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The Cost of Falling

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Dean moved around the kitchen with practiced ease. He'd been cooking dinner for him and Sammy and sometimes their father for over ten years. He set the table as he waited for the timer to run down. He'd tried a new recipe that he thought Sam would enjoy, and he was anxious for his brother to try it.

The timer went off, and Dean walked over to remove the casserole dish from the oven. The whole kitchen smelled delicious as Dean placed it on the stove top to cool before it was served.

“Sam, dinner's ready,” Dean called up the stairs to the room he shared with his younger brother. Sam was probably reading one of his school book again. The kid had an unhealthy love of learning in Dean's opinion. He should've been outside playing ball or something. Not that Dean had done that as a child, but that's what he thought normal kids did.

Sam came into the kitchen with a huge grin on his face. He sat down at the table and waited for Dean to serve their dinner.

Dean took the opportunity to ruffle his brother's hair as he passed him.

“Hey, hands off,” Sam complained, trying to set the unruly mess back to rights. He was due for a cut, but Dean hadn't had the chance to do it for him between work and housework.

Dean rolled his eyes as he pulled on the oven mitts to carry the casserole over to the table. Sam's eyes went wide as he looked at the dish full of pasta, vegetables, and cheese.

“Wow, Dean. Why the feast?” Sam asked, mouthwatering as Dean placed it down right in front of him.

Wanted to try somethin' new. Mrs. Calloway gave me the vegetables from her green house when she saw me coming home from work,” Dean said, using a big spoon to serve the casserole to Sam.

Sam didn't even wait for Dean to serve himself. He dug right into the mixture, humming in pleasure as he devoured it. Dean just sat there watching him inhale the stuff for a moment.

Sammy was getting bigger. He was starting to hit growth spurts and build muscle. He was only thirteen, but Dean knew Sam was in for some growing. That meant more food and new clothes. Both things that they couldn't really afford with only Dean's salary at the factory.

Dean's thoughts were cut off by the front door slamming open. Sam put down his fork, giving Dean a put upon look. “Shut up, Sammy,” Dean said, getting up to go speak with John. Their father hadn't been home in over a week.

John looked about as put together as he always did after a week on the job. He told them he was a traveling salesman, but Dean didn't know too many salesmen that came home looking like their pop did. He had deep circles under his eyes. The stench of alcohol and cigarettes clung to him.

“What's there to eat?” John asked without greeting his son.

“I made casserole,” Dean said, taking his father's jacket and going to hang it, but John stopped him to remove his flask from the inner pocket. He unscrewed the top and took a swig before wandering into the kitchen.

Dean didn't say anything as John sat right down in what had been Dean's seat. He immediately helped himself to Dean's untouched food, so Dean went to the cabinet and took down another plate.

Sam was watching their father with the expression of mild disgust he usually wore when John wandered in after a week of two without any sort of contact.

Dean shook his head when Sam looked at him, and Sam's frown only grew. “Have a good trip, Pop?” Dean asked, setting his plate down and serving himself a much smaller portion than John or Sam's. Sam gave him a significant look, but Dean ignored him. The meal wouldn't go as far with three mouths eating it, and he wanted to have left overs to send to school with Sam tomorrow.

“Did you enlist yet?” John asked, ignoring Dean's question.

Dean felt the hair on the back of his neck raise.

“He's only been eighteen for three days, Pop,” Sam said, managing to keep most of the anger out of his voice.

“You giving me lip, Samuel?” John asked, putting his fork down.

“I haven't had the time, Pop,” Dean cut in before John could get really angry. It hadn't even been five minutes. “Been workin' late to pick up some extra money, Pop. I haven't been able to get over to the recruitment office, but I'll go on the weekend,” Dean said, taking a seat and pushing the food around his plate.

“Tommy Egan's son enlisted the day he turned eighteen. You a coward, son?” John asked him.

Dean wasn't a coward. He wanted to enlist more than anything, but it wasn't that simple. Sam wasn't even fourteen years old yet. John was constantly away on “business,” and there was no one to look after Sam's wellbeing if not for Dean. John routinely forgot to leave them money to buy food. He wasn't known to clean the house, and he was swift with the belt when he and Sam got into it over...well, just about everything they discussed. Dean may have wanted to join the army and serve his country, but Sam came first.

“He's no coward,” Sam insisted, but Dean pinched his thigh under the table.

John turned to Sam looking him up and down. “Oh yeah, Sammy? How many real men do you know that wear and apron and do house work?” John asked.

Dean looked down at the apron he was wearing over his uniform. Of course, he'd forgotten to remove it before going to talk to John. Dean cursed himself for being sloppy.

“Probably about as many as have to take care of all the work their no good fathers leave behind while they go off drinking for a week at a time,” Sam retorted.

“What did you say to me?”

“I'll go down first thing tomorrow, Pop. I promise,” Dean said loudly, but John wasn't listening. He was pushing away from the table and reaching for his belt. Dean stepped between Sam and John, standing his full height. “I said, I'll go down tomorrow,” he repeated as John stood up.

“No! Dean, you can't,” Sam insisted, tugging on Dean's arm.

“Shut up, Sammy,” Dean said quietly.

“No! You can't enlist. If...if you enlist, I'll run away. You'll never see me again,” Sam said.

“You don't have it in you, Sam. You'll be crawlin' back here before dinner,” John told him.

“No I won't. I'd rather live on the street than live with you! I'll join the circus. I'll go so far away you'll never find me,” Sam continued to push.

Dean knew that hit a chord. John tried to grab Sam around Dean, but Dean stood firmly in his way. “He's just worried, Pop. Don't mind him,” Dean said calmly.

“You want to turn out like your mother, Sam?” John asked.

“I'd rather be like her than like you,” Sam shouted, running down the hall and up the stairs to his room.

“He don't mean nothin' by it, Pop. He's just being a moody kid,” Dean said. “I'll go down Saturday morning and fill out all the paperwork.”

“He's got too many big ideas, Dean. If your mother could see him now, she'd weep. I did my best with you boys,” John said, sitting down heavily in his chair. “Didn't put the fear of God into your brother though.”

“Sam's a good kid. Doesn't fear anything, not even God,” Dean told him, going back into the kitchen and removing a beer from the refrigerator. He pulled off the apron he'd been wearing and shoved in into one of the kitchen drawers before bringing the beer back to his father.

John drank half of it in one gulp. “Real men enlist, son. They don't wait around to get picked off by the draft. They do their duty to this country, and they do it happily,” John said as Dean began picking at his dinner again. “Making house here like you're a woman won't work, Dean. Look at yourself. You cook dinner like a housewife, and you clean up. Men shouldn't be on their hands and knees cleaning, Dean. That's a woman's work.”

Dean didn't argue with him. He knew how his father felt about men who did housework. Called them all sorts of rude names. Dean knew he was a disappointment for taking up their mother's role when she died, but there wasn't much of a choice. Either Dean learned to take care of him and Sam, or they were going to starve to death in their dung heap of a house.

“I know, Pop. I'll be enlisted soon,” Dean repeated, waiting for John to finish his meal, so he could start the dishes. John would no doubt be headed back to the bar as soon as he was finished.

Once Dean finished the dishes and packed up the leftovers for Sam's lunch in the morning, Dean pulled one of the beers out of the fridge and walked out onto the back porch. His father would tan his ass if he caught Dean stealing his beer, but Dean didn't much care tonight.

He stared up at the cloudless sky, watching the stars shine to their hearts' content. He wondered if they watched from up there. If they saw all of the things that went on down here.

He reached into his pocket for his wallet and removed the small picture of his mother he had there. He looked at it by the light filtering out from the kitchen. She always looked so happy and alive in that picture. He felt like she shouldn't. She died probably only a few months after it was taken. He could never reconcile how full of life she had been with how abruptly she was taken from them.

Dean laughed bitterly to himself as he looked up at the sky. “Angels are watching over me, Ma? What a crock of shit,” he said, shoving the picture back into his pocket. If angels were watching over him, he wouldn't be faced with enlisting and losing Sam or not enlisting and losing the house over his head.

He had no doubt that John would kick him out if he chose not to enlist. That was a coward's choice in John's eyes. He'd served in the Great War. He'd joined up as soon as his parents agreed to sign the papers for him. He'd offered to sign for Dean when he turned seventeen, but Sam had gotten hurt and needed constant attention. Dean knew it was no accident, that Sam threw himself out of that tree. He'd nearly taken Sam over his knee himself for such a stunt, but he couldn't say he wasn't grateful.

Now though, there was no getting around it. It was either leave willingly or be forced out. Dean didn't exactly have enough money saved up to take Sam with him if he was kicked out. Most of his pay was going to keeping Sam fed and the house paid up.

Dean put his head in his hands, beer forgotten. “What do I do, Ma? You told me to always look out for him. How am I supposed to do that from half a world away?” Dean asked.

He didn't get any answers out there. He barely noticed the winter air as he sat there in his factory clothes. He just sat there until he slowly finished his beer, and he heard John come back again, before staggering up to bed.

His father's window was open like it always was. His mom had told him that John always felt too warm since he came back from the war. He always slept with the window wide open like he was still sleeping in the trenches.

He could hear his father moving around, and then, not for the first time, he heard his father crying. Dean never knew how to reconcile the John Winchester he'd grown to know and the man John was when he let himself think about Mary.

Dean didn't want to listen to his father's pain tonight. He knew Mary's death still haunted his father, but her death still haunted Dean and Sam too.

He pushed himself to his feet and went inside, turning off the kitchen light and going to the room he shared with Sam.

Sam had their father's old army issued duffel back on his bed, stuffed with god only knew what.

“What you up to, Sam?” Dean asked, going over to his night stand to put his wallet there. He noticed his box of belongings was missing and gave Sam a strange look. Sam knew better than to touch his things.

“I'm doin' it, Dean. I'm running away. Either you come with me, or I guess this is where we'll part ways,” Sam told him, standing up straight.

Dean wondered how Sam had learned to be so fearless. Dean didn't doubt that Sam meant every word he said.

“You're out of your mind, Sammy,” Dean told him. “Where the hell you gonna go? What the hell are you gonna do? You're thirteen. You haven't got a cent to your name,” Dean said, feeling unreasonably angry with Sam for thinking he could just run away.

“Anything is better than here. You let Dad walk all over you. You let him take your money and boss you around in the house you pay for. Now you're letting him send you to war, Dean. Men are dying over there, but Dad doesn't care. It's the manly thing to do. We'll I'm sick of it. I want to get as far away from this place as I can. I wrote to Uncle Bobby. He's in town until tomorrow, and I'm goin' with him,” Sam whispered angrily, making sure he couldn't be heard through the thin walls.

Dean just stared at his brother. “You've got a set of balls on you. I have half a mind to belt you myself, Sammy. You can't just run away. You have school. You have friends.”

“I've got a deadbeat dad, and a coward for a brother. Doesn't seem like I'll be leavin' much behind,” Sam said.

Dean knew he said it to get a rise out of him. He knew Sam didn't really think he was a coward. Dean was a coward, but Sam didn't think that. He just wanted to make his words hurt, and he succeeded.

Sighing, Dean ran his hand over his face. “I'll walk you down to the fairgrounds, but if Uncle Bobby says he can't take you, you're coming right back here, because I'm not letting my little brother run away without a lick of sense to him,” Dean said, picking his coat up off his bed.

He lifted Sam's bag for him when it was clearly too heavy for Sam. “You put rocks in here or something?” Dean asked, hauling the thing up over his shoulder.

Sam just gave him a sour look and led the way out of the house. They could hear John snoring loudly through the door as they passed his room. Dean locked the house as they left, and Sam seemed to perk up once they were a few blocks away.

“I took the jar,” Sam said as they headed for the train tracks. That would be the fastest way to the fairgrounds, and the least patrolled.

“The jar?” Dean asked, not really getting what he was saying.

“Yeah, the jar of money Dad hides for himself. I figure that he owes us at least that much for the mortgage payments,” Sam explained.

“You what? No, Sam. What happens when he sees it's missing? What do I tell him?” Dean asked.

“If you come with me, you don't have to tell him anything,” Sam said, looking up at him with a grin.

It was tempting. Dean would love to be free of John, but that was a coward's way out. He wanted to enlist. He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to make his father proud. Running away would just make his father right about him.

“I'm not running, Sammy,” Dean told him, and they continued on in silence for nearly an hour before they left the tracks for the road to the fairgrounds. Before they ventured toward the cluster of tents and trailers, Sam stopped short.

“I love you, Dean. I'm proud of you no matter what you do. If you want to cook dinner and clean, I think you are the best big brother a boy could ask for. If you really want to be a soldier, then you'll be the best and bravest soldier there ever was. You aren't Dad, Dean. You never will be, and you may not like that, but I think that's the best thing in the world. I didn't know Mom, but I don't think she would've wanted you to turn out like Dad. I think she would have wanted you to follow your heart and be whoever it is you wanted to be,” Sam said, before heaving the bag off Dean's shoulder and pressing on ahead toward the camp.

Dean followed at a distance not knowing what to say. He tried not to think of what Mary would think of him. He knew what John said Mary would think of him, but he didn't know. His memories of his mother were varied and faded with time.

One of the last memories he had of her was after a fight she'd had with John. He'd said some mean things that Dean hadn't understood at the time. He'd called her loose because she'd lived with her traveling act for years before she'd married him. Dean remembered hugging his mother when John had left, and he remembered telling her he loved her, and he remembered her promising that she'd always love him and be proud of him no matter what.

Dean shook off the memory, looking at Sam as he crossed the fairgrounds with an air of determination. He looked back the way they had come, and up at the sky. Then he jogged to catch up to Sam.