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I Dunno Third Base

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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.

"You're 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."

"Shut up."

"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."

"Oh."

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."

"Good."

*

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.

*

They quiz each other over the dishes. It's a cheerful thing, a game, and both boys have never enjoyed their father so much. His smile, when he gets an answer right, is dazzling and infectious. Dean is a little overawed by this glimpse of John's charm, and Sam is starving for it.

"So how come there's no peanut butter in the house?" asks John, as he soaps a plate.

"Sam ate it all," Dean accuses. That's not actually true, and Sam stands there at the cupboard strangling in his outrage. Dean relents. "Okay, we both ate it."

"So we should add it to the grocery list," John says to himself. They don't have a grocery list, or anyway not outside Dean's head. But both boys nod, as if this were normal.

Dean takes the clean plate out of his father's hands and runs a dish towel over it carelessly. "Do you know what kind of jelly you put in your PBJ?"

"Grape," John answers, automatically.

"You know," Sam interjects, "you like strawberry too. Dean's the one won't have any kind but grape. So usually you just have what's in the house."

It is John's turn to chuckle. "Well if I like strawberry we should have that in the house too. Right?"

Dean pauses in unaccountable alarm at this. There is no reason not to keep two jars of jelly, and heaven knows their fridge has extra space in it. Dean adds things to the grocery list on his father's request all the time. Usually it is for things like rope or motor oil, though.

"Right," Sam is saying, with serene superiority.

They finish with the dishes and all there is left is homework and the family game. They have never all three settled on the couch together before; it is another novelty in this string of novelties. Dean does not even bother arguing about Sam's television choices, basking in the casual arm John has thrown over his shoulder.

"I was meaning to ask," says John, in a low, careful voice. Neither boy recognizes tenderness on hearing it. "Dean, were you old enough before your mother died that you remember her?"

There is no proper preparation for that question. Sam sits tense, his ear pressed into his father's chest, his lies instantly present in his mind. Dean's reluctance is itchier, a dull rash, friction against the violation of taboo. He shifts uncomfortably on the couch, and with that tiny invitation John's grip closes around him, thumb stroking down his forearm. He is a powerful man, muscular, and with not much bulk to spare for soft edges, but his sons fit up close against him nonetheless. Dean is all bony corners, too thin for hugs, but too amazed to object. The television trills and chuckles while the three Winchesters stare unseeing across the room.

Belatedly, Dean recovers his sense of age and shame, and straightens away from his father. "I guess. Yeah." He clears his throat. "What do you want to know about her?"

Another pause. Silence from John is familiar, comforting. Then he breaks it to ask, "Do we have any pictures of her, or something? I guess I haven't seen a single picture of anybody in this family."

"I --" The pictures are in the journal, and the journal is in the trunk of the car. Dean scrambles for an answer. "We don't have a lot. There's the one stuck in the mirror in your room. But I don't know if we have any pictures of Mom."

The only matter in Sam's mind is being caught in a whopper. He pushes his way off the couch to redirect the conversation away from whose parent is whose. "I have the big one. You told me to find a safe place so it wouldn't get folded." He is improvising, a little dazzled at his own boldness. "I tucked it into Treasure Island."

He trots out of the room and pauses in the hallway to set his hands out into the air, as if to knead or placate the surge of excitement.

When the boy is gone, thumping through his things in the near bedroom, John lets go his older son and sits forward. Elbows on his knees, he mutters over his shoulder, "If you want, you could tell me what she was like."

As if it were a secret between them. Dean does not know how to answer. He picks at his cuticles, fidgety. "I dunno."

John waits a long time for more. Neither of them notices that Sam has stopped making noise in the other room, and is standing in the hallway with a photograph cradled carefully in both hands. Sam knows how this family works, and keeps his silence and his distance, ears straining for the tiniest sliver of information.

"She was pretty," Dean tells his hands. Having begun, it is easier for him to go on. "She had long yellow hair and blue eyes, and she could see everything and know what was going on so you better not lie to her. She was really tall and she had good hands with veins on the backs of them like roads. She liked to sing and she could make people quiet even if they didn't want to be."

John takes a breath, opens his mouth, and then doesn't say anything.

They are so close to talking about the hunt. Dean can feel the countours of the conversation to come, how dangerously close unnatural things can seem to the fantasy of a bereaved child. He knows the seriousness of his father, and cannot bear the idea of his dismissal. The desire to talk about it and the loneliness of not being believed war in him, and he is speechless and sweaty and furious. He smacks his fist into the couch cushions.

"Hey," says John, gentle, accommodating. He reaches to restrain his son and Dean jerks away. He is up off the couch at once, jittering, afraid of his own anger. Without a word, and ignoring the dismay on John's face, he stalks out of the room. With no other room to flee to, he shuts himself in the bathroom with a slam.

Sam, in the hallway, stands frozen. He does not understand his brother's rages. He cannot imagine asking about it, and Dean would never dream of explaining. When John is at his fighting best, he just orders his older son outside and they don't come back till after dark. Sam has waited for them many times, alone in the apartment, and after the first time he learned not to spring gratefully on his brother's neck when he returns. Dean always comes back flushed and his clothes sweated through, too exhausted to speak. Sam leaves him alone, and goes to sit with his father (who is sweaty as well, but never as tremblingly undone as Dean). It is about the only time they have been alone together, in the past, and Sam can never think of anything to say, so they just sit together without speaking. They do that a lot.

He watches his father's expression change, a familiar resolve hardening about the mouth, and blurts, "I found the picture." He holds it out in front of him. John stands and meets him halfway. The picture trembles between them, thumbprints around its edges illuminated in the evening light. Wrapping his fingers around Sam's, John looks at it carefully: his younger self, grinning, and the exuberant woman in his arms. To Sam, it is a picture as familiar as anything, and as foreign as another country.

"Your brother's still busted up about it," John says absently. His other hand ghosts over Sam's hair, and they lean together for a moment.

"Yeah," says the traitorous boy. "He sure is."

*

The boys arrive home from school on Wednesday to a surprising wealth of junk food. Sam streaks into the kitchen with a shout of glee, while Dean stands speechless in the doorway. On the countertop lies a wide array: chocolate, taffy, jawbreakers, beef jerky, sunflower seeds. It is not the sort of thing that would go on a grocery list.

"There's pop in the fridge," says John, with a strange shy pride. Dean stares at him unblinking and after a moment his smile fades into apprehension. "What?"

Winchesters never let others into their private business. Dean shuts the apartment door behind him, and throws the lock as easy as breathing. His thoughts are a-jumble, somewhere between sick and frightened; he works his way through the details of homecoming with woozy care. Backpack on the floor in the corner, keys in the cereal bowl on the counter, even a vague shuffle of wiping his feet on a nonexistent welcome mat. He pulls a chair and sits down at the table in a welter, and stares at nothing.

"You're welcome," grumps John. It is the first signal Sam notices that this not, in fact, his lucky day. He is still yanking on the plastic bag that holds the chocolate, and the bag ruptures abruptly in the awkward silence. Chocolate squares in tinfoil clatter and scatter on the floor. Shrinking, he crouches and plucks at the candies, a-hoard against his stomach.

With a scrub of forearm over his face, Dean regains control of himself. He puts both hands on the table, and they squeak a little on the surface. "Did you find the roll of cash in the drawer?" he asks, his voice carefully casual.

Sam's eyes widen, and he shrinks smaller. "Yeah," says John, and now he's frowning like his old self. "And I don't understand what is wrong with a man providing for his family."

If the roll of Dean's eyes were not sufficient signal, the frustrated breath he blows out would make things clear. "Dad, you didn't."

"When I want lip from you I'll ask for it," snaps John, and on saying it he pauses with shock on his face. Dean has already hung his head when his father mumbles, "I am trying to do right, here."

Skinny elbow on the table, Dean cradles his head in his hand with great drama. "Dad, that was rent money."

"Well, I didn't spend it all," comes the answer, testy. John paces across the kitchen and yanks a chair screeching out from the table. "I coulda bought the whole Tasty Mart for that."

"Did you get milk?" Dean asks, incurious.

"I got grape jelly," replies his father gently. "And some strawberry too. Good bread, not the kind that squashes down into a ball when you spread peanut butter on it." The room breathes and quiets, and man and boy sit across from each other at a loss.

Sam, still crouching on the floor, sidles up to the table and deposits two candies on the very edge.

"Thank you, Sam," says John. "You want to go on to your room now, while I have a talk with your brother."

The frisson of that, its old-fashioned seriousness, strikes both boys as an echo of their father as he was before. Sam swallows his anxiety along with a bite of chocolate. He retreats without a word, his shirt bulging with odd shapes, to the hallway.

And now no interruptions or avoidances. "Dean." The name makes the room small. Dean squirms in his chair, hungry suddenly for some of that junk food. John persists, leaning forward: "Dean, I need to know. Are we in bad shape?"

The collar of John's flannel shirt is fraying, just a little on the sides. He's got his sleeves rolled up, not far enough to show the scar on his elbow he got from a poltergeist that time. Eyes smarting, Dean answers, "We're fine."

John takes his son's chin between thumb and forefinger, ignorant of the source of his calluses. Dean feels those rough spots as friction, the grip unyielding. "Son. If we need money, that's my problem, not yours. Don't lie to me."

But Dean doesn't know how to lie about this. He has never been allowed to handle a credit card himself, and doesn't know where John acquires them. Eventually, the cash will run out and they will have to do something. He pulls his head away and turns it into standing. He stands at the fridge and opens it and looks inside. There's grape jelly and strawberry jelly side by side, and peanut butter one shelf down.

"Those books in the living room came from somewhere," John observes, his gaze sharp. "And I didn't just spend all my time reading fairy tales. I had a job, didn't I?"

The desire to tell all balloons, filling all the crevices in Dean's sinuses, clogging his ears. He might sneeze out the truth. The fridge blows cool air on him and he sways where he stands.

John says, "There's no shame in working for a living --" and Dean blurts,

"That is your job."

"--and if we're that bad off I can go out and get a job tomorrow," John concludes. "I'm walking okay, no more headache. There is no reason I can't make an honest living and keep you boys in new clothes."

The words are said, the secret spilled, and there is no impact. It is not that John disbelieves the all-important revelation; he didn't even hear it. The hunt is as unreal as a unicorn, and this bland kitchen is all. This ugly apartment, this soggy building, the seventh grade from here to eternity. It is a terrible hollow right through Dean's middle, that loneliness, that loss of purpose. He doesn't know what feats of bravery or unreality he could perform to get his father's attention.

"I don't need new clothes," Dean mumbles, but the traffic is loud on the highway and drowns him out.

Sam's chocolates lie forgotten, side by side, on the kitchen table.

*

"We're fucked. We are so fucked."

It is Thursday. They are in the courtyard together, Sam and Dean, hunched against the drizzle in matching threadbare jackets. It is a spartan space, as much badly-laid tar as concrete, with air conditioners like inquisitive square noses hanging out most of the windows. Brown broken glass litters the far end, near the parking lot, but next to the doors it's only cigarette butts and the dull glint of foil from chewing gum wrappers.

Dean is pacing, all the way up, turn, and all the way back down to where Sam is leaning against the brick. It's a very intermittent conversation, while Sam throws pebbles at a half-faded game of hopscotch. Rather, it's a monologue that Dean is working out in short bursts of worry.

He stalks back to Sam to announce: "We have to call Pastor Jim. This isn't getting any better." And he might have stalked away again, maybe all the way to a pay phone, but Sam kicks off the wall, pebbles still in hand.

"What are you talking about?" Sam complains. "He's fine."

Certainty warming him, Dean straightens and lets his shoulders drop. "He doesn't remember anything. It's like he can learn all new stuff but all the old stuff is just gone." His hair is soaked, droplets running down his back and falling off his ears.

"What's wrong with that?" Sam wants to know. He tosses the last of his pebbles, bouncing it through the squares of the hopscotch board.

"Everything," groans his brother, and throws up his hands.

Sam puts on his truculent face, angles his chin upwards. It is hardly necessary to do that now, now that they're almost the same height. The idea blooms in Sam's head, for the first time really, that he might grow as tall as Dean, or taller. "I like him like this. It's like I got everything I ever wanted."

That's a true thing, that Sam says. He hadn't known he was going to say it till it is out of his mouth. Dean abandons his histrionics at once, head cocked, mouth ajar at just that cruel angle that warns of a sharp retort.

"What the hell are you talking about."

Stung, afraid, Sam mumbles, "Nothing." He did not know that there was something to talk about until Dean suggested it, but now he is certain. Dean's eyes go wide.

"Was there something on that mountain?" His tendons are tight, resisting the shivers of too long in the cold. He is a hunter, chasing the answer, tumbling it and stabbing it into the ground till it can't move."You said you saw something cool you wanted to show Dad. What was it?"

"Nothing," Sam whines, looking away.

Dean is not above getting rough with a witness. He grabs a handful of Sam's jacket and yanks at him, dragging him forward toward the door. With nothing but surprise and Sam's reluctance to fight, he shoves his brother through the door and into the concrete stairwell. On the first floor it is dark, dank, the under-sides of the stairs like saw-teeth in the ceiling. When he was only a little bit younger, Sam was terrified of places like these.

"You are going to tell me," says Dean, as he mashes his brother against the wall.

They are both wet through, their clothing stuck to their limbs and confining. Already Sam's collar is making a red mark against his neck. He hangs his head.

"There were mushrooms. I thought they were cool, is all." He is on the edge of tears, not out of fear, but for some reason he does not understand. "They were growing in a circle, like a target. I swear --"

Dean let him go at once. "Fucking A. You found a fairy ring?" He turns away, digs his hands into his sodden hair.

Baffled, Sam objects, "I didn't --"

"Did you wish for something?"

The roar of that question echoes up and down the stairwell. Dean's face is red, his teeth bared. Sam doesn't know what to do about that anger, not when it is pointed at him, not when John is not there to mediate. It is a sore temptation to run away, go curl up at John's side, and be comforted. "I didn't," he mumbles.

"You didn't spit through your fingers and say Jiminy Cricket, you mean." The sickening knowledge settles into Dean, vertiginous, a-curdle in his guts. "But you were thinking it."

"I didn't do anything," Sam protests.

"Fuck," says Dean, and then louder, "FUCK." He stomps out of the stairwell and then back into it. Sam stands hunched in front of him. The concrete walls echo back the swear word.

*

Now that he is in charge, Dean has cause to wonder how his father picks new places to live. Probably, when John last moved them, he had a new credit card, because this place has heat and water that runs clear instead of rust-brown. But it's still a shitty apartment in a shitty aging town and the school bus still smells like farts. So maybe the credit card wasn't that new.

There's a sign up near the city bus stop that says NO LOITERING, and Dean is loitering under it. He had to look up the word in the dictionary (vaguely hopeful that it was something pornographic), and discovered that loitering is just another word for waiting for a bus. So it's a pretty stupid sign, overall. Dean is not actually waiting for the bus, so much as he is waiting for Sherry from 4F to get home from work. It is the only thing he can think of that will make his day suck any less.

He isn't really sure which bus she takes, only that it arrives around six and her heels echo up the stairwell soon after. Dean has been waiting for a while, and without him, dinner is probably waiting too. He isn't sure, yet, whether this new person who is his father would order pizza, or struggle to make something out of what's in the freezer. It gives him a certain punitive pleasure to imagine Sam's whines as he fumbles with a can opener.

The sky is mostly dark now, the light on the other side of the street fitfully ticking over between orange and fully white. It is too early in the season for the worst of the bugs, but a cloud of somethings is hovering around the light pole. Over there, where the houses are houses, and have fenced yards, clumps of red and yellow tulips nod in the breeze. The cars go by, fast and dangerously close to one another, and Dean likes to think of himself as a driver among them. He can drive, now. It's no big thing to him.

Ungainly, full of gasps and squeaks, the bus wallows up to the curb. Dean kicks the gravel in front of his feet, trying to look casual, as if he has just happened here at this moment. Adults file down off the steps in silent exhaustion, blank, their bags slumped over their shoulders. It is very hard to look for Sherry and look casual at the same time.

And then there she is, in a boxy gray suit jacket, steps careful over the uneven pavement. Her tote bag is enormous, distorting her posture and marring the fall of her hair. She is looking down, face closed, the pointy parts of her knees visible through her black pantyhose. Of course she has on heels. Dean sidles towards her, eager, shy.

"Oh hey neighbor," he says, hands to himself. It startles her, not in that vulnerable way from before, just surprise as her eyes dart and recognize him.

"Hey," she says, and doesn't stop walking.

He falls in beside her. His forehead comes up to her neck, and no further. The inside of his mouth is chalky. "I could carry that for you," he offers.

Sherry has a sharp gaze, dark eyes and a pert nose between them. Dean is charmed more than he can say to realize she has freckles on her face. Against his will, he breaks out into a smile.

She doesn't give him her tote bag. He hops ahead to open the door for her, leaning his weight against the crashbar in the cool pose. (He has studied James Dean in the mirror, not just because of the name, and practiced with white lollipop sticks in lieu of real cigarettes.) "Thank you," she mutters, and slides past him through the door without touching him.

The stairwell looms above them, concrete all the way up. Someone has left fast food trash on the first landing, in the hour since Dean has been here, but the smell of it has dissipated. "This building kinda sucks," he says, with an ironic shrug.

Her pointy toes begin the ascent. Sherry says over her shoulder, "If I could afford anything nicer, I'd move." Dean stays behind for a few moments, adoring her ankles, before remembering himself and bounding up to walk alongside her.

"Yeah, me too," he tells her, jovial. "Someday, right?"

Sherry is not much of a conversationalist, or not with teenaged boys. She doesn't respond, and the sound of her heels echoes up and down. Dean is measuring how few steps are left before they will be parted at their apartment doors, and doesn't know what more to say.

"That echo's kinda creepy," he tries. He puts on a face of concern, although she's not looking at him. "I bet it freaks you out sometimes."

She gives a shrug, a bothered little frown on her face. Dean imagines what it would sound like if someone were murdered in this kind of stairwell: screams on screams, forever and a day. He has to suppress a shudder to keep from betraying anything to Sherry.

"Kinda spooky," Dean adds, wondering sidelong whether she might like horror movies. "Like maybe there's a ghost in here."

Pausing on the second-to-last landing, Sherry hitches up her tote bag on her shoulder. She glances at him, then away. "Aren't you a little old to believe in ghosts?"

Dean stands dismayed, glued to the floor as she travels onward. He regroups after a moment, and bounds up the stairs after her. "You never know what might happen, place like this," he intones, a little breathless from catching up. He is two steps beyond her before he realizes Sherry has stopped dead.

"Listen, bucko," she snaps, and she's looking at him now. Her mouth is full and pursed up tight, her jaw sharp. There are cords in her neck. "I get enough shit from the losers in 4E. I don't need no threats from a pissant little boy."

Mouth agape, Dean can say nothing to defend himself.

"So run along to your mother and pray I never tell her what her kid's been up to." And with that Sherry is gone, a-clack up the last of the stairs and off down the hall like a deer. Her apartment door opens and slams shut while Dean stands there, well and truly left behind.

His throat is rough as he struggles for a worthy retort. "I hated you anyway," he mutters, and begins his trudge up to his own apartment. Fierce, he swears to himself that her legs are not actually worth looking at, no, not at all.

*

The argument, when it finally starts, is about the kitchen sink, and the fact it is draining poorly. It has drained poorly as long as they have lived there, and Dean has just gotten good at turning the tap on low to account for it. But John doesn't know that, and while dinner is on the stove he slaps at the faucet with an open hand.

"Get a wrench set, I could fix that," he grumbles. And then with a swiftness that startles both his boys, he turns. "Is there a Sears nearby? Let's go get a wrench set."

Dean clutches a dish to his chest so as not to drop it. He catches himself at it, decides it is unmanly, and shoves the dish with unnecessary force onto its mates in the cupboard. "You can't drive yet, Dad," he says. "What if you have another dizzy spell."

"Well hell, I'll take the bus," says John.

"Bus doesn't go to Sears."

It is a foolish, pugnacious thing to say; Dean doesn't know why he says it. It is destined to provoke, and it does.

"Jesus H. Christ," John growls. "What the hell is wrong with you, boy? How come we're living in this shit apartment? Why don't I have a bank account? What the hell is going on here?"

"Dad."

"No, Dean." The flat of a hand cuts off any argument. The earth is moving out from under Dean's feet as his father speaks. "I don't want to hear your excuses. I can stand up, I can read, I can write, I can not imagine why I couldn't hold down a job. And if you think I don't know about the credit cards, you're wrong."

Dean swallows. "The what? They're not --"

"Maybe I wasn't a good parent. Maybe I screwed up big and led you wrong. But if you think I'm going to let you steal from people --" John is on the very edge of shouting. It is possible that Sherry, next door, can hear.

"Dad," shushes Dean, "they're yours."

"What?"

Sam shudders away from that roar. He is watching it all from the living room couch, waiting for the whole story to come tumbling out. His lies are destined to be revealed, he is sure.

"They're yours, Dad. It's your wallet." Dean is upright, breathing hard but not on the retreat. It is his turn to explain things: he basks in his rightness. "I had it on me, ever since I drove us home from the mountain. In case I got pulled over."

John's eyebrows are skeptical, gathered. "You are a little kid. You can't drive."

"I'm fourteen," Dean backtalks. "And I been driving since I was nine." There is a drop of sweat at each temple, another between his shoulder blades.

"I cannot believe this."

They stand off against each other in the kitchen, hands empty and trailing at their sides like gunslingers waiting for the draw. But there's no draw to do, and if there were Dean is the one with bullets to fire. Caution has left him and all there is left is his surety in the Winchester way.

His father towers over him. In the midst of his disbelief, a blow of horror strikes John's face. "My god, boy, am I a criminal?"

"No! Well, yeah, kinda," Dean adds, as an afterthought.

"Well, it ends now." John is iron, rigid. His face is dark with it, hands coming up to grab. "We're cutting up those cards right now. Get me the scissors."

Aghast, Dean backs away. He scrambles for reason: "We can't. Dad. We can't make rent. Sam needs new shoes and the milk is going bad."

"That's not your concern," John growls.

"But --"

"D'you hear me, Dean?"

The surge of anger is overwhelming, terrifying, a hot red flush from neck to crown. Without a word, Dean turns and flees. His fingers clutch in the bowl of keys and come up with the Impala's ring.

"Boy, you get your ass back here!"

He slams the door behind him and runs, the echo of his sneakers in the concrete stairwell chasing him all the way down.

Dean has been in charge of the family for nearly a week. The car keys are jagged shapes in his palm. It is easy to slide behind the wheel without permission now that he's done it once. It is easy to drive away. He doesn't even have to adjust the seat this time; nobody has driven since the last time he was at the wheel.

*

Sam is left behind, as usual. He stays on the couch while his father scouts the hall and the parking lot. He wonders whether Dean has run away, for real, and whether that means he will ever come back. The tears are close, remorseful prickles in the back of his eyes.

It is only a little while before John is back, pacing the kitchen as he burns off energy. Sam watches him move, how steady he is on his feet. He is almost completely better from his concussion. "God, I can't believe this," he tells the air.

"It's not --" Sam begins, but he doesn't know what he means to say. John doesn't wait for the rest of the sentence anyway, and crosses over to the couch to scoop up his younger son. Sam melts into his arms. "Where did he go, Dad?"

John's throat is rough against Sam's forehead. "I'll find him." The sigh that goes through that big body lifts Sam up, and lets him down again. "I was just like that when I was a teenager. Mad as hell at everything."

This seems ridiculous. Sam pulls away to see whether his father is joking. "You weren't really."

"Yeah, I was." A flash of that startling new smile, and then John is serious again. He sets Sam down on the floor. "You stay here. I'm going to go out looking for him."

Sam is pretty sure he does not even know the make or model of his own car. They haven't discussed it, all week long. "Don't," he protests.

"I can't just leave him out there by himself," says John, fishing in the bowl of keys. "And I'm not gonna call the police on him."

"He'll come back." Sam is getting good at lies. He says it again, firmer: "He'll come back. When he gets over it."

John pauses by the countertop, thinking. "He does this a lot?"

"Just give him a couple hours to cool down," Sam says.

Doubt and regret march across John's face. His shoulders bend, and he trudges back into the living room. He puts his big hand down on Sam's head. "You know it's not okay to steal from people, right? I taught you that, didn't I?"

"Yeah, Dad." Sam presses his shoulder into his father's side. He is warm, radiant. They are warm together. Sam closes his eyes. "It's my birthday. In two weeks. I'll be ten years old."

"Ten!" It is a paltry distraction, but John acts as if they have been talking of nothing else. "That's practically a teenager yourself. We should have a party."

"That's okay," says Sam. That muscular arm is firm against his back. "I don't need a party."

*

The sun is low in the sky when Dean makes it up to the plateau they'd found a week before. The earth is drier under his feet, the ferns taller and unfurled, the crabgrass well ensconced in the crannies between the boulders. The climb upward has not been difficult, although now he has arrived he is very aware that he didn't bring any snacks or water with him this time. It's just him, alone, in his school clothes. He left in such a hurry he doesn't even have his jacket on. With the sun on the far side of the mountain, everything is tinged with long shadow, sinister. He follows the edge of the meadow where it meets the rocks, hands in his pockets.

It doesn't take long to find. In the middle of the field, following no logic, are two concentric circles of white mushrooms. The grass looks the same inside the circle as out. There is no reason for the mushrooms to grow like this, to grow like this here. Sam left no footprints, no broken stems to betray his incursion. They don't even look like poisonous mushrooms, just plain white things like the kind that grow in moldy laundry rooms. Standing at the edge of the circle, Dean cannot see the patch of grass where they rested last week. Above him, up the slope, are the pine trees where he found his father.

Fariy rings are the sort of thing you only ever read about, and never see. Dean doesn't really have a good idea what he is supposed to do. He has come prepared as best he knows how, and pulls out a crinkling package from inside his shirt. With great care, he strips the clear plastic wrappers and balls them up to carry back down the mountain. For double-sure, he ought to wait till twilight, but he still has to make it down the slope afterwards, and not break his neck. And anyway, when Sam made his not-wish, he did it at mid-morning.

Dean crouches in front of the mushrooms, safely outside their circle. He stares at them in that unfocussed way, waiting for a signal or some kind of flicker in his peripheral vision. But nobody is watching, or nobody who wants to be seen. He shakes his head and gets down to business.

"Hey guys." He clears his throat. "Uh, hey you fairy ring guys. I got a wish to make."

A whip-poor-will sings out from somewhere nearby, a tremulous querying noise.

"You gotta turn Dad back into himself," says Dean. He lays a Twinkie inside the circle as an offering. "Give him back all his memory so he's himself again."

Pause. The wind whickers in the pine trees, cool. The sussurating noise is not quite like a voice.

Dean lays a second twinkie next to the first, inside the circle. "And, just make sure I make it to six feet. I don't have to be as tall as Dad, but I just, please, just let me grow to six feet tall, that's all I'm asking. Before I'm eighteen."

There is no answer that. The wind blows on through the leaves and pine needles and grasses, unmindful.

Dean stands there shivering for a little while, long enough to wish he'd been smart enough to snag his jacket after all. And then, the sun going down and the clouds still threatening, he shrugs and turns away. He's only got so much time to get down the mountain before darkness falls.

*

It is Saturday morning, and that means cartoons. Sam rolls over in his covers only to discover that Dean's bed is empty, already made. He tumbles onto the floor in his underwear and into the kitchen.

Dean is there, and John pouring coffee. They look strange, careful neutral expressions on their faces, as if they have just zipped their lips in time for Sam not to hear what they have been saying. They don't look at each other.

"Hey," says John, over his shoulder.

Sam drifts over to John's side and hugs his waist. John lifts his arm, standoffish, the tension obvious through his back. Confused, Sam backs away a step, and gets a look at his father's face. "Dad?"

The permanent frown of previous years has settled back into the lines of his face. "Something wrong, Sammy?"

The realization is slow, like watching a leaf fall on a breezy day. Sam has not asked where Dean went, when he disappeared yesterday. Nobody asked, and nobody said anything to him when he got back, well after dark. Dean has a silence force-field around him that way.

"No. Nothing wrong," answers Sam, through his dismay. Dean, at the counter, studiously pours himself cereal. He does not look smug, not even a little bit.

It is not smug that he feels, but a kind of exhausted relief. He wants to do nothing but watch television and chew on beef jerky for two days straight. The little tan Os in his bowl bounce off each other and threaten to escape onto the counter. He sets the box down. Automatic, he reaches for a second bowl for Sam.

"I don't want any," comes the small voice, and Dean puts the bowl away. Behind him, John is rummaging in the fridge, and pulls out the milk. He does not remark on the presence of strawberry jelly.

Sam dawdles half-in, half-out of the kitchen, fingering the back of a kitchen chair. His hair is long enough that he can shake it into his eyes, and become mysterious. Dean avoids looking at him.

He is waiting for the milk. John has the cap in one hand and the plastic bottle in the other, sniffing its neck dubiously. He shrugs after a moment and pours a dollop into his coffee. "So," he says, into the silence. "The spirit up on the mountain."

"Yeah?" Dean asks, sliding the milk down the counter toward his cereal. He pours very carefully, ready for any unnerving questions that might upset his balance. But John is slow to continue, and the pouring is done before he says anything at all.

"We took care of business, right? It's done?"

Sam makes a noise, something halfway between a laugh and a gasp. Absently, Dean goes up on tiptoe to reach him some chocolate from the top of the cupboard. He is handing it to his brother while he says, "Yeah, it's done. All cleaned up."

"I didn't --" Sam interjects, and Dean talks over him.

"You taught Sam how to salt and burn, and you let me handle the silver bullets." His heart thrums at the risk. It is like the hunt, really: the bait that bags the much bigger animal.

Eyes narrow, his mouth a-twitch, John asks, "Think you're a man, now?"

"Yes." Dean tries for nonchalant, spoon in hand and digging into the cereal, but the dazzle is in him for anyone to see.

He gets a grunt from his father, neither affirmation nor denial. "Last couple of days," John says slowly. "I guess you were holding down the fort while I was out of action."

"Yeah, kinda." Dean shrugs off that weight as if it were nothing.

Sam, on the other side of the room, frowns away the possibility of tears. The chocolate from Dean is melting in his fingers, and he crosses the room to the sink to wash it off.

"I can't remember a damn thing." Two mouths blow out relieved breaths at the same time. John adds, "Well, we still got a roof over our heads. Milk's going bad, though."

"I know," says Dean.

"Guess I can depend on you," says John, as if admitting a much-begrudged fact. Dean has to turn away, towards the cupboards, to hide the smile on his face. His cereal, forgotten on the counter, is going soggy.

These two boys, side by side at the countertop. They duck their heads the same way while their father drinks his coffee. Pale and dark, bony adolescent and strapping child, both in gray underwear and t-shirts (which are the same size, but carefully labeled to avoid confusion). Soon they'll lope off to the living room for some X-Men on the television, and they may manage the whole morning without exchanging a word. That sentence from their father, simple as it is, has opposite meanings for each one.