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To Fight in the Shade

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Title:To Fight in the Shade
Author: Lovesrain44
Genre: Gen
Word Count:152,510
Pairings/Characters: No pairings; Sam, Dean, and John
Warnings: Dark, angst, kidfic, some violence.

Sam stood at the middle of the circle of dirt at the edge of the field, and pointed the gun at the paper target, which was tacked to a stack of old hay bales. Overhead, the sun blazed, sending down death rays of yellow and bright orange.

The top of Sam's head felt so hot, he was being melted like someone was pouring molten lava all over him. He'd read about that, from a book he'd checked out from the school library, all the knights and stuff fighting around the ramparts of their castles, pouring molten lava on each other. Or maybe it was something else hot, like wax or tar. But it didn't matter, he felt just like that. Really, really hot, like he was being burned on every inch of his skin.

At the edge of the field, the tall green trees stood tall and punched into the hard, blue sky, trying to outdo each other for a breath of fresh air. But there wasn't any; except for the sound of the cicadas screaming deep in the branches, nothing moved or made a sound.

Except for Dad.

"I'm telling you for the last time, Sam," said Dad. His voice came harsh and mad from somewhere behind Sam as he stood in the dirt circle. "Never swing a gun around like that. And don't thumb the safety off till you're ready to shoot."

"I didn't thumb it off," said Sam, not looking back. He tossed his head to get his bangs out of his eyes. He was so mad, he tried to clench his teeth against saying anything more, but it came out anyway, loud. "It's still on. And I am ready."

"Excuse me?" asked Dad.

Sam took a deep breath, and gripped the butt of the gun and shouted, as loud as he could, "I said it's on already, jeeze, leave me alone."

Dean didn't say anything, though Sam knew he was standing right next to Dad, watching Sam mess up again. But Sam heard footsteps and turned around just as Dad came up, scowling, bared teeth white against his tan face. His hair stuck to his temples, and the sweat circles beneath his arms made his t-shirt stick to him.

He reached out to grab Sam just as Sam lowered the gun to his side; you didn't point a gun at someone unless you meant to shoot them, that much he had learned. But Dad pulled the gun from Sam's hands and looked at it. With a click of his thumb, he pushed at the safety and Sam realized, too late, that the safety had already been off, and way before it should have been.

Dad shoved the gun in the back of his pants. He grabbed Sam by the back of the neck with one hand, and jerked on his arm with the other. Then he bent down so he could shout right into Sam's face.

"When I say safety on till you're ready, I mean safety on, and I don't want you screwing around, you got me?"

"And I don't want to do this anymore," said Sam, shaking his head, and trying to wiggle out of Dad's tight grip. "I already told you."

Dad's whole body jerked. He pulled Sam close, into the curve of his body, so close that Sam had to bend backwards or get squashed. "And I told you," said Dad, low, almost growling, teeth bared, "one more smartmouth remark like that, and you'd be getting a whipping."

He shook Sam and while he didn't release his tight hold, he let Sam move back a little bit. Dad was still close, though, close and hot and mad, and there was nothing that Sam hated more at that moment than the smell of Dad's sweat.

Unless, of course, it was the thought of the gun in the back of Dad's pants and the rounds of ammo sitting at Dean's feet, the ammo that they had to use up before lunch; it was already mid-morning, and there were still tons of bullets left. But Dad didn't care that sweat was running down Sam's back like a waterfall, didn't care that Sam hated guns. And, worst of all, Dad didn't care that Sam didn't want to be a hunter.

"You want a whipping?" asked Dad. His grip on Sam's arm felt red hot, and tight, like it was cutting off all of Sam's circulation.

"I want Otter Pops," said Sam. "I'm hot and thirsty and I want Otter Pops and I want them now." He said it right at Dad's face, and made himself not panic when Dad's eyes narrowed and his fingers on the back of Sam's neck twitched.

Dad let go of Sam's neck and he started reaching for his belt buckle, and Sam knew that he was going to get it, right here in the field, under the blazing sun. With Dean watching, probably getting mad that Sam had wrecked a perfectly good morning of target practice.

"Uh, Dad?" asked Dean.

Both Sam and Dad looked at Dean; Dad's hand froze at his belt buckle.

"Maybe he should use the Beretta, it's a little bit lighter than the Glock."

Sam blinked. He was already using the Beretta, knew that even before Dad pulled the gun from the back of his pants. Dad straightened up and let go of Sam as he looked at the gun. Then he looked at Dean, and held the gun up, muzzle high, to show Dean.

"Beretta," said Dad.

"Oh," said Dean, and made a little huh noise, as though he were totally confused by the whole thing.

But Sam knew Dean wasn't confused, and Sam tried not to smirk. Dean had gotten Dad's attention just to make Dad think about something else, other than whipping Sam, for a second. Dean didn't do it very often, because mostly he acted like he felt Sam deserved whatever punishment Dad handed out to him. Sam flicked a little nod of thanks in Dean's direction, but Dean was kicking the dust at his feet and not paying any attention.

But Dad was. The look on his face told Sam that he'd seen everything, and knew what Dean had done.

"You get a walk, Sam, but if I hear one more snotty remark coming out of your mouth, I will be handing you a stiff whipping. Understand me?"

Sam nodded, gulping.

Dad held out the gun to Sam. "Now, take it, and hold it the right way, thumb at the guard, but leave the safety on till you're ready; the most dangerous thing about a gun is the person using it."

Well, Sam heard that a thousand times before, but he did his best not to sigh, at least not out loud. Instead, he gripped the butt of the gun with both hands, right hand on top. Dad had said that as he got bigger, eventually he wouldn't need to use both hands, but for now, it was alright.

Dad reached out and yanked at Sam's right forefinger, moving it down. "How many times do I have to tell you, don't carry the weight of the gun inside of the trigger bar; use your grip to carry the gun."

Sam wanted to throw the gun at Dad's feet, but he didn't dare. Dad was already mad enough as it was. He shifted his hands, and settled his feet, and then looked up at Dad.

"Fine," said Dad. "Now wait till I'm out of the way, then snap off the safety, and then shoot at the target."

Sam waited till Dad's marching footsteps stopped somewhere behind him. He took a deep breath and looked at the target. It seemed really far away, but bullets could travel that far, spinning and rotating before they punched a hole in whatever they were aimed at. He didn't like guns for that very reason; it gave him the creeps to imagine shooting a bullet into something that was alive, or un-dead, or whatever. Besides, guns were loud and they smelled bad.

"Okay, Sam, let's go," said Dad, sounding at the last edge of his patience. "We don't have all day."

Actually they did have all day, but Sam knew better than to say it. He shifted the weight of the gun in his hands and thumbed the safety to off. Then, taking a deep breath, he squinted and aimed the gun at the target, tried to steady his arms, and pulled the trigger.

The bullet flew with a puff and a bang, and Sam staggered against the recoil. His shoulders would hurt later, but Dad never cared about that.

"Too low," said Dad. "Aim a little higher and try again."

Too low, too high, what difference did it make? Sam was never going to be good at this, never going to be good enough, not for Dad. Sam wished it was Dean's turn, so Sam could stand and watch Dean (because Dean was good at it), and then maybe Sam could duck into the shade for a little minute, and pretend he was far, far away.

"Sam," said Dad, barking. "Let's go."

Sam hefted his shoulders and brought the gun up to just below shoulder height. His wrists screamed at him. But he made sure the safety was still off, and went through the motions of setting his stance, and aiming at the target. He could barely hold the gun steady, so the bullet would still be too low, but at least he looked like he was trying. Maybe that would get by Dad.

The bullet zinged into the ground, kicking up dust, just at the right edge of the target.

He was out of bullets now, so maybe his turn was over. Sam thumbed the safety to on and turned around, carefully keeping the gun pointed at the ground.

"Nope," said Dad, shaking his head. "Come get some more bullets and let's try another round. You need to work at this Sam, and you'll keep at it till I see you really working."

Dean didn't say anything, but he looked at Sam, eyebrows drawn. He was pissed that it still wasn't his turn, or maybe he was pissed because Sam was wasting Dad's time. Either way, he certainly wasn't on Sam's side at all. But then, he seldom ever was.

"Bullets, Sam, let's not take all day."

Sam didn't hide his scowl as he walked up to the box of ammo that Dean held out to him. They had all the bullets in the world and all the hot days of summer (which was long enough and hot enough already), and Dad wasn't about to let this go. Sam wiped the sweat from his forehead, pushing his bangs out of the way, and then reached for a bullet.

"God damn it, Sam, how many times do I have to remind you about sweat and metal?"

Dad pulled Sam's hand away from his head. "Wipe your hand off and then put the bullets in."

Sam huffed out loud but he didn't dare do any more of a protest than that. He dutifully, and with exaggerated motions, wiped his right hand on the side of his t-shirt, and then snapped out the empty magazine. Then, one by one, he loaded the bullets in, and tapped the magazine on the heel of his hand. He tapped it so hard that he was going to have a bruise there later, probably. Not that anyone cared.

"Sam."

Without looking up at Dad, Sam put the magazine in the bottom of the butt of the gun, and clicked it shut.

"One more round, Sam, and then it's Dean's turn."

"Okay," said Sam, trying to sound like he couldn't care less.

"Unless I see you still not trying, then we'll do this all day, you and me, and Dean can go sit on the nice, shady porch and watch us."

Not getting a turn at the Beretta would make Dean madder than anything else Sam had done that day. Which meant that Sam had to do exactly what Dad said, and really, really try. Otherwise, if Dean had to go sit on the porch and not get to shoot? Sam would never hear the end of it.

Sam walked back to the circle, put his feet in the right spots, and clicked off the safety, remembering to carry the weight of the gun in his hands, and not on his finger inside the trigger guard. Then he raised the gun. He looked at the target and thought about the heat of the sun, and the lack of wind, and how his bullets had all been too low. Then he squinted, and raised his gun almost an entire foot. It might go wide, it might go wild, but he was trying, he really was, and Dad would see that and not send Dean to the porch.

Then he pulled the trigger. The bullet zinged through the air, and went, smack, right into the blue. Sam blinked; he couldn't believe it, he'd almost gotten a bulls eye.

"Nicely done," said Dad. "Let's see you do that again."

Sam let out a rush of air, a little pleased with himself. Except, the only thing worse than screwing up on purpose in front of Dad, was doing something well in front of Dad. It wasn't going to get Sam out of anything; Dad was just going to make Sam continue, and would expect him to get better.

"Not tomorrow, Sam."

Sam shook his head, but lifted the gun to prepare his aim. His shoulders ached, his arms hurt, his wrists were on fire. But anyway, there were only so many bullets in the Beretta's magazine, and it would be Dean's turn soon. Unless Sam screwed up, but he promised himself he wouldn't. Couldn't. Didn't dare.

*

By the time Dad called a halt to the training for the day, it was getting towards twilight, with the sky above the tree line turning a darker blue with streaks of pink. It was still hot, and the air was still, but at least they were done.

Sam followed Dad and Dean up the short flight of wooden stairs and into the cabin, where the air felt warm and a little stale, even though all the windows were open. But as he took off his sneakers, the planks of the wooden floor felt cool, and he sighed. He was covered with dust and sweat, and took his turn in the narrow bathroom to wash up at the sink with Dean.

"You smell like a skunk," said Dean, bumping Sam with his hip.

Sam bumped him right back, and said, "Well at least I don't smell like a bear." It didn't make any sense, because Sam had never really smelled a bear but it was all he could come up with.

Dean snorted deep in his throat and went out into the kitchen area to help Dad make supper. Sam thought about turning on the TV, but he was too tired to watch anything, so he sat at his place at the table and waited for Dad to get done, but by the time supper arrived on the table, and Dad had served them all, it was too late. Sam had moved past hungry, into starving, and right past that into feeling all numb inside. He was so tired, he didn't think he could eat. He slumped over his plate and picked at his baked beans with his fork.

"Eat your dinner, Sam," said Dad, sitting down at his spot at the other end of the table. "And lift your head, you're getting hair in your food."

Sam lifted his head, feeling bleary-eyed, like he was looking through a thin film. He squinted a little bit at Dean, to see if that would make it better. It almost did, except that Dean was ignoring him now, eating with a hearty appetite, as he usually did, digging into his coleslaw and mixing it with his beans and shoveling it in his mouth. And chewing away like he'd not just spent a full day in the baking sun, shooting round after round, and listening to Sam getting yelled at every other minute.

"I need those guns cleaned tomorrow, Sam," said Dad, his mouth all full of hot dog bun. "And Dean, you can come with me to Ft. Payne."

"Okay," said Dean.

Sam's head snapped up, in spite of his tiredness. "Hey," he said. "That's not fair." He was well passed watching his tone of voice; it was too much.

"What?" asked Dad. He shoveled some beans into his mouth, like he was barely prepared to listen to what Sam had to say.

"It's not fair," said Sam. He slammed his fork down, and shoved at his plate. He almost knocked his milk glass over, but luckily, not quite. "Dean always gets to go and I never do."

Dad chewed on his mouthful and then swallowed. "I didn't know you wanted to go."

"Well, you never ask," said Sam. "It's always Dean's turn and never mine."

"Sam, you could go," said Dean. He put down his fork and turned to Dad and nodded. "I don't mind, Dad, if Sam wants to go."

Sam almost couldn't stand it that Dean was trying to make it okay; Sam wanted Dad to ask, and that was fair, wasn't it? It was Dad's choice, only he never chose Sam, and now he should. He should have asked way before this, but he should now, especially now, since Sam had brought it up, and not make Dean do it.

Dad looked at Sam, steady, though his jaw twitched a little bit. "Sam," he said.

This was Sam's opening. "I never get to go, and I'm always stuck in the cabin while you and Dean go have fun."

"It's not always fun, Sam," said Dad. He scooped a forkful of beans into his mouth and talked while he chewed. "I have phone calls to make and supplies to get, and besides, when Dean comes, he helps me, and I don't think you'd be that much help."

Sam looked at Dad through narrowed eyes; he was so mad he wanted to throw his plate on the floor and stand up and holler, but it wouldn't do any good and Dad would leave him behind just to teach him a lesson. It didn't matter that he didn't really want to spend the day with Dad, even if it did mean getting to take a little road trip away from the cabin. What mattered was that it was his turn to go and Dean's turn to stay behind and clean the guns.

"I can help," he said, feeling all stern, not really believing that he was pushing it this hard; sometimes that backfired. "You just never let me try, and isn't that what you always tell us, to keep trying? Well, how can I try if you never let me?"

"That's not it, Sam," said Dad.

"But it's my turn," said Sam, insisting. He could feel Dean watching him with wide eyes, but he didn't care if this was going to get him into trouble, fair was fair. "All day long we take turns, first Dean, then me, then Dean again, so why not with this?"

Dad turned his attention to his dinner, like he wasn't listening to Sam at all, like he'd dismissed the whole thing. Then he laughed a little bit and shook his head as he stirred some of his beans into his coleslaw. "Fine," he said, not looking up. "Dean, you okay with that?"

"Sure," said Dean.

Sam snorted. He didn't exactly know why Dad laughed, but he, Sam, was going to get to go. It still looked like Dean was the good kid, and Sam was the troublemaker. Okay, fine, then, he was the troublemaker. But at least he'd made Dad see it his way. Only now he was more tired than ever.

*

Sam did the dishes while Dad and Dean watched TV. He'd complain more except that it was his turn, so that was fair, and he was all about being fair. So he washed and rinsed and dried, and left everything on the counter for someone taller to put away. Then he wiped table and wiped out the sink, and swept the floor, just to prove that he didn't forget this time.

Then he came over to stand next to Dad's chair. Dad had it tipped back with the little footrest up, while Dean lolled on the couch.

"You done?" asked Dad.

"Yeah," said Sam. "What's on?"

"Clint Eastwood," said Dad. "Pale Rider."

"But you've seen that a hundred times," said Sam. He put his hands on his hips. "Why can't we watch something else?"

"Because it's not your turn to choose," said Dean. Then he added quietly, "Brat."

"It's never my turn to choose," said Sam. He hated the way his voice came out all wobbly, but nobody was paying any attention to him, anyway. "I'm going to bed."

Dad said "Fine," but Dean didn't even look at him, so Sam turned on his heel and marched loudly to the bathroom to brush his teeth. Except by the time he got there, he was worn out, both from the day and from being mad, so he just brushed his teeth and washed his face, and then took off his shirt and shorts and got into bed.

As he lay there, he felt a little excited at being able to go with Dad while Dean stayed behind. He would get out of the chores, and not only that, he would get to find out what it was like, to go with Dad, and travel to someplace new without it being one of those trips where they drove for miles and miles and miles without stopping.

He knew where Ft. Payne was on the map, it was less than 20 miles away. It would be a nice trip, with new fields to drive past and a new town to drive through. It would be more fun, of course, if he and Dean both went, but he had to stick to his guns, otherwise, if he brought it up, Dad might just decide to leave Sam behind on principle, for making such a fuss about it.

Sam yawned, and felt his neck relax against the pillow. He wanted to stay awake till Dean came to bed, to make sure Dean wasn't mad at him, but he didn't think he was going to make it.

*

Sam leaned out of the Impala's passenger window, elbows on the frame, the rubber digging into his skin. His shoulders ached, but leaning forward stretched them out and made them feel better. He was hanging so far out that his hair was whipped straight back, and his eyes were watering. But it was great; the sky was blue and the morning bright as the green leaves whipped past, and he was finally not stuck in the hot cabin with Dad and Dean. Well, he was stuck with Dad, but they weren't in the cabin for a while. He'd forgotten how fun it was to jump in the car and drive somewhere new.

"Has that door been locked?"

Quickly, Sam looked down and ran his hand over the button to make sure it was down. It was.

"Yes, Dad."

"Better get back in, we're coming into town."

"But we're going slower." It was stupid that when the car was going down the highway, Dad didn't mind him hanging out the window, but when they came into town, he did.

"They got rules, Sam, so pull your head back in."

Dad didn't add, before I pull it back in for you, but Sam heard it anyway. And it was irritating, because since when did Dad care about rules. No, he only cared about his own rules, which he seemed to be able to make up on the spot.

Sam sighed and ducked back in the car to plop himself down on the seat, which had grown hot with the sun shining down on it. Still. He wasn't in the cabin, and Dean had to do all the chores today. Wiping his hands on his knees, Sam smiled as he watched the slowed-down scenery go by.

He found, as they crossed over the railroad tracks and began following the main road that was parallel to it, that he recognized the pattern of the town. There were a lot of these types of towns on the map, with old houses and little stores and the big courthouse in the square, near to which there was surely an ice cream parlor or two. Not that Dad would stop at one of those, but Sam liked little towns like this, just the same.

Dean hated towns like this, hated when they went to a place like this for a job that Dad was working, mostly because there was nothing much to do while they waited for Dad. But Sam liked them, liked the white picket fences and the streets that were obviously named after the people who'd started the town. It was all very quiet and peaceful and miles away from being a hunter. And that's how Sam liked it, how he envisioned it should be.

"We're here, get out."

Sam snapped his head up and looked out the front window of the Impala. They were parked in front of a reddish brown painted building that spread itself out far enough to reach the edge of the tracks. There were a few cars in the parking lot, mostly trucks, and a few dusty cars. Across the street was a little red house with a white-trimmed porch, but there weren't any kids or even grownups around. And there wasn't a Stop N Sip or anything like that where Sam could hang out while Dad got supplies. Not that Dad would give him money for a soda, but at least there would be magazines to look at.

Sam pulled himself out of the Impala and slammed the door behind him. The gravel beneath his sneakers was gritty and dust flew up in the hot, still air. The hardware store didn't look very interesting from the outside. Maybe Dean was right about little towns like this.

"Don't slam that door so hard, Sam." Dad said this almost by rote as he walked up to the door of the hardware store.

"Why are we here?" Sam asked, following.

"I need some gear, some rope, oil and propane for the generator, and then I need to make some calls."

Dad didn't look back as he said this, so it felt like he wasn't even aware that Sam was there, and maybe like some other boy had asked the question.

"So why didn't you do this in Mentone? They got phones there. They got rope."

Dad was at the door and Sam was almost on Dad's heels, when Dad turned around with his glower firmly in place.

"I told you this last night, Sam, when you said you wanted to come today."

Looking up at Dad, Sam shook his head. He didn't remember that part.

"Guy here owes me a favor after I helped him out, so he won't mind me using the phone," said Dad, with that tight tone that said he was already impatient. "And he won't listen in or say anything to anyone about it. You see?"

Sam knew that he was supposed to instantly understand why this was important, that when you were a hunter, you built good-will by saving people from ghosts and haunted objects and stuff they were too stupid to deal with themselves. He got that part just fine, but what Dad wasn't saying, what Dad never really said out loud, was that it also meant that you had to hide what you were doing from the local cops, or the sheriff or whatever it was that Mentone had. There wasn't a phone in the cabin, and no one in town that Dad had saved, so they had to come here. Fine.

Sam shifted his attention away from his irritation and hoped it didn't show on his face; he never liked the idea of being someone the police would come after. You were supposed to be a law abiding citizen, he knew that from books and at school, and yet, here they were, ducking and hiding, and all in broad daylight. Not that Dad would want to hear any of that.

"You see, Sam?"

"Yes, I see," said Sam, because he did, but it didn't mean he had to like it.

They went into the hardware store, with its shiny floors and long rows of glittering supplies. It smelled, as all hardware stores did, of lubrication oil, and burnt oil, and old oil, and floor wax, which must have been laid down to overcome the stench of oil. Sam hoped he never had to work in a hardware store; he would never be able to get used to that smell. Although it did die down a little, once you'd smelled it for a while, Sam knew that.

Sam eyed the rows and rows of stuff for sale, and wondered how long it would take him to memorize the location and contents of every single bin.

A man came up to Dad, and shook his hand, and had a hearty smile to go with it. The man wore a red vest over a checked shirt and his nametag said "Russ," He shook Dad's hand and smiled, and he couldn't get enough of Dad. If Dean had been there (and Sam suddenly wished he was), then Dean would have been part of the conversation, and the thank you's of gratitude, and the wave that Russ made at the rows of gear and supplies.

"Anything you need, anything at all," said Russ, still shaking Dad's hand, as if still overcome by his near escape from whatever it was that Dad had rescued him from. Sam wondered what it was that had happened, but he didn't want to ask. He didn't care anyway.

"My wife would have made you something, if she'd known you'd be here today," said Russ, still going on. "She makes the best homemade donuts in De Kalb county, but--This your boy? This Dean?"

It was like getting smacked in the face twice. Not only did Dad not tell Russ they were coming, and so, thusly, no homemade donuts for Sam, the guy thought he was Dean. Which meant that Dad had talked only about Dean to Russ, and Sam was pretty sure it had been words of praise and pride. Sure. Why bother even mentioning a son that never came up to your expectations? Stupid Dean. Even when he wasn't here, he was.

Sam scowled and didn't hold out his hand to shake when Russ offered his. Russ was going bald and he had a round stomach and his eyes gleamed with pleasure as he looked at Sam, and he was totally normal, but Sam didn't want any of it.

"This is Sammy, my youngest," said Dad. Dad gave Sam's shoulder a little push, and Sam realized he needed to go through the motions, otherwise Dad would want to know why Sam was mad. There was no way that Sam wanted Dad to know how he felt about it, this or pretty much about anything, so he stuck out his hand and Russ shook it.

"Hi, Sammy," said Russ.

"Hi," said Sam, letting go right away. He looked at his sneakers, knowing that there was no point in reminding Dad that only Dad and Dean got to call him Sammy.

"I've got a boy just your age," said Russ, heartily. He nodded once or twice. "He'd be in the shop with me today, except he's at summer camp this week."

Sam felt his jaw tighten. Summer camp. Of course. What every normal boy would be doing. During the summer. Sam had had enough, he was through playing nice.

"Can I go look at the bins?" he asked.

Dad's eyes narrowed a little as both men looked at Sam, but Sam made himself not care. He wasn't being rude, he was just asking for what he wanted.

"Fine," said Dad, and right away he turned to Russ. "I need to use the phone," he said. Russ smiled and nodded and led Dad towards the back, both of them walking quickly away as if Sam wasn't even there. And that was fine too. He didn't want to be a part of that conversation anyway. Not if Russ had thought that Dad only had one son, one perfect son, named Dean.

Sam started with the left-most aisle, and determined that he'd look at only the left side of each aisle until he'd seen what everything was, then he'd go through it again, looking only the right side of each aisle. It should take him through the time until Dad was done with his calls and getting the propane and all that other junk.

*

It felt like hours had passed. Sam was sick of looking at bins of gleaming nuts and shiny screws. He'd sat on little lawn tractors and had smelled the stiff blocks of canvas and had messed with the fans, some of which were even plugged in and running, until he was bored out of his mind. He'd been bored to start with, and wondering why he'd even asked to come along, but now he was really bored. And way long after he'd put his hand in a bin full of what looked like washers but had turned out to be large, flat-headed tacks (he was still sucking his fingers from that), Dad still wasn't off the phone.

He wandered to the back of the store, to the back wall, where a large glass window let him see into the office where Russ had led Dad, and where Dad was sitting at the desk like he sat at a desk all the time. He had the phone crooked under one ear, pressed against his shoulder to hold it in place, and he was writing something down on a piece of paper and talking at the same time. Dad's hair was dark under the shining lights, and his grungy t-shirt and unshaven face made him look like he didn't belong, like someone had let him in to use the phone by accident.

Dad must have felt him there, because he looked up and jerked his chin at Sam, asking him, without words, what is it?

Sam let himself in the office without asking, and stood there with his hand on the knob and waited a few seconds for Dad to tell him to go away. When Dad didn't, Sam shut the door behind him, and waited some more while Dad finished what he was saying.

"Okay, Jim, that sounds like a plan."

"Is that Pastor Jim?" asked Sam. He walked closer to the desk where Dad was sitting. "I want to talk to him."

Dad shook his head at Sam and continued talking into the phone. "No--yes, tell him yes with the salt, and tell him no, it doesn't have to be kosher. Table salt will do fine. Have Bobby find someone closer, okay? I'm stuck out here for now."

Stuck? Dad felt stuck? There was no way he could feel half as stuck as Sam did. As Dad hung up the phone, Sam felt his lower lip pushing out. "You could have said I said hi."

"What do you need, Sam?" asked Dad, without saying anything about the phone call.

"I'm bored," said Sam. "Really bored."

"I told you yesterday that this is what I'd be doing, and you wanted to come along."

Sam could tell Dad was trying to be patient, but he couldn't make himself care. "Yeah, but you didn't say it would be this boring." He'd wanted to come along in the first place because it was his turn and in the second place to see if the errands with Dad were as fun as Dean always made them out to be. But he couldn't tell Dad that.

Dad took a breath and turned his attention back to the phone. "Not now, Sam."

Sam scowled, feeling fierce and really pissed off, but Dad didn't even seem to notice.

Dad put his hand back on the receiver and picked it up. He dialed the phone, and as he waited for the person on the other end to answer, he said, "Ten minutes, Sam. Take a walk around the block and come back in ten minutes. I'll be done by then. Probably."

The person on the other end must have picked up because Dad started talking into the phone like Sam wasn't even there.

Heart pounding, Sam spun on his heel and marched out of the store, jingling the bell loudly on the door, and ignoring Russ at the cash register as he said goodbye to him. He was so glad to be out of the hardware store and away from Dad, away from anything Dad was doing, even if it was only for ten minutes.

Outside, the contrast between the cool air in the air conditioned store and the hot summer morning outside didn't slow Sam down. But the lack of anything resembling a block did.

At the edge of the parking lot, Sam stopped. There was a narrow blacktop with a faded yellow line in the middle that stretched left and right. There were houses and a few stores but no sidewalk and nor corner for him to turn at; there was nothing specific. Usually it took him two turns around the average block to use up ten minutes, or if it was a big block, then one turn around would do. But here, nothing.

Still, he was out of Dad's hair and on his own for ten minutes, which was rare these days. So he turned left and walked along the edge of the black top, towards the row of roof tops and the clock tower of the courthouse that he could see beyond the trees.

After walking a little while, Sam's shoulders relaxed and he took a deep breath. The sun was almost overhead in the bright blue sky, and although it was hot enough to make his shirt stick to him, there was enough of a breeze to ruffle through his hair and make him feel like it was going to be a good day. Or at least an okay day, considering that Dad was going to expect him back in exactly ten minutes and would probably deliver a stern, hard-eyed lecture about not bugging people when they were on the phone.

Sam came to a three-way corner, a t-intersection. The road he was on went straight, and the road that went right disappeared under some trees. There was a little cement foot bridge over a dry ditch, so Sam took a right, and stood on the bridge for a minute, wishing there was running water so he could take his socks and sneakers off and put his feet in.

As he stood there, he started to hear voices, kids shouting, sounding like maybe it was coming from a swimming pool. Or a park or something. Sam headed off that way; maybe he could, watch someone else having fun, at least for a few minutes.

He walked in the deep shade along the road, watching for traffic, even if there weren't any cars coming. Underneath the branches, the air smelled a little damp and cool, and it was nice for a minute. Then, as he came out of the bank of trees, he saw that he was right, at least about the park.

There was a large grassy field with a small swing set and teeter tot for the little kids. But there, in the middle of the field, drawing Sam's eyes like a loadstone, was a group of about seven kids, mostly boys from what he could tell, and they were playing soccer.

Sam blinked to make sure it wasn't some dumb football they were playing with and kicking around. It wasn't.

Four of the boys had their shirts off, and the other three didn't. They were playing with two teams, then, almost the smallest regulation size, except they were missing a player. Sam moved forward like was being dragged, and he could feel his whole body start to smile. He could play soccer for five minutes and then race back to the hardware store and Dad would never know. His only problem now was to figure out how to get a game.

Luckily, the ball went wild and came right at Sam, spinning black and white against the trampled green grass. He stopped it with his foot, breathing hard. They might just tell him to kick it back and go away. Or they might ask.

Sam jerked his chin up in greeting, the way Dean sometimes did, all cool and I-don't-really-care. He looked at the boy who came over. The kid was shirtless, but he had grass stains all over his shorts and he looked like he was really into playing.

His eyes were bright as they looked at Sam and he scraped his curly blond hair out of his eyes. "Can you play, do you wanna play?" he asked.

Sam thought about mentioning the Division Championship soccer trophy he'd won that spring but decided against it. Dean never would brag, so Sam wouldn't.

"Yeah," he said, rotating the ball beneath his sneakered foot.

"Great," said the kid. "We'll be four to four then; you can be midfielder for the Shirts."

The kid had a bossy voice and the midfielder position wasn't very exciting, not like being the striker or the forward, like Sam had been on his last team. But though Sam could spot the two four lumps of t-shirt that marked each team's goal posts, there was no actual goalie, so maybe Sam could figure how to do some interesting shots anyway.

"Okay," he said, and gave a small kick to send the ball to the boy. It was almost like a free kick from when the ball had gone offsides, just high enough so that the kid could catch it against his knee and roll it down and kick it into the center point. The kid was as good as Sam, then.

Sam raced across the grass, and joined the shirted team, and so now the teams were evenly matched. There weren't any real lines in the grass, so Sam picked a spot between what looked like it should be the midway point and his teams set of goat post t-shirts.

Sweat was already rolling on his face as he took his position, but he felt good, he was smiling with his whole body because finally, finally, he was going to get play. He smiled at the kid who let him play and leaned forward a little to be ready for the kick off. Of course, it was the kid who let him play was doing the kick off; he was probably their best player. And, more importantly, the ball probably belonged to him.

The kid kicked the ball in Sam's direction and Sam went racing towards it, bangs flying off his forehead, legs moving, grinning the whole while as the hot summer air filled his lungs. He was ready, he was so ready, he was going to kick that ball straight into the other team's goal, he just knew it.

The ball came at Sam so he kicked it, straight into the tumble of legs that suddenly appeared, and then one of the boys from the Shirts (who Sam realized was actually a girl), scrambled right in there to snap the ball away from them with her toes. She looked like she was flying for a minute, and then she rolled to the ground as the ball spun out of control. It landed offsides again and one of the kids from the other team raced to the sidelines to throw it back in.

There was a little pause in the free throw as they waited for a car to go by. The kid came up to Sam and nodded at him, grinning.

"Looks like I assigned you to the wrong team," the kid said.

Sam wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, shoved his hair out of his eyes, and then wiped his hand on his shirt. "Looks like," he said, knowing he was smirking so hard it almost hurt his face. "Next time," he said, realizing too late that there wouldn't be a next time.

But there was today. He had the normal looking houses, the green grass, and the park with the playing field and the soccer ball and the group of kids he was going to show just how good he was at this. He had today.

*

Blue-shirt boy on Sam's team kicked the ball to Sam and Sam dribbled the ball forward a little, angling sideways as he propped it up to kick the ball to the Red-shirt girl, who was currently in the forward left position. There was no one in the center position; otherwise, he would have aimed there. But just as he drew his leg back for a good solid kick (and it was a clear shot all the way there, so he could kick it nice and hard), he heard the low rumble of an engine and an ear-splitting whistle.

Sam practically fell over the ball in an effort to stop the kick. He saw the black gleam of the Impala and knew he should go. Dad was calling and it had obviously been more than ten minutes since Sam had left the hardware store.

But what if Dad could see him do a great kick, something sharp that would make the other team have to scramble to keep up? Dad would be impressed and then maybe he would relax his stupid rule against Sam playing soccer.

But just as he angled his foot, he heard the Impala's engine turn off and the heavy door slam. Then the Skin hooked his leg around to steal the ball from between Sam's legs. And then everyone was scattering away from Sam.

The hot air simmered up from the grass as Sam turned to look. Dad was striding across the field, long legs eating up the distance to Sam, taking half the time it would have taken any kid on the team to run that far. Dad's t-shirt was soaked around his neck and under his arms and his dark hair was sticking to his forehead. His eyes glittered in the sun and Sam froze.

Behind him, the game started up again, but the sounds felt like they came from far away as Dad reached out. His arm was a mile long, and he grabbed Sam by the back of the neck, fingers firmly digging in and pulled. Sam's feet slipped out from under him and he had to scramble to stay upright as Dad marched him back to the car.

"Twenty minutes," said Dad, low, but there was venom in his voice. "I expected you back twenty minutes ago."

Sam could only gasp for breath as he tried to keep up and when they reached the car, Sam opened his mouth and tried to point back at the field, to explain, to ask if Dad had seen him play, but Dad let go of him with a hard shove.

"Get in the car."

It finally dawned on Sam, though he'd known it the second he'd heard Dad's whistle, that Dad was furious. So furious that he was talking very quietly, which was almost more scary than when he yelled.

Dad opened the driver's side and Sam scrambled across the hot bench seat. He pressed himself against the passenger side door as hard as he could, eyes wide, looking at Dad, whose skin, under his sweaty, five o'clock shadow, was oddly grey.

Dad started up the car, not saying anything, but there was a hard edge to his jaw and his foot on the gas made the car roar. Dad popped the car into drive and the Impala shot down the street and turned the corner so fast that the gear in the trunk shifted with a loud bang. As they raced along the tree-lined streets, Sam held on to the door handle and tried to swallow around his suddenly dry mouth. The air in the car was hot and Sam reached to roll down the window.

"Leave it," said Dad, with a snap.

Sam knew he was in trouble, but now he couldn't even lean out the window on the way home? Dad was just being mean. Sam turned his eyes out of the window and made himself not care.

Dad rocketed the car through town and Sam kept his mouth shut as long as he could. He wanted to tell Dad how fun it had been to run with the other kids and kick the white ball across the green grass, to run and not worry whether anything scary was chasing you or to worry about whether you had time to throw a silver knife fast enough and hard enough to strike some creature in the heart.

Then he couldn't keep his mouth shut any more.

"Dad--" Sam began, but Dad cut him off.

"Ten minutes, Sam," said Dad. "I told you I wanted you back in ten minutes."

"But I was playing soccer, Dad, did you see me? I was good, that kid said so, and you--"

"Enough, Sam," said Dad. "You can't come back when I say, then you can't come on any more errands."

Sam didn't care about that so much; errands with Dad were boring, but he always forgot about that part. Especially when Dean would come back from them all happy and relaxed, helping Dad carry stuff in from the car like it had been the best day ever. Sam opened his mouth to say something to try and explain it all, but Dad drew a breath and let out a short shaky sigh that Sam couldn't even begin to figure out. Grownups were always complicated, but especially Dad was.

"More important--" Dad stopped and Sam felt his brow furrow. Dad never had any trouble saying what he wanted to say. No, he just barked out orders and whatever else he wanted to say and that was that.

"Soccer is too high profile, and joining any teams is just--I said no more soccer, no more joining any teams, and I mean it. Do you hear me, Sam?"

Sam wondered where the soccer trophy he'd won was; he'd not seen it since May, not seen it since he'd handed it to Dad, smiling, the blue sky reflecting off the gold plated statue that he thought looked a little bit like him, kicking a soccer ball with incredibly long, gold plated legs. But while Dad had patted him on the head, he'd not smiled or said anything. Instead he'd turned away, with the trophy in his hands, and Dean had come up with a huge grin, saying, Sammy, you kicked that ball so hard for your last goal that it was on fire.

He'd won the trophy at the last game before school had let out for the summer. It had been the most important game, the championship game. But where was that trophy now?

Probably Dad had ended up throwing the trophy away, like he did with everything he didn't feel was valuable. Probably it was in some garbage dump somewhere, with the bright shininess of the award, the golden gleam of success, now smeared with old banana peel and splatted with coffee grounds or something. Long gone, now, and way out of Sam's reach.

For a second, Sam regretted winning that trophy at all, whether that was the problem, whether Dad thought he'd get a swelled head and be all prideful about it, even though he'd never bragged about it. Well, not much, and mostly to Dean.

"I don't care," said Sam, the frustration boiling under his skin.

Dad roared the car up the ramp and onto the highway. Back to the cabin. Back to more training, more sparring, weapons management, packing up gear, unpacking it. Taking Sam back to more sweat and hard work and nothing that was fun. And back to Dean, so happy to be there and so frustrated with Sam's attitude that he was already, and actually had always been, on Dad's side on this.

"I don't care," said Sam again, this time with more force. "I like soccer and I'm going to keep playing. I'm going to join the next team at the next school, and you can't--"

"No, Sam," said Dad. He almost sounded sad. "I said no. It's too high profile; we talked about this."

Dad was being calm, like he was ready to be patient, so Sam gulped in some air and tried to explain.

"But Dad, don't you see? I'm just a kid, nobody's going to notice me. I'm good at soccer, real good, and I want to play. On a team, with other kids."

He was almost panting by the time he finished his little speech, which he thought had all the right things in it to convince Dad. But Sam could tell right away, looking at the side of Dad's face, where the color was slowly returning, that Dad wasn't moved, hadn't changed his mind, not one little bit.

"You have to understand, Sam, and this is important, you have to understand that they are watching. All the time."

"Who?" Sam asked, his voice coming out twisted and high. "Who's watching?"

"The local police, the FBI, especially the FBI--"

It was then that Sam realized that Dad meant it. In spite of the fact that his voice was low and even, which meant that he was trying to be patient, was talking to Sam as though he expected Sam to be smart enough to understand (which was something he seldom did), he meant it. Sam wasn't going to be allowed to play soccer, not just this summer, but ever. Ever.

"That's not fair," said Sam. His jaw felt all tight, and he felt something start to boil behind his eyes.

"It doesn't matter, Sam, that's just the way it has to be. If you play soccer, and you're good, which you are, they'll see you and then they'll see all of us. And that can't happen."

Dad said this and his voice dipped off at the end. He continued driving like he'd not said anything remarkable, and Sam was just expected to go along with it, even if what Dad had just said felt like Dad was cutting off Sam's last breath of hope. No soccer for Sam, no normal, never, never, never.

"That's how it has to be," said Dad, with utter calm, his voice low and quiet. "And the harder you fight it, the harder I'm going to clamp down."

"I don't care," said Sam, and then his mouth got away from him. "You're just saying the FBI is watching just so you can control everything I do and that's just bullshit."

"You want to say that again, Sam?" Dad's voice cut across Sam's words. The air between them suddenly felt as sharp as a well-honed knife. "Do you?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam could see that Dad's hands were gripping the steering wheel so hard that his knuckles were white. A part of him knew that Dad was also trying to give Sam a way out, because he was allowing Sam the chance to pretend he'd not just said what he'd said. But Sam didn't want out, he wanted through. He wanted to blast his way through this stupid life and into a different one. One where playing soccer wouldn't get you arrested or worse. Most Dad's would be proud of Sam, but not Sam's Dad. Not John Winchester.

But Sam knew he was right, Dad was just being mean. Again.

"It's bullshit," said Sam, making his voice as loud and clear as he could. "You're lying 'cause you just don't want me to do anything that's not about your stupid hunting, so the whole thing is bullshit."

With a screech of tires, Dad pulled the car off the highway and onto the exit ramp, and zoomed through the stop sign like he'd not just given Sam a lecture about how important it was to keep a low profile. Like he didn't know about the dangers of getting a traffic ticket anywhere near a small town. With a hard jolt, he pulled over on the dusty shoulder and slammed on the brakes. He turned off the engine so fast that the car actually wheezed in complaint. Road dust settled over the shiny black hood of the car and across the windshield.

Sam made himself look towards the driver's seat. Dad was white and his eyes glittered and there was a tell-tale pulse along his jaw line.

"Get out," said Dad, each word bitten off.

"What?" asked Sam. Was Dad going to leave him by the side of the road? How would Dean find him? "Why?"

"Get out of the car," said Dad, his voice dipping to a low growl, "or I'll pull you out."

The hairs on the back of Sam's neck suddenly stood up. He was in hot water even when there wasn't any hot water around. He opened the door, and quickly got out of the car and looked at the wide dirt shoulder and the simmering fields of green growing things that stretched off to the tree line. Something was humming in the distance and he was hot all over, the backs of his knees, under his arms, so hot, and still he felt like he was cold.

Dad stormed around the front of the car, the black hood catching his reflection for a second, and then Dad came right up to him, looming in the bright sunshine with sweat on his forehead thatching his hair to his skin. There was a glare in his eyes that told Sam it probably didn't matter what he said now, he was in for a whipping because Dad never pulled the car over like that for no reason. But he had to try.

"It's not fair," he said.

"It's not open for discussion, Sam, so just knock it off."

"No," said Sam, practically spitting the words out, forgetting for a moment who he was talking to. Dad was so tall that he almost blocked out the sun as Sam looked up at him. "No, I won't, because this is all bullshit."

Sam saw Dad's hand come up but he didn't have time to back away before he felt a slap. It was hard enough to feel like his brain had slammed into his skull. His eyes watered and as he touched the side of his face, Dad took off his belt and folded it in his hands, the leather gleaming in the sunshine like snakeskin. That's when the bottom of Sam's stomach dropped out. His knees buckled like someone had tackled him.

Dad reached for Sam and grabbed him by the collar of his t-shirt to pull him close. Dad bent his knee and slammed Sam down hard against his thigh. The denim was hot and Dad's leg muscles were bunched hard as iron and Sam struggled and pushed against the heat and closeness, his head swimming and his heart racing, blood racing cold all through him even as the sun beat down. He clutched at the folds in Dad's jeans, at the empty belt loops at his waist, feeling the sweat through Dad's t-shirt, feeling the fury.

"Dad, no, please, please don't--"

"I told you Sam, one more step out of line--"

Sam lurched and slipped lower on Dad's leg and for a second he thought he could get free and wondered how far he could run through the fields before Dad caught him. But Dad bent even closer and wrapped his arm across Sam's back and around his waist, his fist pressing against Sam's stomach. Trapped, Sam could feel every shift of Dad's whole form, as Dad pulled his arm back and slammed the belt down across the back of Sam's bare legs. Sam's body jerked, and he clung even tighter, fingers curling around the waistband of Dad's jeans.

"Dad," he said, his voice coming out high and panicked.

The belt sliced into him, cutting through the cotton of his shorts and underwear, right down to the bone. The leather hissed as it came down again, cut and curling around his hipbone, stinging the side of his stomach with a sly pop.

Sam curled himself as tight as he could, close to Dad's leg, drawing his own legs up, but Dad shifted his stance and Sam's legs could only dangle, his toes barely scratching the dirt. Head pressed against Dad's jean-clad hip, fingers numb, thighs on fire, his backside felt every stroke of Dad's belt like it was red hot wire and there was nothing else. Just the hot sun, and Dad's leg, and the denim that scratched Sam's face and the tears that were blinding him. He held his mouth tight against his teeth to try and keep from crying.

This was worse than the whipping he'd gotten for running away or breaking Dean's crossbow, which had been wrong, he knew that. He wasn't even getting it for saying bullshit four times practically in the same breath. It was because Dad wanted to tear out that part of Sam, the part that didn't want to be a hunter, that wanted, instead, to be normal and safe. Dad wanted to tear it out and trample it down and leave it in the hot, green Alabama field where no one would ever find it.

That's when he started to cry, he couldn't help it, and he didn't care if Dad would think he wasn't being manly enough or that he should buck up and just take it. That he should just stop complaining and just be the hunter that Dad wanted him to be. Even if that's what Dean would do, and he already had, Sam couldn't.

The whipping ended and Dad pushed him away, still holding on to Sam's upper arm with a tight, angry grip. Sam couldn't stop crying. He hid his face in the crook of his elbow, his eyes squeezed shut, his sobs clawing their way up his throat.

"Enough, Sam," said Dad, giving Sam a shake.

Sam shook his head, and as his sobs carried up into the hot, still air over the fields, he heard Dad say, "God damnit, Sam," under his breath.

Sam lifted his head and scrubbed at one eye and pulled his arm free from Dad's grip.

It was not enough to make him stop crying, but Dad was looking at him funny, like he was about to lose his patience all over again.

So Sam tried to stop crying. He tried hard, even thought there was nothing that could soothe the hard fire that pounded from his bottom down to the backs of his knees. He took a deep breath and then another, and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his t-shirt, but the sleeve was too short so he ended up smearing snot across his upper lip.

Dad slid his belt back on and buckled it and then pulled on the hem of his t-shirt. He came closer, and Sam jerked backwards, but Dad just used the hem to wipe Sam's face. The cotton felt scratchy and warm from Dad's body, and Sam let him do it.

Dad finished wiping Sam's face with the t-shirt and then he tucked it back in to his jeans. It was one of those odd bits of kindness that Dad sometimes showed Sam but as always, it was too little too late.

Through his blur of tears, Sam looked up at Dad and said, "I hate you."

Dad flicked his eyes and looked right at Sam. "I know," he said.

*

The ride home was hot. Even with all the windows down, and Sam had rolled his down because Dad said he could, and even as fast as Dad was driving, the back of Sam's neck and his armpits were soaked with sweat. He folded his legs beneath him, so that he only had to sit on part of one welted thigh, and sagged against the door frame, feeling like someone had removed all of his bones.

The trees and close cut grass whizzed past, making Sam dizzy. But he would rather look at something that made him feel like he wanted to throw up than to look at Dad, to catch his eye, to see the sweat on the back of his hard arms, veins pulsing through the tops of his tanned hands as he gripped the steering wheel. Or see the rage in his face, grim and dark, brows lowered as he frowned. Of course he was still mad at Sam, but he was always mad, so what difference did today make?

Sam felt mad, too, and what difference did that make? None. No matter how much Sam wanted to play soccer, even for fun, Dad would always find out, and even if Dad's reasons were stupid, Sam would get a whipping, which made him tired and sore and madder than ever. And stupid. Stupid because he simply couldn't figure out a way to make Dad see reason. Make Dad see that playing soccer, even being on a school team, was harmless. It would keep Sam busy, and build up his stamina for more stupid hunting, and didn't Dad want Sam out of his hair?

"Sam, stop picking at that."

Sam looked down and realized he was tearing at the little rubber strip that pressed against the glass. Sam rolled up the window a little to see if that would smooth it out, and then he rolled the window down, but that just tore it some more.

"Leave it alone."

Sam let his head sag forward and buried his face on his folded arms as he rested them against the open window frame. It had been a bad day, then a good day, and then a terrible day, and he didn't think it was going to get any better.

*

The sun was hot and the dust from the road was a hazy cloud as Dad pulled up to the cabin and parked the car.

Sam didn't look over at Dad, he just got out of the car, wincing as he stood on stiff legs. The car door was warm under his hands as he shut it. Dad got out of the car just as Dean came out of the cabin, the screen door slamming behind him.

Sam didn't know what to do. He knew he should probably help to bring in the stuff that Dad had bought at the hardware store, but he was still so mad about the whole thing that no part of him wanted to be nice. Dad already thought Sam was the least of his sons; bringing in supplies wouldn't make any difference at all.

"Bring in the supplies, Dean," said Dad, as if Sam weren't even there and could have done it. Naturally Dad didn't ask him, naturally Dad expected nothing of him now.

As Dad went up the stairs, Dean came trotting down. He was grimy with the cabin chores he'd done while they were gone. The second he saw Sam, he said, "What you do to piss Dad off this time?" His green eyes blazed.

Sam could hear Dad sigh as he opened the screen door.

"He didn't piss me off," Dad said. "He disappeared for twenty minutes and I couldn't find him." The screen door slammed behind Dad, leaving Sam alone with Dean, who was shaking his head at Sam, frowning like he was disgusted.

"I didn't disappear," said Sam. He wanted Dean to understand how the day had gone, and how the time had gotten away from him because he was doing something he loved. "I was playing soccer."

Dean shook his head, and went around to the driver's side to reach in and pop the trunk. Then he went to the trunk, and as he opened it all the way, looked over at Sam. "You know what Dad said, Sam. He said no soccer, so quit being a baby about it."

Dean started arranging things so he could carry them in. Sam stood there for a second, listening to the hum in the trees, feeling the sun bake the top of his head, wishing he had a glass of water, and knowing that what he wanted most of all was sympathy from Dean, for Dean to be on his side.

Dean straightened up with several coils of soft, white nylon rope in his arms. He came toward Sam, shaking his head, but not looking at Sam. "You just gotta give it up, if you're going to be a hunter."

He was just about to go striding off when Sam moved to block his path. Dean pulled up mid-stride, jerking back, looking at Sam like he'd popped out of nowhere.

"No," said Sam. "No, I'm not going to be a hunter, don't you get it? I don't want to." And then he kicked Dean hard in the shin.

Dean dropped the bundles of rope, hopping on one foot to clasp his leg. He was so off balance that even Sam could even see where he could apply the least amount of pressure to shove Dean so he would fall over. Which Sam did, mind on fire, and Dean went sprawling in the dirt.

"You little bitch," said Dean, scrabbling up on his elbows, covered with dust. He sounded mean, but Sam could see the surprise in his eyes. "You don't get to kick me."

"Stupid jerk," said Sam, giving Dean a good solid kick in the ribs. It was wrong to kick a man when he was down, Dad said that all the time, except he always added that there was a time and a place when it was okay, and Sam figured this was one of them. He just wanted to pound Dean into the ground, and make him hurt. Make him feel how much it hurt Sam to not be able to play soccer.

But Dean apparently wasn't going to just stay put and let Sam do this, because when Sam tried to kick him again, Dean reached out and grabbed Sam's ankle and twisted it just right so Sam fell in the dirt, mashing the side of his face and getting dust in his eyes. Then Dean was on top of him, straddling Sam's hips with his thighs, pressing Sam into the dirt with his weight.

He swung a punch that Sam could barely see through watering eyes, but he stuck his arm up to try and block the blow, which still managed to graze his chin and slam his head into the ground. The backs of his legs and his bottom were screaming at him, and he tried to shift his weight, even though it felt like he was on fire, to dislodge Dean, but Dean was firmly in place, pressing down on Sam's shoulder with one hand, and drawing back the other for another punch.

The punch landed, full on, and Sam's mouth filled with a bitter taste and his teeth started to throb, and he couldn't believe that Dean had actually hit him. Hard. He didn't want to cry, so he swallowed, but the tears streaked out of the corners of his eyes anyway. Blood dripped down the back of his throat, just as Dean's hand slipped off his shoulder and slammed into the ground beside Sam's head, bringing Dean's face close.

"Why do you have to ruin everything?" Dean's teeth were white against his face, red with rage, his eyes huge and green and very pissed off. "You're ruining my summer, stop ruining my summer."

Just as he drew back and curled his fist for another blow, Dean's weight was suddenly gone, and Sam opened his eyes wide, pushing himself up on his elbows. Dad had Dean by the scruff of the neck, holding him fast and hard.

"How many times have I told you, Dean, you're bigger than he is. You don't hit your brother." He gave Dean a small shake and let him go with a chuff to the back of his head and then looked over at Sam to glare, his brows drawn low. "That goes for you too, Sam."

Sam waited, watching, expecting Dean to burst out with the truth that Sam had kicked him first, but he never did. Dean stared at the ground, his mouth was drawn in a thin line, like he was afraid he might say something if he opened it. His rage was gone and he was white under the sweat on his face and on his neck. His shirt was smeared with dirt, and he wiped the blood from his knuckles on it, adding more stains.

"Get up, Sam, and help your brother bring in the supplies. No more fighting."

Sam struggled to his feet and opened his mouth, thinking that maybe Dad should know that he kicked Dean first, that while Dean had been pissy about the soccer, Sam had started it; it wasn't Dean's fault.

"But we fight all the time," Sam said. He wasn't whining, he was protesting. His mouth felt sore; he wiped at it with the back of his hand. There was only a little blood there.

Dad waved Sam's explanation away. "Sparring isn't fighting Sam, and you know it. Any more fights between you, and I swear neither of you will sit for a week. Now, help your brother bring in those supplies."

Dad almost never made threats. The fact that he had, well, it wouldn't matter if Sam had just gotten a whipping already today, and it wouldn't matter if Dean was the golden child; the threat wasn't an empty one. Then Dad went inside the cabin.

Dean picked up the coils of rope and shook the dust off them. He climbed the stairs and went into the cabin, leaving Sam alone except for the hum and the far away rustle of leaves as the wind blew across them.

Sam looked at what was in the trunk, and picked the two one-gallon containers of kerosene; they had wide handles and would be easy to carry. Plus he would be carrying two things that were much heavier than the coils of rope Dean had. But then he felt bad for thinking that. Dean would probably make twice as many trips as Sam, eager and tireless, and Sam would still end up looking like the lazy one.

So he looked in the trunk again and saw the two kerosene lanterns, which had handles made of thin, rounded metal. He put the kerosene down on the ground, and gripped the thin handles of the lamps, and then bent his knees and tried to gather up the broader handles of the kerosene and hold all of them at once. He managed to get it in his right hand and then the kerosene handle slipped from the fingers of his left hand and clunked as it fell on its side.

Sam took a deep breath and figured he would try again, but Dean showed up. He didn't look at Sam. Sam thought Dean was probably still mad that Sam had kicked him. Not that Sam blamed him; he felt bad enough about it already that if Dean wanted to punch him again, he'd let him.

Dean didn't say anything as he picked up the kerosene and for a second, Sam thought he was just going to grab everything and carry it all in, taking both the kerosene and the lanterns like Sam had been going to do. Instead, he bent close and took Sam's hand and shifted the pair of handles so that the thinner handle rested on top of the wider one. Then he did the same with the other pair, lifting the kerosene so Sam could grip it and then adjusting the thinner handle on top. Sam had the weight equally balanced, and both hands could grip the handles firmly, and so now he could look like he was really carrying a lot in.

"There you go," said Dean. He glanced at Sam out of the corner of his eye as he studiously looked at the trunk, as though he were trying to figure out what to carry next.

Sam took a breath. "I'm sorry I kicked you," he said. Then he added, "Both times."

Dean nodded, sucking his lips against his teeth. He leaned forward and picked up one of the bags that looked heavy; a flat rubber belt stuck out and Sam figured it was for the generator.

"And I'm sorry I punched you," Dean said. "Both times, although you kind of deserved it." He frowned as he said this, almost like he though it was a little harsh.

Sam could see there was something there that Dean felt bad about. Maybe Dean was wishing that Sam could play soccer, but since Dad had said no, then Dean had to say no, since Dean was Dad's favorite and everything. At least Dean had said sorry, which was something.

Sam shrugged his shoulders, like it didn't matter and he wasn't mad at Dean, which he wasn't, at least not anymore. Then he walked off, shortening his stride so the weight in his hands wouldn't throw him off.

But he needed to make sure that Dean understood where Sam stood on all of this. He liked playing soccer, FBI or no FBI, and Dad was just mean and wrong to stop him. As Sam got to the top of the stairs, he turned. Dean was still standing by the open trunk staring at the contents as if memorizing them.

"I didn't deserve it, you jerk," Sam said.

Dean looked up then, straight at Sam. "Yeah you did," he said, and then he paused, his mouth working. "And you're still a little bitch."

But he didn't look like he meant it to be really mean, not like he had when he was on top of Sam and punching him. Instead his eyebrows were twisted together, like looking at Sam made him feel sad or something. Sam had seen that expression on Dean's face, once in a while, when Dean was looking at Dad; he'd never seen Dean look at him like that.

Something sucked out the breath in Sam's chest, and he made himself nod and turn. Dad was standing there, pushing the screen door open for Sam. Dad stepped aside as Sam walked into the darkness of the cabin; he could hardly see it was so dark, after the brightness of the driveway. But it wasn't only that. There was something bigger going on and he didn't understand it. Dean loved hunting, and a full summer of training to do just that was like heaven for Dean. And every time Sam did something to break that lush, exciting feeling of it, that hurt Dean.

"What's the matter with you, Sam, just put that stuff over by the shelf."

Sam looked up. He'd been standing in the same spot, just inside the door, with the weight of the kerosene and the lanterns pulling at the muscles in his arms. The cabin was little brighter now that his eyes had adjusted to the dark, but he shivered all over.

"I don't feel so good," he said. He wasn't complaining; his head felt light and white inside of it, like his skull had been emptied of air, and his stomach was doing weird dipping things.

"It's the heat," Dad said. He took the handles from Sam's fingers, which didn't have any feeling at all, and placed the kerosene and the lanterns on the top shelf with one movement. Then his hand was on Sam's forehead; Sam felt hot where Dad's hand touched him.

"You need to drink some water," said Dad. He took his hand away, and Sam followed him to the sink and drank the glass of water that Dad gave him, feeling a little bit better. He watched as Dean came in with his arms full and went over to the shelf along the wall, to put everything on the floor.

"Is that it?" asked Dad.

"Yep," said Dean. He began putting everything away, a box of nails, the little box of mantles for the lanterns, the industrial size of WD-40, and the large folded canvas, just like the kind Sam had messed with at the hardware store. Dean seemed content to be doing this, because he must be figuring, as Sam did, that most of it would be used in the course of the summer to help them train. And Dean liked everything that had to do with training.

Well, Sam didn't, and he never would, he figured, but that didn't mean that he had to ruin it for Dean. Only he didn't know how to do that, how to hate something only not so much that you ruined it for someone else.

More important than that, he had to figure out a way to keep standing because as Dad took the now empty glass out of Sam's hand, the water in his stomach surged around, trying to find a way out. Then everything started to go grey and float away; he lifted his hand trying to hold on to something to keep his balance, and his hand closed around something he realized was Dad's t-shirt.

"D--" was all he managed to say.

"Here we go," said Dad, but he didn't sound mad. His hands came up under Sam's arms and Sam realized he was being walked towards the couch, even though he couldn't feel anything from the waist down. There was a creeping, grey feeling crawling up his spine and the second Sam's knees touched the edge of the couch, he collapsed on it, barely feeling the weight of his head as it hit the cushions. Dad arranged Sam's legs on the couch so they weren't all tangled up and Sam sighed with his whole body.

Sam tried opening his eyes, but all he could see was the darkness of the cabin and the two blobs standing over him. He felt very tired.

"It's the heat," Sam heard one blob saying to the other blob. "That boy just does not like the heat."

"Nope," said the other blob, agreeing.

Neither blob said anything about this being more of Sam's princess drama. "Quit starring," he said to the blobs.

"I'll get a washcloth," said Dad's voice, and that blob went away.

The other blob stood there for a moment, and then went away too. Sam let his eyes sink closed, and took a deep breath and thought about getting the feeling back into his legs and his arms, even though his legs were on fire from the whipping. Maybe he had a headache, too, he didn't know.

Then someone, probably Dad, came with a cool washcloth in his hand and wiped Sam's face with it. Sam felt the tension in his head relaxing a little bit, though when the washcloth moved over his mouth where Dean had punched him, it stung, so Sam pushed it away, feeling Dad's knuckles and the wet cloth beneath the palm of his hand.

"Better?" asked Dad. His voice was so close to Sam's ear, he sounded like he was kneeling down.

Sam nodded.

"You hungry?" asked Dad, his voice falling away as though he were standing up.

Sam nodded again. "Noodles," he said. "Tuna and noodles."

"Noodles," said Dad. The sound of his footsteps told Sam that he was walking away.

Sam waited a few minutes, and took several deep breaths until the inside of his head stopped spinning. After a bit, he took a deep breath, and opened his eyes. Dean was by the table, setting it, and Dad was at the stove.

Sam's stomach raced around and growled, so he patted it, and he thought he could smell tuna. Dad was making tuna noodle casserole, like Sam wanted, and he would probably put peas in it, like he usually did. Sam didn't like peas, but he was hungry enough, so he would probably just eat them and not make a fuss about it. Not that anyone would notice or care. They would just be glad, Dad and Dean both, that Sam was finally falling into line.

Well, they could think that all they wanted; they could think it forever if they liked. Just because Sam was going to eat the peas, it didn't mean that he was going to agree with everything Dad wanted, that he was going to be the boy that Dad wanted him to be.

Problem was, the boy Dad wanted Sam to be was exactly the type of boy Dean was, and always had been. Which was, in spite of Dad, the boy Sam wanted to be; he wanted to be like Dean. Dean, who was in love with everything that Dad did, and everything that Dad was and wore and liked. Trouble was, if he tried to be like Dean, then he'd be like Dad wanted him to be. Only he didn't want to do that, so was he being stubborn just to be stubborn, like Dean was always saying?

But Sam liked Dean, liked him a lot. And liking Dean, well, that meant he should like everything that Dean was. Right? Only he didn't. Not all the time. Like today, Dean had been on Dad's side the second he'd come out of the cabin, and he'd automatically assumed that whatever had happened had been Sam's fault. Even though it had been, today, Dean never took his side.

"Sam."

Sam looked up and realized he'd been scowling at his sneakered feet and that he was sticking with sweat to the couch, and that he'd been lying on the welts the belt had left and there was no way he was getting off this couch without a crowbar.

"Supper."

Dean walked over to him, and he wasn't a blob anymore. He'd washed up and changed his shirt, and he held out his hand to Sam. Sam took it and Dean pulled him up from the couch and didn't say anything about the fight, or that Sam should just buck up and do it Dad's way.

Instead he just looked at Sam and nodded, as if he and Sam had been having a conversation and Dean was agreeing with him. As he turned away, he said, "Dad said to change your shirt."

Sam looked down. There was dried snot on his sleeve that was black with dirt, and something dark that was probably dried blood right along his shirt collar. "Okay," he said.

He hurried into the bathroom to wash his hands and face, and then, still dripping, he went into the bedroom and stripped off his shirt and threw it on the pile. He didn't have a clean t-shirts left, so he took one of Dean's, which was a little big, but there was no help for it. As he walked out of the bedroom and sat down at the table in his regular chair, Dad was dishing out huge mounds of tuna casserole.

"Dean, pour the milk," said Dad.

"We're out," said Dean.

Sam looked at the tuna noodle casserole that Dad had served him. There was enough on the plate for two helpings, all gooey with cheese, and as far as he could see, there were no peas. There were onions, but Sam liked those. He picked up his fork; he'd been totally willing to eat those peas, but probably it was better not to mention that right about now. So he just started eating.

*

It took three days for the backs of Sam's legs to feel like anything other than wooden posts. On the runs he and Dean did in the morning, he had to walk until he could run, and it took him forever to catch up to Dean, and even then, Dean was back at the cabin long before Sam was. But Dean didn't tease him and Dad didn't say anything about it, like he usually did if Sam was slow. Stuff like, try a little harder next time, Sam. Or if he was in a bad mood, he'd say, Sam you can't walk the whole two miles.

Instead Dad made him drink some water before he started the run, and when Sam came back, Dad had a glass of water waiting on the countertop in the cool of the cabin. The water was from the tap so it wasn't too warm or too cold. The drink usually helped a little bit and Sam didn't feel as dizzy after the run. Not that he was going to tell Dad that. If he did, Dad would just make him run three miles instead of the two.

Today, in the cool darkness of the cabin, Dad had the glass of water waiting for them, one for him and one for Dean, and as they stood there and drank, Dad pointed to the knives he had laid out on the table.

Right away, as soon as Dean was done with his glass of water, he moved in close, wiping his hands on his jeans.

"We gonna throw knives, today?" he asked.

"For a few days," said Dad, coming close behind Dean. "Then we'll do some rope work and mix the two up."

"Sounds good," said Dean.

Sam didn't say anything, but put his glass down and stood next to Dean. Even though he'd not worked with them a lot, Sam actually liked knives for some reason. Maybe that was because they were quieter than rifles or guns, and they were less complicated than the crossbow. He didn't really know why he liked knives. He didn't really understand how he could like anything about training to be a hunter; he was still working out how to hate hunting a little less even if only so that Dean could enjoy it more.

"Okay, Sam?" asked Dad. Sam nodded his head, but it wasn't like Dad was asking his permission, Dad just wanted to make sure Sam was paying attention.

"Fine, now listen up." Dad pointed to one of the knives on the table. It was a regular hunting knife. "This is a cutting knife, and it has a jagged edge made for cutting, whereas a throwing knife--" Here Dad picked up a knife that was all smooth, except that the point looked very sharp. "A throwing knife doesn't have an edge for cutting, and that's because you could cut yourself with it very easily if it did."

"What if you need to throw and you don't have a throwing knife?" Sam asked, in spite of himself; he didn't really care about any of this.

"Then you throw whatever you have on hand," said Dad. "But if you practice with a throwing knife enough, you could probably make it work. Here, Sam, hold this."

Dad picked up the throwing knife and put it in Sam's hands. Sam hefted it. It was heavy and the metal was dull; compared to Dean's favorite hunting knife, it wasn't very pretty to look at.

"That's called a Faka, and it's about seven ounces," said Dad. "It's a good starter weight for you."

"What about me?" asked Dean. Dean had trained with throwing knives last summer for a few weeks with Dad and liked to brag to Sam how good he was because Dad had told him he was a natural.

That's when Dad smiled, his teeth flashing white. "I've got something for you, Dean," he said. "It's a flying knife. Here." He pulled a small package towards him that had been sitting on the table and handed it to Dean.

Dean undid the tape and the paper and rolled the knife out in his hand. The sheath gleamed darkly, and the hilt had a dull shine that was a lot like the one the crossbow had. When, Dean pulled the knife out of the hilt to look at it, and the blade was almost as narrow as a stiletto, and Sam could see right away how deadly it was.

"The fun part about this one," said Dad, standing up, "is that it doesn't spin. You'll have to learn a whole new throwing style."

"Cool," said Dean, and Sam sighed. Every time he thought he was catching up, or getting used to something, Dad had to go and dazzle Dean with some new way of doing something that was dangerous, and probably against the law. Sam was pretty sure while his Faka was legal, the flying knife wasn't.

"Okay, boys," said Dad, leading the way, "let's go outside."

Into the sun they went, directly out to the lower edge of the field where they practiced on target shooting and sparring. The field was very wide and long and almost flat. It was hemmed on three sides by trees, and Dean kept the grass short by using the scythe about once a week.

The targets on the piles of hay bales were looking a little ratty. Sam remembered painting the targets on butcher paper; the circles he'd made were a little lopsided, but at least the edges of the circles were clear. Dad would probably put them to work painting new targets soon, but for now, they were going to throw knives.

"We'll start with you, Sam," said Dad. "Show me you remember the stance for throwing."

That part was easy, his left foot went at 12 o'clock and his right foot, further back, was at about 2 o'clock. Sam did this, then shifted his weight till he was on the balls of his feet, and he bent his knees.

"Good. Now keep your shoulders level and grab the knife by the handle."

"Like a hammer," said Dean, chiming in.

Sam rolled his eyes, but Dad just ignored Dean and came up to Sam to examine his stance.

"Keep relaxed, and hold the knife level with the spot where you want it to land." Dad clamped his hands on Sam's shoulders and pressed down for a minute. Then he let go and looked from Sam to the target. "Don't worry about making it, Sam. If it falls short, we'll tighten the distance, I just want to see how far you can make it."

Sam looked at the target. He already knew he was too far away from it, but, if Dad knew that, then Sam would just have to throw. So he did, hefting the knife in his hand and then letting it fly. The knife spun silver in the air for a few good turns and then landed in the dirt about halfway to the target.

"Okay, move up."

Dad got the blade and wiped it on his jeans, and then handed it to Sam, handle first. Then Sam moved up and settled his stance, shifting his shoulders to move his hot t-shirt against his skin, wishing for cooler air.

"You should be close enough now," Dad said. "Don't just aim wild, pick out an element on the target, like a tear or where blue turns to red. Aim there. And keep it level."

Dad stepped back, and he must have pulled Dean with him, because suddenly Sam was all alone. It was just him and the knife and the target. He picked out a spot where the hay was poking through in the bulls eye, then he took a deep breath and swung his arm and let the knife go. It circled in the air two fill times and then bounced off the target and fell to the grass.

"Nice try, Sam, go get it and try again. This time, go closer, you'll stick it, I promise."

Trying to keep his impatience to himself, Sam went over and picked up the knife and wiped it on his shorts, like Dad had done.

"Move up till you're about ten feet away, Sam," said Dad, and Sam scooted up till he was close enough to see every wrinkle in the cardboard, every tuft of hay from the bales underneath, every hole that he and Dean had made that summer. "Try it now."

Sam breathed in slowly and made his stance. Keeping his arm level, he concentrated on the one spot where the hay was sticking through, and let the handle go with a snap. The knife rotated through the air one and a half times, and then the blade sunk itself deep, with the handle down.

"Too close," said Dad. Dean didn't say anything, and Sam just stared at the knife for a second, feeling the sweat building on his scalp and wondering how he could enjoy doing this at all. How, when he hated everything that it represented.

"Keep it going, Sam," said Dad, now.

Sam picked up the knife and moved back a little bit. He wiped the knife off again, and ran the back of his hand across his forehead and wiped that on his shorts, too. And this time, when he threw the knife, it spun perfectly, two times, and when the point was in, the handle blade was level.

"It's easy to do when you try," said Dad. Which meant that he felt that Sam hadn't been trying before. Which he had. But as he turned, Sam caught Dean's face; there was a pleased look about him, a little smile, his eyes shining.

"Yeah," said Sam, instead of saying anything else. He wanted not to ruin everything for Dean, even if that meant not saying something when he wanted to, even when he was right. "Let Dean have a turn, now, okay?"

Dad nodded, and Sam moved back to stand next to Dad while Dean took position in front of the target.

Sam loved watching Dean throw knives, because Dean loved doing it. His eyes gleamed, and his whole face smiled as he lined up his feet to the 12 and the 2.

Dean unsheathed the flying knife and put the sheath in his pocket. Normally, Sam knew, you'd have the sheath strapped to your belt or your leg, but now they were only practicing and so it didn't matter so much. Sam held the warm blade of the Faka in his hand because Dad wouldn't want him putting it in the dirt.

Dean tested the weight of the blade in his hand.

"How do I throw this, Dad?" he asked, not turning back to look. All of his concentration was focused forward.

"Put your finger in the hole and balance it," Dad said. "See how the weight rests? Think about it like you would throwing a spear."

That wasn't really fair, because Sam didn't think Dean had ever thrown a spear, but naturally, because Dean was the perfect, adaptable son, he tried it and nodded without looking back at Dad.

"I see," Dean said.

"Move it up a bit," Dad said. "Up to fourteen paces away."

"I can do it from here," Dean said, insisting. But he scooted up a little anyway, and dipped his chin as he positioned his finger in the hole in the handle.

From where he was standing, Sam saw Dean's eyelashes flick up as he eyed the distance to the target. Dean was so amazing when he was like this, so bright and focused and whole; even though what he was training for made Sam mad, his brother was beautiful. Not that Sam would ever tell anyone, especially not Dean.

Dean shifted back and threw the blade. As Dad had promised, it flew straight, without spinning, so there was no need to calculate for the turns. But it fell in the grass, cutting through the dirt just like a quarrel did.

Dean trotted up to get the knife and came back to Dad, wiping the blade on his shorts. "What did I do wrong?" he asked Dad.

Dad met him halfway. "I think it's your arm," Dad said. He turned Dean around to face the target. "You had the right stance, but with this blade, you need to hold your arm higher. Like this, bottom of your arm parallel to the ground." Dad pulled Dean's arm up, a little roughly, but Dean didn't seem to mind. "Don't go any lower than this, understand?"

Dean nodded. Sweat rolled down in front of his ear, reminding Sam how hot it was, but Dean was still smiling even though he was concentrating, and Sam made himself not say anything. He didn't even snort.

Dean set the blade in his hand, adjusted his finger, and, shifting his weight, threw the knife. It went like an arrow would, straight and zinging through the air, and landed with a good, solid thwunk in the target, right on the edge of the bulls eye.

"Nice," said Dad, and he came up to clap Dean on the shoulder, and Dean practically shook with pleasure.

This small bit of praise would take Dean to the moon and back. Sam struggled not to roll his eyes, but the best he could manage was to roll them without Dad seeing him.

"Let's try it again, Dean," said Dad. "Try moving back a step with each throw, and we'll see how far you get today."

Sam settled himself in the dirt, cross-legged, and rested the Faka on one knee. The metal was warm. He ran his finger along the edge where it felt pretty dull all the way up the blade, that is, until he pricked his skin on the tip. He sucked his finger in his mouth and didn't say anything because it looked like Dad and Dean were all worked up about the flying knife and would soon forget about Sam. That was the way it went, mostly. But then, Dad wouldn't be all focused on Sam, and Sam could enjoy watching Dean, watching Dean enjoy his summer.

*

"Okay, now do a bowline knot," said Dad. "I'll time you."

Sam's arm was sore from throwing knives for three days, but they were working with knots now, which was a lot easier. He reached for the pile of rope in front of him and took the end. For a second, he held the soft rope in his hands because he wanted to enjoy this moment, with the three of them, sitting in the shady woods, deep beneath the dark green bower of a group of mountain laurels.

The dirt was soft and cool against Sam's bare legs, and there was a jug of water standing by with cheese and crackers for a snack, and no one, especially not Dad, seemed to be in any hurry. It was nice for once to be training this way, slow and easy, and it was a huge change from the stringent days of knife throwing, with 15 minutes in the morning and 15 in the afternoon, and sometimes 15 more minutes just after it got dark, just to see how they would do.

But finally that had stopped and now they were spending the morning working the rope and learning to tie knots. That is, learning to tie knots faster; Sam guessed; both he and Dean already knew all the knots there were to know, so learning to tie them faster was easy, just plain easy.

Dad's stopwatch started ticking; he wanted to time them both going at the same time. Dean was good with ropes, his fingers were always so nimble, and he was always faster than Sam, so a few more seconds wouldn't make any difference to Sam, as long as Sam's time generally improved.

Dad caught Sam just sitting there watching Dean, so Dad gave Sam the hairy eyeball. Sam dipped his head and concentrated on the knot, slipping the right end, the near end, Dad called it, through the bight, under, then over, and then under again. He'd done this so many times he could almost do it with his eyes closed, so he did. He closed them and finished the knot, taking the near end over again and then down through the bight and then he drew it tight.

"Good, Sammy," said Dad.

Sam's eyes flew open; it was only a little bit of praise but it made him want to squirm anyway. Dad was looking at him with a glint in his eyes, dark brows lowered as if he were concentrating on what he was seeing. He was seeing exactly what he wanted to see, of course. And that was Dean, tying knots faster than anyone alive, and Sam, his youngest, in whom he was almost always sorely disappointed, taking it up another notch by doing it pretty fast anyway, even with his eyes closed.

"Fast is good," said Dad, nodding at Dean.

Dean nodded back, and wiped his hands on his t-shirt, leaving blackish streaks behind. He seemed only slightly abashed at the open praise from Dad, but Sam could see the sweat on the back of Dean's neck, and how hard he was concentrating.

"It's always good to be fast, but it's good to know how to do it without looking."

Dean didn't know that Dad was making Dean to it like Sam had done, with his eyes closed, but Sam did. It was like Dad was cutting Dean down, saying he wasn't good enough, and it made Sam mad. Dean was the best at everything, why did Dad have to be mean to him all the time? At least he'd not added, Do it the way Sam did it, but that was the only thing keeping Sam's mouth shut.

"This is important," Dad said, going on, like he always did, making a point by driving the idea into the ground. "If it's too dark to see, or if something's coming at you, you might need to tie a knot without looking. Or untie it, but we'll get to that in a minute."

Dad looked at them both with dark, serious eyes, and Sam realized how calmly he was talking; there'd been no yelling all morning long. Sam didn't know why, maybe it was because both of them were paying close attention, and Sam hadn't said much of anything, so Dad had had nothing much to yell at.

Sam picked up a new, unknotted piece of rope. He looked at Dean. Dean was so fast at this, he always was; it would be hard to do it as good as Dean, even when Dean's eyes were closed, too, but Sam wanted to try.

"Just do your best, Sam" said Dad, catching Sam at this. Dad always knew what Sam was thinking. "Ready? Close your eyes and go."

Sam closed his eyes and formed the bight and did the over under over under till he heard the click and opened his eyes. Dean was already done but Sam was almost done, so he quickly shut his eyes and finished the knot. Dad clicked the stopwatch again. When he opened his eyes, Sam looked at the knot in his hands. It was sloppy and the near end was too long, but it was still a good knot and would hold.

"Almost as fast as with your eyes opened, both of you." Dad shifted to put the stop watch in his pocket and then nodded at them to untie the knots. This was easy to do; the rope was nylon and soft from being new.

When the pile of white, slightly dusty, rope was all undone, Dad pulled the green canvas bag that had held their supplies closer to him.

"We're going to try something a little different now, okay?"

Sam nodded, though he didn't understand why Dad was asking instead of telling was beyond him. Still, as long as they stayed sitting in the cool shade, working with their hands and their minds, Sam could do this all day.

Dad pulled several longish lengths of rope made of hemp out of the canvas bag and laid it in the dirt in the middle of their crossed legs.

"Pick up a piece of rope and feel it in your hands. It's rough, but you never know what kind of rope you'll have on hand and when you'll need it so it's good to get used to different kinds. Got it?"

Sam held the rope in his hands and rolled in against his palm, feeling the prickly edges. He nodded and Dean did too. All of this made sense, except for Dad's slow pace and the careful way he kept checking in with them.

"It's important to be able to work with rope, no matter what, even if something's coming at you." Dad nodded, and then looked at Dean.

"Dean, hold out your hands."

Dead held out his hands right away, ready for whatever Dad was going to do, trusting in all things Dad-related in a way that made Sam mad. But when he saw that Dad was tying Dean's hand together, Sam's pulse began to race a little. It was like a flash in his mind; he could see where this was going.

"Dad, wait--" said Sam.

From beneath dark brows, Dad cast him a quick, hard look. "This is important, Sam," said Dad. It also shut Sam up, and made him cold all over, because Dad was perfectly serious, and very, very calm.

Dad continued tying Dean's hands together tightly, as though not concerned that the rough hemp was biting into Dean's wrists.

Dean looked at Sam, his eyes wide, as Dad finished tying the knot.

"There," said Dad. "Can you get free?"

Dean bent his head and struggled to pull his hands, pushing one fist and pulling with the other. But he had to give up or tear his skin, so he did, shaking his head as he looked at Dad, as if fearful that Dad would find fault in him because he failed. "Nope," he said.

Dad quickly reached over and undid the knots. As Dean rubbed his wrists, Sam could see his throat working, freckles standing out beneath his tan. He'd not liked being tied up, but of course he wasn't going to complain. Then Dad looked at Sam and Sam knew it was his turn, even though he didn't want to.

"C'mon, Sam," said Dad in that same, calm, low voice. Dad wasn't getting worked up, so Sam knew he wasn't supposed to get worked up either. But it was hard; his heart was starting to thump already.

"It's only for a minute, Sam, but you need to understand what it feels like, you need to get used to it." The top of Dad's lip glittered with sweat, and his hair stuck to his forehead, but he looked at Sam as though he didn't notice, because what he was saying was the most important thing.

"Why?" asked Sam. His voice was shaking a little bit. He wasn't trying to make a fuss, like he usually would, he really wanted to understand before he let Dad do this to him.

"You never know, Sam" said Dad. "It might never happen, but if it does, you need to know what it feels like so you don't panic. Panic is the killer."

Sam knew that Dad had said this a hundred times, panic is the killer, or something like it, that panic is a surefire way to get hurt, or panic is what will end you. And while it was probably true, Sam was pretty sure Dean never had to learn any of this stuff when he was thirteen.

"But I don't see why--" He wanted to ask why anyone would want to tie him up, but Dad stopped him.

"Because," said Dean, exasperation clear in his voice. "You're a mouthy little bi--"

"Dean."

"Brat," said Dean firmly.

"It'll only be for a minute, Sam," said Dad, glaring at Dean.

It was only a matter of time before Dad got irritated enough to tie Sam's hands whether he wanted to have them tied or not, so Sam knew he had to give in. He held out his hands and kept his eyes focused on a spot somewhere in the middle of Dad's chest. He didn't want to look at Dean and see Dean's exasperated expression or hear the frustration in Dean's voice as he chided Sam, yet again, for ruining Dean's summer. Sam had been trying to hard not to do that, had been doing so well up till now, he didn't want to mess it up.

So Sam took a deep breath and held very still while Dad started wrapping the rope around Sam's wrists.

"Don't hold your breath, Sam," said Dad. "At least not right now. Just breathe slowly, in and out, and count for each breath, one, two, three, four. Like this." Dad demonstrated, breathing very slowly and deeply, his mouth moving silently as he counted.

Sam nodded and let out the pressure in his chest and tried to count his breaths in and out, going slower than his heartbeat, one-and-two, three-and-four, but it was hard. The blood thumped behind his eyes, and the rope twisted and tugged as Dad tied the insides of Sam's wrists together.

"Keep counting with each breath, Sam."

The rope bit into Sam's skin and hurt a little bit, though Sam doubted he'd get any sympathy so he didn't say anything.

When Dad was finished, he cupped the bottom of Sam's bound hands, supporting them.

"Sam, do you feel--Sam, look at me."

Sam flicked his eyes up and looked at Dad. He looked back at Sam, grave and still, his eyes dark. There was absolutely no anger lurking in them.

"Do you feel how your hands are heavier? Do you feel the rope on your skin?"

Sam nodded, gulping. Oh, he felt it alright.

Dad nodded back, very slowly.

"Good. Now, wiggle your fingers. See if you can wiggle your way out." This was the same instructions he'd given to Dean, even though the words had been different for Sam than they had for Dean. Dad meant, fight your way free.

Sam did this. He was trying to do it exactly right, like Dean had done, but as much as he wiggled, the rope only cut and chafed, but didn't loosen.

The back of his neck grew hot and he struggled; this was definitely not going to add points in his favor, but then Dean hadn't been able to get free either, so maybe that was okay. Sam was just about to jerk his wrists up in panic, when Dad quickly, and with deft fingers, undid the rope and let them slide away into the dirt. But Dad still held Sam's clenched fists in one hand and he hefted them.

"See, Sam?" asked Dad. "Feel the difference? The rope doesn't weigh very much; it's the pressure of the ropes and your panic that makes it feel like it weighs more."

Sam clenched and unclenched his fists in the warm circle of Dad's hands and his arms were so light they felt like they could float away. Dad let go of his hands and reached for the rope again.

"Good," said Dad. He gestured to Dean. "Now we're going to try that again, only a little differently this time. Dean first."

Dean held out his hands, almost smiling as though he knew where this training was going and how to be good at it. But even if he didn't like being tied up, he always liked being there, with Dad, and even with Sam, especially now, because Sam was doing his darndest not to piss Dean off. But it was going to be hard to keep it up because Sam didn't like the feeling of the rope around his wrists at all and it looked like there was going to be more of that.

"If you're being tied up," said Dad, "when you're being tied up, tighten your muscles."

"Why?" asked Dean.

Dad didn't react the way he usually did when Sam asked why, and that was because Dean's questions came from Dean--even if they were the same questions that Sam was voicing in his own head: Yeah, but why? Sam was glad Dean had asked, because if Sam had asked it, that would have set Dad off.

To Dean's question, Dad only said, "Because it'll increase the size of your arms or legs or whatever. It's not much, but it's enough to give you a little bit more room to move under the ropes and get free."

Dean nodded; he understood this and Sam did too. But he didn't have to like it.

"Get ready," said Dad.

Dean took a deep breath and tightened his muscles and waited perfectly still while Dad quickly looped the rope and tightened the knots around his wrists. His muscles were clenched so tightly that Sam could see Dean start to tremble and sweat beaded across his forehead. Dad quickly cupped the bottom of Dean's clenched fists much like he had with Sam.

Then Dad said, "Okay, let your breath out."

All at once Dean let out a whoosh of air and relaxed his muscles. His back curved as he slumped forward; there was a big patch of sweat in the middle of his back. Dad ran his finger along one of the curves of the rope across the bones on the top of Dean's hand. Then he pulled the rope up.

"See? There's a little bit of slack there now, and if you don't panic, or thrash, if you don't jerk, you can ease free. Or at least you'll have a better chance at it. Try it."

Dad released Dean's hands. "Keep breathing," he said.

Concentrating, Dean laid his clenched fists against one bent knee. Then he began to tug a little and loosened his fingers to wiggle them, and pretty soon, the rope was a piled brown snake in the dust beside his knee. Dean's wrists looked raw and the backs of his hands had little red scratches, but he didn't seem to notice this as he beamed at Dad.

"That was an easy knot," said Sam.

"No, Sam," said Dad. "It wasn't. It was a good, hard knot, and Dean got free, fair and square. Now it's your turn."

Sam wanted to say no. As a matter of fact, he wanted to stand up and stomp back to the cabin and refuse to do any of it. He figured it was better to cause a fuss and have Dad yell at him for that, than to admit that the idea of being tied up again, even if only for a minute, with both Dad and Dean close by, made his heart race. His hands didn't like it one little bit; he clenched them against his thighs that were suddenly slick with sweat.

"I'll be right here, Sam," said Dad, his voice still quiet. "It'll only be for a minute and you'll get more used to it each time."

One look at Dean's face and Sam knew there was no way out of this. Dean was already wearing that expression like he expected Sam was going to mess everything up by pitching a fit. Though Dean had been mean to Sam a lot this summer, he'd been nice too; either way, he still didn't deserve to have Sam always mess everything up.

"Okay," said Sam, and he held up his arms, wrists together. Blood echoed in his ears.

"Bunch up your muscles, Sam, make fists of your hands. Keep counting and breathing."

Sam did as he was told and counted his heartbeats and breaths, clenching as hard as he could while Dad tied the knot around his clenched fists. It was the same knot as Dad had tied around Dean, Sam saw, so maybe this could work.

Dad finished the knot and held Sam's fists, as he'd done before. "Now let go," said Dad.

Sam released his muscles and took a deep, gasping breath. Then he watched as Dad traced the very narrow gap the between the rope and the top of Sam's fists. Dad's finger brushed against Sam's skin and he shivered.

"See?" said Dad. He pushed up the ropes with one hand. "Just a little bit of a gap, but it's enough to work with. Provided," he added, his voice stern, "provided you don't panic and jerk around."

He let go and Sam laid his tied fists on one bent knee, like Dean had done. He twitched his fingers and relaxed his hands. He shimmied his wrists back and forth, palms sweating. He tugged a little bit. He flexed. He did everything he'd seen Dean do, but nothing worked. In fact, he could feel the rope biting even more into his skin, just as hard as it had when his muscles were all bunched up. With one last, fierce tug, the rope tightened until it was really tight, and now it hurt.

He threw up his hands. The rope didn't even shift. "I can't get it."

"That's okay, it's just your first time."

"But Dean was able to do it!"

"I'm not working with Dean, right now, Sam, just calm down."

Sam jerked his fists again, pulling both his hands against his chest in an effort to dislodge the rope that way, but the knot held. Now the rope was so tight, he could feel the blood pumping beneath his skin and his fingers were starting to swell and go numb.

"Stop," said Dad. He clasped Sam's fists between his hands. His hands were hot against Sam's cold skin. "You'll only make it worse. Remember, panic never helps."

That was a new version of Dad's dumb advice but it didn't make any different. With a little gasp, Sam tried to pull his hands away, but Dad had them firmly in his grip. Then Dad jerked his chin at Dean.

"Dean, try to untie him." He handed Sam's fists over to Dean and Dean took them. He tried to untie Sam, worked at the knot, even ripped a fingernail trying. All at once, he looked up, eyes wide, looking at Sam. "I can't do it, they're too tight."

He didn't sound like he blamed Sam for this, even if Sam knew it was his own fault. But Dean, of course, would blame himself for failing to be perfect in anything that Dad had told him to do. Sam felt bad that he'd put Dean in this position, but that was nothing compared to the mad pounding of his heart against his breastbone. It was ridiculous, Dad and Dean were right there, only right now he wanted out.

"Get me out, Dean," said Sam, his voice breaking.

"Here," said Dad, and for a second Sam thought Dad was going to try and undo the knot. Maybe he could have before, but now the knot was hard, like the rope had been glued together, and nobody, not even Dad, was going to be able to undo that knot and get him free.

Dad didn't even try. Instead, Dad handed Dean a hunting knife, handle first, the serrated edge silver against Dad's palm.

"Cut him loose--and this is lesson number two: always have a sharp knife handy."

Dean took the knife and hefted it in one hand and took Sam's shaking fists in the other hand. He was about to start cutting, when Dad stopped him.

"What are you doing?"

"Cutting Sam free." There was the smallest bit of a tremor in Dean's voice; he leaned toward Sam like he wanted to cut Sam free more than anything else.

"Think about it. Yes, you normally cut away from yourself with any sharp knife, but if the other person can't move, do you really want to be cutting towards them? What if the knife slips?"

Dean froze. Sam could see him thinking this through, but he seemed distracted, only Sam didn't know by what.

"Dean--" Sam said, and he wanted to say more, but Dad was reaching out to turn the knife in Dean's hand, and to help support Sam's fists.

"Find the narrowest point of the rope, and cut down," said Dad. "Concentrate as you cut, and if the knife slips, direct it down and away, understand?"

Dean nodded, eyes focused on the knot, and then, when he found the narrow point, right beside the knot, he started cutting. Sam's hands were throbbing, and his breath was sharp in his throat, but Dean was going to do this, Dean was going to cut him free. He barely noticed that Dad kept his hands where they were, cupped under Sam's, warm and steady and still.

With the serrated edge of the knife, Dean sawed through the rope, little by little, breathing slowly, keeping his eyes on what he was doing, and not at all looking at Sam. He kept at it till, with a quick flick as the knife, slipped through the rope and free, Dean twisted his wrist and the flat of the blade slipped harmlessly off of Sam's bent, bare knee. The rope bounced away from Sam's wrists, and as his hands continued to throb, all he could feel was the warm hollow of Dean's hands, and Dad's rough fingers as they gripped Dean's hand.

"Nice," said Dad. "Textbook perfect."

Dean smiled and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand. He handed the knife back to Dad. Nobody said anything nice to Sam, but they wouldn't even though he'd been the one suffering. He clasped his hands together and unclasped them, trying to get the blood flowing.

"Now, let's try that again," said Dad.

"I don't want to do this anymore," said Sam, in spite of himself.

Both Dean and Dad looked at him. Dad shook his head, probably with disbelief that Sam was such a lightweight. But Dad stopped and fed them cheese and crackers and water just the same, and for a while, as they ate and drank, the little spot under the trees was quiet and peaceful and nice.

When they were done, Dad put the lid bag on the jug of water, wiped the knife on the back of his thigh, and put the food back in the canvas bag.

"Okay, Dean," said Dad. "Now tie Sam's wrists together, and let me see if you can untie him."

Sam hesitated, but realized there was no getting out of it, so he held out his wrists for Dean, palms together. Dean looked at him and Sam nodded, thinking that it was nice that Dean was waiting till he was ready. And Dean tied the knot as tightly as Dad had and almost as neatly.

Dad reached for Sam's hands and tested the knot.

"You forgot to hold your breath, Sam," said Dad.

Sam frowned; it wasn't like he could remember everything all the time. But of course, Dad expected him to.

"You have to concentrate, Sam," said Dad. "Doesn't matter which end of the rope you're on." Then Dad nodded at Dean, and Dean untied the knot around Sam's wrists.

Sam sucked on his still-sore lip and ducked his head. He didn't want to look at Dad and see the expression on his face; it didn't seem to matter how hard Sam tried, Dad was never satisfied. Dean, of course, was perfect.

Dad got out a different rope; it was thin like the nylon but still prickly and stiff like the hemp rope. He made them hold some of it in their hands, and as Sam ran his fingers across it, he could see how it would be tricky; the little spars on the rope would keep any knot from coming loose, but it would also make it harder to untie someone.

"Your turn, Sam," said Dad. "Hold out your hands, Dean."

Dean held out his hands, and Sam waited till Dean had taken a deep breath and had tightened his muscles. Then he tied the knot around Dean's wrists as fast as he could, and he left it a little loose on purpose because he didn't want the rope hurting Dean. And maybe, because he wanted to be able to untie the rope as fast as Dean had.

But then Dad got out the stopwatch, and looked at Sam. It was so hot under the trees, suddenly, and Sam couldn't believe that Dad was going to time him. He wanted to protest because Dad hadn't timed Dean doing this very same thing. He even opened his mouth to say Dean didn't have to do this, but Dad just looked at him, just ready for Sam to be a smartmouth about it

It took everything Sam had not to say something, just everything. He clenched his jaw and took Dean's tied wrists in his hand and nodded at Dad that he was ready to start. But instead of starting the stopwatch, Dad reached over and twitched on the rope a little bit, and it tightened just to the point where it bit into Dean's skin. Dean released the breath he'd been holding, but the rope was as tight as ever.

Sam couldn't believe it, now it was going to be impossible. He scowled fiercely at Dean's wrists, and waited; he didn't want to look at anybody, because if he did, he would end up saying exactly what he thought, which wouldn't help anything.

When Dad started the stopwatch, Sam started working on the rope. But the knots were so tight, his fingers could only fumble at the edges. Dean had to hold his arms out straight so Sam could work on the knots, but it was taking so long that his hands were starting to shake. Sam scrabbled and tugged, but the knots held.

Finally Dad clicked the stopwatch off and set it in the dirt and Dean let his hands fall into his lap.

"You only make it harder on yourself and your brother when you panic, Sam," said Dad, shaking his head.

Sam hadn't been panicking; he knew that, it was just that Dad had tightened the knots tight, impossibly tight. It was absolutely unfair.

Dad didn't care what Sam thought. He just held out the serrated knife, handle first.

"You know what to do," said Dad.

Yes, Sam knew what to do. He had to cut his brother loose, and all the while he was shaking with fury; Dad had made it harder for Sam on purpose.

"C'mon, Sammy," said Dean. "I'm starting to go numb in my fingers."

Sam looked up. Dean held out his wrists, smiling a little bit; he was trying to make it nice for Sam. And Sam remembered that he was going to try, for Dean, at least, and part of that trying was going along with what Dad was trying to teach them. Which was what? Oh, yeah, to not panic, and to remember all the steps.

Sam took the knife from Dad, and hefted it in his hand. He knew he was supposed to find a thin spot and start cutting, away and down. He could do that. He didn't know how fast he had to be, but Dad hadn't picked up the stopwatch yet so maybe that didn't matter.

He tugged Dean's wrists down till they were resting against Dean's bare knee.

"That's right, Sam," said Dad. "Find something to balance against."

Sam thrust out his chin, feeling mulish about it, but he didn't say anything to Dad. Instead, he concentrated on finding just the right spot, there, behind the bulk of the knot, and he started cutting. Well, sawing, actually, with little back and forth motions, taking his time till just as he got to the last part of the rope, and then he hurried.

It happened in a flash. The knife cut through the rope and the edge of the blade was headed straight toward Dean's leg. To keep from cutting Dean, Sam jerked the blade in his hand, away and down, almost without realizing he was doing it. The tip of the knife dug into Sam's left arm, leaving a little gouge, and welling up red right away and dripping into the dust.

Sam flung the knife down, and clamped his hand over his arm. He started scrambling to get up, but Dad grabbed him and made him sit still.

"Check it, Dean," said Dad. "See how deep it went."

Sam didn't know why Dad didn't check it himself, but maybe he knew that at this point, Sam was only going to let Dean see. Dean peeled back Sam's fingers, and Sam made himself look. Dean was shaking a little, and his fingers were red with blood. Sam's were too, but he could see that though the cut was a little deep, it wasn't very big. It was in a triangle shape, like he sometimes did to himself when he was too impatient for Dean to slice his apple for him.

Dean clamped down on the cut with his thumb and pressed hard. When he looked at Sam, his face was white enough so that Sam could see his freckles through his tan.

"It's okay, Dad," said Dean. "Just a nick."

It was a little more than a nick, at least it looked that way to Sam. And maybe Dad thought so too, because he stood up and gestured at Sam to get up.

"Come here, Sam. I'll wash it and we'll take care of it."

Sam got up. Dad bent over to get the jug of water and uncapped it. He moved a little bit away from their circle in the dust and while Dean watched, Dad held Sam's arm out looked at the cut. Then he poured the water from the jug. It stung, but Dad's grip was tight, so Sam couldn't pull away. The blood ran very thin, and Dad nodded, and dried the edges with his t-shirt. Then he ripped a little bit off the edge of the hem and wrapped it around Sam's forearm and tied a little knot.

"We'll get some first aid cream and a bandage for that later," said Dad. "It should hold for now." He patted Sam's arm and let him go. "That's what we call a field dressing."

Sam sat back down, cross-legged next to Dean. His arm only hurt a little bit, but he felt all twisted and dark inside. Most Dads, in fact, all the Moms and Dads at soccer practice, would have stopped the game, and patched up their kid with a real bandage, and then maybe given him (or her) some Kool-Aid and a cookie, and only after that, would the game have gotten back underway. But not Dad, oh no. He just slapped some dusty cotton on it and said it was okay.

"Cool," said Dean.

While Dad was busy getting out yet another rope, Sam looked at Dean. "Huh?" He couldn't imagine that Dean was glad that Sam had cut himself.

"Your first real field dressing," said Dean. He had a goofy grin, like this was a special event, as though Sam should be glad that he wasn't playing soccer on some nice, cool, green soccer field. That instead he was stuck in the hot woods, messing around with hard ropes and sharp knives, and very likely bleeding to death right this very minute.

Sam shook his head and rolled his eyes; sometimes Dean was so dumb.

*

They worked with the ropes all morning, over and over, until Sam almost got the hang of it. It really was true that you had to clamp down on the panic, or it wouldn't work. Not that he'd ever tell Dad that he was right. You had to hold on and keep breathing in and out, calmly, like you were really reading a book or something. Sam got better at keeping still, and keeping his mouth shut, but his head started to ache, and his wrists were a mess of scratches, but it was getting hotter and surely the sun was overhead now, meaning that it was time for lunch.

"Almost there," said Dad. "One more exercise, and then we're done."

He stood up and smacked the dirt from his jeans. "Get up, boys."

Both of them got up. Sam's legs were sore from sitting in one spot for so long, but he hoped they'd just do some more tests to see how fast each of them could tie knots, then they could go back to the cabin and he could lie on the couch (or sit next to Dean) and just stare at the TV for a while. He'd really like not to be in the woods anymore; he had three big bug bites on the back of his neck already.

Dad gestured to Sam, as he walked towards the trees, and Sam followed. Suddenly Dad grabbed him and spun him around and pressed him against the nearest tree. Very quickly, Dad tied his hands, and then spun the rope over Sam's head to wrap it around the tree. Sam could smell the dust and sweat on Dad's skin as Dad pulled the rope tight, and then he adjusted the knots, testing them.

"Dad?" asked Dean. His voice was very small.

Sam felt his eyes widen; his chest tightened like someone was pressing on it.

"Keep breathing, Sam." Dad kept his eyes on Sam and didn't pay attention to Dean. "This is a lesson in how to be ready, how to manage this on your own. I'm going to leave you here, tied to this tree. When you get untied, come back to the cabin. If you can't do it, we'll repeat the exercise till you can. Dean, you're next."

Dad snapped his attention at Dean, and suddenly, Sam felt like he didn't exist. He watched as Dad picked up the canvas sack and stuffed all of the rope, and the water jug and the wax paper that the crackers had been wrapped in into it. Then he and Dean followed the dirt path and disappeared into the trees.

Sam was cold all over. He was very bad at getting himself free; half the time either Dad or Dean had to undo him; he had the cuts to prove it. There was no way he was going to be able to manage this. Dad had tied his hands the way he had been doing all day, but the ropes around the tree, and across his chest and legs? That was new; Sam didn't have a clue how to begin.

To Dad it was just an exercise, but it wasn't fair. Sam was not good at this, not at all. And he was scared, his heart was racing and he couldn't catch his breath, but Dad didn't care. Dad wouldn't care if he stayed out in the woods tied up all night, as long as Sam learned the lesson about how not to panic. How to untie himself. How to pretend it was just another ordinary training exercise, like how to sharpen a knife, or how to shoot a crossbow. Sam'd thought that was bad. This was miles worse.

The rope seemed a little loose just across his arms, and if he could get his arms all the way loose, he maybe could work at the rope around his wrists because that was a knot he was used to.

He jerked his arms up, he couldn't help it. And now he'd made it worse; everything was tight. The rope was the prickly kind, too, it bit into him everywhere it touched him. Trust Dad to do the hard test with the icky rope, trust Dad to walk off and not care that Sam had wanted to scream after him, Wait, Dad, I'll do better. It wasn't even some sort of punishment because Dad was tying Dean up, too. Doing the same thing, testing Dean the same way.

Dean, naturally, wouldn't be panicking. He'd be ready, he'd hold his breath and tighten his muscles while Dad tied him up. And then, prickly rope or not, Dean would be letting his breath and muscles go and he'd be working the ropes little by little, calmly breathing, just like Dad said. And then he'd be free and waltzing back to the cabin, where the two of them could have dinner, and maybe there'd be ice cold milk and cookies for desert. And there Sam would be, stuck in the woods when it got dark.

We'll repeat the exercise until you can, Dad had said. Did that mean he'd come and untie Sam and they'd try again tomorrow? Or did he mean he'd leave Sam there way past dark until he was successful? Knowing Dad, he'd pick the meaner choice, the one that was horrible, just to teach Sam not to panic.

Well, he was panicking now. His heart was racing so hard he could hear it, and he strained hard on the ropes, even though it was exactly the wrong thing to do. He jerked his right arm, and behind him, around the trunk of the tree, the rope snagged on something, Now it was extra tight, right along his breastbone. The rope pressed, narrowing the amount his chest could push out to breathe. His hands were going numb, just like they had earlier, and he couldn't call for help because there was no one nearby to hear him.

Dad would probably wait and wait and then wait some more until he was sure Sam had learned his lesson, then he'd come and untie Sam in time for bed. But it wouldn't be over, even then, because he'd make Sam repeat this every day, he'd keep tying Sam up until Sam figured it out and could get free on his own. And that would be forever, every day for the rest of his stupid life, because he could not do it. And it would not only make Dad mad, because Sam had yet again failed, but Dean would be disappointed, and would that make Dean mad, make him think Sam was doing it on purpose just to mess up Dean's summer. Then Dean would hate him for the rest of Sam's life.

His throat closed up, and his vision went wobbly as his eyes filled with tears. He couldn't help it. He tried to clamp his mouth shut, clench his teeth, but the tears poured down his face, and his throat insisted on making stupid crying sounds. He was shaking all over, making small tugging motions with his hands as the tears dripped off his chin and onto his once-white t-shirt.

He shut his eyes and tried to breathe but that didn't help, not one bit, and what if something was sneaking up on him in the woods and he was trapped tied to this stupid tree?

In fact, he heard it now, a loud, crashing noise as something came at him. His eyes flew open, and he tried to toss his head to get the bangs out of his eyes, and blink away his tears to see what was coming. There was a fog in front of his eyes, for a second, then he could see the trees move, and then he saw Dean, pushing through the branches as he came straight through the woods. Not on the path, but through the woods. He carried his rope in his hands; his wrists looked raw, and there was a rip in his t-shirt right across his stomach. He was coming straight for Sam with a determined look on his face.

Cool air seemed to sluice across his skin at the sight of his brother, rescuing him, and made Sam start to cry all over again. "Dean," he said, over the huge fist in his throat. "I tried and tried, but I c-c-couldn't do it--"

"Doesn't matter," said Dean, his voice low. He came right up to Sam, warm with sweat and dust, leaves in his hair, and dropped his rope at Sam's feet. "Just hold still, don't make it worse, okay? I'll get you out."

Sam's chest did a double hitch as he tried to stop crying, tried to keep still. Dean's hands worked on the knots around Sam's hands for a minute, then he shook his head as if remembering something, the sequence of how he'd done it before, maybe, then he moved behind Sam to work on the rope around the tree.

"Stop it," said Dean, and Sam realized he'd been moving so he could see what Dean was doing. That wasn't helping, so Sam made himself freeze. Dean made a grunting noise, and then the rope around Sam's chest fell in a puddle at Sam's feet. Then Dean was next to Sam again, breathing hard through his nose, concentrating, looking at the knot around Sam's wrists as he worked it.

"Dean--" said Sam, gulping. "I tried, I--" He wanted Dean to look at him, wanted to explain that he wasn't trying to ruin everything.

"Don't worry about it," said Dean. He looked at Sam with steady eyes as he drew his arm back and pulled a length of rope free. "We're gonna practice, you an' me, so you can do this better, so you don't look like--"

Dean went silent as his fingers scrabbled at the knot, his touch warm on Sam's cold, shocky skin. Then, with a quick breath, Sam's hands were free. "Just don't tell Dad, okay?" asked Dean with a slight catch in his voice.

Sam stepped away from the tree, and rubbed his wrists, rubbed his stomach, pulled his shirt away from his neck. "Me don't tell Dad?" he asked, even though he knew that saying mean things about Dad made Dean pissed at him. "I'm not the one who can't keep secrets from him."

Dean looked at Sam; the corners of his eyes were tilted downward. Sam realized it was a mean thing to say, especially after what Dean had just done for him and was going to do for him. Dean would teach Sam how to get out of the ropes, and, if all went well, Dad would never know.

Sam touched Dean's arm. "I won't tell," he said. He wouldn't let Dean tell either, which usually happened early on when Dean tried to tell lies to Dad. Sam would watch to see when Dean was just about to tell, and then Sam would jump in and say something to get Dad mad at him, it didn't matter what it was, just so Dean wouldn't get in trouble. Sam could just imagine how mad Dad would be, how angry and disappointed he'd be in Dean setting Sam free. That would make Dean feel bad, and Sam was determined that wouldn't happen.

"Okay," said Dean. He picked up Sam's rope and handed it to him. "Just wait a minute or two after I leave, then come back to the cabin. Like it's normal, you just untied yourself and that's all. He'll never know."

Although Dean's words sounded confident, his voice shook a little bit.

Sam only nodded at Dean; there was nothing he could say to make Dean feel better, he'd just have to protect Dean from his own, self-imposed code of Golden Boy ethics.

Dean went back in the direction where Dad had tied him up. Sam watched Dean's back, the level set of his shoulders, his summer-shorn hair, disappear through the trees. Which left Sam standing in the cool shade of the mountain laurel, sweating, salt on his face drying, and the rope dangling from his shaking hand. He wished he was far, far away from here, and grown up already, and could tell Dad no and mean it. That he could--

But there was nothing else he could do, but wait long enough and come out of the woods like he'd gotten free himself. So he counted to 60, using Mississippi between every number, and then down from sixty the same way. Figuring that ought to be enough, he started walking back to the cabin, following the dirt path until he got to the clearing.

Dean was just arriving at the bottom of the steps, handing his rope over to Dad. Sam couldn't hear what they were saying, but Dad tossed the rope onto the porch, and he gave Dean's shoulder a hearty clap. That's when he saw Sam; that's when Dean saw Sam; that's when Dean froze.

Sam walked up to the steps and handed Dad the rope like it was an everyday event. His heart was still pounding, and he could taste the salt on his mouth from crying, but he'd gotten free from the rope, and here was his proof. See, Dad?

He made himself not look at Dean.

Dad took the rope from Sam and tossed it up the stairs and onto the porch. He took Sam's wrists in his hands and turned them over so he could see the underside. Sam's wrists were raw, and he'd been jerking at the rope so hard, he'd actually made the left one bleed. But he didn't need to tell Dad that.

"Looks like you panicked a little, Sam," said Dad, with his head bent as he looked at Sam's wrists. "Even though you got free pretty fast."

Then he looked up, and his left eyebrow quirked just a little bit and all at once Sam knew. Or thought he knew, there was never going to be any way to prove it, because in order to do that, he'd have to ask Dad. Dean made a little gasping sound that was impossible to miss in the silence that landed after Dad stopped speaking. But he might as well have gone on speaking, because Sam could see it clearly in Dad's face that he knew what had happened, knew what Dean had done, and knew what Sam was doing now.

Out of the corner of his eye, Sam saw that Dean had gone white under the dirt and sweat on his face. His mouth was open and he was just about to confess. Sam kept his concentration on Dad. Lying to Dad was never truly easy, although it was easier when Dean wasn't involved in the first place.

Dad made a little motion like he wanted to say something, then he stopped as if he changed his mind and said, only, "Grace under pressure, Sam." Then he let Sam's wrists go, and clapped Dean on the shoulder again as he walked up the stairs to go into the cabin. "Nice job, boys," he said.

"Come in, and let me take a look at those wrists, boys," said Dad. He was standing on the porch holding the screen door open.

Sam let out the breath he was holding. If Dean kept his mouth shut, Dad would take care of their wrists and the cut on Sam's arm, and then it would be supper time, and after that, it would be dark. If they could wait long enough, if Dean didn't break, they'd be fine. Dad didn't need to know anyway. He never told them anything, why should they tell him anything?

*

After supper, Sam sat on the top step. It was warm but the wind was moving through the trees, so it was comfortable to be there with Dean, who sat cross-legged on the porch while they set the ropes to rights. The nylon ones were easy; they were soft and most of the dust came right off. Plus, it was fun to make a figure-eight of the rope, using Dean's hands and his elbows as a form. Sam was extra careful as he looped the rope around the freshly scabbed patch on Dean's elbow.

When Sam finished the last of the nylon rope, he set it aside. Then Dean picked up the end of the hemp rope, and worked with his hands, twisting it.

"Sammy," he said.

Sam waited for Dean to finish, but in the hum and flicker of the moths against the porch light, Dean just looked at Sam, his mouth pulling itself into a frown and didn't say anything more.

It was as if he were waiting for Sam to say something. He looked at Sam and opened his mouth, then he snapped it shut and got up, casting hemp rope everywhere.

"Hey," said Sam. The rope had landed on his legs and was prickly.

The screen door slammed and as Sam looked up, Dean was already inside, saying, "Hey, Dad?"

Sam got up and raced inside, slamming the screen door shut. The room felt stuffy after the slightly breezy outside. Sam went over to where Dad was sitting in his seat at the kitchen table, pen in hand, bent over his papers and journals, which were spread all over the place. Every time Sam saw the journal, his fingers itched to go through it, though after the whipping he'd gotten in Broken Bow after he'd filched the journal from Dad, he didn't dare.

Same came up to stand at Dean's side, just as Dad looked up from his journal; he barely had a glance for Sam before he looked at Dean. His eyes were shadowed in the overhead lights.

"What is it, Dean?"

"Um…"

"Dean," said Dad, in that tired tone he usually saved when he had just finished explaining something to Sam for the ninetieth time.

"I wanted to tell you--" said Dean, and even before he said it, Sam knew what Dean was going to say. Dean couldn't lie to Dad no matter what, not even if a hundred monsters were chasing him and the only way to escape was to not tell Dad the truth. The only thing that surprised Sam was the fact that Dean had lasted this long.

"I'm the one who untied Sam, Dad, it was me."

Naturally Dean would make it sound like Dean was the only one to blame for it, like he'd not been the hero and charged through the underbrush to keep Sam from peeing his pants in terror. Not that Sam had done that in the longest time, but the effect was the same. Dean had saved Sam from what was sure to have been hours of struggling and waiting while the ropes got tighter and tighter, until Dad came along with that sour look on his face that said he was, yet again, disappointed in his youngest.

But was that better or worse than standing next to Dean right now while Dean confessed and was all truthful and honest and faithful to Dad? Maybe. Except for the part where Dad looked at Sam for a hard minute, before picking up his pen and returning to his journal.

"I already know that, Dean," said Dad. He wrote in his journal while Dean stood there, mouth open.

"But why didn't you say anything?" asked Dean, voice rising.

Dad paused a moment to check one of his notes. "Because I wanted to see what you would do." He flicked a glance up at Dean. "Now I know."

Sam turned away, disgusted with the whole thing. It had been impossible from the start. Maybe Dad had expected them to help each other and then maybe not. It was one of those things that Dad did, those twisty, weird lessons that were laced with Dad-logic and that had everything to do with hunting. When to lie. How to lie. And to who you could lie. But what made Sam maddest was that it had been a test inside of a test inside of a test and Sam had failed with flying colors.

He snapped on the TV, eyes blurring with fury; he didn't care what was on. Then he flung himself down on the couch where Dean usually liked to lounge. The cushion on the arm rest was indented with a bowl the shape of Dean's head. It was bigger than Sam's head but he put his head there anyway, with his arms crossed over his chest, and glared.

Not at the TV, but at the sharp, naked bulb over the kitchen table that sent hard light everywhere. All over Dad, sitting there with his stupid journal and all over Dean who had pulled out his chair and scooted close to Dad. Their heads were bent together; the light cast long shadows beneath their faces and hands as they talked in low voices.

Whether it was about what Dad was currently updating in his journal or whether it was about the rope test, Sam didn't care. Either way, Dean probably wanted Dad to tell him that it was okay that Dean had lied as long as Dean came to Dad in the end with the truth. That's what Dad liked, so Dean had passed everything: he'd gotten free, rescued his stupid, panicky little brother, and been honest about it. Which Sam hand done none of, so he failed. All the way.

To distract himself, Sam got up and changed the channel till he found something good that looked like a program on the mysteries of the solar system, and that was just fine with him. He turned up the volume for good measure and flung himself back on the couch, heart thumping.

Nobody even paid any attention to him; Dad and Dean just kept talking together, heads close, black ink and spun gold, all bathed in hard light. Nobody asked him to come over and there was no way he was going to butt in. He didn't want to belong to their stupid two-man club anyway. Maybe he once had, maybe he would if--

Sam scrubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm, telling himself that he did not want to start saying anything about what he was thinking because not only would he get in trouble for mouthing off, nobody would care anyway.

He looked at the TV. On the screen, a solar system, or was it a galaxy, spun in an animated spiral to demonstrate something. Maybe it was the big bang theory or something about black holes. Didn't matter. It was like school, and Sam liked school.

He was going to be in the 7th grade next year and he was going to take all science and math and history they would let him, and he would show Dad and Dean who was smart around here. And if in the middle of school they moved? Then Sam wouldn't turn in those books; he'd keep them and tell Dad he needed to keep them, and Dad would just have to let him. Sam would study all the time and he would show them--

"Scoot over, Sammy."

It was Dean, patting his leg. Sam knew there'd be a tussle if he resisted so he sat up. He still hogged the end seat (Dean's favorite) and rested his arm there, so Dean would know that Sam wasn't about to move. No matter what.

"Whatcha watching?"

"Science program," said Sam, clipping over the words. "Big bang, black holes, you wouldn't be interested." He wanted to add that Dean wouldn't understand any of it anyway, but that wasn't true. Dean was plenty smart, when he wanted to be. So Sam just sat there, blood pounding behind his eyes and just waited for Dean to go away.

*

Bedtime wasn't any better. The fans in the window and the doorway droned, but didn't make the room feel any cooler. Sam kicked the sheet all the way to his knees, and blew air up at his bangs to cool his forehead. It didn't make any difference, and there was no helping the heat.

Beside him, Dean lay stiff as a board, staring up at the ceiling. Sam knew, even without Dean saying anything, that he was still worried about lying to Dad. Even though Dad already knew and hadn't punished Dean, Dean didn't like the fact that Dad had caught him lying.

"Stop thinking about it," said Sam. He wanted to kick Dean, but that would only start a fight.

"I shouldn't have done it," said Dean.

This proved that Sam was right, but Dean's voice was tight and he was probably going to fret about it all night.

"If you'd just kept your mouth shut," said Sam, now. "But you never can, can you, you always gotta think that Dad's right, and do it his way."

"But he is," said Dean, insisting. "He was teaching us something, and I screwed up, I should have let you rescue yourself."

Sam couldn't believe it. "But you said at the time--" At the time, Dean had marched through those trees and rescued Sam and vowed to help him learn how to do this, so he could rescue himself next time. "Aren't you going to help me?"

There was a pause as Dean cleared his throat, and kicked the sheets down to his knees. That made it easier for more air to sift over Sam's skin, but he was still hot.

Sam waited for Dean to say something, thinking that he would do just about anything to get Dean on his side and make him stay there. Even though he knew Dean couldn't help it; Dean's loyalty to Dad was as sure as the color of his eyes, the freckles on his cheeks. Except, sometimes, he seemed like he was loyal to Sam, too, when he did stuff like he did today. Sam wondered, suddenly, if it drove Dean crazy to be pulled between Sam and Dad all the time, only he couldn't put it into words to ask it, not in a way that wouldn't set Dean off.

"I will help you," said Dean, finally. He took a breath and then shifted on his side, away from Sam. Not in a mean way, but in a way that told Sam that Dean was ready to fall asleep now, if Sam would just stop talking. "But only if Dad knows."

Sam nodded in the darkness, and closed his eyes, and tried to be satisfied with that. But it was going to be hard.

*

Breakfast was dried cereal in a bowl because they were out of milk and eggs. There were also some oranges that Dad had sliced up but they had no juice in them at all. Plus, Sam had some rope burns across the tops of his thighs that he'd not noticed before; Dean did too. They were already dried over, so Sam tucked his bare feet on the rail of the chair and sucked on a slice of orange and did his best to remember that he wasn't going to complain anymore and mess up Dean's summer. At least not more than he already had.

But by the time he was done crunching his way through the dry cereal, he was still hungry. His stomach felt hollow and he patted it and hoped that Dad would want to pick up groceries today. They'd done a solid week of ropes and knives and sparring and Sam wanted a day off. He didn't dare ask for one, though. Dad was likely to pile on more work or extra chores just to teach Sam a lesson about complaining.

"Must you crunch so loud?" asked Dean.

Sam felt the swipe of Dean's sneakered foot against his shin, but it mostly missed.

Dad barely looked up from his cereal as he concentrated on his journal.

Sam wanted to say, must you be such a jerk but that would start a fight, and then it would get worse from there.

"Well, if there was milk," said Sam instead, reasonably, "I wouldn't be crunching so loud."

Both Dad and Dean stared at him. In the frozen silence that followed this remark, Sam realized that he was almost complaining, specifically about Dad, who had been so busy putting them through their paces that he'd let them run low on supplies.

Sam tightened his mouth and thought about saying something else, something that was like an apology, but wasn't. Only he couldn't think of the right thing. Besides, it was Dad's job to see take care of the supplies, so it was his fault about the milk anyway.

"I'll get some today," said Dad. He wrote something down in his journal and then stuck the pen in and closed it. "We'll train this morning and then after lunch, I'll go." He stood up.

Sam stood up too and took his bowl over to the sink and tossed his orange peels into the trash. He wondered if the bowl would really have to be washed, since he could wipe out the cereal dust with his fingers.

"Out of my way, dork," said Dean, bumping past him to get to the sink. He could just as easily have reached around, but no, he had to bump into Sam, on purpose.

At the last minute, Sam managed to refrain from giving Dean a shove, or at the very least, bumping back into him to prove a point. He wanted to stay out of trouble, which was going to be hard enough as it was. But he had to try, so he grit his teeth and walked past Dean, without touching him, and said, "It's your turn to do the dishes."

Dean couldn't even say is not because it was. But he could reach back with his foot to trip Sam's legs and send him sprawling to the floor. Which he did. Sam tried to get up on his hands and knees, but Dad was suddenly there.

"That's enough of that," Dad said. He hauled Sam up by the arm. "Get on your feet."

Sam scowled. It wasn't fair that Dad blamed him for being on the floor, when Dean was the one who tripped him. Except that Dean never pointed out when it was Sam's fault; Dean wasn't a tattle tale, so Sam wouldn't be. Sometimes, it was hard living up to Dean.

Dad looked at Sam and let him go. "I need you to make me a list of what we need. Then, when Dean's done with the dishes, I want the two of you to go for a run."

"Okay, Dad," said Dean.

"What are you going to do?" asked Sam. He said it without thinking and knew he shouldn't have, but he did want to know and wanting to know wasn't a crime, was it?

Dad shot him a look. "Not that it's any of your business, Sam, but I'm going to check the spark plugs; one of them sounded clogged. Didn't you hear it, Dean?" He asked this like he expected Dean to have magical hearing or something.

"No, sir." Dean's voice sounded flat and Sam bristled. It was like Dean was supposed to have magical hearing or something. Sam made himself not say anything. Instead he glowered as he watched the screen door slam shut and listened to Dad's booted feet go down the flight of steps.

"I didn't hear it," Sam said to Dean's back.

For a second, Dean didn't say anything. Then he put the plug in and started filling the sink with hot water. "Well, you couldn't hear a clogged carburetor if you were looking at it, but I should have."

There was nothing Sam could do. He was all out of ideas about how to cheer Dean up, or make him not mad at Sam. Instead he got a piece of paper and a pencil from the shelf along the wall and bumped a little bit into Dean as he opened the fridge. The only thing in it was some old cheese, one lone egg in a mostly empty carton, and a plastic bag of string beans that they'd forgotten about and that had long since turned to black mush.

Sam sat in Dean's seat at the table, facing the breeze from the open window, and wrote down what they needed. He made sure to include Dean's favorite cheese (cheddar) and requested fresh peaches for himself. He didn't dare write down Otter Pops or marshmallow fluff because that would only set Dad off. Then Sam wrote down the dried goods that they needed, which was everything, since they were all out of rice, and the little bin of new potatoes had all spoiled in the heat.

"What are we going to eat for lunch?" asked Sam. He wasn't complaining, just asking. "I'm starving."

"Me too," said Dean, almost under his breath. As he washed and dried and put away the few dishes they'd used, his stomach growled along with Sam's. "You got that list done?"

Sam chewed on the end of the pencil a little bit and scuffed his bare foot along the wooden floor as he finished the list. Then he sat up and handed the list to Dean. After wiping his damp hands on his t-shirt, Dean took the list and looked at it.

"You forgot spagettios," said Dean.

Sam thought that Dean was just trying to be nice by mentioning this because he knew they were Sam's favorites.

"They're there," said Sam. He pointed to the bottom of the list.

"Huh," said Dean. He looked at the list as if thinking about what to add. Then he said, "I'll show it to him."

Then without another word, he walked across the floor and out the screen door and down the steps, fast and firm, like he had someplace he needed to be. Sam went up to the screen door to watch.

"Here's the list, Dad," said Dean. He held out the list to Dad, who took it and folded it in his hands, like he meant to tuck it into his pocket without reading it.

"Sam's still hungry, Dad," said Dean.

Dad just looked at the folded list and Sam wondered if this would be the time, the one time, that Dad decided they needed to learn what deprivation was all about. That was a big word Sam had learned in school and it was a good one all about starving and doing without. But Dad had never made them go hungry, not if he could help it; he always made sure they ate and he was always talking about how an army couldn't function on an empty stomach.

Dad looked up and Sam knew that he could be seen through the screen door, or at least his outline could.

"Dean's still hungry, too," said Sam, boldly, through the screen door. He wasn't trying to lay blame by including Dean, it was just that Dad might care more if he knew that Dean was hungry, too. Sam was about to add the part about armies and stomachs when Dad shoved the list in his back pocket.

"Me too," Dad said. "I had just about figured we ought to go out to breakfast before we all ate our own arms."

Sam's eyebrows shot up. Breakfast out was almost unheard of, and while it wasn't a whole day off, by the time they got back from breakfast and grocery shopping, the morning would be long gone.

"Get your shoes and socks," Dad said. "I'll change my shirt, and we can all listen to the carburetor on the way."

Dean raced back up the stairs and Sam went to grab his sneakers which were under the bed with the socks still in. Dean came into the bedroom and scrambled for a clean t-shirt, and bumped into Sam as they tried to get through the bedroom doorway at the same time. By the time they came out, Dad was waiting for them, jingling the keys in his pocket.

*

Dad drove them through the bright, hot morning, down the side of Lookout Mountain. Sam leaned out the back window on the passenger side and took in huge breaths of the fresh, moving air as they sank ever lower under the shady green trees. Dad was about to take a right at the intersection where the peach stand was, then he stopped to get directions for a good place nearby for breakfast.

Sam looked at Dean and smiled. Dad knew that there was a breakfast buffet at the Mentone Inn in town. But the last time they'd eaten there, which had been when they'd first arrived in Mentone, the food hadn't been very good. Besides, Dean didn't like buffet breakfasts, which Dad probably remembered.

"You want Rafferty's," said the man at the peach stand. "Just past the crossroads but before you get to the highway."

As Dad nodded and pulled out of the dirt lot, Sam asked, "Dad, can we get peaches on the way back?"

"Sure," said Dad. "As long as you remember to share them with your brother."

*

As Dean put away the groceries and supplies, Sam sat at the kitchen table and, and with a contentedly full stomach, ate his second peach. Breakfast had been perfect, and he'd been able to order exactly what he wanted: pancakes and bacon with maple syrup over everything and Dad hadn't said one word about it. Sam had even let Dean have a piece of his bacon.

And afterwards, on the way home, they'd gone to the peach stand as well as the grocery store; the cupboards were bursting. It would be ages before they ran out of anything, even though Dad had glared at Sam when they passed the Otter Pops display in the frozen foods aisle, as if daring him to ask for some.

Sam wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and threw the peach pits in the trash. As he moved around Dean and washed his sticky fingers at the sink, he heard Dad come in the door from where he'd been working on the car.

"Dean, you'll stay here and give this floor a good sweep and scrub; Sam you'll be with me."

Sam couldn't figure out if this was a good thing or not.

He didn't like scrubbing floors all that much, but he didn't want to go anywhere alone with Dad. Something bad always happened.

He didn't know what Dad wanted with just him. Maybe some special training. He didn't like that because then he would be the sole focus of all of Dad's glaring attention, and Dad yelled a lot more when it was just Sam. When it was Sam and Dean, Dad had to divide his attention, but this, whatever it was, probably wasn't going to be any fun.

Dad jingled the keys to the car. "C'mon Sam, get a clean shirt on, and let's go. Hustle."

"Where are we going?" asked Sam. He went into the bedroom as he asked this and slipped on a clean shirt. When he came out, Dad was giving him the maybe-this-is-a-need-to-know-situation expression so maybe Sam would be forced to sit in the car and wonder till they arrived at wherever they were going. But Dad's glance flicked over him and he seemed to relent.

"Ft. Payne," said Dad. "I have more phone calls I need to make."

This was worse than one-on-one training. Sam would rather do a zillion laps or a whole day of rope training with just Dad than to go to Ft. Payne. Even the name of the place sounded bad.

"Isn't it Dean's turn to go?" Sam didn't mind if Dean went this time, and it was his turn, after all.

"I decide whose turn it is, Sam, not you," said Dad.

Sam opened his mouth. He was going to say something like, no, or I don't want to go, but Dad's gaze remained steady and Sam had the feeling that Dad wasn't going to budge on this one. Or maybe he was testing Sam to see how obedient he could be.

"Have fun, Sam," said Dean, as he walked past him on the way out of the door to put one of the kitchen chairs on the porch.

Sam watched Dean carry the chair out and set it down, and then come bounding back in to get the rest of what could be moved for the sweep and mop job.

"Now, Sam," said Dad, as he turned and walked out the door.

Sam glanced at Dean, but there was no sympathy there, and Sam could bet that Dean was jealous of Sam right about now and that Dean would give anything to be in Sam's shoes. That was because Dad liked Dean and the two of them lived for all of this. Well, Sam didn't. The drive would alone be awful and now he really didn't want to go.

"Sam!" Dad's bellow came from the driveway. "When I said now, I didn't mean tomorrow."

"Better move," said Dean in his best older brother voice. "You don't want to make him mad."

"He's already mad," said Sam, trying not to let his frown turn into a pout because if Dean saw it he'd tease Sam and call him a baby.

"Sam!"

Sam hurried out and down the stairs. Dad was in the car, gunning the engine a little to express his displeasure. The engine already smelled hot under the baking sun.

Hurrying, Sam scrambled in the passenger seat and attempted to buckle himself in as Dad backed the car up and drove down the dusty gravel lane to the main road.

"Make sure that door is locked," said Dad.

Sam reached back and tapped the button down with the heel of his hand and fiddled with his seatbelt. By the time he was settled, they were already at the bottom of Lookout Mountain. The peach stand was open as the drove past, but Dad didn't slow down or ask if Sam wanted more peaches to eat along the way, he just drove as fast as he could because he had some place to be and there was nothing for Sam to do but be dragged along for the ride.

Sam took a quick peek at Dad. Maybe it wasn't Sam he was mad at. The speedometer already said 60 even though they'd just gotten on the highway. And Dad was focused on the road and his driving and not on Sam at all. Maybe he was mad about all the phone calls he had to make. Maybe. Sam didn't want to ask or find out. He decided he would make himself small and silent.

*

As the hardware store in Ft. Payne loomed into view, Sam sank back in the passenger seat and didn't say anything to Dad. Dad hadn't said anything except lock that door the whole way, so that was fair, wasn't it?

Dad parked the car in the lot and Sam got out, careful not to slam the door too hard or Dad would yell at him. He felt as though he was hiding in his own shadow, only a handbreadth away from getting in trouble. He felt wound up tightly, like the cocked spring of a cross bow, the bolt ready to fly at any moment.

He didn't like feeling this way. It was one thing to try and be good for Dean's sake, but Dad didn't care and would never notice. And anyway, Dad'd be more likely to find fault in Sam as anything else.

He trailed after Dad across the narrow parking lot. As they got to the door, Sam opened his mouth. "Dad--"

"In, Sam." Dad held the door open and the bell jangled as he gestured to Sam to go in first.

As Sam hurried past Dad, he said, "I only wanted to know how long--"

It was a reasonable question, but of course Dad didn't want to tell him anything.

"It takes as long as it takes."

The door jangled again as it shut behind Sam and Dad and once again, as the cool, rushing air of the store swept over his skin, Sam was enveloped right away by the smell of oil and the bright smile of Russ. Russ came up to Dad like they were old friends and he shook Dad's hand, taking it in his two hands, gripping it tightly like he'd just as soon be hugging Dad.

"Welcome back, John," he said. He even, when he finally let go of Dad's hands, put one hand on Dad's arm to pull him toward the office. "You brought your boy, Dean, again, that's nice. My wife will be bringing fresh homemade donuts by - hopefully you'll still be here by then. They're not to be missed."

Dad cast a little grin Sam's way, but he didn't correct Russ outright. All he said was, "Appreciate the offer; Sam loves donuts, but we'll see."

Which meant that Dad was planning to be long gone by the time those donuts arrived and probably on purpose just so Sam couldn't have any.

Russ smiled at Sam as he led Dad away, but Sam couldn't even pretend to have any manners; he just glared instead, and he didn't even care if Russ told Dad.

The door to the office shut behind Dad. Russ came back to the front and went to the cash register where a customer was waiting to be helped. Sam ignored them and went straight to the bin where the large tacks were kept.

They were still as shiny as ever. Each tack was about as big around as his thumb, and he wanted to see how many he could hold in the palm of his hand without getting poked. He managed to get eight in hand before the ninth one stabbed him.

He dumped the tacks back in the bin and sucked on his finger for a second as he trailed his hand along the tops of each bin and peeked in to see if there was anything new or interesting. But nothing had changed, every bin was filled with shiny, oily things, the same as last time.

Idly, he wandered to the back of the store where the huge coils of thick rope and stacks of folded, green canvas sat on sturdy shelves, which were arranged on either side of the office. Sam peeked into the large window and saw that Dad wasn't on the phone; he was writing on a piece of paper. The overhead lights gleamed off his dark hair and after a moment of being watched, he must have felt Sam there because he lifted his chin and beckoned Sam to come in.

Sam opened the door and walked as quickly as he could over to the desk and he didn't know what he was going to say until he said it.

"Can I go to the park? I promise I'll stay there."

Dad looked at him for a minute, still poised to go back to writing, as though he meant to do that and not answer Sam. His eyes were shadowed in the overhead light and he really did look like he was going to say no. He had that expression that said that what he was about to do was going to be for Sam's own good. Like he was going to say no to such a simple pleasure to teach Sam a lesson in self-denial.

"Sam."

Sam never begged with Dad because it never worked. It sometimes worked with Dean, depending on how bad Sam had pissed Dean off, and sometimes in spite of that. But with Dad, never. Still, Sam had to get out of the hardware store or go crazy. There was nothing to play with that wasn't sharp. And it was possible, just possible, that there were kids playing in the park, and maybe they were even playing soccer.

"I won't kick the ball so good, so nobody will notice me, I promise."

Something dark flickered across Dad's face. Sam thought about offering never to ask to play soccer again if he could just do it today, but that wasn't going to work because the second Sam got the chance, he would play and kick the ball as good as he knew how.

"I just want to play with the other kids, please Dad? Please?"

He almost did the face, the one that could usually make Dean give in and beg for Sam to stop with the face, but that would probably just push Dad too far and he would say no on principle.

Dad looked down at his paper and wrote something and the silence stretched on till just when Sam was about to say something, Dad nodded, almost to himself.

"Fine," said Dad. "The park and nowhere else. I do not want to have to go looking for you, understand?"

Dad looked up but Sam didn't have to even see the glare to get it. Dad meant it, but Sam was out of the office and running along the shiny linoleum floor before Dad could say another word.

*

Sam rushed out from under the green trees, the leaves separating like curtains as he stepped out into the blazing sun. The park was there and as green as ever, but there were no kids playing, and Sam figured that was maybe because it was so hot. Not that had ever stopped Dad from making Sam and Dean train, but here, all the doors were closed against the heat and except for the low hum of the nearby power lines, there wasn't any sound or movement.

He walked onto the grass anyway and kicked at some thick, green tufts that might have been what had marked the foul line the last time he'd been there, playing with those kids and having fun. He even thought he could see the faint outline of where the t-shirt goal posts had been on his team's side, but that was probably his imagination.

What wasn't his imagination was what he saw: the flash of white and black, shaped exactly like a soccer ball.

He hurried across the grass, shivering all over, his heart thumping, because finder's keepers, right? The ball was his, except for the fact that he had no idea how to make Dad let him keep it so he and Dean could play with it.

The ball was in a depression at the edge of the park, something that must have been a ditch for water but which now was merely a long hollow place. It looked like someone had left the ball out or had kicked and couldn't find as his mom had called him in to supper.

Sam bent over and picked up the ball and tossed it in his hands. Even though he wasn't in a game at the moment, he still felt like some invisible referee was going to call a foul because he was touching the ball with his hands. He tossed it high in the air and then caught it, smiling as it smacked loudly in his palms.

"Hey!"

Sam looked in the direction of the voice. The kid from before, the same kid who had invited him to play, was walking quickly toward Sam. Behind the kid, a screen door slowly swung shut on one of the houses.

"That's my ball," said the kid, all sweaty and mad as he marched up to Sam.

"Well, I found it," said Sam. After dealing with Dad so many times, standing up to another kid was easy.

"Well, give it, it's mine."

"Finder's keepers," said Sam, drawing back, holding the ball out of the kid's reach.

"Give it back," said the kid, reaching.

"Hey, maybe we could--" began Sam. He was about to suggest that they place some soccer only it would be a pretend game because there were only two of them. Still, they could kick the ball around and run and chase each other across the open green grass and under the brassy, blue sky and he'd be doing exactly what he said he'd be doing when Dad picked him up. And maybe, just maybe, Dad would see how much fun Sam was having and reconsider and let Sam play on a team next year.

But the kid came up and tried to grab the ball out of Sam's grasp. Any thought of sharing or offering to give the ball back if they kicked it around some first went right out of Sam's head.

"I found it and I'm keeping it." Sam held the ball high over his head. He and the kid were the same height, but Sam had slightly longer arms, so this was easy.

The kid jumped for the ball and banged right into Sam. Sam almost lost his footing on the slippery grass, but he shifted his weight back on one foot. This sent the kid tumbling to the ground and when he got up, he was mad. His face was red from the heat and his hair was sticking straight out from his ears.

"I said give it!" said the kid. He bunched his hands into fists and lowered his shoulders, ready to charge.

"And I said no."

That's when the kid punched Sam. At first Sam didn't realize what had happened, because the punch was a lot softer than any punch Dean had given him; it almost wasn't a real punch at all. But it sparked something in him just the same and now he was mad too.

Sam easily blocked the next punch with his arm and could hear Dad in his head saying keep your arms up like I told you. But then the ball flew of Sam's hand and he was off balance trying to catch it when the kid smacked him in the jaw really hard. Sam knew he had to show the kid who was who here because that ball belonged to him now. He'd found it. Plus he could imagine Dean's teasing if he ever found out that Sam had been bested by someone who was only a little heavier than Sam.

Still, without the ball in his hands, Sam could move more easily. As the kid continued to flail, Sam angled his body to present a narrower target, pulled his right hand back, and slammed into the kid's chin with the palm of his hand. He was about to add a quick snap-kick that Dean had taught him, but the kid's eyes rolled up in his head and he fell back flat on the grass with blood pooling from his mouth. Then he lay absolutely still, white as a sheet.

Was he breathing? Had Sam killed him?

Guilt swamped through him like a bad chill. He realized too late that he'd hit the kid as hard as he would have hit Dean or Dad during a sparring session, that he'd used the same punch Dad had taught him to use when you wanted to simply take the other guy out and not mess around. He'd done it like it had been second nature to him. Dad would be proud, at least Sam thought he would be about the technique. Fighting with some kid over a lost and found soccer ball would probably bring a totally different reaction.

Sam dropped to his knees and touched the kid's face. It was still warm and his chest rose and fell softly, so he wasn't dead. Feeling a little better, Sam patted the kid's face.

"Hey, kid," he said.

The kid blinked, eyelashes fluttering as some color came back into his face. "Ow," he said. He reached up to touch his mouth. When his hand came away red, he made a face and then rolled to the side to spit out the blood.

"You okay?" asked Sam. "Can you get up?" He was starting to hear a siren in the distance coming closer, and a sense of haste was growing in his stomach.

He held out his hand and the kid took it, but when Sam started to pull, he heard the siren again, even louder now. Then there was the sound of a door, slamming hard.

"Get away from him!"

Sam looked up. A woman ran at him in a house dress and slippers, her fluffy blonde hair flying behind her as she came closer. Her mouth was open and she was screeching.

"You killed him, I've called the cops--"

She was right on Sam now and threw herself practically on top of the kid, mashing him against her chest and smearing blood everywhere.

"You killed him, you animal!" She rocked and cried at the same time and hugged the kid close, shrieking. "Oh, my poor baby" over and over.

Meanwhile, the kid struggled for air. "Mom, let me go, I'm fine." The kid pushed at her arms.

There was blood now all over the mom's arms and her flowered blouse and on the kid's face; Sam didn't know moms were like that. But seeing as the kid was probably in good hands and having a very scared feeling about those sirens and her threat about the cops, Sam stood up. He figured he ought to head back to the hardware store anyway, before Dad came looking for him and found Sam being accused of trying to kill someone's baby.

But just as Sam held out his hand, he heard footfalls behind him. When he turned around, thinking it was Dad, he was suddenly and quickly grasped by two policemen. They had him by each arm and their hands were hard and sure.

They turned him to face the mom and the kid.

"This the boy who attacked Will, Mrs. Cooperthwaite?"

"Boy?" Mrs. Cooperthwaite asked, screeching. "He's a killer, and he nearly cracked my little boy's jaw; I saw it from my window."

"Will looks pretty alive to me," said one of the officers, a little dryly.

Sam looked up at him; his badge said his name was Ed Foster. He looked fresh and young under the severe blue hat and looked at the woman with direct, calm eyes. Like Dad or Dean would have done.

"It's only by a miracle!" she shouted. She patted Will's face, messing the blood into smears that turned brown as it dried. "Can you talk, sweetie? Tell these nice officers--"

"I said I'm okay, Mom," said Will. He struggled to pull away and sit up on his own. "Let me up."

With one monstrous move, Mrs. Cooperthwaite got to her feet, still clutching her boy to her bosom, holding him close at her side.

"He might be alive, but he'll be traumatized for life!"

Will rolled his eyes at Sam and Sam realized that the officers could probably see his expression too. Will wasn't traumatized in the least, but Sam felt the heat on the back of his neck as his mind raced to find a way to get out of it before Dad showed up.

"Just boys fighting, Mrs. Cooperthwaite," said Officer Foster.

"It's what boys do," said the other officer, whose badge said his name was Harold Johnson. He was a little older and had dark hair and a moustache and his voice was deeper. "Now, I suggest that we tell these boys to shake hands and let them get back to playing soccer."

This sounded like a great idea to Sam. He figured if he and Will got into another fight over the ball, he'd pull his punches and make it a more equal fight. Not that Dad was likely to appreciate it in any case; the enemy was the enemy after all. Except the way Will was making faces at Sam, bloody mouth and all, made Sam think that Will wasn't really the enemy. The mother was, but not the kid. Dean would probably agree with him, if he were here.

"No!" said Mrs. Cooperthwaite. She pointed her finger like a spear at Sam. "I called 911 because his hooligan was killing my son. And he would have too, if I hadn't stopped him."

"I wasn't going to kill him--" began Sam, but Officer Foster tightened his grip on Sam's arm and Sam snapped his mouth shut.

"I demand that you arrest him!" Mrs. Cooperthwaite said, increasing her squeeze on Will and making him gurgle for air. "I know my rights, I'm a prominent citizen and my taxes pay your salary. So arrest him right now or I'll see you both get fired. My husband knows the mayor, in case you've forgotten."

Sam felt both of the officers stiffened at this.

"Okay, Mrs. Cooperthwaite," said Officer Johnson. "We'll take care of it."

Take care of it? What did that mean? What would Dad say?

"And I'll check later, and I better see an arrest record or you'll hear about it from my husband!" Mrs. Cooperthwaite grabbed her boy by the arm and stomped off towards the houses.

Sam figured that once she was out of earshot that the officers would let him go. He figured wrong.

"Let's get this over with," said Officer Johnson. He looked down at Sam. "We're going to take you to the police station."

"It'll be fine," said Officer Foster. "We can call your folks from the squad car and let them know where you are so they can pick up."

Sam looked up at each one of them. Both of them had guns and neither one of them had let him go. It was going to be hard to stay in the park like Dad told him to if the officers wanted to really take him to the station. Sam knew what would happen there. They'd book him, which wasn't about any book, it was about the paperwork they'd do. And then they'd take Sam's fingerprints and then they'd put it on the wires.

That's what all the cop shows did, but it didn't work the way Sam first thought it did. He'd asked Dean and Dean had told him that it was a way for police stations to talk to other police stations and authorities to see if you had any "priors" on your "sheet." Which wasn't like a bed sheet at all, it was a piece of paper with all the crimes you'd ever committed on it.

And while Sam figured that he didn't have a "sheet," maybe Dad did and maybe Dean did too, because both of them did things like dig up graves and break into places, and Sam knew all that was against the law. And maybe there wasn't just "sheets" on both of them, but also a big red stamp on the top that said Guilty or Wanted or something like that that would alert whoever Dad always said was looking for them. Maybe even the FBI.

Sam felt cold all over.

Foster let go of Sam and gave him a little pat. "This won't be so bad," he said.

Johnson turned him around, still gripping hard, and the three of them started walking towards the police car. The engine was still running, and the red and blue lights on the top were rolling lazily around and around.

"What's your name, kid? Do you live around here?"

"No," said Sam. He wiped his free hand on his shirt. "I have to go now."

"You're not going anywhere, kid."

Sam twisted his body to try and break free, but it didn't do any good. Officer Johnson was strong, as strong as Dad.

"Maybe we can just take him home and fill out the paperwork later," said Officer Foster.

Officer Johnson eyed Sam, his eyes thoughtful. "Maybe," he said. "Tell us your name, kid. Tell us where you live so we can take you home."

Sam knew that if he told them where Dad was and they took him back to the hardware store, that Dad would be mad. He might even give Sam a whipping for fighting over a soccer ball because he never liked the attention those kinds of fights brought. The whipping would be bad. Dad might even use a switch this time.

But worse than that, it would bring Dad into someone's notice. Dad had just told Sam this was bad and Sam knew why. Dad broke the law all the time and if they arrested him, Dean and Sam would be taken away by Social Services. Sam would be placed in foster care, but Dean was too old for that and would be taken to a place Dean had told him about, Juvie Hall. It sounded bad, and though Dean had bragged that he could tough it out if he had to, Sam didn't want Dean in a place like that.

"Tell us your name, kid, and it'll be okay."

"No," said Sam, dragging his feet. He shut his mouth tight and shook his head. He couldn't give them his first name or his last name or anything because they would ask around and find out who they all were and then they would take Dean--

"That's enough, kid, let's go."

Officer Johnson hefted his hand on Sam's upper arm, probably to tighten his grasp and when Sam felt it, he shifted low and got away and started running as fast as he could. It was towards the police car, towards the flashing lights, and it probably wasn't the smartest thing to do but it threw the officers off balance enough for Sam to get his chance and sprint away to freedom.

But only for a minute. Officer Foster was young and fast and caught up and grabbed Sam in a bear hug from behind and lifted Sam clean off the ground.

Officer Johnson came up and tried to grab Sam's legs. "Just give us your name, kid, and we can make this a whole lot of easy."

Johnson was close enough and his grasp was loose enough and Sam lifted both of his feet and stomped on Officer Johnson's chest, leaving two grass-stained, feet-shaped marks. Officer Johnson grunted and was almost shoved off balance. Then Sam kicked him again, hard, in the shoulder, and twisted in Officer Foster's arms.

Officer Johnson stepped back and adjusted his hat; his face was hard. "Lower him down," he said. "You're not helping by holding him like that."

Officer Foster lowered Sam, and Sam squirmed as hard as he could but the officer didn't let him go. Sam kicked backwards and it felt like he'd hit solid bone.

"Ouch, damnit!"

"Here, I'll get him." Johnson reached into his back pocket to pull out a pair of shiny handcuffs. The smell of well-oiled metal whapped Sam in the face.

"Do we need those?" asked Foster, his voice loud in Sam's ear as he hung on to Sam.

"We do, unless you want to sit in the back seat and hold him like that all the way back to the station."

Sam rocked back on one foot and kicked Johnson hard in the thigh.

Johnson grunted again, and any sense of kindness was completely gone from his face as he looked at Sam. His eyes glittered. "That settles it," he said.

He pulled Sam's wrists together in one hand and slipped the cuffs each wrist with sharp, ratcheting clicks. The cuffs felt like cool wire, almost soft for a minute, not like the rope at all, but Sam started to shake just the same. He had to get away, he had to get away, but sharp spikes poked up from his stomach, because if he couldn't get away now, he wasn't going to be able to.

Foster didn't let Sam go, but his grip loosened and Sam managed to wiggle free. But the grass was slippery and he couldn't get his balance. He would have fallen but Officer Johnson caught him and hauled him up. "You get the legs this time."

They carried him to the squad car and Sam kicked and struggled, puffing hard breaths from his nose, not making a sound. What if he yelled for help? Would Dad hear him, would he come? Would the police ask around and find Dad? Would that be worse than getting booked and having his sheet checked? Sam didn't know, but maybe--

"I'll tell you my name," Sam said. "Let me go."

"Maybe if you hadn't kicked me," said Johnson, bluntly. "You're going downtown and that'll teach you."

Johnson opened the back door of the squad car and with a grunt they hefted Sam into the long, slippery back seat and slammed the door behind him. Sam scrambled up and his palms across the vinyl door, but there were no handles, and no door locks, there was no way to roll down the windows even. There was a heavy grill between the front and back seats and as the officers got in, Sam threw himself at the grill, fingers curling through the wire. The cuffs jingled around his wrists.

As Foster revved the engine and popped it into drive, Johnson reached up and slammed the grill with his fist, nearly smashing Sam's fingers.

"Let go of that and sit back."

Sam let go and sank into the seat, pressing himself into the cushions as far as he could.

Foster raced along the street, and turned on the siren as the squad car sped up, making Sam's heart race just as high and just as fast. At the corner, the squad car turned right and headed toward downtown. If they'd gone left, past the hardware store, Sam didn't know what he would have done. He might have screamed for Dad, except the windows were probably soundproof and Dad wouldn't be able to hear him anyway.

But he figured that couldn't let anyone see him in the car. He couldn't let anyone point at him or notice him, but he was already so high-profile that he could imagine the look Dad would give him and the scowl and the lecture; Sam had them all memorized. But he didn't cry. He couldn't cry; the police would probably make fun of him and think they could push him around because he was just a kid.

He sank down in the foot well and pressed himself against the door and tucked his hands up against his chest and pulled up his knees and tried to breathe in and out slowly, one-two, three-four. Like Dad had taught him, and he tried to pretend he was sitting in a shady glen under the mountain laurel trees with Dean and Dad, and Dad was talking in a low calm voice and he and Dean were both concentrating on doing it well, doing it right.

But his teeth were clicking together and he was shaking. He was shaking so hard the cuffs were rattling. He spread his hands a little further apart on his chest, but the cuffs were linked, so there was only so far he could do this. Through the windows he could see the trees whipping past, and hear the siren as it bounced off the buildings and the people and the air and he knew that nobody was going to be able to find him. Not even Dad.

Then the squad car pulled up and stopped and the siren turned off, but the sound was still ringing in Sam's ears.

"Where'd he go?"

"He's in the foot well, I think."

"What the hell?"

"I don't know, let's just get him inside and take care of this."

Sam heard footsteps and the door on the other side opened. Hot air swirled into the air conditioned car, making Sam shiver even harder. He looked at Officer Foster and Officer Foster looked at him.

Then that door was shut, and the door next to him was opened and Officer Johnson stood there.

"Alright kid, let's make this as easy as we can, okay?"

Johnson was using that voice that sometimes Dad did, the one that said that Dad was at the edge of his patience and was using his last bit of niceness to make Sam do what he wanted him to do. Except this wasn't Dad and Dean wasn't here and Sam didn't owe any obedience to a perfect stranger.

Sam thought for a second. If he could move really fast and make it past Johnson, then he could run as fast as he could and get away. He didn't know how far it was to the hardware store, or even where it was located, but if he could find the railroad tracks (and those mostly always ran through the center of town), then he could follow them to the hardware store. And Dad would know how to get the cuffs off, though what he was likely to say about Sam getting picked up by the police was, at this point, simply beyond him to imagine.

He thought about it a second too long. Johnson reached in and picked Sam up by the shoulders and turned him around so fast that Sam didn't have time to think. Foster grabbed his legs and they carried him into the station, a low, concrete building that was connected to the town hall tower that Sam had seen before. He knew where he was, he was oriented, but it was too late.

The officers carried him into the air conditioned building. It felt like everyone was staring, like layers of him were peeling away in the cool air, the eyes on him, the shiny floors, and the pictures of presidents on the wall and flags in the corner, and all at once, they let him go and shoved him into a chair.

He was in an office; the sun was streaming in the wooden-framed windows and there were plants everywhere, and man sat behind the desk. But he wasn't looking at Sam, he was looking at Foster and Johnson.

"She already called me," said the man behind the desk. "That woman, I swear--"

"Same as always," said Johnson. "And here he is, the killer. But don't let this baby face fool you, Sergeant Moss, he's already kicked me several times."

"That why the cuffs?" Sergeant Moss had a grey crew cut, and he filled out his shirt so that his buttons were straining. He talked like people did in Alabama, sort of slow and curly, but the way they talked was deceptive, Dad had said, because it made them sound casual and friendly even when they were doing business and weren't friendly at all.

"Yeah," said Foster. "Do you want us to--"

"No, I got it. Just get me the paperwork and I'll fill it out."

Foster and Johnson left and closed the door behind them, leaving Sam was shut in with yet another stranger.

The air conditioner whooshed in the dust-filled air, and brought the heavy smell of Sgt. Moss's after shave, which made Sam want to cough.

"Don't be scared son," said Sgt. Moss. "I just need to ask you some questions."

"'m not scared," said Sam. He shut his mouth after that because he really didn't want to be tricked into saying anything. He used both of his hands to move the hair out of his eyes, and as the cuffs clinked against his sore wrists, he settled them in his lap, prepared to wait it out.

Sgt. Moss looked him over, head to toe and nodded to himself. "Okay, then. Mrs. Cooperthwaite said you tried to kill her son, is that true?"

Here was his chance. He could tell his side of the story and clear it all up and then they'd let him go. Except the problem still remained; if he told them who he was, they would check for his sheet and when they found out he didn't have one, they'd give him one. And Winchester was such a long last name, it would stand out, and they'd find Dad and Dean's sheets, and Sam couldn't let that happen.

He just shook his head no, and kept his mouth closed so tightly his lips started to go numb.

"So it was just a little fight, between you and Will? Over, what was it, a soccer ball?"

Sgt. Moss seemed nice, nicer than Officer Foster even, and he was in charge because he had a big office like a principal would.

But Sam knew that a sergeant was different than a principal, so Sam shook his head no again and flexed his fingers in his lap. The sweat drying on his skin felt chilly in the cool air and his jaw throbbed a little where Will had hit him, but he felt fine everywhere else and his feet were free too, so why didn't he just run? He felt pretty sure the door wasn't locked behind him.

"You going to say anything, son, like to tell me your name or where your folks are?"

Sam shook his head.

"You ever going to do anything but shake your head at me?"

Sam had to think about that a minute and then nodded, changed his mind, and then shook his head no.

Sgt. Moss picked up a pencil and did that thing that Dean sometimes did with pencils when he was working through a math problem: he put the point on the desk and then slid his fingers down it and the turned the pencil to stand on the eraser and did the motion all over again. Sgt. Moss did this several times and Sam watched him and then realized Sgt. Moss was watching him watching.

"You do realize now, don't you son, that if you don't give me any information, that I'm going to be forced to hand you over to Social Services, and they are very likely going to find a place for you in a children's home or in foster care? And you're covered with bruises and cuts, son, so I might have to turn you over to them anyway."

Sam tracked Sgt. Moss's words in his head and then realized what Sgt. Moss was actually saying: tell me your name or I'll call Social Services on you, and I might anyway. But if Sam wasn't going to tell Sgt. Moss his name, he sure as heck wasn't going to try and explain Dad's method of teaching his sons not to panic when they were tied up.

Behind him, the door opened. Sam could hear the click click of typewriters and the lighter tick tick of computers, a phone ringing, and someone talking about the water cooler and how it was out of water. Except they said it wuhtah coolah is outta wuhtah.

"Here's the paperwork--"

Sam flew out of the chair and was going to go right out the door, and race past the water cooler and the phones and the people, but Sam barreled into Johnson and the paperwork flew out of his hands. Johnson picked Sam up, like he had before, but Sam was ready and tucked his head. He wasn't supposed to bite people anymore, but this was an exception and he was sure Dad would think so, too. His hands were cuffed together, and kicking hadn't worked, so this was his last option. He bit down hard on the hand that was closest to his mouth.

"For fuck's sake!" said Johnson, loudly, dropping Sam.

"Holy Christmas," said Sgt. Moss. "Would you grab him? Don't be scared of him, he's just a kid."

"He just bit me!" Johnson grabbed Sam in a neck lock and yanked back till Sam was pulled against his chest.

"You've had your shots, haven't you?" Sgt. Moss didn't seem so nice as he looked at Sam with narrowed eyes. "He's like a feral child or something. Put him in that holding cell and let's figure out what to do with him. I don't aim to have Old Lady Cooperthwaite calling me with no arrest record to show her. But I want his parents to come and pick him up, durn it. Get him out of here."

Sgt. Moss waved Johnson away, and Johnson picked Sam up roughly and carried him through the halls and past everyone. Sam struggled to get away, but Johnson was using one of those holds that Dad had tried to teach Sam only Sam hadn't listened so now he had no idea what kind of hold it was or how to get out of it.

Johnson carried him through a narrow grey door that buzzed when he opened it and shut quickly behind him. Then after a few steps down a very short corridor, Johnson opened another door, a heavy thick door with a narrow panel of glass in it, and threw Sam to the floor and slammed the door shut.

Sam landed on the shiny floor, smacking so hard on his hip that everything in front of his eyes went black for a second, and pain jagged up his leg. He could only lay there and listen to Johnson locking the door and his footsteps as they went down the corridor. Then the other door buzzed open and then slammed closed behind him.

Sam counted his heartbeats and stayed still until he could take a deep breath without it hurting.

He sat up slowly, breathing through the charley horse on one side. He'd gotten charley horses before and Dean or Dad had always brought him ice to put on it (sometimes a bag of peas if there was no ice), and sometimes Dad would massage his leg a little and urge Sam to walk it off. But Sam could barely get up to do the walking off part, and there was no ice to be had. So he scooted back till his back was against the wall, and tipped his head till it rested on the wall, too, and closed his eyes for a minute and just breathed in and out, one-two, three-four.

When he opened his eyes, his leg still hurt like crazy, and in the fall, he must have jerked his hands because both of his wrists felt cut through, almost all the way to the bone, but when he looked at them, cuffs jingling, they were just cut a little bit, and the skin was raw. Add to that the rope burns on his legs, and he felt like he'd been flayed all over with razor wire, but he had to figure out where he was and find a way to get out of here.

The walls were made of cinderblock that was painted a pale yellow and there weren't any windows. There was a metal toilet and sink that stuck out of one wall and a desk that seemed like it was nailed to the same wall. At the far end, beneath a high, narrow ceiling light was a pair of bunk beds like the kind he'd seen of pictures of summer camp. It seemed strange to think of someone deciding to put summer camp bunk beds in a jail, but Sam hoped he wouldn't be here long enough to have to sleep in one. Not without Dean to argue with over who got the top bunk.

Trying not to strain his leg, he drew up his knees and put his arms around them, holding on to the links of the cuffs so they wouldn't bite into his wrists anymore than they already had. Then he sunk his head against his bent knees and told himself that the heat in his eyes wasn't because he was going to cry, it was because he was tired.

He was tired because it had been a long day and sometimes, after training really hard with Dad, Sam's eyes got hot, and it meant that he was thirsty. Except if he wanted a drink of water, he'd have to get up and drink it out of the sink that was attached to the toilet, and he just couldn't make himself do that. Eventually he'd be so thirsty he would have to even though he didn't want to.

When he felt the hot tears on his thighs, he knew he was crying, but at least there was nobody to see him do it. Didn't matter anyway, if someone was watching, because neither Dad nor Dean knew where he was and Sam had no idea how to tell them, how to get to them, without setting up one of those red flags Dad was always going on about.

He drew himself up as tightly as he could and cried until he couldn't cry anymore.

*

Sam heard the key in the door and the rattle of something against the floor in the short hallway. He lifted his head and rubbed his eyes, blinking the salt from his tears from his eyelashes, and all the while his cuffs jingled and bounced against his raw wrists.

When the door was wide open, Officer Johnson came in carrying a tray. He walked all the way in the room and placed the tray on the desk. While he was doing this, Sam tried to get up, because the door was wide open and Johnson's back was to him. Sam put his hands on the wall and tried to prop himself up till he could stand, but his legs were very stiff and his left hip was throbbing, so he could move only slowly.

"I wouldn't try it if I were you," said Officer Johnson.

Sam froze against the wall as Johnson turned around. He had a bandage on one hand and a sour look on his face.

"There's about three yards between that open door and the next locked one. Sgt. Moss is off for his dinner break, so you're stuck with just me here until he gets back and we figure out what to do with you. And you don't want to piss me off, no, you don't, or at least not any more than you already have."

With wide eyes and a thumping heart, Sam stood all the way up, and pressed his back against the wall, fingers curled around the links of the cuffs. He wanted to ask if they'd found Dad yet, or if they could take off the cuffs, but he figured the answer to both of those would be no, and suddenly his chest was all out of air, and he wanted someone he knew to be there with him. Preferably Dean, even if he would only yell at Sam and call him a little bitch and an idiot and anything else he could think of for getting into such trouble. Anything would be better than having Johnson stare at him like he was.

What was it that always happened in those cop shows Dad and Dean liked to watch? The good guy, wrongly imprisoned, was always trapped alone with the bad cop and then the bad cop did mean things, except nobody believed the good guy because he was the prisoner. Did they do that to kids too?

Sam shrank back against the wall as Johnson came close, but he only walked past Sam and shook his head as he walked out the door. He locked the door firmly behind him. Sam could catch a glimpse of him through the thick, narrow window in the door, just for a second as he locked the door. He was just doing his job, Sam figured, just trying to scare Sam so he'd behave himself till Sgt. Moss got back.

Not that that would make anything better. Sam was still stuck in this cell until something happened to break the stalemate and either Sam talked or…or what? Would Dad be able to find him? And what would Dad do when he did?

Sam took a deep, shaky breath and pushed himself off of the wall and walked over to the desk where the tray of food sat. It was a plastic cafeteria tray like the kind they had at school, with little sections for each kind of food. There was spaghetti and little meatballs with tomato sauce, a large portion of peas swimming in pea juice, some bread and butter, an apple, and then, oddly, ginger ale.

He poked at everything with a finger. The spaghetti and meatballs were still warm, and the peas were too, but if Sam had been willing to eat peas that Dad had put in tuna noodle casserole just to prove a point (and because he'd been hungry), he wasn't going to eat them in a jail cell when they were swimming in pee-colored juice.

If he ate the food now, would that make him a convict? Maybe he shouldn't eat it, like a protest; he'd done that often enough when Dad made something he didn't like. And anyway, the spaghetti, it was riddled with little pieces of tomato. Sam hated tomato unless it was in ketchup or if it was one of those blended tomato sauces that came in a jar. Then he could eat it, but this wasn't that type of sauce.

Sam picked up the bread and butter and took a little bite, and discovered right away that the butter was really margarine, which Sam hated. Dad and Dean hated it too; Dad never bought it and they only had to eat it when there was no other option, like at a truck stop or something.

He put the bread back and picked up the apple. This he could eat, even though there wasn't a real knife to slice off pieces of it, like Dean had taught him to do, showing him how to cut out the seeds and trim off the brown parts, if there were any. Dean had said it was cooler to do it that way, and anyway, it tasted better when Dean cut his apple for him. But he stood there next to the desk and ate the apple without cutting it, keeping one eye on the door, in case anyone should come for him.

Then he opened the ginger ale. It popped and fizzled and it had been ever so long since he'd had a soda, but the ginger ale was on the warm side and not as good as he remembered. He drank half of it, and then his stomach started feeling all funny and tight, so Sam put the soda down.

Now he had to pee. He looked at the metal toilet, standing there all plain and bare against the wall. Dean would laugh like anything if he saw Sam standing there, afraid to use it to pee. Probably, if Dean were here, he'd saunter up to it and pee, just as normal as anything.

Sam didn't think he could hold it, so he pretended he was Dean and sort of sauntered up to it, and unzipped his shorts and peed. Then he zipped back up and looked for the thing to flush it with, and figured it was the flat metal button in the wall, so he pressed that with the palm of his hands. The flushing toilet sounded like a jet engine taking off and the new water that rushed into the metal bowl smelled faintly like chlorine.

Sam saw the powdered soap dispenser and paper towels, and he realized that he could stand a little sideways and just use the sink without leaning over the toilet, so he did that and washed his hands and threw the paper towel on the desk next to the tray because there wasn't any trash can.

Sam paced the floor, trying to keep warm, because there was really no place to sit down; the bottom bunk bed was too hard and the sheets smelled funny, and the floor looked too icy to sit on. Plus there was a vent near the ceiling and it never seemed to stop blowing, so every time he tried to sit down, his teeth would start to chatter and he would shiver and shiver, and couldn't stop. There was nothing else to do but walk and walk.

Eventually he felt tired and got desperate enough to pull a pillow from the bed and put it on the floor next to the bunk bed and sat on it with his back against the cinder block wall with the not-quite-wool blanket around his shoulders.

He didn't know what time it was. Maybe he'd been in the narrow cell an hour at least; the food on the tray had gone cold so maybe it had been two hours. Long enough for Dad to be done with his phone calls and writing his notes in his dumb journal and to come looking for Sam, expecting him to be where he said he'd be. Dad was going to be so mad when he got to the park to find Sam long gone.

If Sam didn't tell them who he was, he didn't know how long they'd keep him there. On the other hand, he couldn't imagine Dad not coming for him, even if when he did he was going to be so angry. What was Sam supposed to do? If he told Sgt. Moss his name, they'd go find Dad, maybe. Or maybe Dad would figure out where he was, and come get him. Either way, Dad was going to be so mad at Sam; not only had Sam not been at the park, but he now had a "sheet."

Sam stretched out his legs and rested the heels of his sneakers on the floor, laying his hands on his bare thighs. He touched his rope burns gingerly; goose pimples stood up on his skin as the metal cuffs touched them. Twisting his wrists, he rubbed the links between his hands with his thumb. The links were cold and solid, just like the cuffs, his wrists were raw from jerking his hands trying to break them, but he knew better now.

The skin under the cuffs was a mess, all raw and bruises and so thin in places, the blood was popping up in little round dots. The marks already hurt but they were going to hurt worse if he couldn't keep himself from jerking so hard. If he couldn't get out of them, if nobody ever took them off.

His hands started to feel numb at the thought of this and his chest grew all tight and fluttery at the same time. He stood up really fast and threw off the blanket, head spinning. There wasn't a single window and he really didn't know what time it was and how much time had passed and what if he'd already been in jail a long time? What if Dad had given up on finding him and had gone to Dean and said, we'll have to move on and leave Sam behind. Would Dean, being so mad at Sam all the time, even try to stop Dad?

His heart was thumping so hard against his ribs that he almost didn't hear the lock in the door.

But he felt the warm movement of warm air and turned to see Officer Johnson come in, frowning with his whole face. He had come for Sam and was probably going to do something mean. Except, maybe at the same time, if Johnson took Sam out in the hallway, then Sam might be able to break free and start running, though what he was supposed to do after that--

"C'mon, kid," said Johnson, advancing on him slowly. "Someone's here to pick you up."

Johnson didn't say who, but Sam knew right away that Sgt. Moss was doing what he said he'd do, that he'd called Social Services because Sam didn't tell him who he was.

Sam felt as panicky as he had when Dad had tied him to the tree the first time, in the woods near the cabin, and then walked off with Dean like there was nothing the matter. Leaving Sam to struggle by himself. Except now, Sam was really all alone and small and the world outside the cold cell suddenly seemed impossibly huge and wide and there would be no way that Dad and Dean could find him, ever, ever again--

"Kid," said Johnson, his voice tight and completely out of patience.

Sam ran straight at Officer Johnson, head down, fists clutched against his chest. He slammed hard into Johnson's stomach and wished he was bigger so he could just throw Johnson to one side and keep running right out the doors till he was away and free.

But Johnson must have been expecting this because he picked Sam up by the waist and swung him around to carry him bodily down the hall. When he reached the second door it was wide open and he walked right through it and Sam raged, growling deep in his throat because if he could have gotten past Johnson, then he could have raced down the shiny-floored hallway and right out the front door.

As hard as he squirmed, he couldn't get free. But he knew he could make it difficult for the officer to carry him so as they turned a corner, Sam twisted and flailed his arms and smashed Johnson right in the face with both fists. Johnson's nose started to bleed and he made a sound and his grip on Sam loosened and Sam pulled back his bound fists, ready for another blow.

"Sam."

Sam froze and Officer Johnson slowly lowered Sam to the floor and turned him around.

It was Dad. He was standing next to Sgt. Moss's desk, and behind him, through the wide window, it was dark and the street lights were just coming on. Dad must have been looking for him for hours.

Sam's heart started to race. Dad's hair was all standing up on end like it did when he ran his hands through it instead of giving Sam a smack. His shirt was covered with grass and sweat stains, though Sam couldn't understand where the grass stains had come from. But Dad had only one glance for Sam, dark, before he looked back at Sgt. Moss, who sat behind his desk, just the same as before, as if he'd never taken his dinner break.

"So, yeah, Mr. Winchester," said Sgt. Moss, as he'd been talking about this forever and was already tired of the subject. "I'm not gonna say she's a pain in the ass, but she calls 911 anytime a dog so much as pees on her lawn. Keeping up with the paperwork is hell, and I'd rather not do it, but--

"That's fine," said Dad. His voice was as calm as if he'd been asking for someone to pass him the milk. He leaned forward to sign a piece of paper that was on Sgt. Moss's desk and then straightened up as he put the pen down. "Now, if someone will get those handcuffs off my boy, I'll take him home."

Sam felt Officer Johnson move, but he didn't come any closer, or grab Sam or anything.

Dad held up his hand and a small circle of keys went flying by Sam's head to land in Dad's palm.

"Come here, Sam," said Dad, squatting down low.

Sam did as he was told; he didn't know what else to do. When he got close, Sam saw the circles under Dad's eyes, and could feel how hot and sweaty he was, like he did when he got worked up, even if Dad was being all calm now. As for him asking for handcuff keys, that part was a fake because Sam knew good and well that Dad could have unlocked him with a paperclip.

"Oh, now," said Johnson somewhere behind Sam. "Now he's docile as a dog with his Dad here."

Dad quickly unlocked the cuffs and stood up, putting the cuffs and keys on Sgt. Moss's wooden desk.

"You're the one with the busted nose," said Dad. His voice was level and reasonable, the bad kind of reasonable that Sam had often heard, usually right before Dad took off his belt. Dad was looking over Sam's head at Officer Johnson. "But that's what you get for underestimating a kid, especially one of mine."

Sgt. Moss made a noise that sounded halfway between a snort and a laugh, and Sam quickly looked away, rubbing his wrists. Dad shook Sgt. Moss's hand. Then, as he started walking out the door, Johnson moved out of the way. There Dad stopped, and standing right next to Officer Johnson but not looking at him, Dad looked at Sam.

"Let's go, Sam," he said. His voice was still level and calm and it was all a big show for Sgt. Moss and Officer Johnson because once out in the parking lot, or along a stretch of highway where Dad could pull over, Sam was going to get hollered at and worse.

Sam felt frozen in place, but Dad started walking down the hallway. His dark hair gleamed in the bright overhead lights, and his feet were almost soundless on the shiny linoleum.

"Sam," he said, without turning back to look.

Sam's choice was to stay here, and get sent to foster care, or follow Dad. Sam knew that even though he didn't want to be with Dad right now, he did want to be with Dean. Besides, he knew Dad, and once the whipping was over, it would be over, except for the part where Dean yelled at him for making Dad mad, and then teased him for being such a dork.

"Move."

Sam hurried to follow Dad.

He still felt like he was shaking all over, from the air conditioning, and his hip felt sore; he couldn't walk full on it, he had to hobble a little bit. He didn't want Dad to think he was trying to be a baby about it, to get out of what was surely coming to him, so he tried to hide it as best he could, and hopped a little bit with every other step to keep from pushing down on his left leg. But he had to hurry too, because Dad wasn't slowing down for Sam, not one little bit. In fact, the closer he got to the main doors, the faster he went, and when he got there and opened them, he reached back and hauled Sam out into the parking lot by the scruff of his neck. Then he let Sam go.

The car was parked off by itself under a lamp post and when Dad opened the driver's side, Sam scrambled in and scooted all the way over to the passenger side. He'd never ridden in the front seat so much in his life, and in spite of Dean bragging about it, how much fun it was, what a privilege it was, Sam didn't like it. Especially now, as Dad started the engine, floored the gas, and shrieked out of the parking lot.

As Dad drove them along the main road, all the lights in the town were coming on. When they reached the highway, he really pushed on the gas pedal and they roared towards home. Sam wanted to open the window, but he also wanted to make himself feel really small right about now because who knew when Dad would decide to pull over and take off his belt. Or maybe he would make Sam wait for it till they got home, and do it there, and that would make Dean even madder at Sam, having to watch and listen to Sam crying.

Sam's heart leaped up into his throat; he wanted to get this over now. "Dad--"

"Your brother's going to be crazy with worry," said Dad.

In the low, glowing light of the speedometer, Sam could just about make out that they were going around 70; the engine was growling with an effort to keep up with Dad's demands on the gas pedal. Sam wasn't sure if he wanted to ask Dad to slow down or not, but Dad wasn't looking at him at all; it was like he wasn't even there, so Sam didn't dare. He just hung on to the door handle as tight as he could, and rubbed his hip a little bit every now and then and kept his mouth shut. He was already in so much trouble.

*

The headlights raced across the tree trunks and the gravel road gleamed as they pulled up to the cabin. Dean was already there waiting on the top step, shadowed in the porch light. When the car stopped, he raced down the steps, arms outstretched.

"Where the hell have you been!"

"That's enough Dean."

"But where's Sam?"

Dean obviously couldn't see him. Sam got out of the car, pushing the door open, and stepping out slowly because his hip had gone all frozen from sitting still. It felt like someone was jabbing something sharp into it. He closed the door, gently, and bit his lip, concentrating on walking rather than hopping. When he looked up, Dad was already up the stairs, opening the door for him and Dean.

But he waited for Sam; both of them did.

"In the house, now," said Dad.

Then he turned away, into the house, taking Dean with him. Now Sam could hop a little bit; his hip started to loosen up a little. He really would have liked to be carried, but he'd been carried enough for one day, and besides, he was too big for that. So he walked it, up the stairs, gritting his teeth and pretending he was Dean, because nothing ever hurt Dean.

Once up the stairs, Sam opened the screen door, and let the familiar light from the bulb over the kitchen table stream over him. His heart thudded and the panic whirled around in his stomach, overriding every other sensation; now he was home, now Dad would get mad.

"What happened, Dad?" Dean asked as Dad got the first aid kit down from the top of the fridge and put it on the table.

Dad shook his head at Dean. He rummaged in the box and pulled out what he needed as Sam came closer.

"What happened Sam?" said Dean to Sam.

"I have a sheet," Sam said, announcing this right away because it was better to get it done and over with.

"Move for your brother," said Dad to Dean, and Dean got out of the way and went to sit in Dad's chair at the end of the table.

"Sit down Sam, let me take care of those wrists."

Sam was a little confused that Dad wasn't yelling, but he sat down in Dean's chair, the one in the middle, and put his wrists on the table. His shoulders started to throb, and he felt stiff all over.

"A sheet?" asked Dean.

Dad got a clean dishcloth from the drawer and wet it with cold water. As he wiped Sam's wrists, he said, "Your brother got arrested today."

Dean's mouth hung open and his eyes were wide and he didn't say a word. Sam had never seen Dean look so surprised in all of his life, but it didn't make Sam feel like he thought it would; he wasn't proud of what he'd done.

"Yes," said Dad, his voice dry. "Apparently a Mrs. Cooperthwaite has the cops in Ft. Payne running for their lives, and when she says jump, they jump. And when she says arrest a kid for fighting with her son over a soccer ball, they arrest the kid, slap some cuffs on him, and throw him in solitary."

"What?" Dean practically shrieked this and he stood up and looked ready to move and do something about it.

"Settle down, Dean, but yeah," said Dad, "cuffs and solitary, for a 13 year old." He shook his head, and slathered Sam's wrists with first aid cream. "I was looking for him for three hours, under bushes, in the ditches, on the roadside…everywhere." Dad's voice grew gritty and fell off at the end as if he didn't quite know how to finish his thought.

"How'd you find him?" asked Dean. He sat down, but looked really mad and ready to stand up any minute.

"Finally started knocking on doors," said Dad. He looked tired, then, as if just the thought of how much trouble Sam had been was exhausting. "Found a neighbor who'd seen it, and told me what happened. Imagine my surprise when I get to the police station, and they bring him out in cuffs."

As Dad and Dean stared at him, Sam squirmed in his seat and ducked his head. He was used to being ignored, somewhere off in the corner of Dad's attention, unless he was in trouble.

Dad wrapped soft bandages around Sam's wrists and gently taped them down. Then Dad smoothed them with his hand, and they started to feel a little better. But then Dad pulled him to his feet, Sam jerked backwards, bumping into Dean.

"What?" asked Dad. "What's the matter with you now?"

Dad put his hand on Sam's arm, and now Sam was caught. "I'm sorry, Dad, honest. I didn't mean for them to arrest me, I was gonna stay in the park, just like you said, but they came and--please, Dad, please don't whip me--"

"I'm not going to whip you, Sam," said Dad. He pulled Sam close to him, and then Dad sat down in Sam's chair, and, now level with Sam, looked Sam right in the eye. "Although I should, for you fighting over a soccer ball that wasn't yours to begin with and that you shouldn't be playing--"

Dad snapped his mouth shut over what he wanted to say next, but Sam could see in his eyes that he was furious about the whole thing, and might just be mad enough to whip Sam anyway.

Sam didn't say what he wanted to say, that he was going to play soccer the next chance he got. It probably wouldn't be a good idea to bring that up, now that Dad had said that Sam wasn't going to get a whipping. He started to wiggle his arm to get it out of Dad's grip in case he changed his mind anyway.

"Hang on. I want to know why you were limping, what happened?"

At first, Sam didn't know what Dad was talking about, and then he remembered. Only now, it was going to sound so stupid, he didn't want to tell. He shook his head.

As Dad looked at Sam with serious eyes, Dean stood up and was at Sam's shoulder, talking practically in his ear. "C'mon, Sammy, what happened to you?"

Sam licked his lips and took a little breath. "Um," he said. "When they put me in the cell, they kind of threw me down, so--so I had cuffs on and couldn't roll the right way so it wouldn't hurt." His wrists hurt a little bit from the fall, but not so much as his hip. It was his own fault, really, for not rolling with a fall, like Dad had showed him and so now Dad was probably going to get mad all over again.

Dad shot to his feet, and his eyes were all dark and scary, and Sam backed up, bumping into Dean again. Dean pulled on Sam to get him to move, and then Dean stood in front of Sam, which he sometimes did when Dad was mad at Sam. Dean hadn't done it all summer. Until now.

Except instead of coming at Sam, Dad walked away, his hands balled into fists. Sam saw a flash of Dad's bared teeth as he walked to the door and opened it like he meant to go out. Only he didn't. He stood there, staring through the screen, and Sam felt horrible for not being able to do the roll and swore to himself that he'd practice like crazy, if only Dad wouldn't be so furious about it.

"Dad?" asked Dean. That was good. Dean could always, well nearly always, talk Dad out of it when Dad was mad like this.

As if he'd made his mind up about something, Dad relaxed his shoulders and his hands, and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. Then he turned away from the screen door and came back to them. And although his expression was calmer now, Sam could tell he was still mad.

"Get some ice for your brother; Sam, let me take a look at that hip."

Dad sat in Sam's chair again and gestured for Sam to come closer. Dean had to reach over Dad for the ice tray, but he didn't seem bothered by it, so Sam did as he was told.

"This one?" asked Dad. He pointed to Sam's left hip.

Sam nodded. He chewed on his lower lip; he'd tried not to be a baby about it, but having Dad notice anyway was making him feel like crying again.

Dad tugged on the waist of Sam's shorts and underwear to pull them down a little bit on one side. Dad cupped his warm hand over the bare skin of Sam's hip.

"Does that hurt?" Dad asked, looking at Sam.

It didn't figure that Dad would believe Sam if he said no, so Sam nodded yes. He didn't say how much it hurt because he didn't want Dean scoffing at his princess drama, which is what Dean called it when Sam complained about a splinter or stubbed toe. But his hip hurt a lot, all sharp and pounding, like someone was pulling thin strings out, one at a time, over and over.

Dad took his hand away, and looked at Sam's hip, and then shook his head as he tugged Sam's clothes back into place. "It's all black and blue," he said, flat, to no one in particular.

He was starting to sound angry again, but he looked at Sam and shook his head. Then he said, "Give me that ice." He took the bundled towel that Dean handed him and made Sam sit down and put it against Sam's hip. "Hold it like this."

As Sam held it in place, Dad almost smiled at Sam, but Sam looked away, and felt Dean coming around to sit in Dad's chair.

"As to why we're so late," said Dad, like he'd been telling the story all along. "Sgt. Moss wanted Sam to tell him who he was, where he lived. And what does your brother do?"

He directed this at Dean, and of course Dean couldn't tell him, so he shook his head and asked, "What did he do?"

"He wouldn't tell them anything," said Dad. "He stonewalled them for four hours,"

"Holy cow." Dean's mouth dropped open.

"Apparently," said Dad, continuing on, "they threatened him with Social Services, foster care, the works, but not a word from Sam. He gave them nothing, never cracked once. Can you imagine? " Dad almost seemed to laugh at something he was thinking, but he only rubbed his chin with his palm and sighed.

Sam looked at Dean. He looked impressed and that didn't happen very often.

"Why didn't you want to tell them who you were, Sam?" asked Dad.

Sam ducked his head and fiddled with one of his bandages, until Dad put his hand on Sam's hand and made him stop. Then he took his hand away and touched the top of Sam's head, and flicked away Sam's bangs from his eyes.

"Why, Sammy?"

Sam looked up. Dad didn't seem to be mad now, and he wanted Sam to tell him what had happened, why Sam hadn't talked. For now, Sam wasn't in trouble, and he'd like to keep it that way so he was going to tell Dad what he wanted to know.

"You said to keep a low profile, and if I told them who I was, maybe they'd tell the F.B.I, and then maybe they'd come and take you away and I couldn't--" Sam's throat closed up a little, and he cleared it, swallowing over a huge lump that suddenly formed there. "I couldn't let them get Dean."

That was the truth then, even if it made Dad's eyes go dark and still and made Dean make that little face he got when Sam had said the very wrongest thing, like he sometimes did when trying to talk to Dean.

"I see," said Dad. "Well, you did good there, it was the right thing to think."

"But it's not right to lie to the police, Dad, and not telling them is like a lie--" It was all so confusing.

"Still, Sam, you did the best you could in a bad circumstance. If you were a little older, I'd give you a beer."

Dean sometimes would take a sip of Dad's beer, if he'd left it on the counter and Dad wasn't looking. Sam hadn't yet dared, and he kind of never wanted to taste it, because if he started drinking it, then he'd be like Dad, maybe.

"I'd rather have an Otter Pop," said Sam, although this was an old argument, and Sam was going to lose it, since Dad had forbidden them treats when they trained.

"I know you would," said Dad. "But let's get you something to eat. You hungry?"

Sam nodded. He wasn't going to tell them about the horrible spaghetti and the peas swimming in what looked like lukewarm pee, nor was he going to tell them about the soda he couldn't even finish, but yes, he was hungry.

Dad made Sam hold the ice pack against his hip, and got up and made Sam a peanut butter and banana and honey sandwich and poured him a big glass of milk. Sam held the bag of ice in the crook of his hip with one hand, and ate as fast as he could chew while Dad sat in Sam's chair and Dean sat in Dad's chair and both of them watched him eat.

"Aren't you gonna eat?" Sam asked, after he'd swallowed a whole glass of milk in three gulps and wiped his mouth on the neck of his t-shirt.

Dad just shook his head, and Dean said, "Not hungry."

Dad seemed to be looking at Sam while thinking of something else, and he shook his head again and got up. He took the dish and glass from the table and put them in the sink.

"But you did good today, Sam, and so--"

Then Dad went to the freezer and pulled something out and put it on the table in front of Sam. For a second, Sam didn't recognize it, it was so bright and there were too many colors for him to figure out what it was. But then he recognized the red and blue striped box with the strange, brightly colored otters on the front and then he knew.

"Otter Pops!" Sam stood up and the bundle of ice fell to the floor, and his hip screamed at him, but he didn't care, he had Otter Pops at last. He brought the icy cold box right up to his face so he could smell it. Of course, it only smelled like frozen cardboard, and was starting to make his fingers freeze, but it was the surest sign of a real boy's summer that he knew.

"Divvy them up Sam, six each."

Sam blinked. For a moment, he'd forgotten where he was and who was watching him. He put the box down on the table, and sat back down and then tore the cardboard open as the long, brightly colored, icy cold tubes spilled out.

"This been in the freezer all this time?" he heard Dean ask.

"For a while now," said Dad.

Sam didn't care about that, he was just glad to see there was a lot of Little Orphan Orange, and her little dog, which he loved, and not too many of Sir Isaac Lime, which he didn't care for. His hands almost shook as he made three piles, trying as best he could to make sure not to hog all the orange ones, and not to give Dad too many of the lime ones. Dean liked Louie-Bloo Raspberry, or at least he said he did, so Sam made sure that Dean got most of those.

When the Otter Pops were separated into three somewhat tidy and icy piles, which were starting to melt in the heat, Dad got out the scissors, and took an orange one from Sam's pile and cut open the top.

Dean grabbed the scissors from Dad. "No, like this. Curve it, otherwise, it cuts your mouth." Dean showed Dad how to cut them in a curve, and Dad cut one open for each of them.

Sam took a breath. He had two Little Orphan Oranges all for him, and he took the one that Dad had cut open and shoved it in his mouth and started to suck on it.

His eyes closed with bliss, and he forgot his bruised hip and the marks on his wrists, the rope burns on his thighs. Even the threat of a whipping from Dad was now in the background, and all there was was the sharp, icy-cold sweet taste of orange sugar. The curve Dad had cut in the plastic tube was just perfect to fit inside Sam's mouth, and he sucked and tilted the tube up so the already melted juice could run right down his throat.

"I guess he likes them," said Dean, around his tube of Louie-Bloo Raspberry.

"I guess he does," agreed Dad.

Sam looked up. He was almost done with his first Otter Pop, but Dad and Dean were still only halfway done, sucking on their tubes like polite ladies sipping tea.

"Here," said Dean. "I'll trade ya." He took one of Sam's Otter Pops, the Poncho Punch one, which didn't really have any flavor at all other than a mild pink. And in its place he put a Little Orphan Orange one, so now Sam still had two orange ones to eat.

"Thanks, Dean," said Sam, around a mouthful of orange sugar.

Dad snorted around the end of his tube, his lips stained purple by the flavor of Alexander the Grape, which Sam liked best after orange and Strawberry Short Kook.

"What's funny, Dad?" asked Dean. Dean's mouth was stained too, by the blue ice he was eating.

"You should have seen him," said Dad, shaking his head.

"Who?" asked Dean.

"Officer Johnson," said Dad. He tilted some of the purple ice into his mouth and chewed on it for a bit. "Sam apparently didn't like him very much, and Johnson told Sgt. Moss that Sam had kicked him, repeatedly, and then bit him, and then when he was bringing Sam into the office, when I showed up, Sam busted his nose. Made it bleed pretty bad."

Dad laughed a little bit more, and swallowed the rest of the purple ice and shook his head. He was even smiling a little, which he usually never did when Sam got himself into trouble. "Yeah, I said, take off the cuffs, and Officer Johnson, get this, Dean, he took a step back, didn't want to come anywhere near Sam. I think he was a little afraid of him."

Dad said it like Sam had done a good thing, but Sam frowned. You weren't supposed to get praise for hurting a police officer, at least it wasn't that way on TV or in any book Sam had read. Only a bad guy would attack a cop, like Sam had done today, and Sam didn't want to be a bad guy.

"What's the matter, Sammy?" asked Dean, teasing. "Got brain freeze?"

"No," said Sam. He took his second Little Orphan Orange and held it for Dad to cut open. He was being rewarded with Otter Pops, he knew that, but it was for something he shouldn't be rewarded for. As of today, he had a sheet, he was on the books, and if anyone put his name on the wire, they'd find out what he did today. "It's just that--"

He stopped. He didn't know how to explain this in a way that wouldn't make Dean laugh at him or get Dad frustrated enough to punish Sam anyway, just to make a point. Then he looked up. Dad and Dean were still watching him, like they were afraid he'd vanish right in front of their eyes. There were things that could do that, Sam knew, even though he'd never seen any.

"I shouldn't have kicked him," said Sam. "Or anything bad. They probably wrote it down on my sheet, and now everyone will know--" The taste of orange was now bitter in his mouth.

"Well," said Dad, looking at Sam, and considering his words, all quiet and slow, like he tended to do when he wanted to get his point across. "Maybe before he threw you to the floor, that might be true, but afterwards? All bets are off. You understand?"

Sam didn't.

"Sgt. Moss, he's a cop, and he was pretty mean to threaten you with foster care. But he was just doing his job; did he manhandle you?"

"No," said Sam.

"Well, Johnson hurt you, so you were just fighting back, Sam. And he's a cop, taking lumps like that is part of his job."

"You were just trying to get away, Sam," said Dean, like this was the best reason of all.

Sam thought about this. He looked at Dean, who was sucking his way to the bottom of Louie-Bloo Raspberry, contentedly, his eyes half-closing when he tilted his head back. His mouth was blue, and Sam thought that yes, he'd been trying to get away, but it had been so that whatever Sam had done (and the soccer ball, by rights, really had been his), it wouldn't lead to Dean. And he'd done that. He'd kept Dean out of it.

If Dad felt comfortable and safe enough to walk into a police station and give them his real name and then sign it on a piece of paper? That was his lookout. Sam's lookout was to make sure Dean was okay, at least as best he could.

"And if you're worried about them coming for us, Sam," said Dad. He stood up pointed his fast-melting Sir Isaac Lime at Sam. "If you're worried about Dean, don't be. Today was small potatoes for them, and considering their source--"

"Mrs. Cooperthwaite," said Dean, his mouth curling around the name as if he enjoyed saying it.

"Mrs. Cooperthwaite makes hundreds of complaints a year, and I think, from the sounds of it, most of them get canned. Including this one. Sgt. Moss told me that once she sees the paperwork, the office staff manages to "lose" it, and on it goes. So don't worry, okay?"

Dad threw his wrapper in the trash, and picked up the bag of melting ice from the floor and threw it in the sink. Then he touched the top of Sam's head, and started walking away.

"Where you going?" asked Dean.

Sam turned in his chair. Dad was picking up the keys from the counter and hefting them in his hand.

"I have an errand to take care of," said Dad. "I'll be back later. You boys can finish those off, you can have mine between you, and Dean, make sure your brother brushes his teeth afterwards. Bedtime by ten, understand?"

"Sure, Dad," said Dean.

Sam nodded absently at what Dad had just said; he couldn't believe his luck. There were two orange Otter Pops in Dad's pile, and Dean knew that Sam loved those best, so he was liable to pretend he didn't want them, and take all the lime and raspberry ones instead. Leaving Sam with orange and purple and pink ones, which was only fair, even if the pink ones didn't taste much like anything other than pink.

"Bye, Dad," said Dean. He stood up now, too, watching Dad leave.

Sam didn't look. He listened for the car door and the roar of the engine and felt all of the tightness in his shoulders and chest just whoosh away. He started dividing Dad's pile of Otter Pops between him and Dean, until his pile grew so huge that some of the Otter Pops slipped onto the floor.

Sam bent to get them and straightened up, clutching them in his fingers like frozen straws. Then he put them on the table and counted them, one more time.

"I wonder where he's going," said Dean. He came back to the table, and looked at the pile that Sam had left for him. If he felt it unfair that he had two Sir Isaac Limes and no orange ones, he didn't say anything. Instead he grabbed the scissors and stuffed them in his back pocket. Then he took up his eight remaining Otter Pops and jerked his chin at Sam.

"Let's eat these on the porch and wait for Dad to come back."

Sam nodded, and followed Dean outside with his Otter Pops clutched against his chest. They were so cold they almost burned him through his t-shirt to his skin, but he ran with them, and was able to plop them on the second step between his feet, and then he sat on the top step and admired his hoard.

Dean sat beside him and did the same. He took the scissors out and laid them on the top step between them.

Sam took up an Alexander the Grape and held it out for Dean to cut it, in a curve, the way Dean knew that he liked. Then he started sucking at the cold sugar, barely tasting the purpleness of it after all that orange. Little Orphan Orange was the strongest, sweetest flavor of them all, nothing could beat it. But even though he still had, count them, one, two, three, yes, four orange ones, he wanted to spread it out, and make it last. Which meant that he had to put up with one purple, two strawberries, and a pink in between.

Dean sucked on a Louie-Bloo Raspberry, his elbows on his knees, and he was staring down the driveway, even though, in the light from the porch, he could only see a little way.

"What're you looking at, Dean?" asked Sam. Sam could never understand why the raspberry flavored ones were blue colored, but maybe it was just one of those mysteries. He sucked down some purple and decided he liked the taste of it a little better than the pink.

"Nothin'," said Dean. "Just where did he go, anyway? We have groceries."

Now Sam stared at the driveway, too. Dad sometimes did stuff like that, driving off in the middle of the night, only to come back days later, all covered with dust, with no story to tell about it. Not that Sam cared to know Dad's stupid secrets, but Dean did; it bothered him when Dad wouldn't tell him what was going on.

"Maybe he went to a garage," said Sam around a mouthful of sugared ice, trying to be helpful.

"Too late for that," said Dean. "He could fix that carburetor here, anyway, and I could help him."

Dean always worried, trying to fix everything, make sure Dad didn't work too hard on his own. He wanted to be a hunter like Dad, and do anything to help Dad, and sometimes, when he was like this, he tended to ignore Sam.

"I'll give you one of my strawberries for a lime one," Sam said. He held out the Strawberry Short Kook to Dean, but Dean just looked at it and shook his head.

"No way! I love Sir Isaac Lime!" Dean said, loudly and pointedly. "I'm not gonna give him away, not even for a sweet, red gal like Miss Short Kook."

Sam smiled around the last bits of his grape Otter Pop, because that's how Dean was. He knew how to tease Sam and not make it something mean. He felt the smile moving through him, like a lazy, contented stretch of warmth.

He held out another Little Orphan Orange and Dean cut it and Sam sucked on it and smiled some more, and Dean cut open a lime one and stuck it in his mouth and smiled around that, even though, as Sam knew, that after any other flavor, the lime ones tended to taste a little bitter.

For a while, they sat there, sucking on Otter Pops in the warm night air, with the moths flickering around the porch light, and the quiet (apart from the trees moving as the wind tossed the leaves a little bit) settled over Sam's shoulders, and he felt like, for the first time all summer, that it was summer. A summer meant for a kid.

He didn't have to go to summer camp, even, like Russ's boy had done, as long as he could have moments like this. Sitting next to Dean, with Dean liking him a little bit, and being nice, the taste of melting orange sugar on his tongue, the sharp feel of the cut of plastic on the inside of his mouth. And Dean's smile as he pretended not to look as he filched Sam's Poncho Punch.

Sam sucked on his orange one for a minute, and then rested it against his knee. Taking up the scissors, he cut open another orange one and curved the top as carefully as he could. Then he handed it to Dean.

When Dean frowned at him, Sam said, "I want you to have it."

Dean took it, but he shoved his only grape one into Sam's pile to trade, and Sam let him. They both knew that Sam giving Dean an orange one was a big deal, but Dean didn't like to talk about stuff like being nice, and so Sam would have to pretend that this was all normal. Still, it was hard not to smile as he stuck his tongue down the tube and tilted his head back so that the whole melting, orange mess slid into his mouth.

*

They ate Otter Pops until Sam's tongue was burning, and still Dad didn't come home. Sam managed to still have one orange and a pink one left when Dean suggested they watch some TV.

Sam picked up his Otter Pops and followed Dean inside. The cabin was a little warm, and so Dean turned on the fans and set them up in the doorways, while Sam turned on the TV. It was summer, so there would only be re-runs.

"Not Lois and Clark," said Dean. "It's too stupid."

Sam turned the dial, clutching his almost melted Otter Pops in one hand. "X-Files?" he asked. The show usually freaked him out, especially if there was a monster whose skin came off or if Agent Mulder got locked up somewhere. But still, Dean liked the show, and he'd be there to make a joke if Sam got too scared, so Sam found the right channel, and sat in Dad's chair so Dean could sprawl out on the couch.

As Dean settled in and started watching, he threw an empty wrapper at the TV. "Stupid Mulder, everyone knows the Jersey Devil is make-believe."

But that didn't make Dean want to change the channel, and so they continued to watch X-Files, and after that Walker, Texas Ranger, and Sam finished his pink one and then had Dean cut the last Little Orphan Orange open.

Dean did it in such a perfect curve that it didn't hurt Sam's mouth at all, even if his stomach was starting to feel a bit queasy. It was perfect, it was the best and the last of them all, and when he was done, Sam put the wrapper on the floor next to the chair and settled back with his hands on his stomach and let the flickering light of the TV spin before his eyes.

*

When the screen door opened, some movie was on, and Dean, who'd obviously been asleep on the couch, woke up right away and leaped up to go to Dad, who was walking as loudly across the floor as if it were daylight.

"What are you boys still doing up? It told you bedtime was at ten."

The clock on the stove said 11:30.

"We wanted to wait for you," said Dean.

Sam knew that Dean wanted to ask Dad where he'd been, what he'd been doing, but with Dad, if he wanted you to know, he'd tell you and no amount of begging would make it any different.

"Yeah," said Sam. He got up too, and tried not to hobble, though his hip had stiffened up on him and his feet were all pins and needles. "We finished all the Otter Pops, and me and Dean watched X-Files and I didn't have to cover my eyes, not once." It had been a lame episode about a Jersey Devil, which nobody believed in, but Dad didn't need to know that.

"Well, it's bedtime now," said Dad.

He walked forward into the light, and went to the sink. There was a large smear of grease across his shirt, and even from where he was standing, Sam could see the large bruise on Dad's face. As he was washing his hands gingerly under cool water, for a second, Sam thought he could see that there was blood across the backs of Dad's hands. Both of them.

Sam looked at Dean and Dean looked at Sam and raised his eyebrows, but neither of them dared ask.

Except, Dean tried to find out anyway. "You okay, Dad?"

Dad nodded. He finished up in the sink, turned off the tap and wiped his hands on his shirt. His knuckles were still red and when he turned around, Sam saw that he had a busted lip, too.

"I stopped to help someone change a flat tire," said Dad.

Changing a flat tire didn't mean that you came home with a fat lip and busted knuckles, but unless Dean was willing to say to Dad's face that he was a liar (and Sam wasn't about to), then there was no way the story was going to change.

"Must have been a really big tire," ventured Dean, just the same. "You want some ice for that lip?"

Dean was always brave, but then, sometimes, like now, he was bold enough to look Dad right in the eye, like he was daring Dad to deny what was right in front of all of them that Dad was lying. Still, Dad didn't say anything, only shook his head.

"I'll get it, you boys brush your teeth and get to bed. Way past bedtime, and tomorrow we're going to do some PT and you're going to increase that run to three miles."

Sam groaned. Trust Dad to take a wonderful, Otter Pop-filled, summer evening and ruin it with horrible news like that. He thought for a moment about mentioning his sore hip and how he couldn't possibly run on it, let alone for three miles in the morning heat. And while Dad had been nice about it before, if Sam complained about his hip, Dad was liable to bark out something mean and holler at Sam and then the whole of the perfect summer evening would be ruined.

Still, Sam opened his mouth, but as Dad dipped his head and turned away, Sam saw that Dad had a large red scratch along the back of his arm and Sam knew that Dad had been up to something that wasn't a flat tire, and it had worn him out. So Sam shut his mouth and did as he was told and went into the bathroom with Dean to brush his teeth.

"Changing a flat tire, my eye," said Dean around the foam on his toothbrush. Sam brushed his teeth and looked at Dean in the mirror and nodded.

"He's not going to tell us," said Sam before he spit into the sink.

"Nope," said Dean.

In the bedroom, Dean flicked off the light and Sam stripped down to his underwear in the dark. The skin over his hip still felt a little cool from the bag of ice (that Dean had refilled for him during Walker, Texas Ranger), but it still felt too stiff to lie on. So, as he climbed into bed, he had to lie on his right side, even though he wanted to face the other way and tell Dean about being in jail so that Dean could think about that and not worry about Dad so much. Dad could take care of himself anyway; Sam was just a kid, and being in jail had been a big deal, even if, in the end, he didn't really have a sheet with his name on it.

"Hey, Dean?"

"Yeah?"

"Did you know I had to pee in a metal toilet today? It wasn't even in a bathroom, just stuck out from the wall."

Sam waited. He wanted Dean to know how brave he'd been, how he'd sauntered up to that toilet like Dean would have, and washed his hands with strange, prison-smelling powdered soap like it was an everyday thing. About how bad the food had been, and how there'd been bunk beds, and how he'd wished that Dean had been there with him. Because if Dean had been there, it would have been different. And how, more than anything, more than orange Otter Pops even, how he wanted Dean to say something nice to him and tell him how brave he'd been today.

But Dean was taking so long, that Sam's bottom lip was starting to shake and he clamped down on it so he wouldn't start crying like a baby. Dean hated it when he did it.

"Dean?" he asked, and his voice came out all thready and Dean was sure to say something snotty and call him Waterworks Sammy, and then roll over and face the other way and not say anything nice. And Sam really needed someone, besides Dad, to tell him that he'd done a good job and that he was safe now.

"Dean?" he asked again.

"What?"

The fan was going in the window, sucking in cool air from the living room and pushing it through the room, so Sam didn't think Dad could hear them, as long as they kept their voices down. Besides the TV was still on, Sam could hear it a little bit through the wall, so Dad was probably watching whatever was on.

"I almost got a soccer ball today, I mean, I didn't mean to hit that kid so hard, but he lost it and I found it--"

"And then you went and got yourself arrested," said Dean, interrupting him. He sounded mad.

"I didn't mean to," said Sam. He blinked against the half-darkness, frowning. "But I was brave and I almost got away at least a dozen times, and--"

"And you freaked Dad out today, don't you know that?"

Now Sam had to roll over, wincing as he turned on his hip to face Dean. "Nuh-uh, I did not freak him out."

Dean's eyes were wide open, glittering in the near dark, and Sam could almost see the expression on his face. He couldn't believe that Dean wasn't proud of him, even just a little bit. Dad had dismissed the whole thing like it had been nothing, just Dad to the rescue to sign the stupid paperwork and that was it, they were done. Nothing about Sam, except--

"Do you think I was right not telling them who I was? Dad said I was." Not that Dad's opinion mattered even near as much as Dean's did. Didn't Dean know that?

Dean scrunched under the light cotton sheet, like he was pulling a woolen blanket over him on a cold, wintery night. "You guys were gone for hours, I didn't know where you were. Maybe if you'd 'a told him, then you'd have been back earlier."

The liquid remains of Sam's last Otter Pop (Little Orphan Orange, the strongest and best flavor of them all) churned a bit in his stomach. He felt all light headed to think about it, how worried Dean had been.

"But I didn't mean for you to--I was trying to save you from the F.B.I, I thought I was doing it right? Dean, didn't I do it right?" His voice rose and ended in a sharp crack that Dad was sure to hear and come in to ask what was going on. But the TV continued to drone and Sam didn't hear any hard, Dad-footsteps coming across the wooden floor.

"The F.B.I?" asked Dean, sounding a little distracted.

"Yeah, Dad said if I played soccer, it would raise a red flag and that's when maybe the F.B.I. would come."

"Oh, that," said Dean. He sounded like he knew all about it and wasn't worried. "Yeah, that part, you did that right."

Sam started to smile a little bit because that was good, Dean had said he'd done okay.

"But Sam," said Dean, and now he sounded more serious than ever. "I think he went to beat up that guy."

"What guy?"

"That guy, the officer who threw you to the ground. I think that's what he did."

"What who did?" Sam was totally confused now and his stomach hadn't settled down one little bit.

"Dad. He drove down to Ft. Payne and found Officer Johnson and beat him up. Because of what he did to you." Sam felt Dean nodding against his pillow. "Yeah, an hour there, and hour back and time enough in the middle to beat the crap out of ole Officer Johnson."

Dean sounded proud of Dad, like that was the right thing for Dad to do. Except to Sam, it was the worst thing ever and it was very probably what had happened, and would explain all of Dad's bruises and the blood on the backs of his hands.

What if Officer Johnson recognized Dad and then they came up to arrest him? Then Sam would be sent to foster care, and Dean would be carted off to Juvie Hall for sure, and would have nothing to eat but slimy peas and bread with margarine and ginger ale without any ice--and Sam would never, ever see Dean again.

"I can't do it," said Sam and he leaped out of bed, cupping his hand over his mouth, his stomach racing around as he hopped over the fan in the bedroom doorway, holding his other hand on his hip to stop the pains shooting up into his side.

He managed to knock the fan over, and the loud, screaming noise brought Dad hurrying over just as Sam got into the bathroom in time to throw up in the toilet. The puke came out all orange and purple, and Sam tried to crouch a little closer so it wouldn't splash all over the place.

It tasted terrible coming up, and Sam squinted his eyes so he wouldn't have to see Dad and Dean standing in the doorway watching him throw up. When he was finished, he flushed the toilet and stood up, wiping his mouth with his trembly fingers.

Sam opened his eyes to look at Dad, who looked at him with an unsympathetic glare. Sam glared back.

"It's not fair!" said Sam. "Those are the only Otter Pops I'll ever get for the whole summer and now they're gone!" His stomach whirled around a bit, but couldn't find anything more to throw up.

"Too many Otter Pops," said Dad. "That's what made you sick."

"Uh, Dad?" asked Dean. When Dad turned to look at him, Dean said, "Maybe he saw you, maybe he knows who it was that--I think maybe Sam's worried that now they'll come and arrest you."

Dad flinched, and his eyes were hard, but Dean shrugged and stood his ground. Sometimes Dean was so brave, Sam couldn't even believe it.

"Will they?" asked Dean.

Sam waited for Dad to deny it. But Dad shook his head and rubbed the back of his hand against his sore mouth. It was swollen even more than before, and it didn't look like he'd put any ice on it at all.

"He didn't recognize me," said Dad. "I jumped him in the alley in back of his house. It was plenty dark."

Plenty dark for Officer Johnson, but not too dark for Dad. Sam didn't know what to think, and even Dean looked a little surprised.

"You need any baking soda and water, Sam" Dad asked that and waited for Sam to shake his head, which Sam did, because baking soda and water was the worst. Sam would rather have an upset stomach than drink that stuff.

"Then get to bed, both of you. I'm not letting you sleep in tomorrow just because you were up late."

It was obvious that that was the end of it; Dad had confessed to beating up a cop, and now, they were to pretend it never happened.

Sam thought about saying something, and asking more questions, but Dad looked at Sam. There were circles under Dad's eyes, and his busted lip was all purple and messy, and Sam hoped there was some aspirin in the house, though he didn't dare offer to get it for him. Besides, he wasn't supposed to touch what was in the first aid box unless Dad told him specifically to get something from it.

Dean set the fan on its edge again and Sam stepped around him to get into bed as fast as he could. His heart was beating a little fast, but that was because of throwing up and not because--

Dean got into his side of the bed, without a word. Sam waited till the bed stopped moving. He lay on his back and pulled the sheet up as far as he could, even though the back of his left hip pounded and he knew it would be too hot.

"Hey, Dean?" Sam swallowed; his mouth felt dry and his nose was clogged up, but talking to Dean always made him feel better. Well, usually better.

When Dean didn't answer, Sam said, "I didn't mean for me to get arrested. All I wanted was to bring that soccer ball home so you and I could play with it."

"You're the one that likes soccer, not me."

Sam screwed up his mouth and tried to breathe through his nose. The soccer ball wasn't the issue, it was the fact that, at the end of it all, Dad went and beat up a guy, and that was because he'd been mean to Sam. Sam couldn't believe that Dad would do something like that, just for Sam. And that's what was bothering Dean now. Right?

"I won't let them arrest Dad," said Sam. "I'll say it was my fault."

"Like they'll believe some dumb kid."

Sam wanted to say that he wasn't a dumb kid, and that he could be pretty convincing when he wanted to be, but, only now, Dean was grouchy and mad and worried, and nothing Sam could say or do would make any difference, and Dean would fall asleep, hating him.

"Dean," he said. Then he took a breath and faced Dean again even though it hurt his hip, so he would make sure that Dean heard him. "I'm sorry, Dean. I'm sorry I beat up that kid, and I'm sorry that I didn't just tell them who I was, and I'm sorry I worried Dad and you, and that I made--that Dad beat up that guy. Honest, I'm so, so sorry--I just wanted to play soccer a little bit, with other kids."

Dean was silent, and Sam figured he needed to add something more, something that was much harder to say. "I've tried to not mess up your summer, like you asked me, I tried to do stuff that Dad wants, I've tried and tried, but I just wanted soccer for me and--"

"When did I tell you not to mess up my summer" Dean sounded confused, and he twisted his head on the pillow to look at Sam. Sam could see the reflection, a glitter of light in his eyes. "When did I say that?"

Sam thought back. "When you punched me that one time. Last time Dad and I went to Ft. Payne." He didn't add the part about the whipping; he didn't want to upset Dean any more than he already had.

"I shouldn't have punched you," said Dean, "but you're such a little bitch sometimes, always whining and crying about stuff."

"I didn't cry today," said Sam. "Well, I did a little bit, but no one saw me, okay?" He counted out a few heartbeats waiting for Dean to say something, anything.

Dean didn't.

"I really am sorry, Dean," said Sam, his voice catching. "I know you want to be a hunter, like Dad, and I'm trying to want to be a hunter too, only, it's really, really hard."

Dean didn't say anything then, either. Sam ducked his head and scrubbed at his eyes, and tried not to care. Then he felt Dean's hand, lightly at first, on the top of his head, and then more roughly, messing it up in a way that Dean sometimes found hilarious.

"I know," said Dean. "I seen you trying."

That was okay, then, that was what mattered. Dean had seen him trying, knew that Sam was trying his hardest to do it right, and not mess it up for Dean. Sam nodded his head, his throat was too tight to say anything, but he didn't nod his head very much, because he didn't want Dean to think that Sam didn't like his hand there, because then he would take it away. And Sam wanted to feel it there, as he fell asleep.

"I'll help you with the run tomorrow," said Dean, his voice soft. "It'll be three miles, but we'll make up a dirty song to sing as we go."

"A dirty sailor song," Sam clarified, half mumbling.

"Right," said Dean. "Something to make Popeye proud."

Now Sam could fall asleep, now that Dean wasn't so mad at him anymore. Sam started to list all the dirty words he knew, because Dean could find rhymes for all of them, and that would make the run much more fun. Except he fell asleep halfway through the dirty words starting with B, which Dean wouldn't find challenging at all.

*

In the morning, Sam got up, still sore all over, and pulled on his shorts and yesterday's t-shirt and stumbled to the kitchen table, still half-asleep. Dad was at the stove, scrambling eggs, and Sam just hoped he'd taken out the white string and beaten the eggs to a froth like Sam liked it.

Behind him, Dean came out, half-asleep too, and he sat in his chair, and they both yawned while Dad made them scrambled eggs and toast and even bacon, which he brought over to the table and shoveled onto their plates.

"Drink your milk," said Dad, as he sat down at the table.

Sam ate his eggs, and his toast and his bacon, and then drank his milk, and when he set the empty glass back down, he looked around. The box that once held Otter Pops was gone, and so were the wrappers that Sam and Dean had left lying about. Dad must have taken out the trash. The scissors were probably back in the drawer, too, so all evidence of last night's Otter Pop feast was long gone, like it never had been.

Dad's lip was a little less swollen and the bruise on his cheek hardly showed at all. If Sam didn't know he'd been in a fight, he wouldn't have any idea what had happened. But Dad had confessed it, and it was all true. Plus, Dean had seen Sam trying, and wasn't mad at him anymore, so if Sam kept trying, then maybe Dad would notice too, and get him some more Otter Pops?

It was worth a try.

"So if Dean and me can run the whole three miles without walking, can we get more Otter Pops?" asked Sam. Sam would have to run very slowly because of his hip, and stop to catch his breath, but he thought he could run all the way, if Dean slowed down, too, and stayed near him.

"Otter Pops," said Dad. He blinked into his coffee cup.

"I'd rather have marshmallow fluff and peanut butter sandwiches," said Dean, around a yawn.

Dad sighed and chomped through his bacon, and it was really like any other morning had been all summer, with the day getting hotter, even though it was early, and Dad making plans for their training for the day. Only now, he'd caved and bought them Otter Pops once, so maybe he would again.

"If we train hard," said Dean. "Can we?"

Sam wanted to add that even if he'd had Otter Pops the day before, he'd thrown them all up so it was really as if he'd never eaten them in the first place. He could still see a little purple stain on Dean's mouth, and there was probably an orange stain on his own.

Dad studied the last tail end of a piece of bacon, and Sam knew, through experience, that sometimes, it was better to let Dean do all the talking, because for some reason, Dad sometimes listened to Dean and sometimes, though rarely, he followed Dean's suggestion. Sometimes.

Dad finished his bacon, and wiped his hands on a piece of paper towel. "If everyone can stay out of trouble for the next while, then we'll see." Dad looked at Sam rather than Dean as he said this, and Sam ducked his head because yes, if anyone was going to get into trouble it was likely to be Sam.

"Sam's really been trying, Dad," added Dean.

"I know it," said Dad, which was really strange because the last thing Sam ever expected was that Dad had been paying close enough attention to Sam to figure that out. And he probably knew anyway, that Sam was trying hard for Dean, rather than because Dad wanted him to. But that's the way it always was, and, somehow, for Dean, it was always worth it.

"Okay," said Dad. He stood up. "Dishes and chores first, and then you boys go for a run. Two miles today, two and a half tomorrow, and then three after that, got it?"

As Sam got up to clear the table (it was his turn to do the dishes and Dean's turn to dry and put them away), he ducked his head so Dad wouldn't see him smiling and then ask what Sam was smiling about.

Maybe Dad had forgotten that he'd said last night that they were to run three miles today, or maybe he changed his mind. Either way, it would be easier for Sam and Dean to do the run, and they'd still have plenty of time to sing dirty sailor songs, and it looked like Dad was in a good mood, besides.

Sam wanted to keep him in a good mood and not make him angry, because that would make Dean happy, and if all went well, and Sam stayed out of trouble, then, yes, more Otter Pops were on the way. And Otter Pops were the very best part of summer and if he had enough of them, then maybe it would be easier to want to be a hunter like Dean.

*

Sam woke up and opened his eyes, blinking. The bedroom was quiet and dark, and the fans were whirring, creating a low hum that made him want to fall back asleep. The air felt thick and damp, and if it hadn't been for the fans moving the air around, it would have settled on Sam's skin like dew. Next to him, sprawled all over the bed like he owned it (which he didn't), Dean breathed, almost snoring, but not quite.

Sam didn't know what had woken him, but now he was thirsty. Dad had made them spend three whole days in the heat, running, sparring, and knife throwing, until Sam was so worn out with it that he just wanted to fall over every other minute and never move again. But Dad had driven both him and Dean until darkness had come each day, and sometimes even past that, and Dean had finally said, "Dad," in that voice that only Dean dared use on Dad, and that was it, Dad pulled back a little bit.

Sam couldn't understand why Dad was pushing them so hard, but Dad never explained, even when Sam asked. He'd asked so often that day that Dad had gotten irritated enough to threaten Sam with a whipping if he asked again, so Sam had worked very hard at keeping his mouth shut.

But a glass of water would taste really good right about now, and not just any old water, not water cupped in his hand from the tap. No, he wanted a glass of water, with ice in it, water so cold, the glass beaded on the outside, and when he would drink it, his teeth would hurt. That kind of water.

He looked over at Dean, who was still sleeping and almost-snoring in the rumpled sheet. He twitched, because maybe he knew, in his sleep, that Sam was awake and looking at him. Sam thought about waking Dean up, to make him go get a glass of water with Sam, but that would just make Dean grouchy, and besides, Sam was old enough to get a glass of water on his own.

He pushed the sheet back and got out of bed, looking back to check to make sure that he'd not woken Dean up. He padded across the cool, wooden floor, feeling the breeze of the fan against his bare legs, feeling it flutter through his t-shirt. He was careful not to knock the fan over as he moved it a little bit to get passed it, and left it slightly ajar, so he could get back into bed without waking Dean.

As he stepped into the eating area, he realized that all of the lights were off, and that was mostly normal, but it was all of the lights, including the porch light that Dad usually left burning all night long. Like some kind of beacon to anything that wanted to find them (and Dad was always sure something did). Dad usually said that the light was a deterrent against the dark; Sam didn't believe him, but wondered now if he should let Dad know the light was off or that the bulb had burned out.

He'd do that tomorrow. Right now, he wanted a glass of water.

"What are you doing up, Sam?"

Sam felt like he jumped at least a foot in the air as he whirled around.

Dad was sitting at the kitchen table, in his usual chair, a smudged outline in the half-dark, barely lit by the starlight coming in through the open window. Sam thought that Dad had his elbows on the table and had been resting his head in them, but he couldn't be sure.

"Uh," said Sam.

"What do you need?"

"I want a glass of water," said Sam. "With ice," he added, just to make it clear.

"You thirsty?" asked Dad.

Sam nodded, even though Dad probably couldn't see him clear enough to know. But Dad got up anyway, and brushed past Sam in the dark, smelling warm and feeling solid. From the sounds on the floor, Sam realized that Dad had taken his socks and boots off and was barefoot, something he seldom did; Dean had explained to Sam that Dad wore his boots all the time so he could take off running anytime, anywhere, if he needed to. Sam guessed that in the middle of the night, Dad didn't feel the need to run so much.

Dad was getting a glass out of the cupboard, and opened the freezer to get out the ice tray. Sam went over to stand next to him; he could get his own glass of ice water, and if the freezer was a little high for him to reach all the way in, he could have used a chair to get the ice. But Dad was doing it for him, twisting the plastic tray between his hands to make the ice cubes pop out, and tipping the tray to catch a few of the loosest ones in his cupped hand.

"Three?" Dad asked.

He meant did Sam want three ice cubes, and Sam nodded again. "Yeah," he said. He'd been in the darkness with Dad so long that he could almost see the backs of Dad's hands against the lighter countertop. Dad put the cubes in the glass and then turned on the tap to fill it up. Then he handed the glass to Sam.

Sam took it with both hands. It was cold, so cold against his palms that it was almost shocking against the warm, dewy air of the summer night.

"Thanks," he said.

Sam thought that Dad would go back to sitting down and leave Sam to drink his glass of ice water, but as Dad stood there, he held out his hand.

"And then there's this," Dad said. "I found it in the freezer."

The second his hand touched it, Sam realized what it was, and took it, amazed. "Oh," he said. But he knew Dad was lying, and wanted to say you don't just find an Otter Pop in the freezer, because Otter Pops came in packs of 18 or a hundred, and between him and Dean, they'd finished them all off. And Dad hadn't gone to the store since then, so there must be a stash hidden somewhere. But if he said that Dad was lying, Dad might take it in his head to get rid of the Otter Pops and that would be that.

"Thank you," he said, instead, and realized that he meant it.

"Let's take this out on the front porch, so we don't wake your brother." Dad got the scissors out of the drawer, and taking the Otter Pop back for a second, cut it open. When he handed it back, Sam stuck it in his mouth right away. Sam didn't know how Dad could cut such a perfect circle in the near-darkness, but he had. It was Little Orphan Orange, besides, so he followed Dad without complaining that he'd rather just eat the Otter Pop by himself.

It would probably be like this, that every now and then, Dad would bring out an Otter Pop as a treat. But he wouldn't say anything about it, wouldn't say well done or good job or anything, not like some Dads would. Sam wondered whether Dad knew that handing Sam a Sir Isaac Lime wasn't that much of a treat, but he seemed to know what Sam's favorite flavor was, so that was something.

Sam thought about asking where the Otter Pops were stashed, but knew that Dad wouldn't tell him anyway. Sam wondered if he and Dean could find the stash, if they could look for it without Dad figuring out that they were looking, but the Otter Pops were somewhere close by, Sam just knew it.

Dad led the way out the screen door and sat down on the top step, taking the glass of ice water from Sam so that he could sit down without spilling it. Sam sat next to Dad, and Dad put the ice water between them, and Sam ate his Otter Pop. It was so good, so orange and bright in his mouth, chasing the heat and the thirst away. The glass of water, even as cold as it was, would taste a little bitter after the orange, but that was okay, that was a part of summer too.

They sat there for a little bit, him and Dad, on the top step of the cabin, in the moist, still air. Dad stared out in the darkness, along the line of the gravel drive as it led off through the trees, and Sam ate his Otter Pop, sucking the ice between his teeth, chomping on the solid bits that got through. Dad kept looking down the road and into the woods for a while, till Sam almost asked him what he was looking for, even though he didn't really want to know.

Finally, Dad shifted back on the step. His shoulders seemed to come down, and he turned his head, and looked at Sam. There were enough stars out and a glow from starlight reflected on the gravel that Sam could see his eyes, could almost see his expression.

"Can I have some of your water?" Dad asked.

"Sure," said Sam, around a mouthful of sugary ice.

Dad picked up the glass and drank from it. Sam could hear the ice clinking around, and listened to him swallow and wondered why Dad didn't get his own glass of water. But it was okay, he guessed, since he always shared his water with Dean, even if Dean didn't always ask first if Sam wanted to share.

When Dad put the glass of water down between them on the top step, he looked at Sam. Sam looked back at him, and wondered what Dad was thinking and whether he was going to decide that now was a good time to give Sam a lecture on not complaining, or doing your best, or how he should look up to Dean and do everything the way Dean did. Of course Sam looked up to Dean; Dad never needed to say that to him, and probably already knew it.

But Dad didn't say anything. Instead he sighed and turned away, to look at the road again, and shifted his weight forward, resting his elbows against the tops of his thighs.

Sam finished off his Otter Pop, sucking hard on the plastic tube to get all of the flavor out, tipping his head back to let gravity help. But he'd gotten it all and the tube was empty, so he put the wrapper on the top step next to the glass, and waited for Dad to tell him to hurry up and drink his water so he could get back to bed.

Dad still didn't say anything, so Sam picked up the glass of water, and held it loosely between his bare knees, brushing the glass against his skin once in a while to feel the goose pimples pop up. Then he took a drink. The first swallow of ice water was as he thought it'd be, bitter and flat compared to the orange sugar, although it was just as cold.

Dad had drunk half the water in the glass, so Sam had to tip the glass back, like he'd done with the Otter Pop tube, far enough so that the ice clunked against his mouth. Then after that, every now and then, he took a sip of the melting ice water, drawing it out, wanting to stay right there, in the soft dark night. With Dad sitting beside him on the top step, bare footed like Sam, solid and still, and for once, not yelling.

Slowly, Sam finished the water and crunched through the ice and wasn't thirsty anymore.

When he put the glass back on the top step, Dad said, "Okay, Sam," and stood up. Sam knew he had to go back to bed now, so he stood up too, and picked up the glass and the wrapper. But instead of just opening the screen door for him, Dad took the glass and the wrapper from Sam, and held them in one hand while he opened the screen door and waited for Sam to walk ahead of him.

For a moment, Sam felt as though Dad was standing between him and whatever was out there in the dark, that it would have to go through Dad to get to Sam. It was the same feeling he'd gotten when Dad had admitted that he'd beaten up Officer Johnson, for Sam, because he'd hurt Sam. His stomach did the same little dipping movement, stirring, making him feel like he was seeing the world from a different place, from Dad's place. Seeing it how Dean always told him he should, you gotta understand, Sam, he's like Superman, he's protecting us and teaching us how to protect ourselves.

But that was too scary, thinking of it like that, that there was bad stuff out there, and the only thing shielding him from that was Dad. Dad, who yelled and snapped out commands and expected them to be obeyed instantly. He was never satisfied because Sam was never good at that part, the obeying, but he was getting better with the knives, and trying hard not to hate hunting so much.

Besides, Dean would always protect him, even if maybe Dad might not, just to teach Sam a lesson. Then there were the Otter Pops, hidden somewhere, with Dad handing them out as he saw fit. But that was okay, because even if Dad would decide the when and where, Sam had been able to decide the what: Otter Pops, and Little Orphan Orange, the strongest, sweetest flavor of them all.

"Bedtime, Sam," said Dad, getting Sam to move by moving forward. "Your teeth won't rot in one night, so you don't have to brush your teeth, just be sure not to wake Dean."

Of course he wouldn't wake Dean, at least not on purpose. Dean was always grouchy when Sam woke him up in the middle of the night. And it would be better if Dean was in a good mood in the morning, because he was going to be mad that Sam had gotten an extra Otter Pop, all on his own; Sam planned to break it to him gently.

As Dad walked behind him to the kitchen counter, Sam scooted across the cool wooden floor and stepped around the fan, moving it back into place. Then he walked around to his side of the bed, and crawled in next to Dean. The sheets and pillow were almost cool, and as he put his head down and pulled up the sheet halfway, he turned toward Dean to look at his brother's outline in the near-darkness.

"That you, princess?" asked Dean, mumbling, still half asleep; in the morning, he wouldn't remember that he'd asked Sam anything.

Sam nodded against the pillow, but didn't say yes. He secretly liked it that Dean had all these funny little names for him, and suddenly his heart was full of things he wanted to tell Dean; he wanted to wake Dean up and tell him about having an Otter Pop in the middle of the night and how he'd shared his glass of water with Dad.

He wouldn't do it to make Dean feel bad that he hadn't been there but to show Dean how he could be like him, could be with Dad and not say something that would make Dad mad. To tell Dean about Dad's secret stash, and have him and Dean plan how they would find the Otter Pops and maybe have some without telling Dad, have them raw, without freezing them, and laugh in secret, their mouths turning orange and blue in the summer heat.

But most of all he wanted to tell Dean about that moment, when Dad had stood between Sam and the darkness, not saying anything, just being there. And how, maybe, just maybe, that Sam got it, what Dean was always going on about. Just a little. Not that that would make him work any harder, he was working so hard already, he was earning at least a box of Otter Pops every day. But it made it a little easier, somehow, to see why Dad pushed so hard, and yelled so much.

Then Sam thought about Dad staring out into the darkness, and wondered, suddenly, if that's what he did most nights, standing guard, and which was why he was always so grouchy and sleepy in the morning, not saying much till he'd had his coffee.

It was something Dean didn't even know, at least he'd never said anything to Sam about it, and he would have said don't you know Dad's always keeping watch if he'd known. But if Sam told Dean, then Dean would have something else to worry about, so maybe Sam wouldn't tell him.

It would just be between him and Dad, not that he would ever say anything to Dad, not that Dad would ever say anything about it to him. No, Dad would just keep watching at night, and hollering during the day, putting Sam and Dean through their paces, making them run and spar and train till their lungs burst, and then some more after that.

Thinking about it made Sam mad, a little, but there wasn't anything he could do about it now and he was sleepy anyway. So he burrowed into the pillow and scooted toward Dean. Not close enough so that it would be too hot for either of them, but close enough so that he could feel the sheets rise and fall with Dean's breathing.

"Quit moving," said Dean, quite clearly for being asleep. He suddenly flung himself on his side, away from Sam, but he moved a little closer too. Close enough so that Sam could tip his head forward, and rest his forehead against Dean's back, between his shoulder blades.

Dean was warm, and smelled like the day's sweat, like he'd not washed up before going to bed, like Dad had told them to. But Sam didn't care, he would rather run a hundred miles than tell Dad and turn Dean in. Besides, he liked the way Dean smelled, it made him feel all still and quiet inside, made him feel safe, even in the darkness. Whether Dad had gone back out to stand guard, or whether he was already asleep on the couch, Sam had Dean. Just like this. Dean would protect him from everything.

And in the morning, Sam would run, and throw, and spar, and learn to protect Dean right back. There would be plenty of Otter Pops to be earned from Dad, as well, and maybe Sam would let Dean have some of the orange ones. Maybe.

~The End~