: I Dunno Third Base (1/2)Author
: Vehemently (vee_fic
: PG for languageAuthor's Notes
: The sneakiness required to write this story without spilling the beans was exhausting. I really hope it has been a good surprise.Summary
: It is a constant source of friction between them that they might be mistaken by the casual viewer for fraternal twins.*
Here are two boys: both in jeans, a-straddle an aging railroad tie at the edge of the woods. They are of a height at the shoulder, peering together at a bug as it crawls over the rough surface between them. It is a beetle, small and iridescent, trundling over the open fissures in the wood grain with little clicks of its insect-feet against the blackened wood. The boys hold their open hands in the sunlight over the beetle's back, to deprive thenselves of the shine and then bring it back again.
Their hands are not the same size. The larger hand is long, bony, strange on a narrow childish wrist, hovering over the smaller hand's stubby fingers and dimpled knuckles in the sun. Dean Winchester is fourteen and small, with that hollow starveling look of his body still gathering itself for adolescent growth; but Sam is only nine, and a strapping, pudgy nine at that. It is a constant source of friction between them that they might be mistaken by the casual viewer for fraternal twins. Dean has become territorial, lately, about the laundry, and sorts out his own clothes from his brother's with a fury that Sam does not understand. Sam has always worn hand-me-downs. He doesn't see the shame in being caught wearing his brother's shirts.
"Hey," grunts their father, from the back end of the car, and both boys look up at once. Dean is the first to kick off from the railroad tie and trot over through the gravel to take his orders, Sam dawdling behind. Standing up, it's obvious that Dean is taller, but only by a couple of inches.
"Get your butt over here," he grumps at his brother, and manner alone should be enough to show who is the older brother and who the younger. Sam sticks his tongue out, but he doesn't disobey.
This sort of thing has become so routine that speech is hardly necessary: Dean is strapped into an old Army surplus canvas rucksack while Sam shoulders his ordinary school backpack. (Sam doesn't wonder, not yet, why they don't switch off now and then.) They're not heavy loads, just lunches, a first aid kit, some tools and coiled rope. Their father will carry the dangerous things, as always.
They are an hour's drive into the hills, and another hour's march away from their goal. The morning air is fine, that achy clarity of mid-spring, with just enough wind to ruffle everyone's hair at odd moments. The freshly-unfurled leaves on the maple trees provide a constantly-moving field of vision. "Okay, let's go," says John Winchester, and they do.
The trail is partially blazed, with dots of red paint on the trunks of trees. They trudge uphill through the dappled shade, cool enough that the exertion is welcome. The curled question-marks of new ferns emerge, quivering, from the dead leaves of the previous fall. John's boots make enormous prints in the wet dirt, into which Dean steps deliberately even though he has to stretch his stride. His tennis shoes make much less of an impression, and before the end of the day the mud will soak through the canvas and he will have soggy, cold feet. Sam, following last, hops fastidiously from stone to stone, disinterested in mannish mannerisms. He blows his hair off his forehead and digs his fingertips into the straps of his backpack, and can almost pretend they are on an ordinary family outing.
Other families don't arrive till mid-morning, though, and they don't keep careful silence. Other families don't leave the blazed trail to strike steeply up the slope between new oak saplings. The dirt is thicker here, drier, studded with the occasional boulder that they scramble past. "Four wheel drive," John admonishes, and both boys dig for hand-holds as they climb. Without as many close trees, they are in the full morning sun, and the stone glitters all around them: chips of quartz in the granite slabs. In between rocks, in the little gullies of pebbles and loose dirt, weeds cling, their roots half-exposed, leaves straining upwards. Sam picks a dandelion, just to have it, and then tucks it into his shirt collar so he can keep hiking with both his hands.
When they reach a plateau they are sweating, blowing hard. Their palms are marked with the impressions of grit, white dust in the ridges of their calluses. Dean stands at the very edge of the highest stone and peers downward, chin out, to see how far the fall is.
"Where next?" he asks, and drops a gob of spit down over the cliff.
"Watch yourself," barks John, standing a few feet below them and to the side. He is last up, although when they began their climb he was in the lead.
Dean makes an exasperated noise. "I'm not gonna fall, Dad." John ignores that, and heaves himself the last few steps up. They all stand together, clapping dust off their knees, and get a good look at the land. Below them, the low ridges of forest slope down to state park and gentle trails, split in the distance by the gravel parking lot where they started. A few ponds, like sparkling puddles, dot the lowlands. Behind them, the imposing mass of stone, still cool from the night air but warming fast. Even John has to lean his head back to see the top, which isn't even a peak really but just a place where the stone disappears into a thicket of creepers and scrub pine. To the south, out of view, more peaks rise in a long ridge, higher and rockier and more dangerous.
"This is just a recon trip," John reminds his sons. He pushes forward along the plateau, rather than directing them further upwards. He leads the way around a lichen-covered stone into a little grassy gully, bright and welcoming and full of buttercups. "Okay, break here."
The grass is springy, riddled with clover. It's a good place for kids to play. John leaves them behind with strict instructions about not climbing the boulders and saving at least one snack each for the hike down. Dean watches him go, scowling, his rucksack still on his shoulders, while Sam is already lying on his back blissed out under the sun. The dew is nearly dry, but the earth is still cool, soft and crumbly. They see a lot of concrete in their everyday lives, in the schoolyard and their aging apartment complex in town. The textures and smells of unadulturated nature are a novelty.
"C'mon," Sam calls to his brother, sitting up. "Maybe we can find a four-leaf clover."
Dean snorts. "They aren't lucky, you know. They're just mutants." But he stops staring after his father's trail, and hunts in his rucksack for his pocket-knife.
a mutant." Sam hops up and runs away, grass whickering against his sneakers.
Dean sighs to himself. "No, you are." He watches his brother go, making sure he stays away from the rocks near the cliff-edge. But Sam's route arcs around, as if he were circling the edge of a grassy bowl. Dean cuts triangles off a block of cheese and opens up a tube of crackers, and the rustling plastic draws Sam back after a little while.
They munch side by side, knees high, drinking from the same bottle of lukewarm water. "How long is Dad gonna be?" asks Sam, around a mouthful of cheese.
"Asking won't make him any faster."
Sam chooses to ignore his brother's mood. "Cause I wanted to show him something. Over there," he points, at the far side of the meadow. A breeze lifts his hair into his eyes, and the leaves murmur at each other. "Looked kinda cool."
Dean doesn't have anything to say. He douses a handkerchief in water and scrubs the cheese residue off his knife methodically.
"You can still like cool stuff even when you're saving the galaxy," Sam frets, after a little while.
"Shut up," says Dean.
Sam shuts up. They sit in the sun, beginning to sweat now the shadows are shorter, and pluck idly at clover stems. Dean works a wide blade of grass between his thumbs, and blows over it to make it whistle, but all he gets are kazoo noises and green stains on his knuckles. Sam is becoming restless, hands roaming. He is ready to run again, but no running in the world will get Dean in the mood to chase him. The frustration is thick between them like summer humidity.
John does not let out a shout when he falls. Dean thinks that over, later when there's time: men shouldn't cry out when they fall. At the moment of it, though, all Dean hears is a crackle-crash through pine branches and a thump, something unpleasantly squishy like the sound of an overripe tomato hitting the floor. He doesn't know what the sound is, just that it's a sound he hates. It is Sam who guesses something has gone wrong.
"Dad?" calls Sam, immediately. He bounces to his feet and Dean gets a hand on his ankle in the instant before Sam can go sprint off into the unknown.
"You don't know that was him," Dean warns, earning a startled glance. He explains, "That might be the thing he's hunting. You wait here and I'll go check on him."
Dismayed, Sam watches his brother stand and start towards the trees. They don't have any weapons, and don't know what might be out there. Dean eases his pocketknife awkwardly out of his jeans, and opens it. He is small opposite the dense growth and the massive slab of the mountain. He shrugs his shoulders and paws his way carefully into the bushes, his pitifully short blade at the ready.
Things clear up a little under the pines, which are eight or nine feet tall and cover the ground with dead orange needles. Dean ducks around the close-set, sticky trunks, which are arrayed on a mild upward slope. And there, halfway up -- halfway down -- is John Winchester, lying dazed on his side, clotheslined by a pine tree.
Cold, Dean rushes up the slippery hill and flops to his knees at his father's side. There isn't much blood, just a few nasty-looking scratches on the side of his face and on his arms. He has slid ten or twelve feet, pushing a fat wave of needles before him, before coming to rest with his hips against the trunk. John is moving his arms slowly, vaguely attempting to sit up, but not coherent enough to manage it.
"Dad, are you okay?" Dean hesitates, and then slaps John lightly on the cheek. "Come on, get up. Did you fall? Did you hit your head?" He scrambles around to untangle John from his rucksack, carefully lifting his father's big hand and threading it through the arm-hole. A few tugs reveal that John is too large to be lifted by a scrawny fourteen-year-old. In fact, if he is badly hurt, he will be almost impossible to get off the mountain. He will need rescue crews, and cops, and official notice.
But just as Dean is working himself up into a frenzy of frustration, John gets an elbow under himself and raises his head. With Dean's encouragement -- shoving on his shoulder -- John makes it to a sitting position, facing down the slope, orange needles in his hair and stuck to his clothes. The rucksack falls behind him. He blinks, open-mouthed, and does not answer Dean's queries.
"What the hell, Dad." John turns his head at this, and grunts at the pain. Dean tells him, "Okay, so you can hear me. Can you get up?" He stands and beckons with both hands. Fingertips on John's shoulder, he mutters. "Come on, you can do this."
John can, in fact, do this. He lurches to his knees and stays there for a long time. But just as Dean is about to say something more, John sets his weight on one foot, and then the other, and he is upright. He sways at once, a hand flailing for support against the tree trunk. Heedless, he spears his palm with the stump of a dead branch. His groans are frightening.
"Okay, okay, I can help," soothes Dean, slotting himself under John's other arm. That heaving chest, the weight on Dean's shoulders, and the possibility of needing a rescue crew still looms. The adrenaline surges and whines and Dean makes fists around his father's belt to stop seeing the tremble in his fingertips.
They start down the pine-studded hill in lockstep, John always with one hand against the nearest tree. Branches waver above their heads, and a few needles rain down. Their tandem travel smoothes out after a few steps, steadier and easier, and Dean blows out a breath. They may yet get out of here on their own -- and then John stiffens up, as if he were transformed in an instant into the trees that are supporting him. Dean lets out half a swear word before he registers that Sam is standing in front of them with a broken stick clutched in front of him and tears on his face.
"You didn't come back," Sam gulps. He throws away the stick. "I thought it got you too."
Dean decides not to notice the shiny tracks down Sam's face. "Come on, help me. No wait, go back up the hill the way we came and get his backpack. And my knife," he adds. He nudges his father and they take another step together.
Sam just stands there gaping. After a minute he swipes his forearm over his eyes, but he doesn't do as he is told. "What happened?"
Dean is encouraging a grown man to put one foot in front of the other. Over his shoulder he says, "I think he fell out of a tree." Father and son maneuver towards the creepers and tall grass, where there will be no handholds and John will have to test his balance. Dean is offended to discover that Sam is laughing.
It's a weird, high-pitched laugh, and Sam just stands there with it rippling through him, unable to stop or take any action. The mundane stupidity of the fall, and the potentially disastrous consequences, chase the sound of Sam's voice around the copse, reverberating. Dean turns his back on his brother's hysterics, two hundred pounds of man leaning on his shoulders, and starts planning how they'll make it back down the mountain.*
Gravity is a wonderful thing. If you don't care about getting gravel in your pants and a couple of bruises, it's a lot easier to get down a mountain than up it, even when you're hurt and scared. Sam has scouted the simplest routes down, shouting back up to his brother, and Dean has led his father all the way back to the car safely.
John has not said a word, his grasp of what is going on still uncertain. Dean has a smudge of dried blood on one cheek, from John's speared palm, and they're all sore and tired and swimming in sweat. Sam sprints the last hundred yards to the car and grabs at the back door handle, then turns and runs back to John and Dean.
"Oh my god, Dean, who's going to drive?" The rucksack slung on his front bangs against a hip painfully. Sam has all three packs now, his silhouette bloated and strange. The shadows have just begun to tilt the opposite way: it is afternoon already. Sam remembers the uneaten snacks, and starts fiddling at the zippers.
One hand on his father's belt, Dean considers the gleaming black car. "Me, I guess. Oh shit, the first aid kit."
Sam has found it, in Dean's rucksack, forgotten all this time. He holds it out shyly, but they're still standing on a wooded trail. Dean shakes his head and they plod on till they reach the car. Sam scrutinizes John's face for any sign of recognition, but he frowns in a vacant way, and says nothing.
Even parked in the shade, the car is pretty hot inside. They sling all the doors open and sit John down in the back. Sam lays out the first aid kit on the gravel with solemn precision. "You think he's got brain damage?"
"Shut up," says Dean, and swabs his father's cuts with a bit of alcohol. The sting of it registers on John's features. Obedient, he ducks and lets his older son feel around in his scalp until the culprit is found: a big goose-egg on the back of his head. Sam feels it too, the throb of it, the sweat moistening John's hair. Dean huffs a breath. "Well, I guess we know why he's so messed up."
"Is his skull busted open?" Sam asks, with avid curiosity.
"No, you dummy." Dean cups his father's face in both hands, crowding in close enough to touch noses. They stare into each other's eyes for a long moment while Sam fidgets: green and brown, like the colors of the underbrush. The examination lasts longer than is strictly necessary, as some kind of intelligence begins to dawn over John's face. Dean announces: "Pupils are even. It's just a concussion."
A big, slow hand comes up and rests on Dean's shoulder. He swivels his head to reach for a gauze bandage, and mumbles, "You're okay, Dad. You'll be okay." John squeezes the shoulder in his grip and then lets go. His eyes close as if exhaustion has come over him.
Sam volunteers: "I'll sit in the back seat with him. To make sure he's okay on the way home."
"Yeah," says Dean, and glances over at the driver's seat.
The embarrassing part, it turns out, is that he has to move the front seat forward to reach everything comfortably. John lies on his side in the back, with Sam in the footwell next to his head muttering to him soothingly, and Dean is alone in the expanse of front seat leather, the controls awaiting his touch. Dean knows how to drive. This should not be hard.
But Dean knows how to drive around a parking lot or on unpaved back roads. He would be very hard to mistake for sixteen. If the cops notice him, and notice the deadweight of man in the back seat, and the nine-year-old not even in a seat at all, the whole game will be up. Dean yanks on the gearshift, overshooting Reverse, and has to pause and breathe before he tries again.
He can stay on the correct side of the double-yellow. He knows to stop at stop signs and red lights, fastidiously legal. He maneuvers them out of the state park, the car growling comfortably under him, and then they're on real roads. Short spring crops whiz by on either side of the tar, gray-green haze over the long-dormant soil, and Dean presses a little harder on the gas pedal.
Windows down, hair flying, he lets go the steering wheel with one hand and rests his elbow on the window ledge. A flutter in his chest keeps him stiffly upright, even as the grin splits his face and makes his cheeks hurt. "Oh," he says to himself.
"Are you driving good?" inquires Sam, from the back seat. "I think you're going too fast."
At once Dean lifts his foot from the gas. "Shut up," he says. Even without his input, the car speeds onward, the seam of the road splitting the long flat farmland. It will be more dangerous, back closer to home, where there are people. Dean nods to himself, humming under his breath. He is not so good a driver yet that he will take his eyes off the road to mess with the radio.
Behind him, Sam rests his chin on the seat, inches from his father's sleeping face. "He better not get us all killed," he whispers, but he doesn't mean it really.*
The night is tense, Sam ordered off to bed while Dean sits vigil. They have joined forces to wrestle their father out of his boots and jeans and into the sheets -- that's a job Dean couldn't pull off by himself anyway -- but when the waiting time arrives Sam cannot maintain the solemnity his brother demands. And anyway, they have school in the morning.
Dean wakes up in a kitchen chair in the predawn, confused. John lies still, deeply asleep, even his eyeballs unmoving under his darkened eyelids. He is breathing evenly. The lamp on the floor, dragged in from the living room, provides the only light in the apartment, and throws strange shadows upward across the room. Stiff, Dean untangles himself from the chair and settles on the bed next to the shape of his father.
"You're all right, Dad," he mumbles to himself, and mops the sweat from John's forehead with a corner of the sheet. "I'll make sure you're all right." His voice seems to resound in the gray silence. Immediately he turns shy, and stands up. He fusses with the sheets, brisk, and retreats to the kitchen to start making lunches for the school day.
It is an hour before Sam is awake, cheerful and with his hair in disarray. He stomps into the kitchen, heedless of the noise, and pours himself a glass of water. "Did he wake up in the night?" he asks, before getting a good look at his brother. It is only as he waits for an answer that he sees the droop of Dean's eyelids, the irritability in the set of his mouth. He is still wearing his jeans from yesterday. "Did you sleep at all?"
"He's going to be fine," Dean answers, stubborn. "I'll make him the hangover cure." He gives Sam his back and hunts in the fridge for eggs.
Traffic rumbles on the highway behind their building. At this hour, when commuters are only starting to flood the streets, it is an intrusive noise, and strange. By midday the constant sound becomes impossible to notice. Head and shoulders in the fridge, Dean swears absently just as a truck is going by, and is unintelligible. Sam suppresses the urge to ask for eggs for himself, and pulls down cereal and two bowls.
In the midst of their kitchen bustle, a dull groan from the far bedroom. It is a galvanizing noise: the brothers freeze and stare at each other. Dean has an unbroken egg in one hand, and a glass in the other. "I'll check on him," Sam offers.
He makes it all the way down the hall before wondering whether he should be dressed at this hour. But it's an emergency, he decides, as he dithers in the doorway. It's okay that he's not dressed yet; maybe they'll both skip school today. He turns off the lamp on the floor. The bulky shape of his father shifts under the sheets. "Dad?"
Up on one elbow, John runs a hand over his unshaved face. He blinks at Sam. "Is it morning or night?"
"Morning," says Sam, nonplussed. "The sun's up."
John lies there for a long moment, a-squint in the dim room. They pulled the shades, yesterday when they settled him in, setting the timer to check his pupils every two hours. But even with the shades down, he should notice the white lines of light streaming in. He scratches his head absently, hits the goose-egg, and swears.
Sam tells him: "You hit your head. It's okay, though. You're not bleeding in your brain." He fidgets with the door handle, and wills away the impulse to reach out and pat him on the shoulder.
"Where are your parents?" asks John, as he sets his feet on the floor. He has his back to Sam so he can't see the dumfounded expression on the boy's face. But John is waiting for an answer, and after a while he glances over his shoulder, just in time for Sam to call,
"Dean! Get in here!"
A hint of irritation wrinkles John's brows, and it gets bigger when Dean appears and is not the adult he is clearly expecting. "What?" asks Dean, spoon in hand. "Get him a glass of water, or something." Sam blinks at John, and blinks at his brother, and slinks away. Dean comes into the room and sits next to John on the bed. "You okay?"
John looks him over carefully, from his ragged t-shirt to the white calluses on his bare feet. "Who's in charge here?" he asks at last.
"Uh," says Dean, baffled. "You are, if you're feeling up to it. You ready for the hangover cure?"
The revulsion on John's face is an obvious no.
"Oh. Well, you didn't throw up at all, but I guess you still might. You hit your head yesterday. Is what happened," Dean finishes awkwardly.
"The other kid told me already." John tenses his arms and at once Dean reaches out (eggy spoon still in one hand) to steady him as he tries to stand. But John twitches away, and stands all by himself. On his feet, he pauses with his eyes closed, swaying. Dean reaches out again and guides his hand to the wall. This time, John doesn't refuse help. After a little while, he can even open his eyes, and ask, "So who are you guys?"
The mortification flushes pink all over Dean's face. "Dad?" Dean has seen his father in a lot of bad situations: ashen, bleeding, too afraid to sleep. He has no idea what to make of this scenario.
"Me?" asks John. "Oh." He closes his eyes again. The wall supports most of his weight.
Anxious, Dean lets his voice climb in pitch and speed: "It's me. I'm your son, Dean. I'm fourteen years old." Sam appears in the doorway, a water glass in both hands. He freezes, eyes wide, on hearing what his brother is saying. "That's Sam. He's nine. You don't remember?"
"I feel like shit," says John. They all pause to listen to that in the darkened room.
"Maybe you should lie down again," Dean advises, as he stands to go put the raw eggs back in the fridge. "And when you wake up, you'll remember."
He retreats to the kitchen, a-tremble. Behind him, another dull groan from the stranger wearing his father's face.*
Furious whispers on the schoolbus: "He's not okay, Dean."
"Shut up. He'll be fine."
It is afternoon. The bus lurches down the hill. The bus driver is Mrs. Belfontaine, who disapproves of everything and is watching them in the bad-kids mirror above her head. Her glasses gleam every time she glances up.
"We could take him to the emergency room. They could help."
Dean rolls his eyes at his brother. They are sitting together in the back row. Usually, Dean won't let Sam sit next to him, but this is too important. "We can't take him to the emergency room! What is the first thing
they ask you when you show up?"
"I don't know!" Sam elbows him. "Unlike some people
, I've never jumped out of a tree and broken my arm."
"Then you should listen to me, because I know." Dean straightens and eyes the backs of the Johnson girl's head, three rows in front of him. She's a nerd, and probably wrapped up in a book. "The first thing they do is ask who brought you in. And if we bring in Dad, they are gonna see that he's a couple sandwiches shy, and we are obviously minors, and they are gonna put two and two together and call foster care."
"We could totally have a mom at home," Sam protests.
Dean makes a rude noise. "They would call, you dummy. Anyway, what kind of a mom lets her kids bring their dad to the ER?"
They have no idea what kind of mom would do that. They have no idea what moms do. They sit side by side in silence for a while, watching Jenny White and Ashley Jefferson get off the bus. The doors swing closed and the engine grumps and they're lurching again.
Sam asks, slow, "So... we're just going to wait till he gets better?"
"He just needs time to recover. He's probably over it already."
"What if he isn't. What if he doesn't remember ever."
"I think we should call Pastor Jim."
Dean rounds on his brother. "Don't you fucking dare," he hisses, not quietly enough because the Johnson girl turns around with a scandalized look on her face. "Dad is fine and nobody is going to know about this but us."
It is not even necessary for Sam to say how stupid he thinks that strategy is. His cock-eyed expression gives him away, and Dean retaliates with a hard pinch on the upper arm. "Ow! What was that for?"
"Chain of command, you little monkey. With Dad out of action, I'm in charge."
"You suck," declares Sam, at a loss how to express the depths of his contempt for his brother.
Dean's attempt at a sneer comes out looking more like the precursor to tears. "You first," he mumbles, and crosses his arms.
They don't speak again till the bus comes to their stop.
Their apartment building is a drooping facade of spalled brick, bracketed with concrete and rust stains. The awning over the front door was yellow, once, but it's faded and glum, tattering around the edges. On a cloudy day like this, it seems to blend into the sky. The bus leaves a bunch of children across the street, and half of them trot off into the fenced yards of real houses, while the other half -- including the Winchesters -- trudge into the Windsor Arms Apartments and up the echoing staircase. Sam knows the names of all the kids in the complex, but Dean disdains the elementary children. The kids in high school, who take a different bus, let him hang around sometimes, but not other times.
"Hey," says a girl in a ratty jacket, "you want to play in the courtyard later?"
Sam rolls his eyes over to his brother before replying, but Dean's expression doesn't change. "Can't," he says. "We got a thing going on. Maybe tomorrow, though," he adds, over her disappointment.
"Okay," says the girl, and disappears down her hall. The brothers head all the way up to the fourth floor and down the row past 4D who smells like cheese and the young guys in 4E who smell like something else (Dean is pretty sure it is pot, but Sam asserts that they are herbalists) and past the gorgeous and rarely-glimpsed woman in 4F to their own door. Sam steps up and puts his key in the lock and shows his brother his crossed fingers.
The hinges startle John, or else he had not noticed that the front door is in the kitchen. He is standing in his shorts in front of the sink with a glass in his hand and his hair a whirlwind around his red face. He does not say hello. Dean puts a hand on Sam's neck and pilots them both into the apartment. He deposits Sam at the kitchen table and returns to the door to throw all the locks. He takes a steeling breath, and turns to face his father.
"Dad. I guess you're feeling better. You had anything to eat?" Dean shuffles off his backpack and drops it in a corner.
John remembers the empty glass in his hand and sets it down. "Found the bread in the fridge," he says, after a long moment. It is as if he is far away, and communicating over long wires with his body here in the apartment. "Lemme put some pants on, kid."
Sam watches from his position at the table. He keeps his features neutral as his father heads off to the bedroom. There is the distinct possibility that John has found the snacks in the cupboard, and, not being himself, eaten them all. Sam sits still, contemplating that likelihood. As long as he doesn't look in the cupboard, he doesn't have to know.
"We gotta brief him," Dean says at last. He bustles around the kitchen, pulling out pans for dinner. "He'll remember then."
The banging of pans is an oppressive noise, a silence-filler. Sam flinches away from it and stands. "Dude," he mumbles, and then louder, "Dude. We can't tell him everything."
"Get the onions out of the fridge. Yes we can," says Dean. He has a butcher knife in his hand, flips it with a flourish that their father would punish if he saw.
"He won't believe it," says Sam, shuffling things out of the fridge. "About hunting, and monsters. He'll think we're afraid of the dark or something. Like we're making it up."
This possibility has not occurred to Dean at all, and it freezes him at the wrong moment. The butcher knife clatters to the floor. He plasters a scowl onto his face and retrieves the knife. "We'll ease him into it. And then when he's better it'll all come back to him."
"Whatever you say," grumps Sam. "You're the fartbrain in charge."
"Language," says John, from the hallway. It is startling, that interjection at just that pitch: he sounds like himself. But the look of surprise on his face proves even he hadn't been expecting it. He pads down the hall in his bare feet, fully dressed and with his socks in his hand. Dean gets out of his way, hopeful, afraid.
With exactitude and badly-disguised expectation, Dean says, "Yeah, buttface. Watch your language."
John shoots him a tough look. "I guess I still remember my manners, kid."
"My name's Dean," Dean corrects at once, undaunted.*
Multiplication tables are criminally easy to remember, especially if you work out a grid system so you can memorize way beyond the tens they teach in class. Sam is whipping his way through his math homework, leaning on The Encyclopedia of American Haunted Houses
, with the television on when his father walks into the room.
"What are you doing?" John asks, irritated. He walks over to the set and turns it off: maybe he's forgotten there is such a thing as remote control. "That's no way to do your learning, Sam."
"You always let me before," Sam says, in a small voice. He bites his tongue against explanation.
"Oh," says John at last. "Well, I don't know why."
Sam isn't sure how to talk to his father like this. Thus far he has let Dean take the lead, say what's what. It is possible Sam has not exchanged ten words with John since he woke up strange yesterday morning. They are awkward together, without anyone to move the conversation along.
"And anyway," Sam adds, in a rush before he chickens out. "It's not like it's hard. I swear, we've been going over the same stuff for three weeks."
"What kind of stuff?" John asks. He has never asked before, that Sam can remember. Sam does not know what to say. John is patient and the silence awaiting Sam's answer stretches long.
"Math," he says finally. "If you'd let me go into the fourth grade, I'd be at long division by now."
John falls into the sagging couch next to Sam and peers over his shoulder. The homework sheets are old purple mimeo, two-digit multiplication in big script like they don't think kids can read small print. Sam has been hunting through Dean's homework books for a year now. "You're way too old for the third grade, right?" John asks.
"I'm nine, Dad. And, I don't know," says Sam, and hesitates. "Don't argue with the principal, you said. We had to lie low."
They sit side by side, shy, for five long minutes. John tugs at the book Sam has been leaning on, reads its spine, and lets it go. (There are more books like it on the coffee table; it is Dean's idea of being subtle to leave Legends and Monsters of the Great Lakes
in a place where it will be found.) Sam inches his hand closer and closer to the TV remote, and his fingers close over it before it occurs to him to wonder whether turning on the television from afar will scare the crap out of his father.
"So, where's your brother at?" John asks. "I bet he's got homework too."
"Out, I guess. I think with friends?" Sam doesn't know, any more, who Dean's friends are. He is left behind most of the time, scorned and dismissed.
"Oh." John thinks it over with his hand on the back of his head, as if it hurts. "A kid should have friends."
"He's not my brother, though." It pops out of Sam's mouth before he is aware he is planning to lie. His cheeks flush as John swivels to stare at him. Sam stammers out a story, impromptu: "He's my cousin. My dad was your brother, but he died, and I came to live with you, and Dean always wanted a brother. So we just pretend, usually."
"What happened to your dad?"
"He was all special forces and stuff, and that's where he met my mom. She was a guerrilla in Venezuela and they fell in love in the jungle. They were climbing the Himalayas and got trapped in an ice cave and they froze to death. It was a long time ago."
John's frown turns to concern. "I'm sorry, Sam. That's awful."
"You were really good about it, though." Sam warms to the story, hands up and gesticulating. "I was little and staying with you when it happened, cause you can't take kids with you to the Himalayas. And the police called you up and you said swear words into the phone and I guess there was all sorts of business to take care of but you were always with me, taking me to the playground and standing at the bottom of the slide in case I fell. It was like my original dad hadn't really died."
The power of untruth is atomic, astounding. The picture being drawn, word on word, creates the demand of reality. With no effort at all, Sam can see it in his mind as it should have happened.
"This family has awful luck," says John, with mournful perplexity. "Was this before Dean's mother died, or after?"
"After." Sam is firm, certain. "I don't even remember her. But you told me once how Dean was when she died, how he didn't think he would ever get a brother, so when I came to live with you forever, you said it was okay if I called you Dad."
"Better than okay, Sam." John reaches out, a little shy, and rests his palm on the back of Sam's neck. His grip is warm, encompassing, secure. "Better than okay."
"Just don't tell Dean I told you," Sam adds belatedly. "He doesn't like to think about all that bad stuff. So we pretend when he's around cause he likes it that way."
"You and me. Just between us."
If the guys in 4E really are selling pot, then they should have a lot of cash lying around, and there's a good chance they'll be too wasted to count it. Dean is loitering the hallway, waiting for his chance to pick the lock without being noticed. It's not that they need the cash, not really or not yet; but he's not ready to let Dad out of the house with the credit cards and maybe get arrested if he screws up.
It's been raining pretty hard all day, and the stairwell smells like rust and wet dog. (Dogs aren't allowed in the building, so it's unclear how that smell came to be.) Dean leans against the concrete wall, flipping his pocket knife so that it twirls in midair and he catches it again by the handle. He's pretty good, only drops it about one in twenty times, and doesn't cut himself by accident at all. He shifts his shoulders, a pose of cool, and glances again down the hallway toward 4E.
The row of apartment doors is all shut up and locked, now the evening is turning late: he has timed his approach carefully. But the orange hall light throws its shadows across the open threshold of 4F, and he has to wait. Dean can't figure out what 4F is doing, just that she's had her door open for about ten minutes and is ruining his plan.
Muffled curses echo down the hall. A thump, another curse. Dean kicks off from the wall and straightens his shirt before checking out what's wrong with 4F. He folds his pocketknife as he walks down the hall, practiced and slow, so that he's just easing it into his back pocket as he sidles into view from the doorway. He has done it in front of the mirror enough times that he knows he looks awesome.
But the woman in 4F isn't even looking. She is wrestling with a ratty stuffed chair, her glorious black hair up in a ponytail. She's got on sneakers and loose jeans and a floppy sweatshirt, so that her body is hardly visible. Dean has spent too many hours in sticky contemplation of her legs when she's in high heels not to be disappointed. He lingers unseen for a moment, and then straightens his shoulders to ask in his manliest voice, "You need some help, there?"
It startles her, the pitch of his words. She drops the chair to face him, fear flitting across her face and then gone. "Jesus, don't sneak up on people like that," she complains. She rests a hand on her hip, impatient.
"Sorry," says Dean. "Uh, but looks like that's a two-man job."
She crouches to get a grip on the chair again. "I can handle it," she grunts, and lifts. The chair is fat and low: really, the problem is its awkward shape. Dean can't just stand there and watch her struggle; with only a little bit of hesitation he crosses the threshold and gets a grip on the other side of the chair.
"I can help," he tells her, and they lift the thing together. She grimaces, but she doesn't object. Together, they navigate it out into the hallway.
"Wait," she calls, and sets down her end. Dean watches while she closes and locks her apartment door behind her. She stuffs the keys into her jeans pocket in a way that he finds thrilling.
But he puts on his business face when she hefts her end of the chair, and together they carry it down the smelly stairwell and out back to the dumpsters. The novelty of throwing a chair into a dumpster will never get old, and getting to do it in partnership with a beautiful woman (even in sweats) is an excellent way to waste part of an afternoon. Even the drizzle dampening his collar has no effect. Dean has forgotten completely about his mission to relieve his neighbors of their excess cash.
The chair makes a satisfying clang of wood on steel as it lands. Gentlemanly, Dean hops up onto the side of the dumpster and pulls shut the lid. He looks down for approval and finds the woman clapping dust off her hands with satisfaction.
"I hated that chair," she says absently, as Dean comes back down to earth. She is taller than he, by at least two or three inches. (In heels, she is even taller
.) Standing hipshot, her figure is almost visible through her loose clothes. Dean wipes imaginary sweat off his forehead and tries to think of something to say that will impress her.
"So like, we're neighbors," he blurts, just at the moment that the woman is turning to go. She pauses and cocks her head at him. He plows forward, brazen: "I figure if we're gonna be neighborly we should know names and all."
The woman purses her generous mouth in an expression Dean cannot interpret. After a moment, she offers her hand to shake. "Sherry," she says. Dean slides his own palm over hers, feels its dry warmth and the strength in her fingers. Her handshake is firm, and the moment when she lets go definite. He only holds on a few moments longer.
"Dean," he tells her, like it's a military rank. "Dean Winchester." He tries out his smirk on her, that always looks great in the mirror, but all Sherry does is chuckle.
"Thanks for your help, Dean Winchester," she says, and gives him her back. In her sneakers, she flits up the stairs making hardly a sound, and far faster than she can do in heels.
Dean watches her go, the flick of her ponytail mesmerizing. At once his brain skips ahead to the encounters he can have with her when she is in her work clothes. They're neighbors, now, and that is practically an invitation to romance.Part Two