Brownsville, Texas. May 2, 1990.
John had just started to drift off when they started talking.
For a second, he considered startling the hell out of them by telling them to shut up and go to sleep. Something stopped him.
"Is he asleep?" Sam whispered, or thought he was whispering.
"We'll find out in a second," Dean answered, closer to a normal speaking tone than a whisper. John wasn't pleased with the cavalier way he seemed to say it; he was used to a little more "yes sir" and obedience from Dean. Dean's tone with Sam was different, somehow.
The deeper quiet that followed as the two waited would've woken John out of a sound sleep if he'd been in one.
"Sounds like it." Dean's voice was more of a whisper now.
John figured he'd let them get a good ten minutes into their bitching about their old man and then, really, all he had to do was let them know he was awake. The rest would take care of itself.
"Thanks for –" Sam started.
"Stop thanking me," Dean hissed. "It wasn't that big a deal."
"It was to me," Sam insisted. "And then he yelled at you."
John winced a little at this. He had yelled at Dean after they left the restaurant about 150 miles back, gotten right up in his face and just unleashed on him. They'd gone there to get the free birthday cake for Sam's seventh, but Dean had told the waitress it was his birthday, requested pie in exchange for cake and eaten it himself while Sam slumped in his chair. In a real kind of restaurant with tables not booths, one John had seen on a commercial while they were in town, on his brother's actual birthday of all days.
"He'll get over it." Dean said firmly.
"If you thank me again, I'm gonna punch you."
There was genuine mischief in Sam's tone. "Thanks, Dean."
John anticipated some kind of retaliation for this, but all that followed was a quiet moment and then, "You're welcome, Sammy."
"I just don't like the birthday thing," Sam whispered into the quiet. "I try to tell him, but he doesn't listen."
"I mean, it's my birthday but… we get the free cake all the time, just to get the free cake, and then the waitresses come out and sing and put the hat on you. I just wanted today to be –"
"He yelled at you for so long." Sam seemed to genuinely be in awe. "I hate when he yells at me."
"Better me than you then, huh?"
"Why does he have to yell all the time? I just didn't feel like –"
Here we go, thought John, bracing himself.
Dean cut him off. "He's tired, Sammy. He just got off work after like three weeks on the road, his shoulder's bothering him and he just wanted to take you somewhere kinda nice for your birthday, so you'd know he didn't forget, okay? As far as he's concerned, I'm the one who screwed it up, so don't worry about it."
"I'm just sorry you –"
"Dude, I got pie and a hat," Dean interrupted dismissively. "It was good pie, you missed out."
John's eyes opened in surprise, but he closed them again quickly. "Work" was a hunt that had gone very badly. The "bother" in his shoulder was a deep knife gouge between his shoulder blades that Dean had stitched up and dressed by himself, without the hesitation or queasiness that John had anticipated. But Dean made it all sound so normal.
And he'd obviously picked up on something completely under John's radar when he took Sam's dessert and, absurdly, what would've been Sam's birthday crown.
More silence followed. John could hear the light squeak of Sam writing on the inside of the car window with his finger and then the shuffling sounds as the two tried to get comfortable in the backseat.
"Why couldn't we stay in a motel?" Sam asked with a slight whine.
"Because we spent the motel money on dinner," Dean answered shortly. "We're in-between anyway, might as well stay here. By the time we get to where the work is, Dad'll have money for a room, he always does."
John winced again. Had he done something to make that obvious? He realized that this is why he was so pissed at Dean; he'd blown everything but the gas money on dinner. He had a couple of credit cards waiting for them at Deacon's, which is where they were headed, and if he passed a good dive he could scare some up at a pool table, but until then…
"Something's caught on my blanket," Sam whined again, yanking at it.
"Better check it out," Dean said, voice sounding more amused than usual.
As Sam tried to quietly untangle the blanket from whatever it was caught on, there was more shuffling. "Something's stuck on it," Sam said despairingly, like he was waiting for Dean to fix it. After more rustling around, Sam made a sound louder than a whisper, "Dean!"
Dean shushed him.
"You got me a present!"
"Well, what are you waitin' for? Open it."
There was a light rip of paper.
"Not so loud!" Dean scolded.
"Why does it have black tape on it?"
"Because black tape is what I could find. I think I put too much though. Here –" John head Dean's knife click open as a couple of careful slices were made to the package. "Made it a little easier for you."
Ripping, painstakingly slow and deafening in the quiet, followed, and he could almost feel them cautiously looking toward the front seat after every little sound. Finally, Sam had made some headway and forgot himself again. "Dean!"
"Okay, if you wake him up, you're going to get us both yelled at."
"This is the book I was reading in Fresno, at that book shop." Sam sounded like he was going to come apart from excitement.
"I know, I noticed. You didn't wanna put that thing down, like you were watching television or something."
"How'd you get it?"
"I put it on my credit card, huh? Don't worry about that part."
John bit the inside of his jaw to keep from making any sound. Not like he could talk; he'd stolen their food and he'd driven off after a full tank of gas without paying, but shoplifting could bring them the kind of attention Dean should've known for sure they didn't want.
"It's so nice." Sam's voice was still struck, and John heard not the rifling of pages from a paperback, but the clean snap of a hardcover. "There's a map inside that folds out! The one I was reading didn't have that."
"This is a good one. And, it turns out there's like, a bunch of sequels after this one. So tell me when you finish this one, I'll get you the next one."
"Dean, this is the best present ever!"
Dean didn't even tell him to shush this time, even though this was the loudest thing Sam had said so far. "Look inside, on the other side of the cover."
"Oh, cool, you wrote my initials inside."
"See? It's yours now. Just like the car, like your suitcase, like the big map book at Caleb's. When we get to Bobby's I'll use that thing he uses to brand stuff. I'll burn SW right into the leather."
"No one can take it?"
"I'd like to see 'em try."
"Can I read it right now?"
"It's dark, Sammy, read it tomorrow."
"Please? Just a few pages!"
All John could hear was Dean's breathing. He could almost feel Dean looking at him, wondering. "Okay, but we need to switch so you're behind him, okay? Here, climb over, we'll change places."
There was more rustling and shushing and whispering as the two swapped from their standard backseat positions, where Dean was usually sitting right behind John and Sam behind the shotgun seat.
"All right, now hunker down a little and get comfortable."
He could hear Dean pat Sam's pillow and arrange the blanket around him.
"Here, use this." There was a faint click and John opened his eyes for a second. In the windshield, he could make out the dim reflection of Dean's little pocket flashlight.
"Are you gonna fall asleep?" Sam asked anxiously.
"I might," Dean said.
"What if he catches me?"
"Tell him I said it was okay," Dean answered. "And wake me up."
For a long time, there was hardly any sound from the back except breathing, the shifting now and then of the seat springs and the light flutter of Sam turning pages.
John would've preferred they kept talking, because right now he was thinking, and that never turned out well. Dean was back there talking to Sam like he knew Sam better than John, better than anyone. And hell, he probably did after all this. He was just inches away from them, but felt like he could've been miles away, for all the difference it made. If they weren't afraid of waking him up, he wouldn't have even been a factor. He tried to fall asleep, but he kept turning it over in his head, what it must look like to Sam, who thought his dad was just a guy who sold guns on the road, yelled and drank too much. Dean at least seemed to get it, but John thought it would've been easier somehow if he was pissed off.
When they were at Pastor Jim's last time, a few months back, there'd been a bunch of hunters there using the basement for some kind of get-together. It wasn't a hunt, exactly, and Jim's was a safe place, so a lot of them had their wives or husbands and kids in tow. There was a set of boys in the same general age range as Sam and Dean. They were hell on wheels, giving their parents a lot of lip and getting into as much trouble as they could manage. After a couple of days there, John was afraid Dean and Sam would pick up on the allure of making trouble and make some for themselves.
Instead, Dean had looked at the other two brothers in a way that was unmistakably judgmental, and he and Sam had moved in their own orbit around everyone else. John kept looking up and seeing them with their heads together, talking quietly to each other. Dean could get pretty loud on his own, if he thought the situation called for it, but when it was just he and Sam, there might as well be no one else in the room. And John had seen Sam "tune up" in that way that little kids do, to show that they were getting upset, and a few words from Dean would seem to knock it right out of him. He'd always appreciated not having Sam tug on his sleeve every few minutes, that Sam would go to Dean first, but right now it was making him feel like a stranger in his own car.
John hoped that one day Dean would get it, that Dean would understand why he was so hard on them. He just wanted them to make it, and if that meant being the bad guy, being "mean", making them a little harder –
"You're falling asleep," Dean whispered to Sam, the first real sound in a long time. It jarred John out of his thoughts.
"No'm not," Sam mumbled.
"Shhh, give me the book, you're gonna bend the pages."
"Sleep on you?" Sam asked.
"All right," Dean conceded. If he was trying to sound annoyed, he was failing. John heard the sound of Sam scooting across the seat to fit to the crook of Dean's arm, his pillow pushed aside and forgotten.
"Read," said Sam. It wasn't a question.
"Nah, your lights are almost out anyway. Just lay there for a minute."
"Read." The demand was a little more imploring this time.
Dean sighed. "Point to where you left off."
After a few seconds, Dean read in a whisper, his voice floating across the car to John's ear, too. "Lucy felt a little frightened, but she felt very inqu — inquisitive and excited as well. She looked back over her shoulder and there, between the dark tree-trunks, she could still see the open doorway of the wardrobe and even catch a glimpse of the empty room from which she had set out."
Dean must've been right, because after a couple more sentences, Sam was snoring softly, and John himself felt like his eyelids were numb and heavy.
"Happy birthday, Sammy," Dean whispered, the lowest whisper of all, like it was more for him than for anyone else.