"Hey kiddo, everything alright? Did I put too much salt in the potatoes again?" John asked.
Sam shrugged his little shoulders and sighed so dramatically that John had to stop himself from rolling his eyes; the kid always did have a flair for melodrama.
"Did you have fun at school today, Sammy?" Dean asked with a quirk of his eyebrow. Sam shook his head and pouted. John watched as Dean's entire demeanor changed in the blink of an eye from concerned brother to protective lioness over her cub, and it made him smile. "That big kid Jeremy isn't trying to pick on you and Martha again is he? Because if he is, I'll make sure he knows not to mess with you or he's gonna have to deal with me."
"No, and I don't care if he picks on Martha because she's a poopy head, and I'm not gonna be her friend anymore."
John went from slightly tense to relaxed. Sammy had just had a falling out with a playmate that would most likely be forgotten by tomorrow.
"But you like Martha, you said she was your best friend," Dean said trying to smooth things over. God knows John didn't have a clue how to deal with these moods Sam got into, he was such a sensitive kid.
"No, you're my bestest friend, Dee. Martha is a poopy head," Sam stated firmly.
"It's not nice to call people names, son," John interjected. Sam mumbled out a "Yessir" before turning to his father all wide eyes and trembling lip, and, God; no wonder the kid had Dean wrapped around his little finger with just a look.
"But Daddy she is, and she's stupid too!"
"Why don't you tell your brother and me what Martha did to make you so angry." He really didn't want to be regaled with Sam's kindergarten dramas, but he was home with his boys for a few nights and he didn't want to have to put up with a pouting Sammy the entire time, things were much easier with his boys when Sammy was happy. When Sammy was happy, Dean was happy, and John just wanted a few quiet nights to get some research done.
"Miss Anderson - she's my teacher - well she's leaving school for a little while 'cause she's gonna get married, and then we're getting another teacher who's coming in to teach us while she's gone, and I hope the new teacher is as nice as Miss Anderson, 'cause she's really pretty and she smells really nice." The words all tumbled out so fast that the kid barely took a breath until John put his hand up.
"I'm sure she is, but what's all that got to do with Martha?" God, this was beginning to give John a headache.
"Insects!" Sam blurted out.
Dean and John both looked at each other with their eyebrows raised, and then back to Sam.
"What?" Dean mumbled around a forkful of mashed potato.
"Don't talk with your mouth full, Deano," John fired out automatically. "What do insects have to do with anything, Sammy?"
"I was getting to that bit," Sam grumbled and rolled his eyes before sitting up a bit straighter to continue his tale of woe. John was already mentally going through the first aid kit, counting out the remaining ibuprofen. "Martha said that she saw Miss Anderson's fi...fina...finance," he shook his head in frustration as he stumbled over the word, "Miss Anderson's boyfriend, and that he was dreamy. She said she was gonna marry someone as nice as him when she's all growed up, and I said I already know who I'm gonna marry when I'm growed up, and then she said I can't because of the insects, and that doesn't even make sense. See she's stupid!" Sam said with an angry wave of the hand holding his fork, threatening to flick mashed potato about the room.
Dean looked puzzled and John was going to regret asking, but the quicker they got to the bottom of this, the quicker they could all finish their dinner in peace, and for the life of him, he couldn't make a connection between Sam's teacher getting married and insects. "Be careful with that fork, Sam, you're going to make a mess. So Martha said you can't get married when you're 'grown' up," he emphasized the correct pronunciation, "because of insects?"
"Killer bees," Dean interjected after making sure he swallowed what was in his mouth. Sam went from looking dejected to looking utterly terrified.
"Bees are killers?" he squawked. "What if they get me? They're in the flowers at school!"
"Dean!" John said sternly. "Sammy, it's just a name, if you don't go near the bees, they won't go near you. We've talked about how they can sting, that's all they do."
"Sorry, Sammy, bees are cool. Just don't touch 'em." Dean's expression went from sheepish to protectively stern.
John swiped his hand over his face, the headache that had been threatening was starting to beat in time with his pulse. "Sam, you were telling us about the insects."
"Oh yeah. After Miss Anderson told us she was gonna get married, me and Martha and Jamie were playing on the monkey bars. That's when Martha said she was gonna marry someone like Miss Anderson's boyfriend. I said when I'm growed up, I'm gonna marry Dean."
Dean half inhaled the food in his mouth and John had to slap him on the back a few times, before he gulped down his glass of milk. When he stopped sputtering, he looked at Sam and half shouted, "You can't marry me, I'm your brother!"
John had to swallow down a laugh at the look of indignation on Dean's face, because Sam looked like a kicked puppy, and tears were already starting to well up. Before he had a chance to say anything, Dean's expression changed almost instantly. "I mean, brothers aren't allowed to get married, Sammy, and don't you want to marry a pretty lady like mo...Miss Anderson when you grow up?"
John's heart clenched as Dean stumbled with his words; of course he would think of their mother. For the thousandth time, he wished Mary was here because he was obviously botching this, and she'd probably have known what had upset Sammy, and by now they would have finished up and Sam would be getting into his pajamas.
"Miss Anderson said you get married when you know you love someone bestest of all," Sam said, his voice wavering because he was still on the verge of tears. "And I love you bestest of everyone, Dee!"
John really couldn't help but smile at Sam's declaration, and the sudden look of both pride and embarrassment on Dean's face.
"I love you best too, Sammy...and Dad of course," he added, looking over at his father like John might be upset that Dean had picked Sam as his favorite, and John nodded and smiled in return.
"I love Daddy too, but I love you the biggest, and Miss Anderson said that's why you get married." The pout on Sam's face was adorable, and John had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself from grinning. "But today, Martha came to school and said that Rosie--that's her big sister, she's eleven and a half-- said that I can't marry Dee because if families got married there would be insects. Why would there be insects if I married Dee, Daddy?
With each word that babbled out of his youngest's mouth it was with increasing horror at what nosy little Rosie had been telling her five year old sister, and inadvertently Sam. There was no way he was going to try and explain the concept of incest to a five year old. He shook his head. When Sam wanted to know something he was like a dog with a bone, and John's minor headache was reaching def con status. "Have you finished eating, Sam? Why don't you go brush your teeth." Deflecting usually didn't work, but it was always worth a shot.
John could see the beginning of Sam about to dig in his heels, he recognized the stubborn set to his little jaw, he'd seen it enough times when he looked in the mirror. Dean had always been a curious kid but he had nothing on Sam's inquisitiveness. From the moment Sam began talking he questioned everything and soaked up information like a sponge. Where Dean liked to pull things apart and rebuild them to see how they worked, Sam seemed content that Dean would show him the hows, he wanted to know the whys of everything.
Dean must have noticed the pained expression on his father's face, so John wasn't really surprised when Dean jumped in to rescue him from all sorts of awkward, the way he always did with Sam.
"Boys can't get married anyway, Sam," he said as he started to scrape the scraps of both their dinners into the bin.
"I dunno, it's against the law I think." Dean said looking to his dad who nodded his head.
Sam looked crushed. "But that's not fair, I love you bestest. I don't want you to marry someone else, I want you to love me biggest and bestest, always."
Dean got Sam down from his chair and kneeled in front of him. "I'm your big brother, Sammy, we'll always love each other best, and we'll be together forever. Anyway, some married people get divorced like Mr. Eldritch from down the street, that means him and Mrs. Eldritch aren't married anymore. Brothers can't get divorced so that's heaps better isn't it?"
Sam's face instantly brightened. How was it that his barely ten year old son knew just the right way of handling this when John was completely out of his depth and thrown by the subject? He knew he put far too much on Dean, but it was moments like this that shone a light on what an incredible job Dean was doing with Sam. He stood to begin cleaning. "Why don't you get Sammy washed up and into his PJs while I clean this up."
John reached up and grabbed the bottle of whiskey he kept on the top shelf, and he could hear Sam yammering away as Dean led him into the bathroom.
"What kind of insects would they be, Dee? I don't like skeeters but ants are kind of cool, they have an ant farm at school and we can see them making tunnels. Do you think Daddy would let us have our own ant farm?"
John couldn't hear Dean's reply over the tap running in the bathroom, but he knew Dean would handle that request just as well as he handled all the others. He chuffed out a laugh and shook his head, "Insects."
After Dean had settled Sam into their bed, he came over to join John at the table where he was working on his research.
"After a million ant farm questions and I read him a story, yeah, he conked out." Dean was obviously tired himself, and why wouldn't he be? It was Dean who got both himself and Sam ready for school in the mornings, it was Dean who tucked Sam into bed at night. And on the nights John was away from his boys, it was Dean who made sure Sam had dinner and kept sentinel over him until John returned. John wasn't proud of what he was putting on Dean, but he was proud of the way Dean handled it all. He couldn't remember if he'd ever told Dean that; he really was a shitty father, wasn't he? He reached over and ruffled Dean's hair making the boy duck and laugh.
"You handled that really well, Dean." Green eyes snapped up to meet his gaze. "I know things aren't always easy, but you're a great big brother and you're a good son. I'm proud of you, kiddo." Dean's smile was so incandescent it lit up the room.
John knew he was on the right trail to find the thing that killed Mary and turned all of their lives upside down, he felt it in his bones. Soon enough it would be over. He'd still have to teach them how to protect themselves against all of the dangers he now knew to be out there, but when he could finally avenge Mary they could settle down somewhere, be a real family again, and his boys could grow up like normal kids. One day in the near future, all of his research would pan out, and it would finally be over.