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Sam and Dean always used to beeline for the children's section in any new library they came to. They got to visit a lot of new libraries, because it was always the first place their dad stopped when they came to a town they were going to stay in for any length of time.

They both learned to read by puzzling over picture books during long, peaceful afternoons while their dad researched, glancing over at them periodically to make sure they weren't instigating mayhem or havoc. Fortunately the librarians almost always thought that the two boys were adorable and well-behaved.

After a while, John would come over and read them one book each, whatever they had picked out. After Dean learned to read, he'd practice by reading to Sammy a lot, and if Dean preferred stories about knights and dragons while Sammy always wanted The Roly Poly Puppy, well, eventually Sammy grew up out of it.

Some of the few memories John had of his own father were of being read to, curled up in his arms, or of watching his dad reading impressively ancient-looking books at his desk.

But libraries weren't just good for storybooks. John always came to the library first, because it would have not just books he could use to learn more about mythological creatures, but lots of immediately practical information too, like maps and apartments for rent and all the local newspapers.

He fine-tuned his sense for gleaning a subtle trail of something isn't adding up here from casually bewildered (or freaked out) news articles that he read sitting in small local libraries, one eye on his sons as they cuddled together on the floor, surrounded by Dr Seuss and The Little Engine That Could.

Later, libraries would even provide computers and Internet access, but that wasn't until the boys were teenagers.

When they were little, it was always the most exciting ritual in the world to get a brand-new library card each, every time they moved. When Dean got taller, he pretended to be too cool to care about another new card, but John and Sammy both knew that he kept every single one he'd ever had, carefully in order in their own leather wallet. He even kept the ones that were three or five or ten years old, so old that if they did go back to a town, he would have had to get a new one anyway.

But they seldom went back to a town; John was cautious about revisiting anyplace that might remember him too vividly, or for the wrong reasons. He was assiduous about avoiding any attention from the law. He and his sons' survival could depend on not being noticed, by people - or by worse things out there.

By the time a threat caught up to them, there was a good chance it would be too late. It was much better to keep moving, leaving as faint of a trail as he could manage.

There were few tasks John hadn't ever been able to manage, if he put his mind to it.

As the boys got older, they got more practical as well. Dean put himself in charge of looking for apartments as soon as Sammy could reliably entertain himself in the kids' section, puffing up his chest and presenting John with a list of the most wretched, bottom-of-the-barrel roach traps that existed.

John had to hide his dismay, looking it over and pretending to carefully consider each one, as Dean enthused about his latest "cozy, quaint, quirky" find. More like tiny, ancient, and falling apart, John thought. Then he'd gently guide the search up a notch in price range so he didn't have to worry about his sons being surrounded by derelicts for however long they were staying.

When they were on the road he'd use a motel. He'd gotten a few basic camping skills in the Marines, but nothing they'd taught him was sufficient preparation for roughing it with toddlers, so he held that option far, far back in reserve. But most of the time when he was on a case, or looking for one, it was cheaper and better to find some kind of apartment, even if it was just a couple rooms.

Especially once school started: he always tried to let them finish a semester in the same place. He'd get a job or two to pay their keep, as a mechanic if he could get it, or whatever odd jobs he could find. Then he'd use whatever spare hours he had while the kids were at school to sift through the library's newspapers, looking for hunts. He'd go through their mythology section, looking for anything useful to add to his journal, and then he'd do preliminary research for any hunts he'd found within a state or two.

After school let out, he'd go get Sam and Dean and often they'd join him in the library for an hour or two, working on their schoolwork and leafing through books until they got too restless and John sent them to run laps around the building.

If they still had energy after the three of them got back to whatever little place they were staying at, he'd run them through a few basic drills. John had had to get himself back into shape when he'd first hit the road; his life with Mary as a mechanic had left him a far cry from the fighting trim he'd enjoyed as a Marine. So he'd done push-ups and sit-ups and it hadn't taken long until he was doing them with two giggling little boys clambering all over him. He'd done a lot of sprint sets with his gleefully shrieking sons on his back.

Dean, as a rule, wanted to do whatever John was doing, and Sammy wanted to join in whatever Dean did. As he got older, Sam got more competitive, too, like younger siblings the world over. Just because he could never do as many chin-ups as his brother didn't stop him from trying.

And once John started Dean on a few basic self-defense lessons, Sam was excited to realize he could occasionally outrun Dean, if Dean had gotten distracted enough by throwing punches in the air to half-ass his laps that day.

They could spend several months in one place that way, John finishing the hunt he'd come for and likely as not turning up one or two others local enough, and preparing for when the school vacation would let them travel for the next hunt.

Sometimes, though, he got a sense of alarm about a place, and he had to pick up and move them all early, unexpectedly. Sometimes it was an obvious reason like a neighbor getting too interested in them or a hunt messy enough to attract cops, and other times it wasn't anything he could pin down at all, but he never ignored it when his instinct said to hit the road.

But John never wanted his kids to have to feel his fear and uncertainty. Dean probably had an inkling, despite John's best efforts; at any rate, he never questioned these moves, instead getting showily excited about where they were going and what John would hunt next. But Sam grew increasingly frustrated.

As he got older, the first thing he asked for at the library started to be the local school's reading list, which he would then stack up pointedly in John's line of sight while sighing gustily about how far behind in his schoolwork he must be.

John dutifully made guilty faces and commiserated with how much extra homework he was inflicting on his hapless offspring.

In his heart, though, he could never regret putting his family's safety first.

Dean was usually more interested in whatever John was looking into than in his own homework. He'd gotten a bit more discerning about apartments over the years, though still with a distressing tendency to seek out local "color" (and cheapness) over quality.

As the boys got older, and better trained in self-defense, John found himself reluctantly giving in more and more often to whatever Dean picked. The cash he earned stretched far enough to cover them, but there wasn't always much extra.

Nobody ever started hunting for the money; hunting didn't pay.

After one particularly awful experience, though, with a rat-hole whose water, heat, and electricity all took turns going out intermittently while the slumlord owner charged through the nose for "emergency repairs," Sammy rolled his eyes deeply and started researching apartments too, probably out of self-preservation. Usually, between the two boys' opinions - discussed at length in passionate whispers across the library table - John found he could pretty quickly determine the best option available.

But John also found himself sharing his real research with his sons, talking over what he was learning and as they grew, letting them participate in more and more of it. Sam, despite his dramatics about falling behind, usually finished his homework quickly and easily, and proved to have an equal facility for lining up whatever factoids might be relevant for a hunt. Dean was less methodical, but he had a delight in weird mythological trivia and a practical streak for cutting through to the heart of a problem.

Both of them quickly caught on to the kinds of things John looked for when he read a newspaper.

Dean usually wanted to go tackle whatever it was right away, while Sam would play devil's advocate, arguing that it could be unrelated events, or something human that the cops should handle, or maybe even something supernatural but harmless, that they could leave alone.

John listened, but knew better than to rely on any such luck; it was his job not to take potential threats lightly.

It wasn't paranoia if they were really out to get you, right?

He couldn't afford to get killed by some monster. Who would protect Sam and Dean then? Staying alive so he could keep his sons alive had to come first, always, before anything else.

So he prepared for each and every hunt like he was going to war, with meticulous attention to detail and grim determination.

Everywhere they went, he looked for signs of anything like what had happened to Mary. But all he found were ghosts and monsters, provincial and petty and viciously murderous. A few witches and even an ancient "god" were no better, killing good people without thinking twice.

He did what he could, taking them out so no other families would have their lives shattered as the Winchesters' had been. And he learned as he went, trivia and tactics, what worked and what didn't, how to follow a trail of bodies to its conclusion and how to cover his own tracks.

He learned to fight, desperate one-on-one struggles in the night with no rules and no quarter given, a world away from the battlefield he'd been trained for.

He learned to sink his teeth into a problem and not let go, to never give up. And he taught his sons everything he could, every hard-won lesson in survival he eked out of the world.

But they couldn't stay serious all the time. As often as John assigned a summer research project into first aid, or protective warding, there were also those times when research would devolve into games of hide'n'seek through the bookshelves.

To make himself feel better, John could rattle off a number of skills they were honing - counting down silently to an agreed-upon time, so the librarians wouldn't shush them; or moving quietly, with an eye for good hiding spots; anticipating each other's movements in unfamiliar territory - but if he was completely honest, mostly they just played because it was fun.

Once, a librarian struck up a conversation with John. They'd been in town for a few months then, and she knew them as regulars. She admitted, laughing, that she liked watching them. "Most men these days don't spend that much time with their kids, I'm afraid. Too busy with a career, or God knows what. But you're good with them. A good father, I can tell."

John wasn't all that sure. He tried his damnedest, but the jury was still out on if it would be enough. "We'll see, I guess," he told the lady, wanting to be polite.

It was probably for the best if she didn't realize he'd been letting them practice their lockpicking skills on the library's supply closets, after all.

 

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