed in and tried to forget about the river. But he was shaking and he couldn't stop.

Dean rolled over so fast Sam almost didn't have time to get out of the way. And then Dean was there, clasping his face.

"Please, please, please, Sammy," he whispered, close. "Please stop crying. Dad'll come in again, if he hears you."

"I'm not c-crying," said Sam. Now he knew that Dean could really feel him shaking and he would be mad that Sam couldn't stop. "I'm not."

Dean moved his finger beneath Sam's right eye, as if to check whether Sam was lying, and Sam could almost hear his brother frowning.

"Then what's the matter? Why're you shaking?"

Sam ducked his head, and pushed it into the pillow so that Dean's hand would be trapped beneath Sam's cheek and he wouldn't be able to pull it away. With Dean this close, he felt better, safer. And Dean was being nice to him; even if it only lasted a minute or two, it was as good as a spoonful of honey. Maybe even better.

"I saw--well, Dad rescued me first, and left you out there. What if the river had come up and taken you away?"

"Dad wouldn't let it," said Dean. "You know that."

"But what if it did? What if it took you away and I never saw you again?" Sam was shaking harder now, and Dean's hand slipped out, like he was afraid it would. But instead of pulling away, Dean clasped both of Sam's hands in his. His hands were warm and solid, and Dean leaned in very close.

"It never will," said Dean. "It didn't today, and it won't ever. I'm right here. I'll always be around, Sammy, always. I promise. Okay?"

That would make it better because Dean always kept his promises. Sam tried to stop shaking, taking several deep breaths. He looked up at Dean, and nodded. "I'll try," he said.

"Nope," said Dean. "Not good enough. You have to believe me. All or nothing, you got that?"

Dean sounded so serious and fierce that Sam had to nod. He trusted Dean when he talked like that. And Dean wasn't dead, after all. He was right here, right next to Sam.

"But I can't stop thinking about it, about you--what if you--"

Dean let go of his hands, and pulled away. Sam could hear the sheets rustle under his hands. "If you don't stop, you know what I'm gonna do, Sammy?" asked Dean.

"What?" asked Sam, startled by the suddenness of Dean's question.

"I'm going to fart really hard and then pull these sheets really fast right over your head. Do you want that?"

With a short yelp, Sam yanked away from Dean. "No!"

"Shhhh!" said Dean, fierce again, but underneath that, not. "You really want to get us in trouble?"

Sam shook his head and watched to see if Dean was really going to do it. But then Dean just snorted, and lay back down, and patted the mattress right next to him, to get Sam to do the same. The message was clear. Sam could lay down right next to Dean, where he wanted to be, and try and sleep and trust that Dean wouldn't fart on him, or he could keep messing around and Dean surely would. The choice was entirely Sam's.

"Okay," said Sam. "I really am sorry."

"And I think I had lots of garlic at supper, so shut up, before I do it."

There was a smile in Dean's voice, which made Sam feel better and a little less vacant and numb. Made him feel like he was in more familiar territory and less alone. He concentrated on moving his pillow closer to Dean's, and on not shaking. Dean's farts were powerful weapons, so he didn't use them very often, thank goodness. So he would try, for Dean.

When Sam's head hit the pillow, Dean pulled the sheet up over Sam, but gently like he had before.

"Sleep now, Sammy," said Dean, low. "It'll be better in the morning, I promise."

Sam nodded, and turned on his side to face Dean, pushing in close, tucking his hands under the pillow beneath his head. And thought about new sneakers, and long fields of green grass and white lines, and spoonfuls of honey. And Dean. Who wasn't dead, and who was maybe even being a little bit nice to him.

 

~The End~